My Family Values Atheism by Barbara Ehrenreich (April 2000)

This article is adapted from the acceptance speech for the 1999 Freethought Heroine Award, presented to author Barbara Ehrenreich by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in San Antonio on November 6, 1999.

By Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m delighted to be here. I was a little nervous when I got to the airport because there’s a sort of an arts exhibition in the airport, an awful lot of it on religious themes: crucifixes and things like that. So I thought, I’m really going to be careful in San Antonio. Then I got in a cab and the very nice cab driver wanted to know where I was going and was there a conference? Just so I’d be sure to get to the hotel, I said, “Well, it is a freethought conference,” thinking, that sounds vague, right? And he goes, “Oh yeah, I heard about it on NPR–the atheists!”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “You know, I lost my faith three years ago. I want to hook up with them.” So, that’s exciting, huh? You need outreach, there need to be ways that people who are coming through crises like that in their lives can connect.

Now this is not going to be as exciting as all the things Steve [Benson] told you about because I do not have all that rich material for humor since I don’t come from a religious background. I mean he had a really unfair advantage. I just don’t have those stories.

Really, the most powerful case against religion, I’ve always thought, is available to everyone everyday and that is the dictionary of the English language. You wonder why? Well, look up the word “religion.” Don’t bother with the long string of definitions. The interesting part is that this word “religion” is a word which has a plural form.

Think about it. If each religion claims to be the revealed truth and if there’s more than one religion, they cancel each other out. Our problem, of course, is the Christian religion or the peculiar version of it that persists in the United States today. For the last few decades this religion has been creeping, you might have noticed, into more and more areas of life.

Sports, for example. I’m not a big sports fan but I try not to miss the pre-game prayer in football games. Now you’ll have the two teams, they’ll pray before the game, each of them separately in their own little huddles, both teams presumably praying to the same god. Do they really imagine that this supreme being, creator of the universe, master of the galaxies, is up there trying to decide whether the Broncos or the Packers are going to win today? And if there is such a god, how could you respect him?

Religion creeps into so many other areas–patriotism, for example. That’s an old one, the fusion of patriotism and religion. For example, when I was a child they put the phrase under God into the Pledge of Allegiance. For a long time I had no idea what was going on with that. When they said “one nation under God,” I was sure they were saying “one Asian under dog.” I was all for that. It sounded good.

There was another mysterious thing to me as a second grader which was the whole idea of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every single day. Did they really think that if we little second graders did not pledge our loyalty every day and re-pledge it the next day, that in between we would run off and defect to the Soviet Union? Did they think our loyalties lasted exactly 24 hours and then had to be renewed all over again?

Then there was the makeover of the founding fathers, who are often portrayed, by the Christian Coalition and their ilk, as a bunch of real solid Christians who founded this nation, etc. You’ve all heard that. I hardly need to remind this group that that particular invasion of religion into our history is not true–the founding fathers were mostly Deists, as we know, meaning they thought there might once have been a god who set things in motion and then just walked off and retired from the scene. They were, in other words, what would be called today “godless atheists” and they founded this country. We need to remember that.

There are some specific examples–John Adams once described the entire Judeo-Christian tradition as “the bloodiest religion that ever existed.” Of course there was Tom Jefferson who advised a young friend: in your philosophical thinking don’t forget to open up the question of whether there is such a deity. Then there was Ethan Allen (the revolutionary hero, not the furniture store), who wrote the first anti-Christian tract ever published in America. So these are the kind of guys who founded this nation.

It’s not just that religion has been infiltrating patriotism. I want to point out a very similar phenomenon which is the ongoing attempt to turn patriotism into another religion. Every other year Congress takes up the issue of whether to amend the Constitution of the United States to prevent the “desecration” of the American flag.

This gets members into all kinds of trouble. When you start thinking, well how do you desecrate a flag, that’s a big issue. “Desecrate” is a very religious word. But then the bigger question is what is an American flag, because today you can find the American flag on almost anything: T-shirts, bathing suits, men’s underwear, towels. So they seriously discussed, in the august halls of Congress, whether underwear could be a flag (somebody here might be wearing a flag). Then they also took up the issue, maybe they should leave it to the states to decide whether men’s boxer shorts were flags. Then they got kind of stuck on that and then they had to get into the question, if the boxer shorts were ruled a flag in one state, whether it would have to be recognized as such, presumably by saluting, in all states? Do you cross a state line and suddenly find a bunch of Boy Scouts around you at attention because of your boxer shorts?

There were other questions they could have taken up. I can propose some. The vexing question, for example, given the underwear-flag situation, and whether small lapses in personal hygiene committed by guys wearing flag underwear would qualify as acts of desecration?

This is the state of thinking in the United States right now. That bill to amend passed by the way; it got through Congress, it’s rolling along that we will have to worship the flag. I think there was something in the Old Testament about idolatry but that’s been long forgotten. We will start worshipping our flags.

Not only have religion and patriotism been merging, but religion has been seeping into public policy in the form of “family values.” I have a certain admiration for Jesus, the guy who comes before Christ, before they killed him and turned him into god. And it’s a real oxymoron–Christian right, if you think of anything that Jesus stood for. But there it is, an oxymoron like “airline schedule” or anything else–we have “the Christian right.”

James Dobson is a leading member of the Christian right. Dobson publishes a “pro-family” newsletter in Colorado Springs. A couple of years ago his newsletter mentioned me (I don’t read it, but somebody called me up and faxed me this issue that had me in it). There I was described as someone who had “devoted her life to the destruction of the American family.” (They don’t give plaques for that, I’m sorry to say! I mean, if they’d given me a plaque I might have felt differently.) This is despite the fact that I raised two perfect children and remain in close contact with dozens of relatives around the country–some of whom are kind of annoying at times, I will admit, but I have never tried to destroy anyone in my family.

I think the reason that Dobson thinks I’m trying to destroy the family is that I’m a feminist–which shows an interesting idea about what feminism is. And the Christian right does have many interesting notions about feminism. Going back a few more years, to the late 1980s, Pat Robertson sent out a mailing to the Iowa members of the Christian Coalition. And in this mailing, which was against the ERA, he “explained” the goals of feminism: to get women to (1) leave their husbands, (2) kill their children, (3) overthrow capitalism, (4) become lesbians, and (5) practice witchcraft. That’s the feminist agenda! Let me tell you that is an exhausting agenda! Just try and get one or two of those things accomplished in any given day. What should I do first: Kill the kids or overthrow capitalism? It’s really hard. (Are there any feminists here? Men can raise their hands, too.) My question to you then is, if you’re so good at witchcraft, why hasn’t Pat Robertson turned into a little green frog yet? Feminists: concentrate on those spells.

To set the record straight for these guys, feminists didn’t try to “destroy the family.” We just thought the family was such a good idea that men might want to get involved in it, too.

These are clearly not partisan issues anymore. The Democrats today are just as big on religion and so-called family values as the Republicans are. Both Gore and Bush in their campaigns have declared their deep abiding Christian faith. It becomes almost a prerequisite now if you’re running for president that you have to make a statement about being born-again. Gary Bauer we know is really strong on family values–so long as he stays out of those devilishly tempting meetings with his female aides, he does all right. By the way, you have been following what happened to Newt Gingrich, right? And what is he doing right now? Divorcing that old wife, wife number two. And he’s on to courting number three, a much younger woman.

I was very struck by one thing about Bill Clinton, a big family values guy. He signed the welfare reform bill in 1996, which effectively ended this nation’s 60-year-old obligation to the poorest of the poor. At the time he signed it, Monica Lewinsky was working in the White House and Dick Morris, the presidential aide who pushed hardest for welfare reform, was embroiled in his toe-sucking relationship with a Washington prostitute. Now what is in that welfare reform bill? One of the things that is in that bill is money provided to bring “abstinence education” to unmarried poor women, about $100 million to teach these poor women how to live a chaste life. I’ve always wondered if we have that kind of money for abstinence education, why waste it on those poor women? There are plenty of people who should be given scholarships right in the White House.

I have to talk about my family a little bit. There is a reason in my case why the constant linkage of God, family, and flag is upsetting to me, and it has to do with the history of my particular family. I am a fourth-generation atheist. My freethinking ancestors were not members of the “liberal elite” who are always getting bashed for being anti-religious, who are so hated by the current conservative elite. My atheist ancestors were miners, railroad workers, farmers, farm workers. Once they had been religious people, many of them Catholics.

The story is told that my great-grandmother, a Montana farmwoman named Mamie O’Laughlin, sent for a priest when her father was dying. The priest did not want to be bothered. (This is western Montana, the late 19th century, the trip would have been dangerous.) And he sent back a message to Mamie that he would come but only if she would pay him a fee of $25, which was a huge sum in those days and way beyond the means of my great-grandmother. So her father died without the consolation, whatever it may have been, of the sacrament.

A couple of years after her father died, Mamie herself lay dying in childbirth at an all-too-young age. This time a priest showed up without being called to administer last rites to her. Good Catholic woman, right? Mamie O’Laughlin, she had to have last rites. She had never forgiven the church for the circumstances of her father’s death. So when the priest placed the cross on her chest, she sat up, with her last burst of strength, and threw it across the room. Then she lay back and died.

This is the story I was told as a child to explain how my family had become atheists long ago. It had nothing to do with going to places like Harvard or Yale and getting all kinds of higher learning in our heads. But as I learned later, my family was hardly unique. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found this out. I grew up thinking that we were very strange, that there’s nobody like this; I’m the only one that doesn’t go to religious education when you get time-out for that on Wednesday afternoons from public schools. I’m the only one that doesn’t put my head down for prayers. I thought we were just bizarre.

As an adult I found out that there was a big tradition of blue collar atheism in America, not only just in Butte, Montana, where my family had come from. I learned through my research that there is a vast and largely forgotten tradition of blue collar atheism in America, usually called freethought, in the nineteenth century, appropriately enough. I learned this through books. I had to research this in libraries. That was my moment of discovery of my roots. These people weren’t my genetic ancestors that I was reading about but I found the tradition that my family came out of. I realized that I wasn’t just part of some bizarre little family that didn’t fit in but that I was part of a tradition which had been almost eliminated but that went back at least to the 19th century in this country.

At one time there were dozens of freethought newspapers published throughout the United States. The freethought movement was very much connected to movements for social change of different kinds. In the Northeast, the freethought movement was linked to the working men’s movement of the early 1800s, which was a progenitor of the trade union movement. In the West it flourished among miners and other low-paid working people who were drawn to the Wobblies and other unions at the early part of this century.

Everywhere you found freethinkers, you also found people were getting involved in women’s suffrage, in abolition, who were in involved in things like unions and other struggles. These were by and large poor people whose distrust of priests and ministers was part and parcel of their hatred of bosses and bankers. Their ethos was, put very briefly: think for yourself, because those who offer to do your thinking for you are usually planning to get hold of your wallet. That is a very clear-headed kind of skepticism.

This is the family tradition I come out of and I’m proud to claim as my own. When I mention this I sometimes get some funny looks–like I must be some kind of morally depraved degenerate nihilst. This is because the common religionist view is that religion is the only possible source of morality. Which is a funny idea of morality. That is, that there is no point in doing good unless you’re going to be rewarded for it some day, after you’re dead, of course.

But this is not how it worked in my family. My dad was a really hardline atheist. I am not as hardline as he is. He used to read us Ingersoll on Sunday mornings–that was family quality time. He really believed some of the things, I later found out, that it says in the bible; like that we shall be judged by the way we treat “the least amongst us.” He believed that, because he had been one of those “least amongst us” in his life.

Here’s a strange story from my great-grandfather John Howes whose earliest rebellion against religion–I am slightly embarassed to say–was to pee in the holy water before Easter service when he was a young Catholic boy in Canada. Later he moved to Butte and he spent many years working in the copper mines (this is very hard work, all the men in my family were missing fingers, it was miserable work, they lived in darkness and extreme danger), and he saved–while working in the mines over these years–enough money to achieve his dream of buying a small farm. The story is that he hitched up his wagon and drove out of Butte–good-bye mines, I’m out of here. He came across an Indian woman and her child who were by the side of the road, needed a ride and who, as this woman explained to him, had no money at all. So John Howes gave her all the money he had saved in all those years of mining and turned around and went back to Butte and back to his job in the mines.

I can’t attribute any fancy existential philosophy to my great-granddad. I have no idea why he did that or what was going through his mind, but I think the idea was, if there is no God or no evidence of God and certainly no evidence of a morally engaged god, then we have a great moral burden to carry. If there is no moral god then whatever moral actions are taken in the world have to be taken by us. This is how I was raised and this is how my children were raised. Do good not because god is watching, but because no god is watching.

I felt very deeply affirmed a few years ago when I came across this story from the Talmud. According to the story a certain rabbi advised someone who was in really bad trouble and needed help: Don’t come to me if you want help, seek out an atheist–because an atheist won’t wait around for God to get the job done.

And that is the philosophical basis of my own social activism. God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that; which is why we end up having to do those things ourselves or they don’t get done.

As a social activist I have come to know and respect a lot of religious traditions and people. I like the fierce prophets of the Old Testament, railing against the rich and the mighty. I admire the transcendent philosophy of Buddhism, which, I should point out, is a completely nontheistic philosophy. And I’m a fan of that inveterate troublemaker and permanent vagrant, Jesus Christ.

In fact, I think it would be great if this were a “Christian nation,” assuming anybody could remember what Christianity originally meant. That it was not originally a program for persecuting gays, poor people, abortionists, and teachers of evolution. It was a program for the abolition of militarism, the radical redistribution of wealth. Christian nation? Okay, let’s get out our bibles and try it.

Recall Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young fellow who said he followed all the rules, the Ten Commandments, etc., to the letter and so he wanted to know whether he was now entitled to eternal life. The answer from Jesus was no, uh-uh, you haven’t done anything until you’ve given all that you have away to the poor and come and follow me. Sell all that thou hast and give it to the poor. Jesus then went on with his famous observation about the camels and the needles and how futile it is for rich folks to try to wriggle their way into heaven. Now all right, maybe camels were a lot smaller in those days and needles a lot more wide-eyed but that message is repeated again and again in the New Testament. And not only in the dangerously liberal New Testament. (You didn’t expect to hear so much scripture tonight did you?)

Ezekiel in the Old Testament explains that the Sodomite’s sin was that they had pride and prosperity but did not aid the poor and needy, quite apart from any sodomy that was going on there in Sodom. And then there’s Amos, another prophet who addressed the rich women of Bashan who “oppress the poor, which crush the needy. . . . The days shall come upon you that he will take you away with hooks.” That’s pretty strong. Imagine giant hooks coming out of the floor of a stock exchange.

Now why don’t the Christians ever take that kind of thing literally? Those are strong words. They’re repeated again and again, in one way after another in the bible. The Christians take the Genesis story of creation absolutely literally. One Monday morning god gets up and decides to create a universe and he has his regular schedule, he works every day but Sunday, etc. That–absolutely true right down to the minute. But then you ask them about Jesus’ instruction to sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then, oh well, that’s a metaphor.

Now why don’t the Christians ever take that kind of thing literally? Those are strong words. They’re repeated again and again, in one way after another in the bible. The Christians take the Genesis story of creation absolutely literally. One Monday morning god gets up and decides to create a universe and he has his regular schedule, he works every day but Sunday, etc. That–absolutely true right down to the minute. But then you ask them about Jesus’ instruction to sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then, oh well, that’s a metaphor.

In many ways I guess all of us might fit in better in this highly religious society, if we had adopted some sort of organized religion. Wouldn’t it be smart to–instead of calling ourselves atheists–get some friends together on Sunday morning, hang out for awhile, have coffee, call yourselves Unitarians? They’re not bad people; we could do that too. We could even build special buildings and say that’s our special Unitarian place where we go Sunday mornings for our special things. After all, you can’t easily get elected to any public office as an “out” atheist. (I wonder what’s going to happen with Jesse Ventura’s career?) Even the Boy Scouts don’t want us. George Bush said he didn’t believe an atheist could be a “real American.” I know plenty of closet atheists and agnostics who go to church and mouth the words just so they can be “part of the community.” That’s what they say to me. “I don’t believe it, but I want to be part of a community.”

Well, I’m happy to be part of this community. Despite all my respect for the liberation theologians and the Buddhists and the Christian peace activists and so forth, there’s no way I could sign on to their religions. And not just because I’m too skeptical and too hardheaded. In my case there’s another reason why I couldn’t do that, and it’s called family values.

I told you the story of my family and it’s in the name of my parents, Ben and Isabelle Alexander, both atheists, and my great-grandparents, Mamie O’Laughlin and John Howes and others, and my children, both atheists, Ben and Rosa Ehrenreich. I am extremely proud to accept this award from you tonight. And I just want to add to this list of my relatives–this is a family thing for me–my young cousin, 16-year-old Alexandra Sibley Rundle, my cousin’s daughter, who was featured in the Ames, Iowa, newspaper last week as one of the few freethinkers in her high school and the only atheist in her high school in Ames, Iowa.

I want to end by saying, I’m very proud of all of these people I have mentioned. Please save a few freethought heroine awards for my daughter and my little cousin–they’re going to earn it one day, because we have now one more generation beyond me to add to my family’s long lineage of freethinkers, troublemakers, and hellraisers. And those are family values to be proud of.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a widely published columnist (TIME, The Guardian, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Ms., Esquire) and author. Her latest book, Blood Rites: Origin and History of the Passions of War, was termed “fascinating” by Newsweek. Her other books have explored the decade of the 80s, the American health empire, the attack on social welfare, and feminist topics, including Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, co-written with Deirdre English. She has also written a novel, Kipper’s Game. She has received numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and honorary degrees. She has lectured at hundreds of colleges and universities in this country and abroad. She has a B.A. from Reed College and a Ph.D in biology from Rockefeller University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation