This week I had the privilege of being interviewed by the pseudonymous Kaveh Mousavi, an ex-Muslim who lives in Iran and writes for Freethought Blogs. This is the fourth episode in a series of interviews about liberty from people with varying standpoints and views. Check out his previous episodes here.
Kaveh: Hello Neil and thank you for being here. Let me begin by asking you the same question I have asked all the other people who were interviewed here. In countries like mine, where the regime is tyrannical, we care a lot about the philosophical tradition of western liberalism, from its earliest founders to the latest thinkers. My first question is, do you think these philosophical inquiries are relevant to your western democratic societies as well, and if yes, how much?
Neil: Yes, absolutely! Although I’ll have to confess that many of us have lost sight of that original vision. To my mind, it is about questioning the controlling stories we tell each other because those stories frame how we live and how we relate to one another. I’ve always said that the ancient Greek dictum “Know yourself” is about practicing an awareness of your own influences so that you can critically analyze what you believe rather than simply going along with what you were told to believe. That is the essence of “freethought,” and it is fundamental to any healthy democracy.
I worry, though, that my own country’s educational system has been failing at passing this tradition along to successive generations. The students I teach come to me each year remarkably apathetic about taking ownership of the direction in which their culture is headed. Too many of them seem passive and disinterested, and they are lamentably unaware of how their own government works. I agree with what Dan Fincke said in his interview, that this is a case of not being able to appreciate something you didn’t have to pay for yourself.
Kaveh: Now I want to make the same question more specific. Your blog is called Godless in Dixie. It is a great resource for anyone interested to know about the Southern culture. Would you think being in a very religious part of the USA, your experience and mine are closer to each other than most other western countries, or do you think it’s a faulty comparison?
Neil: I think the comparison is surprisingly appropriate, although I’ll be quick to add that our problems are of a different degree. Coming out as an atheist in Mississippi can cost you your job, your friends, and even your family, but it’s not likely to cost you your life. For that reason, I’m hesitant to draw the comparisons. After a few years of being an atheist in the Bible Belt, I’ve been able to slowly “come out” and publish my name with little fear that my life will be in danger. We have laws in place to protect dissenters like myself because our country was born out of dissent (see my answer to the first question).
But there are in fact parallels. Many of my local atheist friends are unable to tell anyone that they aren’t god-fearers for fear of losing everything *except* their lives. Where I live, religion is a major part of life and if you publicly declare that you reject that culture, you can quickly become vilified and marginalized. Many of my friends must use aliases on social media just as you do because if they allow their names to be associated with their opinions, there will be harsh social consequences, and they may very well lose their livelihoods. Some of the sweetest people do the meanest things in the name of trying to “save your soul.”
Kaveh: Do you think your experience as a Southerner has influenced the way you approach the question of liberty? Do you think it gives you any insight people from other areas might lack?
Neil: Southerners have a quirky concept of freedom, actually. I believe my state is the only remaining state which has kept the Confederate flag in our state symbol. Many people in “Dixie” still think our civil war was the result of an overreach by the federal government into matters that they feel should have been decided only by individual states. But their passion for freedom doesn’t carry over into matters of faith. I live in Baptist country, and while Baptists pioneered the concept of the separation of church and state, in my region today they lead the way in trying to obligate all citizens to follow the mandates of their own religion. Our local politicians wear their religion on their sleeves, and they are always trying to outdo one another in their devotion to Evangelical Christianity. Anything less will make you unelectable.
I don’t think you have to be from the Deep South in order to appreciate the need for liberty. In fact, those organizations which fight the hardest for our religious freedoms (including our freedom *not* to be religious) are located outside of this region. But I have noticed that many who aren’t from here fail to appreciate how difficult this struggle is for us where I live. I often write about combating the influence of Fundamentalism in everyday life only to receive complaints from people in other regions asking why I don’t just ignore it and move on. They don’t get it. Living among Southerners is like being in church all the time, everywhere you go. Religion’s influence here is subtly oppressive (often in a passive-aggressive kind of way), and it raises the stakes in the struggle for religious liberty.
Kaveh: Do you believe there’s a link between atheism and liberty? Has becoming an atheist changed your attitude towards liberty?
Neil: Honestly I don’t think there’s a necessary link between atheism and anything other than a non-belief in gods. There are more kinds of atheist than I could even list, and they only have one thing in common. Atheism in itself isn’t a comprehensive worldview; it’s simply an answer to a single question: Do you believe in gods? Since that falls so far short of adequately describing my views on things I much prefer the term secular humanist, which does naturally link itself to liberty. The exaltation of reason and human solidarity above religious and tribal boundaries necessitates a transcending of those limitations.
Ironically I don’t think my views about liberty have changed much since I grew up both American and Baptist. As an American, I was taught that my freedom to swing my fist ends at the other man’s nose. In other words, my freedoms are essential to the pursuit of happiness, but they cannot limit the freedoms of others who are pursuing their own; they must be held in balance with each other. As a Baptist I was taught that the only way I could be free to exercise my religion was if every other man were free to practice his own (or by extension none at all). So I had a love of liberty instilled in me by my own upbringing long before I became a humanist. I feel like little has changed there.
Kaveh: You are a father, and a teacher. I’m a fan of your blog and I’m friend with you on Facebook. I know your teaching and your parenthood play a major role in how you approach life and all the big questions. So my question is this: How should we educate the next generation about the concept of liberty? Do you believe education and good parenting play a major role in preserving the concept of liberty?
Neil: Thank you. I feel like the most important thing I can do for both my own children and for the children I teach is to pass along a love of learning, a love of science and discovery, and a love of that snarky sarcastic banter which people who are accustomed to critically analyzing the world so enjoy. It’s contagious, and it makes me happy to see it spark in others. If I can teach others to be critical consumers of the cultures they inhabit, there’s hope for all of us.
What I hope most to pass on to my own children (who are all fairly devout Christians at present, by the way) is a love of humanity and a sense of solidarity with people, perhaps especially the ones who are very different from them. The way I see it, if they grow up internalizing a basic respect for their fellow human beings (and for anything else that’s alive, in fact), the rest should take care of itself. If you see your fellow man as worthy of respect, you won’t be likely to take advantage of him or marginalize him. You’ll care as much about his freedoms as you do your own.
Kaveh: Ultimately what do you think a Middle Easterner humanist can learn from you, an educator and an atheist in the deep South?
Neil: Personally I’m more interested in what an atheist in the South could learn from a humanist in the Middle East! But since you asked, I’d say I think that because of the parallels of our lives, it could be somewhat encouraging to see another person wrestle with the challenges of being first closeted, then losing quite a lot and having to start over again without giving up and giving in. I’ve had to rebuild my social life almost from scratch, and I think the last few years should show that it’s possible to do that and end up with a fantastic bunch of new friends who can love you for exactly who you are instead of for who they think you should be. Personally, I’m always encouraged anytime I see someone fighting the challenges he or she faces with courage and with a zeal for living, finding a way to be happy amidst a perfect storm of conflict. Maybe if that person can do it, then I can, too.