The main speaker at the American Atheists National Convention isn’t an atheist. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe describes himself as "cheerfully agnostic" and he doesn’t much care for the debate over whether there is or is not a god.
"Honestly, I don’t care either way," he told a crowd in the hundreds at the Hilton in downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday. "I care about how you treat people."
Kluwe didn’t choose to retire from football. He blames the end of his NFL career on his outspoken support in favor of same-sex marriage, a stance he pushed aggressively in 2012 when he played for the Minnesota Vikings after a public official in Maryland criticized Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who also supports same-sex marriage.
He stands behind his decision.
"If I don’t speak for others who are oppressed, how could I expect them to speak for me when I’m oppressed," said Kluwe, whose speech focused on the need for more empathy.
In his world view, empathy is a choice, not a human trait. And if all people — whether religious or atheists — don’t choose to be more empathetic, he warned, it would likely lead to destruction of the human race and maybe even the planet.
He said humans have always created tools and weapons to master their environment and they eventually use those tools to kill fellow humans. Whether clubs made of bone or wood, spears, guns or atomic bombs, without fail, people have used tools as weapons whatever the consequences.
"Someone always pushes the button," Kluwe said.
And he believes at some point a person will create a weapon that could destroy all of humanity. That could happen when astronauts harness an asteroid or when scientists learn how to turn off and on specific genes.
The only thing that will stop a person from "pushing the button" is if humanity shrugs off fundamentalism and embraces a belief that all should be treated fairly. Kluwe said that would take atheists and church-goers alike.
Kluwe has never been a man of faith and he doesn’t find it logical that people can live in a universe they know so little about but believe they understand that universe’s supposed creator. And yet, he said he can sympathize with the role religion has played in the lives of so many.
"For a lot of people, religion is the little lie that people believe so they can believe the big lie of justice, mercy and fairness," said Kluwe, who believes those overarching principles are not inherent, but are ideals to consciously strive for.
Matt Dillahunty, the host of the Austin-based cable-access show "The Atheist Experience," preceding Kluwe on the convention stage and urged attendees to embrace the power of debating those who disagree with them. He wants "closeted atheists" to feel comfortable challenging the stated positions of family members and friends, seeing it as a necessary part of an atheist movement.
He said it was such a debate in college that caused him to change his views. He was a Baptist and his roommate was an atheist. Dillahunty tried to convince his roommate why he was wrong.
"So I went to look," he said. "It backfired spectacularly."
And Dillahunty has converted people to atheism from his public debates with religious believers. Within the atheist community, some have questioned the use of public debates to push their cause and Dillahunty sees that as a question with an obvious answer.
"How else do you plan to reach people?" he said. "If you don’t want to change the world, that is your prerogative, but don’t get in the way of those of us who do."
The American Atheists’ convention concludes on Sunday.
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