Nate Phelps on growing up in 'the most hated family in America'

The National Post, Canada/March 19, 2010

When celebrity nonbeliever Richard Dawkins finished addressing his hundreds of Godless followers at the American Atheists Convention at Atlanta's Emory Center last April, the follow up act was a man virtually no one in the room had ever heard of. Onto the dais walked a middle-aged, doleful-eyed cab driver from Cranbrook, B.C., by the name of Nate Phelps. He had come to talk about how his childhood in a religious household had brought him to atheism.

Mr. Phelps was not from a typical churchgoing family, but from what a BBC documentary once called "the most hated family in America." His father, pastor Fred Phelps, leads the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The family, and a handful of followers, has held nearly 43,000 demonstrations, mostly in U.S., a few in Canada, once in Iraq, picketing synagogues and Holocaust memorials, disrupting the funerals of American soldiers killed in action, and of murdered Amish schoolgirls. They are infamous for their hatred and cruelty. Their signs insist that "God Hates Fags," and hates America, too, for tolerating homosexuality. They chant "Thank God for 9/11," and for the bombs killing U.S. marines. They tried infiltrating the Winnipeg funeral in 2008 of Tim McLean, who was brutally murdered and decapitated on a Greyhound bus, calling it God's punishment for Canadians' sins, but backed off over fears for their safety. They march with broad smiles on their faces, their young children beside them, delighting in the outrage they provoke.

This is the family into which Nate Phelps was born 51 years ago and fled 33 years ago. At the time, his father had not yet graduated to street protests, but used a fleet of fax machines to broadcast his unabashedly hate-filled screeds to the world. Of his 12 brothers and sisters, only he and two others have deserted: The rest have grown Westboro with their own sons and daughters, inculcated in Pastor Phelps' intolerant, Armageddonist preaching.

Nate Phelps was in Calgary this week, speaking to the University of Calgary's Centre for Inquiry. Up until a year ago, he was driving a taxi in B.C.'s interior, quietly questioning God by soaking up in his off hours the anti-religion arguments of Mr. Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Today, as a faith-doubting refugee from Christianity's ugliest extreme fringe, he has become, rather by accident, a figure in the North American atheist movement.

"I'm not inclined to settle on that my dad's truth is the right truth, because it's a pretty scary truth if it is," Mr. Phelps says. "But it's just as difficult for me to settle on mainstream Christianity as the truth, because the essence of the message is still there. That these miraculous things happened; that this man who supposedly lived 2,000 years ago did this for us; and this is the basis of where we will spend eternity. Those are tough concepts to look at and say ‘yeah, that makes perfectly good sense.'"

Mr. Phelps' own story itself is not an easy one. His father, as he tells it, was a tyrant who believed strongly in the Biblical injunctions not to "spare the rod," thrashing his children with barber straps and mattock handles in ways designed to evoke maximum levels of righteous pain. By the age of 7, Nate could recite all 66 books of the bible in 19 seconds; his father, impatient at his children's inability to follow quickly along with his preaching, demanded it. The pastor was a bigoted, furious man.

Mr. Phelps has blurry memories of grandparents who were so bold once as to bring him Christmas gifts, and were banished for their pagan worship, and their attempts to moderate their increasingly zealous son. The children were forced onto eccentric, punitive fitness regimes, required to run 10 miles a day and eat milk curds for dinner, to treat their bodies as the temples the Bible commands. In the pastor's version of Calvinism, he promised that nearly all humans were sinners, pre-destined before birth to spend an eternity in a lake of fire. There was nothing anyone could do about it. It was terrifying.

"What has stayed with me all these years is the psychological [effect]," Mr. Phelps says. "It's the message, it's the information that you take in in your youth that you carry with you for the rest of your life."

Yet there was an undeniable integrity in his father's message, he believes. This was a literal translation of the Bible; it was a rigid interpretation, but all the mercilessness, all of it, could be justified by scripture.

But, as he matured, he noticed hypocrisies: the beatings were, the Bible said, a loving father's duty, yet his dad only spewed hatred for his children. There was all the ruthless judgment of an angry God toward the world, but none of Jesus's mercy.

A cocktail of "doubts, contradictions and fears" led Mr. Phelps to leave home the very moment, midnight, of his 18th birthday. His family calls him a "rebel against God" condemned to hell; his ties with the brother and sister who also left are strained, at best. They'd like to have a relationship, he thinks, but "we just don't know how." There are "trust issues," he says.

He tried keeping up links to his Christianity, occasionally attending mainstream churches in California, where he first settled. But they seemed "pale and feeble" compared to the fervency he felt in Westboro's pews. He got married, and had children. His faith began to die.

"I didn't think I was going to have kids. I really held somewhere inside of me this notion that I was going to be punished" for abandoning his father's church, his defiance of his father's will. "When you have been told, over and over, your whole life that there is a force out there, a malevolent force that will strike you down, that will cause you harm if you stray... it was unconscious, but I believed for years that I was going to pay a price." He didn't.

Attempting one Christmas to explain to his three kids notions of heaven and hell, they burst into tears at the prospect of eternal punishment. Remembering his own boyhood terror at God's wrath, he left Christianity for good.

Since divorced, and moved in with a Canadian woman he met on the Internet, it was by accident that Mr. Phelps found himself sharing the stage with Richard Dawkins. A chance meeting in his taxi with a UBC journalism student led to an article in the university newspaper. When it was republished on the web, Mr. Phelps was soon contacted by fellow atheists across North America. Then came speaking invitations. He is writing a memoir, and working with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science on plans to lobby for laws against denying children medical care for religious reasons.

Still, Mr. Phelps seems not entirely comfortable in the skin of a preacher, like his father, even if it is to urge moral secularism instead of God's hatred. He is uneasy with the anti-religious antagonism of Hitchens and Harris; there are too many, he knows, some in desperate circumstances, who find solace and strength in their faith. "I'm going to denounce that?" he says. "I have some serious trouble with the idea of just saying ‘let's discard it all,' because there's value. I see value."

No doubt Mr. Phelps has an exceptional empathy for troubled souls seeking comfort, having been one himself. After an isolated childhood in the spiteful world of Fred Phelps, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent time in a psychiatric hospital. He suffers depression. Talking about his childhood sometimes helps. Sometimes it makes things worse.

Coming from such a wretched corner of the Christian world, he allows that he may not represent most people's experience with faith. He has heard from many atheists with similar stories, though he admits that may be the self-selecting nature of the more activist side of the movement. And he has contemplated whether it's fair for someone with his abnormal experience to be held up as evidence against religion everywhere. But then, he says, if life under the Westboro Baptist Church led him anywhere, it wasn't to hatred - not for gays, or Jews, and not, even as a reaction to his father's viciousness, toward religion. It was learning the Bible in such a severe, literal way that made him see its illogic, that prompted him to weigh the evidence in favour of God's existence next to that against it, and to find the proof against faith "speaks for itself." It was witnessing the reality of true, undeviating faith, he says, that opened his eyes to doubt.

"I'm not 100% settled on anything," Mr. Phelps concedes. "But growing up in that environment, certainly gave me the motivation to seek out the answers, to find out the truth."

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