“Library Display Criticized” was the heading of a recent letter to the editor published by The Columbian, a newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. The letter read in part:
“Upon entering the Cascade Park Community Library ... I was disturbed by the blatant promotion of atheist/secular humanist authors and books displayed prominently in the front window. Included were atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Christopher Hitchens, with books titled Living Without God, The Portable Atheist and Women Without Superstition.”
The letter continued: “I was thinking to myself, is this even constitutional from an American First Amendment perspective? Also, even if it is legal, is this something the taxpayers of Vancouver would approve of, considering it is their millions in tax revenue that keep the library up and running?”
Well, this “unconstitutional” display was put up by the Humanists of Greater Portland, which has been placing displays in public libraries and colleges for more than 10 years. This was only the second time that patrons have voiced a concern about our displays. (The other time was when some church members questioned the display, but then they put up their own bible-based display a month or two later.)
We set up our book display at the Cascade Park Library in early January. The very next day the librarian called asking us if we had a list of the books in the case. She said that a number of people had already expressed interest in the display.
One of our members quickly made copies of the list and dropped them off at the library. One library patron commented on our HGP Facebook page that she “almost cried with joy” when she saw the titles of the books in the display case.
The letter critical of our display was published in the paper late in January, and the online comments immediately poured in, coming from as far away as New Jersey and New York. The online response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive:
• “Fantastic! I know the library has featured differing philosophies and religions in the past, so in fairness this is a good thing.”
• “Libraries are among the last bastions of free speech and the open exchange of ideas in our culture. We cannot grow as human beings unless we challenge and question, and allow others to challenge and question our received beliefs and opinions. I applaud the staff at Cascade Park . . . for their willingness to initiate a conversation about true freedom of (and from) religion. (I am not an atheist, by the way.)”
The icing on the cake was a follow-up letter to the editor from the executive director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. She wrote in part:
“I was heartened to read the many online comments about the letter that articulated the important mission FVRL has as a public library in supporting diverse points of view and interest through our collections, services and programs.”
The director continued: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas and information from a variety of perspectives. A democracy can only be healthy and vigorous if we both learn and explore our differences as well as our common ground. If we are fulfilling our responsibility, FVRL libraries will promote understanding, prompt a conversation, encourage a healthy debate, and — yes — sometimes strike a nerve. It’s what good public libraries do.”
Our humanist group has been overwhelmed by the response of the citizens of Vancouver, the staff at FVRL and the online comments in support of our display at their library. We hope the person who wrote the initial letter to the editor criticizing our display will apply through the library to set up a display of books that support his position.
The library director said it best: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas from a variety of perspectives.”
Deanna Sewell is a longtime member of FFRF and the Humanists of Greater Portland. For the past eight years, she’s been putting up six or seven humanist book displays at area public libraries each year. Deanna is also the proud owner of godless “clean” money she won at the 2001 FFRF national conference in Madison, Wis.
This is Maine FFRF member Meredith “Dick” Springer’s letter in September to the Boy Scouts of America:
In 1943 I proudly received my Eagle Scout badge from the Boy Scouts of America. At that time I was a sincere religious believer.
As I later critically examined my beliefs I realized that I no longer could honestly believe in God. I fail to understand how reaching this conclusion made me unfit to belong to your organization. Now my self-respect as a nonbeliever as well as my conscience compel me to join hundreds of others in reluctantly returning my badge to the BSA to express my disgust with your discriminatory policies.
The Boy Scouts of America accepts for membership all boys except those in two groups that are unpopular in much of America, gays and nonbelievers in God. Stigmatizing these groups clearly sends a message to your members that only reinforces prejudices many already have. The BSA also denies a religion badge to boys who are Unitarians because their church passed a resolution in 1992 opposing your discriminatory practices.
Many scouting associations around the world do not require their members to have specific religious beliefs. In the United States, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted overwhelmingly in 1993 to allow its members to substitute another word or phrase for God in its oath, saying that the change was “a very strong statement that Girl Scouts . . . have strength in diversity and that we are an inclusive organization.” The Girl Scouts also permits lesbian girls to participate.
The BSA has never established a relationship with the Girl Scouts, but it has partnered with American Heritage Girls, a new organization formed by intolerant opponents of the nondiscriminatory policies of the Girl Scouts, with a “memorandum of mutual support [that] recognizes the common values and goals of both organizations.”
As a private organization the BSA can do anything it wants, but as an American icon comparable to apple pie, it has a special moral obligation to teach the best American values. These values include religious tolerance and recognizing the worth of all of us.
Meredith N. Springer
The Feb. 10 Maine Sunday Telegram also published Springer’s thoughts on the issue (which he’d sent as a letter to the editor) as an op-ed. As of Feb. 9, 222 Eagle Scouts had shared their photos and letters renouncing their Eagle awards on the website Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s op-ed opposing school vouchers ran in Wisconsin’s two largest newspapers — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal — in late January. It was also picked up by numerous other publications and websites.
With voucher advocates trumpeting “National School Choice Week,” it is a fitting time to examine the proposed expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. Some politicians are intent on slowly doing away with our public education system in favor of privatized education paid for with taxpayer money.
Voucher money largely flows to religious schools. In the newly expanded “choice” of schools in Racine, 10 out of the 11 schools are parochial schools. Based on a review of Department of Public Instruction data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more than 21,000 of nearly 25,000 enrolled students at the beginning of this school year attended readily identifiable religious schools.
This amounts to more than $133 million in taxpayer money going to religious institutions in Milwaukee this school year alone.
Funding private and religious schools through vouchers is an end run around our constitutionally created public education system. The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Legislature to “provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge . . . and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.”
Proposals to continue to chip away at public education and expand vouchers by increasing the geographic area, income limits and funding are contrary to our long-valued public education system.
Schools do not exist just to benefit parents. They serve to educate the next generation to create an educated citizenry and to ensure the vitality of the state. This is a public good supported by all, including those who do not have school-aged children. This social value is recognized by our constitutionally created public schools and our compulsory education laws.
While parents pick the school of their choice in using vouchers, taxpayers pay the bills. And taxpayers have no means of holding voucher schools accountable. Low performing voucher schools, which have little state oversight, can do as they please. Voucher schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents.
Some of the Milwaukee choice schools are not holding up their duty to provide a comprehensive education. Take, for instance, the Clara Mohammed School. According to its IRS filings, the school’s purpose is to engage in “a Qur’an-guided journey toward active global citizenship.” It is funded almost exclusively through vouchers. In 2011, only 0.8 percent of its students (1 out of 123) tested proficient in math and 5.7 percent tested proficient in reading on state exams.
Other Milwaukee choice schools are using unscientific and outdated curriculum from fundamentalist Christian textbook publishers such as A Beka Books. Carter’s Christian Academy in Milwaukee describes the A Beka materials, covering normal school subjects, as being “presented from God’s point of view.” Of the 69 Carter’s Christian students tested in 2011, none tested proficient in reading by state standards and only three tested proficient in math. IRS records show the principal got $109,000 in 2011 compensation.
Both the Clara Mohammed School and Carter’s Christian Academy have increased enrollment this year. While they enroll a small number of students, they are a symptom of a larger problem. The schools can take public money and teach what they want. The schools do not have to have licensed teachers or even safe outdoor space for students to play. Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education.
The voucher school program needs elimination rather than expansion.
By Keith Taylor
To start with, I am neither evil nor unpatriotic. I served my county, in uniform, for 22 years, 9 months and 11 days.
As a Navy cryptologist, both enlisted and as an officer, I held the nation’s highest security clearance. I have voted in almost every election since Truman and Eisenhower.
As a civilian, I do the requisite community work to be considered a good citizen. The local Optimist group once dubbed me Optimist of the Year. I participate in elections, often walking the precinct for candidates of my choice. I make phone calls, at my own expense, to people in the battleground states.
I believe in the First Amendment so much that I have used it to defend my opinion on a myriad of things. For many years, hundreds of my opinions appeared in Navy Times, a Gannett weekly. Not all pleased everybody, but all were based on verified facts. Other pieces appeared in papers and magazines across the country. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
I insist I’m a good citizen, even a thinking one. Still, I carry the onus of not being worthy of respect, and it is for a very strange reason: I just cannot swallow stories such as the Earth being created in seven days, a woman talking to a snake or that whopper about a man living in the belly of a big fish for three days.
I am an atheist.
Nor am I mollified by the 21st century claims such as, “Oh, they’re just apocryphal. You don’t need to take them literally.” Oh no? Ask any kid about the stories they teach him in Sunday school.
Defense of weird ideas comes with attacks on science and scientists. By the fourth century, Alexandria, Egypt, was home to the most impressive library ever seen. It held scientific and historical documents, many of which contradicted bible stories.
The custodian of the library was Hypatia, a mathematician and scientist. Carl Sagan, the magnificent chronicler of science, told us Hypatia was beset by a mob, followers of Cyril, the archbishop of Alexandria. The mob raked her flesh from her body with abalone shells. This magnificent woman was mostly forgotten.
Cyril was made a saint.
To this day, publicly denying a belief in the “accepted” religion of any area will ensure one’s never being able to hold office. This is as true of Christianity as it is of Islam, Buddhism or any other religion.
Say you’re an atheist just once and your world changes. The Boy Scouts won’t have you. According to polls, more than half our population would not vote for you, not even if you were as smart as Einstein, as wise as Bertrand Russell or as uniquely American as Mark Twain.
It matters not that atheists in general are in league with the members of what is arguably our country’s most prestigious group, the National Academy of Sciences. According to a recent poll, 93% of its members do not believe in a personal god. Such observations are blithely dismissed with the old bromide, “Oh, scientists don’t know everything.”
Of course they don’t, and every scientist has to realize that, but they do not have to believe in myths.
About half the country seems to agree with former president Richard Nixon. Some years ago he replied to a question that he did not think a person could be president without a belief in God.
His vice president and successor as president emphasized it further. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was asked by a Chicago atheist journalist about his views on atheism. Bush replied that in his opinion atheists couldn’t be patriotic.
The comment has been repeated across the country, even in The New York Times. Bush has never denied it.
The consensus is everybody has to believe in something, and that something better be supernatural.
The country which has idolized the man who said, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death” now demands we all follow the same course when it comes to accepting things without proof.
Keith Taylor, Chula Vista, Calif., is a retired U.S. Navy officer and past president of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry.
“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script.
I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.
I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss.
But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.
When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.
The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences.
So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.
I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.
He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling.
I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.
At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”
In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue.
Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.
Name: Lisa Strand.
Where and when I was born: I was born and raised in Wisconsin, sometime before the Summer of Love, but not so much before as to have enjoyed it.
Education: I have a B.A. in political science from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Family: My husband and I have been married for nearly 17 years, and we have an 11-year-old daughter. Therefore, we also have two cats and a guinea pig, and we’re lobbied regularly for a puppy.
My previous job responsibilities were: I’ve been in not-for-profit (association) management for about 25 years, including serving for 15 years as executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association. I’ve also served in volunteer leadership roles for several nonprofit organizations.
It was hard to leave WLA (librarians are more fun than you can imagine), but I was looking for a new challenge, and I’m so glad for the opportunity at FFRF.
What I do at FFRF: As the newest staff member, I’m still learning and developing my role as director of operations. In a nutshell, I’ll be taking on a lot of the day-to-day management of the office so that Annie Laurie and Dan can be freed for more strategic duties that will further FFRF’s mission.
What I like best about it here: The people! Annie Laurie and Dan and the entire staff here are just great — so knowledgeable and professional. I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with each of my co-workers during my first two weeks here, and they made me feel so welcomed. They have continued to help me learn the ropes with great patience.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: The pragmatic, rather than the philosophical.
I spend no time thinking about: Eternal damnation.
My religious upbringing was: In a rural, Norwegian Lutheran church, complete with annual lutefisk suppers and basement church ladies.
My doubts about religion started: I was probably about 13 when I thought it seemed very unlikely that, say, rural Chinese would have the “benefit” of learning about Christ and why should they be punished with hell?
Things I like: Gardening, household projects, work, fun with my family, animals, knitting, reading, being outside.
Things I smite: I have many pet peeves, but I don’t smite much.
I met local attorney Peter Martin at a First Amendment meeting during “Occupy,” when he mentioned that he was concerned about the prayers before our city council in Eureka, Calif. He said he would work on the issue but needed a plaintiff. Of course, I volunteered and promptly forgot all about it.
Peter filed the complaint/lawsuit on Jan. 25. The lawsuit simply asks the council to stop having an invocation, sectarian or not, before meetings, and for Mayor Frank Jager to stop holding “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfasts.” He held one last year and had another scheduled for Feb. 7.
The second prayer breakfast was held, although this year (likely spurred by the lawsuit), a rental fee of $700 was charged for use of the city-owned building. Last year, space was provided for free.
The issue made the front page of the local paper Jan. 31. The council did not make a decision on how to proceed at its Feb. 5 meeting. At this time, it looks like Mayor Jager wants to contest the lawsuit, but the decision will be made by the council and the city manager. Fighting it will cost the city a lot, and I really hope they will just drop the invocation.
There has not been an invocation at the last few meetings, so just stopping prayer should not be a big step. Under a former mayor, and with threats from the ACLU, there were no invocations at council meetings for a couple of years. This just started under Mayor Jager and a new city attorney.
There have been many letters to the editor, some supporting the lawsuit and me personally (as I am well-known in our small town} and some from the “usual suspects” who write about the wonders of prayer. Most have been quite civil. I’m very proud of our community, as I have had not one nasty phone call, and my number is right there in the phone book.
[Editor’s note: The Jan. 28 North Coast Journal quoted the mayor as saying, “Peter Martin, he’s a good buddy of mine. We’ll invite him to the prayer breakfast. And if he doesn’t come, we’ll pray for him.”]
Name: Carole Beaton.
Where I live: Eureka, Calif., on the beautiful Redwood Coast. We have glorious scenery, boatloads of artists, great food and perfect weather — plus a very accepting and diverse community.
Where and when I was born: Spooner, Wis., in 1945, but I grew up in Phoenix.
Family: My only family is my wonderful life partner of almost 25 years, Will Dvorak. We met on a century bike ride (that’s 100 miles), and have been riding together (and not just on the bike) ever since. Our “kids” are our 10 cats.
Education: B.A.’s in psychology and education and an M.A. in special education, plus about four more years of “continuing education.” In spite of all this “education” I consider myself self-educated. I learned to think sitting in catechism class when I was a child trying to figure out what all the nonsense was about, and I have educated myself by reading everything I could get my hands on all my life. With modern technology, I can even “read” audio books while walking and driving.
Occupation: I quit my paying job to pay to work (really). I was a teacher for 36 years in the public school system. I have taught regular primary students, juvenile delinquents (in Los Angeles) for 13 years and retired after 17 years as a resource specialist teacher in Eureka.
Now I “pay” to work as co-founder and co-director of an animal welfare nonprofit. We assist in spay/neuter surgeries, and I started and coordinate the “Animeals” program for our local senior center. Every week, seniors who get home-delivered meals also get pet food delivered. I get much of the food donated, and I deliver about half of it myself. Gas and pet food is expensive, not to mention all the other expensive animal situations where I end up with the bill.
How I got where I am today: Here I am in a nice (paid for) house with a great man, 10 cats and a meaningful avocation. How did I manage this? Lots of hard work and lots of luck. No god required.
Where I’m headed: At age 67, I expect I’ll end up decomposing within the next decade or two. In the meantime, I plan to keep active by walking at least five miles several days a week, riding our tandem at least 100 miles a week, and especially continuing my animal welfare work. Will and I plan to be buried “naturally” in the same plot to decompose together and eventually return to the universe.
Person in history I admire: Paul Robeson (1898-1976). If you haven’t heard of or know much about him, find out. His son, Paul Jr., wrote two excellent books about this black genius who was destroyed by the government because of his “socialism” and because he loved Russia and sent his son to school there to be treated like anyone else. In Russia, race was not an issue.
Paul Robeson was one of the most famous men in the world in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Most Americans now have never heard of him.
A quotation I like: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)
These are a few of my favorite things: Riding our tandem around beautiful Humboldt County, walking in our cool, clean air, reading books and listening to audiobooks, watching educational documentaries on the couch with Will and our cats each evening. Helping low-income people with their beloved pets adds real meaning to my life and is probably my most important favorite thing. It helps pets and people and the whole community.
Pet peeves: Standardized testing (I was lucky to work when I could still teach my students to think), religion infiltrating government on all levels, wars and incompetent journalists.
My doubts about religion started: When I started Catholic school in third grade because my not-too-religious parents wanted me to get a good education. Their money was wasted because I spent all day doing long division and writing my spelling words 100 times a day, etc., but the 45 minutes of catechism really did “educate” me. I’m a born skeptic, so nothing they taught in religion class made any sense to me. It scared me and gave me nightmares because I didn’t believe all the stuff these smart adults believed.
As a child, I started to learn all I could about sociology and anthropology and was surprised to find out there were many different ways to live. Margaret Mead’s books and James Michener’s Hawaii finished the job. I have been openly nonreligious since I was about 16. (It was fine with my parents because they just went to church for social reasons and really regretted putting me through the ordeal.)
Why I’m a freethinker: I can’t take any credit. I was born thinking for myself. I have always defied society’s norms for women of my generation. I am child-free by choice, got an education, worked for 36 years. I’ve never let a man pay for my dinner. My company is not for sale.
I have to give the Catholic Church some credit, however. Their absurd dogma was what really got me thinking and made me the good atheist that I am.
Ways I promote freethought: I try to be gentle and funny. When people thank me for spaying their cat and say, “God bless you!” I may say, “Thanks for the nice thought, but I don’t think God will be blessing an atheist!” When someone says, “Thank God for the bag of dog food!” I may say, “Thank Petco, they donated the food!”
When I’m in a situation where I’m doing good work and someone praises me, I may say, “Yup, you don’t need a god to be good!” I never argue with anyone and always try to smile. (I do stick FFRF nontracts on the windshields of cars sporting too many religious bumper stickers.)
Josef Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, announced Feb. 11 he would abdicate his papacy and position as Vatican head of state on Feb. 28. He’s the first pope to quit his job since Gregory XII in 1415. Benedict, 85, was elected in April 2005 when he was 78.
It’s unlikely there’s a Wallis War-field Simpson waiting in the wings like there was for England’s King Edward VI. Benedict, in abdicating and giving up his papal state of infallibility, said he would continue to serve the church “through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Official sources attributed the move to the pope’s frail health. He’s nearly blind in his left eye, has a pacemaker, has fallen several times recently and is unable to walk for more than a short distance.
Other sources suspect there are other reasons. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the decision was due at least in part to the contents of an internal report revealing significant adultery and theft problems in the Vatican.
La Repubblica’s report said the information was “all about the breach of the sixth and seventh commandments,” referring to commandments that followers neither steal or commit adultery. The theft reference may be about questionable practices at the Vatican’s Bank, which was hit with accusations of theft and money-laundering that forced its chairman to quit last year. In December, the papal butler was convicted of theft. Benedict visited him in jail and pardoned him.
Michael D’Antonio, author of Mortal Sins, Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, had a piece on Huffington Post headlined “Immunity for Rome’s Rottweiler: Why The Pope Resigned.”
Valid health reasons are certainly part of the story, D’Antonio wrote, “but they are the least relevant elements. More significant is the evidence linking crimes to the Vatican. In the abuse scandal, all roads do lead to Rome. By stepping down now, and allowing for someone untouched by the cover-up scheme to take his place, Benedict can save the papacy from a direct confrontation with criminal authorities. His choice is the perfect one for a man who reached the highest point in the clerical culture of privilege.”
In September 2011 at the Hague, sexual abuse victims presented 20,000 pages of documents linking the cover-up to the highest levels of the Vatican.
Ratzinger was at the center of the church response to the scandal as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “formerly the Inquisition,” D’Antonio wrote wryly.
— Bill Dunn