FFRF 2015 annual convention speech: Ron Reagan – unabashed, unafraid

Ron Reagan’s speech, edited for space, was delivered Oct. 9, 2015, at FFRF’s 38th annual convention at Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by Co-President Dan Barker:

I think you all know who Ron Reagan is. After leaving the Joffrey Ballet in 1983, he’s worked as a broadcast and print journalist and TV and radio commentator. During his famous speech about stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he voiced his opinion on state/church separation, saying, “It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.”

The New York Times in 2004 asked Ron in an interview that ran three weeks after his father died if he would like to be president. Ron said, “I would be unelectable. I’m an atheist. And we all know that is something people won’t accept.”

Last year, as many of you know, he recorded a 30-second spot for FFRF to play on “60 Minutes” and other news shows. But to our shock, this very rational, very benign, slightly irreverent commercial was banned by several networks.

[AD PLAYS]: “Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I am asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our founding fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan. Lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in hell.”

DAN: Having somebody of his celebrity status do an ad like that for us has just been an unparalleled, secular blessing, if I can use that word. We thought it would be appropriate to give Ron two tokens of our appreciation. The first one, a T-shirt. Come on up here, Ron, unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell. And a plaque: “Ron Reagan, 2015 Freedom From Religion Foundation, not afraid of burning in hell, unabashed atheist,” for your wall.

By Ron Reagan

Thank you very much. I want to thank everybody, Dan and Annie Laurie, and all of you for having me here and setting all of this up. I also want to thank our previous speakers, Jeremiah [Camara] and Taslima [Nasrin]. We should also be thankful, particularly in light of Taslima’s remarks, that we live in a society where we can have a meeting like this.
It’s not a perfect society, plenty of things wrong, plenty of issues we’re aware of, but we’re not really worried that people are going to storm the hall here and gun everybody down or set us all on fire, and that’s worth acknowledging. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it never could. These are human impulses, and we are human beings. These sorts of things exist on a continuum, and they could indeed happen here.

I’m not abashed to be an atheist all. I am abashed, I have to say, to be here. I am particularly abashed being here with somebody like Taslima, who frankly leaves me in a state of awe. We’ve suffered some perhaps for our atheism, but we do not have a fatwa against us.

As Dan said, by age 12 I told my parents, “I’m not going to church anymore. I don’t believe this stuff.” I guess you could say I grew up in a religious household, but we weren’t that religious. We didn’t pray before dinner. We were Presbyterian, a sort of Christianity Lite.

I was a little strange as a kid because at a very early age I became interested in prehistoric humans, what I thought of, at age 5, as cavemen. I’d seen that little chart where the primates get taller and straighter and finally they’re us. So where did Adam and Eve fit into all of that?

[Ron gets in some zingers about bible stories, summarized here]:

Apparently trouble is brewing in Eden, because Eve gets Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge. Even to a little kid, knowledge sounds like a pretty good thing, and it’s a little confusing why God is so upset that his creation would acquire knowledge. Something’s not right here.

Noah’s ark, another good story for kids. It’s like a Carnival cruise with stuffed toys, but you get a little older and start wondering where the hell are the dinosaurs? How did the animals choose which two got to go on the boat? Why did God have to drown all the animals? He had a beef with humans, but did the animals have to go, too?

Eventually you get to Abraham and Isaac. Little kids identify with Isaac, who’s trussed up on that rock waiting for dad to plunge a dagger into him, and that doesn’t seem too cool. Abraham’s definitely not the hero here, and you start looking at your own father a little strangely, too. “Hey son, how about a barbecue tonight?” “No, no, why don’t we just order a pizza, OK, and put down the knife.”

I don’t ever buy these stories of people who say, “Well, you know, I was religious, and then I became an atheist, and then I went back to religion.” No you didn’t, you never became an atheist in the first place, because once you’re there you’re not going back. Once you’re an atheist, everything that somebody religious says sounds like “The Mountain God made us do it.” It’s all just a little ridiculous.

No hell below us

Networks did not want my ad for FFRF on the air. I understand that they didn’t want to offend viewers, and religious people get offended so easily. I had a conversation with my brother-in-law about this at dinner the other night at my place in Seattle. He likes to give me crap about stuff, although he’s actually an atheist.

“I saw that commercial you did the other night,” he said. “Don’t you think it was a little, you know, arrogant.”

Arrogant? Why am I arrogant for saying I don’t believe in hell, but you’re not saying that people who claim to know the entire story of the universe and talk to God the creator are arrogant? I’m arrogant just for saying “how do you know”?

The religious, they’re very arrogant. In the Muslim community, as Taslima mentioned, it gets pretty crazy. You draw a cartoon and suddenly they’re burning down your country’s embassy. You write a book and you’ve got a fatwa against you. They don’t seem to get that they don’t have a right not to be offended. You don’t have a right, it seems to me, to be offended by somebody else’s speech.

What offended people the most about the ad, which seemed pretty benign, frankly, was the last line about hell. Hell is a very touchy topic for the religious, and you can understand why. Hell is the way you control people. You better do what we say or you go to hell. You may do fine in this world, but oh, eternity is stretching out ahead of you and it’s all going to be hell.

Sam Harris does an interesting thing. He says to an audience, after determining that most are not Muslim, for example: “All right, you Christians, you atheists, realize that there are perhaps a billion Muslims on Earth who are dead certain that you are going to hell.” He pauses for the kicker: “Notice how little sleep you’re losing over that thought.”

Religious folks don’t realize that their warnings about hell are about something we consider to be imaginary. We don’t care. You might as well tell me I’m going to Oz. It’s related to the concept that we’re all atheists. Even the religionists are atheists. They’re atheists about every other god except theirs.

Not one of them believes in Zeus, a few believe in Vishnu. They’re fine being atheists about that. We just go one god further. We take it all the way.

‘Bound by disbelief’

You have to admit, though, that this is a little weird, gathering here together. A lot of you came from other places, even other countries, to meet here in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re all bound by disbelief. There’s a certain disadvantage to this, you have to admit. We don’t have soaring cathedrals. We don’t have special outfits. We don’t really have rituals.

Yes, we do have faith, if you’ll pardon the expression, in things like reason and facts, scientific inquiry, the truth and the pursuit of it. But still, we’re all about not believing in something. And let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a Round Earth Society.

We’re a minority. Millions of people in the United States think we’re going to hell. They think we worship Satan, which is a little ironic since we don’t believe in him, either. They all think we’re strident. Strident atheist, angry, aggressive atheist, mean-spirited atheist. They love playing the victim and know the foundation is crumbling a little bit. Any critique of religion is regarded as an insult.

Richard Dawkins is accused of being strident when he invokes facts to support critical thinking. Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk, is fitted for the robes of martyrdom when she invokes God in defense of bigotry. It’s all about insecurity. Religious people are terribly insecure. They know that they’re holding a weak hand, so they resort to the absurd.

Fox News gears up for the war on Christmas. I love Christmas. I cut down a tree every year and put presents under it. It’s a pagan holiday, why not? The war on Christmas? Come on, it’s the most ubiquitous holiday on Earth.

Yes, speak up

With the Hubble telescope, we can look out into the vastness of the universe and understand how ridiculous it seems to believe that an ostensible creator deity made the whole thing just for us. Why did he wait so long to bring us on to the scene? Some 13.8 billion years old and we only arrived, you know, the day before yesterday. Well, God had a plan, I guess. It’s what they say, God had a plan.

What we know from science makes Genesis and the bible story seem rather tacky and small. I’m going with the Hubble telescope. I’m going with Stephen Hawking.

So what do we do here trapped in this strange “Twilight Zone” world with a bunch of people who are perhaps delusional? I’m sure we’ve all been at cocktail parties or in a small group and somebody, suddenly out of nowhere, decides to inform you that the hurricane that hit the coast the other day was God’s punishment for being nice to gay people. What do you do in that situation? Do you speak up or do you shut up?

I say you speak up. You don’t have to do this all the time. If somebody says “God bless you” when you sneeze, that’s not your invitation to jump all over them. But there are lines that get crossed, and I think at that point you’re obligated to speak up.

Religious belief is understandable from an evolutionary standpoint, so we don’t have to necessarily get angry at these people. The question arises though, when we’re talking about individuals and not people in positions of power, should we care what they believe? Should we bother to talk to them about atheism?

Yes, I think we should, given the opportunity, the right circumstances. Blind faith is the abdication of reason. You can’t have a functioning democracy when most of the people believe in a lot of nonsense. If you want good public policy, it has to be based on facts and evidence. Private beliefs invade public policy. All the politicians you see invoking God were just private citizens once, and now they are in Congress.

We should confront people but with some sensitivity. Religious people are not necessarily stupid or crazy. Some of them may be. Are they delusional? The fervently religious certainly are, but again, this is understandable to a degree.

A word about death. We accept that most religions are predicated on the fear of death. The idea of an afterlife can be a very powerful thing. I think it was Sam Harris who reminded people to consider that they may be talking to a mother who has just lost a child and don’t make it seem as if you’re saying, “Your sincere wish to be reunited with that child at some time and place in the afterlife is ridiculous. You’re never going to see that child again and the whole thing is just a big joke.”

I know from personal experience that when you lose somebody close, you very much want to think that you can be reunited with that person. This is a natural human urge.
But it’s not cruel to apply the same standards of discourse to religion as we do to politics, our aesthetic judgments, our taste in music or film. We argue, sometimes viciously, about those sorts of things, but religion somehow is treated as different. Sacrosanct, if you will.

Questions and answers

I find that asking religious people questions is a good idea. They say the “Well, you know God made the universe an­d — ” Wait a minute, what is God? This turns out to be something of a stumper for the religious. Most of them really can’t explain to you what they mean when they invoke God. They order their entire lives around this deity that is just this vague thing to them. Oh, they’ll say, “Well, God is love, God is the creator.”

Then there is the problem that no religionist can really handle. If God is good and all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful, how does he tolerate the suffering of the innocent, particularly small children? Either God sees this happening and can’t do anything about it or just doesn’t really care to do anything about it. Which is it? They don’t know.

They have questions for us as well, which I rather enjoy. “Well, without religion, where would we get all the great art of the Renaissance, the great cathedrals and the Sistine Chapel and all that? If it weren’t for religion, we wouldn’t have any of that stuff.”
It’s true that religion financed a lot of that kind of stuff. But I can tell you with dead certainty that the people who built the Duomo in Florence and Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel didn’t do it a state of religious fervor. In order to build those buildings and create those artworks, they needed reason and intellect. Financed by religion, yes, but it was the only game in town at that point.

The other thing that you always get is, “Well, how do you know good from evil? How do you know how to behave if you don’t have the book telling you how to behave?” First of all, that book is not exactly an infallible reference for behavior. There’s an awful lot of fratricide and infanticide and all sorts of bad lessons in the bible. Abraham and Isaac is one of them.

What about Sodom and Gomorrah? What kind of a hero is this? The angels show up. The townspeople gather around Lot’s house wanting to rape the angels, because you would, you know. Lot, being the good host that he is, isn’t going to let that happen. So what does he do? Leave the angels alone. Take my daughters instead and do whatever you want with them, because really, they’re just women.

The answer is easy. It’s inherent to us. Little children understand automatically, intrinsically, the Golden Rule that you treat other people like you want to be treated. You have to encourage it, but they know it. Animals know it, too.

Kim Davis, bigot

You all know more about the fight against the incursion of religion into public life than I do, but there are a few things we can talk about. We can start with Kim Davis, the poster child for bigotry, the October centerfold in Bigot magazine. As a county clerk in Kentucky, she decided that not only was she refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, she wasn’t going to let anybody in her office do it either. She famously invoked God’s authority.

Religious bullying is what it amounts to. People have tried to make her out to be the equivalent of wartime conscientious objectors. If Kim Davis were actually a conscientious objector, there would be a couple of obvious courses of action for her. The first one, probably the best: quit. If you were elected to do a certain job and find that you can’t in good conscience do that job anymore, resign.

Her other option was to let her associate clerks do it. But no, Kim couldn’t go with that. She got it straight from God that they shouldn’t be allowed to do this. A lot of conservatives were bright enough to see where this would inevitably lead.

How would Kim Davis feel if a Muslim clerk the next county over decided we have to practice Shariah law there. Would she be OK with that? I think not. I don’t think Kim Davis is really into religious freedom as such. She just wants to be free to practice the kind of bigotry that she sees in the bible.

A lot of constitutional conservatives get on the side of people like Kim Davis. Constitutional conservatives are people who think that the only worthwhile thing in the Constitution is the Second Amendment. Clearly, the entire Constitution was created just so we could carry sidearms into bars and kindergarten classes.

Planned Parenthood

Remember that religion trains your mind to accept the reality of things that aren’t real and to accept assertions based on no evidence whatsoever or demonstrably false evidence. It be came very obvious that the congressional hearing wasn’t about selling fetal body parts or about federal money going to Planned Parenthood. It was all about abortion.

I was arguing with a conservative on the radio the other day. I reminded him that it’s possible to have qualms about abortion without thinking that you have to deceive people in order to make your argument. It’s so frustrating that people in the media and in politics act as if the videos that came out show Planned Parenthood doing something illegal. They do not. They were deceptively edited and altered in all sorts of ways. Why is that not the story? Why is the story Planned Parenthood and not the fact that these people had an agenda and thought it was perfectly OK to lie in order to further that agenda?

And people, mostly on the right, believe this stuff. They don’t care that the video is fake. They don’t take care that the facts show something completely different. This is what religion teaches your mind to accept. If you believe in the supernatural, you can believe in just about anything. Reason goes right out the window.

Did you ever see the discussion between Richard Dawkins the biologist and Wendy Wright the creationist? Oh my god.

First of all, Wright is dumb as a post and Dawkins is not. She keeps saying “show me the evidence” of evolution. Dawkins, of course, keeps explaining the evidence to her and offers to take her down the street to the Museum of Natural History to show her the actual skulls and things like that. But she doesn’t want to see any actual evidence. What an annoying person.

Climate change

God is often invoked by the climate change deniers, particularly those in Congress. Jim Inhofe is in charge of the Senate committee that oversees environmental regulation and has written a whole book claiming that climate change is a hoax. One of his lines of reasoning, if you want to call it that, is that we don’t control the climate, God does, and we can’t do anything about this because God is in charge.

I did Bill Maher’s show a couple of weeks ago, so I watched a few of his shows to kind of get into the mood. I caught his interview with Rick Santorum, in which Santorum made several noteworthy claims. Do you know, he asked Maher, that 57% of climate scientists don’t agree that human influence is responsible for climate change?

Thank God, pardon the expression, that Maher is a comedian and not a trained journalist, because you would never see Jake Tapper or any of his colleagues responding like Maher did: “Rick, I don’t know what ass you’re pulling that out of.”

About 97% of scientists agree that humans are driving global warming, but reality doesn’t matter to people like Rick Santorum and his fellow religionists. While he’s going to be raptured, we’ll be stuck down here on a sweltering planet.

Lamar Smith is a Texas congressman who is sort of Jim Inhofe’s counterpart in the House. Smith has claimed that there’s been no global warming for the last 17 years. He says warming stopped in 1998. In fact, 10 of the warmest years on record have taken place since 1998. Lamar Smith — don’t you bet that he goes to church on Sunday? — is just making stuff up.

Doing right

I started by saying that we were joined in disbelief, and we are. But it’s worth mentioning that we do believe things as well, and we have certain obligations. It seems to me those beliefs oblige us to behave in a certain way. We live in a global society, and there are many, many Taslimas around the world. We are all complicit to some degree in their subjugation, their religious oppression.

People on the left, I have to say, will often recoil when you start identifying cultures as being repressive, particularly about women. A culture that doesn’t allow women to dress the way they want to dress, that doesn’t allow women meaningful political participation equal to that of a man, doesn’t allow women to drive, doesn’t allow them to leave their home without being accompanied by a male — all the things that Taslima was talking about — that’s not a culture worth preserving.

They may have beautiful paintings and things like that, I think that’s fine. They may make nice buildings, and that’s fine, they can keep those. But the rest of that stuff, it’s got to go. Why are we doing business with countries that practice that sort of oppression?

Imagine if tomorrow, France and Germany decided they would institute a dress code for women and deny them political participation and impose all these sorts of rules. Imagine what the reaction would be, imagine the calls for boycotts, the calls for international isolation of France and Germany, the shock and revulsion we would all feel if these countries would do something like that. Yet we continue to do business with countries that do—Saudi Arabia, for instance, notable among them.

We need to put pressure on countries to do the right thing, to treat their citizens humanely. I don’t care about their culture, don’t care about their religion either. Sorry, it doesn’t matter, it’s not a culture worth preserving if that’s how you express that culture.

We do believe in things as atheists. We believe in truth, we believe in beauty, we believe in a shared humanity. These are things worth fighting for. And don’t forsake the numinous and the transcendent either. We all know that there are experiences we haven’t analyzed that are more than just material.

You listen to a piece of music, you see a sunset, whatever it might be, poetry, and you “leave” yourself in a way. Don’t let religion have a monopoly on that kind of experience. It is not specific to religions. We need to reclaim the numinous and the transcendent as well as all these other things. You are the point of the spear in that, all of us are. We need to take it seriously, and we need to do right by the Taslimas of the world, if nothing else.

If nothing else, we have to do right by all of the Taslimas of the world. Thank you so much for having us. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation