It’s encouraging to see our secular movement growing and gaining strength. We are meeting, networking, organizing, participating and proliferating.
As our numbers increase, so does membership in the growing number of secular organizations. We are receiving national and international media attention, with the important message of reality-based alternatives to lives and minds dimmed and shackled by the influences of religion and its myths and superstitions.
Each day, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens who share our worldview are standing up, speaking out and accepting their role in what may be the most important and consequential social change in the history of humankind. It is the evolution and transition from a world of mythological beliefs and practices toward lives, societies and nations founded upon science, facts and reason.
Many of us seem to lack the perceived freedom, social support or opportunity to make our freethought known to others. Yet, freethinkers today are much like those minority groups which have gone before us to proudly proclaim their identity, become recognized and ultimately accepted as equals in the political process and to claim their rightful place in society.
Nothing is more important to our future success than for nontheists to “come out” to their families and friends, their coworkers and communities. One has to wonder, for each one of us who is openly nontheist, how many of our family members and friends secretly share our rejection of religion and dogma?
On March 29, the day known as Good Friday to Christians, public attention, popular discussion, social practices and media coverage worldwide will focus on thea Christian myth — Jesus dying on the cross, then rising from the dead to save humankind from sin. Most of us don’t get this at all, but what an opportune time for nontheists and secularists to plan, organize and publicize a nationwide, or even worldwide, effort to encourage those of like mind to “come out” en masse.
We can create a back story now to next year’s Good Friday, one which encourages public discussion, facilitates conversations and provides nontheists with the opportunity and moment to openly join us in this most important of social change movements.
Good Friday? No, it will be a Great Friday! We can own this. Great Friday can become our annual, purposeful, secular response and alternative to yet another religious holiday.
We have the message. We have the resources. We have this opportunity.
Gary McIntyre, a Kentucky resident most of his life, was “saved” while growing up Baptist. He started to question religion in college and remembers giving a Speech 101 presentation on “something you feel strongly about.” It was titled “Why I Am Not a Christian” and drew mostly negatives reactions.
He considered himself an agnostic much of his adult life but now says atheist and humanist more accurately describes his worldview. Gary joined FFRF in the mid-1980s after seeing Dan Barker on a television morning show.
Indiana rep pushes school Lord’s Prayer
Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, filed a bill which would let public schools have students recite the Lord’s Prayer daily. The bill received first reading Jan. 9.
SB 251 states that “the governing body of a school corporation or the equivalent authority of a charter school may require the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day. The prayer may be recited by a teacher, a student, or the class of students.”
It further states, “If the governing body or equivalent authority requires the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer under subsection (a), the governing body or equivalent authority shall determine the version of the Lord’s Prayer that will be recited in the school corporation or charter school.”
The bill lets students or “the student’s parent” choose to not participate.
The South Bend Tribune in a Jan. 11 editoral called the bill a bad idea and urged Gov. Mike Pence to veto it if the Legislature passes it, predicting that “long years of legal challenges would certainly drain the state treasury and end in defeat” if it became law.
Domino’s founder: Birth control ‘immoral’
Tom Monaghan, devout Catholic and founder of Domino’s Pizza, is suing the federal government over mandatory contraception coverage in the new health care law. Monaghan called contraception a “gravely immoral” practice, according to the suit, in which he and Domino’s Farms, Ann Arbor, Mich., are plaintiffs.
According to a Dec. 15 post on Domino’s Facebook page, Monaghan sold the company in 1998: “His views are not our views, nor are his actions in any way related to our actions.”
A Wikipedia entry says Bain Capital bought Domino’s in 1998, netting Monaghan about $1 billion, before it went public in 2004.
Egyptian atheist gets three-year sentence
A Cairo court sentenced atheist Alber Saber, 27, to three years in prison Dec. 12 for blasphemy and contempt for religion. Alber was accused of posting clips online of the short film “Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked violent and deadly protests throughout the Middle East.
“This is an outrageous verdict and sentence for a person whose only ‘crime’ was to post his opinions online,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International told The Associated Press.
Saber, while awaiting trial, was attacked by other prisoners while guards allegedly looked the other way. He’s appealing the sentence. “Egypt is a religious state,” he said. “If you disobey the norms, you get judged and sentenced.”
Montana high court rules against Hutterites
The Montana Supreme Court ruled Dec. 31 that forcing the Big Sky Colony of Hutterites to pay workers’ compensation insurance for jobs outside the colony is not an unconstitutional intrusion into religion.
The 4-3 decision upholds a 2009 law. The Associated Press reported that Montana has about 50 Hutterite colonies with about 100 members each. Many have expanded into nonfarm ventures, including construction, and are able to bid lower than private firms because of their communal living arrangements.
for ‘offensive’ prayer
Boyle County’s Fiscal Court in Danville, Ky., has voted to stop starting its meetings with prayers. Instead of a prayer on Jan. 22, there was a moment of silence.
Harold McKinney, judge executive, said he received a camplaint from a person who found the prayer offensive. “After I looked at it, thought about it, the way to do this is to say we’re not going to impose Protestant prayer on those who may not believe in that way,” McKinney told WTVQ in Lexington.
The board was also concerned about legal costs if they kept praying.
Louisiana board deals blow to creationism
The Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans voted unanimously Dec. 18 in favor of two policy amendments proposed by outgoing president Thomas Robichaux.
One amendment added “zero tolerance” to the parish’s “bullying, intimidation, harassment and hazing” policy. The other addressed concerns about mention of creationism, intelligent design and “revisionist history” in textbooks.
The textbook selection update said: “No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories.”
It also applies to teachers: “No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes.”
Wash. pastor prays against gay marriage
Washington state’s opening legislative session in Olympia got off to a rocky start Jan. 14, reported the Seattle Times.
In his invocation, Rev. Jon Sanné prayed for the strengthening of marriage “as You ordained it for our good and Your glory.”
“Completely inappropriate,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. “Regrettable,” said Seattle Sen. Ed Murray, the Democratic leader. They said all pastors are told in advance to keep prayers nondenominational and nonpolitical.
Sanné, pastor of Calvary Chapel, hosted a rally at the church against marriage equality in September wich featured Rick Santorum. The church donated $5,000 to the campaign against legalization.
Teacher has bible
but no job now
You’ve got to love how this story starts:
“Just moments before the Phillipsburg [N.J.] Board of Education voted Jan. 14 to terminate a substitute teacher who showed a student a bible, a sudden downpour of rain could be heard hitting the roof of the middle school meeting area.” The WFMZ-TV reporter further mused, “Was there some sort of message to be gleaned from this meteorological event?”
The board had just unanimously approved, with abstentions from three new members, Superintendent George Chando’s recommendation to terminate substitute teacher Walter Tutka three months after he was removed from teaching. Last fall he is alleged to have told a middle school student, who was last in line to leave class, that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” and showed him the passage in his personal bible.
The board wouldn’t disclose the reason for removing Tutka from the substitute list for the rest of the year.
Neighbors target skeptics in senior living
Some seniors living at La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad, Calif., told KERO News they’re being targeted by residents for their nonreligion, the station reported Dec. 26.
“They said, ‘She is a sinner. She’s going to hell and she’s going to burn forever,’ ” said Brigit Smith-Clarke, 84, who started a group called Atheists Anonymous.
It started with 16 members two years ago and has grown to nearly 100 seniors. Smith-Clarke said people are calling her things such as “anti-Christ” and “Jew-lover.” She said she was raised Christian but “is tired of pretending.”
“I think it’s a big place and people do all sorts of things,” said activities coordinator Michelle Chaffee. “It’s not typical of what we see here normally.”
Chaffee says it’s the A-word that is the problem. “That has turned a lot of people off.”
U.S. House proclaims Darwin Day
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced H.Res. 41 declaring Feb. 12 as Darwin Day in recognition of “the importance of science in the betterment of humanity.”
Holt, who has a doctorate in physics, introduced the resolution to honor Charles Darwin’s 204th birthday:
“Whereas Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by the mechanism of natural selection, together with the monumental amount of scientific evidence he compiled to support it, provides humanity with a logical and intellectually compelling explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. . .”
Humanity, individuals over religion
FFRF awarded Antwon a $250 scholarship, thanks to an essay competition endowed by Professor Brian Bolton.
By Antwon Kennedy
The need for separation between religion and government is as important today as it has been since the introduction of the Establishment Clause in 1789. History shows that combining the two entities can have dangerous consequences. The Pilgrims, for example, when King James came into power, almost lost their lives after voicing their concerns about the Church of England and had to flee to avoid persecution.
Today, religious interests still want to influence public opinion and politics. A preacher recently spoke out in favor of physically abusive corrective actions toward children, backed by biblical teachings. Religious organizations are opposing contraceptive coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. These actions endanger our youth and strip individuals of their right to choice in family planning by placing the decision-making process in the hands of religious groups.
CNN reported: “Sean Harris, the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, told his congregants in his sermon on April 28, ‘Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.’ He continued, ‘Man up, give them a good punch, OK. You’re not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you’re going to be a male’ ”
The pastor later claimed he was misunderstood, saying he wasn’t advocating abuse of homosexual children. What is certain is that combining church and state would give the government power to support and uphold the pastor’s words because the bible states in Proverbs 22:15, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” and in Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”
Both passages confirm the acceptance of child abuse. Even more so, the greatest argument for the bible’s standpoint on child abuse is that God sent his son to Earth so that people could abuse him and hang him on a cross.
Mixing religion with politics is a recipe for the reversal of human choice and liberty. If politicians give in to the demands of a set religion, we face being confined to the constraints of the religious doctrine at hand.
An example of this process of constraint: religious organizations fighting to not have to include contraceptive coverage in insurance plans for their employees. These organizations are forgetting about the right of the individual to make her own choices. They are confining their employees to limited choices in the types of health services available to them.
If politicians continue to show favoritism to religious groups, citizens risk losing the rights that generations have fought for and the freedoms that make America the great country that it is. Laws must be uniform for all.
In this election year, we need to let politicians know that just because a religious doctrine says it is acceptable to beat children, we will not stand for child abuse. We need to let politicians know that we do not need to make concessions for religious organizations that want to modify laws so that they can limit the health care options of those caught under their vise.
If we concede on one issue, the stage will be set for more concessions until we are a nation under the laws of a particular religious doctrine. Our citizens, in fear for their lives, will begin to flee just as the Pilgrims did centuries ago from England.
We do not need to repeat a past that did not work. That is why in this election year, we need separation between religion and government.
Antwon Kennedy, 32, Marietta, Ga., is a junior working toward a bachelor of business administration degree in finance at Kennesaw State University.
deadly to freedom
FFRF awarded Anastassia a $250 scholarship.
By Anastassia Smorodinskaya
During the recent presidential election, it became clear that we as a nation are moving further and further away from our constitutional right to the separation of church and state. Most disheartening is that with so many examples of failing theological governments throughout the world, American politicians and citizens alike turn a blind eye to the fact that God and government are indeed a very dangerous mix.
Mideast nations serve as prime examples. The elections in Egypt were supposed to be a celebration of newfound democracy, yet citizens who don’t adhere to fundamentalist Islam live in fear of losing their rights to religion. Decades of civil unrest and bloodshed in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Pakistan should steer the U.S. away from letting power fall into the hands of theocrats.
I am even starting to see an unhealthy partnership of church and state in my native Russia, a nation which less than 100 years ago denounced all religion in favor of atheism. The nation has started using the Russian Orthodox Church to justify blatant violations of human rights and freedom of speech, as made evident by the imprisonment of the female punk band Pussy Riot. Putin’s government is making an example of Pussy Riot for anyone else who dares speak out against Putin, but is doing so under the guise of defending religion.
In turn, the church has shocked the international community by siding with Putin’s dictatorial regime instead of practicing the Christian notion of forgiveness. This scenario shows how mixing religion and politics can lead to loss of civilian freedom and to the corruption of religious institutions themselves.
In America, the lines are blurring, as made evident by nearly every hot-button issue debated by rival political parties. The most obvious example is legalization of same-sex marriage, an issue that should be treated as a question of human rights, but instead has been argued by politicians on the basis of populist religious morality, showing blatant disregard for the Establishment Clause.
Women’s rights to birth control and family planning have also come under scrutiny from conservative Christians who, tragically, are gaining leverage in the Republican Party.
When I see religion making its way into political debates, scenes from the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood spring to mind. It depicts the U.S. after it has been taken over by an extreme fundamentalist Christian group that strips women of their rights and forces them into roles of pious servitude.
It is ironic that while many Americans fear losing their freedom to Islamist groups like al-Qaida, they are blind to the fact that Christianity is slowly seeping into the pores of government, with equal potential to do serious damage to constitutional rights.
It would behoove all Americans to keep in mind that we must vote for the candidate who best protects our constitutional liberties and not for one whose decisions will be based on the moral compass of a particular religion. Rev. Otis Moss III said it best in a sermon he delivered to his Baptist congregation in Chicago:
“To claim that the president of the United States must hold your theological position is absurd. He is president of the United States, not president of the Baptist Convention, not president or bishop of the sanctified church. He is called to protect those who are Jew and gentile, male and female, young and old, gay and straight.”
That powerful statement perfectly sums up the way Americans need to look at government. Sadly, the fact that Moss felt compelled to make the plea shows that too many are still inclined to vote in the name of God.
Anastassia Smorodinskaya, 25, was born in Moscow, Russia. She moved to the U.S. at age 6 and grew up in the quiet college town of Middlebury, Vt. She graduated from Eckerd College in 2008 as a communications major and theater minor. She’s enrolled in Columbia University’s master’s program for broadcast journalism.
Wanted: Separation of state, church
FFRF awarded Justin a $250 scholarship.
By Justin Vacula
Four recent Establishment Clause issues in Pennsylvania — legislation declaring 2012 “The Year of the Bible,” sectarian governmental prayer, coercion of citizens who dare to remain seated for governmental prayer, and intentions to fund religious schools with taxpayer monies — should convince Pennsylvanians that they need separation of religion and government.
Lawmakers seemed to neglect Section 3 of the state Constitution, which states, “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences,” and “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”
The “noncontroversial” resolution declaring “The Year of the Bible” said there was a “national need to study and apply [its] teachings,” and claimed that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people.”
“The dictates of conscience” in the Constitution were trampled on because the resolution took sides on theological issues and recommended religious actions.
Another obvious example of religion and government being a dangerous mix is the constant stream of unconstitutional sectarian governmental prayer during House of Representatives sessions. Many contain specific references to Christianity, with Jesus Christ dying on a cross to save people from sin, Jesus Christ as “Lord and savior,” “God in heaven” and “the maker of heaven and earth.”
Unconstitutional prayers also exist in a background of coercion directed at citizens who dare to remain seated during prayer. Individuals, before entering the guest chambers, view a prominent sign which encourages people to stand for prayer. Then the House speaker asks people to stand.
On one occasion, I remained silently seated while taking notes on a tablet. An armed security officer approached me and repeatedly asked me to stand to “show respect.” Two requests — from the House speaker and a sign — were not enough.
Another insidious foray by lawmakers concerned a school voucher program in which public funds, instead of funding public schools which must educate children regardless of their religious upbringing or belief, would fund private schools. Many are religious and exist primarily to indoctrinate impressionable minds, compel students to participate in school-led prayer and teach “young Earth creationist” doctrine instead of sound science.
When I peacefully protested a rally, holding a sign calling for separation of church and state, at which pious politicians assembled to urge lawmakers to vote for the school voucher program, I was told that I should go back to my “community of privilege” and send my children “to whichever school I wanted to whether they be atheist schools or not.”
That was said to me from the podium by state Sen. Anthony Williams, who angrily added, “By the way, this is my rally, not yours,” and “These are our dollars, not just yours. These are our children, not yours. These are our school systems, not yours, and by the way, this has nothing to do with separation of church and state.”
At the voucher rally and with the coercion I faced for staying seated for governmental prayer, I was made to feel like a political outsider. A climate of divisiveness — pitting citizens against lawmakers acting in pious unconstitutional manners — was created in which I, as a citizen of Pennsylvania, while peacefully objecting to that which I saw as unconstitutional, was poorly treated.
If lawmakers had remained neutral on matters of religion while acting in their official capacities to serve all citizens, there would have been no divisiveness.
The above situations create a compelling case for freethinkers, and even religious Pennsylvanians, to be concerned with matters of separation of church and state. Establishment Clause violations are especially grievous in election years because pandering politicians are seeking votes while lawmakers who otherwise would object to the violations may not because they fear losing support from their constituents.
Justin Vacula, Exeter, Pa., 23, is a graduate student at Marywood University studying mental health counseling. He has a bachelor’s in philosophy and psychology from King’s College, is active in the NEPA Freethought Society and blogs at examiner.com/user-justin-vacula.
Justin was also a plaintiff in FFRF’s lawsuit challenging “The Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. He recently spent a lot of time getting FFRF’s Winter Solstice banner included in the Wilkes-Barre Public Square holiday display. The banner was vandalized and later reinstalled.
Government for the people, not the god
FFRF awarded Ashley a $250 scholarship.
By Ashley Miller
Religion, in the hands of the power hungry, is a dangerous thing, and you’ll find few groups more power hungry or more religious than U.S. politicians. That only one member of Congress admits to being a nonbeliever speaks volumes about the usefulness of professed religious devotion for those seeking office.
Politicians fall all over themselves to prove their support of religion. In the past decade, Congress has unanimously reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the national motto three times. Countless bills are presented with hopes of winning the religious base. Even if sponsors don’t think they will pass, they want credit for proposing them.
Sincere or cynical, politicians know that pandering to the religious gets them votes and, just as importantly, gets them money. The relationship between religious money and the state has always been problematic, but never more so than it is today. And fighting against that relationship is never more important than in an election year.
Every year, the churches of America get $71 billion in tax breaks thanks to very generous exemptions. The American taxpayer has to cover the lost revenue, forcing the population to subsidize organized religion. Churches pay no property taxes, write off housing expenses for their clergy, do not pay sales tax on anything they sell, and do not pay taxes on the money they earn. US churches own $400 billion in untaxed land and the Church of Scientology alone earns over $500 million untaxed dollars annually. Donations to these churches are written off individuals’ taxes, even if those churches spend little money on charitable works -- churches, unlike other charitable organizations, don’t have to publicly disclose what they use the money for; they are automatically exempt.
So, what do the religious use the money for? Rather than focusing on charity, they have used their untaxed income to wage war on our secular Constitution, to try to force the Christian version of Sharia law onto the American people.
Churches use this money to support their campaigns against gay marriage. Groups like Focus on the Family are funded almost entirely by the Catholic and Mormon churches. Proposition 8, the amendment to the California Constitution that overturned the right to gay marriage, raised over $40 million, $20 million of which came from Mormons. At the urging of their church, Mormons provided over half the funds that helped Proposition 8 pass. When the California government was alerted to this, not only did the LDS church not lose its tax-exempt status, they were fined only $5,000, practically an invitation to do it again.
Churches use this money to promote their choices for judicial nominations. Justices in South Carolina have given reading assignments from the bible as punishment for crimes as serious as vehicular homicide. Of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, six are Roman Catholics and three are Jewish, in a country that is 24% Catholic and 2% Jewish. These judges ensure the bench is biased in favor of religion and that bias encourages decisions like Citizens United, which allows the religious to spend unlimited funds on pushing their political agenda.
Churches use this money to push religion into the public classrooms of America, to make sure after-school programs have access to children, to remove evolution and Thomas Jefferson from schoolbooks, and to force non-religious students to listen to and participate in prayers on secular campuses. Religious exemptions don’t just hurt the education of young people; they can also lead to disease and death. In many states, religious schools are exempt from government oversight, which has led to deaths of children through poor care and negligence.
Churches use this money to promote their hatred for women. In 2011, there were 1,100 bills about reproductive rights introduced at the state level. There were bills that force women to accept a transvaginal exam to get an abortion; that have nearly gotten rid of abortion clinics altogether in states like Mississippi; that allow doctors in Arizona to lie to women if they think it will prevent them from having an abortion; that charge women with manslaughter for having miscarriages; that allow doctors and pharmacists to refuse to give birth control to women. All of this in a country where being pregnant is more dangerous and more expensive than in many other industrialized nations. Even bills to make the life-saving, cancer-preventing HPV vaccine mandatory have been vetoed out of fear that it would encourage girls to have sex; in South Carolina, the governor vetoed a bill that would allow schools to simply tell parents the vaccine exists. These bills are so cavalierly anti-woman; women are dying in this country because of religious interference.
And, before you blame this entirely on the religious right, the Democrats are guilty as well. President Obama prevented Plan B from becoming over-the-counter, despite the recommendations of the medical community, primarily because he wanted to avoid the Christian backlash. Democrats are just as afraid of the repercussions of upsetting the godly, and just as interested in getting their money.
Before you despair, there is good news. The non-religious population is growing and becoming more vocal and actively fighting the destruction of separation of church and state. There are things we can do to fight back. We can support organizations like the Secular Student Alliance, Secular Coalition for America, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the many other secular institutions in our country. We can vote for the candidates that don’t pander to the religious, if they can be found. And, if they cannot be found, we can follow the lead of people like Pete Stark and Cecil Bothwell, and run for office ourselves. Our Constitution clearly states that God and government do not go together, and we must fight for a government that is truly representative of “we the people,” all of us, not just those under the command of a fictitious and very wealthy deity.
Ashley Miller, 28, grew up in Litchfield, S.C., and attends the University of South Carolina as a second-year Ph.D. candidate. She holds a master’s in radio, film and television production from Florida State University and B.A. in film studies from Emory University.
The students all received $250 awards. Special thanks to John Moe and Dean and Dorea Schramm for underwriting.
Mission for humanity
By Cheyenne Tessier
My knees were sore. I got down and prayed for wind, joining hands with dirty-faced working men and the long-skirted women. And the wind came.
It was a miracle, I convinced myself, a missionary in a hell-stricken place, the daughter of two devout Christians. Yes, I was blessed.
We were told not to give our food to the starving children because it would start a riot, so we gave them bibles, telling them this is the right way. Do not live with the devils of your ancestors, children. We played and danced.
Then we sat on the air-conditioned bus and ate sandwiches and drank soda, but the children could not drink their bibles. Soon the girls would turn to prostitution to feed themselves, but God was with them, so we gave them bibles as if we offered salvation to a system that was, in the first place, polluted by missionaries.
We didn’t give them work, only scripture. We didn’t heal their water supply, only offered a prayer for their souls. And then we came home, our work done. I hung my Haitian flag above my bed. Many nights I stared at that flag, praising myself as a hero. But doubt is the greatest of infections, and soon I was overcome with questions.
I attended church less and less. I could not think about the evil I had done by starving a community for some faraway god, who didn’t laugh or learn or die of malnourishment.
If there were no heaven and no hell and no God, I wonder if we would share our food and water and shelter instead of our “wisdom.” I wonder if all the love, focused away from the skies and onto humanity, would be enough to eliminate hunger and educate every child to care for our Earth instead of our unreachable skies.
My proudest moment as a freethinker was inviting my former congregation to a benefit I held, in the name of humanity, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I proved that it does not take a zealot or a missionary to change the world, but as Margaret Mead said, “It takes a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”
That night, I gave back to Haiti the sandwiches I had stolen from it.
When I am asked, “Are you doing it with a church?” I quietly reply, “No. I am on a mission, but I am not a missionary.”
Cheyenne Tessier, 18, Hudson, N.H., is enrolled at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to study international affairs and Arabic.
Light bulb in the pews
By Zach Gowan
I was raised by my mom, who never exposed me to a particularly religious environment. As a result, I never really found myself subscribing to any religion. I never thought about the fact that I wasn’t religious. Put simply, I just wasn’t. However, around seventh and eighth grade, certain events occurred that brought my attention to religion and its effects in society.
My dad came back into my life in middle school. He and I were never able to form a relationship before this time. He had gotten himself in order and met a woman whom he soon married. As a result, I would go down to their house and visit every other weekend.
My dad had gotten back into going to church by this point. His wife and her children were religious as well, so all of them went to church. They would bring me along. I didn’t really have a choice. They just made me go. If I ever voiced the fact that I didn’t want to go, I would risk hearing a lecture about how I’d go to Hell if I didn’t participate in their religion. This continued throughout middle school.
My previously religiously apathetic self was dissipating. Now that I was regularly being exposed to religion, I was starting to form opinions of it. And honestly, I didn’t like it. I completely disagreed with all the things I would hear in the sermons. I couldn’t stand the hate that the preachers would spout about nonbelievers, homosexuals, and so on. On the whole, I just couldn’t understand why people would buy into this stuff.
Eventually, in eighth grade, a particular sermon at church caused my logical faculties to finally kick in (they would improve and enhance over the following years, but this was when reason truly started to play a role in my opinion of religion). It was a sermon about homosexuality and how it’s supposedly a sin. The preacher used an analogy to demonstrate the point. It went a little something like this: You can’t take an electrical plug and plug it into another one. It has to be plugged into a socket. Similarly, a socket can’t receive another socket. It has to receive a plug. Therefore, homosexuality is wrong. Obviously, the plug represents the male reproductive organ, and the socket represents the female reproductive organ. The “logic” here was that if putting a plug into a plug or a socket into a socket is wrong, then the same principle must apply to humans. I instantly saw how fallacious and absurd this was. To use this analogy, you have to assume that the only thing that matters in a relationship is sex, which is an odd assumption for a typically anti-sex group of people to make.
But the absurdity of the argument isn’t what bothered me. The primitive and old-fashioned conclusion (that homosexuals are bad) isn’t what bothered me. It was the fact that everyone in the room blindly bought into the blatantly illogical argument. No one gave it a second thought. They just accepted it because the preacher said it.
This moment was a critical one for me. I would consider myself to have been a budding freethinker at the time, as I was forming my own opinion of religion and its teachings through reason, even if I was just starting out. Looking back on that day, I’m proud of my refusal to accept the preacher’s words at face value. I think religion has its place in society, but I do not like its potential to brainwash people. Fortunately, I was able to escape that brainwashing and from that point on, I can think for myself.
Zach Gowan, 17, was born in Philadelphia and is attending the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg to major in English.
Absolved from unnecessary confusion
By Abigail Dove
“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script.
I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.
I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss.
But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.
When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.
The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences.
So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.
I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.
He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling.
I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.
At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”
In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue.
Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.
A city committee in Madison, Wis., voted Jan. 17 against helping finance housing owned by CareNet Pregnancy Center of Dane County, an evangelical antiabortion group that ministers to pregnant women.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the Madison Community Development Block Grant Committee on Jan. 17, to oppose the government financing, which would extend $550,000 in low-interest loans to CareNet for a new 36-unit apartment building.
Elliott wrote, “We are very concerned that these funding grants will ultimately be used to subsidize an evangelical Christian and anti-abortion ministry and will not further the purposes of the designated funds.”
The letter noted that CareNet’s application did not disclose the group’s purpose, which is “to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed.”
FFRF’s letter highlighted CareNet’s religious programming and argued that any secular objectives could not be separated from evangelical Christian programming.
The committee voted 5-2 against funding the project. City staff had initially recommended committee approval.
Even if the financing had been approved, it was unclear how CareNet would abide by nondiscrimination provisions required for city contracts.
Michigan letter results in prompt solution
After an early childhood program assistant sent home an inappropriate religious gift with students, the Monroe County (Mich.) Intermediate School District is ensuring that school policy will be followed by the assistant and other staff in the future.
The faculty member works with children as young as 4, some of whom are disabled, and distributed a gift of Play-Doh to children, along with a letter containing religious references and urging people to pray.
The letter was titled “CHRISTmas is Jesus’s Birthday” and opened, “So for the Jesus gift you could be like this play dough, and let Jesus mold & shape Your Life so Jesus Can use you for His Glory!” The letter encouraged parents to find a church that teaches about Jesus.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Jan. 7 to Superintendent Randy Monday about the illegality of proselytizing to children in public school. She noted it was irrelevant that the assistant included the disclaimer “this is my belief & my gift & is not promoted by the school in any way.”
Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Taylor replied the next day to say that the employee was told about the inappropriateness of her actions and her violation of school policy that states teachers or supervisors must approve items sent home with students.
Parents were also notified that the staff member had violated school policy.
Gideons groups out after FFRF complaints
Gideons International representatives will no longer be allowed in Grant County Schools, Williamstown, Ky., to distribute bibles as a result of a complaint from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after her child was taken out of class to receive a bible.
Markert pointed out that by allowing Gideons to distribute bibles, the district was “impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages contained in the bible.”
Superintendent Ron Livingood responded Nov. 30 and said that he had met with district principals and instructed them not to permit Gideons in schools or on school property.
Markert sent a similar letter Nov. 19 to Robertson County Director of Schools Daniel Whitlow in Springfield, Tenn., responding to a distressed parent whose child was ostracized for not taking a Gideon bible.
Whitlow responded Jan. 8 that all administrators had been notified that bible distribution was against district policies.
ends staff prayer
North Georgia College & State University, Dahlonega, Ga., will no longer be including prayers at university-sponsored events after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint last October. The school is one of six senior military colleges in the U.S.
A concerned student alerted FFRF that at an event that was mandatory for some students, faculty members led attendees in several Christian prayers. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to President Bonita Jacobs: “Including prayer at events at which attendance is mandatory is coercive, embarrassing, and beyond the scope of our public university system.”
Julia Anderson, state senior assistant attorney general, responded Dec. 13 that Jacobs would “remind [all faculty and staff] that prayers shall not be included in university-sponsored events.”
FFRF stills Wisconsin student bell-ringers
FFRF was able to intervene before students at the Medford (Wis.) Area Middle School were sent to ring bells to raise money for the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army’s stated mission is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” It has 11 Christian “articles of faith” and is blatantly discriminatory to gay people.
After a concerned parent contacted FFRF, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent District Administrator Pat Sullivan a letter Dec. 13 pointing out that “while it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community,” the Salvation Army is “an overtly Christian organization.”
Elliott asked Sullivan to inform staff “that they may not continue with their plans to solicit funds for the Salvation Army during the school day.”
Sullivan responded Dec. 17 that the school was no longer planning to send students to ring bells.
FFRF tackles coaches’ prayers in Ohio
Coaches at Spencerville High School in Ohio will no longer pray with their students after Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s Nov. 6 letter to Superintendent Joel Hatfield, informing him that “a public school coach’s participation in a team’s prayer circle is illegal and inappropriate.”
Hatfield responded Dec. 17: “As superintendent, I have informed our coaches that they are to no longer lead their athletes in prayer.”
School changes policy after FFRF complaint
The Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District in New York banned groups from using school facilities for religious worship after FFRF urged it to adopt a revised policy.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a Dec. 3 letter informing the school board that prohibiting the use of school buildings for worship was “in line with current law [as applied in the 2nd Circuit] and is the best policy option.”
Gaylor detailed how start-up churches often take advantage of low rental fees to “get a foot in the door” while collecting church donations on public property, which amounts to “what many of us consider taxpayer subsidy of congregations.”
A church that had been using school facilities retained the American Center for Law & Justice, a Religious Right legal group founded by Pat Robertson, to object to the proposed changes. Despite that opposition, the board amended its policies Dec. 17, adding “Gatherings for the purpose of holding religious worship services” to its list of prohibited uses of school facilities.
FFRF letter gets Iowa park cross removed
A house inside George Wyth State Park near Waterloo, Iowa, will no longer include a display of a lighted Latin cross.
A local complainant reported to FFRF that a large cross was affixed to the garage of a park ranger’s home owned by the state in the park. The cross was highly visible at night from the highway and within the park.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Dec. 14 to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “While it is appropriate for the park ranger to display personal religious items inside his home, it crosses the line when he chooses to display Christian symbols on the exterior of his home,” Markert said.
Markert received a phone call Dec. 19 from the DNR that the ranger had been directed to remove the cross.
School replaces hymns with secular songs
Main Street K-3 School in Shelbyville, Ill., removed two Christian hymns from its holiday concert after receiving an FFRF letter. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after learning her child’s concert included “Mary Had a Baby” and “Go, Tell it on the Mountain.”
In a Dec. 17 letter to Superintendent Denise Bence, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said it’s “wholly inappropriate for public schools to perform songs of Christian worship in a public school setting.”
Bence responded Dec. 21 that the songs would be taken out of the program and replaced with secular holiday music.
FFRF stops church’s free school ‘lunch’
Alma (Mich.) Public Schools will now require a church using its facilities to pay a rental fee and remove religious items left scattered around a district school.
The district let Alma Vineyard Church hold Sunday services and frequent events at Republic Alternative High School. The church was allowed to use the kitchen, gym, stage and extra rooms. It also had free use of building supplies and custodial services and was allowed to store religious items, including an 8-foot wooden cross that was left on display in the cafeteria.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter Oct. 19 to Superintendent Sonia Lark, pointing out that the religious symbols left in the school demonstrated “district preference for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over other religions.”
The school district responded Oct. 23 that the cross and other religious items were removed or covered. The district further informed FFRF on Jan. 3 that the church would now have to pay for custodial services and rental of space.
3 boards ditch prayer after FFRF letters
Three governmental bodies, two in California and one in Georgia, have halted meeting prayers after receiving letters from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
Seidel wrote the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, Quincy, Calif., in August and sent several follow-ups before receiving a reply from the county’s counsel Jan 16 that the board voted Jan. 15 to stop the practice. “[T]he invocation will be removed from the agenda, and the county will not solicit invocation speakers.”
The city of Santa Clara, Calif., which previously had sectarian Christian prayers and excluded a Hindu officiant, has abandoned its prayers for a “values statement” after getting a November letter from Seidel.
The language is pious but doesn’t overtly address a supernatural being: “As we gather, we humbly seek blessings upon this meeting. May we act with strength, courage and the will to perform our obligations and duties to our people with justice to all. Let us seek wisdom so that we may act in the best interests of our people, our neighbors and our country. All this we ask so we may serve our community with love and grace, putting their needs before all.”
The city of Forest Park, Ga., received an FFRF letter in September and several follow-ups before City Manager John Parker responded curtly Jan. 10:
“The city of Forest Park no longer participates in prayer during meetings of the City Council.”
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry ruled Jan. 22 that FFRF’s challenge to a Ten Commandments monument in front of a Pennsylvania high school will go forward. McVerry rejected a motion to dismiss by the New Kensington-Arnold School District and issued an order that directs the district to file an answer to the plaintiffs’ complaint.
FFRF and two families filed suit in September 2012 against the school district over the prominent placement of a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School. The district sought to dismiss the case by claiming that it had been “foreclosed” by the Supreme Court’s Van Orden v. Perry decision in 2005, which allowed a similar monument on the Texas Capitol grounds to stand.
FFRF’s brief argued that there are significant factual and legal distinctions between the cases, most notably, that the Supreme Court has ruled against Ten Commandments displays in the school context.
McVerry’s opinion stated that the First Amendment claim “has sufficient merit under our current jurisprudence.” He noted that at this preliminary stage, “there is no meaningful evidence to support the School District’s attack on the merits of Plaintiffs’ case and thus the ‘foreclosure’ argument is unavailing at this time.”
The court issued an order in December that allowed three of the plaintiffs to proceed using pseudonyms, finding that there was a substantial public interest in protecting them from retribution from upset members of the community. The court will hold a scheduling conference in February.
You worry about the goings-on in Wisconsin, and we will pray for you and that God will give you some sense.
Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, Baldwin County, Ala., responding to FFRF’s letter about prayers at commission meetings
Laws, the only redoubt of secularism, will not suffice. Let us all return to our places of worship and pray for help. Above all, let us pray for our children.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, statement on President Obama’s executive actions
A student came up to me at a graduation and said not only did he get a scholarship to college but that the course changed his life. Principals talk about how students carrying their bibles down the hall have improved hall behavior to a point that teachers as hall monitors are no longer necessary.
Phil Murphy, public school board member in Ozark, Ala., contending that a bible as literature course would reduce school shootings
Dothan Eagle, 1-8-12
It’s not the separation of church and state — which, by the way, is NOT in any of our federal papers — that worries these people. It’s the life-changing power of Christianity and the light of truth it shines on the sins of the world, exposing the lies being propagated by the media, the politicians and the universities of this nation.
Column by country singer Charlie Daniels, “There Ain’t No ‘X’ in Christmas”
CNS News, 12-19-12
There’s one thing we know that works, and it’s prayer.
John Lee, Muncie, Ind., part of a Christian group which was let in to pray in every Muncie Community Schools building during winter break
Star Press, 1-3-13
How often do we see girls and mature women going around scantily dressed and in provocative clothes? They provoke the worst instincts, which end in violence or sexual abuse. They should search their consciences and ask: Did we bring this on ourselves?
Fr. Piero Corsi, pastor of the Catholic parish of San Terenzo, Italy, part of a Christmas message posted on the door of the church
Imagine standing in front of your child’s elementary school classroom and explaining to 30 kids why you don’t believe in God, why you don’t pray and why you don’t think there’s a heaven.
Thinking back on my own public schooling, in an environment where everyone was assumed to be a believer (typically a Christian believer) and with our almost universal hesitancy to discuss religion so as not to offend someone else, it’s pretty hard to imagine doing this. It’s what I did, though, as a guest speaker in my son’s fourth-grade class in Accra, Ghana.
I’ve been working in Ghana for a couple of years. I’m stationed here with my family. Generally, one can say that Ghana is an overwhelmingly religious country (predominantly Christian, but with a Muslim minority).
Here, as in many parts of Africa, religious faith is entwined in nearly every aspect of life and society. People commonly greet you with “God bless you,” and it’s very common to see shops with names like “God’s Grace Motor Repair” and “Blood of Christ Hair Salon.” I’m not kidding — you can see a hundred signs like this every day.
As you can imagine, for an atheist and freethinker, it can sometimes be an awkward environment. Since my job requires me to work closely with government and private sector organization leaders in an often high-level capacity, I generally keep my opinions on faith and religiosity like cards held close to the chest.
So when I received a request to speak at my child’s school about atheism, my first thoughts were cautionary about some kind of backlash. I decided though that I owed it to my son to stand up and speak boldly about my own “beliefs.”
My son attends a private international school in Accra. It has about 1,000 students in K-12 who hail from more than 30 countries. Most of the parents are expatriate diplomats, business leaders and wealthier “elite” Ghanaians. The school does not have a religious orientation, and my wife and I have been very pleased with how the school focuses on the holistic development of the individual.
The fourth-grade class had been studying what they call a “unit of inquiry” about human culture and beliefs. They have examined traditions and customs of various cultures, often using specific examples from the diversity of the students’ homes.
Most recently, the class started examining religion -— looking at belief systems, “sacred” texts and places of worship. Almost unbelievably to me, the school organized a series of field trips that took the kids to a Catholic church, an Islamic mosque, a Mormon temple and a Hindu temple. They had tours and presentations by the leaders.
It made me wonder how much people back in the U.S. might flip out if a teacher suggested such a comparative learning experience for their children. Anyway, my son (who has been raised in the open, freethinking, if perhaps a bit anti-religious environment of our home) thoroughly enjoyed the visits. I took a bit of humor out of his reaction that the best part was seeing giant, painted statues of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god.
It seemed fantastic to me that my son’s open-minded teacher was willing to give equal time to a nonreligious viewpoint. He was aware from my son’s unhesitant reportage about our family’s views, so the teacher invited me to be a guest speaker on atheism one afternoon.
Which is atheists’ god?
I was somewhat uncertain about what to say. This was the first time that I would speak publicly about my nonbelief. Knowing how impressionable (and perhaps how easily offended) children this age are, I felt I needed to tread carefully so as not to make an unintended attack on any child’s faith.
I did a bit of research, turning to the Internet for simple definitions and resources about explaining atheism to kids. I found some sites and videos about freethinking parenting, but I think this is an area that we as nonbelievers could develop further.
I spoke first in general terms about whether or not atheism is a religion. For some kids, that it’s not was a hard concept to take on. Several asked up until the end of my presentation, “Now, which god do atheists believe in?”
Others were “with” the concept quickly though, and I had some expected suggestions from the kids when I asked, “What are some reasons why people choose not to believe in a god or a religion?”
One boy enthusiastically ventured that there are many gods out there and someone might not know which one is “right.” A girl said that people may have never seen a god in front of them. I agreed with the kids about these ideas and also added a bit on philosophical arguments, though perhaps not surprisingly this aspect didn’t take too much hold with a young crowd.
Then I turned to the things that atheists do “believe” in, with a caveat that there isn’t a universal view. I talked a bit about science and its ability to empower people to understand the mysteries of the universe around them on their own, without some godly explanation.
I talked about humans having rational minds and the ability to know what is wrong and right and to treat people kindly and with respect — all without needing a religion to point the way.
The most rewarding part perhaps were the 20 or so enthusiastic questions that the kids raised, along with their expectant hands. They asked about my upbringing, if we go to church, if I pray to anyone, what I think about heaven and people who have died (whew, that’s a touchy one with kids you don’t know!) and also a bit about the history of atheism.
One girl gasped in shock when I said that I don’t pray because I don’t think there is anyone to pray to. Some of the kids were also wide-eyed when I said that only a short while ago in Europe and America, and to this day in some areas, people can be attacked or murdered for saying they don’t believe in God or the prevailing religion.
When a child asked about my son’s belief, I was more hesitant, feeling concerned that the welcoming openness of this dialogue might have later repercussions for him from students with less-open minds. I told his classmates that I wanted my son to have an open and exploring mind and to make decisions for himself about what he believes or chooses not to believe. I hope that religion-focused bullying is not something he has to contend with.
At the end, the class clapped and thanked me, and the teacher expressed how great it was to have this exposure to atheism. I’m sure the kids probably moved right on to recess and sports and (hopefully) some studies or homework, but I do hope they took away a bit more enlightened and accepting view of nonbelievers and atheism.
I hope also that my son is encouraged by my own boldness to openly talk about these ideas among others, and that he is strengthened in finding his own understanding and path through nonbelief or belief, as he may choose in the days and years ahead.
FFRF member Ben Kauffeld is a Foreign Service officer with more than 20 years of experience in international development and humanitarian assistance projects.
According to a Jan. 3 story in The Christian Post, out of nearly 7 million visits last year to King James Bible Online, the most-viewed bible verse was Psalm 23:4 — “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
No. 2 was Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Coming in third was the New Testament’s John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The rest of the top 10:
. Genesis 1:1 — “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
. 1 Corinthians 13:11 — “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
. 2 Chronicles 7:14 — “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
. Jeremiah 29:11 — “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”
. Ephesians 6:12 — “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
. 2 Timothy 1:7 — “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
10. Genesis 1:2 — “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Editor’s note: The website shipoffools.com, which pokes fun at Christianity, asked readers in 2009 to submit their favorite “worst” bible verses in a project called Chapter & Worse.
No. 1: St. Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 2:12, in which he says: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”