Do you recall who was the only positive character on a prime time network TV series who was an atheist? [Answer will be found at the end.]
My point, of course, is that while thousands of characters have been portrayed in prime time over the past 50 years, only one was depicted as a confirmed non-believer!
While the United States has the highest percentage of believers in God of any Western nation--90% who identify themselves as such in most polls--this also means there are at least 30 million non-believers: a number probably closer to 40 million when we factor in those who are so fearful of admitting their non-belief, even to an anonymous poll taker, they feel forced to identify themselves as believing. (In Europe, similar polls show non-belief at about 40%--with a quarter in even the most religious nation, Ireland, counted among our ranks. In other words, the U.S. is up there with official, Third World Muslim theocracies in its percentage of believers!)
Think about this: Forty million non-believers are a group second in numbers only to the Catholic Church, and half-again as large as the Southern Baptists. Yet, we remain all but unrecognized by a media as fearful as are those secret atheists, of giving us the recognition our numbers should merit.
These are the same media which constantly reiterate that religion is never evil. Religion, they tell us, with all pandering sincerity, demands peaceful conduct. Yet, these also are the same media which report on religiously-induced war after religiously-induced war--and never seem to note the contradiction between what they report and what they espouse.
In fact, virtually all of the 100-plus conflicts since World War II--indeed, almost all of the wars throughout history--have had religion at their core. Yet, despite all this evidence to the contrary, our media keep on promulgating the myth of the bible as a pacifist treatise, ignoring in the process the deaths inflicted by its allegedly loving God on all those Egyptian first-borns, and all that righteous smiting of all those non-believers.
In a related vein, why is it that news reports will invariably dwell on those rare instances when a Satanic tract is found in the bedroom of some killer--but never report the bible's presence in what must be the overwhelming majority of the homes lived in by those tens of thousands of Americans who also commit homicide each year? I know I'd have no problem about the media getting so riled up about that rare Satanic pamphlet, if they railed equally about that thousand-fold greater presence of The Good Book! Even more disturbing is the lack of media indignation over the literally hundreds of murderers each year who assert that the Bible or God or Jesus gave them direct instructions to go out and kill.
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The most important thing to bear in mind in an examination of why the media do what they do, is found in the focus group research which has increasingly come to determine the content they carry. And what that research invariably shows is that those who are exposed to messages they disagree with and/or simply don't want to hear, will tune out or stop supporting those media that tell them such things. Of all the areas which might engender such reactions, none will be reacted to more fiercely than expressions of religious non-belief.
Thus our media will ignore non-believers, or subject them to dismissal as irrelevant, evil or just plain weird in those instances where we can't be ignored--such as when we serve as the plaintiffs in suits alleging violation of church/state separation.
There are now in the United States some 1200 radio stations that identify themselves as "Christian." Also, some 100--mainly marginal UHF--TV outlets. The fastest growing commercial radio format today is so-called Christian rock. However, there's not one station, radio or TV, which advances the beliefs--more accurately, the non-beliefs--held by those 40 million of us who, for all practical purposes, are not acknowledged to exist!
But at least when we're talking about self-identified "Christian" stations, or stations which program a Christian music format, listeners and viewers know what they're getting. Yet, there for a while, was Chicago's WBBM, the CBS/Infinity-owned all-news radio station, carrying the daily commentary of the ultra-fundamentalist James Dobson, and billing it simply as "Focus on the Family." While it serves as a platform for his biblically-inspired, rightwing social, sexual and sexist views, the program is presented without any identification of who Dobson really is, so that it comes across as if he were just another lifestyle advisor with no particular axe to grind. I'm not calling for any mainstream station to drop his commentaries. That would be censorship--and all censorship, whether of us by believers, or believers by us, is always wrong. What I am asking, rather, is that he be identified as the fundamentalist theologian he is.
One of the strangest bromides which our news media accept is that debate about religious belief is off-limits. Not its advocacy--just debate! The result is a granting of carte blanche access to those on one side of the issue, while denying any to those on the other. More and more newspapers are adding full-time religious writers. And the stories and weekly columns that they generate seldom acknowledge the faithless, except to denigrate us.
Were it up to us, I suspect, here's the way the most common media scenario advancing religious belief would play out: Let's say a plane crashes. Two-hundred-fifty die, but two survive. When interviewed, those two survivors will almost invariably credit their escapes to God--and will thank Him for their survival. But wouldn't it be a really neat exercise of unbiased journalistic responsibility, if the reporter then asked: Since He has used His Almighty power to save you but didn't do so to save the 250 others, then can I assume you'll also be blaming Him for their deaths?
Yeah. Right. Or, as we would say back in the Brooklyn of my youth, "Fuhgeddaboudid!"
Let's look at one of the most common feature stories which ran in the aftermath of 9/11: the large-scale increase in attendance at houses of worship. I mean, just think of the absurdity. Millions of people rushing into churches and synagogues to show their deepening faith in order to thank an almighty and merciful Lord God--who, almighty as He is, Let It Happen!
However, can anyone recall any news story, any column of commentary, or any interview, where the logical questions screaming to be asked, were ever put to a worshipper or cleric--questions such as, what is it you have faith in, what good do you expect your prayers to have with a God who is all-knowing, or what exactly, given the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, are you thanking Him for?
But, I can recall local newscasts where the anchors reporting about such religious services--as on the National Day of Prayer that George Bush proclaimed--were quite literally ordering their viewers to go to some house of worship! (None, of course, ever pointed out that the proclamation of a government-sanctioned prayer day might be deemed as coercive by those 40 million of us they refuse to recognize even exist!)
In my nearly 20 years in Milwaukee, I can recall only one instance in which a mainstream medium argued the absurdity of such religious illogic.
That occurred eight years ago, when a truck crashed into a van driven by a fundamentalist minister killing six of his children. In various interviews following the accident, the minister proclaimed that their deaths only increased his belief.
The irrationality of this profession of faith was actually questioned in the old morning newspaper, the Milwaukee Sentinel. Crocker Stephenson, now a regular columnist for the merged Journal Sentinel, but back then a reporter who was filling in for a regular columnist, wrote about how he handled it when his son asked him how anyone could thank God after seeing his family wiped out. Stephenson couldn't see it either--and that was the tone of the column. Keith Spore, now the publisher of the merged paper, but then the editor of the Sentinel, was out of town when the Stephenson column appeared. When he finally read it a few days later, he reamed out the paper's managing editor for having permitted it to run.
Don't think there isn't a lesson here that everyone writing or editing at the Journal Sentinel will remain forever aware of!
But then, how often have we heard federal office holders--the President, cabinet members, senators and members of Congress--ask (make that "insist!") that we pray while throwing in a command to the Almighty to bless America? Yet, have you ever heard or read any print or broadcast journalist reporting these pandering calls for piety, point out that the Constitution explicitly requires that no person occupying a federal office be required to pass a religious test?
Despite this, however, there recently was George W., sounding more like a bishop than the chief executive of a nation whose constitution forbids imposition of religious tests, insisting that while "government can write checks, it can't put a sense of purpose in people's lives. That is done by people who have heard a call and who act on faith. We ought to welcome it into governmental programs." Steam may have been coming out of our ears--but not a peep of protest was there from the press!
Then there was the abominable coverage in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco Federal Court of Appeals decision declaring unconstitutional requirements that the Pledge of Allegiance, with its insistence that we are a "nation under God," be recited in our public schools. With a very few notable exceptions on the print side--e.g., Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn--and in everything I saw on TV, the focus was on the outrage of those who opposed it.
I mean, can any of us forget the endless repetitions of that assemblage of Republican House members amassing on the steps of the Capitol to shout out the Pledge? And let's not forget the threat by the Orthodox Jewish Senator, Joseph Lieberman, that if the Supreme Court does not overturn this decision--as you've got to be na•ve not to believe it almost certainly will--he would introduce an amendment to the Constitution asserting it is our belief in God that unites us as a nation. If he did, does anyone doubt it would sail through both houses of Congress and virtually every state legislature? Did it occur to no one reporting or commenting on this to note that that declaration of unity would exclude 40 million of us?
Within one hour of the time the Pledge decision came down, the Senate stopped all business to vote on a resolution demanding it be overturned. It passed 99 to nothing--with even such good guys as the late Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voting for it. Over in the House, only three out of 435 members voted against condemning the decision. Here in Milwaukee, listeners could hear one of our highest-rated FM stations pimping for God with its request that listeners e-mail in a "Pledge for the pledge!"
Let me quote from the opening of one of my media commentary columns which I write for Milwaukee's alternative weekly, the Shepherd Express, shortly after the Pledge decision. It concerned the way Jay Leno dealt with it in his monologues:
"Jay Leno has got to be one BFI--the 'I stands for 'Idiot'--with his endless jokes about the Court of Appeals decision declaring public school recitation of a phrase within the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. Forget his basic ignorance of the facts--it was a federal, not a California Court; it was a 2:1 decision, not one made by a single judge; it did not ban school recitation of the pledge, but only the words, 'under God.' His references to the judge as a 'moron,' elicited shrieks of audience approval similar to those he gets when he jokes about the sufferings of those facing execution.
"Jay: Polls show at least 30 million Americans are non-believers--probably 40 million what with those afraid to admit non-belief even to an anonymous poll taker for fear of ridicule from people like you. Should students who find belief in God irrational, be forced to recite an oath that talks about liberty, and then denies them their liberty to deny their belief? If atheists were the majority, would it be right to force believing kids to take a pledge denying the existence of the Almighty? Isn't that what we hated them Godless Commies for?
"Teaching acceptance of God, Jay, is the job of believing parents, churches, mosques, synagogues and religious schools. It's not the job of public schools supported by taxes paid by believers and non-believers. That's all those 'moron' judges were saying. Not to mention that other 'moron,' Thomas Jefferson."
Incidentally, if we look at what polling data show, we're not just fighting against the respectable superstition we call religion, because we're fighting against folks who believe that belief in the deity is such an axiomatic truism, that when asked by pollsters if the phrase, "One nation under God" is a religious endorsement, 80% say it isn't. But, if a statement acknowledging the existence of God is not an expression of religion, then what do those folks think religion is?
The answer is that for the overwhelming majority of Americans, it means being Catholic, or Jewish, or Baptist. But since nobody could possibly doubt the existence of God, acknowledging His existence is not religious. Thus, the situation so many of us non-believers have experienced when admitting our atheistic views: "But," the response will invariably be, "you have to believe in something." Thus, it's not just that those folks disagree with us, they deny us even the possibility that we could not believe in God.
Let's look briefly at how three recent stories--each involving religion--are playing out: the debate on stem cell research; the fight over taxpayer support of religious schools; and the imposition in defiance of federal court orders in at least a few Bible Belt states, of requirements that the Ten Commandments be posted in public schools, courtrooms and in other public buildings.
Has anyone in our media, in writing or reporting on the stem cell controversy, dared to label the argument that a clump of undifferentiated cells is a human being, for the absurdity which it is?
Why is it that whenever the religious school voucher issue came up, the image we invariably saw is one of a bunch of cute little, poor black kids, with their parents demanding to know why anyone would want to deprive their children of fine religious schooling? What I saw in Milwaukee on the local evening newscasts the day the Supreme Court decision accepting the constitutionality of using tax-paid vouchers came down, was exactly that. Can you think of a more effective image to drive away guilt-ridden white liberals, many of whom would otherwise be up in arms about such a violation of church/state separation?
And whether we're talking newspapers, local or national TV reports, or late night comics, when it comes to the Ten Commandments, the overwhelming take is to wonder how anyone could ever object to public display of something as noncontroversial as what's called for in those 10 rules--with virtually no one noting that four of them require belief, or condemn non-belief, in God.
The media have, at best, been trepidatious about the role which religious believers have played in reinforcing our pro-Israeli stand in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I'm not talking about the support of most Jews, who in their religious beliefs run the gamut from secular to Ultra-Orthodox--but, rather, Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians. Some 60 million Americans hold apocalyptic beliefs. But, according to Scripture, before Jesus can make his second visit, the Jews must first return to the whole of the Biblical Israel--meaning they must seize all Palestinian lands. In other words, we must support Israel, according to those who, ironically, have traditionally held the most strongly anti-Semitic views, in order that the world can be destroyed. Whatever the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby, its influence is multiplied when its positions are backed without question by those who dominate Bible Belt politics. But the coverage and analysis of this phenomenon by a mainstream media afraid to offend 60 million Born Again readers, viewers and listeners have been, at most, tentative and obscure.
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There's little I've written to this point, I suspect, that any reader will disagree with. But, at the risk of upsetting more than a few, let me give my answer to the question about what can be done to change how our media treat religious matters. And that answer is, virtually nothing! (We did have a brief chance about 300 years ago during the Age of Enlightenment--but we blew it.)
Science may be advancing. But as every survey shows, our ignorance of its most basic aspects is increasing. We're talking, after all, of an America where not only do at least 85% accept belief in God, but over half deny evolution, two-thirds believe in literal angels--Time magazine actually ran a cover story seriously exploring whether they exist--and where we split about 50/50 on astrology and alien visitations. That's why most newspapers run astrology columns--and even PBS once lent credence to the anti-evolutionists with a documentary purporting to present the scientific case for creationism!
We're also talking about an America where, despite those Constitutional barriers to imposition of religious tests, any candidate admitting non-belief is dead in the political water. But then, remember that 99-0 Senate vote! After all, any senators who saw the logic of what the Court of Appeals ruled, could also foresee what their opponents' campaign spots would say when they come up for re-election, if they'd voted "No."
And that's the kind of thing that convinces me nothing can be done to change the media's carte blanche acceptance of religion as valid.
Where, I've got to wonder, are those stories following the voucher decision, about the precedents it sets for a whole range of state-supported religious activities? There, after all, was George W. in a speech the next week, proudly proclaiming that the door has now sprung wide for what will become a host of state-sponsored and financed, faith-based initiatives.
Where are the stories pointing up, for example, how those caught up in the criminal justice system might well find themselves facing a choice of prison time or placement in programs where they can retain their liberty only by professing belief in religious doctrine? This, proponents of such programs will insist, does not forcibly impose religious belief since, as a felon, you have the choice of enrolling or of going to jail. That, after all, was the tortured logic at the core of the Supreme Court's majority opinion in the voucher case! Therefore, as bad as things are, with George Bush at the head of the religious tub-thumpers, things will get a lot worse!
O.K.--if only to save our sanity, let me suggest how we can, maybe, register a small impression upon our media. E-mail, mail or call them when you encounter something you find unbalanced. But a couple of caveats, please!
First, if it's the same handful of folks responding over and over again, they'll quickly be dismissed as those "atheist nutcases." Try to marshall a large number of responders and keep them varied.
Second, keep the responses relatively brief. Impassioned non-believers have a penchant for engaging in tedious epistemological treatises. Logic--if not God--may be on our side. But what you have to say ain't gonna get read or listened to, if it goes on interminably.
In any such communication you should concede that, yes, you are aware that only a small number will register protests. But then stress to the gatekeepers--that is, the editors or news directors--with whom you're communicating, that they shouldn't be dismissive of our numbers. Point out that there are, after all, 40 million of us who reject religious belief--two-thirds as many as there are Catholics--and that we're deeply concerned over the lack of representation given our views. Point out also, that it doesn't serve the newspaper's or the radio or television station's interest to ignore such numbers, since non-believers buy cars, soap and hemorrhoid remedies, too.
On a positive note, I have to concede that it was a pleasant surprise when, in response to his diatribe condemning the judges who wrote the Pledge decision, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass--Mike Royko's successor--found himself quoting from what he seemed clearly surprised were the protest letters he did receive in response to that column.
Having said this, however, I must say again that I'm sadly convinced that the major benefit of any protests we register will be to provide us the opportunity to vent some of our frustration. It won't change anything!
Them other folks, after all, have us coming and going.
Indeed, we don't even get the last laugh. That's because were they right, that would mean that when we die, they'd lord it--no pun intended--all over us. Whereas, if we're right--as we certainly are--we'll never have the chance to say, "See, I told you so!"
Answer to the question at the opening: Ruth Ann, the elderly shopkeeper on the CBS series, "Northern Exposure." The late Peg Phillips, the actress who portrayed her, was, in real life, an atheist.
By Danilee Eichhorn
At my school, I have encountered many shining examples of faith, people whose pride, trust, and belief in their country and their God remain completely unhampered by their stunning ignorance in regard to both. This year, I decided to stop standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance. The words exchanged and events that followed clearly demonstrated the sad--and I wish I could say shocking--fear of dissent which has been so ingrained in the youth of America.
Ironically, while my remaining seated did not in any way disrupt the pledge, a few people in my homeroom did by yelling at me to stand up. After waiting respectfully for the pledge to end, I explained that I did not feel it would be appropriate for me to stand since I disagreed with the words of the pledge. I did not believe in God, nor do I believe that the pledge's sparkling characterization of America fits the reality. Futhermore, as an internationalist, I do not feel right in pledging allegiance to any flag. Geography does not inspire any loyalty in me.
. . . In times like these, it is imperative that church and state be and remain separate. Schooling in America is compulsory and publicly provided by the government. Therefore, to force any belief, religious or otherwise, upon children through any ceremonies, events, or education itself in public schools is a grievous violation of the most important personal liberty we have. Something is profoundly wrong when one finds oneself accused of assaulting liberty by refusing to relinquish it.
Danilee Eichhorn is a graduate of West Chester East High School, Penn., and is attending Oberlin College, double-majoring in English and political science. She plans to attend graduate school after college, earn a doctorate in political science, and pursue a career in teaching at the college level. Her interests include history, German literature, Russia, politics, and in particular, the historical impact that German literature has had on Russian politics.
"One Nation under One God?"
By Kathryn Poulios
I have seen religious discrimination in my own school district. A little over a year ago, fliers were posted in the hallways advertising a meeting of the Fellowship of the Christian Students. To my understanding, institutions like these are permitted to exist as extracurricular activities in the school as long as they are student-initiated and run (which it was) and the school provides equal opportunity for any religious organization to create a similar club.
Knowing this, one of my fellow classmates approached the principal in the hallway. He asked if he would be allowed to form a society for pagan students, which would also meet after school. The principal, without giving a second thought, refused the student's proposition. She told him he was being disrespectful and offensive. To me, her behavior was more offensive. I was surprised to see such hypocrisy in my own school. By her response, I saw the reinforcement of her own personal beliefs. The message being sent was clearly that anything going against the religious beliefs of the administration is intolerable. This kind of message is exactly what should be kept out of our public schools.
Kathryn Poulios graduated from Antietam Middle-Senior High, Reading, Penn. She attends Antioch College and plans to major in mathematics, but also has interests in literature, human rights issues, music, and drawing. She was involved in choir, the academic challenge team, and Modern Language Club, and also participated in the track and field team. In her spare time, she enjoys reading classic literature, science fiction, and math theory. She also likes to volunteer with community organizations and support the local underground music scene. She ranked eighth out of eighty-three in her class with a 3.95 GPA and an SAT schore of 1380. "I hope to someday research the mathematical and scientific advancements made in ancient civilizations and eventually teach at a university."
"Pledging Allegiance to the Constitution"
By Sean Carroll
I grit my teeth when I hear the words "Please stand for the Pledge" over the school intercom. As my classmates rise and place their hands on their hearts, I stare down at my desk. Twenty students speak the words that years of repetition have engraved into their minds. I continue staring at the desk, hoping no one will notice I am not standing. "And to the republic for which it stands!" enunciates my teacher, extra loud. This is what I had been dreading. "That means stand up! Especially you, Mr. Eagle Scout!" Although embarrassed by this reference, I remain planted in my seat, wishing the words would go by faster. After my classmates finish and sit down, my teacher says, "When I ask you to stand up, I expect you to stand." Gathering my courage, I announce, "I don't think students should have to stand for the pledge because it is a prayer."
. . . As a Unitarian Universalist with atheist beliefs, I became acutely aware that the words "One Nation Under God" conflicted with my religious beliefs. My discomfort spurred me to investigate the problem, and I learned that the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court rulings prohibit the reading of religious prayers in public schools. . . .
Peers thought I was unpatriotic and lazy, teachers convicted me of resisting their authority, and my parents warned me that my reputation would suffer from my actions. Having experienced the agony that school-sponsored prayer can cause for a student, I can testify that when religion is instituted in public schools, it has negative effects on students and education in general.
Sean Carroll graduated in the Class of 2002 from Coventry High School, Conn. He was most active in band, art, and creative writing, serving as the Art Editor for his high school's yearbook. "Creating works of art is my greatest interest." He also participated in Cross Country and Track and Field for four years.
He has been a longtime member of the Boy Scouts of America, and earned the Eagle Scout award. "My experience in Scouting has caused me to love outdoor activities such as backpacking, canoeing, and camping. I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist organization, which is the source of my open-minded views." He is attending Massachussetts College of Art and majoring in Communication Design, as well as taking courses in film-making.
"Separation of Church and State Confirmed"
By Kristen Hope Butler
Two years ago, my school system dismissed an English teacher based on her religion, Wicca. She didn't proselytize or force her beliefs on students. This lady had lived and worked in the community for years; teaching was her vocation, her love. In one instant, though, her friends, co-workers, and students turned their backs on her. She was treated with hostility, alienated, harassed. She could have sued, but as she elucidated to me, she just didn't have the heart for it anymore. Because of her religion, she had lost her place in this community forever.
. . . I received threatening notes, found my belongings defaced, and was called hateful names. Teachers did not stand up for me, as they had not stood up for the teacher who was persecuted. . . . All the while, I fought legislation to place the Ten Commandments and organized prayer in our schools, created a club for religious diversity and tolerance, and tried to explain to fundamentalists what their rights already were and why it was insulting to be told to pray to a different deity than you believed in.
Kristen Hope Butler, who graduated from Scotland High School, Laurinburg, NC, is an activist and young author. She petitioned against unconstitutional postings of the Ten Commandments in public schools. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gardening, debate, community involvement, and meditation. She is attending Appalachian State University.
"Tilting at Windmills"
By Sierra Smith
What is wrong with a moment of silence? Why not include the bible as required reading? What's so improper about taking a moment to acknowledge God at the beginning of a school day or in a graduation ceremony? The balance between the church and the state is not an ethical question. It is improper to view the issue as such. The First Amendment is a legal haven of protection. If the government makes concessions to Christians, it will also need to make concessions to other faiths. The constituency of America is forever changing. My community has the highest Arab population in the United States. Should I need to study the Koran in school as well as the bible? Should the school calendar be set up around Islamic festivals? What of lesser-known faiths like the Universalist Church, Buddhism, Hinduism or even Satanism? If the government opens the door for one faith, it must open the door to all faiths. Is this really what most Americans want their children exposed to? I think not.
The religious right also fails to see the volatile environment it is advocating. Many religions teach that other faiths are wrong. They advocate proselytizing and even violence in some instances. Many of the conflicts worldwide find their roots in religious differences (the conflict in Israel, for example). The safest place for religious expression for all concerned is outside the public school.
Sierra Smith attended Northview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, where she was an Honor Society member at Northview High. She also excelled in distance running. She represented Northview's varsity cross-country and track and field team for the past three years and will captain the women's team this year. She is attending the University of Toledo where she will be pursuing a major in sports medicine.
Last week, the Bill Moyers public television agency flew me to New York to join a circle of theologians and scholars discussing a baffling question:
Why is religion--which universally teaches love, forgiveness and brotherhood--entwined in so much murder and hate around the world?
As cameras rolled, our eight-member group debated for two hours, but found few answers. At the end, we had no solutions. The contradiction can't even be explained, let alone corrected.
My role, as a news editor, was to outline the enormity of the problem, which unfolds day after day in international news reports. My outline went like this:
Since the Cold War ended, most of the horrors around the planet have involved religion, in one way or another. America's 9/11 al-Qaida tragedy was a grotesque and spectacular example, but there are many others:
Muslims and Christians kill each other daily in Sudan.
Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese kill each other in Sri Lanka.
Catholics and Protestants still kill each other occasionally in Ulster.
The tragic civil war that shattered Yugoslavia in the 1990s was between Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars.
Previously, the tragic civil war that shattered Lebanon in the 1980s was between militias of Maronite Christians, Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Alawite Muslims, Druses, etc.
India is cursed by recurring bloodshed among Hindus, Muslims and occasionally Sikhs. Three of India's Gandhis--Mohandas, Indira and Rajiv--were killed by zealots.
Muslim fanatics have killed about 100,000 people in Algeria since the early 1990s. True Believers shot high school girls in the face for not wearing veils.
Muslim fanatics killed defenseless tourists in Egypt, plus Coptic Christians. They assassinated President Anwar Sadat.
Muslims and Christians kill each other sporadically in Nigeria--and Indonesia--and Azerbaijan--and the Philippines, etc.
In Cyprus, U.N. peacekeeping troops have been holding Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks apart for three decades, lest they slaughter each other.
The Ayatollah Khomeini created the world's cruelest dictatorship in Iran--then the Taliban created an even crueler one in Afghanistan. The theocracies were stunningly evil.
Fundamentalist extremists occasionally kill doctors and nurses at American abortion clinics.
Cults add to the horror. The Waco cult massacre was somewhat a replay of the Jonestown cult massacre. Supreme Truth cultists planted nerve gas in Tokyo's subway to kill commuters. Baghwan Rajneesh cultists planted salmonella germs in salad bars at Oregon restaurants.
In all these nightmares, it's extremely difficult to determine whether religion is a major cause, or merely a fringe factor. Most religio-ethnic conflicts also involve politics, language, economics, power-grabbing, demagoguery and other elements. For example, Israel's ghastly conflict is chiefly between Jews and Muslims, yet it's basically a struggle for land. (But recruitment of suicide bombers is easier with the promise that "martyrs" enjoy heaven with lovely houri nymphs.) Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fanatic Jew.
"Religious tribalism" is a phrase sometimes applied to the Catholic-Protestant strife in Ulster. Many of the hate-filled adversaries never attend church--yet their family religious labels pit them against each other. From childhood, each Ulsterite knows who's "the enemy"--it's the people in the opposing religious neighborhoods. Religion separates them into hostile "tribes."
Actually, religious killing and persecution are as old as history. A pattern can be traced through the era of human sacrifice: the Crusades, the Inquisition, jihads, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, pogroms, etc.
Did you know that Catholic-Protestant strife caused a deadly cannon battle in Philadelphia in 1844? Or that Shi'ite Muslims have massacred thousands of Baha'is in Iran since the offshoot religion began? Or that the world's worst religious war, the Taiping Rebellion, killed an estimated 20 million Chinese in the 1850s?
Don't forget the West Virginia textbook war in 1974. Fundamentalists decided that new Kanawha County schoolbooks were "godless." They held stormy protests, staged a school boycott and turned violent. Schools were dynamited. Two people were shot. School buses had bullet holes. A preacher and his followers went to federal prison. Court testimony said they discussed wiring dynamite caps into the gas tanks of cars in which families drove their children to school, defying the boycott. Thank heaven, the militants didn't actually burn kids to death to prove how morally superior they were.
When 200 young nightclubbers were killed in Bali this month, it was assumed that the bombs were planted by alcohol-hating, sex-hating, fun-hating, Islamic extremists.
When Chechnyan militants seized a Moscow theater last week, they carried Korans and vowed to become "martyrs" while killing "infidels."
I won't be surprised if the Washington-area sniper proclaims that he did it for God.
The Bill Moyers discussion is expected to air later this year. But it won't settle anything. All the participants--Moyers, a Muslim scholar, a Princeton philosopher, three Christian theologians, an international writer and I--were at a loss to decipher the riddle.
If anyone knows why religion, which espouses kindness, is stained with so much gore, I wish you'd explain it to me.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced the topics for its 2003 annual essay competitions, one for currently enrolled college students, the other for graduating high school seniors who are college-bound in the fall.
The 24th annual student competition asks college students to write on "Growing Up a Freethinker" or "Rejecting Religion" in a 5-6 page essay (typed, double-spaced with standard margins and an original title). Personal essays describing experiences rejecting religion in a religious society are welcome, as are philosophical approaches to this theme.
The Phyllis Stevenson Grams Memorial Award of $1,000 will go to the first-place college essay winner. Second place is $500 and third place is $250. Honorable mentions of $100 are awarded at judges' discretion.
Phyllis Stevenson Grams, who died in 1996, was an early activist member of the Foundation. A retired high school teacher, she was the fearless plaintiff in a state/church lawsuit in her conservative town.
Entrants in the college competition are required to include a paragraph biography that identifies the college they attend, their year in school as well as their major and interests.
College essay submissions should be postmarked no later than July 1, 2003, and should be mailed (no emails or faxes accepted) to: College Essay Contest, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. College students should provide their campus and permanent addresses, phone numbers and emails.
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The theme of the 2003 high school essay contest, open to graduating seniors who are college-bound in the fall, is "Why 'Under God' Does Not Belong in the Pledge of Allegiance." Students are asked to write a 2-3 page essay on this theme (typed, double-spaced with standard margins and their own title).
Students may write about personal experiences with Pledge of Allegiance recitations in their schools, and/or generally address the problems occurring since the secular pledge was amended to include "under God" in 1954.
First prize, the Blanche Fearn Memorial Award, is $1,000. Second prize is $500 and third prize is $250. Honorable mentions of $100 are awarded at judges' discretion.
Blanche Fearn, a longtime member and benefactor of the Foundation, died in 1995. Although she never had the opportunity to attend college, she held a lifelong interest in learning. As an elementary school student in the early 1900s she bravely objected to prayers at her public school. She maintained a keen interest in the separation of church and state throughout her life.
High school essay submissions should be postmarked no later than June 1, 2003, and should be mailed (no emails or faxes accepted) to: High School Essay Contest, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. High school seniors should include a biography that identifies the high school they are graduating from, and the college or university they will attend in the fall, interests and intended majors. High school grads should provide their campus and permanent addresses, phone numbers and emails for fall 2003 if available.
"Lilith," pictured with her maker Norman B. LeClair, now graces the office library of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
"Lilith, as you know, was Adam's first wife," Norm notes. "But she was strong and independent with a mind of her own. Legend tells us that 'she refused to lie under him and obey his commands.' So Adam complained to God who in turn made him a new and more compliant female named Eve.
"To punish Lilith for her willfulness, God turned her into the first female devil, and the mother of all illegitimate children. She was condemned to spend her nights hovering above the bedchamber waiting for the male to spill his seed from which she created demons and all the illegitimate children of the world. As the Church Lady would probably say, 'Now isn't that special?' "
Lilith was carved from a 3-foot high laminated piece of red oak. Norm adds: "This piece is a good example of why abstract sculpturing is so much fun. You can really push the envelope. Lilith has no hands, no feet, no face and only one breast, but because the lines are smooth and free-flowing, the female form is easily discernible. I gave her a sassy ponytail but it can only be seen if viewed from the side."
A Foundation Life Member from Florida, Norm is retired from the military. As an artist he has created many "thinking pieces" of art, too. One such sculpture which he also recently donated to the Foundation has the Pogo-derived title: "We have met the enemy and he is us." (See June/June 1998 article.) It depicts a human skull staring at three reflections: a skull respectively overlaid with a Star of David, a cross and crescent and star.
Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Hassanain Rajabali of the Tawheed Institute debated the existence of "God" at the Islamic Center in Queens, New York, on Sunday, January 5. The overflow crowd of 400+ attendees included 20-30 freethinkers, mostly Foundation members, some pictured at right (in front of the star with "Allah" in Arabic). The debate was hosted entirely by the Tawheed ("unity") Institute.
Originally the topic, "Does God Exist?", was changed by the Islamic organizers to "Does God Not Exist?" due to "sensitivity issues," they said. This had the effect of giving Dan the affirmative, and the first opening statement. The debate dealt with the "god of the gaps," appearance of design, falsifiability, "necessary existence," incompatible properties in the traditional "God," the problem of evil, and morality, followed by a lively period of astute questions from the audience.
Hassanain and the Muslim organizers were gracious, generous, and very capable, Dan says. They had announced that in light of recent events, especially the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they wanted to show the world that they are not irrational, violent people with devil horns. To judge whether Dan or Hassanain had the shorter horns, the event can be viewed online at http://www.madressa.org.
A transcription is available at: http://www.madressa.org/debate_transcript.htm
To obtain a video or DVD of the Barker-Rajabali debate, send $20.00 (ppd.) to "Tawheed Institute," Attn: Murtaza Rajabali, Crosswest Office Center, 399 Knollwood Road, Suite 217, White Plains, NY 10603.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's gilt "Winter Solstice" sign, traditionally placed during the month of December at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, lasted only one week before being defaced on Dec. 15.
It apparently was sprayed with some type of corrosive substance.
Anne Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for defacing the freethought message. No one has come forward with information to date.
The sign, which was marred but legible, remained at the Capitol through Dec. 31. It reads:
"At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail.
"There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
"There is only our natural world.
"Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The back of the sign reads: "State/Church: Keep Them Separate," and carries a little taped-on caveat, advising believers "Thou shalt not steal."
The Foundation had asked the Capitol police for special attention in protecting the sign, for which the Foundation has a permit. Last year, the inserts were stolen and never recovered. The Capitol police have surveillance at all exits.
"It seems to be a reflection of a change for the worse in our society--increased intolerance and right-wing aggression," commented Gaylor. "Our small token Winter Solstice sign was not tampered with for the first five years we erected it, then was stolen in 2001, and mutilated this past season.
"There was a week-long 'interfaith' display dominating the rotunda, there was the annual nativity pageant with angels everywhere taking over the Capitol for most of one weekend, daily Christmas hymn-singing, and the government-sponsored 'tree lighting ceremony' with Christian overtones," she pointed out.
"A menorah with godly text by it is placed every year. A right-wing group puts a cheap-looking poster up at the Capitol, that has never been vandalized, calling all atheists fools and promoting 'our Lord Jesus Christ.'
"There ought to be room at the State Capitol for the views of atheists and agnostics, too.
"Although we do not believe religion or irreligion should be represented at the seat of state government, as long as religion is promoted there in December, our sign will be there, too," Gaylor added.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting "faith-based pork," and the public funding of "faith-based boondoggles" through the White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
At the most recent conference held in Denver on January 13, free lunches were provided for the religious participants interested in applying for funding, who numbered about 1,000.
In a revealing slip of the tongue reported by the Denver Post, Jim Towey, director of the White House Office, praised Pres. Bush at the event for creating a "level praying field" (he later said he meant "level playing field").
Attorney General John Ashcroft suspended all duties in order to attend the gathering and deliver a pep talk for religion at the public-sponsored event. To a chorus of "amens," Ashcroft told the religious participants:
"Out of fear, ignorance and occasional bigotry, faith-based groups have been prohibited from competing for federal funding on a level playing field with secular groups."
When asked how freedom of conscience would be protected at federally-funded religious programs, Ashcroft responded: "Any citizen who's offended . . . can leave the service."
The Foundation has asked the office of faith-based funding for full disclosure of its budget, and the cost of White House faith-based conferences. The Foundation also asked the office to cancel any future faith-based conferences.
"Not only are your office's schemes largely untested, but they are for the most part being carried out without the approval or oversight of the U.S. Congress," the Foundation wrote Towey.
The Foundation has won the only explicit challenge of direct faith-based funding to be fully adjudicated, challenging federal funding of Faith Works in Milwaukee. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. McCallum & Faith Works, 00-C-617-C, Jan. 7, 2002.
The federal judge held up Faith Works as the type of public-funded indoctrination it is illegal to fund, although as a candidate Pres. Bush singled out Faith Works as a prototype of faith-based funding.
Bush sidestepped Congress, where his "faith-based initiatives" has been stalled, by issuing a Dec. 12 executive order, "Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-based and Community Organizations," mandating:
"No organization should be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of Federal financial assistance under social service programs."
Religious groups would be allowed to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of religion.
After he issued the order, Bush told a rally made up of clergy: "God loves you and I love you and you can count on us both!"
The order also would apparently allow institutions receiving Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Critics such as U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., responded: "All Americans should find abhorrent a government policy that allows for a religious or racial litmus test when hiring with taxpayer money a person to serve soup. Cooking soup and giving it to the poor can be done equally well by persons of all religious beliefs."
The order encompasses the broad range of social service programs--child care, foster care, services to people with disabilities, transportation services, job training, information, referral and counseling services, meal preparation, health support services, literacy and mentoring, services relating to juvenile delinquency and crime prevention--including services relating to domestic violence, and housing assistance.
It applies to the office of the Attorney General, and Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development.
In the usual paradoxical language of "faith-based initiatives," the order forbids the government from meddling with the character of proselytizing groups, while saying proselytizers must respect the dictates of the Establishment Clause.
The order states: Groups "that engage in inherently religious activities . . . must offer those services separately in time or location" and that participation must be "voluntary."
It then mandates that "faith-based organizations" shall be eligible for full social service funding "without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character," and may "carry out its mission, including the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs, provided that it does not use direct Federal financial assistance to support any inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization."
No religious groups need to remove or alter "religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols." Each may "retain religious terms in its organization's name, select its board members on a religious basis, and include religious references in its organization's mission statements and other chartering or governing documents."
Commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president: "This executive order amounts to an endorsement of public-funded religious indoctrination."
The latest federal grants meted out under Bush's "faith-based initiative" scheme involved $2.2 million to "promote marriage" given in early January to 12 states and a variety of groups, including religious organizations, by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Another disturbing development was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's public statement on January 12 that the courts have gone overboard in keeping "God" out of government.
Speaking at a Knights of Columbus parade in Fredericksburg, Va., where his son Paul is a priest, the Catholic judge criticized the 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit for ruling unconstitutional the addition of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Scalia said such changes should be wrought legislatively, not by a court. He averred that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for God to be stripped from public life:
"That is contrary to our whole tradition," he said, citing "In God We Trust" on currency, presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, Congressional chaplains and tax exemption for churches.
Scalia sang "God Bless America" with the crowd of several hundred people.
I for one am glad that the Pledge of Allegiance has been thrown into the ash heap by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If I wanted to join a secret society replete with oaths, clubby handshakes and ceremony, I'd seek out the Shriners, Elks or some other club. I am an American. That means I cherish the ability to chart my own course.
Truth be told, we are not "one nation under God," even though there is a strong subculture that wishes it were so. I recall once being scorned by then judge William Sullivan, now Chief Justice Sullivan of the Connecticut Supreme Court. In an off-the-record sigh provoked by the obduracy of an adversary, I muttered "Jesus Christ." The judge glared. "Don't take the name of the Lord in vain in my court," he hissed with the charm of Torquemada. I reminded the judge then, as I do now, that he is not my lord, but merely an itinerant Jewish preacher of historic interest.
I have long been offended by the Pledge of Allegiance for the simple fact that I do not know what it means. I went to school to learn, and came home with my head spinning. Where is God? What does it mean to be under Him, or Her, or Whatever the case may be? And why should the state require us to recite this quasi-prayer before beginning a day devoted, we hope, to learning of what the world consists?
No sooner had the 9th Circuit ruled than the Senate leaped into action, expressing by a vote of 99-0 its disagreement with the ruling. And religious zealots from Jerry Falwell on down the descending scale of rationality are promising bedlam until the ruling is reversed.
Millions of Americans are homeless. The Senate's response? Nothing.
Corporations and accountants rape investors. The Senate's response? Nothing.
Our air is unclean, our waters clogged with pollutants. The Senate's response? Not much.
We are hated in much of the world for faults we care not to examine. The Senate's response? Nothing.
But attack a trope, and, well, the heavens disgorge themselves with cheap sentiment. Why?
Because it is easy. Talking about God has the mysterious quality of sounding like sound and fury. In fact, such speech often signifies nothing. I have never once read a book, heard a debate or faced a decision in which the figure of God played any decisive role. Fanatics kill in God's name; others defend in God's name. God, in the meantime, keeps His preferences hidden from view.
Of course, Congress will pass a law reaffirming that God belongs in the pledge. And of course, Justice Antonin Scalia will write a scathing opinion, most likely in the majority this time, about the centrality of God in our lives. And of course, millions of Americans will be relieved when this little three-letter word is once again given pride of place in our schools.
And the politics of selecting federal judges will get even goofier. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mo., has already announced that the 9th Circuit decision "highlights what the fight over federal judges is all about." Really, Senator. I guess anything sells in the Bible Belt; go ahead and pray while Rome burns. It beats fiddling.
How different are we than the mullahs whom we now seek to bomb? "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," they say. And we are one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. Liberty and justice that is, for all those content to swim in the mainstream. I find it offensive to be required, or to have my children be required, to pay homage to invisible gods, phantoms and deities.
The "In God We Trust" poster at the Capitol Station Post Office, Madison, Wis., gets a "thumbs down" from Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Learning over the Internet that "In God We Trust" posters were ordered up in every post office in the nation in late November, I sought to confirm this rumor with the United States Postal Service. I phoned its (dreaded) national switchboard and listened to umpteen menu options before making my request to a live person.
I was on hold for at least ten minutes before the voice returned and confirmed that there was indeed an undated "internal memo" ordering the posting of "In God We Trust" in every post office lobby.
The postal employee reluctantly read me the memo, which cited a House of Representative voice vote reaffirming the national motto, and another resolution reaffirming the religious Pledge of Allegiance and religious national motto that was signed into law by Bush in November.
When I asked if the postal employee could fax me this memo, as I needed verification before reporting it, I was put on hold for another ten minutes. A woman finally came on the line to turn down this request. When I naturally enough suggested she put it in the mail, she told me (I am not making this up): "The United States Postal Service does not have the capacity to mail you anything."
She did, however, provide me with the name and local number of the PR woman at the Madison Post Office, a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat. Ever-helpful Pam assured me that it would be a "long wait" before I would see that memo.
Two days later, when I phoned back again explaining I was on deadline, she told me she had not attended to my request because I had not put it in writing. (She had not told me to.) She gleefully informed me she would then have seven business days to acknowledge my written request (which I duly faxed immediately).
Our representative's office sympathetically promised to try to get the memo for me in a hurry, but apparently ran into the same bureaucratic stumbling block. There is still no paper memo, and it has been a week as I write this.
Meanwhile, Lynn, my assistant editor, accompanied me on an exciting foray to our local post office, to look for the "In God We Trust" poster. We found a blow-up of an antique stamp of the Statue of Liberty, in which, fortunately, the word LIBERTY is more prominent than the religious motto. The postal decree nevertheless sets atrocious legal precedent.
As we snapped a few photos for Freethought Today, a postal employee informed us it was "illegal" to take a photograph in a post office! We took three photos anyway, sure she was "going postal," and that we really weren't playing out a scene from "1984." This charming postal employee then threatened to confiscate Lynn's digital camera. As I was leaving, she kindly advised me:
"Where your rights stop, another person's rights start."
When I told the representative about this unbelievable comment, he wryly said he hadn't realized Americans possessed "rights that stopped." (I was glad to hear it.) He obligingly looked up the federal regulations--media are specifically permitted to take photographs in public areas of post offices, I was happy to learn.
S. 2690 passed the U.S. Senate 99-0 on June 27, only one day after Michael Newdow's 9th Circuit victory against "under God" in the Pledge was released. On Oct. 8, it passed the U.S. House 401--5 (opposed only by the indomitable Barney Frank, Robert Scott, Michael Honda, Jim McDermott, and Pete Stark). Good ole George II signed it on Nov. 13, making it Public Law No. 107-293.