"If the Supreme Court won't uphold the Constitution, it's up to us — it's up to you" is the response of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the high court's ruling May 5 that judicially blessed sectarian prayer at official government meetings.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that governments can not only host prayers, those prayers can be pervasively sectarian: "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech." 572 U.S. 1, 12-13 (2014).
FFRF, the nation's largest association of freethinkers, with more than 20,000 atheist and agnostic members nationwide, is responding to the hostile court ruling by announcing a "Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award." The award will be given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular "invocations" at government meetings.
The individual judged to give the "best" secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF's annual convention with the "invocation," receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to our 37th annual convention at the Los Angeles Biltmore Oct. 24-25 and an honorarium of $500.
FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. All eligible secular invokers will receive a certificate suitable for framing, and FFRF will post the invocation on its website.
FFRF, which submitted an amicus brief against government prayer in the case, was initially founded for the very purpose of protesting government prayer at city and county meetings.
Anne Nicol Gaylor, who coined the adage, "Nothing fails like prayer," and her daughter Annie Laurie, founded FFRF in Wisconsin in order to speak with a more powerful voice when testifying against prayers by the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board in 1976. The city dropped prayers the following year and the county went to rotating opening remarks by county supervisors.
Government prayer continues to rate as one of the most common complaints FFRF receives from its members and members of the public.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes that despite the approval of sectarian governmental prayer by five Supreme Court justices, there is no requirement for government bodies to open with prayer. Citizen request has stopped the practice of government prayer throughout the country and can continue to do so.
"We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious," Gaylor said.
Although the Supreme Court "blessed" opening prayer as governmental speech, meaning government bodies don't have to permit guest prayers, even the town of Greece has indicated it would consider a guest secular invocation.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who suggested the award, notes that many of our nation's most influential founders opposed governmental exercises of religion, including revolutionary Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, who refused in his two terms to issue days of prayer, and James Madison, our fourth president and primary architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Secular invocations can be sincere and eloquent, such as state Rep. Juan Mendez's invocation before the Arizona House, for which he won FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award. You may wish to "invoke" secular "founding fathers," your own life philosophy or take a more facetious route.
The goal is to show that government bodies don't need prayer to imagined gods, or religion or superstition, to govern — they need to be guided by reason.
"Government officials need to get off their knees and get to work," added Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister and author of "Godless," who now co-directs FFRF. He has another suggestion: "Be a Paine in the government's Mass."
(For "inspiration," download a free copy of Barker's songs "Get Off Your Knees and Get to Work" and "Nothing Fails Like Prayer.")
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is keeping a close eye on the bible course developed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green for public school students.
The school board in Mustang, Okla., voted 4-0 with one abstention April 14 to approve Green's curriculum entitled “The Book, the Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact of the World’s Best-selling Book” as a high school elective course.
Green is a billionaire whose corporate headquarters is about 5 miles from Mustang in Oklahoma City. The company's No. 1 commitment, according to its website, is "Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles." Hobby Lobby has also sued the federal government because it's opposed to the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act and has taken the case to the Supreme Court.
FFRF has been corresponding with Mustang Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel about the course since November 2013 (also when Green met with the school board). FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a cautionary letter to the district and requested records on Nov. 21.
According to a Religion News Service story, Mustang High will be the only school using the curriculum this fall in its "beta-test" phase. Supposedly, 170 students expressed interest in it. A company spokesman said the goal is to have it in at least 100 schools by September 2016 and "thousands" by the following year.
Elective bible classes at higher grade levels can be taught in public schools but must be secular, informative and not endorse religion, Seidel said. "The Green family’s constant attempts to impose their evangelical Christianity on Hobby Lobby employees has secularists naturally suspicious that any Hobby Lobby bible class will not comform to the law. Previous investigations have revealed that bible classes in Texas rarely comport with the law, that teachers lack training, and that teachers impose their personal religious beliefs on all students."
"Will the class be fair, scholarly and open, or will this be another attempt by Hobby Lobby to impose their religion on others?" Seidel asked.
These are questions that FFRF hopes to have answered soon and has again requested all documents and records relating to the curriculum and will carefully analyze them over the summer before the class starts in the fall.
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, quoted Isaac Asimov, who said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
Barker, a former evangelist, is skeptical. "In the religious climate of the bible belt, given the impetus for this class, we are seriously concerned."
Please act now. Contact the superintendent to express your opposition to a Hobby Lobby-funded bible class in our public schools. The scheme is fraught with peril. There are tax-exempt churches all over where students or adults may seek out Sunday school classes.
As President Ulysses S. Grant put it in a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1875: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”
Reaching a settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end FFRF's lawsuit against the city, the Pismo Beach City Council voted April 15 to stop all prayers before its meetings and to abolish the city chaplain position.
FFRF and Dr. Sari Dworkin, a Pismo Beach resident and FFRF member, sued the city Nov. 1, 2013, in Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, alleging the official prayers and chaplaincy violated the California Constitution.
Before each council meeting, the city chaplain, Paul Jones, or one of his religious substitutes, gave a Christian prayer. Prayers often included egregious factual mistakes, including manufactured quotes by America's founders. Jones’ prayers pressured citizens to live a Christian or biblical lifestyle, to vote for “righteous” leaders and make decisions that “honor” his God.
The city agreed to pay the plaintiffs nominal damages and attorney fees totaling about $47,500 and to end the practice of praying at meetings and abolish the chaplain position. The settlement carries the force of law and will be accompanied by a court order.
"This is a significant victory to keep all prayer — sectarian or nonsectarian — out of Pismo Beach public meetings," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on the issue of sectarian prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a New York case. FFRF's Pismo Beach victory will stand regardless of the high court's ruling in that case. "We're entirely satisfied by the outcome," Gaylor said.
Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005 and appointed Jones, a Pentecostal preacher, to the post. He’s affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which emphasizes “speaking in tongues.”
Jones delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers were addressed to the Christian god. Many were lengthy and more like sermons than prayers.
FFRF thanks local plaintiff Sari Dworkin, attorney Pamela Koslyn, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and Atheists United of San Luis Obispo and its members for helping initiate the lawsuit.
Crosses and curses and prayers, oh my! A sampling of recent emails FFRF has gotten, printed as received.
Ground hogs: Total ignorance. For all your efforts you’ll still get to meet God. He awaits you. You aren’t free to think as you please when you’re interfering with other’s rights. When you take a Bible out of one place, and the majority wants that Bible, who’s being violated? Your ignorance and your smelly drawers precede you. What have you achieved in life? Not much of anything really. It takes substance. — Derek Clouse,Ph.D., Savannah, Ga.
free country: you may not be a believer .and that’s your choice .but you don’t have the right to tell the coach in nc that he cant pray to jesus .if other people don’t want to pray that’s there choice. bunch of communistic devils .don’t have the right to take away true god given rights .but what you promote and gloat is sinful and imorral leftwing devilish evil ways .that is wrong so .so just remember this is supposed to be a free country but people like you are trying to destroy it, — fred brendle, north carolina
Get real: I read the action of the University of Wisconsin removing Gideon bibles from their guest rooms. God is pained by your act. Retribution will be his. I wrote a friend of mine “I accomplish more by wiping may ass one time after taking a crap than you have done in your entire life! — Clairmont Brekken, Stoughton, Wis.
Football Coach: As a native of Mooresville, NC and a 1984 graduate of Mooresville Senior High School I am completely offended and pissed off that an organization composed of atheists based in Wisconsin has any say about what a good God Fearing Christian coach in Mooresville, NC is doing! I bet your organization would support putting Christian believers in concentration camps and torturing them...maybe you are a decendant of Hitler! It’s people like you that are turning our country that was founded on Christian principals into such a torn and violent place. — Lori Broome
Bibles removed from lodging: I’m a born again Christian and I find your organization offensive to the Christian country that I (we) live in! Why not Muslims boodist any other religions?? The bible tells us one day every knee shall bow and every tounge shall confess that JESUS CHRIST is LORD and yes this does mean you also weather you want to or not you will bow before him so you better start soul searching! — Mike Wallace, Richwood, Ohio
North Carolina Coach: I’m getting sick and tired of these attacks on religious people to the point that my cousin lives in N. Carolina and we may move there this summer and my son who enters high school next year loves football and I may be a problem for you people. And by the way if we do move I have some very good lawyers since I am an entertainer and I can afford them. So leave these kids alone. — Frank Puff, Rochester, N.Y.
NC coach: I read with horror your treatment of the North Carolina coach that prays with his team. I will follow the path the good Lord has laid out for me. When you begin to walk it; you will allow us the freedom the founders so beautifully outlined. — Marc Schaller, Ohio
A word of encorageme: We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. Let His death be the payment or pay for it yourself forever in the place the Bible calls hell. — Jeff Worthington, North Carolina
waronJesus.com: Thanks to people like you our kids live in a toilet. But hopefully America will grab it’s Christian roots and make a comeback. — Mike Bambino, Grand Junction, Colo.
Libtards: Libtards, get a better cause. — Eric Armstrong, Ames, Iowa
Your Beliefs: Why do you have special rights over anybody else? Nobody said you had to read that Bible in the drawer at your hotel room, just ignore it! I sure wish I could be there that day when you and other athiests are kneeling before the Lord and he asks “So, I don’t exist?” — Steve Bartlett, Westminister, Colo.
Christ the King: Jesus spoke to me on November 24, 2013, the Feast Day of Christ the King. He said, “I am Christ the King.” He hugged my heart 3 times and conveyed a message. He wanted everyone to know: He loves you. — E.J. Jorgensen, Wisconsin
Searcy ark: Searcy Ar does not belong to you and for you to tell us to remove a cross that is hurting no one is rude and heartless, it is hurting no one and whom ever the coward is in searcy that is having you to do there dirty work needs to either look away or confront the chief them selfs and stop asking someone from another state to do there work for them they have a mouth and if they cant use it then they need to get over it or Move. I have lived in searcy since i was 16 i am now 47. — Debbie cullum
From Marilyn Solamito: Stop! What you are doing going after crosses on public land and complaining in schools about the separation of church and state. Get this straight! The US is based on the bible and you are not going to destroy that in our country. I am watching your organization and I will start the public against you. Remember my name because bring it on! — Marilyn Solamito
GODWINS: YHWH whom you do not believe in is going to kick ass very very soon and one day when you wake up to the fact that your dead in trespasses and SIN, well, enjoy the fire that burns forever knowing that you can never escape the thought of refusing to acknowledging Him. Sorry, I never KNEW YOU, HE WILL SAY TO YOU. OUCH, THAT’S GOTTA HURT! —
Lol: Evolution is wrong and there is more evidence proving that there is a god than not. My god left me his signs everywhere. Why is there such order? Boom? No. Intelligent design. Watch lee stroble “case for christ. — Derek Fredin
Help: Hi, do you really believe that you evolved from an ape? Do really believe this awesome universe and all living creatures came from the big bang? I’m here to tell you that Hell is a place you don’t want to be. — Chad Heistand
Leave searcy alone: This is a christain based college town. If you took a vote 90% in our town would say let the cross stay. Sorry your living in sin but, stop picking on stupid pitty stuff. All business are coming together and putting crosses all cross town so you lose. — Angel Mosley, Arkansas
work: You people need to get a job! — Kate Trost, Carrollton, Ill.
Sorry: My son was a student at Four Oaks Elementary school and was told he could not pray at the lunch table to ask for God to bless his food. If people choose not to believe in God and want to go to hell when they die then that is there discision but they are not going to drag my family with them. We home school now. — Matthew Wiggs, Clayton, N.C.
freedom of religion: HATE TO SAY THIS I THINK YOU ALL NUTS FREEDOM OF WHAT WE ALL PRAY TO THE FAT GUY BUDDA OR A CROSS OE WICKEN AND WHAT EVER OUT THERE PEOPLE PRAY TOO. — dee calise
mind your own Business and we’ll do the same: I think you guys should mind your own bussiness or attack something like pornography. just maybe that little cross in their yard or that cross at some office building is their last hope and you know what people would stup to they have no hope homicidal or suicidal tendacies do the next you see that small cross in a yard stop and think i might be stomping on domeones last little bit of hope. — Brandon Partin, Iuka, Illinois
FYI: I respect my dog more then people like you. — Julian Davis
clergy: The clergy of today,[pope’s, minister’s, reverend’s, doctor’s of divinity, pastor’s, rabbi’s, etc.] comes from the clergy of 2000 year’s ago, [pharisse’s, sadducee’s, scribe’s, and nazarite’s]. They honor HIM with their lip’s, but their heart’s are far from HIM , because their heart’s are in their paycheck’s. — Steven Gossum, Calvert City, Kentucky
When you think about it, there is nothing really logical or necessary about people gathering together after a death, to talk about the deceased, witness the mourning, or even peer at the unnaturally preserved body. Our usual rationalization for this behavior is that the bereaved find it a “comfort.”
This may be, but if so, it is a culturally learned response not grounded in nature. The original reasons for funerary custom were quite different. We must ask, what did the most primitive humans do about their dead, perhaps a million years ago?
From the beginning, people have believed everything that happens is caused by invisible spirits with human-like intellect and purpose. Many people still believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary. They still pray to a god to produce benefits or avert disasters; they entreat, flatter, cajole and thank their deity accordingly. In the view of such people, nothing in the universe occurs at random. The spirit or the god always has a reason, even for the tiniest happening.
A corollary to this primitive worldview is that in death, the animating spirit of a human being deserts the body and becomes one of these invisible entities, even acquiring some extrahuman power to make things happen. At this point the dead are made into ghosts, wandering souls that, like gods, can communicate with the living, listen to entreaties, or affect events for good or ill, according to their personal inclinations.
Here it becomes necessary for formal appeasement of the ghosts of those who might harbor resentments, or of those who were especially powerful when alive. Ceremonies of homage, praise, and propitiation of the dead become common. The ghost must be made to feel kindly toward the living so as not to punish them for real or imagined slights.
Funerary ceremonies vary, but the basic idea of pleasing and eulogizing the dead is universal. Sacrifices may be offered. Adulatory speeches may be given. Exaggerated mourning behaviors are staged to convince the ghost that he/she is sorely missed.
Professional mourners or “keeners” are still employed in some areas, just as they were in ancient Egypt. This oddly illogical custom seems to assume that the dead person forgets all about any professional mourning seen during his/her lifetime and comes to believe in the sincerity of all the paid-for wailing, hair-pulling, garment-rending and otherwise carrying on.
Another requirement may be that the ghost should be flattered by maximum attendance at the solemnities. Huge funerary processions can be staged by rich and powerful families to flaunt vast numbers of mourners — certainly not all of whom find “comfort” in such ceremonies but rather feel coerced into attending.
One is reminded of the lavish funerals of Mafia dons, rejoicing in hundreds of attendees, most of whom actually hated the deceased, including the clergy who are paid to give the routine guarantee of his “sure and certain” admission to paradise. Inevitably, this guarantee is given no matter how many or how heinous the crimes committed by the deceased; God’s forgiveness is almost always for sale to those who can pay.
Propitiation of especially revered ancestors can become a recurrent event, celebrated on each anniversary, like a saint’s day. In some cultures, the ancestor thus morphs over time into a god or goddess, able to hear and answer the prayers of his/her descendants. The origin of our Halloween or All Hallows (All Saints’ Eve) was just such an anniversary, annually honoring the spirits of all ancestral ghosts at once, at the time of the harvest.
In Europe, the priestesses who officiated at such pagan funerary solemnities were later denounced by the new rival religion of the church as witches, and the ancestral ghosts they invoked were called demons. Then Halloween took on the trappings of make-believe “evil” that we now know.
The church soon discovered that ceremonies for the dead were highly lucrative. The clergy came to insist that only official clerical sanctions would guarantee the soul’s entrance into heaven. Payment then became a duty of the survivors. Medieval Catholicism even increased revenues by the direct sale of “indulgences,” meaning special rituals guaranteed to shorten the deceased’s term in purgatory.
So it has ever been: Money opens all gates, even pearly ones.
The four elements
For thousands of years previous to the intrusion of the church, however, people had developed many ideas about the spirits of the dead, and had incorporated these ideas into many different funerary customs. Methods of disposing of the body gave rise to the very notion of the four elements — fire, air, water and earth — embraced by Greek and Roman thinkers and all their European descendants up to the 18th century when discovery of the real elements began.
The classic four represented the only possible ways to dispose of a corpse, short of cannibalism: cremation by fire, dispersal into the air, burial at sea or in other water and entombment in the womb of Mother Earth, anticipating a future rebirth.
Cremation was thought to send the soul skyward along with the flames, perhaps to become a permanent spark among the stars, which were often perceived as angelic beings or immortal souls. Sun worshipers especially favored the use of fire, which was employed also to send sacrifices to various divinities of heavenly light.
The Old Testament says sacrifices to Yahweh were often burned on the altar to send their essence skyward. Souls arising from the flames gave rise to the myth of the phoenix, always arising reborn from the ashes of sacrifice.
Air dispersal was favored especially by the Persians, who left their dead in the topless “Towers of Silence” to be consumed by vultures and other birds. Some Native American tribes had the same idea, placing their dead on platforms in trees. The ancient Egyptian Goddess of the dead, Nekhbet, was depicted as a vulture. Romans also believed that souls could enter the bodies of birds, which accounted for their taking of ancestral spirits’ omens from bird behavior.
Other people believed that any flying creature could contain the soul of a deceased person. The Greek word for soul, psyche, also means butterfly. The name of the (biblically vilified) Philistine god of the dead, Beelzebub, means “Lord of the Flies” because it was thought that flies could carry souls. Some of the virgin mothers in Irish mythology conceived their children by swallowing a fly.
Air was often considered the substance of spirit, since “breath” was the very thing that a dead body lacked. Hindus believed that a father gave a soul to a newborn child by breathing into its face. Ancient Israelites had the same idea; in Genesis, God gives Adam a soul made of “breath” or air, because being male, God couldn’t make life out of the vital essence of blood, as the earlier goddesses did.
Water burial was also quite popular, as we know from the famous Viking funeral and several Oriental customs of relegating the dead to rivers. The Vikings regarded the sea as the Great Mother of their race, and their word for death meant “a return to the womb.” The name of a burial ship was ludr, which applied equally to a boat, a coffin and a cradle.
In Egypt, the dead were said to enter the sun boat of Ra and sink with him into the western ocean. Greek philosophers said water was the Arche, the primary element, the womb of all life. In this they were not too far wrong, since we now know that life can exist only on a planet that has liquid water, and liquid water is the greatest proportion of the very substance of our bodies.
The sea was a common symbol of the goddess who gave birth to all things. The fact that blood still tastes like sea water was not lost on the ancients, who also identified four “humors” of the body with the elements.
Perhaps the most common method of burial in our culture was entombment in the earth. Romans often consigned the dead to Terra Mater. They wrote on tombstones, “Mater genuit, Mater recepit” (the Mother bore me, the Mother took me back).
Noting the apparent resurrection of dead plants from their seeds, the ancients likened this to rebirth from the magical earth element, which was also symbolic of living flesh. Savior gods, such as Osiris, Dionysus and Attis, were sacrificed at the spring equinox and represented the rebirth of the crops each year.
Some people described flesh as “clay.” The original Hindu “Adam” was named Arya, “man of clay,” the ancestor of all Aryan tribes. The biblical God made Adam out of clay, recalling the ancient conception charm of Babylonian and Sumerian women: Construct a baby image out of clay and anoint it with menstrual blood to bring it to life. Adam’s creator, of course, used air instead of blood.
Medieval Christians also believed that burial in an earthly tomb was one way to achieve resurrection. The church taught that the body would be restored intact, no matter how much decay it had undergone. Saints’ bodies were alleged to be fresh and undamaged even after centuries, which proved their holiness, but somehow the empirical evidence for this claim always seemed to be lacking.
Ancient Egyptians similarly believed in resurrection of the flesh, so they did their best to preserve the flesh by mummification, which we now call embalming. The techniques may be different, but the purpose is the same: preserve the body as long as possible to ensure sufficient material for resurrection. Alas, neither technique really achieves the purpose; neither mummies nor embalmed corpses present a very reassuring spectacle after a long period in the earth.
Then of course, there were those malevolent spirits supposedly resurrected without their souls, such as zombies and vampires, thirsting for the blood of life that they lacked. The idea was a very old one. In Greek myth, Odysseus summoned spirits of the dead out of Hades by offering them a trench filled with sacrificial blood, which magnetically attracted the blood-hungry shades who could give oracles.
Christian authorities were quite willing to support belief in vampires, another form of the demons that they postulated to give common people the perpetual feeling of menace from the forces of darkness. Fathers of the church wrote treatises on all the various revenants and evil spirits that were supposed to threaten the living.
The common fear of a ghost with a bad attitude represents the same primitive fear of the dead that instituted funerary customs in the first place. Even deceased loved ones could be regarded as threatening, for no one knew what changes their personalities might have undergone in the afterworld.
Corpses were obviously not the same as living bodies, so the personality might radically change also. Guilt feelings about possible quarrels or abuses, endured by the deceased during life, might surface and make the ghost even more of a threat. Those who had been one’s enemies were naturally to be feared when they became invisible spirits.
Why then sorrow?
The phenomenon of death is one that has concerned and puzzled human beings from the beginning of our species. People have obviously spent a great deal of time and effort trying to figure it out and avert it, and failing that, to deal with it in ways that could give them an illusion of understanding. We now understand it pretty well, but religious attitudes toward death are still contradictory and illogical.
The general feeling, when someone dies, is regret or sorrow, even if the person is a stranger. It seems to be an occasion calling for sympathy. Yet our religions often insist that death is a ticket to a much happier place, a land of eternal bliss. Why then sorrow?
Why is it that suicide is very uncommon, even among people who believe in a postmortem paradise? The clergyperson can say, “He has gone to a better place,” but does the grieving widow really know that in her heart? All she knows for sure is that he is gone, never to return.
Grieving relatives may indeed be comforted by funeral ceremonies, or they may simply regard them as costly intrusions on their grief, having to listen to trite expressions of sympathy from casual acquaintances or even strangers who really don’t share any deep feeling.
The custom has been perpetuated by those who profit by it, just as the priests and mummy-makers of ancient Egypt profited by their craft. It might even be said that there is something not quite savory about profiting from other people’s sadness; yet funeral ceremonies have come to be considered “only decent,” or essential to maintaining social approbation, or even to securing immortality. Whether this latter effect is ever actually achieved, or ever has been, is of course something that we will never know.
For many centuries now, people of the Western world have been convinced by their religious authorities that the deceased can be assured of a comfortable afterlife only if the proper clerically sanctioned words are spoken over the corpse. Therefore, it would be a crime to omit them.
Churches are notoriously prone to criminalize, whenever possible, almost anything that might reduce their income. The idea that any afterlife at all may be nothing but a cultural illusion is an idea abhorrent to the church. Yet it may be, after all, the simple truth.
Jesse Bering in his book, “The Belief Instinct,” has this to say:
“It’s only through intellectual labor, and after countless millennia of thinking intuitively otherwise, that today we can arrive at the most obvious of all possible syllogisms: the mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore, the subjective feeling that the mind survives death is a psychological illusion operating in the brains of the living. Can the answer to the question of what happens to us after death, such a profound mystery, really be that simple?”
For most of us, when we look at the deaths of other species, it is that simple. The idea that our species is unique, possessing some essential inner quality found in no other mammal, is a vainglorious myth that has led us to exploit and unfairly abuse many other living creatures. Perhaps what we really need are funeral services marking the final abandonment of the myth. The rest of the world would thank us if it could.
Let us indeed have rituals that please and comfort us. But let us understand that the ritual exists for its own sake, and not for a magical purpose, to make something happen that would not otherwise happen.
Let us not allow money-making institutions to convince us differently. Humans have been enslaved by this kind of superstition for too many centuries already.
Barbara G. Walker is the author of Man Made God (available at ffrf.org/shop), The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and The Skeptical Feminist. Go to ffrf.org/outreach/secular-funerals to read FFRF’s “Secular Memorials and Funerals Without God.”
Jim McCollum, FFRF Life Member and previous “Champion of the First Amendment” recipient, spoke at FFRF’s 36th national convention Sept. 28, 2013, in Madison, Wis. McCollum talked about his role in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1948) in its 65th anniversary year. The suit was filed in July 1945 by his mother, Vashti McCollum, on behalf of Jim in Champaign, Ill.
My brothers and I had the good fortune to be raised in a nurturing, stable family setting, with the added bonus of not being burdened by God and the trappings that accompany it!
My father was a principled, quiet atheist, a scientist, who grew up with 10 siblings on a farm in south Arkansas. His parents and grandfather Daniel placed a premium on education and saw to it that all 11 children, all of whom were born by 1920, including five girls, got a full college education.
My mother was raised in a liberal family that encouraged her and her sister to seek the truth freely. Her father, raised a Presbyterian, was well-read — especially books by freethought authors such as Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Clemens and Robert Green Ingersoll — and became what I would call a bible-pounding atheist. Mom described herself as an agnostic humanist.
So what about this plucky lady, my mother “The Sarge,” who stuck to her guns with what became a landmark case all the way to the Supreme Court, losing all the way up, but winning when it counted?
If all that can be said of my mother, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, was the important contribution she made to U.S. constitutional law in the late ’40s, she would still be a shining light in the 20th century. For the 8-1 decision she won set the precedent that applied the strictures of the prohibition of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution to the several states by virtue of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Albeit that decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, is currently under intense attack by the radical Christian right, it still stands as a beacon in the annals of U.S. constitutional law to this day, for all cases involving purely sectarian practices in public schools and use of taxpayer money, by states and their municipalities, to fund religious activities, projects, monuments and displays, descend from McCollum v. Board of Education.
In her later years, Mom became an avid world traveler and an accomplished amateur photographer, winning salons at the Champaign County Camera Club on a regular basis. She was in great demand to present her informative and entertaining slide shows to all kinds of audiences, including at the Inman, the assisted care facility in Champaign, where she spent her last years.
Her travels took her to all seven of the world’s continents. She traveled on whatever conveyance was available — ferries, like the ones we read about in Third World countries that turn over and sink, trains and buses filled with peasants and their variety of livestock and worldly belongings, and puddle-jumping airlines, sometimes barely clearing the mountaintops. She was even trapped in the Amazon jungle for a period, while pursuing an adventure on an historic railroad that, unbeknownst to her, had been discontinued shortly before she arrived.
She traveled to places that no longer exist and to others, now too unsafe for tourists. Upon hearing stories of some of her exploits and travails, my father was heard to exclaim, “The woman is fearless!”
It was sometimes difficult to keep up with her, as she was always coming up with another trip to one exotic place or another, many of which were on the spur of the moment. Indeed, I can remember on several occasions where my first wife and I would wake up to a knock on the door early in the morning to find her on a surprise visit or just passing through on another of her excursions.
Mom was clearly her mother’s daughter and knew how to divine the bargains and travel on the cheap. I still remember spending a tortuous night at London’s Heathrow Airport, with her, just to save a £40 hotel bill. That two-week excursion to Scotland cost the two of us less than $4,000 (including roundtrip airfare). Most of her travels were on a shoestring.
Most important of all, she was the best mother one could have. She and my father, John Paschal McCollum, her husband of over 50 years, managed to raise three boys and put them through college, (a lawyer, a historian and a successful businessman), two with advanced degrees and all having made positive contributions to society. A finer tribute cannot be given to anyone!
‘Fair to a fault’
Why did I entitle this talk “My Mother, the Sarge?” Well, she was the disciplinarian in the family — fair to a fault, but there was no mistaking when she was displeased with something we said or did. While I can remember an occasional acquaintance with a flyswatter, generally all she needed to do was to give us the evil eye and that was that. More importantly, she was a consummate feminist and not one to back away from what she held dear — hence the “Sarge” moniker.
Albeit she made heavy weather at being a mother, she was an extremely effective one, never missing the opportunity to guide her sons carefully along the straight and narrow. In the last hours of her time with us, she was still correcting my English if I had the temerity to utter the phrase, “it’s me” instead of “it is I” or similar egregious grammatical transgressions.
She also admonished me to lose weight and get rid the rubber tire around my middle. Maybe feeble, but she still had her edge!
Her moral credentials were impeccable and unimpeachable, and she didn’t need a supreme being looking over her shoulder to “keep her in line.” She and my father made sure that my brothers and I were on the same page.
After the family became embroiled in her famous lawsuit, she would often admonish us to do nothing that would bring discredit to ourselves or the family, as “our detractors are watching.” However, we didn’t really need that admonishment, because our parents were the epitome of good role models.
I often chuckle to myself, remembering her choice comment, “I hope it’s not trivial,” when a prominent demagogue would be outed for some moral or ethical transgression.
Her memorial marker, in a southern Arkansas Missionary Baptist cemetery, proudly proclaims, beneath her name, the citation of the decision of her landmark case: 333 US 203 (1948).
Upon my retirement from the practice of law and move to Arkansas and her retirement from her world travels, we saw to it that one of us would call the other at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Her last travels, with the exception of a final one to help her older sister Helen celebrate her 95th birthday, were to visit us in Arkansas to see her “daffy down lilies,” which each February and March pave our front yard in a sea of yellow. In January she would ask us if the jonquils were blooming yet and then find a way to get here to see them, usually by catching a bus by herself to Bloomington and then the Texas Eagle Amtrak to Texarkana, where we would pick her up.
She was avidly independent in life, and even in her declining years, to the extent she could manage, she remained such. On her return trips to Champaign, she would insist we leave her at the Amtrak station in Texarkana in the early evening, where she would wait by herself several hours for the train. In spite of our reluctance, she was adamant about it.
The indelible mark she left behind, both on her three sons and grandchildren, as well on American jurisprudence, lives on!
Jim McCollum received his B.S. in geology and his J.D. in law from the University of Illinois. He served two years’ active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army and another six in the Army Reserve. He retired as an attorney after 34 years of practice and lives with his wife Betty in Arkansas, where he, appropriately, teaches constitutional law.
Vashti McCollum died in 2006 at age 93. Her story, One Woman’s Fight, is available at: ffrf.org/shop/books
More than once, a reporter has asked me what’s the best and worst thing about my job at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Without much hesitation I usually answer: winning and losing lawsuits!
But the hardest thing has actually been the death of FFRF members, the early co-founders and activists whom my mother, Dan and I have worked with over the years. They all contributed so much to the freethought movement.
Mourning the death of someone you love is hard enough, without the knowledge that the person you love suffered terribly and unnecessarily in dying. FFRF had barely lifted off the ground as a national group when Ruth Hurmence Green died at age 64 in 1981.
Ruth’s book, The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, was the first book FFRF published and is still a brisk seller. She served as board secretary, was a wonderful idea generator and was my mother’s and my dear friend.
Ruth, too, fought cancer, first of the breast, then skin and throat, enduring 37 radiation treatments. Her cancer was in remission when we met her. When excruciatingly painful throat cancer returned, Ruth bravely hid the pain from friends and family, carefully stockpiling pain pills, until July 7, 1981, when she took her own life after sending her husband out on an errand.
Her final letter to my mother, mailed the morning she took her life, read: “Freedom From must grow and prosper . . . freedom depends upon freethinkers.”
It was painful to comtemplate a Freedom From Religion Foundation without Ruth Green. Worse was contemplating how she must have suffered by forgoing pain medication in order to save enough pills. The inhumanity of our society toward the dying forced Ruth to be furtive, squirrel away pills and die alone with no chance for family and friends to say goodbye.
She and so many others with terminal illnesses should have been afforded the same right and dignity as Cliff Richards, who had the peace of mind provided by Washington’s death with dignity law. It’s so obvious that civil rights should not be dependent on the state you happen to live in.
So little progress has been made on this front. In 1990, Freethought Today published an important piece by Jan Hitchborn, the daughter of one of our members. Jan wrote about the death of her father, Read Schuster, a member of FFRF and the Hemlock Society.
Read had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In Read’s case, the disease started in his throat, so that he gradually lost the power to speak. Then he choked and coughed as he ate. Then he could scarcely swallow his Ensure.
Although he could still get up, dress himself and even drive, and although his mind stayed sharp and alert, he faced death by starvation, choking or asphyxiation. In September 1990, less than a year after his diagnosis, when he could no longer lift his leg from gas pedal to brake, he mustered all his inner strength, got himself into the garden shed, closed the door and shot himself in the head.
The area was classed as a crime scene, and although his family was grateful he was at peace, they were left with the horror of the cleaning up.
“He should have been able to die whole, in his bed, with us to hold his hands telling him again how much he meant to us, how much he had touched our lives. He should have been able to take an injection to peacefully slip off to sleep,” wrote Jan.
Only Washington, Oregon and Vermont have passed referendums or laws authorizing prescriptions for lethal doses by two doctors who agree the patient will die within six months. Courts in Montana and New Mexico have recently approved such aid. Even these few states granting death with dignity rights do not permit injections for the terminal patient, such as Read, who are too sick to swallow the necessary pills.
Among Read Schuster’s goodbye letters were those to doctors and the police department, lecturing the authorities “about a society which boxes terminally ill people into a corner.” “My dad was able to close his life. But he should have been able to do it with an injection. There should have been a Dr. Kevorkian for him,” Jan wrote.
Jan’s moving article can be read in its entirety at ffrf.org/news/timely-topics (scroll to “There ought to be a law”).
Jan’s piece was accompanied by a short plea by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita. “Prolonging dying is a religious idea,” she wrote. “Those who wish to die painlessly, at an appointed time, should have that right.” — Annie Laurie Gaylor
I received a heartbreaking letter Dec. 20 from Cliff Richards, a member of FFRF from Washington state, informing me that he was naming FFRF as a beneficiary on his Fidelity account, adding that FFRF could expect to receive $100,000. He very wonderfully asked to designate these funds for student activist scholarships.
The news was so welcome, as FFRF has a handful of recurring student scholarships but no major long-term fund. My excitement turned to dismay as I read Cliff’s next paragraph:
“Because of the advanced nature of my cancer, I’m told that my life extension will, at best, be approximately three months. I am going to be using Washington state’s Death With Dignity program that allows me to end my life if I have less than six months to live.”
I quickly replied by mail, expressing FFRF’s gratitude for Cliff’s outstanding generosity in endowing student activist awards, noting how much the bequest would mean to many thousands of deserving students and youth activists. “This is an act of greatness,” I told him.
Cliff phoned after receiving my letter, and we talked once or twice again, the last time on Dec. 29, when he told me his story. He had just retired last summer and was in the middle of relocating to the South when his cancer — Stage 4 colon cancer metastasizing to his spine — was discovered.
He was grateful he discovered it while still living in Washington, one of only five states with death with dignity laws or court rulings. Having sold his home, Cliff was ending his last days in a hotel room in the Sequim area.
His doctors warned him that the cancer could eventually lead to blockage, deadly rupture, blood poisoning and painful death. The cancer that had spread to his spine could also weaken the bone and snap his spine, leading to instant paralysis. Cliff was determined, by making use of death with dignity provisions, to avoid one or both fates.
When the subject changed to his life story, which he authorized me to publish after his death, Cliff’s voice brightened. He was born July 20, 1943, in Milwaukee, grew up there and attended a Catholic grade school, high school and college, graduating with a degree in medical technology from Marquette University in 1966.
“I lost my religion when I reached the age of reason,” he told me. He began questioning the “one true religion” mantra of the Catholic Church. “How can a just god say a Native American living in the woods who never heard of Jesus could go to hell because he was not baptized?”
Cliff told me, “This whole religion thing got me when I would see yet another religion was trying to impose its edicts on the rest of us.” He said he “absolutely enjoyed reading Freethought Today, especially about the students and student essays. It was a breath of fresh air to see kids going out and taking on the system. We need a whole lot more of them.”
• • •
After graduation, Cliff had moved to Minneapolis and got a position as chief lab manager. By age 23, he realized he had gotten as far as he could go with his degree. Hennepin County, he noted, had made Time magazine as one of the best-run county hospitals and he wondered why.
Then he realized, “Its esprit de corps was phenomenal. Administrators would come into the lab and talk to lower echelon employees, chat about family, etc.” He was inspired to go into administration.
He graduated with a master’s in hospital administration at the University of Ottawa in 1974 and worked in Minnesota and Georgia, where at the latter he had to desegregate the blood banks. He wound up at a 100-bed hospital in California.
He belatedly fulfilled a childhood dream to fly and earned a private pilot’s license. He started a chartered airline service in 1989. The enterprising Cliff was hired by US Airways and flew for them for 11 years until being furloughed. He was then hired by a small Nevada hospital to do lab work, commuting from Washington in his own plane until retiring in June 2013.
Although engaged four times, Cliff told me he had never married. He had arranged for a longtime friend to stay with him at the end. He predicted he might last to mid-February.
On Valentine’s Day, our office received a copy of Cliff’s death certificate. He had died Jan. 27 at the age of 70 and was cremated Jan. 29, the birth date of Thomas Paine.
Cliff Richards had seized control of his own life and death.
He split his generous legacy between FFRF and the University of South Dakota Foundation, indicating he hoped his bequest to them would benefit Native American women students. We’re so grateful to him for his generosity to freethinking students.
FFRF is proud and very thankful to be able to administer a variety of ongoing or one-time student activist awards created by other FFRF members. These include the annual $5,000 award newly endowed by Richard and Beverly Hermsen and the annual $1,000 Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award by Len and Karen Eisenberg.
Is state pride considered a deadly sin? If so, I’m going to burn for it.
I became very proud of my home state of Vermont recently when I read the Gallup poll results on religiosity across the U.S. The results, published Feb. 3, paint a portrait of the U.S. that will not be surprising to most, but are fun to read nonetheless.
The grand prize for “least religious state” goes to Vermont, which boasts a whopping 56% nonreligious citizenry! Nearly 30% of those polled nationally identify as nonreligious. Gallup classifies Americans as “nonreligious” if they indicate in their poll response that “religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services.”
Respondents are classified as “very religious” if they say “religion is an important part of their daily lives and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week.” “Moderately religious” (a third category) applies to those stating that “religion is important in their lives but that they do not attend services regularly, or that religion is not important but that they still attend services.”
Both coasts fared well in the Gallup poll. East Coast runners-up include New Hampshire (51% nonreligious), Maine (45%), Massachusetts (44%) and Connecticut (41%). On the West Coast, Oregon (43% nonreligious) edged out Washington (41%) and California (37%). Honorable mentions from elsewhere in the U.S. include Nevada (39%), Colorado (39%), Hawaii (36%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Wyoming (39%).
At the other end of the spectrum are the usual suspects. Most religious states include Mississippi (61% very religious), Utah (60%), Alabama (57%), Louisiana (56%) and South Carolina (54%), though notably, 26% of respondents in Utah fall into the nonreligious camp.
How did FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin fare? Our 36-year presence here has undeniably shaped state/church relations and freethought awareness — from our secular “nativity” displays in the statehouse to our recent victory removing bibles from the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s guest rooms. Even so, Wisconsin still only ranks 21st on the list of least religious states. According to Gallup, 38% of Wisconsinites are very religious, 32% are moderately religious and 31% are nonreligious.
Due to growing up in Vermont with parents who did not attempt to indoctrinate me with any religious ideology, it took me a long time to realize how normalized religion is in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college (in Connecticut, eighth least religious) that I experienced life as an atheist in an aggressively religious state.
I spent a few months in Oklahoma (10th most religious, 49% very religious) and quickly realized that when it came to my nonbelief, I had a choice between being silent-but-accepted or being an outspoken outsider. This was not a difficult choice for me, given the temporary nature of my stay, but the reality that some atheists and agnostics face this choice every day helped solidify my desire to become a freethought advocate.
So now I live in Wisconsin, least religious state in the middle quintile of Gallup’s results. While I may look back fondly at my statistically more secular life in Vermont, FFRF has provided me with an amazing opportunity: to advocate on behalf of fellow freethinkers, many of whom face far more daunting barriers to their freedom of conscience than I ever did.
For that opportunity, I would even move to Mississippi.
To see how your state compares to the nation, search for “least religious” at gallup.com.
Sam Grover first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013.
Name: Ken Knighton.
Where I live: Bountiful, Utah.
Where and when I was born: Clovis, N.M., 1952, when my father was in the Air Force.
Family: I’m the oldest of eight children, all still living. No, we’re not a polygamist group.
Education: Public schools through high school and various college courses in real estate and business.
Occupation: My wife Shirley and I own and operate K and J Auto Inc. in Bountiful. We’ve operated it for 28 years.
How I got where I am today: I’ve read many books and Internet articles on topics of religion — Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Russell, Dennett and others. I’ve been a “faithful” listener to FFRF’s broadcasts and other freethinking programs.
Where I’m headed: I will continue my research into early Mormon histories and fact-finding to share and hopefully open some minds.
Person in history I admire: Christopher Hitchens, for his style, persistence and penchant for the truth.
A quotation I like: “All thinking men are atheists.” (Ernest Hemingway)
These are a few of my favorite things: Studying early Mormon history, debunking religious dogma, snowmobiling and quiet Sundays.
These are not: Religious bigotry and dishonest bureaucrats.
My doubts about religion started: By reading and rereading The End of Faith by Sam Harris.
Before I die: A good meal, please.
Ways I promote freethought: I thought becoming the 20,000th member was a cool way to show my support for FFRF’s ongoing work in keeping religion out of our government, schools and public places.
I wish you’d have asked me: When I can co-host the radio show with Dan and Annie Laurie.