He came from a Pentecostal/Church of Christ background and spent his college years as a Bible major at a private Christian university in Arkansas. Now he's a gay atheist/socialist on a mission to open the minds of Memphians with his atheist/agnostic/secular-humanist group, the Memphis Freethought Alliance. Jim Maynard made a big U-turn in the road of life, and he and a handful of like-minded others are looking to change Memphis, one step at a time.
The alliance, a social group that meets once a month to vent their frustrations with the Christian right and to plan activities to promote free thought, held its first formal meeting in March. At a recent meeting at Otherlands, the seven members in attendance spent as much time voicing individual views as planning various projects. Among those present were two lawyers and a teacher.
The meeting featured an outpouring of antifundamentalist sentiment and anger about the growing influence of the Christian right over the Republican Party. And that's what Maynard wants the alliance to be: a place where those with alternative views can speak their minds.
"After September 11th, it [the religious right] became unbearable for me. I started sending out e-mails, and eventually we formed the Memphis Freethought Alliance," says Maynard, who's also president of the Memphis Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice. "Our mission is to counter the religious right and the common belief that this is a Christian country founded on the Bible. We want to educate people on different points of view."
Those different points of view include: atheism (the belief that there is no God), agnosticism (the belief that there isn't enough evidence to prove that God exists), and secular humanism (the belief that human progress depends upon reason and science). The group is planning a series of outreach workshops to educate those who'd like to learn more.
Maynard recently debated Religious Roundtable founder Ed McAteer on a local radio station regarding Senator Rick Santorum's antigay comments. The encounter spawned a number of calls on both sides of the issue. The debate generated so much attention that Maynard has challenged McAteer to another debate, only this time he wants it to be public so the two will have more time to voice their views.
"I'm no constitutional lawyer, but his ignorance of the Constitution just amazes me. They [the Religious Roundtable] claim to be defending the Constitution, but they're tearing it to shreds," says Maynard.
Also on the agenda is a possible legal challenge against the Shelby County Justice Center for a plaque containing the 10 Commandments, displayed alongside the Mayflower Compact and the Bill of Rights. The plaque is in the lobby of 201 Poplar. One alliance member, Scott Kramer, an attorney with the Borod & Kramer law firm, plans to lead that mission but says the project is still in the planning stages.
The main goal of the Freethought Alliance is to bring a brand of freethinking to the forefront by showing people that the group is not evil or crazy, just non-Christians concerned about the growing influence of religion in American government.
"The majority of people in the U.S. are Christian or have a basis in Christianity. If you speak out against what the Christian right is saying, then you're rejected. It's almost like being black and saying you don't like Jesse Jackson," says Nikki, an alliance member at the Otherlands meeting who asked not to have her last name revealed.
They plan to take on the "In God We Trust" motto, the "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance, the defense of teaching scientific theories of creation over Bible stories in public schools, the recent abuse of constitutional rights due to the events of 9/11, as well as improving the image of non-believers. Another concern they'd like to address is religious fundamentalism abroad versus that in the U.S.
"Somehow, we [the majority of Americans] recognize the dangers of religious fundamentalism in Islamic countries, but we're not recognizing it here," says Maynard. "They may not be violent over here like they are over there, but damage is still being done."
Although they're non-Christian, alliance members say they're not against Christianity, just the abuse of separation of church and state by right-wing fundamentalists. They may sound like idealists with naive hopes of making the world a better place, but Maynard says they're not really looking to make any converts. Rather they say they're looking to stand up for the rights of nonbelieving Memphians, as well as anyone who feels religion has no place in government.