Freethought on the Road

California Schemin'

Dan Barker

I’ve been in southern California all week for a number of events — six events total, plus a Fox News interview.

After our National Day of Prayer victory on April 15, the Freedom From Religion Foundation staff has been deluged with requests from the media and from people wanting to join FFRF. In addition, Karma Bennett, the publicist for my book Godless at Ulysses Press (and managing editor for my next book), arranged for a number of PR interviews, and with the frenzy over our NDP victory, she was quite successful. She got Fox News interested in an interview for last Friday (May 7), but I was flying to California that day, so they asked if I could record the interview in their Los Angeles studio the next morning at 6:30. I reluctantly agreed — not that I was unwilling to do an interview, even on Fox News — but that it would mean I would be getting even less time for sleep than I had been managing to find all week.

I was staying at Bruce Gleason’s nice bed-and-breakfast in Villa Park, in Orange County, literally surrounded by orange trees and avocado trees and plumeria. A limo picked me up at the front gate at 5 a.m. in not-yet-sunny California. This was not just a limo, as in airport “limo,” but it was a deluxe limousine with a huge backseat with drinks and snacks, very first class. It took more than an hour to drive to west Los Angeles for the interview, but it was nice to see those freeways virtually empty of traffic early on a Saturday morning.

The limo driver was “Andy.” He is Greek, and very expressive! When he found out what I was going to talk about, he started shouting and banging his fist on the dashboard, but not out of disapproval. He was happy to hear about the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s victory in the National Day of Prayer case. I loved his unconcealed anger at the horrors of mixing religion and government. I had to plug my ears a few times, but it was really nice to see such honest raw emotion from an obviously intelligent and well-informed (if rambunctious) man. I quoted some New Testament passages to him in the original Greek, and he started hollering at the stupidity of the bible.

We got to the studio around 6:15. There was only one person there — it felt like a weekend ghost town. The receptionist/cameraman asked me to wait in the green room until they were ready with the satellite hookup from New York. I fell asleep! I was so exhausted that I wondered if I could keep my eyes open for the interview. I woke up just in time to stumble groggily into the main studio where I was startled to see Barack Obama and John McCain standing to the side. They turned out to be life-size cutouts. I got situated on a chair in the middle of that huge set with an image of southern California in the background, palm trees and all. (Some viewers thought the star-shape glow from one of the lights behind me looked suspiciously like a cross, but I’m not going to accuse Fox News of being that blatant.)

If you’ve never done a satellite hook-up interview, you don’t know how weird it can be. Sometimes they are done in what amounts to a closet, but this time I was sitting in a huge set surround by a dark empty studio, staring at nothing but a camera with a yellow happy face taped on the top of the lens. (That helped a lot.) I couldn’t see the host — they told me his name was David Briggs — nor could I see what was happening on the screen. I had a little plug in my ear and had to imagine the scene from what I was hearing remotely from New York.

Fox should fire Briggs, because he is actually pretty good at his job. In spite of the fact that he was asking uninformed questions based on talking points some producer must have given him, he allowed me to speak in complete sentences, unlike many of the hosts we have met on that network who like to interrupt, hog the time and take the last word. I knew he was out of his element when he made this astonishingly ignorant statement: “Of course, this is also, as you know, a Judeo-Christian country. Our roots, in the Constitution, has passages such as we are ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’” It was a kick in the head to be able to correct him on the air, to point out that he was quoting the Declaration of Independence, not the Constution. To his credit, he admitted he was wrong. I thought that was refreshing.

The interview aired the next morning, on Mother's Day. You can see it here. At the time I write this, six days later, it is currently the #5 Top Rated video of the week for “News & Politics” on Youtube, with almost 70,000 views. It also has earned Most Viewed honors in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden.

The driver was waiting patiently outside — he was being paid by the hour, so he didn’t mind. We had another great talk on the way back. Well, I talked and he shouted. When he dropped me off he said, “You made my day!” He handed me his address and asked how he could join FFRF. “You made my week!”

A couple hours later I drove to Costa Mesa for the Orange County Freethought Alliance convention, where I joined Michael Shermer, PZ Myers, John Shook, Eddie Tabash, Joe Nickell, William Lobdell, Brian Dunning, Stephanie Campbell and Phil Zuckerman for a daylong conference to talk about science and religion. It was great to be with so many sparkling freethinkers — audience as well as speakers — in the county where I had once preached for so many years.

I spent a couple of days with my daughters and their children, and on Tuesday spoke to the Backyard Skeptics, literally in a backyard. Wednesday night I spoke at the University of California-Irvine at an event hosted by the student group AAR (Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists at UCI). Some of them like to say the name of the group “Aarrrr!” like they are pirates.

Thursday I drove up to talk at the University of California-Santa Barbara to an overflow crowd where students were sitting on the floor, eager to hear about freethought and state/church separation. That event was sponsored by SURE, a smart, friendly student group that is growing fast.

On Friday I continued north, following the Camino Real highway through the Central Coast wine country, sometimes hugging the magnificent Pacific coast as I drove up to San Luis Obispo through hills dotted with live oak, past vineyards lined with eucalyptus. I spoke that afternoon at Cal Poly at an event hosted by the Cal Poly Brights.

Most of these university events are arranged by the national Secular Student Alliance, with which the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been working to promote freethought on campuses. I am impressed with the quality of students in these freethought clubs — whatever name they choose — who are working to promote science, reason, and real human morality. The amazing growth of the number of these campus organizations is testament to the fact that something is happening in the country. Well, it is happening all over the world, as we recently saw the formation of the new Freethought University Alliance of Australia. The age group from college to 20-something is currently the least religious demographic in the United States, with about one in four nonreligious. Nonreligion is the fastest growing “religion” in the country. Students are very busy, and very poor, and if some of them come together to form a group to combat superstition, they must be quite motivated. It is one of the highest pleasures of my life to spend some time — too little time — hanging out with these bright ambitious student leaders at dinner (usually pizza) after the event. These young people are on the cutting edge of learning, and I often get to pick their brains about what is new in their field of study.

And they are funny! I love their sense of humor, smart humor. It is a blast to hang out and laugh, expose incongruities and ironies, share jokes, all from the framework of wanting to know. The Cal Poly group gave me one of their T-shirts that says “I Love Reality” (with a heart for “Love”) on the front, and on the back: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." — Mark Twain

Every group I spoke to this week was keenly interested in the National Day of Prayer victory (so were my daughters Rebecca and Andrea), as well as other lawsuits FFRF is taking, especially the clergy parsonage exemption case. Some of the students were wide-eyed at the thought that we can actually make a difference, a real difference in a country based on freedom of conscience.

Let’s do it!

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