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Asking an atheist–An interview with secular activist Sam Mulvey

Sam Mulvey is one of the producers and hosts for the radio show “Ask An Athiest” (KLAY 1180 AM or and a secular activist in Washington state. He recently came to Olympia to do a presentation at Last Word Books on blasphemy laws and the Atheism Visibility Movement. Between his time as a radio host and board member for Humanists of Washington, Sam managed to answer a few questions I had for him about blasphemy laws, atheism, and the secular movement internationally.

Q: You came to Olympia to talk about blasphemy laws. What are blasphemy laws, which countries have them, and why should we see them as threatening?

A: Blasphemy laws are censorship laws with a religious flavor. In secular countries, they are an attempt to restrict freedom of speech and impose a religious ideology on secular life. In theocratic countries, they are the tools of the trade for real and imagined thought police. There are obvious blasphemy laws, such as in Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law is the law and torture is used to obtain convictions, to more ecumenical implementations in places like Sweden, which attempts to avoid blasphemy of all kinds. But even closer to home, a number of U.S. states have blasphemy laws on the books, with the Pennsylvania law being used most recently in 2009.

Q: How do you address the argument that the purpose of blasphemy laws is to discourage religious intolerance? Defenders say such laws may be unnecessary in the secularized western world, but in other areas—where religious hatred is heighten—they are needed to keep the peace between different sects.

A: When religious ideology is used to perpetuate abuses of human rights, the proper response is intolerance. Invariably, when blasphemy laws are widely enforced, such laws protect the sensibilities of the abuser and nullify the rights of the abused. People who like to talk about the “secularized western world” forget how it came to be in the first place. The Enlightenment, which leads directly to our present age of secularism and scientific understanding, would not have occurred had the Catholic Church maintained its control over scientific and philosophical thinking. Modern enforcement of blasphemy, even under an ecumenical basis, will have chilling effects on free inquiry and impede our ability to improve, both scientifically and morally. Also the west is often not all that secular: Up until 1978, the Church of Latter Day Saints claimed that black-skinned people suffered from the “Curse of Ham,” and were essentially flawed in the eyes of their god. In 1977, speaking against this would be blasphemous and risk ex-communication, even though they reversed course a year later. In Scientology, thinking or speaking against L. Ron Hubbard is considered tantamount to blasphemy and is punishable by assignment to the Rehabilitation Project Force, which is a very complex way of saying “illegal prison.” For many Americans, the world is 6000 years old and humans were created for the Garden of Eden. Contradiction of this narrative is considered blasphemous by many otherwise liberal Christians.

Q: Blasphemy laws have been receiving more attention in the news since the attack of the American embassy in Libya. What type of solidarity work do you think atheists and secularists can have for people in the Middle East?

A: When we heard about “The Innocence of Muslims” and decided to talk about it on the show, we decided to do some research generally, and we were very surprised by what we saw. Around the world, human rights abuses in the name of stamping out blasphemy are not rare. They are endemic. Personally, I seek to keep the stories alive and in people’s minds. Right now, there is an Egyptian atheist by the name of Alber Saber in prison healing from a neck wound from someone trying to slit his throat. He is in prison because he did something on Facebook that I do every day as an atheism activist. The difference between Alber Saber and me is that I live in a country with the first amendment, and he lives in a country with well-defined and enforced blasphemy laws. If we can get people thinking and talking about the plight of Alber Saber and people like him, that will turn into purposeful action on the geopolitical stage.

Q: What do you see as the major difference between the atheist and secularist movement in the United States to the rest of the world? Is the situation in the United States at all unique?

A: In the US, we are lucky to have well established and liberally interpreted free speech and an intentionally secular government. On the other hand, we have a population that widely ignores the “secular government” part and scientific knowledge in general. There are a lot of things that we have trouble talking about in the US that are accepted without comment in other parts of the world. For every Ask an Atheist radio show there are a thousand religious radio shows that would claim that Charles Darwin was in league with the devil. In the UK, they put Charles Darwin on the money.

Q: Do you think that atheists and secularists need to form a more international movement to be more effective in their work?

A: I think the movement is very strong here, and it has to be if it’s going to thrive. The Atheism Visibility Movement is one of the first movements that grew on the internet as it grew in reality, and as a result it has a strong international flavor. My show, which is essentially a regional show about atheism, has a 30% international listenership rate. As a result, I think the movement has a really strong international flavor to it—at least among Anglophone communities. I think we do very well on that score, but I think we could be doing a lot more to reach communities that don’t speak English. To that end, Ask an Atheist has episodes in Spanish, and we’ve had several episodes produced with an American Sign Language interpreter.

Q: You also came to Olympia to discuss the Atheism Visibility Movement. What is the Atheism Visibility Movement and why do you think it is important?

A: The Atheism Visibility Movement seeks to prove that atheists exist and aren’t inherently evil. We call it the Atheism Visibility Movement to accentuate the fact that we seek recognition and equal treatment, not conversion. Washington State is among the most secular regions of the nation, with the religiously unaffiliated approaching 20% of the population. Yet nearly every politician, liberal or conservative, will take any opportunity to slander us in order to court the religious vote. Traditionally, we’re a very safe group to castigate or ignore. We hope to change that.

Q: There is a lot of discrimination against atheists in the United States, but there is also a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Some have even accused the atheist movement of Islamophobia. Do you think that this accusation is fair?

A: The modern phase of the movement began for many of us as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks, perpetrated by Muslim extremists. But the response of atheists driven to activism wasn’t to decry Islam for the sake of some other religion, but was to recognize that the extremist attack was a manifestation of religious extremism. It was inherently recognized that Islam is not the sole purveyor of extremists and religiously motivated violence. I think that when you’re Muslim living in a Christian substrate, you’re liable to view any critique of your religion as an attack from a privileged position, which would obviously lead to accusations of Islamophobia. It’s a sort of siege mentality that we sometimes share with Muslims. But to use blasphemy law to quell free speech is a way to perpetrate hate, not end it.

Q: Do you think it is possible for atheists and moderate Muslims to join forces on some issues? For example, could both groups join together to encourage greater tolerance for everyone?

A: It happens every day. Any time there‘s a challenge to constitutional free speech rights in the United States the response will be diverse. The ACLU is a great example of that—one doesn’t need to be an atheist or a religionist in order to be a member of that organization. Only Christian conservatives, with a position of religious privilege, feel the need to set up a counter organization in order to preserve their religious and political dominance. And while some well-meaning, liberally minded citizens like to think blasphemy laws protect the weak against the strong, blasphemy laws are more often penned and enforced by organizations like the ACLA (American Catholic Lawyers Association), not the ACLU.

Q: An alliance between atheists and religious liberals does bring up some interesting questions. What do you see as the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and why is this distinction important?

A: We only have to talk about the distinction between “of” and “from” due to people looking to enforce a level of belief in the ridiculous. Hair style freedom includes bald. Economic freedom includes not buying. Freedom of assembly includes the right to be alone. Sexual freedom includes not having sex. Only in religion is this distinction considered valid by otherwise moral people.

Q: A lot of websites and blogs have been busy the past few months discussing atheism plus (A+). What is the difference between regular atheism and atheism plus?

A: Atheism doesn’t say much about us politically or philosophically. Atheism means, quite directly, “no god.” Lack of god or gods might say something about how we think about the tax status of churches or nativity scenes on public lands, but it doesn’t say anything about healthcare or civil rights generally. “Atheism +” is a name chosen by people who are atheists but who also hold a very pro-human-rights, relatively liberal worldview.

Q: Is there really a difference between atheism plus and secular humanism—another rationalist movement that has attempted to deal with issues of social justice?

A: Honestly, none I particularly care about. I’m a Secular Humanist, have been so for far longer than I’ve called myself an atheist, and will continue to be one. I find that the people espousing “Atheism +” have an extremely outdated view of humanism, but personally that’s a quibble I’m not going to worry about.

Q: Speaking of the movement’s political orientation, I know that the atheist movement has always worked against the pseudoscience of the religious right by battling things like creationism, the pro-life movement, climate change denial, etc… However, these days it seems that an equal amount of pseudoscience is coming from the left—irrational fears around GMOs, a belief that 9/11 was an inside job, a fetish for alternative medicine and organic agriculture, etc… Do you see the atheist movement as more orientated to one wing of the political spectrum over another—and how does it deal with pseudoscience from either end of the political spectrum?

A: There are a lot of people in the movement who call themselves liberal, but there’s also a vibrant and active Libertarian arm. Atheism is one of a million subjects that the American political duality doesn’t really describe particularly well. Since politically -oriented pseudoscience tends to come from the same kinds of thinking, regardless of affiliation, we have to deal with it in the same way: rhetoric backed by clear scientific proof, and honesty about the quality of the proof. As you’ve noticed, the modern atheism movement is largely rationalist and largely skeptical. And by skeptical, I don’t mean the confirmation bias disguised as skepticism in the anti-vaccination and anti-GMO movements.

Q: I was listening to some of your past podcasts and I was really intrigued by the debate between Greg Epstein and PZ Meyers about the merits of militant atheism versus a more accommodating atheism. Do you think that this is a serious debate or merely a difference in tactics?

A: I think using the word “militant” when we talk about atheism is really dishonest and misleading. Militant Christians murder doctors for performing necessary surgical procedures. Militant Muslims murder ambassadors working to bring peace to war torn areas. Militant animal rights activists bomb labs. Militant atheists talk about how they feel. I’ve had a real hard time finding a place in this debate, but it’s mostly a tactical difference. I’m in the unfortunate position of favoring a middle path. I’m not only an atheist. I’m what we call an anti-theist. I think religious dogma is the favored armor of bigotry and terror, and the sooner we’re without it the better we’ll be.  However, I’m not so blind that I think we’ll enter a magical utopia the moment religion ends, but it will be a huge step on the way towards honesty with ourselves and the kind of free world most of us want to live in. But does that make every Catholic a crusading barbarian? Of course not! The Christian bible condones slavery, rape, and pretty much everything else listed in the Geneva Conventions, as long as said acts are committed under the auspices of their god. But most people who believe in that book will be intolerant of such behavior, and sometimes actively fight against it. As far as I’m concerned, that makes them fine people, worthy of my time and my respect, and they’re much better than their religions. Religions don’t earn my respect, but religious people do. It’s a difficult path to forge.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing the atheist movement can do today?

A: It is getting the previous statement across. In the United States, I think we need to become more politically active as well.

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, and a former resident of Olympia.


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