Silvia Park is the State Director of the American Atheists Virginia. 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?
Silvia Park: I was raised not going to church, though my parents did join a Unitarian Universalist church for a short time (I think more for the music than anything else), and I was required to go a few times. Luckily that didn’t last long.
I grew up near Poughkeepsie, NY, and several of my friends were Catholic, and I remember feeling like I might be missing out on something when I heard them talk about going to CCD after school.
I attended Mass with friends once or twice, as well as a Methodist church service, and was not impressed. It was a morning I didn’t have to go to school, so why was I up and going to church?
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?
Park: I didn’t start reading books by atheist writers until I was a parent myself, so I wouldn’t say my philosophical development came from anyone other than my parents, who never talked about gods and religion to me. My grandmother always gave us a subscription to National Geographic at Christmas, and I would read it cover to cover.
I majored in anthropology in college, and do remember one book in particular that helped me put words to my thoughts about religion’s origins–Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, by Marvin Harris.
In my thirties I became interested in Buddhism, and I do feel many of my personal philosophical beliefs align well with Buddhist principles, though not in everything. Be kind, do good, seek happiness, kind of sums it up for me. But also stand firm and speak up against injustices.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?
Park: Do Isaac Asimov’s Robots, Foundation, and Empire novels count? 🙂 I think actually that reading Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country, by Peter McWilliams, influenced me quite a bit, actually. It helped changed my views about recreational drug use and prostitution, which I’d never spent much time considering before.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?
Park: I used to read a lot of science and other blogs when I was homeschooling my kids, and so I, of course, found “Pharyngula” at some point, which led to other atheist/science blogs.
But I didn’t engage with anyone back then, in the early 2000s. On Facebook, of course, there are plenty of atheists to follow.
I joined a brand new Meetup two years ago, the Atheist Community of Charlottesville (ACC), and I got involved right away. I took over running the group in January 2018, and started looking at the various national organizations for support, including American Atheists, Inc.
Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Virginia?
Park: I signed our group up to become an affiliate of American Atheists, and they got me in touch with the Virginia state director, Larry Mendoza. Larry was able to come to Charlottesville to give a talk to us about AA and the great work they do.
What I really liked was when he told us about AA reaching out to local groups, to grow their grassroots outreach and presence. After that meeting, he and I spoke some more, and he told me that he was looking for more assistant directors.
He said I was already doing what an assistant director does, and asked if I’d be interested in becoming one. I started that process right away, and I was even able to attend the 2018 American Atheists Convention in Oklahoma City the next month.
Jacobsen: Within the current position as the State Director for American Atheist Virginia, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Park: There’s a responsibility to remain active–to grow my local affiliate and work with other groups here, as well. I am trying to create a positive image of atheists locally by organizing volunteering events for us, and making sure to mention that we’re “the atheists here to help.”
I am working on our online presence as well, promoting #atheistscare. I have a lot to learn still about becoming more of an activist, and I’m looking forward to this year’s American Atheists Convention, in Cincinnati in April, where I plan to attend every training session available.
Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?
Park: By having an American Atheist assistant director who lives locally, the secular groups here have someone who’s looking at local issues and can notify them of anything they might want to get involved in that concerns the separation of religion and government.
I am also a member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH), and I am the chapter coordinator for the Charlottesville chapter. Having a direct link to the resources available from both groups is very helpful.
For example, I have attended every Cville Pride Festival since its inception in 2012. I had seen that there were a number of local religious organizations that tabled booths at the festival, but that there was no secular group represented.
So I decided that the Atheist Community of Charlottesville should be there, and that we should bring other atheist groups with us, to show our diversity and inclusion. As a chapter of WASH, we were able to create a GoFundMe page to pay for two booths, and to help with other expenses.
We were able to fly in Mandisa Thomas of Black Nonbelievers, Inc, and give her one of the booths. The ACC invited Virginia American Atheists to share a booth with us and WASH, and they provided tabling materials for us. At our booth, we offered free memberships to American Atheists.
Samantha McGuire, president of WASH, joined us and was a great resource. The event was a big success, and we were surprised how many people stopped and talked to us, and said they didn’t know there was a local atheist group. Next year, I plan to ask for our booth to be included in the area where all the religious groups are.
Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face Virginian atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Virginia? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?
Park: Virginia is in the “Bible Belt,” so it can be hard to get our voices heard. Our schools can still teach abstinence only sex ed, and we have laws that restrict the inclusion of LGBTQ topics.
That’s a big problem. There are exceptions for faith healing from child negligence charges. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows religious agencies to discriminate when it comes to foster care and adoption.
Many other states face similar issues, so it’s helpful to see what the other directors are doing around the country, how they’re able to make changes to problematic laws.
One thing I’ll be looking at for next winter is any nativity scenes on government property. I’ll ask local atheists to be on the lookout, and if we find that there is a religious display, we’ll ask to have our own secular display place next to it. We are looking to increase our public presence.
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?
Park: I think American Atheists is doing a good job of inviting women, people of color, and LGBTQ people to speak at the national convention, to have a voice in a public forum.
Virginia American Atheists’ directors are a particularly diverse group. Representation is so important. When Mandisa Thomas was here in September for Cville Pride, she had people of color come up to her and say, “I’ve never met another African American atheist before.”
I think atheists and other secular Americans need to show up anywhere there is social injustice and help create reform. We need to go to city council meetings and support affordable housing reform.
We need to lend our voices to local groups seeking racial justice. We need to demand reform in public schools, so that minority students are not discriminated against or punished unfairly.
We need to speak out against local law enforcement, particularly our jails, who notify ICE when an undocumented immigrant is going to be released so they can deport them. We need to demonstrate by our actions that these are important issues that need to be dealt with, and that we can see the underlying religious origins of many discriminatory practices.
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?
Park: The news has been full of stories of Catholic priests and nuns abusing children. Now we are also learning about similar problems in the Protestant communities.
Conversion therapy is such an immoral practice, so unbelievably damaging to a child, I cannot fathom how any parent can force their child to endure such treatment.
I am the mother of a transgender son who also identifies as gay, and the thought that children like him could be raised with anything other than the complete, unwavering support of their parents and family, is distressing.
Secular Americans need to support bans on conversion therapy. We need to push for prosecution against religious leaders who commit crimes against children, and we need to push back against faith healing.
We have to pay attention to what’s happening to people who aren’t secular like us, because they deserve protection against abuse, and they aren’t getting it from their religious communities in many cases.
When I read about men (or women) in the secular community who are being accused of mistreating anyone, my feeling is that they must be dealt with just as strongly as anyone else. They don’t get a pass because they’re atheists.
We have to show that we don’t exempt them from criticism just because they’ve been respected in the past. We need to be above scrutiny ourselves, I think, so that nobody can accuse us of going easy on our own people. There is no excuse for their behavior.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Silvia.
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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