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DARKTOLIGHT: A secular coming together

By Fred Strong

In Portland, Ore., the city that Huffington Post considers America’s least religious, we seculars have a plethora of meetups, discussion groups, potlucks, talent programs and lectures throughout the year. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of more large-scale undertakings such as the annual Portland Humanist Film Fest.

Another event, in its third year, that’s gaining national attention is DARKTOLIGHT.

DARKTOLIGHT is the manifestation of an idea that came to me many years ago concerning a desire to have a secular event to celebrate in December, the month when the world around us goes mad with hyper-religiosity. As a composer and arts lover, I knew that music and art would definitely be a part.

I decided to center the event on the Winter Solstice, a natural, celestial occurrence that carries with it very deep symbolic implications having to do with the very essence of the cycle of life itself. The emergence from darkness and death into the seasons of light and life became, in my mind, a metaphor for a paradigm shift in human attitudes from myth-based thinking to an enlightened world of scientific reason.

In 2008, working with a soprano duo and a roster of musicians and performers who would work for little or nothing, I booked the 140-seat theater of the Portland Music Community Center for Dec. 21. I’d written a work called “Songs for Winter Solstice,” consisting of three contrasting songs. But when Portland was hit by an unusual cold front that essentially crippled a city ill-equipped to deal with radical weather conditions for close to two weeks, DARKTOLIGHT 2008 became a casualty.

In 2009, working with Center For Inquiry—Portland and the Humanists of Greater Portland, we held a joint potluck and interested several performers. DTL had its “sort of” debut.

The above groups approached me in 2010 and agreed to fund a small DARKTOLIGHT. I booked the 140-seat theater again, got the sopranos back on board and assembled a very accomplished group of actors, singers, songwriters and musicians. Kol Shalom, a secular Jewish group, helped with an ad in the program. We were all nervous -— no secular event like this had ever been attempted here.

Then the crowd started coming. Couples, families, children, teens, small groups and, before long, we realized we had a hit. DTL 2010 was standing room only! And, with the donations received and the sale of refreshments, the new event was fiscally almost a break-even affair.

I took 2011 off for personal reasons while receiving a fair number of inquiries about whether there’d be a solstice show in December. Early in 2012, CFI-Portland agreed with my vision of a much larger, bolder event, one truer to my original vision but also with a higher price tag.

I began putting together the newest incarnation of DTL called BANG! We booked a 200-seat, professional theater space and are doing three shows with a cast of 14 and four instrumentalists. BANG! takes the audience on a trip through time and space from the big bang to present-day Earth, with a humanist message about our choices and responsibilities. The music ranges from doo-woop to hip-hop and folk to jazz.

DARKTOLIGHT is a special time of secular togetherness, a cultural tether to fill us with a sense of pride, purpose and community. We encourage all locales to celebrate the solstice in their own way. We need to start establishing our own culture, arts and traditions, and it can certainly be done in ways that reflect individual locales.

We’ll perform BANG! at Portland Metro Arts on Friday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. and on Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Go to for more information.

As a proud member of FFRF, I am very honored that you have allowed me this chance to be spotlighted in Freethought Today. Please say “hi” if you attend BANG! By supporting each other, we support the greater cause.


Fred Strong lives in Portland with his partner, Sandra Brown, and her five cats. He holds a B.A. in composition from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va. As he works toward making his avocations (writing, composition, songwriting) his vocation, he owns and operates a small but popular sustainable irrigation company.

In 2011, his humanist choral piece “The Well” was performed in the U.S. Capitol by the Women’s Vocal Ensemble of Clark College, Vancouver, Wash.

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Legally bland, Calli is not

Name: Callahan (Calli) Hyde Miller.

When and where I was born: Dec. 30, 1992, in Waukesha, Wis. I’ve lived my whole life, up until moving to Madison, in Wauwatosa.

Family: My mom (Kari), my dad (Patrick), my little brother (Charlie, 16), my little sister (Michaela, 14), and, of course, most importantly, my golden retriever Murphy (10).

Education: I’m currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and majoring in sociology with a certificate in criminal justice. I plan to double major, but I’m not sure in what yet. I graduated from Wauwatosa West High School in 2011.

My religious upbringing was: Lutheran, but my formal religious association never went beyond baptism as a baby, besides the occasional forced Easter/Christmas services.

How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I heard about the opportunity through the UW-Madison student organization Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, of which I am treasurer. We’ve worked with FFRF pretty frequently. For example, FFRF generously helped fund our inaugural free conference, Freethought Fest, in 2012, where Annie Laurie Gaylor gave a speech entitled “God Fixation Won’t Fix This Nation.” Dan Barker is speaking at Freethought Fest 2013 in March, and we’ve hosted him as part of our Freethought Speakers Series in the past.

What I do here: I do whatever the staff attorneys need. Mostly, I help write letters and follow-up letters to various people and organizations nationwide who are committing state-church violations, as well as do research on some of the tips sent in from FFRF members on potential violations. I also help drink the coffee, out of the kindness of my heart.

What I like best about it: The coffee (just kidding)! I’m really enjoying all of the formal writing experience, as well as learning more and more about constitutional law. It has definitely been, and continues to be, a very valuable experience that I’m thankful for.

Something funny that’s happened at work: I find it endlessly amusing how someone is almost always offering me food. And by “endlessly amusing,” I mean “the best thing ever.”

My legal interests are: I like the more sociological aspects of law, meaning the law in action versus the law on the books. I’m really interested in the field of criminology. I plan to go to law school after I graduate from UW.

My legal heroes are: Elle Woods. (Just kidding! OK, I’m not kidding.) But I think I’ll have to go with my dad on this one, since he’s a lawyer and thus really was the driving force behind my interest in law and politics. [Elle Woods is a character played by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.”]

These three words sum me up: Easily distracted, sleepy.

Things I like: Dogs, Lord of the Rings, folk music, boots.

Things I smite: Bugs, the meat industry, sinus infections.

Fun fact: I worship macaroni and cheese.


Shortly after I got back home from the FFRF convention in October in Portland, Ore., I started hearing advertisments on the radio where I live in Clarkston, Wash. The ads were for a church called Canyons Church and its services at the Clarkston High School auditorium.

This is our public high school of which I am a 1980 graduate. I thought this was curious — having church at the public high school. When, eventually, I saw a huge billboard advertising Canyons Church at Clarkston High School (with no disclaimer by the school), I decided I should look into this situation.

I went to “Legal” at and clicked on “State/Church FAQ” on the dropdown. I scrolled down and found “Churches Meeting at Public Schools.” FFRF said I could do a public records request and would have to pay for copies of the information I am requesting.

The FAQ said to (1) ask the school district for a copy of the rental contract; (2) ask for verification that rent has been paid up to date; (3) ask for a copy of the school district’s rental rate schedule to confirm that rent is reasonable. 

I emailed the superintendent with the public records request on Nov. 11. He replied on Nov. 13 that he would have the information to me by Nov. 20. On Nov. 19, I received a phone call from Wendy, the executive director for financial services, who said  I could pick up the information at the school district office.

I paid $1.05 for the copies (eight pages) and went home to study them. A cover letter was attached and in part said, “The third request asks for the current payment status of the Canyons Church account. Canyons Church is paid up through June 24, 2012. The district is at fault for not billing beyond this date (up until Friday, Nov. 16, 2012) due to a glitch in our system that we corrected on Friday. Invoices totaling $4,648 were sent to Canyons Church on Nov. 16.”

Hopefully, the church is up to date and will stay that way.

FFRF’s FAQ also advised to monitor signs and disclaimers. I did not find any signs at the school other than on the day of the service. There was, however, no disclaimer on the billboard in neighboring Lewiston, Idaho.

One last thing: The contracts state that all charges associated with use of facilities will be paid in full within 10 business days of receipt of invoice from the district. Yet the June 24 billing invoice date was 8/31/12, it was mailed on 9/11/12, due date was 9/30/12, and finally the invoice was paid on 10/15/12 (15 days late and apparently without penalty).

This whole process was quite exciting, I must admit. What shall I do next?

[Editor’s note: You’re doing fine, Jeff, but keep your powder dry. We try to gear FFRF’s FAQ to citizen activism as much as possible, depending on the situation.]  

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Sharing the Crank Mail

My, aren’t we cranky this month, the very month Jesus their savior was born? Hit and missives are printed as received.


You piece of shit Marxist Communist! Go live in Russia. Get the fuck out of here! Can’t wait to see you burn in hell!!!!! — Joann Stump

FFRF Information Request: You people are sick, lonely, pieces of excrement. OK, it’s your right to be stupid enough to not believe in God, but to FORCE YOUR SICK EVIL WAYS on others through legislation, pressure, and attempted intimidation is EVIL and WRONG.
Almighty God DOES exist, although not in YOUR lifeless, soulless eyes. I would NOT want to be you come the day of judgement. — “Suckmy Schwang”

ridiculous: I find you people to be out of line and unpatriotic. This nation was found as One Nation “Under God” and if you don’t like it move to another Country. Having served this Country along with a lot of fellow Veterans we will put God on our side anyday, and if you don’t like God used in the military or anywhere else keep it to yourselves or move. You are a minority but can believe what you like, but abortion is against God’s will and it folks like you that have made it a political issue. Your organization is no different than the KKK. — Tom Lemmer 


Freedom From Religion: You people make me fucking sick. You all don’t need any organization your just a bunch of attention-whores crying like an infant who needs attention. I hope you all realize how pathetic you all are and just crawl back in your fucking caves. Yes that is my real address and anyone who comes to meet me there in a trespassing fashion will also meet my vast gun and ammo collection in a unfriendly way. — Steven Main

morons: r u clowns 4 freaking real when im up in heaven ill b looking down at u freakin morons burning in hell id like 2 c u on judgement begging god and his son jesus 4 forgiveness but then its 2 late burn in hell 4ever r tell god u r sorry and ask 4 forgiveness 


You’re watertower terrorists! I’ve concluded that your organization is deliberately targeting the water supply of an entire community by threatening its water tower and what they do with it. That makes you terrorists. You are just evil, not to mention that you have no regard for the safety of low flying aircraft in the darkest months of winter near an area where the Great Lakes exist that can perpetuate adverse weather conditions. Any kind of marking lights on that water tower is a good thing. It’s a small town. They have what they can afford. Shame on you. Why don’t you go to Colorado and attack the cross on the side of the Rockies that is lit up at night? Get a life! — Mary Adler, Waldorf, Ill.

Sickening Joke: You sick cunts are a fucking pestilence. My hope is that God is real, and you find out in the most awful way possible. Secondly, I hope each one of your deaths is slow, painful and cancer riddled. Fuck the lot of you. — Marcus Armstrong 


UP YOURS: Your full of shit up yours ass holes. — Tony Roberts 


assholes: why dont you idiots mind your own business.stay in wisconsin and leave everyone else alone.u are liberal assholes. — “Bendover Jerks”

Statue in Montana: You people are absolutely out of your mind. You are all sick and mentally handicapped in my opinion. You can all go to hell. — David Dempsey, Homer, Mich. 


Then get out of the USA: If you don’t like living in the USA, then get out. We have freedoms too. All ragheads, and people that don’t believe in Christ should be shot. This makes me so mad, it has been fine up until a bunch of you self rightous dick wads want us all to be fair, well life isn’t always fair, so buck up, shut up, and kiss my ASS! — James Williams

You are all assholes: You fucking people ought to mind your own business and let people express their own beliefs - if you don’t agree with it keep your fucking mouths closed and don’t worry about are not the majority. What a bunch of low life losers. — Stan Rohde


Hallelujah: You fags need to get a life, or just do the world a favor and kill yourselves. Is a statute on a ski slope really that offensive to you? Seriously you all must be the most over sensitive pussies in the world. Merry Christmas Bitches
— John Nelson, Houston, Texas


You are human trash: Just because one of your stupid assholes doesn’t like a statue then it must be removed for everyone?
IDIOTS you sub-humans are! — Rick Lane 


Evolution? Does your organization believe in “The THEORY of Evolution” ? If we have evolved, explain why so many people are so stupid as to vote for Barack Hussein Obama. If we have evolved, why do so many people murder their unborn? I can’t think of any animal that does that, can you. – Britt Whit

no one: who the FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? There is a God. And I think all of you will be going to HELL. — “I love God”


Scum: I look forward to pissing on your grave, as well as all your children. Your nothing but a bunch of little spoiled dbags . . . get a fucken life!! — Mike Kelley— Travis Peebles, Texas 

Texas: Don’t mess with Texas. We don’t need your Bullshit here. 


Freedom From Religion! HEY, MERRY CHRISTMAS....YOU COMMUNIST ASS HOLES! — Stan Knowles

Haralson County High School: The people of west Georgia have a way of life and for you people up there in that dismal state of ugly girls, snowdrifts, and millionaire athlete worship to try to tear it down is disgusting, sad, repugnant and insulting to every peace loving comm unity on the planet. I’m sure you’d love to pick on some Muslims but you four-eyed, dope smoking geeks are too chicken sh!t. — Jesup Gentry, Atlanta, Ga.


Your Star: You should be sued for your interference of an organization to excercise its right of freedom of religion. If you don’t like it here in the US, then leave dummy!!!  — Leroy Smith


OF OF OF OF OF: IT’S FREEDOM OF RELIGION NOT Freedom FROM Religion you freaks! Read the Constitution! By asking government to HIDE religious events you are asking them to VIOLATE THE CONSTITUTION! YOU ARE IDIOTS! PS: GOD WILL GET YOU EVENTUALLY.



Freedom from religion: You’re a bunch of idiots. You will lift up your eyes in hell! Enjoy! — Glen Kinard

stay within in you own state: mind your own house. your work is ignorant, intrusive, and serves no divine purpose. — Tawni Flick 


National Holiday: I’d like to suggest April 1st as your group’s national holiday. — Greg Thomas 


assholes: Are you the Anti-Religion Nazi’s that fucked over that town over it’s cross ? What a bunch of fucking assholes. fuck off and die! — David DeSau 


Kansas Town Forced to Remove Cross: Nothing but a group of  progressive thugs. YOU PEOPLE SUCK — Chris Marshall 


Freedom: This is America so you are free from religion. Your childish borish behavior towards people of faith is really quite telling to your character. This e-mail is sent with neither malace or respect as I have none of either for you. Oh who am I kidding “GO FUCK YOURSELVES” — Michael White, Green Bay, Wis.

Your Org: Your fucking existence is offensive to me, does my opinion matter? Or does only your opinion matter? Also it is freedom from the establishment of a state religion not freedom from religion you psycho fucks. — Miles Bouck, Carpenter, Va.

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In the News

Where atheism gets
you a death sentence 

A new study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Switzerland shows that atheists and other religious skeptics suffer persecution or discrimination around the world and in at least seven countries can be executed if their beliefs become known. The IHEU issued the report on the United Nation’s annual Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

The report, “Freedom of Thought 2012,” said “there are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry.”

According to the survey of about 60 countries, nations where atheism or defection from the official religion can bring capital punishment are Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The report also notes policies in some European countries and the U.S. that favor the religious while excluding nonbelievers.

In the U.S., a social and political climate prevails “in which atheists and the nonreligious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans,” the report said.

In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions bar atheists from public office. One state, Arkansas, has a law that bars atheists from testifying in court, the report said.


Judge to archdiocese: Give up abuse files 

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias on Dec. 10 ordered the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to turn over secret files it’s had for decades on 69 priests accused of sex abuse. Elias gave the archdiocese until Dec. 27 to give her the files. She set a date for early January to hear arguments from priests who want to keep their files private.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the order came five years after the 2007 settlement of $660 million with more than 550 alleged victims of 245 priests.

Ray Boucher, lead plaintiff’s attorney, estimates the archdiocese has files on 80 more priests that it is not turning over to the judge. He also said documents on priests who belonged to Catholic religious orders are also missing.


Film documents
abuse by Wis. priest

“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” opened in U.S. theaters in November and will air on HBO in February. The film centers on four men who attended St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., as boys and were sexually molested.

“A lot of individual stories had been done about clerical sex abuse, but I hadn’t seen one that really connected the individual stories with the larger coverup by the Vatican, so that was important,” director Alex Gibney told Reuters.

In a letter to the Vatican in 1998, the year he died, Fr. Lawrence Murphy admitted molesting some 200 deaf boys over two decades beginning in the 1950s.


‘No faith’ gains in United Kingdom

The Independent reported Dec. 10 that the number of persons with no religious faith in the U.K. rose from 14.8% in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011.

During that period, the number of Christians fell from 37.3 million to 33.2 million. The proportion of Muslims rose from 3% to 4.8%. Hinduism claims 1.5%, Sikhism 0.8% and Judaism 0.5%. About 180,000 claimed to be followers of the Jedi religion featured in “Star Wars,” down from 400,000 in 2001.


Mothers ‘maimed, forgotten’ in Ireland

“The imperative to bear as many children as possible crippled hundreds of Irishwomen,” Marie O’Connor writes in a column titled “The maimed and forgotten mothers” in The Irish Times. Catholic hospitals encouraged doctors to treat difficult childbirths with a symphysiotomy, a procedure that severs the pelvic joint, instead of doing a caesarean section.

According to O’Connor, the church preferred the symphysiotomy because it could widen the pelvis, “enabling an unlimited number of vaginal deliveries.

“But when it went wrong, which was often, the women suffered chronic pain and incontinence, and many could barely walk. . . . Doctors in every other Western country shunned the operation, but in Ireland it was performed on some 1,500 women between 1944 and 2005. About 200 victims survive today, most of them disabled. Yet they can’t seek redress in the courts, because it only recently became public that these operations were unnecessary, long after the statute of limitations expired.”


Bible favorite book, child favorite porn

A Manchester, N.H., lawyer with ties to a conservative Christian law firm took a teen girl to Canada, had her engage in sexual activity and convinced her to let it be filmed, according to federal indictments reported Nov. 17 by the Concord Monitor.

Lisa Biron, 43, is charged with transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, seven counts of possession of child pornography and five counts of sexual exploitation of children.

Biron is associated with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which, its website says, is committed to keeping “the door open for the spread of the Gospel” by advocating for “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” In Concord, she worked with ADF to defend a Pentecostal church in its tax fight against the city.

She recently served on the board of directors at Mount Zion Christian Schools in Manchester. On her Facebook page, which was been removed, she listed the bible as her favorite book.

Police began investigating after receiving a tip from a man who said he’d seen child porn on Biron’s computer. 


Priest on abuse list
now that he’s dead

Fr. Donald Musinski has been added to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s list of clergy restricted because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of children, 15 years after the victim first accused him, the Journal Sentinel reported Dec. 1.

The archdiocese did not announce Musinski’s addition to the list, possibly because he is deceased, said spokeswoman Julie Wolf. He died at age 69 in 2006. He was ordained in 1962 and served parishes in Milwaukee, Belgium and Johnsburg before retiring in 1999.

The victim, Karen Konter, now 54, reported Musinski to the archdiocese in 1997. She said Musinski began molesting her when she was 8, progressing to rape by the time she graduated from eighth grade. She said the priest took advantage of her, “an isolated and ostracized little girl, hobbled by polio and numerous surgeries,” as the Journal Sentinel put it, at St. Adalbert’s on Milwaukee’s south side.

U.K. Scouts mull
atheist membership

The Telegraph reported Dec. 3 that the British Scouting movement is working on plans to draft an alternative godless oath and let atheists become full members and group leaders for the first time. For more than 40 years, versions of the promise have existed allowing Muslims to pledge allegiance to Allah and Hindus to substitute the words “my Dharma.”

The traditional pledge mentions “duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout Law.”

Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell in his book of advice for boys, “Rovering for Success,” compared atheism to gambling, excessive drinking, smoking and syphilis as a danger to be avoided.


Bible played role
in boy’s death

Police said 7-year-old Roderick Arrington was beaten to death by his parents because he didn’t read the bible and do his homework, the Las Vegas Sun reported Dec. 3. The boy’s stepfather, Markiece Palmer, 34, and mother, Dina Palmer, 27, were charged with murder, child abuse and neglect.

Roderick died after being taken to the hospital on Nov. 30. A doctor reported he had fixed pupils, bruises all over his body and buttocks showing “fresh open wounds.
Markiece Palmer told police he spanked his stepson because he lied about reading a chapter in the bible and didn’t do his homework. He admitted he hit the boy on multiple occasions with his belt, a spatula, a wooden paddle and his hands.

On one Facebook photo, Markiece Palmer wrote, “My babies they make me happy. GOD bless the children!!!”

On another photo of the boy, Dina Palmer wrote, “I wanna do better 4 my son, my family, myself, 4 you LORD!!!!!!!!”

George Saunders, New York, sends a USA Today clipping in which Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research president, says “a majority of the population is spiritual but not religious.” George asks, “Does anyone really understand what it means to be ‘spiritual but not religious?’ ”


KATIE DANIEL: Spiritual means you believe in ghosts, but don’t organize rituals around them or proselytize. Religious means that you believe in ghosts, organize rituals around them, and think everyone else should too!

PHYLLIS ROSE: I don’t — “spiritual” seems to have the same connotation as the unknown quality of “religious.”

PATRICK ELLIOTT: This is how I perceive it: “Organized superstition isn’t my thing, but I don’t mind doing it on my own.” Which is equivalent to: “You won’t find me running with the bulls in Pamplona, that is crazy! But, I’m not opposed to trying my hand at running with the bulls on my own.”

WENDY GOLDBERG: To me, it means to be in tune with nature and especially with all the winter birds that “flock” to my feeders. “… and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.” (from Jane Eyre)

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR: I’ve never read a definition of “spirituality” that was comprehensible. It stems from the word “spirit” and pertains to an imaginary “spirit world.” The word “spirit” can have secular connotations today, such as “team spirit” or “keep up your spirits.” But “spiritual atheist” seems like an oxymoron. I feel it’s a mistake for atheists and other nonbelievers to adopt language that clearly has a religious genesis. (That’s a joke!) Doesn’t this just contribute to confusion, as in Einstein’s metaphorical and unfortunate “God does not play dice with the universe” kind of language?

I am guessing that most nonbelievers who are using the term “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” probably mean that they are moved or awed and have emotional responses to music, artistry, nature or being part of the community and the universe. So why not say that? Why muddy the waters by using a religious term to describe a natural (not a supernatural) feeling, emotion or sense? People should say what they mean. It seems like a good policy for atheists and agnostics to take care that their pronouncements are not misunderstood by believers.

BILL DUNN: It means, if you’re being truly honest with yourself, that you’re more of a sociopath than a psychopath.

ELAINE HAMPTON: “Spirit” has so many different meanings, from supernatural beings to very natural beings — as in a high-spirited horse, or a great single-malt Scotch! Or genuine Napoleon brandy. I like to inhale the fumes.

When I first learned the Latin meaning of the original word, I had to laugh. “The spirit left him” = he stopped breathing. Or “holy spirit” = heavenly halitosis.

It’s like using “heart” to mean anything connected with emotions. “And then my heart stood still” is a lovely song, but if the singer’s heart had really stopped, they would have needed CPR immediately, or they’d be dead. Slippery, slippery words. I love to play with them.

JOAN REISMAN: I think people hasten to say “but I’m spiritual” in reaction to the (entirely mistaken) notion that atheists are dull, pragmatic people who only believe what can be proved, and who have no sense of awe or wonder or imagination. By claiming spirituality, they are asserting that while they don’t follow any organized religion or believe in any gods, they are still multifaceted individuals who are able to sense and experience “higher” feelings and concepts and possibilities beyond mundane reality.

NORA CUSACK: I’m neither, because neither is fact-based. They’re weasel words for people who don’t want to acknowledge that when they’re dead, they’re dead.

ANDREW SEIDEL: To be religious is to believe in widely held, factually unsupported dogma. To be spiritual is to believe in factually unsupported dogma that is all your own. To alter the Robert Pirsig quote which gave Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion its name: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called spirituality. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.”

DAN BARKER: I think when people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” they mean one of three things, depending on how “spiritual” or “religious” are defined.

Some of those people believe in a god, or gods, or a transcendent world populated by invisible personalities that have some kind of influence (they think) over their lives, but they are not members of any organized or recognized religion. They are going it on their own, defining “God” or “spirit” in their own way, and don’t think they lack anything that is claimed to be possessed by members of religion.

For these people, “religion” is nothing in itself — it is just an artificial human-made way of organizing those who hold similar beliefs into a common group. Religion adds nothing to spirituality, they think. To my mind, these people are indeed religious, though not part of any organized religion.

Others think “religion” is indeed a claim to a transcendent reality, but they reject that claim and think “spiritual” is simply a personal way to experience feelings of the sublime, to meditate, to enjoy aesthetics and positive emotions, to appreciate the finer qualities of art and music, to contemplate “higher values,” to breathe deeply and take the focus away from the mundane.

These might be atheists or agnostics who define “spirit” in a nonsupernatural manner, interpreting their “numinous” feelings in purely physical, neurological terms. They agree that others interpret the word “spirit” differently, but feel that their own material definition lacks none of the value or beauty of those who are religious. To my mind, these people are neither religious nor spiritual, even though they do try to redefine “spirit” in a nontranscendent manner.

There is a third group, comprised mostly of evangelical Christians, who define “religion” as “man reaching up to God,” but define true Christianity as “God reaching down to man.” (The sexist language is theirs, not mine.) I used to think like this; indeed, I preached sermons about it.

These people don’t eschew religion, and even agree they are part of a religion — of course they are, if they go to church, pay tithes, support missionaries, promote a Holy Book, and so on — but feel that “spiritual” is more than an attitude or emotion.

To them, the “spirit” is the Holy Spirit, an actual person, the “spirit of God” with whom they have a personal relationship. Some of them think they are possessed by this spirit. When they say “Jesus came into my heart,” they are not talking metaphorically. Pentecostals and charismatic types believe they have been “filled with the Spirit,” and feel very sorry for the (mainly) mainstream denominations that have “a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.” (2 Timothy 3:5)

When they say they are “spiritual but not religious, what they mean is that what matters to these people is “spiritual but not religious.”

If I were forced to fit into one of those groups, I would have to choose the second one — except that I don’t like the word “spiritual.” I don’t think the word “spirit” has ever been coherently defined. Every attempt to define the word ends up telling us what it is not, not what it actually is. It is the intangible essence or a nonphysical presence. A noncorporeal personality. An immaterial mind. None of this tells us anything.

In positive terms, what exactly is a spirit? If something exists, then it can be measured — it must be measured, or be measurable. How much does spirit weigh? How much space does it take up? When does it start to exist and when does it die or disappear? How does it differ from the “ether,” which we now know does not exist though we continue to use the word “ethereal”?

Until the word “spirit” is defined, and it never has been, then to say you are “spiritual but not religious” is to say nothing at all. Except maybe that you don’t like religion very much, and that is something I can agree with.

In the fall of 2011, I read in my small-town Kentucky newspaper how the Freedom From Religion Foundation had convinced the Muhlenberg County Board of Education to end Gideon bible distribution in local schools. I immediately checked out the FFRF website and decided then and there to become a member.

Six months later, curious about how our board of education was handling a different issue, I went online to review the minutes from the most recent board meeting. To my surprise, the board had unanimously approved “plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon’s [sic] organization.”

Would a school board recently in trouble for allowing the Gideons into classrooms actually be pledging its support to Gideons International?

I spent nearly a month considering the matter. Though I found the board’s actions outrageous, I knew that pushing the issue could have huge consequences. We live in a highly religious community where grievances are not easily forgotten.

And while it was widely known that our family did not attend church, most didn’t know I was an atheist. I also knew that some would argue that I had no business criticizing public school policy, as we home-school our children.

Ultimately, I decided I could not let the matter go. I called a board member and asked him to explain the decision to collaborate with the Gideons. He insisted that the board’s vote actually meant that now any nonprofit group would be permitted to distribute literature at after-school events.

Of course, his explanation of the district’s new “open forum policy” was at odds with the official meeting minutes, so I emailed the district superintendent. He gave a similar version of events. When I asked to see the written policy, the superintendent told me that there wasn’t one.

After a great deal of research into the legality of “limited open forums,” I wrote the board and superintendent a detailed letter outlining the problems I saw with the policy, which appeared to have been adopted for the sole purpose of letting the Gideons back into the schools. I made it clear that if the board opened these doors, it would have to allow in other groups offering Muslim, pagan and even atheist literature.

I cited two school districts in North Carolina that abruptly ended their “open” policies as soon as pagans asked to distribute their books. After mailing the letter, I published it on my blog, hoping that going public might encourage the board to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, the superintendent responded to say that the board was content with the policy as it stood and had no plans to put it in writing.

Dissatisfied with this response, I decided to attend a couple of school board meetings to see if the issue would come up. Little did I realize that I was about to stumble on another problem. It turns out that the board was also accustomed to starting its meetings with a student-led prayer.

Winning secular access

Shortly after attending a second board meeting, I made contact with Walter Petit, a Muhlenberg County High School graduate who is now president of the Secular Student Alliance at Western Kentucky University, about an hour from Muhlenberg County. He and a few others were eager to remedy the situation.

Our primary goal was to convince the board not to allow any outside groups to distribute literature at official school functions; however, if the board insisted on allowing religious groups, then we wanted to have a secular presence. 

We sent separate requests to every public school principal in the county asking to distribute literature at upcoming after-school events. As an FFRF member, I said that I would be distributing a variety of materials, including Dan Barker’s books Godless and Just Pretend: a Freethought Book for Children.  

We didn’t know what to expect, but our requests were quickly accepted, and the various school principals started the process of scheduling us for specific after-school events. When I blogged about our upcoming appearances at local schools, comments began pouring in from local citizens who were outraged that atheists would be allowed to hand out materials. The story eventually made the evening news.    

The first event we chose to attend was Parent Night at the county’s only high school. Despite the negative backlash on my blog, the event was quite pleasant. About two dozen people — a mixture of students, parents, and staff — stopped by our table to pick up literature or ask questions. Several people said they were glad to see us there.

At the board meeting two weeks later, Petit repeated our request that the board end its policy of allowing outside groups to distribute literature in the schools. He firmly stated our demand that school board prayer be discontinued. Highlights from the meeting included a highly sectarian opening prayer that took swipes at our activism, and an anti-evolution rant from a board member who is also a Baptist minister.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott has sent the board a letter outlining the problems with both the literature distribution policy and school board prayer. We are awaiting the board’s response. In the meantime, I am enjoying networking with the many freethinkers I’ve met over the past few months, including several who live in Muhlenberg County.

In fact, our efforts have brought enough atheists and agnostics out of hiding that we hope to start a Muhlenberg County Freethinkers Group early next year.


Suzanne Lamb is a secular home-schooling parent, a former Catholic and the author of “What to Tell the Neighbors,” a blog about “unschooling” (an approach emphasizing children’s natural desire to learn that helps them become independent thinkers) and living as an atheist in the bible belt. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Nano Fiction, Wigleaf and other journals. She lives with her husband, Steve, and their three children in Central City, Kentucky. 

FFRF member Aiyanna Looney did stellar work in Oskaloosa, Iowa, trying to rid City Square Park, which is a public park, of a nativity scene. After she photographed it Dec. 5, she contacted FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt, who responded promptly:
“If you could forward me those photos, that would be very helpful. Are there other nonsectarian displays up? Context is extremely important in these cases — also if there is a sign or something that indicates this was put up by anyone other than the city.”

Aiyanna noted in response that there were no other religious displays present. “There is a faux lighted pine tree with a star topper by the nativity, but no sign that states it’s a holiday tree or Christmas tree, or who placed the tree in the park. There is no sign that states the nativity was placed by anyone other than the city.”

She contacted Oskaloosa City Manager Michael Shrock Jr. about the religious display on public property. Her letter included this: “The use of government property to promote Christianity as superior to other faiths, religions and secularism is abhorrent. The city of Oskaloosa needs to take responsibility for this discriminatory display and remove the nativity or create an exhibit that is representative of everyone who lives in Oskaloosa and Mahaska County.”

On Dec. 7, Aiyanna emailed FFRF that the nativity was removed the day before and that Shrock told her that he didn’t want an open forum and had the nativity removed. 

UPDATE: Right before Freethought Today went to press, Aiyanna shared a voice mail left on her phone from council member Aaron Ver Steeg, who said, “I seen your letter. … I just feel that people like you — if you don’t want to look at something, look the other way — and you still have the freedom to move out of Oskaloosa.”

UPDATE 2: At a special Dec. 12 council meeting for “discussion and possible action on establishing a policy for decorations and event use in the city square,” Shrock backtracked.

The Oskaloosa Herald reported that the City council voted to return the nativity to the park: “They voted to add to the decorations within the city square so that it’s not just a nativity scene, but is accompanied by a Christmas tree as well as other secular holiday decorations.”

After the meeting, Aiyanna emailed: “I get the impression that no other faiths, or nonfaiths (atheists and agnostics), will be represented when the nativity is replaced in the park, and the city is going to use a ‘three reindeer rule’ regarding the city square: The 1985 Supreme Court ruling known as the ‘reindeer rule’ requires any religious display on public property to be balanced by secular displays in order to avoid any hint that the state is endorsing religion.”

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Egregious Texas violation protested

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint Dec. 5 to city officials in San Angelo, Texas, urging removal of an illegal lighted Latin cross atop the Police Department. According to FFRF’s local complainant, the cross adorns the building only during the holiday season. “The building is clearly marked ‘San Angelo Police Department,’ which allows all passersby to identify it as a city building,” Markert wrote. “Its hosting of a powerful sectarian symbol cannot be seen as a traditional decoration of the holiday season, but instead can only be a message of government support for Christianity.”

Two school districts and towns in Pennsylvania are aggressively fighting FFRF’s federal challenges of Ten Commandments markers at public schools. 

Marie Schaub, a New Kensington-Arnold parents who joined FFRF as a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, reports that a “Thou Shall Not Move” movement is growing louder. “This time of year makes us feel marginalized and like second-class citizens,” she said.

Children were lined up to pull Commandments mounted on wagons as part of a “float” at New Kensington’s Christmas parade. A “Save Our Stone” rally in New Kensington organized by a man who says the United States is “Christian” led to mass distribution of “Save our Stone” lawn signs.

FFRF sued the Connellsville Area School District on Sept. 12 over an Eagles bible monument at a middle school. Two days later, FFRF sued New Kensington-Arhold School District over a 6-foot-tall bible marker in front of Valley High School.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Ten Commandments can’t be posted inside schools: “The preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters. 

The New Kensington district has asked the court to strike from the lawsuit the plaintiffs’ mention of school board President Bob Pallone’s pro-monument comments on a Facebook page, “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School.” The page, which has been “liked” by about 1,200 people, including several school board members, was created last spring by New Kensington Controller John Zavadak. 

In early December, FFRF’s motion to allow pseudonyms for several plaintiffs in its New Kensington challenge was granted. A similar motion will be filed in the Connellsville case. FFRF submitted as evidence comments from Facebook posts, website comments, email and letters to the editor, which included:

• “Maybe we should get that lady‘s phone number who is (a) participant in the lawsuit and have everybody call her and give he(r) our opinion.”

• “I‘m sure if we look up the (expletive) she probably has a facebook account or a facebook page for her ridiculous group and we can slam the (expletive) out of the (expletive).”

• “Have the families involved in the lawsuit been identified? I cannot believe anyone living in the community would participate in such a worthless cause. Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes.”

• “These people need drug onto the street and shot.”

“I have been particularly alarmed by the reaction to the filing of this lawsuit by community members,” Marie Schaub, the only local plaintiff whose identity has been revealed, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I am aware of numerous hateful messages that have been posted online, either as comments to newspaper articles about the lawsuit or on social media websites.”

“The continued anonymity of my child and I is important to me because I fear that if our involvement were made public, both my child and I would experience social ostracism, harassment or threats from community members,” said the other parent suing the district, who is identified as Doe 3.

“It amazes me to see people willing to come together in order to support something that’s clearly in violation of the law,” Schaub recently told the Tribune-Review. “I would encourage our school board and community to adhere to the Constitution, which will save our district from a very expensive court case.” 

“Relocating this religious monument will not prevent anyone from practicing their faith, but it will send a message that the school district includes people of all religions — in addition to those who choose none,” Schaub added. 

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator


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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.