Simon Nielsen Ørregaard is the Chairman of the Atheist Society. Here we talk about his background, work, views, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Naturally, let’s start on the foundation of family for yourself. What is family geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?
Simon Nielsen Ørregaard: Well, my family is rather small, and everyone has a background in Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). We come from various parts of Denmark and my sister lives in the Faroe Islands. Most of my family comes from the Northern part of Denmark, called Jutland. On my father’s side, they were fishermen. In that social environment, religion played an important role because fishing was a dangerous business. The men took a risk when sailing out, and sometimes they didn’t make it home again. So that’s where JW historically found a ground in Denmark along with other religious movements in the late 19th century.
In 2013 I was divorced after 18 years of marriage. I have a daughter aged 20 and a son aged 18. In 2015 I went on national radio and talked about my life in JW. Shortly after I was excommunicated. Apart from my son who lives with me, I haven’t had any contact with my family and friends since.
Jacobsen: How were these factors important to create the basis of a personal worldview?
Ørregaard: My family and everybody we knew were totally integrated in the organization of JW. That means living by very strict religious rules. It means daily study. Three meetings per week in the “Kingdom hall”. And off course going out in the service, preaching on the street, and from door to door. It is a full-blown indoctrinating fundamentalism. I was living under surveillance 24/7. Partly by my parents and friends, but most importantly Jehovah (God) who I believed could and would see everything I did and knew every single thought in my mind.
Jacobsen: When did atheism become the correct philosophical stance for you? What other positions – social, political, philosophical, etc. – may follow necessarily from this worldview because of the entanglement of theistic assumptions or assertions, rather, with various social, political, philosophical, and other realities?
Ørregaard: Shortly after my daughter was born in 1999, I realized I was an atheist, but it took me years to acknowledge. Up until then my life had basically been an existential crisis because I always doubted the teachings outlined by the Watchtower Organization in New York. While conforming to the life of JW, I decided by pure emotion that God HAD to exist and that there HAD to be a higher meaning in life.
However, after years of struggling, I had to look myself in the eye. And I reckoned that I was an atheist since I had no faith in any kind of god or religion. And of course that meant – what I had known all along – that my previous world view was totally wrong and had to be reconstructed from the bottom. First, it meant I had to face the reality of death. That itself was anxiety-provoking, because in JW I believed that I would live eternally after Armageddon which would take place in my lifetime.
Secondly, I had to face the social control of (JW) which meant even more anxiety and seclusion. Then I had to consider all the moral aspects of existence. I had to reset my whole life in my mid-40’s mentally, existentially, socially, economically.
My escape was music and a tendency to reading books. Curiosity is the key. I spent countless hours at night on YouTube with my new “friends” Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Krauss etc. I felt that my past experience and knowledge from JW committed me to become an activist against the destructive sides of religion.
Jacobsen: As the Chairman of the Atheist Society, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Ørregaard: I am the main public face of our organization. Our purpose is political in order to fight for a secular society. And then surely with that follows a lot of critique of religion. So there is a fairly big portion of public debate and visits to schools and various organizations.
Another important thing is to consolidate the organization to be ready for future tasks. I.e. there is a democratic festival in Denmark each summer in which we participate. We try to set up a merchandise website. We lobby with as many politicians as possible. We do events called “Godless Thursday” with guests from all sides of different fields, scientists, politicians, artists, priests etc. There are so many ideas, and a very long to-do list.
Jacobsen: What are the demographics of the Atheist Society? Why?
Ørregaard: In the years I have been involved we count about 800 members. And then lots of followers and supporters. This year we also founded a youth organization named – surprise – “Godless Youth”. It is great fun and it really raised some eyebrows here and there. Our members represent the whole country, but we do have a majority of male members. We try to figure out why, and to meet that challenge. Good ideas from abroad to bring more women to the cause are welcome.
Jacobsen: What have been the main activities and provisions for community of the Atheist Society?
Ørregaard: The most time-consuming things are the events and writings in the public debate. The biggest matter we pursue is the separation of church and state. But to be realistic this is more of a headline since it involves a change in the Danish constitution.
Another big issue is the involvement of the Danish public church in the national public school. The church actually has access to mission in school through a big school-subject called Christian studies and through confirmation class. I mean, in 2019? Surely this is anachronistic and unnecessary unless it fulfills a purpose to someone – like the church.
We also support a prohibition of circumcision which is a very hot political matter in Denmark.
The list is long, but we feel there is a wider understanding about what we try to accomplish.
Jacobsen: Have there been any social and political activist activities of the Atheist Society? If so, what, and why? If not, why not?
Ørregaard: We meet up at any relevant demonstration (if we are not there it’s only because we are only so few). It could be the Gay Pride Parade or a happening in protest of Jehovah’s Witnesses which we did this summer. We also do pop-up events on the streets, talking to people that we meet and promote atheism. We also help those who are interested to resign from the Danish public church, which can be a tricky thing. We do that through our webservice “udmeldelse.dk”. Through the site, it only takes a minute and since 2016 more than 36.000 people have used this opportunity.
Jacobsen: Who are some leading lights of atheism to you – writers or speakers?
Ørregaard: Apart from those already mentioned, I like to read Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche. And among the living, I’m inspired by Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra. There is also a Danish pioneer Georg Brandes (1842-1927). He was the leading force in the Danish modern breakthrough, through some radical lectures in academia.
And not to mention, a lot of standup comedians: Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, Bill Burr and of course Monty Python. They all play the very important role of the jester telling the awful truth or the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who exclaims: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with and donate time/money to the Atheist Society?
Ørregaard: Become a member or donate an amount, or even write us in your will. Some people actually do that. But economics aside, every helpful hand is welcome. Some stand up and speak and write, but every contribution helps us fighting this important cause. We do not have that much money, so if you could give us a lift, help us out with our website or whatever – everything helps, and we are very grateful.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Ørregaard: First, I want to thank you for this opportunity. I think it is important for us to engage across borders. Thank you very much for that.
Then I want to mention a project that came out as an offspring from the atheistic scene I Denmark. An organization/network called Eftertro (post-faith). It is not an atheistic project per se, but a social project. Here people who suffers from doubt or social control from various religious backgrounds can meet and exchange experiences, and create a new network. It is very helpful for a lot of people, and it would be great to see similar initiatives internationally, so we could work together in order to get political attention to a somewhat overlooked problem.
Lastly I will say this: We all fight a very important and profound cause. In Denmark most people do not believe or practice a religion. However, the public church is still very powerful and that reflects in all political issues regarding basic values and even foreign policy. We see a strong national conservative movement – like in most of Europe – that claims Christianity as the only answer to radical Islam. I think that is dangerous. The frontline is not between different ancient religions. It is between humanistic rational values against religious dogma as an excuse for nationalism. This should be obvious in our day and age, but it’s not. All the more, is it important for us to take a stand. The more the merrier. Let’s join all good forces and do this together!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Simon.
Ørregaard: Thank you so much from The Atheistic Society of Denmark. Let’s stay in touch.
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.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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Image Credit: Simon Nielsen Ørregaard/The Atheistic Society of Denmark.