Freethought Today · June/July 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Ehrenreich accepts Emperor, rejects religion’s shackles

Barbara Ehrenreich (atheist, feminist, author, essayist and columnist) gave this speech March 24 in acceptance of her Emperor Has No Clothes Award in Washington at FFRF’s post-Reason Rally gala dinner.

Wow, I have to hold it, OK? I think it’s anatomically correct, but there’s a fig leaf in case you’re curious. Thank you very much, Dan. I will be very proud of it as will my family.

It is an honor to be with you. I’m in so many settings where I am the only atheist, the only “out” atheist, and I kind of feel that whatever the subject is, I have got to get that in there somewhere. You know, particularly the idea that you cannot be moral, you cannot be socially involved or socially conscious unless you are with the “God Party.”

I thought I would go a little against the grain here with some dogmatic statements about God. Yes, I am going to talk about God. What qualifies me to do that? Well, I have read a lot of theology, surprisingly perhaps, a lot of the history of religion, and believe me this is very relevant, a huge amount of science fiction, which I am going to draw on. Plus since I have this award, I can now say anything, I think, I am entitled.

I wish we had the people picketing outside [Westboro Baptists] in here, because they seem to be experts, too. This is Saturday night, and I don’t know what all of you are planning to do for the rest of it, but I do know absolutely for sure that God does not care if you do it with contraceptives. He or she does not care if you do it with a person of the same sex as yourself, whether you are married or single, any of the rest of that.

In fact, if you search the bible, you will find no reference to birth control or gay marriage, and you will not find a word, strangely, about stem cell research. I have searched.

Let me say a little bit about abortion, since that is a major issue with the godly now. As a former biologist, I will say that if God cared about each fertilized human egg, he would not let an estimated 60% of them die each month before they get implanted in the uterus, flushed out with the menstrual flow.

They are killed by the deity him or herself, or at least not cared for by the deity. Unless of course you want to argue — I am always afraid to bring up this plain biological fact because someone is going to say, “Oh my god, we have to provide Christian burials for tampons” ­— it will get harder to dispose of a tampon than a Quran.

Where did the idea ever come from that God is called pro-life? I mean the people that say that, I am just saying pro-life here without any judgment attached to it. What about tsunamis?

What would Jesus eat?

This is equally dogmatic: God does not care about your weight-loss issues. You may wonder why I bring that up, but if you Google Jesus and quote weight loss, you will get millions of entries. A lot of people are convinced that Jesus wants them to be thin and that he has the best diet plan on the market.

You can contribute this to divine revelation on my part, but God does not care if you lose that last five pounds. Nor, sadly, does he seem to care if we are nice to each other, whether we are kind and we share, if we are nonviolent, whether we care for each other.

Those are human values, they do not come from some divine or extra-human source, and there are no rewards in the afterlife for those who put them into practice. In fact, if by some fluke or miscarriage of divine justice, I am ever offered a place in heaven, I will have to turn it down. Not only because my friends and family will be in the other place. Face it, something that seems very clear to me about the teachings of Jesus, whom I greatly admire, is that if you were offered a place in heaven that you would have to turn it down and give it to some poor sinner so that he or she does not have to spend eternity in hell, that would be the “Christian” thing to do.

I am just putting them on notice about that in case I should ever be put into that position. Now as for God’s particular interest in us or agenda for us in general, whatever issue you look at, sex or social morality, all the evidence points in one direction. He is just not that into us.

You may be wondering why talk about “God” at all. This is a Freedom From Religion celebration, not a theology lecture. If God is what they say — perfectly good and loving and all-powerful — then of course he doesn’t exist. It is impossible, as so many have pointed out over the centuries, for some deity to be both all-powerful and all-good. As Nietzsche or Stendhal said (it’s attributed to both), “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.”

There is no way to reconcile all that power and goodness. We won that debate. Long before Dawkins and the New Atheists came along, we won that, it’s over. Ever hear of the great American nonbelievers like Robert Ingersoll, anybody? Oh wow, I don’t often find many people who know.

Imagine cosmic ‘others’

Now I am going to ask you to get a little bit more out of your comfort zone and think in more general terms. Forget about the familiar monotheistic patriarchal notion of God. Think instead about the possibility of other conscious agencies or minds at work in the universe and bear with me. This is not a disreputable thing to think about. This is not freethought heresy.

Some of the greatest science fiction of the last century speculates on the existence of beings vastly different from ourselves. I am talking about Arthur C. Clarke, for example, Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, among others. Clarke was an atheist, Le Guin is, and Dick was unclassifiable.

Some serious thinkers here. They all imagined cosmic “others” that under certain conditions could interact with human beings. I don’t think that is such a strange thought for secular thinkers to have either. If there are such beings in the universe, especially powerful beings, I want to know about them.

I am not saying this as an agnostic. I am saying this as a curious person. If there are such beings of whatever kind, I want to know their habits, their inclinations, their tastes, their dimensions, their chemical composition, assuming they have dimensions and chemical composition, of course.

For me this is part of a larger curiosity about the world. For example, I want to know about extraterrestrial life. One of the greatest regrets in my life is that I will die, most likely, before we have contact with any intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

I advocate all the time for more public spending for the poor, the middle class, for the sick, but here is a confession I am proud to make. I want to see a lot more spending on science, on space exploration and on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I have to admit I wasn’t at the Reason Rally today because I had taken my granddaughters to the National Air and Space Museum. It is tragic. It is a monument to something we have abandoned. That’s how I felt. I could remember so clearly when the idea of being beyond the year 2000, we would have colonies on Mars.

It is not just curiosity, though, about extraterrestrial sorts of intelligence that motivates me. If there are powerful nonhuman and conscious beings in the universe, whether they are on distant planets or are floating among us right now like dark matter, then we had better find out all we can about them, and I say that seriously.

Recall the question that Einstein asked about God. He was not a believer, but he said what he wanted to know about God was one thing: Is he friendly? I would say it is important to find out. It is even kind of urgent.

There are many, many kinds of obstacles to knowing. We don’t have a lot of data on these points, and we may have some inherent mental limitations that prevent us from interacting with these other cosmic minds. But the point that I want to leave you with tonight is that one of the greatest obstacles to raising these questions and ever hoping for any kind of answer is religion.

I have all kinds of quarrels with religion — as do you, and I am not going to list them all — for its role in the oppression of women, from the Taliban to the Republican Party, for its role in fomenting war and reinforcing class hierarchies, suppressing science as well as so many other crimes against humanity.

Briefs against Christianity

I have another grievance against religion, or at least against the so-called “great” world religions, the great monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, Christianity being the only one I really know that much about.

Christianity has consistently for generations stood in the way of human understanding of the world: scientific understanding, philosophical understanding, even mystical insight into the world. It has prohibited these sorts of questions and punished the people who dared to raise them. It has discouraged consistently any speculation about God, or to keep that more general, as some kind of cosmic entity.

When I was a child, for example, most of my friends were Catholic and I would ask them the usual questions, “Why does God let babies die?” and so on. The answer, “It’s a mystery.” Remember that? It’s a mystery, we can’t know and if you questioned that answer or said it is not a good enough explanation for you, then you were told that God just demands one thing from you, which is obedience, submission, just shut up and do what you are told. Don’t commit any sins, including the sin of intellectual arrogance as the priests liked to put it, like asking too many questions.

You probably know that, but what is less well-known to freethinkers, and I invite you to open your minds to this, is that Christianity has repeatedly crushed or harassed or tormented the most devout Christian intellectuals and mystics who dared to think for themselves.

Meister Eckhart, for example, anyone every heard of him? Oh wow, great. When he died, the Inquisition was on his trail. He had been called to Rome because his notions about the deity were not acceptable.

Or Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 because she had unusual notions about the deity, Christians, members of religions and lay orders.

Worse still in my brief against Christianity, Christians for 400 years were at the forefront of European colonialism, crushing all alternative religious systems on the planet, in the Americas, in Africa and somewhat less successfully in Asia.

They crushed polytheistic religions, they crushed ecstatic religious, they crushed goddess worship, paganism, pantheism, animism, all expunged pretty much from the world. With the destruction of all the indigenous religions throughout the world, we lost all notions of a deity other than that perfect and all-powerful monotheistic one.

We lost the female deities, we lost the multiple deities, the animal deities, the jaguar gods, the lion gods, the elephant gods. We lost the entire pantheon created by the human imagination over the centuries. We lost the vicious gods that demanded blood sacrifice, and we lost the fun-loving gods like Dionysius and Bacchus

As all those alternative ways of understanding were wiped out, pretty much, we were left with this single inaccessible, unknowable, patriarchal deity of monotheism. Which is to say, we were left with nothing, just the paradox of the perfect god whose only excuse can be that he doesn’t exist, a god who by definition doesn’t exist.

It was this vacuum that the great classics of science fiction attempted to fill, not with new dogma or myths but with an invitation to speculate about questions that organized religion prohibited people from asking. If we are truly freethinkers, no issue and no topic is off limits to us, even topics that have been historically monopolized by religion.

So yes, our great common challenge here in this group, in this gathering, is to free people from religion, get it out of our laws, our schools, our health systems, our government and, I would add, also our sporting events. I would really like to see some separation of church and stadium, if we could work on that.

What I am proposing finally is in the tradition of untrammeled freethought: We might have to also free “god” from religion.

Thank you. 

FFRF Co-Presidents

DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by the Foundation. His newest book, The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God, was published by Ullysses Press in January, 2011. His previous book, the autobiographical Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, was published in 2008. A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in the Foundation's musical cassettes, "My Thoughts Are Free," "Reason's Greetings," "Dan Barker Salutes Freethought Then And Now," a 2-CD album "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," and the CD "Beware of Dogma." He joined the Foundation staff in 1987 and served as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004.

Annie Laurie was also editor of Freethought Today from 1984 to 2009, when she became executive editor. The paper is published 10 times a year. Her book, Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published in 1981, is now in its 4th printing. In 1988, the Foundation published her book, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 book, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters'is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the UW-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection,a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She joined the Foundation staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. She co-founded the original FFRF with Anne Gaylor (see below) as a college student. Photo: Timothy Hughes

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FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

ANNE NICOL GAYLOR is a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and is now working as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she has done substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism
See Anne Gaylor's online writings.

Director of Operations

LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit (primarily association) management, including 15 years as executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.

FFRF Legal

REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.

Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.

PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.

ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.

ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.

SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.

KATHERINE PAIGE graduated magna cum laude from Wichita State University in 2010 with a B.A. in History, Political Science, and French. She attended law school at the College of William & Mary where she received her Juris Doctor in 2014. Katherine became FFRF’s first Legal Fellow in September 2014, specializing in faith-based government funding.

FFRF Staff

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

SCOTT COLSON, technology manager, webmaster and production editor, is a 2007 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who majored in philosophy. Scott joined the Foundation staff in May 2008. He enjoys playing bass, talking politics or economics and brewing beer.

KATIE DANIEL is the bookkeeper/executive assistant/staff baker at FFRF. She was born in California and has lived in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Missouri. She moved to Madison in 2005 to attend UW-Madison and graduated in 2009 with a BA in Gender & Women's Studies and a Certificate in LGBT Studies. She joined the foundation staff as a student clerical employee in September 2008 and started as the full-time bookkeeper in 2009. Unlike many of the Foundation's staff members, Katie is religious and considers herself a practicing Wiivangelical.

BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.

LAURYN is the publicist & assistant editor at FFRF. She was born in Wausau, Wisconsin and has also lived in Nagasaki, Japan. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2012 with her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication and International Studies. She also received a double minor in Journalism and English. Lauryn moved to Madison in January 2013 and enjoys reading about astrophysics, basking in the sun like a turtle and creating art at coffee shops. Lauryn is a practicing Pastafarian

DAYNA LONG is an administrative assistant at FFRF. Originally from Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received a degree in English. She has been with FFRF since July 2013. She spends her free time volunteering for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and admiring her beautiful cats.

FFRF Volunteers

Phyllis Rose
Foundation officer and volunteer Phyllis Rose.
Photo by Dan Barker

PHYLLIS ROSE is a retired library administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been volunteering 3 afternoons a week at the FFRF office since 2000. A Lifetime Member, Phyllis provides oversight, clerical and editorial support. Phyllis serves as an officer on the Foundation's governing body.

FFRF Honorary Board

honoraryboardmembers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.

The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.

“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

  • Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
  • Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
  • Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
  • Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
  • Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
  • Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
  • Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
  • Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
  • Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
  • Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”
  • Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
  • Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
  • Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”

In Memoriam 

  • Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, is author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”

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