Nate Phelps’s Sadness

“They called me a rebel. For years, I wore that name with shame until I realized that confronted with the god of my father, rebellion is the only moral option.”–Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps is famous for being the atheist son of the infamous Fred Phelps, whose family was protesting the Reason Rally. I found Nate’s speech to be one of the most moving and heartfelt of the day. He spoke with such quiet, unaffected, matter-of-fact, and sometimes even bewildered sorrow about the destructive and resilient powers of dogmatism and faith. Without self-righteousness or grandstanding he stood up for humanist and rationalist values. He described the intensity with which he tried to believe in a loving God after rejecting his father’s hateful one.

What was most poignant was how sadly and softly he acknowledged and denounced his nearby family. Rather than shouting back at them or ever taking the chance to whip up the large crowd of people in front of him against them, he just grieved for all the good they waste and all the pain they cause, and all the good that other dogmatists like them waste and all the pain such dogmatists cause. It’s a shame that the media which gives the hateful Fred Phelps so much attention largely ignored this somberly eloquent response from his gentle giant of a son. It is typical of our media to only pay attention to the religious extremists who say incendiary things and to ignore their religious victims who turn against faith—lest the moderates, who cannot control or adequately root out and denounce their extremist brethren once and for all, might be offended.

Here is the video of Nate’s speech. I have typed out the transcript and put it below the fold:

This is the largest secularist gathering in the history of the world. I would call this a target rich environment for any self-respecting deity. And not a natural disaster in sight. You can’t explain that one. Perhaps he is distracted torturing Christopher [Hitchens], pulling his wings off.

Seeing my family out there protesting standing behind barriers with their garish signs, espousing the ideal of their god, the prevailing emotion for me is sadness. I see the results of a lifetime of controlled indoctrination. I see a system [that] vilifies new ideas, shuns new discoveries—clinging rather to ancient notions about the nature of our world. A system deprived of new ideological genes leading to a form of intellectual inbreeding that begets distorted ill-formed beliefs. I see what happens when individual choices are restricted by false consequences. I think of the young people who paid the price for leaving that place, cut off completely and permanently from all they’ve known and loved.

I know the years of fear and anguish they will face as they struggle with the messages hardwired in their brain; the messages that constantly threaten their resolve to be free of the shackles of hatred and judgment. The certainty that overwhelms them at times that they will suffer an eternity of torture for their decisions, I consider the terrible waste of intellect, talent, and resources—resources that could be used to heal, grow, and support, used instead to cause pain and express hate. I think of the myriad of others who suffered in similar dogmatic environments, their adult lives hounded by the shadows of fear, guilt, and self-doubt. And finally my heart goes out to the millions who see and hear the cruel message of my family, a message that is met with tacit approval by too many in this society—a message of rejection seeps into their hearts, leaving them to wonder why a creator made them gay, just so he can punish them. It’s a terrible terrible waste.

They called me a rebel. For years, I wore that name with shame until I realized that confronted with the god of my father, rebellion is the only moral option.

When I left that place on the night of my 18th birthday, I left with a mind trained to judge and hate. I left with a certainty that I displeased God and would be punished for it. I avoided religion for years until I married. On the birth of my children I returned to my religion and seek the kinder, gentler god of the evangelical Christians. I studied, read, listened constantly to radio programs, prayed incessantly, and asked Jesus into my heart time and time again. During those years I lived a double life: staunch apologist by day, troubled skeptic by night. I took my questions and doubts to my friends in the church. And when they couldn’t answer, I went to the pastor. Still dissatisfied I sought out local and even national leaders in the Christian movement, always searching for that elusive nugget of truth that would seal my faith.

Then one sunny September morning, the illusion of a personal god that I tried so hard to believe in exploded over the skies of Manhattan. Even as the ashes and ruin of this horrific act [of] blind faith settled over New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, I watched people across America scrambling to that same irrational altar for their answers. In the fierce storm of emotion that rolled across this country, one realization rose to the surface of my mind in blinding clarity: certainly this mechanism of unassailable blind faith is one of the greatest risks mankind faces today.

Christopher Hitchens was once asked what one thing he would change about this world if he could. He said he would do away with the insane idea that faith is a virtue. If you invoke faith as justification for your belief, you must accept the same for others. And every person who retreats to faith, bears a measure of responsibility for every act of hate and violence justified by it.

In spite of that realization, I despaired of how we might ever become a nation that revered reason. But today looking out at this amazing crowd, I can actually see the path. All around us today is the evidence that we are not alone in our convictions that the supernatural need not be invoked for humans to have morality and purpose. In our insistence that knowledge be instilled by a rigorous process of inquiry and evidence and in our willingness to admit that sometimes we simply do not know.

I have a friend back in Calgary. He’s a staunch humanist of 80+ years. We meet for coffee regularly and I take those opportunities to mine the wisdom of his years. He is the kind of man I would have as a father were it my choice.

Ross talks about humanism as a city on a hill, a beacon for all the world to see and understand that we can be good—no, better, without God. It’s a worthy goal that I have strived for. I have had the pleasure of working for several organizations over the past few years to promote these ideals. The Center for Inquiry needs no introduction as a leading international advocate for reason and science. The CFI in Canada started nearly 5 years ago and we have seen tremendous growth across that country with branches in all major cities.

I have also had the opportunity recently to start working with Recovering from Religion. This organization fills a critical niche providing education, counseling connections, and community for the swelling number of people who struggle with the many issues associated with walking away from their religion. With over a hundred branches across the US and Canada, the leadership of Recovering from Religion is working overtime to meet this growing demand.

When I began my activism work a couple years ago, I saw it as my duty–even an obligation. The people I have met, the opportunities I have had to learn and discover things that I never would have have made this journey well worth it. And I would challenge each of you if you are not already involved in this movement, when you return to your communities, to get involved.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought that I try to remind myself of everyday.

It’s something the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said in an interview he gave late in his life. He was asked what he would most like to say about his life and the lessons that he’d learned. This was part of his response. “There are two things I would like to say:  one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: ‘When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted by either what you want to believe or what you think would have beneficial social effect if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts’. That is the intellectual thing I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say, I should say, ‘Love is wise and hatred is foolish’.

Your Thoughts?


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ed Brayton

    Hear, hear. Nate’s speech was my second favorite part of the event (behind Jessica Ahlquist). And the line about rebellion being the only moral response was my single favorite thing said by anyone.

  • deanbuchanan

    Nate was one of the highlights of my day as well.

    My 10 year old was way overcooked after a day of Lobbying and many hours standing but he was able to identify with Nate once he learned that his parents were the crazy and noisy ones we had seen earlier.
    His other favorite was Richard Dawkins because we have read and greatly enjoyed the Magic of Reality.

    Sorry we missed seeing you at the rally. I did get to shake Ed’s hand though and got some great schwag from the Reasonable Doubts collective.

    • Daniel Fincke

      HA, if you saw Ed it’s quite likely you saw me too but didn’t recognize me as Ed and I were together almost the entirety of the rally…

  • geocatherder

    Amazing that a family like that could produce such a sane, rational, empathic person.

  • WMDKitty

    I wish I could have been there, just for that speech.

  • janeymack

    Oh, thank you for including the transcript! I don’t have a lot of patience for sitting and watching videos, but I am really interested in what all the speakers had to say. And Nate was one of the ones I was most interested in. I am so impressed that he was able to break free from the crazy people that raised him.

    • Daniel Fincke

      no problem. I suggest you take a look at least at a minute or two of his delivery to get a sense of the humility and somberness with which he delivered it too. It was a major part of the experience.

  • peterh

    Phelps shows wonderfully that true eloquence arises from heart-felt simplicity.

  • Joe_S

    “Moving, heartfelt, quiet, unaffected, matter-of-fact, bewildered sorrow, poignant, sadly, softly, somberly eloquent.”

    Why are these things important? What are they? They are not facts. I doubt if any science journal has published a paper on “heartfelt”.

    • Daniel Fincke

      They are facts even if they do not have scientific formulations of them. And why are they important? Seriously? What are you, a robot or something?

    • Konradius

      This is a typical reaction to a lie.
      The lie is that without god there would not be any morality, or that rationalism leads to a complete denial of emotion.

      These lies are necessary for some believers. With these lies they can look at the world. They see emotion or morality and therefor evidence of god. If it was possible to have morality or emotion without god, then suddenly the evidence for god disappears. And the fear is that with this also the reason for morality or emotion would disappear.

      People affected by these beliefs are careful not to look too closely at the evidence out of fear of breaking the spell. And they mock and/or demonize the people who, according to them, are playing with fire.

      So Joe_S, did I correctly describe you, or did you have an other reason to post this straw vulcan response?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Joe_S is a Calvinist, btw.

    • Corkscrew

      I doubt any science journal has published a paper on “bloody idiots” either. Sadly, that doesn’t stop there from being a lot of them around.

      Using descriptive, emotive, “fluffy” terminology is perfectly fine in an opinion piece – it makes the text more readable and engaging. Fluffiness is only really a problem if it is used to weasel out of well-founded criticism.

  • fester60613

    This sentence sums up everything I believe in: “All around us today is the evidence that we are not alone in our convictions that the supernatural need not be invoked for humans to have morality and purpose.”
    It is that shared connection which gives me hope for our species.

  • Landslug

    FTB lurker here.

    Thanks for posting this. I’m as moved reading the words almost a week later as I was hearing them at the rally.


  • Dhoelscher

    Great post Dan. Thanks for providing the transcript.

  • G Napthine

    A man’s opinion means nothing. We have an Almighty Sovereign Creator who is no respector of persons and who has every right to try the reins.