Sometimes our lives take an unexpected turn. It happened to me in 1994, when I was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on a swing through St. Petersburg visiting newspaper editorial boards. That's when Phil Gailey had an idea. • Phil was the courtly editor of editorials at the then-named St. Petersburg Times, and his idea was downright audacious: I should leave the ACLU and come to work for the newspaper's opinion pages. • Never mind that I didn't have a degree in journalism or any daily newspaper experience. Never mind that he didn't know whether I could write my way out of a compound sentence. Phil wanted to add my voice and legal expertise to the editorial board. • The offer was tempting, but I resisted. I loved working for the ACLU, spending my days (and nights and weekends) promoting civil liberties and social justice. Before working for the organization full time I had volunteered as a law clerk for the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project at its national offices in Manhattan. It was in my blood.
Urged on by my (future) husband, I offered an alternative. I'd stay with the ACLU but write a column every other week for the Sunday Perspective section. Then Phil could evaluate my writing and I could experience life as a journalist, at least part time.
Three years later, I was hooked and came onboard as a full-time columnist and editorial writer.
During the last 16 years, this most unexpected of writing careers has been a remarkable journey, taking me to the home of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg and to the Riyadh palace of then-Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It has allowed me to work alongside talented opinion and news journalists at this newspaper and with dozens of colleagues from newspapers around the country.
Now, after national syndication, more than 800 columns and thousands of editorials, I am leaving the Tampa Bay Times to return to my roots in progressive advocacy and nonprofit administration. I have been named executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in Washington.
If you've never heard of Richard Dawkins, he is an Oxford evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of numerous books. Prospect magazine named him the number one "World Thinker" in 2013. In the mold of astronomer Carl Sagan, Dawkins has a remarkable talent for translating complex scientific concepts for the lay person.
Dawkins has also built a major public following for his articulate defense of atheism and rejection of the supernatural. In 2006, he wrote, The God Delusion, which catapulted him into the spotlight as a leading scientific voice for nontheism.
His foundation promotes scientific literacy and evidence-based thinking about the natural world. It fights religious extremism, particularly when it encroaches on public policy and education (issues such as Intelligent Design, stem cell research, etc.)
Taking a page from the LGBT playbook, the foundation also seeks to reduce the social stigma surrounding atheists, agnostics and other secularists by urging nonbelievers to "come out of the closet."
There is an axiom in American politics, real or perceived, that it's nearly impossible to get elected as a nontheist. Astoundingly, of 535 members of Congress, there are no "out" atheists, although atheists make up a larger proportion of the U.S. population than Jews or Muslims. This political exclusion needs to change, and it will if atheists would stand up and be counted.
I like the matter-of-fact way Dawkins explained atheism during a 2002 TED talk: "An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."
If you would like to keep in touch or learn more, visit the website "RichardDawkins.net" or join my Twitter feed @RBlumner.
I know some of you will miss my columns and some of you are dancing a little jig that my liberal views won't be infuriating you anymore. But no matter what camp you're in, I want to thank you for reading. It has been an honor to share your Sundays.