While preparing for my deployment to the desert to fly missions in support of "Operations Enduring Freedom" over Afghanistan and Southern Watch in and around Southern Iraq, I had to ensure that my mobility folder was in order. Since becoming the mobility officer for the unit I had noticed that a few of my peers had dog tags that said "No Religious Preference" or "Other." Mine had said "Other" until someone told me I would receive better treatment in a POW camp if I said I was religious. Since then my dog tags have said "Christian."
It has been a long time since I had had my dog tags changed, and as I prepared for this deployment I began to think more about that word that so often hangs from my neck.
Though I was raised Christian at an early age, I found that the questions I had could not be answered to my satisfaction. I had just left it at that, until recently my wife joined the Mormon Church. Initially, upon studying Mormon beliefs, I couldn't help laughing at some of the bizarre dogmas they have added to Christianity, and at their sordid history as well.
But when my kids began singing songs about "following the prophet" and I heard "authorities" in the church teaching my kids things like, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over," I stopped laughing. I began to read more about religious history and also began voicing my opinions in the local paper and various periodicals, especially after September 11 and with the recent controversy over "Under God."
When one of my pieces was printed in the "Faith and Ethics" section of the local paper, a local religious group contacted me and invited me to speak at its weekly meeting. It turned out that this group was pretty open-minded. My views, surprisingly enough, were very similar to a favorite author of theirs, former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is an outspoken advocate of church reform.
I learned a lot of surprising things about the church from the members of this group, especially their pastor, a woman who has become a good friend. She told me of seminary school where one learns about the true history of the church, things that are not taught to "the sheep," probably because they are not very faith-promoting.
Basically the bible is, at least mostly, a fraud, and the church knows it. The gospels were written long after they pretend to have been, by people with little knowledge of the history of the time or even the geography of the places in the fictitious stories. A widely held opinion among experts both within and outside the church is that Jesus was created as a fictional character of Christian stories and never lived at all. The silence of historians from the time and places where the Jesus stories were set gives that theory some weight.
Much of the bible was written for political influence, with rulers like Constantine and his Roman Catholic Church being strengthened by the "word of God" of their invention. When Constantine held the Council of Nicea, more than 300 years after the Jesus story was said to have occurred, the council selected the official collection of works that would become the bible. Amazingly, the conference actually voted to decide whether the Christian God would be a Trinity or not.
The name "Jesus Christ" is not found at all before the first Council of Nicea in 325. The two names represented older gods that were molded into one by the council, Hesus of the Druids, Jesus of the Israelites and Christos of India, among others. Constantine, ruler of Rome, thus created the Roman Catholic Church with elements of many popular religions to unify all people under his control under a god of his design.
As if fraud in the name of political control wasn't bad enough, the real tale of the spread of Christianity is a horror story more gruesome than anything Stephen King could invent. It is a story of true sin unmatched in scale and cruelty in all of human history.
Long-held beliefs tend to die hard, but all across the world, they did. Millions were killed for not denouncing their indigenous beliefs. The most gruesome torture imaginable was inflicted on those who clung to the faith they had held since their childhoods. Christianity spread by literally killing off the beliefs of large portions of the world. I wonder if believers today could see the mountain of innocent tortured bodies that is the true foundation of their church, would they still take their children's hands and climb to the gaudy entrance?
I am now sitting in a trailer in a desert not far from the birthplace of Christianity. I fly a military jet over land and peoples torn by centuries of war over oil, land and the religions that began here and spread like a plague across the world. I contemplate the horror that faith enables as I fly over Afghanistan, where our mission is to track down and kill those responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in American history--largely inspired by a difference in religious upbringing. Faith in their imaginary god gave them the courage to end their lives, happy with the elaborate delusion of an afterlife, while they disintegrated in a murderous hell of their creation.
As Seneca the Younger said: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."
Today we live in a world of delusional beliefs that were spread by conquest and the most perverted torture humanity has ever invented. These beliefs were deployed with the same clear conscience possessed by the September 11 religious murderers.
Thinking of all this makes me feel dirty for having the word Christian pressed against my skin by the dog tags hanging from my neck.
I do not look down on Christians who don't know the history of the tradition they represent, but now that I know, I will not represent Christianity in any way. When I get back home, I am going to have some new dog tags made. If I can't have "Agnostic" printed on them, I will dig out my old "Other" dog tags and use them from now on. It is possible that I could be treated worse in a POW camp someday as a result, but I feel that it is more important to represent who I am.
Hell, the way things are now, they would bury me with a damn cross over my body. I don't want to be remembered like that.
I was born in 1962 to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensing in what then was East Pakistan. Now, after it gained its independence, the country is called Bangladesh.
My childhood was not much different from that of other girls of my generation. Like other girls of a middle-class family, I was sent to a coeducational school until I reached the age of seven. When eight, I had to go to a girls' school. From 6th to 10th grade, coeducational schools were not open to girls. After 10th grade, I went to a girls' college. My father disapproved of my going to a coeducational college where boys were, but he had no alternative when he decided that I should study medical science.
My father, I should add, was different from other fathers. Girls frequently dropped out of school when they were fifteen or sixteen, ages at which they often were given into marriage by their parents. Few girls had a chance to continue their studies, for after an arranged marriage they were not allowed to continue studying in school or college or university nor could they take a job. They became totally dependent upon their husbands, in other words.
It was usual for us children, in the early morning, to read the Qur'an in Arabic, and like all other children in Bangladesh I did this. But I found myself asking questions. I wanted to know what I was reading, what the meaning of the Qu'ranic verses was. Our language is Bengali, not Arabic, and it was impossible to know the meaning of the verses that we read. We just read, that's all. When I asked Mother to tell me the meaning of what I was reading, she explained that the meaning is not important, that what is important is that Allah will be happy that I am reading the Qur'an in its original language.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, however, I found a book that translated the Qur'an into Bengali. To my surprise, I found Allah saying that men are superior, that women are inferior. Men can have four wives. Men can divorce their wives any time they want. Men are allowed to beat women. Women are not allowed to give testimony in some legal cases. Women are not allowed to inherit the property of their father equally with their brothers. Women are supposed to wear veils.
Islam does not consider woman a separate human being. Man was the original creation and womankind was created secondarily for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman as a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Woman's role is to stay at home and to obey her husband, for this is her religious duty. Women are considered weak, so they should be taken care of, their bodies and minds, their desires and wishes, their rights and freedom must be controlled by men. Islam treats women as intellectually, morally and physically inferior. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men and men only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatsoever in this field. The Qu'ran gave total freedom to men, saying 'Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will (2.223).'
Taslima signing books after her speech at the FFRF convention. Photo by Brent Nicastro.
Women are told to run to their husbands wherever they are, whatever they do. It is their duty. The Hadith says that two prayers that never reach the heavens are (1) those of the escaping slaves and (2) those of the reluctant woman who frustrates her husband at night.
Islam considers women psychologically inferior. Women's testimony is not allowed in cases of marriage, divorce, and hudud. Hudud is the punishment of Islamic law for adultery, fornication, adultery with a married person, apostasy, theft, robbery, and so forth. If any woman is raped, she has to produce four male witnesses to the court. If she cannot, there is no charge against the rapist. In Islamic law, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. In the case in which a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner.
Women are not allowed to inherit the property equally with their brothers. In the case of inheritance, Allah says, a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11-12).
And after all the rights and freedom, after getting all the sexual pleasure and pleasure of being the master, Allah will reward the men with wine, food, and 72 virgins in Paradise, including their wives of the earth. Allah says, "Eat and drink happily, in return for your works." They relax on luxurious furnishings, and we match them with beautiful virgins (52.19-20). Near them shall be blushing virgins with large beautiful eyes which will be like hidden pearls (37.48-49).
And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering while they were on earth.
I was a student of science, so it was hard to accept that the sun moves around the earth, that the moon has its own light, and that the purpose of mountains is to support the earth so it will not fall down somewhere. I came to suspect that the Qur'an was not written by Allah but, rather, by some selfish greedy man who wanted only his own comfort. Then I read the Hadith, the words of Muhammad. I found different events of Prophet Muhammad's life in which, when he had problems, Allah solved them right away. For example, he was sexually aroused by seeing his daughter-in-law, so Allah sent him a message saying he could marry her because his son was adopted and not a real son, so the marriage was therefore justified. Further, he created a new rule, that Muslims could not be allowed to adopt any child.
Muhammad married 13 times, one of his brides being six-year-old Ayesha. Allah, he said, told him that he was allowed to enjoy his wives, his female slaves and all the the captive women he had. He put Ayesha in a veil because he was jealous and did not want his friends looking admiringly at her. Allah, he said, told his friends that they should not go to the Prophet's house any time they want but if they go, they should not look at any of his wives or ask any of them for something. He was so jealous that he introduced the veil for his wives and, ultimately, for all Muslim women. Even though widow-marriage was legal, he made it illegal for men to marry any of his own wives when he himself died. It became clear to me that Muhammad had written the Qur'an for his own interest, for his own comfort, for his own fun.
So I stopped believing in Islam. When I studied other religions, I found they, too, oppressed women. When I stopped practicing religion and made some offensive comments about religion to my mother, she became both nervous and furious, sure that I would go to Hell, and she started praying for me.
My father, a physician, had a scientific outlook but was very domineering. He did not allow me the freedom to play, to go outside, to meet friends, to go to the cinema or theatre, or to read any book that was not in a syllabus. He wanted me to earn a medical degree so he could say that one of his children followed his path. On the one hand, he wanted me to be independent, but on the other hand he wanted to find a good match for me inasmuch as educated men often desire an educated wife.
As I grew up, I kept observing the condition of women in our society. My mother, for example, was a perfect example of a woman oppressed. She had been given into marriage when she was but a child, she was a good student in school, but she was not allowed to continue her studies. My grandfather and my father did not want her to study, for what they wanted was for her to be a good housewife, a good mother, a good caretaker.
She was unhappy from the first day of the marriage. My father never loved her, he was promiscuous, and she knew that he had affairs with other women. In frustration, she sought refuge in religion. Unloved and not respected by her husband, she became religious. As a result, I came to think that this was foolish and unworthy of a mother. Although I was supposed to respect both my parents, I could not. I could not respect my father's being such a cruel and brutal person. Throughout my life he beat me, even when I was 30 years old! He loved to beat children, his theory being that unless children were beaten they would become spoiled. He had come from an illiterate, poor farm family, yet had succeeded in becoming a medical doctor.
In our house, I grew up with much fear, having to keep inside my heart all my desire for freedom and curiosity for the outside world. I was not allowed to step outside the house except to go to my school or college. As a result, I developed a passion for reading books, fiction, poetry, essays, anything. But I had to hide the books from my parents. And I had another passion: to write poetry.
Growing up, I naturally had the belief that girls surely must be inferior to boys, for boys could play in a big field whereas girls had to play with their dolls in a corner of the house. My brothers could go anywhere they wanted, could watch any games, could play anything they wanted to play. I could not. My sister could not. I was told that girls were not made for such activities, that their role was to stay home, learn how to cook, make beds, clean the house. My mother was not the only woman who was oppressed, for I saw my aunts, my neighbors, and other acquaintances who were playing the same roles, that of being oppressed. In our minds, torture of women was not oppression but, rather, tradition. We become accustomed to tradition. As I grew, I realized that I was a part of the tradition but also that I was being oppressed the same as my female classmates and, later, my female patients.
Whether they were poor or rich, beautiful or ugly, had blue or black or brown eyes, had white, black or brown skin, were unmarried or married, illiterate or literate, clever or stupid, all were oppressed. Everywhere women were oppressed. And all because of male-devised patriarchy, religion, tradition, culture and customs.
Nobody told me to protest, but I developed a strong feeling that it was important to fight against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed a tear, but I did. When I started writing prose that was published weekly in the newspapers, I found my protests got the attention of readers, that people either hated me or they loved me. I became accustomed to receiving extreme hate and extreme love letters. One by one, my books got published. Not only publishers but also newspaper editors wanted me to write. With perseverance, I became a bestselling author.
However, those who hated what I wrote developed demonstrations against me, and people began protesting by marching through the streets. In 1992 at a national book fair, my books were publicly burned, and I was thrown out of the event. A "Smash Taslima Committee" commenced, and I was not allowed to visit the book fair any more because the fair's leaders said my books were causing the problem.
In 1993 I returned, but this time the fundamentalists and an angry mob assaulted me publicly, breaking into the bookshop where my books were kept. I may have received the biggest literary award, but at the same time I received the biggest hate compaign ever. The government then confiscated my passport, asking me not to write any more if I hoped to keep my job as a medical doctor in a public hospital. In protest, I quit the job. My passport, however, was not returned until a year later, when a human rights campaign outside Bangladesh's borders successfully pressured the government.
I continued writing. In my poetry, prose, essays and novels I have defended women and the minority community that is being oppressed. I cried loudly for equality and justice, justice for all people whatever their religion or gender. I spoke loudly on behalf of secularism. I spoke against any religious laws in which women are oppressed. My book was banned by the government.
Women continue to be flogged, they are stoned to death. Women are raped, are accused of allowing the rape, and the rapists are set free. Women have been suffering from trafficking, from slavery, from all sorts of discrimination. Men have thrown acid on women's faces and walked away as happy men. Women are not considered as human beings, not by religion, not by so-called tradition. For a couple, the most unwanted thing is a female baby. If a female baby is born, either the wife gets a divorce for her crime of having given birth to a female or the wife must spend her life with disgrace.
By writing books, I wanted to do something constructive, I wanted to help women understand that they are oppressed but do not need to be. I wanted to encourage them to fight for their rights and freedom. My voice gave women the chance to think differently. That, however, did not make the religionists or the male chauvinists happy. As a result, the fundamentalists took the stand of absolutely not tolerating any of my views. They objected to a woman's breaking the chains and becoming free, and they could not tolerate my saying that the Qur'an is out of place, out of time, and that secular law with a uniform civil code for women is a necessity. Extremists broke into newspapers' offices, sued my editors, publishers, and me.
They demanded my execution by hanging. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street. They called a general strike all over the country, insisting that I be killed. The government, instead of taking action against them, took action against me. They filed a case against me, charging that I had hurt the religious feelings of the people. I had no other alternative but to go into hiding. While in hiding, I was fortunate in receiving the support of the western democratic governments, feminists, and human rights organizations. They literally helped to save my life. Actually I thought I would be killed, for daily I saw mobs of people demanding my death. Police looked everywhere for me, knowing that the fundamentalists wanted me dead. Anyway, I survived. The government threw me out of the country. Since then, I have been trying to go back to my country, but it is impossible. I am not allowed to go back to my country.
Meanwhile, three of my books are banned in Bangladesh. I have written 24 books, and cases have been filed against me in order to ban the other books. Recently, a Bangladeshi court sentenced me to one year in prison for having written what I did.
Everything is because of religion. Because of religion there is bloodshed, bloodshed everywhere. Because of religion there is hatred among people. Because of religion there is ignorance all over the world. Because of religion there is illiteracy, there is poverty. Because of religion there are injustices and inequalities. Because of religion millions of women have been suffering, they are flogged, they are burned, they are stoned to death. Because of religion my books are burned and banned. Because of religion I was thrown out of my country.
But we can do something; we can eliminate all the problems of humanity that are caused by the belief in God. It is dangerous to follow the religious scriptures in this modern world. Not only the Qu'ran, all the religious scriptures are out of time, out of place.
Both the Judeo-Christian bible and the Qu'ran clearly accept and condone slavery. Jesus explicitly tells slaves to accept their roles and obey their masters. No one in the world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it under any legal code. Neither fundamentalist Christians nor Orthodox Jews talk about animal sacrifice or slavery. In those countries in which Sharia law exists, where stoning for adultery and amputation for stealing are legalized, no legitimization of slavery is ever mentioned. Polygamy and concubinage are clearly accepted in the Old Testament but nowhere in the Judeo-Christian world are either of these practices legalized. Thus, insistence of the continuation of practices which denigrate, oppress and suppress women under the guise of scriptural reference is a hoax. Such practices could and should be delegitimized, as chattel slavery has been delegitimized.
I have been writing about all this. But my freedom of expression has been continuously violated by the authorities. I could not reach the readers of my country. My latest book, My Girlhood, is banned in my country. My autobiography, I realize, is not just my life story. It is the same story that thousands of women know about. It tells how Muslim women live in a patriarchal country that has hundreds of traditions in which girls and women suffer. I have looked back into my childhood days and described the life of being a female child, told how I was brought up, explained that I had privileges that many others did not have. I was able to study and become a medical doctor, something which thousands of girls cannot even dream about. I wanted to show where and how I grew up and what made me think differently, what made me do things differently. It is important to give other women some strength to revolt against the oppressive system that I grew up under and which still continues for them.
I told the truth. I expressed everything that happened in my life. Normally it is taboo to reveal rape or attempted rape by male members of one's family. Girls shut their mouths because they are terribly ashamed. But I did not shut my mouth. I did not care what people would say to me or to my family. I know well that many women feel that I am telling their untold stories, too. We, the victims, should cry out loud. We need to be heard. We must protest loudly and demand our freedom and rights. We must refuse to be shackled, chained, beaten and threatened. We have only one life, and we demand to live it in happiness.
If women do not fight to stop being oppressed by a shameful patriarchal and religious system, then shame on women! Shame on us for not protesting, for not fighting, for allowing a system to continue that will affect our daughters.
My story is not a unique one. My experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions of fellow sufferers. In my book, I cried for myself. I also cried for all the others who have not been able to enjoy the productive life of which they are capable and which they most assuredly deserve! We who are women no longer must remain solitary, crying softly in lonely places.
I do not regret what I have done so far, what I have ever written. Come what may, I will continue my fight against all the evil forces without any compromise until my death. I am all the more committed and all the more determined to my cause.
This is a brief story of what I have experienced. Meanwhile, I do not regret one word that I have ever written. My regret is that I have been unjustly condemned by evil and ignorant people, people who say they preach love and knowledge.
Thank you, Mr. Mole and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It often seems that in maintaining the separation of church and state, it's an unpopular struggle.
My family and I received a lot of criticism and harrassment for my actions involving the city and county of Frederick, Maryland, and their Ten Commandments monument. But it is very exciting to be here with a group of people who believe so strongly in the First Amendment, and I am extremely honored to receive this award.
I'd also like to thank the people who nominated me. I think it's such a compliment that people would consider what I did this important. I would never have thought that simply writing a letter to my local government would create such interest and spark such a huge debate, and even a federal lawsuit.
I'd like to tell you a little bit about what happened. I first noticed the monument last summer, walking through Memorial Grounds Park. It sits across from Baker Park, which is a large municipal park that I spend a lot of time at, walking the dog, attending the Fourth of July festivities, etc.
I noticed this monument because it sits facing a one-way street, so it's visible from traffic, and I often wondered how this could be constitutional. I was listening to NPR, and I heard a story about a challenge to a similar situation in Elkhart, Indiana.
Our civil liberties and the separation of church and state have been very important to me, and have always interested me. So I did some research, reading case law, reading the FFRF website and the ACLU website. I also went to the courthouse and the county government buildings, and actually found the deed for Memorial Park in the basement of City Hall in some engineer's office. It was under all the records.
I also researched the monument. I found out that it was one of many that was distributed throughout the 1950s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In the 1940s, a judge in Minnesota was upset by the number of juvies that were coming before him. And he asked one boy if he knew the Ten Commandments, which he didn't. So obviously the problem was that kids didn't know the Ten Commandments, that's why they were getting in trouble.
He wanted to post paper copies in juvenile courts throughout the country. He approached the Eagles to help.
The Eagles agreed, about the time that producer Cecil B. DeMille contacted the judge. He was very interested because he was working on his movie, "The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston. He thought that instead of paper copies, they should post monuments. The judge started working with a few Minnesotan quarries to produce these.
Local chapters of the Eagles would raise money, and then donate these monuments to their local municipalities. Apparently what happened in Frederick is the local chapter donated one which sat in front of the county courthouse for a long time, until the '80s when a new courthouse was built and the old one became City Hall. This monument was moved to Memorial Park, dedicated to the veterans of Frederick County, which includes monuments from most conflicts that Frederick County residents fought in the armed services.
After doing this research, I compiled a letter and sent it to all the county commissioners, all the city alders, and the mayor of the city. I outlined the constitutional concerns and requested a response. I didn't really expect one, and went back to my schoolwork.
Two weeks later I got a call from an alderman, Dave Lenhart. He was strongly opposed to doing anything with the monument. He'd even contacted attorneys in D.C.--actually, Pat Robertson's ACLJ--and basically said that nothing was going to happen. But he was shocked to learn that I was 18.
A few weeks later, I came home from school to find out that I had calls from Ald. Ramsburg and the mayor of the city. They'd called because reporters were calling, and they wanted to know if I could speak to them.
Then I realized something was happening here. Apparently my letter had created some sort of a debate within the city that had been going on for weeks. My letter was passed to the legal department, which read it, and agreed with what I had said, that the monument wouldn't stand up to a constitutional test in court. This enraged Ald. Lenhart, who'd called me earlier, and he gave my letter to Bob Tansey, the head of the Frederick County Christian Coalition.
Tansey then went to the press, and everything blew up. Reporters were calling constantly. I did interviews on my way to school, at school, and on my way home from school. I walked out of one advanced placement political science test to be greeted by a TV news crew, and then had to turn around and walk back in to take my environmental science test. I was woken up at 6 a.m. for early morning talk shows, and did many interviews and debates.
I was on several local TV stations and radio stations and the story was being followed by local and regional papers like the Frederick News Post, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Baltimore Sun. Editorials were pretty negative. One referred to me as "the snot-nosed kid" and argued that the Salem witch trials were proof that this nation was founded on Christianity. Another told me to simply keep my mouth shut and learn something.
The letters to the editor were similar. Most suggested that I had no idea what I was talking about because I was only 18. Most of them thought it was a school project or something like that, and they were all shocked that this was even being taken seriously.
"It's obvious," they said, "Frederick County is a Christian county."
Bob Tansey, the head of the Frederick County Christian Coalition, made the most interesting commentary: "It's absolutely absurd that we should listen to an 18-year-old. I wonder if he voted and I doubt he pays taxes." My favorite, though, was when I turned on the TV to hear him spit, "If he were my son, I'd take him out to the woodshed."
A few, though, were very supportive. One of the most interesting was a call from an elderly woman in West Virginia who'd been following the controversy. She talked to my mother for about 45 minutes, and was very supportive. More recently, a husband and wife called and just wanted to thank me.
The majority of calls, however, were extremely rude. Even the reporters covering the story would get threatening phone calls. They screamed obscenities at me and my parents, they called repeatedly at all hours of the day and night. One screamed at my mom, "How does it feel to raise a Communist?" This was at six o'clock in the morning.
I did one debate-style program on a local radio station with Bob Tansey and Ald. Dave Lenhart. While I was being interviewed on the air, my mother went to talk to them. Tansey told her that she should be embarrassed by me. He said that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I was ignorant. He said that since I probably don't vote or pay taxes--and I do both--that I should have no say in the government.
Her response was that Tansey would have no problem putting a gun in my hand and sending me off to war, seeing that I was 18.
Lenhart then told her that this was just the beginning of it, that they had a whole agenda. They wanted to require teachers to lead student prayers next. As a teacher, my mother was very disturbed by this, and argued that teachers should not be put in this kind of position. His response was that "sometimes we have to do things we don't agree with."
Luckily the city has no control over the schools. But soon after, he introduced a requirement that all city meetings begin with a prayer. Unfortunately, this was passed over the strong objections of our mayor.
I was contacted by a group called Frederick Secular Humanists, or FRESH. They were very supportive and very courteous, and they were willing to help me in any way possible.
I called the ACLU after they were quoted in numerous articles about what I was doing, and they were very interested. They sent letters to the city and the county, outlining some more precedents for the removal of the monument, and asking that something be done. They suggested that they could sell the land or move the monument, but that the issue needed to be resolved. The city and county refused to even respond to the letters.
The Frederick Secular Humanists, in the meantime, wanted to hold a forum for the issue, to discuss it and educate the public with debaters. They had funding and extremely credible debaters on each side. The only place that was big enough, however, to hold this was the chambers of the Frederick County Commission. This was routinely rented out, and FRESH filled out the appropriate forms and was given permission to rent it.
One county commissioner, however, found out about this, and was outraged. He publicly stated that he was appalled that atheists would be allowed into government buildings. That one blew me.
They voted and FRESH was not allowed to hold a meeting there. FRESH declined to pursue legal action. They did not want to cause more trouble.
The city and the county had planned to hold their own joint meeting to discuss the issue. It was intended that both sides could be heard and there could be public comment. What happened, though, was these county commissioners unilaterally pulled out of the meeting. Two of the commissioners were away when they held the vote, and the remaining three voted to quash the discussion, citing the emotional nature of the issue and claiming that the debate would be too heated.
Immediately after voting, however, they went directly to a rally on the steps of City Hall to save the monument. At this rally, many politicians from the area were present, as well as a local pastor who gave an inflammatory speech, calling me "an evil force in this county."
The majority of the county commissioners were determined to draw a lawsuit, and some city aldermen wanted to do the same. Dave Lenhart in particular was very keen in drawing a lawsuit, and that the city be represented by the ACLJ. He thought this would go all the way to the Supreme Court. He thought this was the greatest thing ever.
Some city alders wanted to actually remove the monument, but unfortunately, there was such heat in the county and city that they were afraid to speak up. Many in the city administration simply wanted to resolve the issue.
After getting no response from its letter, the ACLU said that it would file suit if the issue was not resolved. The county once again refused to do anything. The city attempted to avoid a lawsuit by rededicating the park as Memorial Grounds Park and calling it a Christian burial ground. Next on the agenda, they voted to start all meetings with a prayer.
Rededicating the park really changed nothing for the constitutional matters involved. The monument had nothing to do with the people that were buried there.
Actually, very interesting, the pastor of the church that originally donated the land, whose cemetery it was, has come out and preached sermons about why this monument should be removed. Pretty bravely, he said that the separation of church and state needs to be maintained.
But the issue of the government maintaining Christian burial grounds simply opens up a host of additional constitutional questions, and this change did nothing. The ACLU filed suit, naming myself and another Frederick city resident as plaintiffs. Recently the city and the county were granted an extension for responding to the lawsuit until after the local elections. They have yet to respond.
A group calling itself Friends of Frederick was started, claiming to be fundraising for defense of the monument. It's heavily tied to local politicians, especially the ultra-conservative local state senator, who wants to make it legal to discriminate against gays.
This event took part during "In the Streets," which is a celebration of Frederick run by the city and includes a parade. Friends of Frederick was granted a permit, but misrepresented themselves in their application. According to the rules, you're not allowed to engage in politics during the parade, you're not allowed to fundraise during the parade, and they did both. Their banner said "Save the Monument" and asked for donations. This turned into a huge fiasco. They were told to stop but they were not told why, and one politician ended up shoving a police officer and was detained.
It's clear, though, that emotions are still running high, even after all these months. After the parade, they held a rally in Memorial Grounds Park where the same pastor that was at the City Hall rally spoke. This was occurring during the sniper attacks in the D.C. metro area. He claimed that the reason this was happening was that the perpetrator had not had the Ten Commandments hanging on the walls of his school, so he didn't know he wasn't supposed to kill people.
The latest news actually came out yesterday, while I was packing up to leave here. The city alders, in a split vote 2-2--the tie was broken by the mayor--voted to sell the land that the monument sits on. I spoke with an attorney from the ACLU on the flight out here, and details haven't quite been hammered out yet.
But it's encouraging, because the city is taking positive steps to resolve the constitutional issues posed by the monument. I think that's definitely a big victory here, just moving in the right direction.
The huge response that was generated by my letter, and the actions and the debates that followed, were very unexpected. I had no idea any of this was going to happen. It's been a positive experience for me. There has been an enormous amount of debate and discussion in my county, talking about the First Amendment and how our county deals with people who don't adhere to the majority religious views.
For me, it's shown me that, well, as corny as it sounds, one person can really effect a change, simply by writing a letter and taking on an issue, and that one person can really do something.
Blake Trettien, 18, received a $1,000 cash award when he was named one of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 2002 student activists at the 25th annual convention. He was one of 11 valedictorians at Urbana High School, Frederick, Md. He is a first-year student at Johns Hopkins University.
Maryland ACLU Agrees to Sale
The ACLU of Maryland announced in early December it would drop its lawsuit against officials in Frederick, Md., after the city said it would sell the land where a Ten Commandments monument sits.
Appraised at $6,700, the 10-by-50-foot tract adjoins a public memorial park. Five offers have been received. The lawsuit was initiated by then-high school student Blake Trettien last summer.
Do you recall who was the only positive character on a prime time network TV series who was an atheist? [Answer will be found at the end.]
My point, of course, is that while thousands of characters have been portrayed in prime time over the past 50 years, only one was depicted as a confirmed non-believer!
While the United States has the highest percentage of believers in God of any Western nation--90% who identify themselves as such in most polls--this also means there are at least 30 million non-believers: a number probably closer to 40 million when we factor in those who are so fearful of admitting their non-belief, even to an anonymous poll taker, they feel forced to identify themselves as believing. (In Europe, similar polls show non-belief at about 40%--with a quarter in even the most religious nation, Ireland, counted among our ranks. In other words, the U.S. is up there with official, Third World Muslim theocracies in its percentage of believers!)
Think about this: Forty million non-believers are a group second in numbers only to the Catholic Church, and half-again as large as the Southern Baptists. Yet, we remain all but unrecognized by a media as fearful as are those secret atheists, of giving us the recognition our numbers should merit.
These are the same media which constantly reiterate that religion is never evil. Religion, they tell us, with all pandering sincerity, demands peaceful conduct. Yet, these also are the same media which report on religiously-induced war after religiously-induced war--and never seem to note the contradiction between what they report and what they espouse.
In fact, virtually all of the 100-plus conflicts since World War II--indeed, almost all of the wars throughout history--have had religion at their core. Yet, despite all this evidence to the contrary, our media keep on promulgating the myth of the bible as a pacifist treatise, ignoring in the process the deaths inflicted by its allegedly loving God on all those Egyptian first-borns, and all that righteous smiting of all those non-believers.
In a related vein, why is it that news reports will invariably dwell on those rare instances when a Satanic tract is found in the bedroom of some killer--but never report the bible's presence in what must be the overwhelming majority of the homes lived in by those tens of thousands of Americans who also commit homicide each year? I know I'd have no problem about the media getting so riled up about that rare Satanic pamphlet, if they railed equally about that thousand-fold greater presence of The Good Book! Even more disturbing is the lack of media indignation over the literally hundreds of murderers each year who assert that the Bible or God or Jesus gave them direct instructions to go out and kill.
* * *
The most important thing to bear in mind in an examination of why the media do what they do, is found in the focus group research which has increasingly come to determine the content they carry. And what that research invariably shows is that those who are exposed to messages they disagree with and/or simply don't want to hear, will tune out or stop supporting those media that tell them such things. Of all the areas which might engender such reactions, none will be reacted to more fiercely than expressions of religious non-belief.
Thus our media will ignore non-believers, or subject them to dismissal as irrelevant, evil or just plain weird in those instances where we can't be ignored--such as when we serve as the plaintiffs in suits alleging violation of church/state separation.
There are now in the United States some 1200 radio stations that identify themselves as "Christian." Also, some 100--mainly marginal UHF--TV outlets. The fastest growing commercial radio format today is so-called Christian rock. However, there's not one station, radio or TV, which advances the beliefs--more accurately, the non-beliefs--held by those 40 million of us who, for all practical purposes, are not acknowledged to exist!
But at least when we're talking about self-identified "Christian" stations, or stations which program a Christian music format, listeners and viewers know what they're getting. Yet, there for a while, was Chicago's WBBM, the CBS/Infinity-owned all-news radio station, carrying the daily commentary of the ultra-fundamentalist James Dobson, and billing it simply as "Focus on the Family." While it serves as a platform for his biblically-inspired, rightwing social, sexual and sexist views, the program is presented without any identification of who Dobson really is, so that it comes across as if he were just another lifestyle advisor with no particular axe to grind. I'm not calling for any mainstream station to drop his commentaries. That would be censorship--and all censorship, whether of us by believers, or believers by us, is always wrong. What I am asking, rather, is that he be identified as the fundamentalist theologian he is.
One of the strangest bromides which our news media accept is that debate about religious belief is off-limits. Not its advocacy--just debate! The result is a granting of carte blanche access to those on one side of the issue, while denying any to those on the other. More and more newspapers are adding full-time religious writers. And the stories and weekly columns that they generate seldom acknowledge the faithless, except to denigrate us.
Were it up to us, I suspect, here's the way the most common media scenario advancing religious belief would play out: Let's say a plane crashes. Two-hundred-fifty die, but two survive. When interviewed, those two survivors will almost invariably credit their escapes to God--and will thank Him for their survival. But wouldn't it be a really neat exercise of unbiased journalistic responsibility, if the reporter then asked: Since He has used His Almighty power to save you but didn't do so to save the 250 others, then can I assume you'll also be blaming Him for their deaths?
Yeah. Right. Or, as we would say back in the Brooklyn of my youth, "Fuhgeddaboudid!"
Let's look at one of the most common feature stories which ran in the aftermath of 9/11: the large-scale increase in attendance at houses of worship. I mean, just think of the absurdity. Millions of people rushing into churches and synagogues to show their deepening faith in order to thank an almighty and merciful Lord God--who, almighty as He is, Let It Happen!
However, can anyone recall any news story, any column of commentary, or any interview, where the logical questions screaming to be asked, were ever put to a worshipper or cleric--questions such as, what is it you have faith in, what good do you expect your prayers to have with a God who is all-knowing, or what exactly, given the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, are you thanking Him for?
But, I can recall local newscasts where the anchors reporting about such religious services--as on the National Day of Prayer that George Bush proclaimed--were quite literally ordering their viewers to go to some house of worship! (None, of course, ever pointed out that the proclamation of a government-sanctioned prayer day might be deemed as coercive by those 40 million of us they refuse to recognize even exist!)
In my nearly 20 years in Milwaukee, I can recall only one instance in which a mainstream medium argued the absurdity of such religious illogic.
That occurred eight years ago, when a truck crashed into a van driven by a fundamentalist minister killing six of his children. In various interviews following the accident, the minister proclaimed that their deaths only increased his belief.
The irrationality of this profession of faith was actually questioned in the old morning newspaper, the Milwaukee Sentinel. Crocker Stephenson, now a regular columnist for the merged Journal Sentinel, but back then a reporter who was filling in for a regular columnist, wrote about how he handled it when his son asked him how anyone could thank God after seeing his family wiped out. Stephenson couldn't see it either--and that was the tone of the column. Keith Spore, now the publisher of the merged paper, but then the editor of the Sentinel, was out of town when the Stephenson column appeared. When he finally read it a few days later, he reamed out the paper's managing editor for having permitted it to run.
Don't think there isn't a lesson here that everyone writing or editing at the Journal Sentinel will remain forever aware of!
But then, how often have we heard federal office holders--the President, cabinet members, senators and members of Congress--ask (make that "insist!") that we pray while throwing in a command to the Almighty to bless America? Yet, have you ever heard or read any print or broadcast journalist reporting these pandering calls for piety, point out that the Constitution explicitly requires that no person occupying a federal office be required to pass a religious test?
Despite this, however, there recently was George W., sounding more like a bishop than the chief executive of a nation whose constitution forbids imposition of religious tests, insisting that while "government can write checks, it can't put a sense of purpose in people's lives. That is done by people who have heard a call and who act on faith. We ought to welcome it into governmental programs." Steam may have been coming out of our ears--but not a peep of protest was there from the press!
Then there was the abominable coverage in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco Federal Court of Appeals decision declaring unconstitutional requirements that the Pledge of Allegiance, with its insistence that we are a "nation under God," be recited in our public schools. With a very few notable exceptions on the print side--e.g., Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn--and in everything I saw on TV, the focus was on the outrage of those who opposed it.
I mean, can any of us forget the endless repetitions of that assemblage of Republican House members amassing on the steps of the Capitol to shout out the Pledge? And let's not forget the threat by the Orthodox Jewish Senator, Joseph Lieberman, that if the Supreme Court does not overturn this decision--as you've got to be na•ve not to believe it almost certainly will--he would introduce an amendment to the Constitution asserting it is our belief in God that unites us as a nation. If he did, does anyone doubt it would sail through both houses of Congress and virtually every state legislature? Did it occur to no one reporting or commenting on this to note that that declaration of unity would exclude 40 million of us?
Within one hour of the time the Pledge decision came down, the Senate stopped all business to vote on a resolution demanding it be overturned. It passed 99 to nothing--with even such good guys as the late Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voting for it. Over in the House, only three out of 435 members voted against condemning the decision. Here in Milwaukee, listeners could hear one of our highest-rated FM stations pimping for God with its request that listeners e-mail in a "Pledge for the pledge!"
Let me quote from the opening of one of my media commentary columns which I write for Milwaukee's alternative weekly, the Shepherd Express, shortly after the Pledge decision. It concerned the way Jay Leno dealt with it in his monologues:
"Jay Leno has got to be one BFI--the 'I stands for 'Idiot'--with his endless jokes about the Court of Appeals decision declaring public school recitation of a phrase within the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. Forget his basic ignorance of the facts--it was a federal, not a California Court; it was a 2:1 decision, not one made by a single judge; it did not ban school recitation of the pledge, but only the words, 'under God.' His references to the judge as a 'moron,' elicited shrieks of audience approval similar to those he gets when he jokes about the sufferings of those facing execution.
"Jay: Polls show at least 30 million Americans are non-believers--probably 40 million what with those afraid to admit non-belief even to an anonymous poll taker for fear of ridicule from people like you. Should students who find belief in God irrational, be forced to recite an oath that talks about liberty, and then denies them their liberty to deny their belief? If atheists were the majority, would it be right to force believing kids to take a pledge denying the existence of the Almighty? Isn't that what we hated them Godless Commies for?
"Teaching acceptance of God, Jay, is the job of believing parents, churches, mosques, synagogues and religious schools. It's not the job of public schools supported by taxes paid by believers and non-believers. That's all those 'moron' judges were saying. Not to mention that other 'moron,' Thomas Jefferson."
Incidentally, if we look at what polling data show, we're not just fighting against the respectable superstition we call religion, because we're fighting against folks who believe that belief in the deity is such an axiomatic truism, that when asked by pollsters if the phrase, "One nation under God" is a religious endorsement, 80% say it isn't. But, if a statement acknowledging the existence of God is not an expression of religion, then what do those folks think religion is?
The answer is that for the overwhelming majority of Americans, it means being Catholic, or Jewish, or Baptist. But since nobody could possibly doubt the existence of God, acknowledging His existence is not religious. Thus, the situation so many of us non-believers have experienced when admitting our atheistic views: "But," the response will invariably be, "you have to believe in something." Thus, it's not just that those folks disagree with us, they deny us even the possibility that we could not believe in God.
Let's look briefly at how three recent stories--each involving religion--are playing out: the debate on stem cell research; the fight over taxpayer support of religious schools; and the imposition in defiance of federal court orders in at least a few Bible Belt states, of requirements that the Ten Commandments be posted in public schools, courtrooms and in other public buildings.
Has anyone in our media, in writing or reporting on the stem cell controversy, dared to label the argument that a clump of undifferentiated cells is a human being, for the absurdity which it is?
Why is it that whenever the religious school voucher issue came up, the image we invariably saw is one of a bunch of cute little, poor black kids, with their parents demanding to know why anyone would want to deprive their children of fine religious schooling? What I saw in Milwaukee on the local evening newscasts the day the Supreme Court decision accepting the constitutionality of using tax-paid vouchers came down, was exactly that. Can you think of a more effective image to drive away guilt-ridden white liberals, many of whom would otherwise be up in arms about such a violation of church/state separation?
And whether we're talking newspapers, local or national TV reports, or late night comics, when it comes to the Ten Commandments, the overwhelming take is to wonder how anyone could ever object to public display of something as noncontroversial as what's called for in those 10 rules--with virtually no one noting that four of them require belief, or condemn non-belief, in God.
The media have, at best, been trepidatious about the role which religious believers have played in reinforcing our pro-Israeli stand in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I'm not talking about the support of most Jews, who in their religious beliefs run the gamut from secular to Ultra-Orthodox--but, rather, Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians. Some 60 million Americans hold apocalyptic beliefs. But, according to Scripture, before Jesus can make his second visit, the Jews must first return to the whole of the Biblical Israel--meaning they must seize all Palestinian lands. In other words, we must support Israel, according to those who, ironically, have traditionally held the most strongly anti-Semitic views, in order that the world can be destroyed. Whatever the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby, its influence is multiplied when its positions are backed without question by those who dominate Bible Belt politics. But the coverage and analysis of this phenomenon by a mainstream media afraid to offend 60 million Born Again readers, viewers and listeners have been, at most, tentative and obscure.
* * *
There's little I've written to this point, I suspect, that any reader will disagree with. But, at the risk of upsetting more than a few, let me give my answer to the question about what can be done to change how our media treat religious matters. And that answer is, virtually nothing! (We did have a brief chance about 300 years ago during the Age of Enlightenment--but we blew it.)
Science may be advancing. But as every survey shows, our ignorance of its most basic aspects is increasing. We're talking, after all, of an America where not only do at least 85% accept belief in God, but over half deny evolution, two-thirds believe in literal angels--Time magazine actually ran a cover story seriously exploring whether they exist--and where we split about 50/50 on astrology and alien visitations. That's why most newspapers run astrology columns--and even PBS once lent credence to the anti-evolutionists with a documentary purporting to present the scientific case for creationism!
We're also talking about an America where, despite those Constitutional barriers to imposition of religious tests, any candidate admitting non-belief is dead in the political water. But then, remember that 99-0 Senate vote! After all, any senators who saw the logic of what the Court of Appeals ruled, could also foresee what their opponents' campaign spots would say when they come up for re-election, if they'd voted "No."
And that's the kind of thing that convinces me nothing can be done to change the media's carte blanche acceptance of religion as valid.
Where, I've got to wonder, are those stories following the voucher decision, about the precedents it sets for a whole range of state-supported religious activities? There, after all, was George W. in a speech the next week, proudly proclaiming that the door has now sprung wide for what will become a host of state-sponsored and financed, faith-based initiatives.
Where are the stories pointing up, for example, how those caught up in the criminal justice system might well find themselves facing a choice of prison time or placement in programs where they can retain their liberty only by professing belief in religious doctrine? This, proponents of such programs will insist, does not forcibly impose religious belief since, as a felon, you have the choice of enrolling or of going to jail. That, after all, was the tortured logic at the core of the Supreme Court's majority opinion in the voucher case! Therefore, as bad as things are, with George Bush at the head of the religious tub-thumpers, things will get a lot worse!
O.K.--if only to save our sanity, let me suggest how we can, maybe, register a small impression upon our media. E-mail, mail or call them when you encounter something you find unbalanced. But a couple of caveats, please!
First, if it's the same handful of folks responding over and over again, they'll quickly be dismissed as those "atheist nutcases." Try to marshall a large number of responders and keep them varied.
Second, keep the responses relatively brief. Impassioned non-believers have a penchant for engaging in tedious epistemological treatises. Logic--if not God--may be on our side. But what you have to say ain't gonna get read or listened to, if it goes on interminably.
In any such communication you should concede that, yes, you are aware that only a small number will register protests. But then stress to the gatekeepers--that is, the editors or news directors--with whom you're communicating, that they shouldn't be dismissive of our numbers. Point out that there are, after all, 40 million of us who reject religious belief--two-thirds as many as there are Catholics--and that we're deeply concerned over the lack of representation given our views. Point out also, that it doesn't serve the newspaper's or the radio or television station's interest to ignore such numbers, since non-believers buy cars, soap and hemorrhoid remedies, too.
On a positive note, I have to concede that it was a pleasant surprise when, in response to his diatribe condemning the judges who wrote the Pledge decision, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass--Mike Royko's successor--found himself quoting from what he seemed clearly surprised were the protest letters he did receive in response to that column.
Having said this, however, I must say again that I'm sadly convinced that the major benefit of any protests we register will be to provide us the opportunity to vent some of our frustration. It won't change anything!
Them other folks, after all, have us coming and going.
Indeed, we don't even get the last laugh. That's because were they right, that would mean that when we die, they'd lord it--no pun intended--all over us. Whereas, if we're right--as we certainly are--we'll never have the chance to say, "See, I told you so!"
Answer to the question at the opening: Ruth Ann, the elderly shopkeeper on the CBS series, "Northern Exposure." The late Peg Phillips, the actress who portrayed her, was, in real life, an atheist.
By Danilee Eichhorn
At my school, I have encountered many shining examples of faith, people whose pride, trust, and belief in their country and their God remain completely unhampered by their stunning ignorance in regard to both. This year, I decided to stop standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance. The words exchanged and events that followed clearly demonstrated the sad--and I wish I could say shocking--fear of dissent which has been so ingrained in the youth of America.
Ironically, while my remaining seated did not in any way disrupt the pledge, a few people in my homeroom did by yelling at me to stand up. After waiting respectfully for the pledge to end, I explained that I did not feel it would be appropriate for me to stand since I disagreed with the words of the pledge. I did not believe in God, nor do I believe that the pledge's sparkling characterization of America fits the reality. Futhermore, as an internationalist, I do not feel right in pledging allegiance to any flag. Geography does not inspire any loyalty in me.
. . . In times like these, it is imperative that church and state be and remain separate. Schooling in America is compulsory and publicly provided by the government. Therefore, to force any belief, religious or otherwise, upon children through any ceremonies, events, or education itself in public schools is a grievous violation of the most important personal liberty we have. Something is profoundly wrong when one finds oneself accused of assaulting liberty by refusing to relinquish it.
Danilee Eichhorn is a graduate of West Chester East High School, Penn., and is attending Oberlin College, double-majoring in English and political science. She plans to attend graduate school after college, earn a doctorate in political science, and pursue a career in teaching at the college level. Her interests include history, German literature, Russia, politics, and in particular, the historical impact that German literature has had on Russian politics.
"One Nation under One God?"
By Kathryn Poulios
I have seen religious discrimination in my own school district. A little over a year ago, fliers were posted in the hallways advertising a meeting of the Fellowship of the Christian Students. To my understanding, institutions like these are permitted to exist as extracurricular activities in the school as long as they are student-initiated and run (which it was) and the school provides equal opportunity for any religious organization to create a similar club.
Knowing this, one of my fellow classmates approached the principal in the hallway. He asked if he would be allowed to form a society for pagan students, which would also meet after school. The principal, without giving a second thought, refused the student's proposition. She told him he was being disrespectful and offensive. To me, her behavior was more offensive. I was surprised to see such hypocrisy in my own school. By her response, I saw the reinforcement of her own personal beliefs. The message being sent was clearly that anything going against the religious beliefs of the administration is intolerable. This kind of message is exactly what should be kept out of our public schools.
Kathryn Poulios graduated from Antietam Middle-Senior High, Reading, Penn. She attends Antioch College and plans to major in mathematics, but also has interests in literature, human rights issues, music, and drawing. She was involved in choir, the academic challenge team, and Modern Language Club, and also participated in the track and field team. In her spare time, she enjoys reading classic literature, science fiction, and math theory. She also likes to volunteer with community organizations and support the local underground music scene. She ranked eighth out of eighty-three in her class with a 3.95 GPA and an SAT schore of 1380. "I hope to someday research the mathematical and scientific advancements made in ancient civilizations and eventually teach at a university."
"Pledging Allegiance to the Constitution"
By Sean Carroll
I grit my teeth when I hear the words "Please stand for the Pledge" over the school intercom. As my classmates rise and place their hands on their hearts, I stare down at my desk. Twenty students speak the words that years of repetition have engraved into their minds. I continue staring at the desk, hoping no one will notice I am not standing. "And to the republic for which it stands!" enunciates my teacher, extra loud. This is what I had been dreading. "That means stand up! Especially you, Mr. Eagle Scout!" Although embarrassed by this reference, I remain planted in my seat, wishing the words would go by faster. After my classmates finish and sit down, my teacher says, "When I ask you to stand up, I expect you to stand." Gathering my courage, I announce, "I don't think students should have to stand for the pledge because it is a prayer."
. . . As a Unitarian Universalist with atheist beliefs, I became acutely aware that the words "One Nation Under God" conflicted with my religious beliefs. My discomfort spurred me to investigate the problem, and I learned that the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court rulings prohibit the reading of religious prayers in public schools. . . .
Peers thought I was unpatriotic and lazy, teachers convicted me of resisting their authority, and my parents warned me that my reputation would suffer from my actions. Having experienced the agony that school-sponsored prayer can cause for a student, I can testify that when religion is instituted in public schools, it has negative effects on students and education in general.
Sean Carroll graduated in the Class of 2002 from Coventry High School, Conn. He was most active in band, art, and creative writing, serving as the Art Editor for his high school's yearbook. "Creating works of art is my greatest interest." He also participated in Cross Country and Track and Field for four years.
He has been a longtime member of the Boy Scouts of America, and earned the Eagle Scout award. "My experience in Scouting has caused me to love outdoor activities such as backpacking, canoeing, and camping. I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist organization, which is the source of my open-minded views." He is attending Massachussetts College of Art and majoring in Communication Design, as well as taking courses in film-making.
"Separation of Church and State Confirmed"
By Kristen Hope Butler
Two years ago, my school system dismissed an English teacher based on her religion, Wicca. She didn't proselytize or force her beliefs on students. This lady had lived and worked in the community for years; teaching was her vocation, her love. In one instant, though, her friends, co-workers, and students turned their backs on her. She was treated with hostility, alienated, harassed. She could have sued, but as she elucidated to me, she just didn't have the heart for it anymore. Because of her religion, she had lost her place in this community forever.
. . . I received threatening notes, found my belongings defaced, and was called hateful names. Teachers did not stand up for me, as they had not stood up for the teacher who was persecuted. . . . All the while, I fought legislation to place the Ten Commandments and organized prayer in our schools, created a club for religious diversity and tolerance, and tried to explain to fundamentalists what their rights already were and why it was insulting to be told to pray to a different deity than you believed in.
Kristen Hope Butler, who graduated from Scotland High School, Laurinburg, NC, is an activist and young author. She petitioned against unconstitutional postings of the Ten Commandments in public schools. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gardening, debate, community involvement, and meditation. She is attending Appalachian State University.
"Tilting at Windmills"
By Sierra Smith
What is wrong with a moment of silence? Why not include the bible as required reading? What's so improper about taking a moment to acknowledge God at the beginning of a school day or in a graduation ceremony? The balance between the church and the state is not an ethical question. It is improper to view the issue as such. The First Amendment is a legal haven of protection. If the government makes concessions to Christians, it will also need to make concessions to other faiths. The constituency of America is forever changing. My community has the highest Arab population in the United States. Should I need to study the Koran in school as well as the bible? Should the school calendar be set up around Islamic festivals? What of lesser-known faiths like the Universalist Church, Buddhism, Hinduism or even Satanism? If the government opens the door for one faith, it must open the door to all faiths. Is this really what most Americans want their children exposed to? I think not.
The religious right also fails to see the volatile environment it is advocating. Many religions teach that other faiths are wrong. They advocate proselytizing and even violence in some instances. Many of the conflicts worldwide find their roots in religious differences (the conflict in Israel, for example). The safest place for religious expression for all concerned is outside the public school.
Sierra Smith attended Northview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, where she was an Honor Society member at Northview High. She also excelled in distance running. She represented Northview's varsity cross-country and track and field team for the past three years and will captain the women's team this year. She is attending the University of Toledo where she will be pursuing a major in sports medicine.
Last week, the Bill Moyers public television agency flew me to New York to join a circle of theologians and scholars discussing a baffling question:
Why is religion--which universally teaches love, forgiveness and brotherhood--entwined in so much murder and hate around the world?
As cameras rolled, our eight-member group debated for two hours, but found few answers. At the end, we had no solutions. The contradiction can't even be explained, let alone corrected.
My role, as a news editor, was to outline the enormity of the problem, which unfolds day after day in international news reports. My outline went like this:
Since the Cold War ended, most of the horrors around the planet have involved religion, in one way or another. America's 9/11 al-Qaida tragedy was a grotesque and spectacular example, but there are many others:
Muslims and Christians kill each other daily in Sudan.
Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese kill each other in Sri Lanka.
Catholics and Protestants still kill each other occasionally in Ulster.
The tragic civil war that shattered Yugoslavia in the 1990s was between Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars.
Previously, the tragic civil war that shattered Lebanon in the 1980s was between militias of Maronite Christians, Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Alawite Muslims, Druses, etc.
India is cursed by recurring bloodshed among Hindus, Muslims and occasionally Sikhs. Three of India's Gandhis--Mohandas, Indira and Rajiv--were killed by zealots.
Muslim fanatics have killed about 100,000 people in Algeria since the early 1990s. True Believers shot high school girls in the face for not wearing veils.
Muslim fanatics killed defenseless tourists in Egypt, plus Coptic Christians. They assassinated President Anwar Sadat.
Muslims and Christians kill each other sporadically in Nigeria--and Indonesia--and Azerbaijan--and the Philippines, etc.
In Cyprus, U.N. peacekeeping troops have been holding Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks apart for three decades, lest they slaughter each other.
The Ayatollah Khomeini created the world's cruelest dictatorship in Iran--then the Taliban created an even crueler one in Afghanistan. The theocracies were stunningly evil.
Fundamentalist extremists occasionally kill doctors and nurses at American abortion clinics.
Cults add to the horror. The Waco cult massacre was somewhat a replay of the Jonestown cult massacre. Supreme Truth cultists planted nerve gas in Tokyo's subway to kill commuters. Baghwan Rajneesh cultists planted salmonella germs in salad bars at Oregon restaurants.
In all these nightmares, it's extremely difficult to determine whether religion is a major cause, or merely a fringe factor. Most religio-ethnic conflicts also involve politics, language, economics, power-grabbing, demagoguery and other elements. For example, Israel's ghastly conflict is chiefly between Jews and Muslims, yet it's basically a struggle for land. (But recruitment of suicide bombers is easier with the promise that "martyrs" enjoy heaven with lovely houri nymphs.) Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fanatic Jew.
"Religious tribalism" is a phrase sometimes applied to the Catholic-Protestant strife in Ulster. Many of the hate-filled adversaries never attend church--yet their family religious labels pit them against each other. From childhood, each Ulsterite knows who's "the enemy"--it's the people in the opposing religious neighborhoods. Religion separates them into hostile "tribes."
Actually, religious killing and persecution are as old as history. A pattern can be traced through the era of human sacrifice: the Crusades, the Inquisition, jihads, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, pogroms, etc.
Did you know that Catholic-Protestant strife caused a deadly cannon battle in Philadelphia in 1844? Or that Shi'ite Muslims have massacred thousands of Baha'is in Iran since the offshoot religion began? Or that the world's worst religious war, the Taiping Rebellion, killed an estimated 20 million Chinese in the 1850s?
Don't forget the West Virginia textbook war in 1974. Fundamentalists decided that new Kanawha County schoolbooks were "godless." They held stormy protests, staged a school boycott and turned violent. Schools were dynamited. Two people were shot. School buses had bullet holes. A preacher and his followers went to federal prison. Court testimony said they discussed wiring dynamite caps into the gas tanks of cars in which families drove their children to school, defying the boycott. Thank heaven, the militants didn't actually burn kids to death to prove how morally superior they were.
When 200 young nightclubbers were killed in Bali this month, it was assumed that the bombs were planted by alcohol-hating, sex-hating, fun-hating, Islamic extremists.
When Chechnyan militants seized a Moscow theater last week, they carried Korans and vowed to become "martyrs" while killing "infidels."
I won't be surprised if the Washington-area sniper proclaims that he did it for God.
The Bill Moyers discussion is expected to air later this year. But it won't settle anything. All the participants--Moyers, a Muslim scholar, a Princeton philosopher, three Christian theologians, an international writer and I--were at a loss to decipher the riddle.
If anyone knows why religion, which espouses kindness, is stained with so much gore, I wish you'd explain it to me.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced the topics for its 2003 annual essay competitions, one for currently enrolled college students, the other for graduating high school seniors who are college-bound in the fall.
The 24th annual student competition asks college students to write on "Growing Up a Freethinker" or "Rejecting Religion" in a 5-6 page essay (typed, double-spaced with standard margins and an original title). Personal essays describing experiences rejecting religion in a religious society are welcome, as are philosophical approaches to this theme.
The Phyllis Stevenson Grams Memorial Award of $1,000 will go to the first-place college essay winner. Second place is $500 and third place is $250. Honorable mentions of $100 are awarded at judges' discretion.
Phyllis Stevenson Grams, who died in 1996, was an early activist member of the Foundation. A retired high school teacher, she was the fearless plaintiff in a state/church lawsuit in her conservative town.
Entrants in the college competition are required to include a paragraph biography that identifies the college they attend, their year in school as well as their major and interests.
College essay submissions should be postmarked no later than July 1, 2003, and should be mailed (no emails or faxes accepted) to: College Essay Contest, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. College students should provide their campus and permanent addresses, phone numbers and emails.
* * *
The theme of the 2003 high school essay contest, open to graduating seniors who are college-bound in the fall, is "Why 'Under God' Does Not Belong in the Pledge of Allegiance." Students are asked to write a 2-3 page essay on this theme (typed, double-spaced with standard margins and their own title).
Students may write about personal experiences with Pledge of Allegiance recitations in their schools, and/or generally address the problems occurring since the secular pledge was amended to include "under God" in 1954.
First prize, the Blanche Fearn Memorial Award, is $1,000. Second prize is $500 and third prize is $250. Honorable mentions of $100 are awarded at judges' discretion.
Blanche Fearn, a longtime member and benefactor of the Foundation, died in 1995. Although she never had the opportunity to attend college, she held a lifelong interest in learning. As an elementary school student in the early 1900s she bravely objected to prayers at her public school. She maintained a keen interest in the separation of church and state throughout her life.
High school essay submissions should be postmarked no later than June 1, 2003, and should be mailed (no emails or faxes accepted) to: High School Essay Contest, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. High school seniors should include a biography that identifies the high school they are graduating from, and the college or university they will attend in the fall, interests and intended majors. High school grads should provide their campus and permanent addresses, phone numbers and emails for fall 2003 if available.
"Lilith," pictured with her maker Norman B. LeClair, now graces the office library of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
"Lilith, as you know, was Adam's first wife," Norm notes. "But she was strong and independent with a mind of her own. Legend tells us that 'she refused to lie under him and obey his commands.' So Adam complained to God who in turn made him a new and more compliant female named Eve.
"To punish Lilith for her willfulness, God turned her into the first female devil, and the mother of all illegitimate children. She was condemned to spend her nights hovering above the bedchamber waiting for the male to spill his seed from which she created demons and all the illegitimate children of the world. As the Church Lady would probably say, 'Now isn't that special?' "
Lilith was carved from a 3-foot high laminated piece of red oak. Norm adds: "This piece is a good example of why abstract sculpturing is so much fun. You can really push the envelope. Lilith has no hands, no feet, no face and only one breast, but because the lines are smooth and free-flowing, the female form is easily discernible. I gave her a sassy ponytail but it can only be seen if viewed from the side."
A Foundation Life Member from Florida, Norm is retired from the military. As an artist he has created many "thinking pieces" of art, too. One such sculpture which he also recently donated to the Foundation has the Pogo-derived title: "We have met the enemy and he is us." (See June/June 1998 article.) It depicts a human skull staring at three reflections: a skull respectively overlaid with a Star of David, a cross and crescent and star.
Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Hassanain Rajabali of the Tawheed Institute debated the existence of "God" at the Islamic Center in Queens, New York, on Sunday, January 5. The overflow crowd of 400+ attendees included 20-30 freethinkers, mostly Foundation members, some pictured at right (in front of the star with "Allah" in Arabic). The debate was hosted entirely by the Tawheed ("unity") Institute.
Originally the topic, "Does God Exist?", was changed by the Islamic organizers to "Does God Not Exist?" due to "sensitivity issues," they said. This had the effect of giving Dan the affirmative, and the first opening statement. The debate dealt with the "god of the gaps," appearance of design, falsifiability, "necessary existence," incompatible properties in the traditional "God," the problem of evil, and morality, followed by a lively period of astute questions from the audience.
Hassanain and the Muslim organizers were gracious, generous, and very capable, Dan says. They had announced that in light of recent events, especially the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they wanted to show the world that they are not irrational, violent people with devil horns. To judge whether Dan or Hassanain had the shorter horns, the event can be viewed online at http://www.madressa.org.
A transcription is available at: http://www.madressa.org/debate_transcript.htm
To obtain a video or DVD of the Barker-Rajabali debate, send $20.00 (ppd.) to "Tawheed Institute," Attn: Murtaza Rajabali, Crosswest Office Center, 399 Knollwood Road, Suite 217, White Plains, NY 10603.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's gilt "Winter Solstice" sign, traditionally placed during the month of December at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, lasted only one week before being defaced on Dec. 15.
It apparently was sprayed with some type of corrosive substance.
Anne Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for defacing the freethought message. No one has come forward with information to date.
The sign, which was marred but legible, remained at the Capitol through Dec. 31. It reads:
"At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail.
"There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
"There is only our natural world.
"Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The back of the sign reads: "State/Church: Keep Them Separate," and carries a little taped-on caveat, advising believers "Thou shalt not steal."
The Foundation had asked the Capitol police for special attention in protecting the sign, for which the Foundation has a permit. Last year, the inserts were stolen and never recovered. The Capitol police have surveillance at all exits.
"It seems to be a reflection of a change for the worse in our society--increased intolerance and right-wing aggression," commented Gaylor. "Our small token Winter Solstice sign was not tampered with for the first five years we erected it, then was stolen in 2001, and mutilated this past season.
"There was a week-long 'interfaith' display dominating the rotunda, there was the annual nativity pageant with angels everywhere taking over the Capitol for most of one weekend, daily Christmas hymn-singing, and the government-sponsored 'tree lighting ceremony' with Christian overtones," she pointed out.
"A menorah with godly text by it is placed every year. A right-wing group puts a cheap-looking poster up at the Capitol, that has never been vandalized, calling all atheists fools and promoting 'our Lord Jesus Christ.'
"There ought to be room at the State Capitol for the views of atheists and agnostics, too.
"Although we do not believe religion or irreligion should be represented at the seat of state government, as long as religion is promoted there in December, our sign will be there, too," Gaylor added.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting "faith-based pork," and the public funding of "faith-based boondoggles" through the White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
At the most recent conference held in Denver on January 13, free lunches were provided for the religious participants interested in applying for funding, who numbered about 1,000.
In a revealing slip of the tongue reported by the Denver Post, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office, praised Pres. Bush at the event for creating a "level praying field" (he later said he meant "level playing field").
Attorney General John Ashcroft suspended all duties in order to attend the gathering and deliver a pep talk for religion at the public-sponsored event. To a chorus of "amens," Ashcroft told the religious participants:
"Out of fear, ignorance and occasional bigotry, faith-based groups have been prohibited from competing for federal funding on a level playing field with secular groups."
When asked how freedom of conscience would be protected at federally-funded religious programs, Ashcroft responded: "Any citizen who's offended . . . can leave the service."
The Foundation has asked the office of faith-based funding for full disclosure of its budget, and the cost of White House faith-based conferences. The Foundation also asked the office to cancel any future faith-based conferences.
"Not only are your office's schemes largely untested, but they are for the most part being carried out without the approval or oversight of the U.S. Congress," the Foundation wrote Towey.
The Foundation has won the only explicit challenge of direct faith-based funding to be fully adjudicated, challenging federal funding of Faith Works in Milwaukee. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. McCallum & Faith Works, 00-C-617-C, Jan. 7, 2002.
The federal judge held up Faith Works as the type of public-funded indoctrination it is illegal to fund, although as a candidate Pres. Bush singled out Faith Works as a prototype of faith-based funding.
Bush sidestepped Congress, where his "faith-based initiatives" has been stalled, by issuing a Dec. 12 executive order, "Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-based and Community Organizations," mandating:
"No organization should be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of Federal financial assistance under social service programs."
Religious groups would be allowed to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of religion.
After he issued the order, Bush told a rally made up of clergy: "God loves you and I love you and you can count on us both!"
The order also would apparently allow institutions receiving Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Critics such as U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., responded: "All Americans should find abhorrent a government policy that allows for a religious or racial litmus test when hiring with taxpayer money a person to serve soup. Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs."
The order encompasses the broad range of social service programs--child care, foster care, services to people with disabilities, transportation services, job training, information, referral and counseling services, meal preparation, health support services, literacy and mentoring, services relating to juvenile delinquency and crime prevention--including services relating to domestic violence, and housing assistance.
It applies to the office of the Attorney General, and Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development.
In the usual paradoxical language of "faith-based initiatives," the order forbids the government from meddling with the character of proselytizing groups, while saying proselytizers must respect the dictates of the Establishment Clause.
The order states: Groups "that engage in inherently religious activities . . . must offer those services separately in time or location" and that participation must be "voluntary."
It then mandates that "faith-based organizations" shall be eligible for full social service funding "without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character," and may "carry out its mission, including the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs, provided that it does not use direct Federal financial assistance to support any inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization."
No religious groups need to remove or alter "religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols." Each may "retain religious terms in its organization's name, select its board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in its organization's mission statements and other chartering or governing documents."
Commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president: "This executive order amounts to an endorsement of public-funded religious indoctrination."
The latest federal grants meted out under Bush's "faith-based initiative" scheme involved $2.2 million to "promote marriage" given in early January to 12 states and a variety of groups, including religious organizations, by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Another disturbing development was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's public statement on January 12 that the courts have gone overboard in keeping "God" out of government.
Speaking at a Knights of Columbus parade in Fredericksburg, Va., where his son Paul is a priest, the Catholic judge criticized the 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit for ruling unconstitutional the addition of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Scalia said such changes should be wrought legislatively, not by a court. He averred that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for God to be stripped from public life:
"That is contrary to our whole tradition," he said, citing "In God We Trust" on currency, presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, Congressional chaplains and tax exemption for churches.
Scalia sang "God Bless America" with the crowd of several hundred people.