Shortly before Easter this year I was at the supermarket, in the soup aisle, when a strange, rather disheveled-looking man walked up to me and began talking. At first it was simple pleasantries in the "Hello, how are you doing?" vein, but before long came the inevitable invitation to join his church. I say "inevitable" because proselytizing seems to be the only thing these days that motivates anyone to strike up conversations with perfect strangers, particularly late at night in the soup aisle of the local supermarket.
I listened politely about his church and "God's will" for me to join it and so on, until he actually asked me if I think I would be interested. Now this was an unusually high-pressure tactic, it being more customary to simply give the invitation and perhaps a glossy pamphlet without courting outright rejection like my new friend here was doing. I really didn't want to hurt his feelings, but I definitely didn't want to keep talking with him. The perfect solution came to me.
"I'm Jewish," I lied. Looking a bit sheepish he said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and walked away, allowing me to buy my soup in peace. I can't help but wonder how many other shoppers he tried to evangelize that night.
Some might wonder why I didn't simply tell him the truth, which is that I'm the son of a Catholic and a Protestant, I've been an atheist since I was about eleven, and I'd never even met a Jew until I was a teenager. The answer is that I didn't want to get into an extended debate with the guy, I just wanted to be left alone. And living on a college campus as I do, I know from long experience with representatives of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade for Christ that the surest way to a long conversation is to tell one of them that you are an atheist ("Really? I've always wondered about that. Now why do you . . .").
I also know that you can get a pretty bad reaction from some people about it. Less than a year ago a seemingly very sweet girl whom I had just told I was an atheist remarked to a friend that she thought devil-worship was more comprehensible than atheism as soon as she thought that I was out of earshot.
After that incident and the one in the supermarket, I got to wondering why Christians seem to feel so differently about atheism than they do about Judaism, or Buddhism, or any other religion. It seemed odd because, theoretically, a Jew is no more or less hellbound than an atheist. Neither believes that Jesus was the Son of God, so if the Christians are right, Jews and atheists are both equally damned. And when it comes to proselytizing, one would think that Jews would be a much more likely target, as they are already "halfway there" in terms of the religious texts in which they believe. Jews and Christians do certainly part ways a lot further down the road than atheists and Christians. So why is it that evangelists go into a feeding frenzy over atheists, while all but the most overbearing fanatics will leave Jews in peace?
I believe the answer to that question lies in the fact that religionists view atheists as lacking something important, that we are empty vessels waiting to be filled with their particular religion. Conversely, while Christians certainly feel that other religions are incorrect, they don't perceive the gaping spiritual void that they do in the case of atheists. They can't seem to accept that a person can be whole and happy without religion, regardless of what the religion is. So is it really about salvation anymore? Or is it more about controlling people here on Earth? Or, in other words, do they really care what we're worshipping, as long as we're on our knees?
I became an atheist the way a lot of people do, I suppose. As a child I was told I was a Christian, and so I thought, "Fine, I'm a Christian." My siblings and I were taken to a Lutheran church (a compromise between my parents), and I loathed it as much as I would any lengthy, boring ritual that required me to dress up and sit still for any amount of time. It didn't help that the purpose behind it all was utterly beyond my immature mind's comprehension. I was vaguely aware that there was somebody named Jesus who was really good, and he was born on Christmas and did some amazing stuff, but the rest was just noise to me.
As my knowledge of Christianity grew, I realized that I was not a Christian and never was. Over the years I read the works of atheists like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell. I found much to like and much to dislike in each. It was in my choice to be influenced without becoming a disciple, and to assimilate rather than accommodate, that I understood for the first time the true essence of freethought. My consideration of their philosophies challenged me to explore and articulate my own beliefs. One of those beliefs is that not only is morality possible apart from religion, but in fact true morality only exists apart from religion.
Telling this to a devoutly religious person, you can actually feel a wave of hostility wash over you as they reject the notion out of hand. But think of the implications if it were not true. If right and wrong simply came down to God's say-so, is that really morality? Would murder be moral were there not a Commandment against it? Of course not. Decent people recognize the fact that if murder were considered an acceptable option by any large proportion of people, the resulting atmosphere of fear and danger would destroy the quality of life of our entire society. One need not look to God for reasons why killing is bad.
However, in other cases the situation is different. There are things prohibited in the Book of Leviticus that seem rather morally neutral. Take, for instance, the dietary restrictions. What bearing does a person's diet have on how good a person is? In those cases one sees the reason why the contents of the Book of Leviticus are known as Levitical Law rather than Levitical Morality. While law and morality may overlap, they are far from identical.
One way that law and morality have been linked in the past is the idea that the immorality of an unlawful act lies solely in the fact that it contradicts God's will. Any harm caused or not caused to others is considered incidental next to the fact that God was disobeyed. This is at the heart of the Christian concept that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, all worthy of damnation. But the idea that the most minor indiscretion is in any way equivalent to the most awful atrocity is the worst kind of nihilism. Anyone who compares murder to masturbation is not to be taken seriously. It is the sort of irrational, counterintuitive nonsense that one finds at the heart of any claim to mystic, esoteric wisdom.
Another problem with the "religion as morality" argument is the fact that there are numerous commandments and implicit concepts in world religions that would offend any decent person's sense of morality. For example, Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy tells what should happen to girls who have been raped. An unbetrothed girl's rapist must pay his victim's father fifty shekels and marry the girl, which wasn't really a hardship for him, since he was permitted as many wives as he pleased anyway. The girl, of course, had no say in whether or not she should marry her rapist. However, if a betrothed girl was raped, and nobody heard her cry out (regardless of whether she actually did or could cry out), then the rapist and the girl were to be stoned to death. A girl would also be stoned to death were she found not be a virgin on her wedding night. Who but a monster would call that morality? But it was done countless times throughout history, at the behest of the same God that millions today call the source of all goodness.
Clearly, Christians and Jews today do not execute rape victims or force them to marry the man who raped them. It's still there, though, in black and white, in "The Good Book" they say we should base our life on. So what happened? Morality happened. A brutal, primitive society advanced to the point that it recognized that the actions encouraged by the bible in some cases were clearly evil, and thus chose to tacitly ignore the existence of large sections of its holy texts.
I have long believed that people make religion better to a much greater degree than religion makes people better. As Christianity made the transition from small doomsday cult to world religion, some changes had to occur. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, in which he exhorts his followers to make no plans, carry no money, and sow no seeds, had to be largely forgotten if civilization were to continue to exist. Once it became clear that the Second Coming wasn't going to happen any time soon, Paul's constant demands of celibacy for all but the weak and ungodly had to fall by the wayside if Christians didn't want their religion to die out in a generation. And if you ask most modern Christians, they'll tell you they believe that good people of all faiths will go to Heaven, directly contradicting Jesus' own statement in Matthew 16:16 and corresponding verses in other gospels that those who do not believe and have not been baptized will suffer damnation. Jesus is quite clear on this, but Christians today hold entirely modern views about tolerance and fairness. They cannot imagine a God who would damn Mahatma Ghandi, every Jew who died in the Holocaust, and every unbaptized baby, while that is, in fact, exactly the God described in the bible. The values identified today as Judeo-Christian are more like those championed by the secular humanists of the last century than those demonstrated by the characters in the bible. The religious establishment was forced to co-opt these values and change radically with the times or lose all but its most fanatical followers.
A logical fallacy that many people fall into is that they say, "I am a Christian, therefore what I believe must be Christianity." However, what they should do is take a long hard look at exactly what the bible contains and say, "If I truly believe all of this, then and only then am I a Christian." If church leaders demanded that sort of intellectual honesty, or if people expected it of themselves, religion would be circling the drain, leaving those few who truly wanted to live by archaic, millennia-old "morals" to slip away into history unlamented. The rest of us would be left to acknowledge the fact that humanity has come a long way in the last several thousand years in terms of morality, and we have no one to thank but ourselves.
The "Ruth (Dixie) Jokinen Memorial Student Activist Award," an annual award of $1,000 cash presented at the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, is generously endowed by Foundation Board Member Richard Mole, to encourage student activism for freethought and state/church separation. Schiller Hill was the year 2001 recipient.
Introduction by Catherine Fahringer:
Most of you know that I live in San Antonio, Texas. We have one newspaper. Our one newspaper loves to put the pope on the front page or the local archbishop, or people who have seen Jesus in a screen door, or the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree.
That's all front page news, but imagine my surprise one day when there was an article by John MacCormack, who was a speaker at our 1999 convention in San Antonio. He had written an article about a young man from Bracketteville, Texas, a brilliant young man who was top in his class--his grade point average was 4.392--and so naturally he was valedictorian.
However, a few days before his graduation, he said: "I cannot accept and I will not give a speech because I know there will be prayers entailed in this ceremony and I can't do that."
Well, my eyes just popped out of my head. Schiller Hill is the young person we are speaking of and Schiller is 18.
After he refused, of course, he got big press and made gutsy comments to the press on the importance of the separation of church and state, and on religion, such as saying, "I believe in a rational means to everything, not in some all-powerful being."
He's enrolled now at the University of Texas-Austin, majoring in electrical engineering, and it seems fitting to us that this valedictorian who was essentially muzzled by his school's disregard for the First Amendment is joining us to tell his story.
Thank you. Thank you, this whole Foundation, for the money. That helps a lot. It's just great that I found people like y'all. I speak kind of strange, like George Dubyah, but don't hold that against me. I may make up some words here and there, but it's all good.
I've always had trouble speaking my mind at our school. I speak and people always bash what I have to say. I'm never afraid to say what I believe. I always put what I think out there for other people, who maybe believe what I believe, but are afraid to speak out.
We have, I think, about six or seven atheists in Bracketteville, a city of about 3000. When I got there, there was one. That was me. And people always try to convert me. My friends, girlfriends, they always try to convert me and when they started actually thinking about what they were trying to convert me to, they actually converted over to atheism. I guess it didn't make any sense to them. Christians don't like to think; that's the problem with them.
All throughout high school I've had trouble with prayer in schools. I don't think it should be there because of the separation of church and state. And freshman year in high school, when I played basketball, before every basketball game we had prayers before, prayers after. They always tried to pray four or five times during a basketball tournament, and I don't understand it. I kept on asking, is our God more powerful than theirs because, you know, we beat them? What happened to their God? I don't understand both teams praying to the same God. Who's going to win?
We always had prayers before football games, even after the ruling was passed in Doe vs. Sante Fe. They were still doing it after that, and it was brought to their attention that it was illegal and they said they were going to keep on doing it because they thought it was their right. And they're wrong.
But yeah, I've been fighting that in that school for a long time. I tried to start a local chapter of the ACLU, as a school chapter. They would not let me do that. I know the reason but they wouldn't say the reason.
They said that they didn't think it was necessary because they didn't think there was any discrimination going on at our campus at all. The majority of the student body in our class was Hispanic and we only had one Hispanic teacher. And the Hispanics got it really really bad, like the teachers would make comments about them and things like that, and when they complained to the school board, when they complained to the school officials, nothing would happen.
So we always had trouble and they don't like me because I always bring it to their attention that they're wrong on most of the things they do.
I got kind of fed up with all this stuff going into my senior year. We had a National Honor Society meeting and the sponsor of our National Honor Society set aside two different people to say prayers, gave them the prayers to say, and said you're going to give these. I told them I wasn't going to show up. They wanted me to read something, so I just wasn't going to go because of all the prayers. I got a bunch of flak for that from all the people in the National Honor Society. They thought I was ruining their senior year, or something. I don't understand that one.
So when graduation came along, I didn't want to go across stage at all. I told all my friends at school I didn't want to go across because of the prayers. I didn't want to even be anywhere near that.
But I have an older brother who didn't walk across the stage, he just went and picked up his diploma at the office and took off. I wanted to do the same thing but my mom made me go through with it.
So I went and told the superintendent that I wasn't going to give a valedictorian speech. I went over to his house and told him I wasn't going to give the speech because I didn't believe that the prayer should be there and I didn't feel comfortable being in the place with the prayer and I didn't think it was constitutional. He said we're going to do it anyway no matter what.
So then I wrote an email to the editor at the San Antonio Express-News and then I got a call from John MacCormack. I had expected it to be swept under the carpet and to never hear about it again. But he started calling me up, interviewing me over the phone, decided to come down one day, took some pictures, interviewed my class and school officials.
When it came out on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, the day of graduation, all the teachers were looking at it like, "What the hell is that!" It was pretty funny because I got so many dirty looks from the teachers.
The worst part about that was that during the graduation ceremony, everything, even the stuff that people usually wouldn't, like, associate with God, they'd throw in "God bless you" here and "God bless you" there. Why? It doesn't do anything to me.
After graduation was over and I was standing in the little line to shake everybody's hand, everybody came up and shook my hand, saying, "God bless you, God bless you." It took a lot to stand there and just say, OK, yup, whatever, thank you, thank you. It was bad. I never knew there were that many Christians in that little town, but there are 13 churches.
After that article came out, I thought I was going to get some emails and some mail from psychos or something saying I was going to go to hell and stuff. I got one of those. I only got one. The rest of them were from educated people supporting what I was doing like the email from Catherine Fahringer.
Some really educated people--several lawyers, professors, people from educated families--all contacted me and told me to keep up the work. Just keep on fighting for the separation of church and state and get the word out there and just tell people that every little bit helps. Because if people just sat back and did nothing, that would be worse than anything. One person can do so much.
Thank you all. Does anybody have any questions?
"Would you have made more impact if you had accepted the invitation to give a speech, and told them what you told us?"
The problem was they wanted me to have a long speech written out in the first place, so they can approve it. With me up there I'm pretty sure somebody would have been on a little switch making sure I didn't say anything wrong. I'm very outspoken about this stuff and they were afraid in the first place.
But actually I'm glad I didn't, because me not speaking got to more people than me actually speaking there. If I would have spoken there the audience would have been like, 1000 maybe, max, and since I didn't speak and got on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, that got to a lot of people.
It got to people who usually don't even think about stuff like that. And if it makes one extra person think about how wrong that is, that's worth it. And it will give them hope. It will also piss off some people.
The bad letter that was sent to me? That person could not spell. Everything after "God" was spelled wrong. You know that's all that person knew.
"What kind of support do you get from your family?"
I get a whole lot of support from my family. My family is very strange. My mom is a Baptist, my dad is a Methodist, but they don't go to church. They think religion should be between you and your God. They didn't want to push religion upon me except for the fact that they sent me to Catholic school for a while. And that was bad.
But they wanted me to make my own mind up. They wanted me to make my own decisions, to learn about whatever I wanted to learn about and they support me on everything that I do. They did a good job raising atheists. My brother's an atheist and you know it's just pretty cool.
"Are you having any problems in college like you did in high school?"
Not really, because in college, people just don't care. Most of the people who I hang around with, they don't talk about religion. It's like, "What do you want to do tonight?" That's about it. So we don't really talk about that kind of stuff.
On the UT-Austin campus we have a lot of Christian groups that are always handing out flyers. You walk down the street and get about five, six flyers from the Southern Pacific Islander Bible study group and one from like, the Italian Bible study group and the Chinese Bible study group, the Muslim/Christian bible study group. . . . It's just unbelievable all the things to do with religion there, but people hassle them all the time. Even the Christians hate them. Christians hating Christians, that's a wonderful sight. It's just hilarious.
"What would you do when the basketball coach led you in prayer?"
What I would do was, either I would stand outside the little huddle they got into, which was what I usually did, or I would leave the actual lockerroom if I had a chance, and the basketball players didn't mind. The coach kind of got a little pissed, but you know, I didn't like that guy, either.
He was a good Christian because he'd go to church every Sunday. But he told me every time he went to church, "I've come up with this new football play." That's what they'd do. The coaches would go and draw football plays in church.
Audience member: "It inspired them."
Yeah, it inspired them. That's why our football team, was like, 0 and 10. God really helped them there.
"Did the prayers deter you from playing a sport?"
It really wouldn't deter me from playing basketball. It was something I loved to do and I would do it no matter what, but it really bothered me that there were actually prayers. I'd let them know that it bothered me, but I'd still go out and play. Because if the prayer actually deterred me from going out and doing something I love to do, they'd win on that one and I wouldn't want that.
"Did you pray harder after you lost?"
I guess the coach would pray harder, but all the players would blame the coach. The coach wasn't that good. But the kids wouldn't pray harder. The coach told us we drove him to drinking one night. That's because we got beat by like, 50. That's not a pretty game.
"Did they have the salutatorian give the speech?"
Well, what happened was the salutatorian was supposed to give a little two minute speech or something. They kind of extended that to 10 minutes.
There was a lot of laughing going on. That can't be good for the speaker, unless they're trying to be funny, and that's different.
"At what age did you find out you were an atheist or how did you come to that conclusion?"
Well, when I was going to Catholic school, I think it was in fifth grade that I got in trouble a lot because I couldn't memorize the Apostle's Creed or something like that. So as punishment, they would make me write books out of the bible, copied handwritten, you know, word for word. I copied the book of Proverbs three times that year. That was punishment! "I hate this--come on, stop doing that!" I was ready to get hit. I was like, "Hit me instead." I just couldn't handle it.
In first grade they always had us draw things, you know, "Draw a picture of Jesus how you see him." Once they told me to draw a picture of when I was baptized. I was like, "I wasn't baptized." They were like, "Draw a picture of when you'll be baptized." I got an F in that class because what I drew was a skeleton and they really didn't like that.
I didn't consider myself an atheist back then, but I was on my way back in first grade. I was well on my way.
"Do you have any advice for atheist students who are having problems like you had?"
Yeah, try to be popular first. When you're popular and you have people trying to imitate you already and then you come out and say, "Hey, I'm an atheist," they're not as hard on you.
Everybody at my school has known I was an atheist since freshman year when everybody goes, "What are you?" I said, "I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist." I still was popular after that but they wouldn't want to talk religion with me because I'd kind of change them over by telling them they're full of crap and pointing out contradictions in the bible. I hate that book. I had to read that thing like three times front to back and that is way too much.
"Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?"
Hmm, OK, that sounds like a good idea. But I don't think the Christians would get these jokes. And me living down in Texas, it's not really a good place to do Christian jokes.
"Did you ever fear for your physical safety?"
Not really, because I'd already beat up most of the guys at school. They didn't mess with me very much.
Since I don't believe in gods, I was under no illusions about whether a god was responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., that have galvanized our nation's attention. Whether or not religion shares some of the responsibility is a different matter.
I'm not referring to any particular religion but to religion in general and the mindset that all too often is created by it. It's the mindset that led a Jewish extremist to gun down Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 because he believed Rabin, who was then Israel's prime minister, had violated the "Word of God" in his effort to bring about peace with the Palestinians. It's the mindset that led adult Protestants in Northern Ireland to terrorize a group of Catholic schoolgirls trying to attend classes at their primary school during the week before the attacks here in the United States. Apparently it's also the mindset that led suicide bombers to fly planes loaded with people into buildings filled with more people because they believed they were doing the will of the god they worshipped and defending the faith they followed.
Regardless of their denominations, most religious people shrink with horror from such events and insist that neither the religions they follow nor the gods they worship condone such things. What is obscured by that apologia is the reality that the deities worshipped by terrorists are no less real to them than those worshipped in more conventional settings by more conventional people.
Human beings who sacrifice their intellectual integrity on the altar of any religious dogma can work terrible mischief in this world. Those who really believe they are doing "God's Will" can literally be "murder" for the rest of us.
All fanatics are dangerous. Religious fanatics are especially so because they believe the 'Truth" they claim has the sanction of a deity and thus cannot be challenged by mere mortals. In the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, we now mourn the latest in a long line of victims who have been sacrificed to such "Truth" by those who will permit no deviation from it.
When he received the "Emperor Has No Clothes" award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in November 1999, Professor Steven Weinberg, 1979 Nobel Laureate in physics, said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."
People who live under the influence of religion may not want to admit it, but it seems to me the conclusion is inescapable. There is no good thing that cannot be accomplished without religion, but there are evils that absolutely depend on it for their survival.
Would you buy a used car from a guy wearing a button that says, "I'm an Honest Salesman"?
That's how I feel about those T-shirts that say, "Proud to be an American." If you are truly honest, or truly American, you don't need such fanfare--displays that actually raise the possibility of the opposite--because, well, of course you're honest, and of course you're proud to be an American. Why bring it up?
They must be bringing it up because they are insecure. Our country has been attacked, many feel afraid and vulnerable, so they wave flags, recite the Pledge, and pray "God Bless America." This feels like brave action; but it is only an illusion that masks feelings of helplessness.
Many of us love this country without the fanfare. My family, like millions of good Americans, does not believe in God, so we could never honestly say "In God We Trust," or recite the religious Pledge of Allegiance in good conscience, even if we did want to jump on the jingoistic bandwagon. But a Wisconsin State Journal editorial (10/19) admonishes us to put aside our differences and recite the Pledge anyway, because "The Pledge of Allegiance is a unifying pledge for all Americans."
A "unifying pledge"? How does coercing my sixth-grader to endorse concepts that run counter to our family's values promote unity? Whether my child remains seated for the Pledge or feels compelled to stand with the believers (the real Americans), a precious integrity has been sacrificed. It is a sham unity that glosses over our rich differences.
Where did this doctrine of "unification" come from? What do we think will happen if Americans are not united? If 20% of schoolchildren stay seated for the Pledge, will terrorists mail 20% more anthrax? Will Bush drop 20% fewer bombs?
America never will be unified, and that's what we should be proud of. In a brutally disunited election, George Bush became president with fewer votes than Al Gore, and we accept him as the leader of our Armed Forces. But we are far from united in our allegiance to his views.
The original motto of the United States, chosen by the nation's founders, is E Pluribus Unum ("from many, one"), not the 1956 "In God We Trust" nervously adopted during the Cold War against "godless communism."
E Pluribus Unum does not mean "United, we stand." It means "Divided, we stand."
We are divided into 50 different state governments. We are divided into multiple religious, philosophical, cultural and political factions--yet we stand as a nation. We don't have to agree. We should wear our disagreements as a badge of honor.
Our founders were fiercely divided on most issues--slavery, for example, was so divisive that they agreed not to talk about it for 20 years. James Madison vehemently argued against congressional chaplains. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, also wrote that the words of Jesus were a "dunghill." Benjamin Franklin called for prayers at the Constitutional Convention, but only mustered interest from 3 or 4 delegates--so they said no prayers. Nor did they pledge allegiance to a flag or hold hands singing "God Bless America."
Yet they manufactured a country that stands as a single nation, in spite of their differences. They never wanted to force unity of thought.
Now along comes a recall effort, led by former congressman and "Honest Salesman" Scott Klug, to oust the one member of the Madison School Board who courageously voted for the freedom of conscience of children who dissent from the majority on the Pledge of Allegiance. Bill Keys dared to vote his conscience, choosing the truly American E Pluribus Unum over the phony "United, we stand." Shame on you, Scott, for failing to learn what our great country is all about. Don't try to one-up the founding fathers: accept the fact that not everybody thinks like you do.
If Madison school principals are going to continue with the Pledge of Allegiance, disdaining diversity and pretending to a nonexistent "unity," they should at least remind teachers and students that those children who do not stand for the pledge are just as patriotic, just as American, and probably much braver than those who do.
The House of Representatives, in thoughtlessly passing a trouble-making resolution promoting the use of the slogan "God Bless America," has contributed to an atmosphere of coercion and religious correctness. Bin Laden has declared an international war of "believers against the infidels." We wonder if religionists in the United States are declaring their own form of war against "infidels" at home; they are certainly capitalizing on a national tragedy to trample on the Establishment Clause.
The phrase "God Bless America" is a prayer, which should not be displayed or posted in public schools. It is distressing to see the overwhelming vote of the U.S. House of Representatives (404 to zero, with 10 voting "present") to pass a nonbinding resolution on October 16, expressing the "sense of Congress that public schools may display 'God Bless America.' "
The Freedom From Religion Foundation expresses its disappointment with the House's facile retreat to religious jingoism and patriotic piety. Can there be anything more incendiary than mixing patriotism with a religious litmus test?
The phrase "God Bless America," which has been placed on several public school marquees in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, is not generic or subscribed to by all Americans. How would many citizens feel if their school marquee read: "Allah Bless America" or "Buddha Bless America"?
Schools which choose to advertise religious slogans are disregarding more than 50 years of court precedent against religious endorsement, school prayer and coercion in public schools.
"No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein," the Supreme Court eloquently held in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943).
Public schools which post "God Bless America" are prescribing what should be orthodox in nationalism and religion. Many inoffensive secular phrases, such as "United We Stand," could appropriately express support for the victims of Sept. 11.
In our diverse culture, millions of families are not religious. Students and their families who are atheists, agnostics, unbelievers and those from minority religious viewpoints should not be preached at by their public schools.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has written to several school districts in which public schools have posted the words "God Bless America" on school marquees.
A parent in Rocklin, California, contacted the Foundation asking it to join her complaint over a "God Bless America" sign at Breen Elementary School. Her complaint made national news, and apparently provoked the pro-"God Bless America" resolution passed by the U.S. House (see FFRF statement above).
The Rocklin Unified School District is obdurate, insisting in a response to the Foundation that "God Bless America" "conveys no significant religious meaning."
The Foundation has also complained about a "God Bless America" marquee at Prairie View Elementary School in East Troy, Wisconsin. Anne Gaylor's letter of Sept. 28 brought the sign down, prompting the president of the school board to resign. The school board then voted to put the sign back up. The Foundation is awaiting word from a second letter written for the Foundation by attorney James Friedman. Friedman noted the Establishment Clause prohibits "government actions that favor one religion over another or that favor religion in general over nonreligious activities."
On behalf of a member in Gladstone, Michigan, the Foundation protested a "God Bless America" sign at the area high school. Principal Jay Kulbertis apologized for any offense taken, adding "the message on the sign was changed prior to my receiving your correspondence, (but) your point is well taken.
"We will make every attempt to be more careful in the future regarding this issue."
The Foundation also wrote Supt. Steven Bring of the Unionville School District in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about a "God Bless America" sign posted after the Sept. 11 terrorism.
The Foundation pointed out, "More than 50 years of school precedent prevent religious worship from being sponsored by public school officials."
The Stone v. Graham decision, the Foundation noted, is particularly applicable. The court ruled making a child walk past or read a religious posting in a public school was unconstitutionally coercive.
A furor over the Pledge of Allegiance in normally laid-back, progressive Madison, Wisconsin, illustrates the frightening level religious hysteria has reached since the Sept. 11 terrorist acts.
While pious patriots are fearful of the "enemy without," I'm fearful of many of the 1,000 people who attended a raucous local school board meeting on Oct. 15.
It all started when the school board voted very sensibly on Oct. 8 to direct principals to play the national anthem to comply with a new state law mandating that Wisconsin schools offer the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem daily. Teachers and parents had urged the board to avoid recitation of the religious Pledge of Allegiance containing the words "under God."
After daily editorializing by the morning newspaper, which called the vote a "ban" on the Pledge, Rush Limbaugh and Rush "wannabes," as well Christian radio stations around the nation, urged followers to inundate the Madison school board with hate emails and phone calls. More than 20,000 emails were received over a few days' time.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum released a statement denouncing the school board and those citizens uncomfortable with the Pledge as "oddballs":
". . . some people are looking for ways to diminish our belief in God and country. It is disheartening, but in a free country you have patriots and you have the freedom for a few oddballs who place politics above patriotism." (When the school board scheduled an "emergency" hearing to reconsider the vote, I fleetingly considered carrying a placard saying "Proud to be an oddball.")
The die was cast when the meeting was called to order: the room erupted as hundreds in attendance stood and violently screamed out the Pledge of Allegiance. It was deafening and, to me, frightening. Many remained standing for some time, chanting "USA, USA." A chorus of "amens" ended the pledge, and would later resound in praise of speakers condemning the school board.
Students spoke first. I marveled at the poise of those who stood up in that hostile crowd, one only in 6th grade, to sincerely explain why the Pledge of Allegiance makes them uncomfortable. I marveled further when a fragile nonagenarian, a retired school board member, gently but tartly pointed out there are far better ways to educate about patriotism.
The school board listened patiently to about 166 people in more than nine and a half hours of testimony. Much of it was abusive, from out-of-towners, home-schoolers or others not directly concerned, and was rife with religious references.
A low, roomwide growl greeted the announcement of my name as a speaker. When I thanked the board for its vote, several yelled at me to "shut up." I read the cartoon reprinted below (receiving some applause), displayed a replica of the original secular Pledge of Allegiance, and condemned a shocking email sent to the Board that had been copied to me, in which the man mourned the fact that the terrorists had not turned their planes into the Madison School Board instead of the Twin Towers.
Although the "antis" were a "not-so-silent majority," as one young university student quipped, many thoughtful citizens, parents, teachers, and professionals urged the Board not to hedge on their no-pledge vote.
But at 2 a.m. the beleaguered board voted to pass the buck, to let principals decide whether to use the Pledge or the anthem. Only one school board member stood stalwart, the unflappable Bill Keys, who said he would not want any child to be the target of the kind of abuse the school board had taken over this issue. One silver lining: schools were instructed to preface every Pledge or anthem offering with a disclaimer that students are free not to stand or participate.
For many of us in this state that produced Joe McCarthy, the experience was an unwelcome taste of McCarthyism 2001-style.
In an Internet café in downtown Rabat in Morocco, a middle-aged, middle-class Muslim woman told me that her fondest wish would be to have all of the Arab nations rise up as one and slaughter every Jew on the planet. A young and brilliant male Chinese engineer and co-worker at a small high-tech firm in the San Fernando Valley in California told me that the Japanese are vastly inferior to the Chinese, and that the Chinese are vastly superior to any other race on Earth, as evidenced by all of their technological and cultural achievements at a far earlier date than any other race.
My Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues derided me for my Tiger birth year. As a woman, I could not have been born on a less auspicious year. Tigers are ferocious and proud and aggressive. Woe to the Tiger woman. She will certainly never marry. And, I never have.
A Pakistani taxi driver in New York City told me that he hits Muslim women who proposition him for sex as a show of respect. He then propositioned me for sex. A family of Polish immigrants told me that they wouldn’t vote for Obama, because blacks are lazy and entitled, and Obama’s victory would only render them more so. They also told me that they hate Jews and believe them to have been responsible for 9/11. A German tour guide on the Cote d’Azur told me that the French hate the Italians for being stupid, and the Italians hate the French for being snobs.
As a young Jehovah’s Witness, I relished my secure knowledge that I would survive to enjoy an eternity of earthly paradise while the rest of humanity would suffer horrifying and well-deserved deaths at Armageddon for having rejected Jehovah God. I looked forward to the spectacle with genocidal glee.
Christians have told me that they hate Muslims. Muslims have told me that they hate Jews. Whites have told me that they hate blacks. Florentines have told me that they hate Sardinians. Sunnis have told me that they hate Shi’as. Ethiopians have told me that the Amhara hate the Oromo who hate the Amhara, all of whom hate the Tigrays. But, they really hate the Somalis and the Eritreans. Everyone tells me that they hate gays. For the most part, no one says that they hate women, but they certainly act like they do.
There seems to be something about me that elicits honesty and trust. People open up to me. They reveal their true feelings. They seem to trust that I will not judge them. And I don’t. They seem to feel that I will not condemn them. And I don’t. They seem to think that I understand the darker sides of their natures. And I do.
Maybe it’s because they sense my utter lack of group allegiances. I claim no membership in any tribe. Of course, I must function in a world in which more than a handful of group memberships are imposed upon me by accident of my birth, but I feel no particular pride or obligation or prejudice as a result. No one can be outside of your group if you don’t have an in-group.
Cutting tribal ties
I was raised in an abusive, lower-middle-class Jehovah’s Witness home in suburban Minnesota by white parents of northern European ancestry, and, if family lore is to be believed, a dash of Native American. Those are my ostensible tribal identities by birth. One of the few positive aspects of being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness was the fact that I grew up in a racially integrated religious community, even if my residential and academic communities were anything but. Nonetheless, I walked away from all of my tribes at the moment I turned 18. I rejected everything I had been. I decided to recreate myself anew.
I turned myself into a human rights activist and writer, intent on raising public awareness of the atrocities human beings perpetrate against one another in the name of their respective tribal identities. I seek the truth, but I have no desire to victimize anyone. I seek to expose and dismantle institutions and cultures of tribalism and oppression, not individual lives. I would never reveal anyone’s identity.
I reveal their bigotries, their hatreds, their genocidal desires, their misogyny, their ethnocentrism, their fascism and their racism. I see them as victims too, not just perpetrators. They are also victims of indoctrination, of their divisive group ideologies, perpetuated by their respective tribes, be they defined by race, religion, creed, ethnicity, class, nationality, culture or what have you.
Tribalism seems to be the defining characteristic of humanity. The adulation of one’s own group and its defining attributes, while condemning and demonizing all outsiders and their respective groups, including their allegedly contrasting attributes. We will either learn to overcome this vestigial proclivity or be overcome by it, like an infected and inflamed appendix. Evolutionary sepsis, if you will.
And, does it really need mentioning that all of these tribal identities that we hold so dear don’t actually exist? They are arbitrary, human-made, illusory social constructs.
Racial distinctions? Not real. National boundaries? Not real. Religious affiliations? Not real. Cultural distinctions are nebulous and amorphous, fleeting and evanescent. Cultures rise and fall and twist and turn like the unrelenting and dispassionate vicissitudes of the turbulent seas. Efforts to protect and maintain cultures and to grant groups rights invariably lead to the most egregious human rights violations.
Many of my colleagues would recoil at such a claim. This approach ignores the wrongs of biblical proportions, which have been perpetrated against human beings because of their group identities. How do you go about seeking justice for the countless people who were murdered or tortured or dehumanized in genocidal campaigns without addressing the fact that these atrocities were committed because of the victims’ tribal identities?
What is the alternative? Sometimes when you act as if the circumstances are as you wish them to be, you can effect positive change via a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may just have to resign ourselves, as a species, to letting go of our lust for retribution, in order to create a world in which we all may live. We may need to shed our tribal allegiances in order to survive.
Out of many, one
So, what’s a well-meaning human rights activist to do? It seems utterly hopeless.
Tribalisms, including religion, probably served important evolutionary purposes at one point. But times and circumstances have changed. Our well-honed ability to distinguish ourselves from one another based upon imaginary distinctions no longer serves the purpose of perpetuating ourselves as a species.
We are too many. We are running out of water and land and oil and other resources. We are destroying what habitable land we now possess. We are no longer served by trying to outbreed one another into submission. We are no longer served by keeping women as sex slaves to generate a ready source of slave child labor. Our well-honed ability to invent illusory group divisions is matched only by our ability to invent very real methods for killing one another.
To grant credence to these so-called differences and group characteristics is to divorce ourselves from reality. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring one another. We no longer have the luxury of isolating ourselves geographically or otherwise. All of our divisions have been rendered meaningless except in the id-dominated parts of our minds. Global transportation, migration and communication have eradicated any notion of difference.
We must either accept our new reality as a single global family of individuals or destroy one another. It is really that simple. Anyone who says otherwise is not willing to see the stark and bleak future confronting us.
Being human is wonderful. But many humans seem to be too stupid to enjoy their extraordinary good fortune in winning the cosmological super lotto. We exist. Woo hoo. We are here. Enjoy.
Is just getting rid of religion enough? The so-called New Atheists are often criticized for taking aim exclusively at religion. Attacks against religion as a divisive group ideology, which may lead to humanity’s downfall, are derided as ignorant and facile. Opponents of the anti-theists claim political and territorial and national and military disputes as the real culprits.
In a sense, they are right. Religion is but one aspect of the greater problem. The problem is tribalism. Religion is a particularly virulent form of tribalism, because it also presupposes truths without evidence and demands uncritical devotion and impunity and immunity from criticism. The other tribalisms also have their respective dogmas. But, maybe not to the extent that religion does.
Taking on tribalism
Sam Harris often says that he is not really attacking religion so much as dogma. He is attacking faith — belief without evidence. I would suggest a counterpoint to that position. I would suggest that we should broaden our attack to include all tribalisms, not just religion. We should attack all divisive group ideologies. This includes race, religion, class, creed, nationality, culture, ethnicity, etc.
I am not suggesting that we destroy our cultural heritage or force everyone to conform to a homogenized and sanitized set of characteristics. Not in the least. I am arguing for the maximization of freedom. I am arguing for the maximization of anarchy. I am arguing for the maximization of individualism, including the choice to self-identify with whichever cultural norms one wishes.
I am arguing against the absurd notion of group rights. I am arguing against the even more absurd notion of cultural rights. We cannot maintain or protect cultures. History, yes, but, cultures, no. Any attempt to protect or maintain groups or cultures or nations inevitably leads to oppression and human rights violations, especially of the most vulnerable members of any group — the women and children.
Groups wish to perpetuate themselves. A group is an entity, and, like any other entity, a group seeks to survive. Women and children are the means of perpetuating the group. Inevitably, group leaders will seek to subjugate and control women and children. Religion has been a particularly useful tool in realizing this aim.
In order for humanity to survive, the individual must rule. Only individual rights may have any political or legal currency. All group ideologies must enter the free global marketplace of ideas. No special privileges any longer for religion or nationality or race or culture. Sink or swim.
The clergy and the other ideologues will have to win over their adherents like shop owners have to win over their customers, like intellectuals have to win over academia. An individual may choose or not choose to participate in whichever culture or religion or group, and, if it ceases to serve him or her, leave it just as easily without death threats and labels of apostasy.
In a sense, I am arguing for communitarianism, but only on a species-wide, global scale. Our in-group needs to include the entirety of humanity.
Each and every human being belongs to our tribe.
Sarah Braasch is a former FFRF legal intern.
In June, a research study on religious nonbelief identity in the U.S. was published by the Departments of Psychology and Learning and Leadership at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The project was designed and implemented by doctoral candidate and principal investigator Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman III, a student at UTC.
The study identified six “types” of nonbelief:
The first and most frequently discussed type, it includes those “who proactively seek to educate themselves through intellectual association and proactively acquire knowledge on various topics relating to ontology (the search for truth) and nonbelief. They enjoy dialectic enterprises such as healthy democratic debate and discussions and are intrinsically motivated to do so.”
Besides reading relevant books, IAAs make use of popular blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts and social media and often belong to secular and freethought groups that meet in person.
Not content with simply holding a nonbelief position, they seek to be vocal and proactive on humanism, feminism, LGBT issues, social/political concerns, human rights, the environment, animal rights and state-church separation.
“Their activism can be as minimal as the education of friends or others, to much larger manifestations of social activities such as boycotting products, promoting legal action or marching in public demonstrations to raise awareness.”
“Seeker-Agnostics do not hold a firm ideological position but always search for the scientifically wondrous and experientially profound confirmation of life’s meaning. . . . Their worldly outlook may be mediated by science; however, they recognize current scientific limitations and embrace scientific uncertainty.
“Some Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics or Anti-Theists may accuse the Seeker-Agnostic of avoiding responsibility or commitment to a more solid affirmation of atheism. In other cases, outsiders may see it as an ontological transitional state from religion or spirituality to atheism.”
The authors add, “the majority of Seeker-Agnostics should in no way be considered ‘confused,’ ” but instead embrace “uncertainty.”
“[A]ntitheists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental. The Anti-Theist has a clear and, in their view, superior, understanding of the limitations and danger of religions. They view the logical fallacies of religion as an outdated worldview that is not only detrimental to social cohesion and peace, but also to technological advancement and civilized evolution as a whole. They are compelled to share their view and want to educate others into their ideological position and attempt to do so when and where the opportunity arises.
“Based on personalities, some Anti-theists may be more assertive than others; but outsiders and friends know very clearly where they stand in relation to an Anti-theist.”
“For the Non-theists, the alignment of oneself with religion, or conversely, an epistemological position against religion, can appear quite unconventional from their perspective. However, a few terms may best capture the sentiments of the Non-theist. One is apathetic, while another may be disinterested.
“Simply put, Non-theists are apathetic nonbelievers.”
• No belief in God or the divine, or they tend to believe it is unlikely that there is an afterlife.
• May find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions, seeing them as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation.
• Find utility in tradition and ritual, i.e., ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes or holiday traditions. Participation may be related to ethnic (e.g., Jewish) or artistic or cultural identitities.
“Many times the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic may be misidentified as spiritual but not religious, but they are quick to point out that they are atheist or agnostic in relation to their own ontological view.”
Each honorable mention awardee won $200 from FFRF and $50 from Dorea and Dean Schramm.
Stopped praying, started thinking
By Ashley Bates
Perhaps, if I had not catapulted into the depths of depression in my early teens, I would never have become an atheist. This depression spanned a morbid period of my life darkened by personal strife and its resultant emotional distress.
These were trying times for me, very similar to times when many religious people claim to “find God.” Instead, when I reached my lowest point, I found God’s absence.
I was a theist when I entered this period of my life. I was baptized as an infant, attended Sunday church throughout my early youth,and ended up attending Catholic school for seven years.
Over time, this religious history became the foundation of my atheist reasoning. My religiosity came to an end when my depression brought on a boon of critical thought in my first year of high school.
My atheism began with a simple question. In my despair, I asked myself, “Why would God do this?” If God was an omniscient and all-controlling being, then why would he fracture my life in this way? I could not understand how the God I loved had let me fall so far, so quickly.
With my questions ignored, what I did understand was that God was not going to fix my problems for me. After so many desperate and unanswered prayers, I stopped praying and started thinking instead.
It took my lowest point in life to ask the question that came equipped with many more. Counterintuitively, Catholic school turned me into a stronger atheist rather than a better Christian. When I stopped memorizing my religious lessons and started learning them, it became clear that the foundations laid out for God and his worship had a basis in faulty logic and sometimes even outright falsehoods.
Prayers and miracles are not the work of God but instead the work of real people and statistical chance. But most importantly, the concept of God conflicts with the actual state of the world: God is infallible, but the world is flawed.
This sum of reality is why I do not believe in God.
Ashley Bates, 20, Buffalo, N.Y., is a senior psychology major at SUNY-Buffalo. She also intends to earn a graduate degree in social work.
Feeling confident in nonbelief
By Parker Buel
My distaste for religion developed during a single week in my childhood. Although both my parents have religious beliefs, neither made their children attend church. But one afternoon, my mother decided to buy me an illustrated children’s bible so I could explore the tales of Christianity.
I thought the story of Adam and Eve was entertaining, almost on the same level as my favorite movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But when I read about the Tower of Babel, I couldn’t help but laugh at the ludicrous ending. According to the story, all the world’s languages developed in an instant when God wanted the tower builders to stop working. Unable to communicate with fellow laborers because of their newfound languages, the men were scattered throughout the world.
That night, I made the mistake of asking my father a religious question. He ended up opening his old bible on the kitchen table and reciting passages from it with such vehemence that I could sense a rising passion in every phoneme.
I suppose he was trying to sway me toward religious belief, but the rant only left me with a sour feeling. From then on, I experienced this same sour feeling every time someone tried expressing religious validity to me.
I remember during my middle school years in particular that religion seemed ubiquitous. I was expected to say “one nation under God” every morning. My closest friend was a devout Christian, and sometimes the other students would ask me about my religious beliefs. “No, I don’t go to church. But I believe in God!” I’d say.
If I forgot to add that last bit, the other kids would scorn me. I couldn’t afford to be completely ostracized because I had so few friends already. Most of the students suspected me of being gay, and if they labeled me a gay atheist, I would certainly be the biggest outcast in school.
Finally, after enduring all the years of drama, I feel confident calling myself a nonbeliever. I know that some teens currently in school are going through the same troubles I had, so I wish them the strength to maintain their doubting minds.
Science is helping people realize that we no longer need to tell fanciful stories to understand the universe. Hopefully, moving away from religious beliefs is a trend that will become more popular as time passes.
Parker Buel, 20, I was born and raised in Gahanna, Ohio. He transferred from Columbus State Community College to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to major in motion pictures and television with an emphasis on screenwriting. The films that inspire me most have lyrical cinematography and strong female characters dealing with emotional conflicts.
This I do (not) believe
By Brandon Cooper
I often wonder about what it would be like to start life with no religion or god. I wouldn’t have felt unnecessary guilt about things that every boy goes through, and I wouldn’t have fed myself the perniciously numbing lie that “everything happens for a reason.”
More importantly, I would have scoffed at the idea of God. A mind raised to be critical and open rather than dogmatic can, like Mark Twain’s character “Little Bessie,” dismantle the claims of religion with grace and ease. Simply, how do you know there is a God? What does this God look like? Why believe in him, or is it a her? Where is the evidence? Has science proven this?
Hume’s maxim, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” poses the issue perfectly. Philosophical debates on the existence of God are intriguing, but I only have so much patience for something that is so simple. The burden of proof lies in the hands of those making claims that are grossly contradictory to the laws of nature, not those denying them.
If someone approaches me and says there’s an invisible Martian floating above their head, it’s their job to prove it to me, not my job to disprove it.
Rejecting religion was frightening at first. It’s like realizing for the first time that your meager backyard is actually at the foot of a massive tropical rainforest. The forest is intimidating at first, and you’re unsure of how to get through it. But ultimately, its density, vastness and life become beautiful. You realize that the value and exhilaration of exploration is far better than the “certainty” of the pew.
Most importantly, I learned that if indeed “everything happens for a reason,” it is a reason that we determine for ourselves. I am the only agent giving my life meaning, my “purpose” is driven by myself, not by an invisible man in the sky. The idea of God is an assault on the freedom and dignity of humanity.
I have never needed the promise of eternal damnation or eternal bliss to validate my actions. I act because it feels good and right to me, not for the greed of heaven or the fear of hell.
God is an atrociously illogical idea insulting the beauty of life, and for this I must reject him/her/it entirely.
Brandon Cooper, 21, Roseville, Calif., is a junior transfer to Portland State University from Sierra College. He’s working on a B.S. in political science and plans on going into journalism and writing (along with trying to finish Finnegans Wake).
Religion is false hope
By Sonia Cruz-Rivera
The word atheist is often received with many surprised and confused stares. As a person of Puerto Rican descent, I witness Christianity, primarily Catholicism, enforced in our everyday lives. Before we eat, we are encouraged to make the sign of the cross with our thumbs. We attend church and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes.
I and my family have outgrown these traditions, but there is one last thing that I as an atheist still do just to please my grandparents. In the Puerto Rican community you must say “bendición” (blessing) whenever you enter or leave someone’s home, especially the home of an elder. In return, those in the home must say “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you).
Those who do not follow this tradition are seen as disrespectful social outcasts. My relatives all know that I am a proud atheist, but I am still expected to say this. It is seen more as a respect issue toward those in the dwelling than a respect issue toward God.
Why do people choose religion? It is my idea that religion is false hope. The world is full of many great places, experiences, food and people. Yet these things are shadowed by the darkness that consumes our planet. Natural disasters, murder, war, suicide, rape, abuse, hunger, and disease all plague our world. There must be a better place. A place that does not include any of these things, right? Maybe the living world is just temporary, and when we die we live in an eternal paradise?
People spend so much time focusing on the afterlife that they forget to live in the here and now. It consumes them like any other addiction. They want you to also do their drug so they can have more members and power for their group.
That sounds like a cult to me.
Sonia Cruz-Rivera, 19, Lowell, Mass., was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. She’s a sophomore nursing student at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and volunteers at Lowell General Hospital’s Emergency Department. “I have so many passions. I want to be a nurse, a social anthropologist and a writer.”
Reason’s clearer lenses
By Kevin Granger
My deconversion was much more than losing my faith. It was seeing everything through new lenses. I no longer had to make excuses for God. I no longer had to ignore evidence. I no longer had to wonder why “God chose me.”
The first bruise taken by my faith happened when I was about 11. My grandparents are devoted to their faith and guided me from a young age into their religion. I asked them once if their dog would go to heaven if he died. Without hesitation and with complete confidence, they said that he would not. I wondered how they knew this.
The dog seemed to have emotion and some kind of intelligence and he dreamed. He was as organic as I was. How could they be so quick to say that he would just stop existing and that I would go to heaven?
I had always loved science and knew that I wanted to study it when I got to university. After finally being exposed to modern evolutionary theory and ideas from other areas of science, I knew that I could no longer hold the bible as literally true.
It hadn’t yet occurred to me that this was a fatal blow, because if you can decide what is and is not literally true in the bible, it loses all authority. I started to compare what religion and science have each given to the world. I realized that religion stands opposed to science not just in specifics like evolution; it stands totally against the philosophical underpinnings of science (e.g., materialism, naturalism, etc.).
I have always been enamored of the natural world. I was amazed at everything I learned in my science classes. I could also see tangible results.
I see the world now as it is. I see it through much clearer lenses of skepticism, reason and curiosity.
Kevin Granger is studying chemistry, biochemistry and biology at the University of Arizona-Tucson. “I would like to go to medical school and graduate school to do research into developing scientifically rigorous medical practices.”
My transition to atheism
By Megan Hanna
When I was around 10, the pastor of my church said something in his sermon that really bothered me. He stated that Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong. I wondered what gave him the authority to make that claim.
I also wondered what made his claim any different from a Jewish rabbi saying Judaism is right and all others are wrong. My questioning of his authority led to questions about lessons he taught.
The end of my sophomore year was a very rough time. My dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February and died in May. I wondered if my dad’s death was my fault for not believing in God.
Many people attempted to comfort me with remarks such as, “He’s in a better place now” and “God needed him in heaven.” None had the desired effect of making me feel better. I still had lost my dad and still didn’t have a satisfying answer. I wanted to believe that he was in heaven, but I knew that in reality he was just gone.
Through grieving and coming to terms with my dad’s death, I have realized that I don’t need God to give me answers. Life is full of random events; some are good and some are bad. T think the comfort that Christians find in giving control to God is similar to the comfort I found in giving in to random chance.
Now I consider myself fully atheist. My transformation from theist to atheist was very long and at times painful. I want to use my experiences in turning away from religion to help others who may be in the process.
One way I have done this is by starting a Secular Student Alliance chapter at my school. I attend a small, religiously founded school but one that is open to other opinions. We have a membership of 30 and I hope to see expansion in the future. I am excited to be part of an active group on campus.
Megan Hanna, 20, Thedford, Neb., is a senior psychology major at Doane College. She’s involved in the Secular Student Alliance, Sertoma, symphonic wind ensemble and Chi Delta sorority.
Gods created by humans
By Lillian Huebner
The Greeks were 100% sure that Zeus existed, and look how that turned out. Whatever happened to Zeus? Where did his followers go? When did he cease to exist?
I can guarantee you that in ancient Greece, the believers in the gods really did believe in the god, just as much as people today believe in their gods. So what happened?
The truth is, Zeus ceased to exist when the people stopped believing in him. If there are no worshippers, no believers, then there is no one to say that the gods are real, no one to give them a presence in the real world.
Every religion in the world is the same one — the religion of the creator, a religion that keeps humankind a pet, an experiment, inferior. Think about it! What makes “God” any different from Zeus? What makes Brahma any different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph?
We create our masters, and don’t even complain at our slavery. I can’t live like that. I don’t believe in God because I believe in myself. I believe that, just like Zeus, someday this “God” will lose his believers.
And he will go down in the annals of history as just another myth created by terrified humans. Without me, the “gods” are nothing.
Lillian Huebner, 18, was born and raised in Stockton, Mo. She’s attending the University of Oregon to major in journalism and minor in philosophy and/or religion.
From obsession to absolution
By Emerson Hardebeck
Slowly and painfully, I shed the devoutness that was really only obsessive-compulsive disorder, a psychological condition characterized by an inability to tolerate uncertainty. Its sufferers, myself included, often find Pascal’s Wager terrifying. I will never, ever go back.
I will never go back because although I can understand being curious about what caused the initial formation of protons and neutrons in our primordial universe, I am finally comfortable remaining curious, rather than artificially sating my wonder with a solution cobbled together from various human mythologies that were popularized before anyone even knew what a proton or neutron was.
I will never go back because I don’t think it’s productive to live in a world of binary morality, where telling friendly white lies or experiencing healthy sexual urges makes you a bad person, but being dipped in some special water makes you a good person, and where there’s no allowance for the simple fact that most ordinary people fall somewhere in the middle, neither entirely damned nor quite blessed.
I will never go back because I’ve endured enough arbitrary fear and ritualizing for one lifetime, thank you very much.
Most of all, I will never go back because while I do find humility and awe generally appealing, there’s no sensible argument to be made that the specific miracles or evidence or scripture or testimonials that support Christianity are any more or less convincing than those that support Islam, or Buddhism, or Jainism, or even the twisted, amalgamated creed invented by my preadolescent self. They’re all equivalent.
And so, in rejecting any one of these beliefs, I happily reject them all.
Emerson Hardebeck, 20, a native of Olympia, Wash., is studying English literature as a junior at Arizona State University. He has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as he can remember.
In charge of my own life
By Megumi Kato
I am the one who mustered up the strength to push through the obstacles. It was my choice to fight back. God was not steering my car as I sat blindly in the passenger’s seat hoping for the best.
He was not there as I was battling my eating disorder. He didn’t help me decide that I needed to take control of my roller coaster lifestyle, nor did he bring me the beautiful one that I’m living today.
Now, don’t take those last couple of sentiments to mean that I wrote off God’s existence because I’ve gone through some sucky times, because that’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I’m just saying that I believe that you are the only person who makes your life what it is.
As a nonbeliever, I can, metaphorically, jump headfirst out of a plane, not hoping that God will zap me some wings so that I can fly, but instead, jump with a parachute, ready to guide myself to safety.
Sure, sometimes it’s scary, but I know I can figure it out.
Megumi Kato, 19, Sacramento, Calif., is studying cosmetology at Paul Mitchell: The School.
Questioning, then breaking away
By Jake T. Raymond
I spent 17 years of my life in an old brick building. At first, all I did was color pages with the baby Jesus and crosses on them. Later, I watched the instructor hold up picture books with arks and animals.
When my head got higher than the pews, I attended traditional services, where we’d sing songs in tone-deaf voices and listen to our enthusiastic preacher attempt to decode barely comprehensible scriptures.
But something didn’t feel right. I had questions, questions that no one could answer, questions that I was in fact discouraged from asking. One in particular that the church failed to answer was, “How could a being who loved us (God), give us free will and then punish us for using it?”
Throughout the bible, there are dozens of events that show the risks involved in using free will. Killings, fear, revenge, destruction and curses — the bible says God has done them all. I learned to stop asking questions. I kept my thoughts to myself, but continued to wonder.
After 17 years of wondering, I finally walked out of my church for the last time. “It was in the bible” was not a good enough reason for me. My thoughts, my questions, my ideas — all of them were suppressed unless they were the exact thoughts championed by the church.
“God is love,” everyone says, but the stories in the bible include actions that I find questionable. Yet there is diversity and love outside of the bible that is real. Friends and family are real, as are the multitude of beliefs and the people on Earth that make the world such an interesting place.
God is supposed to represent good. I want to focus on the good I see in this world, not on a good that I am told exists but isn’t authentic or real.
Jake Raymond, 20, Monroe, Mich., attends Michigan Technological University in Houghton. He’s a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering with an interest in construction trades,
Gods are for the weak
By Diana Vasquez-Aliaga
Schools in Peru teach religion alongside reading and math. Every day before recess, we learned the story of the son who turned water into wine and was later crucified by the evil Romans. We even had a comic book of the life of Jesus. A lot of this did not make much sense to me.
Although sometimes I would pray on my own and hope God came to the rescue, he never did. As I became more aware of the world, I learned about wars and diseases and hunger plaguing people all around the world. How could God, who I was told is endlessly kind and fair, let this happen?
I prayed for it to stop. I prayed for food for everyone and for the homeless to find a home. This didn’t happen. Why did all these terrible things happen to people who clearly did not deserve it? Maybe God was not as involved or caring as we thought he was.
It was sometime after that when my 13-year-old mind put it all together: There is no God. He never shows up when he’s needed, he lets innocent people suffer, he does not answer my begging prayers and scientific discoveries explain so-called “miracles.”
He has done nothing to prove himself real. Although I did not know the word “atheist,” I think that was when I became one.
Diana Vasquez-Aliaga, 19, is a native of Cajamarca, Peru. She’s a sophomore at the University of Arizona-Tucson. where she intends to choose a science major and Italian minor.
Daniel received $350 for his essay. [This essay was mistakenly omitted from the winners published in the September issue, and the photo was wrongly placed with another essay.]
Pyongyang, North Korea, 2009. A thousand people sit quietly in a dull white compound, facing the front of the room as a doctor addresses them and explains what’s about to take place. Each listener sits tensely in complete darkness with their eyes behind makeshift bandages, hastily wrapped around their heads to keep out the light.
In the preceding days, a Nepalese doctor by the name of Sanduk Ruit had been granted a 10-day stay by the government to perform cataract removal surgery. Working day and night, Dr. Ruit successfully carried out his goal of 1,000 surgeries on medically deprived individuals, each of whom now waits in darkness for him to remove the thin plastic covers and gauze wraps from their faces.
One by one, the wraps are removed and cries and cheers of joy begin to echo through the room. But the cries are not directed to Dr. Ruit or his staff but to a small display in the front of the room: three photos of Korean leaders, with the deified Kim Jong-il in the center.
On the stairs leading up to this shrine, the patients fling themselves in religious devotion, tears falling from their repaired eyes. Through syncopated sobs, they pledge fealty to their dear leader with grand declarations to the crowd — people promise to work harder in the salt mines, some even promise to die, but all profess service to their leader.
While watching this unfold via documentary film, I glanced at my father, an evangelical pastor of many years, as he slowly shook his head and in disbelief muttered expressions against this churchlike procession such as “how deceived they are,” “how blind, how lost.” It was at this moment, while an “awakening” took place in Korea and my father sullenly intoned with conviction that these people needed Jesus, not Kim Jong-il, that I was struck by the most conflicting realization I’ve had in years.
I was stunned at how, in this militantly anti-religious country, with armed guards posted at each doorway, possibly one of the most devout expressions of belief I had ever seen was taking place. More sincere than in any of the churches I had grown up in, these people were chanting subservience and speaking with more dedication than any Christian I had ever seen.
By this standard, watching from America in my Christian house, my family would swear that these people were in fact the deceived ones. I could only imagine how many Christians would call themselves deceived, for most of them had never believed with such conviction. Watching this unfold led me to believe that it is in fact quite possible to simulate religious experiences. This brought to mind the possibility that my own experiences, the ones which I had sworn were God reaching into my life, could be from within my own head.
I thought to myself, “How could my father call them the deceived ones? At least they can see their god, or watch him on television. In this country, we worship a being which doesn’t even physically exist.” The more I watched, the more I began to feel it is the Christians who act strangely, not the North Koreans.
I started becoming slowly disenchanted with many of the religious practices I had grown up with. First, the authority of church began to crumble. The more I listened to Christians’ experiences of God supernaturally intervening in their lives, the more everything began to look slightly fabricated. If the people in North Korea were capable of experiencing the stupefying powers of religion, and certainly without any intervention by the Christian God, then surely individuals in America could be capable of the same experiences, whether a legitimate God was behind the experiences or not.
The experiences my Christian friends were having were the same ones my nonbelieving friends were having, but my Christian friends were predisposed to attribute everything to God. Thus, the authority of God began to crumble as well.
I realized there was no divine reason why so-and-so had died or had been physically disabled. God isn’t up there pulling all the strings; events are simply unfolding.
People die, lose jobs, get cancer and so on. There doesn’t need to be a spiritual reason for it. Understanding this, I have immense difficulty with the concept of God and have since dismissed it.
Daniel Davis, 19, grew up in McKinleyville, Calif., and is a cellular/molecular biology undergraduate at College of the Redwoods in Eureka. He’s also enrolled in paramedic school and will be receiving a medic’s license in the coming year.