20 Godless Years in the Holy City: An Interview with Amy Monsky

Amy Monsky is the president of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, an organization of atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers centered in the Charleston area along the coast of South Carolina. We spoke to her recently about her group’s longevity, success, and future.

TheHumanist.com: I hear you’re throwing a party on September 20. What’s the occasion?

Amy Monsky: We’re celebrating our twenty-year anniversary, but it’s more than just the passing those years since we were founded in 1994. Against an unfriendly backdrop, we have not only survived, we’ve thrived, so we’re celebrating that.

Here in the Bible Belt religion is omnipresent, and many atheists can’t be open about their beliefs for fear of losing something—friends, family, their job. It can feel very isolating, especially if you are trying to raise a family. In fact, Charleston has so many churches that it has been nicknamed the Holy City. So, when Herb Silverman started this group, it wasn’t the most popular thing to do. In fact, many of our early members tried to hide their participation in the group. However, two decades later we’re still here and we’re bigger and more active than ever!

While some of our members are still private about their affiliation, many wear it openly and proudly. Our event attendance has grown from a dozen or so people in the early days to over eighty at some of our monthly meetings, and we have something going on at least once a week. We offer a wide variety of social, educational, and volunteer activities, and we’re proud of the positive contribution we’re making to the Charleston area as we show that godless people can be good too. In addition to volunteering at various locations each month, we have raised over $20,000 for local charities since 2007 when we began our charity of the quarter program.

We’re also changing the way we see ourselves. It wasn’t so very long ago that most of our members were older males. Now we have a lot of diversity in age and gender. Our family program has been in operation for five years and provides a welcoming peer support structure for both parents and their children in our community.

So what are we celebrating? We’re celebrating twenty years of flourishing growth, thriving community, a welcome sense of identity and belonging, and making a difference. We’re celebrating twenty godless years in the Holy City.

TheHumanist.com: Twenty years is amazing! How big is the secular and humanist community in Charleston?

Monsky: We have over 700 people on our mailing list.

TheHumanist.com: So tell me about your plans for the anniversary party.

Amy: We’re having it at Cypress Gardens, a beautiful park that has been the setting for several movies, including The Patriot, and The Notebook. No, Ryan Gosling won’t be there, but our celebration will take place in two parts.

During the day our members will receive free admission to the park and can enjoy its many attractions, including a butterfly house, aquarium and reptile center, boat rides through the swamp, and miles of walking trails through the beautiful gardens. It is a wonderful opportunity for people to get out and enjoy the lowcountry’s natural beauty. We’ve rented a facility there and will host lots of fun activities throughout the day for our members as well as other park guests: an indoor planetarium, kids’ activities, an ask-an-atheist table, and more. From 1-3pm, we’ll have a roundtable discussion forum with our own Herb Silverman and local religious and community members. These events are free and open to the public.

Our private party begins after the park closes to the general public. Our guests will enjoy a catered dinner, music by a local band, and a special presentation by Michael Newdow, an MD and attorney best known for his lawsuit to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. We’ll also have a silent auction with numerous items all provided by our own talented members.  In fact, all of our activities feature our own talent—from the indoor planetarium to the band to the silent auction items. SHL members receive free admission, but supporters can purchase tickets as well.

TheHumanist.com: Wow. A whole day event! How long has your group been preparing for this?

Amy: We started planning last November. A lot of people have worked really hard to bring this event together.

TheHumanist.com: And I heard that you have a billboard promoting the event as well. Tell me about that.

Amy: Yes! We sponsored billboard back in January 2009. It was one of the “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone” against a sky background. It was very successful and we thought it was time for another. This one has the words “20 Godless Years in the Holy City” written in icing across the top of a cake. It’s very festive. We are celebrating and we want to share it with the world. Many people see atheists as bitter and angry and don’t understand that we experience awe and happiness and like to celebrate too, so it was important to have an image that conveyed our joy and excitement.

One of our goals is to improve public perception of atheists, and people are now able to see that we are here to stay. Twenty years is a long time.  We’re not just a fad or a trend. We aren’t just a reaction to Christianity.  We have our own identity and our own community, and we will not be treated as second-class citizens.

So far, we’ve received only positive feedback on the billboard. Many of our members have said that it brings a smile to their face every time they drive by it.

TheHumanist.com: For individuals interested in attending the event, where can they find more information?

Amy: Visit www.godless20.com!

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