Bringing freethought to Rotary Club: Jessica Walker

jessicawalkerName: Jessica Walker.

Where I live: Tyrone, Ga., about 20 miles south of Atlanta.

Where and when I was born: Connecticut in 1967 but grew up in New Jersey. 

Family: Husband, Robin; son, Jack, 11; and daughter, Maisie, 8.

Education: B.S. in accounting from Centenary College, New Jersey, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix.

Occupation: Director of project management for Caliber Services, a software consulting firm. I started my career as an accountant and moved to consulting on enterprise resource planning in the early 1990s. I took time off from the corporate world to stay home with my young children and supported my husband’s new business venture in 2003 by taking care of the back-office and accounting duties.

Now that the children are in school, I’ve come back into the work-for-pay world and have taken over more responsibility in the family business and moved from bookkeeper duties to project management.

How I got where I am today: I’ve always wanted to know the reasons behind things and found that evidence and data were much more satisfying than fairy tales. This quality drove my passion for books, learning, and not being afraid to make someone a little uncomfortable by asking them a tough question about their position on a given subject.

I have a deep interest in knowing that people are being treated fairly in life and came to understand early on that a secular worldview is the one that is the most inclusive and fairest to the most people.

Where I’m headed: I’m married to a wonderful man and we have two amazing children. We don’t try to influence our children on matters of conscience. We simply ask what their thoughts are on a particular subject, where the evidence is leading them, and suggest when more research may be warranted. In addition to raising two little skeptics, I’m finding great joy in athletics lately, especially the character-building experience that is dragon boating.

Person in history I admire: Maria Montessori. She “followed the child” to create an education system that modern research (see Dr. Steve Hughes) is now proving most accurately mirrors a child’s brain development. She cared deeply about respect for the child as an individual, the child’s place in the greater community and how to peacefully interact with others.

Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy, was a devout Catholic, a fact that I tend to think is an accident of geography and the time when she was born. Her discoveries about child development, sensitive periods and emphasizing learning with concrete materials through our senses rather than jumping directly to abstract concepts are strong evidence of her scientific mindset. The many children I have known (including my own) who are educated within the Montessori Method tend to be independent critical thinkers, self-assured, mature for their ages, early readers, self-motivated, respectful of others and creative, joyful people.

A quotation I like: “It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain.” (Mark Twain, 1835-1910)

These are a few of my favorite things:  My family and friends, playing tennis and the piano (not simultaneously), dragon boat racing, Rotary Club service projects, the Fayette Freethought Society, traveling to other countries, reading anything I can get my hands on, NPR and physical fitness.

These are not: People who equate religion with morality (I tend to think it’s more of an inverse relationship), hypocrisy, bad line calls in tennis, intercessory prayer, insistence on respect for religion and/or faith, commercial television, smelly cheese.  

My doubts about religion started: I don’t come from a religious family, although both my grandmothers were Catholic. We didn’t attend services and celebrated holidays in a cultural rather than a religious manner. For most of my life, I was rather apathetic about religion, then moved five years ago to Georgia, where my freedom from religion is assaulted on a daily basis.

I’ve become more and more motivated to actively work against this unwanted intrusion in my life. Living in the bible belt, I now understand more than ever how much religion and a faith-based mindset is a dangerous force for paternalism, ignorance, arrogance and misogyny.  

Why I’m a freethinker: I’m a freethinker because I think there is so much self-righteous “certainty” in the public marketplace of ideas that I see eventually getting shot down after new evidence on a subject comes to light. Being a freethinker shows a level of humility with regard to the future and a respect for humanity’s ability to continually make new discoveries about our natural world. 

Ways I promote freethought: I joined groups like FFRF, the Fayette Freethought Society and the Atlanta Freethought Society to find like-minded people. My children and I have talks about superstition, famous scientists, evolution, relationships, ethics, the FFRF quote of the day, the future of our planet, etc., on our morning drives to school.

I leave my back issues of Freethought Today in local coffee shops. As a peaceful protest, I refuse to stand up with all the other people during opening prayers at Rotary Club meetings. Yes, I’m the only one sitting, and yes, it’s been noticed and commented on. [See sidebar story.]


Jessica’s excellent letter


Jessica Walker writes: Being a member of FFRF and being exposed to your writings and arguments helped me in crafting the following email to my Rotary Club. I am answering a question from a fellow member as to why I do not stand up during the club’s prayer/pledge.

Thank you very much to each of you for your leadership and bravery in the face of desperate odds.


Hi Patti,

Thank you for your polite curiosity. This is something that I thought about long and hard. I even strongly considered not joining and on many occasions considered leaving the PTC Club [Peachtree City] because of its current prayer and pledge practice.

The short answer to your question about my nonparticipation in prayer and pledge is because I’m a Rotarian, a member of a supposedly (if we are to believe the statements on the Rotary International website) nonsectarian and nonpolitical organization that seeks to be inclusive of all peoples in the world. I sincerely think that the Rotarian ideals of “Service Above Self” and the Four-Way Test are superior to the sectarianism and nationalism that any club indulges in when it comes to improving human relations and uplifting others less fortunate than ourselves.

I find it very sad that we very rarely recite the Four-Way Test or our excellent motto “Service Above Self” at our meetings. For that, I would gladly and proudly stand up from my seat. The prayer/pledge only serves as a distraction from Rotary’s excellent ideals. The motto and the Four-Way Test are strong enough, powerful enough, and meaningful enough to stand on their own merits.

My quiet refusal to participate in the prayer/pledge illustrates my choice to adhere to these higher values of Rotary. I sit, rather than stand up, go with the flow and be coerced against my conscience into tacit acceptance of divisive, unnecessary and ultimately ineffective appeals to the supernatural along with nationalism coupled with the festering vestiges of McCarthyism that we see embodied in the post-1954 version of the pledge. We are better than this. We just need the courage to buck powerful forces and choose the higher road.

As Rotarians, we have the obligation to be inclusive of all people, and the only peaceful and respectful way that I have seen this to have ever been achieved in history is to keep things as secular and nonterritorial as possible, just like we are shown on Rotary International’s own website. Until we, as members of the PTC Rotary, can be brave enough to say “No more” to our current sectarian and nationalistic practices and choose to run our meetings in the most inclusive and Rotary-focused way possible, there will always be a member, a visiting member, a guest, or a potential member at our meetings who feels like an outsider — unwelcome, creeped out, unwilling to join us. 

Take a moment to think of all the folks we had to lunch a couple of weeks ago on International Day. How many different religions (or no religions) were in that room? How many different countries were folks citizens of? I was intensely embarrassed for the club when the Christian prayers and pledges to a single nation were once again trotted out and forced on all these different people.

How many of those decision-makers from the various PTC international companies do you think would want to join a club that behaves in such an exclusionary, arrogant, self-righteous manner? I wonder how many of those international presidents and CEOs would now be asking to become members of our club if they had been presented solely with the Rotary motto and the Four-Way Test instead? Those are ideals that everyone can get behind and accept into their lives without violating their freedom of conscience.

I have chosen to remain a member of the club because I truly think that the Rotary ideals are worth striving for. I truly think it is also worth my incurring a bit of curiosity and/or hostility from the other members, like yourself, because I want to help people see that the Rotary ideals are more important, inclusive and useful to humanity than prayers and pledges could ever be. 

If any of my ideas have resonated with you, I invite you join me in my peaceful protest of this embarrassing, coercive and exclusionary part of our meetings. 

Warmest regards,

Jessica S. Walker

Director PMO Office, Caliber Services, LLC

Freedom From Religion Foundation