Beginning this weekend, I’m taking a short break from writing—so please join me in welcoming our guest “faitheist” columnist: Sarah Jones from Americans United for Separation of Church and State!
Since Jones—who has already written two guest columns for Faitheist—will be taking the reins for the next two weeks, I wanted to help you get to know her better. Below, we discuss leaving conservative Christianity, maintaining connections with believers, movement atheism, sexism, and why she calls herself a “faitheist.”
Chris Stedman: How did you go from being a believer enrolled in a conservative Christian school to an atheist working to protect church-state separation?
Sarah Jones: It’s been a meandering process. I was very committed to the Christian faith and even briefly considered attending seminary to study theology. But I couldn’t quite shake my doubts, and my conservative Christian college didn’t provide satisfactory answers. And to be blunt: I’d been alienated by my fellow Christians for my left-leaning politics, and marginalized due to my gender. Eventually I accepted that I no longer believed in God.
CS: You were recently profiled in the New York Times—it’s a great piece highlighting your powerful story and important work. How have people responded?
SJ: For the most part people have been positive, which came as a bit of a surprise. The worst reactions have come from evangelical Christian men, which is really what I expected; people have accused me of being a weapon manipulated by the Times to accomplish some nefarious liberal agenda. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. But I’ve had a lot of great messages from people who’ve had similar experiences, and that’s very encouraging.
CS: You’ve talked about trying to remain close to Christian friends and relatives. Do you have any suggestions for former believers who want to maintain a connection with believing loved ones?
SJ: Sometimes you can’t maintain the connection. If people insist on treating you badly because you’re no longer religious, you have to consider your emotional health. They might eventually accept you, but you can’t put your life on pause waiting for that to happen.
It’s also important to respect the role faith plays in people’s lives. I see too many people repeating the same old culture war rhetoric as atheists in order to attack religion, and adopting that tactic isn’t going to help your relationships with believing loved ones. It’s a cliché, but respect really does go both ways.
CS: What do you think of movement atheism? Do you feel connected to it?
SJ: I don’t feel connected to movement atheism, and I actually don’t consider myself part of it. Its priority seems to the promotion of atheism—deconversion—and my priorities are quite different. I value the work certain individuals and organizations within the movement have done on the separation of church and state, but I think the movement would benefit from acknowledging that addressing structural inequalities like sexism, economic injustice, and homophobia isn’t mission creep; it’s part and parcel of secularism. What’s more, you can fight those inequalities even if you’re religious. Movement atheists should be more willing to build coalitions with people of faith.
CS: You do a lot of that coalition building in your work at AU. Do you have any tips for atheists that want to work with religious groups? Why is it important?
SJ: We live in a pluralistic society, and living in a pluralistic society means coexisting with groups with belief systems that are different from ours. At AU, we’re committed to defending real religious liberty. And religious liberty is a pluralistic value. It protects atheists from discrimination by Christians, and it also protects Muslims from being singled out for surveillance based on religious affiliation.
If you’d like to start working with religious groups on issues like this, finding your local interfaith community (or AU chapter!) is a great place to start. Remember: by getting involved, you’re educating people about atheism, too.
CS: You’ve worked to challenge sexism, both in Christian and atheist contexts. What have these experiences taught you? What can others do to help with these efforts?
SJ: I’ve learned that sexism is a universal problem plaguing Christianity and atheism to an equal extent. There seems to be a misconception among certain atheists that gender equality is a trivial concern, or at least less important than debunking religion. That’s got to change. We need to take sexism seriously and hold our figureheads accountable when they dismiss or demean these issues. And we also need to accept that sexism doesn’t have its roots in religion. It has its roots in structural inequality, and atheism isn’t exempt from that structure. It operates within it, just like every other philosophical tradition.
CS: You describe yourself as a ‘faitheist.’ What does that word mean to you?
SJ: You know, it meant little to me until hardline atheists started calling me one as an insult. Now I consider it a badge of pride. It means that I refuse to dehumanize people simply because they disagree with me about the existence of God. And that means I’ve left tribalism behind for good.