The Republican National Convention was greeted by Uncle Sam in Tampa, Fla.
A so-called “act of god” (Hurricane Ivan) didn’t stop the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s message from being posted the Thursday before the Republican National Convention began in Tampa.
FFRF’s patriotic red-white-and-blue message, depicting a finger-wagging Uncle Sam cautioning that “God fixation won’t fix this nation,” was placed on Kennedy Boulevard.
FFRF’s election-year caveat was drawn by editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower who later became president of the Mormon Church. Steve Benson left the Mormon Church in the early 1990s.
“Our equal-opportunity message to both political parties and all public officials is: Get off your knees and get to work!” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FFRF placed the same admonition on two billboards in Charlotte in time for the Democratic National Convention the following week. It included a hard-to-miss, 14x48-foot version near downtown Charlotte, at 1720 Freedom Drive, and on a highly visible, 10x30-foot billboard on Interstate 77.
“The preoccupation with religion by our nation and our public officials is holding back the USA scientifically, intellectually and morally,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF.
FFRF’s tradition of placing billboards at the national party conventions began in 2008. (Note: All FFRF-placed billboards are clearly identified with FFRF’s full name and website.)
Name: Wayne Bartz.
Where I live: Out in the sticks in the Sierra foothills not far from Lake Tahoe, Calif. We are frequently entertained by deer and raccoons, along with mountain lions and coyotes.
Where and when I was born: Chicago, long, long ago in 1938. I actually remember Hitler strutting around in newsreels at the local movie theaters.
Family: I live with my wife, Linda, and eight rescued feral cats.
Occupation: Now retired, I began my career working the trenches as a clinical psychologist, then as a college psychology professor (and also co-authored several self-help books).
How I got where I am today: Today I am a retired geezer, so I guess I got here mainly by surviving. Where I am as a freethinker is not surprising, since as a psychologist I spent most of my professional life in the company of nonbelievers (80% of psychologists reject supernatural explanations for natural events, including human behavior).
Three decades of training college students to think critically and question authority eventually led to the publication of my recent book, Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith.
Where I’m headed: Presumably to oblivion. I am pretty sure I am not destined either for heaven or hell.
Person in history I admire: Carl Sagan, with whom I was privileged to interact briefly on two occasions. He was a warm and engaging scientist who was able to lay open the mysteries of science in a way understandable to the general public,
I most admired Sagan’s ability to remain calm, pleasant and persuasive in the face of hostile questions or ignorance-based preposterous claims. He had that rare gift of keeping his cool in situations where most of us would lose it, and that made him a great educator.
A quotation I like: “Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love,” (the late humorist Bill Hicks). I also like comedian Rich Jeni’s description of going to war over religion: “This involves two groups of people willing to kill each other in order to determine who has the best imaginary friend.”
These are a few of my favorite things: My fondest freethought accomplishment came from spearheading a California college faculty organization 25 years ago working for the separation of church and state. Our efforts eventually resulted in invocations and closing prayers being permanently banned from graduation ceremonies at more than 100 California community colleges.
Although it sometimes may not seem that way, once in a while we actually win one. Today I am encouraged by the vociferous nationwide out-of-the-closet atheist revolt, fueled by FFRF, Dawkins, Hitchens, Newdow, Harris, et al. As a retired educator, I am delighted by the younger generation’s increasing rejection of religion, with nearly a third now admitting that they have discarded traditional beliefs.
These are not: Nothing is more irritating to me than sanctimonious politicians (e.g., Rick Santorum) pandering to the ignoramus Religious Right, not to mention President Obama repeatedly babbling publicly about Jesus. That’s embarrassing.
My doubts about religion started: When I was a kid, my family attended a Lutheran church where I experienced an odd mixture of community solidarity, social events and high-minded ideals, along with watching adults engage in petty squabbles, hypocrisy and political infighting. My favorite minister, a brilliant speaker and thought-provoking pastor, was let go because he failed to present simple hellfire and brimstone in his weekly sermons.
He tried to make the congregation think, and they didn’t like it one bit. He was replaced by a mundane standard-issue preacher who bored me to tears, even as a teenager. Our wonderful new pastor managed to alienate my parents by pulling a nasty fast-shuffle on me and my older brother. We had worked for a couple of years as church custodians, being paid a few bucks for our labors.
One day the pastor notified me that we were being fired for failing to properly do our job and then quickly appointed his newly retired father to the position. We knew better because my father, a serious German-style taskmaster (a supervising chemist at Kaiser Steel), did a weekly white-glove inspection of our work every Saturday, making sure that everything was 100% up to snuff. He was not at all happy with the way his sons had been treated and eventually became alienated from the church. He never spoke of it, but my parents quit attending and so did I.
Why I’m a freethinker: The alternative is unthinkable.
Ways I promote freethought: I spent three decades teaching the scientific method and honing college students’ critical thinking skills as a psychology professor. Based on that work, I recently wrote Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith. (It’s available from Amazon and as an e-book from River’s Bend Press at riversbendpress.com.) The book characterizes blind faith as a “toxic poison of the intellect,” in sharp contrast to contemporary American society, which enthusiastically endorses faith as a positive value.
Chapters such as “The Folly of Faith” and “Miracles, Healing and Health Hokum” point out how unsubstantiated beliefs can lead the faithful to some very silly and sometimes dark places. Critical thinking is proposed as an alternative to faith, its implementation based on a step-by-step approach summarized by the acronym CRITIC. The book also targets faith-based scam artists such as psychics, seers, faith healers, hokey health practitioners and assorted gurus and cult leaders.
It concludes with a review of the skeptical views of the nation’s founders, noted scientists, contemporary public figures and entertainers. Philip Appleman, Freethought Today poetry contributor, says that CRITIC methodology should be taught in every grade school, high school and college.
By Bailey Rahn
and Chance Campbell
“My name is Will and I am an alcoholic.”
Those words carried the 19-year-old to what he hoped would be early redemption for a self-admitted addict. The faces looking back at him were aged and weathered by years of pain, reflecting a desperation that was only just taking root in him. Alcoholics Anonymous with its bolstered reputation was the first option that came to mind.
Then again, it was the only option that came to mind.
Will only attended two AA sessions before walking out, disgusted by its covert conversion methods: “No one there would admit that AA was religious. They claim that they do not hold you to the Christian God, only that they hold you to some higher power. They claim it can be another god. A rock. An abstract, an ideal. ... It would be one thing if they had meant it ... But they didn’t. If the higher power could be anything we wanted, then why did we end each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer?”
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are centered around the 12-Step program. According to 12-Step, addicts are incapable of escaping addiction without God’s help. Narconon, the rehab empire with over 180 treatment centers worldwide, grounds its program in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. But don’t count on them admitting that before you hand over the $27,000 for admission.
Nowhere does Narconon’s website mention its religious affiliation. Likely, they’re avoiding association with Scientology because of the bad rap it’s developed. But let’s be real: This is the same group of people pitching you their handbook called “Integrity and Honesty.”
AA openly states its spiritual foundation, but its introduction pamphlet advertises an open-minded front: “All the great faiths are represented in our Fellowship, and many religious leaders have encouraged our growth. There are also atheists and agnostics among us. Belief in, or adherence to, a formal creed is not a condition of membership.”
But take a look at AA’s fundamental 12-step curriculum. By Step 2 the addict submits to a “Power” that is greater than him. This cleverly ambiguous higher Power is left open to the interpretation of the addict, but in any case the addict must surrender his agency and independent strength. But wait, hold on: Who says conversion can’t be an effective treatment method?
As a lifelong Christian, Dr. William R. Miller at the University of New Mexico thought spirituality would surely benefit recovering addicts. To test the validity of his assumptions, he conducted a study that compared religious and secular rehabilitation treatment programs.
The results were surprising: Not only were secular programs more effective in treating substance abuse, patients of religious programs reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than those without spiritual guidance.
In light of these discoveries, Miller concluded, “What we came away with was the sense that we had been naïve to think of spiritual direction as an acute intervention for early treatment.”
But why did graduates of religious rehab programs register higher rates of anxiety and depression? Miller speculates that it’s simply timing; with religion’s excess of moral codes and guilt-enforced modes of conduct, religious treatments only augment addicts’ stress. If that is true, what do secular programs offer that lead to lower levels of anxiety and depression?
One secular rehab program, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training), focuses on teaching self-empowerment and self-reliance. Simple, right? SMART’s techniques also evolve alongside addiction recovery science. In fact, these are common practices in most secular rehab programs. By restoring addicts’ agency through self-empowerment techniques, recoverers graduate with the knowledge that self-control comes from within. This prepares them to stay off drugs in the future and lead more productive lives. With these outcomes, reductions in depression and anxiety are inevitable.
The greatest distinction between religious and secular treatment programs is the source from which addicts are encouraged to derive their will to quit. In 12-step and other spiritual programs, patients must sacrifice themselves to an external entity, accepting that they cannot recover alone. Addicts effectually replace their dependence on substances with a dependence on a (real or imagined) higher power.
Rather than dependency replacement, secular rehabs shoot for dependency cessation, treating the aspects of addicts’ lives that caused them to seek external affirmation in the first place.
While spirituality has provided support for many recovering addicts, that doesn’t excuse the oversaturation of religious rehabs in the treatment market. Rather than subversively proselytizing vulnerable individuals, rehabilitation programs should prioritize patients’ needs.
Not everyone needs religion to recover. The dishonest use of religion has caused more than one person to walk out of treatment, but the larger problem may lie in the many people too desperate to realize they’re swallowing a force-fed God.
Bailey Rahn and Chance Campbell are editors at AllTreatment.com, a resource which provides information on treatment programs nationwide and articles and interviews on drug treatment.
Miller, William R. Forcehimes, Alyssa. O’Leary, Mary J. LaNoue, Marnie D. “Spiritual Direction in Addiction Treatment: Two Clinical Trials.” 2008; 35(4):434-442. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074054720800038X
Arnold, Ruth M., S. Kelly Avants, Arthur Magolin, David Marcotta. “Patient attitudes concerning the inclusion of spirituality into addiction treatment.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Volume 23, Issue 4, Pages 319-326,
December 2002, http://www.journalofsubstanceabusetreatment.com/article/S0740-5472(02)00282-9/fulltext
“Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains”
William R. Miller, Ph.D.
Hey teach, look at me now
By Amedee Marchand Martella
Ever since I heard my middle school science teacher say the hand of God was responsible for separating the continents, I knew I was going to be a freethinker who promoted the separation of church and state and the teaching of science in public schools. I wondered how a science teacher could make such a declaration without evidence to support it.
In high school, my expository debate topic was on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which I chose to illustrate why creationism should not be taught. My coach said if I wanted to do well in competition, I should probably choose a less controversial topic.
I said I wanted to make people think, so I decided to keep my topic on church-state separation and the importance of teaching evolution in public schools. I won local competitions but received low scores in northern Idaho. I made the state finals but lost.
My coach gave me the judges’ feedback. One said the topic was too absurd to be true and that I had made up Pastafarianism to bash religion (even though it’s based on principles of Christianity). I knew my efforts were worth it when I heard an older couple say my presentation was their favorite because it made them think.
One particular teacher was an evangelical Christian. We frequently got into heated debates over religion. The last conversation we had was about faith versus scientific evidence. Another teacher told my class that atheism was a belief system. I explained why it wasn’t and brought him an article just to reinforce my point.
In my digital media class, an assignment was to make a stop-motion video. I made one entitled “Santa versus Jesus: A Race to Determine Who Is Fact and Who Is Fiction.” Concluding there was not definitive evidence for either, I ended with an evolving set of figurines and Darwin coming out of nowhere to win the race. In another class, I wrote and had published a letter to the editor about how “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. My letter sparked debate in the community.
All of my friends are religious. I appreciate the fact they continue to be my friends and are relatively open-minded. They’ve said I’m one of the only freethinkers they’ve ever met. My nonreligious views bewilder them. I strive to make them think critically.
My middle school teacher would be surprised to learn her explanation of the continents motivated me to speak out against the encroachment of religion in society.
Amedee Marchand Martella, 18, Spokane, Wash., is attending the University of Colorado-Boulder to major in evolutionary biology and political science.
Not afraid to speak up
By Jarrett Browne
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m atheist. I’m one of the few people at my school who has no religion, so it can come as a shock to people. They act surprised, as if I had just told them that I had two Bengal tigers guarding my house at night.
One day in government class, my teacher asked for an “adult discussion” about 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist’s effort to get a prayer banner removed from her school. While people were saying how stupid Jessica was, I raised my hand and was recognized.
“Many of you have no idea where this girl is coming from, but I do. I’m atheist, and one of the very few here at Butler. Our school system is horrible about keeping religion out of public schools, and I feel unwelcome here at times. Even if this prayer isn’t directed toward any particular religion, it’s directed toward religion in general and it goes against separation of church and state.”
Many students just stared at me like deer in the headlights. “But it’s not harming anything,” said the girl sitting behind me. “Having a banner in the auditorium isn’t prayer in school! This girl’s being ridiculous!” By now she was standing up and shaking with emotion.
“I agree,” said a guy in the back who was going to Notre Dame on a full-ride athletic scholarship. “If most of the school’s Roman Catholic, they should have this up for the students.”
“But it’s offensive to some students,” I told him. “No, we need it up because it agrees with my religion!” he insisted.
“What makes you better than a couple of atheist teenagers?” I asked. He shut up and didn’t return to the debate.
“I’m with Jarrett now,” a girl said. “Yeah, I don’t think they should keep it up if it makes some students uncomfortable,” said someone else.
“OK, let’s vote,” said our teacher. “How many of you are with Jessica?” My hand shot right up as did a few others. But one shocked me, someone I knew to be very religious and very conservative. I couldn’t believe it.
Even though we were outvoted, I still had an effect on this classroom.
Jarrett Browne, 18, Vandalia, Ohio, is attending Wright State University in Dayton to major in mechanical engineering.
Planting seeds of doubt
By Kaitlin A. Holden
Growing up in the South, religion is one of the most vital aspects of your life. From birth, you are indoctrinated by every adult who raises you. I’m the child and grandchild of ordained ministers. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been taught that betraying “God” is an unforgivable sin. When my parents found out that I was an atheist at age 14, my life took a turn for the worse.
They couldn’t believe it. They tried getting me to read the bible over and over, took me to psychiatrists and sent me to Christian summer camps. I quickly became depressed and thought that nobody loved me. My embarrassed parents wouldn’t let me talk about my views, read books by atheist authors and didn’t care to hear about my life.
I felt worthless but stood my ground. Then I had an epiphany that changed everything. I realized that I was an important person with a purpose. I was kind and passionate and had ideas and knowledge that nobody could ever take away. I seemed to love and support people more than my “Christianly” parents did.
It was then I knew that lack of religion doesn’t make me a bad person. I realized that even if I was considered a heathen, I was proud of myself. I am nonjudgmental, amazed by the wonders of science and the universe and have a thirst for learning that nothing could quench. It was all so beautiful to me.
Soon after, I began to tell anyone who would listen about the restraints of religion — comparing beliefs, pointing out flaws and contradictions in the bible. Although my success was limited, I still found joy planting little seeds of doubt in the minds of the indoctrinated.
Four years later, I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed true to myself and my nonbelief. I look back on my 14-year-old self and smile, knowing I’m in a better place now than I would be within the confines of religion. I taught myself to reason. I shall be a freethinker for life.
Kaitlin Amber Holden, 18, Murrells Inlet, S.C., is attending Winthrop University in Rock Hill to major in premedical biology and political science.
Mission for humanity
By Cheyenne Tessier
My knees were sore. I got down and prayed for wind, joining hands with dirty-faced working men and the long-skirted women. And the wind came.
It was a miracle, I convinced myself, a missionary in a hell-stricken place, the daughter of two devout Christians. Yes, I was blessed.
We were told not to give our food to the starving children because it would start a riot, so we gave them bibles, telling them this is the right way. Do not live with the devils of your ancestors, children. We played and danced.
Then we sat on the air-conditioned bus and ate sandwiches and drank soda, but the children could not drink their bibles. Soon the girls would turn to prostitution to feed themselves, but God was with them, so we gave them bibles as if we offered salvation to a system that was, in the first place, polluted by missionaries.
We didn’t give them work, only scripture. We didn’t heal their water supply, only offered a prayer for their souls. And then we came home, our work done. I hung my Haitian flag above my bed. Many nights I stared at that flag, praising myself as a hero. But doubt is the greatest of infections, and soon I was overcome with questions.
I attended church less and less. I could not think about the evil I had done by starving a community for some faraway god, who didn’t laugh or learn or die of malnourishment.
If there were no heaven and no hell and no God, I wonder if we would share our food and water and shelter instead of our “wisdom.” I wonder if all the love, focused away from the skies and onto humanity, would be enough to eliminate hunger and educate every child to care for our Earth instead of our unreachable skies.
My proudest moment as a freethinker was inviting my former congregation to a benefit I held after the 2010 Haiti earthquake in the name of humanity. I proved that it does not take a zealot or a missionary to change the world, but as Margaret Mead said, “It takes a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”
That night, I gave back to Haiti the sandwiches I had stolen from it.
When I am asked, “Are you doing it with a church?” I quietly reply, “No. I am on a mission, but I am not a missionary.”
Cheyenne Tessier, 18, Hudson, N.H., is enrolled at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to study international affairs and Arabic.
Light bulb in the pews
By Zach Gowan
I was raised by my mom, who never exposed me to a particularly religious environment. As a result, I never really found myself subscribing to any religion. I never really thought about the fact that I wasn’t religious. Put simply, I just wasn’t. However, around seventh and eighth grade, certain events occurred that really brought my attention to religion and its effects in society.
My dad came back into my life in middle school. He and I were never really able to form a relationship before this time. He had gotten himself in order and met a woman whom he soon married. As a result, I would go down to their house and visit every other weekend.
My dad had gotten back into going to church by this point. His wife and her children were religious as well, so all of them went to church. They would bring me along. I didn’t really have a choice. They just made me go. If I ever voiced the fact that I didn’t want to go, I would risk hearing a lecture about how I’d go to Hell if I didn’t participate in their religion. This continued throughout middle school.
My previously religiously apathetic self was dissipating. Now that I was regularly being exposed to religion, I was starting to form opinions of it. And honestly, I didn’t really like it. I completely disagreed with all the things I would hear in the sermons. I couldn’t stand the hate that the preachers would spout about nonbelievers, homosexuals, and so on. On the whole, I just couldn’t understand why people would buy into this stuff.
Eventually, in eighth grade, a particular sermon at church caused my logical faculties to finally kick in (they would improve and enhance over the following years, but this was when reason truly started to play a role in my opinion of religion). It was a sermon about homosexuality and how it’s supposedly a sin. The preacher used an analogy to demonstrate the point. It went a little something like this: You can’t take an electrical plug and plug it into another one. It has to be plugged into a socket. Similarly, a socket can’t receive another socket. It has to receive a plug. Therefore, homosexuality is wrong. Obviously, the plug represents the male reproductive organ, and the socket represents the female reproductive organ. The “logic” here was that if putting a plug into a plug or a socket into a socket is wrong, then the same principle must apply to humans. I instantly saw how fallacious and absurd this was. To use this analogy, you have to assume that the only thing that matters in a relationship is sex, which is an odd assumption for a typically anti-sex group of people to make.
But the absurdity of the argument isn’t what bothered me. The primitive and old-fashioned conclusion (that homosexuals are bad) isn’t what bothered me. It was the fact that everyone in the room blindly bought into the blatantly illogical argument. No one gave it a second thought. They just accepted it because the preacher said it.
This moment was a critical one for me. I would consider myself to have been a budding freethinker at the time, as I was forming my own opinion of religion and its teachings through reason, even if I was just starting out. Looking back on that day, I’m proud of my refusal to accept the preacher’s words at face value. I think religion has its place in society, but I do not like its potential to brainwash people. Fortunately, I was able to escape that brainwashing and from that point on, I can think for myself.
Zach Gowan, 17, was born in Philadelphia and is attending the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg to major in English.
Absolved from unnecessary confusion
By Abigail Dove
“I hope and suspect that you have not moved into unnecessary confusion,” read my grandfather’s letter in troubled script.
I am “blessed” in the statistical sense to have a father, who, despite being a church elder, will agree to read and discuss selections of Richard Dawkins’ writing after only mild coercion, and a mother who volunteers as a Sunday School teacher only out of a profound desire to avoid interaction with the vociferous social conservatives who frequent the adult classes.
I suppose it is fitting that my grandfather’s Presbyterian ministry embraces an idealistic simplification of God as the embodiment of love and not the terrifying entity that his denominational fellows theorize entertains himself by dangling sinners over a flaming abyss.
But despite my grandfather’s remarkable open-mindedness, he was alarmed when my father inadvertently revealed that I, his supposedly pious granddaughter — whom he personally baptized with water he collected from the Jordan River — was not the staunch Christian he anticipated.
When his concerned letter arrived a few weeks later, my parents advised me to downplay the issue for convenience. Couldn’t I, they pleaded, simply feign agreement? Easy for them to say.
The early emergence of my atheism could stunt my relationship with my grandfather. Here I was presented with the perfect gateway to honest, open dialogue. Besides, as a casual skim through the Old Testament will reveal, lying has adverse consequences.
So began our tense correspondence, an ongoing dialogue on belief. In a stream of lengthy letters, he expressed his confusion over why, in my WASP-y world free of creationism, homophobia, sexism and the other oft-targeted shortcomings of religion, I am so opposed to the church.
I desperately tried to articulate that his beloved moderate institutions, though conceivably palatable, enforce the notion of religion as an indispensable component of society, thus shielding fundamentalist faiths from criticism and letting hordes of potentially great future scientists and thinkers receive a life of miseducation under the guise of respect for religious diversity.
He remained steadfast in his belief that Christian education spreads essential virtues. I found myself struggling to find a delicate way to express that my Sunday School experience enlightened me only to new techniques of eye-rolling.
I labored over each letter so as to completely address his questions while remaining both respectful of his life’s work. Amid piles of discarded drafts, I questioned whether it was my place to express even courteous disapproval over this wise, gentle man’s philosophy. Awaiting his responses, I imagined him poring over my tortured writings, insulted and mired in disappointment.
At his funeral, I sat sobbing in a sea of Presbyterian ministers arguing over the mechanics of when, in the biblically unaddressed circumstance of a fatal coma, the soul leaves the body. “Are you the atheist?” demanded one of the many pastors there. “Your grandfather used to read parts of your letters at some of our meetings. It meant so much to him that one of his grandchildren took an interest in discussing the subject.”
In a sense far different from the one my grandfather had in mind, he had absolved me of “unnecessary confusion.” I now know with certainty that no decent individual will see ignominy in freethought or free dialogue.
Abigail Dove, 18, Collegeville, Pa., was valedictorian at Perkiomen Valley High School and is attending Swarthmore College to major in neuroscience and minor in cognitive science.
FFRF awarded Eric a $300 scholarship for his essay.
By Eric Ouellet
When I was young, my Christian mother would read bible stories to me. She would take me to church occasionally and lecture me about god. Like any child, I believed all of it.
As I grew up, I fell in love with science books at the library, particularly books about space. Christianity’s claims soon seemed completely nonsensical. By the time I was 9, I had rejected religion and the idea of a God but told no one.
I remember feeling that no matter what I believed, religion merited respect, and it was wrong to question another person’s beliefs. But over the years, religion began to anger me. I became angry at the way Christians seemed so certain about things they had no way of knowing, the way they assumed they were morally superior and that the best way to raise children was by brainwashing them.
Slowly, my mother began to suspect that I had rejected Christianity. When I was 13, I was reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and telling my younger sister how the ancient Greeks calculated Earth’s circumference. Mother said to me, “Keep in mind, scientists don’t have all the answers.”
That angered me enormously and to me meant, “You can learn about science if you want, but always remember that God is the real answer to everything.” I didn’t say anything. In fact, I didn’t come out to my mother until I was 16. Thankfully, she didn’t disown me.
In fact, she doesn’t really seem to care that I am a nonbeliever (which makes me question whether she really believes the claims of Christianity herself, because if she does, she ought to be concerned that I will be tortured for eternity).
Deserving of ridicule
Why did it take me so long to come out of the closet? It was largely because of the idea perpetuated by society that it’s good and noble to be religious.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Every week, politicians are ridiculed in editorial cartoons and on satirical TV shows, but for some reason, it’s unheard of to ridicule the most ridiculous beliefs of all.
Religion’s unmerited respected status is the only thing that truly sustains it. After all, it’s fairly obvious that most religious people don’t believe as they do because they’ve evaluated all the possibilities and come to the conclusion that their faith makes the most sense.
They believe because those around them believe the same thing and no one seems to question it. One of the reasons it’s so important for atheists to come out and become vocal is to abolish the dangerous social custom of not questioning ridiculous beliefs.
The atheism section on the social news website Reddit has over 730,000 subscribers. It’s sometimes criticized for posting too much silly content mocking Christianity and Islam rather than discussions. But in my view, Zombie Jesus pictures and the like are extremely valuable in that they help destroy the assumption that religion deserves respect.
I’m always amused when religious defenders online try to use the same tactics as atheists. For example, one posted a picture of an obese teenager at a computer with a caption calling atheists “fat fucks with no life.”
Imagine the reaction if something like that were said about Christians. Rather than feel insulted, which was the intent of the childish picture, atheist commenters “agreed” that atheists are fat because they eat so many babies.
It’s difficult to attack atheists because they don’t have any ridiculous beliefs that require defending and therefore generally don’t feel the need to resort to tribalism.
The stigma associated with criticizing religious belief does not apply to any other belief, whether it is political, scientific or otherwise. It’s impossible to know the exact numbers, but I suspect that a large portion of supposedly religious people don’t truly believe the claims of their faiths. Thankfully, the rise of the Internet has been unkind to unjustified claims, and as a result, nonbelief appears to be accelerating.
I believe that religion will be eliminated in my lifetime, but when that happens depends on nonbelievers having the courage to come out.
Eric Ouellet, 18, lives in Mississauga, Ontario. He’s in his second year at Carleton University in Ottawa, studying computer science.
FFRF awarded Anna a $500 scholarship.
By Anna Biela
Seven years ago, I was a Catholic who was starting to ask the important questions and to put words to the doubts that plagued my childhood. I spent years trying to work through all the cognitive dissonance and the shame religion taught me.
It was one of the most difficult and freeing things I’ve ever done. Now I’m the president of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University. I’ve been on the local evening news standing up for separation of church and state. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
I wish I could say that I got here by my own willpower, but there were four people that made it possible. They’re why I’m an “out” atheist, and they’re my inspiration and motivation.
Rachel has been my friend since middle school. When we first met, she was going to a fairly conservative church, though she was never really into it. While I was still struggling with my own sexuality, she was actively advocating gay marriage. She was the window that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond my sheltered Catholic childhood.
One of my most vivid memories was when I asked her how she could be religious and pro-gay rights. She responded very matter-of-factly, “I can think for myself, and I think that everyone deserves love.”
It made something click in my mind. A very simple truth emerged from the jumbled mess of religion in my mind: The welfare of people trumps religious idealism. She was the first person I told I was an atheist. She smiled and said, “It’s about time.”
In high school I met Joseph through a friend who thought he could help me. He was the first self-labeled atheist I ever met. He never told me what to believe, just asked questions and pointed out flaws in my logic.
He made me realize that I was, in fact, an atheist already, but I was afraid of what giving up my god would mean for my world. I was afraid, and he taught me that fear wasn’t a reason to dismiss the truth. For the first time, I was taught the radical notion of “good without god.”
Then, in college, I met Kacey and Ben, respectively the former vice president and treasurer of the Society of Non-Theists. They encouraged me to come to meetings and made me feel welcome at a university swarming with campus ministries. Before I knew it, I had found myself a home with heathens in the middle of conservative Indiana.
Kacey, Ben and the other amazing Non-Theists turned my de facto atheism into activism. They gave me the courage and support I needed to be open and proud. Since joining, I’ve worked with them to raise money for charity, build relations with other campus groups, staff countless Ask an Atheist tables and coordinate trips to various conventions and the Reason Rally.
Last spring I was elected Non-Theists president almost unanimously. I was expecting a summer off, but ended up spending a month fighting a proposal for the city of West Lafayette to subsidize a church project by issuing $7 million of economic development revenue bonds.
Our work changed the original 6-1 vote to a very close 4-3 in favor of the church, which wasn’t quite a success, but we made a difference. We convinced two council members and made the city stop and think, all while establishing our presence in local government. [FFRF also got involved.]
To be completely honest, I’ve had my moments of doubt, wondering if my activism is worth it, considering the prevalent bias against the nonreligious. Any potential employer can easily discover my position in the club by Googling me. The pastor of the aforementioned church had misquoted and vilified me during his Sunday service, leading members of his congregation to harass us. It has created a huge barrier between my parents and me, and I’ve lost too many friends.
But every time I doubt, I realize that those are the exact reasons why being out of the closet is so important. I had four amazing people to stand with me and guide me. Now I have a duty and the ability to help any other young person with doubts. I will make the Society of Non-Theists strong for everyone who comes after me. I will fight for equality and rights.
I will stand up for anyone else who finds themselves the victim of religion. Religion hurt me, taught me self-loathing and repressed me. Atheists helped me, taught me the value of my voice and helped me find an ounce of truth in this crazy, beautiful universe.
Anna Biela, 20, was born in Michigan City, Ind., and is a junior majoring in nuclear engineering at Purdue University.
FFRF awarded Casimir a $1,000 scholarship.
By Casimir Klim
Unlike many of my fellow nonbelievers, I faced no backlash for my atheism until years after I had “come out” to my family and friends. Growing up in a relatively secular household, I was encouraged to think critically and draw my own conclusions about life. Although my parents were somewhat spiritual, they never forced their beliefs on me and understood when, as a young man, I rejected religious faith.
As a child and teenager, I was not made to feel like an outsider because I refused to believe unscientific explanations for existence. That all changed when I chose to become a firefighter and moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to El Paso, Texas.
After high school, I had decided to forgo college in favor of a career in the fire service. The choice satisfied both the desire I felt for adventure and the inclination to help others that my family instilled in me. After training in Michigan, I encountered a struggling economy where most municipalities were laying off public safety workers. Being passionate about my career choice, I accepted a position in El Paso and began working as a firefighter/paramedic at the age of 22.
I had not considered what a large role religion played in the fire service. At the training academy, I saw a large number of cross necklaces and tattoos on my classmates and teachers. But my real wake-up call occurred at the dinner table a few months after I had finished training and began station work.
In fire stations, crews work 24-hour shifts and traditionally eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Close quarters breed familiarity, and almost no topic of conversation is off limits. As the “new guy” from out of town, I was a bit of a curiosity. During a lull in conversation, the question of my faith arose: “Hey Klim, you Catholic? What religion are you?”
I was taken by surprise. It was a question I had never been asked point blank before, let alone in a room full of other people. I could, of course, have declined to answer. But fire crews value a type of trust that is only fostered by brutal honesty. If I couldn’t tell them the truth about myself, how could they trust me to watch out for them inside a burning building?
“I — I’m not anything. I’m not religious,” I said cautiously.
I hoped it would blow over, but these were not people to take controversy lightly. They reacted with genuine shock, which quickly gave way to relentless mocking over the eternity I would surely spend in hell. To succeed as a firefighter, one must have thick skin, and I didn’t mind getting kidded about the “religion thing.”
It could just as easily been about my big ears or Midwestern accent. The joking was easy to take in stride. What really hurt was seeing the face on one of my mentors fall as I professed my lack of faith.
He, it turned out, was extremely devout. He looked both surprised and saddened by my proclamation. I wondered if our relationship would ever be the same. To bridge this new divide, I vowed to be the best firefighter I could be. I needed to prove that my atheism did not affect my abilities or my morals.
As time went by, my hard work paid off. When I proved I could successfully triage patients at a multi-car pileup and competently work the nozzle in a burning bedroom as flames rolled over our heads, the issue of where I went on Sunday went out the window. My mentor put the issue behind him and continued to serve as a great friend and adviser.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find other members of the department who lived upstanding lives without any form of religious faith. These kindred spirits also happened to be some of the best firefighters I have worked with. Many of them were equally, if not more, morally scrupulous than their religious peers.
Watching them cheerfully face long shifts with no sleep reinforced my observation that morality does not come from God. These brave men and women risked their lives to help others, not for a reward in the afterlife, but because they felt it was simply the right thing to do.
The acceptance I eventually felt from my firefighter brothers and sisters does not, apparently, translate to the rest of society. A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that nearly 40% of Americans feel that atheists “do not at all agree” with the vision that they have of society.
Would they still think so, knowing that atheists are running into burning buildings to search for their families? That we are educating their children? Policing their streets? I don’t think so. We nonbelievers are represented in myriad aspects of American society. We need to start standing up and saying so.
Initially, it was difficult to be forthcoming about my lack of faith to my peers. But in the end, it was a valuable and eye-opening experience. They were shocked at first, but it wasn’t long before we were back to eating steaks, watching TV and waiting for “the big one.” We found common ground in our work protecting the citizens of our city.
My time as a firefighter showed me the importance of “coming out” as a freethinker and atheist, regardless of one’s profession or location. If nonbelieving professionals make their position known, it will start to erode the view that atheists lack morality and do not share the values held by their fellow Americans.
If enough of us speak up, we will be recognized as the ethical and responsible members of the society that we are. I feel that this simple step will help us to move closer to a tolerant, inclusive and rational society.
Casimir Klim, 24, says his experiences as a first responder helped him discover a passion for health care. That led him to make the difficult decision to resign from the fire department and return to school. He’s a freshman at the School of General Studies, Columbia University’s undergraduate school for nontraditional students. He’s pursuing a neuroscience degree and plans to apply to medical school.
FFRF awarded Tori a $2,000 scholarship.
By Savannah “Tori” Roland
My name is Tori. I once was blind, but now I see. This is my story.
As an adolescent, I felt lost, hopeless and alone. I searched for something to take away the pain. Caroline, a Christian neighbor, leapt to my rescue. She told me that if I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior, He would forgive all of my sins. How I longed for unconditional love and acceptance! I was so excited to begin this journey!
And so I called myself a Christian. I followed Caroline to church every Wednesday and Sunday. The teen program often offered free pizza and soda, and there were so many other kids to hang out with! I had never been to a rock concert, and then the church brought in a rock band! Freaking awesome! I was addicted to all of the joy and excitement at this wonderful place.
I began to attend Bible Club meetings at lunchtime at my public school. Instead of having to eat the awful school lunches, we got to eat Papa John’s pizza. It was so good to be a Christian! My brother, who had not been saved, was angry that he did not get Papa John’s for lunch.
One day he asked the head of the meeting for some pizza. The response was, “You have to be good to get pizza.”
Occasionally, Caroline and I attended Sunday sermons at church. They were not always so happy and uplifting. The pastor often preached about the people who would burn in hell — some for not truly believing in God, some for worshipping the wrong God, some for not being baptized, some for being homosexual.
Around election time, sermons focused on political issues, like how the conservative Christians needed to stay in power to keep the U.S. on the right track. Sometimes the pastor would preach directly from “The Good Book,” which was often frightening. God seemed overly emotional, demanding, angry, power-hungry. This was a peaceful, loving God?
I often ate dinner with Caroline and her parents. It started with a prayer, the prelude to frequent arguments, usually about whether Caroline’s mother Sally should get up from the table to fetch something for Caroline’s father Richard.
Richard often read bible passages to prove his assertion that women are men’s servants. Sally’s argument was quite reasonable: She had already cooked and served the meal. Now she would like to sit down and enjoy it.
Out of the closet
In my freshman year, I moved to a different school. It was here that I met gay and bisexual students. I witnessed the hate and judgment emanating from Christians. A boy slammed my friend Josh into a locker, proclaiming him “fag” as he did so. Other students laughed and jeered. This motivated me to become involved with the LGBT club and to take a very close look at my Christian friends and their beliefs.
I had seen Christians treating people of alternate faiths with scorn. I had seen God used as an excuse to justify hatred and discrimination against women and gays. I had seen Satan used as an excuse for alcohol abuse, drug abuse and adultery. I had allowed a group of Christians to tell me what to believe and how to live my life.
I had seen no evidence to prove the existence of God. I started calling myself a nonbeliever and came out of the closet to family and friends.
My mother and stepfather, who are atheists, were thrilled. My father and stepmother, who are evangelical Christians, exclaimed, “You will burn in hell!” and “I will pray for your soul.” My Christian friends proclaimed, “You can’t believe in nothing!” Even my brother, who was never religious, was appalled.
I began attending activities with local secular groups and frequented secular blogs such as The Friendly Atheist. Learning that I was one of millions of nonbelievers helped me to feel less alone.
I was appalled to learn that atheists are distrusted and hated by the vast majority of Americans, which causes many atheists to remain closeted. How to overcome the negative stereotypes?
There is power in numbers, so atheists must come out of the closet and band together. We must be active in secular groups and visible and helpful in the community. With a large, visible presence and a new, positive reputation, people who question the existence of God will no longer fear being ostracized by society, or fear being struck by a lightning bolt hurled by an enraged God.
Sadly, critical thinking is sorely neglected within the public school system. Far too much emphasis is placed on memorization. In three years, I will be an elementary school teacher, and I will use this opportunity to teach children to use their noodles.
I imagine a future where atheists are regarded as moral and intelligent human beings. I imagine a future where individuals seek truth via scientific study and critical thinking, rather than through the bible.
I dream of a future where politicians can openly express atheist beliefs and still have a fair chance of becoming president of the United States. I dream of a future where individuals who were once blindly faithful can attain 20/20 vision.
Savannah “Tori” Roland, 18, grew up in Charleston, S.C., where she’s a sophomore at the College of Charleston, majoring in elementary and secondary education.
FFRF awarded Laila a $3,000 scholarship.
By Laila Shalikar
I let out an exasperated sigh as I stare at the mound of photos scattered at my feet. I had been jumping up and down in the storage closet, struggling to grasp an umbrella when I knocked down an old cardboard box filled with hundreds of family photos spanning 20 years.
“Laila! Hesus Maryosep! Do you always have to be so clumsy? Pick those up — quick!” my “Nanay” hollers at me. I grimace and bend down to collect them, but stop as one catches my eye.
I blow the dust off of it and hold it up to the light. It is me, standing in front of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the day of my First Communion 12 years ago. I chuckle at my poufy white dress and the ridiculous garland of artificial flowers crowning my head.
But there is more to this photo than just how silly the 8-year-old version of myself looked. Scrutinizing it further, it is clear I did not exude the same happiness as the rest of my classmates. I note the slightly sullen expression in my eyes and my close-mouthed “smile.”
Until seven years ago, religion had always played a large role in my life. My very first trip out of the U.S. was at age 3, when my mother abruptly spirited me away to her native Philippines so I could be baptized into the Catholic faith without her disapproving husband’s knowledge.
Upon returning home, instead of attending the elementary school with my neighborhood playmates, she sent me to a Seventh-day Adventist school an hour away. Classmates gawked at me for eating meat and suggesting we study evolution.
In third grade, I went to a Catholic school for the sole purpose of receiving my First Communion. That year was absolute torture. I did not have the slightest clue about the Seven Sacraments or the countless prayers the nuns forced me to memorize. I never had a say in any of this. I was brainwashed at an early age before logical, rational thought even had a chance to develop.
On the other side, my father’s Afghan family pressured him to make me attend Islamic classes at the local mosque, which he staunchly refused to do because he never appreciated people forcing their religion down others’ throats.
Whose god is right?
Being pulled in these two polar opposite directions filled me with endless questions and turmoil. Whose god is right? Is it all arbitrary? Then my father stepped in.
Now a freethinker, “Baba Jan” was raised a practicing Muslim. Not until his first year of college was he exposed to evolutionary theory and other scientific views that directly contradicted his religious beliefs.
He then rigorously examined his faith and subsequently abandoned Islam. When I was 13, he told me I was mature enough to find my own way, a notion that delighted me because I was tired of simply going through the motions. The idea of conforming just because others did repulsed me.
My curiosity and skepticism peaked at this age. I wondered how men in the Old Testament lived to be 900, when in this day and age of advanced science and medicine, many people are lucky to reach 90.
Why do fundamentalists oppose contraceptives and stem cell research with solutions to many of our world’s ills? Why do people proclaim war in the name of religion when its tenets preach peace? When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck Asia and killed 250,000 people, I stared in disbelief at survivors on TV fervently thanking God for sparing their lives. Why did God send a tsunami in the first place, especially to such a poor region? But the only response I received was, “It’s God’s will. His reasons are such that we cannot comprehend.” Dissatisfied with such vagueness, I turned to something I can always count on: education. I devoured various books investigating monotheistic texts and was shocked by the often violent, oppressive history of religion. It blew my mind that the sacred books I spent hours poring over as a child were simply man-made compilations of unverifiable fairy tales and unfounded “facts.”
My research and discoveries were liberating. I was freed from the chains of convention, dogma and disillusion. It struck me that I had outgrown religion, just as I outgrew Barbies and Britney Spears. It has nothing to offer me. It stands in the way of progress, inadequately explains the nature of life and is the main source of many global conflicts today.
One day, as I stared at Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture from Voyager 1 showing Earth as an infinitesimal blip against the vastness of space, I realized how fragile life is. I am sure that this is the only life I have. This is the only world I have. Now is the only time I have.
Now, instead of wasting time questioning beliefs others forced upon me and feeling incomplete, I embrace free thought and reason. The process of abandoning my childhood faith made me develop as an individual, changed the way I see the world and is an integral part of my identity.
Laila Shalikar, 20, Riverside, Calif., is in her third year at the University of California at Berkeley pursuing majors in political science (international relations emphasis) and media studies. She’s traveled to 34 countries already and says: “I have had a vested interest in humanitarian efforts and foreign service in the global community, especially in my father’s homeland of Afghanistan, which is sadly a nation utterly ruined by the noxious influence of religion. The Philippines, too, is struggling with extreme levels of poverty, mainly caused by overpopulation due to the Vatican’s barbaric aversion to contraception.”
Wendy and Arik Posner carry an FFRF banner at the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C.
Name: Arik Posner.
Where I live: In the northern Virginia exurbs of the nation’s capital.
Where and when I was born: In 1968 in Wilster, a small town near the North Sea coast in northwestern Germany. My parents run a small massage therapy business in the area. After finishing my degree I got an offer and immigrated to the U.S. to pursue scientific interests. In 2008, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Family: My wife Wendy, a professional violinist and FFRF Lifer; and our children, Linus, 7, and Darwin, 5. My eldest son Kelvin, 16, lives in Germany with his mom. We see him as often as possible on both sides of the pond. On our cross-country road trip this summer, Kelvin and I swung through Madison and toured Freethought Hall.
One of our recent adventures was attending the Reason Rally together. We marched to it alongside Dan Barker and a few dozen other members, carrying an FFRF banner. At the rally, we encountered members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They had the audacity to remark to Wendy, “What a terrible way to raise your kids.” Ironically, one of the main speakers at the event was Nate Phelps, the Westboro founder’s estranged son, reporting on the terrible way he was raised.
Education: Diploma in physics from the University of Heidelberg and a doctoral degree in science from the University of Kiel.
Occupation: I work in science management for the nation’s space agency. It is exciting, fast-paced work. You never know what will come up the next day or even the next hour.
How I got where I am today: When I was growing up, I followed the reports and images from the Voyager mission uncovering the mysteries of the outer planets. I also watched the broadcast on German TV of the series “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan and his colleagues. All of this spurred my interest in science, which early on I decided would be my career choice.
Where I’m headed: Help the kids grow up well and inspire them and other young people about science as others inspired me. Isn’t it the greatest adventure there is? Maybe I’ll still have some time to find out new things in the years ahead.
Person in history I admire and why: The scientists we named our children after [Linus Pauling and Charles Darwin], and Christopher Hitchens. I admit to getting teary-eyed when I heard last December that he had died. His bravery and the way he was able to use words against all forms of tyranny could hardly be surpassed.
A quotation I like: “We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn’t been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake.” (Catherine Fahringer). We met her regularly at freethought (FACT) meetings while living in ultra-religious San Antonio. She is another person I admire greatly for her courage and outspokenness. I’m so happy that FFRF carries an award in her name.
These are a few of my favorite things: Chinese stamps (yes, I’m a boring philatelist); Scrabble (competing with Wendy is tough); Xiang Qi (Chinese chess); and an instrument on the Curiosity rover, RAD, that I originally designed. It measures radiation in preparation for the human explorers who will one day land on Mars.
These are not: In Germany: Church taxes. You become a member of a state-accredited church through baptism, which customarily happens before one has formed one’s opinion about it. I only became aware of this when I turned 18 and received my first paycheck, which was reduced by church taxes. I immediately went to the government office (where I was yelled at) in order to cancel my “membership.” My grandmother was not so lucky. At her most vulnerable, immediately following the loss of her husband, she was talked into a church burial by the pastor. A few months later, the church contacted her to inform her that she owed her husband’s “unpaid” back church taxes of several decades, which she was asked to pay on the spot. It turns out that my granddad never attended church himself. But he didn’t have much say in the matter anymore, as he was already dead. Since there was no evidence that he had ever renounced his church membership, my grandmother and my dad got stuck with a significant bill. The ruthlessness and shamelessness of church leaders victimizing a widow is astounding to me.
The other one is U.S. politicians — in particular, presidents of late, wearing faith on their sleeve. One reason I ultimately came to the U.S. was to become a (secular) voter and thus make a difference in the world. I admire John F. Kennedy for his insight. I hope that we will in the future have another president who respects the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
My doubts about religion started: I never fell for religion, although a classmate in public school, a son of missionaries, tried everything to lure me in. My school tried this as well during religion instruction, as to date there is no separation of state and church in Germany. (The German Constitution, which was drafted with American “help” after World War II, does not explicitly state anything about this question, but it contains the infamous Article 140, pointing to the relevant statutes of the pre-war Weimar Constitution that are still in place. These statutes are responsible for the ongoing entanglement.)
When I was about 15, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has an atheist poem as a foreword. This was the moment I found out that I was not alone in my nonreligiosity. It is so important that this confirmation happen early in life, before one succumbs to self-doubt. I think FFRF has helped many young people in this important way.
Why I’m a freethinker: I firmly believe that education and scientific progress are good for humanity. Religion has stood in the way of progress, in a quite chaotic and random way, wherever new knowledge has contradicted its tenets, whether it be stem cell research, evolution, family planning and prevention of STDs. Even the lightning rod was opposed when it was introduced.
Most tragic is that women in theocratic countries are excluded from educational options and full participation in society. Just recently, Iran’s mullahs decided to ban women from pursuing degrees in science and engineering.
Ways I promote freethought: I wish I could do more. I participated in the Secular Coalition’s Lobby Day for Reason, stunning some congressional staffers who apparently had never talked to an atheist before. I enjoy publicly reading Freethought Today, in particular while commuting on the bus and metro. I wish there were more large-font, stirring captions on the back page to make it more visible.
I’ve already made friends on the bus (greetings, Woody!), and I had a Mormon hand me a pamphlet and immediately “run off” the bus at what I presume was his stop.