Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro

(This is the fifth in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Nathan Phelps

The life story of Nathan Phelps is hard for me to relate to. I am a lifelong atheist raised in a mostly religion-free household.

I cannot deny that Nate’s childhood and early adulthood was awful, living under the shadow of the infamous Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. Being beaten by an abusive father. Being taught that just about every natural impulse a human has merits eternal torture after death. Listening to Nate talk makes me, the “friendly” humanist, understand why so many atheists get so vehement and adamant about the dangers of religion. Any institution that can as easily produce Fred Phelps as Martin Luther King Jr. is one that, at most, should be watched carefully for signs of abuse.

Having said that, every first-hand experience I’ve had of religion has been civil – usually downright respectful – on both sides. I’ve known conservative religious people – I am related to some – but neither my social life nor my career have been afflicted in the way many others’ have been by other people’s reactions to their atheism. It is hard, therefore, for me to attribute Nate’s experiences, and the awful experiences of millions of others (atheist and not) around the world every year, to religion as a whole.

It is absolutely crucial that people like Nate continue to speak up against the evils of religious groups – some fringe like Westboro, some mainstream like the Roman Catholic Church. Laws banning blasphemy are bad laws.

And I’m glad that our movement contains people like Nate, whose experience makes it impossible for them to forget the wrongs that are perpetrated when one group is so numerous, or so powerful, that they think it is okay to trample on the rights of others. Because my experience doesn’t contain those lessons. With diligence and hard work on the part of all secularists (atheist or religious), more and more people will lack those experiences.

I wonder if secularism is becoming a victim of its own success, like vaccinations are? The evils of church-state entanglement are far enough in the past, in much of the West, that people can get complacent about the importance of keeping the two separate, both for the sake of belief-based minorities and for the sake of the churches themselves.

Constant vigilance, my friends!

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