Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at email@example.com
The by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.
On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:
“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”
Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)
A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.
Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.
Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.
In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.
Today’s guest post, a personal reflection on wearing hijab in response to the 2010 American Atheist Convention’s blasphemy session, comes from Sayira Khokhar. Sayira is graduating from Kendall College in Chicago with a B.A. in Hospitality Management, Meeting and Event Planning. She interned with the Interfaith Youth Core in the Summer and Fall of 2009 and helped organize their conference in October of 2009. She is now working for an event planning company, helping not-for-profits plan their events.
I was nearly brought to tears after seeing the video of three women donning burkas singing a radically misinformed song at the 2010 American Atheist Convention. The audacity they had to replicate something that has been rooted in tradition for centuries and to represent it in such an offensive way is shameful.
My name is Sayira – I am 21 years old and I recently started wearing the headscarf. I tried to wear it once before when I was a junior in high school. That did not work well for me; part of the reason was because I was treated horribly because of it. Some of my classmates asked if I had gotten married, if I was being forced to wear it, if my father beat me, if I was allowed to do anything on my own, if I had to marry a cousin – the foolish list goes on and on.
At the time I was not ready for what was being thrown at me. I was also dealing with teenagers that had limited exposure to different religions and cultures, and the information they did have was misconstrued. I was one of three other girls that covered her hair in a school of over 2000 students. It was not a pleasant experience, especially after 9/11. Everyone had their idea of what my religion represented – and it had nothing to do with “Peace,” which is what “Islam” literally translates into.
When I receive these questions now I cannot help but think, “gosh, people are really closed-minded.” It is as if they refuse to think logically and with empathy. Sometimes I want to give them the answer they want to hear so they can just leave me alone instead of having a look of disbelief when I say, “no, I am not oppressed and I wear the scarf by choice.”
But, as easy as it is to walk away and not stand up for my belief, I wouldn’t be doing Islam – or myself – justice. This time I was prepared. The first day I walked into work with my hijab, my co-workers had a list of questions. They knew about the symbolism and what it stood for because there were two other women that wore them. Their questions revolved around my personal choice; why I decided to wear the scarf. In Islam it is said by Allah (which literally translates into God) that women should cover their hair and their skin. At this point, I had decided that I wanted to be grow more in my identity. No one forced me: not my siblings, not my parents, not my friends, not anyone in my religion – it was all my choice and mine alone to deepen my relationship with my tradition.
Just like Atheists choose to believe that God does not exist or that religion is not necessary, I made this choice of my own free will. Of course I disagree with Atheists on God and on religion, but I will not disrespect them for having their own mind. And I would like to be treated the same way. But there is a balance – I will always express my opinon and offer friendly disagreements to not only open another’s mind but to open my own mind as well. We live in a world of great diversity and it would be hard to make our way through life without encountering people of a different belief or affiliation. At this point respect and an objective point of view play an integral role. You can only go backwards in a progressive society when you cannot open your mind and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
To say that all women who wear the headscarf or burka are oppressed is fallacious beyond belief. To say that showing skin is the only way of being free is taking away from the freedom of having the choice to be who you want to be. I can wear the hijib and cover from neck to toe yet still be free. Who is anyone to judge me? If you do not know me and the circumstance of why I cover my hair, how can you say that I am oppressed? Do you imagine that I am some timid woman dominated by male influence? What if I told you that I will be testing for my black belt in Karate within the year; would that change your mind? What if I told you that I will be graduating with a Hospitality Management degree this year, a major I chose all on my own and not something my parents decided for me – would that change your mind?
Once you see that I am just like anybody else with the slight exception that you cannot see my hair or my belly button or my midriff, will you call me free, just as you think you are free? Think about it before you turn me into a joke.
Sayira’s guest post is a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention.
April 7th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
This post is the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention. For my favorite sessions from the convention, check out “The Good” post; for those that were bad but not the most offensive, check out “The Bad.”
Throughout the course of the 2010 American Atheist Convention I had extensive conversations with attendees around a single, significant question: what kind of Atheist community are we building? Some of these conversations were constructive; others weren’t. Yet even in the most productive there was considerable disagreement. How do we best assemble a community of non-belief? Is it by contrasting our identities to those of others? And if so, in what ways do we go about this? By mocking them, or by forging our own unique, singular identity based on the values we hold in esteem?
From these conversations, I have come to better understand how my “accomodationism” turns some off in the same way the blasphemy model offends my sensibilities. All the more, I gained key insight into the pragmatic problems of unifying these perspectives; just as it would be challenging to get all Christians under one roof and have every party in agreement, Atheists struggle to come to a consensus about community priorities.
Yet I still cannot help but wonder: how can we bemoan being such a hated minority, as nearly all speakers at the convention did, while practicing hate toward others? This way of community constructivism – dismantling another’s identity to build one’s own – strikes me as the easier but more fundamentally limited model, and it was out in full force at the convention. The American Atheist Convention seemed, in some ways, to aim to offend. In this respect, it hit its target with force. And one moment in particular, on the first day of the convention, left me feeling so assaulted that I nearly walked out of the room and didn’t return.
As he was introduced it was said that, with his acts of blasphemy, American Atheist National Legal Director Edwin Kagin strikes a “fine balance of seriousness and making fun of this silly crap [religion].” Kagin’s introduction also included a rousing commemoration for his late wife, which was exceedingly moving. The fact that his wife recently passed makes it all the more difficult for me to say so, but I found his session the most offensive by a landslide – and, in hindsight, it seems clear that this was his intention.
Kagin opened by referring to Ireland’s recently passed anti-blasphemy law (as I reported on). He was understandably bothered by that, and offered an opposing definition for “blasphemy” out of his book, Baubles of Blasphemy. Per Kagin, blasphemy “is the crime of making fun of ridiculous beliefs someone else holds sacred.” With that, I had some idea where his talk was headed. But even I, with all my initial trepidation about this convention, couldn’t have predicted just how far he would go.
From the get go Kagin had little to no regard for offering ideas on how to bolster Atheistic communities or for making an intellectual case against religion – he was perfectly happy to simply shout at those in the audience about how religion ought to be brought down. “We can use their nonsense against them,” Kagin said, only offering the mocking of religious ideas and identities as a way of engaging them. “And it is nonsense, profound nonsense.”
Continuing with this theme, he quoted Martin Luther as saying “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” and referenced that Luther believed that the world was relatively young. As with every religious reference he made that day, Kagin of course did not contextualize these statement; Luther said a lot more about reason than that, and was working within a limited understanding of the world, while today we have a much greater capacity for reason and have used it to determine that the world is much older than Luther believed. But instead of using this reason to philosophize about empathy, Kagin was happier to mock the religious by turning them into caricatures, selecting the things that are easiest to critique instead of taking on the significant, worthwhile task of working to find a way to reconcile the realities of religious lives with his own reality. But this obviously wasn’t the aspiration of the man who arrogantly announced: “I don’t want to be unduly condescending to ignorant people, but I do distinguish between ignorant and stupid… You can fix ignorant but you can’t fix stupid.”
Referring to the response to these kinds of claims as made in his book Baubles of Blasphemy, Kagin took a moment to congratulate himself mid-way through his speech. “People thought I was mocking that religion… and you know what, I was,” Kagin said proudly. “Some things need to be mocked, and to not do so is an abomination. You know why? We are right and they are wrong!”
Though I will argue against the mocking that occurred there that day, to label one who chooses not to engage in such behavior an abominationist was a clear sign that my beliefs were not welcome in that room. Kagin seemed to suggest that blasphemy is a powerful political tool and that any Atheist who does not employ it is not doing his or her Atheistic duty. And in some respects he is right. Blasphemy certainly can be impactful (just ask Martin Luther). But what kind of impact do we want to have? The answer in that room seemed to be greater isolation from the rest of the world – myself included.
But what disturbed me most is that no one else in the room seemed even a little fazed. Instead, they leapt out of their chairs, rallied, cheered, and rushed forward to be “debaptized.”
That’s right – in what sounds like the punchline of a joke caricaturizing Atheists, there was a “debaptizing” ceremony in which Kagin dressed up in a costume that was supposed to resemble a Middle Eastern man and took a hair dryer to anyone interested in having their “waters of baptism” blown away while he bellowed contemptuous religious references. I spoke with several individuals after and asked them about the ceremony – what it symbolized for them and why they did it. Some indicated that they had been baptized before and wanted to essentially “take it back.” But the majority said that they participated because they found it funny.
And yet, to me, the “debaptizing” ceremony wasn’t even the most odious part. Worst of all was a nasty segment in which, immediately prior to the ceremony, Kagin blew into an animal horn and called for “his wives,” at which point a group of three young white women entered the room dressed in Burkas, or traditional religious garb for some Muslim women. They sang a song Kagin co-wrote called “Back in their Burkas Again” about women and Islam. I don’t mean to sensationalize but I couldn’t help but wonder if what I felt in that moment was akin to what it must be like to be a non-racist white person at a community meeting who suddenly realizes she or he is in fact attending a Ku Klux Klan rally, watching with frozen horror and nausea as the organizers parade men in blackface before an audience that hoots and hollers with glee.
At this point, I wanted to walk out. Hell, I wanted to storm out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more offended to call this my community. They announced that ABC News was there to film the ceremony and my face reddened with embarrassment as I imagined how many people would witness this and feel justified in how they’ve stereotyped Atheists. “This is supposed to redeem the world?” I asked myself. “If this is what it looks like not to be religious, I’m not sure I want to call myself secular.” To quote Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun’s reflection after attending the Global Atheist Convention: “I’ve never felt more like believing in God… Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”
I stuck it out the whole time, even though – and I am terribly embarrassed to admit this because it rarely happens – I began to cry. I remained for the sake of journalistic integrity – to hear it out from start to finish to be fair before offering my account – and for the sake of a full awareness of the state of affairs of the largest Atheist group in America. It took a lot of willpower to stay fixed in my seat. I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt such shame. I felt so wholly wrong for sitting quietly in the back of the room instead of speaking up. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I still don’t.
Look – I have a sense of humor. I enjoy certain strains of blasphemy as much as the next secular person. Saved! and Dogma are two of my favorite movies. I spend at least half of a given day joking around with friends – yesterday, for example, I participated in a particularly debaucherous pun exchange about dinosaurs and sex that I won’t share here (but oh, how I wish I could). But Kagin’s speech was anything but funny. There is nothing humorous about hate embodied.
As his speech came to a conclusion, it became clear that Kagin wanted to light a fire beneath Atheists. He was trying to incite, using incendiary language to rally the troops. “By weakening our nation and our understanding of science, [religious people] are engaged in acts of terrorism,” Kagin boomed. “By teaching our children things are other than the way they are, they are engaged in child abuse.” Kagin predicted an upcoming American religious civil war and followed up this forecast with aggressive, anti-religious rhetoric. With talk like his, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a conflict is in fact realized. You want to avoid a religious civil war? Try respectful, engaged interfaith dialogue. All Kagin seemed to be doing was fanning the flames. “If it weren’t for these fools we’d be at the stars by now.” Funny, because I’ve never felt further from the heavens.
If there are nearly 20 million Atheists in America, as Kagin suggested, it begs the question: where are they? They weren’t at this conference, which probably had a few hundred at most. I can only speculate, but I imagine (and hope) that their absence signifies that such a scene would hold little appeal to them. Atheism doesn’t have to come at the expense of respect and basic decency. Many speakers throughout the convention lamented the lack of traction Atheism has gained in America, in spite of vigorous attempts to assert itself in the public realm. After this day, the underlying reason couldn’t be any clearer. I’ve never wanted to call myself an Atheist less.
My feeling is that many in that banquet hall had been burned by religion at one point or another in their lives. I sympathize – religion has been a catalyst for significant pain in my life. But what happened in that room was painful, too. As I sat there watching three women don holy Muslim dress and sing an offensive song about a rich tradition, I understood that they had good intentions. The song was intended to call out the repression of women in some forms of Islam. But I also couldn’t help but think of a dear friend who wears the hijab because it makes her feel empowered and in touch with the tradition of her people, and how grossly this song misrepresented her. Though it perhaps intended to serve as a form of liberation, the song represented profound oppression. With all of the smart and kind people in the room, I could not believe the enthusiasm it aroused. I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again; as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This type of behavior seems like self-sabotage in Atheism’s quest for acceptance and justice.
In his talk, Eddie Tabash said “that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” I for one could not disagree more. I couldn’t help but wonder when passing a group of low-income housing units on the train en route to the conference: Why aren’t we non-religious doing more to organize and help those in need? Perhaps it is because we are too busy decrying religion – what some Atheists see as “the root of the problem” – to deal with the pressing issues of our present reality. Meanwhile, religious efforts to help those in need far outnumber secular ones. Are these our priorities? Blowing a hair dryer in one another’s faces and laughing at how clever we are while thousands of people suffer every day and religious people are on the frontlines offering them respite?
Even as I put forth my strong critique here, I want to make it known that I didn’t come to the 2010 American Atheist Convention to pick a fight – as we recently saw on this blog, that is rarely fruitful. I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.
You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.
This post was the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention; you can read the first two here and here. Stay tuned: this upcoming Sunday – Tuesday (4/11-4/13/2010) I will be in Rochester, NY for an Interfaith Understanding Conference, and the following weekend I will be in Boston for the Secular Student Alliance Leadership Summit. I’ll be posting reflections and reports here, and I’ll also be tweeting about my experiences. Also, check out an archive of my interview with Vocalo / 89.5 FM WBEW about my experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention, and tune in next week when I report live from Rochester.
This post is the second part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention. For a rundown of my favorite sessions from the session, check out “The Good” post.
Though in number the sessions that I would call “good” succeeded those I’d call “bad,” I’d say that, for me, overall the bad outweighed the good. The talks detailed below seemed to represent the sentiments of a majority of convention participants – they often got the heartiest rounds of applause and articulated things akin to what I heard the majority of pariticpants saying in both Q&A sessions and in my individual conversations – and, as you’ll both see below and especially in tomorrow’s “The Worst” post, their negative attitudes overshadowed the more prevalent, positive outlooks of the other presenters. As Massimo Pigliucci said in his talk (as referenced in “The Good” post), “if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable.” And so: I’d like to call out the negative (but not the worst) parts of the American Atheist Convention.
After a morning full of good, relatively inoffensive speeches that focused on Atheism’s room for growth instead of just focusing on the limitations of religion, things took a turn for the worse in the afternoon of the first day of the convention with Darrel Ray’s “Exposing the God Virus” workshop. In this session, he discussed his 2009 book The God Virus: How God Infects Our Lives and Culture.
Ray came out swinging, saying that “religion is an infection of the mind… So you need a strategy to combat it.” He said that he wasn’t opposed to people being religious, but went on to contradict himself, saying that he wanted to inform everyone of the dangers of religion and wanted to see it eliminated someday. Said Ray: “Anywhere that religion is, expect manipulation. Ask anyone about their religion, and you’ll see an observable, behavioral change [in the way they talk] as a direct result of the infection.”
To watch for this change, he suggested engaging with religious people by using “the exorcist test.” Ray said that when you talk to someone you know about religion, “you’re not talking to [your friend] anymore, you’re talking to the God virus… his [sic] personality literally changes. You’ll get 5-7 year old logic, not adult logic… Besides, [your Christian friend] doesn’t know the Bible because he hasn’t even read the Bible.”
He did a pretty offensive mimic of a Christian preacher, then said: “If you saw a guy talking like that, you’d say he needs to be institutionalized. Yet people do it every day in churches.” He deemed churches “emotional infection centers,” warning convention attendees: “If you walk into one of these, you should know that you’re entering an emotional infection zone. This is where they teach you to feel guilty for the things you do.”
Ray focused on guilt a lot in his speech. He said that religion’s message is a simple one: “You are never good enough.” He then began to sing a mocking version of “Amazing Grace,” calling it “guilt bullshit.” Ray said that “religions are looking for ways to open you up and infect you. You can’t be infected without a channel or key, and religion creates a guilt pathway.” He claimed that “religion takes things you already do and teaches you to feel guilty about it. You already eat, so let’s make you feel guilty for eating pork.” Instead of acknowledging the cultural roots of religious traditions, he used a wide brush to portray the traditional comports of religious mores as manipulation tactics; in this respect, not only was his perspective historically false, it favored being inflammatory over being intellectually honest. He tried to say that any guilt feelings we have internalized are the fault of religion. My critique is that some of our guilt feelings are culturally conditioned, certainly, but some also just occur organically or are unrelated to religion. It is simply too absolutist to approach religion and guilt as Ray did.
Ultimately, he seemed to be advocating for Atheistic isolationism:
Be careful how you communicate with this demon called the God virus when it comes out. That’s the time to back off because you’re not going anywhere with that person. Their brain’s not working anymore. Religion reorganizes the brain… his brain has been reprogrammed around that one specific thing. He might even be a scientist, but he’s been infected. Religious people don’t even know they’re infected. Remember: they’re infected, not you.
On a disturbing sidenote, a member of the audience asked Ray during the Q&A why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” Ray responded that his best guess is that it is because “women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.” This essentialistic approach to gender and religious belief, though disturbing, was unsurprising after his similar approach to religion on a larger scale.
Constitutional Lawyer and Eddie Tabash gave a talk titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public, The Time is Now.” He spent a good deal of the talk saying that religion received special treatment from inquiry and should not. His argument was that people think that religious claims deserve critical isolation, which he called a double-standard, decrying the idea that religious claims deserve “respect” in response.
Too many people in our country take it for granted, as a horrible premise that is never even examined, that religious claims deserve some special insulation from critical examination and doubt. This is a vicious double standard in which folksy common culture approves of deep skepticism directed against all paranormal claims, unless those claims are safely housed in the context of religion. Then, this same common culture expects even the most outlandish claims to be met, at a minimum, with respectful silence and an artificial forfeiture of the critical examination that would automatically be applied to anything else.
While I too think that religion should be open to critique, I think that, like any critique, it should always be done respectfully.
As in the session before it, gender came up in a problematic way. Tabash said that “there can be no true equality for women as long as the majority of society deems our moral values to be undergirded by an ultimate force that has issued revelations requiring male hegemony.” This is a point in which we are in fundamental disagreement. As often as religion has served as a justification for gender hierarchy, it has functioned to deconstruct gender distinctions. For every verse in the Bible that can be used to say that men are superior, there is a verse akin to Jesus’ proclamation that there is “neither male nor female” in his community. You cannot hold contemporary religious communities accountable to their texts alone – we must instead look at how they function today. My former church had both a male and female minister; in many places, religion houses some of the most visible female leaders in the community. And at the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious leadership organization, the women on staff outnumber the men.
Again, Atheism’s superiority complex came to the foreground in Tabash’s talk. His talk of “folksy common culture” felt extremely condescending and, unlike Pigliucci’s humble claim that he doesn’t “pretend that [his] position is the only reasonable one,” Tabash said: “We represent the world’s most important philosophical revolution. [Never forget] that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” Really? There is no more noble effort? Not caring for the needy or working to end the great illnesses of the world? Tabash continued: “If we succeed, we Atheists will have dispelled the greatest falsehood to ever permeate the world and will have replaced it with the light of truth.” That sounds eerily like the language I heard when I converted to Evangelical Christianity. As a community of reason, I believe it is essential that we remain open to change and greater understanding and retain a humble spirit. This talk, in its boastful nature and absolutist narrative, represented the antithesis of that.
Near the end, Tabash declared we should offer “sympathy” to religious people – no, wait, sympathy for the religious people that we are able to convert to Atheism over the mourning they will undergo for the loss of their faith. And how should we approach those who do not leave their religion? Well, besides warning that we should prepare for “severe” and sometimes “violent”backlash, on this, Tabash was silent.
Openly Atheist politician Cecil Bothwell gave a speech on his experiences getting elected to the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, and as an investigative reporter who wrote a book on Billy Graham. He talked about how there was an archaic clause on the books in North Carolina that says one cannot be sworn into office if they do not believe in God. Bothwell won the challenge launched against his candidacy and went on to serve on the council. I thought his engaging speech was inspiring and contained some nice ideas like when he said “I think everyone is entitled to their beliefs,” but he said one problematic thing that burrowed itself under my skin and made it challenging to appreciate the rest of what he had to offer. Citing an uncovered statement by George W. Bush in which he refers to his religious beliefs as a reason for engaging in warfare with Iraq, Bothwell said that “religious beliefs are the reason that [political leaders] treat soldiers like canon fodder… Atheists might take their nations to war, but at least they don’t delude themselves with divine persuasions.” I cannot help but ask: how is that any better? Those soldiers are still “canon fodder” either way, are they not? This comment was disturbing, distracting, and again represented the moral superiority that permeated this convention.
Though it got off to a good start, I felt less and less a part of the convention community as it progressed. When talking to participants about the need for religious literacy, both in our community and in greater society, I got a lot of comments like “I know the Bible so I can heckle believers” or “I have a Bible so I can use it to roll joints.” Most people couldn’t understand why I would be interested in interfaith work, one going so far as to call me a traitor to my face, saying that I was working against the Atheist cause and for the “other side.” At one point a man asked me about my blog on a break, saying, “So, do you use it to rant about how terrible religion is at three in the morning?” When I responded that my blog actually aims not to be anti-religious, the tone of the conversation changed swiftly. I tried to share my opinion but was talked over or ignored. It ended when he forcefully said, “I think religion needs to be done away with altogether” and turned away from me and began speaking to another person.
In my work, I’ve been accused of alienating atheists. If I am, perhaps it is because I wasn’t even allowed to speak in the first place.
Check back tomorrow for another account of the American Atheist Convention, in which I detail the incident that left me so offended that I nearly walked out and didn’t come back. For more on my adventures on the Eastern Seaboard, follow me on Twitter.
This post is the first part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention.
This weekend I attended the 2010 American Atheist Convention – my first time at a meeting of the American Atheists. I was coming off a series of attack blogs against my critiques of atheistic positioning so, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. And though I had some trepidation, I also had hope. But this conference, though it had its moments of insight and inspiration, was an experience that left me feeling somewhat defeated. At one point, things got so offensive that I had to do everything in my power not to walk out of the room. But for the sake of positivity, let’s start with the good, shall we?
The first two talks of the conference assuaged my fears that the conference program might be a series of rants against religion across the board. It kicked off with a talk by “the father of Modern Secular Humanism” Paul Kurtz, called “A Kinder and Gentler Atheism?” Kurtz opened his talk by saying: “Atheists and Secular Humanists unite… we have nothing to lose but other people’s illusions.” Though I found that a bit off-putting in its echoing of the Atheistic obsession with terming the beliefs of others as illusory, Kurtz promptly got to challenging the participants of the conference.
“Though many of my friends and I enjoy the critique of religion, we have a far greater task than that: to present alternatives,” Kurtz said. “We’re not doing that [right now]. If god [does not exist], what do we do about that? We should be leading the way.”
Kurtz elaborated on that point at length, saying:
I think the most imp thing for the Atheist movement in the United States is to change the ways the public perceives Atheism. It is the most hated group in America, because we’re known as “angry atheists,” when we really ought to be affirmative atheists… It’s very important that we think about redefining Atheism. Most [Atheists] I meet are good people, fine citizens, dedicated to the societies in which they live, virtuous… that is why it’s important that we make that clear… In my view, atheism needs to be gentler and kinder. We have to give the impression of being a civilized, morally committed group who, on the basis of science and reason, are skeptical of claims of religion, and also demonstrate that it is possible to have moral integrity and express good will in order to reassure people that we are committed to our moral outlook. I’ve always used the soft approach. We have to demonstrate that we’re loving people above all else.
He also emphasized the significance of interreligious cooperation:
We’re facing awesome problems… we ought to work together with our religious friends about these problems. The atheist movement needs to be inclusive. We ought to be defined not by what we’re against but what we’re for. It’s important that we not be totalitarians… we need to emphasize the importance of democracy, of tolerating others’ beliefs… A lot of my colleagues have turned against me because they don’t like the positive and prefer to just lambast religion. But we need to move beyond egocentric individualism. Atheism should be affirmative, positive, constructive, and [provide] parameters and guidelines for the fullness of life.
Kurtz’s perspective wasn’t always exactly in line with what I believe, but I found his talk very inspirational. Not everyone seemed to – the first person to ask a question during the Q&A did not take well to Kurtz’s critique of Atheism’s negativity, arguing that Atheists having negative things to say is good and that it is the Atheist’s duty to educate the world, which elicited a hearty round of applause from the room. Still, I really enjoyed Kurtz’s talk – I think I took twenty pages of notes on it, but I’m not going to transcribe them all here. Though I didn’t nod my head to everything he said, I’m glad to have Kurtz as a vital voice in this movement.
Immediately following Kurtz, Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, did a talk called “What’s Atheism Got to Do with It?” His session was on how atheism does not imply the dismissal of all philosophical inquiry. Like me, Pigliucci, a former scientist and now philosopher, has been accused of being an “accomodationist” in his work. To that, Pigliucci said, “If I’m an accommodations, I’m in good company. We shouldn’t have these kinds of labels. If science brought you to atheism, great. But we shouldn’t have a litmus test to participate in this community.”
As I’ve done, Pigliucci critiqued the exclusivistic attitudes of New Atheist folks like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and even Penn and Teller in his talk, saying, “I love Bill Maher and Penn and Teller, but if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable. And they have some unreasonable ideas.” Ultimately, Pigliucci’s perspective can be best summed up by this statement: “I don’t pretend that my position is the only reasonable one.” This pluralistic perspective was refreshing and important.
Stiefel, who was referred to by many at the convention as an “exciting new face of Atheism,” gave a thoughtful and commanding talk on strategies for advancing the Freethought / Atheist agenda. Stiefel had a lot of say and I agreed with most of it. Early in his talk he said something I’ve been saying for a long time in almost the exact way I say it: “Religion is not going away anytime soon. Focusing on directly eliminating religion and faith will outcast us further from 80% of the population, [and] we will fail on a macro level.”
This theme reverberated through much of what he said. Stiefel articulated strategies for the movement, including that we need to “level the perception of who is ethical, marginalize fundamentalists, [and] team with theists,” comparing such a coalition to the queer rights movement and its straight allies.
“We need to stop being so divisive and unite around the things that we have in common,” said Stiefel. “We need to motivate inactive freethinkers to join the movement – why aren’t they getting involved?” I agree that this is an important question to ask and it shouldn’t surprise that I think it is because of the pervasive negativity in our community. To this end, Stiefel said that we need to “personalize freethinkers to others by ‘coming out’ and ‘living openly’… demonstrate that we do ‘believe’ in love, integrity, reason and freedom, [and] take a positive approach whenever possible… I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing that we don’t believe in anything. We need to be positive. People don’t want to join in on an angry, bitter movement.”
He also talked about the importance of structuring a community around our values:
We need to offer a community to freethinkers… to give a sense of family. [We need to] make available guidance and emotional support as freethinkers search for hope and purpose. I know this is an Atheist convention, but let’s get over the labels and increase the study of humanism, a positive label that says more than what we don’t believe in.
Stiefel took to task those who radically oppose religion and encouraged interfaith dialogue:
[We need to] oppose fundamentalism, irrationality and dogma, but not religion in general. Take a diplomatic approach while appreciating the value of religious criticism… Contrast fundamentalist values with secular values [and] demonstrate similarities between moderate theistic values with secular values. We have to show them we may not believe in their deity but we have more in common with them than fundamentalists do.
This is the impetus behind the interfaith work I do – to help religious people see that the non-religious are just as likely to be their allies in values as their religious counterparts. This perspective hasn’t always been warmly received by some in the Atheist community and has made me feel occasionally marginalized, and Stiefel underscored that this movement will fail if those in the movement who appreciate religion are pushed aside: “Too often I hear ‘they’re an accomodationist, get them out of here…’ No. We need every voice in this movement.” This made me feel particularly good, as I’ve been labeled just that very recently.
Moreover, Stiefel said that Atheists need to stop being so black and white in their approach to religion. “We need to accept that religion can be both good and evil; we need to give tolerance [to] the good to receive tolerance. We cannot go out and say that all religion is evil or we will be alienated. We cannot be absolutist.”
I couldn’t agree more – this was, perhaps, my favorite talk of the convention. It got a mixed reaction from attendees, but it seemed many were open to what he had to say.
In the afternoon on the second day of the convention, Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, spoke about his experiences as a former minister and evangelist. “I left Christianity not because I didn’t like it – in fact, I am still friends with many Christians – and not because it felt bad,” Barker said, “but because of an intellectual process I had. I thought to myself, ‘If Adam and Eve are just metaphors, maybe so is God.’”
In spite of his conculsions, Barker talked about why he doesn’t aim to convert: “My conclusions belong to me and me only – that’s what so great about the Freethrought movement. I don’t want to push my beliefs on others.”
His talk, titled “How to Talk to a Fundamentalist,” noted that “not all Christians are the same; not all fundamentalists are the same. There’s no one answer to say, ‘Here’s how you talk to a fundamentalist.’ Not all Christians are [fundamentalists] – some can see the gray areas… But fundamentalist minds are binary – everything is absolutistic. Everything is right or wrong… So if you’re ever having a conversation with a fundamentalist, remember that. Maybe you’re not speaking the same language.” His talk echoed the methodology of the Interfaith Youth Core, which recognizes religious divisions not as one religion versus another but as pluralists standing against fundamentalists / totalitarians.
Barker suggested that when talking to a Christian fundamentalist it is important to know the Bible and to be able to offer a unique take on secular morality, referring to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an Atheist who had a lot of purpose in her life. It seems Barker has a purpose of his own, and he still sounded very much like a preacher. Barker’s talk felt particularly relevant for me as a former Evangelical who also wanted to be a minister. And like listening to Christian sermons back in the day, I was inspired by his prophetic message.
The final talk I attended for the American Atheist Convention was “Privileging Conscience” by Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic who is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Kaminer talked about how the Atheist movement needs to refocus its priorities in respect to legal challenges.
Kaminer discussed a case in which a woman was not allowed to read from the Bible to her child’s class when the students were invited to have their parents come in and share from their child’s favorite book, as well as prayer in schools. Kaminer asked: “Does a law that asks for a moment of silent prayer, meditation, or another silent activity privilege religion? Many of you may say yes, but I tend to disagree… There is an argument that mandatory moments of silence coerce prayer. I say: reminding [students] that they have the right to pray silently does not a theocracy make.”
She highlighted many legal cases in which moments of silence in school were legally challenged by Atheists, including one in which a “Child Psychologist testified that some might succumb to peer pressure to pray.” Kaminer’s perspective: “It takes a great leap of faith to say that moments of silence actually advance religion.”
She also talked about legal challenges to Christian student groups that have exclusive policies for membership, but raised a very important point: “You wouldn’t want the government telling the American Atheists that they couldn’t have their members sign a pledge [to the ideas of their cause]. Would you want Fundamentalist Christians on a voting panel for an Atheist group? [Of course not.] So why should a Christian group be expected to allow an Atheist to join?”
Kaminer spoke from a highly legalistic perspective, displaying a breadth of knowledge and employing years of experience following relevant cases. The audience didn’t seem to take well to her positioning – the man sitting behind me loudly uttered “bullshit” several times during her speech – and offered a flurry of combative questions during the Q&A session. One individual asked about parents who don’t want kids to be exposed to material they find offensive, suggesting that just as some parents find pornography offensive others might wish to shield their children from the Bible. I thought that was such a silly question – as an Atheist parent, wouldn’t you want your child to be aware of this book that is so influential? Children need to be aware of what other people believe, and by putting them in public education you are opening them to world of pluralism.
Kaminer’s talk may have been the most poorly received of all at the convention, but I thought it was a useful, educational moment for our community.
I had a few really great conversations, including a particularly honest dialogue with a representative from the New York City Atheists and one from Alabama Atheists. Though there was fundamental disagreement about the best approach to take in non-religious community organizing, we did concur that there was a place for all of our perspectives in the movement. This conversation occurred as I was getting ready to leave the convention; we engaged one another’s perspectives with respect and an open spirit, and it left me feeling optimistic about further dialogue in the future.
This certainly wasn’t so for all of the convention – check back throughout the week for reports on the less encouraging moments from my experience, and be sure to follow my adventures on the Eastern Seabord on Twitter.