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Sacred cows

A conversation with The Thinking Atheist podcast host, Seth Andrews

Seth Andrews

A born and raised Tulsan, Seth Andrews was a Christian radio host at 94.1 KXOJ Christian radio station from 1990–2000. Then he became an atheist.

Now, Andrews hosts The Thinking Atheist podcast, which has been downloaded over 40 million times since its beginning in 2010. Topics include everything from godless Millenials to ex-Muslims and secular addiction recovery programs to Christian homeschool textbooks. According to Andrews, the purpose of his show and site (thethinkingatheist.com) is to promote rational thinking and the rejection of faith.

Liz Blood: Your website says, “Atheism describes what we don’t believe. Humanism describes what we do.”

Seth Andrews: Atheism is only the lack of a belief in god. Ultimately, I’m a humanist. I believe that human beings must care for each other. We must make each other better. We must meet each other’s needs because we only have each other. While I am a proud atheist, I’m even more proud of the idea of goodness without the idea of gods. Of charity, love, compassion, and joy—and bettering the human condition for its own sake.

Blood: In your podcast, you occasionally mention divisions in the atheist movement. What are you talking about?

Andrews: If you Google atheist, you might stumble upon any number of different activists, video producers, podcast hosts, bloggers, and speakers. There is a wildly diverse group of people who call themselves atheists. Some are firebrands. Some are diplomatic. Some are quite toxic, and some are absolutely beautiful people. The atheist movement is like almost every other culture. You’ll find wonderful Christians and you’ll find terrible Christians. You’ll find wonderful Democrats and you’ll find terrible Democrats.

Blood: What misconceptions about atheists do you often hear?

Andrews: Many people who are afraid of atheists or who speak out against atheists, quite often, know very few atheists, or none at all. They might not even be aware that their co-workers, neighbors, family members are quietly non-believers.

One misconception is that they’re all angry people. Sometimes anger is just fine because we see injustice and we are unfairly represented. There’s a misconception that atheists have no morals. If you look at the World Peace Index statistics, you’ll see that many of the most peaceful nations on earth are the most secular nations. There is a myth that atheists have no purpose or joy. Atheists have plenty of joy and happiness in their lives and their purpose is self-generated.

One of the most tragic misconceptions is that atheists can find no meaning in this life because they believe it’s only temporary. If there is no heaven, why bother? This is nonsensical. The temporary nature of this life makes every moment even more critical, precious, and important.

Blood: Do you hang out with people who aren’t atheists?

Andrews: My family is almost entirely devoutly Christian. Most of my friends believe in God. I am married to a person who believes in God. While I have a tremendous amount of friends and associates in the atheist movement, locally, most of my friends and family and associates are believers.

There can be very serious consequences for announcing that you’re an atheist. It has certainly impacted my own relationship with my mother and father. They are beautiful people. They are heartbroken because they believe that their son is going to hell.

I also have religious friends who can disagree with me and I can disagree with them and we laugh about it over coffee. Humans don’t have to agree with each other, even on critical issues, to establish and cultivate friendships, to love and support each other.

This is one of the reasons that I do the work that I do. I know how difficult it is for non-believers who feel a tremendous sense of familial and cultural pressure to blend in. Many of these people are terrified that they will lose their relationships. Some worry about [getting fired] from their jobs. They often operate in the shadows, in silence. But these people exist and their numbers are growing.

I just finished a speaking tour of the South and met many people divorced by their spouses because they simply couldn’t get past their disagreement on the god question. I get e-mails from people who are going through custody battles over their children because a religious ex doesn’t trust an atheist to properly raise children. I get phone calls from people who have been kicked out of their homes by their mothers and fathers, or their parents have threatened to take away their college funding if they pursue criticisms of religion.

On a more extreme level I get messages from Islamic theocracies where there are underground atheists who, if they were to go public, would be arrested and likely executed for being an atheist. Atheism is a crime punishable by death in, I think, at least 11 countries, all Islamic.

Blood: The word atheism is interesting. It sort of describes a negative. Vegetarians don’t eat meat but they’re not called—

Andrews: Ameatists. (Laughs)

Religion has had a monopoly on the conversation for thousands of years … selling truth with a capital T since recorded history. Atheism is simply a response.  [It] is, I think, a healthy term to use. It’s a counter. It’s people like me, and many others, holding up our hands saying No, we’re not going to take your word for it. We think you are promoting some unsubstantiated and often very damaging ideas. It’s unfair to teach it to children. It’s unfair to try to make it the law of the land. It’s historically, scientifically, and morally wrong and we as atheists stand against it.

Blood: You recently went to the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. What was that like?

Andrews: (Laughs) Ken Ham is a Christian apologist from Australia who lives in the United States. He has set up two major monuments to young-Earth creationism, selling the idea that Earth is 6,000 years old, that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs, that man’s sin in the garden created all of today’s problems, that we all deserve torment in hell, and that Jesus is the only salvation.

The Ark Encounter is a life-size imagining of what the ark of Genesis might have looked like. I was astounded at the sheer volume of anti-science, anti-history, anti-reason, anti-morality exhibits he had on display. It’s obviously targeted to children. There are many dinosaurs in cages. He has put together an attraction that sells a nonsensical idea that the ark—which took him over $100 million and state of the art construction equipment to build—was built in real life 4,000 years ago by a 500 year-old man using only trees and tar. It may be the most expensive joke in Kentucky’s state history.

The tragedy is [it’s] selling the story that it’s a broken world, that it’s our fault, that we all deserve hell, and parents are dragging their young, impressionable children through it. Ken Ham has embraced a mythological story penned by anonymous primitives from a time when … we had almost no understanding of our world and universe, yet Ken Ham is drawing from this book as a pinnacle of wisdom for the ages—selling it as Truth to the tune of $40 a ticket.

Blood: A friend of mine thinks it is impossible in the foreseeable future for the United States to have a proclaimed atheist president. What do you think?

Andrews: Honestly, I think we’ve already had an atheist president somewhere. They were just politically wise enough not to say so in public because that, of course, would be political suicide. Look at the statistics for how many non-religious people exist in the United States and then look at the 500+ seats in Congress. Statistically, it is implausible to think that all of those professed Christians or people of other faiths are all believers. My hope is that as we normalize atheism, as we counter the false claims made about atheists, as we demonstrate goodness for for humans’ sake, as we continue to see the rejection of magical and mythical thinking—we will create a cultural climate where our elected officials can and will come forward and say that they are atheists, they are humanists, they are rationalists. I think that that day is not far off.

At the end of the day I always tell everyone that if God shows up tomorrow—the proof for Jesus or another deity manifests itself tomorrow, I would want to know that. Wherever the evidence leads, whatever the truth is—that’s what I want to pursue in my life.

Blood: A religious response to that might be it’s sinful to ask God to prove himself, or that faith is not just about what you see.

Andrews: The Bible tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. [It is] is designed to sound profound while making absolutely no sense. It tells us that we have substance of hope and evidence for something that we do not have evidence for. I reject the idea that a benevolent and worthy god would chastise or condemn us for asking him to prove himself. We live on a planet where there have been thousands of gods posited as the one true god. The onus and burden is upon any true god to prove himself to us and until that day comes, we have every right to withhold belief, to remain critical and skeptical, and to move on to better ideas.

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