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Letter Box

Greetings from the South Pole

Greetings from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica. Jon Emanuel here, member since 1993.

If you're wondering what I'm doing down here, the answer is cooking dinner for our crew of 220+ scientists and the people who support them. This is my second tour proudly supporting science as a contractor to the National Science Foundation.

I'm sending a photo I thought you might enjoy. It was taken on the Solstice.

In it, you'll find the spot marking the Geographic South Pole---the very bottom of the globe. That's me holding a copy of Freethought Today, which I brought all the way down here from my home in Alaska. The copy is wrapped around the actual "South Pole" marker--thereby crossing every time zone and line of longitude on the planet. "Freethought Around the World"---pretty cool, eh?

Hope you're all having a great time up there--I hear it's colder there than it is here! I should be visiting Wisconsin sometime in the spring. I'd love to stop by the Hall and say hello.

Jon Emanuel
Alaska
Let Reason Prevail

Kudos for your placement of the "Winter Solstice" plaque in the Capitol rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin.

I recently showed friends from abroad (Netherlands and Taiwan) the architecture of the Capitol. Both were impressed that such a magnificent structure could be left open to the public without guards or security of any noticeable sort. My explanation was that, as a free nation, trust is placed in the judgment of the people who own the building (that is, the general public) to use and protect their own resources.

When we came across the Winter Solstice plaque, I was struck by the fact that our conversation about freedom was so boldly reflected in your statement. There, amidst the tree and otherwise relatively subdued holiday displays, was the beautiful line, "Let Reason Prevail." It struck a chord in me. I think I shall adopt it as my personal motto.

At home, I found your website and sent the quote to several friends.

Craig Walker
Wisconsin
Kudos for Eric Zorn, Student Essays

I loved "No Graven Images & Other Reflections," by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn (Dec. 2000). It is total common sense, easy to read. Every word is exactly what I wish I had the talent to formulate and express.

I wonder how long until our rural area will have journalists like Mr. Zorn? Our only paper continues to appall my senses with extreme right-wing opinions from columnists and the editor!

Freethought Today "washes" my mind of the daily pollution I suffer here in Mormon country!

I always am impressed with the student essays you publish. They are wise way beyond their years!

Connie Chabot
Idaho
Proudly, Unequivocally Secular

When I received the December Freethought Today, which I usually read from cover to cover (always a joy), I had to read the back page first, lured by the headline ("The Facts vs. The O'Reilly Factor").

No need to guess how O'Reilly would do on the Foundation's State/ Church Quiz. He is obviously a bully pulpit tactician. His weak-kneed semi-mea culpa, "The Constitution itself is a secular document," is evidence that he got a lot more intelligent flak than he is willing to acknowledge.

As for FFRF & Freethought Today and all you good people involved, I acknowledge and shout with fierce enthusiasm, "Long may you continue in your great work."

As for me, I'm proud to be unequivocally secular--like the Constitution.

Mildred Perpigna
Washingto
Why Didn't I Think of That?

Recently I was in Border's bookstore and came across a book titled A Complete Idiot's Guide to the Bible.

How come I did not think of this title?

T. Hartin
Illinois

Editor's note: In addition to this book, which is for real, there is also one titled "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the World Religions" and another called "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Prayer"!
Counterbalance Welcomed

If the ranks of freethinkers indeed include billionaires, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as indicated in "Who's Who in Hell?" (Dec. 2000), one wonders why we do not hear of their contributing significant sums to the cause. Such would be a welcome counterbalance to the many opposing contributions coming from the Wal-Mart, Domino Pizza, and other such fortunes, not to mention the huge amounts raised by televangelists.

Just think what might be accomplished if freethought controlled a media empire comparable to Pat Robertson's!

John G. Fletcher
California
Two Dedicated Members

My daughter is about to turn 18 and I could think of no more appropriate coming-of-age gift than her own membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She has lived vicariously through mine for the six years I've been a member now and has even emailed you about issues that concerned her. She looks forward as much to my copy of Freethought Today as I do, though she waits patiently for me to finish it first. I thought it about time she got her own.

It will be a real pleasure to receive two issues at our address. Rest assured you have two dedicated members here.

Donna Hamel
New York
Visitors Like Freethought Today

I have been enjoying Freethought Today for the past few months. My brother-in-law and his wife, who were visiting from Canada for Thanksgiving, had the same reaction I did when they saw an issue of it--they had to have it!

I would like to purchase a subscription for them.

Thank you! Keep up the great work you are doing for all of us freethinkers!

Colleen A. Zaccaria
Pennsylvania
Thumbs Down on Templeton

After many years of membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I sadly must allow my membership to lapse because of the unfortunate relationship with the Templeton religious organization.

Over 90% of top scientists are nontheists, and should be aware of the terrible history of suppression of science by religion that continues to this day. I do not want any interference with cloning and genetic engineering (it could prolong my life) because the religious think it might be some god's exclusive business.

Until this relationship ends, I cannot continue to support AAAS.

J.B. Osborne Florida
Credit Atheist, Not Miracle

Some need proof that atheists can be good folks:

As I walked down the street, returning from holiday food shopping, I looked down and saw a beautiful wallet. I picked it up. To my surprise it was full! This happened at a bus stop so I was sure it had been dropped as the owner boarded.

At home I went through the wallet and found a name and address but no phone number. The owner lived only a few blocks away, so I decided to deliver it. My knock was answered by a woman who summoned her son, saying, "Your wallet has been miraculously found!"

Both hugged and kissed me, then invited me in and told me the real story. He had been robbed at gunpoint--almost killed! They both had been distraught ever since.

Their appreciation and constant reference to god encouraged me to say I was an atheist. They were astonished! They now have personal experience with the fact that atheists can be good folks and this was a surprise.

June Krebs
Pennsylvania
Bible Belt Time Travel

I recently made a 28-day trip from California to New York and back. Part of what made it pleasant was playing Johnny Appleseed. The only difference was that I did not plant apple seeds, but thought seeds, FFRF "nontracts."

I left nontracts everywhere I went, particularly at public telephones. I found it gratifying that perhaps someone with lingering doubts, especially in the so-called bible belt, would be pulled over to reason if they read it.

Also, when paying for services, I used cash. I offered bills that had the words "In God" from "In God We Trust" obliterated. Altogether I must have distributed over 200 nontracts and bills totaling over $1,000. It's fun and I recommend it to other freethought travelers, no matter what their mode of transportation.

By the way, when traveling east, you will set your clock back one hour as you enter each time zone so that you're in the same time frame as those who live there. When you enter the bible belt, set it back 2,000 years for the same reason.

Niko Theris
California
Uneasy in Religious State

I just wanted to thank you for the work you do. I came upon your website about two years ago, when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. It had a profound effect on my thinking, as I had been a member of a Southern Baptist Church for my entire life (no big surprises there, coming from Oklahoma).

I was struggling with some doubts that I had about my faith, which can be largely attributed to the philosophy classes I was taking in school. I was feeling a lot of guilt, and was still holding on to my irrational fear of the possible consequences of not believing. Most of my family and friends are extremely religious, and I was concerned about the possible impact that my lack of belief could have on those relationships. Once I read the story of Dan Barker's experience with some of these things, I felt much more confident about my position. I now have a son who is 19 months old, and he will be raised in an environment where he is free to think and decide for himself.

Living in a very religious state, it is not always easy to hold the views that I do. I often visit the Freedom From Religion website, and it helps me gain some perspective. You do really great work.

Courtney Kneifl
Oklahoma
Catholic Component of Supreme Court

It cannot be denied that Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy consider all abortion to be murder. They are bound to do so by the infallible Papal Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae," which they consider a "higher law" than the U.S. Constitution that they swore to uphold.

Let's face it, they believe that a Bush Presidency will lead to a Supreme Court that will overrule Roe v. Wade and approve parochial school tax vouchers; while a Gore Presidency may not, and that these "higher law ends" justify the means--the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 political intervention in the Florida 2000 election to prevent a full hand count of votes, a fateful precedent to interfere in all future state elections.

Who knows what some future American Mussolini, Stalin or worse, will do some day with such a power?

The tragedy is that such unprincipled opportunism destroys the integrity of the Presidency, the separation of church and state, and the balance of powers that our forefathers gave their all to establish. The Justices' names will live in infamy.

John Tomasin, Esq.
New Jersey
Try Subversive Wording

In his great student essay "One Nation . . ." (Nov. 2000), Eric Breitenstein related how he would get through the choral recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at school, by substituting subversive words of his own choosing.

I had a similar experience years ago, when I participated in a Twelve-Step program, and each meeting ended with everyone joining hands and reciting the Lord's Prayer. As an atheist, I just couldn't bring myself to say those words, and yet I didn't want to make a fuss or to draw attention to myself. So I composed my own prayer, to sound so much like what everyone else was saying that nobody noticed me, no matter how loudly I "prayed":

Our Powers are within,
Whatever be their name.
What they have done, what still may come,
This Earth can yet be as Heaven.
Live then this day, and without dread,
And forgive your own trespasses
As you forgive those who trespass against you.
And be not led into temptation,
But flee away from evil,
For Time is the Healer,
With power to restore me,
Forever and ever, Amen.

Richard Packham Oregon
Dear Dr. Laura . . .

OK. We capitulate. After being emailed and sent umpteen copies of the below clever, anonymous letter circulating everywhere, we're finally publishing it in Freethought Today for the record. It's worth reading, again!

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

Lev. 20:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Anonymous

%756 %America/Chicago, %2013

Teaching Evolution, State By State

The following article was written for Freethought Today by the author of the famous Fordham Foundation report grading the teaching of evolution state-by-state.

In response to the flurry of public interest in education over the past few years, every state except Iowa has published a set of curriculum standards in every subject studied from kindergarten through high school. These standards usually take the form of a sort of laundry list, specifying what every public-school student should know at specified grade levels. As a scientist, I have taken a particular interest in the science standards.

In 1997 I was asked by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative Washington-based education think tank, to evaluate all the science standards that were current at the time. It took me several months to plow through the stuff, and the results were published by the foundation in March 1998 in a report with the heavy title "State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards in 36 States." To put it bluntly, a lot of states did not do very well.

By 1999 there had been so much activity in revising old curriculum standards and publishing new ones that the foundation published a re-evaluation. I was again asked to review the science standards and the results were published in The State of State Standards 2000, which covered English, history, geography and mathematics as well as science. By late 1999, 46 states had published science standards. Their quality ranged from excellent to simply awful.

In the course of these reviews, it became clear that a major factor in the variation of quality from state to state was the treatment of evolution, and the Fordham Foundation asked me to make a specific study of the way that evolution is treated in state science standards. The results of this study, which covers 49 states and the District of Columbia, were published in September 2000 in a report entitled "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution In The States."

The report addresses three main questions:
In learning about the history of life on earth, and the related histories of the universe and the nonliving earth, what essentials should students learn as they progress from the primary grades through high school?
On what religious and political grounds do creationists (and other less visible groups of anti-evolutionists) object to the learning of science, and what pseudoscientific alternatives do they offer?
How well do various states outline the scientific essentials in their K-12 science standards, and to what extent do they degrade those standards by responding to creationist pressures?

Before giving the results of the state-by-state study, let me expand a little on the nature of the political/religious issues that work against a proper treatment of science, particularly in the biological realm. In the broad sense, almost all of science is the study of the way that various systems evolve over time. The systems can be as large as the universe itself or as small as a neutrino; the relevant time scales can be as long as billions of years or as short as attoseconds. Biology is no exception; its central organizing principle is the evolution of living things. Without evolution, biology is no more than a vast, bewildering array of facts. One can teach a sort of natural history without evolution--"This is a horse and this is a rose"--but one runs into trouble almost immediately when some clever student asks, "Why are horses and roses different from one another?"

The difficulty arises, as most people know, from the conflict between the realities of science and the fanciful world views that arise from certain religious and ideological positions. The best-known anti-evolutionists are the subset of Protestant fundamentalists called young-earth creationists. These are the folks who believe that the first few chapters of Genesis from Adam and Eve to Noah are the basic textbook for all the sciences, and that the genealogies of the Old Testament are the proper foundation for the chronology of the universe.

There are other screwballs as well, with conflicting views. Black Muslims, for instance, believe that the universe is trillions of years old, and some Native American tribes consider that their ancestors have lived in the traditional tribal territories forever. Just as the fundamentalist creationists underestimate the age of the earth by a factor of a million or so, the Black Muslims overestimate by a thousandfold and the Indians are off by a factor of infinity.

Other ideologues object to evolution for different reasons. On the political left, Marxists object to evolution because it implies that human behavior is determined at least in part by our biological history. This conflicts with the Marxian principle that all the ills of society are due to socioeconomic injustice, and that the future will see the emergence of the New Socialist Man who is without vices. On the political right, a general disgust with the current social order (which is seen as grossly immoral) is associated with a yearning for an absolutism that extends from the moral sphere to the objective scientific world. For many if not most absolutists, an eternal, immutable set of moral standards implies the existence of a deity. And what better proof of the deity's existence can one have than the assertion that he/she/it is intimately, continually, and visibly directing the processes of nature? This is the position held by a new group of creationists, called intelligent-design advocates (IDers for short.) They tend to be slick, sophisticated, and free of the redneck image that adheres to the young-earth creationists.

Unfortunately, the desire to inject a deity into natural processes is inconsistent with the operational processes of science. As soon as one explains any natural phenomenon as the result of supernatural action, the path to further explanation is closed, and that is the end of science. Even from the point of view of the more thoughtful religious person, this supernaturalist position is unacceptable. Science progresses in spite of those who are satisfied with the "God did it" explanation. As scientific knowledge expands, the realm of the supernatural shrinks and the deity who manipulates it becomes what theologians call the "God of the gaps"--not a very satisfactory god at all.

All of these ideologies, whether religious or political, are committed to a world-view incompatible with science. The scientist investigates the way nature works; whether the scientist "likes" that way or not is of no consequence. The ideologue, on the other hand, decides how nature must work to fit preconceived notions. This, of course, cannot lead to expansion of knowledge about nature.

As a practical matter, it is the young-earthers who have had by far the greatest influence to date on state science standards. However, I think we will hear much more from the intelligent-design advocates in the future.

Some states have yielded to a greater or lesser extent to creationist pressures. They do this in one or more of several ways. Here are the major tactics used:
The standards may include many of the central principles of evolution--usually briefly--but the word evolution is carefully avoided. Inaccurate and misleading euphemisms such as "change over time" are used instead of the "E-word." Alabama, Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi are among the fifteen states that do this to a greater or lesser extent.
Biological evolution is simply ignored. Geological evolution, the history of the solar system, and cosmology may be treated to some extent, often even employing the word evolution. Fossils are sometimes mentioned, but only in the context of geology, not biology. Only four states (Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia) ignore evolution completely but only ten have a completely satisfactory coverage of the subject.
Creationist jargon and misinformation are used. Examples are: "Some scientists believe that life evolved . . ."; "Describe the strengths and weakness of various theories of the history of life"; "Natural selection can maintain or deplete genetic variation but does not add new information to the genetic code." Eight states do this.

A point scale was developed to evaluate the degree to which each of the state standards gave a good account of evolution and avoided creationist pseudoscience. Each state was scored and letter grades A to F-minus were assigned.

The map (shown below) shows the situation as of August 2000. Since then, however, several states have made or are making revisions. In Kansas, the voters kicked out several creationist members of the State Board of Education, and we can expect a set of pretty good standards to replace the F-disaster that is now in place. Alabama seems to be in the continuing process of ridding itself of the influence of former governor and redneck par excellence Fob James, and will likely move up from F. The Pennsylvania Board of Education, sadly, seems determined to degrade a set of draft standards that merit an A to a C; it remains to be seen whether the creationists will prevail there.

The map teaches us an important lesson. Not all the worst-performing states are in the Bible Belt, and many states outside the Bible Belt do badly. For example, North Carolina's standards are among the best in their treatment of evolution and South Carolina's are very good. Maine, New Hampshire, and Illinois do badly. Good science is not simply a matter of geography. This is an important point because it is a snobbish as well as damaging misconception to shrug one's shoulders and write off the inhabitants of this or that region as incorrigible or ineducable.

Good science is not a matter of politics, either. Many political conservatives seem to hold the view that one cannot be a genuine conservative unless one is a creationist, too. This position has often been set forth in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and the American Spectator. In the wake of the publication of my report, the director of the Fordham Foundation, a man of impeccable conservative credentials, has endured a great deal of flak from some of his political associates, especially those who are IDers.

What does the future hold? At the moment, the creationists are probably losing more ground than they are gaining, but that is most likely a temporary situation. As the political situation evolves, creationist claims evolve as well, and the creationists are not going to go away. As the map suggests, local vigilance is essential if we are to give the best education possible to all the members of the next generation. The reports cited in this article may be found at the Fordham Foundation website, http://www.edexcellence.net. For a briefer analysis, see the BioScience Productions, Inc. website at http://www.actionbioscience.org/education/lerner.html.

Lawrence S. Lerner is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He has been a Foundation member since 1985. A briefer version of his official report was published in Nature, September 2000. ("Good and bad science in US Schools: One-third of US states have unsatisfactory standards for teaching evolution.")

Proclaiming itself as the largest Catholic civil rights organization in the US, the Catholic League identifies anti-Catholicism opinions in the media and brands them as bigotry. The league's president, Dr. William Donohue, takes pride in dissuading and intimidating media from airing this rather liberal interpretation of bigotry. Donohue holds a PhD in Sociology, is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and sits on the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars. (Additional credentials include a masters in Homophobia and certification as a fully brainwashed believer in creationism.)

Even many mainstream and progressive Catholics are offended by Donohue's reactionary positions and attitude. During a debate against Christopher Hitchens last March, Donohue celebrated the fact that a Catholic priest now occupies the congressional chaplaincy to the chagrin of hypocritical Protestant congressman. Many mainstream and progressive Catholics would prefer to see the end of the chaplaincy as it is a violation of Church/State separation and was always occupied by Protestants until now.

One of the many borderline comments made by Donohue during the debate was: "If we lived in a sane society, we would close down the Department of Education and give every single dime to the Catholic Church to defend the poor."

Pat Robertson would probably disagree although he probably has a similar conviction concerning Southern Baptism.

Clever to call itself a civil rights organization in order to manipulate a media that is often sympathetic to civil rights causes, the league is an organization designed not only to get its wrongful ideas voiced but also to suppress opposition in the media. We, as humanist activists, should not allow the Catholic League to issue wrong-minded propaganda without challenge from our quarter.

The league's research director, Robert Lockwood, constructs reports defending Church positions and activities. He has presented a deeply flawed report titled Pope Pius IX. The report is a defense of Pius--the kidnapper who was beatified and praised by Pope John Paul this past September 3 despite protestation from many progressive and mainstream Catholics.

Pius issued a document titled Syllabus of Errors in 1864. In it, he condemned separation of church and state, freedom of the press, atheism, rationalism, etc. Although Lockwood offers excuses for the positions on church/state and freedom of the press, he writes that atheism and rationalism "remain worthy of condemnation today." This presents a dilemma for the Catholic League. If we condemn Catholicism, the league labels us bigots. If condemnation of Catholicism should be labeled bigotry, then condemnation of rationalism/atheism should be labeled bigotry. Thus Lockwood, and presumably the league, would be labeled bigots. Lockwood's and Donohue's brains reside in a curious world of one-way streets where the only thing that is circular is their reasoning. If we attack what they cherish, we're bigots. If we were to object to their condemnation of atheism/rationalism, they would label us oversensitive atheists demanding political correctness.

Lockwood's defense of Pius' opposition to separation of church and state references Bismarck's Prussia where the church was made subservient to the state. The excuse is that this subservience is what Pius opposed. Lockwood doesn't mention that in the United States, separation of church and state was already protected by the Constitution's establishment clause. Pius' condemnation was aimed at our type of church/state separation as well as Prussia's inferior model.

Regarding condemnation of free press, Lockwood avers that Pius was responding to a "viciously anti-Catholic press and a journalism that had no norms of objectivity or balance." Here, I feel compelled to concede that in the vein of the old adage, "it takes one to know one," the viciously anti-Jewish Pius, as purveyor of the papal states' own biased newspapers and magazines, was eminently qualified to identify abuses of the "free press."

Lockwood fatuously claims that a reason Roman Jews were required to live within walled in ghettos prior to Pius' reign was to "protect Jews from mob attack." He neglects to mention that the Catholic Church, at various times, required Roman Jews to wear emblems when they walked outside the ghettos. If the Church worried over Jews becoming victims of mob attack, it wouldn't have required Jews to wear bulls-eyes.

Pius IX, is the Pope that ordered six-year-old Edgardo Mortara kidnapped in 1858 from his Jewish family in Bologna. Edgardo had been baptized by a Catholic servant without the parent's knowledge. Catholic canon law held that children of Jewish/ Infidel parents should not be baptized without parental consent but if an effective baptism did occur, then the child must not be brought up by the parents. Heads of nations, newspapers, Jews and even many Catholics called for the return of the boy but Pius refused.

Lockwood clearly implies that although Pius ordered the kidnapping, and even though the kidnapping is indefensible, we cannot hold Pius responsible for having committed this immoral act. He states that Pius was "a man of his times in regard to the question of religious tolerance." Lockwood sidesteps the issue of personal responsibility for one's actions.

Ayatollah Khomeni was certainly a man of his times in regard to the question of religious tolerance among his circles within the fundamentalist community. Surely, Khomeni's followers did what they believed was right within Islamic law when they kidnapped infidels. Surely, Usama Bin Laden is a man of his times in regard to the question of religious tolerance among his circles. Or do only saintly Popes qualify for this excuse in the Catholic League's foggy world of one-way streets?

The corollary to Lockwood's claim is that Pius was "a man of his times in regard to the question of religious intolerance." This is one of many disingenuous word manipulations employed by Lockwood in his report.

Lockwood's report indicates that some claimed that the six-year-old Edgardo "showed immediate signs of the desire to live the Catholic faith, eagerly following the guards into church to celebrate Mass. The exact story, of course, will never be known of these early days as it became wrapped up in propaganda from both sides."

This is beyond obnoxious. Lockwood is writing about a six-year-old boy. Six-year-old boys were tricked into walking out into Nazi firing squads because they thought they were going to play soldier. Lockwood knows no shame. Notice how he arrogantly equates the "propaganda" of the pro-kidnappers to the "propaganda" of the anti-kidnappers in an attempt to appear evenhanded.

The report states repeatedly that Pius was not an anti-Semite. One cannot help but note the strategic quality of this assertion. That Hitler's anti-Semitism and the Church's anti-Jewishness were two different and unrelated types of hatred is a tenuous notion at best, false at worst. In Pius' case, the notion becomes downright silly when we consider the quote that the future saint called Jews "dogs" (Some Pius apologists have claimed this quote is not documented but it is. David Kertzer translates and discusses the passage in his new book, which is currently in press, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (Knopf, 2001). Kertzer found the quote in Pasquale De Francisis(1872), Discorsi del sommo pontefice Pio II, vol.1.)

Pius put the sanctity of a Catholic ritual ahead of the sanctity of the family.

Today's Pope beatified Pius and praised him as someone to be imitated. How does September 3's beatification of a kidnapper tie in with the alleged pro-family stance of Catholicism? Know that Donohue's Catholic League will never answer this question with clarity.

The icing on this reeking cake of sludge is that Donohue's so called Catholic civil rights group's research director saw fit to write a 41-page paper on Pius IX yet never saw fit to express once in that paper any sorrow for the unjust, immoral travesty perpetrated against the Mortara family by an infallible saint to be. Civil rights organization--give me a break!

Steve Hirsch has been a professional investor for the past ten years. A Life Member of the Foundation, he lives in Florida with his wife and children. On behalf of the Sunshine State, he pleads for forgiveness from the ancient god of voting, Electus.

%754 %America/Chicago, %2013

"Black Day at Bad Rock"

"Black day at bad rock" was the headline for The Hill Country Recorder on January 10, 2001.

In an excellent front-page write-up, Newton Renfro recounted the story of the theft of the 32-ton cenotaph from City Park in Comfort, Texas, on December 21, 2000. This memorial, to the German Freidenker founders of the settlement of Comfort in the mid-1800s, was financed almost entirely by present-day Freethinkers, and Freethinker and Atheist organizations, the major of these having been the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The limestone megalith memorial was installed on a concrete foundation in July of 1998, and its presence was soon felt. By September the conservative Christians of the Comfort community realized that Atheists! might have contributed to this project, which meant, of course, that Comfort might well become a "Mecca for Atheists." Newspaper editorials spoke of the "tainted" funding of the rock which was sure to spread a "miasma of atheism" over the community.

During the two-year-plus controversy over this memorial, the rock stood in the park without its historical plaque and without dedication. There were rumors that it was to be removed, but no attempt was made to inform the donors. The rumors of threats came and went without any official notification of plans to remove the rock from Comfort. Those of us who wrote some of the movers(literally!)-and-shakers of Comfort never received replies to our queries.

When the rock was removed, without rumor or notification, the word of its disappearance spread to some of the donors via e-mail, but not until after the holidays. When we did learn that it was gone, we also knew the name of the crane company which had hauled it off, the name of the person who had made the arrangements with the crane company, and the actual location of the limestone cenotaph, thanks to our own Hill Country Nancy Drew, Julie Fisher, and our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick.

It is difficult to recount the entire story of the rock's theft with a straight face because it is so Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops from start to not-quite finish. For one thing, the person who made the arrangements for the rock's removal was Gary Lindnor, the former head of the Comfort Chamber of Commerce. It seems he told the crane company that he was the mayor of Comfort. This is interesting largely because Comfort has no mayor; it is an unincorporated community.

Chatting up some folk in Comfort, Julie learned that the rock had been trucked out of town and was seen heading for Center Point. Additionally, she learned that some folk in town were actually speaking of the "theft" of the rock. So off she drove in the direction the 100-ton crane had taken. Sure enough, about two miles out of Comfort, and across the county line, she came upon the Home-of-the-Crane. No mistaking it. It was a Texas version of the Grand Canyon, but filled with much heavy-duty equipment. Julie found the one human being in the vicinity, and proceeded to question him. He obligingly gestured to her to follow his vehicle and he would lead her to the rock.

A short distance from Home-of-the-Crane was a very large, newly built white mansion in the middle of nowhere, which Julie described as more impressive than Tara. Julie's guide motioned her to the rear of the house where there was a small pasture (or large backyard), fencing in two placid cows and a reclining thirty-two-ton limestone rock. Julie whipped out her camera and proceeded to photograph the rock in its new bucolic location.

Our dauntless Nancy Drew then went to the front door of the mansion and rang the bell. Two women appeared, and Julie asked them if they knew where the Comfort rock was. They seemed not to comprehend what she was saying, and to be puzzled by her question.

"Well," said Julie, "it's in your backyard/pasture, and I wanted you to know that . . . just in case the police come looking for stolen property." Were they surprised that a rock the size of a schoolbus was in their backyard/pasture? If so, their demeanor did not betray it, nor did they show signs of fear or guilt.

But surprises were in store for the donors of the cenotaph when reporter Renfro's article hit the newsstand. The picture accompanying the article was taken by a Bill Bourland, whose marriage to Jolene a year earlier had been solemnized in the shadow of the rock. They were sentimentally attached to it and, just happening by the park during the theft, did not hesitate a wink to race for a camera to record the kidnapping of their wedding site.

Meanwhile, our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick, was quick to get on the phone, and her results were triumphant. She arranged for us to have an appointment on January 11 with the attorney who is the head of the San Antonio ACLU chapter. Besides that, she learned that a report on the megalith's structure had been made to the rocknapper, and she obtained a copy of this two-page document. It had been sent to the Kendall County Courthouse (constructed of limestone), attention: Judge Bill Goodin.

The report begins, "Gentlepersons:", and ends with the horrific warning that a small child could be injured while climbing on the rock, and that not a day goes by that something of this nature does not occur. (The last account I read of a rock catastrophe, aside from earthquakes and rockslides, was that of a man visiting a gravesite and leaning on the tombstone which instantly self-destructed, breaking the visitor's foot.) The engineers' report ended with the paragraph, "Thus we have no choice but to state that, in our opinion, this megalith is a danger to the public and should be removed immediately. Certainly before the next freeze."

The report had gone into great length about the fissures of the rock filling with water and freezing, which would then cause the rock to break apart. Water in Texas is a rarity in the summer months. Freezing can occur in December. The report was issued on August 21. The rock was removed on Dec. 21. Hmmm. Actually, the closest the rock came to being a danger to anyone was when the crane was trying to wrench it from its 4-feet-deep foundation and the flatbed nearly flipped over as concrete and limestone reluctantly parted company.

The appointment with the SAACLU attorney took place as scheduled, and I wish I could describe that gentleman's face as he raptly absorbed the story of the cenotaph as put into chronological order by our eloquent spokesperson, Howard Thompson.

When Howard had finished, Mr. Pina looked around the table at us--Ruth Lett, Sally Chizek, Terrellita Maverick, Julie Fisher, Howard and me--and said, "I can't tell you how much I admire you people." I went into euphoric shock. Fancy someone admiring atheists!!!

Four days later I am still walking a few feet off the ground, and feeling optimistic about what might come of our case . . . if we have one.

It's a big dream, but I dare to dream that one of President Clinton's and Joseph Lieberman's favorite quotes, "In this country we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion," will be revealed to the whole country as the blatant perversion of the U.S. Constitution that it is. It is a thoughtless quote from Stephen L. Carter's book, The Culture of Disbelief, and it is demeaning to the millions of us who dare to think, and know that, as Anne Gaylor has said, "There can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent."

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer from Texas.

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"Black Day at Bad Rock"

"Black day at bad rock" was the headline for The Hill Country Recorder on January 10, 2001.

In an excellent front-page write-up, Newton Renfro recounted the story of the theft of the 32-ton cenotaph from City Park in Comfort, Texas, on December 21, 2000. This memorial, to the German Freidenker founders of the settlement of Comfort in the mid-1800s, was financed almost entirely by present-day Freethinkers, and Freethinker and Atheist organizations, the major of these having been the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The limestone megalith memorial was installed on a concrete foundation in July of 1998, and its presence was soon felt. By September the conservative Christians of the Comfort community realized that Atheists! might have contributed to this project, which meant, of course, that Comfort might well become a "Mecca for Atheists." Newspaper editorials spoke of the "tainted" funding of the rock which was sure to spread a "miasma of atheism" over the community.

During the two-year-plus controversy over this memorial, the rock stood in the park without its historical plaque and without dedication. There were rumors that it was to be removed, but no attempt was made to inform the donors. The rumors of threats came and went without any official notification of plans to remove the rock from Comfort. Those of us who wrote some of the movers(literally!)-and-shakers of Comfort never received replies to our queries.

When the rock was removed, without rumor or notification, the word of its disappearance spread to some of the donors via e-mail, but not until after the holidays. When we did learn that it was gone, we also knew the name of the crane company which had hauled it off, the name of the person who had made the arrangements with the crane company, and the actual location of the limestone cenotaph, thanks to our own Hill Country Nancy Drew, Julie Fisher, and our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick.

It is difficult to recount the entire story of the rock's theft with a straight face because it is so Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops from start to not-quite finish. For one thing, the person who made the arrangements for the rock's removal was Gary Lindnor, the former head of the Comfort Chamber of Commerce. It seems he told the crane company that he was the mayor of Comfort. This is interesting largely because Comfort has no mayor; it is an unincorporated community.

Chatting up some folk in Comfort, Julie learned that the rock had been trucked out of town and was seen heading for Center Point. Additionally, she learned that some folk in town were actually speaking of the "theft" of the rock. So off she drove in the direction the 100-ton crane had taken. Sure enough, about two miles out of Comfort, and across the county line, she came upon the Home-of-the-Crane. No mistaking it. It was a Texas version of the Grand Canyon, but filled with much heavy-duty equipment. Julie found the one human being in the vicinity, and proceeded to question him. He obligingly gestured to her to follow his vehicle and he would lead her to the rock.

A short distance from Home-of-the-Crane was a very large, newly built white mansion in the middle of nowhere, which Julie described as more impressive than Tara. Julie's guide motioned her to the rear of the house where there was a small pasture (or large backyard), fencing in two placid cows and a reclining thirty-two-ton limestone rock. Julie whipped out her camera and proceeded to photograph the rock in its new bucolic location.

Our dauntless Nancy Drew then went to the front door of the mansion and rang the bell. Two women appeared, and Julie asked them if they knew where the Comfort rock was. They seemed not to comprehend what she was saying, and to be puzzled by her question.

"Well," said Julie, "it's in your backyard/pasture, and I wanted you to know that . . . just in case the police come looking for stolen property." Were they surprised that a rock the size of a schoolbus was in their backyard/pasture? If so, their demeanor did not betray it, nor did they show signs of fear or guilt.

But surprises were in store for the donors of the cenotaph when reporter Renfro's article hit the newsstand. The picture accompanying the article was taken by a Bill Bourland, whose marriage to Jolene a year earlier had been solemnized in the shadow of the rock. They were sentimentally attached to it and, just happening by the park during the theft, did not hesitate a wink to race for a camera to record the kidnapping of their wedding site.

Meanwhile, our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick, was quick to get on the phone, and her results were triumphant. She arranged for us to have an appointment on January 11 with the attorney who is the head of the San Antonio ACLU chapter. Besides that, she learned that a report on the megalith's structure had been made to the rocknapper, and she obtained a copy of this two-page document. It had been sent to the Kendall County Courthouse (constructed of limestone), attention: Judge Bill Goodin.

The report begins, "Gentlepersons:", and ends with the horrific warning that a small child could be injured while climbing on the rock, and that not a day goes by that something of this nature does not occur. (The last account I read of a rock catastrophe, aside from earthquakes and rockslides, was that of a man visiting a gravesite and leaning on the tombstone which instantly self-destructed, breaking the visitor's foot.) The engineers' report ended with the paragraph, "Thus we have no choice but to state that, in our opinion, this megalith is a danger to the public and should be removed immediately. Certainly before the next freeze."

The report had gone into great length about the fissures of the rock filling with water and freezing, which would then cause the rock to break apart. Water in Texas is a rarity in the summer months. Freezing can occur in December. The report was issued on August 21. The rock was removed on Dec. 21. Hmmm. Actually, the closest the rock came to being a danger to anyone was when the crane was trying to wrench it from its 4-feet-deep foundation and the flatbed nearly flipped over as concrete and limestone reluctantly parted company.

The appointment with the SAACLU attorney took place as scheduled, and I wish I could describe that gentleman's face as he raptly absorbed the story of the cenotaph as put into chronological order by our eloquent spokesperson, Howard Thompson.

When Howard had finished, Mr. Pina looked around the table at us--Ruth Lett, Sally Chizek, Terrellita Maverick, Julie Fisher, Howard and me--and said, "I can't tell you how much I admire you people." I went into euphoric shock. Fancy someone admiring atheists!!!

Four days later I am still walking a few feet off the ground, and feeling optimistic about what might come of our case . . . if we have one.

It's a big dream, but I dare to dream that one of President Clinton's and Joseph Lieberman's favorite quotes, "In this country we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion," will be revealed to the whole country as the blatant perversion of the U.S. Constitution that it is. It is a thoughtless quote from Stephen L. Carter's book, The Culture of Disbelief, and it is demeaning to the millions of us who dare to think, and know that, as Anne Gaylor has said, "There can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent."

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer from Texas.

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Three Flawed U.S. Frauds

The conduct of the founders of the major religions that were birthed in America would not be welcomed by their followers of today. Their extreme drive and genius were accompanied by conduct outside the precepts that undergird the religious institutions they created.

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was a magnetic leader, carrying his Mormon flock through mass migrations and rebirth in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.

Setting aside judgment on his constant claim of communication with God, we can be struck by his genius in gathering and maintaining the adulation of thousands in a short and openly self-indulgent life.

His positive attributes of character were marred by obsessions in sexuality, vanity and autocratic control. He may have had as many as fifty wives, according to eminent biographer Fawn M. Brodie in her definitive classic No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (Random House, 1995). The "wives" were almost always episodes of adultery, usually preceded by a ceremonial "seal for eternity," whereas the original primary husband--including many of Smith's associates--was sealed only for life. Smith acquired a new one on average almost monthly during the 1840s. This was the birth of the half-century of officially sanctioned polygamy in the Mormon Church.

The Mormons' diligence, growth and political solidarity under Smith's directives created fears and enmity wherever they were. They also had militia units. Smith was killed by a mob who stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. His followers were forced from nearby Nauvoo, and Brigham Young led an epic ordeal to Utah. Brodie states: "And it was the legend of Joseph Smith, from which all evidences of deception, ambition and financial and marital excesses were gradually obliterated, that became the cohesive force within the church."

Vivid examples of the obliteration process are part of the incredible true-crime classic, The Mormon Murders, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988). It also introduces one to many facets of Mormon culture and history.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) lived in a time when faith healers were common and her Christian Science Church was the major survivor.

Among detached or critical biographers of Mrs. Eddy (that is, authors who did not avoid information critical of her) were Georgine Milmine, Frederick Peabody, Edwin Dakin, Ernest Bates/John Dittemore and my source, Julius Silberger Jr., M.D., a psychiatrist.

Mary Baker (twice a widow, once divorced) spent much of the first half of her life bedridden, allegedly using illness to control people and get attention. Her hypochondria brought her acquaintance with mental healer Phineas Quimby, who it has been said was the inventor of her basic teachings--which she denied in her successful years.

Whatever her obviously formidable accomplishments, she dismissed several capable aides, and afterward mobilized followers to mentally ward off the "malicious animal magnetism" she felt that the ex-aides were mentally exerting against her. Her paranoia and vindictiveness triggered deviousness. In one instance, her husband and current chief aide were arrested and charged with conspiring to have the previous chief aide assassinated. They avoided conviction. The Silberger book is replete with a lifetime of manipulations.

L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) was a pulp fiction writer who became a leader in science fiction until his Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health came out in 1950.

Commercialization of its treatment plan flourished, then floundered, until rescued by Wichita businessman Don Purcell. Hubbard's disregard for expenses and past debts led to lawsuits by Purcell. With the ownership of the Dianetics trademark contested, Hubbard renamed his (refurbished) approach Scientology and then fulfilled an earlier prediction: "If you want to make real money, start a religion." That helped Hubbard avoid taxes and medical practice restraints and to become fabulously wealthy.

Scientology "auditing" involves a multi-step hypno-psychoanalytic procedure based on superficial groundings, having value in some cases but questioned by professional therapists for others. "Auditors" were trained by the Hubbard organization, generating profits.

One cannot briefly portray Hubbard's awesome imaginative talents or his unbelievable history of deceit and arrogance, but let us quote Los Angeles Judge Paul Breckenridge in a denial of sealing Scientology records: "The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements. The documents in evidence additionally reflect his egotism, greed, avarice, lust for power and vindictiveness and aggressiveness against persons perceived by him to be disloyal or hostile." (This from Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by Russell Miller [Henry Holt, 1987]. Another source was L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman by Bent Corydon and L. Ron Hubbard Jr. [Lyle Stuart Inc., 1987].)

Rather than confront an adult daughter who sought to meet him for the first time, Hubbard had an emissary deny his paternity to her face. He tried to erase from history a bigamous marriage with her mother.

Hubbard did not "die," it is alleged. The official revelation to 1,800 followers at the Hollywood Palladium was that he had discarded his body and chosen to move to his next level of research externally. This was in keeping with his many stories of previous lives, including reincarnation from lives millions of years before on other planets.

The late Sidney Harris provided an explanation of such baffling happenings in a 1985 newspaper column headed "Lying to yourself produces [the] most frightening evil of all." Harris was not thinking particularly of religious founders, of course:

"Most people seem to value sincerity as a value more than I do. But sincerity is not an independent value, like truth. If you are wrong, the more sincere you are, the more damage you can do, and the more wrong-minded followers you are able to attract."

Basil Conrad, a member from Michigan, is a retired charitable agency administrator.

See also Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (McFarland & Co., 2000), a comprehensive history of the Mormon fraud by longtime Foundation member David Persuitte.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has called on President George W. Bush to drop his campaign pledge to establish an unconstitutional Office of Faith-Based Action in the White House. Bush also plans to use federal funds to encourage the 50 governors to establish state versions.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has been touted as the probable appointee for White House director of the Office of Faith-Based Action. In 1997, Goldsmith created a "faith-based" initiative called the Front Porch Alliance, with a staff of nine and a budget of $800,000, which doled out $300,000 in grants to churches and inner-city groups.

Creation of the office is in concert with Bush's pledge to spend $8 billion in expanding "charitable choice," in which churches and religious groups receiving federal funding to provide social services may now proselytize. Bush's transition spokesperson Scott McClellan said on Jan. 7 that "reaching out to faith-based groups that have a proven record of saving and changing lives is a top priority of President-elect Bush."

The primary engineer of "charitable choice" was John Ashcroft, Bush's controversial nominee for Attorney General, who as U.S. Senator pushed through a "charitable choice" amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act at the eleventh hour. The Freedom From Religion Foundation launched what is believed to be the nation's second challenge of "charitable choice," in an October lawsuit against public funding of "Faith Works," a religious group that received Bush's blessings during a campaign stop.

Bush met with 30 ministers and religious leaders in a closed meeting in Austin on Dec. 20 to discuss his plans to greatly enlarge "charitable choice" and the role of churches in federally-funded welfare programs.

Bush has pledged to end regulations prohibiting religious groups from participating in federal programs, to make it easier for churches and charities to be given tax funds to operate federal programs, and to create tax breaks to increase charitable donations.

Many clergy members have indicated wariness of the concept. "There are many religious traditions in this land. How do we guarantee that minority religions have the same access that majority religions have?" the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, told the New York Times (Dec. 21).

The American Jewish Committee's Richard Foltin warned: "There's no way to harness this power of religious organizations without doing damage." Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said: "We think it's unconstitutional [and] will result in invasive regulation and excessive entanglement between church and state."

A survey released in January by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows a slim majority of Americans repudiates the concept of "charitable choice." Thirty-one percent said such an arrangement is always a bad idea, and a quarter, 23%, approved public money to religious social services--but only if they stay away from religious messages. Forty-four percent said giving government money to religious groups is a good idea. The poll of 1,507 adults by Public Agenda was taken in November, and has an error margin of 3%.

Bush's first official act as president-elect was attending a special prayer service in his honor. At that December service, Mark Craig, pastor of a Dallas Methodist church, compared Bush to Moses: "You were chosen by God, as was Moses, to lead the people."

The Foundation wrote the president-elect on Dec. 15, reminding him that the U.S. Constitution provides for a strictly secular presidential oath of office, and asking that Bush not use "religious ad libs" or the bible in taking the godless oath. The letter generated some national coverage.

Art. 2, Sect. 1, Clause 8 provides: "Before he enter on the execution of his office he shall take the following oath or affirmation: 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

"With sycophantic ministers saying Bush was 'chosen by God, as was Moses, to lead the people,' we think it is important to remind Bush that it will be his job to protect, preserve and defend the separation of church and state," noted Foundation president Anne Gaylor.

The Foundation followed up with a letter in early January to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who administers the presidential oath, noting that "longtime persistence in an abuse of the Constitution is not rationale for continuing such a violation."

The Jan. 20 inauguration began with an invocation and ended with a benediction. Afterward, Bush signed his first two directives, one on ethics regulations for government employees, the other designating Sunday, Jan. 21, as a National Day of Prayer.

His prayer proclamation called on Americans "to bow our heads in humility before our heavenly father, a God who calls us not to judge our neighbors, but to love them, to ask His guidance upon our nation and its leaders in every level of government."

The Bush Administration in January also maintained it would press for passage of its private school voucher proposal, despite advice by GOP strategists that vouchers would face an uphill battle, and vocal opposition by Democrats in the narrowly divided Congress. Bush's first legislative priority will be "education reform," including a proposal to give families in failing schools $1,500 in federal money to use for any education expense. If public schools fail to measure up to Bush standards for three consecutive years, parents would be given vouchers to send kids elsewhere.

Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, told CNN's "Late Edition" on Dec. 17: "I think maybe the word [vouchers] is part of the problem. Maybe the word should be 'scholarship.' " Already more than 15,000 children, most living in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, receive public vouchers to attend private (mostly religious) schools, with another 50,000 children given scholarships by rightwing pro-voucher philanthropists.

The term "compassionate conservative," as Bush describes himself, was coined by advisor Marvin Olasky, a self-described Jewish communist turned born-again Christian, who is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin. Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism (2000), features an introduction by Bush, and reprints a Bush campaign promise to fund religious groups. The term "compassionate conservative" signals support of taxpayer funding to religious groups to provide most government social services, according to an analysis of Olasky's book by Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe & Mail (Jan. 13, 2001). In a nutshell, Olasky believes poverty is caused not by a lack of money but by a lack of moral values.

To register your views on the creation of an Office of Faith-Based Action in the White House, you may write President George W. Bush, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC 20502. The White House comment line is 202/456-1111.

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You Won't Believe You're Reading This

Safer to be a freethinker. A sheep being raised for sacrificial slaughter butted a worshipper in Cairo off the top of a three-story building, causing severe injuries. Source: AP/San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 3, 2001

"She shall be scourged." Nigerian teenager Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, 17, who recently gave birth after being coerced by her father to have sex with three of his associates, received 100 lashings with a cane on Jan. 22 for having premarital sex and for "falsely accusing men." Her Islamic court sentence of 180 lashes was reduced after an international outcry. Source: Globe & Mail, Dec. 28, 2000; AP, Jan. 23, 2001

Woe to the women. Saudi Arabia's mutawa, religious police who earn bounty for arrests, are still terrorizing women ten years after women protesters held a "drive-in" to defy a ban on women driving and enforcement of sharia, fundamentalist Islamic law. Saudi women may expose only hands and sometimes kohl-rimmed eyes and hennaed feet, and may not travel, go to school or get a job without written approval of a male relative. Source: Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2000

Hairy men only need apply. Afghani's Taliban issued an edict that men without beards will be denied jobs and services, because a "beard is the tradition of Islam's prophet Mohammad." Source: Reuters, Nov. 18, 2000

Another eagerly awaited edict. The Taliban announced the death penalty for anyone who converts from Islam to another religion, and for any non-Muslim trying to win converts. Source: AP, Jan. 11, 2001

Ironic, isn't it? A vicar was forced to apologize for telling an assembly of 217 children, ages 7-11, that Father Christmas does not exist. Source: Daily Mail [Great Britain], Dec. 15, 2000

Women: shut up. The judicial body of the Presbyterian Church in America cleared a Tennessee pastor of charges of violating church doctrine forbidding women from preaching, concluding the female guest speaker did not preach but gave a "presentation." Said cleared Rev. John Wood: "It's a very emotional issue with a lot of fellows who believe if women start speaking in church it's a slippery slope, and the next thing you know we'll be ordaining women." Source: The Tennessean, October 22, 2000

We'll take the leftovers! Nestl? withdrew a white chocolate Aero bar with a cranberry flavor marketed as "Stuff Xmas! Treat Yourself!" from British shelves after the Church of England condemned it as "offensive." Source: [London] Times, Nov. 9, 11, 2000

Those wild & crazy monks. Buddhist monks are under surveillance in Thailand after a series of sex and financial scandals, including drinking, pornography, carousing in karaoke bars, and sleeping with women. One monk bought a collection of 60 vintage Mercedes Benz from donations raised to help disadvantaged youth. Source: Irish Independent, Nov. 2, 2000

Oh . . . go to hell! "Science is using evolution theory to make kids go to hell," maintains Florida evangelist Kent Hovind of Science Evangelism, who has taught high school math and science but (not surprisingly) has no science degree. Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 10, 2000

Will Earth be flat? Answers in Genesis plans a March unveiling of a $14 million, 95,000-square-ft Creation Museum and Family Discovery Center dedicated to the "history of the world according to the bible," near Hebron, KY. Source: Associated Press, 11/22/00

Exorcism a booming business. The Los Angeles Times reports the ancient ritual of exorcism, which fell out of favor in the Age of Reason, is flourishing once more in the Age of the Internet. Some 20 official U.S. Catholic exorcists are outnumbered by about 600 evangelical/Pentecostal exorcists. Source: Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2000

Christian family scandals. John Bircher John G. Schmitz, a Southern California rightwing leader, died in January. In 1982, the fierce opponent of sex education and proponent of "family values" was exposed for having a pregnant mistress and a 15 month old son. His daughter Mary Kay LeTourneau, now 35, was convicted in 1997 in Washington state for having a sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student, with whom the married, imprisoned mother has now borne two children. Source: AP, Jan. 11, 2001

Gospel: not "good news" for gays. U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-AZ, was disinvited by the Gospel Rescue Mission to be a volunteer at a Tucson homeless shelter's Thanksgiving dinner because he is gay. The mission compared homosexuals to "adulterers, liars and thieves." Source: Tucson Citizen 11/25/00

Both are addictive substances. A church which meets in a public school has raised local ire by mailing an ad to 10,000 homes in Royal Oak, MI, depicting an empty vodka bottle with the slogan "Absolut Truth Straight From God." Source: Daily Tribune

No way to treat Archimedes. After nearly 1,000 years, the earliest known copy of Archimedes' mathematical theorems, worth $2 million and written over by a 12th-century monk to make a prayer book, has been restored by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Source: Photonics Spectra, April 2000

Jesus junk mail. Whether they wanted them or not, 1.1 million households in 10 U.S. cities got an 83-minute movie of the life of Jesus in early December. Orlando churches raised nearly $1.3 million to send the videos to half a million central Florida homes. Source: Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6, 2000 & AP, Dec. 12, 2000

Methodists disown Mormons. The United Methodist Church General Conference, citing "radically differing" doctrines, has determined that Mormons are not Christians, and, should any wish to convert to Methodism, must undergo "intensive exploration and instruction in the Christian faith" before rebaptism. Source: Press-Enterprise, May 11, 2000

A supernatural alibi. Prior to the conviction of Gary Paul Karr, 51, on extortion and other charges relating to the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hair family, Karr's attorney Tom Mills blamed a higher authority for O'Hair's apparent murder: "When someone spends 30 years cursing and deploring God, it wouldn't surprise me if one day He grew weary of it. Mr. Karr has maintained that he did not kill her or her staff. If they are gone, and who knows if they are, perhaps no human was responsible for their disappearance from the earth." Source: American-Statesman, March 30, 2000

Talk about ego! The pope, age 80, is being marketed as a comic-book hero in a Vatican-approved serial depicting "the real life and true adventures of 'Karol Wojtyla: Pope of the Third Millennium.' " Source: Associated Press

Geez, leave atheists out of it! In denouncing McDonald's inroads in Rome, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire declared fast food fit only for atheists, or perhaps Lutherans. Source: Reuters/Irish Times, Nov. 11, 2000

Reflects well on Clinton. Pope John Paul II told the Italian weekly magazine Oggi: "The only leader I did not manage to have a proper conversation with was Clinton. I was speaking and he was looking at one of the walls, admiring the frescos and the paintings. He was not listening to me." Source: Reuters, Jan. 11, 2001

Bill of Rights "ungodly." The Vatican called the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted by the European Union summit "ungodly" for sanctioning gay unions, showing "excessive tolerance" toward Muslim immigrants, and for being a "communist plot." Source: [London] Times, Dec. 2, 2000

Unholy See? The Vatican bank is fighting a California law designed to help elderly Holocaust survivors achieve resolution of Nazi slave labor claims during their lifetimes. Source: www.vaticanbankclaims.com, Dec. 29, 2000

Suffer the children to suffer. The head of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity order admitted one of her nuns had used a hot knife to burn the hands of four street children in Calcutta as discipline for stealing. Source: Irish Times, Sept. 22, 2000

Nuns with "bad" habits. Drama chiefs banned nuns from entering Julie Andrews lookalike contests at karaoke shows in Yorkshire commemorating the 35-year-old film "Sound of Music," complaining nuns were walking away with top prizes of champagne, chocolates and videos at similar contests in London and Oxford. "This is taking the prizes away from those people who have actually dressed up for the night," said a spokeswoman for Limelight Entertainment. Source: The Northern Echo [UK], Oct. 11, 2000

Don't keep on truckin'. The 55 "trans-denominational" truck chapels run in 24 states by the Ga.-based Truckstop Ministries are getting some competition. Rev. John A. Jamnicky is leaving his post as O'Hare Airport's Catholic chaplain to oversee his denomination's first trucker ministry. Source: Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 27, 2000

"You killed Jesus!" About 50 students from the Catholic Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois, chanted an anti-Semitic taunt, "You killed Jesus," during a heated basketball game against a rival high school on Nov. 22. Source: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 2000

Blessed are the pizza makers? Some 2,000 pizza chefs participated in a special delivery of pizza on Oct. 25 to His Awfulness the Pope, receiving in return a blessing for his Jubilee of the Pizza-Makers. Source: Baltimore Sun, 10/26/00

Unsporting Christianity? Animal rights activists denounced the Georgia-based Special Youth Challenge Minisries for taking a group of disabled teens on a hunt consisting of shooting trapped animals on a ranch. Source: Sun-Sentinel, July 15, 2000

Just what Georgia needs. Silver Dollar City, Inc., which proclaims "Christian values," announced plans for a $100 million theme park on Southern history and heritage at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and already home to a bas-relief memorial to Confederate leaders. Source: New York Times, Oct. 8, 2000

December is not just for Christians. Many unbelievers like to mark the Winter Solstice with food, family, music and gifts--pagan traditions that pre-date Christianity, recognizing the shortest day of the year. Last December the Gaylor/Barker family celebrated the "reason for the season" with a festive Solstice party, including a nontraditional dinner of Annie Laurie's Cornish Pasties and baked custard and a traditional exchange of gifts.

My main gift this year was quite extravagant: a PalmPilot. Besides debates, concerts and speeches for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I also do more than a hundred jazz piano gigs each year, so my calender gets pretty complicated. The little pocket electronic organizer is helping a lot. I am enjoying learning how to "go electronic" with my datebook and addresses.

I like to read manuals. After completing the basic documentation, I borrowed PalmPilot: The Ultimate Guide from my sister-in-law Lisa, who also got a PalmPilot at the same party. (The whole world is going electronic!) The book comes with a CD containing thousands of programs and files that can be transferred to the handheld unit. I can install American & European literature, philosophy, religion, science, menus, (not-so) famous novels, the Koran, Book of Mormon--and the whole bible, in case I can't get through the day without a dose of "divine inspiration."

Imagine my surprise, while browsing the general Literary folder, to spot a file called "Dear Believer," between "DC Comics" and "Dennis Miller--The Rants." "Dear Believer" happens to be the title of a Foundation nontract I wrote in 1987. I couldn't imagine that a freethought piece would be awarded such a spot, or even be included at all, but I had to check it out.

Sure enough, when I opened the file, I found that it is indeed the Foundation's nontract #2. (The term "nontract"--a tract for nonbelievers--was coined by Annie Laurie.)

"Dear Believer" is the nontract that was blocked by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh from being placed alongside Gideon bibles in state-owned hotel rooms in 1990 because its hard-hitting criticism of the bible was considered "blasphemous." The issue generated a lot of publicity and the offending nontract was reprinted in Harper's Magazine.

Now, it's a literary classic!

I wonder if Bayh got a PalmPilot for Christmas.

Dan Barker, a former minister, is a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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No Graven Images and Other Reflections

This speech was delivered on September 16 at the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mayor Richard Daley of my hometown of Chicago is not particularly known for his eloquence, but in August of 1992 he made a pronouncement on faith that was striking for its pith and profundity. Addressing some now long-forgotten local church-state wrangle, the mayor said:

"Everybody believes in some kind of God, if they want to . . . or they don't."

Well, how true that is.

I don't expect to see it replacing "In God We Trust" as our national motto any time soon, but to me it sums up the proper governmental attitude toward all things religious:

Firm. Declarative. But ultimately indecisive: "Everybody believes . . . or they don't." "In God Some Trust, Though Some Do Not. Whatever."

This is probably the last gathering in America that needs to hear this message. Those in this room tonight don't need to be persuaded that it may well be the singular genius of the American experiment that through our history we have made a comparatively decent effort to keep the grubby paws of government off of religion and the grubby paws of religion off of government.

My collected writings on this subject--not that anyone has yet thought to collect them--make this point in a variety of ways for an audience of those who do need to be persuaded. If I bring any particular expertise to this subject at all it's my experience in attempting to promote separation periodically and insistently to an audience that doesn't want to hear about it and that thinks I'm going to hell.

I'm not promising any kind of winning strategy here, just some of the arguments that have worked for me in advancing this and similar positions as positive and plausible affirmations to a public that tends to think this should be a Christian nation or maybe a Judeo-Christian nation or at least, certainly, a God-centered nation.

Because we need to keep scoring points. Because just when you start to feel a little complacent, along comes the major political party that has most reliably defended the separation of church and state--the Democrats--nominating for vice president a man who tells us it's time to "renew the dedication of our nation . . . to God and God's purposes" and ominously reminds us that, "John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," and that "George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion.' "

In the same speech, Joseph Lieberman said that without the Jewish and Christian traditions, the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence "could never have been written."

At which my mind reeled with responses, most of them salty, the cleanest of which was, "Well, it sure took 'em long enough."

After centuries of sectarian bloodshed, human slavery and unspeakable cruelties in the name of the Judeo-Christian God, then they found--in between the lines--oh, gee, all men are created equal . . . how did we miss that before?

Then it took this same tradition roughly 100 more years to begin to extend this equality to black men and 150 to begin to extend it to white and black women and the disabled.

Whenever I make observations like that in print, I receive a flood of angry responses making two points.

1. Lots of blood has been spilled by nonbelievers in the service of nonreligious ideology. Stalin, Pol Pot and the like.

2. Abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the 1960s were driven in large part by Christians.

I don't deny that. All it does is underscore for me the fundamental principle behind the First Amendment---that religion, whatever its other merits, is an unreliable basis for a free and democratic society. Far from being a source of absolute moral truth, religion and scripture are a source of absolute conflict and confusion. Mr. Jones finds in his scripture passages to prove that God believes gays, women and blacks are sub-human and should be treated accordingly. Mr. Smith finds in his scripture passages to prove that God wants us to love one another equally. And you already know the punchline. They're holding the same book.

I've titled my remarks tonight: "No Graven Images and Other Reflections."

The reference, of course, is to the third of the Ten Commandments taken from Exodus 20, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image"--in the Revised Standard Version, a graven image being a physical object of worship usually made of wood or stone, sometimes called an idol. And the Ten Commandments being the list of precepts that God is said to have revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; they also appear in Deuteronomy 5, if you're keeping score.

I know this not because I'm a particular student of the Old Testament. I mean, why bother to read it closely? Every time you find a nice juicy passage--if "the tokens of virginity (are) not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death," or "whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death;" or God's threat to unbelievers in Leviticus 26: "you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters"--you're told no, those don't apply anymore or those weren't meant literally or Jesus erased those passages that we now find appalling.

I know my citations on the Commandments because they're so often in the news these days and have frequently given me an opportunity to argue for two points I consider very important.

The first being that separation of church and state is not a burdensome abstraction but a source of our nation's strength.

The second being that George Washington and Joe Lieberman have it wrong: Even though moral behavior and religious belief sometimes go together, they are independent concepts.

One of my earliest Ten Commandments columns concerned His Egregiousness Judge Ray Moore of Etowah County, Alabama, who several years ago refused a higher court order to remove the Decalog he'd posted in his courtroom. The ever weak-minded populists in the U.S. House of Representatives then passed a resolution by a 295-125 vote supporting and encouraging him in that refusal.

The argument favoring Judge Moore's position went something like this: The American system of laws is rooted in absolute moral truths as handed down by the Judeo-Christian God in the Ten Commandments. Therefore a display of the commandments is, like a relief statue of the blindfolded Dame Justice above the courthouse door, simply a symbolic reminder of the principles upon which all this jurisprudence is, ultimately, based.

My answer to this was, in so many words . . . Like hell it is.

Taken as a whole, the Ten Commandments are explicitly based upon and reflect a particular--and, I might add, not very widely practiced--religious belief.

How many of the Ten Commandments reflect actual laws that Judge Ray Moore is charged with enforcing in his courtroom?

Seven? Five? Four?

Three.

You shall not steal. You shall not murder. You shall not bear false witness.

Another four--honor your folks, stay faithful to your spouse, don't be covetous and refrain from profanity--are simply good ideas, not generally matters of law anymore.

I try to live by them myself, though I have to admit my belief that they were composed by men for men. Good ideas are good ideas and I give the authors credit, though, I'm bound to say, they were not a stretch.

The remaining three--keep the Sabbath holy, make no graven images and have no other God before the Judeo-Christian God--are religious proscriptions, plain and simple.

"Making graven images may or may not be a good idea," I wrote in one column, "but unless I misread my Constitution, we're all free to do so and risk the consequences. Any sign in any courtroom or public school classroom that implies otherwise is in serious error."

I would add to this that making graven images, or at least the freedom to do so, is precisely, exactly what America is all about.

Freedom of conscience.

The pilgrims came here from England to escape the tyranny of governance that told them how to worship. And okay, granted, they were hypocrites. Their ideas of religious liberty were narrowly confined and they simply practiced their own brand of religious persecution once they got over here. But still. The nugget of the idea survived.

By endorsing no one faith government endorses every faith. What a person believes about the highest things--the deepest and most profound questions there are---is not at all the business of the lawmakers.

The fact that quite a few Americans, in their hearts, don't seem to believe this doesn't obscure its fundamental success: We may have our problems in this country, but widespread sectarian strife isn't one of them. Never has been.

It's my guess that never in the history of the world have so many faiths and so many different and competing franchises of these faiths flourished in one nation at one time with so little bloodshed.

And bloodshed is what you get when the graven image-makers are compelled by their government to stop making graven images by a ruling power that thinks it has the inside line on what God wants people to do.

When a society or system decides that the making of graven imagery is to be outlawed as a particularly pernicious form of blasphemy, there becomes no principled reason why it cannot outlaw, say, the display of a crucifix, the wearing of a star of David, or the reading of particular religious or anti-religious texts. Under such a system, only popularity protects religious expression. And this is exactly what the Constitution intended to guard against--a point I hope Mr. Lieberman appreciates.

What Judge Ray Moore of Alabama and the stubborn half-wits in the House clearly fail to realize is that posting the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is actually offensive to our concept of justice.

The sign in Moore's courtroom should say, "Make all the graven images you want, you pickpockets, you drunk drivers, you check bouncers, you shoplifters. This is the land of the brave and the home of the free. Rank the Gods in the order of your choice. Go to Kung-Fu movies or hold Tupperware parties on the Sabbath. Just don't break the law!"

The first columns I wrote on church/state issues were in the mid-1980s, after I got a call from a local office-supply salesman who also happened to be a leading member of the American Atheists. He'd been driving through Zion, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on business and had noticed Christian crosses on the water tower, the police cars and other civic property. He thought it was wrong and he wanted me to help him make an issue of it. Which I did.

Public response was swift, angry and condescending: How dare he demand the removal of the historic symbol so cherished by the pious, God-fearing people of a town founded by a preacher? How dare he flout the will of the vast majority of residents? Weren't there enough real problems in the world?

To me, it marked a tragic though common failure of imagination: What if you lived in Zion and you weren't Christian? Or what if you were a Christian househunting in a suburb and saw, say, Stars of David on virtually every government-owned sign? Respect for tradition and history aside, wouldn't you feel just that much less welcome? That much more like an official outcast?

Truth is, many Americans who give lip service to religious liberty still think it means something like, "The government shall make no laws discriminating among various forms of mainstream Christianity and it will tolerate certain other forms of monotheism as long as the adherents don't dress too funny."

This is where we get back to graven imagery, Sabbath breaking and all the other dogmatic prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.

Ever ask yourself why in the name of all that is putatively holy do these zealots insist on posting the Commandments instead of, say, a nice solid list of Principles of Good Behavior?

I mean, if you've got room in your classroom or courtroom for ten rules, why would you spend one telling people not to make graven images? And another telling them to keep the Sabbath holy?

These are not big problems.

And when it comes to actual problems, does anyone really need a sign to remind them not to murder people?

Of course not. The content is not critical.

The messenger is the message: As a whole, the Ten Commandments on the wall say that God, a divine and all-powerful being, is the source of morality; that, just as Joltin' Joe Lieberman says in so many words, without God telling us what is moral and what isn't moral and defining the absolutes of right and wrong, there can be no right and wrong.

This is a perfectly fine belief for an individual to hold to regulate his own conduct.

I'd neither endorse it or criticize it as a matter of personal conscience. It's not my business, as long as no one tries to make it my business.

But as a civic belief, the notion of God as the source of morality is not benign--it's dangerous.

It's dangerous because it removes questions of law, customs and morals from the arena of human logic and reason.

Am I saying that all the moral teachings of religious leaders are therefore bad, illogical and unreasonable?

No.

What I'm saying is that God, by definition, is the highest trump card--the ultimate argument-ender. If Jones and Smith want to contest whether it should be legal to make graven imagery, Jones can play the freedom card, Smith can play the weakened authority of the church card, Jones can play the what-business-is-it-of-yours card . . . but as soon as Smith plays the God card---as soon as he says, "It is wrong because God says it is wrong," ---then the discussion is either over or they increase the stakes dramatically when Jones plays his God card.

God does not say that, Jones might insist. According to my scriptures, which are true and holy, God says just the opposite of what he says in your scriptures, which are errant and profane.

And now they're into it big time. Not only have they escalated dramatically the rather small question of public policy regarding the crafting of idols, but they've made the question all but irresolvable.

One version of God says No, another version of God says Yes.

And, frustratingly enough, there's no physical evidence either way to help decide the question. They're left, instead, to do battle by proxy, dueling with scripture and text---scripture that is in places dramatically contradictory yet supposedly written by those who have taken dictation from the master and creator of the Universe.

Talk about an ugly battle.

But, again, at its core is the belief of the theist that without absolute standards as established by God, there can be no standards whatsoever---that without God, all of morality becomes personal opinion, whims that ride upon fashion, caprices of convenience. Everything is relative. Nothing is fixed. Chaos ensues.

I've tended to answer this by posing again the old riddle: If you behave well strictly because someone tells you to behave well, are you acting morally? Or simply obediently?

Is a moral result the same thing as a moral act?

If, to put it another way, you don't commit adultery because you think God says not to commit adultery, have you really put into that decision the sort of ethical reflection that we commonly think of as a moral thought process?

I mean, there are a number of reasons not to commit adultery I can think of.

One is fear you'd get caught and get tossed out of your home and endure seemingly endless recriminations from your spouse and children and probably neighbors.

Another is fear of eternal punishment from an angry God.

Another is because God says not to commit adultery and God is good and you love God.

Another is the belief that we should respect and honor the commitments we make to one another because that is the basis for a stable and productive personal life, a stable and productive society and the strong family that gives each member the greatest happiness and opportunity.

Yet another, along those same lines, might be the belief that we should treat others--particularly those closest to us--as we wish to be treated by them. The Golden Rule.

Each reason, and I don't mean the list to be exhaustive, leads to the same result: Fidelity. But is each reason equally admirable? Equally "moral"?

I say no.

And the Commandment waver agrees with me.

But the Commandment waver says that following the absolute dictates of God is more admirable, more moral, because it abides by unchanging principle. Whereas, he adds, all my squishy, interpersonal reasons are subject to change as social values change. And any morality that you make up as you go along is no sort of morality at all.

But the opposite is true. Anyone who follows rules without thinking is simply a good soldier. A good soldier follows orders--he's taught that it's not the role of the soldier to question orders or to doubt them or examine them; that to do so risks grave consequences.

In contrast, the person who acts well in a situation by following the dictates of conscience must reason in a way that draws from larger concepts of good. Behaving ethically in that sense is a habit of mind that is applicable not just to adultery, but to theft and murder and bearing false witness and honoring your mother and father as well as situations that may not be specifically covered in some purportedly sacred text or even the lawbooks.

Believers and I agree when it comes to the Golden Rule. It appears not only in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12, but we also hear it from Aristotle, Confucius and Muhammad and learn of it in the Talmud, the Hindu tradition, the American Indian spiritual tradition and, of course, the ethical humanist philosophy.

But, again, I would contend that the Golden Rule is not Golden because Jesus or any other wise person, prophet or incarnate God said it, but because it resonates so perfectly with our human experience.

As to the criticism that such morality is baseless, adaptable and non-absolute . . . I ask the Judeo-Christian culture how it was that slavery, mentioned repeatedly and in an offhand way in the Bible, endured on this earth with the sanction of Christian people until just the last century? I would ask that, if "thou shalt not steal" and "thou shalt not murder" reflect absolute rocks to which we can cling, how was it that so many new Americans rooted in that Judeo-Christian ethic sanctioned the genocidal treatment of American Indians and their land?

And the Salem witch trials. And the Inquisition. And the Crusades. If these are not examples of moral relativism and make-em-up-as-you-go principles, I don't know what is.

I don't mean this as a criticism of all believers of all scripture.

I agree with the argument that says no number of wicked acts by professed Christians necessarily refutes propositions in Christian scripture. I ask only in return for an acknowledgment--seldom granted, by the way--that no number of good acts by professed Christians validates the Gospels.

Another acknowledgment that I'm slow to receive is that a belief in God is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality. You don't need to believe in God to have a strong, principled moral backbone. And simply believing in a higher power and his rules doesn't give you that backbone. Either way you have to work at it, use your reason and your intuition.

I get questioned rather often about my own religious beliefs--particularly after I write columns that may seem rather harsh on practitioners of faith. What is your religion? What do you believe? Are you an atheist?

I actually shy from the term atheist. To me, the connotations are too blunt, the implied level of certitude too great and the association with the shadowy, strident Madalyn Murray O'Hair a bit too close.

Though etymologically someone who is A-theistic lives without theism, without a belief in God as part of his life--and that would define me--"atheist" seems like a fightin' word to me, one that carries a sense of rejection and denial: One that professes a strong conviction that there is no God.

But I have no such conviction: In thinking, writing and debating these questions I've concluded that we don't know what other forces might or might not exist in the universe.

How life came to be as it is on this planet, what it all means, where it's all going? . . .

I don't know. I don't know if there's no God, one God or a million gods--good, bad, alive, dead, caring or as unconcerned with our lives on earth as we are unconcerned with the lives of the dust mites under our beds.

I don't know if we are the only planet in the universe with sentient beings on it, or one of a million such planets. I don't know if this is the first time that an intelligent human race has evolved on a small, watery satellite hurtling through space, or if, in uncounted contractions and expansions of the universe through untold eons, it is the ten thousandth or ten billionth. I don't know if we are an early, discarded experiment of an intelligent creator, that creator's ultimate work, or just a fluke combination of carbon molecules.

And I'm persuaded that none of those who claim to know have any idea either, no matter how sincere they are.

And I believe a lot of them are sincere. I believe a lot of them are guided by hope and by the sense--I would call it the vanity--that they themselves and human beings in general are vastly more important and long-lasting in this vast creation than actually they are.

And I'm tempted by that thought. Who wouldn't be?

I'm as tempted as the next person with the alluring ideas that our spirits live on after our bodies die, that there are psychics and astrologers and mystics who can tap into paranormal forces and tell us important secrets.

But in the end, research and reason suppress these temptations. Almost every time I get the chance as a journalist I ask readers of the Chicago Tribune to consider the evidence.

In January 1997 the Chicago Sun-Times printed this correction: "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Friday were correct."

My column, in response, said that in the spirit of accuracy, the paper should have said, "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Wednesday were incorrect, too, actually, as have been Omarr's horoscopes every day for many, many years. The forecasts were equally valid for both days or for any other day of any other year, which is to say not valid at all."

I went on to point out that astrologers always fail in simple laboratory experiments. For instance, they can't do any better than random guessers in blind attempts to match astrological charts with people.

Sydney Omarr wrote me a blistering, indignant letter and enclosed two of his books. I posted these letters on the Internet along with a challenge. I said, tell you what, Omarr, I'll give you the time, date and place of the birth of ten people, then you try to match their horoscopes with their identities. Then, I said, we can all have a good laugh at how you can't tell serial killers from social workers. I must be clairvoyant, because I knew he wouldn't write back and he never did.

Just last month a suburban Chicago police department announced it was consulting a psychic to try to find a missing and allegedly murdered woman, and the psychic had given them a detailed description of the burial site.

"She's guessing," I wrote. I noted that objective analyses of these so called "psychic detectives" reveal them as frauds who build their reputations through trickery and by advertising the luckiest of their guesses.

And then I made note of a fact that relatively few people are aware of but bears constant repetition: "Since 1968, magician James Randi has offered a sizable cash award--it's now $1 million--to anyone who 'can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.' " Several hundred hopefuls have applied. All have failed.

All have failed. Not most. Not nearly all. 100 percent. For 32 years.

Does this mean there are no psychic or paranormal forces at work in the universe? A careful person, aware of the difficulty of proving a negative, would never say such a thing. What he would say, though, is that those who claim to be able to harness or usefully understand such forces have, to date, proved to be, well . . . mistaken.

Like the psychic detective now working our western suburbs, they're guessing.

So what label for me? Skeptic? Freethinker? Perhaps agnostic--someone who says he doesn't know or that the answers to these questions are fundamentally unknowable? But I go a step further--I call myself an "indifferent agnostic"--and I say that whether God exists is not just unknowable but irrelevant. It doesn't matter.

Look, if there is a living God who created and cares about this world, I think the best one can say about him and his moral sense is that it is utterly impenetrable. Take a walk around a children's hospital. Look at the videos of starvation in the Sudan. Read the stories about the just-passed 100th anniversary of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Six thousand, some say 10,000 people, dead. Or visit the Holocaust museum.

The moral code of an almighty power that allegedly created and presides over such horror is, to put it charitably, ambiguous.

The Bible certainly suggests that as well. One of the most controversial columns I ever wrote touching on this subject dealt with how, in all Passover seders I've ever attended, the participants have glossed over the gruesome, inexplicable injustice wreaked by God upon the young, the innocent and the hapless of ancient Egypt.

"Passover" refers to the story in the 12th chapter of Exodus in which God, one night at midnight, kills all first-born creatures in Egypt except the children of the enslaved Jews, whose houses he passed over. This was the tenth and worst of the plagues God is said to have visited upon the Egyptian people, the one that finally persuaded Pharaoh to liberate the Jews.

I wrote: "Why, given limitless options, would an all-just, all-powerful God resort to such a ghastly device?

"The pile of Egyptian corpses that next morning had to include huge numbers of infants and toddlers, not to mention non-Jewish slaves and their children.

"Everyday Egyptians with no power over their monarch awoke to lifeless kids and spouses and farmyards littered with carcasses--this after having previously endured a horrific series of plagues, including boils, locusts and a B-movie infestation of frogs."

I went on, "At a time when many people are wringing their hands over what to tell children about allegations the President has behaved in a tawdry manner, what are we supposed to tell the kiddies about a biblical God who slaughtered children in their beds by the thousands instead of working a less devastating miracle to free the slaves?"

Then I quoted the executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council: "We don't always understand God's ways."

The question remains and is larger than the simple problem of evil: Whether or not all or some of the kill-'em-all stories in the world's scriptures are literally true (the destruction of Jericho and the Biblical flood also come to mind), and what implications have we drawn from them?

These stories tell us that violence is a favored way to resolve disputes, even when there are more peaceful options; that others--other tribes, nations, races, faiths--have lives of diminished value and are therefore candidates for wholesale extermination; that punishing the innocent to achieve a desired end is not incompatible with the ideals of justice.

This is by no means a uniquely Jewish legacy. We see it everywhere in history, including in the Holocaust and in the "many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of (Christianity)--wars of religions, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons," in the words of Pope John Paul II.

This legacy is nurtured by the common idea that those who are otherwise virtuous but do not believe in the literal truth of the miraculous stories and assertions of given faiths--such as the account of the resurrection of Christ--deserve to suffer an eternity of misery.

I got a lot of mail after that, most of it filled with the sorts of theological hand-waving that I find unpersuasive to the point of being objectionable. This same crowd that points the finger at "moral relativists" puts more qualifiers on their "absolute" ideas than you find in a common apartment lease.

Here's my sense: If there's an intelligent force that created our world, what he wants--or wanted, if he's still around--and all he wants, if anything at all, is for us to do right by his creation. To honor the creator, in other words, by honoring that which he made---others, the land, the air and so on. And, further, this God, if he exists, gave us the impressive capacity for reason--so that we could figure out, on our own, how to live right.

Life and reason may well be God's only gifts to us. "Use Them Wisely" is certainly his only commandment.

What's striking about this is that it's exactly what's incumbent upon us if there is no intelligent creator. Nothing changes. It doesn't matter.

Every society, every civilization ever unearthed or studied has had codes of right and wrong. No matter which God or gods people have prayed to, they have ordered their existence---almost always with individual, cultural and political survival in mind.

When I objected to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, I heard from those who said that the Commandments are an appropriate display because they reflect the fact that the morality and law of our western culture are so rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as to be inseparable.

I don't deny the importance of the Bible in shaping our culture. Nor do I deny that it has inspired great people to do great things and behave well. I do deny, though, that without God as a starting point it is impossible to formulate a coherent morality.

If we could be sure there is no God, would it then be right to murder? If we could be sure there is no God, would our prohibitions against stealing disappear? Would lying be any less wrong?

No.

And to illustrate this I ask my critics to perform the following thought experiment:

Say you get a surprise visit this evening from all the major religious leaders of the world, the top people in every faith, the major leaders of the Protestant denominations . . . all of them, even the Scientologists. And they say, "We have a problem. We have each come across evidence--incontrovertible evidence--that the stories, the legends, the prophets, the miracles, the received wisdom of our belief systems are all massive frauds. They were perpetrated by leaders who were simply attempting for various reasons, good and bad, to control and inspire the uneducated masses. But they made it all up. Every last word. And we know it and we've not been able to agree on what to do about it."

They say to you, "We can't just announce this. People would not be ready for it. Too many of them believe that without God, anything is allowed, nothing is forbidden. And we can't agree on how to reconcile some of the differences in our belief systems.

"So what we've decided," they say, "is to select a random, decent person--you--and ask that person to create a set of moral guidelines for human beings. To write your own commandments, as many as you wish---you can leave adultery out this time, if you want---in an effort to shape or reshape the world for good."

They say they will then employ a master archeological forger to create some sort of tablets or scrolls onto which this moral code will be inscribed---along with several devastatingly corroborative prophecies---after which they will arrange for a miraculous discovery of your precepts in some cave in the Middle East. At that point, they say, they will renounce their old dogma and encourage their adherents to follow yours.

In short, what if they made you God?

And without giving you time here to ponder this, let me suggest that what you would come up with, as the decent, ethical person you are, would look a whole lot like a best-of, greatest hits list of the common highlights of the finest faiths.

Somehow, with no help from any where, you'd come up with prohibitions against stealing, murdering and lying. One can hardly imagine a sustainable society where such things were not considered wrong. You'd probably want to discourage infidelity and disrespect of parents--not much good can come of that. You'd probably see the wisdom in keeping greed and covetousness in check and asking people to watch their language.

Because at this level, morality is common sense. It enforces itself through reason.

The contrary assertion, that without God we would feel free to kill and steal and sleep with anyone because we could not possibly find a reason not to, is absurd. We have an instinctive interest in preservation . . . of ourselves, of our kin, of our community and our culture.

Peace, health and stability are essential to that preservation, and the common sense guidelines that lead to that form the bedrock of a strong moral system.

A moral system that does not refer primarily to human reason---a morality that relies on some hypothetical externality to validate it---runs the risk of being arbitrary.

Further, as Robert Ingersoll observed, God, as defined, has always shown an uncanny penchant for hating and loving exactly what his human interpreters have hated and loved, and has been "invariably on the side of those in power."

How do we test these allegedly divine commands for plausibility? With our own reason, of course, and our own instincts.

If Holy Man A says it is an abomination to God if man makes a graven image and Holy Woman B says, no, God demands that we worship idols, how do we settle this?

I mean the legal question, not the theological question. How do we, a society comprised of followers of Holy Men and Women A through Z and followers of no holy people at all, decide which of God's purported pronouncements ought to carry the weight of law?

Most societies through history have operated on the principle that the majority belief or the belief of those who hold power should rule, should carry the weight of law. And, quite obviously, most societies through history have been inferior to ours by any number of modern measures.

This is not a coincidence.

Those who have taken issue with my stance on the Ten Commandments often use the "majority rules" argument. It appears to be a very easy weapon to deploy when you're in the majority.

What these majoritarians fail to understand is that the legal cudgel they would use to reinforce their own faith today could very well be used to deny or ban that same faith tomorrow. Christians who complain about being discriminated against and persecuted in America whenever they are denied the opportunity to use tax dollars, legislation and public land and schools to advance their sectarian views don't have any idea what persecution means.

The separationist creed--and I stress this--is ultimately pro-religion because it is so staunchly pro-conscience.

I'm not bothered by what goes on in the sanctuaries and grottoes, at the altars or in houses of worship. And I'm glad when beliefs, however implausible or unproven to me, prompt people to behave well and to find comfort and happiness in this often weary world.

But it almost never stops there, with the personal, with the inner life, does it? It's not enough that they find in their faith rules to live by. They want to make you live by them too. The ban on graven imagery in the Ten Commandments is a reminder--set in stone, so they say--of the inevitable pitfalls of using the received words of God as the source of morality and law.

Posting them as officially sanctioned statements of the government is an attempt to codify the five words that sum up the Ten Commandments: GOD WANTS YOU TO BEHAVE, and the implicit threat behind it: OR ELSE.

I'd like to close tonight with a hymn.

I was raised in a secular home--we weren't church people, God never came up--except in songs. We sang religious songs all the time--my dad and I had a huge repertoire of country gospel tunes and I've always taken every chance I can to sing from the sacred harp hymnal with people who know how to read shaped notes.

I mean, no matter what you say about religion, its musical bona fides are the best--and singing hymns in a large group is a magnificent experience.

So I thought I'd like to lead you in such an experience, but of course "How Great Thou Art" might catch in some throats here, I don't know. So I have selected one of the lesser-known Monty Python songs written in the style of a hymn and I believe borrowing heavily in the melody from a genuine hymn. It occurs near the beginning of "The Meaning of Life" movie and is sung as a devotional by British schoolboys, and it follows up on the implicit OR ELSE that's so important to certain concepts of morality. The title, I believe is, "Oh Lord, Please Don't Burn Us."

To paraphrase Mayor Daley, "Everyone will enjoy singing this song. If they want to . . . or they won't."

Oh, Lord, Please Don't Burn Us

O Lord, please don't burn us.
Don't grill or toast your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don't braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok

Oh, please don't lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don't fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don't stick thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissimat

Eric Zorn has written a metropolitan news column for the Chicago Tribune since September 1986. His father is Prof. Jens C. Zorn, professor of physics, University of Michigan, and his mother, Fran Zorn, is lecturer in English composition and medical careers there. He met his wife, Johanna Wolken, WBEZ-FM executive producer, while doing a radio column 1982-85. They have a son (1989) and fraternal twins (1997) and live on Chicago's Northwest side. He is co-author of Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Schoolhouse Killer Laurie Dann (Warner Books, 1990).

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