FFRF convention speech Metamorphosis: From incubation to organization by Kimberly Veal

Here is an edited version of the speech Kimberly Veal gave on Sept. 16 at FFRF’s 40th annual convention at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

She was introduced by FFRF Staff Attorney Liz Cavell:

Kimberly comes to us from Chicago and hosts the “Black Freethinkers” podcast and is president of People of Color Beyond Faith. She worked with FFRF and the Chicago area chapter on a recent billboard campaign. Kimberly is currently creating a scope of work that focuses primarily on training, educating and employing women and girls of color as activists and organizers. Please welcome social justice activist, freethinker and humanist Kimberly Veal.

By Kimberly Veal

I would like to thank Freedom From Religion Foundation for working with me over the years. It’s been truly a privilege and an honor to be associated with this foundation and its lovely members.

Many of you may not be familiar with the “Black Freethinkers” podcast, but you should give us a listen. If you listen and don’t walk away offended, I was either having a bad day or you weren’t paying attention. The tagline for the podcast: “We are here to challenge you to think for yourself, not convert you.”

The name of my talk is “Metamorphosis,” because, over the years, becoming a part of this freethinking community, you go through this incubation period. That’s what it was for me because I was raised in a religious family. My mom was a minister. I was a minister. My grandfather was a minister, as were several cousins, and so on. My family is very deeply tied to the church.

When I was about 12, I would ask difficult questions, only to be sent to my room to allow the “Holy Spirit” to teach me to read my bible until I came back to my senses. After being forced to go to church one Sunday when I was 16, the pastor made a mistake and opened up the mike, which made its way to me. I asked, “Is it right for parents to force their children to attend church?” He said, “When a child turns 12, they’re able to make those decisions for themselves.” And I said, “OK, thank you, it was nice meeting you guys.

You’ll never see me again.”

As part of that incubation period, you start reading, you start deprogramming yourself and unlearning certain things you had been taught over the years, and also things that are being reinforced by the media. If you’re an activist and an organizer and you’re not evolving or being enlightened or growing intellectually, then you’re just spinning your wheels. To know better is to do better.

One of the things that I learned when I started my research — and learning that there were more people of color who were nonbelievers than we had previously thought — is there are a number of atheists of color who still attend church. One of the reasons is that they enjoy the fellowship. That’s one of the things that I miss about no longer being a member of a church. I miss a lot of the service-related activities.

Many of them remain in church because they want to help out and donate to the community. In Chicago, we have the Greater Chicago Food Depository. One of the things that I want to work on with the church is getting the donations in and making sure that we can distribute that food and other items to the community. I’m a proud member and the communications director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, and our group has been doing quite a bit of outreach. But there’s a lot more to do.

My organization — People of Color Beyond Faith — focuses primarily on cultivating and maintaining relationships within the freethinking community, and that includes churches. There’s a church at the end of the block where I live. It’s a Unitarian Universalist church, so that kind of gives you some insight. Its pastor was an atheist and the membership included a myriad of faiths and nonbelief. It was just a congregation of people that came together. They wanted to do good for the greater community and greater humanity.

Anyway, the church has this garden, and when I found out what it was doing and what it stood for, I started sponsoring some of the plots to make sure that there was enough food being grown. It’s extremely important that we build these relationships, not only within our community, but with other groups.

Research and outreach

I began doing more research and outreach. Any time anyone sends me any money for anything, what I do is take that money, add on to it, and give it away. I support local groups and local organizations that are doing real work and I can actually see the fruit that they’re bearing. It’s very important, and that’s why I encourage people to find local groups and to help them out, send them some money. [Editor’s note: Kimberly was true to her word, as she donated her FFRF honorarium to three groups: The Black Youth Project, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and Assata’s Daughters.]

And that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about the community, seeing a lot of these new organizations coming: Nonbelief Relief, the Clergy Project. Anybody who knows me knows I’m absolutely nuts about Daniel Dennett and the work he has done over the years. As a matter of fact, the work of Daniel Dennett, as well as Dr. Valerie Terrigal, is what ultimately helped me to come to this epiphany and be able to go out here and say, “Yes, I am an atheist.” The biggest problem for me was I didn’t know what to call it. And I’m not talking about the atheism. I’m talking about the battle that was going on in my mind. And Valerie did a seven-part series on exchristian.net, talking specifically about cognitive dissonance. I was like, “So that’s what’s happening here.” I felt liberated because I finally realized maybe I’m not crazy.

When I would talk to believers, they would say, “Well, all the rest of us believe this, you’re the only one believing that, so what’s really going on, Kim?” And being able to put words to it was lifesaving, at least it was for me, so I will always be indebted to them for that.

I led a couple of freethinking groups out in Chicago. But trying to organize atheists is like trying to herd cats. It’s like, we’re going this way, but we want to see what’s going on over there. So it was rather difficult. The more I read and became part of the secular community and explaining to people — especially when you’re talking about marginalized groups, specifically black and Latino, Hispanic, even Indigenous communities — is the lack of outreach and the lack of support that they receive.

Some people say there’s a lot of support. In theory, yes. But let’s take the example of Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger. He wrote several articles about Chicago Latino atheists and other groups around the country. The problem wasn’t the article; the article was great. It was the comments section, and this is what we deal with on a continuous basis. “Why do you have ‘black’ in front of your name?” “Why do you have ‘Muslim’ in front of your name?”

It becomes increasingly frustrating having to have that conversation over and over again. A friend of mine created a black atheist FAQ so, when people start asking questions, we can send them a link. We tell them to read that.

I was listening to the convention talks earlier this morning. The FFRF legal team was talking about separation of church and state and what’s been transpiring, especially now that we have Trump in office. And one of the things that he’s trying to do is abolish the Johnson Amendment. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, the Johnson Amendment is basically an amendment that was put in place by President Johnson in order to, through the IRS, force pastors and preachers not to endorse political candidates and not to disparage politicians.

I think what Donald Trump wants to do is abolish that amendment to allow these pastors to endorse candidates. But there is a second part that goes with that. He wants to allow churches to receive political donations, to receive money, in effect turning the church into a political action committee. This is something that we definitely need to keep an eye on.

This is a really scary time. And when you are a social justice activist and organizer, it’s become even more perilous. They’re passing these ordinances and laws making it illegal to protest in any way whatsoever, even economic boycotts. They call it “economic terrorism.”

Constructive criticism

I’m here to give some constructive criticism. Just because you’ve been given constructive criticism, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is bad, but that there’s room for growth. That’s one of the reasons why I feel that a lot of the work that we have to do in an atheist/secular/freethought/humanist community is to make sure that it’s scaleable. Our work, our mission, our agenda needs to be able to bring in other people and attract other people.

The secular community has horrible public relations. We need to do better about PR because I’m finding out that more and more people are more tolerant of who we are than we actually realize. There are things that we definitely have to do better. There have been some interesting things that have happened since I’ve become part of this community.

One of the examples is from 2010-11, when many of the atheists of color first started finding each other on Facebook. We would go into these different social media groups that were particularly mainstream and would talk about social justice and other areas of concern.

When you take on titles like humanist or freethinker, that primarily tells people what you believe in. We would have these conversations in these social media groups. I would have some white atheist say to me, “Well, I used to be a racist. I used to be a sexist and homophobic. All of these negative things. But when I left religion and became an atheist, all of that went away.”

Basically, they were tying those negative characteristic flaws to religion. I understand this excitement because I was the same way. When I finally admitted that I was an atheist, I felt this freedom. But I also felt the negative, as though I was about to lose my family, my community, my standing, and also a part of myself.

It makes you think. It makes you examine everything that you have ever learned and were ever taught. So you’re just minding your business, inching along, and next thing you know you’re going through that metamorphosis. You’re reading, you’re learning, you’re disengaging from other things and you just go through this really difficult transition period. And when you emerge, you are this little butterfly and you don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to say. You don’t know who you belong to. You’re flying around trying to figure out where you belong, what you should be doing.

That’s why I think it’s extremely important that we have more safe spaces, that we afford people a soft place to land. I’ve been seeing more of that over the years. Initially, all I saw was the socializing aspect of atheism — having a barbecue, hosting a potluck, bar hopping. All of that is fine and wonderful. But I was looking for people who were more service oriented. And then I ran across this guy who was doing outreach to the homeless. I thought that was absolutely wonderful. He told me about these other groups, these other people. And I thought, “Maybe there is a spot for me.”

Alliances and education

Last year, I was one of the strategists for the Black Friday economic boycott of businesses in downtown Chicago, and through my guidance for social media, I actually got us coverage on MSNBC and “Democracy Now.” This year’s going to be even bigger. We’ve built up these alliances. We’ve built up these relationships with other people, but we’re also educating people. And I feel that that is my goal. This is my calling, if you will — to educate people on what’s happening.

Atheism in and of itself is not enough. There’s more to it than that. One of the reasons I transitioned out of atheist organizing and more into social justice organizing is because of the lack of support that the black community received when Trayvon Martin was killed: crickets and tumbleweeds. I didn’t see much from the secular community when it’s usually opinionated about everything. And when Mike Brown was killed, nothing. Eventually I saw some statements and press releases that were released and that was great. That was a start. However, if you go to the comments section, you’ll read things like, “Well, they probably did something to deserve that. The police are the good guys, those guys were thugs.” Every excuse in the book.

Many of these same people were the ones basically bashing President Obama because he refused to say “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet these same people have absolutely nothing to say when Donald Trump refuses to say “Nazis,” “white supremacists,” “klansmen.” I don’t understand. And what happened in Charlottesville, I was really ashamed of the nonresponse.

One of the reasons I make a lot of people upset who listen to my podcast is that within these smaller communities, they place pressure on marginalized groups to support them in what they’re doing. Yet they are not addressing certain issues. They’re not addressing the racism, they’re not addressing the sexism, the homophobia, the transphobia and, yes, there is homophobia and transphobia within the LGBTQ community. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

Well, my time is up, but there is much more.

I’m just going to read a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and this is where I stand on many things: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizen’s councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative piece which is absence of tension to a positive piece which is presence of justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient time. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I’ll give you one example of this. I would ask you all to go out and please take a look at Sam Harris’ opinions on The Bell Curve and his opinions on Black Lives Matter.

Many of you say that you don’t understand why you can’t attract more black and brown people to the community. That right there is one of the reasons why.

Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation