Monday, September 23

Exclusive Interview with Aron Ra – Public Speaker, Atheist Vlogger, and Activist

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Mr. Aron Ra was born in Kingman, Arizona. He was baptised as a Mormon. He is the ex-President of Atheist Alliance of America.  He is a public speaker, secular activist, and an advocate for reason in education. He hosts the Ra-Men podcast with Dan Arel and Mark Nebo of BeSecular. Now, he is running for Texas State Senate. Here is his story.

*This interview edited for clarity and readability.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin, you were born in Kingman, Arizona. You were baptized as a Mormon. What was the family background surrounding your growing up? What was a moment of realisation, or a series of them, in becoming a non-believer, in becoming an atheist?

Aron Ra: Well, my family background largely identified as Mormon. Although, most don’t know what that means. We have some people in the family that do the whole magic underwear thing. Some even to the point of not drinking coffee or eating cinnamon, but those are very, very rare. Most Mormons are disciplined for the most part. And most of my family are (way) not.

Jacobsen: Okay [Laughing].

Jacobsen: I would say the better part of my family identifies as Mormon or they identify as Christian – not that that’s a different thing because all of them identify as Christian because they all think that Mormon is Christian, just like every Mormon seemingly does. It is just other denominations that don’t think Mormons are Christians, just like they don’t think Catholics are Christian. This was an advantage for me growing up. I got to see the interdenominational bigotry within Christianity.

When we lived in places like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado that were Mormon dominant, they were places that the Mormons controlled everything. And if you were not a Mormon, you were not employed, at least not if you were white. There were places that were like that. Utah is rife with them. When we moved to other places, and I moved a lot as a kid, I moved an awful lot – up to 8 times a year.

Jacobsen: Oh wow.

Ra: Both of my parents – I would be with one parent, then another. They would always be living at a different place, and then the last time I saw them and so forth. When we moved to places like Los Angeles area, for example, where the Mormons didn’t own and control everything, then anytime somebody asked, “What is my religion?” I know there is going to be a problem, well two problems.

They care what my religion is. And that’s always indicative of an issue right there. We are about to have an argument and the fault of the argument is going to be your assumptions. I would say, “My family is Mormon.” There’s obviously a “but…” coming, but I didn’t usually get to that.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: Right away, I would start hearing all of these ridiculous things Mormons believe. Now, I do not argue. Mormons do believe ridiculous things.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: Every religion does, to be completely honest. But the Mormons have their own collection of ridiculous things that are exclusively Mormon that are not the same ridiculous things that other Christian denominations believe, but the accusations these people were making were ridiculous things that my family, so far as I could tell, did not believe – none of them. So my mum was always the most devout of all of the Mormons in my family that I could talk to.

I would invite these people in, “Hey, you want to come in and tell my mother that she believes all of the things that you tell me Mormons believe?” They would always refuse the invitation. The refusal of the invitation seemed telling. It shows that they know what they are telling me is not true. They knew how quickly it is that I could refute all of that. I have been involved in the religion versus anti-religion argument unknowingly my entire life.

As a little child, I remember having conflicts with other people over religion at 5-years-old, at 8-years-old, and without realising it. Certainly, not realising my whole life would be this whole argument. I would ask simple questions to my babysitter when I was a little boy, like, “How does Jesus turn water into wine? I know water is H2O. I know that wine is alcohol and fruit juice, and I don’t know what the chemical components of that are.”

But as it turned out, when I grew up I looked it up. It is only the difference of a carbon atom. The molecules are much more complex. But they involve oxygen, hydrogen, and some additional carbons. That’s it. But all I knew at the time, water is H2O, and alcohol and fruit juice are something else. How does Jesus turn water from H2O into H2O and whatever else? I thought someone would give me some kind of intelligible answer.

Like how Jesus does that, whether he uses telekinesis or whatever he does.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: But they don’t come up with explanations like that, they didn’t want explanations. They didn’t even want to believe people had explanations. When I was growing up, I found believers not only hated accurate scientific answers, but they hated any answer that sounded scientific. It was a funny thing. I was told all of the time that “sceptics were cynics” because we miss out on the big picture that only the believers can see.

They should’ve paraphrased this: People that make up stuff and call it truth have the power to imagine all kinds of nonsense. But that’s what it is all about. It really is make believe, and it took me the longest time to figure that out. I thought, honestly, naively, even into middle age. I was in my 30s before I realised there were some people who do not believe what they do for a reason.

If you ask anybody, “Why do you believe X?” They are going to give you a reason why they think X is true. I thought this was true for everyone. I thought that you couldn’t believe something for no reason because that’s stupid. You wouldn’t believe something against all reason. I have had people tell me exactly that. I get into more and more arguments moving into my 30s. I would identify as an activist since then, since around Y2K. I got into these arguments heavily on the internet, on Usenet.

I found myself in a position where I had unrestricted browsing and unlimited overtime. This was my first internet experience up to 12 hours a day in a job that doesn’t require really anything of me. So I am on Usenet while monitoring other things and not being interrupted. And I get into these discussions, in-depth discussions with professional scientists and professional theologians on both sides.

They are both giving me references to look into. So I did for a number of years. It was almost obsessive the amount of time that I dedicated to this subject, this argument. When I came across people and asked them, “Why do you believe this?” I had never really bothered to ask them this. The answers people give are, “I believe this because I want to. I believe this because it makes me happy.” You piece it together eventually.

People would be criticising me for the reasons that whatever they believe cannot be true. They’d say, “Why can’t I believe what I want to believe?” Why would you say that about something that I just proved is not true? Why would you want to believe something after finding out it is not even possibly or even probably true, in either case? It is not possibly true. It is not probably true. It is not indicated by anything. It is disputed by everything.

There is no possibility here. This did not happen. There are no two ways about it. What the hell are you going on about? “But I want to believe that.” Why [Laughing]?!

Jacobsen: [Laughing] that’s hysterical.

Ra: [Laughing] I want to believe I’m a multimillionaire. I do. I want to believe that I have time travel capabilities. Great! But that doesn’t make anything real. And it is insane to imagine that. It took me forever to realise that. I actually said this myself ahead of Peter Boghossian. He famously did a video on ‘faith is pretending to know what you don’t know.’ As if people know they don’t know it, and they’re pretending on purpose. But yes, I said something similar on video prior to that.

I said, “But faith is often a matter of pretending to know what you know you really don’t know, and that no one even can know, and which you merely believe – often for no good reason at all.” That was the way I phrased it. I didn’t quite make as much money out of mine as he did the way he phrased his. This is actually true. That’s what faith is. Faith is literally make-believe. If people tell you that they want to believe something, even after they know that it’s not true, and people have told me that they want to continue believing, and that they will continue believing, even after they know that it is not true, that it’s not possibly true.

There’s no way in hell that this happened. If you believe in God, if you believe in miracles, then you believe in magic. You believe in magic. People argue against that all of the time, but that’s actually true. If you look up a collection of dictionaries, online it is easy to do. Open up a bunch of them, and see where they all agree, find the points in the context where all of the dictionaries agree.

You will discover that if you compare the definitions between a miracle and magic, you will see that they are both the ‘evocation of supernatural forces or entities to control or forecast natural events in ways which are inexplicable by science because they defy the laws of physics, meaning they are physically impossible.’ That’s what both miracle and magic mean. So miracle is the same things as magic in the same way a boat is a yacht is if it is big enough.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: A murder becomes an assassination if it is a VIP. A miracle is magic in that way. So people were making things up. “Let’s think hypothetically”, I said to someone, which is another thing the believers can’t really do, because that is kind of what they’re already doing. It destroys the self-made illusion to step in and jack that up with another illusion, even for a moment.

Let’s imagine that there’s some form of technology sometime in the future that can detect the essence of God and can measure it. We can confirm God exists, and importantly whose God it is. All of these people are making claims about this personal God and calling it Allah, or Krishna, but failing to call it Jesus. Jesus isn’t the only personal saviour out there. There’s a bunch. All of these people making absolute statements about what they know for absolute certain about this absolute God.

They are all mutually exclusive. They can’t be all right. They can all be wrong, but at most only one of them can be right. So we have the device that can prove God exists and can show the qualities or the properties of God, and can verify who is right about God. Everybody was against that idea. “No, there can never be such a device because God must always be personal. God is always in your heart” … as opposed to reality?

God is something a lot of believers – and I realise a lot of people have not given this any thought, and a lot of people believe things for rational-logical reasons–that they have been misinformed all of their lives or been duped by the propaganda, or believe everybody believes it and so there must be some truth to it. When you look in-depth and start talking to non-believers, when you start talking to people who know what they’re talking about, people have named this “Aron Ra’s Fork.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: When you’re talking to someone who, like me, knows both sides of the argument, when you start talking to someone like this about why they don’t believe, you have to make a choice whether to remain honest or whether to remain creationist, because it is no longer possible to be both. You will either have to concede that the claims of creationism – absolutely all of them – are unsubstantiated and fallacious or you’re going to have to start lying to preserve and defend that faith.

And that’s the choice they all have to make at some point. I have seen them come to that point and go the wrong way. “These may be what the facts are, but I prefer to believe this.” There is one that is the easiest to demonstrate. I can tell all of these anecdotes.

There was a movie that came out a couple of years back I happen to have been in, which was in called “My Week in Atheism.” It was made by a Christian named John Christy who was only pretending to be an atheist for a week. He goes to an atheist conference and he lets the atheist speak. The whole game is, and I have seen this done many times, I have seen where churches will host an atheist to talk to their congregation. They’ll have the whole thing where everyone seems to be on equal sides, but the obligatory statement at the end for the guy who has had his fingers figuratively in his ears the entire evening comes up and says, “And he didn’t change my mind at all. I’m still just as convinced. My faith is even stronger.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: This is pretend! That was the game in the first place! That it doesn’t matter what anybody says. You’re going to continue to believe. This is what I bring up in my book. If you look up any of the leading creationist organisations – creation.com, Creation Moments, Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation research. Almost all of them post most prominently on their website. Sometimes, it takes a little work to find it.

Generally, they will have a “Statement of Faith.” They might phrase it differently, but they will say there is no evidence that they will ever accept, acknowledge, or consider (!) that shows that they are wrong. They simply reject it outright. One of them put it that “wherever science and the Bible conflict, the science is wrong. The Bible is right.” Another one says, ‘Whether it is archaeology, history, or any fact at all. If it refutes the Bible, it can’t. The Bible is always right.’

The leading apologetic debater makes the same argument. That whenever there is an obvious conflict between theology and science that science is wrong. It is like Ken Ham of Answers and Genesis said when they asked him and Bill Nye, ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ Bill Nye said, “Evidence.” Ken Ham said, “Nothing.” He’s going to believe what he wants to believe no matter what.

He’s going to keep on believing. There are so many people who tell me, “if I had a time machine and could prove that Jesus never rose from the dead”, with the admission that “I hope my faith and I are strong enough that I can keep on believing, even when my eyes tell me otherwise.” That’s make-believe! That’s lying to yourself. That’s the entirety of what religion is.

So I started making a challenge to people: “Can you show me anything in your religious belief that you can show to be more accurate than any other religious belief?” I would stress for people not just to show me where other religions are wrong, but to show me where theirs is right! So I have to define my terms very rigidly all the time. If I look at the definition of truth, it took me a long time to figure out what people meant by “truth” when they were talking about it.

They are not being philosophically deep as I thought they were. Truth is really whatever can be shown to correspond to reality. Truth is what the facts are essentially. Facts are after all points of data that you can verify to be accurate. A lot of people hate these definitions because it completely undermines their theology. They can’t make the assertions that they want to by saying anything is the absolute truth, because under the definition of either word no you don’t!

That’s the problem. People want to say what they know only what they believe. They pretend. There’s not a part of it that is honest. My biggest sticking point is that the only value that any information can have is however accurate you can show it to be, and if you can’t show that it is accurate at all then that information has no value at all. So it is just an empty assertion. You can tell me whatever you believe all day and night, and I won’t care, until you can show me what you believe is actually true.

That it has some truth in it – when you show me something actually true in your belief. I can show you the truth of evolution. I can show you the facts of evolution. I can show you the positively indicative and physical evidence that is exclusively concordant with one conclusion over any other. I can do that all day, but religion can’t. No religion can because they’re all just made up. They don’t have any truth at all in them, none of them. The best that you can get out of people is that they can give anecdotal nonsense or will cite logical fallacies or they will say, “Somebody wrote once that there were Christians back in the 1st century and that means Jesus existed.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: Well, that doesn’t give you any more evidence than it does for Krishna or Mohammed.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: We also know by the way that there was a Joseph Smith. Mormons can point to exactly who that guy was, and when he died and why. There is no question on whether the prophets existed. We are talking about whether the religions they invented were true. Can you show me the truth of that? Of course, they can’t. None of them can. They don’t want to. They don’t need to. I have seen people make that admission too.

Eric Hovind, son of the famous fraudster Kent Hovind, said that he will believe whatever the Bible says. Basically, if God said it, I believe it. That’s it. You just closed your mind to reality. He said that we don’t need science to back us up. Wow! That’s a hell of an admission. I do need science to back me up. They have to do this reversal of the burden of proof. If I don’t believe that claim that you’re making, that positive claims require positive evidence and the burden of proof is always on the person making the positive claim.

If you want to posit some preposterous thing, then you want to do it for no reason at all. And I say, “I don’t believe you.” They challenge me to prove that they’re lying. No!

It is not my job to prove that you’re lying. It is your job to prove that there is a THERE there. That there is justification for the horse-shit that just fell out of your face. But there never is! It is a completely emotional lack of justification for anything. I say this all of the time. If you use religion for your reason for any action or a position, then you still haven’t given a reason because religion isn’t one. It is as far against and away from reason as one can possibly be. When people use religion as their only reason for whatever laws they want to impose of people or on other things, these are always mostly unjust.

Think about every example, every time someone comes up with religion as the reason why they want to impose it. It is always stupid. It is always imposing bigotry or limitations against somebody else’s freedom because you want to pretend in your special brand of pixie dust that is different from the gods and monsters other people want to make up. That’s what it is all about. There is simply no true religion because literally none of it is true.

Does that answer the question?

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Yes!

Ra: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: In association with the independent intellectual work that you’ve done on both the religious and the scientific sides from a very young age, you also have an activist side, which you did touch on briefly with regards to creationism and evolution and the teaching of proper science via evolution. You are the former president of the Atheist Alliance America. As well, you were the Texas state-director of American Atheists.

So without defining what those obviously are – collectives of atheists, what platform does that give for the unified voice for atheists in the country? And what have been some prominent initiatives and campaigns? For instance, the creationist-evolution—I don’t want to call it debate.

Ra: [Laughing] what do you call it?

Jacobsen: Maybe, propaganda vs. science wars – creationism vs. science wars – respectively. What is the importance of a unified voice for non-believers in the country, at least under the banner of atheism?

Ra: I am running for Texas state senate. That has proved to be a lot more demanding, and will be. So when the job of president of Atheist Alliance America became more demanding my campaign would be a lot more demanding because they’d be at the same time. At that point, I realised it would be a lot worse. So I realised that I’ll have to do one over another.

Atheist Alliance of America and American Atheists have pretty much the same goal. They were trying to achieve them in different ways. Obviously, Atheist Alliance of America wanted to develop an alliance of atheists. American Atheists was all about putting money together for court challenges on various grounds. There are a lot of atheist organisations that do that sort of thing.

There are a number of atheist organisations focused on charity and helping people get out of Muslim countries. They focus on helping those people who come from countries which put atheists in danger, just because such people have, say, blogged something like “I don’t believe this anymore,” and now their lives are threatened. Pakistan demanded that Twitter and Facebook give the name of anyone that speaks out against God so that people can go out and kill those people.

I don’t know if I am allowed to use harsh language on Conatus News. Blasphemy is not a crime. It’s a right. It needs to be exercised. We have the right not to believe lies. That’s important. Freedom of religion means freedom from religion as well. You can’t have freedom to practice your religion if you’re not free from the dominant religion. It is basic sense.

If there’s one religion that owns and controls everything, and you have to bow in obeisance to that, then how do you practice your own religion which you believe to be true if you don’t believe that other one is true yet you still have to pay homage and acknowledge it, and pray to that God five times a day, for example, or give homage every morning with your hand over your heart with all of the other kids in the classroom where you’re swearing to defend this country “One nation under God”?

No matter what it does, you are going to support this country. No matter how evil it degenerates. No, we shouldn’t be doing that. The pledges come from a believers’ standpoint. The country needs to earn the support of its citizenry. You can’t extort it. You can’t get people indoctrinated by always saying every morning before class where they’ll never question what you’ll do.

That’s what religion is all about. It is about controlling the masses. That’s why the powerful consider it useful and the lesser people consider it real.

Jacobsen: As side statement, please use any language you feel that you need to express your thoughts.

Ra: [Laughing] I am sorry to do that to you!

Jacobsen: [Laughing] it’s fine. Okay, so, that provides background. That provides your thoughts and the development of your thoughts. This includes your work in Atheist Alliance of America as well as American Atheists. Now, you’re transitioning from the intellectual work and the activist work, social activist work, to political work. What was the inspiration for getting more involved in politics, and why now?

Ra: The biggest problem I’ve had with people as activists, whether they’re organisations or individuals, is the great deal of apathy. People who don’t follow things the way believers follow things. The infidels, or the atheists, have been categorised as a herd of cats.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: Everyone is an independent freethinker. They won’t be one-issue voters. You can’t find anything in the atheist collective upon which everyone would be a one-issue voter. I found atheists vote against their own interests in favour of things they care about more. On the Republican side, they are very much one-issue voters at times. They will vote the exact way their leaders tell them too because of the authority.

Consequently, what happens any time there is low voter turnout? The Republicans win. The Republicans are predominantly the Right-wing religious types. They congregate on that side. What is called “the Left” is far away from what people say the Left is. The Left is not the extremist communists. There are extremists; there are communists, but the vast majority, of what is called “the Left,” are reasonable people.

But we don’t vote often. Many people are apathetic about the system. They are critical of capitalism and socialism. It is a sad. In this last election, people didn’t vote for lack of interest. In the previous elections, there was simply disinterest. They think, “This is a broken system. Why would you contribute to a broken system?” I find that bewildering that people think it.

Now, we’ve seen the product of it. The worst of all imaginable options will happen if you don’t do something about it – if you don’t choose the lesser evil. If you want to choose the greater good, then you need to work from the grassroots. When I became an activist 20 years ago, it was primarily because people that I was talking to were bragging to me that they had positioned all these senators and judges at various levels because their church pastor told them to do it.

This is the way the church votes in order to replace the entire political sphere with Right-wing believers, which is what they’ve done. That was 20 years ago. So this is a plan that has been enacted for a long time. Now, we have every member of the presidential cabinet who is a Right-wing science denier. One says the earth is 5,500-years-old. They deny climate change. They’re all anti-science.

They are all advocating Noah’s Flood among other things. Of course, they are denouncing evolution as well. So we have all three areas of the federal government governed by Right-wing religious dominionists for the most part. I think there is also 38 out of 50 states governed by religious Right-wing conservatives. Every level of Texas government is run by Right-wing religious conservatives.

So I am taking the impossible odds. I am running in an election, in a district, where I know it is heavily Republican. You can’t win. I could win every democratic vote and still not win. Given my obvious lack of charisma, I am going to hope to sway votes from republicans who may see the imbalance of what’s going on and how little they care about the platform issues. For example, the bathroom bill: we want to prevent trans-people from being able to pee? Really?

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: So they’ll all be on their moral high ground saying, “Yes, we don’t like men in dresses.” Or however they want to paint that. While that is going on, they don’t even recognise that they’ve had their Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, and Health Benefits stripped from them. Veterans’ Benefits, all of that, because they were fighting the good fight against what they see as perverts, which is that which they don’t understand or deviant and outside of their immediate family.

It is a frustrating thing, but I am thinking most people really probably would value their health care and their job, and how well they can sustain themselves and their family more than they do about where Trans people pee. I am just making a guess.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: I am thinking that if we can improve the quality of life and the way people get around and do things the way that it used to be. You know? Maybe, that would have a greater impact than being terrified of foreigners. So we don’t have to become Russia by building a wall and keeping the foreigners out, and where we become disgustingly monochromatic and even more ethnocentric than we already were.

When I was a little boy, it was people who were proud that this was a “Melting Pot.” Remember when Donald Trump said the “American Dream” was dead?

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ra: In a sense, the American Dream was foreigners could come to this country and, through hard work, they could be successful, make a new start, and realise and fulfil their dream despite their caste or their religion in their homelands. So Trump erected a system that denies them all of that. A system that sets castes, restricts religion, prohibits foreigners, and breaks all of the groundwork for small business, and for them to be able to do anything.

The American Dream is being destroyed by the current administration and also to a degree by the previous administration. I am no fool. I understand what has gone wrong on both sides. A lot of people don’t seem to realise it. They want to see it in a false dichotomy. They want to see everybody as either far-Right, or far-Left. They don’t understand what any of the labels are. You have to express exactly what it is you believe in.

They won’t understand. They’ll think it means something else. I am supportive of people. I am supportive of the American Dream Trump is trying to destroy. I want them to understand. Regardless of your religion, you don’t get special privileges because you claim to believe something different from everybody else. You don’t get special privileges because you get to claim that you believe the same things as the majority.

It doesn’t matter what you want to make believe. You don’t special privileges for that. You aren’t restricted from it. No one should restrict your belief. If someone says, “You are not allowed to believe that.” That’s ridiculous. It goes on in other countries, but it shouldn’t go on here. But that’s exactly what they’re trying to enact, where everybody has to pay homage to a Christian God. This is the last stronghold of that Christian God.

Everything that we set up for legislation that will promote Christianity will only pave the way for Islam later on because it is the fastest growing religion while Christianity is in a state of decline. Demographics change; you can’t fight religion with religion. What will happen is Islam will eventually dominate Christianity; there won’t be any Christians left. Fortunately, secularists, atheists, and nonbelievers are on the rise faster than even the fastest growing religion.

You can’t fight religion with religion, but you can fight it with reason. That’s what the atheist groups are really all about.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Mr. Ra.

 

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About Author

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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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