Innocence lost, acceptance found
FFRF awarded Kierra $200.
By Kierra Robertson
It all started that fateful day in elementary school when my former best friend asked me, "Do you believe in God?" I innocently answered "no," not realizing the repercussions. I saw it as the same caliber of question that went with "What's your favorite color?" That innocent idea was quite wrong.
Immediately I was surrounded by accusations and harsh reactions. Apparently I couldn't have any morals, even though I felt myself perfectly normal. I was horrified. Why should I be rejected like this? Why should I be told that I am evil?
When I got home, my mother told me what I had already learned by this point, that I shouldn't ever tell anyone that I was an atheist. I didn't think it was fair, seeing as all the other children could talk all they wanted about their religions without fear of repercussion. But I was different. I was instructed to hide my absence of belief and keep my head low.
After a while, it became apparent that word had gotten around because soon everyone was asking if I was a believer. Using my mother's rule as a rock to stand on, I pulled myself from the current by saying, "My mom says I'm not allowed to talk about religion at school."
After more goading to get me to tell them, they eventually gave up, perhaps thinking of me as a "goody-goody," but at least not as some evil demon spawn.
People in high school were more accepting. In fact, one of the most popular kids at my school loudly proclaimed allegiance to atheism. It was a relief to tell my friends who I was and how I viewed the world and not be scorned or ridiculed. The only issue that presented itself was in my freshman year when I was left by someone I cared for due to my "immorality" as an atheist.
Then there's my grandma. I have been instructed to never tell her because she'd completely freak out. She's a devout Christian who would completely feel that "her beloved granddaughter is succumbing to the devil" and would do her best to rid me of my ideas. I know it's somewhat minor, but it feels wrong that I can't even tell my own family members who I am without being accepted.
I know for a fact, through my own experiences, that atheists can be just as moral or more moral than Christians. I have always been one of the more seemingly moral people at school, helping small creatures while other people, often religious, kill them with apparent relish. A person doesn't require a religion to be a decent human being. We are all in this together, and many atheists, although shunned, continue working for the common good because they know this.
I am an atheist because I don't see any evidence that there is a deity. Too many terrible things have happened, and there is simply too much horror in the world. Morally, I simply care for everything on my own without needing some sort of divine intervention to keep me in check. Respecting and loving the planet and other people is simply something I do because it feels right to me.
Even though it might seem like an uphill battle, I'm doing my best to show the world how atheists can be moral. While it might seem ridiculous that we have to prove ourselves, every stigmatized group has had to. Why would we be any different? I just believe in doing my best to be good.
Kierra Robertson, 18, graduated from Northwood High School in Pittsboro, N.C., and is attending to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "My goal is to obtain an advanced degree in statistics and minor in environmental science. Since childhood, I have been very interested in mathematics, human rights and the environment."
Honorable mention: High school essay 'Good Without God' contest
Blind faith: The real problem with religion
FFRF awarded Julian $200.
By Julian Rauter
I have always believed that there is a reason to make ethical choices beyond the fact that someone is watching. I was raised in a household where morality was a given. My parents taught me about sharing and respecting other's viewpoints without invoking the threat of God's watchful eyes. I understood from a young age that I needed to be good for my own benefit and the benefit of others, not because there was a higher power constantly passing judgment on my actions.
It is no shock, then, that I grew up to be an atheist.
For a long time, I was hateful toward religion and faith in general. However, maturity and contemplation have helped me understand that the problem is not faith itself, but blind faith.
There is no hatred in the heart of a religious follower who understands the historical context of their sacred text but still finds its teachings helpful. There is hatred in the heart of a religious follower who interprets their text as the literal word of God Almighty passed down through his anointed servants on Earth. These are the Zionists detonating car bombs, the Muslims sending money and guns to ISIS, the Christians campaigning to ban evolution from public schools.
Every religion has its easily led and blindly devoted followers. Even Buddhism has encouraged the oppression of minority groups in Southeast Asia. Religious people are entirely capable of hatred and undue aggression, and much of this is motivated by blind faith.
The question is, where does blind faith come from? I believe it is due to a false correlation between religion and morality. I know many religious people who understand the value of being good as an end unto itself and may have been helped to that understanding by their religion. I've also met an equal number of religious people who assume that following the rules of their particular doctrine simply makes them a good person. They eat the wafer, wear the yarmulke, abstain from pork and assume "that's good enough." While these rituals all have their value to the culture of each faith, they are not intrinsically valuable. They do not prevent the worshiper from doing wrong.
Those who follow religious tradition by rote gain nothing; their thinking has been done for them. Herein lies the intrinsic problem with organized religion: When left unchecked, it creates one-track minds. Generations of unquestioning belief breed monocultures wherein children are raised to believe that the answer to the question "Why am I here?" is located in one book. This belief is faulty only due to its scope.
Humans have written many thousands of books trying to answer that question. What are the odds that anyone got it exactly right? Is it not far more likely that the answer is spread across many books, all of which must be taken with a healthy dose of context? People who have only studied one text are bound to be closed-minded and insular. This is true whether the text is the Quran or Great Expectations. But it's especially regrettable when the text holds its followers as part of an elite few exclusively blessed with the secrets of the world. This leads to an undeserved feeling of superiority and, eventually, to decidedly immoral behavior.
We are all part of the same species with the same physical and emotional needs. No one among us has the right to claim that we are truly "better." Therefore, the perception that followers of any religion are morally cleaner than nonbelievers is just that: a perception.
As Americans, we have the privilege of not being required to pray at one specific altar, or any altar at all. This allows us to seek paths to morality and enlightenment that are less faith-based. In the end, it is not about the paths that people take but the direction in which they are going.
I am proud to say that I am heading toward freethought and morality, and I don't need God's help to get there.
Julian Robert Rauter, 17, attended Margaretville Central School in Margaretville, N.Y. He is attending Harvard University with the tentative plan to major in anthropology with either a double major or minor in linguistics. "I also plan to take many classes in the humanities, especially literature, creative writing and ethnic studies. I hope to pursue linguistic anthropology at the graduate level and specialize in language documentation and culture loss. I hope to pursue fieldwork with indigenous communities in North America and other areas with high rates of linguicide (language death) such as Australia and the Pacific. My highest ambition is to dedicate my life to protecting the world's linguistic and cultural diversity from the Western monoculture that threatens its survival."
Name: Jake Swenson.
Where and when I was born: Rockford, Ill., November 1981.
Education: B.F.A. in graphic design from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. I'm in my first semester in the master's program at UW–Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
Family: Parents Brad and Sandee Swenson, older sisters Jenni Corbett and Jessi Knuth.
How I came to work at FFRF: I discovered FFRF from an article I was reading on the Fox News website during my freshman year of college, and I have followed the group ever since. After college I was working back in Rockford. My girlfriend lived in Madison, so I decided to move up last fall. Shortly after, I noticed FFRF was looking for a graphic designer.
What I do here: I do the layout for the newspaper, logos, brochures, web graphics, photography and more.
What I like best about it: There are many wonderful things about working for FFRF. Aside from the obvious — getting to work for a nonprofit that fights to keep state and church separate — I love working in downtown Madison. It is vibrant and pedestrian friendly. I walk around during lunch every day, and my bike commute to and from the Schenk–Atwood neighborhood is extremely easy, thanks to great bike routes and paths.
What gets old about it: The chaos that ensues right before the paper deadline.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: Where to go for coffee, how cities function, and politics.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Video games, TV, social media.
My religious upbringing was: Not religious, although I was baptized Catholic. We did not belong to a parish, so they paid a fee to do it at my grandparent's church in Milwaukee.
My mom was raised Catholic and my dad Lutheran. My mom and sisters went to church for a short time when I was very young. At some point, the church sent my mom a letter telling her she needed to contribute more money, and that was the end of it. Her exact words when I asked her about it via text message: "Screw them, never went back — never regretted it!!" She is also an FFRF member.
My doubts about religion started: Even though I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that never talked about religion, it is bound to infiltrate your life eventually. So many people I knew spoke of their religious beliefs as fact that I eventually started to believe some of it, not that I spent any time thinking about it.
I remember a day after school in junior high when my sister was watching some bad daytime talk show. The theme of the day was about god and the devil. She stated that she did not believe in either, and I remember being a little surprised by this option. Before long I adopted this view as well.
Sometime in high school I began to think more about the subject and came to the conclusion that it was not something that I could believe in.
Things I like: Cycling, music, coffee, traveling, photography, walking, running, historic architecture, craft beer, bike and pedestrian accommodations, public transit, public education.
Things I smite: Surface parking lots, automobiles, suburban sprawl, school vouchers and the way Wisconsin is currently being governed.
In my golden years: I want to be physically active. I want to continue to learn new things, and I still want to be living in an urban environment.
Favorite TV show: "Mystery Science Theater 3000." I know I said I don't think much about TV, but this one has been off the air for 16 years.
James H. Hiner, 1921–2015
James H. Hiner, 93, Belmont, Wis., died April 2, 2015, during ambulance transport to the hospital in Dodgeville.
He was born June 18, 1921, in Brownwood, Texas. He attended Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in May 1941. He played in Marine bands and served as a stretcher bearer during campaigns on Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian and was awarded the Bronze Star in 1944.
Jim earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Minnesota, and taught English literature and related subjects for 17 years at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minn., then taught for three years at Milton College in Milton, Wis. In the summers he worked as a canoe outfitter with Border Lakes in Winton, Minn.
Jim was a published poet, accomplished musician, humorist, inventive art photographer, avid gardener and gourmet cook. Survivors include his wife of 31 years, FFRF member Marian Maciej-Hiner, three children, a sister, six grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three step-great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his parents and a son Steven in 1989.
A celebration of Jim's life was held April 18 at Folklore Village. FFRF offers sincerest condolences to Marian and the family.
Name: Stephen Murphy.
Where I live: Maryland.
Where I was born: California.
Family: Bride of 21 years; four sons from elementary to college age.
Education: B.A. in cartography from Millersville University, Millersville, Pa.; M.S. in space studies from American Military University; M.S.E. in curriculum and instruction/space and science from the University of Colorado.
Occupation: Space Operations (general knowledge of the architecture of systems that use space; ability to educate the general military public on space-dependent systems; assistance to troubleshooting space-enabled problems; and an interface between the highly technical and the general tactical levels of the military).
Military service: U.S. Army, 21-plus years.
How I got where I am today: I grew up as a Navy brat and joined Army ROTC when I started college. The military paid for my two master's degrees, which kept me in the military longer.
Where I'm headed: Being selected for promotion will keep me in the Army for about 25 years total.
These are a few of my favorite things: Science fiction. Gadgets. Tinkering. Redheads. Podcasts and audio books. Running. Cleverness.
These are not: Greedo shooting first ["Star Wars" reference]! Things that don't work like they are designed to work. Losing things. Inefficiency. Voluntary and willful ignorance. Grinder pumps [wastewater conveyance devices].
My doubts about religion started: When I was about 20 years old while standing during a song at a Catholic Mass. My mind was wandering (as it always did in church services my whole life) and the thought "Why is one religion right and another isn't?" popped into my head. It took another 10-plus years to come to the label atheist.
A year in Baghdad reading medieval history (aka crimes of the Holy Roman Church) and a lot of Wikipedia took me further on that road. A pool-side discussion with a friend of my brother introduced me to Richard Dawkins and his 7 Point Scale. I realized I was a 6.
Before I die: I would love to design and build the ultimate customized house. I would do as much work as I could on it (to save costs and to ensure the tweaks are to my and the bride's liking). I would also like to write a book of sorts but I never seem to be able to settle on an idea that I think would generate enough interest.
Ways I promote freethought: Casual discussion. Bringing situations that overstep the boundaries between church and state (especially in the Department of Defense setting) to light.
By Doris E. Hutchins
FFRF member Darrell Keith Hutchins, 73, Conway, Ark., lost his 16-year battle with prostate cancer on Oct. 7, 2014. I am writing this on the one-year anniversary of his death.
Darrell was born Sept. 29, 1941, at the home of his paternal grandparents in Lowery, Okla., and graduated from Oaks Indian Mission High School in Oaks and received an M.S and Ph.D. from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, respectively.
He loved the woods at his Lowery home place and in retirement took up handcrafting archery bows from timber he cut himself. He was ever on the lookout for suitable bow trees in outings in the woods. He made more than 200 bows from a variety of wood types. Darrell also enjoyed canoeing and made many float trips with friends.
Darrell loved scientific research and spent as much time as he could in the laboratory. He was the author of numerous scientific papers and the holder of three patents for scientific equipment. His love of science was exceeded only by his love for his family and friends.
We met in 1968 at a church service. Darrell's acceptance of the theory of evolution was not condoned in the church in which we were married and this began our transition to becoming freethinkers. Preachers would warn, "If one brick from your wall of faith is pulled out, the whole wall will fall." We discovered the truth in this admonition, and as the bricks began to fall, found a wonderful sense of freedom and contentment.
No longer were we involved in hair splitting over the meaning of a bible verse or personality conflicts that led to church splinter groups! As a matter of life philosophy, Darrell believed that rational discourse and investigation should be applied to all questions and that an idea should be accepted only if based on evidence. He would say, "Most people would rather die than think and in fact, most do!"
Darrell was a dedicated Democrat and a member of the Faulkner County Democratic Central Committee. For 11 years we hosted a monthly discussion group meeting at our home for progressive-minded persons interested in politics and current events. He also distributed an e-mail newsletter consisting of progressive articles from the Internet. He was incredulous at how easily people followed demagogic politicians without questioning their blather, concluding, "Ignorance is our country's most costly commodity." He was a prolific writer of letters to the editor and for a time was a biweekly columnist for the editorial page of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway.
Darrell was a longtime member of the Arkansas Country Dance Society. He loved to call and write square dances and produced a volume of his dances titled "Square Dances With an Old-Time Flavor." It was fitting that his memorial service included friends sharing favorite memories of him and enjoying old-time fiddling and special square dance performances.
Darrell struggled with clinical depression most of his life. In spite of that, he strove mightily to provide for his family. He said, "If I had to choose between depression and cancer, I'd choose cancer. I know of no disease worse than depression."
In the end, his love of science still called him and he arranged for his remains to be donated to the Genesis Program in Memphis, Tenn., for medical research.
I and our two children and grandchild live on to continue to reflect Darrell's love, wisdom and integrity.
Member to senator: FFRF speaks for me
What follows is an instructive email back and forth on Sept. 30 between FFRF member Doris Hutchins and Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway. "You will notice that he gives permission to pass along his negative feelings about FFRF," writes Doris.
The state in April approved erection of a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in Little Rock. Rapert was chief sponsor of the bill. In response, and after the secretary of state denied a permit for a Hindu display at the Capitol, FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker sought permission in August to erect a stone monument saying "May Reason Prevail" and other wording similar to its winter solstice message in several state capitols. No response has been received.
In September, the Satanic Temple applied to place a Capitol statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed deity often used to represent Satan, to memorialize "various historical witch hunts and homage to the persecuted freethinkers and 'heretics' who helped inform American secular jurisprudence."
Subject: Separation of church and state
Dear Senator Rapert: I am one Arkansan who appreciates the efforts of Freedom from Religion Foundation to restore a clear line between church and state.
Sincerely, Doris Hutchins
Doris: Thanks for your input. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is nothing more than an anti-Christian atheist gang. They intimidate and threaten people without proper cause. I would never support the United States establishing a state religion, and for over 150 years it was understood the government must not interfere with religion. Now, atheists and liberals are trying to use government to squelch our culture and traditions. I disagree.
Have a good day, Sen. Jason Rapert
Senator Rapert: I recently read that you urged the Freedom from Religion Foundation to go back to where they are from and leave us Arkansans alone. As a member of FFRF, I'm not sure where I would "go" since I am a born-and-bred Southerner.
Doris: They are from Wisconsin. People who urge others to persecute Christians aren't welcome in our state as far as I am concerned. I pray for their complete and utter defeat and that all their plans would be confused wherever they go. You are welcome to tell them I said so. I pledge to oppose their tactics everywhere in America.
Sen. Jason Rapert
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell notes, "We've had many reports of Sen. Jason Rapert and are very familiar with his religious pandering. Kudos to you, Doris, for taking your legislator to task."
By Brian Bolton
A prominent fundamentalist Christian minister and television celebrity regularly proclaims that the unborn child has a God-given right to life, that life is a gift from God, and that abortion is the sinful destruction of God's sacred creation. These and similar assertions are thoroughly refuted by "God's word," the holy bible.
Defenders of women's reproductive rights should know what the bible actually says about abortion and, by extension, related issues, including contraception, the morning-after pill, in vitro fertilization and fetal tissue research.
Ten biblical episodes and prophecies provide an unequivocal expression of God's attitude toward human life, especially the ontological status of "unborn children" and their pregnant mothers-to-be. Brief summaries:
• A pregnant woman who is injured and aborts the fetus warrants financial compensation only (to her husband), suggesting that the fetus is property, not a person (Exodus 21:22-25).
• The gruesome priestly purity test to which a wife accused of adultery must submit will cause her to abort the fetus if she is guilty, indicating that the fetus does not possess a right to life (Numbers 5:11-31).
• God enumerated his punishments for disobedience, including "cursed shall be the fruit of your womb" and "you will eat the fruit of your womb," directly contradicting sanctity-of-life claims (Deuteronomy 28:18,53).
• Elisha's prophecy for soon-to-be King Hazael said he would attack the Israelites, burn their cities, crush the heads of their babies and rip open their pregnant women (2 Kings 8:12).
• King Menahem of Israel destroyed Tiphsah (also called Tappuah) and the surrounding towns, killing all residents and ripping open pregnant women with the sword (2 Kings 15:16).
• Isaiah prophesied doom for Babylon, including the murder of unborn children: "They will have no pity on the fruit of the womb" (Isaiah 13:18).
• For worshiping idols, God declared that not one of his people would live, not a man, woman or child (not even babies in arms), again confuting assertions about the sanctity of life (Jeremiah 44:7-8).
• God will punish the Israelites by destroying their unborn children, who will die at birth, or perish in the womb, or never even be conceived (Hosea 9:10-16).
• For rebelling against God, Samaria's people will be killed, their babies will be dashed to death against the ground, and their pregnant women will be ripped open with a sword (Hosea 13:16).
• Jesus did not express any special concern for unborn children during the anticipated end times: "Woe to pregnant women and those who are nursing" (Matthew 24:19).
The 10 incidents and declarations surveyed above document God's complete rejection of the anti-abortion crusaders' claims about the sanctity of life and a divine right to life. There is clearly no biblical justification for the radical theology they espouse. This section summarizes God's monumental history of murderous behavior as recorded in holy writ.
We know that God killed millions of unborn children and their pregnant mothers-to-be in the Noachian deluge, the conquest of Canaan, the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah and in 20 major slaughters described in the bible. The critical feature of these horrific events is that all people were exterminated. Whenever entire communities were massacred, we can be sure that pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children were among the victims. Moreover, there are no stated exemptions for this specific segment of the population.
It can be concluded from this ghastly program of human annihilation that the God of the bible is the greatest mass murderer in history and that he does not care about unborn children or living children or living adults. If God really opposes abortion, why didn't he just say so? Why didn't he authorize one of his trusted spokesmen—Moses, Jesus or Paul—to issue a definitive statement on the subject?
It is also noteworthy that while the bible requires the death penalty for 60 specified criminal violations, abortion is not among them. When all relevant documentation is examined, it is obvious that God does not love the unborn and he certainly does not disapprove of abortion.
Anti-abortion zealots assert that human life begins at conception, and therefore the fertilized egg possesses all constitutional rights of a living person. It follows that destruction of a conceived embryo (blastocyst) is murder.This is the basis for the personhood argument which has been defeated in five statewide initiatives since 2010.
The bible declares that God breathed life into man's body (Genesis 2:7). At least a dozen more verses indicate that breath is synonymous with life. This scriptural truth completely contradicts the personhood dogma.
More importantly, if the fertilized ovum is a person, as anti-abortion extremists claim, then God's record as the greatest murderer of unborn children is expanded further. That is because most fertilized eggs either fail to implant in the uterine wall and pass out of the body or do implant, begin to develop and then are spontaneously aborted. Fewer than one-third of fertilized ova survive to become living humans.
Why does God murder untold millions of these "persons" every year in the U.S. alone? Why did God, who allegedly loves the unborn and hates abortion, kill so many unborn children, adolescents and adults throughout biblical history? Why do fundamentalists pursue a political agenda that is thoroughly refuted by God's word?
Among those who deny women's reproductive rights, numerous contradictory positions are observed. For example, some prominent politicians who want to overturn Roe v. Wade would allow exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality and/or life of the mother. These exceptions necessarily require destroying the fetus, which is the very action they condemn. In other words, the murder of unborn children is acceptable when anti-abortion politicians approve.
Another blatant inconsistency involves physicians who want to defund Planned Parenthood because it provides aborted fetuses for medical research. Yet, some of these physicians have themselves conducted research using aborted fetuses. Furthermore, medical investigations using fetal tissue have produced lifesaving vaccines and therapeutic interventions that have benefited everyone.
The most disgusting contradiction exists between the radical activists' preferred label "pro-life" and their horrific record of godly violence. In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, was decided, eight abortion providers have been murdered and 17 have been maimed or seriously injured. More than 6,000 acts of violence have been perpetrated, including fire bombings, arsons, kidnappings, assaults and death threats. These agents of violence are accurately labeled "Christian terrorists."
The activists who want to make abortion illegal invariably call themselves "Christian conservatives," stating that they want to reduce government intrusion and eliminate burdensome regulations that limit personal liberty. They say they want to get government off our backs and out of our lives. Except, of course, when they want to use the coercive power of government to inflict their theological beliefs on everybody else, especially in matters of reproduction and sexuality.
After 40 years with at least 1 million elective abortions annually, opponents still refuse to endorse programs that are proven to reduce abortions, such as family planning that stresses contraception and comprehensive sexuality education.
Instead they promote abstinence-only, ignorance curricula. If they would focus their efforts on preventing unwanted pregnancies, they would stop many more abortions than their politically coercive and sometimes violent tactics have stopped. Ironically, the crusaders help to cause the abortions they denounce.
Dogmatists condemn what they call the "holocaust" of 56 million abortions since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. At the same time, they spend tens of billions of dollars annually building and operating their grandiose megachurches, Christian academies and other programs to promote fundamentalist doctrines. If they really want to prevent the murder of unborn children, why don't they just use some of their vast wealth to pay women not to have abortions?
Lastly, the most egregious contradiction occurs whenever the religionists invoke a biblical justification for their sanctimonious stance, because the Judeo-Christian God simply does not care about the lives of pregnant women and their unborn children. Abortion opponents cite a dozen verses that refer to the developing fetus but not one that condemns abortion.
The bible is an unending compilation of atrocities illustrating God's penchant for feticide, infanticide and the wholesale slaughter of adults.
Prominent women's rights groups like Planned Parenthood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, NARAL Pro-choice America, Emily's List and the National Organization for Women should confront the zealots about the complete lack of biblical support for their position. For the past decade, surveys have indicated that about two-thirds of Americans think abortion should remain legal. A 2015 poll put the figure at 80%.
Among institutions, Planned Parenthood has the highest approval (45%) and Congress has the lowest (8%). Why don't reproductive rights advocates attack the anti-abortion terrorists with the same ferocity that the zealots exhibit in their ongoing campaign of harassment, violence and dishonesty? The truth is that the bible does not endorse the fundamentalist Christian assault on women's reproductive health.
In fact, God is clearly pro-abortion.
FFRF Life Member Brian Bolton is a retired psychologist, humanist minister, university professor emeritus and sponsor of FFRF's graduate essay contest. He lives in Georgetown, Texas. The executive wing of FFRF's new addition bears his name.
This appeared originally on June 9 on Buzzfeed.com and is reprinted with the author's permission.
By Kate Cohen
"How do we know there's no God?" My 9-year-old daughter, the youngest of my three children, was doing her math homework in the kitchen and must have overheard her father and me talking. I hesitated. Even though I'd been raising my kids as atheists for most of a decade, I was caught off guard.
My firstborn, Noah, never questioned me on the issue of a supreme being; he was more concerned about his Jewishness. So what if God was pretend — he could still have a bar mitzvah, right?
His younger brother also accepted God's fictional nature, but he gave me hell about heaven. Brooding on mortality at age 6, he pushed hard for the possibility of an afterlife. "We don't actually know what happens after you die, right?" he said. "I mean, you can't talk to someone who's dead, after all. There could be a heaven."
Still, no matter what solution Jesse temporarily embraced — um, reincarnation? — it never included God.
The boys are 14 and 12 now. They glance at me slyly during the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance. At their grandparents' seders, they read aloud passages about the biblical burning bush like overenunciating actors rather than believers. Done and done.
Lena is 9. She is not worried about death and she's not interested in being Jewish. She just wants to know how the world works. She asks everything: How long do chickens live and what is insurance and how do you remember the way to all the places you drive and how do girls masturbate?
I answered all of these. The God one should be relatively easy: It's a question atheists get asked all the time, usually by people who think we should use the gentler term "agnostic," people who are comfortable with doubt, but suspicious of certainty.
To them I would say that all evidence points to the fact that God is a popular and useful fiction, and that no evidence points to the fact that he actually exists.
And where's the evidence that he doesn't exist? That's what Lena's asking for. And that's what leaves many people in the "agnostic" camp and (understandably) makes many parents — even those willing to be counted as atheists themselves — wary of issuing definitive statements to their children.
'A compelling fiction'
The few books that offer advice to atheist parents counsel us not to be definitive. They tell us to let children decide for themselves what they do or do not believe. This seems perfectly reasonable. As open-minded, educated people, we should let our children decide for themselves, right?
I looked at my daughter, the fourth-grader, pencil poised over mixed-number problems, head cocked, waiting. Should she get to decide for herself? No one told me God didn't exist. I grew up Reform Jewish and bookish. Technically, I guess, the prayers we said in Hebrew to bless the wine on Friday nights were addressed to an actual being. But when we talked about God, we spoke of him as a fascinating literary character rather than as a real force in our lives.
So I have no memory of believing in God, even at my bat mitzvah. At my Jewish wedding, we studiously avoided invoking his name. But it wasn't until I had children that I realized I had to spell it out: God was a compelling fiction created in response to human need.
That was enough for my boys, and I had assumed it was enough for Lena. But I had been wrong: She needed more. It was my solemn responsibility as a parent to give her the information she asked for, to help her understand the world.
For that reason, it would never have occurred to me to let Lena decide for herself whether vampires exist (although there's no evidence to the contrary), or fairies or leprechauns, or all the denizens of Mount Olympus — even though some people at some point believed the Greek gods were real.
Fairies and Ares are magical, invisible beings whose existence cannot be disproven. Just like God. Logically, they are the same. But culturally? Emotionally? Not even close. There may be a whopping 3 percent of us atheists now, but it's still a believers' world. [Ed.: 4-5 percent more identify as agnostics and about 25 percent overall as nonreligious, recent surveys show.]
We live in a culture in which at least 74 percent of us believe in a personal God, more than 40 percent of us believe God created the Earth 10,000 years ago, the calendar is counted from the birth of a deity (and the months are named for other, passé deities), our money states "In God we trust," witnesses swear on bibles, and major political speeches end with "God bless America."
In this context, it's hard even for me to remember it's all made up.
When I feel that way, Greek gods can be a helpful corrective, a reminder that just because a belief system is ubiquitous doesn't make it true. At some point, people were building temples to the Greek gods and atheism was a capital offense. And even then some brave mother managed to murmur to her kids, "Athena's a cool idea, but believe me, she's just pretend."
Take a breath, I told myself, step outside the believing world for a second, and tell your kid the truth.
How do we know, Lena? We know the way we know there are no fairies: The only proof is man-made and all the thinking behind it is wishful. We know because we are open to evidence and we have been given none. We know because —
But she had gone back to figuring out how fractions work.
Done. For now, at least.
Kate Cohen, whose "No God But Butter" blog is at katecohen.net, has a degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth College and works as a freelance writer. She's working on a book about raising children as atheists. "I've got three of them, one husband and 40 chickens; we all live on a farm in Albany, N.Y."
Name: Elizabeth Rose.
Where I live: In the panhandle of very red-state Idaho, where the first question people ask after your name is, "What church do you belong to?" But it's beautiful here, with four distinct seasons and breathtaking views of craggy mountains and evergreens against a bounty of deep-blue lakes everywhere you look.
Where and when I was born: I'm a third-generation Los Angeleno who escaped the big city about 25 years ago. I'm happy to be celebrating my induction into Medicare this month!
I live with: Jerry, my wonderful husband of 32 years, and eight spoiled rotten cats. (Yes, we are one cat away from a reality show!)
Occupation: Retired after 41 years of teaching high school literature: William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Ray Bradbury and, of course, large doses of Edgar Allan Poe.
I loved the classroom but hated the never-ending paper-grading and the ever-present red ink stains on my hands. Some 60,000 students later, I hope I have at least taught a few of them to think critically and set them on the right path.
These are a few of my favorite things: Learning, cooking and crafting; reading Freethought Today cover to cover; reading nonfiction by (in alphabetical order) Dan Barker, Greta Christina, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Guy P. Harrison, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Michael Shermer and Stephen Uhl; relishing fiction by a novelist I recently discovered, James Morrow; myth-busters, skeptics, muckrakers and clear reasoners of all stripes who expose corruption and deception with verifiable evidence!
I also like canning jars of my "famous" huckleberry ice cream topping and barbecue sauce, and hot buttered rum and pumpkin spice latte mixes (better than Starbuck's and sugar-free) to give friends and neighbors. And organizing, organizing, organizing.
Things I smite: Climate denialists, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, grumpy naysayers and "haters," and anyone who harms the vulnerable, whether human or animal. People who, when real-life crises are averted, thank their god(s) instead of the doctors, nurses, police officers and firefighters who actually did something useful. Also people who, when things go right for them, credit their god(s) instead of coincidence, happenstance and the basic goodness and decency of other human beings.
To Kim Davis (and other small-minded, "pretentiously pious" hypocrites like her who scream "Christian persecution" while endeavoring to impose their own sanctimonious demands on everyone else), I offer a Jon Stewart quote: "You've confused a 'war on your religion' with 'not always getting everything you want.' . . . It's hard for me to believe Christians are a persecuted people in America. God willing, maybe one of you Christians will one day even rise up and get to be president of this country, or maybe 44 in a row?"
My doubts about religion started: When my Catholic elementary school made the major mistake of teaching me to read so I could evaluate what they were telling me about religion, and my university professors taught me about other cultures and how to think critically; when I recognized that there are over 10,000 gods and goddesses that people have worshipped, believed in, prayed to, killed for and died for; when I accepted that the universe and the cosmos are so much more beautiful when seen through the expansive telescope lens of science rather than through the restrictive microscope of religion; and when I realized that there's not enough love and kindness in this world to give any of it away to imaginary beings.
Two quotations I like: "I can tell you a generation ago, they said there is no way people would ever allow gay marriage. Slavery — essentially — gone in a generation. We got rid of it. Change is always one generation away . . . so if we can plant the seeds of doubt in our children, religion will go away in a generation, or at least largely go away. And that's what I think we have an obligation to do." (Lawrence M. Krauss)
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice." (Theodore Parker, American transcendentalist whose premise inspired the title of Michael Shermer's new book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.
Before I die: There's no skydiving or hot-air ballooning or writing the great American novel on my bucket list. I do hope to get to Wisconsin one of these years to attend the FFRF convention in person (and to sample all those great cheeses). And definitely more cruises. There's nothing better than being on a long, luxurious cruise with my handsome hubby, with nothing to do all day and all day to do it.
It's very important that the people I love know that I that love them by showing that in as many "little ways" as I can. I would like to see Lawrence Krauss's quotation above become a reality, and I'd like to see the world embrace the best qualities of humanism and secularism and democratic socialism to provide a better life for the greatest number of people. I really feel that "Happiness isn't having what you want; it's wanting what you have." I just want to continue doing what I do and appreciating what I have in this life, here and now, while I have it.
Other ways I promote freethought: I'm vice president of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, an FFRF chapter, which has served eastern Washington and northern Idaho since 1992. I plan fun social activities and programs for INFS members at meetings, organize and staff secular booths at the Spokane County and Kootenai County fairs each summer and help with breakfasts at a local homeless shelter. (You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can't take the classroom out of the teacher!)
Faux Poe, via Idaho
In 1845, just four years before his untimely death, Edgar Allan Poe wrote what is arguably the best-known poem in history — one almost all of you had to learn in your school days.
In this poem, loaded with literary devices and consistent use of internal and external rhymes, critics and readers alike have been led to believe that the distraught narrator feels great fear and trepidation when he encounters the "ghastly, grim and ancient raven," an "ebony bird of yore."
I've come into possession of some heretofore unknown verses of the poem, found at the bottom of an old trunk, of course, purported to have belonged to the late poet, that you may find quite surprising and elucidating.
And so, with your indulgence (and with sincere apologies to the inimitable Mr. Poe) I give you:
The Raven, Revisited
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" — Here I opened wide the door:
(Something I was SORRY for!)
Scripture-spouting fundamentalist, wild-eyed 7th Day Adventist,
Earnest theist, God jihadist with his "good news" to outpour:
"Rapture's coming! World is ending!" Cloaked in faith, he is unbending.
William Miller will be sending me to hell for evermore.
"Repent now or to Saint Peter you'll have much to answer for!"
Quoth my Raven, "Close that door!"
Watchtower-toting and officious, next a pale Jehovah's Witness.
Superstitious, she solicits — for my soul she will implore.
Just behind her came a laggard — Look, it's preacher man Ted Haggard,
Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, followed by at least a score:
Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, weeping Tammy Faye and Jim!
Quoth my Raven, "Shut that door!"
Next, two brush-cut civil corpsman handed me a Book of Mormon,
Smiling brightly as they parked their bicycles beside my door.
"Jesus walked here in the States! Planet Kolub will be great!
Temple garments . . . Golden Plates . . . can be yours for evermore!
We can baptize you for Zion and your faith we will restore!"
Quoth my Raven, "Latch that door!"
Then they said to give up coffee, chardonnay, and mocha toffee.
"I'm no crazy Kamikazi. Please DON'T save me, I implore!
Leave no pamphlets as a token. Leave my peaceful calm unbroken.
Get thee back into your Temple and the night's Plutonian shore.
Read the doormat on the floor: " 'GO AWAY,' you theist bore."
Quoth my Raven, "Bar that door!"
See, MY Raven's atheistic. He's no bird-brain. He's realistic.
Far more sane and humanistic than those bible-thumpers I deplore.
He's evolved beyond religion. He would take no more derision.
With his beak and sharp cognition, he declared a state of war.
With a corvine's sure precision, firmly did he SLAM — THAT — DOOR!
Quoth my Raven, "NEVER MORE!"
Zachary Moore had given three secular invocations, the first in December 2014, before the Keller, Texas, City Council. A fourth was to be delivered Oct. 6, but the council canceled it, with Mayor Mark Matthews offering a prayer instead. It started with "Gracious heavenly father."
Moore's invocations were always followed by a prayer delivered by Pastor John Salvesen of the Bear Creek Bible Church, a practice which Moore accepted at first but came to see as discriminatory. He contacted FFRF, and Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote a complaint letter to the city:
"If the council insists on continuing to host prayers at public meetings, it cannot discriminate against any person wishing to give a prayer. The nonreligious and members of minority religions must be permitted to deliver invocations on an equal basis. This not only means permitting them to be in the invocation rotation, it also means not making a special show of diluting their message with a subsequent Christian prayer."
The city canceled Moore's invocation after receiving the letter.
Salvesen told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth that atheists have no one to pray to. "You can pray in the name of Jesus, in the name of Allah or anything else, any other deity. The Supreme Court guarantees that. That was their decision. But Mr. Moore does not provide a prayer."
Salvesen said if a Muslim or Jewish leader delivered the invocation, it wouldn't be necessary to follow it with a prayer.
FFRF is awaiting an official response from the city, which reportedly is considering a new invocations policy.