Dr. Richard Dawkins gave the keynote address on day one, where he began with a worry that he had gone too far at the Reason Rally. Had he been too confrontational when he told the crowd at the National Mall to, "Ask them what they REALLY believe"? I think I can answer that for him: no sir, not even.
Then he moved on to talk about the Clergy Project, a confidential online community and support group for religious leaders who have realized that they no longer hold a belief in the supernatural (whatever the flavor of faith or religion may be). Dr. Dawkins mentioned that there are currently over 180 members of the Clergy Project (the website mentions over 185), which to me seemed like a lot. Either I was just too naive, or I never took the time to contemplate the idea that there is a substantial group of people who currently hold positions as leaders of a religious communities who no longer accept the tenets of their particular religious dogma. And these people, who have devoted a substantial portion of their lives to an empty career, who are surrounded by family and friends that likely will not understand the struggle of unbelief, who are facing the loss of income or worse, their loved ones, need help as they endeavor to find a way out. But all of this is why, in my mind, Dr. Richard Dawkins has changed all of mankind for the better. He, and those like him, consider possibilities that the rest of us don't.
I had never heard of the Clergy Project until his presentation, and I was completely blown away as he explained the purpose of it all. What a phenomenal idea this is! In my mind, this project is the best possible use of Dr. Richard Dawkins' foundation and the resources of the American Atheists. Because the worst possible situations generally stem from human beings that feel hopelessly trapped...
And then there was this:
We were told that yet another member of the Clergy Project was going to formally "come out" at the convention. We waited in anticipation as a very professional looking woman with a pleasant smile approached the podium. Embarrassingly, I had assumed that this person was there to introduce our surprise speaker, because being a child of the South, I automatically assumed it would be male preacher that was coming out. Boy, was I wrong. This remarkable woman came to the podium and introduced herself as "Lynn," the first woman to graduate from the Clergy Project! As we all stood to applaud her courage, she proclaimed to the enthusiastic crowd if admirers that her name was Teresa MacBain, a Methodist Pastor from Florida, and that it was a relief to finally be able to tell the world her real name. Can you imagine? Needless to say, the entire convention floor erupted into wave after wave of cheer and emotion, with electrifying roars of applause.
Then Jerry DeWitt ran to Teresa at the podium, then Ernest Perce, and Richard Haynes, and on and on. And the really touching moment - the moment I had the most trouble holding back the tears - was when Dave Silverman came running down the length of the convention floor, jumped effortlessly onto the stage, and opened his arms wide so he and Teresa could share a very touching embrace.
Like I said, it was everything I had not to turn into a blubbering idiot while I witnessed this "coming out' event. My emotions ran from sympathy to elation as I listened to her talk to us about how she became an atheist. Seriously, I don't think it's stretching the truth to say that there weren't too many dry eyes in the room.
Honestly, when I consider what Teresa has gone through over the past few months, I got some perspective. Teresa's story forced me to reevaluate my own struggle with being an atheist; and more importantly being an atheist living in Texas. She showed me how I can abandon my fear of offending the wrong person and find the courage to stand up for myself and my beliefs. And if she can do it, then so can I.
Finally, it was just this week that I also found out that one of my favorite bloggers, Bruce Gerencser of Fallen From Grace, is also a member of the Clergy Project. If you have some extra time during your work day or you need a break, do what I do, run over to Bruce's blog and listen to what he has to say. His blog is as much of an inspiration as what Teresa MacBain did at the Atheist Convention and he deserves your ear.