Secular Saint: An Interview with National Day of Reason Visibility Coordinator Judy Saint

National Day of Reason, recognized on the first Thursday of May each year to counter the Congressionally-mandated National Day of Prayer, is a project of the American Humanist Association and founded by the Washington Area Secular Humanists. This year, local Sacramento humanist Judy Saint helped raise greater awareness of National Day of Reason by mobilizing local chapters to hold NDOR events, encourage local leaders to issue proclamations, and created a visible brand for reason. interviewed Judy to learn more about her passion for reason. What is your religious background? When did you become a humanist, and why?

Judy Saint: Never being able to find any books about religions other than Western religions in libraries as I grew up, I left my religious curiosity to the side for decades, though I was always open to respecting other religions. In high school I enjoyed going to church mainly for the friends I had there, and because I got to play guitar in the youth choir.

Judy Portrait cleaned - Copy

Judy Saint

Later, when raising my children, I read the Bible thoroughly, tried to get my relatives to consider baptism, and fully felt that there was power in holy words and holy thoughts. There was a time I attended church at every opportunity. My mom raised my four brothers and me to respect Protestant religions in general and role modeled her faith now and then, but she never pushed any beliefs on us. She encouraged us to do well in school more than she encouraged us to follow any doctrines.

Flash forward to five years ago, when, at the age of fifty-seven, it suddenly dawned on me that prayer didn’t work. I had never had this doubt before, but in that moment I knew prayer was worthless. I had just been studying the history of Christmas, and when I read that Christmas was outlawed in this country at one time, that led me to begin researching religious history even further, leading me to the conclusion about prayer. This was several months before I finally let myself wonder if there was a god but, again, it was in a flash that I realized there wasn’t.

Atheism was still a dirty word, instilled in me from my youth in the 1950s, and “humanist” wasn’t even a word I had yet heard. In my zeal to search out all the major freethinking organizations, I soon found the American Humanist Association and learned about how positive humanism is, and how it fit my atheism and my desire to help others. When did you first get involved with the National Day of Reason?

Saint: Last year someone on the Facebook page “Freethought Group Organizers” asked what various groups were doing for the National Day of Reason. When I noticed very sparse and diverse responses, with some saying they weren’t doing anything, I wondered why this wasn’t a coordinated event. Some groups organized a dinner, others a blood drive or a bowling event, but nothing felt connected on this important day. Here were so many group leaders, all in one spot talking with each other online, and yet there was no direction to leverage this day into something visibly organized across the country. One of my mantras is “Organize, Agitate, Educate,” and I learned a long time ago not to wait for “someone” to take the lead. After asking the group if they’d be interested in coordinating the following year, enough said yes that I began planning.

Honestly, at that point I had only heard of National Day of Reason, but had no idea who was behind it. When some of the organizers worried that my planning might step on the toes of the official NDOR folks, I tried to discover who they were. It was a stroke of chance that, after learning it was in large part organized by the AHA, I happened to be attending their conference in San Diego, and at the end of the conference AHA President Rebecca Hale walked over and sat next to me in the hotel lobby. As we waited for our respective rides to the airport we chatted, and I realized I should probably talk with her about what I was planning, after which she proceeded to open door after door for me, letting me fly with my plans. I fully credit Hale’s quick summation of my plans and her quick character judgment to back me so fully over the next year. I told her I wanted no budget, that it should remain a grassroots effort, and that it didn’t matter to me who did this, as long as it was done. I think she liked that. Later she gave me an AHA email address and the title of “National Day of Reason Visibility Coordinator” to let everyone know I had the official backing and blessings of the AHA. I was off and running. What new ideas did you implement for National Day of Reason?

Saint: I knew that giving local groups the opportunity to say they’re part of a nationwide movement would give them more clout when talking with their governments or when issuing press releases, and would help them gain media attention. So I knew the NDOR coordination had to be visible and simple. We needed highly colorful images to attract news cameras, we needed a theme, logos, t-shirts, and we needed instructions as to how groups could ask governments to issue proclamations recognizing the National Day of Reason.

Wanting to involve as many people as possible, I started by letting group organizers suggest and vote on slogans via Facebook. After we had our slogans I put out a call for volunteer artists to come up with logos. Next was to work with EvolveFish putting all these onto shirts, mugs, mouse pads and car bumper magnets and stickers. What were some of your favorite NDOR events that you helped organize or that you participated in?

Saint: I really liked the interactive national map we created showing where groups, including AHA chapters and affiliates, were hosting NDOR events nationwide.

I think the fact that I am a relatively new atheist, and new to NDOR events entirely, is partly what has helped me be so aggressive in coordinating with groups nationwide. I’ve never participated in any NDOR events before, so my mind was wide open to accept whatever any group decided to plan. I think five people getting together for a dinner is just as wonderful as 500 people having a rally at their state capitol.  In my city, Sacramento, California, on this first year of my involvement with NDOR another gentleman and I did organize that rally on the state capitol steps that I mentioned, bringing in a large number of speakers and attracting TV news cameras. What is one NDOR event that you would like to see held in the future?

Saint: Next year I’m hoping more groups across the country will have seen the coordination in 2014 and will decide that NDOR is for them, too. I hope the proclamations that were acquired this year in Rhode Island, Nebraska, Ventura County, CA, and elsewhere will encourage more individuals to take up the leadership to approach their governments for more next year. I hope as news stations realize NDOR is getting more attention here and there, that more of them will want to be cover whatever celebrations happen in their areas, to give our side of the story. I’m hoping NDOR is no longer just a good idea, but is an event everyone looks forward to, just like Darwin Day, and is as widely memed as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I hope more of our clever freethinkers will create entertaining and even hilarious take-offs of NDOR in cartoons, types of events, and ways to attract the public. Personally, I love the idea of holding rallies, but groups might like to change things up each year. Whatever groups decide to do locally, I hope NDOR remains a coordinated effort everywhere in this country, and that groups will learn they can put their events into their local community calendars, to attract believers and new members. The National Day of Reason matters to everyone. What advice would you give to local activists who either want to hold an NDOR event or work with government officials to get them to issue a proclamation?

Saint: The NDOR official website contained two great resources for groups this year. People could download sample proclamations with instructions as to best ways to have these actually issued.  And people could download a template press release with instructions for approaching the local media. Those are the two efforts giving groups the best chance for gaining media attention, and that’s the one key to getting the word out—media! Whatever groups do next year, I hope they let the press know, I hope they wear the color yellow (which I hope will be the official color of National Day of Reason), and their arm-in-arm cohesiveness with everyone else honoring reason on this day, and I hope they make their events an educational opportunity for the public. People follow success, and when we are visibly united it shows a connection bigger than just ourselves. Like I said earlier: Organize, Agitate, Educate. The National Day of Reason was created in 2003 to coincide with the National Day of Prayer. Why should we have a problem with the National Day of Prayer?

Judy Saint: After World War II our leaders took a scared country on a pro-Christian path into the Cold War, adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, replacing “E Pluribus Unum” with “In God We Trust” as the national motto and putting it on our paper money, and calling our enemy godless. This is also when our leaders solidified a National Day of Prayer when all citizens were encouraged “to turn to God” and to pray. Though totally unconstitutional, the fear in the United States swept in these religious changes easily and it shows how quickly a secular nation can be swayed to include religion in its underlying tapestry.

A look at Afghanistan in the 1950s shows women in short skirts running bookstores, yet today they wear head-to-toe coverings and stay home. Religious fervor can take over a country, even a democracy, so easily when people are alarmed or scared. We see the religious right and so-called news sources raising continuous alarms and fears, aiming toward that end. And, to a large part, it is working. Science and public education are being scorned by large swaths of our population. Human rights and equality are denigrated as the ruination of society. Lies are spread without apology. Among all these red flags is the National Day of Prayer, which remains a government-led promotion of religion. While many of us are fighting the damage being done to progress on many fronts, the National Day of Prayer remains one of the most insidious of offenses to our First Amendment protection against just this. For the religious and nonreligious alike to retain their rights, we must stop allowing religion and governments to mix. It never ends well for anyone. As for the National Day of Prayer itself, I hope people realize how divisive and separatist it is. The National Day of Reason, on the other hand, is totally inclusive of everyone, and that is reason right there to join the celebrations!