By Dan Barker
EVERYTHING WE DO in life has ripple effects. Sometimes we see the results, and sometimes we don't.
On January 16, 1984, I sent out this letter announcing my new-found atheism to more than fifty colleagues, friends, and family members:
"You probably already know that I have gone through some significant changes regarding spiritual things. The past five or six years has been a time of deep re-evaluation for me, and during the last couple of years I have decided that I can no longer honestly call myself a Christian. You can probably imagine that it has been an agonizing process for me. I was raised in a good Christian home, served in missions and evangelism, went to a Christian college, became ordained and ministered in three churches as Assistant Pastor. During those years I was 100 percent convinced of my faith, and now I am just about 100 percent unconvinced.
"The purpose of this letter is not to present my case. Yet, I will point out that my studies have brought me through many important areas, most notably: the authenticity of the Bible, faith vs. reason, church history--and a bunch of other fun subjects like evolution, physics, psychology, self-esteem, philosophy, parapsychology, pseudo-science, mathematics, etc.
"I'm not sure what the purpose of this letter is, except to serve as a point of information to a friend or relative whom I consider to be important in my life, and with whom I could not bear to be dishonest. I have not thrown the baby out with the bath water. I still basically maintain the same Christian values of kindness, love, giving, temperance and respect that I was raised with. Christianity has much good. Yet I feel I can demonstrate an alternate, rational basis for those values outside of a system of faith and authority. Of course, I admit, those values cannot save me from the fires of hell--but it is irrational to hold a fear of something which is non-existent, and to allow that fear to dominate one's philosophy and way of life.
"If the Bible is true I will run to it willingly. If there is a God, I would be silly to deny Him. In fact, the little child in me still sometimes wishes to regain the comforts and reassurances of my former beliefs. I am a human being with the same fears and feelings we all share. The Bible says those who seek will find. You know me. I am constantly seeking. And I have not found. Right now I am somewhere between the agnostic and the atheist, although I spend a great deal of time in both camps.
"There is much more to say, and I would greatly appreciate any input you can offer. I would suggest, though, that before we attempt any meaningful dialogue, we should understand as much as possible about each other's thoughts. If you wish, I will send you any of various papers I am preparing, including: The Bible, Faith vs. Reason, . . .
"Finally, I am not your enemy. Our enemy is the one who doesn't care about these subjects--who thinks that you and I are silly to be concerned with life and values. I intend no disrespect to you, or anyone who is genuinely interested in religion and philosophy. It is the non-thinker who bothers me and with whom meaningful interaction is impossible.
Today I would write a completely different letter, but that's where I was at the time. The "little child" nostalgia lasted about a year, and has been replaced with embarrassment that I ever believed. The distinction between agnostic and atheist has been clarified.
After I put the copies of my letter in the mail, I felt relief. The only thing to do was wait for the reactions.
"Sorry to hear about your recent commitment to be uncommitted to the Lamb of God that you so beautifully had written about and put to music in such a successful way," wrote Assembly of God pastor Mark Griffo, a former co-missionary who had been one of the kids in a church choir I directed, and whom I had encouraged to enter the ministry. "I realize you're not my enemy, as you stated, but Satan is! He's out to rob, kill and destroy life. . . . My heart tears within me trying to figure out the answer you'll give [children] when they ask you, 'Dan, can you write more songs so my future children can know the source of love, Jesus Christ, like you do?' I'm praying for you always and looking forward to your resurrection."
To Mark, I am dead.
Mark's wife Debbie was less charitable: "Meaningful interaction you want? There is nothing meaningful about the beliefs that you have chosen. . . . I am sorry that the Lamb you once wrote about is no longer Lord of your life. To really know the almighty God, Saviour, King, all knowing, all powerful, all loving creator of you and I [sic], is to never leave Him. . . . Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord."
David Gustafeson, director of Pacific & Asia Christian University in Hawaii who had been a co-pastor with me at a church in La Puente, wrote: "I was somewhat shocked by your letter . . . I guess I'll just have to pray harder. . . . I believe an acid test is to simply cry out to 'God' (whether you believe or not) and ask Him to radically and ruthlessly correct you if you are wrong. . . . it would be better for God to use 'any means' to show you the truth, than for one to find out he had been misled too late. . . . I have read your papers, and of course they present a good case. I wouldn't expect anything else from someone as brilliant as you. I think the contradictions in the Bible show the beauty of God speaking through frail humanity, and yet keeping the main message of the bible intact." I sent Dave an exhaustive response, and received from him a box of fourteen cassette tapes from a theologian.
I had penned a note at the bottom of my letter to Gospel Light Publications, telling them that I would understand if they decided not to continue working with me. We were in the middle of a project. Wes Haystead wrote: "Thanks for honestly sharing your journey with me. I promise not to start bombarding you with tracts and Josh McDowell books . . . As to our continuing to work together, I vote aye. Provided of course that you can get me three songs for Sunrise Island real quick. Sort of sounds like schedule takes precedence over principles, eh? Actually, I value highly your talent, your sensitivity, your flexibility and your friendship. Therefore I hope we can continue working together until one of us converts the other or you feel the goals of our projects are incompatible with your directions."
I did go ahead and finish writing the Sunrise Island Vacation Bible School mini-musicale for Gospel Light. It was a strange feeling to be working professionally on a project with which I disagreed philosophically, but I justified the hypocrisy by noting that Gospel Light would have had a hard time staying on schedule and on budget if they changed horses in the middle of the stream, and that they were fully aware of my change in views.
Hal Spencer, president of Manna Music, publisher of my musicals and other Christian songs, wrote: "My immediate response is that this can't be true and that you are only going through a doubting time of your life. However, knowing you, I'm afraid that there is more to it than that. . . . I will be asking the Lord to guide me also if there is something that I can say which might influence your feelings." Hal and I met for lunch a couple of months later. Although he is quite knowledgeable about the music industry (his father was Tim Spencer, one of the "Sons of the Pioneers"), he has not given much thought to theology or philosophy. He kept pointing to a leaf in a flower arrangement next to our table, saying, "How did that leaf get here?" After I addressed the problems with the design and first-cause arguments, he turned back to the leaf and said, "But I just can't imagine how that leaf got here without a Creator." We later bumped into each other in the Nashville airport in 1985 when I was debating a minister and he was at a country music awards ceremony, and the chance meeting was so surprising that he said, "See, this proves there is a God!" Though I have not written anything else for Manna Music, my musicals are still selling, and Hal has continued to treat me professionally.
Eli Peralta was my ninth-grade Spanish teacher. He was one of the Peralta Brothers Quartet with whom I had ministered during high school. He wrote: "Thank you for letting us know the status of your life change. Rest assured that the pureness and clarity of your communication is being accepted in a spirit of love and consideration. It is significant that in the days prior to your letter arriving, I was reminiscing about our fellowship and friendship of years gone by and wishing that we could visit sometime. . . . My brothers and I still think of you with many fond memories and fun times we had together. I have informed them regarding your journey from faith to reason, and even though it has made a significant emotional impact on us, I for one feel a deep sense of calm and still consider ourselves friends!"
Jill Johnson, wife of the associate pastor at the Auburn church where I did my final Christian concert, sent me a surprisingly tolerant letter: "I totally support your sincere desire to seek out the truth in love. I feel for you because in a certain sense the decision you've made has got to be a cataclysmic event not only for you and those you love (I keep thinking of your Dad for some reason), but also to so many outside your home sphere. But I believe in honesty and since you believe with all of your being in what you espouse, I'm sure it's a necessity for you to continue following this path. . . . When you 'break the rules' there are always those who will have a desire or a need to punish or judge or condemn . . . and I just hope and pray most people will be gentle with you even though you and they are not in agreement. . . . I am so happy that I was able to hear you in concert and I have no doubt that you will continue to create beauty in spheres other than the Christian one."
Loren McBain, pastor of the First (American) Baptist Church of Ontario, California which my family was attending and where I had briefly served as interim Music Director, wrote: "I'd really like to stay in touch with you if only for lunch once in a while. I'd especially be happy to play chess when you want, the odds now clearly in my favor since God will be on my side!" Perhaps with patience running thin, the same man wrote a less friendly letter ten months later: "You and I both know Dan that you have heard, and you fully understand 'God's rules for living,' and that you are now living by your own rules. . . . I understand them as simple disobedience."
A co-worker, Scoti Domeij, wrote: "Does this mean that we won't be seeing each other at MusiCalifornia [a Christian conference] (Ha! Ha!) . . . I am not offended or the least bit surprised by your journey from faith to reason. Your questioning has surfaced in many different ways when we have been together. I do feel some sadness and wonder what hurt and deep disappointments have precipitated your journey from faith to reason."
Shirley and Verlin Cox had regularly helped me arrange meetings in Indiana. "I must admit to a bit of a shock," Shirley wrote. "At first I wanted to write a 'preachy' letter to you but after much reflection and prayer I realize you know more 'Bible' than I and Verlin will ever know. We haven't been through college the way you have . . . Yes, we are broken hearted that you've rejected our Lord but we have hope and our prayers will continue . . . While in Florida last year we were delighted to see your 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and churches in Indiana in our area still present it. Oh yes, 'Mary Had' was a puppet show on TV."
I received a letter from Sister Tammy Schinhofen, of whom I have no memory: "About eight years ago you were instrumental in my accepting Jesus as my personal Savior. . . . I thank God that I am a jewel placed in your crown. Don't let the enemy take away or tarnish your crown."
One of my best friends was a man who was largely responsible for the promotional success of my musicals, an iconoclastic believer. It is not easy for him, being gay in a fundamentalist community. He wrote: "I don't know if I can say I 'enjoyed' your letter--there must be a better word. I know how you feel. I've surely been there myself (may still be there). What struck me so forcefully was the realization that 'the Christians' react to your questioning as they do, not because you have lost your faith, but because you have lost theirs!"
Many of the letters were sincere, but without content. "I don't have any answers," wrote one friend. "It's not a matter of logic or intelligence," wrote another. "Human intellectual ability and capacities, no matter how great, are not sufficient," wrote a woman faith-healer.
Many of the letters contained ad hominem arguments. One co-worker told me that I had "given in to the desires of self life," and a neighbor wrote that I must be "hurt and bitter." Another tried to get me to admit my "deep wounds." A woman preacher announced that "sometime along the way you became angry with God," and a co-pastor told me that "you are on a selfish journey at the expense of your own integrity."
The high-school aged daughter of one of my close Christian friends, living in a missionary compound, wrote: "I can't say I pray for you every day because I don't. . . . Right now in school we are learning Biology from a teacher who only knows about philosophy, medieval history, and English literature. . . . How do you think we got on this planet?" I wrote to her and her mother, who live in a Christian community connected with the University of the Nations, operated by the charismatic evangelistic organization Youth With A Mission in Kona, Hawaii, challenging the school to a debate on the issues. I never heard a thing from them.
About a month after my letter was sent out, I received a call from the Vice President and Dean of Academic Instruction at Azusa Pacific University, Dr. Don Grant. He and the director of alumni affairs met with me for lunch one afternoon to see what had gone wrong with one of their emissaries. Don had been the director of the Dynamics Chorale for which I played piano and sang on scholarship during my years at Azusa Pacific. It was an amicable lunch, but they nevertheless were fishing for some way to get me back in the fold. The conversation was at a more articulate level than most, but when I responded with scholarly and documented arguments that they had never heard, they fell back on the same old ad hominem responses, psychological guesswork, and so on. As we were walking back to our cars I thanked them for their time and willingness to discuss the issues, and I made them a challenge. I told them that I would be willing to participate in a debate at Azusa Pacific against any one of their professors on the question of the existence of God. I never heard from them again.
I have never seen Manuel Bonilla again (the Mexican Christian singer), but we did talk on the phone a couple of times. He told me that he just "knew" that the spirit of God was on my life, particularly since I had arranged and recorded an especially inspired version of a religious song on one of his albums in late 1983, playing the piano with conviction behind his singing. I asked Manuel if he would be surprised to know that while I was arranging and playing that song, I was a secret atheist and that my inspiration was musical, not spiritual. He didn't say a word. When I talked with Manuel again in 1985, he was friendly, but told me that he would be willing to offer me some counseling to help me get through my struggles. The only thing I could think of was to say that I was happy, and to thank him for his friendship.
Shortly after my letter was sent out I met for lunch with Bob and Myrna Wright, two very close friends. Bob had been the pastor of the Standard Community Christian Center, and had conducted my ordination ceremony. They told me that they wanted to apologize to me. They said that they were sorry that they had not sensed my inner struggles leading up to my rejection of Christianity. If they had known, perhaps they could have helped me avoid the discouragement and disappointment that led to my change of views. This was a difficult meeting because I loved and respected these people and I knew that they were sincere. I told them that my deconversion had nothing to do with any personal problems, that it had to do with the nature and content of the Christian message itself. I tried to explain that ad hominem counseling was beside the point. They didn't get it.
To press my point I decided to create some cognitive dissonance. "What would happen to me," I asked, "if I were to die right now?" They were silent. "Bob, you're an ordained minister. You know your Bible. What happens to unbelievers?"
"Well, the Bible says they go to hell," he responded.
"You know me," I continued. "I'm not a bad person. I'm honest. If I walk out of this restaurant and get killed by a truck, will I go straight to hell?" They didn't want to answer that question, squirming in their seats. "Well, do you believe the Bible?" I pressed.
"Of course," Myrna said.
"Then will I go to hell?"
"Yes," they finally answered, but not without a great deal of discomfort. Perhaps it was not a nice lunch topic, but I wanted to make the brutality of Christianity real to them. I knew it would be hard for them to imagine their God punishing someone like me. I later heard that they were perturbed with me for having coerced them to say I was going to hell. It forced them to acknowledge that, as much as we wanted to be friends, their religion considers me the enemy.
The letters I received and the conversations that followed my "enlightenment" were all across the board. They displayed love, hatred, and everything in between. Many friendships were lost, others transformed, and still others strengthened. Of all of the letters and attempts to get me back in the fold, not a single one had any intellectual impact. Although I was saddened at having discontinued some relationships, I find I do not miss them. I suppose it is much like a divorce; even though there were good times and happy memories, once it's over, it's over.
Few of the letters offered any defense of bible contradictions. No one presented any documentary evidences from the first century. Not a single rational argument for the existence of a god beyond the where-did-we-come-from garden variety. Most of the responses centered on things like humility, shame, attitude, prayer--in short, "spiritual" intimidation.
Dave Gustafeson's challenge to "cry out to God" is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty. One of my friends asked me simply to "pretend that Jesus is real and he will make himself real to you." Have either of them ever "cried out to Buddha" or "pretended that Allah is real" as an acid test of their existence? These people are asking me to lie to myself. Anyway, they should know better. They should know that I had already "cried out to God," that I had frequently prayed and "felt the spirit" within me, that I had many times gone through the motions. They don't seem to realize that I was not seeking inner confirmation--I was seeking objective, external evidence. Besides, even if I did manage to "fake it," would an omniscient god not know this?
The almost universal tone of the letters and conversations was that I was the one with the problem. None acknowledged that my change of mind might be an indictment of Christianity. Some of them formerly had come to me for counseling, but now they no longer want to learn from me. (I don't think they should have to.) They all assumed that the challenge at hand was to get me back. Even the few who did ask to read my papers never commented on them, except superficially.
I don't know if any of these people have changed their views at all, but I do know that none of them will be the same. You can't help but be affected when one of your very own challenges the very core of your beliefs. Although the fallout from my friends and co-workers is hard to determine, the effect on my family was much more dramatic.
When my parents got my letter they were shocked. They had been proud of their son's work as an ordained minister, evangelist, and Christian songwriter. Not knowing anything about my gradual change, this announcement came as a total surprise. My mother immediately hopped on a bus, traveling from Phoenix to my home in California, and we had a long, emotional discussion into the early morning hours. She would never be the same, but it wasn't until much later that I learned the long-term effects of her visit.
My mother tells me that she was stunned by the dissonance. Backing off to get some perspective, she never went to church again. In a Wisconsin Magazine article, published by the Milwaukee Journal (July 28, 1991), journalist Bill Lueders quotes my mother, Pat, as she recalled our late-night meeting: "The answers he gave me impressed my heart and mind. . . . I had so much love for my son that I knew in some way he was right." Within weeks she concluded that religion was "just a bunch of baloney," feeling a "tremendously great disappointment in God." She began to do some reading and thinking of her own, and today happily calls herself an unbeliever.
One fact that surprised my mother was that no one in her church ever seemed to care about her departure. She had been a member of the Assembly of God for years, had performed in the choir, had sung solos regularly in services, had taught Sunday School, and had participated in many other functions. The only incident out of the ordinary, after leaving the church, was an embarrassing moment when she was grabbed at the supermarket by an older woman who was shaking, speaking in tongues, and praying to cast the devil out of my mother. Needless to say, this only confirmed my mother's new-found opinion that religion is "baloney."
It took my Dad a little longer. When he got my letter he ran down to the church altar and poured out his heart to God. He enlisted the assistance of church members to pray for me. The pastor laid hands on Dad, asking God for a special blessing during this trial of faith. At first Dad tried to argue with me, in a friendly way, and we racked up many pages of correspondence on the issues. Eventually he backed off, due probably as much to Mom's influence as to mine. He began to read the "other side," and eventually came to respect the reasoning of freethinkers.
The same Wisconsin Magazine article quotes my father Norman Barker discussing how he dealt with his son's change of views: "I tried to straighten him out. It worked the other way around." After Dad stopped believing in God, he was amazed at how quickly his Christian friends turned on him. "I used to think it was a tough thing to be a Christian in this big, bad world. You want to see something interesting, try not being one." He reports, "I'm much happier now." "To be free from superstition and fear and guilt and the sin complex, to be able to think freely and objectively, is a tremendous relief."
One of the immediate benefits to my Dad was in the field of music. Back in the 1950s, when he and Mom became "born again," my Dad abandoned his career as a trombone player in dance bands (he had played for Hoagy Carmichael's radio orchestra and many other bands, including a stint with U.S.O. during the war, and on some Hollywood movies), throwing away his collection of swing recordings, turning his back on his former "sinful" life, playing his trombone only in church. He had come to view popular music as "worldly" and contrary to spiritual health. When he finally gave up religion in the late 1980s, he had come around full circle, but this didn't happen in one clean break. Before leaving the church, Dad began to play his trombone in local jazz bands in the Phoenix area, reconnecting with the life he had abandoned almost forty years before. He didn't tell anyone at church what he was doing because he knew they would disapprove. One night while Dad was playing in a dance band at a Fourth of July party, there happened to be TV coverage of the event which captured a glimpse of the band in the background. The next day the pastor's wife called my Dad and said, "Did I see you on TV last night?" Ha! The all-seeing eye of God! Dad could not continue this secret double life for long, so he finally made a clean break, abandoning "Onward, Christian Soldiers" in favor of "Don't Get Around Much Any More."
One night, just before he dumped the whole system of belief, Dad drove to church, took his trombone case out of the car and walked toward the building where he could hear the praying, singing, and preaching. When he got to the door it struck him that he did not belong there any more. Hoping that no one would notice, he quickly turned around and went home.
I never suggested to my parents that they should become atheists. They did their own thinking. They decided to investigate all sides of the issues. It is exciting to see what has happened in their lives. I don't think it is possible to pull someone out of religion if they don't want to go. All we can do is provide information and be an example.
One of the ripples radiating out from the example of unbelief was the effect on my younger brother Darrell. At first he was shocked, but then he grew enthused to see an open doubter. Darrell was, after all, a closet skeptic for many years, not knowing exactly what he believed but covering the bases just in case. I like to quip that Darrell never was a very good Christian. When I gave him a book on humanism, he said, "That's what I am! I never knew it until now, but I am a humanist." He was uncomfortable with the word "atheist," and when he asked to accompany me to a meeting of atheists in Los Angeles, he almost changed his mind and sat out in the car. A year or two later Darrell became one of the chapter directors of Atheists United. He went on to complain about violations of state/church separation in Redlands and San Bernardino. He became a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit protesting county ownership and maintenance of a Christian theme park on public property. My folks tell me that Darrell was a solid support for them when they were going through their initial disillusionment with religion. It is helpful to have someone to talk to during times like this, and Darrell called them regularly to compare notes on their new-found analysis of Christianity.
The gradual change in my parents and my brother Darrell was tremendously heartening. I never would have predicted such an outcome. My parents had been fervent evangelists for Jesus for years, and Darrell had been a street preacher with a missionary organization. I should have known that in a relationship that is based on true love and acceptance, there is nothing to fear. The fact that these born-again, door-to-door preachers were open to change gives me hope. It makes me realize that there is something that soars high above religion. There is something in life that is far superior to Jesus, more excellent than dogma. Real love, kindness, and intelligence know no barriers.
My other brother, Tom, is a born-again Christian. He is a good man, hard-working and conscientious. Although we have never been very close, we enjoy seeing each other occasionally, and the subject of religion never comes up. I sometimes refer to Tom as the "white sheep" of the family.
My maternal grandmother "Grams" was an uneducated, loving and generous woman whose views on religion fluctuated according to her medication. She and I were very close. When she received my letter she must have been torn apart with the issue, writing: "I won't give in to the Devil." Later, Grams wrote me again, in a more characteristic mood: "You sure don't have to defend yourself to me. You are a good man, one of the Best I have ever seen, and I am thankful for that. . . . I just stay open minded and try to live a good life. That's all I can do." A few years later Grams told me that she had scared off some Jehovah's Witnesses at her front door, growling, "Get out of here! I'm an atheist!" I don't think she really was an atheist, because at other times she spoke about God and Jesus in her life. But at least she became more broad-minded. To a large degree this was due to the change in my parents.
My paternal grandmother lives in Oklahoma. After Granddad died in 1986, she and I worked on a four-year project together, publishing Paradise Remembered, a book of Granddad's collected stories of life as a Delaware (Lenape) Indian boy in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. She has been a member of the Christian Church her entire life, and I know she is uncomfortable with my deconversion. She happened to see one of my appearances on "Oprah Winfrey," and wrote me a postcard saying, "I saw you on TV. That is not our Danny." Despite that, we have continued to get along wonderfully.
Two of my uncles have responded in a friendly and civil manner to the obvious change in our views, but Dad's third brother, a committed Christian, is ostracizing us, refusing to answer letters. After I sent him a copy of Paradise Remembered (his Dad's memories), which has been received with excitement and gratitude by the rest of the family, he sent it back to me without explanation. I can only assume that he is unwilling to associate with his "unclean" relatives.
My four children in California have been very good about the whole controversy. Unless they bring it up, or unless it happens to arise in the course of normal conversation, we do not discuss religion. When they visit Wisconsin, I offer to escort them to the church of their choice, but they have never taken me up on it. Two or three times during her high-school years my daughter Becky sent me a letter urging me to "come back to God," so I know that they have struggled with the issue. But I have repeatedly told them that my love for them is not contingent on what they believe. They can be Christians if they want, as long as they are good people and don't hurt others. They go to church with their mother, who works at a Christian school, and their stepfather, a youth director at a Baptist church. They know what I think. I have never wanted them to be forced into a position of having to choose between parents. They are smart kids, and I have to trust that they have the ability to sift fact from fiction, and right from wrong. I dedicated Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children to them, which says:
"No one can tell you what to think.
Not your teachers.
Not your parents.
Not your minister, priest, or rabbi.
Not your friends or relatives.
Not this book.
You are the boss of your own mind.
If you have used your own mind to find out what is true, then you should be proud!
Your thoughts are free."
After my Christian marriage ended, I moved into a tiny one-room apartment in Cucamonga. (Yes, there is a Cucamonga.) My brother Darrell had a friend who wrote for The San Bernardino Sun-Times, and they ran a feature story about my de-conversion for which I enlisted the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and in which they gave coverage to Freethought Today. It was not long after this that my correspondence with Annie Laurie Gaylor blossomed into a long-distance courtship. I moved to Wisconsin, and in May, 1987 we were married. The freethought-feminist wedding, a "match not made in heaven," took place at Sauk City's historic Freethought Hall. It was conducted by a woman judge wearing purple shoes with her judicial robe, announcing, "You may now kiss the groom." (See Part 9 for complete text of the ceremony.)
One of the "ripple effects" was Sabrina Delata Gaylor, our daughter born in September, 1989, a fourth-generation freethinker on her mother's side of the family, and a full member of the Delaware (Lenape) Tribe of American Indians on my side. Sabrina also has some Chiricahua Apache blood, from my mother's great-grandmother, who was a full-blooded member of the Arizona tribe from which Geronimo came. (Geronimo's clan fought the intrusion of the Spanish missionaries.) Just as some religious parents name their children "Faith," or "Charity," or "Hope," we looked for a name that would reflect reason. "Delata(h)" is the Delaware Indian word for "thought" or "reason."
In 1987 I went to work full-time for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. The Foundation is a national organization of freethinkers--atheists, agnostics, secular humanists--working to keep state and church separate and to educate the public about the views of nontheists. Working for the Foundation has been exciting and intellectually satisfying. It has given me an opportunity to continue "spreading the good news," and to utilize (and improve) some of the skills that I gained from preaching. Writing regular articles for the Foundation's newspaper Freethought Today, doing radio and TV shows, participating in debates on university campuses and churches, composing freethought music, performing concerts, giving speeches, writing "nontracts" and freethought books for children--all of this has allowed me to continue studying the issues which have interested me my entire life, and to keep speaking out.
During these years with the Foundation, I have noticed that speaking out does make a difference. The Foundation has been able to make contact with thousands of other freethinkers around the continent, and has helped motivate many of them to become more visible with their views. At the end of one of my debates in Iowa, a student came up to me and said, "Go ahead and add my name to your list. I was raised a Catholic in a small farming town and have never been able to acknowledge my doubts until now." Right there, a freethinker was born.
This might sound like a Sunday-evening church testimony, but I have to say that my life has been much better since I got the religious monkey off my back. Invalid friendships have been discarded, the true love of people like my parents has been wonderful and affirming, and the new freethinking friends have more than made up for any initial temporary sense of loss. Dishonesty is too high a cost for maintaining a friendship. In order to get pure gold, you have to melt it and skim off the impurities.
We never know fully how our actions affect others. I have read articles that have had tremendous impact on my thinking, but I never wrote to thank the author. Freethinkers who write letters to the local newspaper sometimes feel discouraged when they receive not a single positive response; but this does not mean someone's life has not been changed. I think all of our actions are like that. What we do produces ripples that radiate out much farther than we may have intended or imagined. In today's religion-crazed world, speaking out as a freethinker can't help but have an impact.