My undergraduate degree was in pastoral studies, but I never made it to the pulpit. Not for lack of opportunity, but for lack of belief. It wasn’t some sudden event or particular argument I could point to, it was a lengthy personal dissection. Essentially, I ceased believing in different bits of my religion over time. Eventually, the only thing that kept me in the pew at all was the relationships I’d built. The community it gave me. The friends and family I’ve come to cherish.
My husband and I never made a conscious decision to quit church, it just happened. We attended for quite a while as nonbelievers, but it became increasingly difficult. It was hard to beat around the bush with where you were in your beliefs, especially with friends. After being out of the church for three years, we finally came out with it. It was well received. Very well received. I’m convinced we have the best friends anyone could ask for.
At some point we decided to find out what other people, secular people, were up to, and very randomly showed up at a freethought group meeting. We met some awesome people there, indeed people who are friends today. We attended a couple of secular conferences, which is like attending a mishmash science and philosophy conference except more fun, and became aware of and connected to national and local organizations for secular people.
While the church brings a lot of people together, and creates community, it also leaves people out. We didn’t belong in a church anymore. We couldn’t say we shared their core beliefs or values anymore, and as such we felt out of place. A lot of the core ideals we liked; such as helping the poor, the hungry, and charity efforts. However, we didn’t like the emphasis on the supernatural. I watched as people (my friends and I) served food in a soup kitchen as we volunteered one evening, and it was our hands doing the work, not something supernatural.
I was trained to plant churches and lead a congregation, but I don’t want to do that. People don’t need to be shepherded, and we don’t need another church. We need a community of reason. A community where people are more important than beliefs, where meaning comes from making a difference, and labels are not required. By partnering with Houston Oasis, I hope to build such a community. Will you help build that community with me?
I once said during one of our “Ask an Atheist” events that the Kansas City Atheist Coalition could be called the “Kansas City Secular Super Square Dancing Squad” and its purpose would still be the same. The person to whom I was speaking exclusively took offense to the word “atheist” itself. When I attempted to ascertain the reason as to why, the answer I received was that atheists were bad people without any further explanation. I then asked if they thought that I was also a bad person. The response I received was that I am not a bad person because I was not an atheist.
To clarify, I am very much an atheist; but simply being an atheist doesn’t really say much about my character or what type of person I am. Atheism isn’t a worldview, as it only takes the null position that one does not accept belief in any god(s). The identifier merely opens the door to acquire more information about the person. These labels and identifiers give us a good starting position to acquire additional information about someone. This was the first time that someone attempted to No True Scotsman me out of my own atheism. This was also the first time that I began to realize that an innocuous word such as atheism carried such negativity without a good explanation.
Recent events have lead to me see this doesn’t stop with just the word atheism. These negative impressions have a far greater impact than simply not liking the word itself. These impressions create this “us vs. them” dichotomy in ways that affect the care and well-being of those less fortunate because of the negative bias that the word atheism carries – specifically when it involves acts of altruism and philanthropy. I have often been asked why an atheist cares to help anyone at all if they do not believe in god(s). This is a common question that I am happy to address, even though the question brings with it a tone of personal incredulity. I live in a world where my actions and beliefs can have a demonstrable positive or negative impact on others. These actions and thoughts do not exist in a vacuum and helping others not only improves their quality of life, but also further enhances my own and the lives of those closest to me. This brief answer can open the floodgates to acquire more information about the person and can also accompany a myriad of other known labels such as humanism.
From that point, I’ve been asked why it is necessary to call myself an atheist or be an open atheist – again, as if the word atheist is something that can never be spoken. The reason is simple: because I am an atheist. It seems to me that the entire position hinges upon the desire that I should disassociate from the word atheist. I do not give back to the community strictly because of my atheism, but that still doesn’t change the fact that I am an atheist. There are various organizations around the country with members who identify as atheist, yet their atheism isn’t the sole driving force behind their good will. The Pathfinders Project is one such example of an awesome group of people that place the needs of others above the promotion of a message of non-belief or faith; however, they do not hide how they choose to individually represent themselves. I desire people to be open about how they choose to identify. This is far different than desiring to promote a message above the basic needs of others. I will never deride Christians for wearing their belief openly when they give back to the community – in fact, I appreciate it! I desire to also work side-by-side with them because I do not see this dichotomy when helping others. I can represent myself as an atheist without the need to discuss atheism. This acts as a catalyst to destigmatize misconceptions surrounding atheists. Atheists are your neighbors, friends and those you care about. I will not evangelize my atheism when I volunteer and give back to the community in any capacity other than simply representing myself as an open atheist, nor would I hold a sandwich ransom in order to acquire an acceptance of non-belief.
This awareness of how someone represents themselves can create a pushback from others in the community. This goes back to this “us vs. them” dichotomy that can be troublesome to shake. When people start saying that open atheists are “intimidating and inappropriate at times” with no explanation, then what is the message that you want to project? Is simply the act of being open about who you are so troubling that you’d much rather pretend we don’t exist? The one thing that I won’t do is hide who I am to appease someone’s inability to accept that I do not adhere to the same beliefs as them. I would never want someone to hide who they are because I do not ascribe to the same beliefs. Their difference of belief does not mean that we cannot work together or see value in helping, educating, and improving the lives of those around us.
There can be a tacit agreement between two people of differing backgrounds and beliefs, yet work together harmoniously to better the lives of others. I should not have to hide who I am, nor would I ask anyone to do the same. I should not have to hide the “A” word when I serve a meal to the hungry, or when I give a gift to someone in need. I shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone I am not. I am an atheist and that’s just fine.
There are many who are fond of stopping someone when the words “atheists believe that” leave their mouths. They are quick to remind this person that the word “atheist” merely means a lack of belief in a god, so, if the person they’ve stopped is about to say anything other than, “Atheists believe that there is insufficient evidence for the existence of gods”, they are wrong.
Similarly, I often see the phrase, “Christians believe…” or “Christians say…”, and what often follows is some mention around abortion rights, birth control, marriage equality, trans rights, or some other thing that requires an assembly of an all-male, all-cis, and all-hetero panel speaking to a U.S. Senate committee.
I think we need to eat our own dog food here. If we take the simplest definition of a Christian – someone who believes Jesus was the son of Jehovah and died for our sins – then we have to acknowledge that we can’t say what Christians believe beyond that simple statement. The banner of “Christian” encompasses people of a wide variety of people who are secularists, theocrats, anti-choice, pro-choice, pro-LGBT, anti-LGBT, creationist, scientifically-literate, and a whole host of other descriptors that make blanket statements about Christians, the majority of the time, false.
I’m not saying you have to agree with how a progressive Christian who is pro-LGBT handles what Paul and Moses had to say about LGBT people; I certainly don’t. However, if that person believes that Jesus was the son of Jehovah and died for our sins and believes that LGBT people are totally stellar, then, by the example you have before you, you cannot say, “Christians are anti-LGBT.” The Bible certainly is, yes, but Christians, as a whole, are not (the blade cuts both ways, of course – we cannot say that Christians, as a whole, are pro-LGBT; see: Fred Phelps & company for the most immediate and local example).
This type of thought, of course, isn’t limited to just Christians – it applies to political labels, other non-Christian religious labels, philosophical labels, and a whole spectrum of ideas. I don’t point this out to try and get us all together for a warm, fuzzy group hug to share the love (though I certainly think religious people and atheists can work together for the greater good), but to point out that, if we’re going to strive for accuracy in how people talk about atheists, we should do the same when talking about non-atheists.
It’s been a fast-paced, sorta-intense ten days. What started as a message to our members to let them know why our normal holiday plans weren’t going to repeat this year went viral, got some national attention, and resulted in a fair avalanche of offers from religious and non-religious charitable organizations around Kansas City asking us to volunteer with them (needless to say, we don’t expect to have as much trouble in the future finding available volunteer opportunities for our monthly philanthropic activities).
From that, we immediately jumped into tabling at Skepticon – I know, it doesn’t seem like a terribly exhausting activity, but between actually enjoying the conference and coordinating the provisioning of merchandise, tabling supplies, and figuring out which of Skepticon’s great speakers we can miss so that we can meet all the wonderful and friendly people perusing the vendor tables, it’s still a full-time job unto itself!
More than a few times, I was approached and told how well I handled the past week, between responding to messages sent to us by e-mail and Facebook, to media interviews, and to just handling the overall message around KCRM turning us away. Because I handle these things – the facets of KCAC that often represent the outward-facing expression of our organization – people, I think, tend to associate all the good that KCAC does with me, and I think it’s worth noting one very important thing:
This is the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, not the Kansas City Joshua Coalition.
I write that line in good humor, but it’s to stress that KCAC is led by officers and a board of directors. While I believe I’ve done a good job – first as vice president, and now president – of KCAC, there is no way on this earth that I could do this alone. To that end, I’d like to give credit where credit is due. I’ll go by seniority with the organization.
I’ll start with our fantastic vice president and director of design, Veronica Brown. She designs all of our lovely shirts, our literature, our banners, our “Ask an Atheist” signs, and our site. The visual design of products is key to the presentation of any organization, and her artistic talent and appreciation of themes and color palettes help ensure that we present a professional, pleasantly-aesthetic face of the atheist community here in Kansas City.
Next up is Jozef Hanratty, our director of philanthropy. He brings a passion and interest to organizing our monthly philanthropic events, but, more than that, he was key in helping to organize our upcoming activity with The Micah Ministry, responding to additional invitations to volunteer, and, as many of you heard, giving a fantastic interview with The Church of Lazlo on 96.5 The Buzz this past week. Beyond this past week, though, Jozef brings a friendly, huggable side of KCAC to all of our events and a happy, approachable social energy that sets a light-hearted and affable tone to so many of our events. His contributions extend far beyond his work in philanthropy, and he’s a critical part of our board.
Dave Brown is KCAC’s secretary. It is not the most glamorous of positions and most, if not all, members don’t get to see his work contributions, but good meeting minutes are vital to keeping an organization fluid and working smoothly. His attention to detail and promptness in publication of these materials greatly helps us ensure that no action items are ever missed that are raised in meetings. Beyond his services as a secretary to KCAC, he brings a positive enthusiasm to events and to the organization overall.
After Dave is Daniel Boyd, our treasurer. KCAC doesn’t operate remotely on the same financial scale of large non-profit organizations, but the management and tracking of our finances is still a full-time job unto itself. Daniel’s experience as treasurer in previous organizations and his familiarity with financial institutions and tools ensure that the in’s and out’s of our finances remain well-tracked and organized.
Following Daniel is Joshua Stewart, our director of activism. Although he’s a recent addition to our board, he’s long been an active member of our community focused not only on destigmatizing the word “atheist” in the eyes of the greater public and raising awareness of a community for atheists here in Kansas City, but also on outreach across the religious divide to try and both help people understand what it means to be an atheist and to increase understanding of nuances of the variety of religious beliefs. He has a passion for a flourishment of knowledge among both atheists and theists that helps push KCAC toward establishing an informed public community.
Finally is our newest addition to the board, Helen Stringer. We’re still working out the details of her project with KCAC, but her drive to cultivate a positive and enthusiastic community for the non-religious in Kansas City will help ensure that we continue our cultivation of a warm, positive culture for all the great people of Kansas City.
The biggest takeaway from this is, even if I’m serving as the public face of KCAC, there are some great people that make KCAC actually work. I am but a mere, singular man; the work and effectiveness of KCAC wouldn’t be possible without the people above, and it’s only because of the talent of our directors and officers that we’re able to do what we’re do.
Another year has passed and another round of elections with it.
More than a few have asked us: why do elections, especially in cases where we incumbents run uncontested?
KCAC was formed with a set of bylaws that, among other things, mandate a set of elections to give our paying members the right to dictate who is in charge of their donations and the direction of the organization. While an uncontested election may seem unnecessary, it’s dictated by our bylaws and it’s important that we adhere to our established bylaws (as the alternative is dissolving KCAC and re-forming with new bylaws, which seems like more than a lot of work).
That said, everyone loves graphs, right? We all probably want to see a breakdown of how the votes were distributed, I imagine, and here they are:
I think the biggest takeaway from this is the fact that everyone unanimously voted for Dave Brown as secretary, which really speaks to his ability to secretar.
We hope everyone has enjoyed what KCAC has done in the little more than two years it has existed, and we hope to continue creating and growing a community for everyone to enjoy!
As a bonus, here are your (previously- and) newly-elected officers in their post-electoral positions:
Pope Francis, in the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy, said that the Roman Catholic Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.
Things like this have people tending to think that Francis is ushering in a new wave of tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people and (in comments past) atheists. The problem is: he isn’t.
However, is this some revolution in Catholic doctrine, dogma, beliefs, and what-have-you? Not at all – they still dislike gay people and feminists, but they’ve just decided to not focus on it as much. We could treat this as a hope that Francis is going to try to lead the Catholic church into a new era of progressive-mindedness in the Vatican. The reality, though, I fear, is that that isn’t the case.
Remember: this is the same guy who, little more than three years ago, called legislation supporting marriage equality in Brazil a “machination of the father of lies”. While a turnaround in perspective on marriage equality isn’t entirely out of the question, it seems unlikely that Vatican officials, not known for their progressiveness, would have let that one slip by.
What, then, might inspire this new outreach? Does it seem more likely that, in the face of hemorrhaging church-goers and legalization of marriage equality in a country that identifies officially as Catholic, the Vatican has decided to change its message and focus on the good parts (and one can’t deny the good of some of their philanthropic work)? It seems increasingly likely that this isn’t anything more than a PR campaign – after all, the Pope’s job is to do what’s best for the church.
Ultimately, my point is this: a Catholic church that doesn’t try use its weight to interfere with the happiness of others is a better church than what we had under Benedict, but the beliefs that have established the church’s reputation as anti-gay and anti-woman aren’t gone. They’re still there – they’re just not being discussed.
And that’s good for the church. For the rest of us? Well, that depends on how Francis and his successors feel once they’ve successfully distracted everyone away from the church’s flaws.
There’s an article making its rounds the Internet. I’m no fan of the title – Why Atheists Have a Serious Problem with Women – but I gave it a read-through, and I find myself in agreement with what it has to say about an inclusive community for everyone, women and men alike.
And then the comments. Oh, the comments. They form the bowels of the Internet, it seems, 99% of the time on news media sites, and this instance is no exception. What’s more unfortunate, however, is that so many of them exemplify the very problem described by the article. The biggest and most common response seems to be summed up in this comment:
really, get over it. i know alot of sexism still exists which sucks & is not fair; but most people aren’t like that anymore. stop being on the defensive, maybe you’ll get a better reaction, by inviting behavior you create it. should i not look at a woman i find attractive because it might offend her?
Repeatedly, the idea of “I don’t see it” and “that just doesn’t happen often anymore” is the line issued from the mind of someone who has not even researched the issue of sexism, much less experienced it themselves (for those fortunate enough to have not endured outright sexism, I encourage you to read Delusions of Gender).
Sexism is a particularly virulent behavior in our culture – one that, unlike most things, really does transcend barriers – racial, sexual, political, and religious (and, yes, I’m including atheism in that last category). We are all products of our culture, and, by and large, our culture has a lot of sexist ideas woven into it – some more obvious than others. Atheists in our communities, being wrought from that same fabric as everyone else, are just as susceptible to engaging in sexist behaviors and ideas as anyone else, any sense of superior rationality be damned.
Are we better than we were fifty years ago? I’d say so. Are we where we should be? Hardly. We’ve got epidemics of sexism abound in our society, and some of it happens in our own backyard (extreme trigger warning). Burying your head in the sand anytime someone says that there might be a problem with sexism in our community and careening into hyper-skepticism and insisting in unheard-of levels of evidence for what is, unfortunately, a very un-extraordinary claim does nothing to solve the problem. Cry “mission drift!” if you want and rhetorically ask “why can’t we all get along?” if it makes you feel better, but if you’re also going to wonder why your local atheist meetup is overwhelmingly male, you’re going to be wondering that for a long time.
Pretending that atheists are rational, skeptical automatons who are incapable of committing sexual harassment or, worse, telling people who have been harassed that they should just “be more intellectual” and “stop being ruled by your emotions” is, quite honestly, a straw Vulcan (and more than a little bit of victim-blaming in the latter case). Atheists are not magically imbued with a sense of social propriety nor a supernatural ability to just brush off targeted harassment, and, until we’re willing to acknowledge this and fix these problems inside our own community, we’re not going to be easily able tackle any large-scale problems as a united community.
Let’s not sacrifice those we should help by building a community on the altar of “avoiding mission drift” or maintaining our own self-satisfying idea that “we’re above all that”, because, try as hard as we might, we aren’t always the next step in gender and sexual evolution that we want to be.
“Being nice does not make you correct.” This statement was recently lobbed at me and is one I absolutely agree with. Niceness has little to no real bearing on whether an assertion is actually correct. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s try the following: “Being a jerk does not make you correct.” Asking which is a better approach is the wrong question. There isn’t a specific propriety of conversational behavior that is a panacea to all our conversational woes. Each conversation—indeed, every person you have ever conversed with—is different. Certainly there will be plenty of topical similarities between various people, especially when discussing issues of religion, atheism, skepticism, et cetera. What varies in this scenario are the participants. Different people with differing perspectives, approaches and personalities. So why is it that suddenly the concept of being nice is viewed poorly as you approach a discussion right out of the conversational gate? I don’t have to respect or agree with their belief/idea in order to be nice to someone. So, what gives?
The reciprocal “golden rule” is something that might immediately come to mind. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” This idea translates in the the conversational sphere between two people of differing views—treat people with a modicum of humanity and respect, and you may get it in return. It is also noteworthy to realize that words have the ability to cause as much psychological sway as a fist has physical sway to dislocating a jaw. But, that’s not always the biggest issue at play. The problem many of us face is framing the dialogue in such a way that can strip the humanity from someone because they don’t agree with you. Again, this isn’t about whether you are correct or not, because you very well could be. It simply is a reminder to think back to the golden rule – a reminder of how you initially present yourself and your argument. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t/can’t change the framing of your argument later, however. I’m simply arguing for leading with a modicum of courtesy when you begin a discussion. I would even go so far to say that framing your position and yourself in a jerk-ish manner from the start won’t bode well with providing as much information to others with whom you are attempting open dialogue. It also won’t do well for those who are your target audience either. This is completely different than accommodating a person’s position. Let’s also get this out of the way now and cement this before it gets carried away: being nice does not mean that you accommodate an idea to which you disagree. One can disagree with someone, yet remain respectful to them or at least attempt to do so. Being nice or respectful has nothing to do with giving preferential treatment to someone either, especially when one treats others, regardless of belief, in a respectful manner equally. The difficulty is when so many personally identify their idea/belief as themselves. The best option, I’ve found, is to remind them that attacking their idea or belief does not mean that you are attacking them as a person. For all you know, they could be swell and nice people, but just do good things for the wrong reasons.
No two arguments are ever quite the same. My method of framing is to remain malleable based on the intent, content, and nature of the argument. However, I will always initially strive to be nice with others, and attempt to keep the dialogue as open as possible. Which leads me to the final stretch of this article and part of the title, skepticism to cynicism. Skepticism is not cynicism. A skeptic strives to question the veracity of claims without evidence. A cynic leads with distrust and contempt. A skeptic consistently examines the value of information they have. A cynic habitually looks on the dark side of things. Being skeptical of religious claims, pseudoscientific claims, or any manner of superstition, is not being cynical. I am not necessarily leading with distrust or disparaging the motives of a person before they are even given. I know what you are thinking, that my knowledge of a topic influences my decision. Of course, why wouldn’t it? I have acquired knowledge, and I can utilize that knowledge to the benefit of the discussion. But, this is a far cry from contempt or distrust of someone who thinks they mean well, even if they are wrong. I just prefer to not act like a jerk about it.
I’m going to be nice, because that’s who I am. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am accommodating their belief. Being nice to someone with whom I disagree does not mean I am giving preferential treatment. One of the biggest struggles we atheists face is gaining acceptance and understanding. What happens when atheists remove the stigma and misconceptions surrounding them? What happens when I can start demonstrating that I am good without the belief in a god? Well, I think that’s when people will start questioning their own beliefs independently. That all starts with a simple smile, hopefully a hug, and the words “Hello, I’m an atheist.”
DOMA has been de-clawed, as far as preventing federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and we’ve got a great judicial precedent established by “no standing” ruling on California’s Proposition 8. It’s a great time to be an advocate for LGBT equality – a victory that could have gone terribly wrong, but will instead, we all hope, shine as a bright beacon in our nation’s history as a turning point against bigotry.
However, while we all celebrate progress made for marriage equality and a growing social acceptance of people who love people of the same sex, there is an aspect of LGBT equality that, I feel, does not incite the same passion in society as a whole.
It seems a rare thing in Kansas City for someone to have at least one friend who is trans; I am fortunate enough to have such a friend. Not only is she a wonderful person herself, but her experiences as a trans woman have helped me identify inappropriate language and behavior that I’ve adopted as a result of the culture in which I was raised. Much like I no longer use the word “gay” or “retarded” to describe things that I find dumb, I’ve learned to identify behaviors that ridicule someone who doesn’t fall within the traditional definitions of “right” gender behavior and to avoid that language and those behaviors. I’m by no means convinced that I’ve got it all fixed, but, with her help, she’s helped raise my awareness of these issues and made me a better person for it.
When you’re friends with someone who raises awareness of trans issues, there comes the bad with the good; stories of harassment, discrimination, and outright violence against trans people simply because someone couldn’t accept that someone would want to express as a gender different from their sex, or might want to change their sex, or may simply like wearing clothing that we typically designate for the other sex (the silliness of the concepts of “women’s clothing” and “men’s clothing” notwithstanding). She raises awareness by her personal experiences of the sexual harassment and assault that she suffers – problems that cis and trans women alike face every day.
When I went to my first (and, I hope, one of many) Transgender Day of Remembrance, they read a list of trans people from around the world who had suffered violence at the hands of transphobic people. Even without knowing these people, the raw brutality of this violence pierced deep into me – people were shot, beaten, strangled, and beheaded simply for not fitting into what others thought should be their “correct” gender role.
This violence took on a personal note when my friend was assaulted and, as a result of the assault, was shoved down to the concrete, hit her head, and was knocked unconscious. She’s now going through a multi-week stage of recovery. All of this was because, on finding out that she’s a trans woman (and, thus, not a “real” woman), her attacker felt he was justified in attacking her. While the violence listed at the Transgender Day of Remembrance was upsetting, the fact that it’s happened to a friend makes it all the more visceral.
My point is that, while we all congratulate each other on the work we do to help achieve equality and social acceptance of people who love people of the same sex, don’t forget that there is a “T” in the “LGBT movement”. If you find yourself uncomfortable with the idea of someone who is a cross-dresser, transgendered, or transsexual, reflect on that and try to understand why you feel that way, and whether you should feel that way. Beyond personal introspection, publicly display your support for trans people. Find out if there’s a trans awareness event, such as a Transgendered Day of Remembrance, and go and show your support. Much in the same way that you don’t have to be gay to support equality for people who are gay, you don’t have to be trans in order to show your support for equality for people who are trans.
The bottom line is: if you call yourself an LGBT equality advocate, support all four letters. Fight against not only homophobia, but biphobia and transphobia as well.