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 bianymeans.com. 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 dreamyouth.bandcamp.com. 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 www.patreon.com/tmamone to donate. Also, you can go to www.bianymeans.com for more musings of a queer humanist.
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