An Interview with Marie Alena Castle – Communications Director, Atheists for Human Rights

Marie Alena Castle is the communications director for Atheists for Human Rights. She was raised Roman Catholic, but became an atheist. She has been important to atheism, Minnesota Atheists, The Moral Atheist, National Organization of Women, and wrote Culture Wars: The Threat to Your Family and Your Freedom (2013).

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a familial background in atheism? Were friends an influence on explicit atheist views?

Raised Catholic. Didn’t know any atheists. Religion was accepted as an expected normal part of life.

What were the moments, and the possible big awakening, for lack of belief in gods or God?

Pope’s position on birth control became more and more unrealistic but I accepted it because I was told the pope was infallible. Finally “saw the light” when church authorities could not answer my logical questions about the morality (or not) of birth control. It became very clear that the pope was not infallible and if wrong on that how did I know he was right about existences of God. Gave that some thought and saw zero evidence for a god and I was out of there. I realized I was an atheist and it felt SO good to have my mind feel so clear at last.

You are an atheist activist/activist atheist. How does one be an activist for atheism? It seems counterintuitive. That is, why be an activist for the lack of belief in something, in gods and God? A humanist activist seems more intuitive because it affirms beliefs, traditionally speaking, more than atheism.

Atheism is not a belief, it’s a conclusion. I became an activist when I realized all the harm irrational religious beliefs caused. It’s like realizing how harmful slavery is and becoming an abolitionist to put a stop to that harm. Being an activist atheist is like scraping the barnacles off of the boat – get rid of them and the boat (humanity) sails along much better. Being a humanist just means dropping religious beliefs based on irrational doctrines. Liberal religionists who want to be moral do it by abandoning traditional religious beliefs so they can be moral and allow their basic human decency to come through. I get along fine with liberal religionists. They do good because they think it’s what their god wants. Fair enough. I do good because it needs to be done.

What have been the lesser known misconceptions about atheism?

Far as I can tell, all the misconceptions about atheism focus on our supposed lack of a moral compass. One of my old Catholic books says the only reason a person would become an atheist is “to be free to live a depraved life.” But what kind of morality it is that needs directions from an imaginary god? I prefer my atheist morality because it’s based on simple human decency and compassion. I don’t give a rat’s patoot what some imaginary god wants. Most gods seem to want us to harm those who prefer other or no gods. I just want to stop that.

You went back to school in your 30s at the same time raising 5 kids. What inspired going back to school in your 30s?

I always wanted to learn things. I envied those who could afford to go to university. I read a lot and thought a lot and finally decided to get a college degree. My educations background was pretty sparse. The Univ. of Minn. thought I would have a problem but let me enrol anyway. I was working 40 hours a week in a factory, managing a family of 5 kids, dealing with a husband who couldn’t understand why a woman would want an education – and being politically active at the same time. I did it piecemeal, partly correspondence, mostly summer sessions, some night classes, some day classes. Took 8 years. Graduated with a B.A. in journalism and a B+ average. Mission accomplished and it felt good.

What were the main values that came from it?

It broadened my view of the world, gave me new ideas to think about. Didn’t teach me much about writing (straight A’s there) because I was born knowing how to write. It was intellectually and emotionally satisfying being part of the wider world and learning more about how to understand it. And of course it deepened my atheism. Thinking will do that to you.

Why did you choose to earn a degree in journalism/mass communications from the University of Minnesota over other degrees, and how did you persist and succeed with the tremendous responsibility of raising 5 kids while doing it?

I already knew how to write. It was something that came to me naturally. I wrote a news item based on random info for a class assignment. The instructor posted it on the board as the best example he had ever seen. He said I must have had some experience. I said it was the first time in my life I’d done that. I got A’s in some classes where math was involved (which I knew almost zero about) because the exams included an essay question. My turf! I could write all kinds of B.S. and make it sound intellectual. (Doesn’t knowing that tell you something about how people perceive things? Reminds me of how I was so hooked on Catholicism when growing up. The Church was great at using big words and sounding oh so intellectual! Hooked me good!!) As to how I persisted, I just did, just kept plodding along. Besides, it was good for my kids to see me involved in life. I always did by best to show them as much of life and the world as I could. Never babied them or talked down to them. My oldest daughter was a straight A student all the way through from first grade to her masters’ degree. She loved what I was doing and wrote little essays for grade school about how great is was to have a mother doing all that and leaving her in charge (at age 9) during short periods when neigher I nor my husband were home. She just LOVED it, she said, because it made her feel so responsible! And she was. And still is. All my kids turned out to be great adults.  And they are atheists!!!!

You have been involved with the Hemlock Society. In what capacity have you been involved in the dying with dignity movement through them, what’s a better argument for dying with dignity than for, say, those that harbour antithetical notions of death and ways to evaluate human worth, so come to conclusions in contradistinction to the dying with dignity movement?

I got involved because getting involved is what I do. I had a sweatshirt that said, “Stress is what happens when your gut says No but your mouth says, Yes, I’d be glad to do it.” I really hate it when people try to run other people’s lives when it’s none of their business. Everyone dies. Some want to do it on their own terms to avoid whatever assorted miseries afflict them. They should be free to take about it, get info on self-deliverance, and help in carrying it out. The government should be involved only to ensure their diagnosis of incurability is accurate, there is no coercion, the decision is obviously well thought out and rational. For people who disagree I say they should feel free to suffer all they want and hang on to life as long as possible, but not insist that others should do the same. Mother Teresa said “Suffering is the kiss of Jesus,” but that is religious B.S. Ok for those who buy into it but ONLY for those who buy into it.

You were integral in the formation of the Minnesota Atheists, and served as the president for 10 years. What are simple principles you can impart for those that want to found an atheist community and associated organization?

1. Try to avoid the “big tent” approach where anyone who ID’s as an atheist is encouraged to join. Too hard to get agreement on how to deal with religion. A tent doesn’t move.

2. Start with a definite stated position on what the group will do. “Support state-church separation” is meaningless. I have seen too many groups fall apart because they had no specific goal in mind. Spell out that goal in the bylaws. Atheists For Human Rights has the specific goal of supporting victims of religion based laws through our Moral High Ground project. We focus on that and our members understand and support that as well as our opposition to racist/sexist/homophobia views. When we first organized AFHR I would get calls from potential members. When a little conversation uncovered any racist/sexist/homophobia I told them they might be more comfortable joining MN Atheists and directed them there. (They have a big tent, which led to the breakup and the formation of AFHR.)

What are the emotional, even legal, difficulties they will encounter?

You get those difficulties with the “big tent” approach. Having no common specific purpose will do that. There is no solid attachment to atheism, just meetings and speakers and thinking of fun things to do. You basically just get a social club, which is OK and certainly better than nothing.

Now, you’re the communications director for Atheists for Human Rights. What tasks and responsibilities come with the communications director position for Atheists for Human Rights?

It’s pretty simple. For one thing we don’t have a hierarchal structure. People volunteer to be on the board and we operate by consensus. Everyone takes on a task they are able and willing to do. There is no president. If we need one for signing some legal paper we just appoint one pro-tem for the purpose. I take care of all the communications stuff, edit our magazine, publish our booklets, write letters to the editor, etc. Other board members take care of the treasurer and secretarial work, Internet functions, graphics, events, video distribution and the new position of wrangling the USPS bulk mail requirements (big headache, long story). Our signature activity is our Moral High Ground project. I send out the grants every December.

You are an editor for The Moral Atheist, a magazine. How can people become involved and contribute material? What are some tips for new writers?

People just gravitate to things. They show some interest or are asked to do something and involvement happens. Our magazine contributors come from all over the country. They offer to send stuff and we pretty much always take it.  I don’t have any tips for new writers. Either they can write or they can’t. They just have to stick to religion/atheism related topics because we don’t bother much with issues outside of those areas.

Your atheist activism stresses the grassroots and many Left, politically and socially speaking, issues, e.g. labor unions, being against the Vietnam war and a charter for the NOW (National Organization of Women), as well as working for the Abortion Rights. All of these are highly Left, progressive social and cultural, and legal, concerns. When did you realize your implicit values were Left?

I grew up with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. I know what poverty is like and what a politically left government can do about it. Churches were no help and the Republicans were of the opinion that the problem with the country was that the rich didn’t have enough money and the poor had too much. Very hard to miss where the decent humane stuff was coming from and it was New Deal stuff. I saw what was going on. I lived it. Those left/right worldviews haven’t changed. There is nothing in the right wing worldview that I can find appealing. Too much greed there. “If the Haves gave half of what they have to the Have-Nots, the Halves would still be the Halves but the Halve-Nots would be the Halve-Somethings.”

How did you build the resilience and courage to act on the implicit values, making them explicit, public, and proactive?

I didn’t build anything. I am what I am and pretty much what I always was. I do what I do because I really can’t not do it. it makes me question whether we have free will. It’s like that sweatshirt I had. Someone says we need someone to do something and my damned hand goes up. It just goes up. That doesn’t happen as much any more because I’m 90 years old and running out of gas.  And my arm hurts too much. But still I can’t help but keep going as best I can – which is still better than those who do nothing. “Those who wait until they can do a whole lot of good all at one time never do any good at all.” Right now I’m starting to write an updated version of my 2013 book, “Culture Wars.” My publisher wants it ready by August so I have work to do

You wrote Culture Wars: The Threat to Your Family and Your Freedom (2013). The ideal of the constitution is separation of church and state in the US. How are laws justified within religious apparatuses to control the lives of the general population—most of whom are religious, but some of whom are irreligious—without secular justification?

No one seems to realize those laws are religion based and have no secular justification. Death with dignity and abortion and faith healing exemptions and stem cell research restrictions are clear examples. The media refer to the restrictions as socially conservative, never as fully based on religious dogma. We have a major problem too in that when those laws are challenged they are based on things like equal treatment or free speech. FEN has never defended itself by noting the religious basis for imposing a duty to suffer on hopelessly ill people. They lost the most recent case and are appealing. We wrote an amicus, noting the very clear religious basis for the government restrictions. But the FEN lawyer can’t use that in the appeal because the issue of religious doctrine was not part of the original case. All we can hope for is that a decency minded judge might read the amicus and decide to use that to rule in our favor.

What do you consider one of the more interesting findings that came from researching for the text? For example, the religious basis for prohibitions, in law, of “both contraception and abortions, limits on reality-based sex education in schools and bans against stem-cell research…Bible readings and prayers sessions held in public schools and Creationism is taught in many places as a legitimate alternative to Evolution…[and] laws against same-sex marriage and laws actually criminalizing homosexuality.” Not to mention the banning of specific books with tax privilege/preference for organizations that happen to be religion-based.  I’m just trying to target something under the surface, not really thought about, but pervasive, affecting everyone, and pernicious in its effects on the young or upcoming generations.

What impressed me was how pervasive this religious control is, reaching from federal to state to local government, and how tied to religion it is. Further, how totally involved the Catholic bishops have been in keeping these restrictions embedded in our laws and using the Protestant fundamentalists as a front. Almost all of the Christian Coalition leaders have been Catholic and put there by the Catholic bishops, starting with Jerry Falwell. Their reach is impressive, helped by their monolithic structure. But I can say this for sure: the religious right would disappear overnight if Roe v Wade were overturned. Abortion is the bottom line litmus test driving force keeping this dystopian political populism going. I’ll deal with that in my updated bookl

What has been the feedback from the readers of the book or even those claiming to have read the text—positive, negative, neutral, and other various flavours of feedback?

Mostly they think the book is great but almost none grasp the thesis that we have major laws that are totally religion-based. They can’t relate state-church separation to that – only to the trivial stuff like school prayers. Maybe this is because no lawsuits are ever filed that challenge the religious basis. (More about that in my updated book.) Otherwise, the negative comments have mainly expressed discomfort with my saying unkind things about the Catholic Church.

Thank you for your time, Marie.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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