Courage as the prime virtue of atheism
FFRF awarded James $400.
By James Lambert
I was raised Catholic, which is to say I was baptized and endured the Ontario Catholic school system. God was as real to me in elementary school as the government of Canada, which is to say it existed somewhere well beyond the sphere of what I actually cared about at the age of 8.
A series of events, beginning with my grandfather's death, kindled a profound doubt. This was fueled by the command and authority expressed by the priests at the mandatory school Masses. Who were they to tell me how to behave? What did they know about my life?
The mild inconvenience of Mass and religion class began to evolve into a pressing discomfort. I could not, would not, stand for a moment longer to be told that I was being watched and judged by some divine invigilator, especially one who had as much evidence in favor of his existence as Santa Claus. (I stopped believing in both fairy tales around the same time.)
There is no substance to atheism. Almost by definition it is the absence of substance. It is not itself an ideology, it forces no injunction, it demands no submission. It is a term that has meaning only in juxtaposition to the absurdity of its necessity.
In a world void of theism or deism, the word "atheist" would not exist. Everyone would be an atheist, but we would not need a word to set ourselves apart. In this sense, atheism as a concept is hardly worth defending, as it does not entail anything which can be verified scientifically.
We have all heard the impotent and revealing challenge, "Well, can you prove God doesn't exist?" Of course not, if only because whatever is meant by "God" is so malleable as to be almost meaningless. So what should we be defending? Why should somebody be proud to be an atheist? After all, atheism is so reviled by some and so lauded by others that it must entail something ideological.
I submit that atheism is an ideological corollary, and it is the principles of logic and reason from whence it stems that causes this conflict. Herein is found the most admirable quality of the atheist position: intellectual courage.
As an atheist, even as an anti-theist, it is not at all perplexing to me why one could or would believe in the supernatural and, in particular, a god. The phrase "god-fearing" is a brilliant one. It compactly expresses the belief and the motive. Fear is the root of all intellectual and moral capitulations. Out of the terrifying possibility of oblivion was birthed the ancestors of today's superstitions. "What is right or wrong? Where do we come from?" And, most importantly, "What happens after death?"
One need not be concerned with the strenuous task of answering these questions if one only surrenders his or her intellectual integrity and accepts, without complaint, the authority of a god. At best this manifests as a small blind spot where rational thought is overlooked; at worst it constitutes the complete incapacitation of one's critical faculties. Rather than looking courageously into the face of uncertainty, supernatural claims provide a framework of self-deception. This constitutes a pernicious and insidious threat to human civilization, now more than ever.
Consider the horrors that are explained away by annihilating one's own moral agency out of fear. Global warming? Fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Suicide? Murder? You've transgressed upon our prophet's sanctity. Gay marriage? An abomination. Evolution in science class? A preposterous fabrication. Atheism? A dangerous ideology.
At the heart of the confrontation between faith and reason lies a single question. When we are faced with the most profound existential questions, should we confront them with honest doubt or blind faith? We are all inevitably filled with doubt and fear when confronted with the question of death. Herein lies the deepest motive of blind faith.
Some are willing to accept any tenet, surrender any freedom, sacrifice any integrity if only the fear of death can be assuaged. In this question also lies the most admirable quality of an atheist. The courage of an assertion of ignorance, and of uncertainty, is the key attribute that must be common to all nonbelievers.
We have spent most of recorded history honoring the sacrifice of human moral agency and intellectual integrity in the interest of preserving the precious illusion of immortality. We now sit at a crossroad. No longer can we straddle the chasm between what is true and what is "respectful," between what is honest and what is comforting.
Freethinkers appear to be the only ones with the stomach for this conflict. When Danish cartoonists are condemned for drawing, novelists for writing, and magazine editors for satirizing, it seems that the only group willing to stand up and risk life and reputation for intellectual integrity are atheists, agnostics and secularists informed by scientific skepticism and humanism. These together constitute the only group who have maintained their moral responsibility, rather than sell it for the cheap price of false comfort.
My atheism stems from the insistence that no question is too terrifying, no answer is too daunting, no fear is worth surrendering the most wonderful aspects of human existence. The greatest virtue of atheism is the courage to speak the truth.
James Lambert, 21, was born in Ottawa, Canada. He attends the University of Waterloo (Ontario), where he's in his final year of an honors physics degree program. "I intend to pursue graduate studies in theoretical physics. As a specialization, I'm considering either relativistic quantum mechanics, high energy physics or plasma physics. I have the good fortune of working in a field where literally every subject is fascinating!"
Proud to be a heathen, where at least I know I'm free
FFRF awarded Emma $500.
By Emma Follmer
When I was 7 years old my family moved to a city I now swear I will never return to: Birmingham, Ala. My initial excitement at a new place had completely vanished by my third day of school. In those three days everyone I met had a question for me: "What church do you go to?" I would naively and cheerfully respond: none.
This was not the correct response. By day three I was a confirmed heathen, the worst possibility in an Alabama elementary school.
My classmates had, of course, picked this question up from their parents, who were quick to ask it on their own. As to the inevitable follow-up, "But where do your children get their morals?" my baffled parents would say, "From us, of course."
The idea that life experience and its lessons could be just as effective in teaching morals as a centuries-old fable was apparently a revelation to these steadfast believers. After a while, my astute parents, when asked about church, answered in complete seriousness, "Our Lady of Spain Park." Spain Park was the school campus where the whole family would spend Sunday mornings riding our bikes.
I am similarly baffled as a young adult by the assumption that morals can only be learned from religion. Life experience, history, literature and interaction with peers teach us what our morals should be. This process leaves us room for growth and improvement. We can explore the gray areas, question the standards and norms and push the boundaries. We can adapt.
Those who have learned their morals from a bible and preachers do not have this skill and luxury. They have right and wrong presented to them with little room to deviate and their strict adherence to an unchanging system has left them outdated. So while nonbelievers have been stigmatized as lacking morals, it is the religious who are left with a set of morals that no longer apply to our time and culture. We nonbelievers have been dismissed by the very people who could learn most from our ideas.
My early experiences with the religious secured my dislike of their practices and a disbelief in a judgmental god. Disbelief was solidified by the works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and by regularly watching Bill Maher. For the sake of fairness, I looked into religion, read the literature, listened to sermons and researched various churches.
I found intolerance, hypocrisy, a holier-than-thou attitude and a distinct lack of logic, reason or critical thinking. My lack of belief went from a vague personality trait to one of my core values. God was a fraud, and religion was the world's most successful and most harmful con.
Don't pray for me
When voicing this opinion to religious friends, I hear back, "I'll pray for you." Nothing is more infuriating. The act itself is harmless and laughable; the idea behind it is insulting and controlling. Those who do it truly believe that it will have some kind of effect on me and are in essence trying to seriously interfere with my life.
They are asking a higher power to influence me without my knowledge or consent. They do this with the misguided belief that I must be saved.
Can I say with absolute certainty that God does not exist? I can only attempt to convince others through reason and arguments of my absolute pride and comfort in being a nonbeliever. I will respect the rights of others to think differently until their beliefs actively and negatively affect me and those around me. I want to do what is right for those who exist in the here and now.
Believers' certainty in the existence of God and an afterlife is absurd, but the most dangerous aspect is their insistence in forcing the practices of their beliefs on me. Their beliefs should have no bearing on my ability to choose what is right for my body or whom I choose to legally marry.
Having to pledge allegiance to my country while affirming the existence of God is evidence of the insidious historical creep of religion. They must spread the word and must convert all, and do so with the misguided and selfish belief that their god is the one true god and that their religion is the only way to live. When they fight for what they believe, they do it for a reward, for the promise of an afterlife instead of what it will accomplish on Earth.
I have learned to respect the beliefs of others even though I may disagree with them. I want to do what I can to improve the world we live in for everyone, and I expect no reward. Yet somehow, I am looked down on for these qualities.
It is a good thing that I enjoy irony.
Emma Follmer, 19, Richmond, Va., is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. "If all goes according to plan, I will graduate in the spring of 2018 with degrees in English and political science. I will probably throw in a minor in journalism for good measure."
Nature, creativity are my religion
FFRF awarded Erika $750
By Erika Walsh
There are countless examples of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers who not only exhibit morally upstanding behavior, but also have made crucial contributions toward the betterment of our planet, and humanity itself. Regardless of nonbelievers' significant influence on history, science and politics, atheists in the U.S. are generally perceived as having no morals and often suffer from blatant discrimination.
Historical evidence points to the fact that most of our founders did not follow organized religion. James Madison stated that Christianity brought about "pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." John Adams condemned Judaism and Christianity as being among the bloodiest religions ever, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments.
The irony of this, considering the lack of acceptance of atheists, is astounding. Former President George H.W. Bush once publicly said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
It is virtually impossible for an atheist to win a public election, and to "come out" would equate to instant political suicide for a presidential candidate. The reality of atheists' modern-day isolation from politics would be disheartening to the founders, to say the least. The Constitution clearly calls for separation between church and state.
The forward-thinking founders did not see a place for religion in government, and this was a crucial aspect of their intention to establish a free nation.
A personal code of moral conduct is more easily achieved when the individual is not being seduced by the promise of salvation, or deterred by the fear of condemnation. Albert Einstein once stated that "a man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary."
Einstein himself, arguably one of the most brilliant individuals in the realm of both scientific and social issues, condemned the idea of a personal god. His ideas concerning not just physics, but war and peace, the education system and the nature of humankind, were undeniably groundbreaking, regardless of, or perhaps in part due to, his agnosticism.
Perhaps it can be said that distance from organized religion ignites a sense of freedom and individualism, which better equips people to explore the mysteries of the universe, and question why things are the way they are. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking states that he identifies as an atheist, and that science offers a "more convincing explanation" for the creation of the universe, and the miracles of religion cannot coincide in harmony with the facts presented to us by science.
Hawking might never have dared to explore the science surrounding the creation of the universe if he had been constrained by blind faith. He might have been too consumed by fear of what might happen to his soul, should he dare question this idea, to explore alternative possibilities.
In my own experience, I was never fully convinced by the rationalizations presented by standard religious teachings. Even as a child, the tenets preached in Sunday school did not sit well with me. I remember one incident where my teacher proclaimed that people who commit suicide go to hell. I was only 9 or 10, but I knew injustice when I came across it. I argued with her statement, refusing to accept that a loving god would punish someone for committing an act unto their own self, born out of pain and desperation.
This altercation somewhat solidified my feeling that Christianity wasn't for me, and yet I continued to say my prayers before bed each night for some time afterward, holding on to attachments born out of fear of the unknown. I am aware of a spiritual connection to myself, my surroundings and other sentient beings, akin to the "cosmic religious feeling" that Einstein describes experiencing.
I know now that my spirituality cannot be expressed within the confines of a church, temple or mosque. I experience this cosmic feeling primarily when I am submerged in nature or expressing myself creatively.
By owning my agnosticism and distancing myself from organized religion, I have found ways to express myself that may have been deterred or warped by the beliefs of Christianity, which I was baptized into and expected to practice.
Identifying as a nonbeliever simply means that a person is not content with the answers presented to them, and wishes to seek their own truths instead. I hope that our society will be able to overcome its fear and fully accept nonbelievers into our nation, recognizing that the individual choice not to believe is just as valid as the decision to believe.
Erika Walsh, 19, was born in Kings Park, N.Y., and is a sophomore writing major at Ithaca College. "I am a member of Feminists United at Ithaca, and I am on the executive board of IC Animal Rights. I am a vegetarian and am very passionate about ethical eating and living."
The atheist's never-ending task
FFRF awarded Julia $1,000.
By Julia Upchurch
Religion is inescapable in the Southeast. Each day, as I walk from one end of our campus to the other, I encounter two men peddling religious pamphlets: one Christian, the other Islamic. Each asserts that only the pious are redeemable, which means that every day I am told that I am irredeemable.
My nonreligious mother does not discuss religion with her friends out of fear that they will harass her for her lack of faith. My younger nonreligious cousins told me that their friends keep trying to bring them to religious services at the insistence of their parents. Were we members of any other religious group, such as Judaism, this would be seen as persecution. But because we are individuals without faith, it is considered customary.
In a 2011 study titled "Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice," participants were read a description of an individual engaging in abhorrent behavior and asked if it was more likely that the individual was Christian, Muslim, a rapist or an atheist. The results were telling: People were more likely to believe atheists would engage in immoral actions than religious individuals or even rapists.
I wish I had been surprised by the results. I have informed many acquaintances of my personal beliefs, only for them to respond that I seemed such a morally upstanding person. They appear to be incapable of understanding what my morality is based upon, if not religion.
I am a secular humanist, which is basically a fancy way of saying that I am an atheist who believes all living things should be treated the way that I would like to be treated if I was in their place, and they in mine. I believe actions that are seen as societally acceptable and unacceptable have less to do with organized religion and more to do with this principle, which Christians have dubbed "The Golden Rule."
Many have argued that "The Golden Rule" is a religious construct; however, empathy has been documented in at least two nonhuman species: elephants and crows. Both have been shown to mourn their dead. Elephants will carry the bones of any deceased they encounter back to their burial grounds, and crows will host a wake whenever they come across remains. Neither do this because of religious mandate; they do it because they empathize with others of their species. Nonbelievers base their morality on this same empathy, instead of on the belief that they will be rewarded or punished after they die.
Moreover, there have been studies that have demonstrated that nonreligious individuals are equally as moral as their religious counterparts. One such study in 2014, "Morality in Everyday Life," asked participants who were religious, nonreligious, liberal and conservative to report moral and immoral actions that they themselves committed, received, witnessed or heard about within an hour's time.
The only difference between the reports of religious and nonreligious people was the depth of emotion religious people experienced with each moral and immoral act: They felt more pride in their moral deeds and more embarrassment in their immoral deeds. Clearly, a lack of religion does not denote moral depravity.
Despite all of the scorn that nonreligious people are faced with every day, they have made indelible, and oft celebrated, contributions to the arts and sciences over the years. Examples include Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-known architect; Samuel Clemens, an author better known as Mark Twain; Albert Einstein, a renowned physicist; and Katharine Hepburn, a beloved actress.
To be the source of near-universal scorn, yet to still dedicate one's life to uplifting humanity, is the atheist's continual task. If that is not worthy of respect, I fail to see how anything else could ever measure up.
I was not always a nonreligious person. My parents believe in informed choice, so I attended a Lutheran church as a child. I was a voracious reader, and little appealed to me more than traditional fairy tales. Many people are unaware, but traditional fairy tales deliver morals through threats of magical intervention and death, and I found an odd number of parallels to the bible.
One day at Sunday school, I pointed out to my teacher that the intervention of fairies and those of angels were extremely similar. My teacher cautioned me that fairies did not exist, so I should be wary of putting too much stock in fairy tales. When I asked her how she knew fairies weren't real, she told me that they had never been observed. I asked her if angels had ever been observed, and she informed me they hadn't. When I asked her how she knew for a fact that angels existed, she told me that it was because angels were mentioned in the bible.
That was the day that I lost all respect for Christianity. I never again could place any stock in blind faith.
Julia Upchurch, 22, Camden, S.C., is a sophomore environmental science major at the University of South Carolina. She's interested in a career in limnology and plans to pursue an advanced degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Freshwater and Marine Sciences.
Agnostic 'hearts' aggressive atheist
FFRF awarded Casira $2,000.
By Casira Copes
I attended a high school that had a fairly diverse student population. My favorite class was media publications, and it was comprised of only a few students. Among those students were a few Christians, one Mormon, some agnostics and one person I often thought of as the aggressive atheist.
He was known for being particularly passionate and relentless when it came to religious debate. He was never rude, but he argued with a conviction I had never witnessed before. I grew up in a Christian home, going to church with my grandmother most Sundays. I slept with a bible next to my bed, and somewhere in my jewelry box, there was a cross on a chain.
I knew what my opinions were supposed to be regarding religion. But rather than engaging this person in debate, I spent a lot of time watching him debate others.
Watching, I realized several things. The first was that we had a lot in common regarding our views on the nature of the bible and the role of religion in society. I also noticed that he had the qualities of a very good friend. He was honest, valued communication and, most important, he was open-minded. Yet too often he was called "heathen." Too often he was told he would "burn in hell" because he questioned what many people accept blindly.
The more time I spent with him, the more unjust treatment I witnessed. As our friendship grew, so did my fear. For the first time in my life, I was really beginning to reevaluate my beliefs. He was the first person to ask me what I thought about the universe, as opposed to telling me what I should think.
In church, I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid to admit that I couldn't feel the Holy Spirit and that the idea of being baptized felt dishonest to me. I was afraid to ask why certain things that I knew to be facts didn't quite line up with the chronology of the bible. Soon I was afraid of facing the kind of vilification I saw my friend go through.
Becoming his friend led to a lot of internal conflict. I had strayed from the beliefs of my family, most importantly my grandmother. She is the most loyal, loving and generous person I have in my life. The bible gives her comfort when she needs it, and the thought of Jesus watching over her makes her feel safe. I would never want to take those feelings away from her. Introducing her to the aggressive atheist was one of the most stressful moments of my life.
But she has since welcomed him into our lives with as much love and respect as she would any family member. Her treatment of him was so different from how he was treated by other religious people. It made me stop and wonder why atheists are treated like the natural enemy of religion.
I don't know if there is a higher power. I don't think it is possible to know. I suppose that makes me agnostic. But I am sure that if a deity of some sort created this vast universe, Earth is nothing more than a marble that rolled under its couch. It doesn't care what we wear, eat or do on Sunday.
It is our responsibility to make the world we live in a good one. Regardless of beliefs, every person has the freedom to choose how he or she will treat others. I do not know of any religious text that would condemn the choice to be kind and compassionate. It is up to us, not a god, to maintain our morality for ourselves.
I have seen firsthand that people with drastically different religious ideologies can love and admire each other. The vast array of beliefs and opinions is what makes humanity wonderful. It is what makes communication engaging and worthwhile. It gives color to what would otherwise be a very monochromatic world.
I met the aggressive atheist five years ago. He is my very best friend in the world. The qualities I saw all those years ago, the honesty and open-mindedness that drew him into so many debates, have made him my most trusted ally and closest confidant.
I came across as Christian when I met him. Now I realize I could have been Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or anything in the world and he would not have denied me his friendship. If I had denied him friendship, based on his atheism, I would have made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
Casira Copes, 20, Elkton, Md., is a third-year student at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, where she's pursuing majors in advertising and public relations and graphic design. "I have always admired the aesthetic quality of media design. My ultimate goal is to graduate two years from now with two bachelor's degrees and a master's and then pursue a career as a graphic designer."
Challenge misconceptions about atheism, morality
FFRF awarded Sara $3,000.
By Sara Schwabe
Recent American social movements have increased acceptance of many oppressed groups. But studies show that atheists are still regarded with aversion and distrust. In a 2014 survey, the Pew Research Center found that atheists and Muslims were the most negatively viewed groups in the U.S. A study by the American Psychological Association found that, among communities with a religious majority, atheists are viewed with as much distrust as rapists!
Are these views justified? If atheists are so immoral and untrustworthy, they should be more likely to commit crimes. But according to recent studies, atheists make up as little as 0.07% of federal prisoners. When compared to the estimated 2.4% of Americans who are atheist, nonbelievers in prison are very underrepresented.
Studies have also found that violent crime rates are lower in secular nations and that life expectancy, economic stability, health care quality, education and standards of living are higher. Even divorce rates seem to be lower among nonreligious couples. Apparently, atheism does not lead to the ruined societies that many believers expect.
What then leads to these stereotypes? As part of a religious family that attended the Church of Christ, I was raised assuming that atheists must be selfish and immoral. But this idea changed rapidly when I began to lose faith myself. Ironically, it happened when my family tried to come closer to God.
We studied the bible together diligently and I began to find many inconsistencies. I became more open to associating with people I would have previously avoided, including several atheist families. I was shocked to find that they were more polite, intelligent, compassionate and moral than many Christians I knew.
Many believers would argue that morality only exists because of God. Without God's commandments, how are we to know right from wrong? The problem with this is that it ignores human well-being and suffering; unless it is in relation to God and his apparent plan for humankind, the welfare of the individual and of society as a whole is irrelevant.
This belief can be dangerous. If one believes that his or her God commands something that may harm another human being, the fact that this order comes from God negates the fact that it will cause human suffering. This can lead to persecution of all sorts, from the mistreatment of women and gays to religious wars and terrorism.
How is this perspective, which is based on expectations of eternal punishments or rewards, more "moral" than the belief that our actions should be judged in accordance with how they impact others?
Religious believers argue that God's commandments are absolute and eternal, but nonbelievers' "morality" changes with the whims of society. But this argument collapses on closer inspection. Few Christians today would argue that slavery is moral, but many in the past used the bible to argue for slavery. Some Christian denominations today argue that men and women are equal, or that God is accepting of homosexuals, although the bible directly disagrees on both points and Christians historically have never approved of either.
In contrast, an atheist's view of morality is based on living "right" for oneself and for others, as the consequences they must live with are here and now. This idea does not change with the times.
A common accusation against atheists is that they are undermining the morals and foundation of society, determined to destroy religious liberty and force secular ideas on everyone. America was built on the idea of questioning and criticizing powerful institutions and traditions. This should be encouraged, not demonized. If people are willing to examine something as powerfully established as religion, then they are certainly more willing to question practices and traditions that may be harmful to the rest of society.
Why should children be "protected" from this type of intellectual reasoning? If religion is as infallible as believers claim, then they should not be wary of those teaching their children to analyze it themselves.
Sadly, these arguments are unlikely to change the minds of many believers, since the belief that atheists are harmful to society is very deeply ingrained in their minds. What then can be done? From experience, I know that the only thing that convinced me that atheists could be compassionate and moral was personal observation. Until I saw nonbelievers behaving benevolently toward me and others, such arguments would not have changed my preconceptions.
Nonbelievers need to prove that they are behaving morally without a god; they can help the poor, treat others with respect, demonstrate honesty and work for the betterment of society without the promise of eternal reward or the threat of never-ending punishment. They need to behave in a way that believers would consider "Christ-like," until they realize that such conduct does not require a "Christ" at all.
Sarah Schwabe, 23, is a sophomore psychology major at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she's involved with the Secular Alliance. She's interested in research in neuropsychology involving autism and other learning disabilities. "During my first semester in college, I had certainly walked away from my faith but was still hesitant to use the term 'atheist.' It had too many negative connotations due to my upbringing. It was only after meeting and befriending other self-proclaimed atheists that I was able to use the title myself."
FFRF congratulates the 10 college students who won this year's essay competition and thanks all of the many entrants. FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.
Students were asked to write 700 to 900 words on the topic of "Proud to be an atheist: challenging stigmas against nonbelievers." Recipients, scholarship amounts and schools are:
• First place: Sara Schwabe, 23, Indiana University ($3,000)
• Second place: Casira Copes, 20, Rochester Institute of Technology ($2,000)
• Third place: Julia Upchurch, 22, University of South Carolina ($1,000)
• Fourth place: Erika Walsh, 19, Ithaca College ($750)
• Fifth place: Emma Follmer, 20, Virginia Commonwealth University ($500)
• Sixth place (tie): James Lambert, 21, University of Waterloo (Ontario) ($400)
• Sixth place (tie): Sunita Kolarth, 18, University of Missouri–Kansas City ($400)
Honorable mention ($200 each):
• Chan Sai (Samuel) Hay, 21, De Anza College
• Martin Cheung, 18, University of Pennsylvania
• Julianna Bauman, 19, University of Washington
• Mariesa Robinson, 20, Mercyhurst University
"We truly consider our scholarships for freethinking students to be among FFRF's most important investments in the future of freethought," said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "There are thousands of scholarships for religious students, and hardly any rewarding critical thinking and the use of reason in forming an opinion about religion."
The contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.
FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $9,250 reflects bonuses.
This speech was delivered before the 38th annual FFRF national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 9, 2015.
By Taslima Nasrin
I am grateful to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for giving me The Emperor Has No Clothes award. I am also grateful to Annie Laurie Gaylor for having previously selected me for the Freethought Heroine award in 2002 and for a grant more recently. This organization has been standing by me during my trials and tribulations.
A few days ago, the Bangladeshi jihadist group Ansarullah Bangla Team published what it called a "global hit list" of bloggers who have denigrated Islam, and vowed to take action against such writers. I am on the list. At the bottom of the list, was this chilling threat: "Enemies of Islam and madrassa education, atheists, anti-Islamic apostates, Shahbagi bloggers, acting on behalf of India, are trying to set obstacles in the path of establishment of Islamic caliphate. We demand that the Bangladesh government cancel the citizenship of such enemies of Islam, otherwise we will liquidate them wherever we find them across the world. Our jihad will continue, Inshallah. Amen. — Ansarullah Bangla Team"
There have been reports in the media recently that Ansarullah activists are trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India to kill me. Ansarullah believes in the ideology of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al-Qaeda activist, and has been involved in the brutal murders of at least four Bangladeshi freethinkers and bloggers.
It's a matter of pride to be a freethinker, atheist and blogger in a civilized society; as the rights of such people are respected by the people and the government. However, in a country like Bangladesh, where society is still in its primitive and brutal state, such intellectuals are killed for being progressive and speaking their minds or writing what they wish to say. Such societies silence the voices of atheists who try to wake people to a new dawn.
No atheist support
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and her son Sajeeb Wazed, who acts as her information and communications technology adviser as well as political campaigner, have announced that they will not stand with the atheists. But the point is that the atheists are not aliens, they too are citizens of the country. So, it is apparent that the government of the day stands with the bigots.
Atheism became such a hated word that everybody in Bangladesh chooses to maintain a safe distance from atheists even though the government is bound by its own policy to not differentiate between citizens on the basis of their religion, color, gender or language. Sadly, in order to safeguard its own interest, the government has turned its back on rationalists, secularists and atheists who need its support the most.
The Bangladesh government is silent about the murder of freethinkers. Sheikh Hasina does not want to stand by the side of atheists. She does not say that murdering anyone is illegal. She does not want to punish the murderers. She gave a statement against the murderers of innocent people but made no statement against the murderers of atheists.
Bangladesh has never been a true democracy, because a democracy does not have affinity to any particular religion, whereas Bangladesh has an official religion. Until the time this country gets rid of that state religion, until the time atheists become as accepted as theists, Bangladesh cannot be called a democratic country.
There has always been a marked conflict between religion and science, and every time science emerges as the winner, as science bases itself on facts, not faith. It supports what is tested and is true and truth cannot be hidden by lies for a very long time. To abolish all kinds of hypocrisy from my country, we need more atheists to speak the truth.
The silence of the government on the death of the bloggers is a strong indication that this is going to be the new norm for in Bangladesh. At times, I really feel that one shouldn't expect anything worthwhile from Bangladesh. Its political parties will turn it into a fundamentalist Islamic state. And the commoners will just sit and watch the unfolding horror. A rational mind might say this is strongly condemnable, but for the masses, it is not such an appalling place to be. They have been so blinded by religion that they wouldn't mind being another cog in the giant wheel turning Bangladesh into "Darul Islam."
Resisters are punished
Citizens who are resisting this anarchy with courage will be slowly and systematically eliminated by those who will never be punished because they serve the vested interests of shrewd politicians.
Bangladesh was earlier known to the world because of the annual floods that devastated the population. From a country that suffered from natural calamities, it is now emerging as a nation that suffers from man-made catastrophes, remorselessly butchering atheists and bloggers. Unless politicians stop the business of using religion to get votes from masses, many enlightened youngsters will bleed to death in the country.
At one time Sheikh Mujibar Rahaman had moved the people to reject the Pakistani soldiers who massacred the Bangladeshi intelligentsia. Today, his own daughter is indulging criminals whose hands are red with the blood of bloggers. I no longer feel ashamed to say I feel scared to think of myself as a Bangladeshi.
Four bloggers were hacked to death. Among them was Niloy Neel, the secular humanist blogger who was a member of the Taslima Nasreen supporters group. He was brutally killed by Bangladeshi Islamists only because he was an enlightened critic of Islam. Niloy Neel criticized all religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. But he was killed only for criticizing Islam. The Bangladesh government did not take any action against the killers. Like others, he had to die for his crime of being a freethinker.
A few days ago Islamic State (or ISIS) claimed responsibility for the fatal shooting of an Italian citizen on a street in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Then a few days later, a Japanese man was also killed there.
Islamophobia is something coined by fundamentalists. If you criticize Islam, you will be called Islamophobic. It's a political tactic. You won't find Hindu-phobics or Christian-phobics. It's as if you can criticize all religions, but not Islam, even if there are widespread killings and oppression of women in the name of this religion. I don't criticize Islam only—I criticize and speak up against anti-women elements in all religions. But I criticize Islam more because I have grown up in a Muslim country and I witnessed the violation of human rights and women's rights under Islam. My voice cannot be gagged.
Is there any other writer in the world whose five books are banned and who has been banned from entering her own country for more than two decades and also banned from entering a place where people have the same language and culture? It is unfortunately me.
Banished from country
In 1993, when my work started drawing the ire of Islamic fundamentalists, there were widespread protests in Bangladesh. Huge rallies were organized against me, fatwas issued and a price was put on my head. Eventually I was banished from my own country. Needless to say, the concept of freedom of speech was violated in all possible ways at that time. Some authors stopped writing books criticizing religion issues because they didn't want to face what was inflicted on me. Therefore, we can say that self-censorship became a norm right from that time.
Over the years, a generation of progressive youngsters, who are well-educated and called themselves liberal, atheists and humanists, has been making their presence felt in the country. I wouldn't say that all youngsters are progressive because some of them are joining radical groups too. But there are others who have begun to challenge religious orthodoxy through their blogs or otherwise. Many such bloggers speaking up against bigotry, superstition and fundamentalism are being targeted. In fact, it doesn't matter whether a blogger is a Hindu, Muslim or Christian; whoever is criticizing Islam is being targeted. Many of them have no option but to flee the country. Those who are staying are scared of writing. So there is again a stifling form of self-censorship. Those who are trying to start life afresh abroad would find it hard to write again because in those countries they have to earn their livelihood first and fight for survival. So such a struggle for existence in an alien land could kill creativity.
A large section of Bangladesh is deeply religious. If Shaikh Hasina is seen punishing killers in order to protect atheists and rationalists, this part of the population might consider the leader to be atheist herself. This perception might be detrimental to her electoral prospects. The politicians need to protect their voting bloc at the end of the day.
Islam is not a race. Just as Christianity has spread from its source of origin, Islam too has traversed a similar path. Those who have hatred or fear against Muslims suffer from Muslim-phobia.
Illegal arrests, imprisonment
Today, hordes of innocent citizens are being illegally arrested, handcuffed and imprisoned across the world. And while we are not making them celebrities, we have made Ahmed Mohammed, the Texas clock boy, a hero just after he spent time in a police station. The real reason for that is Ahmed is a Muslim boy. If Ahmed was a Jew or a Christian or a Hindu, would "good people" the world over have protested as much against racism in the U.S. as they have in Ahmed's case, and would they have supported him in this manner? Would he have been invited to the White House? I don't think that would have been the case.
Several white-skinned racists are Muslim-haters. But why do they only hate Muslims and are not Hindu-haters, Sikh-haters or Buddhist-bashers? Can we really argue that they hate Muslims just like that? Is there no reason for their hate whatsoever?
Many American kids have killed their schoolmates. Many such shooting sprees are reported with regularity. Yet I suspect that if the school in Texas came across a situation where an American or a white kid came to class with a toy pistol or a toy rifle, the school authorities would have alerted the police only after assessing the nature of the item in question.
When people suspect Muslims or criticize Islam, they are quickly branded as Islamophobics. But most people are afraid of being labeled such and so they mostly keep quiet. The faster this word disappears, the better. We cannot have this word and, at the same time, voice our support for freedom of speech. It's extremely difficult to ascertain if talented Muslims are being collectively brainwashed into becoming terrorists, as were the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston bombing.
If people carry a pressure cooker bomb in their backpack, or a clock bomb in a pencil box, then it is reasonable to fear these objects in public places. I do not see anything wrong with such thinking. But please don't make critical statements like "Ahmed was harassed only because he is a Muslim" or "white people are racists" or "Americans are Muslim-haters." If you are aware of past and present circumstances, you will easily know why suspicions against Muslims exist.
The religiously blind
When people from a particular community use terrorism to subjugate others, then their religion also becomes suspect. It's time to understand that. To rid themselves of such suspicion, Muslims must strongly protest against those who use Islam for jihad. We have to stop being religiously blind and be scientific in our approach. No enemy has ever inflicted the amount of damage that Islamic terrorists have done to fellow Muslims.
In Mecca, about 1,300 people were killed in a stampede. You saw how Saudi officials were bulldozing bodies of dead Hajj pilgrims like garbage and dumping them into a pile. Saudi Arabia, the world's most brutally repressive regime, was chosen to head a U.N. Human Rights Council panel! I tweeted: "Think twice before going to hajj. You can be killed in a stampede. You won't be sent to heaven if you die in Mecca, because there is no heaven."
Muslims believe they will go to heaven if they die in hajj. The families of those pilgrims are so happy that they died in hajj.
Throwing stones at Satan, kissing a black stone believing it absorbs sins! All these childish things performed by adults? Grow up, people!
Religion is a profitable business. You do not need to invest anything but ignorance.
Rituals which were OK in 7th century's Mecca are now outdated, obsolete, not OK for a huge crowd in the 21st century. Stop hajj.
By supporting women's rights everywhere, I have criticized all kinds of religions, traditions, cultures and customs. To Muslims, I am labeled as being anti-Islam. This has led to some people's saying that I am a Muslim-hater. But they are wrong. By no means am I a Muslim-hater! I always stand beside oppressed people. I stood beside Muslims when they were oppressed in Gujarat in India, in Palestine and in Bosnia. I defended their rights to live, just as I stood beside the Hindus who are oppressed in Bangladesh and by the Christians in Pakistan. To me, their religious identity is not important. Human beings either believe in religion or they do not. Nobody should be oppressed because of her or his belief or nonbelief. I have always stood for this. The criticism I make of the religions, I do by writing. I do not go to harm the believers physically with a sword. I do not believe in violence. The fanatics never accept the idea to have a dialogue or debate with me, or write articles or books opposing me; they come to kill me, for they are convinced by their belief in their religion that an apostate must be killed. Some people still like to believe that Islam is a religion of peace. But since my childhood, I have witnessed the opposite.
Some Western-educated, veiled Muslim women have started speaking up, claiming that embracing Islam is still their choice. But then why is it that I have no choice to criticize Islam, and why can't anybody else freely do so? Without criticism of Islam, it would never be possible for Islamic countries to separate state and religion, never possible to have a secular education instead of a Quranic education, never possible to stop Islam-based politics. And if such did not happen, Islamic states would remain in darkness forever. Women would not enjoy the right to live as human beings.
Women without rights
As I grew up, I realize that, like other religions, Islam is not compatible with human rights, women's rights, freedom of expression and democracy. There is no way in a real democracy that separation of religion and state can be neglected. There is no way we can have women's rights if we have religious law. There is no way we can enjoy human rights if we allow religious rules to regulate society. Without the right to offend, freedom of expression cannot exist. And without freedom of expression, democracy will not work.
Islam does not consider woman to be a separate human being. Man is the original creation and womankind is created secondarily for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman as a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Women's role is to stay at home and to obey her husband. Women are considered weak so they should be taken care of. Islam treats women as intellectual, moral and physical inferiors. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men and men only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatsoever in this field.
Islam considers women psychologically inferior. A woman's testimony is not allowed in cases of marriage, divorce and hudud. Hudud are the punishments set by Islamic law for adultery, fornication, adultery against a married person, apostasy, theft, robbery, and so forth. If any woman is raped, she has to produce four male witnesses to the court. If she cannot, there is no charge against the rapist. In Islamic law, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. In the case in which a man suspects his wife of adultery, or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner.
And after all the rights and freedoms, after obtaining all the sexual pleasure and having the pleasure of being the master, Allah will reward men with wine, food, and 72 virgins in Paradise, including the wives they had on Earth. Allah said, "They relax on luxurious furnishings, and we match them with beautiful virgins" (52.19-20). "Near them, shall be blushing virgins with large beautiful eyes who will be like hidden pearls." (37.48-49).
And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering while the two were back here on Earth.
It was easy for me to become an atheist. I was a student of science, so it was hard to accept that the sun moves around the Earth, that the moon has its own light, and that the purpose of mountains is to support the earth so that it will not fall down somewhere. I came to suspect and be sure that the Quran was not written by someone who has at all any knowledge of the sciences.
Not only did I read the Quran, I read the Hadith, the words of Muhammad. I found different events of Prophet Muhammad's life in which, when he had problems, Allah was able to solve them right away. For example, when he was sexually aroused after seeing his daughter-in-law, Allah sent him a message saying that he could marry her because his son was adopted and thus not his real son, so that marriage was therefore justified.
It became clear to me that Muhammad had written the Quran for his own interest, for his own comfort, for his own fun. When I studied other religions, I found they, too, oppressed women.
In my society, I have witnessed that women are flogged. They have been stoned to death. Women are not considered as human beings. For a typical Muslim couple, the most unwanted thing is a female baby. If a woman fails to conceive a male child, either she is forced into a divorce for her crime of having given birth to girls or else she must spend her life with disgrace.
I am sure you have heard many times that Islam does not support the killing of innocent people. Allah of the Holy Quran never advocates killings. The killings are the work of a few misguided individuals at the fringe of society. Islam, the real Islam, is against violence. Islam means peace. Islam means tolerance.
But is this true? Does Islam really preach peace, tolerance and non-violence? Those Muslims who perpetrate crimes in the name of Allah think differently. They believe that what they do is a jihad or holy war. They say that killing the nonbelievers is mandatory for every Muslim. They do not kill because they break the laws of Islam but because they think this is what a true Muslim should do. Those who blow up their own bodies to kill the people of different faiths do so because they think they will be rewarded in paradise. They hope to be blessed by Allah, eat celestial food, drink pure wine, and enjoy the company of those 72 virgins.
What the Quran teaches
Are they completely misguided? Let's see what the Quran really teaches.
The Quran says: "Not to make friendship with Jews and Christians" (5:51), "Kill the disbelievers wherever you find them" (2:191), "Murder them and treat them harshly" (9:123).
The Quran says that all those who disbelieve in Islam will be thrown into Hell (5:10), they are filthy, untouchable, impure (9:28), and Muslims are ordered to fight the nonbelievers until no other religion except Islam is left (2:193). It prohibits a Muslim to be a friend to a nonbeliever even if that nonbeliever is the father or the brother of that very Muslim (9:23), (3:28).
It says that the "nonbelievers will go to Hell and will drink boiling water" (14:17). It asks the Muslims to "slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the non-believers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace, and that they shall have great punishment in the world hereafter" (5:34).
He promises that in the fight for His cause if the followers win, they will go to heaven, to the garden of paradise (9:111). There, they will be given pure beautiful pink-colored large-eyed virgins (56:54).
When the Prophet was in Mecca and he was still not powerful enough, he called for tolerance. He said, "To you be your religion, and to me my religion" (109:6). This famous quote is often misused to prove that the general principle of the Quran is one of tolerance. He advised his follower to speak well of their enemies (2: 83), exhorted them to be patient (20:103), and said "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). But all that changed drastically when he came to power. Then killing and slaying the nonbelievers was justified in innumerable verses with harshness and without mercy. The verses quoted to prove Islam's tolerance ignore many other verses that bear no trace of tolerance or forgiveness. Is it normal that a book revealed by Allah, the supernatural god, should have so many serious contradictions?
These are not stories but records from authentic Islamic history and the Hadiths. One can argue that these behaviors were not unknown or unusual for the conquerors and leaders of the medieval world, but these are not the activities befitting a peaceful saint and certainly not of someone who claimed to be the Mercy of God for all the creation.
There is a conflict in the world, the conflict is between two different ideas: secularism and fundamentalism. I don't agree with those who think the conflict is between religions or between the East and the West. To me, this conflict is basically between rational, logical thinking and irrational blind faith. To me, this is a conflict between modernity and anti-modernism. While some strive to go forward, others strive to go backward. This is a conflict between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.
I have been fighting every day against injustices and inequalities, against religious terrorism and superstition, against bigotry and obscurantism. Fighting for human rights, women's rights, freedom of expression and humanism. I do not fear to tell the truth, come what may. When the emperor has no clothes, I do not hesitate to say that the emperor never had any clothes.
Taslima Nasrin received FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award. She has been living under a death fatwa for blasphemy by Bangladesh imams since 1993. She became an anesthesiologist, poet and syndicated columnist. Her novella, Shame, which deals with Muslim discrimination against Hindus, was banned, then brought bounties on her head. She fled to Sweden for asylum, then settled in India. After escalating death threats and street executions of other Bangladesh atheist writers this year, she left India, with the help of FFRF and CFI. She received a Freethought Heroine Award from FFRF in 2002. Other books include French Lover, Mayebela: My Bengali Girlhood, No Country for Women, All About Women.
A kindergarten teacher at Arab Primary School in Arab, Ala., will no longer lead students in prayer after FFRF sent the superintendent a letter of complaint.
The teacher lined up the students before lunch and made them recite, "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food. By his hands, we all are fed, give us Lord our daily bread. Amen." Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Arab City Schools Superintendent John Mullins on Sept. 25 objecting to this practice. "Public school teachers may not lead their students in prayer, encourage students to pray, participate in student-initiated prayer, or otherwise endorse religion to students."
On Oct. 1, Mullins informed FFRF that "a brief investigation into this matter confirmed the validity of the complaint. We have corrected the situation and educated our kindergarten teachers to assure future compliance with the Establishment Clause."
Standing for pledge no longer required
Teachers within Plaquemines Parish Schools in Louisiana will no longer force students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance after FFRF wrote two complaints on behalf of a Belle Chasse High School student.
Previously, students who refused to stand had been informed they were required to stand, taken out of class, and punished. In addition, prayers at football games, Veterans Day events, and other school events will not occur in the future.
"Students must not be singled out or punished in any way for choosing not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter on Oct. 1. "The Supreme Court ruled over seventy years ago that compelling a student to recite the Pledge and salute the flag infringed upon a student's First Amendment rights."
Superintendent Denis Rousselle called Grover on Oct. 7 and said that he "took care of the situation" immediately after receiving FFRF's letter. Rousselle said he would not tolerate students being punished for exercising their free speech rights, even though he doesn't agree with the decision.
Grover wrote about the unconstitutional prayers on Nov. 6. "While it is laudable for Belle Chasse High to organize an assembly to honor veterans, it is unconstitutional to allow any religious message or prayer to be part of a school-sponsored event," he said.
Rousselle responded by email on Nov. 9, telling Grover that the district would no longer include prayers at school events.
Coordinated signups for religious club ended
Audubon Park Elementary School in Florida will no longer coordinate signups for the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children's group, after FFRF filed complaints with the Orange County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the country.
FFRF has lodged many complaints and even filed a lawsuit against OCPS over the past several years. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the latest letter on Sept. 23 to the district's two attorneys objecting to a permission slip from the Good News Club, which directed students to return the form to an assistant principal at the school.
"When school employees collect registration forms for a religious club, that teacher appears to endorse that club," Seidel said.
Attorney John C. Palmerini informed Seidel on Oct. 12 that the principal would no longer facilitate registrations for the Good News Club.
Religious messages removed from school
Bible verses posted by school officials have been removed from Germantown High School in Madison, Miss., following an FFRF complaint.
A note reading "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. Colossians 3:23" and signed "Your assistant principals Syl Burrell & Nason Lollar" was posted on the high school gym doors.
"This is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause and of students' rights," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover. The school district "must ensure its employees are not unlawfully promoting their personal religious beliefs to students by using its schools as a platform to proselytize."
In a letter of response on Sept. 29, an attorney for the school district denied that a constitutional violation had occurred, but noted that the message had been removed and said the district would "monitor any messages left in the school and remove any message that is proselytizing for any particular religion."
Texas principal won't attend prayer event
Prosper (Texas) High School Principal Greg Wright will no longer participate in See You At The Pole, an annual Christian student prayer event, after hearing about the issue from FFRF. Wright's involvement in a religious student club is also ending, and a cross and plaque about God displayed by an assistant principal have been removed.
FFRF notified Prosper Independent School District Superintendent Drew Watkins of these constitutional violations in a letter on Sept. 28. "It is important that PISD staff members understand that, as government officers and state actors, their personal rights of free exercise and free speech are not unlimited," said Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. He pointed out that even See You At The Pole's official website acknowledges that it is illegal for adults to lead the gatherings.
In addition, damning admissions on Facebook that Wright was founding a First Priority Club for students meant any claim that the club was student-led as required by law was "disingenuous," said Seidel. Also, "Public schools may not display religious messages or iconography," the letter stated.
On Oct. 14, an attorney for the school district informed FFRF that all complaints had been resolved. Principal Wright will not speak at future See You At The Pole events or form the First Priority Club, and school officials will no longer display religious materials in the school. (See student activist on page 8.)
FFRF secularizes school's pep rallies
On Aug. 26, 2015, Little Elm High School in Texas began a pep rally with a prayer from the pastor of a local church, but it won't happen again after FFRF got involved.
An Aug. 27 letter from Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded the Little Elm Independent School District that it is unconstitutional for a school to invite a preacher, or anyone else, to lead a prayer at a school event.
Superintendent Lowell Strike told Grover on Oct. 16 that he had discussed the matter with the planners of the pep rally and "ha[d] been assured this will not be repeated in the future."
Religious sign removed from class
After receiving a letter from FFRF, a teacher at Indian Springs Elementary in Blountville, Tenn., has removed a sign from her classroom that read, "I can do all things through God who strengthens me."
The Sullivan County Schools District "violates the Constitution when it allows its schools or public school employees to display religious symbols or messages," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert on Oct. 6. "This display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school."
Director Evelyn Rafalowski informed FFRF by email on Oct. 19 that the bible verse had been removed.
Students spared more bible distributions
The Bienville Parish Schools in Arcadia, La., will ensure that schools do not allow Gideons to distribute bibles to students after FFRF alerted the district to the constitutional violation. Members of the evangelical Gideons group passed out bibles to Crawford Elementary School students on Sept. 22, physically placing a bible on each student's desk.
"When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to Superintendent William Britt.
Britt assured FFRF on Oct. 19 that he would "meet with school principals/administrators to insure compliance with court decisions regarding the distribution of Bibles in public schools."
Gideons no longer allowed in district
The McConnellsburg, Pa., school district has banned the Gideons from repeating the unconstitutional distributions of bibles in the future after FFRF alerted the Central Fulton School District of the illegal act.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter on Oct. 15 objecting to Gideons roaming the halls at McConnellsburg Elementary with a cart of bibles and Principal Alicia Mellott's statement to students that anyone interested could take a bible.
Superintendent Dixie M. Paruch wrote to Cavell on Oct. 21 saying that the Gideons would not be distributing bibles in the school district in the future.
School prayer stopped in Alabama school again
A third Prattville Primary School teacher has been stopped from praying with students after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover ensured that two praying teachers at the school were educated on the Constitution in February. FFRF's local complainant reported in September that a third teacher was also praying with students before lunch.
"Needless to say, we are concerned about how quickly Prattville Primary has had this same issue resurface," Grover wrote to the Autauga County School District's attorney. "Given the district's earlier representation that Prattville Primary administrators had addressed this issue, we would expect all school employees to be aware of their obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion."
Attorney James R. Seale wrote back to FFRF on Oct. 26. The principal "addressed your concerns with the staff at Prattville Primary School," wrote Seale. "I trust that your concerns will have been resolved and I do not anticipate you will receive any additional complaints."
No more mealtime prayer at senior center
Seniors at the city of Chandler Senior Center in Chandler, Ariz., will no longer be subjected to prayers at meals after FFRF got involved. A senior center employee had led the prayers in the past, and later started selecting a member of the audience to do so.
"Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior meals," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "The center cannot engage 'in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.' "
FFRF's complainant reported on Oct. 29 that the center had replaced the prayer with a moment of silence.
Illinois school board to end meeting prayers
The Windsor Board of Education in Illinois will no longer pray at its meetings after getting a complaint from FFRF. Local clergy typically led the Christian prayers.
"It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 2 letter. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual."
Superintendent Gavin Sronce told FFRF on Nov. 6 that the school board would not include prayer at its next meeting, and said that although the board had not yet discussed the topic at a meeting, he anticipates the board would permanently cease the practice.
Religious posts from school come down
Facebook posts and pictures promoting a See You At The Pole event at Kings Manor Elementary School in New Caney, Texas, have been removed after FFRF complained in a letter.
One post invited readers to join "us" for See You at the Pole, describing it as a time to "pray with our children." A photo of the event showed adults holding students' hands in a group prayer.
"Any religious events in any of the district's schools must be entirely student-initiated and student-run," Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a letter to the New Caney Independent School District. "When a school district promotes religious events to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message."
An attorney for the school district responded on Nov. 9, informing FFRF that the posts had been removed.
Kansas school district ends bible distribution
Geary County Schools in Kansas will no longer allow Gideons to distribute bibles following an FFRF complaint. FFRF first dealt with this issue in 2012, but it resurfaced this year.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a request for records on distribution policies on Nov. 6. Prompted by the records request, parent action, and an additional complaint from the American Humanist Association, the school district's attorney sent written assurance on Nov. 13 that the district would "no longer facilitate the Gideons in distributing bibles in our school district."
Alabama district updates prayer policy
Dallas County Schools in Selma, Ala., took action to end prayers over the loudspeaker before football games after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF sent the district a letter on Sept. 30. "The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events, even when student-led," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover, citing the 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. "Like the prayer practices in Santa Fe, the prayers at Dallas County High School football games are also inappropriate and unconstitutional."
Christmas Y. Green-Williams, Dallas County Schools attorney, wrote a response on Nov. 17, noting that the school had updated its policies to reflect the state of the law. "We appreciate any individual or organization that makes us aware of an alleged violation" of the law, Green-Williams said.
Reciting prayers halted at school
Pursuant to a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint, Decatur City Schools in Alabama will ensure that students are not required to recite prayers in the future.
During a grandparents' day event on Sept. 11 at Walter Jackson Elementary, a kindergarten teacher led students in the prayer, "Thank You for the World So Sweet," in front of their assembled guests. The students had been taught the prayer with hand movements to accompany each line.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent Ed Nichols on Oct. 29, pointing out that not only have the courts struck down prayers in school, but one court even specifically struck down "Thank You for the World So Sweet" even after the school removed the words "God" and "Amen" from the prayer.
William E. Shinn, Jr., attorney for the school district, admitted that FFRF's account of the prayer was "substantially correct." Shinn said the district would "start by providing principals additional education on constitutional restrictions relating to school prayer," and that the principals would be directed to make a similar presentation to staff members.
A long legal challenge by FFRF Life Member Carole Beaton paid off in November as the City Council in Eureka, Calif., voted unanimously to eliminate prayers to start its meetings as of Jan. 1. Attorney Peter Martin filed a lawsuit in January 2013 on Beaton's behalf to get the council to stop praying and to stop Mayor Frank Jager from using his position and city resources to promote his annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.
City officials wouldn't say if the change was due to the suit. "I don't think the city wants to give us the satisfaction of having been right on this one," Martin told the Eureka Times-Standard on Nov. 20.
The city agreed to a September 2014 settlement that barred use of its resources, city seal and the title of mayor to promote or support prayer breakfasts and paid the plaintiff $16,500 for attorney's fees.
• • •
The Greece (N.Y.) Central School District Board voted 5-4 against a proposal Nov. 10 to consolidate polling sites from 11 elementary schools to two churches and a fire station. The proposed church sites were at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Parish and Hope Lutheran Church.
Linda Stephens, FFRF Life Member and co-plaintiff in Town of Greece v. Galloway, alerted FFRF to the proposal Nov. 10 and spoke against it at the public hearing that night. Four residents spoke against the plan. No one spoke in favor.
A school district release said: "Some were concerned consolidation could make it more difficult for voters to get to the polls; others feared voting at non-school sites could influence the vote."
Stephens commented to FFRF legal staff after the meeting: "Maybe speaking out at public hearings does work sometimes?"
FFRF took no action due to late notice about the proposal and because the board voted it down but will continue to monitor the situation.