Who Are You? My First Experience as a Humanist Celebrant

I have been certified as a Humanist Celebrant for a little over a year. Humanist Celebrants, who gain their status through the American Humanist Society, which is a part of the American Humanist Association, are legally qualified to perform weddings and any other special ceremonies throughout the fifty states and beyond, just as any traditional preacher, rabbi, imam, guru, or spiritual leader does so amongst their membership or community. It has been an awesome privilege for me to recycle or reuse skills that I once developed as a United Methodist Church (UMC) clergywoman but now as a Humanist Celebrant, and to be there in an official capacity to celebrate with those who prefer to leave the idea of god, or even the mention of a god, out of their most memorable moments. Though it is quite different from what I experienced as a UMC pastor, and I am in the process of developing new skills and creative new ceremonial formats and languages, it is a great way for me to support other atheists, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics and to stay grounded and in community with others. A few months ago, I was surprised when a reporter from CNN called me to inquire about my experience; the reporter claimed that CNN was “documenting atheism” and trying to learn more about it. At that time I had not yet been invited to officiate a wedding as a Humanist Celebrant.  

All that changed on Monday, March 24th, 2014, and I officiated my first wedding  as a Humanist Celebrant here in Atlanta, in Piedmont Park. On Monday, July 28th, 2014, an article that I wrote about my subsequent experience with the Atlanta Fulton County Probate Court was published and featured at The Humanist. Here is an excerpt from that article, but feel free to click the link in this blog to read all about it. And, if you are looking for a Humanist Celebrant in your city or state here is how to find one.

The truth of the matter is that anyone who openly identifies as I do must expect public scrutiny and possible rejection. People in the United States still discriminate against atheists, even though more and more people are using the word “atheist” to self-identify. In other words, just because one uses the term openly and proudly, doesn’t mean he or she will be accepted without question or won’t face rejection. In addition, the religious bigotry and social entitlement here in the South is so pronounced—by people of every color and background. Many, including African Americans, openly discriminate against or exclude other black people from social and professional circles when they learn that those others are atheists.








Richard Dawkins: Articulating Atheism and Giving Atheists a Bad Rap!

By now, most of you know that I don’t condone bigotry in any name! Not racism, not sexism, not heterosexism, not ableism, not any position that diminishes the humanity of another. It is really a shame to me that Dr. Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent atheist advocates (or maybe I should say anti-religion advocates) goes to great lengths to characterize Islam as the epitome of evil. Do I think that religion – as an ideology – is oppressive? Yes. Do I reject the practice of worshiping or revering any supernatural world or gods whatsoever, and am I openly critical of such religious expressions and activities? Yes, but what is in it for Dawkins (or anyone for that matter) to claim that Islam is “the greatest force for evil today“? And why would Dr. Dawkins put Islam at the top of the “evil” hierarchy when he writes that he has never read the Qur’an?

If I were to spend that much time labeling a religion as evil but I had not taken the time to read that religion’s most revered text, then I suspect that I might come across as a pompous, presumptuous, and arrogant person. In that case, I could totally understand why my lack of critical engagement with the other might also suggest that I felt that I had the ultimate power and privilege to characterize or define the other as evil not because I had taken the time to inform myself about the inner thinking or theories held by that religious group and their followers, but because I held an opposing position. Indeed, I think that any subsequent accusation, that I was caught up in my own position, privilege and power, would be very legitimate and justified.

This is what entitlement to others’ ideas, narratives, cultures, and persons looks like; and it is most acute when the entitled one is making claims about others without taking the time or the effort to know them or their positions. People who feel entitled to certain positions, behaviors or even the thinking of other human beings often make faulty assumptions. Unfortunately, for example, I have come into contact with many white atheists who assume that they know what it is like to be black and Christian in the U.S.; they assume that the white experience with Christianity is just like the black experience with Christianity. Wrong. There is no essential one-way to be Christian (and definitely not in the U.S.). And, even beyond religion and color, many people are truly clueless as to the historical construction of a traditional black Christian identity. It is painful to hear so many white atheists claim to have some sort of superior position or thinking over black Christians. Conversely, more and more, I am seeing some black atheists make faulty assumptions and unsubstantiated arguments against black Christians, which is also very troubling to me. Perhaps some (black atheists) are doing this in an effort to be accepted by white atheists who have made similar claims and who are at the helm of what is referred to as the secular “movement”? I don’t know. Anyhow, just because one is black and atheist does not mean that one is knowledgeable or aware of the complex ways in which Christianity and blackness are intertwined; some black atheists have deep-seated and personal issues with religion that they have not taken the time to sort through. Nevertheless, blackness and Christianity are identities and expressions that are socially constructed and culturally relative (as are Jews and Judaism, and Indians and Hinduism, and Japanese and Shintoism, etc). It is, in my opinion, critically important to understand this.

Ironically, I believe that it is these human characteristics: entitlement, privilege, arrogance, and presumptuousness, that might be the greatest forces or threats to our existence on this planet, because on the one hand, while it is religion or orthodoxy that have given these behaviors greater social currency and legitimacy, on the other, it is human behavior and the destructive aspects of human behaviors (most of which are learned) that are expressed and circulated in popular scriptural texts, such as The Torah, The Bible and The Qu’ran. Thus, destructive human behaviors are legitimized by religions and their texts, which have enabled human beings to act out of violent supremacist and xenophobic thinking, which are at the root of racist, sexist, misogynistic, capitalistic, and imperialistic actions that have destroyed humans, nonhuman beings, land and environment. Based on what I have learned about religion and religious practices, human beings invented or created myths or narratives of gods and those narratives (expressing belief) became the bases for religious, social and political practices. It is not the other way around; religion did not invent people, human behaviors or human institutions. I find it very disappointing that the more popular that Dr. Dawkins becomes, the more he exhibits the kind of thinking and behaviors that say, “I am a better human being than others because of my atheism.” This is a very nasty, flawed, unjustifiable and “religious” position, and he seems to be using atheism (and his definition of it) to justify his thinking and humanity above that of others. In the brief time that I have known of him and read his works, I am appauled to find that Dr. Dawkins always manages to come back to this idea or ideology (that being atheist makes one morally superior to others). We are all capable of making errors in judgement and thinking, but Dr. Dawkins appears to be unwaveringly committed to this idea. And each time that he returns to it (for example, he has recently attempted to define rape on behalf of others on Twitter), it is, in my opinion, to his detriment. Doesn’t he know, that if not addressed, any compulsive, morally superior thinking and behavior will eventually cause problems; and in some cases it can bring you down, way down? Perhaps he does not know.

Well, I too am an atheist, and I find Dr. Dawkins’s positions on Islam, on racism, sexism, and of course, on rape to be the embodiment of white male privilege and entitlement. Do I support the central and traditional teachings or claims of Islam, Judaism or Christianity? Not really. Have these teachings reinforced bad and destructive human behaviors? Absolutely! And do I critique Christian beliefs and behaviors? Yes. But, being atheist does not make me or anybody a good person or a smart person, and that is something that I have never claimed. Being an atheist (and coming from a Western-context), I advocate for atheism as a position and an idea that deserves to be articulated. More importantly, atheism should be heard in a world that is dominated by religionists and believers who support and worship alleged gods who called for the innocent and arbitrary killing of people. In this respect I see the three most dominant religions and belief systems as oppressive and potentially violent. And there is evidence for this claim. No matter what justifications can be made on their behalf, Christianity, Judaism and Islam support violence and that against women, children and anyone who goes against the constructed order of their patriarchal hierarchies. Articulating atheism in this light will include a critique of those who believe and of the tenets or expressions of their beliefs, but, critique is one thing, especially when it is accurate and grounded in actual knowledge, information and evidence. An uneducated, essentialized, simplified rant or claim about a specific religious group or sect and the humanity/intelligence of its followers (as good or evil) is entirely different. So when any atheist engages in disparaging the humanity of believers (as opposed to offering valid critiques of the beliefs they hold) while simultaneously promoting atheism as the smarter and thus more superior choice, then he is, in my book, what I would call religious and “the pot calling the kettle black!” This kind of behavior gives atheists and atheism (as an expression) a bad rap.

Like Owen Jones, whose recent article in The Independent, inspired this blog, I too follow Richard Dawkins on Twitter and I have often seen Dr. Dawkins send out tweets that diminish the humanity of others; and he often does this without a complex understanding of what he is talking about, especially when it comes to racism and sexism. Yes, Dr. Dawkins knows a whole lot about evolutionary biology, way more than I do, but he lacks a critical and complex understanding of the factors that contribute to racism and sexism in particular (and he probably fails to understand how religion has been used by some cultural groups, such as African-Americans to fight injustice and oppression). Therefore, despite his contributions to our understanding of evolution and the genetic development of the human being, Dr. Dawkins does not mind articulating his disdain for Islam as “the greatest force of evil,” and that on grounds that he is an atheist and an evolutionary biologist. On the contrary, I would like to say that being an atheist does not make one essentially superior to or better than others, and any atheist who thinks this, including Dr. Richard Dawkins, needs to take several seats!

So, on this issue (calling Islam “the greatest force for evil today”) I am definitely in agreement with Mr. Jones, and would like to challenge Dr. Dawkins by saying, “Dr. Dawkins, don’t be a bigot in the name of atheism; you are giving us (atheists) a bad rap!” I don’t know how anyone can rank “evil” accurately, unless one has an intimate and personal knowledge of evil, but I totally doubt that Islam is the greatest force for evil today. In my opinion, from my standpoint in life, all “forces” of evil work together at varying and intersecting points to make evil what it is: evil.

As a non-believer, I want the atheist case to be made. I want religious belief to be scrutinized and challenged. I want Britain to be a genuinely secular nation, where religious belief is protected and defended as a private matter of conscience. But I feel prevented from doing so because atheism in public life has become so dominated by a particular breed that ends up dressing up bigotry as non-belief. It is a tragedy. And that is why it is so important that atheists distance themselves from those who undermine our position. Richard Dawkins can rant and rave about Muslims as much as he wants. But atheists: let’s stop allowing him to do it in our name. ~ Owen Jones

Hear! Hear!

© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D. [Please note that this blog was first posted on August 10, 2013, but was updated on August 1, 2014]