Our new executive director has seen the effects of religious violence first hand in Africa. Robyn Blumner tells us how she came to science and reason and her thoughts on our movement in this interview with Johnny Monsarrat.
RDF: Have you always been an atheist?
Robyn Blumner: I was born into the Jewish faith; both my parents were Jewish, and my father in particular was a practicing Jew. From very early on, about 11 or 12, I started to question the existence of god and the other parts of the Bible that I was being taught in Hebrew school. Because I was such a doubter, my parents relented and let me leave school.
RDF: You made it to the Bat Mitzvah, I hope, with all those presents…
Robyn Blumner: No I didn’t, but thinking about it now, how could I have let that opportunity slip by? (laughs)
Robyn Blumner: I left Hebrew school before turning 13. And, really, never looked back. The more I learned about the world and natural sciences, the firmer I was that there couldn’t be a deity. There was no evidence for one and I was all about the evidence.
RDF: Would you say that Judaism is special in a sense that it has such a strong cultural and ethnic identity?
Robyn Blumner: I agree and have experienced it in my own life. I feel an affinity toward my fellow Jews, but the practice of the religion doesn’t factor into that shared identity.
A recent Pew Research Center poll of Jewish Americans asked whether a person could be Jewish and not believe in god and two thirds said, “That’s fine. A belief in god is not essential to being Jewish.” Humanist values were far more important than religious practice to Jewish identity.
RDF: What’s your advice for young Jewish people who want to come out of the closet to their parents as nonbelievers?
Robyn Blumner: I think anyone who is a nonbeliever should come out of the closet. I have a feeling that a large portion of Jewish parents may be closeted atheist themselves. I can tell you my parents were. They’re now out as atheists, but when I was growing up they certainly didn’t reveal that fact to me. My father was a science teacher who said he believed there was an intelligent spark in the universe and couched it in deist terms. Later he admitted he was an atheist even then.
RDF: Wow, so the parents come out of the closet to the children sometimes.
Robyn Blumner: Exactly. And it happened only after I was an adult. I said, “Dad! I really needed you when I was eleven or twelve and I was the only atheist I knew!” (laughs)
Robyn Blumner: But I understand his point of view. His own parents were still alive and they were religious Jews. Back then it was harder to separate Jewish practices from cultural identity.
RDF: You were a Pulitzer finalist and a journalist for over 15 years. What do you think about the state of news reporting on science and religion? Is it fair and balanced?
Robyn Blumner: Unfortunately religious purveyors get a pass from the press. It’s presumed to be improper for journalists to drill down into a religious belief and pose questions that might be uncomfortable for religious leaders and practitioners. This sensibility is deeply ingrained in the world of journalism. I don’t quite understand it, but it is virtually universal. The Richard Dawkins Foundation will be looking to challenge this “press pass” for religion.
RDF: Controversy sells newspapers, and atheism is controversial. Do you think we can harvest that for our own purposes, or does playing up controversy paint us as “black sheep”?
Robyn Blumner: I think we are on the road to eroding pernicious stereotypes about atheists. Polls indicate that 20% of the American public has no religion and when you look at the younger cohorts it’s 30%. Whether or not those people are atheist is another story, but they don’t associate themselves with an organized religion. Its taken a long time for media to catch up with this cultural shift and an even longer time, it seems to me, for the political establishment to wake up to it.
Robyn Blumner: With such a large contingent of nonreligious, we can no longer be ignored or marginalized. There is an increasingly organized effort to get atheists, humanists, secularists, and agnostics to demand the political influence our numbers warrant. The Richard Dawkins Foundation will play a key role in encouraging people to come out of the closet, stand up, and be counted politically.
RDF: As a journalist, you travelled extensively. Who did you enjoy meeting the most?
Robyn Blumner: I met Nelson Mandela over a decade ago. He was the most extraordinary man. Imagine being imprisoned for 27 years for fighting oppression and emerging from prison to speak only of reconciliation, not vengeance.
Robyn Blumner: I was an opinion writer traveling on a fact-finding trip with a small group of colleagues through South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Nigeria. It was a fascinating experience into another world, one that I’d read about extensively. But there’s nothing like being in a country, interacting with its people and experiencing its culture to imbue understanding.
RDF: What was it like meeting Mandela?
Robyn Blumner: One of the things requested was that we not use flash photography, because when Mandela was at Robben Island he’d been forced to work in a prison limestone quarry and his eyes had been damaged by the sun over the years. He and his wife welcomed us to their beautiful home in Johannesburg, gave us a tour through their garden, and there we sat with Nelson Mandela for a good half hour…
RDF: The twelve of you?
Robyn Blumner: Yes, the twelve of us asking questions and having him discuss what it was like to have been imprisoned for so long, and the Apartheid struggle. Mandela said his efforts at racial reconciliation were pragmatic. The whites ran the country’s economy. He knew he needed white South Africans to stay engaged and not flee; otherwise the nation could stagger economically.
Robyn Blumner: At the time, HIV and AIDS were ravaging the population and I got to see first-hand the danger of witch-doctor medicine. Black South Africans were rejecting Western protocols such as antiretrovirals and relying instead on remedies invented by practitioners of faith-based medicine. Witch doctors were claiming that men could cure AIDS by having sex with a virgin. This led to a tragic and disgusting epidemic of child rape.
Robyn Blumner: During the trip we met with the president of Mozambique and Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of Nigeria; we had dinner at his home. We also traveled to Kano, Nigeria, during an outbreak of religious conflict. Muslims and Christians were killing each other.
RDF: I assume that as a journalist you weren’t sent to the front lines, but did you meet anyone who was directly affected by religious violence?
Robyn Blumner: I did. We met with two individuals who were Christians living and working in a predominantly Muslim area and they were extremely frightened. They hadn’t themselves been attacked but members of their community were.
RDF: So you saw it first hand?
Robyn Blumner: I saw what religion can do to people, provoking attacks for no reason other than a difference of opinion over the way the cosmos is ordered.
Robyn Blumner: We traveled across Nigeria in a white van that had “UNICEF” emblazoned on its side. This helped us get from place to place without worrying that police would stop us and shake us down. I remember traveling in that van and peering through the window at burnt out homes recently torched by Muslim mobs. You could still smell the acrid smoke. The violence was sparked largely because the Muslim population wanted to adopt sharia law and local Christians were objecting.
Robyn Blumner: The United States and Western Europe have demonstrated that as long as government remains religiously neutral and does not promote or advantage a particular faith or sect, people of various faiths can live peaceably side by side. But true believers are always trying to insinuate their faith into public policy and the law. It’s a constant battle to keep church and state separate, as we in the secular movement know so well.
RDF: Our last Executive Director, Edwina Rogers, is a conservative who’s been part of the Republican party for some time. You are a liberal who was a leader in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where liberalism is more than a way of life…
Robyn Blumner: (laughs) Oh, wait a minute, let me stop you there. I used to carry around a New York Times article with the headline “Hello? ACLU? I’m a Republican, but I need help!” It discussed how often Republicans turn to the American Civil Liberties Union when they think their civil liberties are violated.
Robyn Blumner: Personally, I’m a liberal, but the ACLU promotes smaller government, what’s liberal about that? How is it a liberal crusade to keep government from widespread surveillance or to prevent government from censoring books or the Internet?
RDF: A balanced approach then. We look forward to learning more as your plans for the Richard Dawkins Foundation unfold. Thank you for your time.
Robyn Blumner: Thank you.
Robyn Blumner is the Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. You can follow her on Twitter at @RBlumner. For more about the foundation and to sign up to the newsletter, see http://richarddawkins.net/.
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