Whether you want to admit it or not, there are times when you just have to feel sorry for god. Consider, if you will, that since the creation the almighty has been trying to establish some type of delivery system, some form of reliable communication whereby he can get "the word" out to his clones here on planet earth. But to date all attempts have met with unlimited, unqualified and unrelenting failure.
Poor god. It has got to be nothing but pure unadulterated, exhausting and overwhelming frustration on his part. Can you imagine how totally mortified and humiliated he must feel? Here he is this all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful superbeing with all the resources of the cosmos at his disposal and he can't even get a few simple laws and commandments through one quarter of an inch of human skull. Nothing penetrates. No matter what he tries, no matter how routine or how elaborate the plan of attack the result is always the same--complete and abject failure.
Poor god. Look, for example, at the number of times he has tried to communicate via the written word. No matter if he pens his message on stone tablets, gold plates, papyrus, parchment, leather, paper or what have you the end result is always the same--misunderstanding, confusion, contradiction, uncertainty and frustration.
Poor god. Over the centuries he's put his moniker on everything from epistles, encyclicals, gospels, journals, letters, missiles, parables, poems, tracts, treatises, short stories, long stories, holy books and sacred books. He's even written, or inspired madmen to write, different books for different people and different religions in different countries using different languages, different dialects and even different terminology. To add to the continuing chaos every one of his words, each and every inspired work, has been altered, amended, annotated, changed, compiled, copied, corrected, edited, interpreted, revised, transcribed, transformed, translated, cleaned-up, touched-up, updated and sanitized to such a degree that even god himself doesn't know what he said, if he did indeed say it, when he said it or even if he meant what he said when he supposedly said it.
Poor god. Now, because this omnipotent being, this great communicator in the sky, has had such a dismal and disappointing experience with the written word, the spoken word is now, once again, the latest wrinkle in the communication gambit. There was a time when only those of a status of a Moses or a Mohammed ever conversed with god. Face to face encounters were truly miraculous. But now the number of pious parasites has multiplied and holy hucksters of every ilk routinely speak to god, with god and for god.
Today it has degenerated to such a low point that anyone and everyone, regardless of which side of the asylum wall they happen to be standing on, is having a running conversation and a one-on-one relationship with their very own personal savior. But much like before, not surprisingly, everyone is hearing and receiving a different and conflicting message. Currently it's just one big funny farm--the only thing missing are the rubber rooms and the canvas kimonos. Today the din of the deluded is deafening and all-consuming.
God has created a monster in his own image and likeness and the monster is not only out of control and running amok but is reproducing and replicating like a virus--and because god can't effectively communicate with it he can't control it.
Poor god. He's made such a mess out of everything. But then he always does. Fortunately for god, however, when he gets tired and fed up with the messes he makes he just finds himself a new sandbox and starts the process up all over again. While we, on the other hand, have to stay behind and put up with his repeated and never-ending failures. Poor us.
The writer is an artist and Life Member from Florida.
A 1,237-page compendium, Who's Who in Hell: A Handbook and International Directory for Humanists, Freethinkers, Naturalists, Rationalists and Non-Theists, has been edited by Warren Allen Smith, a 79-year-old Foundation member from New York City, and published by Lyle Stuart's Barricade Books.
Smith labored for 50 years to compile a reference on skeptics and nonbelievers, according to an Aug. 14 article in the New York Observer.
The book lists more than 10,000 names, including director Woody Allen, the late Steve Allen, billionaire Warren Buffett, Microsoft chief Bill Gates, actors Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and George Clooney, artist Frida Kahlo, writers Joyce Carol Oates, Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal, New York Times owner Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., columnist Russell Baker, musicians Billy Joel and Barry Manilow, and a roster of more ordinary folk.
Serving in the Army during World War II, Smith had the word "none" next to religion on his dog tag. After the war, he founded the first humanist club on any college campus in 1948 at the University of Northern Iowa. He founded his second humanist club at Columbia University, signing up John Dewey as his first member.
As for his special "Who's Who in Hell" club, he says: "Don't worry, registration is still open."
The book is available for $99 from Rationalists NY, 31 Jane St. (Box 10-D), New York NY 10014. Why not ask your library to order it?
Below are excerpts of a survey of 52 celebrities asked "Is there a god?" by The Onion newspaper. The responses appeared in The Onion's (bonafide) "A.V. Club" section, 7-13, September 2000).
Isn't believing in God like wearing chain mail? . . . In that you just don't do it anymore.
EP It's Very Stimulating
I'm dyslexic, so I hear dog when you say God.
--Director Robert Altman
If there is a God, He's definitely a rock star.
"Phish" vocalist, guitarist
If there is a God, all evidence shows that He hates me
I'm an atheist.
No, there is no god. Period. End of story.
Radio talkshow host
--Director Steven Soderbergh
No. I don't think there's a God like the God everybody's taught about. As a concept, I think it exists in terms of nature and the greater forces of things. I believe in nature instead of God.
--Pop singer Matthew Sweet
No. No, there's no God, but there might be some sort of an organizing intelligence, and I think to understand it is way beyond our ability. It's certainly not paternalistic and all these qualities that have been attributed to God. It's probably a dispassionate. . . . That's why I say, "Suppose He doesn't give a shit? Suppose there is a god but he just doesn't give a shit?" That's the kind of thing that might be at work.
--Comedian George Carlin
. . . It's possible that there's some kind of life spirit or life force or something; not an old man sitting on a tree. If there's an old man sitting on a stump way up in the sky, 1) he's stupid, and 2) he's somewhat diabolical, you know? He's giving babies diseases, and bombing villages for no good reason, and killing people in airplanes.
--Singer Mojo Nixon
. . . There doesn't need to be a God for me. . . .
--Actress Angelina Jolie
No, I don't think She exists.
--Director Alex Cox
God is, to me, pretty much a myth created over time to deny the idea that we're all responsible for our own actions.
--Actor Seth Green
Originally published May 1990 in Freethought Today.
- Father George Bredemann of Phoenix is asked to counsel children sexually abused by a babysitter. Instead, he molests the brothers himself at, his cabin and during baths. Following his arrest, 250 parishioners attend a support prayer meeting for him. Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien says the support for Bredemann makes him "proud." The priest admits to 20 years of sexually abusing boys. The judge gives him I year in jail and probation following the recommendation of the bishop.
- A 14-year-old girl in foster care is raped and impregnated by Deacon Stephen Andrews of the Advent Christian Church in Kennebunk, Maine, a trusted figure. She gives birth. Andrews gets 5 years in prison, 3 of them suspended, despite the protests of the prosecutor.
- Salvation Army Captain William Douglas is convicted of molesting, sodomizing and sexually terrorizing young Indian boys in a village in British Columbia. Douglas was acquitted of similar charges in 1985; the judge said he could not accept that a minister would lie.
- Supporters of Father Thomas L. McLaughlin say he is "being crucified," following his arrest for pedophilia. He confesses to molesting boys for years. The Columbus Diocese did not report him to police until almost a year after parents first complained to Bishop James A Griffin. "Father Mac" gets 18 months in a plea bargain.
- Born-again Delaware preacher William J. Keichline, Sr. is commended by the legislature for running Mission of Care ministry for the homeless. As a landlord he assaults and rapes a girl for 3 years starting when she is 7, threatening to evict her family if she tells. He gets eight 20 year prison terms for rape, bondage and child pornography.
- The tiny province of Newfoundland is rocked by 20 convictions or charges of priests and Catholic brothers for molesting children, which closes Mt Cashel orphanage. Police, social workers and church officials are all implicated in a cover-up.
These are examples of the criminal cases involving clergy sexual abuse of children being reported at the rate of at least two a week.
That statistic comes from a first-of-its-kind study of recent cases of molesting clergy and church staff conducted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The study focuses on criminal cases against 190 North American priests and preachers charged with sexual molestation of children during 1988 and 1989. Also studied were 60 child abuse cases involving nonclergy church staff, such as Sunday School teachers, counselors and parochial school teachers and principals. Additionally, there were 62 civil suits during those years brought against molesting pastors and their churches. See section below for details on related studies.
Of the accused clergy, 75 were Catholic priests (39.5%) and 111 were Protestant ministers (58%). (Also charged were 1 Mormon clergyman, 1 occult minister and 2 cult ministers.) Protestant cases involved equal numbers of mainstream and fundamentalist/evangelical denominations. This study revealed no rabbis charged with child molestation.
"Although we find the numbers of molesting clergy staggering, our figures undoubtedly reflect only a fraction of these cases," notes Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today and author of the 1988 book Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children.
Cases in the study were based on those reported in the daily press which were compiled byFreethought Today, with follow-up through prosecutors' offices.
"It has to be stressed that many criminal cases are not necessarily reported by newspapers, and that most cases of clergy abuse of children never reach the criminal courts in the first place. Nor does the study encompass allegations which did not involve criminal charges, such as the scandal this spring involving Father Bruce Ritter of the Covenant House.
"This study shows that child molestation by clergy involves the priest- or minister-next-door," she said.
"Our study proves that these crimes are by no means confined to the Catholic Church. However, the meaningful statistic is that, although priests make up only about 10% of North American clergy, they are 40% of the accused. The Catholic Church, which always complains that the media are 'priest-bashing,' has absolutely no grounds for this criticism."
The study reveals that Catholic priests were acquitted or dismissed of child molestation charges at a higher rate than Protestant ministers. Similarly, Catholic priests received a higher rate of suspended sentences when convicted, and when sentenced, spent considerably less time in jail or prison. Another striking difference between Catholics and Protestants was the sex of their victims. Slightly more than half of the, Protestant ministers molested girls while 90% of the priests molested boys.
In at least half of the cases, dioceses were exposed as engaging in cover-ups. Cover-ups included superiors knowing about molestation but doing nothing or transferring priests to unsuspecting communities, or official stonewalling. Known coverups also occurred in at least 10% of Protestant churches.
The study shows that 88% of all charged clergy were convicted (81% of priests were convicted). Outcome is unknown in about a fifth of the cases, most of these still in progress.
"Since accusing well-known priests and ministers with sexual abuse of children is highly controversial," said Gaylor, "we think prosecutors tend to charge ministers only when they feel very confident of the outcome. This appears to account for a satisfyingly high conviction rate."
A majority of cases did not go to trial, with 61% of accused reverends pleading guilty (53%) or no contest (8%). Threequarters of all clergy who pleaded innocent were found guilty. About half of the Catholic priests pleading innocent were convicted. Seventy-eight percent of convicted ministers were incarcerated (62% imprisoned, 16% jailed), with sentences as brief as 30 days in jail to as long as 3 lifeterms. About 10% received probation only.
Priests were incarcerated at a lower rate than Protestants, with only 68.5% of convicted priests spending time in jail or prison. The average Protestant clergyman sent to prison for child molestation received 11.5 years, while the average Roman Catholic priest received only 3.6 years. Of the 21 priests sent to prison, none received a sentence higher than 9 years. By contrast, of 58 Protestant clergy, 45% received ten or more years, including 3 life sentences.
Similarly, Protestants averaged sentences of 6.6 months in jail, compared to 4.4 months for Catholics.
Both accused molesters who became fugitives (still at large) are Catholic priests.
Overall, 7.4% of the cases against ministers were dismissed and 4.7% were acquitted. Cases against priests were dropped at a slightly higher rate of 12.5% dismissal, and 6.3% acquittal.
Almost twice as many priests received suspended sentences. Additionally, 1 priest was given treatment-only as a sentence and another was channeled into pretrial intervention with charges dropped upon successful completion.
Half of the clergymen were officially involved in youth functions, where they met their victims. About a third were accused of molestations during camping trips, youth group activities, retreats and crusades. About 20% were accused of molesting children at religious schools, 21% at church homes for children or through foster care. Eleven percent were accused of abusing children during counseling sessions exclusively, although many cases involved a counseling relationship. Three percent were charged with molesting children while working at treatment centers, such as drug rehabilitation or correctional institutes.
Crimes occurred at such church locations as the sacristy, in the rectory, or church van. One convicted priest molested victims just before saying Mass.
Most ministers were charged with molesting at least 4 or 5 victims but were believed to have assaulted many others. The sexual assault charges ranged from indecent touching to rape, sodomy, and child pornography. Much of the abuse was longterm with some children assaulted as many as 1,000 times. A majority of victims, 60% of whom were boys, were molested on church property or during church-sanctioned outings,
Included in the study were prominent clergy and evangelists who had made names for themselves through special ministries or "good works."
The profile of the typical minister charged with molesting children: a 45-year-old man (ages ranged from 24 to 80 at the time of arrest), with 4 to 5 named victims, most often boys in their early teens.
Of all the accused, 37% involved female victims, 58% male victims, and 3.2% children of both sexes. (In 1% of the cases, the sex of the victim was not identified.)
Charges for all 190 cases involved a total of 847 victims. Most ministers, however, were suspected of molesting many other children. Conservatively, the 190 clergy had at least 4,000 other victims, for a low estimate of an average of 21 victims each. These children were not included in charges for pragmatic legal reasons, because they had been molested in other cities and times, or because the statute of limitations had been exceeded. Some estimates were anecdotal based on investigations or confessions by the molester.
Convicted ministers averaged 5 victims each, with 133 ministers molesting at least 651 named victims.
Information on the marital status of Protestants, gleaned from newspaper accounts so therefore incomplete, showed that at least 43% were married. This would dispel the idea that celibacy alone triggers ministerial child molestation. Twelve cases involved clergy charged with molesting their own children, stepchildren, adopted children or foster children.
While many see therapy as a panacea for this crime, only about a third of the convicted ministers and priests had had some kind of counseling or psychiatric evaluation, mandated or otherwise.
Studies Show Depth of Scandal in Churches
Church Staff (Nonclergy) Charged In 1988-89 With Molesting Children
Of 60 church staff or employees charged in criminal court with molesting children in 1988-89, 22% were Catholic, 72% were Protestant and 6% were other faiths.
These included nonordained youth ministers, Sunday School teachers, church volunteers, religious daycare staff, parochial school staff (teachers, principals and deans), music personnel, nonpastoral staff, camp counselors, YMCA or YWCA staff and leaders of church-sponsored Boy Scouts.
A quarter of the cases were still in progress, or of unknown disposition.
Of the 45 settled cases, 38 ended in conviction (84.4%), 6 were dismissed (13.3%) including 1 dismissed on the condition of treatment, and 1 was acquitted (2.2%).
Of convictions, 54% were sentenced to prison terms, 17% got jail sentences, 20% received probation, and 9% got suspended sentences.
Catholics received generally lighter sentences: only 20% received prison sentences with 30% given probation and 40% getting jailtime (a Catholic principal became a fugitive prior to sentencing).
The average church staff sentenced to prison for child molestation got 14.5 years (excluding 1 sentence of 2,000 years from the average).
The average jail sentence was 9.3 months.
These sentences are heavier than the average prison and jail sentences given to convicted ministers for the same type of crime over the same time period.
Ministers Accused Of Sexually Abusing Adults In 1988-89
Statistics on ministers criminally accused of sexually abusing adults in 1988-89 were based on a small number of reports: 14 cases, most of them involving Protestant ministers and 3 of them involving ministers in the position of chaplain.
"We know there were many other such cases we simply did not have documentation on," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today.
There was a 71% conviction rate, with 70% given prison sentences, 20% given jailtime, and 10% given conditions. The average prison sentence was 18 years, with the range from 2 years to life.
Jail sentences averaged 2 months.
The average age of the defendant was 40. Convicted ministers had an average of 8 victims each named in the charges. In 88% of the cases, the victims were female.
Almost all the crimes included rape or sodomy. Two of the ministers broke into homes, and one was considered a serial rapist.
These cases were computed separately from the cases involving clergy sexual abuse of children.
1988-89 Civil Suit
Fifty-three percent of the 62 civil suits against ministers and their churches for sexual abuse of children or adults involved the Catholic Church. Of the remainder, 35% involved Protestants, 5% Mormon, 3% Christian daycares, 2% Hare Krishna and 2% cult.
Reasons for Suit
Fifty-four suits were brought by families of children molested by ministers or church staff. The victims were as young as 6, and included a disabled boy, a child patient, and children sent for church counseling, in some cases, for previous sexual abuse.
The remaining eight cases involved adult women sexually exploited during counseling situations by ministers and priests.
Most of the ministers named were accused of having victimized many other women and children.
Most litigants were suing not only the minister but the specific church where the abuse took place, and denominations.
Criminal Record Of Ministers In Civil Cases:
Almost a third of the defendants had been convicted in criminal court. An additional 11% had ongoing criminal charges. Almost half of the ministers named in civil suits were never charged with a crime, and in another 10% of the cases, criminal charges had been dropped.
The suits allege active cover-ups, such as the Catholic Church knowingly assigning a molester to different parishes, not heeding reports that a minister or church employee had molested a congregation member, intimidating victims' families not to call police, failing to check backgrounds or provide adequate monitoring, not warning a congregation that a minister had a previous criminal record, knowingly hiring someone with a history of sexual misconduct, or promising to put a molester in treatment but instead transferring him to a new parish.
Outcomes of 65 Total Civil Cases
10 Secret Settlements (8-Roman Catholic, 1-Mormon, I -Assembly of God)
12 Known Settlements (6-Roman Catholic) totaling $5,500,000+
3 dismissed (2-Roman Catholic)
39 in progress
Where Molestations By Accused Priests* Took Place
Alfred, ME; Altoona-Johnstown, PA; Allentown, PA; Apple Valley, CA; Asheville, NC; Atlanta, GA; Baker Lake, Northwest Territory; Baltimore, MD; Barrington, NJ; Barton, VT; Bothell, WA; Bozeman, MT; Bronx, NY; Calgary, Alberta; Camden, NJ; Chicago, IL; Davenport, IA; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; District of Columbia; Dubuque, IA; Escambia, FL; Ft. Collins, CO; Gainesville, FL; Hollywood, FL; Honolulu, HI; Houston, TX; Ignacio, CO; Keene, NH; Kingsville, MD; Lena, WI; Lone Tree, IA; Los Angeles, CA; Louisville, KY; Miami, FL; Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis, MN; Nelson, British Columbia; New Albany, OH; New York City, NY; Newark, NJ; North Bay, Ontario; Oklahoma City, OK; Overland Park, KS; Orange Co., CA; Ottawa, Ontario; Paterson, NJ; Perryburg, OH; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Pittsburgh, PA; Point Pleasant, NJ; Port Angeles, WA; Portland, OR; Providence, RI; Quebec, Quebec; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; St. Paul, MN; Vineland, NJ; Worchester, MA.
* A few locations named here involved nonpriest Catholic staff, such as Parochial school teachers. This list also includes locations of civil cases, and other alleged crimes. Some dioceses, of course, had more than one priest named over this two-year period.
A study released in March 1990 by Rev. Ronald Barton and Rev. Karen Lebaczq for the Center for Ethics and Social Policy of the Graduate Theological Union-Berkeley, reports that a quarter of all clergy have engaged in sexual misconduct.
What Catholic Bishops & Cohorts Say About Molesting Priests:
"We must not imply that the abuser is not guilty of serious crime, but we could easily give a false impression that any adolescent who becomes sexually involved with an older person does so without any degree of personal responsibility. Sometimes not all adolescent victims are so 'innocent'; some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise."
--Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert
Weakland Catholic Herald, May 1988
"A person at 14 should know better. Some children should know it's wrong. A child would have responsibility but the adult would have more responsibility."
Official at Ottawa Diocese
"If the victims were adolescents, why did they go back to the same situation once there had been one pass or suggestion. Were they cooperating in the matter or were they true victims?"
--Bishop Colin Campbell
Antigonish, Nova Scotia
Column, August 1989
"What I'm suggesting is that maybe some--a few, a few of them, many of them, most of them--who knows--had some kind of an inkling that this was wrong and could have said 'No, thank you very much.' I do not want to suggest that homosexual activity between a priest and an adolescent is therefore moral. Rather, it does not have the horrific character of pedophilia."
(Defending his earlier remarks about children molested at an orphanage during a radio interview, reported by Canadian Press)
--Bishop Colin Campbell
"It is not covering up to embrace a man who is suffering." (After placing 2 priests on "sick leave" and not reporting allegations of child abuse until a year later through an attorney)
--Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, 1988
"We followed the lead of the alleged victims and the families. We had no desire to cause undue pain or anxiety to them, if they are not disposed to take public action themselves." (Rationalizing not reporting above case)
--Rev. Ronald Lengwin
Pittsburgh diocesan spokesman, 1988
"[The allegation by a social worker that a 15-year-old refugee was molested by Father] was so vague it honestly didn't deserve our concern."
--Miami Chancellor Rev. Gerard LaCerra
(Miami Herald, 11/13,25/88)
"The church exists to pardon and heal . . . There may be cases where the child was chasing after the man, looking for affection and whatever happened, happened only once."
--Toronto Archbishop James Hayes
(Toronto Star, 7/2/89)
Special thanks to Sue Ryczek who diligently and conscientiously compiled and tabulated statistics, and to Dan Barker, for his able computer-programming assistance, and patience.
Superintendent Della Jones of Keystone Public Schools in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, notified the Foundation on Dec. 12 that "Gideons will not be allowed on campus to distribute bibles or any other religious materials."
The Foundation complained on Dec. 5 on behalf of a Sand Springs family offended that their fifth-grader received a New Testament Bible from the Gideons in a classroom this fall.
The Foundation pointed to more than 40 years of legal precedent against distribution of Gideon bibles on public school property.
Della Jones phoned the Foundation office to advise that the school district would change its policy and faxed a letter to that effect.
It pays to complain!
This acceptance speech was delivered on Sept. 16 at the FFRF national convention in St. Paul. Gabe and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation Board member Richard Mole for generously underwriting the annual $1,000 student activist award in memory of the late Dixie Jokinen.
Wow, there's a lot of you out there--and you're all going to hell! [laughter]
I'm really honored and excited to get this award, and not just because the award comes with money (with a philosophy degree that's always a good thing). I'm excited that I'm getting this from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
When I was in high school and was first realizing I was an atheist, I, as many of us did, felt like I was alone and that there wasn't anyone else who thought like me. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first organization I found out there for freethinkers or atheists.
I was impressed that not only were there other people who thought like me, but they were organized and they were active--they were out there doing things, writing letters to the editor, filing lawsuits, putting out publications, and it really encouraged me. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I probably would not have been into atheist activism had it not been for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So it's great to be getting an award for student activism from the Foundation.
My history of activism is a string of acronyms . . . we love acronyms here in the freethought movement, it seems. I started with the FFRF, then I moved to "aol" for the rest of my high school activism. I did a lot of online debating. I would go into fundamentalist chatrooms and say, "hey, I don't believe in god," and watch the sparks fly. I'd pick out the people who were less likely to just stick their caps lock on and swear at me in Christian-speak, and get into extended email debates with them, which I made available through the web. It was an interesting time.
Then I went to college and got involved with the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, which is a great campus group. I was elected the president of that group and served for two years. I got involved with the Campus Freethought Alliance, which at that time was the only national freethought student organization, and was elected vice-president of that group.
While working with them I came to believe that the student movement and thus the movement in general really needed an independent student organization that wasn't part of just one national organization. So several of us resigned our positions with the CFA and started the Secular Student Alliance, of which I'm now the executive director. We just had our first annual conference right next door in Minneapolis about a month ago, which was a really big success.
We had about 90 students coming from around the country, more than double the previous record for a national freethought student convention. Not only did we have more people, we had a lot of programs. We had about seven nationally-known speakers come, including Dan Barker, who gave a great talk. We had a panel discussion, a big Intelligent Design debate, and filled up a huge physics auditorium advertised to the public. It went really well.
I have graduated from college, but I'm still doing student activism and I plan on doing that as I go bald and start to stoop over, even though I won't be a student anymore, because I think campus activism is really vital to our movement.
You've probably heard of the greying of the movement. It's a phrase that's come up repeatedly in publications lately like the AHA's magazine The Humanist. Basically it's just the concern that a lot of the activists in our movement right now are well beyond retirement age and there aren't many middle-aged and younger people coming up behind them to replace them. People look at the demographics, look at the movement, and worry that it's dying out. For this reason I think campus activism is very important. These are our future leaders, our future activists, the people who are going to take over when we're all gone or are in the nursing home.
I also think campus activism is very important because of its potential. Campuses have a concentration of people and potential you don't see anywhere else. You have all these students packed together at a university when they're at their most open-minded stage in their entire lives. It's after they've gotten away from their parents, they've started thinking for themselves, they're away from being forced to go to church every day and it's before they've settled into a rut. This is why you see, statistically, most religious conversions happen on the college campus. Campus Crusade for Christ and groups like that trumpet that. They really focus on this: this is the time to strike, you get these campus kids.
I think it's important for us to get our ideas out there so college students hear about us, know we're out here. Even if we don't get everyone in the world to turn into an atheist--which I don't think is a reasonable hope although it's a nice one--the religious people we deal with who will never be atheist will be much more tolerant of our point of view and know where we're coming from, and will be less likely to equate atheism with amorality and things like that. These students we have on college campuses today are the future politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, voters, parents. It's important to focus on them.
As I mentioned, the Religious Right is very aware of that. In terms of contrast, the Campus Crusade for Christ, one of many national student organizations on the other side of the "culture war," has an annual budget that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It's over $200 million a year and they have literally thousands of full-time paid staff members. On our side of things, we currently have one or two staff members and I don't even want to estimate how much money we have; it's not much. We'll never have as many people as they do, I'm sure. We don't need to have that many because we've got the better arguments. I think if we get there on the campuses we'll really be able to have a major impact in the "culture war."
I think the Secular Student Alliance will be able to make a difference. We're working on building a strong network of durable, active and effective campus groups around the country and around the world. This means that in the years to come, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to have a harder and harder time choosing which activist to honor at conventions like this, because there's going to more and more of us, and the scope of our activities is going to get wider. But hopefully the extra difficulty will be dwarfed by the positive results of the heightened student activism.
In closing, I would like to thank Richard Mole for making the generous donation that made this award possible, and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation not only for the award itself, but also for getting me started down the road into student activism in the secular community in the first place.
Gabriel Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Rhetoric. A "student activist" awardee, he lives in Minneapolis, enjoys urban spelunking and punk rock shows.
Brian Bolton, a longtime Foundation member from Arkansas who recently became a Life Member, wrote this letter to the Northwest Arkansas Times, which published it on March 23, 2000.
The Times then published the breathtakingly bigoted response (see sidebar) from another reader, revealing what freethinkers are up against in the Arkansas Bible Belt.
In his Sunday column a few weeks ago Mike Masterson explained that to qualify for membership in the local Elks Club Lodge the applicant must profess a belief in God.
This constitutes discrimination against unbelievers and would seem to contradict the Elks Club's other membership requirement, which is support for basic American principles, one of which is surely respect for different philosophical viewpoints.
Because the Elks Club Lodge is a private organization, the Elks can establish any entrance standards that they prefer. Many private clubs have even more restrictive requirements, such as Christians only, whites only, and men only.
But other private organizations do not have any religious tests for membership. A good example is Toastmasters International, the world's largest organization devoted to the improvement of speech communication, with more than 8,400 clubs.
There is a long history of intolerance of unbelievers in Western society, beginning with prominent Greeks and extending to the present day. The term "unbeliever" subsumes skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and nontheists.
¥ Plato thought that unbelievers are a danger to society and should be put to death. He was referring to disbelievers in the pagan gods of Greek antiquity.
¥ Jesus (John 15:5-8) and Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9) taught that unbelievers would be burned, either in this life or an afterlife or both.
¥ St. Thomas Aquinas, the eminent Catholic theologian of the 13th century, advocated death for unbelievers, because they corrupt the faith.
¥ John Calvin, the Protestant theologian of the Reformation, actually did execute dozens of unbelievers.
¥ George Bush (the former president) asserted that unbelievers should not be considered either citizens or patriots.
¥ Jay Cole, Jr. announced that without God and his son Jesus, there is only tragedy, poverty and brutal criminal activity.
¥ Mike Masterson stated that he doesn't care to spend much time around anyone who does not believe in God.
By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 14 million unbelievers in the United States. This number includes some of the most productive Americans. For example, a recent survey of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that fewer than ten percent believe in a personal god.
Twelve well-known Americans who were unbelievers are: Isaac Asimov, Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sagan, Margaret Sanger, James Smithson, Gloria Steinem and Mark Twain.
Why would the Elks--a group of dedicated citizens widely recognized for their community service--want to exclude a segment of the American population on the basis of a religious test? The Elks should welcome all applicants who subscribe to their social and philanthropic mission.
"We Do Not Want People Such as You"
To Brian Bolton, whoever you are. From what seat of supremacy do you write? The simple fact is that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by men of principle, men who believed in God. If you do not, that's your problem; we do not need or want people such as you. Go your way, form your own assembly, associate with your peers.
Meanwhile, the Elks have important missions to fulfill, tasks that God approves of and which we are proud to undertake.
Poor fellow, you must be at wit's end to look at our new dollar coin and see the inscription "In God We Trust." the same words that appear on all our legal tender. Is this America's Waterloo or yours?
Send in the clones. The Second Coming Project in Berkeley, Calif., is preparing to obtain DNA from a "holy relic" in order to clone Jesus: "If all goes according to plan, the birth will take place on December 25, 2001." You read it here. Source: New York Times, 10/20/00
Like a bad penny. Peter Popoff, the faith healer caught red-handed by James Randi using electronic signals from his wife to hoodwink followers, is back on the air. Source: Charlestown Daily Mail, 10/13/00
Like a bad penny, Part II. Evangelist Oral Roberts told a Ventura congregation to hold up their purses and wallets and shout, "God, fill it up," because if they invest in God (e.g., give Roberts money), they will reap returns. Some 13 years ago, Roberts warned followers that God told him unless donors gave $8 million in a year so Roberts could found a university, Roberts would be "called home" (die).
He previously related a vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus who assured Roberts that donations would pour in for the evangelist's hospital, which later closed. Source: Ventura County Star [CA], 9/17/00
Strange bedfellows. Iranian feminists and conservatives are both endorsing "temporary marriage," in which a couple registers a marriage with a cleric that can last a few minutes or 99 years, circumventing laws that punish unmarried couples who have sex, date or even hold hands. While some call it legalized prostitution, Shahla Sherkat, editor of the feminist monthly Zanan says: "First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer. Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society's obsession with virginity will disappear." Source: New York Times/Seattle Post Intelligencer, 10/27/00
Nothing fails like prayer rugs? Federal authorities busted a drug ring using Muslim prayer rugs to smuggle heroin from Lebanon into Detroit, arresting 17 conspirators. Source: Associated Press, 9/13/00
Safer to be a freethinker. A woman driver from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, who obligingly honked when she approached a car with a bumpersticker requesting "Honk If You Love Jesus," had her car bashed in by the enraged driver, who wielded a sawed-off baseball bat. Source: Detroit News, 10/15/00
Not that hard-up for money. The Defense of Marriage Amendment Committee, which worked to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on Nebraska's ballot, turned down an offer of $600,000 from out-of-state Mormons. Never fear--a new coalition of Mormons, Family First and the Nebraska Catholic Conference, soon put the money to work on the initiative, which won overwhelmingly. Source: Lincoln Journal Star, 10/1/00; Daily Nebraskan, 11/8/00
Needed: Rabbi-free markets. Top-ranking Israeli rabbi Shalom Elyashiv ruled this fall that farmers must obey the Levitical law and let fields go fallow every seventh year. Farmers--threatened with financial ruin for defaulting loans if they follow the injunction or by raising unsalable nonkosher food if they don't--were rescued by the leader of the secular political party, who promised to set up rabbi-free markets. Source: AP/Lexington [Kentucky] Herald Leader, 9/30/00
Israel-dot-com? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to drag his country into the 21st century by expanding transport on the Sabbath, abolishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs, permitting civil marriages and improving technology, has outraged ultra-Orthodox sects, which denounced cellular phones for women because they "encourage harlotry." Source: [London] Times, 9/20/00
Virgin makes plywood appearance. According to the faithful, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared when carpeting was removed from a sheet of plywood by a laborer during construction at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, Robstown, Texas. Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/17/00
Virgin turns into window splotch. Hundreds made a pilgrimage to see a splotch on a second-floor window of a home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which believers think bears a miraculous resemblance to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who gets around. Source: Knight Ridder, 10/15/00
People in glass houses. . . The world's top celibate, Pope John Paul II, marked the 3rd anniversary of celibate Mother Teresa's death by denouncing couples who decide to remain child-free, also somewhat inconsistently attacking in vitro sterilization methods. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/6/00
But it's not a Catholic issue. . . Catholic priest John Earl, 32, smashed his car into an unopened abortion clinic on Oct. 11 in Rockford, Illinois, then chopped at the building with an ax, threatening the building's landlord. The priest, after arrest, was almost immediately freed on recognizance bond. Source: AP/New Haven Register, 10/12/00
Intelligent design? The leader of a conservative Christian group in Wisconsin instructed 50 parents for 2 1/2 hours at an Eau Claire meeting on how to spank children: "You spank them right here on the gluteus maximus, which God made for that purpose," insisted Marvin Munyon, demonstrating how to use a paddle and switch. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/25/00
Talk about bad sports! Afghanistan's ruling Taliban Islamic party on Oct. 17 ordered a ban on all sports played in the late afternoon or early evening, because it might disturb Muslim prayers. Source: Reuters, 10/19/00
Death doesn't become them. The Christian Coalition voter guides handed out the Sunday before the Nov. 7 election in Christian churches nationwide listed the death penalty as one of its top Christian goals. Source: Charleston Gazette, 10/21/00
We're all made uncomfortable by prayers blaring on the PA or crucifixes hanging in the halls during lunch, but that isn't the fundamental reason why we should be concerned about religion in public schools. There are, of course, the usual arguments against it--its obvious unconstitutionality, the likelihood of social alienation, the potential for browbeating preaching--but the problem runs much deeper. At issue in the long and tedious efforts by misguided rightists to place state-sponsored religion in schools is not just educational quality or constitutional law; rather, these efforts jeopardize the quality of both religion and education, producing a debased admixture of no use to anyone.
Consider first what happens to religion when placed in an institutional public setting. Religion at its best is not a public activity. It is rather that singular spiritual aloneness that was and is sought after in deserts and high places ever since we evolved a metaphysical need for explanation. This is the state of mind described by thinkers from Buddha to Christ as enlightenment, a sudden and deep sense of spiritual well-being and understanding. This sense, experienced as a keen edge of beauty to everyday things, as a private awareness of connection and order, is what is being sought in churches and temples--is why, in fact, they are designed as places for personal contemplation amid objects of beauty. The core of the self for many religious people, this feeling of a personal relationship with the infinite, is not something that can readily be developed in a moment of silence before lunch or while listening to a crackly prayer over the PA before a football game. It is a private emotional state that grows from and requires solitude.
To nonetheless push for enforced and perfunctory displays of religious piety then is fundamentally misguided. It is an insistence on the form of the thing rather than its substance. Is this really what proponents of religion in the schools want? A prayer that touches no hearts, a moment of silence that inspires no contemplation--this slapdash devotion in classrooms, with children forced to sit silently staring at their school supplies, makes a mockery of the very reason for religion. It dismisses the internal peace sought by the founders of faiths in favor of the external show of it taken up by rushed followers who don't bother with belief. This is transmuting private devotion into another period like lunch or math, and kids will view it that way. If religion, then, does manage to force its way into public schools, it won't be religion. It will be the forms of it, waded through by bored school kids who can't wait for recess. Religion, which has its roots in private spirituality, will not survive the forced transition into public secular space.
Nor will that public activity survive the mandated inclusion of spiritual activities. Education, fundamentally, is about rigorous ordered discovery, both of the self and of the world. It rests on a simple but profound premise: the world is fundamentally understandable and can be understood by investigation. This is the idea that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions with which we have ratcheted ourselves out of the mystical haze of the middle ages into the modern age. It is the ecstatic realization that the human mind can contain the pattern of the universe, that humankind is, as Shakespeare puts it, "noble in reason . . . infinite in faculties . . . in apprehension how like a god" (Hamlet, 2.2.327-330). Here we have, in supremely confident prose, the discovery of our own capacities, made with a wild joy at the full height of the renaissance. It is the same discovery of the self that education seeks in every child. The long process of a public education, for all its flaws, is largely an attempt to create a human being fully aware of his or her abilities as a thinking creature. We wish to create a sense of discovery and capability, of continually using the mind to pry open the secrets of the world.
This is the antithesis of the quiet spirituality and revealed truth of religious faith. Religion is about epiphany and knowledge external to the self. Abraham, about to slay Isaac on the mount, is not held back by a sudden burst of thought but by divine action. Buddha's enlightenment comes in a flash of divine understanding. The faith-based tradition is just that: one where faith and the divine take the place of empirical reasoning and self-confident exploration. The God who thunders down abuse at Job until the poor man admits that "man is vile" is not one who belongs in a school whose entire purpose is the development of a self in the model of the Enlightenment West.
Even laying aside the obvious problem of scriptures that contradict established scientific and historic facts, this is clearly an irreconcilable conflict of interests. Are teachers to tell their students that they should believe in the power of their minds to comprehend the universe except during a moment of silence at the start of the day when the exact opposite is true? This is an intellectual puzzle a bit beyond the scope of most students (or metaphysicians for that matter): a complete shift of world views for part of every day clearly demands a great deal of mental gymnastics. Ultimately, these gymnastics will make education philosophically and practically impossible--revealed truth for a moment then back to empiricism, a messy hodgepodge of faith and reason warring for young minds and classroom time. It's hard enough to understand the world anyway; understanding two entirely different worlds at the same time is an even stranger trick.
Educators are seeking to glorify the questioning mind, priests the believing, feeling mind. One curriculum cannot accommodate both goals. If we wish to create believers, we cannot shoehorn faith into a five minute passing period. If, instead, we wish to create empirical thinkers, faith, even the debased faith that advocates of religion in school want, has no place. We need to accept that education and religion don't mix and that, as their logical underpinnings are entirely contradictory, they can't mix without debasing each other. Both have important gifts to offer--education, the development of the confident mind; religion, if kept in the proper context, a more textured personal moral understanding. But put them together, as well-meaning people keep trying to do, and you end up with nonsense, self-righteous posturing, and confusion. For the sake of both religion and education, that can't happen.
Craig Segall graduated from New Trier High School and is attending the University of Chicago. Although quivering in a state of near-chronic uncertainty over his major, he is currently leaning toward a double major in English and genetics or neuroscience. He hastens to add, however, that this is highly open to change. Segall reads far more than is healthy and spends the rest of his time either at Lake Michigan or haltingly seeking out some form of social contact.
Religion does not belong in public schools in the United States. Its inclusion in public life leads to prejudice, divisiveness, muddle-headed thinking, and--ultimately--to loss of freedom. America, settled by those escaping religious and civil persecution, is governed through a secular system, detailed by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. By keeping religion and government separate, the Constitution attempts to ensure that neither religious persecution nor favoritism occurs in this country, and that citizens are free to pursue their beliefs privately, without infringing on anyone else.
Although the U.S. is a country founded in part by "religious" individuals, including Quakers like William Penn and Catholics like Lord Baltimore, plus Anglicans, Huguenots, and Deists, there is no assumption in the Constitution that all Americans must practice a religion, and it explicitly forbids any religion sanctioned by the state. In fact, the clear-sighted freethinkers and freemasons who were instrumental in articulating the shape of the nation--Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Franklin, for example--agreed that there is simply no place for religion in public schools and other state-sponsored and -regulated areas in a democratic society. Thus, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Consequently, any school that is "public" must remain secular.
Unfortunately, the constitutionally guaranteed right to practice religion--or not--freely as one chooses, has been under attack. Some attacks are subtle, some overt. For example, my grandfather was an Air Force officer who was stationed in Brazil after World War II. My father recalls that when he left the U.S. as a child in 1949, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag ended with "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." When they returned in 1954, he and his dad were stunned; the pledge had been changed to "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Who would undermine the Constitution? Is this a (horrors!) "communist plot"? Hardly. The insidious Constitutional borers are Americans, often patriotic, who tend to hold Christian religious beliefs and feel that all "right thinkers" should believe and act as they do. Many of them continue to advocate institutionalized prayer and religious activities within the public schools, no matter who is made uncomfortable, ostracized, or singled out.
Two words--"under God"--disenfranchised every agnostic, every atheist, and any Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu who did not subscribe to the idea of a unitary Judeo-Christian deity. The intent of this bit of rhetoric may have been to unify the people after a difficult war, but the effect was to stifle free expression and free thought. Worse, since "flag salute" and "morning prayer" were a daily staple in most U.S. public schools until the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Schempp v. Abington/ Murray v. Curlett (1963), an entire generation of students grew up believing that public prayer during opening exercises was normative behavior, instead of an insidious assault upon the freedom from religious proscription guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The pressure on public school students to conform to a sanctioned religious practice is growing again. During the past year, in the public school I attended, we had "Prayer Rally at the Flagpole" in front of the school, the Bible Club as a school-approved student activity, and an assembly at which Franklin Graham (Reverend Billy Graham's son) was the "inspirational" speaker--all on school grounds, the latter two during school time. The principal exhorted the students to attend the flagpole prayer rally for a whole week during morning announcements on the public address system. Students who declined to participate were viewed with suspicion and concern by faculty members and some peers.
According to national news reports, this kind of repressive, polarizing behavior is becoming typical, in spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling rejecting "student-led and student-initiated" public prayers at public school activities, including football games. Justice Stevens, writing the majority opinion, reaffirmed the necessary separation of church and state. How ironic that the same public school whose principal asked me to pray to Jesus at the flagpole and listen to Franklin Graham's pious spoutings also provides "diversity training" to students and staff, so that they may "learn to respect others' points of view"!
What is wrong here? Beyond the obvious legal contradiction between the secular basis of American government and religion in public schools, other factors argue against allowing religious practice and proselytizing during school time. Here in Kansas, where evolution has stopped and the State Board of Education is run by monkeys, there is interference with the curriculum because creationists have gained control of the policy board. Additionally, those who seek to place prayer in the school schedule assume that the public, religious exercises will be "quiet and non-disruptive." It is certainly disruptive to my day to miss calculus to be a "captive audience" for Franklin Graham. And, though private conversations' content is protected under the free speech portion of the First Amendment, it is disrupting to my flow of thoughts to be proselytized by some sweet Christian girl in the hall or cafeteria or school library.
Any attempt to persuade me that religious proselytizing at school is "all right" because it is the majority practice abridges my personal freedom of thought and action. Besides, it makes me angry and uncomfortable and disagreeable; and my reactions are usually offensive to the pietists. Whether I move away silently, argue vociferously, or simply affirm my right to be left alone, I end up ostracized and draw unwanted attention from staff adults. Though I abhor violence, I can almost understand what triggers tragedies like the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado: a sense of hopeless frustration with regard to social divisions that becomes fury. Pressure to conform to some particular religious norm at school is one of the big divisive forces among teens today.
Most of my classmates do not recognize the term "freethinker." They equate agnostics with communists and other "undesirable influences." Their parents look with suspicion upon our local Masonic lodge, adamantly and publicly advertising its support for separation of church and state. Any appreciation of the freedom of diversity raises questions. For example, where does the religious domination of public education leave Native American ceremonies? Who represents the interests of the Wiccans in the overt displays of religion in public schools? The secular humanists? Shintoists? Hindus? Nobody. Yet people with all of these beliefs and more live in my town and attend public schools.
Finally, there is another message in the First Amendment. If freedom of religion is guaranteed, then "freedom from religion" is also a natural expectation. Atheists, agnostics, and others uninterested in formal religion are forced to endure religious timeouts every day. Sometimes they are disguised as a "moment of silent reflection"; sometimes they are more perniciously inescapable. At my graduation ceremony, the principal (in control of the microphone) said "I know there's been a lot of controversy about prayer in schools, but I feel that there are times when prayer is absolutely acceptable, and this is one of them," and she offered a lengthy prayer to "our heavenly father," "in Jesus' name."
For the true believers to dictate what is acceptable practice allows far too much religion in school for the freethinkers and doubters of our country. Our forebears would spin in their graves if they were aware of the ever more forceful push to integrate Christian religious displays into the public schools on a daily basis. The founding fathers' clarity of thought and vision demanded church-state separation, to keep us free. We should be vigilantly guarding that freedom of--and from--religion by barring religion from our public institutions, especially the public schools.
Will Page graduated from Wichita High School East at age 17 and now attends the University of Southern California, to study political science and computer science. Other interests include dancing, films, and maintaining/restoring his '68 Ford Mustang.