Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #7: Feminism, Faitheism, and Fundamentalist Atheism with Sarah Jones

On today's episode, I chat with Sarah Jones. She is the Communications Associate at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and has written for NonProphet Status and Religion News Service, among others.


Trav:                Welcome to the Bi Any Means podcast the place where social justice and humanism meet. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion for the I’m Trav Mamone and today’s guest is Sarah. She is the communication associate at Americans United for Separation of Church & State, and has written for NonProphet Status, the New York Times, and Religion News Service among others. Sarah thanks for joining me today.
Sarah:              Hi, thanks for having me.
Trav:                First, I want to ask you about your background. According to your blog, you grew up in a fundamentalist household, right.
Sarah:              That’s correct.
Trav:                Tell us a little bit about that.
Sarah:              While my parents they felt, identified as Christian fundamentalists, and from earliest years I was home schooled, and like many kids in the Christian home school movement that meant that I really didn’t have any exposure to the outside world, and my only social interactions occurred at our extremely conservative church. And later I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school, and then finally ended up at a public school for a couple of years, and then went to a very conservative Christian college. You might be sensing a theme there, and college is where I became an atheist.
Trav:                You also say that for a while you were a feminist member of the emerging church. Tell us about that.
Sarah:              By the time, I entered Cedarville University, that’s my Alma mater I had quite a few questions. I was very uncomfortable with what I used to call the Republicanization of Christianity because incoming equality, and women’s right, and I wouldn’t necessarily call myself, I hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I was pro-gay rights. But I was very, very uncomfortable with the position … just to leave it at that and TRO, and that’s I really started exploring political questions, and what does feminism really mean, and that meant shifting away from the churches I used to attend, and the emerging church movement has plenty of its own problems. But it offered a smaller, and I suppose less god-like in my view alternative to the churches that I grew up.
Trav:                Right, I was a actually a part of the emerging church movement for a good couple of years, and first it was really liberating but then I don’t know … some parts of it weren’t just really making sense. Basically, I was deconstructing doctrine so much that eventually I came to deconstructing God, and I deconstructed Him so much that i didn’t really have anything left.
Sarah:              Right, yeah, that’s kind of what happened to me where I was really exploring a lot of theological questions, and easily breaking down especially the teaching in regards to gender that I’d been raised with. And I don’t think a person necessarily have to leave the Emerging Church but for me that happens to be where it led where I was standing in church one day, and given that I really enjoyed the people that were with, and it was actually them learn. I just didn’t believe in God anymore and so that was the end of it for me.
Trav:                This might be a little bit controversial going back to the Emerging Church, have you followed the story about Tony Jones?
Sarah:              I have, yes, and I’ve had my own run ins with Tony Jones as a matter of fact.
Trav:                Okay, so tell us a little bit what … about what you do at American United for Separation of Church & State.
Sarah:              I work in the communications departments so that means a lot of traditional communications job, developing media relations, working on press releases but I also write for our magazine, which is more advocacy journalism. Focusing on stories that are related to the separation of church and state, and violations of the separation of church and state. I also write for our blog The Wall of Separation and manage our social media accounts.
Trav:                How did you become involved with Americans United for Separation of Church & State?
Sarah:              I saw the job Ads that I applied. I’d heard of them before and I knew enough about the organization that I really appreciated their particular approach to religious [inaudible 00:05:00] to separation of church and state. They have a very inclusive mission, which is something that I like and before I started working for Americans United I had interned with the Three Faiths Forum, which is an interfaith organization in London. And worked in generally very intellectually, and culturally diverse places.
The idea of working at a place as inclusive as Americans United really appealed.
Trav:                I don’t know if you’ve ever used the word but a lot of people see you as part of the faitheist community. First of all, let me ask you this, the a lot of the so called faitheists that I’ve talked to as soon as they became an atheist they went through the angry, stereotypical angry atheist phase and then kind of lightened up to the more faitheist phase. Did that happen to you first like first you were really angry but then mellowed out or …?
Sarah:              Yeah, I was furious. My experience at Cedarville University was horrific. I think anyone who’s writing for a while probably understands that and I had very negative experiences in the Christian home school movement. Experiences that I would absolutely classify as spiritual abuse, which facilitated in turn other forms of abuse and made it hard for me to get any sort of justice or acknowledgement for that. I was very angry, and I think for valid reasons but I … this process occurred totally outside what is commonly referred to as the atheist community. I had nothing to do with that until very, very recently.
                        I suppose the kicker for me was I realized that I was using the same rhetorical tactics, and making the same sort of intellectual errors a cool, uncool angry atheist as I was when I was a fundamentalist Christian, and that was quite a wakeup call me for. I still have my moments where I’m quite angry, and I think still very angry about valid things that I think you have to consider the approach, and plenty of people of faith have been my allies in the struggle against various injustices and I think that’s [inaudible 00:07:20]   piece of mind.
Trav:                Right, right. You have written about what you consider to be fundamentalist atheists. This is sort of a controversial term. Some people say there are no fundamentals of atheism because atheism just means you don’t believe in God but the way you describe it’s sort of like using the same … like you were just saying using the same rhetorical devices that fundamentalist Christians use against the LGBT people, non-Christians, this and that and whoever else the fundamentalists decide are the enemy today. I guess all that’s leading up to my next question.
                        What do you consider is a fundamentalist atheist?
Sarah:              To back track slightly, Christian fundamentalist see the world as kind of a binary, it’s us versus them, it’s good versus evil. There’s no room for compromise. If you ask certain questions, if it seems like you are getting a bit wishy-washy then you are kind of tainted. I found that’s exactly what’s happened in the atheist community. I think it’s inarguable even some members and some [inaudible 00:08:42] see the world as binary where it’s us versus them, and if you are religious then you are deluded. You are delusional. It’s impossible for you to really be pro-LGBT rights or a feminist for example. Those of us who start to question that hard line tactic find ourselves attacked, and faitheists originally use it as a slur, an insult, and it’s exactly the sort of dynamic that I saw in the church, and I thought it was worth examining a bit further.
                        People hap stance, faitheists don’t have doctrine and that’s true obviously but I think you do have to acknowledge that there is at least a subset of atheism that does idolize certain figures, and does believe that atheism is very much X, Y, Z and it can’t be anything else. If you try to expand to include humanism for example on various social justice struggles then you are some kind of trigger to the cause, and I find that [inaudible 00:09:46] disturbing.
Trav:                Right. Now maybe it’s because I have a very dichotomous way of thinking but from what I’ve read online it seems like in the atheist community you have to be either an anti-theist or a faitheist. You know you have to be either Christopher Hitchens or Chris Stedman. Me personally, I’m kind of in the middle of the spectrum. I don’t shy away from talking about how religion planted a bunch of damaging ideas in my head, and how I’m in the process of recovering from a lot of those damaging ideas. I also don’t shy from talking how certain religious doctrines and beliefs lead to social injustice.
                        At the same time, though I don’t dehumanize religious people or at least I don’t try to. For example, I have friends who in the LGBT movement who are Christians, and I have no problem aside religious differences to work with them in the fight for justice and liberalization as long as there’s no proselytizing. All that leads to my next question, is there enough room to both openly criticize religion and work with religious people?
Sarah:              I think so and I think it’s important to understand that those of us who get kind of [inaudible 00:11:01] faitheist can do criticize religion quite frequently. I criticize religion quite literally from my job, and I like [inaudible 00:11:11] about my religious upbringing. I don’t want to put myself in the position of speaking for other people but to say that people who prefer a more inclusive or maybe even expansive is the better word and are more willing to work with people of faith are somehow unwilling to criticize religion when it’s necessary. I think that’s often, well usually, actually, a pretty unfair stereotype. It just doesn’t bear out in reality.
                        I think there are absolutely some religious doctrines that have to be question, and they have to be criticized and they have to be pointed out as being toxic and socially damaging, and we would be better off without that but it’s important for you to acknowledge that, and say at the same time that you understand that there are variations of the same religion that aren’t as toxic, and aren’t as damaging, and can be fostered for good. They are not contradictory statements, and I think there’s definitely room for people to put both of them forward at the same time.
Trav:                Great. Now, I should say that tolerance can only go so far, like, my mom often tells me I’m too aggressive towards conservative Christians who don’t support LGBT rights, and I have to be tolerant and respect other people’s beliefs, which I usually respond with something kind of snarky like you are right. I should be tolerant of people who think I’m going to burn in hell or worse who think I’m going to hurt their children. How foolish of me.
Sarah:              Yeah, we’ve been dealing at American United with these so-called religious freedom bills where fundamentalist Christians usually have been agitating for what can only be called the right to discriminate. It’s this twisted definition of religious freedom that would let them turn away an entire class of people and those of us who have actually been fighting against those bills, and against that definition of freedom have been slammed as bigoted against conservative Christians, and I think that’s ridiculous quite frankly.
                        Because we are talking about people who are asking for illegal rights to discriminate against other human being based on their religious preferences, and in the process, they are putting themselves forward as kind of the mouthpieces of all religion everywhere at the same time, which is incredibly damaging. I don’t have a great deal of tolerance for that, and I don’t feel bad for having a great of tolerance for that. I don’t think anybody should.
Trav:                Right, right. You blog about feminism and I’ve read on your Twitter feed that you get a lot of nasty comments from other atheists. Why are atheists such douche bags when it comes to feminism?
Sarah:              That is the perennial question, isn’t it? I think atheism, a lot of people that bring about this, and pointed this out, atheism has historically been dominated by straight, white dudes, and we are [inaudible 00:14:17] not just in atheism. The people who have always dominated the conversations are typically quite reluctant to relinquish their dominant position kind of let other people have a say. And I think that’s a great deal of it. I think they feel threatened that their platforms are eroding a little bit. I think they see some of us, feminists specifically as kind of threats so they continue dominance [inaudible 00:14:42] course, and their reaction of talking feminism, and by belittling the concerns that we the persons to espouse feminism as an ideology, and some of them get quite graphic, and quite I don’t know, outright misogynist to be frank.
Trav:                Yeah, I’ve been on the Slymepit a couple of times. I was like “Oh god.”
Sarah:              Right, right and I try to make a distinction between sexism, and misogyny but often with coming out places like the [inaudible 00:15:20] people who may not necessarily belong to the Slymepit but I would classify as being at least sympathetic to it are just outright misogynists. Like they just seem to hate the fact that there are women who are speaking up about the problems that typically are associated with being a woman, or being Trans, or being LGBT. It’s just anyone who doesn’t marginalize class is honestly when they speak there are people there to tolerate them, that they are just playing into gender politics, and they get quite vicious about it.
Trav:                Exactly. I think a lot of it has to do with what you were talking about earlier about extending the conversation about atheism not just limiting it to religion is bad. These beliefs don’t make any sense, there’s no God, blah, blah, blah but also extending it to introducing humanism and social justice into the mix. I’ve seen a lot of for example, I think it was James Croft who wrote a blog post for Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist right around the time of Ferguson and also I think at the same time Eric Garner died too, saying that as humanists we should be more passionate about racial justice. It’s obvious that the system is set up to marginalize people of color especially in the legal system and I saw a lot of comments saying, “Atheism just means not believing in God. It doesn’t mean we have to be pro-justice or pro-anything,” and I’m just like “Really? Really?”
Sarah:              Yeah, right, right. A lot of people are just so politically apathetic that they don’t to be challenged and they don’t want their beliefs about the world challenged, and I think for a lot of people in particular if they can call themselves an atheist they are good. They’ve reached this one, logical conclusion about God hat therefore none of their other beliefs are wrong and they don’t want to be challenged.
Trav:                Right, definitely. Going back to what you were saying earlier about the huge criticism that atheists have towards feminism, I can understand if there’s a specific statistic that a feminist may claim that if you do further research it’s slightly off but a lot of … I don’t know. It seems like a lot of atheist … anti-feminist atheists will use a misquoted statistic and run with it by saying, “See, these feminists they don’t use logic. Hey just run on emotions,” which is kind of … that’s kind of sexist too because it goes back to the whole idea that men are by nature logical and women by nature are purely emotion.
Sarah:              I think you are right. There’s certainly this stereo type feel that people who are not men tend to be more hysterical, and more emotional and then you have the fact that a lot of feminist discourse is focused on quite stressing [inaudible 00:18:54] experience. The person who was [inaudible 00:18:56] for feminism, and I think some people hear that and they react to it by saying that’s not logical but for those of us who are from more marginalized background are like well, our experience is introduced into the public conversations and yours is a part of it for how long at this point?
                        Any our experience is reflected in certain truths, and certain facts. I mean they are valid and [inaudible 00:19:22] being considerate.
Trav:                Right, definitely. Since this podcast is all about the intersection of social justice and secular humanism, how do you see the two intersect?
Sarah:              As an atheist, atheism tells you well I don’t believe. I don’t believe in God but secular humanism absolutely tells you I believe and I think secular humanism is social justice. Humanism is feminist, humanism is pro-Trans, it is pro-gay rights. It is anti-racist. It is fundamentally defined I think by belief in social justice, and the commitment to social justice causes, and it always has been. I think the intersection is at the very heart of it.
Trav:                Very good. Well that’s about it for me. Anything else that you’d like to add or any upcoming projects?
Sarah:              Well, I am launching a campaign at American United encouraging people to fund short like to 15 to 30-second video clips explaining why these recent freedom bills in Indiana and elsewhere violate their definition of religious freedom and I certainly and I’d certainly love to have some humanist voices as part of that to just show this issue affects everybody. If people are interested in learning more about this they can tweet at me or send me an email.
Trav:                Great and I will definitely post the links too.
Sarah:              All right, thank you so much.
Trav:                All right. Thanks again for joining me today.
Sarah:              All right, no problem.
Trav:                Thanks for listening to the Bi Any Means podcast. The theme music is “Endurance” by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music at The Bi Any Means logo was design by Asher Silberman. If you like what you have heard, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Just go to to donate. Also, you can go to for more musings of a queer humanist.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Check Out My Interview On The Gaytheist Manifesto!

Remember a few weeks ago when I told you Callie Wright of The Gaytheist Manifesto was going to interview me about being genderqueer? Well, the interview is now available online!

Hopefully I sound semi-coherent.

And if you like what you have heard, consider subscribing to the Gaytheist Manifesto podcast. That would be cool of you.

Friday, April 10, 2015

We Have More To Worry About Than Not Getting Cake, Ayaan Hirsi Ali - New Post On Queereka


Last week at the 2015 American Atheists convention, Ayaan Hirsi Ali gave a keynote address about the dangers of radical Islam. I haven’t seen the entire video, but from all accounts it was a powerful speech about the threat Islamic extremists pose on the world.

Except when she came to this part:

If you are gay, today in the United States of America, the worst the Christian community can do to gay people is not serve them cake… I tweeted Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, whom I think is very brave by going out there and describing what it is that the LGBT community faces in predominantly homophobic communities. The discrimination is subtle, and it lurks in the shadows. But I just want you to think about being Muslim and gay today. In the worst case scenario, you’ve seen it on television, on YouTube… if you’re accused of being gay, you are marched to the tallest building in town and bullies throw you off that building and there’s a crowd of people waiting there…

Of course, I should point out that Ali does voice her support of LGBTQ rights all over the world, including America. And I agree with her on the dangers of radical Islam, so I don’t want to make it sound like I have it worse here in America than LGBTQ people being thrown off of buildings in the Middle East. However, Ali is flat out wrong when she says the worst Christians can do to us here in America is not make wedding cakes for us. Honestly, it strikes me as the logical fallacy of relative privation.

* * *

Read the rest here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Five Bad Ideas Christianity Planted In My Head

[image: a woman vomiting a church and various Bible verses and Christian symbols into a toilet. Image credit: David Hayward]

[CN: Body negativity, Sex negativity, Sex, Sexism, Suicide, Transphobia]
"What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere."--Inception
I keep thinking about this quote over and over again. It's true; once the seed of an idea is planted in your head, it grows until it plants its roots firmly in your mind. When that happens, it's no longer just an idea--it becomes truth, even if it's just a lie. And once an idea becomes truth, it sometimes takes years to uproot the idea.

I've recently discovered that I have a lot of bad ideas planted in my brain that I need to uproot . . . and many of these ideas came from Christianity.

Some of you might think all these bad ideas came from either conservative or fundamentalist Christianity. That's not true; even progressive Christianity planted bad ideas in my head. And I think it's time that I finally come clean and talk about how all of Christianity--from fundamentalism to liberalism--fucked me up.

Now before I begin, I just want to clarify a few things. First, I know not all Christians believe in these things. The Bible is so full of contradictions that anyone can find any verse that will support their own biases. Second, I still have many Christian friends, so this isn't an attack on them personally. This is simply my experience.

And so, without further ado, here are five bad ideas Christianity planted in my head.

1. Ignore the red flags and just rely on faith.

As I told Jamila Bey in our interview, I saw all the red flags from the very beginning, but I decided to ignore them and let faith fill in the gaps. After all, Christians are supposed to "walk by faith and not be sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). Christians are justified not by what they do, "but by faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16). Even Jesus tells Thomas, everyone's favorite skeptic, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Faith lies at the heart of Christianity. It's not about what you do, but how (and who) you believe. And as my friend Neil Carter says, "If you have to believe, it probably isn't real."

I knew, even when I was a young Christian, that the Bible didn't match what science was telling me. Science told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with same-sex attraction; the Bible said it was an abomination. Science told me evolution is real; the Bible told me God created everything in just six days. It didn't add up, but I trudged through the questions and just relied on faith to fill in the gaps. Eventually I found the Emergent Church which told me you can be a Christian and accept evolution as a scientific fact, but that only gave me more questions. When in our evolutionary process did we achieve souls? When did God reveal God's self to us in our evolutionary process? Finally I had to admit to myself that Christianity just didn't hold any water, and now I no longer feel torn.

2. The body is evil, and sexual desires are corrupt.

I have some Christian friends who say Jesus' message is very body-positive. After all, Jesus is supposed to be the Word made flesh (John 1:14). I, however, beg to differ. One look at the New Testament will show that it's one of the most body-negative texts ever. Jesus says, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). Paul says, "The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). He also writes that the flesh and spirit are at constant war with each other (Galatians 5:17). Paul even says, "I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:27). I could go on, but the Bible makes it clear that there's a dichotomy between body and spirit, and the body often stands in the way for spiritual things.

As a twenty-something with raging hormones, this meant only one thing: my sexual desires were wrong.

I hadn't even figured out that I was bisexual yet, and I already felt guilty for my sexual desires. I wanted to explore my body with another person and feel that sense of intimacy, but because I wasn't married, I felt ashamed. This made me internalize a lot of sex negativity that made my first few attempts with sex (with a man, I should add) really uncomfortable. I haven't been with anyone for about three years, but I'm already worried that my next sexual encounter will feel wrong.

3. God ordained gender roles.

I never felt like a "real man," but this became painfully obvious when I was engaged to a woman from a patriarchal Calvinist family. As a future husband, I was supposed to be my fiancee's spiritual head (Ephesians 5:22-23). I was supposed to lead her, even though I honestly didn't want to lead anyone. I thought marriage was supposed to be a partnership, but apparently I was wrong. My fiancee's family put so much pressure on me to "man up" that I honestly felt like killing myself several times. Finally my then-therapist told me, "If this relationship makes you want to hurt yourself, you need to end this!"

It wasn't just pressure from my ex-fiancee's family that made me uncomfortable; it was the whole idea that God ordained gender roles. The Bible even said that effeminate men would go to Hell (Deuteronomy 22:5, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). As someone who never felt 100% like a man, I felt like something was wrong with me, but once I discovered the word genderqueer exists, I realized that it was the Bible that was wrong.

4. You're not doing enough for the poor, and God hates that.

When I first got involved with the progressive Emergent Christian movement, I was excited that there were other Christians who knew conservative politics had nothing to do with the Gospel. On progressive Christian blogs everywhere, everyone kept talking about social justice and ending poverty. This was the kind of Christianity I could work with.

One particular Bible verse all the Emergent Christians loved was Matthew 25:40: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." This meant Jesus was present among the marginalized, which was completely different from the Jesus Is A Republican bullshit conservative Christians were preaching. However, I soon realized just because a Christian is progressive doesn't mean they can't be just as dogmatic.

It wasn't enough to simply give money to charity or even volunteer; according to my Emergent Christian friends, Jesus literally wants me to sell all my possessions and give them to the poor (Matthew 19:21). I certainly wasn't a dogmatic capitalist, but I didn't have a lot of money, either, so I couldn't sell everything I had. I know that charity and volunteering won't fix everything, but Emergent Christianity planted the idea in my head that it was my job to be the next Mother Teresa, and when I couldn't meet that expectation, I felt guilty.

5. I am a bad person.

When I first became a Christian, it was liberating to hear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). In other words, everyone is just as fucked up as I am! At first, that put a lot of pressure off of me, but as time went by, it only led to more self-loathing.

It wasn't just that I wasn't perfect. I can handle not being perfect. What I couldn't handle, though, was feeling that there was absolutely no good thing inside of me (Romans 7:18). I didn't just do bad things--I was bad. I had to constantly confess my sinful nature every Sunday in church. Every Good Friday I was reminded that my sin nailed Jesus to the cross. And the more I failed to live up to Jesus' example, the more I was reminded about my sinful nature. At one point I said I was no better than Adolf Hitler (to which a Jewish friend responded, "Please don't say that."). When I was 17 I came to Jesus because he said he loved me; by the time I was 30, though, I felt he hated me.

* * *

There are probably other bad ideas Christianity planted in my head, but I can't remember them right now. Or maybe I just haven't discovered them yet.

It's weird that I picked Holy Week to finally talk about this, but I feel like I can't pretend anymore. If I don't talk about what I've been through, I feel like I'll be lying to everyone--myself included.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #6: The Gaytheist Manifesto with Callie Wright

[CN: Transphobia, the death of Leelah Alcorn]

Today's guest is Callie Wright, the host of The Gaytheist Manifesto podcast. It's a fairly new podcast, but it's already attracting a wide audience. Today we discuss her journey, the podcast, and the intersection of atheism and LGBT rights.

Transcript provided by Marvin:

Trav:                Welcome to the Bi Any Means podcast, a place where social justice and humanism meet. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion to I’m Trav Mamone and my guest for Callie Wright. She is the primary host for the new podcast the Gaytheist Manifesto, which focuses on the intersection of the atheist movement and the LGBT rights movement. And after we finish this discussion, she will interview me for the Gaytheist Manifesto about being genderqueer. But first here is our interview.
                        Callie thanks for joining me today.
Callie:              Thank you for having me.
Trav:                First. I want to ask you about your background. On the first episode of the Gaytheist Manifesto, I think you said that your parents were semi-religious but your grandmother was a big time Pentecostal, right.
Callie:              Grandma yes. My mom was very apathetic about religion. She claimed to believe in God and stuff but we never went to church, and she never tried to teach me anything about. There was really no religion in my house growing up. It was all from my grandma’s side of things.
Trav:                I grew up as what I like to what I call “a wedding and funeral Christian”. My parents didn’t really go to church except for weddings and funerals but I got more into the faith as I grew older in my late teens.
Callie:              Yeah, I went through that phase. I went to church a bunch with my grandma because I feel like I was trying to have an excuse to hang out with grandma because I love my grandma, and she bought me my first guitar. We were super tight, and then later on I got into the whole metal core, hardcore thing, and I started listening to a bunch of Christian and I got wrapped up in that whole scene. I called myself a Christian because I was in that scene just for a brief period of time.
And then I actually read a book by Daniel Quinn, “Story of B,” and that put things in perspective as far as religion goes for me. Obviously, there’s a long, long story but that’s what started the whole thing as far as going down the path of being an atheist.
Trav:                What eventually led you to atheism?
Callie:              Well, I started reading the Bible as most of those stories started, and I read the Old Testament, and the parts that they don’t normally teach you in church, and I read about all of the death, and destruction, and murdering, and unsavory, and all of that sort of thing. I was like this doesn’t seem right to me. I started asking my grandma questions, and she didn’t really have good answers. I started exploring other things, and I found Wicca because was the cool thing then, and she saw ,e reading a Wicca book, and she was like wow, if I can get you a meeting with my pastor, will you meet with him? I said sure.
                        I went, and just went through this whole list of questions that I had for him, and I was … I think I was probably 12 or 13 at this point, and his response to all my questions basically was like, look it’s not wrong to ask questions but you have to understand that the Bible is the place where the answers come from. Even at that age, I was thinking to myself if this was really true, I should be able to look anywhere, and confirm this is true. That kind of told me that he had something to hide. That pushed me even further away from Christianity at least for the first time, and then I did the whole I’m a Wiccan thing for a minute, and then I realized that was ridiculous.
                        I started getting into that metal core, hardcore scene, all those Christian bands and stuff. I called myself a Christian again for a while just because I was in that scene. Then the questions came back, and I started asking stuff like every other religion mythology but Christianity isn’t, and I couldn’t come up with real good reasons for why that was the case. I eventually I just … you know this doesn’t make any sense to me so I guess now I’m an atheist.
Trav:                Cool, I did the Wiccan thing for a while because at the time it was the cool religion but I bought it for a while but then I realized this isn’t true too although I was a Wiccan before I was a Christian so I kind of got that a little bit backwards.
Callie:              Right, right. I don’t know it was … I guess I just it’s just one of those things like I wanted to be … part of it was genuine. I was really asking these questions because of stuff didn’t make sense to me but also being a teenager it was cool to be like I was the only one in my high school at least as far as I know. I’m not going to lie and say that there wasn’t some appeal in that too but eventually I did have to be honest with myself. I’m like, wow, this is every bit as ridiculous as any religion. I’m just going have to leave it behind.
Trav:                Right. You say that when you hit puberty, you felt like your body didn’t hit right. When did you finally have a name for it?
Callie:              Not until my twenties, and even then I’m not sure that I really made the connection between that and who I was because I was really, really good at denial. I had myself convinced for the longest that it was just a fetish thing, or that I just cross-dressed every once in a while. I knew what being Trans was but I didn’t make the connection with well yeah. That’s actually me. That’s who I am. It wasn’t until maybe six or eight months before I eventually came out that I really said to myself like yeah, it’s more than that.
                        It’s actually a matter of my identity not just some fetish thing or just something to do on the weekends kind of thing.
Trav:                Yeah, same here. I always knew transgender existed but I was like, “Well, I don’t really want to be a girl. I feel girly but I don’t really want to transition.” Until a couple of years ago I heard the word genderqueer. I was like “There’s a name for that?” But even then, I was still sort of debating. I was, I don’t know. To me actually I became more confident being genderqueer when I started changing some of my appearance. Like okay, let me try painting my nails today, ooh, that’s cool, I like that. Maybe wear some infinity carves, I like that too. Shave my beard off. Hey, that feels great. Grow my hair out long, I like that and so then, I was like yap, this feels right.
Callie:              Did you have any friends who didn’t realize what was going on that gave you all kinds of crap for shaving your beard?
Trav:                Yeah, a couple of them did was like, what happened to your face? I was like I just felt like shaving.
Callie:              The first time I posted a picture of myself on Facebook without a beard like the internet broke. Like, all my friends were like, oh my god, what happened to your beard? And I was just thinking to myself my god, if you only knew like you are going to find out in a few months as long as everything. Like, this is just me exploring here but and I hadn’t even thought about.
                        The job that I was I was at a customer’s house, and he had Conan the Barbarian sort, and he was like really super proud about showing it off, and he was like you want to take a picture with it? I was like of course, I do. I picked up the sword and I let one of my coworker take a picture of me with it and I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d shaved my beard literally the day before, and it didn’t dawn on me that basically the first Facebook picture ever of me without a beard. I was just thinking I’ve got a Conan the Barbarian sword, how awesome is this? I posted the picture, and no one said anything about the sword. It was like oh my god, what happened to your beard?
Trav:                Cool, cool. How did the Gaytheist Manifesto podcast come about?
Callie:              I’ve always wanted to be an activist of some kind, and I was always scared to touch the LGBT topic before I came out because you have that thing where you are afraid that people are going to think you care so much about that, you must Trans or whatever, which is silly but in my head that’s where I was at. A friend of mine started a non-profit called A Voice for the Innocent, and it’s a non-profit peer support community for victims of rape and sex abuse. He asked me to get involved, and so I did, and I was like cool. This is a non-profit thing, something that I can help people that I can get involved with, and it’s a cause that’s near and dear to me.
                        I got involved with that, and I helped him build that, and eventually when I came out I found myself I really want to get into LGBT activism, and I really want to get into atheist activism. I wasn’t sure exactly what that would like. I didn’t know. I’m going to start a group? I’m I going to start a Facebook page? What I’m I going to do and … so the first thing that said like you need to come by an atheist LGBT activism was at a marriage equality rally in Cincinnati, and actually was speaking there on behalf of A Voice for the Innocent.
Then a commitment send our money there, and there were a bunch of gay couples who were going to say vows, and the priest that performed the ceremony during his invocation or whatever actually said if you don’t know God you don’t know love, and if you don’t know love you don’t know God. I just thought to myself that’s a really strong statement to be making in front of a group of people many of whom who were likely very, very hurt by religion. Obviously, there were people there who were deeply religious and I respect that but there were also people there who were very much hurt by religion.
I still was just thinking, okay, I’m going to do something atheist and LGBT and I’m going to combine the two somehow but I still really didn’t know what that meant, and after Lila Alcorn died the first vigil that we had because she’s from Cincinnati where I’m from. The vigil here’s here were pretty intense, and at one of the vigils there was a pastor there that said, “I believe God was a first responder on the highway that day.” I think that was the first time I’d ever heard somebody say something like I need to walk away or I am going to lose my mind.
At that time, I’d started volunteering for Dogma Debate, which anyone who does know is one of the bigger atheist podcasts out there. The idea came … the idea came I guess I could do I podcast. That would be cool, and I said some on Facebook about it and David from dogma debate was doing … he started Secular Media Network, and he sent a message to me asking if … he’s like why don’t you let me help you? We are doing Secular Media Network. He’s like make a pilot episode and send it to me, and I’ll see what I think. He liked the pilot episode.
So that’s just what we did, and I went from never thinking that I podcast was a thing that I was going to do to it consuming every facet of my life in two or three months.
Trav:                Cool, cool. Where did the name Gaytheist Manifesto come from?
Callie:              One of my cohosts Jonathan started a Facebook group called Gaytheists, and I always loved it because word play and puns are like my favorite things in the world. I knew that had to be somewhere in the title because it just fit perfectly but I didn’t know what else. I figured it would depend on the tone of the show, and since we decided we were going to take a more activist, advocacy education kind of bend, I just thought like manifesto, that’s a cool word. So the Gaytheist Manifesto.
Trav:                Great, great. The Gaytheist Manifesto is a fairly new podcast but it’s already attracting a fairly growing audience. Are you surprised by the success though?
Callie:              I am honesty. I knew that it would probably be more than just my friends. I figured it would be a little bit bigger than if I had just started from nothing because of David from Dogma Debate, posting them out on his page and stuff. What I didn’t anticipate was being welcomed so eagerly into this community of atheist podcasters, people who do amazing things. They’ve given me advice, and encouragement, and I’m getting messages from people already. There was a guy who he was going to stop using “gay” instead of “stupid” after he had a segment we did about gay jokes, and there was a trans woman who said that listening to our show helped to put some of the horrible things in her life in perspective.
                        To me that’s like … I figured maybe we’ll start getting messages like that six to eight months in, maybe a year in we’ll start getting messages from people saying, “Hey, I really like what you guys have to say,” but for it to happen this early, and to be getting so much feedback. It’s more than I anticipated. I don’t shy away from saying uncomfortable. I don’t shy away from talking about things like privilege, and I’ve very, very surprised at how receptive people have been to those conversations when I say stuff like that. I haven’t gotten any pushback yet. I’m sure I will eventually and I’m prepared for it but I really haven’t yet and it’s been awesome. People are very, very willing and eager to have these conversations, and I’m floored by the response.
Trav:                Good, good. Overall, straight atheists are very supportive of the LGBTQ community but is there anything straight atheists still don’t get?
Callie:              In my experience, I wouldn’t even say it’s a matter of not “getting it”. I would say it’s just a matter of education. I think it’s a matter of … like I said, in my experience people are very willing to be educated and to have these conversations. I think there just haven’t been many people who are in a position to do that who have been willing to do that, or at least who are actively trying to seek out conversation in the atheist community like that.
                        Obviously, there are great communicators on behalf of the queer and Trans community but I don’t know that there’s been anymore who has been very actively agitating within the atheist community for that if that makes sense. Like I said, I’ve been people’s shows, and I talk about privilege and stuff like that, and generally, it’s been pretty well received. I think if there’s one criticism I could level it’s just that I think trans people need to be more part of the conversation because normally when you hear anything about LGBT issues in the context of the atheist community, it’s usually about marriage equality.
                        That’s super important because … I mean that affects trans people to but there are other issues like access to health care, and employment, poverty, violence, all those sorts of things that to at least some degree are unique to the Trans community, and those conversations don’t happened quite as often. If I had one message to give I would say go out of your way to have those conversations more and seek out trans people whom are willing to have those conversations like me, like you, like there’s four or five other people that I can think off the top of my head. I don’t know if they want their names on show so I’m not going to say but we are definitely out there, and I would say seek us out, and have these conversations.
Trav:                Going back to what you were saying earlier about what happened at the marriage equality rally, and that reminds me a lot about the first guest I have for this podcast, Alex Gabriel, and he talked about the importance of keeping queer spaces secular. Not necessarily like queer people of faith aren’t allowed, or they can’t share their stories, but there’s no sort of religious proselytizing of any kind. Alex told me that he’s been in LGBTQ meetings where they’ve had people preach at them, and it’s good when people of faith do come out and say, “You are not an abomination. You are not going to hell. You deserve full equality,” stuff like that but a lot of us don’t want to have anything to do with religion.
                        It’s like, okay, I get what you are trying to say but you still haven’t proven this God exists so keep the preaching for church.
Callie:              Yeah, that’s something is struggle with. When we were originally having the conversations about what we were going to do for the conversation started about what we were going to do for a memorial for Leelah Alcorn, the conversation started about venues, where we were going to have it. people were talking about having at a trans-inclusive church. I immediately was like I think in this specific situation that would be extremely inappropriate given the circumstances. Eventually we did agree to have it somewhere other than a church which I think was a good move but when I went to the planning meetings for it what was funny was I voiced that concern.
                        I said, “I don’t want to exclude religious people from the conversation because obviously there are Trans people who are religious. There are people who are all over the special room who are religious who are going to be comforted by that message. I’m not saying erase it completely from the conversation but we have to be very cognizant of who we are talking to, and the situation in which we are talking to them. What’s funny is there’s a trans group here that is specifically for Trans people of faith, and they are the ones that agreed with me the most. I actually appreciated that because some of the other people they are uncomfortable by that and they were just like yeah, yeah. I hear you. I hear you. We want to make sure we don’t make people uncomfortable, and I was like wow, okay. That was really cool.
                        But yeah, where do you strike that balance because there are people who want to hear that message, and there are people there who don’t. That’s really hard. I definitely agree with you can be secular without erasing a religion from the conversation completely. That’s why I think I’m generally okay if somebody comes up, and has a non-denominational invocation where they talk about all-knowing creator universe kind of thing. I still have to roll my eyes out a little bit but at least it’s not like they are on the Bible in your face.
Trav:                Right, okay, this is where things get really controversial. The other night on CNN David Silverman of American Atheists said that atheists are the most hated group in America. Now, I don’t know about you but I was like “Really? Really?” I know that discrimination against atheism exists. I’ve seen the number so I know it’s real, but you are I, we are more likely to face physical violence for queer and trans than for being atheists.
                        When people say things like atheists are the most hated group in America, does that bother you?
Callie:              Quick question. Is your show PG13 or not?
Trav:                I have an explicit rating so go right ahead.
Callie:              I have a lot of things that American atheists do but frankly, that’s bullshit. First of all, if you look at the study that he was citing, trans people weren’t included in the questioning. I think for him to make a blanket statement like that. I think first of all is dishonest because anyone who claims to be progressive in anyway should realize at the very least there are the large issues with the queer and trans community in general especially the trans community, especially the Trans people of color, so on and so on. That’s horseshit. It’s playing for the spotlight. It’s hyperbole and I just don’t understand why he had to go there especially because his PR director is a trans woman in case you don’t know about her.
Trav:                Yes. Most definitely. What kind of topics would you like to discuss on future Gaytheist Manifesto episodes?
Callie:              We’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We are going to have you come on and talk about what it’s like to be genderqueer, and what all of that means because we want to be very respectful of the fact that the queer and trans experience is very non-binary, and that there are spaces in between the things that we generally call male-female, gay-straight, bi that sort of thing. We always want to be having those sorts of conversations. We always want to interview thought leaders of the atheist movement to get their perspective on the LGBT issues.
                        We want to find out people that are going good things in the movement. We had a conversation on the last with the national board chair of Camp Quest who happens to be the head trainer for GLSEN in Cincinnati, which is a group that works for safe schools for LGBT kids, which is awesome. I’ve got a spreadsheet with a whole bunch of different topics and obviously, he news dictates a lot of what we do. We’ve had a lot of episodes planned and it’s like oh crap, got to scrap that because something crazy just happened.
                        Sometimes the conversation skews more towards issues of humanism, and atheism, and church day separation and sometimes it skews far more towards the LGBTQ sides of things. We had an episode focused almost exclusively on these trans bathroom bills. Yeah just wide ranging conversations.
I like to think it stays relevant to if you are atheist but not a member of the LGBTQ community but you consider yourself an ally, and you are interested in our stories. I think there’s always something there. for the LGBTQ person who is interested in humanism, atheism I think there’s always something interesting there, and then maybe we can get the theist who is just curious about what the hell goes on in a show like that.
Trav:                Great, great. Well that’s about it for me. Anything else you’d like to add?
Callie:              No, no. Thanks a lot for having me. I like your show. I like what you and I’m stoked to talk to you.
Trav:                Great, thanks again for joining me.
Callie:              Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Trav:                Thanks for listening to the Bi Any Means podcast. The theme music is "Endurance" by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music at The Bi Any Means logo was design by Asher Silberman. If you like what you have heard, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Just go to to donate. Also, you can go to for more musings of a queer humanist.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Are Atheists The Most Hated Group In America? Well . . . -- New Post On Queereka

[image: David Silverman, president of American Atheists, with a quote in white saying, "The fact is that we're the most hated group in this country."]


On Tuesday night, CNN did a special on atheism in America. I didn’t watch it because I had a feeling CNN wasn’t going to get it right. Whenever the mainstream media talks about atheism, it usually portrays us as little Richard Dawkins clones running around telling religious people how stupid they are (although most stereotypes contain a hint of truth). Based on what Hemant Mehta and Vlac Chituc wrote, though, it looks like the special had its pros and cons. My biggest pet peeve, however, was when David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said at one point, “The fact is we’re the most hated group in this country.”

Really? Really?

Read the rest on Queereka.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Bi Any Means Podcast #5: Being Godless in the Bible Belt with Neil Carter

On today's episode, I chat with Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie about being an atheist in the Bible Belt.

Transcript provided by Marvin:

Trav:                Hi everyone, this is Trav Mamone, host of the Bi Any Means podcast. With this podcast, I wish to explore the intersection between social justice and secular humanism. I have a small but growing audience, and I want to attract more listeners and also readers to the blog. There’s just one problem, podcasting can cost money. Most of the technology is free but I want to expand my services beyond what I can afford right now. For example, I hired a guy from to do transcripts of my podcast for the deaf and hearing impaired, and I’m also thinking about getting a proper camera to make YouTube videos because right now I’m basically just making videos with iPod Touch. Anyways, I know I have a small audience so I’m not expecting to rank in millions but if you all like what I’m doing, and you want to help out you can pitch in just a buck a month and that will go a long way. Back to the show.

                        Welcome to the Bi Any Means podcast, a place where social justice and humanism meet.

                        Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion to I’m Trav Mamone and today’s guest is Neil Carter who writes the Patheos blog Godless in Dixie. In his bio he describes himself as “a school teacher, a tutor, a personal trainer, a supplement pusher, a driving instructor and a father of five.” He also helps moderate a discussion group in Mississippi for atheist. Neil thanks for joining me today.

Neil:                Thanks, thanks for having me.

Trav:                First I want to ask you about your background, you were raised Baptist, right?

Neil:                That’s right, Southern Baptist.

Trav:                Okay, what was that like growing up?

Neil:                It was a positive experience. When I was young my family was marginally involved, I would say nominally involved. We attended regularly but it wasn’t a consuming occupation for us. Really the first one to get really deeply involved in church activities was me. I had a conversion experience when I was about 15, and I jumped in with both feet started teaching Sunday school, leading Bible studies, doing ministry trips, preaching tours, things like that.

                        I’m the first one that got involved in the church at that level, and ironically I’m now out of the church and my family is now very involved in ministry, and I have several family members who are either on staff or have leadership positions at the church that I grew up in which was megachurch in Jackson, Mississippi.

Trav:                You also say you to seminary, and you were a part of the House Church Movement, right?

Neil:                That’s right and those were two pretty things. My background was Southern Baptist but the seminary that was closed to me was Reformed Theological Seminary, which is more Calvinist and Presbyterian, and I heard they had a good academic reputation, and I had some semi-Calvinistic meanings myself from my own personal Bible study. I attended reform seminary, and got an A in biblical studies from them. I didn’t do the third year of ministry classes because I did not want to be a Presbyterian minister, and really, I was always geared towards a more informal kind of church, even while I was very involved in a Baptist church I always wanted something more spontaneous, more decentralized, more informal, and personal, and small group oriented.

                        Even while I was at seminary I had my eye on the home church kind of model because from my personal Bible study that was what it looked like the New Testament churches were like. They were more informal and more relationally oriented, and based in the home. I wanted to copy that, and I linked up with a House Church Movement that was based basically at the time. I move to Atlanta with my family, and stayed there for about 10 years, individually I took on some leadership roles from them as well and that’s where I was when I finally decided that I just didn’t buy the whole thing anymore.

Trav:                When … did you always have little doubts in the back of mind during all this time?

Neil:                I’ve always had an inner skeptic. When I was little, I was raised to believe in spiritual things, and to believe in God, and to believe in Jesus even though I didn’t really have a personal commitment that was very passionate when I was younger. Prior to my conversion experience as a teenager but even while, I was a believer in spiritual and super natural things I always had this inner nagging thought process that said, but how do you really know that this stuff is real? I mean how do you know it’s not all wrong, and made up?

                        That was always there for me. I just kept putting it down. I learned how to quiet that but sometimes I would entertain the thoughts just enough to come up with good ways to dismiss them, and as long as I was satisfied with my own answers I could keep the inner skeptic quiet. He back out again during my college years because I was studying Bible formally, and when you do that you get engaged in a lot of more in-your-face questions about the reliability of the Bible, about whether or not the stories that are there really happened, and you have to try once again to find good justifications for why you believe these things are reliable.

                        Anyway, so I went through that process in college, and then I quieted the inner skeptic for another, whatever, 10, 15 years but it came back out again after a few years of ministry, and being involved in House Church leadership, and it just came out full force. And eventually I decided instead of squashing it I’m going to go on and just let this guy talk for a little bit, and start listening to the questions, and pursuing them as best as I could and eventually they led me out of the faith all together.

Trav:                That’s similar to my experience. I had … I’ve always had little doubts in the back of my mind but I always found a book, or a progressive Christian speak who would sort of say, yes. You are right about that but Christianity doesn’t have to be about believing in seven-day creationism, thousand year old creationism, or that the virgin birth really happened, or that this really happened or that really happened. Finally, I started deconstructing enough that number one, I started actually reading stuff like Richards Dawkins, or really hearing what the atheists had to day and applying that to my own theology like okay, well, there’s no supernatural forces in the world, so let’s cut that back down until finally I was like I ain’t got nothing left.

Neil:                It’s funny. In my case, I really didn’t find anybody to read that was helpful to me, and a friend of mine that I spoke with this weekend had a similar experience, and what she said was that she was of the mind that she was afraid to read anybody who would unduly sway her one way or the other. She never read of the Dawkins Stuff, or Dennett, or Harris or anybody else and I was in the same boat. I tried once or twice to open a couple of books by well-known atheist writers and they weren’t speaking to me where I was because they were answering different questions than what I was asking.
Trav:                Right.
Neil:                They were just so over the top anti-theistic and it’s not where I was at the time. You had a transitional time in there where you found what we call some of the gateway drugs like maybe Ryan Bell [sic, he meant Rob Bell] and Brian McLaren. I don’t know who else maybe Blue Light Jazz, or something. Anyway, I never went one of those phases. I one of those that just jumped from one end to the other. It’s really frustrated a while to people because they are like why didn’t you … it seems like you should have had more steps in between. And I don’t really know how to explain why I didn’t have those in between steps except that I had so much theological education that I feel like I learned how to deconstruct all that in between stuff.

Most of those progressive and more liberal leaning Christianity versions I had already dismissed because I had all my reasons why I didn’t really agree with them. For me it was sort of down to these options either I was going to go full board and accept that there was something magical with this book, and I have to believe what it says even if it appears to be contradictory. Or I need to really open all the questions and say, what if we were wrong about all of it? What is the whole God idea is an incorrect hypothesis? That’s where I ended.

Trav:                Being an atheist in the so-called Bible belt you are right it can be pretty hard. Tell us about that.

Neil:                In your daily life, you typically don’t run into anybody else like you. We have found each other online and that’s helpful but where we live in the heart of Mississippi is a very, very religious place. The people who wear their religious commitments on their sleeves do very well here. You can’t run for public office without very openly waving in your faith like a flag in front of people. Our current governor got elected by coming out on all of the hot button issues that the evangelical churches were pounding at the desk about.

                        There was even a personhood amendment that was being pushed that was to try to declare that from the moment a zygote exists it’s got full personhood rights, and the governor of our state came out, and said anybody who was against this initiative was working for the devil.

Trav:                Oh god.

Neil:                When your governor talks that way, there’s clearly no place for separation for church and state. In Mississippi, people don’t believe in separation of church and state. It’s a part of culture, and people who I’ve worked for, very professional businesses have been very open about their faith, and how much it matters to them as businesses that they demonstrate their faith as Christians and they open staff meetings with prayer, their emails all have Bible verses in their signatures. The school that I’m currently teaching at used to have Bible verses at the bottom of their weekly itineraries, the weekly agenda. Eventually they quit doing that. I’m not sure why.

                        It’s everywhere and it’s not just about little things like that. It’s more important things like not accepting people into your family, not allowing your children to be around friends who don’t openly identify as Christian. It’s just a very central part of our culture. It’s hard to have much of a social network at all here if you aren’t connected to a church or at least you are willing to identify with that brand.

Trav:                Right and I’m pretty sure being in the south when your neighbors talk about you they always start by saying “Bless his heart.”

Neil:                Of course, that’s one of the things we say, and God bless you as a way of saying good bye and there’s an expectation that you say something back, which I usually say same to you or something. It’s not like I’m going to say, there is no God. That’s not really the way I talk in regular conversation but it is the way they talk on the other end so it’s kind of ironic.

Trav:                Right. Now, did your de-conversion lead to any family tension?

Neil:                Yes. My family is very devote. They are … my family of origin is way more devote now than they were when I was younger as best as I can tell, and my marriage and my family were based on a common faith, and when I didn’t share that faith anymore that introduced a lot of tension between the two of us. My wife and I had some issues that we had to deal with, and when it came time to work through those issues the biggest problem was we couldn’t really find common ground for how to work through them. When you encounter problems like most marriages do there has to be some kind of common ground. There has to be some place where you can compromise and we were unable to find that.

I think that’s my biggest regret is that weren’t able to find a place of common ground were we could meet and talk about these things, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the culture wars that have been going on for the last 20 or 30 years have polarized people and it’s made it hard to find those places of common ground. Yeah, it introduced a lot of tension, and there’s a talk that gets circulated especially in evangelical churches that we are at a war. We are at a spiritual, a struggle for the hearts and mind of America, and for your children. Let’s not forget the children y’all.
Everybody uses children in service of their tribe. I’m very self-conscious about doing that myself because everybody does it but it came time to work through our differences, and really the talk that’s around us has always made it look like people like me are the enemy. It works how making the … we are taking away the foundation of the country which may of them believe has to be a religious foundation. Even growing up in the south, my education taught me that that’s not technically correct. The United States was based on a concept of pluralism where we have to make room for people of different ideologies but a lot of people haven’t gotten that message yet.
It was Christians who taught me that. I know that they should know better but they don’t. There’s been effort to go back in … we tell the story differently, and make it sound like if we are not exclusively Christian with the way we run our government, then God is not going to bless our country. That’s the kind of rhetoric that’s been thrown around and it doesn’t help.

Trav:                On the flip side have you had many readers email you and say thank you?

Neil:                Quite a lot. I spend a lot of time actually answering email and corresponding, which actually is my favorite way to communicate because it gives me time to type on a keyboard, and you would be amazed at how many there are or maybe not, who are all over the place. They are not from the south but they are spread all out all over the country. It’s less common outside of the United States but in the United States even evangelical cultures are just so pervasive that there are pockets f communities where the stuff that I’ve gone through is just like what they are going through.

                        You’ve got families, and social groups that are built around common religion, common faith and when one person finds himself or herself out of that it brings a lot of tension, and people don’t really know how to handle it. It’s so hard to find that common ground. I probably get a dozen emails at least a week from people who say, I’m in a marriage, and my wife and I are in separate places and what do you suggest we do? Or I’m no longer a Christian but our children are Christians, and now they think I’m being used by the devil, or my wife and I de-converted and now my parents don’t want anything to do with us.

                        There’s just a whole gambit of things. I have a couple of ladies who are living together and one of them doesn’t want her father to find out that they are together. They think they are just friends but they are not just friends. She says, should I let my father know I’m in a lesbian relationship and ask me my advice. My advice for her was your father is 80, let’s just let not find out about this. I mean there gets to be a point at which some people much as I want openness and honesty in relationships some people pass a point where they can handle a certain amount of change, and I would prefer people maintain good relationships with each other.

                        If they know that coming out about certain things is going to ruin the relationship, and their parents are really not going to be around much longer, I would hate to lose the few years to a lot of tension. Everybody’s situation is different and my advice is not always the same for everybody.

Trav:                Right, right. Now since Bi Any Means focuses on the intersection of social justice and secular humanism. I want to comment on something you wrote in December, which might have been the first blog post I read of yours. It’s the one called Evangelicals have a hard time seeing racism. You talk about how a lot of evangelical pastors think the deaths of Michael Brown an Eric Garner have less to do with systematic racism and more with sin. That’s something I’ve noticed a lot when I was evangelical. Issues like racism, and poverty were never discussed as like systems of oppression but more symptoms of original.   

                        If everyone got right with God we’d all live in Utopia. Jesus is the answer for everything. The funny part is as you mentioned most white, southern evangelicals were against Civil Rights in the sixties.

Neil:                Yes and many of them still are honestly. If they’ve grown up in a world where the law has made over discrimination illegal then they accept that the government can tell you whether or not you can discriminate against people of a different race. They are basically accepting that. They are not happy, and there are men in government right now that are still trying to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because they felt it was not the government’s business to tell people what they could, and how they can and can’t reject but ironically the exact same conversations have come up around marriage equality.

                        The exact same rhetoric is being used, and just like before the identity of the church, and the integrity of the gospel is being invoked, and it’s being cast as if this is a battle of good versus evil, and the Christian identity is on the line. They talked exactly the same way in the sixties, and it’s exactly the same parallel problems. You’ve got the government stepping in and saying, no you don’t have the right to discriminate based on this category, or this class of person.

                        Yes, as the government we do have the right to step in and tell you can’t do that even though you think this is a matter of your person rights you are choosing to do something that is against the way the constitution has set up our government. Even though it’s a private business you are still not allowed to discriminate. It’s a matter of basic human rights not a matter of you being free to hurt your neighbor and treat them unfairly but what happens is I’ve said before religion has a culture freezing quality to it where every tribe has problems changing.

                        Every tribe has problems accepting new ideas but religion has a way of making it go even slower so that a religious group is slower to adopt a new way of thinking. Like maybe 50 to 100 years behind the rest of the world, and change will eventually happen. It’s a retardant. It slows it down significantly. They are just now finally starting to talk about letting priests marry in the Catholic Church. That’s an issue that got dealt with hundreds of years ago but in the Catholic Church they are just cryogenically frozen in the five hundreds and so they are still working through these questions that the rest of went past a long time ago.

                        What’s happening in white evangelical churches is that they are so slow to accept people who are very different from them. In theory, they can say they believe that the gospel is open to all people, and people of all races are welcome in our church but in reality there’s a culture that’s not going to feel familiar to people who are very diverse. So what Dr. King said years ago is still true that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week and it’s still true like now and because white people me have been in a position of privilege for so many years, any change in that privilege looks like oppression to us.

                        It’s very difficult to get them to see that, and so because that’s the way they’ve talked in those churches even the black evangelicals who like to … who defer a lot to the high profile white evangelicals they are coming out and they are defending the same perspectives. Voddie Baucham for example, came out, and I think I may have mentioned him in that article. Voddie Baucham is a black pastor who says that those guys who got in trouble in the law if you’ll just act, and just do right then you’ll never get in trouble. That’s overly simplistic. That’s not the way it works.

                        That lives in utter denial of the way there are inequities in our society and to vindicate my position and so many others over the last weeks these reports have been coming from … was it the FBI? That said they looked into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department and they are undeniably racially bigoted in their department, and they have been for decades and the evidence is all over the place but people can’t see that. They look at that and say, no, it’s really just a matter if you follow the law you’ll be fine. No, it’s not that simple.   

Trav:                Right. You had a series on your blog called Letters to my daughters, and one letter you say that we all need to spend more time promoting social causes, and fair treatment. How do you see social justice and secular humanism intersect?

Neil:                That’s a really big topic but it matters a great deal to me. I think that humanism is about applying rationality to our relationships and our social structures. It’s a matter of working our rationalism in every area of life including the way we govern ourselves, and the way that we structure the world, and it seems to me that it’s rationally consistent to seek for equal opportunity for diverse groups of people. Unless you actively take part in making those pathways straight, unless you actively work on trying to make the playing field level then you are going to be missing out on the contributions of whole classes of people and these are contributions that could be helping advance the human race.  
                        How many things have we learned from people of diverse gender and race that we wouldn’t have learned if they never were given the resources to learn all the same things that the privileged folks have. Just from a pragmatic standpoint, one of the things that I’ve been trying to argue but probably need to argue more explicitly is if you are one of those who wants to pare down secular humanism to only a very small, narrow cluster of topics related to maybe separation of church and state, or something. You are dooming your movement to failure because rather than increasing the numbers of supporters you are limiting how many people are going to care.
                        Because while many secularists like myself want to see the separation of church and state and honored the way it’s supposed to be … there’s a lot of folks that that’s not just the number one thing on their priority list. If you are worried while walking through your neighborhood you are going to get shot at because you are wearing a hoody, the separation of church and state is not the highest thing on priority list. Until secular humanists movement adopts those concerns as well getting nativities off of government lawns then it’s going to remain a very narrow group of people. I think that’s actually hurting us even from the cold, pragmatic way of analyzing what secular humanism is about.

Trav:                Definitely, yes. By the way, I should apologize to my listeners if you hear my dog in the background, so sorry about that folks. Okay, back to the interview. You recently wrote a post Criticizing religion without being a jerk. I shared it on Reedit atheism form, and well needless to say it didn’t go over so well.

Neil:                You are kidding.

Trav:                I know, shock, right.

Neil:                Totally.

Trav:                Now, some people did point out that merely saying you don’t believe in God makes some religious people automatically assume you are a jerk. What are some ways atheists can end this stigma besides not being a jerk?

Neil:                Well, I don’t know what would motivate the ones that are a jerk because honestly, I’ve tried, and part of being a jerk is you don’t care that other people think you are a jerk. It usually involves a certain blindness to everyone else. You can’t tell someone that they are not sensitive to other people’s feelings because they don’t care, and it doesn’t really make any difference for them.      
                        I do think that as much as possible we should emulate, and highlight, and boost the signal of the those people that we think do a good job of raising the level of discourse, of moving the discussion forward in a constructive discussion and I know a lot of people that do that. When they see someone that’s hitting the important notes, and they are doing it in a respectful way they intentionally help share those things, and they don’t share the others. I think there’s more and more people who are doing that because they tired of the constant bickering back and forth of the least mature atheist arguing with the least mature Christians.

                        Nobody benefits from that. It might be cathodic for the people that do it and I’ve interacted a lot with the Reedit atheist community, and I know what their shortcoming are but I think that it’s true that I will be perceived as a jerk for saying anything negative about religion at all, I realize that. When I talk about people being a jerk I’m not talking about that because I think a lot of Christians can recognize the difference between respectful versus disrespectful dialogue.

                        A good example who be Rachel Held Evans just retweeted one of my posts yesterday and the reason she does that is because I’m not disrespectful when I talk about things, when I analyze religious hang ups I do it in a way that it’s obvious that I used to be one of those. And that’s the thing is there’s enough of us now that have been formally [inaudible 00:28:39] ourselves and we talk about those religious beliefs we are not going to stereotype them because we were that ourselves. We are going to be speaking from experience and as a result we are probably going to be a lot more respectful with the way we talk about it.

                        I think the more people like that come out and share, and like, and talk about their experience the more people are going to see this is a little bit more constructive way to do this so that it engenders real discussion instead of just a lot of nye, nye, nye back and forth which like I said just gets really old really fast.

Trav:                Right, I definitely know what you mean. Talking about these things I’m in the same position where like when you mentioned earlier when you were talking about social justice there are definitely times to point out, go through he atheism 101 thing but a lot of us have graduated from that kind of like, what now? That’s why a lot of my blogging and also with this podcast I try to move the conversation forward. It’s like okay, we’ve read the God Delusion. We’ve read Origin of Species. We know all the arguments against God now what do we do? Well how about this?

                        And also when you said that a lot of us used to be Christians, we know where the other people come from that’s basically been my position as well because not only have I gone through evangelical Christianity but I went through the whole progressive Christian scene as well. I know that not all Christians are against marriage equality. Not all Christians believe in young earth creationism. To me I think if you hear with the other side are saying then you can kind of better respond to it instead of ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments.

Neil:                Yeah, you are lot less likely to do that because you can only look down so much on people who believe the same things that you passionately believed yourself just a few short years ago. I think the ability to empathize is the main thing that’s missing from the ones who are acting like a jerk. The reason why they are acting that way is because they really honestly can’t imagine thinking the way these other people are thinking. It comes easy to depersonalize them, and dehumanize them and talk about them like they are not working out of full deck.

                        The fact of the matter is I know a lot of very intelligent people who believe some of the things they believe. The problem is intelligence is compartmental. You can be brilliant about a handful of things and be almost infantile about others and actually just a normal human condition. I hate it. It doesn’t seem like it should be that way but that’s the way it is. The best illustration I know about that is that the last Sunday school that I attended was led by a world-class oncologist. He’s like a leading researcher … he’s the chairman of the research protocols committee for Oncology Research worldwide, very intelligent man, and as a hobby he believes in and studies creation science.

                        This is a world-class oncologist, and he’s a really bright guy, and he believes in creation science, and most Christians would even say that’s kind of shady stuff, you know. I mean even the ones who think that they are not sure how to reconcile Genesis, creations science itself really gets into some weird stuff and that’s just a great example of how somebody that is really, really bright in a lot of ways is stuck on something that isn’t very logical.

                        When you are entertaining an entire discipline that is rejected by the scientific community entirely and you are a world-class oncologist, those two things don’t seem like they should be reconcilable but they are because it’s the way the human mind works. We can sometimes be incredibly self-contradictory and it doesn’t mean we are not smart. It just means it’s a quark about the way the human mind works.

Trav:                Right. That’s about it for me today. Anything else you’d like to add like any upcoming projects?

Neil:                Sure, there’s a lot going on. I’m starting to work more and more with recovering from religion, which is a group of people that were very good to reach out to me early on when I came out as an atheist, and they have begun a hotline project. I don’t know if you’ve heard about.

Trav:                Yes.

Neil:                It’s been circulated a while and they found this cute number. It’s 184-I-doubt it and they are training dozens and dozens of listeners to answer phone calls, and to just have people call in, and talk about what their questions are. They are being very good about not making this about proselytizing or trying to convince people one-way or the other. It’s just that these people who are calling in don’t have anybody else to talk to. They can listen in a none judgmental way, and so every night of every week, and then all weekend long there are people who are answering calls, and some of this stuff is heartbreaking.

                        It’s a lot of high school students who don’t have anybody else to talk to. A lot of grownups as well and some of them will wait two or three weeks before they get up the nerve to call and then when they do they just pour their heart out, and people just listen, and cry with them, and then it’s very emotional. They just have to have somebody to talk to and then if possible they might point them in the direction of resources that might help them but I’m crazy about that project.

                        I think it’s a great idea and I wish that people like me had something like that when we were going through our questioning times.

Trav:                All right. Thanks again for joining me today Neil.

Neil:                Sure, glad to be on.

Trav:                Thanks for listening to the Bi Any Means podcast. The theme music is “Endurance” by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music at The Bi Any Means logo was design by Asher Silberman. If you like what you have heard please subscribe via iTunes and go to for more musings of a queer humanist.

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