Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An atheist's Sunday sermon

An atheist's Sunday sermon

A few months ago, a Rhode Island teenager named Jessica Ahlquist took a trip to the Playboy Mansion. No, she wasn’t some bikini-clad centerfold recruit flown in for a photo shoot; she was there to receive a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for her vocal opposition to a “school prayer” banner hanging in Cranston West High School that began with the words “Our Heavenly Father” and ended with “Amen.” With the help of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the banner was ultimately taken down, but not before Ahlquist received death and rape threats and a description as an “evil little thing” by her own state representative.
 
If the name “Ahlquist” already triggers thoughts of an outspoken defender of church/state separation, then perhaps you’re familiar with Jessica’s uncle, Steve Ahlquist: president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, and a tireless advocate for reason-driven government and other progressive causes on the  blog Rhode Island’s Future and his site cautionchurchahead.com. (Ahlquist, in fact, has aimed his criticism at me, calling my 2012 profile of newly-named Rhode Island historian laureate, Pat Conley — whom Ahlquist accused of “hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty” in his writings on the role of religion in government — a “puff piece.”)
 
While Ahlquist — Steve, that is — is a familiar face to those who make frequent trips to state house legislative sessions and various political rallies, he will perhaps draw a new audience this weekend when he delivers remarks at Providence’s First Unitarian Church on Sunday morning. We spoke with him via email in advance of this speech. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
 
YOU’RE SPEAKING ON A SUNDAY MORNING IN A CHURCH. THIS SOUNDS AN AWFUL LOT LIKE A SERMON. IS IT? WHAT WILL YOU BE TALKING ABOUT? I think the irony of an atheist speaking in a church on a Sunday morning works on a sliding scale. If I were speaking in a fundamentalist church of some kind, the irony would be over my head, and in an Episcopalian church the irony would be about waist deep, but by the time you get to the Unitarian Universalists I’m just stepping into a puddle of irony.
 
That said, I take great pains to differentiate between my secular, non-religious Humanism and the varieties of religious humanism one might find in UU and Congregational churches. I try my best to be guided by reason, not faith. The Humanists of Rhode Island is not a faith community, we are a group of people united around a common set of core Humanistic and atheistic principles.
 
I’ve also been told that at UU meeting houses ministers give sermons and laypeople give talks. I’ll be talking, then, about secular responses to issues surrounding LGBTQ rights and women’s reproductive freedom. The Humanistic response to these issues bucks up directly against fundamentalist Evangelical and Catholic views on these subjects, but I’m of the opinion that voicing strong moral positions is not an exclusively religious undertaking.
 
I’m trying to speak with moral authority on a wide range of issues without any reliance on God, and the first thing I have to convince people of is that such a thing is even possible.
 
RHODE ISLAND — SPECIFICALLY PROVIDENCE — IS WIDELY RECOGNIZED AS THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. HOW WELL ARE WE LIVING UP TO THAT LEGACY IN 2013? 

 I think the concepts of separation of church and state, freedom of and freedom from religion, and freedom of conscience are of paramount importance in an open and free society. Rhode Island was the first government, in the history of the world, to enshrine these ideals into the framework of our laws. Over the years our state has not always lived up to these ideals. Our shameful legacy of slavery, for instance, is a terrible stain on our state’s conscience, but the fact that we keep rediscovering these principles and ideals, and that people keep coming back to these ideas demonstrates how truly radical and liberating they are and speaks volumes about their utility and beauty.
 
The separation of church and state and the ideal of freedom of conscience are under assault in the United States today. Elected government officials at all levels seem to have no problem spouting what amounts to anti-American theocratic nonsense. In Rhode Island, there are Senators who seem to be unaware of church/state separation. When I testified earlier this year in favor of the marriage equality bill, pointing out that religious beliefs should have no bearing on LGBTQ rights, I had the honor of having Senator [Harold] Metts read the Bible to me in response. He literally opened the Bible and read it to me.
 
Still, we seem to be making progress on this issue. Marriage equality passed and Governor Chafee vetoed the “Choose Life” license plate bill on First Amendment grounds. Of course, this won’t stop another round of Christmas Tree/Holiday Tree nonsense this coming December, but more and more people are beginning to realize just how important keeping religion out of government really is.
 
WHAT DO YOU, AS AN ATHEIST, SAY ABOUT THAT CHRISTMAS/HOLIDAY TREE DEBATE? 

First, Governor Chafee did nothing wrong when he called the tree a Holiday Tree. As has been shown, the term was used for years by previous governors. This issue is being flogged by the Governor’s political opponents for political reasons: it’s an easy way to mobilize the base against him. Secondly, despite claims that “Christmas” has been driven out of the State House, I went in with a camera and photographed countless Christmas trees on display throughout the second floor of the State House, viewed countless choruses singing Christmas Carols and other holiday songs in the State House every day in December, and counted at least four miniature nativity scenes. This annual “War on Christmas” is nonsense.
 
DO YOU BELIEVE RELIGIONS HAVE ANY REDEEMING QUALITIES OR PRACTICES? 

Religions are great at forming communities and providing support for members who are going through various life events such as the birth of a child, unexpected injury or illness, marriages and deaths.
 
On the other hand, religions are also great at breeding ignorance, intolerance and despair. Consider the Christian theological doctrine of original sin, that says every baby is stained by the sin of Adam, the first man. Not only is this based on spurious mythology, this idea violates common sense. Newborn babies are not in any way capable of making moral decisions, and to even mythologically hold them culpable for the sins of a man who never existed is inane.
 
So I oppose religious doctrine that I see as hindering human wellbeing, but my dedication to freedom of conscience also means that people have a right to deceive themselves if they want to.
 
Ahlquist will speak on Sunday, August 11 at 10 am at the First Unitarian Church, 1 Benevolent St, Providence. Learn more about him at steveahlquist.com.

This piece originally appeared in the Providence Phoenix and is reprinted here for archival purposes.

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