by Ryan Meehan
Nate Phelps is the son of the recently deceased Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, which gained infamy from their protests at soldiers’ funerals around the United States. He is the sixth of thirteen children, and was taught his father’s extreme version of Calvinism from an early age. This was accompanied by extreme physical punishments and abuse, extreme dietary and health requirements, and other extreme expectations. Nate left home at midnight on his eighteenth birthday, and moved to California where he built a new life away from his family. He later moved to Canada, and only recently began speaking out about his story after a chance encounter with a reporter while driving a cab in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Nate has now spoken about his story to many groups around North America, and even returned home to Topeka in 2010 to tell his story to the people in his hometown. Today Nate lives in Calgary, Alberta and works for the Center For Inquiry. He is a vocal LGBT advocate, and speaks out against the dangers of religion and child abuse. He is currently working on a book which covers his exceptional story, is the subject of an upcoming documentary film, and he’s our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: In an excerpt from the story on your website, you said that when you fled your family and the church at the age of eighteen that you had known for a few years that you were going to leave…When was the first time in your life that you realized other kids your age hadn’t been living the same way you were living, and when was the moment where you reached your actual “breaking point” and decided that you weren’t going to be controlled by the church once your reached that age? How would you best describe your mindset and approach to life in the space between those two points in time?
NP: My decision to leave was less about the theology and more about the violence and message I had internalized about myself. A core memory of that time is sitting in the church one Sunday evening and calculating the years I would have to live before Christ returned and I burned. Fred was teaching that the Second Coming was more or less the year 2000. I was convinced that I was going to be left behind and suffer an eternity of hell fire. In this context leaving and living my own life until I was 42 was a very rational thing to decide. Get away from the violence, be safe for a time, and deal with eternal suffering when the time came.
RM: If you had to summarize your overall take on religion and spirituality; what would it be and why do you feel that way?
NP: I grappled with my father’s faith first, main stream Christianity second, and finally religion in general. My conclusion was that there was no demonstrable absolute truth coming from any of them. Each human pled their case based on their geography first, experience second, and hard-wiring third. No one could answer the hard question, How Do You Know, satisfactorily. In short, there is no knowing in faith. When I read Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil”, I finally found a system that attempted to know and avoided absolutes where they weren’t justified. Humanism, for me. Is the only honest position. As for spirituality, it depends how you define it. Consistent with my rejection of the supernatural, spirituality is a rare state of extreme, life-changing emotion brought on by some unique sensory experience. Please don’t read anything mystical into that.
RM: On March 15th, you posted to Facebook a message about your father that read “I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made. I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.” Where are you now with your feelings about the fact that family members who were no longer with the Westboro Baptist Church would not be able to have some closure and at least send him some sort of message about the effect that he has had on each of their lives?
NP: I’ve accepted it now that it can’t be changed. To me it is an example of the pettiness and small-minded mentality of that place. It’s understandable considering their theology and mindset, but it doesn’t excuse the harm they’ve done, once again, to their own flesh and blood. As an atheist, this life is all we get. That makes their actions in this case even more hurtful.
RM: While most people know you as an advocate of LGBT rights, a lot of people are probably not nearly as familiar with your work with raising awareness of the many forms of child abuse that are currently going on in this country and all throughout the world. What do you think is the root psychological cause of the desire to initiate such controlling behavior within a family setting? Is it something that can be rehabilitated if someone is shown the error of their ways?
NP: I won’t speculate on the cause, I’m not well enough informed. The solution, or A solution, is changing the mindset of societies. When we collectively speak out and teach against such harmful practices, it becomes less tolerated and the perpetrators will have to confront that added social pressure. We are moving in that direction but much more has to be done.
RM: If you are accurate in your assessment that gods don’t exist and the world truly is as good as we make it, why is it that people seem to be so hung up on blaming the problems in their own lives on their immediate environment?
NP: I’m not sure how my assessment would speak to this question. I would say BECAUSE the world is only as good as we make it, we must try that much harder to practice kindness, acceptance, differences, etc. I would say BECAUSE we hold these ideas that justice will prevail in another time and place, we don’t feel the need to insure justice in every interaction. Of course it is far more complex that this, but hopefully you see my point.
RM: What is the most important thing that you want people to take away from your public speaking engagements?
NP: Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher and humanist was asked what he would want the world to know about the lessons he learned during his life. He said he would like to say two things, one moral and one intellectual. The intellectual thing was to look exclusively at the facts when considering a matter. Not be swayed by what you want to believe or what you think would have beneficial effects on society if it were believed, but long only and solely at the facts. The moral thing…love is wise and hatred is foolish. I don’t know if enough people see that simple choice as a moral choice. If we understood that, we would begin to improve our interactions and behaviours toward others.
RM: What does life have in store for you in the years to come? Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to discuss?
NP: I continue to imagine a book, or books, but the tyranny of the urgent keeps that out of reach so far. I am driven to see the criminal statues changed in every state in America, to remove the language that allows parents to refuse life saving health care, and thereby kill their children, if they do it in the name of their god. Also, there are still over 30 states that continue to violate the Constitutional rights of their LGBT brethren. I would like to find a way to bring this issue to a head at the federal level and end the battle once and for all. BIG DREAMS!
Official Website: http://www.natephelps.com/
Nate on Twitter: https://twitter.com/n8phelps
Nate on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NatePhelps
Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content. Meehan
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