From Polish Catholic To American Freethinker by Kaz Dziamka (Jan/Feb 1996)

This speech was delivered at the eighteenth annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention on Sept. 30, 1995, in Denver, Colorado.

Fourteen years ago I had a unique opportunity to come to the United States and pursue a doctoral degree in American Studies. I have not had the opportunity to speak in public since I came to this country.

I want to tell you about the intellectual road that took me from narrow-minded, bigoted, Polish Roman Catholicism to what I think is intellectual freedom.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly at what point in your life you begin to have doubt about the religion into which you are born. If you are born in Poland you don’t have options other than to become a Roman Catholic. Ninety-seven percent of the population in Poland is Catholic. Poland, however, originally was not Catholic. Poland was another pagan country like Norway and Sweden. Polish Pagans a thousand years ago worshipped trees and the sun. Then in 966, for political reasons, we had to accept Christianity. The option was war; an extermination. Polish paganism survived for five or six centuries and it still manifests itself in egg painting and tree decorations. From about the 16th century Poland has become consistently more and more Catholic.

At one particular point in my life I began to have doubts. I think you understand that most parents have to face, at one point, the challenge of telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. I don’t know whether you actually tell your children, “Listen, this is a myth and you have to grow up,” or whether you just leave it up to the kids to find out themselves. My parents never told me that it was a myth. I found out the hard way. One day I was talking to my buddies and the conversation was about Santa Claus. At one point I said that I thought Santa Claus existed and they began to laugh uncontrollably. I felt extremely insulted and hurt. I then realized my parents were prepared to deceive me in order to keep me happy, which I suppose was the goal. The outcome of this conversation was that I lost trust.

Gradually I began to question the church, although at that time I didn’t have knowledge to make a break, so I had to wait. My parents, however, helped me tremendously by insisting that I study English. I began to take private lessons and eventually I listened to the British Broadcasting Corporation and The Voice of America everyday.

Eventually I could speak and read English well enough. New intellectual horizons were opened for me. I came across a few good American books, one an essay by Emerson, called “Reliance.” Another was Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and two works by Aldous Huxley. Those specifically were “Appendix” (not a very good title, by the way, but I think it’s the most powerful essay in a collection of essays called Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and his last novel, Island, in which a utopian society is described. Those were the highlights of my intellectual development. I was fascinated by Huxley’s erudition and, in particular, I was intrigued by his discussion of the Oneida Community.

This utopian experiment took place in upstate New York in the 19th century. Huxley wrote an essay about this experiment, and this is what really attracted me to American studies. I was so intrigued that I decided to read as much as possible, and couldn’t find much in Poland. I was an undergraduate. There was only one book about the topic in my university library. I was determined to learn about this remarkable experiment. Eventually someone said they would be willing to send another book about the Oneida community from the United States for which I had to pay $25, which was equivalent to my monthly income at that time.

As it happened, I ran into a Fulbright fellow who was visiting Poland and teaching American literature at the university where I was beginning to teach English. He read a paper I had written and told me it wasn’t a masterly account of the Oneida community but it seemed like I would be very good candidate for the Ph.D program in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

That is how I found myself on my way to New Mexico,14 years ago, with my wife and my six-year-old daughter. When I arrived here I plunged into a very difficult period in my life where I was only making $6,000 a year and was not allowed to make any more money since I was a foreign student. I had to support my wife and child and obviously I had to break the law by working illegally; painting houses and such. Through that time I was reading a lot. I have read all the books about utopian experiments that I could find at the University of New Mexico (about 200 items). This caused another major breakthrough in my intellectual development, specifically because I found that there was something terribly wrong with the bible.

In the 19th century there was an outburst of utopian experiments. The most successful experiments were Christian utopias. Take the Shakers for instance, and the Oneida community and so on. What is interesting is that the Oneida community was based upon the New Testament. The most controversial aspect of the Utopian life was the so-called complex marriage (practically equivalent to free love). This was a Christian utopian community and the Christian community advocated free love. How is that reconcilable with the Christian monogamous marriage? In Matthew 22:30 you’ll find the following statement. “For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married, but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.”

The founder of the Oneida community, and according to some observers, probably among the best experts of the bible at that time, would read the bible compulsively 16 hours a day. Day in, day out, for several years. He picked up this particular passage from the bible and argued that the meaning of this passage is that there shall be free love among faith. Consequently he built a community in which people lived out his understanding and his interpretation of this particular passage. The community was successful because it survived the sociological definition of success; a generation equal to at least 25 years.

Another Christian Utopia, the Shakers, picked up the same passage and argued the passage meant there shall be celibacy. They built a utopia based upon this same passage which is dramatically different from the other utopia. In all of the major works on utopian society, never did I find a single statement of criticism that will point out the obvious. To me, it was obvious that the bible was a worthless guide to any moral and sexual conduct. That was my private discovery, which I promptly shared with my students at the University of New Mexico.

I was beginning to get in trouble because I was questioning the sacredness of the bible. I had reached the point in my life where I was ready to begin to classify myself as a freethinker. However, my financial state and my civil status was very precarious. I was in limbo for a long time and therefore vulnerable.

Eventually one of my students heard about my problems and wrote an article about my situation. At that time, 1988, we had been in this country for seven years and still didn’t have residency. We had to wait another five years to become eligible for citizenship. It was becoming a very dramatic situation because we did not want to go back to Poland.

Once the article was published in the local newspaper, the media picked up the story and within two weeks we were granted residency. They were embarrassed by the bureaucracy of the immigration department and the article made the difference.

When you become a citizen you have to sign what’s called an “Immigration Oath” which is a variation on the Pledge of Allegiance. According to this immigration oath you have to say “So help me God.” When I went to the immigration office and was presented with the oath I told the officer, “I’m not going to sign this.” This was a gamble. Remember, I had waited 14 years. You don’t jeopardize the best 14 years of your life, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I said I’m not going to sign it until you cross out this last line. She said, “You know, this may be trouble,” and I replied, “Well, shall I quote the First Amendment? Shall I quote section three of the sixth Amendment?” She asked me to wait a minute and left. When she came back she said it was okay and crossed it out. It was a minor victory.

After I finished my doctoral program, I eventually was given a teaching position at a local community college. I teach English composition, and always, the very first time I walk into a classroom, you can imagine the surprise. Essentially I say, “Look, I am from Poland and I am going to teach you English.” Even though I’ve been here for 14 years, it’s still traumatic.

Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) is the community college with probably the heaviest teaching load in the country. At TVI a college professor has to teach 15 sections of composition every year, in three semesters. Just to give you a basis for comparison, a regular, ordinary University professor teaches four sections and has the summer off.

When I applied for a job in American Studies at a prestigious school it was the only job available at that time in American Studies. Reed College in Portland, Oregon, received 800 applications for one position in American Studies.

In addition to state/church separation activists like the Freedom From Religion Foundation who are doing a tremendous job, and attorneys who are doing a tremendous service for us to fight the system, one group of people have been overlooked. That group is teachers, like me, and tenured professors in particular. Unfortunately at TVI there is no tenure. I have no security of employment. So I’m putting my job on the line.

I am appalled by the fact that none of my colleagues is a member of any humanist, freethinking organization. University professors have security of employment, they have the knowledge, the expertise; they do nothing.

You can use almost anything to educate your students, your children. For instance, when I assign a test in English grammar, a very unlikely situation in which to present an ideology, there’s an exercise which consists of the following lines:

“First, analyze these sentences, then identify the sentence structure components.

“Mithra was a powerful Persian God. He was born on December 25. He was born of a virgin. He was crucified. He ascended to heaven. Persians celebrated his ascension as the Spring Equinox, which is Easter.”

I don’t have to tell them what it means. If students can connect, they have the facts now. They now know that the Jesus myth is not the only myth. This is my philosophy of education; exposition, not argumentation. I have found it is better to give students factual information rather than argue a point, because then they become defenseless. You cannot argue against facts.

There are many ways to do this. When I teach quotations, I use quotations from the bible. Jesus said comma, quotation mark and then I quote that if you want to pray, you can pray in the privacy of your home. I actually quote the bible and they are stunned. I usually have a list of quotations from the bible and they say that it’s not true. I respond, “Well, look up Matthew 6:5.”

I’ve been doing this for a long time. Obviously, there have been some very negative responses from some members of the community, but that is predictable, isn’t it? At one point three students got up and walked out of the classroom when we discussed the philosophy of the founding fathers. I don’t know how I eventually ended up talking about the philosophy of the founding fathers in English 101, but I did. To back up my argument about the philosophy of the founding father not being in agreement with the philosophy of the Christian Right, I quoted a local newspaper in which it was written that according to founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, “Christianity is the greatest perversion in the history of mankind.” This was not what I said, this was what was written in the newspaper. I had copies of the article but three of my students got up and left. One of them came back and apologized, one complained to the Dean. The Dean said to just be reasonable. It fizzled out and nothing happened. I continue to do things like this, but then I realized that this was not what I really want to do; my labor of love, my real passion is to teach humanism and freethought.

A few months ago I wrote a detailed proposal suggesting the general honors program at TVI should teach a course called “The American Humanist Tradition.” It was a very competitive situation. Many teachers are so desperate to teach something other than 15 sections of composition English 101, they’ll do anything. My project was selected, along with three others out of about 16 submitted.

I found that the course was generating a lot of flak. There were outbursts of religious bigotry and letters and phone calls. The “family” radio channel called the Dean and complained. A TVI board member wrote a letter saying that if this is what the instructor has to offer then TVI can get along without him.

So far I have been shielded by the Dean from these attacks. At some point I have to face these people. I think that as long as I’m given the opportunity to argue my case I can stand up to them. In my course ad I mentioned the fact that the holy bible was antidemocratic and antiAmerican. This, as you can imagine, caused furor. When it comes down to a confrontation I think I will be very well prepared with many quotations and references in my pocket.

My course had the highest enrollment of all the fall courses offered–18, which is the maximum. The other three courses had 14, 8 and 7 respectively. As the Dean told me, the bottom line is that the market has responded. So far it’s been good news.

The books that I have read in this country are extremely inspiring. Paul Blanchard wrote a book called Some of My Best Friends Are Christian, about 20 years ago. It is remarkably like Dan Barker’s book. At one point in the book he says, “There are books that contain enough scholarly dynamite to blow all Christian books into oblivion.” That’s not the problem. The point is that people will not read those books. You can talk and talk about how excellent those books are, but nobody’s going to read those books. This is why I think teachers, in particular, and everybody else who has a chance to talk to children and college students, should mention some of those basic facts. This is why, in my humanist course, I will ask my students to read as much as possible.

In my search for intellectual freedom I have discovered many excellent writers. I have to mention Gore Vidal. He is very effective because he has a very powerful way of writing, much like H.L. Mencken, who was probably the best stylist in this country as far as journalism is concerned. Gore Vidal has written a number of essays that I want to use in my general honors class. One of them is “Monotheism and its Discontents.”

You cannot talk about humanism without talking about environmental issues. A very powerful argument Gore Vidal developed in his essays is facing the fact that Christians, by definition, don’t give a damn about the environment. Why? Because, for them, this life is just a staging area for heaven. Even though there is something called Christian environmental ethics, the point that he makes is that those people ultimately have to commit themselves either to this planet or to heaven, and, if they have to choose, they will choose heaven. This is why Christianity has nothing to offer as far as our problem of environmental degradation is concerned.

I would like to think that after spending the past 20 years of my life studying American culture, I know at least as much about this country as, for instance, Newt Gingrich. I am arrogant enough to claim that I know more than Rush Limbaugh, who, as you may know, is a junior college dropout. The man has zero academic credentials, which is a fact.

In my search for intellectual self-fulfillment I obviously have read Madison and Jefferson, whom I admire, although I am aware of the obvious flaws of the Constitution; slavery was not abolished, women were not given the right to vote. I would like to think that those people had to compromise, which is what politics is all about– you always sacrifice principles for political expediency, which is very unfortunate. Maybe that was the only Constitution we could have had at that time.

I always ask my students if they know who wrote the Bill of Rights and who wrote the Constitution, and who is known as the father of the Constitution. Believe me, very often nobody knows. That disturbs me greatly. That is why I would eventually like to teach American political science, as well as humanism, if I have a chance.

At TVI I have no such opportunities other than to use English 101 as a forum for disseminating humanist insight. I don’t know how long I can do this, but I have survived six years at TVI. I have chosen a road not taken, as a famous American poet said, and now it for me is too late to go back.

As those of you know who have read my article in Freethought Today (“Castles In The Air,” August ’95) about Poland, it is becoming a Catholic theocracy as bad as Ireland. I think there is no immediate hope for Poland. I have talked to Polish women, and Polish dissidents, and they are all hopelessly outnumbered. The only truly free and independent publication in Poland is No Dogma published by a small group of atheists and agnostics. That’s all. I have published a couple of articles in that magazine, but it has no political impact. It publishes maybe 1,000 or 2,000 copies of the magazine. Definitely I cannot go back and live in Poland. At this point I think I have passed the point of no return and I would like to continue to teach in this country and eventually to focus on humanist and freethought issues.

Also I would like to completely deChristianize myself. I would like to purge my English of any references to Christianity such as, “For heaven’s sake,” which we use all the time. I don’t want to do this anymore. Christianity, the religious system, I have to be very plain and very honest, is an insult to my intelligence. I use the Socratic method of debate. I define terms first. A Christian, by definition, is a person who believes that Jesus was crucified for our sake, which means that the person believes in blood sacrifice. Now blood sacrifice is a barbaric notion and I cannot accept it in any way. To me, people who are Christians are, quite frankly, on the level of Galilean peasants in the first century. My pet dream is that scientists will develop a time machine and eventually send all these people like Newt Gingrich to the first century so they can live among those peasants and be happy.

I am not disrespectful of religion. My concept of religion is that it can help enhance life, ethnically speaking. I have a lot of respect for the Apache religion and I am fascinated by Apache culture. I have studied Apache culture because I live in New Mexico, and I would like to teach a course on Apache culture at some point. Those people, whom we called savages and whom we exterminated, Chiricauhua Apaches in particular, were so defiant we had to annihilate them. Genetically speaking, the Chiricauhua Apache tribe is gone forever. Those people were sophisticated enough to develop their own religious beliefs that helped them survive and gave meaning to their lives. I have nothing against that sort of religion. I have nothing against a sort of religion that is focused on cultural values within an ethnic group. I may not accept it intellectually, but, as I said, it doesn’t bother me. What I have a lot against are those Americans who pride themselves upon living in the most free nation on earth and don’t realize they have taken over a barbaric religion, developed by primitive people three thousand years ago. Obviously, there are some magnificent statements in the bible, but the point is that they can also be found in any other religion, and those religions came before Christianity. There’s no insight in the bible that cannot be found elsewhere.

I have made, I think, a complete break.

As far as the political situation in this country, I am obviously appalled, like you are, I suppose. I know that the First Amendment is the masterpiece of American political genius. That is why I am so attracted to Jefferson and Madison. But we have to face the fact that the First Amendment is no longer enough. I would have to argue that we need to follow up with at least two other amendments. One of them obviously has to be the Equal Rights Amendment. It has to be passed. Until this happens, I don’t think that women will feel entirely secure. Many of them do not feel secure at all, because they are afraid Christians may come back with a vengeance and then we may have a scenario that has been described by a famous Canadian feminist, Margaret Attwood, in Handmaid’s Tale. That may happen, who knows.

I think the name Freedom From Religion is beautiful. I think this is exactly what the Foundation eventually should focus on. We should have an amendment called the Freedom From Religion Amendment. I think that if we can accomplish this, I will feel secure and very happy and then I could quietly go to the grave without believing in Jesus and in hell.

Kaz Dziamka, has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico, received his American citizenship in May, 1995, and is a Foundation member.

Kaz’s course, “The American humanist Tradition: Why our Gods Have Failed,” met twice a week during the fall 1995 semester. He reports: “The debate is not over, but the semester is, and the humanism course has been quite successful.” The TVI Times ran an article about the course, generating mail, pro and con, and a supportive op-ed piece concluding that “the Arts and Sciences Department needs to continue with their ground-breaking educational opportunities and offer secular Humanism on a regular basis.”

Kaz’ class was also the cover story in Albuquerque’s free weekly newspaper, “Alibi,” (“Academic Freedom? Humanism Debate at T-VI; Preacher or Teacher? Humanism instructor fuels First Amendment fires at T-VI,” Dec. 13-19, 1995).

TV-I rejected Kaz’s proposal that “The Humanist Tradition” become a core honor’s course, but he is awaiting word on whether his course will be added to the humanities curriculum. He expects to teach it as an honor’s course this fall.

Freedom From Religion Foundation