2012 Brian Bolton Graduate Student/Mature Student Essay Award winners
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded graduate students (or any students 25 or older) $9,100 in this year’s essay competition. Students were asked to describe “Why God and government are a dangerous mix, especially in an election year” in 850- to 1,000 words.
There were six major winners with a tie for fourth place, plus seven honorable mentions. The top six essays can be found on pages 9, 10, 14, and 15.
First place ($3,000): Elizabeth Pipal, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Second place ($2,000): Wilson Melón, Purdue University.
Third place ($1,000): Lynn Wilhelm, North Carolina State University.
Fourth place (tie, $500 each): Bryan Johnson, Colorado State University; Vicky Weber, Colorado State University.
Fifth place ($300): Jemille Bailey, Columbia University.
Honorable mentions ($200 each):
Anastassia Smorodinskaya, Columbia University.
Antwon Kennedy, Kennesaw State University.
Ashley Miller, University of South Carolina.
Justin Vacula, Marywood University.
Kristina Beverlin, University of Kansas.
Maria Rodriguez, University of Connecticut School of Law.
Wanda Thompson, Western Governor’s University.
The awards are made possible by the generosity of FFRF Lifetime Member Brian Bolton, a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.
FFRF would also like to extend a warm thank you to FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm for providing the honorable mention awardees and the fifth-place winner with a $50 bonus.
The month of March brings another familiar face to the Alabama Freethought Association. Bob Truett has spoken many times at AFA and other freethought organizations in the southeast. Bob is a regular attendee at AFA monthly meetings. Bob is retired Director of the Birmingham Zoo.
Bob encourages parents to bring children six years and older. He promises that the talk will be unorthodox, surprising, and will involve considerable audience participation. Expect to learn something!
11 am social hour
12 noon potluck lunch
1 pm program
Shawna received a $1,000 cash scholarship from FFRF.
By Shawna Scott
At my 2010 convocation (or “graduation”) for my B.A. at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, all attendees were asked to stand in prayer. This was unexpected to me because this is a public university. Also, the concept of a God had otherwise been absent from our learning experiences.
This was the prayer:
“Eternal God, the source of all goodness, discipline, and knowledge: We pray you to bless this assembly, gather to recognize achievement and celebrate life. Bless this and all universities in their quest for excellence. Be with teachers and students everywhere, that an unending search for truth and justice may be awakened in them. Inspire all researchers, philosophers and writers to provide resources for searching minds. Enable all who discern truth to make the wholeness of human kind their life’s goal. Amen.”
Being asked to stand in prayer to acknowledge a God I did not believe in made me feel excluded and disrespected. The ideals mentioned in the prayer did not fit with me or with many other students, so why were we all asked to pay lip service? Why was I not given the freedom to acknowledge the unique factors that helped me in my own personal achievement?
I consulted with members of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society. With their encouragement, I wrote an email to university administrative staff to address my concerns and asked that the prayer be replaced with a moment of reflection. I did not receive a reply. I tried again a year later but again received no response.
I attended a Secular Student Alliance conference in July 2012 with several club members. During a presentation, I found myself seated next to Annie Laurie Gaylor. Afterward, I asked her for her recommendations about the prayer at convocation issue. She showed a great deal of passion for supporting our cause.
I jotted down some key phrases that she advised me to include in another letter to the University. I felt empowered to be persistent in advocating for change. Our club membership increased significantly around that time, and I knew that I would have support from club members as well. I decided that I was not going to give up and would try a slightly different approach.
In September 2012, I wrote a third email to the university. We asked that a group prayer would no longer be dictated to us. We urged the university to offer a moment of reflection which would allow convocation attendees to make their own decision as to whether they want to pray, reflect, think about people who helped them along the way, and/or remember their experiences at the university.
A faculty member recommended I also send it to the Office of Human Rights, Equity and Accessibility. Within one month, I was informed by OHREA that our request was being discussed at the presidential level. Within a few days, it was announced that the convocation prayer would be permanently replaced by a moment of reflection:
“This day marks a new beginning, particularly for those about to celebrate their graduation. It is only fitting that we come together to recognize your achievements and commemorate your successes as you continue to your lifelong quest for knowledge and excellence. I ask that you take a moment to reflect on those who guided you along your path of learning, to appreciate our families, our teachers, our peers, the world in which we live, and all that inspires us.”
Secularism prevailed, and I could not have been more relieved. I received my M.A. at the October 2012 convocation, which was the first time in the school’s history that prayer was absent. What did I think about during the moment of reflection?
I thought about the wonderful professors, teaching assistants and staff who helped me along the way. I thought about my family, classmates and friends. During the moment of reflection, each convocation attendee was granted the space to be true to his or her own conscience.
The prayer removal was well-received by students and faculty. Many described the change as “long overdue.” But a local newspaper received some letters criticizing the change. Some people were upset that the atheists “win” again.
What they failed to recognize is that no atheist will be approaching the podium to present a statement about his or her lack of belief in god(s). With a moment of reflection, nothing is being imposed on anyone and neutrality is maintained.
Some argued that the prayer should not have been removed because it is part of a tradition. But with our ever-changing student population, it is imperative that the university continue its dedication to celebrating diversity.
Other critics have argued that the “minorities” have no right to speak out. Similarly, one woman wrote to a newspaper that I “could have simply stayed away from the convocation ceremonies and collected [my] diploma at the office.”
Those individuals seemingly support segregation, and that is alarming. The concept of “majority rules” can lead to an abuse of power, violating the basic and inalienable rights of nondominant groups. How much power should the majority have over the minority in the public realm?
Clearly, my journey had its ups and downs, but it was entirely worthwhile. I learned a lot about myself, how to work with others and how to create change. I learned that if you want to make change, you definitely need these two ingredients: a plan and perseverance.
In creating the plan, it is important to consult and network with others. I found it helpful to discuss my plan with club members, faculty members, other club leaders and Annie Laurie.
In being persistent, it is important to modify your approach as needed. In order for society to advance, we must harness our complaints, work together, and advocate for change.
Shawna Scott is a doctoral student in the child clinical psychology program at the University of Windsor. She has an M.A. in clinical psychology and is president and founder of the 220-member Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, which is is affiliated with Secular Student Alliance and Centre for Inquiry.
Name: Donald B. Ardell.
Where I live: Downtown St. Petersburg, Fla.
When and where I was born: July 18, 1938, Philadelphia, Pa., in a hospital named Misericordia (a wobbly start for a future freethinker).
Family: Wife, Carol; daughter, Jeanne; son Jon; and grandchildren, Charles Grant, 8, Cadence, 8, and Buddy Miles, 6.
Education: George Washington University (sociology), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (urban planning), Stanford University (business) and Union Institute & University, Cincinnati (doctorate in health and public policy).
Occupation: Promoter (as essayist, author and speaker) of exceptional physical and mental health based upon reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty.
Military service: Three years in the U.S. Air Force.
How I got where I am today: Contingencies as unlikely if less consequential than those described by Stephen Jay Gould of how we all got to be here in his glorious opus Wonderful Life.
Where I’m headed: More or less in the same direction I’m going, for pretty much the reasons that got me on this path, including but not limited to trial and error, reading, asking questions and taking notes from the profiles of the glorious infidels featured in Freethought of the Day.
Person in history I admire and why: Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-99) for the life he led and the body of work he left behind. His speeches still dazzle, inform, inspire and motivate. His passions, themes and causes we, too, embrace and seek yet — secular democracy, emancipation of the oppressed, justice for all, reason as the best guide, joy the highest virtue, happiness the greatest good, science the truest source and natural wonders the only worship.
Ingersoll’s genius guided secularists then and still to this day on how to be free, rational and appreciative of science and nature.
A quotation I like: My favorite comes from a speech Ingersoll delivered at the Lotos Club in New York City on March 22, 1890: “And yet, after all, what would this world be without death? It may be from the fact that we are all victims, from the fact that we are all bound by common fate; it may be that friendship and love are born of that fact; but whatever the fact is, I am perfectly satisfied that the highest possible philosophy is to enjoy today, not regretting yesterday, and not fearing tomorrow. So, let us suck this orange of life dry, so that when death does come, we can politely say to him, ‘You are welcome to the peelings. What little there was we have enjoyed.’ ”
The last sentence of the quotation appears in large letters on the back of the cycling jersey I wear that my wife made for me. It has generated many an affable conversation during post-ride coffee breaks.
These are a few of my favorite things: Writing essays on politics, sex, religion and real wellness; vegan dining; time with my wife, children and friends; classical music; novels; biographies; red wine; triathlons and road races (for starters on things I like).
These are not: I try not to pay attention but if pressed would certainly have to mention anything associated with religion, environmental degradation, animal husbandry, hunting for sport, the fact that the 1% control too much of society’s resources.
My doubts about religion started: When I learned to think for myself, even a little bit (approximately around age 12).
Why I’m a freethinker: I can’t envision any other options that seem sensible, attractive and conducive to the way I choose to think and live.
Ways I promote freethought: In my conversations, the essays and books I write, the speeches I give and the life I lead.
By Andrew Seidel
Andrew Seidel, FFRF staff attorney, gave this speech accompanied by PowerPoint (edited here for print) in October at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on Oct. 13, 2012 in Portland, Ore.
I’d like to thank Dan and Annie Laurie for asking me to speak here today. It’s quite an honor to share the stage with such illustrious speakers. I’d also like to take a moment to thank all the FFRF members out there. Your generosity and support make my job possible, and I absolutely love my job.
Today I want to discuss two things: One, the idea that we’re founded as a Christian nation. When you hear that argument, you may debunk it using, say, the Treaty of Tripoli, which most of you are probably familiar with, which says we’re not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. Or maybe you cite the First Amendment or the fact that religious oaths are constitutionally prohibited or that the Constitution is entirely godless.
When you use those facts to refute their first argument, your opponent will fall back on the second argument, which is that we’re founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Typically, you’ll hear three arguments as to why we are founded as a Christian nation: “In God We Trust” or “One nation under God” (these silly little phrases always seem to come up), the Declaration of Independence made us a Christian nation, and the claim that the founders were all Christian.
You obviously know that “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God” are not from the founding era. The former first appeared on one coin in 1863 and was required on currency only in 1956 and the latter was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
The timing of these late additions is telling. Lincoln had declared martial law in 1863, the year the battle of Gettysburg was fought. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 for the first time in U.S. history. Brothers were killing brothers, and the country was literally tearing itself apart. It’s at this “propitious” time that Christian nationalists — a phrase I’m going to use to describe anybody who claims that we’re a Christian nation — push their religion on us all.
When Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase ordered James Pollock, U.S. Mint director, to make the change on one coin, he wrote: “We claim to be a Christian Nation. . . . The time for this or the introduction of a similar motto is propitious. ’Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when man’s strength is weakness, when our strength and our nation’s salvation must be in the God of Battles.”
The same thing happened in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism and the “Red scare,” marked by witch hunts for nonbelievers and communists, blacklists, loyalty oaths and arrests. Chief Justice Earl Warren at the time said that if the Bill of Rights were put to a vote it would lose.
The second thing to note about these changes is their effect. That religion is divisive is probably not a controversial claim to make here. The founders were well aware of this. James Madison in the “Federalist Papers, Number Ten” wrote that the zeal of different opinions concerning religion has divided humankind into parties and enflamed mutual animosity. This is one of the reasons the founders wanted to keep religion out of government. The original motto was “E pluribus unum” (from many, one). The Christian nationalists erased that unifying theme and put their divisive, religious theme in its place.
The same thing happened with the pledge. It’s even more striking because they actually divided the indivisible and then injected religion.
When discussing the Declaration of Independence, the Religious Right typically focuses on four phrases from it: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “their Creator,” “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence.” Notice that not a single one of these is Christian. There’s no mention of Jesus or Yahweh or the God of Abraham.
There are two competing views on natural law. The first is that laws or rights are given to us by a divine being. The second is that we have rights because we’re human.
We know which one of these Thomas Jefferson was talking about because he wrote about natural law in several other places. A great quote from his opinion of the French treaties: “Questions of the natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man. Those who write treatises on natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate.”
Human rights — natural law — are discoverable by reason. This is most certainly not a divine idea of natural law. Jefferson also said in 1774 that “a free people claim their rights” — they are “not a gift of the chief magistrate.” I think that would also include they are not a gift from God. People have to assert those rights.
Moreover, the Declaration of Independence has two principles that Judeo-Christianity is directly opposed to: When you have a tyrannical government, it’s a “duty” and a “right” to throw off that government; and it explicitly states that governments are instituted by the people, not by the magistrate, not by the king. The bible directly contradicts these two ideas.
The Book of Romans in the New Testament says, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” The Old Testament Book of Daniel says basically the same thing: “The Most High has sovereignty over the reign of mortals and gives it to who He will.”
These principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out.
George Washington died in 1799. The next year, Mason Weems, a parson, wrote a book about him, a book in which we get the myths about the cherry tree and about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. There’s no evidence to suggest either happened, and the prayer story didn’t actually come out in Weems’ book until something like the 34th edition.
These claims are reminiscent of Mormons posthumously baptizing people — claiming that the founders were all Christian and therefore we’re a Christian nation. It’s also incredibly rude. These men and women sacrificed an awful lot — lives, blood, treasure — and it just ignores that and attributes to God this monumental achievement.
More importantly, what the founders thought personally about God or Jesus is irrelevant to the nation itself. Religion does not claim ownership over other ideas generated by a mind. For instance, there’s no such thing as Jewish blue jeans. We just call them blue jeans, even though they were invented by Levi Strauss. Same thing with vaccines. They’re not Jewish vaccines, they’re just vaccines. Algebra is just algebra, not Muslim math.
Whatever the founders chose to do in their private lives, publicly they chose to erect the wall of separation between church and state. You’ve all probably heard the quip that if we’re a Christian nation, you might as well call us a white nation. That’s a very effective argument to make. The idea that they were all Christian and therefore founded us as a Christian nation is absolute nonsense.
When I set out to debunk the Christian nationalist fallback argument, it took me a while to discover what a Judeo-Christian principle is. It turns out the best answer comes from Harry Truman, president during McCarthy’s rise to fame. Known for being a plain speaker, he occasionally used vulgarity.
Arguably, the most vulgar thing he ever said was, “The fundamental basis for all government is in the bible. It started with Moses on the mountain.” He then mentions the New Testament and the Ten Commandments.
Let’s compare the Judeo-Christian principles in the bible and the Ten Commandments to our nation’s founding principles.
First, which commandments? There are four different sets of Ten Commandments in the bible. The first set is given to Moses on the mountain. He comes down the mountain and finds his followers worshipping a golden calf. They are breaking one of the commandments, a commandment they don’t know about yet. His response is to smash the commandments on the ground in anger and slaughter 3,000 of his friends, brothers and neighbors. Mark that term for later — friends, brothers and neighbors.
God orders Moses to make a new set and promises to sweep all of the current residents off the land in favor of the Israelites. So the second set is sealed with the promise of genocide, and in that set, God lays claim to all the firstborn of Israel. The third set is substantially similar to the first, and the fourth set is just a list of people who are cursed.
Any given bible cannot agree on which 10 are the 10. Actually, different religious traditions do not agree on how the commandments should be numbered or translated either. Such discrepancies may seem like small differences, but when you couple unshakable certainty with a claim to hold the ultimate truth, everything, no matter how small, matters. There is no such thing as a small religious difference.
Which set? I’m going to use the first set, the one that people are most familiar with because of Charlton Heston. We’ll use the Protestant version.
First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” This obviously conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, but it also conflicts with Article VI of the Constitution. The Constitution specifically says that it, not God, is the supreme law of the land.
This commandment conflicts with the constitutional Supremacy Clause and the First Amendment. So it did not have an influence because it conflicts.
Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” But read the unabridged commandment, which continues, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God punishing the children for the inequity of the parents until the third or fourth generation.” This conflicts with the First Amendment again. You can make as many idols as you want, but the Constitution also directly prohibits punishing children for their parents’ crimes. Article III: “No attainder of treason shall work a corruption of blood.” That means if you are guilty of treason, only you will receive punishment, not your children, and certainly not your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This also conflicts with our principle of justice that only the guilty are punished.
Third Commandment: “Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord thy God in vain.” I claim that this is void for vagueness. Under the 14th Amendment, laws have to be simple enough for people to understand them, so that they know what action is being prohibited.
I’ve asked this of a number of people and get different answers. The best I’ve heard is that it prevents people from swearing an oath and then violating that oath. It fails to give adequate guidance. Quite obviously, this also runs afoul of freedom of speech.
Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Again, read the whole commandment: “You shall do no work neither shall your male or female slave. In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”
First of all, we’re supposed to be celebrating because a God who is all-powerful took six days to make the earth and on the seventh day he had to rest? I call this celebrating lazy omnipotence.
Most importantly, this commandment sanctions slavery. We do have to concede the bible has had a severe influence on the history of slavery. Every original justification for continuing the practice came from the bible. We can concede that to the Christian nationalists. They are welcome to this shameful influence.
Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and mother.” I don’t really like this commandment, not because I don’t want to honor my mother and father, but I think it should be simply to honor people. This really didn’t have an effect or influence on our nation’s principles, unless somebody can correct me later.
Six through nine
I’m going to group these next few together and come back to adultery at the end: “You shall not kill; don’t steal; and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”
These commandments are not Judeo-Christian at all. They are universal principles that apply to absolutely everyone. All successful societies have discovered them.
Secondly, the Judeo-Christian interpretation is actually less moral because it is not universally applied, but applied only to one’s “neighbor.”
In the original Hebrew translations, there are no punctuation marks, no paragraph breaks, no line breaks. These commandments could be read so that “against your neighbor” applies to all the preceding commandments starting with “you shall not murder.”
So it could mean, you shall not murder your neighbor, you shall not steal from your neighbor, you shall not lie to your neighbor. I submit to you that that’s actually the better reading.
Who is your “neighbor?” In Leviticus, “any of your people” is how they define neighbor. “Stand against the blood of your neighbor,” “your people,” “the sons of your own people,” “your countrymen.” It’s only the people who believe in the same God as you, your co-religionists. That’s what neighbor means in the Old Testament.
Immediately after getting these commandments, the Israelites commit genocide after genocide. But none of the slain are Israelites. So they are not actually breaking the “don’t kill” commandment if it only applies to Israelites.
“You shall not commit adultery.” The Seventh Commandment actually did have an influence. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Christianity has an incredibly powerful history influencing legislation concerning sex in the U.S. It’s also a shameful history.
In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court in 1967 overturned miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. One law was justified like this: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents.”
Condemnation of homosexuality is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian “moral” standards. Finally, a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. Again, Christianity had a very shameful influence.
Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” Again, read the commandment fully: “or fields, nor his male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass, or anything that belongs to him.”
Women are chattel. Slavery is condoned. This is thought crime. Big Brother is watching. Christopher Hitchens was very fond of pointing this out. This completely conflicts with the First Amendment.
To sum up the Ten Commandments and their influence on our nation’s founding: they either have no influence, being in conflict with our founding principles or have a shameful influence.
Hell cruel, unusual
Obedience is a theme that runs through the whole bible. In the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot and his wife are fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeys the angelic command to not turn around and look. She disobeys and is turned into a pillar of salt.
And obviously, Isaac and Abraham, the sacrifice, the murder of a child, is often held up as the ideal for obeying God. This is fundamentally opposed to our nature and founding principles.
Edmund Burke wrote: “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole.” In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about the importance of “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
People are required to believe this nonsense by their bible, but they are allowed to believe nonsense because our nation cherishes freedom and has enshrined it, not obedience, in our founding documents.
The Golden Rule? Here’s a list [PowerPoint slide] of Golden Rules that predate the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus is down there at No. 14. Hillel is down there at No. 12. We have found equivalence of the Golden Rule as far back as 2000 B.C.E. in Egypt. It’s arrogant for Christian nationalist Judeo-Christians to claim as their own a rule that is universally known and not even original to their tradition.
Hell is definitely a Judeo-Christian principle. More properly, it’s a Christian principle because Jesus invented hell. In the Old Testament is a place called sheol, which was a place for the dead to go but not a place of eternal torment.
On the other hand, the bible describes hell as where “The worm dyeth not and the fire is not quenched.” It’s described as a burning wind, fiery oven, unquenchable fire, furnace of fire, eternal fire and eternal punishment. You should get the sense that hell is hot and it’s eternal.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Need I say more?
The Supreme Court has actually said that being locked in a jail cell with a five-pack-a-day smoker is cruel and unusual, so I think that hell most certainly qualifies.
Finally, the Judeo-Christian principle: Vicarious redemption, that Jesus died for your sins. This is a total and complete abrogation of personal responsibility. Our entire system of justice is founded on the idea that people are responsible for their own actions.
But abrogation of personal responsibility is the central tenet of Christianity. This conflicts with the central tenet of our system of justice and government. You can imagine how this would go: The defendant gets on the stand and admits to raping children but says, “It’s OK, your honor, I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior and he forgave my sins, so you don’t need to punish me.”
I’d like to leave you with this quote from James Madison. It’s my favorite quote and is on my wall at FFRF. It’s how I motivate myself every day:
“It’s proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of all citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedence.”
I hope that I’ve given you some mental ammunition to counter the pernicious notion that we are a Christian nation or founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We must prevent that myth from growing and becoming entangled in precedent.
Andrew Seidel graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School and has completed a master of laws at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law. He practiced law in Colorado before joining FFRF as a constitutional consultant in 2011. He became a member of the Wisconsin Bar in May 2012, and serves as one of four staff attorneys.
Peter Boghossian was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on October 13, 2012, in Portland, Ore.
After our convention was fully booked, we realized that you have a nationally known freethought celebrity right here. Peter Boghossian happens to be not only an FFRF member, but he’s on the new billboard that you saw last night, “This is what an atheist looks like.”
Peter is an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University. They want to corrupt the morals of the young people, right? [“Socratic” laughter]. He has a teaching pedigree spanning more than 20 years and 30,000 students.
His fundamental objective is to teach people how to think, how to think through what often seems to be intractable problems. His publications can be found in Dialogos, the Philosopher’s Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Essays in Philosophy, Federal Probation Journal and a host of other popular and academic journals. Peter is working on a book that’s coming out soon, which will be called A Manual for Creating Atheists.
Thank you. It’s a true pleasure to be here, and I’m incredibly grateful for the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and for you here today. Earlier speakers talked about an audience full of their best friends. I feel that I’m among my people and among people that I like and respect.
Thank you also for the work that you do in your communities to make them more thoughtful and rational. I have over two-and-a-half decades of experience teaching in prisons and crowded public universities and in the streets. I call it street epistemology.
One lesson I’ve learned is walking the talk. That’s what I’m going to talk about today.
What would it take for you to believe? Well, to believe in what? What would it take for you to believe in a particular religion? What would it take for you to be a believing Christian? Or what would it take for you to believe that the communion wafer that Catholics use transmutes into human flesh and becomes the physical body of Christ?
Or that women should be put in cloth bags and occasionally beaten? What would it take for you to believe that through faith, Jesus Christ can heal people of any and all ailments? Or that the Easter bunny is a real entity that hides colored eggs? Or that you go to a happy place after you die?
Why is it important to answer the question, “What would it take for you to believe?” There are two reasons. First, it’s important so that we don’t become what we’re fighting — doggedly certain, closed-minded, epistemologically arrogant, dogmatic and religious. Being genuinely open to revise or to change your beliefs is an attitudinal disposition.
The American Philosophical Association’s Delphi Report on critical thinking noted, “Willingness to revise a belief is a core attitudinal component of an ideal critical thinker.” Being trustful of reason is another critical component.”
Being able to state explicitly what it would take for you to believe or disbelieve in a particular proposition creates spaces, cognitive spaces, openness in your beliefs. Even thinking about a way to answer this question may help you to hold your beliefs less tenaciously.
In philosophy, there’s a term “doxastic closure.” It’s an esoteric term even among seasoned philosophers. Many philosophers use this in a specialized, technical way.
I use the term in ways that accord with how it’s percolated into public discourse. Doxastic derives from the ancient Greek “doxa.” It basically means belief, but another meaning is how things look or appear to me.
If someone is doxastically closed, that means that their beliefs are immune to revision. Doxastic pathologies are ubiquitous in the realm of faith and religion.
My current research involves looking at mini-dialectical interventions with people to help separate faith from its host — to help people to lose their faith and to become more rational.
The second reason being able to answer this question is important is because it helps us to model the behavior that we want the faithful to emulate. If we want the faithful to be less doggedly certain, less closed-minded, less dogmatic, then this is the behavior that we need to model. If we want the faithful to be trustful of reason and willing to revise their beliefs, then we need to show them by example.
There’s an entire line of literature on change and modeling behavior. Sometimes it’s referred to as pro-social modeling. It shows that modeling is a key component in eliciting behavior change. One of my favorite questions to ask believers is a variation of Matt McCormick’s Defeasibility Test: What would it take for you to lose your faith?
This is a reasonable question, and when I ask it, I expect a clear answer. It’s also a diagnostic tool that enables me to quickly ascertain the degree to which one is doxastically closed.
But beyond this, when I’m asked what it would take for me to have faith or to believe in God, I respond that these are reasonable questions. I always give a direct, blunt and honest answer. In order for us to answer this question, we must first make sure that we’ve asked it of ourselves. We must take a dose of our own medicine. I would never hold a person of faith to a different epistemic standard than I would hold myself. Neither should you.
I want to be clear that there are obviously no guarantees. Just because one can state what it would take to believe or disbelieve a particular proposition doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly experienced some doxastic openness and are willing to revise their beliefs.
Sometimes we engage someone who’s argued poorly for their position, but because of dialectical training, we can immediately think of a counterargument to offer for the same conclusion or a better argument, a much stronger argument. We should provide people with arguments for their conclusions that are even better than the ones they’ve offered.
When I’m having a discussion about faith, I don’t want to have a conversation with a straw man. I want to have a conversation with a real person who’s giving me powerful arguments that have emerged from their experiences. If they can’t provide that, then I’ll provide it for them.
One of the strengths of philosophical training is that it enables you to do this. It’s also one of the strengths that comes from leading an examined life. This is the thing that we should try to model. This is another component of street epistemology.
Matter of attitude
Having a closed belief system is a complex problem. One part of it is that our brains trick us into thinking that we’re open-minded. Michael Shermer has some wonderful work on this in The Believing Brain. Our brains trick us into thinking that we’re willing to revise our beliefs, that we’re willing to reconsider when we’re not.
Confirmation bias is part of this. We have a natural predisposition to go with our own ideas, to go with the way things appear to us, but we get stuck in appearances. We confirm our own biases.
An example of this would be the bones of Christ. Whenever I ask someone of faith, a Christian, “What would it take for you to lose your faith?,” often I’m struck when they say, “The bones of Christ.”
I used to believe that when people said that to me, they weren’t being sincere. I no longer believe that. I think that’s a result of a different sort of epistemological pathology. Look, let’s say that I had a bag, and I brought a bag in here, and instead of this conference, this is the Apologists’ Conference.
I plop the bag on the table and I say, “These are the bones of Christ. I went to Jerusalem, had a great time, went on an archaeological dig.” Those bones would be examined with far more scrutiny than what the faithful use to believe their current set of beliefs about Jesus and the resurrection. They would do everything to falsify that claim.
This shows that the problem of why people hold preposterous beliefs is not a matter of a skill set. It’s not because they lack critical thinking skills or because they don’t know their beliefs are absurd. It’s a matter of attitude.
The faithful don’t have the appropriate attitudinal dispositions, like a trustfulness of reason and willingness to revise their beliefs. This is also why we need to help them to break through these delusions by modeling the behavior in ourselves.
You may be thinking that I’ve placed an undue burden upon you. There are just too many issues, too many ideas to consider what it would take to change one’s beliefs on all of these issues. I don’t think it’s an undue burden. This is what it means to live a thoughtful and examined life.
It’s the ability to reason through problems, to evaluate evidence, to generate counterexamples, to clearly state why we believe or don’t believe, to revise your beliefs, to use the results to inform our decisions to make better lives and form better communities.
What is atheism?
I’m not arguing that this is something that has to be immediate. If someone asks you what would it take for you to believe, if you don’t know, just say you don’t know, that you’ll think about it and get back to them.
An indispensable goal is to be free from bad reasoning, faulty epistemologies and from the attitudes that lead to religion. What’s not important is to be an atheist. It is important to be a person who trusts reason, who formulates reason on the basis of reliable evidence and who’s genuinely willing to reconsider.
Atheism is a natural consequence of possessing these skills and attitudes. Yet one could be an atheist and not possess these skills and dispositions. That is, one could be a doxastically closed atheist. This should not be an intellectual or attitudinal aspiration.
Atheism is not an immutable, timeless truth. Atheism is a conclusion. It’s a conclusion one comes to based on an honest and thoughtful examination of reasons and evidence.
In the next [PowerPoint] slide I’ve compiled a comprehensive, historical and contemporary list of all of the evidence and all of the reasons that one should consider when examining whether or not there’s a god or gods. [Blank slide, laughter and applause.] There is no evidence. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
This is why I don’t believe in God. It’s not for ideological reasons. Dan mentioned his debate with Dinesh D’Souza recently. We don’t not believe in God, as D’Souza claims, because we’re angry. I’m not angry. Dan, are you angry?
Dan: “Not with you.” [Laughter.]
We don’t believe in God because there’s a complete lack of evidence. But this shouldn’t deter us from providing answers as to what it would take to believe in God, to believe in leprechauns, or to believe in any other proposition.
So let’s revisit the questions, the issues that we’ve looked at this morning. I will honestly say what it would take for me to believe in these things. Physicist Lawrence Krauss has an interesting debate with William Lane Craig, where Krauss said, “If God wanted you to believe in its existence, you’d walk outside, you’d look up at the sky and there it would be. And the stars would realign themselves and say something like, ‘I am God. Believe in me.’ ”
If that happened to me, I would doubt my sanity. I would think that somehow I was the victim of a delusion, or one of my students spiked my coffee with LSD. The philosopher David Hume has an interesting comment on miracles. He says that there’s stronger reason to doubt the testifier than to trust the testimony.
I’m not sure I would trust this perception. It may be that no perception, or no feeling state, would lead me to conclude that God exists. Instead, I would need argument or reason.
What would it take?
But let’s suspend that for a moment and go with the example. What would it take for me personally to believe in God? Well, the stars spelling things out to people in different languages would be interesting. “I am God, believe in me” in Arabic.
I also want predictions. I’d want, I don’t know, something about the future, someone to solve Goldbach’s [mathematical] conjecture, I’d want something that I could latch my hands on to. This is the way I would approach the problem. These are the tools that I would bring to bear on how to think through the problem.
The communion wafer transforms into the body of Christ. I’m going to combine this with the next one of faith healing. We can turn the tools of science on these questions very easily.
There’s a famous line, “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” The tools of science are quite easy in these cases. What is more difficult is when we enter the moral realm. What would it take for me to believe that we should put half of our population in cloth bags and beat them? Well, this is an astonishingly difficult question.
If I could be shown that my core value of gender and racial egalitarianism was a cultural artifact, and that somehow forcing women into bags and beating them was actually in their own interest, and somehow contributed to the well-being of society, that would really be something.
Or maybe if I could be shown that I was harboring a mistaken view about reality in regard to women. Maybe, for example, if they were malevolent entities, some kind of extraterrestrials bent on destroying humanity. This is the sort of evidence that one would need to warrant belief in these claims.
Regardless of the specific belief that’s being examined, in all of the cases, what’s important is to sincerely think about answering the question. This is a way that we can nudge ourselves to think more clearly and more rationally. Just stating that we’re willing to revise our beliefs if shown sufficient evidence, or if given sufficient reason, is not enough. We must be able to state exactly what it would take for us to believe or to disbelieve a given proposition. We need to model the change that we want to see in the faithful. There’s a lot of work to be done to help people to lose their faith and to embrace reason. This is one step in that direction. It’s possible for virtually everyone to lead a life free of delusion.
To facilitate this, think back to one of the definitions of belief from the Greek. We need to move from appearance and opinion to knowledge. We also need to model the attitudes that are necessary to provide people with hope.
But the hope we offer is a tough hope. It’s not born of platitudes. It won’t make you feel better right away. But it takes away a false view of reality and offers a genuine hope, a hope that’s based on reason and rationality and the tools of science.
It’s a hope your own efforts of thoughtfulness and an examined life will help contribute to that — a hope offered through walking the talk. Thank you.
FFRF member Peter Boghossian is an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University. His main focus is bringing the tools of professional philosophers to people in a wide variety of contexts. Email: ; Twitter: @peterboghossian
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation
Not one workday ever goes by that we at the Freedom From Religion Foundation do not give thanks — to the McCollum family for the landmark ruling they won. We must pause this Friday, March 8, to give special thanks to the achievement of Vashti McCollum and her family. Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in McCollum v. Board of Education, a decision that endures and protects schoolchildren and personal conscience throughout the land.
FFRF daily invokes the McCollum precedent in our legal letters of complaint over state/church violations in public schools. McCollum, issued in 1948, is the bedrock upon which rests all other Supreme Court rulings against religious encroachments and devotions in public schools. (We also more than pleased to invoke the McCollum precedent in Doe v. Porter, FFRF’s 2004 victory in the 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nixing devotional instruction taught by bible students in Dayton, Tenn.)
I’m writing this tribute en route to a celebration of that decision in the city of origin, Champaign, Ill., where Vashti brought her brave and unpopular challenge. As professor George Axtelle wrote about Vashti: “Very few persons would have been willing to stand up, as she did, not only to the authorities but also to the hostility of the whole community. Here, indeed, is a story of rare courage.”
The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, under the leadership of professor Jay Rosenstein, today will be airing Jay’s Peabody Award-winning documentary about the landmark case, “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today.” A famous remark at the trial also formed the title for Dannel McCollum’s book about his mother’s case as well, called The Lord Was Not on Trial. Jay was kind enough to invite me as a representative of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to be on the post-screening panel.
To ready myself for this panel, I’ve just reread Vashti’s memoir One Woman’s Fight and the McCollum decision. In the face of bitter defeat in two lower courts, social shunning, hate mail, reprisal against herself, her family and her children, Vashti did not give up. She was rewarded with a historic decision, 8-1, in her favor.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the main opinion, concluding: “Here not only are the state’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”
Four justices, represented by Justice Felix Frankfurter, issued a strong concurrence. Frankfurter wrote, “Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not of a fine line easily overstepped. The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny. In no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools, to avoid confusing, not to say fusing, what the Constitution sought to keep strictly apart. ‘The great American principle of eternal separation’ — Elihu Root’s phrase bears repetition — is one of the vital reliances of our Constitutional system for assuring unities among our people stronger than our diversities.”
One of the many great privileges of being an FFRF co-founder has been meeting and working with so many memorable champions of the First Amendment. In 1993, FFRF received permission to reprint Vashti’s remarkable, timely and engaging book, first published in 1951 (available at ffrf.org/shop).
In the foreword by FFRF President Anne Nicol Gaylor, Anne noted: “We are all of us indebted to Vashti for her activism in defense of a basic constitutional principle. And we are so please to know her — an intrepid and charming woman of great integrity.” It was a privilege to meet Vashti and her husband, John (“Pappy”), and their sons Jim and Dannel, who remain committed to championing the Establishment Clause. Pappy died before Vashti, who died in 2006 at age 93. Vashti, Jim and Dan were interviewed for FFRF’s 1989 film “Champions of the First Amendment.” Rosenstein’s documentary captures their words, the drama and the scope of this decision for posterity, and is a poignant lesson for today.
While we take a moment to savor this strong ruling, it must be noted that the Supreme Court has egregiously deviated from the principles in McCollum in its 2001 Good News Club v. Milford Central School District decision. What the court stopped during the school day, it now blesses as soon as the bell rings at the end of the school day.
A major child evangelism industry is permitted to set up shop in our public schools and use their machinery, truancy laws and classrooms to conduct child evangelism clubs of indoctrination. The Good News Club decision was bad news that cannot be squared with Justice Black’s analysis of what is impermissible in McCollum, nor can the Supreme Court’s green light on school voucher funding.
Nothing could inspire more state/church activism than reading Vashti’s One Woman’s Fight. Vashti won the big one. Now it’s up to the rest of us to keep mopping up!
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants you to help give perspective to a Texas school district over allowing religious "run-through" banners displayed by school cheerleaders on the field during school football games. The Kountze ISD Board of Trustees has asked for public input.
FFRF maintains that banners on the football field are perceived as official messages of the school and as such, may not endorse Christianity. FFRF contacted the District in the fall and requested that the religious banners no longer be used. In September of 2012 the District's former superintendent agreed and disallowed religious messages on the run-through banners. Liberty Institute, on behalf of school cheerleaders, filed suit against the district. A Texas court granted a temporary injunction, which allows the religious banners until trial in June.
The cheerleaders and their advocates have claimed the messages painted on the banners are "inspirational." But, the messages are insulting and exclude members of the community who are non-Christians, non-religious, or Christians who do not subscribe to divisive biblical messages being promoted by the school at a football game.
"If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31," read one of the banners displayed by cheerleaders in school uniforms. Others have said:
But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Phil. 3:14
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14.
The banners marginalize community members who are not in agreement with the proselytizing messages. FFRF disputes Liberty Institute's position that the banners are merely private speech. Because the banners are school-sponsored speech they must follow the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
The Kountze Independent School District is receiving comments on the religious banners through Friday. FFRF encourages you to speak out and let the District know that the divisive banners are unwelcoming and that the Board should take action to prevent the District's display of biblical banners.
Interim Superintendent Reese Briggs
Click on the link below to send him an email:
Kountze Independent School District
PO Box 460
Kountze, Texas 77625
Phone: (409) 246-3352
Fax: (409) 246-3217
Contact the local media
Email a letter to the editor of the area's newspaper, The Beaumont Enterprise:
One sentence is sufficient. Your own words are best. But you may wish to copy this paragraph in your correspondence:
I support Kountze ISD's original decision to stop the display of bible verse banners on the football field.
Cheerleaders and other representatives of the school should not misuse the privilege the school confers on them to promote Christianity.
The banners confer an appearance of official school endorsement, and marginalize members of the community who do not conform to the religious beliefs espoused in the messages. Please put an end to school-sponsored religious banners and show respect for the Establishment Clause and the rights of conscience of all members of our pluralistic society.
Thank you. (Sign name)