Yesterday, the Catholic world anxiously waited to hear the first words of their newest religious leader, the so-called rock of the Church and torchbearer of their faith, from atop the gloriously ordained balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Meanwhile in Missouri, the members of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition were just wishing that they would get to walk down a half-mile of road wearing green shirts and a banner behind them this upcoming Sunday.
It’s hardly a shocking headline: ‘Catholic Parade Bans Atheists From Participating.’ As was the case three days ago when local Kansas City news station Fox 4 reported the decision by the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee to not allow the Kansas City Atheist Coalition to march in what’s become one of the city’s largest public events. But I decided to go ahead and get in touch with the KC atheists anyhow via a phone interview to flesh out more of their side of the story.
“We were completely surprised,” says Josh Hyde, vice-president of the Coalition, of the reaction they received on February 20th from the parade committee. In their email response, Hyde recalls being told that the Coalition “didn’t fit the theme” of the now immensely popular annual celebration. It was only after the Coalition sent out a press release to the local media that the parade committee further elaborated in a statement, reasoning they couldn’t accept the Coalition’s application because the parade was and always has been a celebration of the true legacy of St. Patrick, the Catholic missionary whose life story is more shrouded in legend than historical fact. It’s a reason that the committee never got around to explaining to the Coalition itself, Hyde says.
Not that the Saint’s contributions should be marginalized here, but it might be telling that Pat O’Neill, one of the original founders that resurrected the parade that lay uncelebrated for 82 years in 1973, had this to say about his brainchild:
We just wanted to drum up a little business for our friend, Danny Hogerty. Today’s parade is really a tribute to the popularity and appeal of Mike Murphy, and it’s a reflection of the marvelous sense of pride that still exists among the Irish in Kansas City.
That particular quote comes from the official website of the Parade, in detailing the modern history of the event, now viewed by several hundred thousand people every year. It’s revealing because it does reflect the current state of St. Patrick’s in the US; a day to appreciate the long, proud, and sometimes bitter history of the Irish heritage in the States than any outright religious celebration. That isn’t to say the two aren’t deeply intertwined, Ireland still one of Europe’s prominently Catholic nations, but it is to say it’s become a day where, so the phrasing goes, we all get to be Irish for a bit.
It was with that sense of unity that the KC atheists spontaneously decided to submit their request to take part, only to get disappointed. “This is the first time we’ve been barred from a community event,” Hyde at one point mentions. And looking briefly at last year’s parade award winners, that’s the impression you come away with. That the Kansas City St. Paddy’s Parade is a community event. I’ve mentioned before the parade’s inclusion of such Catholic businesses as Bob Hamilton Plumbing or Pepsi Beverage, but really, the entire awards list is loaded with high school marching bands, an animal shelter, and sporting clubs, all decidedly secular institutions. The Catholic requirement is further lacking as the parade organizers had no problem allowing Protestant or otherwise nondenominational Christian organizations like the International House of Prayer and K-Love Radio into previous marches.
In the statement given to news outlets, the organizers voiced the fear that the KC Atheists’ “stated intent regarding the 2013 parade was to carry banners with phrases such as ‘positively godless’ and ‘morals without mythology.’” It’s a fear that Hyde says was entirely baseless. “We have used those slogans before, but our application never brought them up and there was never any plan to use them in the parade,” he says. “If there was anything they found inflammatory, we would have worked with them to make sure we weren’t a distraction from the enjoyment of the parade,” he continues. It really did come down to not being Christian enough to count as part of the proud Kansas City community.
Speaking of community, the nearly two-year-old Atheist Coalition has before worked on food and blood drives, with adoption agencies and on charity walks for AIDS research. They’ve even directly teamed with declared religious organizations to provide neighborhood aid, all to positive feedback. “On the whole, the city’s been very tolerant and encouraging of our presence,” Hyde mentions. And while it’s unlikely the organizers will change their minds at the last second, Hyde says the experience hasn’t changed their outlook, “This hasn’t stopped us from trying to get involved in our community at all.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes why it matters to be vocal about our lack of faith. The same old arguments about why religion is important to living a moral life are brought up time and again, as regularly as the sun comes up, and it can get draining to yet again trot out the same counterpoints. There are always other important things to get to and it’s quicker to not make a big fuss about religion in the first place. But for some of us, it’s lonelier to live in a world that treats religion as the default. There are harmful and silly traditions that comes with that default and it’s difficult to see them go so unchallenged for so long. And it leaves you wondering if you’re the only one around who feels not the same. A lot is made about the fact the number of nonbelievers in the US is rising, but we are still a minority, one that is reluctant to make our presence known. Organizations like the Kansas City Atheist Coalition are trying to fix that problem; with a visibility that slowly makes the case to the general public that there’s nothing wrong with non-belief.
With over one hundred paying members and growing, the KC Atheists are still planning to make their presence known at the parade, offering an information booth just off the parade route this Sunday. “We just want to let other atheists know we’re here. And that they’re not alone,” Hyde says.
Josh Hyde is the current Vice-President of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition. If you’d like to check out their upcoming events, donate or become a member, feel free to check out their website.
Update: The KC Atheist’s ‘Ask-An-Atheist’ event this past Sunday apparently went great. Here’s a link to the Friendly Atheist’s post on it.