Ophelia of Butterflies and Wheels has been writing some excellentposts lately about the abuse and oppression of women in Christian communities. One of them led me to an outstanding blog titled Love, Joy, Feminism. Its author, Libby Anne, grew up in an incredibly strict and fundamentalist Christian home that practiced a way of life she calls "Christian Patriarchy" (some might also refer to it as the Quiverfull movement). She and all her (twelve!) siblings were homeschooled, indoctrinated with religion from their earliest years, taught that women's role in life is to obey men and that women must give up their dreams and ambitions to better subordinate themselves to their future husbands.
Despite the endless chores and incessant hard work, despite the perpetual religious indoctrination, despite the beatings doled out as discipline, Libby Anne's childhood wasn't miserable. On the contrary, she remembers it as a blissfully happy time. She genuinely wanted to be a good, submissive daughter, and took pleasure in fulfilling her parents' expectations. She was excited about the idea of her father selecting a husband for her, which she viewed as a romantic fantasy, and she couldn't wait to become a housewife and devote the rest of her life to serving her husband and having as many children as possible for Jesus' right-wing cause. One could, of course, argue that this was the happiness of enforced ignorance; she was happy in this way of life because she had nothing to compare it to, because she literally wasn't aware that there were any other ways to live.
How did she escape this? Despite all they believed about Christian patriarchy, her parents also valued education, and they allowed her to go to college. While she was there, she met people who didn't follow the script, people who led happy, fulfilled lives despite not hewing to the strict rules she grew up with, which she'd always been taught was impossible. She also found herself defending her religious beliefs for the first time, and she kept encountering arguments she'd never heard before, arguments that could punch holes in the beliefs she'd grown up learning as absolute truth. Eventually, the worldview she'd been taught crumbled, and despite intense emotional pressure and guilt-tripping by her parents, she found the courage and the honesty to walk away. (See also her longer account of her deconversion.)
One thing I noticed while reading these posts is the startling number of similarities there are between the Christian patriarchy and the Islamic one: women kept isolated at home, forbidden to work, get an education or travel without male approval. (Libby Anne's parents were unusual in letting her go to college; here's another post by an escapee who didn't, and now laments her inability to support herself.) They're taught that their only role in life is to serve and obey men, treated as property to be passed off from father, to husband, and sometimes to son - this happens in fundamentalist Christian communities as well as Islamic ones.
Another observation, readily apparent, is how absolutely consumed by fear these people's lives are. Parents who follow the teachings of Christian patriarchy are, necessarily, terrified of letting their children come into contact with any idea that doesn't conform with what they've been taught - which is why they go to such extreme lengths to isolate themselves. Despite biblical verses like the Great Commission, we're increasingly seeing believers like Libby Anne's parents conceding the battleground of ideas, propagating their beliefs only by reproducing and not even attempting to convince outsiders. As society becomes more secular and atheism becomes more influential, we're going to see more of this sort of thing: fundamentalists retreating into these isolated, closed-off bubbles and locking the door behind them.
This is just what Daniel Dennett is talking about when he writes in Breaking the Spell that any faith which has to "hoodwink — or blindfold — [its] children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, [that] faith ought to go extinct." But that's easier said than done, and it creates a dilemma for us. How can we effectively evangelize for atheism and teach ideals of human freedom and liberty to those inside these communities? How can we reach people when their entire upbringing is organized to deny them contact with the outside world? I don't have a good answer for this, but I'm open to suggestions.
A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven't seen it) as follows: "People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general." This strikes a chord with a notion I've held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that's chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. ... More on that in another post, perhaps.) I'm very happy that the statement got me musing, and I'd love to get feedback on my initial reaction.
I suspect that people often prefer contemplating "big picture, god-given meaning" because 1) it doesn't require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important "big picture," and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it's pretty easy to come up with incidental "meaning" in any given event.
Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life "means something." There isn't inherent "meaning" in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very "meaningfulness" of a person's life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they're willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that's yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn't "meaningful" at all — it's just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.
Now, am I saying that people who "just live their lives" without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a "meaningless" existence? No — at least, not if we're treating the word "meaningless" as a synonym for "worthless," which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it's not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I'm simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn't any such thing as "meaning." Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have "meaning" if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?
It bothers me how many people treat the phrase "everything has a meaning" as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the "bigger plan" that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to "find meaning" in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is "justified" by its role in the "big picture" is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to ... what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I'm not one who believes in the "end times," so what in the world would a deity be "working toward"? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who'd come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn't be consoled — I'd be furious. But hey, that's just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who'd disagree. So, what do I know?
Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on "finding meaning" in tragedy, but on "creating meaning" out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who's passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don't interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved's death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn't doing something to honor someone who's died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn't that "meaning" enough?
Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.
For example, in 2002, an Eagle Scout named Darrell Lambert was threatened with expulsion from the Boy Scouts, despite his having earned dozens of merit badges and having held literally every leadership position in his troop. His crime? He's an outspoken atheist. When the news of his beliefs reached scouting officials, they demanded that he change his mind. He was given a week to think it over. All he had to do was lie, but if he did that, he said, "I wouldn't be a good Scout then, would I?" For his honesty, he was kicked out of the organization he'd devoted his life to.
In New Jersey in 2006, a public high school teacher named David Paskiewicz was openly preaching Christianity in the classroom, advocating creationism and telling a Muslim student she would burn in hell if she didn't convert. A junior named Matt LaClair reported this illegal government preaching to the school administration. In a meeting with the principal, Paskiewicz denied everything — whereupon LaClair produced audio recordings of him saying the things he specifically denied having said.
In Indiana in 2009, the senior class at a public school was asked to vote on whether to have a prayer as part of their graduation ceremony. A senior named Eric Workman, knowing full well that school-sponsored prayer is illegal even if a majority votes for it, filed a lawsuit and won an injunction against the prayer. The school administration responded by announcing it wouldn't review graduation speeches in advance, clearly hoping that some student would use the opportunity to say the same prayer — except that the class valedictorian was Eric Workman, and he used his graduation speech to explain why the school's actions were unconstitutional and to explain the importance of the First Amendment.
Stories like these are multiplying all over the nation. In South Carolina just this year, a graduating senior named Harrison Hopkins put a stop to school prayer with help from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In Louisiana, a senior named Damon Fowler fought against similar school-sponsored prayers at his graduation. In Rhode Island, an amazing sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist is leading the fight to get an illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school's auditorium.
Granted, stories like these aren't entirely a new phenomenon. There have always been brave young free thinkers who dared to stand up for their rights, and there has always been a hostile, prejudiced religious majority that's tried to silence them with bullying, persecution and harassment.
For instance, when church-state hero Ellery Schempp prevailed in a landmark First Amendment case against school-sponsored Bible reading, his principal wrote to the colleges he had applied to and asked them not to admit him. (It didn't work: Ellery was accepted to Tufts University, graduated with honors and became a successful scientist.) Likewise, when Jim McCollum and his mother Vashti challenged their school over a released-time program, raving bigots assaulted him, got her fired from her job, pelted their home with rotten fruit and killed their cat. (The McCollums didn't relent, and won a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision striking down religious instruction on public school time.)
Regrettably, this hasn't changed as much as I'd like. Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones. Damon Fowler was demeaned by a teacher and disowned by his own parents for opposing prayer at his graduation. But what's different now is that young people who speak out aren't left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there's a thriving, growing secular community that's becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.
All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation. This demographic transformation has been in progress ever since World War II, but in recent years it's begun to seriously pick up steam. In the generation born since 1982, variously referred to as Generation Y, the Millennials, or Generation Next, one in five people identify as nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. In the youngest cohort, the trend is even more dramatic: as many as 30% of those born since 1990 are nonbelievers. Another study, this one by a Christian polling firm, found that people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate that new members are joining.
What could be causing this generational shift towards godlessness? There are multiple theories, but only one of them that I'm aware of both makes good sense and is corroborated by the facts.
Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who've grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).
But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they're actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women's rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it's hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it's not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)
On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to "traditional roles" — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they're by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have "old-fashioned" values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).
In a society that's increasingly tolerant and enlightened, the big churches remain stubbornly entrenched in the past, clinging to medieval dogmas about gay people and women, presuming to lecture their members about how they should vote, whom they should love, how they should live. It's no surprise that people who've grown up in this tolerant age find it absurd when they're told that their family and friends don't deserve civil rights, and it's even less of a surprise that, when they're told they must believe this to be good Christians, they simply walk away. This trend is reflected in the steadily rising percentages of Americans who say that religion is "old-fashioned and out of date" and can't speak to today's social problems.
The Roman Catholic church in particular has been hit hard by this. According to a 2009 Pew study, "Faith in Flux," one in ten American adults is a former Catholic, and a majority of ex-Catholics cite unhappiness with the church's archaic stance on abortion, homosexuality, birth control or the treatment of women as a major factor in their departure. But evangelical and other Protestant denominations are feeling the same sting. According to a survey by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, moderates and progressives are heading for the exits as the churches increasingly become the domain of conservatives:
From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%.
...Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.
Even the mainstream, relatively liberal Protestant churches are dwindling and dying at an astonishing rate: collateral damage, perhaps, in a political war that's led young people to view them as guilty by association. As the journal First Things observes in an article titled "The Death of Protestant America," the mainline churches have fallen from more than 50% of the American population in 1965 to less than 8% today.
What all this means is that the rise of atheism as a political force is an effect, rather than a cause, of the churches' hard right turn towards fundamentalism. I admit that this conclusion is a little damaging to my ego. I'd love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I'd love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches' wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they're in the process of making themselves irrelevant. In fact, there are indications that it's a vicious circle: as churches become less tolerant and more conservative, their younger and more progressive members depart, which makes their average membership still more conservative, which accelerates the progressive exodus still further, and so on. (A similar dynamic is at work in the Republican party, which explains their increasing levels of insanity over the past two or three decades.)
That doesn't mean, however, that that there's nothing we freethinkers can contribute. On the contrary, there's a virtuous circle that we can take advantage of: the more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that's been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.
At the same time, the churches aren't entirely oblivious to what's happening. The rising secular tide of Generation Next hasn't gone unfelt or unnoticed, but is increasingly being reflected in dwindling donations, graying congregations, and empty churches across the land. As John Avant, a vice president for evangelization of the Southern Baptist Conference, lamented:
A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing... And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens. (source)
The Catholic church is experiencing a similar slow fade, with declining Mass attendance and a crippling shortage of priests worldwide. Land once owned by religious orders is being sold off for conservation or public use, turned into schools or nature preserves. The Pope's response, meanwhile, is to accelerate the decline by ordering bishops not even to discuss the possibility of ordaining women or married men, even as he welcomes Holocaust deniers and ex-Angelican misogynists.
And religious giving has declined as well, leaving shrinking churches grappling with layoffs and angry creditors. The recession has worsened this trend, but didn't create it; like all the other patterns, it's generational, with each increasingly secular age group giving less than the last. As one conservative rabbi says, the dip in giving stems from a "growing disinterest in organized religion."
Of course, Christianity is still by far the largest religious affiliation in America, and likely will be for some time. But the numbers don't lie, and the trends of the last several decades show more and more evidence of the same secularizing wave that's overtaking most countries in Europe. The major churches, clinging to the inferior morality of long-gone ages, are increasingly out of step with a world that's more enlightened, rational and tolerant than it once was. And the more they dig in their heels, the more we can expect this process to accelerate. I, for one, can't wait to see the young atheist activists who will emerge in the next few decades.
My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, We Don't Need Religion to Have Morality. In it, I argue that morality is real, objective, and not dependent on theistic belief, and I explore the basis for this view and imagine what effect it could have on society if it were more widely adopted. To those who've read my essay on morality at Ebon Musings, this will be familiar ground, but I touch on a couple of new points as well. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!
The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don't believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet's major religions, the way we know what's right and what's wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it's a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.
Now, I've never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they're staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn't address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we're wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?
Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, a mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God's will. I believe that morality is real, that it's objective, and that it's a thoroughly natural phenomenon that's perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.
Vanessa gave me permission to use her name and to share her story, which I think is an outstanding example of the courage and intellectual honesty required to walk away from religion. That's especially true when, as in this case, the religion in question is a cult that commands its members to cut off all contact with anyone who leaves, even if that person is a dear friend or a family member. But as unjust and outrageous as that policy is, their loss is our gain. Join me in extending a warm welcome to Vanessa, and if you have a deconversion story of your own, feel free to share it in the comments.
I had been studying for one of the meetings, and they wrote to address the problem of false prophecies. The explanation was, "Jehovah's Witnesses do not claim to be inspired prophets. They have made mistakes. Like the apostles of Jesus Christ, they have at times had some wrong expectations. —Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6."
I remembered reading that before, but I was inexplicably struck with a question, as sudden as a lightning bolt: If the Governing Body are not inspired prophets, why are we listening to them? Witnesses are expected to accept the Governing Body's interpretations of scriptures and prophecies without question; failure to do so is a disfellowshippable offense. But, if they are not inspired, then why did I follow them? How were they any different from the Pope or the leaders of the LDS Church, all of them muddling their way through their understanding of scripture. Sure, they all believe that they are guided by God, but why should I agree?
I immediately decided that I simply misunderstood. Perhaps it was speaking of the great crowd of Witnesses, we ordinary run-of-the-mill folk. Of course, new light is always being shed, as more and more Biblical prophecies are being gradually fulfilled. If the first-century Christians, who were most certainly inspired, didn't understand the prophecies, then how could I expect the Governing Body - made of anointed, and therefore inspired, men - to be perfect in their understanding?
I resolved to settle the matter, which seriously bothered me. After all, this wasn't just a simple disagreement over what constitutes modesty or whether this or that person should have seen that movie or whether my room was clean enough. If the Governing Body wasn't inspired by God, then why the hell was I putting my faith and trust in them? And something else bothered me: if I hadn't misunderstood the meaning of the quoted paragraph, then it was a glaring contradiction in Watchtower teachings.
It has been published in the Watchtower - and ingrained in the minds of all Witnesses - that "it should be expected that the Lord would have a means of communication to his people on the earth, and he has clearly shown that the magazine called The Watchtower is used for that purpose" and that "the Watchtower is not the instrument of any man or any set of men, nor is it published according to the whims of men. No man's opinion is expressed in The Watchtower."
It was clear to me that those statements are blatant lies if the members of the Governing Body are not divinely inspired.
I knew, as I was doing the research, that this was a turning point in my life. I had grown up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't view it as simply my religion; it was my core identity. If I decided to no longer be a Witness, all of my closest friends and family would be required to stop speaking with me or face expulsion. This was not something I could push aside, so - as the hours went on - the list of things I researched grew extensively.
Before going to sleep that night, I had to admit that whenever the numerous prophecies and Biblical understandings that the Watchtower Society purported - such as the various years that Armageddon was supposed to come, and the "new light" that comes - later failed to happen and needed to be changed, the Watchtower Society always defaulted to their "but we're human and we make mistakes" excuse. That was unacceptable for me. If the Governing Body is claiming to be Jehovah's sole channel of communication on Earth, how could they make such mistakes?
Once my faith in the Governing Body had dissolved, I began to question everything. I was not angry, and did not feel intentionally deceived by anybody who had shared "the truth" with me. It seemed to me like just another example of a child that grew up in a religion and discovered it to be different than believed.
But, still unable to accept the idea of leaving everyone I loved and had grown up with, I told myself to just wait and see if anything happened to make me change my mind and decide that I could remain a Witness. I knew that I couldn't just pretend to believe and continue on as before; the thought of it made me sick to my stomach. Within a few days, I accepted that I had to disassociate myself.
Because I was a wreck emotionally - feeling like a dead woman walking, mourning my former self and all of her friends and family - I pushed myself to base my decisions on logic and rational thought. Having decided that I could no longer be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I felt that I had to at least get an idea of what I now believed to be true. A comment from the August 15, 1981, Watchtower, convinced me that mainstream Christianity might just be correct after all:
"From time to time, there have arisen from among the ranks of Jehovah's people those, who, like the original Satan, have adopted an independent, faultfinding attitude...They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home ...But, strangely, through such 'Bible reading,' they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom's clergy were teaching 100 years ago..."
What I gathered from was that if you just read the Bible, without the input (and mental manipulation, in my mind) of the Watchtower Society, you'll believe what most Christians do. It seemed like they were actually discouraging Bible study! That was one of the realizations that just blew my mind. I felt so stupid, so gullible. But at the same time, I reminded myself that these were the things I had been taught my entire life, by every adult I loved, trusted, and respected who loved me back. What reasons did I have not to believe them?
I mentally noted that I needed to resolve my thoughts on conscientious objections to military service, and just how Biblical the doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, and hellfire were. I didn't think I could ever accept the idea of hellfire, and couldn't quite grasp the concept of the Trinity, but if my going over the other Bibles convinced me that those were correct, I'm sure I would have accepted them. I refused to not accept any idea just because I'd always been taught not to.
I had also decided not to just be searching for a new religion to join. If I couldn't find one that matched my to-be-discovered beliefs, then I would become one of those people that reads the Bible privately at home. If the right religion wasn't obvious to me, I couldn't see how a loving God would punish me when I was obviously searching.
I clung to my faith in the Bible because I was firmly convinced that Biblical prophecies had been consistently proven right, and that it had a harmonious message throughout and its scientific comments - such as the earth being round, how the universe was created, and the water cycle - were obviously ahead of its time and divinely inspired.
However, once I realized those were the reasons why, I immediately sought to confirm those reasons in my mind. I wanted to question every assumption I had. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was believing what was right!
I didn't even want to believe in the Bible, or Jesus, or God, without reaffirming to myself that I had solid proof - or at least, beyond a reasonable doubt - of doing so.
But as I peeled away the layers of my belief, I never found sufficient explanations. An online friend of mine, an atheist, correctly explained evolution to me. (Witnesses only accept the Watchtower's skewed explanation.) He spent a good two hours answering my questions - ranging from "How could the world have turned out so perfect for humans to live on by mere accident?" to "Then what's the meaning of life?" - and even though he never once pushed me toward atheism, that laid the concrete foundation. By the time I left home, less than a month after my deconversion, I no longer felt that one must believe in God to live a happy, ultimately good life.
Because I was already 18, once I "came out," I would've been required to move out. I was the oldest of four, raised by a single mother, and I couldn't bear to have to make her choose between Jehovah and her eldest daughter. She wouldn't have wanted to kick me out, and I just couldn't put her in that position, so I moved out first. I was emotionally fragile, so I felt that I couldn't handle the elders meetings for my disassociation, so I left letters and moved out while my family was at the meeting. I made sure to leave them various ways of contacting me so they wouldn't worry, and immediately responded to anything I received.
My mother - who has a mental health history - emailed me and thought it might be best if I went to the hospital, because she believed that I was having a psychotic episode. My best friend IMed me to ask me if I was on drugs, but once I convinced her that I was entirely serious in disassociating, she said that she had to go and I never heard from her again. Another friend e-mailed me to convince me to stay, at least for another year or two, and said that my decision to leave was worse than suicide. But, after about a week, my mother was the only one who would correspond with me, and that lessened to about once every three months, just to make sure I was okay.
Over the next two years, I shed my "Witness subconscious" - as I call my knee-jerk response to view certain things as immoral - and became unrepentantly pro-choice and a staunch supporter of marriage equality. Last year, I started donating blood. I enrolled into college, which is discouraged by the Watchtower Society. I ended up taking a women's studies class as an elective, which helped me gain confidence in myself as a woman, not having to view myself as a subordinate in the "headship arrangement." I gained perspective by having an atheist roommate for one semester, and then a Southern Baptist the next. I feel like a more ethical, rational, tolerant and loving person now that I no longer believe in God.
My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation. It surveys the demographic transformation that's been taking place in American society, with rates of godlessness steadily increasing in each generation since World War II, highlights the work of some outstanding young activists who are part of this trend, and points out the panicked warnings from religious authorities who recognize that their influence is fading away. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!
Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.
When it comes to demolishing irrational beliefs, the atheist community has done a brilliant job. But when it comes to rooting out sexism in our own ranks, we have a long way left to go.
Witness the blowup that took place at a conference in Dublin last month, where Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave a talk about the religious right's war on women... and then, that same night, was propositioned by a stranger who cornered her in an elevator at 4 AM. (See her recap and thesetwo third-party accounts).
This attracted the predictable crop of apologists who asserted loudly, not just that Rebecca was wrong to be frightened or upset by this, but that she was wrong to publicly disagree with the people who asserted that there was nothing wrong with this man's behavior. But what really made my jaw drop was that Richard Dawkins, or at least someone claiming to be Richard Dawkins [EDIT: It was confirmed that this was actually Dawkins —Ebonmuse], showed up on PZ's site and made the following astonishingly obtuseand ignorant comments:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and... yawn... don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator.
I'm guessing that Richard Dawkins (if this was truly him) has never lived in an environment where larger, stronger men are constantly offering him chewing gum, and getting aggressive and even violent if he declines. The uncomfortable reality is that we live in a society where sexual harassment and sexual violence against women is accepted and condoned to a far greater extent than any remotely comparable violence against men. Men who fail to grasp this and act as if women are being unreasonable to fear it are just flaunting their own ignorance. Take this classic demonstration in which men and women were both asked what they do to avoid sexual harassment every day, which brought forth a torrent of responses from the women while the men stood there in befuddlement:
For many males, public space is either something they feel an entitlement over, or something that is neutral and to be simply travelled through. For almost all women... public space is loaded with threat that must be managed.
The man who propositioned Rebecca Watson, whatever his individual intentions, can't be separated from this societal background. Maybe he was just too shy to approach her in public; maybe his intentions were entirely innocent. But that doesn't matter. We want women involved in the skeptical movement, and if they feel harassed or creeped out or uncomfortable, they won't be. It does us no good whatsoever to say, "You're wrong to take offense at this, so you should just overlook it." That won't get them to drop their objection; it will just make them stop showing up. Worse, it will only cement women's impression of atheist men as a bunch of rude, clueless know-it-alls who don't care about the effect of their behavior on others.
Let me tell you a story that wasn't about sex, but that has a similar take-away. I was at the Freedom from Religion Foundation's convention in Madison last October, where I met up with a friend (hi, Linda!), who was telling me about the correspondence she'd been having with Annie Laurie Gaylor about bringing some of the FFRF's billboards to her area. She also told me, much to my amusement, that she'd heard about a student who'd plagiarized one of my essays for the FFRF's college scholarship competition. (I'm flattered by that, in a weird way, but really - do you think you'll get away with plagiarizing something that's so easy to Google?)
Annie Laurie walked by our table while we were discussing this, and Linda said I should ask her about it. I politely demurred and said I didn't want to intrude on her time. But almost as soon as I'd said it, an elderly man got in her way and buttonholed her. "I've been wanting to talk to you," he announced without preamble. "I have a theory about the origin of religion that I think you should talk about more often. Have you heard of hypnosis—?"
"I'm sorry," she interrupted, "but I'm very busy" - which was absolutely true, and a lot politer than I would have been under the circumstances - and made a quick exit.
"You see," I said, "that's why I didn't want to go up and talk to her - because I didn't want to be that guy."
Atheist men, here's my message to you: Don't be that guy.
Being a rude, conversation-dominating boor is bad enough in any context, but in a sexual context, demonstrating your own lack of concern for others' desires is especially intimidating and frightening. There are plenty of ways to flirt, banter and chat that are friendly and non-threatening. (I did get to speak to Annie Laurie later in the conference, during a book signing when she was standing around and chatting with convention-goers.) But following women around, cornering them in private, or continuing to bother them when they're with a group that you're not part of, or after they've clearly expressed disinterest - we ought to know better than to do things like this, and I'm dismayed and angry that so many atheists apparently still don't.
The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.
To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:
"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"
Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.
But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.
In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:
"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"
When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:
As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.
Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.
Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.
But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.
As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:
"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."
Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.
Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.
The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!
To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.
So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.
Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.
So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?
The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.
Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.
But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.
After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.
The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.
Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.
Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.
Now, fully 1 in 9 Americans will live in a state with legalized same-sex marriage. Our mission field is getting more complicated.
On the surface, this is a strange statement. Mohler apparently believes that the legalization of same-sex marriage will make it more difficult for Christians to win converts. Why would he think this?
My wife and I discussed this, and I can only come up with one explanation that seems reasonable: Mohler is against same-sex marriage because he wants society to discriminate against non-Christians, thereby making conversion to Christianity a more attractive offer. If all people have equal rights, then Christianity will be forced to rely on its own persuasive power to make converts, rather than holding out unique privileges that are only available to Christians - and that's a competition he fears!
And it's not hard to see why. If proselytizers like Mohler seek to convince gay people that their sexual orientation is sinful, wrong and must be changed, they'll have a much harder time making the case to people in a happy, stable, committed relationship with all the benefits offered by the state to opposite-sex couples. They'd prefer that GLBT people be a downtrodden and oppressed minority, punished and scorned by the state, unprotected against discrimination in jobs or housing, shut out from all the legal benefits society has to offer. They don't want to compete on a level playing field, but one that's tilted in their favor; they want people who won't convert to suffer for their defiance.
The same thing happens with atheism. In their furious hushing of atheists and demanding that we be more respectful, in their efforts around the world to pass bills punishing speech that insults or denigrates religion, we see that what the major religious groups and their allies want is to silence dissent. Again, they don't want to compete in a marketplace of ideas; they want society to be their parishioners, sitting in enforced silence while they alone stand in the pulpit and preach.
There's a lesson here for freethinkers: to win the debate, we just have to show up. If we can speak freely and make our case, we've already won. If we can successfully claim the same rights and the same privileges as religious people, we've already won. If ordinary people have friends and family who are atheists, and know that they have friends and family who are atheists, we've already won. If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured, because we know that in an open and fair debate, our arguments are the better ones and will carry the day. It's only coercion and prejudice that can hold us back, and both those obstacles are weakening and falling one by one.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of the diocese of Brooklyn, called on all Catholic schools to reject any honor bestowed upon them by Gov. Cuomo, who played a pivotal role in getting the bill passed.
He further asked all pastors and principals to "not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration."
Personally, I couldn't be happier that this naked bigotry is on open display. I want the bishops to announce it far and wide, preferably in bright neon signs. I want the whole world to hear the message loud and clear: "If you believe gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else, we don't want you in our church!"
I say this because every survey shows that the younger generations are overwhelmingly in favor of equality. By making assent to bigotry a non-negotiable condition of membership, by vocally insisting that the one thing that defines a Christian more than anything else is being anti-gay, the bishops are accelerating their slide into irrelevance. Some denominations are bowing to the inevitable, but the Catholic authorities have made this their hill to die on. And the way they're going, they'll get their wish. Already, as many as one in ten Americans are ex-Catholics, and that number is only going to increase. In twenty years or so, the religious landscape in the Western world is going to be very different, and that's a change that I look forward to seeing.
A rolling field of soft grass, surrounded by an orchard of wild fruit trees. The sweet trill of birdsong blends with the bright chuckle of flowing water. Brilliantly colored birds and butterflies flit back and forth from calm pools green with lily pads to tangled flower beds. A sculptured fountain green with verdigris casts a veil of spray, creating a misty rainbow in the air.