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October 9-11, 2015

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky., received FFRF complaints about several state/church violations.

Leestown Middle School held a "retreat" for sixth graders at two churches. Students were given T-shirts at the retreat that advertised TurningPoint Church and its website. They were told to wear shirts to a mandatory school assembly, which was supposedly secular, put on by the church's lead pastor, Joshua Mauney. He had children write down information, including their addresses, on cards. FFRF's complainant then received mail from the church.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district Nov. 13. "Allowing a church leader unique access to a captive audience of schoolchildren and permitting him to turn students into walking billboards for his church is inappropriate and unconstitutional, and his predatory conduct should raise many red flags."

Markert continued, "Moreover, public school employees cannot distribute or wear religious T-shirts while at school, nor can they require or encourage students to wear them."

The district responded in February, informing FFRF that speakers would be prohibited from using students as a platform for a religious message on social media and from requesting names and addresses of students in the future. The district also agreed to request advance approval of anything put on donated items.

Click here to watch the ad.

A 30-second TV spot recorded by Ron Reagan for the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been refused by the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. Meanwhile, the ads have been airing successfully on CNN last week and this week. 

The banned ad says:

Hi, I'm Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I'm alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That's why I'm asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.

Hundreds of requests for information poured into FFRF after the CNN airings began last week. About 12 more ads will air this week on CNN, including tonight. See CNN schedule for Eastern Time placement of the ads this week.

FFRF is also airing the Ron Reagan spot on the day-after rebroadcasts of "The Daily Show" in March, April and May.

The ad debuted live last May 22 on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." FFRF intended to next place the ad on CBS' "Sixty Minutes." Last fall, after months of delays, CBS not only rejected that placement, but banned the ad from any national CBS show. This spring, national ABC and NBC also rejected the ad.

Initially, NBC offered to accept the paid advertising if FFRF agreed to delete the concluding phrase, "not afraid of burning in hell." Then it even decided against that.

"We'd never agree to censor Ron's punch line," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President. "Imagine these national networks being so afraid of a little irreverency."

FFRF also ran the ad in select metropolitan cities on the finale of "Cosmos" last year, after Fox Network refused to air the ad nationally, citing a policy against "advocacy" ads.


“Where have you been all my life?” – Andrew, Johns Creek, GA

“That is literally the best commercial I’ve ever seen!” J.T. – Akron OH

"This is the best thing that has happened to Atheism since Richard Dawkins!” — Jane, New York City

“Awesome!” – A. Garcia, Houston

“That’s an extremely superior and wonderful ad. Wow!” – C.D., Vancouver, B.C.

“Best ad I’ve ever seen.” – J.S., Fallbrook, Calif.

“I’m excited about what you do!” Mike, Cleveland, TN

“I’m a lifelong atheist,” C.S., Newcastle, Ind.

“I thought I was the only atheist in America!” – E.Z., Elmhurst, N.Y.

“Brilliant!” – Ron, Nevada

“I’m a 95-year-old life-long atheist. That’s a long time!” — Gainesville, Fla.

By Robert Turner

I am a proud member of FFRF. I currently live in Ohio but am in the process of moving to Burlington, Vt. I was born in the San Francisco Bay area but my family moved around, my father being in the airline business.

Both my parents are deceased, but I have two sisters, who live in the Midwest, and a son, who is a software engineer, currently living in Vermont. I am a pilot flying for a major airline and have been a professional pilot for 28 years. I learned to fly when I was 17 and had my private license while I was still in high school (yes, I took my friends flying then, unbeknownst to their parents!).

As a pilot, I moved around a lot through my career and have lived in New Mexico, Wyoming, Denver, Houston, Guam, Ohio and points in between. I truly enjoy what I do, though the life of a pilot does have its challenges.

One of my longtime hobbies is woodworking. I find a lot of solace there, and sawdust. Once while in college, I took a three-dimensional design class and learned of these lovely wooden-geared clocks. I thought it would be something to be able to make one some day.

Many of my early woodworking projects were born through the expertise of Norm Abram and his show "The New Yankee Workshop." I loved that show and his simple but expert way of crafting wood into nice pieces of furniture. I have built, and given away, many of his various projects.

After years of crooked tables and split door panels, I finally figured out how to create a decent little piece of furniture and musical instruments like autoharps, Irish flutes and cigar-box guitars. Along with woodworking, I also learned to repair old cuckoo clocks and mantle clocks. Why not merge hobbies? Why not get around to building wooden-geared clocks?

I built a few before deciding to build one for FFRF. I wanted to add something special to the new Freethought Hall. I wanted to put my own hands into something that could add a little joy or solace to members' lives. I wanted members to be reminded that they are not alone.
I admire people throughout history who were not one-dimensional, someone like Ben Franklin. He was a businessman, writer, inventor and statesman who bucked convention. He also had a sense of humor. One of my favorite quotes of his is: "I conceive that miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things."

A few of my favorite things are ukulele music, pizza (any kind), time spent with loved ones, learning that your kid knows more than you about something, finishing a project, listening to Penn Jillette on his "Penn's Sunday School" podcast, pulling a jet skyward on a sunny morning.
My least favorite things are auto-correct, moving, time away from loved ones, learning that your kid knows more than you about something, finishing a project, pulling a jet skyward during a blizzard.

I have been skeptical about religion for as long as I can remember. My mother tried to drag us to church in the beginning, but even as a child it felt wrong. It didn't make sense. My religious friends seemed a little nutty. They all disagreed with each other — Mormons, Catholics, fundamentalists. Nothing made sense to me except natural science and history.

As a young man, I was approached while in college by hard-sell, born-again Christians. They seem like used car salesmen to me. They feed on the insecure and impressionable. I saw one of my teenage sisters and the sister of my spouse get sucked in at that vulnerable age. I saw how their lives were ruined, their young hopes of education and a reasonable income destroyed for poverty and ignorance and disdain for various other groups of people. Thankfully, my sister saw the light a decade later, finally achieving her Ph.D. as she joined the world of the rational.
These churches are cults by every definition, no matter how large. One of the most impressionable moments I had confirming myself as an atheist came when a respected mentor, an old and religious pilot, told me that on his mother's deathbed he told her that if she didn't accept Jesus as her savior, she was going to hell. Fine son, indeed!

I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. If you do too, take the bible out. If you don't see an FFRF sticker in it (that I may have put there) please put one in yourself, or put the book "in far, far better place."

Please stop by Freethought Hall in Madison, say hi to Dan and take a look at my little clock. Take a look at the scroll-sawn gears, the maple pegs, the black walnut frame, the wood taken from an old tree on my friend's land on Johnson's Island, Ohio.

Listen to the soothing tick of wood on wood. It's there for you to enjoy.

This is an edited version of Brandon Frederick's "deconversion story" posted in April 2014 on the website of Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics @ UW-Madison.

By Brandon Frederick

I came into this world in Wisconsin as the child of evangelicals and then became an atheist after almost four years of bible college. My father, among other side occupations such as church directory photography, is a pastor and my mother a worship leader.
They worry about hellfire and want to save me from such a fate, perceiving the best way to do this is to "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

Growing up, I was kept apart from non-Christians and surrounded with bibles, religious conversation, prayers, worship songs, morning devotions and bible-based storybooks and videos. I accepted Jesus as Lord when I was 3 or 4 at the prompting of my mother at bedtime one night.

I was home-schooled for almost my entire K-12 years. My mom taught most of my classes, but my dad usually taught bible and gym. I learned to read very well since I had so much time to devote to it, but my science, writing and math education was dismal and self-taught after middle school.

When I was 12, my mom found porn links on the family computer's Internet history and discovered my growing interest in female anatomy. The shame I felt was crippling. Dad took me out for a smoothie and a "man-to-man" talk on how sex and lust were sinful until after marriage. (I didn't discover masturbation till I was 16. This started a cycle of repression, guilt and self-hatred for having sexual desires.)

Another event that brought more religious zeal was our move to Kansas City, Mo., not long after my Internet porn was found. I joined the quasi-cult International House of Prayer. If you have ever seen the documentaries "Jesus Camp" or "God Loves Uganda," that's IHOP. I responded at age 13 in 2001 to [homophobic pastor] Lou Engle's altar call to be a gospel messenger during the End Times.

I was very involved in IHOP before and after school. I studied my barebones curriculum rigorously, even in the summer, and wound up getting a high school diploma from my parents when I was 16 so I could enter the Forerunner School of Ministry [now IHOP University, in Grandview, Mo.] to major in "apostolic preaching."

We picketed an adult film store with blue purity blindfolds over our eyes and protested at Planned Parenthood with red "Life" tape over our mouths. I evangelized at Haunted Houses with a clipboard of fake survey questions and rocked back and forth while speaking in "tongues" for hours at a time.

When I felt like some recreation and watched a movie or played a game at a friend's house, I would feel enormously guilty. But the guilt for gaming paled next to the shame I felt whenever I had a sexual thought. Every time I "fell" I would weep miserably into my pillow and beg for God's forgiveness.

To "fix" myself, I confessed to my dad or bible college friends and prayed for strength to overcome temptation. None of it helped but I stayed committed to improving myself and becoming more like Jesus. I planned to become an electrician after graduation rather than a full-time minister. I would donate large amounts of my income to IHOP and to charity.

Then came broadband Internet. Its superior speed and constant connection gave me access to atheists, Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims in my house. I began to devour everything from nutrition to history to bible to philosophy.

Bible college dropout

Over winter break in January 2008, I stumbled on some quotes by Mark Twain and found myself curious as to why this popular fiction author that I read as a child was a religious skeptic. I soon discovered that many heroes and intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson had serious reservations about Christianity. I discovered all the major criticisms of Christianity (problem of evil, bible contradictions, age of the Earth, evolution, tyranny of hell, inadequacy of faith healing,) and the secular support for a naturalistic worldview. I want to thank Richard Carrier, John Loftus, Dan Barker, Ken Daniels and countless other secular authors who helped me on my journey.

I decided to read Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and C.S. Lewis 50% of the time and secular authors 50% of the time. I also prayed fervently that God would give me some amazing supernatural encounter so that I would not doubt, but all I heard was silence and my own thoughts.

I decided to drop out of bible college in my final semester and was aggressively interrogated about why I was leaving. One leader seemed convinced that I was having sex with older men (as if doubts about my faith and homosexuality were linked), despite always being very straight. Another hammered me with accusations that I was just being arrogant and needed to be humble and accept their higher knowledge without proof.

As I read more, I started to realize that I'd been part of a quasi-cult of a few thousand people, with influences on tens of thousands more worldwide. Coming out was hardest with my family. My mom wept profusely and my dad was angry and shocked. My brother yelled that he couldn't understand how I could be so blind. I wanted to reply that I was not the closed-minded one, since I was reading Christian and secular authors equally, while he had read little but the bible his whole life. But I bit my tongue.

A Sterling friend

The one bright spot was my best friend Sterling. It turned out that he had deconverted from Christianity nine months earlier but was too frightened of my religious zeal to tell me. We started to have coffee daily and poured out our hearts about the frustration with family who didn't understand, the humorous things we used to believe, unanswered questions in science and philosophy and where we were going with our lives now that we seemed to be done with IHOP and Christendom.

He gave me strength when no one else would.

I later found other intellectual nontheistic friends, but almost everyone in my life caused me pain. Rather than understand me, they tried to reconvert me or accuse me of arrogance or homosexuality or being blind to the truth.

I encourage anyone reading this to be supportive and available to those who question their faith. Also, do not count anyone out. Plenty of pastors like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt have deconverted later in life, so almost no one is too far gone to have an intelligent conversation with.


I moved to Wisconsin to get away from the religious zeal of my family and church members. I joined the National Guard because I had no idea how I was going to pay for college and went on to get a bachelor's in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am now far happier and whole, intellectually and emotionally, than ever before (rather than empty as most Christians suppose godless heathens are).

We are often told that atheists have this huge void in our hearts that can only be filled with God. I am often asked if I am afraid of being wrong and going to hell. I reply that I am not any more afraid of Christian hell than they are of the hells of other religions.

%250 %America/Chicago, %2015


Anne Gaylor tribute brought back memories

On the occasion of Anne Gaylor's 88th birthday celebration, here are a few memories of this great lady.

I first met Anne over the phone while I was a member of Women's Counseling Service, a resource for birth control and abortion referral in the early 1970s. She always answered calls with her phone number and joked that she had said it so many times it should be part of her epitaph! She provided hundreds of women with access to abortion options both before and after Roe v. Wade. She also was our source for physicians who prescribed contraception at a time when birth control methods for the unmarried were "indecent articles" per Wisconsin state statute. (It turns out I married one of those brave souls five years ago, a lovable guy.)

Anne and I worked the phones together when Dr. Kennan's abortion clinic, Madison's only at the time, was closed by a judge when it was discovered that a client from Minnesota had lied about her age. We called dozens of scheduled patients to help them find alternatives while the clock ticked.

I shall always cherish these memories of Anne's indefatigable service to women who so desperately needed her understanding and persistent support of reproductive rights, a battle we are still fighting today. Happy birthday, Anne!

KK Anderson

Johanson convention speech appreciated

Thank you for printing the full Los Angeles convention address by Dr. Donald Johanson ["Crowd loves Lucy scientific sleuth Johanson," Jan/Feb15]. I am a new member and was unfortunately unable to attend this year's event. I very much appreciated being able to read his speech, clearly delivered in the voice of a confident and passionate explorer.

It's always wonderful to see someone following reason and evidence wherever they may lead. Thank you for your work,

Noreen Facione

Lifetime Membership well worth the wait

Lifetime Membership, what a bargain! No more renewal notices and in only 50 years, I'll have gotten my money back!

Troy Myers
P.S. I'm 78.

• • •

I am so happy to finally join FFRF. I've been a fan for many years but was never much of a "joiner." However, I feel it's my duty to support you any way I can. Thank you for everything you do. It's an honor to be a member.
Chris Jansen

Explore impact of religion on politics

There are two ideas which I believe would be worthy of pursuing. One is a study on the religious background of our elected officials. The other is the study of the amount of tax income lost through nonprofit deductions for religious institutions.

1. We have a general sense, though not adequate data, about which religions our legislators and Congress persons adhere to. The obvious line of inquiry would also involve how the political parties and religions line up. A more difficult process would be to analyze the level of conservative vs. liberal positions compared to their religions and party affiliation. Perhaps someone searching for a master's or doctoral thesis would find this issue worthy of pursuit. Or maybe someone would want to blog or put up a website or Facebook account to gather this information.

2. More exhaustive, but nonetheless valuable study, would be how many billions of dollars are lost when people and corporations deduct donations to religious institutions. Separating out nonprofit donations for religion vs. other charitable institutions may be difficult, or even impossible, but someone smarter than I am may come up with a useful, if not clever, approach. Or maybe it's just as simple as delving into Internal Revenue Service data.

David Snowden Overby


P.S. I heard Dan Barker at the Unitarian church in Dubuque recently. What a talent, musically and intellectually!

Parents hitting children is never OK

[Annie Laurie Gaylor's blog censuring the pope for condoning hitting children] brings back some painful memories. My mother used to tell me that my father loved me very much. Oh no he didn't. His actions spoke louder than her words.

My Jewish father told me that "children are animals you have to beat into shape." I informed him that children are people and people should never be hurt. He abused me physically until I was 14, and his sexually inappropriate behavior continued until I left his house at 18. When I had the nerve to disagree with him when I was 35, he refused to talk to me for 15 years and tried to prevent me from talking to my mother.
I made a conscious decision to raise my son differently and without fear of abuse. It was difficult, but I would stop and ask myself, what would my parents do? The opposite was the appropriate thing to do. My parents visited and were dumbfounded that I could negotiate with my 2-year-old son.

My son now has two children and never raises a hand, no matter how angry he becomes. I am very close to my grandbabies, my parents are both dead, and I'm left with the painful memories of a monster who took pleasure in giving me pain.

But I have broken the cycle of violence. People need to make that conscious decision.

Myra Lemson, Life Member

Texas' secular roots under religious attack

With so many of FFRF's complaints coming from "the great state" of Texas, I thought I would share this. This week, Texans are celebrating the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence [March 2, 1836], but have any of them read the document? It's short and takes about five minutes.

The document describes the army and the church as "both the eternal enemies of civil liberty, the everready minions of power, and the usual instruments of tyrants." It also bemoans the fact that "moderation is at length so far lost by those in power."

And, it condemns the attempt to establish a national religion: "It denies us the right of worshipping the Almighty according to the dictates of our own conscience, by the support of a national religion, calculated to promote the temporal interest of its human functionaries."
Pretty cheeky Texans back in the day. My, how times have changed.

Lori Olson

Vision impaired but mind fully functional

My vision's very poor and my hands arthritic so I'll not write much. I thought you might be interested in this from our Sunday paper [a story about persisent safety code violations at a Cape Coral religious facility]. I love your paper when I can read it.

Margaret C. Smith

Readers take issue with words and image

I was dismayed to read in the Jan/Feb issue that FFRF members are leaving inserts in hotel bibles bearing a message that begins "To whomever opens this bible." The idea is great; it's the grammar that dismays. As the subject of the clause "___ opens this bible," the pronoun should be "whoever," not "whomever." The fact that the clause functions as the object of the preposition "to" has no bearing on the case of the pronoun.
On a related note, the crank mail carries a "parental warning" about "obscene, schatological and sexually graphic language." While I could make a plea for an Oxford comma here, I'm more interested in the curious word "schatological," which appears in no dictionary. In light of the topics addressed in some of the crank mail, either "scatological" or "eschatological" might be appropriate, but they mean very different things. I suggest that whoever wrote the warning look up both words.

Julian Hook

Editor's note: Good points, although newspaper style (almost universally) dispenses with the serial comma. Proofreader Dan Barker's note: I take full responsibility for this hurried "correction" to the editor's good work.

• • •

I am a Lifetime Member and annual contributor and support wholeheartedly your efforts to protect the rights of nonbelievers like me and believers of all religions. However, I found the cartoon on page 4 of your January-February issue to be a jarring departure from the publication's usual tone: specifically the depiction of an Islamic radical as such an ugly caricature with arguably racist features.

Otherwise, keep up the good work.

Tom Hays

Law doesn't apply to clergy sex abusers

Every issue I read the black collar crime with horror, anger and dread. It's finally happened: you reported the defrocking of a priest I knew!
I knew "Father Patrick" [name changed] when in the 1990s. He used to come into the gay bar in full clerical garb, and knowing me as the "out" gay atheist in town, delighted in bragging about having sex with underage parishioners in two cities. I told him if he was ever arrested, I'd be the first to testify against him.

He bragged that it would never happen as he had "the goods" on too many of his superiors in the Catholic clergy. My local pharmacy manager, knowing I was simpatico, confessed that his high school son had been molested. The number of victims in the rather small diocese soon equaled those of the far larger archdiocese.

The response of the bishop to the victims and their parents who had formed a local chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests? He threatened them with excommunication and effectively silenced them. Regilding the cathedral bell tower spire was more important.
Now I read that "Father Patrick," although defrocked, is free. And to my knowledge, none of the other "Father Patricks" or the bishop have ever been charged with crimes. Former Boston Archbishop Bernard Law? Now a cardinal, safely retired to the Vatican.

There ought to be a law! Oh, wait, there is a law. It obviously does not apply to clergy.

Alexander Wallace

'Good' really not the word for this book The "Good" Book?

All the way, from the biblical flood to the ominous atrocities promised in the prophecies: blood and more blood! From the firestorm horror of Sodom and Gomorrah to the Passover annihilations and Joshua's passional extermination, genocide is identified as the principal imperative in the biblical narrative.
JB Kennedy

Texas Witnesses worst prison proselytizers

I worked many years in the prison system, and of all religious sects, Jehovah's Witnesses were by far the worst offenders for conning and wheedling their way into women's facilities. All they needed was to convince just one inmate to say "yes" to their visitations and they were in the door.

Women Witnesses were not considered competent enough to "bring the word" through the prison doors. They were required to have a male escort. Each inmate was told over and over again that God could not and would not forgive them until they were "cleansed" from all sin.
These "good preachers" had absolutely no qualms about finding a dark corner to teach said inmate the way back to God's heart, using particular body parts to make that woman clean enough for God to forgive. Trust me, they did not ever take responsibility for the fruits of their behaviors.

Jeanne Owers

%250 %America/Chicago, %2015

Sharing the Crank Mail

A sampling of FFRF's voluminous fan mail, printed as received.

Freedom: You people need to stay out of West Virginia with your evil ways! You people will burn in Hell if you don't change your ways and repent to Jesus Christ! — Bernard Rice, Madison, W.Va.

Amendment I: It does NOT mean any other than the government shall not establish a state religion such as in England you stupid jackasses. I'm so sick of you leftist assholes fucking up my country. Eat a sack of dog shit. If you don't have any, let me know, I'll be happy to harvest some for you. — Dave B

Proof that God does not exist: I want documentation within 24 hours or I know that your statements are a joke and organization is a joke. — Jack Christian, Jerusalem

Your web site: Why don't you stop trying to rewrite history, and why don't you stop trying to destroy our nation. Why not try Egypt Syria, Iraq, Iran, or some other Arab nation. You would be put to death by some extremist. You ought to be thankful for Christian teaching in America. Take it away, and all you have left is humanism, and look where that is taking us. Wake up.
— Kim Alexander

Fruit cakes: How can a handful of nutjobs try and change a great nation. You are all ass-holes! Get out of this country or give us your names so we can publish them in the press. You guys hide behind a website and an ungodly agenda like the Isis murderers do behind cloth. — Egon Spangler

pathetic: Your intolerance is really something akin to communism, are you communist? Please respond, this is not a rhetorical question. Jesus is Lord, every knee will bow and every tongue confess. — jon coville

Help me: All i want is for you to get the networks to stop mentioning Valentine's Day and for places like McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Verizon not to promote that holiday. It is the only public holiday that is fully christian (it's based on a saint). Those networks, and companies would never promote muslim things why let them promote a catholic thing about a SAINT?? Please help me. Work with me. — Crystal Habib

What's up: Just wondering who you are bothering now with your faggotry. In other words, fuck-off!!! — Jerry Babbitt, California

Why: I am curious why you have to be greedy and rely on pride and self control to tear familys and communitys apart because your group has a very small purpose to become rich and famous with no direction in life. — anonymous

Attests are cool: Can u imagine if your wrong how long eternity is. Lmao y'all ass gonna be smoking down there beside hitler. You Yankees are hilarious. I jet your all for being queer though and playing with each other ball sacks. Hahahha anyway I own a company and don't give 2shits who sues me. I fire atheists or give them jobs like cleaning toilets. — Brent Mckee, Freeport, Texas

Feckless fools: Oh you free thingers are nepharious fools! Real free thingers would understand that this country was founded with a religious foundation that gives appalling nihilistic individuals as you to do as you would like. Red,white blue or green devils, you are the antisthesis of evil. Many in the mid east would welcome you. Go see, please! May God have mercy on your souls. — God Bless America


What a shame: So the police chief in Searcy AR told you degenerate idiots to go pound sand!!! Good for him!! Plus your group is nothing but a bunch of sub-human degenerates on the same level of pedophiles and abortionists!! Just because you don't believe in God does not give you the right to tell us believers that we can't!! Or that we can't have Christian symbols on government property!! — John Ammonett

mind your own business: When a city or county wants to put up a Manger at CHRISTMAS time in view of the public, it is none of your business. If a school classroom 3 states away chooses to say a prayer on school grounds before the school day starts, it is of no concern to you. This country was built on the belief of GOD. If u cant handle it, tough crap. Thank you and may GOD bless you. — Christopher Rowe, Indiana


This morning I'm going to introduce our next speaker, Chris Johnson. He is a New York City-based photographer and filmmaker and received his undergraduate degree in film production from Concordia University in Montréal, Quebec. His photography can be seen in The New York Times and other publications. He is the recipient of the Kodak Award for Excellence in Filmmaking as well as the B.F. Lorenzetti Scholarship for Excellence in Filmmaking. His work in art direction and production design can be seen in several films, including "The Pen and the Sword," produced in part by the National Film Board of Canada.

For the past few years, he has traveled the world, meeting famous atheists, infamous atheists and just everyday atheists. He's put his photography and stories together in a wonderful book called A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. I urge you to use it to collect atheist signatures from your favorite atheists [in attendance here]. In the meantime, let's hear Chris Johnson talk about his work.

By Chris Johnson

Wonderful! Good morning. Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here in Los Angeles. As a filmmaker, I'm especially excited to be here in this particular room where the Oscars were held. That's pretty cool for me.

As was mentioned, I spent about two to three years working on this project and I'm going to tell you a little bit about the story behind that and how it all came together. Before I do that, I want to talk about one of my favorite movies. It's about C.S. Lewis. Shocking, I know! It's a movie called "Shadowlands" directed by the late Richard Attenborough.

It's about C.S. Lewis later on in his life and his romantic relationship with an American divorcée. So it's not really about the religion thing, but one of the scenes that always stuck out to me is where Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is talking about God. Let me play a clip for you.


"[God] wants us to be able to love and be loved." I happen to agree with one third of that statement. People often ask me, "What are the overarching themes that you learned talking to these 100 atheists from around the world?" ["To love and be loved"] would pretty much be it.
One of the themes that runs through the book is love. Now as far as we know, we only have this one life, right? And if you really take it to heart, it changes the way you see your family, your friendships, your relationships and your experiences.

I quoted in my introduction to A Better Life A. A. Milne's beautiful line from Winnie the Pooh: "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." One of my favorite photos from the book is of writer and blogger Greta Christina in San Francisco with her partner Ingrid. Just a fun little bit of trivia: Behind them you can see plates on the wall. That's called the "Great Wall of China." [laughter]. But let's go back to where it all started.

I was on a road trip with my brother three years ago, going through the Southwest. This is White Sands National Monument in New Mexico [photo], which if you haven't been, is incredible. I was taking photos of this amazing, gorgeous place and my brother said, "You should do a book of your photography." I said, "Nobody knows who I am, nobody cares. There are so many books out there. No publisher would want to do that."

"Well, you just have to make it different," he said, so I thought about it. We were listening to a lot of podcasts on religion, something that had always interested me. I have always been an atheist, but I found religion interesting and had minored in religious studies in college.
Being in that space, being in that gorgeous beautiful space surrounded by sand and mountains, I thought, you know, there are people out there who think that this was put here by God, or that without God this is pointless or meaningless. What if somebody were to make a book showing not necessarily what we're pushing against, but what we believe, what we love and what we cherish?

That's one of the things I felt, that there are so many great books talking about why there's no God, why we don't believe, and those [books] are important. But one thing that I thought was missing was, "What do we believe?" If there is no God, now what? Atheists, by the way, as you all know, aren't very well liked in this country.


Oh, Newt Gingrich. So that's what I was going against, right? I had this idea, I wanted to do this book, but nobody knew who I was and I didn't have any money. I was a struggling artist living in New York, until I found Kickstarter. I found Kickstarter and decided to do a campaign, and I basically crowd-funded this project. It tooks about two months, the most stressful two months of my life.

Not everybody was particularly excited about this project. One YouTube comment that I got said, "Please die in a car crash or other accident." There are two things that I like about that. One, I like that they said "please." And the second is that they gave me a choice. I mean, they are fine if I die in a car crash or they're fine with some "other accident."

I also got emails like this — a serviceman in Iraq telling me he was an atheist and was excited about the work I was going to be doing. I also get other emails. "I'm a 60-year-old 'still in the closet' atheist. I have to be due to my conservative, narrow-minded western Pennsylvania surroundings." Hello, Pennsylvania.

Another: "Life makes more sense now. I can live for now and enjoy my life, not suffer that I won't burn for eternity. Losing my religion has been such a refreshing change. I'm anxious for your book to be published, though I'll have to hide it under my bed so my wife doesn't find it." It was going so well up to that last sentence.

This is the funding graph of my Kickstarter. The line at the top, that's the goal, and as you can see, it was a very stressful two months but I made it. I was off, traveling around the United States, Canada, the UK, talking to atheists from different professions, backgrounds and things like that. I visited some really amazing cities both abroad and in the U.S. I met some really incredible people.

There is Nahla Mahmoud [photo]. She's a Sudanese refugee living in London. The bottom right is Carol Blue, the widow of Christopher Hitchens. And of course you recognize the top right, Donald Johanson, who spoke here last night. We're holding a replica of Lucy.
Some other familiar faces you might recognize from the book — people here at the conference — we have Jessica Ahlquist, who will be speaking directly after me, and Dan Barker, playing the piano, Annie Laurie, Sean Carroll and Anthony Pinn. In the front row here, Margaret Downey. There's Dawkins, of course.

One of the most frequent questions I get is, "How did you find these people?" Some of them I knew because I read their works, like Dawkins, Hitchens, people like that. Some were just friends of mine. I have a friend in the book who's an airline pilot and happens to be an atheist.
Here's one of the most interesting stories. One day I was at a friend's house in New York, where we were watching "60 Minutes" on CBS, and I saw this particular clip [of mountain climber Alex Honnold].

Who wants to go to Yosemite? I saw this clip and I thought, "If he's an atheist, he needs to be in my book." So I went to Yosemite and met with Alex. Just to give you a little perspective on that rock where he's sitting, here's another picture from above. He's not afraid of heights. You can watch the whole segment of Alex on "60 Minutes" [search for "ascent of Alex Honnold" on YouTube]. It's really incredible to learn more about him.

Here are some of the other people from the book I want to introduce you to: Pat Churchland is a neurophilosopher. There she is down in San Diego, with one of her beautiful golden retrievers, Farley. One thing Pat talked to me about in my interview with her was celebrating from a secular perspective. You also might recognize A.C. Grayling here. He talked a little bit about the finite nature of life. [Grayling interview clip]
Another person you'll recognize is a friend of FFRF, actor and comedian Julia Sweeney, here with her daughter Mulan. One thing we talked about was being an atheist and dealing with the issue of death and dying. [interview clip]

I love her statement about people being like wildflowers in a field, growing and dying. It takes me back to the one-third of that C.S. Lewis quote that I actually agree with, which is, we only have each other in the world, right? We only have one another, that's all there is. And that's OK.

The relationships we form with others are precious and they're wonderful. That's not because of the sanction of some entity, but from the fact that we, together, have come to create these experiences and form these bonds and relationships ourselves. That's incredible. That's really beautiful, when you think about it.

All these clips, by the way, [came from] when I took photos for the book. I filmed the interviews. Now I've been spending months sitting in my apartment growing a beard and editing away. I've been going through the 50-plus hours of footage I have of everybody talking about this stuff, and now I'm turning it into a documentary version.

I know there are other people here who are in the book and would be happy to sign their pages. Before I leave, I just want to show you a brief promo for the film version of A Better Life. [clip]

Thank you for having me.

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR: We have time for one or two questions for Chris.

Q. Did you ask Alex if he has a fear of death, or why he does what he does?

A. You'd probably learn more about that in the "60 Minutes" piece. Mostly he talks about how free soloing is just another type of climbing, how exhilarating it is and just a different technique, rather than thinking about the death part of it. He doesn't really [fear death], as far as I know. I don't think he thinks about it that much.

Q. I'm from the Twin Cities. My community is just kind of burgeoning as far as a secular community, so I know about 300 to 400 atheists, some of them not so well. It's kind of amazing . . . how we're still considered evil and strange. Your book and documentary are good efforts to show that we're regular people. We're becoming more mainstream, and yet you never know where we'll get negative feedback. This presentation got me thinking about that.

A. Thank you, yes. There's an interesting story here as well; thank you for reminding me. A personal connection that I have with FFRF — my stepmother, my mom's partner — is from the U.K. and was becoming a U.S. citizen. She's a 65-year-old British woman, and they asked her on the form if she would bear arms to protect the United States. She's a pacifist, and she said "no."

They said, "Well, are you religious?" and she said "no." Then they said, "Well, you can't be a conscientious objector unless you have a religious basis." She emailed me and asked, "Do you know anyone I can talk to about what's going on?" I said, "Do I know anyone?" So I contacted FFRF and Andrew [Seidel] did a wonderful job writing letters and helping, and they eventually gave in. She was able to become a U.S. citizen.

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In Memoriam

James E. Yates Jr.

James Everett Yates Jr., 72, Taylors Valley, Va., died unexpectedly Jan. 29, 2015, in Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in Spartanburg, S.C.
He grew up in Tazewell, Va., graduated from high school in Tennessee and attended Chandler Technical Institute in Willoughby, Ohio, Automation Institute in Cleveland, East Tennessee State University and Steed College in Johnson City, Tenn.

He worked in data processing with General Electric and spent most of his career with CSX Railroad. A part-time musician, he played saxophone with several well-known local groups.

Survivors include five children, Tracy (Steve) Lineberry, Draper, Va.; Stacie (Brad) Glaser, Palmer, Alaska; Keith (Paige) Yates, Riner, Va.; James Thomas (Chloe Anne) Yates, Damascus, Va.; a sister and two brothers; 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and his fiancée, Mary Wooten, Campobello, S.C.

"My father was a strong voice for FFRF and very much believed in everything you stand for (I do as well)," Keith Yates wrote. "Thank you for everything, but most of all thank you for bringing together all of the minds of reason."

FFRF offers sincerest condolences to Jim's family and friends and thanks for his support of reason and the foundation.

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In the News

Atheist activist Roy hacked to death

Atheist activist Avijit Roy, 42, Atlanta, was hacked to death with machetes Feb. 26 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He and his wife Rafida Ahmed, 45, who was seriously wounded, were returning from a book fair.

Roy, a Bangladesh-born U.S. citizen, had received multiple threats from Islamic fundamentalists. Ahmed and Roy and six other expatriate Bangladeshis in 2001 founded Mukto-Mona, a secular website.

Roy and Ahmed were in Dhaka primarily to visit his elderly mother. News reports said the assailants are believed to belong to the extremist group Ansarullah Bangla Team. Roy was pulled from a rickshaw and killed.

Religious Marine's conviction upheld

The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals upheld on Feb. 26 the court martial conviction of Monifa Sterling, an active-duty Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for disobeying an order to remove three signs with a bible verse from her desk.

Sterling's job was sitting at a desk with a computer to resolve issues with base "smart" access cards. She had taped copies of Isaiah 54:17 ("no weapon formed against me shall prosper") to the computer and monitor and her inbox.

She testified she posted it in three places to represent the Christian trinity. The court rejected Sterling's free exercise and RFRA defenses: "[W]e reject the appellant's invitation to define 'religious exercise' as any action subjectively believed by the appellant to be 'religious in nature.' "

Egyptians sentenced for blasphemy

Egyptian student Sherif Gaber, 22, was given a one-year prison sentence Feb. 16 for contempt of religion related to his activities at Suez Canal University in 2013. Teaching staff and fellow students reported him for positive posts about atheism on Facebook. A retrial that could increase the sentence to over two years will be scheduled soon.

Gaber told Daily News Egypt his troubles started when he challenged a science teacher for calling for gays to "be crucified in the middle of the streets." While jailed, he was beaten by guards, who administered electric shocks. He lives alone in an apartment.

In January, student Karim Al-Banna was given a three-year sentence for blasphemy. He was accused of using Facebook to publish articles that "belittle the divine," with his father collecting information against him.

Atheist website blocked in Turkey

Al-Arabiya reported March 4 that a Turkish court in an Ankara suburb blocked access to a website for Ateizm Dernegi (Atheist Society), the country's first atheist association, ruling it was an "insult to religious values." The court said the group was engaged in "activities likely to disturb public order."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2014 suggested a link between atheists and terrorists.

Court agrees judge out of line

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Feb. 13 affirmed a $734,000 damage award to Michigan state court deputy administrator Julie Pucci, who sued in 2007 when her position was terminated after she lodged official complaints about Judge Mark Somers expressing his religious views while performing judicial duties. It also affirmed the award of $416,000 in attorneys' fees, Religion Clause reported.

A federal court ruled in 2011 that Pucci's complaints involved matters of public concern and were made in her capacity as a concerned citizen by approaching the State Court Administrator's Office.

Government prayer bill loses 8–7

On Feb. 23, the Virginia Senate General Laws and Technology Committee narrowly defeated on an 8–7 vote a bill to authorize prayers at all state and local government meetings. Richard Bell, R-Staunton, sponsored the bill, which passed 69-30 in the House of Delegates. meetings.

The bill was supported by the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia but opposed by Baptist and Jewish groups and the ACLU of Virginia.

ISIS sacks Iraqi museums, libraries

According to a report Feb. 26 in the UK Daily Mail, ISIS forces in the northern Iraq city of Mosul sacked museums and libraries to rid them of all non-Islamic content. Video posted on an ISIS Twitter account showed ancient statues being destroyed with sledgehammers and power drills.

"The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him," one man says on the video.

Religion Clause noted that terrorists blew up the Mosul Public Library, with its collection of Iraqi newspapers for the past century and maps and books from the Ottoman Empire. "This comes a month after terrorists loaded 2,000 secular books from the library on trucks to be burned because the books supposedly promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah."

Destruction was also reported at a Sunni Muslim library and Christian church libraries, with alleged death threats to anyone trying to hide books.

Lawyer wants God off court bench

Nicholas Gelfuso, a lawyer from Providence, R.I., filed a federal lawsuit March 4 challenging the inscription above the bench of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, "Non Sub Homine Sed Sub Deo Et Lege" ("Not under man but under God and law"). Gelfuso alleges the statement violates the First Amendment proscription against established religion and endorses a "particular religious viewpoint" with which he does not agree.

Diana Hassel, a constitutional law professor at Roger Williams University, told that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of "ceremonial deism" meant to solemnize an occasion or institution.

Florist invokes Judas, refuses to settle

A Washington state trial court ruled Feb. 18 that the owner of a Richland florist shop violated state equal protection laws by refusing to sell flowers for a man's same-sex wedding ceremony. The court rejected free speech and free exercise claims by owner Barronelle Stutzman, 70.

"The law is clear: If you choose to provide a service to couples of the opposite sex, you must provide the same service to same-sex couples," said Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who offered to settle the suit for a penalty of $2,001.

Stutzman turned the offer down the next day. "You are asking me to walk in the way of a well-known betrayer, one who sold something of infinite worth for 30 pieces of silver. That is something I will not do."

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Chicago atheists ‘come out’ again

FFRF and its Metropolitan Chicago Chapter placed their third set of friendly but thought-provoking billboards that feature the diverse faces and "testimonials" of Chicago-area atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

Eleven "Out of the Closet" billboards went up in December. Three more featuring groups of freethinkers, including Chicago Black Skeptics, went up after New Year's.

A final batch of seven went up in early March, mostly in northside neighborhoods. One features a smiling former minister, Rich Pope of Northfield, proclaiming "No magic. No miracles. No imaginary friends."

Three represent couples. Jenn and Ben Zalisko note: "We found love in an atheist community!" Ray Belmonte and Rick Scuch, who are both physicians and atheists, have a plainspoken message: "Religion is a collection of man-made fairy tales." Their dog, Rufus, is also pictured.

Alexandra Lafaurie and Melinda Dunker of Chicago, both consultants and freethinkers, ask: "Find it hard to believe in God? You're not alone."

Cheryl Purnell, a Chicago graphic designer who identifies as a freethinker, says "Freethought and adventure are my allies!"

Youth is represented by student Viven Castillo, who declares: "This happy heathen is good without God."

"No gods. Just human goodness" is the message of retired Glencoe veterinarian Allen Cosnow.

"Although nearly 20% of the population today is nonreligious in the United States, many Americans have never knowingly met an atheist or agnostic," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "We're proud to introduce our Chicago-area members and their viewpoints to their community. Freethinkers have an important message to contribute to society — that reason, not dogma, should prevail, and that freedom depends on keeping religion out of government."

Since debuting the "Out of the Closet" campaign in Madison, Wis., in 2010, FFRF has taken it to Columbus, Tulsa, Raleigh, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland, Spokane, Sacramento, Cleveland and Akron.

Make your own "virtual billboard" or upload a short freethought video statement here:

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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