Kate Cohen

Kate received the Freethought Heroine Award. She is a contributing columnist to the Washington Post, an Emmy Award-winning documentary script writer and author of three books, including the just released We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too), which she signed.

[break]  Annie Laurie:    Testing, testing. So if everybody can be seated. We’re going to wait ’til you’re seated, then we kind of lower the lights a little bit. Just a reminder, you can exit from any door, including over here, which is closer to one of the restrooms. Just come through the main ballroom when you reenter. And following this presentation, which will include a book-signing, there is a two-hour lunch break, we normally love to have people ex explore capital square, there are so many good restaurants. I hope it’s not raining cats and dogs, and we have a sheet of restaurants and of course, there’s one at the Hilton attached, but not everyone will be able to eat there. So we hope you’ll be able to find a good place and everyone won’t get too wet. And I think if everyone is seated. You can turn the lights down a little bit. Then. And it’s my pleasure to introduce a member of the executive Board of Directors, David Tomaiao, who is head of freethinkers and he will introduce our next honoree.  [applause]  David:  Hello, everyone. I got the fun part, which is introducing our next guest. So it is my pleasure to introduce FFRF’s 2023 Freethought Heroine, with you over the years has gone to many fascinating individuals.       … Because the words pansies. Did you know that there’s such a thing as a pansy butterfly? That’s going to be the third image in that award that is depicted — and by the way, the Kelly is doing an illustrated version of The Origin of Species, which you can follow online. so although Kelly Holt couldn’t be here in person, on behalf of FFRF, I want to thank her for the beautiful creation that does justice to the award itself, and to our 2023 recipient. So I encourage you to look at that award later on. It’s really simply amazing. Anyway, so about our recipient, she is the celebrated Kate Cohen, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post whose book released last week, We of Little Faith which is creating huge buzz not just of atheists and freethinkers, but in the Washington Post. I hope you read the Post column called America doesn’t need more God, it needs more atheists.  [applause]  The column is also sometimes is headlined quote, how atheists can fixed a broken America. Very appropriate. It came out the same day that her new book came out and it is an eloquent and elegant treatise on why we atheists and nonbelievers should come out of the closet.  Kate has been a contributing writer to the Washington Post and has told us whenever she can, she works on irreverent views. Kate Cohen lives on a farm in New York with her husband and kids and she has a degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth and soon after graduating wrote her first book. The name of the book, The Neppi Modona Diaries, it’s about Jews and the fascist racial law in Italy who went into hiding and explores her own perspective as a post-Holocaust nonbelieving Jew. She also wrote a book, a walk down the aisle, notes on a modern wedding, examining the American wedding ritual.  She’s an Emmy Award winning documentary script writer and her essays have appeared in Slate, Salon, BuzzFeed, Vox and Fine Cooking. We of Little Faith is one of the most anticipated books in the freethought movement for years. It’s hot off the press and Kate Cohen will sign copies for you right after her talk. The book-signing table will be set up in the lobby, as we need to vacate the ballroom here by 11:50 a.m. sharp, so that Godless Gospel can do their sound check. So without making you suffer any longer, it is my pleasure to introduce freethought heroine, Kate Cohen.  [applause]    >> Kate Cohen: Thank you, David. And thank you Kelly. I’m sorry that you couldn’t be here. But this is such a beautiful piece of art. I am moved by the fact that someone took the time to do such a thoughtful job. OK!  I want to thank Annie Laurie and Dan, wherever they are, for getting in touch with me a little over a year ago when I was just a glimmer in the eye of some angry Washington Post letter writers.  [laughter]    They have been steadfast supporters and fans, and it is one of the honors of my life that they have invited me into this community.  Thank you.  My talk today is called: The Tiny, Titanic Act of Telling the Truth.  Because number one, what writer wouldn’t want to wedge in any available alliteration? Right?  [laughter]    And because, No. 2, I wanted to talk about how very little it takes to do something big. As documented in my book, We of Little Faith, why I stopped pretending to believe and maybe you should, too: Here is a list of the heroic acts I have taken to further the cause of freethought.  These are all spoilers. Please buy the book anyway.  Number one: I told my children that religion was the same as myth. It was a story that people made up to explain how the world works.  No. 2: I told another mom at a first-grade Halloween party, that we didn’t send our kids to a religious preschool, because, and I quote, “We don’t believe in God or anything.”  Very brave.  I told my son that Heaven was just as true as anything else we could make up about what happens after you die, but no more true than that.  I told an acquaintance of my mother’s, when he asked if I was still Jewish, that I still like the food — hahaha —  [laughter]  — but I don’t believe in any supernatural beings.  And … No. 5, in the dramatic climax of my super-dramatic memoir I told my father-in-law that no, my son would not be having a bar mitzvah.    [applause]  Heh-heh-heh. You see, I was raised a reform Jew and though I never really believed in a supreme being, I sure acted like I did. As many, many, many people do.  We of Little Faith traces my hero’s journey from not telling to telling the truth.  The book begins, though, with someone else’s truth-telling moment, the moment in 2013, ten years ago, when Rebecca Vitzman, a tornado survivor, is interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Have you seen this clip? They’re standing in the wreckage of their neighborhood. He tells her that she is blessed for having evacuated just in time. You gotta thank the Lord, right? He asks. She pauses.  He pushes. Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?  And she says: I’m actually an atheist.  Audience:  Whoo!  [applause]  Steering smalltalk with strangers in an unexpected direction is objectively a tiny act. Saying no out loud to a religious ritual that your father-in-law insists on, is, in the grand scheme, not much bigger. Gently correcting a TV reporter is probably pretty low on the list of courageous things that re Rebecca Vitzman did that day. There’s a reason why only 4% of Americans call themselves atheists. all those other people, they’re not telling. There’s a reason that, although we have a fantastic Freethought Caucus in Congress, we don’t have a single acknowledged atheist.  Do we think there are no atheists in Congress? No!  We know that the ones who are there have made the political calculation that telling the truth is too risky.  I spent years avoiding it myself. I was raised Jewish, and went to synagogue, and was bat mitzvah and had a Jewish wedding and I let people assume whatever they assumed that behavior meant about my beliefs. Why? Because I didn’t want to make things awkward.  Because I wanted to be liked.  Because it was my job, obviously, to make everyone else comfortable. A side note here on the topic of not heroism, but heroinism, the female kind is, that job of making everyone comfortable is a job especially that women have to do. I was trade to make nice, to tell people what they wanted to hear. When I made my first hesitant attempts to tell the truth instead, I often heard the response,,” now, are you an atheist or an agnostic? ”  As I wrote in the book, obviously they wanted to give me, a person who seemed nice, a nicer word.  And then I go on to talk about why I’m not an agnostic, it’s a really fun chapter.  But when my editor read that chapter, he was incensed on my behalf. He said, that would never happen to a man. That if a man said, “I’m an atheist” people would at least believe him.  I think he was right.  There is extra pressure on women not to say anything disagreeable, to keep our thoughts to ourselves. To smooth things over. My husband will get into a fight with his dad about synagogue, but not me. I would make the challah.  At least according to the stereotype, women are the ones who make sure they get dressed and go to church. Seth Andrews told me that when he was working in a radio station, the station had a specific target of females, 18 to 24, because young mothers were expected to refocus on church and religious influences to be good parents of young children.  When my husband and I had kids, for me, those twin cultural expectations on women to be pleasant and to be a good parent, came into direct conflict.  I felt driven to give my children everything I had. Including all the information they needed to see the world clearly and navigate inside it.  But I couldn’t do that and teach them the hazy religious beliefs I has tacitly endorsed my whole life. I was determined to treat their developing brains with respect.  So I told my kids that God was a human invention, and little by little, through them, and for them, I gathered the courage to tell other people.  Now, I realize I’m here today not because of what I said to that other mom in Mrs. O’Brien’s first-grade classroom, although wouldn’t that be cool?  But because of what I told a newspaper audience. I told the Washington Post that though I admired then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg I was nervous about his using any appeal to religion, even for a good cause, even to fight Christian beliefs.  I asked how exactly posting the 10 Commandments in schools could stop school shootings. I pointed out that the reason some people think aborting a six-week fetus, the size of a blueberry, is the same as killing a baby, is because they believe babies exist before they’re even conceived. as souls in Heaven that godsends down.  I argue that hospitals that receive public money should make medical decisions based on medicine, not the Bible.  [applause]  In our culture right now, one where the prevailing assumptions are that people believe in God, and that religious belief is the foundation for moral authority, taking these positions in public may seem brave.  But all I’m trying to do is tell the truth in 800 words. or more recently 3,000 words. Sorry about that.  To state what is obvious to me in a way that makes it obvious to others. To treat my readers’ developing brains with respect.  It’s not like I read the comments. That would be brave!  [laughter]  In my book, I tell a story about being at the grocery store with my daughter right after Christmas. She was a preschooler. Her little body still fit in that child seat of the cart with room to spare.  Little brunette with a bob and bangs. We were waiting in line at the deli and another shopper, pushing a cart with a couple of kids of his own, asked my daughter if Santa brought her anything good for Christmas.  [laughter]  I thought this was a really dumb thing to ask a kid you don’t know. I mean, this was in Albany, New York, where schools close for Yom Kippur. And I was trying to think of a way to tell him off, but, you know, nicely. When my daughter said to him, “Santa Claus is just pretend.”  [applause]  Just like that. No attitude, just handing over information. I think about that sometimes when I write or speak about being an atheist. My daughter wasn’t being brave. She was just telling the truth. And she didn’t know yet it was a truth she wasn’t supposed to tell, a truth she was supposed to hide.  I do my best writing about atheism and religion when I manage to channel the matter-of-factness of a four-year-old, when I don’t stop to soft pedal or apologize.  That poor dad lost all the color in his face. Heh-heh-heh-heh  And begged my daughter to keep quiet. Don’t tell my kids, he said.  Don’t tell.  Now, I don’t recommend telling other people’s kids that Santa Claus is just pretend. But I do believe that telling the truth, even in tiny moments like these, can be a Titanic act. I do believe the more we say, nicely but unapologetically, that we are atheists, the more atheists we inspire to do the same.  [applause]  Thank you. The more we say and make it normal to say that God is just pretend, the more we push back against the idea that God should have anything to do with our laws or our tax dollars, that my neighbor’s religious belief should have any effect on me.  This weekend there will be plenty of speakers talking about the rise of Christian nationalism, the rightward, pro-religion tilt of the Supreme Court and the consequences that has for our democracy and our citizens. There may be more nones in America than ever before, people may be leaving their churches in droves, but religion is at the same time, claiming and gaining an astonishing amount of political power. And that’s a problem.  Because, as I wrote in a column last week, peel back the layers of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, and you find religion.  Peel back the layers of control over women’s bodies from dress codes that punish girls for male desire, all the way to the Supreme Court’s striking down Roe v. Wade, and you find religion.  Sometimes you don’t even have to peel according to the bill itself, Missouri’s total abortion ban was created in recognition that almighty God is the author of life.  Don’t say gay laws, laws denying trans kids medical care, school library book bans, motivated by religion.  And when religion loses a fight and progress wins instead, religion then claims it’s not subject to the resulting laws. Religious belief is more and more, at the state and federal levels, a way to sidestep advances the country makes in civil rights, human rights, and public health. In 45 states and DC, parents can get religious exemptions from laws that require schoolchildren to be vaccinated. Seven states allow pharmacists to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions because of their religious beliefs. Every business with a federal contract has to comply with federal nondiscrimination rules, unless it’s a religious organization. Every employer that provides health insurance has to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, unless … it’s, say, a craft supply store with Christian owners.  Case by case, law by law, our country’s commitment to the first right enumerated in our bill of rights: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion, is faltering. The Supreme Court has ruled that the citizens of Maine have to pay for parochial school, that a high school football coach should be free to lead prayer on the 50-yard line, that a potential wedding website designer can reject potential same-sex clients.  This past summer, Oklahoma approved the nation’s first publicly funded religious school. This fall, Texas began allowing schools to place clergy members in place of guidance counselors.  I’m honored and moved to be here in Madison with people who are pushing back against all of this.  [applause]  Yes.  They — some of you — are taking big heroic action. They/some of you — file lawsuits and launch publicity campaigns and lift up politicians who are trying to keep religion out of our schools. Support clergy who lost their jobs when they lost their faith. Fight for reproductive rights and against censorship. They — some of you — stand sentry over that wall of separation between church and state.  All I do is say out loud what’s in my head.  I say this not because I’m hopelessly self-deprecating, but because I am hoping that the very smallness of the actions I took, first as a mom, and then as a writer and a columnist, will encourage other people to act. We all talk to people every day. We — we are all doing what I do. Sure, of course, I do it for a living. And with huge helpings of alliteration, but basically it’s the same. We all talk to people, and that means all of us can do something heroic.  Maybe we can’t all get law degrees and work for Planned Parenthood but when our culture says, “don’t tell,” tell anyway.  [applause]  I’ll end with a little bit from my book. The chapter is called: We are not alone.  In this part, I’ve just taken that tiny, terrifying step of telling in a conversation, with an acquaintance near my home town in the Shenandoah Valley, a white-haired Southern gentleman. He had given me no indication that he was anything other than a believer, and in fact our conversation stemmed from my expressing admiration of a statue, of a saint, that he had in his garden.  And when I told him I didn’t believe in any supernatural beings, he told me that he had a lot of trouble believing the stories of the Bible. And that he was troubled with how his church treated women and gay people.  And this is what I wrote.  We all go round. I once did, too.  Assuming that everyone else is a believer.  I’ll bet every private atheist in America knows someone who thinks they’ve never met an atheist before.  I’ll bet every private atheist in America sometimes feels like the only atheist in the room, while chatting with another atheist who feels like the only atheist in the room.  We won’t know the truth until we tell the truth.  A tiny act. Thank you.  [applause]  Oh, sure, questions!  OK I’m going to take questions. Thank you.  Annie Laurie:  So, can we get the mic on? Hello? Is the mic on? OK, and then can we maybe get the lights up a little bit so it’s safer? We are going to have time to take questions, and the podium mic is over here. Greta, do you want to wave? That’s where it is. And also we’ll have a floating mic. Mallory, when we found her, is going to have a mic, and if you need — you can’t get out of your seat or it’s too awkward, you can raise your hand and we’ll try to alternate, and the ground rules are, please ask a question. You know, you can make a brief comment, but this isn’t the time for a story or anecdote. So we want to get through a lot of these, and then there’s a book-signing to come. So take it away.  >> All right, who’s got a question?  >> Hi, I’m Mars D, I’m the chapter president for the Valley of the Sun chapter in Phoenix, Arizona, thanks very much for your talk, I love everything you’ve said. I’ve been pushing back from every atheist that I run into that says I’m afraid to speak out, I’m afraid to put a bumper sticker on my car, I’m afraid to — I’m coming to it. Thanks very much. What can we say insofar as statistics to help people feel that they are not going to become a victim of violence, have their cars damaged, or be shot at, to give more comfort that we can boldly stand up and say that we’re an atheist without fear of retribution? Are we fearful of things that we don’t need to be fearful of?  >> Kate Cohen: I would never suggest promising someone that they are not at risk if they feel at risk. I mean, I — I make a point in my book that as a reform Jew, as someone living in the Northeast, you know, I was not taking huge risks when I told the truth. It felt risky, but it wasn’t a case of putting my career or my children in danger. I mean, so far.  And I think that people like me, people who are in parts of the country where they feel free to express their nonbelief have a greater responsibility, in a way, than anybody who does feel — who does feel some threat. So I — I would say, if you do feel comfortable, if you do feel comfortable — if your only hesitation is you don’t want to have an awkward conversation or you don’t want to make someone feel, you know, weird, then you should go ahead and push past your own sense of — you know, having to be nice and speak, and if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t feel comfortable. That responsibility is on the rest of us who have that job. Yeah.  Annie Laurie:  Is this on again? Sorry? Hello? So Mallory is over — Mallory, do you want to raise? If somebody cannot get out of your seat and you want to ask a question, raise your hand now and we’ll try to alternate a little bit. I don’t see anybody, but — OK, there’s somebody over there, and maybe we’ll take one quick question while Mallory goes over there, from you, Greta.  >> Hi, my name is Sue K, I’m a long-time atheist, but not all my life. Went through a process, like you. I’m perplexed, and I think a lot of people in this room are perplexed, by the continuation of religious belief in this day and age when we’ve got all the science and common sense and reason at our disposal. If you were going to draw a pie chart, how much would you perpetuate to the momentum and just parents passing it down to kids, versus the wealthy as the opiate of the masses to maintain their power?  >> Kate: Wow. I should do a pie chart. The Post loves charts. I gotta do a pie chart. It would just be guessing at this point. I think so much of it is people — not just sort of passing on passively their cultural beliefs, but also feeling like they’re supposed to, because that’s where morality comes from, or that’s where community comes from, and I feel like that’s, you know  — that’s one thing that I can do is make it clear that you can be an atheist and still be moral. You can be an atheist and have holidays, you can be an atheist and find a house ever worship or a physical place that inspires you. That’s a whole section of the book is all the ways that you can replace the things that religion gives to people. Because I do think there are things that religion at least appears to provide people, and they, you know, it’s a lot to give up. It can be a lot to give up. So I don’t necessarily blame your average believer, or your average pretend believer for continuing that when they feel like they don’t have an option. I think the more of us who say that we are not believers and show that you can be a nonbeliever and be a perfectly, you know, decent person with a full, rich life, the more that pie chart will adjust a little bit.  >> Do you think the word atheist projects a rigidity and a kind of rejection that perhaps agnostic does not? I’m a little concerned about a lot of the evangelicals are absolutely certain of their position. You know, I’m not so sure. I don’t see any proof one way or the other, so I’m a little afraid of being so certain.  >> Kate: Right. I think that an atheist is someone who believes that God is a human invention, or another way that I say it sometimes is that you know, someone does not believe there’s a supernatural being in charge of the universe. I think if I were an agnostic, it would be more like, hm, could be. Maybe not. And I don’t have the — personally don’t have those feelings. To me I look at the breadth of religious practice and belief and to me it just seems like something that humans have made up to help themselves through, you know, let’s face it, a difficult existence with a time limit at the end. It makes sense. So I never felt like I was on any kind of fence, and I think agnostic makes it sound like — that you are. So that’s a personal question. I really don’t want people to say they’re nonbelievers, if they’re not sure. I’m really making an argument for honesty, and I also want to make atheist seem like something that’s not quite as scary, you know?  >> But by saying atheist, aren’t you saying there is no God, as opposed to not a believer? Who knows?  >> Kate: Yeah, to me, God is made up. God is made up.  >> Thank you, Kate, I appreciated your appearance on Ask an Atheist, as well. To your point as to how the religious, while they are dwindling, they’re becoming more violent, almost like rats in a corner. My assertion is that atheists, agnostics, people in the freethought community, and secularists right now, we are in the majority and I’m anticipating the Republicans getting their ass kicked by 11 points in 2024. And I was wondering if you could speak to that.  >> Kate: Well, what I will say is I hope you are right, from your lips to all of our ears, you know. Yeah. I do believe that there are more nonbelievers out there than we know, more atheists than we know, and that’s one of the big parts of my last column was about. I think people are hiding it. And we really need to start a campaign where we’re just — we’re just comfortable saying it. So yes, I hope that you’re right about the election, though.  >> Thank you.  >> Hi, yeah, sounds like you partially answered the question, but let me ask you anyway. So based on your experience, your book and your talk, how would you push back if and when people telling me that as a modern progressive secular Jew, I am giving up on thousands of years of tradition, spiritual values, and all that? And some of them would just go as far as saying that because I am not attending synagogue, I am not a real Jew. How would you push back? What would be your recommendation for that?  [applause]  >> Kate: I mean, the Jewish tradition has long included atheists. In fact, it’s more tolerant, far more tolerant of atheism within its ranks than, you know, than Christianity, for example. I think that you can call yourself a Jewish atheist, you know, and I think that I’m trying to get sort of everyone to — even if you don’t want to leave the, you know, your religious upbringing and a lot of people find a lot of sense of identity from the way that they were raised. I want people to embrace what I call the combination form so that they can actually be Catholic atheists or Protestant atheists or Methodist atheists. But I mean, whoever has been after you, I think, really hasn’t been studying up on their Jewish history, so, yeah, keep at it. Keep at it.  >> That’s the last question? Well, wonderful.  [applause]   Thank you very much.  OK, I’m going to be outside signing books. We have a break, too, right?  Annie Laurie:  Going to say that you can get copies of Kate’s book at the very back of our room. She will be outside the ballroom signing books momentarily. This is a two-hour break. Our ballroom opens again at 1:30. We do need to ask everyone to vacate, because there’s a sound check for Godless Gospel. Thank you …:  [break]

Freedom From Religion Foundation