Send an Atheist to Church: Ashley survives Brookland Baptist Church

As part of a fundraising effort for a cancer charity, the local Pastafarians at USC group took donations, in exchange for which the atheist members agreed to be sent to church.  I was sent, along with three other students, to Brookland Baptist church, in West Columbia, SC.

Brookland Baptist Church

I have not been to church in a long time. The closest I’ve been in the last five years is probably the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship, but as their minister is an atheist, I’m not sure how much that counts.  I have actually been to Brookland Baptist before, at the very end of 2006, when John Edwards was speaking there.  I was highly skeptical of him, but after seeing him demand healthcare for all and declare we needed a way to be patriotic besides war, I absolutely fell in love.  Which turned out real well.

Back to the church:

Brookland Baptist Church is a largely African American megachurch, founded in 1902. On Sunday, not only are the parking lots full, but the lots across the street are not enough. The church claims 5,300 members, seats 1,600 on the floor and 500 in the balcony.

Dove with laser beams

I arrived before my fellow heathens and had to wait outside for them.  Initially, I was quite self-conscious because everyone was staring at me, but when I realized it was just because I was the only white person there, not because I was an atheist, it became less worrisome.  For better or for worse, church services seem to be very heavily segregated.  Just as you’d only find one or two African-Americans at your average Episcopalian service, you’ll only find one or two white people at your average Baptist service.  They were, despite the staring, very nice and friendly.

The rest of the cohort arrived and we were sent up to the balcony because one of our members wanted to film some of the service.  I was a little disappointed not to be in the middle of the throng of people, but also relieved that no one would be judging me for being on Facebook during the boring parts.

And boy were there boring parts!

I am a temporally minded person and therefore was already highly irked that the service started 15 minutes late.  I was even more irked when it turned out that the service lasted nearly two and a half hours.  I would have much rather re-watched The Hunger Games with that time!  How someone sits through that every Sunday is beyond me.

Aside from the absurd length, I didn’t really note too many significant differences in the structure and audience participation than the last time I went to an Episcopalian service.  Admittedly, that service was at one of the churches that left the American Episcopalian church to join the Rwandan one because they hate gays so much, but you know, Episcopalianish.  Brookland did, however, have one of the best announcement voices I’ve ever heard — it was like the “In a world” voice, but he was just reading the locations and dates of events.  It was awesome.

This is the song that never ends

There was a lot of singing.  Interminable singing while the collection plate went around.  As much as comedians joke around that the Anglican church is joyless, but the Baptist church goes crazy with the music, there was no evidence of that.  The musak style choir songs were not joyful, just very long.  Fortunately, I had a book, since we were subjected to what probably added up to over an hour of this.

We were, however, very fortunate to have attended the day that we did because the focus was on education and they were recognizing the scholastic achievements of their students.  I don’t know what there normal services and sermons look like, but this was a perfect illustration of how important churches are to the minority community here.  It’s heartwarming to see an institution take so much time and effort to help children succeed and overcome the shortcomings of their schools and local environments.  It is a real shame that, in most cases, the only place they can find this support is in churches.  I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again, secularists need to pick up minority causes — they are basic human rights issues and we should be on the front lines supporting them.

The church gave out scholarships to graduating high school seniors, and then had a college graduate come and deliver the speech for the day.  Anrae Jamon Motes graduated from MIT in 2010 and currently works as a consultant; he came to give advice to students in the congregation.  He was fantastic.

Motes plays with legos; I love the internet

The entire thrust of the speech was about using education to empower yourself, especially economically.  This is an important message to this community, a community that does not generally have economic power.  He did not really talk about religion until the very end of the speech, where he focused on the support system that the church had given him.  Truly it is not faith that changes these people’s lives, but the actions and support of this community, and that’s something that is quite moving.

That said, he did give some of the credit to Jesus, but I was very impressed by how pragmatic and practical the overall message of the entire day was.  This was not a day about God’s achievements, it was a day about people’s achievements, and much more enticing to an outsider for being so.

At the very end, the deacon made a call for people to join at a protest/celebration for the arrest that has finally come in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.  There was a general call for people to be more proactive, to do more than just talk and complain and protest, to actually get out there and vote to change things.  Their goal is to empower people through evangelism, education, and economic change and they emphasized that their community “is about more than winning souls for Christ, it’s about changing lives.”  And to that I can certainly say, “Amen.”

Reason Rally VIP

So, I sent my blog post yesterday to the Reason Rally essay contest and won two seats in the VIP section. Because I got here early, I actually got a seat in the front row.  If you’d like to follow me, I will probably posting mostly on facebook, which you can follow, or twitter.

The essay also got posted on RichardDawkins.net.  I am so stoked I might explode.

image

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Eeeeeeeeee!

Why Reason Rally?

I have posted so much about the Reason Rally in the last few weeks, but I have one last thing I want to talk about: why I care so much about this event.

Many of my friends talk about this event as a rallying of the troops, a way to build morale and group identity among secular America.  Plus, it’s a big party with others like us!  This is important, absolutely, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from those who are going for this reason, but it is not why I am going.  I am going to demand a voice.

I came to the atheist movement in a somewhat circuitous fashion.  I’ve been a non-believer since I was eight.  I found my teeth in my mother’s jewelry box and, having already been quite suspicious of the entire thing, concluded that there was no Tooth Fairy and, therefore, no Easter Bunny, no Santa Claus, no Jesus, and no God.

I didn’t become vocal about my atheism until after reading Hitchens’ “God is Not Great”, but even though I cared deeply about secularism, it was not my primary cause.  I was more interested in being an activist, and I didn’t see any opportunities for activism for secular causes.  Instead, I spent my time fighting for civil rights for LGBT, women, and minorities.  When I lived in California and campaigned against Prop 8, the gay marriage ban, I finally met atheists and skeptics who were fighting, actively, for political change.

Secularists need to join one another, not only to create community and acceptance, but to demand it.  I am incredibly lucky that, despite being from South Carolina and the Bible Belt, my family tolerates my non-belief — mostly in the hope that I’ll get over it, but still.  There are so many people I know, including those who are active locally, who cannot speak publically about their lack of belief for fear of losing their families and their jobs.  There are so many people I know who have been mistreated by the religious, so many children hurt and abused because the law gives special rights to religion, and many others who feel they can never make an impact politically unless they kowtow to the Christian Fundamentalist majority in our state and our country.

Change is started, yes, by coming out of the closet, and this is a national coming out day for the non-religious, but change also comes from demanding your voice be heard politically.  The public attitude towards women, minorities, and gay people has been changed by individuals demanding a voice AND by the movements demanding legislative change and support.

I could not be more excited to see Tim Minchin and Eddie Izzard, two of my favorite performers, but I am also excited to see Sean Faircloth and Herb Silverman, who have made significant legislative impacts, and to see two brave men who serve in Congress and are willing to risk the political stigma of associating with atheists.  I am excited that we are not just speaking to ourselves anymore, we are speaking to the world, to the country, to the government that should be serving us.

We are going to Washington not just for ourselves, but because we absolutely have to.  We have a voice and we refuse to be ignored any longer.

Greta Christina AND Sikivu Hutchinson

Two of the most badass women in the atheist movement are going to be in Columbia, SC during the next week.  It’s pretty amazing.

Tomorrow night (2/23) Sikivu Hutchinson will be here talk about, among other things, Strom Thurmond, race, and religion.  Which gives me an excuse to post the following picture!

Strom "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement" Thurmond

Then!!  Then it will be Greta Christina, who is tied with Jen McCreight and Heidi Anderson as my favorite people of all time ever in the atheist movement, on Sunday!  I AM SO EXCITE.  She will be talking about sexuality and religion, which gives me an excuse to post THIS picture:

The Heroes Columbia Deserves

Details for Sikivu’s talk here: http://www.facebook.com/events/298007953588030/

Details for Greta’s talk here: http://www.facebook.com/events/389913497701994/

COME SEE THEM THEY ARE AMAZING.

Imagine: Not an Atheist Song

How could you ever be angry at that?

Cee Lo Green changed a line in Imagine from “no religion too” to “all religions true” and the atheists and BeatlesFreaks are pissed. The sacred line about “no religion” was changed in a song about everybody getting along to be about everyone getting along in a slightly different way, and so people naturally are not going to get along about it…

What Cee Lo did is way more respectful and less cowardly than the way most people just cut the line entirely.  And the way Cee Lo changed the line is actually completely in sync with Lennon’s intentions.  He wasn’t trying to say there shouldn’t be anything religious, he was saying that all religions should get along.  Lennon, on the lyrics, “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion, but without this ‘my God is bigger than your God’ thing—then it can be true.

Compare MLK’s dedication to the worldview expressed in “Imagine.” The song doesn’t advocate any action, it doesn’t detail any specific problems or solutions it just sort of drifts along and says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if things were great?” Not every song needs to be a treatise on geopolitics but shouldn’t a “meaningful” song actually mean something?

We’re talking about a guy who was unbelievably wealthy who brought the nonsense of eastern mysticism to millions of people singing about no religion and no possessions. I call bullshit.

I agree that the sentiment of the line is stupid, but the fact of the matter is that it is exactly what Lennon was trying to say, because Lennon was a namby pamby, non-committal, everyone is equally good sort of person, apparently just like Cee Lo Green.

Atheist vs Christian Billboard: Let’s Be Friends

Nearly a month ago, I introduced you to the Columbia Coalition of Reason, which had put up a billboard inviting local non-theists to contact us.  The reaction from Christians was predominantly negative, but we also received a lot of very positive responses from both non-believers and believers.

This week, a local church decided to put up a billboard in the same location in the digital rotation along with our billboard as a direct rebuttal.

This is fantastic.  One, it means we’re in the news again, and two, it means we’ve opened a dialogue with local people of faith.

Dustin Tucker, the guy who has coordinated the billboard effort, was interviewed by local TV station WLTX and spoke to how great it was that the opposing view was speaking up and expressed hope that the atheists would be able to do some sort of joint charity effort with Park Street Baptist Church, something that’s already in the works.

Unlike the responses to the previous news stories, the ones to this seem much more level and reasonable.  Here are my two favorites:

Wow…if the billboards can co-exist..perhaps the believers and non-believers will find a way to co-exist as well.

If one wants to see God look into the eyes of a child and you will see Innocent little angels. Those who choose not to believe live very empty lives.

I love kids, don’t get me wrong, but they are definitely demons.

If you’d like to know more about the billboards you can go over to Friendly Atheist, where the president of the Pastafarians at USC has done a nice write up, go listen to the podcast I did at A Matter of Doubt, or:

TUNE IN TONIGHT!  (Sunday, 12/18) at 8PM EST to Reason Podcast where someone from the group will be chatting about it live!

Goodbye Hitchens, We Selfishly Wish You Were Still Here

Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more. – Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Podcast Part II: Winning the War of Attrition

After we completed the main hour of the podcast, we continued our conversation and the guys over at “A Matter of Doubt” have been kind enough to put it up as a bonus clip.  This is where we get into the things that I am most interested in, LGBT issues, argument, and humanism.  I almost sound like I know what I’m talking about occasionally in here, even.

Yes, I’m pretty vitriolic online, and I am willing to call people wrong and be kind of… we’ll go with “emphatic”.  Somewhat dogged.  Win the war of attrition.  But in person, in real life, in real interactions, people are worth more than ideas.  People deserve to be treated well, people deserve to be loved for who they are, they deserve to be accepted.  You can have any opinion you want about their beliefs, but at some point you have to be willing to say, you know, I disagree with you and that’s not the most important thing about you.  We’re all worthy, we’re all equal, we’re all human.  And that’s the foundation of equal rights, that’s the foundation of why we care about the LGBT issues, it’s the foundation of why we think atheists should be treated the same.  And at some point you have to be willing to stop arguing.

http://www.amatterofdoubt.com/?p=187

A Matter of Doubt Podcast: Starring Yours Truly

Unrelated Photo!

A local very cool podcast about atheism and all things philosophy had me on to talk about atheist activism and the SC billboard campaign.  It’s got my deconversion story, horror of childhood religion, and limited occurrences of me going “um, like”.  If you’re into podcasts, you should give it a listen!  I have my super sexy horrible cold voice and everything.

http://www.amatterofdoubt.com/?p=174

Columbia Coalition of Reason: Love Mail Part I

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share some of the thankful e-mails and comments we’ve gotten on the billboard. I’ll be honest, more than one of them made me tear up. There really are people out there who think their non-belief means that they have to be isolated. And now they don’t.

FROM CHRISTIANS

1. “I am a Christian; I belive in God and the bible, grew up in Church etc. I am not perfect and I do sin quite frequently. We as Christians believe we are forgiven and are entitled to believe what we choose just as everyone else is; there is freedom of religion and freedom of speech in place to protect everyone and their beliefs.”

2. “As a believer, I’ve got no problem with this sign; would be a fitting message to have on a church sign. One of our greatest responsibilities is to reach out to non-believers “where they live” and to welcome them to God’s love. IMHO, believers that have a problem with this perhaps need to (1) make sure their own faith is sound and (2) make sure they are loving their neighbors as themselves”

3. The South can be a pretty tough place for anyone struggling with or thinking through their beliefs. And for the record, the Pastafarians I’ve got to know are some really kind and enjoyable people. — a believer in Jesus

4. I am a conservative Christian and I have no problem with it. Don’t even see it as a story worth writing about in the newspaper. If they want to spend their money on billboards, that’s perfectly fine even if I personally think it’s a poor use of their money when it could be used for additional charity donations. But that’s up to them.5. I am a christian and I do respect anyones right to believe what ever they choose. I do not try to push anything on anyone nor do I judge anyone for their beliefs. This country is in a real mess and it’s going to take ALL of us to get it back on the right track. Let’s start thinking about how we can work together, put the right people in the right places, get the job market back, the wellfare line down and get this country back to being the greatest place in the world to live.

6. I believe in God also but I believe in their right to keep that sign up. This is still America despite what you think. I wish I could afford to help them put up a sign across from your house LOL

THANK YOUS/WE GET ITS

7. “It’s amazing to see the “peace-loving” Christians get so upset about this. It’s not an attack on you… I don’t see how you can reasonably think it is. The message is not even directed at you, so why do you care? Do you get upset at messages offering support to people with mental illnesses too, even if the message doesn’t apply to you? What’s so wrong with atheists reaching out to each other for support? What’s really sad is that such support is even necessary. If Christians respected others’ beliefs the way they expect theirs to be respected, it wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately, when atheists admit their non-belief it is often met with personal attacks and sometimes ostracization from friends and families. It’s a horrible way to treat people. Why can’t we all just get along? If the billboard directly attacked you or your belief, then you’d have every right to be outraged… but read it again… it’s NOT attacking you.”

8. I don’t see how this is such a big deal. The reality is that there are people who believe what you might, and there are others who don’t. The sign is intentionally unoffensive. It doesn’t say, “There is no God”. Nor does it insult my belief in Jesus. It just says, ” [hey,] don’t believe in God? [Well we’re here if you want to talk about it]”. And thats fine with me.

9. Thank you for being there. I have suffered the consequences of being an Atheist in South Carolina, including unlawful discrimination more than once.

10. Very happy to see these bill boards up in Cola! It is about time someone stood up for reason! To the people who say, “What does it hurt to believe if it keeps you from burning in ****?” or words to that effect: What if you are believing in the wrong god, or what if you belief about the god you believe in is the wrong one? How do you know that you won’t be the one burning in ****? To the people who say, “Why do you have to push your belief on us?” I say: We aren’t pushing anything. We are letting other unbelievers know that we are here and that it is OK to be non-theist, even in the South. To those who say, “Why do atheists care about something they don’t believe in?” I say: Because we are ridiculed for not believing, we fear for our jobs if it becomes known that we don’t believe, we see the wrongs that have been done in the name of religion in the past and in this day and age.

11. Even if there’s no God, humans are pretty awesome, in general. I’d rather see us united by our common morals than divided by our personal religions.

12. The vast majority of atheists (such as myself) were christians, muslims, jews, hindus, or in some way religious before. Because of the incredible stigma of losing friends, families, and relationships as an atheist, many people go along with it for a period of time, even indefinitely.Many of my fellow skeptics have been ejected from their homes and families; my own parents fear for my eternal safety and point this out.

The parallel is similar to coming out as gay. People have incredibly unreasonable prejudices in the US, and especially here in the south, about what being atheistic is. It causes irrational reactions in the vast majority of cases, since religion is principally an irrational belief: when confronted with the possibility of being wrong, people react. Hence people may need a ‘nudge’ to come out about it, as well as to realize they are not alone in this; that there is support.

13. Interesting… The message is no more threatening than if the Orthodox Jews put up a sign saying “Don’t believe in Jesus of Nazareth as your savior” “your not alone”…. Yet THIS provokes ugly comments from “loving Christians” ??? Maybe it is time to go back and read your bible a bit more in-depth…. There is room for “Non-Theists” just as much as there is room for Buddhists, Baha’i, Muslim, Wiccan, etc… theologies. Put your “Christian” beliefs into practice… “Love Thy Neighbor” doesn’t mean exclusively those who think just like you.

14. The point is…we are reaching out to those who do not believe. If you believe that is fine, we are not looking to hurt your feelings, nor are we trying to “recruit” you. If you want the fundamental rights of this country to be upheld you must allow a voice to all. To tell someone they have no right to voice their opinion you are denying them their right to free speech. You do not see profanity or derogatory language on this billboard, but in the minds of some they see a little spark of truth. Perhaps this is what bothers you about this ad.

15. I can’t belie this is up in SC? I don’t see it being up long due to complaints
I am an atheist so its nice to see. But a lot of people don’t seem to understand how some don’t believe in “god”

16. Great finally something good comes to Columbia! love it!

17. I just wanted to send a quick note and say Thank You for posting the billboard in Columbia. I have been a Columbia resident for the past 7 years and this is the first billboard of this kind I have seen. It’s nice to see there are others of like-mind in our city. I can’t imagine the backlash the billboard will receive but hopefully it will be allowed to remain up for as long as designated. Nice to know that I am not alone in my beliefs in Columbia SC

18. YEAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Telling people your a non-thiest is a little like coming out of the closet, the response seems to be the same!? This billboard gives me hope!
Thanks you soooooooooooooo much.
How can I get more information on this organization?

19. I just wanted to write and say thank you for the billboards placed in Columbia. I have long felt “alone” in my beliefs, and it is nice to know there is a community of like-minded thinkers here. It seems religious zealots are increasingly “in your face” with their “message”, so I’m so happy to have an organization like yours unabashedly putting an alternative view out there for all to see. Please sign me up if you have a newsletter, and again, thank you, thank you, thank you!

20. I truly appreciate what you guys are doing with the billboards across Columbia. What I find most commendable is that the message comes across as compassionate. Unfortunately, many of the people in this state react in such an emotional way that they cannot see the TRUE message from you. For many years, I was involved very deeply in church. I had so many questions about things said in the bible that were very confusing or contradictory that no one was willing or able to answer. I did what any intellectually inquisitive person would do. I researched and read beyond the bible. I no longer attend church but I have not yet expressed to my extended family my new beliefs (or lack of). So, I appreciate your message and courage. I found during my time in church that most of those on the pews used god to cover up their ugly natures and to justify their judgmental attitudes and manipulative personalities.

All I can say is don’t dwell on the negativity, continue to focus on the support of like minded people who feel ostracized by the many hypocritical and judgmental people of our state.

21. I live in Greenville, SC. Unfortunately, I also work in the shadow of Bob Jones University. I’ve had my Darwin fish and car vandalised so often I no longer boast my proud atheism on my car. (Just my reddit sticker.) I’m glad to see that in this sea of delusion that is SC, there are a few that fight the good fight.Keep up the good work!

Also, if you get bored, head over to r/atheists on reddit. Great stuff, to keep us from losing hope in humanity. We’ve been having a pledge drive for Doctors without Borders. So far we’ve raised over $66,000 and our goal is $75,000 by the end of the year.

22. Just a quick thank you for investing in these billboards. I deeply appreciate it.

23. I know you guys have been getting a lot of flak for the billboard that you just put up- I just finished reading some of the hate mail you received, and it’s pretty disturbing stuff. I thought I’d break the trend, though, and thank you all for doing the right thing and standing up for what you believe in. It takes a bit of nerve to put up a billboard like that in South Carolina (Columbia, of all places), but I’m glad you did. We definitely aren’t alone out there, and it’s heartening to see somebody making that fact known.

24. I’m not from your area, but I saw pictures of your billboards online recently. I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for braving the inevitable wave of hate mail and insults and death threats to reassure people like me that we’re not alone in a country that, at times, seems like it thinks we aren’t even people. While I’ve discovered resources on my own, I realize in many areas they aren’t very obvious or necessarily available for people that are too afraid to talk about their views. I’ve spent most of my life in rural, socially conservative areas where most everyone is a devout Christian. It’s scary sometimes to think about how people would react if you told them that you simply don’t believe in a god. Sometimes even being told right to your face things like “Atheists have no morals and shouldn’t be allowed in this country.”

So once again, thank you for what you are doing, and don’t stop fighting the stereotypes and misconceptions.

A LITTLE SNARK

25. In the name of god, please have someone translate what in the world you are saying. god does not hate periods or halfway readable English.