The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), founded by Mitch Kahle and Holly Huber, FFRF Life Members, had another success in April when a substitute teacher at Hart High School in Hart was ousted as a sub for distributing religious materials. MACRA alerted the district April 6 about the violations.
The teacher was supplied as a substitute by Professional Education Services Group (PSEG), a staffing company. "The substitute had, in fact, done some things and passed out materials with religious information and some specific references to entries in the bible," Superintendent Mark Platt told the Ludington Daily News on April 14.
"As a result of the investigation, the substitute will no longer be allowed sub for Hart Public Schools. We followed the formal complaint process that PESG provides and we communicated clearly with PESG that Mr. Meersma is not allowed to substitute at Hart Public Schools," Platt said in a press release.
A demonstration planned in support of the teacher never took place, Platt said.
"[W]e will be reminding staff of the importance of honoring the issue of the separation of church and state," Platt said. The district will also add the topic to "start of the school term" staff discussions in the fall and consider putting together a "do's and don'ts" handout for subs.
The Associated Press reported May 12 on a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that says 56 million Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or of no particular faith grew from 16% to almost 23% percent. The number of self-described Christians dropped from 78% to 71%.
According to the poll, conducted in English and Spanish, 31% of "nones" said they were atheist or agnostic, compared to 25% percent in 2007. The poll found that while mainline Protestant and Catholic numbers dropped, the number of evangelicals rose slightly to 62 million.
Muslims and Hindus each make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. The number of Jews rose from 1.7% to 1.9% percent of Americans from 2007-14.
The study put the number of Catholic adults at 51 million, about 20% of the population, compared to about 25% in 2007 — or just over one-fifth of the U.S. population, a drop of about 3 percent over seven years. In 2007, Catholics made up about one-quarter of Americans.
Greg Smith, Pew associate research director, said the findings show "substantive changes" among the religiously unaffiliated. He said secular groups have become increasingly organized to counter bias against them.
"Nones" now are the second largest "affiliation"
Anthony Pinn, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Rice University, spoke at FFRF's Los Angeles convention last fall. He has advanced degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities and is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice and research director at the Institute for Humanist Studies. His books include Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (1995), The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (2011) and Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist (2014), available from FFRF.org/shop.
By Anthony Pinn
I am delighted to be here with you and I want to thank my new friends from FFRF for this invitation. I turned 50 this year, in May. I've been a bit too lazy for a midlife crisis, but it has given me opportunity to think.
My life divides fairly evenly between two diametrically opposed positions on life. I'm one who believes that there are certain elements of human existence, our movement through the world, that are best expressed through the poetic. So I'll help you get a sense of what these two poles, these two contradictory stances entail, and tell it through song. I won't sing the songs, but I'll tell you what they are.
The first phase of my life is roughly summed up by the hymn "Amazing Grace." Some of you may know this: "Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me." Written in 1779, the same year that enslaved Africans in Connecticut petitioned for their freedom.
The second phase, the second 25 years, is better summed up by this hauntingly beautiful song first published in 1964, the year of my birth, but was really given "oomph" and classic significance in 1965 when Nina Simone decided to sing it. One of the lines [from "Feeling Good"] is this: "Freedom is mine/and I know how I feel/it's a new dawn/it's a new day/it's a new life for me and I'm feelin' good."
The second phase is marked by a certain type of lucidity or awareness, a way of recognizing and honoring what my grandmother told me as she sent me off to college. She said, "Tony, walk through the world knowing your footsteps matter." Life is embodied in how you interact with others, and the sorts of relationships you form or don't form have impact. You're not in this alone; you're not doing this simply for yourself. Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter."
I've spent 50 years moving between these two poles, which is nothing anyone would have anticipated for me. My family was part of the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans into southern and northern cities after the Civil War through the mid-20th century, looking for opportunity and a way of integrating themselves into U.S. life.
My mother's family moved from Halifax, N.C., to Buffalo, N.Y. My grandparents were college educated, but that didn't mean much. My father's family moved from Dinwiddie, Va., to Buffalo. They moved to Buffalo because Bethlehem Steel was in [nearby] Lackawanna, which meant opportunity, a good paycheck, a good life.
I remember as a child going to church with my grandfather in Lackawanna, to a small Baptist church. He was one of the deacons. We'd go to Sunday school, and we'd listen to Sunday school lessons that really had nothing to do with our inner-city lives. But we listened to these stories and somehow they were connected to scripture that we didn't quite understand.
Then came the big service, the service for the adults. We had our own way of entertaining ourselves. Each child on the row got a hymnal and you'd close your eyes and open up the hymnal quickly and you'd look. The goal was to eventually land on the same hymn, and if you landed on the same hymn, it was great joy and then you moved on to the next challenge.
The final challenge was going to the restroom and staying away for an extended period and being able to explain the absence. Now sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes my grandfather would catch us. All he had to do was look. It was just that look, behind those rather thick, cloudy glasses, and you knew that was it.
We stayed at that church until my mother decided it wasn't a proper environment. She didn't want us growing up in a church in which women were second-class citizens, where women could clean but couldn't preach. We started attending a small church much closer to home. This church would eventually affiliate with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but when we arrived it was independent. My mother loved it, and it made sense to the rest of us.
My mother and my sister went to service one Sunday when I didn't go. They got home and announced they had joined the church. I'm thinking, Linda's older, but there's nothing she gets to do that I don't do. Next Sunday, I'm in church; I play my games and take a little nap and then ask my mother what those people are doing walking up to the front of the church. She said, "They're joining the church."
I think, "Well OK, I want to do that, too." So I walk to the front and announce my name, "I'm Anthony Bernard Pinn and I came to join this church." And that was the beginning. We had a new family, it provided a cultural network; it provided social networks; and, it was a space in which we could breathe, a space in which we could have a bit of comfort in what seemed to be a death-dealing society.
It was a space apart, away from all of the madness. It was a space away from my grammar school teachers who really didn't give a damn about me. As long as I stayed out of trouble, didn't create waves, everything was good. It doesn't matter if he's learning anything or not. But this was a different space in which my talents were assumed, and pushed.
The minister also taught Sunday school. One Sunday after the lesson he asked a typical question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" There were the typical responses: "I'm going to be president; I'm going to be a doctor; I'm going to be a lawyer." He got to me and I said, "I'm going to be a preacher." I'm not quite certain why I said it. I'm not sure I anticipated what his reaction was going to be, but I said it. He looked at me and said, "OK, we start next Sunday." So the games were over for me.
In the pulpit
So, with my mother's permission and a big smile on her face, I mounted the pulpit. I led hymns, collected the offering, said prayers, opened the church doors. I was a little minister with a very different role. I couldn't go to the store alone. I had to be in the house when the streetlights came on, but in the context of that church I had a certain type of authority simply because I said, "I'm going to be a preacher."
Eventually that minister left and another came, and he left, and then this young guy arrived from Philadelphia who was known for "growing" churches. This church needed to grow, because now it was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, the oldest black denomination in the country. Folks told him, "Tony has a call on his life. He's going to be a minister." He said, "Hmm, I'll check this out."
At age 12, I preached my first sermon, my trial sermon. The real test of a sermon is not how many people get happy with you. The real test of a sermon is how many people come to Christ as a result of what you've said. For that first sermon, all about fire and brimstone, three people came, so I was on my way.
I went through the process, meeting with church leaders, proving this calling. I can't go to the store alone, but I'm leading people to Christ. I'm counseling people on issues I don't really understand, on topics I couldn't necessarily pronounce.
My grandmother told me, "Look, I'm so proud of you, but understand this. I would not make use of an attorney that didn't have a J.D. Nor would I make use of the services of a physician without an M.D. And my grandson will not be a preacher without proper training."
I knew education within my family had always been important and at this stage, I knew that beyond the B.A. I would have to get professionally trained for ministry. I decided, along with my mother, that it would be most beneficial for me to be in an educational environment with folks who were like-minded. The public school system was not going to cut it. I had to be in the world but not of it, and this school was not helping.
So, I transferred from City Honors, a program for gifted students, to a small Southern Baptist high school outside Buffalo. It was a feeder program for institutions like Bob Jones University and [Jerry Falwell's] Liberty Baptist. Need I say more?
I spent three years there, unlearning critical thinking skills and embracing scripture. Now it was time for college. I knew I couldn't stay in Buffalo because I was surrounded by folks who had limited ambition, and I needed more than that. It just so happened that my minister had been transferred to a rather large church in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bedford-Stuyvesant. I took this as a sign from the Lord to go to school in New York, so Columbia University was my place.
I arrived thinking I'm going to set this world on fire for Christ and lead people to Jesus, but I was in for a surprise. I'm taking classes in biblical studies and these folks are treating the bible as if it's simply a piece of literature. They did not appreciate a deeper understanding of scripture.
I'm also meeting people who practice other faiths with devotion and without apology. It doesn't matter to them that from my perspective they are going to hell. This was the thing that really got me: Some of these folks who are on their way to hell treated me consistently better than so many of the Christians I encountered. They didn't talk about me behind my back. They weren't looking for me to slip up and prove that I was human.
Bedford-Stuyvesant wasn't gentrified in 1982. It was an area deeply troubled by economic want and need, and people found ways to pacify that want and need. In the early '80s, crack cocaine became a way of doing this. It's cheap, readily available and numbs the pain.
I'm at a church in the middle of this, and we're saying nothing that eased life for these folks. I'm working with young people who are finding it easier to plan out their deaths than to think about a bright future. They're struggling with this in the basement of a church that believes it has "the way." I had nothing to say that really made much of a difference, even in terms of basic life circumstances and needs like sex education.
I was the youth minister, 18 or 19 years old, so one of my responsibilities was to provide these young people with a way to think about their sexual wants and desires. I had this one statement that was going to transform life for them and make it easy to avoid sexual sin. This is what I would say, with a rather stern but caring and compassionate look on my face: "You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, [pause] knowing that Jesus is in the room with you."
And I'm thinking, damn, this is brilliant! In reality, I had nothing to say that made a difference for their life circumstances. They were confronted with the same sort of dilemma that the writer Richard Wright describes in terms of his own life. In Black Boy he says, "Look, if I'd encountered the church before I encountered the harshness of the world, the songs and the sermons would have meant something to me."
Wright says he encountered the world first, and the church could not fix the suffering he felt. I gave them nothing that really made a difference, Monday through Saturday, and this was becoming difficult for me because I wanted to be a person with integrity. It reached a point where I just couldn't do it. There was a kind of dissonance that I just couldn't deal with.
This was my solution: I was supposed to be at the 6 a.m. service every Sunday. That was not a challenge because I thrived on very little sleep. But not having anything to say that made a difference, a theology that was anemic at best and perverse at worst, just wasn't getting the job done. On some Sundays when it was just too much, I'd get dressed in my suit, make my way to the train station at 116th Street and Broadway and let the train pass. I'd sit down and the next train would come, and I'd let it go. The third train would come and I'd let it go.
I'd get on the next train and make my way to 59th street to get on that famous A train into Brooklyn and I'd let one pass. I'd look at the clock and I'd let another one pass, and I'd look again and perhaps I'd need to let a third pass. I wouldn't get on the train until I was fairly confident that I could get to Brooklyn late enough not to have to participate in the service. I'd make that slow walk down to the church, walk in and sit in the back. Afterward I'd tell the minister, "Doc, I'm sorry, the train."
I was still committed to ministry, but my idea of God was changing radically. It went from the idea of a god who breaks into human history and makes things happen to a god who works by persuasion, what my mother described as that small, still voice, attempting to get us to do the right thing. I was moving from this kind of evangelical fundamentalist position to something more along the lines of the social gospel, but it still wasn't getting it done.
I was still going to be in ministry, but I had to figure out a way to do this. My model eventually became Adam Clayton Powell Jr., for whom the church and theology were about sociopolitical and economic change.
My church family thought I had the answers, but I had questions, questions I couldn't share because the minister is supposed to know the answers, or know to get them. So I had to leave, and I wanted to go to a place where my sense of ministry would not matter at all, where it was about learning and critical thinking skills, so I decided Harvard Divinity School was the place to go because they didn't really care about Jesus.
When I told church family that I was thinking about going to Harvard Divinity School, they'd ask, "Why do you want to go to the cemetery?" They didn't say "seminary;" it was "cemetery," where good religious ideas go to die.
I was a youth minister at a small church in Roxbury, in Boston. They were just integrating some of the public housing there, like the Mary Ellen McCormack development. A clear marker of economic need was the park across the street from the church. It had metal nets on the basketball hoops, which cut fingers and required tetanus shots. The park was home to kids having fun but also home to drug deals and prostitution.
I asked the minister what we could do in the context of our preaching to make a difference. He told me, "Pinn, let the people get happy with you." But I'm not happy, because I'm not making a difference. Young people from the church are literally dying. They can't get out of gang activity because of where they live. James Baldwin said, growing up in Harlem, that it became clear to him that you had to belong to something. You couldn't survive in that environment without belonging to something. He said, "You could belong to the drug dealers, you could belong to the pimps, or you could belong to the church. I'll pick the church."
I had nothing to say that made a difference, and I beat myself up for a long time and then realized that it wasn't me; it was this faith that had nothing to contribute to the life circumstances of these folks, nothing that would make a damn difference in how they lived Monday through Saturday. It wasn't me; it was the faith.
I'm wrestling with this, trying desperately to hold onto something of theism, but it reached a point where I had to make a decision. Do the people matter, or is it the tradition that matters? I decided the people matter most. There were lots of things I was willing to be, but I was not going to be a hypocrite. I could no longer stand in the pulpit preaching what I did not believe.
I contacted the minister and said, "I'm done. I won't be on the staff anymore, I just can't do it." I've got to think; I've got to process; I've got to figure out what religion is and if it can matter in any shape or form. I contacted my bishop and surrendered my ordination. I said, "I'm no longer involved in AME ministry."
It didn't matter to me what people thought because I had to live with integrity. It didn't matter to me if I lost family or friends. I had to live in the world in a way that I could respect. I had to be true to what my grandmother told me, "Move through the world knowing your footsteps matter."
I remained interested in religion. It was a force that needed to be wrestled with and understood as a cultural development that shaped world events in some profound ways. From my perspective, if we could get people to think critically about the world, we were set. If we could give them effective communication strategies, they could make some things happen. That was my next phase.
I'd finished the Ph.D. and spent time trying to understand this all and give greater attention to the ways in which humanism and atheism have influenced life in the United States beyond white folks. It was a bit of a novel thought, that you folks don't own this. But it surprised people, so I needed to spend time understanding the nature and meaning of religion, how this functions — religion particularly, in the form of theism. I also wanted to give attention to how atheism and humanism function within the context of racial minorities.
I'd left the church, but I'd entered a much larger community, kind of nebulous in nature, but a larger community. I was convinced from that moment forward that humanists and atheists, even within my African-American communities, are legion.
Thank you. So I think we have time to chat, yes?
Q. I've often wondered why blacks seem to be interested in religion out of proportion to their numbers. Is it history, and slavery, or a feeling of hopelessness or hopefulness or what?
A. I knew this question was coming. It's not always first, because folks typically have to kind of warm up to it, but I always get this question. There are two things I want to say on this. First, we have to think in more complex ways concerning religion. I want to make a distinction between religion, which is a kind of binding together, and theism.
From my perspective, the real problem is theism, not religion. They overlap but are not identical. There are a variety of reasons why African-Americans over time would embrace theism. One, folks with power had it, and if these folks with power had this thing, maybe this thing could get African-Americans something.
There are pragmatic reasons for embracing it, but we cannot forget that although Christianity within the context of African-American communities, and the U.S. in much larger terms, has done a lot of damage, there are ways in which, in a rather flat way, it spurred a demand for personhood.
You cannot take away from the Christian faith in African-American
communities the slave revolts. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser — all ministers. So it's an incomplete process that forces them to surrender something of themselves, but there are ways in which it involved a push for personhood.
Let's also think about it this way: There would be little reason for African-Americans to assume that humanism and atheism provide a softer landing place. I hear so many humanists and atheists celebrating Thomas Jefferson. "This is one of our dudes; he's one of us." But as soon as you say that, you have linked humanism to slavery. This is the man who says "This far, but no further," because freeing slaves will mess up Virginia and mess up the nation. Again, as soon as you embrace him, you've linked humanism to slavery.
Too many humanists and atheists believe disbelief, nontheism, is a prophylactic against nonsense. Because I don't believe in religion, I cannot be guilty of racism, classism, sexism or homophobia. This is a problem because it doesn't allow us to take these issues seriously.
And African-American nonbelievers are in the shadows looking at you wrestling with these issues in an inadequate fashion. So give them an alternative, give racial minorities in the United States a soft landing place, which involves doing more than just critiquing the traditions they're leaving. Give them something positive.
Q. Where can I get your reading list for any of the classes you teach? I'm really interested in what you've studied.
A. Email me at and identify the conversation in the subject line. I'm much better at email and text messages than phone calls, I'm a text messaging pro.
Q. I wanted to bring up the subject that the gentlemen did earlier, about African-Americans being disproportionately religious. I was wondering about a way to get more minorities in general to come out of the closet. It seems particularly rough for minorities to come out of the closet. I'd like to to come up with a better way
A. It seems to me, and I think there's evidence to support this, that the churches in the context of the United States declined numerically after the civil rights movement, and that's not just black churches. In terms of black churches, there was an upswing in the 1980s, in part because the black middle class hit the ceiling. They played by the rules after the civil rights movement, went to the schools that they were told they needed to go to, moved into the neighborhoods they were told they needed to move to, played by the rules. Still, they couldn't capture the American dream.
It reaches a point mid-1980s, and they say, forget this. They've lost cultural connections; they've lost social networks. So they decide they're going to reconnect and the way to reconnect easily is to join a church. You get cultural connection and opportunities for kids to learn something about African-American culture. You get social networking. You get business networks.
Now, lots of these folks join and understand that the sermon is the price they pay for these connections, but they're not buying what the minister is saying. We don't really know how many African-Americans are "sure enough" theists. We know how they respond to surveys, but we don't really know because they're in these churches for a variety of reasons.
If we want them to come out, give them a soft place to land. That soft place has to allow more than just a critique of the traditions they're leaving. Meet their needs, give them networks and give them a sense of community. It also means folks who dominate these organizations have to be able to give something up.
You have to recognize that you have to break free of illusions. Privilege comes in two forms — soft, and what I would reference as hard. The soft forms of privilege are the ones we typically forget, but think about it this way. When you go to buy a car, and you're deciding on how much to spend and what model to get, do you ever take into consideration how often you'd be followed by police if you get a certain vehicle? I do. Because a luxury vehicle is going to expose me to "driving while black," and white friends don't always notice this.
I'm driving down Highway 45 in Houston and police officers are running the plates behind me. They don't leave until, darn, the plates are clean. There are things that not every U.S. citizen has to take into consideration. If you go into a restaurant, and they seat you near the restrooms, what reasons go through your mind? I'll tell you what goes through my mind!
Soft forms of privilege, things you don't have to worry about, but things that racial minorities in the U.S., of necessity, out of survival, have to be concerned about. So recognize these forms of privilege, work through these forms of privilege and their ramifications. Understand something about the communities you want in your organizations. Humanists and atheists are people who read, so read something about Africa-Americans, and learn something about us.
And then African-Americans might be interested.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's column below was first published May 5 by Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist as a guest post.
By Andrew Seidel
When bibles were distributed in Orange County, Fla., Public Schools in January 2013, I wrote a letter to the school district on behalf of FFRF asking them to "halt all distributions."
Earlier this year, the district finally banned all such distributions, but only after we sued.
On May 4, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals handed down the final word on the case, which has essentially been over since the school board voted in February to give FFRF what it asked for 28 months ago. Basically, the court said the case was moot because the school district changed its mind.
Endings are a time for reflection, and I learned several lessons litigating this case. But to understand the lessons, you need to understand exactly what happened. FFRF tries to resolve state/church complaints through education. We only resort to lawsuits when the government ignores us or defends First Amendment violations as legitimate. Hence, our January 2013 educational letter to the district asking them to halt all bible distributions.
The district refused. It claimed that it had an "open forum" where any outside group, including FFRF, could distribute any literature, including bibles, on school property. FFRF's position has always been that these forums should be closed. But if bibles are going to be distributed, FFRF thinks students should also get literature that criticizes the bible.
With the help of our local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, and its founder David Williamson, FFRF asked to distribute secular literature. The district insisted on vetting the literature and censored much of it. For instance, one book was prohibited because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected "is age-inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school," even though the district-approved bible claims that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. So FFRF sued in federal court.
On Jan. 3, 2014, the district told FFRF its literature could be distributed and that the deadline for submitting new material for vetting was Dec. 31, 2013. Yes, you read that correctly. They told us three days after the deadline. Moreover, the district kept the same broken vetting process in place — the same person, same procedures and the same unbridled authority to prohibit literature with a message the district disliked — and that vetting was only applied to us. (The district actually admitted it did not vet the bible.)
Even though we were not given time to participate in the 2014 distribution, the court declared the case moot. But more importantly, the distribution forum was still open. Sure, we could finally distribute our message, but that was not our primary goal.
From the first letter we sent, we made it clear we were trying to "halt all distributions," from the bible to atheist literature. So we wanted a way to test the forum, to ensure that it was truly fair and open to all.
That's why I called my friend Lucien Greaves at the Satanic Temple in July 2014. Lucien agreed that, if the bible is being distributed, kids should hear about the messages of other religions as well, including the Satanic Temple. Like FFRF, Greaves thinks that schools should stick to educating students and not give space to adults to prey on other people's children. But he's not willing to let bible thumpers monopolize those forums.
When the temple asked to distribute its wonderful coloring books in public schools, the backlash was harsh, immediate and predictable. It was so predictable that David Williamson, also a plaintiff in the case, coined a new phrase: "Lucien's Law."
Lucien's Law states that governments will either (1) close open forums when the Satanic Temple asks to speak, or (2) censor the Satanic Temple, thereby opening itself to legal liability. It is, as Hemant Mehta has noted, "like the nuclear option of church/state separation cases."
By November 2014, it became clear that the school board was going to choose option #1 and close the forum, which they eventually did in February 2015.
What have we learned?
Lesson #1: Despite the court opinion declaring the case moot, it was an unqualified success for FFRF and our chapter, CFFC. We sought to close the bible distribution forum, and it is closed.
Lesson #2: Apparently, the temple's coloring book is scarier than atheist literature. Perhaps we atheists are not the most-hated group in America after all. Or perhaps we're only less feared — because Satan does run hell.
Lesson #3: This strategy is portable. Other school districts around the country allow bible distributions. Just this year, two Oklahoma districts, Okemah and Checotah, told FFRF that bible distributions occurred as part of open forums. In that case, I informed them, FFRF would like to use the forum and would be telling some friends. They closed their forums within a month.
Lesson #4: Groups trying to distribute bibles in public schools are not thinking clearly. (Shocking, I know.) Bibles are the most widely available book in this country, if not the world. It is incredibly easy for students to get a bible, but it's much harder for students to get literature critical of the bible.
When these groups infiltrate public schools, they are forced to declare an open forum, which also brings in the atheists. Which message will have a bigger impact on students: the one they hear for the hundredth time or the one they hear for the first time?
If religious literature is being distributed in your schools, report the violation to ffrf.org/legal/report/. If you think handling 3,500 state/church complaints every year is impressive, join FFRF.
FFRF gets sexist posters removed
Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wis., took down sexist prom posters sponsored by a Catholic health care provider and a "crisis" pregnancy center after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent an April 29 complaint letter.
The poster featured a silhouette of a girl in a dress made out of words suggesting supposedly desirable qualities for women, including "quiet, gentle and classy." The Crossing of Manitowoc County, a Christian anti-abortion group, and Holy Family Memorial, which offers faith-based health services and is operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, sponsored the poster message.
The complaint was picked up by national media, with many stories pointing out the poster implied that girls who had sex had no character and would no longer embody qualities named in the poster. Senior Kelsey Schindl met with Principal Luke Valitchka to ask if she could put up posters countering the "shaming" message but was refused.
"The insinuation that if you do have sex, then you don't have any character any more is a horrible message to send," Schindl said. "I'm not endorsing teen sex, but you're not a bad person if you do and you're not a bad person if you don't."
Grover wrote, "When a school district allows a private religious organization to advertise on the walls of its school, it entangles itself with the religious message being advertised. As it stands, Principal Valitchka appears to have denied students the right to advertise a message on the same topic as the religious advertisements currently on display solely because their message is an opposing viewpoint."
Manitowoc Public School District Superintendent Marcia Flaherty responded April 30, denying that the posters were religious but confirming they were taken down.
Missouri school drops 'character assembly'
After FFRF objected to inappropriate religious references at a public school assembly in Branson, Mo., the district has taken steps to ensure future assemblies will be religion-free.
Last October, Branson Junior High School hosted a "character assembly" sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A former football player offered to pray with students, told them to give all their problems to Jesus and handed out football cards with a testimonial about how God and Jesus had helped him through difficult times.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the district March 27: "Providing a school assembly with religious content by a Christian speaker gives the appearance that Branson Public Schools endorses that speaker's religious message."
Superintendent Doug Hayter responded April 3 that the administration discussed policies regarding neutrality toward religion with the school principal and would "review these guidelines with our entire administrative team to ensure knowledge and full compliance."
California official won't endorse prayer
A Solano, Calif., County supervisor will no longer officially participate in a prayer breakfast. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Supervisor Linda Seifert on April 1, objecting to her participation in the Vallejo Prayer Breakfast: "It is unlawful under the First Amendment for a government employee to attend the event in an official capacity or to place official government seals on publications of the event."
Seifert responded April 6, saying she would not authorize the use of her title and the county seal as a sponsor or participant in future prayer events.
Georgia teachers can sit out pledge
The principal at Greenbrier Elementary School, Evans, Ga., will no longer make teachers participate in the Pledge of Allegiance to "set an example" for students.
"The Supreme Court ruled over 70 years ago that compelling participation in the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutionally impermissible," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the district. "Employees should not be singled out, rebuked or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience."
Columbia County Schools Superintendent Sandra Carraway responded soon after, informing FFRF that the district "recognize[s] and support[s] our inability to compel anyone to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance," and would educate the principal on the law.
FFRF shuts down Oklahoma proselytizing
Students in the Cleveland, Okla., School District will no longer be subjected to bible distributions and harassment from teachers about religion.
FFRF received a complaint that a teacher at Cleveland Intermediate School read aloud to the class from a bible. When the complainant's child asked her to stop because "not everyone believes the same thing," the teacher allegedly refused because it was "her personal reading material." The teacher later reportedly singled out the student, saying she bet the student didn't know a certain bible verse. The school principal and another man also handed out bibles to students as they left school.
In a March 30 letter, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel detailed the problems with the school employees' conduct: "Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint."
In an April 7 response, Superintendent Aaron Espolt said the bible distribution was done without his knowledge, adding that future distributions would not be permitted. In addition, the administration addressed bible reading with the teacher, which Espolt said would "prevent any future incidents."
Student screening moved from church
The Tea Area School District, Tea, S.D., will end its practice of holding a mandatory kindergarten screening at a local church. In an April 9 letter of complaint, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote, "This practice forces parents and children, who may be of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship in order to be screened to attend public school."
Superintendent Jennifer Lowery replied April 29 that the screening would be moved to a district facility.
Praying Iowa coach told to stop
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the Ankeny, Iowa, Community School District on Feb. 11 about a football coach illegally praying with his students. "We ask that you ensure coaches are not leading, organizing, inviting, encouraging or participating in prayers with their teams in the future."
Superintendent Bruce Kimpston responded April 16 that the district provided guidelines to all high school activity directors to give to coaches: "Ankeny CSD respects the separation between government activity and religion. While we are grateful for any assistance our sports teams may receive, we understand that sponsoring religious practices is not an appropriate school function."
Church trailer, awards venue remedied
Volusia County Schools, DeLand, Fla., remedied state/church violations after getting a Feb. 5 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. FFRF received a report that Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange let a church leave a trailer with a church ad on it in a school parking lot all week. The school also scheduled its senior honors awards program at a Baptist church.
Chief counsel for the district responded that the trailer would be removed entirely or have its message covered during the week. The district will use a secular location for the awards program in future years.
FFRF cures school's religion addiction
Students at Central Freedom School in Mankato, Minn., will no longer be required to attend religious Alcoholics Anonymous programming.
Central Freedom, a public alternative school for students with chemical dependency issues, required AA meetings during the school day. Students who refused to attend might be found "resistant" or otherwise noncompliant.
"Public school programs may not encourage or require student recognition of a 'greater power' and that students turn their lives over to God," wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, referencing some of AA's famous 12 steps.
FFRF's complainant reported that several changes were being made, including no further 12-step meetings held at the school. The district superintendent confirmed the changes April 16.
Virginia 'release time' punishment barred
Nottoway, Va., Public Schools students who do not attend religious "release time" will no longer be forced to clean rooms or do extra homework. At least one student at Blackstone Primary School who didn't participate in a religious class off-campus was required to sweep and dust classrooms until the other students returned. In addition, class instructors reportedly pressured nonparticipating students to attend.
"Allowing release-time instructors to cajole primary students despite their parents' objection is impermissible. Forcing nonparticipating students to partake in punitive exercises like dusting and sweeping, rather than enrichment activities, is downright coercive," wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in an April 14 letter.
The district responded the next day, saying that what FFRF described as happening was not consistent with school policy and that teachers had been advised of those concerns.
Teacher told no more class prayer
Dawson County School District in Georgia took corrective measures about a teacher planning prayer at a class Christmas party. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote an April 8 letter after a complainant reported that a first-grade teacher at Robinson Elementary in Dawsonville told students and parents at the party, "Now let's all bow our heads for the blessing." A student then led a prayer.
Attorney Philip Hartley responded April 20, confirming that the incident had occurred as described. He reported that after talking to the teacher, the school was confident it would not happen again.
Vet center religious sign removed
Louis A. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center, Clarksburg, W.Va., has taken down a religious sign. A veteran contacted FFRF to report that while at the center to have his photo taken for an ID card, he encountered a sign saying each day was "a gift from God" positioned near the camera.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter of objection Feb. 10 noting that 23% of military personnel currently choose "no religious preference" when asked.
The center's director responded April 22 that the sign had been removed.
FFRF reins in Georgia baccalaureate
Mount Zion High School in Carrollton, Ga., will have no further involvement in a baccalaureate ceremony. FFRF Attorney Madeline Ziegler lodged a complaint with the district April 28 about a teacher in charge of planning the baccalaureate, a religious ceremony for graduates to be held at a church. A pastor was slated to speak and seniors were being pulled out of class to learn Christian worship songs to sing at the ceremony.
FFRF's student complainant was told written permission from a parent and "a valid excuse" would be required to skip the ceremony.
Assistant Superintendent Terry Jones replied April 30, noting that the district made changes to ensure it was meeting legal requirements. FFRF's complainant confirmed that the teacher was no longer in charge of the baccalaureate, practice was no longer held during the school day, and the school made it clear that the ceremony was completely voluntary.
"Mr. Darwin," the lifelike creation of talented artist Csam Wheatley, Louisville, Ky., now graces the Joel B. Landon and Wanda Y. Beers Freethought Library on the third floor of Freethought Hall, FFRF's national office in downtown Madison, Wis.
The acquisition of Mr. Darwin was officially celebrated at a May 2 event, "Tea with Mr. Darwin," in the new Charlie Brooks Auditorium. Area members enjoyed dainty hors d'oueuves and entertainment by the clever satirist and songwriter, Roy Zimmerman. He accompanied himself on guitar and sang "Creation Science 101," "The Wedding of Church and State" and other apropos tunes.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker was the warm-up act on the Diane Uhl Steinway concert piano, performing "It's Only Natural," with its reference "Thanks to Mr. Darwin for showing us the origins of the human race."
Csam (pronounced "Sam") Wheatley thoroughly researched details about Charles Darwin before constructing the figure. He stands a little over 6 feet, as the naturalist did in real life. Csam caught Darwin's slight stoop, and his piercing blue eyes, dimmed a little by age.
He originally designed Mr. Darwin "for my personal collection," adding, "I wanted to find a subject who had a very rich skin texture (such as wrinkles, pores, age spots and moles) and whose face had a lot of character. Darwin fit the bill. My great admiration for him and the availability of high quality (for its time) photos of him sealed the deal.
"I researched him to find out what the real man was like. I learned that he was a very loving husband and a doting father and that he was known to laugh so hard that he'd even slap his knee. I knew that he was demonized in some circles so I decided to portray him in the way that I imagined he'd look if he were greeting a friend. I hoped that after seeing my portrait, people would be more likely to see him as a real man with warmth and humanity."
Csam estimates that Mr. Darwin has already been viewed by tens of thousands, since he lent out him out to be a centerpiece at secular booths at the Kentucky State Fair for several years. He was "born" five years ago, originally as a bust.
Mr. Darwin's head and hands are foam rubber with a silicone skin. The rest of his body is sculpted from foam rubber over a wood and metal armature. Csam realized the bust he had created would have much greater impact atop a complete figure. The head and hands are sculpted in clay, from which Csam made molds, pouring in a thin layer of silicone to form the skin.
"Once the skin had cured, I filled them with foam rubber. Then I removed them from the molds and cleaned them up. Then I painted them. Then the fingernails and eyes were painted and installed. Then different hair colors were blended, and the hair was curled as appropriate, punched into the skin, and cut."
Csam cut pieces of foam rubber and glued them onto the armature, then sculpted them to give the body its final shape. Then he installed the hands, which he said were the most intricate and time-consuming part. He took great care to reproduce every facial mole and wrinkle. Wanting "some of my DNA to be part of this project," Csam placed one of his eyelashes into one of those moles.
"We're so delighted and honored that Csam has allowed FFRF to give Mr. Darwin a home," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. A standing plaque positioned near Mr. Darwin notes that the acquisition was made possible by Michael Cermak, who originally gave the largest donation in FFRF's first attempt to add a library to its original building.
The property owner next door opposed the construction, so FFRF eventually was able to negotiate purchase of the decrepit apartment building, which it has replaced with a four-story (plus lower-level mailing area) addition finished earlier this year.
Generous donors Wanda Beering and Joel Landon gave $100,000 for library construction, which is joined to the addition but still sits atop FFRF's original building, as first planned. "We wanted Mike's original support to be immortalized, too, because that support was so gratifying and because we kept Mike waiting a lot longer to see the library go up then we'd anticipated!" Annie Laurie said.
Please come and get your photo taken with Mr. Darwin at the open house Friday morning, Oct. 9, preceding FFRF's 38th national convention at Monona Terrace Convention Center.
Sam Erickson, FFRF student intern:
Jessica Ahlquist has already done more to protect state/church separation than many of us do in a lifetime. When she was 17, a judge ruled in her favor that a school banner depicting a prayer at her Rhode Island high school violated the Establishment Clause. The ruling in 2012 infamously prompted a local legislator to brand her an "evil little thing." At one point, she was going to school under police escort. FFRF tried to send her flowers but not a single florist would deliver them.
Since then, Jessica has won many honors from the secular movement, including FFRF's Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award [$2,000] and a $10,000 scholarship from FFRF's Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund. She addressed the Reason Rally in Washington in 2012 shortly after she won her lawsuit. This is Jessica's third appearance at a national FFRF convention. Her stories offer inspiration for me to continue the work that I'm doing and for other students to continue their work as well.
By Jessica Ahlquist
Thank you so much. I'm sure a lot of you have come to these events before and have seen me speak. Previously, I was just sharing my story. I spoke the first time about my case before it had actually been ruled on. The second time was after we'd been successful.
After some time I started to feel like I was missing the bigger picture and started to wonder what could actually be learned from my experiences. At the end of just about every talk that I gave for about two years, somebody would say, "OK, so what can we do?" I didn't really have an answer to that until recently.
After analyzing some of the various aspects of what I'm going to call my "campaign," I started to see a pattern. Ultimately, my lawsuit and activism had been successful. As I look back on it today, the main thing that made it successful wasn't just the actual legal success; it was a lot of the social aspects as well.
When I first started advocating for removal of the prayer, it felt like everybody hated me and I didn't have any allies. I'm glad to say that by the end, I don't know if that was the case anymore. It felt like a lot of people had, not an epiphany, but they had come to understand my perspective a little bit better. So I started to analyze why. What exactly made this something that people were receptive to?
Initially I was very concentrated on the actual legal aspects, for obvious reasons. It's a prayer in a public school. When I attended the first school committee meeting about the prayer, I brought some index cards. On them I wrote "separation of church and state, the First Amendment" and a few other precedents. I thought that was like, proof. I was 15. Being so naive, I actually believed that would be enough, that they would be like, "Oh well, obviously it's illegal. We'll just take it right down, no problem."
You all know that's not what happened at all. But I was entirely genuine and I went into it with an open mind. I didn't plan on speaking that night but after hearing so many people speak and get it so wrong so many times about how this is a Christian nation and we should want prayers in our schools, I did decide to speak and attempted to make my points several times. It felt like nobody was listening.
In fact, they all had their own index cards with "facts" that were completely contrary to mine. I was getting frustrated, and without even knowing it, I realized that being right isn't actually enough. Just because you're right doesn't mean that people will believe it or care.
That night I "came out" as an atheist while not really knowing what it meant or how controversial it was. I put my cards away and spoke from my heart. I talked about how excluded I felt as a secular student by a prayer that was obviously Christian hanging in a public school. Now, instead of just patting me on the head and telling me I should check my facts and dismissing me, they had to prove they weren't discriminating against me. That was a much harder thing to do, especially considering I had been called a witch and a satanist at the meeting.
There are three main categories in secular campaigning, "campaigning" meaning a lawsuit or cause being pursued. The categories that I came up with are in a way very similar to ethos, pathos and logos. Instead, I called them (1) legal and historical, (2) emotional and personal and (3) logical and scientific.
At first I thought that those categories described the best way to argue with people, that if you have a cause, or in this case the prayer banner lawsuit, you could take different approaches. For example, in my school committee meeting, I felt that I was getting absolutely nowhere trying to debate actual legal fact and history. So I tried to change it into more of an emotional and personal story. That made it very different for them. I don't think they knew that I had that card, and when I played it, they didn't really know how to respond.
You can pursue legal or historical or scientific activism or you can take the more emotional route, which is sort of what my story did for people. When I was in 11th grade, I was taking a U.S. history class. Every day after class, this one girl would always wait for me. She was dead set on changing my mind. The most insight she ever gave me was when she said, "So it's technically illegal, but why do you care so much?"
At first it really irritated me that she would have such little regard for the importance of the First Amendment — it protected her as well. But now I actually want to thank her for helping me to understand a perspective I hadn't before. To many people out there, it's sad to say, the law doesn't actually matter at all. In a way I almost feel like that's the majority of people today. It's really hard for us to wrap our minds around it, because we're all very aware of how important it is, but we can't expect for everybody to be just like us.
We actually don't need to change them in order to have them be more receptive to us. You can't change who a person is, but you can change the way they are going to see you. It's our responsibility to come up with ways to appeal to that person who doesn't even know what the First Amendment says. We should make our ideas, our perspective, relevant to them. I'm not going to try to say that now that I've told you this, it's going to be super easy. It's not, and I struggle with it all the time.
My classmate eventually told me that she doesn't really get what "the whole big deal is with the whole prayer thing" and "who cares if it's illegal?" But she had to admit that I didn't deserve the hate and hostility I was getting and also admitted that I was in the legal right.
That seemed to be how most people felt. This shows us that many times, taking a more personal or emotional approach can be very hard to disagree with. In this case, it was the death threats and hate mail that I was being sent on a very regular basis. It was very hard for people to try to ignore that. Generally speaking, these people aren't bad; they just don't care.
It's important to make ourselves more likable and more receptive to those who would otherwise not know about us. It's actually very interesting for me because the secular community found me. I had no idea that it existed, and I can't be sure that I would have ever found it on my own. There was nothing that was appealing about it to a 16-year-old girl from Rhode Island. But now that I'm aware that this is something that needs to be done, I feel like I'm in a better place to appeal to younger people, and to different people.
Another example is actually on my phone, because it's on Facebook. This gives me goose bumps when I read it. I've never before been able to have an example that so clearly demonstrated my point. I got a message. Actually, I was getting many messages on Facebook. They were threatening my life, threatening to beat me up. It got to a point where, as was mentioned before, police were escorting me to my classes because my classmates were using Twitter to threaten me. Shortly after I had won the case, a girl wrote:
"Hey, I know I was part of the whole Twitter rampage against you, but I'd like to apologize for the hurtful things that I did say. I was kind of just going along with it for the sake of being a goofball and because my friends were doing it and encouraging me to do it as well. Still, that doesn't give me an excuse to treat someone like that and say such ignorant and downright stupid, hurtful and disgusting things. I'm sure you get countless amounts of mail on here everyday, whether it be fan mail or hate mail, but looking back on the fool I made of myself, I wanted to give a sincere apology for the things myself and my friends said to you. I recently saw some news segments about your case, and I've come to believe that what you did was really the right thing, and I support it completely. As I looked on from afar, watching how adults, people's parents, and even political figures ridiculed you, I realized how horrid it really was. I'm so very sorry. For a 16-year-old kid, only two years younger than me, I'm sure you've achieved more than I will achieve in a long time and I really respect that. Thank you for doing the right thing and not giving up, even when idiots like me tormented you. Keep up the awesome work."
To me that's what this is all about. When it comes down to it, are we really looking to just sue everybody into liking us? No, we're here because we need to defend our rights, encourage science and have people become more receptive to us and our beliefs. Those are really the three things that I think we want in the world, and I think that the three categories really explain that in a much easier and simpler way.
I did a lot of interviews, for two years I was doing interviews several times a month. I had people telling me that I was just wasting my time with those, but obviously it was extremely effective. That girl's message on Facebook was not the only one. There were others similar to it, and those are just the people who were willing to admit it.
I've learned that when you give an interview, or when you put yourself out there publicly as an atheist, you're not talking to the interviewer, who, by the way, is probably going to be out to get you and have a very single-track conversation, ask you irrelevant questions and trick you into saying things that you don't really want to say.
Then you're done with the interview and realize you haven't actually said anything that you wanted to say. You're actually talking to the people watching the interview, not the interviewer. It's very hard to keep that in mind while you're in the middle of it. I was just a kid. It was something that I had to learn the hard way.
The best way to communicate with people who do not want to be receptive to our ideas, who don't even know what an atheist is, is to put it in the most basic terms possible. I gave a live interview on CNN one day, and the interviewer asked me why I didn't believe in God. I could have said many, many things, but instead of taking the scientific route, instead of explaining that there isn't any science that supports it and the bible has lots of fallacies, etc., etc., I just explained that when I was about 10 years old my mother had become ill with a mental illness.
I explained that for the first time in my life, I had started praying and then started to feel guilty because if I had a sick mother, you know, there are people in the world who don't even have parents. Who am I to be asking for help when there are so many people out there who need help more? One thing led to another, and I ended up deciding for myself that I didn't believe in God at all. That was a much more receptive thing to say than to try to explain all the problems logically with faith and even just singling out Christianity.
I just explained my perspective. I didn't try to tell anybody that they shouldn't believe what they believed. It was very much, "This is me, this is my personal view of things." In a lot of ways, I feel the emotional or personal approach is one of the most effective, at least because we probably already have won over all the people who are going to be won over by scientific debates. The people who are science-minded probably already got to those conclusions on their own.
Of course though, the science and logic category is important, but it is very well-covered here [at the convention]. I didn't really have that many opportunities to speak about that.
This brings us back to the movement itself. I'm going to be totally honest with you. I think that the secular community spends far too much time fighting over and debating silly details that don't actually matter to anybody but us. A lot of the issues that I see and hear us discussing don't ever end up reaching the ears of anybody outside our community. I don't see what good it does to try so hard to be a very single-minded community. Part of what makes this beautiful is that we can all have our own perspectives and approaches.
If we've learned anything from previous movements, diversity is never a bad thing. Different ideas, people and approaches are only going to help us communicate with an even larger group of people. I have been given so many wonderful opportunities to travel and speak, and it has given me such a unique perspective that I'm very thankful for.
Now for that question, "What can we do?" Well, we can focus on improving public relations with people outside of this community. We can start by recognizing our weaknesses and working really hard to fix them. We can smile more. We can go into it as 15-year-old girls who have no idea what to expect and just pretend that we are blissfully unaware that atheists are hated.
Just go into it saying, "Yeah, I'm an atheist, is that OK?" It's much harder to hate that. It's much harder to be aggressive toward somebody who is very, very likable.
We can really just focus on showing the world how lovable atheists are and how good we are without God. I sincerely believe that is the best direction our community and movement can be going in. Thank you.
FFRF sent an Action Alert to members April 17 asking them to set AARP magazine straight about its February/March article entitled "The Paradox of Prayer: A Pilgrimage." Commenting on the article, Editor-in-Chief Robert Love wrote, "I learned that prayer is a primal human instinct that crosses faiths and cultures, and extends even to those who don't believe in a personal God." He also claimed, "We older Americans are a prayerful people."
Members responded in droves to the alert. Below are some excerpted responses to AARP:
What were you thinking? I don't know about primal, but your statements about prayer strike me as primitive and poppycock. While I have not prayed for about 65 years, I have talked to myself on occasions, such as when I read your ludicrous statement in support of supernatural thinking. I said, "Don, are you hallucinating. Did he really write that?"
Is it your goal to reposition AARP as a faith-based seniors organization? I ask that you give equal time in the next issue to reason, critical thinking, freethought and science, and apologize for insulting the good sense of so many AARP readers. — Donald B. Ardell, Florida
• • •
I am a senior citizen, age 81, and I have two longstanding beliefs in regard to prayer and religion: "Nothing fails like prayer" (Unknown), and "Religion is the worst disease of mankind" (Ayn Rand).
Faith is believing that an entity actually exists without any proof or evidence. Whenever a "prayed for" person "miraculously" recovers, a scientific explanation can always be found to explain the recovery. — John Dunn, California
• • •
I believe humankind should get off its knees and get to work instead of pretending it can suspend the natural laws of the universe or alter reality through wishful thinking. Please devote part of an upcoming AARP magazine to the joy and freedom of relying on human ingenuity and of being a nonreligious senior citizen. — Kevin Larkin, South Carolina
• • •
As a longtime member of AARP, I was appalled to read [Robert Love's comments]. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never prayed in my life. — Edward F. Rockman, Pennsylvania
• • •
You are wrong! Prayer is taught, left over from from the cave-man days. I am 76 years old and haven't prayed since I learned how to read and abandoned Mormonism. Actually, I did pray once. When I was in graduate school, my mother told me that praying would help me pass a very hard test. So, I got down on my knees, folded my hands in front of me, closed my eyes and said, "Dear Heavenly Father, please help me with tomorrow's test so that I won't [expletive] it up. Amen." It didn't help, I got a C+. — Frank W. Knell, Arizona
• • •
I turn 50 in May, and I'm part of a generation that is a lot less religious than perhaps the majority of your current membership. I teach science, my husband and I are married, with two teenagers, and while we loves stories, we're also interested in an evidence-based understanding of the world, as opposed to unsupportable, "supernatural" belief systems that call for prayer to nonexistent goddesses, demons, witches, shamans or gods.
So while I've recently received multiple invitations to join AARP, I really do not wish to be associated with the kind of religious nonsense printed in your February/March magazine. Feel free to pitch again for my membership when I turn 60. Maybe by then there will be fewer old Catholics, Mormons, Christians, etc., who currently reference their "faith" to deny basic civil rights to gays and lesbians, deprive women of access to health care options and dumb down evidence-based science education to pander to in your magazine. Cheers! — Bill Griesar, Oregon
• • •
Take it from me, there are lots of people (older and not) who do not pray. To insist that prayer extends to those who don't believe in a personal God is incorrect. It is disrespectful. if not absurd, to claim nonbelievers find meaning in prayer. As an AARP member, I have become disenchanted with your magazine. It was once of value, but now it is mere fluff. — Lois Martin, California
• • •
I am an older person, a member of AARP, and so is my wife. We know many people our age. None of us is prayerful. I do not appreciate you using your position as editor-in-chief to engage in proselytizing. Prayer is not primal. No one is born with any manner of religious belief. It is taught to people as children, an indoctrination. — Graydon Wilson, Vermont
• • •
In the summer of 2008, I was mauled by a bear, which tore my face off before I was able to fight it off and drive myself down a mountain for help. As it was attacking me, I can assure you that "prayer" was the very last thing on my mind. (Nor did my life flash before me, nor did I see some Baby Jesus come to carry me home.) I find your contention "prayer is primal" hugely offensive to the very real calculus that ultimately saved my life.
The fact that the Independent Book Publishers Association deemed my memoir Chomp, Chomp, Chomp: How I Survived a Bear Attack and Other Cautionary Tales worthy of its Benjamin Franklin Award for autobiographical and inspirational book of 2015 should tell you that not all of us seniors fall prey (sorry,) to this nonsensical abdication of personal responsibility. — Allena Hansen, California
• • •
Prayer is what is often done by people who aren't willing to contribute anything else to a situation. They believe they have done something meaningful, when in fact they haven't accomplished jack. I don't go out of my way to criticize people who have a religious conviction unless and until, as you do, they stomp on what I believe, as you did.
I just renewed my membership in AARP and now I'm sorry I did. You are incredibly disrespectful to lump all of seniors us into the same bag. — Jerry Foreman, 73, Nevada
• • •
I found the comments regarding prayer to be offensive and even silly. The majority of older Americans may believe and participate in prayer but there are plenty of us who know that nothing, absolutely nothing fails like prayer, and that is statistically quantifiable. — Stephen P. Driscoll, Massachusetts
• • •
Please give those of us who rely on ourselves the respect that we have been forced to give "believers." How about an article on the many successful, fulfilled beings in the past and present who have no need of prayer to keep ourselves happy. You have a very good magazine, but this was uncalled for. — Rose White, AARP member since 1998, Hawaii
• • •
I found your article about prayer to be distasteful to my wife and I, both atheists, but thought it was just more of what we always experience — a mainstream publication trying to isolate people who don't voice the official views. We are both 75 and have been AARP members for a long time. Please leave religion out of your magazine so we all feel included. — Peter and Marilyn Werbe, Michigan
• • •
I have never prayed, except as a child, and that was only under duress. Though I would fight for the right of others to pray, it is not something I would never chose to do myself. It's deeply offensive for you to assume that all elders are exactly like you. Atheists are proud, thinking people, and we have maintained our beliefs in the face of great prejudice. We don't deserve to be treated as nonexistent. — Andrea Natalie, New York
• • •
With age comes to some the wisdom to stop believing in imaginary friends and illusory dei ex machina as solutions to problems. Please devote a similar amount of space in an upcoming issue to those AARP members who are not "prayerful" but are instead rational in confronting the inevitable pains of life. — Julia Whitsitt, South Carolina
• • •
"Prayer: A Pilgrimage" was, I hope, a story of your own personal life searches. If it was meant to be any more than that, I take it as a personal insult, as well as lacking in factual or logical statements. Please, I wish to read no more faith-based proselytizing in our magazine, the magazine for all Americans over 50. — Jere Miles, Florida
• • •
I am an atheist, happy with my choice to be without belief in God or gods, and consider prayer a foolish waste of time. I say, "Have at it if it makes you feel better," but please stop trying to include people like me in your illusions. If you are a Christian, Muslim or Jew, the main theological difference from me is that I believe in one less god than you. Kindly desist from theological preachments in AARP. — Ron Weinert, 81, Arizona
• • •
I usually enjoy reading my copy of AARP and find much good advice, but I cringed at your article on prayer. However, I do want you to know that I am a believer. I believe in being a good person, and that being a good person takes the expenditure of time, energy and money.
Now, if you are a good person, a fair person and a good editor, you will solicit an article from a freethinker/agnostic/atheistic organization and provide balanced reporting. — Charles Golden, California
• • •
I'm a member of AARP and an atheist. Can anyone seriously believe there is a great being somewhere, holding puppet strings, making humankind do its bidding? Read about any of the atrocities being done to women and children in countries torn apart by religion. Do you think a loving God of any kind would let these things happen to a human being, especially an innocent child? I think not. — Charles James, New York
• • •
As an AARP-age atheist, I do not pray and please don't make unwarranted assumptions about people like me. — Tom Hays, California
The following was first published March 14 in The New York Times Sunday Review and is reprinted with permission.
By Kevin M. Kruse
America may be a nation of believers, but when it comes to this country's identity as a "Christian nation," our beliefs are all over the map.
Just a few weeks ago, Public Policy Polling reported that 57% of Republicans favored officially making the United States a Christian nation. But in 2007, a survey by the First Amendment Center showed that 55% of Americans believed it already was one.
The confusion is understandable. For all our talk about separation of church and state, religious language has been written into our political culture in countless ways. It is inscribed in our pledge of patriotism, marked on our money, carved into the walls of our courts and our Capitol. Perhaps because it is everywhere, we assume it has been from the beginning.
But the founding fathers didn't create the ceremonies and slogans that come to mind when we consider whether this is a Christian nation. Our grandfathers did.
Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion.
But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.
The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the "creeping socialism" of the New Deal. The federal government had never really factored into Americans' thinking about the relationship between faith and free enterprise, mostly because it had never loomed that large over business interests. But now it cast a long and ominous shadow.
Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and '40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology's appeal in conferences and public relations campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E.F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.
In a shrewd decision, these executives made clergymen their spokesmen. As Sun Oil's J. Howard Pew noted, polls proved that ministers could mold public opinion more than any other profession. And so these businessmen worked to recruit clergy through private meetings and public appeals. Many answered the call, but three deserve special attention.
The Rev. James W. Fifield — known as "the 13th Apostle of Big Business" and "Saint Paul of the Prosperous" — emerged as an early evangelist for the cause. Preaching to pews of millionaires at the elite First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, Mr. Fifield said reading the bible was "like eating fish — we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value." He dismissed New Testament warnings about the corrupting nature of wealth. Instead, he paired Christianity and capitalism against the New Deal's "pagan statism."
Through his national organization, Spiritual Mobilization, founded in 1935, Mr. Fifield promoted "freedom under God." By the late 1940s, his group was spreading the gospel of faith and free enterprise in a mass-circulated monthly magazine and a weekly radio program that eventually aired on more than 800 stations nationwide. It even encouraged ministers to preach sermons on its themes in competitions for cash prizes.
Liberals howled at the group's conflation of God and greed; in 1948, the radical journalist Carey McWilliams denounced it in a withering exposé. But Mr. Fifield exploited such criticism to raise more funds and redouble his efforts.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Abraham Vereide advanced the Christian libertarian cause with a national network of prayer groups. After ministering to industrialists facing huge labor strikes in Seattle and San Francisco in the mid-1930s, Mr. Vereide began building prayer breakfast groups in cities across America to bring business and political elites together in common cause. "The big men and the real leaders in New York and Chicago," he wrote his wife, "look up to me in an embarrassing way."
In Manhattan alone, James Cash Penney, IBM's Thomas Watson, Norman Vincent Peale and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia all sought audiences with him.
In 1942, Mr. Vereide's influence spread to Washington. He persuaded the House and Senate to start weekly prayer meetings "in order that we might be a God-directed and God-controlled nation." He opened headquarters in Washington — "God's Embassy," he called it — and became a powerful force in its previously secular institutions. Among other activities, he held "dedication ceremonies" for several justices of the Supreme Court. "No country or civilization can last," Justice Tom C. Clark announced at his 1949 consecration, "unless it is founded on Christian values."
Enter Billy Graham
The most important clergyman for Christian libertarianism, though, was the Rev. Billy Graham. In his initial ministry, in the early 1950s, Mr. Graham supported corporate interests so zealously that a London paper called him "the Big Business evangelist."
The Garden of Eden, he informed revival attendees, was a paradise with "no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease." In the same spirit, he denounced all "government restrictions" in economic affairs, which he invariably attacked as "socialism."
In 1952, Mr. Graham went to Washington and made Congress his congregation. He recruited representatives to serve as ushers at packed revival meetings and staged the first formal religious service held on the Capitol steps. That year, at his urging, Congress established an annual National Day of Prayer.
"If I would run for president of the United States today on a platform of calling people back to God, back to Christ, back to the bible," he predicted, "I'd be elected."
Dwight D. Eisenhower fulfilled that prediction. With Mr. Graham offering scripture for Ike's speeches, the Republican nominee campaigned in what he called a "great crusade for freedom." His military record made the general a formidable candidate, but on the trail he emphasized spiritual issues over worldly concerns.
As the journalist John Temple Graves observed: "America isn't just a land of the free in Eisenhower's conception. It is a land of freedom under God." Elected in a landslide, he told Mr. Graham that he had a mandate for a "spiritual renewal."
Although Eisenhower relied on Christian libertarian groups in the campaign, he parted ways with their agenda once elected. The movement's corporate sponsors had seen religious rhetoric as a way to dismantle the New Deal state. But the newly elected president thought that a fool's errand. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs," he noted privately, "you would not hear of that party again in our political history." Unlike those who held public spirituality as a means to an end, Eisenhower embraced it as an end unto itself.
'One nation under God'
Uncoupling the language of "freedom under God" from its Christian libertarian roots, Eisenhower erected a bigger revival tent, welcoming Jews and Catholics alongside Protestants, and Democrats as well as Republicans. Rallying the country, he advanced a revolutionary array of new religious ceremonies and slogans.
The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, he was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion's "Back to God" campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with Mr. Vereide at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.
The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added "under God" to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, "In God We Trust," on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation's official motto.
During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as "one nation under God."
They've believed it ever since.
Kevin Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Professor Kruse is a featured speaker at FFRF's 38th national convention Oct. 9-11 in Madison, Wis. (See back page for more convention details.) He was also a recent guest on Freethought Radio. Go to ffrf.org/news/radio/shows and scroll down to May 2.
Kendal J. Taylor
Name: Kendal J. Taylor.
Where I live: In Petoskey, on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
Where I was born: My family was living in Leslie, Mich., but I was born at Mercy Hospital in Jackson. Under Catholic rules of the day, if there had been a problem during my birth and the choice came down to saving my mother or me, I would never have known her.
Family: My partner and wife, Christine, lets me live with her and for that she should receive some important award like the Nobel Peace Prize. We each have children and grandchildren by previous marriages but they are all off doing their own thing.
Education: Leslie High School, graduated in 1957. I took a couple of stabs at community college but had a hard time staying centered. Then in the 1960s, I came face to face with conservative, fundamental Christianity and embraced it warmly. I enrolled in an Independent Fundamental Baptist seminary in 1967 and threw myself into it completely: student body president and yearbook editor and graduated second in my class.
Occupation: Through the years, I have had more occupations that I can count on all my fingers and toes, but currently, at age 75, I work full time for the family division of circuit court in the county where we live.
Military service: I volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1958 and spent two years at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After basic training. I spent a few months as a broadcast specialist, producing broadcasts about Fort Knox for local radio stations.
One cold and rainy morning, the headquarters company was standing at attention as the commanding officer barked orders. From a window in the building behind us came a call, "Hey, could you hold it down out there; we're sleeping in here." It was a building occupied by the 158th Army Band. I said, "That's where I want to be." I asked my mother to send me my trumpet, practiced up, auditioned and got a transfer to the band and spent my remaining Army time with the band.
How I got where I am today: My mother's father was a Methodist evangelist, so when she married my dad she went in the opposite direction. You know, the really bad stuff like drinking alcohol, dancing and playing cards. She occasionally sent me to Methodist Sunday school down the block.
Even during the time I was in seminary, I began to have doubts about what I was being taught. Some of it made no sense at all to my logical side. I told myself it was just the old devil whispering in my ear. I would have to exercise faith and put the doubts out of my mind. I learned to ignore the thoughts that said to me, "This is a bunch of baloney."
After graduation and ordination, I began to pastor Baptist churches and eventually found my way to Ventura, Calif. The doubts continued, so I decided to keep track of answered prayer (mine and others') to prove God's existence and omnipotence. What happened was quite the opposite. What my study revealed was that no prayers were being answered. In the cases where something happened after a prayer, it was pure coincidence and logically would have happened without a single prayerful word.
I remember the night it all came apart for me. I lived in the parsonage next door to the church, and on a Saturday night I went to the church to pray for the Sunday morning service. I left the lights off and knelt at the altar at the front of the auditorium. It was a large, cavernous building and as I prayed, my words echoed around the high ceiling and came back to me. I thought, "No one is listening to this, I'm talking to myself!" I stopped speaking, stood and walked out the door with just one thought in mind, "I have to get out of this business." And in 1976 I did.
I stumbled along for years never feeling quite comfortable with my decision to ditch God. Then, somehow, about 10 years ago, I came across Richard Dawkins' wonderful book The God Delusion. At last I saw what I had done was not a horrible mistake for which I would spend an eternity in hell. I had made a conscious decision to embrace truth and escape a world of falsehoods and deceit. What a relief! I could look at the beauty of the sky and not worry that Big Daddy was scowling back.
I began to wonder if there were others who had taken a similar path or, perhaps, had never believed the big lie. I searched online and found the Freedom from Religion Foundation. I joined immediately and began to talk to my Catholic wife about my thrilling discoveries. A few months after joining, we enlisted FFRF's help to spread the word and held the first meeting of the Freethought Association of Northern Michigan (FANM) on April 10, 2011.
Where I'm headed: At that first FANM meeting, five brave people showed up, having no idea what they were getting into or where it might go. We went around the table and told our stories of nonbelief. We have been meeting the second Sunday of each month ever since and have added a monthly meeting called "Skeptics in the Pub."
For two years, Christine and I led FANM as it took surprisingly steady baby steps. We have twice outgrown our meeting space. I still serve on the board.
Person in history I admire: I would have to choose Richard Dawkins. His works define humankind and evolution. The God Delusion changed my life.
A quotation I like: "Don't tell your problems to people: 80% don't care and the other 20% are glad you have them." — Lou Holtz, ESPN sportcaster and retired football coach
These are a few of my favorite things: Playing golf with my wife, ballroom dancing, kayaking and cruising in our beautiful yellow 2003 Chevrolet SSR with the top down.
These are not: Pet peeves — the older I get, the fewer there are.
My doubts about religion started: Shortly after I entered seminary.
Before I die: Shucks, if I live long enough there will be nothing left on my bucket list.
Ways I promote freethought: Maintain membership in FFRF, support and work with FANM and be a good example of a nonbeliever.
I wish you had asked: Now that you have come to an understanding of the truth, how do you feel about your years in the religion business? I am ashamed, ashamed that I could have been so gullible.
Name: Christine Taylor.
Where I live: Petoskey, Mich.
Where I was born: South Haven, Mich., the oldest of six children.
Family: Husband Kendal, the love of my life, and two sons.
Occupation: I have worked for many years in the behavioral health care management and human resources fields. I have my eye on retirement in a few years. My favorite job has been and will always be, mother to my wonderful two boys.
How I got where I am today: I was raised in a strict Catholic family with frequent contact with both sets of grandparents and extended family. My mother's people were Catholic, so holidays were big celebrations at our house and included going to Mass. My father's people were various Protestant denominations.
When I was younger, I would visit my father's mother in the summer and she would invite me to go to church. I started to notice the pastor often said derogatory things about Catholics in his sermons. One time after services, I was standing next to my grandmother and one of her friends came up and asked her if I was one of the "lost souls." (Grandmother had introduced me as one of her Catholic grandchildren.) I was only 11 but I understood that I was not really welcome there. That was the last time I went to church with her.
I attended Catholic elementary, high school and even four years of at a Catholic university. I thought about becoming a nun. That was probably due to being the wallflower, ugly duckling, "no date for prom" type of girl, that is until I got to college. Once I started dating, I determined that being a nun would not be a positive thing for me — something about that vow of chastity.
It was an all-girls college. Freshman year (1969) was all about succeeding in a learning environment for women. But by sophomore year, the college allowed 10 Catholic seminarians to come on campus for classes. By my junior year, the college went co-ed and campus life was never the same.
A quotation I like: "Knowing what's right doesn't mean much unless you do what is right." Teddy Roosevelt is credited with this quote, which mirrors what I strive to do in my personal and professional life.
My doubts about religion started: In my adulthood. I had stepped away from the Catholic Church in my 20s. But once I had children, I felt the need to bring them us as Catholic. I felt that they needed a "moral compass" and could choose their own direction later on. I had also determined that the local Catholic school was much better academically than the public schools.
When my youngest son was in fifth grade, he started some discussions with me and then the priest about the existence of god. It was conflicting with his desire for logical thinking. Both my sons stopped practicing Catholicism when they were in high school.
After my first husband initiated a divorce, I turned to the church even more, adding volunteer activities and Pentecostal services. A year later, I determined that in spite of doing everything that I was told I was doing right, my divorce was final. All my prayers and church-centered activities hadn't saved me from this fate. I was mad at god and abandoned the Catholic faith. My Catholic friends and family still hope that I will someday get over this phase, but I will never return to religion.
A few years later, I met my second husband. Based on Catholic doctrine, I knew that if I married this divorced man I would be excommunicated. I was not going to allow anyone to tell me not to marry this wonderful, loving man. So I decided to step away from Catholicism and gradually accepted that I am a nonbeliever.
Over the years, occasionally I was visited by different church missionaries (Jehovah's Witness, Baptist, etc.). They always started out, "Are you saved?" I usually responded, "Yes, I am a recovering Catholic and I am not interested."
A couple years ago, a local pastor knocked on my door and asked if I went to church. I replied, "No, my husband and I are both atheists." He reacted like I had hit him and said that he had never met an atheist before and made a hasty retreat to his car. I felt satisfied with finally admitting to someone that I was not a believer. What a relief!
Before I die: On my bucket list is travel to Europe. I enjoy cooking and would love to cook my way across Italy and France. I would love to learn more about those cultures.
Ways I promote freethought: My husband and I started talking about our respective nonbelief early in our marriage. I was very supportive of his idea to start a freethought group in our community. That group's first meeting was a positive, yet scary, statement for both of us.
I am happy to report that we are still active with this group as well as others supporting the separation of church and state, locally and nationally.