Brian Bolton, a longtime Foundation member from Arkansas who recently became a Life Member, wrote this letter to the Northwest Arkansas Times, which published it on March 23, 2000.
The Times then published the breathtakingly bigoted response (see sidebar) from another reader, revealing what freethinkers are up against in the Arkansas Bible Belt.
In his Sunday column a few weeks ago Mike Masterson explained that to qualify for membership in the local Elks Club Lodge the applicant must profess a belief in God.
This constitutes discrimination against unbelievers and would seem to contradict the Elks Club's other membership requirement, which is support for basic American principles, one of which is surely respect for different philosophical viewpoints.
Because the Elks Club Lodge is a private organization, the Elks can establish any entrance standards that they prefer. Many private clubs have even more restrictive requirements, such as Christians only, whites only, and men only.
But other private organizations do not have any religious tests for membership. A good example is Toastmasters International, the world's largest organization devoted to the improvement of speech communication, with more than 8,400 clubs.
There is a long history of intolerance of unbelievers in Western society, beginning with prominent Greeks and extending to the present day. The term "unbeliever" subsumes skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and nontheists.
¥ Plato thought that unbelievers are a danger to society and should be put to death. He was referring to disbelievers in the pagan gods of Greek antiquity.
¥ Jesus (John 15:5-8) and Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9) taught that unbelievers would be burned, either in this life or an afterlife or both.
¥ St. Thomas Aquinas, the eminent Catholic theologian of the 13th century, advocated death for unbelievers, because they corrupt the faith.
¥ John Calvin, the Protestant theologian of the Reformation, actually did execute dozens of unbelievers.
¥ George Bush (the former president) asserted that unbelievers should not be considered either citizens or patriots.
¥ Jay Cole, Jr. announced that without God and his son Jesus, there is only tragedy, poverty and brutal criminal activity.
¥ Mike Masterson stated that he doesn't care to spend much time around anyone who does not believe in God.
By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 14 million unbelievers in the United States. This number includes some of the most productive Americans. For example, a recent survey of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that fewer than ten percent believe in a personal god.
Twelve well-known Americans who were unbelievers are: Isaac Asimov, Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sagan, Margaret Sanger, James Smithson, Gloria Steinem and Mark Twain.
Why would the Elks--a group of dedicated citizens widely recognized for their community service--want to exclude a segment of the American population on the basis of a religious test? The Elks should welcome all applicants who subscribe to their social and philanthropic mission.
"We Do Not Want People Such as You"
To Brian Bolton, whoever you are. From what seat of supremacy do you write? The simple fact is that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by men of principle, men who believed in God. If you do not, that's your problem; we do not need or want people such as you. Go your way, form your own assembly, associate with your peers.
Meanwhile, the Elks have important missions to fulfill, tasks that God approves of and which we are proud to undertake.
Poor fellow, you must be at wit's end to look at our new dollar coin and see the inscription "In God We Trust." the same words that appear on all our legal tender. Is this America's Waterloo or yours?
Send in the clones. The Second Coming Project in Berkeley, Calif., is preparing to obtain DNA from a "holy relic" in order to clone Jesus: "If all goes according to plan, the birth will take place on December 25, 2001." You read it here. Source: New York Times, 10/20/00
Like a bad penny. Peter Popoff, the faith healer caught red-handed by James Randi using electronic signals from his wife to hoodwink followers, is back on the air. Source: Charlestown Daily Mail, 10/13/00
Like a bad penny, Part II. Evangelist Oral Roberts told a Ventura congregation to hold up their purses and wallets and shout, "God, fill it up," because if they invest in God (e.g., give Roberts money), they will reap returns. Some 13 years ago, Roberts warned followers that God told him unless donors gave $8 million in a year so Roberts could found a university, Roberts would be "called home" (die).
He previously related a vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus who assured Roberts that donations would pour in for the evangelist's hospital, which later closed. Source: Ventura County Star [CA], 9/17/00
Strange bedfellows. Iranian feminists and conservatives are both endorsing "temporary marriage," in which a couple registers a marriage with a cleric that can last a few minutes or 99 years, circumventing laws that punish unmarried couples who have sex, date or even hold hands. While some call it legalized prostitution, Shahla Sherkat, editor of the feminist monthly Zanan says: "First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer. Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society's obsession with virginity will disappear." Source: New York Times/Seattle Post Intelligencer, 10/27/00
Nothing fails like prayer rugs? Federal authorities busted a drug ring using Muslim prayer rugs to smuggle heroin from Lebanon into Detroit, arresting 17 conspirators. Source: Associated Press, 9/13/00
Safer to be a freethinker. A woman driver from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, who obligingly honked when she approached a car with a bumpersticker requesting "Honk If You Love Jesus," had her car bashed in by the enraged driver, who wielded a sawed-off baseball bat. Source: Detroit News, 10/15/00
Not that hard-up for money. The Defense of Marriage Amendment Committee, which worked to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on Nebraska's ballot, turned down an offer of $600,000 from out-of-state Mormons. Never fear--a new coalition of Mormons, Family First and the Nebraska Catholic Conference, soon put the money to work on the initiative, which won overwhelmingly. Source: Lincoln Journal Star, 10/1/00; Daily Nebraskan, 11/8/00
Needed: Rabbi-free markets. Top-ranking Israeli rabbi Shalom Elyashiv ruled this fall that farmers must obey the Levitical law and let fields go fallow every seventh year. Farmers--threatened with financial ruin for defaulting loans if they follow the injunction or by raising unsalable nonkosher food if they don't--were rescued by the leader of the secular political party, who promised to set up rabbi-free markets. Source: AP/Lexington [Kentucky] Herald Leader, 9/30/00
Israel-dot-com? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to drag his country into the 21st century by expanding transport on the Sabbath, abolishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs, permitting civil marriages and improving technology, has outraged ultra-Orthodox sects, which denounced cellular phones for women because they "encourage harlotry." Source: [London] Times, 9/20/00
Virgin makes plywood appearance. According to the faithful, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared when carpeting was removed from a sheet of plywood by a laborer during construction at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, Robstown, Texas. Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/17/00
Virgin turns into window splotch. Hundreds made a pilgrimage to see a splotch on a second-floor window of a home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which believers think bears a miraculous resemblance to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who gets around. Source: Knight Ridder, 10/15/00
People in glass houses. . . The world's top celibate, Pope John Paul II, marked the 3rd anniversary of celibate Mother Teresa's death by denouncing couples who decide to remain child-free, also somewhat inconsistently attacking in vitro sterilization methods. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/6/00
But it's not a Catholic issue. . . Catholic priest John Earl, 32, smashed his car into an unopened abortion clinic on Oct. 11 in Rockford, Illinois, then chopped at the building with an ax, threatening the building's landlord. The priest, after arrest, was almost immediately freed on recognizance bond. Source: AP/New Haven Register, 10/12/00
Intelligent design? The leader of a conservative Christian group in Wisconsin instructed 50 parents for 2 1/2 hours at an Eau Claire meeting on how to spank children: "You spank them right here on the gluteus maximus, which God made for that purpose," insisted Marvin Munyon, demonstrating how to use a paddle and switch. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/25/00
Talk about bad sports! Afghanistan's ruling Taliban Islamic party on Oct. 17 ordered a ban on all sports played in the late afternoon or early evening, because it might disturb Muslim prayers. Source: Reuters, 10/19/00
Death doesn't become them. The Christian Coalition voter guides handed out the Sunday before the Nov. 7 election in Christian churches nationwide listed the death penalty as one of its top Christian goals. Source: Charleston Gazette, 10/21/00
We're all made uncomfortable by prayers blaring on the PA or crucifixes hanging in the halls during lunch, but that isn't the fundamental reason why we should be concerned about religion in public schools. There are, of course, the usual arguments against it--its obvious unconstitutionality, the likelihood of social alienation, the potential for browbeating preaching--but the problem runs much deeper. At issue in the long and tedious efforts by misguided rightists to place state-sponsored religion in schools is not just educational quality or constitutional law; rather, these efforts jeopardize the quality of both religion and education, producing a debased admixture of no use to anyone.
Consider first what happens to religion when placed in an institutional public setting. Religion at its best is not a public activity. It is rather that singular spiritual aloneness that was and is sought after in deserts and high places ever since we evolved a metaphysical need for explanation. This is the state of mind described by thinkers from Buddha to Christ as enlightenment, a sudden and deep sense of spiritual well-being and understanding. This sense, experienced as a keen edge of beauty to everyday things, as a private awareness of connection and order, is what is being sought in churches and temples--is why, in fact, they are designed as places for personal contemplation amid objects of beauty. The core of the self for many religious people, this feeling of a personal relationship with the infinite, is not something that can readily be developed in a moment of silence before lunch or while listening to a crackly prayer over the PA before a football game. It is a private emotional state that grows from and requires solitude.
To nonetheless push for enforced and perfunctory displays of religious piety then is fundamentally misguided. It is an insistence on the form of the thing rather than its substance. Is this really what proponents of religion in the schools want? A prayer that touches no hearts, a moment of silence that inspires no contemplation--this slapdash devotion in classrooms, with children forced to sit silently staring at their school supplies, makes a mockery of the very reason for religion. It dismisses the internal peace sought by the founders of faiths in favor of the external show of it taken up by rushed followers who don't bother with belief. This is transmuting private devotion into another period like lunch or math, and kids will view it that way. If religion, then, does manage to force its way into public schools, it won't be religion. It will be the forms of it, waded through by bored school kids who can't wait for recess. Religion, which has its roots in private spirituality, will not survive the forced transition into public secular space.
Nor will that public activity survive the mandated inclusion of spiritual activities. Education, fundamentally, is about rigorous ordered discovery, both of the self and of the world. It rests on a simple but profound premise: the world is fundamentally understandable and can be understood by investigation. This is the idea that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions with which we have ratcheted ourselves out of the mystical haze of the middle ages into the modern age. It is the ecstatic realization that the human mind can contain the pattern of the universe, that humankind is, as Shakespeare puts it, "noble in reason . . . infinite in faculties . . . in apprehension how like a god" (Hamlet, 2.2.327-330). Here we have, in supremely confident prose, the discovery of our own capacities, made with a wild joy at the full height of the renaissance. It is the same discovery of the self that education seeks in every child. The long process of a public education, for all its flaws, is largely an attempt to create a human being fully aware of his or her abilities as a thinking creature. We wish to create a sense of discovery and capability, of continually using the mind to pry open the secrets of the world.
This is the antithesis of the quiet spirituality and revealed truth of religious faith. Religion is about epiphany and knowledge external to the self. Abraham, about to slay Isaac on the mount, is not held back by a sudden burst of thought but by divine action. Buddha's enlightenment comes in a flash of divine understanding. The faith-based tradition is just that: one where faith and the divine take the place of empirical reasoning and self-confident exploration. The God who thunders down abuse at Job until the poor man admits that "man is vile" is not one who belongs in a school whose entire purpose is the development of a self in the model of the Enlightenment West.
Even laying aside the obvious problem of scriptures that contradict established scientific and historic facts, this is clearly an irreconcilable conflict of interests. Are teachers to tell their students that they should believe in the power of their minds to comprehend the universe except during a moment of silence at the start of the day when the exact opposite is true? This is an intellectual puzzle a bit beyond the scope of most students (or metaphysicians for that matter): a complete shift of world views for part of every day clearly demands a great deal of mental gymnastics. Ultimately, these gymnastics will make education philosophically and practically impossible--revealed truth for a moment then back to empiricism, a messy hodgepodge of faith and reason warring for young minds and classroom time. It's hard enough to understand the world anyway; understanding two entirely different worlds at the same time is an even stranger trick.
Educators are seeking to glorify the questioning mind, priests the believing, feeling mind. One curriculum cannot accommodate both goals. If we wish to create believers, we cannot shoehorn faith into a five minute passing period. If, instead, we wish to create empirical thinkers, faith, even the debased faith that advocates of religion in school want, has no place. We need to accept that education and religion don't mix and that, as their logical underpinnings are entirely contradictory, they can't mix without debasing each other. Both have important gifts to offer--education, the development of the confident mind; religion, if kept in the proper context, a more textured personal moral understanding. But put them together, as well-meaning people keep trying to do, and you end up with nonsense, self-righteous posturing, and confusion. For the sake of both religion and education, that can't happen.
Craig Segall graduated from New Trier High School and is attending the University of Chicago. Although quivering in a state of near-chronic uncertainty over his major, he is currently leaning toward a double major in English and genetics or neuroscience. He hastens to add, however, that this is highly open to change. Segall reads far more than is healthy and spends the rest of his time either at Lake Michigan or haltingly seeking out some form of social contact.
Religion does not belong in public schools in the United States. Its inclusion in public life leads to prejudice, divisiveness, muddle-headed thinking, and--ultimately--to loss of freedom. America, settled by those escaping religious and civil persecution, is governed through a secular system, detailed by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. By keeping religion and government separate, the Constitution attempts to ensure that neither religious persecution nor favoritism occurs in this country, and that citizens are free to pursue their beliefs privately, without infringing on anyone else.
Although the U.S. is a country founded in part by "religious" individuals, including Quakers like William Penn and Catholics like Lord Baltimore, plus Anglicans, Huguenots, and Deists, there is no assumption in the Constitution that all Americans must practice a religion, and it explicitly forbids any religion sanctioned by the state. In fact, the clear-sighted freethinkers and freemasons who were instrumental in articulating the shape of the nation--Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Franklin, for example--agreed that there is simply no place for religion in public schools and other state-sponsored and -regulated areas in a democratic society. Thus, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Consequently, any school that is "public" must remain secular.
Unfortunately, the constitutionally guaranteed right to practice religion--or not--freely as one chooses, has been under attack. Some attacks are subtle, some overt. For example, my grandfather was an Air Force officer who was stationed in Brazil after World War II. My father recalls that when he left the U.S. as a child in 1949, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag ended with "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." When they returned in 1954, he and his dad were stunned; the pledge had been changed to "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Who would undermine the Constitution? Is this a (horrors!) "communist plot"? Hardly. The insidious Constitutional borers are Americans, often patriotic, who tend to hold Christian religious beliefs and feel that all "right thinkers" should believe and act as they do. Many of them continue to advocate institutionalized prayer and religious activities within the public schools, no matter who is made uncomfortable, ostracized, or singled out.
Two words--"under God"--disenfranchised every agnostic, every atheist, and any Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu who did not subscribe to the idea of a unitary Judeo-Christian deity. The intent of this bit of rhetoric may have been to unify the people after a difficult war, but the effect was to stifle free expression and free thought. Worse, since "flag salute" and "morning prayer" were a daily staple in most U.S. public schools until the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Schempp v. Abington/ Murray v. Curlett (1963), an entire generation of students grew up believing that public prayer during opening exercises was normative behavior, instead of an insidious assault upon the freedom from religious proscription guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The pressure on public school students to conform to a sanctioned religious practice is growing again. During the past year, in the public school I attended, we had "Prayer Rally at the Flagpole" in front of the school, the Bible Club as a school-approved student activity, and an assembly at which Franklin Graham (Reverend Billy Graham's son) was the "inspirational" speaker--all on school grounds, the latter two during school time. The principal exhorted the students to attend the flagpole prayer rally for a whole week during morning announcements on the public address system. Students who declined to participate were viewed with suspicion and concern by faculty members and some peers.
According to national news reports, this kind of repressive, polarizing behavior is becoming typical, in spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling rejecting "student-led and student-initiated" public prayers at public school activities, including football games. Justice Stevens, writing the majority opinion, reaffirmed the necessary separation of church and state. How ironic that the same public school whose principal asked me to pray to Jesus at the flagpole and listen to Franklin Graham's pious spoutings also provides "diversity training" to students and staff, so that they may "learn to respect others' points of view"!
What is wrong here? Beyond the obvious legal contradiction between the secular basis of American government and religion in public schools, other factors argue against allowing religious practice and proselytizing during school time. Here in Kansas, where evolution has stopped and the State Board of Education is run by monkeys, there is interference with the curriculum because creationists have gained control of the policy board. Additionally, those who seek to place prayer in the school schedule assume that the public, religious exercises will be "quiet and non-disruptive." It is certainly disruptive to my day to miss calculus to be a "captive audience" for Franklin Graham. And, though private conversations' content is protected under the free speech portion of the First Amendment, it is disrupting to my flow of thoughts to be proselytized by some sweet Christian girl in the hall or cafeteria or school library.
Any attempt to persuade me that religious proselytizing at school is "all right" because it is the majority practice abridges my personal freedom of thought and action. Besides, it makes me angry and uncomfortable and disagreeable; and my reactions are usually offensive to the pietists. Whether I move away silently, argue vociferously, or simply affirm my right to be left alone, I end up ostracized and draw unwanted attention from staff adults. Though I abhor violence, I can almost understand what triggers tragedies like the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado: a sense of hopeless frustration with regard to social divisions that becomes fury. Pressure to conform to some particular religious norm at school is one of the big divisive forces among teens today.
Most of my classmates do not recognize the term "freethinker." They equate agnostics with communists and other "undesirable influences." Their parents look with suspicion upon our local Masonic lodge, adamantly and publicly advertising its support for separation of church and state. Any appreciation of the freedom of diversity raises questions. For example, where does the religious domination of public education leave Native American ceremonies? Who represents the interests of the Wiccans in the overt displays of religion in public schools? The secular humanists? Shintoists? Hindus? Nobody. Yet people with all of these beliefs and more live in my town and attend public schools.
Finally, there is another message in the First Amendment. If freedom of religion is guaranteed, then "freedom from religion" is also a natural expectation. Atheists, agnostics, and others uninterested in formal religion are forced to endure religious timeouts every day. Sometimes they are disguised as a "moment of silent reflection"; sometimes they are more perniciously inescapable. At my graduation ceremony, the principal (in control of the microphone) said "I know there's been a lot of controversy about prayer in schools, but I feel that there are times when prayer is absolutely acceptable, and this is one of them," and she offered a lengthy prayer to "our heavenly father," "in Jesus' name."
For the true believers to dictate what is acceptable practice allows far too much religion in school for the freethinkers and doubters of our country. Our forebears would spin in their graves if they were aware of the ever more forceful push to integrate Christian religious displays into the public schools on a daily basis. The founding fathers' clarity of thought and vision demanded church-state separation, to keep us free. We should be vigilantly guarding that freedom of--and from--religion by barring religion from our public institutions, especially the public schools.
Will Page graduated from Wichita High School East at age 17 and now attends the University of Southern California, to study political science and computer science. Other interests include dancing, films, and maintaining/restoring his '68 Ford Mustang.
I am a Jewish atheist . . .
My faith is in the Constitution.
September 2000 column(September 2000 column)
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My father was an agnostic.
O Magazine, July-Aug. 2000
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I'm a total atheist. . .
Novelist Myla Goldberg
New York magazine, Aug. 7, 2000
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. . . I suppose I am an infidel. They might call me a Nothingarian--the name regular churchgoers in the nineteenth century sometimes applied to those who weren't. . . . If a friend were to mention Jesus Christ in a serious way, I would probably assume that he or she was about to have a breakdown.
Author Ian Frazier
Submitted by Philip Appleman
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Can we start to agree that flagrantly public displays of purported religious belief and practice have no place in sports? . . .
I am no theologian, but I know this. Some of the most moral people I've met are non-churchgoers. Some of the biggest sleazebags I've run across are Bible-thumpers. Knowledge of Scripture, envelopes in the offering plate, fanny in the pew--they can mean everything or nothing. Acts, behavior toward others over a lifetime, are what counts.
Staff writer Bonnie DeSimone
Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 1999
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This [protective custody placement of pregnant cultist Rebecca Corneau, whose first child died from lack of medical care] is not about religious freedom. No acceptable religion allows a child in its immediate care to starve to death. No acceptable religion hides corpses from authorities. . . .
Columnist Brian McGrory
"Stop the rhetoric, save the child"
Boston Globe, Sept. 10, 2000
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Europe is the cradle of institutional Christianity, but today, institutional religion in Europe is on the point of collapse. Fewer than one French person in 10 goes to church even once a year, and the Roman Catholic church has never been less influential in the life of the nation.
"Politics Without Piety"
New York Times, Sept. 9, 2000
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When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris put up the money to buy the guns they used to terrorize Columbine Country, they paid with cash, U.S.
. . . And on every coin and bill that crossed their palms, there was this phrase: IN GOD WE TRUST. . . .
If it doesn't make a difference on the coin-of-the-realm of murder, carried in every kid's pocket every day, how is it going to make a difference posted on the wall of a gymnasium, surrounded by slogans of school spirit?
Columnist Chuck Green
" 'In God We Trust' won't help"
Denver Post, July 10, 2000
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Those children should be alive today, would be alive, but for the actions of a man who thought he was Jesus Christ.
J. Michael Bradford, U.S. attorney
Re: 80 Branch Davidian deaths
Newsweek, July 24, 2000
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Mixing religion and politics here [in Mexico] is like making a nitroglycerine cocktail.
Humberto Lira Mora
Mexican interior ministry official
Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2000
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Unfortunately for those who consider the invisibility or intimidation of nonChristians a worthy goal, the United States is not--the bleating of hardcore conservatives notwithstanding--a "Christian nation." Christianity is the majority religion, yes, but this isn't a theocracy. It is, rather, a nation of laws, many of them written specifically to protect the despised minority from the tyrannical majority.
Columnist Leonard Pitts
Sept. 5, 2000
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This is what I don't understand about those high school football prayers: Why do they have to be said aloud? Is God hard of hearing?
Editorial Page Editor
Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 2000
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Once he [William Jennings Bryan] had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards.
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I really feel that being a submissive wife is a highly esteemed position for a woman to be in. --Former attorney Kelly May, 39 . . .
. . . The ultimate danger of the interpretation of Scripture [as counseling female submissiveness] is domestic violence.
Dr. Hada Stotland, Illinois Masonic Medical Center
"To love, honor and obey"
Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 2000
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We're unsure, we don't want to say the wrong thing, and we don't want to stir interest inappropriately.
Dr. Stephen Lamb, Mormon gynecologist
Author: new sex handbook for Mormons
AP, July 30, 2000
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God is not some Sugar Daddy up there just constantly pouring out blessings. There are times when God says, "Enough is enough! I'm going to give you a whuppin.' "
Dallas evangelist Stephen Hill
Dallas Observer, Aug. 24-30, 2000
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After the game, ESPNews interviews Damien Anderson, whose touchdown run clinched it in overtime for Northwestern. "I just thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to blah blah blah," Anderson drones. Look, if Jesus wants to intervene in football games instead of the latest African famine, then mysterious are His ways, and mine is not to question. From a journalistic perspective, however, testifying athletes are long past being news. Now, if Bollinger implicates the Prince of Darkness for that insane interception, then go ahead and roll tape. If Vitaly Pisetsky blames the Virgin Mary for screwing up his extra point or field goal, you've got a tease, my friend. Otherwise, keep these guys off my TV.
"Out of Bounds"
Isthmus [Madison, WI], Sept. 29, 2000
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Give particular attention to their gods. It has been my policy always to support those religions that are truly popular. Once you pretend to honor the local deity, the priesthood is immediately on your side. Once you have the priests, you don't need much of a garrison to keep order.
Character in Creation (1981)
Submitted by Carole Kowaleski
This talk was presented on Sept. 16 to the twenty-third national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Adrian Melott, a physicist, astronomer and cosmologist, is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas. He has also served as a Unitarian minister.
His research interests are large-scale structure in the universe and dark matter. In 1996 he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society, for "groundbreaking studies of the origin and evolution of cosmic structure."
He was a founding director of Kansas Citizens For Science in 1999.
You people have an image problem!
When I checked in here I told the desk clerk why I was here and who I was with, and she said, "Oh yes, you're with the church conference." I have a conflicted relationship with religion--being here, being a minister--a church one weekend, an atheist meeting the next!
Physicists always have had that conflict. There's a story about two of the prominent physicists of the mid-20th century, Neils Bohr and George Gamow. Bohr invited Gamow to his cottage in Denmark one weekend. He arrived. Gamow looked up and saw a horseshoe over the entrance to the cottage. This is supposed to be a good luck charm in Denmark.
Gamow allegedly said to Bohr, "Surely you don't believe that stuff."
Bohr then said, "Well, no, of course not, but they say it works even if you don't believe it."
I have a semi-autobiographical story to tell, hopefully with some lessons in it. It's partly about the rebirth of my activism, which had stopped in the 1970s and has come alive again recently.
In Kansas, as you know, we've had this struggle over creationism and the state science standards. We could see this coming like a freight train long before the publicity started. Two things happened in the spring of 1999--one of them was that creationists began shadowing the hearings of the science committee of the state board, going around the state and objecting to their draft science standards.
Simultaneously with this, in Lawrence, Kansas, a group called POSH formed--Parents for Objective Science and History. POSH was nucleated by a minister's wife when she found her child learning about long time-scales for dinosaurs in a first grade class, went nonlinear and organized POSH, lobbying our local school board in Lawrence for creationist changes.
Some people got together and decided how to respond to this. We decided to do an experiment in not really taking them seriously as we struggled against them. We had a brainstorming session about how to do this and someone had the idea of organizing FLAT--Families for Learning Accurate Theories.
As I thought about this, I thought we could call ourselves "flatheads." This wasn't such a good idea maybe because I looked up "flatheads" and we have these definitions: A type of large catfish found in southern rivers; Indians who bound their children's heads producing a flattened skull; an Indian tribe in Montana that never did that; a lake and river in Montana named after the Indian tribe that never did that; and the first mass-produced V-8 engine introduced by Henry Ford in 1932.
So we didn't use Flatheads but we did have a press conference. Two people, I and a religious studies professor named Paul Mirecki, who were judged to have nothing to lose, were the people who represented FLAT and its platform. We sent out press releases and read our statement. Here are some excerpts:
"We wish to stress that we are a secular organization. We respect good science and good scholarship and have confidence that when properly done, the results will always agree with the Bible. Thus, we are interested in promoting good standards.
"The 'round-earth' theory is being taught in Lawrence, contrary to the Bible. Of course, having the four corners does not mean the earth is a square or rectangle. It could be a tetrahedron. Our group is divided on this matter. We agree that careful experimentation will determine the outcome. You might ask about the astronauts who have gone out into space and why they haven't reported about the true shape of the earth. Or how about those space satellites that go all around the earth. (Notice the use of the word 'round.' The subtle brainwashing.)
"Ask yourself, have you ever seen a satellite? Did you ever talk to an astronaut? Sure, they told you those moving lights were satellites right back to the atheistic Sputnik. Ask yourself: If young Americans did go out into space and reported the truth, what would happen to them at the hands of the scientific establishment?
"Scripture, 1 Kings 7:23, clearly declares that the value of pi is 3, not the secular humanist value of 3.14 taught in every school in Lawrence. FLAT supports the teaching of the Biblical value on an equal footing with the secular value. Are these abstract ideas about pi?
"No, they have economic implications. Think, for example, about all the potential savings on tires, ball bearings and anything else that rolls.
"Remember that at the Tower of Babel God punished the human race for its pride by creating many languages so that peoples could never cooperate in building such a structure again. FLAT believes that the study of foreign languages is therefore unBiblical and seeks the removal of such courses from the curriculum at all levels."
We did this straightfaced. Along with our press release we bought radio time and we bought ads in the newspaper. The radio station we chose was an A.M. station, Lawrence's only A.M. station. I only listen to it during tornado warnings. It's referred to as "the radio station that the other kind of white people listen to." We also ran a newspaper ad, shown here. [See ad copy, next page.]
Our efforts got international attention focused on Kansas. We had commentary in Nature, an international science journal. We had interviews from all around the country.
Of course we got hate mail--three kinds: we got hate mail from fundamentalists because they didn't like the way we were portraying them; we got hate mail from liberal Christians who resented being lumped in with the fundamentalists; and the best hate mail we got came from parody-impaired irate atheists.
Here are some examples:
"You people are retarded. You are all stupid. Do you have televisions? Have you ever seen the pictures of space beyond the earth where the earth is a sphere? To think the earth is square is moronic. You people need to get your heads checked."
From an atheist chat: "It's just this kind of religious fanaticism that is so dangerous. How can anybody in their right mind think that kids should be taught the world is flat?"
The reply from someone else: "I believe we're seeing something called parody. In any case, I'll bet dollars to donuts this is someone's idea of a joke and a pretty darn funny one, too."
Lastly, "Since you are so convinced that the earth is flat why don't you just march and jump off."
You get the idea.
Meanwhile, all this happens and people send email bouncing around the world about all this, and simultaneously we have the state school board events. The state school board is having hearings and we can see what's coming. There's testimony going on. It's like a freight train. We know it's going to happen but we can't wake people up.
(This freight train is now heading toward Nebraska. Those of you who are from Nebraska--right now: there are creationists running for the state school board in Nebraska. Kansas creationists are now touring Nebraska giving talks, trying to drum up support for this. People who are working on this issue in Nebraska can't get anyone to pay attention to them. They can't get it into the newspapers. So watch Nebraska, it's next. If anyone wants to email me, I can put you in touch with people in Nebraska who are trying to begin to develop some opposition to this.)
We began to organize since we saw the freight train coming. The particular thing I did was to use the Internet to monitor newspapers all over the state of Kansas. I watched the letters to the editor in all the major newspapers and every time someone wrote a letter I approved of, I used a search engine to find them, get in touch with them, get their name, address, phone number, email, on a list. And after a couple of months I had a few dozen people on a list, all of whom had taken the time and who had the brains and ability to write a good letter. It was a very selective list. I recommend that form of electronic organizing. Especially in big decentralized states, it works well.
What the Kansas School Board passed, by the way, didn't outlaw evolution, it merely deleted it from the standards. It also removed things to do with the Big Bang, with the environment, with changing the description of science. It also inserted hooks so that at certain times creationist classroom materials would be called upon. Deep behind it are the young earth creationists.
To get a flavor of their work, I recommend the website www.christiananswers.net, especially their sections on dinosaurs. You can see things like smiley-faced T-Rex, whom we find out was a friendly vegetarian in the Garden of Eden.
Some pressure had been building and a number of teachers were anxious about possible pressure on their science teaching. After our press conference, newspaper ad campaign, and radio ad, the pressure went off. POSH was perceived pretty much as a joke.
On a Kansas statewide level, young earth creationists were behind the changes, although the extent of their involvement had never been made public. They were portrayed as being something for local choice, local control. All through this the creationists' campaign was, "we didn't forbid evolution, we simply put this in the hands of local school boards."
This is a NCSE map of Kansas: we have old earth, young earth, intelligent design, survival of the fittest, germs cause disease, demons cause disease, storks bring babies, the moon is made of green cheese, you get the idea--local control of science education. Notice they don't want local control of anything like English or math. They never discuss local control except for this sort of thing.
As a result of the State Board Science Standards, we had another media blitz. Why? Why did Kansas get all this attention? After all, the same thing had been done elsewhere. It happened in Illinois. If you're from Illinois, go look at your state science standards in biology. I think the reason was that FLAT drew attention to Kansas and then the media were primed and ready and interested. Then there was this noisy group of people beginning to make opposition to what happened. Newspapers like conflict, so they became interested in Kansas.
A few months after this, Kansas Citizens For Science (KCFS) was born. We now have a couple of hundred paid members and another few hundred who monitor us for information, mostly via email. We kept going back to the state school board testifying. Every month we would go during public comment time. My favorite thing was to sign up late so that I would be the last person to speak, never plan a speech, and simply rebut something that some creationist would say. Believe me, there was plenty of butt to re-butt. We had a circus atmosphere at times. One month the Hare Krishnas showed up and profusely thanked the creationists for what they had done to put good science back, and gave Linda Holloway, the fundamentalist chair of our state school board, a consciousness-expanding brownie, which they claimed was completely legal.
Meanwhile outside, one of our friends was picketing in a gorilla suit. We had three or four organizations. So I really like previous speaker Woody Kaplan's comment about having lots of alphabet soup--we have FLAT to do parodies and Save Our School for the gorilla suit thing, Kansas Citizens For Science for a very serious, studious approach--that worked well. We had a broad coalition. I can't say how important that is. There are many Christians and others who support good science and this counters the wedge strategy that the fundamentalists have which is: you're with us or you're an atheist (or you're with us or you're supporting atheism implicitly).
People have done careful analyses of possible theological responses to the interplay between science and religion and identified at least seven different possible responses one can have to the relationship between religion and scientific understandings. One of the best people, one of the most effective members Kansas Citizens For Science has, is an evangelical Christian geologist who goes around to fundamentalist churches and talks about how silly the whole creationists' program is, and he has exactly the credentials to deal with them. He knows their literature, he knows the scientific literature, he even knows the history of fundamentalism. The first fundamentalists even didn't seem to have a problem with evolution, most of them--it's a modern phenomenon.
Another thing we did was emphasize economic effects, effects on education in Kansas, effects on whether or not corporations would want to relocate to Kansas, effects on the Kansas schools which, after all, do typically have standardized test scores well above the national average and climbing. We appealed to the prospect that children from Kansas might have trouble getting into good universities, even the ones in their own state. We think that these pragmatic appeals to self-interest work better than abstract appeals to some kind of truth. We think they have a bigger effect on the electorate.
KCFS is also a 501(c)(3) organization, and the organization worked to educate the public about evolution and to let the public know what the positions of the various candidates were. KCFS never endorsed candidates. That's the way it has been working and will continue to work in Kansas.
We have many kinds of people in the organization: many scientists but also ministers, advertising people, labor organizers.
Result: we have a primary and then an election. We already had the primary, and the election, as I speak, is yet to come. We had been losing 6-4 in the school board; we needed to knock out two of these people and we had two rounds to do it. Five of the ten are up for vote and we needed to knock out two. We knocked out three in the primary. There are two races left in the general election where a creationist is opposing another person.
If I could guess what will happen there, I'd say the incumbent will win both races and that means that one creationist and one noncreationist will win. My prediction is then we will have a school board that's 7-3 against the creationists come November. The best they can have is four, no matter what happens, and in two more years we get a chance to go after the rest of them. By the time the you read this the answer will be known.
There are remarkable events here. First of all, in a couple of races the creationists outspent their opponents 3-1 and still lost by large margins. The second thing is that they lost by these large margins at the same time that other conservative Republicans were winning primaries by large margins in the very same district. This means that our wedge strategy worked--we managed to split off the religious radicals from the other rightwing conservative Republicans. At least a third to a half of the conservative Republicans realized these people are nuts. It's the only way you can explain the victory.
We had some help. People for the American Way came in the state, did some things and left. There was a joint statement by the presidents of all six universities; that helped. But I think the grassroots efforts were what did it: many, many letters to editors all over the state, public speakers, people going and asking tough questions of candidates, emphasizing pragmatic issues.
I want to look briefly at their strategies and the strategies we used, and the ones that I think might win and might help. One, again, is their wedge strategy: you're with us or you're an atheist. We belie that by having a range of people making statements and explaining that science doesn't have any position on religious issues. It's very simple to say that, but it's very hard to get it across to the public. The creationists have lots of ways of trying to make it appear that science makes judgments about religious things. They tried a double strategy of simultaneously broadening and narrowing their attack. They produced some documents that attacked all of science, believe it or not, even including gravity! One draft standard referred to Newton's theory of gravity as something that had not been tested very well. At the same time they did that, they put forth other documents that only attack evolution or other things about origins, cosmology, etc.
The second group of documents then look like compromises. That's one of the things that gave them their early victory. One person on the state school board took that to be a compromise and gave it his vote.
Part of this broadening and narrowing strategy is something called Intelligent Design Theory that I want to draw your attention to very strongly. The strategy here is for the creationists to shut up about things like the age of the earth and so on and make a big deal only about one thing--evolution. Intelligent Design Theory has a few people who write for it who have reasonable scientific credentials, in particular, one information theorist and one biochemist. Their arguments aren't very good, but they know enough to dress them up and make them sound good. Michael Behe is a biochemist whose arguments are convincing to all but biochemists. Dembski does information theory and physics which seem very erudite to all but information theorists and physicists.
KU Natural History Museum director Leonard Krishtalka said, "Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo." I agree. What they're doing, what they're having success with, is broadening their demographic base. Intelligent Design is attracting new kinds of people. Engineers and medical doctors are really susceptible to this stuff. I don't know what it is about doctors and engineers, but ID gets lots of them. Maybe it's because these people deal primarily with applied science; they generally don't create new knowledge. At any rate, Intelligent Design Creationism is largely a middle-class phenomenon and to some extent an academic phenomenon. That makes it dangerous. The danger it has is that it will split off the biologists from the rest of science and then they'll be able to attack only the biologists and the rest of us will let it go.
Philip Johnson is a Berkeley lawyer. He's an Intelligent Design advocate from the point of view of philosophy as opposed to science. He's a very good speaker, a very congenial person. He came to Lawrence to give a talk about Intelligent Design, so we went after him in a bi-pronged attack. Kansas Citizens For Science produced some very serious pamphlets that critiqued his positions, which are available to download on our website by the way, www.kcfs.org. About 20 people hit all entrances to this auditorium, and we leafleted and reached about half the audience of about a thousand people. We let them know what he'd say (he's very predictable) and then provided critical comments.
FLAT also leafleted from a particularly different point of view. This is the tract FLAT produced: "Philip Johnson doesn't believe in the Bible. The Bible says the earth is flat but Philip Johnson thinks it's round. The Bible says God made foreign languages so people couldn't understand each other, but Philip Johnson supports foreign language teaching. The Bible says pi equals 3 but Philip Johnson thinks pi equals 3.1416. The Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old but Philip Johnson won't say that. Philip Johnson is a liberal." That was a wedge strategy!
There are two kinds of Intelligent Design. One kind has come out of Physics. I call it type I ID. People like Paul Davies are representative of this. It's about the fine-tuning of the universe. It's a bunch of arguments about how the values of various physical constants are in a very narrow range which allows life to exist. These people typically think of the universe as something which was constructed so that we could evolve, could be here. I'm not a particular fan of this point of view, but I think it's mostly harmless. That is, it may be a theological position that doesn't appeal to me, but I have not yet seen any attempt to compromise science teaching from this.
Type II ID, on the other hand, is the kind associated with Dembski, Behe and Johnson, which seeks to undercut evolution and the whole naturalistic approach to science, the wedge strategy. The Discovery Institute, which you can find on its website and its sub-organization, the Center for Renewal of Science and Theology, has the avowed purpose of turning this country into a theocracy within 20 years. They're upfront about it. There's a document you can find on the web called The Wedge Strategy that basically describes this. Getting people to talk about Intelligent Design a lot in public is their first goal. Here I am doing it--I'm spreading the virus. See how insidious it is!
The second strategy is to get it into the public schools. Eventually the naturalistic methodology of science becomes compromised, and then on to the rest of the culture. It's hard to combat this stuff. I think it's really useful to watch their methods more than their content. This is very hard to do, because we're intellectually oriented. We tend to pay attention to what people say. I think it can be more important to pay attention to how they operate.
Example: In a confrontation between a creationist and someone else, you may see claims and counterclaims about carbon dating, etc., but you might notice that the creationists will perhaps attack science without making any assertions of their own. So there's a hidden assumption: If B is wrong, then A must be right. And he'll just attack B, but that will never be explicit. It might help, for example, to ask for positive evidence for his point of view. Or perhaps to point out the hidden assumption.
In his attack on science, you may find that he'll attack science and the person he's dealing with may be able to respond to all his claims, but he'll keep changing the subject until he finds an area that his opponents don't know anything about. Then he's home free--because he knows his opponent will shut up when he doesn't know about things, but he doesn't observe that constraint, so he's won.
These are the kind of tactics that you have to be really aware of and watch closely; some of them have been written up in an essay in the Spring 2000 issue of Physics and Society, which can be read online at:
For a great deal of other useful information on this and other topics related to combating creationism and supporting good science education, I commend the websites of the National Center for Science Education, (www.ncseweb.org), and of Kansas Citizens for Science, (www.kcfs.org). By the way, if you buy books from Barnes and Noble via the link on the KCFS website, we receive a donation. Both the KCFS and NCSE websites are rich with links to useful resources. I like TalkOrigins, which examines creationist pseudoscience in detail.
Remember that it's a political struggle and small numbers of people can have very large effects. I think that probably about 20 people taken together are responsible for about half of the political activity around this issue in Kansas, counting both sides. I would say that if you count 200 people, you've probably got 90% of the activity solely around the science standards issue. I'm urging you to get involved and saying you don't have to be an expert to get involved. They're not experts. They're mostly just very slick liars.
I thought in passing I'd make a couple of comments about religion and about belief. One thing I've seen widely, and I think I've seen here, is the assumption that the definition of religion is believing things. That's one way of thinking about religion; that's a very western intellectual way of thinking about religion. And even in that there are different kinds of responses. The Dalai Lama is reported to have said something like, "If the Tibetan Buddhist religion is found to be in conflict with modern science, then the Tibetan Buddhist religion would have to change." Whether you believe certain things is not central to many religions.
It's not entirely accurate but there's a grain of truth in saying that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. It's not explicitly atheistic but it's a religion in which psychological effects of behavior are much more important than any kind of mythological beliefs. Similarly with Islam and to a lesser extent Judaism, obedience to the law is the important thing, not intellectualizing beliefs, etc.
Whatever you think about that, if you want to win these battles you have to be willing to make broad coalitions with as many people as you can muster on whatever the issue may be. That worked extremely well for us in throwing out the creationists.
I worked with an early childhood education expert and we developed curricula aimed at first to fourth-grade level that deal with modern cosmology and to some extent with evolution, and this can be found on my website:
The curricula were field-tested with young children with a great deal of success in developing their interest in the origins of the universe and of life on this planet. The children have been enthusiastic about it. There are two versions: one's a public school version, one's a Sunday school version of the curriculum kit.
So, this is really a battle. Do we continue to learn new things about our Universe and the life on this planet? Does the United States become an enclave of narrow, ignorant people?
That's how we kicked ass; go thou and do likewise.
I am a recently completed product of public education. As I type this essay, my newly-acquired diploma rests in its place of honor among what little I've kept as reminders of my high school career: Prom pictures, dried flowers, a What Would John Denver Do? bracelet, old movie and concert stubs, art projects, a saran-wrapped Brownie for Buddha, my Highest Honor sash, and my Homecoming Queen tiara.
When I look at the artifacts on my dresser, I remember the triumphant feeling of scoring 10 tickets to the sold-out eight o'clock showing of Titanic on its Opening Night, also my birthday. I remember writing my speech to be given at Commencement and cringing in pain when last year's Homecoming Queen, Miss Mindi Wright, slammed the tiara onto my head and thrust a bouquet of roses into my arms.
I remember passing out What Would John Denver Do? bracelets in the courtyard and the subsequent trip to the principal's office regarding the matter. I remember all too vividly the bake sale held by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in which Cookies for Christ were sold. Never a fan of oatmeal raisin, I found this fund-raiser only increased my distaste for the cookie. I also remember the bake sale held by my friends and me in which Brownies for Buddha, Yogurt for Yahweh, Apples for Allah, Grapes for Ganesh, Tiramisu for the Talmud, and a wide selection of Pies for Pagans were sold.
Whether it was our cause or the quality of our cooking that allowed every item to be sold remains to be seen. Regardless of our customers' motives, the profits financed a field trip for the Theory of Knowledge class to listen to a professor from Arizona State University speak on various religions, as well as atheism and humanism.
The memory that comes to mind most frequently is walking into the cafeteria to grab some breakfast before first period, only to be met with stares, silence, and the shaking of many, many heads. In the morning hours, the cafeteria doubles as the informal meeting place for anyone with a belief in God and a need to validate this belief through the means of mass prayer. While I don't particularly enjoy being stared at like a leper, nothing comes between me and my prepackaged Fruit Loops, not even a higher deity.
Contrary to the popular belief of school administration and students, I am not an activist or a rebel in any way, shape, or form. I am a student. I go to school to learn, and I like to learn in peace. Whatever I do that can be considered a protest of religion in public schools is the result of a simple desire to have my Mormon and Christian peers cease their extracurricular campaign to convert me and other "heretics." The Advanced Placement curriculum at Chandler High School is a rigorous, time-intensive ordeal and, like most Honor students, I cherish my lunch period as the one time of day when I don't have to be "mature" or "intelligent" or even "attentive." I'd rather spend my lunch hour with my friends, devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, than nod politely and attentively at a total stranger who is telling me about his experiences with the glory of God in excruciating detail.
When I "antagonize" members of religious clubs or youth groups, I do it not out of intolerance for their beliefs or to prove that they're "wrong"; I do it in defense of my lunch and sanity. I cannot be more honest when I say that if there is one reason why religion should not pervade public school campuses, it is to keep people like myself from completely losing it and inciting a lunchtime jihad.
Thankfully, logic and rational thought are also on the side of religion-free public schools. Prayer is an entirely personal experience; it is a person communicating directly to God. Why does anyone, even a kindergartner, need a middleman such as a teacher to relay his or her thoughts to God? Instead of devoting their energies to changing part of the foundation of the United States Government as well as the educational system, Christians should concentrate on encouraging prayer before or after class, in one's free time, and in places where it would be welcome by everyone.
The bumper sticker that claims that "as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school" is exactly right, though it also makes the critical point that prayer needn't be a public ritual. I know for a fact that teachers do not allow a "moment of silence" for students to offer the last-minute prayer, "Dear God, I didn't study for this test, but if you help me pass it I'll study extra hard for the next one." Nor do teachers publicly lead the class in pleading for a passing grade. Yet, I also know for a fact that many desperate students find the time to pray for a miracle nonetheless. This leads me to wonder why the basic school-wide prayer that the Religious Right is calling for can't be done privately and on one's own time, as well?
From my experience as a student, the answer to this is that there are things on their minds like unfinished homework or whether the demi-Gods of the Yale Admissions Office have deemed their applications worthy of acceptance. From this answer stems another question: If the typical red-blooded student, whether 8-years-old or 18, is largely preoccupied with matters more crucial to his or her immediate well-being than school-time prayer, who is it that is advocating the introduction of prayer into public schools? Obviously not students; they're too busy trading PokŽmon cards and staring at the cute girl two rows over.
There is an infamous group of people known to use American youth as the pawns that keep their business booming: tobacco manufacturers. Their exploitation of youth has led to continually stratospheric profits, and these profits have enabled them to yield considerable control in legislative issues by monetarily supporting politicians. As the slick rhetoric and objectives of Christian groups promoting religion in public schools become more apparent through their media organizations and the cases before the Supreme Court, I cannot help but see similarities between the "marketing" campaigns of Christian organizations and tobacco companies.
By introducing school prayer and other religious activities to the captive, often gullible, audience of American youth, the Religious Right exponentially increases its power in the political and cultural arenas of American society. Through peer pressure and the constant barrage of Christian rhetoric, students will no longer have access to the liberal, secular, and diverse education that has played such a key role in the lives of society's most productive members. Instead, they will learn to be judgmental of those who differ in ideology, and they will not question the ways of the world, as they will have learned that the answer of "That's the way God wanted it" will suffice.
I am not an atheist or an agnostic or a Catholic or Deist. I'm not sure what group I fall into, if any. What I can say for certain is that I am neither a devout believer nor a staunch non-believer. My best friend will attend the Moody Bible Institute next year; she's as fundamental as they come. Though she would have nothing to do with my heated theological debates with lunchtime proselytes or my John Denver bracelet enterprise, she baked the Brownies for Buddha and attended the field trip on world religions. My friend and I are friends because we can put our differences aside and because we know that diversity and individual rights are absolutely crucial to a free society, whether or not we like some of the diverse elements. Diversity strengthens one's personal beliefs and value systems, as it allows for the entire picture to be seen and analyzed; there aren't any "missing pieces" that nag at a person's conscience.
The creators of the Constitution had such diversity in mind when they wrote and adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the guidelines of American society. Every member of this society has a civic responsibility to uphold and defend these guidelines of the United States, including the section that refers to the separation of church and state. I don't support the presence of religion in public schools for personal reasons and for civic reasons, thus making me a responsible citizen. Yet, I am a pariah in certain circles of my high school's social arena. Ironically, these very groups of people that find me irritating and heretical and meddlesome claim their undying patriotism and love of country; they flaunt their status as law-abiding citizens and keepers of the American Dream. When it comes to the issue of respecting the rights of others, however, the rampant hypocrisy found in these people never ceases to boggle my mind. Principals devoted to the mental and social development of American youth refuse Atheist clubs and Gay Pride clubs, indirectly encouraging students not to bother with all the sides of an issue, to narrow, not expand, their minds. Pastors and ministers who preach compassion, love for self and others, and non-judgment in one breath, encourage their youth groups to look down upon non- believing peers with pity and disdain in another. On the opening page of Catholic monthly missalettes there is a paragraph devoted to the Roman Catholic community's "fervent prayer" that one day all sects of Christianity will resolve their differences and join together in the name of Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that until that day comes, they'd prefer only Catholics to celebrate the Holy Communion with them. It is my most fervent prayer that one day all sects of American culture, religious and otherwise, can resolve their differences and become united by the common bond of individuality and respect for personal liberty and the law. Until that day arrives, however, I'd rather you not interrupt my lunch. Amen.
Kacie Hengel is a freshman at Rice University in Houston, Texas, this fall. She graduated with Highest Honors from Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. Kacie plans to major in Philosophy, with the long-term aspiration of becoming a fiction writer. Due to an almost nonexistent job market for philosophers, Kacie is looking to marry into wealth to support her artistic inclinations. She spends her spare time cooking, singing showtunes, swing dancing, and reading voraciously.
Cassie Gootee, a recent high school grad, gave this acceptance speech after being presented with a $1,000 freethought student activist award at the Year 2000 national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul on Sept. 16.
Cassie and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation member Alan Snyder, who generously underwrote Cassie's monetary award.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my story. It's been a great honor to be invited here to receive this award.
Probably one of the reasons for what I did is because almost everybody in my high school class was a Christian. Whenever I voiced a different viewpoint like saying "Happy Winter Solstice" instead of "Merry Christmas," people basically ignored it. Although I didn't broadcast it, my family has chosen much of the Native American path so I didn't relate to any of the Christian viewpoints.
I was President of the Student Body. The other Senior Officers and I were approached to talk about graduation preparations. We watched a video from the previous year to get an idea of what we were to do. I noticed that the graduation program had a "Benediction" and "Invocation" and that the video contained prayer and several references to God.
I went home and told my parents that I was concerned about prayer in the graduation ceremony. My parents said that this wasn't right and that gave me encouragement to question it.
At the next meeting of the Senior Officers I asked if it was necessary that we have prayer in the graduation ceremony. Nobody there said prayer really mattered to them but, because it was such a family gathering and a tradition, they would put in a prayer. Rather than confronting the officers, I decided to take the issue to the principal.
The next day I made an appointment to see the principal and told his secretary my purpose for wanting to see him. A few days went by and I didn't hear back from him. This was strange to me seeing how we had a pretty good relationship since I was Student Body President. So I went back to his office and he was there. I knocked on his door and walked in. I asked him if he had gotten my message about wanting to see him and he said "yes," but that he was busy and couldn't get back to me as soon as he wanted.
I told the principal that I was concerned that there was prayer in the graduation program and that they were using religious words like "benediction" and "invocation" instead of "opening" and "closing" in the program. Right away he took the defense. He said that this was tradition and that students are free to choose what they want to say. He said that it wasn't his responsibility to tell students not to say prayer at graduation.
I said that this wasn't fair because it is a public school and there shouldn't even be a question about prayer at a public school ceremony. He kept repeating that students were free to say what they liked and that he had no control over what they said. He told me to go to the girls who were preparing the benediction and invocation and to ask if they would please not put in anything religious. This still didn't settle the matter at hand because they shouldn't even have it as an option. I got the feeling that he was trying to "blow me off" and that just made me more determined.
I didn't talk to the girls because I didn't want to get them involved. It was between me and the Administration. Plus, I felt strongly that prayer was wrong and that it was simply nonnegotiable. So there wasn't any reason to try striking a compromise with the other students.
I went home and told my parents about the meeting and how unsuccessful it was and they became just as angry as I was. The next day I talked with the teacher who was advisor to our student government to see where I should go from this point. I explained to her the measures I had already taken. She said I was making too big a deal of this, that it was a tradition, and that the majority seemed to want prayer. Like the principal, she told me to talk with the other Senior Officers about it.
After no success with my adviser, I went to talk to the principal again. I told him that I saw no reason to talk to the other Senior Officers and that prayer should be removed from the program this year and all years to come. He repeated himself saying that he wasn't responsible for what other students said and that he didn't have the right to censor students' remarks. I told him that it was one thing for a student to blurt out a prayer or invocation to God unannounced. However, statements by students on the program were to be reviewed by four of our English professors and two of our administrators. To me, this meant that the school administration was directly involved and, therefore, was sanctioning prayer. The principal responded by repeating that he wasn't free to censor students.
After that meeting, I knew that I couldn't carry this forward without some outside help because the principal didn't want to stick his neck out by making a public decision that wouldn't be popular with everyone. So, I asked Bob Tiernan [an attorney who heads the Denver FFRF chapter] to go to our next meeting. Before we went to the meeting, Bob and I talked about the different legal cases and the Supreme Court rulings in this area. This was before the 6-3 decision in the Texas school prayer case so things were not absolutely crystal clear.
We met with the principal and brought out the cases that we felt supported our position. He argued against us by saying that the students were in charge of the program and, therefore, could say what they wanted. However, he did agree to take the words "Benediction" and "Invocation" out of the program.
I then went back to the Senior Officers and brought the subject up directly. They agreed not to say any prayers. However, because I had to bring it to the Senior Officers, it circulated throughout the school. A number of students came up to me and screamed directly in my face telling me how majority rules in this country, and that I had no right to take away tradition. They said that all their families were going to be there and would be disappointed with no prayer. I was thinking how they would react if I was to get up and start the ceremony off with a Native American drum chant. Other students told me that I had gone too far and couldn't understand why I was making such a big issue out of this.
What my classmates didn't understand was that it was my graduation too, and that I shouldn't have to feel like an outsider at my own graduation. I had to go through school putting up with Christian views my whole life, but this was too much. My family was going to be there too. Even taking out the emotional reason for my action, this was still against the law and could not be permitted under any circumstance.
In the middle of all that was going on, I attended my Senior Awards. My family was watching from the audience, as I received my award from the Elks Club as "Teenager of the Year." They were seated behind a group of parents that my family had known for years. These parents are all very conservative Christians, and knew from their kids what I was trying to do at the graduation ceremony. When I got up to receive my award, my family seemed to be the only ones clapping. We had known these parents for years, and they clapped for every student but me.
Well, I graduated and am happy to say that there was absolutely no prayer and that everything went well except, of course, there was a noticeable lack of applause when I received my diploma and an award that was presented.
Would I do this again? I sure would. It was painful and frustrating in many ways but I learned a lot from the experience and I learned that persistence can pay off. Hopefully, one day people will realize that their Christian viewpoint is not the only one.
Cassie Gootee graduated from Englewood High School, Colorado, this year. She was inducted into the National Honor Society and was president of the student body. She represented Colorado at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout high school, Cassie served as an active volunteer. Cassie plans to major in political science and government. She is receiving a "student activist award" for successfully objecting to organized prayers at her graduation.
Public funding of a pervasively sectarian Milwaukee program called "Faith Works" was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed on October 11 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national First Amendment watchdog group based in Madison, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee's Faith Works program receives at least two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars. During a campaign stop at the Faith Works office in July, Gov. George W. Bush, seated by a wall hanging covered in crosses, pledged $185 million in federal funding for similar faith-based groups to "strengthen fatherhood" if he becomes president.
The Foundation's lawsuit has generated substantial media interest as it is believed to be only the second explicit challenge of "charitable choice," a perilous provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act routing welfare reform money to overtly religious groups.
In order to receive public funding in the past, religious social service providers had to start secular arms, keep separate accounts, remove religious symbols and promise not to proselytize clients.
Under the Welfare Reform Act's limited charitable choice provision, no such requirements are imposed. Religious groups receiving public funding under charitable choice provisions may also force religious requirements upon employees.
Bush has pledged to expand charitable choice to all federal social service programs; Gore endorsed a more limited expansion. Significantly, charitable choice's leading proponent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-MO, was defeated in the Nov. 7 election.
The first charitable choice challenge was filed in July by the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights project in Texas, challenging a yearly grant of $8,000 in public funds to churches running a local proselytizing jobs program.
The Foundation's lawsuit challenges tax expenditures totaling about $675,000 to date to the Faith Works program, which touts a "faith-based approach" in providing services to some 28 men with addiction problems who have not been paying child support.
The lawsuit names Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has allocated $450,000 so far to Faith Works in discretionary funds under a Welfare-to-Work grant at the request of a former legislator, the Rev. Susan Vergeront. Faith Works in Milwaukee had no established track record when it sought government funds, the complaint notes.
"Faith Works was established in 1999 as a demonstration model, intended to show the effectiveness of using government money combined with a faith based institution, whereby success is measured by securing ongoing government funding sources," the complaint alleges.
Also named as defendants: Jennifer Reinert, Secretary of the Department of Workforce Development; Richard Gartner, Administrator, Division of Workforce Excellence; George Lightbourn, Secretary of the Department of Administration, and Jon E. Litscher, Secretary of the Department of Corrections.
Litscher has agreed to appropriate at least $75,000 to Faith Works to provide faith-based addiction recovery services to individuals under the control of the Department of Corrections.
Faith Works, whose bylaws describe it as "inherently Christian," and seeking to "put a holistic, faith-based approach to bring healing to mind, body, heart and soul," rents the Queen of Apostles Convent in Milwaukee for $100,000. In addition to its mostly public grants, Faith Works has received money from the ultra-rightwing Bradley Foundation.
Clients apparently numbering fewer than 30 are interviewed about their attitudes toward faith, are required to participate in a faith-enhanced version of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, are evaluated on spirituality, and attend bible studies, prayer and chapel services.
"State appropriations to Faith Works convey a message that the Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and nonbelief, and Faith Works' mission is clothed in traditional indicia of government endorsement," according to the Foundation's complaint.
"The advancement of Christian indoctrination is an integral component of the program provided by Faith Works, which indoctrination is directly funded by appropriations from the State of Wisconsin." The complaint notes there are no provisions, restrictions, standards or oversight to prohibit use of tax money to advance, endorse and promote the establishment of religion.
The plaintiffs--the Freedom From Religion Foundation and staff members Anne Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor--seek to enjoin further appropriations, to obtain a court declaration that the appropriations violate the establishment clause, and an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, regulations, standards and oversight to ensure future appropriations are not given to pervasively sectarian providers.
Judge Barbara Crabb, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, has drawn the case. The Foundation's attorney is Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison.
See Legal Complaint on Internet at: www.ffrf.org/legal/fwcomplaint.html
The last movie to show a woman admitting unbelief before a Congressional hearing was "Contact," which realistically depicted the shock wave attending a revelation that the Jodie Foster character is an atheist.
"The Contender," written and directed by Rod Lurie, takes this scenario one step further. Senator Laine Hanson, portrayed by Joan Allen, volunteers her atheism, after undergoing a brutal nomination hearing as a vice presidential contender dogged by charges of participating in an orgy while in college.
The shell-shocked Senator maintains a composed, steadfast silence, refusing to dignify the charges, or even discuss them with the President. The lurid scandal, complete with photographs, escalates in the news and over the Internet, thanks to the overt machinations and leaks of the rightwing chair of the Senate hearings, Cong. Shelly Runyon. A nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman is appropriately hateful as a ruthless Kenneth Starr stand-in.
The movie's premise is that the hard-as-nails Democratic president (a convincing Jeff Bridges) wants to go down in history for choosing the first woman vice president, so decides to somewhat inexplicably stand by his controversial woman nominee.
Atheism rears its head during the nomination hearings when it is revealed that Senator Hanson was once quoted on the subject of the separation of church and state, saying "fairy tales" should not be legislated.
Apparently figuring she has nothing to lose, Hanson acknowledges at the hearing's conclusion that yes, she is an atheist. She eloquently states her strong support for strict gun control, abortion rights, the Establishment Clause and her opposition to the death penalty.
"The Contender" of course is a thinly-veiled examination of the ethics of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Nothing is black and white, however. The vice presidential nominee is a bit hard to understand herself, presented as the Republican daughter of a well-known governor who switches party allegiance some time after being elected to the Senate. Her vote--when she was still a Republican--to impeach, but not convict Clinton ("He was responsible, but not guilty") is brought out at the hearings, just to confuse matters.
What's especially nice is that screenwriter Rod Lurie wrote the part of the vice presidential nominee expressly for actress Joan Allen, to give her a starring vehicle after she has been typecast as "the wife" (Patricia Nixon, for instance) and "the mother" in many of her previous roles. Allen's delicate, almost brittle beauty and reserved air lend authenticity to her portrayal of the besieged, enigmatic character.
In light of the discouraging August 14 Reuters poll showing that an atheist vice presidential nominee would place at the bottom of the totem pole with voters, it's especially gratifying that Lurie made his main character a forthright atheist. He is also to be lauded for making a movie that champions feminism and denounces the double standard.
Lurie's cautionary tale on the public's right to know all about the personal lives of candidates ("Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot") will certainly satisfy those of us who found Ken Starr's abuse of power and the Clinton impeachment to be one of the most painful endurance contests in modern political history.
Some of the film's over-the-top, Capra-esque touches seem jarring, such as the final scene in which patriotic music plays loudly out of nowhere as the President makes an impassioned pitch for his nominee. Thinking about it afterward, I decided Lurie deliberately, commendably set out to make a movie that is neither cynical nor realistic, but which serves as just plain old-fashioned wishful thinking. "The Contender" is a secular parable.
Talk about fairy tales! But what a lovely pipe dream.
The writer is editor of Freethought Today.