Ryan Boone is the Assistant State Director of American Atheists Southwest Virginia. Here we talk about his early life, work, and views in moderate depth.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it?
Ryan Boone: I grew up with divorced parents and five siblings. Sometimes it was difficult due to the custody arrangements. At my dad’s, we went to church regularly, though not always at the same church.
Some weeks we were Presbyterian, others we were Baptist or Methodist. For the most part, I went to a United Methodist Church with my grandma. At my mom’s, we went to Vacation Bible School at the local Baptist church.
In fact, I still have the gray bible that I received as an award at the end of one summer. After VBS that summer, I talked to the pastor about getting baptized; it was a big deal.
I sat down and actually read the Bible, Old and New Testament, in an effort to better understand what I was getting myself into. It was this attempt at becoming a better Christian that caused me to give up on Christianity and start questioning religions and God’s existence.
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?
Boone: I started my journey into atheism in early 2001 and became completely convinced that no benevolent god existed on September 11th of that year. It was another decade before I had any idea that there was a broader atheist community.
I mean, I grew up in rural southwestern Virginia and moved to Alabama for college, so it just wasn’t something that was talked about. Many conversations with strangers turned to “What church do you go to?” relatively quickly.
Once I finally found my way to the larger community, I read extensively the works of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, but at that point I was just reinforcing my current philosophies and understanding of the arguments. It was Reason Rally 2016 that gave me insight into people and ideas that would go on to shape my current philosophies.
Three speaker in particular from Reason Rally stick with me: David Silverman, Larry Decker, and Bill Nye. Outside of the person David Silverman seems by all accounts to be, the idea of labelling yourself as “atheist” as a form of firebrand atheism is core to my approach to activism.
I make a point to identify myself as “atheist” before I use terms like “secular” or “freethinker”. My car is covered in atheist bumper stickers, my license plate reads “4TH3IST”, and I introduce myself as an out and proud atheist because it will make that introduction a little easier for the person that does it after me.
Larry Decker really epitomizes the ideal that Secular Values are American Values. It’s something we strive for every day in our activism, to equate American Values and Secular Values: Freedom, Inclusion, Equality, and Knowledge.
Secular Values are a strong basis to drive decision making in all situations. Bill Nye spoke eloquently on the importance of basing our decisions and approaches to solving problems in the facts, but he also implied that we need to take an “Everything All at Once” approach to solving our problems.
By employing all our tools and resources to solve the problems we face from all sides, we can, as he puts it, Change the World.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?
Boone: In my free time, I do my best to absorb as much as I can from popular scientific works. Books like The Greatest Show on Earth, A Universe from Nothing, and The Elegant Universe have informed my understanding that the workings of the natural world are vastly more interesting and hold a greater explanatory value than any religious text.
The more we learn and understand about the world, the more two things happen: God shrinks and the mysteries of the universe grow.
In regards to my interactions with others, I take a lot from the debate style of Matt Dillahunty and the epistemological approach of Anthony Magnabosco detailed in the book A Guide for Creating Atheists. Public discourse is an art, and I’m still honing my skills.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?
Boone: My introduction to the broader online community really came from listening to popular atheist podcasts. It seems like every non-believer has a podcast or YouTube channel, you know?
I started out listening to “Cognitive Dissonance” and “The Scathing Atheist” because they tapped into the more primal feelings I had about religion. They took the anger we all bottle up about religion and the ill it does in the world and poured it out with the appropriate amount of ridicule.
Those shows introduced me to “The Thinking Atheist” and “The Atheist Experience”. It was through the thriving online communities that both of these shows have created that I found my way to the broader online community.
I’ve met so many wonderful people through social media and the in person activism that I’ve participated.
Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Virginia?
Boone: I found out about Reason Rally 2016 through “The Thinking Atheist Fanpage” on Facebook.
Secular Coalition for America hosted two days of lobbying before the rally where I got a chance to first taste the thrill of setting up a meeting with my congressional representative and lobby for issues I believed in. After this initial experience, I signed up to volunteer and lobby during SCA’s Lobby Day in 2017.
I worked closely with Sarah Levin and Casey Brescia as a social media volunteer and made a number of connections. One connection was with Samantha McGuire, a Regional Director for American Atheists.
Over the next year, through volunteering and activism, I got to work with some truly amazing people. I came on as an Assistant State Director in the autumn of 2018 after Samantha reached out to me on behalf of Virginia American Atheists.
Jacobsen: Within the current position as the Assistant State Director for American Atheist Virginia, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Boone: The position of Assistant State Director is a volunteer position with Virginia American Atheists that is designed to serve local regions within individual states.
The area I currently serve is rural Smyth County, Virginia, and surrounding areas. My responsibilities center around supporting local groups and monitoring church-state separations issues in local government.
Assistant State Directors act as liaisons between local secular groups and American Atheists, providing support, training, and guidance as well as access to American Atheist’s resources such as toolkits for activism, training materials, and the speakers bureau.
The mission of all this is to grow local groups into fully functioning entities who implement the ACES program developed by Jim Helton, founder of Tri-State Freethinkers and National Field Organizer for American Atheists.
The ACES program will help these groups to participate in grassroots activism, provide service to their local communities, educate their membership, and provide a safe social space for them to interact. The goal of the position is to help local groups be successful communities.
Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?
Boone: You can really boil the community philosophy down to one overarching goal of equality. You can tie most, if not all, of our activism to equality.
Work on the Johnson Amendment (a provision banning non-profits in the United States from participating in partisan politics) is to maintain equality for religious and non-religious non-profit organizations.
Activism around LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights for women are essentially to maintain equality for everyone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
Within our communities we strive to champion equality because it ensures everyone is treated fairly and given the same opportunities for success as anyone else.
Everyone has an equal right to a community free from harassment of any kind, free from discrimination based on age, gender, orientation or other protected status that differentiates us, and free from the arbitrary obstacles and stigma that are placed on communities by and for religious organizations and dogmas.
In the online sphere, this goal of equality lends itself to the diverse and robust voices that participate in our conversations. It also gives a fair basis for which to police our communities for harassment and discrimination. Those infractions that impede on the equal rights of others are the easiest to identify.
Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face the Virginian atheists? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?
Boone: The two big things that come to mind right off are sex education in public schools and access to medical aid-in-dying (MAID) in Virginia. at the end of last year, after a lengthy process of study and public comment, the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care (JCHC) voted no on putting forward legislation that would support MAID.
Individuals from secular groups, including State Director for Virginia American Atheists Larry Mendoza, were a part of the committee tasked with preparing the report on this issue for the first time in 2018.
Because of this participation, a coalition of secular voices were included in the final report that was presented to the JCHC.
During the public comment period, secular groups around the state encouraged their members to submit public comments in favor of the legislation.
Unfortunately, the religious right was able to rally huge numbers to voice their opposition, and in the end, no legislation was put forward in support of MAID.
Work on this issue is continuing in Virginia in conjunction with the efforts of Compassion and Choices, a national non-profit that lobbies on behalf of this issue.
In 2019, one of our main focuses as Assistant State Directors is to gather information and to develop plans for activism surrounding comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in our public schools across the state.
Law requires input from the community in the structuring of family life curricula in Virginia. In particular, committees are required to have members of the faith community involved.
Our goal is to get concerned secular parents and activists involved in the conversations surrounding sex education and on those committees. If we can start to move the needle on these issues locally, then the work to affect real change statewide and nationwide will be much easier.
Jacobsen: How can secular American citizens create an environment more conducive and welcoming to secular women, secular youth, secular people of color, and work to reduce the incidences of ill-treatment of some – in particular, the recent cases of women – within the community?
Boone: This is a big problem within any community that has no simple solution. Even with our commitment to equality and reason, the secular community is far from immune to transgressions against already at risk segments of our community.
I can start by saying that the most effective tool the secular community has in solving the problem is our incredibly diverse chorus of voices. It is a part of why I am sometimes hesitant, as a white male, to propose my solutions to these problems.
While it is imperative that white men participate in solving these issues, we have to be willing to step back from our privileged positions and share our platforms with others with differing perspectives.
We have to recognize two key things in order to reduce the incidences of abuse in our communities: anyone can be a perpetrator no matter how important their philosophies may be and we have an obligation to report and hold these people accountable when they do wrong.
I believe we are making some progress on these issues, but we have a long way to go. The social consequences suffered by people of note like David Silverman and Lawrence Krauss are a start, but we can’t find ourselves protecting anyone just because their ideas mean a lot to the community.
We have to prove to those who are harmed that they are the ones we truly care about. That said, we are poised to be the most welcoming community for women, youth, and people of color because the secular community exists without judgmental and oppressive dogmas or hierarchical structures. We strive for secular values, the primary of which is equality.
A primary problem with welcoming women, people of color, and people of differing backgrounds into the broader community is the lack or representation among leadership for so many who are seeking a community to call home.
There are a variety of options in the secular community like Black Non-Believers and Ex-Muslims of North America for people to find community, but we need to ensure that we are welcoming everyone into all our spaces. There was an opportunity recently to make a radical shift in leadership at American Atheists with the replacement of the former President.
I don’t question the appointment of Nick Fish on merit, but I feel the organization could have made a bold move in a new direction had they considered and chosen Mandisa Thomas, founder of Black Non-Believers, instead.
I don’t know the reasoning behind the choices that were made, and I’m sure that American Atheists will move in a positive direction. I just feel this may have been a missed opportunity to bring in someone with a voice and ideas that are unlike those that have traditionally been at the helm.
It is so important when trying to build a community that the faces who are joining see themselves mirrored in those who represent the community day in and day out.
Along with making our community leadership increasingly diverse and representative, we have to figure out the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) for the next generation. Properly packaging the benefits of a strong community and demonstrating the real change we are making will help us to survive.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ryan.
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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