an unapologetic atheist interviews Al Stefanelli
July 10, 2012 1 Comment
From the desert to the well and back again
A conversation with the “Godfather of Reason”
By Benjamin J. Gohs
Editor, an unapologetic atheist
While everyone who has ever gone from believing in a god or practicing a religion to not believing has a unique de-conversion story to tell, Al Stefanelli has come through the theological desert to the well and back again.
Sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Reason,” Stefanelli grew up in a relatively secular home of non-practicing Catholics in Brooklyn, NY.
“I had never really been involved or exposed to the Protestant church,” Stefanelli said. “I had been in and out of the Catholic church because my grandma was Catholic.”
A writer by trade, Stefanelli began as a freelancer writing obituaries and miscellaneous articles in 1985.
“I got my first real job in 1993 when I joined McClatchey,” he said. “I wrote a column for about 10 years and also produced and hosted a syndicated radio show for a few years.”
Stefanelli said he was doing just fine without religion until after he met and married his wife, a former Jehova’s Witness.
“We moved to North Carolina and got invited to church. My wife wanted nothing to do with that and one of the agreements was we were not going to do the religion thing when we got married,” he said. “My wife had been out of town for 10 days and I was kind of bored so I went to what was basically a rock concert disguised as a church service.”
Stefanelli said he was overwhelmed by all the energy and enthusiasm at the event.
“This was very intriguing to me because my view of the Catholic church had been one of boredom. I got very heavily involved with this church and ended up being licensed to be a back-up minister,” he said. “And from there I went to school and got ordained in the Pentecostal church.”
Sometimes the poison is the cure, and in Al’s case, it was a religious studies class which made him see the proverbial light.
“I lost my faith in the end of 2004 while I was taking extra classes in seminary,” Stefanelli said. “It was a class called ‘The History of Ideas’ and it was supposed to be an expose on all the evil beliefs out there and the history of other religions.”
It was while reading the epic tale of Gilgamesh that Stefanelli had his epiphany.
“I got through the first three chapters of the story and I noticed the real similarities of their character and the Bible’s Noah and the whole flood story,” he said. “I got thinking that this story predates the Bible and that the word of God was supposed to be literal and it made me start thinking about what else wasn’t true.”
Stefanelli added, “I walked away and turned my back on it.”
Escaping is the hardest part
Though some people find difficulty in realizing they have been lied to by pastors and priest, parents and peers, Al’s real hardship came from those around him.
“I have talked to hundreds of people who had grown up as Christians in Christian families and they said they had a very difficult time separating their lives from religion and embracing the systematic philosophy of non-belief. But, for me, it was something I tried and found it wasn’t for me,” he said. “It was difficult for my family in a way because my children had been brought up with religion and they were very young when I got involved with the church.”
Stefanelli said his children were exposed to youth ministry, Sunday school and, though his wife had been initially quite upset with him when she discovered he had begun going to church, she eventually embraced it.
“Then I walked away from it and it was almost on the level of abandonment,” Stefanelli said. “My wife is still a Christian. She has taken the good parts—much like Jefferson did when he took scissors and cut out all the fairy tales and judgment and negativity and all that crap out of his bible.”
Of Stefanelli’s four children one is an atheist, one an agnostic, one a believer and one a progressive Christian.
“It was rough for the first year or two,” he said. “The church made a big deal about getting my wife and family to leave me.”
Suddenly leaving the church was hard enough for some people to understand, but living in a small town made matters worse.
“I was a pastor, I was on the mission board, I had a newspaper column and my radio show went from being religious to secular and my column went from religious to secular,” he said. “I began to influence a lot of people. I was a threat and they wanted me gone.”
That was when things became more serious.
“They sent church women over to my house to convince my wife to leave me and they told my kids I couldn’t possibly love them because I didn’t believe,” he said.
Stefanelli’s wife stood by him, but soon there were threats being made, and some of his property was being destroyed.
“When the death threats started I countered it by moving 600 miles away,” he said. “That was the first and last time I allowed someone to run me out of town.”
Making a difference
Despite claims by detractors that he was never a true Christian, Stefanelli had believed every word of the bible up until his de-conversion.
“I was the genuine article. I never made money as a pastor and I wasn’t in it for the fame,” he said. “I thought I had been called to it.”
Stefanelli said he believes the difference between occultists and those unencumbered by mythology is education. After all, it worked for him.
“It is just as simple as information, but that has to come with release of the fear that religious belief in the fundamentalist life puts on an individual,” he said. “People are told by pastors and preachers not to read anything contrary to their beliefs, that it’s dangerous, it’s the devil. One has to get past that and come to the realization that nothing is going to happen to them if they exhibit skepticism.”
Unsatisfied knowing there was such a large degree of misinformation being taught to people, Stefanelli started the “United Atheist Front” (UAF) in 2005.
“The name was actually a joke I came up with to make fun of all those militant Islamic organizations that always have the word ‘front’ in them,” he said. “It started off as an advocacy group for people who were being discriminated against and then it morphed into an organization with 16,000 members and a mailing list of 65,000 people.”
Stefanelli said the time and money it cost to operate the organization were overwhelming and, when he was offered the position of State Director of the Georgia chapter of the American Atheists, he closed the brick and mortar operation.
The UAF lives on through Facebook as a group with nearly 9,000 members and half-a-dozen administrators.
Now with the American Atheists, Stefanelli works with local groups in his state to uncover First Amendment violations and discriminatory practices.
One of the group’s victories includes getting a local school district to stop allowing youth ministers unfettered access to public high schools.
“Every time I send an objection we win and they have to change it,” Stefanelli said.
Stefanelli has also been appointed to the Board of Directors of The Clergy Project, an organization which works to provide haven to both active and former clergy who have renounced their belief in the supernatural.
My god is a confusing god
Stefanelli, who has battled Parkinson’s Disease and several other autoimmune illnesses for 15 years, said some religionists use his condition as leverage in the religion debate.
“I have dealt with a lot of people who pretty much tried to convince me my disabilities were some sort of punishment from God trying to get my attention to bring me back into the fold,” he said. “I’m hopeful a cure will be found, but it has not made me reconsider the existence of God.”
In response to such childish notions, Stefanelli said he blames the religion and not the people for the most part.
And, as far as angry atheists go, Stefanelli said it is good to be passionate and ready to debate, but raging just to rage is counterproductive.
“I had, at one point, been a very angry atheist. It got me nowhere,” he said. “The only thing it did was increase the purchase of Maalox from the local grocery store.”
Stefanelli said there is a time and place for verbal confrontations but that maintaining a constant attitude of aggression and choosing to lump all people into one category based on preconceived notions is just as bad as what many religionists do.
“I find engaging is right when their rhetoric is serving to berate other people,” he said. “But, there are many believers out there who support separation of church and state; who have no issues with the theory of evolution; who have no desire to evangelize or force their beliefs on others.”
Stefanelli added, “When you take those kinds of people and lump them in with extremists you are causing a rift in a potential ally.”
That being said, Stefanelli said moderate religionists cannot ignore the extremists among their ranks.
“I wrote an article a couple years ago that spoke of problems with some doctrines being spewed forth by religious extremists and in it I called out moderates by telling them these people were making them look bad,” he said. “If somebody misrepresented my beliefs I would be angry and shouting from the mountain tops that we don’t believe this way.”
Stefanelli noted the irony of it all.
“I shouldn’t be the one doing this,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the job of an atheist to speak out against the extremists in your group.”
The original organized crime
Stefanelli said, in his experience, maybe 10 percent of religious folks fall into the category of “extremist” while the other 90 percent don’t really care how other people choose to live their life.
“They are trying to live and pay bills and go to work and have enough money to pay the rent,” Stefanelli said.
Despite centuries of propaganda heralding religious charity, Stefanelli said it is overblown.
“I have seen very little good come from religion,” he said. “I have seen a great deal of good come from faith—there is a difference.”
He added, “It’s the organized religion that causes the problem. It’s the indoctrination, the retribution, the loving god who’s looking to punish you.”
Stefanelli said the missionary work of churches—often touted by the faithful as good enough reason to keep mythology around—often isn’t worth the trouble.
“They may build a hospital here and there but when you look at the history of missionaries they have pretty much destroyed indigenous cultures,” he said. “If you want to go build wells for fresh water go do it, but don’t destroy their religions and their culture in order to replace it with your own.”
Stefanelli added, “Organized religion is like organized crime: you are paying for protection from the person who is causing you the problem.”
Stefanelli was adamant that he has no problem with people who believe in magic or who worship deity so long as they do not try to force their beliefs on others.
So, what can atheists do?
“The religious people have their own organizations and, because we are the type of people who are reluctant to be organized or put into a category it is difficult for individualistic people to come together, but we need to understand we are not going to be successful in any endeavors to make any real changes unless we agree to organize,” Stefanelli said. “Our diversity is bittersweet. It’s one of our biggest strengths and one of our biggest weaknesses.”
Stefanelli said the religious right wasn’t always the power player it has become, but through concerted effort and unifying spirit the leaders of the so-called “Moral Majority” were able to bring many people from different religious backgrounds together in an effort to “Christianize” America.
“If we don’t get together and understand how to form coalitions and work as a group, we’re fighting a losing battle,” he said. “They have a 30-year head-start on us. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is.”
Stefanelli advises those interested in making a difference to join their local free thought or skeptic group and to become a member of one or more state and national atheist groups.
“I think it costs $20 or $30 to join a group like the American Atheists and it helps pay legal fees and distribute petitions, and it helps give our movement a unified voice,” he said.
What do you see as the ideal outcome?
“One of the great things about our country is you can believe what you want to believe,” Stefanelli said. “But, we must have religious neutrality in government and the elimination of discrimination based on belief or unbelief.”
He added, “We need to get involved in areas where religion is affecting us.”
For more information about Al Stefanelli’s books, talks and more, go to http://alstefanelli.com.
Al Stefanelli is a retired journalist and the author of “Free Thoughts – A Collection Of Essays by An American Atheist,” and “A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World – The Rise Of Atheism On Planet Earth.”
Al is part of “The Clergy Project” team, and co-hosts the weekly Internet radio shows “ReapSowRadio,” and “American Heathen Radio,” making occasional appearances on “Atheist Perspectives on News and Events, and is a recurring guest on The God Discussion Show (Internet Radio). Al also contributes to the “No God Blog” on the American Atheists, Inc. website, writes the “State Director Spotlight” in the quarterly-issued American Atheists Magazine, and contributes articles to the National Atheism Examiner, “Mad Mikes America” and the “The American Heathen” blog. He is also a member of a local freethought group, the Fayette Freethought Society, in the Atlanta Metro area.