Two Prattville Primary School teachers in Prattville, Ala., will no longer lead students in Christian prayer during the school day. FFRF received a report that one teacher led at least six classes in prayer while students were in the hallway on the way to lunch.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the Autauga County School System a complaint letter Nov. 24. The school board's attorney responded Feb. 27 that FFRF's concerns had been "specifically addressed with the two teachers mentioned" and did not anticipate a continued problem.
Ron Reagan, the "unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell" who recorded FFRF's much-censored TV ad, will keynote its 38th national convention at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, Wis., on the weekend of Oct. 9–11, 2015.
The convention center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is next to Lake Monona and is two blocks from Wisconsin's impressive State Capitol and next door to the convention hotel, the Hilton. (There's a memorial along the lake near the convention center noting that singer Otis Redding and six members of his band died there on Dec. 10, 1967, when their plane plunged into the lake's icy waters.)
Reserve your hotel room now to avoid disappointment at the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace Hotel, 9 E. Wilson St., room rate $169 single or double, by phoning toll-free 1-866-403-8838 or 1-608-255-5100. The group name is Freedom From Religion Foundation and the group code is FFRF. Book online at ffrf.org/convention2015 — go to the hotel site section, which links directly to reservations. The cutoff is Sept. 7, or as long as rooms last.
For those who are driving in or don't mind staying away from downtown, there are additional rooms at the Sheraton Madison Hotel, 706 John Nolen Drive, which provides a free shuttle to and from the convention center every half hour from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sheraton rates are $139 single/double/triple/quad. Make your reservations at 1-800-325-3535 and let them know you're with "Freedom From Religion."
You may wish to arrive Thursday in order to tour the "reborn" Freethought Hall Friday morning, which is six blocks from the convention center. An informal open house will be held from 9–11:30 AM. Please indicate if you plan to attend on the registration form, to help ensure FFRF orders enough refreshments.
Enjoy rolls, juice, coffee and tea and socializing in the Charlie Brooks Auditorium, top floor, where a short video presentation on the building and FFRF will play. Staff members will be posted throughout the building to greet, answer questions and make sure you don't get lost!
If you ordered a paving stone, look for it in the Rose Zerwick Memorial Garden & Courtyard, or your vestibule tile in the entry. Major donors' names will be found in the Wall of Honor and Donor Wall in the Anne Nicol Gaylor Lobby. Every donor will be listed in a book on the reception desk.
Due to time and staff constraints, this will be the only time to tour during the convention.
Joining Reagan as confirmed speakers are:
Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton University professor of history whose new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, is creating a lot of excitement. He recently appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, and has authored or co-edited four other books. His White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005), won several prizes.
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, will also speak about his newest book, Life-Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, an answer to Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life, and will autograph books. Dan, a talented pianist and songwriter who has recorded three music CDs for FFRF, will also entertain throughout the conference.
Douglas Marshall will receive a Freethinker of the Year Award as the local plaintiff in FFRF's most recent federal court victory, forcing the town of Warren, Mich., to permit him to put up a Reason Station to counter an ongoing prayer booth that dominates the atrium of his city hall.
Anita Weier will be honored as Freethought Heroine for introducing a historic ordinance to make "nonreligion" a protected class in Madison, Wis. Weier, former city editor for The Capital Times, served as an alderperson for two terms. Her "first of its kind" ordinance passed with no dissent on March 31.
Steven Hewett will be honored with FFRF's Atheist in Foxhole Award. The former police officer and Afghanistan war veteran returned home with a Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star, only to find a Christian flag flying at the Veterans Memorial in King, N.C. In December, following a long court battle taken on his behalf by Americans United, the city agreed to stop flying the Christian flag and to remove a cross from a kneeling soldier statue. Steven is a Lifetime FFRF Member.
FFRF staff attorneys will give a detailed presentation on their major accomplishments in ending state/church entanglements in 2015. Other speakers and honorees will be announced in future issues.
You have a chance to receive an expenses-paid trip to the convention. If you persuade your prayerful local governmental body to let you to give a secular invocation, you can enter FFRF's Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest (see details on page 15 or at ffrf.org/outreach/nothing-fails-like-prayer). The award includes opening a session of the conference with your secular words and a $500 award, plaque, transportation and accommodations at the convention.
FFRF will honor major donors who made possible the expansion of Freethought Hall at Saturday's dinner, which will also include the annual drawing for "clean money" (pre-"In God We Trust").
Pledge-free student 'made my heart soar'
I wait in anticipation for your paper to arrive. (I found FFRF less than a year ago.) Your paper has wrapped its warm, thought-provoking arms around me. I'm a 62-year-old grandmother who didn't come out till my late 50s.
I most appreciate the youths who have the intelligence and guts to speak up. Their comments and essays make me wish I also had that inner resilience and bravery to have done as they have done at a much earlier age. The April article by Ewan McCartney ["Seattle student sits for pledge"] made my heart soar! Keep it coming.
'After-Lifer' decries need for carrot, stick
I am one who feels ultimate morality lies in the maintenance and preservation of this planet's life-support system. Twenty years ago I was awakened to the destructive role in dismissing life in the here and now for some ethereal, future world. Religion supplies the justification for the violence to the inhabitants of Earth, and guns provide the means.
The conundrum I see in religious morality is that it presupposes humans as evil. We cannot exhibit correct behavior unless it is backed up with a supreme being wielding a carrot and a stick. If we are inherently bad, than how can we inherently be deserving of a reward? I also ask how is it that one life form can supersede the life of the universe? Isn't that pride of which goeth before a fall?
We live on a progressive island in the San Juan Archipelago in the Salish Sea near the northwest U.S. border. Many of our friends are God-free and about half a dozen are FFRF members on our island of 2,300. We have had no conflicts with our identity and are open with it.
We also belong to SERVAS International, a travel/peace group. There are some religious members but the group's theory that cultural exchange opens one's mind and its mission of promoting peace makes it easy and necessary to proclaim God-free status.
I am honored to, again, raise my appreciation to the FFRF movement and give at the "After-Life" level.
FFRF gives thanks for new Lifetime Members
I am enclosing my check for $1,000 for Lifetime Membership. I want to extend my gratitude for your excellent work in spreading the "good news" and fighting to maintain separation between church and state.
Janice E. Myers
• • •
My wife and I, both age 72, have often said we would like to be Life Members but put it off, saying our meager savings should eventually go to our daughter. But we finally realized, "Hey, we put her through college and her job pays her more than we make. So what the heck. (I almost said 'what the hell' but then realized there is no hell.)"
What a deal for FFRF! The organization gets the money near the end of our expected life span. When we croak they will have funds left over. Use this lucre wisely. As my dear old dad would say, "Don't spend it all in one place!"
Keep up the great work!
Oak DeBerg and Joellen DeBerg
Colonels, U.S. Air Force (ret.)
• • •
Because I have a terminal disease and I'm 81 years old, this Life Membership may not have a very long duration. I wanted my obituary to include a statement that I was a Life Member of FFRF.
John D. Dunn
Editor's note: Much love and thoughts of comfort to you, John. Life is not fair.
• • •
I have never been overly religious. It just didn't seem real or logical to me. I thought of religious people as harmless "do gooders." That view changed after I started to receive Freethought Today. I now realize how insidious the Christian religion is in the U.S.
I also see how politically conservative Christians are trying to push their moral agenda. This makes your work so vital that I feel compelled to become a Lifetime Member. My hope is that someday FFRF can become an international organization.
I've no regrets about abandoning religion
I was so pleased to see the April article by Wendy Russell about coming out as an atheist. I have had reasonably similar experiences. Although I have not been met with any outright hostility, I have been met with extremely cold shoulders and a reticence to have a discussion.
I agree that some people are quite relieved to learn that someone shares their opinions and beliefs. They appear to immediately "relax" by knowing they are not alone. I have no regrets that I have abandoned religion.
Thanks for your inspiration. You are the greatest!
Kudos for Madison's atheist protections
I am so pleased with the work FFRF does. I love your balance of activism, legal tactics, publicity, public outreach and resource sharing. I am particularly pleased at the creation of a new protected group in Madison!
Dr. John A. Wagner
'Nonbelief Relief' rescues irresponsible God
"Nonbelief Relief," with its poetic rhyme, is a nice name for FFRF's new charitable fund. But more importantly, from our standpoint philosophically, we are indeed making progress. There have been hardly any references at all to God in connection with the horrific Nepal earthquake.
I have to go along with Rabbi Harold Kushner, who told us in his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that there are some things where God has no role at all, and they just happen at random. Now you may contend that Kushner was just trying to exonerate God from responsibility, but I do consider it a true common-sense approach to natural disasters.
'Nuff said, and thank you for your declaration that Ted is certainly a man of great common sense!
God is, where else, only in your head
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes a compelling case for not indoctrinating children with their parents' religious beliefs. He advocates teaching kids how to think, not what to think. I count myself lucky that my parents were free from religion. This freedom helped me to express my thoughts on the deity I grew up hearing about at school.
Between Two Temples
As a child I would wonder
Where is it that God dwells?
Is it up above the thunder
or in nature's hills and dells?
At last I came to understand
He does not live out there.
His abode is closer than
most people are aware.
Between two temples His house is wrought
where He was born and reared,
where often wish engenders thought —
in the space between our ears.
P.S. For the past 21 years, Freethought Today is the only newspaper I read from cover to cover. I often read from it in my PLATO classes.
Make decisions based on law, not religion
I'm a 70-year-old grandmother of five concerned about inserting religion into politics, government and schools. I respect others' religious beliefs but don't want them forced on me.
The government does not belong in our bedrooms, nor should politicians make decisions based on their religious beliefs instead of on the law.
More important than religion is the way we treat others and live our lives. I believe it is up to the government to help those in need and that a true believer would believe greed is a sin.
Schools should ditch all religious holidays
I recently read "When Every Day Is a Religious Holiday" and enjoyed the concept [in a Wall Street Journal column by Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero] that schools should recognize no religious holidays. After all, school taxes go to support these holidays. I certainly don't want my tax dollars going to support this kind of madness.
I enjoy your efforts in publishing Freethought Today. Keep up the good work.
Platinum Rule outshines the golden one
I'd like to encourage expansion of Ms. Hansmann's advocacy of the "the Golden Rule" [April15]. It's a good moral guideline in a culture that is homogeneous. It's reasonable to expect others to want to be treated as we want to be treated. But even in a homogeneous culture, to practice the intent of the rule you would need to think how you would like to be treated if you were in the other's position.
An adolescent, in interacting with an adult, would be expected to treat that adult differently than a fellow adolescent. In America we can't expect to only interact with people who have our spiritual beliefs or moral values. I believe our society would be better off if we practiced the Platinum Rule: "Treat others as they would like to be treated (within our own moral guidelines)."
3-D printer replicating FFRF legal staff?
In every issue of Freethought Today, I read about scores of FFRF legal team initiatives, ongoing efforts and victories. The same handful of staff names pops up in case after case, and each seems to be working on dozens at a time, everywhere at once.
Could FFRF possibly have a 3-D printer churning out copies of its lawyers? I don't want to say it seems like an army, because that would imply some kind of war. And I don't want to say "miraculous" or "supernatural."
So I'll just have to say "thank you" to the legal staff. However you do it, you sure are doing a superhuman job, and you are appreciated!
Indiana freethinkers place essay contest ad
Our little freethinkers club in Madison, Ind., took your high school essay contest information to the local newspaper, the Madison Courier, to have it published. I was nervous about how they would react to it, but they treated us about like anyone else would be treated and it appeared in the paper.
We would sure like to know if anyone from this area sends in an essay.
Editor's note: Roy's group generously spent $220 of its $400 treasury for an ad to get the contest information in the paper.
Readers weigh in on cultural Judaism
In April's Letterbox, "total atheist" Jerry Oster sought input from nonpracticing Jews on how they deal with their heritage and anti-Semitism. Several readers responded to Mr. Oster. Responses were edited for space:
We are exactly the same. I am a 79-year-old militant atheist who was born Jewish. I laugh at and criticize Orthodox Jews for their stupidity and desire to live as their ancestors lived over 3,500 years ago.
While I believe that organized religion is the stupidest, most disgusting, destructive and hateful institution ever created by humanity — and it was created by humanity — I react violently to anti-Semitism, as it leads to the execution of human beings based on their beliefs and not on their actions.
Jason G. Brent
• • •
Whereas most religions have grown and endured by coerced and/or invited conversions, Judaism has survived largely because it created a distinctive ethnic culture that was only shared with those born into that culture. And while some Orthodox sects tend to cast a jaundiced eye on Jews who do not make the same commitment or observe the same cultural mores, in the "us vs. them" realities of anti-Semitism, Jews tend to stick together.
It should be clear to Mr. Oster and others that, just as Jews themselves may be completely irreligious, anti-Semites do not denigrate Jews simply because of religious differences. They hate Jews because of the very cultural/ethnic "otherness" and familial descent that have always defined Judaism. So it is completely not surprising that Mr. Oster would feel compelled to respond to anti-Semitism even as he himself is Jewish only in ethnicity. Or, as my sister once famously retorted to a person who accosted her with a "Jews for Jesus" sign, "Just remember that when they come to put us in the ovens, your ass is going to be there right next to mine!"
Jews need have no compunction about feeling and expressing loyalty to Judaism any more than a Puerto Rican Protestant, Puerto Rican Jew or Puerto Rican atheist can take pride in being Puerto Rican.
• • •
I was raised as a Conservative Jew but gradually changed to agnosticism and then to atheism. I still feel culturally and ethnically part of Judaism.
I know a number of Jews, who while still identifying as Jewish, are atheists. My late mother, for example, while a member of a Reform synagogue, admitted to me that she had been an atheist for years, as was her husband. Many Jews participate in activities for social and cultural reasons and have given up on the idea of a god.
Dr. Charles Falkowitz
• • •
I am a year younger than Jerry and became an avowed atheist six or seven years ago after being a doubter for a long time. I have had the same problems dealing with anti-Semites. I would love to correspond with him.
• • •
If asked my religion, I might say I am a Jewish secular humanist or culturally Jewish. As for objecting to anti-Semitism, surely you don't have to be Jewish to do that. Any compassionate person will speak up against hate, whether it is racism or homophobia or other prejudice.
Incidentally, for any secular Jewish parents who might want to teach their children their heritage without indoctrinating them in theism, my friend Judy Seid wrote a book, God-Optional Judaism. It offers a historical, rather than religious, approach to celebrating the Jewish holidays.
Thank you, FFRF, for your ongoing efforts to protect the Establishment Clause. Our entire Bill of Rights is in danger of becoming a quaint, obsolete historical document. I am afraid, without the constant effort of groups like ours.
• • •
I'm a 73-year-old Jew who likes my heritage. I love the food, the humor and assorted "shtick" that is part of Jewish culture but at an early age, even before my bar mitzvah, I knew that I was an atheist at heart. Of the "big three" religions, I find that Judaism is the one that allows for some critical thinking, which is likely why there are what seems to me to be a rather high percentage of Jews who are atheists.
I am also offended by anti-Jewish behavior and rhetoric. I have never seen bigotry and hatefulness expressed by atheists and agnostics. It always comes from those who usually are proud to declare their belief in some unseen deity.
Clearly, atheism isn't a religion, so we shouldn't say our religion is atheism. When I was in the Army when I was 17, they put NO PREFERENCE on my dog tags. I couldn't argue with the Army. But when I was hospitalized a couple of years ago, the designation NONE perplexed the admitting clerk, who tried to insist that some word connoting religious belief had to be placed in the box. I explained that I didn't give a tiny %$*@ what she put down because the answer was still NONE.
I hope to meet you, Jerry, in Madison for this year's Main Event. Maybe we can share a nosh together.
Gerald L. "Jerry" Foreman
• • •
Although I'm not a Jew, I sympathize with your people's long history of suffering. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Wisdom, convinced me that Jewish ethics are far above those of Christianity. And in that respect, I consider it a pity that Christianity didn't remain a sect of Judaism.
Nevertheless, I don't consider anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism synonymous. Rather, I agree with those Jews, both in Israel and here in America, who think of Israel as a police state designed to repress Palestinians. Israel is now much like South Africa when apartheid was the law of the land.
I praise you, Mr. Oster, for having abandoned your tribal god and replaced him with your trust in reason. Long ago, I also abandoned my family's god, Jesus, along with all of Christianity's superstitions.
In my opinion, only reason (together with a love of peace and a diligent effort to unite humankind as brothers) can bring forth a better world. We nonbelievers have much work to do.
Michael G. Sperou, 64, Happy Valley, OR: 20 years in prison after being found guilty by jury on 3 counts of unlawful sexual penetration. Sperou, founder/pastor of North Clackamas Bible Community, was convicted of molesting the daughter of a church member in the 1990s. Six other girls also alleged he molested them but the statute of limitations had expired. They testified at his trial.
The girls and their parents lived communally with Sperou. Judy Sperou, his current wife and mother of alleged victim Amy Robinson, told the jury she doesn't believe her daughter. Four other parents have discounted their daughters' allegations and remain in church leadership roles.
"I'm very happy the girls got justice," said Carole Green, Sperou's former wife and former church member. "Many of us are praying God will bring Michael to complete repentance while he's in prison." Source: AP, 4-30-15
Godwin Moffat, Esit-Eket, Nigeria: 3 years in prison on 37 theft convictions for stealing 56 electrical transformers meant for distribution to communities. Moffat, pastor of an unidentified Christian church, was also a member of the Niger Delta Development Commission, through which he received 90 transformers. Source: Pulse Nigeria, 4-27-15
Adam Metropoulos, 53, Bangor, ME: 12 years in prison with 5½ years suspended and 3 years' probation after being found guilty of 4 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and pleading guilty to possession of sexually explicit materials and violation of privacy. Metropoulos, pastor at St. George Eastern Orthodox Church, denied molesting a 15-year-old altar boy in 2006-07. Superior Court Justice Ann Murray said at sentencing she didn't believe Metropoulos' testimony.
His guilty pleas involved possession of about 400 sexual images, including many showing children, and secretly recording a woman in the shower who was visiting him. Source: Daily News, 4-27-15
Damien K. Bonner Sr., 33, Tulsa, OK: 23 years in prison and a $20,000 fine for conviction by a jury of 2 counts of lewd molestation. Bonner, pastor at Galilee Baptist Church, was acquitted of 7 counts. He was charged with molesting 3 teen parishioners on 9 occasions.
He was found guilty of having intercourse with a 14- to 15-year-old girl from Galilee and groping another girl at Mt. Zion Church, where he was youth pastor.
The girl, now 16, testified they had sex about 17 times and said Bonner once gave her a pill when she expressed worry about being pregnant. Source: Fox23/Tulsa World, 4-27-15
John Calnan, 76, West Cork, Ireland: 3 years in prison with 1 year suspended after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a girl during her first confession in 1989 when he was a Catholic priest and she was 7.
Sgt. Maurice Downey told the court Calnan digitally penetrated the girl while hearing her confession, according to her 2013 complaint. She alleged he also appeared to be doing something to himself at the time.
Calnan's release date for earlier sentences of sexual assault of a minor male and a minor female is July 2017. He was removed from the ministry in 1992. Source: Irish Times, 4-24-15
John K. Councilman, 45, Pascagoula, MS: 20 years in prison, 15 years' probation and $32,000 in fines after pleading guilty to 2 counts of sexual battery and 4 counts of touching of a child for lustful purposes.
Police Det. Kim Stevens testified Councilman told the girl's parents they were studying the bible. "It was a long grooming process," Stevens said. "He'd known her 12 years of her 14-year life."
Stevens testified he assaulted the girl in a storage shed while they read bible verses. He used scripture to justify having oral sex and intercourse, Stevens said. Source: Sun Herald, 4-20-15
Annamalai Annamalai, 49, aka Dr. Commander Selvam and Swamiji Sri Selvam Siddhar, Norcross, GA: 27 years and 3 months in prison for 34 convictions of tax fraud, bank fraud and bankruptcy fraud. Annamalai, leader of the (now bankrupt) Hindu Temple of Georgia, was also ordered "to not engage in any spiritual service for compensation."
Annamalai offered spiritual guidance in exchange for money but added unapproved charges to clients' credit cards. Source: Journal-Constitution, 4-13-15
Jerry D. Francis, 42, Dayton, OH: 120 days in jail, 5 years' probation and restitution for the $67,000 stolen from Great Hope Community Church in New Carlisle, where he was pastor. His wife, Tamra Francis, faces counts of theft and complicity to commit theft. She has filed for divorce.
The couple also operated Mayhem & Mystery dinner theater at the Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Dayton. Source: Daily News, 4-9-15
Darin Evans, 43, Elmhurst, IL: 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to criminal sexual assault. He was accused of sexual contact with a girl over a 4- to 5-year period, starting when she was 16. At the time, he was her youth pastor at West Suburban Community Church. Source: NBC Chicago, 4-10-15
Calvin D. Gideon, 54, Plymouth, WI: 3 years in prison and 3 years' probation for convictions on 10 counts of possession of child pornography. He also was ordered to pay $3,442.
Gideon at first denied having the charges, called porn "disgusting" said said he'd been fired as youth pastor at St. John the Baptist Church for drinking. Though he'd gone on church-related trips overseas and in the U.S., he denied having sexual contact with juveniles.
Authorities found computers and storage devices with photos and videos of children as young as 4 engaged in graphic sexual activity. Source: Sheboygan Press, 4-8-15
Matthew Boos, 25, St. Louis Park, MN: 90 days in jail and 3 years' probation for soliciting a child with an electronic device. Boos, youth pastor at River Valley Church in Savage, admitted to using his job to start online conversations with about 15 underage girls by setting up female personas on profiles.
The mother of a girl under age 15 found a message traced to Boos in which he asked the child if she was bi-curious and would send naked photos.
The complaint said Boos, who is married, asked for photos from girls as young as 12. Source: KSTP, 4-6-15
Roy Harriger, 72, Albion, NY: 15 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of sexual abuse of 2 of his grandchildren while he was pastor at Community Fellowship Church.
"It started with me when I was a kid and I'm his sister," Nona Blackchief said. "And I'm his son," George Harriger said. "And he messed with me and then my son."
State Police Sgt. Michael Notto said 15 alleged victims have been identified. Source: TWC News, 4-6-15
Johnny Botello, 78, Wichita Falls, TX: 10 years' deferred adjudication [charge dismissed with completed probation] after pleading guilty to indecency with a child by sexual contact. The plea stemmed from a 2013 incident when Botello took an 11-year-old girl into his Assembly of God church office and put his hand under her blouse.
Another alleged female victim, now 38, testified Botello inappropriately touched her and kissed her on the mouth when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 and later had intercourse with her 3 times. She said she kept silent out of fear her family would be destroyed and because she thought it was "her fault" for dressing a certain way. Source: Times Record News, 4-3-15
Josh Swain, 34, Carbondale, IL: 6 years in prison for theft, aggravated identity theft and loan fraud. Swain, pastor of The View Church, was also ordered to repay $18,500 to the church, a $40,000 loan obtained without authority by the church and $17,775 to a credit card company for an account he opened up in the name of a church member. Source: The Southern, 3-30-15
Mike Overd, 50, Taunton, UK: Fined $300 and $1,800 in costs and compensation for using threatening or abusive words or behavior. Overd, a Christian street preacher who uses a loudspeaker, was charged with calling homosexuality an "abomination."
Overd was unrepentant after sentencing. "I'm going to go straight back now and preach." Source: The Independent, 3-28-15
Michael J. Havrilla, 46, St. Mary's County, MD: 18 months in jail suspended and 3 years' probation after pleading guilty to 2nd-degree assault for molesting a preteen girl in 2008 as a youth leader with Faith Bible Church. He was charged with touching the girl under her clothes at a residence. Source: SoMdNews, 3-27-15
Anthony McSweeney, 68, London: 3 years in prison for sexual abuse of a 15-year-old boy at Grafton Close Children's Home in 1979-81. McSweeney, a Catholic priest, was charged with his friend John Stingemore of molesting the boy. Stingemore, manager of the home, died before trial.
Judge Alistair McCreath said McSweeney "has a voyeuristic interest in children, either in seeing them unclothed, or in seeing them sexually abused by others." Source: BBC, 3-27-15
Nevada Bacon Prophet John Whiteside led an April protest by secular groups, including Whiteside's United Church of Bacon, taking Wells Fargo Bank to task for refusing to notarize a church document. Whiteside, an FFRF Life Member, said the refusal by the Las Vegas branch bank amounted to discrimination against atheists and was backed by Wells Fargo's corporate office, where the protest by seven secular groups was held. More than 100 people picketed over two days.
Whiteside has legally founded the church, which stemmed from a 2010 gathering at atheist comedian Penn Jillette's house, with "a funny name and a serious mission" to protest how religious organizations get special privileges under the law, including tax exemption.
The "congregation" now has about 4,000 members. The church claims no tax-exempt status and through donations has raised about $160,000 in 2014-15 to benefit autism, cancer and AIDS research and other secular charities. Members may apply to become wedding officiants, which are performed for free.
In rejecting the document, the notary questioned whether Whiteside was really the "owner" of the church. "Notaries may not reject a customer with a valid ID," said Whiteside. "It's the law, and the National Notary Association makes it clear in their code of conduct. The only explanation for what Wells Fargo did is discrimination."
The protest and events leading up to it received extensive media coverage, all of which was positive, said church spokesman Johnny Monsarrat. KLAS-TV Evening News gave the protest two minutes, he said. "Note that the Wells Fargo rebuttal fails to give any reason for the refusal and is basically a personal attack. That's what you resort to when you have nothing else to say."
Montserrat noted that in the rebuttal, the company touted its "history of supporting and serving the needs of a widely diverse customer base." That flies in the face of facts, he asserted.
"Actually, Wells Fargo paid $175 million in 2012 to settle a federal case of discrimination for giving bad loans to African-Americans, Hispanics and women. Since then, they have also been sued by Los Angeles, Cook County, Ill., and a group of pregnant women for discrimination."
Court deals blow to Canada prayer
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously April 15 in Ottawa that elected officials don't have the right to pray at public meetings. The case stems from a 2007 complaint by Alain Simoneau about city councilors praying before meetings in Saguenay, Quebec. Mayor Jean Tremblay, who argued that Catholicism was part of Quebec's heritage, was ordered to stop reciting prayers.
"The recitation of the prayer at the council's meetings was above all else a use by the council of public powers to manifest and profess one religion to the exclusion of all others," the Supreme Court ruled. "A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person's freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society."
Simoneau was awarded about $24,000 in damages.
Greece doesn't apply in North Carolina
U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled May 4 that the Rowan County Commission in Salisbury, N.C., violated the U.S. Constitution by opening meeting with sectarian prayer. Beaty ruled that the board's "practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected Commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in its suit alleged that 97% of the prayers delivered by commissioners between 2007 and 2013 were specifically Christian.
Beaty held that Rowan County's prayer "falls outside of the prayer practices approved" by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In Greece, N.Y., the town invited clergy and laypersons to deliver prayers in a nondiscriminatory fashion, he said, while in Rowan County, only commissioners delivered prayers.
Norway repeals law banning blasphemy
As reported by Religion Clause and Sputnik News, the Norwegian Parliament repealed the country's blasphemy law in early May. The law had stated: "Any person who by word or deed publicly insults or in an offensive or injurious manner shows contempt for any creed whose practice is permitted in the realm or for the doctrines or worship of any religious community lawfully existing here, or who aids and abets thereto, shall be liable to fines or to detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months."
Support for repeal came in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in February. Repeal was opposed by several Christian groups.
The last time anyone was charged under the law was in 1933, when writer Arnulf Øverland was acquitted of charges stemming from his lecture titled "Christianity, the tenth plague."
Sentences for Farkhunda's death
Afghanistan's Primary Court in Kabul sentenced four men to death by hanging on May 6 for the March 19 mob killing of Farkhunda Malikzada, 27, after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran even though she was a devout Muslim. Eight others were sentenced to 16 years in prison.
The Associated Press reported: "Chilling mobile phone videos recorded the horror of the last moments of Farkhunda's life, as she was punched, kicked, beaten with wooden planks, thrown off a roof, run over by a car and ultimately set afire on the banks of Kabul River."
The mens' trials were broadcast live across the country. Police are also being prosecuted for neglecting their duties.
Decalog law passed in Arkansas
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill April 8 requiring the secretary of state to arrange for a privately funded Ten Commandments monument to be placed on the Capitol grounds in Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. The bill easily passed in the Republican-dominated Legislature, 27-3 in the Senate and 72-7 in the House.
While the law says the monument "shall not be construed to mean that the state of Arkansas favors any particular religion or denomination over others," Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said the ACLU is considering a lawsuit because "we think it's a religious document and to say otherwise is disingenuous. It's divisive and excludes people of non-Abrahamic faiths and no faith from feeling" welcome at the Capitol.
An ACLU lawsuit challenging a similar monument at the Oklahoma Capitol is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Tennessee GOP kills state bible bill
The Tennessee Senate voted 22-9 on April 16 to send a bill making the bible the official state book back to committee, effectively killing it a day after the House passed the bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, opposed the bill, reported The Tennessean. "All I know is that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you're on your way to where he wants you."
"I am a Christian, but I am also a constitutionalist and a conservative," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement. "It would be fiscally irresponsible to put the state in a position to have to spend tax dollars defending a largely symbolic piece of legislation. We don't need to put the bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and 'Rocky Top' in the Tennessee Blue Book to appreciate its importance to our state."
Transit system ad bans spur debate
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit April 28 against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) for refusing to let the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society advertise on its buses. The rejected ads said "atheists" along with the group's name and website.
At first, COLTS claimed it barred ads "promoting" or "attacking" religion or intended to spark public debate. But the suit alleges it has allowed ads from religious groups, a political candidate and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. In 2014, COLTS did accept a Freethought Society ad after it removed the word "atheists."
"It's hard to advertise effectively if we're not allowed to use the word 'atheists' to say who the NEPA Freethought Society's members are or who we're trying to reach," said spokesperson Justin Vacula.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said: "Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally."
• • •
New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority on April 29 banned all political ads on its subways and buses after a judge ruled the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Pamela Geller could place an ad with the phrase "Hamas Killing Jews" on buses.
The new policy means any ad that demeans or disparages a person or group will be barred, reported CBS New York. "Advertisements expressing viewpoint messages" will no longer be accepted, said Jerome Page, MTA general counsel.
10-year-old denied Paraguay abortion
The government in majority-Catholic Paraguay is refusing to let a pregnant 10-year-old who was allegedly raped by her stepfather have an abortion. CNN reported the girl's mother brought her to the hospital April 21 because of abdominal pains. It was determined she was 22 weeks pregnant.
The mother told authorities she believes her husband, 42-year-old Gilberto Benitez, is the father. Paraguay, which is about 90% Catholic and 6% Protestant, allows abortion only save the pregnant woman's (or girl's) life. The girl weighs about 75 pounds.
Benitez denied he's the father. "I've been with tons of women, and I never got anybody pregnant." During the investigation, the girl's mother was arrested for allegedly enabling her abuse.
About two births a day occur among girls aged 10 to 14 in Paraguay (pop. 6.8 million). Many are the result of sexual abuse by relatives and stepfathers, according to the government.
Ga. teacher out over comments
Nancy Price Perry, a Dublin, Ga., middle school teacher who told her students in March that President Barack Obama isn't a Christian, has been removed from the classroom and will retire at the end of the school year.
Dublin Schools Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter on April 28 announced Perry's retirement and apologized to students and parents, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"It is not the place of teachers to attempt to persuade students about religious or political beliefs," Ledbetter said. "In doing so, the teacher was wrong and that has been communicated to her."
WMAZ reported that Stephanie and Jimmie Scott, parents of a student, alleged in a complaint that Perry said, "If your parents voted for Obama, they're evil and I don't see how your parents could vote for someone that's Muslim," then challenged students to prove their Christianity.
Third atheist dies in attack
Ananta Bijoy Das, 33, a secular blogger, was hacked to death on the way to work at a bank May 12 in Sylhet, Bangladesh's fifth-largest city. It was the third such attack this year.
Police Commissioner Kamrul Hasan told Agence France-Presse that four masked attackers pounced on Das. "They chased him down the street and first attacked his head with their machetes and then attacked him all over his body," Hasan told Agence France-Presse.
Colleagues said Das was an atheist who wrote for Mukto-Mona, a website formerly moderated by Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen murdered in Dhaka in February. Das also was an editor for the quarterly magazine Jukti (Logic) and headed the Sylhet science and rationalist council.
The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), founded by Mitch Kahle and Holly Huber, FFRF Life Members, had another success in April when a substitute teacher at Hart High School in Hart was ousted as a sub for distributing religious materials. MACRA alerted the district April 6 about the violations.
The teacher was supplied as a substitute by Professional Education Services Group (PSEG), a staffing company. "The substitute had, in fact, done some things and passed out materials with religious information and some specific references to entries in the bible," Superintendent Mark Platt told the Ludington Daily News on April 14.
"As a result of the investigation, the substitute will no longer be allowed sub for Hart Public Schools. We followed the formal complaint process that PESG provides and we communicated clearly with PESG that Mr. Meersma is not allowed to substitute at Hart Public Schools," Platt said in a press release.
A demonstration planned in support of the teacher never took place, Platt said.
"[W]e will be reminding staff of the importance of honoring the issue of the separation of church and state," Platt said. The district will also add the topic to "start of the school term" staff discussions in the fall and consider putting together a "do's and don'ts" handout for subs.
The Associated Press reported May 12 on a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that says 56 million Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or of no particular faith grew from 16% to almost 23% percent. The number of self-described Christians dropped from 78% to 71%.
According to the poll, conducted in English and Spanish, 31% of "nones" said they were atheist or agnostic, compared to 25% percent in 2007. The poll found that while mainline Protestant and Catholic numbers dropped, the number of evangelicals rose slightly to 62 million.
Muslims and Hindus each make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. The number of Jews rose from 1.7% to 1.9% percent of Americans from 2007-14.
The study put the number of Catholic adults at 51 million, about 20% of the population, compared to about 25% in 2007 — or just over one-fifth of the U.S. population, a drop of about 3 percent over seven years. In 2007, Catholics made up about one-quarter of Americans.
Greg Smith, Pew associate research director, said the findings show "substantive changes" among the religiously unaffiliated. He said secular groups have become increasingly organized to counter bias against them.
"Nones" now are the second largest "affiliation"
Anthony Pinn, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Rice University, spoke at FFRF's Los Angeles convention last fall. He has advanced degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities and is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice and research director at the Institute for Humanist Studies. His books include Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2011) and Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (2014), available from FFRF.org/shop.
By Anthony Pinn
I am delighted to be here with you and I want to thank my new friends from FFRF for this invitation. I turned 50 this year, in May. I've been a bit too lazy for a midlife crisis, but it has given me opportunity to think.
My life divides fairly evenly between two diametrically opposed positions on life. I'm one who believes that there are certain elements of human existence, our movement through the world, that are best expressed through the poetic. So I'll help you get a sense of what these two poles, these two contradictory stances entail, and tell it through song. I won't sing the songs, but I'll tell you what they are.
The first phase of my life is roughly summed up by the hymn "Amazing Grace." Some of you may know this: "Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me." Written in 1779, the same year that enslaved Africans in Connecticut petitioned for their freedom.
The second phase, the second 25 years, is better summed up by this hauntingly beautiful song first published in 1964, the year of my birth, but was really given "oomph" and classic significance in 1965 when Nina Simone decided to sing it. One of the lines [from "Feeling Good"] is this: "Freedom is mine/and I know how I feel/it's a new dawn/it's a new day/it's a new life for me and I'm feelin' good."
The second phase is marked by a certain type of lucidity or awareness, a way of recognizing and honoring what my grandmother told me as she sent me off to college. She said, "Tony, walk through the world knowing your footsteps matter." Life is embodied in how you interact with others, and the sorts of relationships you form or don't form have impact. You're not in this alone; you're not doing this simply for yourself. Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter."
I've spent 50 years moving between these two poles, which is nothing anyone would have anticipated for me. My family was part of the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans into southern and northern cities after the Civil War through the mid-20th century, looking for opportunity and a way of integrating themselves into U.S. life.
My mother's family moved from Halifax, N.C., to Buffalo, N.Y. My grandparents were college educated, but that didn't mean much. My father's family moved from Dinwiddie, Va., to Buffalo. They moved to Buffalo because Bethlehem Steel was in [nearby] Lackawanna, which meant opportunity, a good paycheck, a good life.
I remember as a child going to church with my grandfather in Lackawanna, to a small Baptist church. He was one of the deacons. We'd go to Sunday school, and we'd listen to Sunday school lessons that really had nothing to do with our inner-city lives. But we listened to these stories and somehow they were connected to scripture that we didn't quite understand.
Then came the big service, the service for the adults. We had our own way of entertaining ourselves. Each child on the row got a hymnal and you'd close your eyes and open up the hymnal quickly and you'd look. The goal was to eventually land on the same hymn, and if you landed on the same hymn, it was great joy and then you moved on to the next challenge.
The final challenge was going to the restroom and staying away for an extended period and being able to explain the absence. Now sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes my grandfather would catch us. All he had to do was look. It was just that look, behind those rather thick, cloudy glasses, and you knew that was it.
We stayed at that church until my mother decided it wasn't a proper environment. She didn't want us growing up in a church in which women were second-class citizens, where women could clean but couldn't preach. We started attending a small church much closer to home. This church would eventually affiliate with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but when we arrived it was independent. My mother loved it, and it made sense to the rest of us.
My mother and my sister went to service one Sunday when I didn't go. They got home and announced they had joined the church. I'm thinking, Linda's older, but there's nothing she gets to do that I don't do. Next Sunday, I'm in church; I play my games and take a little nap and then ask my mother what those people are doing walking up to the front of the church. She said, "They're joining the church."
I think, "Well OK, I want to do that, too." So I walk to the front and announce my name, "I'm Anthony Bernard Pinn and I came to join this church." And that was the beginning. We had a new family, it provided a cultural network; it provided social networks; and, it was a space in which we could breathe, a space in which we could have a bit of comfort in what seemed to be a death-dealing society.
It was a space apart, away from all of the madness. It was a space away from my grammar school teachers who really didn't give a damn about me. As long as I stayed out of trouble, didn't create waves, everything was good. It doesn't matter if he's learning anything or not. But this was a different space in which my talents were assumed, and pushed.
The minister also taught Sunday school. One Sunday after the lesson he asked a typical question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" There were the typical responses: "I'm going to be president; I'm going to be a doctor; I'm going to be a lawyer." He got to me and I said, "I'm going to be a preacher." I'm not quite certain why I said it. I'm not sure I anticipated what his reaction was going to be, but I said it. He looked at me and said, "OK, we start next Sunday." So the games were over for me.
In the pulpit
So, with my mother's permission and a big smile on her face, I mounted the pulpit. I led hymns, collected the offering, said prayers, opened the church doors. I was a little minister with a very different role. I couldn't go to the store alone. I had to be in the house when the streetlights came on, but in the context of that church I had a certain type of authority simply because I said, "I'm going to be a preacher."
Eventually that minister left and another came, and he left, and then this young guy arrived from Philadelphia who was known for "growing" churches. This church needed to grow, because now it was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, the oldest black denomination in the country. Folks told him, "Tony has a call on his life. He's going to be a minister." He said, "Hmm, I'll check this out."
At age 12, I preached my first sermon, my trial sermon. The real test of a sermon is not how many people get happy with you. The real test of a sermon is how many people come to Christ as a result of what you've said. For that first sermon, all about fire and brimstone, three people came, so I was on my way.
I went through the process, meeting with church leaders, proving this calling. I can't go to the store alone, but I'm leading people to Christ. I'm counseling people on issues I don't really understand, on topics I couldn't necessarily pronounce.
My grandmother told me, "Look, I'm so proud of you, but understand this. I would not make use of an attorney that didn't have a J.D. Nor would I make use of the services of a physician without an M.D. And my grandson will not be a preacher without proper training."
I knew education within my family had always been important and at this stage, I knew that beyond the B.A. I would have to get professionally trained for ministry. I decided, along with my mother, that it would be most beneficial for me to be in an educational environment with folks who were like-minded. The public school system was not going to cut it. I had to be in the world but not of it, and this school was not helping.
So, I transferred from City Honors, a program for gifted students, to a small Southern Baptist high school outside Buffalo. It was a feeder program for institutions like Bob Jones University and [Jerry Falwell's] Liberty Baptist. Need I say more?
I spent three years there, unlearning critical thinking skills and embracing scripture. Now it was time for college. I knew I couldn't stay in Buffalo because I was surrounded by folks who had limited ambition, and I needed more than that. It just so happened that my minister had been transferred to a rather large church in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bedford-Stuyvesant. I took this as a sign from the Lord to go to school in New York, so Columbia University was my place.
I arrived thinking I'm going to set this world on fire for Christ and lead people to Jesus, but I was in for a surprise. I'm taking classes in biblical studies and these folks are treating the bible as if it's simply a piece of literature. They did not appreciate a deeper understanding of scripture.
I'm also meeting people who practice other faiths with devotion and without apology. It doesn't matter to them that from my perspective they are going to hell. This was the thing that really got me: Some of these folks who are on their way to hell treated me consistently better than so many of the Christians I encountered. They didn't talk about me behind my back. They weren't looking for me to slip up and prove that I was human.
Bedford-Stuyvesant wasn't gentrified in 1982. It was an area deeply troubled by economic want and need, and people found ways to pacify that want and need. In the early '80s, crack cocaine became a way of doing this. It's cheap, readily available and numbs the pain.
I'm at a church in the middle of this, and we're saying nothing that eased life for these folks. I'm working with young people who are finding it easier to plan out their deaths than to think about a bright future. They're struggling with this in the basement of a church that believes it has "the way." I had nothing to say that really made much of a difference, even in terms of basic life circumstances and needs like sex education.
I was the youth minister, 18 or 19 years old, so one of my responsibilities was to provide these young people with a way to think about their sexual wants and desires. I had this one statement that was going to transform life for them and make it easy to avoid sexual sin. This is what I would say, with a rather stern but caring and compassionate look on my face: "You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, [pause] knowing that Jesus is in the room with you."
And I'm thinking, damn, this is brilliant! In reality, I had nothing to say that made a difference for their life circumstances. They were confronted with the same sort of dilemma that the writer Richard Wright describes in terms of his own life. In Black Boy he says, "Look, if I'd encountered the church before I encountered the harshness of the world, the songs and the sermons would have meant something to me."
Wright says he encountered the world first, and the church could not fix the suffering he felt. I gave them nothing that really made a difference, Monday through Saturday, and this was becoming difficult for me because I wanted to be a person with integrity. It reached a point where I just couldn't do it. There was a kind of dissonance that I just couldn't deal with.
This was my solution: I was supposed to be at the 6 a.m. service every Sunday. That was not a challenge because I thrived on very little sleep. But not having anything to say that made a difference, a theology that was anemic at best and perverse at worst, just wasn't getting the job done. On some Sundays when it was just too much, I'd get dressed in my suit, make my way to the train station at 116th Street and Broadway and let the train pass. I'd sit down and the next train would come, and I'd let it go. The third train would come and I'd let it go.
I'd get on the next train and make my way to 59th street to get on that famous A train into Brooklyn and I'd let one pass. I'd look at the clock and I'd let another one pass, and I'd look again and perhaps I'd need to let a third pass. I wouldn't get on the train until I was fairly confident that I could get to Brooklyn late enough not to have to participate in the service. I'd make that slow walk down to the church, walk in and sit in the back. Afterward I'd tell the minister, "Doc, I'm sorry, the train."
I was still committed to ministry, but my idea of God was changing radically. It went from the idea of a god who breaks into human history and makes things happen to a god who works by persuasion, what my mother described as that small, still voice, attempting to get us to do the right thing. I was moving from this kind of evangelical fundamentalist position to something more along the lines of the social gospel, but it still wasn't getting it done.
I was still going to be in ministry, but I had to figure out a way to do this. My model eventually became Adam Clayton Powell Jr., for whom the church and theology were about sociopolitical and economic change.
My church family thought I had the answers, but I had questions, questions I couldn't share because the minister is supposed to know the answers, or know to get them. So I had to leave, and I wanted to go to a place where my sense of ministry would not matter at all, where it was about learning and critical thinking skills, so I decided Harvard Divinity School was the place to go because they didn't really care about Jesus.
When I told church family that I was thinking about going to Harvard Divinity School, they'd ask, "Why do you want to go to the cemetery?" They didn't say "seminary;" it was "cemetery," where good religious ideas go to die.
I was a youth minister at a small church in Roxbury, in Boston. They were just integrating some of the public housing there, like the Mary Ellen McCormack development. A clear marker of economic need was the park across the street from the church. It had metal nets on the basketball hoops, which cut fingers and required tetanus shots. The park was home to kids having fun but also home to drug deals and prostitution.
I asked the minister what we could do in the context of our preaching to make a difference. He told me, "Pinn, let the people get happy with you." But I'm not happy, because I'm not making a difference. Young people from the church are literally dying. They can't get out of gang activity because of where they live. James Baldwin said, growing up in Harlem, that it became clear to him that you had to belong to something. You couldn't survive in that environment without belonging to something. He said, "You could belong to the drug dealers, you could belong to the pimps, or you could belong to the church. I'll pick the church."
I had nothing to say that made a difference, and I beat myself up for a long time and then realized that it wasn't me; it was this faith that had nothing to contribute to the life circumstances of these folks, nothing that would make a damn difference in how they lived Monday through Saturday. It wasn't me; it was the faith.
I'm wrestling with this, trying desperately to hold onto something of theism, but it reached a point where I had to make a decision. Do the people matter, or is it the tradition that matters? I decided the people matter most. There were lots of things I was willing to be, but I was not going to be a hypocrite. I could no longer stand in the pulpit preaching what I did not believe.
I contacted the minister and said, "I'm done. I won't be on the staff anymore, I just can't do it." I've got to think; I've got to process; I've got to figure out what religion is and if it can matter in any shape or form. I contacted my bishop and surrendered my ordination. I said, "I'm no longer involved in AME ministry."
It didn't matter to me what people thought because I had to live with integrity. It didn't matter to me if I lost family or friends. I had to live in the world in a way that I could respect. I had to be true to what my grandmother told me, "Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter."
I remained interested in religion. It was a force that needed to be wrestled with and understood as a cultural development that shaped world events in some profound ways. From my perspective, if we could get people to think critically about the world, we were set. If we could give them effective communication strategies, they could make some things happen. That was my next phase.
I'd finished the Ph.D. and spent time trying to understand this all and give greater attention to the ways in which humanism and atheism have influenced life in the United States beyond white folks. It was a bit of a novel thought, that you folks don't own this. But it surprised people, so I needed to spend time understanding the nature and meaning of religion, how this functions — religion particularly, in the form of theism. I also wanted to give attention to how atheism and humanism function within the context of racial minorities.
I'd left the church, but I'd entered a much larger community, kind of nebulous in nature, but a larger community. I was convinced from that moment forward that humanists and atheists, even within my African-American communities, are legion.
Thank you. So I think we have time to chat, yes?
Q. I've often wondered why blacks seem to be interested in religion out of proportion to their numbers. Is it history, and slavery, or a feeling of hopelessness or hopefulness or what?
A. I knew this question was coming. It's not always first, because folks typically have to kind of warm up to it, but I always get this question. There are two things I want to say on this. First, we have to think in more complex ways concerning religion. I want to make a distinction between religion, which is a kind of binding together, and theism.
From my perspective, the real problem is theism, not religion. They overlap but are not identical. There are a variety of reasons why African-Americans over time would embrace theism. One, folks with power had it, and if these folks with power had this thing, maybe this thing could get African-Americans something.
There are pragmatic reasons for embracing it, but we cannot forget that although Christianity within the context of African-American communities, and the U.S. in much larger terms, has done a lot of damage, there are ways in which, in a rather flat way, it spurred a demand for personhood.
You cannot take away from the Christian faith in African-American
communities the slave revolts. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser — all ministers. So it's an incomplete process that forces them to surrender something of themselves, but there are ways in which it involved a push for personhood.
Let's also think about it this way: There would be little reason for African-Americans to assume that humanism and atheism provide a softer landing place. I hear so many humanists and atheists celebrating Thomas Jefferson. "This is one of our dudes; he's one of us." But as soon as you say that, you have linked humanism to slavery. This is the man who says "This far, but no further," because freeing slaves will mess up Virginia and mess up the nation. Again, as soon as you embrace him, you've linked humanism to slavery.
Too many humanists and atheists believe disbelief, nontheism, is a prophylactic against nonsense. Because I don't believe in religion, I cannot be guilty of racism, classism, sexism or homophobia. This is a problem because it doesn't allow us to take these issues seriously.
And African-American nonbelievers are in the shadows looking at you wrestling with these issues in an inadequate fashion. So give them an alternative, give racial minorities in the United States a soft landing place, which involves doing more than just critiquing the traditions they're leaving. Give them something positive.
Q. Where can I get your reading list for any of the classes you teach? I'm really interested in what you've studied.
A. Email me at and identify the conversation in the subject line. I'm much better at email and text messages than phone calls, I'm a text messaging pro.
Q. I wanted to bring up the subject that the gentlemen did earlier, about African-Americans being disproportionately religious. I was wondering about a way to get more minorities in general to come out of the closet. It seems particularly rough for minorities to come out of the closet. I'd like to to come up with a better way
A. It seems to me, and I think there's evidence to support this, that the churches in the context of the United States declined numerically after the civil rights movement, and that's not just black churches. In terms of black churches, there was an upswing in the 1980s, in part because the black middle class hit the ceiling. They played by the rules after the civil rights movement, went to the schools that they were told they needed to go to, moved into the neighborhoods they were told they needed to move to, played by the rules. Still, they couldn't capture the American dream.
It reaches a point mid-1980s, and they say, forget this. They've lost cultural connections; they've lost social networks. So they decide they're going to reconnect and the way to reconnect easily is to join a church. You get cultural connection and opportunities for kids to learn something about African-American culture. You get social networking. You get business networks.
Now, lots of these folks join and understand that the sermon is the price they pay for these connections, but they're not buying what the minister is saying. We don't really know how many African-Americans are "sure enough" theists. We know how they respond to surveys, but we don't really know because they're in these churches for a variety of reasons.
If we want them to come out, give them a soft place to land. That soft place has to allow more than just a critique of the traditions they're leaving. Meet their needs, give them networks and give them a sense of community. It also means folks who dominate these organizations have to be able to give something up.
You have to recognize that you have to break free of illusions. Privilege comes in two forms — soft, and what I would reference as hard. The soft forms of privilege are the ones we typically forget, but think about it this way. When you go to buy a car, and you're deciding on how much to spend and what model to get, do you ever take into consideration how often you'd be followed by police if you get a certain vehicle? I do. Because a luxury vehicle is going to expose me to "driving while black," and white friends don't always notice this.
I'm driving down Highway 45 in Houston and police officers are running the plates behind me. They don't leave until, darn, the plates are clean. There are things that not every U.S. citizen has to take into consideration. If you go into a restaurant, and they seat you near the restrooms, what reasons go through your mind? I'll tell you what goes through my mind!
Soft forms of privilege, things you don't have to worry about, but things that racial minorities in the U.S., of necessity, out of survival, have to be concerned about. So recognize these forms of privilege, work through these forms of privilege and their ramifications. Understand something about the communities you want in your organizations. Humanists and atheists are people who read, so read something about Africa-Americans, and learn something about us.
And then African-Americans might be interested.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's column below was first published May 5 by Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist as a guest post.
By Andrew Seidel
When bibles were distributed in Orange County, Fla., Public Schools in January 2013, I wrote a letter to the school district on behalf of FFRF asking them to "halt all distributions."
Earlier this year, the district finally banned all such distributions, but only after we sued.
On May 4, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals handed down the final word on the case, which has essentially been over since the school board voted in February to give FFRF what it asked for 28 months ago. Basically, the court said the case was moot because the school district changed its mind.
Endings are a time for reflection, and I learned several lessons litigating this case. But to understand the lessons, you need to understand exactly what happened. FFRF tries to resolve state/church complaints through education. We only resort to lawsuits when the government ignores us or defends First Amendment violations as legitimate. Hence, our January 2013 educational letter to the district asking them to halt all bible distributions.
The district refused. It claimed that it had an "open forum" where any outside group, including FFRF, could distribute any literature, including bibles, on school property. FFRF's position has always been that these forums should be closed. But if bibles are going to be distributed, FFRF thinks students should also get literature that criticizes the bible.
With the help of our local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, and its founder David Williamson, FFRF asked to distribute secular literature. The district insisted on vetting the literature and censored much of it. For instance, one book was prohibited because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected "is age-inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school," even though the district-approved bible claims that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. So FFRF sued in federal court.
On Jan. 3, 2014, the district told FFRF its literature could be distributed and that the deadline for submitting new material for vetting was Dec. 31, 2013. Yes, you read that correctly. They told us three days after the deadline. Moreover, the district kept the same broken vetting process in place — the same person, same procedures and the same unbridled authority to prohibit literature with a message the district disliked — and that vetting was only applied to us. (The district actually admitted it did not vet the bible.)
Even though we were not given time to participate in the 2014 distribution, the court declared the case moot. But more importantly, the distribution forum was still open. Sure, we could finally distribute our message, but that was not our primary goal.
From the first letter we sent, we made it clear we were trying to "halt all distributions," from the bible to atheist literature. So we wanted a way to test the forum, to ensure that it was truly fair and open to all.
That's why I called my friend Lucien Greaves at the Satanic Temple in July 2014. Lucien agreed that, if the bible is being distributed, kids should hear about the messages of other religions as well, including the Satanic Temple. Like FFRF, Greaves thinks that schools should stick to educating students and not give space to adults to prey on other people's children. But he's not willing to let bible thumpers monopolize those forums.
When the temple asked to distribute its wonderful coloring books in public schools, the backlash was harsh, immediate and predictable. It was so predictable that David Williamson, also a plaintiff in the case, coined a new phrase: "Lucien's Law."
Lucien's Law states that governments will either (1) close open forums when the Satanic Temple asks to speak, or (2) censor the Satanic Temple, thereby opening itself to legal liability. It is, as Hemant Mehta has noted, "like the nuclear option of church/state separation cases."
By November 2014, it became clear that the school board was going to choose option #1 and close the forum, which they eventually did in February 2015.
What have we learned?
Lesson #1: Despite the court opinion declaring the case moot, it was an unqualified success for FFRF and our chapter, CFFC. We sought to close the bible distribution forum, and it is closed.
Lesson #2: Apparently, the temple's coloring book is scarier than atheist literature. Perhaps we atheists are not the most-hated group in America after all. Or perhaps we're only less feared — because Satan does run hell.
Lesson #3: This strategy is portable. Other school districts around the country allow bible distributions. Just this year, two Oklahoma districts, Okemah and Checotah, told FFRF that bible distributions occurred as part of open forums. In that case, I informed them, FFRF would like to use the forum and would be telling some friends. They closed their forums within a month.
Lesson #4: Groups trying to distribute bibles in public schools are not thinking clearly. (Shocking, I know.) Bibles are the most widely available book in this country, if not the world. It is incredibly easy for students to get a bible, but it's much harder for students to get literature critical of the bible.
When these groups infiltrate public schools, they are forced to declare an open forum, which also brings in the atheists. Which message will have a bigger impact on students: the one they hear for the hundredth time or the one they hear for the first time?
If religious literature is being distributed in your schools, report the violation to ffrf.org/legal/report/. If you think handling 3,500 state/church complaints every year is impressive, join FFRF.