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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction will no longer distribute bibles to nursing school graduates as part of their "pinning" ceremony after the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers sent complaint letters. FFRF learned of the Gideon bible distribution in November from several CMU students and community members.

College President Tim Foster announced on Nov. 18: "I have sought legal counsel and researched legal precedent. I have listened to the divergent viewpoints of others. Taking all that into consideration, the bible give-away at the pinning ceremony will be discontinued."

Nursing students had apparently been told the bible distribution was a "non-negotiable" part of the ceremony.

"Thrusting bibles at students — who may be of varying faiths or no faith — at graduation is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of our public higher education system," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his complaint letter to Foster. "This matter is especially troublesome in light of the wide range of cultures and faiths that were represented at graduation."

Northern Illinois University in DeKalb promptly removed all Gideon bibles from the Holmes Student Center Hotel after getting an Oct. 20 complaint letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne, who wrote, "Certainly, if guests want to read this religious text during their stay, they can bring their own copy or access any of the numerous churches or libraries near the university."

The next day, Gregory Brady, deputy general counsel, responded that the university "will be removing any such bibles from their hotel guest rooms."

"We're grateful to NIU for so promptly making a decision to respect all of its hotel guests and stay above the religious fray," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She and her husband, Co-President Dan Barker, were staying at the hotel while in town to speak to a Secular Student Alliance chapter when they discovered the bibles in the room.

"The bible calls for killing nonbelievers, apostates, gays, 'stubborn sons,' and women who transgress biblical double standards. What's obnoxious in a private hotel, however, becomes inappropriate and unconstitutional in state-run lodgings," commented Gaylor.

State universities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Iowa have also recently removed bibles from guest rooms after being contacted by FFRF.

(You can purchase bible warning labels online at ffrf.org/shop.)

By Paul Heffron and Jerry Rauser

It was 20 years ago today, Mr. Barker taught the band to play. Yes, it was Dan's inspiration that help start the Freethought Band almost 20 years ago. We played for the parties, picnics and other atheist-humanist community events in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

We used Dan Barker songs, other songs we'd located and sometimes modified, and some we'd written ourselves. To be freethought songs, they had to have a vocal with a freethought message. Fortunately, we had a good vocalist.

We played not only for the social events of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists of Minnesota, which were often joint, but also for the American Atheists national conference when it was in Minneapolis, for Camp Quest Minnesota and for the wedding reception of two local freethinkers. We always performed as volunteers, without compensation. Music clearly added a lot to our local activities.

We eventually made a CD and gave one to each of our fellow freethinkers at our solstice party. We decided not to charge anything for the CD and to make it part of a new project of promoting freethought music. Dan and Annie Laurie Gaylor interviewed Paul on their Freethought Radio program in 2012 when he said he'd send the CD free to listeners who requested it. This was the beginning of sending the CD without charge to people all over North America.

We created a website, FreethoughtMusic.org, for the project. It has resources for those interested in freethought music. The website for our CD, FreethoughtBand.org, makes some of our songs available.

Recently, we did a national survey on the use of music by atheist and humanist groups. Results are posted on the "Articles" page of FreethoughtMusic.org. A significant number of groups answered that they were using or wanted to use music in their meetings. As you would expect of freethinkers, there was a variety of approaches to the use of music.

We also noted the addition of music at most national and regional freethought conferences, the continued production and performance of music by Dan Barker, the coverage of music and musicians in Freethought Today and Freethought of the Day, coverage in other national atheist and humanist magazines, and coverage in some recent freethought books.

The good news is that the new secular movement has acquired a noteworthy musical dimension that seems likely to grow.

Highlights for us were the times when Dan came to the Twin Cities to speak and entertain and play with the Freethought Band. The most recent highlight was hearing Dan play the Steinway grand piano at the new FFRF building open house in October. He invited Paul to play a number, and he chose to play Dave Brubeck's signature song, "In Your Own Sweet Way" because that's the way we freethinkers do it.

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FFRF defends besieged Texas teacher

FFRF stood up for a middle school teacher in Katy, Texas, who came under fire for a critical thinking exercise that appeared to offend some people for its questioning of whether God is real.

As part of the West Memorial Junior High classroom exercise, the teacher had students respond to simple phrases, asking whether they were factual claims, opinions or commonplace assertions. "The fastest land dwelling creature is the Cheetah," read the first prompt on the exercise worksheet. "There is a God," read the second.

A 12-year-old student was apparently so distraught that she went to a school board meeting and complained that she had an "assignment that questions my faith and told me God was not real."

"It appears this young student expected the teacher to profess that God is a fact," FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Katy ISD Superintendent Alton Frailey. "Yet famous passages from the bible as well as many denominational doctrines would agree with this teacher's categorization that God is not taken on fact or evidence. 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' — Hebrews 11:1."

Two days after the board meeting, the district held a press conference and confirmed that after discussing the situation with the teacher and 11 students, it found that "the teacher did not ask students at any point to deny God. According to the teacher and students interviewed, she emphasized to the students that there are different cultures, religions and views."

But Frailey also said, "No student should ever be forced or threatened with a failing grade for not denouncing his or her faith. I will not tolerate that at all."
Based on the report from the district FAQ page online, no mention of a failing grade was given to any student (because the exercise was not to be graded) and no one was forced to denounce their faith.

KTRK reported that the worksheet will not be used again in class.

Gaylor and Barker defended the teacher and the exercise. "It is a pity that confused thinking and thin skins by some believing students and their parents can rule the day at your junior high school. The exaggerated fallout from this exercise clearly demonstrates the great need for more, not less, instruction on critical thinking skills. It should not be verboten or controversial to ask students to assess whether a claim is factual. It is this kind of 'head in the sand' attitude that accounts for the deplorable state of science understanding in our nation, including the fact that about half of all adults reject evolution, which is a fact."

Frailey also stepped close to the church/state line when he proclaimed in his statement that he's "a life-long Christian."

"It is unfortunate . . . that you as superintendent felt incumbent to disclose you are a 'life-long Christian,' which should be entirely irrelevant in overseeing the district's secular public schools," the letter said.
FFRF has 790 members in Texas.

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Sharing the crank mail

Just in time for the holidays, a good helping of Haterade from correspondents, with their comments printed as received.

Christian flag in Tennessee: Your day in hell is coming in the future so you need to stop telling us to submit to you atheist demands. You are a minority and th majority will rise up and crush your agenda. — Paul Gaunt

Wadena, Minnesota: Why do you people feel that it is your business To tell Us as a people what we can put in our Parks? I don't tell you how to live don't tell us. That is just wrong and don't tell me how illegal it is. I'm not going to tell you that you have to work on Christmas because you don't believe. And if you do work no double or triple time for you. No presents — Karen Raskie, Hewitt, Minnesota

Disgrace: Yall are a disgrace to humanity. Everyone one of you should be placed on the same level as isis. Yall is what's wrong with this country and to believe you even exist is sickinging. We need God more then ever now and you people try to stop it. You need to mind your own business if it defends you stay away from it. You bunch of pathetic cowards. — Travis Bach, New York

Stay out of schools!: I hope to see a continued kickback of stupid initiatives including school prayer . We are a nation under God.. Get it? Back off creeps... — Kevin Barnes

Gotto Xmas ban: I totally disagree w/your unfortonatly successful efforts to intimidate the limp dicked school council to deny students to participate in xmas choirs at the grotto. SHAME ON YOU!!! What you did is no different than any other BULLY who FORCES others to their idoloogy through coercion and intimidation. — Dianne Whitney, Oregon

Why are you afraid of Christians??: Do you support ISIS? Why are Christians more dangerous than radical Muslims? Why is it OK to have Muslim prayers in schools and not Christian prayers? — Jeanne Perdue, Texarkana, Texas

Stop the Nonsense: Your group just absolutely disgusts me, with your perverted, convoluted misinterpretation of the Constitution and what is and isn't legal. You go around throwing the threats of protracted legal action at small towns, which many can't afford, and you get your way. Your bully tacticts violate the 1st amendment that you claim to uphold. The separation of church and state has long been misrepresented by the atheistic, liberal agenda to further their Godless causes, and it is pitiful and disgusting. — Jeff Fassett

God sent his son for the world: JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO HEAVEN. JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO HEAVEN. JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO HEAVEN. YOU'RE A FOOL TO SAY THAT THERE IS NO GOD. WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE AND REPENT OF YOUR UNBELIEF. — Jason Hutton

Antagonism: What a divisive and deceitful organization you have. Yes, I'm a Christ-follower. I pray you will someday have your eyes opened before it's too late. The bottom line is if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing and I've had a blast. But if YOU'RE wrong, you've lost everything. — Nave Nitram, Indiana

Christianity: If I were violent, which I am not (but you are) I would do violence to you, but alas, I believe in a loving God. HE WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU. Again, what you are doing is no surprise to us. It has already been revealed. You are doing exactly what the enemy of God wants. How sad. God doesn't want you to be throw in into the Lake of Fire...think of a volcano that has been activated and it rolls all over you...yet, your soul will live on throughout eternity in unbelievable excruciating pain with no way out. How sad. — Carrie Johnston, Elkhart, Indiana

Thank you, Pastor: My friend...thank you for showing us the full face of satan's influence in the minds of depraved and self-centered (his favorite personalities) men and women. You truly are sick. From your extensive pastoral training you would recognize a more specific diagnosis as the correct refinement, "Sin Sick." — Donald Milton, Chipley, Florida

hypocrisy: bunch of sick bastards! in spite of your illness, you hypocrites pray to god when nothing else helps to ease a pain of a mental or physical nature. — Pete Smolan, California

Violation: U R A VIOLATION OF CHURCH & STATE...STAY IN WISCONSIN OR WHEREVER U R 7 OUT OUT OUT OF OREGON...U FAGS! — Paul Munsell

A suggestion: how obnoxious are you disgusting bullies--go top yourselves and do the country a favor How's that for "freethought" — Jan Elder

1st Amendment: Last time I checked the 1st amendment says nothing about freedom FROM religion, it says that we have FREDOM OF RELGION. Also last time I checked Anerica was founded on CHRISTIAN values and beliefs. As well as the recent fuss in Collins, Ms if that person with the complaint did not won't to deal with religion they should not live in the Bible Belt of America. — JM Duke, Collins, Mississippi

How offensive your organization is!: What you are doing is a shame, and a crime against tolerance and freedom. How do you hope other people to respect you, when you are not even respecting them? Constitution or no constitution. — Pierre Jacques

Shame!: You are a sad group of people, especially for what you did in Wadena, MN! Shame on you, and I hope that you rot in hell in eternal damnation! — Carlie Morin, St. Cloud, Minnesota

Are you folks for real?: You fight so hard to be atheism so there must be a God that you are trying so hard to strike him out of peoples mind! I figure you believe in the big bang theory and so that makes your mind so small it really can't think clearly. Have any of you actually read the Bible? When you folks are in trouble what are the first thing that comes out of your mouth "Oh God please help me!" — Sam Germann

Get a LIFE!: I AM SUBMITTING A REQUEST THAT TO BE A NON PROFIT TO HELP THOSE IN NEED NOT TO GAIN MONEY TO SUE A BUSINESS OR GOVERNMENT ENTITY! YOU ARE COSTING TAXPAYERS MONEY JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN NOT EXCEPT FREEDOM OF FAITH!
I AM COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR GROUP AND HOW IT IS WRONG TO COLLET DONATIONS FOR LAW SUITES!! — Angel Martin, Savage, Minnesota

Isms: I have EVERY right to WANT a prayer said before a meeting where important decisions are made. Generals Washington, Lee,Sheridan, Meade, Patton and others - all asked for "divine" guidance before making a major decision. I could name many more, as well, but I think you get the point. If you don't like "prayer" in America, why not move to a country that agrees with your perspective ? You would be welcomed with open arms, I'm sure and.....we would be happy to see you go ! It is sad that people like you are trying to tear down the very things that helped BUILD America. If you don't like prayer, it is your choice to NOT listen, but if anything is NEVER said, is there any "choice" at all ? I think you are controlled by Satan !! — Jim Bandfield, Shalimar, Florida

You are a bunch of fuck sticks: You people are full of shit, and only looking for some bullshit to hang your hat on. Get a life. — Frank Butiste, South Bend, Indiana

POS: You God damn crooked goat fucking pieces of shit! This country was found on Christianity and if you and your cronies don't like get the hell out. — Jake Winkler

Herbert H. Bushong, 1916–2015

FFRF Life Member Herbert Harry Bushong, 98, San Antonio, died Oct. 19, 2015. He was born in Catlettsburg, Ky., to John and Laura Bushong and was one of 10 children. In 1940 he married Sally Boggs. He joined the Army Air Corps at the start of World War II and was trained as a radar-jamming technician, receiving numerous service decorations, including the Air Medal and four battle stars.

He earned a B.S. in English from Ohio University and was certified to teach. After earning a master's from the University of Kentucky, he continued to teach high school English. During their 68-year marriage, he and Sally lived throughout the U.S. and in Germany. He was an avid tennis player, continuing to play into his 90s.

Sally preceded him in death in 2008. Survivors include his children: Perry, Bonnie, Cheryl, Sonya, Angela and John, 15 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. He was buried beside his wife in a family plot in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky.

Herbert very generously sponsored FFRF's high school essay contest in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends.

Robert H. Nienkirk, 1927–2015

Robert Henry Nienkirk died June 20, 2015, in St. Louis Park, Minn., after an extended illness. He was born Dec. 18, 1927, in Woodstock, Minn. He joined the Navy as soon as he was of age and was proud of his service. He was against the Vietnam War and became a peace activist, twice going to the Paris Peace Talks in 1970 and 1971 with other activists.
Bob planned to be a farmer, but a car accident left him with severe injuries, so he became a private investigator for an insurance firm, where he worked until 1964. He then moved to Minneapolis, where he became an independent investigator.

Bob was a lifelong atheist and co-founded Friends Free of Theism, which led to him being a co-founder of Minnesota Atheists in 1991. He and his wife Marilyn have been FFRF members since 1985.

"I was never indoctrinated into any supernatural or metaphysical religion," he said. "I have a lot of respect for people who are able to break away from that early indoctrination."

Survivors include three sons, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Sincerest condolences to Marilyn, his wife of 50 years, and to all who knew Bob.

Courage as the prime virtue of atheism

FFRF awarded James $400.

By James Lambert

I was raised Catholic, which is to say I was baptized and endured the Ontario Catholic school system. God was as real to me in elementary school as the government of Canada, which is to say it existed somewhere well beyond the sphere of what I actually cared about at the age of 8.

A series of events, beginning with my grandfather's death, kindled a profound doubt. This was fueled by the command and authority expressed by the priests at the mandatory school Masses. Who were they to tell me how to behave? What did they know about my life?
The mild inconvenience of Mass and religion class began to evolve into a pressing discomfort. I could not, would not, stand for a moment longer to be told that I was being watched and judged by some divine invigilator, especially one who had as much evidence in favor of his existence as Santa Claus. (I stopped believing in both fairy tales around the same time.)

There is no substance to atheism. Almost by definition it is the absence of substance. It is not itself an ideology, it forces no injunction, it demands no submission. It is a term that has meaning only in juxtaposition to the absurdity of its necessity.

In a world void of theism or deism, the word "atheist" would not exist. Everyone would be an atheist, but we would not need a word to set ourselves apart. In this sense, atheism as a concept is hardly worth defending, as it does not entail anything which can be verified scientifically.

We have all heard the impotent and revealing challenge, "Well, can you prove God doesn't exist?" Of course not, if only because whatever is meant by "God" is so malleable as to be almost meaningless. So what should we be defending? Why should somebody be proud to be an atheist? After all, atheism is so reviled by some and so lauded by others that it must entail something ideological.

I submit that atheism is an ideological corollary, and it is the principles of logic and reason from whence it stems that causes this conflict. Herein is found the most admirable quality of the atheist position: intellectual courage.

Fearing god

As an atheist, even as an anti-theist, it is not at all perplexing to me why one could or would believe in the supernatural and, in particular, a god. The phrase "god-fearing" is a brilliant one. It compactly expresses the belief and the motive. Fear is the root of all intellectual and moral capitulations. Out of the terrifying possibility of oblivion was birthed the ancestors of today's superstitions. "What is right or wrong? Where do we come from?" And, most importantly, "What happens after death?"

One need not be concerned with the strenuous task of answering these questions if one only surrenders his or her intellectual integrity and accepts, without complaint, the authority of a god. At best this manifests as a small blind spot where rational thought is overlooked; at worst it constitutes the complete incapacitation of one's critical faculties. Rather than looking courageously into the face of uncertainty, supernatural claims provide a framework of self-deception. This constitutes a pernicious and insidious threat to human civilization, now more than ever.

Consider the horrors that are explained away by annihilating one's own moral agency out of fear. Global warming? Fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Suicide? Murder? You've transgressed upon our prophet's sanctity. Gay marriage? An abomination. Evolution in science class? A preposterous fabrication. Atheism? A dangerous ideology.

At the heart of the confrontation between faith and reason lies a single question. When we are faced with the most profound existential questions, should we confront them with honest doubt or blind faith? We are all inevitably filled with doubt and fear when confronted with the question of death. Herein lies the deepest motive of blind faith.
Some are willing to accept any tenet, surrender any freedom, sacrifice any integrity if only the fear of death can be assuaged. In this question also lies the most admirable quality of an atheist. The courage of an assertion of ignorance, and of uncertainty, is the key attribute that must be common to all nonbelievers.

We have spent most of recorded history honoring the sacrifice of human moral agency and intellectual integrity in the interest of preserving the precious illusion of immortality. We now sit at a crossroad. No longer can we straddle the chasm between what is true and what is "respectful," between what is honest and what is comforting.

Freethinkers appear to be the only ones with the stomach for this conflict. When Danish cartoonists are condemned for drawing, novelists for writing, and magazine editors for satirizing, it seems that the only group willing to stand up and risk life and reputation for intellectual integrity are atheists, agnostics and secularists informed by scientific skepticism and humanism. These together constitute the only group who have maintained their moral responsibility, rather than sell it for the cheap price of false comfort.

My atheism stems from the insistence that no question is too terrifying, no answer is too daunting, no fear is worth surrendering the most wonderful aspects of human existence. The greatest virtue of atheism is the courage to speak the truth.

James Lambert, 21, was born in Ottawa, Canada. He attends the University of Waterloo (Ontario), where he's in his final year of an honors physics degree program. "I intend to pursue graduate studies in theoretical physics. As a specialization, I'm considering either relativistic quantum mechanics, high energy physics or plasma physics. I have the good fortune of working in a field where literally every subject is fascinating!"

Proud to be a heathen, where at least I know I'm free

FFRF awarded Emma $500.

By Emma Follmer

When I was 7 years old my family moved to a city I now swear I will never return to: Birmingham, Ala. My initial excitement at a new place had completely vanished by my third day of school. In those three days everyone I met had a question for me: "What church do you go to?" I would naively and cheerfully respond: none.

This was not the correct response. By day three I was a confirmed heathen, the worst possibility in an Alabama elementary school.

My classmates had, of course, picked this question up from their parents, who were quick to ask it on their own. As to the inevitable follow-up, "But where do your children get their morals?" my baffled parents would say, "From us, of course."

The idea that life experience and its lessons could be just as effective in teaching morals as a centuries-old fable was apparently a revelation to these steadfast believers. After a while, my astute parents, when asked about church, answered in complete seriousness, "Our Lady of Spain Park." Spain Park was the school campus where the whole family would spend Sunday mornings riding our bikes.

I am similarly baffled as a young adult by the assumption that morals can only be learned from religion. Life experience, history, literature and interaction with peers teach us what our morals should be. This process leaves us room for growth and improvement. We can explore the gray areas, question the standards and norms and push the boundaries. We can adapt.

Those who have learned their morals from a bible and preachers do not have this skill and luxury. They have right and wrong presented to them with little room to deviate and their strict adherence to an unchanging system has left them outdated. So while nonbelievers have been stigmatized as lacking morals, it is the religious who are left with a set of morals that no longer apply to our time and culture. We nonbelievers have been dismissed by the very people who could learn most from our ideas.

My early experiences with the religious secured my dislike of their practices and a disbelief in a judgmental god. Disbelief was solidified by the works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and by regularly watching Bill Maher. For the sake of fairness, I looked into religion, read the literature, listened to sermons and researched various churches.

I found intolerance, hypocrisy, a holier-than-thou attitude and a distinct lack of logic, reason or critical thinking. My lack of belief went from a vague personality trait to one of my core values. God was a fraud, and religion was the world's most successful and most harmful con.

Don't pray for me

When voicing this opinion to religious friends, I hear back, "I'll pray for you." Nothing is more infuriating. The act itself is harmless and laughable; the idea behind it is insulting and controlling. Those who do it truly believe that it will have some kind of effect on me and are in essence trying to seriously interfere with my life.

They are asking a higher power to influence me without my knowledge or consent. They do this with the misguided belief that I must be saved.

Can I say with absolute certainty that God does not exist? I can only attempt to convince others through reason and arguments of my absolute pride and comfort in being a nonbeliever. I will respect the rights of others to think differently until their beliefs actively and negatively affect me and those around me. I want to do what is right for those who exist in the here and now.

Believers' certainty in the existence of God and an afterlife is absurd, but the most dangerous aspect is their insistence in forcing the practices of their beliefs on me. Their beliefs should have no bearing on my ability to choose what is right for my body or whom I choose to legally marry.

Having to pledge allegiance to my country while affirming the existence of God is evidence of the insidious historical creep of religion. They must spread the word and must convert all, and do so with the misguided and selfish belief that their god is the one true god and that their religion is the only way to live. When they fight for what they believe, they do it for a reward, for the promise of an afterlife instead of what it will accomplish on Earth.

I have learned to respect the beliefs of others even though I may disagree with them. I want to do what I can to improve the world we live in for everyone, and I expect no reward. Yet somehow, I am looked down on for these qualities.

It is a good thing that I enjoy irony.

Emma Follmer, 19, Richmond, Va., is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. "If all goes according to plan, I will graduate in the spring of 2018 with degrees in English and political science. I will probably throw in a minor in journalism for good measure."

Nature, creativity are my religion

FFRF awarded Erika $750

By Erika Walsh

There are countless examples of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers who not only exhibit morally upstanding behavior, but also have made crucial contributions toward the betterment of our planet, and humanity itself. Regardless of nonbelievers' significant influence on history, science and politics, atheists in the U.S. are generally perceived as having no morals and often suffer from blatant discrimination.

Historical evidence points to the fact that most of our founders did not follow organized religion. James Madison stated that Christianity brought about "pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." John Adams condemned Judaism and Christianity as being among the bloodiest religions ever, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments.
The irony of this, considering the lack of acceptance of atheists, is astounding. Former President George H.W. Bush once publicly said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

It is virtually impossible for an atheist to win a public election, and to "come out" would equate to instant political suicide for a presidential candidate. The reality of atheists' modern-day isolation from politics would be disheartening to the founders, to say the least. The Constitution clearly calls for separation between church and state.
The forward-thinking founders did not see a place for religion in government, and this was a crucial aspect of their intention to establish a free nation.

A personal code of moral conduct is more easily achieved when the individual is not being seduced by the promise of salvation, or deterred by the fear of condemnation. Albert Einstein once stated that "a man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary."

Einstein himself, arguably one of the most brilliant individuals in the realm of both scientific and social issues, condemned the idea of a personal god. His ideas concerning not just physics, but war and peace, the education system and the nature of humankind, were undeniably groundbreaking, regardless of, or perhaps in part due to, his agnosticism.
Perhaps it can be said that distance from organized religion ignites a sense of freedom and individualism, which better equips people to explore the mysteries of the universe, and question why things are the way they are. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking states that he identifies as an atheist, and that science offers a "more convincing explanation" for the creation of the universe, and the miracles of religion cannot coincide in harmony with the facts presented to us by science.

Hawking might never have dared to explore the science surrounding the creation of the universe if he had been constrained by blind faith. He might have been too consumed by fear of what might happen to his soul, should he dare question this idea, to explore alternative possibilities.

In my own experience, I was never fully convinced by the rationalizations presented by standard religious teachings. Even as a child, the tenets preached in Sunday school did not sit well with me. I remember one incident where my teacher proclaimed that people who commit suicide go to hell. I was only 9 or 10, but I knew injustice when I came across it. I argued with her statement, refusing to accept that a loving god would punish someone for committing an act unto their own self, born out of pain and desperation.

This altercation somewhat solidified my feeling that Christianity wasn't for me, and yet I continued to say my prayers before bed each night for some time afterward, holding on to attachments born out of fear of the unknown. I am aware of a spiritual connection to myself, my surroundings and other sentient beings, akin to the "cosmic religious feeling" that Einstein describes experiencing.

I know now that my spirituality cannot be expressed within the confines of a church, temple or mosque. I experience this cosmic feeling primarily when I am submerged in nature or expressing myself creatively.

By owning my agnosticism and distancing myself from organized religion, I have found ways to express myself that may have been deterred or warped by the beliefs of Christianity, which I was baptized into and expected to practice.

Identifying as a nonbeliever simply means that a person is not content with the answers presented to them, and wishes to seek their own truths instead. I hope that our society will be able to overcome its fear and fully accept nonbelievers into our nation, recognizing that the individual choice not to believe is just as valid as the decision to believe.

Erika Walsh, 19, was born in Kings Park, N.Y., and is a sophomore writing major at Ithaca College. "I am a member of Feminists United at Ithaca, and I am on the executive board of IC Animal Rights. I am a vegetarian and am very passionate about ethical eating and living."

The atheist's never-ending task

FFRF awarded Julia $1,000.

By Julia Upchurch

Religion is inescapable in the Southeast. Each day, as I walk from one end of our campus to the other, I encounter two men peddling religious pamphlets: one Christian, the other Islamic. Each asserts that only the pious are redeemable, which means that every day I am told that I am irredeemable.

My nonreligious mother does not discuss religion with her friends out of fear that they will harass her for her lack of faith. My younger nonreligious cousins told me that their friends keep trying to bring them to religious services at the insistence of their parents. Were we members of any other religious group, such as Judaism, this would be seen as persecution. But because we are individuals without faith, it is considered customary.
In a 2011 study titled "Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice," participants were read a description of an individual engaging in abhorrent behavior and asked if it was more likely that the individual was Christian, Muslim, a rapist or an atheist. The results were telling: People were more likely to believe atheists would engage in immoral actions than religious individuals or even rapists.

I wish I had been surprised by the results. I have informed many acquaintances of my personal beliefs, only for them to respond that I seemed such a morally upstanding person. They appear to be incapable of understanding what my morality is based upon, if not religion.

I am a secular humanist, which is basically a fancy way of saying that I am an atheist who believes all living things should be treated the way that I would like to be treated if I was in their place, and they in mine. I believe actions that are seen as societally acceptable and unacceptable have less to do with organized religion and more to do with this principle, which Christians have dubbed "The Golden Rule."

Many have argued that "The Golden Rule" is a religious construct; however, empathy has been documented in at least two nonhuman species: elephants and crows. Both have been shown to mourn their dead. Elephants will carry the bones of any deceased they encounter back to their burial grounds, and crows will host a wake whenever they come across remains. Neither do this because of religious mandate; they do it because they empathize with others of their species. Nonbelievers base their morality on this same empathy, instead of on the belief that they will be rewarded or punished after they die.

Moreover, there have been studies that have demonstrated that nonreligious individuals are equally as moral as their religious counterparts. One such study in 2014, "Morality in Everyday Life," asked participants who were religious, nonreligious, liberal and conservative to report moral and immoral actions that they themselves committed, received, witnessed or heard about within an hour's time.

The only difference between the reports of religious and nonreligious people was the depth of emotion religious people experienced with each moral and immoral act: They felt more pride in their moral deeds and more embarrassment in their immoral deeds. Clearly, a lack of religion does not denote moral depravity.

Despite all of the scorn that nonreligious people are faced with every day, they have made indelible, and oft celebrated, contributions to the arts and sciences over the years. Examples include Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-known architect; Samuel Clemens, an author better known as Mark Twain; Albert Einstein, a renowned physicist; and Katharine Hepburn, a beloved actress.

To be the source of near-universal scorn, yet to still dedicate one's life to uplifting humanity, is the atheist's continual task. If that is not worthy of respect, I fail to see how anything else could ever measure up.

I was not always a nonreligious person. My parents believe in informed choice, so I attended a Lutheran church as a child. I was a voracious reader, and little appealed to me more than traditional fairy tales. Many people are unaware, but traditional fairy tales deliver morals through threats of magical intervention and death, and I found an odd number of parallels to the bible.

One day at Sunday school, I pointed out to my teacher that the intervention of fairies and those of angels were extremely similar. My teacher cautioned me that fairies did not exist, so I should be wary of putting too much stock in fairy tales. When I asked her how she knew fairies weren't real, she told me that they had never been observed. I asked her if angels had ever been observed, and she informed me they hadn't. When I asked her how she knew for a fact that angels existed, she told me that it was because angels were mentioned in the bible.

That was the day that I lost all respect for Christianity. I never again could place any stock in blind faith.

Julia Upchurch, 22, Camden, S.C., is a sophomore environmental science major at the University of South Carolina. She's interested in a career in limnology and plans to pursue an advanced degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Freshwater and Marine Sciences.

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