Tim Ward is the Assistant State Director of American Atheists Oklahoma. Here we talk about some early influence of religion, and his views and work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it?
Tim Ward: My early life was nothing spectacular. I came from a single parent home. My mother provided every opportunity that she could, and my father helped as much as he could as well.
Nothing was ever really handed to me and I learned from that whether I liked it at the time or not. My memories of my childhood fortunately are a lot of positive memories of places and people.
Religion was such a small part of my childhood. I did attend a Lutheran church and was an acolyte. Other than that short period of time, not including funerals or prayer at family functions during holidays, religion really didn’t play much of a part in my life.
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?
Ward: Over the years as I’ve developed with of course the usual people Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. David Mills and later David Silverman as well. I know these are all cliché so if you have any others that I should read by all means I’m open to recommendations.
In reality however the more influential people were religious. One of them being a Dominican priest now. I always had reservations about a god and during many conversations despite their best efforts I found myself arguing on the side of atheism.
I think one of the last conversations we had was what’s the difference between the god of today and Zeus. This was really the major argument that brought me to this point.
I spent another 3 months of my life researching anything I could get my hands on trying to justify a god in any form. We can obviously see where that ended up.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?
Ward: I’ve read the usual books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation. I’ve watched Religulous. I actually try to avoid watching or reading things that confirm my beliefs though.
I believe only reading, chat rooms, and shows that only confirm what you believe is counter productive. I like to view the other side. Talk with people that have views that differ from my own no matter how painful it may be at times.
God is not Dead and God Friended Me for examples were to put it nicely painful to watch. Living in the bible belt gives me plenty of opportunities to challenge my views.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?
Ward: I was home one night and typed a question into google. That lead me to typing Atheist into Facebook. To my amazement I discovered that I wasn’t alone.
I was suddenly talking to people that thought like I did. Having discussions about issues and arguments with people who’s only defense was a book I could use against them.
It was like seeing the world with new eyes. I was making connections with people in my own city, state, and then around the world. I was given an opportunity to exchange ideas and expand on what I had learned. I still cherish that night to this day actually.
I was up till sunrise the next day. It wasn’t bashing the religious people but being able to talk with others that had the same ideas along the lines of atheism and being inclusive of all people no matter what their beliefs were.
Those discussions really helped me refine my beliefs and attitudes. It changed me for the better I believe. There are a lot of people in the online world that I owe a debt of gratitude.
Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Oklahoma?
Ward: I had never really reached out to the Atheist community prior to moving to Oklahoma. I looked up Atheists on Google and found American Atheists and discovered the local group from there.
Long story short, I broke my leg and had some time on my hands. I went to a local board meeting. Then another. I had done some environmental work years ago and had some ideas that I thought the local group would like. Then another meeting to see Jim Helton speak.
He talked about ideas that I wanted to talk with the chapter president about. I went to the next chapter meeting where they voted me in as a member of the board and I voiced my ideas. They liked them for the most part.
The American Atheist convention happen to be in OKC that year and I think a month later Jim emailed saying he wanted to talk with me and later offered me the assistant state director position. I’m guessing the local chapter president recommended me for the position.
Jacobsen: Within the current position as the Assistant State Director for American Atheist Oklahoma, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Ward: The broad directive I was given was to build up the local community. This obviously gives me a lot of leeway which I believe to be a great benefit to anyone who takes this position.
It gives me the opportunity to make it my own. I always try to put a positive light on atheism to the general public incorporating ideas of fairness and equality. The reality is that the public really has no idea what an atheist is and what we believe.
I’m also the community service chair for the local Oklahoma Atheist group (AOK) so I like to incorporate that into the things I do as well. AOK does community service work for example with the local food bank and I include a charity drive for local groups.
For example, during national immunization awareness month in August we held an immunization drive. I try to focus a specific drive to the awareness month it is associated with for greater impact.
Along with that I also dedicate time to encourage members to be active. I don’t want to just talk a lot I want to lead by example. I try to stay involved with issues that concern our members.
I have always asked members if they have issues that they feel are separation of church and state to tell me about it and I will take it on and do what I can for them. There have been several issues with schools that I have been able to take care of such as churches sending flyers home.
11 school districts have changed their policies thanks to members speaking out. Because of those issues, 270 letters were sent out to school advising them of legal issues involving holiday displays and offering American Atheist as a resource to make sure they stayed within the law as well as being fair and equal to all of their students.
With that came teachers asking for help on issues they had so I have had the privilege of being a voice for atheists that have to fear for their jobs if they speak out.
Aside from those things I watch legislation on the state level that cross the line of church and state. I have been able to talk with groups and state legislators about opposing abortion laws and an education bill that would allow teachers to teach creationism because they don’t agree with evolution.
Issues that affect the LGBTQ community or women’s health are always on my radar. I’m working with a couple local cities to get proclamations for the day of reason and the local election board to move the polling locations from churches to more secular locations.
My number one duty is always to our local atheist community. The issues that they feel are important are the things I will tackle.
Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?
Ward: We had a solid social community prior to my arrival. In a state like Oklahoma where there is a stigma associated with atheism the community and support network are second to none.
There are Facebook groups and we utilize the Meetup app as well. While there are of course the online spats that are settled in a kind fashion. When there are issues the community pulls together in a great way.
Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face the Oklahoman atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Oklahoma? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?
Ward: I don’t believe we face any issues that are unique. Some are more intense than other places. I’m reminded of a meme that shows 2 closets I found during Pride. One closet is labeled gay and the other atheist.
The gay closet is empty while the atheist closet shows a pair of eyes with a scared look starring out. We have members in the local group that can’t be seen in pics during events because they could lose their jobs simply because they would be associated with atheists.
It makes me sick because these are some wonderful people. This reflects on issues of equality. Reducing people to a second-class citizen based solely because of disbelief in a deity should not be tolerated.
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, as well as work to reduce and eventually eliminate the incidences of ill-treatment of some – in particular, the recent cases of women – within the community?
Ward: This is probably the easiest question to answer with a single word, support. Support these people. Be there for these people.
Don’t assume that someone else is doing it because the other person may be thinking the same thing and suddenly there’s no support and that’s where the problem starts. Be the person who is there and if there are two people there already be there as well.
This drives me insane. Our community is better than the ideals of the past century. Bias based on sex, color of a person’s skin, education, should be a relic of a best forgotten age. Reach out to these people.
They may not want to be out to the world but show them they are not alone. If they need a voice, then be that voice. If you don’t want to be that voice then contact me, I’ll be that voice for them. Silence is our worst enemy.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Tim.
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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