Darwin Week speaker talks about leaving behind Westboro Baptist Church and hate

Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa/February 13, 2014

By Christinia Crippes

Cedar Falls -- It started with small seeds of doubt.

A young Nate Phelps could not grasp the enormity of eternal damnation for childhood indiscretions, and he could not square away his father’s teachings with the inherent wrongness of his regular use of domestic violence.

And as that 7-year-old boy grew, so did his doubt.

As soon as the clock struck midnight ringing in his 18th birthday, Phelps left the only home he had known and chose a path outside his family’s church.

That’s the condensed version of how Phelps came to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocate and religious skeptic after being raised by the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its anti-gay protests at soldier’s funerals.

Phelps gave the longer version of his story during an hour-long presentation Wednesday night as part of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers’ Darwin Week.

“Let me challenge you with a new idea, a simple idea: Faith is not a virtue. It allows evil to flourish unchecked, and it’s the justification of too much hatred,” Phelps told the crowd of about 100 at the Center for Multicultural Education in Maucker Union on the UNI campus.

Phelps said faith in itself is the problem, not which religion or idea that people align themselves with. He said faith leads some to believe it’s OK to discriminate against the LGBT community. It leads others to select inappropriate medical care for their children. And still others justify acts of terrorism because of their blind faith in a cause.

“After Sept. 11, I had an epiphany. It occurred to me in the emotional upheaval following that attack that the mechanism of blind faith could very well be one of the greatest threats to humans today,” Phelps said. “The thing that protects people from dangerous ideas is the ability to challenge them. Faith takes that away.”

Most of the questions following Phelps’ presentation centered on his upbringing by the Rev. Fred Phelps and how his relatives have fared inside and out of the church. Phelps said he has a brother and a sister, of 12 siblings, who also left the church and are estranged from the family that remains a part of it.

Jesse Moeller, a senior at UNI, agreed with Phelps’ goal of changing minds but he asked how he, and others, could go about chipping away at the paint of faith.

Phelps said there are means of using psychology to foster discussion with people who are at different levels on the scale of belief. But he said he believes it’s a generational thing.

There’s some evidence to support this theory. Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life project has identified “evidence of a gradual decline in religious commitment as a whole,” including about 20 percent of Americans who say they do not identify with any religion. Its research also shows about 70 percent of Americans believe in God with absolute certainty.

Margaret Nervig and Abbie Shew, members of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers student organization, said the group sought out Phelps to be a presenter during Darwin Week because some members had heard him speak at another skeptic conference.

Though the students said several presentations have been well-attended, they agreed that Phelps’ lecture had by far the biggest attendance so far.

The Westboro Baptist Church has been a presence in the Cedar Valley. The group protested a benefit concert in 2005 for an openly gay man who had been beaten to death earlier in the year.

The church scrapped plans in 2010 to protest a screening at UNI of "The Laramie Project,” which tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student who was beaten to death for being gay in 1998.

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