16 August 2011
This article was published on richarddawkins.net here.
“Religion provides support and comfort to people.” You’ve heard this one before. It’s a common refrain when the damage and suffering caused by religion is highlighted. It’s a common refrain even from people who aren’t particularly religious, which is a tribute to the effectiveness of religious marketing.
Atheism doesn’t offer a similar emotional support network. Accepting that the universe is uninterested in your well-being is not necessarily a source of comfort when things go wrong. While there are many (and, happily, a growing number of) atheist/freethought/humanist/rationalist/skeptic/etc. groups around the world, they are unlikely to have the infrastructure and funding of religious groups any time soon. The amorphous mass of individuals that is sometimes referred to as the “atheist (etc.) community” can be hard to rally for a specific issue.
When an atheist takes a stand on a religious/secular issue they often do so not knowing what the personal consequences will be or what, if any, support they will receive. They just know that the opposition will have a lot of support.
Valentin Abgottspon was a public school teacher in Valais/Wallis, Switzerland. He was fired in August 2010 for refusing to display a crucifix in his classroom, despite a Federal Court decision in 1990 that such a display violates the legal requirement of religious neutrality. A lawsuit related to his dismissal is ongoing.
While opponents will portray him as anti-Christian, Valentin didn’t seek to replace a pro-Christian symbol (the crucifix) with an anti-Christian one (e.g., a sign stating “There is no God”). He sought religious neutrality in a public classroom. This is the essence of secularism – no favour or disadvantage for any group or person because of religious belief or the lack of it.
If Valentin had not taken a stand I doubt I would ever have heard of him. He could have chosen to silently fume at the imposition of one specific religion in his classroom; he could have maintained his financial security away from media attention and social criticism. But he didn’t. For this he has been nominated for the Prix Courage, a prestigious Swiss award for “individuals with courage, fighting fearlessly and with passion for an idea – in favour of an open, supportive and equitable Switzerland”.
Advances towards secularism are incremental. If we want to encourage people like Valentin to stand up and fight on these issues we must support them. Sometimes it’s tiresome to continue to “like” Facebook pages, respond to online polls, sign petitions, and write emails to legislators. We wonder if it really matters whether or not we put our name to one more issue. But we all need to keep in mind that behind each of those pages, polls, petitions, and issues are people who are making personal sacrifices so that the world may be a more rational place. They deserve our support, not least because providing that support makes it that bit easier for the next person to take a stand.
So vote for Valentin Abgottspon to win the Prix Courage (details below). Vote for him because he deserves it, because it’s one small thing you can do to strengthen the global atheist community and because – as he says on his website – “it would really annoy the s**t out of the Christian conservative politicians” if he wins.
To vote for Valentin Abgottspon in the Prix Courage:
Follow this link: http://www.beobachter.ch/?id=727
Click on the circle to the left of Valentin Abgottspon's photo (second last in the list).
Underneath the photos select 'Nein' where it says 'Ich will an der Verlosung teilnehmen' - this means you don't want to win a weekend in a Swiss hotel, and that way you won't have to give your name, address, phone number etc. (Of course, you can select 'Ja' if you don't mind doing that, but the form seems to be set up for Swiss-style addresses.)
Finally, click on 'Senden' to submit your vote.
To donate to Valentin’s lawsuit: http://www.frei-denken.ch/de/2011/06/prozessunterstutzung-fur-valentin-abgottspon/ (in German).