Posts Tagged ‘Nathan Phelps’

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!

None of the Above conference


Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.