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Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 2 March 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Emperor Has No Clothes Award

One Boy’s Journey to Godlessness

 

This speech was delivered by Ron Reagan on Nov. 6, 2009, at the Seattle Red Lion Hotel, site of the 32nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It has been slightly edited for publication.

Thank you so much, I appreciate it very much. Yes, there he is, the little imp, with his handy mirror, his little scepter, which a neighbor’s child has gotten to, I think, at some point and bent it a little bit. And, of course, his tiny little fig leaf, my favorite. I’ll just put him right up there. 

I really appreciate this, Annie Laurie and Dan and all of you, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I certainly appreciate you having me here. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

I have to say, we’re an odd bunch, aren’t we? You know? I mean, most people get together at these sorts of things because they believe in some particular thing, and they all rally ’round that, and here we are, a bunch of nonbelievers. It’s like gathering around an empty space or something like that. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true, because we believe in reason and freethought. Maybe belief is not the right way to put it. But nevertheless, we trust in reason and in freethought.

I won’t presume to lecture you. We just had a fascinating lecture about the good news about atheism, and I know you guys are well-versed in this sort of thing, more than I am. I have to say I feel a little abashed, frankly, in receiving this award. I don’t even feel worthy of it, in a way. I’ve been an atheist, really, almost as long as I can remember, and so I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. 

I imagine some of you have really dark nights of the soul, a lot of theological study. You really went to the mat with this kind of stuff. I feel like an interloper, or something. At age 8 or whatever, I went: “Ah, this isn’t making any sense to me — forget it,” and didn’t really give it all that much more thought, frankly. 

I have to say I was surprised at the reaction to my answer to that question, about “Are you planning to run for office?” I had been giving this as a standard answer, as a way to just sort of shut down that line of inquiry. I don’t want to be a politician, anyway, even if I weren’t an atheist. But I found that that was the fastest way to stop that sort of conversation. “Ever gonna run for president?” “I’m an atheist.” “OK, so how ’bout them Yankees, huh?”

Yeah, that would always shut that right down. My journey, it was much, much shorter, as I said. I almost can’t remember a time when I didn’t have considerable doubt. 

I did grow up in a religious household, it’s true, but we weren’t very religious. We were Presbyterian, part of the great 19th century religious revival, here in the United States. I didn’t know any of that at the time. I just knew my parents went to a Presbyterian church. This had to do with my father’s mother, who was a member of what was called the Christian Church, which was an offshoot, as I understand it, of the Presbyterian Church. Very socially progressive, I have to say.

In her old age, my father’s mother moved out to California to be near my father when he was an actor in Hollywood. She had a little home in Santa Monica, and my mother and father would go (this was before I was born) to visit her, and they’d walk into her house and there’d be a perfect stranger sitting at the kitchen table, having a meal.

They’d say, “Nellie, who’s that?” Oh, just some homeless guy that she had met. He needed a meal, so she had him in, gave him a meal, and then he’d leave. That was how they did that, in those days. 

My father’s father was a Catholic. I’m not sure how devout a Catholic he was, but he did have some socially progressive ideas of his own. I remember a story that my father told me about his father, who was a shoe salesman. Sometimes he had to travel a lot, and I think it was back in the ’30s at some point when he was out on the road somewhere selling shoes. He stopped late on a cold, windy, rainy night in a little hotel in the Midwest and was signing in at the front desk. The hotel manager saw his name, “Reagan,” a pretty obvious Irish name, and said, “Well, sir, you’ll be happy to know that we don’t allow those other people in here.” What he was talking about was Jews not being allowed in the hotel.

My grandfather understood that that was the message that he was being given and said, “Well, then I guess you don’t want any Catholics here, either,” turned on his heel, walked out and slept in his car that night.

We went to the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, actually. Pretty fancy-schmancy. I always thought that was a little odd to begin with, because we didn’t live in Bel Air. We lived miles away in Santa Monica. But every Sunday, we’d get in the car — this was when my father was governor of California, so the car was a limousine, and it was chauffeur-driven by a highway patrolman. We’d drive down Sunset Boulevard, get on the freeway, and we’d drive north on the freeway, we’d get off the freeway, and we’d drive west on Mullholland Drive and finally we’d get to the Bel Air Presbyterian Church after about half an hour and then would spend two hours on a Sunday morning there. I don’t think Catholic Masses last for two hours.

There were homilies, there were benedictions, there were genuflections, there were all sorts of things that we had to do, a little musical interlude and then the hymns would come. I was thinking: This is a hell of an imposition on a Sunday morning. For God’s sake, you know, two hours we’ve got to do this? This is crazy! 

So I asked my father, “Why do we have to go to church in the first place? I thought God was everywhere.” And he said, “Well” — he’d get very kind of avuncular with you — “Well, you know, God says, wherever two or more shall gather, there shall I be.”

I thought, “OK, so if you’re alone, and in a real jam, what — God can’t hear you anymore? What does that mean?” This seemed to be a god of pretty picayune rules, frankly. There’ve got to be more than two of you, and you’ve got to be in this building over here? Come on, he was supposed to be everywhere, right? That’s not the way you’d expect a grand, omniscient deity to behave. But I went along, of course. You’re a kid, what do you know? The parents want you to do this, you just go along. 

One draw was the minister at the church. His name was Don Moomaw, a big guy, ex-UCLA football lineman, an All-American, ruggedly handsome, booming voice, very compelling personality, very compelling speaker, as even my father would attest, and my father was no slouch in the public-speaking arena.

On a good day, Don could wrap you right around his little finger. He’d have you laughing, then he’d have you crying, then he’d bring you back again, and it was pretty entertaining stuff. We’d visit with him after the service, and in person he was just as charming and avuncular as he was up there in the pulpit. Nice wife and kids too, very nice family. A few years later, after I had stopped attending Bel Air Presbyterian, or any other church, Don was asked to step down from his post. Seems he’d been using that charm of his to woo various women in the congregation into adulterous affairs. Another example for a young person that religionists, no matter how eloquently they may talk, sometimes they talk the talk, but they don’t necessarily walk the walk, now do they? But by that time, I was long gone. 

Earlier in life, though, I think my history, my story was fairly typical. As in many households, I suspect, and this is really almost cliché, I realize, but Santa Claus was the great destructive torpedo of religion. Santa and God have a lot in common, don’t they? Both have big white beards, baritone voices, both Caucasian, apparently. Both have an omniscient sense of who’s naughty and who’s nice. Both are eager to reward or punish. If Santa can get a little cranky, you know, depriving you of your presents, leaving a lump of coal in the stocking, God seemed positively psychotic.

I mean, a lump of coal is one thing — that’s kind of a practical joke, but I remember the first time I heard the story of Abraham and Isaac. What kind of thing is that for a little kid to hear? God wants Abraham to prove his faith by slaughtering his son Isaac like a spring lamb. I wasn’t too crazy about lambs being eviscerated, but a child? Are you kidding? Abraham went along with this?

It seemed to me the only proper response to a request like that from a deity would be a stiff middle finger hoisted heavenward. I couldn’t understand why that didn’t happen. I mean, can you imagine? “Oh, by the way, uh, I’d like you to kill your child for me, just to prove that I’m, you know, that I’m your god.” “Well, uh, go to hell, how about that?”

I know, the angel intervened, so it didn’t really happen, but think of the psychological damage that had already been done. I mean, really. By that time, I was dimly aware that I was probably guilty in God’s eyes of some sort of thought crime. What if he decided to go off on me? What if he told Dad to filet me like a haddock? My father was a devoted Christian. I began to look at him with a little bit of suspicion. Who’s more important, me or Him, you know? 

Another enemy of religion, of course, is paleontology. Or in a small child’s mind, in my mind, cave men. For some reason, at a very, very early age I became fascinated with the notion of cave men, of prehistoric human beings. I’d heard the story of Adam and Eve and had been told that this was real, that it all started with just two people, and I’d seen the pictures, too, and they looked just like the rest of us. There weren’t any heavy brows, and they didn’t seem to be wearing fur. They had some very accommodating foliage that always swooped across the naughty bits, but other than that . . . But clearly, clearly something was amiss here. I had lots of books, you know, dinosaurs and prehistoric humans and all that kind of thing and just how exactly did Homo erectus and Neanderthal fit into this picture with Adam and Eve? Did they come before? Did they come after? What was the deal there?

In my memory I’m 4, maybe 5 years old, and I’d been pondering this for a while, in my 4- or 5-year-old way, and I was sitting on the floor of my room playing with some little toy. I think it was one of these things where you put a little plastic thing in the oven. They’d never do this for kids anymore, give the kid a little oven that could burn them. But then, what the hell,  we didn’t wear helmets when we rode bikes. And this plastic thing would pop into this creature. You were playing god, you were creating a little creature. So I was, anyway, playing with this thing, and my mother walked in to put some stuff in my closet or whatever, and I’d been thinking about this.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Were Adam and Eve the first cave men? Or the first people, the first people as we know them today?”

I don’t know where I’d heard that, but I was really proud that I could use the phrase “as we know them today.” So my mother, my poor mother, just stared at me with deer-in-the-headlight eyes.

“Umm . . . uh . . . the first people as we know them today.” Oh, OK. So, I thought to myself, there were Adam and Eve, but before Adam and Eve, there were other people. All of a sudden, that whole story became a story. Not the story, just a story, all of a sudden. And I think from that moment on, my course was clear. That had knocked the pins right out from under Christianity, as far as I could tell. 

Kids ask a lot of simple questions, of course, and simple questions tend to confound religionists. If we’re all God’s children, why are we treating people differently? If God loves all of humanity, why did he only send Jesus to the Middle East? And what’s the deal with Hell? Hell was a big one, too. Hell really bothered me. What the hell was up with Hell, anyway? Apparently, you had to be Christian to escape it. But what about the billions of people around the world who hadn’t been exposed to Christianity, I thought? I mean, would some little baby thousands of miles away, who had died of malaria, have to spend eternity writhing in agony just because his parents were Hindu? Didn’t seem fair. Seemed like God had unaccountably rigged the game.

My parents had no satisfactory answer for that one. They seemed sympathetic to the little Hindu child, but apparently rules were rules, and that little baby would have to fry in Hell. I felt myself slipping further and further away from their belief. And of course, there’s the big question, which I’m sure you all know very well, which is, “OK, if God is all-powerful and omniscient, sees all, knows all, he can do anything, at any time, why is he letting little children be savagely murdered?” Either he can’t stop it, in which case, he’s not all-powerful, or doesn’t want to. Which is a much more disturbing prospect, isn’t it? That was the big one.

At about age 12, I did as Dan Barker said in his introduction of me. I decided I would no longer attend church with my parents. I actually informed my father of this one Sunday morning. The usual routine was we’d all put suits on, and we’d go and get in the car and off we’d go. And that day he walked into my room, and I wasn’t wearing my little suit, and I told him I don’t believe in this anymore, and I’m not going. And Dad was clearly taken aback, I mean, this was a bit of a stunner to him. But to his credit, he did not try to force me. He went off to church, I did my thing, quite happily at home, playing or doing whatever I was doing, and I knew what was going to come, though, when he got home. Nothing bad, my father never yelled at us, really, certainly never hit us or anything like that, but he would try quiet persuasion. And in fact, that’s what he did, at some length. 

But to no avail. I was quite stubborn and had been considering my position for some time, and I was entirely unmovable on this issue. He even enlisted the services of the aforementioned minister, Don Moomaw, who hadn’t gotten in trouble yet. I remember one afternoon I was at home — this was some maybe six months or so after I had decided that I wouldn’t go to church, and there was a knock on the door, and lo and behold, it’s Don Moomaw. “What are you doing here, Minister Moomaw?” Well, he’d been invited here to convince me to come back to the flock. He later told me, years later at a wedding, that he was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing, but he didn’t feel like he could really refuse my father, so he came. But it didn’t work any better than my father’s quiet persuasion. You know, once the scales fall from your eyes, there is no easy way back, even if you want it, and I didn’t.

I don’t lose much sleep over other people’s beliefs, religious or otherwise. For the most part, I consider them to be none of my business. But when those beliefs begin to intrude into public policy, when religionists assume the right to foist their beliefs on other people, or deny people’s civil rights based on some interpretation of holy writ, then it becomes all our business.

Religion may indeed inspire acts of great kindness and courage. But it also trains people to believe things for which there is no evidence. This makes religion’s intrusion into the political sphere all the more troubling.

You remember the Republican presidential debate last time around? Remember David Gregory asking, very ineptly, the question about evolution? He said, “How many of you believe in evolution, raise your hand.” Well, nobody believes in evolution — there are facts that support it, and reason tells us that this seems to be the going thing. OK, so, three out of 10 Republican candidates raised their hand to acknowledge that they did not accept evolution. Thirty percent of the Republican ticket does not accept this basic, fundamental tenet of biology! They might as well be flat-Earthers. This was quite a shocking thing, but very few people made much of it. They just sort of laughed it off as if it were no big deal.

Not only does blind faith lead to scientific illiteracy, it apparently promotes a moral muddle as well. Now you know that I’ve been somewhat involved with the stem-cell issue, certainly I was back in 2004. If anybody’s got some detailed questions about the cutting-edge, stem-cell research or anything like that, I’m probably not your guy. I’m not a scientist, and this field has moved very fast. It is doing so all the time. But, when it comes to politicians and stem-cell research, there seems to be an element of confusion here. I understand there are some people on the anti-choice side and the anti-stem-cell side who believe that any pre-embryo, any zygote, any cell that is dividing, is in fact a human being. OK. Well, if that’s what you believe, and you really do believe it, there’s no real compromise on issues like stem-cell research, or abortion, for that matter. I mean, if it’s a human being it’s a human being and you can’t go around killing human beings, right? All right, then why aren’t they lined up outside of in-vitro fertilization clinics, protesting the fact that thousands of embryos are discarded all the time there? Well, they’re not, are they?

There are two basic ways that you could derive embryonic stem cells. You can do it by borrowing from the in-vitro fertilization clinics, the leftover embryos that are going to be discarded. You can use those for research. It’s not the best way to go, because you don’t have your choice of cells that are actually married to some particular disease that you want to study, and map development of, but it’s better than nothing.

Barack Obama now has freed up federal money to use in research on those embryos, but not the more useful ones. The more useful embryos are the ones that are actually created in the lab, that are tied to a certain person who has a certain condition or disease. That’s what we really need to be studying here. So, a political compromise is reached.

People like Orrin Hatch, very conservative Republican sort of person, anti-choice and all that, he thinks, “All right, we’ll have a political compromise. We will allow federal money for research using the IVF embryos, but not the laboratory embryos.” Well, what is the moral distinction there? I mean, I’m fine with either of them being used. I’d rather the more useful ones were used, but why are we making this distinction?

Think about it. In the case of the IVF embryos, you’ve got sperm meeting egg, and actual conception taking place, albeit with a little technical help. It creates a unique genetic entity, which is expressly created for the purpose of creating a human life. But apparently those are OK. As long as they’re left over and they’re going to be discarded, we can do research on those, according to people like Orrin Hatch. 

On the other side, on the laboratory side, sperm never meets egg. There is no conception. What you have is a donor egg with its nucleus removed, ergo its DNA removed, so now you’ve got a blank egg, an egg white basically, and sperm never enters the picture. Instead, we take your skin cell, we replace the nucleus of that egg with that skin cell, bathe it with some chemicals, and magically it behaves as if a conception has taken place and begins to divide.

But in fact, there’s no intention to create a new life. It isn’t a unique genetic identity, it’s you. It’s essentially you, and I know — cloning — that makes people freak out a little bit. It’s never going to get out of a petri dish. There is no chance, ever, of this becoming a human being, and yet they put more moral weight and value on these embryos. What sense does that make? Not only doesn’t it make scientific sense, it doesn’t make any moral sense. If you’re going to make a distinction, and I wouldn’t, but if you’re going to make a distinction, wouldn’t you credit the IVF embryos a little more than the laboratory embryos? I would think so, but apparently not. 

Religionists are very sensitive about the idea that people must respect their beliefs, of course. Well, I certainly respect their right to hold whatever beliefs they choose. Absolutely. Fight to the death for your right to believe whatever you choose. But I have to say I do take issue with the notion that the belief itself is something that I am obliged to credit. If you want to believe the Earth is flat, be my guest. You have every right to do that; just don’t expect me to play along. I don’t enjoy being rude to anybody, but when people use the shield of religion to justify bigotry, that is definitely not worthy of respect. 

I do a radio show on Air America every day, and we definitely deal with a variety of issues, of course, and sometimes I take calls and religion is introduced into the topic. For instance, we talked about gay marriage, or if you prefer, and I do, marriage rights for gay people, because there’s no such thing as “gay marriage” as opposed to “straight marriage” — there’s just “marriage” — and can everybody enjoy that right or not?

Inevitably, we’ll get some calls about that, and somebody will start talking about the immorality of homosexuality and the abomination of homosexuality and how it’s just such a terrible thing. They can never tell you exactly what the harm will be in letting gay couples marry. I’ve asked them explicitly. I’ve challenged, in fact, my entire audience. I said, “Anybody, call up, tell me what harm would actually come.” And they can’t. Nobody ever does.

Nevertheless, they will bring up religion, of course. Religion gets into it. It’s an abomination, and Leviticus, and all that sort of thing. I tell them that their religion is none of my business, and I don’t need to hear it, and it’s nobody else’s business either, and their private belief is their own business, and that’s fine, and they can keep it to themselves. But, of course, that doesn’t satisfy them.

So I try this. All right, your god, your religion says that gay couples should not be allowed to marry. Well, my god and my religion — sort of making this up, of course — say we have to let gay couples marry. Now, where does that leave us? Do your god and my god go out back into the parking lot and just duke it out? My god wins, gay couples get to marry?

So what do you say we don’t use religion to determine this question. What do you say we look at some other document to decide whether gay couples ought to be allowed to marry or not? How about the U.S. Constitution? I say, you find me someplace in the U.S. Constitution where it says that gay people are supposed to be treated differently than everybody else, and I’m all ears. Go ahead. Find it for me. That pretty much ends that conversation right there, because of course there is nothing in the Constitution that would say that. But people get very exercised about all this sort of stuff, and it’s a little sad. 

I’m glad Phil Zuckerman brought up torture. I think it’s remarkable that one of the most self-avowedly religious presidents in our history, at least recent history, would be the first president of the United States to ever institute torture as policy in this country. And that is the distinction that we have to make. Listen, people have done horrible things in wars from the get-go. That’s just a given. People have been tortured in wars. But never, never in United States history was it a policy of this country to treat people in that way, from the time of George Washington.

George Washington was fighting for his own life. Not only was he fighting for a country, he was fighting for his very life. Had he lost that war, had he been captured by the British, he’d have been strung up for sedition. So a lot was on the line for old George there. And the British troops were, in fact, torturing and abusing the colonists. They’d tar and feather them, they’d hang them in the public square, they’d do all sorts of things.

People involved in the Continental Army were coming to Washington, and the other Founding Fathers, and were saying, turnabout’s fair play. We’re getting trashed here. If we capture some Brits we ought to be doing the same thing to them. Washington said no. He said, better we show the world how a free people conduct themselves.

That was the tradition in this country — Washington, Lincoln, Eisen­hower, Roosevelt, all of them. Nobody, nobody would countenance torture, and that includes my own father, who proudly signed the U.N. resolution obliging countries to not only not torture, but to turn over to international courts, or their own courts if they chose, torturers in their midst. He called torture an abomination and would have no part of it. But our very religious president, George W. Bush, apparently, and the perhaps not-so-religious Dick Cheney, apparently thought that torturing people was just fine. 

Let me just wonder, speculate, what is the future for our little band of nonbelievers, we atheists. People will believe what they wish, always have, always will. They’ll go on fearing and loathing folks who don’t share those beliefs, the fear often masquerading as pity, as you know.

I always love that, the sort of patronizing attitude that they feel sorry for you that you’re not a member of their religion. I’ve always seen this sort of thing as testament to their own insecurities about their faith. I think people who despise atheists do so because they’re terrified about the weakness, frankly, of their own faith. And we are a rebuke to them that they would rather do without. We introduce a little reality that they’d just as soon avoid. 

But I do believe that time is on our side. It may take a long time, but time is on our side. Religions may persist, but they come and they go. Where are the old Norse gods today? Where are the worshippers of Amon-Ra today? A thousand years from now, what will people make of a man tortured to death on a cross, of a prophet who was said to ride a white horse up to a mythical heaven? What will our distant progeny think of claims by some that they have a special exclusive compact with a deity? We can only wonder what our progeny will think of that. Well, I’m no prophet.

I can’t read the future, certainly. But I am certain of one thing: reason. Reason and freethought will remain a hallmark of the human species. The ability of human beings to gaze out at the wondrous, baffling universe in which we find ourselves, with minds uncluttered by dogma, has been and always will be the measure of our success. Faith will fade, religions will flower and vanish, but reason remains.

Reason is where I put my faith, if you will. Reason is where I stand, and I am happy to stand there with you. Thank you very much.

Ron Reagan has hosted radio and television programs since his parents were in the White House. From the BBC to E! Enter­tainment Television to “Good Morning America” to MSNBC, Ron has won critical acclaim for his hosting and documentary work. He’s an active member of Holly­wood’s Creative Coalition and a strong defender of the rights provided for under the First Amendment. He has championed stem-cell research. After leaving the Joffrey Ballet in 1983, he has worked as a broadcast and print journalist and television and radio host. He co-hosted “Connected: Coast to Coast with Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley” on MSNBC, was a special correspondent for ABC's “20/20” and “Good Morning America” and FOX News’ “Front Page,” as well as hosting the syndicated “Ron Reagan Show” on TV starting in 1991. He has worked for Animal Planet and American Movie Classics, and contributed to Newsweek, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Esquire and Interview. “The Ron Reagan Show,” went on the air in 2008.

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