Meet a member: Marjorie Halpern Holden

Name: Marjorie Halpern Holden

Where I live: Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Where and when I was born: October 1927 in New York City.

Family: Two sons: David and Robert. Three grandsons: Donald, Paul and Anthony.

Education: Cornell University B.A. 1947; Columbia University M.A. 1950; Columbia University Ph.D. 1972.

Occupation: Retired School of Education professor, California State University-Dominguez Hills.

How I got where I am today: Through a lifetime of making mistakes and making small corrections.

Where I’m headed: At almost 89, this is a loaded question. I am still hoping to write a short monograph on what I perceive as the current deficiencies of public elementary education.

Person in history I admire and why: I have a few from different fields. I admire many of the classical Greek philosophers and dramatists. There is so much we can learn from them today. They tangled with many of the same issues we are dealing with: The place, existence and nature of the gods; the right way to govern a city; moral issues about sex, gender, murder, family ties and war. It’s amazing that in many ways we haven’t yet solved many of these problems. At the highest levels, the men (they were a bit sexist) had very clear and high-minded ideas about how men should behave both in their personal and civic lives. So much of what I read about them resonates with me. They make me aware of so many subtleties in human relations, both personal and political. The one nice thing about an afterlife, which I know I won’t have, is a chance to meet any of them.

A quotation I like: Again, the Greeks, and I think it was Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” They also said, “All things in moderation.” My undergraduate college, Cornell University in Ithaca N.Y., had a saying by the founder of the university, a Quaker by the name of Ezra Cornell, carved into a stone bench on the campus, which said, “ABOVE ALL NATIONS HUMANITY.” That bench has helped me to resolve issues many times in my life.

These are a few of my favorite things: Bach’s music, foreign travel, reading, knitting, hanging out with my sons and grandsons, and, of course, Greek drama.

These are not: I do not respond well to people who think they have authority over others that is not legally mandated to them. I think a lot of very religious people think they have a mandate to inflict their misery, self-made quite often, on the rest of us. I think they resent the fact that we don’t suffer from lack of family planning, inability to have an abortion, the legal obligation to treat LGBT people as if they were human beings, and the need to give enormous amounts of our income to people in the “religion business.” And most of us don’t even feel guilty about this freedom from superstition. I think knowing that life is finite makes it more precious, and it should influence the higher angels of our nature to try to help everyone get the best they can in life while they are here.

My doubts about religion started: I was fortunate. My parents were non-observant, and I think of my mother as the “village atheist.” My parents were Jews, but they did not belong to any religious groups and my mother made us go to school on the Jewish holidays. This made me uncomfortable because the teachers sent a message that I interpreted as: “It’s bad enough that you’re not Christian, but being non-observant is even worse than being a Jew.”

My husband’s people were Protestants, and his mother was an observant Methodist. His dad was as much a freethinker as he could be without upsetting his wife. My husband read the Old and New Testaments, the Koran and all of Spinoza. Then he came around and told me that even if there were a god, he was inscrutable.

Since our parents were pretty decent, civilized people, we really didn’t feel the need for instruction about ethics from a tithe collector. I don’t mind people’s need for a spiritual leader, but I think that faith is a ridiculous trait to ask of people to whom you have given intellectual abilities.

The three great monotheistic traditions have different rules about forbidden foods, number of wives, how to observe the Sabbath, and probably other things that are important. What kind of a God does such a loopy, inconsistent presentation when people’s souls are on the line? I long ago decided that even if there is a deity, he is not anything like the being painted by any religion. None of them makes any sense. So we had best use our energy to get along with each other and solve the problems of this world as best we can. Obviously the thousands of years’ lead that monotheistic religions have had has not led to the resolution of a number of serious problems.
Before I die: I hope to write a short monograph about teaching children from kindergarten on up the joys and responsibilities of American citizenship.

I think when they graduate from high school that they should be quite familiar with the U.S. Constitution. And this should occur in an atmosphere that respects their dignity and well-being as citizens even at the earliest ages. How else can we raise men and women who will fight for what the country stands for as it is expressed in our founding documents? Most people don’t even understand the basic constitutional position on separation of church and state.

I am trying to involve FFRF and Americans United to adopt the long-range goal of having educational administrators deal with First Amendment infractions much more actively.

In order to be school principals and administrators, candidates should be required to understand the First Amendment and associated case law regulating religious activities in the public schools. University students should not be awarded this credential if they are not totally aware what religious activity is permitted in the public schools. If the law is taught to the administrators and the administrators hold annual meetings to spell them out to the faculty, there should be no reason not to actually fine, fire or publicly dress down a school employee who willfully inflicts his faith during class or sports activities on vulnerable children and adolescents. I am so tired of hearing, reading and seeing pictures of praying, kneeling football players and coaches at public high schools that I just want to get some teeth into those laws. I learned that the football coach in my local district is holding something called “Chapel” in the locker room. I thought this kind of thing only happened in Texas, but it seems to be highly contagious, and has certainly hit our little city with a vengeance.

Ways I promote freethought: Mostly, I don’t argue with people who I think are well-meaning, but slightly dim. In certain situations I just say, “I’m totally secular,” in what I hope is a polite, non-threatening way. I try to project the idea that I am trying to be a responsible, concerned adult without religious direction. Most people don’t take offense or argue. They seem to accept me on that basis, although I sometimes wonder, if they think “secular” is some kind of new-age sect. Of course, I also support FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Center for Inquiry.

It pays to complain: By Jimmy Holcomb

I got “God” off of my county’s marriage certificate. Yip!

Before our HB2 (“Bathroom bill”) fame, North Carolina was most riled-up about same-sex marriage. We saw years of loud protest, with government officials standing behind agitated preachers telling me exactly why God hates my marriage. Our state constitution still specifies that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t hold elective office. OK, then! But after my same-sex marriage, my certificate told me I was in “holy” matrimony under the “ordinance of God.” Meanwhile, my magistrate could have legally quoted God in refusing to issue me a license. So which is it?

I talked to my county’s register of deeds. He was cautious, but receptive. He mentioned “ceremonial deism,” and I reminded him that there’s no such thing. I offered secular replacement language. After 18 months of emails, 900 Orange County newlywed couples every year will no longer be told that God ordains anything as the county removed that religious language from the certificate.

So then I tried the same thing in Wake County, North Carolina’s capital county, where the certificate bears the biblical text, “Those whom God hath joined together . . . blah blah blah.” I received emailed insistence from the Wake County registrar that courts have upheld this kind of “harmless” government mention of God. I was told that mine was the only complaint she’d ever received, and that the biblical quote did not promote a specific religion. My response included this: If the high court engages in bogus reasoning like “historical use,” “traditional” and “ceremonial deism” to avoid hard decisions about the Establishment Clause, it will continue to rehear cases until constitutionality is established, and that, it only requires one complaint to get a major constitutional decision. Eventually I was told that my complaint was no longer relevant because the county has decided to stop issuing these certificates. We’ll see if that’s true.

Jimmy is an FFRF member from Efland, N.C.

Freedom From Religion Foundation