Good Morning Everybody. All right. Very good. For those of you who did not catch my name, I am Mandisa Thomas and I am one of the founders and president of a growing organization called Black Nonbelievers Inc. This is actually the digital image of our banner that we use and take everywhere we go. And I like how it looks because it implies that we are going to take over the universe. Just kidding, but I also want to talk about a segment of the population that tends to be overlooked by the major organizations. That is changing but we still have a ways to go.
So to give you a background on myself, I was born and raised in New York City. I was actually was never raised religious, which is a rarity in our community. But I was exposed to Christianity, Islam, and different forms of supernaturalism that is rampant in our community. I moved to Atlanta at the end of 1997. One of the first questions normally asked by the black folks, “What church do you normally go to?” By the end of 2010 the scandal with Eddie Long was in the news, and I was really at a point where I was deciding where I stood with religion, and I have pretty much always despised it. And I really came back to identifying as an atheist/nonbeliever, and thought it was time to start getting out and meeting other people.
A short history, let’s get into that. So going into the history of why BN was founded, we started off as Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. And I had attended a meet-up group, and speaking with other black atheists online, I often heard there was a sense of intimidation and apprehension upon attending predominately white Freethought events. They would often be one of the very few or the only black atheists in the room, and here are a couple things that come along with that that others may not think about. And upon attending this meet-up, I actually encountered it and experienced it. There was a sense of, “I’ve never met a black atheist,” or a sense of being condescending towards the issues that we face, especially being a part of a predominately religious black community. So instead of complaining about it, we decided to do something about it. So in January 2011, we started Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. Our first general meeting was held the following month and there were 15 people in attendants, that is more that the number of black atheists in this room. We can laugh about it but it is actually isn’t very funny because when people say they cannot see color, you are absolutely right about that. Because if you have to ask yourself have you really, really thought about this dynamic here. And that is okay if you haven’t, but this is what we are here to help with. And before I go on I must say many of our members do reference Dan Barker as an inspiration though his book and through his debates, so you are every well known and respect and acknowledged and admired in our community.
In November of 2011 due to the connections that we made, and through the interest and because of interest in starting groups in other cities, we increased our scope and shortened our name to just Black Nonbelievers because we wanted to establish a base to help groups become established in other cities. And we are continuing in the tradition, even though it may seem in minute and small, we are continuing the tradition of some historic black humanists and Freethinkers such as Langston Hughes, who wrote a noble poem called “Goodbye Christ”, Hubert Henry Harrison, who was very, very notable in the time of the Black Renaissance. Lorraine Hansberry who wrote a Raisin in the Sun, and Asa Phillip Randoph who was the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the chief organization of the 1963 March on Washington. And I would also like to acknowledge Butterfly McQueen who Dan and I talked about this morning, who FFRF often acknowledges. So we definitely appreciate that. More information can be found at AAhumanism.net.
Some challenges faced as it pertains the Black community: For historical reasons, for reasons related to legal separation, legal discrimination in this country, and other injustices, the church and the doctrine, well the doctrine was imposed upon the slaves upon arriving into this country, but the church played a social and supportive role in the community at a time when the government did not. So this is the dynamic that people need to understand when it comes to our community, that this is one of the reasons why there is such a close tie with many blacks and religion. So you have a very religiously identified black community. And the research numbers will verify this. There is a notion that religion and spirituality is inherent to life as an African American. You remember the phrase earlier when I said, when I was told, when I was asked, when somebody said to me, “I have never met a Black atheist.” I have heard that from other Blacks. And so when you hear that, when you realize that there are many in our community that do not know we exist, this is another reason why our group is important. So it is not to be a separating factor, it is a distinguishing factor, but it definitely helps both of our communities at the same time.
Most Black religious leaders and public figures are religious. When you hear of some of the prominent names in the Black community, they often do identify with some religious institution, and so therefore it is assumed that the majority, or most if not all Blacks do as well. There are Chitlin’ Circuit personalities reinforcing negative stereotypes. We all, some of us know some of those names, and I am about to show you some pictures of them right now. You have the Reverand Teedee Jakes, with the Potter’s house in Dallas, who has actually started producing and probably funding some of these religious movies that are out now. For example he is the executive producer of “ Heaven is for Real”. Probably not a lot of people know that, but he is starting to infusehis message and probably money into these propaganda type movies. And you see that he was on the cover on TIME magazine “The Next Billy Graham”. So even if you don’t know his name, there are a lot of Blacks that do, and unfortunately we can’t escape that.
You have Lou Sparicon?? Who is the leader of the Nation of Islam. Now they denounce Christianity, but they do subscribe to sect of Islam and other forms of Supernaturalism, and they recently crossed over into Scientology. So even though some may, and many have denounced Christianity and done away with it, there are still other forms that plague our community and that is one of them. Next guy, Creftlow Dowler???, who is head of World Change Ministries in Georgia in College Park, huge complex, I was just there with Jimmy Lebain not too long ago, and it definitely takes up a city block. It is a ginormous facility, and he has almost the entire city of Atlanta on lock. He is one of the proponents of the “Prosperity Gospel” of the more you give to your church, the more your blessings will come down. And his blessings have certainly come down, because apparently he has at least 1-2 private jets that he flies everywhere. So that community is definitely supporting him. You have Mr. Steve Harvey, I don’t know if you have ever heard of him, he is the host of Family Feud, who recently a few years ago was talking mess about atheists. And he said that if a woman of God happens to come across an atheist they need to go the other way, and that if we come from monkeys why are there still monkeys. And this guy has professed to be now a relationship Guru and is trying to advise women on relationships even though he is now divorced twice. He also has a radio show and he definitely purports a message of religion and God in his talk. And last but certainly not lease, Tyler Perry, and he is the epitome of the Chitlin’ Circuit I was referring to, because he dons on a dress and a wig and plays Madea, who seems to be funny to some funny. But it really does enforce that big momma bad stereotype of Black women, but they laugh at it. Now it is like we have become our own running joke in this community, especially when we have so many problems.
Why black race or gender specific groups? This question comes up a lot. We have received, I wouldn’t say backlash, but we have received some rather nasty questions and nasty feedback from others saying that we are racist, or that they don’t understanding why there is a need for our groups. For one, many of us in the community, atheists, nonbelievers, however we identify, we care about our communities. We care about the growth and development. We care that there are so many religious people that do not get the help that they need for the problems that they have. And I wouldn’t say that religion is the primary problem in our community, even though it plays a big part, it does tend to mask a lot of issues that people don’t get help for, and practical help for. So we care about that, and we want to help change that but in a secular manner.
We tend to specific issues that larger organizations do not have time to address. I love that FFRF and organizations like it challenge the separation of church and state statutes, and that is important. You have groups that focus on education and science education in particular and that is important, but you also have other groups that focus on the support aspect and the socialization aspect, and that is also important. And some do combine more of these at the same time. Bu there are areas that we may have a certain expertise that that is what is important to recognize and it is nothing to be ashamed of if a group only focuses on one area, we can always help each other with that. It encourages minorities to openly identify as atheist or some similar Freethought label. Whether you want to admit it or not, there are still, and people have admitted it to me and others, that they were glad they found a group like ours because it helps bridge that gap, it does bring out more of us to have a group that is distinguished and designated. We also have members of all kinds in our groups, but we do encourage each other and encourage our members to see other groups if we aren’t local to their area, then find your local FFR chapter or find your local group because it is important, we specialize in offline participation so this is the means for us to do that.
And finally it is the best way to increase diversity. That has become such a buzz word in our community that sometimes I think it has just been said to death, it has been said over and over again, it has been ridden into the ground, but how many people are actually serious about it? How often do you talk to your other people of color in these events? Or just in general how many Black atheists do you know? How many of you can count on one hand how many Black atheists you know? How many can count on two hands? I mean really? Good, those numbers are still not high enough though. So when I see that it means there is still some work that needs to be done. Here is some correspondence that I have received. I have received quite a bit over these past few years. The first one I had to clean up quite a bit, grammatically. “What is this, a war against God? I can’t believe you have the audacity to try to erase the one who created Heaven and Earth and all things in it including you and me.” They go on to say, “Please change the name of ‘Black Nonbelievers’ to ‘Believers’ our race has suffered enough. “
So this is some of the feedback that we receive. And here is another one that is much better. Actually most of our correspondence has been really good. The other when says, “To be honest, I am not even sure that I am a non-believer,” and he goes onto say that being Black there is nothing in our history that indicates that a god is good. And one popular phrase in the community and a popular song is “We’ve come this far by Faith”. And when you look at the struggles in the Black community, it has taken more than faith to overcome them. But it is largely attributed to belief in God, which is really sad. But going onto our members, BN members are employees, students, entrepreneurs etc. pretty much the same as other groups. Many fear backlash from their families and friends, as well as loss of business from clients. There are many events in the Atlanta area that are considered leadership. There are a lot of women’s leadership events, but many of them end up being big church services. They are led by a lot of religious people, and in Atlanta it is definitely a status symbol to be affiliated with some form of church, so it was definitely cliquish I am sure, every community experiences it, but it takes on a whole new life form in our community.
But they are also looking to establish professional, personal, and supportive connections with fellow nonbelievers. And we are seeking better ways to connect and communicate with believers about atheism and life as a nonbeliever. Of course we know there are many assumptions about atheists, what are the most common ones, we eat babies? What else? But we definitely seek to dispel those misconceptions and to give people a better view of who we are. And that yes, in our communities, we do exist. So here are just a few pictures, this was our first general meeting in February of 2011, this is one of our members giving us a science presentation. This was at the Day of Solidarity of 2012 and that was me singing. I am going to put Annie Laurie on the spot for a moment, because when she and Dan interviewed me for Freethought Radio and about the Blackout Secular Rally, and asked what I would be doing I said I will be singing “Ain’t no Stoppin’ us Now” and she said, “I’ve never heard of that before.”
This was at one of our general meetings where we featured Dale McGowin who is the founder and Executive Director of A Foundation Beyond Belief, which I am a board member, I am on the board of directors, and he is also the author of “Atheism for Dummies” and “Parenting Beyond Belief”. This was a few of us at our Adopt-a Highway Mile in the Atlanta area. We are the only Freethought group that has one of these , and so we do have a community service component of our group. This was us after Dr. Sequibu Hutchinson’s lecture, she is the author of “moral Combat” and “Godless Americana” and she speaks extensively about the issues that Blacks face and Black Atheists face. She is also a good person to reference, and to look up for whose books to have. And finally this is our most recent Day of Solidarity for this year in which we featured Jimlee Labay. Look at the size, that wasn’t even half of the people that were there. There were many more that were in attendance but just half of us took that picture. SO what that says is from 2011 or 0212 to when we celebrated it two years later we have grown.
Some feature and events: We have been featured in documentaries. I remember the first documentary we participated in was a student documentary and it was a little difficult to get participation, but in this most recent documentary, “Atheists in the Bible Belt”, which was put on by Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters, we couldn’t get enough people to volunteer. So what this says it that the level of support they received form groups like ours and groups like yours has been extremely helpful. Yes and “Contradiction” by Jeremiah Komarah, which Dan and Annie Laurie were featured in as well. IT speaks extensively to the problem of the church in our community. We have been involved in focus groups. There was a professor who traveled to Nashville to speak to one of the groups in the area and she asked if we would participate. I made the four hour drive and a few of our members made the four hour drive and what that says is that we are willing to travel, and we are willing to come to you if you would like to talk to us. We don’t just expect people to come to us.
Jet Magazine in 2012, I had the distinct honor, and I say that sarcastically, to have been featured in the April 30, 2012 edition of Jet Magazine, which had T.D. Jiggs on the cover, and it was supposed to have been a well-rounded edition about religion and spirituality as it pertained to blacks, but it talked mostly about Christianity. But in all fairness they did a very good job on the article. Day of Solidarity of Black Nonbelievers, African Americans for Humanism billboard campaign, which did have a billboard in Raleigh and Veronique Matthews was the face of that billboard. Convention and Event tabling, because we focus on outreach, because we are focused on increased visibility, we do tables at events. Most recently at the American Atheist Convention in Salt Lake City, and we also table at local events in the Atlanta area. And if there are any opportunities to do that please let me know. And of you who have ever contact me you know that you will probably get a response within a half hour. Than the Black Out Secular Rally, along with Black Atheists of America, FFRF was a sponsor and we are greatly appreciative of that. We also did Atlanta Pride Festival with the Atlanta Freethought Society, this will be our second year doing this, and the annual New Year’s Eve Party along with Black Atheists of America. And again, I cannot emphasize enough that we are open to everyone, we welcome everyone, so if you have never taken a trip to the Atlanta area we are more than happy to have you.
And there is my contribution to the FFR Out of the Closet Campaign back in 2011. I said if I don’t believe in beings I can see, what makes you think I will believe in beings I Can’t. And there is a copy of the Jet Magazine article, just to give you a visual. Affiliated Organizations: there is the Black Nonbelievers of Dallas with Alex Jewels, who happened to be feature in Ebony magazine in 2011, and he was also the face of the Dallas billboard campaign. You have the Black Nonbelievers of Detroit with Ms. Bridget Crutchfield, who has become just an integral part of our organization. And she is also the found of Minority Atheists of Michigan. Black Nonbelievers of Orlando with Richard Peacock, we are affiliated and we facilitate a Recovering from Religion chapter group, American Atheists. And there is a picture of all of us with James Randy, and this took place at the Freethought Florida Conference last year in Orlando.
Our future goals: Get used to this name New Turn, this was an original concept by on of our board members who is in the audience, Mr. Sincere. This program will focus on combatting recidivism, and that is the name of the revolving door of the correctional facility with ex-offenders. More often than not they end up back in the system within three years due to lack of opportunity and lack of support. So this is something we will be taking on in the future. Short term financial assistance for those in need. Many of our members have spouses, and are going through issues with their spouses due to their non- belief, and we all know that has broken up families sadly.
Support Base for local groups in various cities, continued collaboration and partnerships with Freethought groups. Last but not least I love to say, “Ain’t no stopping us now.” How do you walk past that smiling face at a convention? But the demographics, the times are changing, the faces of the movement are changing, and we must be ready for it. I appreciate that the level of support that we have been given, and again there is more information at our website. Just continue, we are going to keep growing, and we will keep moving.
Sue Kocher: He’s my co-host for the Humanist Hour, he’s a good friend to a lot of people. He is someone that reminds me that above all else, caring about other human beings is the most important thing we can do no matter what way we choose to do it. I’d like to bring out Todd Stiefel.
Todd: Alright. I believe I’m already mic’d and fully operational. If I go too close I’m double mic’d. I believe my title was the “Importance of Living Openly”. But I changed the title cause I can. So, my title instead is “Openly Secular” which is actually the name of both a coalition and a campaign that launched this week. I’m going to spend some time today talking about that, updating you folks on it. I’m going to go really fast because I had like eighty slides and I crushed it down into something that hopefully I’ll get to in thirty minutes. As far as Q&A goes, feel free to just grab me if you have any questions afterwards. I will be wandering around, hanging out, so if you want to do Q&A let’s just do it one on one later. Sound good?
First we’re going to talk about the concept behind “Openly Secular”, then we are going to go into the mission of what we’re trying to accomplish. Talk about the coalition that was built. Talk about who are our audiences are. We’re going to talk about the highlights of research, because we actually did a bunch of research. I have a bunch of data to throw at you, which is always fun. But I’m sure you don’t like empirical evidence in this room. And then a little bit about what’s coming next.
So first, the concept. Prejudice. This I find to be one of purest measures of prejudice out there. It’s a gallup poll that they’ve been doing since 1958, where they ask a very simple question. Which is, would you vote for somebody who is ______ if they are a well qualified candidate from your own political party? And you can see, this is actually a happy slide, you can see massive progress for a whole bunch of different demographics. Which is just absolutely phenomenal. But whose dead last as of right now? Us. Fifty four percent.
So roughly forty five percent of the population would vote against us. Just for being an atheist. Nothing else. You’re qualified. You’re in the party. They agree with you. They just don’t like you enough or trust you enough to vote for you. This is something we’ve got to change. The concept behind this program is really something similar to the enormous success behind the gay rights movement. Look at that curve. We’re talking about something to put a smile on your face. That is twenty years of progress. From ten percent support for marriage equality in this country to over fifty percent.
One of the top ways to tell if someone is going to favor marriage equality is simply this: do you actually know someone who is gay? If you do, in 2009, forty nine percent chance you supported equality. But only twenty seven if you didn’t know. Which probably should be phrased like, “I don’t know that I know someone who is gay.”
Check this out. From 2009-2013, forty nine percent jumps all the way to sixty eight percent support. Imagine what we can do if we are all out. If we are all open. If celebrities in Hollywood are not afraid of hurting their career, being open about their beliefs. This is kind of thing we can do. So, really, what we are trying to do is humanize us.
The hate and distrust frankly comes from a misunderstanding or a complete lack of understanding of who we are. When people understand who we are and what we believe, we can diminish the fear and the distrust. The strategy is a really a simple one. It’s something that’s been used by several efforts. It has been used by the Richard Dawkins Out Campaign, which this is actually the successor campaign to. It’s being used by FFRF with the Out of the Closet Campaign that they are running as well. This is a campaign along those lines, but it’s a bit different than what’s happened before.
So what is our mission? What is the mission of the rest of my slides? The mission of Openly Secular is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people to be open about their beliefs. We envision a world where there are no social costs for being secular. Where families and communities remain whole when some members have moved away from religion or superstition. And our values are simple. Acceptance, reason and love.
Now, on the acceptance front, we’re having to educate the PR firm we have on board because the initial materials were like, “You should accept our beliefs and you should accept our ideas.”
And it’s like, actually, no. What we should do is accept people. Agree to disagree. It’s okay to disagree with each other on religious grounds. What we need to is accept and love each others as human beings, even though we might disagree on certain concepts. So we have built a coalition. A fairly large coalition.
First are the acceleration partners. These are the folks doing the work on the ground on a day-to-day basis. These are the folks whose employees are working on this and putting in a ton of time and effort and are going to be raising a substantial portion of the money. We also have movement partners. These folks are helping us promote the campaign, providing advice and insight. I spent of a lot of time figuring out the exact appropriate order to get ‘em on here, which was whatever way I could actually get them to fit on the slide. So, no offense to anybody if your logo is not where you want it because well, heh, good luck getting ‘em all up there.
But, as you can see there is actually a small army of movement partners. We’ve built a large coalition of people behind this concept. To really make the world a better less discriminatory place. I want to thank the team. As I said before we’ve got the movement partners on board, we’ve got a whole slew of volunteers, we have Mercury, which is a public affairs company which is helping do PR for us. We also have to give a special thanks to Robyn Blumner who is the director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, who is the project director. And Lyz Liddell, who is a dynamic amazing leader. Does not get quite the recognition she deserves at this movement. She’s really the driving force behind this on a day-to-day basis.
So let’s talk audiences. We pulled eight hundred people, eight hundred adults, we actually did eleven hundred. We over sampled three hundred additional nones. But of the eight hundred, we got twenty percent nones. Which is a familiar number. This is actually aligns pretty closely with Gallup and Pew and some of the other data. So, of eight hundred of those we surveyed, twenty percent were nones. Interestingly, four percent were atheist, three percent agnostics, the other thirteen percent were kind of this nebulous, nothing in particular. Whatever. Our target is most of the nones. But as you’ll see, on the far right, that the nones are not exactly all atheists.
For example twenty percent of them definitely believe there is a personal god out there. An intercessory god who answers who answers your prayers and will change the world for you. Those people, not so much our targets of the nones. We’re really targeting the whole bottom of that stack. The atheists at the bottom, the agnostics, the ones who are unsure and frankly we’re even targeting that deistic chunk. The people who believe in a higher power but not a personal higher power. Are they exactly like us? No. But they are perhaps on the road to freethought. These are the people like Thomas Jefferson was. Who believed in a creator-god but not one that intervened on a daily basis. If we can get even them to come out more, that helps a road to this erroneous belief that this is a Christian nation and that everyone around is a Christian. And that when somebody from the religious right’s running for office and says, “I represent you, because everybody is a Christian.”
Now, there is not. There is a small army of different types of religious minorities within this none category. We want all of them to be open. To help show it’s okay to disagree with the established religious dogma. Something else we are doing a little different, we are not asking people as part of this campaign to select a label that we are picking for them. We are not saying, “You’ve got to be an atheist, you’ve got to be an agnostic.”
We are letting people choose their own label. Whatever they want, as a term to self-identify with, that’s what we are letting them do. So one thing we’re doing, the videos we are recording, we are letting people say, “I’m a ________ and I’m openly secular.”
This is actually specifically designed to help get celebrities. One of the things we are hoping to do is actually get videos from celebrities talking about them coming out. Kind of a like a “It Gets Better” style campaign. Talking about their beliefs and what’s changed and hopefully getting them to come out of the closet on video. And we know from some connections to some celebrities that they are very afraid of coming out. They are a brand. And if they come out this could damage their personal brand. They don’t wanna use the atheist word, it’s too scary to the general public. But some of them might be able to say, “I’m not religious and I’m openly secular.”
That’s the kind of thing we are hoping to accomplish. Research highlights. So we hired Mercury, we did focus groups, one of nones and one of allies. When I say allies, we’re talking about people who don’t hate us. And people who don’t believe that they’re should be more religious incursion into government. So these are people who could potentially support us in a campaign for us. And then of course, the nones. So, two focus groups plus the eleven hundred person survey. Some quick top line results.
People actually don’t see a crisis. They are willing to help, amazingly, many people didn’t even see a problem. A lot of the nones didn’t even see their being any discrimination at all despite the Gallup data that says otherwise. A lot of people don’t even see an issue that has to be addressed. That’s the first thing we’re going to have to deal with, as a matter of fact, when we send our press release this week, the main thing we’re going to be doing for the next few months is trying to build awareness that there is a problem. And going to the media again and again and talking to them about how there is discrimination and it is real. Helping educate people in that regard.
People said this is not a civil rights issue. And we’re pissed to even have it correlated. I’ll show a little bit of data on that later. That was a big stand out thing. People did not want this association with LGBT rights, they did not want this associated with civil rights in general. Any comparisons to the plight of African Americans, the LGBT community was significantly disliked. By both allies and nones. Interestingly.
We researched what would be a good umbrella term for atheists, agnostics, nonreligious, all these folks. Secular actually polled the best. It was the best umbrella term. Which I guess makes sense. There is a “Secular Coalition for American”. There is a “Secular Student Alliance”. There are “Secular Woman”. So it’s already being used as a bit of an umbrella term and when we tested it that was the one that won.
People were most open to the concept of a campaign of acceptance. That was the marketing message that tested the best. Alright, so let’s talk about a little bit of data. And I know that there is a ton of stuff on the slides. This comes straight out of the public affairs research data that we did. Allies and nones, believe it or not, and I was actually shocked at this, rejected terms like “Coming out of the Closet” and “In the Closet” and jargon like that. When we asked them, should we use these type of things, overwhelmingly the answer was the big red bars. No.
We don’t like you using these terms and in the focus groups people actually got fired up and angry about it. Really low support for this kind of terminology which is part of the reason we chose the word open rather than out for this campaign.
Something interesting as well, we asked them, “What do these different terms mean?” There was some significant lack of understanding. Maybe not too surprisingly, considering the religious literacy of the American population in general. When we asked these specific terms, the only one people really understood pretty well was atheist. And of course that carries enormous baggage with it. Agnostic? More than half of people didn’t know what it was. Secular? Even secular, a lot of people didn’t know what secular was. Humanist and Freethinker tested abysmally in terms of understanding of what they mean. Freethinker, even to the nones, only ten percent could come with an approximate definition of what the word freethinker is.
We thought about using freethinker as our umbrella term and decided not to. Not like secular tested amazingly well. Kind of interesting to see how little people understand about us and about our demographic and about our thoughts and desires and beliefs. I think a lot of this is where some of the discrimination comes from. People just don’t understand us. I mean, twenty percent don’t understand what an atheist is. I don’t know what they think we are. My guess is that they think we are satanists or devil worshippers or baby eaters or any one of those things. Who knows?
That’s kind of scary. We’ve got a lot of educating to do. This is saying very or somewhat likely for nonbelievers to be discriminated against. So we asked them the questions right at the bottom here. “For each of the following groups, professions ordered, please tell me how likely or unlikely it is that somebody who is openly doubtful of god or belief in god, might face discriminations as part of that group.”
Orange is the adults, the overall eight hundred. Green is allies. Blue is the nones. The one area that came up in the focus groups and everywhere else, where people actually finally got the discrimination was that concept of running for political office.
That’s where they said, “Oh yeah, there’s not really discrimination. It’s really not a big deal here. What do we even need to do a campaign for?”
It’s like, “Yeah, what if an atheist ran for president?”
“Oh! They’d never get elected. That’s crazy talk!”
And so, that’s reflected here. And it’s especially among the nones, people saw teachers as being a group that might get discriminated against heavily for being an atheist. Babysitters, daycare, soldiers, interestingly enough, very few people saw students as being victims of discrimination. People thought students get supported heavily.
That I think is another area where we have an opportunity to educate people because, while most colleges, atheists and agnostics are supported pretty well. Though I know some pretty significant stories where that is not the case, including, I even know a story of a girl who had, literally, poop smeared all over her room when she came out as being an atheist. Seriously.
In high schools this is very, very different story. Especially here in the south. We’ve got people in this room who have suffered significant discrimination in their schools. We have a lot of educating to do. To help people understand what’s going on here and what kind of discrimination is happening and that this is a problem that America needs to face up to and address head on.
Degrees to which neighbors would defend. So, we asked this kind of, and I know this sounds like a strange question, but we wanted people to try to envision what would your neighbors would do if they heard about a specific type of discrimination. Would they stand up against this? Would they do something about it?
So we’re talking about the importance of discrimination. Trying to get a measure of what people would see as something their neighbors would intervene on. What we really trying to get a feel for was which issues did people think were the ones that others would be most offended by. And the ones actually most willing to get behind and stop. Number one? Physical bullying. People did not like the concept of physical bullying against the nonreligious. Secular people.
Denied services by businesses was number two. I think a lot of people are aware that this actually still happens. For example when Jessica Ahlquist came out and was in court working on her civil liberties case, there were multiple flower shops that refused to deliver her flowers. So this happens and guess what? We have public support from allies. By the way, this is just the allies this is not nones in general. So from our allies there is significant support to stop this kind of behavior.
This is also one of the reasons why some of the laws that they’re trying to pass in the south, including Georgia and several other states, the right to discriminate laws, are so important. Now, these things are primarily designed so that people who are bigots can discriminate against gay people. So, if you own a coffee shop you can refuse to serve people from the LGBT community.
They’re promoting it as these religious liberty laws. Where you don’t have to serve someone against your religious beliefs. Guess who also would be hit by these? Us!
Fortunately, there is pretty popular support against that kind of discrimination. Verbal abuse, bullying, denying custody of children, which has happened as well. There is actually a case where the judge specifically cited the father’s leaving of religion and becoming an agnostic for the reason his children were taken from him. This is only a couple years ago, too. And it got overturned by an appeals court, who said, are you crazy? You can’t use his religious beliefs to take somebodies custody.
Again, something else that does happen and we need to make more people aware. Teenagers getting kicked out of school or out of their homes. This has happened many times. Interestingly, very little support at the bottom for breakdown in family relationships. I was surprised by that. Quick show of hands, anybody in the room, or who in this room, has someone in their family who basically doesn’t talk to them anymore or shuns them or ostracizes them based on their atheism or beliefs? Just a quick show of hands.
Several of you. Actually, a lower number than I thought. Interesting. Which is a good sign. But very little sympathy for this. People don’t seem to care if your mom won’t talk to you anymore because you became an atheist. Which is a little disappointing so we won’t focus on that. Our campaign, but that’s pretty important. I mean to me if my aunt or sister didn’t talk to me anymore that would be pretty important thing to try to overcome. Do you agree? Good.
So, messaging. We went out and tested messaging as part of this survey. Because this is one of the most important things we wanted to find out. What things will work and what things won’t.
“Don’t have to agree to accept” came out number one across the board amongst the different groups. Very interesting concept, but a very basic concept. “We don’t have agree with each other to accept and love one another.” Strong, strong support for this. Now the second one came out much more positive with the nones than the allies and people overall, but “being honest about yourself.” That it’s important to be honest about who you are to people around you. Society needs to show more acceptance, that actually tested really well with the nones as well.
Certain things did not test well. Strength in numbers. The concept that we are growing and that we’re becoming a very large demographic quickly. That did not test well. Except with us, of course. But the allies did not like that. Even in the focus groups, they specifically talked about- they do not want us to be talking about how it might be ‘cool’ to be an atheist. Or how we’re growing and they were particularly uncomfortable with us talking about politics. And wanting to gain influence in politics. Of course the nones? They loved this. They thought, “Oh! Yeah, we should have a voice in politics.” And personally I agree. So not as much apart of this campaign, but we will certainly be working to gain more influence in politics and actually, maybe, get a couple of atheists who are willing to admit such.
For those who don’t know, Kyrsten Sinema actually is a representative in congress who was identifying as and talking openly about being atheistic until she got elected. And then quickly backtracked and was like, no, I’m just not religious. Ah, I don’t want to talk about that anymore. So, we need people in office who actually get elected and aren’t afraid to admit it and are willing to talk about it. But it’s part of this campaign, we’re going to keep politics on the down low because it did not test well at all. So, what’s next? Several things.
We just launched our soft launch this week, just announcing the coalition, announcing the campaign. We actually got a Washington Post story, yesterday, which is pretty cool. So we are starting to get attention on this. But, some of the things we are going to be doing between now and September. We’re going to be building openlysecular.org. And we’re going to be populating it with all sorts of amazing things. We’re going to build toolkits for how to come out. When not to be open. We’re going to create brochures as leave-behinds. So, somebody comes open and tells their family and their mom is upset about it. We can give them a brochure to help explain and understand what this means, what’s changed, what hasn’t and make them read that when they are calming down and then talk again later.
We’re creating videos, we are actually recording some videos even this weekend. And those are going to be featured on the site, we are going to actually try to get a viral video campaign going, we’ll see how successful we are in that. But we putting enormous amount of resources into that. Hope to have several hundred videos before we go live. We are collecting stories. And so, any of you who has ever faced discrimination or have a good discrimination story, please go to secular.org which is the Secular Coalition for America’s website. http://www.secular.org/stories.
Submit the form. This is really important. We need these stories to be able to talk about them, and educate people about what some of the things are that happen to people on a daily basis. Losing custody of kids, losing opportunities, losing jobs, things like that. To please go and fill out this form and help us educate the public about this. The formal launch is actually going to be September 14th and the reason for that specific date is that it is the Religion News Writer Association National Conference. Wahoo!
We are sponsoring a breakfast there. So if the new writers want to eat? They come to our breakfast and we get half an hour with a captive audience to educate them on the campaign and show them the videos, show them the toolkits, and show them all the things we are going to be developing over the next several months. So we are really excited to have a hundred writers in the room together, to be able to show them and teach them and help them out with understanding the campaign. Hopefully making it absolutely enormous deal.
Other than that, live openly. Be out about who you are. And tell your friends, tell your neighbors, maybe don’t tell people at work. Because that might not be a good idea. But that’s okay. Tell the people who you can, talk openly and let’s all get together and change the world. Thank you.
Annie Laurie Gaylor: I’m going to introduce our next speaker. It’s going to be one of those rare occasions where I try to tell you a joke. So there was an Irish priest in a small village and he was walking by a little girl and she was holding a basket and was staring at it very intently. He went up and asked, “What is that?” And she looked at the priest and she said, “There kittens and they are catholic kittens.” And he patted her on the head and said, “Well, that’s wonderful. A couple weeks later he walked by and she had the basket on the grass and the kittens were playing around. He came over and said, “So, how are the catholic kittens?” She looked up and said, “They’re not catholic kittens. They’re atheist kittens.” And he said, “What happened?” She said, “Their eyes have opened.”
I think that is a metaphor for what has happened in the Republic of Ireland. And we will let Michael tell you more about the mass exodus of many devout Irish Catholics from the Catholic Church. And why that has happened. Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. Michael Nugent is a founder, co-founder of Atheist Ireland. Dan and I have been privileged to attend several events there with Atheist Ireland and Atheist International. We have really learned a lot. That perspective, of going over there and realizing that although half of our nation believes Jesus is in our constitution, in Ireland Jesus really is in their constitution. So, it’s a different kind of battle between church and state. Michael is a published author and playwright, popular play that he did about a sport play musical. That played in Ireland for several years. He’s been, basically, a full-time atheist activist in the last few years because it’s so important right now what is going in Ireland and he’ll tell you more about it. There is a blasphemy law, and that has impact globally on the blasphemy situation. I think that it’s very important in this insular nation that we realize what the problems are and other parts of the world. We’re very pleased to have Michael Nugent here.
Michael: Well, thank you very much for inviting me here today. Thanks in particular to Annie Laurie and Dan and to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and for all of the work it does. Thanks also to Triangle Freethought Society in particular, Sue and Kim, who have been very welcoming and shown me around for the last couple of days.
Thanks to everybody here for being part of the growing international movement for what we as Atheist Ireland describe as promoting atheism and reason and secularism. It is growing, growing around the world as a group called the World Values Survey. Which is an interdisciplinary team of social scientists around the world that are mapping human values over the last twenty years. And they are finding that around the world as individuals move from survival values towards self-expression values, which is triggered by investment in health and education and communications technology and moves toward democracy, then societies move towards secular rational values and away from traditional religious values. So we are swimming with the tide of history and the work that we are doing. I think that we can be optimistic regardless of how difficult any particular situation may seem to be. I’m going to talk briefly about three things. I’m going to talk about Ireland and atheism and secularism in Ireland. I’m going to talk about blasphemy laws internationally and finally I’m going to talk about the need to normalize the word atheism in social and political discourse.
First thing in terms of atheism and secularism in Ireland. Until very recently Ireland was a monolithic Catholic state, well, depending on the part of Ireland. North of Ireland is different. But south is a monolithic Catholic state. Dominated by two institutions, the Catholic Church and the politically correct Fianna Fail. Which is a populist and infested with corruption, political party. I’ll give you one example of how it governed Ireland, this is a true story. There was a by-election, an important by-election, some years ago. And there was one housing estate and the message coming back from the voters through the canvassers was they’re not interested in the economy, they are not interested in unemployment, they are not interested in the recession, they are not interested in immigration. They have a new housing estate and they’d been promised that there would be trees and landscaping at their housing estate and they haven’t got it so they’re not voting for us. On the morning of the by-election a team of council workers arrived. And planted trees alongside the housing estate. And they lost the by-election; three days later they came and took the trees back again.
For most of the last century that political party, along with the Catholic Church has also worked to keep Ireland Catholic. We have a constitution that begins with saying that all authority comes from the holy trinity and refers to our obligations, our humble obligations, towards our divine lord Jesus Christ. We have a clause in our constitution that says that the state acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to almighty God. Which if you think about it for more than a second is not even a clause vindicating the rights of citizens to worship a god, it’s a clause vindicating the right of this god to be worshipped by the citizens. As if the creator of the Universe needs the Irish constitution to vindicate his rights.
I was born in an Ireland in the 1960s where, in the first census after I was born, ninety five percent of people said that they were Roman Catholic; ninety-nine and a half said they were Christians of some variety. Less than half of one tenth of one percent said that they had no religion. Divorce was illegal; abortion was and still is illegal. Contraception was illegal. The Catholic Church in the mean time in the background was covering up the rape and abuse of children with the active complacency of the Irish state in many cases. As late as the nineteen nineties, Richard Branson’s Virgin megastore was taken to court in Dublin and fined for selling a condom. We had laws regulating condoms via a bizarre piece of legislation that said that you could buy condoms if you have a doctors prescription saying that you are married couple and you are required the condom for bonafide family planning purposes. So that’s the Ireland I grew up in. Thankfully it has changed a lot.
For a couple of reasons. One I think is economic and social development. Making the same differences to religiosity in society in Ireland as has been happening around the world. The second is of course the fact that the Catholic Church has been exposed as having been covering up rape and abuse. Particularly in Ireland, but also obviously internationally because their method of dealing with it was sending priests abroad in order to prevent them from being prosecuted. So Ireland has moved on. The most recent surveys in Ireland, internationally, one or two years ago when Gallup internationally showed that forty seven percent of Irish people say they are religious. Less than half. Which is a massive, massive change in a short period of time. And that’s compared to fifty-nine percent internationally.
Ireland is now one of the least religious countries in the world. We also have, there was an interesting survey around the time of Eucharistic Congress, which was held in Dublin recently. That survey, seventy-five percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation. Which is of course one of the central theological fundamentals of Catholicism. Fifty percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in hell. Fifteen percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. And my personal favorite, eight percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in god.
Which I would have thought was a pretty low hurdle for being a Roman Catholic. So the Catholic Church has lost the moral influence that it had claimed and pretended to have for so long. Fianna Fail is also out of power. Two of its recent prime ministers were up before tribunals for corruption charges. One of its justice ministers ended up in jail for tax evasion, so thankfully that party and the Catholic Church are now on their knees in the right sense in Ireland. Ireland, once a Catholic country is a pluralist country but unfortunately still have Catholic laws. That’s still difficult, we still have the laws that I’ll mention in a second. But before I mention that, I presume at least some of you are wondering why somebody is here from Ireland talking to you about Ireland without asking you to support the IRA (Irish Republican Army) which seems to be traditional among Irish people over here. It’s because most Irish people believe that the IRA are murderers and do not support the IRA. It’s important that people realize that most Irish people are democrats. That the mythology that has reached Irish America about the IRA representing the Irish people is just that, it’s mythological.
I was involved with a lot of other activists before getting involved in Atheist Ireland and campaigning against the IRA and against loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland. We organized peace pickets outside their conferences. We organized a peace-train to enable people to show solidarity with people on other side of the boarder when somebody in the IRA had the bright idea of trying to unite Ireland by blowing up the rail line, which was one of the links between the two parts of the island. I’ll tell you one other thing about them; some of them are not the most ethically bright people in the world. In the 1970’s the IRA used to condoms as part of the timing mechanism in bombs. In the internal devices that they were using to blow people up, and some IRA were opposed to using condoms on moral grounds. So, thankfully we’ve moved beyond that. Thankfully although we still have a lot of problems in Ireland, thankfully you don’t have people having to look under their cars every morning, look to see whether you’re going to be blown up when they turn the ignition key.
It’s also important to note that that was only in one part of the Island, there are two countries in Ireland. Two countries on the Island of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland which is an independent largely Catholic state, although as I have said it’s moved on. And Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, which is a disputed state in terms secularly, in terms of the majority of Protestants and the minority of Catholics.
When Ireland was partitioned, what you really had was a sectarian Protestant state in Northern Ireland and a sectarian Catholic state in the Republic of Ireland. The difference was, in Northern Ireland there was a large enough minority of Catholics to be able to stand up for themselves and not be totally oppressed. Now unfortunately, that ended up manifesting itself in terrorism. In the Republic of Ireland there were so few Protestants that they essentially either immigrated or kept their heads down politically. So the Republic became a monolithic Catholic state. Now, as I said the population has moved on in the Republic of Ireland but unfortunately the laws haven’t. We still have that constitution that I was telling you about. And there are other things in that constitution, the offense of blasphemy is in the constitution. The president, judges, members of the council of the estate which include the prime minister, are required by the constitution to swear a religious oath in order to take office. Which means that a conscientious atheist cannot legally hold those offices in Ireland.
The Catholic Church still officially runs- looking at that video yesterday about trying to stop religious influence getting into schools in the United States, was quite
poignant for me to watch because in Ireland we have the opposite problem. The Catholic Church officially runs ninety percent of the primary schools in Ireland. Funded by the state. Teachers salaries paid by the state, run by the Catholic Church with an official Catholic ethos that is not restricted to the religious instruction classes, but permeates the entire curriculum. So you cannot even opt your child out of the formal religious instructional elements because in nature study they’ll be taught that God created the birds and the bees and in the music classes they’ll be singing hymns. And that’s just a really, really difficult situation to deal with.
We also have a clause that was largely influenced by the Catholic Church, put into our constitution making abortion unconstitutional, which was put in in the 1980s. And we’re not going to go into a lot of detail about that, the situation in Ireland with abortion though is that the government has been forced by a combination of legal factors to bring in the most restrictive version of abortion laws that they could get away with and that the citizens could respect about the human rights of pregnant women. So we have just a very small step forward where abortion is now legal in Ireland where there is a threat to the life (of the fetus) as opposed to the health of a pregnant woman. But in other circumstances it’s still illegal. Even in cases like rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities, abortion is still illegal in Ireland. We still have such a long way to go.
Also in Ireland, assisted dying is illegal, and I know that’s the case in a lot of parts of America as well. But that’s a case that I campaign particularly close to my heart for because my wife died a few years ago of cancer. And she had made preparations to take her own life if she needed to, to avoid unnecessary suffering. And what’s really important for people to understand about that issue is that it’s portrayed as if it’s about people wanting to die. But it’s not about people wanting to die, it’s about people wanting the peace of mind that they get where, they are still alive from knowing that they have the option to void unnecessary suffering. And whatever borderline ethical issues on that, when you’re talking about people who are terminally ill and it is purely a question about when and how they die, rather than whether they die, the only argument against that is theological. And it is a purely secular issue to have assisted dying in those circumstances made legal.
While we are talking about dying, another incident in Ireland recently, this is just before Atheist Ireland was founded, a woman died in County Donegal. Which is close to the boarder with Northern Ireland. And she was an atheist. And her son couldn’t bury her because all of the graveyards in the County were run by churches. So he eventually brought her across the boarder to Northern Ireland and buried her in the municipal graveyard in Derry. And the Irish Times was following up on the story and they said yeah, “We have different sections for different religions so yeah we take anybody.” And they said Irish Times asked them, so do you have an atheist section? Oh, no we don’t have an atheist section; we put her in with Protestants.
So that’s the context in which Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. What we do is we campaign on various things; we campaign to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism. We campaign for an ethical secular state where the state doesn’t give any support or preference to either religion or to atheism. We would be as opposed to a state that promotes atheism as we are to a state that promotes religion. We involve ourself in political lobbying both of the government and opposition political parties. We provide briefing documents to parliamentarians when bills are going through that are relevant to secularism. We have briefing sessions in the parliament with TD’s (Teachta Dála) who are our members of the parliament. We regularly make submissions to and appear before both parliamentary committees in Ireland on various issues but also international human rights regulatory bodies like the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
We have a very important meeting coming up now in Geneva in a few months time where Ireland is up before United Nations human rights committee. As sort of a regularly scheduled review of how it’s implementing it’s human rights obligations. This will be the first one since Atheist Ireland started; we are going to be they’re making sure that atheists and secular issues are represented in what’s being discussed.
As Annie Laurie was saying earlier on, we are kind of like in the opposite position to what you have here in that you have secular laws that you are trying to have enforced. We are still in the position of trying to get secular laws implemented.
One of the most serious is the blasphemy law. Ireland passed a new blasphemy law in 2009. For reasons I won’t go into because it’s too complicated. But for reasons that they claimed was a constitutional obligation, but that’s debatable. On the day that those blasphemy laws were introduced, Atheist Ireland published twenty-five blasphemous statements on our website. What we said is, “One or two things will happen, either we be prosecuted in which case we could challenge the constitution. Or we won’t be prosecuted in which case that strengthens the political case for appeal of the law because if they are not going to implement it then it brings the parliament and the laws into disrepute.
The more serious impact of that was not really in Ireland. It was that of the United Nations. For the last decade or so the Islamic states led by Pakistan have been trying to get defamation of Islam, and later defamation of religion made illegal internationally. And they introduced the wording from the Irish law as what they wanted introduced internationally. And you kind of know that you’re doing something wrong when Pakistan is citing you as best practice internationally for blasphemy laws.
So we take a human rights based approach to all of the political positions that we argue for. Particularly in terms of blasphemy laws. The most important human rights issues that are factors to bear in mind in regard to blasphemy laws are if human rights apply to individuals. They don’t apply to groups or religions, they apply to individuals. And they apply to every individual, equally, without discrimination. Our position is that we should respect people as individuals but we don’t have to respect their beliefs. We can respect their right to hold their beliefs but we don’t have to respect the content of their beliefs. And a slogan that we used to articulate that is, “You have rights, your beliefs do not.”
That’s the basis of all of our campaigning on blasphemy related issues. But it’s also the basis of the other policies on secularism that we promote as well. That’s why people here should be campaigning on the issues that you have here in the United States, and also take time to campaign internationally on blasphemy issues. It can make quite a difference on various issues just to have international pressure. Particularly on some individual cases, it can delay executions.
It’s astonishing how fundamental the infringements of human rights are. Particularly in Islamic states on blasphemy laws. I’ll give you one quick example which is a woman called Asia Bibi, who is a forty-five year old mother who is currently in jail in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for eligibly blaspheming against Muhammad. And two politicians in Pakistan who spoke up for her, the Muslim governor of Punjab and the minority’s minister in the government who was a Christian, spoke up for her. And both of them were murdered. One of them murdered by his own bodyguard. And the other murdered after he had predicted that he would be murdered.
And what happens in Islamic states in terms of blasphemy laws, in Asia Bibi’s case was exactly following this pattern, is that you have personal disputes between people. In this case, it was a trivial dispute over a goat breaking a troth in a neighbor’s garden. That had created tension between this woman and her neighbors. And then she was out working in the fields as she did, with her Muslim coworkers, picking fruit. She went to get water, brought it back, and because she had drunk from the water bowl and she was a Christian they said she had contaminated the water. And she said something about Jesus doing more for people than Muhammad, she was accused of blasphemy and again this is a pattern that we see again and again and again in blasphemy cases. A mob gathered to attack her, the police were called, and instead of dispersing the mob, arresting the mob, the police arrested Asia Bibi and she is still waiting. She’s just literally had her third delay to her appeal on the sentence.
So this is really important. There is one other person that will tell you in blasphemy laws. Ben Baz was an Egyptian accountant who was jailed in Kuwait for writing about secularism on a blog. Not even for writing about atheism, but for writing about secularism, in very respectful terms on a blog. A personal dispute with an employer got translated into a blasphemy charge and he spent a year in jail in Kuwait. We campaigned strong for him, but he is now released, he is back in Egypt. His situation is still quite sensitive at the moment; he’s in Egypt at the moment. He’s writing articles for the Atheist Ireland website now on secularism and Islam. I asked him if he had a couple of words that he would like me to convey to the conference here and he sent me this.
He would like to thank everyone that had worked on his behalf. He said, “Today you are discussing freedom from religion. But, sadly today in many countries millions are not able to choose their religion. When I was in Kuwait even human rights organizations refused to help me because I’m an atheist. Human rights conferences were monitored with national security and everything said had to be approved by them. Some human rights organizations have become commercial projects with no evaluation for usefulness and practice.”
He suggests several things as steps forward. That international human rights organizations should work with local ones to improve them and train them and evaluate their work. That government should enforce human rights laws around the world. Particularly through the human rights treaties that a lot of countries have signed up to. Activists should raise the profile of issues to the wider public, and the wider media. We shouldn’t focus only on individual cases, we should also focus on the whole concept, the violation of human rights that blasphemy laws represent.
The final thing I want to talk about today. . . I’ve had a lot of discussions just over the last few days here with Harvey and Sue and Kim and people from the Triangle Freethought Society about work that they’re doing. The excellent work that they are doing. That atheists groups are doing similarly in Ireland. But trying to balance the requirements of self-identifying as atheists in a way that’s going to alienate some people and trying to build communities at the same time. I’m going to suggest that however we approach that, we need to normalize the use of the word atheist.
I think that we need to be seen to be doing good things while self-identifying as atheists. And that’s the only way and practice that we are going to chip away at the prejudice about the word atheist that exists. Because if we retreat from the word atheist while we are doing good things than people never see self-identifying atheists do good things. The prejudice continues. I’m going to make the brief case for what I’m provisionally calling for the purpose of discussion, the case for ethical atheism.
The first thing that I want to say is that in theory atheism can be any position on a scale from passively not believing in gods to actively believing that there are no gods. I believe that atheism in reality in real life is more, is necessarily more than a dry disbelief in an assertion about gods. Because if you don’t believe in gods then it necessarily follows, and I don’t mean correlation, I mean it necessarily follows that you don’t believe that morality comes from gods.
That is a significant position to take. It’s a significant worldview in a world where the majority of people do believe that morality comes from gods. And just as theism is in essence an assertion about morality as well as an assertion about the nature of reality so too is atheism. Atheism is an assertion about morality. Saying that that morality does not come from supernatural commands, it comes from our natural compassion and empathy and cooperation and reciprocity and sense of fairness and sense of justice. I think that, now atheism doesn’t guarantee that you will reach the right decisions morally but what it does do it removes a significant obstacle.
That obstacle is not actually religion. It’s an underlining obstacle, faith. Faith and dogma. By faith I mean believing something disproportionally to the currently best available evidence. And by dogma I mean believing in things without questioning them.
Those faiths and dogmas can be applied just as easily to secular projects as they are to religious projects. Faith and dogma have helped communism and fascism and the unregulated free market. A range of secular projects too advance further than they should have, if they had been appropriate checks and balances and critical thinking applied to them. But the difference between religious faith and dogma and secular faith and dogma, is that with secular faith in dogma eventually it bumps into reality. And you notice that it’s not working and you notice the consequences. Whereas religious faith and dogma hides it’s testability in an imaginary afterlife. And so you don’t get to notice whether it’s working and can perpetuate itself more easily, for that reason I think it’s important intellectually to challenge religious faith and dogma more strongly than secular faiths and dogmas.
Obviously, another issue is that religious faiths and dogmas promote these kind of fantastic rewards for eternity which atheism doesn’t. It can seem like a negative thing, and it’s one of the things that’s portrayed, atheism is a negative concept. But I don’t think it is. That argument is largely based on etymology. On saying that the word ‘a-theism’, it’s not positive. You could say the same things about the words ‘freedom’ and ‘independence.’ They both are constructed in the same way by defining something that they aren’t. But nobody suggests that freedom and independence are negative concepts.
And equally I believe that it is reasonable to say that atheism is a positive concept. I think in these terms, I’ll briefly go over four principles that I think we should use to promote ethical secularism. The first is promoting reason and science over faith and dogma. I would suggest; if I was to wander around the town of Raleigh today and tell people I had good news for them, that I had just been talking today with Bill Gates of Microsoft, and he’s going to give them ten million dollars if they do what I say. They would apply their critical thinking and probably wouldn’t believe me.
But if I was to go to the same random group of people, tell them I have good news for them, that I was talking to the creator of the universe and that he is promised an eternity in paradise if they do what I say. None of the people of Raleigh, generally, certainly around the world there is a reasonable proportion of people that would believe me. And the reason they would believe me is that religion corrupts our sense of reality. Normally when we are asked to believe something what we do consciously or unconsciously is, we weight it up against the evidence. What is most consistent with the evidence? And as the claim becomes more implausible, we raise the bar of the evidence that we need in order to satisfy ourselves that it is true.
But with religion, we do the exact opposite. As the claims become more implausible, we lower the bar of evidence. Because religion encourages us to believe not only implausible claims but literally untestable claims. And then it insists that we live our lives on the basis of those untestable claims. And that corrupts our sense of reality and leads into the second principle that I think we should promote. In terms of promoting natural ethics over religious commands, it also corrupts our sense of morality.
Because morality is what we have to start with. Morality is a natural function of our brains. We have evolved morality in order to live together, as social animals, as have other animals that are non-human. Because cooperation and competition are both evolutionary useful in terms of survival. So we feel empathy for each other, we feel compassion for each other. We cooperate together; we feel a sense of fairness and a sense of justice. Now there is a range of examples that I don’t have time to give you today of non-human animals displaying that. It’s not something that is just unique to humans. And in recent generations, humans, because we are able to apply reason to these basic instincts, we have evolved our sense and refined our sense of morality to the sense that we increasingly respect individual conscience. We increasingly respect the rights of the non-human animals. We just generally refine and increasingly nuance our sense of morality.
It’s a difficult enough thing to do. And the reason it’s difficult is that there are so many competing factors in terms of figuring out what’s the right thing to do. What religion does is add in a corrupting factor to that which is a already difficult task. Because what it does is it tells us that even if this is the compassionate thing to do, even if this is the fair thing to do, even if this is the just thing to do. . . You shouldn’t do it. Because somebody wrote something down in a book two thousand years ago. Or fifteen hundred years ago or whatever version of the book that you believe in.
And so many Catholics can use that to justify denying condoms to Aids victims in Africa. And many Muslims can use that to justify the command in the Koran that husbands can beat their wives. And there is a passage in the Koran that best exemplifies this problem. And it is “Surat 24-2.” And what it says is, “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with a hundred strikes, let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah.”
So clearly the reason that that’s there, is that they were having a problem with people who were supposed to be flogging adulterers they are allowing their compassion to prevent them from doing it to the satisfaction of the people that were making the rules. And so they had to add in another rule that they said was supposedly sent from Allah. Saying, “Don’t let your compassion prevent you from doing what we are telling you.” So not only is religion not necessary for morality, but religion actively corrupts morality. It’s bad for morality.
They third of the four principals that I want to talk about is promoting exclusive and caring and supportive atheist groups. This is one of the things that the Triangle Freethought Group is doing, and planning to do more. Very effectively. Groups should be inclusive, they should be caring, and they should be supportive and diverse. Supportive of both new and existing members. We do a lot of things and atheists are in this context. We had a conference last year that Dan and Annie Laurie were at, Women Through Secularism. We are involved in charitable actives in Dublin and also raising funds for entrepreneurs and developing countries through the Kiva Loan System. We have general policies of only holding our events in venues that are wheelchair accessible. We have a range of standards that we said to ourselves that we don’t always meet a hundred percent all the time that we try to set ourselves standards of behaving ethically.
We should try to communicate with each other as respectfully as people. We can disagree with principles; we can disagree with each other. But we can respect each other as individuals while disagreeing with the content of our beliefs.
And I think we have to check the recent tendency particularly online in some atheist communities of atheists advocates publishing personal smears and defamatory allegations about other atheists. It’s been happening recently, and it’s just not helpful. It’s not ethically correct. Typically how those smears are developing that people will take the worst possible and least charitable interpretation of something that somebody has said. Attack them for that and then ignore the clarifications that the person has made. Then some people will also demand an apology for what the person has said. That they can then check further, as if they’re the moral arbiters, not only the need for but also the content of apologies to be made by people other than themselves through different people other than themselves.
I think that we’ve got to start treating each other with respect and not take that approach. Which ironically I think the people involved are genuine. They genuinely believe that they are promoting ethical behavior but unfortunately their approach can be caricatured as, this is a mild version: ‘You have to behave more ethically, you asshole!’
You just can’t behave like that. The final point I want to make is that I think we should be promoting fair societies with secular government. Now in terms of fair societies, working in terms of improving our own ethical behavior within our organizations but also tackling specific injustices within society that are relevant to religious dogma. And also working with other groups within society who are also marginalized and discriminated against for other reasons.
We should take positive actions to improve our community through charitable activities, through community activities, generally. Such as the Human Being Project, all things like this. These are very, very useful. And also we should campaign actively to separate church and state. That should continually be the basis of what we are doing politically. The World Atheist Convention in Dublin a couple years ago, which Dan and Annie Laurie also spoke at, adopted a declaration called “The Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the place of religion in the public life.”
If you check for that, it covers personal freedoms, secular democracy, secular education and one law for all. It summarizes the type of things politically, the type of principles politically that we feel we should be trying to implement. And Atheist Ireland at the moment, we have European and local elections coming up, we are contacting all the election candidates of all the parties, asking them to support that secular declaration.
So I’ll summarize by saying in terms of religion and how it corrupts things, however implausible the claim I made earlier, that I spoke to Bill Gates today and he promised them ten million dollars. Surely even more implausible to suggest that the creator the universe of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which consists of a hundred billions stars like our sun, that he did that so that he could tell one member of one species on one planet to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and then impregnate a virgin in order to give birth to himself. And then give Muhammad a ride on a flying horse and then appear in Joseph Smith’s hat in order to attire them in magic underwear.
On the basis of absurd claims like that, Asia Babi is currently languishing in prison in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad, so I think we have to redouble our efforts to challenge blasphemy laws, we should promote reason and science over faith and dogma. We should promote natural ethics over religious commands; we should promote inclusive caring support of atheist groups. We should promote fair societies with secular government and in doing that we should be optimistic about what we are doing. Because we live in an era where in my lifetime there have been massive, massive changes in world geopolitics that we would have never thought would happen.
We’ve had the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’ve had the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have had the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Even in Irish terms, when we were campaigning against terrorism in Northern Ireland we were always told that it would never stop, that it would go on forever. But it has.
I was just, the day before yesterday, in the city of Raleigh museum and there was a history of civil rights movements exhibition, which included two restrooms doors taken from a demolished bank in Raleigh some decades ago. Which had signs of them, “White Men Restroom” and “Colored Men Restroom” and immediately outside that museum there were ads on the lampposts for some of the events going on. Immediately outside that museum there was an ad for an LGBT pride parade, and I just thought to myself, you know that at one time those signs in that museum seemed normal to people. An LGBT pride sign immediately outside that museum seems normal. I think that that’s a small illustration of the progress that we are making as societies. That we can be optimistic that we are swimming with the tide of history in promoting atheism and ethical secularism.