The Undiscovered Country

StillLifeWithASkull

I’m often reminded of a Zen Buddhist parable.

As the story goes, there was a man being chased by a hungry tiger through a forest. As fast as he was able to run, the tiger was faster. It was only a matter of time before the beast caught and devoured the man, but he kept running, desperate for some means of escape.

Suddenly, the forest came to an end, and the man burst out of the trees to find himself on the edge of a cliff. The tiger roared behind him, and without thinking he leaped over the edge. His hand caught hold of a thick branch protruding from the cliff, and he grasped it tightly, clinging to the rock face. Looking down, he saw a sheer drop, with no chance of climbing down safely. One move to the right, or to the left, and he would surely fall to his death. Discouraged, he looked back up to see the tiger’s face looming down at him, its lips curled back in a snarl, teeth bright and shining.

The man closed his eyes, and when he opened them he discovered that there was a single strawberry plant growing out of the cliff just above him. Not more than a few feet away from his face hung a single plump, red strawberry. Moved as if by instinct, he shifted his weight on the branch to reach up, pluck the berry, and place it in his mouth. As his eyes closed again for the last time, the juices ran over his tongue and into his throat.

It was the single greatest experience of his life.

Living here in the Cosmos is an exercise in balance between the existential horror of our own mortality, and the sweetness of the meaning we find and make in it. We know that the very fact of our existence is the culmination of a genetic lottery won before our parents’ parents’ parents were born. Why us, why here, why now? We don’t know the answer.

What we do know is that we are all born to challenge. Our first breaths are forced on us unanticipated and unwanted, as we are pushed or pulled from the safety of the womb. We leave our warm home, the only home we’ve ever known, to enter the cold, bright chaos of the world. The boundary has been crossed, the hero has been chosen, and the adventure has begun.

This is an adventure tale that has been told and retold for thousands of years. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we find death and grief encountered with bracing honesty. The god-man Gilgamesh finds his wild-man friend Enkidu facing death because of the whims of the gods. Distraught, Gilgamesh cannot understand why he should receive mercy while Enkidu is condemned to death. He begs the gods to save his friend, and promises to spare no expense in making sacrifice. But there is nothing he can do. Linked together in life, they cannot stop their separation at death. Both friends rail at the injustice and futility of it, and Enkidu wishes aloud that he had never been born, that he had never been introduced to the world. But then he reconsiders. If he had never come to be, he realizes, he would not have experienced the joy and love that he treasured in life. His bitterness washes away, and he blesses those who were his friends in life. In the final irony of the story, though Enkidu thinks that he dies in solitude, in reality his friend Gilgamesh is still by his side, weeping.

It is this connection we seek, as we journey together through life. Leaving our mother’s womb means losing the connection of blood, but it is exchanged for the connection of spirit. To the ancient Greeks, the word pneuma meant “spirit,” but it also meant “breath.” Thus, the first breath of a newborn baby is also its first spiritual act, establishing its connection with the world beyond the mother and father that birthed it. Sitting here, breathing together, we are participating in the same spiritual act. We are compelled to do so. We cannot help doing otherwise. As a species, we share this connection which runs so deeply, so strongly into the past that to inhale now is for us each to take into ourselves a molecule of air that was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he was being assassinated, or that was laughed by Alexander the Great in India as he contemplated his empire, or that was inhaled by Siddhartha Gautama as he sat underneath the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. As surely as we breathe, we are all connected.

We are connected to each other as fellow human beings, all of us the children of a common mother and common father, separated by continents and millennia. The blood that courses in my veins courses as well in yours. We are also connected to all manifestations of life, existing as but one of endless forms most beautiful on the branching and tangled tree of life. All of nature opens out before us, acknowledging us as family by virtue of our biology. We are also connected to the Earth itself, a rotating rock in space that provides our chemical identity, the very literal bonds of our existence. And finally, we are connected to the Cosmos that envelops and supports us, that birthed our Sun with billions of its stellar siblings, the cosmic foundry of our base substance. We are not just animated clay, we are sentient starstuff; we are the Cosmos made aware. We are atoms that feel love, and loss. We are remarkable.

But we exist not only in space, but time as well. And our time is limited. Thus we all have to learn to say good-bye, not just to the people who we mourn today, but to everyone we will ever know. How can we accomplish this impossible task?

The honest answer: I don’t know.

But here’s how we can try. Every person begins making connections the moment they’re born. Those connections do not simply end when they leave us, just as the air they breathed does not simply disappear. They may stop breathing, but we continue to breathe the air that they shared with us. We continue to value the connections, the secrets, and the memories that they gifted to us during their time alive. Of course we do. All of life is a complicated tapestry of connections made between us and our friends and family, and their friends and family, going back through the generations. Every step we take is one that was prepared for us by those who came before, and is made by us to prepare the way for those who will come after. The gods may be fickle, but we don’t have to be. We can honor the memory of those we love by revisiting our connection with them, here today and tomorrow, and then the next day and the next. Eventually that connection won’t be something we have to consciously touch on, it will be something that flows through us, just as we breathe while sleeping.

The great naturalist John Muir found great solace in the beautiful connections modeled by the natural world. His solution to the “impossible task” of confronting mortality was simple: “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed start, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”

And perhaps that is the answer. Yes, the gods are capricious. Yes, our mortality is inevitable. Yes, we mourn the ones we lose. We are supposed to. Just as we are supposed to reach out, pluck the strawberry, and enjoy it.

The Humanist

for Ann Druyan
with apologies to John Piper

See her in the night,
Watching stars shine bright.
Furnace of the suns,
Place from whence she comes.

See her stoke the fire,
Safety her desire,
Round the hearth, a home,
Nevermore to roam.

See her with her love,
No one else above.
Lives intercalate:
Freely procreate.

See her with her child;
Mother meek and mild.
Strong and supple too:
Guide to all that’s true.

See her reading books;
Quiet halls and nooks.
Seeking to distill
Scholarship and skill.

See her with her pen:
Challenging all men.
No king could arrest;
Sovereignty transgressed.

See her in the square,
With the poor to share,
Mercy paramount;
Honor: no account.

See her on the street,
Merry and upbeat,
Kind and eager friend:
Constant to the end.

See her in dispute;
Confident refute.
Winsome and with grace;
Rivals learn their place.

See her at her trade.
Woman is self-made.
Purpose she declares;
Slavery foreswears.

See her at her meal,
Eucharist made real
Farmer to the plate,
Linkage celebrate.

See her stray from truth;
Brain’s imperfect sleuth.
Rescued she can be
By humility.

See her in lament
“For what is this meant?”
Substance set to pain:
Even loss is gain.

See her thanksgiving.
Words attempt to bring
Peace to family;
Soothing homily.

See her on the shore:
Our ambassador.
Cosmic signs point out
Starstuff’s final route.

See her now asleep.
Mind swims in the deep,
Future stewards sing;
Wonders they will bring.

See her nearing death.
Slowing, labored breath,
Light leaks out her eyes;
Joins with next sunrise.

Music by: Kai Engel, “Laceration”

The Unexpected Atheist

“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.”

Carl Sagan, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”

Several years ago, I received a midday phone call and discovered on the other end a young woman with a troubling story. She had reached out to me in my role as then-director of the North Texas Church of Freethought, an occurrence which wasn’t terribly uncommon, as I found myself frequently the recipient of inquisitions from random members of the public. Still, she was surprised to find a real live atheist to talk with, and after some initial hesitation, shared her conundrum.

Raised a Bible-believing Christian, she had been an enthusiastic disciple and parishioner, who at the time found employment with her hometown church, a pleasant little Methodist congregation in rural Texas. She ministered primarily to the young children of the community, running their Sunday School program and youth activities.

She was also an atheist.

The transition from believer to skeptic had begun slowly for her, motivated by theological curiosity more than anything else, then picked up steam in large part due to the Four Horsemen, and ended in a flurry of critical Bible study. Though she had emerged the process psychologically unscathed and intellectually satisfied, her parochial vocation now concerned her greatly. Although she was still happy working with the church’s youth and they were happy to have her, her apostasy gave her the feeling of being disingenuous. After some reflection, she decided to tell the story of her deconversion to the church’s pastor and await his justice.

He listened patiently to her account, to her references of the Books of Daniel and of Dennett, and to her concerns that she had just disbelieved her way out of a job. In response, he smiled kindly, and said that his advice was the same for her as his bishop’s had been for him when he told a similar story: “It’s okay to have doubts, even if you feel that you can’t believe. You’re doing great work for your church, and I urge you to stay.”

She left her church a few months after our call.

Some time later, I received a distressing email from a Baptist pastor in rural North Carolina. He briefly introduced himself and told me a bit about his background and the makeup of his congregation before laying a stunning confession at my feet.

He was also an atheist.

He’d been so for several months, following a long and torturous journey of theological and philosophical exploration. His wife had been privy to this development, and fortunately was supportive of him. His congregation, he feared, would be much less so, to say nothing of the religiously conservative community around him. Did I, he asked, know of any way that he could find support and community? More importantly, did I know of any way that he could make a living for himself and his family after a lifetime of experience only in ministry?

I offered my sympathies for his plight, but little else aside from the names of some atheist organizations in the nearest city.

Then in 2011, in Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention, I was having drinks with a friend the night before the main session began. We were thrilling in the anticipation that Christopher Hitchens, then being treated for late-stage cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, might be feeling well enough to attend the event personally. At one point she turned to me and said, “Zach, I just HAVE to introduce you to this guy I met, Jerry DeWitt. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy, and a former pastor who just graduated from The Clergy Project.”

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Jerry at the Texas Freethought Convention, October 2011

Indeed he was. From the moment we first shook hands, I found Jerry to be a humble, polite, and unassuming person. A great listener and a great questioner, he possessed none of the self-importance that I typically encounter when journeying through houses of worship. Indeed, such was his modest demeanor that I found it hard to imagine Jerry behind a pulpit, or under a revival tent, or even perched at a church entrance shaking hands and receiving the adoration of the faithful.

That all changed for me the first time I heard him preach.

It was a secular sermon, no doubt. Jerry had traveled to Dallas to speak at the Fellowship of Freethought’s monthly Gathering and promote Recovering from Religion, a new organization that he had taken on as its first Executive Director. Two months after we first met in Houston, many things had changed for Jerry. While initially he had been hopeful that the personal and financial costs of his apostasy would be minimal, during the intervening weeks he had lost his job, had been ostracized by his community, and the strain was beginning to affect his marriage. As he looked ahead to the future, he was worried that he would be struggling to keep a roof over his head and his life from completely derailing.

Still, he was with friends, and he had plenty to say. That day he gave a message that really cut right to the heart of what he had been going through as a Christian pastor slipping into apostasy.

Jerry @ FoFD

Jerry at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, December 2011

The face we show in public, Jerry taught, even if done for the most virtuous of reasons, can be used to define us. The traditions that we initiate and continue can be used to restrict us. The expectations that these things create will provide safe passage through the culture that sustains us, but we pay a toll in the loss of freedom and self-identity that can only be recovered by embracing a freethinking life.

This thesis, give or take a few hundred pages, became Jerry’s first book.

Titled, “Hope After Faith,” and subtitled “An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism,” it is endorsed by such Hell-bound luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker (himself a former pastor as well), and currently enjoys a position of popularity with their books on best-seller lists. At least, among atheists, that is. By contrast, the most popular books out today among Christians are two separate (and contradictory) accounts of near-death experiences told in wildly fantastical (and non-Biblical) prose.

And more’s the pity. Because I think the true audience for “Hope After Faith” is not the atheist unfaithful, but rather the kind of believer whose religious experiences have been so unsatisfying that the active imagination of a four-year-old is preferable to even C. S. Lewis or, Heaven forbid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Responses to Jerry’s story from Christians who’ve bothered to read it offer only one rejoinder: “You were never truly a Christian.” It’s a common refrain, all too common to those of us who have left the faith of our families.

It’s also a terribly bitter pill to force down someone’s mouth, cutting right to the core of their self-identity, their honest faith, and their cultural context. Perhaps Pentecostalism was the wrong denomination to start in – well, which is the right one? Perhaps Jerry was led to follow flawed leaders with bad theology – who are the right ones? Perhaps he didn’t pray fervently enough, read the Bible enough times, or (most insulting of all) simply wasn’t chosen as one of the Elect? Perhaps there is somewhere a list of confirmed Saints that remains uncontested, but as yet I’ve not seen it.

“We have to recognize, therefore, that even where a single deity is worshiped, the varieties of religious experience represented by the worshipers may differ to such an extent that it is only from the most superficial sociological point of view that they can be said to share the same religion.”

Joseph Campbell, “Masks of God: Primitive Mythology”

In his book, Jerry painstakingly recounts every event of religious significance in his life. It begins with a rock ‘n roll foundation of gospel and revival, prompted by a visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s tent meeting in 1986, that set the course of his religious journey from then on out. An intellectual and inquisitive boy, he more or less taught himself the ministerial trade and showed enough aptitude behind the pulpit to soft-launch himself into a something of a revival preacher. But curiosity and satisfaction are bitter enemies, so his rocky career bounced from church to church, from Brother This to Brother That, as he struggled to pile enough stones in a heap to serve as a witness to God that, yes, he believed in Him and, yes, he trusted in Him and, yes, he sought to do right by Him, as best as he could, as best as any Christian could hope.

In the end, of course, [SPOILER ALERT] Jerry’s heap of stones tumbles, he loses his livelihood, his wife, and his standing in the community.

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The book is divided into five “chapters,” which really only serve to separate the five steps in Jerry’s theology that led to his atheism: God Loves Everyone, God Saves Everyone, God is in Everyone, God is Everyone’s Internal Dialogue, and finally God is a Delusion. The first and longest chapter (taking up more than half of the pages of the book) ends with a personal and spiritual defeat and retreat that culminates years of eking out a living on the revival circuit, trying to please his young wife, and attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to find a satisfying church home. Written with author Ethan Brown, the memoir focuses narrowly on Jerry, which may have been necessary given the manner of its writing, but it unfortunately leaves key figures in Jerry’s life either poorly characterized (e.g., his family), or painfully one-dimensional (e.g., his Pentecostal mentors and friends).

My greatest disappointment with Jerry’s book, however, is that it fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Ending on a grey, lonely Christmas following his bankruptcy, the breakup of his marriage, and the fear of even walking into the local Wal-Mart, Jerry’s hope after faith is a small thing indeed. But perhaps that’s my problem, and not Jerry’s. After all, when he reached out to the atheist community he received plenty of moral support, but not much else. Plenty of people were willing to give him time on their podcast or blog, but who gave him a good-paying job? Who even gave him a “love offering?” Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure? If Jerry’s hope is malnourished after everything he’s been through, what have his fellow apostates done to feed it?

Many in the atheist community find the idea of an atheist pastor just as distasteful as do many Christians. To be an atheist is to leave all the trappings of religion behind, they say, and revel only in the delight of pure intellectualism. I have found this assumption to be inaccurate, as I have watched communities of freethought and humanism crystalize and grow by leaps and bounds around me, providing the same benefits that churches and temples have known for millennia. But these communities, for all their pluck and hard work, consistently lack something I feel is inescapably necessary, especially at this moment in time: revival.

We need to be reminded of the joys of existence, and to be inspired to manage its sufferings as well. We need to be reminded how to show compassion to those who desperately need it, and how to ask for help in times of trouble. In short, we need to have our humanism recharged. We need Jerry, and lots more like him. We need to prepare the way for doubting preachers, youth pastors, and theologians to enter our community, we need to figure out how to support them socially and financially, and we need to do it now. Otherwise our communities will grow like weeds and die off just as quickly, and people like Jerry will find no fertile soil for their talents and their time.

Happily, Jerry’s story is gaining attention, from a New York Times article to appearances on NPR and MSNBC, as well as an ongoing documentary:

Following his sermon in Dallas, I sat down with Jerry and told him that even if nothing else were certain about his life, I was convinced that he was born to be a preacher. One who, ironically enough, found a satisfying gospel to preach only after leaving the church and community he loved. How many other pastors like him put a mask over their inner theological struggles? How many other Christians like him hide their doubts behind the wall of tradition? “Be Brave,” Jerry says often while tweeting from the road, an admonition as much for himself as for those who follow him. It’s advice that I would give to anyone reading his book as well, especially believers; there but for the grace of God could go any of them.

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion”

The Spectrum of Atheism

prism-and-refraction-of-light-into-rainbow-AJHDThere’s a story we tell ourselves as atheists. It goes a little something like this: “I used to believe silly things, but now I’m different. I’m smarter than what I was, than what the people that I was like still are, and I don’t fall for the things that they still do. All I need is a good set of books, some friends to discuss ideas with, and I can solve any problem.”

This story is a lie.

The truth is that we’ve given up our previous beliefs for any number of reasons. The truth is that we’re not all that different from people who still believe. And the truth is that we can’t just rely on ourselves to think our way out of every problem.

We have made great strides in little more than a decade. Long the domain of esoteric philosophers and apologists, the intellectual force of atheism is stronger now than ever, and a cultural tide is already building underneath the waves. We have much to be proud of, many successes, many victories. But in many neighborhoods, those triumphs ring hollow. Because although we have done reasonably well welcoming women and sexual minorities into our movement, when it comes to engaging with and connecting to other communities, we have failed.

We have FAILED.

We have failed the young Black woman who showed up years ago at an atheist group I attended, who had one simple question that none of us could answer: “Do you know any other Black atheists?”

We have failed when hundreds queue for hours for the chance to get an autograph from an old white guy at a national atheist convention, yet only one person appears at the hour-long signing scheduled for the only Black woman who spoke at the event.

We have failed the two young Black guys who traveled to a skeptic convention to learn and sharpen their debating skills, but returned back home without a community to benefit from their knowledge, and without an audience to encourage them.

We have failed as long as our conventions and grassroots organizations’ speakers and attendees consistently under-represent background demographics. Many, many of us have thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. And yet still we gather together, a sea of white faces barely peppered with color, unable to transform our movement into the inclusive, diverse tapestry that we hope (I hope!) for.

These failures pass silently by White suburbia; they aren’t felt in the Apple Store. They cross into other neighborhoods where they fester in the sun, slowly eating away at communities that friendly, open-minded, White folks like me never see except on the evening news. These failures are easy to ignore when we’re surrounded by schools that are well-funded, our public spaces are immaculately landscaped, and we eat cheap fried food as a sinful indulgence, not as economic necessity.

The stench of failure is hard to bear, and no less so for me. My parents went to great lengths to teach me to love and respect people of all colors – taught by showing, and by doing. I was transferred to a predominantly Black school that had a tremendous yet unsung academic reputation. There, for the first time I was in an environment where Black was the norm, where most of my teachers and friends didn’t look like me. And so I didn’t hesitate when I crushed hard on the cute girl who wore blue ribbons to hold back her kinky black hair, who was the only other person in class to beat me in multiplication drills, and who kissed me in gratitude after I beat up the boy calling her names on the playground one day.

But look, I’m no Freedom Rider. I was just a kid relating naturally to the people around me, doing the best I could. Years later, I was asked to help organize an aging atheist group in North Texas. The people were intelligent, interesting, and in severe demographic deficiency. So overwhelmingly monochromatic was its collection of old White men, that it heightened my own label-awareness even more than being a token White kid in a Black grade school. I don’t like thinking about myself that way, even though Louis C.K. is right, it is pretty awesome to be what I am. To have the labels I have. The opportunities I’ve been given. But there’s a darker side as well.

How much of who I am comes from me, and how much comes from the advantages I had, the privileges I enjoy? Did my parents and my teachers, even my Black teachers, encourage me more than other students because even subconsciously they thought the little White boy should be smarter than the rest? Did I get considered for jobs over other candidates because someone thought, “now there’s a White guy I can trust?” Why is it I’ve never seen a single store security officer watching me? Never been stopped ‘randomly’ by the police? Petty anxieties, I know, but what’s most troubling is this: do I really know what’s going through the head of someone of a different color, someone who is treated so differently by our culture than me?

The answer, I think, is NO.

For me to feel the queasiness of demographic insignificance, I have to work especially hard. I have to cross those railroad tracks, I have to walk into a Black Baptist church, I have to wrench my assumptions free of the White Supremacist culture that nestles and comforts primarily those who look like me. But for some among us, the weight of ethnic identity begins to crush as soon as they walk out their front doors. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how rational I try to be, no matter how successful I am at looking past my significant cultural privilege, I just can’t share that experience. And neither can any of my White brothers and sisters in the atheist movement. The moment a new person of color walks in the door of our Freethinking and Humanist organizations, no matter how inclusive and understanding we want to be, there is a cultural divide that we simply cannot fathom.

And the only way to cross that divide is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that we can’t navigate it ourselves. That we can’t think our way past this problem. That we are not qualified to be ambassadors to members of a population that has been systematically beaten down by the same culture which raises us up. Don’t get me wrong, being nice White folks is necessary. Being open to conversations about diversity and cultural privilege is necessary. Being willing to cross those tracks and feel uncomfortable and experience minority is necessary.

But it is NOT sufficient.

We have been exceptionally fortunate. The atheist community has been lucky enough to attract a first wave of Black activists who have been willing to step into a community that privileges intellectualism and academia over the real-world concerns of their communities of origin. They have crossed our thresholds sometimes leaving one foot outside, waiting for that sinking-stomach feeling of ethnic isolation yet again, and perhaps only staying because their biological family is on the other side of a smoking bridge, or because their kids need friends to play with, or because they lucked into a personal connection. We have been wise enough to recognize some few of them as pioneers, invite them to our gatherings, and offer them our podiums. But we have not listened to them. We have not listened to the criticisms of the atheist community as a function of the overarching White culture, we have not listened to stories of personal struggle that are fundamentally different from our own, and we have not listened to the urgent pleas that ask our movement to increase its focus on social justice and diversity outreach. We have been presented with clear directions, clear guidance, and clear leaders, but we do not take them seriously.

That is why it has become necessary to create a new paradigm to serve our atheist brothers and sisters of color. Not because we don’t want to be inclusive (of course we do), not because we have given up on promoting diversity (though we can still do much better), and not because Black and Latino atheists are just sick of waiting for us to get our collective act together (though they could hardly be faulted for feeling that way). It’s because, despite our best intentions and efforts, the atheist community as it exists today, as an overwhelmingly White culture, simply cannot provide a home that is welcoming enough, nor supportive enough, for people whose experiences so profoundly transcend our own that we cannot even properly empathize with them.

But we CAN help.

We can help by refracting our communities. The general atheist and skeptic community at large is not going away, and it will remain overwhelmingly White for years to come. But we can adjust the optics if we set at least one room aside, specifically for our Black brothers and sisters to come together to be able to share their experiences with each other and empathize with their own unique struggles. We can dedicate a percentage of our resources every day, not just once a year, to advancing an agenda on behalf of minority populations who otherwise would not have a sufficiently loud voice in our forum. We can do this, and we should do this, for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, the Latino community, all our atheist sisters and people of non-privileged sexual identities. We should create these areas of specialization, these safe ports of entry, and then purposely and considerately support them within the context of the general secular community. Doing so will not diminish our goal of inclusiveness, but it will maximize the impact of our full spectrum.

There are many ways this can be done. Outreach projects can be spearheaded by those who have ties within the culture they serve, but be promoted and supported by the wider community at large. Social connections can be forged first at the level of shared experience, serving a special minority population, and then integrated into the larger calendar of events for each community. Large gatherings are the perfect opportunity to bring those from several different populations and demographics together to learn and share with each other. Nothing we do should happen in a vacuum. Every major city in America now has a robust grassroots secular community, overwhelmingly White, heterosexual, and male – now is the time to refract them, to build specialized areas within those communities to reach out to and welcome atheists of color, women, those with marginalized sexual identities, and any other non-privileged groups that exist. This is a call for diversity, not homogenization. Diversity brings new flavors and new experiences to the forefront, but homogenization blends everything together into a milky mess. Diversity also breeds strength and flexibility – what the general secular community cannot do on it’s own, our Black brothers and sisters can find a way to achieve. Or the Black and Latino communities working together, or the Latino and Women’s communities, or the Women’s and GLBT communities, or any possible permutation of these, each with the weight of the general secular community behind them in support.

That is my vision for the future of the atheist community. We do not need color-blind atheists, we need our community to be color-aware. By celebrating our differences and respecting our boundaries, we have the potential to go beyond the best efforts of our religious friends and neighbors, to create a Humanist kaleidoscope view of the world which is able to understand, empathize, and work with any community of people anywhere in the world.

We have failed, yes. But the lessons our failures teach are usually the most important of all. We are now on the cusp of a new chapter in our community’s history. Will we continue to insist on viewing our world monochromatically, as we have always done? Or will we take the step that admits our limitations, acknowledges our privilege, and creates the brilliant rainbow that I think we’re all desperately searching for?

The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.