Imagine my surprise when I saw the following inscription on a walkway outside the brand new public library: "Christ Died For Our Sins. He Rose Again. 1 Cor 15:3-4." I rubbed my eyes in hopes that I was hallucinating, but the message was still there when I stopped.
King County's new Redmond Regional Library is right next door to the old one. The new building is an attractive addition to the city of Redmond, Washington, and it's located on a busy street about a block from city hall. The walkways along three sides of the library contain 3,000 square red bricks.
I learned that the Friends of the Redmond Library (FRL) were selling engraved messages on these bricks as a fundraising effort for the new building. The tiles were 6" by 6" and cost $40, $45, or $50, depending on the length of the caption. There were no--repeat, no--restrictions on the content of the messages.
Plague of Jesus Bricks
When I first saw the "Christ" brick on that fateful day in early 2000, only about one-third of the bricks had inscriptions. Those that had messages were closest to the library's two entrances. The FRL told me that there would be another engraving during the summer or fall. Future engravings would apparently spread outward from the entrances to the side streets. So the "Christ" brick, being part of the first engraving, was very close to one of the entrances, only about 20 feet away. A very prominent location.
But that wasn't the only brick with religious wording. Located near the opposite entrance, also only about 20 feet from the door, was this brick: "Christ Is Risen. He Is Risen, Indeed." Another brick encouraged patrons to "Read About Jesus." Another: "Read Your Bible; Prevent Truth Decay." Another tile read, "Thy Word Is A Lamp To My Feet And Light For My Path." Still another: "Psalms 119:160. All Your Words Are True." And, of course, there was a "John 3:16" brick.
It was like a plague! And there were about 2,000 blank bricks remaining, all waiting to be infected with more of this religious proselytizing! I began to have visions of Redmond pastors telling their congregations all about the new library and suggesting that everyone buy a brick for Jesus. Can you imagine a public library surrounded by thousands of "Jesus Loves You" tiles? That thought might keep you awake at nights, so I suggest you repress it immediately.
The library's fundraiser on the face of it was a great idea, at least the way the FRL and the King County Library System (KCLS) likely envisioned it. They probably thought the vast majority of people would place their family names on the bricks to show their support for the library. Perhaps they thought a few might engrave pleasant "We love books" messages. And there are many tiles with exactly that.
The mistake the library made was not placing any restrictions on the content. Perhaps it should have had a guideline that prohibited political, religious, and vulgar messages. Or perhaps it should have had an even more restrictive policy where only family names were allowed. But the library didn't think it through and opened the floodgates. And now we have several Jesus bricks on the grounds of the library--and more to come--and they will stay there as long as the library stands. That didn't sit well with me.
Plan A: Remove the Religious Bricks!
So I decided on a two-prong attack. First, I would attempt to get the religious tiles removed. If that failed, I would then test the content-neutral policy of the library by purchasing my very own engraved bricks and suing the library if it refused my requests.
So in May 2000, I wrote a letter to Bill Ptacek, the director of the KCLS, saying that the "Christian inscriptions on government property are a blatant violation of the separation of church and state." I mentioned that the Supreme Court had let stand a ruling that allowed a school to ban a citizen from displaying the Ten Commandments on the school's baseball field fence, even though the citizen was willing to pay for the message and even though the school had accepted nonreligious messages (Di Loreto v. Downey Unified School District). So if that school could ban religious messages from its fence, the library could certainly ban religious messages from its walkways. I asked that the religious tiles be removed immediately.
Ptacek responded in a timely manner but said that the library and its grounds served as a public forum, thus the KCLS could not "restrict speech in public areas except to serve a compelling governmental interest." The religious tiles would stay.
I have a problem with authority, so I pursued the matter by writing to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In my letter, I explained why I thought the public forum argument wasn't sufficient in this case:
"A citizen can certainly display a temporary sign in a public forum such as Washington DC's Lafayette Park, but that doesn't mean a citizen can purchase a permanent structure inscribed with Christian verses (e.g., Ten Commandments) and have it placed forever in that public park. Also, according to KCLS's logic, a library could constitutionally sell sections of wall space and allow citizens to permanently place the Ten Commandments on the internal or external walls of the library. This would be a clear violation, regardless of whether the inscriptions were purchased by the government or by a private citizen."
Okay, How about a Disclaimer
The ACLU didn't agree that the religious bricks should be removed (or at least it thought the courts would not agree). But the ACLU did think a prominent disclaimer should be posted near the bricks to indicate that the government did not sponsor the inscriptions.
ACLU attorney Aaron Caplan wrote to Ptacek in June, asking for a disclaimer. In the letter, Caplan explained that a 1995 case (Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette) "makes clear the need for a disclaimer where private religious speech in a public forum consists of structural displays." Caplan even suggested wording for the disclaimer.
Caplan also creatively pointed out (with a hint of humor) that the library had opened a Pandora's box:
"The Friends of the Library web site does not provide any subject matter limitation or other guidelines. Thus, the library would accept tiles that said both 'Jesus Saves' or 'Religion is the Opiate of the Masses.' In a designated public forum operated on the content-neutral principles you describe, the library would also be obliged to display tiles that said 'Keep Abortion Legal,' 'US Out of UN,' 'Vote Jones for County Commissioner,' 'Jimmy Is A Creep,' 'White Power,' 'The Holocaust Is A Hoax,' or 'Overdue Fees At This Library Are Too High.' "
On July 3, 2000, attorneys for the KCLS replied to Caplan: "While the Library District does not agree with the legal conclusions in your letter, the Library District is willing to provide a disclaimer regarding sponsorship of the tiles." The wording was almost identical to that proposed by Caplan:
"About the Tiles: The inscribed tiles you see on the walkway were purchased by individual library supporters, who chose the messages. The views expressed on the tiles are those of the sponsors, not the King County Library System. To sponsor additional tiles, contact the Library staff or the Friends of the Redmond Library."
The library placed this disclaimer on two 11 1/2" by 11 1/2" plaques, one near each entrance to the library.
Plan B: Get My Own Bricks! (Insert Evil Laughter Here)
So I didn't succeed in getting the offensive tiles removed, but at least it is now abundantly clear that the government didn't sponsor the religious messages.
Onto the second part of my strategy! I now filled out order forms for four bricks of my very own and sent them to the FRL. I decided that my messages had to push--if not exceed--the boundaries of good taste. Why? Because if the County decided it couldn't bear to have my words appear on its property, then I hoped the library--knowing that the ACLU was breathing down its back--would reverse its decision, remove the religious bricks, and henceforth refuse to accept any religion-related messages (including mine).
Less ideally, the library might refuse to engrave my messages but keep the religious tiles, in which case the ACLU would likely have threatened a lawsuit.
The third option was that the library would actually accept my requests. In that case, the library would learn that its free-for-all collection of commemorative bricks was a bad idea, and perhaps the KCLS would discourage other libraries from making the same mistake.
The result? The library mailed me a confirmation letter and subsequently engraved my messages in the fall of 2000, exactly as ordered and without any complaint whatsoever! Here, without further ado, are my four messages that now appear permanently (barring any God-inspired vandalism) on the library's walkway, sorted from least to most offensive:
(1) First Amendment: Keep Church & State Separate
(2) Evolution Is A Fact. Read About It.
(3) Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Thor & Brahma. They're All Myths.
(4) God Kills Babies. Read 1 Samuel 15:3. And God Is Love??
I hasten to add that I never would have dreamed of placing such inscriptions on the grounds of a library under normal circumstances. I don't think it's the place for personal sentiments, especially controversial ones. Yes, my statements are true (well, okay, God didn't actually kill babies because he doesn't exist), but I don't normally go out of my way to offend. However, if Christians (or any other religious folks) decide to shove their religion down my throat, and if the government facilitates their efforts, then I'm going to play ball, too. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
The More the Merrier
By the way, when I mailed in my brick orders, I also encouraged other nonreligious folks to buy tiles. You will not be shocked to learn that our very own FFRF purchased a tile: "Freedom From Religion Foundation. WWW.FFRF.ORG". I was very pleased to see the name and Internet address of our fine organization etched permanently in the walkway. I can easily imagine curious library patrons writing down the web address and visiting the site to learn more about our group.
Others who took me up on my suggestion had this witty message engraved: "With Soap, Baptism Is A Good Thing. Robert Ingersoll."
As expected, the latest engraving also added at least one other religious brick: "God Can Change Life." I am very happy to report that the Gods of Juxtaposition smiled upon me and placed that tile directly next to my "God Kills Babies" tile. It's a beautiful sight.
Other Cases: Public Schools and Public Park
Raising money through bricks or tiles is apparently becoming a popular activity. And it has spawned other controversies. In October 1999, the Rutherford Institute sued Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, for removing ceramic tiles that contained religious content.1 The tiles had been purchased by friends and relatives of students murdered by Klebold and Harris. The tiles had been placed above lockers in the school's hallways. One tile said, "Jesus Christ Is Lord." Another said, "There Is No Peace, Says The Lord, For The Wicked."
The Rutherford Institute also sued an upstate New York public school in September 2000 after the school removed bricks with messages such as "Jesus Saves" and "Jesus Christ Is The Lord Of This School."2 A Jewish woman had complained about the Christian inscriptions, so the school placed a disclaimer near the walkway: "The messages on this walk are the personal expressions and contributions of the individuals of Mexico Academy and Central School Community." The woman then decided to buy a tile that said, "Keep Abortion Legal." Realizing that it had stepped into a quagmire, the school refused her request, removed the previously accepted religious bricks, and forbade such inscriptions in the future. That's when the Rutherford Institute stepped in.
In June 2000, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a group founded by Pat Robertson, sued a school district in Tennessee to force the inclusion of a brick at the entrance of the new Westview Elementary School.3 The brick in question contained the name of a student along with the words "To the Glory of God." Although the school had placed no restrictions on the content of the bricks, the school excluded the brick for fear it would indicate governmental endorsement of religion. But in August, under pressure from the ACLJ, the school district reversed its decision, installed the brick, and paid the ACLJ $7,500 in court costs.
Early in the heated debate, the principal of Westview, Margo Williams, observed, "If we allow something about God, a Satan worshiper could expect the same thing. If we do it for one, we would have to do it for all. And we would be mortified if that happened." ACLJ representative Stuart Roth responded by saying, "If they countered with the hypothetical parade of horribles, that's never enough to violate somebody's freedom of speech. There are always opinions we don't like. That's what happens when you live in a free society."
I'm going to save Roth's quote, because if the ACLJ ever sues the Redmond Library for displaying bricks that are deemed offensive to Christians, I plan to throw his statement back in the ACLJ's face.
The city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, also found itself embroiled in controversy when it removed two commemorative bricks from the city's Woodman Park. The city had not placed restrictions on content, but removed the two bricks--"Jesus Loves You" and "For All The Unborn Children"--in response to citizen complaints. In January 2001, the ACLJ once again reared its ugly head with a federal lawsuit that demanded the return of the two bricks to the park's walkway.4
Ben Bull of the ACLJ stated, "The heavy hand of censorship of the local government has no place in quashing a person's religious expression." Of course, local governments have no business placing permanent Christian inscriptions on public property, either.
Hurry While Supplies Last!
By the way, more than a thousand bricks are still available at the Redmond Library. Feel free to download the order form from the Redmond Library's website at : www.kcls.org/red/tilesale.html and get your own personal message inscribed. Sure, Christians will step all over your brick, but they won't like it one bit!
Matthew Barry is a Foundation member from Washington.
A lawsuit to halt pervasive illegal religious practices in public schools in Rhea County, Tennessee was filed in the courtroom of Chief Judge Edgar, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, on April 26 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dayton, Tennessee, of Scopes Trial fame, is the county seat.
"This case arises out of the policy, practice and custom of the defendants in promoting the teaching of religion to public school children in Rhea County," the complaint states, "by permitting college students from Bryan College to attend classes and teach 'the Bible' to students in grades K-12."
Co-plaintiffs "John Doe" and "Mary Roe" are seeking confidentiality "for fear of physical and/or economic harm from persons favoring such unconstitutional programs," the complaint states.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was contacted by the plaintiffs last year who sought help to end illegal bible study in the classroom, distribution of bibles in classrooms, and other First Amendment violations.
The Foundation sent an official letter of complaint on Sept. 27, 2000, to Susan Porter, Rhea County Superintendent, who is named as a defendant, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate. The Foundation requested that the schools stop teaching and endorsing Christian religious beliefs and practices. As a result of the letter, the Rhea County Commission on October 17, 2000, adopted a unanimous resolution approving the bible classes. Also named as defendant is Jimmy Wilkey, County Executive for Rhea County, Tennessee.
"Plaintiffs Jane Roe and John Doe object to the misallocation of public facilities and public school time, paid for at taxpayers' expense, for the purpose of teaching public school children religious beliefs and practices to which they personally do not subscribe," the complaint says. "Plaintiff Roe's children are of tender years and are, therefore, extremely vulnerable to such religious proselytization."
The lawsuit invokes more than 50 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent against such practices, including the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education 333 US 203 (1948), striking down religious instruction in public schools.
Doe v Porter can be found online at: http://www.ffrf.org/news/daytoncomplaint.html
"Here is a newspaper article--front page ('Saintly Assistance: Burying miniature statue of St. Joseph in yard said to be helpful when selling a home,' New Castle News, April 5, 2001)--and the plastic St. Joseph's kit used to bless and sell homes here in New Castle during the year 2001!" writes Pennsylvania Foundation member Dale Anderson.
Dale kindly mailed the Foundation office a sample of the "graven images" apparently buried in many New Castle backyards.
"We expect this type of gross superstition to flourish in places such as Mexico, South America, Spain, etc., but this archaic cancer still haunts 'modern families.' " he writes.
"Robert Ingersoll said it well when referring to 'poison from the mother's milk' given in love to the innocent child. Thus is the torch of human reason polluted."
Freedom From Religion Foundation staffers Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker admiring primitive superstition circa 21st century U.S. Catholicism--a $6.99 plastic 'St. JosephÕs statue,' courtesy of member Dale Anderson.
The 'St. Joseph's Kit' testimonial. The Catholic entrepreneur reassures customers that the "statue does not necessarily have to be buried, but can instead be displayed in the house or in the front yard."
Setting the Record Straight
At the National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance at the U.S. Capitol on April 19, President Bush said:
"Tyrants and dictators will accept no other gods before them. They require disobedience to the First Commandment. They seek absolute control and are threatened by faith in God. They fear only the power they cannot possess--the power of truth. So they resent the living example of the devout, especially the devotion of a unique people chosen by God."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote Bush documenting the Christian origins of anti-Semitism.
"The very week of your statements on the Holocaust we see continued examples of breathtakingly insensitive Christian anti-Semitism in this country:
Johnny Hart's 'B.C.' Easter Day cartoon and Easter commentary by the darling of the Christian right, Paul Weyrich, declaring that "Christ was crucified by the Jews.' "
To read the entire letter, see: http://www.ffrf.org/news/holocaust.html
When Mark Twain died in 1910, he was an international superstar and an American institution. He was America's knight errant against sham, cant, and pomposity in places high and low. His signature white suit, shock of gray hair, walrus moustache, and omnipresent cigar were etched in the national consciousness. Wherever he went, ebullient crowds applauded his droll wit and cornpone wisdom, journalists wheedled piquant quips, hosts vied for after-dinner remarks. He was toasted by royalty, wooed by moguls, embraced by the intelligentsia. Andrew Carnegie donated a thousand dollars to spread "a new Gospel of Saint Mark" (an anti-imperialist tract). Charles Darwin kept a Twain volume on his nightstand. William Dean Howells, a lifelong friend and esteemed arbiter of belles lettres, dubbed him "the Lincoln of our literature."
Only a handful of intimates knew this revered creator of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn had died a bilious adversary of the Almighty. In his twilight years, Twain's volcanic pen belched ceaseless vitriol against his Maker. Spewed into letters, notebooks, essays, dialogues, autobiographical dictations, and sundry fragments, none of this uneven gallimaufry was published in his lifetime. This was gospel for the future.
At seventy-two, Twain wrote: "I expose to the world only my trimmed and perfumed and carefully barbered public opinions and conceal carefully, cautiously, wisely, my private ones."1
Impressed by the audacity of his naughtiness, he initially reckoned the world would need 500 years to catch up. Later, in a flush of philanthropy, he revised the estimate to 2006 CE.
Twain's private opinions had never been arrestingly pious. His father, who died when Mark was twelve, was an easygoing Hannibal lawyer and storekeeper, whom the son would later suspect of having had an agnostic bone or two. His Presbyterian mother showed flashes of heterodoxy. In his autobiography, Twain recalls her sympathy for Satan because he never got to tell his side of the story. Like Tom and Huck, his alter egos, young Twain preferred smoking, cussing, spelunking, and lollygagging to sermons, Sunday school, and other heavy-duty moral cleansers. When he did attend to religion, his empirical proclivities threatened orthodoxy. After his bible teacher had explicated the verse "Ask and ye shall receive," Twain spent three days praying for gingerbread. When none materialized, he filched a convenient piece. He concluded that prayer is an inferior mode of acquisition.
As an adult, he adopted the Christianity of enlightened liberalism, congenial with his burgeoning deism. He discarded heaven and hell, the immortality of the soul, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. From Thomas Paine, whom he had read in his cub pilot days, Twain imbibed the idea that religions derive their authority from spurious claims by their founders that they had received revelations from God, transmitted to posterity as incontrovertible holy writ. Bibles diminished the grandeur of the real God by straitening "him" to the narrow confines of parochial imaginations.
The true revelation was Nature, best apprehended through science. Twain touted reason and logic as antidotes to ignorance, superstition, and humbuggery of every ilk.
Compared with the majestic pageantry of astronomical phenomena, church creeds seemed insular, petty, and egoistic. In a letter to Howells, Twain recounted the constricting effect of his sister-in-law's religiosity on his brother Orion: "She is saturated to the marrow with the most malignant form of Presbyterianism--that sort which considers the saving of one's own paltry soul the first & supreme end & object of life, so you see she has harried him into the church several times, & then made religion so intolerable to him with her prayings & Bible readings & her other & eternal pious clack-clack that it has had the effect of harrying him out of it again."2
Despite his strictures on church and bible, Twain long retained respect for Jesus. He told Orion: "Neither Howells nor I believe in hell or the divinity of the Savior, but no matter, the Savior is none the less a sacred Personage, and a man should have no desire or disposition to refer to him lightly, profanely, or otherwise than with the profoundest reverence."3
When Twain married the wealthy Olivia Langdon, of Elmira, New York, in 1870, he wasn't averse to her conventional piety. At this time, according to Howells, Twain was still "far from the entire negation he came to at last."sup>4 Livy's ardor for church, bible reading, and family prayers certified her virtue. Like many men of his era, Twain believed the female aptitude for spirituality exceeded the male's. Deferentially, he acquiesced in his wife's faith. He offered morning prayers and daily readings from Scripture. He desisted from snide remarks about the Book. He regularly attended a church pastored by his friend Joseph Twichell--a "progressive Christian," Twain enthused.
Temporarily, at least, he slipped comfortably into the vestments of Christian respectability. Even after the punctilious phase of his piety had waned, he observed an extended truce with orthodoxy. Forty years of halcyon fortune shored up his subterranean optimism.
Then, in the 1890s, he was buffeted by a series of blows from which he never recovered.ÊSpeculative investments brought him to bankruptcy, his oldest daughter, Susy, died of meningitis, his youngest, Jean, was diagnosed an epileptic, Livy began a slide into lasting invalidism (she died in 1904), and Twain's own health was in eclipse. "Having long derided the notion of special providence," said John Tuckey, a Twain scholar, "he was now forced to consider himself the personal victim of a scheme of providential retribution."5
When the crushing afflictions were visited on him, Twain reacted like an irascible Job. He struck back at the Almighty with his best weapon, words--feverishly, obsessively, endlessly, but never publicly, discharged. Firing these paper bullets of the brain momentarily eased his leaden grief.
For a time, his rancor was confined to the Old Testament God, whom he had intellectually, but never emotionally, sloughed off. Twain "could never quite free himself from reading the Bible with fundamentalist passion," said Twainian Stanley Brodwin, "even as he ridiculed it in the name of reason."6
Jehovah, Twain calculated, was statistically the biggest mass murderer in history.ÊOffended, he reflexively slew everything in sight: "All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies, all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. What this insane Father requires is blood and misery; he is indifferent as to who furnishes it."7 Nothing drove Jehovah's dudgeon higher than minor lapses in hygiene. Anyone "who pisseth against the wall" was sure to provoke "a wholesale massacre."8
Despite the recurrent bludgeonings, the pious confer on the brutal autocrat epithets of love and respect: "With a fine sarcasm we ennoble God with the title of Father--yet we know quite well that we should hang his style of father wherever we might catch him."9 "There is only one Criminal," catechized Twain, "and it is not man."10
Before long, Twain's ire extended to Jesus Christ--a.k.a. Jehovah "after he got religion."11 The all-new Jehovah was not an improvement. He had added braggadocio and deceitfulness to his repertoire of defects. "His Old Testament self is sweetness and gentleness and respectability compared with his earthly self. In Heaven he claims not a single merit and hasn't one--outside of those claimed by His mouth--whereas in the earth He claims every merit in the entire catalogue of merits, yet practices them only now and then, penuriously."12 With some historical legerdemain, Twain credited (or discredited) Jesus with the invention of hell. This was the most egregious rascality imaginable because it deprived the wretched human race of its lone solace, eternal rest. Thus, "the meek and gentle Savior was a thousand times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament."13
Eventually, Twain's odium encompassed the stolid Designer of the deists. He, too, was destitute of morals. As the author of natural law, he was culpable for the thousand shocks flesh is heir to. Twain was stupefied by "the all-comprehensive malice which could patiently descend to the contriving of elaborate tortures for the meanest and pitifulest of creatures."14 The effectiveness of the traps, pitfalls, and gins, Twain mused, in no way depended on obtrusive intervention:
"He could invent the tortures and set in motion the laws and machinery which should continue them through all time without his supervision, then turn His attention elsewhere and trouble himself no further about the matter."15 The cosmic Watchmaker could install automatic detonating devices. This absentee knavery was worse than Jehovah's in-your-face immediacy.
Twain's anger was aggravated by the supposition that God, were he genially inclined, could eliminate all unhappiness. Twain ridiculed the moral axiom that suffering builds character. It was more apt to destroy than to edify. Twain inverted Alexander Pope's cheery maxim that "whatever is, is right." Since God is malevolent, reasoned Twain, whatever is, is wrong. Twain obsessively documented the wrongness: "The day we are born he begins to persecute us. Even our littleness, our innocence, our helplessness cannot move him to any pity, any gentleness. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the wanton torture goes on."16 Twain frequently chanted litanies of ailments: "Mumps, measles, whooping cough, croup, tonsilitis, diphtheria, asthma, bronchitis, itch, cholera, cancer, consumption, scarlet fever, yellow fever, bilious fever, typhus fever, hay fever"--the list was endless. In sum, the paragon of animals "is but a basket of festering offal provided for the support and entertainment of swarming armies of bacilli, armies commissioned to rot him and destroy him, each army equipped with a special detail of the work"17
Twain oft rehearsed the ubiquitous malignity of the fly. God gives it its orders: "Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and unteachable."18
Twain couldn't imagine himself as heartless as he supposed God to be: "I often put a dog on the fire and hold him down with the tongs, and enjoy his yelps and moans and strugglings and supplications [in reality, Twain was kind to animals], but with a man it would be different. I think that in the long run, if his wife and babies, who had not harmed me, should come crying and pleading, I couldn't stand it; I know I should forgive him and let him go, even if he had violated a monastery."19 So, too, others: Most people are "better, kinder, gentler, more to be respected, honored, and esteemed" than the Deity they ostensibly revere.20
Viewing Satan as a heroic rebel against the real Archfiend, Twain often used him as a mouthpiece. In "That Day in Eden," Satan commiserates with the fallen Adam and Eve, baffled by God's punishment: "Poor ignorant things, the command of refrain had meant nothing to them, they were but children, and could not understand untried things and verbal abstractions which stood for matters outside of their little world and their narrow experience."21
Twain deprecated the Moral Sense (he always capitalized it), a legacy of the mythic Fall, as the fount of immorality. By allowing humans to distinguish good and bad, its sole effect was to tempt and to enable us to do evil. Without it, we would live in a state of idyllic innocence, unafflicted by conscience. With it, we are inferior to the creatures, spared the accursed faculty: "Whenever I look at the other animals and realize that whatever they do is blameless, I envy them the dignity of their estate, its purity and its loftiness, and recognize that the Moral Sense is a thoroughly disastrous thing."22
Like a Calvinist sans the grace, Twain dwelt in an absurd universe where human automatons trick themselves into believing they are autonomous. All the while, the cosmic Puppet Master is pulling the strings: "Man is a poor joke--the poorest that was ever conceived--an April-fool joke, played by a malicious urchin Creator with nothing better to waste his time upon."23 Being nothing but an "automatic mechanism, man is not to blame for what he is. He didn't make himself. He has no control over himself." Yet the cosmic Sadist "punishes man for doing things which from the beginning of time He had intended that he should do." Hence, only "unthinking fools" believe they have an "obligation to God and owe Him thanks, reverence, and worship."24
Occasionally, Twain sought refuge in solipsism. After his wife's death, he wrote Joseph Twichell: "There is nothing. There is no God and no universe, there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And I am that thought. And God, and the Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that same Thought."25
In his grief and despair, Twain arrived at an endgame of utter nihilism.
An atheistic observer might be tempted to descry in Twain's fate an exemplum on the perils of anthropomorphic theism. I'll resist. At the end, for Mark Twain, nothing short of death would do. He had been stretched out on the rack of the world too long. Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure --these, he said, were life's false gifts. Death was the only true boon.
Gary Sloan writes: "I am a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana. Besides many articles in academic journals, I have written for U. S. News & World Report, The Skeptic, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, The Freethinker (London), The American Rationalist, Exquisite Corpse, Impact, and other popular publications. I have also written commentaries for the Scripps-Howard news service. My thrill-packed saga ÔEpistolary Adventures in the Bible Belt' appears in the March 2000 issue of Freethought Today."
1 Darrel Abel, American Literature, vol. 3 (New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1963), p. 28.
2 Twain-Howells Letters, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William Gibson (Cambridge: Belknap Pr. of Harvard UP, 1960), p. 256.
3 Twain-Howells, p. 238.
4 William Dean Howells, "My Mark Twain," in The Shock of Recognition, vol. 2, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955), p. 679.
5 Mark Twain, Fables of Man. Ed. John Tuckey (Berkeley: U of Cal. Pr., 1972), p. 130.
6 "Mark Twain's Masks of Satan: The Final Phase," American Literature 45 (1973), p. 215.
7 Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 52.
8 Letters from the Earth, pp. 50-51.
9 Mark Twain, "Reflections on Religion," ed. By Charles Neider, Hudson Review 16 (1963), p. 348. This is a convenient compilation of Twain's late eruptions.
10 Mark Twain, The Devil's Race-Track: Mark Twain's Great Dark Writings, ed. John Tuckey (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1980), p. 7.
11 Letters from the Earth, p. 45.
12 "Reflections," p. 335.
13 Letters from the Earth, p. 46.
14 "Reflections," p. 347.
15 Mark Twain, What Is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1973), p. 486.
16 What Is Man? p. 478.
17 What Is Man? pp. 87-88.
18 Fables of Man, p. 113.
19 What Is Man? pp. 116-117.
20 What Is Man? p. 483.
21 Mark Twain, The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), p. 672.
22 What Is Man? p. 475.
23 Twain-Howells, p. 689.
24 "Reflections," pp. 351-352.
25 Mark Twain, MT's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William Gibson (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1969), p. 30.
Charitable Choice Unproved
The colleague of President Bush's new "faith czar" John J. DiIulio, told the New York Times (April 24, 2001) there is scant evidence that religious programs are effective, or work better than secular social service programs.
"From the left to the right, everyone assumes that faith-based programs work," said Prof. Byron R. Johnson, University of Pennsylvania. "Even the critics of DiIulio and his office haven't denied that. We hear that and just sit back and laugh. In terms of empirical evidence that they work, it's pretty much nonexistent.
"We've created an office out of anecdotes."
Johnson joined the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, started by DiIulio, last year. DiIulio now leads the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Division over "Faith-based" Funding
The Mormon Church in April announced it would not seek funding under President Bush's "charitable choice" proposal to give tax money to overtly proselytizing churches and groups to provide social services. While the Mormon church eschewed such grants itself, spokesman Dale Bills said: "We're neutral. That's not saying we think it's wrong for every organization, but we just don't need it."
Top Roman Catholic social action official, John Carr, however, went on record saying Bush's "faith-based" plan has "the right tone." The secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace for the U.S. Catholic Conference told the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in April:
"We're open to the 'faith-based' initiatives."
A poll released on April 10 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that three of four people surveyed favor "government funding of faith-based organizations," but 78% would be opposed if groups receiving tax money are allowed to hire only people of the same faith. Majorities also opposed giving tax money to unfamiliar, nonWestern or new religions. Only 38% favored allowing Muslim mosques or Buddhist temples to apply for funding, 29% approved the Nation of Islam, and 26% the Church of Scientology.
"Bigots" on GOP Faith Board
Republican Congressional leaders came under fire for appointing two controversial ministers to a GOP summit on faith-based initiatives.
Two Wisconsin Democrats opposed the appointment of former Green Bay Packer Reggie White as one of 31 advisers to the April 25 summit. In 1998, White told the Wisconsin legislature that homosexuality is a sin, and made many stereotypic racial remarks.
Also drawing objections was the appointment of Cleveland minister Bishop J. Delano Ellis, who in 1994 gave a radio sermon calling Jews "carnal, selfish . . . dirty and lowdown and wicked." Ellis is pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Christ.
Other GOP advisers included Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the "Traditional Values Coalition."
Alabama House OK's Decalog Bill
The Alabama House voted 93-0 in late April to allow public schools to display the Ten Commandments in exhibits with "other historic documents," such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Magna Carta.
The state Senate already approved a proposed constitutional amendment to allow schools and other public buildings to display the Commandments alone.
Colorado Decalog Challenged
The ACLU in April sued officials in Grand Junction, Col., on behalf of five residents objecting to the presence of a bible tablet outside City Hall, which was given to the city in the 1950s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The council voted in March to allow it to remain outside City Hall with a "disclaimer" that there was no intent to establish a religion. It also drew up plans to transform the area into a "cultural heritage" plaza.
Mayor Gene Kinsey lost his bid for re-election in April, which he attributed to his vote to move the tablet.
Bible Mural Suit Dismissed
U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert of Milwaukee on March 29 dismissed a lawsuit by two students who sued the Kenosha Unified School District, Wis., after it barred them from including a cross in their bible club mural.
The "Trojans Loving Christ" were allowed to paint a permanent mural that depicted a bible, but were told by the principal not to use a cross.
Muslim Student Sues Louisiana School
A Muslim student, 11, filed a lawsuit on April 10 against the Rapides Parish School Board, La., claiming she was forced to accept a bible, participate in a "Jesus" game at school, and was told by classmates she would "burn in hell."
Joe Cook, director of the Louisiana ACLU, which filed the lawsuit in federal court, said: "This little girl has been the target of severe persecution and harassment by her classmates because of her religious beliefs."
The principal, John Cotton, presented the child's fifth-grade class with bibles on Dec. 14, 2000, in his office, while wishing each of them a "Merry Christmas." When Hesen Jabr said, "No thank you," the principal pressured her to accept it. Other classmates harassed her as a "Jesus hater."
Cotton has been distributing bibles in school for 35 years.
Five days later, her teacher arranged a quiz game about Christmas and Jesus, suggesting that Hesen serve as scorekeeper because she "might not know the answers to the questions."
North Dakota Pushes Religion
The North Dakota Senate in April approved a bill earlier passed in the House to permit schools to show "a religious object or document of cultural, legal or historical significance" as part of a broader historical display.
Until 1980, North Dakota's public school and college classrooms were required by state law to display "the Ten Commandments of the Christian religion." A federal judge declared the 1927 law unconstitutional after a suit was filed by Grand Forks residents.
Gov. John Hoeven has already signed into law a bill that explicitly allows "voluntary prayer or religious speech" any time student secular speech is allowed. It would also allow school boards to establish a minute of silence for meditation or prayer.
Ex-Nun Details Priest Abuse
Nuns are exploited for sex by priests, claims former nun Yvonne Maes of North Vancouver in an interview (Vancouver [B.C] Sun, March 29, 2001):
"The women's orders are very poor in Africa. If some priests want to target them for sex, they don't have a hope in hell. The bishops wouldn't listen to any of their complaints," said Maes, who worked as a Catholic high school teacher and principal for most of her 21 years as a nun in Lesotho.
Maes, who wrote The Cannibal's Wife: A Memoir (Herodias, 2000) was sexually abused by a white Catholic priest in Lesotho when she was 45. She also counseled many Innu Indian men in Canada who were abused by clergy, including several who filed lawsuits.
African nuns were exploited for sex by priests because, unlike prostitutes, they were free of AIDS, according to recent reports based on signed testimonies of high-level nuns and doctors, authorized by two Catholic groups, Caritas International and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Developments. Catholic researchers found a "high incidence" of abortions among nuns and novices in Africa. The Vatican had been presented with damning reports in 1995, but only acknowledged the issue in March.
Sexual exploitation of nuns is also common in Brazil, Colombia, India, Ireland, Italy, New Guinea, the Philippines and the United States.
One priest was accused of preying on so many nuns there were 20 pregnant at one time.
No Tax $$ for Tucson Prayer
Taxpayer money cannot be used to support a religious organization, a federal appeals court ruled in March, in overturning an earlier order that Tucson, Az., reimburse a Christian group that rented a park.
An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a decision by the circuit's 3-judge panel that had ordered Tucson to pay the group $340 for expenses related to a National Day of Prayer event. For the 8-3 opinion, Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote: "The federal Constitution provides all the defense Tucson needed in this lawsuit."
Film: Pope Traitor to Jews
Left-wing Greek filmmaker Konstantinos Costra-Gavras, after a four-decade delay, is directing a film that will portray Pope Pius XII as a traitor to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The film, whose working title is "The Vicar," will be based on the play "The Deputy," by German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, published in 1963. Bucharest will stand in for Rome during the filming since the Vatican is not cooperating. Peter Ustinov and Dustin Hoffman reportedly have been approached about the role.
British Catholic historian John Cornwell's book Hitler's Pope, documenting that Pius turned a blind eye to Hitler's atrocities, has fueled opposition to the beatification process of Pius, the last step before canonization.
Maryland: Church Can Discriminate
The Maryland Court of Appeals on April 13 dismissed lawsuits by three employees fired from a church school because they were not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Church.
The employees had invoked a local law allowing religious groups to hire employees of a particular religion only "to perform purely religious functions." The court unanimously overturned that portion of the Montgomery County law. Eighteen school employees were fired in 1996 for being the wrong religion.
Check All Catholic Clergy, Staff
A report released in April commissioned by the British Roman Catholic church advises that police should check all clergy, staff and volunteers in the Catholic Church to stamp out sexual abuse of children. Also advised was a national database for all candidates for the ministry.
The report recommended setting up a national child protection unit with a representative designated in every parish. Bishops and religious superiors should not overrule selections boards.
The report in part was influenced by the decision of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, to assign a priest to the Gatwick airport chapel despite concerns about his conduct. The priest was subsequently convicted in nine sex attacks, including one with a boy he met at the chapel, serving 42 months in prison.
Twenty-one Catholic priests in England and Wales were convicted of offenses against children between 1995 and 1999.
"A Glorious Moment"
My husband Guy and I were present on April 15 when a wonderful verdict was handed down in Bob Tiernan's roadside memorial case for Rodney Scott in Adams County, Colorado. The judge meticulously researched and laid out every legal argument in state law against these noxious things. His exposition will undoubtedly be used to decide future state cases. It was a glorious moment.
I especially enjoyed two articles in the last issue of Freethought Today: Atheist movie reviews and Calida nightgowns/Sierra Outpost.
We delayed seeing "Chocolat" because of a dreadful review in Time. After seeing it, we realized the reviewer must have been personally offended by the freethought slant; there's no other valid reason for anything but praise. It's now our second-favorite recent movie, after "The Cider House Rules" which, while not openly atheistic, was clearly freethinking.
I nominate last year's foreign movie "Butterfly" for mention in Freethought Today. It takes place in a Spanish village in the 1930s; the plot revolves around the elderly male schoolmaster, who is an atheist, and a small boy whom he takes under his wing and teaches the truly important things of life. The atheist character is clearly shown to be the most kind and ethical person in the village. This movie has a superb plot, acting and atmosphere; it's also a heart-breaker.
I wrote to Sierra in 1998, asking that the John 10:10 be removed from the catalogue. You can see how much impact that had!
Victoria D. McCoy
You Are Gooder than an Angel
"You are gooder than an angel" is a Southern way of saying thank you to someone for an exceptionally kind act. A nonSoutherner may say, "Those rednecks don't know how to speak good English. 'Gooder' is not even a real word."
Well, Southerners know that too. And Southerners know that a more proper way of speaking would be to say, "You are better than an angel," but would it have the same impact? To say "gooder" makes people perk up and ask themselves, "Did I hear that correctly?"
The answer is "Yes, you did. And I have something to add to that. I ain't never heard of no angel doing a good deed for nobody." That may be grammatically atrocious, but it sure gets the point across.
All this talk about how wonderful angels are, and about having "faith" in angels because they do so much good is sheer unadulterated nonsense, like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, and grown people should have better sense than to succumb to a belief that has been manufactured by some really slick con artists to make people believe in something that they should know has not even a remote relationship to facts. The writers of nonsense books and the manufacturers of trinket angels have struck gold in the pockets of the gullible and have extracted the gold from those pockets just as slickly as a pick-pocket.
"Enough all ready," to borrow a phrase from New York. Until you find an angel who has done a kind deed for you, forget about angels, because you are gooder than an angel.
David B. Higginbottom
Dan's "Hymns" Advance Freethought
Dan Barker's "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" disc set of music and songs constitutes a major contribution to the advancement of freethought ideas. It gives freethinkers an alternative to defend, dispute and debate in sharing their perspectives on the subject of religion. Entertainment and amusement are wonderful methods to advance an idea. Even the most devout will be able to find an area of agreement in some of the songs.
It would seem appropriate to have the words and music available in printed form, i.e., a freethinker's hymn book!
I plan to do my part by making the set a gift of choice for all on my gift list this year and start now with an order of five sets. My prior order has been depleted or spoken for.
Boyd C. Baird
"Bringing Ingersoll to Life"
I've been enjoying listening to Dan Barker's "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" CD. My favorites include "The World Is My Country," "Declaration of the Free," "You Can't Win with Original Sin," and "Higher Mind," among others. But the jewel for me is "Love." Thanks for bringing Ingersoll's words to life in song.
Greetings from New Zealand
We are in New Zealand until next February. Wanted to stay longer and outwait GW but immigration says we can only stay a year.
You might be interested to know that 27% of the citizens here declared NO RELIGION on the 1996 census. They are doing another this year and it will be interesting to see how that part comes out. With 27% on our side, we have a lot more clout, and the politicians know it!
Even the people who profess to be Xian don't seem to take it very seriously. When there is a column from a preacher in the Auckland paper, the next day there are several letters disagreeing and none agreeing. So different from our Colorado Springs paper which is just the opposite.
Jack Midling & Dean Morgan
The Gods Within Us
The premise of a recent book titled The "God" Part of the Brain--A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God by Matthew Alper (Rogue Press, New York, 2000) is that the spiritual function of the human brain has developed (as have all other functions, such as the senses, language, music, mathematics, etc.) through natural evolutionary processes to act as a sort of safety valve to assist human beings to cope satisfactorily with their certain mortality.
On p. 79 of the book, Alper asserts:
"If what I am suggesting is true, it would imply that God does not exist as something 'out there,' beyond and independent of us, but rather as the product of an inherited perception, the manifestation of a biologically-based evolutionary adaptation that exists exclusively within the human brain.
"If such a hypothesis is correct, it would imply that there is no spiritual reality, no God or gods, no soul, and no afterlife. Such spiritual concepts as these would only exist as manifestations of the particular way our species has been 'wired' to perceive reality.
"In such a light, humankind can no longer be viewed as a product of God, but rather, God must be viewed as a product of human evolution, the perceptual manifestation of our species' inherent cognitive processing."
It appears that this "god-notion" may not necessarily be located in any one specific part of the brain, but perhaps is a general function which acts to restrain other functions. In my opinion, Matthew Alper's proposal is one with which all who are interested in knowing more about the evolutionary approach to spirituality should be familiar. This 185-page paperback book is available in many libraries and on order through any good bookstore.
Glenn M. Hardie
British Columbia, Canada
"Be Good for Goodness Sake"
Days later, I am still charged up by Dan Barker's excellent talk "How to be good without god" at UC Berkeley, March 21, sponsored by SANE, the famous university's only specifically nonreligious group (they have 37 religious groups!).
Dan is a delight to listen to; with his wit, wisdom and experience from "been there, done that," he held the audience spellbound, responded to numerous questions with additional enlightenment--and deflected with great tact and compassion the expected standard challenges from a few dogmatic souls in the packed auditorium, apparently disturbed by Dan's logic.
The United States is the only industrialized, so-called developed country where religion has such a stranglehold on the populace. Especially in the Scandinavian countries and most of central Europe, the title of Dan's talk would sound ridiculous, as if there ever were any doubt that you can be good without religion.
Religion's own miserable track record as well as a rich assortment of freethinkers having lived good lives and done good deeds throughout centuries of human history, make the opposite question more logical: "How can you be good with god?"
Only in America does the religious crowd claim monopoly on Christmas; in most other countries it is a secular event. The word "Christmas" doesn't exist in other languages. Only the equivalent of "Yuletide" is used. There is no "Christ"-infested name for the event, which, by the way, existed long before the Christian movement got the idea to jump on the already popular solstice bandwagon and subsequently redefined the "birth" of a questionable figure.
Thank you Dan. You have done good.
P.S. Dan's book Losing Faith in Faith--From Preacher to Atheist should be required reading in high school!
"Kudos to Dan"
Thank you for sending me the notice of the debate on the existence of god that was held at Arizona State University on April 11, 2001. I attended the debate, and enjoyed it. I was impressed with Dan Barker's aptitude and calm deportment. He convincingly expounded the atheist's side of the issue, and astutely pointed out the implausibility of some of Bob Siegel's egregious claims, such as the ability of a material object to interact with an immaterial object and that the rightness and wrongness of actions depends on god. In short, he cogently argued that the belief in god is simply untenable and unnecessary.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be present at a widely-attended event at which theism was open for debate instead of unthinkingly assumed.
"You Can't Herd Cats
On April 11, 2001, I had the privilege of attending a debate at Arizona State University-Tempe, between Dan Barker and Bob Siegel, a Christian minister. I persuaded my 22-year-old daughter to accompany me, telling her it would be good for developing her skills in argumentation for college English. We brought note pads and pens to jot down the principle arguments and ideas. The main point that occurred to us was that the Christian argument is pretty flimsy. It boils down to the fact that they want to believe there is a god and that they are resistant to reason, historical evidence and science.
The lecture hall was packed with both infidels and believers. Some of us proudly wore our Atheist T-shirts. The crowd was very enthusiastic and pretty well-behaved for such a controversial debate. Arizona is certainly not the Bible Belt, although some of our legislators think it should be. The best part of the evening was having the opportunity to meet Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. They radiated warmth and intelligence, and were very gracious.
It was wonderful to be able to meet so many other atheists, who, as a rule, are above average in intelligence, nonconformists, and have a great sense of humor. I felt that all of the freethinkers were thrilled to be in a room with other atheists. Usually we can't discuss our position with anyone. It's too bad you can't herd cats or organize atheists on a grand scale.
Karen G. Brown
Passport to Fundie Land
This past Sunday when I went out to get my newspaper, it was wrapped not in the usual clear plastic cover but one completely immersed in religion! It also had this "so-called" passport to the newest attraction here in Mouseland.
I had to laugh when I read the first paragraph that Marvin Rosenthal wrote, thanking me for my interest in the holy land experience and for requesting my passport visitor's guide.
I did not request anything! It was foisted upon me by happening to subscribe to the Orlando Sentinel. Everybody that subscribes got one whether they wanted it or not. (Same as the Jesus videos mailed every household here in central Florida.)
I would rather put a match to my $17 than spend it on this trash!
Camp Fire An Alternative to BSA
As the plaintiff in a current lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America and my local school district, I often hear that I am trying to harm boys by eliminating a "character building" organization from the schools.
I have recently learned that an Ann Arbor, Michigan, BSA pack has disaffiliated itself from the BSA and has joined the Camp Fire Boys and Girls. This organization offers many of the same opportunities as the BSA, but is explicitly non-discriminatory against any group. There are many different ways to defeat the BSA's discriminatory practices, but this to me seems like a particularly effective way.
In all these attempts to get the Ten Commandments posted, why doesn't anyone ever bring up "Which Ten Commandments?"
The Roman Catholic Commandments are different from the Jewish and Protestant Commandments. The Catholics deleted the second commandment, split the tenth in two, and renumbered them so they would still come out to ten. Why? Because they wanted to keep their idols, and numerous "images of things in heaven," which are forbidden by the original commandments.
This is why, for centuries, Protestants despised Catholics as "Papist idolaters." Before everything got nice, the statement was often made that the Catholics only had Nine Commandments. Think of it--if you can eliminate a Holy Commandment, what integrity do you have left?
Recently, the Town of Lexington, Massachusetts, was embroiled in a creche debate (it was eventually removed). One letter writer pointed out in the Boston Globe that people who were claiming "tradition" were way off the mark. In fact, in the years at the beginning of our nation, Christmas itself was outlawed as pagan, and the residents then would have regarded a creche as wanton idolatry, distinctly Catholic papist paganism.
Sleepless in Seattle
I am a chemist working at the Boeing Space Center in Seattle. Also, I am a graduate student at the University of Washington. I mention this to identify myself as a person trained in the methods and practice of critical thinking. Last night I had a bit of insomnia and I saw Dan Barker on television at 3 a.m. The program was a debate at Bellevue Community College from Feb. 29, 2000. I am writing to ask if a recording of this debate is available, or if it will be aired again. I found your discussion extremely interesting.
Editor's note: Videos of the debate, "Does God Exist?" Phil Fernandes vs. Dan Barker, Bellevue Community College, can be ordered for $20 ppd, Sales Dept., FFRF, P.O. Box 750, Madison WI 53701.
"Artistic Folks Are Freethinkers"
While clipping coupons I found this ad for Artistic Checks indicating that "Artistic Folks are Freethinkers"! What a great surprise! I wonder if they really mean it?
"Can't Afford Not to Renew"
In last month's "Letterbox," a woman wrote that she renewed her subscription, saying she had lots of expenses right now, but decided she couldn't afford to drop her membership.
I feel the same way she does. I can't afford to give up my FFRF newspaper, either!
Surrealistic Circle of Time
It seems that I have traversed a surrealistic circle in my life. As a child I lived on a ranch outside of Campwood, Texas. My Uncle managed a ranch in the area also and I was often there playing with my cousins--riding horses, swimming in the creek, chasing goats. They were wonderful, idyllic days of youth, suffused in that golden glow of sunlight drifting through the leaves of oak trees. Days of dust in Texas heat. Sundays at the Baptist Church.
I grew up knowing the name of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I didn't really understand why she was so hated in Texas, because I didn't really understand what an atheist was. But then I didn't really understand all the hooplah over the bible and religion, even though I went to Baptist Sunday School, Sunday Service, Wednesday Prayer Meeting, Summer Bible School, sang in the choir, went to Baptist summer camp. It was more a social thing for me, but there were times that it made me very uncomfortable and I didn't know why.
It took many years to come to where I am today. Today I am an atheist or nontheist and the Freedom From Religion Foundation was the door to my enlightenment. The journey from my childhood was a long, hard one, and I have arrived in this spot only to find that Madalyn Murray O'Hair's body, and her family's bodies, were found on the ranch I played on so long ago, the ranch my Uncle managed.
I made a journey back to that place several years ago, when my Uncle was dying of cancer. The ranch was still the place of my memories, but the children were all grown and gone. I went into Campwood and stood in the middle of Main Street in the afternoon heat looking up and down the main road. There was not a person to be seen and/or vehicle moving. Everything was as I'd left it in my childhood, as though time had stood still.
And so I come to that surrealistic circle of time; from the place of her death sprang a life that carries on her work and dreams.
Kathy A. Beer
First Amendment No-Brainer
When I followed up on a recent Oakland Press article about a local school district's debate on sex education, I got a real shock. State law here specifically requires the public schools to include "local clergy" on their sex-ed advisory board!
380.1507(5) ". . . A school district shall not offer this instruction unless an advisory board is established by the district board to periodically review the materials and methods of instruction used, and to make recommendations to the district regarding changes in the materials or methods. The advisory board shall consist of parents having children attending the district's schools, pupils in the district's schools, educators, local clergy, and community health professionals."
Even worse, according to the staff of my state representative, there are no written guidelines to control the selection process. Apparently the method of compliance is completely at the discretion of each school board. Obviously this puts a government body in the business of deciding which religions are acceptable and which aren't!
I've already complained about it to my representative's staff, telling them that eliminating this provision should be a First Amendment no-brainer, but they assure me that there aren't enough legislators who have enough backbone to do the right thing.
Skewering Sacred Cows
. . . Benign? Like Mother Teresa?
John Senter Compere ("Is Religion More the Problem than the Answer?" April 2001) has done a monumental job of going from minister to atheist, but I feel his statement, "It was and is genuine and benign like Mother Teresa . . ." must be challenged. From what I have read about Mother Teresa, she was anything but benign.
I have read from many sources about her beliefs, her "care facility," where she got her money, how she spent it, and how she conducted her life. I suggest one particular source: Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens. He also produced a TV program concerning Mother Teresa's life that was called "Hell's Angel" aired in the United Kingdom. The title was chosen by the network. He preferred "Sacred Cow."
Why a Capital G?
"God" gets a lot of attention in discussions about religion, and all its trappings. I think that using the word in a singular manner gives it far too much credibility. All references to the idea should be made as such: "a god," "your god," "the god" or even "gods," plural. I mean, why one, why not 20? I'd like to see quotes used around the word. I'd like to see the word in lower case only, so as to give it the lack of respect that it deserves; I mean it is only an idea, not a tangible entity. Why a capital "g"?
When I tell someone that I am an atheist (and I had that great pleasure a couple of days ago when a Jehovah's Witness came to my door) I tell them that I don't worship or believe in a god; I have no personal god.
"Fanatics Have Gone Too Far"
I enjoyed Annie Laurie Gaylor's article ("Calidas, Yoga & the Getting of Wisdom," March 2001) mentioning the religious reference in the Sierra Outpost catalog. I, too, spotted that bible quotation quite some time ago in one of the catalogs I received from them. I wrote to them and expressed my displeasure at being hit upon with bible verses in a mail order catalog for nonreligious products. I told them that I was very much offended at this attempt to impose their brand of religion into my life, and that it was going to result in a loss of my business.
A couple of years ago I had a similar experience when I requested a catalog from a company called "The Model Shop." As I thumbed through the catalog, I quickly found several model car kits that I wanted to order. Upon reaching the centerfold, however, I was very dismayed to find a religious tract stapled into the catalog.
I immediately wrote a letter to the company and told them that their desire to proselytize their customers had cost them my business. I also made it clear to them that they would likely lose many other orders from the other atheists and nonChristian religionists who might receive their catalogs.
It's bad enough that we have to put up with being proselytized by Christians at every turn, via television, radio, newspapers, magazines, tracts left in many public places, not to mention being approached and bothered by "missionaries" and zealots at shopping centers and even on our own doorsteps. But when we have to put up with bible tracts and verses in mail order catalogs, I think these religious fanatics have gone too far.
If any other members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation happen to get catalogs from these religious zealots who think it is their sacred duty to push their religion along with whatever products their company sells, I hope they will let the company know that their merging of religion with business has cost them some money. Furthermore, I hope that my fellow Foundation members will likewise refuse to do business with companies that display the "Jesus fish" in their advertisements and on their company vehicles.
Secret to Co-existence
My present situation is interesting. I am in a small Spanish evening class with two Mormons and an agnostic who has several atheist friends (including me).
The teacher is a Mormon ex-Catholic Mexican. We all get on wonderfully and have very good-humored discussions, as the textbooks are modern and surprisingly frank.
The secret, I think, is tolerance, that "genial, good-natured tolerance" that Bertrand Russell decided is most lacking in the modern world. If only we could clone these nice people . . .
Religion Equals Legal Extortion?
People's fear of the unknown, especially fear of death, allows them to be willing victims of organized religion. By convincing gullible people to go to church each Sunday, and donate hard-earned money, ministers are nothing more than con men. They make promises they can't keep. How can you promise people they will go to "heaven" when there isn't any such place? Religion is nothing more than legal extortion.
The sad thing is people spend their entire lives living in a world of "make believe," with little to show for it when their lives end. Instead of believing in god, they could accomplish much more by just believing in themselves. Be your own person, make your own decisions, reject religion.
Seeking Secular Currency
Niko Theris ("Letterbox," Jan/Feb. 2001) says he obliterates "In God" from "In God We Trust" on paper money.
I simply add the word "NOT," in underscored block letters after the word "Trust," so it then reads: "In God We Trust NOT."
David Briars Not Forgotten
The late David Briars of Craftsbury, Vermont provides us with a good example of what one person can do for the freethought movement. In the early '90s he set out, much on his own, to create a needed freethinker's directory which was first published in 1991. In the small town where he lived, David experienced much opposition to his freethought beliefs, but he never backed down.
In the introduction to the 1993 second edition of Freethinker's Directory, he wrote, "Most of us have felt the debilitating isolation and self doubt that comes from living in a world where religion and mob-thinking define the meaning of contentment, morality and self-worth . . . It is quite an experience to sit in a room full of people who value their freedom from religion. There is a feeling that iron bands have been taken off of the head. Atheists are not necessarily perfect humans, but in some special way they are clean, alive, and determined to find their own answers to life's problems as autonomous thinking beings."
Two publications are making use of Briars' directory. First, it is being continued as The Freethought Directory: An International Guide to Organizations in the Community of Reason, edited by Victoria McCoy and Thomas J. Ebacher. It has over 240 pages in contrast to the 60 pages of Briars' 1996 fourth edition. And his material was used in the new Who's Who in Hell: A Handbook and International Directory for Humanists, Freethinkers, Naturalists, Rationalists, and Non-Theists which was edited by Warren Allen Smith.
Freethinkers who stand up to be counted are not forgotten. Thank you David!
James L. Sanders
Here's a nearly foolproof way to find good flicks that freethinkers will enjoy: Find out which ones Michael Medved doesn't approve of.
Medved, longtime film critic and self-proclaimed "cultural crusader" for the faith-based family values crowd, used to be the host of "Sneak Previews" on public television. Now his daily three-hour radio program, broadcast from Seattle and funded by the Salem Radio Network ("Christian Radio's #1 News Network") reaches "1.8 million listeners in 118 markets coast to coast."
SRN (of Irving, Texas) boasts "the finest anchors and reporters in Christian journalism" and is the billing address for Medved's personal website, where his movie reviews and other addled opinions are archived. He's also a board member of the Dove Foundation, an organization that rates movies on the basis of "traditional Judeo-Christian values."
I knew I wanted to see the film "Chocolat" even before Annie Laurie Gaylor gave it a four-pansies rating (March 2001). Medved had already warned against it. "This . . . will only attract unthinking flies," he opined. "[Producer] Harvey Weinstein is so determined to show the horrid, intolerant, cruel nature of religious conservatives that he tries to do so by recreating an irrelevant and implausible struggle."
Similarly, Medved panned "The Contender," which Annie Laurie re-commended. "[A] feminist fantasy," said the cultural crusader, that could be the most disappointing and annoying movie of the year. "A woman's Ôsacred' right to choose is the most important value in this movie."
Medved has a well-established history of criticizing those he finds at odds with his supposedly Judeo-Christian values. In addition to movie reviews, his website also offers examples of his Golden Turkey Awards--snide comments on people and activities he believes are misguided or silly. Targets of his criticism include efforts to end racism and hate speech, the Million Mom March to promote handgun controls, Democrats, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, controversial art exhibits, and, of course, any effort to keep religion out of public schools.
I first became aware of his involvement with the Christian right when "Hollywood vs. Religion" aired in 1996 on a PBS affiliate station owned by a private university in Indianapolis. The title and content of the film reflect Medved's book Hollywood vs. America, in which he depicts the film industry as an anti-religious cabal.
"It's important to understand that it's not some sort of organized conspiracy--a bunch of people in a room somewhere planning how they're going to knock organized religion," Medved says in the film. "What we are talking about is a tightly-knit creative community whose members happen to share some similar unspoken values and biases. And one of those biases involves a sincere and deep-seated contempt for organized religion."
Credits at the end of the film indicate that it was produced and directed by Michael Pack of Manifold Productions, Inc., for the Chatham Hill Foundation, another Christian-funded organization based not far from SRN in Texas. (Pack is a fairly well-known conservative filmmaker who has brought us, among other "documentaries," two films on Newt Gingrich.)
An Internet search revealed that Focus on the Family had put its Christian muscle into marketing the video through a mass mailing that announced the show's satellite feed in November 1995. Postcards sent to religious leaders and other supporters asked that they contact their local PBS affiliates to request that the program be telecast. Clergy were asked to inform their congregations and request their cooperation in the effort.
I contacted my local PBS affiliate to complain that "Hollywood vs. Religion" had been aired without comment about its political underpinnings, and was told by the station manager that they had received a number of calls. He invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the controversial film, and I accepted.
In a subsequent phone conversation, the station's news director revealed that Medved himself would also sit on the panel, and I (foolishly) said that I intended to bring up the nature of the film's production and distribution and the lack of disclaimer on it. The brave news director left me a voice-mail message around midnight, withdrawing the invitation for me to participate. My message to him, asking for confirmation of the time and location of the event so that I could sit in the audience, brought no reply.
The local media folks who were allowed to sit on the panel were all in fawning agreement with Medved. Only one panelist was brave enough to wonder if erosion of moral values could be fairly blamed on Hollywood, but he prefaced his remarks by saying, "I'm a man of faith also--just so you don't think I'm a godless atheist."
My friends and I were allowed to sit in the audience but were forced to submit our questions on index cards, promptly ignored. Instead, Medved carried on uninterrupted, denouncing the film industry as malicious and stupid and showing "disregard for the fundamental truths that animate the lives of most people."
Films that address those "truths" have been few and far between since "The Sound of Music" (1965), according to Medved. He offers as personal favorites such antiques as "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938), "Boys Town" (1938), "Going My Way" (1944), "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "The Ten Commandments" (1956), "The Robe" (1953), "Samson and Delilah" (1949), and "Ben Hur" (1959). These movies portrayed faith and religious leaders in positive ways and were box-office hits. Priests used to be handsome, he laments. Nowadays they are "far less appealing."
Medved doesn't like "The Three Musketeers" (1993 version) because it portrays Cardinal Richelieu as a sexual predator. "Sister Act" is acceptable because its view of Catholicism is "benign," but "Household Saints" offers a cynical view of the church. "Agnes of God" is objectionable in many ways, not the least of which is Jane Fonda's role as an atheist psychiatrist.
A practicing Jew, Medved objects to humorous portrayals of Orthodox Judaism in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," "Radio Days," and "Enemies, a Love Story."
Other films he finds unacceptable: "City of Joy" (spirituality cut out of the original story); "Doc Hollywood" (set in South Carolina, but no churches shown); "Hocus Pocus" (elevates a feminist type of spiritual practice); and "Little Buddha," "Heaven and Earth," and "Malcolm X" (offer positive views of non-mainstream religions).
"Star Trek V" has an anti-religious subtext. "We're No Angels" portrays religion as a crutch that doesn't reflect eternal truths. "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" characterizes religion as hocus-pocus. In "King David" the main character loses his faith. The Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ" "bears no resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament . . . but is deeply troubled and possibly insane."
All of this is because "the religious practices of the people who create movies are very different from their audiences," he states. "[L]ess than 10 percent of the entertainment industry's leaders participate in religious services of any kind," he asserts, citing a 1982 study "recently confirmed by the University of Texas."
In movies, "ministers are murderous, evangelists are suckers and dupes, and fundamentalists want to take over the country," Medved wails, but "agnostics are always wise and wonderful."
Is that the result of deep-seated contempt for religion, or just an accurate reflection of our society? Medved makes a wonderful critic-in-reverse: I used the movies lambasted in Hollywood vs. Religion as a viewing guide, and have enjoyed every one of them.
Foundation member Elsa F. Kramer is a militantly agnostic magazine journalist and book editor in Indiana.
Nominate Favorite Freethought Flicks
Religious conservatives can't have it both ways. They can't spend tax money to support faith and at the same time say it is wrong to criticize faith. Money always comes with strings attached.
This goes beyond putting religious slogans on money and outlawing first-class mail on Sunday. And it goes beyond the problems of the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment and extending the heavy hand of government to private charities. It goes to a rule of fair play: You get to criticize something if your taxes pay for it.
That rule applies now since President Bush has called for more tax dollars for "faith-based" organizations and has appointed a faith czar--social scientist John DiIulio--to oversee this new and unprecedented church-state effort.
Nor does an open door to "all faiths" bar criticism. That only shifts criticism to the concept of faith itself. And there are at least three reasons to criticize faith of any species.
Faith is unwarranted belief. Faith is belief without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. Faith occurs when a person believes that something is true even though he suspects it is false. It takes large doses of such faith to support the very existence of casinos, psychic hotlines, astrology columns, mall Santas and most organized religions.
Perhaps the mother of all faith is belief in some form of life after death. A recent Time/CNN poll found that 81% of Americans believe in an eternal afterlife. But science has found no more evidence for an afterlife than it has found for Santa's workshop at the North Pole. The almost universal faith in an afterlife seems to be nothing more than group denial of death.
The faithful often reply that scientists engage in faith and that science itself is a religion. Scientists do engage in faith for a moment when they guess at a new claim of mathematics or when they put forth a new factual claim about the world. But the guesses and claims are provisional. Logic or facts can knock them down, and they usually do. Religious faith is belief despite such logic or facts. A case in point is Faith Czar DiIulio's faith in his own program: "There are, as yet, no suitably scientific studies to Ôprove' the efficacy or cost effectiveness of faith-based approaches to social ills."
Faith often gets it wrong. Faith has costs even though it seems to be an intellectual free lunch. Consider our faith in beating the odds. The National Council on Problem Gambling found that in 1997 Americans lost more than $50 billion on lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling. That was more money than they spent on all movies and music and sporting events combined, and they did this despite the published odds that all such bets would lose on average. Hence, Las Vegas will likely remain this country's top tourist destination. Faith is even more dangerous when it dictates morality. The faithful have all too often been willing to die or kill for their notions of spiritual right and wrong. The record here is bloody and ranges from the ancient state-run religions of Egypt and Babylon to the current violence between Muslims and Christians in Kosovo. Most of the 30 or so armed conflicts in the world stem from faith-based disputes.
Then there is John Ashcroft, the new attorney general. He admitted the strength of his faith in a 1999 interview in the Pentecostal magazine Charisma: "It's said that we shouldn't legislate morality. Well, I disagree. I think all we should legislate is morality." And Ashcroft made clear in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones University that his faith trumps all else: "America has been different. We have no king but Jesus." But what if nonChristians don't want Jesus as their "king"?
Faith undermines critical thinking. The whole point of critical thinking is to root out error and unwarranted belief. Do we want jurors to use faith to reach a verdict? Do we want citizens to use "faith-based reasoning" when they weigh the claims of politicians or advertisers or anyone else who tries to sell them something? Don't the claims of racists, cultists and dictators rest on faith and not on evidence or reason?
And faith is no friend in the classroom. The goal of learning is to teach students to think critically for themselves. A good teacher does not want students to take what he says on faith. Students should question the grounds for what he says. They need to learn how to derive conclusions from assumptions and how to judge the accuracy of an argument's assumptions. The rules of logic and evidence apply just as well to the study of Greek mythology and comparative politics as they do to the study of atoms and genes. No one gets an A for saying, "It's true because I believe it's true." Yet that is just the admission ticket to faith-based belief schemes from astrology to most organized religions.
Most Americans are saturated with faith. Tax subsidies would only encourage more of it. What we need is more critical thinking. We need more doubt.
Bart Kosko is on the electrical engineering faculty at USC and author of "Heaven in a Chip" (Random House, 2000).
This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times on Feb. 19, 2001, is reprinted with permission of the author.