A common retort from Christians in conversation with freethinkers about the merits of belief is: "Well, churches help people. What good do atheists do?"
Refer your next Christian conversationalist with that taunt to the Wisconsin-based Women's Medical Fund, Inc., which was atheist-conceived, is atheist-governed, atheist-operated by volunteers and receives most of of its donations from freethinkers, whether atheist or agnostic. I am its volunteer administrator. Its board of directors are nonbelievers.
Started in Madison, Wis., as a tiny charity back in the 1970s to help a few especially needy women pay for abortions, the Women's Medical Fund now has helped more than 12,000 Wisconsin women. It is believed to be the oldest continuously operating fund of its kind in the United States.
Only a handful of states allow public money to be used for abortions, and Wisconsin, with its heavy Catholic population, has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
So the fund meets a great need, assisting homeless women, women and children who are victims of rape, women who are ill (many seriously so), women who already have eight or nine children, battered women in hopeless marriages, and women who are mentally ill. Most women helped are on public assistance of some kind; a great majority have children. These are Wisconsin's neediest women, who have ranged in age from 12 to 48.
The fund is a "pure" charity, completely volunteer. There are no salaries or traditional overhead. Approximately 99.5% of donations are used for the intended purpose of helping needy women. Checks are written to physicians, clinics or hospitals, and, in accordance with Wisconsin law, there is an annual audit of the fund by a certified public accountant.
Contributions to the Women's Medical Fund are tax-deductible. The fund has had its 501(c)(3) charity exemption since 1976. Last year it paid $174,547 on behalf of 778 women.
The Women's Medical Fund wishes to extend a public thank you to Robert West, Kay Elwers, Nora Cusack, Liz Uhr, and Phyllis Rose, all volunteers and Foundation members.
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In the Freedom From Religion Foundation's two surveys of members, done ten years apart, we found that an overwhelming number of our members do good works. They are volunteers in the schools and volunteers for charities of all descriptions. They are concerned about our country and the world, and they demonstrate that concern through their work for environmental groups, government watchdog groups, birth control groups, shelters for battered women, animal rights groups, death-with-dignity organizations, world peace. Atheists are concerned activists.
Did you notice how quiet the media and public were over the chilling message left twice by the sniper terrorizing the Washington, D.C., suburban area?
The sniper left a Tarot card at the scene of his shooting of a 13-year-old schoolboy on Oct. 7 that ominously announced, "I am God." This was reported, but without comment.
A handwritten letter left at the scene of his Oct. 19 shooting at a restaurant in Ashland, Va., also contained the phrase, "I am God," dutifully reported, without comment. Doubtless the Oct. 24 arrest of the suspect will yield many more details about his religious mission.
Had a sniper who shot 13 people, killing ten, left a message saying, "There is no god," you can imagine the uproar. There would be no end to the denigration of atheism and "godless" immorality. But silence greets this religious connection with a mass murderer.
Believers and unbelievers alike were surely equally chilled by the sniper's avowal, so clearly revealing how dangerous this fanatic is. After all, has there been a greater mass murderer than "God," at least taking at face value the claims of the Old Testament? The Flood alone takes mass murdering to a new high.
As we are fond of pointing out at our offices at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it takes a whole chapter of Ruth Hurmence Green's Born Again Skeptic's Guide to the Bible just to list the "Mass Killings Ordered, Committed, or Approved by God."
Consider a partial listing of the biblical god's cruel record: every inhabitant of Sodom and Gomorrah, those first-born Egyptians, victims of plagues, Canaanites, golden calf worshippers, 12,000 inhabitants of Ai, all the people of Gezer, Eglon and Hebron, riddle-solving Philistines, 50,000 people unfortunate enough to happen to glance into the Ark, 70 children of King Ahab, 200 Philistines killed for their foreskins, 42 kids eaten by bears, babies dashed against the stones, and tens upon tens of thousands of other holy victims. The righteous slaughter continues, so the bible claims, with unending torture in hell for vast numbers of unbelievers, sinners, the unbaptized, and those whose names are simply not writ in that narrow Book of Life.
The abstraction called "God" is even portrayed by his most devout believers as the ultimate death-dealer: arbitrary, incomprehensible, capricious.
As one of our Foundation members, when asked about her views on religion by a TV host, once said: "I wouldn't want God for a neighbor."
A religious icon linked a Utah state website to a Mormon document until complaints removed the religious link in early October. The Department of Public Safety Emergency Services and Homeland Security website included a religious icon (see reproduction pictured) which linked browsers to a voluminous Mormon "emergency preparedness manual."
"Your Family Disaster Plan" at the Utah website contained a 3-page guideline from the state and an advertised link to the 86-page Mormon manual, written at the time Ezra Taft Benson was head of the Mormon church. The manual's "leave no stone unturned" advice on natural disasters is presented in the context of Mormon scripture. "People prepared through obedience to the commandments of God need not fear," the introduction advises.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation immediately contacted the Utah state government after being alerted to the state/church violation by Utah resident Rich Andrews. The Foundation faxed a letter on Oct. 7 to Scott Behunin, Department director, pointing out the link shows "unlawful endorsement" of the Mormon denomination, in violation of Art. I, Sect. 4 of the Utah State Constitution, which forbids any public funds or property being "appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction."
"Tax-exempt churches are free to peddle their beliefs to their own membership or interested members of the public. The State of Utah is not free to help them proselytize."
After receiving complaints from the Foundation and others, the state of Utah removed the link. Chris Kramer of Utah's Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security phoned the office of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to verify the link was removed. Kramer indicated that the icon and link had been up for about three years, and had been incorporated into the new homeland security department.
The last act of the U.S. Senate before adjourning its fall session was to pass by unanimous consent yet another resolution reaffirming that "under God" should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance, also reaffirming that "In God We Trust" is the national motto.
The U.S. House had overwhelmingly passed S. 2690 on Oct. 8 by a roll call vote of 401-5. All 212 Republicans voting supported the resolution. Five Democrats--Reps. Barney Frank, MA; Mike Honda, CA; Jim McDermott, WA, Bobby Scott, VA, and Pete Stark, CA--voted no, and 4 Democrats voted present. Twenty-one did not vote: 10 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Rep. Stark spoke in opposition to the resolution, noting he had earlier opposed a resolution prohibiting the removal of the words "under God" from the pledge.
"Just as we should not bar anyone from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, we should not force anyone to recite words they do not believe. The Court was clear in affirming that the term 'under God' was more than a casual colloquialism. The meaning of these words is only proven by Congress' religiously inspired crusade to chastise and even undo the Ninth Circuit's opinion," said Stark.
"Congress ought to heed the Ninth Circuit Court and our constitutional responsibility to respect the diversity of religious and personal belief in America. We should not legislate use of the term 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, when many proud Americans do not share this belief.
"We ought to instead reaffirm the notion of a 'nation indivisible,' and a pledge that fully recognizes the shared beliefs and common aspirations of all Americans. I urge my colleagues to embrace this idea, honor a basic principle of our Constitution, and vote no on this bill."
The resolution, several pages long, is a laundry list of alleged actions and quotes supposedly showing the religious nature of the United States and its formation. It concludes: "The erroneous rationale of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Newdow would lead to the absurd result that the Constitution's use of the express religious reference 'Year of our Lord' in Article VII violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, and that, therefore, a school district's policy and practice of teacher-led voluntary recitations of the Constitution itself would be unconstitutional."
The House added language providing that anyone reciting the pledge should remove nonreligious headgear with the right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, with the hand resting over the heart.
The lawsuit prompting several months of Congressional hysteria, Newdow v. U.S. Congress, has been complicated by a county judge's recent order to remove from the lawsuit the only student involved. On Sept. 25, Family Court Judge James Moze, Sacramento, Calif., ruled in a child custody decision in favor of the child's mother, Sandra Banning, against the father and litigant, Michael Newdow. Moze said removal of the child from the lawsuit would protect her from harm. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals--which ruled in Newdow's favor in June that the addition of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional--will make a determination later this year on whether the case can be kept alive without the student plaintiff.
Newdow said the girl's identity was not made public until her mother attempted to intervene in the case. Banning, an avowed born-again Christian, had originally agreed to the lawsuit on her daughter's behalf.
Also on Oct. 16, the U.S. Senate, by unanimous consent, passed S. Res. 343, authorizing representation by the Senate Legal Counsel in Newdow v. Eagen, Newdow's challenge of congressional chaplaincies.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's annual scholarships for winning student essays have been awarded for 2002, with a total of $2,750 going to 13 currently enrolled college students, and $2,250 awarded to newly enrolled college students.
Kerrigan Valentine's essay, "Behind Frankincense," won her first place and the Phyllis Grams Memorial Award of $1,000. Kerrigan is enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College majoring in science.
Teddy Cox won second place ($500) for his essay about leaving the Mormon Church, "From Preacher to Apostate: How I Put God to the Test." Cox, majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies, is a junior at the University of California-Los Angeles. He plans to become a college professor.
Placing third was the essay "Spurting Out of Religious Servility: Decisions of a Disbeliever in the Bible Belt" by Jennifer Chadwick, a sophomore majoring in pre-pharmacy at the University of Mississippi-Oxford. Her cash prize was $250. These essays were published in the September 2002 issue of Freethought Today.
Honorable Mentions of $100 were awarded to: Dean Berry, Mass.; Susie Cosier, Mich.; Kristina da Fonseca, Mass.; Nate Hertweck, N.M.; Mike Jerue, Colo.; Cathy Lez, Colo.; T'ere Healoha Pagaduan, Hawaii; Jeanne Petty, Mich.; Richard Spencer, Ga., and Greg Foster, Fla. Their essays will be excerpted in future issues.
The top winning essays in the Foundation's annual essay competition for college-bound high school grads are in this issue.
This year's Blanche Fearn Memorial Award of $1,000 goes to Vered Blonstein for "Education under God." Vered just graduated from Western High School, in Davie, Fla., and will study journalism at Brandeis University, Mass.
Second place of $500 was awarded to Andrea Burbank for "Congress Shall Make No Law." Andrea graduated from State College Area High School in State College, Penn., and is a new student at Stanford University.
Third place honors were taken by Aron Talenfeld for "Learning 'Under God.' " Aron received $250. He graduated from Arcadia High School, Phoenix, and is enrolled at the University of Arizona.
Five high school grads received $100 Honorable Mention awards: Kathryn Poulios, Penn.; Sierra Smith, Ohio; Danilee Eichhorn, Penn.; Hope Butler; N.C., and Sean Carroll, Conn. Their essays will be excerpted in future issues of Freethought Today.
The 2003 essay competition guidelines will be announced in February 2003 and will be posted at the Foundation's website: http://ffrf.org/essay.html.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Oct. 3 announced $30 million in funding to "help level the playing field for faith- and community- based organizations."
While offering no proof, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson claimed that "Faith- and community-based organizations are often the most effective groups in carrying out the purposes of HHS programs, yet many do not have the staff or expertise to successfully apply for our funding."
The $30 million in HHS "Compassion Capital Funds" was not officially authorized by Congress, where President Bush's "faith-based initiative" legislation has been stalled.
But lawmakers last year gave HHS $30 million to implement Bush's plan to help small community groups expand and learn how to apply for larger grants. The federal funds are technically earmarked to assist at-risk children, the homeless, drug addicts, prison programs, and welfare-to-work programs.
The "Compassion Capital Funds" divides $24.8 million among 21 intermediary organizations, "to provide technical assistance" to help such groups "access funding sources, operate and manage their programs, develop and train staff, expand the reach of programs into the community and replicate promising programs."
The department promised, "Technical assistance will be free to interested organizations."
The intermediary groups awarded funding will in turn issue "sub-awards" for start-up costs, operations or expansion of religious or community groups.
In addition to the $24 million in grants, HHS awarded a $2.2 million contract to Dare Mighty Things in Vienna, Va., "to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse for information related to technical assistance and training resources for faith- and community-based organizations."
It also awarded a $1.35 million contract to Branch Associates of Philadelphia, to evaluate "promising approaches" by faith-based and community groups.
Four grants totaling $850,000 were given to support research on how such groups provide social services, including to the University of Pennsylvania.
President Bush issued an executive order during his first month as president directing the five Cabinet Secretaries to inaugurate programs to fund faith-based groups. Bush has requested $100 million in the fiscal year 2003 HHS budget to "improve and expand funding to faith- and community- based organizations."
HHS "demonstration grants" went to a variety of "intermediaries," secular and religious. Among the religious recipients were:
Christian Community Health Fellowship, Ill., $1,128,33
Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Penn., $1,000,000
Northside Ministerial Alliance, Mich., $1,000,000
Operation Blessing International, Va., $500,000
The public grant to Operation Blessing was the most controversial, since it is a Virginia Beach charity started by TV evangelist Pat Robertson. The Christian Coalition founder opposed Bush's "faith-based" initiative in March on the 700 Club, saying federal funds would be "like a narcotic" to religious charities. However, his Operation Blessing, which takes in $66 million in voluntary contributions a year, was one of more than 500 groups applying for the federal grant.
Operation Blessing officials announced the $500,000 in tax monies will help "coordinate hunger programs" around the country.
According to London Observer columnist Gregory Palast (May 23, 1999), Robertson raised several million dollars through his TV station for Operation Blessing use in Africa, purchasing planes to fly medical supplies to a refugee camp in Goma, Congo (then Zaire).
"But investigative reporter Bill Sizemore of the Virginian Pilot discovered that over a six-month period--except for one medical flight--the planes were used to haul equipment for something called African Development Corporation, a diamond mining operation a long way from Goma. African Development is owned by Pat Robertson," Palast wrote.
Operation Blessing solicits products from individuals and groups, in turn distributing them to churches and Christian missionary organizations. In 2001, products reportedly included such necessities as Splenda, a no-calorie sweetener, pantyhose and candy. Operation Blessing also reportedly gave more than $2 million in 2001 to Christian Broadcasting Network, whose purpose is "to glorify God and his Son Jesus Christ."
The Florida-based National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, given $700,000 in tax dollars, describes itself on its website as working to create wealth and then "empower our people to steward that wealth for the purposes of the king," working not for "the world, . . . but rather THE WORD!!!!"
The Christian Community Health Fellowship identifies itself as "living out the gospel."
Programs to fund religion are also being developed by the departments of Justice, Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development, "to remove barriers for participation" by faith-based and community organizations.
Since the "Compassion Capital Funds" program is unauthorized, there are no rules to oversee issues relating to the separation of church and state.
Faith Works Case Proves Point
What happened on a small scale in Wisconsin is now happening on a national scale.
A case in point is Faith Works of Milwaukee, which did not open its doors until it received most of its funding from federal tax dollars. Faith Works had no track record, and its purpose was pervasively Christian, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation staff member.
Tommy Thompson, as Wisconsin governor, directed hundreds of thousands of discretionary federal funds to Faith Works, a Christian treatment program then run by Bobby Polito. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the state of Wisconsin and Gov. Thompson to challenge this funding of religion. Thompson was appointed HHS Secretary prior to the Foundation's legal victory in January, in which a federal court declared direct funding of Faith Works to be unconstitutional.
In the meantime, Thompson hired Faith Works' director Bobby Polito to become the HHS "faith czar" and administer its "Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."
Last summer, Polito announced that groups getting grants or subgrants could discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing workers. Polito also announced federal funds may go to a program in which prayer is a central component, so long as tax dollars are paying for secular elements of the program.
This rationale, also invoked by Polito in the Faith Works lawsuit, was explicitly rejected by the federal court in January, which said the pervasively sectarian mission of Faith Works could not be separated from its treatment of addicts. Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled that Faith Works engaged in federally funded "indoctrination" in violation of the First Amendment.
"The entire premise behind this funding needs to be challenged," said Gaylor. "There is no evidence that 'faith-based' groups are better at providing social services. And there is ample evidence of the problems caused when promoting religion, rather than helping needy people, is the real agenda."
Federal funds will be expended not just to religious groups, but to create religious agencies.
"Most of this federal funding will not directly benefit at-risk children, the homeless, etc. Much of it will simply fund groups to learn how to apply for further public funding," Gaylor added.
"Aside from First Amendment objections, the public needs to ask: Is this truly the most effective use federal of tax dollars to aid the needy? If a private group can't begin without federal funds, or isn't savvy enough to know how to apply for funding, why would we entrust it with public funds to help other people?"
Foundation staff member Dan Barker said:
"If I were running a faith-based charity, I would be embarrassed to admit that my god was failing to provide our needs to such a degree that we would have to beg the secular government for handouts."
How do you like them apples? With 67% of Washington citizens unchurched, the state is second only to Oregon in the number of people with no religious affiliation, according to Glenmary [Catholic] Research Center, Nashville, Tenn. Last year's American Religious Identification Survey 2001 found 25% of Washingtonians said they had no religion or called themselves atheists, agnostics or secular. Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sept. 19, 2002; USA Today, March 7, 2002
Majority opposes vouchers. The 34th annual poll of 1,000 adults, conducted by the Gallup Organization for the educational group Phi Delta Kappa, found 52% oppose the use of state vouchers. However, voucher support is up to 46%, from last year's 34%. Source: Reuters/Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2002
Kiwis go secular. About two-thirds of New Zealanders get married through a secular celebrant, rather than clergy. About 28% say they do not believe in a god. Source: Bureau of Statistics Social Trends Report, June 4, 2002, Sydney Morning Herald, June 5, 2002
Many Kiwi pols secular, too. At the opening day of New Zealand's parliament, 66 members swore oaths on the bible, 50 MPs made nonreligious affirmations, and one used a Koran. Source: New Zealand Herald, Aug. 26, 2002
25% of Aussies nonreligious. According to the latest census, 25% of Australians identify themselves as having "no religion" (or declined to answer the question), putting unbelievers neck-in-neck with Catholics (26.6%). Just over 15% classified themselves as atheists or agnostics in 2001, down from 16.5% who did so in 1996. Australia has more Buddhists than Baptists, and more Hindus than Jews. Source: The Australian, July 2, 2002; The Age, June 17, 2002
The Farce is with them. More than 70,000 fans of the "Star Wars" movies identified their religion as "Jedi" during last year's Australian census, making Jedites 0.37% of the nation's population. The Jedites braved a warning they could be fined $1,000 for the prank. Source: AP Australia, Aug. 27, 2002
Aussies eschew ministers, too. More than 50% of Australian couples choose a civil celebrant rather than a minister to perform wedding ceremonies, according to the New Australian Bureau of Statistics. Source: The Australian, Aug. 26, 2002
Scottish skeptics. "So few people now go to church that researchers say Scotland can no longer be considered a Christian nation," contends Edinburgh Evening News. Only 12% regularly attend worship in the Church of Scotland, which is called the "Kirk" (real attendance is considered lower as people tend to exaggerate church attendance).
More than 60% rarely or never go to church at all. Just as many people say they belong to no religion (37%) as claim to be Church of Scotland (37%). The study was published in the "Kirk's" magazine, Life and Work, and was conducted by sociologists Prof. Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning, Aberdeen University, who found "massive indifference" to organized religion. Source: Edinburghnews.com, May 23, 2002
Alabama full of surprises. A newspaper poll found that 31.6% of respondents checked "none at all" when asked which worship service they prefer. Source: Montgomery Advertiser, Aug. 20, 2002
Church attendance slipping. The born-again Barna Research Group reports that despite a brief post-9/11 surge, churchgoing in the U.S. has gone back to normal. In some cases, attendance has slipped. Source: Wall Street Journal, 9/11/02
Speak Chinese? Although most world books put the nonreligious at a quarter of the world population, demographers for the World Christian Encyclopedia claim 15.2% of the world's population (918 million people) are atheists and agnostics, with the bulk of them (500 million) living in China. Christian demographers put Christianity at 33% of the world's population. Source: Washington Times, Aug. 15, 2002
Doubting clergy. A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical resurrection of Jesus; only half "are convinced of the truth of the virgin birth," according to a poll of nearly 2,000 of the church's 10,000 clergy. Only half believe faith in Jesus is the only route to salvation. Source: Christian Research, Daily Telegraph (UK), July 31, 2002
Grooming unwanted pregnancies? Except for a handful, most of the 230 U.S. Roman Catholic colleges and universities fail to provide condoms or other contraceptives on campus. Source: AP, Aug. 10, 2002
Commentary on Mormondom. Anti-depressant drugs are prescribed in Utah more often than in any other state, at a rate of nearly twice the national average. Source: National study: "Prescription Atlas," Jan. 2002 update, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 2002
Bankrupt theology? Utah residents, 70-79% of whom are identified as Mormon, are more likely to file for bankruptcy than residents of any other state.
Roughly 1 of every 35 Utah households filed for bankruptcy from March 31, 2001, to March 31, 2002, while the national average is 1 of every 69 households.
Financial experts point to low per-capita income, large families, weak job market, high cost of living, the young population, and the fact that Mormons tithe 10% of their income to the church. Source: AP, Aug. 23, 2002
Mormons 6th largest sect. The Mormon church, now the 6th largest religious body with 4,224,026 members, is the fastest-growing church in the nation, increasing by 19%. Source: Glenmary [Catholic] Research Center, Nashville, Tenn., Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 18, 2002
Pope Day debt. World Youth Day organizers of the pope's July visit to Toronto announced a cash shortfall of up to $30 million. The city spent $6.9 million on the $80 million event. Source: AP Canada, Aug. 8, 2002
Who's teeing off. Golf Magazine recently surveyed its readership and found that 83% of U.S.-born players identify as conservative Christians (67% of foreign-born are liberal).
Although 68% favor prayer in public schools, nearly as many are pro-choice, consider sexual preference a personal matter, and even more favor stricter gun control laws. Source: Golf Magazine, May 2002
Parental denial. Half of all mothers of sexually active teenagers erroneously believe their children are still virgins, according to a report by researchers at the University of Minnesota Adolescent Health Center.
Mothers' frequency of religious observance had no correlation with their children's sexual activity. Source: (Journal of Adolescent Health), New York Times, Sept. 5, 2002
Give us ERA! To celebrate the 82nd anniversary of Women's Equality Day on Aug. 26 (the date when U.S. women won the vote), U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, NY, commissioned a national poll of 500 about the Equal Rights Amendment, defeated by the religious right in the 1980s.
The findings: 96% favor legal protection of women's rights; 85% erroneously believed those rights are already in the U.S. Constitution, and 69% support amending the Constitution to include language specifically protecting women's rights (there was 58% support among Republicans). Source: Womensenews, Aug. 26, 2002
Richard J. Koenig, 69, of La Crosse, Wis., died July 17, 2002, at his home. Dick was "John Doe" in the Freedom From Religion Foundation's suit challenging the Ten Commandments monument in a La Crosse park. His wife, Sue Mercier, also a Foundation member, is principal plaintiff in the continuing lawsuit.
Dick was a Korean War veteran, having served four years in the U.S. Navy. He worked as a manager for AT&T Communications for 30 years before retiring in 1989.
Born and raised a Catholic, Dick spent two years in a seminary before realizing that Catholicism and religion in general did not work for him. A kind, gentle man known for his energy, creativity, intelligence and curiosity, Dick will be greatly missed by his wife, Sue, his children, stepchildren, brothers, and all those who knew him.
A non-public service road, approximately 0.75 miles long, connects a state route with the state park campground. A parcel of land is owned by the Methodist Church approximately half a mile from the state route. Between the church property and the campground is the campers' playground. On the boundary of the campground is a large wooden sign that reads "Campers Chapel," at least 100 yards within state property. It appears that the chapel was created for the exclusive purpose of servicing the state campground.
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A volunteer at the Old Man's Cave entrance station told us in May 2001 that the chapel was on private property owned and administered by the Methodist church out of The Plains, Ohio. She said the campground donated water and forwarded any problems or situations to the Methodist Council. The campground kept a key to the facility. The opening date for the chapel is Memorial Day Weekend each year.
Tammy and I attended services at Campers Chapel at 10am in early June 2001. Just prior to the beginning of the service, a rather obnoxious bell was rung which could be heard throughout the campground. As the outdoor amphitheatre was still wet from a recent rain, eight campers were invited into the cabin for the service. A woman explained that the Methodist church owned the property and that a variety of laypersons staff the chapel. The service lasted about an hour. Tammy and I kept a low profile while the service dragged on. While walking back through the campground, we observed flyers advertising the Sunday service at many of the campsites.
At the campground office, we asked a volunteer about the service road which was used by the church volunteers to get to the chapel. We were told that it was closed to public use and that a state park ranger would issue a ticket if a vehicle was caught using the road. This evidently did not apply to church personnel.
As we were chatting with the volunteer, a couple from the chapel stopped by to drop off the keys to the chapel. The volunteer said that the park kept the keys all week until the next Sunday service. She also said that park employees "watched over" the chapel facility and contacted the Methodist Council if there were any problems. Further, the park donated the water used by the chapel. Along the wall was a holder containing pamphlets printed by the Methodist church advertising the chapel. Along with a reproduction of the campground map were two Ohio State government emblems.
We also discovered that the large wooden map of the campground in the campground office prominently noted the Campers Chapel. The map of the campground also listed the Campers Chapel as well as the State Parks of Ohio website.
We next stopped at the ranger's office where it was confirmed that the service road to the chapel was closed to public vehicles except for church volunteers.
Tammy sent an email to the Hocking Hills Park Manager, Steve Bennett, requesting a meeting to discuss our concerns. In late June, we reviewed with him the inappropriate if not illegal relationship between the state park and the Methodist church. Mr. Bennett agreed to review the complaint and get back to us. The meeting was very cordial. No timetable was set, however.
Tammy wrote a letter to Mr. Bennett thanking him for meeting with us and listing the points of discussion. She included some references to relevant court cases and citations from the Ohio State Constitution.
She received an email acknowledgment from Mr. Bennett saying that the distribution of religious flyers by church staff in the campground had been discontinued. He also promised to meet with an official at the Division of Parks.
After we had not heard anything for a couple of months, Tammy sent an email in September to Kim, a Division of Parks employee, listing the violations of state/church separation.
After nearly four months had passed with no answer to our concerns, Tammy sent another email making these requests:
• The removal of the chapel reference on the map contained within the www.hockinghillspark.com website.
• The removal of the reference to the Campers Chapel on the paper map labeled "Old Man's Cave Campground Map."
• The removal of any references to the Campers Chapel.
• The secession of park personnel or park volunteers assuming custodial duties of the chapel facility, including the storage of chapel keys at the park.
• Halting the restriction of use of the township road to chapel personnel.
• The prohibition of chapel personnel from distributing religious literature on park property.
• The removal of the "Campers Chapel" sign located near the northern boundary of the campground.
In November, Tammy received an email from Ronald Kus, the Business Group Manager for the Division of Parks, saying he would be the person responsible for investigating our concerns and would respond in three weeks.
Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter that month to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in support of our efforts.
In December, Tammy received a letter from Mr. Kus, saying that he had met with members of the church who agreed to remedy all of our concerns. He stated, "Our position is that all groups and people are treated equally. We will not give one group any privilege or right that we do not afford others."
The listing of the Campers Chapel on the Hocking Hills State Park website was removed by March 25, 2002.
In April, Tammy and David visited the campground again. The large map within the campground office still showed an arrow pointing to the Campers Chapel. In addition, the handout map of the campground underneath the glass at the outside self-register kiosk also had an arrow pointing to the Campers Chapel.
The wooden sign at the edge of the north side of the campground had been removed and was leaning against the outside of the main chapel building. There was no ground disturbance, which we would have expected to detect if utility work had recently been done to sever the water line from the park to the chapel. We took digital photos.
Tammy then sent an email to Mr. Kus which reviewed what had and what had not yet been accomplished, such as the waterline to the church not yet removed, the Campers Chapel sign across from site 141 not removed, and the Campers Chapel sign remaining on the property owned by the church.
"I still fear that a camper may not realize that the 'Campers Chapel' is private property owned by the church and may wrongly believe that the park endorses the Campers Chapel. I suggest that ODNR request that the words 'Owned and Operated by the Athens District of the United Methodist Church--Established 1967' be added to this sign to avoid any confusion as in the legal case summarized below."
Ron Kus replied promptly, agreeing to all of our requests.
In May, David visited the campground. All references to the chapel on campground facilities had been removed. Although the same campground maps which listed the Campers Chapel were being used, every map had the corner cut off upon which the Campers Chapel notation was written.
Memorial Day weekend is the customary start of the church's proselytizing season for the Campers Chapel. We visited the chapel on opening day and not only was there no service but another Campers Chapel sign that was legitimately on church property had been removed.
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As we have no visible way of verifying that the water has been shut off to the chapel, it appears that we have won on all counts. We plan to periodically visit and poke around to make sure the church does not become entangled in that particular park again. Ohio has many fine parks, which we visit, and we are always watchful of any similar situations. We did notice, while on a trip through Pennsylvania last year, that there is a state park that apparently has a riverside chapel on state property. . . .
"I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."--Vice-President George H. W. Bush, 1987
"Americans practice different faiths in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And many good people practice no faith at all."--President George W. Bush, 2002
Those two quotes, to me, are symbolic. They mark 15 years of progress for the rights of nonbelievers. A Republican President, supported and elected by theocrats, acknowledges that nonreligious people can be good. Ludicrous comments by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming secularism for the destruction of the Twin Towers were condemned by virtually everyone, including President Bush. Similarly asinine comments by leggy columnist and talking head Ann Coulter got her fired from National Review. Ben Stein, actor and conservative writer, immediately apologized for making comments insulting to atheists. I see all this as the beginning of equal rights for nonreligious people.
Our ranks are growing. The increase in the number of nonbelievers goes hand in hand with the increase in how we are seen in society--the larger and more visible a minority we are, the more respect we will get. According to the monumental "2001 American Religious Identification Survey" prepared by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the percentage of people calling themselves "nonreligious" more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, with 14.1% of the US population calling themselves nonreligious. American culture is growing more diverse. The United States has benefited from the "brain drain" from other countries and the many professors, scientists and doctors from abroad with different religious beliefs.
Why are there more nonreligious people today than ten years ago? I think there are many reasons, including the internet, religious scandals, monumental advances in science and an improved and increased portrayal of freethinkers in popular media.
In early 1994, I wrote an article about the internet and freethought for Freethought Today, predicting that the internet would potentially be the greatest thing ever to happen to freethought. Currently, the Secular Web (www.infidels.org), the largest freethought-related website, gets over 300,000 unique visitors per month. Many other freethought-related websites are also very popular.
The internet reaches an important demographic that organized atheism/humanism has generally been unable to reach: young people. This is critical, so that as people intellectually mature they have readily available sources from the atheistic point of view. I think my prediction of eight years ago has come to pass, and I claim no psychic powers.
Another reason why the ranks of nonbelievers have increased is the occurrence of religious scandals, from the Protestant televangelists of the late eighties to the molesting priests of today. Aside from the horrors that the victims of these scandals face, these scandals do have a side benefit: Religion cannot be regarded as beyond reproach when priests are molesting six-year-olds or mansion-dwelling televangelists are swindling elderly people out of their pensions and are involved in sex scandals. These scandals often catalyze a re-thinking of religious beliefs.
As history has shown, scientific breakthroughs tend to make religion superfluous. It happened with advances in evolutionary biology, astronomy and cosmological physics. Two advances are currently emerging that also threaten religious dogma: the genome project and cloning. Life becomes less mysterious and more scientific. (It also will have benefits in preventing genetic diseases and enhancing the quality of life of humankind.) The controversial advances in cloning cut at the philosophical concept of identity, which often has spiritual overtones. If scientists can clone life in a laboratory, what need is there for a deity?
The amount of atheism and satire of religion in popular culture is another important reason for an increase in freethought. Freethinkers have always been well-represented in intellectual publications. Fine humanistic writers like Katha Pollitt and Wendy Kaminer write for The Nation and other intellectual political publications. Nonbelievers dominate science and are well-represented in academic writings. Where we have been unrepresented is in popular culture. Traditionally, nonreligious people were portrayed as sinful or "lost" in movies and TV programs. If there was an atheist character, that person was evil or misguided and eventually "saw the light." Religion was beyond reproach. This has changed.
Radio "shock jocks" have done a lot to knock religion off its pedestal. They are typically on the air over 20 hours per week. They reach millions of people, a high percentage of whom are very dedicated fans. This genre, of course, is not for everyone and shock jocks do offend many.
One "shock jock" is Los Angeles-based Tom Leykis, an outspoken atheist. Leykis frequently has a segment called "Ask the Atheist," during which callers ask him questions about atheism. As can be expected, many of these callers are ignorant theists who challenge him. With a quick, sometimes acid wit he answers them and always comes across looking more reasonable than they. Leykis has also outspoken about priest molestation in Southern California. Thanks to one caller and Leykis' persistence, a molesting priest has been removed from a school where he was teaching. Leykis has also begun a weekly feature called "Tom's Confessional," in which people who had been molested by clergy call up and describe their experiences. If the victim is willing, Leykis' producers contact the relevant civil authorities. There has been no shortage of callers and several members of the clergy are being investigated due to the Leykis show.
Religious satire and freethought can be found in other forms of popular culture. The animated series "The Simpsons" and "South Park" have a long history of religious satire. One episode of "South Park" features a view of hell filled with everyone from ministers to entertainers. When a Protestant minister in hell protests, Satan explains he chose the wrong religion--Mormonism was the correct one. Heaven is shown full of men with white shirts and black ties. Another comedy, "The Daily Show," featured a segment called "Godstuff" in which Jon Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs) ran clips of televangelists ranting, and then commented on them in an irreverent way. Jen, one of the major characters in "Dawson's Creek," a show hugely popular with teenagers and young adults, is an atheist. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons conservative groups want this show off of the air.
Legendary comedian George Carlin, who is routinely critical of religion, has a hilarious bit in which he claims not to believe in God but in Joe Pecsi, because Joe "looks like a guy who can get things done." Other comedians, including Rick Reynolds, Janeane Garafalo, Bill Maher and the late Bill Hicks, have used their stand-up acts to effectively satirize religion. "Sin City" magicians Penn and Teller, both hardcore atheists, claim that atheism and skepticism are an integral part of their successful stage show. During an appearance on Mormon Donny and Marie Osmond's television show, Penn and Teller signed an autograph for them. Penn signed, "There is no god." Teller followed, "He's right."
Mainstream movies like "The Contender" and "Contact" feature atheistic characters positively in leading roles. Other movies like "Sirens" and "Chocolat" give whimsical views of humanism overtaking Puritanism, in the forms of sexuality and gourmet chocolate, respectively.
Rock music, especially modern or alternative rock, often has atheistic or skeptical overtones. Along with his schlock persona, Marilyn Manson's lyrics and performances are laced with anti-religious messages. Bands like Godsmack, Nine Inch Nails, Everclear, Rage against the Machine, Tool, Metallica, R.E.M., Bad Religion and Rush feature atheistic lyrics, though more subtly than Manson.
Bad Religion has a famous symbol, a "crossed out cross." Their lead singer, Greg Graffin, splits his time being lead singer for the band and working on his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Cornell University. Rush has a long history of skeptical and humanistic lyrics. Their 1991 album "Roll the Bones" may be the most humanistic album in rock history. Rush's lyrics are so deep that atheist philosopher Robert Price, a Jesus Seminar Fellow, wrote a book with his wife, analyzing Rush's philosophical vision.
Where do we go from here? I think the best thing we as atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, can do is to set good examples. When people get to know us, like us, and respect us, and then later learn we are nonreligious, we help destroy the stereotypes and prejudices that people have. People learn that we don't have horns, we're not evil. We're simply your friendly godless neighbors.