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Ex-Preacher Finds Love and Hope in the Secular Community, Faces Many Challenges

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.

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What Makes It All Worthwhile

It’s been a long week, and I have a million things I want to write about.

First up: update on Damon Fowler, the recently-graduated high schooler who was kicked out of his community and his house for challenging an illegal school-sponsored prayer.

Greta Christina wrote a long post with all the important details about his situation and the response of the secular community. This passage struck me the most.

But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

Reflections like the one above don’t just make me feel warm and fuzzy; they make me proud to be part of this movement.

I’ve been thinking about this movement lately, and I realize that the road doesn’t stop here. There’s a lot more to be done. There will be more troubles ahead. We’ll face misunderstanding, ignorance, and outright hatred.

But we have to remember to never ever give into the belief that only religious communities can provide real support and comfort. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there are some things that others can provide that we can’t.

Orange County Christians Behave Well

Remember when I mentioned the billboard put up by the Orange County Coalition for Reason as part of a national billboard campaign?

Well, there are plenty of people not happy with atheists speaking out. Similar billboards in California have been defaced. In Westminster, however, the Christians chose a much more reasonable course of action.

A group of Christians who have been gathering to conduct Bible studies under a “Godless billboard” erected by a national atheist organization say they will do so until the sign comes down.

This is perfect. Nobody breaks any laws. Nobody gets hurt. No property gets damaged or vandalized. No groups or ideas get censored. Both sides get to say and do what they want. More importantly, we’ve given religious people something constructive to do with their time: yell and pray and read the Bible ceaselessly, all to fight against… a sign.

This is almost as nonsensical as atheists gathering and reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World each time they see a sign telling non-Christians to either repent or face hell (signs which line the highways of many states).  But of course, these Christians (like people of other religions) have holy books as well as special powers that allow them to communicate directly with their over-Lord who tells them “the absolute truth,” and we don’t want to mess with that.

Longbrake, a member of Calvary Chapel Westgrove and a 40-year Orange County resident, said he and other Christians respect the atheists’ freedom of speech, but want their voices to be heard as well.

“There is no question that this billboard is unhealthy for our community,” he said.

Unhealthy? A billboard that says “Don’t Believe In God? You are not alone,” is unquestionably unhealthy? Dear Sir, was the billboard even meant for Christian consumption? My awfully godless, narrow-minded brain tells me that this billboard was meant to reach out to people who already have doubts about religion, who already suspect it is more likely that all religions are false than it is that only one of the millions that have existed is the one true one. It’s a message of solidarity to people who would otherwise feel ostracized by their religious community.

It doesn’t even say you should be an atheist, or that atheism is good, or that we should question God. It says that if you, despite all your effort, find that you just can’t believe, you shouldn’t feel alone. You should know that there are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world who agree with you and who’ve come to this conclusion independently in many different societies, with different religions, and in different times. You should know that the world is much larger than the community you come from, and that even when horrible things happen to people like Damon Fowler (kicked out of his “Christian” home and community), there are lots of people supporting you and your cause.

Orange County Christians, read the Bible and protest all you want. There’s greater work to be done.

Change the Church, or Leave the Church

David Marr is complaining that the Catholic Church is full of “bigotry, cruelty, and hatred.” Why? Because they won’t let gay people into the church hierarchy. Because they teach homosexuality is a mortal sin.

Well I have news for you: I don’t really care what the Catholic Church says on this, and if they don’t want gay people in their church, that’s fine with me too.

If you happen to be gay, why would you even want to stay in the Catholic Church or in Christianity at all? These are the people who think they know what God thinks and who, for centuries, made your lives much worse than it could be. These are the people who set up straight camps to “cure” you, who insisted AIDS was a gay disease, and who now claim they really really love you and just hate the sin.

We in the secular community, on the other hand, vow to never treat anyone or any person like that. Our morality and ethics come from humanistic values, not from holy books or clerical traditions.

We will always stand by communities that are in need.

We will defend the legitimate rights of others.

Don’t be afraid of us, we are really and truly one of the best allies you’ll ever have.

Inspiration in a Place of Darkness

We are all shocked and saddened by the death of David Kato, a marked gay rights activist in Uganda who bravely fought for change in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Lately, there have been many questions about the influence of U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and Scott Lively in Uganda, all of whom have had deep and long friendships with prominent local religious leaders and government officials.

What we absolutely don’t need now is more religious rationalization and apology for the explosion of ignorance and hate in arguably the most Christian country in Africa. As I’ve written about before, religious moral arguments aren’t arguments because they have often have nothing to do with the reality of the objective world. Turning to the Bible or any other religious text for guidance on moral issues at a time like this is as useless as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy advice.

In fact, I don’t actually think that someone like Scott Lively, who actually organized a conference in Uganda to oppose homosexuality, added that much fuel to an already burning fire. What I want to point out, however, is irony of his position: Lively might have thought he was washing the people of Uganda with the blood of Jesus, but who thought that he might soon do it with the blood of actual people?

You see, the only source of inspiration I can find in this mess is never covered in the media and always ignored by the religious. I’m talking about the secular community of Uganda, which is a very real thing, and a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. After all we’ve seen on the news, shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say?

As a tribute to the community and as something to remember Kato by, I’ll post some of the official core beliefs and goals found on the website of the Uganda Humanist Association.

Beliefs:

We believe in human rights for all people including the despised minorities.
We believe in the right of human beings to make individual choices as they determine the course of their lives.

Goals:

To oppose religious, racial and ethnic fanaticism and fundamentalism.
To educate people about humanism as a free, rational, humane, skeptical/scientific, liberal and democratic life stance and approach to human life challenges.
To carry out projects that promote social welfare and environmental concern.

Commitments

To building a non- superstitious, rational and scientifically minded society in Uganda.
To promoting unity and tolerance among people.
To instil a culture of human rights concern and activism.
To build confidence in our fellow Ugandans to live the one life they have, purposely and with dignity.

If every Ugandan could hear these simple words, I’m sure they’ll be more beautiful than anything they’ve heard from their pastors lately. That’ll be the inspirational material for the day.

Let us remember that we can always rebuild and change societies. One person. One idea. One day at a time.