American Atheists National Convention II

Yes, I know, I’m slower than light in a Bose-Einstein condensate… What can I say, I’ve been too busy procrastinating to update.

I may come back to some of the other speakers at the convention, such as the sex-positivism of several speakers (i.e. not letting emotional and cultural relics of religion ruin your sex life) but for now I just want to convey the most dramatic theme of the second day.

The emotional difficulty in becoming an unbeliever is directly proportionate to how religious a person was before coming to his or her senses. The practical difficulties of becoming an open or ‘out’ unbeliever are in direct proportion to how integral religion is to a person’s lifestyle.

Although there were other impressive speakers, the big attraction of the second day was without question the apostate parsons. It’s difficult to imagine how hard it must be to come out and admit that the ideas that informed your entire life, that form the major part of your public and private identity, no longer make any sense to you. Admitting that you’ve been totally hoodwinked your entire life by fables and stories, that the deep connections you might have felt were to an imaginary being, that the supposed truths you’d made a career of teaching were not truths at all but fabrications… it has to be harrowing.

Apart from that, of course, religious professionals who manage to rid themselves of faith face an additional burden that few other new atheists have to deal with, and none to the same extent: their professional careers are entirely dependent on their faith. Many atheists risk losing friends and family, but while it’s not entirely unknown elsewhere (professional politicians come to mind, though I suspect that fear is a bit exaggerated) few of them have to face losing a paycheck as well. The Clergy Project was set up to help people in that position.

In the advance literature for the conference Mike Silverman had noted that “Pastor M” would be talking about the difficulties faced by people in the situation of being trapped in a profession that required them (were they to continue in it) to lie about their spiritual beliefs. It wasn’t clear right up to the last minute that “Pastor M” intended to ‘come out’ as an atheist at the conference; he was supposed to speak in a disguise so that he could keep his Job. The theme of the conference was “Come out, come out” however and that’s just what he did. “Pastor M” revealed himself to be Michael Aus, pastor of a mainline nondenominational church in Houston Texas. Even less expected was the coming out of Teresa McBain, a Baptist pastor from Tallahassee Florida (from the 18 minute mark below).

(BTW, at 22:10 she’s responding to me: I shouted “No, you’re not!”)

A very interesting spinoff of this was the coverage of the big atheist weekend, including Michael Aus’s coming out, on “UP With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC. (Actually I think Aus came out on Chris’s show before he went to the convention.) Usually in television discussions of atheism, we’re lucky if we get even one nonbeliever in the mix; I can’t count the number of discussions of atheism I’ve seen which were entirely between theists. The guests on Chris’s show was entirely freethinkers, including as it turns out Chris Hayes himself, which I hadn’t known before. The other guests were Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Susan Jacoby, Jamila Bey, Robert Wright and Jamie Kilstein. I’m pretty sure that’s a television first!

Besides the two pastors newly coming out there were several apostates who had been out longer, such as Jerry DeWitt (who took several turns speaking and was very popular).

The Charismatic ex-pastor Ernest Perce’s story struck me particularly, simply because I also have a son who needed hearing aids. Good thing I didn’t trust to God to fix his hearing!

“Brother” Richard Haynes also gave a compelling story of how losing his faith meant he lost essentially everything in his old life.

I found it interesting that with the exception of Michael Aus the apostates skewed heavily toward the more emotional styles of Christianity, Charismatics and Evangelicals. Perhaps that’s because that style tends toward a “you’re in or you’re out” mentality, unforgiving toward lukewarm commitment. In any case, these people show that reason can overcome even fervent religiosity, and as Mr. Perce said we’re likely to see more of them coming out with the help of Recovering From Religion and especially the Clergy Project.

Ex-preachers certainly do make excellent speakers, anyway!

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2 Responses to American Atheists National Convention II

  1. Gene says:

    Huh? “… slower than light in a Bose-Einstein condensate?” Good Gravy! Thanks for causing me to lose an hour (at least) in Internet research to find out exactly how slow you were. Had to go beyond Wikipedia, too. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

  2. BT Murtagh says:

    You have to grant me points for an original metaphor though Gene! ;)

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