Book Review: The Secular Activist

144 PP.

When Kentucky’s tourism board approved an $18 million tax incentive for Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter theme park and exhibit, many gawked. None more than Dan Arel, author of Parenting Without God and creator of the Danthropology blog on Patheos, who became the self-proclaimed “go-to guy” on all things Ken Ham. Arel’s latest book, The Secular Activist, is a concise call to arms for those willing to disrupt the invasive advances of the religious right in America.

The Secular Activist opens with a valid criticism of Bill Nye for accepting a debate challenge from Ham. Arel writes of his aversion to Nye giving Ham publicity, accusing the science advocate (and 2010 Humanist of the Year) of aiding in the funding of the Ark Encounter. Through exposure on the national stage, the Ark Encounter received tens of millions in bond sales, and with DVD revenue and evangelical support, the Ark Encounter was built. Arel’s distaste for Ham is clear when he describes him as a “snake oil salesman,” and criticizes Nye for offering him an “infomercial to sell his product.”

Arel ponders the effect that the same resources would have on Kentucky’s crumbling education system, importantly noting that if there were no activists to point this out, Kentucky’s education system would lose out, and high school graduates would enter the real world believing in creationism, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and that a massive flood wiped out every being on the planet bar a large wooden boat full of every species (one that Ham found difficult to construct without the help of over $100 million and modern machinery).

Arel further discusses his activism and research on the Ark Encounter’s hiring policies, for which he received the First Amendment Award from American Atheists. Arel discovered that the self-proclaimed “ministry” required applicants to sign an affirmation of faith, a testimony of salvation, and a statement of belief in creationism, which ultimately rendered the project ineligible for tax incentives.

Arel’s central point holds true: if not us, then who? If Arel had not spent months looking for his “smoking gun,” then the taxpayers of Kentucky would foot the creationist bill. The taxpayers of Kentucky would face a crumbling education system, while enjoying a massive wooden boat in the middle of a field.

During his investigation, Arel found himself on air with Ken Ham, where he questioned the Ark Encounter’s hiring process. Ham lied in stating that the Ark wasn’t hiring. Arel responded with a point about how the religious often question nonreligious people’s ability to behave morally without central tenets, calling that tendency “an odd position for someone who had just lied to me on air.” Arel linked this to the great Christian persecution complex Ham peddles to his followers and echoed Paul Revere: “The atheists are coming! The atheists are coming!”

The Christian persecution complex Arel debunks is derived from an idea that Christians somehow deserve special legislation, and that atheists are intensely focused on destroying not only their religion, but the moral fabric of America at the same time. Arel makes this important distinction, stating that secular activists do not intend to destroy Christians, just as we desire to destroy cancer but not cancer patients. Secular activists, he says, are just trying to even the playing field for those of all beliefs, or no beliefs.

It’s absurd to say that Christians in the United States face persecution, when there are Christians in North Korea and in parts of the Middle East facing genuine persecution and with ISIS beheading swaths of Christians for simply being Christian. Arel excoriates the Christian Right for “doing nothing” for those facing true persecution, instead searching for nonexistent domestic persecution. With religious freedom advocate Katrina Lantos Swett describing the genocide of religious minorities overseas as “the great moral challenge of our time right now,” one wonders where these Christians, so boisterous in their words, are in helping their brethren overseas.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly sided with religion in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., where, in Arel’s words, the court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other employers had “more control over your sex life than you do.” The most notable exception is the 2015 ruling permitting marriage equality. Shifting demographics, Arel points out, offer the secular activist hope, with a 7 percent increase in the nonreligious in America over the past eight years. Losses and victories must encourage secular activists to take the next step to ensure that all Americans and their beliefs are respected.

Arel closes his book by providing the reader with the necessary tools to become an activist, and in his final chapter provides a rallying call to change the United States. The Secular Activist provides the necessary motivation and tools to fight the religious right. Arel’s experience displays the virtuous nature involved in activism, as well as its tolls. The book is a concise, fascinating read for those who believe they are unable to shift the paradigm themselves. Arel’s work demonstrates the possibility to enact true change in our society.

The Secular Activist will be available on October 1, 2016.