A few months ago, I ran into an enthusiastic, fairly charismatic atheist with, supposedly, a string of degrees behind his name. He was starting a new Atheist group. Intrigued, a few of my friends went.
Then one of my more skeptical friends checked him out. He found out the man was not only a fraud — his real name was Leslie Snell, and he was infamous for, in the late 1990s, operating some of the biggest diploma mills in U.S. History. Basically, the scam worked like this: You would pay money for schooling that you probably thought was legit, do all the work, and get your degree — except the degree was worthless, the school was made up, and Leslie Snell was lying out of his teeth. He had started Monticello University, Thomas Jefferson Education Foundation and several other related diploma mills. Upon investigation, we found several signs that his new atheist organization was probably something he was gearing up to be his next fraudulent undertaking.
We were taken aback. There was no money in being an atheist, especially here in the DFW Metroplex — or so we thought.
And why atheists? Atheists were smart, saavy, and skeptical, unlike the religious people we were surrounded by. Why not go to one of those churches and take their cash, posing as a preacher? That’s where the money is.
But now it’s occurring to me. Maybe that attitude is exactly why he chose us. Our confidence can make us proudly believe that the things that happen in other organizations don’t happen to us.
Now, I know some atheists are against movement atheism, but in a sense being against movement atheism is like the Monty Python skit “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
Recovering from Religion is instrumental in being a kind of transition place where people hurt by religion can transition and share their pain with sympathetic ears. I doubt many atheists would say that’s not important.
Apostacon is a way for atheists who are trying to help people out of religion on a wide variety of fronts meet, share experiences, and discuss their concerns. There are unique struggles for Hispanics, black Americans, former Muslims, former Fundamentalists, etc., and other people help those with these struggles, and when a bunch of them do it, it becomes a small volunteer organization.
Reason Rally — when atheists like Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins go to Washington, D.C. in a huge rally, it shows Washington D.C. and the nation that we atheists are here and unashamed. It legitimizes atheism, in a way; it helps make it easier for you to admit your atheism at your workplace.
These organizations do a lot for atheists, and they have helped me come out of a history of being deep in the church.
Because of what they have done in my life, I’ve been trying to emphasize how they can help other people. I’ve been largely anti-theistic, saying that atheism offers superior benefits — in large part, I’m seeing now, thanks to belief that atheists in these organizations were people who I could trust.
And I have thought these things, without much criticism, up to a few weeks ago.
Now, I’m really a nobody in the atheist “movement.” Just a small-time blogger on Patheos. At Apostacon I talked with a few major figures in the movement, briefly, but although I felt a strong affinity with several of them at the time, we’re not close. I don’t have the “inside scoop” and I don’t really know Sarah Morehead. I’m really just a guy who has been profoundly influenced by the atheist movement — like many of you are. Someone who wants to help the people who have helped me.
So, anyway…Recovering from Religion, Apastacon, and the Reason Rally all had someone heading them who most of us assumed we could trust. Most of you don’t know who she is, probably, so this means nothing to you. But she has helped out the atheist movement a lot — one of the hardest working, most influential people in American atheism. Her name is Sarah Morehead. Recently, her husband (for all intents and purposes, though not under law) Ray Morehead went on trial for child sexual abuse of her child and another child. We atheists felt for her, and when one of us said that we should give her money to make the ends meet (as he supported her), we didn’t hesitate. She had helped us so much. Why not help her? I gave her a bit of money and asked others to do the same. The request was for $8,000; over $23,ooo was raised.
Shortly after, she removed from leadership of Apastacon, Reason Rally, and Recovering from Religion. There were a lot of non-disclosure agreements involved, so we don’t know all the reasons why. But there were rumors about her character not being as it seems, which were largely rebuffed by people who thought it was the work of Ray Morehead to try to destroy Sarah Morehead’s reputation while he’s on trial.
The rumors became so confusing and pervasive that J.T. Eberhard, one of the top atheist bloggers and a friend (like many influential atheists) of Sarah Morehead’s, investigated them thoroughly. Not only did Eberhard, in his long, very well-documented write-up, find that the evidence indicated this was true — what Morehead said about several rumors in the interview he had with her for his article directly contradicted the evidence he found, evidence that Morehead seems to have tried to delete before he uncovered it. Eberhard, then, uncovered extensive evidence that Morehead systematically made sure only she had access to funds that she seems to have used personally, and lied about several other matters as well; the picture that is painted isn’t pretty.
The way J.T. discussed it, that lying was strategic and repeated. There has been suspicion that she has acted similarly in the other organizations she’s been part of — Stephanie Zvan has also said some troubling things about her overall character, making the picture even darker in my mind.
These posts range from people talking about their disgust for movement atheism, to people talking about how much we need it in spite of negative things that happen.
As for my own part, the whole incident has made me slow down drastically in promoting atheism.
A Christian would probably say, “See, atheists aren’t special.” And in a way, they’d be right. We’re not special, set apart from the world. The laws of gravity apply to us.
Although the evidence that Sarah Morehead lied and misappropriated funds seem undeniable, I don’t know how true the rumors about the kind of person Sarah Morehead is are. It’s possible that it started out gradually — that she had been volunteering so much and working so hard, and yet struggling financially. There was little oversight, and maybe her bills — for her and her children — were getting overwhelming. Maybe she thought (as many of us would in that situation, honestly) that if she borrowed just a little of it, she’d eventually be able to pay it back. But once it was borrowed, she had to cover it up. And then the cover up needed a cover up. And maybe she covered up so much that the “borrowing” became more justified in her mind. Maybe she still cared about the organizations deeply and the money factor was something separate, or something she did to enable her to spend so much time volunteering. Or maybe she thought she was doing such good work that she and her kids had earned that kickback. And maybe the money was somewhat justified, even if she got it through nefarious means, with how hard I hear she was working.
Or maybe it’s worse. Maybe it’s not. I don’t know her, so I’m not sure.
But what was truly disturbing, for me, was finding out through Internet conversation that this was just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of good the atheist organizations have done, but there are also more rumors of disturbing things that happened, and additional blown-open scandals in the past that I didn’t know about or time had caused me to forget. It all kinda came to a head on me at the same time.
And it was crushing, in that moment, that I was struck by the realization that the laws of gravity and logic work in important atheist organizations, too. We aren’t special superheroes. We just don’t believe in God. Thinking that means more than it does sets us up for disappointment.
Yes, I’m an anti-theist, in the sense that I think that believing things based on faith has harmful effects.
But it’s gotten more complicated for me, now. I’m not as eager to advocate atheism, after the last couple weeks, as the most important part of the solution to the problems we face.
Of course I’ll speak from an atheist perspective in my criticisms of culture. But I’m thinking, now, that I may not be promoting atheism specifically, so much as the values that I hold and the logic I think is important that come as a result of my atheistic thinking. Like…not as fixated on atheism, but fixated on things like love, logic, justice, knowledge, etc.
And also on things like bowling, running, reading novels, working, laughing, and helping people.
In a lot of ways, this isn’t a big change. I still think religion is harmful. I’m also against trying to reach out to religion just to boast that a bridge is made; I think religion contains faith, which offers fundamental harm in our efforts to solve the very real problems we face in culture today.
I still think that the atheist organizations carry some importance — atheists need to be less marginalized, people need to recover from religion, and so on, and groups helps this happen.
But in a major way, this is a big change, because I also am much more hesitant, now, to say that atheism is the beginning of making everything better. Like religion, there are some things in many atheist movements that are good, and there are some things that aren’t. Very little of anything is exactly the way we’d want it to be, or exactly as good or bad as it may initially appear. And that doesn’t mean that the good things aren’t good or that the bad things aren’t bad. Life is just complicated.
So I’m an atheist who thinks religion is a terrible idea, but that’s not the entire definition of who I am, and even though it’s important, a lot of other stuff in my life is important, too — and focusing too much on atheism means that those other things (like, for example, honesty) get left at the wayside.
I need to have a broader focus. That’s what this taught me. Atheism isn’t the answer; no one thing is the silver bullet for making the world a better place. The world is more complex than that, and the people — people working to make the world a better place and the people we are trying to make the world a better place for — are more complex than that.
As you can probably see, this isn’t about Sarah Morehead; it’s about an error in atheism I made, personally, that I need to correct. It’s time for me to stop having and preaching illusions about it, and start showing that atheism, while it’s part of many solutions, doesn’t automatically fix a lot of the very real issues we have.
I don’t exactly know how realizing all this is going to change the way I move forward, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the disillusionment has been broadening and challenging my vision.
I guess that’s a good thing.