The Importance of Understanding Identity

David Silverman of American Atheists, among others, was featured on a CNN special. One statement by David Silverman has caused a stir of controversy:

CNN Anchor: “I’ve interviewed men and women, they say, ‘I’m a humanist, I’m a freethinker, I’m a skeptic.’ So many people won’t say, ‘I’m an atheist.’ Is it all the same thing? Are these just softer terms for ‘I’m an atheist?'”

Silverman: “Yes. These are atheists who are afraid to use the word. And what are they doing? They’re lying.”

I’ll preface this by saying that I, personally, believe that anyone who lacks a belief in a god is an atheist, by definition. That said, I take issue with what David Silverman said because I think it grossly oversimplifies the multitude of reasons people prefer to not identify as an atheist and, in some cases, unfairly shifts the burden onto the person who chooses to not identify as an atheist – the burden of fixing the situation that makes them not adopt the “atheist” label.

Some (but not necessarily all) of these reasons are:

  • Prejudices internal to the atheist movement: The atheist community and movement, in all its various forms and facets, is a product of its surrounding culture. In the U.S., that means our communities carry aspects of the culture in the U.S. – including, to at least some degree, its prejudicial baggage: racism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, heterosexism, classism, and others. It’s understandable, then, that an individual may resist or outright refuse to identify as an atheist because of their experiences with prejudiced atheists.
  • Disagreement with “atheist leaders”: in the public’s eye, people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, David Silverman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others are treated as “atheist leaders”, and with good reason – they are frequently in front of the camera and frequently treated by the media as the voices of the atheist movement. There are people who disagree with some or all things people in these positions have said and, perhaps because they feel these ideas predominante the atheist movement or because they merely do not wish others to associate them to these individuals, they do not identify as atheists.
  • Prejudices external to the atheist movement: This is probably going to be an issue we’re all most commonly familiar with. The word “atheist” has a social stigma attached to it – people who are out as atheists can risk harassment, loss of friends, loss of family, loss of job, and worse. When someone is faced with the security of their livelihood and identifying outwardly as an atheist, they understandably choose the former.
  • Lack of understanding of terms: Far too often, I’ve been asked, “Why do you have to identify as an atheist? Why not ‘agnostic’?” It may surprise you that this line of questioning isn’t limited to religious people – I’ve gotten it from people who identify as part of the nonreligious spectrum, too (“nones”, “agnostics”, et cetera). Fundamental to this question is the lack of understanding of what the gnostic spectrum and theistic spectrum mean; when I explain that I am an agnostic atheist and what that means, it often sparks a light of revelation in their eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of some of the most-common reasons I come across in my conversations with people. What I want to punctuate this editorial with, though, is the fact that the response to these and many other reasons that people choose to not identify as an atheist is not to call them liars and to not shame them for choosing to identify as they wish.

What out atheists (and, critically, atheist leaders) should be doing is incorporating these reasons as feedback for potential ways to improve or correct the local communities and society as a whole such that we eliminate these causes that drive people away from the word “atheist”. It not only helps to empower the atheist movement by inviting people to join it, but it also helps ensure that the movement is a safe space for its members and that also empowers its members in the social justice causes they want to champion.

Not everyone who chooses to identify as something other than “atheist” will have reasons for doing so that we can solve, but there are many, many people who choose to avoid identifying with the “a-word” for reasons that we can – and should – work to solve.

American Family Association Maps “Bigotry” – Including KCAC

The American Family Association, known for its active promotion of religious and anti-LGBT governmental and social values, has produced a map of organizations in the United States “that openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith” – including KCAC:


As Hemant writes on the Friendly Atheist:

The American Family Association has long argued that the list is unfair to certain Christian groups, so they’ve now created their own version of a hate group list.

The AFA Bigotry Map identifies “groups and organizations that openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith.”

Who’s on the list?

Basically every atheist and pro-LGBT-rights group out there, including local and college groups.

That’s not a joke: They’ve listed a number of groups whose members’ worst crime is disagreeing with Christianity and creating a safe space for atheists to discuss their doubts.

We can only speculate which of our positions that we, as an organization, promote landed us on this map, but we’d like to at least raise an objection to the idea that we’re anti-Christian. We’re content to disagree on the existence of a god and the divinity of Jesus and leave it at that, instead choosing to work with people of all stripes and faiths to promote common values and causes: LGBT equality, elimination of racial inequality, wealth inequality, and even freedom of religious practice. That’s not anti-Christian, and there are some who say it even makes us more Christian than the AFA.

As the saying goes: “haters gonna hate

WWJTD Contribution: “Raising My Kids Without Religion”

Our director of community, Helen Stringer, has contributed a post to the blog “WWJTD” titled, “Raising My Kids Without Religion”:

I often explain that my kids will follow the example of the adults around them, like I did growing up. We also raise them to be critical thinkers and to consider how their actions may influence another human being. We don’t tell them that someone is monitoring their thoughts and lives 24/7 and keeping score. We tell them the truth, that actions have consequences, and good actions have good consequences. Compelling your children to behave by threat is not teaching them moral values, it’s controlling them with edicts.

You can read the full post here.

Chapel Hill and the Atheist Community

By now, most of us have heard about the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina, which was followed shortly by Craig Hicks turning himself in for the murders.

More relevant to the atheist community is that Craig was an atheist; moreover, he was an anti-theist. The fact that this victims were Muslims and that Craig had posted publicly statements regarding Islam is a fact with inescapable implications – were these three murdered for being Muslims?

A popular explanation for the murder was a parking dispute, though the father of one of the victims has described this as the conclusion of an ongoing history of conflict between Hicks and his victims. Whether or not the investigation bears out that it really was a parking a dispute that led to the murder of three students is not what I want to focus this post on.

The murder of these three students and the suspected motive of their religion or their race (or a combination of both) being what led to their murders reflects a problem that much of American society has: a xenophobic intolerance of Muslims, be they American or non-American. If you haven’t ever heard or read of this happening, it’s not hard to find reliable accounts of this phenomenon. As a good starting point, I’d advise you check out Heina Dadhaboy’s blog for a couple of accounts.

The fact that there are many who are championing the parking dispute as a motive and not only failing to discuss religion or race as a possible motive, but foregoing the conversation altogether of the problem that American society (and, being a subset of it, American atheist communities) has with racism and xenophobia against Muslims should be disconcerting. Much as we might otherwise want, being an atheist does not imbue us with a transcendent wisdom that allows us to unshackle ourselves from the negative heirlooms of our culture. We have to be willing to address these problems and work to resolve them within our own communities if we really are working to create a safe, positive community for atheists.

I want to make it clear that KCAC works to create that safe, positive community. We do not suppress criticisms of Islam for its use in propagating harmful ideas, but, at the same time, we also wholeheartedly promote the basic dignity and respect that individuals, Muslim or otherwise, deserve. Pursuant to that, we stress that one cannot be held responsible or even be assessed by the actions and words of people who share the same religious identity. Anti-Muslim bigotry, and bigotry against people who are perceived as being Muslim, is a problem in our society that we recognize and work to discourage.

MLK Day in Reflection: Black Lives Matter

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the day of observance of the works and influence wrought by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his co-activists (and those who followed him and continued his work) arrives today, it marks a time of reflection on where we stand, as a society, in terms of recognizing the issues of racism that continue to affect us to this day.

As events in Ferguson unfurled and the deaths of other African Americans at the hands of police officers in the United States gained national attention, one motto took off across American (and, in many instances, international) culture, by traditional media, social media, and the organization of multiple groups in support of a simple (and what is, unfortunately, controversial among some) concept:

Black lives matter.

As an organization, KCAC has been trying to find the best way to support the movement behind this concept. Some may object to this as a mission drift (and we’ve even had a non-atheist detractor or two claim it as such); however, the board unquestionably feels this is within our mission statement, which (for your convenience), I’ll repeat here:

To advance atheism through activism, philanthropy, education, and by cultivating a positive secular community.

It’s important to focus on the last part of the statement: we’re seeking to cultivate a positive secular community, and, implicit in that statement, is the need for a safe secular community. We could not achieve this if we blithely ignored the issues that face people of color – not only in subtle and overt racism by individual citizens in our society, but also in the issues of increased rates of incarceration; disproportionately harsher penalties for crimes (compared to similar white offenders); the increase in violence – both by police and private individuals – against black people (and other people of color); as well as a multitude of other factors that negatively affect non-white people. We must also acknowledge the harms of white privilege – as an even minimal start to the list, we can recognize the complement to those issues listed above: the decreased risk of arrest, conviction, punishment, and harm at the hands of our justice system if you happened to be born with white skin.

As I mentioned, KCAC has been working to find how it can best support the (what shall henceforth be called) #BlackLivesMatter movement. A large part of this is learning about organizations and people local to Kansas City who are working to forward the movement. We, of course, would be remiss if we did not mention the work done by Kansas City’s own local organization, One Struggle KC.

Presently, religious organizations lead the charge in many ways in organizing the movement – providing safe spaces for various members of the movement to meet and organize and experienced leadership in moving the movement forward to meet its goals. Not to imply that anyone needs our permission for this to continue, but, speaking as president of KCAC, I want to make it clear that we support leadership in this form: if the only thing we disagree about is the existence of a god, then, by all means, let’s not let that stop us from working together to meet the goals we share in common.

The implication of this, however, is that KCAC isn’t likely to ever emerge as a leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The board feels that this is fine. As I mentioned in a previous statement on Ferguson, this is a time for us to follow experienced leadership in the movement and do what we can as allies to support the movement. This means that we listen, learn, and take what we learn from the experiences of others and work to apply it in our own communities – for myself, this means KCAC and Kansas City Oasis.

This does not mean that we feel that atheists have no direct place in the movement, of course, nor that we who identify as humanists have any less of an obligation to support the fight against racism. Indeed, there are a number of activists – local and afar – who identify as atheists and are active leaders in organizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement. One of the most prominent and recent examples of this was the People of Color Beyond Faith social justice conference in Los Angeles. We would be doing a disservice to pretend that these dedicated activists do not exist.

Today, then, is a day where we all should reflect on what our place is in the movement to bring equality for all people and, in particular, to reduce and eventually eliminate the prejudicial harm that affects people of color in our society. We can – and should – appreciate the work of today’s activists and their predecessors, not merely stopping at Dr. King, but reaching further back into history to acknowledge the work of his predecessors, too. We don’t have to agree on approach or tactics, but, going forward, we must at least all continue to add our voices to the collective push against racism in all its forms – to, as Dr. King himself said, not propagate the silence of good people.

Get Out and Vote – 2014 Edition

November’s coming up fast upon us, and there are a number of ballot measures to be passed or rejected and offices to be filled with elected officials. We all want to be good and informed voters, so, if you’re looking for information on officials and ballot measures available in your state of Kansas or Missouri, read below!




Make sure you remember to carve off time on November 4, 2014 to make your voice heard and participate in the voting process!

‘Special Rights’ Are Critical to Equality

Last evening, I had the experience of sitting in on the Roeland Park city council meeting as it heard from multiple members of the public speaking in favor of a non-discrimination policy that would protect employees in and citizens of Roeland Park against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In addition to the overwhelming majority of supporters, a minority of dissenters came up to speak. One, in particular, stuck in my mind: a man came up and spoke of a hypothetical situation wherein his three sons (none of whom, he noted, were gay) were with a friend who was gay and all four were attacked. He then asked: why does their gay friend need “special rights”? Aren’t we equally protected under the law?

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the increased risk a gay man faces of violence merely for his sexual orientation and focus on the more fundamental thought here: the idea that everyone, enjoying equal protection (or vulnerability) according to the letter of the law, enjoys “equal rights”.

Yes, according to the letter of the law, I am vulnerable to being fired for using the restroom that aligns with my gender (male, men’s room). Yes, according to the letter of the law, I am vulnerable to being denied service at a restaurant for being attracted to the people I am (women, in this case). However, trans people and people who are attracted to members of the same sex, although they have the same rights as written in our laws, do not have the same protections that are afforded me by the happenstance of gender identity and sexual orientation – in this, although the letter of the law superficially protects us equally, we are, in actuality, unequally protected when accounting for the circumstances of our society.

We cannot let ourselves be trapped by the idea that the law is a perfect reflection of social conditions; when we codify special protections into law for individuals, it is not to elevate them above others who do not fall under these special protections, but, instead, it is a reflection of the inherent disadvantages interwoven into the system from which we would seek to explicitly protect someone – whether that system is our government, their place of employment, their housing, or any other component of our society.

As such, when we work to write into law to protect individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, sex, and so many other factors, it isn’t to imply that the individuals who would be protected are incapable of achieving greatness on their own, but is instead to reflect that there are factors beyond their control that set the odds against them for reasons that are neither their fault nor cause for them to receive anything but a fair chance to flourish. To not do this is to let the false narrative brought by privilege blind us into the false belief that, simply because we, personally, may not suffer discrimination, no one else must face difficulties in their daily lives.

Humor As a Passive Agent for Discrimination

You may or may not have heard about how Ann Coulter’s attempt to capitalize on the “Bring Back Our Girls” meme has backfired pretty badly on her (or worked out well – I guess if she wanted to get her face out there, she succeeded).

There’s one picture, however, that I want to shine a light on to try and raise some awareness:


Let’s step back and ask ourselves: “What is the joke here?”

The answer is: “Ha, ha! Ann Coulter is a trans woman with a penis!”



What’s wrong with that? I mean, yes, it likely makes her a huge hypocrite (if we can safely extrapolate what her views of trans people are based on her other publicly-stated opinions), but her hypocrisy is not the joke here. The joke is: she is, physically, a man who expresses as a woman.

This wasn’t a socially-conservative site that shared this; it was the “Hot Liberals” Facebook page – presumably, a place for socially-liberal people to gather. While it may not surprise any of us (though we’ll still find it offensive) that a conservative Facebook page would share this, it’s telling that this was shared by a liberal-minded Facebook page, and what it tells us:

Humor can be an extremely effective, subtle, and subversive agent to propagate prejudices and discrimination.

Like I said: no one would be terribly surprised if this showed up on a Rush Limbaugh fan page, but, as allies of trans people, what’s our excuse? It typically boils down to simple ignorance – not taking the time to examine why there may be something not all-right with the punchline. The end effect, though, is still the same as, and possibly worse than, when this joke gets spread by social conservatives.

Ask yourself: what does it tell our friends and family who are trans and our allies who are trans when we spread jokes like these? What’s the end effect of when we propagate the idea that, for whatever reason, the idea of a trans woman with a penis is somehow a bad thing or such a person should be laughed at for merely being a woman with a penis?

I’m not on a rampage to condemn the people who shared this photo – I wish I could count on only one hand the number of times I have, in ignorance, repeated a joke that spread a problematic idea. However, I want to raise awareness that things like this show how easy it is for racism, sexism, anti-LGBT, and other forms of discrimination can weave their way into the humor of even the staunchest ally of a cause. Sometimes, it’s a really good idea to step back and assess whether a joke, as funny as it may seem now, is still funny when the people you care about have also seen it.

Atheists vs. Christians: The False Dichotomic Narrative

In light of the saddening decision by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold prayer at town meetings, there seem to be some tones of “the atheists have been defeated!” going up in some circles. Putting aside the fact that the suit was filed by a Baptist group focused on secularism in government, this view that this has been a major strike in favor of religious liberties belies, it seems, an ignorance of history. I think we need to remind ourselves of the importance of religious freedom, and there’s no better lesson than history. As much as it may surprise many, the freedom to believe in God has not always been as safe in America as it is today:

To quote some illustrative selections:

“Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.”

“In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.”

When a government is allowed to prioritize one form of religion over others, sometimes to the explicit exclusion of others, the only ones who benefit are those who are in the majority or hold the most power – which is all well and good for them until they lose that privileged status and become at the mercy of those they persecuted and marginalized (see: Iraq and the inversion of power of the Shia & Sunnis).

The issue of and importance of a secular government, while one that atheists should be concerned about, is not an issue that should be or is, by any measure, limited to one that should concern only atheists. If not out of compassion for the people around you, then act at least out of self-interest to try and ensure that the day never comes where you find yourself on the other end of the hammer or pike of marginalization and persecution that has been previously wielded against those not in power.

The Importance of Being an Atheist LGBT Activist

Back in the days leading up to the Supreme Court hearing about a pivotal case regarding the federal government’s mistreatment of same-sex couples – during which your Facebook friends became indistinguishable behind an array of similar pink-and-red equality sign profile pictures – some friends chose to represent themselves as atheist LGBT activists. They did this by, for example, adding the signature “red atheist A” on top of the equality symbol. This raised the question: why did some atheists feel the need to add “atheism” to the message of equality?

This question came to mind again as we stood at the Million “Fag” March cheering for equality, carrying, among other things, a banner for KCAC. There’s always at least one or two people who ask the question, “Why are the atheists here?”

The answer to that question, of course, will vary from person to person; some will say it’s to add balanced representation amidst the mix of messages about a love-affirming God or Jesus; some will say it’s because the path that took them to atheism was a direct result of their support for LGBT equality; some will say it’s to show that atheists support issues and people that span the theological divide between religious and non-religious; some will say it’s to represent their whole identity – a person who belongs to both the LGBT and atheist community. Whatever the personal reasons are, I want to make the reason KCAC makes a noticeable presence at events like these clear:

We do it because we want to make sure everyone knows we’re building an LGBT-inclusive community.

Now, for many, this seems unnecessary; most, if not all, of you reading this are very, very pro-LGBT (if not a member of the LGBT community yourself). The fact of the matter is, though, that anti-LGBT sentiments, while commonly held by religious people, are not the sole domain of religion. In many ways, it’s a cultural phenomena. I’ve seen and argued with atheists who believe that homosexuality is “contrary to the natural intent of sex”, that trans people are “living unnatural lifestyles”; I’ve heard from friends who have been the direct targets of these kinds of experiences.

As sad as it is, it’s necessary (and important) to stand up at these events, as atheists, and say, “The Kansas City atheist community is a community for you. You are welcome, you are loved, and you are wanted.”