Lessons Learned from the Atheist Alliance of America Convention by Andreea Nica


Andreea Nica, pentecostalismThe Atheist Alliance of America National Convention 2014 held earlier this month in Seattle, Washington granted me the opportunity to interview, converse with, and listen to renowned speakers, comedians, and influential figures in the atheist movement including the likes of David Fitzgerald, Dr. Steven Pinker, Dr. Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Haynes, and Dr. Richard Carrier.

This year’s convention drew in approximately 100 attendees throughout the weekend, according to Amy Monsky, Executive Director of Atheist Alliance of America (AAA). Monsky states that the AAA National Convention has several primary goals including: to bring atheists together; to hear great speakers; to network and socialize; and to raise awareness through education.

The family-friendly event was comprised of educational and activist-oriented sessions, debate, a comedy show, VIP non-prayer breakfast, film by Jeremiah Camara, “2014 Richard Dawkins Award” banquet, and a Sunday outing to Snoqualmie Falls and Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery.

Below is an overview of the sessions I attended, the conversations I had with presenters and experts, and the interviews I conducted.

Horus Gilgamesh: Atheism Can Cause Death Threats

AAA Conference Photo 1According to Monsky, there were last-minute changes made to the program when one of the speakers, author Horus Gilgamesh (pen name) of “Awkward Moments Not Found in Your Average Children’s Bible” blog, received a death threat to his home address prior to the convention. Subsequently, he decided not to attend the conference for safety reasons.

The letter revealed the blogger’s identity reading, “Hello Horus or should I call you [real name]?”

The letter, posted on the author’s blog, concluded with: “I’ll see you up in Seattle next week. You won’t see me.”

Signed: “God’s Little Helper.”

Monsky further stated that the letter was “creepy, but what was especially disturbing about it was because it had his real identity and real address…”

Many of the speakers and attendees wrote Horus Gilgamesh on their name badges to show their support and solidarity for the atheist blogger.

Secularism in Schools

In the session “Game Changer: Getting School Administrators to Seek out Organized Secular,”August Brunsman, Executive Director of Secular Student Alliance, spoke about the increasing need for secular groups on university campuses. Currently, Secular Student Alliance has 300 groups nationwide promoting secular and nontheistic values through community, advocacy, service, and education.

Brunsman posits that religious organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) to have more staff members and campus organizers nationwide, thus, having greater influence on university campuses across the country. Brunsman noted that a key area of growth for the organization is to expand their administrative staff to provide greater services to each of their groups.

A primary issue in continuing to scale the organization is that “over 90% of funding for Secular Student Alliance comes from individual donors.”

With increased interest from nontheist affiliate groups, Brunsman hopes to continue maximizing the efforts of Secular Student Alliance to U.S. university campuses. Secular Student Alliance affiliates welcome atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, naturalists, Pastafarians, and many others.

Ask an Atheist

The Washington-based weekly radio show, “Ask an Atheist,” is dedicated to atheism, skepticism, secular humanism, and issues of separation of church and state.

I spoke with Executive Producer Sam Mulvey after his session “Blasphemy Laws & You.” I welcomed Mulvey’s thoughts regarding the separation of church and state in relation to Mars Hill Church founding Pastor Mark Driscoll’s rants promoting misogyny, homophobia, among other forms of prejudices.

While Mulvey disagrees with Driscoll’s teachings, he believes that Driscoll should be protected by the First Amendment. However, Mulvey adds that this is a complex issue and that the state should take interest if people begin to act on Driscoll’s beliefs and if people are getting hurt.

Note: As of the publication of this article the masses have risen against Driscoll, calling for his removal from the pulpit, pulling his books from the bookshelves, and even isolating him from a network he helped build.

Religious Freedom Hurts Women

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) has recently influenced the Hobby Lobby decision. Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain, and its sister company, Mardel Christian bookstore, asked for an exemption from an Obamacare requirement that it provide insurance coverage for morning-after pills and other emergency birth control methods and devices, according to Constitution Daily.

Diana Castillo, State Chapter Coordinator for Secular Coalition for America and presenter at the AAA Convention, believes the RFRA is preventing adequate family planning services and contraceptive access to women, stating that the RFRA is “depriving women of what they desperately need in their daily lives.” She provided AAA attendees with a petition to repeal the RFRA.

LGBTQ and Atheism

For over 30 years, Marsha Botzer has been an activist of the LGBTQ and progressive communities. She believes that the atheist community can better serve those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer by affiliating with LGBTQ organizations and communities, welcoming LGBTQ individuals into different atheist organizations, and showing greater support for the transgendered community.

I ask Botzer how she feels about Christian organizations and affirming churches that welcome those who identify as LGBTQ. She states that this is fine as long as the religious organizations “truly welcomes them; that not a part of them [their identity] is left behind.”

Prevalence of Black Churches

The documentary Contradictions, produced by Jeremiah Camara and presented at the AAA Convention, highlights how African-American communities across the U.S. are saturated with churches. In Camara’s documentary, the influx of churches in African-American neighborhoods is explained as a structural landmark of the community, yet also correlated with “impoverishment, despondency and deprivation.”

The church was often used as a space where African-Americans could gather and share ideas during the Civil Rights Movement. Ayanna Watson, Founder of Black Atheists of America, stated in the documentary that “now, we [African-Americans] cannot separate the church from religion.”

Further the documentary shows how Black churches often prey on women through providing a more “emotional” environment.

An Interview with “Brother” Richard Haynes

Richard Haynes used to be an evangelist and minister. Haynes is now President of Atheist Nexus International and acts as a consultant for nontheist organizations throughout the U.S.

Haynes shared his views on atheism, opened up about his former religious life, and talked about his goals for promoting nontheistic values.

I ask Haynes if conversion is a goal in the work he does as a proclaimed atheist. While he believes everyone is entitled to be “evangelical” in their beliefs, his “ultimate goal is peace and unity amongst all people.”

Regarding his conversion to Christianity, he describes himself as “born a heathen” having not regularly attended church growing up. He highlights a “troubled” childhood filled with abuse which prompted his leaving home as a teenager.

Even after leaving home, he recalls his love for science. However, he explains how his interest for science and atheism quickly faded:

“…as is often the case, very few people will help you or give you a sandwich unless they’re telling you about Jesus, so I out of desperation – a lot of atheists don’t understand this – how you can fall for some of this stuff – I literally was able to create that little God box that I put my belief in – of God and faith – where I wouldn’t allow reason…”

He further elaborates, “It [‘born again’ experience] was very genuine, very real. It changed my life. Probably without it, I would probably be dead.”

Haynes went on to lead a mega-church in Atlanta, Georgia which he later left due to several scandals within the church. His transition from his faith spanned over 14 years. He mentions that many people along the way ask him if something bad happened to him that prompted him to leave his faith. He states that nothing bad necessarily has to happen to leave your faith, it’s sometimes just about “allowing questions.”

To Haynes, “atheism is simply a lack of belief in god/s.” He continues to say that it’s not that one knows there is no god, but that one does not believe in god/s.

As a former believer myself, I ask Haynes if he misses his previous relationship to god.

Haynes responds, “Yes, I do actually. A lot of atheists would hate that I said that. I don’t miss god because he didn’t exist. I do miss that feeling of communion…it did change my life.”

Haynes goes on to say that he misses how welcoming and loving the church community was. However, he believes that the atheist movement and community can also provide that sense of communion and belonging to members, and to those who are seeking an alternative to their religious beliefs.

Final Thoughts

While I don’t entirely consider myself an atheist, I was thoroughly impressed with the caliber of speakers and activists in the atheist community. My alignment with the overall goals of atheism, humanism, and nontheism were expanded in fortuitous ways, and I realized how important the atheist movement is to challenging systematic ideologies in the political, social, economic and religious realm.

Steve Hill
, Atheist and Comic, sums it best, “Atheism can just make us more human.”

Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, media strategist, and egalitarian. She writes for Sociologists for Women in SocietyApartments.com,Huffington PostAlterNet, amongst other top-profile online platforms. She is a featured expert on SheSource, Women’s Media Center, and the Founder of OrganiCommunications, a consultancy that empowers organizations and enterprises in content development and media strategy ventures. Currently, she is writing a narrative nonfiction on her transition from the Pentecostal sect. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. You can find Andreea hiking throughout the Pacific Northwest with her better half and kitty. Follow her @integratedcom and connect on LinkedIn.

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Categories: Activism, Belief, Community, Education, Ethics, Gender and Sexuality, LGBTQ, Non-Theism, OpEd, The Black Church, Women and Community, Women Religious

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9 replies

  1. I have been curious about this group since it has been given so much space on FAR. Your post answers a few questions I had. 1. This is not a feminist group, though it may not be anti-feminist. 2. It appears to be primarily a group for former fundamentalists/evangelicals and not to attract a wide spectrum of atheists or secular humanists. So I wonder, why should FAR be devoting so much of its precious space to this group again and again?

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    • Hi Carol, thanks for your thoughts. I wasn’t aware FAR has published much on AAA. Some things that I didn’t share in this post that I think may be important to feminist thought is that Dr. Rebecca Goldstein, atheist, philosopher, and scholar, was given the “Richard Dawkins Award 2014” at the banquet dinner where she shared that being raised in an Orthodox Jewish family provided her with oppressive notions about modesty and women, and how she overcomes this idea throughout life.

      Also, during dinner, many of the great Atheist thinkers talk about strategies on how to involve more brilliant women in roundtable discussion and debate settings, as they would like to see more women engaging on relevant topics in the movement.

      Finally, “Brother” Richard Haynes talks about his daughter majoring in Psychology and Women’s Studies and how much he has learned from his daughter’s ‘feminism’ that he applied to atheism. For example, while many want to see atheism become more “unified” he realized that it’s really “atheisms” – that there are many forms. And he really gained this insight from his feminist daughter who talked about differences in feminism, enlightening him on “feminisms.”

      While I agree that this is not a feminist movement, I don’t think it needs to be. There are many topics discussed here that either parallel feminist ideology, or compliment its tenets.

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      • Hi Andreea,
        Over my lunch hour I am able to read a lot of these posts that I miss out on during the week.

        Although I’m late on yours, I just wanted to say with the recent news about Mark Driscoll calling women “penis homes,” I think that your post speaks very loudly to the ways that these issues parallel feminist ideology and the need to continually investigate these different groups. I’ll be posting on this for an upcoming blog post on here (should no one else beat me to it) but here is an article – http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/09/08/wash-state-megachurch-closes-branches-after-founder-is-caught-calling-women-penis-homes/?onswipe_redirect=no&oswrr=1

        Feminists can be atheists. Atheists can be feminists. And all have a place on this blog!

        Thank you for your great post! I appreciate reading what you post (when I get to it! :-) )

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      • Thanks for reading, John! Too funny – I just posted the news story about Driscoll on Facebook about an hour before I read your comment! I think one great takeaway from the conference was that many of the atheist leaders, who at this time are predominately male, really want to see more female leaders, and were discussing strategic ways to recruit more women in the movement.

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  2. Thanks, Andreea! We might mention also that there are a number of world religions, for instance Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which are deeply spiritual and compassionate, and at the same time essentially atheistic. The beauty of Taoism is that nature is its primary source of revelation, not nature worshiped necessarily as a god or goddess, but truly the way of nature as understood both in science and in poetry. For instance, observing autumn leaves floating on a stream and moving around rocks, and what we can learn from or appreciate in that, or walking through a woodland at dawn and the sense of wonder in that experience, would suffice as Taoist teaching or even directly as Taoist scripture. The Tao Te Ching emphatically claims Taoism as an atheistic and maybe also a feminist path, where it says in Chapter 4 that Tao is “older than God” —

    The Tao is like a well:
    used but never used up.
    It is like the eternal void:
    filled with infinite possibilities.
    It is hidden but always present.
    I don’t know who gave birth to it.
    It is older than God.

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  3. Interesting, Andreea. Thanks. I sent your post on to my atheist husband.

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  4. Great! Thanks for sharing the post, Nancy!

    Like

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