American Atheists Protest Changes to Textbooks in Texas


May 19, 2010

By any reasonable standard, the rally organized and led by American Atheists on the steps of the State Capitol of Texas on May 16 was a resounding success. The rally, an idea originated and brought to life mostly through the extended hard work of American Atheists' vice president and military director Kathleen Johnson (but with the help of many others), was attended by an estimated 300 people. The Sunday morning protest of the multiple foolishnesses of the Texas State Board of Education in its proposed changes to Texas school textbooks and social studies curriculum was well covered by state and local media. (The American Humanist Association has also been involved in speaking out against the new standards, which would minimize instruction about the separation of church and state and Thomas Jefferson, and would make other glaring historical omissions.)

The crowd was well decked out with their own signs or signs provided by sponsoring organizations. Slogans included "One Nation Indivisible/One History Unchangeable," and a sign held by an unidentified young man read "Honor thy Father"–illustrated with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

A number of speakers addressed the crowd and all were well received. Probably the two most warmly welcomed and enthusiastically cheered were American Atheist editor David Smalley…and a guy who wasn't even there. Smalley, a Texan and parent of two young school-aged children, brought home the real dangers of the political shenanigans of the Texas State Board of Education quite poignantly and effectively. The absent speaker, unable to come in person, but extraordinarily well placed to skewer the Texas State Board of Education with comments he e-mailed to us for the occasion, was Christopher Hitchens. Among Hitchens' highly successful histories, critiques and biographies is his acclaimed biography, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, as well as God is Not Great. The crowd–who had Hitchens' comments read to them–roared their approval.

Hitchens' remarks are reproduced in part below:

We know of no spectacle more ridiculous–or more contemptible–than that of the religious reactionaries who dare to re-write the history of our republic. Or who try to do so. Is it possible that, in their vanity and stupidity, they suppose that they can erase the name of Thomas Jefferson and replace it with the name of some faith-based mediocrity whose name is already obscure? If so, we cheerfully resolve to mock them, and to give them the lie in their teeth.

Without Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence, there would have been no American revolution that announced universal principles of liberty. Without his participation by the side of the unforgettable Marquis de Lafayette, there would have been no French proclamation of The Rights of Man. Without his brilliant negotiation of the Louisiana treaty, there would be no United States of America. Without Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, there would have been no Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and no basis for the most precious clause of our most prized element of our imperishable Bill of Rights–the First Amendment to the United States Constitution… 

Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we do not take literally the tenth-hand reports of frightened and illiterate peasants who claim to have seen miracles or to have had encounters with messiahs and prophets and redeemers who were, like them, mere humans. And this is also why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation. They try to tell us that to do otherwise is to collapse into "relativism". But it is they who wish to promote the life and work of Jefferson Davis–an advocate of slavery, backwardness, treason and disunion–to an equality with Lincoln, who suffered agonies of doubt, who never joined a church, who was born on the same day as Charles Darwin and who introduced his colleagues to the work of Thomas Paine–and who was the last brave casualty of a war: a war begun by devout and fanatical Christians, that preserved our Union and in the end led to the striking of the shackles from every slave. It was inscribed in the documents of the Confederacy that the private ownership of human beings had a divine warrant. And so it did–to the everlasting shame of those who take the Bible as god's word.

It is notorious that the news of the Emancipation Proclamation was kept from the people of Texas and not celebrated until "Juneteenth". There may be those in Texas now who believe they can insulate their state – a state that had its own courageous revolution – from the news of evolution and from the writing in 1786 of a Constitution that refuses to mention religion except when demarcating and limiting its role in the public square. But we promise them today that they will join their fore-runners in the flat-earth community, and in the mad clerical clique of those who believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Yes, they will be in schoolbooks–as a joke on the epic scale of William Jennings Bryan. We shall be fair, and take care to ensure that their tale is told…

Other organizations who sponsored or assisted the event included the Freedom From Religion Foundation; the Secular Student Alliance; Atheist Alliance International; Camp Quest Texas; The Richard Dawkins Foundation; and the Secular Coalition of America, of which the American Humanist Association is a member.


Ed Buckner is the president of American Atheists.