Nick Fish brings a lifetime of commitment to equality

For more than a decade, American Atheists’ new president, Nick Fish, has been working on the front lines of the fight to advance equality under the law for all Americans. That dedication to equality and his demonstrated commitment to American Atheists is what led the Board of Directors to name him the organization’s sixth president as of September 1.

Nick is a seasoned activist who has worked across the spectrum of political, social, and non-profit advocacy. He has been at American Atheists since 2012, first as development director and, until his appointment as president, as national program director and primary spokesperson.

We need to take the lead on educating the American people about what it actually means to be an atheist and about the challenges that atheists face when leaving religion. The members of our community have stories to tell, and it’s our job to amplify those stories.

– Nick Fish, President of American Atheists

He has represented American Atheists many times in the media, including appearances on the Fox News programs Spirited Debate, Hannity, and Fox and Friends. He has created innovative advocacy and visibility campaigns, including AtheistVoter, and has developed messaging and strategy around American Atheists’ legal, public policy, and outreach campaigns.

Board Chairman Neal Cary praised the Board of Directors’ decision. “In my time working with Nick, it’s become clear that he is a tireless advocate who is creative, passionate, and committed to creating a broad coalition in the fight to protect real religious freedom in America,” he said. “He knows the issues our community faces inside and out. I’ve been especially impressed by his commitment to building a team of activists who share his vision and dedication to the mission of American Atheists. I am confident Nick will be a great leader of this organization and a champion for our community’s values of equality, inclusion, and reason as we move forward.”

Born and raised in rural Michigan, Nick was adopted by his parents, a public-school teacher and a mechanic, as an infant. Religion was never more than an afterthought in his early life, even during his years as an active member of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). His troop met at a local public school, and his leaders brushed aside the more overtly religious elements of BSA programming.

But in the 1990s, BSA became ensnared in controversies around its membership practices, specifically the exclusion of gay scouts and leaders.

“I remember thinking how unfair and how hypocritical it was,” said Fish. “Here were kids who just wanted to make friends and go camping. And they were being excluded simply because of the bigotry of some of the Boy Scout leaders.

“The most frustrating and discordant part was the religious justification for the discrimination. My experience as a Boy Scout had been essentially secular. I never had to profess a belief in God. My leaders told me that all that was required was a belief in something bigger than myself, so I chose to believe in the dignity of all people. And yet they were denying that dignity to some people simply because of sexual orientation.”

In 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the BSA had a constitutional right to ban gay scouts from its ranks.

“I was at summer camp when the Dale decision was announced,” said Fish. “Counselors were joking about distributing t-shirts with ‘5-4’ printed on them. I spent the next four hours arguing with one of them about the ban until he ended the conversation by threatening to “talk to” my troop leaders. They were so cavalier about the struggles and rights of our fellow scouts, and it disgusted me. It was the first time I saw just how divisive religious dogma could be.”

Before joining American Atheists, Fish worked as a canvass director during the 2008 election season in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he registered voters and managed voter-contact and persuasion campaigns for and the League of Conservation Voters in support of Barack Obama and Democratic candidates for governor and senate. After the election, he managed small-donor fundraising campaigns for a variety of progressive political and advocacy groups, and was responsible for raising more than $5 million and contacting more than 400,000 donors.

“The common thread running through so many of the issues I was passionate about was religious privilege,” he said. “Whether LGBTQ rights, access to reproductive healthcare, environmental policy, or public education, religion was being wielded as a weapon in the arena of public policy. I wanted to fight these issues at their core.”

Nick’s first order of business as president has been to sit down for an interview with American Atheist magazine.

What’s first on your to-do list?

My number-one priority is to double down on activism at the local level because our nation is at a crossroads. It is impossible to overstate the damage currently being done to the foundation of religious freedom and the separation of religion from government. The Trump Administration is brazenly packing the courts from top to bottom with judges whose extreme views on religious liberty are fundamentally out of step with the majority of Americans, and under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is clearing the way to allow religion to be used as a license to discriminate. This climate is dangerous for anyone who values religious equality in America.

People across the country are looking for ways to get involved and fight back against this corruption of American values. That’s why it’s so important for us to invest heavily in giving local activists the tools and resources they need.

Looking at the bigger picture, what is your vision for American Atheists?

At its core, our fight is about equality. This organization elevates and empowers atheists in America, which means working tirelessly to shape a society where religion no longer occupies a place of privilege and where atheists are treated as equals in society and politics.

We can do this by telling the individual stories of people who are harmed when one particular religious view is elevated above others, or when religion in general is elevated above non-religion. By putting a human face on atheism, we can break down the stigma that is still associated with being an atheist in America.

But to accomplish that, we need to take the lead on educating the American people about what it actually means to be an atheist and about the challenges that atheists face when leaving religion. The members of our community have stories to tell, and it’s our job to amplify those stories.

Too many atheists are still unable to be open about what they believe and don’t believe. It is our responsibility to enable people across the nation to be fearless and bold about their atheism. By showing Americans that their friends, family, and the people they work with every day are atheists, we make it easier for the next person to walk the path toward authenticity.

Are there any major changes in the near future for American Atheists?

The most significant change our members will notice is our increased investment at the local level in activism, charity work, education, and social opportunities. Religious organizations have claimed a monopoly on these services in much of the U.S. for decades. It’s time for us to step into this space and own our part of it.

Many Americans stay in their churches because of the community support structure that exists within them. We must do more to provide an alternative for the people who want this, but we must be thoughtful and purposeful about building the sort of community that not only meets the needs of those who are already members of American Atheists, but also the needs of those who have yet to become members. That means being inclusive and accessible with our programming and building community groups that are safe and supportive for all.

American Atheists is known for “firebrand” activism. Will you maintain that approach?

To me, “firebrand” activism means telling the truth unapologetically and standing up for our convictions. But it also means choosing our battles wisely. It means knowing the time and place to engage in the harsh critique that religion deserves and when to set aside our differences to work toward a common goal.

The mission of American Atheists will always be to protect the absolute separation of religion from government and to elevate atheists and atheism in our nation’s public and political discourse. But we need to work practically and realistically in order to successfully move the needle toward these objectives. This means being thoughtful about our approaches in order to determine what actually can change the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans and what policy reforms will make tangible improvements in people’s lives.

We will not be able to accomplish this without the help of our religious allies, so we must be willing to work alongside anyone who shares our values of religious freedom and religious equality. This does not mean that we will start pretending that religion is simply a benign force that is sometimes good and sometimes bad. Religion has caused—and continues to cause—immeasurable harm to vulnerable people in the United States and around the world. From attacks on LGBTQ rights and access to reproductive healthcare, to the gutting of public education and the refusal to confront climate change, religion continues to be an effective  weapon for injustice in American politics. People, especially those who are the target of these attacks, are right to be angry at and critical of religion.

Anyone harmed by religion deserves to be heard, particularly when they are marginalized or excluded because of their atheism, their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender or gender identity, their disability, or their economic status. We have a responsibility to amplify the voices of these Americans by helping them tell their stories and making sure they are visible at the forefront of our community.

With your non-religious upbringing, you’ve never faced the struggles that many atheists experience when they abandon religion. What do you say to someone who believes that you can’t be an activist without that sort of personal experience?

I am fortunate to have parents who allowed me to choose for myself which path to follow. In rural Michigan, that is the exception rather than the rule. But that doesn’t mean there was no pressure to believe or pressure to conform to the religious expectations of the community as a whole.

My political awakening happened during the Bush Administration as I watched them use religion as a tool to boost turnout among white evangelicals, specifically with anti-LGBTQ ballot measures, to win elections. In 2004, eleven states, including my home state of Michigan, passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. That election galvanized my belief that religion was more than just a thing some people do on Sundays that didn’t really have anything to do with me. It brought into focus the notion that religion could be weaponized to take away my own rights and attack people I love. In many ways, that election is the reason I have spent my career fighting for equality, both in the law and in public opinion.

Every LGBTQ person, every woman, and every atheist has a personal story of oppression from religion. It’s our job to tell those stories and to elevate the voices who have been ignored and marginalized by those who would see the status quo preserved.