Last month Be Secular started “The Common Ground Conversation Series”, which is aimed at helping secularists both religious and atheist find common ground in order to make common cause on behalf of the separation of church and state and other important issues. The inaugural event featured Pentacostal pastor turned atheist Jerry DeWitt, author of Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism and Mark Sandlin of The Christian Left. Mark Nebo, Mark Sandlin, Jerry DeWitt, and Dave Viviano will discuss the Common Ground Conversations series live Saturday night (2/8/14) at 10pm EST. You can watch them at this link: www.atheisthangouts.com. (Video of my own interview with Jerry from last summer is here, two of Jerry’s sermons with my commentaries on them are here and here.
Below is the 20,000+ word transcript of the first conversation produced by the amazing Josiah “Bibleman” Mannion. It’s an easy skim if you find it too long to read in full.
Mark Nebo: Thank you for coming to the first Conversation Series Event sponsored by Be Secular. If you don’t know about Be Secular, which I’m assuming most of you do, we are a company, we’ve been in business about a year, and our goal is twofold. One, to help bring together the compassionate and the motivated on both the theist and the atheist side of things, to work for common goals. And also to help groups that are either theist or non-theist, but support things like LGBT rights, women’s reproductive rights, separation of church and state, things like that – help them raise money for themselves.
Our website, if you go to our website, we have, I think we have eighteen affiliated groups now, and when you buy from us, they will get 50% of the profits from whatever you buy. So, we raised about $1,000 last year for these groups and they didn’t have to put any money in; all they had to do was just be part of our family. Brian Fields, from Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, they are one of our affiliated groups, so, thank you for coming, Brian.
The Conversation Series is something that Shanon and AJ and I, the owners of Be Secular came up with about four months ago, five months ago? And the goal of this is going to be to put what we want to do into arenas like this for other people to become a part of it. And that’s what you guys are here for today. We’re not going to debate things, we’re not going to talk about is there a God or isn’t there a God, that’s not what’s important to us. We feel that regardless of what you think happened before or after you were here on Earth, we all have to live together here, now. So, why not try to make it the best we can, for everyone? Let’s try to not segregate each other, let’s not try to discriminate, let’s not try to abuse each other.
And conversations like this are hopefully the beginning of what we hope to be a movement. We’re gonna have these around the country; we have plans for North Carolina, Jacksonville, and Dallas in the next few quarters. So, you guys are at the first one! I hope you’re proud of that, because I’m certainly happy and proud that you’re here. I said earlier that there’s a WiFi, free, it is Johns Hopkins guest, I don’t think there’s a password. I encourage you to Tweet about this event. We’re going to use the hashtag #CommonGroundActivism, and anything you say on Twitter, please tag Be Secular, @BeSecular, and hopefully other people will chime in questions. Ask them to! Say, if you have anything to ask Jerry DeWitt or Mark Sandlin, and you guys get a question from Twitter, say, “Hey, somebody asking a question!”, and we’ll talk about them. So, the two speakers we have asked for our inaugural event, are two people that I have come to care about very deeply. Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal minister, went through a life change, and is now … still the same great guy, but he’s a great guy in a different capacity. He’s been an atheist activist and author, and just a compassion leader, is what I’ll call him. And Mark Sandlin, a current minister in North Carolina, please say the name of your church…
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, because nobody else can. Van-dal-ia.
Mark Nebo: Vandalia Church…
Mark Sandlin: Presbyterian Church…
Mark Nebo: Presbyterian Church. And he is also the creator of the blog and entity, thegodarticle.com. He’s one of the co-founders of The Christian Left, which has 155,000 followers on facebook, so it’s a pretty active community. And I couldn’t think of two people that would be better to start this conversation, and start this movement in general than these two fellas. So let’s just start out by having them talk a little bit more about themselves. We’ll start with Mark, please just tell us a little bit about what you’ve got going on.
Mark Sandlin: Sure. Like he said, I’m real active with blogging, in the blogging world, I blog at Huffington Post, a Christian magazine called Sojourners.com, and my own www.The God Article.com. The next big thing I have coming up is actually a podcast. I used to have a podcast, it was real popular, called It’s the Bourbon Talking. It was actually Christian, but we loved our Bourbon, so we opened up with our Bourbon. It was really a political show that had Christian underpinnings. My co-host moved away, so we’re starting up a new one that’s gonna be a little bit different, but it’s called The Moonshine Jesus Show, and that’s gonna be coming out, probably early February, it’s gonna be coming out. Then, there’s a number of other things. We’re in talks with folks about some book deals, and being published and things, so it’s an interesting time for me.
Mark Nebo: And the Christian Left, and specifically The God Article, has been very supportive of Be Secular from the beginning. Another progressive Christian group called The Practical Christian, based out of… Beaverton, Oregon, and they’ve been very helpful, too. It’s exciting for me, as a former Christian who transitioned into being a nonbeliever, to see compassion still from people that are energetic and motivated to try to make positive change in the world, without judging people because of their faith.
The God Article and The Christian Left have been very supportive of us. Jerry, tell us a little bit about your story for those who don’t know it, and a little bit about where you are now.
Jerry DeWitt: Can I see a show of hands of people who don’t know my story.
[Mark Sandlin raises his hand. Laughter.]
Mark Nebo: I’d still like to hear it, and I’ve heard it five times, six times already…
Jerry DeWitt: Well, it’s a running joke…
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, a running joke between us…
Mark Nebo: Ah!
Jerry DeWitt: I’ve had them raise their hands… My name is Jerry DeWitt. I’m from DeRidder, Lousiana, part of the deep south. I was a minister, a Christian minister for 25 years. I started out in a very fundamental, as we called it “clothesline” Pentecostal branch of Christianity. We called it clothesline because it was all about lifestyle, the things you could and couldn’t do. We had to wear long sleeves, we couldn’t have facial hair, we couldn’t go to the movies, we couldn’t have secular music, we couldn’t have televisions, we couldn’t… you know, all of those things. Not nearly as severe as some of my other friends that are here, and the lives that they had. But I moved out of that, I progressed out of that over time. And then at the end of my Christian experience, I realized that I was an atheist, so that’s a spoiler alert; yes, at the end of my book, I turn out to be an atheist. [laughter] And so that became, that became, obviously, a problem. And a large part of the solution for that problem was… I was exposed through Dan Barker to The Clergy Project. And that… real quickly I’d just like to thank Linda LaScola for being here; can we give Linda a hand? [there is much clapping] Is it okay to say, One of the co-founders of The Clergy Project?
[Linda LaScola: Yes.]
Jerry DeWitt: Alright. There’s a complicated story behind it, which she tells very, very wonderfully in her book, Caught in the Pulpit, and it’s out right now, and I suggest everyone get it. And it’s along with her friend, professor and philosopher Daniel Dennett – too many titles there. So, The Clergy Project exposed me to a brand new world that I didn’t know existed. And not only exposed me to it, but it to me, and over the last few years I’ve been touring not only promoting the book, but promoting… just the right of self-expression. And that’s why I’m here today, because I think that that is the most important issue. So, what I plan on doing for the next year is working, making a living and paying attention to my family, for the first time in 25 years. So, that’s my plans.
Mark Nebo: Great mission. That’s a great mission, Jerry. So, we have a series of questions here that we’ve fine-tuned ourselves, both the Be Secular group, and Jerry and Mark. But it’s gonna be very interactive. If you guys have a question about something that is happening, or something that we’re talking about, please raise your hand. We’ll have you ask it and we’ll discuss it. If you have a question that’s outside of what we’re talking about at the time, please save it ‘til the end, so that we don’t go off on a bunch of tangents, and we can come back and we’ll… we’ve got plenty of time to talk about everything. So, again, I wanted to say, this is not a debate. There’s a million debates around the country every year between Christians and Atheists talking about what is fact, and what isn’t fact. The only fact that applies here is that we are all human beings, and we’re trying to make the world better for other human beings. So if your question or your thought process leads you down the path of saying, I think you’re wrong about the basis of theology or something like that, we can talk about that another time. Okay? I don’t want it to feel like I’m scolding you, but I could just…I could just feel it coming, so I wanted to make sure I nip that in the bud. So the first thing we want to talk about is, I’m going to say, Why should we, as people, be compelled to have discussions like this? Why is it…why should we try to break away from our group and tribal mentality of our own faith groups? And, I mean, that’s a pretty open ended question. What do you think?
[Jerry gestures for Mark to answer first]
Mark Sandlin: Sure. For me, and I think we’ll probably find some common ground here, there’s a couple of reasons in particular. One is, that when you start thinking of particularly some of the difficult political issues in the world today, the two groups that we’re kind of here representing have a lot of common spaces where we believe the same thing. And when you look at our numbers, we are a particularly large group individually. I mean, we really are. But if we can come together on these issues, all of a sudden, we become a pretty significant voice in the process, that’s going to demand to be noticed in a way that you’re not going to be able to do individually. And the second part, for me at least, stems from that, and that’s that… there seems to be this great confusion in the U.S. right now about separation of church and state, and my people are to blame for this. The most fundamental and conservative folks from the Christian movement are trying to kind of warp history in a way, and reclaim this space. And I think it’s important that those of us who disagree with that, find some spaces that we can come together, and compete against that, and make sure that there’s a loud enough voice saying, That’s not who are; that’s not who we are as a nation; that’s not who we are as compassionate and caring people who care about other people. So for me, I mean, that’s kind of the quick shot at why I think it’s important that conversations like this happen.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah. I agree, obviously, with all of that, and I think that if we’re going to make real change, then we have to be realistic about what we’re working with. It’s easy whenever you have… when we’re talking about concepts that are so grand, and so beautiful, and the experience that I had as I walked my way through my spiritual journey… it was awe inspiring, it was larger than life. And it’s easy for that sense of awe and that appreciation for these concepts to sometimes make our goals too lofty, and to say, Everybody needs to be like me; we win when everybody is like me. Well, I don’t think that ends up being realistic. I think what is realistic is working with the people that you can work with, working with the people that you do have common ground with.
You mentioned the numbers earlier. Obviously, as far as atheism is concerned, we’re still a very, very small percentage of the population. But there’s a larger population than us, that think like us when they walk into the voting booths; that think like us whenever they’re asked these hard political and social questions. And so I think we’re better off and the future of America, if not the world, is better off when we’re together instead of apart. And the only way that can happen is for us to have discussions, and to emphasize the common ground. We already know what the differences are. Facebook, tweets, blogs, YouTube very clearly tells us what all the differences are, we know those differences. But if we can find what we have in common, work together on that, I would like to say it’s good and it’s honorable to agree to disagree, but it may even be better to agree to agree. And that’s the opportunity that we have with these discussions.
Mark Nebo: Talking about the separation of church and state, and how some of the more fundamentalist Christians have tried to pervert that message, and try to make it seem like it’s something that it isn’t. Another one that has been twisted an awful lot is prayer in school, mandatory prayer in public school. And I actually listened to your [Mark Sandlin] podcast yesterday on my way home…
Mark Sandlin: Oh, you mean…
Mark Nebo: … that you were just in…
Mark Sandlin: The Liberal Fix…
Mark Nebo: Yeah, The Liberal Fix radio show. And you were talking about a lot of the things that I’ve said when I’m talking about it. Like, it’s bullying and it’s, uh, exclusion… just having someone sit out and not pray is exclusionary. Can we talk a little bit about that, and your thoughts, and get Jerry’s thoughts?
Mark Sandlin: Yeah .
Jerry DeWitt: Let me just start by saying that probably the majority of you already would appreciate where I would come from about prayer in school. So let’s hear your part, and it may surprise some of you.
Mark Sandlin: Sure. And I would just add that in some ways, and it certainly varies in other ways, that teaching of Creationism falls into the same category.
Mark Nebo: Sure, yeah, absolutely.
Mark Sandlin: And I think that they kind of… [simultaneous inaudible comment from audience]… prayer has been … [laughs] Prayer has been brought up recently in the news, because… Have you heard about South Carolina?
[General noises of acknowledgement from the room]
Mark Sandlin: [Makes choking ACK noise of frustration – audience laughs] …
Mark Nebo: If that reaction from a minister is not enough… I mean, what are you gonna get.
Mark Sandlin: Like I said in this…
Jerry DeWitt: Oh, not everybody has…
Mark Nebo: Well, let’s talk about that for a second then.
Jerry DeWitt: … go ahead and explain.
Mark Sandlin: , as I said in the first part of the question, there seems to be this great confusion that I think has been intentionally created about the importance of the separation of church and state in the U.S., and that it is actually one of our founding principles. And so we end up with this whole group of people really pushing one agenda from the Christian perspective. And honestly, they’re not even doing it in a logical way, because they say, Well, we think that you should teach prayer in school, least they…
Jerry DeWitt: In South Carolina.
Mark Sandlin: Well, that… for those that don’t know about South Carolina, and there might be a few who don’t… can we raise our hands, those who don’t … [general laughter] …
Jerry DeWitt: That’s my only thing I’ve got!
Mark Sandlin: I know!
Jerry DeWitt: Here’s why we can’t have these discussions…
Mark Sandlin: I figure we’re sharing this together…
Mark Sandlin: So this is what’s happening in South Carolina. There are these, members of their Congress. They happen to be Democrats, so that’s an important part of this story, who, I’m gonna get the timing wrong, a year ago, a year and a half ago, tried to do some kind of legislature about that there would be mandatory prayer in school. And it got hung up, I think in the courts, with real issues. Well, who’s gonna lead this, you can’t have teachers leading it, and what about folks who want to pray to this god and that god, and what about folks who don’t want to pray.
So they’ve put all these kind of stipulations. Well, we won’t make the teachers lead it, but they do need to start it. You can pray to any god you want to pray to! And, uh, oh, and if you’re atheist or agnostic, you can just leave the room. And so, this is getting reborn again; there’s real, serious energy behind it, and they’re trying to, with these caveats, rush it through again. And I was asked about that on the show, and, exactly what Mark said, I said, First of all, it’s just straight up bullying; it’s nothing other than that, it is bullying. It’s forcing people to do something they don’t want to do. It’s also putting a whole lot of people in a position where they are going to suffer from bullying, because it will single them out in way that particularly in that environment, and in that society, that space, has some issues with from time to time that people tend to turn their eyes away when any of that’s going on.
So, I’m very much against any of that kind of thing. Both because I think simply it’s not who we’re supposed to be as a nation, and the bullying. But, I also do it because, frankly, I am a minister, and I have seen the way that some of maybe the more conservative, or even fundamentalist Christians do things. I do not want them teaching my child how to pray. [clapping] I don’t. And I think anyone should have that issue, whether you’re a believer, nonbeliever, or whatever. So that… that’s kind of where I stand.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah. And there’s this… there’s this really odd situation in my mind, that I find it hard to understand where the fundamentalists are coming from that do want to force this. Because in my most fundamental days as a believer, I still wouldn’t want people teaching my child how to pray, because I thought I was the only one who had it figured out. And I didn’t trust them… [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: I’d have been like, That liberal crap won’t pass! Make ‘em go straight to hell, quotin’ after that guy! And so, it’s strange, and it makes me feel as if, in so many ways, it’s very insincere, because of the questions it raises.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, you do wonder how much of it is truly more politically motivated, because even from the religious standpoint, I… unless you just simply think that our segment has that much power. That we’re gonna… which is [garbled], too, actually. But unless it’s that, you do have to wonder how much of it is also politically motivated in terms of…
Jerry DeWitt: Looked like there was a question…
Mark Sandlin: Yeah.
Audience 1: Isn’t it a distraction? A distraction tactic? We’re going to get you all worked up about this little nonsense thing that doesn’t have any chance in hell of passing muster, so that you don’t notice what we’re really doing.
Mark Sandlin: It’s nonsense right up until it passes. So that’s the problem.
Jerry DeWitt: And I think saying it’s a distraction may be giving the politician too much credit, thinking that they can think that far ahead. Honestly, having spent a little bit of time in some local government, and of course I worked with state government, I think it simply comes down to being able to say that you tried when you’re at a town hall meeting.
Mark Sandlin: I hear you. That’s why we go back to that it’s the Democrats. They need something to go back to their home bases and say, See, I’m as good as that guy! I’ll do it for you.
Mark Nebo: And in a lot of cases, it could be as simple as, they know it’s not gonna pass, but their constituents, or the majority of their constituents, agree with it, so why not try it, and then it’s like he said, say that we tried.
Jerry DeWitt: Well, and you have to divide, you have to cause that division in order to create a base. You don’t have a base without division.
Brian Fields: I think… Wouldn’t you think that a part of that might be, though, that, along with the idea of the base, you have this concept of… we have a politician up in Pennsylvania, Rick Saccone, who did all sorts of church-state separation encroachment stuff, but his reasoning, when you get him away from the microphone, and you get him to a one-on-one conversation… there’s this meme about the declining morals of society, and somehow that this is supposed to, for the people who believe that it’s actually going to do something, they’re looking at this from a moralistic, an overly moralistic perspective, and saying, Well, you know, God or prayer is going to fix this for them. Do you think that might be part of it, though?
Mark Sandlin: I think you’d be very fair, yeah. Did everyone hear that, that question response? Yeah, I mean, I think that at least some, and in their best heart, as weird as that sounds, really thinks they’re doing it because they’re in a moral decline. I think you’re being… yeah, that’s a very fair assessment.
Jerry DeWitt: There’s a Dominionist element…
Mark Sandlin: Yes.
Jerry DeWitt: … that comes in. They say that they’re saving the country. [points at audience member] Yes, ma’am.
Audience 2: I always feel that there’s always this lack of cultural relativism, in the conversation that’s [garbled] … that … it’s like, one extreme goes here, and then there’s this other extreme of, Just no. And I’ve always wondered why we can’t have a conversation of, Why don’t we just build a meditation room, where, I mean, you know, you have Muslim children that, you know, really should be praying, by their faith, five times a day, and these are very extensive prayers. That should be respected as well.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. … I was gonna say, I think that’s a great point. I think you’re in exactly the right place. To your observation [addressing Brian Fields], if moral decline really is the issue, couldn’t there be a different solution that wouldn’t cause all these other problems?
Jerry DeWitt: Or if it’s just cultural.
Mark Sandlin: Or culture.
Jerry DeWitt: It’s a wanting to respect culture. There’s a thing that… I was sitting in the airport last night, and they made the announcement about the interfaith chapel that existed somewhere in the airport. Of course, I love church houses and chapels, and so if I wouldn’t have been so lazy and assed it was on the other side of the airport… [laughter] … I would have went and looked at it. But, I mean, for my atheist friends, does it offend any of you to know that there’s an interfaith chapel at the airport? I mean, is that…
Mark Nebo: Well, I would say that the only problem…
Jerry DeWitt: In a school it would be different.
Mark Nebo: Right. The only problem with the meditation room, in my opinion, and I’d like to hear your thought on this, is, it would be one thing if it was a general use meditation room that anybody could go into in their free time. But what you run the risk of is designated prayer time, or a window, and then the nonbelievers that don’t go are still sitting there.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, I mean I think this is more of an example of, Can there be a different solution. I think it’s problematic…
Mark Nebo: It starts a discussion.
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Mark Sandlin: So, who gets to use the space? If we should start eliminating someone from using the space, I got an issue.
Mark Nebo: Right. Good point. And I mean… to your point about a general use meditation room, that’s another discussion and another point to try to find some kind of common ground. It just seems like it’s really a slippery slope where any… give an inch, you take a mile, kind of thing.
Audience Member: I grew up in New Jersey, and we have a large Indian community where I grew up. I mean, they [garbled] want to start setting up statues of Ginesh, or Shiva. And then, you know, the sort of, Christians wanted to come and use this room, and there’s this big element of [garbled]… where is that line?
Mark Nebo: Well, back in the military, the chapels in the military are very, nondenominational, nondescript… But I understand what you’re saying.
Brian Fields: Yeah, I was just gonna go into that, actually, about how, you know, frequently when you have some sort of nondenominational space, it’s a common space. It gets used by, you know… somebody puts their symbols up…
Mark Nebo: Right.
Brian Fields: … or wants to monopolize the space with their symbols, and not respect the other people who want to use it.
Mark Nebo: And that’s the majority that does that, typically, whoever’s in the majority, so…
Audience Member: It seems like this [garbled] the parallel is [garbled] someone’s symbols [garbled]… Oklahoma with the Satanists …
Mark Nebo: Right. So, does everyone know about the Oklahoma courthouse statue? It is a very slippery slope, and I think that the most progressive of the faith leaders would side on the side of it being nothing, right, Mark, I imagine?
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. Sure, absolutely.
Jerry DeWitt: John… Do you want to get John before we go on to the next one?
Mark Nebo: Sure, yeah.
John: I wanted to bring back around to the question of morality in schools. I think that morality and ethics should be something infused from minute one to minute end, at the end of the day. And you do this by encouraging common virtues, democratic values, things that the whole community already agrees upon, without any divisiveness whatsoever. And you can teach respect for cultures, and you can teach respect for peoples, and you can exemplify scientific curiosity… and you know, I … To think that the ethics part is some inorganic extra element that has to be salted in somewhere, that’s the first mistake. But we make this mistake, and religion helps us make this mistake, as a culture, because, right, we think, well, the religiosity is something separate and extra, and religion equals ethics, so ethics has to be something extra. And now you’re off and running. And the problem is, your religious conservatives, right, they equate being religious with being virtuous. So the only way to know who is publicly and truly virtuous is to know who is willing to stand up and publicly submit to an authority figure, right, and they can’t see any ethics or morality anywhere else, right? So if you want ethics in the curriculum, you find it where it already is, where people already, as you said very eloquently, agree to agree. It’ll never be good enough for the religious conservatives, because they’re segregated in their heads about all of this. They’re part of the problem, and there’s no satisfying them. There’s no way to satisfy them.
Jerry DeWitt: And I think that leads right back to why these type of discussions are important. Because you have people who are very culturally still using Christian language or religious language, and I’ll probably say Christian more than anything else, just because of my own culture. And it give us, it gives us an opportunity to have buy-in from people with that cultural background, but yet still…still tote the party line just exactly as you described it. And so, why divide ourselves from them, for those issues.
Audience Member: I have a question.
Mark Sandlin: Sure.
Audience Member: How about the Pledge of Allegiance, and is that a vow? Is that chanting? Is that being a part of the Big Brother, you’re saying you pledge this allegiance? That’s sort of one aspect of it, and…teaching…about our Republic. And a second aspect is, if they were to remove the “under God” caveat, perhaps that would satisfy some people more that there is a mandatory time where you pledge allegiance to the flag, seeing that many people have spilled blood to try to protect that flag.
Mark Sandlin: I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance. Because it has “under God” in it.
Audience Member: Would you if it was removed?
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. Probably.
Mark Nebo: A lot of people have anti-nationalist sentiment, with the Pledge of Allegiance, anyway. So, even with the “under God” removed, you’re still gonna have a lot of people arguing that.
Audience Member: Wouldn’t that come into schools first? Wouldn’t that be a better use of energy?
Jerry DeWitt: Try to deal with that particular issue first? Is that what you mean?
Mark Nebo: That probably won’t happen. It’s an all or nothing thing, because of the majority rules mindset. I think that the Pledge of Allegiance is either there with “under God,” or it isn’t there.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, because of the second layer. Because of the nationalism, it’s just that much trickier.
Mark Nebo: So, we talk about how we… we actually just talked about it a bit… about how people get stuck on their differences a lot of the time. What kind of things can people do to try to focus on common ground in a conversation with someone? Jerry, I mean, if an atheist is talking to a Christian, how can they try to… without trying to take their faith away, or be divisive….how can they work on being a common ground person, and trying to focus on that?
Jerry DeWitt: Well, I think the demographics for the atheist community are changing. Historically, it seemed as if you had more lifelong atheists, but now because this…whatever you want to call it, philosophy, is making its way further and further into the… particularly into the deep south, into the Bible Belt, you have more and more people in the atheist movement that were once religious. And so, I think that’s… for me, that’s the beginning of the common ground. Now don’t get me wrong, many people who find themselves as atheists are still hurt, are still burnt in many different ways, but most of the time from some type of religion that was very fundamentalistic. But nevertheless, they’ve been hurt, and they want to express that; they want to go through that healing process. I did that. Matter of fact, how many of you are aware of Michael Dowd? Do you know… yeah, Michael Dowd [raises hand]… beautiful, beautiful person…
Mark Sandlin: The hands! What is it with you and the hand raising?
Jerry DeWitt: I don’t know. I thought you was about to say that you were dating Michael Dowd, too! [laughter] Gah, another similarity. Michael, very early on… you know, Michael has probably been to every UU church in the United States, and Michael’s got this fabulous ministry. And very early on, he tried to link arms with me, and became, you know, a dear friend, and said, Let’s go work together. But Michael kind of walks in this middle ground, right, where he separates day language from night language, and he’ll get up, and he’ll preach a UU message, or, you know, talk about God. But if you listen to the whole thing and you listen real carefully, at some point, he’s gonna tell you that he’s a complete anti-supernaturalist, and that to him, God’s really just the universe.
But he’ll yet still use the word, and so, it’s got all this gray area that I… honestly, because of my experience, when I finally got out, I found all of that repulsive. And I felt it tiring. I mean, it really hurt me, because I had worked through those phases, trying to find my way of staying in Christian ministry. So I couldn’t hook up with him. I was too hurt. But over time, I feel like I got better; I feel like I recovered. And so, to me, the beginning of the common ground is remembering where I came from, who I was, what I thought at the end of my Christian experience. And the reality of it is, I felt about these issues at the end of my Christian experience, the same way I feel today. I mean, that’s all part of what played into me ending up where I’m at today. So, I think it requires empathy. I think we have to look at that other person, put ourselves in their position, not just theologically, but also culturally. And realize, there’s a lot of pressures, there’s a lot of other issues at bear that cause people to say and do what they say and do. And so empathy, I think, is the beginning of the conversation. [gestures at Mark Sandlin] It’s easy whenever you have this much in common.
Mark Nebo: Yeah, and a lot of times, you’re not gonna have much. You may only have a piece. You know, maybe a person is much more conservative than Mark, and they…
Mark Sandlin: Are you saying I’m not conservative enough? [laughter]
Mark Nebo: … and they may support only one or two things that you support. And they may totally disagree with you on a lot of other things, but why not try to make some ground with what you do agree on? Right?
Mark Sandlin: I mean, I think there’s another… well, first of all, I want to point out that it’s the ex-minister that keeps trying to get you to put your hands in the air. [laughter] I just think that that’s important to note, here. I think what you’re… [continued laughter] It’s true!
Jerry DeWitt: You’ll know I’m really doing something when I got both hands in the air.
Mark Sandlin: And you get that… [hands in the air, eyes closed tight] … face. [continued laughter] , I think you began to get at… I think, part of this that’s very important that gets a little bit harder to do, even in a group this small, but I think it’s always essential when people who have any kind of opposing points of view that are held strongly get together, and that’s simply, what’s important is relationship. Relationship frequently begins to break that kind of thing down. Real, genuine relationship where you spend some serious, honest, open time having dialogue, begins to break it down. I think all of this, all of this finding common ground begins there, in relationship.
Jerry DeWitt: And that’s a great point, and you know this from…
Mark Sandlin: I didn’t like him until we started talking online, and there’s a perfect example.
Mark Nebo: The fact that they look very similar had nothing to do with it. [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: In real life, and you know this is true in your real life, there are jerks that you absolutely hate, and that if you could get away with it, if they stepped off the sidewalk, you would run over them and never look back. You know that. [laughter] But…
Mark Sandlin: What kind of other issue do we need to talk about? [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: I will only share them with Linda. But, but there’s a jerk somewhere in your life that’s just like the jerk you would run over, that you defend; that everyone else wants to run over, but you defend that person, because you’ve made a choice to defend that person. You’ve made a choice to like them, and you make excuses for them, you say, Ah, well, you just really need to get to know them, they’re really a nice guy under all of that. And so, on some level, sometimes I think this all comes down to choosing whether you want to pick a fight, or whether you want to build a relationship. And that’s what it comes down to.
Mark Sandlin: And it’s important in that to realize that that honest, genuine relationship doesn’t just change you; it typically changes the other person, too. So you might enter into it, saying, No, we can’t, because they’re this, and this is a bad thing. Recognize that the relationship changes both of you in ways that make that possible.
Mark Nebo: But, I mean, what is the… what’s the starting point? You approach someone, and you don’t know anything about their faith. And then you start to get to know them, and they maybe say something that you disagree with, and then they say something you agree with. How do you start to proceed through working on things that are important, without… I’m not… I don’t want it to, say, not being yourself. How do you avoid, or try to mitigate the incendiary comments, and things like that, that are just gonna break it all down? I mean, that’s a tough question, I think.
Jerry DeWitt: Well, that’s… that’s what life’s about, though, is choosing when you can be yourself, and when you really can’t. I mean, you’re always… you’re always sharing your inner thoughts, you know, in measure. You don’t always push the envelope every time. I mean, we know some people who do, and we all try to avoid them, you know… or run over them. I’m just gonna say it! And so…
Mark Sandlin: You wanna lay down here for a minute? [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: We can do everything but pray for me.
Mark Sandlin: I’m prayin’ for you. [shakes head] I won’t…
Mark Nebo: You should go the general use meditation room. [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: That’s good. Well played, well played. That was well played.
Jerry DeWitt: And so, the idea… I don’t think there’s anybody over the last two years, who has preached self-expression more than I have. One of the reasons I’m excited about this discussion is because it gives me the opportunity to talk about something other than atheism. Obviously, we wouldn’t all know me if it wasn’t for the atheism, and the scandal that comes from being an ex-minister. But I feel like that’s just part of my self-expression, and that the real message is, hopefully one day living in a United States, or a world where people feel completely free to express their individualities. So that’s what it’s about with me. But when you’re in that conversation, it really comes back to motivation. If your motivation is right on trying to have a dialogue and build a relationship, you’re gonna find the common ground. You know, maybe they’ve got kids, maybe there’s, you know, there’s some other value in their life that you also share that you can start with.
Audience Member: Jerry, when you say that you’re an atheist, what do you mean by that?
Jerry DeWitt: Oh, that’s a good question. What do I mean by that? [general laughter] So, let me… let me try to half-way dodge it while I think about it at the same time by simply saying that I see no evidence for anything supernatural, and so thus I don’t believe. I realized, after 25 years of at some times very strongly believing in the supernatural, but over time less and less believing in the supernatural, I came to the realization that…I was forced to this choice: I could pretend to believe something that I don’t, or I could be honest and say, I don’t believe in it. I now know I don’t believe in it, you know, it’s clear. So, for me it’s about the supernatural. I don’t see any evidence that there’s a supernatural. Now, for this conversation, I’ve said the word atheist probably more than I do in normal conversations, for clarification.
If I could go back, and this may disappoint some of my friends, but if I could go back and write the screenplay of how the last two years, the last three years would have played out, it would have been somewhat different. The change that I made to my facebook status, I changed it from nothing, you know, I didn’t have any religious status to “Secular Humanist.” And that was enough to start the brush fire that, you know, ended up consuming everything. And I did that because that’s what I felt most connected to, was Humanism. I knew that I was an Atheist by definition, but I didn’t feel like that was telling anyone anything. But I felt like when I said Secular Humanist, I was being… explaining myself, expressing myself a little better. Well, once I started touring the circuit, you know, of the secular movement, because of my mannerisms, because of being a southern preacher, there was a little bit of confusion about, you know, which side of the table I was supposed to sit on. And so… [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: There’s sides to this table? [gesturing at the table they are sitting at] [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: Ah, sorry. [laughter] And so, the word “atheist” became more and more of a necessity. But at the same time, later on, I began to appreciate the argent that the word “atheist” is , is somewhat abused and looked down on, when it really shouldn’t be. And so, by “atheist” I simply mean I don’t see any reason to believe in the supernatural.
Audience Member: I have something I’d like to add to that.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, please.
Audience Member (Linda LaScola): Because I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t believe in the supernatural, ministers and the priests … … And I was very careful never to use the word “atheist” or “agnostic” or anything like that, until I heard it back from the person I was talking to. And then I would cleverly say, Well, what does that mean?
Jerry DeWitt: Right.
Audience (Linda LaScola): And then I would get a definition from them, sometimes quickly and sometimes not quickly, having never thought about it that much. And sometimes the definition, if the person had called themselves an agnostic, would be the same definition as the person who called themselves an atheist.
Jerry DeWitt: Right.
Audience (Linda LaScola): And so, it was very, individualistic, very personal. And maybe, as time goes on, that will change, and we’ll have some definitions that people know.
Mark Sandlin: And I’d like to just pull this on back to the question, and think about what just happened here, and that’s part of the answer. And that’s that questions were asked without agenda, and folks answered honestly, and we listened to understand, not necessarily to be converted or believe, but to understand. I think that’s part of where this all begins, where we can find this voice of common ground, when that’s the way we enter into these discussions. That we do ask the questions without agenda, and then we do listen to understand, not necessarily to believe the same thing, but to at least understand who you are, and why you’re where you are. That could get us past a lot of the things that aren’t common ground, so that we can pursue this.
Jerry DeWitt: I agree.
Audience [Linda LaScola]: Okay. I have a religion website, and I have interviewed a lot of people. I always ask them about God. I do atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, you know. I always ask them what they think of when they think of God, and no one person has ever answered the same way, ever.
Mark Sandlin: Right.
Audience [Linda LaScola]: And I’ve always asked the people who are not atheist, if they’ve ever had any doubts. And I’ve never had a religious person… only one religious person that I’ve ever interviewed said that they have never had any doubts. I think of even Mother Theresa. And that person was kind of grim, and I don’t believe him. [general laughter]
Mark Sandlin [pointing]: There was a question…
Audience Member: Now, I’ve got a question for Jerry. When you realized that you were having problems believing in the supernatural, were you married? And was your wife the church lady [garbled]… help with the church that you planted? And how did your, kind of, conversion affect your family?
Jerry DeWitt: I’ll be quick with this, and then let’s pull back, because…
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Jerry DeWitt: … as much as I love the attention, it’s, you know… but, … yes, I was married. And my son, at the time, was about 19, 20 years… no, maybe 18, 19 years old. She was an apatheist. We now have applied that after the fact. We didn’t know what she was, but we knew that she was pretty apathetic about the whole thing. And so I… when I joined the Clergy Project, I thought I was gonna dodge all the bullets that I’d heard other people suffer. And… because she didn’t care, she didn’t care that I was, you know, evolving. And neither did my son. My son was already living, you know, more secular, in advance of the rest of us. So I thought I was gonna be okay.
But it’s when the larger community found out about this… I felt like, by expressing my nonbelief, that I was being true to the values that I had been taught, in my community and in my church. That because I didn’t believe now, now I was clear that I didn’t believe, to be a person of honor and of integrity, I had to say that. I had to say, just for the record, I don’t believe. What ended up causing my marriage problems was the public reaction to it; it was not anything that was going on between us. But that had been a long time coming, because she had not been excited about being in the ministry in the first place. So, can you pull that back to…
Mark Nebo: So, yeah, that’s good. I mean, that would have been something great to talk about at the end. It’s excellent to get it out there. It’s a good story, and I’m happy that you’re here to…
Jerry DeWitt: I think there’s a book about it.
Mark Nebo: There is! There’s a book about it…
Mark Sandlin: Some guy told us the ending, so, Eh… [general laughter]
Mark Nebo: [addressing someone in audience]: Yes.
Audience Member: We tend to define ourselves by these labels. I know I’m a Christian Buddhist. I started calling myself a Christian Buddhist, just because when I say just “Christian,” people started thinking something different.
Mark Sandlin: Right, right.
Mark Sandlin: I wrote an article about that on Huffington Post, by the way. [laughter]
Christian Buddhist: I was wondering… and it’s… I know so many different atheists and agnostics … [inaudible] … majority of my friends. And, again, going back to, everybody’s different, everybody … [inaudible] … So, what can we do to get people to start looking at each other as just this or that? And, I almost feel like we should just remove the labels, and just be… I mean, that’s my idealism, that’s my goal, and I don’t know…
Mark Nebo: Well… I… just to answer that. I have actually talked about that many times. And it would be great if everyone could just , be good people, and remove their labels and stuff, but everybody… well, a lot of people, at least, really feel the need to have something like that. To say, this is who I am, this is what I do, this is what I believe. And I think they do it, so that others can… so they can kind of cluster together, a lot of times.
Christian Buddhist: I can see it internally? But externally?
Mark Nebo: Well, they say it to attract others, sometimes.
Audience Member: A sense of community …
Mark Nebo: Yeah, community.
Mark Sandlin: I think it is…I mean, I think it’s a beautiful idea. I think… it is idealistic to think that we would ever be able to do that, because… but I’m gonna actually agree with you before this over, believe it or not ….
Jerry DeWitt: Us preachers can do that, you know…
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, that’s what we do… [laughter] … So, I do think that it’s a nice idea. But the way we function, we like to put things in categories, because it helps us understand the world. And so we kind of do it naturally. I think what we can go for, is to stop making that the most important thing. Right? We’re not gonna get rid of them. But there’s… as we interact with each other, I think that we can help that not become the defining thing, is that label.
Jerry DeWitt: And don’t underestimate the power of personalities, and differences in personalities. So much of that comes down to this. Whenever, you know… ‘cause I could watch it even in this group. Whenever you say, “semantics,” some people are like, Yep, and other people are like, Nope, there’s a dictionary, that’s what dictionaries are for, and that’s what that word means. And that’s right, and both are right. There is a dictionary, and there are definitions for words. And then there’s real life, where we use words the way that we choose to use words. And we have to understand how the other person is using them.
So, when it comes to labels… and it’s another reason I’m so excited about these types of discussions… the more that I got to know Mark, and y’all probably… all of you who have been friends of mine now for the last two years, you’ve probably heard me say Bishop Carlton Pearson numerous times. I’m so in love, I call him “Papa” on facebook. And if it wasn’t for that, you know, so many people would leave me, there’s a lot more things that he writes that I would hit ‘like,’ even though I don’t agree with all of it, but I don’t want the storm that comes after that, you know. But whether it’s Bishop Pearson, or whether it’s Mark, the more that I get to know them, the less I’m concerned about the labels or the language that they use, because I know the meaning behind it. And that’s very difficult to do at a distance, you know; it has to be done in a relationship.
And so, I hate to tell you this, but it really is the meek that will inherit the earth, and it really is the meek that will change the planet, because it’s the meek that’s going to have to bear the burden of putting up with other people’s labels, and putting up with personalities. They can put up with other people’s labels, in order to do the good work. You know, it’s always been that way. Can I get a “Darwin.” [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: [points to audience member] Yes.
Audience Member: Linda was saying about not using the word ‘atheism’ until the person being spoken to had mentioned it. It almost seems like coded language, like the gay community would have, too, in past years. You know, this triangle flag, but, you know, you would look for subtle hints. And it’s odd how that… we translate it into our day to day lives. You could say, “Christian” but, you know, if you’re Southern Baptist, and you’re talking to a Pentecostal, well, you’re going to hell.
Jerry DeWitt: Absolutely. And they are. [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: It is the problem. I posted a thing about, called “The ‘C’ Word,” saying that… “Christian,” [laughter]
Audience Member: I was gonna say, How many letters?
Mark Sandlin: Because I hate saying, you know… Well, what do you do? I’m… like, on that plane flight conversation? What do you do? … Ohhh… [laughter] … I’m a minister. Oh, really, what kind of a minister? I’m a [kind of mumbles, looks down] Christian minister. Because, it’s gonna go one or two directions. So, I’m like, always going, So, I’ve gotta feel out who this is, and I’ve got various responses. I’m a Christian minister, well, I’m the kind of Christian minister who’ll drink you under the table. [laughter] So, Gah!
Mark Nebo: The Moonshine Jesus podcast.
Mark Sandlin: Well, I like my bourbon. So, but, yes.
Audience Member: When you talk about labels, maybe… it’s interesting that… maybe, instead of trying to get away from labels, maybe we should find labels that we can share, like Jerry’s Secular Humanist. I think a lot of people are Humanist, and don’t know it, so maybe…
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, see, he asked me about that.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, I actually… Yeah…
Audience Member: Maybe even people, on the ministerial side would try to use a label like Secular Humanist…
Mark Sandlin: Actually, I… It’s interesting, because our conversation went the opposite way.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, exactly. He asked me about that, he said, Well, what about just referring to the word ‘Humanist?’ And, I…
Mark Sandlin: I think… I’m with you [gesturing to audience member, gives her thumbs up] Great answer.
Jerry DeWitt: [laughing] And so, I said, from a national perspective, that because you have Humanist organizations, that sometimes people feel as if, if they say, ‘Humanist’ that they’re supporting one organization, and one particular viewpoint over atheism, or another viewpoint. You know, I had Humanist on my facebook first. And so, I do think it goes back to label …
Mark Sandlin: Whether we can figure out the word right now, I do think you point to an interesting, you know… Why figure out the words that define how different we are? Why not figure out some labels that define how similar we are?
Audience Member: Speaking of which, I bought your, your t-shirt when it first came out, and I’m wearing it proudly, people will understand that I’m a secular humanist first.
Mark Nebo: He’s talking about the Be Secular shirts that are for sale out front? [laughter]
Audience Member: Not to plug anything…
Audience Member: But then I met some believers that point at what atheism… and I’m against them…
Jerry DeWitt: Yes… right…
Audience Member: … but they don’t understand what the word, the Secular label is all about.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, that’s right, Secular is a misused word …
Audience Member: … labels are good and bad in certain circumstances, and you talk about the semantics, but the definitions mean something.
Jerry DeWitt: And you have to accept that there’s some people that you’re not gonna get, because, even Humanism, Humanism is an ugly word. In so many mainstream forms of Christianity, Humanism means you are declaring that you put humans before God. And if you go back…
Audience Member 2: It’s really Satanism, isn’t it?
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, it might as well be Satanism, because you’re gonna worship somebody, and if you’re not worshiping… yeah.
Mark Sandlin: [Pointing at Brian Fields]: Go ahead.
Brian Fields: I do want to point out that…I have actually done some research on this, because I did a talk on it a few months ago up in northern Pennsylvania. But, yes, Humanism has a very strong secular and religious tradition…
Mark Sandlin: Absolutely.
Brian Fields: … and it’s a perfectly reasonable word to use. It’s a great word. Much as I love Jerry, I have to disagree with you!
Jerry DeWitt: No, no, no, I wasn’t disagreeing with the word [garbled] …
Mark Sandlin: …I think it’s a great … [rubbing hands together] My evil plan is working. [laughter] I think, though, what you’re talking about [pointing at Jerry] is the political use of the word…
Jerry DeWitt: Sure.
Mark Sandlin: But I think what we need is more education on the word, because I say… he wasn’t doing this, but at least the text, whether you believe that it’s all real or not, the text about what Jesus said… a great deal of it is Humanist teachings. I mean, it doesn’t make everybody comfortable, but it is. Whether you think it’s real or not real, whatever. But a lot of that points towards some Humanist stuff. Could have been because back then, we weren’t really in that kind of movement. But I think that there needs to be a lot of education, so that folks who are on the spiritual side recognize that a lot of times, a lot of these things line up exactly with what we’re saying this morning.
Mark Nebo: To that point, and to your point, the word Humanist, it’s taken a lot of different ways, by a lot of different people. But I feel like the word ‘secular’ though, especially from a lifestyle and from a society standpoint, shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe, because you [pointing at Mark Sandlin] obviously support a secular culture, you know. Within it, everybody has their own rights to be themselves… have their own faith. I mean, when you talk to your congregation, if there was a person in your congregation that said, I don’t feel like I can support secularism, I mean, what would you say to them?
Mark Sandlin: We’d start talking first of all about their understanding of the word ‘secular.’
Mark Nebo: Right.
Mark Sandlin: And it’s connection to modern day… and then even some of the colloquial understanding that it’s outside of the Christian movement, in terms of that it is exactly what you describe. It’s talking… we’re talking about having a space where we all get to do what we want to do in it, without interfering with each other’s personal rights. I’m thinking through a couple of specific people, frankly… it’s causing some…
Mark Nebo: I though you may have some.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, … I think it would have to be a slow conversation, because of, like what we were talking earlier. We would have to sit down, and kind of… I would first want to understand more deeply what their issue is, which piece of it, what definition are they coming at secularism with. For instance, I think… we were… we were talking, at some point, at something I’d posted online, and somebody responded, Oh, this says ‘secular.’ That feels like…like it’s divisive? Is that what they said?
Mark Nebo: Yeah. To fill everyone in here, Mark was sharing on Christian Left, I think, about this event. And someone, even within that community, had said that they felt just the word ‘secular’ in the title made it seem slanted to atheism.
Mark Sandlin: Now, that’s given that it’s one out of 155,000 people…
Mark Nebo: Sure, and…
Mark Sandlin: So it’s not like it was a whole group, but there was one who was pretty…
Mark Nebo: … you have plenty of support, too… so, I mean, that’s just an example. Just the word ‘secular’ sometimes feels like the deck is slanted to Jerry, instead of Mark.
Audience Member: Again to come back to the idea that the have and have-nots, or the privileged and the underprivileged type of situation, where it, Christianity is, even with all the denominations, the standard. And now secularism means, we’re going to all have our rights observed. To the people on this one side, here, secularism means, I’m losing something. Whereas to the people who are on the other side, it feels like we’re gaining our rights, and we’re being respected.
Jerry DeWitt: Sure, and just the words are misused…I mean, in mainstream Christianity, both ‘secular’ and ‘humanism’…
Mark Sandlin: And ‘secular’ is generally pejorative, or frequently.
Jerry DeWitt: [Pointing at audience] Yeah.
Audience Member: I have no problem with labels. Labels help us understand people. Every place I’ve ever worked, everybody knew two things about me. They knew that I was an atheist, and they knew I was a Packers fan. [laughter]
Mark Nebo: Now I see you’re a Packers fan, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave. [laughter]
Audience Member: [garbled] Bears fan…
Mark Nebo: I’m a Lions fan.
Mark Nebo: And that concludes our show today [loud laughter]
Mark Sandlin: I’m a Panthers fan, and I’m the only one still in the game right now, so…
Mark Nebo: One thing. When I came up with the idea for this conversation series with my wife and our business partner, AJ, the first two people I thought of were Mark and Jerry. I had known Jerry for a while, and I had just met Mark. But one thing that really drew me to you originally [talking to Mark] was …
Mark Sandlin: That I’m a Panthers fan.
Mark Nebo: No.
Mark Sandlin: [bangs fist on table in disappointment] Come on, now.
Mark Nebo: … was a thing that you started called “Until ALL Can Wed,” which is on his website, thegodarticle.com. Tell us a little bit about that; I’d like to hear a little bit about some negative feedback and some positive feedback. I think it’s an excellent…
Mark Sandlin: Yeah, sure. So I’m a PC USA minister. And just a few years ago, PC USA … I’m going to use PCUSA language, made way for the possibility of the ordination of LGBT folks. What that really meant was local groups could decide that if they wanted to ordain someone who was LG… identified LGBT, that that would be okay, that you could do that. And, you know, there was great celebration, and there was great cursing. And I was part of the celebration for about 30 minutes. I was really excited, then I was like, Are you kidding me? This is the best we can do? This is what we’ve got? This isn’t even the beginning of what should be happening.
So, I sat around for a little bit and thought about what I was going to do. And it is honestly not particularly unique, because folks have done it before me for various reasons. But I decided that until I could do the wedding for anyone that wants to get married, that I would no longer sign state docents, for anybody, no matter what it was. Now, wooh! What a big story! The truth is, there’s lots of friends, and I know folks who have done this for a while, partly because someone who’s ordained shouldn’t be getting some right from the state to sign papers, all kinds of reasons. But for me, I wanted to make a statement, and try to get other folks who are ministers to join in on doing this. Because I thought the best thing in the world would be a whole bunch of us ministers won’t do weddings until everybody can get married, and so there’s this line down at the court, the court office [laughter] of folks. Well, why are you here? Because the minister won’t do it. I just think that would be brilliant.
And so, I wrote an article about it, and it really connected, and almost immediately, I had a few hundred folks, ministers who had signed up and said, Yeah, I’ll take that same pledge. And then it became sort of its own little movement, of its own, and so we got a little part where… part on the blog page now, where folks can write about this from a religious point of view. And then we have a backlog of articles of folks, kind of stating their position and why they believe this is important, and so… that’s kind of the Until All Can Wed movement in a nutshell.
Mark Nebo: Jerry, did you know about that?
Jerry DeWitt: I didn’t, no, and now I just realized why so many people want me to marry ‘em. [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: I don’t want you to marry me. [laughter] I don’t want that to get confused.
Jerry DeWitt: It’s important… you know, it’s important that you have someone coming from the Christian culture, and that’s a terminology that we didn’t talk about using last week when we were discussing this event, but I think it’s important for someone from the Christian culture to show up on behalf of same sex marriages, relationships, and give us a larger demographic to work with. That’s what this comes back down, to me. We can spend the rest of our lives trying to deconvert, you know, every individual we run into, and hope that eventually that would create change. Or we can take advantage of the relationships that are waiting, right now, you know, on the voters that are waiting right now; pull ourselves together on important issues like this where we can agree to agree on these issues, and create very impressive voting blocks that politicians will have to pay attention to. And then we get the ultimate outcome. I think it’s very few people from the secular movement that, and I know they do exist, but I think there’s few, that their life’s goal is to empty church parking lots. You know, be able to do donuts in the parking lot on Sundays.
Mark Sandlin: We’re doing that ourselves. [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: I think in the long run, our ultimate goal is to have a more secular nation, and what that will mean is, is for people to be able to live according to their own conscience, and how it’s dictated. And the way to get there is through policy. And I think the way to change that policy is to create these movements, and so, I commend you.
Audience Member: What about polygamy?
Jerry DeWitt: What about polygamy?
Audience Member: Yeah, with everybody getting married, does that include…
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, I’ve never had a problem with that, because I could only convince one. [laughter] So I haven’t had to think it through.
Audience Member: What’s happening in Utah, then?
Jerry DeWitt: I don’t know enough about it, I really don’t know what the upside and downside is. They’re all consenting adults, so I don’t…I don’t know.
Mark Sandlin: It starts to getting really complicated, doesn’t it? I mean, it really does…who is consenting, and who is not. Who has been culturally indoctrinated into this? But at the same time, if we can guarantee that everyone is consenting adults… [shrugs]
Jerry DeWitt: I was culturally indoctrinated into getting married.
Mark Sandlin: Were you?
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah. [Mark pats him on the shoulder.]
Audience Member: So, do you have any idea how many Mormons you have on your list?
Mark Sandlin: I do not. And I’ll go as far as to say, I mean… I don’t… I haven’t looked at that list in a while. I would be surprised if I have anything other than Protestant ministers, honestly. I don’t know, but that’s my general sense from having looked at the list in the past.
Mark Nebo: So, I… for those of you that don’t know, one of Jerry’s awesome projects, he’s got Community Mission Chapel going. It’s similar to… in some ways similar, in some ways different to another project that’s out there called Sunday Assembly that some of you may be familiar with. Jerry, tell us a little bit about Community Mission Chapel, how it got started, what’s going on now.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, so, the quick story of it is, for those of you that don’t know, , as I began to tour through the secular movement over the last two years, for some crazy reason, people got a little something out of me preaching still, you know? And quickly we realized that there was a nostalgic need, that it was actually even part of the healing process for people who had made their way out of their religions. When I would get up and express secular values, humanistic values, but yet in a very southern, preachery kind of way, it was just odd enough that it was entertaining, but at the same time it was also authentic and, like I said, nostalgic, and it met a particular need.
Well, that idea then expanded to some of the people who live in Lake Charles, Louisiana, they asked, Well, why don’t we just create our own church, for a lack of better words. We don’t usually refer to it as church, and we never refer to it as atheist church if we can help it. That’s kind of a media thing, they like to do that, because we know that atheists don’t have churches. But what it was, it was a place for these secular folks to gather in a way that was very culturally connected. You know, to where they didn’t… and that was the reason that the question that involved culture at the very beginning meant so much to me. It’s one thing to feel like you’re… when you make this transition out of religion, to feel like you’ve jeopardized your relationships, that’s bad enough, to jeopardize your job, your financial security, your place in your community, but that place in your community also means that you lose your culture. You lose a very significant part of your history, of your past. And not everybody hates everything with their past. Like, I love Christian music, I love the fellowship from being in a service with other people.
Mark Sandlin: I don’t even love Christian music.
Jerry DeWitt: I know! [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: What is wrong with you?
Jerry DeWitt: And so… so I, … so when people asked for it, they said, You know, can we create something that is very much like what we used to do, minus, you know, the authoritative platform, minus superstition, minus all these other parts that we left religion over, but yet still involved the music, and the fellowship, and the congregating, and those things. And I said, Absolutely, yeah, we can do that. So that’s what we’ve created. I see it a little bit different from Sunday Assembly and others, because they’re much better at putting on the show. You know, the service can be a really, really fantastic show, and we’re not that good at putting on our show. But what we are trying to do, is we’re trying to do what I think church does the best when it does it right, is it creates a care network within a community. And so… yes, ma’am [addressing an audience member].
Audience Member: Do you not think that that might contribute to the believers’ side saying that atheism is a religion?
Jerry DeWitt: Oh, absolutely it does, yeah. I think it does. I get hammered with that probably more than anything else. And once again, I think that the reason that believers are able to say that is because of semantics, because of the way we use the word in modernity, and I always have to very bluntly say, It’s not my problem. You know, it’s all the debaters problems. They can fix that, you know, on the debate floor. My problem is making sure that the secular folks within our community are having their needs met. And that’s… that’s what we do. And so that’s all I can do with it.
Audience Member: Well, one thing that I really wanted to ask Mark in terms of common ground is that obviously there’s a division within the Christian community. You guys have your own …
Mark Sandlin: No, we’re all together.
Audience Member: Yeah. [laughter] Well, in that case… . No, but I mean [laughs] …
Mark Sandlin: Pretty sure that’s what I was supposed to say. Go ahead.
Audience Member: Well, one thing that frustrates me is people who are so against… I think what you and Jerry are doing is fantastic, and it’s wonderful, and it helps people who [garbled, inaudible], but even within our own community, there’s so much division and anger towards what you do, and what we’re trying to do. And I’m sure Mark and other leaders know, like, the herding atheists is like herding cats. You just can’t get people to agree or get along, even when it’s for a [garbled] cause, so I was just wondering, like, how do you deal with that, in your own community. I’m sure that…
Mark Sandlin: With the division?
Audience Member: Yeah.
Mark Sandlin: … [takes deep breath]
Audience Member: Pray? [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: We do a lot of prayin’, and it fixes everything. [laughter] … relationship. You know? I hate to come back to that, but that’s the genuine answer when I think about the church where I minister. There are some folks at my church who probably disagree with about 50% of the things I say at this point. But they’re still at the church. Now, part of that is that, This is my church; part of that is that we’ve got a relationship. You know? I think… I think that gets you a connection that can overcome a lot of difficulties. It does take at least one of the people in that relationship to be understanding to the level that, I’m going to let this tension, and this negativity, and this, even, power issue that might be going on in terms of who’s right and wrong, not become important for a little while. You know, I’m gonna try for a … this relationship building to happen. And we can get to that other stuff, but what’s more important is that you’re here, and I’m here, and we’re talking, and that we’re going to have some connecting. It seems like an oversimplified answer, but over and over again, I… I don’t want to take too much time with this question.
Mark Nebo: We have time.
Mark Sandlin: I came from a place where I watched a minister who managed everything. Okay? And so he would manage the relationship, and he would manage that belief, and he would make sure he knew what all the friends thought, and he would manage it, and make it right from that. And I tried that. I did. I honestly was pretty good at it. I hated myself for being good at it. It was so false, and not real.
Jerry DeWitt: It was manipulation.
Mark Sandlin: It was manipulation. It might have been for the right reasons, or to help the larger body, or whatever… I couldn’t stand it. And what I found over time, through experimenting, it all comes down to the relationship. And I messed those up a lot. So there’s folks who we have differences, and I haven’t been able to sort it out.. Short answer: relationship.
Jerry DeWitt: And don’t let yourself be too discouraged by, you know, people… about the divisions, because that’s just human nature. You know, there’s always gonna be division. One thing that we try to do, we try to emphasize, at the Community Mission Chapel, is you don’t have to be there. You know, if it’s not your thing, then that’s understandable. And it doesn’t make you wrong, and it doesn’t make you bad, and you’re not gonna go to hell if you don’t show up because it’s not your thing.
And we acknowledge that there’s a lot of people that it’s not their thing. You know, we have people that, uh, like one of… one of the people that helps me really run the group, her husband is just totally not into it. You know, he doesn’t want to hear any music, he doesn’t want to be involved in any singing. You know, he doesn’t want that emotional side of it at all, that’s just his personality. And so, she doesn’t… what I find so refreshing is, she doesn’t have to drive home after one of the meetings feeling as if she has to figure out how to get him to this in order to complete the family unit, and to save him, and to… you know… And so, it’s just so wide open that it almost… it’s so free, it almost doesn’t exist. And that’s okay. And it’s okay for some people to be for it, and some people to not be for it. That’s just gonna be the way of life. [pointing at audience member] Yes.
Audience Member [Linda LaScola?]: You have lots of people where the spouse will go to the Presbyterian Church, the other one will go the Episcopal Church, and not think anything at all. And they’ll talk about it church, and it doesn’t matter.
Mark Sandlin: That’s exactly right. My church is dying because of it. But it’s true. I mean, everything you said [looking at Jerry], is exactly how it is at my church.
Jerry DeWitt: Versus, where I came from. Originally. You know, it’s a… it was a very, very… … when you looked out into the audience, and you saw… I mean, I’ll just cut to the chase, you see my grandmother, my grandfather had stopped going to church, really before I was even born. And so I had nothing to do with it. [laughter] But to see my grandmother setting out in the audience by herself was heartbreaking. Because, in that scheme of things, there was… something was very un… you know, something was unfulfilled. The family wasn’t complete, there was this unity, there was a loss, there was this challenge of how do you pray this guy into this church, so that he can get saved, so that they stay together for all of eternity. There was this… there was this loss, and so… This is a totally different world, but it’s another place that we have common ground, of treating each other respectfully. You know, obviously, people who would attend our, you know, our events on Sundays, whatever they might be called, wouldn’t go home and guilt their spouse, or shouldn’t go home and guilt their spouse into coming. The same thing from their perspective. And that’s once again because of their Humanistic values, you know, respecting each other’s individual values.
Audience Member [Linda LaScola?]: What do you all disagree about? [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: Well, PT Cruisers are …
Mark Sandlin: [simultaneous] He uses too much hairspray …
Jerry DeWitt: [laughing] I use too much hairspray … [laughter continues]
Audience Member [Linda LaScola]: What’s interesting to me is that you both have different beliefs, and different points of view, but what difference does it make? It seems to me that the only thing that people disagree about are political issues.
Jerry DeWitt: Well, that’s really the reason for this discussion, is the political issues.
Audience Member [Linda LaScola?]: … like LGBT, or abortion, or …. Or the environment, or whether you’re going to go to hell. But in the end, to say, I don’t believe, or I believe, or to say, My favorite color is blue, or my favorite color is red… you know, fine. I mean, I …
Mark Sandlin: Look, I think the bigger problem is …
Audience Member [Linda LaScola?]: … it’s not a matter of you’re right or you’re wrong. It’s just a matter of, That’s what you believe, and that’s what I believe.
Mark Sandlin: I think the bigger problem is when I try to convince you, your favorite color should be blue.
Mark Nebo: Right. [clapping]
Jerry DeWitt: You feel that way because you’re in the middle. You know, and probably almost all of us here are in the middle, so we can agree with that. But the middle is just one place for people to be. There’s a lot of other places, and that’s where it becomes very spurious. I mean, I come from… I come from a … a part of Pentecostalism that split off back in the …
Mark Sandlin: I love the way you say that word.
Jerry DeWitt: I know, everybody loves it. … That split off from itself in the … between the 20s and the 50s over the semantics of the Godhead. You know, because the Trinitarians believed that God was one God in three Persons. But that was ridiculous; we believed it was one God in three Manifestations. [chuckling in audience] You know, and it’s literally two separate movements now. So… so people don’t always act as reasonable as you’re proposing. So there are things that we, obviously wouldn’t agree on, but we think the things we do agree on are important enough for us to work together.
Audience Member [Linda LaScola?]: But they’re beliefs.
Jerry DeWitt: Sure. Sure.
Mark Nebo: But then… that’s the point of this. And those beliefs that they have, and Mark and… I mean … Make no mistake about it. The first time I interviewed Mark, I was expecting to get some kind of, uh, sales pitch of some sort. And I didn’t get it.
Mark Sandlin: It’s a slow sell. [laughter]
Mark Nebo: In all practical terms, the beliefs at that level are very personal, and that’s not what we’re trying to do, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, how we feel about the basis of life and what happens after you die is all inside us. We still have to deal with each other all the time, we still have to be together… we have to live in the same places, we have to work at the same places, and things like that. Brian?
Brian Fields: I would say, though, that at some point, you can’t really ignore, though, that as much as these two people in front of us have a camaraderie, and agree with probably 99% of the things that I think, and agree, and function in society, that there is a large portion of society where beliefs do matter.
Jerry DeWitt: Sure.
Mark Nebo: Right.
Brian Fields: … Where it’s not just, you know, I mean… Mark’s beliefs obviously lead him to the same place. No matter how he got there, he gets to the same place where many atheists go. But there are people out there whose beliefs are fundamentally opposed to the kind of ideas that we would report. And, you know, obviously we wouldn’t work with them in that case. But we can’t ignore that those beliefs have a strong impact on how they behave.
Mark Nebo: Right. Again… just… I… This isn’t my speech, you guys are the speakers, but … from my ideal standpoint, when we came up with this, is we need to increase our numbers and our comfort level with each other so we can combat that.
Brian Fields: Right.
Mark Nebo: Honestly, that’s why we’re trying to do what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to combat the conservatism that wants to keep people from getting married, wants to keep women exercising their own reproductive rights, and things like that. So that’s the goal, to fight that.
Audience Member: I mean, I understand the goal, and I think it’s a noble goal, and one that I support. But I think it’s … we have… and I’m an atheist… we have our own fractiousness within our own community that I’ve been asking people about for years. Because, even though we are, as you note, a fairly small section of society, if we were able to actually speak with one voice, even just the atheists could actually maybe be heard. But we can’t get ourselves organized enough to… and agree on one or two things, and we’re gonna set everything else aside, and we’re all going to move this one direction. And…
Mark Sandlin: We call that denominationalism. [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: [to Mark Sandlin] I gave you that word.
Mark Sandlin: Go ahead, then. [laughter] We’ve had some of this discussion before.
Mark Nebo: From the very beginning of this conversation series idea, Shanon, and AJ, and I have fought that exact thing. Just like Chris Stedman, the Assistant Chaplain for Harvard Humanists, and David Silverman. Those guys are very diametrically opposed to each other, and they’re very different. They’re very denominationally different, if we’re gonna use that word, and they have different missions but they both believe that a united voice is strong.
Mark Nebo: I wanted to bring this up, Mark, you and I have talked about this before. It’s not on the sheet, so it’s a curveball. Something that some firebrand atheists, for lack of a better word, will say, and I’ve had my friends say it, is, the progressive Christian that is doing all the things that we hope that people will do in a Humanistic way, still makes a cover for some of the opposition to the more conservative Christian.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah.
Mark Nebo: … And we’ve talked about that. Can you talk about that for a second?
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. What I told him is that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, so … [laughter] … it’s not just… [laughter continues]
Mark Nebo: We’re onto you!
Mark Sandlin: That’s right. You know, they… I sympathize with the argent, because in a very small way, I think it could be unintentionally true. However, if you’ll read anything that I’m saying, or hear what I’m saying, I’m doing the exact opposite. I’m actually calling out the issues, and saying, This is not okay. This is not what I understand we’re supposed to be. And so it’s actually the opposite. It’s calling them out, it’s turning around, and pointing towards them, and saying, Nope, that’s wrong. It’s not… we can’t exist this way, it’s not okay.
Mark Nebo: Yeah. We don’t have you here for no reason. I know that that’s how you feel. That’s why we brought you here. But that is a question that I get a lot. Jerry.
Jerry DeWitt: Sure. And do I create the other side of that coin? I mean, if the progressive Christians are giving cover, then what am I doing by looking like I’m a religious Atheist? I mean, that…
Mark Nebo: Right. That question’s valid, too.
Jerry DeWitt: … yeah. So, to me, that’s just part of… that’s just part of the dynamics of society, that’s just cultural differences, that’s just the reality of human beings on this planet that we have to work our way through.
Mark Nebo: And it comes down to, again, even if you think that people like Mark Sandlin are providing a cover for the Christian fundamentalists that are doing all the evil things that they’re doing, you still could agree with a lot of things he says, so you could worth them on those things. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. And that’s the point of this, I think.
Jerry DeWitt: I agree.
Mark Nebo: Yes.
Audience Member: I would just like to say that really quickly … I maybe might not called myself as an atheist, until I got married, and I heard my husband describing me to his mother, and all of the sudden the word atheist was in my mind forever. And so basically, what I’m asking is, it’s the ideal world, but can’t we just all go out there and agree to stop saying, I’m an atheist, and I’m a Christian? And saying, Hey, I really believe in making sure every child who wakes up in the morning has breakfast?
Mark Nebo: Yeah, it’s the label thing again. That’s a… that’s a mess. It’s a quagmire that…
Mark Sandlin: I do think it’s a matter of emphasis, and I think ultimately what you’re saying, Let’s make these kids that don’t have anything to eat the most important thing. But I think, going back to exactly what was your point, is that, you know, we all function in different ways, and for some of us, labels are great things. And …
Audience Member: Well, I don’t know that…
Mark Sandlin: … And they can be very damaging. But it is, how much emphasis are we going to put on it?
Jerry DeWitt: Well …
Audience Member [Linda LaScola]: It is a matter of identity.
Jerry DeWitt: And what’s important is just to quantify ‘we.’ If you just throw that out and you say, Why can’t we all get along, and you picture the entire planet, then you’re going to get very frustrated and discouraged because of all the division that exists. And how sometimes labels, then, can hurt us. But if you bring that in, and you say, Why can’t we, the people in this room, be a start and find more people like us, and make that ‘we’ a little bit larger, then over time, we may… our influence may be, not just that we’re able to pull together on particular issues that 5% that are atheists, we may be able to bring in the other 20% that say they’re nonreligious, even if they’re spiritualist, or very liberal, or using some other title. Now, suddenly, you have a voting block that I promise you will absolutely change the landscape of politics. I mean, suddenly, those politicians, they’re next press conference, they’ll get up and they’ll pretend they’ve been saying this for the last 20 years.
Mark Nebo: And the fact is, some people want to use labels, they appreciate it, and they need it, and it’s very important to them…and some don’t. Wow, four questions from that. Brian. Go ahead, Brian.
Brian Fields: I find, you know, I… one of the things I’ve been working on is, the Secular Coalition of Pennsylvania, building a coalition of people with common goals, in this case, promoting Secularism in state government. But, you know, I find that you’re more effective when you pick a small set of goals, a goal, or a small set of goals. And then you say, Okay, who can sign on the dotted line for this?
Mark Sandlin: Mmhm.
Jerry DeWitt: Right.
Brian Fields: And then you pull everybody together, and you say, Okay, we’re on this dotted line, this is our goal, this is what we’re working towards. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, or an Atheist, or a Muslim, or whatever, this is the dotted line we’re working for. Let’s move forward together. And I think that’s the best way to build movements, and the best way to make change.
Jerry DeWitt: Absolutely.
Mark Nebo: That’s the goal.
Audience Member: You just have to ask them why are you on this dotted line.
Mark Nebo: Right, exactly.
Audience Member: It doesn’t matter that…
Mark Nebo: It doesn’t matter why, you’re there now, so let’s do it. [Points at another audience member.]
Audience Member 2: I just want to put in a good word for liberal Christians, not that we haven’t been doing it all along… I think you’re in a very tight spot, and I don’t know the way out of it any more than, perhaps, liberal Christians do. But as far as I can see, you’re doing all the right things, and, yeah, what society needs. And every time you do something like that, you get bashed for it, and you probably lose members …
Mark Sandlin: Oh, we lose members… literally, my church will… I don’t know how much longer we’ll make it. And I’m not unique. I don’t mean that in the way of, Oh, poor Mark. It’s not unique, it’s a story played out over and over again.
Audience Member 2: When you say your church, do you mean your particular?
Mark Sandlin: My particular church where I’m serving right now. I’m having a budget meeting in three weeks to see if we can figure out how to keep the doors open this year.
Jerry DeWitt: If you’re interested in moving to Louisiana, I need an Assistant Pastor. [laughter]
Mark Nebo: There are some other questions? Yeah.
Audience Member: I feel like one of the things where we could probably try to bridge the gaps between different cultures is actually, like maybe volunteerism. And really touching on those issues, you know, every child should have something to eat, actually reaching out into the communities, and really building the community. I stopped going to church a long time ago …
Mark Sandlin: Yeah.
Audience Member: … And that’s just because there was that separation …
Mark Sandlin: Sure.
Audience Member: … And so, when you’re volunteering or when you’re actually interacting with people at the grocery store, for example, we don’t ask, What religion are you. We just treat people like people.
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. My church now feeds more people in a month than it has in worship in a month. For that reason. We are much more concerned about the community, being out there to help. [Applause] Uh, you [gesturing to another Audience Member].
Audience Member (John Shook): I have a problem with something called Legislative Ministry. I think those are two things that shouldn’t mix, if we’re separating Church & State. But it seems like if there’s laws like slavery on the books, it was the Unitarians and eventually the Universalists who created a place where it was wrong, the law on the books are so wrong that the Church has to get involved, or people of faith, or people who have… are under this building have to do something about it. So, I would like to see… I signed up for the census, and I had to say, “so help me God.” I swore. You know, and I think of the … the Canadian, who had said, you know, If I go into court, is the upside down Bible still valid? If I hold up my left hand, my right hand? So, you know, I had … I debated, like, five seconds how, Will I be able to be a member of the census in this government position if I don’t say, “so help me God?” Is this the time where I will stand up and say, I refuse to say this, “so help me God,” then I said, “so help me…” and I crossed my fingers behind my back. [laughter] And then I did the same thing for the United States Postal Service. You swear that you will uphold the blah blah blah, so help me… God, and I … again, it was like, Will I get the job if I refuse at this moment to say, “So help me God.” Will … and I …
Mark Sandlin: Maybe …
Audience Member: … I crossed my fingers behind my back, and said… And so, to me, that’s where I see this, We’re a Christian nation, and so we have a chaplain in the Congress, and he gets a salary, and… Those are the kind of things I’d like to see that we focus on.
Mark Nebo: Well…
Audience Member: … And I know… and that’s miniscule in the aspect of …
Mark Sandlin: So, you don’t have to cross your fingers, though. You can just use God in a different way. “So help me… God [like a complaint, shaking head]” [laughter] You said the word! [laughter continues]
Mark Nebo: Fighting things like that are important. And we have groups out there that are fighting things like that.
Audience Member: That’s what I think Secularism… when I’m defining Secularist, those are the kind of things that I think of.
Mark Nebo: Yep. And we do have a lot of groups fighting things like that. That’s not really what we’re doing, but that’s important.
Audience Member 2: It seems like it’s the little things in a cumulative manner. You know, one ant biting you may not kill you, but 50,000 ants biting you will kill you.
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Audience Member 2: … That little action, when you build it up and everybody starts doing those little actions, it becomes a cumulative effect. And, you know, these vows you have to take for jobs or what have you, when the Constitution specifically says, No religious test is required to hold office. And in many states, it’s in the State Constitution, Maryland is one of them, you can’t hold office … they may not enforce it, but … if you’re not … if you’re an atheist. So, it just seems, you know, we’ve got to do those little actions every day to become a cumulative effort, you know, community wide.
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Audience Member 2: You know, make people aware of these things.
Audience Member 3: You know, when I was asked to… pulled a jury duty, and was asked to swear, I told them up front that I’m an atheist, I don’t swear to God, and they gave me a different oath.
Mark Nebo: Yeah.
Audience Member 3: They won’t make you do it.
Mark Nebo: And you know, standing up and saying something, that’s important, because when I went into the service in the nineties, we had to say… there wasn’t an option. And now, there is an option. And I mean, that’s from people, you know, making objection to it. So keep saying things, of course.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah.
Jerry DeWitt: I completely agree.
Mark Nebo: I did have one more question before we go into the all-encompassing come up with new topics questions, because I know that some of you have them. What kind of things to you guys envision, or hope that people will take from this? As a plan of action, like, what can they do now, really, when they leave here to try to move this stuff forward.
Jerry DeWitt: Go ahead.
Mark Sandlin: … when we were asked to do this, we didn’t actually know…
Jerry DeWitt: We didn’t have a clue.
Mark Sandlin: … what … other than that we felt like the conversation was important. Just a couple days ago, though, we’re talking, on Skype or whatever, and we do have an idea.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah.
Mark Sandlin: We probably think it’s a great idea. And y’all are gonna be like … [mimes edge-of-the-seat, then Meh face] … [laughter]
Mark Nebo: I don’t even know what the idea is, and now I’m like, Ohhhh! [laughter continues]
Mark Sandlin: You wanna… ?
Jerry DeWitt: No, you… I’m in friendlier territory, so you go ahead.
Mark Sandlin: So have me tell the story? [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: You…
Mark Sandlin: I thought we were supposed to be logical! [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: I’m treating you like a guest.
Mark Sandlin: Oh, that’s so kind.
Mark Nebo: Fellas, you’re killing me. What’s the idea? [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: We’re building, we’re building, come on, man. So, the idea is simply, we do believe that there are … the more we talked, the more we realized that there are these points of common ground. A few people have pointed out, Why can’t we have this one thing that we agree on, that we will sign here regardless of anything else. We came up with this idea that we’re sort of thinking of as a Congress of Common Ground. Because it was very important for us that everyone keep their identity, and not have to shut it off. Because early on in the conversation, it was the whole, You know, maybe if we just talk about that we’re Humanist, then we don’t have to say, We’re Christian, and we don’t have to say, We’re Atheist. But then we were both like, Well, but I am Christian, and I am Atheist. How do you deal with that, and how do you create something out of that? And so we came up with this idea of… which word? Are we gonna go ‘house’ or we gonna go…
Jerry DeWitt: I don’t know if we have to settle.
Mark Sandlin: Yeah. Well, anyway, the whole idea is this… this movement of compassion.
Jerry DeWitt: The center …
Mark Sandlin: Then it would be a Congress.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah. Centering around the idea that you brought up [pointing at Brian Fields] of people being more satisfied with signing on the dotted line that they support this particular idea, regardless of where they come from. And what became obvious to us, and we’re both geeks in our own ways, … you know, when you look into the far future, obviously, every good science fiction writer has found a way to pull everybody on the planet together. You know, and then they find a way …
Mark Nebo: Aliens attacking is the way you pull everyone together.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, exactly … then you find a way to pull, you know, all the other people together, that you, you know, that you don’t know yet. And we’ve done that in the United States, we’ve created a Congress, we’ve created a House that is supposed to be representing all these individual states, and yet has this common goal, this common goal of welfare. Well, if we can center on what it is that we do agree to agree on, then we can let all these other organizations continue to have their mission and do their things. We just need to be able to pull together into one Congress of Compassion, one House of Compassion, something that we can pull together on, and then look at the politicians in the United States, and say, This many people all agree on this one issue.
Mark Sandlin: Not only that, this many people from this many walks of life, ‘cause what they did [garbled], We deservèd Christians believe it has to be X, and we’re a big chunk of, so pay attention to us. This kind of thing would allow you to go to them, and say, Look, we got folks from all walks of life who say that this point is important. That’s a lot more powerful. That’s a whole lot more powerful. To say, there is this point of commonality throughout all of these perspectives. That’s… that’s powerful.
Audience Member: What would be your suggestion for something that you think would actually span that, and get people to set aside this tribalism, and go for that. Because I think you’re gonna hit a wall.
Mark Sandlin: We’re encouraging tribalism.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, that’s the difference…
Mark Sandlin: That’s the thing. It is within your own.
Audience Member: Yeah, what… name one or two bullets would be on that list, that you think you could get by in one, without…
Jerry DeWitt: Within this group? I think, right off the bat, that you could look at same-sex marriage. It’s obviously an issue that there has been great success with. And that’s just one.
Mark Sandlin: And it would be Congress, so it would be something that each group, that we would do as a group. And you would pre-define what it would take to make it an issue that we all do agree to support. And …
Jerry DeWitt: If I’m nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not [laughs] …
Mark Sandlin: You know, one of the things that I would fear with something like this, is what I think I … I worry for you and your Community Mission Chapel, I think about what I see in organized religion. It’s that the moment you start institutionalizing stuff, aw, man, it gets nasty and ugly. And I think it would be very carefully done, and we’d have to pull in a lot of folks who are very, sort of, experts in this area, where the pitfalls are. But there is… there will be issues. It won’t always be easy. But there are certainly points of commonality that we could come together on.
Audience Member: And some are easy. Like, we don’t want the government to shut down again. Please pass a budget, you know…
Mark Sandlin: Right. Yeah.
Audience Member 2: Well, we had, what was it, 90% of Americans were in favor of some kind of gun control? And…
Mark Sandlin: Right.
Audience Member 2: … and Congress didn’t give a fuck. You know?
Mark Sandlin: Yeah.
Audience Member 2: I mean, when you say that, I was like, What a nice idea, but in reality the money controls it.
Mark Nebo: That’s a lot of that problem right there, you just hit it on the nail in the head, nail on the head, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Audience Member 2: … Right, on the money …
Mark Nebo: Yeah, the money. And that’s something that Be Secular is trying to do. We are trying to get money into the hands of these groups that are doing these good things. And the hardest part about that is, it takes money to make money a lot of the time, and our program doesn’t require money. If people come and say they want to support this group, they want to support PA Nonbelievers, and they buy a shirt, Brian’s group gets five bucks. And he didn’t have to invest any money… he sometimes helps me in WordPress, but I mean, he didn’t have to invest anything, and that’s one of the things that Be Secular is trying to do. Because the money is… the money drives it. The money drives the engine. The NRA is loaded… flush with cash, and that’s why they get their agenda through.
Mark Nebo: Right. And that’s another… these guys just came up with this idea, and I’m glad they sprung it on you without running it through me, because this is my thing, but … [laughter]
Mark Sandlin: We told you we had an idea.
Mark Nebo: It’s a good idea! And it’s something that we should definitely talk about
Mark Sandlin: I mean, we’re not saying that it’s the perfect idea …
Jerry DeWitt: No, no.
Mark Sandlin: We do find it an intriguing start that does overcome some of our initial problems of, asking people to not be one of their main pieces of identity is silly.
Mark Nebo: Yeah. True.
Mark Sandlin: And so we were trying to conceptualize, so how do we frame this common ground, and still provide space for you to be Christian, to be Atheist, to be Agnostic, to be whatever your personal self-identity in that area is. And that part of the founding principles would be that it’s not about conversion.
Jerry DeWitt: Right. You have to come at this, if you truly believe that the issue at hand is life-changing, and it’s worth dedicating your time and energy to, then you have to approach this with the idea that your group has to be uniquely joined together, uniquely united; that we can be united and still keep individuality; that the Christians can still be Christians; that they can still have their own missions and do their own things. The same way that Louisiana can still be Louisiana, but yet, you know, Maryland can be Maryland, and somehow we can all still work together and create one economy. And so that’s where we think the biggest difference lies, is not asking people to make those changes, only to move forward over this particular issue, whatever that issue may end up being. And that’s where a difference would be created.
Mark Nebo: Well, I’ll tell… I can tell you this. I mean, Be Secular is obviously in support of an idea like that. So, one call to action for everyone here, is to follow Jerry’s page, and Mark’s page and Be Secular. And when we do hash this out, however we may want to attack this, you know, provide feedback, let us know. Email us, call us, put it on your facebook, call into the podcast. Give us some of your ideas.
Jerry DeWitt: Well, and…
Mark Nebo: Maybe we don’t know how it’s gonna work, but…
Jerry DeWitt: … and I think what’s important, and this is gonna sound a little preachery, [Mark Sandlin begins to mouth ‘preachery’ and uncaps his pen to take a note] but I think what’s important is for each of us to realize … are you making a note to be ….
Mark Sandlin: [shakes head] ‘Preachery.’
Jerry DeWitt: Preachery… [laughs] I could give you some other words, if you need. [laughter] [Mark slides note over towards Jerry, Jerry takes out pen, looks like he’s going to scribble, Mark take note back.] So, but what’s important is to realize that this is a job that can only be performed by people of a particular personality, people whose hearts are big enough. We have to be the people who go and look for the common ground. I mean, that’s what this is about, is looking for the common ground. That doesn’t in any way mean that you have to be one type of person, or that you can’t be … you know, that you can’t go be active in the other things that you’re already active about. It doesn’t mean any of that. But it does mean that if you’re really desiring to make headway on this particular issue, you have to look for friends, and not enemies. And that’s not easy. That requires a huge amount of discipline, and sacrifice on the part of the person who puts their heart out there. And that’s okay. I mean, that’s the people who make the world better, the people who ultimately write history.
Audience Member: Recreational marijuana! [laughter]
Mark Nebo: The fact that you guys came to this shows that you are the type of people that are looking for friends. You’re not looking to be divisive, you’re not looking to, uh, splinter further. You’re looking to unify and try to work on things that we can work on, and that’s great. So, thank you for braving the elements and coming out tonight. Does anybody have any questions that didn’t kind of fall into this vein that they wanted to bring up? We do have a little bit of more time, so… Yes.
Audience Member: There’s an upcoming debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, and Martin Wagner and Matt Dillahunty kind of posted their thoughts on it. I was wondering what your, if you’re aware of it, then what your take on the whole debate between those two, the format it’s in, what’s your feeling on …
Jerry DeWitt: Just me? Or …
[Mark shakes his head, points at Jerry]
Audience Member: Both of you.
Jerry DeWitt: Are you aware of it?
Mark Sandlin: I’m not aware of the debate, so it’d be great if you started, and then I can form an opinion. [laughter]
Jerry DeWitt: [to Audience Member, and gesturing to Mark Sandlin] You want to talk about it a little bit more?
Audience Member: Mark, uh, Ken Ham runs the Creation Muse in Kentucky…
Mark Sandlin: Aaah. Hence the reason I hadn’t heard of it …
Audience Member: … and he’s very Young Earth Creationist, and he’s going to be debating with Bill Nye the Science Guy …
Audience Member 2: His funeral … [laughter]
Audience Member: What’s your take on it, and obviously you weren’t aware of it, but what …
Mark Sandlin: Take on it in what…
Audience Member: Like, your opinion on the form?
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, there’s some questions on whether or not it’s even valuable, whether it’s a mistake to entertain, you know, Reverend Ham, you know, what’s the … [laughter] …
Mark Sandlin: My … oooh … I’m thinking this all through …
Audience Member 2: If you don’t know Ken Ham, you can’t answer the question …
Mark Sandlin: I don’t know Ken Ham, although I know Creationists that are ideologues. …
Audience Member 4: He’s like Kent Hovind, and, you know …
Mark Sandlin: Sounds like a publicity freak.
Mark Nebo: Well, and the Creationism Museum, that’s exactly what they need, because they’re failing miserably financially …
Audience Member: It’s in financial trouble …
Mark Nebo: And so, I think that’s the point. Money.
Mark Nebo: I’m surprised that Bill Nye is even doing it. Hopefully he’s …
Audience Member 6: I think it’s cool.
Mark Nebo: … he’s looking at it from a perspective of, he can finally put this to bed, hopefully, with the Creationism Museum, but I think it’s… no publicity is bad publicity, I think. I don’t think it’s productive.
Mark Sandlin: I suspect that both sides see it as publicity…
Audience Member: I guess, the one thing I’d say, I think generally on why would you give this guy… anybody give this guy publicity. But I know some people who were fundamentalist who have now come over to our team, who say that they first began to have doubts when they overheard debates.
Mark Nebo: Sure.
Audience Member: … They themselves weren’t debating, but they heard people talking about it, and it raised questions in their head…
Brian Fields: Right. I understand that.
Audience Member: … So to the extent that, yeah… Is anybody gonna change Ken Ham’s mind? I doubt it.
Brian Fields: There was a debate, I think it was, uh, Hitchens and Stephen Fry on one side, and on the other side was a, uh, an African Catholic priest and another Catholic priest [it wasn’t another Catholic priest, it was Anne Widdecombe, a former British Conservative Party politician] and they were talking about … I think the question was abortion or something like that [the proposition was The Catholic Church Is a Force For Good in the World]. And as I recall… this… they took the statistics going into the debate [it was an Intelligence Squared debate, and they always do a poll of the audience on their positions before & after], and it was heavily weighted towards the religious point of view. And out of the debate, there was a full, like, 33% shift the other way, and it was enough to sway to the other side. So I think debates do have value.
Mark Sandlin: The correct debate …
Mark Nebo: Right. I didn’t mean that they can’t have value, because they clearly can.
Brian Fields: This particular debate is gonna be at the Creation Museum with, you know… my understanding is that it’s gonna be, something funded and supported there at the Creation Museum. I don’t think it’s gonna be a friendly and fair environment. But I also don’t think that Bill Nye is going to run into it without making sure that things are at least somewhat fair.
Mark Sandlin: But think of the photo opportunity with Bill Nye, and in the background, a dinosaur with a person riding on it. [laughter] I mean, that’s like a picture right there …
Audience Member: … facebook meme …
Mark Nebo: Yeah, exactly, exactly …
Audience Member [who posed the original question about the debate]: Well, Matt Dillahunty, who’s the host of The Atheist Experience, for those of you who may not be aware, his concern was that quite often in debates, it’s more about presentation, rather than speaking factually. Here’s… this is what we know, this is what we believe because of what the evidence is. And quite often you find, I’ve seen it with preachers, especially of the more Evangelical bent, is that really, it’s presentation. A lot of flash, but not a lot of… not necessarily, a lot of substance. So his concern was that Bill Nye may be getting into more than what he’s prepared for. …
Jerry DeWitt: That’s my only real concern.
Brian Fields: Ken Ham is a world-class grifter. It’s very hard to…
Mark Nebo: Man, that’s a good word for him.
Audience Member: I think you could put Ray Comfort into that class…
Mark Sandlin: Well, Bill Nye’s a really smart guy.
Audience Member: He’s an educator, not a debater.
Mark Sandlin: I almost would want to…
Audience Member: … He’s not a Christopher Hitchens kind of debater.
Mark Sandlin: I’d almost want to watch him, though, because it could be a class on how do you handle a person who is not gonna … I mean, because… I’ve got a lot of respect for Bill Nye. He’s a …
Audience Member: Oh, I do, too…
Mark Sandlin: … very clever man. He may come in and teach a small lesson on how to have that.
Mark Nebo: I suspect it’s gonna be a situation where people that watch the video, or watch the debate, at the end are going… there’s gonna people that say, Oh, Ken Ham destroys Bill Nye! And there’s gonna be people that see it, Oh, Bill Nye handed this guy his head on a platter.
Audience Member: It’s all interpretive.
Brian Fields: Common ground, we agree on that. [laughter] Right there.
Audience Member: How’s the documentary going, Jerry.
Jerry DeWitt: The documentary’s going well. We, of course, had a little time off due to holidays and such. We’re… right now, what they’re trying to do … you may find this interesting. Everybody’s aware that there’s a documentary, The Outcast of Beauregard Parish, that’s at least the… that’s the working title, I’m not exactly sure what it’s gonna be.
Jerry DeWitt: So, real quick, what happened was… a very, a very professional film crew out of California, Bread & Butter films – they’ve done some great documentaries, you can find their stuff on Netflix, you know, find it, it’s good stuff – they contacted and said they wanted to do a documentary on my story. And I had just gotten the book deal, and so I wasn’t sure about the legalities of sharing, you know, all the same stories in different media. But eventually, we settled up on what we could do. Because when they came to my town, they realized that the book stops at basically the beginning of my secular story. And so they’ve been following me around, you know, as I’ve preached at the American Atheist convention and things like that. And, of course, with Community Mission Chapel. So, where they’re at now, is they’re trying to actually capture what life’s really like in DeRidder, Louisiana, in Beauregard Parish. And that’s the hardest part, because nobody will talk to them.
Audience Member: Because they’re outsiders.
Jerry DeWitt: Yeah, exactly, there’s these outsiders. And, you know, the same people who will say these snide remarks on facebook, won’t get on camera and say those same things. And so, they’ve interviewed a lot of people, and they’re trying to very slowly build relationships with these folks, so that they can, you know, get them to be themselves on camera. But that part’s going rather slowly, so we’re looking at probably early 2015, is when the video will be released. But it’s already… the pieces they have are getting really, really great reviews.
Mark Sandlin: I’ll talk to someone about you, if you want.
Jerry DeWitt: Would you?
Mark Sandlin: I’d be glad to.
Jerry DeWitt: They’ll think you’re me! [laughter] They’d be like [hands do switching motions] from one scene to the next.
Mark Sandlin: [That’s my thought. ?]
Mark Nebo: Thank you for coming. Please, let people know how you feel, even if you disagree with a lot of things, and you hated it, tell them that. Put it out on social media. If you have blogs, put something on your blog about it. Send me an email. These guys, follow Jerry’s page, and Mark’s blog. Get in touch with them. This is, hopefully, the genesis, I guess, of something important, of something important, of something important.
Audience Member: Why am I seeing Leviticus?
Mark Sandlin: [shaking head] That is a buzzkill. I’ve always said that, that is a buzzkill. Noo, noo.
Audience Member: As long as it’s not Deuteronomy.
Mark Sandlin: That one, too.