Chris Hofstader (a.k.a. Gonz Blinkko) is one of my favorite guest bloggers and disabled-rights activists, and he blogs over at chrishofstader.com. This piece is about the time he hosted a private concert at his house featuring Shelley Segal. She sounds like a wonderful person and she really made an effort to connect with everyone at the concert. Please read on for a truly uplifting piece on atheism, music, and “mattering.”
About nine months ago, I interviewed Shelley Segal for Pod Delusion, the podcast to which I contribute, and for an article on my own blog. Shelley and I met at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Women in Secularism 2 (WiS) conference where my blind friend and I had experienced the worst accessibility either of us can remember (a set of circumstances I described on my blog). If it wasn’t for Shelley’s kindness and that of a few other strangers, the weekend would have been a total disaster for us, but because of her generosity of spirit, her personal sensitivity, and desire to be helpful, Shelley made the event tolerable.
At the same conference, I heard the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, one-half of America’s smartest couple, give a talk on her concept of mattering maps, a philosophical notion that raises the personal desire to “matter” held by all humans to a level of analysis that can be applied to all situations. Goldstein’s concepts have been used to describe why women tend to wander away from technology professions, why other minority groups perform less well in some business settings, and, in my own still unpublished work, why technological segregation exists discriminating against people like me, people with a total vision impairment.
On October 10 of this year, Shelley Segal performed at my Florida home. Other than my wife Susan and Shelley herself, I hadn’t met a single person who came to hear her sing and, of course, she didn’t know the attendees either. We, the audience, enjoyed barbecue from our backyard smoker, chatted amongst ourselves and were treated to lovely music sung by Shelley’s lovely voice and a deeply emotional experience in a setting “safe” for atheists.
Organizing an Atheist Event
My wife and I do not have a whole lot of friends in St. Petersburg who share our atheistic worldview, as this is a very religious, church-going part of the nation and one rarely meets anyone willing to publicly proclaim their atheism. I suspect that many non-believers live here but, as we are a tiny minority, most people who share our values but live nearby keep their beliefs or lack thereof secret. As Shelley Segal’s first CD is called, “An Atheist Album” (please buy the album, please buy it either directly from her web site, www.shelleysegal.com or on bandcamp.com so she will make most of the money and you won’t be sending some of your dollars to Apple, Google, Amazon or other organizations who didn’t participate in its creation), I wondered how to promote such an event in a community where most people distrust atheists.
Enter MeetUp.com and the local atheist, skeptic, and humanist groups who gather at local restaurants once per month. I joined as many of these groups as I could and posted invitations to our Shelley Segal concert there. About a dozen Florida atheists, most of whom already knew each other, turned up to hear Shelley and enjoy some smoked pork, fishes, and mushrooms.
The first person to arrive was a relatively young guy. He sat on a bench window seat in our living room and Shelley plopped herself beside him and asked, “So, what’s your story?”
The first guest to arrive started, “I was homeless in January…” and, as I listened, the only word ringing in my mind was, “creepy.” My world is dominated by intellectuals, thinkers, hackers, activists, and, excepting a few people who have gone through horrible problems with addiction, no one who has ever been homeless and definitely not homeless as recently as January.
Shelley, however, continued engaging this fellow, asking him questions about his life experience, his relationship to religion and atheism and how he came to find himself in an old Florida bungalow to listen to a relatively unknown Australian singer/songwriter. I listened as their conversation continued.
“I was a witness, Jehovah’s Witness that is,” said our guest. “I learned a bit about evolution and assumed it was all wrong. I went to our local public library in New Hampshire and saw that there were hundreds of books on evolution. I read a few and realized that this was a generally accepted science stuff. I went home and told my family of what I’d learned.” He grew emotional and Shelley prodded him to continue.
“I was cut off from my family and all of the friends I had growing up. I found that I knew no one at all after I was shunned.”
This poor fellow had lost everything because his family had chosen not to either accept him as an individual with different beliefs or as a human being but, rather, had cut him off from everything he had previously known because he ceased sharing their unsupported claims of theistic creation. Shelley allowed this young man to feel as if he mattered, perhaps for the first time in a long time. He was able to share his story entirely because Shelley speaks to the person and not to his circumstances. Shelley’s deep “humanism” (with a lower case “h”) is essentially the core of Rebecca Goldstein’s work–if people feel like they “matter,” they will feel far more comfortable and, possibly, be more successful in our society.
In this particular situation, Shelley made it possible for our guest to share his horrific story. He could talk among others with whom he felt safe and, now, entirely due to Shelley’s ability to permit people to “matter,” he and I are now friends.
Victims of Religion
As the other guests arrived at our home, the conversation about religion and society continued. Like she did with the first guest, Shelley, as unlike any other headlining act I’ve known, made certain that she spoke with each one personally and, even more giving, she “listened” to everyone as well. Shelley, all night long, made everyone in attendance feel as if they mattered.
I know a whole lot of atheists. I attend events like QED in England, WiS in the States, and enjoy participating in the Boston Skeptics book club while summering in our Cambridge, Massachusetts home. My atheist friends, as I mention above, tend to be well adjusted intellectuals working in science or technology. For the most part, my gang of atheists have never suffered at the hands of religion, have never experienced any personal persecution for their beliefs, and, while some have disagreements with their families on such issues, they’ve never been shunned, have never had their support systems yanked out from under them, have never experienced even the tiniest of financial failures resulting from some sort of belief based decision and so on. Some of the people who came to hear Shelley at my house, however, had.
Shelley told me that, when performing for a small audience like this one, she tries to turn the concert into a conversation. Shelley would sing one of her songs, either from her atheist album or her more recent album of jazz songs and, as the tune ended, she’d open up the floor for questions and comments. When I performed as the vocalist for an hardcore act called Corporate Pig$ (don’t look us up, we’ve done everything possible to ensure that we have no lasting Internet presence), I screamed as the band blasted out high energy punk music through distortion rich Marshall amplifiers. We couldn’t even imagine, while playing from the stage at CBGB, of trying to engage our audience in some sort of dialogue; Shelley, a master of creating “experiential” art, did so with such elegance that no one in the room remained unmoved.
After each song, either one that “bangs the listener over the head with a two by four,” as Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys described some of his lyrics or something more ethereal like “Cry Me A River” (the jazz standard), our guests would start talking. In the beginning, the discussion tended toward the music itself, the lyrics and the like. As the night progressed, though, the artistic “document” created by Shelley Segal included the voices of all attendees and, frankly, some of it became deeply personal.
One woman was so moved by Shelley’s performance that she fell into deep sobs. For this woman, new to atheism, she heard her worldview represented in songs with such lovely lyrics that she couldn’t contain her tears.
Then, the conversation, as in any artistic achievement, turned dark. People who I’d never met before opened up their selves to each other. I heard stories of personal tragedies caused by religious attitudes, stories of shunning, rejection, families who cast their children out for not sharing their beliefs. I heard stories entirely unlike my own and, while I had known such things happened, I knew none of the victims personally.
During my interview with Shelley for Pod Delusion, she brought up a criticism she often receives. Specifically, Shelley is often accused of just “singing for the choir.” Such critics suggest that, as most of Shelley’s listeners are already atheists, she’s only speaking to those already converted. Shelley describes it differently, she demonstrates that she’s not singing “to” the choir but, rather, that she’s a member of the choir singing to the congregation.
It is, in my opinion, this specific detail that allows Shelley to expand her art beyond what she is doing on the stage to an artistic document that includes the participation of her audience. By joining the choir, she adds her voice, her lovely lyrics and guitar playing to a dialogue over which she has no control–an amazingly courageous approach to making art for such a young artist. Sure, Shelley can do excellent performances in front of enormous audiences (the Reason Rally comes to mind) but if you get the opportunity to enjoy one of her house gigs, you will be treated to an artistic event far beyond anything an individual performer can deliver.
With Shelley, if you’re a Skepchick reader, you can enjoy hearing your worldview expressed in lyric form and, if you’re fortunate enough to get to hear her play before a small audience, you’ll have the opportunity to both consume and participate in the creation of art itself.