President’s Column—Greta Christina: A Diplomatic Firebrand

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

Last month we were graced with the presence of one of the nation’s top atheist bloggers and speakers: Greta Christina.  I use the word “graced” in the good (non-religious) sense of the word, as Greta is one of the most gracious people I have ever met.

Greta’s presentation was called “Atheist Anger?”  I had asked her to combine two of her talks into one for us, and she was nice enough to do so.  The first talk was “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” and it is based on one of the most well-known posts in the atheist blogosphere: Atheists and Anger.

The second talk that she fused was “Diplomats vs. Firebrands” about the different strategies atheists take. It made sense to me that after she talked about why our anger towards religion was justified, that she also talk about what we could do with that anger.

It made for a nice, well-rounded presentation and Greta told me that she might just keep it as part of her standard repertoire.

Greta considers herself a firebrand, and she certainly is outspoken, but to me her words are thoughtful and compassionate, and not ridiculing or alienating. Hers is one of the most successful, constructive channelings of anger that I have ever seen and it’s a model from which we can all learn.

The next day we drove to St. Cloud, where Greta spoke to the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University about “Atheism and Sexuality.”  She discussed hang-ups that religious people have about sex and how, as atheists, we can liberate ourselves.  Greta told me that this is the talk that is the most-requested from her by university student freethought groups.

As we drove back to Minneapolis late that night, it occurred to me that Greta had given the right talks to the right groups. We older (past age 30) members of Minnesota Atheists have pretty much already told religion to go take a hike when it comes to sexuality.  We have adopted the theme of the bumper sticker “Atheists Do It Without Guilt.”

On the other hand, many of us have had harmful religious upbringings and/or witnessed firsthand other examples of the damage religion can do.  Many of us are angry and we need to know what to do with that anger.  So Greta’s talk to us was very apropos.

In contrast, when it comes to today’s students, far fewer of them have had the bad experiences with religion that older people have had. When I read younger atheists’ posts about religion on Facebook, I see more ridicule than anger. I don’t think young people think of religion as damaging as much as they think that it’s just a stupid waste of time. (Evolution tends to reward efficiency, so that’s another reason that god-belief will eventually die out: it’s being replaced by things that are much more useful and interesting, like science and computers.)

On the other hand, if young people have been negatively affected by religion at all, it may well be in the area of sexuality, especially if they are from a small town and they desire anything other than heterosexual, married, missionary position sex. (For example, gay-bashing and gay suicide are serious problems in many high schools and some colleges.)

Ten years ago, when I was 42, I looked at the generation 20 years ahead of me and saw their anger, then looked at the generation 20 years behind me and saw people who didn’t have chips on their shoulders towards religion.  And I saw that I was somewhere in the middle, as I suspect many of you are.

As an atheist leader, I have tried to lean more to the diplomat than the firebrand, while at the same time never backing away from being a proud atheist.

There is almost always more than one way to say the same thing. As Greta said, we must each pick the style that suits our natural temperament. We would also do well to follow the advice she quoted from Gandhi:

“I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson: to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.”

Both of Greta Christina’s recent presentations in Minnesota were recorded. They will eventually appear our website and on our “Atheists Talk” podcast on  iTunes.

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