By Robert Bernstein
Susanna McIntyre delivered the latest talk to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.
She is President and CEO of Atheist Republic, but this was far from how she started out in life. Her talk was “Building Godless Community and International Engagement”.
Susanna was raised Catholic in a community that was so Catholic that she did not even know that she was Catholic until she was 14 years old!
She did not have nuns slapping her with rulers. She went through a series of sacraments including baptism on through First Communion. But as the time neared for her Confirmation she realized she was “not with the program”.
She began to question things at age 12. From kindergarten to fifth grade she had been at one school. But then her parents wanted to send her to an all-girls Catholic school in another city. She had no say. She felt this was a “violating” moment. It meant many things, including losing friends.
This made her question other things she was taught. Including God. She realized she was bisexual. At age 16 she attempted suicide. Those two “sins” would be “fast passes to Hell” for a Catholic!
She had to leave God behind to feel some love for herself. She now sees it as deciding not to follow God rather than to leave God. She didn’t like his rules. Still, she felt bad for not doing what she was raised to do.
She felt she was becoming more of a black sheep. A bad person, a bad girl for these things. It created an inner struggle. The Catholic religion was all about guilt. “If you have time to think, you have time to feel guilty.”
She came from a conservative background and sought a more accepting space. Left-oriented people seemed more accepting and she got into leftism. What we would call a Woke doctrine now.
She minored in critical race and gender studies. She received honors for her writings. She became more radicalized when Trump was elected. She couldn’t believe adults were not doing everything possible to stop it.
Who was putting boots on the ground to stop it? Antifa.
By 2019 she was experiencing severe mental unwellness. She studied critical thinking and cult psychology. She saw red flags for what she believed.
She discovered the atheist community online and continued practicing critical thinking. When she discovered an ex-Muslim movement it blew her open. Their criticisms challenged her leftism. She came to think the leftists were anti-liberal in a way.
She saw an an over-emphasis on oppression narratives that were used more to divide and split people by identity groups instead of bringing them together. While she is still very liberal, she decided to leave this version of the Left. Susanna is very aware that even mainstream conservatives are far more of a threat to free thinking than this Far Left.
This is when she became President and CEO of Atheist Republic (AR).
AR is the largest community of atheists in the world. They have “consulates” (local AR chapters) in over 70 countries. It is a community to express non belief. Free expression is key. It has over two million followers on Facebook, where it started. It is now on every major platform.People want to engage, but need privacy. There is a private group on Facebook as well. A sense of belonging is important for avoiding suicidality.
International Engagement is a major purposes of AR.
Susanna showed a map of the percentage of unaffiliated population. But atheism definitions vary widely and researchers often don’t ask the right questions. “None” on a survey doesn’t necessarily mean atheist. It might be a superstitious practice.Atheism is growing. 3 in 10 American adults identified as religiously unaffiliated. Other religions are not growing.
Even in the Middle East she said that people are leaving Islam. It must be remembered that it is dangerous and illegal in many places to admit one has left Islam. Including punishable by death in some countries.
Muslims and Christians have been organizing internationally for centuries. They have the benefit of dogma that can sell their religion effectively. In Islam: “He who built a mosque for Allah, Allah would build for him a house in Paradise.”
In addition to dogma, religions have Authority, Incentivized Virtues, Intergenerational Familial Culture of Participation as well as Empires.
Most religions have a duty to spread their message. I will note this is not true for the Jewish religion, which is not evangelical in any way. Which may explain its small numbers.
Religions often provide services like food banks and have missionaries to spread their message abroad.
She advocates a similar approach for atheists, as long as it is voluntary. The idea is to have a positive message and build lasting organizations. She includes secular groups like Amnesty International and Humanist International.
Atheists tend to be anti-organizational! She sees Humanism as a good place to start with positive values. She likes the Ten Commitments of Humanism.
It is un-PC (politically correct) to criticize other countries. But we must do so when a country forbids free expression. Especially when it involves prison or death.
Susanna showed a global map of blasphemy laws. It is shocking how many Western countries still have such laws or only recently abandoned them.
It can also be effective to fight for specific people caught up in these archaic laws. Soheil Arabi was sentenced to death in Iran under such a law. Public pressure led to his sentence being commuted. And, eventually he was released! Even governments like Iran care how they are seen internationally.
Susanna then invited audience questions from the 50 people present at this point.
She was asked what was her concern about leftists. She said it is best to see how minds are actually changed. Calling people racist or bigoted is not helpful. Engaging with people is what actually works.
She gave an example of a guy who ran a Nazi music store. A gay Jewish couple came in and talked to him. He didn’t like it. But he realized they were not what he expected. They treated him with a compassion that he didn’t think he deserved.
Mars asked about criticism of Islam or Hinduism being called hate speech. Susanna said it is funny that AR is called a far right group as a result! This happened when their criticism expanded beyond Christianity.
Judy Flattery made the distinction between criticizing ideas vs people.
Dave Rice suggested people get involved with local UN associations.
Zachary compared what AR is doing to hitting a hornets nest. Susanna agreed they push the limits. They now have the Blasphemous Art Project that takes on sacred Hindu and Muslim figures. They have been hit with threats and legal cases. But she pointed out it is better than in years past. No embassy bombings!
An atheist in India identified as “Shreyaaaa” asked if organized or unorganized religion is more harmful. Susanna said it is a tough question. Unorganized can “shape shift”.
Judy Flattery made an excellent relevant quote from Lincoln: “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/
The next event will be this Saturday March 19.