During the Bush years, patriotism came to describe the perfect union of Christianity and enthusiasm for foreign wars. A Gallup poll from 2007, at the height of the Iraq War’s unpopularity, showed that while the majority of those who claimed “no religious preference” opposed the war, the majority of protestants still supported it. A more recent poll (Gallup 2011) found that while only 39 percent of American Christians believed that civilian casualties in war are never justified, atheists were more likely to balk at collateral damage by a margin of 18 points.
But even though the statistics show that those who defy the church also tend to defy the state, “atheism” and “patriotism” aren’t always opposites. Maybe it’s because people are unpredictable, maybe it’s because atheism is going mainstream, but the atheist patriot, though rare, is a real species. To prove it, geologist, atheist, and patriot Steven Arauza is selling T-shirts. Early this year, he launched the brand “Godless Patriots” from a successful Kickstarter fundraiser as part of his campaign to bring patriotic atheism into the mainstream.
Or is it atheist patriotism?
I spoke with Arauza, a Texas native who grew up in a small and very Christian town outside of Austin, about his brand, his T-shirts, and his curious politics.
“Godless Patriots” might come off as an oxymoron to some people. How did you pick the name?
I understand the frustration behind it, but the first atheist t-shirt I saw in Austin said “Fuck your God, and Fuck You,” and I thought that that was not the message we needed to be putting out there. That’s why I chose to go this route, you know? I was talking to Jason Torpy at the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) and we spoke at length about choosing that name for the brand because he felt that it was a bit confrontational and I felt that there really was nothing inherently bad about it, it’s just something that kind of turns heads and it gets everything out there in two words. I mean it’s everything that I’m trying to do, is combat that stereotype you’re talking about…. Atheism is such a huge front to try to represent and try to put on the map, and we all kind of pick our individual battles and this was the most important group for me to impact first.
How did you hook up with MAAF?
I’ve been wanting to do this t-shirt thing for quite a while, but I’ve had school. I literally came out of grad school, found a job that pays my bills, and then started this up as soon as I could. And I contacted MAAF through their website, told them what I wanted to do and I got a call back from Jason within an hour or two. We talked at length about it, we laid everything out. I said I’d love to make shirts for you guys, I’d love to donate or do whatever I could to help, and we settled on a liscencing agreement where I could use the logo and he put me in contact with local people I could get involved with—the Atheist Community of Austin, stuff like that—and we settled on a rate where I give them so much for every shirt I sell.
I’ve never served in the military. The reason I got involved is because I thought it was a population that was underrepresented, that it’s a perspective on atheism that is hardly represented at all in any format, and it’s people who are still on the front lines. As uncomfortable as I am being in a TX town as an atheist, it’s so much worse for somebody who is thousands of miles away from home, so that’s why I wanted to get involved.
That’s interesting that you can compare being an atheist in TX to being an atheist in the military.
Yeah, as uncomfortable I felt, I knew it was worse for other people out there. I got involved with MAAF to really put my money where my mouth is in terms of what atheism means to me—what I do believe in, what I don’t believe in, that sort of thing. And I have a lot of military men in my family. None of them are atheists, but they’re the ones who really defended me the most vigorously when I came out of the closet [as an atheist] to my family—I have a lot of Catholics in my family. [My uncles] are the ones who supported me, and we’ve been giving each other perspective on our issues—they showing me their dedication to who I am and my rights to believe whatever the hell I want, and me showing them that an atheist isn’t a satanist or a nihilist, that we can still be active and patriotic and all that stuff. So that’s what it’s meant to me, and that’s kind of why I got involved…. I didn’t see any atheist t-shirts that mentioned any sort of patriotism or morality. They’re very confrontational. So I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.
I get the ‘Godless’ thing, but what does ‘patriot’ mean to you?
To me, patriotism is an informed and active role as an American citizen. Specifically now, patriotism is an informed dissent if anything. I think that’s where atheism and my patriotism align is kind of informing yourself on issues of religion and its impact in society and trying to disseminate that information to the people who aren’t informed.
I think being not so much educated but actively educating yourself on issue goes hand in hand with patriotism. Blind patriotism is to be avoided at all costs. Actually, a lot of the flak that I caught for the name “Godless Patriots” came from other atheists on Twitter who had problems with patriotism. And I remember the early days just pages and pages of tweets telling me, you know, “America has done this, that and the other, how can you be a patriot in these cases?” But I didn’t have any choice in where I was born and I think that it’s easy to run away from the situation, but being patriotic means wanting to bring about change in the interest of the “greater good,” I guess I’d call it. Not running away to a secular area, but to actively engage other people and say, “Yes, I’m an American, too. I’m just as supportive of democracy and the country.”
For me, personally, I disagree with a lot of the wars, but I support the people who go out there to fight and that’s why I wanted to represent atheists in the military, and secular, humanist, and non-Christians really…. So patriotism in my mind is to be willing to stick it out and fight. Being in Texas is the same way—I’m willing to stick it out and stand my ground. I’m an American and I understand good and bad, and I understand that dissent is patriotic.
You said you got flak from atheists on Twitter who didn’t like the word “patriot.” Have you gotten flak from patriots who don’t like the word “atheist”?
You know, I haven’t gotten nearly as much flak, and I think it’s because I’m not that big right now. People that know about Godless Patriots are people that go to the conferences, people that seek me out on Twitter, people that supported the Kickstarter. It’s a lot of word of mouth from like-minded individuals so I don’t think that people who aren’t interested in it even know that I’m here right now. That said, wearing my shirts in public, I mostly get stares. Nothing too hard core, but I think that’s because I’m in Austin…. I wouldn’t say that too many people have confronted me directly about the shirts other than the mindless spam on Twitter, which I think is just people trying to get as many godless or atheists handles as they can in a single hateful tweet.
You said you have military members in your family. How does your patriotism compare with theirs?
I try to keep my own political beliefs completely separate from Godless Patriots. I went to a small liberal arts school then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, more liberal of an area, then when I went out to California I had very leftist beliefs. I would lean more libertarian now that I’m gaining more of an understanding of financial issues and stuff like that, but I’ve always been very socially liberal.
My family has historically voted Republican based almost entirely on abortion issues. Except the military members of my family. It goes back to my two uncles, a huge impact on my life. One of them is Air Force, the other is in the Army, and they’re both pretty conservative. They definitely champion the military lifestyle, and their concern is military spending and stuff like that. I would say that for them their patriotism is intimately tied to president as commander-in-chief and having a strong military. They identify as much with their service as I do with being a geologist. So I’ve always said that this is not going to be a partisan thing. It’s going to be about patriotism and secularism, but it’s not a leftist thing, or one way or the other. There are atheists on both sides of the aisle and we need to identify as a political force to be reckoned with before we can start bickering amongst ourselves about which side we want to lean on. ♦G