Human beings are not taught to be atheists; we are born that way. The concept of God is nebulous, irrational, and inconsistent; hardly something a child would imagine. Adherence to religion, therefore, is not innate. It is taught. Our culture is infected with theology because it has become an institution deeply ingrained in our society and our psyches. One of the most disturbing facets of this institution is the myth that morality and piety are inseparably intertwined. Atheism, then, is deemed utterly evil.
As a life-long atheist, I maintain that this assertion is both ridiculous and dangerous. I was fortunate enough to be born into an environment where no such myths were embraced. Staunch supporters of truth, my parents never attempted to impose religion on me. While they gave me the option to attend church if I desired, both my mother and father admitted that they had abandoned any such practices by the time they were adolescents. Although my sister and I took an interest in learning about the history and practices of various world religions, we never felt the slightest inclination to adopt any of them; indeed, even to the mind of a six-year-old, the teachings and trappings of religion seemed absurd.
Many people hear this and expect us to be immoral; this is far from the case. In fact, we are some of the few individuals I know who operate on internal codes of right and wrong, rather than externally imposed rules. Many believe that the Ten Commandments and other such divine decrees are the only thing preventing men from falling into a cesspool of their own base desires. This misassumption is indicative of the self-effacing philosophy that pervades religion. All religious doctrines are based on a low estimation of humankind's worth. Perhaps because of their own weaknesses, people who subscribe to the idea of God do so because they cannot bear the burden of their own existence. Fear, not only of God's wrath, but also of responsibility for their own actions, makes people cling to a figure which reason (fear's opposite) deems totally false.
By the time that I was seven years old, I realized the uniqueness of my position. It seemed absurd to me that my classmates and my teachers, well-respected adults, invested faith in some supposedly omnipotent figure of which they had no direct knowledge. Of course the more evangelistically inclined students in my class would strike out against my criticisms of Christianity, claiming that the bible was proof of God's existence. This argument never swayed me; if the bible affirms the existence of God, then why don't we still believe in Zeus? The Greek Myths stated that he was real, yet everyone now regards tales of Mount Olympus to be no more than stories, used both to entertain and to explain natural phenomena (such as lightning, stellar patterns, and planetary motions), which at the time seemed magical.
This argument represented the first in a series of schoolyard defenses of my atheism. Yet no matter how hard I tried to appeal to my peers' logic, they always turned the disagreement into an attack on my character. Because I didn't go to church, it followed that I was a "bad" person. Never mind that I was known around the elementary school for my consideration and kindness; as soon as my atheism came out, I became viewed as a little walking heathen. Kids would spit the word "pagan" at me, probably without even realizing what it meant.
Through high school, despite my straight As and drug-free lifestyle, many parents discouraged their kids from spending time with me; evidently I was a "bad influence." During my sophomore year, when I engaged in heated debates about the existence of God in philosophy class, I actually had a girl tell me that I was a "terrible human being." Incidents like this perplexed me more than hurt me; because I had always been encouraged to question and analyze my own beliefs and surroundings, I could not understand their inability to look objectively at the spiritual systems that seemed so vital to their lives.
Despite controversies in high school, I thrived socially within a small but tightknit group of other non-believers. Not only that, but my peers chose me as graduation speaker out of a class of two hundred. While their so-called "piety" rejected me as an immoral, unenlightened idiot, their reason couldn't ignore my 3.9 GPA and skills as a speaker. Perhaps for the first time in years, religion was never mentioned at the graduation ceremony.
This victory was short-lived. When I enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, I expected an environment that encouraged scientific skepticism and rationality. What I found, however, was a campus saturated with Christian a cappella groups and dogmatic frat boys who had no qualms about putting date-rape pills in girls' beers, yet called me "blasphemous" and "immoral" when I argued against prayer in school. During more than one evening study session, I was interrupted by the cries of "I love Jesus, yes I do! I love Jesus, how 'bout you!" coming from the common room in my dorm; evidently, no one else had a problem with religious meetings taking place in the dorm during study hours.
After a few weeks at school, I decided to fight back. I began writing opinion columns for our college newspaper, the Flat Hat. One article, which argued against an a cappella group's impromptu sermon in the middle of a secular event, elicited threatening e-mails and phone calls from over-zealous students. Once again, I had people telling me that I was "going to hell," and that I was a "selfish" and "shameful" human being.
Unfortunately, such reactions are almost universal. On the Citizens for Ten Commandments website, an anonymous author claims that "atheists think they live morally, since they don't end up in prisons, but this is simply because atheists have made laws which exclude most criminal acts of atheists from the penalty of incarceration." Religious followers also declare that atheists lack a set moral code; thus, their behavior vacillates according to social mores and self-indulgent whims. Such claims about the immorality of atheism make sense when you consider the religious mentality, which treats man as an eternal child. Because all religions paint people as incapable of self-governance, they assume that we need rules imposed by a parental god-figure. Anyone who rejects the god-figure must reject those rules, and is therefore evil.
What such claims fail to recognize is that morality is not the product of divine decree, but of logical reasoning. The ultimate goal is to live life to the fullest. Human cooperation and interaction are, of course, necessary for the realization of this goal. It follows naturally that we have developed a code of conduct that balances self-preservation with preservation of and respect for others. Because religious people adhere to the notion of their own intellectual infancy, they maintain that such basic ideas as "Thou shalt not kill" have to come from an exterior source. An atheist, however, understands that these morals are the natural products of the human mind. In fact, I make the claim that atheists are more moral than religious adherents because, for us, justice is its own end. Religious people, however, see justice as a means to a blessed and eternal end.
Preaching the immorality of atheists is destructive not only because it creates a misrepresentation of our views, but also because it prevents potential nonbelievers from straying away from their religion and investigating reality. Instead of exploring their world empirically, they write off reality as "unknowable" and attribute all its mechanisms to the "mysterious ways of God." Just as the Greeks tried to explain natural phenomenon with omnipotent deities, so present-day believers use the complexity and wonder of the physical world as proof of God's existence.
Human inability to understand everything about the way our world works does not mean that God exists; it simply means that we still have a lot to learn. Religion, in its purest and earliest forms, was one of humankind's attempts to understand the world. In this respect, it is born of the same vein that fathered science. The sad irony here is that religion, outdated and crude in its attempts to make sense of the universe, now handicaps scientific progress. Where reason and science try to advance, faith and religion try to stagnate.
This is frighteningly evident in school systems, even today. Half a century after the Scopes trial, some schools still forbid teaching evolution. Even at my high school, a relatively forward-thinking public institution, students were given the option of independent study during lectures pertaining to the history of our origins. It horrified me that someone would be allowed to graduate after blatantly evading such a vital part of modern science. Had I refused to participate in the "Bible as Literature" section of my ninth grade English class, I would have been laughed at, ostracized, and probably failed the course. How is teaching evolution any different?
As inappropriate as it is to bring religion into the classroom, I recognized that the bible plays an unfortunately important role in human history, therefore becoming acquainted with it in a secular sense is not out of the question. No one forces science students to accept evolution; they simply need to acknowledge it as an option. The church's insistence that evolution remain out of our textbooks is born of a fear that, once people begin employing their logic, the system will crumble.
Another one of the church's most effective vehicles for enforcing this stagnation is our own government. Enter yet another sad irony: our democracy, founded by men who were primarily rationalists, is very much influenced by religion. The Christian Coalition is one of the most potent forces in politics today. In our last presidential race, both candidates scrambled to appear as pious and brimstone-fearing as possible before the cameras, often conjuring up God in speeches.
Although organized spirituality is supposed to be restricted to the private sector in America, the destructive potency of religion in political, educational and social spheres is staggering. This power is reinforced by the delusion that religion is necessary for social order. As long as humans doubt their own reason and the capability of non-believers to be responsible, moral individuals, this system will not change. Religion will stay entrenched in all sectors of our society, and everyone who does not buy into the mythology will be discredited by claims against our characters. As a second-generation atheist, I am confident that humanity will not reach its full potential until we accept responsibility for our actions, recognize our ability to hold ideals based on reason not threats of damnation, and commit ourselves not to preparation for an invented afterlife, but to lives as human beings, here and now.

Published in Back Issues

My paternal grandmother is one of the most religious women I've ever known. She's practically run every parish church she's ever joined. An avid Seventh Day Adventist, she always tries to inveigle me into going to Church with her. As a child, I often gave in just to keep the peace. My refusals, as a headstrong, open-minded college student, have put a serious strain on our relationship.
The discrepancy between her beliefs and her actions sometimes confused me as a child. On the one hand, she claimed to have a direct line to God's ear through the church, yet she never hesitated when it came to spreading gossip about anyone she didn't like, including me when she supposed I was out of earshot. As an avowed Adventist, she insisted on the evils of eating meat. Yet she always found ways to filch pieces of chicken from my plate. I was often confused, but I soon learned that asking for clarification was not a good idea. Or a Godly one.
My grandmother came by her inconsistency honestly. She was born and raised in Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean archipelago. As a child, she herself was well indoctrinated into the double standards that pass for religiosity in that part of the world. Religion is probably the best-selling commodity in the Caribbean. It has Caribbean peoples in a head-grip so fierce that generations of the influence of education have not been able to loosen its hold. It is a powerful force of oppression.
Both men and women are affected, but women far more so. They are the progenitors of the faith, the keepers of the mustard seeds. And they hold such positions with resolved pride. Ask most Caribbean women if religion is an oppressive force to them or anyone else and they will laugh in your face and quote you a psalm. For them religion actually represents veritable freedom. It is this dialectic that I would like to explore.
As a child, I had many questions about my grandmother's faith. But because I was a child, my questions tended to be straightforward and egocentric. Why did the church make her deny her own desire to eat meat? Why couldn't she get her own chicken and stop yelling at me about the dangers on my plate--while waiting impatiently for me to stop eating so that she could polish off the rest? Why did she try to baptise me each and every year I visited her? Why, during a visit, couldn't I go outside and play with my friends on Saturday afternoons? And why was getting to heaven so stressful for her and for me?
My mother was herself the product of similar Caribbean parenting. But in her case, the influence of education took root and her mind discovered freedom. It wasn't an easy task. Her most vivid memory as a child is of her grandmother forcing her to go to Church the night before the 11-plus, a major exam that all 11-year-olds on the island had to take, and which literally determined one's fate and future. But my maternal great-grandmother did not care. She wanted to go to Church and my mother had no choice but to accompany her. Somewhere around 10 pm, it dawned on the Church leader that my mother, who by this point could barely keep her eyes open, was probably around 11 years old. And so he asked what she was doing there, didn't she have the big exam the next day? And that's how my mother got to run home and go to bed, and wake up next day refreshed enough to sit the exam and pass for the best school on the island. And seven years later, she was the first member of her family to leave the island to pursue tertiary education in North America, which is where I was born and which is why my mind is free.
But if you were to ask a Caribbean woman about her mind, she would say that it is free, thank you very much, and would you like to join her in reading Genesis chapters three to eleven? And if her husband were to beat her and she were to go to the priest or pastor for help, he would tell her that marriage is ordained in heaven and that what God hath put together, no man should put asunder. And so she would go back home and take the licks in the name of God.
There are many religions in the Caribbean. In fact, these islands are an interesting hodgepodge of religious choices. The Catholic Church, once a dominant force, is in decline. But it has been replaced by a growing Pentecostal movement that encourages its followers to sing and dance and clap hands and praise the Lord. And it is mostly the women who do the dancing and the singing and the clapping and the praising. In fact, they often spend all Sunday doing nothing but that. I do not exaggerate.
But the Catholics lashed back with the Charismatic Movement, which encourages its followers to receive gifts from the Holy Spirit. Except that the Spirit seems to commune largely with women. Or adolescent girls, like the ones who see the bleeding statues of Mary or get visited by her personally. Again, I do not exaggerate.
And then there is the influence of Islam, which has found fertile soil among the poor and disenfranchised, and which requires its women to remain covered from head to toe. And the women do, despite the hot Caribbean sun and the non-existence of Saharan sandstorms.
And did I mention Hinduism which is alive and well in islands such as Trinidad with its population of the descendants of indentured laborers? When clay statues of Lord Ganesh all over the country became thirsty three years or so ago, it was women who fed them milk and marveled at the miracle.
And then there are the Africa-influenced religions such as Shango and Orisha, with their Gods and Goddesses and evil and good spirits and the importance of pouring libation to the ancestors. And it is the women who keep these traditions alive.
Not that the women ever emerge to positions of leadership. They rarely do. They don't complain because most take the Bible's messages very literally.
"To the woman He said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth your children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.' (Genesis 4.16)"
If you ask a Caribbean woman about this, chances are she will say that the man is the head of the household and should rule over her. And she will quote Scripture to support it too. And she will say that she is free, and the truth is that Church or Temple or Mosque or Kingdom Hall is the one place that her husband will let her attend without complaint. Even when a woman does reach a level of prestige within a church, such as my grandmother's various important positions of Choir Leader and Vacation Bible School Co-Director, they aren't really valued partners.
My high school principal in Trinidad was recently awarded a special recognition-of-service plaque blessed by the Pope. In Trinidad this is what is known as "mamaguying"--which is basically allowing someone to believe what they want to so that they'll cause less of a commotion. So, for the benefit of the few Caribbean feminists like myself, trivial gendered positions such as Choir Directors and blessed plaques are highlighted to show that women are valued and aren't being oppressed by any religion in any way at all.
The social phenomenon of sexism is directly related to religion's perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and its interplay with emphasized femininity. There has been no historic process that birthed a religion that did not provoke gender divisions. The tenets of this process create essential sexism. Sexism is a part of the interlocking systems of oppression, a virtual matrix of domination, which religions have historically had no problems perpetuating in order to serve the interests of its higher ministers.
The Caribbean society, a society that seems to be a virtual laissez-faire paradise to others, is a perfect example of a culture that nurtures gender inequality, a gendered division of labor and emphasized femininity through its various religions. The fact that the Caribbean has been deemed the "true melting-pot" as a result of its various peoples finding it easier to interact freely without incredibly high levels of prejudice and racism, still has not afforded women an equal place in society. This is significantly true due to the concentration of oppressive religions in the West Indies.
Many religions have found ways to penetrate deeply into Caribbean society, especially through the schools. Schools are only prestigious in the Caribbean if they have a religious denomination--and these prestigious schools are incredibly sexist. Other than the conventional subjects, girls do sewing and cooking, whereas boys' schools encourage technical drawing and woodwork.
Although I was raised in the United States, my mother returned to her island for a few years and I attended high school there. It was an interesting experience. My school insisted on constant prayer--prayer before and after every class, and staying after school to pray for the Pope on the day of his monthly physical. The focus was never taken off of learning--don't get me wrong--but prayer was seen as an integral aspect of one's education. And of course our participation in Trinidad's annual Carnival festivities were strongly discouraged. Catholicism has attempted to eradicate the cultural festivities of the island, and the women tend to be the principal antagonists.
Have there been any changes? Certainly. The Anglican Church in Trinidad now boasts a woman Bishop. The Catholic Church seems to be softening its position on homosexuality. More non-denominational schools are being built.
But the modern 'political correctness' that has at least made less apparent the crudeness of sexism has slowly but surely made its way into the traditionalist force of Caribbean society. And so, implied sexism still exists, and many religions have subtly adopted this policy in an attempt to keep the sexist interests of their governing bodies alive.
It is no accident that God is mentioned in the opening sentence of every constitution in the Caribbean. Or that the representation of Caribbean women in the various parliaments remains ridiculously small. Laws and legal documents, backed by the Churches, still insist on the signature of the Male Head of Household, and while a handful of women complain and protest about this, the majority have no problem with their virtual disenfranchisement in this way.
Caribbean women can recognize the implications of having so few women in positions of power. They complain that domestic violence, incest, and rape continue to spoil the lives of many women and children. They know that they are paid less then men for doing the same jobs--even though more girls and women are graduating from high schools and local universities than boys and men. They say that these and other areas of unfairness must be remedied. What they are reluctant to concede is the significant role that religion plays in maintaining the status quo.

Published in Back Issues

My paternal grandmother is one of the most religious women I've ever known. She's practically run every parish church she's ever joined. An avid Seventh Day Adventist, she always tries to inveigle me into going to Church with her. As a child, I often gave in just to keep the peace. My refusals, as a headstrong, open-minded college student, have put a serious strain on our relationship.
The discrepancy between her beliefs and her actions sometimes confused me as a child. On the one hand, she claimed to have a direct line to God's ear through the church, yet she never hesitated when it came to spreading gossip about anyone she didn't like, including me when she supposed I was out of earshot. As an avowed Adventist, she insisted on the evils of eating meat. Yet she always found ways to filch pieces of chicken from my plate. I was often confused, but I soon learned that asking for clarification was not a good idea. Or a Godly one.
My grandmother came by her inconsistency honestly. She was born and raised in Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean archipelago. As a child, she herself was well indoctrinated into the double standards that pass for religiosity in that part of the world. Religion is probably the best-selling commodity in the Caribbean. It has Caribbean peoples in a head-grip so fierce that generations of the influence of education have not been able to loosen its hold. It is a powerful force of oppression.
Both men and women are affected, but women far more so. They are the progenitors of the faith, the keepers of the mustard seeds. And they hold such positions with resolved pride. Ask most Caribbean women if religion is an oppressive force to them or anyone else and they will laugh in your face and quote you a psalm. For them religion actually represents veritable freedom. It is this dialectic that I would like to explore.
As a child, I had many questions about my grandmother's faith. But because I was a child, my questions tended to be straightforward and egocentric. Why did the church make her deny her own desire to eat meat? Why couldn't she get her own chicken and stop yelling at me about the dangers on my plate--while waiting impatiently for me to stop eating so that she could polish off the rest? Why did she try to baptise me each and every year I visited her? Why, during a visit, couldn't I go outside and play with my friends on Saturday afternoons? And why was getting to heaven so stressful for her and for me?
My mother was herself the product of similar Caribbean parenting. But in her case, the influence of education took root and her mind discovered freedom. It wasn't an easy task. Her most vivid memory as a child is of her grandmother forcing her to go to Church the night before the 11-plus, a major exam that all 11-year-olds on the island had to take, and which literally determined one's fate and future. But my maternal great-grandmother did not care. She wanted to go to Church and my mother had no choice but to accompany her. Somewhere around 10 pm, it dawned on the Church leader that my mother, who by this point could barely keep her eyes open, was probably around 11 years old. And so he asked what she was doing there, didn't she have the big exam the next day? And that's how my mother got to run home and go to bed, and wake up next day refreshed enough to sit the exam and pass for the best school on the island. And seven years later, she was the first member of her family to leave the island to pursue tertiary education in North America, which is where I was born and which is why my mind is free.
But if you were to ask a Caribbean woman about her mind, she would say that it is free, thank you very much, and would you like to join her in reading Genesis chapters three to eleven? And if her husband were to beat her and she were to go to the priest or pastor for help, he would tell her that marriage is ordained in heaven and that what God hath put together, no man should put asunder. And so she would go back home and take the licks in the name of God.
There are many religions in the Caribbean. In fact, these islands are an interesting hodgepodge of religious choices. The Catholic Church, once a dominant force, is in decline. But it has been replaced by a growing Pentecostal movement that encourages its followers to sing and dance and clap hands and praise the Lord. And it is mostly the women who do the dancing and the singing and the clapping and the praising. In fact, they often spend all Sunday doing nothing but that. I do not exaggerate.
But the Catholics lashed back with the Charismatic Movement, which encourages its followers to receive gifts from the Holy Spirit. Except that the Spirit seems to commune largely with women. Or adolescent girls, like the ones who see the bleeding statues of Mary or get visited by her personally. Again, I do not exaggerate.
And then there is the influence of Islam, which has found fertile soil among the poor and disenfranchised, and which requires its women to remain covered from head to toe. And the women do, despite the hot Caribbean sun and the non-existence of Saharan sandstorms.
And did I mention Hinduism which is alive and well in islands such as Trinidad with its population of the descendants of indentured laborers? When clay statues of Lord Ganesh all over the country became thirsty three years or so ago, it was women who fed them milk and marveled at the miracle.
And then there are the Africa-influenced religions such as Shango and Orisha, with their Gods and Goddesses and evil and good spirits and the importance of pouring libation to the ancestors. And it is the women who keep these traditions alive.
Not that the women ever emerge to positions of leadership. They rarely do. They don't complain because most take the Bible's messages very literally.
"To the woman He said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth your children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.' (Genesis 4.16)"
If you ask a Caribbean woman about this, chances are she will say that the man is the head of the household and should rule over her. And she will quote Scripture to support it too. And she will say that she is free, and the truth is that Church or Temple or Mosque or Kingdom Hall is the one place that her husband will let her attend without complaint. Even when a woman does reach a level of prestige within a church, such as my grandmother's various important positions of Choir Leader and Vacation Bible School Co-Director, they aren't really valued partners.
My high school principal in Trinidad was recently awarded a special recognition-of-service plaque blessed by the Pope. In Trinidad this is what is known as "mamaguying"--which is basically allowing someone to believe what they want to so that they'll cause less of a commotion. So, for the benefit of the few Caribbean feminists like myself, trivial gendered positions such as Choir Directors and blessed plaques are highlighted to show that women are valued and aren't being oppressed by any religion in any way at all.
The social phenomenon of sexism is directly related to religion's perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and its interplay with emphasized femininity. There has been no historic process that birthed a religion that did not provoke gender divisions. The tenets of this process create essential sexism. Sexism is a part of the interlocking systems of oppression, a virtual matrix of domination, which religions have historically had no problems perpetuating in order to serve the interests of its higher ministers.
The Caribbean society, a society that seems to be a virtual laissez-faire paradise to others, is a perfect example of a culture that nurtures gender inequality, a gendered division of labor and emphasized femininity through its various religions. The fact that the Caribbean has been deemed the "true melting-pot" as a result of its various peoples finding it easier to interact freely without incredibly high levels of prejudice and racism, still has not afforded women an equal place in society. This is significantly true due to the concentration of oppressive religions in the West Indies.
Many religions have found ways to penetrate deeply into Caribbean society, especially through the schools. Schools are only prestigious in the Caribbean if they have a religious denomination--and these prestigious schools are incredibly sexist. Other than the conventional subjects, girls do sewing and cooking, whereas boys' schools encourage technical drawing and woodwork.
Although I was raised in the United States, my mother returned to her island for a few years and I attended high school there. It was an interesting experience. My school insisted on constant prayer--prayer before and after every class, and staying after school to pray for the Pope on the day of his monthly physical. The focus was never taken off of learning--don't get me wrong--but prayer was seen as an integral aspect of one's education. And of course our participation in Trinidad's annual Carnival festivities were strongly discouraged. Catholicism has attempted to eradicate the cultural festivities of the island, and the women tend to be the principal antagonists.
Have there been any changes? Certainly. The Anglican Church in Trinidad now boasts a woman Bishop. The Catholic Church seems to be softening its position on homosexuality. More non-denominational schools are being built.
But the modern 'political correctness' that has at least made less apparent the crudeness of sexism has slowly but surely made its way into the traditionalist force of Caribbean society. And so, implied sexism still exists, and many religions have subtly adopted this policy in an attempt to keep the sexist interests of their governing bodies alive.
It is no accident that God is mentioned in the opening sentence of every constitution in the Caribbean. Or that the representation of Caribbean women in the various parliaments remains ridiculously small. Laws and legal documents, backed by the Churches, still insist on the signature of the Male Head of Household, and while a handful of women complain and protest about this, the majority have no problem with their virtual disenfranchisement in this way.
Caribbean women can recognize the implications of having so few women in positions of power. They complain that domestic violence, incest, and rape continue to spoil the lives of many women and children. They know that they are paid less then men for doing the same jobs--even though more girls and women are graduating from high schools and local universities than boys and men. They say that these and other areas of unfairness must be remedied. What they are reluctant to concede is the significant role that religion plays in maintaining the status quo.

Published in Back Issues
%948 %America/Chicago, %2013

Getting Saved in the Soup Aisle

Shortly before Easter this year I was at the supermarket, in the soup aisle, when a strange, rather disheveled-looking man walked up to me and began talking. At first it was simple pleasantries in the "Hello, how are you doing?" vein, but before long came the inevitable invitation to join his church. I say "inevitable" because proselytizing seems to be the only thing these days that motivates anyone to strike up conversations with perfect strangers, particularly late at night in the soup aisle of the local supermarket.
I listened politely about his church and "God's will" for me to join it and so on, until he actually asked me if I think I would be interested. Now this was an unusually high-pressure tactic, it being more customary to simply give the invitation and perhaps a glossy pamphlet without courting outright rejection like my new friend here was doing. I really didn't want to hurt his feelings, but I definitely didn't want to keep talking with him. The perfect solution came to me.
"I'm Jewish," I lied. Looking a bit sheepish he said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and walked away, allowing me to buy my soup in peace. I can't help but wonder how many other shoppers he tried to evangelize that night.
Some might wonder why I didn't simply tell him the truth, which is that I'm the son of a Catholic and a Protestant, I've been an atheist since I was about eleven, and I'd never even met a Jew until I was a teenager. The answer is that I didn't want to get into an extended debate with the guy, I just wanted to be left alone. And living on a college campus as I do, I know from long experience with representatives of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade for Christ that the surest way to a long conversation is to tell one of them that you are an atheist ("Really? I've always wondered about that. Now why do you . . .").
I also know that you can get a pretty bad reaction from some people about it. Less than a year ago a seemingly very sweet girl whom I had just told I was an atheist remarked to a friend that she thought devil-worship was more comprehensible than atheism as soon as she thought that I was out of earshot.
After that incident and the one in the supermarket, I got to wondering why Christians seem to feel so differently about atheism than they do about Judaism, or Buddhism, or any other religion. It seemed odd because, theoretically, a Jew is no more or less hellbound than an atheist. Neither believes that Jesus was the Son of God, so if the Christians are right, Jews and atheists are both equally damned. And when it comes to proselytizing, one would think that Jews would be a much more likely target, as they are already "halfway there" in terms of the religious texts in which they believe. Jews and Christians do certainly part ways a lot further down the road than atheists and Christians. So why is it that evangelists go into a feeding frenzy over atheists, while all but the most overbearing fanatics will leave Jews in peace?
I believe the answer to that question lies in the fact that religionists view atheists as lacking something important, that we are empty vessels waiting to be filled with their particular religion. Conversely, while Christians certainly feel that other religions are incorrect, they don't perceive the gaping spiritual void that they do in the case of atheists. They can't seem to accept that a person can be whole and happy without religion, regardless of what the religion is. So is it really about salvation anymore? Or is it more about controlling people here on Earth? Or, in other words, do they really care what we're worshipping, as long as we're on our knees?
I became an atheist the way a lot of people do, I suppose. As a child I was told I was a Christian, and so I thought, "Fine, I'm a Christian." My siblings and I were taken to a Lutheran church (a compromise between my parents), and I loathed it as much as I would any lengthy, boring ritual that required me to dress up and sit still for any amount of time. It didn't help that the purpose behind it all was utterly beyond my immature mind's comprehension. I was vaguely aware that there was somebody named Jesus who was really good, and he was born on Christmas and did some amazing stuff, but the rest was just noise to me.
As my knowledge of Christianity grew, I realized that I was not a Christian and never was. Over the years I read the works of atheists like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell. I found much to like and much to dislike in each. It was in my choice to be influenced without becoming a disciple, and to assimilate rather than accommodate, that I understood for the first time the true essence of freethought. My consideration of their philosophies challenged me to explore and articulate my own beliefs. One of those beliefs is that not only is morality possible apart from religion, but in fact true morality only exists apart from religion.
Telling this to a devoutly religious person, you can actually feel a wave of hostility wash over you as they reject the notion out of hand. But think of the implications if it were not true. If right and wrong simply came down to God's say-so, is that really morality? Would murder be moral were there not a Commandment against it? Of course not. Decent people recognize the fact that if murder were considered an acceptable option by any large proportion of people, the resulting atmosphere of fear and danger would destroy the quality of life of our entire society. One need not look to God for reasons why killing is bad.
However, in other cases the situation is different. There are things prohibited in the Book of Leviticus that seem rather morally neutral. Take, for instance, the dietary restrictions. What bearing does a person's diet have on how good a person is? In those cases one sees the reason why the contents of the Book of Leviticus are known as Levitical Law rather than Levitical Morality. While law and morality may overlap, they are far from identical.
One way that law and morality have been linked in the past is the idea that the immorality of an unlawful act lies solely in the fact that it contradicts God's will. Any harm caused or not caused to others is considered incidental next to the fact that God was disobeyed. This is at the heart of the Christian concept that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, all worthy of damnation. But the idea that the most minor indiscretion is in any way equivalent to the most awful atrocity is the worst kind of nihilism. Anyone who compares murder to masturbation is not to be taken seriously. It is the sort of irrational, counterintuitive nonsense that one finds at the heart of any claim to mystic, esoteric wisdom.
Another problem with the "religion as morality" argument is the fact that there are numerous commandments and implicit concepts in world religions that would offend any decent person's sense of morality. For example, Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy tells what should happen to girls who have been raped. An unbetrothed girl's rapist must pay his victim's father fifty shekels and marry the girl, which wasn't really a hardship for him, since he was permitted as many wives as he pleased anyway. The girl, of course, had no say in whether or not she should marry her rapist. However, if a betrothed girl was raped, and nobody heard her cry out (regardless of whether she actually did or could cry out), then the rapist and the girl were to be stoned to death. A girl would also be stoned to death were she found not be a virgin on her wedding night. Who but a monster would call that morality? But it was done countless times throughout history, at the behest of the same God that millions today call the source of all goodness.
Clearly, Christians and Jews today do not execute rape victims or force them to marry the man who raped them. It's still there, though, in black and white, in "The Good Book" they say we should base our life on. So what happened? Morality happened. A brutal, primitive society advanced to the point that it recognized that the actions encouraged by the bible in some cases were clearly evil, and thus chose to tacitly ignore the existence of large sections of its holy texts.
I have long believed that people make religion better to a much greater degree than religion makes people better. As Christianity made the transition from small doomsday cult to world religion, some changes had to occur. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, in which he exhorts his followers to make no plans, carry no money, and sow no seeds, had to be largely forgotten if civilization were to continue to exist. Once it became clear that the Second Coming wasn't going to happen any time soon, Paul's constant demands of celibacy for all but the weak and ungodly had to fall by the wayside if Christians didn't want their religion to die out in a generation. And if you ask most modern Christians, they'll tell you they believe that good people of all faiths will go to Heaven, directly contradicting Jesus' own statement in Matthew 16:16 and corresponding verses in other gospels that those who do not believe and have not been baptized will suffer damnation. Jesus is quite clear on this, but Christians today hold entirely modern views about tolerance and fairness. They cannot imagine a God who would damn Mahatma Ghandi, every Jew who died in the Holocaust, and every unbaptized baby, while that is, in fact, exactly the God described in the bible. The values identified today as Judeo-Christian are more like those championed by the secular humanists of the last century than those demonstrated by the characters in the bible. The religious establishment was forced to co-opt these values and change radically with the times or lose all but its most fanatical followers.
A logical fallacy that many people fall into is that they say, "I am a Christian, therefore what I believe must be Christianity." However, what they should do is take a long hard look at exactly what the bible contains and say, "If I truly believe all of this, then and only then am I a Christian." If church leaders demanded that sort of intellectual honesty, or if people expected it of themselves, religion would be circling the drain, leaving those few who truly wanted to live by archaic, millennia-old "morals" to slip away into history unlamented. The rest of us would be left to acknowledge the fact that humanity has come a long way in the last several thousand years in terms of morality, and we have no one to thank but ourselves.

Published in Back Issues
%947 %America/Chicago, %2013

"One Person Can Do So Much"

The "Ruth (Dixie) Jokinen Memorial Student Activist Award," an annual award of $1,000 cash presented at the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, is generously endowed by Foundation Board Member Richard Mole, to encourage student activism for freethought and state/church separation. Schiller Hill was the year 2001 recipient.
Introduction by Catherine Fahringer:
Most of you know that I live in San Antonio, Texas. We have one newspaper. Our one newspaper loves to put the pope on the front page or the local archbishop, or people who have seen Jesus in a screen door, or the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree.
That's all front page news, but imagine my surprise one day when there was an article by John MacCormack, who was a speaker at our 1999 convention in San Antonio. He had written an article about a young man from Bracketteville, Texas, a brilliant young man who was top in his class--his grade point average was 4.392--and so naturally he was valedictorian.
However, a few days before his graduation, he said: "I cannot accept and I will not give a speech because I know there will be prayers entailed in this ceremony and I can't do that."
Well, my eyes just popped out of my head. Schiller Hill is the young person we are speaking of and Schiller is 18.
After he refused, of course, he got big press and made gutsy comments to the press on the importance of the separation of church and state, and on religion, such as saying, "I believe in a rational means to everything, not in some all-powerful being."
He's enrolled now at the University of Texas-Austin, majoring in electrical engineering, and it seems fitting to us that this valedictorian who was essentially muzzled by his school's disregard for the First Amendment is joining us to tell his story.
Thank you. Thank you, this whole Foundation, for the money. That helps a lot. It's just great that I found people like y'all. I speak kind of strange, like George Dubyah, but don't hold that against me. I may make up some words here and there, but it's all good.
I've always had trouble speaking my mind at our school. I speak and people always bash what I have to say. I'm never afraid to say what I believe. I always put what I think out there for other people, who maybe believe what I believe, but are afraid to speak out.
We have, I think, about six or seven atheists in Bracketteville, a city of about 3000. When I got there, there was one. That was me. And people always try to convert me. My friends, girlfriends, they always try to convert me and when they started actually thinking about what they were trying to convert me to, they actually converted over to atheism. I guess it didn't make any sense to them. Christians don't like to think; that's the problem with them.
All throughout high school I've had trouble with prayer in schools. I don't think it should be there because of the separation of church and state. And freshman year in high school, when I played basketball, before every basketball game we had prayers before, prayers after. They always tried to pray four or five times during a basketball tournament, and I don't understand it. I kept on asking, is our God more powerful than theirs because, you know, we beat them? What happened to their God? I don't understand both teams praying to the same God. Who's going to win?
We always had prayers before football games, even after the ruling was passed in Doe vs. Sante Fe. They were still doing it after that, and it was brought to their attention that it was illegal and they said they were going to keep on doing it because they thought it was their right. And they're wrong.
But yeah, I've been fighting that in that school for a long time. I tried to start a local chapter of the ACLU, as a school chapter. They would not let me do that. I know the reason but they wouldn't say the reason.
They said that they didn't think it was necessary because they didn't think there was any discrimination going on at our campus at all. The majority of the student body in our class was Hispanic and we only had one Hispanic teacher. And the Hispanics got it really really bad, like the teachers would make comments about them and things like that, and when they complained to the school board, when they complained to the school officials, nothing would happen.
So we always had trouble and they don't like me because I always bring it to their attention that they're wrong on most of the things they do.
I got kind of fed up with all this stuff going into my senior year. We had a National Honor Society meeting and the sponsor of our National Honor Society set aside two different people to say prayers, gave them the prayers to say, and said you're going to give these. I told them I wasn't going to show up. They wanted me to read something, so I just wasn't going to go because of all the prayers. I got a bunch of flak for that from all the people in the National Honor Society. They thought I was ruining their senior year, or something. I don't understand that one.
So when graduation came along, I didn't want to go across stage at all. I told all my friends at school I didn't want to go across because of the prayers. I didn't want to even be anywhere near that.
But I have an older brother who didn't walk across the stage, he just went and picked up his diploma at the office and took off. I wanted to do the same thing but my mom made me go through with it.
So I went and told the superintendent that I wasn't going to give a valedictorian speech. I went over to his house and told him I wasn't going to give the speech because I didn't believe that the prayer should be there and I didn't feel comfortable being in the place with the prayer and I didn't think it was constitutional. He said we're going to do it anyway no matter what.
So then I wrote an email to the editor at the San Antonio Express-News and then I got a call from John MacCormack. I had expected it to be swept under the carpet and to never hear about it again. But he started calling me up, interviewing me over the phone, decided to come down one day, took some pictures, interviewed my class and school officials.
When it came out on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, the day of graduation, all the teachers were looking at it like, "What the hell is that!" It was pretty funny because I got so many dirty looks from the teachers.
The worst part about that was that during the graduation ceremony, everything, even the stuff that people usually wouldn't, like, associate with God, they'd throw in "God bless you" here and "God bless you" there. Why? It doesn't do anything to me.
After graduation was over and I was standing in the little line to shake everybody's hand, everybody came up and shook my hand, saying, "God bless you, God bless you." It took a lot to stand there and just say, OK, yup, whatever, thank you, thank you. It was bad. I never knew there were that many Christians in that little town, but there are 13 churches.
After that article came out, I thought I was going to get some emails and some mail from psychos or something saying I was going to go to hell and stuff. I got one of those. I only got one. The rest of them were from educated people supporting what I was doing like the email from Catherine Fahringer.
Some really educated people--several lawyers, professors, people from educated families--all contacted me and told me to keep up the work. Just keep on fighting for the separation of church and state and get the word out there and just tell people that every little bit helps. Because if people just sat back and did nothing, that would be worse than anything. One person can do so much.
Thank you all. Does anybody have any questions?
"Would you have made more impact if you had accepted the invitation to give a speech, and told them what you told us?"
The problem was they wanted me to have a long speech written out in the first place, so they can approve it. With me up there I'm pretty sure somebody would have been on a little switch making sure I didn't say anything wrong. I'm very outspoken about this stuff and they were afraid in the first place.
But actually I'm glad I didn't, because me not speaking got to more people than me actually speaking there. If I would have spoken there the audience would have been like, 1000 maybe, max, and since I didn't speak and got on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, that got to a lot of people.
It got to people who usually don't even think about stuff like that. And if it makes one extra person think about how wrong that is, that's worth it. And it will give them hope. It will also piss off some people.
The bad letter that was sent to me? That person could not spell. Everything after "God" was spelled wrong. You know that's all that person knew.
"What kind of support do you get from your family?"
I get a whole lot of support from my family. My family is very strange. My mom is a Baptist, my dad is a Methodist, but they don't go to church. They think religion should be between you and your God. They didn't want to push religion upon me except for the fact that they sent me to Catholic school for a while. And that was bad.
But they wanted me to make my own mind up. They wanted me to make my own decisions, to learn about whatever I wanted to learn about and they support me on everything that I do. They did a good job raising atheists. My brother's an atheist and you know it's just pretty cool.
"Are you having any problems in college like you did in high school?"
Not really, because in college, people just don't care. Most of the people who I hang around with, they don't talk about religion. It's like, "What do you want to do tonight?" That's about it. So we don't really talk about that kind of stuff.
On the UT-Austin campus we have a lot of Christian groups that are always handing out flyers. You walk down the street and get about five, six flyers from the Southern Pacific Islander Bible study group and one from like, the Italian Bible study group and the Chinese Bible study group, the Muslim/Christian bible study group. . . . It's just unbelievable all the things to do with religion there, but people hassle them all the time. Even the Christians hate them. Christians hating Christians, that's a wonderful sight. It's just hilarious.
"What would you do when the basketball coach led you in prayer?"
What I would do was, either I would stand outside the little huddle they got into, which was what I usually did, or I would leave the actual lockerroom if I had a chance, and the basketball players didn't mind. The coach kind of got a little pissed, but you know, I didn't like that guy, either.
He was a good Christian because he'd go to church every Sunday. But he told me every time he went to church, "I've come up with this new football play." That's what they'd do. The coaches would go and draw football plays in church.
Audience member: "It inspired them."
Yeah, it inspired them. That's why our football team, was like, 0 and 10. God really helped them there.
"Did the prayers deter you from playing a sport?"
It really wouldn't deter me from playing basketball. It was something I loved to do and I would do it no matter what, but it really bothered me that there were actually prayers. I'd let them know that it bothered me, but I'd still go out and play. Because if the prayer actually deterred me from going out and doing something I love to do, they'd win on that one and I wouldn't want that.
"Did you pray harder after you lost?"
I guess the coach would pray harder, but all the players would blame the coach. The coach wasn't that good. But the kids wouldn't pray harder. The coach told us we drove him to drinking one night. That's because we got beat by like, 50. That's not a pretty game.
"Did they have the salutatorian give the speech?"
Well, what happened was the salutatorian was supposed to give a little two minute speech or something. They kind of extended that to 10 minutes.
There was a lot of laughing going on. That can't be good for the speaker, unless they're trying to be funny, and that's different.
"At what age did you find out you were an atheist or how did you come to that conclusion?"
Well, when I was going to Catholic school, I think it was in fifth grade that I got in trouble a lot because I couldn't memorize the Apostle's Creed or something like that. So as punishment, they would make me write books out of the bible, copied handwritten, you know, word for word. I copied the book of Proverbs three times that year. That was punishment! "I hate this--come on, stop doing that!" I was ready to get hit. I was like, "Hit me instead." I just couldn't handle it.
In first grade they always had us draw things, you know, "Draw a picture of Jesus how you see him." Once they told me to draw a picture of when I was baptized. I was like, "I wasn't baptized." They were like, "Draw a picture of when you'll be baptized." I got an F in that class because what I drew was a skeleton and they really didn't like that.
I didn't consider myself an atheist back then, but I was on my way back in first grade. I was well on my way.
"Do you have any advice for atheist students who are having problems like you had?"
Yeah, try to be popular first. When you're popular and you have people trying to imitate you already and then you come out and say, "Hey, I'm an atheist," they're not as hard on you.
Everybody at my school has known I was an atheist since freshman year when everybody goes, "What are you?" I said, "I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist." I still was popular after that but they wouldn't want to talk religion with me because I'd kind of change them over by telling them they're full of crap and pointing out contradictions in the bible. I hate that book. I had to read that thing like three times front to back and that is way too much.
"Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?"
Hmm, OK, that sounds like a good idea. But I don't think the Christians would get these jokes. And me living down in Texas, it's not really a good place to do Christian jokes.
"Did you ever fear for your physical safety?"
Not really, because I'd already beat up most of the guys at school. They didn't mess with me very much.

Published in Back Issues

Since I don't believe in gods, I was under no illusions about whether a god was responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., that have galvanized our nation's attention. Whether or not religion shares some of the responsibility is a different matter.
I'm not referring to any particular religion but to religion in general and the mindset that all too often is created by it. It's the mindset that led a Jewish extremist to gun down Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 because he believed Rabin, who was then Israel's prime minister, had violated the "Word of God" in his effort to bring about peace with the Palestinians. It's the mindset that led adult Protestants in Northern Ireland to terrorize a group of Catholic schoolgirls trying to attend classes at their primary school during the week before the attacks here in the United States. Apparently it's also the mindset that led suicide bombers to fly planes loaded with people into buildings filled with more people because they believed they were doing the will of the god they worshipped and defending the faith they followed.
Regardless of their denominations, most religious people shrink with horror from such events and insist that neither the religions they follow nor the gods they worship condone such things. What is obscured by that apologia is the reality that the deities worshipped by terrorists are no less real to them than those worshipped in more conventional settings by more conventional people.
Human beings who sacrifice their intellectual integrity on the altar of any religious dogma can work terrible mischief in this world. Those who really believe they are doing "God's Will" can literally be "murder" for the rest of us.
All fanatics are dangerous. Religious fanatics are especially so because they believe the 'Truth" they claim has the sanction of a deity and thus cannot be challenged by mere mortals. In the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, we now mourn the latest in a long line of victims who have been sacrificed to such "Truth" by those who will permit no deviation from it.
When he received the "Emperor Has No Clothes" award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in November 1999, Professor Steven Weinberg, 1979 Nobel Laureate in physics, said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."
People who live under the influence of religion may not want to admit it, but it seems to me the conclusion is inescapable. There is no good thing that cannot be accomplished without religion, but there are evils that absolutely depend on it for their survival.

Published in Back Issues
%944 %America/Chicago, %2013

Divided, We Stand

Would you buy a used car from a guy wearing a button that says, "I'm an Honest Salesman"?
That's how I feel about those T-shirts that say, "Proud to be an American." If you are truly honest, or truly American, you don't need such fanfare--displays that actually raise the possibility of the opposite--because, well, of course you're honest, and of course you're proud to be an American. Why bring it up?
They must be bringing it up because they are insecure. Our country has been attacked, many feel afraid and vulnerable, so they wave flags, recite the Pledge, and pray "God Bless America." This feels like brave action; but it is only an illusion that masks feelings of helplessness.
Many of us love this country without the fanfare. My family, like millions of good Americans, does not believe in God, so we could never honestly say "In God We Trust," or recite the religious Pledge of Allegiance in good conscience, even if we did want to jump on the jingoistic bandwagon. But a Wisconsin State Journal editorial (10/19) admonishes us to put aside our differences and recite the Pledge anyway, because "The Pledge of Allegiance is a unifying pledge for all Americans."
A "unifying pledge"? How does coercing my sixth-grader to endorse concepts that run counter to our family's values promote unity? Whether my child remains seated for the Pledge or feels compelled to stand with the believers (the real Americans), a precious integrity has been sacrificed. It is a sham unity that glosses over our rich differences.
Where did this doctrine of "unification" come from? What do we think will happen if Americans are not united? If 20% of schoolchildren stay seated for the Pledge, will terrorists mail 20% more anthrax? Will Bush drop 20% fewer bombs?
America never will be unified, and that's what we should be proud of. In a brutally disunited election, George Bush became president with fewer votes than Al Gore, and we accept him as the leader of our Armed Forces. But we are far from united in our allegiance to his views.
The original motto of the United States, chosen by the nation's founders, is E Pluribus Unum ("from many, one"), not the 1956 "In God We Trust" nervously adopted during the Cold War against "godless communism."
E Pluribus Unum does not mean "United, we stand." It means "Divided, we stand."
We are divided into 50 different state governments. We are divided into multiple religious, philosophical, cultural and political factions--yet we stand as a nation. We don't have to agree. We should wear our disagreements as a badge of honor.
Our founders were fiercely divided on most issues--slavery, for example, was so divisive that they agreed not to talk about it for 20 years. James Madison vehemently argued against congressional chaplains. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, also wrote that the words of Jesus were a "dunghill." Benjamin Franklin called for prayers at the Constitutional Convention, but only mustered interest from 3 or 4 delegates--so they said no prayers. Nor did they pledge allegiance to a flag or hold hands singing "God Bless America."
Yet they manufactured a country that stands as a single nation, in spite of their differences. They never wanted to force unity of thought.
Now along comes a recall effort, led by former congressman and "Honest Salesman" Scott Klug, to oust the one member of the Madison School Board who courageously voted for the freedom of conscience of children who dissent from the majority on the Pledge of Allegiance. Bill Keys dared to vote his conscience, choosing the truly American E Pluribus Unum over the phony "United, we stand." Shame on you, Scott, for failing to learn what our great country is all about. Don't try to one-up the founding fathers: accept the fact that not everybody thinks like you do.
If Madison school principals are going to continue with the Pledge of Allegiance, disdaining diversity and pretending to a nonexistent "unity," they should at least remind teachers and students that those children who do not stand for the pledge are just as patriotic, just as American, and probably much braver than those who do.

Published in Back Issues

The House of Representatives, in thoughtlessly passing a trouble-making resolution promoting the use of the slogan "God Bless America," has contributed to an atmosphere of coercion and religious correctness. Bin Laden has declared an international war of "believers against the infidels." We wonder if religionists in the United States are declaring their own form of war against "infidels" at home; they are certainly capitalizing on a national tragedy to trample on the Establishment Clause.
The phrase "God Bless America" is a prayer, which should not be displayed or posted in public schools. It is distressing to see the overwhelming vote of the U.S. House of Representatives (404 to zero, with 10 voting "present") to pass a nonbinding resolution on October 16, expressing the "sense of Congress that public schools may display 'God Bless America.' "
The Freedom From Religion Foundation expresses its disappointment with the House's facile retreat to religious jingoism and patriotic piety. Can there be anything more incendiary than mixing patriotism with a religious litmus test?
The phrase "God Bless America," which has been placed on several public school marquees in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, is not generic or subscribed to by all Americans. How would many citizens feel if their school marquee read: "Allah Bless America" or "Buddha Bless America"?
Schools which choose to advertise religious slogans are disregarding more than 50 years of court precedent against religious endorsement, school prayer and coercion in public schools.
"No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein," the Supreme Court eloquently held in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943).
Public schools which post "God Bless America" are prescribing what should be orthodox in nationalism and religion. Many inoffensive secular phrases, such as "United We Stand," could appropriately express support for the victims of Sept. 11.
In our diverse culture, millions of families are not religious. Students and their families who are atheists, agnostics, unbelievers and those from minority religious viewpoints should not be preached at by their public schools.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has written to several school districts in which public schools have posted the words "God Bless America" on school marquees.
A parent in Rocklin, California, contacted the Foundation asking it to join her complaint over a "God Bless America" sign at Breen Elementary School. Her complaint made national news, and apparently provoked the pro-"God Bless America" resolution passed by the U.S. House (see FFRF statement above).
The Rocklin Unified School District is obdurate, insisting in a response to the Foundation that "God Bless America" "conveys no significant religious meaning."
The Foundation has also complained about a "God Bless America" marquee at Prairie View Elementary School in East Troy, Wisconsin. Anne Gaylor's letter of Sept. 28 brought the sign down, prompting the president of the school board to resign. The school board then voted to put the sign back up. The Foundation is awaiting word from a second letter written for the Foundation by attorney James Friedman. Friedman noted the Establishment Clause prohibits "government actions that favor one religion over another or that favor religion in general over nonreligious activities."
On behalf of a member in Gladstone, Michigan, the Foundation protested a "God Bless America" sign at the area high school. Principal Jay Kulbertis apologized for any offense taken, adding "the message on the sign was changed prior to my receiving your correspondence, (but) your point is well taken.
"We will make every attempt to be more careful in the future regarding this issue."
The Foundation also wrote Supt. Steven Bring of the Unionville School District in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about a "God Bless America" sign posted after the Sept. 11 terrorism.
The Foundation pointed out, "More than 50 years of school precedent prevent religious worship from being sponsored by public school officials."
The Stone v. Graham decision, the Foundation noted, is particularly applicable. The court ruled making a child walk past or read a religious posting in a public school was unconstitutionally coercive.

Published in Back Issues
%939 %America/Chicago, %2013

Pledge Furor Provokes Pious Patriotism

A furor over the Pledge of Allegiance in normally laid-back, progressive Madison, Wisconsin, illustrates the frightening level religious hysteria has reached since the Sept. 11 terrorist acts.
While pious patriots are fearful of the "enemy without," I'm fearful of many of the 1,000 people who attended a raucous local school board meeting on Oct. 15.
It all started when the school board voted very sensibly on Oct. 8 to direct principals to play the national anthem to comply with a new state law mandating that Wisconsin schools offer the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem daily. Teachers and parents had urged the board to avoid recitation of the religious Pledge of Allegiance containing the words "under God."
After daily editorializing by the morning newspaper, which called the vote a "ban" on the Pledge, Rush Limbaugh and Rush "wannabes," as well Christian radio stations around the nation, urged followers to inundate the Madison school board with hate emails and phone calls. More than 20,000 emails were received over a few days' time.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum released a statement denouncing the school board and those citizens uncomfortable with the Pledge as "oddballs":
". . . some people are looking for ways to diminish our belief in God and country. It is disheartening, but in a free country you have patriots and you have the freedom for a few oddballs who place politics above patriotism." (When the school board scheduled an "emergency" hearing to reconsider the vote, I fleetingly considered carrying a placard saying "Proud to be an oddball.")
The die was cast when the meeting was called to order: the room erupted as hundreds in attendance stood and violently screamed out the Pledge of Allegiance. It was deafening and, to me, frightening. Many remained standing for some time, chanting "USA, USA." A chorus of "amens" ended the pledge, and would later resound in praise of speakers condemning the school board.
Students spoke first. I marveled at the poise of those who stood up in that hostile crowd, one only in 6th grade, to sincerely explain why the Pledge of Allegiance makes them uncomfortable. I marveled further when a fragile nonagenarian, a retired school board member, gently but tartly pointed out there are far better ways to educate about patriotism.
The school board listened patiently to about 166 people in more than nine and a half hours of testimony. Much of it was abusive, from out-of-towners, home-schoolers or others not directly concerned, and was rife with religious references.
A low, roomwide growl greeted the announcement of my name as a speaker. When I thanked the board for its vote, several yelled at me to "shut up." I read the cartoon reprinted below (receiving some applause), displayed a replica of the original secular Pledge of Allegiance, and condemned a shocking email sent to the Board that had been copied to me, in which the man mourned the fact that the terrorists had not turned their planes into the Madison School Board instead of the Twin Towers.
Although the "antis" were a "not-so-silent majority," as one young university student quipped, many thoughtful citizens, parents, teachers, and professionals urged the Board not to hedge on their no-pledge vote.
But at 2 a.m. the beleaguered board voted to pass the buck, to let principals decide whether to use the Pledge or the anthem. Only one school board member stood stalwart, the unflappable Bill Keys, who said he would not want any child to be the target of the kind of abuse the school board had taken over this issue. One silver lining: schools were instructed to preface every Pledge or anthem offering with a disclaimer that students are free not to stand or participate.
For many of us in this state that produced Joe McCarthy, the experience was an unwelcome taste of McCarthyism 2001-style.

Published in Back Issues

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