Thanksgiving has only just passed, so I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about eleven things I am truly thankful for, especially in regards to state of the skeptic community and my own relationships. I could say that I’ve chosen to list eleven things in honor of the eleventh month of the year, or the approximately 11% increase in religious non-affiliates since 1978, but the truth is these facts simply provide a rationale for a completely arbitrary number choice. The random list length does not, however, make me any less thankful for the things composing that list, starting with (1) the separation of church and state.
While the phrase “separation of church and state” does not actually appear in the United States constitution, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (known primarily for its establishment of freedom of speech) states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the federal government cannot pass any laws which favor or restrict the practice of religion. The establishment clause essentially prevents both legal alliance and aggression between religious institutions and the state, positive or negative. In other words, the first amendment of the United States bill of rights essentially ensures that church and the state are kept legally separate.
While the legal separation can’t be complete (for example, religious practices are legally regulated when they involve the physical harm of people or animals), the result is that an individual’s rights as enumerated and inferred by the constitution, including their enfranchisement and right to hold public office, can’t be affected by their religious affiliation. These rights, however, are not always respected on the state level. In fact seven states effectively constitutionally prohibit atheists from holding office: Arkansas (Article 19, Section 1), Maryland (Article 37), Mississippi (Article 14, Section 265), North Carolina (Article 6, Section 8), South Carolina (Article 17, Section 4), Tennessee (Article 9, Section 2), and Texas (Article 1, Section 4). So this year I’m thankful that I live in a state where religious tests do not impede my capacity to run for any public office, and that I live in a country where federal law supersedes state constitutions (2).
This is partially due to the work of diligent atheist rights activists and advocacy groups such as American Atheists, the Appiganani Legal Center, and the plaintiffs in dozens of court cases, who not only protect the rights of those who do not acknowledge any particular deity, but by reiterating and refining the separation of church and state, also ensure the rights of those belonging to religious minorities (3).
Closely connected to atheist advocacy groups are broader secular communities (4), such as the American Humanist Association, African Americans for Humanism, and many others which provide safe places for irreligious individuals to be themselves. These valuable communities run the gamut of purpose and focus, from promoting Secular Humanist values, to destigmatizing irreligiosity, to coordinating with civil and human rights coalitions and charities, to organizing naturalist summer camps for kids. Some of these organizations were valuable resources for me personally and I stumbled about the internet, looking for people who thought like me. However, since I lived in the rural northwest while I was making my transition from religious to more secular modes of thought, there weren’t any local chapters of these communities available to me. This is why I’m particularly thankful for the local secular clubs operating underground in my own community.
My access to local secular communities almost feels like a gift that was wrapped for me well in advance. I’ve spoken before about Jodi, Janet, Gustav, Wendell, and their role in my journey towards more secular personal conclusions about the world. I became friends with these people during my freshman and sophomore years of college, and it was during my sophomore year of college that I temporarily dropped out of church and began to more publicly grapple with my own waning faith. It was also during this time that Jodi and Janet, sisters and skeptics, started an underground group for non-believers near our college campus. I was still professing to be a person of some faith when they started the group, so while they didn’t hide their intent from me, they didn’t speak about it much to me either.
Our university was religiously based, and our campus did not have many safe spaces for those who did no adhere, or at least profess, to some variety of Adventist values. (Later I would learn of gay, trans, polyamorous, and atheist students who were openly harassed by members of the student body.) To protect the identities of the people in Jodi and Janet’s group, I’ll refer to it as USS (University Secular Society), because it was comprised primarily of university students who had left the the church, were questioning the church, or had embraced secular worldview labels such as ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic.’
Because of my friendship with Jodi and Janet I knew USS existed, but I wouldn’t find myself at a meeting for another year. It happened entirely by accident. My friend Wendell, who had since graduated with his bachelor’s degree, was visiting the university to see friends. We had arranged for me to meet him at a friend’s house, but when I walked through the door I found myself in a living filled with twelve or thirteen other people, all sitting around the perimeter, listening as each person in turn gave their testimony. It was a meeting of USS, and because there were new members present the group agreed to hear everyone’s deconversion story.
Of course, not everyone was ‘deconverted.’ I still identified as an “agnosti-theist” a little term I’d made up for myself to explain my sense of spirituality as my confidence in my religion faded. But it was knowing that community was there, that there was a place to welcome me, that allowed me to be honest with myself about what I really believed, and how deep my conflict with my religion really was (5). Since joining USS as junior I’ve moved a bit and found other skeptic communities which have embraced me warmly. When I originally left the church I thought I’d never know another community like my old congregation, and my local skeptic community isn’t the same, I am still immensely thankful for it.
I’m also really thankful for the support of my family (6). Telling your family that you no longer want to continue on the way they raised you can sound like an insult. When your parents pour effort into guiding your thoughts and showing you the world the best they know how, leaving their worldview behind can strain the parent-child relationship. And when leaving a religion also means rejecting a culture—even incompletely—it can cause other family members and close friends to feel betrayed.
My relationship with both of my parents was strained when I left the church. For the first time I felt like my dad and I were on different intellectual wavelengths. My mom made awkward comments about saved pagans that reminded me of the way some people talk about “their Asian friend.” My sister gave me a flat expression and said, “I just don’t get you.” My relationships with some of my old friends and inlaws were strained as well. But ultimately, my family has continued listen to, and accept me. I don’t have to hide what I think, I don’t have to pretend that everything is the same. Other friends of mine have been virtually disowned, had their families mourn them as if they were dead, been given free subscriptions to creationist magazines…I’ve had it easy.
I’ve also had a really supportive partner in David (7). He’s a practicing Christian and I’m an ignostic, but we’ve found ways to respect one another’s beliefs and to keep an open dialogue.
My last four thankfulness items all sort of go together. I’m thankful for my access to authors like Jerry E. Coyne and Bart Ehrman, which allowed me to learn about evolutionary theory and biblical criticism from scholars who weren’t tearing down arguments, but building their own (8). Likewise, I’m thankful for the internet, and more specifically YouTube, which gave me access to all kinds of scientific and cultural channels (9). Finally, I’m thankful for this blog (10) which has allowed me to share my journey, and I’m thankful for you (11) my readers, who’ve given me someone to talk to for over two years.