Spreading the Word — A Success Story (September 2002)

My son and I attended Dan Barker’s debate last year at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and were inspired by his ability to spread the freethought message, and to do it so well against a professional theologian in a very hostile environment.

So, when my son came home from school one Monday in April and told me that his public high school was having an Inter-Faith Forum on Thursday, and that his teacher was looking for an atheist, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity to be able to demonstrate the stark differences between atheism and the world’s major superstitions! I immediately called the teacher who was organizing the event and offered my services.

I was the first panelist to arrive at Osburn High School (Manassas, Virginia) that morning, and I sat in the office awaiting the arrival of the others. A Catholic seminary student, in training for the priesthood, arrived and sat across from me. After exchanging pleasantries, he said to me, “Isn’t this great? A public high school conducting a religious forum. We don’t get the chance to do this very often.”

I said, “Yes, it’s great just as long there is no proselytizing.”

He looked at me just a bit quizzically, but he went on. “What people don’t seem to realize is that the First Amendment provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

That is one of my hot buttons, so I figured that it was time to take off the gloves. I responded, “Actually, the First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’– this is unquestionably freedom from religion. So, contrary to what you just said, the First Amendment does, in fact, make that guarantee. You’ll hear that in my little talk today.”

He had no response, and I could see him begin to rub his chin. He must have been thinking, “Who is this guy?”

We entered the stadium-seating lecture hall, and I smiled at the symbolism, intended or not, of the seating arrangement, in which I was seated at the far left, next to the Unitarian representative. But I could not have asked for a better draw for the order of speeches since I was to be the last. What a perfect way to contrast the nature of the freethought message; it was exactly as I had hoped.

There were representatives from most major religions–Islam had two, the Hindus, Unitarians, and Jews had one apiece; and the Christians were represented by five flavors, including two Mormons, a Catholic, a Lutheran, and a couple of nondenominational types. The Buddhist monk did not show. We each had five minutes to give a talk to present the basic tenets of our “religion.”

* * *

[Excerpt of my remarks]

Now, before I get started, let’s get this out of the way. Take a good look at me–I have no horns. I don’t have a pointed tail, and I don’t carry a pitchfork. In fact, I’m very much like you, except that I believe in just one less god than most of you.

So what is an atheist? The word comes from the Greek “a” (which means “without”) and “theos” (meaning “god”). Without god . . . we atheists have no supernatural beliefs. Contrary to public opinion, most atheists do not say, “There is no god.” Most of us do say, “We see no evidence for gods, so why should we believe in them?”

Our Muslim friends on the panel say that “the answer” is in the Koran. The Jewish folks say that “the answer” lies within the Torah. And our Christian friends say that “the answer” is within the Bible. Atheists say that the answers lie here, within our brains.

* * *

After the remarks we split into individual groups so that students could ask questions of the speaker of their choice. Well, it took me several minutes to even get near the door to leave the lecture hall, because I was inundated with students asking me questions. When I finally managed to get to the interview area, it was quite amusing to see that each of the religious representatives had one, two, or no students around them, while there were 35-40 in my area.

The interview session went well–the kids were very curious about how I felt about the origins of life, where we go when we die, how I raise my kids, how did I get to be the way I am, do I worry about going to hell, is homosexuality a sin . . . you name it, they asked it. They were all very nice, very respectful, and very curious. I had to deal with only one student who was a little upset with it all, and one teacher who was only too proud to announce that he had a doctorate and still had faith. We talked for a while, but he left fully understanding that I draw a very clear distinction between faith, defined to be the belief in a concept in the absence of evidence, and reason, which requires it.

After the interview session, which had to be extended to accommodate my large and curious group, we entered the lecture hall to find the others waiting for us so that we could conclude the morning session with formal questions for the panel members. Of course, the first question was directed to the atheist, as were most others. They ranged from questions about the historical nature of Jesus to my thoughts on abortion.

A lunch break followed. My son told me that during lunch, one of the students asked the Catholic seminary student what he thinks happens to those who don’t believe in God. He replied, “See that guy over there? [He was pointing to me.] He’s going to hell.” This was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted the kids to hear, so that they could draw a clear distinction between the messages of faith and freethought.

The entire agenda was repeated for the afternoon students of World History. My oldest daughter, who was not supposed to be able to attend the forum, later told me that the news of the forum spread around the school like wildfire, and that was why the aisles were packed for the afternoon session.

The afternoon sessions went better than the morning ones. I received accolades for my performance, and I was forced to stay for countless talks with teachers and students alike. I’ve enclosed the front page article about the forum, complete with my picture. Keep in mind that this was meant to be a forum to discuss the world’s religions, and the atheist got a big chunk of the press! The irony is very amusing.

The day before the forum, I sent an email to the teacher organizing the event, suggesting that he should videotape the activities–to show it on the local cable channel at night so that the whole community could benefit from the forum. He took me up on it.

The message in all of this is that freethought will remain in the shadows unless each one of us steps out and spreads the word. Impressionable young minds need to have choices, and none will be available unless we take all available opportunities to inform them that there are better ways to live than to subjugate ourselves to an imaginary and vengeful god. Our kids need to know that there is a better way of life, one that is moral and ethical, which maintains their personal integrity. It is the responsibility of each one of us to spread this message.

Freedom From Religion Foundation