I don't believe in God.
--Actor Javier Bardem (nominated for "best actor," "Before Night Falls")
New York Times, March 4, 2001
I'm an atheist, although I had to look up the word in the dictionary way back when I realized I didn't believe in god as an all-seeing thing. I believe in Darwin and the natural world.
I don't like the way organized religion manipulates people. I don't like wars in history that have been about differences in religion. And what is this thing about swearing on the Bible in court? I don't need that to tell the truth.
--Choreographer Paul Taylor
"Paul Taylor, Ballet's Beloved Enemy"
New York Times, March 4, 2001
The obituaries in the newspapers and on television [of Steve Allen] were well done but none mentioned what ended up being an obsession with Steve. He was a student of the Bible and a dedicated atheist intent on proving the Bible was a seriously flawed book that many people who profess to live by it, don't know or understand.
Press-Enterprise, Nov. 5, 2000
"Church admits to shortage of miracles."
The [London] Times, June 8, 2000
You have been chosen by God to lead the people.
--Rev. Mark Craig to Dubya
Dec. 14 victory sermon New York Post, Dec. 15, 2000
There is, indeed, little question that religion--or, if one wants to be nice about it, the name of religion--has become increasingly associated with conflict around the globe. From Kosovo to Khartoum, from Jerusalem to Jakarta, the struggle for power and pelf both within and between countries can often now be cast in religious terms.
--Book Editor Mark Silk
Religion on the International News Agenda [Charleston] Gazette-Mail, Nov. 26, 2000
Terrific news from the Archbishop of Canterbury: we have become a society of atheists. In a startlingly pessimistic analysis of the role of the church in contemporary Britain, Dr. George Carey admits that "a tacit atheism prevails" and that people have stopped believing in life after death.
The Guardian, Oct. 30, 2000
I was looking at this woman [one of several CNN Washington newsroom employees with ashes on their faces] and I was trying to figure out what was on her forehead. At first I thought you were in the [Seattle] earthquake. I realized you're just Jesus freaks. Shouldn't you guys be working for Fox?
New York Post, March 8, 2001
If the outrage directed at the Taliban for destroying ancient religious figures were instead channeled into rescuing the living from the hell that is Afghanistan, there would be much more to celebrate [on this International Women's Day].
St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 8, 2001
I was born in Hildale, Utah, the 25th child of 31 total among my father's four wives. My mother was the third wife. Polygamy goes back on my mother's side clear to the days of Joseph Smith. That's eight generations of polygamy. . . .
We were just little girls in odd clothes and funny hair who thought we were going to hell if we didn't obey. Who would think, right here in the United States of America, fathers are trading their daughters away like trophies? It's brainwashing and slavery. It's a complete system of organized crime right in our backyard that for some reason the government has simply chosen to ignore.
--Laura Chapman, molested by her father, quit school at 11 to work without pay, married to a stranger at 18
Denver Post, March 4, 2000
Stephen Jay Gould . . . [in his book Rock of Ages] dubs his redemptive breakthrough Noma--an acronym for Non-Overlapping Magisteria . . . . The idea is that scientists and representatives of religion should agree to a "principled and respectful separation" of their activities. . . .
Noma is a non-starter, destined to plunge to the ocean floor straight from the launching ramp. . . The most obvious [reason] is Gould's glaringly inadequate account of religion. None of the things we normally associate with religion--churches, priests, dogma, belief in the supernatural, worship of a God or gods--are, Gould tells us, necessary to religion . . . [As for scientists] the suggestion that their expertise has nothing to contribute to moral discussion is tantamount to saying that moral discussion is better conducted by the ignorant.
. . . Superstition is merely faith by another name.
--Reviewer John Carey
Sunday [London] Times, Jan. 28, 2001
I think of them [convents] as dark centres of attempted brain-washing, run by women who take out their sexual frustrations on innocent children with a zeal bordering on sadomasochism. . . .
I remember being told when I was about 12 that my mother was "a slut," that I had "the mark of the Devil" and would probably go to hell because I had a "lazy eye."
"I think of nuns as dark sadists" [London] Times, Sept. 21, 2000
The alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all.
--Sir Peter Medawar
Nobel-prize winning British biologist
. . . It seems likely that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will soon become a highly effective patronage scheme.
New York Observer, Feb. 12, 2001
White House Correspondent Helen Thomas: Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and the state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that our country has stood in good stead by having the separation--why do you break it down?
Pres. Bush: Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state--
Thomas: Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did. . . . You are a secular official. And not a missionary.
--Bush's first press conference
Feb. 22, 2001
Our founders expected that Christianity--and no other religion--would receive support from the government. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.
--Family Research Council Press Release
Associated Press, Sept. 26, 2000
I have a problem with the teachings of Scientology being viewed on the same par as Judaism or Christianity.
--George W. Bush campaign remarks
New York Times, March 7, 2001
So why not augment all this [church-run charities] with a little governmental largess? Because even religious institutions that place a high value on serving the poor almost always place a higher value on saving souls. They should. That is why they exist in the first place.
. . . to suggest that the government should shift part of its welfare burden to churches, through tax-supported subsidies, is folly. Who will do due diligence on thousands of tiny projects to ensure that religion and government stay separate? Who will keep my church, or any other, from slipping federal funds from one pocket to another?
--Rev. Forrest Church
All Souls Unitarian Church
New York Times, Dec. 25, 2000
Those of us who live in New York can tell you how many problems arise when church and state start drifting together. This is the place where parking regulations turn into faith-based initiatives. . . . Everybody wants a piece of the action. . . . the New York political theory [is] that the way to honor the dignity of faith is by passing special-interest legislation for every religion in sight.
"Faith and Parking"
New York Times, March 7, 2001
At the national Prayer Breakfast, President George W. Bush said, "Faith crosses every border and touches every heart in every nation."
Yes, and sometimes the faithful carry bombs across borders to kill and maim people of different faiths. . . .
If tax money eventually goes to churches for charity work, the devil will be in the details.
Cox News Service Columnist
New York Times, Feb. 2, 2001
If you add religious passion to what are now merely public policy debates, you promptly add an element of fanaticism that can only destroy democracy.
We have only to look at Afghanistan and Iran to see what comes of mixing religious zealotry with politics.
--Columnist Molly Ivins
West County Times
Dec. 23, 1999
It was a miscarriage of justice when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously on February 13 to uphold the constitutionality of a statute requiring a "So help me God" oath on a tax form.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and our Missouri plaintiff Robert Oliver take some consolation in the Court's ruling that Mr. Oliver is permitted to strike the words "So help me God" from his personal property tax assessment form. But the Court should have overturned the statute for two reasons.
First, as the decision admits, "The guiding principle is that no one can be required by the government to acknowledge the existence of, or belief in, a deity." Then why did the Court approve a religious oath on a tax form?
Second, it should have invalidated the statute because it creates a double standard, requiring a mandatory oath to a deity on tax assessment forms for citizens in third and fourth class counties, but not imposing a religious oath on citizens in first class counties. Those living in first class counties are given the standard warning of the "pains and penalties" of perjury--which is the only appropriate way a government should remind its citizens of the legal implications of signing a statement attesting to the truth.
The unmistakable implication is that people who live in poorer, less populated counties need to be reminded of the wrath of a deity in order to be honest. A news reporter researching this issue concluded that this double standard dates to the turn of the 20th century when concern (or stereotypes) about the making of "moonshine" in rural areas was rampant!
People of good sense and good will should be able to agree that the State of Missouri is wrong in imposing a religious oath upon some of its citizens for discriminatory reasons.
If a resident of a third or fourth class county fails to sign the oath containing "So help me God" on the property tax assessment form, the statute provides for a misdemeanor conviction, with fines and jailtime penalties. Those living in first class counties who have scruples against signing a religious oath face no such dilemma or threat of prosecution.
The facts of this case are straightforward. Our plaintiff Robert Oliver refused in good conscience to sign the religious oath on his 1998 personal property tax form when he noticed it contained the words "So help me God." Instead he wrote and signed his own affirmation "under penalty of perjury," which the Christian County assessor's office refused to accept. This placed Mr. Oliver in legal jeopardy.
The state tax commission eventually instructed the assessor's office to accept Mr. Oliver's altered form in that particular instance. But later that spring the state tax office ordered all third and fourth class counties to comply with the statute, mandating the oath must be signed and must end with the words "So help me God."
That is when we decided to go to court.
Our lawsuit correctly invoked the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and its corollary clause in the Missouri State Constitution, both of which prohibit states from making or enforcing any law abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens or denying any person "the equal protection of the laws."
The equal protection clause of the federal constitution was originally adopted to guarantee the rights of freed slaves, although its protections encompass anyone who faces invidious forms of discrimination.
Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White himself publicly and recently faced discrimination when his nomination to a higher court was sabotaged by John Ashcroft. How could Justice White and other justices so cavalierly dismiss the rights of another set of minorities?
Our complaint and briefs correctly pointed out that the Missouri Constitution provides for a far stricter separation of church and state than the federal constitution. Justice Michael A. Wolfe, who wrote the decision for the court, interpreted this to mean:
"Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to read our constitution as being hostile to religion."
That is untrue. We properly read the Constitution as requiring government neutrality toward religion and irreligion. We notice the Court did not argue that the absence of "So help me God" from tax forms designed for residents of first class counties indicates government "hostility."
The Court insultingly suggests that a person who wishes to make a secular statement should sign the "affirmation and simply ignore, without deleting, the references to 'swear' and to 'So help me God' . . . In any event, when a taxpayer opts to affirm, the words 'So help me God' are surplus." The court fails to note that neither the form nor the statute provides the taxpayer with a way to "opt to affirm." Ending a so-called "affirmation" with the words "So help me God" renders an affirmation absolutely meaningless.
This Court decision is doublespeak! Carving out an exception for one Missouri citizen does not address the inequity of the wording and the statutory double standard.
On one matter we do agree with the Court. That is when it admits that the religious oath "is indeed an invitation to express a belief in God."
The solution now rests with the Missouri Legislature, which should ensure that citizens in all its counties are given secular wording on tax assessment forms.
--Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freethought Today editor
This op-ed was published by several Missouri daily newspapers.
P.S. Five Missouri State Supreme Court judges were appointed by John Ashcroft when he was governor. Ashcroft-appointed justices are: John C. Holstein, Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., William Ray Price Jr., and Duane Benton. Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., is the cousin of Rush.
A complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has halted an entanglement between a Methodist church and the public school district in Clio, Michigan.
The city had agreed to donate $500 toward a "leadership seminar" conducted at the New Covenant Free Methodist Church being simulcast to more than 1,200 churches across the nation on March 24.
A few days before the seminar was to take place, the church wrote Clio and other government sponsors to say it was no longer expecting them to honor their pledges. The letter was sent as a result of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint, which was publicized in Clio, Flint and by media throughout Michigan.
Featured at the seminar was Weslyn-affiliated pastor, John C. Maxwell, founder of Atlanta-based INJOY. The president of INJOY told the Clio Messenger (March 18):
"We feel privileged to be the first to tap into its effectiveness in the Christian community to train more than 100,000 business leaders through the local church."
According to INJOY's website, "From the very start, our purpose was to help churches and church leaders to realize their full potential."
In her March 7 letter of complaint, Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Mayor Thomas Yost: "While this church is free to privately advertise its seminar and invite whomever it wishes to attend, the city is not at liberty to expend public money for a seminar that is being set up for a national simulcast for churches."
She cited Art. I, Sect. 4 of the Michigan Constitution forbidding government contributions or support "of any place of religious worship," or drawing money from the treasury "for the benefit of any religious sect or society."
The Clio Messenger later reported that the Clio Chamber of Commerce, the Vienna township, and the Clio Board of Education had also each pledged $500. The charge to attend the seminar was $40.
In addition, the Foundation is pursuing two First Amendment violations in the Clio Area Schools:
The district is setting up a program pairing a minister from the Clio Ministerial Association with each district school. Pastor Herb Smith of New Hope Wesleyan Church was quoted in the Clio Messenger (Feb. 25), saying: "If kids solicit prayer, we're there."
Every minister is Christian. The program is patterned after one in the Linden Schools in which one minister "often came at lunchtime and passed out suckers" and "was very popular," according to a report in the "School Bell," the Clio school's newsletter.
In her letter of complaint to Supt. Fay Latture, Gaylor wrote:
"To give the Ministerial Association access to students is tantamount to the school system saying, 'Come, proselytize our captive audience of students.'"
The Clio Area Schools also announced it is considering an entanglement with the New Covenant Free Methodist Church, which has an FM license, to let it broadcast school games and possibly work with broadcast classes at the church radio station.
The Foundation pointed out it recently put a stop to a similar violation in a public school working with a church radio station in the Northwest, calling the arrangement illegal because it appears to unite the radio station's Christian message and the public schools.
"It is impossible to avoid endorsement and entanglement issues. Promotions and announcements of school events and times would be sandwiched in between Christian messages, and the whole process would be permeated with religion."
An attorney retained on behalf of the school district has contacted the Foundation to say he is researching the Foundation's complaint, which has received statewide news coverage.
You can write the Clio Area Schools about this violation:
Supt. Fay Latture
430 N Mill St.
Clio MI 48420
"Are you aware that the Col. Bob Wilderness area on the Olympic Peninsula of the State of Washington is named after our Great Agnostic? Also Ingersoll Peak?"
So queried a recent email to our office from T. R. (Tom) Weston, of Washington State.
And no--we were not aware, were you?
Mr. Weston kindly sent documentation and some of the history of this "mini-wilderness" area and how it came to be named after Col. Robert G. ("Col. Bob") Ingersoll.
Wrote Mr. Weston:
"I live very close to the Olympic peninusla and have spent a good part of my time hiking the trails and climbing the mountains of both the Park and the Forest. I work two days a week as a volunteer trail worker for the Forest Service.
"Having been in the Col. Bob Wilderness Area and known about it for 50 years, I was astonished to find out it was named for one of my heroes. Incidentally, this information was given to me by a Forest Ranger with 20 people present and only I had ever heard of Robert Ingersoll!"
The 12,120-acre area surrounding Colonel Bob Peak near Lake Quinault was designated a wilderness in the late 1970s or early '80s.
Ingersoll was America's most feted 19th century freethinker, a wildly admired orator, national figure, and celebrated family man who commanded huge audiences and speaking fees, as well as affectionate praise from the leading reformers of his day, such as Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and another "Fighting Bob," Robert LaFollette. An influential political figure and attorney, Ingersoll was friend to four presidents. It was traditionally believed among his wide audience of fans that Ingersoll only missed being nominated to run as Illinois governor, then as probable president, due to his unstinting dedication to freeing minds from superstition.
As the Chicago Tribune wrote after his death in 1899:
"Splendidly endowed as he was he could have won great distinction in the field of politics had he so chosen. But he was determined to enlighten the world concerning the 'Mistakes of Moses.' That threw him out the race."
One of Ingersoll's many admirers was John N. Locke. On July 23, 1893, he and his son Robert and another Quinault Valley resident, Clarke Peeler, began ascending "Old Baldy," believed to be the highest of a series of peaks in the area. The party ascended Mount Baldy, according to a Daily World [Aberdeen, WA] newspaper recap, only to discover another peak rose 400 or 500 feet higher about half a mile away.
When they reached the summit of the highest peak, they beheld a "grand panorama--the great Grays Harbor county, the Juan de Fuca straits and Vancouver Island all in view," according to the Aug. 17, 1893, edition of The Washingtonian.
This report said the men "christened" the 4,500-foot peak Mount Ingersoll.
Robert Locke himself wrote the federal Board of Geographic Names a slightly differing account:
"My father remarked the tall, rugged mountain standing out above its fellows reminded him of Colonel Ingersoll and he believed he would name it Colonel Bob after him."
The compliment was brought to the attention of Ingersoll, according to the Washingtonian article, who "graciously accepted it" and sent a copy of one of his books to the climbers.
By 1932, the Board of Geographic Names had made "Colonel Bob" official.
The Forest Service crew didn't inspect the area until 1900. Some residents traditionally climbed the peak on the Fourth of July to get snow to make ice cream. Colonel Bob was chosen as a fire lookout in 1932 because of its high elevation, although the lookout was abandoned in 1946, was partially destroyed by weathering in 1966, and was burned in 1967 because it was considered a safety hazard.
An article by Jim Miller appearing in Signpost (Jan. 1990) recounting a trek up the peak describes Ingersoll as "a reverse Jerry Falwell of sorts." Since the trail from Lake Quinault is 7.2 miles, Miller and companions took a shorter four-mile trek from Pete's Creek trail near the Humptulips River at 1,000 feet elevation, starting from the campground in the Campbell Tree Grove. Miller wrote that after a steep ascent up a trail built for management, not recreation, the "tiny mountain top could barely hold a dozen people who were good friends."
A trip to this namesake might be one "pilgrimage" that would gain Col. Bob's approval!
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.
During a period of three weeks, in this bastion of Catholicism, there were three different types of freethought entertainment. The two local stage productions were previewed and reviewed as what they were: works about freethought people and their history. The third was the professional film, Chocolat, the only one of the three productions which was not specified in reviews as being of any special interest to freethinkers, or as having any freethinking/atheist characters.
The Contender, released earlier, was similarly slighted, and I am speaking of reviews in The New Yorker, a magazine I had considered a rather sophisticated one. Apparently the A-word is a no-no even in the Big Apple.
The stage performances of Comfort and Southern Discomfort at our San Antonio Jump-Start Theatre were promoted and reviewed by writers for our local conservative newspaper as precisely what they were: about freethought and freethinkers. The word atheist (gasp!) was even used.
The Jump-Start productions were a complete surprise to our local freethought group (modestly known as Freethinkers Association of Central Texas because of the irresistible acronym). Fortunately, the guest speaker at our Solstice party knew what was going on at the Blue Star Arts Complex (which houses the Jump-Start Theatre), and, after meeting us, told the playwright of Comfort to get in touch with us because we were heavily involved in trying to preserve the history of Comfort. Bingo! Dianne Monroe called and was promptly invited to speak to our group.
It was like old-home week because her play was about the early freethinkers of Comfort, Texas, focusing on a mother and daughter who journeyed a hundred miles to cover the body of their son/brother with rocks to protect him until such time as he could be brought back to Comfort for burial. This young man was one of the Union loyalists massacred at their Nueces campsite by Confederate troops while trying to escape Texas. After the return and burial of the bodies of the victims in Comfort, a granite obelisk was placed to mark their gravesite. It is the only Civil War monument located deep in Confederate territory which is dedicated to the Union. It is appropriately known as the Treue der Union Monument.
Dianne informed our group that she had become curious about Comfort history after reading a couple of articles in the Express-News concerning the limestone cenotaph that present-day freethinkers had placed and planned to dedicate in honor of early freethinker settlers of that community. The furor over this mention of history (and its rejection) had piqued Dianne's interest and curiosity. With some historical sleuthing and her creative mind, she wrote her play, Comfort, which was scheduled to open not long after our undedicated limestone memorial had been stolen and dumped in a pasture. All the timely coincidences made us an anticipatory audience for the two freethought productions.
Having met Dianne, and knowing that Freethought Forum was soon to have a studio date for taping four of our access shows, we invited her to be a guest on one of them. The TV show would give her an opportunity to do some promo for the Jump-Start productions. She was tied up, but suggested we might be able to get S.T. Shimi, the creator of the other freethought entertainment, Southern Discomfort. Shimi accepted, in spite of a heavy rehearsal schedule, and proved to be a spectacular guest. Being a dancer, her every gesture was a visual treat, and her voice was strong and resonant for such a tiny person. She is exotically from Singapore, but came to the states to attend college at Dartmouth. While there, she read about the aims and ambitions of Jump-Start (highly laudable: to give the voiceless a voice), and appeared on their doorstep after one short telephone call to make contact. Shimi's Southern Discomfort was a solo dance-theatre piece. Through dance and spoken text, Shimi told of her mental journey from her Evangelical Christian childhood to adult atheism, and her physical journey from Singapore to South Texas (by way of New Hampshire). It was a new art form for me, and I loved it.
Shimi is proudly atheistic, and spurns the word "spiritual," voicing objection to it every time it is mentioned. Because she is an artist, people insist that there is a "spiritual" dimension to her performances. That, she vehemently denies. Art is art; and trying to link it with a meaningless word makes no sense to her. Hear! hear!
Both Comfort and Southern Discomfort received excellent reviews in our local paper. We freethinkers thought they were super, but it was nice to read in one review that: "Provocative and bold, Southern Discomfort is also a hugely entertaining piece of theater." The review of Comfort stated that "Dianne Monroe has crafted a moving drama based on actual events that few Texans know much about." One line of the play, spoken by the narrator who tied the history and drama together, "reminds us of something disturbing," continued the reviewer, which indeed it does. To move among Confederate soldiers, freethinker men would dress as women because women were essentially "unseen."
How strange that a conservative local paper could report so openly of freethought and freethought history, while that dimwitted reviewer at The New Yorker gave such a vapid account of Chocolat. Well, of course it's a fairy tale, but it's a fairy tale for atheists. An atheist moves to a small French town, filled with repressed, bigoted, sour people, and brings joy and love of life's pleasures to all but one of its citizens. That's my kind of fairy tale and, as soon as I can buy a video of it, I plan to watch it once a week until it comes true.
Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer and freethought activist living in San Antonio.
I think a case can be made that religion gets a free ride in this country.
"Never discuss religion or politics with your customers" is a standard business maxim. The reason is obvious. People's religious and political belief systems are apt to be untouchable by logic. Or evidence. Or anything else approaching intelligent discourse. And a businessperson cannot risk alienating potential customers by challenging deeply-held notions and expect to stay in business.
Fair enough. Business success is tough enough to achieve under the best of circumstances; no sense deliberately making it harder.
But what about the larger public arena? Politics certainly gets its share of public discussion, with supporters and detractors on almost every subject vigorously arguing their positions.
But have you noticed, the same cannot be said for religion? It's almost automatically assumed as a good thing, the foundation of our country. Even when some bizarre event involving religion comes along, like the Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, it is presented as an anomaly, not as an extreme case of what may be troublesome about religion in general.
What, pray tell, could possibly be troublesome about religion in general, you ask. Plenty. But first, permit me a brief diversion to give you some perspective on where I'm coming from. Honest debate requires it.
I have up-close and personal knowledge about religion from the inside. I was born into and raised in an extremely religious tradition. My father was a Southern Baptist minister. He was the fourth generation minister in his family, with his great-grandfather having come to America as a missionary to Native Americans. My mother's family is also deeply steeped in religious vocation, with ministers and missionaries all over the place.
It was and is genuine and benign, like Mother Teresa, not charlatanesque like the TV evangelist type.
So having been baptized a Christian at age eight, with a tearful profession of faith in Jesus as is customary in such churches, I "surrendered" to the ministry at age 13 or so. I preached my first sermon when I was 15, began leading "youth-led revivals" shortly thereafter, served two stints as a student summer missionary in Alaska, and was ordained a full-fledged minister at age 18, serving as pastor of two rural churches throughout my college days. I was the featured speaker at many functions of the college ministerial society, since platform skills came somewhat naturally to me because of my background.
I loved what I was doing and couldn't have been more sincere. Except for one thing. I began to think for myself. Serious questions about the religious indoctrination I had imbibed began in college, even though I attended a conservative religious institution. They continued in seminary. When I sought answers, I was told, "Kick the rock. When you've finished kicking it, you'll know it's a rock." And other no-think pap of that genre. Well, it wasn't so. The more I investigated the basic tenets of the faith, the more certain I became that Christianity was no more valid than any of the religions I had been taught were false.
Nonetheless, I loved being a minister and wanted to serve people. I decided to try to ignore my inability to believe such basic doctrines as biblical inspiration, the divinity of Jesus, the necessity of religious salvation, and plunge into living a devout life of service in a simple setting. Although I had been something of a star during seminary days, often preaching at the campus church to my fellow students and professors, upon graduation I refused to play politics and accepted a simple country church.
I served this and then a similar one in the poor part of the city for seven years. It became increasingly harder to do with integrity. At age 32 I faced a choice: either get out of religion or risk becoming publicly phony and privately cynical, as I saw happening to many of my minister friends. I chose to get out. Five more years of graduate school gave me a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and my subsequent career.
Now, let's return to my opening contention that religion is being given a free ride. What I mean is the automatic assumption that religion is a good thing, that it makes people better, that America was founded on religious principles, that without religion immorality would completely take over. Horsefeathers!
John Lennon's signature song "Imagine" was, unfortunately, ahead of its time. What if there were no religion? Well, let's see.
1. Most of the world's wars would not have been fought. Start with the wars the bible glorifies against the "enemies of God" and come all the way through the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the cruel colonization of less developed countries by Christian countries who were sure God was on their side, to the modern-day conflict in the Middle East between warring factions who are all convinced they have religious sanction for their battles.
2. Many of the worst atrocities would not have been committed. I'll mention just a few. The Inquisition in which believers (people of religious faith all) were tortured and killed because their brand of orthodoxy was not acceptable, burning at the stake of religious reformers who dared deviate from the party line, witch trials and drownings of innocent, simple people (most of them women) who found disfavor with religious (most of them male) leaders, slavery of Africans by staunch religious people who justified it on biblical grounds, and the shameful treatment of Native Americans who were considered savages in spite of their deep respect for the land and for the sanctity of their word (in stark contrast with their Christian plunderers).
3. Insidious prejudice could not hide behind religious shields. Without question one of the most powerful appeals of religion is the desire to be a part of the in-group. Religion promises that in spades, all the while claiming (and perhaps intending) to be egalitarian. When you've gone through the initiation ceremony, sort of like the plebes at a military institute, it's just real easy to feel superior to those who haven't. Such prejudice, sometimes masquerading as evangelistic concern, is pandemic with religions.
4. All the money spent in support of organized religion would be available for more direct, more useful humanitarian effort. Think of the multiplied billions of dollars that have been poured into organized religion through the centuries. The temples, the cathedrals, the mosques, the churches. Edifices that glorify some god? Not unless the god is an idiot. It's easy to see that the religious gurus of primitive cultures, however sincere they were, however revered, were a drain on the system. Somebody else had to do the work they were not doing, to say nothing of their demands for sacrificial giving to the god they represented. Today's professional religionists, again however sincere, are no different. They have to be paid, and their churches have to be supported.
5. It would be clearer that, although all people are created with equal rights to the pursuit of happiness, not all people are equally likely to live responsibly, no matter what. The church (as a symbol of organized religion) has some very good, generous, unselfish people in it. It also has some very bad, stingy, selfish people in it. If religion really, in and of itself, had the power to change people, all religious people would be benificent and kind. I don't mean "without sin," to use the common religious phrase; I just mean basically good. Anybody with half a smidgen of intellectual honesty knows that's not the case. It isn't clear whether there is a higher percentage of responsible people within religion than without, but I suspect that if there is, it isn't statistically significant.
We operate on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of people believe religion is important and good. I challenge that assumption. We know that at least half the population of this country seldom or never attends a religious function. If we think about it, we also know that a hefty percentage of those who are active religiously do so for something other than religious reasons. Community approval, social contacts, business and political expectations. I don't know how large the percentage of people who are genuinely faithful is, but I suspect it's much smaller than the noise it makes.
People have every right, of course, to be as religious as they choose, so long as the practice of their religion doesn't infringe on the rights of others. Many, many good, honest, sincere people are totally convinced that their religious views are not only right, but are what make them good, honest, and sincere. My parents are among them. I respect them, all the sincere believers. I also think they are, unfortunately, deluded. Even so, their very goodness has seen religion do many humane and wonderful things--education, hunger relief, care for the homeless. These things often need some sort of organization to occur effectively. It just doesn't have to be a religious organization, based on superstitious notions about salvation and eternal life.
I would like to see a world in which, instead of pouring our resources of time, money and energy into religious coffers, we tried building a more humane society among those who are so inclined. And that we quit assuming that religion is sacred.
Oops! If religion isn't sacred, is anything? Perhaps not.
Or perhaps everything is.
John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.
The current administration's proposed legislation to grant money from federal tax coffers to "faith-based organizations" to help provide services to various needy groups should be studied carefully . . . and then voted down! Unless, in the unlikeliest of outcomes, there is some way to guarantee absolutely that none of this tax money would be used for religious indoctrination, either actual or implied.
I cannot imagine how such a guarantee could be made--or policed.
It is not that I am against the activity of churches and other faith-based groups in remediating human suffering. Quite the contrary. I wish a much larger percentage of the budget of religious groups was invested in such "good Samaritan" activities instead of in the usual "pad the pews" kind of expenditure. More power to the many church programs that are designed to help those in need.
My concern is that we must be "Simon" pure in our respect for the separation of church and state that the Founding Fathers wisely wrote into our Constitution. Jefferson and Madison were quite clear that state-sponsored religion leads to incredible abuse of individual freedom of conscience, a sine qua non of the land of the free.
Joe Lieberman's reported statement during the recent presidential campaign that "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion" is dead wrong. It means both or either.
Although many of the early European settlers of this continent were motivated by the desire to flee religious persecution, they were not always careful, once having gained freedom for themselves, to allow others to dissent from their own religious views. But by the time of the American Revolution and the subsequent drafting of the Constitution, it was clear to the framers that all faiths should be allowed and respected and that none should be officially promoted or sponsored.
The path of granting tax money to religious organizations is a slippery slope, however well-intentioned the proposal. Funds in most such organizations are fungible, meaning that money used in one activity is interchangeable with money used in another activity. It is easy to see how $1,000 of tax money for a nonsectarian part of a program frees up a similar $1,000 from adherents for the religious aspect of a program, effectively subsidizing the religious contributions with tax dollars.
Further worries from some religious leaders also deserve careful attention. Such as the possibility (likelihood?) that with federal dollars comes federal control, a quick way to dilute the essential elements of such programs. Another potential outcome stems from a predictable psychological phenomenon, namely that when easy (read that "from the tax coffers") money appears on the horizon, charitable giving by members and adherents tends to dwindle. The idea that "if the government is going to do it, I don't need to deprive myself to make it happen" is as old as organized government itself.
Another concern is whether fringe religious movements, like Louis Farrakhan's group, which endorses racial enmity, or L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology movement, which has a ton of philosophical ambiguities, would be included. The answer was given that if a group preached hate, it wouldn't be included. But who makes those decisions? And is it smart to grant that kind of power to fallible human beings with their own biases and agendas? Hardly!
There is no disputing the evidence that many faith-based programs have generated outstanding results. Whether these results are actually due to the underlying philosophy of the group sponsoring the program (as opposed to the fact that somebody seems to care and that participants begin to really believe things can be better) is immaterial. So long as the programs are entirely voluntary and the money used to support them is entirely voluntary, it essentially doesn't matter why a given program works, only that it works.
But the dangers of beginning to subsidize with tax dollars humanitarian programs that have a religious belief system central to their method and mission are very real. The time in recent human history when religion and government were inextricably entwined is not referred to as the Dark Ages for nothing. When a scientist like Galileo, whose telescopic sightings supported Copernicus' theory that the earth revolved around the sun, was placed under house arrest for the last eight years of his life because his scientific opinions were not consonant with accepted religious belief, this began to signal the end of such a dark period. But a return to such insistence on religiously "correct" positions is not totally unthinkable. Consider what has happened in Iran and Afghanistan in recent years when the dominant religion came to power.
Religious belief, or lack of it, must remain a private matter with no sanctioned government support or involvement whatsoever.
Religious humanitarian programs are alive and well. May their tribe increase. But let's tell the government "thanks, but no thanks." And let's keep trying to make life better for as many people as we can, whether such efforts are motivated by religious doctrine or just simple human caring.
John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist and professional speaker, who was an ordained Baptist minister until age 32. He is a new Foundation member from Oregon.
Circuit Approves Jesus Motto
The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on March 16 that Ohio's New Testament motto, "With God, all things are possible," is permissible, overturning a 6th Circuit 3-judge panel and a lower court ruling declaring the motto unconstitutional.
The 9-4 decision said that because the state does not attribute the quote to its source, Jesus, it is therefore acceptable. The motto, adopted in 1959, is found on official stationery, tax forms, and now a bronze plate in a sidewalk entrance to the Statehouse.
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee on March 13 approved a legislative package, Affordable Education Act of 2001, with an amendment letting parents open tax-free $2,000 savings accounts for children's K-12 education expenses--including religious-school tuition. President Clinton had twice vetoed similar legislation.
Teachers' unions called the scheme "back-door vouchers," saying it would drain tax dollars from public schools to subsidize families who already can afford private schools. Bush has proposed allowing families up to $5,000 per child for K-12 school expenses.
Utah: No Clergy Malpractice Suits
The Utah Supreme Court on March 16 banned lawsuits over allegations of clergy malpractice, unanimously upholding a trial judge's decision to dismiss a child rape victim's lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All five judges are Mormon.
The victim said her bishop and stake president were negligent over her plea for help after being sexually abused at age 7 by a teenaged church member. They counseled her to "forgive, forget and seek atonement," later referring her to an unlicensed counselor who advised her not to call police.
Colorado Follows Suit?
The Colorado House Judiciary Committee voted 7-6 to send a bill to the full Senate limiting grounds on which sexual assault victims may sue churches, despite two hours of emotional testimony by victims and their advocates in late February. Witnesses included Mary Moses, who won a $1 million judgment against the Colorado Episcopal Diocese over sexual misconduct by a bishop who counseled her. "I will wear an invisible scarlet letter for the rest of my life," she told the committee.
"Under this bill the church asks to be exempted from the damage they cause," said Joyce Seelan, an attorney who represented a family victimized by a pastor.
Jehovah's Witnesses Scandals
A recent examination by the Louisville Courier-Journal of Jehovah's Witnesses court cases in Maine, New Hampshire and Texas shows that the confidential church disciplinary process may be allowing molestation to continue.
Church members and the public are put at increased risk by common secretive practices and a belief that reporting on members' suspected crimes breaches church confidentiality. Jehovah's Witnesses require either the offender's confession or at least two witnesses to the offense. Church policy allows "repentant" molesters to continue evangelizing door to door.
The newspaper began investigating church policy after the resignation of a western Kentucky church elder who objected to the practices. William H. Bowen resigned Dec. 31 as chief elder of the Draffenville congregation: "I refuse to support a pedophile refuge mentality that is promoted among bodies of elders around the world. Criminals should be ousted, identified and punished to protect the innocent and give closure to the victim."
Catholics Lobby against Healthcare
The Roman Catholic Church in New York State is demanding a "conscience clause" be adopted by the state legislature to exempt religious organizations opposed to birth control from any law mandating contraceptive coverage. The "denial clause" would exempt social service organizations, hospitals and Catholic-affiliated colleges, many of which receive public funding.
Mississippi Thrusts God on Students
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed a law on March 23 mandating that public schools display "In God We Trust" in classrooms, cafeterias and auditoriums.
"Our nation was founded as a godly nation and we put it on our money," Musgrove declared. The law, which the ACLU has threatened to challenge, will take effect July 1. It requires the slogan to be displayed on a framed background of at least 11-by-14 inches. Although no money was appropriated to pay for the slogans, the American Family Association plans to donate 32,000 "In God We Trust" posters.
A related bill, HB 220, was introduced in Tennessee to amend the state flag by adding "In God We Trust" on a perpendicular bar of blue. Rep. John Windle claims the "public welfare requires it."
Senate Chaplain Amasses Power
Senate Chaplain Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie has expanded his ministry with an unprecedented mix of public and private monies, according to a Feb. 21 report in the Wall Street Journal.
Ogilvie uses donations from a Christian group to purchase copies of his own books to distribute to the Senate. His writings sell in the Senate gift shop. He is lobbying to create a "Faith and Freedom" stairwell running up to what the Journal calls "his handsome new Capitol offices," which used to house the Senate library.
The founding fathers "believed in the separation of Church and State. They did not believe in the separation of God and State," Ogilvie wrote the Senate Rules Committee leadership about his proposal.
Ogilvie holds lunchtime bible series, mainly funded by a nonproft group whose mission is the "propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," advertising his sessions with colorful posters.
Although Senate rules forbid such conflicts of interest as Ogilvie receiving royalties for the sale of his books at the Senate, he has received royalties, which a publisher told the Journal were an "accounting error."
Patron Trent Lott, GOP leader, helped Ogilvie distribute a bound copy of the chaplain's prayers as a "keepsake" after Clinton's impeachment trial. Asks Journal reporter David Rogers, "Has Mr. Ogilvie become more than the chaplain was meant to be? . . . [he is] living proof of how muddy those lines [between church and state] already have become in Congress. . ."
Milwaukee Vouchers Expanded?
Wis. Gov. Scott McCallum's state budget would expand eligibility for the Milwaukee voucher program, the only court-approved scheme in the country permitting tax money to pay for parochial education. His proposal would permit low-income children, the intended recipients, to continue to receive public money for private school tuition even if their parents' incomes rise 185% above limits. The program, with 9,638 students, costs $49 million this year. Voucher schools receive $5,326 per student this year.
In related developments:
A Lutheran group plans to build a government-funded Lutheran school to "proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ" in Milwaukee's poverty-stricken Metcalfe Park area. The overt use of the voucher program to build a congregation, as well as the backers' frank admission that the gospel-proclaiming school could not begin without tax funding, has brought scrutiny to the proposal. The plan is to open a school next fall and expand it into a church.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice John Wilcox agreed in March to pay a $10,000 fine and accept responsibility for the illegal actions of his campaign, settling one of the state's most egregious corruption cases. A "nonpartisan" get-out-the-vote group illegally spent $200,000, mostly from out-of-state school voucher advocates, to promote Wilcox. After winning, he voted to uphold Milwaukee's controversial voucher program in 1998, which funnels millions of tax dollars to religious schools. The state elections board filed civil charges in 2000.
Michigan: A bill was recently introduced to force teachers to call evolution an unproven theory and to include references to "competing theories" in class lessons, including the claim that life is the result of a creator. State Rep. Robert Gosselin, R-Troy said, "The whole theory of something coming out of nothing is, to me, incomprehensible."
Arkansas: A committee of the legislature recommended on March 20 that the "theory of evolution" be banned from textbooks: "Do you believe you were descended from a monkey? If we teach kids that they were descended from monkeys, don't you think they'll act like monkeys?" asked Rep. Denny Altes.
North Dakota: The Senate voted in February to approve a bill allowing schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms as part of an exhibit of "historical documents." The House approved legislation permitting school boards to allow voluntary classroom prayers to be led by a teacher or student.
Nothing More Divisive than Prayer?
Florida: Mixing prayer and politics at a city council meetings in Melbourne invoked criticism after Rev. Richard Beyer ended his Jan. 9 invocation by thanking God that George W. Bush won the election because Clinton had vetoed a bill banning so-called "partial birth" abortions. The city code requires an invocation. Controversy has also dogged prayers before the Cocoa Beach city commission, who asked local ministers to stop using "the Lord's name," in vain. They continue to do so.
Maryland: Blessings in the name of "Jesus the Lord" before the Montgomery County Council have created controversy since last fall. The Washington Post reports that virtually every meeting of the Fauquier county board of supervisors begins with an invocation of Jesus. The Anne Arundel county board meetings often start with the Lord's prayer. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors opens with a moment of silence, rejecting an experiment with prayer in the early 1990s, and the D.C. Council also avoids religion.
Minneapolis: A Jewish car salesman fired after questioning his boss' Christian proselytizing recently filed a lawsuit for religious discrimination in U.S. District Court under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Ira Chemers said his boss opened all management meetings with prayers to Jesus Christ, and, shortly before firing him in February 2000, said: "I want everyone in this organization to be Christian."
"If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? . . . Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."
You notice a person drowning in a river. What should you do? If you agree with Jefferson, you should consider yourself a "social animal" with an "instinct" to compassion, whether you believe in a god or not. If you are a humanist, you will empathize with the sufferings of another human being. If you are a Christian, you will believe that person's life has value because he or she was "created in the image of God."
But whatever your basis for value, you still have to decide: "Should I jump in?" You can't pull a list from your back pocket to look up "Rule 127: What to do when someone is drowning."
Behavioral dilemmas involve a conflict of values, and in real life this means they are always situational. You can't simply follow a blind code: you have to compare the relative merits of the consequences of various actions; and the only way to do that is to exercise reason.
How far out in the river is the person? How strong is the current? How good a swimmer are you? Are you likely to cause two deaths instead of one? How many children are you responsible for supporting?
It would be pointless to ask, "Is it moral to dive in?" The only purpose of this irrelevant question might be to make you feel virtuous, or guilty.
Perhaps you take the risk and dive in. Or you might reason that the most moral action would be not to jump in the river in this case, running for help, if possible. Your basis for value is not important: the facts of the situation are.
Quoting Dostoyevsky--"If God does not exist, everything is permissible"--many believers suggest that it is only theists who can have values, although, like Jefferson, they certainly know this is not true. We atheists are just as likely as Christians to jump in that river--perhaps more likely.
"How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?" I often hear. "If you don't believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?"
We atheists find our basis for morality, of course, in nature. Where else would we look?
Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are "objective." They can't be. A value is not a "thing"--it is a function of a mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an "objective value" is an oxymoron: the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.
Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that "Morality" exists in the universe, a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word "morality" is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed, no morality would exist.
Morality is simply the avoidance of unnecessary harm. Since harm is natural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment, and as rational animals, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we minimize pain and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don't, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions.
To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no Cosmic Code Book directing our actions.
Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments, would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? The prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelites claimed the copyright.
The way to be moral is to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature--especially human nature: who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do. (This gives an objective basis to morality, even though the values themselves are not objective things.)
Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.
This is not the Golden Rule. Confucius, 500 years before Christianity, phrased the principle best when he said, "Don't do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although this is still not a fully adequate principle for ethics, it is much better than "Do unto others" because it identifies the avoidance of harm as the key to morality.
Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by fatalism ("Whatever happens is God's will"), pessimism ("We deserve to suffer"), salvation ("Death is not the end"), retribution ("Justice will prevail in the afterlife"), magic ("Pray for help"), holy war ("Kill for God"), forgiveness ("I won't be held responsible for my mistakes"), or glory ("Suffering with Christ is an honor"). Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.
Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: "Ye have the poor with you always," said the "loving" Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ," Mother Teresa added. "I think the world is much helped by the suffering of the poor people." So much for theistic compassion!
Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an "instinct" because many appear not to have it--it seems optional. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life enough to protect ourselves from those who don't. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice, and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking.
But most believers, including Christians who are ordered to "bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ," have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism--the recognition that actions must be judged in context--as something dangerous, when it is the only way we can be truly moral.
Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won't.
When theists make a case for "natural rights," they often point to Locke, Jefferson, Paine, and other enlightened thinkers of the Age of Reason. It is enlightening to notice that they rarely quote from the bible. Nowhere in Scripture will you find an acknowledgment that each individual has an "inalienable right" to be treated with fairness and respect, or that "We, the People" are capable of governing ourselves. There is no democracy in the "word of God." In the bible, humans are "worms" and "sinners" deserving damnation, "slaves" who should humbly submit to all kings, heavenly and earthly.
Championing the "consent of the governed" over the authority of a sovereign, the Declaration of Independence is unabashedly anti-biblical. We Americans are a proudly rebellious people who fought a Revolutionary War kicking the King and Master out of our affairs; and to prove it, we produced a godless Constitution, the first to separate church and state.
But many American Christians see it differently: "Had Jefferson been influenced by Darwin instead of Locke," wrote Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Seventh Day Adventist Liberty Magazine, "Joseph Stalin's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive." In a "Darwinian universe," Goldstein contends, truth rests "on a foundation as whimsical as the electorate or whichever despot happens to be in control."
Oh? How does truth fare in the "theistic universe" where the despot is named Jehovah?
The God of Scripture slaughtered entire groups of people that offended his vanity, ordering young virgins to be kept alive as war booty for his priests (Numbers 31). "Happy shall be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones," he advised (Psalm 137:9), threatening those with the wrong religion that "their women with child shall be ripped up" (Hosea 13:16), sending bears to attack 42 children who teased a prophet (II Kings 2:23-24), punishing innocent offspring to the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5), discriminating against the handicapped (Leviticus 21:18-23), promising that fathers and sons would eat each other (Ezekiel 5:10), and much more that we would find repugnant in a human being. In this theistic universe, morality is severed from reality and reduced to flattering the Sovereign.
If on a Saturday, for example, you notice a man gathering wood to warm his family, as a Christian commanded to "remember the Sabbath," what should you do? According to Numbers 15:32-36, you should stone him to death! Is this not whimsical?
Jesus incorporated slavery into his parables as if it were the most natural order, only cautioning masters to beat some slaves less severely than others (Luke 12:46-47). The Heaven's Gate cult, like Origen, accepted Jesus' advice: "There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Matthew 19:12) Is this good advice?
There are some good teachings in the bible, of course; but is a garden beautiful that is overrun with weeds? Jefferson thought that most of Jesus' words were insulting, although he spotted a few good teachings, "easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill." (To Adams, Oct. 1813)
Goldstein has it backwards. Had Jefferson been influenced by Jehovah instead of Locke, Adolph Hitler's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive! Hitler allowed Darwinism to be twisted for a political purpose, framing evolution in a "social" way not intended by Darwin himself; but it wasn't Darwinism that gave the theistic Hitler his basis for morality: "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." (Mein Kampf) Hitler credited Jesus as his inspiration. In a 1926 Nazi Christmas celebration, he boasted, "Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews . . . The work that Christ started but could not finish, I--Adolf Hitler--will conclude." The creationist Hitler shared a thirst for blood with the bombastic biblical God in whose "image" he thought he was created.
There is no practical value in claiming that "natural rights" are rooted outside of nature. People who find "moral absolutes" in the revelation of a deity have never agreed what those absolutes are. Take any crucial social moral issue of the day--capital punishment, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, women's rights, divorce, gay rights, corporal punishment, animal rights, slavery, pacifism, environmental protection, birth control, overpopulation, state/church separation--and you will notice that praying, bible-believing Christians have come down on opposite sides. The apostle Paul alleged that the biblical deity is "not the author of confusion," yet never has a single book caused more confusion or divisiveness than the bible.
If the bible gives us absolute moral guidance, then where is it? Why don't sincere believers agree on these important questions? It's clear that the bible is an inadequate behavioral guide, and that the tyrannical god of Scriptural mythology leads us to a lack of values.
When Jefferson wrote about the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, he was not talking about the Christian god. As a Deist, he viewed the "Creator" as a much less personal being than the biblical deity. The god of Deism was more like "nature" than "Jehovah."
When Jefferson claimed that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," he could not have meant "endowed" in the sense of a sovereign granting a privilege that might be denied. If something can be endowed, then it can be un-endowed. If a right is inalienable, it can't be withheld or withdrawn, not even in principle. An "inalienable right," if rights are endowed, is an oxymoron.
Human rights, if they are inalienable, could not have been granted--not by a government, society, or god. A "natural right" is a claim to a freedom, privilege, or power that you possess inherently, by nature (though you still might have to convince others to recognize and grant that right). Natural rights, if they exist, are indeed inalienable; but then they could not have been "endowed." We simply own them.
It is clear that Jefferson meant, figuratively, that since we are "endowed by nature" with common human needs, we are justified in expecting society to honor our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Christians think we should treat others nicely because we were all created in the "image of God." This gives us value, they suppose.
But they don't explain why. Why does the image of a god provide greater value than some other image? Why does it give any value at all? What does "image of God" mean?
"God is a Spirit," Jesus supposedly said; but what is that? The word "spirit" has never been defined, except in terms that tell us what it is not: immaterial, intangible, noncorporeal, supernatural. No one has ever described what a spirit is. "To talk of immaterial existences," Jefferson wrote, "is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise." (To John Adams, August 1820. This does not mean Jefferson was an atheist: he conceived of God as a material being, or as nature itself, which is consistent with Deism.)
Since "god" has never been defined, much less proved, its "image" can't be used as a basis for anything. "Nature," on the other hand, means something. Darwinism shows us that all living organisms are the result of a natural evolutionary process. We have been fashioned by the laws of nature.
This revelation can only fail to impress you if you have been taught that there is something wrong with nature, something shameful about being a mere animal in a debased realm beneath the supernatural, whatever that is. Many theists seem eager to play this game of nature-bashing. The "blind chance" of evolution, they say, is a brute force incapable of producing something as "lofty" as us humans.
But evolution is not blind chance: it is design that incorporates randomness--not intelligent design, but design by the laws of nature, by the limited number of ways atoms interact mathematically and molecules combine geometrically. It is design by extinction, by the way a changing environment automatically disallows organisms that happen not to be adapted, leaving the "fittest" behind, if any. The randomness of genetic variation is a strength of evolution, providing a greater chance that something will survive.
This is amazing. Instead of speculating about an unknown "creator," we can actually look at our origins. Evolution shows how complexity arises from simplicity: creationism can't do that. Creationism tries to explain complexity with more complexity, which only replaces one mystery with another mystery. If functional complexity requires a designer, then how do you account for the functional complexity of the mind of the designer?
Darwin's enlightening concept is empirical, testable, provable, and relevant to creatures that inhabit a physical planet. It shows us who we really are. We are not above nature. We are not just a part of nature. We are nature. We are natural creatures in a natural environment. Through the startlingly sloppy, painfully unpredictable, part-random, part-determined process of natural selection, life, imperfect yet doggedly hanging on, has become what it is.
And that's what makes life valuable: it didn't have to be. It is dear. It is fleeting. It is vibrant and vulnerable. It is heart-breaking. It can be lost.
It will be lost.
But we exist now. We are caring, intelligent animals, and can treasure our brief lives. Why is eternal better than temporal, or supernatural "higher" than natural? Doesn't rarity increase value? God is an idea, not a natural creature. Why should his "image" be more valuable than our own "nature"? What right would an immaterial existence--a ghost in the sky--have to tell us natural creatures what is valuable? Has he ever felt the pain of giving birth? Does he struggle to pay the rent?
If we were created in his unknowable image, then we have no idea who we are. But being fashioned in the "image of nature," we do know who we are, and we can find out more. Right in our backyard, here on earth, we can investigate, study, and continue to improve conditions on this planet. It wasn't faith that eradicated smallpox. Contemplating the "image of god" will not cure cancer or AIDS.
Science has given us much. What has theology ever provided?
Theology has given us hell.
The threat of damnation is designed to be an incentive to right action; but this is a phony morality. Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment. Any ideology that makes its point by threatening violence is morally bankrupt. (Hitler's ovens, at least, were relatively quick. The torment Jesus promised is a "fire that shall never be quenched.") Anyone who believes in hell is at heart not moral at all.
If the only way you can be forced to be kind to others is by the threat of hell, that shows how little you think of yourself. If the only way you can be motivated to be kind to others is by the promise of heaven, that shows how little you think of others.
Most atheists will say, "Be good, for goodness' sake!"
Dan Barker is a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the following letter to the Governor of Alabama regarding a proposal to amend the Alabama State Constitution to permit Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings. The amendment, Senate Bill 83, passed a Senate committee 9-0 on March 6 and goes before the full Senate. It is promoted by Dean Young of the Christian Family Association, one of the supporters of commandment-loving Roy Moore, now state Chief Justice.
Gov. Don Siegelman
Alabama State Capitol
600 Dexter Ave
Montgomery AL 36130
Dear Gov. Siegelman:
On behalf of our Alabama membership, which boasts a very active and concerned state chapter, we are writing to urge you to reconsider your voiced support for Senate Bill 83, to amend the Alabama State Constitution to permit Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools and buildings.
We believe it would reflect poorly on the stature of a governor to endorse a campaign which is so clearly unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 1980, that a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms is unconstitutional. As the Court wrote:
"The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the sabbath day."
Under the U.S. Constitution, a state cannot post and endorse religious edicts from one religion's "holy book." Nor would the U.S. Supreme Court countenance an amendment to Art. 1, Sect. 3 of the Alabama State Constitution which so clearly contradicts the broad religious liberties guaranteed in that section! Posting Ten Commandments by the government violates freedom of conscience, compels citizens to attend and contribute to religious worship and appropriates state property for religious reasons--all forbidden under Art. 1, Sect. 3.
The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why the Ten Commandments may not be posted in public buildings and schoolrooms. Government has no business telling citizens which god they must have, how many gods they must have, or that they must have a god at all!
The proposed amendment raises the thorny question of which Ten would be posted and endorsed by the State of Alabama: the Hebrew, the Catholic or the Protestant version? The only "ten commandments" so identified in the bible lists as its tenth commandment, "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 34: 14-28) Does the State of Alabama plan to set itself up as arbiter over which set of commandments is religiously correct?
This campaign by religious extremists serves only to excite prejudices, promote religious divisiveness, distract lawmakers from real issues, and irresponsibly jeopardizes taxpayers' money in an expensive, losing battle.
We urge you to set an example of respect for the constitutional separation of church and state by opposing this misguided measure.