The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s ad featuring Ron Reagan describing himself as “an unabashed atheist” has been rejected for airing by CBS, not only by “60 Minutes,” the desired placement, but for any CBS TV show.
The ad aired last May on both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.
A CBS agent indicated that the ad was rejected “for words and tone.”
The celebrity endorsement features the son of President Ronald Reagan, self-described as “a lifelong atheist,” plugging FFRF:
Hi, I'm Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.
The rejection came as a shock, since FFRF aired a 30-second spot on national CBS in 2012, rebutting Rick Santorum’s remarks dissing candidate John F. Kennedy’s pro-state/church separation speech before Houston ministers in 1960. That ad was accepted to run on “The CBS Evening News” as well as “CBS Sunday Morning.”
“It appears that if a public figure makes a simple declarative statement in support of state/church separation, FFRF and atheism, it’s too hot to handle for CBS,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“It seems that excess gas, erectile dysfunction and other intimate bodily functions, not to mention ads wherein political candidates viciously attack each other, are acceptable,” added Dan Barker, who co-directs FFRF. “But the plain-spoken, witty and slightly irreverent remarks of a well-known figure identifying as atheist are too much for the delicate sensibilities of CBS’ censors.”
“Why are atheism and freethought still treated as socially unacceptable, even though fully a fifth of the population has no religion today?” Gaylor asked? “If anything should be socially unacceptable, it ought to be blind deference to religion.”
Reagan is an FFRF honorary director who received the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from FFRF in 2004 and gave an acceptance speech at the 2009 national convention in Seattle. Read the speech.
As liberal as his famous father was conservative, Reagan stopped going to church when he was 12 and has publicly stated he's an atheist numerous times.
The New York Times asked him in 2004, in an interview that ran three weeks after his father died, if he'd like to be president. "I would be unelectable," Reagan said. "I'm an atheist. As we all know, that is something people won't accept.”
Here’s what FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in response to hasty advice in the New York Times’ Sunday column, Social Q’s:
Dear Mr. Galanes:
As founder of a state/church watchdog which has dealt with overt proselytizing in our public schools for more than 35 years, I was truly shocked by your tone deaf advice to a Michigan teacher (9/28/14) concerned about being invited to pre-school day staff prayer. More than 65 years of firm precedent has been set by the Supreme Court to protect the freedom of conscience of young, impressionable students from religious indoctrination and ritual in our secular public schools. It appears a public school principal has emailed teachers inviting them to gather in a classroom before school to pray. This teacher sought help from you: “I don’t feel articulately welcome, or comfortable that my principal and staff are holding daily religious meetings, even if students are not present.”
While it’s true, as you noted, that “teachers are free to exercise their First Amendment right to pray at school, as long as students are not present,” it’s also true that a zealous principal crosses the line if he or she schedules pre-school prayer for teachers. This takes on the appearance of a staff event, making insiders of the prayerful teachers and outsiders of others. We take countless complaints by public school teachers about Christian settings being chosen for in-service days complete with Christian prayer to open them. Our staff attorneys stay busy ending illegal prayer by coaches, at football games, at graduations, at school honors events, even pre-K classes involving children as young as 4! We also take many complaints about school boards inflicting Christian prayers on parents, the public and students who attend such functions, which sets a tone of defiance of secular education.
In a climate where commitment to the law, secularism and freedom of conscience is under constant assault, we believe your callous advice to a non-believing teacher to “attend a session . . . a few moments of quiet contemplation sounds good to me” was a slap in the face. Nothing fails like prayer — it’s preposterous to imagine a deity, if s/he existed, would be listening to the daily prayers from teachers at one public school, much less acting on such daily demands. We believe in in keeping our eyes open, heads up, getting off our knees and getting to work.
A national state/church watchdog has called on the superintendent of Gallia County Local Schools in Patriot, Ohio, to recall and replace a 2014 elementary school yearbook whose cover features a large Latin cross inscribed with the word, "Believe."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has 21,500 members nationwide, including 600 in Ohio, wrote Superintendent Jude Meyers on Sept. 26, asking him to investigate and take action over a state/church violation that is "beyond comprehension" at Addaville Elementary. The horizontal arms of the cross on the bible-like cover carry the word "Believe."
"The inclusion of the Latin cross, which is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, on a public elementary school yearbook is illegal," noted Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney for the Madison, Wis.-based advocacy group. "It is beyond comprehension that public school officials would have allowed this publication to be printed with sectarian religious imagery and then distributed to young elementary schoolchildren."
"Religion is a divisive force in public schools," Markert added. She said school sponsorship of a religious message sends the ancillary message to nonadherents (in this case any non-Christians or nonreligious students) that they are "outsiders," and an accompanying message to adherents that they are "insiders." More than a quarter of the U.S. population either identifies as nonreligious (20%) or practice a non-Christian religion (5%).
Markert listed a number of Supreme Court cases and other judgments against religious devotionals, messages or iconography in public schools. She noted that whether or not the yearbook was published by the district or a private entity is "legally immaterial."
Said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor: "What makes it especially shocking is that this involves such a young and impressionable group of students. The cover of this yearbook would be appropriate at a Catholic or sectarian school, but it's an egregious violation in our secular public schools, which must equally welcome students of any or no religion."
Longer window for Establishment Clause
In Tearpock-Martini v. Borough of Shickshinny, the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held June 23 that certain Establishment Clause claims are not subject to a statute of limitations defense. At issue was a sign on municipal property in a Pennsylvania town (pop. 838): “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You!” It has a directional arrow with “1 BLOCK” on it and depicts a gold cross and a white bible.
A neighbor sued. The district court held that her claim was barred because the statute of limitations started when the sign was posted. The appeals court ruled that state statutes limitations don’t apply to claims challenging a still-existing display.
Gay marriage advances in Utah, Indiana
The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver on June 25 struck down Utah’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in a 2-1 decision. It’s the first time a federal appeals court has struck down a gay marriage ban since the Supreme Court’s decision last summer. The decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Also on June 25, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Young in Indianapolis struck down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage.
“It is clear that the fundamental right to marry shall not be deprived to some individuals based solely on the person they choose to love,” wrote Young.
A statement from Indiana’s Catholic bishops decried the decision, saying it ignores the “fundamental and natural truth of marriage and opens its definition to the whims of public opinion.”
Judge’s discrimination ruling upheld
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission on May 30 upheld an administrative law judge’s earlier ruling that Lakewood baker Jack Phillips discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins by refusing to make them a wedding cake in 2012 because of his religious objections.
The Denver Post reported that the commission ordered Phillips to submit quarterly reports for two years to show how he’s changing his discriminatory practices. He must also disclose the names of any clients he turns away.
“Not all of life is fair,” Phillips said after the decision. “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down.”
ACA mandate gets more court action
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied on June 11 the Michigan Catholic Conference’s request for a preliminary injunction to exempt Catholic charities from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The 3-0 decision includes a similar challenge to the ACA from the Middle District of Tennessee filed in Nashville.
“The court sided with federal officials, who argued the actions required of the charities under the law were actions they regularly take to avoid providing insurance coverage for contraception, and therefore did not represent a burden to religious freedom,” MLive.com reported.
In Eternal Word Television Network v. Burwell on June 17, an Alabama federal district court denied the Catholic media network’s challenges to the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate, ruling: “Legally (if not morally) speaking, there is a world of difference between a law that compels EWTN to provide contraceptive coverage directly and one in which the government places that burden on someone else after EWTN opts out.”
In Colorado Christian University v. Sebelius on June 2, a Colorado federal district court granted a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement against the school in Lakewood of the mandate compromise as it applies to coverage for drugs, devices or procedures that may destroy a human embryo or fertilized egg.
Religion Clause reported the court held that completing the exemption form for coverage directly by the health plan’s third-party administrator imposes a substantial burden on the school’s religious exercise.
In Dordt College v. Sebelius on May 21, an Iowa federal district court granted a similar preliminary injunction to Dordt College (Christian Reformed Church) and Cornerstone University (Baptist) to stop enforcement of the mandate.
The court said it planned to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to issue an opinion.
EEOC sues over ‘Onionhead’ religion
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a federal lawsuit June 11 in New York alleging United Health Programs of America Inc. of Syosset violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.
EEOC alleges United has coerced employees to participate in religious activities since 2007. The practices are part of a belief system that the defendants’ family member created and calls “Onionhead.” When employees balked at taking part or did not participate fully, they were fired, the suit says.
Onionhead (“Peel it, feel it, heal it”) is promoted through the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, which acts as an unofficial church entity.
Private schools seek voucher advantage
Six new religious private schools will be added to Wisconsin’s voucher program in 2015, the state Department of Public Instruction announced May 20.
According to The Associated Press, about 3,400 students applied to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private and religious schools in the second year of the program, more than triple the enrollment cap of 1,000. The six new schools are in Appleton, Bonduel, Sheboygan, Menasha-Neenah and Fond du Lac.
Of the eligible student applicants, 75 percent are already paying to attend private school. If they’re among those randomly selected to get the voucher, taxpayers will pay for their private school education. The overwhelming majority of vouchers are going to students at parochial schools.
In Raleigh, WRAL reported May 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court stayed Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s February injunction that has stopped the state from holding a lottery to award taxpayer-funded vouchers for students in private schools. About 5,500 students have already applied for “Opportunity Scholarships,” annual grants of up to $4,200 per child.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the School Boards Association have filed separate suits against the law. About 2,400 vouchers were to be awarded for the 2014-15 school year.
Judge upholds denial of Jesus Tattoo ad
Would this ad make you run toward or screaming away from Christianity?
U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings ruled May 29 in favor of the Lubbock Independent School District in its case against Little Pencil, a Texas company that sued the district earlier this year for rejecting its Jesus Tattoo ad, which the district said was proselytizing. David Miller, a Lubbock businessman and former Texas Tech administrator, founded the company to promote Christian beliefs through the media.
The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, an evangelical law firm based in Arizona, represented the company. The district refused to allow the ad on a stadium Jumbotron because of its religious content and because the district code of conduct calls for all tattoos to be covered.
Neb. mayor goes off on Omaha atheists
Why was the city of La Vista, Neb., promoting and hosting a Faith and Freedom Day event, Omaha Atheists board member Robert Fuller asked Mayor Douglas Kindig on May 25, the day it was held? Kindig later publicly responded: “Take me to fucking court because I don’t care. Minorities are not going to run my city.”
Secular groups protested June 2 at City Hall and asked Kindig to “publicly explain his offensive comments.” A Baptist group came to support him.
“I hope we get some visibility for concerns of nonbelievers and religious minorities,” said atheist Tom Gray.
Police said it was La Vista’s first-ever protest.
Godly judge gets appeals reprimand
A Catawba County [Newton, N.C.] trial judge was reprimanded June 3 by the state Court of Appeals for injecting religion into a defendant’s sentencing. Superior Court Judge Richard Boner told Max Earls, who was sentenced to 45-55 years in prison for sexually abusing his children: “I think children are a gift of God, and I think God expects when he gives us these gifts that we will treat them as more precious than gold, that we will keep them safe from harm the best as we’re able and nurture them, and the child holds a special place in this world.”
Boner quoted from Matthew 19 and told Earls he’d have to answer someday to “another judge far greater than me.” His sentence was upheld.
Name: Claudette StPierre.
Where I live: Franktown, Colo. I was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1963, near the end of the baby boomer generation.
Family: My husband Pat and our three dogs and one cat. I have two sisters and a niece and nephew. Fortunately, we are all freethinkers!
Education: I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1986 and have been practicing in the area of pediatrics my whole career, the past seven years as a nurse case manager at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
How I got where I am today: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school through 12th grade, always questioning the validity of many of the tenets of the religion. I read [Bart Ehrman’s] book Misquoting Jesus about 10 years ago, which was a turning point even though I was no longer a follower of religion at the time. It solidified my disbelief in religion.
Where I’m headed: I am now very passionate about the separation of church and state and hope to continue to advocate for this issue in my community. I also would like to see atheism “normalized” and help others understand that we are just regular folks.
Person in history I admire: Carl Sagan, a passionate supporter of science.
A quotation I like: Margaret Mead’s “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Favorite things: Gardening, dark chocolate, red wine!
Pet peeves: Using unsupported facts and fake science to support an issue.
My doubts about religion started: When they told us in Catholic school that it was a sin to eat meat on Friday, but you could eat fish. My mom said when she was a child, they ate fish to support the local fishermen. Umm, who was right? Mom, of course.
Before I die: I would like to visit all the museums in Denver.
Ways I promote freethought: I am out of the closet when it comes to my atheism. If religion comes up in conversation or situations, I take the opportunity to educate others about what an atheist is and that we are part of society. I don’t make any apologies about it.
I am also president of FFRF’s Denver chapter.
Proselytizing teacher told to stop
A public high school teacher will no longer urge students to attend church in Fargo, N.D. A local complainant reported that a teacher told students there is a “meaning behind Easter” and that “You all should go to church.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote a letter to Fargo Public Schools on April 25, explaining that urging students to attend church is unconstitutionally endorsing religion.
The school district’s attorney promptly responded and said that the district took disciplinary action and placed the results in the teacher’s file: “Fargo Public Schools strictly forbids their employees to proselytize.”
Post office removes ‘Smile! God loves you’
A post office in Cleveland, Ohio, will no longer display a “Smile! God Loves You” sticker near the service counter after a local complainant contacted FFRF. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the post office manager April 17, asking for immediate removal of the religious symbol.
The Postal Service replied April 25: “The ‘God loves you’ sticker that you mentioned in your letter has been removed.”
Bible quotes halted in Arkansas school
Cutter Morning Star High School in Hot Springs, Ark., will no longer include religious quotes and references in the school’s daily announcements. A parent reported to FFRF that the emailed announcements sent by a school employee often included quotes from the bible such as “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”
On March 20, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint to the superintendent: “You must make certain that staff members are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.”
On May 15, the superintendent responded that the matter was resolved a day after getting the complaint. Staff were instructed to stop emailing bible quotes.
Ohio school to stop church graduations
Marlington High School in Alliance, Ohio, will no longer hold graduation in churches starting in 2015. FFRF received a complaint that the school was scheduled to hold its commencement ceremony at The Chapel in Marlboro (“a Bible church”) on June 1.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the superintendent Feb. 17: “[I]t is unconstitutional for a public high school to force, compel or coerce its graduating students, their parents, teachers and other members of their families or friends, to violate their rights of conscience at a graduation ceremony.”
On May 8, the superintendent responded: “While it is not possible for the district to find an alternate location for graduation [this year], I have spoken to the Board and they have agreed to find a secular site for the 2015 graduating class.”
Court: cross was ‘completely inappropriate’
A customer service desk in the Austin, Texas, Municipal Court will no longer display a cross. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter March 6 to the presiding judge, explaining that the Latin cross is indisputably a religious symbol.
FFRF received a response from the court May 16: “[T]here had been a cross given as a gift from one employee to another and it was placed in an inappropriate place. The situation was strongly addressed with the employees. I do not think it was an intentional display but a careless placing of a gift. Regardless, it was completely inappropriate.”
Subway rescinds church bulletin discounts
Four Subway Restaurant locations will no longer offer a 20% discount to customers who present a bulletin from churches in Escanaba, Mich. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the restaurant owners about the civil rights violation.
“Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies both customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Subway. Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”
FFRF was notified May 23 that the church bulletin notice was removed.
Baptist rec team warned in Texas
Howe Independent School District in Howe, Texas, took action to stop proselytizing during an annual Field Day event for fifth- through eighth-grade students. A concerned parent contacted FFRF that the Field Day was being organized through Dallas Baptist University, whose stated mission is “to provide Christ-centered quality higher education.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter informing the district that giving Dallas Baptist University Recreational Teams access to impressionable students is a constitutional violation.
On May 15, Howe Middle School’s principal replied: “It has been communicated to the Dallas Baptist Recreation Team leader and will be communicated with the team Friday morning that they are at the Howe Middle School Field Day to lead the recreation games for our students and not to proselytize to our students or promote Christianity during the Field Day activities.”
FFRF’s complainant later thanked FFRF and noted that “the Field Day went without any issues.”
School washes hands of baccalaureate
George Washington High School in Charleston, W. Va., will no longer coordinate and fund a baccalaureate service for graduating seniors.
FFRF was contacted by a concerned student after the school sent two mailings to seniors describing the service as a “worship experience.” The mailing said a teacher was supervising student planning and sought donations, with checks made payable to the high school. A formal invitation was also sent to students, with the envelope mailed from the school. The invitation announced the date and time of “a service representing all walks of faith.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter of objection said: “The school’s role in sending letters to seniors from the school, collecting and disbursing funds for the service, and allowing a teacher to coordinate the service, signals to a reasonable graduating senior or parent that Kanawha County Schools endorses the religious messages espoused at these services. To avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious practices, a public school should take measures to disassociate itself from the activity. This means that no public school employee can be involved in the organization, planning or coordinating of baccalaureate services. Public schools may not collect and distribute funds for the service and send mailings to students about the service.”
On May 13, the school’s attorney replied: “The school made an additional announcement last week that the baccalaureate was not a school-sponsored function, attendance was voluntary and whether or not a student attended would have no effect on anything at the school. . . . I believe having a member of school faculty involved and running money through the school accounts was done to assure the parents that everything would be handled properly. Nevertheless, these practices are going to stop, and the account will be closed at the end of this school year.”
The school will also stop mailing baccalaureate invitations to students.
‘Expelled’ expelled from classrooms
Science students at Adams Central High School, Monroe, Ind., will no longer be watching a documentary movie promoting “intelligent design,” a theory put forth by religious fundamentalists to counter evolution. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote the school district about it on behalf of a local complainant in October 2013.
The movie is Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which has drawn FFRF’s attention since its 2008 debut. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor panned the movie mercilessly after seeing it on its opening weekend and accurately predicted the future:
“Even though ‘Expelled’ isn’t exactly an overnight blockbuster, the harm is in its half-life: the DVDs to follow, those half-truths, untruths, manipulations and distortions available forever to stir up contempt for the scientific method and community, atheists and progressive thought.”
The late film critic Roger Ebert called it “cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted.”
FFRF was informed that two Adams Central biology teachers were using the movie as well as teaching from “Icons of Evolution,” a popular creationist textbook. “Evolution, like gravity, is a scientific fact,” Seidel wrote. Teaching that there is a scientific controversy about the validity of evolution is akin to teaching astrology with astronomy or alchemy beside chemistry.”
A school attorney promptly responded. In his letter, Adam Miller wrote it “would be a disservice to students” to not mention the “controversies” and added, “Hitler and the Nazis [sic] claims of Aryan racial superiority are clear abominations of Evolution and Darwinism.”
After Seidel’s follow-up letter, Miller still denied that creationism or intelligent design were being taught or that there was any “hidden agenda” on one particular teacher’s part. “However, I directed that he should not show the movie ‘Expelled.’ . . . [W]e appreciate your organization’s concerns and will continue to monitor the situation.”
Is pointing out Jewish criminal behavior bigoted?
Joan Reisman-Brill, who writes “The Ethical Dilemma” advice column at TheHumanist.com (and is an FFRF member who contributes to “Ask a Skeptic”), shares a recent Q&A.
I am an atheist from a Jewish background. When I go through my copy of Freethought Today (the newspaper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation), I find myself skimming the “Black Collar Crime Blotter” section (a listing of religious leaders charged with crimes) looking for the Jewish entries — maybe three out of about 75 listings each month — and showing the juiciest ones to my wife, who is, alas, a practicing Jew.
She says doing this makes me anti-Semitic. Other Jewish acquaintances have called me that or even worse — a self-hating Jew — whenever I take issue with the religion’s beliefs or practices. I don’t in my heart believe that’s true, but then I’m not sure what those terms really mean, so perhaps they do mean me.
— Just Pointing Out Crimes, Not Inventing or Committing Them
Dear Just Pointing:
When you get your alumni magazine, do you zero in on the years you attended and the people you knew, and pay little to no attention to the rest? When you read wedding announcements or obituaries, do you look for names you recognize and ignore the others?
This is the same thing: You are picking out the stories you relate to because they are closest to home — the religious home you were raised in and still share with your spouse and people you associate with. I doubt you’ve been spraying swastikas on your wife’s pillow, barring Jews from your social life or discriminating against them at work, so I don’t think you qualify as an anti-Semite. We’ll get to self-hating in a moment.
I believe these terms aim to chill criticism of things Jewish and tamp down internal disputes — rightly when the criticisms are false, inflammatory or hateful, wrongly when they shut down acknowledgement of genuine issues. Just as the Catholic Church has systematically hushed up reports of pedophiles, there is a code in Judaism that prohibits making incriminating statements to outsiders.
It’s understandable that a group with such a history of persecution wouldn’t want to air its dirty laundry (and thereby provide ammunition) to the general public, which according to a recent survey [commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League] is very anti-Semitic. There are Jewish factions that apply those terms to each other, depending on which side of an argument they are on.
And in some extreme sects where members are required to report crimes to their rabbi and not to the police or the U.S. courts, the community will shun those who disobey and speak out about the crimes, while supporting those accused of the crimes (even if they may be guilty).
I think the term “self-hating Jew” is a projection by Jews who are not altogether comfortable with their identity themselves. A self-hating Jew would be someone who was embarrassed by or hid his own Jewish identity and discriminated against others for theirs. Some apply the term to any Jew who disavows Judaism in favor of another religion or no religion, but I disagree.
If a Jewish person (or formerly Jewish person) comments on something amiss within the group, that action doesn’t reflect on the commenter (other than demonstrating objectivity) as much as the derogatory label reflects on the one doing the labeling. To stoop to the same juvenile and irrational level, consider “It takes one to know one” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue.”
I’ve never heard of people who blow the whistle on pedophile priest cover-ups referred to as self-hating Catholics, but if a Jewish person argues that synagogues have no right to block public sidewalks in front of their buildings for holiday celebrations, he’s apt to be called a self-hater.
So just take the high road and continue to call ’em as you see ’em, and let others call you whatever enables them to turn on you while turning a blind eye to what you’re criticizing. As you note, it’s not just one group that earns entries on FFRF’s crime blotter.
Every group has its predators and frauds. But how the groups address or suppress that determines whether they are interested in cleaning house or just circling the wagons around their problems while pretending none exist.
Bart Ehrman, FFRF’s newest recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted the award May 2 at the Raleigh mini-convention. He writes “The Bart Ehrman Blog” and is author of many books, including Did Jesus Exist?, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, and his newest, How Jesus Became God. All three can be ordered at ffrf.org/shop/.
After Bart’s acceptance speech, artist and FFRF Lifetime Member Scott Burdick taped an in-depth interview, transcribed here:
BE: I’m Bart Ehrman. I identify as both a humanist and an agnostic.
SB: And are you openly agnostic?
BE: What do you mean, openly?
SB: Do people know it? Does your family know it?
BE: Am I in the closet? Aha! Yes, I’m quite openly agnostic. Everybody knows it.
SB: So writing books about it means you’re open?
BE: Well, if anybody reads my books they know I’m an agnostic, yeah.
SB: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.
BE: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God.
And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control?
I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.
SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.
BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic.
It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think.
What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms.
Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know. I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things.
Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is, “How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!” So, I’m an agnostic.
If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.
SB: Were there any issues with coming out to your family? Were they very religious?
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian, most of my family converted to evangelical Christianity in my wake and so, hah! When I left the Christian fold, they did not leave with me, and so they’re still there wondering where I went.
SB: So, you’re an evangelical agnostic, I guess.
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian I believed in converting everyone to my point of view because I thought if you didn’t agree with me you were going to roast in hell. I was very evangelistic. I’m not evangelistic as an agnostic because it certainly doesn’t matter for somebody’s afterlife — because I don’t believe there is an afterlife.
I’m not that interested in people converting to what I think. What I’m interested in is getting people to be more thoughtful about whatever they believe or don’t believe. So I’m not interested in converting, actually.
SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?
BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it. An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material.
And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it, they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers.
But I think it’s too bad because churches have education programs, and it’s a pity that people aren’t getting educated. There are adult education programs in most churches. But they don’t actually get educated, they sit around and talk about other issues. They don’t talk about the things that most people are interested in, which is what does one think about the bible, what does one think about theology?
SB: Do you think though that they may feel that this may put too many doubts in people’s minds?
BE: Possibly. I think pastors tend not to be in the business of generating doubt. [As] professors at universities, that is our business. Our goal is to get people to think. But pastors don’t generally see that as their goal, and so they tend to shy away from these various issues that would cause problems for people.
The result is they’ve got parishioners who really don’t know anything about what scholars are saying about materials that they are most interested in, which I think is a real pity.
By. Don Ardell
There are many days that will live in infamy alongside Dec. 7, 1941. Just two obvious examples are Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001. If asked, I would also list May 5, 2014, as a date certain to live in infamy.
That’s the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that it’s constitutional for local governments to host prayers at official meetings.
Someday, a secular Supreme Court will override this dreadful decision. Our Constitution is godless. It is not hostile or friendly to religion. It is simply neutral. Our founders met centuries ago at a constitutional convention that included no prayers. A separation was established in the Constitution between religions and governments at all levels. This was deliberate. The founders knew from their experience in Europe that religious matters were divisive, that disparate sectors of the population did not want to be governed by or included in the religious dogmas and rituals at odds with their own religious beliefs, or absence of such beliefs.
Freedom from is as important as freedom of religion, and these two freedoms require governments that are neutral in matters of a religious nature. Yet today, politicians and many influential allies enthused with church-based sensibilities have introduced, at every level of government, elements of the predominant form of religiosity — namely, Christianity.
My views are the same as Robert Green Ingersoll’s, who in one speech said: “Improved Man will not endeavor, by prayers and supplication, by fastings and genuflections, to change the mind of the Infinite, or to alter the course of nature; neither will he employ others to do these things in his place.” In another he said that “all prayers die in the air that they uselessly agitate.”
Consider this partial list of areas in which violations or influences are rampant:
• Religion in public schools and universities (e.g., creationism, school prayer, bibles/religious texts in curricula/student religious clubs and religious distributions, music, Pledge of Allegiance, displays, events and evangelism during the school day and use of facilities by church groups).
• Faith-based programs and other subsidies of religious institutions.
• Tax exemptions for churches and clergy.
• School vouchers and government subsidies of religious schools.
• Official prayer, religious displays and ceremonial religion at government events and meetings, religious displays on public property, religious mottoes, pledges and resolutions.
• Governments-sanctioned discrimination, religious exemptions (military, prisons, housing, health care facilities, etc.).
• Church involvement in elections/lobbying and ballot initiatives and U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations.
• Marriage, reproductive justice and other privacy issues.
A course of action
These violations will not cease owing to the good will of Christian and other religious elements. Secular Americans have to make known their desires for adherence to separation of religion and government at every level and in social and other interactions. Doing so need not be confrontational; constructive requests for governmental neutrality should be sufficient to slow and hopefully reverse a steady drift toward theocracy. Secularists have many allies in the religious communities who share their desire to keep religion and government apart.
This requires, as a first step, that more Americans be aware of the nature, rationale and history of separation of church and state. Local officials should be reminded that they may not legally use their authority, public funds or government property to promote religion, despite the fact that a majority presently approves of religious intrusions.
The Greece decision has energized many secularists to actively resist further Christian incursions into public life, and to do more about those already in place. To foster specific protest about government prayer, FFRF has designed a contest, the purpose of which is to show that government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly. The thinking is that if more citizens protest prayers, the likelihood increases that they will stop sooner rather than later.
Anyone interested in the contest need only sign up or otherwise gain a chance to appear at a council meeting or other government function and deliver a secular, instructive invocation. The goal of the contest is to educate everyone about why we have, or should protect what we are entitled to have — namely, separation of church and state.
Giving an invocation is a real wellness act of freedom-seeking, as well as the patriotic thing to do. If you are planning such a thing, I thank you in advance for your service.