I don’t know if you’ve heard of the story of Teresa Macbain yet. She was a surprise guest at the American Atheist Convention. She was a Methodist minister. And she moved people to tears by coming out on stage to thousands of people for the first time as an atheist.
… Lynn is a pseudonym to protect her anonymity, since she has been continuing to serve as a Methodist minister. But on this occasion, she stood up proudly and told us that her name is Theresa. She added, with tears welling in her eyes, “and I am an atheist.” Thunderous applause went on for what seemed like a five minutes, while a half-dozen other ex-pastors hugged her and while handkerchiefs met misty eyes all over the auditorium.
Theresa was visibly moved, and thanked the Clergy Project for helping her to leave, and then, in one of the most sincere and powerful moments I have witnessed as an atheist, she apologized. She apologized for hating us for being atheist. She apologized for knocking on our doors, and for leading other people into hatred. And then she thanked us for meeting her hatred with love and compassion, for helping her instead of hating her in return, and for helping her to come out in her own way, and accepting her for who she is. She added that in all her years as a minister, she had never felt such unconditional compassion.
NPR also covered this story and the aftermath.
A few minutes later, MacBain strides off the stage into a waiting crowd. One man is crying as he tells her that her speech is “one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years.” Another woman says she, too, had been a born-again Christian. “Join the club,” she says as she hugs MacBain.
“I have never felt so appreciated and cared for, you know?” MacBain says later, noting that she has left one community — Christianity — for another. “New member, just been born — that’s what it feels like.”
The fallout was immediately felt. The news spread like a virus around the community.
Hundreds of people wrote comments on the site, and MacBain says they were painful to read.
“The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful,” she says, although some nonbelievers soon came to her defense. “For somebody who’s been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it’s really hard to imagine that overnight you’re the bad guy.”
… People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there’s no guarantee. Only two of MacBain’s friends called her and took her to lunch. Meanwhile, her family was a refuge, even if they didn’t all agree with her new views.
Her story is not unique. According to the Clergy Project, there are hundreds of clergy members in churches and religious institutions who currently lead double lives as secret atheists, and who risk losing nearly everything if others find out. It is up to us to help these people find a way out, and to show them that life outside of religion can be beautiful, meaningful, and full of love.
Okay, maybe I just shot myself in the foot. Yes, there are secular lobbyists (see Secular Coalition for America). Yes, atheists care about religious discrimination laws, women’s rights, gay rights, prayer in public schools, science education, etc. These are all hot political issues. Yes, tens of thousands of people congregated in Washington, D.C. demanding “legislative equality” and asking everyone, including politicians, to come out.
But there seems to be a difference between involving atheists in political affairs that relate to religion and defining what it means to be a good atheist with reference to a set political ideology. For example, I find the National Atheist Party not so much cringeworthy because of the things it has done, but rather because the idea is dangerous. It is troubling to think that one political party–with a single platform (and maybe a candidate in the future)–represents atheism and or at least what it should look like.
Of course, there is the much greater problem of the actual and deliberate hijacking of atheism by the Leftist, anti-capitalist, feel-good social justice kind of crowd. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to say about religious conservatism and its evils. There’s a lot to criticize about our current market economy and the policies we have in place. And yes, there’s a lot more good that could be done by the atheist/humanist/secular community to fight for the dignity and rights of oppressed peoples.
But there’s a raging temptation within parts of the atheist community to say that you aren’t really up to the standard if you aren’t a strict liberal, if you aren’t supportive of Occupy Wall Street, if you don’t agree with the left’s tax policies, if you don’t agree with the many subtleties of race and poverty in America, if you don’t neatly fit within the box that is the “activist” political left. There are also people like Chris Stedman who criticize people like Greta Christina and say that you aren’t really furthering worthwhile goals of the atheist movement if you seek to change people’s minds about religion in a rational context.
The fact is that this kind of narrowly-defined atheism is absolutely counterproductive. This issue is bigger than the fact that there are many conservative/libertarian atheists in America. Defining good atheism narrowly means that atheism is not really atheism, that the movement isn’t really worthwhile as an effort to spread rationality and reason (and to bring about positive change), unless we all adopt ideologies that frankly have little to do with atheism.
I, frankly, would much rather have our movement be successful in creating a rational society that is majority secular than having atheists neatly fit itself into a modern American liberalism. The former would not necessarily mean a political consensus, but it would be an absolute game-changer in terms of building more welcoming communities for nonbelievers, as well as opposing the influence of religion in the public sphere and effecting secular change. I know this is shocking, but one of the best ways to ensure a secular humanistic society is to have an electorate of secular humanists.
The idea that all atheists should instead be holding “I am the 99%” signs in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is far less appealing to me. It’s even short-sighted in that it trades an open, dynamic, and diverse movement for an almost blind (but not necessarily bad) involvement in specific political activities. We should be very skeptical of this kind of stuff, and of the socio-economic ideologies that purport to be atheism’s soul-mates.
The secular/atheist movement is a huge tent. I say we keep it that way.
I was made aware of r/AtheistHavens today. This subreddit is described as follows:
Volunteers to assist young adults that are kicked out or disowned by their family due to their atheism. Couches to crash on, warm meals to share, someone to lean on, and someone to listen.
It’s like Chicken Soup for the Materialistic Non-Soul, except in real-life form.
The Reason Rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was an amazing, unforgettable, life-changing experience.
The Thinking Atheist made a video recap of his experience at Reason Rally. It’s a captivating overview of the emotions, the sights, the congenial atmosphere, and overwhelming awesomeness of the whole thing.
Everywhere I went I had this awareness that I was amongst friends. And if you’ll forgive the cliche, I felt that I was home.
For me, I was inspired by the words of Nate Phelps, the son of Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps, who talked about the sadness that he felt watching his family protest, and how it reminded him of the incredible amount of human potential that is wasted on religious dogma.
I was also inspired by people on Twitter and the support we received around the world. A tweet from Iran was made in solidarity with American atheists and in the hope that one day, there will be Reason Rallies in Tehran too.
I was inspired by everyday people who showed up. Students who flew from Wyoming. My fellow Chicagoans who drove ten hours to get to Washington. The family in D.C. who welcomed me personally to the city. My fellow interns from Foundation Beyond Belief. All the students. The surprising number of seniors I saw. The families. High school teenagers (like Jessica Ahlquist). It was an incredibly diverse crowd of everyday people, of all colors and backgrounds, from all corners of the country, wanting to take a stand for Reason.
Just look. Look at the picture above again. Stare at it, and think about each person’s life, each person’s journey of skepticism, doubt, and *maybe* religious upbringing. Think about why they came, why they thought they wanted to be part of something much much greater than themselves.
I was inspired by the passion, the dedication, the love and compassion that atheists showed for each other and the greater humanity that we care so much about.
Religious (and other canonical) texts are not all bad. In fact, many of them contain profound moral insights and wisdom consistent with humanism. In discussions on morality, I find it disturbing when people say “if only everyone believed Religion X…” then the world would be a better place. Gross simplifications of this kind are just not good.
The challenge given below is to match each moral statement with one of the religious figures. Many of these statements are similar or the same, but each statement has a unique author.
|1. “Love means giving selflessly, excluding none and including all.”
2. “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”
3. “Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all.”
4. “Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first.”
5. “Be not partial towards them in love above many others, but let thy love be for them as for thyself; and let thy love abound unto all men.”
6. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
7. “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love. This is the eternal rule.”
8. “Practice truth, contentment and kindness; this is the most excellent way of life.”
9. “Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
Easy? Hard? Feel free to comment on this quiz. But don’t cheat! I’ll post the answers in a few days.
The point of this is that it isn’t clear that the world would be a better place if we only followed one religion. Love and kindness are not Catholic values or Protestant values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are human values, and it is about time we recognize them as such and work to make the world a better place together.
“We are captains of our soul and masters of our destinies… the fire was within us!”
This is a beautiful affirmation of humanism and a refutation of the pathetic idea that we need religion to lead good or meaningful lives. Thank you, Stephen Fry.
My Facebook feed surprises me all the time. This morning I woke up to the following video. It is of one of my former high school classmates who talks about her eight-week experience in Peru serving underprivileged children.
The problem with the format and presentation of such videos is that they do not have the sole and innocent purpose of giving an inspirational message; rather, they are first and foremost promotions of one’s own religion and beliefs. For example, she says she is inspired by the words of John the Baptist about the coming of Jesus, and says “that it was and remains a message of great hope… If only we hear the voice calling us, inviting us to testify to the Light.” For the millions of people who don’t believe in superstitious nonsense, the message of John the Baptist and of the legendary Jesus is an empty one. More importantly, it does not and should not have anything to do with our service and solidarity to our fellow human beings. We most definitely should not be giving an “if only” statement about religious belief, as if the main problem in the world is not enough people accepting the apparent “truth” of some message from the Middle East thousands of years ago. In short, for the millions of good, moral nonbelievers in this country, such testimonies are not only non sequiturs, but also serve to alienate.
I admit that I have not done anything as spectacular as going to Peru, and that is no person’s fault but my own. But whenever I have done something worthwhile, whether that is helping raise money for Doctors Without Borders, volunteering to teach chess at a local school, or giving out free hugs, I have never been asked, nor do I think I should have been asked, what religion I belong to. We should do work for goodness sake, and not because we are compelled to do so by a religious authority figure.
And when we do good works, we do should it humbly. We do it not to serve our religion, to serve ourselves and our salvation, but to serve other people. Saying that God’s voice is talking to me and telling me what to do is not going to cut it. This is so especially important because religion, beyond the core humanistic values that they all share, have served only to divide so many people for so long. It is about time we stop this and start serving our neighbor beyond the confines of our own religion.
It’s no surprise why in interfaith circles, everybody endorses values like “peace,” “cooperation,” “love,” and “service.” That’s because these are not Catholic values or Protestant values. They are not Christian values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are HUMAN values, and the fact that they exist across multiple cultures and religions suggest that they transcend their respective religions.
This transcendent human morality, one that is valid across all religions, is the foundation of what we call humanism, and it has existed for tens of thousands of years. Humans were not raping and killing each other on the streets before Yahweh showed us the Ten Commandments or before Gabriel appeared before Muhammed. People like Confucius could write the Golden Rule before the time of Jesus. In fact, morality does not come in tablet or rule-based form, but exists in the heart of every person reading this post.
This does not mean that Christians cannot do good works. The overwhelming number of religious people, including my former classmate, have done enormous good in the world. The challenge, the “if only” I propose, is that we all reflect on how we can really build a better world. We should wonder whether associating common good works and packaging it in a specific religion is a good idea or simply an ultimately divisive, alienating, and counterproductive activity.
Take for example a very moving documentary I saw at Skepticon. It was called “Give a Damn” and it documented one atheist and two Christians who decided to travel across Africa together to experience life in the poorest parts of the world. They had great adventures and setbacks, including a devastating plane crash. They met wonderful people, helped many locals, and came back to raise awareness of about global poverty. The most important part of the documentary is that religion, for the most part, didn’t matter. Love and concern for people across the globe is a human experience and a human activity, and these wonderful people could talk about their experience without the need to proselytize or to bring in heavy theological baggage.
It is therefore a good question to ask, especially in this holiday giving season, what the motives are for many charitable organizations. The next time you put coins in a Salvation Army can, I ask that you think and learn more about the organizations you are supporting and giving money to. Think about whether you’re doing something because your religion tells you to, because you want some supernatural reward, or because you really want to. The road to Heaven, after all, is paved with bad intentions.
This Thanksgiving, I would like to tell you a very special story from 2005 about an amazing teacher in China. As of now, I cannot find an English version of this story, but it was been widely reported in China and the Chinese blogosphere.
Mr. Nianyou Liu taught primary school in a rural village in Chongqing for over 28 years. Throughout those years, he has sponsored many of his own students financially. Many decades ago, he paid for many of his students with a part of his 6.5 yuan (<$1) monthly salary, and his wife also prepared lunch for many of the students who had to travel far. Mr. Liu also lives in a spare classroom right next to the one he teaches, which serves as his bedroom, office, and kitchen.
For about three years, he told his closest friends, family, and colleagues that he was regularly going away on long weekend trips to “play cards”. It was quite a mystery as to what he was really up to. However, people knew he often returned covered in soot, and many were wondering why.
After repeated questioning, people eventually found out that he was working in one of the most dangerous industries in the world. He spent his weekends coal mining, forgoing any rest and risking his own life, to make some extra money, so that his own students wouldn’t have to drop out of school. This is in addition to the children he had to support at home.
His students say that Mr. Liu’s lunch is almost always worse than theirs. It consists regularly of just rice and a pickle. More importantly, Mr. Liu owes over 15,000 yuan that he is working to repay. This is debt that he took on for his own students.
When the story broke out, Mr. Liu’s daughter came back in tears, finally understanding why his father lived like that for so many years.
So don’t take your education for granted. Don’t be proud that you “don’t know any math” or that you aren’t “good at art”. Thank the people who make your education possible. Keep learning, and don’t stop. And help those people who can really benefit from your support.