This speech was delivered on September 16 at the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mayor Richard Daley of my hometown of Chicago is not particularly known for his eloquence, but in August of 1992 he made a pronouncement on faith that was striking for its pith and profundity. Addressing some now long-forgotten local church-state wrangle, the mayor said:
"Everybody believes in some kind of God, if they want to . . . or they don't."
Well, how true that is.
I don't expect to see it replacing "In God We Trust" as our national motto any time soon, but to me it sums up the proper governmental attitude toward all things religious:
Firm. Declarative. But ultimately indecisive: "Everybody believes . . . or they don't." "In God Some Trust, Though Some Do Not. Whatever."
This is probably the last gathering in America that needs to hear this message. Those in this room tonight don't need to be persuaded that it may well be the singular genius of the American experiment that through our history we have made a comparatively decent effort to keep the grubby paws of government off of religion and the grubby paws of religion off of government.
My collected writings on this subject--not that anyone has yet thought to collect them--make this point in a variety of ways for an audience of those who do need to be persuaded. If I bring any particular expertise to this subject at all it's my experience in attempting to promote separation periodically and insistently to an audience that doesn't want to hear about it and that thinks I'm going to hell.
I'm not promising any kind of winning strategy here, just some of the arguments that have worked for me in advancing this and similar positions as positive and plausible affirmations to a public that tends to think this should be a Christian nation or maybe a Judeo-Christian nation or at least, certainly, a God-centered nation.
Because we need to keep scoring points. Because just when you start to feel a little complacent, along comes the major political party that has most reliably defended the separation of church and state--the Democrats--nominating for vice president a man who tells us it's time to "renew the dedication of our nation . . . to God and God's purposes" and ominously reminds us that, "John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," and that "George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion.' "
In the same speech, Joseph Lieberman said that without the Jewish and Christian traditions, the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence "could never have been written."
At which my mind reeled with responses, most of them salty, the cleanest of which was, "Well, it sure took 'em long enough."
After centuries of sectarian bloodshed, human slavery and unspeakable cruelties in the name of the Judeo-Christian God, then they found--in between the lines--oh, gee, all men are created equal . . . how did we miss that before?
Then it took this same tradition roughly 100 more years to begin to extend this equality to black men and 150 to begin to extend it to white and black women and the disabled.
Whenever I make observations like that in print, I receive a flood of angry responses making two points.
1. Lots of blood has been spilled by nonbelievers in the service of nonreligious ideology. Stalin, Pol Pot and the like.
2. Abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the 1960s were driven in large part by Christians.
I don't deny that. All it does is underscore for me the fundamental principle behind the First Amendment---that religion, whatever its other merits, is an unreliable basis for a free and democratic society. Far from being a source of absolute moral truth, religion and scripture are a source of absolute conflict and confusion. Mr. Jones finds in his scripture passages to prove that God believes gays, women and blacks are sub-human and should be treated accordingly. Mr. Smith finds in his scripture passages to prove that God wants us to love one another equally. And you already know the punchline. They're holding the same book.
I've titled my remarks tonight: "No Graven Images and Other Reflections."
The reference, of course, is to the third of the Ten Commandments taken from Exodus 20, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image"--in the Revised Standard Version, a graven image being a physical object of worship usually made of wood or stone, sometimes called an idol. And the Ten Commandments being the list of precepts that God is said to have revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; they also appear in Deuteronomy 5, if you're keeping score.
I know this not because I'm a particular student of the Old Testament. I mean, why bother to read it closely? Every time you find a nice juicy passage--if "the tokens of virginity (are) not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death," or "whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death;" or God's threat to unbelievers in Leviticus 26: "you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters"--you're told no, those don't apply anymore or those weren't meant literally or Jesus erased those passages that we now find appalling.
I know my citations on the Commandments because they're so often in the news these days and have frequently given me an opportunity to argue for two points I consider very important.
The first being that separation of church and state is not a burdensome abstraction but a source of our nation's strength.
The second being that George Washington and Joe Lieberman have it wrong: Even though moral behavior and religious belief sometimes go together, they are independent concepts.
One of my earliest Ten Commandments columns concerned His Egregiousness Judge Ray Moore of Etowah County, Alabama, who several years ago refused a higher court order to remove the Decalog he'd posted in his courtroom. The ever weak-minded populists in the U.S. House of Representatives then passed a resolution by a 295-125 vote supporting and encouraging him in that refusal.
The argument favoring Judge Moore's position went something like this: The American system of laws is rooted in absolute moral truths as handed down by the Judeo-Christian God in the Ten Commandments. Therefore a display of the commandments is, like a relief statue of the blindfolded Dame Justice above the courthouse door, simply a symbolic reminder of the principles upon which all this jurisprudence is, ultimately, based.
My answer to this was, in so many words . . . Like hell it is.
Taken as a whole, the Ten Commandments are explicitly based upon and reflect a particular--and, I might add, not very widely practiced--religious belief.
How many of the Ten Commandments reflect actual laws that Judge Ray Moore is charged with enforcing in his courtroom?
Seven? Five? Four?
You shall not steal. You shall not murder. You shall not bear false witness.
Another four--honor your folks, stay faithful to your spouse, don't be covetous and refrain from profanity--are simply good ideas, not generally matters of law anymore.
I try to live by them myself, though I have to admit my belief that they were composed by men for men. Good ideas are good ideas and I give the authors credit, though, I'm bound to say, they were not a stretch.
The remaining three--keep the Sabbath holy, make no graven images and have no other God before the Judeo-Christian God--are religious proscriptions, plain and simple.
"Making graven images may or may not be a good idea," I wrote in one column, "but unless I misread my Constitution, we're all free to do so and risk the consequences. Any sign in any courtroom or public school classroom that implies otherwise is in serious error."
I would add to this that making graven images, or at least the freedom to do so, is precisely, exactly what America is all about.
Freedom of conscience.
The pilgrims came here from England to escape the tyranny of governance that told them how to worship. And okay, granted, they were hypocrites. Their ideas of religious liberty were narrowly confined and they simply practiced their own brand of religious persecution once they got over here. But still. The nugget of the idea survived.
By endorsing no one faith government endorses every faith. What a person believes about the highest things--the deepest and most profound questions there are---is not at all the business of the lawmakers.
The fact that quite a few Americans, in their hearts, don't seem to believe this doesn't obscure its fundamental success: We may have our problems in this country, but widespread sectarian strife isn't one of them. Never has been.
It's my guess that never in the history of the world have so many faiths and so many different and competing franchises of these faiths flourished in one nation at one time with so little bloodshed.
And bloodshed is what you get when the graven image-makers are compelled by their government to stop making graven images by a ruling power that thinks it has the inside line on what God wants people to do.
When a society or system decides that the making of graven imagery is to be outlawed as a particularly pernicious form of blasphemy, there becomes no principled reason why it cannot outlaw, say, the display of a crucifix, the wearing of a star of David, or the reading of particular religious or anti-religious texts. Under such a system, only popularity protects religious expression. And this is exactly what the Constitution intended to guard against--a point I hope Mr. Lieberman appreciates.
What Judge Ray Moore of Alabama and the stubborn half-wits in the House clearly fail to realize is that posting the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is actually offensive to our concept of justice.
The sign in Moore's courtroom should say, "Make all the graven images you want, you pickpockets, you drunk drivers, you check bouncers, you shoplifters. This is the land of the brave and the home of the free. Rank the Gods in the order of your choice. Go to Kung-Fu movies or hold Tupperware parties on the Sabbath. Just don't break the law!"
The first columns I wrote on church/state issues were in the mid-1980s, after I got a call from a local office-supply salesman who also happened to be a leading member of the American Atheists. He'd been driving through Zion, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on business and had noticed Christian crosses on the water tower, the police cars and other civic property. He thought it was wrong and he wanted me to help him make an issue of it. Which I did.
Public response was swift, angry and condescending: How dare he demand the removal of the historic symbol so cherished by the pious, God-fearing people of a town founded by a preacher? How dare he flout the will of the vast majority of residents? Weren't there enough real problems in the world?
To me, it marked a tragic though common failure of imagination: What if you lived in Zion and you weren't Christian? Or what if you were a Christian househunting in a suburb and saw, say, Stars of David on virtually every government-owned sign? Respect for tradition and history aside, wouldn't you feel just that much less welcome? That much more like an official outcast?
Truth is, many Americans who give lip service to religious liberty still think it means something like, "The government shall make no laws discriminating among various forms of mainstream Christianity and it will tolerate certain other forms of monotheism as long as the adherents don't dress too funny."
This is where we get back to graven imagery, Sabbath breaking and all the other dogmatic prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.
Ever ask yourself why in the name of all that is putatively holy do these zealots insist on posting the Commandments instead of, say, a nice solid list of Principles of Good Behavior?
I mean, if you've got room in your classroom or courtroom for ten rules, why would you spend one telling people not to make graven images? And another telling them to keep the Sabbath holy?
These are not big problems.
And when it comes to actual problems, does anyone really need a sign to remind them not to murder people?
Of course not. The content is not critical.
The messenger is the message: As a whole, the Ten Commandments on the wall say that God, a divine and all-powerful being, is the source of morality; that, just as Joltin' Joe Lieberman says in so many words, without God telling us what is moral and what isn't moral and defining the absolutes of right and wrong, there can be no right and wrong.
This is a perfectly fine belief for an individual to hold to regulate his own conduct.
I'd neither endorse it or criticize it as a matter of personal conscience. It's not my business, as long as no one tries to make it my business.
But as a civic belief, the notion of God as the source of morality is not benign--it's dangerous.
It's dangerous because it removes questions of law, customs and morals from the arena of human logic and reason.
Am I saying that all the moral teachings of religious leaders are therefore bad, illogical and unreasonable?
What I'm saying is that God, by definition, is the highest trump card--the ultimate argument-ender. If Jones and Smith want to contest whether it should be legal to make graven imagery, Jones can play the freedom card, Smith can play the weakened authority of the church card, Jones can play the what-business-is-it-of-yours card . . . but as soon as Smith plays the God card---as soon as he says, "It is wrong because God says it is wrong," ---then the discussion is either over or they increase the stakes dramatically when Jones plays his God card.
God does not say that, Jones might insist. According to my scriptures, which are true and holy, God says just the opposite of what he says in your scriptures, which are errant and profane.
And now they're into it big time. Not only have they escalated dramatically the rather small question of public policy regarding the crafting of idols, but they've made the question all but irresolvable.
One version of God says No, another version of God says Yes.
And, frustratingly enough, there's no physical evidence either way to help decide the question. They're left, instead, to do battle by proxy, dueling with scripture and text---scripture that is in places dramatically contradictory yet supposedly written by those who have taken dictation from the master and creator of the Universe.
Talk about an ugly battle.
But, again, at its core is the belief of the theist that without absolute standards as established by God, there can be no standards whatsoever---that without God, all of morality becomes personal opinion, whims that ride upon fashion, caprices of convenience. Everything is relative. Nothing is fixed. Chaos ensues.
I've tended to answer this by posing again the old riddle: If you behave well strictly because someone tells you to behave well, are you acting morally? Or simply obediently?
Is a moral result the same thing as a moral act?
If, to put it another way, you don't commit adultery because you think God says not to commit adultery, have you really put into that decision the sort of ethical reflection that we commonly think of as a moral thought process?
I mean, there are a number of reasons not to commit adultery I can think of.
One is fear you'd get caught and get tossed out of your home and endure seemingly endless recriminations from your spouse and children and probably neighbors.
Another is fear of eternal punishment from an angry God.
Another is because God says not to commit adultery and God is good and you love God.
Another is the belief that we should respect and honor the commitments we make to one another because that is the basis for a stable and productive personal life, a stable and productive society and the strong family that gives each member the greatest happiness and opportunity.
Yet another, along those same lines, might be the belief that we should treat others--particularly those closest to us--as we wish to be treated by them. The Golden Rule.
Each reason, and I don't mean the list to be exhaustive, leads to the same result: Fidelity. But is each reason equally admirable? Equally "moral"?
I say no.
And the Commandment waver agrees with me.
But the Commandment waver says that following the absolute dictates of God is more admirable, more moral, because it abides by unchanging principle. Whereas, he adds, all my squishy, interpersonal reasons are subject to change as social values change. And any morality that you make up as you go along is no sort of morality at all.
But the opposite is true. Anyone who follows rules without thinking is simply a good soldier. A good soldier follows orders--he's taught that it's not the role of the soldier to question orders or to doubt them or examine them; that to do so risks grave consequences.
In contrast, the person who acts well in a situation by following the dictates of conscience must reason in a way that draws from larger concepts of good. Behaving ethically in that sense is a habit of mind that is applicable not just to adultery, but to theft and murder and bearing false witness and honoring your mother and father as well as situations that may not be specifically covered in some purportedly sacred text or even the lawbooks.
Believers and I agree when it comes to the Golden Rule. It appears not only in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12, but we also hear it from Aristotle, Confucius and Muhammad and learn of it in the Talmud, the Hindu tradition, the American Indian spiritual tradition and, of course, the ethical humanist philosophy.
But, again, I would contend that the Golden Rule is not Golden because Jesus or any other wise person, prophet or incarnate God said it, but because it resonates so perfectly with our human experience.
As to the criticism that such morality is baseless, adaptable and non-absolute . . . I ask the Judeo-Christian culture how it was that slavery, mentioned repeatedly and in an offhand way in the Bible, endured on this earth with the sanction of Christian people until just the last century? I would ask that, if "thou shalt not steal" and "thou shalt not murder" reflect absolute rocks to which we can cling, how was it that so many new Americans rooted in that Judeo-Christian ethic sanctioned the genocidal treatment of American Indians and their land?
And the Salem witch trials. And the Inquisition. And the Crusades. If these are not examples of moral relativism and make-em-up-as-you-go principles, I don't know what is.
I don't mean this as a criticism of all believers of all scripture.
I agree with the argument that says no number of wicked acts by professed Christians necessarily refutes propositions in Christian scripture. I ask only in return for an acknowledgment--seldom granted, by the way--that no number of good acts by professed Christians validates the Gospels.
Another acknowledgment that I'm slow to receive is that a belief in God is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality. You don't need to believe in God to have a strong, principled moral backbone. And simply believing in a higher power and his rules doesn't give you that backbone. Either way you have to work at it, use your reason and your intuition.
I get questioned rather often about my own religious beliefs--particularly after I write columns that may seem rather harsh on practitioners of faith. What is your religion? What do you believe? Are you an atheist?
I actually shy from the term atheist. To me, the connotations are too blunt, the implied level of certitude too great and the association with the shadowy, strident Madalyn Murray O'Hair a bit too close.
Though etymologically someone who is A-theistic lives without theism, without a belief in God as part of his life--and that would define me--"atheist" seems like a fightin' word to me, one that carries a sense of rejection and denial: One that professes a strong conviction that there is no God.
But I have no such conviction: In thinking, writing and debating these questions I've concluded that we don't know what other forces might or might not exist in the universe.
How life came to be as it is on this planet, what it all means, where it's all going? . . .
I don't know. I don't know if there's no God, one God or a million gods--good, bad, alive, dead, caring or as unconcerned with our lives on earth as we are unconcerned with the lives of the dust mites under our beds.
I don't know if we are the only planet in the universe with sentient beings on it, or one of a million such planets. I don't know if this is the first time that an intelligent human race has evolved on a small, watery satellite hurtling through space, or if, in uncounted contractions and expansions of the universe through untold eons, it is the ten thousandth or ten billionth. I don't know if we are an early, discarded experiment of an intelligent creator, that creator's ultimate work, or just a fluke combination of carbon molecules.
And I'm persuaded that none of those who claim to know have any idea either, no matter how sincere they are.
And I believe a lot of them are sincere. I believe a lot of them are guided by hope and by the sense--I would call it the vanity--that they themselves and human beings in general are vastly more important and long-lasting in this vast creation than actually they are.
And I'm tempted by that thought. Who wouldn't be?
I'm as tempted as the next person with the alluring ideas that our spirits live on after our bodies die, that there are psychics and astrologers and mystics who can tap into paranormal forces and tell us important secrets.
But in the end, research and reason suppress these temptations. Almost every time I get the chance as a journalist I ask readers of the Chicago Tribune to consider the evidence.
In January 1997 the Chicago Sun-Times printed this correction: "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Friday were correct."
My column, in response, said that in the spirit of accuracy, the paper should have said, "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Wednesday were incorrect, too, actually, as have been Omarr's horoscopes every day for many, many years. The forecasts were equally valid for both days or for any other day of any other year, which is to say not valid at all."
I went on to point out that astrologers always fail in simple laboratory experiments. For instance, they can't do any better than random guessers in blind attempts to match astrological charts with people.
Sydney Omarr wrote me a blistering, indignant letter and enclosed two of his books. I posted these letters on the Internet along with a challenge. I said, tell you what, Omarr, I'll give you the time, date and place of the birth of ten people, then you try to match their horoscopes with their identities. Then, I said, we can all have a good laugh at how you can't tell serial killers from social workers. I must be clairvoyant, because I knew he wouldn't write back and he never did.
Just last month a suburban Chicago police department announced it was consulting a psychic to try to find a missing and allegedly murdered woman, and the psychic had given them a detailed description of the burial site.
"She's guessing," I wrote. I noted that objective analyses of these so called "psychic detectives" reveal them as frauds who build their reputations through trickery and by advertising the luckiest of their guesses.
And then I made note of a fact that relatively few people are aware of but bears constant repetition: "Since 1968, magician James Randi has offered a sizable cash award--it's now $1 million--to anyone who 'can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.' " Several hundred hopefuls have applied. All have failed.
All have failed. Not most. Not nearly all. 100 percent. For 32 years.
Does this mean there are no psychic or paranormal forces at work in the universe? A careful person, aware of the difficulty of proving a negative, would never say such a thing. What he would say, though, is that those who claim to be able to harness or usefully understand such forces have, to date, proved to be, well . . . mistaken.
Like the psychic detective now working our western suburbs, they're guessing.
So what label for me? Skeptic? Freethinker? Perhaps agnostic--someone who says he doesn't know or that the answers to these questions are fundamentally unknowable? But I go a step further--I call myself an "indifferent agnostic"--and I say that whether God exists is not just unknowable but irrelevant. It doesn't matter.
Look, if there is a living God who created and cares about this world, I think the best one can say about him and his moral sense is that it is utterly impenetrable. Take a walk around a children's hospital. Look at the videos of starvation in the Sudan. Read the stories about the just-passed 100th anniversary of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Six thousand, some say 10,000 people, dead. Or visit the Holocaust museum.
The moral code of an almighty power that allegedly created and presides over such horror is, to put it charitably, ambiguous.
The Bible certainly suggests that as well. One of the most controversial columns I ever wrote touching on this subject dealt with how, in all Passover seders I've ever attended, the participants have glossed over the gruesome, inexplicable injustice wreaked by God upon the young, the innocent and the hapless of ancient Egypt.
"Passover" refers to the story in the 12th chapter of Exodus in which God, one night at midnight, kills all first-born creatures in Egypt except the children of the enslaved Jews, whose houses he passed over. This was the tenth and worst of the plagues God is said to have visited upon the Egyptian people, the one that finally persuaded Pharaoh to liberate the Jews.
I wrote: "Why, given limitless options, would an all-just, all-powerful God resort to such a ghastly device?
"The pile of Egyptian corpses that next morning had to include huge numbers of infants and toddlers, not to mention non-Jewish slaves and their children.
"Everyday Egyptians with no power over their monarch awoke to lifeless kids and spouses and farmyards littered with carcasses--this after having previously endured a horrific series of plagues, including boils, locusts and a B-movie infestation of frogs."
I went on, "At a time when many people are wringing their hands over what to tell children about allegations the President has behaved in a tawdry manner, what are we supposed to tell the kiddies about a biblical God who slaughtered children in their beds by the thousands instead of working a less devastating miracle to free the slaves?"
Then I quoted the executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council: "We don't always understand God's ways."
The question remains and is larger than the simple problem of evil: Whether or not all or some of the kill-'em-all stories in the world's scriptures are literally true (the destruction of Jericho and the Biblical flood also come to mind), and what implications have we drawn from them?
These stories tell us that violence is a favored way to resolve disputes, even when there are more peaceful options; that others--other tribes, nations, races, faiths--have lives of diminished value and are therefore candidates for wholesale extermination; that punishing the innocent to achieve a desired end is not incompatible with the ideals of justice.
This is by no means a uniquely Jewish legacy. We see it everywhere in history, including in the Holocaust and in the "many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of (Christianity)--wars of religions, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons," in the words of Pope John Paul II.
This legacy is nurtured by the common idea that those who are otherwise virtuous but do not believe in the literal truth of the miraculous stories and assertions of given faiths--such as the account of the resurrection of Christ--deserve to suffer an eternity of misery.
I got a lot of mail after that, most of it filled with the sorts of theological hand-waving that I find unpersuasive to the point of being objectionable. This same crowd that points the finger at "moral relativists" puts more qualifiers on their "absolute" ideas than you find in a common apartment lease.
Here's my sense: If there's an intelligent force that created our world, what he wants--or wanted, if he's still around--and all he wants, if anything at all, is for us to do right by his creation. To honor the creator, in other words, by honoring that which he made---others, the land, the air and so on. And, further, this God, if he exists, gave us the impressive capacity for reason--so that we could figure out, on our own, how to live right.
Life and reason may well be God's only gifts to us. "Use Them Wisely" is certainly his only commandment.
What's striking about this is that it's exactly what's incumbent upon us if there is no intelligent creator. Nothing changes. It doesn't matter.
Every society, every civilization ever unearthed or studied has had codes of right and wrong. No matter which God or gods people have prayed to, they have ordered their existence---almost always with individual, cultural and political survival in mind.
When I objected to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, I heard from those who said that the Commandments are an appropriate display because they reflect the fact that the morality and law of our western culture are so rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as to be inseparable.
I don't deny the importance of the Bible in shaping our culture. Nor do I deny that it has inspired great people to do great things and behave well. I do deny, though, that without God as a starting point it is impossible to formulate a coherent morality.
If we could be sure there is no God, would it then be right to murder? If we could be sure there is no God, would our prohibitions against stealing disappear? Would lying be any less wrong?
And to illustrate this I ask my critics to perform the following thought experiment:
Say you get a surprise visit this evening from all the major religious leaders of the world, the top people in every faith, the major leaders of the Protestant denominations . . . all of them, even the Scientologists. And they say, "We have a problem. We have each come across evidence--incontrovertible evidence--that the stories, the legends, the prophets, the miracles, the received wisdom of our belief systems are all massive frauds. They were perpetrated by leaders who were simply attempting for various reasons, good and bad, to control and inspire the uneducated masses. But they made it all up. Every last word. And we know it and we've not been able to agree on what to do about it."
They say to you, "We can't just announce this. People would not be ready for it. Too many of them believe that without God, anything is allowed, nothing is forbidden. And we can't agree on how to reconcile some of the differences in our belief systems.
"So what we've decided," they say, "is to select a random, decent person--you--and ask that person to create a set of moral guidelines for human beings. To write your own commandments, as many as you wish---you can leave adultery out this time, if you want---in an effort to shape or reshape the world for good."
They say they will then employ a master archeological forger to create some sort of tablets or scrolls onto which this moral code will be inscribed---along with several devastatingly corroborative prophecies---after which they will arrange for a miraculous discovery of your precepts in some cave in the Middle East. At that point, they say, they will renounce their old dogma and encourage their adherents to follow yours.
In short, what if they made you God?
And without giving you time here to ponder this, let me suggest that what you would come up with, as the decent, ethical person you are, would look a whole lot like a best-of, greatest hits list of the common highlights of the finest faiths.
Somehow, with no help from any where, you'd come up with prohibitions against stealing, murdering and lying. One can hardly imagine a sustainable society where such things were not considered wrong. You'd probably want to discourage infidelity and disrespect of parents--not much good can come of that. You'd probably see the wisdom in keeping greed and covetousness in check and asking people to watch their language.
Because at this level, morality is common sense. It enforces itself through reason.
The contrary assertion, that without God we would feel free to kill and steal and sleep with anyone because we could not possibly find a reason not to, is absurd. We have an instinctive interest in preservation . . . of ourselves, of our kin, of our community and our culture.
Peace, health and stability are essential to that preservation, and the common sense guidelines that lead to that form the bedrock of a strong moral system.
A moral system that does not refer primarily to human reason---a morality that relies on some hypothetical externality to validate it---runs the risk of being arbitrary.
Further, as Robert Ingersoll observed, God, as defined, has always shown an uncanny penchant for hating and loving exactly what his human interpreters have hated and loved, and has been "invariably on the side of those in power."
How do we test these allegedly divine commands for plausibility? With our own reason, of course, and our own instincts.
If Holy Man A says it is an abomination to God if man makes a graven image and Holy Woman B says, no, God demands that we worship idols, how do we settle this?
I mean the legal question, not the theological question. How do we, a society comprised of followers of Holy Men and Women A through Z and followers of no holy people at all, decide which of God's purported pronouncements ought to carry the weight of law?
Most societies through history have operated on the principle that the majority belief or the belief of those who hold power should rule, should carry the weight of law. And, quite obviously, most societies through history have been inferior to ours by any number of modern measures.
This is not a coincidence.
Those who have taken issue with my stance on the Ten Commandments often use the "majority rules" argument. It appears to be a very easy weapon to deploy when you're in the majority.
What these majoritarians fail to understand is that the legal cudgel they would use to reinforce their own faith today could very well be used to deny or ban that same faith tomorrow. Christians who complain about being discriminated against and persecuted in America whenever they are denied the opportunity to use tax dollars, legislation and public land and schools to advance their sectarian views don't have any idea what persecution means.
The separationist creed--and I stress this--is ultimately pro-religion because it is so staunchly pro-conscience.
I'm not bothered by what goes on in the sanctuaries and grottoes, at the altars or in houses of worship. And I'm glad when beliefs, however implausible or unproven to me, prompt people to behave well and to find comfort and happiness in this often weary world.
But it almost never stops there, with the personal, with the inner life, does it? It's not enough that they find in their faith rules to live by. They want to make you live by them too. The ban on graven imagery in the Ten Commandments is a reminder--set in stone, so they say--of the inevitable pitfalls of using the received words of God as the source of morality and law.
Posting them as officially sanctioned statements of the government is an attempt to codify the five words that sum up the Ten Commandments: GOD WANTS YOU TO BEHAVE, and the implicit threat behind it: OR ELSE.
I'd like to close tonight with a hymn.
I was raised in a secular home--we weren't church people, God never came up--except in songs. We sang religious songs all the time--my dad and I had a huge repertoire of country gospel tunes and I've always taken every chance I can to sing from the sacred harp hymnal with people who know how to read shaped notes.
I mean, no matter what you say about religion, its musical bona fides are the best--and singing hymns in a large group is a magnificent experience.
So I thought I'd like to lead you in such an experience, but of course "How Great Thou Art" might catch in some throats here, I don't know. So I have selected one of the lesser-known Monty Python songs written in the style of a hymn and I believe borrowing heavily in the melody from a genuine hymn. It occurs near the beginning of "The Meaning of Life" movie and is sung as a devotional by British schoolboys, and it follows up on the implicit OR ELSE that's so important to certain concepts of morality. The title, I believe is, "Oh Lord, Please Don't Burn Us."
To paraphrase Mayor Daley, "Everyone will enjoy singing this song. If they want to . . . or they won't."
Oh, Lord, Please Don't Burn Us
O Lord, please don't burn us.
Don't grill or toast your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don't braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok
Oh, please don't lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don't fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don't stick thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissimat
Eric Zorn has written a metropolitan news column for the Chicago Tribune since September 1986. His father is Prof. Jens C. Zorn, professor of physics, University of Michigan, and his mother, Fran Zorn, is lecturer in English composition and medical careers there. He met his wife, Johanna Wolken, WBEZ-FM executive producer, while doing a radio column 1982-85. They have a son (1989) and fraternal twins (1997) and live on Chicago's Northwest side. He is co-author of Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Schoolhouse Killer Laurie Dann (Warner Books, 1990).
I live in a nice, quiet residential area in southeast Denver. Two blocks away is a middle school and, next door to that, an elementary school. Both are public schools. Almost every evening I walk my dog in the neighborhood. We have a tradition of sitting on the steps of the elementary school for a brief respite before returning home from our journey.
One evening late last summer I noticed a sign in front of the elementary school. It had an arrow pointing to the main entrance which read "Vineyard Church." There were several other signs scattered around the neighborhood saying the same thing that had arrows pointing in the direction of the school. All the signs were on public property.
I called the police department to complain and was advised that the signs violated a City Ordinance. I was told to remove them if they bothered me. I did so and took the signs to the local police station. I walked inside, put the signs down, and asked for a form to file a complaint against the Vineyard Church. I was met with resistance from the female officer behind the desk who finally warned me that I would be placed under arrest if I continued to insist on filing a complaint.
In due course, I was put in touch with a police officer who handles community relations. Despite repeated assurances that the Vineyard Church would be told to cease and desist, the same signs continue to appear. Thankfully, though, the church has now changed the location of its services to a High School several miles away so my dog and I don't have to look at these eyesores anymore when we take our walk.
When I received no satisfaction from the police, I decided to contact the Denver School Board to see whether it would help. One of the things I wanted to know was whether the Vineyard Church paid a rental fee for use of the school. After the usual "Why do you want to know?" exchange, a School Board official sent me a document spelling out the various fees for use of the public schools and school facilities.
I have always objected to the use of public schools for religious purposes. However, in recent years, the courts have made it clear that the equal access laws guarantee that, if a school is opened to noncurricular activities, religious groups may use the schools the same as anyone else.
The School Board's document containing fees and charges was lengthy and complex. There were several categories including one for nonprofits and churches. A fee schedule set forth the hourly rates plus janitorial services.
As I reviewed the document, I noticed that there was a category which provided for the use of school facilities free of charge. For the most part, this category included groups like the PTA and local government and community groups. But there was one organization that stuck out--the Boy Scouts of America!
I called the School Board and asked why the Boy Scouts were given special treatment over other non-profits. The person with whom I talked wanted to drop the subject like a hot potato. He suggested that I write the President of the School Board, Elaine Berman. I did so and made sure to send a copy of the letter to a friend of mine who writes for the Denver Post.
In the letter I pointed out that the Boy Scouts discriminate on the basis of religion. That is, if a boy refuses to take the Scout oath which includes a statement of allegiance to God, he is not eligible to be a member. Also, shortly before I got involved in this issue, the United States Supreme Court had held that it was not unconstitutional for the Scouts to prohibit gays from becoming members. The court held that the Scouts are a private organization and are, therefore, entitled to set their own membership criteria. This is interesting in view of the fact that the Boy Scouts have a special charter granted by the United States Congress which would seem to say that they are anything but a private organization.
In any event, the Denver Post covered our story. Ms. Berman, the School Board President, was interviewed by the Post and was quoted as saying that the public schools had no right to prohibit the Boy Scouts from using their facilities under the equal access laws. She did not address the issue of the Scouts, unlike most other nonprofits, being able to use the schools free of charge nor did she respond to the criticism of the schools actually chartering Scout troops and allowing school facilities to be used during classroom time to recruit members. My letter was written on September 26 and, as of the date of this writing (November 13), I have not received a reply.
Only days after our story appeared in the Denver Post, a prominent local rabbi, Stephen Foster, turned in all his Boy Scout medals. Foster had been an Eagle Scout, one of scouting's highest ranks. He said he was turning his badges in to protest the Scouts' refusal to allow gays and atheists to become members. This story was prominently covered in both Denver dailies and was carried on the local TV and radio news.
Shortly after that an article appeared in the paper to the effect that gay groups intended to pressure public officials not to allow the Boy Scouts to use public facilities to recruit members and to persuade charitable organizations such as the United Fund not to support the Scouts financially. This effort is taking hold. I understand that, recently, a United Fund chapter in Connecticut decided to exclude the Boy Scouts from its giving program. I also understand that the Boy Scouts have initiated a legal action against the United Fund on the theory that it in illegal for them to be excluded from the Fund's giving.
There seems to be no small amount of hypocrisy here. On the one hand the Scouts argue that they have the right to engage in exclusionary practices because they are a private organization but, on the other, that the United Fund, which is also a private organization, does not.
The Boy Scouts are a very entrenched part of the establishment in this country. The battle to unseat them from their favored position with government promises to be difficult. However, as time passes and as the American public sees the Scouts for the hypocrites they are, public support is bound to wane. It will be interesting to see whether the leadership of the Scouts is intelligent enough to bring the organization into the twenty-first century or whether they will go the way of the dinosaurs which they surely will if they do not change their practices.
Oh, yes--we haven't forgotten about the signs of the Vineyard Church. That promises to be one of the Denver, Colorado Chapter's next projects.
Attorney Bob Tiernan is a Foundation member who directs the Foundation's Denver-area chapter.
ICLU Sells Out Again?
For the second time, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union has "settled" a lawsuit challenging the presence of Ten Commandments in a courthouse by agreeing to permit the biblical listing alongside other "historic" documents.
The display at the Washington County Courthouse in Salem, Indiana, will include King John and the Magna Carta, Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights, and Moses with the Ten Commandments.
The Nov. 30 settlement was reached after 400 people, including Reform Party vice presidential candidate Ezola Foster, rallied outside the courthouse in October. A state law took effect July 1 allowing local governments to post the commandments with displays of "other historical documents."
Still in court is an ICLU lawsuit to prevent the placement of a decalog on state capitol grounds. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a preliminary injunction in July barring placement of the monument. In mid-November Barker also ordered the removal of the capitol monument from the courthouse lawn in Lawrence County, where bible backers had placed it temporarily.
The Utica Town Council is in the process of approving the biblical decalog for its town hall.
Moment of Silence Upheld for Now
Virginia's controversial new law mandating a moment of silence in public schools was upheld by a U.S. District judge in October, and remains in effect while opponents appeal the ruling. Ten students and their parents are challenging the law. Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley, a gubernatorial candidate, vows to defend the law before the Supreme Court if necessary.
Reason Prevails in West Virginia
West Virginia State Superintendent David Stewart announced in early November that the state Board of Education is not likely to consider Gov. Cecil Underwood's request for a resolution to post Ten Commandments in West Virginia schools.
In September, Underwood, facing re-election, wrote a letter to the Board demanding that it "immediately" consider the proposal. Underwood was defeated by U.S. Rep. Bob Wise.
The superintendent said such a resolution would only invite a lawsuit, not "assist the learning process."
Scouts Sue Broward County Over Cut-off
The Boy Scouts filed a lawsuit on Dec. 4 against Florida's Broward County School Board for barring the group from school property due to the Scouts' ban on gays.
The South Florida Council and national headquarters asked the U.S. District Court in Miami for an injunction to keep the district from evicting 57 Scout troops and Cub packs. The Board voted unanimously on Nov. 14 to give the Scouts 30 days' notice, contending the Scouts breached a contract.
Expelled Girl Settles Lawsuit
A teenage girl expelled from Orchard Street Christian School in Elsmere, Ky., last year for being sexually active reached an out of court settlement announced in December. Her lawsuit argued that the school discriminated against the 15 year old because "boys are not expelled . . . for being sexually active, nor does [the school] improperly and voyeuristically make inquiry of male students regarding their sexual activities."
Important 9th Circuit Rulings
--- A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a death sentence for convicted murderer Alfred Sandoval in November, ruling the prosecutor's argument to the jury that the death penalty is sanctioned by God denied him a fair trial.
--- In October, the court rejected an appeal by Christian students to fuse a valedictory speech with an invocation at graduation ceremonies in Oroville High School, California. Upheld was a June ruling by Judge Lawrence K. Karlton saying the Constitution gives no one a right to proselytize before a captive school audience.
Oregon School Abuse Halted
Oregon school officials in Molalla put a stop in November to regular cafeteria visits over the past year by a youth pastor involving up to 100 students a week in its middle and high schools.
They posted police guards at the entrance of the middle school to keep out Church of the Nazarene pastor Jason Rhoads, telling him any attempt to enter the schools would be trespassing. The action was taken after parents of a middle school student complained recently that their child was pressured to participate in a youth group affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.
A critic noted that if ministers are given carte blanche visitation rights, then the schools would have to allow equal access to a communist, a gay rights organizer or a Scientologist.
Religious Concert Nixed in Illinois
Religious songs are being limited in an upcoming holiday assembly at the high school in Fenton, Illinois, after objections last year by a Muslim senior to the program of mostly Christmas carols and religious music.
"Our holiday assembly cannot be predominately religious and it cannot advance any particular religion. We have to be sensitive to our diverse student population," Superintendent Alf Loan told the board of education in late November.
After student Sabina Navsariwala wrote a letter to her school newspaper saying she felt hurt and alienated by the music, she was harassed at school, according to the Daily Herald.
No Faith in These Police
The Providence police department in November announced a new program to bring a "nondenominational, faith-based" approach to community relations, dubbed PRAYER.
The notion came to patrolman Gregory W. Bolden in a dream, reported the Providence Journal, and gained the support of the police chief and scandal-ridden Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr.
"I think it's about time that somebody in government recognized that there is a God and that He is in charge," said a supporter, Rev. Marlowe V.N. Washington.
Texas School Violations Multiply
--- Jewish parents charged in November that two Texas middle schools in the Fort Bend School District are illegally promoting religion. Frank Levy and Hillary Goldstein said the district promoted after-school prayer meetings this fall, posting flyers featuring crosses. They noted that one teacher's computer screen saver displays the words "Jesus Christ" and that Jewish students were required to bring notes from rabbis in order to miss school Oct. 9 to observe Yom Kippur.
--- Duncanville High School is permitting a retired pastor and former bible college professor to teach bible studies. At least 200 Texas schools offer such classes. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent detailed objections of the proselytizing nature of such classes to the TEA in the past.
Teachers Banned at Prayer Service
Teachers at Murrieta Valley High School in Riverside, Calif., will no longer be allowed to participate in the annual "See you at the Pole" September prayer observance.
The principal in late November barred the teachers from attending future student worship services, after the Anti-Defamation League complained that the teachers' presence gave the impression of school endorsement.
Religious Visas Fraudulent?
Three government agencies have criticized a special immigration program for religious workers as a fraud-ridden mechanism for ministers to get green cards for congregation members. The religious worker visa was established in 1990 to provide 5000 special admission visas a year for ministers and those in religious vocations. Congress voted twice to extend the program.
In a summer hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) testified it found the program rife with abuse. In one case, a pastor had filed 450 visa petitions covering more than 900 people, falsifying records.
"Evidence uncovered by the INS suggests that some of these organizations exist solely as a means to carry out immigration fraud," said Jess Ford of the GAO.
John Brennan, director of visa services for the State Department, testified that "consular officers are presented with claims that a variety of seemingly mundane jobs with no clear traditional religious function are religious occupations because they are somehow related to the overall work of a religious organization."
"You Will Go to Hell"
"If you lie, you will go to hell," a Cook County judge warned two little girls testifying in his courtroom, according to a Chicago Sun Times expos? on Nov. 2.
Judge James T. Ryan once detained a woman in court until she soiled herself, and fined a woman giving birth for speeding to a hospital.
Diane Tuzzolino, a Mount Prospect mother, said the judge told her children Karyn, 12, and Kara, 8, who were testifying on a small claims dispute, that "You realize if you lie, you will go to hell."
Faith-Healing Parents Convicted
The State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in a 7-0 decision issued on Nov. 28, upheld an involuntary manslaughter conviction of Dennis and Lorie Nixon of Altoona, who let their 16-year-old daughter die in 1996 from complications of untreated diabetes. Shannon died at home of severe dehydration with a blood sugar level that was 18 times normal, as her family prayed, read from the bible and coated her body with oil.
The Nixons, who were sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison in 1997, have been free during their appeals. They belong to a Blair County branch of the Faith Tabernacle Church, and have 11 other children. Another child, Clayton, died at age 8 in 1991 from a treatable ear infection.
Canadian Creationist Lampooned
The contrast between theopolitics in the United States and Canada became evident in October, when conservative Stockwell Day, who unsuccessfully challenged Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien, was lampooned in the Canadian press for being a creationist.
"Day Admits Creationist Views" was the page 1 headline of the Montreal Gazette in October. The nation was shocked that Day believes humans were planted full-grown in the Garden of Eden and that, if dinosaurs existed, they ambled around with Adam and Eve.
"It's kind of freaky, being in denial about fossil evidence and carbon dating," Phillis Rosseau, a Canadian pharmaceutical researcher, told the Boston Globe.
"Fathers Count" Masks Religion
The U.S. House, by a 238-93 vote, passed the "Fathers Count" bill in November, ostensibly to promote fatherhood in low-income families by expanding job training and supportive programs.
Although a lengthy debate over the separation of church and state took place, the bill passed without an amendment barring federal funds from going directly to churches.
Cleveland Voucher Program Struck
A three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Dec. 11 that a Cleveland voucher program using tax money to support religious schools is unconstitutional.
Nearly 4,000 Cleveland students attend private schools, most of them religious, using publicly funded vouchers worth $2,250 each.
"To approve this program would approve the actual diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education, something 'in tension' with the precedents of the Supreme Court," the appeals panel wrote.
The Ohio Supreme Court initially invalidated the voucher program because of the way it was passed by the Ohio legislature, but upheld the program itself as constitutional. After the Ohio legislature approved the program in compliance with the Ohio Supreme Court, the voucher scheme was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.
Voucher watchers are speculating that the Cleveland case is headed for a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court, which thus far has not accepted appeals on the issue. There are currently only four expected votes against it: Souter, Stevens, Ginsberg and Breyer, with O'Connor considered a (very dubious) swing vote.
The only other ongoing voucher programs in the country are in Florida and in Milwaukee, where the Catholic-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court basically ruled that the state constitution was dead when it approved a scheme siphoning up to $5,236 per voucher to poor students in Milwaukee. Currently, 9,936 students are receiving vouchers there to attend private schools, two-thirds of them religious. In Florida, fewer than 100 students are enrolled in a voucher program that is also the subject of continuing legal challenge. The Cleveland program is expected to continue for at least the rest of this school year.
Student-Led Prayer Litigated
The Louisiana affiliate of the ACLU plans to file a federal lawsuit against the Beauregard parish school board for allowing student-led prayer. The district sent letters to parents asking their children to participate in a "Partners in Prayer for Schools" program in which churches adopt classrooms to pray for.
Nebraska Antigay Action Litigated
The ACLU Nebraska will challenge the constitutionality of Initiative 416, approved by 70% of Nebraska voters on Nov. 7, amending the state constitution to prohibit legal recognition of same-sex marriages or civil unions. A coalition of religious denominations, including fundamentalist Protestant, Mormon and Catholic, funded the campaign to enact the antigay measure.
Religious Freedom for Parking Lot?
A Catholic church ordered by a borough to shut down a parking program because it was an illegal business in an area zoned for private residency is now appealing that ruling under the newly passed federal Religious Land and Institutionized Persons Act of 2000.
St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church, New Hope, Penn., was raking in up to $50,000 a year by offering weekend tourists parking for a "$4 donation" in its 88-car lot.
"Our ability to praise God through the good works of our fellowship and stewardship programs has been shackled by the denial of the use of our parking lot," the church maintains.
A lawyer representing neighbors who oppose the scheme questioned how "sending patrons of the parking lot to the bars and restaurants at all hours of the night in New Hope is a religious freedom unless they're going into the bars to pray."
Too Little, Too Late?
A libel suit has been filed by State Sen. Lewis Long, a Democrat, against the Oklahoma Christian Coalition for falsely claiming that he voted to repeal laws against sodomy and bestiality. Long lost his election by 270 votes.
In 1994, the Legislature updated its criminal code, removing sodomy and bestiality from certain sections, although both acts remain crimes under other sections. The Christian Coalition and a coalition of GOP legislative candidates have since used the issue to slam opponents. In Long's case, the Christian Coalition compounded the error because Long actually voted against the criminal code update.
After the Christian Coalition issued a belated apology, the Tulsa World editorialized on Nov. 22:
"The Christian Coalition's after-the-fact apology is as phony as its voter guides."
Eugene Bars Xmas Trees
Eugene, Oregon's city manager is adhering to a ban on Christmas trees in most city work places, based on the fact that Christmas trees are symbolic of a religious holiday. The Statesman Journal reported that Jim Johnson has affirmed his decision that Christmas trees not be displayed in public lobbies, break rooms and other space shared by city employees.
Scouts Hurt United Way
City employees in Tempe, Arizona, contributed less than half of what they gave last year to United Way, after a controversy about the antigay policy of Boy Scouts of America. Tempe workers donated $42,794 this fall, compared to $89,400 last year.
Interim City Manager John Greco proposed in late September to remove Boy Scouts from the city's United Way pledge forms. In October, Tempe's openly gay mayor, Neil Giuliano, backed off after the proposal created a firestorm of protest. The city's volunteer coordinator told the Arizona Republic in December that the Scout controversy "kind of soured" city workers on the campaign.
Catholic Chair Bad Precedent
The University of California at Santa Barbara has approved a $4.2 million fundraising goal to endow a ""Catholic chair" for Catholic studies at the public school.
About 20 local Catholics are raising private money to endow the chair in the name of Virgil Cordano, a Franciscan priest who pastored the Santa Barbara Catholic Mission.
If successful, the scheme would make the Santa Barbara university one of the few in the country with a Catholic chair.
Making Religion the Villain
Looking for solstice gifts for children?
Try a trilogy by British children's author Philip Pullman ("The Man Who Dared Make Religion the Villain: A British Author's Trilogy, Great Adventures Aren't Pegged to the Great Beyond," New York Times, Nov. 6).
Pullman espouses a "radical view of religion that may well hold the most subversive message in children's literature in years," says the Times.
Pullman has just completed The Amber Spyglass (Knopf), the last in a trilogy, following The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. The story is about a boy and a girl from different worlds "who grapple with profound philosophical questions of existence while having amazing adventures," according to Sarah Lyall of the Times.
The 53-year-old former school teacher, Lyall writes, "has created a world in which organized religion . . . is the enemy and its agents are the misguided villains."
Pullman explicitly views his books as an alternative to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.
"When you look at what C.S. Lewis is saying," Pullman told the Times, "his message is so anti-life, so cruel, so unjust." Pullman, raised Protestant in Wales, became an atheist as a teenager.
Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda favorably compared Pullman's second book to children's classics in the genre, adding: "Pullman's book is more sheerly, breathtakingly all-stops-out thrilling than any of them."
Pullman has also written a quartet of adventure stories set in Victorian London for older children.
Going to God
The New York Times (Nov. 1) reported on the plight of "Turkish Women Who See Death as a Way Out" of religion-inspired repression, citing the following cases:
--- A 22-year-old woman throwing herself from the roof of a 7-story building after being beaten by her parents for wearing a tight skirt.
--- A 20-year-old woman hanging herself after giving birth following an arranged marriage.
--- A mother of five, age 30, hanging herself in the family barn. Her 65-year-old husband shrugged off the suicide by saying: "It was her time to go to God.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed its Winter Solstice sign in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, Madison, for the entire month of December for the fifth year in a row. In 1995, Gov. Tommy Thompson removed a Foundation banner saying "State/Church: Keep Them Separate," although the Foundation had a legal permit, and ruled that messages must be restricted to 30 x 40" signs. The Foundation first placed its gilt sign in 1996. Capitol tour guides have told reporters the sign is a "tourist attraction." The Foundation placed its message in response to public complaints about the Christian nature of songs at the annual tree-lighting ceremony, the presence of a lighted menorah during Hanukkah, and an annual nativity pageant taking place in the Capitol.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's two and a half year court battle over a shrine to Jesus in a public park in Wisconsin concluded in November, with the erection of a 4-foot wrought-iron fence around the statue.
Two signs are posted on the gated fence surrounding the statue signifying that it is located on private property, as ordered by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz.
The Foundation, with Clarence Reinders of Marshfield as plaintiff, filed suit in 1998 after receiving complaints by residents and motorists about a Jesus statue dominating a public wayside park, reading "Christ Guide Us On Our Way." The statue had been given to the town by the Knights of Columbus in the 1950s.
The Foundation's lawsuit was initially dismissed by Shabaz after the city sold a prime parcel of the park to a group formed expressly to save the statue.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago agreed with the Foundation that the sale did not remedy the violation, because there was no wall or sign indicating the statue is now on private land.
The Appeals Court upheld the prearranged sale as legal, however. A three-judge panel ordered Shabaz to oversee the erection of a wall or fence with a visible disclaimer.
"How unfortunate for Marshfield taxpayers that its officials did not choose to move or isolate the Jesus shrine when we first asked," said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.
Occasional irate letters from religionists are still appearing in Marshfield's daily paper, whose editor supported the presence of the Catholic shrine on public property.
Foundation member John Scalise, a former city commissioner in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and his young son Benjamin, filed suit against the Boy Scouts of America and Mt. Pleasant Public Schools for discrimination on religious grounds on Oct. 20.
In November 1997, when Benjamin was nine, he brought home a recruiting notice for Cub Scouts distributed in his third-grade class at Fancer Elementary School. John, a former Scout himself, and his son were excited about the invitation, and attended the recruiting meeting in December. When no one else volunteered to be a leader, Scalise stepped forward, only to discover the application required him to sign a "Declaration of Religious Principles."
Scalise, in his lawsuit, charges that Scouts are a "national and international private religiously oriented youth organization" that "expressly and openly discriminates against atheists, secular humanists, agnostics and other minorities."
Scalise alleges Boy Scouts and Mt. Pleasant schools are violating Michigan's constitution and the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by unlawfully discriminating on religious grounds.
Since the Freedom From Religion Foundation debuted a state/church quiz at its website (Church/State Separation Quiz) in October, more than 7,000 people have taken the test. [More than 12,000 as of March 2001]
The Foundation sent out an October news release prescribing its state/church separation quiz as "an antidote to election-year piety" and what it deemed "an orgy of gratuitous pandering" by political candidates.
The 21-item quiz, made up of multiple choice and true/false questions, is automatically scored and graded. Correct and up to three wrong answers summons high praise for being a "First Amendment scholar." Twelve to fifteen wrong prompts the rebuke, "Did you attend parochial school? Try again!" And sixteen to 21 wrong is rewarded with a skeptical: "Are you sure you are not a member of the religious right?"
Publicity about the quiz included a column by Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Examiner (Nov. 10, 2000) that was widely syndicated around the country. Salter reported that "the feisty, funny and well-informed Freedom From Religion Foundation" had devised a quiz challenging assumptions about the religious basis of U.S. government.
She added, "Based in Madison, Wis., the foundation publishes a terrific and entertaining monthly newsletter called 'Freethought Today' . . . If you're like me, [by taking the quiz] you'll learn how ignorant you really are about how much God-ness our country's founders wished upon us."
Contestants are scored on such questions as the date when "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, how many times the word "God" appears in the U.S. Constitution, if the Constitution requires a religious test for public office, and the religious affiliation of the students who contested school football prayers before the Supreme Court last summer.
"Would the typical candidate for public office pass our basic quiz? We doubt it!" commented Foundation spokesperson Dan Barker. "Public officials take an oath of office to uphold our secular Constitution but do they even know what's in it?"
If you're not on the 'Net but are interested in obtaining the written quiz and answers, please send your request with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Quiz, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.
While a ministerial student at old Howard College, I heard a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me: Be wary of preachers whose sermons never stray far from the sins of adultery and fornication. They have illicit sex on the brain.
--History Prof. Wayne Flynt
"Are you voting with me, Jesus?"
(Feb. 13, 2000)
To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.
"Two or Three Ideas," 1951
Charles Norman's Poets on Poetry
(Free Press, 1962)
(Submitted by Dudley Duncan)
Our conviction about what is natural or right should not inhibit the role of science in discovering the truth--rather it should inform our judgment about the implications and consequences of the truth science uncovers.
--Tony Blair, British Prime Minister
European Bioscience Conference
(Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2000)
The laws about why discrimination [against gays and lesbians], even revulsion and hatred, are justified have begun to fall away. What remains is largely inchoate, or biblical.
--Columnist Anna Quindlen
(Sept. 10, 2000)
The day after Joseph Lieberman's now-infamous remarks on religion to a black congregation in Detroit, I got a call from Fox TV network inviting me to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor."
As I had never heard of this show, I couldn't help asking the polite assistant: "The host isn't one of these 'hate radio' types, is he?" I was assured that Mr. O'Reilly belonged more in the "devil's advocate" category.
I was the only guest interviewed via satellite hook-up at a local studio for a five-minute opening segment, taped that afternoon and airing that night. The taping started with Bill O'Reilly's opening editorial, called "Talking Points."
He called it "ridiculous" and "madness" to contend it is "dangerous" to "talk about God and to pray in public," attacking the recent court decision against student-led football prayers in public schools. "Spirituality is a positive in our selfish society and if that opinion hurts somebody's feelings, I'm not sorry at all." Then he introduced me, and the fireworks began.
Although I felt brow-beaten during the quick interview, I left the studio mostly bemused.
At 7 p.m. we turned on the TV to watch how it came off. A teaser on Lieberman, O'Reilly's editorial and my interview started the show. When an increasingly excited O'Reilly proceeded to call me "crazy" for correctly stating there were no prayers at the Constitutional Convention, my shocked 24-year-old stepdaughter Kristi loyally exclaimed, "Dad, you shouldn't let him treat her that way!" Even cool and collected Dan shook his head in amazement.
I have to admit I was surprised when my November Brill's Content informed me that O'Reilly appears on its list of this year's top 50 influential members of the media, and that his book is on the New York Times bestseller list. I thought readers might be interested in what O'Reilly's "influential" views are. Here is the transcript from the interview:
O'Reilly: Now our story tonight: Senator Joseph Lieberman's spirituality on the campaign trail. Some people don't like the fact that he often talks about God.
(Videotape of Lieberman in a church, saying, "I hope that it will reinforce a belief, that I feel as strongly as anything else, that there must be a place for faith in America's public life.")
(Different cutaway of Lieberman: "The profound and ultimately most important reality is that we are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are children of the same awesome God.")
O'Reilly: Joining us now from Madison, Wisconsin, is Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So you have a beef with Senator Lieberman?
Gaylor: We certainly do, because Senator Lieberman is saying that there is no freedom from religion under our Constitution, and that is implying that there is no right to reject religion, and that freethinkers--atheists and agnostics--are somehow "less equal" than believers.
O'Reilly: I didn't hear him say that, Ms. Gaylor.
Gaylor: Yes, he said there is freedom of religion but no freedom from religion.
O'Reilly: But I didn't hear him say that nonbelievers were less equal than believers, did you?
Gaylor: This is certainly the implication--
O'Reilly: Oh, the implication? Okay. All right, go ahead.
Gaylor: And he's also courting and sparking a very divisive public debate on religion, saying things like morality is based on a belief in God, and our nation is based on a belief in God, and it makes me wonder if Senator Lieberman is running for Vice-Rabbi rather than Vice-President.
O'Reilly: All right. But if 90% of the population of America believes in God, as they do, the polls show that, and if the founding fathers based the legal system on Judeo-Christian tradition--
O'Reilly: --which they did--
Gaylor: No, they certainly didn't.
O'Reilly: Oh, yes they did. I mean, look. Anybody who reads history, who reads the letters of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, knows that the framers of the Constitution took into account the Ten Commandments and basing the religious aspect of the government, in the sense that they say this is right, this is wrong, this is what they do and this is what they don't do.
Gaylor: No, I think that Senator Lieberman and you, possibly, have never read our U.S. Constitution--
O'Reilly: Yes, I have.
Gaylor: It is a godless Constitution, and the only references to religion in it are exclusionary. And if you contrast our Bill of Rights, which is couched in positives, the rights we have, versus the Ten Commandments, which are all negative, I think you can see no comparison. There is no religion in our Constitution, and we should be proud of the fact that we were the first country to adopt a secular Constitution.
O'Reilly: Well, look. In every meeting of the framers they had a prayer.
Gaylor: No, that was--
O'Reilly: Yes, they did!
O'Reilly: Yes, they did! In the records of the meetings there is the prayer, Ms. Gaylor.
Gaylor: No, no. Ben Franklin said that they should pray and there was nobody else who wanted to and it's in his records--
O'Reilly: That's not true, that's absolutely not true.
Gaylor: You're confusing the Articles of Confederation with--
O'Reilly: George Washington, in George Washington's letters--the Articles of Confederation I'm not confusing with the Constitution. I know the difference. In George Washington's letters about the formation of the government, God is mentioned all the time.
Now, Senator Lieberman. We may disagree on this and I'm not saying that you're not entitled to your opinion, but I'm quoting historical documents, and if you're going to say that I'm wrong, I'm going to say you're crazy.
But, in this case, Senator Lieberman is basically saying, exercising his freedom of speech, by giving his opinion of what America is and should be. What's wrong with that?
Gaylor: He has crossed the line, not only of what is proper for a politician but what is good manners. I mean we've all been told you don't bring up religion at a party or social gathering, and he's simply pandering. And he's running as Mr. Holier-Than-Thou--
O'Reilly: Wait a minute, wait a minute.
Gaylor: --to pander to voters.
O'Reilly: Let's make it a little personal. If I run for office and I say, you know, one of the reasons I want to be in a position of power is to help other people, because I'm a follower of Jesus Christ and that's what he did, am I wrong?
Gaylor: Well, I think that is what George Bush has said, and many people are very alarmed--
O'Reilly: Are you? Would you say I would be wrong to say that?
Gaylor: I think that if you, at every opportunity, would preach at people who are basically a captive audience, using--
O'Reilly: No, I'm not preaching, I'm just saying I want to help people, because Jesus Christ did.
Gaylor: You are a public servant. You are running for an office that is paid with tax dollars--
Gaylor: --and you have no business telling people what religion they should--
O'Reilly: I'm not telling people anything. I'm telling you what I believe, and you're trying to deny my freedom to do that.
Gaylor: And I think that everyone should beware of pious politicians--
O'Reilly: Well, that's fine.
Gaylor: And it does raise the question, why does Senator Lieberman--
O'Reilly: But you take it further, Ms. Gaylor. You take it further.
O'Reilly: You say they shouldn't be able to say that, and that's wrong.
Gaylor: No, I'm saying it's inappropriate. And I think that he has crossed the line, and it is time for the public to say enough of this! We want to hear your views on politics. We don't need to hear your views on--
O'Reilly: Well, Ms. Gaylor, we respect your opinion. I think you're absolutely dead wrong about your history and I hope you'll go back and read it, and perhaps we'll have another discussion.
Gaylor: Read the Constitution!
O'Reilly: I have, many times. Thank you very much for appearing.
For the record, of course I think candidates may express, but should not campaign on, their views on religion, although I prefer the Bill Bradleys of the world who keep it to themselves.
After the show aired, I went out for some errands. When I got back, Kristi informed me a woman had gone to the trouble of hunting me down and calling long distance to argue. When Kristi told her I wasn't home, she tried to argue with Kristi, saying I was too ignorant to be allowed on "national TV," and concluding her rant with this clincher before slamming down the phone: "You tell that Annie Laurie Gaylor for me that she gives blondes a bad name!" (Which is a neat trick, considering I'm not blond.)
I was surprised how many acquaintances caught the show. We also heard from people around the country who wanted to learn more about our group, and received an email from Nat Hentoff, who kindly faxed his column to us on the Lieberman matter.
Liz Uhr, a longtime volunteer at our office (and one of the smartest and best-read women of my acquaintance), had the moxie to tune in the show the following day, convinced O'Reilly would have to retract. She turned out to be right in her hunch, although the "retraction" left something to be desired.
"Well, I hope you saw our report last night about politics and religion," O'Reilly said. "I was so steamed after the segment that I decided to make it the subject of this evening's Talking Points memo. My guest was Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ms. Gaylor's contention is that the founding fathers wanted no spirituality whatsoever associated with the governance of America. I said she was flat out wrong.
"Now after the program I went home and hit my library." What followed was self-serving, but O'Reilly did sneak into the middle of it a semi-mea culpa: "The Constitution itself is a secular document. . ."
Sometimes, in this business of educating about the separation of church and state, we have to be content with tiny victories.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown tenfold since World War II, making it one of the fastest growing U.S. sects. Although it only has a worldwide membership of 11 million--more than half outside the United States--Mormons outrank Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined in North America.
According to a cover story ("The Mormon Way: How a Utah-based church became the world's fastest-growing religion," U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 13), unnamed "experts say Latter-day Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among Christian bodies."
Journalists Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling in their 1999 Mormon America: The Power and the Promise estimate the church's assets at $25-$30 billion, with annual revenue approaching $6 billion. The required tithing of 10 percent of followers' incomes accounts for about $6 billion a year. Its real estate holdings, including more than 12,000 churches and opulent temples, are valued in the billions.
In his book The American Religion (1992), Harold Bloom wrote that "Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in 50." That political influence includes killing chances to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the past, and vociferous antigay and antiabortion lobbying today.
In Salt Lake City, the church finagled the acquisition of a public plaza next to its headquarters, which the ACLU is challenging, saying Mormon repression there is "a little bit of Beijing." Through complicated corporate takeovers, the church is trying to kill off the independent Salt Lake Tribune, a competitor with its poorly-faring afternoon daily.
"The nation will not always be only 2 percent Mormon. The Saints outlive the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups, and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. . . . Their future is immense," prophesies Bloom.
If this sounds grim, just remember: there are, at the moment, more nonreligious in the world than Mormons.
Priest and AIDS Update
In a follow-up to its January report on Catholic priests dying of AIDS, the Kansas City Star in November reported that the AIDS-related death rate among priests "exceeds earlier estimates."
In its three-part January series, the Star had reported that "hundreds of priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses and that hundreds more were living with the virus that causes the disease." The Star reported that follow-up research based on family interviews and death certificates found an additional 300 AIDS-related priest deaths.
The newspaper was stymied in its research by the fact that nearly two-thirds of states do not disclose death records. In the 14 states allowing the Star access, the newspaper found the rate of AIDS-related deaths by priests was "more than double" the rate among adult males in those states, and six times the rate among the general population.
"There is no longer any question that hundreds of priests have died of AIDS and that many bishops were aware of their plights," the newspaper concluded.
The Church of England revealed this year that at least 25% of its priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses, mandating in September that all Anglican bishops in southern Africa undergo HIV testing.
A complaint last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation is being credited with the absence of a nativity scene from the lawn of the courthouse in Batavia, New York.
The nativity display has been erected by the Jaycees, who, without going through administrative channels, placed the large scene on the public lawn for many years, with the city providing lighting. A councilwoman last year objected to the display, but was overruled by other council members.
After being contacted by area Foundation member Walter McBurney, the Foundation wrote Batavia officials, pointing out the obvious: the display "is in direct violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision specifically barring nativity scenes from city hall entrances and property."
The Foundation cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision of County of Allegheny v. ACLU-Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), which held:
"The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus."
"The City of Batavia needs to obey the highest law of the land, honor the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, and respect the rights of conscience of all its citizens by telling the Jaycees to place the display where it belongs--on private property," Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Batavia officials on behalf of the Foundation and its complainant.
The Daily News reported on Dec. 1 that the Jaycees had done just that, placing the Christian worship display in front of Oliver's Candies.
The same paper editorialized on December 7 that the "Creche move is a good move": "Its new home has better lighting, and it is more visible than it was at its previous home. And there's no possibility of confusing state and church."
It pays to complain!
Whether you want to admit it or not, there are times when you just have to feel sorry for god. Consider, if you will, that since the creation the almighty has been trying to establish some type of delivery system, some form of reliable communication whereby he can get "the word" out to his clones here on planet earth. But to date all attempts have met with unlimited, unqualified and unrelenting failure.
Poor god. It has got to be nothing but pure unadulterated, exhausting and overwhelming frustration on his part. Can you imagine how totally mortified and humiliated he must feel? Here he is this all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful superbeing with all the resources of the cosmos at his disposal and he can't even get a few simple laws and commandments through one quarter of an inch of human skull. Nothing penetrates. No matter what he tries, no matter how routine or how elaborate the plan of attack the result is always the same--complete and abject failure.
Poor god. Look, for example, at the number of times he has tried to communicate via the written word. No matter if he pens his message on stone tablets, gold plates, papyrus, parchment, leather, paper or what have you the end result is always the same--misunderstanding, confusion, contradiction, uncertainty and frustration.
Poor god. Over the centuries he's put his moniker on everything from epistles, encyclicals, gospels, journals, letters, missiles, parables, poems, tracts, treatises, short stories, long stories, holy books and sacred books. He's even written, or inspired madmen to write, different books for different people and different religions in different countries using different languages, different dialects and even different terminology. To add to the continuing chaos every one of his words, each and every inspired work, has been altered, amended, annotated, changed, compiled, copied, corrected, edited, interpreted, revised, transcribed, transformed, translated, cleaned-up, touched-up, updated and sanitized to such a degree that even god himself doesn't know what he said, if he did indeed say it, when he said it or even if he meant what he said when he supposedly said it.
Poor god. Now, because this omnipotent being, this great communicator in the sky, has had such a dismal and disappointing experience with the written word, the spoken word is now, once again, the latest wrinkle in the communication gambit. There was a time when only those of a status of a Moses or a Mohammed ever conversed with god. Face to face encounters were truly miraculous. But now the number of pious parasites has multiplied and holy hucksters of every ilk routinely speak to god, with god and for god.
Today it has degenerated to such a low point that anyone and everyone, regardless of which side of the asylum wall they happen to be standing on, is having a running conversation and a one-on-one relationship with their very own personal savior. But much like before, not surprisingly, everyone is hearing and receiving a different and conflicting message. Currently it's just one big funny farm--the only thing missing are the rubber rooms and the canvas kimonos. Today the din of the deluded is deafening and all-consuming.
God has created a monster in his own image and likeness and the monster is not only out of control and running amok but is reproducing and replicating like a virus--and because god can't effectively communicate with it he can't control it.
Poor god. He's made such a mess out of everything. But then he always does. Fortunately for god, however, when he gets tired and fed up with the messes he makes he just finds himself a new sandbox and starts the process up all over again. While we, on the other hand, have to stay behind and put up with his repeated and never-ending failures. Poor us.
The writer is an artist and Life Member from Florida.
A 1,237-page compendium, Who's Who in Hell: A Handbook and International Directory for Humanists, Freethinkers, Naturalists, Rationalists and Non-Theists, has been edited by Warren Allen Smith, a 79-year-old Foundation member from New York City, and published by Lyle Stuart's Barricade Books.
Smith labored for 50 years to compile a reference on skeptics and nonbelievers, according to an Aug. 14 article in the New York Observer.
The book lists more than 10,000 names, including director Woody Allen, the late Steve Allen, billionaire Warren Buffett, Microsoft chief Bill Gates, actors Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and George Clooney, artist Frida Kahlo, writers Joyce Carol Oates, Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal, New York Times owner Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., columnist Russell Baker, musicians Billy Joel and Barry Manilow, and a roster of more ordinary folk.
Serving in the Army during World War II, Smith had the word "none" next to religion on his dog tag. After the war, he founded the first humanist club on any college campus in 1948 at the University of Northern Iowa. He founded his second humanist club at Columbia University, signing up John Dewey as his first member.
As for his special "Who's Who in Hell" club, he says: "Don't worry, registration is still open."
The book is available for $99 from Rationalists NY, 31 Jane St. (Box 10-D), New York NY 10014. Why not ask your library to order it?
Below are excerpts of a survey of 52 celebrities asked "Is there a god?" by The Onion newspaper. The responses appeared in The Onion's (bonafide) "A.V. Club" section, 7-13, September 2000).
Isn't believing in God like wearing chain mail? . . . In that you just don't do it anymore.
EP It's Very Stimulating
I'm dyslexic, so I hear dog when you say God.
--Director Robert Altman
If there is a God, He's definitely a rock star.
"Phish" vocalist, guitarist
If there is a God, all evidence shows that He hates me
I'm an atheist.
No, there is no god. Period. End of story.
Radio talkshow host
--Director Steven Soderbergh
No. I don't think there's a God like the God everybody's taught about. As a concept, I think it exists in terms of nature and the greater forces of things. I believe in nature instead of God.
--Pop singer Matthew Sweet
No. No, there's no God, but there might be some sort of an organizing intelligence, and I think to understand it is way beyond our ability. It's certainly not paternalistic and all these qualities that have been attributed to God. It's probably a dispassionate. . . . That's why I say, "Suppose He doesn't give a shit? Suppose there is a god but he just doesn't give a shit?" That's the kind of thing that might be at work.
--Comedian George Carlin
. . . It's possible that there's some kind of life spirit or life force or something; not an old man sitting on a tree. If there's an old man sitting on a stump way up in the sky, 1) he's stupid, and 2) he's somewhat diabolical, you know? He's giving babies diseases, and bombing villages for no good reason, and killing people in airplanes.
--Singer Mojo Nixon
. . . There doesn't need to be a God for me. . . .
--Actress Angelina Jolie
No, I don't think She exists.
--Director Alex Cox
God is, to me, pretty much a myth created over time to deny the idea that we're all responsible for our own actions.
--Actor Seth Green
Superintendent Della Jones of Keystone Public Schools in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, notified the Foundation on Dec. 12 that "Gideons will not be allowed on campus to distribute bibles or any other religious materials."
The Foundation complained on Dec. 5 on behalf of a Sand Springs family offended that their fifth-grader received a New Testament Bible from the Gideons in a classroom this fall.
The Foundation pointed to more than 40 years of legal precedent against distribution of Gideon bibles on public school property.
Della Jones phoned the Foundation office to advise that the school district would change its policy and faxed a letter to that effect.
It pays to complain!
This acceptance speech was delivered on Sept. 16 at the FFRF national convention in St. Paul. Gabe and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation Board member Richard Mole for generously underwriting the annual $1,000 student activist award in memory of the late Dixie Jokinen.
Wow, there's a lot of you out there--and you're all going to hell! [laughter]
I'm really honored and excited to get this award, and not just because the award comes with money (with a philosophy degree that's always a good thing). I'm excited that I'm getting this from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
When I was in high school and was first realizing I was an atheist, I, as many of us did, felt like I was alone and that there wasn't anyone else who thought like me. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first organization I found out there for freethinkers or atheists.
I was impressed that not only were there other people who thought like me, but they were organized and they were active--they were out there doing things, writing letters to the editor, filing lawsuits, putting out publications, and it really encouraged me. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I probably would not have been into atheist activism had it not been for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So it's great to be getting an award for student activism from the Foundation.
My history of activism is a string of acronyms . . . we love acronyms here in the freethought movement, it seems. I started with the FFRF, then I moved to "aol" for the rest of my high school activism. I did a lot of online debating. I would go into fundamentalist chatrooms and say, "hey, I don't believe in god," and watch the sparks fly. I'd pick out the people who were less likely to just stick their caps lock on and swear at me in Christian-speak, and get into extended email debates with them, which I made available through the web. It was an interesting time.
Then I went to college and got involved with the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, which is a great campus group. I was elected the president of that group and served for two years. I got involved with the Campus Freethought Alliance, which at that time was the only national freethought student organization, and was elected vice-president of that group.
While working with them I came to believe that the student movement and thus the movement in general really needed an independent student organization that wasn't part of just one national organization. So several of us resigned our positions with the CFA and started the Secular Student Alliance, of which I'm now the executive director. We just had our first annual conference right next door in Minneapolis about a month ago, which was a really big success.
We had about 90 students coming from around the country, more than double the previous record for a national freethought student convention. Not only did we have more people, we had a lot of programs. We had about seven nationally-known speakers come, including Dan Barker, who gave a great talk. We had a panel discussion, a big Intelligent Design debate, and filled up a huge physics auditorium advertised to the public. It went really well.
I have graduated from college, but I'm still doing student activism and I plan on doing that as I go bald and start to stoop over, even though I won't be a student anymore, because I think campus activism is really vital to our movement.
You've probably heard of the greying of the movement. It's a phrase that's come up repeatedly in publications lately like the AHA's magazine The Humanist. Basically it's just the concern that a lot of the activists in our movement right now are well beyond retirement age and there aren't many middle-aged and younger people coming up behind them to replace them. People look at the demographics, look at the movement, and worry that it's dying out. For this reason I think campus activism is very important. These are our future leaders, our future activists, the people who are going to take over when we're all gone or are in the nursing home.
I also think campus activism is very important because of its potential. Campuses have a concentration of people and potential you don't see anywhere else. You have all these students packed together at a university when they're at their most open-minded stage in their entire lives. It's after they've gotten away from their parents, they've started thinking for themselves, they're away from being forced to go to church every day and it's before they've settled into a rut. This is why you see, statistically, most religious conversions happen on the college campus. Campus Crusade for Christ and groups like that trumpet that. They really focus on this: this is the time to strike, you get these campus kids.
I think it's important for us to get our ideas out there so college students hear about us, know we're out here. Even if we don't get everyone in the world to turn into an atheist--which I don't think is a reasonable hope although it's a nice one--the religious people we deal with who will never be atheist will be much more tolerant of our point of view and know where we're coming from, and will be less likely to equate atheism with amorality and things like that. These students we have on college campuses today are the future politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, voters, parents. It's important to focus on them.
As I mentioned, the Religious Right is very aware of that. In terms of contrast, the Campus Crusade for Christ, one of many national student organizations on the other side of the "culture war," has an annual budget that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It's over $200 million a year and they have literally thousands of full-time paid staff members. On our side of things, we currently have one or two staff members and I don't even want to estimate how much money we have; it's not much. We'll never have as many people as they do, I'm sure. We don't need to have that many because we've got the better arguments. I think if we get there on the campuses we'll really be able to have a major impact in the "culture war."
I think the Secular Student Alliance will be able to make a difference. We're working on building a strong network of durable, active and effective campus groups around the country and around the world. This means that in the years to come, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to have a harder and harder time choosing which activist to honor at conventions like this, because there's going to more and more of us, and the scope of our activities is going to get wider. But hopefully the extra difficulty will be dwarfed by the positive results of the heightened student activism.
In closing, I would like to thank Richard Mole for making the generous donation that made this award possible, and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation not only for the award itself, but also for getting me started down the road into student activism in the secular community in the first place.
Gabriel Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Rhetoric. A "student activist" awardee, he lives in Minneapolis, enjoys urban spelunking and punk rock shows.
Brian Bolton, a longtime Foundation member from Arkansas who recently became a Life Member, wrote this letter to the Northwest Arkansas Times, which published it on March 23, 2000.
The Times then published the breathtakingly bigoted response (see sidebar) from another reader, revealing what freethinkers are up against in the Arkansas Bible Belt.
In his Sunday column a few weeks ago Mike Masterson explained that to qualify for membership in the local Elks Club Lodge the applicant must profess a belief in God.
This constitutes discrimination against unbelievers and would seem to contradict the Elks Club's other membership requirement, which is support for basic American principles, one of which is surely respect for different philosophical viewpoints.
Because the Elks Club Lodge is a private organization, the Elks can establish any entrance standards that they prefer. Many private clubs have even more restrictive requirements, such as Christians only, whites only, and men only.
But other private organizations do not have any religious tests for membership. A good example is Toastmasters International, the world's largest organization devoted to the improvement of speech communication, with more than 8,400 clubs.
There is a long history of intolerance of unbelievers in Western society, beginning with prominent Greeks and extending to the present day. The term "unbeliever" subsumes skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and nontheists.
¥ Plato thought that unbelievers are a danger to society and should be put to death. He was referring to disbelievers in the pagan gods of Greek antiquity.
¥ Jesus (John 15:5-8) and Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9) taught that unbelievers would be burned, either in this life or an afterlife or both.
¥ St. Thomas Aquinas, the eminent Catholic theologian of the 13th century, advocated death for unbelievers, because they corrupt the faith.
¥ John Calvin, the Protestant theologian of the Reformation, actually did execute dozens of unbelievers.
¥ George Bush (the former president) asserted that unbelievers should not be considered either citizens or patriots.
¥ Jay Cole, Jr. announced that without God and his son Jesus, there is only tragedy, poverty and brutal criminal activity.
¥ Mike Masterson stated that he doesn't care to spend much time around anyone who does not believe in God.
By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 14 million unbelievers in the United States. This number includes some of the most productive Americans. For example, a recent survey of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that fewer than ten percent believe in a personal god.
Twelve well-known Americans who were unbelievers are: Isaac Asimov, Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sagan, Margaret Sanger, James Smithson, Gloria Steinem and Mark Twain.
Why would the Elks--a group of dedicated citizens widely recognized for their community service--want to exclude a segment of the American population on the basis of a religious test? The Elks should welcome all applicants who subscribe to their social and philanthropic mission.
"We Do Not Want People Such as You"
To Brian Bolton, whoever you are. From what seat of supremacy do you write? The simple fact is that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by men of principle, men who believed in God. If you do not, that's your problem; we do not need or want people such as you. Go your way, form your own assembly, associate with your peers.
Meanwhile, the Elks have important missions to fulfill, tasks that God approves of and which we are proud to undertake.
Poor fellow, you must be at wit's end to look at our new dollar coin and see the inscription "In God We Trust." the same words that appear on all our legal tender. Is this America's Waterloo or yours?