The original headline of this story was going to be "How to Be a Good Atheist," but that wasn't exactly right. As several people pointed out at the Carolinas Secular Conference, held Sept. 28-30 at the Charleston Marriott, the modern secular movement welcomes a broad spectrum of people, from church-attending agnostics to hardcore Richard Dawkins acolytes.
The City Paper sat in on an afternoon workshop at the conference and asked a few attendees a broad question: "What does it take to be a good atheist (or agnostic, or humanist, or secularist)?" None gave a more interesting response than Bob Voelker, a former Lutheran pastor from Salisbury, N.C.
"The people skills that I learned in seminary to be a good pastor will serve me in excellent stead to be a good secularist," Voelker said. "Because I think if we secularists have a problem, it's that there are people who are outspokenly belittling of any other life stance ... Some of the most well-known national speakers are just plain boorish at times."
Voelker's conversion story has much to do with theodicy, or the theological reconciling of a benevolent and all-powerful god with the existence of evil — commonly phrased in the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Over the course of 20 years, Voelker lost two young daughters and his wife to an inherited genetic disease, childhood leukemia, and adult leukemia, respectively. After a career as an evolutionary and molecular biologist, he went to seminary seeking answers to his questions about God. He found few, and he began to doubt common Christian doctrines like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. In the North Carolina church where he later served as pastor, Voelker says he tried to "open up the Christian tradition to some critical analysis," but many of his more theologically conservative parishioners opposed him at every turn.
These days, Voelker calls himself a naturist, "meaning that everything that is and that has come into existence is because of forces and capacities that are inherent in nature." He left the church after five years and went on to become a biology professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. Recently, he wrote a book about his conversion titled Understanding My Life Backwards, available as a hard copy or e-book at lulu.com.
Voelker says he still feels some anger toward the church, but his interactions with Christians are gentle. "My experience as a college professor has taught me that I never taught anybody anything by embarrassing them, by belittling them, by attempting to shame them," he says. "People never learn that way."
Some advice from conference attendees:
Be ready to explain yourself.
No one the City Paper spoke to was in favor of street preaching or handing out tracts, and the question of whether to proselytize is sometimes a contentious topic in secularist circles. John Childs, a member of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry living in Goose Creek, said he still sings in the choir at a Lutheran church — even though he has been an agnostic for 20 years. "Oh, no, I don't proselytize among Christians," Childs said. "I don't push it on them too much."
But in a Saturday afternoon presentation on starting and growing secular groups, former American Humanist Association president Mike Werner recommended that secularists have a brief "elevator speech" to explain what they believe when people ask. He also said it couldn't hurt to carry a copy of the Humanist Manifesto, a creed that has been signed by 22 Nobel laureates. "We have a great story to tell, so tell it as intelligently, clearly, evocatively, and as positively as possible," Werner said.
Don't be a ranter.
During his presentation, Werner told a cautionary tale of what secularist groups can become if left unchecked. "I've seen too many times, especially in the old days, where you end up with three angry old white men around a library table bitching and complaining about religion," Werner said. Nobody wants that.
Stand for a cause, not just against religion.
During a brainstorm about where people would like to see the secular movement in five years, one of the goals mentioned was "establishing a reputation for our contributions, not our confrontations."
Conference attendee Sue Edward has a long list of contributions. Not only was she the Green Party candidate in the July special election for S.C. Senate District 41, but she also volunteers as an escort at the Charleston Women's Medical Center, runs the S.C. Women's Choice Fund, co-chairs the S.C. Green Party, and coordinates the James Island chapter of Drinking Liberally. "It's getting involved in your community, because we are members of a larger society," Edward said. "You can't just isolate yourselves and say every person for themselves and I've got mine and the hell with you. That's just not going to work. That's just not healthy."
Consider the church model.
Believe it or not, there was plenty of talk about the success of churches at the Carolinas Secular Conference. During Werner's Powerpoint presentation, he even flashed a picture of the worship hall at Willow Creek, a suburban Chicago megachurch, and gave advice for secular groups that would sound familiar to any past or present member of a seeker-friendly evangelical church: "At the end of a meeting, say, 'I want everyone here to invite one person. Just one.'"And "Start on time; end on time; have a potluck. Why the potluck? Community."
Sue Edward said she saw secular groups as similar to churches in at least one way: "As a community of support, yes, but not necessarily as a physical building." Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, sat in on Werner's presentation, and he said he wasn't so sure about the megachurch model — at least not yet. "I think that requires a critical mass we don't have right now," Speckhardt said. Instead, he said the secular movement could have more success following the 19th-century church model of the American frontier, with circuit-riding preachers rallying the fervor of the faithless.
Have a sense of humor.
"I'm really a religious fanatic infiltrator," confided Ralph Haller, a conference attendee from Charleston. "You ever hear the term agent provocateur? I'm trying to make trouble."