I think a case can be made that religion gets a free ride in this country.
"Never discuss religion or politics with your customers" is a standard business maxim. The reason is obvious. People's religious and political belief systems are apt to be untouchable by logic. Or evidence. Or anything else approaching intelligent discourse. And a businessperson cannot risk alienating potential customers by challenging deeply-held notions and expect to stay in business.
Fair enough. Business success is tough enough to achieve under the best of circumstances; no sense deliberately making it harder.
But what about the larger public arena? Politics certainly gets its share of public discussion, with supporters and detractors on almost every subject vigorously arguing their positions.
But have you noticed, the same cannot be said for religion? It's almost automatically assumed as a good thing, the foundation of our country. Even when some bizarre event involving religion comes along, like the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, it is presented as an anomaly, not as an extreme case of what may be troublesome about religion in general.
What, pray tell, could possibly be troublesome about religion in general, you ask. Plenty. But first, permit me a brief diversion to give you some perspective on where I'm coming from. Honest debate requires it.
I have up-close and personal knowledge about religion from the inside. I was born into and raised in an extremely religious tradition. My father was a Southern Baptist minister. He was the fourth generation minister in his family, with his great-grandfather having come to America as a missionary to Native Americans. My mother's family is also deeply steeped in religious vocation, with ministers and missionaries all over the place.
It was and is genuine and benign, like Mother Teresa, not charlatanesque like the TV evangelist type.
So having been baptized a Christian at age eight, with a tearful profession of faith in Jesus as is customary in such churches, I "surrendered" to the ministry at age 13 or so. I preached my first sermon when I was 15, began leading "youth-led revivals" shortly thereafter, served two stints as a student summer missionary in Alaska, and was ordained a full-fledged minister at age 18, serving as pastor of two rural churches throughout my college days. I was the featured speaker at many functions of the college ministerial society, since platform skills came somewhat naturally to me because of my background.
I loved what I was doing and couldn't have been more sincere. Except for one thing. I began to think for myself. Serious questions about the religious indoctrination I had imbibed began in college, even though I attended a conservative religious institution. They continued in seminary. When I sought answers, I was told, "Kick the rock. When you've finished kicking it, you'll know it's a rock." And other no-think pap of that genre. Well, it wasn't so. The more I investigated the basic tenets of the faith, the more certain I became that Christianity was no more valid than any of the religions I had been taught were false.
Nonetheless, I loved being a minister and wanted to serve people. I decided to try to ignore my inability to believe such basic doctrines as biblical inspiration, the divinity of Jesus, the necessity of religious salvation, and plunge into living a devout life of service in a simple setting. Although I had been something of a star during seminary days, often preaching at the campus church to my fellow students and professors, upon graduation I refused to play politics and accepted a simple country church.
I served this and then a similar one in the poor part of the city for seven years. It became increasingly harder to do with integrity. At age 32 I faced a choice: either get out of religion or risk becoming publicly phony and privately cynical, as I saw happening to many of my minister friends. I chose to get out. Five more years of graduate school gave me a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and my subsequent career.
Now, let's return to my opening contention that religion is being given a free ride. What I mean is the automatic assumption that religion is a good thing, that it makes people better, that America was founded on religious principles, that without religion immorality would completely take over. Horsefeathers!
John Lennon's signature song "Imagine" was, unfortunately, ahead of its time. What if there were no religion? Well, let's see.
1. Most of the world's wars would not have been fought. Start with the wars the bible glorifies against the "enemies of God" and come all the way through the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the cruel colonization of less developed countries by Christian countries who were sure God was on their side, to the modern-day conflict in the Middle East between warring factions who are all convinced they have religious sanction for their battles.
2. Many of the worst atrocities would not have been committed. I'll mention just a few. The Inquisition in which believers (people of religious faith all) were tortured and killed because their brand of orthodoxy was not acceptable, burning at the stake of religious reformers who dared deviate from the party line, witch trials and drownings of innocent, simple people (most of them women) who found disfavor with religious (most of them male) leaders, slavery of Africans by staunch religious people who justified it on biblical grounds, and the shameful treatment of Native Americans who were considered savages in spite of their deep respect for the land and for the sanctity of their word (in stark contrast with their Christian plunderers).
3. Insidious prejudice could not hide behind religious shields. Without question one of the most powerful appeals of religion is the desire to be a part of the in-group. Religion promises that in spades, all the while claiming (and perhaps intending) to be egalitarian. When you've gone through the initiation ceremony, sort of like the plebes at a military institute, it's just real easy to feel superior to those who haven't. Such prejudice, sometimes masquerading as evangelistic concern, is pandemic with religions.
4. All the money spent in support of organized religion would be available for more direct, more useful humanitarian effort. Think of the multiplied billions of dollars that have been poured into organized religion through the centuries. The temples, the cathedrals, the mosques, the churches. Edifices that glorify some god? Not unless the god is an idiot. It's easy to see that the religious gurus of primitive cultures, however sincere they were, however revered, were a drain on the system. Somebody else had to do the work they were not doing, to say nothing of their demands for sacrificial giving to the god they represented. Today's professional religionists, again however sincere, are no different. They have to be paid, and their churches have to be supported.
5. It would be clearer that, although all people are created with equal rights to the pursuit of happiness, not all people are equally likely to live responsibly, no matter what. The church (as a symbol of organized religion) has some very good, generous, unselfish people in it. It also has some very bad, stingy, selfish people in it. If religion really, in and of itself, had the power to change people, all religious people would be benificent and kind. I don't mean "without sin," to use the common religious phrase; I just mean basically good. Anybody with half a smidgen of intellectual honesty knows that's not the case. It isn't clear whether there is a higher percentage of responsible people within religion than without, but I suspect that if there is, it isn't statistically significant.
We operate on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people believe religion is important and good. I challenge that assumption. We know that at least half the population of this country seldom or never attends a religious function. If we think about it, we also know that a hefty percentage of those who are active religiously do so for something other than religious reasons. Community approval, social contacts, business and political expectations. I don't know how large the percentage of people who are genuinely faithful is, but I suspect it's much smaller than the noise it makes.
People have every right, of course, to be as religious as they choose, so long as the practice of their religion doesn't infringe on the rights of others. Many, many good, honest, sincere people are totally convinced that their religious views are not only right, but are what make them good, honest, and sincere. My parents are among them. I respect them, all the sincere believers. I also think they are, unfortunately, deluded. Even so, their very goodness has seen religion do many humane and wonderful things--education, hunger relief, care for the homeless. These things often need some sort of organization to occur effectively. It just doesn't have to be a religious organization, based on superstitious notions about salvation and eternal life.
I would like to see a world in which, instead of pouring our resources of time, money and energy into religious coffers, we tried building a more humane society among those who are so inclined. And that we quit assuming that religion is sacred.
Oops! If religion isn't sacred, is anything? Perhaps not.
Or perhaps everything is.
John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.
The current administration's proposed legislation to grant money from federal tax coffers to "faith-based organizations" to help provide services to various needy groups should be studied carefully . . . and then voted down! Unless, in the unlikeliest of outcomes, there is some way to guarantee absolutely that none of this tax money would be used for religious indoctrination, either actual or implied.
I cannot imagine how such a guarantee could be made--or policed.
It is not that I am against the activity of churches and other faith-based groups in remediating human suffering. Quite the contrary. I wish a much larger percentage of the budget of religious groups was invested in such "good Samaritan" activities instead of in the usual "pad the pews" kind of expenditure. More power to the many church programs that are designed to help those in need.
My concern is that we must be "Simon" pure in our respect for the separation of church and state that the Founding Fathers wisely wrote into our Constitution. Jefferson and Madison were quite clear that state-sponsored religion leads to incredible abuse of individual freedom of conscience, a sine qua non of the land of the free.
Joe Lieberman's reported statement during the recent presidential campaign that "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion" is dead wrong. It means both or either.
Although many of the early European settlers of this continent were motivated by the desire to flee religious persecution, they were not always careful, once having gained freedom for themselves, to allow others to dissent from their own religious views. But by the time of the American Revolution and the subsequent drafting of the Constitution, it was clear to the framers that all faiths should be allowed and respected and that none should be officially promoted or sponsored.
The path of granting tax money to religious organizations is a slippery slope, however well-intentioned the proposal. Funds in most such organizations are fungible, meaning that money used in one activity is interchangeable with money used in another activity. It is easy to see how $1,000 of tax money for a nonsectarian part of a program frees up a similar $1,000 from adherents for the religious aspect of a program, effectively subsidizing the religious contributions with tax dollars.
Further worries from some religious leaders also deserve careful attention. Such as the possibility (likelihood?) that with federal dollars comes federal control, a quick way to dilute the essential elements of such programs. Another potential outcome stems from a predictable psychological phenomenon, namely that when easy (read that "from the tax coffers") money appears on the horizon, charitable giving by members and adherents tends to dwindle. The idea that "if the government is going to do it, I don't need to deprive myself to make it happen" is as old as organized government itself.
Another concern is whether fringe religious movements, like Louis Farrakhan's group, which endorses racial enmity, or L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology movement, which has a ton of philosophical ambiguities, would be included. The answer was given that if a group preached hate, it wouldn't be included. But who makes those decisions? And is it smart to grant that kind of power to fallible human beings with their own biases and agendas? Hardly!
There is no disputing the evidence that many faith-based programs have generated outstanding results. Whether these results are actually due to the underlying philosophy of the group sponsoring the program (as opposed to the fact that somebody seems to care and that participants begin to really believe things can be better) is immaterial. So long as the programs are entirely voluntary and the money used to support them is entirely voluntary, it essentially doesn't matter why a given program works, only that it works.
But the dangers of beginning to subsidize with tax dollars humanitarian programs that have a religious belief system central to their method and mission are very real. The time in recent human history when religion and government were inextricably entwined is not referred to as the Dark Ages for nothing. When a scientist like Galileo, whose telescopic sightings supported Copernicus' theory that the earth revolved around the sun, was placed under house arrest for the last eight years of his life because his scientific opinions were not consonant with accepted religious belief, this began to signal the end of such a dark period. But a return to such insistence on religiously "correct" positions is not totally unthinkable. Consider what has happened in Iran and Afghanistan in recent years when the dominant religion came to power.
Religious belief, or lack of it, must remain a private matter with no sanctioned government support or involvement whatsoever.
Religious humanitarian programs are alive and well. May their tribe increase. But let's tell the government "thanks, but no thanks." And let's keep trying to make life better for as many people as we can, whether such efforts are motivated by religious doctrine or just simple human caring.
John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.
Circuit Approves Jesus Motto
The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 16 that Ohio's New Testament motto, "With God, all things are possible," is permissible, overturning a 6th Circuit 3-judge panel and a lower court ruling declaring the motto unconstitutional.
The 9-4 decision said that because the state does not attribute the quote to its source, Jesus, it is therefore acceptable. The motto, adopted in 1959, is found on official stationery, tax forms, and now a bronze plate in a sidewalk entrance to the Statehouse.
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee on March 13 approved a legislative package, Affordable Education Act of 2001, with an amendment letting parents open tax-free $2,000 savings accounts for children's K-12 education expenses--including religious-school tuition. President Clinton had twice vetoed similar legislation.
Teachers' unions called the scheme "back-door vouchers," saying it would drain tax dollars from public schools to subsidize families who already can afford private schools. Bush has proposed allowing families up to $5,000 per child for K-12 school expenses.
Utah: No Clergy Malpractice Suits
The Utah Supreme Court on March 16 banned lawsuits over allegations of clergy malpractice, unanimously upholding a trial judge's decision to dismiss a child rape victim's lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All five judges are Mormon.
The victim said her bishop and stake president were negligent over her plea for help after being sexually abused at age 7 by a teenaged church member. They counseled her to "forgive, forget and seek atonement," later referring her to an unlicensed counselor who advised her not to call police.
Colorado Follows Suit?
The Colorado House Judiciary Committee voted 7-6 to send a bill to the full Senate limiting grounds on which sexual assault victims may sue churches, despite two hours of emotional testimony by victims and their advocates in late February. Witnesses included Mary Moses, who won a $1 million judgment against the Colorado Episcopal Diocese over sexual misconduct by a bishop who counseled her. "I will wear an invisible scarlet letter for the rest of my life," she told the committee.
"Under this bill the church asks to be exempted from the damage they cause," said Joyce Seelan, an attorney who represented a family victimized by a pastor.
Jehovah's Witnesses Scandals
A recent examination by the Louisville Courier-Journal of Jehovah's Witnesses court cases in Maine, New Hampshire and Texas shows that the confidential church disciplinary process may be allowing molestation to continue.
Church members and the public are put at increased risk by common secretive practices and a belief that reporting on members' suspected crimes breaches church confidentiality. Jehovah's Witnesses require either the offender's confession or at least two witnesses to the offense. Church policy allows "repentant" molesters to continue evangelizing door to door.
The newspaper began investigating church policy after the resignation of a western Kentucky church elder who objected to the practices. William H. Bowen resigned Dec. 31 as chief elder of the Draffenville congregation: "I refuse to support a pedophile refuge mentality that is promoted among bodies of elders around the world. Criminals should be ousted, identified and punished to protect the innocent and give closure to the victim."
Catholics Lobby against Healthcare
The Roman Catholic Church in New York State is demanding a "conscience clause" be adopted by the state legislature to exempt religious organizations opposed to birth control from any law mandating contraceptive coverage. The "denial clause" would exempt social service organizations, hospitals and Catholic-affiliated colleges, many of which receive public funding.
Mississippi Thrusts God on Students
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed a law on March 23 mandating that public schools display "In God We Trust" in classrooms, cafeterias and auditoriums.
"Our nation was founded as a godly nation and we put it on our money," Musgrove declared. The law, which the ACLU has threatened to challenge, will take effect July 1. It requires the slogan to be displayed on a framed background of at least 11-by-14 inches. Although no money was appropriated to pay for the slogans, the American Family Association plans to donate 32,000 "In God We Trust" posters.
A related bill, HB 220, was introduced in Tennessee to amend the state flag by adding "In God We Trust" on a perpendicular bar of blue. Rep. John Windle claims the "public welfare requires it."
Senate Chaplain Amasses Power
Senate Chaplain Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie has expanded his ministry with an unprecedented mix of public and private monies, according to a Feb. 21 report in the Wall Street Journal.
Ogilvie uses donations from a Christian group to purchase copies of his own books to distribute to the Senate. His writings sell in the Senate gift shop. He is lobbying to create a "Faith and Freedom" stairwell running up to what the Journal calls "his handsome new Capitol offices," which used to house the Senate library.
The founding fathers "believed in the separation of Church and State. They did not believe in the separation of God and State," Ogilvie wrote the Senate Rules Committee leadership about his proposal.
Ogilvie holds lunchtime bible series, mainly funded by a nonproft group whose mission is the "propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," advertising his sessions with colorful posters.
Although Senate rules forbid such conflicts of interest as Ogilvie receiving royalties for the sale of his books at the Senate, he has received royalties, which a publisher told the Journal were an "accounting error."
Patron Trent Lott, GOP leader, helped Ogilvie distribute a bound copy of the chaplain's prayers as a "keepsake" after Clinton's impeachment trial. Asks Journal reporter David Rogers, "Has Mr. Ogilvie become more than the chaplain was meant to be? . . . [he is] living proof of how muddy those lines [between church and state] already have become in Congress. . ."
Milwaukee Vouchers Expanded?
Wis. Gov. Scott McCallum's state budget would expand eligibility for the Milwaukee voucher program, the only court-approved scheme in the country permitting tax money to pay for parochial education. His proposal would permit low-income children, the intended recipients, to continue to receive public money for private school tuition even if their parents' incomes rise 185% above limits. The program, with 9,638 students, costs $49 million this year. Voucher schools receive $5,326 per student this year.
In related developments:
A Lutheran group plans to build a government-funded Lutheran school to "proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ" in Milwaukee's poverty-stricken Metcalfe Park area. The overt use of the voucher program to build a congregation, as well as the backers' frank admission that the gospel-proclaiming school could not begin without tax funding, has brought scrutiny to the proposal. The plan is to open a school next fall and expand it into a church.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice John Wilcox agreed in March to pay a $10,000 fine and accept responsibility for the illegal actions of his campaign, settling one of the state's most egregious corruption cases. A "nonpartisan" get-out-the-vote group illegally spent $200,000, mostly from out-of-state school voucher advocates, to promote Wilcox. After winning, he voted to uphold Milwaukee's controversial voucher program in 1998, which funnels millions of tax dollars to religious schools. The state elections board filed civil charges in 2000.
Michigan: A bill was recently introduced to force teachers to call evolution an unproven theory and to include references to "competing theories" in class lessons, including the claim that life is the result of a creator. State Rep. Robert Gosselin, R-Troy said, "The whole theory of something coming out of nothing is, to me, incomprehensible."
Arkansas: A committee of the legislature recommended on March 20 that the "theory of evolution" be banned from textbooks: "Do you believe you were descended from a monkey? If we teach kids that they were descended from monkeys, don't you think they'll act like monkeys?" asked Rep. Denny Altes.
North Dakota: The Senate voted in February to approve a bill allowing schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms as part of an exhibit of "historical documents." The House approved legislation permitting school boards to allow voluntary classroom prayers to be led by a teacher or student.
Nothing More Divisive than Prayer?
Florida: Mixing prayer and politics at a city council meetings in Melbourne invoked criticism after Rev. Richard Beyer ended his Jan. 9 invocation by thanking God that George W. Bush won the election because Clinton had vetoed a bill banning so-called "partial birth" abortions. The city code requires an invocation. Controversy has also dogged prayers before the Cocoa Beach city commission, who asked local ministers to stop using "the Lord's name," in vain. They continue to do so.
Maryland: Blessings in the name of "Jesus the Lord" before the Montgomery County Council have created controversy since last fall. The Washington Post reports that virtually every meeting of the Fauquier county board of supervisors begins with an invocation of Jesus. The Anne Arundel county board meetings often start with the Lord's prayer. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors opens with a moment of silence, rejecting an experiment with prayer in the early 1990s, and the D.C. Council also avoids religion.
Minneapolis: A Jewish car salesman fired after questioning his boss' Christian proselytizing recently filed a lawsuit for religious discrimination in U.S. District Court under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Ira Chemers said his boss opened all management meetings with prayers to Jesus Christ, and, shortly before firing him in February 2000, said: "I want everyone in this organization to be Christian."
"If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? . . . Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."
You notice a person drowning in a river. What should you do? If you agree with Jefferson, you should consider yourself a "social animal" with an "instinct" to compassion, whether you believe in a god or not. If you are a humanist, you will empathize with the sufferings of another human being. If you are a Christian, you will believe that person's life has value because he or she was "created in the image of God."
But whatever your basis for value, you still have to decide: "Should I jump in?" You can't pull a list from your back pocket to look up "Rule 127: What to do when someone is drowning."
Behavioral dilemmas involve a conflict of values, and in real life this means they are always situational. You can't simply follow a blind code: you have to compare the relative merits of the consequences of various actions; and the only way to do that is to exercise reason.
How far out in the river is the person? How strong is the current? How good a swimmer are you? Are you likely to cause two deaths instead of one? How many children are you responsible for supporting?
It would be pointless to ask, "Is it moral to dive in?" The only purpose of this irrelevant question might be to make you feel virtuous, or guilty.
Perhaps you take the risk and dive in. Or you might reason that the most moral action would be not to jump in the river in this case, running for help, if possible. Your basis for value is not important: the facts of the situation are.
Quoting Dostoyevsky--"If God does not exist, everything is permissible"--many believers suggest that it is only theists who can have values, although, like Jefferson, they certainly know this is not true. We atheists are just as likely as Christians to jump in that river--perhaps more likely.
"How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?" I often hear. "If you don't believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?"
We atheists find our basis for morality, of course, in nature. Where else would we look?
Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are "objective." They can't be. A value is not a "thing"--it is a function of a mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an "objective value" is an oxymoron: the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.
Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that "Morality" exists in the universe, a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word "morality" is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed, no morality would exist.
Morality is simply the avoidance of unnecessary harm. Since harm is natural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment, and as rational animals, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we minimize pain and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don't, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions.
To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no Cosmic Code Book directing our actions.
Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments, would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? The prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelites claimed the copyright.
The way to be moral is to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature--especially human nature: who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do. (This gives an objective basis to morality, even though the values themselves are not objective things.)
Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.
This is not the Golden Rule. Confucius, 500 years before Christianity, phrased the principle best when he said, "Don't do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although this is still not a fully adequate principle for ethics, it is much better than "Do unto others" because it identifies the avoidance of harm as the key to morality.
Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by fatalism ("Whatever happens is God's will"), pessimism ("We deserve to suffer"), salvation ("Death is not the end"), retribution ("Justice will prevail in the afterlife"), magic ("Pray for help"), holy war ("Kill for God"), forgiveness ("I won't be held responsible for my mistakes"), or glory ("Suffering with Christ is an honor"). Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.
Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: "Ye have the poor with you always," said the "loving" Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ," Mother Teresa added. "I think the world is much helped by the suffering of the poor people." So much for theistic compassion!
Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an "instinct" because many appear not to have it--it seems optional. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life enough to protect ourselves from those who don't. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice, and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking.
But most believers, including Christians who are ordered to "bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ," have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism--the recognition that actions must be judged in context--as something dangerous, when it is the only way we can be truly moral.
Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won't.
When theists make a case for "natural rights," they often point to Locke, Jefferson, Paine, and other enlightened thinkers of the Age of Reason. It is enlightening to notice that they rarely quote from the bible. Nowhere in Scripture will you find an acknowledgment that each individual has an "inalienable right" to be treated with fairness and respect, or that "We, the People" are capable of governing ourselves. There is no democracy in the "word of God." In the bible, humans are "worms" and "sinners" deserving damnation, "slaves" who should humbly submit to all kings, heavenly and earthly.
Championing the "consent of the governed" over the authority of a sovereign, the Declaration of Independence is unabashedly anti-biblical. We Americans are a proudly rebellious people who fought a Revolutionary War kicking the King and Master out of our affairs; and to prove it, we produced a godless Constitution, the first to separate church and state.
But many American Christians see it differently: "Had Jefferson been influenced by Darwin instead of Locke," wrote Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Seventh Day Adventist Liberty Magazine, "Joseph Stalin's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive." In a "Darwinian universe," Goldstein contends, truth rests "on a foundation as whimsical as the electorate or whichever despot happens to be in control."
Oh? How does truth fare in the "theistic universe" where the despot is named Jehovah?
The God of Scripture slaughtered entire groups of people that offended his vanity, ordering young virgins to be kept alive as war booty for his priests (Numbers 31). "Happy shall be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones," he advised (Psalm 137:9), threatening those with the wrong religion that "their women with child shall be ripped up" (Hosea 13:16), sending bears to attack 42 children who teased a prophet (II Kings 2:23-24), punishing innocent offspring to the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5), discriminating against the handicapped (Leviticus 21:18-23), promising that fathers and sons would eat each other (Ezekiel 5:10), and much more that we would find repugnant in a human being. In this theistic universe, morality is severed from reality and reduced to flattering the Sovereign.
If on a Saturday, for example, you notice a man gathering wood to warm his family, as a Christian commanded to "remember the Sabbath," what should you do? According to Numbers 15:32-36, you should stone him to death! Is this not whimsical?
Jesus incorporated slavery into his parables as if it were the most natural order, only cautioning masters to beat some slaves less severely than others (Luke 12:46-47). The Heaven's Gate cult, like Origen, accepted Jesus' advice: "There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Matthew 19:12) Is this good advice?
There are some good teachings in the bible, of course; but is a garden beautiful that is overrun with weeds? Jefferson thought that most of Jesus' words were insulting, although he spotted a few good teachings, "easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill." (To Adams, Oct. 1813)
Goldstein has it backwards. Had Jefferson been influenced by Jehovah instead of Locke, Adolph Hitler's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive! Hitler allowed Darwinism to be twisted for a political purpose, framing evolution in a "social" way not intended by Darwin himself; but it wasn't Darwinism that gave the theistic Hitler his basis for morality: "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." (Mein Kampf) Hitler credited Jesus as his inspiration. In a 1926 Nazi Christmas celebration, he boasted, "Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews . . . The work that Christ started but could not finish, I--Adolf Hitler--will conclude." The creationist Hitler shared a thirst for blood with the bombastic biblical God in whose "image" he thought he was created.
There is no practical value in claiming that "natural rights" are rooted outside of nature. People who find "moral absolutes" in the revelation of a deity have never agreed what those absolutes are. Take any crucial social moral issue of the day--capital punishment, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, women's rights, divorce, gay rights, corporal punishment, animal rights, slavery, pacifism, environmental protection, birth control, overpopulation, state/church separation--and you will notice that praying, bible-believing Christians have come down on opposite sides. The apostle Paul alleged that the biblical deity is "not the author of confusion," yet never has a single book caused more confusion or divisiveness than the bible.
If the bible gives us absolute moral guidance, then where is it? Why don't sincere believers agree on these important questions? It's clear that the bible is an inadequate behavioral guide, and that the tyrannical god of Scriptural mythology leads us to a lack of values.
When Jefferson wrote about the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, he was not talking about the Christian god. As a Deist, he viewed the "Creator" as a much less personal being than the biblical deity. The god of Deism was more like "nature" than "Jehovah."
When Jefferson claimed that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," he could not have meant "endowed" in the sense of a sovereign granting a privilege that might be denied. If something can be endowed, then it can be un-endowed. If a right is inalienable, it can't be withheld or withdrawn, not even in principle. An "inalienable right," if rights are endowed, is an oxymoron.
Human rights, if they are inalienable, could not have been granted--not by a government, society, or god. A "natural right" is a claim to a freedom, privilege, or power that you possess inherently, by nature (though you still might have to convince others to recognize and grant that right). Natural rights, if they exist, are indeed inalienable; but then they could not have been "endowed." We simply own them.
It is clear that Jefferson meant, figuratively, that since we are "endowed by nature" with common human needs, we are justified in expecting society to honor our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Christians think we should treat others nicely because we were all created in the "image of God." This gives us value, they suppose.
But they don't explain why. Why does the image of a god provide greater value than some other image? Why does it give any value at all? What does "image of God" mean?
"God is a Spirit," Jesus supposedly said; but what is that? The word "spirit" has never been defined, except in terms that tell us what it is not: immaterial, intangible, noncorporeal, supernatural. No one has ever described what a spirit is. "To talk of immaterial existences," Jefferson wrote, "is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise." (To John Adams, August 1820. This does not mean Jefferson was an atheist: he conceived of God as a material being, or as nature itself, which is consistent with Deism.)
Since "god" has never been defined, much less proved, its "image" can't be used as a basis for anything. "Nature," on the other hand, means something. Darwinism shows us that all living organisms are the result of a natural evolutionary process. We have been fashioned by the laws of nature.
This revelation can only fail to impress you if you have been taught that there is something wrong with nature, something shameful about being a mere animal in a debased realm beneath the supernatural, whatever that is. Many theists seem eager to play this game of nature-bashing. The "blind chance" of evolution, they say, is a brute force incapable of producing something as "lofty" as us humans.
But evolution is not blind chance: it is design that incorporates randomness--not intelligent design, but design by the laws of nature, by the limited number of ways atoms interact mathematically and molecules combine geometrically. It is design by extinction, by the way a changing environment automatically disallows organisms that happen not to be adapted, leaving the "fittest" behind, if any. The randomness of genetic variation is a strength of evolution, providing a greater chance that something will survive.
This is amazing. Instead of speculating about an unknown "creator," we can actually look at our origins. Evolution shows how complexity arises from simplicity: creationism can't do that. Creationism tries to explain complexity with more complexity, which only replaces one mystery with another mystery. If functional complexity requires a designer, then how do you account for the functional complexity of the mind of the designer?
Darwin's enlightening concept is empirical, testable, provable, and relevant to creatures that inhabit a physical planet. It shows us who we really are. We are not above nature. We are not just a part of nature. We are nature. We are natural creatures in a natural environment. Through the startlingly sloppy, painfully unpredictable, part-random, part-determined process of natural selection, life, imperfect yet doggedly hanging on, has become what it is.
And that's what makes life valuable: it didn't have to be. It is dear. It is fleeting. It is vibrant and vulnerable. It is heart-breaking. It can be lost.
It will be lost.
But we exist now. We are caring, intelligent animals, and can treasure our brief lives. Why is eternal better than temporal, or supernatural "higher" than natural? Doesn't rarity increase value? God is an idea, not a natural creature. Why should his "image" be more valuable than our own "nature"? What right would an immaterial existence--a ghost in the sky--have to tell us natural creatures what is valuable? Has he ever felt the pain of giving birth? Does he struggle to pay the rent?
If we were created in his unknowable image, then we have no idea who we are. But being fashioned in the "image of nature," we do know who we are, and we can find out more. Right in our backyard, here on earth, we can investigate, study, and continue to improve conditions on this planet. It wasn't faith that eradicated smallpox. Contemplating the "image of god" will not cure cancer or AIDS.
Science has given us much. What has theology ever provided?
Theology has given us hell.
The threat of damnation is designed to be an incentive to right action; but this is a phony morality. Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment. Any ideology that makes its point by threatening violence is morally bankrupt. (Hitler's ovens, at least, were relatively quick. The torment Jesus promised is a "fire that shall never be quenched.") Anyone who believes in hell is at heart not moral at all.
If the only way you can be forced to be kind to others is by the threat of hell, that shows how little you think of yourself. If the only way you can be motivated to be kind to others is by the promise of heaven, that shows how little you think of others.
Most atheists will say, "Be good, for goodness' sake!"
Dan Barker is a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the following letter to the Governor of Alabama regarding a proposal to amend the Alabama State Constitution to permit Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings. The amendment, Senate Bill 83, passed a Senate committee 9-0 on March 6 and goes before the full Senate. It is promoted by Dean Young of the Christian Family Association, one of the supporters of commandment-loving Roy Moore, now state Chief Justice.
Gov. Don Siegelman
Alabama State Capitol
600 Dexter Ave
Montgomery AL 36130
Dear Gov. Siegelman:
On behalf of our Alabama membership, which boasts a very active and concerned state chapter, we are writing to urge you to reconsider your voiced support for Senate Bill 83, to amend the Alabama State Constitution to permit Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools and buildings.
We believe it would reflect poorly on the stature of a governor to endorse a campaign which is so clearly unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 1980, that a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms is unconstitutional. As the Court wrote:
"The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the sabbath day."
Under the U.S. Constitution, a state cannot post and endorse religious edicts from one religion's "holy book." Nor would the U.S. Supreme Court countenance an amendment to Art. 1, Sect. 3 of the Alabama State Constitution which so clearly contradicts the broad religious liberties guaranteed in that section! Posting Ten Commandments by the government violates freedom of conscience, compels citizens to attend and contribute to religious worship and appropriates state property for religious reasons--all forbidden under Art. 1, Sect. 3.
The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why the Ten Commandments may not be posted in public buildings and schoolrooms. Government has no business telling citizens which god they must have, how many gods they must have, or that they must have a god at all!
The proposed amendment raises the thorny question of which Ten would be posted and endorsed by the State of Alabama: the Hebrew, the Catholic or the Protestant version? The only "ten commandments" so identified in the bible lists as its tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 34: 14-28) Does the State of Alabama plan to set itself up as arbiter over which set of commandments is religiously correct?
This campaign by religious extremists serves only to excite prejudices, promote religious divisiveness, distract lawmakers from real issues, and irresponsibly jeopardizes taxpayers' money in an expensive, losing battle.
We urge you to set an example of respect for the constitutional separation of church and state by opposing this misguided measure.
Despite six centuries of pounding, the wall of separation between church and state stands higher and thicker than ever, boosted by vigorous defenders and supportive Supreme Court rulings going back to the late 1940s in the face of relentless assaults from religious zealots.
Many people, including a lot of secularists, believe Thomas Jefferson coined the "wall of separation" metaphor in his letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802. Religious Right propagandists like this belief because it lets them claim Jefferson was espousing an eccentric idea outside the mainstream of opinion among America's Founders. After all, he was in France when the Constitution was written and therefore could not know what its authors intended.
In fact, the metaphor was more than 200 years old when Jefferson popularized it.
The union of church and state had been under attack in England since at least the 16th century. Richard Hooker, a defender of the Anglican Church who died in 1600, wrote that dissenters demanded that "the walls of separation between [church and commonwealth] must for ever be upheld." This is the oldest written use of the "wall(s) of separation" metaphor I can find, although it may have appeared earlier in dissenters' pamphlets that Hooker drew upon.1
The 17th-century Baptist leader Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after his expulsion from Massachusetts, was another advocate of church-state separation who used the metaphor. After Boston leader John Cotton wrote a letter defending Williams' banishment, Williams wrote in his answer "that when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day. And that therfore if he will ever please to restore his Garden and Paradice again, it must of necessitie be walled in peculiarly unto himselfe from the world, and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the Wildernes of world, and added unto his Church or Garden." He explained the necessity of separating the "holy from unholy, penitent from impenitent, godly from ungodly. . ."2
In the 1600s and 1700s, the English government loosened the Church's iron control in a series of parliamentary acts and royal edicts that gave some legal tolerance to nonAnglican Protestants and even Roman Catholics, who still were subject to various forms of oppression, such as double taxes. The laws also mandated religious tests--anyone holding public office had to swear an oath that included support for the Church of England and its specific doctrines. These tests applied, in theory, to England's American colonies, although greater religious diversity was tolerated in individual colonies, such as Puritan-run Massachusetts.
Dissenters in England did not accept the limited intolerance. In the 1760s, English essayist James Burgh condemned repression of Roman Catholics in his book "Crito" and declared, "I should have been rather inclinable to think, that the less the church and the state had to do with one another, it would be the better for both." He later declared, "I desire, that there may not be among you so much as a shadow of authority in religious matters. If you be christians, stand in awe of him, who has said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. The rulers of the gentiles exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Ye are all brethren.' " Burgh demanded, "Build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil," citing the metaphor Hooker had assailed earlier and that Jefferson made famous later.3
The English dissenters didn't win their last big battles until the late 19th century, but American dissenters won a crushing victory in the passage of the United States Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. Against 1,400 years of Christian theology and political theory, the Constitution makes no reference to God or Jesus and establishes no state church or god. Even worse to contemporary Christians, Article 6 decreed, ". . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Even the oath of office for the president was strictly secular. The phrase "so help me God" that some presidents have added has no legal status whatsoever.
Christians understood what this meant, as James Madison explained in an Oct. 17, 1788, letter to Thomas Jefferson when he discussed his fears about adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution: ". . . because there is great reason to fear that a positive declaration of some of the most essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude. I am sure that the rights of Conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power. One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels."4
Christians in several states argued for a state religion. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention, in a discussion on Jan. 31, 1788, Colonel William Jones was paraphrased as arguing, ". . . that the rulers ought to believe in God or Christ - and that however a test may be prostituted in England, yet he thought if our publick men were to be of those who had a good standing in the church, it would be happy for the United States--and that a person could not be a good man without being a good Christian."
At the North Carolina ratifying convention, in a discussion on July 30, 1788, the Rev. David Caldwell argued, in paraphrase, ". . . that some danger might arise. He imagined it might be objected to in a political as well as in a religious view. In the first place, he said there was an invitation for Jews, and Pagans of every kind, to come among us. At some future period, said he, this might endanger the character of the United States. Moreover, even those who do not regard religion, acknowledge that the Christian religion is best calculated of all religions to make good members of society, on account of its morality. I think then, added he, that in a political view, those gentlemen who formed this Constitution, should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens. All those who have any religion are against the emigration of those people from the eastern hemisphere."
And in a letter to the American Mercury of Hartford, Connecticut, published Feb. 11, 1788, William Williams assailed the ban on religious tests, recommending "an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence . . . to have been prefixed to, and stand as, the first introductory words of the Constitution . . ." Williams added that, despite what he regarded as a flaw, he felt the Constitution was too important to be rejected.5
The actual preamble states six purposes for the Constitution, all purely secular. Some opponents of the Constitution criticized it because it did not go far enough in establishing freedom of religion and other rights. Their objections led Madison to push the Bill of Rights through Congress in 1789, after Jefferson persuaded him they were needed. The arguments for freedom of religion usually pointed out the country's religious diversity and the impossibility of searching people's hearts to determine if they had taken a religious oath honestly.
For example, at the Virginia ratifying convention, in a June 25, 1788, speech, Zachariah Johnston argued: "We are also told that religion is not secured--that religious tests are not required.--You will find that exclusion of tests, will strongly tend to establish religious freedom. If tests were required--and if the church of England or any other were established, I might be excluded from any office under the Government, because my conscience might not permit me to take the test required. The diversity of opinions and variety of sects in the United States, have justly been reckoned a great security with respect to religious liberty. The difficulty of establishing an uniformity of religion in this country is immense. . . ."6
The Constitution's authors made no secret of why they wanted a secular state. In a letter of Jan. 24, 1774, to his friend William Bradford, Madison complained, "That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us."7
In his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," dated June 20, 1785, to the General Assembly of Virginia, in opposition to state taxes for the support of churches, Madison began:
"We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled 'A bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,' and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it and to declare the reasons by which we are determined." Madison follows with a number of arguments against the government dictating religious beliefs and support.8
This petition, signed by numerous Virginians of various religious sects--particularly Baptists, who suffered the most under religious persecution, as Madison's 1774 letters point out--helped turn the tide against the bill and toward Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom," which was passed Jan. 16, 1786, in amended form under Madison's political guidance. In contrast to the legal "toleration" granted by governments to religious minorities, which could be withdrawn at whim, the statute guaranteed freedom of religion as a basic right.
Jefferson, a lawyer, noted laws mandating the burning of heretics--which never occurred in Virginia--and says, ". . . an act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military, on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands." This type of tyranny led to his famous denunciation of Christian governments throughout history for imprisoning, torturing and executing dissenters.9
In a book defending the various state constitutions--prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution--Adams repudiates the "Christian nation" theory of government, by saying the state governments were "erected on the simple principles of nature."
He later adds, "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture."10
Although Benjamin Franklin considered religion important to society (at least in his youth), he held to a Deistic view of god, was tolerant toward a variety of religions, and scorned theological discussions, preferring talks on morality. In a letter on Oct. 9, 1780, to his friend Richard Price of England, Franklin argued for freedom of religion and, in effect, church-state separation by opposing religious tests. "I am fully of your Opinion respecting religious Tests; but tho' the People of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that People were 100 Years ago, we must allow they have gone great Lengths in Liberality of Sentiment on religious Subjects; and we may hope for greater Degrees of Perfection, when their Constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. . . . for I think [religious tests] were invented, not so much to secure Religion itself, as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."11
Finally, George Washington made it clear that he had no use for religious tyranny. Not only did he never declare any belief in Christianity--he went to church often but refused to take the sacraments, a fundamental test of Christianity--but Washington wrote a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., in a letter dated Aug. 18, 1790, that, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
In a letter on March 24, 1784, to his aide Tench Tilghman, Washington asked him to hire some craftsmen, saying, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, [sic] Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christian or any Sect--or they may be Atheists . . ." Washington clearly set no religious tests for his employees and did not see atheists as a danger. 12 Three years later, he took this attitude to the Constitutional Convention, of which he was chairman and which created a godless government.
The U.S. Constitution thus was not some radical innovation but a reflection of prevailing attitudes on religion. This point is emphasized by Jefferson and Madison in later years when they defended the separation of church and state. Thus Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptists, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, of prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State." Some historians have suggested Jefferson found the "wall of separation" metaphor from "Crito," quoted earlier.13
Madison praised the benefits to society and religion alike in the "total separation of the Church from the State" in a letter on March 2, 1819, to Robert Walsh; and criticized a government religious proclamation in a letter dated July 10, 1822, to Edward Livingston, in which he argues for "a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters." Madison also praised separation and denounced religious persecution in his "Detached Memoranda"; noted a failed attempt to limit freedom of religion to Christians in the Virginia religious-freedom law; condemned the appointment of chaplains to Congress as a violation of equal rights and the Constitution; and criticized presidential proclamation of days of thanksgiving, etc., particularly John Adams', who issued a specifically Christian proclamation.14
It's clear that church-state separationists are the defenders of the original intent of the majority of our Founders. Those people, including some Supreme Court justices, who argue that the Founders wanted general support for religion and only opposed establishing a particular sect in power, are grotesquely distorting our history and rewriting the Constitution without authority. The wall of separation metaphor was a well-known shorthand expression of one side of the church-state debate--the side that won with the passage of our godless Constitution.
William Sierichs is a native of Hopewell, Va. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Louisiana State University in 1974, and worked as a reporter or editor on newspapers in Jackson, Miss.; Monroe and Shreveport, La.; Texarkana, Texas; and Baton Rouge, La., where he is a copy editor. He has won several state or regional journalism awards for news reporting, investigative reporting, editorial columns and headline writing in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Author's note: I have quoted the various sources in their original spellings, capitalization and punctuation, which can differ from modern forms. In a couple of places, I have inserted necessary explanatory material in . Anyone interested in a more in-depth discussion of the freedom from/of religion clauses in the First Amendment should read Origins of the Bill of Rights, (1999, New Haven: Yale University Press) by Constitution scholar Leonard Levy, who trashes the Religious Right's distortions of history in chapter 4. As a historical footnote, Levy includes the various versions of the amendments that became the Bill of Rights as they passed through Congress. What we call the First Amendment originally was the third of 12 amendments submitted to the public. The first two amendments--dealing with congressional districting and pay--did not pass, making the third amendment our First Amendment.
1 Richard Hooker's "Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie" is excerpted in "Divine Right and Democracy - An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England," edited by David Wootton, 1986, New York: Penguin Books. The quote is from Hooker's Book 8, seventh assertion, part I, on pages 219-220. Book 8 was not actually published until 1648, but editor David Wootton says scholarship supports Hooker's authorship. Page 214
2 "Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered," Roger Williams, 1644, London, from "The Complete Writings of Roger Williams," Vol. I, edited by Reuben Aldridge Guild, Russell & Russell Inc., New York: 1963, page 108; I have left Williams' spelling intact, changing only his 17th-century "f's" to "s's" for the convenience of modern readers.
3 "Crito or, Essays on Various Subjects," was published in two volumes--Vol. 1 in 1766, Vol. 2 in 1767, both in London, no publisher listed. Although the books were published anonymously, James Burgh is generally credited with being the author. The first quote is in Vol. 1, page xi; the second is in Vol. 2, page 111; the "wall of separation" quote is in Vol. 2, page 119
4 "Writings," James Madison, 1999, New York: The Library of America, page 420
5 The quotes are from "The Debate on the Constitution," Vols. 1 and 2, Bernard Bailyn, editor, 1993, New York: The Library of America. Jones' quote is in Vol. 1, page 920. Caldwell's quote is in Vol. 2, page 908. Williams' quote is in Vol. 2, page 194
6 Johnston's quote is in "The Debate on the Constitution," Vol. 2, pages 752-753
7 "Writings," Madison, pages 7, 8
8 "Writings," Madison, pages 29-36
9 "Writings," Thomas Jefferson, 1984, New York: The Library of America, from "Notes on the State of Virginia," Query XVII, pages 284-285. In a Feb. 10, 1814, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson outlined his researches into the history of law and pointed out the pagan, Anglo-Saxon origin of English common law and, by extension, American law, contrary to claims that Christianity was the source of our legal doctrines. Pages 1321-1329
10 "John Adams," Vol. 2, Page Smith, 1962, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company Inc., page 692, from Adams' "Defence of the Constitutions"
11 "Writings," Benjamin Franklin, 1987, sixth printing, New York: The Library of America; on the importance of religion, page 149; his Deism and religious attitudes in his "Autobiography, pages 359-360 and 1382-1383--the latter suggesting some modification of his earlier ideas about the importance of religion; on religious tests, pages 1030-1031
12 "Writings," George Washington, 1997, New York: The Library of America, pages 767, 555-556
13 Quote from letter to the Baptists in "Writings," Jefferson, page 510; on "Crito's" possible influence on Jefferson, see The Godless Constitution, 1997, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, New York: WW. Norton & Co., page 97
14 "Writings," Madison, letter to Walsh, page 727; letter to Livingston, page 788; "Detached Memoranda," page 759; Va. religious-freedom law, page 761; on chaplains, pages 762-763; on religious proclamations, pages 764-776
"Chocolat," a sleeper hit based on a fable set in a small French village in 1959, proudly boasts an atheist heroine.
The audience in the packed theater in Madison, Wis., where I recently saw the film erupted in spontaneous cheers and claps of approval when the main character, Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, gently announces her refusal to go to Mass, and is identified as an atheist.
The plot, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, revolves around the disruptions and transformations that occur when Vianne blasphemously opens a "chocolaterie" during Lent. It's full of great supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, and Lena Olin. Victoire Thivosol is especially appealing as Anouk, Vianne's young daughter, who has an imaginery kangaroo named Pantouf. (It's PG-13 but was suitable for our unworldly 11-year-old.) The film, with a definite anticlerical bent, is directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules").
If you go see this movie, better stick some emergency chocolate rations in your pockets--the chocolate scenes are mouth-watering.
Another new-release Miramax film (not so hot) that features an atheist character is "Bounce," with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck's atheism is briefly revealed when the recovering alcoholic criticizes AA's higher-power routine. Fortunately the movie portrays the secular redemption of this atheist.
These atheist protagonists join last fall's "Contender," directed by Rod Lurie, whose heroine (played by Joan Allen), a U.S. Senator nominated for the vice presidency, coolly admits her atheism and support for the separation of church and state at a confirmation hearing.
And isn't it nice that both Allen and Binoche are up for a "best actress" Oscar for their portrayals of these freethinking characters? In other Oscar atheist trivia, Steven Soderbergh, director of two of the films nominated as "best movie of the year"--"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--recently replied "no" when The Onion asked him, "Do you believe in God?"
Could it be atheism is becoming chic?
--Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freethought Today editor
Nominate Favorite Freethought Flicks
Have a favorite movie with a nonreligious character/theme? Send the movie title and a short (paragraph or so) description/synopsis to Freethought Today, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.
When we collect enough reader recommendations, we'll publish them so others won't miss out on any of those rare freethought moments at the movies.
The Missouri Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision on Feb. 13 upholding the constitutionality of a statute prescribing a "So help me God" oath on a tax form challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Missouri plaintiff Robert Oliver.
The decision, written by Justice Michael A. Wolfe, did offer one consolation: ". . . Oliver is entitled to a declaratory judgment that he is free . . . to cross off 'So help me God,' if he so chooses."
The decision stopped short of ordering any revision of the tax form.
The statute makes failure to sign the oath a misdemeanor, and imposes fines and/or jailtime.
Only Missouri citizens living in third or fourth class counties are forced to sign a religious oath.
Robert Oliver, who lives in Christian County, refused to sign the oath in January 1998, writing and signing his own affirmation "under penalty of perjury" which the Christian County assessor's office refused to accept. The assessor referred him to the state tax commission, which told the assessor's office to accept the form.
When the state office issued a memo ordering all third and fourth class counties to comply with the statutes and retain "So help me God" in the oath, the Foundation filed suit in federal court. The lawsuit was thrown out, with the federal judge ruling tax law challenges must be filed in state court. The Foundation refiled, losing at the county level.
But Foundation president Anne Gaylor said, "We truly did expect to prevail at the Missouri Supreme Court on our claim that the Missouri statute violates the equal protection clause."
The 13-page decision admits the use of the oath "is indeed an invitation to express a belief in God." Ronnie White was among the justices signing it.
"Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that the Missouri Constitution, in article 1, sections 5 to 7, has a greater wall separating church and state and that, whatever the outcome under the First Amendment, the Missouri Constitution makes the reference to God unconstitutional. Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to read our constitution as being hostile to religion," wrote the court.
The Court suggests a person who wishes to affirm could simply sign the "affirmation and simply ignore, without deleting, the references to 'swear' and to 'So Help me God'. . . . In any event, when a taxpayer opts to affirm, the words 'So help me God' are surplus."
Of course, ending an "affirmation" with the words "So help me God" renders that affirmation meaningless, Gaylor noted. She called the decision "doublespeak."
The Foundation has 30 days to review its options.
This speech was delivered before the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sept. 16, 2000, where Wendy Kaminer was named "Freethought Heroine" 2000.
Hello, you godless sons of bitches.
I'm honored to be your Freethought Heroine this year, though I have to say that calling me a heroine implies that there's some sort of courage in what I do, and I don't think that my work is particularly courageous, considering that I'm based in that hotbed of Unitarianism, Cambridge, Massachusetts. You don't find me in the Bible Belt getting into fights with people who want to force my children to pray. That's what takes real courage. Lawyers at the ACLU often say that the bravest people in the world are our clients. Some of our clients also number among the biggest jerks in the world and that's how they come to be our clients. But, many of them are noble, brave people who put much at risk to stand up for their rights, the rights of their children, and the rights of other people in their communities. If I were to nominate some freethought heroes and heroines of the year, I might pick a collection of ACLU clients.
Enough about heroism. Let's talk about freethought. I read in Talk magazine recently, that Jane Fonda had found god. And I thought to myself, "well, of course, she has," because Jane Fonda is a weathervane of popular culture. She was an antiwar protester when that was the thing to be and then she was an aerobics queen in the 1980s and now she's a child of god. So if you needed any further proof that we're in a period of religious revivalism you can point to Jane Fonda's reported conversion.
Or, of course, you could listen to Joe Lieberman, whose political platform seems to be his religious faith. I don't think anything this year has shown more clearly the link that most people make between morality and religion than the naming of Joe Lieberman as Democratic vice presidential candidate. When Gore needed to establish his morality and to distance himself from Bill Clinton, he picked someone who is aggressively religious.
There has been a lot of breathless talk about the "breakthrough" achieved by the Democrats in putting a Jew, an Orthodox Jew, on the national ticket, but I suspect that Lieberman had a much greater chance of being picked for vice president than any number of secular Protestants, not to mention any liberals. After Lieberman was named there was a wonderful cartoon in the Boston Globe by Dan Wasserman, who's a very good political cartoonist, showing a picture of a woman looking over Lieberman's republicanesque voting record on issues like missile defense, HMO's, and social security, and saying to him, "Funny, you don't look Democratic."
It wasn't surprising to hear Joe Lieberman repeat the canard that the First Amendment protects freedom of and not freedom from religion, though it was a little discouraging. I don't know who authored that particular phrase. I've heard it from such disparate politicians as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. You hear it all the time. It's irritating because it so clearly misapprehends the First Amendment. Of course the Constitution protects my freedom from Lieberman's religion and his freedom from Al Gore's religion, but you all know that.
It seems to be equally evident that politicians have every right to talk about their religious faith--incessantly, if they must--and Lieberman now claims that he only wants to inject religion into public discourse, not into public policy. In fact, a couple of days after he made his statement claiming that religion was essential to morality and encountered criticism, he sort of took it back. One of his spokespersons said something like, well, you have to understand that he was in a church when he said that--suggesting that we shouldn't have taken his remarks so seriously.
I suppose we can hope that he's insincere. But Lieberman should not be surprised when some people wonder if all this godly discourse might be a prelude to some godly policies. Especially when he suggests that we can somehow achieve freedom of religion without freedom from religion as well. Lately I've been yearning to be free of the moralistic banalities of this excessively pious presidential race. Can't we just stipulate that all of these candidates believe in god quite fervently and regularly pray? Apparently not. Only a small minority of Americans seems to want to be free from religion, though in general I think that they do want freedom from particular religions, especially the ones of which they don't approve.
These have been good years for religion and spirituality movements, which makes them very good years for satirists and social critics. Stories about the supernatural abound. Tales of angels, aliens, conversations with god or the spirits of the deceased, adventures in ESP and reincarnation all compete in the marketplace with established religious beliefs. I always include the broad range of New Age beliefs and popular superstitions, including some popular therapies, in my critique of irrationalism. I hope that when you all talk about freedom from religion you also talk about freedom from superstition in general.
Lately we do have a lot of superstition about, but culture is like real estate--it's cyclical. Sometimes reason is up and sometimes it's down, and sometimes religious faith and magical thinking reign--most of the time it seems. You can find periods in the early 20th century when reason seemed to be ascendant, but for the most part you'd be hard-pressed to find any period in human history when the vast majority of people didn't harbor superstitions of one kind or another. And for the past couple of decades, reason has been in a downturn, at least in popular culture, despite all the scientific advances and our reliance on technology. Actually, New Age culture reflects a very conflicted relationship with science: it combines hostility toward science with a desire to appropriate scientific credibility and expertise, which is why people like Deepak Chopra like to make meaningless references to quantum physics. Chopra, for example, talks about taking us "beyond the quantum," or he prescribes "quantum" exercises for us.
But for all their pseudo-scientific palaver, New Age gurus perpetuate and exploit the myth that our society is excessively rational and that we need to put cold reason aside and embrace our intuitive powers--what pop therapists like to call our "feeling realities." Think with your heart and not with your head was one of the mantras of the recovery movement, and pop-spirituality books like The Celestine Prophecy commonly denigrated reason as the last resort of the unenlightened. The current wave of religious revivalism, which includes New Age and established faiths, encourages a celebration of ineffable, intuited truths: non-rational truths about the existence of god, the reality of heaven, the presence of guardian angels and other spiritual wishes or ideals.
I'd like to talk to you today about irrationalism and the likely effect of faith and piety on public policy, but first I want to spend just a minute or two telling you something about my own attitudes towards religious belief. I'm personally irreligious, just about completely irreligious. [clapping] You don't have to clap for that. I hope that you wouldn't dislike me if I harbored some religious beliefs. Which leads me to my next point: I'm not a proselytizing atheist. In fact, I hesitate to call myself an atheist because I don't really want to define myself in opposition to religion. One of my friends says that she calls herself an agnostic, not an atheist, because to call herself an atheist makes religion seem too important.
I also don't consider myself especially hostile toward religion in general though I may take issue with particular theologies and their effect on the culture. I don't have a lot of patience for all the nonsense produced by some gurus of New Age, although there's probably just as much nonsense that comes out of established religion. One of the main differences, though, between established religions and New Age is that established religion is--established--which means that it's institutionalized. There's a lot of corruption that follows from that but there's also some social utility. Look at the historic contributions made by religious movements and organizations to social justice and welfare. Religion is a complicated phenomenon. You can't reasonably assert that no good has come of it.
I'm also very deeply committed to preserving religious freedom regardless of the form it takes. What's more fundamental than the right to believe and worship as you choose? And, while I consider faith a very poor substitute for empirical reasoning when we are deciding matters of public policy, I don't share the view of some atheists that religion can't coexist with reason or common sense. I find categorical denunciations of religious belief as simplistic as categorical denunciations of disbelief.
So, I'm not about to offer you a version of Jesse Ventura's attack on religion, though I did find his mockery of religion extremely refreshing, mostly because it's so exceedingly rare. It was hard to believe that an elected official was standing up and debunking belief in god. It was quite refreshing. But his assertion that religion is for weak-minded people was a bit facile. Religion attracts strong-minded, highly intelligent people as well as the weak and the stupid and that's what makes it interesting. If it only attracted stupid people, if it were nothing but a collection of banalities, it would be unintriguing and much less powerful.
What you can learn from studying pop-psychology, pop-spirituality, and religious revivalism is that intelligence is often compartmentalized, and that highly intelligent people can be what you might consider very unsophisticated about belief in the supernatural. Upwards of 95% of Americans reportedly profess belief in god. Now you can't possibly think that everyone in this room is smarter than 96% of all Americans. I surely don't. I imagine that there are people who believe in god who are even smarter than we.
It should be obvious that religious people can be equally acquainted with virtue and vice, passion and viciousness, just like nonreligious people, and it's extremely difficult, probably impossible to quantify the historic effect of religious belief on human welfare. The only generalization about religion that ever appealed to me was Mary McCarthy's remark that religion is good for good people.
Usually it makes little sense to talk about religion in general; like the weather, it's highly variable. Despite outbursts of ecumenism, people involved in different religious sects embrace different beliefs about the almighty and the nature of human virtue. Does godliness require that women wear veils or that children be beaten with belts? Does it oppose abortion or support reproductive choice? We can talk about the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion rights; we can also talk about the role that the liberal Protestant clergy played in the early years of the pro-choice movement. Does religion encourage or prohibit interracial marriages? Religion played a fairly strong role in the maintenance of Jim Crow laws; some white supremacists thought that the division of the races was divinely ordained. Religion also played a very important part in the civil rights movement. What notion of godly virtue does a Pentecostal Christian share with a Christian Scientist, a Muslim fundamentalist, a Unitarian-Universalist, a Scientologist, a Reform Jew and a Spiritualist? So often when people talk about religion in America today they should really be talking about sectarianism.
One of the perils posed by contemporary religious revivalism is the tendency to treat belief in a god simplistically as if it were a monolithic unmitigated good, as if faith were always a virtue and never a vice. I realize that fringe movements, like the Branch Davidians, the Hare Krishnas, and a range of insular totalistic groups that we label cults, are scorned or feared, not praised. But they are often viewed in the mainstream as perversions of religion, not exemplars.
The exaltation of religious belief is often a triumph of circular reasoning. It's easy to assert that religion inculcates virtue if you limit your definition of true religion to the groups that seem virtuous to you. And that is pretty much what people do. I am very wary of generalizing about religion. John Dewey said we should never talk about religion in the singular, we should only talk about religions, plural. But, as a social critic, I am in the business of making generalizations, and I think that we can engage in some generalized discussions about the phenomenon of religious faith, the willingness or capacity to believe in deities, angels or miracles, whatever forms they take. We can identify basic human needs served by various religions: the craving for immortality or cosmic justice.
It may be fun to debunk religion (it's often fun to debunk whatever is held sacred), but if you want to be effective in combating the real dangers of organized religion, you have to respond sympathetically to the existential anxieties that fuel religious belief. Life is a series of losses: we're going to lose all the people that we love, we're going to lose ourselves. I don't feel at all contemptuous of people who turn to beliefs in eternal life that I don't share. I understand why people who lost their children in the late 19th century turned to mediums to try to communicate with them.
It is obvious that the promise of immortality greatly enhances the appeal of western religions and contemporary New Age movements. Popular spirituality books tell us that there is no death, and there are a lot of immortality options in the New Age. Either we'll be reincarnated or transformed in some mysterious higher form of energy. Or, with the right attitude and diet we can essentially live forever. That's Deepak Chopra's message. Established western religions generally tell us that if we behave, we will ascend to heaven. According to a 1990 Gallup poll (this is one of my favorite statistics), some three-quarters of Americans believe that they are going to heaven. You have to wonder who they think is consigned to the other place.
People seem likely to believe what they want to hear or what they fear; in either case, emotion preempts reason. So it's not surprising that terrifying accounts of alien abductions coexist in a popular culture with bedtime stories about guardian angels who offer unconditional love. With faith on the ascendant, tales of the supernatural enjoy considerable appeal. We live in very credulous times, so when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, I am talking about credulity, gullibility. I'm talking about the decline of skepticism. I'm concerned with the ways in which our culture celebrates faith and devalues reason and applies habits of faith to questions that require empirical analysis, notably questions of public policy.
It is, for example, perfectly appropriate to take on faith assertions about the divinity of Jesus or the assertion that god loves you: You can only take that on faith. But it is not appropriate to take on faith that ending welfare benefits will end teenage pregnancy. That is an assertion about an empirical reality. Conclusions about, say, the efficacy of the drug war or the power of Christian Science healers to cure cancer ought to be demonstrated empirically.
The irrationalism that discourages questioning and empirical analysis is one very important legacy of the therapeutic culture. And by the therapeutic culture, I mean the ethics and the values that derive from popular therapies, notably the recovery movement, the 12-step movement. It has contributed greatly to the current religious revival.
Consider the quasi-religious reliance on personal testimony. The therapeutic culture exhorts us to substitute feelings for facts, to take personal testimony at face value, especially when it relates to searing personal experience, notably child abuse, sexual abuse. If we cross-examine someone offering testimony of abuse or question her credibility we're accused of perpetuating the abuse. At the very least, cross-examination is considered a breach of etiquette. We're expected to judge the truth of an assertion by the passion or apparent sincerity with which it is offered, as if people were never delusional or simply convincingly dishonest. We're supposed to take stories about extraterrestrials, guardian angels, ghosts and other supernatural occurrences at face value, as well, and in fact the authors of pop-spirituality books depend on our willingness to suspend disbelief and take them at their word when they tell us stories about communicating with god, with the angels or their dead grandparents.
I can't stress strongly enough how much this reliance on personal testimony and this mandate that we take personal testimony at face value contributes to the irrationalism that abounds today. It comes right out of popular therapies, and popular therapies took it straight from the religious tradition of testifying and the conflation of feelings about god's immanence with facts about his existence. There are times, of course, when religious truths are appropriate and irreproachable. There are times when therapeutic truths or feeling realities are perfectly appropriate--in a therapist's office, for example, although even therapists have to be concerned with distinguishing emotional and historical truths. A statement like "my father never understood me" is a subjective emotional truth. A statement like "my father raped me" asserts an objective truth. It's a claim about a historical fact that needs to be investigated.
What are the dangers of confusing feelings with facts? Consider the results of importing therapeutic notions of truth into the courtroom. We saw a rash of wrongful child abuse cases in the 1980s and 90s and the imprisonment of people for crimes that were probably never committed. These cases reflected in part a failure of reason and the confusion of justice with therapy. Believe the children, people said. Take their stories at face value even when the stories were completely unbelievable. A courtroom ought to be a realm dominated by facts, not feelings; by reason, not faith. You should never be discouraged from cross-examining anybody who's making an accusation of criminality.
So, when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, in part I'm talking about an inappropriate reliance on personal testimony as the source of objective truth. I'm talking about confusing the realms of faith and reason. As I've said, people derive a lot of comfort and maybe even some enlightenment from their subjective intuitions about unverifiable spiritual truths, and I don't deny or even want to address the very private benefits of irrationalism. I'm interested in its public perils, in the perils of piety as well as the perils of all the irrationalism spawned by the New Age movements.
One obvious peril is the rise of sectarianism and the marriage of particular religious beliefs with government. Of course, politicians have a right to talk about their faith; but it's irritating and unsettling to hear them use professions of religious faith as signals of their own essential goodness, and when they equate belief in God with goodness, it's easy to suspect that they're beginning to make the case that a good government is a godly one.
That's a very popular belief, because many people do derive their ideals and visions for a just society from their religions, which is not necessarily something I lament. In fact, as a secular person, I'd feel a lot better about George Bush if I thought he really was a good Christian who followed the teachings of Jesus. There might be a lot less people executed in Texas if he were. He might actually become a compassionate conservative.
That's another way of saying that we can learn a lot more about George Bush and all the others by studying their records and observing their behavior than by listening to their declarations of religious faith. The belief that godliness is essential to good government is, at best, inane. You can find people who love God on both sides of most of our controversial debates. So it would be nice if religious people, notably religious people in public life, would acknowledge that religion is not an exclusive source of moral teachings. They need to recognize that freedom from religion does not entail freedom from ethical constraints. I think we need to make clear to the extent that we can how the equation of faith with goodness results in a kind of moral shallowness.
And that brings me back, in conclusion, to Senator Lieberman. I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about his morality. What evidence do we have of Lieberman's goodness? He's pious and puritanical. He represents one traditional American model of morality, and that's what's so depressing. Because if Lieberman is such a deeply moral man who felt that he had to denounce Clinton two years ago because he had an illicit affair with an intern, why was he silent in 1992 when his good friend Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas during the presidential campaign to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who had been effectively lobotomized by a self-inflicted bullet.
I'm not suggesting that no good people support capital punishment, though I do think it is an immoral practice that most good people would oppose if they had good information about it. But the execution of Rector was particularly heinous and most of all violated the religious norms that have shaped our rules about capital punishment. Rector had blown away part of his brain, so he didn't understand what it meant to be executed. He asked if he could save his dessert for after the execution. Legal prohibitions against executing the insane reflect the religious notion that we shouldn't kill people who aren't aware of what they've done and don't have an opportunity to repent and maybe achieve salvation before dying.
This particular drama of sin and redemption is a Christian one. I doubt, however, that Rector's execution seemed appropriate to Joe Lieberman because he's Jewish. I think that only an agnostic or an atheist would find a kind of mercy in the execution of someone who is incapable of anticipating his death. In any case, Jews are supposed to care about justice, if not mercy, and Lieberman has demonstrated very sporadic support for it. He strongly supported some of the most unjust federal laws of recent decades: the 1996 counter-terrorism bill, for example, which greatly limits the right to appeal state court convictions in federal court, and which also allows people to be imprisoned and deported on the basis of secret evidence. In other words, the FBI can come to your door in the middle of the night and say, "We're putting you under arrest," and when you ask "Why are you putting me under arrest," they answer, "We can't tell you. It's a secret." There are, I think, a couple of dozen people in jail under this provision, which targets Muslims and Arab-Americans, not surprisingly. (Prejudice does carve out exceptions to the conventional notion that religious faith makes people good.)
You don't have to be religious to oppose laws like this. All you need is a moral code that mandates some respect for fairness and human rights. So I'd welcome a campaign that revolved around moral questions, like the morality of racial profiling, the nation's prison system, or the war on drugs. But issues like these are political taboos. In their drive to control the center, Lieberman and other moderate Democrats have abdicated moral responsibility for criminal justice. It is, by the way, very important for atheists, agnostics, and skeptics not to retreat from the battleground of moral debate. Don't be afraid of using words like morality and talking about what you think is right or wrong. How else can you make the point that you don't have to be religious to care about morality?
It's been nearly ten years since Democrats coopted Republican rhetoric and a Republican agenda on crime control, with some religious fervor. When Clinton signed the very repressive 1994 federal crime bill which includes new federal penalties for drug crimes, among other things, he said that he was doing god's work. Recently Democrats have adopted what used to be a Republican posture on religion. Having thoroughly corrupted the justice system, politicians are now targeting faith. If I believed in the devil, I'd imagine him rejoicing.
Wendy Kaminer, Affiliated Scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is a columnist for The American Prospect and is Contributing Editor at The Atlantic Monthly. She serves on the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union. A lawyer and social critic, she writes about law, liberty, feminism, and popular culture. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her commentaries have aired on NPR's "Morning Edition." Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Newsweek. Her books include: Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (1999), I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional and A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality.
Many humanists suffer from a condition known as apostasy. Fortunately, this condition is not a disease of any sort; indeed, it can be considered more as a cure. It is neither painful nor debilitating, though one may suffer withdrawal symptoms for a short period. However, it is contagious, and those who have it should spread its positive effects as far and wide as possible.
Apostasy is the conscious rejection of previously-held religious beliefs of any kind; those who do so are called apostates. In this respect they differ from other humanists, agnostics, or atheists who have never held religious beliefs. It may be comforting to know that, according to many studies, apostates display certain uniformities and thus cannot be considered as aberrations.
According to B.P. Beckwith1, apostates are generally well-educated, have higher than average levels of intelligence, and enjoy better than average economic circumstances. In North America, people tend to become apostates at younger rather than older ages, are more predominant in the West, and are most likely to be male. Beckwith attributes these characteristics to the growth of knowledge, education, freedom of expression, social reform, health care, and the rise of logical positivism and scientific method, among other factors.
Another researcher, D.G. Bromley2, made a study of what he termed religious disaffiliation occurring in American mainstream and alternative religious groups. He also examined the rapid growth of those who claimed no religious affiliation in the first place, as well as apostates from any one group who adopted another (usually more liberal) set of beliefs.
As can be imagined, Bromley found the whole topic to be incredibly complex, with problems stemming from inconsistent questionnaires, non-uniform terminology, conflicting methodology, and the variety of studies of the many social and psychological consequences of apostasy, both for groups and individuals concerned. He further dealt with the special difficulties of apostates from the more extreme of the cult groups (such as the Moonies, Jonestown, and Heaven's Gate) and with attempts at what is popularly called deprogramming.
One final reference here deals with a detailed study by Caplovitz3 of religious drop-outs among college students, in which factors such as parental relationships, peer pressure, radical political orientation, and individual commitment to intellectualism and rationality are cited as significant. For readers who are apostates from mainline or fringe religious organizations and who may find this topic of interest, there is a wealth of useful material just waiting to be absorbed in any well-stocked city or college library.
Foundation member Glenn Hardie was a founding member of the B.C. Humanist Association, on whose Board he served for many years. He is also a member of the Humanist Association of Canada and the American Humanist Association. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, a Master's degree in Adult Education, and professional diplomas in Construction Economics and Property Appraisal. Now retired, he taught project costing at the B.C. Institute of Technology and at the School of Architecture at U.B.C. He is married, with two grown children.
1 Beckwith, B. The Decline of Religious Faith. Beckwith Publications, CA 1985
2 Bromley, D.G. Falling from the Faith. Sage Publications, CA 1988
3 Caplovitz, S. The Religious Drop-Outs. Sage Publications, CA 1977