Not My Father’s Son–A Documentary About Nate Phelps

Please consider donating to help make this documentary about Nate Phelps, the atheist, pro-LGBT son of the infamous Fred Phelps of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church. (If you donate through Recovering From Religion, your donation becomes tax deductible.) I consider this documentary to be a potentially vital contribution to our cultural discussions about the marginalization and hatred suffered by both LGBT people and the much less talked about victims of spiritual abuse.

After the 2012 Reason Rally, I called Nate Phelps’s speech “one of the most moving and heartfelt of the day”. I felt so strongly about the importance of spreading the speech that I took the time to make a transcript of it myself. You can watch the speech, read my review of it, and read the transcript here.

Nate Phelps is the kind of voice the atheist community needs to amplify, because he prioritizes three things that are vital for atheists to be known for in our discourse.

First, he tirelessly and passionately works to oppose the sorts of hatred that his infamous father stood for. He makes support for the LGBT community central to his life’s work as an activist. His message is not just about atheism, it’s about social justice, humanism, and love.

Second, whereas many progressives are unwilling to take religious abuse or the roles sincere religious belief can play in cultivating hate seriously, but instead insist on whitewashing faith itself as never to blame, Nate is unapologetic about speaking out against hateful religion itself. He is an outspoken atheist who, along with Recovering from Religion, is committed to providing resources to conscientious doubters and apostates who are undergoing ostracism and other forms of spiritual abuse on account of their religious non-conformity, or who have suffered spiritual abuse when religious. (Full disclosure: I am so simpatico with the people at Recovering From Religion that I am going to be partnering with them very soon myself.)

While religion is of course neither intrinsically nor entirely hateful–nor the inventor of hate, nor the only social institution guilty of propagating hate–nonetheless there are distinctive kinds of hate and abuse that take distinctively religious forms. Nate is willing to spotlight this as part of speaking out against his extremist father’s legacy. While most religious people are not nearly as bigoted or bullying as Nate’s father, Nate’s father existed as an extreme end of a spectrum with other forms of religious authoritarianism, closedmindedness, irrationalism, patriarchalism, and anti-human philosophy that are disturbingly common and troubling even in their milder and more ordinary forms. He was not just a meaningless aberration. While extreme, he was a symptom of widespread religious problems.

Third, Nate is a leader in the atheist community for compassion. When his father died, atheists and supporters of LGBT rights everywhere had choices to make. Do we gloat over his death? Do we seek revenge and try to disrupt and make a spectacle of Fred Phelps’s funeral the way he himself tried to desecrate so many innocent people’s funerals and aggressively aggravate their grieving friends and families? Or do we treat him and those grieving him with the respect, compassion, and dignity that he himself lacked?

Nate took that moment to step up and use the platform that his father’s infamy gave him to be an invaluable voice for compassion and civility and for LGBT rights. He enjoined us not to sink to his father’s level but to be inspired to overcome his father’s petty legacy. Here was his statement:

Fred Phelps is now the past. The present and the future are for the living. Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on, not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share. I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been. I deeply mourn the grief and pain felt by my family members denied their right to visit him in his final days. They deserved the right to finally have closure to decades of rejection, and that was stolen from them.

Even more, I mourn the ongoing injustices against the LGBT community, the unfortunate target of his 23 year campaign of hate. His life impacted many outside the walls of the WBC compound, uniting us across all spectrums of orientation and belief as we realized our strength lies in our commonalities, and not our differences. How many times have communities risen up together in a united wall against the harassment of my family? Differences have been set aside for that cause, tremendous and loving joint efforts mobilized within hours…and because of that, I ask this of everyone – let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.

The lessons of my father were not unique to him, nor will this be the last we hear of his words, which are echoed from pulpits as close as other churches in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC headquarters remain, and as far away as Uganda. Let’s end the support of hateful and divisive teachings describing the LGBT community as “less than,” “sinful,” or “abnormal.” Embrace the LGBT community as our equals, our true brothers and sisters, by promoting equal rights for everyone, without exception. My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.

This is the kind of spokesman atheism needs front and center. One who combines being an unapologetic atheist with a demonstrated humanist commitment to social justice, universal human dignity, responsibility, reconciliation, and leading by example ethically.

Nate Phelps has a chance to be heard that few of us have. People beyond the niche interest of the atheist community take an interest in Nate’s story. He can reach people most of us cannot. He is the kind of champion of LGBT rights that the media and all others drawn to ironies and curiosities will take an interest in. He has a built-in platform that he never asked for but has chosen to use to do the most good he can for marginalized LGBT people and spiritual abuse survivors of all stripes. And so he’s the kind of atheist voice we want in the forefront of those discussions if religious accountability is going to be a part of the discussion about LGBT issues. And we need someone who not only stands up for gays, atheists, and apostates but models humanism in the process. Nate’s our guy.

Please donate to help create this vehicle for exposing his message and his example to a wider audience. We cannot depend on mainstream film studios to create this kind of content that uncompromisingly expresses our beliefs and values for us out of the goodness of their hearts. We need to support films like this on a grassroots level. And time is fast running out to meet their Kickstarter goal of raising $55,000 by Monday July 7. So please chip in immediately if you can.

Your Thoughts?

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.


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