Debbie Goddard is outreach director at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y. Goddard is also the Director of African Americans for Humanism, a program of the Council for Secular Humanism. She spoke with Johnny Monsarrat for this interview.
RDF: The Center for Inquiry seems to be giant! You have 20 branches in the US, you also have many international branches, you produce 3 podcasts that have impact in the secular community… so, how big is the CFI really? Do you have 100 staffers or do you just make it look easy?
Debbie Goddard: I’m glad that you think we make it look easy. . . I’m not sure exactly how many we have, because we have part-time staffers and contractors, including people in different countries. We have about 35 or 40 people who work at the CFI Headquarters in Amherst, NY and another 5 who work on the DC Executive Office. We also have staff in Louisiana, California, Michigan, and others.
RDF: So now that we’ve established that you’re our overlord, what are your commandments? What does your leadership tell the secular community to do? What direction should we go?
Debbie Goddard: *laughter* Wow, that’s a good question. As a core, we are trying to promote critical thinking, secularism, humanist ethics and thinking that’s based on reason and science. I know that means a lot of things: we engage in advocacy, we have communities , we do educational workshops, we have online education programs and participate in rallies… And a lot of people are confused, it seems, because we do so many different things. On the one hand, we might have atheists who are promoting civil rights for atheists, and on the other hand, we have a full-time paranormal investigator on staff, who doesn’t do anything with atheism; instead he’s going to haunted houses…
RDF: Does he investigate the paranormal or does he investigate the paranormal investigators?
Debbie Goddard: He does both of those, but I think he spends most of the time investigating paranormal claims.
RDF: I’d like that job, sounds like fun!
Debbie Goddard: He says he’s world’s only full-time paranormal investigator, so I think it’s a rare position *laughs*
RDF: Let’s talk about you now. What’s your story?
Debbie Goddard: I grew up in Philadelphia but live in Buffalo now, I moved to work in the Center For Inquiry. I moved about seven and a half years ago.
RDF: Philadelphia is a reasonably liberal city; what was it like growing as a Catholic there? What made you switch to atheism?
Debbie Goddard: It is a rather liberal city [Philadelphia], very diverse… the only places that I really got pushed back for being an atheist were probably my own family, especially my father, who became more conservative after a few heart attacks, and with African-American friends of mine, including on campus in college. For some reason, being an atheist seemed to make me “less black”. For some people, if you’re a black atheist and you tell other black people, they see it as “acting white” sometimes.
Debbie Goddard: When I transferred to Temple University, which is a very diverse campus, I tried to start a Freethought club, and anticipated it would be called something like “Temple University Freethinkers” or “Freethinkers at Temple University”, something simple. I asked some of my friends to join and maybe be on the advisory board. One of my good friends was shocked . . . and told me that humanism and atheism were harmful euro-centric ideologies and that I must have been basically tricked by these things because they wanted a more diverse crowd, and he was kind of offended that I was really going to do this.
Debbie Goddard: I didn’t have a good response at the time…. so I actually put the brakes on starting the club thinking “Oh, there’s a lot of stuff I’m ignorant of, maybe I should take another look at this – I don’t see people of color at the conferences, I don’t see people of color in the pages of the magazines published by the different organizations. Maybe he’s right.”
RDF: From a certain perspective, Christianity was imposed on the rest of the world by white people, so if you go back in time it’s kind of imperial.
Debbie Goddard: Yeah, and the Enlightenment has its share of imperialism.
RDF: So atheism might be seen as a rejection of that “being white/imperialist”.
Debbie Goddard: There are many black nationalists who are anti-Christian for the reason that Christianity is European, but it doesn’t mean that they promote atheism the same way we promote atheism. Many of them are extremely sexist, some of them are extremely homophobic… the way that they talk about science and evolution is different than how we might talk about the same topics…. most white atheists I’ve talked to have no idea, they don’t know what black nationalism is necessarily and they don’t understand how someone could be an atheist but also have this other, what I’d consider, “bad ideas”.
Debbie Goddard: I also had problems in school. I lost my scholarship to enter a Catholic high school for asking the “wrong” questions in religion class and for starting a philosophy club. At the time it was very difficult; there was a lot of shame and guilt involved. I thought I’d lost the opportunity to get this fantastic top-notch education. But it set me on the path that eventually led to my getting involved in the secular movement a couple of years later.
RDF: It must be difficult to deal with this duality, like when someone says they’re Japanese-American but they don’t feel entirely Japanese or entirely American.
Debbie Goddard: Sometimes it’s difficult because they can compete with each other. For example, my father was a Polish Jew, my mother is an immigrant from Trinidad who was culturally Catholic so I’ve never had the identity of being African-American… I grew up with West Indian food, so I didn’t know what soul food was until later in life.
Debbie Goddard: We’ve had people working with us who had one Jewish parent and one Catholic parent and it seems to just make them destined to be atheist. . . they seem to convert at a faster pace than many other religions do.
RDF: What’s your advice for people in the secular movement?
Debbie Goddard: The movement’s been around for a long time, but in the last ten years there’s been an explosion in interest. People are talking about it publicly in a way that they weren’t before; there’s lots of people identifying with us . . . it’s thanks to the internet allowing people to connect in ways that they couldn’t before, allowing people to be exposed to information; and that means big changes in the movement. The previous major activity was publishing magazines and having a conference every year or year and a half, making the movement inaccessible to a lot of people, but now everyone can join a Facebook group or go to meetup.com if they have access to a computer and find groups they can meet and get involved with . . .now that there’s more people showing up in person, now that there’s more blogs and websites where people can come from an Atheist/Secular background but focus instead on other issues that might be interesting and relevant to that, there’s been shifts on how the movement works. There’s been an expansion of scope.
Debbie Goddard: For people running the groups, it would be good that they keep in mind that minorities are important. They can start by listening to their members and potential members, talk to people; realize that we’re trying to build this together and it’s better to have diverse groups moving forward. It’s beneficial for all of us to embrace diversity, to make welcoming spaces, for as many people as we can to get people to show up and stay committed to the cause; and these people will feel good about coming out in their community because they’ll have support.
Written By: RDFRS