Interview with Justin Scott – State Director, American Atheists Iowa

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Justin Scott is one of the hardest working atheist activists in the United States, having committed the past four years to atheist activism to help normalize atheism and stand up for the rights of one of the most ignored minority (soon to be majority) groups.

Named Atheist of the Year by American Atheists for 2017, Scott is now currently serving as State Director for American Atheists in his home state of Iowa, which he has called home for all of his 37 years.

From “bird dogging” presidential candidates–he was able to confront every major presidential candidate during the 2016 presidential race–to delivering secular invocations at the state capitol and in city council chambers across Iowa, along with ending government endorsed prayers as well, Scott has made a name for himself as one of the most successful atheist activists out there. Scott can be reached at justinscott@atheists.org
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?

Justin Scott: I experienced a pretty average middle class, Iowa upbringing. I’m sure at the time it seemed like a struggle but looking back on it, it was no worse than what many Americans experience.

My parents divorced when I was young so I got used to not getting to hang out with friends every other weekend as I would visit my dad. Both of my parents remarried and worked.

My dad was in the public eye locally as an insurance salesman. This career choice all but guaranteed that religion would continue to play a role in our lives as worked for a Lutheran insurance company.

This meant that every Sunday was more than sermons and coffee/donuts afterwards. They were work days for him.

We attended church and Sunday school regularly which was odd as my mom, although a self-described Catholic, never really seemed interested in religion or church. I think she sent us there on her weekends to appease my dad. 

Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you?

Scott: My dad first and foremost. Although he was heavy on bible scripture and guidance (“It’s not MY will, it’s THY will”…man I got sick of hearing that from him growing up) he was also a very practical and pragmatic man.

When he finally shut up about his divine inspiration, he was very straight forward about life and how to maneuver around the bullshit it can throw at us.

At the end of the day, I think he had just experienced enough in his life that he didn’t want his kids to repeat his mistakes. It’s just too bad that he relied so heavily on his religion and deeply held beliefs to do it. 

For what it’s worth, there wasn’t a single religious figure or leader that really made a lasting impression on me.

Perhaps that was due to their personalities, perhaps it was due to the fact that the Lutheran churches I was part of growing up were very much like Hallmark cards: they were just there to give you the warm and fuzzy version of Christianity.

Believe in a God and Jesus, do some nice things in your life, help others and everything else will pretty much work itself out. 

Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview?

Scott: Growing up I really didn’t explore deep concepts. It’s not that I wasn’t a deep thinker and didn’t want answers, I was just too wrapped in being a child of divorce and navigating the struggles that come with that.

I’d say that movies like Schindler’s List and American History X were the first movies to really open my mind to the evil that exists in this world. 

Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people?

Scott: Great question. When I was in college, social media was just beginning and I really had zero interest in it which is hilarious given the fact that I practically live on it now.

Back then I was big into message boards for the sports teams that I loved. One website offered fans an “Off Topic” board where everything was free reign.

I can remember stumbling upon some atheist and nonreligious threads that made me literally look over my shoulder from time to time to make sure no one had seen me reading them.

The notion that being an atheist or nonreligious was even an option was foreign to me.

I always got the sense from my dad that being religious was a forgone conclusion; that it wasn’t a matter of whether I was going to be a believer, it was just a matter of what Lutheran church I was going to be part of the rest of my life. 

Jacobsen: How did this lead to American Atheists Iowa? How can others become involved in non-religious activism? Any reflections on the response from Rubio now?

Scott: Iowa American Atheists existing and me accepting the state director role is something I could have never envisioned when I came out as an atheist just four years ago.

In 2015, as I was coming to terms with my atheism, I just wanted to know that I wasn’t the only person out there. I was nervous about what being an atheist meant and if/how it would change people’s perception of me.

In just three years, however, I’ve not only been fortunate enough to have created three atheist groups in Iowa but I’ve been named the 2017 Atheist of the Year by American Atheists and am now proudly serving as state director in Iowa.

It’s been quite the ride. Anyone reading this can have the same thing happen. For what it’s worth, I encourage that. I want every atheist out there reading this to know that being a great atheist and activist for secular issues doesn’t take any special talents. 

When I look back at the trajectory I’ve followed to Iowa American Atheists and by no means is it the end all, be all of my activism career, it boils down to 1) working hard, 2) being persistent 3) knowing that not only are you not aone but your efforts may very well inspire the next great activist.

I am still learning but that’s a good thing as I’m finding that the more I trust those around me, the more success we all enjoy! 

Jacobsen: Within the current position as the State Director for American Atheist Iowa, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Scott: The main task is to support and celebrate the atheist community of Iowa however I can. No two days in this role have been the same. Some days it’s heavy on emails and phone calls.

The next day I may be coordinating activism efforts with a large atheist non-profit group. And after that I may travel across the state to offer assistance to an up-and-coming humanist group.

What I love so much about this role is that it challenges me to put my energy and focus on serving fellow atheists across Iowa. I try inspiring them by sharing my experiences with them (the good and the bad) in an attempt to make them the best atheist activists and citizens they can be.

Jacobsen: What are some of the provisions for the community there? How does this manifest in the online sphere as well?

Scott: When groups sign on to become an affiliate with American Atheists they enjoy a plethora of tabling materials like rally signs, bumper stickers, buttons and other items but most importantly, they join a network of atheists that are as motivated as they are to make a positive impact in their communities.

There is no greater feeling as an organizer to see people’s faces light up when they realize the community of atheists that are out there, ready to put their metaphorical and literal arms around them. 

Jacobsen: What unique issues for secularism face Iowan atheists? What specific inclusivity issues face atheists in Iowa? In particular, how do some of these reflect the larger national issues?

Scott: I don’t think it’s so much that we have unique issues, it’s the fact that with Iowa being a hotbed for national politics with our caucus every four years, there’s an expectation that potential presidential candidates must engage with every corner of our state in order to have any chance to win the presidency.

This poses the atheist community a unique challenge and opportunity to put secularism on the national and international spotlight. My activism during the 2016 presidential race attempted to do this.

Despite some major national and international headlines that I was able to generate, it didn’t spark a larger conversion nationally about secular issues, atheists or atheist voters.

Sure, there were stories published on these topics however they weren’t a direct result of activism on the ground here. I’m hoping to change that with the 2020 presidential race, starting now.

Regarding inclusivity issues, the biggest one facing us right now is the prayer process in the Iowa legislature. I delivered what is believed to be the first secular invocation (aka “atheist prayer”) in the history of the Iowa legislature back in April 2017.

Since then, I have been discriminated against two years in a row by my Senator who states that my atheism and his Catholicism will not allow him to support me to take part in state government.

This is something that is being discussed nationwide as state legislatures are coming under fire and are being sued for not providing an inclusive experience to atheists and nonreligious Americans.

We’re also seeing this situation play out in city councils across the country as well. I’d be just as fine if the whole process of government-endorsed prayer and religious ritual came to an immediate end nationwide.

I know it’s a cliche but America cannot enjoy true religious freedom without freedom from religion. The more state legislatures and city councils insist on either upholding the status quo of government-endorsed prayer or bringing it to their chambers, the weaker our Constitutional protection of church/state separation becomes. 

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? 

Scott: I’m not the first to say this so I’m not taking credit with this but encourage and make sure that all of those kinds of secular individuals are afforded an opportunity to be in a leadership position.

The more diversity of those making decisions, the better. It’s those unique perspectives that will enrich the community and our “movement”. 

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?

Scott: Great question. First, I don’t think we ever have to choose one or the other. They should both be issues that we focus on and I think in varied ways, the atheist community of the world is attempting to face both.

I think with both, it starts with addressing the threat to human dignity that both of your examples pose. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Scott.

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.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Justin Scott.

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