August Berkshire is the State Director of the Minnesota America Atheists.. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it?
August Berkshire: I was born in 1959 and came of age during the 1970s. Being raised as part of a white, middle class, small town, New England family, my upbringing was pretty stereotypical of that background. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was even an altar boy. I discuss my conversion to atheism in my late teens and early twenties in my essay “My Road to Atheism” in the anthology “Atheist Voices of Minnesota”. Basically, religion came into conflict with my ideals of being intellectually honest; scientifically oriented; and supporting the women’s, gay, and black equality movements I encountered in the 1970s.
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?
Berkshire: There were three women who greatly helped my journey to full atheism in the early 1980s: Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Ayn Rand, and a woman I was in a several-years relationship with at that time.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?
Berkshire: This isn’t something I’ve ever considered, and I have to remember back about 40-45 years, but the following come to mind when I think of this question:
• Logic and Science (Spock on “Star Trek” TV series)
• Secular Humanism (The character of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament, stripped of references to the supernatural and threats of Hell – more or less as he is depicted in “Jesus Christ Superstar”; “Star Trek” TV series; “All in the Family” TV series; “The Jeffersons” TV series)
• Humor (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” TV series)
• Buddhism (“Kung Fu” TV series)
• Existentialism (“The Stranger” by Albert Camus, “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Space Oddity” and “Young Americans” by David Bowie, “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John & Bernie Taupin)
• Impressionism and Surrealism (poet Emily Dickinson; poet e.e. cummings; surrealist painters, especially Salvador Dalí; impressionist painters; “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen)
• Individualism (“The Fugitive” TV series, “The Prisoner” TV series, Ayn Rand, “1984” by George Orwell)
• Imagination (much of the above plus the works of Edgar Allan Poe and poems like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde.)
Science and logic played a bigger part in my conversion to atheism than the arts did, but atheism is only part of my worldview.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?
Berkshire: I had already been an atheist for a decade before I got a computer and went online. By then I already had real life atheist friends in Minnesota. Being online mainly helped me do more research about religion and atheism for my presentations and debates.
Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheist Minnesota?
Berkshire: The modern atheist movement in Minnesota began in 1984 with the Twin Cities Chapter of American Atheists, which I co-founded. In 1991, all the American Atheists chapters were disbanded. Some local groups folded and others became independent. In Minnesota, it became Minnesota Atheists. Minnesota Atheists affiliated with a number of national freethought groups including American Atheists and are now one of their Local Partners.
Jacobsen: Within the current position as the Minnesota State Director for American Atheist, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Berkshire: I am new to this role but I anticipate working with assistant state directors to make atheism more visible. Some ways we can do this are participating in demonstrations and protests, participating in festivals (such as May Day and Gay Pride), and testifying at the State Capitol.
Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?
Berkshire: American Atheists supplies us with banners, signs, and handouts. Although American Atheists has a national website, they don’t have a separate one particularly directed at Minnesota. Their website will soon be redesigned I expect there will be a link for Minnesota activities. Minnesota Atheists has a website that they too plan to redesign, as well as very active Facebook and Meetup accounts.
Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face Minnesotan atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Minnesota? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?
Berkshire: I sent Raghen Lucy, a Minnesota Assistant State Director for American Atheists, my thoughts on this for her interview with you, before I saw that you had asked me the same thing. It was understood by us that she could use it without attributing it to me.
I don’t know what she ended up using, but this is what I sent her. You can keep it as her answer, or make it a joint answer if you wish:
I can’t think of any issues in Minnesota that other states aren’t also dealing with. We all face an assault by Christian nationalist groups that wish to establish Christian theocracy or “dominion” in America. One of their latest attempts in Minnesota and elsewhere was to try to mandate that “In God We Trust” posters be placed in all public schools.
Other examples of issues we all face are attempts to put restrictions on, or eliminate, abortion rights, and attempts to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community.
It has been at least 28 years since Republicans have controlled the Minnesota state House, the Minnesota state Senate, and the governorship. Thus the Democrats have been able to block most bad religion-based legislation from Republicans.
“A Christian Nationalist Blitz” By Katherine Stewart
The New York Times, May 26, 2018
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?
Berkshire: You mean, how do we get away from being led by mainly educated, older, straight, white men like me? First, we recognize that practically everyone has a talent that can help the movement. Then, we help nurture that talent. Finally, we step aside – even though we still have much to offer – and let them lead. We become elder statespeople that can be called upon when needed to donate money, staff booths, march, and do speaking engagements that they are unable to do. If we make this about the movement and not ourselves, and do what is best for the former, we will also be doing what is best for the latter.
I have seen leaders hang on to power too long and then have their group collapse when they could no longer lead. With Minnesota Atheists we have three-consecutive-year term limits on the president and the chair, so no one will confuse themselves with being the group, and to force us to seek new talent.
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?
Berkshire: The sex-abuse scandals within religion are making headlines. Apart from that, if we have a religious friend who we think might be the victim of abuse, we should listen to them in an open, nonjudgmental way. We shouldn’t try to convert them out of their religion at that point – it would likely be too much for them to handle. Instead, we should try to get them whatever immediate help that we can, and then maybe steer them towards milder denominations or interpretations of their own religion.
As far as harassment and possible rape within the secular community goes, I think we are finally seeing action being taken against some of the perpetrators. They have been banned as speakers, leaders, and attendees at secular events. American Atheists and Minnesota Atheists as well as other secular groups have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards that behavior.
Part of the problem was that we thought getting rid of god-belief automatically made someone an ethical person. Now we realize that it doesn’t.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, August.
Berkshire: Thank you for the interview. I love Canada. I have driven to and spoken to the freethought group in Winnipeg (HAAM: Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba) several times. I look forward to doing so again.
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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