A few years ago I decided to read the bible from cover to cover. I'd like to claim intellectual curiosity, but in truth my primary motive was sheer annoyance. I had begun listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio program and she kept flatly insisting that religious precepts were essential to morality. It had always seemed to me that "sacred" guidelines like the Ten Commandments fell into one of two categories. They were either purely religious but morally irrelevant, or morally useful but not intrinsically religious at all.
So I resolved to learn first-hand what the bible actually says. What I found will be no surprise to readers of Freethought Today. The Old Testament is crammed with gratuitous violence and moral nonsequiturs, often perpetrated or instigated by Jehovah himself. The New Testament has a much gentler tone overall, but a careful reading shows that Jesus is not quite the paragon of virtue legend holds him to be. For instance, he repeatedly advocates total allegiance to the Old Testament regime and all its injustices.
One small but telling incident stands out in my mind as epitomizing the confused view of right and wrong that permeates the bible. It occurs while King David is returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6,7). The Ark has been taken from the home of Abinadab and placed on an ox-drawn cart which Abinadab's sons, Ahio and Uzzah, are responsible for guiding. When the party arrives at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen momentarily stumble and Uzzah instinctively reaches out to steady the cart. As his hand approaches the Ark, Jehovah instantly strikes him dead.
The reaction of many people to this would be, "So what? It was common knowledge that the Ark was dangerous and never to be touched, so Uzzah should have known better." To me the message is very different. Here is a chance for Jehovah to demonstrate some understanding in a one-on-one interaction with a faithful follower. After all, he is supposed to have designed and created every detail of the human brain, so he knows perfectly well that Uzzah's reaction was reflexive and aimed only at protecting the Ark. Yet Jehovah chooses cruelty rather than compassion.
Actions like the murder of Uzzah are frequently defended with the supreme authority argument. The gist of this rationalization is that Jehovah has a master plan and knows more than we could possibly comprehend about human destiny, so it is arrogant of us to question him in any way.
But a more thoughtful approach supports almost the opposite conclusion. If Jehovah is as wise as advertised, he is not less accountable for his behavior than ordinary mortals, but more so. Both the original no-touch rule and the wanton destruction of Uzzah (who only wanted to help) are characteristic of the kind of small-mindedness we ordinarily hold in contempt. I see no reason to make an exception for someone who, above all, should know better.
The terminally abusive treatment of Uzzah is just one of many instances enabling a perceptive reader to see that Jehovah's conduct falls far short of justifying the stream of uncritical praise constantly heaped on him. On a more general level, the sum of such failures damages his moral credibility beyond repair and adds to a much larger body of evidence which tends to reveal him, in the end, as nothing more than a rather unpleasant fictional character.
At a time when the religious right has acquired so much influence in our secular government, and servility is praised as the best trait in a patriot by many public officials, Americans ought to turn to the writings of James Madison.
Maybe it's because Madison isn't featured in effigy on our nation's currency that he has slipped away from the public eye and into obscurity. After all, Lincoln has his memorial, Washington has his monument, and Jefferson his own architectural evidence of greatness. Then again, even the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, a staunch advocate of separating church and state, have eluded the American public while his face and name has been preserved.
Madison, reputed as the primary author and parent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is arguably the most important figure in our history. Fundamentalist religious sects will find no footing in Madison's words for preposterous claims of a national religion, or for justifying allocations of federal money to religious institutions.
James Madison's grand public debasement of religious assessments and public support for religious institutions is found in his speech, "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" (June 20, 1785):
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Inquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster; those of every sect, point to ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy."
He encouraged a government separated from any religious convictions but also implores the intellect to be freed of superstition:
"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers, who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure and perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another."
Madison expressed disdain for closed-eyed followers ("Who Are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties," National Gazette, Dec. 22, 1792): " 'People ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it . . . Liberty disdains to persecute.' "
Especially in the post-September 11 climate, we hide behind shields of rhetoric against terrorism to justify infringing liberty to achieve national security. Not only Madison but our other founders expressly warned that that sort of behavior would warrant the fall of liberty. Thus far, as reported by the Justice Department, more than 1,200 people have been detained on suspicion alone, that they might be involved in a terrorist organization. Of those only one person has been charged with involvement in the attacks on September 11, 2001.
If we desire to maintain the prestige and authenticy of our nation's great birth and ideals, we need to look no further than the libertarian-minded founders of our nation. James Madison would be a good start.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother began to get worried that I had not yet been confirmed. Most of the other kids from my Catholic high school were already taking confirmation classes at their local parishes, and I was not. So she began trying to convince me that it was time to "commit myself to God," and I began trying to convince her that there was no way that I was going to stand up in front of a church full of people and profess to believe in something that I did not. Once she realized that the "do it for your mother" line was not going to work, she offered me a deal: I had to attend the confirmation classes, but afterward, if I still felt the same way, I did not have to go through with the ceremony. I took the deal.
As expected, the confirmation classes were just a rehash of all the religion classes I had ever taken in Catholic school since kindergarten, and the textbook we were provided was written on the intelligence level of your average third-grader. I tried to ask questions like "Do heaven and hell really exist?" and "What happens to people who are not Catholic?" but all I got were dismayed looks and no answers.
Needless to say, I was never confirmed. After high school I moved away to college, stopped going to church, and have been trying to recover from my Catholic upbringing ever since. Yet my decision to reject Catholicism in particular and all organized religion in general was not a sudden one; on the contrary, it was the culmination of a lifetime of experience surrounded by religious conflicts and inconsistencies that led me to question the religion into which I was born.
Religion first became a problem in my life when I realized it made me different. I was the only girl in my Catholic elementary school who had divorced parents and no siblings, not to mention being the only child in my extended family to have this distinction as well. I was pitied, but with the kind of pity that is tainted by disapproval. To make matters worse, my father was Protestant. My mother and her family were all extremely devout Catholics who considered those who were not Catholic to be inferior heathens. As a child it was very difficult for me to understand why they looked down upon my father, someone I loved, as someone unworthy of all the divine rewards to which they believed they were ultimately entitled. In addition, they considered him to be the cause of my parents' divorce, another unforgivable sin and reason for shame, and this only created further problems between the two halves of my family.
When I would go visit my father, my mother insisted that he take me to Mass on Sunday despite the fact that my father wanted me to attend church with him. All this conflict soured my views towards religion at a very early age, because I simply was not willing to accept that the god I was told to believe in would condone such open hostility on his behalf. My exposure to different religious perspectives outside of what I was being taught in school and at Mass, and my inability to accept that there was only one "right" religion, started me on the journey of questioning religious doctrine and affiliations.
High school continued to be a time of religious awakening. I attended a Catholic high school where everyone was required to take religion classes, but the students came from many different religious backgrounds including Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. This clash of varying viewpoints, though often repressed, continued to fuel my doubts about the validity of any particular human-created explanation for the meaning of life and the possibility of an afterlife. The final straw for me occurred when a born-again Christian classmate informed one of my dear friends, a Hindu, that she would not be going to heaven because she did not believe in Jesus Christ. I could not reconcile the idea that I lived within a community that would condemn a good person like my Hindu friend, and yet offered guarantees of an eternal afterlife to anyone who claimed to believe in a particular deity but was an otherwise selfish and unkind person. I have refused to be a part of any kind of religious "members-only club" ever since. Simply believing that it means more to be a kind person than a righteous one has brought me a greater sense of peace.
It has been a long and tough road to de-Catholicize myself, so I have created a twelve-step process (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) to help me to remember what I truly value and how I got here in the first place.
The Twelve Steps of Catholics Anonymous
1) I admit that guilt, shame, and self-denial are not virtues; that they make life less joyous.
2) I came to believe that the power for goodness within myself could restore me to reason.
3) I made the decision to decide for myself what is moral and right, and not to simply adhere to what I have been told.
4) I made a searching and fearless moral inventory to help me understand what was right and wrong for my life.
5) I admitted to myself that I might not have all the answers, but the conclusions I had come to were enough for me at this time.
6) I was entirely ready to stop judging myself and others based on an arcane and often hypocritical religious doctrine.
7) I humbly admitted that I am a mere human being and therefore not arrogant enough to claim that I know all about this supposed god and what it really wants.
8) I made a commitment to be kind, accepting, understanding and altruistic in all that I do, and to admit when I may have done wrong.
9) I made amends with others and myself for all the conflict that religion had caused in my life.
10) I continue to question the validity of religion in my life and the lives of others all over the world.
11) I sought out others who shared my beliefs of tolerance and acceptance and learned from them.
12) I try to be a freethinker in all aspects of my life, and to always be open to new people and new ideas.
It has been a long journey, but I am happy with who I am and the decisions that I have made. I still have very religious parents, but they have realized that my lack of religion does not necessarily make me a bad person. I look forward to going through life with an open mind and an accepting heart, and I look forward to all that it will bring.
If I were asked to identify my religion, I would reply that I am a Jewish atheist. While this may seem to be a contradiction in terms, it makes perfect sense to me. My family is Jewish, and to ignore this fact would be to disavow my heritage and ancestry, along with a good share of my personal values. Yet I am an atheist, because I have never believed in the existence of a god. Granted, I went to Sunday School and celebrated my bat mitzvah, but then I decided not to attend confirmation class or any more Shabbat services. I realized that the prayers I had muttered automatically on Friday nights held no meaning for me. Religion had been a sort of mechanical reflex that I simulated because it was comfortable and familiar. Once I recognized that I did not find any meaning in the prayers or the chants of the Jewish faith, I could not continue to be a practicing Jew without feeling dishonest.
Even though I do not accept the beliefs of Judaism, I will always be Jewish. My religious background is an indelible component of my identity. That is why, on the few occasions when people have made anti-Semitic remarks to me, their slurs have stung acutely. I have now learned to appreciate my Jewish heritage for the unique perspective it lends me. Although I do not believe in the religious tenets of Judaism, the secular Jewish values have unquestionably flavored my personality. If I had been born into a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist family, I would have grown up to be a very different person than I am today. Not better or worse, but different. Being culturally Jewish is something entirely separate from believing in Judaism--something that will always be a part of me, like the color of my eyes or the timbre of my voice.
In short, I still feel a powerful connection with Jewish history and the Jewish community, despite the fact that most devout Jews would probably refute my claim to the label of "Jewish." I have not entered a synagogue in years, and I have had very few Jewish friends or classmates over the course of my life. All the schools I have attended have been predominantly or officially Christian: in elementary school, my uniform actually included a little badge embroidered with a red Cross of St. Michael. I did not mind wearing the cross, because it allowed me to fit in with my peers. Actually, what bothered me was having to remain seated during the morning chapel services, according to my parents' wishes, while everyone else kneeled. At that tender age, I simply wanted to be like all the other kids.
At my high school outside of Philadelphia, I was one of just a handful of Jewish students. My parents wanted me to go to another private school in my area that had a larger Jewish population, but I insisted on enrolling at the Agnes Irwin School. I was adamant on this point because I was accustomed to having Christian friends and peers, and I never regretted my decision. If every Jewish girl in my neighborhood chose to go to the "Jewish" school, and every Christian girl attended the "Christian" school, then our suburban community would become self-segregated and narrow-minded. It is imperative that students of all different backgrounds intermingle and learn from each other, thus helping to prevent prejudice from taking root in their young, impressionable minds.
The majority of my friends at Rice are agnostics, raised in the Southern Baptist Church but too smart and intellectually curious to mindlessly accept as truth the propaganda they were fed there. At some point, they all came to realize that people of other faiths or sexual orientations do not, in fact, deserve to go to hell. My friends and I have engaged in many an animated late-night conversation on the topic of religion, and we have shared countless laughs over the Landover Baptist website (a parody of the type of church to which my friends once belonged). My experiences and relationships at Rice have allowed me to flesh out my thoughts on religion with a more nuanced understanding of the world and of myself.
Furthermore, I now have enough confidence in my religious convictions--or lack thereof--to publicly defend them. No longer am I a timid little first-grader, sporting the red cross and anxious to conform. This past February, a guest column entitled "Recent woes do not discredit all religions" appeared in the Rice University newspaper. The author, attempting to defend the Catholic faith, had the audacity to downplay such tragic historical events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. She went on to blame the deaths that occurred in the U.S.S.R. on Communists' lack of religion as opposed to their faulty political practices. Finally, adding insult to injury, she claimed that "Christianity led to the great majority of humanitarian causes." Her assertions were not only untrue and unsubstantiated but also extremely offensive, and I wrote a letter to the editor saying as much.
In the following weeks, I was commended by dozens of my peers for taking the guest columnist to task. By implying that all atheists are hard-hearted, amoral, and even murderous, this writer had outraged not only the atheist students but many religious ones as well. My rebuttal caught the attention of the host of "What's Your Point," a talk show that airs on Rice Broadcast Television. The host invited me to appear on her show to discuss Christianity on campus (particularly the points I made in my letter to the editor) with three other student panelists. Two of these students were staunchly Christian, and the third was a Conservative Jew. While my fellow panelists squabbled over various interpretations of the bible, I managed to successfully propose a defense of atheism and argue the impropriety of proselytizing on campus.
Not everyone is readily accepting of my atheist views. My grandmother frequently assures me that as soon as I have a child, I will gaze at the tiny, perfectly formed human being in my arms and exclaim, "This is a miracle. There must be a God!" But I am certain that I will have no such reaction. The birth and development of a human being is indeed amazing, but it must be accredited to the wonders of nature, not the powers of God. There is a scientific raison d'etre for every aspect of this universe, from babies and galaxies to languages and the feeling of love. People may find it difficult to wrap their minds around such awesome concepts, but that is no reason to deny the legitimacy of rational explanations.
I am very privileged to have been born to parents who, unlike my grandmother, are supportive and understanding of my ideas on religion. Part of their tolerance can be attributed to the fact that neither of them has chosen to be an actively practicing Jew. But in my estimation, their intelligence is an equally important factor. I associate piety with close-mindedness, self-importance, a lack of intellectual inquisitiveness, and a certain amount of cowardice. Many people are afraid to admit that we do not have any special purpose on this Earth, and therefore they delude themselves into believing that a god created the human race to fulfill his mission. They disregard scientific evidence of evolution and abandon any inclination they might have had to "question the answers." For the life of me, I cannot comprehend how any well-educated person can blindly believe in God. Fortunately, my mother and father were among those parents who are enlightened enough to refrain from imposing religion on their children.
I have been taught that it is impolite to bring up my opinions on religion, for fear of offending other people. This impulse to be tactful and courteous often compels me to keep quiet when my classmates are espousing their belief in God. But then I ask myself why I go to such lengths to resist attacking their views when they are attacking mine. Why is it that I must be respectful of their values when they claim that people with my values will be eternally damned? We are told that religion is not an appropriate topic of conversation, that we should not make an issue out of it, but how can we not fight back when violations of the separation of church and state are overt and omnipresent? I have the right to be offended when every coin I use declares "In God We Trust." I have the right to be disturbed that almost every person who testifies in court is forced to swear, "So help me God." Those who advocate silent prayer in school argue that the children can pray to the god of their choice, but what if those children do not wish to pray to any god at all? Although we Americans consider ourselves to be the most free-thinking citizens of any nation in the world, it is clear that we have a long way to go before freedom of religion (including the freedom to refuse religion) is fully granted.
Happily, it seems to me that more and more Americans of my generation are privately rejecting religion and releasing their minds from its shackles. The next step is to channel our potential as a political force and as a voting bloc. Many of today's politicians are infecting our government with religious drivel and drowning out the voices of all who oppose them; perhaps we would be able to make ourselves heard if we spoke out in unison. It is time for Americans to recognize that the idea of a society stunted by ignorance and self-delusion is much more frightening than the acknowledgment that there is no god watching over us.
The youth pastor stood with his lies and with rage in his eyes and his lips moved--but nothing came out. The sermon that night was on the evils of abortion and the Church's stance on the issue. We were regaled with horror stories about greedy doctors salivating over the chance to rip apart a young woman's womb. We were shown pictures of mangled fetuses and bloody placentas. Yet I heard nothing, and I saw nothing. I could not believe the enraptured faces surrounding me; most of them were my age--thirteen--yet were nothing like me. Everything was a silent blur. I retreated to the bathroom. This was the church I had grown up in, the church my family had attended off-and-on for as long as I could remember; and as long as I could remember this church, this building had been my center of strength, the rock on which the destructive waves of daily life would crash and fizzle into impotency. It was perfect: brightly-colored, stained-glass windows, rows of well-vacuumed carpet, neat lines of floodlights lining the hallways, illuminating children's drawings of Jesus and Jonah and today's Daily Devotional.
Yet as I stood in the bathroom that night, lost in a haze of epiphany, I remember for the first time noticing the flaws in the church. In some places, the carpet didn't quite make it to the wall. Too many circulars misspelled "Babtist." In the bathroom, tiles were missing in the corners of the walls. The underside of the faucets held a thick growth of mildew. The chemicals used to weekly swathe the filth were not enough to cover up the stink. It was in one of these particular moments of my youth that I remember thinking the unthinkable thought, the one that had slept just below the surface of my developing reason, the one that had torn apart my conscience and disarranged my emotions: the thought that God does not exist. Religion is fraud. Nothing can hide the cracked walls and flawed laws of organized religion. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to think for myself.
The involuntary detachment from my peers, however, did not begin at that time. I was always the curious young child, more annoying than precocious. I was always asking questions: "Where did Cain's wife come from?'" "If Goliath was a giant, where are all the giants now?" "Did Noah bring two of each animal into the ark or seven of each clean animal?"
The basic teachings of biology and scientific reasoning that were making their way into my public school curriculum were also trickling down into my Sunday School lessons. The instructor would usually smile patiently, answer me with a "because the Bible says . . ." and shove crayons in my hand so I could make yet another drawing of the sinners of Sodom or the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. In retrospect, these Sunday School sessions were well planned. They drew unsuspecting kids into the fold of religion with the fantastic stories of the Old Testament, usually sticking to the high-profile, morally obvious myths like Jonah and the Whale, while leaving out the parts about, say, Onan spilling his seed, or the invading Hebrews slaying helpless women and children. These things I wouldn't find out about until much later, when I actually read the Bible.
Like most people, I grew up Christian simply by osmosis. My parents were Christian, therefore so was I. Organized religion, like television, was there from the beginning, and I had no reason to refute its inherent value and infinite preexistence. Religion was simply what my brother and I were dragged to on Sunday mornings. God was simply the third parent who saw everything I did. He listened to me when I prayed for a new toy or for my parents to stop fighting. He judged me when I did what I knew was wrong. He promised immense rewards at an excruciatingly distant point in the future. He was Santa Claus.
I wanted to like religion and love Jesus, just as I wanted to make good grades, be nice to my brother, do my chores, and take the dog out so he wouldn't pee inside. I was different from my schoolmates yet I desperately wanted to be one of them. They all seemed to grasp this God thing--I wanted to as well. I even remember at age eight vowing to read the entire Bible cover to cover. Once I got past Noah and the Ark, everything became a blur. I had read maybe twenty pages before I gave up, but for the love of God, I tried.
Shortly after I turned eleven, my father died of a heart attack. He was never a good father: he drank and smoked and never paid his child support. I was even a bit afraid of him. His death left a certain numbness in me--at a time when I should have been reaching out to God for support, I could only reach in myself for strength. I did not feel comforted by the presence of a higher power. The church that had always been there offered little in the way of condolences. My fifth-grade classmates had been instructed to not mention it around me--yet I could tell they knew. This harshness of reality, the shifting priorities of my friends, and the shattering of my religious conceptions left me cold inside. The ideas I had been taught about the afterlife never quite came to fruition in my mind--the only thing I was concerned about was whether or not my father's ghost could hear me when I lied and how long sympathy would get me free toys. These, sadly, were my baby steps toward free thought.
Like all emotionally-driven forward movements in thought, there can be a violent internal backlash when the weakness of insecurity creeps in. For me, the first of these reversals in thought came in the summer after my father's death. That summer my brother and I spent a lot of time with his agrarian extended family spread among the simple small towns of North Alabama. Tradition dictated that this group attend the local Church of Christ, a bastion of fundamentalism rooted deeply in the fabric of daily life for many North Alabamians. Simple politeness dictated my brother and I attend with them during visits.
There was politeness and guilt. Those who think the Catholics hold a monopoly on guilt have never experienced the whirlwind of kinetic culpability weekly thrust upon the smiling denizens of the local Church of Christ. There were at least three services a week all were expected to attend, save those in poor health: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. God forbid if anyone was too sick to attend services; that person would receive a lengthy write-up in that week's Church Bulletin. There was even a spot in the Bulletin reserved for absentees without good reason, entitled, "Also Not Able to Attend Services This Week."
I saw through this guilt trap, but had no other place to go when visiting this family and no gumption to tell them I simply didn't want to go. So I went. And I laughed inside. I laughed at the stuffy, unremarkable building which housed the church. I laughed at the stuffy, pretentious Sunday School classes. I asked why the Church of Christ did not allow musical instruments in the worship service. The reply I always received was, "the Bible doesn't tell us to have musical instruments, so we don't." I secretly wondered whether or not the Bible allowed for the church's bathrooms and parking lots, and if not, why were they there?
I questioned and I laughed, but after a couple weeks of attendance I began to feel I actually belonged somewhere. I was an out-of-towner, a Big Man, there. I was popular with the other fledgling adolescents. Popular. The social ramifications of being popular for the first time seemed not so distant and dead but were tangible and alive. The organized religion that had begun to amuse me now amazed me with its power. It was no longer the Sunday morning ritual and God ceased to be the Third Parent. Now Jesus was the leader of the gang of spiritual and social giants who had it all figured out--who got along, shared ideas with hamburgers, shook hands and joined hands for horrendous off-key a capella hymn-singing. Christianity was my door into the world of happiness that I associated with popularity.
I returned home brimming with religious zeal. I read my daily devotional, began wearing a cross necklace, and joined my local youth group. Inspired by an electric Church of Christ sermon, I began arguing with whomever would listen the essential facts that, yes: the universe was created in seven literal days, the Great Flood was what formed the Grand Canyon, dinosaurs once sat down to lunch with men, and when the rapture comes, I'll be the first to go! I was intensely sure of these facts and justified by what then seemed to be overwhelming Biblical evidence. I went to church camp. I wrote religious poetry. I even played Jesus Christ himself in a youth group skit about abstinence before marriage. The pinnacle of popularity, I thought, is being mock-crucified before an audience of one's peers.
So why was I so unhappy?
The beginning of the disintegration of the zealous religious regime that ruled my life for three years can be traced back to simple experience and knowledge. The more of this life I experienced, the more I began to see the frivolity of popularity. The more knowledge I gained about them, the more I realized how inherently ridiculous and contradictory Christian teachings could be. I grew distant--detached. I was disinterested in my schoolwork and depressed. My disillusionment with religion manifested in a kind of self-inflicted sensory deprivation. I began to not see the faces around me, to not hear their voices. Those other people were all just mask-wearing puppets manipulated by marionettes.
They didn't know what I knew.
The idea that came to light that night of the abortion sermon at youth group was unspeakable to me: God does not exist. I had heard the word "Atheist" before, but I did not know what it meant. Surely I was not an Atheist. Surely I was not one of those shaky-eyed madmen who fed off the brains of children, hoarded pornography, and kept secret torture devices in their basements. That wasn't me. I was therefore alone; I was the only person in the entire world who did not believe in God. I was a revolutionary! I had reached the anti-spiritual nirvana, the negative gnosis--I was a mental giant among intellectual dwarves. In this aura of clarity I formulated a breakthrough philosophical principle I called the Four-S Theory. This stated that all human behavior is motivated by the desires for Sex, Security, and Superiority. These three desires boil down to a central instinct that rules the natural world, the fourth "S": Survival.
I was thirteen years old.
And nobody knew about any of this because I told no one. It was my secret.
And I had a lot to learn. By secluding myself in a bubble of dogmatic atheistic thought, I became the opposite and equal to my former Christian self--I was not open to new ideas, and was certain that I had attained absolute knowledge. It once again took experience and further learning to snap me out of this zealot mindset. As I grew I realized that I was an atheist not because I knew there was no god, but because the idea of god is unknowable. Where others find comfort and security in their faith in God, I find comfort and security in the infinite Unknown. I do not fear death so much because I do not know what happens when we die. I desire to learn new things because knowledge brings me closer to the universe; the Unknown excites me in that it allows for infinite new things to learn. Many freethinkers would call me an agnostic. Very well. I like to use the word "atheist" because that word still excites that revolutionary frenzy in me.
It took me a while before I was comfortable telling people I was an atheist. I eventually told my mother, who was and is very supportive, and then anyone who asked. I refuse to lie about my beliefs, even though the social stigma attached to the A-word still provides a basis for discrimination against freethinkers from all spectrums of life--social, political, economic. Those of us who choose to think for ourselves instead of accepting the beliefs and blind faiths of previous generations belong to one of the last truly persecuted minorities in the world. I still feel detached from humanity--l always have--yet I still feel compelled to contribute to it in my own way. I act morally not for fear of punishment in hell or for brownie points in heaven but because I want to get along with the rest of my species.
Many people can look back on their childhood as a series of vague, happy memories--like looking at an old picture whose edges have been faded by the sunlight. I don't have this luxury. My childhood memories are tinged with lucidity. I remember the bad moments, the good ones, the sweet and the bitter. I can remember how and when the Rock that was organized religion became my Rock of Sisyphus, the burden of faith that tied me to a singular mindset. I remember when I tossed that boulder aside and began climbing the mountain of life with the freedom to explore any new idea that comes my way. I will always be hungry for knowledge. I love being able to completely change my opinion on a subject given new information. I have a long way to go, many mountains to climb, and countless changes of mind to undergo. That is the wonderful freedom of growing up a freethinker.
I grew up in an American town, a small Alabama town. It is home to farmers, soccer moms, and gang members. Residents drive tractors, sport-utility vehicles, and low-rider pick-up trucks. Although people there may seem culturally diverse, they are proud of what just about all of them share: Jesus Christ.
My mother, from Virginia, and father, from Illinois, know the outside world. They met in Madison, Wisconsin, got married, and moved to Texas, where I was born. It was not until they were in their forties that they moved to Alabama. Today, as a first-year student at Carleton College in rural Minnesota, I can almost say I miss my hometown. I miss azaleas in February and overcooked vegetables. I miss listening to the drawl of vowels and spitting watermelon seeds off the hot patio. But I do not miss religious intolerance.
It started early. No one could spend the night with me on Saturdays because they needed to go to church early the next morning. My family doesn't attend church. In fourth grade a Jehovah's Witness named Candace, a skinny kid with bright eyes, decided that I was to be her project. Every day at recess, I climbed the jungle gym and walked the balance beam with Candace nipping at my feet and reading the bible at me. Her persistence was neither successful nor terribly harmful to me. My parents told me that Jehovah's Witnesses are Christian extremists whose beliefs are far from mainstream. Later, they would explain the behavior of Southern fundamentalists with this logic. As their definition of "extremist" expanded to include first my peers and then my teachers, so did my fear that most people I would meet in life would deem me a bad person.
Candace gave up on my soul in fifth grade, but other kids soon picked up the slack. One day at school, some kids were talking about how their preachers had taught them that Sunday that Jews would burn in hell. I told them that my half-brother and half-sister are half-Jewish and that they weren't headed for hell. Then Nancy, the prettiest girl in the whole fifth grade, told me and everyone else that not only my siblings, but also the rest of my family, would burn in hell because God hates Jews. This was the first and last occasion that a teacher stood up for me. She asked Nancy if Jesus were in hell, since he was a Jew. Nancy couldn't say yes to this and begrudgingly apologized. But rumors spread. I, a Germanic gentile girl who had never seen a synagogue, became Vestavia Elementary's target for anti-Semitism! I had no friends during my two remaining years in elementary school, and I dreaded the taunts that met me each day at school.
For academic reasons, my parents took me out of the public school system and sent me to seventh and eighth grades at Holy Spirit Catholic School. They told me not to be afraid of the religiousness I would see at school. They told me that I could have different beliefs from those of the Catholics but still be respectful of them. My first few days were terrifying. Teachers called on me to read bible verses that I did not know how to look up, and I had to read the Lord's Prayer from a book because I had never heard it before. I mispronounced the "o" in "Job." But I learned what every Catholic kid should know about Church history, and eventually I was even soothed by a good mass. No one seemed to mind that I was not Catholic or even Christian. Southern Catholics know persecution. There are no uniforms at Holy Spirit because of Klan violence against Catholics in the 1960s. A plaid jumper might invite a gunshot. Maybe this history is why the Catholics were so tolerant of my differences.
In ninth grade I returned to Alabama's glorious public education system and, subsequently, intolerance and proselytizing. I had planned to take the school by storm, but my first day back did not bode well for this agenda. Schools in Alabama start in early August, when the subtropical Deep South is markedly inclement. Every morning the members of the prayer club entered the school to start their meeting as soon as they got off the bus. They would pray for a half hour or so, while the rest of us were not allowed into the building. We sinners stood around sweating, in conditions that reflected what would commence after our deaths.
The first day of ninth grade, all teachers started class by barking out their disciplinary codes. They all introduced themselves with brief biographies including their "church homes." My history teacher asked all the Baptist kids to raise their hands and to keep them raised while she wrote down their names. The year after I left my junior high school, a student in my history teacher's class asked a question when they were studying the Holocaust: If you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven and Jews don't believe in Jesus, are they going to hell? The teacher's matter-of-fact response, "Well, yeah, all Jews will burn in hell," triggered a letter-writing campaign by parents, including mine, to ask the school board to take action against the teacher. Instead, she was promoted to the high school.
Reports of that year baffle my friends here in Minnesota. I knew that walking down the hall meant hearing other students mutter, "Jew" or "Commie," as they passed me. But I did have three girlfriends with whom I did normal teeny-bopper things. We watched movies, talked about boys, and went shopping together. Because two were Methodists and one was a Southern Baptist, I felt detached from the religious side of their lives---a side that was increasingly relevant to our relationship. A few times I went to church with them after sleepovers, and I was always uncomfortable listening to their slick-haired preachers talk about salvation.
Every Halloween, a holiday of which fundamentalists are not fond, a local Baptist church holds a Judgment House, in which congregants act out scenes from heaven and hell in various rooms of their mega-church. I agreed to go with my friends that year, because I thought I was really tough. I thought the Judgment House would make a funny story when I got out of the South. But it was not funny to see my community show me what they think I deserve. Nor was it funny when, at the last stop of the tour of hell, a man asked all those who do not attend church to come to the front of the room. It was not funny when my friends stared at me until I did so.
When I got to the front, a woman led me into a side room. She told me to sit down, and she asked me personal questions that embarrassed me. She asked me if my parents believed in God and why I did not go to church. Then she told me to repeat after her what developed into a creed that professed my belief in Jesus and my guilt for my hitherto sinful life. Dumbstruck, I left the room and found my friends. I tried to tell them what had happened, and they cried with joy because I had "found Jesus." Strangely enough, I felt much more "saved" by my later northern migration than I did by this spiritual awakening.
The repetition of the Baptist woman's words did not, indeed, convince me to attend church. Kate, the surprised alpha member of our clique, gave me an ultimatum one day in the locker room while we changed our clothes after gym class. If I didn't get baptized and start attending church every week, she and the other two would have nothing to do with me. As melodramatic as it sounds, that marked the end of my friendships in Alabama.
The next year I started Tuscaloosa County High School, where my favorite classes were taught in the Lurleen Wallace Social Science Wing of the building. My education was taking place in a location named after a woman who, as the first female governor of Alabama, had served as a surrogate for her husband, George Wallace, whose entire political career was a crusade for racism. Seeing that sign next to my history classroom on the first day of school and walking past a prayer group inside the school the next morning gave me a sense of foreboding about my high school experience. This feeling proved accurate. Religion was just as interwoven in my high school as it had been in my junior high.
Instead of my classmates' growing accustomed to my disinterest in religion, more and more of them saw me as a raging atheist. One day my tenth-grade English class spent the period in the library. As there were no empty tables, I sat down next to a popular kid named Josh, whom I had never met. After a few quiet minutes, Josh announced loudly, "So, Anne, I hear you don't go to church." I told him that no, I did not go to church. He asked me if Jesus were the son of God. I said, "No, probably not." Everyone in the small library--my classmates, students from another class, and the librarians---watched him stand up and scream at me about his disgust and my impending damnation. He told me that I was a sick person. Instead of going to my next class, I found my English teacher and told her what had happened. She told me I should try church. I went to my next class for a few minutes. There, in a magnificent display of irony, Kate, who had sworn me off months earlier, explained to me that not all Christians are like Josh. She said I should give Jesus a chance. I checked myself out of school.
My junior year, another teacher, a fundamentalist Wesleyan, fell in love with the idea of saving me, just as Candace had in fourth grade. He liked me as much as a person can like someone he believes deserves damnation. He invited me to church with him (to no avail) and ranted about the merits of C.S. Lewis. One day after class he told me that he wanted me to stay late because he had invited someone to talk to me. It was another teacher, who led all of the school's Christian groups, from the morning prayer group to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was scared.
After all the students were gone, this teacher walked in and closed the door, pulled a chair close to me, sat in it backwards, and looked at me hard.
"You don't go to church?" he asked.
I always slipped into servile "sirs" and "ma'ams" when I got scared in Alabama.
"I don't like what I've seen organized religion do to people."
The interrogation continued, covering my parents' religiosity and my lack of friends. I gave him ambiguous answers and seemed comfortable with a lifestyle that struck him as absurd and wrong. Then he dropped the bomb.
"Anne, do you believe in a personal God?"
I stared back at him for a moment, then looked at my teacher at his desk. With a nervous smile, I said, "I don't know."
The teacher stood up, pushed his chair across the floor, and stared at me.
"I can't talk to you," he said before slamming the door.
Somehow, that announcement summed up my problem in Alabama. No one could understand me, and no one tried. I bothered everyone because I was a good kid. I was friendly, tried hard in school, and volunteered in the community. Yet, according to their preachers, I was the scum of the earth. Teachers and students wanted me to go to church to make themselves more comfortable with their religion. I didn't have the outward signs of a heathen, but I was doomed. Ultimately, I think I won parts of the battle. People who knew me at home still attend church and still believe every word of the sermons. But at least I made a few of them think. I provided a face for the group that they hate. I hope I made it a little harder for some people to dismiss non-Christians as bad people.
The scene is dismal for people like me in Alabama. It is never easy to dissent from a community's de facto consensus. Because I am not a Christian, it is hard for me to think about home. It hurts to know that my parents live there. It hurts to know that people like us are unwelcome. It makes sense that my classmates felt uncomfortable with me, because I was all they had to associate with their preachers' warnings about non-believers. Although their remarks and attitudes are not fond memories of mine, the larger issue is that teachers encouraged their intolerance. What is wrong in my tale is that institutional forces made me feel inferior. Americans paid money to hire public school teachers who told me to go to church and who acted disgusted by my religious decisions. Public money funded prayer groups that left me in the literal and metaphorical heat. When religion pervades a public school system, students learn to value homogeneity. My school system teaches children to hate those who are different. It always struck me that God is everywhere, yet nowhere, in Alabama.
My deconversion began in a most fortuitous way. While in the Boy Scouts, at about 12 years old, I really wanted the nifty-looking "God and Country" medal. As part of the procedure, I had to meet with a local minister to have the prerequisites signed off. The minister suggested I read the bible. I did. Somehow the warm and fuzzy stories we were taught in Sunday School dissolved into the nightmarish tales of rape, killing, pillaging, lying, deceit, genocide, animal cruelty and some just plain nonsense. By 13, I was an atheist and an avid bible reader. Through my teen years I would often debate religion.
I was 18 my entire senior year in high school and had been issued my friendly draft card. While watching the protests (and even joining a few in Seattle) over the war in Vietnam, I wasn't too worried since the lottery was in place and I was still in school. Then my luck began to change.
I graduated and within a week I got a new draft card--1-A; and, to make things really interesting, the new lottery drawing gave me a nice low number. Not exactly being college material at the time, or having the wherewithal to run to Canada, or finding the Army option very appealing, I did the logical thing: joined the Navy. Better education programs, better travel opportunities, and less possibility of ending up in Vietnam was my justification.
During the first few days of boot camp, we were organized from a ragtag bunch of civilians to a crack group of moronic sycophants. Like some folks, I did ask for "atheist" on my dog tags, but was designated "NP"--no preference. As part of our recruit organization, the Company Commander selected various people to fill some positions, such as recruit leader, co-leader, yeoman, company idiot, and that sort of thing. He then came to the volunteer position of Company Recruit Chaplain. My eyebrows raised as did my hand and since nobody else's did, I suppose he had to pick me and unceremoniously did so. My duties were to assist the "real" Chaplain for Sunday services and say a prayer every night before taps. No more sweeping, cleaning cigarette butts, running here, doing this, doing that. All I had to do was keep my personal religious non-preference to myself.
But when it came to the prayers, what an opportunity! Every night I would stand on the center board table and read a passage from the bible and say a prayer. I read the passages that contained the pillaging, murders, incest, etc., and then made up some sort of silly prayer (author's note: aren't they all?).
After one particular and somewhat dubious prayer, this big (and not too smart) southern boy came up to me and drawled, "Haay Hill, just what the f--- kinda prayer was that anyway?"
Boot camp became a breeze. When the twelve weeks came to an end, the school/fleet assignments came up. Looking down this list I found my name and the ominous words, "Fleet, deck force, USS Tacoma PG 92. Current Station: Da Nang." It would seem that one part of my plan had gone just a little askew. I joined the Navy to see the world. I didn't really think that would include being part of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.
The Tacoma was a 165-foot coastal patrol boat with five officers and 20 crew who would lend "lethal fire power and logistical support" to nearby shore troops, protect larger ships operating on the coast and in the Tonkin Gulf, as well as engaging in special operations with a bunch of homicidal lunatics called seals or green berets. A .22 shell would penetrate our aluminum hull, but we could hit 40 knots if necessary. We also did river patrols from the mouth of the Da Nang to Vung Tu and Saigon and just happened to be at Cam Ranh Bay when the tet offensive in '72 was touched off. (See a picture at: http://www.gunboatriders.com/theboats/92_tacoma/pg92.html.) We certainly didn't see the kind of action of in-country troops, but had our share of enemy encounters, shelling and close calls. I spent over a year and a half in Vietnam before I won reassignment to the East Coast.
John Hill today
With respect to religion, I found that those who had deep religious convictions supported the war and were more gung-ho than those who (quietly) did not. Believers were also more prone to a "God's Will" mentality when it came to living or dying. I cannot remember how many times I told some Christian that it was fine with me if he wanted to die, but he wasn't going to take me with him and he'd better damn well do his job and not just hope some silly prayer would help. When self-preservation kicks in there is no room for God, Jesus, or some sort of mythical eternity. Those who took that time to acknowledge the deity in a combat situation usually ended up dead.
I knew many more atheists in the service than most people would like to think or admit are there. Sure, there is the nod and wink during some chaplain's speech or the skipper trying to placate everybody with some god-talk. The Captain once told us before an important squadron event, "If you're a believer, you put your head down and pray when the Chaplain prays; if you're not a believer, you'd better be checking your shoeshine."
There are plenty of atheists in foxholes and on decks and in the air and it just makes me cringe when I hear or read someone ludicrously assert the opposite.
After I left Vietnam, I was accepted to Submarine School in Groton, Conn. I made one patrol on a nuclear missile-carrying sub and then was discovered to have contracted tuberculosis in the Far East. I was placed in both naval and veterans hospitals for over a year and finally returned to society. I entered college, eventually studying philosophy and religion, which still hold the fascination they once did. I failed to get my "God and Country" medal, but received something far more valuable in return . . . freedom of thought, conscience, and reason, and all because a minister asked me to read the bible.
Utah Crackdown on Polygamy
Utah has hired a so-called "polygamy czar" to lead a campaign to root out polygamists who take child brides or commit welfare fraud. An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 polygamists live in Utah.
Police raided a picnic in July attended by 800 members of one family, arresting Jeremy Kingston, 32, for marrying his 15-year-old niece/cousin, LuAnn. Now 23, LuAnn went to the state attorney's office three years after walking out on her husband, saying, "Something needs to be done."
State attorney Mark Shurtleff told the London Observer:
"The message to these tyrants is that we are going to investigate you and prosecute you, and the message to the victims is that there is help available to you. In the past we've reacted when a victim has come out, but now we're going to be proactive."
Breastfeeding by the Good Book
Religionist Catherine Donkers was cleared of child endangerment for breastfeeding her unrestrained infant as she drove on the Ohio turnpike May 8. An Ohio court in August found her guilty of breaking Ohio's child-restraint laws and driving without a license. Troopers trying to pull her over testified she was so distracted she didn't notice the sirens: she was talking on a cell phone, taking notes about what her husband was ordering her to do, breastfeeding the baby, and driving at the same time.
Donkers and her husband belong to the First Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, a religion granting a husband complete control over his wife.
Colson Claims Debunked
A study advertised by Watergate felon Chuck Colson as proving the success of his Texas prison ministry actually reveals its failure.
The evangelical Innerchange Freedom Initiative segregates prisoners in their own pod of a state-run prison, and requires 16 to 24 months of biblical education. Released prisoners are followed for 6 to 12 months, must hold a job and be a church member.
Colson issued a press release in late June claiming a 2-year study by the University of Pennsylvania and the Manhattan Institute shows that faith-based mentoring decreases recidivism. Colson claimed "program graduates were 50% less likely to be arrested, and 60% less likely to become reincarcerated."
Slate, an internet news magazine, published an article in August by UCLA social studies professor Mark A.R. Kleiman debunking the claims. Prisoners enrolled in the program were not better rehabilitated, only prisoners who graduated from the program (75 out of 177).
Kleiman also found that "overall, the 177 entrants did a little bit worse than the controls."
Derailing Roadmap to Peace?
So-called Christian Zionists who see the state of Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and as a condition for the second coming of Jesus, have lobbied President Bush throughout the summer to derail his "roadmap" for peace. Bush has proposed the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Spearheading the campaign is Christian evangelical Gary Bauer, of Americans for a Safe Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli communities donated $200,000 last year from U.S. churches to help build Jewish settlements on the West Bank that have inflamed relations.
"If Bush touches Jerusalem, he's not only going to get us mad but get God mad," televangelist Pat Robertson told AP. House Majority Leader Tom Delay also has stated his belief that God gave Israel and the West Bank to the Jews.
Blair Imitates Bush
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set up a ministerial working group, the Faith Community Liaison Group, in the Home Office.
The London Observer described Blair as "a committed Christian who keeps the bible by his bed," and recapped Blair's remark that "My Maker" would answer for the deaths of British soldiers in Iraq.
Florida Voucher Scandals
About 23% of all third-graders in the state of Florida ended the school year in danger of failing, following implementation of statewide testing that bases grade advancement on test results over report cards and teacher recommendations.
Private, mostly religious, schools, received a total of $88 million this year in taxpayer-subsidized vouchers, but are exempt from the testing.
Dick Baker, principal of one religious school receiving public vouchers, was accused this summer of taking schoolgirls on overnight trips to Disney, dressing them up like "princesses" and in his collection of little-girl swimsuits, taking their photographs and "tickling" them.
Community Christian School in Largo has enrolled at least 16 students in the voucher program for a minimum of $56,000. Baker's school also enrolled about 28 disabled students under a special state voucher program, to the tune of $168,000, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
"Character" Program Proselytizes
Character First!, a program by Christian evangelist Bill Gothard, has been endorsed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Jerry Regier, the state's controversial child welfare director. The program has been foisted upon thousands of agency workers at Orlando's Department of Children and Families, and is spreading.
Character First! identifies 49 "character" qualities which Gothard based on the bible, such as "alertness, diligence, humility and tolerance." Employees are even offered a pocket guide to consult. Workers in Orlando told Florida Today they are insulted by the lessons.
Funding Faith at Secular Expense
The federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, a national community service program, is funding a new program run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, while cutting all funding to several existing programs lauded for having proven track records.
The $324,000 grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to the diocese will pay 32 AmeriCorps "volunteers" to work with preschoolers in the diocese's four daycare centers.
Utah Goes Secular?
Utah city councils in Murray, Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Ogden have recently suspended invocations. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that many other Utah towns and cities are considering whether to drop prayers.
The actions have followed several legal decisions, including a recent ruling by the Utah Supreme Court that if a city schedules any prayers, it may not censor speakers. An atheist proposing a pro-separation of church and state "prayer" won the Murray court case.
"Family Day" Litigated
The ACLU of Hawaii filed a a second lawsuit against Honolulu city officials in July, charging the city sponsored a Christian religious service on Family Day.
The group initially sued Honolulu officials for excluding three gay groups from the city's Family Day Parade. U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor ruled on July 3 that Honolulu's Family Day Parade was privately sponsored, therefore organizers could discriminate. The ACLU's follow-up suit alleges that at least $15,000 of taxpayers' money was spent for the event.
Strong-Arming Justice Department
The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division sent recent letters to 12 municipalities in support of churches fighting zoning requirements. It has accused Maui County, Hawaii, of religious discrimination for refusing a Christian group's request to build a sanctuary on the lower scope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, because of city traffic and safety concerns.
"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Maui County is being strong-armed from the nation's capital," editorialized the Maui News.
The controversy may test a federal law passed in 2000, exempting religious groups from many zoning and land-use laws.
Not "Good News"
Attorney General John Ashcroft has thrown Justice Department support to Good News Clubs demanding public school support.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland in January sued the Montgomery County schools (Md.) for refusing to publicize religious after-school meetings by sending flyers home in childrens' backpacks. Club activities include hearing bible stories and memorizing scripture.
Rockville officials protest that being forced to hand out religious flyers makes teachers unwitting missionaries. In April, a judge refused the group's demand. The evangelism outfit, whose mission statement pledges to "locate children who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior," appealed the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May. Ashcroft has filed a friend of the court brief to support the gospel group.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must rent schoolrooms immediately after school to the Good News Club. The national ministry claims to host more than 1,800 religious clubs in public schools.
Boycotting the Boy Scouts
Venture Crew 488, a coed unit for boys and girls ages 14-20 in Sebastopol, Calif., announced in August that the local Scout council has given it an ultimatum: retract its anti-discrimination statement, or leave scouting. The group criticized Boy Scouts' discriminatory policy against gay and atheist youths and adults, and urges businesses, United Ways and others to stop supporting it.
United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania voted on July 31 to cancel all funding to local Scouts because they discriminate against gays. The United Way, which has supported Scouting for 80 years, voted to withhold the second-half payment of a $400,862 grant to the Cradle of Liberty Council, and the second half of a $17,901 grant to the Chester County Council. The Cradle of Liberty Council recently ousted Life Scout Gregory Lattera. Pew Charitable Trusts killed a grant of $100,000 to the council because of its discriminatory action.
The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, a Foundation chapter, is protesting an arrangement dating to 1928 by the city of Philadelphia, which grants the Cradle of Liberty Council of BSA free use of a city-owned lot, where it built its headquarters in 1929.
Late in March, I drove up Miami Avenue, a heavily traveled street that connects a residential area with downtown Venice, Fla., and was startled to see 15 ugly 2x3 foot red-white-and-blue signs on a grassy strip directly adjacent to the curb. The strip, part of the city right-of-way, was in front of the First Baptist Church of Venice. The signs proclaimed "Proud to Be an American," "Pray for Our Troops," "God Bless America," "Pray for Our President," and last but not least, "Jesus the Supreme Commander."
During the ten years since I retired after 30 years as a trial lawyer, constantly knocking heads with judges and other lawyers, occasionally using spare time to cross swords with the religious majority (e.g., suing the city to stop its annual city hall Christmas pageant, harassing the local Catholic Bishop with my bullhorn when he tried to conduct an outdoor mass at an abortion clinic), I have mellowed somewhat, learning to enjoy the peace and quiet of retired life. So I tried to ignore the signs for a week. I rationalized that if only the church had planted its tasteless signs across the narrow sidewalk on its own property, the aesthetic nuisance would be almost as bad though not unconstitutional. But Miami Avenue was a convenient route to local businesses, and after being increasingly annoyed by the signs for a week I decided to take some action.
On March 31, I went to City Hall and checked with the zoning department, where I was informed that a permit issued by the city manager was required before placing signs on a right-of-way. The applicable ordinance, which exempted yard sale and political signs, required that an application be submitted at least ten days before the signs went up, and that a $25 application fee was payable unless waived by city council for a nonprofit organization.
I went directly to the office of City Manager George Hunt, who is well known to be a very religious Catholic, and asked to see the Baptist Church permit. His secretary produced a handwritten application for a permit that had been faxed to City Hall by the Baptist preacher. Hunt had marked it "OK," entering the date (3/26) and his initials, immediately faxing it back to the preacher as a permit.
"What about the ten-day waiting period?" I asked.
"I didn't think it was necessary," said Hunt.
"Let me see a receipt for the fee."
"I waived it," he replied.
I went home and typed a letter to Hunt advising that the permit was invalid and demanding that the signs be immediately removed from the right-of-way. I also pointed out that all of the signs except "Proud to Be an American" violated the state and federal constitutions by displaying religious slogans on city property. I also prepared and delivered a letter applying for a permit for signs stating "Religion Is Superstition," "Prayer Is a Waste of Time," and "There Is No God," to be placed on Miami Avenue. I enclosed a check for $25. The not-so-funny fun began.
Interviewed by a reporter on the afternoon of April 1, appropriately enough, Hunt glibly and quite falsely stated (let's make that clear--it was a black lie) that he had considered the signs to be political and thus exempt from the permit requirement.
"We didn't issue them a permit," said Hunt. "'We granted them permission for them to display the signs because we saw them as political."
Yeah? Well if the signs were political his permission wasn't needed, and better yet, why did he show me the dated, initialed sketch when I asked to see a permit?
Answering my demand for removal of the signs on April 3, Hunt built a bigger if not more plausible lie, advising that when I was in his office on March 31 he had forgotten that on March 26 he had decided the signs were political and exempt. But give George credit for lying impartially. He returned my check, saying that he considered my signs to be political as well. It seems that for many Christians, what passes for logic can be every bit as irrational as religious beliefs. And apparently the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, including the one dealing with bearing false witness, is to decorate court houses and public schools, and not to provide ground rules for life. I sent the check back to him.
I attended the next city council meeting on April 8, and read a brief statement accusing Hunt of illegally issuing the permit to the Baptists and then lying about it, and asked Council to revoke the permit.
Operating with the divine guidance solicited by the clerk, who serves as chaplain and opens each meeting with a prayer, council members gave me blank looks. They did nothing. They didn't discuss the matter with Hunt, or ask him any questions, or ask the advice of the city attorney, who is afraid of his shadow and speaks only when spoken to. I could have stayed outside and addressed my comments to a lamp post.
By this time Hunt had decided my signs were not political after all, and issued a permit just as he had for the church, dating and initialing my letter application. The letter specified that my signs would be on Miami Avenue, and he did not strike that, but he did put "on site" next to his initials which he may have meant to limit my signs to the right-of-way in front my house on a quiet residential street.
I chose to ignore that ambiguous and improper attempt to limit my rights, and on Sunday morning I planted my signs in front of the First Baptist Church. They were promptly uprooted. Having now had my Irish stirred up, I planned my revenge for Easter Sunday. The Baptists habitually conduct a sunrise service in a public park at the Venice Jetties, a pass from the bay to the Gulf, while another group prays at the City beach parking lot. I had never interfered with these flagrant church-state violations, probably mostly because they took place at 6 AM and I'm getting lazy in my old age. But annoyed as I was, I got up at 5 AM on Easter, went down to the airport and cranked up my Cessna, and, perfectly within the law, flew up and down the beach at an altitude of 500 feet, barely offshore, almost directly over the Jesus-praising early-risers, wasting some gas by pushing in the throttle and jacking up the RPMs to make a little extra noise.
Then I went home, put a sign with big block letters--"THERE IS NO GOD"--in the side window of my car and parked it with the doors locked alongside the curb directly across from the front door of the Baptist Church. I am happy to say that the Baptists were well-behaved, not keying my VW Beetle, but they did leave it covered with religious tracts and prayer notes.
The church permit had been good for three weeks, expiring at midnight on April 16. The signs were still there the next morning. But by that time, City Hall and the Baptists had had their fill of me, and when I complained to the code enforcement officer, the signs were off the right-of-way in a few hours, though a few of them, including "Jesus the Supreme Commander," were set up across the sidewalk on church property.
The low-class tent revival creationist variety of Baptists have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention since I was brought up in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., where we managed to get through Pearl Harbor and 31Ú2 years of global war without defacing church property with garish, tasteless signs.
Charles Cheves, a retired attorney, has been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1984.
Our country is based on the idea of liberty and equality. Yet every day millions of American students declare the foundation of our country to be something else entirely: a single God. Although "God" may be considered in many different ways, it is undeniable that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is biased toward a particular religion. This phrase transforms the Pledge of Allegiance into a contradiction against itself. A nation cannot simultaneously be "under God" and provide "liberty and justice for all." Belief in a certain God should not be a prerequisite for liberty and justice in this country. Religion-specific ideas are not a part of our national government, and they should not be a part of our pledge to it.
The Pledge of Allegiance was not always such a contradictory statement. Until 1954, it was merely a declaration of belief in the founding values of our country. As such, the pledge was a tribute to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and other American documents, rather than just to a piece of colored cloth.
Then the Knights of Columbus helped spread the addition of "under God," until it was finally adopted nationally. President Eisenhower explained his support of the addition by saying, "In this way we are affirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future." But religious faith has never been the predominant characteristic of America; in fact, many of the first American colonists attempted to escape the requirements of their religions. By including God, the pledge now supports the beliefs of only one part of the American populace. In a country dedicated to the ideal of freedom, including that of religion, God has no place in a nationwide declaration of patriotism.
The addition of "under God" to the pledge has not gone uncontested. In June of 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because of those two words. According to the court, the inclusion of God violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because it implies that the national government endorses Christianity.
As Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote, "A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion." This is exactly the problem with the Pledge of Allegiance as it exists today. It is impossible to allow for freedom of religion when students across the country declare the nation the realm of one particular God.
Many argue that the pledge is not a constitutional violation because it is not mandatory for all students to recite it. It may be voluntary, but schools still present the idea of "one nation under God" as their official position. Most students, rather than attempting to fight against the statement that God prevails in this country, simply recite the pledge because it is easier. Even if they do not actually say the pledge, students are often required to stay silent and stand while the rest of the class recites it. This forces even dissenting students to respect the school recitation of the pledge.
As the 9th District appeals court stated, "Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge." The environment created by the schoolwide statement of the pledge results in an "unacceptable choice between participating and protesting" for the students, according to the appeals court. Despite the legal ability of students to remain silent, the Pledge of Allegiance in reality forces most American students to state the superiority of one religion.
All across the country, students repeat the Pledge of Allegiance day after day, many not even thinking about the words they say. Yet for the significant portion of students who do not believe in the Christian God, the pledge is a contradiction of everything America is supposed to signify. For the Hindi students, the Buddhist, the students of every conceivable religion or of no religion at all, the pledge is not simply a salute to a set of values and the flag that stands for them. It is an admission that their beliefs are not truly welcome in this country. It is a negation of the founding principles of America. It is a national endorsement of Christianity, which is precisely what the First Amendment forbids. It is a Pledge of Allegiance to a religion. The removal of the words "under God" from the pledge is necessary to make it truly a pledge of allegiance to a flag and to a country.
Gilene is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Va. Her special interests are dance and music. She plays oboe, percussion and piano, and has been dancing since she was four with ballet her "main love." She will be attending Yale University.