Sin City: Why atheists are as moral as any religious group
When most people think about Las Vegas, they picture some combination of gambling, burlesque, night clubs and legalized prostitution—the pleasures that earned Vegas the nickname Sin City. But when sociologist Lori Fazzino thinks about Las Vegas, she pictures churches.
Seventy-seven percent of Las Vegas residents say they are religious, mostly Christian; and Vegas caters to a largely Christian population of tourists, many of whom party hard on Saturday night and then attend one of the 30 churches surrounding the strip on Sunday. And yet, the city’s public image makes it a target for revival meetings, “church planting” and missionary outreach by conservative Christians who see the city as ripe for redemption. According to Fazzino, that makes Sin City a fascinating place to study religious belief and non-belief.
Fazzino is an instructor and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, and a former Evangelical Christian. Her research explores social movements and identity, religious conversion and deconversion, and in particular how people leaving their religion arrive at a new worldview and community. In this interview she discusses challenges faced by secular groups and individuals in a city that is enamored with both sin and salvation.
Tarico:You’re a former Evangelical, a former erotic dancer, and now an academic sociologist studying religion in Las Vegas. That combination is a bit dizzying. How in the world did you end up where you are?
Fazzino:I was raised Catholic and got saved at an Evangelical mega-church at age 16. But in 2007, I was excommunicated, well as much as you can get excommunicated from a Protestant church. I was living just south of Seattle, very involved in a church called Real Life. I also was in a very bad marriage with a man who lied to get me down the aisle. About a year in, I learned that we were deeply in debt to the point that we almost lost our house.
Well, I’m a survivor. I used to dance at a club when I was 18, and so I decided to go to Alaska and dance. On the way, I got in a very bad car accident; I was hanging upside down in my car. After they got me out, my husband called our pastor. When the pastor learned why I was on the road, he basically said, “Lori is nothing but a whore, and if she comes around here we will have her arrested.” He didn’t want me tainting the church teenagers.
I was devastated. Although I decided on my own to end my marriage, my deconversion was precipitated by my former pastor. I remember thinking that church was the one place we were supposed to be protected from backstabbing, lying, judgment, and betrayal; if this was part of religion I wanted no part in it. I could find all of that outside of the church.
In 2010, now single, I moved to Nevada for graduate school, and a colleague brought me onto a case study about religious deconversion and spiritual abuse. Until then I had forgotten how interested I was in understanding religion from the standpoint of sociology. I’ve been doing research in this area ever since.
Tarico:So a key driver was your personal experience.
Fazzino:Absolutely! So much so that I had to constantly check my biases. When I started focusing on deconversion, I found myself questioning—Am I just doing this to get back at my pastor? But my answer was no. I was angry for a period of time, sure, but today I’m more interfaith: How can we have our respective worldviews and still work in a way that minimizes the harm? That’s what interests me. There is an incredible lack of research on deconversion, and I knew from my experiences that people had a story that needed to be told. I wanted to help facilitate that process.
I also am drawn broadly to giving voice to misrepresented minorities. My specializations are religion and cultural movements, but before focusing on secular groups I worked with people who identify as vampires.
Tarico:Do secularists and vampires have something in common that I don’t know about?
Fazzino:Both are marginalized, misunderstood, have to face people who are dismissive of their experiences, and are assumed to be unethical. The vampire community lives by a Bill of Ethics, and research has shown that atheists are no less moral than theists.
Tarico: So tell me about your research.
Fazzino: Part of what I do is look at the everyday experience of irreligion and specifically how nonbelievers navigate the cultural landscape of Las Vegas. This includes the lived experience of religious deconversion, and the construction of irreligious morality, for example.
Another part of what I do is examine secularism as a social movement. I’m particularly fascinated with the rise of groups that come together around secular identity—how do they compare to groups that come together around religion? Some people seem to think that religion is going to be eradicated, but as a sociologist I don’t think so. We know from history religion and what being religious looks like will change. But completely disappear? I’m extremely skeptical.
You can’t dismantle a social institution without putting something in its place.
Tarico:What are you finding as you study secular groups?
Fazzino:One of my preliminary findings is that there’s nothing special about the secular groups with regard to social dynamics. They have drama and interpersonal dynamics just like church groups, just like any other group.
I think there are some specific growing pains in the secular groups. Most are new so there’s no institutional memory. People come together spontaneously and so they may not know how to be leaders or how to organize groups or events. (As cultural institutions, churches have models and structures in place for all of this.) Also, people are mixed about how to interact with faith groups. Some want to go out of the way to provoke them; others see themselves as part of the broader spiritual landscape and want to join inter-faith community service. Some people need to be angry as part of the de-conversion process; others are more interested in building bridges.
One challenge in the current landscape is that secular folks who want community have limited options. On the UNLV campus we have 30 religious organizations, 20 of which are Christian based. That’s in Las Vegas, not the Midwest! Contrast that with one secular group, an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance. Where do people go if it’s not a fit?
By the way, that’s where I got my start, the Secular Student Alliance. After being forcibly ejected from my church, I found the one secular club at UNLV. The Secular Student Alliance is where I met people and where some of my deconversion trauma was healed. It is also where I realized that these are amazing people who need to have a voice.
Tarico: As a psychologist, I’m most intrigued by this part of the deconversion process—personal healing and people finding their voice and reclaiming their lives, whether that means learning to trust their own basic goodness and ability to think, or whether that means recovery from religious trauma syndrome. But as a sociologist, you are particularly interested in the dynamics around culture shift.
Fazzino:We need a better conversation about religious discrimination and privilege. Scholars have traditionally approached discussions about discrimination as an us-vs-them dichotomy rather than talking about it as multidimensional. We talk about male privilege, white privilege, Christian privilege instead of cisgender privilege, race privilege, and religious privilege. If we want people to understand discrimination, we need to stop setting up inherently adversarial conversations. Each one of us knows what it feels like to be treated badly because of one or more of our social identities. The key is to open up these conversations from a place of common ground. Then perhaps people might have a better understanding of why secular activism is necessary!
Tarico: Talk to me a bit more about this—the secular activism that you think is valuable or even necessary.
Fazzino:Atheists have been largely invisible in the past, and in my research I argue that we need to rethink what activism looks like. Findings from my research indicate that, on the local level, secular groups engage in three different kinds of activism: We’re going to sue the city because atheists can’t perform marriage ceremonies — that’s political. Let’s participate in a Light the Night march wearing Friendly Atheist t-shirts — that’s social. Let’s talk about being open about our worldview to friends and family — that’s personal.
Tarico:So in your research on the secular movement in Vegas, you identify these three levels of activism: political advocacy, social theater, if you could call it that, and creation of personal networks.
Fazzino: One place this all comes together in Vegas is the United Church of Bacon.
Tarico: The United Church of Bacon?
Fazzino: In 2010, a former marine named John Whiteside and some friends of Penn and Teller decided to disrupt the status quo by starting a real church with a funny name and then, as they put it, pursuing the same “silly privileges” as other churches. The United Church of Bacon (UBC) has legal standing as a church. It raises money for charities and ordains secular celebrants who have now performed hundreds of weddings; and it claims 4,000 members around the world. So it’s both playful and serious, community and advocacy, on the ground and online.
The political part focuses on challenging religious privilege and misuse of public funds. For example, members of one Vegas mega-church used to illegally park on the streets and corners to the point that it was dangerous, but the metro police department didn’t want to get involved. So, UCB drew attention to the issue until it got fixed.
At a social level, last year, John Whiteside wanted to get a document notarized for a secular celebrant, but the notary at his local Wells Fargo refused, presumably because of the church name. John asked for an internal investigation and then asked Wells Fargo to update materials on religious discrimination, but they refused. So UBC organized a protest that engaged secular groups from across the country. David Silverman from American Atheists, August Brunesman and Gordon Maples from the Secular Student Alliance, and Jason Torpy from the Military Association of Atheists came to Vegas. Almost a hundred people participated in a two day protest, and several thousand signed petitions. Many closed their Wells Fargo accounts. The protest prompted media discussion across the country about discrimination against atheists.
Besides garnering earned media, the United Church of Bacon has now put up several secular billboards with quotes from America’s founding fathers. The goal is to end discrimination against atheists.
Tarico:The third layer of social activism you mentioned was the personal layer, individual people coming out about their secular worldview or loss of religious belief. The idea is that when people know a member of a stigmatized minority and care about that person, their views tend to change.
Fazzino:There’s a lot of power in simply being visible. That’s why the Openly Secular campaign is near and dear to my heart. It’s not about advocacy in the sense of picking political or social battles. But we know that when people actually know an atheist they look on them differently.
One way I apply my academic research to help people outside of academia is that I have researched and written (or co-written) several toolkits for the Openly Secular campaign. One that is currently in press discusses how to deal with death and grief, which is an unrealized area of discrimination. Last year the Las Vegas secular community lost three members in a very short time. Despite clear instructions, family members co-opted the grieving process and made it about God, for example saying in a memorial service, “I know my sister is in heaven and when I get there I’ll tell her she was wrong.” For secular people sitting in the service, it was like a jab right on top of the grief. How do you handle it when you are told to be quiet at your father’s funeral?
Tarico:How do other faculty in your department react to this work?
Fazzino: The professors and other graduate students in my department are phenomenal. This summer the College of Liberal Arts gave me a Dean’s award, which means that people on the committee see my work as important. That was a big deal because I have high visibility as an atheist who also does qualitative research on atheists. I have a number of Youtube videos. That could be problematic for many reasons, but the award was validation that I’m doing something right for my city and my movement. Anything I can do to allow more of these marginalized voices to emerge, that’s what I’m about. If my research can help reduce stigma and create deeper understanding of why someone would self-identify as a vampire or want to be an atheist, maybe it will increase compassion.
Tarico:You clearly aspire to be not just an ivory tower academic but a change agent. As someone who is doing research not just out of intellectual curiosity but to address harms in society, does it ever get discouraging?
Fazzino: Absolutely! When I’m passed over for an opportunity because I openly identify as an atheist, I get discouraged. When I see intra-movement fighting between secular organizations, I get discouraged. When I see the lack of racial/ethnic and gender diversity in the movement, I get discouraged. When I see antagonism from secular activists towards religion and religious people, I get discouraged.
But as I was collecting data for my Master’s thesis about deconversion, one participant named Adam said something that changed the face of my work. He said, “I feel like I’ve won the cosmic lottery just by being here.” I was operating on the basis of deconversion being negative, but there are many people like Adam finding and embracing a more authentic life. So, yes, I may get discouraged, but discouragement is part of living authentically. And that is precisely why I need to keep doing what I’m doing.