By Jonathan Ortiz
Growing up as a Catholic, I remember how shocked I was when I first learned that there are more than 50,000 sects of Christianity alone, and that there are hundreds of religions. I started asking myself, why is it that I am a Roman Catholic and not a Protestant? Why is it that I am a Christian and not a Muslim? Why is it that I so readily reject Aega, a Greek goddess of war, Corus, a Roman god of the wind, and so many others, but make an exception for mine?
What convinced me, in due time, was something Richard Dawkins once said: "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Eventually I took my crucifix off for the last time and ever since then I have been an agnostic atheist.
All religion is — and ever was — is our attempt to explain what we do not understand.
It is only human nature, but just because it is our nature does not mean it is right to conjure up falsehoods. When I encounter theists who ask me about what happens after death, or how the universe began, it is this point that I raise: We may not understand something now, and perhaps we never will, but that does not exclude a natural explanation, and if our past is any indication, things we think to be unexplainable — supernatural — always end up with natural explanations.
There is another important argument that I think many theists do not often encounter, and it is that they almost always have the same religion as their parents. Humans are not born with a belief in God: They must learn it, and they do so from their parents, so if you were born to different parents you would believe different things. I ask them: Would you be a Christian if you were born in 3,000 B.C. in the time of the Egyptians? If you would not be one back then, why should you be one today? I asked myself this very same question, and I'm freer and happier today because of it.
Jonathan, 18, was born in Birkenfeld, Germany, and spent most of his life in that country. He attends the University of Florida.
An unedited sampling of the mail we get here at FFRF shows that not everyone understands the separation of state and church, correct grammar or how to be a decent human being.
Freedom for religion. Pun intended: Please investigate all members of the ffrf group. There have been numerous stabbings at churches and on the Ark. We all know that this group does not care ANYTHING about loved ones. Your children die...it's just science..they are in the ground..Nothing else. This group is way too ignorant to realize what is happening has already been explained. Are you happy that you are not giving your family a chance to become as ignorant as you? Thank you for all the killings and bullying...may your children endure the same as you FORCE on others. LOL as ya'll say. AND BY THE WAY...DO NOT SHOP FOR CHRISTMAS SALES AND TAKE OFF FOR CHRISTMAS...THIS BEHAVIOR SHOWS YOUR IGNORANCE AND BIAS. LEAVE THE SALES FOR CHRISTMAS PRESENTS. WORK FOR THOSE THAT WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH THEIR CHILDREN AT CHRISTMAS. Again do not take off at Christmas and do not get in the way of Christmas shoppers. Your kids do not get Christmas presents ...lol ignorant — Jay Beecher
Frivilous npnsense: Your organization is engaging in frivolous nonsense by filing a law suit against Lehigh County ... If the people collaborating with you are recent arrivals in Lehigh County how dare they be offended and seek to destroy the historic roots of our county ... I suppose you with sit back and approve should ISIS take over our county and demand that men wear beards and females wear Muslim regalia... And behead anyone that continues to be an infidel or make them pay a special tax or fee to stay alive... My family has lived in Lehigh County since its beginnings and before ... So don't tread on us ... or anyone in Lehigh County by forcing higher taxes to pay for your frivious amd machievous law suit. — Dennis Pearson
removal of cross: You people are the reason the world is the way it is today. You want to sue just to make money to support your bullsh*t causes. A cross in the Lehigh County Seal comes from the history of this county. Although I disagree with some of Lehigh Counties ways of resolving issues, stop trying to take more money out of the taxpayers pockets and earn money any other organization would..... not by sueing to get money for your very LAME and CHILDISH oraganization. Raise money through members like other REAL organizations. You can all go to HeLL — Scott Haas
Freedom: ONE NATION UNDER GOD. IN GOD WE TRUST. THIS NATION WAS FOUNDED ON RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. DON'T LIKE IT GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE USA. THE ONLY THING YOU PEOPLE DON'T TAKE CREDIT FOR, IS THE INVENTION OF THE WHEEL. — Roy Caravenga
Congratulation: Description: 11 year girl killed by dad. Get the felon out of jail while relatives cheer. Shootings ...yay..just what this ffrf group loves. Congrats for being bullies. Aren't you proud of going against good people and being too ignorant and scared to go against the satanism after school clubs. Appreciate your ignorance screwing this country even more than all your loving criminals have. Pat yourselves on the backs (or wherever you pat yourselves) you are effectively responsible for these kids getting killed. The parents of most of these kids must be in your bully group ...not even a tear for killing their own kids. Congrats! — Dave Conner
prayer in public schools: Unlike what you lie-beral communist traitors say, students and teachers DO have the right to pray in public schools if they so wish to! People like you are what's wrong with our country and bring about God's wrath upon our nation. When Trump gets elected, will you scum be leaving our country!? I sure hope so!!! —Lester Rees
well I want to take a min to say fuck you: your company is almost a big a piece of shit as Barry Marshall Davis AKA Barry Soetoro or B Hussian Obama — Jeff Skinner
Satans work: Keep doing satans work and you will be rewarded, you folks will not need grills to cook you meat as you will be the meat andlucifers grill is hot. — George Henson
Trigg: I'm a concerned citizen that hates fucking fags like you trying to mess with the 10 commandments. Why don't you go fuck your dog like you have been doing and wait til your time to rot in hell where you belong fucking inbred trash. Stay the FUCK out of ky. U understand? — Robert Merry
Ashamed: checked your site doing some routine research Your site although perhaps well-equipped and well versed, is a blasphemy! You people even went as far to quote the bible and Christ himself in your works to further your causes for arguments of separation of church and state? I'm sorry but our country is in disrepair would you like to blame the churches or the states? — Richard Hart
Trigg Co.: You people are assholes! People like you are the reason sooo many people are being murdered in this country. Some belief in things unseen is exactly what we need to straighten this country out!!! Fuck off!!!! — Lisa Dawes
FFRF member Pat Brda was born in Berwyn, Ill., on July 8, 1953. She had degrees in dance, math, computers and earned an MBA from University of Illinois-Champaign.
She worked in information technology, most recently as a project manager at Bio-Rad. For 31 years, Pat and her husband Carl enjoyed exploring Seattle and the Northwest, movies, travel, music and even road rallies with Pat playing navigator to Carl's driver. Pat was active in community issues.
Pat enjoyed cooking and baking, and created jewelry through beadwork. She loved growing plants and was one of the rare people who could nurture orchids to rebloom. Most of all, she enjoyed sharing her plants, creations and interests with friends and family.
Pat died peacefully at home last year surrounded by friends after a rapid and cruel bout with cancer. Daughter of Anthony and Therese Brda, she is survived by her sister Marilyn and brother Bill.
"We are so grateful that Pat bequeathed $40,000 to FFRF to help secure our future, among other worthy causes she helped," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
I used to preach in prisons years ago as a Christian minister. This summer, I got to speak for the first time in a prison as an atheist.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover has been dealing with religion in the prison system. An FFRF member who is an inmate in the Jackson Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Black River Falls, Wis., with about 1,000 inmates, had asked Sam to help him get a humanist club started there. Apparently, in order for prisoners to form an association, it has to be run by an outsider. This is to avoid any leadership hierarchy among the inmates.
It's easy to get a religious group started. All it needs is a local church or religious organization to come into the prison as volunteers. There are many churches in Black River Falls, but there is no local humanist group, so the nonbelievers in the prison were unable to organize. Sam wrote to the prison to ask what might be done to accommodate the needs of all inmates, including nonbelievers. Prison Chaplain Myron Olson told him that if we could find a local person to come in to hold a humanist event, he would be happy to facilitate.
When I heard that, I volunteered to drive up there to meet with the humanist inmates. The very obliging and accommodating Chaplain Olson called me and we set a date for Aug. 25. I had to fill out a number of forms to become a volunteer — they wanted to know if I had been convicted of a crime, if I had a family member in that facility, and so on.
Entering the prison
I drove up to Black River Falls that day and discovered it was almost harder to enter the prison than to leave it! The officers, who were very nice but firm and professional, told me I had to leave my camera, phone, and watch in the car. After checking my keys, wallet and identification in a locker, I removed my shoes and belt to pass through a very sensitive metal detector. It took four attempts. Apparently, the little metal clasp in my pants was enough to set it off. They told me to hold my hand over that area and walk sideways through the detector very slowly, tiny steps at a time. I never felt so happy to finally be inside a prison.
Chaplain Olson is a Christian minister who was born and raised in Black River Falls and has been working in Jackson Correctional for 16 years. He took me through the security gates to the chapel. There were bibles and religious literature everywhere, pictures of Jesus and other religious leaders, and what looked like a rack of religious videos. An old spinet piano was against one wall, and I could picture a church lady playing hymns before the weekly sermon.
The chapel has a library of faith-based resources, including material for inmates of Eastern religions, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Native American, paganism and Protestant backgrounds. It now has books for humanists and atheists. Chaplain Olson took all of the FFRF books I had brought and spread them out on a table in the room. These included Ruth Green's Born Again Skeptics' Guide to the Bible, Annie Laurie Gaylor's books about women and religion, Anne Nicol Gaylor's Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, Yip Harburg's Rhymes For The Irreverent, Orvin Larson's American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, One Woman's Fight (the story of the McCollum decision), and my books Losing Faith in Faith and Life Driven Purpose. I told him he could keep what books he thought appropriate, and he kept them all.
An eager audience
At 6:30 p.m. sharp, about 35 or 40 inmates came into the room, all very eager to listen. I had a truly captive audience! However, the FFRF member was not there. Several days earlier, he had been transferred to another facility, which they told me was a low-security prison, one step away from being released. So that is good news. When I asked the crowd if they knew him, many hands went up. Someone said he is a great, intelligent guy. "Well," I said gravely, "it seems he has gone on to a better place." They all laughed. "It is a better place," said Keith, a freethinking friend of his.
I talked for an hour about FFRF, my preacher-to-atheist story, and about humanism and freethought. I congratulated Chaplain Olson for respecting the needs of all inmates. I told the group that he is doing a better job than the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, who has denied me an opportunity to open Congress with a secular invocation. When I pointed out that the House of Representatives should actually be representative, Chaplain Olson nodded his head.
After my talk, we spent another hour taking questions. Nobody wanted to leave. Where were they going to go?
Some of the men asked if we could do this more often, and I suggested that maybe Sam could come next time to talk about religion and government. One guy in the back row said, "Grover?" I was surprised. "Yes," I said. "Sam Grover, one of FFRF's attorneys." So I guess Sam is famous in the prison community!
Freethinkers and skeptics
It seemed that about half the crowd were open freethinkers and skeptics. The others were mildly and politely interested, with honest questions. Some of them were taking careful notes. "You are a breath of fresh air!" one fellow said. They asked about the historicity of Jesus, about the Constitution, the early Christian church, religion in politics, Adam and Eve, inner religious experience, miracles and prophecy. They also grilled me about my reasons for leaving the ministry. It was all very enjoyable.
One man, near the end of questioning, said he was out in the hall for the first part of my talk with another inmate who was looking at the poster for the event. Pointing to my picture, he said, "That is the devil," and refused to enter the room. "But you don't look at all like the devil," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. I explained that we nonbelievers don't believe in God or the devil. They are flip sides of the same counterfeit coin.
After the meeting, many went to browse the FFRF books. It was very satisfying to shake hands with some of the inmates who came up to thank me.
Since my camera was in the car, I could not take any photos. However, Chaplain Olson was a good sport and accompanied me to the parking lot where we took an unprofessional selfie with my iPhone. Walking to the car, the very tolerant minister said, "It can be very difficult to listen to a point of view with which you disagree." He might have been talking about the inmates, but I think he was talking about himself.
It's good to see not everyone is imprisoned by their beliefs.
Dan Barker is FFRF co-president.