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Did you know that American law is not based on the Ten Commandments?
Some Christians believe* that American law is based on biblical law. One of their evidences is the claim that Moses and the Ten Commandments are prominently featured at the United States Supreme Court. But . . .
Did you know that there is nothing in the design of the United States Supreme Court building that would indicate that the Congress, architect or designers had any special regard for the Ten Commandments?
Did you know that the main entrance to the United States Supreme Court has no reference to religion
or the Ten Commandments?
Did you know that those large statues beside the steps do not represent any religious figures or concepts?
Did you know that the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, considered those to be allegorical human figures? He described “Contemplation of Justice” (on the left, holding a smaller figure of blindfolded Justice) as “a realistic conception of what I consider a heroic type of person with a head and body expressive of the beauty and intelligence of justice.” He described “Authority of Law” as “powerful, erect, and vigilant. He waits with concentrated attention, holding in his left hand the tablet of laws, backed by the sheathed sword, symbolic of enforcement through law.”
Did you know that the Ten Commandments expressly forbid the creation of such graven images?
Did you know that the carved figures at the Supreme Court would be considered a form of idol worship under the Ten Commandments?
Did you know that this is one of many evidences that American law ignores the authority of the Hebrew scriptures?
Authority of Law
Did you know that the tablet held by “Authority of Law” does not represent the Ten Commandments? (The Ten Commandments are usually depicted by two tablets and Hebrew lettering.) The Latin word LEX (“law”) in this context refers to law in general.
Did you know that the words “Equal Justice Under Law” (approved by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes) that appear above the steps to the Supreme Court are not a quote from any religious teaching, but a uniquely American phrase? It is taken from a sentence that appeared in the 1891 Caldwell v. Texas Supreme Court decision, which ruled that all citizens, under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment, are entitled to “equal and impartial justice under the law.” This principle is found nowhere in Judeo-Christian scripture. Did you know that if the Ten Commandments were the basis of law, there would be no “equal justice” for nonbelievers or followers of other religions?
Did you know that the carvings above the main entrance to the Supreme Court represent no religious figures or teachings? Five characters are allegorical: Liberty (in the middle, with the scales of justice, a symbol that originated in Babylonia and Egypt and predated the writing of the Ten Commandments), Order, Authority, and two figures representing Council. The remaining individuals are candidly historical: Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Senator Elihu Root, architect Cass Gilbert, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the sculptor Robert Aitken, and Chief Justice John Marshall.
Did you know that Robert Ingersoll Aitken, the sculptor (whose namesake may have been the famous agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll), put himself into the Western Pediment (second from right)? Whatever his personal views were, do you think that because Aitken's figure appears at the Supreme Court, American law is based on the views of Robert Aitken?
Front door of the Supreme Court
Did you know that the bronze doors at the front of the building, leading into the courtroom, contain no references to religion? (See footnote about Julian)
Inside door at the Supreme Court
Did you know that the official guides to the Supreme Court building explain to visitors that the Roman numerals I-X on the inner oak door of the Supreme Court refer to the Ten Amendments of the Bill of Rights (and not to the Ten Commandments)?
Did you know that the frieze on the wall above where the Supreme Court judges sit, depicting a seated figure beside a tablet with the Roman numerals I-X, does not represent Moses or the Ten Commandments?
East frieze, above the justices
Some believers mistakenly assume those are the Laws of Moses in the middle of the frieze. They forget that Moses reportedly had two tablets, that there would be no sun or eagle on top of the Ten Commandments, and that the Roman numbering system was not invented at the time the Hebrew scriptures were written.
Did you know that the designer of that frieze, Adolph Weinman, wrote a letter to the architect explaining that this graven image represents the “Majesty of the Law,” sitting beside the “Majesty of Government,” and that the Roman numerals I-X stand for the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights? [That letter is on file in the archives of the Supreme Court. It is unsigned because it was probably a copy for record-keeping.]
Did you know that the “Majesty of Government” image to the right of the tablet is holding an ancient fasces (bundle of sticks) in his left arm? The fasces represented Roman law and authority and was carried much like the American flag is carried today. Since that image sits directly above the heads of the nine Justices (and another above the main entrance), do you think American law is based on the Roman fasces?
Did you know that although Moses is depicted inside the Supreme Court (fourth from left on the south frieze), he is not the central figure, but merely one of many “great lawgivers of history” on the South and North walls? Weinman placed Moses somewhat off to the side on the South frieze (not above where the justices are seated). Moses (holding two tablets) is standing among other allegedly historical lawgivers such as Menes (holding an Egyptian ankh), Hammurabi (who allegedly received his laws from the Babylonian Sun God), Solomon (who was wise enough to manage 700 wives and 300 concubines), Solon, the legendary Lycurgus (the central figure, who consulted the Oracle at Delphi), Draco, Confucius, Octavian, Justinian, Muhammad (the polygamist who claimed to have received Islamic law from the god Allah), Charlemagne, King John, the Crusader Louis IX (“Saint Louis”), Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon, as well as allegorical or mythical lawgivers such as the Greek goddess “Fame,” the Egyptian goddess “Authority,” the “Light of Wisdom” goddess, “Equity,” “Philosophy” and “History.”
Detail of Menes, Hammurabi and Moses, south frieze
Do you see that Moses is walking behind (not leading) Menes and Hammurabi in the south frieze? Menes was an Egyptian pharaoh and Hammurabi was a Babylonian king, both of whom worshipped a sun god.
Did you know that it was the designer, not Congress, who chose what images to represent on those friezes?
If the Ten Commandments were truly the basis of American Law, then why is Moses merely one of the throng of many lawgivers, real, legendary and allegorical? Since the other characters have as much prominence as Moses, why not consider American law to be based on the Greek Oracles of Delphi, or the sun gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, or a book of philosophy, or the Koran?
Did you know that Muhammad and Moses stand almost directly opposite each other on the South and North walls, appearing somewhat off to the side on each frieze, and seem to be on par with each other?
Did you know that the lettering on the tablet shown with Moses represents fragments of Hebrew words from only the last five Commandments?
Did you know that Muhammad is also depicted holding a so-called holy book?
Did you know that image contains Arabic letters from the Koran?
Do you think the artistic depiction of the words of a holy book at the Supreme Court make that book the basis for American law? If the Ten Commandments are the basis of American law because they appear in the Supreme Court, then why not the Koran? Or why not Roman law, since "LEX" appears at the front entrance?
Egyptian ankh, book of philosophy, owl, pagan lamp of wisdom, pagan scales of justice
Did you know that the artistic representation of the Ten Commandments tablets is only one of many other historical, religious, and mythical symbols that appear on those friezes? These mainly pagan symbols include or represent: the Egyptian ankh, the Roman fasces, a mirror, a rose, more than ten representations of the scales of justice, a dove, an owl (a symbol of wisdom in Greek, Roman, Indian and other pagan cultures, but not the Bible), harp, Greek scrolls of law, a book of philosophy, the Magna Carta, the Justinian code, an orb, the sword of a Crusader, at least eight more swords, more than one lamp, a scepter, and many other historical as well as mythical items?
Eastern pediment (back of the building)
Did you know that while Moses is indeed depicted twice at the Supreme Court (outside and inside), so are Confucius and Solon? Moses is the central figure on the eastern pediment, the back of the building that few people see, facing away from the nation. Although Moses is central, certainly due to the fact that most European settlers of America came from a Judeo-Christian heritage, neither Confucius nor Solon are secondary in that image.
Confucius, Moses and Solon, Eastern pediment
Did you know that the designer of that eastern pediment gave secular reasons for that art? Sculptor Herman A. MacNeil wrote: "Law as an element of civilization was normally and naturally derived or inherited in this country from former civilizations. The 'Eastern Pediment' of the Supreme Court Building suggests therefore the treatment of such fundamental laws and precepts as are derived from the East." Neither Congress nor the sculptor claimed that American law is based on Confucius, Solon, or Moses. They merely acknowledge the unsurprising fact that American civilization, like all cultures, had many historical antecedents, having been settled by people from all over the world.
Do you see that the pediment that is looking backward (to the east) contains Moses and myth while the pediment that is looking forward (west, above the main entrance facing the nation) contains no religious images?
Did you know that eastern pediment with Moses in the center is flanked by the Tortoise and the Hare from Aesop’s Fables? Those two fictional animals face Confucius, Moses, and Solon from either side.
Hare and Tortoise from Aesop's Fables, Eastern Pediment
Do you think American Law is based on Aesop’s fables?
Do you think any story that personifies animals (such as a talking snake) can be the basis for law?
Do you think that the fact that any particular image (such as Moses) appears at the Supreme Court is evidence that American laws were based on that character?
Did you know that the purpose of the Ten Commandments was to establish the ancient nation of Israel, not the nation of the United States? Did you know that the purpose of the First Commandment was to declare which god among many (Elohim) was to be worshipped by the nation of Israel?
Did you know that the first four Commandments have nothing to do with law or ethics?
They are religious edicts.
Did you know that the First Commandment violates our Constitution? Did you know that the United States Government cannot tell citizens what god to worship, how many gods to worship, or that we should worship any god(s) at all? Did you know the phrase “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” contradicts the Bill of Rights? Did you know that breaking the first Commandment is not illegal under American law?
Did you know that making graven images is not illegal under American law?
Do you know that the second commandment violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech?
Did you know that taking the “lord’s name” in vain is not illegal under American law?
Do you know that this commandment also violates the freedom of speech?
Did you know that failing to worship on the Sabbath is not illegal under American law? Do you know that our Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion?
Did you know that it is not illegal to dishonor parents under American law?
Although respect and honor are good ideas, especially within a family, there is no American law that requires it.
Did you know that adultery is not illegal under federal law?
Although adultery is a serious matter with social and moral consequences, it is not (and should not be) a federal crime in the United States.
Did you know that it is not illegal to "covet" your neighbor’s property under American law?
(This commandment, if enforced, would undermine our entire system of free enterprise!)
If American law is based on Hebrew scripture, why are 70% of actions forbidden by the Ten Commandments legal in the United States?
Why will no officer of the law arrest you for any of these acts that were clearly prohibited by the ancient Israelites?
Could it be that American law is based on something else?
Did you know that only three of the Ten Commandments have any relevance to modern American law? Did you know that these three humanistic precepts existed long before the ancient Israelites claimed the copyright?
Did you know that American law allows for mitigating circumstances, degrees of homicide, self defense, while the Ten Commandments do not? Did you know that telling a lie is generally not illegal under American law (except in proscribed circumstances such as perjury and truth in advertising)?
Did you know that the Tenth Commandment insultingly lumps women with property, along with houses, slaves, and animals?
to the Constitution
The right of citizens of the United States to vote
shall not be denied or abridged by the United States
or by any State on account of sex.
If American law is based on the Ten Commandments, why are women legally equal with men in this country?
Did you know that the Supreme Court, following the Constitution, has declared
that the Ten Commandments are “undeniably a sacred text” (which may not be posted in public schools)?
Wording from Stone v. Graham, 1980
Did you know that no U.S. Supreme Court decision has ever been based on the Ten Commandments?
Did you know that the Supreme Court decides whether an action or law is constitutional or unconstitutional, not whether it is biblical or unbiblical?
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy,
East Stairway, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Capitol Building.
Did you know that none of the U.S. founding documents mentions the Ten Commandments?
Did you know that during the Constitutional Convention when our secular Constitution was adopted, the Ten Commandments were not mentioned once?
Did you know there was no formal prayer at the Constitutional Convention?
Then What is the basis of American law?
Did you know that the basis of American Law is the U.S. Constitution, not the Ten Commandments or any religious teaching?
to the Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Did you know that the United States Constitution--the basis of American law--is a completely godless document?
Do you know that the only references to religion in the Constitution are exclusionary?
U.S. Constutition, Article VI, paragraph 3
. . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification
to any office or public trust under the United States.
Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is not based on a king, deity, goddess, lord, monarch or sovereign authority?
Did you know that the sovereign authority of the U.S. Constitution is "We, the people"?
Did you know that the "consent of the governed" (mentioned in the Declaration of Independence) is an anti-biblical concept?
Did you know that our secular Constitution is what makes the United States truly great?
References & NOTES
Religious Symbols in the U.S. National Capitol
Symbols of law at the Supreme Court
Statues of Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law
Inner door, as described by guides at the Supreme Court
One report of the guides’ remarks, told by a surprised pastor who visited the building, appears here.
Courtroom Friezes: North and South Walls
Courtroom Friezes: East and West Walls
The term “fascism” derives from fasces, which represented “strength through unity,” because it is harder to break a bundle than a single stick.
The Roman emperor Julian (nicknamed "Julian the Apostate"), pictured on the bronze door to the Supreme Court, was a pagan who tried to outlaw Christianity.
Penalty for working on the sabbath
"Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whoseoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day." (Exodus 35:2) For the chilling application of this law, see Numbers 15:32-36, where a man who picked up sticks on the sabbath was stoned, "and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses."
"Consent of the Governed" antibiblical
"There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." (Proverbs 14:12)
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes." (Proverbs 3:5-7)
"Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." (Romans 13:1)
"The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all." (Psalm 103:19)
* Some Christian "Did You Know" sites to which this article responds:
(Prepared by Dan Barker for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, August 2012.)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent demand letters to two Pennsylvania school districts, warning that if FFRF did not receive word by Friday, Sept. 7 that the districts were removing illegal Ten Commandment markers on school property, it and local plaintiffs will sue in federal court.
Connellsville violation. New Kensington violation. (photo): Stephen Hirtle.
FFRF has hired counsel and has parent plaintiffs in both school districts. Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh wrote both districts on Aug. 29 on behalf of FFRF, noting that these Ten Commandment monuments “will not withstand judicial scrutiny.” Read letter to New Kensington School District. Read letter to Connellsville Area School District.
In response, the Connellsville Area School District quickly contacted Schneider, agreeing to remove the six-foot-tall, tombstone-like Eagles Ten Commandments located near the Junior High School East entrance by the auditorium. By Friday, Sept. 7, the district had placed plywood over the front of the monument (although vandals apparently removed the plywood over the weekend). The district assured Schneider it would arrange to remove the biblical marker as soon as possible.
However, FFRF has received no such assurances from New Kensington-Arnold School District, which FFRF first contacted last March. The six-foot granite monument prominently displayed at Valley High School is visible by the school entrance, sitting between two footpath bridges leading from the parking lot to the main entrance of the school.
“The permanent display of the Ten Commandments in front of a New Kensington-Arnold school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. He further cited the Supreme Court decision that ruled posting the Ten Commandments in schools violates the Establishment Clause:
The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature…The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters…rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day. Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 41 (1980)
Because the New Kensington marker is a Roman Catholic version of the Ten Commandments (due to numbering and the missing commandment against ‘graven images’), it not only promotes religion over nonreligion, but Catholicism over other forms of Christianity, Elliott pointed out.
Justice Breyer has noted that Ten Commandment displays have no place “on the grounds of a public school, where, given the impressionability of the young, government must exercise particular care in separating church and state.”
“The New Kensington school district deserves an ‘F’ for its irresponsible dereliction of its duty to protect the freedom of conscience of its captive audience of students,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It should not be necessary for parents and FFRF to sue over such an egregious violation, to waste our money and taxpayer funds when the outcome is foregone — the Ten Commandments monument must go from Valley High School.”
“The First Commandment alone shows why the government may not post or endorse the Ten Commandments. A school district has no business telling students and their parents which god to have, how many gods to have or whether to have any gods at all! In the United States, individuals may believe or disbelieve as they like, but the government and our public schools may not take sides on matters left to personal conscience.”
FFRF has more than 18,500 nonreligious members nationwide, including almost 700 in Pennsylvania. Acting as a state/church watchdog, it has brought over 60 laws since being founded in 1978. Currently, it is suing on behalf of its members, including 41 named state members, and its chapter, Nittany Freethought, challenging the declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is “The Year of the Bible.” In July, seven months after it first protested a city nativity scene owned and placed by Ellwood City Borough Council (Pa.), the council voted finally not to put up the devotional display in the future.
Watch a Muslim imam giving thumbs-up when I talk about nonbelievers being tortured in hell. From my talk at Colorado Christian University, December 10, 2010:
The “thumbs-up” happens at 7:08
At 6:22, I start talking about coherence:
“Second, there is not even a coherent definition of a God. We heard a couple of definitions of a god today, but they are not coherent. In fact, they are mutually contradictory . . . all of these ‘omnis’ . . . omnipresent, omnibenevolent, all-merciful . . . infinitely merciful . . by the way [turning to the Muslim cleric], if Allah is infinitely merciful, then I can’t go to hell. Infinite mercy would have no judgment at all in it. Even if I reject him, even if I spit in his face, if he is infinitely merciful, he would not send me to your hell. By the way, you get to sit on couches under the fig leaves, and you get to laugh at those of us infidels whose skin is being burned off of our arms, but Allah grows the skin back again so that he can burn it off again, and again, and again. [The Muslim cleric smiles, nods, and gives a thumbs-up, twice! Audience laughs.] If such a being did exist, he does not deserve my admiration. He deserves my full denunciation. And I think I would prefer spending an eternity in your hell than pretending to worship such a monster that would create a place like hell. And that goes for the Christian god as well . . .”
One of the reasons the Religious Right has power so disproportionate to its numbers is because its targets — especially politicians — often cede it this destructive power. Case in point yesterday: One insignificant Christian Broadcasting Network blogger nearly brought the Democratic National Convention to its knees by a snarky analysis claiming “God” was deleted from the DNC platform. Fox TV immediately picked up the accusation and of course beat it like a dead horse. Voila — by day’s end, President Barack Obama reportedly personally intervened to ensure “God’s” return to the Democratic Party platform.
Of course the president did. Why should the president, or any politician or political party, expend precious political capital by letting themselves be labeled as “godless” if they can help it? Rather than risk political fallout, the Democrats likewise capitulated to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, after he asked to give a benediction at the DNC, even though Dolan’s on a crusade against Obama’s contraceptive mandate. Dolan (promiscuously?) performed the same rite last week before the RNC. It seems neither party can plan a convention without the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops crashing their party!
Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student infamously silenced by a congressional committee when she tried to testify about the need for the acdministration’s contraceptive mandate, is silent no more. She delivered a great zinger about those celibate bishops during her speech last night before the DNC, warning of “an America in which access to birth control is controlled by people who will never use it.”
The “godless” line in question was changed yesterday from inclusionary to exclusionary, specifically back to the 2008 language saying “we need a government that stands up for the hopes, values and interests of working people and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential (italics added).” The DNC platform already clearly contained an affirming section on faith. The representation of religiosity is in full bloom at the DNC, from opening invocations to closing benedictions, cameos by cute young ministers, and the near-ubiquitous “God Bless America” conclusions to speeches. (I might cynically speculate that the phrase must be part of the template in the teleprompters, were it not for the fact that politicians are so happy to wear religion on their sleeves that they probably don’t require such coaching.)
Yet . . . this is the same party that is now openly embracing marriage equality (whose opposition is universally religious in nature). A mini-revolution has taken place. Speaker after speaker at the DNC worked into their talks a reference to Americans being “able to marry whomever they love.” Supporting gay marriage was considered a political kiss of death for a presidential candidate . . . until suddenly it wasn’t. Maybe someday not too far away, we’ll increasingly hear public officials praise Americans for being able to believe or disbelieve as they like.
We got a small taste of such basic social acceptance in Rep. Jared Polis’ speech on Tuesday, when he added:
“. . . ladies and gentlemen, now is our chance to tell the dividers no, tell the special interests and cynical Washington insiders no, tell the lobbyists and PACs no, and tell our fellow countrymen and women, gay and straight, Christians, Jews, Mormons, Muslims and nonbelievers, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian, east and west, north and south; it is time to tell them yes, together we are stronger, together we are better, together we are America.”
We seculars are 19% of the population. We have a voice. We have a vote. We have a vital message: Freedom depends on keeping religious dogma out of government. Freethought is not just respectable, but laudable. We who value the use of reason in forming our opinions about religion will not be marginalized as kooks or zanies or as an insignificant minority to be batted away like pesky flies. We’re of the “tribe” of Voltaire, Wollstonecraft, Jefferson, Paine, Mills, Stanton, Darwin, DuBois, Einstein, Sanger, Sagan.
Yes, it’s wrong and frustrating that in a nation predicated on a godless Constitution, a political party must inject “god” into its platform to avoid a “gotcha” moment. But I’m hopeful someday soon that gratuitous political piety will once again be seen as tasteless pandering, and that public dissing of freethinkers and atheists will be seen as just plain bad manners. And then the intent of our founders will be honored — that there shall be no religious test for public office, or good citizenship.
Meanwhile, FFRF has placed the antidote to all this theopolitical glossolalia — this Matthew-Mark-Luke-Johnorrhea — two billboards up now in Charlotte wisely advising: “God fixation won't fix this nation.”
P.S. In response to the jingoistic get-out-the-vote campaigns of theocratic organizations, FFRF has created its own “get out the secular vote” webpage we hope you’ll share (particularly with college students): http://ffrf.org/get-involved/secular-vote/.
Watch Annie Laurie Gaylor's timely talk on the history of women and freethought. Click here to view the embedded video.
Today's New York Times bears a heartbreaking photograph on its front page showing a row of abject women garment workers in Bangladesh. The accompanying story reports that they daily churn out garments for the U.S. and European markets that individually often sell for more than each garment worker earns in a month. Minimum wage for garment workers is set at roughly $37 a month. That inexpensive "Made in Bangladesh" label comes with too high a price tag for womankind.
The story immediately brought to mind a haunting quote, my favorite quote by 19th century freethinker Helen H. Gardener. In the chapter, "Vicarious Atonement" from her elegant and still-timely book, Men, Women and Gods (1885, reprinted in my anthology Women Without Superstition), Gardener wrote:
"I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. I do not know anything about 'a land that is fairer than day.' I do know that women makes shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun."
Women's Equality Day, marking the 92nd anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, takes place Sunday, Aug. 26. Gardener was a significant force in the final push of the suffrage movement, using her social and governmental connections to organize, and was chief liaison of the major suffrage association with President Wilson's administration. Gardener was part of a continuum of women freethinkers and nonconformists who sparked and nurtured the women's right movement. It took freethinking women who refused to "be in silence and subjection" to challenge religious sway over secular laws. Gardener became a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, in 1848, galvanized the woman's movement by being the first to call for woman suffrage. Stanton wrote the very wording of the suffrage amendment that is now in our Constitution.
As we toast (or at least raise our coffee mugs) to these freethinking feminist foremothers on Sunday, let's remember Gardener's counsel on our work here. While exploitative global economics, of course, factor into the equation, the low status of women in underdeveloped nations stems fundamentally from women's low status under patriarchal religions. The problem with most religions isn't just that they are founded on fables or women's servitude. Religion's unnatural preoccupation with an unprovable, unlikely deity and afterlife corrupts human priorities and robs attention from "the needs of humanity and this world."
One of FFRF’s volunteers/officers, Phyllis Rose, came to my desk for a visit yesterday. “First Hitchens, then Cockburn, now Vidal. It feels like the end of an era,” she remarked. The death of three sharp pens in eight months is a tragic loss.
Gore Vidal once opined, “the United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven't seen them since.” When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1775 to declare our independence from Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met for the first time. Jefferson drafted the Declaration, and Adams (with Ben Franklin) edited it, and then defended it in the Congress. So began the Jefferson and Adams friendship, and a correspondence that illuminates our history. Their political philosophies diverged and they had a falling out in the 1802 election, in which they were opponents. They did not correspond for ten years. In 1812, three years after Jefferson left the presidency, the two men rekindled their correspondence. They wrote to each other for 14 years, until both men died on July 4, 1826 — truly marking the end of an era.
The correspondence of those 14 years is rich yet diverse, intellectual yet friendly. We are all poorer for the 10-year silence (1802-1812) that previously marred their friendship. Like Jefferson and Adams, Messrs. Hitchens, Vidal, and Cockburn were prolific writers (as well as regular contributors to The Nation). Collectively, they produced over 100 books and countless essays and articles. Unlike Jefferson and Adams, the thinkers we lost this year, although peers, did not get along well near the end.
Vidal famously proclaimed Hitchens his “heir,” a title Hitchens just as famously repudiated after Vidal’s “crackpot” writings on 9/11 conspiracy theories. Cockburn wrote an article condemning “9/11 Conspiracists” too. Hitchens and Cockburn started out friends but the friendship went sour and Cockburn wrote an obituary critical of Hitchens. Hitchens probably expected as much: “if you look at [Alexander’s] journalism, he would rightly be proud of saying that he’s often written counter-obituaries of people who’ve been over-praised and chosen precisely the moment when there’s a lot of sentimental garbage being published to say, ‘Come on, this guy wasn’t so great.’ ”
Despite their disagreements, the men were similar in many ways. Hitchens and Cockburn were both transatlantic transplants described as iconoclasts and raconteurs. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft explained in a recent op-ed, these men were two of the latest in a prestigious line of English writers living in America. Wheatcroft calls them “The British Gift to American Letters.” Hitchens and Cockburn have been grouped together in numerous articles proclaiming the end of an era. The Oxonians shared a passion for giving a voice to the unrepresented and challenging power and status quo with Vidal.
Hitchens always admired Vidal’s “rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones” and likened him to an American Oscar Wilde. Vidal once referred to Hitchens as his “Dauphin.” Hitchens encouraged Cockburn to fight against those who called him an anti-Semite and Cockburn grudgingly acknowledged that Hitchens had his moments: “In extempore speeches and arguments he was quick on his feet. I remember affectionately many jovial sessions from years ago, in his early days at The Nation.”
Whether or not you agree with their views on climate change (Cockburn), the Iraq War (Hitchens), abortion rights (Cockburn and Hitchens), or United States deserving terror attacks (Vidal), we can admire their skill and audacity. Not an unthinking, unquestioning, unreasoned loyalty to a belief — that is called religion — but boldly taking the unpopular side of an intellectual disagreement for honest, well-thought-out reasons. By all means let us disagree, so long as reason and evidence guide us. And reason guided all these men into unbelief.
Vidal said, “I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.” He also thought, “Christianity is such a silly religion.” And died an unbeliever, “there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
I cannot find a direct quote where Cockburn claims to be an atheist, but he did despise the bible: “Though my basic view is that any childish mind not inoculated by compulsory religion is open to any infection, by all means let us sweep the Bible and the Koran off every bookshelf whither might stray the hand of impressionable youth. Such a cleansing act would return us to the very roots of the European enlightenment.”
And Hitchens, author of God is not Great, well, take your pick of quotes. This one seems apt: “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
Freethinkers will never agree on everything, but we are cohesive on one incredibly powerful point: to paraphrase Hitchens, religion is poison. While we have lost three great wordsmiths, we can rejoice because it is inevitable that the light of reason will bring more luminaries to our cause.
A very special thanks to Phyllis for suggesting the topic of this blog and to Wendy Goldberg for suggesting the Jefferson-Adams connection. Andrew’s original tribute to Hitchens, “Goodbye Hitch, and Thank You” can be found here: http://ffrf.org/news/blog/goodbye-hitch-and-thank-you/. Andrew Seidel is FFRF's newest staff attorney. He will “Debunk the ‘Christian Nation’ Myth” at FFRF's 35th Annual National Convention in Portland, Ore. Learn more about the convention here.
The next time you receive one of those "Did You Know?" emails that claims that the Ten Commandments are prominent at the United States Supreme Court and are therefore the basis of American law, you can reply with this:
A recent Gallup poll shows that while more than nine in 10 Americans would vote for a “well qualified” black, female, Catholic, Hispanic or Jewish presidential candidate, only 54% would vote for a similarly qualified atheist presidential candidate. (By comparison, a “qualified” Muslim candidate would garner 58% approval and a Mormon 80%.)
So . . . a clear religious test for public office in the United States exists, despite the explicit constitutional prohibition of such a political bar.
True, things are looking up for theoretical atheist presidential candidates. This is the second year in a row that a majority of Americans indicate a presidential candidate’s atheism would not stop them from voting for him or her (it was 50% in August 2011). When Gallup first started asking this question in 1958, only 18% would back a nontheist. So while atheists are still at the bottom of the social totem poll statistically, we’re seeing a little progress.
Yet most political candidates are terrified of being atheist-baited. Linking a candidate to atheism is still seen as the kiss of death politically. Only one member of Congress, Pete Stark, is “out” as a nonbeliever. Although Stark was a good sport and consented to being “outed,” he had been reelected over and over for decades before his nonbelief was made public.
Unfortunately, the message most political candidates will take away from this poll is that atheists are still undesirables, even if slightly less undesirable than we used to be. Most public officials fear doing anything that might alienate the Religious Right, a poised rattlesnake one must take pains not to disturb. What political candidate today would dare repeat the famous words of John F. Kennedy as a Catholic candidate pledging fealty to a secular Constitution? (If feeling blue over the state of the state of secularism, I warmly recommend taking solace by viewing FFRF’s spring commercial with JFK saying, “I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute.”) How dismaying that 52 years later, standing up for secular government can be seen as career-killing, even seditious.
But aren’t candidates and the media ignoring a growing voting bloc? With PEW figures showing that 19% of adult Americans — as many as one in five is not religious, the question of the day should be: When will presidential and other candidates start wooing us, the seculars?
The 15% to 19% who identify as nonreligious are roughly equivalent to the 15% of voters considered hardcore religious-right.
Freethinkers depressed about our standing in the United States today can take some consolation that so many of the most important Founding Fathers were at best deists in the sense of the classical Enlightenment, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and both John Adamses. Several high-profile U.S. politicians have been nonbelieving, including U.S. Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma (albeit closeted in his day).
And of course, we can take consolation in the fact that not all of the world is as behind the times as America. Look at Australia, where it isn’t a problem that Julia Gillard, the prime minister, is an “out” atheist. Atheism wasn’t even a problem for Michelle Batchelet, who was president of Chile from 2006 to 2010.
And take a look at some of the other freethinking heavyweights internationally who have served as prime ministers or presidents:
• John Ballance (1839-1893), who listed his religious affiliation as “freethinker” and was 14th prime minister of New Zealand.
• Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), “El Libertador,” founder of Bolivia and first president of the Republic of Colombia (now Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela), a noted anticlerical.
• Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), French prime minister, journalist, statesman, atheist.
• Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz, a noted anticleric and Mexico’s president from 1877-1880, and again from 1884-1910.
• Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), a secular serving as India’s prime minister (along with her grandfather, see below), who was gunned down by Sikh religious extremists.
• Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), Indian’s first prime minister, an agnostic, rationalist and admirer of Bertrand Russell.
• William Pitt (1708-1778), a wartime British prime minister who believed “the only true divinity is humanity.”
• Robert Walpole (1676-1745), given the honorific of England’s “first prime minister,” who was “indifferent” to all creeds.
• Robert Stout (1844-1930), Prime Minister of New Zealand and a “stout” freethinker who passed the Married Woman’s Property Act under his tenure.
(For more details on these and other freethinking politicians and public officials, visit FFRF’s list of famous freethinkers, Freethought of the Day, to look up by name or topic. If you find some missing, let us know!)
Give a cheer for the “I’m Secular and I Vote” crowd!
Fiction writers love to imagine a cabal of minority religionists orchestrating events from a faraway boardroom. Typically, the minority religionists are Jews, not atheists — the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still dredged up by anti-Semites from time to time. Dan Casey’s newest article, “Atheists likely thrive off Southwest Virginia” takes a swipe at the Freedom From Religion Foundation using this popular ploy of fiction writers. Faraway boardroom? Check. Minority religion? Check. Orchestrating cabal? Check.
While it may make for entertaining fiction, one has to wonder what Dan Casey and his Roanoke Times editor were thinking when they published this piece. Even though atheists don’t believe in an imaginary god, we do have imaginations. Here is what I imagine was going through Mr. Casey’s head as he wrote [Warning: delving into the imaginary mental wanderings of people can be dangerous and often immature. Read on at your own risk.]:
“I really don’t like that nasty FFRF. It goes around helping local people stop violations of the Constitution. How will I ever know that my god is real if my leaders don’t mix him into the government? And what kind of people go around upholding the Constitution and advocating for the rights of minorities? Who do they think they are telling us, the Christian majority, that the law applies to us too? The gall of this cabal, sitting around thinking up nefarious ways of convincing courts to enforce the law. (Oooh, I’m a poet!) And then, believe it or not, courts actually agreeing that the law should be enforced!”
“I wish those meanies would just stop. They probably do it for the money, because atheists don’t have principles do they? I guess I could ask them about their motivations, but that would involve real reporting. I know! I’ll assume that their non-profit organization, recognized by the IRS, is out to make a quick buck and write an article on their money-making schemes.”
“I suppose I could stick to strict journalistic principles like corroboration, investigation, tenacity, credibility, and reputation, but that sounds like a lot of work. And what if I find out that they are right? They probably are, atheists are smart and FFRF cites Supreme Court cases and the Constitution a lot… I know! Instead of looking into facts, I’ll just make some stuff up — ‘imagine’ — and people will believe and repeat it because I call myself a reporter and a good Christian!”
“Let’s see, how much did FFRF make on the Giles County case? They say that they never make money on their lawsuits, that at best they break even and often have un-recouped expenses, but that doesn’t sound very evilly-cabalistic to me. I know, I’ll just pull a number out of my . . . hat. $1,486,369! That must be how much FFRF made on the Giles County lawsuit. Oh damn! There’s more . . . Holy shitake mushrooms, FFRF made another $84,791. Gee-whiz, I sure am a great journalist for pulling those numbers out of there.”
“What else can I write about those farty-pants? Yes, they don’t agree with my religious views so they are obviously the servants of Satan. I bet one of them is even named Lucifer. I suppose I could check their names on their website. Nah, that seems like too much of an effort. I’ll just stick to my lazy insults and innuendos and label it all imagination. I’m so brave and smart!”
“There, all done. And it only took two minutes! I can’t believe I get paid to write stuff like this.”
I then imagine the self-congratulatory Mr. Casey walking the article down to his editor’s office, a holy glow surrounding his head, and knocking on the door. Perhaps he says “Hey, Jesus” — don’t you always imagine that the real boss of every Christian is Jesus? — “I think I finally figured out a way to stick it to those jerkfaces over at FFRF.”
Jesus, who I imagine sitting behind a desk, arms splayed, with hands facing palm up and resting on the table, and looking at some papers near his left hand might interrupt, “Damn it Dan! I’ve been trying to stop those poopy heads for years! I’m an editor and you, the lowly journalist think you figured out a way? The law and the Constitution are on their side. What do we have? Me, Jesus? What can I, an imaginary god — I mean editor, do?”
The imaginary Dan whispers the solution: “We make stuff up about them?” To which the imaginary Jesus replies, “It’s brilliant! People have been making stuff up about me for millennia!”
‘Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and advocates, and bear the consequences.’ — Susan B. Anthony
I cannot name one publicized state/church complaint ever handled by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that wasn’t branded by someone as “petty” or “trivial” — whether the complaint was over huge Latin crosses on government property, or tiny tots being forced to bow heads and pray in kindergarten.
I’ve often wondered, if the violations we’re complaining about are no big deal, why don’t these public officials and critics just agree to stop them? We know from experience that when state/church violations go unchallenged, they create bad precedent and, often, even worse First Amendment violations. Although FFRF’s legal staff almost exclusively handles cases involving Establishment Clause violations, we make one exception. That is for violations of the Civil Rights Act.
The Civil Rights Act in relevant part reads: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” (See — religion is right there, along with race and color.)
FFRF was contacted by one of our Pennsylvania members, John Wolff, an octogenarian and retired electrical engineer, who was shocked to encounter a church bulletin discount at a local restaurant. Those bearing proof they had been to church that morning are given a regular 10 percent discount by Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia, Pa. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote not just one, but three letters over the course of a year and a half, in a patient attempt to educate the apparently uneducable restaurant owners.
Persuasion and recitation of the law failed utterly, so Mr. Wolff recently had no recourse but to file a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. Impressively, he is handling the case himself, despite a backlash of public criticism. (Wolff is proof of what I always say: Octogenarians and nonagenarians are among FFRF’s finest advocates, because they grew up in an era when the wall of separation was respected.)
The first civil rights complaint FFRF handled was in 1990, when we became aware that the Long John Silver chain was offering church bulletin discounts. At the time, we naively figured this must be some born-again aberration. In 1997, I discovered my neighborhood grocer in Madison, Wis., had been giving Catholic patrons a free gallon of milk once a week if they went to Mass and made a $20 purchase. Dan quickly calculated that I, as a loyal customer who had done almost all of my shopping there twice a week for six years, had missed out on 300 gallons of free milk! What I had assumed would be cleared up in a jiffy was milked into a lengthy legal saga by the grocery store’s Catholic attorney, who duked it out with FFRF in long letters for months. His attorney informed me the grocer hadn’t violated the Civil Rights Act because, after all, he’d been willing to take money from an atheist customer (me!). By the time the grocer agreed to stop violating the law, this second-class customer had taken my business elsewhere.
Many years ago, I handled a complaint by FFRF member Carl Silverman, in which a local baseball team was giving church bulletin discounts to fans. With Carl’s diligence, it ended in a cute victory — Carl was able to produce his copy of Freethought Today for a discount when the privilege was extended to all. Syracuse University Associate Professor Ross Rubenstein, a more recent complainant, was likewise given free admission to Syracuse Chiefs baseball games in exchange for handing in his Freethought Today, after Rebecca complained on his behalf in 2010. The team had given free general admission to each person presenting “a program from your place of worship” on Church Bulletin Night.
FFRF and Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt have stopped other church bulletin discounts, including at Quizno’s in Ardmore, Okla., and in places of accommodation including in Euless, Texas, Smyrna, Tenn., Bethlehem, Pa., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Rebecca notably halted governmental blessings of discounted admittance for church bulletins at the Missoula County Fair, Mont.
The most outrageous civil rights violation involves FFRF’s attempt this January to send flowers to Jessica Ahlquist, after a federal court ruled in her favor against a prayer banner at her Rhode Island high school. We had to go out of state to get our flowers delivered to Jessica, after four Rhode Island florists refused us service. Rebecca is working with pro bono attorney Kate Godin in Rhode Island on our active complaint before the human rights division there.
Sean Condon, with Glimpse of Gaia, the Connecticut shop that accepted our order, turned out to be a student of history. He placed a statement on the shop’s website explaining the Civil Rights Act:
"Instead of flower delivery being denied, [what if it was] something more important? Should this young lady be denied food because of her legally expressed opinion? What about housing? How about fuel when her car is close to empty and it’s a frigid evening? What about medical care? Is this the kind of society in which you would want to live?
"Think back to the days before 1964 when black Americans were routinely denied service, motel rooms, food, gas, when travel turned into a treacherous journey of danger, uncertainty and deprivation."
At FFRF, we like to say there is nothing as important as working to uphold the First Amendment. But maybe there is something equally precious — working to uphold the Civil Rights Act.
Recently, a few freethinkers have suggested that civil rights violations aren’t worthy of FFRF’s attention, that we should “pick our battles,” that negative reaction to such complaints makes atheists even more unpopular. So . . . should we blame victims? Empower hecklers with a veto? Would anyone call it trivial if a restaurant rewarded customers for being white with 20 percent off every Sunday brunch?
Ask those who have won landmark Supreme Court cases whether they were “popular” fights. FFRF and state/church complainants are not pursuing remedy of violations to be popular, or unpopular, for that matter. We are working to uphold essential principles of law that protect us all. Although constitutional law is not undertaken to gain social acceptance, history shows that standing up for one’s rights — as demonstrated by the civil rights and gay rights movements — is actually the surest path toward gaining social acceptance.
John Wolff deserves the support of all freethinkers and all Americans for standing up for civil rights: his, yours and everyone’s.