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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016



Published by FFRF

Upcoming Events & Appearances

Appearances, Debates, Speeches and More

Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Steven Belstra

StevenBelstraSteven Belstra
Grandville, Mich., City Council
Dec. 27, 2015

After the Town of Greece vs. Galloway decision allowing sectarian prayers at certain public meetings, Michigan resident Steven Belstra wanted to let his city council know that there were more than just Christians in its contituency.

"Every time the council had an invocation, it was done by a pastor of some local church," Belstra writes. "People who aren't religious needed some representation. I wouldn't have done it at all if there weren't prayers already taking place at every single other council meeting."

Here is the invocation given by Belstra:

Thank you, Mayor Maas and the Grandville City Council, for having me speak today. My name is Steven Belstra and I am not an ordained minister or priest of any faith. I request from the council and our community that we don't turn toward faith or religion to guide government decisions, but rather good will toward all people in our community.

I speak for the minorities in the area who identify as being secular humanists, atheists and one of the fastest growing groups in America, the nonreligious. Grandville contains many different people who have different beliefs, traditions and cultures, all of which we want to see considered when making decisions for our community. I ask that for today and all future meetings we can approach decisions this way. But it isn't just in our local city council meetings where this should apply, but in all other aspects of human interaction.

2015 will be remembered as a year that major human rights decisions were made in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case, which granted state recognition to all same-sex couples. This decision by the Supreme Court of the United States is a great example of what I am alluding to.

It is in our best interest as a community to view all of our citizens as equals, regardless of their beliefs about an afterlife or their beliefs about human sexuality. So what I ask of my local city council is that you govern with reason and empathy toward all people, regardless of the church I do or don't attend, the person who I marry, or the beliefs that you may or may not share with other citizens of the community.

Thank you for your time, council.

Steven Belstra, 26, is a business systems analyst who worked with FFRF in 2013 trying, unsuccessfully, to erect a Winter Solstice banner next to a nativity scene in Fremont, Mich.

Steven Belstra
Grandville, Mich., City Council
Dec. 27, 2015

After the Town of Greece vs. Galloway decision allowing sectarian prayers at certain public meetings, Michigan resident Steven Belstra wanted to let his city council know that there were more than just Christians in its contituency.

"Every time the council had an invocation, it was done by a pastor of some local church," Belstra writes. "People who aren't religious needed some representation. I wouldn't have done it at all if there weren't prayers already taking place at every single other council meeting."

Here is the invocation given by Belstra:

Thank you, Mayor Maas and the Grandville City Council, for having me speak today. My name is Steven Belstra and I am not an ordained minister or priest of any faith. I request from the council and our community that we don't turn toward faith or religion to guide government decisions, but rather good will toward all people in our community.

I speak for the minorities in the area who identify as being secular humanists, atheists and one of the fastest growing groups in America, the nonreligious. Grandville contains many different people who have different beliefs, traditions and cultures, all of which we want to see considered when making decisions for our community. I ask that for today and all future meetings we can approach decisions this way. But it isn't just in our local city council meetings where this should apply, but in all other aspects of human interaction.

2015 will be remembered as a year that major human rights decisions were made in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case, which granted state recognition to all same-sex couples. This decision by the Supreme Court of the United States is a great example of what I am alluding to.

It is in our best interest as a community to view all of our citizens as equals, regardless of their beliefs about an afterlife or their beliefs about human sexuality. So what I ask of my local city council is that you govern with reason and empathy toward all people, regardless of the church I do or don't attend, the person who I marry, or the beliefs that you may or may not share with other citizens of the community.

Thank you for your time, council.

Steven Belstra, 26, is a business systems analyst who worked with FFRF in 2013 trying, unsuccessfully, to erect a Winter Solstice banner next to a nativity scene in Fremont, Mich.

Terry Sunday
El Paso, Texas, City Council
Oct. 6, 2015

FFRF member Terry Sunday, a "retired aerospace engineer, inveterate world traveler, ethnic cook, prolific Amazon reviewer and lifelong atheist," gave the following secular invocation to the El Paso City Council:

Good morning, Mayor, City Council representatives and fellow El Pasoans, As we meet to conduct the business of the city of El Paso, we must always bear in mind that we all have different needs, wants, views and beliefs. We like and dislike different things, we harbor different notions of right and wrong, we have different levels of tolerance for others' lifestyles, and we envision our roles in society differently.

But surely we can agree that our actions will succeed only to the extent that they best serve the interests of all El Pasoans.

While differences in ethnicity, gender identity, age, religious viewpoint, sexual orientation, skin color, political affiliation and other things distinguish each of us from another, in America we are all equal under the law. Our common ancestors applied their intellects and skills to benefit humankind and bring us to where we are here today. We can do no better than to continue that timeless practice.

As we consider issues in today's meeting:

• Let us show each other respect, tolerance and kindness.
• Let us listen intently and thoughtfully to each other.
• Let us graciously acknowledge and sincerely consider opposing viewpoints.
• Let us demonstrate reason, common sense, cooperativeness and a willingness to compromise.
• Let us commit to do what is right and just, not only in letter but in spirit as well.
• Let us conduct today's meeting with honesty, civility, integrity and open-mindedness.
• And finally, let us always act inclusively, morally, openly, professionally and in the best interests of all the citizens of El Paso.

Now make it so.

Thank you.

Todd Gardner, 1930–2015

FFRF Life Member Todd Gardner, 85, of Palm Springs, Calif., died on Oct. 15, 2015.
Todd worked for the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco from 1951-1998, and was assistant manager at the time of his retirement.

He was together with his partner Gary Gray, also a Life Member, for 30 years, including the last two years as spouses. "We got married by the mayor of Palm Springs," Gary said.
Todd had been a member of FFRF since 1990 and a Life Member since 2010.

FFRF sends heartfelt condolences to Gary and others who knew Todd.

Jerry H. Jeffery Jr.,


Jerry H. Jeffery Jr., 67, of Maitland, Fla., died Aug. 21, 2014. Jerry was born Aug. 4, 1947, in Newport, Ark. He is survived by his wife Anita and two children, Samatha and Michael Jeffery.

Jeffery, an attorney, worked with FFRF's 2014 case against the Orange County (Fla.) School Board for allowing a private group to distribute bibles to 11 schools within the district and, alternatively, to allow FFRF to distribute materials.

Harry Robertson, 1941–2015

Longtime FFRF member Harry Robertson of Lahaina, Hawaii, died at Maui Memorial Medical Center on Oct. 8 at the age of 73, after a nine-year battle with cancer.

He was born Oct. 18, 1941, in South Africa and attended school there. He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town, where he was a member of the rowing team that won the South African National Championship in 1963.

He came to the U.S. in 1968 and got a master's degree in business administration from Cal State-Long Beach and then went to work for Fluor Corp. He retired after 29 years and moved to Hawaii, where he remained active in the community. He enjoyed traveling, visiting six continents and more than 25 countries.

Harry is survived by his wife of 35 years, Peggy Odell Robertson, and two children, Reed Odell Robertson and Kate Robertson Marks.

Peggy wrote the following in a letter to FFRF in November:

"We had been reading Freethought Today for over 30 years and started a Freethought Society here in Maui for a couple of years. Harry and I would divide the newspaper (Freethought Today) as soon as it would come and discuss how great it was.

"Harry was a gracious, kind, thoughtful scholar and a gentleman that everyone liked, besides being an immigrant and accomplishing much in life. I received hundreds of letters and emails from all over the world describing Harry as a wonderful man. I wrote down four pages of adjectives that described him and read them all to our Poetry Society, and at the end I told them he was an atheist and everyone applauded!"

FFRF sends its sincerest condolences to Peggy and those who knew Harvey.

Don Worrell, 1923-2015

Don Worrell, an FFRF Lifetime Member and former Board of Directors member representing Alabama, died on Dec. 16, 2015, in Huntsville, Ala., at the age of 92.

He was graduate of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, with degrees in journalism and business administration.

He served as an Infantry rifleman in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, where his feet were frozen and he was hit by artillery shrapnel "right square in the buttocks," Don said, "as Forrest Gump put it." He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with V for Valor.

He worked as a reporter and news editor on newspapers in Columbus, Ga., Newport News, Va., Norman, Okla., and Tuscaloosa before joining NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville as an information specialist. "In plain language, a PR man," Don explained. Among his duties was speechwriter for the center director, Dr. Wernher von Braun, the German-born creator of the Saturn V Moon rocket.

As Don pointed out, "Dr. von Braun was also the creator of the V-2 rockets, which we used to see flying over our foxholes in Belgium a decade earlier on their way to their targets in London — to me, a rather ironic, even absurdist, commentary on warfare in general."
An enthusiasic ("but totally untalented") golfer from age 12 into his 90s, Don made four holes-in-one along the way. "The first three were luck," he admitted. "But that fourth one was pure skill." After a long pause, "Well, maybe not."

A paying hobby was teaching ballroom dancing, also into his 90s. "I almost made enough to pay for my golf," he laughed. He claimed to be the world's oldest living ballroom dance teacher."

Don is survived by his wife, Naoko, whom he met in 1959, when she was his tour guide during his visit to her hometown of Kyoto, Japan. They have a son, Ken, also of Hunstville.

Per Don's wishes, no funeral sevices were held.

He liked the epitaph: "Once I wasn't. Then I was. Now I ain't again." And, to quote Richard Dawkins, "Being dead will be no different than being unborn. I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs."

"We will greatly miss Don, a warm and vital presence at many national conventions and events at Lake Hypatia, Ala., with the Alabama Freethought Society chapter," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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Sharing the crank mail

Our mail is like a box of chocolates, we never know what we're gonna get. But here's a taste, with comments printed as received.

Your website is disgruntled and meaningless: Message: Your website has a quiz mocking peoples education about the Bible. Your questions isolate issues in the Bible, that I know for a fact your staff HAS NO IDEA how to understand. You are not people of the book, you are childish mockers of the book. Your entire organization is a faith group bent on the worship and zealotry of Richard Darwin's Study. May God look over you. — Matthew Smithson, California

your uneducated leader Annie Laurie Gaylor: Your leader Mr. Annie Galor is either an idiot in search of a village or he is on drugs. I would also like to say YOU ALSO HAVE NO FREEDOM FROM RELIGION!! Please be my guest and go to the middle east, preferably Syria, and shout you beliefs there. I don't expect an answer since you have no defense. — Keith Rohlmeier, Edmond, Okla.

Who started the universe?: If there's no Deity, how did everything get started? — John Schwarting, Live Oak, Texas

Your inappropriate networking activities:

Im really fed up with you guys trying to follow my allies around and harass us in one shape or another. Your use of networking into federal government is the kind of thing president kennedy warned the people about. I will let the President of the United States know what kind of defamation and civil harassment you guys are engaging in in the name of democracy. Kindly cease and desist from your forced marketing ad hosting of the film "Spotlight" as well. I will direct either the French and or Jeff Mace from Kearny NJ to create undue technical logistical problems for your harassing media endeavors. You are to cease and desist from entering CBN, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn New York near DUMBO. Do you understand? YES? GOOD. — Jean Kim, Kearny, N.J.

Concord High School Nativity Scene: Tell Annie Laurie Gaylor that since her jaw dropped about the Nativity scene she can just suck my dick. I know Christians shouldn't say something like that but then someone like her should just put her mouth to good use. — Connor Kaisch, Texas

harris county sheriff jolley: I am from Waukesha County in the town of Vernon, Wis. I left that hellhole of a state. Just as that corrupt governor Doyle was leaving office! You liberal jerks are one of the reasons I got the Hell out of that state and went somewhere free of People like you in East Texas! If it weren't for men like Sheriff Holley and Vietnam veterans like me, my dad in Ww II , my grandpa in Ww I, you would not have the rights to express your twisted opinion. — Rob Painter

Bibles: You offend me but I can't remove your face from the internet ....doesn't that as sound ridiculous? GOD be with you — Laura D

Bullies with no respect: What a bunch of bullies you are. You go around demanding things from your little itty bitty tiny group of "over 22500 members" like your shit doesn't stink. But you know what you are the minority. By pushing your extreme agenda you are only making people hate you more and more and are going to bring about your own demise. You make demands like little children and go cry to some libtard judge until you get your way. — Brandon Culp

Bibles in hotels: Please, please, PLEASE stop with your inane crusade to remove religion from every place and every event you do not like. God was here before you and will be here LONG after you leave. If you don't like something, turn your head, change the channel, or close the drawer and leave the Bible in there. You people are just as bad as the NAACP and labor unions. — Douglas Nodurft

A high school nativity play ? You blocked that ?: Hey assholes- you people are on my shit list. Keep up your trash. We are Conservative Americans, who believe in this nation. Under God. We will push back. — David Laity

Heathens: That crap you pulled at Concord Highschool in Indiana proves how ignorant and petty you are. You are no better than ISIS. The school will probably go on with the Nativity Scene anyway.Please leave our country and especially Indiana. You're stinking up our air. — Nancy Erie

Freedom: people like you over the years have caused a decay in the foundation of this country and you obviously do not understand the constitution and twist it in to suit your own agenda. If it was good in the 50's its good new or updated interpretation needed. Your violating their 2nd amendment rights!! — Shawn Harper

Live nativity scene: fuck you and your bullshit non christian family whining about a scene about mary and jesus. FUCK YOU — Kelly Diehl

Ignorant: While in military I was killed....I was dead for two hours.....I have walked on the other side of life for two hours I've seen heaven I've seen hell...the bible states that everyone that includes all of you...will one day bow before Jesus life to salvation, or after death to might not believe in God this side of life but on the other side everyone believes.... — Dan Fuller

Bibles in hotels: There were no school shootings until you helped chase prayer out of school. Organizations like yours are as reprehensible as any terrorist organization — Neil English

Your lame-ass organization: You assholes are no better than the ISIS bastards that are trying to destroy America. Head on back to Russia, China, Iran where you belong and will most likely get killed by those folks. It would be the sweetest thing for all you folks to hang from the rafters upside down until you heads explode. Fuck you and the mothers that bore you. — Bill Winkler

Something you need to know: There is a God. Something can't come from nothing so something must be eternal. It can't be energy because it would all be unusable by now and virtual particles have been proven to be created by already existing energy. Matter would all be dust by now because of the natural order of decay. God is the only logical explanation for our existence. — Jenifer Carrico

Tolerance: You folks are no better than the church that wants to shut down the tittie-bar. They have a REASON! It might impact... You have a REASON! It might impact...
I knw you won't stop. Why? For the same reason they won't $$$$$$$$$$$$$$ YOU ARE BOGUS. and you know it. — Bret Loomis

Religious displays in parks: You can be free from religion if you wish. That's your right. But we are sick and tired of you treading on our rights for our religion. Back off and stay out of Mississippi. We don't need any help from you to run our state. The majority is supposed to rule. Not one over everyone else. — Gail Williams, Mississippi

Let me try to figure this out: I will pray that only more conviction will come upon your scheme of destroying your great nation. Keep looking up because the fairy tale is coming soon, or shall I say the reality of Jesus Christ in all of His glory. — Brian Plum, London, Ontario

Stop: I need y'all to hear me out. I am 19 years old and have been a Christian since I was born, even though I was saved and baptized at 9. I heard about the 'In God We Trust' decal article and that has crossed the line! My dad is an officer and a Christian. Please don't say I'm pushing my religion on y'all because I'm not. Y'all are pushing your views on me. Jesus is my SAVIOR, not my religion! He can be your Savior, too. I know y'all know that. Anyway, please email me back? My intention really is not to verbally fight, but to further the Kingdom. — Caroline Billiot, Bossier City, La.

You Fags: Hi faggotts. Picketed any fire stations lately for expressing their freedom of speech? Screw ALL of you. Hell has a special place reserved just for you!!! — Jerry Babbitt

you fucking people deserve to go back to the monkeys you came from: You are truly a pathetic bunch of douchebags. I hope none of you asswiping goat fuckers celebrate Christmas, you hypocritical bunch of turd ticklers. Get a life and please stay out of everyone elses. — Tim Delaney

Religion as a primary cause of war

FFRF awarded Sara $200.

By Sara Rose

Religion has taken on two major roles in war and terrorism since the beginning of civilization. Religion acts as a motivation for violence. One group may see the actions of another as an affront to their god, decency and morality. They may wish to defend their god and their morals with swords or bombs. Religion can also act as justification for violence, and this role has become more common as globalization has increased. In these instances, we see a group of people who are after the resources of another. Instead of coming off as criminals, they claim religious rights over said resource, and rush into battle feeling self-righteous. Political scientists have found that not only is religion one of the most prominent reasons for violence, but the very nature of religion changes the human mind in such a way as to make violence against other people easier to commit and justify.

Those who deny the role of religion in war are choosing to ignore solid data that proves otherwise. The numbers on the subject point very decidedly to organized religion as a major cause or excuse for death and destruction. Matthew White, librarian, historian and writer, has compiled vast statistics on the subject of death and war. In his book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, he estimates that 10% of the most deadly wars in human history were caused directly by religious conflict, with the death toll of these wars being 53.5 million people. Of these, the majority were fought between groups of Christians. Tying for second place were Christians versus Muslims, versus Jews, and versus various Eastern religions. Another study, called, "God and War: Audit and Exploration," by the BBC, found that religion was a major factor in starting 21% of wars in recorded history. Even more disturbing, Oxford political scientist Monica Duffy Toft found that the instances of religion-based civil wars are actually increasing. According to her research, the percentage of civil wars that are based on religion has increased from 22% in the 1960s to 50% in the past decade. She notes that religiously-based civil wars "tend to last longer than secular civil wars (about two years longer), are more deadly to noncombatants, are less amenable to settlement by negotiation, and are more likely to recur than nonreligious wars." In just three examples we can see what an outlandish statement it is that religion is anything short of a major cause of war and violence.

When looking over these statistics it is easy to see where someone might grab onto the idea that few of these percentages are above 30. However, it is imperative to understand that analyses are being made based on the stated reasons for wars. These numbers do not take into account the myriad times when religion has not been cited as the cause of a war, but was employed by political leaders as a justification for it. On top of that, we must keep in mind that religion can also be utilized to make it easier for soldiers to kill people.

Religion creates an "us versus them" mentality, which can lead to increased willingness toward violence. There are many who feel that their actions and fate are out of their control and in the hands of god(s). This absolves them of personal responsibility. Additionally, the idea of life after death may lead people to believe that killing others is not a way of ending their existence, but merely moving them from this plane of existence to some other, where they will no longer pose a threat. They do not remotely comprehend the permanence and absoluteness of their actions. Without such influence, many soldiers would have difficulty killing another man without hesitation. Furthermore, there is a connection between the perceived authority a deity has over a believer's body and the actions that person can be expected to take on behalf of their god. If a person believes that their religion has a say in what they do to their body, and there is a significant affront to their religious beliefs, that person could be driven to the most extreme acts of religious violence: suicide terrorism.

The function and scale of religion relating to violence is staggering. Religion is meant to provide morals, alleviate fear of death, and attempt to explain the complex. It is outrageous that something which should bring order to a person's life can be twisted into the driving force of destruction. A few modern leaders do have some ideas for peace that may help to quell such violence in the future, though. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, asserts that Jewish peacemaking in the Middle East may need to begin with mourning, which is a large part of Jewish tradition. The Quran states, "If God had so willed, he would have made you one community but he wanted to test you . . . " which should act as a call for peace.

Amid the religious turbulence of Nigeria, two men have found a way to turn their religious animosity into a positive force for their community. Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye began their journey as bitter enemies, but have since come together, and encouraged their followers to put an end to the extreme religious terrorism of Kaduna. These men serve as an example for the kind of change the world's religious leaders need to take, and does provide the tiniest glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, the nature of religion, combined with a growing global population, and an unwillingness to change among many groups, still leaves the world at the mercy of religious war.

Sara is 26 and grew up in rural Massachusetts. She has lived in 17 homes in nine cities in four states. She is now residing in Bend, Ore., and attends Oregon State University. She is majoring in natural resources and minoring in sustainability with a planned graduation in June 2017.

An explosive mix: Religion and violence

FFRF awarded Samuel $200.

By Samuel David Capps

A blast inside a warehouse causes it to burn to the ground and kills five workers inside. An investigation reveals an arsonist started a fire in a janitorial closet. The emergency sprinklers should have been sufficient to extinguish the flames before they spread, but then it's discovered that workers during an earlier shift inappropriately stored several pallets of explosives next to the janitor's closet that allowed the fire to detonate and ultimately burn uncontrollably. Law enforcement and insurance companies are now left to sort out who's at fault. Most obviously, the arsonist should be prosecuted. He started the fire that caused the explosion and did so with destructive intentions. But had the explosives been properly stored by the earlier shift, the disaster and deaths likely would have been avoided. In interviews, the employees said they felt the situation was unsafe but followed their supervisor's orders anyway. The supervisor, the seemingly likely culprit, claimed company officials assured him the practice was safe, yet he admitted that he'd asked about safety only once in passing. The company's safety training program and facilities were found to be adequate, but it was revealed little was done to promote proper safety protocol in practice. While the arsonist is clearly to blame for setting the fire, the company and its employees were negligent for sure, and while they did nothing to directly cause the explosion, they also did nothing to actively prevent a potentially deadly situation.

Widespread religious violence occurs in much the same way as the explosion. President Obama and others are not incorrect in blaming religious violence on a handful of extremists, but they are pointing out the obvious; they are blaming the arsonist. The people who are very often left unmentioned are the billions of religious people around the world who stand by and leave religion exposed to extremist interpretation.

Religion, like the pallets of explosives, is often a seemingly neutral factor in the promotion of violence. Religion is not a person. It does not have free will and cannot act on its own. Religion is an idea, and ideas, like explosives, are tools made and used by people. Explosives go into bombs, but they are also used to build dams, safely demolish old, disintegrating structures and make beautiful fireworks displays. Religions are used in much the same ways: they can teach people to live together peacefully, find deeper meanings in life and nourish souls. At the same time, religions can divide groups of people, stifle individual freedoms and justify wars. Because people feel they are being called by a higher power, religion, like explosive material, has the potential to be extremely dangerous; but when used carefully and handled properly, religion can inspire a great deal of good. Recent examples include Pope Francis' focus on mercy and on helping the poor and marginalized as well as Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani's teachings of co-existence with the Bahá'í faith in Iran. If religious violence is to be contained and prevented, followers of all faiths must firmly reject and speak out against hateful, divisive, and violent teachings. People of all beliefs must be constantly active in preventing devastating explosions of religious violence.

It's easy to see how these principles apply to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups. Right now religious violence is focused in the Islamic world. The Middle East is a hotbed of extremism, hatred and bloodshed, and too few Muslims are taking a stand against it. However, violence has occurred in the name of every religion and often simmers just below the surface of all creeds. Even in the United States, by comparison an incredibly peaceful and civil country, religious intolerance exists. It is evident in the hateful, ethnocentric speech of small groups of extreme Christians, in the threatened Quran burning by Terry Jones and his followers, and in violence such as the Sikh temple shooting in 2012. While these acts may seem unrelated and perpetrated by lone wolves, they share a common religious and cultural background. Because the violence is not widespread and rampant, too few Americans speak out against it. It is obvious to those in the U.S. that such hateful acts are not what Christianity stands for today, but that fact is not so obvious to those in Muslim countries. Conversely, an alarming number of Christians believe Islam is inherently violent and must be countered with violence. It's that misunderstanding between faiths that escalates the intolerance and killing. People must speak out to quell extremism within their own religions and to communicate to other faiths that fundamentalist acts are "not in our name." The failure to stand up against extreme views is negligence; it's a failure to safely handle powerful systems of belief.

Religion in itself is not to blame for violence in its name, but a small handful of fundamentalists are not solely the problem, either. Extremists start the fires, but the rest of us, religious and nonreligious, are to blame for standing by while explosive situations threaten to ignite the world.

Samuel, 29, was born and raised in Vernon, Texas. He is in the graduate architecture program at Cornell University and plans to graduate in 2018. As an undergraduate, he attended Texas Tech University where he earned degrees in architecture and sociology. He hopes to teach architecture at a university and also head a small firm designing public buildings.

Religious perversion: Ignoring the violence

FFRF awarded Tara $400.

By Tara Clifford

The claim that there are only a few extremists in the world perverting religion is a very confusing one. Let us be clear on the definition "to pervert." According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is to "alter (something) from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended." The only people perverting religion are those who look at their holy books and ignore all the violence and senseless murder, and who see only peace and love. These people try to use critical thinking and common sense in an area where it does not fit. To truly follow religion, one cannot pick and choose. The "cafeteria Catholic" is wrong; religion is not a buffet. Religion requires fundamentalism, and this fundamentalism calls for violence. To rationalize religion is to go against one of the main tenets: that of blind, unquestionable faith.

There is an extreme case of Holy Amnesia going around. Coined by Professor Philip Jenkins, Holy Amnesia is when a follower ignores all of the horrendous, cruel and violent texts of their holy scriptures and only sees what they want. God has never condoned the killing of innocent people? All it takes is a quick Internet search on "religion and violence" to have access to hundreds of pages of quotes from all sorts of holy books calling for murder and destruction. Leviticus 20:13 is a trending theme currently, as it states, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death...." There is a whole other list of people who should be put to death, but this is a fan favorite. Many argue that this was meant for a specific time and place. People will go to great lengths to make excuses and rationalize the issue. Nonetheless, the only real interpretation is if you see a homosexual, kill him.

Christians of the Western world have a special kind of self-centered Holy Amnesia. They are able to forget and ignore all the violence in the bible, but are more than ready to point out the violence in the Quran. However, they are both winners as far as violence goes. The Quran 8.12 says, "so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip." Just as with Christian apologists, they will argue that you have to look in context of time, claim that it was meant for specific nonbelievers (definitely not for anyone today), or will even fight fire with fire saying, "Well, the bible says bad stuff, too!" As we all know, two wrongs do not make a right, and two holy books calling for death do not make peace.

This reminds me of the Mormons. Like everyone else, they take 15 steps back when the term "fundamentalist" is mentioned, but they are in the same rocky boat as every other religion. Mormonism has a hidden gem in it, opening it to a whole new world of violence and destruction. The Doctrine and Covenants 91-92 state "...the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to... be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet..." This means that whoever is in charge can change God's word on a whim. Did you know that God told Warren Jeffs to rape little boys and marry and then rape little girls? Because he is the mouth of God for his sect, his own brothers did not even question his actions as they held down their 5-year old nephew for Warren Jeffs to rape. Since it was all in his head, there is no existing reference in a holy book about this crime, but it was still God's will after all.

A possible solution seems simple on paper, but may be next to impossible to accomplish. Religion is a system of brainwashing. It tells you to believe no matter what. One is to abandon reason and critical thinking and just believe in things that do not make sense. So then, how can we expect people to go through their holy book with discernment, deciding they will only follow some of God's word but not all? The solution is education. At the very least, if people had an education they would develop reason and critical thinking. Then they could pervert their religion and not follow blindly.

To say that religions do not condone violence, terrorism and senseless murder is laughable, at best. All you have to do is pick up one of the holy books and read through their pages. That is why I am proud to be an atheist. I will never have to follow something blindly or try to make excuses for a god and his actions. Instead of destroying this life for a rewarding afterlife, I will make this life better because it is all we have.

Tara Clifford, 30, was born in New Jersey but currenly resides in Olyphant, Penn. She is working toward a graduate degree in mental health counseling from Marywood University, which is where she also got a B.A. in communication arts. She plans to graduate in May 2018 and hopes to be accepted into a doctoral program. She is a 20-year vegetarian who loves reading about religious cults, dreaming about what the country will be like with Bernie Sanders as president, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

Religions are responsible for their unclear teachings

FFRF awarded Peter $500.

By Peter D. A. Wood

Since adolescence I have been taught that I am held accountable for what I tell others. As a child, if I told my younger siblings that a boogie man was in the basement, my parents held me responsible for dealing with their night terrors or overly aggressive relationship with the basement staircase. Reasonable parents would address a fear-mongering child like me by telling me to verify my claims before they might scare others. As adults we are similarly expected to think before we preach. Ironically, this type of accountability is rarely applied to the self-declared preachers of churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship.

When faced with the problem of violent religious extremism, the institutions that extremists claim to be part of often claim those very groups to be non-representative outliers. In other words, they suggest that because hateful deviants fail to represent belief systems in a marketing-friendly manner, their association with the "peaceful" teachings of mainstream religions must be nullified and rejected. I find at least one viewpoint to be helpful in exploring such a problem: product liability law. This legal framework demonstrates how an undeniable contract, denoted in holy scripture and distributed by clergy as a divine bond between sinner and creator, exists between religious bodies and extremists committing horrific acts based on the doctrines and teachings of those religions. For success, eternal or otherwise, religions must be held responsible for the terrestrial results of any unclear or harmful orders found in those doctrines.

Product liability — the concept that producers of a product are held responsible for direct damages induced by that product — is directly related to how religions function.

Organized religions produce worldviews, often dogmatically, which are essentially "purchased" by members of those faiths. People buy into religious dogma with the understanding that obedience to these instructions will yield terrestrial and heavenly rewards. Whether interpretations of these instructions result in something trivial (such as disinterest in grilled catfish) or something abhorrent (such as genocide), culpability needs to be assessed and asserted.

Within Christianity there are numerous examples of biblical references to self-sacrifice and later reward. Even in the New Testament — the less controversial testament showing a kinder, less megalomaniacal side of God — we see a producer-consumer type of relationship. Here God asks us to offer ourselves by praising him (Hebrews 13:15), and in turn we shall receive eternal salvation (1 Peter 1:5). 1 John 3:23 says that we are to believe in Jesus and love one another to gain entry into heaven. Love, however, takes many forms depending on the context. Love is commonly expressed in nonviolent or peaceful ways, but these options do not form an exhaustive list. Within the bible we are told by Jesus to "harm no man" (Luke 3:14), but this same loving God also reminds us that nonbelievers will face "fire" and "perdition" on judgment day (2 Peter 3:7). When we consider doublespeak like this, it is easier to understand how "fighting the good fight" (1 Timothy 6:12) can mean both defending the meek and exploited (such as women and minorities), but also eliminating heretics (such as abortion-performing physicians) in order to purify God's earth.

Many religious leaders say those guilty of atrocities done in the name of religion are radicals not connected to the institution. But did these radicals generate their ideas and association to, say, Islam or Buddhism, in a vacuum? Is it a coincidence radical Islamists revere the same Allah as nonviolent imams? No, because the religion responsible for the creation of this figure (and the promises he makes as a condition for obeying him) instigated much of the killer-making process. In this sense, religions are responsible for both the peaceful and violent products they inspire.

If radicals are not apt representations of a religion, but instead faulty products of the system of belief they try to uphold, isn't their producer still liable?

When Barack Obama says extremists are misguided, or Pope Francis says they are religious deviants, we can make a logical connection: These misinterpretations and deviations come from doctrines which are susceptible to being misinterpreted. Events like the Second Vatican Council demonstrate how unclear doctrine is a concern that must be addressed. If similar lack of clarity inspires thousands to kill in the name of God, these doctrines certainly have not been made clear enough.

Religions are producers much like manufacturing companies. The products they distribute can be wondrous or they can be toxic hazards. Imagine if religions were taxed like manufacturers and sold their texts explicitly as instruction manuals for reaching heaven (much like "get rich quick!" or "lose 50 pounds drinking lemon juice!" scams). Ambiguities within these texts would be held as liabilities and not as excused discretions in judgment. Extremists acting as self-appointed representatives of faith are not the only faces of religion, but they are religious ambassadors nonetheless. As atheists, secularists and agnostics, we must hold religions accountable for the messages they disseminate, rather than shamefully agreeing with their leaders that moderate belief is the only form of piety. Religious violence is a polarizing, multifaceted phenomenon.

Solving it must start from within religious institutions by holding them accountable for their products, whether they are effective or dangerous. While asking for a recall of bibles, Qurans, and Bhagavad-Gitas like faulty microwave ovens is a bit ambitious, we should still strive to neutralize their negative influences. This can — and should — be done through firm diplomatic pressure toward countries tolerant of religions evading responsibility for their teachings. Through political accountability perhaps religious leaders will think twice before delivering unverifiable sermons based on misleading doctrines.

Peter is a 27-year-old graduate student from Davenport, Iowa. He's a fifth-year doctoral candidate in geography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., and plans to graduate in May 2016. He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2010 with degrees in geography and political science. He is a member of the Secular Student Alliance at FSU.

The fundamental link between religion and violence

FFRF awarded Emily $750.

By Emilee Prado

Some people argue that religion cannot be held responsible for violence in its name. However, I believe that violence is fundamentally linked to both Islam and Christianity. Of course, religious violence is not confined to these religions but, for lucidity and brevity, this essay will limit its scope.

Today, perhaps the most recognized religious terrorism comes from the Middle East in the form of a group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS follows the teachings of Islam and supports terrorism as a way of achieving its religious goals.

Another example of a radical terrorist group is The Army of God. This group is made up of Christians who support acts of terrorism on those who are not aligned with their beliefs. Labeled "extremist," these two groups are often thought not to represent their religions as a whole. However, it is clear that although they are radicalized in their beliefs, all forms of religious terrorism, as the term suggests, have underpinnings in religion and cannot be separated from it. Religious terrorists are extremists who share the same foundations with others of their religion while taking Islam or Christianity to its plausible extents. Despite concurrent messages of peace, violence is an intrinsic part of these religions, and can only be stopped by emphasizing universal tolerance among religions.

It is important to look at examples from the Quran and the bible in order to investigate how violence and religion are connected. It is clear how religious terrorists are not "perverting" their religion, but rather embodying it. A passage in the Quran reads, "Kill them whenever you confront them and drive them out from where they drove you out. (For though killing is sinful) wrongful persecution is even worse than killing . . ." (Surah 2.191). Justice and retribution of past injustices are at the heart of this passage. The radical group ISIS takes Allah's directions literally and it kills as punishment for prior wrongful persecution. People who do not directly oppose Islam can be seen as innocent bystanders in the eyes of many outside ISIS. However, this group largely follows the "If you're not with us, you're against us" manner of thinking. Although this is a logical fallacy, it is a common human point of view to see life in these terms. Moreover, this method of exacting justice is at the heart of the Quran and proves to be a direct tie between violence and religion.

According to the bible, thousands of years ago, God destroyed nearly all human life on the planet as a punishment for failure to heed him as a divine being (Genesis 6-9). In the story of Noah's flood, God himself commits violent acts and commands destruction. As one of the oldest stories in Western religion, the flood provides an intrinsic connection between religion and violence, a demand for justice, and a direct killing of innocent people in God's name. According to the God in the bible, these people were not innocent; they were wicked sinners who deserved the consequence of death. However, a secular look at the story of the flood reveals someone who slaughtered humans as a castigation for not aligning themselves with his beliefs. It also perhaps counters President Obama's argument that "no god condones the killing of innocents." Although later God promised never to flood the earth again, what he did was seen by him and his followers as a righteous act.

Killing to overcome wrongful persecution in the Quran and killing as a punishment for wicked ways in the bible are two instances of virtuous murder. Respectively, these are the very same precedents that are at the core of both ISIS and The Army of God. Believing wrongful persecution is worse than killing, followers of ISIS have no qualms about committing terrorist attacks if they are doing it for these reasons. Similarly, The Army of God seeks to punish the wicked, as God commands, by sanctioning the murders of abortionists. Both of these extremist organizations therefore embody the violent acts of Allah or God. Extremists may not represent the majority of those who share their religion, but they often directly follow Allah or God's example on how to punish those who do not share in their religious beliefs.

Teachings of peace and non-violence are also found in the fundamentals of Islam and Christianity. When there are clear calls to violence through commands and examples, alongside clear calls to peace, it is up to the individual which path to follow. Pacifists choose one way and religious terrorists choose another.

After seeing how deeply rooted violence is within Islam and Christianity, it becomes clear that violence and religion are intertwined in a complicated meshwork. Perhaps then, in an effort to thwart religions terrorism, we can preach non-exclusive religion. Both Islam and Christianity present a "them" who oppose an "us." This can be changed by deconstructing these boundaries and emphasizing universal tolerance. We should recognize that, taken as a whole, both Islam and Christianity are flawed and we should accept them as such. Moreover, if we extract the positive messages of love and peace from these religions, those who seek it can have a spiritual basis that is not overseen by a religious figure whom both tolerates and commands violence.

Emilee was born in Littleton, Colo. and is 25 years old. She received a bachelor's degree in Film Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2013. Emilee is in her first year of graduate school at the University of Denver where she will be working toward an MFA in creative writing. She is expecting to graduate in the spring of 2017 and hopes to use her degree to help further her career as a writer and a novelist. Emilee is a member of the Secular Student Alliance and believes that creativity and freedom of personal expression are essentials to all human life.

What could possibly be the cause of religious terrorism?

FFRF awarded Alex $1,000.

By Alex Flitter

Let's say I'm a Communist. But not just a Communist, a devout and reverent Communist. Reading the Communist Manifesto daily brings relief, peace and direction to my life. I believe in the book so much that I take every word literally. Moreover, I live my life trying my best to emulate the words and actions of Marx.

Now let's say there are other people who call themselves Communists, but they have a much more allegorical take on the Communist Manifesto. They preach that Marx didn't mean that an actual revolution was necessary, but rather a revolution within ourselves. That the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were simply metaphors for the differences in opinions that people have, and that Marx was actually calling for more understanding among people when he called for a classless society.

Now, these allegorical Communists could possibly be more in touch with reality than I am. And they could very well be better people. But simply put, I would be the more faithful Communist. If I were to commit an unspeakable act to advance the aims of communism, would it be realistic to say that "people are responsible for violence and terrorism" and not the ideology that inspired me? (Just for the record, Mr. Senator, I'm not a Communist.)
I understand why President Obama said, regarding ISIS, that "no religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism," and I recognize that he needs very religious countries to take the lead on combating ISIS. But understanding his rationale doesn't mean he's not being intentionally myopic. To hear the president and many others tell the story of religious terrorism, it's that terrorists use the guise of religion to promote their nonreligious hate and destruction. I suppose I could buy that rationale, if not for the fact that, when interviewed, terrorists or supporters of terrorism directly quote their religious texts to back up their noxious beliefs.

In his first statement offering rationale for why he planted bombs in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph quoted a passage from the bible (Psalms 144:1). When ISIS distributed a pamphlet describing the proper protocol for how to treat children and women as slaves, they offered a direct quote from the Quran (23: 5-6). When leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri released his classic page-turner "Jihad, Martyrdom and the Killing of Innocents," he directly quotes passages from the Sunnah and Haddith to justify martyrdom and the murder of innocents.

This seems to cause cognitive dissonance among the majority of the religious that don't commit atrocities.

They are unable to reconcile how books that bring them joy and peace could drive many to kill. But one read-through of any of the central religious texts makes it clear how such a discrepancy can arise.

This is because the holy books of the major Western religions are remarkably bipolar, interspersed with countless messages of both love and hate at a rapid pace. The very same book of the New Testament calls for gay men to be punished (Romans 1:27) and then later encourages one to live peacefully with all men (Romans 12:18). The Quran praises those who do good deeds and notes the forgiveness of God (9:91). But that very same chapter also calls for people who worship a different god (idolaters) to be murdered or forced to convert (9:5).

Therefore, religious scripture is often a veritable "choose your own adventure" book. If a religious person has an inclination to help people and be kind to others, they can find justification to act that way. And if a religious person has an inclination toward bigotry and supremacism, they can certainly find justification as well. But when a person does the latter, they're not contorting peaceful religious passages to suit their abhorrent objectives. They are reading the hateful passages word for word and disregarding common sense and common decency because they believe that it is the literal word of God.

It may come as a surprise after this little diatribe that I really don't hate religion. I'm not so petty as to ignore the positive actions that have been done in the name of religion. I don't overlook the money amassed and the hours volunteered for worthwhile causes that were inspired by faith. I'm also willing to acknowledge that, thankfully, religious terrorists consist of only a small fraction of those who follow their religion and aren't representative of those groups. But if a nonreligious person is willing to admit these things, isn't it time for the religious community to admit the truth about religious terrorism to themselves?

In every ideology, the more literalistic and strident a person's passion is, the more pure they are to that ideology. But most ideologies are malleable and evolve over time. However, most religions are centered around texts that are thousands of years old and are supposed to contain the literal word of God. Luckily, the majority of the religious are selectively ignoring the passages containing brutality that didn't belong in the 8th century, let alone the 21st century. But some aren't.

It's gotten to a point where after every violent act perpetrated by a religious terrorist, we go into "No True Scotsman" mode, in which we wish away the culpability of religion by convincing ourselves that it's just that one bad egg, and not the religion, that's the problem. But it's also gotten to the point where we have hundreds of thousands of bad eggs in just the past few decades. It's time for those who only praise the good religion brings while willfully ignoring the bad eggs to finally admit that there's something wrong with the chicken.

"I am 26 years old and my hometown is Cherry Hill, N.J. In 2012, I graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. I am now attending Rutgers University to earn a Master's degree in psychology with an anticipated graduation date of May 2016. I have various interests in the field of psychology, including political psychology and social neuroscience. I am also a member of the Student Secular Alliance."

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