The Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy, Oh My! Who’s Missing? – By Thomas Lawson
Guest post by Thomas Lawson
Martin S Pribble
At the recent American Atheists convention in Washington, D.C., former Pentecostal pastor Jerry DeWitt, out of Louisiana, shared his story of committing social suicide by “coming out” to his family, friends, and religious congregation; that he had accepted his doubts and had become a full-fledged nonbeliever. Later, DeWitt revealed that he had felt stifled by some in the atheist movement to act more scholarly and keep his “cultural” upbringing in check. In other words, some wanted him to avoid being too emotional. Before the convention, Jerry had made some attempts to keep the Preacher Voice to a minimum at a few speaking engagements, but soon realized that he had already spent too much time living a lie. He took a leap of faith and brought that Preacher Voice to the American Atheists convention, and those in attendance ate it up. He brought the crowd to their knees right before bringing them to their feet. DeWitt says that he was approached by a gentleman afterward who said to him: “Atheism has always had the brains, but now it has the heart.” So that is what our journey has been missing: Our Tin Man and his heart. It’s not necessarily Jerry DeWitt, but his story, and Ex-Pastor Teresa Macbain’s story, and Ex-Pastor Mike Aus’s story; and not just the stories of former clergy members but every atheist’s “coming out” or “revelation” story. We’ve always had that heart; we just didn’t think it was important.
In 1903, the Blue Grass Blade, a freethought newspaper based in Lexington, Kentucky, asked its readership to give their reasons for why they were atheists, and I have collected these letters in a book called Letters from an Atheist Nation: Godless Voices of America in 1903. The astounding thing about these letters is not that so many of these atheists felt compelled and brave enough to publicly proclaim their nonbelief, but that their thoughts and sentiments mirror our own 109 years later. And the heart and emotion found in these letters were mainly driven by one person: Robert Green Ingersoll.
If you have not been acquainted with Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll and his works I suggest you download as many copies of his essays as you can. Ingersoll was known as the Great Agnostic and was one of the most prolific contributors to the freethinking literature of the 19th-century’s Golden Age of Freethought. He was also a much sought-after orator, touring the United States and selling out theatres and other venues wherever he stopped. Ingersoll was also a social activist and did not hide how he felt about the rights of those who were not privileged to find themselves born white, male, and rich. His involvement with several freethought groups and organizations, including being one of the first presidents of the American Secular Union, fueled a progressive movement that didn’t stop until the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union. After Ingersoll died, the movement lost its heart. Sure, attorney Clarence Darrow and others would usher in the ACLU and keep the candle of freethought burning, but without Ingersoll it would be no match for the winds of change. The desperation of two world wars, a Great Depression, and a fight against Communism were too much for a reasoned and rational approach to the occasional harsh winters in life. And so the candle slowly burned down the wick, dangerously close to the wet, melted wax and seemingly inevitable hiss of extinguishment.
But here we are a hundred years later, and the glowing beacon of that candle has returned. The social suicide stories of the Clergy Project have helped reintroduce us to the emotional side of the atheism movement. Seth Andrews’s videos on his “Thinking Atheist” YouTube channel have brought many to tears. The daily “Why I Am An Atheist” testimonials on PZ Myers’s Pharyngula blog have unearthed a treasure of gut-wrenching escapes from the terrifying horror that is organized religion. The “We Are Atheism” video/essay campaign has also been a catalyst for those wanting to come out of hiding. Greta Christina’s book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? has made it clear that atheists are angry for all the right reasons. Finally, there are Sean Faircloth’s compelling stories of the harm done to American children behind the veil of religious freedom and archaic legislations in desperate need of modernization. These are all brilliant ways of plucking at the heartstrings of those we are trying to usher into the 21st-century, and we ignore these methods to our disadvantage.
Personally, I am getting interesting feedback from theists regarding my Letters from an Atheist Nation, and it would appear that the emotional angle is doing a fine job of rattling their staunch biases that our ancestors were all religious; that even if they were atheist it didn’t mean they were necessarily mean about it. Turns out they were atheist, and they were mean about it. They were quite aware that religion was no friend to justice, truth, fairness, or morality, and they were vehemently irritated that it was getting all the credit anyway. The fact that those thoughts aren’t all from scientists, but rather farmers and housewives, is another wonderful attack against those biases that would easily dismiss so-called “smarty pants,” “university” types. The other side is flummoxed by these new voices. There appears to be a similar event happening with Hank Fox’s book Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist and other self-published titles from non-academics. The face of atheism is shifting away from anyone easily-labeled “elitist” to one more familiar and approachable. We’ve seen what has happened with racism and homophobia once people have a relational identification, whether it be a homosexual or “non-white” friend, or perhaps an atheist family member. These prejudices always end up dissolved, paving a yellow-bricked road toward acceptance and normalcy, and so it will only be a matter of time before the “wonderful” wizard is revealed to be a frightened old man trying to cope in a peculiar world.
This does not mean that we should discard or downplay the feistiness of the Lion, the determination of Dorothy, or the intelligence of the Scarecrow; it merely means our troupe is complete. If we had “only had a heart,” and now we know we do. And just like in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz we’ve had it the whole time—we just didn’t realize its potential to get us Kansas-bound.