Revolution #162, April 19, 2009

Correspondence from Revolution readers and distributors in Atlanta:

“When Sunsara Taylor Came to Atlanta…Right Here in the Bible Belt”

A very exciting thing happened when Sunsara Taylor’s Away With All Gods! Tour came to Atlanta in mid-March. Sunsara has been touring campuses all over the country, speaking to audiences about Bob Avakian’s book Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, and opening up all kinds of stimulating debate and exchange with people from many different perspectives about religion and the role it plays in the world.

But when Sunsara Taylor came to Atlanta—right here in the Bible Belt—her courageous and provocative challenging of the enslaving mentality of religion tapped into a deep interest and thirst for this kind of conversation to be opened up.

This first became apparent when she was interviewed on a popular call-in show on commercial Black radio by Derrick Boazman, a former city councilman. The interview was electrifying and Boazman kept her on for the full two hours of the show. He read quotes from Bob Avakian’s book and asked her to respond and elaborate, and he challenged his religious listeners to call in saying, “We have a very intelligent young woman here—and now I want all of you preachers, Jesus freaks and holy rollers to call up, cuz she’ll have a word for you.” There were a number of calls from nationalists and from religious people from different points of view—including traditional Christian and African spiritualism—but many listeners called to thank her and congratulate her for her courageousness and some to profess their own atheism. One woman called in and testified about how hard it is to be a free-thinker in the Black community and about how her kids get bullied by Christians.

This radio show, and another with a Puerto Rican lesbian radio host on the local community station, helped to get the buzz going for the program planned at Georgia State University a few days later.

On the night of the program, over 300 people came out to hear the panel of Sunsara Taylor, communist, atheist and writer for Revolution newspaper; Dr. Kenneth Samuel, human rights activist and pastor of a local Black church; and Martin Cowen, non-believer and founder of Fellowship of Reason—and then to take part in two hours of wrangling debate.

The audience was hungry for sharp exchange and debate on foundational questions about religion, science, morality, and communism. They got rambunctious, they got offended, they got inspired, and a lot of them spoke up—both asking questions as well as interjecting and challenging the speakers. ALL of the speakers were challenged by the audience and things got pretty wild. People’s deeply held beliefs were being hit hard and people were getting excited and passionate.

Rev. Samuel’s presentation spoke firmly to the fact that one can be moral and be an atheist, but that his morality comes from Christ and that the political reality in America is that progressives will never get anywhere if they don’t embrace the fact that most people are Christian. He cited Obama and the fact that he could never have gotten anywhere if he hadn’t aligned himself with a church, and he argued from the point of view of pragmatism and the practical needs of the social movement that Christianity was necessary to work with. He said he will defend separation of church and state and that he will defend the right of non-believers and communists, he only hopes they will respect his rights to believe as well.

Martin Cowen, putting forward the philosophy and outlook of Ayn Rand, took on both Christianity as well as the dictatorship of the proletariat and put forward instead, the individual as the moral center of the universe. His point was that both the dictatorship of the proletariat and religion rule over people’s lives, and what we need instead is the individual as the moral center. He said that every individual should live life in order to flourish most fully, and individualism—not any form of collectivism—is the highest moral good.

Sunsara Taylor began by saying how important it was to have these exchanges, how much she respected the views of the other panelists, and then went on to do powerful exposure of Christianity and the Bible—how it is bloodthirsty and a source of outmoded, oppressive morality. She got into the core of the Christian message being rooted in patriarchy and in the idea that god has a plan and there is mysterious meaning in that plan. She told how the preacher at Oscar Grant’s funeral said he had thought Oscar was going to be a preacher but that “god had other plans.” She said, “That is one fucked-up plan”—to which a large section of the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. She discussed briefly communist morality and how it is rooted in the potential resolution of the contradictions currently shackling people and is a guide for how to live and struggle today. She ended by talking about how humanity will never do without art and imagination—BUT we can do and will do much better without religion.

A section of the audience was very audibly moved and unleashed by Sunsara’s presentation as she took on the Bible and the foundational beliefs of Christianity with substance and passion. There was palpable excitement among many in the audience that atheism was being fought for as a rational and scientific understanding of the world and that—not only did people not need a belief in the supernatural to be moral people in their relations to others—but that religion of all kinds was harmful and an obstacle to people understanding reality and liberating themselves and all humanity. There were also no “typical” lines of unity among the panelists—Mr. Cowen, the other atheist panelist, was arguing for “live and let live” and that individuals should do what made them happy and had no obligation to take responsibility for humanity as a whole. Both Sunsara Taylor and Rev. Samuel were addressing morality in the context of people taking responsibility to stop the suffering and injustice—especially that was propagated by our “own” government. All three were united in their opposition to any kind of theocracy.

From there the Q&A took off and got really wild—every panelist was challenged from a number of different directions and the panelists sharply challenged each other. The audience was made up largely of students from Georgia State University, but there were also students from colleges all over the area, including the historical Black colleges in Atlanta, and there were many nationalities represented—African Americans, Caribbeans, South Asians, Asians, white people and others. There were Black nationalists who opposed Christianity as a European concept, Muslims, Christians, Fellowship of Reason members, members from atheist and skeptic organizations, members from Dr. Samuel’s church, and then there was a whole mix of people who were just fed up with religion, many considering themselves atheists or agnostics.

There were a lot of questions to Sunsara Taylor about communism, many coming from misunderstandings and notions of totalitarianism, and others about how can communism be a science, what would motivate people in a communist society, and is there anywhere that it has been successfully tried. There were challenges to Rev. Samuel about Christianity and the role of the church that came from deep wells of bitterness and pain, and there were sharp challenges and dismissals to Mr. Cowen’s philosophy centered on the individual fulfillment as selfish and not addressing the inequities in the world.

A middle-aged deeply religious Christian from Haiti challenged Sunsara Taylor for being mired in “Western arrogance” in her comments and not recognizing that oppressed peoples had made revolutions based on scriptures in the Bible. Citing the revolution in Haiti, he asked: isn’t this a case of religion helping people to liberate themselves, not chain them? Another immigrant from the Caribbean challenged this statement, pointing out that people in Haiti are far from liberated now. One questioner seemed to be grappling with the contradiction between being drawn to Sunsara’s description of the kind of world we can achieve with communism versus her own Christian beliefs---she told Sunsara that her description was “really” what Christianity could bring to the world and that was why communism should be rooted in Christian love, not opposing Christianity. A middle-aged Black woman from Dr. Samuel’s church asked why one can’t be a revolutionary and a Christian at the same time, and someone else challenged Reverend Samuel on how can religion be a choice when it was forced on you as a young child.

There was also a developing exchange that took place mainly between Sunsara Taylor and Rev. Samuel—but also with the audience—over the Bible, Christianity, and Jesus.

Rev. Samuel early on united with Sunsara Taylor’s disapproval of what he called the “toxic texts” of the Bible—on patriarchy and homosexuality—but he, as well as some members of the audience, insisted that this wasn’t all that was in the Bible and that it was impossible to deny that Christians have played a major role in social movements, citing Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference motto: “To save the soul of America.” Taylor agreed that Christians have played a major role, but this has largely been in spite of the core of the religious message, not because of it, and that the church has played an acutely contradictory role in these struggles, including keeping the struggle of the masses within bounds acceptable to the system. She said patriarchy is not incidental to, but is at the heart of the Bible’s message, and then went on to talk about why we don’t need to “save the soul of America” but instead we need a revolution that gets rid of America and all that it means in the world. Debate continued between them over whether the core message of the Bible, including that of Jesus, supported liberation of the oppressed or slavery, rape and genocide.

Sunsara Taylor repeatedly made the point that she shares a lot of concern for the same issues as Rev. Samuel, respects him a lot and will unite with him and others from his perspective, but that at the same time there is a need for unity-struggle-unity; that the dividing line is not belief or non-belief, it is whether you stand with the oppressor or the struggle of the oppressed to get free. But, within that overall unity we do have to speak frankly and thrash out our differences—because the stakes are very high over what will really emancipate humanity from centuries of oppression and degradation.

One man in the audience got up and said it is pointless for the panel to be arguing—we are all one, from the same life force, all saying the same thing, all humanity is beautiful, it’s all energy, no one is ruling over anyone, etc. Taylor responded to this very bluntly: “As far as no one ruling over anyone, tell that to the 740,000 widows in Iraq. Tell it to the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons.” The audience got very serious and there was a heavy pause and then applause.

A Black man stood up and commended Sunsara Taylor and her courage and clarity, saying, “There is no pretty way to tell the dirty truth” and then went on to challenge Rev. Samuel and Martin Cowen (who despite being a non-believer, was very accepting of religion, as long as it wasn’t pushed on him) about whether they put the same value on things they “know” through faith as on things they know through empirical evidence.

This is only a small taste of all that got debated that night, and other questions ranged from social Darwinism, to dreams and consciousness, to Buddhism and Hinduism. After the debate finally had to be brought to a close, audience members clustered around the 3 speakers, with many people gravitating around Sunsara Taylor, some raving about how well she had done and how sick they are of Christianity.

A number of people had come out to the program off of hearing the Derrick Boazman radio show, and Derrick Boazman as well as the other radio host themselves showed up for the program. There were invitations for more interviews and exchanges with Sunsara Taylor and the other panelists. One student exclaimed about the event: “This was fantastic. This is arguably the most significant topic of discussion we can have in today’s society.” Others wanted to know when was Part 2 of the event going to take place.

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