Despite six centuries of pounding, the wall of separation between church and state stands higher and thicker than ever, boosted by vigorous defenders and supportive Supreme Court rulings going back to the late 1940s in the face of relentless assaults from religious zealots.
Many people, including a lot of secularists, believe Thomas Jefferson coined the "wall of separation" metaphor in his letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802. Religious Right propagandists like this belief because it lets them claim Jefferson was espousing an eccentric idea outside the mainstream of opinion among America's Founders. After all, he was in France when the Constitution was written and therefore could not know what its authors intended.
In fact, the metaphor was more than 200 years old when Jefferson popularized it.
The union of church and state had been under attack in England since at least the 16th century. Richard Hooker, a defender of the Anglican Church who died in 1600, wrote that dissenters demanded that "the walls of separation between [church and commonwealth] must for ever be upheld." This is the oldest written use of the "wall(s) of separation" metaphor I can find, although it may have appeared earlier in dissenters' pamphlets that Hooker drew upon.1
The 17th-century Baptist leader Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after his expulsion from Massachusetts, was another advocate of church-state separation who used the metaphor. After Boston leader John Cotton wrote a letter defending Williams' banishment, Williams wrote in his answer "that when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day. And that therfore if he will ever please to restore his Garden and Paradice again, it must of necessitie be walled in peculiarly unto himselfe from the world, and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the Wildernes of world, and added unto his Church or Garden." He explained the necessity of separating the "holy from unholy, penitent from impenitent, godly from ungodly. . ."2
In the 1600s and 1700s, the English government loosened the Church's iron control in a series of parliamentary acts and royal edicts that gave some legal tolerance to nonAnglican Protestants and even Roman Catholics, who still were subject to various forms of oppression, such as double taxes. The laws also mandated religious tests--anyone holding public office had to swear an oath that included support for the Church of England and its specific doctrines. These tests applied, in theory, to England's American colonies, although greater religious diversity was tolerated in individual colonies, such as Puritan-run Massachusetts.
Dissenters in England did not accept the limited intolerance. In the 1760s, English essayist James Burgh condemned repression of Roman Catholics in his book "Crito" and declared, "I should have been rather inclinable to think, that the less the church and the state had to do with one another, it would be the better for both." He later declared, "I desire, that there may not be among you so much as a shadow of authority in religious matters. If you be christians, stand in awe of him, who has said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. The rulers of the gentiles exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Ye are all brethren.' " Burgh demanded, "Build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil," citing the metaphor Hooker had assailed earlier and that Jefferson made famous later.3
The English dissenters didn't win their last big battles until the late 19th century, but American dissenters won a crushing victory in the passage of the United States Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. Against 1,400 years of Christian theology and political theory, the Constitution makes no reference to God or Jesus and establishes no state church or god. Even worse to contemporary Christians, Article 6 decreed, ". . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Even the oath of office for the president was strictly secular. The phrase "so help me God" that some presidents have added has no legal status whatsoever.
Christians understood what this meant, as James Madison explained in an Oct. 17, 1788, letter to Thomas Jefferson when he discussed his fears about adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution: ". . . because there is great reason to fear that a positive declaration of some of the most essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude. I am sure that the rights of Conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power. One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels."4
Christians in several states argued for a state religion. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention, in a discussion on Jan. 31, 1788, Colonel William Jones was paraphrased as arguing, ". . . that the rulers ought to believe in God or Christ - and that however a test may be prostituted in England, yet he thought if our publick men were to be of those who had a good standing in the church, it would be happy for the United States--and that a person could not be a good man without being a good Christian."
At the North Carolina ratifying convention, in a discussion on July 30, 1788, the Rev. David Caldwell argued, in paraphrase, ". . . that some danger might arise. He imagined it might be objected to in a political as well as in a religious view. In the first place, he said there was an invitation for Jews, and Pagans of every kind, to come among us. At some future period, said he, this might endanger the character of the United States. Moreover, even those who do not regard religion, acknowledge that the Christian religion is best calculated of all religions to make good members of society, on account of its morality. I think then, added he, that in a political view, those gentlemen who formed this Constitution, should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens. All those who have any religion are against the emigration of those people from the eastern hemisphere."
And in a letter to the American Mercury of Hartford, Connecticut, published Feb. 11, 1788, William Williams assailed the ban on religious tests, recommending "an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence . . . to have been prefixed to, and stand as, the first introductory words of the Constitution . . ." Williams added that, despite what he regarded as a flaw, he felt the Constitution was too important to be rejected.5
The actual preamble states six purposes for the Constitution, all purely secular. Some opponents of the Constitution criticized it because it did not go far enough in establishing freedom of religion and other rights. Their objections led Madison to push the Bill of Rights through Congress in 1789, after Jefferson persuaded him they were needed. The arguments for freedom of religion usually pointed out the country's religious diversity and the impossibility of searching people's hearts to determine if they had taken a religious oath honestly.
For example, at the Virginia ratifying convention, in a June 25, 1788, speech, Zachariah Johnston argued: "We are also told that religion is not secured--that religious tests are not required.--You will find that exclusion of tests, will strongly tend to establish religious freedom. If tests were required--and if the church of England or any other were established, I might be excluded from any office under the Government, because my conscience might not permit me to take the test required. The diversity of opinions and variety of sects in the United States, have justly been reckoned a great security with respect to religious liberty. The difficulty of establishing an uniformity of religion in this country is immense. . . ."6
The Constitution's authors made no secret of why they wanted a secular state. In a letter of Jan. 24, 1774, to his friend William Bradford, Madison complained, "That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us."7
In his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," dated June 20, 1785, to the General Assembly of Virginia, in opposition to state taxes for the support of churches, Madison began:
"We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled 'A bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,' and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it and to declare the reasons by which we are determined." Madison follows with a number of arguments against the government dictating religious beliefs and support.8
This petition, signed by numerous Virginians of various religious sects--particularly Baptists, who suffered the most under religious persecution, as Madison's 1774 letters point out--helped turn the tide against the bill and toward Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom," which was passed Jan. 16, 1786, in amended form under Madison's political guidance. In contrast to the legal "toleration" granted by governments to religious minorities, which could be withdrawn at whim, the statute guaranteed freedom of religion as a basic right.
Jefferson, a lawyer, noted laws mandating the burning of heretics--which never occurred in Virginia--and says, ". . . an act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military, on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands." This type of tyranny led to his famous denunciation of Christian governments throughout history for imprisoning, torturing and executing dissenters.9
In a book defending the various state constitutions--prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution--Adams repudiates the "Christian nation" theory of government, by saying the state governments were "erected on the simple principles of nature."
He later adds, "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture."10
Although Benjamin Franklin considered religion important to society (at least in his youth), he held to a Deistic view of god, was tolerant toward a variety of religions, and scorned theological discussions, preferring talks on morality. In a letter on Oct. 9, 1780, to his friend Richard Price of England, Franklin argued for freedom of religion and, in effect, church-state separation by opposing religious tests. "I am fully of your Opinion respecting religious Tests; but tho' the People of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that People were 100 Years ago, we must allow they have gone great Lengths in Liberality of Sentiment on religious Subjects; and we may hope for greater Degrees of Perfection, when their Constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. . . . for I think [religious tests] were invented, not so much to secure Religion itself, as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."11
Finally, George Washington made it clear that he had no use for religious tyranny. Not only did he never declare any belief in Christianity--he went to church often but refused to take the sacraments, a fundamental test of Christianity--but Washington wrote a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., in a letter dated Aug. 18, 1790, that, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
In a letter on March 24, 1784, to his aide Tench Tilghman, Washington asked him to hire some craftsmen, saying, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, [sic] Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christian or any Sect--or they may be Atheists . . ." Washington clearly set no religious tests for his employees and did not see atheists as a danger. 12 Three years later, he took this attitude to the Constitutional Convention, of which he was chairman and which created a godless government.
The U.S. Constitution thus was not some radical innovation but a reflection of prevailing attitudes on religion. This point is emphasized by Jefferson and Madison in later years when they defended the separation of church and state. Thus Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptists, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, of prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State." Some historians have suggested Jefferson found the "wall of separation" metaphor from "Crito," quoted earlier.13
Madison praised the benefits to society and religion alike in the "total separation of the Church from the State" in a letter on March 2, 1819, to Robert Walsh; and criticized a government religious proclamation in a letter dated July 10, 1822, to Edward Livingston, in which he argues for "a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters." Madison also praised separation and denounced religious persecution in his "Detached Memoranda"; noted a failed attempt to limit freedom of religion to Christians in the Virginia religious-freedom law; condemned the appointment of chaplains to Congress as a violation of equal rights and the Constitution; and criticized presidential proclamation of days of thanksgiving, etc., particularly John Adams', who issued a specifically Christian proclamation.14
It's clear that church-state separationists are the defenders of the original intent of the majority of our Founders. Those people, including some Supreme Court justices, who argue that the Founders wanted general support for religion and only opposed establishing a particular sect in power, are grotesquely distorting our history and rewriting the Constitution without authority. The wall of separation metaphor was a well-known shorthand expression of one side of the church-state debate--the side that won with the passage of our godless Constitution.
William Sierichs is a native of Hopewell, Va. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Louisiana State University in 1974, and worked as a reporter or editor on newspapers in Jackson, Miss.; Monroe and Shreveport, La.; Texarkana, Texas; and Baton Rouge, La., where he is a copy editor. He has won several state or regional journalism awards for news reporting, investigative reporting, editorial columns and headline writing in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Author's note: I have quoted the various sources in their original spellings, capitalization and punctuation, which can differ from modern forms. In a couple of places, I have inserted necessary explanatory material in . Anyone interested in a more in-depth discussion of the freedom from/of religion clauses in the First Amendment should read Origins of the Bill of Rights, (1999, New Haven: Yale University Press) by Constitution scholar Leonard Levy, who trashes the Religious Right's distortions of history in chapter 4. As a historical footnote, Levy includes the various versions of the amendments that became the Bill of Rights as they passed through Congress. What we call the First Amendment originally was the third of 12 amendments submitted to the public. The first two amendments--dealing with congressional districting and pay--did not pass, making the third amendment our First Amendment.
1 Richard Hooker's "Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie" is excerpted in "Divine Right and Democracy - An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England," edited by David Wootton, 1986, New York: Penguin Books. The quote is from Hooker's Book 8, seventh assertion, part I, on pages 219-220. Book 8 was not actually published until 1648, but editor David Wootton says scholarship supports Hooker's authorship. Page 214
2 "Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered," Roger Williams, 1644, London, from "The Complete Writings of Roger Williams," Vol. I, edited by Reuben Aldridge Guild, Russell & Russell Inc., New York: 1963, page 108; I have left Williams' spelling intact, changing only his 17th-century "f's" to "s's" for the convenience of modern readers.
3 "Crito or, Essays on Various Subjects," was published in two volumes--Vol. 1 in 1766, Vol. 2 in 1767, both in London, no publisher listed. Although the books were published anonymously, James Burgh is generally credited with being the author. The first quote is in Vol. 1, page xi; the second is in Vol. 2, page 111; the "wall of separation" quote is in Vol. 2, page 119
4 "Writings," James Madison, 1999, New York: The Library of America, page 420
5 The quotes are from "The Debate on the Constitution," Vols. 1 and 2, Bernard Bailyn, editor, 1993, New York: The Library of America. Jones' quote is in Vol. 1, page 920. Caldwell's quote is in Vol. 2, page 908. Williams' quote is in Vol. 2, page 194
6 Johnston's quote is in "The Debate on the Constitution," Vol. 2, pages 752-753
7 "Writings," Madison, pages 7, 8
8 "Writings," Madison, pages 29-36
9 "Writings," Thomas Jefferson, 1984, New York: The Library of America, from "Notes on the State of Virginia," Query XVII, pages 284-285. In a Feb. 10, 1814, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson outlined his researches into the history of law and pointed out the pagan, Anglo-Saxon origin of English common law and, by extension, American law, contrary to claims that Christianity was the source of our legal doctrines. Pages 1321-1329
10 "John Adams," Vol. 2, Page Smith, 1962, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company Inc., page 692, from Adams' "Defence of the Constitutions"
11 "Writings," Benjamin Franklin, 1987, sixth printing, New York: The Library of America; on the importance of religion, page 149; his Deism and religious attitudes in his "Autobiography, pages 359-360 and 1382-1383--the latter suggesting some modification of his earlier ideas about the importance of religion; on religious tests, pages 1030-1031
12 "Writings," George Washington, 1997, New York: The Library of America, pages 767, 555-556
13 Quote from letter to the Baptists in "Writings," Jefferson, page 510; on "Crito's" possible influence on Jefferson, see The Godless Constitution, 1997, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, New York: WW. Norton & Co., page 97
14 "Writings," Madison, letter to Walsh, page 727; letter to Livingston, page 788; "Detached Memoranda," page 759; Va. religious-freedom law, page 761; on chaplains, pages 762-763; on religious proclamations, pages 764-776
"Chocolat," a sleeper hit based on a fable set in a small French village in 1959, proudly boasts an atheist heroine.
The audience in the packed theater in Madison, Wis., where I recently saw the film erupted in spontaneous cheers and claps of approval when the main character, Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, gently announces her refusal to go to Mass, and is identified as an atheist.
The plot, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, revolves around the disruptions and transformations that occur when Vianne blasphemously opens a "chocolaterie" during Lent. It's full of great supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, and Lena Olin. Victoire Thivosol is especially appealing as Anouk, Vianne's young daughter, who has an imaginery kangaroo named Pantouf. (It's PG-13 but was suitable for our unworldly 11-year-old.) The film, with a definite anticlerical bent, is directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules").
If you go see this movie, better stick some emergency chocolate rations in your pockets--the chocolate scenes are mouth-watering.
Another new-release Miramax film (not so hot) that features an atheist character is "Bounce," with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck's atheism is briefly revealed when the recovering alcoholic criticizes AA's higher-power routine. Fortunately the movie portrays the secular redemption of this atheist.
These atheist protagonists join last fall's "Contender," directed by Rod Lurie, whose heroine (played by Joan Allen), a U.S. Senator nominated for the vice presidency, coolly admits her atheism and support for the separation of church and state at a confirmation hearing.
And isn't it nice that both Allen and Binoche are up for a "best actress" Oscar for their portrayals of these freethinking characters? In other Oscar atheist trivia, Steven Soderbergh, director of two of the films nominated as "best movie of the year"--"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--recently replied "no" when The Onion asked him, "Do you believe in God?"
Could it be atheism is becoming chic?
--Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freethought Today editor
Nominate Favorite Freethought Flicks
When we collect enough reader recommendations, we'll publish them so others won't miss out on any of those rare freethought moments at the movies.
The Missouri Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision on Feb. 13 upholding the constitutionality of a statute prescribing a "So help me God" oath on a tax form challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Missouri plaintiff Robert Oliver.
The decision, written by Justice Michael A. Wolfe, did offer one consolation: ". . . Oliver is entitled to a declaratory judgment that he is free . . . to cross off 'So help me God,' if he so chooses."
The decision stopped short of ordering any revision of the tax form.
The statute makes failure to sign the oath a misdemeanor, and imposes fines and/or jailtime.
Only Missouri citizens living in third or fourth class counties are forced to sign a religious oath.
Robert Oliver, who lives in Christian County, refused to sign the oath in January 1998, writing and signing his own affirmation "under penalty of perjury" which the Christian County assessor's office refused to accept. The assessor referred him to the state tax commission, which told the assessor's office to accept the form.
When the state office issued a memo ordering all third and fourth class counties to comply with the statutes and retain "So help me God" in the oath, the Foundation filed suit in federal court. The lawsuit was thrown out, with the federal judge ruling tax law challenges must be filed in state court. The Foundation refiled, losing at the county level.
But Foundation president Anne Gaylor said, "We truly did expect to prevail at the Missouri Supreme Court on our claim that the Missouri statute violates the equal protection clause."
The 13-page decision admits the use of the oath "is indeed an invitation to express a belief in God." Ronnie White was among the justices signing it.
"Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that the Missouri Constitution, in article 1, sections 5 to 7, has a greater wall separating church and state and that, whatever the outcome under the First Amendment, the Missouri Constitution makes the reference to God unconstitutional. Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to read our constitution as being hostile to religion," wrote the court.
The Court suggests a person who wishes to affirm could simply sign the "affirmation and simply ignore, without deleting, the references to 'swear' and to 'So Help me God'. . . . In any event, when a taxpayer opts to affirm, the words 'So help me God' are surplus."
Of course, ending an "affirmation" with the words "So help me God" renders that affirmation meaningless, Gaylor noted. She called the decision "doublespeak."
The Foundation has 30 days to review its options.
This speech was delivered before the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sept. 16, 2000, where Wendy Kaminer was named "Freethought Heroine" 2000.
Hello, you godless sons of bitches.
I'm honored to be your Freethought Heroine this year, though I have to say that calling me a heroine implies that there's some sort of courage in what I do, and I don't think that my work is particularly courageous, considering that I'm based in that hotbed of Unitarianism, Cambridge, Massachusetts. You don't find me in the Bible Belt getting into fights with people who want to force my children to pray. That's what takes real courage. Lawyers at the ACLU often say that the bravest people in the world are our clients. Some of our clients also number among the biggest jerks in the world and that's how they come to be our clients. But, many of them are noble, brave people who put much at risk to stand up for their rights, the rights of their children, and the rights of other people in their communities. If I were to nominate some freethought heroes and heroines of the year, I might pick a collection of ACLU clients.
Enough about heroism. Let's talk about freethought. I read in Talk magazine recently, that Jane Fonda had found god. And I thought to myself, "well, of course, she has," because Jane Fonda is a weathervane of popular culture. She was an antiwar protester when that was the thing to be and then she was an aerobics queen in the 1980s and now she's a child of god. So if you needed any further proof that we're in a period of religious revivalism you can point to Jane Fonda's reported conversion.
Or, of course, you could listen to Joe Lieberman, whose political platform seems to be his religious faith. I don't think anything this year has shown more clearly the link that most people make between morality and religion than the naming of Joe Lieberman as Democratic vice presidential candidate. When Gore needed to establish his morality and to distance himself from Bill Clinton, he picked someone who is aggressively religious.
There has been a lot of breathless talk about the "breakthrough" achieved by the Democrats in putting a Jew, an Orthodox Jew, on the national ticket, but I suspect that Lieberman had a much greater chance of being picked for vice president than any number of secular Protestants, not to mention any liberals. After Lieberman was named there was a wonderful cartoon in the Boston Globe by Dan Wasserman, who's a very good political cartoonist, showing a picture of a woman looking over Lieberman's republicanesque voting record on issues like missile defense, HMO's, and social security, and saying to him, "Funny, you don't look Democratic."
It wasn't surprising to hear Joe Lieberman repeat the canard that the First Amendment protects freedom of and not freedom from religion, though it was a little discouraging. I don't know who authored that particular phrase. I've heard it from such disparate politicians as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. You hear it all the time. It's irritating because it so clearly misapprehends the First Amendment. Of course the Constitution protects my freedom from Lieberman's religion and his freedom from Al Gore's religion, but you all know that.
It seems to be equally evident that politicians have every right to talk about their religious faith--incessantly, if they must--and Lieberman now claims that he only wants to inject religion into public discourse, not into public policy. In fact, a couple of days after he made his statement claiming that religion was essential to morality and encountered criticism, he sort of took it back. One of his spokespersons said something like, well, you have to understand that he was in a church when he said that--suggesting that we shouldn't have taken his remarks so seriously.
I suppose we can hope that he's insincere. But Lieberman should not be surprised when some people wonder if all this godly discourse might be a prelude to some godly policies. Especially when he suggests that we can somehow achieve freedom of religion without freedom from religion as well. Lately I've been yearning to be free of the moralistic banalities of this excessively pious presidential race. Can't we just stipulate that all of these candidates believe in god quite fervently and regularly pray? Apparently not. Only a small minority of Americans seems to want to be free from religion, though in general I think that they do want freedom from particular religions, especially the ones of which they don't approve.
These have been good years for religion and spirituality movements, which makes them very good years for satirists and social critics. Stories about the supernatural abound. Tales of angels, aliens, conversations with god or the spirits of the deceased, adventures in ESP and reincarnation all compete in the marketplace with established religious beliefs. I always include the broad range of New Age beliefs and popular superstitions, including some popular therapies, in my critique of irrationalism. I hope that when you all talk about freedom from religion you also talk about freedom from superstition in general.
Lately we do have a lot of superstition about, but culture is like real estate--it's cyclical. Sometimes reason is up and sometimes it's down, and sometimes religious faith and magical thinking reign--most of the time it seems. You can find periods in the early 20th century when reason seemed to be ascendant, but for the most part you'd be hard-pressed to find any period in human history when the vast majority of people didn't harbor superstitions of one kind or another. And for the past couple of decades, reason has been in a downturn, at least in popular culture, despite all the scientific advances and our reliance on technology. Actually, New Age culture reflects a very conflicted relationship with science: it combines hostility toward science with a desire to appropriate scientific credibility and expertise, which is why people like Deepak Chopra like to make meaningless references to quantum physics. Chopra, for example, talks about taking us "beyond the quantum," or he prescribes "quantum" exercises for us.
But for all their pseudo-scientific palaver, New Age gurus perpetuate and exploit the myth that our society is excessively rational and that we need to put cold reason aside and embrace our intuitive powers--what pop therapists like to call our "feeling realities." Think with your heart and not with your head was one of the mantras of the recovery movement, and pop-spirituality books like The Celestine Prophecy commonly denigrated reason as the last resort of the unenlightened. The current wave of religious revivalism, which includes New Age and established faiths, encourages a celebration of ineffable, intuited truths: non-rational truths about the existence of god, the reality of heaven, the presence of guardian angels and other spiritual wishes or ideals.
I'd like to talk to you today about irrationalism and the likely effect of faith and piety on public policy, but first I want to spend just a minute or two telling you something about my own attitudes towards religious belief. I'm personally irreligious, just about completely irreligious. [clapping] You don't have to clap for that. I hope that you wouldn't dislike me if I harbored some religious beliefs. Which leads me to my next point: I'm not a proselytizing atheist. In fact, I hesitate to call myself an atheist because I don't really want to define myself in opposition to religion. One of my friends says that she calls herself an agnostic, not an atheist, because to call herself an atheist makes religion seem too important.
I also don't consider myself especially hostile toward religion in general though I may take issue with particular theologies and their effect on the culture. I don't have a lot of patience for all the nonsense produced by some gurus of New Age, although there's probably just as much nonsense that comes out of established religion. One of the main differences, though, between established religions and New Age is that established religion is--established--which means that it's institutionalized. There's a lot of corruption that follows from that but there's also some social utility. Look at the historic contributions made by religious movements and organizations to social justice and welfare. Religion is a complicated phenomenon. You can't reasonably assert that no good has come of it.
I'm also very deeply committed to preserving religious freedom regardless of the form it takes. What's more fundamental than the right to believe and worship as you choose? And, while I consider faith a very poor substitute for empirical reasoning when we are deciding matters of public policy, I don't share the view of some atheists that religion can't coexist with reason or common sense. I find categorical denunciations of religious belief as simplistic as categorical denunciations of disbelief.
So, I'm not about to offer you a version of Jesse Ventura's attack on religion, though I did find his mockery of religion extremely refreshing, mostly because it's so exceedingly rare. It was hard to believe that an elected official was standing up and debunking belief in god. It was quite refreshing. But his assertion that religion is for weak-minded people was a bit facile. Religion attracts strong-minded, highly intelligent people as well as the weak and the stupid and that's what makes it interesting. If it only attracted stupid people, if it were nothing but a collection of banalities, it would be unintriguing and much less powerful.
What you can learn from studying pop-psychology, pop-spirituality, and religious revivalism is that intelligence is often compartmentalized, and that highly intelligent people can be what you might consider very unsophisticated about belief in the supernatural. Upwards of 95% of Americans reportedly profess belief in god. Now you can't possibly think that everyone in this room is smarter than 96% of all Americans. I surely don't. I imagine that there are people who believe in god who are even smarter than we.
It should be obvious that religious people can be equally acquainted with virtue and vice, passion and viciousness, just like nonreligious people, and it's extremely difficult, probably impossible to quantify the historic effect of religious belief on human welfare. The only generalization about religion that ever appealed to me was Mary McCarthy's remark that religion is good for good people.
Usually it makes little sense to talk about religion in general; like the weather, it's highly variable. Despite outbursts of ecumenism, people involved in different religious sects embrace different beliefs about the almighty and the nature of human virtue. Does godliness require that women wear veils or that children be beaten with belts? Does it oppose abortion or support reproductive choice? We can talk about the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion rights; we can also talk about the role that the liberal Protestant clergy played in the early years of the pro-choice movement. Does religion encourage or prohibit interracial marriages? Religion played a fairly strong role in the maintenance of Jim Crow laws; some white supremacists thought that the division of the races was divinely ordained. Religion also played a very important part in the civil rights movement. What notion of godly virtue does a Pentecostal Christian share with a Christian Scientist, a Muslim fundamentalist, a Unitarian-Universalist, a Scientologist, a Reform Jew and a Spiritualist? So often when people talk about religion in America today they should really be talking about sectarianism.
One of the perils posed by contemporary religious revivalism is the tendency to treat belief in a god simplistically as if it were a monolithic unmitigated good, as if faith were always a virtue and never a vice. I realize that fringe movements, like the Branch Davidians, the Hare Krishnas, and a range of insular totalistic groups that we label cults, are scorned or feared, not praised. But they are often viewed in the mainstream as perversions of religion, not exemplars.
The exaltation of religious belief is often a triumph of circular reasoning. It's easy to assert that religion inculcates virtue if you limit your definition of true religion to the groups that seem virtuous to you. And that is pretty much what people do. I am very wary of generalizing about religion. John Dewey said we should never talk about religion in the singular, we should only talk about religions, plural. But, as a social critic, I am in the business of making generalizations, and I think that we can engage in some generalized discussions about the phenomenon of religious faith, the willingness or capacity to believe in deities, angels or miracles, whatever forms they take. We can identify basic human needs served by various religions: the craving for immortality or cosmic justice.
It may be fun to debunk religion (it's often fun to debunk whatever is held sacred), but if you want to be effective in combating the real dangers of organized religion, you have to respond sympathetically to the existential anxieties that fuel religious belief. Life is a series of losses: we're going to lose all the people that we love, we're going to lose ourselves. I don't feel at all contemptuous of people who turn to beliefs in eternal life that I don't share. I understand why people who lost their children in the late 19th century turned to mediums to try to communicate with them.
It is obvious that the promise of immortality greatly enhances the appeal of western religions and contemporary New Age movements. Popular spirituality books tell us that there is no death, and there are a lot of immortality options in the New Age. Either we'll be reincarnated or transformed in some mysterious higher form of energy. Or, with the right attitude and diet we can essentially live forever. That's Deepak Chopra's message. Established western religions generally tell us that if we behave, we will ascend to heaven. According to a 1990 Gallup poll (this is one of my favorite statistics), some three-quarters of Americans believe that they are going to heaven. You have to wonder who they think is consigned to the other place.
People seem likely to believe what they want to hear or what they fear; in either case, emotion preempts reason. So it's not surprising that terrifying accounts of alien abductions coexist in a popular culture with bedtime stories about guardian angels who offer unconditional love. With faith on the ascendant, tales of the supernatural enjoy considerable appeal. We live in very credulous times, so when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, I am talking about credulity, gullibility. I'm talking about the decline of skepticism. I'm concerned with the ways in which our culture celebrates faith and devalues reason and applies habits of faith to questions that require empirical analysis, notably questions of public policy.
It is, for example, perfectly appropriate to take on faith assertions about the divinity of Jesus or the assertion that god loves you: You can only take that on faith. But it is not appropriate to take on faith that ending welfare benefits will end teenage pregnancy. That is an assertion about an empirical reality. Conclusions about, say, the efficacy of the drug war or the power of Christian Science healers to cure cancer ought to be demonstrated empirically.
The irrationalism that discourages questioning and empirical analysis is one very important legacy of the therapeutic culture. And by the therapeutic culture, I mean the ethics and the values that derive from popular therapies, notably the recovery movement, the 12-step movement. It has contributed greatly to the current religious revival.
Consider the quasi-religious reliance on personal testimony. The therapeutic culture exhorts us to substitute feelings for facts, to take personal testimony at face value, especially when it relates to searing personal experience, notably child abuse, sexual abuse. If we cross-examine someone offering testimony of abuse or question her credibility we're accused of perpetuating the abuse. At the very least, cross-examination is considered a breach of etiquette. We're expected to judge the truth of an assertion by the passion or apparent sincerity with which it is offered, as if people were never delusional or simply convincingly dishonest. We're supposed to take stories about extraterrestrials, guardian angels, ghosts and other supernatural occurrences at face value, as well, and in fact the authors of pop-spirituality books depend on our willingness to suspend disbelief and take them at their word when they tell us stories about communicating with god, with the angels or their dead grandparents.
I can't stress strongly enough how much this reliance on personal testimony and this mandate that we take personal testimony at face value contributes to the irrationalism that abounds today. It comes right out of popular therapies, and popular therapies took it straight from the religious tradition of testifying and the conflation of feelings about god's immanence with facts about his existence. There are times, of course, when religious truths are appropriate and irreproachable. There are times when therapeutic truths or feeling realities are perfectly appropriate--in a therapist's office, for example, although even therapists have to be concerned with distinguishing emotional and historical truths. A statement like "my father never understood me" is a subjective emotional truth. A statement like "my father raped me" asserts an objective truth. It's a claim about a historical fact that needs to be investigated.
What are the dangers of confusing feelings with facts? Consider the results of importing therapeutic notions of truth into the courtroom. We saw a rash of wrongful child abuse cases in the 1980s and 90s and the imprisonment of people for crimes that were probably never committed. These cases reflected in part a failure of reason and the confusion of justice with therapy. Believe the children, people said. Take their stories at face value even when the stories were completely unbelievable. A courtroom ought to be a realm dominated by facts, not feelings; by reason, not faith. You should never be discouraged from cross-examining anybody who's making an accusation of criminality.
So, when I talk about the rise of irrationalism, in part I'm talking about an inappropriate reliance on personal testimony as the source of objective truth. I'm talking about confusing the realms of faith and reason. As I've said, people derive a lot of comfort and maybe even some enlightenment from their subjective intuitions about unverifiable spiritual truths, and I don't deny or even want to address the very private benefits of irrationalism. I'm interested in its public perils, in the perils of piety as well as the perils of all the irrationalism spawned by the New Age movements.
One obvious peril is the rise of sectarianism and the marriage of particular religious beliefs with government. Of course, politicians have a right to talk about their faith; but it's irritating and unsettling to hear them use professions of religious faith as signals of their own essential goodness, and when they equate belief in God with goodness, it's easy to suspect that they're beginning to make the case that a good government is a godly one.
That's a very popular belief, because many people do derive their ideals and visions for a just society from their religions, which is not necessarily something I lament. In fact, as a secular person, I'd feel a lot better about George Bush if I thought he really was a good Christian who followed the teachings of Jesus. There might be a lot less people executed in Texas if he were. He might actually become a compassionate conservative.
That's another way of saying that we can learn a lot more about George Bush and all the others by studying their records and observing their behavior than by listening to their declarations of religious faith. The belief that godliness is essential to good government is, at best, inane. You can find people who love God on both sides of most of our controversial debates. So it would be nice if religious people, notably religious people in public life, would acknowledge that religion is not an exclusive source of moral teachings. They need to recognize that freedom from religion does not entail freedom from ethical constraints. I think we need to make clear to the extent that we can how the equation of faith with goodness results in a kind of moral shallowness.
And that brings me back, in conclusion, to Senator Lieberman. I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about his morality. What evidence do we have of Lieberman's goodness? He's pious and puritanical. He represents one traditional American model of morality, and that's what's so depressing. Because if Lieberman is such a deeply moral man who felt that he had to denounce Clinton two years ago because he had an illicit affair with an intern, why was he silent in 1992 when his good friend Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas during the presidential campaign to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who had been effectively lobotomized by a self-inflicted bullet.
I'm not suggesting that no good people support capital punishment, though I do think it is an immoral practice that most good people would oppose if they had good information about it. But the execution of Rector was particularly heinous and most of all violated the religious norms that have shaped our rules about capital punishment. Rector had blown away part of his brain, so he didn't understand what it meant to be executed. He asked if he could save his dessert for after the execution. Legal prohibitions against executing the insane reflect the religious notion that we shouldn't kill people who aren't aware of what they've done and don't have an opportunity to repent and maybe achieve salvation before dying.
This particular drama of sin and redemption is a Christian one. I doubt, however, that Rector's execution seemed appropriate to Joe Lieberman because he's Jewish. I think that only an agnostic or an atheist would find a kind of mercy in the execution of someone who is incapable of anticipating his death. In any case, Jews are supposed to care about justice, if not mercy, and Lieberman has demonstrated very sporadic support for it. He strongly supported some of the most unjust federal laws of recent decades: the 1996 counter-terrorism bill, for example, which greatly limits the right to appeal state court convictions in federal court, and which also allows people to be imprisoned and deported on the basis of secret evidence. In other words, the FBI can come to your door in the middle of the night and say, "We're putting you under arrest," and when you ask "Why are you putting me under arrest," they answer, "We can't tell you. It's a secret." There are, I think, a couple of dozen people in jail under this provision, which targets Muslims and Arab-Americans, not surprisingly. (Prejudice does carve out exceptions to the conventional notion that religious faith makes people good.)
You don't have to be religious to oppose laws like this. All you need is a moral code that mandates some respect for fairness and human rights. So I'd welcome a campaign that revolved around moral questions, like the morality of racial profiling, the nation's prison system, or the war on drugs. But issues like these are political taboos. In their drive to control the center, Lieberman and other moderate Democrats have abdicated moral responsibility for criminal justice. It is, by the way, very important for atheists, agnostics, and skeptics not to retreat from the battleground of moral debate. Don't be afraid of using words like morality and talking about what you think is right or wrong. How else can you make the point that you don't have to be religious to care about morality?
It's been nearly ten years since Democrats coopted Republican rhetoric and a Republican agenda on crime control, with some religious fervor. When Clinton signed the very repressive 1994 federal crime bill which includes new federal penalties for drug crimes, among other things, he said that he was doing god's work. Recently Democrats have adopted what used to be a Republican posture on religion. Having thoroughly corrupted the justice system, politicians are now targeting faith. If I believed in the devil, I'd imagine him rejoicing.
Wendy Kaminer, Affiliated Scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is a columnist for The American Prospect and is Contributing Editor at The Atlantic Monthly. She serves on the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union. A lawyer and social critic, she writes about law, liberty, feminism, and popular culture. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her commentaries have aired on NPR's "Morning Edition." Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Newsweek. Her books include: Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (1999), I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional and A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality.
Many humanists suffer from a condition known as apostasy. Fortunately, this condition is not a disease of any sort; indeed, it can be considered more as a cure. It is neither painful nor debilitating, though one may suffer withdrawal symptoms for a short period. However, it is contagious, and those who have it should spread its positive effects as far and wide as possible.
Apostasy is the conscious rejection of previously-held religious beliefs of any kind; those who do so are called apostates. In this respect they differ from other humanists, agnostics, or atheists who have never held religious beliefs. It may be comforting to know that, according to many studies, apostates display certain uniformities and thus cannot be considered as aberrations.
According to B.P. Beckwith1, apostates are generally well-educated, have higher than average levels of intelligence, and enjoy better than average economic circumstances. In North America, people tend to become apostates at younger rather than older ages, are more predominant in the West, and are most likely to be male. Beckwith attributes these characteristics to the growth of knowledge, education, freedom of expression, social reform, health care, and the rise of logical positivism and scientific method, among other factors.
Another researcher, D.G. Bromley2, made a study of what he termed religious disaffiliation occurring in American mainstream and alternative religious groups. He also examined the rapid growth of those who claimed no religious affiliation in the first place, as well as apostates from any one group who adopted another (usually more liberal) set of beliefs.
As can be imagined, Bromley found the whole topic to be incredibly complex, with problems stemming from inconsistent questionnaires, non-uniform terminology, conflicting methodology, and the variety of studies of the many social and psychological consequences of apostasy, both for groups and individuals concerned. He further dealt with the special difficulties of apostates from the more extreme of the cult groups (such as the Moonies, Jonestown, and Heaven's Gate) and with attempts at what is popularly called deprogramming.
One final reference here deals with a detailed study by Caplovitz3 of religious drop-outs among college students, in which factors such as parental relationships, peer pressure, radical political orientation, and individual commitment to intellectualism and rationality are cited as significant. For readers who are apostates from mainline or fringe religious organizations and who may find this topic of interest, there is a wealth of useful material just waiting to be absorbed in any well-stocked city or college library.
Foundation member Glenn Hardie was a founding member of the B.C. Humanist Association, on whose Board he served for many years. He is also a member of the Humanist Association of Canada and the American Humanist Association. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, a Master's degree in Adult Education, and professional diplomas in Construction Economics and Property Appraisal. Now retired, he taught project costing at the B.C. Institute of Technology and at the School of Architecture at U.B.C. He is married, with two grown children.
1 Beckwith, B. The Decline of Religious Faith. Beckwith Publications, CA 1985
2 Bromley, D.G. Falling from the Faith. Sage Publications, CA 1988
3 Caplovitz, S. The Religious Drop-Outs. Sage Publications, CA 1977
This business of "the getting of wisdom" has been a slow process for me. As one "for-instance," I have to admit it's taken me--a native-born Wisconsin citizen--most of my life to figure out how to keep warm in winter.
Since I'm a walking buff and have always walked to classes or work every day (a good 45 or 50 minutes), dressing defensively is essential. I met my annual Waterloo trying to keep my toes warm, finally learning only after many years that lightweight hiking boots--not warm-looking fleece boots--are the ticket. A revelation! That and other slowly acquired bits of knowledge ensure that I can happily walk three miles to work even in subzero temperatures. It's a small adventure, Woman Vs. Nature, that I can win--although I am always aware that Nature would gladly freeze me to death should I stop moving.
Ditto for how long it took me to find a warm winter nightgown. Since flannel sheets work, I always assumed flannel nightgowns must be the warmest albeit not the most fashionable. But somehow I was always cold in them. When my mother began singing the praises of the Calida nightgown for warmth, I was skeptical. These are classic ballet-length nightgowns made of the lightest-weight "green" cotton (no formaldehyde), with a graceful cut and nothing to bind. They are produced in Switzerland and sold in this country by several catalogs, such as Garnet Hill. The "luxury item" price alone kept me from trying them out.
One birthday several years ago, my mother presented me with my first Calida. I was immediately converted. (Mothers are always right.) Nothing compares to Calida's softness. It has taken me many cold years to learn that the secret to staying warm is having an air pocket around you, not being cloaked in heavy layers.
Even though its durability makes a Calida gown practical in the long run, it is pricey. So last fall I was delighted to find a Calida gown at nearly half-price in a catalog called "Sierra Outpost" out of Wyoming. It specializes in reduced-price brandname hiking and outdoor gear, but has apparently found a market for seconds and overstocks of the coveted Calida.
Only one problem with the classic Calida nightgown--it's too hot for summer. Leafing through a "Sierra Outpost" catalog last month, I spotted advertised seconds of some sporty, short Calida nightshirts I'd never seen elsewhere.
Eager at the prospect of acquiring a Calida cool enough for summer, I turned to the order blank. I was disappointed I couldn't make a phone order that day--closed on Sundays, kind of unusual in these days of 24-hour-a-day catalog companies. Then I spied the reason why. There, right on the order form, was a drawing of an American eagle with the bible quote, "Jesus said, 'I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.' John 10:10." Yuck.
After laughing out loud at the absurdity of it, I realized I faced an ethical dilemma.
What would you do? I haven't decided. Since "the customer is always right," I may try one more order, with a letter, to see if I can educate this company that not all customers appreciate being preached at. But I'll probably forfeit my longed-for Calida and tell them why they've lost a customer. (If you've ever ordered from this catalog, please complain, too: 1-800-713-4534.)
The day after making this unpleasant discovery I went to my yoga class, held at a public hospital. (Doctor's orders--chronic tendinitis in both elbows.)
After a particularly grueling workout, my personable teacher instructed all of us to end the session by putting our hands in a "prayer" position with thumbs at sternum. Okay. We'd done that before--and it's good for my arms. But this time, she instructed us to chant over and over between breaths: "God and me are one. Me and God are one." I was too startled (and exhausted) to do anything but engage in passive disobedience. As far as I am concerned, what makes this chant a truly unpardonable sin is its bad grammar!
This was too much! Religion with my nighties, and now with my exercise class?
When I got home and told Dan about it, he said disbelievingly (with the fervor of the deconverted): "You didn't complain?!" I replied that I was mulling over the right approach.
I've opted for my concept of subtlety. I arrived early for my next class wearing a "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" sweatshirt and a smile, as befits the message. My instructor's eyes flickered over my shirt, looked away, and eloquently glanced back. There was no "God" chant this time. But I'm planning to wear the shirt every session, just to make sure.
Besides the secret to warm feet, something I've also been slow to grasp is the infinite chutzpah of the religionist. And they always get you when you're cold or tired.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today and the anthology, Women Without Superstition: "No Gods - No Masters." The Writings of 19th and 20th Century Women Freethinkers.
Flak for "Faith" Funding
Trying to keep money given to religious organizations from being used for proselytizing is hopeless; money is fungible, a wonderful word meaning "interchangeable." If you give money to a church for one purpose, that in turns helps fund the church's other purposes since, obviously, it has more money. . . .
As that great orator, the late Texas state Rep. Billy Williamson of Tyler, once declared during a debate over state aid to Baptist-sponsored Baylor, "Yew CAAAAAAAN'T trade the cross for the cookie jar!"
--Molly Ivins, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram columnist
"Bush's World of Fuzzy PolicyThinking", Feb. 1, 2001
I am for faith-based programs, after-school programs, senior citizens programs, transportation ministries. But I fear federally funded, faith-based initiatives. Don't let them get into your books, because they are wolves in sheep's clothing. Money is seductive; the church needs money, but it needs independence even more!
--Rev. Jesse L. Jackson sermon
Ebenezer AME Church, Fort Washington
Washington Post, Feb. 4, 2001
I believe that a democratic polity requires a secular state: one that does not fund or otherwise sponsor religious institutions and activities; that does not display religious symbols; that outlaws discrimination based on religious belief, whether by government or by private employers, landlords or proprietors--that does, in short guarantee freedom from as well as freedom of religion. Furthermore, a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos: one that does not equate morality with religion, stigmatize atheists, defer to religious interests and aims over others or make religious belief an informal qualification for public office. Of course, secularism in the latter sense is not mandated by the First Amendment. It's a matter of sensibility, not law. Politicians have a right to brandish their faith and attack my secular outlook as hollow. That they have such a right, however, does not mean exercising it is a good idea. Politicians also have a right to argue that Christ's teachings are essential to public morality, but few would dare devalue the citizenship of Jews in such a fashion. Why is it more acceptable to marginalize the irreligious with appeals to God and faith?
"Freedom From Religion," The Nation, Feb. 19, 2001
This whole thing is a religious-liberty nightmare. You can't have federal funds supporting sectarian proselytizing.
--Baptist Rev. C. Weldon Gaddy
Executive Director, Interfaith Alliance Time, Jan. 30, 2001
And official promotion of religion even when it's not specific can reach a point where it infringes on the rights of nonbelievers. President Bush has cut off family planning funds for international organizations that finance abortions on the grounds that money given for one thing frees up money for the other. But he does not apply the same logic to his plans to subsidize church-based education. If a birth-control grant to some agency amounts to taxpayers funding abortions, why isn't a grant to a church school essentially forcing me to pay for candles and incense?
--Michael Kinsley, Editor of Slate
New York Times, Jan. 26, 2001
Government neither should impose nor finance religion. Without the utmost scrutiny Bush's initiative could result in the outright government subsidy of religion in the name of social services. . .
One must wonder if David Koresh would have come knocking on the door of the Office of Faith-based Initiatives to get in on some of the federal funds. And we wonder on what grounds the office would say that Koresh's religion was any less legitimate than the mainstream faiths that most people see performing the work that Bush envisions.
Waco (TX) Tribune-Herald, New York Times, 1/31/01
. . . here and in the not-so-free countries of the world, the "freedoms from" were just as critical as the "freedoms to"--that is, the freedom from hunger, from oppression, from persecution and yes, from religion.
It is that wonderful wall of separation between church and state that guarantees these freedoms . . .
I feel my democratic freedom from religion is being violated by President Bush's executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. . . .
The issue is whether our tax dollars should support sectarian efforts that violate our rights to freedom from religion.
"U.S. a democracy, not theocracy" San Antonio News-Express, Feb. 3, 2001
Americans may not be able to recite the [first] amendment, or perhaps even explain it, but they are instinctively uncomfortable when their government appears to promote one religion over another, or allows discrimination based on religion, or interferes in the freedom of a church or synagogue or mosque. If executed carelessly, Mr. Bush's plan could spring all three of those traps.
New York Times, Feb. 4, 2001
. . . even the staunchest defenders of faith-based programs, like Professor Olasky, admit there is little statistical evidence to show treatment based on religious conversion is any more effective than secular, therapeutic programs.
. . . religious organizations are, by their very nature, evangelical. And for the government to fund them, or support them in any way at the expense of other social programs, could make society's neediest vulnerable to religious coercion in exchange for basic services.
--Christian Science Monitor
Daily Herald, Jan. 30, 2001
. . . Bush has already shown that he won't fund groups that don't adhere to his particular set of moral beliefs. In his first full workday as president, he announced he was yanking funds to overseas organizations that use their own money to provide abortions or abortion counseling. . .
The infusion of religion into government is at the very heart of the revolution that created America. The colonists rebelled not only against the Church of England but also against the Puritanism and Calvinism that forced the citizenry to conform to particular religious views or face the government's wrath.
What Bush risks doing is establishing the legitimacy of one religion over all others, and this is just what our founding fathers didn't want.
"With a Hand on the Bible" San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 30, 2001
The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, whom he declared to be "our savior." . . .
The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that Bush's America is a Christian nation, and that nonChristians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: "This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray."
But the United States is neither a Christian nation nor the exclusive home of any particular religious group. NonChristians are not guests. We are as much hosts as any Mayflower-descendant Protestant. It is our home as well as theirs. And in a home with so many owners, there can be no official sectarian prayer. That is what the First Amendment is all about, and the first act by the new administration was in defiance of our Constitution.
--Alan M. Dershowitz
Los Angeles Time
Bush says he will take international aid away from family planning clinics that in any way, shape, or whisper tell women where they can get an abortion. To Bush, this is a game of Ping-Pong, and now he has the paddle. . . . Bush reinstated the gag rule with the confidence that, aside from Planned Parenthood, Capitol Hill Democrats will not dwell long--or at all--counting the bodies of poverty stricken and sexually trapped women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. . . .
According to the World Health Organization, complications from pregnancy and childbirth kill 600,000 women every year. . . .
Before Reagan, the United States was seen as a leader in helping nations provide access to family planning. Clinton had begun reasserting that leadership. Bush is taking us back to a blindness about the bodies. He is taking us back to a time when, as far as abortion goes, we were a developing nation.
--Derrick Z. Jackson
"Bush's Cruel Trip Backward", Boston Globe, 1/26/01
. . . I envision a country where untold billions of taxpayers' dollars flow through the government to those religious groups who backed winning candidates, just as parishioners' contributions flow through their churches to the candidates on whom they wager.
. . . The First Amendment also guards against another serious danger. This is the temptation for the state to co-opt religious leaders, appropriate religious symbols, and play on religious sentiments, subverting them all to rally for leaders and policies that cannot be defended in rational debate.
--Prof. Bruce Lincoln
University of Chicago, "Dubya, Defender of the Faith" TomPaine.com
Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars have been approved by the National Institutes of Health to fund a Christian "prayer intervention" study involving African American women with breast cancer.
Freethought Today has learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a component of NIH, has approved the grant to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Consulting is Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health, known for his espousal of religion as medicine.
Tax money is slated to fund a study of "a personal and group prayer intervention" on 40 African American women, with 40 others randomly assigned to a control group.
Dr. Koenig told Freethought Today several years of funding are needed because it will take a long time to locate 80 African American women in the Baltimore area who qualify for the study.
Subjects will meet with "Comfort Leaders,"--"a team of African American breast cancer survivors and persons with a background in spirituality" who will receive special training--at a home or "church visit."
The concept, the grant writers noted, is derived from "The Witness Project," previously funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control, based on the precept that "in church people witness to save souls. At the Witness Project, they witness to save lives."
"The CL will meet with the woman and provide her with a small book of inspirations," according to the study abstract. "She will assist the woman in organizing a prayer group of 5-8 women from her church or from her personal network."
The subjects will be given "the Comfort Guide that contains 24 weeks of spiritual messages based on Biblical scripture that guide the prayer for any given week. The women will be offered instruction as to how to gather for prayer and personal witnesses. . . . select[ing] a symbolic scriptural word that to them will signify their recognition of a 'divine presence.' Twice each day the patient is to use the Centering Prayer word to focus on a feeling of peace and inner spirituality. . . ."
The study abstract mentions the researchers' concerns that other prayer by the women and their social network could "replicate or compete with the effects of the study's prayer groups," but considers this "unlikely." The study selects otherwise healthy subjects who are most likely to do well--women with early stage breast cancer who have had no spread to lymph nodes and have undergone a lumpectomy and radiation therapy but no chemotherapy (Stage 1 and 2 local tumors).
"Women who do not identify with a religious orientation or who do not wish to use prayer groups will also be excluded. It is expected that this will be a rare case if it does occur at all," the abstract adds.
Various blood, saliva and urine tests will be taken at intervals of one month and six months to measure "the impact of the prayer intervention" on "stress." Although it is a four- or five-year funded study, the subjects themselves receive only six months of "intervention."
They also note that after six months, the control group will be offered the religious materials and an introduction to prayer groups and "centering prayer," because this "is ethical given the known benefit of prayer. . ."
The grant abstract cites as rationale for the study the "abysmal physical and psychosocial outcomes in African American women with breast cancer and their almost 100% use of prayer for coping."
The researchers also cite a study showing that a majority of African American women "preferred spiritual healing over traditional allopathic medicine, actually causing a delay in seeking care."
"This raises a question," said Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor. "If African American women already disproportionately favor prayer and religion for comfort during illness, yet 'have a poorer prognosis at every stage of breast cancer,' as the researchers report, then the conclusion would seem to be that religion is detrimental, rather than beneficial. Ethics should dictate that medically sound methods, not superstition, should be proposed to improve medical outcomes for African American women with breast cancer."
The study does not compare prayer with other activities that could be surmised to reduce stress or make patients feel special, such as instruction in relaxation techniques.
Despite a request on Dec. 1 made under the Freedom of Information Act, Freethought Today has been unable to date to obtain a full copy of the grant proposal detailing requested amounts and salaries. Diane M. Becker, the professor of medicine who is slated to be in charge of the medical monitoring of the women, refused to release that data. She told Freethought Today her best estimate is that approximately $123,000 of tax dollars annually for four years would be appropriated.
An Oct. 5 NIH news release reported that $8 million will be given to a cancer center at Johns Hopkins headed by Adrian S. Dobs, M.D., to implement four projects, one of which "will examine the effects of prayer on disease recurrence, immune and neuroendocrine function of African American women with breast cancer." What has not been disclosed is how the $8 million grant will be divided among the four studies.
Dr. Koenig estimated late last year in a conversation with Freethought Today that between $750,000 and $800,000 over five years would be appropriated. According to a report in Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology, (Nov. 2000) funded through the Templeton Foundation, Dr. Koenig "hopes that research such as this will help open the door to more studies on the effects that prayer may have on other diseases. . ."
Freethought Today is pursuing its Freedom of Information Act request to confirm how much tax money is in jeopardy.
The following statement was released on January 29, 2001, by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) working to protect the constitutional separation of church and state since 1978.
President Bush's newly-announced initiatives on religion pose the most serious assault on the constitutional separation of church and state in our history. Today Bush announced the creation of an "Office of Faith-Based Action" and his intention to tax the American public to support a $24 billion give-away of public funds to church-related groups over the next 10 years.
People who care about our Constitution and its protections should be outraged. It would be difficult to exaggerate the constitutional peril of Bush's full frontal attack on the Establishment Clause.
What is being proposed is a massive religious tax upon the American public. Individuals will be taxed to support places of worship, denominations and ministries which violate their conscience.
Many Americans are descended from immigrants who came to this land to escape such mandatory tithes and taxation, who believed it to be unconscionable to be forced to support churches against their consent. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom:
"[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of [religious] opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."
That statute, upon which many state constitutions are predicated, noted that no citizens "shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, whatsoever." The assurance that citizens cannot be compelled to attend or support a place of worship against their consent has been a cornerstone of our secular republic.
"Charitable choice" is a misleading euphemism for Bush's proposal to fund overtly-religious organizations at all federal branches. Americans will have no choice when we're taxed to support religions under the guise of social services. Needy social service recipients who are at the mercy of religious social services will have no practical choice when they are handed bibles with their soup bowls, or are prayed over when they are seeking a bed for the night. Those applying for jobs with public-funded religious organizations will have no choice if they are hired or fired for religious reasons, because "faith-based" public-supported charities are legally permitted to engage in religious discrimination.
No needy person receiving assistance paid for with public funds should ever be proselytized. The automatic tax-exemption accorded churches is based on the assumption that they will use donations for charitable purposes. Individuals are free to seek out private religious counseling and churches are free to open their doors to the needy. But no religious proselytizing ought to be allowed if the public, made up of a diversity of Christians, atheists, Jews and others, is footing the bill.
Religious social services are already eligible for and already receive significant amounts of public funding. Appropriately, religious social services receiving tax dollars have been required to create a secular arm and a separate account, to remove religious symbols and agree not to proselytize a captive audience coming to them for help. Bush is proposing to remove all these constitutional safeguards and give proselytizing groups carte blanche with public funds.
There is no end to the potential conflicts of interest. For instance, when a Southern Baptist church receives public funds, will it advise battered women to "submit graciously" to their husbands, as their denomination's doctrine now requires? In a small town where a fundamentalist group gets the corner on tax dollars, where will a suicidal gay teenager turn when he needs help? Surely not to a fundamentalist group that considers gays "sinners" and even "abominations." What help can a teenaged girl seeking contraception receive from a public-funded Roman Catholic group freed by Bush's initiatives to force its religious doctrines on public recipients?
Current charitable choice laws do not ensure that recipients would be notified of the right to secular alternatives, or that secular alternatives in fact are available. Nor does it make fiscal sense to set up two forms of public-funded social services, when a secular social service agency can serve everyone, offends no one and does not ride roughshod over freedom of conscience.
We urge all Americans who value our secular Constitution to speak out and oppose Bush's alarming actions and proposals.
The piety of politicians is legendary, so it should not have surprised us when Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum announced he would start his inaugural day with a prayer breakfast.
McCallum follows Tommy Thompson as Wisconsin's governor, since President Bush appointed Thompson to his cabinet to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
McCallum's prayer breakfast would be held in his home town of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, newspapers announced. Naively, we envisioned a setting in a church basement, or possibly the banquet room of a local hotel.
But then came the surprising news. The prayer breakfast would take place at the publicly-owned Commons of the Fond du Lac branch of the University of Wisconsin, and, according to McCallum's office, would be paid for with public funds.
Whoa! A Foundation letter went out to McCallum challenging the constitutionality of this action and encouraging a secular inaugural.
The response from a staffer was that the media got it wrong! It wasn't a prayer breakfast after all; it was an inaugural breakfast, and taxpayers would not be paying for it. It would be paid for by McCallum's campaign fund. Now we had two versions of what was going on.
Trying to figure out the puzzle, we got a copy of the press release sent from McCallum's office announcing the prayer breakfast. Indeed, it was not a media error. It was there in black and white in the press release, "prayer breakfast."
We confirmed with the University in Fond du Lac that rent was being charged for the Commons (a modest $150.00), although exactly who is paying for that and for the catering is still unclear. The final program referred to an inaugural breakfast, but it was reported that a Catholic priest prayed, an Episcopal clergyman prayed and an obscure civil servant prayed. Which would have been acceptable had the ceremony been conducted privately, not on the taxpayers' dollar, and not in a taxpayer-owned public building.
There is no question that religion is intruding more and more in government, at every level. Our objections may not always be heeded, but they must be made.
We urge each reader to constitute a Committee of One to protest state-church entanglement at the community level, as well as in state capitals and Washington, D.C.
One of the reasons President Bush feels free to launch his mammoth, unconstitutional state-church entanglement projects is because there has not been enough pressure and an outcry against entanglement at lower levels.
Churches and tax-exempt religious property abound in our country. Let politicians practice their religion there.
--Anne Nicol Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation