Longform

A CROWN OF HORNS

"No, I'm very, very serious. Very serious. We need to reduce the population of the world by at least two thirds."
This is your convention, so don't you feel good to look out and see all these people here?

"What would that have to do with anything? I am not participating in this in order to, quote, feel good. But you see, a lot of liberals participate in something because it makes them feel good. I'm in pursuit of an intellectual ideal, and that's the most stimulating, exciting adventure, continuous adventure in life."

Do you have faith in yourself?
"No. There is no such thing. I don't have any spirituality, I don't have any faith, I don't have any beliefs, I don't have anything else. I've got the hard, cold reality of living in a world and also living in a very, very sick culture."

CONFIDENT AND enthusiastic, ASU grad student Dawn Peters, winner of the Question Bee at her first-ever atheism convention, definitely wants to be noticed and respected. It's something that's been on her mind for quite a while.

"I've been an atheist all my life," she said in a postconvention interview at a campus hangout called the Sub Stop. "I remember in grade school saying, ` . . . one nation . . . ,' and waiting and saying `invisible,' because I thought it was `invisible, with liberty and justice for all.' No one noticed, and I'm glad they didn't notice. I was very afraid. I remember my friends asking, `Don't you believe in God?' And I'd say, `Oh, yes, of course.' They'd say, `What are you?', and I'd say, `Oh, I'm a Christian.' Because my grandfather's a Christian minister.

"Of course, I thought if I ever questioned anything, I would lose all my friends. It's like being homosexual, or it's like living under racism. The messages you get are you're not okay. If you're not the same as everybody else, you damn well better not open your mouth about it, because that's not nice and we don't want to hear it. That's the kind of insidious control that I see happening with politically correct speech. `Oh, don't say that. It's not nice. You shouldn't be allowed to say things that might offend somebody.'"

Unlike fellow fast-talker Madalyn O'Hair, Dawn Peters is not punch-drunk from several million verbal bouts. Not yet, at least. Last year, Peters founded a chapter of Student Atheists of ASU. Thanks to an information table she sets up on campus, she's had quite a few sparring sessions.

"The United States was built on your right to be an asshole, your right to offend someone," said Peters. "And if they have a problem with it, well, they can just damn well get out and do something to offend you back--as long as they're not hurting you, as long as they're not stepping on your rights, as long as they're not impeding your right to justice."

Raised in Saint Joseph, Missouri, Peters has a psychology degree from the University of Missouri, with minors in management and English. Moving to Arizona for love (which resulted in marriage), she's now pursuing a master's degree in education.

"Sometime in my life," she said, "I'm going to go into secondary education, in English, which is kind of scary because I might not get a job after this interview. Seriously, couldn't you see, if it came out that a teacher was an atheist, all the parents going, `Arrgh!'? Even though I'm not as problematical in the classroom as far as separation of church and state than someone who was fanatical in any other religion.

"I have a strong conviction that the students should never know what the teacher thinks on an issue. The teacher should guide the students in their discussion. I've had to do that already, in working with tutoring students."

Assumptions about atheists really rile Dawn Peters. "People assume a lot about Madalyn O'Hair, that she hates religion and blah-blah-blah-blah," said Peters. "I don't see it that way so much as I see it that of all the hurt that she has gotten in her life because of religion, she has reacted to that. As a human, I don't blame her. I react very strongly to alcoholism because it has caused me a lot of pain. And I can say I have a hatred of racism. I have a hatred for some of the ways religion is used to manipulate people to kill other people. I have a hatred for those things.

"I don't have as much of a problem with people who say, `I have my personal faith, I don't try to push it on you, you don't try to push on me.' Fine. My best friend is a fundamentalist Christian, and we talk about it all the time. And what it comes down to is when it gets to that one point where he realizes he has absolutely no evidence for his belief, he says, `Well, I'm going to people who do that. She doesn't like it either. It's the same mindset as religion. I respect her. She has lived a long life, doing a lot so that I could feel comfortable today coming out of the closet. I thank her."

Now that she's out of the closet, the visibility feels great. "It was very overwhelming and nice," she said, "to have all these people come up to me and say they appreciated my intelligence--because that has usually been something that has alienated people instead of making me friends. And young women who look younger than they actually are? Like me, who looks sixteen? That's very, very true. People get intimidated around me a lot, and I don't like for them to feel intimidated. And I'm very in tune with other people's feelings--but it's theirs. I know I can't take it on myself. If they have a problem, it's their thing to deal with."

But she has something to deal with, as well: the image of professional atheists.

"The times have changed," Peters said. "Madalyn O'Hair was fighting in a time of Red hysteria and all kinds of things. I think that as the nation changes in its awareness of the issue, then the tactics we use must change. The bottom line is after she's gone and the organization starts a new attack, a new approach, it just needs to adapt itself to what society could handle or to what would be the best way to get out the message. I think you see a lot more atheists in the movement who are handling things through a very educational mode, a humor mode, that kind of thing."

As for her wanting to speak on behalf of American Atheists, she said, "I'd love to, when I retire, end up doing it all the time and helping them all the time. But there are too many other things I want to do for society. I see it connected. To me, teaching means teaching people how to think, how to think critically, how to think analytically, how to develop concepts, how to think about the world and how to question themselves, how to know themselves.

"All these things tie in. That doesn't mean that I think I should teach everyone to be an atheist. It means that if I can do anything in this world, it should allow people to think and survive."

And to come out of the closet.
"I hear a lot of feedback from the students in my group saying, `Gosh, just from being around you, it has helped me feel better about myself.' A lot of "

"Just because I'm an atheist," she added, "doesn't mean I don't have feelings. I have very strong feelings. Poetry, music can bring me to tears. I love going to the mountains and sitting in the woods. The thing is, there's nothing mystical about that. I've done all kinds of exercises where I create a visualization, these kinds of new-agey things. The difference is that I don't attribute that to magic or the `life pulse of the universe' or the `loving mind of creation' or a crystal. I attribute that to my human mind."

She recalled that the prominent Ohio atheist Frank Zindler was wearing a button that said "Atheism: America's hope." To her, that's significant.

"I'm sure a lot of people would say, `How can an atheist possibly have hope?' because you just die and you don't have that hope of an afterlife where you don't have to think about anything ever again. To me, that would be hell.

"I just had a guy tell me that heaven was a place where you know all the answers. And I said, `Well, that would be hell to me.' How boring. You know, to be sentenced to an eternity of knowing.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy