Bishop McNeill is the Political Coordinator for the Center for Freethought Equality where his work focuses on achieving equality by protecting the separation of church and state and the civil liberties of secular Americans. McNeill has been involved in politics from a very young age. He started by watching his father seek election as a County Commissioner in the Fayetteville, North Carolina area during the early ’90s. Outside of politics, McNeil has worked as a Project Coordinator and Development Director for non-profit organizations. McNeill graduated magna cum laude from Fayetteville State University in 2011. A lifelong skeptic, McNeill has been an outspoken atheist for the past 8 years. (For more information: see http://www.cfequality.org/about/staff/)
Dan Falcone for Truthout: With respect to atheism and the role of the humanist secular worldview in education, how important is it for our schools to have a separation of church and state in your view? And why is it important?
Bishop McNeill: Our public schools should be a place where students come to learn and not feel ostracized by holding particular beliefs. Let’s say for example, a classroom teacher wants the students to say the pledge of allegiance, or even a more specific religious prayer. If a student doesn’t hold those religious beliefs, and doesn’t want to say “under god” in the pledge, they should have that right without feeling like they will be the talk of the school.
Have you experienced any difficulty in expressing your views in more traditional settings or over the course of your life? Can you share your experiences on what it is like to be an atheist and how members of your family or community responded?
I can definitely say that my experience being an atheist has been very mixed. Growing up in the religious South, I was completely surrounded by those symbols and people. For years growing up, I would probably say I was more agnostic about the concept of god, but didn’t feel comfortable being open about it. Since moving to the DC area after accepting a job with the Freethought Equality Fund, I have been surrounded by more people that think as I do – and it’s refreshing. Outside of parents, my family has not been very supportive of the work that I do. I think it’s hard for people because when they read about what I’ve been doing; it brings up questions that they don’t want to deal with internally.
How prevalent is atheism within the African-American community? Could you comment on this?
I believe the numbers of African American atheists are much higher than reported. One report said that only 0.5% of African Americans are atheist compared to 1.6% of the total population. In the same Pew study, 88% of blacks say that they believe in God with certainty, compared to 71% for the total population. Even though probably at a slower rate, I believe atheism is growing within the African American community, but the church has been such a powerful force for progress in the past – and in many cases, still today.
You have done very important work as a speaker, educator and activist. For example, you recently spoke at the “Let Humanism Ring” 73rd Annual American Humanist Association Conference in Philadelphia where you discussed “political action for humanists.” What was the primary focus of this workshop and of your talk in particular?
The primary purpose of the presentation was to talk to fellow humanists about the importance of local organizing and activism. I tried to make the connection to the work we are doing at the Freethought Equality Fund to increase our political influence with lawmakers. Most of the local groups are 501(c)(3) organizations, so I also wanted to provide some information on some of the permissible political actions they could take.
Do you see the day when it is politically possible for a President of the United State to be openly atheist? What makes Christianity a requirement in our political culture?
I do see a day when we will elect an openly atheist President. It will probably be at least 20 years from now, but that day will come. Many people, without really thinking about it, believe that individuals get their morality and ethics from Christianity. If you look at all of the horrible things that happen every day in this country, just based on pure numbers alone, most of it is done by those who consider themselves faith members. Another factor is faith. Research shows that people would sooner vote for a Mormon or a Muslim before they would vote for an atheist. Some people believe that it’s better to believe in something, even if they disagree with it, than nothing at all. Again, it will probably be at least 20 years from now, but that day will come.
Were you surprised by the Supreme Court in May upholding a New York town’s right to hold Christian prayer before its board meetings? The ruling was less clear-cut on whether certain religions could be excluded from participating. How do you react to these scenarios and to other subtle matters where school prayer is gradually making its way back into the classroom and the sports playing field?
I was a little surprised because the court has taken the opposite view in past rulings. However, based on the current makeup of the Supreme Court and the prominent voices within it, you can’t be too surprised. Our side is not the only one informed about the growth of atheism and non-traditional religious beliefs. We hear it every Christmas, when the Fox Network talks about the “War on Christmas”. There is definitely a push by the religious in this country to stop the rise in non-belief, and to protect their Christian identity.
Bertrand Russell once remarked in his, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish that “fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” He also said much, about how this hinders the educational process. Do you think that schools are still grappling with these types of challenges?
I don’t think schools are grappling with that problem because they are not focused on cultivating wisdom in students, but just making sure they pass to the next grade and teaching to the test. There are a lot of problems with the education system in this country that I could talk about. I think as individuals, if we truly want to be in a state of enlightenment and freedom, that comes from the rejection of supernatural fears and beliefs without sufficient evidence. We would be foolish to expect to learn this in school. As many have said before me, it’s important not to confuse education and intellect, and I believe the latter is what Russell was referring to.