Dawkins draws nearly 900 to convention
God Delusion author Richard Dawkins accepts an Emperor Has No Clothes Award on Oct. 12 at FFRF’s 35th annual national convention in Portland, Ore. Photo: Andy Ngo
This speech, excerpted for print, was given Oct. 12 by Richard Dawkins at FFRF’s 35th annual convention in Portland, Ore. Dawkins, a distinguished evolutionary biologist and author, is arguably the world’s most renowned living atheist. He received an Emperor Award in 2001 but was unable to accept it personally due to 9/11. The award is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion.
Thank you very much indeed. [I am] delighted to have made a diversion to Portland to see this magnificent gathering and to see Annie Laurie and Dan Barker, who are some of my favorite people. We have been collaborating with them on the Clergy Project, among other things, and it’s a very great pleasure to see this splendid audience,
I’m often asked, why do you pick easy targets, like Ted Haggard? Why don’t you have an argument with a real theologian, the best that religion has to offer, a sophisticated religious thinker? But what’s the difference between an evangelical wingnut like Ted Haggard and a sophisticated theological thinker like the archbishop of Canterbury or the pope?
In one sense, I believe the wingnuts are more honest. They know what they believe, and although it’s false, at least they really believe it. The sophisticated theologians, I shall argue, are so drunk on metaphor, they don’t really know what they believe, or they may be deliberately deceptive.
Honoree Richard Dawkins accepting the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from FFRF Officer Jim Coors. The statuette honors public figures for “telling it like it is” about religion. Photo: Andy Ngo
To quote Peter Medawar on Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest and author of The Phenomenon of Man, “It may be that they can be excused of deceitfulness only because before deceiving others, they’ve gone to great pains to deceive themselves.”
The case I want to make is that in the hands of a sophisticated theologian, the resort to metaphor may be a vehicle of deceit, a con trick, played on their innocent congregations.
C.S. Lewis made the point that our whole language is full of dead metaphors. The word “attend” is a metaphor. The word “reflect” is a metaphor.
You say she’s very bright, or a very dim student. How dare you, he thundered. I can’t grasp your nebulous — meaning cloud-like — meaning. Almost every word, every phrase in our language was once upon a time a metaphor.
I’m not knocking metaphors, but they have to obey two rules. They must do real explanatory work, and it must be clear that they are metaphors. One of the problems with the sophisticated theologians is that they are very unclear when they’re talking about metaphors and when they’re not.
Here’s a good example of a very good metaphor — the distinction between skyhooks and cranes, which all of you will know from the work of Dan Dennett. It does useful explanatory work, and it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything but a metaphor.
Here’s another: When you’re trying to explain the phenomenon of refraction, physicists have found that a good way to do it is to assume that the photons of the light are trying to minimize the time they take to get through the medium, whatever it is. The beautiful metaphor, which I’ve seen exposed by Peter Atkins, is if you are on the shore, you’re a lifesaver. You see somebody drowning out to sea at a diagonal, what’s the best course to follow in order to get to them as quickly as possible?
The straight beeline direction is not good, because you can run much faster than you can swim. So you want to increase the time you spend on the beach before you hit the water. Or in that case, you could minimize the time you spend on the beach and go right to opposite where the person is drowning, and then swim straight out to them. Or you could do the opposite, which is clearly not sensible.
The optimum solution is to go at a certain angle, which really does minimize the time you take to get to the drowning swimmer, and that is exactly what photons do. If you assume that a photon is working hard to minimize the time it takes to pass through the medium, then you get the right answer with respect to refraction. So once again, the photon lifesaver metaphor passes its test with flying colors. It does real work in helping you to get the right answer, and it’s perfectly clear. It’s obviously a metaphor.
I once attended a posh conference in Germany where Nobel Prize winners were invited to bring one young colleague. I went as the colleague of my Nobel Prize-winning boss, Niko Tinbergen. Jacques Monod, the distinguished French molecular biologist, was there. He said that when he was trying to solve a problem in chemistry, he would say, “What would I do if I were an electron?”
My late colleague W.D. Hamilton solved an enormous number of problems in evolutionary genetics by asking himself, “What would I do if I were a gene trying to maximize my survival through many generations?” If you use that metaphor, then you can get all sorts of answers right.
Once again, the intelligent gene metaphor passes the test. It does real work in helping us to get the right answer, and it’s impossible for a reasonable person to think that we really mean that genes have intelligent motives.
Also I thought, one might have thought it was obvious that a selfish gene couldn’t possibly mean literally selfish. But this lady, a philosopher called Mary Midgley, wrote a savage attack on [Dawkins’ 1976 book] The Selfish Gene, in which she began, “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract, or biscuits teleological.”
Einstein’s bad metaphor
John Krebs and I used a thing called the life-dinner principle in explaining certain aspects of evolutionary biology. It comes from Aesop’s Fables. “The hare runs faster than the dog because the hare is running for his life, while the dog is only running for his dinner.” You use that principle to explain all sorts of things in evolutionary ecology.
An extremely common error is to assume that what animals are doing is working for the good of the species, working for example to stop the species going extinct. This fallacy was identified by J.B.S. Haldane as “Pangloss’s theorem,” after the character in Voltaire [parodying Leibniz] who thought all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Molecular biologist Sydney Brenner satirized that theorem by suggesting that a molecule which arose in the Cambrian era, half a billion years ago, might have been of no use at the time, but it stuck around because it might come in handy in the Cretaceous.
Another example of bad metaphors I’m afraid Albert Einstein was guilty of — Einstein, when he wanted to say something like, “Could the universe have been different from what it is? Is there only one way for a universe to be?”
Unfortunately, Einstein chose to express that very important question with a God metaphor, “Did God have a choice?” He used another God metaphor when he was complaining about Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which he didn’t like. He said, “But he does not play dice,” meaning that God does not play dice [with the world].
The fact that Einstein used the God metaphor has been used over and over again by “faith heads” who wish to claim Einstein as one of their own. It’s a very good thing, by the way, that Einstein, in one of the last letters he wrote near the end of his life, showed absolutely that he did not believe in any kind of personal God. That letter has now come up for sale. I tried to bid on it when it came up for sale last time. I was miserably outbid.
Religion arguably got its start from this very human habit of metaphorically personifying natural phenomena. People lacked a naturalistic explanation for thunder, so tribal peoples would resort to a supernatural explanation — thunder gods, like Thor with his hammer, and Zeus.
Yahweh himself seems to have begun as a storm god, one of a polytheistic pantheon of Canaanite gods that included Baal, the thunder god.
Here’s a good example of the misapplication of metaphor. Pope Benedict said, “Christ stresses that the gift received in him far surpasses Adam’s sin and its consequent effects on humanity.” The pope knows perfectly well there never was an Adam. He’s an evolutionist. He’s come down in favor of it. But he can’t resist the temptation of metaphor. They are drunk on metaphor.
I was curious to know whether priests, pastors, were aware [that the biblical creation stories are myth, not history]. I asked two of them who have since become atheists. The first one said, “During my first few months of doubt, I actually met with, all in confidence, three former students, all preaching in similar congregations, and three seminary professors. All six of them admitted to not believing in the literal creation account of a literal Adam and Eve, and the resulting fall. And they questioned the historicity of Moses, etc. But they preach as if they do when they speak in local congregations. In other words, they share their scholarly beliefs with scholars, and preach down to the laity of rural congregations.”
The second pastor said, “I would completely agree that theologians are intoxicated by metaphor and that tendency trickles down to the local pulpit. I think in some cases, both in the academy and the pulpit, the intention is to feel comfortable in perpetuating a traditional narrative, but to do it in ways that serve both a metaphorical and literal understanding. In other words, we try to be all things to all people, but fail to say anything substantial.”
Biblical beauty, atrocity
The Song of Songs is a beautiful book of the bible. It’s recommended. Read it in the King James version. “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that feed among the lilies. Thou art all fair, my love. There is no spot in thee. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse. Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is they love, my sister, my spouse? How much better is thy love than wine and the smell of thine ointments than all spices, thy lips, oh my spouse, drop as the honeycomb. Honey and milk are under thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”
Well that, as I said, is summed up in the King James bible at the top as “The Church’s Love Under Christ.” [laughter]
The horrific story of Abraham, almost murdering his son Isaac, is said to be a parable, symbolically telling the Hebrews to stop sacrificing humans and sacrifice sheep instead. You can’t help wondering why God didn’t simply tell Abraham instead of making him commit child abuse, which today would have him locked up.
Sophisticated theologians are drunk on metaphor, so in love with metaphor as to be seduced by atrocities like that; so in love with metaphor as to be persuaded that in order for God to forgive our sins, he had to reenact the metaphor of Abraham in the blood sacrifice of Jesus, without which it was impossible to forgive our sins. Somebody had to die.
Imagine you are God. You’re all-powerful. You’re all-loving. So it is really, really important to you that humans are left in no doubt about your existence and your loving nature, and exactly what they need to do in order to get to heaven and avoid eternity in the fires of hell. It’s really important to get that across. So what do you do?
If you’re Jehovah, apparently this is what you do. You talk in riddles. You tell stories which on the surface have a different message from the one you apparently want us to understand. You expect us to hear X, and instinctively understand that it needs to be interpreted in the light of Y, which you happen to have said in the course of a completely different story 500, 1,000 years earlier.
Instead of speaking directly into our heads, which God has presumed the capability of doing — simply, clearly and straightforwardly in terms which the particular individual being addressed will immediately understand and respond to positively — you steep your messages in symbols, in metaphors. In fact, you choose to convey the most important message in the history of creation in code, as if you aspired to be Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.
Anyone would think your top priority was to keep generation after generation after generation of theologians in meaningless employment, rather than communicate an urgent life-or-death message to the creatures you love more than any other.
Religion and public office
Now I want to switch to a completely different topic, which I think is important, because we’re just in the throes of a very important election. I want to say something which may be a bit more unpopular. We’ll see. Should we respect the privacy of a politician’s religion, or is it up for discussion, like his economic policy or his foreign policy?
Should politicians be allowed to hide behind the convention that privacy is to be respected where faith is concerned and refuse to discuss it? We shouldn’t even ask them about it, or should we question them about it?
Britain and America are rather different in the way their politicians treat religion. Tony Blair, under the forceful direction of a rather sinister figure, Alistair Campbell, who was his spin doctor, very forcefully said we don’t do God. Blair’s best friend, George W. Bush, did God in a big way, even to the extent of listening to God’s advice to invade Iraq.
I’m conscious of not being American, but because the election is hanging over the whole world, I’m going to take the liberty of making a point about American election manners. I expect I may find myself at odds with some people here.
Almost every politician in America has to do God, or at least thinks he has to do God, on the pain of almost certainly losing the election if he doesn’t. The next point, which ought to be uncontroversial, is that the separation of church and state is quite rightly deeply woven into the DNA of America, unlike in Britain, where we have an established church and we have 27 bishops as ex-officio members of Parliament.
The American Constitution states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” John Kennedy famously laid the principle on the line: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding office.”
But while it’s of course right that no religious test should be imposed before a candidate is allowed to stand for election, that’s very different from saying that voters are expected to ignore a candidate’s religious beliefs when they’re deciding whether to vote for him.
Discriminating against anybody’s eligibility to stand for election goes right against the spirit of the American Constitution. Amazingly, however, in several states, atheists are barred by state law. [Dawkins names states with specific prohibitions: North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.]
I’m using Romney only as an example for the thesis that I want to advance, which is I think unpopular with some Americans, because they wrongly think it goes against the Constitution, against the “no religious test” laws. Whereas no religious test should be imposed when deciding whether a candidate’s eligible, voters are entitled to take account of what a candidate is capable of believing, even if he doesn’t let his beliefs interfere with his policies, as Kennedy vowed.
By the same token, I think journalists should be free to ask candidates about their beliefs. Their private beliefs should be fair game in debates between candidates. I wish that presidential debates were more gloves off when it comes to the religious beliefs of candidates.
Why does Mr. Obama limit himself to criticizing Mr. Romney’s taxation policy, medical policy, foreign policy and so on? Why does he ignore the
elephant in the room, which is that his opponent is capable of holding beliefs which, in England, we call barking mad, and here, you might call batshit crazy.
Joseph Smith, charlatan
Mitt Romney believes that the Book of Mormon is a sacred book, translated by a 19th century American called Joseph Smith, whom Romney reveres as a prophet and the founder of his faith. Mormons believe that Smith was guided by an angel, Moroni, to dig up some golden plates on which were written characters of an ancient language which he called reformed Egyptian, unknown to archaeologists, by the way.
He bought a seer stone in a hat, buried his face in the hat and looked at the seer stone. One by one, characters of reformed Egyptian would appear in the stone, together with the English translation. Smith would say the English word, which would be written down by a scribe sitting behind a curtain so he couldn’t see what was going on.
The scribe repeated the word, and when Smith approved it, the stone would display a new word in its place, and so on until all 531 pages of the book had been written down — in English. Mark Twain remarked that if you remove all occurrences of “it came to pass,” the Book of Mormon would be reduced to a pamphlet.
Before any of this happened, Joseph Smith had built up a track record in the area as a psychic diviner of buried treasure. He claimed to be able to see underground, looking for treasure by looking through his hat. Everything about the Book of Mormon reeks of fake.
Joseph Smith was an obvious charlatan. That’s not an interesting fact in itself. There have been numerous charlatans down the ages. The point is that Mitt Romney, candidate for the job of most powerful man in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button, is a gullible fool who believes Joseph Smith.
It seems to me entirely right that journalists should question him on his Mormon beliefs. They should not feel it’s a taboo they have to tiptoe around. The only reason President Obama should refrain from doing so, if he should, would be a purely tactical reason. It might put voters off because they wrongly, in my view, think that to do so would be to go against the spirit of the First Amendment.
There he is, looking through his hat. I’ve been Tweeting about this lately. The commonest retort that I’m getting is, well, Obama’s Christianity, isn’t that just as ridiculous?
Obama not a Christian?
I think there’s an excellent chance that Mr. Obama is not a Christian at all. I strongly suspect he may be an atheist.
I say that mainly because he’s obviously intelligent and educated. But in any case, the fact that he professes Christianity means absolutely nothing. He’s an elected American politician. And if you are an elected American politician, that has to mean that you pretend to be religious. There’s no other way about it. So that doesn’t really mean anything.
One could say the same of Romney. But I think the evidence shows actually Romney does believe it. He was a Mormon bishop. There are records of his excommunicating people. He excommunicated a woman because she left the Mormon Church. You’d think since she’d left already, there was no need to excommunicate.
And it’s really much more recently that he, I think really rather obnoxiously, posthumously baptized his atheist father-in-law. If he were professing religion for reasons purely of political expediency, instead of saying he’s a Mormon, couldn’t he say he sort of believes in spirituality or something vague like that?
I think it’s pretty clear Romney is a definitely strong-believing Mormon, whereas I don’t think it’s clear that Obama is a Christian. But even if he is, Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, I think is substantially less, I mean it may be ridiculous, but it’s not as ridiculous.
Christian scriptures are genuinely ancient. The translations from Hebrew and Greek that Christians use are in a language contemporary with the translators. The Book of Mormon is not ancient. The language of its alleged translation is ludicrously anachronistic. It contains absurdities, scientifically demonstrable absurdities, about the origin of Native Americans, about people of African descent. It’s an absurd piece of work. A man who seriously believes it, it seems to me, cannot be trusted to have the sort of acumen, the sort of critical mind that you need in a leader of a great country.
DNA evidence conclusively refutes the claim that Native Americans are a remnant of the house of Israel. The idea that Jesus visited America is archaeologically preposterous. The idea that Adam and Eve did, too, is even worse. It’s at least arguable that Jesus existed.
The traditional Mormon belief in the inferiority of black people, only lately renounced for reasons of political expediency, is as scientifically inaccurate as it is obnoxious. The great prophet Brigham Young even prescribed the death penalty for interracial marriage.
Reductio ad absurdum
Are any Christian beliefs as daft as Mormonism? I think the answer is probably no, but I do think that the bread and wine question should be put to any Roman Catholic seeking high office. Do you really believe in transubstantiation? Do you literally believe that the wafer becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ?
I think that question should have been put to Kennedy. I suspect that if he were honest, he would have said no, to which the reasonable response would then be, then why do you remain Catholic?
For many Americans, the sticking point is whether the candidate keeps his religion separate from his politics. This was the Kennedy defense, and it has a lot going for it. But I actually want to go further.
I’m not an American voter, but if I were, I would want to know that my president has the critical intelligence needed to be a president. Anybody who can’t see that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a liar doesn’t have critical intelligence.
I wanted to get to the bottom of what I see as a reluctance among some Americans to question a candidate’s private religious beliefs, a reluctance to intrude upon this private matter of religious belief. Shouldn’t it be a private matter that we leave to him and don’t question? So I invented a hypothetical example.
My extreme reductio ad absurdum was a hypothetical doctor. He was an excellent eye surgeon, brilliant at removing cataracts, repairing detached retinas, all the other things that an eye surgeon should be good at. You couldn’t fault him, except for one peculiar fact. He doesn’t believe in the sex theory of reproduction.
I published this hypothetical example in two places, richarddawkins.net/, which I recommend to you, and boingboing.net/, which I also recommend to you. I expected that the commenters would at least agree with me in this extreme case. They’d agree with me that this doctor should be struck off, or at least they wouldn’t consult him, even if they had an eye problem.
Not a bit of it! I would say most of them, were outraged at my suggestion. So long as he does his job as a doctor, well how dare you criticize his believe in the stork theory!
I offered another example, which was a professor of geography who believes the Earth is flat, but who gives perfectly good lectures based on the assumption of a round Earth. But nevertheless, he privately believes the Earth is flat. I think he should be fired, but many people don’t.
Maybe people here wish to argue the case that if religious beliefs or disbeliefs, about the stork theory or whatever, are private, we have no business intruding upon them. I’m offering my alternative view, which is that we don’t only want to know what the candidate’s policies are, we want to know whether he has the kind of mind that you can trust to take reliable decisions under difficult circumstances.
Thank you very much.
The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (richarddawkins.net/) is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.
[Thanks to Cal Hutson for the excellent transcription.]
Donated by the Eagles in the 1960s, a Ten Commandments monument sat alone in front of the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell, Mont., until 2004. Under threat of legal action, other temporary displays were added, and it was rebranded briefly as an “Evolution of Law” display.
Based on that and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, the threat of a lawsuit was dropped. In 2005, after a private fundraising campaign by a county commissioner and the Eagles, permanent granite monuments replaced the temporary ones (including the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta and the Mayflower Compact).
For some reason (any guesses?), the name of the display was then changed to the “Cornerstones of Law.” During renovations in 2011, the entire display was relocated to, and remains in, a little noticed nook behind the courthouse. As seen in the photo, the Ten Commandments monument is considerably larger and sits in the “cornerstone” position.
In early October, the local Eagles group, dissatisfied with the display’s current location, asked the city of Kalispell to ask Flathead County to transfer the monuments to the city for placement at Depot Park, a prominent city park.
At that time, one city councilor stated, “[The monument] isn’t something we want to hide under a bushel basket.” A county commissioner said, “At first blush, I think it is an excellent idea.” Even the city attorney chimed in, stating, he had no legal concern at all about moving the monuments to city property.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association quickly responded with “assertive” letters of opposition to the county commissioners, city councilors and major local newspapers, along with organizing an opposition email campaign.
On Oct. 22, the council met to discuss the request. Several people spoke in favor of the transfer. I was the sole public voice of dissent at the meeting, speaking on behalf of FASHA (and the law), emphasizing the city’s responsibility to follow the Constitution and to remain neutral when it comes to religion.
Two councilors, while supportive of the request by the Eagles, cited FASHA’s opposition letter and legal concerns in deciding against moving forward. Another councilor was strongly opposed, citing the potential for divisiveness in the community.
The mayor, while stating she “believes” in the Ten Commandments, thought the monument should be moved to private land. In the end, the council decided to not pursue the transfer.
This was a huge success for us. Without our opposition, we would likely have had a religious monument in one of our city parks before year’s end (and an ensuing legal battle). The city council should be commended, especially given the predominantly conservative community we live in.
We feel fortunate for everyone involved that we were able to address this proactively and will closely monitor city and county meetings in the future to counter any future assaults on the First Amendment.
Montana FFRF member Ian Cameron is founder and administrator of Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association (flatheadsecular.com/).
As a 30-year veteran public school teacher, I often read horrific stories in Freethought Today about church/state violations in our schools. People at freethought meetings and conventions are always citing school proselytizing as a huge problem, and the public schools absorb the blame for everything that is wrong with our society.
In all my years teaching in three states and three different countries, I have seen little of this type of thing from the inside. In defense of the schools, and more importantly, the students, I want to share some good news about what I have experienced.
Part of the middle school enrichment program that I run involves an annual mock trial contest called Law Adventure, sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Foundation. Each year, students are given the choice of two topics and are asked to create and submit a case brief. Winners are invited to perform their cases in front of a judge and jury in the spring.
In the 2012 contest, one of the topics was First Amendment rights violations. One of my seventh-grade teams was intent on making a case involving religious rights in the schools. I swear on The God Delusion that I did not influence them! Much discussion was held about different religions, current cases in the news and how the school community might respond. The students agreed to move forward.
The case, Singh v. Fair Side School, involved Melodie Singh, a high school honors choir soloist, and her very religious choir teacher. When the choir was invited to compete at a national event, the director chose an overtly religious spiritual for them to perform. Melodie, who was to sing the soloist parts, felt that the teacher knew she was an atheist and thus would opt to sit out for a song that contained words such as “I have surrendered my life to Christ.”
In an interesting twist, the students had the director, Jay Tempo, show favoritism for students who attended his church. The full case brief can be found at njsbf.org/educators-and-students/programs/7-8-lawadventure.html under “2012 Law Adventure Mock Trial Exercises.”
After we were notified that our case had won an honorable mention, we prepared to take it to the next level. This is where we turned it into a script, choosing parts and performing it for the school and community. Students, staff and parents were impressed with our case, the acting and the impressive award.
Many of them had no idea what an atheist was, but knew that Melodie had clearly been wronged. The student jury decided she’d been discriminated against and found in Melodie’s favor. I do acknowledge that many church/state violations occur in schools, and I am appalled that my own union came to the defense of the teacher in the case of Matthew LaClair.
Matthew was a high school junior who was harassed in 2006 after secretly recording his history teacher, who was also a Baptist youth pastor, making over-the-top comments, including warning students that by rejecting God, “you belong in hell.” The compelling story is detailed in a documentary titled “In God We Teach.”
I like to believe that these situations are less common, and I’m grateful that FFRF and other organizations are involved in this litigation. In my experience, most students, teachers and parents are careful and respectful when discussing religious topics and ideas.
Diane Cormican is a middle school enrichment teacher, FFRF member and president of the Lehigh Valley [Pa.] Humanists.
[Editor’s note: Diane’s other mock trial team placed first in the competition in a product liability case.]
In 1939, Vernon L. “Bill” Bowman (left) joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and for the next two years flew fighter missions with the RCAF and the British Royal Air Force. After America’s declaration of war, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force and was shot down Aug. 23, 1944, then spent nine months in Stalag Luft 1 prison camp in Barth, Germany.
He’s pictured late in life with his son, Vice Admiral Michael Bowman, USN, (center), and grandson, Cmdr. Geoffrey Bowman, USN. The photo when published originally was titled “Three Generations of Fly Boys.”
“Can you believe they believe this crap?” whispered my beloved, freethinking father. Unfortunately, my father’s “whisper” was in fact a deeply resonant voice that rippled through rows of the Methodist church we were attending with my mother, an immensely sweet and deeply religious woman. Worse still, we were in the second row, my mother’s favored position.
The minister had just read a particularly ridiculous bible verse that offended my hearing-impaired but whip-smart dad. The minister looked momentarily startled. My mother looked dismayed. I was both amused and proud of my father, who though in his late 80s, sported a clear, highly intelligent mind.
I happily plunked down the modest amount to become a Lifetime Member of FFRF before this year’s convention in Portland began, and felt privileged to shake the hand of Annie Laurie Gaylor as I did so. I also thought, “My father would be proud.”
Here’s why. In 2005, my dad died of lung cancer that metastasized to the spine, and suffered in needless pain due to the “protocol” of the religiously backed hospice we had unwittingly become involved with during the final six weeks of his life. His experience has become my passion.
Hospice is a caring and compassionate approach to death. But beware, freethinkers, not all hospices are created equal. We were automatically “linked” to this particular hospice at the advice of my father’s physician, a kind man and a family friend. Connected to the Missouri hospital where my father resided briefly, it seemed sensible to simply enroll with the recommended hospice when the end was near.
The problems began almost immediately. When the hospice case manager showed up at our home to enroll my father, she said, “Our chaplain will be happy to meet with you,” to which he responded, “No preachers.” The case manager persisted, “We ask only that he visit one time.” My dad’s response? “I don’t believe you heard me correctly — no preachers or no hospice.”
The woman was clearly taken aback, but duly marked the form “no spiritual support requested.”
Unfortunately, we found that the hospice workers assigned to my father’s case simply could not park their religion at the door. His pain was severe; he was 89 years old and quite pragmatically and emotionally ready to leave this particular veil of tears.
Nonetheless, when he asked, “I know you may not be able to answer this question, but based on my vital signs and the progression of my disease, can you give me a sense of how long I have?” the response was, “When the sweet Lord calls you home.”
My father was dismayed. I was furious. I met with the case manager outside our home and said, “If you do not observe my father’s wishes, we will find a different hospice.”
‘I’m not Dr. Kevorkian’
This hospice refused to give my father anything other than liquid morphine to control his pain, when a PCA (patient controlled analgesia) pump was clearly required. Their emphasis was on “keeping the patient conscious so that he can interact with loved ones.” I finally insisted that he be admitted to the hospital, where pain doctors immediately installed a pump.
But that’s not the end to this sad tale. In the last week of his life, when he had been transferred to a skilled nursing facility where PCA pumps were not allowed, my father asked to be placed in a deep state of unconsciousness, as much as permissible within the law. During overnight vigils, it was clear to me that the hospice organization, still in charge of his care, was not adequately controlling his pain.
I confronted the hospice doctor, who actually said to me, “This is not Oregon and I am not Dr. Kevorkian.” My reply? “Unless you follow my father’s written and signed wishes, my next call will be to an attorney.”
That comment suddenly spurred action that allowed my dad to die pain-free.
After his death, I was on a mission. I contacted the state licensing board in charge of hospice organizations throughout Missouri. I sent a detailed list of the occurrences — ways in which this facility had violated the concepts of the national hospice organization. Their response was swift. They flew a team of auditors to St. Joseph from Jefferson City and carried out an unannounced audit.
They pulled files of three patients (in an attempt to protect the anonymity of the complainant, though I’m sure said complainant was obvious.) The result? The hospice organization was cited on multiple counts and given three months to clean up its act or be closed. (It is still in operation and apparently in accord with national hospice concepts, which I am glad to know.)
One other vital point: I conferred with a doctor of mine who was on the board of Stanford Medical Center in California before taking action. He said to me, “Susan, it is vital that you pursue this case. The Religious Right are having an increasing impact on pain control of dying patients in this country.”
My mission now is to warn all who are considering hospice care themselves or on behalf of a loved one to carefully vet all hospice organizations in your area. You must ensure that their approach is medically sound, that they are sufficiently staffed, and, most important, that they are willing to conform to those of us who wish to die without God and also without pain.
My allegiance and respect are absolute for FFRF and its work to keep church and state separate. My decision to join as a Lifetime Member is a great privilege. I hope my experience can help inform and assist other members.
Susan Fallon McCann lives in Fountain Hills, Ariz., where she is a business management and communications professional.
FFRF has awarded Mayan and Balen Essak each $1,000 student activist awards. Freethought activism runs in the family (see sidebar).
For several years, our Wisconsin public high school’s football team has partnered with a private, Catholic high school to create a competitive team. For years, the team’s logo was a simple MS, combining our schools’ first initials.
Last year, our graphic arts program assigned students a project to create a new logo, combining our high school’s logo, a greyhound, with the private school’s logo, a Catholic bishop’s hat with a cross on it. The winning design would replace the old logo. After passing through the football coach, principal and many other school authorities, a design that cleverly combined the logos was chosen and printed on decals for helmets.
For most of the season, the cross-bearing helmets went unbeknownst to us until the school newspaper printed an article about them with a few weeks left in the season. Publication of the situation prompted an immediate response.
The day the paper came out, one of us, along with some other upset peers, brought it to the assistant principal’s attention that we were unhappy with a religious symbol representing our football team and public school. We felt that it was unfair to force people to wear a cross on their heads if they wanted to play football. It was a clear issue of separating church and state.
We brought it to the attention of our parents as well, who, that night, emailed the school board and principal explaining that without swift action, we would be contacting the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
At the school board meeting that one of us attended, the board acknowledged our request. They all had been unaware of the new logo and voted unanimously and with minimal discussion to remove the decals as quickly as possible.
Taking responsibility for the mistake, the principal apologized and had the decals removed before the next game. Unfortunately, many people were unhappy with the decision. One school board member received many emails and phone calls from disapproving citizens across the nation, but there were many local protesters, too.
We had to explain countless times to oblivious peers why having a cross on a public school’s football helmet isn’t acceptable. Many felt that since a private school was involved, they should be allowed to have their symbol represented on the team’s logo.
They couldn’t understand that when a private school partners with a public school, they need to follow the public school’s rules. Students at the private school may have signed up to be represented by a cross, but anyone attending a public school can expect complete freedom from religion in all representations of their school and all school-sponsored activities.
Another common complaint was that since we weren’t football players, and because we weren’t actually wearing the cross, we weren’t directly affected by the logo and shouldn’t care or make such a big deal about it.
On the contrary, it did directly affect us. At every single football game our team had played so far this season, people saw our football team associated with Christianity. People seeing our school as a Christianity-endorsing institution doesn’t just affect the football players. It affects anyone associated with our school district.
Just because we’re not football players doesn’t change the morality of the situation. In the theoretical but entirely possible situation that we wanted to play football, we should not be forced to wear a cross on our heads. The helmet logo was morally and legally wrong; whether or not we play football doesn’t change that.
Some other arguments were even more outlandish. This was one of the emails a school board member received: “Everyone wonders why America is in decline. The answer is simple, our country was founded with Christian values . . . and every time we disavow his image or the cross we are a little less blessed each day. . . . I don’t know what your religious affiliation is, but if you are a Christian . . . think about putting God ahead of your job and political motivations. . . If they don’t like it, tell them to go to another school . . . If you are a liberal, you won’t understand me.”
Obviously, America was not founded on Christian values but on moral principles, which contradict this point of view. Another email received in response to the decision stated, “This has nothing whatsoever to do with separation of church and state and you know it. What it shows is that today’s society is determined to shield this generation from Christianity and remove all mention of God from our lives. Our great country was founded on the belief of personal and religious freedoms and you have now done your part to squash that freedom.”
Actually, it did have to do with separation of church and state. Also, not forcing Christianity upon others seems more like freedom from religion than the freedom suggested in this email.
To us, this issue seems absolutely self-evident. By separation of church and state, it is unacceptable to place any religious symbols on a public school’s uniforms. How so many people are naïve about this idea is bewildering to us. Working to remove the cross from our school’s helmets was a rewarding experience, but also an eye-opening one.
Sadly, far more people than we had ever imagined are completely oblivious to religious symbols in public settings and are too ignorant to other points of view to understand why the cross had to be removed. Hopefully, this has been a learning experience for all.
We just hope that if a situation like this arises, and we aren’t there to fight for our freedom from religion, someone else will.
Jennifer and Sam Essak (at right), parents of Mayan and Balen, as state employees were among the victorious plaintiffs in FFRF’s lawsuit declaring unconstitutional Wisconsin’s Good Friday holiday in 1996. “We’re thrilled to see two generations of commitment to the First Amendment in the Essak family,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Also pictured by the Robert La Follette bust in the Wisconsin Capitol in 1996 were Good Friday plaintiffs (left) Dan Barker, Michael Hakeem, Richard Uttke and Annie Laurie and Anne Gaylor.
This column originally was published on Huffington Post and appears here with the author’s permission.
At the Republican National Convention, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was loud and clear: What makes us Americans is our shared belief in God. That’s it, above all else. Forget adherence to the Constitution, forget a hatred of tyranny, forget a love for baseball. Forget watching reality TV while ingesting a double cheeseburger, large nachos and a 32-ounce orange soda.
No, what binds Americans together is, according to this Christian politician, theism.
As Rubio proclaimed: “We are special because we’re united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values . . . that almighty God is the source of all we have.” And furthermore: “Faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”
Rubio’s wrong. There are countless values that are far more important than having faith in an invisible, invertebrate, unknowable deity. Valuing education, for example. Valuing democracy. Valuing human rights. Valuing free speech. Valuing trees, mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and the ozone layer. Valuing affordable health care. Valuing nutritious school lunches. Valuing one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbors. It is far more important to value and love one another, and to act on that love, than to have faith in a god.
Rubio is also wrong about something else: Faith in God is not shared by all Americans. In fact, millions of hardworking, child-raising, military-joining, coal-mining and liberty-loving Americans live their lives without faith in God. Millions more live their lives without any interest in religion whatsoever. The statistics are surprisingly clear on this front.
In the 1990s, about 8% of Americans claimed “none” as their religion. Then, in 2007, the Pew Forum found that the percentage of nonreligious Americans had doubled to 16%. In 2010, Putnam and Campbell’s national survey put the percentage at 17%. In 2011, the General Social Survey reported it at 18%. This year, the Pew Forum bumped it up to 19%. (Anyone see a pattern here?)
Then, according to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” a whopping 30% of Americans describe themselves as nonreligious. So whether we’re talking 16 or 19 or 30%, we’re talking tens of millions of Americans who are more secular than not.
Of course, not all Americans who claim to be nonreligious are atheists or agnostics, but a very significant proportion are. In fact, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, of those Americans who self-identify as nonreligious, about half are atheist or agnostic. Another 23% believe in a higher power but not a personal God. Only 21% are firm God-believers.
What’s really un-American
Now, maybe there is a god. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe there is a heaven. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the precious, red blood of Jesus saves us from our sins. Maybe it doesn’t. But the answers to these questions, whatever they may be, are not what defines us as Americans, or as citizens, or as humans.
And to suggest that to be a good, decent American requires faith in a Creator, or to imply that Christian values are the only values, or to argue that our laws are given to us solely by God, or to constantly denigrate nonbelievers as somehow less-than-welcome partners in the American enterprise — well, that’s all, quite frankly, very un-American.
After all, the brilliant founders of this nation made their vision quite clear, as they proclaimed in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797: “The government of the United States of Americas is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, only the third such unanimous vote in the Senate out of 339 votes that had taken place up to that time.
And, the writers of our Constitution left God out of the entire body of that foundational, brilliant and oh-so-secular document.
Marco Rubio should know all of this. Perhaps he does. But heck, to Rubio, faith in his deity is clearly of greater value than historical accuracy or embracing all Americans regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. He said so himself.
Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., is an FFRF member and a leading authority on how secular societies measure up favorably to theocratic ones.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation erected 15 billboard messages in Portland, Ore., in mid-October featuring Portland members to coincide with the 35th national FFRF convention there Oct. 12-14. Helping to celebrate the occasion were about 15 Portland-area FFRF members or families who volunteered to appear on a set of myth-dispelling billboards.
FFRF launched its largest “This is what an atheist looks like” campaign to date in Portland, also debuting a new slogan, “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” FFRF leased three 14x48-foot bulletins and 12 EcoPosters (10-foot by 23-inch signs), which appeared in a variety of locations.
“We were pleasantly surprised but sorry we had more volunteers than we could manage to use in the campaign. We wish we hadn’t had to turn anyone away,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The definitive American Religious Identification Survey shows that 24% of Oregonians identify as nonreligious, so FFRF’ers have plenty of good company. FFRF sends special thanks to Life Member Steve Eltinge, for taking the professional photographs, and to all participants for making the campaign possible.”
Michelle and Justin Atterbury were pictured on a magenta billboard saying, “This is what an atheist family looks like,” with their toddler, Sylvan, and baby, Scarlett. Also on a bulletin with this message were Roy Firestone, an engineer, and Karen Firestone, a Portland homemaker. Another couple, Heather Gonsior, drafter, and Shawn Swagerty, information systems director, appeared on a similar billboard.
Appealing brothers Brent Mangum, a chemist and OSU tutor, and Tyler, a physiologist, were pictured back-to-back on a blue “This is what atheists look like” billboard.
Other “This is what an atheist looks like” participants were Anita Brown, whose exotic cat, Wheely, also makes an appearance; Sonja Maglothin, an income auditor; Mark Hecate, a member of FFRF who is IT director at New Avenues for Youth; and Scott Mullin, a filmmaker in Portland.
Featured on a bright-blue billboard was Peter Boghossian, a well-known philosophy instructor at Portland State University, who has an upcoming book and spoke at the FFRF conference. Renee Barnett, who is a teaching assistant in Boghossian’s class on atheism, also appeared on a billboard.
With the election so close to FFRF’s conference, which attracted nearly 900 people from 43 states, two Canadian provinces and six nations, FFRF unveiled a timely billboard slogan, “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” The red, white and blue billboards featured the smiling faces of retired Portland teacher Lenora Warren; retired engineer Duane Damiano, a Life Member; retired politician and novelist Caroline Miller; and retirees Paul Buchman and Marsha Abelman.
FFRF issued a preconvention press release about the billboards asking, “With up to 19% of the U.S. population now identifying as nonreligious, when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us?”
Exit polls bore out FFRF’s contention that the secular vote can sway the election. Exit polls found that 70% of seculars went for Obama. About 62% of those who never attend church voted for Obama. Obama also won the vote for those who attend only monthly or less. Of those who attend church weekly or more, 59% went for Romney.
According to Pew, Catholics made up a quarter of voters, Protestants 53%, Jews 2%, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths 7% and religiously unaffiliated 12% of the electorate.
The Catholic bishops’ campaign against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate dented Catholic support for Obama, which went from 54% in 2008 to 50% in 2012 (48% voted for Romney this year).
White Catholic support for Obama dropped from 47% in 2008 to 40% in 2012. It was the Hispanic Catholics who buoyed the Obama vote at 75%, higher even than the secular vote. Fully 57% of the white Protestant vote went to Romney; 79% of white born-again evangelicals voted for Romney, while 95% of black Protestants went for Obama.
See the billboards
To read Annie Laurie Gaylor’s blog, “The Nones have it,” and learn more about the secular vote, go to ffrf.org/news/blog/ and scroll to Nov. 12, 2012.
FFRF sent a letter of complaint Nov. 13 in advance of a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast to Mayor J. Michael Houston in Springfield, Ill., over illegal city involvement. FFRF, a national nonprofit with over 19,000 members, has 675 members in Illinois.
“Our complainant informs us that this religious event is promoted on the official website for the city of Springfield,” wrote Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney. The Web page lists the main telephone number for the Springfield Department of Community Relations, a city office, as the contact number for the event.
“[I]t is grossly illegal and inappropriate for the city to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event, such as a prayer breakfast,” Markert added. “This practice, which has been recurring for the last 17 years, certainly has the effect of government endorsement of religion.”
FFRF cited legal precedent barring direct government involvement in such events. “The Department of Community Relations is inappropriately handling ticket sales for this religious event. It is of no consequence that the breakfast will take place on private property.”
It also appears that Houston, a retired banker, helped to sponsor and attended the event in his official mayoral capacity.
“We ask that you take immediate steps to remedy the serious violations of the Establishment Clause that the city’s involvement in the prayer breakfast presents,” wrote Markert. She sent a separate letter containing an open records request on the city’s involvement.
Above, a photo of Filipinos living in festering slums in Manila, snapped last spring by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker while on a tour of the Philippine capital as part of an atheist conference. Many families live in the huge dump.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor recently blogged about the longstanding opposition of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to a bill which would provide contraception and require sex education.
The New York Times (Nov. 10), reporting on new interest in the bill, quoted Jose Palma, Catholic Conference president, insisting that “a positive birthrate and a population composed of mostly young people … fuel the economy.”
The story quoted Dr. Esmeraldo Ilem: “Family planning in the Philippines is not about population control. It is a health intervention. We are focusing on women who are too young, too old, too poor or too sick to have babies, but their situation does not allow them to stop.”
The birthrate in the Catholic Philippines is 24.98 out of 1,000 (compared to 13.7 in the United States).
“The Catholic Church has much to answer for,” Gaylor wrote. Read the entire blog at ffrf.org/news/blog/ (scroll to Nov. 13, 2012).
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Simply select these options at your new Membership Profile. (Click on “login” at the upper right-hand corner of ffrf.org/ to begin. If we have your email on file, we emailed you instructions on registering and your Membership ID number in November.)
The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 13 denied a petition for a writ of certiorari by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its co-plaintiffs, asking the court to rule against academic credit for release-time instruction in Spartanburg (S.C.) public schools.
The petition, filed by attorney George Daly of North Carolina, opposed this “delegation of governmental power to a religious school” as “an excessive entanglement of church and state” prohibited under court precedent.
The U.S. Supreme Court approved release-time instruction in the 1952 case, Zorack v. Clauson, allowing religious instructors to offer off-campus religious instruction once a week during the school day to willing public school students, provided there is no school district involvement.
“When the Supreme Court, I think misguidedly, approved release-time instruction, I feel sure the court never envisioned such students receiving academic credit for indoctrination,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Accepting and passing on a grade for devotional religious instruction involves substantial school involvement. It grants an unfair advantage to students belonging to the community’s dominant religion, who can put on such instruction, and places nonreligious students at an academic disadvantage as well. What next? Students demanding extra credit because they’ve attended Sunday school?”
The facts involved a program at Spartanburg High School put on by an unaccredited bible school in a church next door to the high school. At the semester’s end, the bible school sent grades to the accredited Oakbrook Preparatory School. Without review, Oakbrook approved the grades and passed them on to the high school. The high school accepted the grades for academic credit without question, allowing up to two credits. There was no involvement by an accrediting agency over the course work.
“Respondent has granted to a religious institution the governmental power to decide whether a course of religious instruction qualifies for public school academic credit, without any assurance that the religious institution will decide the matter on secular grounds only. The district testified that if Oakbrook grants academic credit for a course entitled Laboratory for Intercessory Prayer, it would accept the credit. Bar Mitzvah training and Mass qualify for academic credit, if Oakbrook says so,” wrote Daly in the petition.
He called it a delegation of governmental power to a religious group forbidden under Larkin v. Grendel’s Den (1982).
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2009. The petition was filed on Oct. 2. (To read the legal petition, visit ffrf.org/news/ and scroll to Nov. 13, 2012.)
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs, Robert and Melissa Moss, FFRF member Ellen Tillett and George Daly, acting pro bono as attorney. Thanks also to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott for his work on the case.