Our President in Action

Our President in Action

by Dwain Deets

Margaret Downey was elected on August 1, 2006 as the new AAI president, and assumed those duties immediately thereafter. This press release was issued to that effect:

Atheist Alliance International (AAI), which has forty-four member societies in the United States and ten in other countries, announced on August 27, 2006 that its board has unanimously elected a new president, Margaret Downey, from Pocopson, Pennsylvania. She replaces Bobbie Kirkhart, who had served as president since 2002.

Downey has been a First Amendment activist for over twenty years. She is founder and president of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and the Atheist Anti-Discrimination Support Network, a national watchdog committee that works to protect freedom of conscience. In assuming the presidency of AAI, Downey said her goal is to help build a strong coalition of Freethought organizations into an effective national voice for an inclusive society. “This nation was founded with the hope and expectation of creating one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” Downey said. “That goal can be realized only if all citizens are treated equally before the law, with no governmental preference shown for skin color, national origin, age, gender or religious opinion,” Downey stated.

Downey has a long record of advocacy as well as litigation to establish the civil rights and civil liberties of nontheist citizens. She has been most persistent in opposing government support for the Boy Scouts of America, due to its discriminatory exclusion of atheists and gays from membership, and has been a continuing voice in defending the First Amendment against government promotion of religious phrases, mottos and icons. She has served as an atheist community expert for two conferences of the United Nations Freedom of Religion or Belief Committee.

AAI, founded in 1991, is an umbrella organization for local, autonomous, religion-free groups, as well as individual members. Its purposes are to help establish and strengthen the religion-free community at the grassroots level and to achieve visibility and acceptance for Atheists as respected contributors to discussions of public policy.

As the new AAI president, Downey was interviewed by Duncan Crary and Jessica Constantine for a Humanist Network News Podcast on August 15th. One of the tough questions they put to her was about the conflicting atheist conventions held on Easter weekend. Her answer went into how AAI was started and when AAI began to hold its conventions on Easter weekend. She mentioned that American Atheists did not hold their convention for several years and AAI filled the void. She emphasized that AAI is a democratic organization and matters as important at changing a convention date would be acted upon within the democratic framework. She said that there was discussion going on and that a motion would likely be submitted soon. A vote would take place shortly after the discussion period was over and the member organizations will do what is decided upon in that voting process. She also expressed her personal desire to stop the conflicting conventions in order to be more inclusive of individuals, groups, speakers, and leaders. She also stated that she hoped Ellen Johnson would consider hosting her as a speaker and that AAI would, of course, host her. Downey said the goal of her presidency is to build bridges, network with all atheist groups, and unite as many like-minded individuals as possible.

Downey brought the matter to the AAI board at the earliest opportunity. Her motion was as follows:

“I move that the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) change its traditional Easter weekend convention to a convenient September weekend that does not conflict with any other freethought/humanist/atheist conventions.”

The board, after much discussion, voted in favor of this motion.

Richard Dawkins offered very nice audio congratulations to Downey. This can be heard by going to the AAI website at www.atheistalliance.org/Board/Dawkins.mov.

September 17th was the first opportunity for Downey to represent AAI in a public event. This occurred at the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia on September 17th. An article on Margaret’s participation at this event is on page 6 of this issue.

On September 23rd, Downey spoke about the importance of creating secular celebrations at the Center For Inquiry–Northeast Ohio group.

On October 17th, Downey was a guest on an NPR radio station in Jamaica. The host of the show is Dr. Kingsley Stewart. The hour show focused on explaining what it was like to be a proud and open atheist in America. A caller expressed interest in opening an atheist group in Jamaica.

Downey spoke about “Atheism in America” at Temple Association for Retired Persons on October 18th. One week later, on October 26th, she delivered the same speech to Expanding Horizons retirement community in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

On November 14th, Downey attended the CFI-Transnational grand opening of think tank/office of public policy in Washington, DC to show support and encouragement from the atheist community for this wonderful endeavor.

Downey next engaged in debate of sorts at Howard University. Elton John had sparked a religious debate with some of his provocative comments critical of religion. The sidebar “Margaret Downey Quoted in Howard University Article” captures Downey’s contribution as it appeared in the student newspaper.

Margaret Downey Quoted in Howard University Article

In an article in Howard University’s student newspaper “The Hilltop,” entitled “Elton John Fuels Religious Debate” by Christina Coleman on November 20, 2006, Margaret Downey is quoted extensively. The main point of the debate from the article’s lead paragraph reads:

In a London interview, famed musician Elton John said, “Organized religion doesn’t work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it’s not really compassionate.” He went on to say that all organized religions should be banned, attributing war and other misfortunes that befall countries to people’s commitment to religion.

The part with Downey’s viewpoint follows:

Margaret Downey, the president of the Atheist Alliance International, based in Pocopson, Pa., disagrees that religion is the only way to bring good out of people.

“Even though churches can create a sense of betterment in the community, they can also create social dysfunction,” she says.

She adds that “humans are social creatures, and as social creatures we can better the world and make a difference for the life that we have, not a supposed heaven or hell.”

Although Downey is an atheist, she respects religion because “it makes the entire country diversified and beautiful.” She says she chooses to live her life without a God because she can still do well in her world and community without commitment to a particular sect.

“Elton John should realize that religion should not be banned altogether because the first amendment protects the right to religion, and we here at the Atheist Alliance International love the American constitution. However, the more people communicate their true feelings about religion, the more honest and helpful people can be.”

Because atheism usually has a bad connotation, Downey wants people to realize that her organization does not discount religion altogether. Rather, they want people who choose religion to weed out the bigotry and instigation of hate that can accompany religion.

“For example,” Downey says, “we say we raise our children in an atheist home, not that they are atheist. This way children can choose to believe anything they want to.” She says that life is about improving our current conditions because legacy is the only afterlife.

 

Downey’s schedule called for a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the latter part of November. Hopefully, a new local group would become an AAI member society during her visit there. This, of course, required the proper formalities, including examination of their bylaws, and an affirmative vote by the AAI Council.

All was in proper order, and the Council gave its approval. Downey welcomed the group into AAI as evidenced by the accompanying photo. This is her announcement to the AAI shortly after that occasion:{mosimage}

“I am pleased to announce the addition of another US AAI affiliate group. This evening I personally welcomed the Albuquerque Atheists and Freethinkers and delivered a presentation about AAI after enjoying a lovely Tex-Mex meal with the group. I wish it were possible to deliver a presentation to every new group. I talked a lot about the AAI website, what we do, who we are, the AAI mission and upcoming events. These are all things that each new group needs to know. This Albuquerque group is going to be fantastic! There were many interested people in attendance tonight (21 in all). I think we will be seeing a lot of them at the 2007 convention.”

As this flurry of activity shows, Downey is out there working on behalf of AAI. It’s not just being out there, it’s thinking about what can be done better, and encouraging the democratic organization that we are to embrace some new ways of doing things towards her goal of “building bridges, networking with all atheist groups, and uniting as many likeminded individuals as possible.”

Dwain Deets is the editor of SECULAR NATION magazine.

Appeared in Secular Nation—Vol 11, Number 4, pages 2-3. (Published April 2007)

Tags: #SecularWorld, #President

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