Andrew Seidel is an attorney with the nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). I got to know him on Twitter when a lawyer stole my friend’s joke about a divorce and a parrot. The tweet thief’s version went viral and received coverage on major news sources including the BBC. Andrew kindly sprang into action, helping to expose the theft of my friend’s creative joke.
Since then through conversations with Andrew, I’ve learned more about advocacy for secular rights in the US. FFRF provides legal counsel in civil rights cases and protests government funding religious institutions. If you were ever concerned your tax dollars are sent to religious organizations whose goals you don’t share, Andrew’s work would be of interest to you. He also helps defend civil rights for LGBT people. You can read more of Andrew’s writing at ffrf.org and on his Twitter acccount @andrewlseidel.
What was an important turning point on your path toward becoming an atheist? Please feel free to share any information from your past you would like.
I was not raised in a religious home. My mom encouraged me to visit different churches with my Christian friends and go to temple with my Jewish friends, if I was interested. I started to notice one similarity, that each group was basically saying, “We’re right, they’re wrong,” but not able to offer a reason why. It became fairly obvious early on that rather than one being right, they were almost certainly all wrong.
That’s where I was for my childhood and through college. In law school, as I was learning about the First Amendment, I read The God Delusion. This convinced me to call myself what I truly was, an atheist. That realization was a bit like pushing a small snowball down a mountain. I’ve been a runaway force for atheism and state/church separation ever since.
What kinds of activism do you do to promote atheist rights?
I have the coolest job in the world. I am a watcher on the wall — Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” I spend every day defending the First Amendment. How many attorneys get to do that? Each year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (where I work) gets about 5,000 state church complaints every year. We get them from all around the country and about half of them concern public schools. Basically, I use my law degree to stand up to religious bullies. I tell one a sadly typical story, involving a mom and her three bullied children, here: https://youtu.be/9Hqa1OJpoyM?t=1m30s
What is a misconception about atheists?
There are plenty. The two that bother me the most are (1) that we’re immoral, murdering thugs; and (2) that we’re unhappy. Both misconceptions are actually emotional arguments meant to scare believers away from the reasonableness of our position. The first is hackneyed and the second may be the most annoying. My personal motto is that life is too good to waste on bad ideas. Obviously, religion is a bad idea. And when we understand that this is the only shot we have at this thing called life, it’s not only much sweeter, but we’re also far more likely to make the most of it.
What part of going public as an atheist was hardest for you?
Not that much. Most of my family are atheists or nonreligious now too. I also thrive on argument and am happy to engage — politely, patiently, and empathetically — with anyone who disagrees.
If I could give one piece of advice to atheists who want to engage with believers, it would be this: Believers are not stupid, they just believe in a bad idea. I know the stats and I know the anecdotal evidence about religiosity and intelligence. But intelligence is not the cure for ignorance, knowledge is. I know, and I’m sure you do too, many atheists who were once believers. Did they suddenly gain 20 IQ points overnight? No. They just incorporated new information and that helped them leave religion. Stop thinking of them as stupid and start thinking of them as people who happen to believe a bad idea. You can change their mind.
What part of being an atheist is most rewarding for you?
There’s nothing better than being open and honest with the world about who you are. It’s liberating in a way that can’t be understood until you’ve felt it. But as something of a professional atheist, the most rewarding thing is hearing from people who I helped to leave their religion behind or who I helped to come out as an atheist or helped with a state-church problem. It’s yet another reason I love working at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.