The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, has contacted Skiatook Public Schools, Okla., to protest several state/church violations reported by a district family.
Among the allegations: District schools have taken students on field trips to a creationist park, Safari Zoological Park in Caney, Kan. The park's website describes its mission as "to show the awesomeness of our God in the individual wonder and uniqueness of all His creation." It continues, "we are more than an evolved matter over millions of years, but made fearfully and wonderfully in His image, with an eternal soul." FFRF's complainant said the park representative "spoke of God's miracles, about how perfect God is, about the Great Flood," and told students "that God made all the animals."
"Teaching creationism to students is neither educational nor legal," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the school district. "Courts have routinely found that creationism is religion, not science, despite many new and imaginative labels."
In addition, FFRF was informed that Marrs Elementary's teachers have led students in prayer, specifically at a Veterans Day assembly last year. "Public school teachers and staff may not lead, direct, ask, or even encourage students to pray," Seidel informed the school, asking the district to ensure the prayer did not reoccur at this year's upcoming assembly or any other school events.
Teachers at Marrs Elementary are also fond of emphasizing references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto, according to the complainant family. The school has posted a framed "In God We Trust" display on every classroom wall, and one teacher sent students home with a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance to memorize, boldfacing the words "under God," even though students are free to amend the wording or not engage in the pledge at all, Seidel wrote, citing court cases.
"These violations are particularly disturbing given the young age of students involved — as young as 5," noted Seidel. He concluded by asking the district to instruct teachers on the illegality of requiring students to stand for or recite the pledge, emphasizing the religious aspects of the pledge, promoting creationism and leading students in prayer.
"Our country is based on a godless Constitution, our pledge was godfree until it was tampered with in 1954, and our founders chose 'E Pluribus Unum' [From many (come) one] as our original motto. 'In God We Trust' isn't even accurate — to be accurate it would have to say 'In God Some of Us Trust,' and wouldn't that be a silly motto?" asked Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., has 21,500 members across the country, including members in Oklahoma.
Refusing to shut up and believe
Anvita received $400 for her essay.
By Anvita Patwardhan
One day in class as we were discussing the afterlife and salvation, I asked my eighth-grade Baptist Christian teacher this: “What happens to people who die who have never heard of Jesus? Are they all going to hell?"
She gave me a look that delicately informed me that she thought it was one of the most idiotic questions she’d ever heard. Her eyes scanned the room as though hunting for answers in the air before slowly answering, “Anyone who reaches a certain age will know about him.”
What a cop-out, I thought. I pressed, “What if they die as a baby?”
Pause. Another look of loathing. “I don’t know everything,” she spat.
With that, the conversation died, but the atmosphere was nuanced by a message that remained very much alive: I should just shut up. Never question what is taught, because it might shake my faith. So naturally, as the year proceeded, I did exactly the opposite. Needless to say, I wasn’t too well-accepted. The teacher told parents that I was arrogant and believed myself to be better than everyone else.
I spent most of my life in a private school that taught me to hate. I should hate homosexuals, the poor, transgendered people, Democrats, feminism, but above all, anyone who dares to question the truth of the Gospel. So the ironic statement arises: Why can’t I question it? That question lingered with me until the end of eighth grade, when I was selected as one of the top three in my class.
I was given the privilege of delivering a graduation speech, an opportunity to show a voice that I’d never expressed, a voice of rebellion. I was not explicitly an atheist at the time, just a skeptic, and while I would have loved to have given a speech peppered with expletives before marching out of my eight-year hellhole, I went with a subtler approach.
My speech consisted of nonreligious quotes about saying goodbye, what we can expect in the future and, most importantly, the significance of rationality. “Above all, question everything. Question, else fall victim to gullibility. Question, even if you can’t find the answer, but if only to challenge yourself,” I concluded.
Questions are the bane of religious fundamentalism. This was my coming out. Perhaps it wasn’t as explicit as when I was 16 and decided to tell my Twitter feed that I wouldn’t be going to church anymore when I could just attend its spitting image: my school’s mythology class.
My transition from skepticism to atheism was sparked by the coming out of my friend as a bisexual, a fact I undoubtedly found hard to accept. True to my education, I wondered if she was only doing it for the attention. She showed me a pie chart that proved to me that humor can sometimes be the most persuasive tool in one’s arsenal. It was titled “Consequences of gay marriage” with five sector labels in its legend: “Russia invades, Judgment Day begins, Families are destroyed, Ice caps melt, and Gays marry.”
Through my laughter, I realized that gay marriage harmed nobody, but that condemning it was an act of immoral discrimination.
Anywhere I could, I spoke out for those affected by the immense, adverse impact of religion of which my teachers never taught, such as the denial of science in an attempt to change school curriculum and restricting condom use and spreading HIV in Africa. I spoke out for the women, homosexuals and transgender people oppressed by religion. I spoke out for the millions of children paralyzed with fear at the idea of burning for an eternity. Now I understand why my Baptist teacher was so angry with my questioning. It wasn’t her religion I was questioning — it was her identity.
That dialogue was the catalyst to foster my growing skepticism, which molded my identity to make me the award-winning debater I am today and the law student I aspire to be.
My coming out gave me a voice, a resounding cry of acumen and freethought that indelibly sculpted and cultivated my identity.
Anvita Patwardhan, 21, Newark, Calif., attended Chabot College before transferring to UC-Berkeley, where she’s a junior English major.
Witnessing door to door no more
Aaron received $400 for his essay.
By Aaron McLaughlin
Acts 17:11, in which the inhabitants of Berea are praised for examining the evidence before believing Christianity’s claims, was a verse shared with me often during my childhood. I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and like the Bereans, I believed that my faith was firmly grounded in evidence.
I was like the Bereans in another important way: The only evidence that I considered came from the bible. I felt that I had strong scriptural evidence for the beliefs that I was raised with. But as I grew older, I felt the need to find evidence for the scriptures themselves. This desire led to a profound awakening, a year of hiding and a liberating confession.
I never planned to walk away from my faith. It happened organically and unintentionally. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to proselytize door to door, I was constantly interacting with people who didn’t share my beliefs. Despite this exposure, my beliefs were a closed system. The bible translation that I used was published by the Witnesses, as were the magazines and books that told me the correct interpretation of it.
While our beliefs were internally consistent, I was bothered by the overreliance on scriptures. Almost every line in a Witness publication will have a biblical verse cited at the end. It wasn’t as if I was skeptically analyzing the bible then. I simply had no idea how I could convince someone to accept it as truth.
With the goal of becoming a more effective evangelist, I set out to find external evidence for the bible. Over the next few years, I watched as every piece of evidence I clung to collapsed under scrutiny.
Fulfilled prophecies? Too vague. Historical evidence? Sorely lacking. Divine miracles? Unsubstantiated. By the end of my journey, I was one of the people whom I had set out to evangelize: I no longer viewed the bible as accurate.
It took me some time to finally admit to myself that I was an atheist. It took me even longer to admit this to others. Witnesses who disagree with the teachings of the church are guilty of apostasy and are often punished with “disfellowshipping,” or complete social exile. For many, that means means losing all family and friends. I was 16 when I realized that I was an atheist, so I couldn’t risk such a fate.
For a year, I went through the motions of being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Living in the closet breeds frustration and resentment. I was extremely hesitant to come out, but it was the right thing to do. I could continue to lie to everyone else and force myself to pretend to be a Witness, or I could tell the truth. As I was taught by my parents, the truth would set me free.
Like most of my peers, the biggest decision I made in my senior year dealt with college. This decision was made more complicated by the Witness position on college. Witnesses feel that college is unnecessary because of the impending arrival of Armageddon, and feel that it is harmful because of its promotion of ideas that contradict their teachings. Most don’t go. I was going to be different.
There was no possible way for me to tell my parents that I would be going off to college without explaining myself. Unfortunately, that meant telling my parents that I had rejected everything they’d taught me. When I finally did come out, it took my parents by surprise. Looking back, I suppose I should have changed the way I told them. But I’m completely sure that telling them was the right thing to do.
I never chose to be an atheist, but I did choose to be public about it. That was a decision I am confident was the best I could have made in that situation. Living openly and honestly is the most rewarding way of life.
Aaron McLaughlin, 19, spent the first 12 years of his life in Eveleth, Minn., before his family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and Fayetteville, Ga. As a University of Iowa sophomore, he’s pursuing B.B.A.’s in man-anagement and marketing. He’s the education and community organizer for Secular Students at Iowa.
Working for human(ist) rights
FFRF awarded Marcus $500 for his essay.
By Marcus Andrews
I certainly wasn’t “raised atheist,” as countless people ask me, either out of contempt or ignorance. I was raised to be curious and healthily skeptical and not to blindly follow authority or tradition for their sake alone.
While my parents could be considered atheists or humanists like me, they never pushed me toward unbelief. I did not even know the full meaning of the word “atheist” until my early teens, when I found it on my own. Simply put, Sundays for our family were not for church, but for trips to the science museum or art museum or zoo, for spending time with friends and family and for seeking out new experiences.
When I grew old enough to consider religion, the natural outcome was atheism, but being that kid whose family never went to church was at best weird and sometimes confusing and uncomfortable. When I went to a funeral or other religious function, often with our extended family, we just didn’t quite fit in. My parents had over the years refined the art of respectfully going through the motions and herded my brother and me along, discreetly telling us when to stand up, bow our heads or just sit quietly.
But I was always acutely aware that every piece of the ritual was empty to us, and that everyone else knew that while I halfheartedly moved my mouth, nothing like the Lord’s Prayer or whatever the psalm of the occasion was, was coming out.
While I always knew that we were different and understood the unease it could create, I’m not sure it ever bothered me enough as to ever want to conform. At every step in my growth as a nonbeliever, I had at least some sense (along with a stubborn affinity for contrarianism) that I wasn’t really missing out.
I still remember what might just be my first solo encounter with unbelief. I have no idea what started this profound first-grade conversation, but it ended with the girl across the table informing me that men who eat pork “go down into the fire.” The student teacher a few feet away hurried over to assure us that no one was going to hell just then.
Mixed with a subtle, naïve worry that I just might need to start being more careful with whatever unseen forces were out there, I could not shake the more overpowering thought of how ridiculous and cruel such a belief could be. Is that really what a god does? Punishing otherwise good people for something so arbitrary, that I myself do all the time? Even at that young age I understood that I was fairly alone in my class having no regular religious custom to attend, but that this was the first of many moments to come where I grew much more content with that.
By the end of middle school, I understood that I was in fact an atheist, even if I didn’t quite know the full meaning and implications yet. I was comfortable being different, even if I did not go to any effort to advertise it if I didn’t have to, understanding that I was part of a not-so-tolerated minority.
But as I moved through high school, I discovered the intellectual foundations that I had been missing, first in YouTube clips of scholars like Dawkins and Hitchens and later in their writing. I finally understood that I was not alone and that my life was not missing something.
Now there’s no stopping me. My rejection of the supernatural and commitment to understanding and advancing myself and humanity, is the absolute basis for everything I do. It guides me to value every second of this one short life, and it directs me to pursue a life dedicated to making society better for all. It is the reason I study international relations with a goal to create a world where opportunity and human rights prevail over artificial national differences and religious traditions.
I never hesitate to express humanist ideas because I know that the only way to attain this ideal world is for everyone to understand that there is much more to this universe than ancient tradition, and that humanity can and must do better.
In this endeavor, I keep Hitchens’ words with me every day: “Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.” I discover more of each continually, renewing my resolve to work for a world ever more wonderful.
Marcus Andrews, 20, was raised in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and is a junior at Ohio State University. He’s double majoring in political science and international studies, with focuses in international relations and diplomacy.
The God who wasn’t there
FFRF awarded Keith $500 for his essay.
By Keith Greer Milburn
I was raised a Southern Baptist, “saved” at the age 8 and washed in the blood two years later. I also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, which I believe has helped bring me to where I am today.
Anyone who has OCD is aware that doubt is a major byproduct — not being sure if you turned a light off or if you put your name on an exam after turning it in. One doubt was worse than the rest: doubting if I was going to heaven. I was always a true believer, but my belief never comforted me.
The main thing OCD produces is torment. There were many days I spent hours crying, begging God to help me. OCD creates real fears out of complete nonsense. I would be sitting there playing a game or watching TV and out of nowhere I would be stricken with thoughts that insisted I had sold my soul to the devil and that I was going to hell for all eternity. With tears in my eyes, I would call out to God to take away these thoughts, but he never did. The only real comfort came from my mother, who suffered similarly.
About a year after graduating from high school, I accepted that most of the bible was false, but my faith still remained in God and his son. Other things about Christianity did not make sense though. I could not believe that a man who does not believe in God but is a good father and husband would go to hell, yet a serial killer or rapist who accepted Christ in prison was destined for eternity in heaven.
Nor could I understand how if homosexuals were an abomination, why would an all-powerful being create them? A few months ago, I finally allowed myself to realize that under no circumstances could a virgin give birth and a dead man could not come back from the grave. But I still could not let go of God.
For weeks in place of my normal bedtime prayers asking for forgiveness and professing thanks, I simply begged God to show himself to me in even the most miniscule way. Finally the night came where I truly felt I was just talking to the ceiling and great relief washed over me. I no longer felt fear in my heart.
After accepting my atheism, I felt a great thirst for knowledge and started to read the great works of nonbelievers and to truly learn about the world and the universe. It was like a dark cloud had been lifted from my mind and the scales had fallen from my eyes. I was at peace.
I must thank my mother, who, despite being a devout Christian, has accepted me as I am and allowed my inquisitive mind to prosper. She is my favorite person to talk to and she will never know how much our theological debates mean to me. Keith Milburn, 20, was born in Virginia Beach, Va., and is a junior at the University of Memphis, Tenn. He’s majoring in political science and hopes to attend law school and specialize in criminal defense.
‘Heathens and heretics,’ oh my!
FFRF awarded Audrey $750 for her essay.
By Audrey Gunn
I have always been an atheist. My mother grew up in a strongly Catholic household, the kind that had six kids and prayed at every meal and went to church every Sunday come hell or high water. When she went off to college, my mother stopped attending church, which came as a great relief, as she had stopped believing long ago. Her mother, my grandma, was distraught, but just said that she’d pray. She meant well, I know.
My dad was raised a Scottish Protestant in Ohio, but was more or less indifferent to religion. So I grew up without it, aside from my grandma’s occasional gifts of rosaries and confusing explanations of Jesus. My mother always told me that if I was interested in going to church (or a mosque or synagogue), that she’d find one and take me, but the idea just seemed a bit odd, like Santa for adults.
Most of my best childhood friends were Christian, but the only time that interfered was when they couldn’t sleep over on Saturday because they had to go to church on Sunday. It wasn’t until college, strangely enough, that my atheism became something I had to be careful about discussing. I’d ended up “coming out” at Concordia College, a small Lutheran school in northern Minnesota, before classes even began.
The entire first-year class had read a book called Happiness over the Summer, and my orientation group was invited to our professor’s house to discuss it. One particularly religious girl (let’s call her Mary) said she felt like the concept of “joy” was minimized in the text. To her, she explained, joy could only come from religion, and from Christianity specifically. Mary was sure we could all relate.
My heart started pounding so hard that my whole body felt like a live wire. I’m a pretty reserved person, even shy, so when I opened my mouth, everybody turned to me, a bit surprised, I think, that I was speaking. “Well, I’m an atheist,” I said, and in that moment, you could have heard an ant crawling across the carpet.
“But I still feel joy. Maybe it doesn’t come from the same place yours does, but I feel it — when I go hiking, deep in the woods, when I see the boxes of food I’ve helped to pack for charity, when I’m painting with my little cousin and she says she wants to be just like me one day.”
I paused, but it was still dead silent. “Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I experience a smaller range of emotions. Joy might come from different places for me, but I feel it, too.” I was trembling. Mary’s face was twisted, like I couldn’t possibly understand.
I didn’t really have to deal with the stigma surrounding my atheism for a while. But in one class, called “Satan in Literature,” the topic was bound to resurface. Mary finally took her petty revenge about a month later.
We were reading Dante’s Inferno. Mary had designed her own version of the nine levels of hell, which she was describing to us in class. The first few levels were silly — people being penalized for theft and the like with ridiculous, jokey punishments. By the sixth level, we had made it to murderers. “What’s on the ninth level, then?” another student finally asked. Mary looked straight at me: “Heathens and heretics.”
I wasn’t about to confront her again about this ridiculous bias. If she wanted to condemn me to the ninth pit of hell, hanging out with Satan himself, then so be it. As far as I’m concerned, I will cease to exist after I die (the bible is full of fascinating stories, but I fail to see why they’re more than just stories).
I worry about being a good person here on Earth, making the most of the short life I have rather than wasting my time condemning others for life choices that differ from mine. Most people I’ve met at Concordia have been much more accepting of me, and I’ve even found a couple other nonbelievers along the way.
I refuse to let one closed-minded girl hinder my pursuit of freethought. Audrey Gunn, 19, grew up in Eagan, Minn., and is a junior English literature major and German minor at Concordia College in Moorhead. She plays clarinet in several groups, is a member of the Secular Student Community and serves on the advisory committee for the college’s honors program.
Memoir of an ex-Muslim
FFRF awarded Reem $1,000 for her essay.
By Reem Abded-Razek
As the daughter of an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood family, I spent many summers at Aunt Sabreen’s apartment. She was one of the “sisters” — women members of the brotherhood — who were in charge of our religious education.
“We should all thank Allah for creating us Muslims. We are all unbelievably lucky. There are billions born into the wrong religion, and Allah chose each and every one of us here for the right one,” Aunt Sabreen said at nearly every meeting. “Why?” I asked curiously. “Why us?” She answered, “You shouldn’t ask these types of questions!” So I stopped asking her and instead asked other grown-ups, but no one seemed to have an answer.
Years passed and theology consumed most of my time. The more I studied Islam, the more immensely I struggled in understanding Allah. At one point I raised my hands to the sky and poured out my heart and soul: “Allah, I can’t understand you! You bless the rape of slaves, wives and children under the guise of marriage, yet you set flogging as punishment for consensual premarital sex! You sentence so many good people to eternal hell because they dedicated their life to worshipping the ‘wrong’ God or no God! Talk to me and help me understand, please.”
Then it hit me. I was talking to myself.
When I announced that I was an atheist, my father believed that either I was possessed by an infidel djinn and thus required an immediate exorcism, or that I had lost my mind and required immediate institutionalization. After he had failed in arranging for an exorcism due to family intervention, he used his connections as a physician to get me thrown into a mental institution.
He said I would leave the institution a believer and that electroshock “therapy” would free me from the “delusions of atheism.” The only way I could get out was by pretending to believe, but I was too proud, stubborn and naïve.
I thought I could get out without compromising my principles. I waited until I thought the guard was asleep during my walk outside the ward. As soon as I ran, he became instantly alert and ran me down.
“You know what I do to people who try to escape?” he yelled. “I break their legs with my bare hands.” He mercilessly began twisting my feet. I screamed as he dragged me across the flesh-tearing ground into my room. A nurse locked the door and said with amusement, “You’ll never get out of here.”
I slept on the floor that night amid tears and blood, waking to the sound of a loud nurse dragging me to get electroshock. I limped my way there, then all colors faded and so did everything and everyone.
After regaining consciousness, I spent hours staring at the ceiling trying to think but not being able to. I felt someone’s presence. I turned my head and saw a nurse standing there. I never learned her name. Her face and figure were hidden under layers of cloth, and her actions for the most part revealed no identity whatsoever.
To my surprise, she gave me a glimpse into her personality. “You haven’t eaten anything in days,” she said. Even though I couldn’t see her facial expressions, I heard concern in her voice.
I endured the asylum for a couple of weeks, then got out through absolute conformity; I lied and said that an angel came to my room and we took a tour of heaven together and I knew, I just knew I was a Muslim. I was out instantly.
Almost everything returned to the way it was before my incarceration. The only thing that really changed was me: I was very scared and terrified of going back to the mental institution. I was also terrified of suffering the torment of conformity for the rest of my life.
I realized that by staying silent, I will most probably live longer physically but die “spiritually.” I decided that living shackled to silly conventions and superstitions is not really living at all, and I started writing about my beliefs publicly.
My father was in Saudi Arabia at the time. My mother lied to him about my devoutness, and through her lying, we all managed to come to the United States, where I became an emancipated minor and filed for asylum.
I am excited about my future without religion, I want to dedicate my life to art and music and dance and love and books and beauty and everything that I was told to avoid. I want to ride a bike and swim and draw and dance and play guitar and work and write and love and speak and act and sing and utilize every second of my existence. I am free.
Reem Abded-Razek, 21, lives in Syracuse, N.Y., and attends Onondaga Community College while studying humanities and professional communications.
Checking a box marked ‘atheist’
FFRF awarded David $2,000 for his essay.
By David Andexler
It was unusual for a question to bother me in the way that this one did. Ostensibly, the question about my religious affiliation was fair, though possibly irrelevant, for a university application, but my answer would be symbolic of the identity I would assume as I entered the next stage of my life. At that instant, the question had the power to bring my pen to a halt.
I was mildly amused that my inquisitors had been kind enough to provide me with a list of the four most common and, perhaps, the four most acceptable answers. At the not-so-tender age of 18, I was tasked with the minor feat of determining the eternal fate of my soul with nothing more than a checked box. Pick the one that best describes you: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish.
Since birth, I’ve had ceaseless exposure to evangelical teachings. I was given the name David, after a biblical character idolized as a paragon of religious virtue, “a man after God’s own heart,” and it soon became clear that expectations for me were high. Twice a week I would be whisked off to spend my evening memorizing bible verses and talking to Jesus. Based on what I was told, he was a pretty decent guy. The dialogues I had with Jesus began to seem more like monologues as I became suspicious of their one-sided nature.
I voiced my concerns to the group leader, who promptly brushed me off with a vague response that temporarily satisfied me.
My religious fervor was matched only by my passion for science. I spent every free minute immersed in a science book, learning all that I could about the mechanisms that drive the natural world. My parents went to great lengths to support my scientific education, something for which I’m inexpressibly thankful, despite simultaneous emphasis on religious education.
My grandfather also played a significant role in my scientific education by fostering my love of books. Though he was not formally educated, he was a well-read and intellectual man. Some days he would talk to me about science, about the beauty of the natural world and the sense of awe that we should feel as we observe it.
Religion began losing its hold on my mind when I was able to recognize that significant tension existed between the tenets of my religion and the discoveries made by the scientific community. After a conversation with my grandfather, this tension couldn’t be ignored any longer.
When I was about 11, we were sitting opposite one another in his home, quietly reading our books. “David,” he began, “What are you reading today?”
I handed him my book. Something else was on his mind, for he looked at the cover briefly before speaking again.
“Do you know the most important question that can be asked?” he said. I shook my head. “The most important question that can be asked is the question of ‘Why?’ If you can give a good answer to that question, that’s how you know that what you believe is true. That’s why science works. It tells us why the natural world is the way it is.”
In that moment he affirmed, perhaps not intentionally, what I refused to acknowledge on my own: The fact that what I believed about religion could not stand up to this fundamental question of “Why?” Science, which advances through the systematic evaluation of evidence for a particular claim, must make a rather large exception for the claims of religion if the two are to exist in harmony. I couldn’t justify making that exception.
In the years that followed this intellectual awakening, I maintained the outward appearance of a Christian, fearing social repercussions and a lingering sense of eternal damnation. For years I was haunted by the phantasms of hellfire, despite knowing, intellectually, that I had no reason to fear such torment.
It wasn’t easy wearing the Christian disguise; after all, it wasn’t easy to gloss over the horrific morality of the bible, the conveniently silent nature of God and the terribly convoluted revelation of a supposedly omniscient being.
I knew that prayer was a crapshoot, often being far more effective as an act of assurance for other believers than as an actual agent of change. I found myself growing tired of crafting excuses to rationalize my beliefs.
But as I sat on the cusp of higher education, I was no longer content with donning the trappings of make believe by masquerading as a Christian, a religion whose adherents desperately wanted to stifle my dissent. I looked down at the four choices listed on my university application, picked up my pen and began to write.
Like my namesake, I made a decision to fight against the proverbial Philistine threatening to conquer that which I hold most dear: my intellectual integrity. On that day, I chose to remove the mask that I had worn for so long, when, in blue pen, I wrote in the word “atheist” with a checked box next to it.
David Andexler, 21, was raised in the rural community of Rootstown, Iowa, and is a senior at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He will graduate in 2015 with a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in history. He is vice president of academic affairs for Duquesne’s Student Government Association and vice chair of external communications for the Pittsburgh Student Government Council and belongs to the Secular Student Alliance.
Raised in the Church of Costco
By Bijan Parandeh
FFRF awarded Bijan $3,000 for his essay.
Religion has always been foreign to me; I was part of neither the club that went to church nor the one that went to temple. When my second-grade classmates asked me where my family went on weekends, my answer was natural: My father takes us to Costco.
I have matured into a committed supporter of the Church of Costco. I worked there for a year during college and even have my own executive card now. Although as a child I was not able to appreciate how witty my answer was, as I grew older, going to Costco on the weekends actualized itself into a rejection of religion in its entirety.
My distaste for religion started early because as a child I could not understand believing in something or someone imaginary. I always loved animals and nature documentaries. I would go to the beach and see and touch the same animals I saw on TV. But how could I have that same experience with something hocus-pocus like God?
The discourse at my family’s dinner table was frequently far outside the range of a typical household. Sex, politics, philosophy — I remember one dinner my grandparents discussed whether or not bisexuality could be considered a fetish.
To me, debating confusing or questionable issues was natural, but I learned at school that other students looked to a book to tell them how to think. I never understood how my best friend could be more confident after an explanation from his priest than after debating it for hours at my dinner table. Questioning everything primed me early for atheism.
One major justification for my atheism is political philosophy. I spent my first year of college living with my great-aunt and uncle in California, both of them Iranian leftist activists in the 1970s. Witnessing their discussions with friends, most of whom they had met through political networks in the 1970s, taught me how useless religion is at a political level.
During the Iranian revolution, many intellectual critics of the shah, like my great-aunt, were jailed. Others were executed. Religious leaders were often seen as too sacred to be imprisoned. This allowed them to establish themselves quickly and take advantage of a dissatisfied and religious populace.
The Islamic dogma became a façade for a political system, and its repercussions are seen in Iran’s current human rights abuses. The Islamic system in Iran mirrors that of all religions and the destruction it has created throughout history.
A passion to fight this mentality motivated me to become politically active for the first time with the campus club “Left Alternative.” We campaigned for better quality classrooms and lower tuition. As a club revolving around socialist tenets, a secular mentality was critical in order to believe in our message.
My atheist convictions also influenced my decision to finally come out as gay last year. My belief in science and disregard for religious explanations of homosexuality pushed me to confidently say that it is an innate part of who I am. If I were religious, I may have never come out as gay.
I was most nervous to come out to my 80-year-old Iranian grandmother. Although she was not religious, she was from a different generation and culture, and I was terrified she would be disappointed. But as a doctor, she responded in the most loving way anyone could. She told me with elegance, how as a doctor, she knew it was something out of my control and I should never be ashamed of it.
As an ophthalmologist, she treated all her patients with equal dedication regardless of their backgrounds. This is an excellent example of how secular humanism expands your compassion and love for other people. Perhaps this mentality is what motivates me to become a doctor.
This is epitomized in the statue of Louis Pasteur in front of the Cook County Hospital in Chicago, where I walk to work in a pathology lab studying cancer prevention. The statue reads, “One doesn’t ask of one who suffers what is your country and what is your religion. One merely says, you suffer. This is enough for me. You belong to me and I shall help you.” (Louis Pasteur)
As ridiculous as turning Costco into a religion sounds, it illustrates how absurd organized religion is. Both are essentially exclusive clubs. You can’t shop at Sam’s Club with a Costco card, and who would want to anyway? You have to pay monthly dues to become part of a group that touts itself as better than the rest.
For my family, Costco was a place to see our friends and other members of our community, just like a church is. I choose to live my life without religion because dogma limits my thought process, my compassion for others and, ultimately, my happiness.
And I don’t need a book to tell me what happy is. Bijan Parandeh, 21, was born in Vancouver, B.C., and is a senior majoring in biology with a premed focus at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “I love lifting weights, yoga, playing the tombak (a Persian drum), swimming in the wetlands of Illinois and researching cancer in the lab.”
In a unanimous ruling, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said couples in Indiana can be married by their own “secular celebrants,” Religion News Service reported July 14. An 1850s law required marriages to be conducted by religious clergy or government officials.
Plaintiff Reba Boyd Wooden, a certified secular celebrant (and FFRF Life Member), said, “Whether a person is atheist, agnostic, humanist or simply doesn’t want a religious wedding, this decision means they can now have these wonderful occasions solemnized by a celebrant who shares their life-stance.”
Judge Frank Easterbrook said the law discriminates against humanists and members of faith groups without a deity such as Buddhists, Jains, Shintos and Taoists.
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
FFRF President emerita
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.
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.
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.
MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a law clerk.
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.
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.
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!”
- 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.”