Interview: Prominent American Atheist Todd Stiefel talks with Peter Menkin about religion and God
by Peter MenkinIt appears atheists and other flavors of non-believers are becoming more organized and louder in their voices of criticism of God and religion in America. This is a taste of one group so representative of that phenomenon, one well publicized and known to this writer. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and other secular groups have joined together to form a new coalition called Openly Secular. In this interview with coalition Chair, Todd Stiefel, we learn about Mr. Stiefel’s personal stance on religion, atheism and his own sense of the secular as it relates to his atheism. Prior to the interview with Todd Stiefel I had the privilege of speaking to him by phone in private for an hour on the matter of his beliefs and about his organization. He was forthcoming and detailed in that phone conversation. In the interview for publication he says this about the mission of his coalition.
“Our mission is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and all nonreligious people to be open about their beliefs,” says Todd Stiefel, Chair for the Openly Secular coalition and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. “By being open about our beliefs and values, we can show that we, like all people, are worthy of love and kindness undeterred by religious differences.” He has given in excess of a half million dollars to the organization of his movement according to CNN news.
The interview by phone was held in two segments from Religion Writer Peter Menkin’s office North of San Francisco in Mill Valley, California to Todd Stiefel’s home in the South of the United States. It lasted more than a total of an hour in length.
INTERVIEW WITH ATHEIST TODD STIEFEL BY RELIGION WRITER PETER MENKIN
- What is an Atheist? Not everyone knows that an atheist is a believer of a kind and that he or she has views about religion—in this case for our interview, Christianity. Will you speak to this?
An Atheist is someone who is often misunderstood. It is a person who does not believe in God or Gods. It does not mean we believe in Satan. We do not believe in him either. We are not claiming that we know that God does not exist. Atheism is not a knowledge claim. Atheism is simply a belief claim. Where other religions do not believe in millions of Gods, we do not believe in millions of Gods plus one.
Our beliefs are based on reason, logic, and evidence. Our values include love, compassion and honesty. In terms of views about Christianity, different Atheists have different views about Christianity. Almost all of us share, there is not a God and Jesus was not a God. We believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead. We would agree, most of us would agree, in his methods of having the Golden Rule and loving your neighbor.
I think for the most part, just like a Christian we would see a strong urge of compassion if we saw a puppy hurt. Or just like a Christian we would feel a sense of awe and wonder of seeing a sunset over the ocean. I would say that when Christians and Atheists get to know each other, we find we have more in common than we have differences. It’s so very true.
- I know your organization of which you are leader encompasses a number of groups. Tell us of their interests, in a thumbnail. Does the name of your organization tell us its purpose: Stiefel Free thought Foundation? Or is that just one of the groups in coalition with a larger parent group?
The project I’m working on now, that is called Openly Secular…People Free thought Foundation is just one of many partners. The coalition wouldn’t be considered an umbrella or a parent group. Openly secular is an alliance of organizations that are standing behind a common mission. The mission to illuminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people to be open about their beliefs. Our alliance currently has 30 groups ranging from Atheist groups to Humanist groups and from Secular Jewish organization to Civil Liberties organizations. Easily 100s of thousands of members are represented by these groups.
- What I know of the state of Christianity in America is that we live in a post-Christian era. How would you describe the current state of Christianity in America and how do you come to that conclusion?
First, I wouldn’t consider ourselves to be in a Post Christian era. This has never been a Christian nation. But it always has been a Christian majority nation. That hasn’t changed. Based on Pew and Gallup data, Christianity is alive and well in America—even though the non-religious segment is becoming a large minority. I personally think this is because…for many reasons..the internet is providing access to questions and answers as never before in history. In the past, if you had doubts, typically you’d get your answer from your pastor and the Bible, which tended to confirm each other. Now, we have available, other opinions that don’t always agree with traditional dogma.
From what I’m seeing, Christianity in America is segmenting into different camps. On one side the vast majority of Christians are loving, tolerant people. There is a very vocal Christian, fundamentalist minority in America. These fundamentalists want to strip gay people of their rights, deny children proper scientific education, and deny women comprehensive health care. I believe that the moderate Christians have far more in common with the non-religious in these matters.
- I assume the Bible is not a book your group recommends for holy reading, but do you recommend it as literature and as part of the Western canon of culture? That is, do you believe it should be on an educated man’s reading list in any manner to know the Old Testament stories of Abraham, or even the story of the death of Christ depicted in the New Testament?
No we don’t take any book as scripture. We don’t take any book as completely true just because someone tells us it is supposed to be. But many of us do see it as a fascinating piece of literature. As a matter of fact, when my kids were little I would read them children’s Bibles. I thought it was valuable for them to know the stories, either famous stories worth knowing. Biblical references have become part of our language. While I don’t agree with all of the lessons on the Bible, such as passages advocating genocide and those against gay people, I do find that most of Jesus’ lessons are valuable. My kids commented on it and I remember with one story on Noah with the flood, after the flood God promises day will follow night will follow day. My son stopped me and said and that’s not possible, I have evidence and flips back to Genesis and where God had already created the sun and the moon. I found that to be quite fascinating.
- Were you yourself once a man of faith and how did you leave your Church? What Church did you attend?
I never went to Church too often. My parents made me go to Church. I was a staunch Catholic. I didn’t believe in the infallibility of the Pope, but I definitely believed in God. I even wore a crucifix in a chain around my neck. I did that with sincerity. That said, I always had doubts and while I believed, something didn’t always make total sense. For example, even as a cross wearing Catholic, I thought the story of Adam and Eve was silly. When I really moved beyond being a Catholic was in college. I took a course in Old Testament History at Duke University. There’s nothing like learning the history of the Bible to help you realize it is not true. In particular learning of the influences of Pagan myths on the Bible itself, made realize that the Bible was no different from any other religion or any other scripture. I came to realize that my God was younger than the pyramids. After that class I considered myself an Agnostic and it took another decade for me to realize I was a fullfledged Atheist as well.
You ask me why is Adam and Eve silly: Eve as a kid I didn’t believe women were created from the rib of a man, or further that there was ever a talking snake whose mission was to take us from acquiring knowledge from a tree. I definitely did not take it literally, and neither should the rest of it. I thought it was a terrible lesson. Even as an allegory it was a bad moral lesson. The lesson that God doesn’t want you to want knowledge, that God wants you to be ignorant is a poor lesson.
- Thank you for your time and allowing us to make your acquaintance. If there is anything we’ve left out that you want to add at this time, please do so now.
The last thing I want to cover is why the Openly Secular Campaign is important. Our mission is to illuminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people to be open about their beliefs. We want to humanize the non-religious. We want people to realize that we are everywhere. We’re your friends, your neighbors, and many even in your family. We’re everyday people and some of us are celebrities. We’re even in the U.S. Congress. Though they are afraid to admit it for fear of discrimination from voters. For example, Barney Frank came out as gay while in Congress and waited till 26 years later and became open as an atheist shortly after his retirement from politics. The reality is that the discrimination is strong. Recent Pew data found that 53% of Americans were less likely to vote for a candidate if they were atheists.
In addition, 49% said, they would be unhappy if an atheist married into their family. The number was only 11%, thankfully, for someone of a different race. With data like this, it is clear that we have a lot of work to do to change the perception of non-religious Americans.
We at Openly Secular are going to try our best to illuminate discrimination and prejudice. We don’t have to agree.