Megan Denman is the Assistant State Director of the American Atheists Ohio. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it?
Megan Denman: My childhood was generally comfortable and informed. My parents allowed my two siblings and me to have ample free play time, and taught us to value reading, keeping up with current events, and taught us important life skills.
We were middle class and sometimes just hovering above the poverty line, but my parents created an environment for us so that we were rarely aware of that proximity.
I was raised in a fairly liberal congregation of protestant Christianity, the United Methodist church, from toddler age until high school graduation.
The congregation was large and mostly positive and welcoming, and they did a good job providing various youth activities, outreach to the community, arts enrichment and more, so at first glance, it seemed difficult for me to leave such an environment.
Plus, the people I respected at church emphasized that God resides within humans, and I met some wonderful humans in my church community. The church in particular provided a huge social network that certainly shaped my upbringing, although the worship services always made me very anxious.
I was a late bloomer in terms of uncovering my atheist identity, but I always felt something was a bit “off” while at church, especially starting around age 10.
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?
Denman: Attending school at Baldwin-Wallace University, I started to see what other beliefs were out there, and to further define what I really value.
My piano teacher Dr. Robert Mayerovitch (a Canadian!) had brought up in a few lessons that he was an atheist, and many conversations about that have stayed with me today.
He told me he believed in core values such as love, curiosity and humility instead of God. I was impressed that he was open about his atheism, and began to see that I had been raised to see nonbelief as something to be ashamed of.
Another thing I remember Bob saying that has stuck with me is (paraphrased): “You can take what you like from religion, and leave what you don’t. There really are no ‘shouIds’ when it comes to how you define your personal philosophy.”
There was also a group on my campus called SCOPE which helped me see a clearer pathway to who I am today as an atheist. SCOPE stands for space for Christian-oriented progressive engagement.
Though they used the word Christian, we had members in the small group who were self-defined as Atheist, Atheist- Buddhist, Christians who were barely so because they were embarrassed by their religion’s actions, Agnostics (myself at the time), secular Jews, and others as well.
I loved the discussions we had, which were mainly based on values and morality in action. Even though we all had slightly different beliefs or nonbelief, our views on political and human rights issues were all progressive, and within that we built lasting relationships.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?
Denman: Greg Epstein’s book “Good Without God” was very influential as I formed my personal philosophy.
Some of my fellow atheist comrades think he’s too nice, but I appreciated his focus on what Humanism represents such as deliberate living based on values like passion, purpose and community more than focusing on bashing religion (except in situations where that is helpful and necessary.)
I also felt that the book was a good stepping stone for someone already disillusioned with religion but not quite sure how to define themselves or to take a complete step towards virtuous atheism.
I also was inspired by Michael Werner’s book “What Can You Believe if You Don’t Believe in God?”
He went beyond clarifying that humanists (and atheists) are able to live sensible, moral lives outside of religion, but also defined some current hurdles which atheist groups face.
These include avoiding employing a cold, solely rationalistic view of humanity and atheism, and also avoiding an elitism which turns away nonbelievers who may be struggling to meet basic needs, or are otherwise uninterested in only intellectual talks.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?
Denman: Meetup.com, and Facebook were instrumental in revealing me to the immense community of nonbelievers. In the fall of 2016, I discovered the Sunday Assembly Cleveland Chapter and Cleveland Freethinkers on Meetup just before I had decided to start the Cleveland Humanist Alliance.
I originally Googled “Cleveland Humanist group” or something like that, and these groups came to my attention.
I also found and listened to some podcasts from Oasis meetings, “The Thinking Atheist” by Seth Andrews, and “Humanize Me” by Bart Campolo.
Throughout 2017, I quickly came to know other resources such as American Atheists, American Humanist Association, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Foundation Beyond Belief, Northern Ohio Freethought Society, Center For Inquiry and more.
Admittedly, I haven’t been able to keep up and participate with every group as I’d like to, since I’ve been focused on getting my local group off the ground.
Creating the Cleveland Humanist Alliance divulged to me how many secular people are on the internet seeking a community. Every day, our Meetup continues to average two to three new members since its start two years ago.
Even though some new members might not know what humanism or atheism is, it’s still heartening to know there is a need for this type of community. The power of technology has allowed me as a serious introvert to start a movement that is gaining attention.
Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Ohio?
Denman: Jim Helton with American Atheists reached out to me after their staff attorney Geoff Blackwell was in town for a case, and their goals lined up with Cleveland Humanist Alliance’s goals.
The way they do everything possible to assist in growing local groups like ours, particularly with activism, is appealing, and their accomplishments on a national level are clearly laudable.
Since collaborating with American Atheists, I’ve been inspired personally to make positive change in our government and world. Perhaps more importantly, I was given pragmatic tools to connect our group members with other like-minded groups such as PFLAG and Planned Parenthood so that we can build connections with progressive-minded people while also normalizing atheism.
By doing this, all our efforts for change collectively have a more powerful impact.
Jacobsen: Within the current position as the Assistant State Director for American Atheist Ohio, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Denman: My task was to choose one of American Atheists’ designated programs, and implement it within my local group. The program we chose is ACES, which stands for Activism, Community, Education and Social.
Within each category, there are actions to build up your local group. My group the Cleveland Humanist Alliance already does a number of these activities, but there are some gaps which the ACES program compels us to fill.
After we complete the ACES program, we will choose another program from AA’s list, and tackle it.
I’m essentially a liaison between AA and my local group, so we can use AA’s expertise to help our group be more effective and collaborative within the community, and in return promote American Atheists and atheism in general.
Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?
Denman: American Atheists has a law team at the ready should our city encounter a breach of church/state separation, or nonreligious discrimination issue.
They have great resources for activism and tabling, which we can certainly benefit from. So far, I’ve had help every step of the way in exactly how to implement tasks, and make full use of American Atheists’ experienced leaders.
Online, we can use their logos and name to help promote our group, as well as their larger entity. Our collaboration with AA is fairly new, but once we have big projects on the table, I’m told AA has significant financial resources for local groups as well.
Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face Ohioan atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Ohio? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?
Denman We had a member of Cleveland Humanist Alliance try to present a secular invocation at our Ohio Statehouse prior to a legislative session, along with the legislative prayers that are the tradition.
He was not allowed, because currently the Supreme Court’s choice in Greece vs Galloway states that individuals of any faith are welcome to give a prayer to a higher power, with respect given to all other beliefs. Even though citizens of all faiths could participate in prayer, secular nonbelievers were excluded.
This reveals our government puts on an egalitarian face, but, in reality, is still steeped in religious bias. If the American government claims to be by the people and for the people, it should include ALL the people that it serves.
Secular communities in Ohio have trouble binding together like churches do, in order to enact necessary change. I don’t know of any Ohio atheist groups who have their own building, and very few nationally do.
This is probably due partly to the nature of freethinkers being hard to lump into one category, and therefore we struggle to cultivate attention and funding for projects.
Still, there are pressing issues like keeping Planned Parenthood alive, LGBTQIA rights, climate change and so many more, one would think we could become motivated and come together. I think we need to make people uncomfortable about these issues in order to gain momentum.
Jacobsen: How can secular American citizens create an environment more conducive and welcoming to secular women, secular youth, secular people of color, secular poor people, and secular people with formal education less than or equal to – but not higher than – a high school education?
Denman: Good question. Secular Americans such as myself need to be prominently out of the closet as Atheists so that we can know the real number of like-minded people out there.
We also could stand to educate people more about the direct connection between issues such as the Heartbeat Abortion Bill which got very close to passing in Ohio and fundamentalist religious dogma.
Many millennial Americans today are apathetic churchgoers or quietly secular, but if proudly secular Americans band together and broadcast our mission, we can bring these fence-sitters with us to form an impressive community.
It appears that many secular groups tend to focus on the predictable structures of science and reason in their meetings, instead of tackling messier social issues such as racism, sexism, income inequality and poverty.
Also, since humanists and atheists are usually progressive in nature, many might feel they don’t need to be activists since they don’t personally stoke the fires of social injustice.
However, activism such as what American Atheists executes helps both to alleviate social injustice while simultaneously normalizing atheism and increasing its breadth.
A key attitude to including diverse secular communities is to follow the lead of minorities and women for example, rather than trying to lead in a social group with which one doesn’t have personal experience.
By holding a variety of types of activities, we can increase the diversity of our secular communities. For instance, currently in the US there are not many established activities for secular youth specifically, aside from Camp Quest.
Many of our group members who have children might not come to meetups because of a lack of childcare. I think when we strengthen our social connections and empower more individual members, there will be a clearer path toward providing more youth-oriented programming.
Volunteering for events such as the Homeless Stand Down this past weekend which provided meals, haircuts, job assistance and more to the homeless population in Cleveland helps to bring secularist values to those most in need, in a public way, alongside many caring religious people.
American secular groups would be served to think more inclusively about how visitors perceive them, having welcoming pictures of previous social and community outreach activities, for instance.
We already seem to have a reputation for being intellectually rigorous to the point of estrangement from many social sectors, for valid reasons.
Still, this doesn’t accurately represent nonbelievers as a whole, and having diverse activities such as crafting, dog walking or potentially other members’ suggestions opens doors to many people, including those with limited formal education, who might otherwise be intimidated by an atheist group.
In summation, atheists can’t get too comfortable in any one activist, educational or social/community arena, and we need to continually reach out horizontally to like-minded groups, rather than focusing on vertically building up individual secular silos in a vacuum.
Jacobsen: How can the secular community not only direct attention to ill-treatment of religious followers by fundamentalist religious leaders but also work to reduce and eventually eliminate the incidences of ill-treatment of some – in particular, the recent cases of women – within the secular community?
Denman: A potent way to reveal the harm of extremist religious leaders upon their constituents is to magnify the aftermath of their unhealthy directives.
The recent news of predatory nuns sexually abusing young women at vulnerable times is eye-opening, especially when hearing the personal challenges such as PTSD and substance abuse that plagued the victims for years after the incidences.
The secular community can highlight that this is a pattern rather than just isolated cases amongst religious leaders who use obedience to a higher power to their advantage.
As atheists, we can offer support in a proactive manner to those women, children and men who have suffered abuse at the hands of religious leaders, and if they are being ignored, direct them to legal services such as American Atheists’ legal team.
Comprehensive sex education in elementary and middle school years is one of the most effective ways to preclude sexual abuse, and American Atheists leads the way on keeping sex ed curriculum up-to-date in public schools in America.
Unfortunately, until parents gain awareness and take action, it is a much bigger hurdle to teach appropriate sex ed in private schools, especially religious ones. The best tactic is to keep focused on what we can change, and to keep shedding light on what works.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Megan.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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