Annie Laurie Gaylor: I’m going to introduce our next speaker. It’s going to be one of those rare occasions where I try to tell you a joke. So there was an Irish priest in a small village and he was walking by a little girl and she was holding a basket and was staring at it very intently. He went up and asked, “What is that?” And she looked at the priest and she said, “There kittens and they are catholic kittens.” And he patted her on the head and said, “Well, that’s wonderful. A couple weeks later he walked by and she had the basket on the grass and the kittens were playing around. He came over and said, “So, how are the catholic kittens?” She looked up and said, “They’re not catholic kittens. They’re atheist kittens.” And he said, “What happened?” She said, “Their eyes have opened.”
I think that is a metaphor for what has happened in the Republic of Ireland. And we will let Michael tell you more about the mass exodus of many devout Irish Catholics from the Catholic Church. And why that has happened. Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. Michael Nugent is a founder, co-founder of Atheist Ireland. Dan and I have been privileged to attend several events there with Atheist Ireland and Atheist International. We have really learned a lot. That perspective, of going over there and realizing that although half of our nation believes Jesus is in our constitution, in Ireland Jesus really is in their constitution. So, it’s a different kind of battle between church and state. Michael is a published author and playwright, popular play that he did about a sport play musical. That played in Ireland for several years. He’s been, basically, a full-time atheist activist in the last few years because it’s so important right now what is going in Ireland and he’ll tell you more about it. There is a blasphemy law, and that has impact globally on the blasphemy situation. I think that it’s very important in this insular nation that we realize what the problems are and other parts of the world. We’re very pleased to have Michael Nugent here.
Michael: Well, thank you very much for inviting me here today. Thanks in particular to Annie Laurie and Dan and to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and for all of the work it does. Thanks also to Triangle Freethought Society in particular, Sue and Kim, who have been very welcoming and shown me around for the last couple of days.
Thanks to everybody here for being part of the growing international movement for what we as Atheist Ireland describe as promoting atheism and reason and secularism. It is growing, growing around the world as a group called the World Values Survey. Which is an interdisciplinary team of social scientists around the world that are mapping human values over the last twenty years. And they are finding that around the world as individuals move from survival values towards self-expression values, which is triggered by investment in health and education and communications technology and moves toward democracy, then societies move towards secular rational values and away from traditional religious values. So we are swimming with the tide of history and the work that we are doing. I think that we can be optimistic regardless of how difficult any particular situation may seem to be. I’m going to talk briefly about three things. I’m going to talk about Ireland and atheism and secularism in Ireland. I’m going to talk about blasphemy laws internationally and finally I’m going to talk about the need to normalize the word atheism in social and political discourse.
First thing in terms of atheism and secularism in Ireland. Until very recently Ireland was a monolithic Catholic state, well, depending on the part of Ireland. North of Ireland is different. But south is a monolithic Catholic state. Dominated by two institutions, the Catholic Church and the politically correct Fianna Fail. Which is a populist and infested with corruption, political party. I’ll give you one example of how it governed Ireland, this is a true story. There was a by-election, an important by-election, some years ago. And there was one housing estate and the message coming back from the voters through the canvassers was they’re not interested in the economy, they are not interested in unemployment, they are not interested in the recession, they are not interested in immigration. They have a new housing estate and they’d been promised that there would be trees and landscaping at their housing estate and they haven’t got it so they’re not voting for us. On the morning of the by-election a team of council workers arrived. And planted trees alongside the housing estate. And they lost the by-election; three days later they came and took the trees back again.
For most of the last century that political party, along with the Catholic Church has also worked to keep Ireland Catholic. We have a constitution that begins with saying that all authority comes from the holy trinity and refers to our obligations, our humble obligations, towards our divine lord Jesus Christ. We have a clause in our constitution that says that the state acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to almighty God. Which if you think about it for more than a second is not even a clause vindicating the rights of citizens to worship a god, it’s a clause vindicating the right of this god to be worshipped by the citizens. As if the creator of the Universe needs the Irish constitution to vindicate his rights.
I was born in an Ireland in the 1960s where, in the first census after I was born, ninety five percent of people said that they were Roman Catholic; ninety-nine and a half said they were Christians of some variety. Less than half of one tenth of one percent said that they had no religion. Divorce was illegal; abortion was and still is illegal. Contraception was illegal. The Catholic Church in the mean time in the background was covering up the rape and abuse of children with the active complacency of the Irish state in many cases. As late as the nineteen nineties, Richard Branson’s Virgin megastore was taken to court in Dublin and fined for selling a condom. We had laws regulating condoms via a bizarre piece of legislation that said that you could buy condoms if you have a doctors prescription saying that you are married couple and you are required the condom for bonafide family planning purposes. So that’s the Ireland I grew up in. Thankfully it has changed a lot.
For a couple of reasons. One I think is economic and social development. Making the same differences to religiosity in society in Ireland as has been happening around the world. The second is of course the fact that the Catholic Church has been exposed as having been covering up rape and abuse. Particularly in Ireland, but also obviously internationally because their method of dealing with it was sending priests abroad in order to prevent them from being prosecuted. So Ireland has moved on. The most recent surveys in Ireland, internationally, one or two years ago when Gallup internationally showed that forty seven percent of Irish people say they are religious. Less than half. Which is a massive, massive change in a short period of time. And that’s compared to fifty-nine percent internationally.
Ireland is now one of the least religious countries in the world. We also have, there was an interesting survey around the time of Eucharistic Congress, which was held in Dublin recently. That survey, seventy-five percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation. Which is of course one of the central theological fundamentals of Catholicism. Fifty percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in hell. Fifteen percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. And my personal favorite, eight percent of Irish Roman Catholics don’t believe in god.
Which I would have thought was a pretty low hurdle for being a Roman Catholic. So the Catholic Church has lost the moral influence that it had claimed and pretended to have for so long. Fianna Fail is also out of power. Two of its recent prime ministers were up before tribunals for corruption charges. One of its justice ministers ended up in jail for tax evasion, so thankfully that party and the Catholic Church are now on their knees in the right sense in Ireland. Ireland, once a Catholic country is a pluralist country but unfortunately still have Catholic laws. That’s still difficult, we still have the laws that I’ll mention in a second. But before I mention that, I presume at least some of you are wondering why somebody is here from Ireland talking to you about Ireland without asking you to support the IRA (Irish Republican Army) which seems to be traditional among Irish people over here. It’s because most Irish people believe that the IRA are murderers and do not support the IRA. It’s important that people realize that most Irish people are democrats. That the mythology that has reached Irish America about the IRA representing the Irish people is just that, it’s mythological.
I was involved with a lot of other activists before getting involved in Atheist Ireland and campaigning against the IRA and against loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland. We organized peace pickets outside their conferences. We organized a peace-train to enable people to show solidarity with people on other side of the boarder when somebody in the IRA had the bright idea of trying to unite Ireland by blowing up the rail line, which was one of the links between the two parts of the island. I’ll tell you one other thing about them; some of them are not the most ethically bright people in the world. In the 1970’s the IRA used to condoms as part of the timing mechanism in bombs. In the internal devices that they were using to blow people up, and some IRA were opposed to using condoms on moral grounds. So, thankfully we’ve moved beyond that. Thankfully although we still have a lot of problems in Ireland, thankfully you don’t have people having to look under their cars every morning, look to see whether you’re going to be blown up when they turn the ignition key.
It’s also important to note that that was only in one part of the Island, there are two countries in Ireland. Two countries on the Island of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland which is an independent largely Catholic state, although as I have said it’s moved on. And Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, which is a disputed state in terms secularly, in terms of the majority of Protestants and the minority of Catholics.
When Ireland was partitioned, what you really had was a sectarian Protestant state in Northern Ireland and a sectarian Catholic state in the Republic of Ireland. The difference was, in Northern Ireland there was a large enough minority of Catholics to be able to stand up for themselves and not be totally oppressed. Now unfortunately, that ended up manifesting itself in terrorism. In the Republic of Ireland there were so few Protestants that they essentially either immigrated or kept their heads down politically. So the Republic became a monolithic Catholic state. Now, as I said the population has moved on in the Republic of Ireland but unfortunately the laws haven’t. We still have that constitution that I was telling you about. And there are other things in that constitution, the offense of blasphemy is in the constitution. The president, judges, members of the council of the estate which include the prime minister, are required by the constitution to swear a religious oath in order to take office. Which means that a conscientious atheist cannot legally hold those offices in Ireland.
The Catholic Church still officially runs- looking at that video yesterday about trying to stop religious influence getting into schools in the United States, was quite
poignant for me to watch because in Ireland we have the opposite problem. The Catholic Church officially runs ninety percent of the primary schools in Ireland. Funded by the state. Teachers salaries paid by the state, run by the Catholic Church with an official Catholic ethos that is not restricted to the religious instruction classes, but permeates the entire curriculum. So you cannot even opt your child out of the formal religious instructional elements because in nature study they’ll be taught that God created the birds and the bees and in the music classes they’ll be singing hymns. And that’s just a really, really difficult situation to deal with.
We also have a clause that was largely influenced by the Catholic Church, put into our constitution making abortion unconstitutional, which was put in in the 1980s. And we’re not going to go into a lot of detail about that, the situation in Ireland with abortion though is that the government has been forced by a combination of legal factors to bring in the most restrictive version of abortion laws that they could get away with and that the citizens could respect about the human rights of pregnant women. So we have just a very small step forward where abortion is now legal in Ireland where there is a threat to the life (of the fetus) as opposed to the health of a pregnant woman. But in other circumstances it’s still illegal. Even in cases like rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities, abortion is still illegal in Ireland. We still have such a long way to go.
Also in Ireland, assisted dying is illegal, and I know that’s the case in a lot of parts of America as well. But that’s a case that I campaign particularly close to my heart for because my wife died a few years ago of cancer. And she had made preparations to take her own life if she needed to, to avoid unnecessary suffering. And what’s really important for people to understand about that issue is that it’s portrayed as if it’s about people wanting to die. But it’s not about people wanting to die, it’s about people wanting the peace of mind that they get where, they are still alive from knowing that they have the option to void unnecessary suffering. And whatever borderline ethical issues on that, when you’re talking about people who are terminally ill and it is purely a question about when and how they die, rather than whether they die, the only argument against that is theological. And it is a purely secular issue to have assisted dying in those circumstances made legal.
While we are talking about dying, another incident in Ireland recently, this is just before Atheist Ireland was founded, a woman died in County Donegal. Which is close to the boarder with Northern Ireland. And she was an atheist. And her son couldn’t bury her because all of the graveyards in the County were run by churches. So he eventually brought her across the boarder to Northern Ireland and buried her in the municipal graveyard in Derry. And the Irish Times was following up on the story and they said yeah, “We have different sections for different religions so yeah we take anybody.” And they said Irish Times asked them, so do you have an atheist section? Oh, no we don’t have an atheist section; we put her in with Protestants.
So that’s the context in which Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. What we do is we campaign on various things; we campaign to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism. We campaign for an ethical secular state where the state doesn’t give any support or preference to either religion or to atheism. We would be as opposed to a state that promotes atheism as we are to a state that promotes religion. We involve ourself in political lobbying both of the government and opposition political parties. We provide briefing documents to parliamentarians when bills are going through that are relevant to secularism. We have briefing sessions in the parliament with TD’s (Teachta Dála) who are our members of the parliament. We regularly make submissions to and appear before both parliamentary committees in Ireland on various issues but also international human rights regulatory bodies like the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
We have a very important meeting coming up now in Geneva in a few months time where Ireland is up before United Nations human rights committee. As sort of a regularly scheduled review of how it’s implementing it’s human rights obligations. This will be the first one since Atheist Ireland started; we are going to be they’re making sure that atheists and secular issues are represented in what’s being discussed.
As Annie Laurie was saying earlier on, we are kind of like in the opposite position to what you have here in that you have secular laws that you are trying to have enforced. We are still in the position of trying to get secular laws implemented.
One of the most serious is the blasphemy law. Ireland passed a new blasphemy law in 2009. For reasons I won’t go into because it’s too complicated. But for reasons that they claimed was a constitutional obligation, but that’s debatable. On the day that those blasphemy laws were introduced, Atheist Ireland published twenty-five blasphemous statements on our website. What we said is, “One or two things will happen, either we be prosecuted in which case we could challenge the constitution. Or we won’t be prosecuted in which case that strengthens the political case for appeal of the law because if they are not going to implement it then it brings the parliament and the laws into disrepute.
The more serious impact of that was not really in Ireland. It was that of the United Nations. For the last decade or so the Islamic states led by Pakistan have been trying to get defamation of Islam, and later defamation of religion made illegal internationally. And they introduced the wording from the Irish law as what they wanted introduced internationally. And you kind of know that you’re doing something wrong when Pakistan is citing you as best practice internationally for blasphemy laws.
So we take a human rights based approach to all of the political positions that we argue for. Particularly in terms of blasphemy laws. The most important human rights issues that are factors to bear in mind in regard to blasphemy laws are if human rights apply to individuals. They don’t apply to groups or religions, they apply to individuals. And they apply to every individual, equally, without discrimination. Our position is that we should respect people as individuals but we don’t have to respect their beliefs. We can respect their right to hold their beliefs but we don’t have to respect the content of their beliefs. And a slogan that we used to articulate that is, “You have rights, your beliefs do not.”
That’s the basis of all of our campaigning on blasphemy related issues. But it’s also the basis of the other policies on secularism that we promote as well. That’s why people here should be campaigning on the issues that you have here in the United States, and also take time to campaign internationally on blasphemy issues. It can make quite a difference on various issues just to have international pressure. Particularly on some individual cases, it can delay executions.
It’s astonishing how fundamental the infringements of human rights are. Particularly in Islamic states on blasphemy laws. I’ll give you one quick example which is a woman called Asia Bibi, who is a forty-five year old mother who is currently in jail in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for eligibly blaspheming against Muhammad. And two politicians in Pakistan who spoke up for her, the Muslim governor of Punjab and the minority’s minister in the government who was a Christian, spoke up for her. And both of them were murdered. One of them murdered by his own bodyguard. And the other murdered after he had predicted that he would be murdered.
And what happens in Islamic states in terms of blasphemy laws, in Asia Bibi’s case was exactly following this pattern, is that you have personal disputes between people. In this case, it was a trivial dispute over a goat breaking a troth in a neighbor’s garden. That had created tension between this woman and her neighbors. And then she was out working in the fields as she did, with her Muslim coworkers, picking fruit. She went to get water, brought it back, and because she had drunk from the water bowl and she was a Christian they said she had contaminated the water. And she said something about Jesus doing more for people than Muhammad, she was accused of blasphemy and again this is a pattern that we see again and again and again in blasphemy cases. A mob gathered to attack her, the police were called, and instead of dispersing the mob, arresting the mob, the police arrested Asia Bibi and she is still waiting. She’s just literally had her third delay to her appeal on the sentence.
So this is really important. There is one other person that will tell you in blasphemy laws. Ben Baz was an Egyptian accountant who was jailed in Kuwait for writing about secularism on a blog. Not even for writing about atheism, but for writing about secularism, in very respectful terms on a blog. A personal dispute with an employer got translated into a blasphemy charge and he spent a year in jail in Kuwait. We campaigned strong for him, but he is now released, he is back in Egypt. His situation is still quite sensitive at the moment; he’s in Egypt at the moment. He’s writing articles for the Atheist Ireland website now on secularism and Islam. I asked him if he had a couple of words that he would like me to convey to the conference here and he sent me this.
He would like to thank everyone that had worked on his behalf. He said, “Today you are discussing freedom from religion. But, sadly today in many countries millions are not able to choose their religion. When I was in Kuwait even human rights organizations refused to help me because I’m an atheist. Human rights conferences were monitored with national security and everything said had to be approved by them. Some human rights organizations have become commercial projects with no evaluation for usefulness and practice.”
He suggests several things as steps forward. That international human rights organizations should work with local ones to improve them and train them and evaluate their work. That government should enforce human rights laws around the world. Particularly through the human rights treaties that a lot of countries have signed up to. Activists should raise the profile of issues to the wider public, and the wider media. We shouldn’t focus only on individual cases, we should also focus on the whole concept, the violation of human rights that blasphemy laws represent.
The final thing I want to talk about today. . . I’ve had a lot of discussions just over the last few days here with Harvey and Sue and Kim and people from the Triangle Freethought Society about work that they’re doing. The excellent work that they are doing. That atheists groups are doing similarly in Ireland. But trying to balance the requirements of self-identifying as atheists in a way that’s going to alienate some people and trying to build communities at the same time. I’m going to suggest that however we approach that, we need to normalize the use of the word atheist.
I think that we need to be seen to be doing good things while self-identifying as atheists. And that’s the only way and practice that we are going to chip away at the prejudice about the word atheist that exists. Because if we retreat from the word atheist while we are doing good things than people never see self-identifying atheists do good things. The prejudice continues. I’m going to make the brief case for what I’m provisionally calling for the purpose of discussion, the case for ethical atheism.
The first thing that I want to say is that in theory atheism can be any position on a scale from passively not believing in gods to actively believing that there are no gods. I believe that atheism in reality in real life is more, is necessarily more than a dry disbelief in an assertion about gods. Because if you don’t believe in gods then it necessarily follows, and I don’t mean correlation, I mean it necessarily follows that you don’t believe that morality comes from gods.
That is a significant position to take. It’s a significant worldview in a world where the majority of people do believe that morality comes from gods. And just as theism is in essence an assertion about morality as well as an assertion about the nature of reality so too is atheism. Atheism is an assertion about morality. Saying that that morality does not come from supernatural commands, it comes from our natural compassion and empathy and cooperation and reciprocity and sense of fairness and sense of justice. I think that, now atheism doesn’t guarantee that you will reach the right decisions morally but what it does do it removes a significant obstacle.
That obstacle is not actually religion. It’s an underlining obstacle, faith. Faith and dogma. By faith I mean believing something disproportionally to the currently best available evidence. And by dogma I mean believing in things without questioning them.
Those faiths and dogmas can be applied just as easily to secular projects as they are to religious projects. Faith and dogma have helped communism and fascism and the unregulated free market. A range of secular projects too advance further than they should have, if they had been appropriate checks and balances and critical thinking applied to them. But the difference between religious faith and dogma and secular faith and dogma, is that with secular faith in dogma eventually it bumps into reality. And you notice that it’s not working and you notice the consequences. Whereas religious faith and dogma hides it’s testability in an imaginary afterlife. And so you don’t get to notice whether it’s working and can perpetuate itself more easily, for that reason I think it’s important intellectually to challenge religious faith and dogma more strongly than secular faiths and dogmas.
Obviously, another issue is that religious faiths and dogmas promote these kind of fantastic rewards for eternity which atheism doesn’t. It can seem like a negative thing, and it’s one of the things that’s portrayed, atheism is a negative concept. But I don’t think it is. That argument is largely based on etymology. On saying that the word ‘a-theism’, it’s not positive. You could say the same things about the words ‘freedom’ and ‘independence.’ They both are constructed in the same way by defining something that they aren’t. But nobody suggests that freedom and independence are negative concepts.
And equally I believe that it is reasonable to say that atheism is a positive concept. I think in these terms, I’ll briefly go over four principles that I think we should use to promote ethical secularism. The first is promoting reason and science over faith and dogma. I would suggest; if I was to wander around the town of Raleigh today and tell people I had good news for them, that I had just been talking today with Bill Gates of Microsoft, and he’s going to give them ten million dollars if they do what I say. They would apply their critical thinking and probably wouldn’t believe me.
But if I was to go to the same random group of people, tell them I have good news for them, that I was talking to the creator of the universe and that he is promised an eternity in paradise if they do what I say. None of the people of Raleigh, generally, certainly around the world there is a reasonable proportion of people that would believe me. And the reason they would believe me is that religion corrupts our sense of reality. Normally when we are asked to believe something what we do consciously or unconsciously is, we weight it up against the evidence. What is most consistent with the evidence? And as the claim becomes more implausible, we raise the bar of the evidence that we need in order to satisfy ourselves that it is true.
But with religion, we do the exact opposite. As the claims become more implausible, we lower the bar of evidence. Because religion encourages us to believe not only implausible claims but literally untestable claims. And then it insists that we live our lives on the basis of those untestable claims. And that corrupts our sense of reality and leads into the second principle that I think we should promote. In terms of promoting natural ethics over religious commands, it also corrupts our sense of morality.
Because morality is what we have to start with. Morality is a natural function of our brains. We have evolved morality in order to live together, as social animals, as have other animals that are non-human. Because cooperation and competition are both evolutionary useful in terms of survival. So we feel empathy for each other, we feel compassion for each other. We cooperate together; we feel a sense of fairness and a sense of justice. Now there is a range of examples that I don’t have time to give you today of non-human animals displaying that. It’s not something that is just unique to humans. And in recent generations, humans, because we are able to apply reason to these basic instincts, we have evolved our sense and refined our sense of morality to the sense that we increasingly respect individual conscience. We increasingly respect the rights of the non-human animals. We just generally refine and increasingly nuance our sense of morality.
It’s a difficult enough thing to do. And the reason it’s difficult is that there are so many competing factors in terms of figuring out what’s the right thing to do. What religion does is add in a corrupting factor to that which is a already difficult task. Because what it does is it tells us that even if this is the compassionate thing to do, even if this is the fair thing to do, even if this is the just thing to do. . . You shouldn’t do it. Because somebody wrote something down in a book two thousand years ago. Or fifteen hundred years ago or whatever version of the book that you believe in.
And so many Catholics can use that to justify denying condoms to Aids victims in Africa. And many Muslims can use that to justify the command in the Koran that husbands can beat their wives. And there is a passage in the Koran that best exemplifies this problem. And it is “Surat 24-2.” And what it says is, “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with a hundred strikes, let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah.”
So clearly the reason that that’s there, is that they were having a problem with people who were supposed to be flogging adulterers they are allowing their compassion to prevent them from doing it to the satisfaction of the people that were making the rules. And so they had to add in another rule that they said was supposedly sent from Allah. Saying, “Don’t let your compassion prevent you from doing what we are telling you.” So not only is religion not necessary for morality, but religion actively corrupts morality. It’s bad for morality.
They third of the four principals that I want to talk about is promoting exclusive and caring and supportive atheist groups. This is one of the things that the Triangle Freethought Group is doing, and planning to do more. Very effectively. Groups should be inclusive, they should be caring, and they should be supportive and diverse. Supportive of both new and existing members. We do a lot of things and atheists are in this context. We had a conference last year that Dan and Annie Laurie were at, Women Through Secularism. We are involved in charitable actives in Dublin and also raising funds for entrepreneurs and developing countries through the Kiva Loan System. We have general policies of only holding our events in venues that are wheelchair accessible. We have a range of standards that we said to ourselves that we don’t always meet a hundred percent all the time that we try to set ourselves standards of behaving ethically.
We should try to communicate with each other as respectfully as people. We can disagree with principles; we can disagree with each other. But we can respect each other as individuals while disagreeing with the content of our beliefs.
And I think we have to check the recent tendency particularly online in some atheist communities of atheists advocates publishing personal smears and defamatory allegations about other atheists. It’s been happening recently, and it’s just not helpful. It’s not ethically correct. Typically how those smears are developing that people will take the worst possible and least charitable interpretation of something that somebody has said. Attack them for that and then ignore the clarifications that the person has made. Then some people will also demand an apology for what the person has said. That they can then check further, as if they’re the moral arbiters, not only the need for but also the content of apologies to be made by people other than themselves through different people other than themselves.
I think that we’ve got to start treating each other with respect and not take that approach. Which ironically I think the people involved are genuine. They genuinely believe that they are promoting ethical behavior but unfortunately their approach can be caricatured as, this is a mild version: ‘You have to behave more ethically, you asshole!’
You just can’t behave like that. The final point I want to make is that I think we should be promoting fair societies with secular government. Now in terms of fair societies, working in terms of improving our own ethical behavior within our organizations but also tackling specific injustices within society that are relevant to religious dogma. And also working with other groups within society who are also marginalized and discriminated against for other reasons.
We should take positive actions to improve our community through charitable activities, through community activities, generally. Such as the Human Being Project, all things like this. These are very, very useful. And also we should campaign actively to separate church and state. That should continually be the basis of what we are doing politically. The World Atheist Convention in Dublin a couple years ago, which Dan and Annie Laurie also spoke at, adopted a declaration called “The Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the place of religion in the public life.”
If you check for that, it covers personal freedoms, secular democracy, secular education and one law for all. It summarizes the type of things politically, the type of principles politically that we feel we should be trying to implement. And Atheist Ireland at the moment, we have European and local elections coming up, we are contacting all the election candidates of all the parties, asking them to support that secular declaration.
So I’ll summarize by saying in terms of religion and how it corrupts things, however implausible the claim I made earlier, that I spoke to Bill Gates today and he promised them ten million dollars. Surely even more implausible to suggest that the creator the universe of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which consists of a hundred billions stars like our sun, that he did that so that he could tell one member of one species on one planet to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and then impregnate a virgin in order to give birth to himself. And then give Muhammad a ride on a flying horse and then appear in Joseph Smith’s hat in order to attire them in magic underwear.
On the basis of absurd claims like that, Asia Babi is currently languishing in prison in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad, so I think we have to redouble our efforts to challenge blasphemy laws, we should promote reason and science over faith and dogma. We should promote natural ethics over religious commands; we should promote inclusive caring support of atheist groups. We should promote fair societies with secular government and in doing that we should be optimistic about what we are doing. Because we live in an era where in my lifetime there have been massive, massive changes in world geopolitics that we would have never thought would happen.
We’ve had the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’ve had the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have had the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Even in Irish terms, when we were campaigning against terrorism in Northern Ireland we were always told that it would never stop, that it would go on forever. But it has.
I was just, the day before yesterday, in the city of Raleigh museum and there was a history of civil rights movements exhibition, which included two restrooms doors taken from a demolished bank in Raleigh some decades ago. Which had signs of them, “White Men Restroom” and “Colored Men Restroom” and immediately outside that museum there were ads on the lampposts for some of the events going on. Immediately outside that museum there was an ad for an LGBT pride parade, and I just thought to myself, you know that at one time those signs in that museum seemed normal to people. An LGBT pride sign immediately outside that museum seems normal. I think that that’s a small illustration of the progress that we are making as societies. That we can be optimistic that we are swimming with the tide of history in promoting atheism and ethical secularism.
How do you follow an introduction like that honestly? That is almost better than the talk. So my name is Sarah Morehead and I am the Executive director of Recovering from Religion. We are going to talk about a couple of things today, and I am going to make it as quick as I can because I would like to make time for questions if possible, but if not catch me after for questions for sure. We are going to talk a little but about what Recovering from Religion is, but most importantly we are going to talk about why we need Recovering from Religion, and why the secular community specifically would benefit from supporting Recovering from Religion.
So what Recovering from Religion does: We were founded in 2009 by Dr. Darrell Ray, does everybody here know who Dr. Darrell Ray is? He has a reputation, he wrote the book “The God Virus” and when he was touring to promote his book, he had people coming up to him saying they read this book and they were looking for other people who could identify with the process of leaving religious belief and all of the things that go with that: The baggage, the challenges, the isolation, all of that So he started connecting people to one another and very very quickly Recovering from Religion was born. It grew exponentially from that point. In 2009 we had about 25 groups around the country scattered, we now have over 100 groups all over the country. We have expanded into Canada, the UK, Australia. We have had groups request to start in South Africa and Singapore. So we are growing all over the place, it is very exciting.
We also has the Secular Therapy Project, which if you are not familiar with that, The Secular Therapy Project matches clients anonymously with therapists who agree to use secular methodology in their practice. And a lot of people say, “Isn’t that just therapy?” And yes, that is what therapy is supposed to be, but in a lot of communities that are very religiously infused, the therapists are as well. They don’t see any problem with trying to pray with their clients. They don’t see any problem with asking their clients if they have talked to their minister and things like that. So you know what we are doing is offering a clearinghouse where people can come to us and look for someone who agrees to use secular methodology, means tested methodology in their therapy process. What is really exciting, we also have therapists who do distance counseling, so if they can’t find someone near them, they can find a therapist who can still work with them. It is fantastic. We reached our 3000th client last month, and we have almost 200 therapists so we are growing with that as well.
The hotline project is getting up and running, we are in the process of installing all of the software with all of our agents and all that stuff. Basically what that is going to be is an 800 number, and they will be able to call and get resources. They will be able to ask those questions that they are not allowed to ask their ministers. They will be able to find book recommendations, or blogs, or group near them. A lot of times, and I will talk about this hear in a bit, because of how they are raised, because of how they are taught and the level of indoctrination, they don’t know how to look for resources outside of their secular community. They don’t even know where to start. I’ve had people come up to me at conferences and say, “I came to this conference because I saw you were going to be here, I don’t have a group near me.” They tell me what town they are in and there are twenty groups. But they don’t know to look up the word “secular” or they don’t know to look up the word “humanist” or they don’t know to look up the word “freethink.” They don’t even know where to start. SO that’s what we are going to do is help give them those tools. We have local monthly meetings that meet all over the country, we have online workshops on recovering relationships and recovering your sexuality, and we have online groups for people who don’t have local groups near them, or they are too closeted to even go to those groups. For questioning your beliefs, closeted nonbelievers, mixed marriage, we just started a deaf and hard of hearing support group online, connected to clergy, so people whose spouses are active clergy members but they themselves don’t believe but their partners do, and then PKs (Preacher’s Kids) for anyone who needed that translated.
So one of the biggest things we get when people come to us, they ask, “Why do you need Recovering from Religion, why can’t you just get over it?” It’s not that easy. I am serious we get that a lot. For people who did not come from a religious background they don’t understand the point. So I am going to tell you a little bit about my background and my story so you can understand how other people come to the same concerns. So I have a missionary background with my family, my grandparents were church planting missionaries. That means they were in their belief ordained by God to travel and start churches in mostly disadvantaged minority areas. They were chosen by God to hit the Central American area, so they went to Puerto Rico, they went to Mexico, all of that and they planted churches all over the place. My grandfather, if anyone is familiar with Fred Phelps, my grandfather is very similar to Fred Phelps minus the language. He would never ever use vulgar language, but very fire and brimstone and all of that.
I grew up Evangelical Southern Baptist. That means that I believed that I was put on this planet to convert you to Christ. If your name was in the Book of Life, then my job was to bring the Gospel to you, and if I failed you then I was going to Hell and I doomed you to Hell as well. And I took that very seriously; I see a lot of people nodding their heads so I think we are all in the same company. Is anyone else here a recovering Southern Baptist? Former Southern Baptist? There are a few hands. Alright, we actually had more in Utah how is that? Church was everything in our life. I did go to a public school, but my friends at school who didn’t go to my church; I wasn’t really allowed to hang out with them. We went to church obviously every single Sunday morning, we went to fellowship after church, we had get togethers after that, we had evening service, on Wednesdays we had choir practice, we had Bible study. And literally every aspect of our lives, social, religious, there were even study opportunities at church, everything was at church. And this was a couple decades ago, so it has even grown more with the mega church concept now.
I believed that sin came from the fall of Adam and Eve, very innerward, everything was real, Adam and Eve were real people. Baptism by immersion, was anyone here sprinkled or had a cup of water, raise your hand if you were baptized by sprinkling or a cup of water. Quite a few people. It did not count, I want you to know. Full dunking required, if you didn’t think you were drowning Jesus wasn’t paying attention. I believed in salvation through the cross, saved by grace, through faith and that’s all kind of code language for people who aren’t very religious or didn’t come from that mentality. And lots and lots of rules specifically about what you could wear, who you could talk to, what kind of music you could listen to, anything like that.
So as I grew with that mentality, when I became an adult I stayed right with it. I believed very strongly in Proverbs 31 and Tidas 2, we were keepers of our homes. A woman’s job was to take care of the home, and controlling my life was a sin against God. That’s a really important dynamic to the rest of this, because the sincerity of belief of fundamentalism is probably one of the baffling things out there. I hear a lot of people talk about how religious believers are just making it up, or they are delusional, all those things. They really genuinely believe it is real. For anyone who was here last night and watched the video and the girl was crying because she said, “Has anyone been burned, have you been burned, it really hurts. I don’t want people to be burned!” They mean it, they really believe that it is true, and I did as well. Everything was God’s will and that included that God would bring me the husband that He chose for me. That is also an important dynamic because if you believe that God is going to bring you a husband, you are not going to be picky because you’re not allowed to be. And for some people that works out okay and for me, it didn’t. I will get to that here in a minute.
We were Sunday school teachers, we also taught Owana’s, which is kind of the in church version of the Good News Club. They have the older kids, is called TNT “Truth in Training.” I find that hysterical. So Proverbs 31 for those who aren’t familiar with every word of the Bible, congratulations, I was going to put the whole thing up it is very long and very boring you aren’t interested, but this is the summary of it. It’s a level of perfection for women and it is completely unattainable. It is honestly intentionally unattainable because then you get to constantly feel like a failure and you return back to God and all those wonderful cycles keep going. Ephesians 5:22:24: this is one, I had it in a plaque up in our house. It says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord for the husband is the head of the wife as the Christ is the head of the church, his body of which he is the savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
One of the things I like to ask when I give my talk is, and just go ahead and yell it out, what kind of a town does it sound like I grew up in? Small town, big town, major city? I grew up in Houston, Texas, and that is important. The reason that is important because there is this idea that this level of fundamentalism is a fringe concept in these tiny towns in the backwoods of our country. And that is not the case. I went to a mega church; my adult church was a mega church. These are concepts being promoted and taught by tens of thousands of people all over the country every single Sunday. This is not a fringe mentality. It is everywhere.
One of the books we studied was “Created to be His Helpmeet”. They did not misspell that, they meant it on purpose. It is by the Pearls. You might have heard of the Pearls, they also wrote the book, “To Train up Your Child.” It is the book that has been linked to the death of quite a few children by physical violence and abuse. And this book is very similar in regards to accepting violence in your home, accepting rebuke from your husband, how to keep yourself in line, always say yes to him and always say yes with a smiling face, keep sweet, all of those things. I found this quote on a religious website, and it perfectly summed up my mentality at the time that I was in that marriage. “The truth is I am no more qualified to head my household than I was to receive salvation from God.” And think about that, when you think about the power of those words, that you are completely worthless to receive salvation in the first place, and that you have no business running your home, those things are powerful dynamics. Then you add in the abusive mentality of some people coming into marriages and it creates a power dynamic that is very difficult to escape.
This was a verse that I used to cling to when life got really rough, which it did quite a bit. “My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.” It constantly reminded me, I even still use that language, I clung to that verse. It constantly reminded me that God was in control and no matter how bad it was my reward was in heaven. I was giving all of the glory to God, all of those things. The language by the way that religious people use, it is very backwards. And if you think about it, “My power is made perfect in weakness,” that makes absolutely no sense. But in the religious community, that is inspiring. And many, many things are like that, with the words they use. One thing that you will here is “joyful”, they want to be joyful, well joy J+O+Y is, “Jesus, Others, Yourself.” Joy is a constant reminder that you be joyful while you put everyone else first and yourself last. It is called “loaded language” and it is one of the reasons as a secular community when we have these conversations with religious believers, they can be very challenging because we accidently trigger those words for them, and they actually mean completely different things. I grew up believing that humanist meant hell and secular means Satan. Atheists were Satanic, Duh! So when people growing up in that mindset are ready to leave and they are looking at options outside of this very insular community, they don’t know where to go. They are terrified of the out-group. The sincerity that they have their own belief that they are walking away from is the same sincerity that they view all of us, and don’t understand in the slightest that we are even capable of having fun, or being kind or caring or anything like that.
So one of the rules of fundamentalist, you are broken and you are lost. That is rule number one. Number two, you have a hole in your heart and who can fill it? Some of you went to church. And you were unworthy. And here is what is really interesting. Liberal churches a lot of times will say, “Oh but the bible is about love and Christianity is about love, and it is all about love.” In the Bible it says so you also when you have done everything you were told to do, you should say “we are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.” Think about that for just a second. When you have done everything, everything, not even 90%, when you have done everything you were supposed to do you are still unworthy. That is not a very loving message.
So quick lesson in personal boundaries, and most of this is all review for a lot of you. So boundaries are where we end and other people begin. Boundaries give us permission in relationships, how much information we share with people and all of those things. The most important boundary we have is our self. Those are our private innermost thoughts within our own brains, we don’t have to share those with anybody even our own spouse or best friend, and obviously family friends, acquaintances, strangers. We get to decide how much information all of those people have. What happens when you put God in there? I have a funny story to tell you. When I was eight years old, and this is not the funny part, but my grandmother died, my missionary grandmother. I went to the funeral and all fo the stuff and one of the things my grandfather said in his eulogy was that she was still with us because she was in heaven watching down with all of the other relatives who had died before her.
And it was the first time I had really thought about that concept, that there were a lot of dead people watching me. The other thing about being eight years old, you start to hit a point where you are incredibly modest, and you add in all of the shame with religion and everything else, and I was a very private kid, I did not like anybody in my space that kind of thing. And so later that week I was actually going to the bathroom and I had this horrible, (don’t get ahead of me!) horrible thought that my grandmother who had never even seen me out of my pajamas was watching me go to the bathroom. And it terrified me. And then I realized how many other people were watching me at the same time, and so right at that moment as I was going to the bathroom I said a prayer, I am very serious, and I said, “Dear Jesus, can please can we turn that off for just a little bit.” Because here is the important thing about God being in your heart: God being in your heart means you don’t get to have boundaries. You don’t get to say no. You don’t get to have private thoughts. You don’t get to have anything all to yourself because God is always watching you. And how that affects the rest of your life and how that affects the relationships you build and the boundaries that you have as your grow up makes a huge difference.
So what happened? I married a promise keeper husband. Oh you guys have heard of them! Promise keepers, this was a huge resurgence in the religious movement in the 80s and 90s , and promise keepers their goal was to unite men with a common goal of promoting Christ and having order in their homes, and being Godly men, and Bible following men. Now the other issue with that is that it promoted a fundamentalist mentality of men being the head of their households. Now to some guys and probably many of you in this room, most of you I would guess, if you were to all of a sudden find out you were magically head of your household (and women give me just a second) it probably would not be that big of a deal because you are not going to take advantage of things, you are not going to hurt your wife. And a lot of men don’t, and that is great. It is not because of religion, it is because they are not assholes. The problem is when you have men who already have anger management problems, when you have men who might have mental health issues, when you have men who do not have the coping skills or the boundaries or anything else to be bale to have healthy relationships, the concept of being the head of your household becomes a power trip. And my husband was in that camp.
For me, and it was probably like every other domestic violence story, it did not start right away, it was gradual. It became par for the course. There were times that he decided I didn’t have permission to leave the house so he would disconnect the wires in the car, I could not leave. There were times that he would beat the dog to prove the point to me of what would happen if I crossed him. There were times that he would threaten that he would hurt the children. It became an issue where obedience was not only God’s law, it was the law at home. And you don’t have a whole lot of options. My only community and my only support network really didn’t discourage it. In fact they had kind of a “wink wink nudge nudge.” And we all know I am not exactly a quite wallflower, so at church everybody knows kind of knows. The women who were a little more mouthy, the women who asked too many questions, of course their husbands are having problems. It is their job to keep them in line.
The other issue was that anything I did reflected on him, anything the children did reflected on him, and was a complete testament to his ability to maintain the house, maintain the control of the house which made it that much worse. So what happened? Obviously I don’t subscribe to these beliefs anymore. There was one day where, like I said at the time he had never really gone after the children, but there was one day where my oldest was eleven year old and she was in a fight with her younger brother, as children want to do. And for whatever reason he had it and he got very angry with her, and they were going back and forth. It escalated and he picked her up and he threw her across the room into a wall. Up until that point, when he came after me I felt like it was my cross to bear. I felt like that God had given me that suffering for whatever reason and it was my job to deal with it. The minute he went after my kid, that was it. I couldn’t do it, and I told him he had to leave. It was not a pretty situation and he left.
I went to the church where I had tithed absolutely as fervently as anyone could for many many years, we had volunteered hundreds of hours of our time; I went to their benevolence committee. Now for the benevolence committee for those of you who don’t know, is a council of men (of course), but the purpose in most churches of the benevolence committee is to decide how funds are used to help people in need in their church. So I had to go to this council of men and I had to tell them what had happened, which was mortifying and humiliating. And I had to deal with their very personal questions, none of which were if I was okay, none of which were if I called the police, none of which had anything to do with protecting myself or my children. I asked them for $600 which gives you an idea of our financial status at that time. The $600 was to pay our rent and to get some food for me and the kids. They said they had to pray about it. So they did, and Jesus apparently was not okay with $600. I was really upset, and I was leaving the church and I was crying at this point, they did by the way encourage me personally to come to their male pastor for counseling as to how I could a better wife to lead my husband back to Christ and the church, that happened, but not any financial help. So I am leaving, and I am crying and I am not really paying attention and I hit the door to go out, and I ran into somebody on the other side of the door. I am kind of flustered and apologize, and I turn around and realize what he is doing, and it is a guy who is working on the doors, he is putting glass etching imaging on the doors, there are a lot of doors in this mega church, it is really big and really beautiful. God is totally cool with glass etching on the doors, but I couldn’t have $600 to feed my kids.
I would love to tell you this fantastic story about how I became an atheist and that solved everything. But that wasn’t it. It was though, the moment that there was a crack in the foundation of everything I had been taught and believed. And it was the beginning of a slow process. So I get home, and it was a really rough week. It was a few days later there was a knock at the back door. Now our house was kitty corner to another house behind us across the ally way, and there were these two guys that lived there and they had a flag up when they had their friends over, it was a white flag with a circle and it had an upside down star in it, I knew they were Satanists we prayed for them constantly. They seemed really good friends and they minded their own business so we just left each other alone. There was a knock at my back door, and I opened it up and it was one of the guys that lived across the ally way. And he had a casserole. And he said, “Hey I know you guys have been going through a lot and I thought I would let you know that if you need any help running errands or if I can watch your kids, if there is anything I can do just let us know. We aren’t really that scary, and yes we can see you through the blinds. “
And I was horrified and confused and grateful. I didn’t know what to think because these people were being nice to me, and they were doing what I was taught Jesus was supposed to do when the very community I had devoted my life to turned their back on us. I didn’t know what to do with that, but they were the only people at the time, my homeschool community pretty much let go of us, the church really didn’t reach out to us, I was on my own. So I started talking to them, and obviously this was a proud out and gay couple, they are wonderful people, and they entertained my questions, my very very stupid questions. Questions like, “So you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, and you know not believing that means you are going to hell, so why aren’t you afraid of hell?” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Turns out they were the best kind of nonbelievers I could have run into. They ran their own coven, they were pagan leaders in their pagan community. It was one of those things where day after day, time after time I would come back with more and more questions. They never made fun of me, they never acted like it was dumb question though now I can just imagine their wincing at some of the things I would say. I knew they were gay, and that was fine as long as they did not act on it. They very patiently smiled and gave each other a kiss, and offered me more coffee.
I am sad to report they have both passed away since then, they were both HIV positive, it was also my first encounter that I was aware with who was HIV positive. It was a huge loss to humanism as a whole when they were gone. They were what started the process, because they let me start the conversation. It took a very long time after that, I started reading books and I started researching. I started trying to answer my own questions, because I did not have anyone to talk to. I knew that asking too many questions meant people would ignore me and leave me alone, so I was very scared to do that. I stumbled on a book called “Godless” by Dan Barker. It was my first Atheist book ever, and I read it with this fascination. I still remember physically nodding my head going through and understanding everything he was talking about, and it had never occurred to me that anyone else had gone through this, much less been able to write a book about it because that would imply people have too.
The thing that was amazing to me when I was growing up in the church, when people left the church, no one ever talked about them becoming nonbelievers. Ever. That was never anything that happened. They just talked about they left the church, they were backsliding, they found another church, they found a new path. It was never talked about that people just stopped believing. It was a completely new concept to me. So slowly, little by little, I started walking down what we now call the spectrum of disbelief. The spectrum of disbelief is something that I put together when I first came on board with Recovering from Religion in 2011. This is something I realize is not incredibly scientific so bear with me for just a second. But it matches what many people have told me they have gone through in their won walk away from faith. It also gives a wonderful opportunity to have conversations with believers, because on of the things they say is, “I am a monotheist, I only believe in one God.” We give them the trinity don’t argue with that. But by being a monotheist they are already on step two because they have already decided they don’t believe in polytheism. This is big. Announcing to them they already made a choice to reject a god is a new concept to them. All we do with Recovering from Religion is encourage them to get to the bottom half of the screen. Where their lives and their day to day activities are not dictated by dogma, guilt, shame, fear. They don’t feel like their eternal salvation is hinging upon writing a check every single month.
I will say very clearly Recovering from Religion is not an atheist deconversion organization, despite what it sounds like right now. Basically what happens is people come to us, we don’t go knocking on doors that is another team. But people come to us, we help them walk through their questions and their doubts. What tends to happen is once they hit green or yellow it is a slippery slope. Many times they become agnostic, atheist, nonbelievers, but that is not our goal. It really is not, it just tends to happen naturally once the cards start to fall. So how can you get involved with us? What we are trying to do is reach everyone out there who is going through things like many of you who are nodding your heads through my talk, and the information I was sharing. The thing is, and this is the part that is tough because it does sound a little bit churchy, the people who we are helping are still in it. They are still trying to leave, they are still trying to figure out if it will mean a massive divorce battle if they come out to their spouse that they don’t want to go to church much less that they are a believer. It is very difficult for us to go to them and say, “We need your financial support to keep mailing out our materials, to keep reaching these people.” So we need your financial support, we are a 501©3 tax exempt organization. I have materials in the back at the TFS table, so please consider supporting us today. If you or someone you know is a secular therapist, please register for the secular therapist project, that is incredibly important. The same with starting a RR group or the hotline project, we need a lot of agents. We will never have enough Recovering from Religion groups all across the country; we need more. So if there is anytime that you are sitting there saying, “Gee, how could I possibly volunteer for more things?” Please come find me, I will put you to work, absolutely.
Finally, this slide is very important to me, one it is kind of reminiscent of the footprints in the sand poem if anyone is familiar with that, “Change is a process not an event.” From the earliest age, religion teaches all of us that we are broken and doomed by the very creator who knitted us in our mother’s womb. These stories, my story, all of you out there who have your own story, and the thousands of stories yet to be told, theses stories are the consequences of faith. This is the result of religious belief. And this is why the secular community needs Recovering from Religion.
Annie Laurie Gaylor: Stuart Watson, who we got to know through our parish exclusion lawsuit that FFRF is taking against the 1954 law, that allows ministers to be paid through a housing allowance which is fully exempt from taxation. So I think you’ve been following our lawsuit, we started in California, we had to move to Wisconsin with Dan and myself as the primary plaintiffs because as the head an atheist/agnostic organization, being paid in part through a housing allowance, we are not allowed to claim it and we have injury.
In November a federal judge ruled in our favor, that the housing exclusion is an unconstitutional preference for religion. The purpose of it according to US representative Peter Mack who was the primary sponsor was to reward ministers for fighting godlessness. How’s that for a secular purpose? It is a big fight and the Obama Administration appealed to the seventh circuit and we are starting to get all of the briefs against us, and I thought I would just do a little show and tell. Including the government’s brief against us, this is what it looks like.
There is only five amicus briefs against us, but they encompass as far I can see, virtually ever single denomination in the United States against FFRF. I want to read some of the names, because some of them will surprise you. Well, the Unitarian Universalists Association. The Unitarian Universalists Minister Association. Friends. American Baptists; they’re the best people on separation of church and state. It’s greed. It’s entitlement. It’s getting used to a privilege that nobody else has, because they’re religious and they are all against us. When you think about it, if you get a tax break nobody wants to give it up. But boy, are they fighting.
They’re aligned with all of their fundamentalist brethren, and I find it very interesting that as a tactic they also got the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to agree with them. You see this is a Protestant versus Catholic fight because if your workplace provides you with a house as the Catholics do, that’s a 1921 law that our appeal does not address. It’s a 1954 addition that affected protestants that’s at stake right now. So, it really is what I hesitate to call a “David vs. Goliath” fight. As far as I know there is only one group that is doing an amicus for us. I know the Center for Free Inquiry is doing one, and there might be a couple of groups that sign on at this level. But American United for Separation of Church and State regretfully declined. And you know they have a minister at their helm and they primarily get funding through the Joint Baptist Commission, this is a very controversial lawsuit. It’s the kind of thing that only a group of purists for separation of church and state, who have nothing at stake, would take.
This is a long way to introduce our speaker. We got to know him because he called up and had his eye on this lawsuit because of a series of investigations that he was making about housing allowance abuses in Charlotte (S.C.). It’s wonderful investigative reporting, the old fashioned kind that’s hardly done anymore.
Stuart Watson and his wife have driven three hours from Charlotte to be here. [He is] refusing an honorarium. He has been an investigative reporter for more than thirty years, half of that time at WCNC-TV, the MBC affiliate in Charlotte. He has won many national awards including the George Foster Peabody Award, the DuPont Columbia Silver Baton, The National Headliner Award and many others. Some of the stuff you’re going to see tonight has received a national award and regional awards. He had a Neumann Fellowship at Harvard, he’s servicing his third term on the Board of Investigative Reporters and Editors. They don’t make them like this any more, so we are really privileged to have Stuart Watson here. And because he couldn’t accept an honorarium, he could accept a small token of our appreciation. So, we have a little plaque called the Freethought in the Media award. Stuart Watson, FFRF 2014.
Stuart: Thank you!
Annie Laurie: You’re welcome.
Stuart: See, what you don’t realize is, that this is more important than money. That reporters are such ego-maniacs. Three hours? That’s nothing. We would crawl on cut glass to get an award. You can get money anywhere, but to get an a award, that’s where we are. My wife says it’s a chance for you to talk about your favorite topic: yourself. No matter what. How can there be room for a god with an ego like that? So, to Harry Shaughnessy and to Annie Laurie Gaylor thank you, and to Dan Barker.
I’m not a speech-ifier, and I’m not going to read a speech off a teleprompter.I’m not going to drone on, I’m certainly not a preacher, but they call me a story teller so I’m just going to tell you this story of how I arrived here. I didn’t start out almost a year ago saying, “Boy, I’d like to be at the Sheraton in Raleigh with a bunch of atheists on Saturday night. That sounds a rollicking good time, there, oh boy!” And it turned out to be!
I was going to tell you a little bit about where I come from. About a minutes worth, because I’m not a believer that journalists are completely objective. I try to be fair and so I can tell you where I came from. I ask, do you want me to tell you what I believe, and they said nobody really cares. Nobody really wants to know what you believe. Which is really funny because the mega church that we reported on over a course of months, everybody wanted to know what I believed.
They were all, are you a Christian? What do you believe? Where do you go to church? Where are you coming from? They all wanted to know, so I hope I tell them the same thing that I tell you, which is, that I grew up a fundamentalist. My father believed that the Bible was the holy and inerrant word of god. Every comma. I fell away from that when I went off and met my wife at Vanderbilt University. I grew up in the deep south, Georgia. She may have had something to do with that [leaving religion]. Actually, when in doubt: Blame the woman! Good move.
I fell away on the issue of baptism because I was out-evangelized. I fell away from the church and from fundamentalism when someone told me I was going to hell because I had sprinkled as a Presbyterian instead of dunked. And I said, well any god that’s going to send me to everlasting damnation for want of a few gallons of water is no god that I can believe in. That was the end of me and that. So now I guess I would describe myself as just a searcher. Just a seeker. Somebody who asks a lot of questions. I will tell you that I’m biased in favor of people who think and I’m biased in favor of people who ask challenging questions.
I feel very much at home here. What I’d like to do is tell you a little story, show you a little piece of video or two and show you what Annie Laurie and Dan did. Sort of the background of this issue. How it became real and tangible for us. And then, what I’d mainly like to do better than anything is have a conversation. So if you wanna say, Stuart, I think you did a terrible job or you might want to consider this, or what about that? Or, actually, that camera shot makes your ass look really big! If you wanna say any of that, you can save that and then we can talk afterwards.
The best stories come from tips, and someone sent me a tip and said that a pastor was building a ten-thousand square foot home. It turned out it was a fifteen-thousand square foot home. Ten thousand of which was heated, four car garage, etc. The long and the short of it was, people said, really is that all it is? Just a story about a pastor with a big home. And I said no, I don’t think it is.
Investigative reporting moves in what they call ‘the three eyes.’ You investigate individuals, you investigate institutions, and then you move on to issues or ideas. And so you kind of move up a hierarchy of ideas, you move from the specific to the general. And so investigative reporting is about saying, “Is this a one-off? An isolated incident? Or is it part of pattern? Is it part of something bigger?”
We aired our report about the ten-thousand or fifteen-thousand square foot home that this pastor was building. The name of this church, it’s the largest megachurch in North Carolina, it’s actually a Baptist Church. A Southern Baptist Church, but it doesn’t use that name. It’s called Elevation Church. It’s a multi-site model which means that the preacher preaches live in one place and then they broadcast them around to other places simultaneously and also over the web and on television. It’s technically televangelism, but it’s also much more than that. Huffington Post’s Religion headline was, “Elevation Church Pastor Steven Furtick’s Hidden Multi-Million Dollar Home Raises Questions of Transparency.” That’s what I thought I did.
The title of my talk is “Democracy Versus Religion.” Why do they have to fight it out? Why can’t they coexist? And I say, but they often do. Many Christian denominations function on democratic principals. I’m going to talk to about a couple of them. The ordinary person in the seat has a vote, they have a say in who governs the church. They understand that they are participatory. And we’ll talk about why that is.
But the other headline that emerged, which was something that I never really asked, this was on a Glenn Beck website. When Glenn Beck got around to discussing it [he asked], “Is it okay for pastors to live in extravagant homes?” And this was a question that I’d never asked. It was a question that just came out of it. As a matter of fact, when you hear Dan speak in the video piece you’ll hear him say that it’s not a question that FFRF asked. It was not out to cause class jealousy, or create issues of envy, or class warfare or anything. It wasn’t, “Well his house is too big.” That curiously is a question that is asked within the Christian church. Those outside the Christian church were asking a different question.
The Christian Church said, “You’re asking questions about is this guy following Jesus’s footsteps? Or his he biblical? Or is he theological? Outside people were saying, no. The only stake we have in what this church does is that you get a tax break. You a get big tax break. So this is a guy who became quite wealthy, using a tax exempt institution. And then we narrowed it down to talk specifically about what Dan calls the housing allowance. You might call it the parsonage allowance. The issue you will see in the video is, that Dan and Annie Laurie as heads of a small nonprofit and are not eligible to take this tax exemption. Whereas, if you are a rabbi, if you are a minister, if you are a priest or if you are an imam, you are eligible.
So there is a distinction made. Their argument is that is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Which I would note is the first part of the first amendment. Congress shall make no law establishing of religion. That comes before and distinct from or prohibited the free exercise thereof. Congress shall make establishing a religion the argument is, this is for the courts, and the lawyers: whether distinguishing this tax-exemption for religious leaders is de-facto establishing a religion.
Is it establishing a religion as opposed to because you have two types of nonprofits organizations? I hope the video is clearer than that. And I hope, because it seems to me what I just said it came out about as clear as mud. So the long and the short of it was, we began investigating an individual. There are some other issues about this that we can get into if you are interested in. That is, he said he build the house with proceeds from the sale of books which were promoted from the pulpit. So the more you want to study this, there is a great co-mingling, a great coming together of huge publishers for profit and nonprofit in houses of worship. And here is the way that works.
You have a subsidiary of a for-profit publisher which publishes evangelical Christians. And they publish the mega-church pastors. This church is so good and boy are they! At films. Videos. This is a church that spends millions on audio, light shows, I’m not exaggerating, smoke machines. Bands! You know, audio-tuning, everything! It is a multi-media extravaganza, it is an entertainment machine.
The for-profit publisher, follow me, pays the church to do the promotion of the for-profit book. So they give a big chunk of change and say here, you do the promotional films. In addition to that the church does its own promotion of the books. And then the money from the books goes to the pastor. The money flows around the church, so even if you looked at the churches books, which you can’t, which you will never see, the money flows around it. Then there is a huge speaking tour. Australia! In Europe! All over the world. In which people pay hundreds of dollars to come sit in the seats to learn the secrets of this. That money around the church, it does not flow through the church. The church becomes a vehicle for a for-profit enterprise.
The way that this impacts atheists and agnostics is: It is giving [them] non-profit status. So the church itself does not pay property taxes, the church gets sales tax exemptions, but more importantly for the purposes of the federal lawsuit, the bigger the house the bigger the tax break. Maybe now is a good time to show the story, so we can see what it is that I’m talking about. We can show it first. So, Harry, the audio-visual magician! He’s going to conjure…
Harry: No, I’m not!
Stuart: He’s going to click!
VIDEO CLIP Stuart Voiceover:
When we first reported how Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick was building a sixteen-thousand-square foot home, we got a lot of complaints from his supporters. Ashley Todd pretty much summed it up writing, “So what if he builds a huge house. How is that any concern of yours or any one else’s?”
Well the answer is: If you are tax-payer, it is your concern. Because pastors don’t pay income taxes on the salary for housing. It’s called a parsonage allowance. And when preachers are exempt from paying a big chunk of income taxes, guess who does pay?
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “This ain’t right, this ain’t right!”
(Stuart Voiceover) Pastor Steven Furtick will not reveal how much Elevation Church pays him, as a tax-free parsonage allowance.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “It’s not that great of a house.”
(Stuart Voiceover) But his mentor, Ed Young Junior in Dallas, gets about a quarter million dollars a year, tax-free, just for housing. Elevation Church pays twenty-four ordained pastors parsonage allowances, but no one will say how much.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “It’s a big house, it’s a beautiful house.”
(Stuart Voiceover) But my question about the parsonage allowance doesn’t start or end with Pastor Steven and his big house.
(Pastor Steven Furtick Voiceover) “I believe the fear of god called me to be here.”
(Stuart Voiceover) Seventeen years ago as a young reporter, WRAL in Raleigh, I wanted to know why the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina, a man named Dennis McClain, got $54,000 a year just for expenses.
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) As a Methodist Minister assigned to Goodwill Industries, I get a parsonage allowance.
(Stuart Voiceover) Of $54,000 a year?
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) Whatever it is. But that’s a parsonage allowance, that’s correct.
(Stuart Voiceover) Is that fair?
(Dennis McClain Voiceover) Fair has nothing to do with it.
(Stuart Voiceover) McClain declined to speak to me again. Fair or not, just because he’s ordained, McClain gets a tax break for a parsonage. Even though he doesn’t pastor a church, he works at Goodwill. Now the Raleigh News and Observer reports McClain and his wife, also at Goodwill, earn nearly $800,000 a year. Thanks in a large part to the parsonage allowance, more than $147,000 of that is tax-free.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) We think that’s unfair.
(Stuart Voiceover) Dan Barker is the Co-President for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A national group of atheists and agnostics.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) I was an ordained minister. After nineteen years of believing, really believing and preaching the gospel, I changed my mind.
(Stuart Voiceover) When Dan was a preacher he got a tax break for housing.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) You don’t even have to report it! It was nice. I mean, who wouldn’t want that advantage? If you’re paying your taxes you want every break you can get.
(Stuart Voiceover) But as atheists Barker and his wife and co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, sued the IRS over the parsonage exemption.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And the rest of us pay more because clergy pay less. They need to pay their fair share.
(Stuart Voiceover) The atheists sued in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin, where the headquarters is.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And we are seeking an end to the parsonage exemption, which we think is unconstitutional.
(Stuart Voiceover) They claim the parsonage allowance violates the so-called Establishment Clause of the first amendment to the Constitution. Because congress gave a tax-break to clergy, but not to all non-profits.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) And sometimes we’re seeing stupendous housing allowances. Overpaid ministers.
(Stuart Voiceover) The bigger the house, the bigger the tax break. Because the parsonage allowance is limited only by the fair market rental value of the pastors home.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) So if you chose to live in Sistine Chapel or a mansion, you can’t claim more than the fair rental value, but that could be astronomical.
(Stuart Voiceover) Dan and Annie Laurie couldn’t care less what Elevation Church pays Steven Furtick but they do care about the tax-breaks.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) If they want to pay the pastor fifty millions dollars a year, we are not complaining about that, that’s freedom. But if they are excluding housing from taxation, tax-liability, then that’s hurting all of us.
(Stuart Voiceover) And thanks to the secrecy congress affords churches, tax payers have no idea how much the parsonage allowance is even worth.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) It’s shielded from public scrutiny, yet the public are subsidizing churches.
(Stuart Voiceover) You see, most non-profits have to make their tax-forms public.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) You can go online right now and you can see my salary. You can see our organizations income, and expenses down to the penny. We have to accountable.
(Stuart Voiceover) We know what Goodwill pays Dennis and Linda McClaim because the non-profit makes its tax forms public.
(Dan Barker Voiceover) If you are a tax-exempt organization, then you’re business is every bodies business.
(Stuart Voiceover) But think about it. When it comes to accountable, the atheists are now more forthcoming than some Christians.
(Annie Laurie Voiceover) We hear that churches, everything they do is good, and they’re being given this tax emption to do good, yet why keep it secret? What do they have to hide?
(Stuart Voiceover) Only last week a federal judge in Wisconsin handed the atheists a first round victory. The judge ruled the tax break for the parsonage allowance is unconstitutional and should be thrown out. The decision will almost certainly be appealed. Stuart Watson, NBC Charlotte.
Stuart: I can assure you the Baptists were not applauding. Especially when you say that the atheists are more forthcoming than they are. Let me talk about the central democratic value and then we’ll look at the second video which talks about how this is not just one church. So we went to the church early on and said we’d like to interview Pastor Steven. Not just about his house, but about his whole, you know, the movement. Because the movement has really been phenomenal and eight years gone from seven families to about fifteen thousand people a week. So it mushroomed. It became really kind of extraordinarily successful. So we said, just like any other non-profit institution, there are questions raised about Carolina’s health care system, about Carolina’s medical centers, about a huge non-profit hospital and how much it pays it’s staff. There are questions raised. We raised questions about our local United Way when it was going to pay two million all at once to it’s outgoing CEO. We have raised questions before about the Inspiration TV network, and about the chief executives in that enterprise, how much they earn. So we’ve raised questions surrounding compensation and fair compensation in other non-profits.
My argument to them was: we are not picking on you, you have become big. And so we are asking the same types of questions we would ask a health care non-profit or a United Way non-profit, any kind of charitable non-profit enterprise. We are asking you the same thing. We’re asking you for discloser and we’re asking you where the money goes. The old line from Watergate, follow the money. And so some of my colleagues in journalism said this a story about faith. And I said, I beg to differ. This is a story about money. A story about real estate. A story about tax law. But if you go to people and say, hey, let me educate you on the tax exemption of the parsonage allowance. Ah, there aren’t enough open bars in the world to keep people fixated on that!
If you say, this is about Pastor Steven and his, you know, ten-thousand, fifteen-thousand square foot home, then all the sudden people are paying attention because they say, I’ve wondered about that guy. I’ve seen him on the television, I wonder what’s his deal. Well, we tried to pursue what his deal was. Along the way they said they would not give us a financial statement. They later released it after all of our reports. Because of the money that flows around it, the financial statement doesn’t give the complete picture but at least they released an audited financial statement. They made both volunteers and certainly church employees sign a confidentially agreement, which extended to finances and said that they could go to court and sue them if they released any information about church finances. He would not submit to an interview despite the fact that I went to the church a couple of times, asked them, you know. Met with him face to face and asked for an interview, offered to do unedited interviews and put them on television, offered to put them on the web, offered to let him shoot the interviews, himself. Offered to let him ask me any questions on camera that he wanted to. I submitted registered letters, requesting interviews. I asked in every way I knew how to ask. Every way short of carrier pigeon. We were asking him, will you talk to us? The answer was always no. So, there is no Q&A.
At first I took that personally and said well maybe he doesn’t like me, he thinks I’m mean, he thinks I’m unfair, he thinks unscrupulous or unprincipled. And then I discovered that it was pretty much the same way with everyone. This was a calculated strategy, not to sit him down in front of anybody who could ask a critical or challenging question. This room, I suspect, is filled with people who ask critical and challenging questions. If you want to ask me critical and challenging question, I’m delighted. Let’s watch one more piece of tape then bring it on. Whatever you gotta ask.
Also, it extended to things that I thought were even benign or beneficial to them, this cloak of secrecy. For instance, I asked them for their bylaws. How is the church governed? Well, if you were a Presbyterian church or a Baptist church, that should be no problem, that should be a no-brainer. Here’s the bylaws. Here’s how the alders and the deacons are elected. Here’s how the church is governed. For some reason that didn’t happen. That’s because in this case, the alders and the deacons, the board of directors if you will- and by the way this is the same challenge whether you’re Duke Energy or the Baptist Church. The internal governments of an organization tells you a lot about accountability, which is a democratic principle, and a lot about whether the people who are paying the rates or the bills or the shareholders get a say in how the company is run.
I went to the Duke Energy shareholder meeting this week, by the way. At least they’re right up front, unlike our American democracy in that the more money you have invested the more votes you have. One dollar one vote. Not one person one vote. They are out and OUT. If you got a million dollars worth of shares then you get a million dollars worth of votes; even if you’re only one individual.
Well, in the case of this church, in the way it was governed, the board of directors sets Paster Furtick’s salary. Which is one of the key question marks in all of this. What is his salary? Another key question mark is, could anyone fire him? Is there anyone who has the power, or is this a theocracy in which he is god’s chosen, god’s anointed? He is the church and the church is him. That’s a big question.
In terms of the overall health of the organization. People are not writing out checks to Pastors Steven, they are writing out tax deductible checks to the church. And so do they get, in exchange for if they give a hundred dollars or a hundred million, do they get accountability? Do they get a say? Do they get any say in how he runs it and the answer is no. No, they do not. Because the way the board is selected is not democratic. They won’t say how the first board was selected, but the board of overseers, which amounts to the board of directors, is made up of other mega-church pastors. Which he had a heavy say, so these are his peers and his mentors. He pays them to come preach at his church, they pay him to come preach at their church, and so it’s all very nice and cosy. They’re the ones who set his salary. I think that is one of the reasons why you don’t see the bylaws. They won’t say how the first is chosen, and then, something that could actually been beneficial to them, they bragged that they’re all about giving. I could go on a long tear here…
Increasingly I wonder what is actually giving and what is buying public relations? Buying statue in the community. So you come to the community and you want to get a name for yourself, so you start throwing money around. Well, how is that any different from advertising? It’s not an altruistic act, when you stand at the fifty yard line at the Panther stadium with a huge check. You, for a certain amount of money, can guarantee yourself good PR. Some TV. By saying how great you are. So we wanted to scrutinize a lot of this ten million dollars, eleven million dollars, that they said that they’d given over the course of eight or nine years in the community. And they said well, here are our top contributions. Here’s are glossy annual report with our full-color pictures. If you want to know about the complete picture, you need to go and ask the recipients. That’s very strange, because, how do we know who the recipients are? Who do I know to go ask? How do I know where you gave your money? It strikes me that if you are the United Way and I ask you, where’s my money gone? They will do backflips to tell you every little organization that they give five thousand dollars, ten thousand dollars to.
And yet they were saying, well, here are the big ones. The rest of em? Guess! Guess where is our money is going. And so, I wonder a, if this is really about buying public relations. And b, I wonder.. Because some of the ministries he was giving to, Joyce Meyer for instance, he’s giving to the other televangelist megachurch, megadollar megabucks. So we were criticized, saying you’re picking on him, you just don’t like him, you’ve made this personal, how come you hate us, you hate our faith, your anti-this and anti-that. So, I wanted to say, listen. This is not limited to one church, one faith, one pastor. One narrow place. We wanted to follow up and say, there are multiple people who are living in these big houses who are eligible for these breaks. But you don’t get to see because, unlike Dan and Annie Laurie where you can learn about the IRS form, the 990, it’s right on the web, it’s full transparency. Because they are not the same as a ministry and outside non-profit agencies. You can look at a great deal of the financial information. In the case of a church, a synagog, those religious institutions do not have to declare this.
Yes! And there’s another lawsuit on that. Saying that religious institutions should be held to the same standards and have to disclose the same material as other non-profits. Other what they call 501(c)(3), under the law. So, more video magic!
(Stuart Voiceover) Preachers, really all clergy ,don’t have to pay income taxes on whatever they’re paid for housing, no matter how much that is. They don’t even have to tell you about it. We talked to a CPA who broke it down for us. He said it all started, once upon a time, when the preacher or the pastor or the parish priest, lived in modest houses called parsonages.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) When I was growing up, Monseigneur O’Brien and Father Patratchi and Father McTag, they lived in a rectory and they you know, had a little tunnel almost to walk over to the church.
(Stuart Voiceover) But nowadays, some Charlotte preachers live in million dollar homes. And here’s where you come in, they get tax breaks to do it.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) Clergy housing allowances can be in the hundreds of the thousands.
(Todd Coontz Voiceover) When you let go of the uncommon seed of one thousand dollars, the winds of heaven is going to open up on your life.
(Stuart Voiceover) Todd Coontz preaches the Gospel of Prosperity on TV. That god wants you to be rich, if you’ll just send Todd some money.
(Todd Coontz Voiceover) God game me a home that I paid cash for.
(Stuart Voiceover) Todd’s church Rockwealth International owns a million dollar condo where he lives, here at the Rosewood on the corner of Providence and Sherinamity. Here’s the thing. He doesn’t even have to tell you if he gets a tax free housing allowance. He didn’t return our phone call and letter last week, so we really don’t know.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) You don’t have transparency with churches. That’s probably to me one of the biggest problems with churches compared to other not-for-profits.
(Stuart Voiceover) Peter J. Reilly is a CPA from Massachusetts whose written on Forbes.com about the parsonage benefit of the clergy. Why special tax treatment needs to go.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) Churches are kind of a black hole.
(Stuart Voiceover) Phillip and Sheryl Jackson of the Grace Christian Center live in this two million home in Valentine. That’s between them and the congregation. They didn’t return phone calls, email or a letter last week. So we don’t know whether they get a tax break and if so how much. Under the law the only limit to the size of the tax break is the fair market rental value of the home. How much it would rent for. So the bigger the house, the bigger the tax break.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) There is no limit!
(Stuart Voiceover) Bishop CM Bailey at the United House of Prayer for All People stays in this house when he is in Charlotte. It’s not even his full-time residence. United House of Prayer owns the three million dollar estate, the sixteen thousand square foot home on West Sugarcreek near Derida. Because the church owns the home it pays no property taxes, but the bishop also owns his own private home in the Washington DC area. He didn’t return our call to his attorney or our letter, so we don’t know if he gets a housing allowance for his private home. But he’s still eligible for one, just not for more than one home.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) The rule is, one house. It can be a really big house. But only one.
(David Cerullo Voiceover) Do you feel like your trapped?
(Stuart Voiceover) David Cerullo of the Inspirational TV Network lives in this one point seven million dollar home near Fifty One and Ray Road. Because Mr. Cerullo works for a ministry and not a church, we can look up his non-taxable benefits. You ready? $372,311 dollars per year. Most of that for housing. But for most of us in the Carolina’s that’s not a housing allowance, that’s a whole house.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) The clergy are very influential on both sides of the isle.
(Stuart Voiceover) So while congress sides with the preachers lobby, Peter O’Reilly has a suggestion. To reform the loophole. Cap the tax break. Limit it, the same way that the US Military does.
(Peter J. Reilly Voiceover) That would be a reasonable way to weed out much of the abuse. If you said, have as many houses as you want but you’re only going to get three thousand, four thousand a month tax-break.
(Stuart Voiceover) But that would take an act of Congress. And Congress has not been inclined to act. Their are lots of lobbyist in Washington, but few more powerful than the church. Stewart Watson, NBC Charlotte.
Stuart: I know that there are a handful of people around the country who pay attention to this. The way that I got to Dan and Annie Laurie: there is a retired IRS official out in Colorado, Robert Baidy, who came upon our reports and he has followed the sort of policy wonk, he’s gotten in the weeds. He knows, and he’s the one who said, there is one guy whose written about this issue over and over and over, his name is Peter O’Reilly and you need to talk to him. Because he’s like a guy who is focused on this one little narrow issue that most people have no idea that this is going on. They may know that their church, you know, gets tax breaks for property tax exemptions or even sales tax exemptions, but this business about the housing allowance and building the multi million dollar mansions.
The interesting thing, it almost gets lost, there was a pastor in the Chattanooga area, he used to be a trumpeter who would play with blood, sweat and tears. He formed a church, the Church of Jazz Trumpeter, he may have even called it that, and he was the one who said, “I want a housing exemption for my lake house and my in-town house.”
And that’s when they said, yeah, you got to pick! So, we understand you need a parsonage to live in but we’re not giving you a tax break for your in-town house AND your vacation home. So you pick. You pick which one you’re going to live in. And he challenged that. While, one of the interesting ironies is that he had been to prison for tax-evasion. But he challenged them in court. And he won at the lower level but he lost on appeal. That was where the ruling came. So it’s through the abuses that sometimes the curbs come. I know that Annie Laurie and Dan and FFRF; that their position is different from Peter’s.
Just to articulate, Peter’s position: if you want to make a common sense test, say, in the military if you have an admiral and by virtue of his job he has to live on the Cape, or he has to live in San Francisco. Then they cap the amount that he can deduct for the off-base housing. So in the military there is a limit, they don’t care how many stars or up-lets you have on your shoulder. They have a limit to the amount the military can write off on their taxes, as part of their housing allowance. And he’s just saying that the same kind of commons sense should apply to the clergy that applies to them.
Annie Laurie and Dan are filing this lawsuit, and all of you are funding it, on the basis of principle in that the clergy as a class are treated differently than other non-profits. That is, they are given a tax break for housing allowance, by virtue of being religious. That they get a tax-break even though in function, as you saw with Dennis McClain, who some of you in the Raleigh area probably know of. He’s been around here for a long time. He gets the tax break even though his work is for Goodwill, by virtue of being ordained. So even though Goodwill is not primarily a religious institution, by virtue of being an ordained minister they can pay him a portion of his salary as a housing allowance.
I might also say, the interesting thing about Elevation Church is that they are a relatively small group of extremely successful churches, and the business plans are very similar and so they borrow from each other. The tactic of not talking to the media, the sale of for-profit books, the use of the church to promote the for-profit ministry, the multi-site model. There’s a lot of really, really interesting things if you want to get into it about the way in which they speak to people, recruit people, the positioning, the marketing. Whether you wanna call it rhetoric or targeting, very careful marketing placement, demographics, wording, the way in which things are constructed.
Going back to the Baptism thing we did an entire story which really people just, there was a meltdown within the Christian community about how they constructed mass baptisms. That they had a plan for what they called “spontaneous baptisms.” And so they actually published a document which they were very proud of called, “Spontaneous Baptisms: A How-To Guide.” Which seemed a little less than spontaneous to some people.
The notion uses some sort of social reinforcement techniques, you might call it, in which, okay, when the pastor gave the call there were clear instruction for a small group of people who were placed throughout the audience. As soon as he gave the call, you stand up. While, politicians have told me that one guy even called it the diamond pattern. It’s kind of like how the wave starts at a ball game.
You can start a movement with as little as four or five people in the right places. If she jumps up and then we see him jump up, oh, well people are jumping up so it’s okay for me to jump up. There is this kind of social technique of oh, well, I was thinking about jumping up but I wasn’t going to jump up but now that she jumped up, I’ll jump up. There you go! And friends, we have a movement. So they would count how many people they baptized.
This was really the kind of the problem within the church, this is the problem internal to them. You have two competing narratives and one narrative is god is working a great miracle here that this is a miracle, that your witness to a miracle, that this isn’t happening anywhere else, that god is moving here and he’s not moving in your old boring church so you need to come over here! The articulated narrative, look what god has done, god is moving here, this is the cool church, this is the place you need to be.
The other narrative, the behind the scenes narrative, which is pretty overt anyway: look what we did. Look what I did, your pastor didn’t do that, I did that, look at that! So, this quickly becomes the church of Pastor Steven. This charismatic, everybody comes to him, I could talk to you all night long about how that’s reinforced. He is the visionary, you should respect him, you are not to challenge him. You can’t ask questions of him. If you sick and go to the hospital he’s not going to be the one who visits you. He’s the star, the guy up on stage who is not going to be a big Q&A. You will not see his sermon tomorrow with a big Q&A. Which is a good time for us to have a Q&A.
Bart Ehrman, FFRF’s newest recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted the award May 2 at the Raleigh mini-convention. He writes “The Bart Ehrman Blog” and is author of many books, including Did Jesus Exist?, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, and his newest, How Jesus Became God. All three can be ordered at ffrf.org/shop/.
After Bart’s acceptance speech, artist and FFRF Lifetime Member Scott Burdick taped an in-depth interview, transcribed here:
BE: I’m Bart Ehrman. I identify as both a humanist and an agnostic.
SB: And are you openly agnostic?
BE: What do you mean, openly?
SB: Do people know it? Does your family know it?
BE: Am I in the closet? Aha! Yes, I’m quite openly agnostic. Everybody knows it.
SB: So writing books about it means you’re open?
BE: Well, if anybody reads my books they know I’m an agnostic, yeah.
SB: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.
BE: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God. And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control? I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.
SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.
BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic. It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think. What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms. Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know. I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things. Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is, “How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!” So, I’m an agnostic. If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.
SB: Were there any issues with coming out to your family? Were they very religious?
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian, most of my family converted to evangelical Christianity in my wake and so, hah! When I left the Christian fold, they did not leave with me, and so they’re still there wondering where I went. SB: So, you’re an evangelical agnostic, I guess.
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian I believed in converting everyone to my point of view because I thought if you didn’t agree with me you were going to roast in hell. I was very evangelistic. I’m not evangelistic as an agnostic because it certainly doesn’t matter for somebody’s afterlife — because I don’t believe there is an afterlife. I’m not that interested in people converting to what I think. What I’m interested in is getting people to be more thoughtful about whatever they believe or don’t believe. So I’m not interested in converting, actually. SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?
BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it. An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material. And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it, they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers. But I think it’s too bad because churches have education programs, and it’s a pity that people aren’t getting educated. There are adult education programs in most churches. But they don’t actually get educated, they sit around and talk about other issues. They don’t talk about the things that most people are interested in, which is what does one think about the bible, what does one think about theology?
SB: Do you think though that they may feel that this may put too many doubts in people’s minds?
BE: Possibly. I think pastors tend not to be in the business of generating doubt. [As] professors at universities, that is our business. Our goal is to get people to think. But pastors don’t generally see that as their goal, and so they tend to shy away from these various issues that would cause problems for people. The result is they’ve got parishioners who really don’t know anything about what scholars are saying about materials that they are most interested in, which I think is a real pity.