The 20 foot hurdle that ALL atheists have to overcome


By Jeff Wismer

June 2, 2008


Iím feeling magnanimous today, and I feel like this is going to be a special piece of the written/spoken word.So special that Iím writing all this down free-hand on several pieces of paper in draft form which I havenít done since I was in the seminary March 2002.


More on that magnanimous thing (sounds like I should go see the doctor about that doesnít itÖLOL).Although Iím not allowed to be a partisan now that we are Incorporated as a 501 c (3), which is a good thing by the way, I do allow myself to be inspired by political figures.The speech Barack Obama gave @ Philadelphia a couple months ago was inspirational to me if simply based on the fact he was being magnanimous about the challenges that ALL Americans face in todayís society.Specifically Obama was speaking to race and how someoneís race touches all of our inherently human xenophobic tendencies, and how we as humans have to work hard to overcome those inherent tendencies.


Xenophobia (


Thanks to Reverend Wright, a pastor @ Barack Obamaís former-church in case youíve been hiding under a rock for the past 4 months, the 600 pound black hairy gorilla and the 5,000 pound ebony white elephant both entered the room with a thunderous clap at the same time.Rather than run away & hide from them, or simply ignore them both, Obama embraced them both and thus resulted in one (1) of the best speeches about race in American History.


Ok, moving past the preface to the mind of this story.Itís time for me to acknowledge & embrace the 20 foot hurdle that has come crashing into our room that all atheists have to overcome.Or we can choose to try to run over it (bad idea, trust me on this one folks I was a track hurdler in high school), or stay put thus not advancing at all.


Here it comes, are you sitting down?Ok Itís not that earth shattering, but it will shake up some of you.The 20 foot hurdle in the room is the age differences and the resulting disparity of age groups amongst atheists.


Specifically I was to address three (3) different age groups.The first group Iíll lovingly call OíHair-boomers or in other words those most directly affected by Madalyn Murray OíHair.The second group Iíll call the atheist-stockers or in other words those most affected by the peace movement of the 60ís & early 70ís.The third and final group Iíll call athei-nets or in other words those most affected by the influence of social networking sites like myspace, facebook, & youtube.


Now that Iíve defined the three (3) age groups I now wish to talk about the atheist group I co-founded and then Iíll talk about my qualifications to talk my subjective truth to power.After that I will address why all of a sudden I decided to tackle this sensitive subject.Lastly I will give you my two (2) cents as to how I think we should proceed together (albeit not totally united b/c thatís ideological nonsense) and Iíll give you a practical solution based on this personís opinions.


Speaking of practical solutions, Rick Wingrove & I looked at the landscape of the DC Metro areaís atheist groups back in the summer & fall of 2005 and we decided that in our opinions the best way to bring the most atheists together while also bringing in younger professionals was to start a socially centric group.I think that idea turned out pretty good, donít you.Of course Iím talking about Beltway Atheists ( It took until April of 2006 to have our first event, a happy hour @ the Galaxy hut in Arlington, VA (, myself, Melody Hensley (founder of the Freethought Forum ), & Frogger (atheist slogan creator extraordinaire, and future creator & chief editor of Beltway Atheist Newsletter) just to name a few.We struggled for several months after that to get more than ten (10) people @ our happy hours in Washington DC.Then lightning struck the tree and the trunk split in two (imagine that scene from movie The Natural).Due to our conflicts of interest with another local atheist group we decided to use and we subsequently went from 10-20 members in December of 2006 to about 350 members today.We also continue to use myspace, facebook, yahoo, & craigslist to attract new members. The result of which is a very diverse group.However it could always be more diverse.


Specifically I wish we had more representation of the OíHair-boomers in our group.Iíll tell you very quickly why I think that we donít.Quite simply they didnít feel and still donít feel the need to leave their groups and felt comfortable in the status quo.Thatís completely understandable.I can only speak to the OíHair-boomers that I have gotten to know better.[Aside: I was raised full time by my grandmother on my motherís side of the family.My grandmother is a polish woman from Wisconsin who lived thru the great depression as a very young child, much like Madalyn did]. Their first impression at their first Beltway Atheist event was one of hesitation and doubt.I distinctly recall one instance where a new member who was clearly older than I, came up to me at the beginning of one of our happy hours and said, ďI donít think I should be hereĒ, in a very sincere voice.My retort to this new member was, ďwhy do you feel that way?ĒAt which the new member quickly replied, ďWell look at me!!Ē stated emphatically.LOL.After a few minutes Rick & I convinced this new member to stay after an hour of ďhappinessĒÖLOLÖ.well letís just say that this member has rarely missed an event since then.


As far as the atheist-stockers we have a very strong contingent including the co-founder Rick Wingrove.Similarly weíve had great success bringing in athei-nets thanks in large part to the social networking sites such as myspace, facebook, & meetup.


Which brings this story back to me.I came upon the leading edge of this wave of athei-nets.So one might immediately ask a valid question, ďHow a young punk is qualified to speak on this sensitive subject?ĒSo far you have not heard me speak publicly at local major events such as the Pope Protest near the White House & the Faith based initiatives demonstration in front of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).However I did give a quick presentation against the head of a religious organization ( & his lawyer from the Alliance Defense Fund ( in front of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington DC about the 10 commandments display illegally placed on public property behind SCOTUS.I have also written extensively on pertinent subjects which can be read on our beltway atheist myspace group page (


I will also quickly brush over my public speaking career in the past.My public speaking career began when I ran for Class Chaplain in the 8th grade.High school was too much to handle as I was mainly into playing sports, working a part time job, and I was transitioning from being in a private catholic school for nine (9) years into the public school system for the first timeÖYIKES!!! LOL.The next time I attained a public speaking role was as philanthropy chair at my fraternity in college, then later on as a resident advisor on campus.After college I was nominated as spokesman for my seminary class, which meant I gave presentations to the rest of the order on behalf of all nine (9) of us seminarians.Note: this got me into a lot of trouble later on, and ultimately led to my immediate expulsion from the seminary.


IF youíre still reading or listening to me then perhaps you think Iím qualified or maybe youíre just giving me the benefit of the doubt.Either way, thank you.


Now on to why Iíve decided to tack this sensitive subject at this point in time.A young professional who runs a highly successful website (which I will not divulge not only our of respect for this person, but also out of admiration for the courage to speak the subjective truth to power which as in turn inspired me, just like Obama) recently wrote a charged piece about this sensitive subject. After reading this piece (which I will not reference here for the same reasons stated above) I instantly wrote this young professional and wrote that I also was aware of this sensitive subject, and that I had experienced the challenges first hand.I also wrote that I take at least some of the blame for this highly-charged atmosphere b/c of what I have sent out recently for public consumption.Specifically the heads up email I sent out about Atheist Days.For this I accept the responsibility, and I remain accountable for my actions.Look this is a sensitive subject and itís a big challengeÖhence the 20 foot hurdle.


So where do we go from here?Do we individually try to jump over the 20 foot hurdle?No, b/c thatís physically impossible, unless youíre superman or wonder woman.For my two (2) cents I choose to invest in the continued dialogue and attending atheist events that you may think is not for you anymore, or events that seem like they are going to be boring.Both assumptions are wrong.Young professionals can learn a lot from listening to a talk given by an experienced atheist leader.Conversely, our experienced atheist leaders can learn a lot from our young professionals by just striking up a conversation @ one of our happy hours.Together we can cross over that 20 foot hurdle and thus make ourselves more attractive.


Which brings me to another important issue.How do we attract more women, and more black people of any age group?Well I think I just threw out one way we can be more attractive to women and to black people.I may not be a Jon Stewart, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Oprah Winfrey, but Iím a wise enough man to realize that you catch more Bees with beautiful flowers & honey then you do with throwing fire & dropping bombs. LOL.


Bottom line is that public perception of atheists is a difficult aspect of our reality to control b/c those in control of public perception (Mainstream Media, Hollywood, and Most Internet News Sites) donít go our of their way to include atheists in the public dialogue of current issues.As a result we have a small percentage to work with.For those who do look to join us, my question is what will they find?Thatís where we can have a positive effect on our future.Please keep that in mind the next time you choose to RSVP YES or NO for an atheist event.