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Texas District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County implemented a temporary injunction Oct. 18 in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District that allows Kountze High School cheerleaders to make and hold Christian banners for football players to run through before games and for players to carry them around the stadium.

Thomas didn’t rule on the actual merits of the case but set a June 24 hearing date for a permanent injunction, thus allowing the banners to be displayed through the end of the school year.

The injunction temporarily overturned the decision Superintendent Kevin Weldon made barring the banners after receiving a Sept. 17 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt on behalf of a local complainant.

The team ran through banners at home games with bible verses such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13); “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14); and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Responding to FFRF’s complaint, Weldon told a TV station, “I commend [the cheerleaders] for what they stand for. But I called legal counsel and even though it’s led by students, it should not be allowed to go on.”

Schmitt had cited a long list of court cases that have held such displays “constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners ‘as stamped with [their] school’s approval.’ ” The prevailing precedent is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 Supreme Court case.

According to cheerleaders, the bible banner idea came from an instructional camp they attended. “Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys,” Meagan Tantillo said.

Banner supporters were immediately up in arms at the school’s decision. FFRF’s phone lines were swamped for several days with angry callers as the story went national, with coverage by major broadcast and print media, including “Good Morning America,” the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker faced off with a Liberty Institute spokesperson on Fox News.

Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened on behalf of the Liberty Institute, an evangelical law firm, which sued to get the temporary restraining order. Both state officials made inflammatory public statements, as both have done in the past on state/church issues. Abbott called FFRF “menacing and misleading.” 

The grandstanding attorney general then proclaimed at a press conference with Perry, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics, to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”

Perry, who repeatedly referred during the press conference to Abbott as “General,” also castigated FFRF and, by extension, its 700-plus Texas members. “The underlying problem here is that there’s this very vocal, as you shared, and very litigious minority of Americans that are willing to legally attack anybody who dares to utter a phrase, a name that they don’t agree with.”

Perry went on to demonstrate that he apparently has never read the godless U.S. Constitution: “We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.”

FFRF’s local counsel Randall Kallinen of Houston filed an amicus brief Oct. 3 on behalf of the school district. (FFRF’s four staff attorneys worked doggedly to research and write the brief in less than a week.)

In its brief, FFRF takes issue with the plaintiffs’ claim that the banners are an exercise of free speech: “The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech.”

“If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, would a court support their ‘right’ to hold up a banner insulting Christianity or all believers? The District has every right to simply prohibit all run-through and on-field banners.”

FFRF contends that the banners are government speech because they are displayed in a context implying school endorsement and because the school has effective control over the messages. “Cheerleading for the school is undeniably a school-sponsored activity, and the banners displayed by the cheerleaders take place during a school-sponsored event.”

The New York Times quoted Charles Haynes, director at the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. “If the cheerleaders aren’t representing the school, then who are they [representing]? It would be like saying that the football team doesn’t represent the school, they are just individual students just coming on the field and are free to do what they want to do.”

The school district could decide to appeal Thomas’ ruling, but in what seems like a curious bit of collusion, the district had formally asked the court to hold “that the Establishment Clause should not be interpreted so as to require Defendants [the school] to bar the religious banners. . .”

While FFRF’s complaint started the case, it’s not a party to the suit. But if contacted by those with standing to sue, FFRF is prepared to challenge the continuing violation in federal court, where the case belongs.

“We encourage any student or parent with children in the public schools coming into contact with this religious practice at public school functions to contact FFRF,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Plaintiffs with standing might also include school employees coming into regular contact with the banners at school sporting events.

FFRF has taken complaints about the practice spreading to other schools and has recently sent letters of complaint to to Newton, Texas; Bossier Parish, La.; Stone County Schools, Miss.; and Thackerville Schools, Okla. FFRF was notified that the Stone County Mississippi School District ordered cheerleaders to stop making religious banners.

“Since the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance. It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government, but we need those brave few to contact FFRF,” added Barker.

“Don’t let collusion, politicking and religious fervor in Texas destroy respect for keeping public schools free of religious divisiveness,” Barker added.

The New York Times (“Faith, Football and the First Amendment,” Oct. 21) and  Washington Post (“Bench the Bible,” Oct. 24) editorialized in FFRF’s favor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed two lawsuits that contest Ten Commandments monuments at Pennsylvania schools. One suit was filed Sept. 27 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against the Connellsville Area School District for a marker at a junior high school.

FFRF, on behalf of two local “Doe” plaintiffs, seeks a declaration that the display is unconstitutional and should be removed. FFRF is also named as a plaintiff in both suits.

A similar federal suit was filed Sept. 14 against the New Kensington-Arnold School District for maintaining a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School in New Kensington. FFRF first sent a letter of complaint in March about the illegal monument. 

The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the slabs to both schools in the mid 1950s. FFRF has nearly 700 Pennsylvania members. Pittsburgh-based attorney Marcus Schneider represents the plaintiffs in both suits.

Some nonmembers of FFRF were up in arms with dire predictions. At a “Save Our Stone” rally at Valley High, New Kensington resident Mike Hresko spoke to the “crowd” of 50, according to the Valley News Dispatch. “We don’t want it removed. This is part of our community. . . . They’ll lock up the churches and we’ll be just like a communist country.”

At a similar event in Connellsville, a woman told WTAE-4 that the monuments contain “God’s principles” and should stay. “I believe that God should be in school with our children.”

The legal complaints state that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on school property unconstitutionally advances and endorses religion. The complaints also note that [each] display “lacks any secular purpose,” citing Stone v. Graham, a 1980 Supreme Court decision which ruled the Commandments may not be posted in public school classrooms, because “The pre-eminent purpose” for doing so “is plainly religious in nature.”

Plaintiffs in the suit against the New Kensington-Arnold School District are FFRF member Marie Schaub, who has a child, Doe 1, in the school district who regularly encounters the bible edict, and Doe 2, a student at Valley High School, along with Doe 3, parent and guardian of Doe 2.

The Valley News Dispatch reported that Schaub came to a pro-Commandments rally. “I just wanted to hear what they are saying. I find it amazing that people gather in support of breaking the law.”

Doe 5 is an atheist member of FFRF who views the Connellsville monument as usurpation of parental rights and who does “not subscribe to the religious statements that are inscribed on the monument.” Her child, Doe 4, attends the junior high and comes in regular contact with the prominent monument, which is in view of students boarding or exiting school buses and participating in outdoor gym classes.

The complaint notes, “FFRF and Doe 5 contend that a public school district has no right to instruct its captive audience of impressionable students on which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all.”

The tombstone-like New Kensington monument, about 6 feet tall, is directly in front of the main school entrance, near two footbridges that students, staff and visitors use to enter the building.

School Board President Robert Pallone wrote in March on a Facebook page called “KEEP THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL,” that the district would not “remove this monument without a fight !!!!!”

The Eagles’ Commandments campaign started when a devout judge and Eagles member, E.J. Ruegemer — who wanted to promote religion and Minnesota granite — teamed up with film director Cecil B. DeMille, who was advertising his 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”

In 2002, FFRF successfully removed one of the first such monuments placed on public property in the city of Milwaukee. Actor Yul Brenner, who played Rameses II in the movie, had attended the dedication.

FFRF seeks permanent injunctions directing the districts to remove the monuments from district property, reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees and nominal damages to plaintiffs. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott helped draft both complaints.

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PDFs

Tampabillboard

The Republican National Convention was greeted by Uncle Sam in Tampa, Fla.

A so-called “act of god” (Hurricane Ivan) didn’t stop the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s message from being posted the Thursday before the Republican National Convention began in Tampa. 

FFRF’s patriotic red-white-and-blue message, depicting a finger-wagging Uncle Sam cautioning that “God fixation won’t fix this nation,” was placed on Kennedy Boulevard.

FFRF’s election-year caveat was drawn by editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower who later became president of the Mormon Church. Steve Benson left the Mormon Church in the early 1990s. 

“Our equal-opportunity message to both political parties and all public officials is: Get off your knees and get to work!” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

FFRF placed the same admonition on two billboards in Charlotte in time for the Democratic National Convention the following week. It included a hard-to-miss, 14x48-foot version near downtown Charlotte, at 1720 Freedom Drive, and on a highly visible, 10x30-foot billboard on Interstate 77.

“The preoccupation with religion by our nation and our public officials is holding back the USA scientifically, intellectually and morally,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF.

FFRF’s tradition of placing billboards at the national party conventions began in 2008. (Note: All FFRF-placed billboards are clearly identified with FFRF’s full name and website.)

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‘The Antidote for Faith’

bratz and catName: Wayne Bartz.

Where I live: Out in the sticks in the Sierra foothills not far from Lake Tahoe, Calif. We are frequently entertained by deer and raccoons, along with mountain lions and coyotes.

Where and when I was born: Chicago, long, long ago in 1938. I actually remember Hitler strutting around in newsreels at the local movie theaters.

Family: I live with my wife, Linda, and eight rescued feral cats.

Occupation: Now retired, I began my career working the trenches as a clinical psychologist, then as a college psychology professor (and also co-authored several self-help books).

How I got where I am today: Today I am a retired geezer, so I guess I got here mainly by surviving.  Where I am as a freethinker is not surprising, since as a psychologist I spent most of my professional life in the company of nonbelievers (80% of psychologists reject supernatural explanations for natural events, including human behavior).

Three decades of training college students to think critically and question authority eventually led to the publication of my recent book, Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith.

Where I’m headed: Presumably to oblivion. I am pretty sure I am not destined either for heaven or hell.

Person in history I admire: Carl Sagan, with whom I was privileged to interact briefly on two occasions. He was a warm and engaging scientist who was able to lay open the mysteries of science in a way understandable to the general public,

I most admired Sagan’s ability to remain calm, pleasant and persuasive in the face of hostile questions or ignorance-based preposterous claims. He had that rare gift of keeping his cool in situations where most of us would lose it, and that made him a great educator.

A quotation I like: “Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love,” (the late humorist Bill Hicks). I also like comedian Rich Jeni’s description of going to war over religion: “This involves two groups of people willing to kill each other in order to determine who has the best imaginary friend.”

These are a few of my favorite things: My fondest freethought accomplishment came from spearheading a California college faculty organization 25 years ago working for the separation of church and state. Our efforts eventually resulted in invocations and closing prayers being permanently banned from graduation ceremonies at more than 100 California community colleges.

Although it sometimes may not seem that way, once in a while we actually win one. Today I am encouraged by the vociferous nationwide out-of-the-closet atheist revolt, fueled by FFRF, Dawkins, Hitchens, Newdow, Harris, et al. As a retired educator, I am delighted by the younger generation’s increasing rejection of religion, with nearly a third now admitting that they have discarded traditional beliefs.

These are not: Nothing is more irritating to me than sanctimonious politicians (e.g., Rick Santorum) pandering to the ignoramus Religious Right, not to mention President Obama repeatedly babbling publicly about Jesus. That’s embarrassing.

My doubts about religion started: When I was a kid, my family attended a Lutheran church where I experienced an odd mixture of community solidarity, social events and high-minded ideals, along with watching adults engage in petty squabbles, hypocrisy and political infighting. My favorite minister, a brilliant speaker and thought-provoking pastor, was let go because he failed to present simple hellfire and brimstone in his weekly sermons.

He tried to make the congregation think, and they didn’t like it one bit. He was replaced by a mundane standard-issue preacher who bored me to tears, even as a teenager. Our wonderful new pastor managed to alienate my parents by pulling a nasty fast-shuffle on me and my older brother. We had worked for a couple of years as church custodians, being paid a few bucks for our labors.

One day the pastor notified me that we were being fired for failing to properly do our job and then quickly appointed his newly retired father to the position. We knew better because my father, a serious German-style taskmaster (a supervising chemist at Kaiser Steel), did a weekly white-glove inspection of our work every Saturday, making sure that everything was 100% up to snuff.  He was not at all happy with the way his sons had been treated and eventually became alienated from the church. He never spoke of it, but my parents quit attending and so did I. 

Why I’m a freethinker: The alternative is unthinkable.

Ways I promote freethought: I spent three decades teaching the scientific method and honing college students’ critical thinking skills as a psychology professor. Based on that work, I recently wrote Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith. (It’s available from Amazon and as an e-book from River’s Bend Press at riversbendpress.com.) The book characterizes blind faith as a “toxic poison of the intellect,” in sharp contrast to contemporary American society, which enthusiastically endorses faith as a positive value.

Chapters such as “The Folly of Faith” and “Miracles, Healing and Health Hokum” point out how unsubstantiated beliefs can lead the faithful to some very silly and sometimes dark places. Critical thinking is proposed as an alternative to faith, its implementation based on a step-by-step approach summarized by the acronym CRITIC. The book also targets faith-based scam artists such as psychics, seers, faith healers, hokey health practitioners and assorted gurus and cult leaders.

It concludes with a review of the skeptical views of the nation’s founders, noted scientists, contemporary public figures and entertainers. Philip Appleman, Freethought Today poetry contributor, says that CRITIC methodology should be taught in every grade school, high school and college.

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Religious rehab: Fishing for the weak

By Bailey Rahn
and Chance Campbell

My name is Will and I am an alcoholic.”

Those words carried the 19-year-old to what he hoped would be early redemption for a self-admitted addict. The faces looking back at him were aged and weathered by years of pain, reflecting a desperation that was only just taking root in him. Alcoholics Anonymous with its bolstered reputation was the first option that came to mind. 

Then again, it was the only option that came to mind.

Will only attended two AA sessions before walking out, disgusted by its covert conversion methods: “No one there would admit that AA was religious. They claim that they do not hold you to the Christian God, only that they hold you to some higher power. They claim it can be another god. A rock. An abstract, an ideal. ... It would be one thing if they had meant it ... But they didn’t. If the higher power could be anything we wanted, then why did we end each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer?”

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are centered around the 12-Step program. According to 12-Step, addicts are incapable of escaping addiction without God’s help. Narconon, the rehab empire with over 180 treatment centers worldwide, grounds its program in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. But don’t count on them admitting that before you hand over the $27,000 for admission.

Nowhere does Narconon’s website mention its religious affiliation. Likely, they’re avoiding association with Scientology because of the bad rap it’s developed. But let’s be real: This is the same group of people pitching you their handbook called “Integrity and Honesty.” 

AA openly states its spiritual foundation, but its introduction pamphlet advertises an open-minded front: “All the great faiths are represented in our Fellowship, and many religious leaders have encouraged our growth. There are also atheists and agnostics among us. Belief in, or adherence to, a formal creed is not a condition of membership.”

But take a look at AA’s fundamental 12-step curriculum. By Step 2 the addict submits to a “Power” that is greater than him. This cleverly ambiguous higher Power is left open to the interpretation of the addict, but in any case the addict must surrender his agency and independent strength. But wait, hold on: Who says conversion can’t be an effective treatment method?

Miller’s research

As a lifelong Christian, Dr. William R. Miller at the University of New Mexico thought spirituality would surely benefit recovering addicts. To test the validity of his assumptions, he conducted a study that compared religious and secular rehabilitation treatment programs.

The results were surprising: Not only were secular programs more effective in treating substance abuse, patients of religious programs reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than those without spiritual guidance. 

In light of these discoveries, Miller concluded, “What we came away with was the sense that we had been naïve to think of spiritual direction as an acute intervention for early treatment.”

But why did graduates of religious rehab programs register higher rates of anxiety and depression? Miller speculates that it’s simply timing; with religion’s excess of moral codes and guilt-enforced modes of conduct, religious treatments only augment addicts’ stress. If that is true, what do secular programs offer that lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression?

One secular rehab program, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), focuses on teaching self-empowerment and self-reliance. Simple, right? SMART’s techniques also evolve alongside addiction recovery science. In fact, these are common practices in most secular rehab programs. By restoring addicts’ agency through self-empowerment techniques, recoverers graduate with the knowledge that self-control comes from within. This prepares them to stay off drugs in the future and lead more productive lives. With these outcomes, reductions in depression and anxiety are inevitable.

The greatest distinction between religious and secular treatment programs is the source from which addicts are encouraged to derive their will to quit. In 12-step and other spiritual programs, patients must sacrifice themselves to an external entity, accepting that they cannot recover alone. Addicts effectually replace their dependence on substances with a dependence on a (real or imagined) higher power.

Rather than dependency replacement, secular rehabs shoot for dependency cessation, treating the aspects of addicts’ lives that caused them to seek external affirmation in the first place.

While spirituality has provided support for many recovering addicts, that doesn’t excuse the oversaturation of religious rehabs in the treatment market. Rather than subversively proselytizing vulnerable individuals, rehabilitation programs should prioritize patients’ needs.

Not everyone needs religion to recover. The dishonest use of religion has caused more than one person to walk out of treatment, but the larger problem may lie in the many people too desperate to realize they’re swallowing a force-fed God.

Bailey Rahn and Chance Campbell are editors at AllTreatment.com, a resource which provides information on treatment programs nationwide and articles and interviews on drug treatment.

References

Miller, William R. Forcehimes, Alyssa. O’Leary, Mary J. LaNoue, Marnie D. “Spiritual Direction in Addiction Treatment: Two Clinical Trials.” 2008; 35(4):434-442. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074054720800038X

Arnold, Ruth M., S. Kelly Avants, Arthur Magolin, David Marcotta. “Patient attitudes concerning the inclusion of spirituality into addiction treatment.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Volume 23, Issue 4, Pages 319-326,
December 2002, http://www.journalofsubstanceabusetreatment.com/article/S0740-5472(02)00282-9/fulltext

Narcotics Anonymous 

http://www.na.org/?ID=PR-index

The Fix

http://www.thefix.com/content/narconons-big-con?page=all  

Narconon.org

http://www.narconon.org/about-narconon/

SMART Recovery

http://www.smartrecovery.org/intro/

“Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains”

http://www.pewforum.org/Government/religion-in-prisons.aspx

William R. Miller, Ph.D. 

http://www.williamrmiller.net/Spirituality.html

Hey teach, look at me now

By Amedee Marchand Martella

Ever since I heard my middle school science teacher say the hand of God was responsible for separating the continents, I knew I was going to be a freethinker who promoted the separation of church and state and the teaching of science in public schools. I wondered how a science teacher could make such a declaration without evidence to support it.

In high school, my expository debate topic was on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which I chose to illustrate why creationism should not be taught. My coach said if I wanted to do well in competition, I should probably choose a less controversial topic.

I said I wanted to make people think, so I decided to keep my topic on church-state separation and the importance of teaching evolution in public schools. I won local competitions but received low scores in northern Idaho. I made the state finals but lost.

My coach gave me the judges’ feedback. One said the topic was too absurd to be true and that I had made up Pastafarianism to bash religion (even though it’s based on principles of Christianity). I knew my efforts were worth it when I heard an older couple say my presentation was their favorite because it made them think. 

One particular teacher was an evangelical Christian. We frequently got into heated debates over religion. The last conversation we had was about faith versus scientific evidence. Another teacher told my class that atheism was a belief system. I explained why it wasn’t and brought him an article just to reinforce my point.

In my digital media class, an assignment was to make a stop-motion video. I made one entitled “Santa versus Jesus: A Race to Determine Who Is Fact and Who Is Fiction.” Concluding there was not definitive evidence for either, I ended with an evolving set of figurines and Darwin coming out of nowhere to win the race. In another class, I wrote and had published a letter to the editor about how “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. My letter sparked debate in the community.

All of my friends are religious. I appreciate the fact they continue to be my friends and are relatively open-minded. They’ve said I’m one of the only freethinkers they’ve ever met. My nonreligious views bewilder them. I strive to make them think critically. 

My middle school teacher would be surprised to learn her explanation of the continents motivated me to speak out against the encroachment of religion in society. 

 

Amedee Marchand Martella, 18, Spokane, Wash., is attending the University of Colorado-Boulder to major in evolutionary biology and political science.

 

Not afraid to speak up

By Jarrett Browne 

Im not ashamed to admit that I’m atheist. I’m one of the few people at my school who has no religion, so it can come as a shock to people. They act surprised, as if I had just told them that I had two Bengal tigers guarding my house at night.

One day in government class, my teacher asked for an “adult discussion” about 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist’s effort to get a prayer banner removed from her school. While people were saying how stupid Jessica was, I raised my hand and was recognized.

“Many of you have no idea where this girl is coming from, but I do. I’m atheist, and one of the very few here at Butler. Our school system is horrible about keeping religion out of public schools, and I feel unwelcome here at times. Even if this prayer isn’t directed toward any particular religion, it’s directed toward religion in general and it goes against separation of church and state.”

Many students just stared at me like deer in the headlights. “But it’s not harming anything,” said the girl sitting behind me. “Having a banner in the auditorium isn’t prayer in school! This girl’s being ridiculous!” By now she was standing up and shaking with emotion.

“I agree,” said a guy in the back who was going to Notre Dame on a full-ride athletic scholarship. “If most of the school’s Roman Catholic, they should have this up for the students.”

“But it’s offensive to some students,” I told him. “No, we need it up because it agrees with my religion!” he insisted.

“What makes you better than a couple of atheist teenagers?” I asked. He shut up and didn’t return to the debate.

“I’m with Jarrett now,” a girl said. “Yeah, I don’t think they should keep it up if it makes some students uncomfortable,” said someone else.

“OK, let’s vote,” said our teacher. “How many of you are with Jessica?” My hand shot right up as did a few others. But one shocked me, someone I knew to be very religious and very conservative. I couldn’t believe it.

Even though we were outvoted, I still had an effect on this classroom.

 

Jarrett Browne, 18, Vandalia, Ohio, is attending Wright State University in Dayton to major in mechanical engineering.

 

Planting seeds of doubt

By Kaitlin A. Holden

Growing up in the South, religion is one of the most vital aspects of your life. From birth, you are indoctrinated by every adult who raises you. I’m the child and grandchild of ordained ministers. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been taught that betraying “God” is an unforgivable sin. When my parents found out that I was an atheist at age 14, my life took a turn for the worse.

They couldn’t believe it. They tried getting me to read the bible over and over, took me to psychiatrists and sent me to Christian summer camps. I quickly became depressed and thought that nobody loved me. My embarrassed parents wouldn’t let me talk about my views, read books by atheist authors and didn’t care to hear about my life.

I felt worthless but stood my ground. Then I had an epiphany that changed everything. I realized that I was an important person with a purpose. I was kind and passionate and had  ideas and knowledge that nobody could ever take away. I seemed to love and support people more than my “Christianly” parents did.

It was then I knew that lack of religion doesn’t make me a bad person. I realized that even if I was considered a heathen, I was proud of myself. I am nonjudgmental, amazed by the wonders of science and the universe and have a thirst for learning that nothing could quench. It was all so beautiful to me.

Soon after, I began to tell anyone who would listen about the restraints of religion — comparing beliefs, pointing out flaws and contradictions in the bible. Although my success was limited, I still found joy planting little seeds of doubt in the minds of the indoctrinated.

Four years later, I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed true to myself and my nonbelief. I look back on my 14-year-old self and smile, knowing I’m in a better place now than I would be within the confines of religion. I taught myself to reason. I shall be a freethinker for life.

 

Kaitlin Amber Holden, 18, Murrells Inlet, S.C., is attending Winthrop University in Rock Hill to major in premedical biology and political science.

 

Mission for humanity

By Cheyenne Tessier

My knees were sore. I got down and prayed for wind, joining hands with dirty-faced working men and the long-skirted women. And the wind came.

It was a miracle, I convinced myself, a missionary in a hell-stricken place, the daughter of two devout Christians. Yes, I was blessed.

We were told not to give our food to the starving children because it would start a riot, so we gave them bibles, telling them this is the right way. Do not live with the devils of your ancestors, children. We played and danced.

Then we sat on the air-conditioned bus and ate sandwiches and drank soda, but the children could not drink their bibles. Soon the girls would turn to prostitution to feed themselves, but God was with them, so we gave them bibles as if we offered salvation to a system that was, in the first place, polluted by missionaries.

We didn’t give them work, only scripture. We didn’t heal their water supply, only offered a prayer for their souls. And then we came home, our work done. I hung my Haitian flag above my bed. Many nights I stared at that flag, praising myself as a hero. But doubt is the greatest of infections, and soon I was overcome with questions. 

I attended church less and less. I could not think about the evil I had done by starving a community for some faraway god, who didn’t laugh or learn or die of malnourishment. 

If there were no heaven and no hell and no God, I wonder if we would share our food and water and shelter instead of our “wisdom.” I wonder if all the love, focused away from the skies and onto humanity, would be enough to eliminate hunger and educate every child to care for our Earth instead of our unreachable skies.

My proudest moment as a freethinker was inviting my former congregation to a benefit I held after the 2010 Haiti earthquake in the name of humanity. I proved that it does not take a zealot or a missionary to change the world, but as Margaret Mead said, “It takes a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” 

That night, I gave back to Haiti the sandwiches I had stolen from it. 

When I am asked, “Are you doing it with a church?” I quietly reply, “No. I am on a mission, but I am not a missionary.”

 

Cheyenne Tessier, 18, Hudson, N.H., is enrolled at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to study international affairs and Arabic.

 

Light bulb in the pews

By Zach Gowan 

I was raised by my mom, who never exposed me to a particularly religious environment. As a result, I never really found myself subscribing to any religion. I never really thought about the fact that I wasn’t religious. Put simply, I just wasn’t. However, around seventh and eighth grade, certain events occurred that really brought my attention to religion and its effects in society.

My dad came back into my life in middle school. He and I were never really able to form a relationship before this time. He had gotten himself in order and met a woman whom he soon married. As a result, I would go down to their house and visit every other weekend.

My dad had gotten back into going to church by this point. His wife and her children were religious as well, so all of them went to church. They would bring me along. I didn’t really have a choice. They just made me go. If I ever voiced the fact that I didn’t want to go, I would risk hearing a lecture about how I’d go to Hell if I didn’t participate in their religion. This continued throughout middle school.

My previously religiously apathetic self was dissipating. Now that I was regularly being exposed to religion, I was starting to form opinions of it. And honestly, I didn’t really like it. I completely disagreed with all the things I would hear in the sermons. I couldn’t stand the hate that the preachers would spout about nonbelievers, homosexuals, and so on. On the whole, I just couldn’t understand why people would buy into this stuff.

Eventually, in eighth grade, a particular sermon at church caused my logical faculties to finally kick in (they would improve and enhance over the following years, but this was when reason truly started to play a role in my opinion of religion). It was a sermon about homosexuality and how it’s supposedly a sin. The preacher used an analogy to demonstrate the point. It went a little something like this: You can’t take an electrical plug and plug it into another one. It has to be plugged into a socket. Similarly, a socket can’t receive another socket. It has to receive a plug. Therefore, homosexuality is wrong. Obviously, the plug represents the male reproductive organ, and the socket represents the female reproductive organ. The “logic” here was that if putting a plug into a plug or a socket into a socket is wrong, then the same principle must apply to humans. I instantly saw how fallacious and absurd this was. To use this analogy, you have to assume that the only thing that matters in a relationship is sex, which is an odd assumption for a typically anti-sex group of people to make.

But the absurdity of the argument isn’t what bothered me. The primitive and old-fashioned conclusion (that homosexuals are bad) isn’t what bothered me. It was the fact that everyone in the room blindly bought into the blatantly illogical argument. No one gave it a second thought. They just accepted it because the preacher said it.

This moment was a critical one for me. I would consider myself to have been a budding freethinker at the time, as I was forming my own opinion of religion and its teachings through reason, even if I was just starting out. Looking back on that day, I’m proud of my refusal to accept the preacher’s words at face value. I think religion has its place in society, but I do not like its potential to brainwash people. Fortunately, I was able to escape that brainwashing and from that point on, I can think for myself.

 

Zach Gowan, 17, was born in Philadelphia and is attending the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg to major in English.

 

Absolved from unnecessary confusion

By Abigail Dove 

“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script. 

I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.

I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss. 

But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.

When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.

The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences. 

So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.

I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.

He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling. 

I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.

At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”

In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue. 

 

Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.

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