Being OUT as an Atheist

From the Freedom From Religion Foundation's latest billboard campaign

Post 18 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

In the past year there seems to be a unique moment happening nationally around visibility in the larger nontheist community. It seems everywhere I turn there are bill board campaigns, print advertising, bus ads, commercials, and more. Not in humanist publications but in the places you’d least suspect. Which are the places I would argue they are needed the most. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has launched a billboard campaign in Raleigh, North Carolina. Another pair of campaigns are the OUT campaign and Consider Humanism Campaign.

I’ve heard from humanists both positive and negative rections to the various campaigns that have come before this one about how they either make folks feel proud and excited or left worrying about the negative fallout. I’ve also heard and read debates similar to this one about LGBT Pride Festivals and Parades and the perception of the LGBT community. That by having sexy Go-Go boys that are mostly naked — in the parades, not on a humanist billboard — that we aren’t winning over people to our side but instead upsetting those who were fine with gay people but now are not. I don’t really buy this debate that we lose supporters by increasing visibility. I agree that there can and often is fallout and reaction, sometimes even dangerous reaction. I do not think these campaigns (for either community) are about conversion. I’ve never decided what I believe about the universe or whether I’m attracted to men by billboards or parades. I have felt validated though, I have felt pride, I have felt safer in the moment.

I was talking with someone recently about traveling in the south and she shared that while she sees pro-LGBT bumper stickers all the time around Minneapolis when she visits family in the South seeing them means more to her. I can relate, when I’m in an unfamiliar place I look for things that bring me comfort and when I’m somewhere I don’t think I belong because of who I am I especially look for reassurance that it is okay I’m there and on a deeper level that I’m safe. I realize seeing a bumper sticker or billboard won’t actually help me if someone wants to hurt me, but knowing I’m not the only one of whatever personal identity is feeling stressed by a situation helps and that is where these sorts of campaigns really help. They help the 12 year old who is in a family and a place that they can’t choose or control feel like they aren’t the only one even when they’ve never met another person like them.

I grew came of age with Will & Grace and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teen and high schooler. The queer and non-Christian characters showed me that there are people out there who aren’t straight and who aren’t Christian (both of these types of people were novelties for me). There shows didn’t keep me from being teased at school, but knowing that all the people in my life I’d met up to that point didn’t represent all the possibilities gave me hope. Sometimes when your in a place you don’t want to be, surrounded by people who don’t think you should be the way you are, that little bit of hope and knowing really counts. Now I’m surrounded by people who validate and reflect who I am but when I was young I remember the first gay character I ever saw on TV, I remember the first atheist I read about. I remember thinking if I’m not the only one then there isn’t something inherently wrong with me and if I’m not the only one then others have done this before. Would I still not believe in God if I hadn’t watched Buffy? Most assuredly. I also would have kept quiet about it longer and wouldn’t have used the word wiggins or contemplated the plural of apocalypse as a teen. Seeing parts of ourselves reflected in our environment doesn’t dramatically change who we will turn out to be, but that assurance can shift how safe we feel, keep us going, and keep us sane.

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What is Vocation Anyway?

Post 13 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

vo·ca·tion [voh-key-shuhn]
–noun

  1. a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling.
  2. a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career.
  3. a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life.
  4. a function or station in life to which one is called by god: the religious vocation; the vocation of marriage.

Source: dictionary.com

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare(verb to call). Often the call comes from a divine source or the community for one to walk a particular path in their life. The most common form of this is the call to the vocation of ministry, clergy, or religious leader or even for an individual to become deeply involved in a particular religious path. So why is this something of interest to a twenty something non-profit professional whose experience resides mostly in marketing? Because I disagree with the source of “the call.” Instead, I agree with Parker J. Palmer and his amazing book where he illuminates the Quaker saying: “Let Your Life Speak.” The call isn’t something you find outside of yourself and it doesn’t tell you what to become. Rather, it is about being aware of yourself, deeply aware, and taking note of all that you have already done in your life. Your own life and experiences are the real guideposts. The next step is not to change into something else; it is to take off all the roles you have assumed and ideas you have absorbed about what you should be and work on the hard task of figuring out what you truly are, what you always have been, and what you could grow into by being yourself. “Be yourself” may sound simplistic, but in a world that constantly pushes you to be something you are not, it takes a lifetime of unlearning and uncovering to find the core of your actual identity.

I do admit that when I decided to think about vocation, I went to a religious source. I began meeting with a spiritual adviser, spent time thinking about what I have done, and what I want to do with my life. I also became more involved in a religious community. Upon personal reflection, I reached out to ministers to find resources to read about vocation. I continue to read on the topic and have spent considerable time thinking about the term and about my life to this point. The biggest step forward on my current vocational path has been to spend time reflecting on my accomplishments. The experiences, moments, and readings that energize me are those of which I take particular note and try to see where several are pointing. This reminds me of high school math classes where it took several points to create a trend; one or two random dots didn’t really amount to something but 5-10 really started to make a pattern. The core question (paraphrasing from “Let Your Life Speak”) is not “What should I do with my life?” It is “Who am I?”

Here is what I have discovered about who I am:

My passion is connecting people to what they need. This could be connecting people to people, people to resources, or people to a community. Reflecting on snapshots throughout my life, the most significant themes I have found so far are:

  • I love to learn, especially about how people work and how they come together
    • Examples: College Degree, Majors: Anthropology, Criminal Justice, Forensic Science Minors: Biology and Psychology
    • All of these study how people think, function physically, or come together in society (both in positive and negative ways)
  • I enjoy building a sense of community and connecting people to resources and concepts larger than themselves
    • Examples: Involvement in non-profit community organizations, Working within religious communities, Being involved in projects to disseminate information
    • Facilitating the connections between individuals and making contributions to my community have been some of the most rewarding volunteer and career moments of my life.

While these are merely cursory examples, other experiences in my life have also pointed to an inherent fascination and sense of energy around the way people join together to do more than any single person could on their own, be that through a religious community, community organizing, or self-constructed families. I have always enjoyed the D.I.Y. or Build Your Own approach to careers, spirituality, and families. Nothing prepackaged seems to do it for me. By my own means, I discover lessons in theology, philosophy, or amazing human beings to add to my personal worldview, social circle, and my created family. I work on multiple projects, in multiple volunteer capacities, and on many freelance gigs outside of my full-time job to create a career that is multi-faceted and with a depth that encompass a community I love. Mine is a career about forging connections—sometimes through marketing, tabling at conferences, networking events, one-on-one conversations, online social media, or my religious community. Each conversation I engage in is first a connection between myself and the other person, and at any point the connection can grow to more people.

This blog is not just for others; driving my involvement is an agenda very personal in nature. Through writing, reflection, discovery, and sharing pieces of my answer I hope to not only help others find what they are looking for but to continue the path of discovering that for myself.

So what is vocation anyway? Frederick Buechner might say it is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I really think it is finding that place of energy and sense of purpose within each of us, and then centering all the ways we engage our world on this powerful place. So my personal understanding of vocation is the point when I can align all of my unique gifts and my entire self to what I do in the world. Not a simple goal, but one worth taking the time to get it right.

P.S. those of you that know me might recognize this post from another project. I was going to tackle a more extensive rewrite but was surprised that this article still sums up my feelings on this topic and I’ve seen a significant amount of progress in the ten months since I originally worked through this article.

I’m not this or that, I’m both and

Wordle: Theology Cloud

Click the image to see it larger.

Post 3 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

Identity politics dominate a lot of conversations. Religious conversations are no different. I’m encouraged to identify in certain ways based on the situation or even when not encouraged sometimes I shorthand things and just claim a single identity that helps people move forward in the conversation. Tonight I had the pleasure of not needing to do that as much as normal. I attended a gathering of Hamline’s Multifaith Alliance where the discussion was about Atheism and Interfaith work.

Did I shorthand things some? Yes, of course. But I was also to hear from others and share more facets of my worldview/theology/lifestance than is normally the case. It was a space of opening the conversation, sharing questions, sharing resources, and learning.

On my drive home I thought a bit about it and I thought about my primary religious identity of Humanist, more specifically Religious Humanist (I plan on blogging about this more during my Humanist Lent). I thought about my various religious identities and exploration. I also thought about how all these things, even those I’ve left behind still impact how I see the world, what I value, and my moral compass. I thought how it really isn’t a single term, or even a sentence or list of words that makes up how I see the world. Then I thought of this blog and the tag cloud, so I went online and made a Theology Cloud to summarize it in a snapshot. I didn’t spend a long time on it and I know that this would be a constantly shifting thing from moment to moment and situation to situation. It would also encompass my other identities beyond the theological/philosophical: my race, ethnicity, sexuality, sex, ability, education, geographic location, socioeconomic class, relationship status, age, parental status, and about every other conceivable piece of myself. But to make this at least conceivable for now I kept it to a short list and even that paints a complex picture. Try it out yourself (I opened Excel and in each column copied a single term differing numbers of times to get the amounts right) at www.wordle.net.

Beginning a Conversation

Around the age of fourteen I began to realize the way I viewed the world was quite different from most of my peers. It was around this age that I started to think of myself as gay. I didn’t come out until I was eighteen but I had a clear sense of my sexuality by this age. I also knew my sexuality could cause problems for myself, so I chose to keep that part of my identity largely hidden through my secondary school years. It was also at this age that my sexual identity and my involvement within a conservative Christian faith became irreconcilable. Once, in confirmation class, I joined two friends in questioning what we were being taught that it provoked the pastor into storming out the room. It was around this point that I saw my perspective simply was no longer compatible with the faith system of my family. I was Confirmed about a year later (I have a persuasive mother), and the next day I left the church for good.

After that point I spent quite a few years trying to figure out what I believed, not what I should believe. I landed on atheism fairly quickly. I continued to read about other faith systems, but I didn’t find anything that really appealed to me. Some areas of study that fascinated me included earth-based spirituality, the old mythologies, the new/redeux Wiccan movement, and others. Such studies intrigued me intellectually but didn’t work as a belief system.

Along with my religious studies I found organizations to participate in within the LGBT community. Community organizing and working within non-profits that were helping to strengthen the LGBT community were a way for me to pair my values and my identity with finding a rewarding career path.

After college I also began to revisit my religious viewpoints, and I found them wanting. I had formulated a strong identity around my sexuality, yet there still lacked compatibility between my sexual and religious identities. I would never identify my sexuality by what I was not (I do not identify as “not-straight” for instance) so why must the religious component of my life be based on a negative identity — that I didn’t believe in god?

I did some research and reading to find something that worked while being honest to my worldview. What I found was humanism. Humanism, as defined by the American Humanist Association, is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. As a humanist I was also looking for community and a place to continue to learn and grow. I was looking for a religious community; just one without god.

You might be wondering “if there isn’t a belief in god, why have a religious community?” or “isn’t god really the point of religion and religious communities?” I would answer that while god or gods are oftentimes a crucial part of the religious service that a belief in god isn’t the only reason why religious communities happen. The real driving factor in religious life comes down to an ability to connect with other people; not god. Many faiths have ways for the individual believer to connect to their deity, so why travel to a building to be with others who share your beliefs? It comes down to that very human craving for community – to have people to come to when you experience both crisis and joy. I may not believe that people praying for me will help solve my problems, but I still want other people to be with when I am in need. It truly makes me feel better to know they care, and people help others in very real ways when something goes wrong.

Not only is there opportunity to help when an individual is having a problem, but through community there can big an impact on larger issues: homelessness, natural disasters, or environmental issues. Religious community also creates a way to raise children in a particular ethical environment. All of these things have very little to do with a deity and everything to do with human beings interacting with each other, trying to work together through a world where things sometimes go awry.

The religious home I found was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that specifically identifies itself as both Humanist and Unitarian Universalist (UU). This particular flavor of UU community (First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis) meets all of my needs. It is a place where theological questions can be studied and discussed, yet it isn’t there to tell you what to believe. It is also an open and affirming place to LGBT individuals and families and works for change in the Minneapolis area on a variety of social justice issues.

Beyond finding a place to connect with people around what I believe, I found a place to make friendships and support causes that I believe in. During this process I also found the Humanist Institute, a national graduate program working to create leaders within the humanist movement. Through this program I am deepening my knowledge of humanism, theology, philosophy, and developing leadership skills.

What amazes me today is how more and more people are finding the spiritual path that works for them; not the one that worked or didn’t work for their parents and grandparents. A tremendous number of people in the United States now change their religious affiliation at least once in their lifetime. For more information about this and a good introduction to current Humanism, I invite you to read Good Without God by Greg Epstein. I hope this means that people are working to find what works for them, and I hope more LGBT people are doing this as well. For too long we have been a community that works for change in secular society, often shutting down conversation around the theological areas of our lives. I believe this comes from the poor treatment many of us have received from religious communities and the very loud religious right. I must continue to remind myself that there also exists a religious left. They are our allies and they are members of our community and our movement.

My hope with this blog is to build bridges. I hope to have a place here for the many types of non-believers out there and the organizations that support them. I hope to create connections between those of us who don’t believe, those that do, and those who are trying to figure it out. I hope we come to recognize the great contributions both secular and religious organizations have been making to promote our causes.

I have a hunch that there are many folks out there who struggle with those big questions about how the world works and find that many religious paths no longer make sense to them. I hope that this blog will help people find a place that does make sense.

I believe we are more powerful when we can bring our whole selves to the table, when we can be honest about what we believe in and what we don’t and build connections within and between communities that respect this difference along with the multitude of other ways we differ.