Name: Amit Pal
Where and when I was born: Emden, Germany, where my father worked as a naval architect. We moved to the United States when I was a toddler and a decade later to India. I returned to the United States as a young man, and so here I am!
Education: I double majored in geology and chemistry at Lucknow University in India. I then completely switched tack, getting a master's in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master's in political science from North Carolina State University.
Family: I have a lovely and loving wife, Deepa, to whom I've been married for more than a decade. We have two wonderful daughters, Sagarika, age 13 (already freethinking in all sorts of ways!), and Devika, who is 11.
How I came to work at FFRF: I was with The Progressive magazine for a long time here in Madison, and was familiar with FFRF and its work. When I transitioned out of the magazine and saw a job opening here, it seemed a natural fit.
What I do here: As the communications director, I write press releases, communicate with the media, send out weekly reports to members, and help with staff writings, other mailings, and, with lots of delight, Freethought Today.
What I like best about it: Getting my writing and editing creative juices flowing; the niceness of my colleagues.
What gets old about it: Having to fight similar state/church battles over and over again. In my few months here, I'm already noticing a recurrence of the same sorts of violations, with minor variations.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: How this world should be a more just, rational and reasonable place.
I spend little if any time thinking about: What awaits us in the afterlife.
My religious upbringing was: Hindu.
My doubts about religion started: When I couldn't make myself believe even as a kid that a religion supposed to be taken seriously would have such awfully silly priests as its guardians and interpreters.
Things I like: Good books, good movies, good music and a good game of squash.
Things I smite: Typos, ill-informed opinions and a refusal to see reason.
In my golden years: I hope to travel around the world AND catch up on all my reading. (Is it possible to do both simultaneously?)
FFRF ran a pair of full-page newspaper ad campaigns recently on the need to vote for candidates who'll get religion out of government and on what the bible says about abortion.
The first ad campaign asked the question, "What does the bible really say about abortion?" The answer is (as the ad puts it): "There is no biblical justification for the assault on women's reproductive rights."
Those ads ran in the Austin American-Statesman, Tulsa (Okla.) World, Houston Chronicle and Wichita (Kan.) Eagle on Sunday, May 22, and earlier in the Austin American-Statesman. See the ad on the outer wrap of this issue of Freethought Today.
The ad features a compelling portrait of birth control crusader Margaret Sanger, and her quote: "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body." It documents that the bible does not condemn abortion and, in fact, "shows an utter disregard for human life." The ad reminds the reader: "We live under a secular Constitution that wisely separates religion from government, and protects women's reproductive rights."
Lydia Todd was so excited when she saw the ad in the newspaper, she wrote to us telling about her reaction: "Thank you so much for that ad in the Tulsa World. My mother had left it on the kitchen counter for me to see. I was so thrilled by it that I woke everyone in the house yelling about it. I learned that my sister had the same reaction — complete with waking others. I must become an official member now, and so must the rest of the household. Thanks on behalf of my fellow godless Oklahomans! That ad means a lot and is truly comforting for atheists living in a backward Southern hellhole."
The ad is funded and was largely written by Brian Bolton, a retired professor and Life Member of FFRF, in memory of FFRF's principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor (1926-2015), who was propelled into freethought activism by her experiences working to legalize abortion in the late 1960s and early '70s.
FFRF warmly thanks Bolton, who lives in Texas, for his generous support and commitment. Bolton also sponsors FFRF's annual graduate student essay contest. Brian urges other members to help place ads promoting FFRF in Anne Gaylor's memory.
National ad blitz
Timed with the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington D.C., the second set of full-page ads — featured in three of the country's foremost newspapers — to promote FFRF's groundbreaking "I'm Secular and I Vote" campaign. The ad appeared in The New York Times on June 2, USA Today Weekend on June 3–5 and the Washington Post on June 5. View the ad on Page 19 in this issue.
The ad also focuses on the new lawsuit that FFRF has brought against the U.S. Congress for denying its Co-President Dan Barker a chance to give an atheist invocation.
As the ads point out, congressional prayers are extremely sectarian, with Christians comprising 96 percent of officiants, even though a quarter of the American population is nonreligious. "Shouldn't the House of Representatives be Representative?" the ads ask.
Congressional prayer also costs U.S. taxpayers a good-sized bundle. Approximately $800,000 of tax dollars maintain a staff for two Christian chaplains whose major purpose is to open the House or the Senate with a prayer.
Nonbelievers took over the transportation system in the nation's capital for two weeks leading up to the June 4 Reason Rally.
Capitol Hill employees rode to work in commuter buses wrapped with a giant message stating, "I'm an Atheist and I Vote." Downtown commuters who drove or rode Capital BikeShare were greeted by illuminated kiosk ads featuring young, millennial atheist voters. FFRF placed ads on 40 bikeshare kiosks and 20 Metro Light street signs, plus two D.C. commuter buses.
The ads were part of FFRF's campaign to highlight the exploding secular voting demographic in advance of the Reason Rally and the June 14 presidential primary in the District of Columbia. The ads ran from May 23 through June 6.
"We blanketed the District with images of young secular voters, to show the faces of the fastest-growing voter demographic in America," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "While the Religious Right is hemorrhaging numbers and influence, secular support is skyrocketing, with 20 million new people on our side of the aisle since Barack Obama was first elected. Our leaders needed to see our presence and hear our priorities."
The bus and kiosk ads were part of FFRF's campaign to engage millions of nonreligious voters and ensure the voices of the fastest-growing minority group in America are heard in the 2016 presidential election.
FFRF has been working with its 23,800 members, 20 chapters across America and through secular student alliances to encourage supporters to register to vote, participate in influencing public policy and make a secular voice heard.
FFRF recently released a survey of nearly 8,000 members that showed 96 percent are registered to vote — more than 20 percent higher than the population at large. Respondents listed abortion rights, civil rights, women's rights, environmental protection and marriage equality among their top concerns, in addition to separation of state and church.
James C. Jewell, instructor at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Ill., wrote this in the late 1980s regarding Martin Jenners' grave marker:
"One of the most frequently visited graves in Indiana is that of Martin P. Jenners in Spring Vale Cemetery. Visitors come to the Tippecanoe County gravesite to see what Laurie Jensen, writing in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, called the inscription that is 'his unique legacy.'
"Jenners' 'My only objection to religion is that it is not true' is a defiant declaration of his beliefs. Jenners' statement created an outrage in turn-of-the-century Lafayette when his headstone was erected in 1906.
"Thirteen years before his death, Jenners had his headstone erected at Spring Vale Cemetery.
"In addition to his statement of objection to religion, Jenners had two biblical references inscribed on his stone. The first, 1 Cor. XV, 52, from the New Testament, reads, 'In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.'
"Apparently Jenners used the second biblical quotation, Is. XXVI, 14, from the Old Testament, to reveal a conflict in biblical teachings. The quote is as follows, 'They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end thou hast visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.'
"Jenners' stone ends with the almost alliterative command that 'No preaching, no praying, no psalm singing permitted on this lot.'
"Martin P. Jenners remains as unique and eccentric in death as he was in life."
Name: Stephen Gay.
Where I live: Fountain Hills, Ariz., and part-time in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Where and when I was born: Houston in July of 1957.
Family: I am single, but have a wonderful sister, Patricia Williams and her family in Sonoma County. My deceased brother's wife and daughter live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I grew up. I moved my mom out to California four years ago as she is almost 90.
Education: Graduated from American Graded High School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1975. Graduated from University of Texas with a degree in accounting in 1979.
Occupation: Airbus A320 Captain for American Airlines.
How I got where I am today: My father was a CPA with Price Waterhouse in Sao Paulo. I lived there until going off to college. Growing up in Brazil, I became fluent in Portuguese and have a passing knowledge of Spanish. I also became a big fan of soccer, and saw Pele play live on many occasions.
The other big advantage of growing up abroad was seeing another culture up close and how the "other half" truly lives. One of our homes was in a very nice neighborhood, but we had a small slum immediately on the other side of our property. (Zoning laws need not apply!) We came back to the U.S. every two years or so, and I came to appreciate why a lot people want to move here.
I followed in my dad's accounting footsteps, but my heart just wasn't in it. Dad, on the other hand, loved accounting like Mozart loved music. So I went and found something I liked doing and settled in on computer sales.
Flying has been my passion since I was a kid. Flying to the U.S. on Pan Am's iconic 707 Clipper Jets, and a fortuitous meeting with a Continental Airlines captain revived the dream after a few successful years in computer sales.
I finally made the break in 1989 and left to become a professional pilot. My path included five years as a flight instructor and charter pilot, followed by three years flying for a small regional airline. In 1997 I was hired at a Phoenix-based airline called America West, which through two mergers became American Airlines.
I have been a captain on the narrow-body Airbus fleet for 12 years now, and with American may have the opportunity to fly wide-body aircraft overseas.
Where I'm headed: With just six years until retirement, I plan to move permanently to Santa Rosa, buy a Piper Cub and give Sonoma Coast/Bay Area aerial tours along with taildragger flight instruction. I also plan to start a Freethinker/Atheist Meetup group and grow it to regional prominence.
Person in history I admire and why: Anybody who has had the courage to stand up and make a difference. There are countless of those through history, of course. This includes almost every freethinker of note, especially up to the 18th century, where speaking out could and often did cost you your life.
If I could be indulged with two choices from the recent era, I would pick Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens.
During my time in computer sales, I saw Jobs introduce a stunning array of products and life-altering ideas — things like typesetting fonts for the common man, the mouse and the computer/cell phone for the masses. Most people forget the Apple Newton, which started the whole PDA revolution and preceded the Palm Pilot.
I admired Christopher Hitchens for his intellect and sheer breadth of knowledge. His anthology of essays "And Yet . . . Essays" and "The Portable Atheist" are required reading in my book. I could listen to him speak for hours and not get bored. Hitchens made atheism respectable and fun. I was really sad to see him go so soon.
A quotation I like: "Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been." — David Bowie
These are a few of my favorite things: Flying, of course, and photography. My subjects are generally aviation-related and nature, mostly flowers. I make greeting cards, fine art and wall-size prints with my various Epson printers. I have won awards for my photography, and have been occasionally published, including in USA Today.
I recently took up guitar after a 40-year hiatus, and enjoy that immensely.
Despite not having kids, I absolutely adore them for their innocence and joy. The most enjoyable part of my job is giving cockpit tours to kids. One dad filmed his two kids getting a tour from me, and the YouTube video he posted has received over 25,000 views.
I am godfather to three wonderful kids.
I read a lot of books on atheism and freethinking. I also devour political coverage on TV (MSNBC, mainly) and on the web, with a fondness for state-church issues.
Like Sam Harris, I practice and find great value in meditation. I was attracted to Zen because of its totally nontheistic, nonspiritual and nonreligious approach to seeing the world as it is, without stories or filters. Zazen (seated meditation) is a liberating practice because nothing that arises in your mind during those 30 minutes of silence is judged bad or good. By simply observing and releasing what arises without judgment, our unending torrent of random thoughts gradually loses its grip on us. What is left is the inherent kindness in reality, or what is actually going on.
These are not: Creationists, fundamentalists of any stripe, authoritarians, but above all else, people who don't use reason to reach conclusions and who remain rigid in their thought process. Birthers and climate change deniers rank right up there.
My doubts about religion started: Pretty early. I remember asking my mom in third grade about a Jewish classmate of mine. I asked if he was going to hell because he didn't believe in Jesus. When she said yes, something shifted for me at a very deep level. There was no reason why Howard should go to hell just because he was Jewish. He hadn't done anything wrong! He was a wonderful kid!
From then on the contradictions just kept growing, like barnacles on the underside of a ship. The home stretch began when I read "Who Wrote the Bible?," by Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor at San Diego State University. That's where I learned about real biblical scholarship. It absolutely blew my mind.
Before I die: Have kids late in life like Larry King?
Ways I promote freethought: As often as I can, I mention I'm an atheist, and I have a small group of freethinkers in the pilot group I correspond with.
As we all know, it's not always the best course of action to bring up lack of belief because of people's deep fears and misconceptions. I really try and keep it out of the cockpit because I wouldn't want the other pilot to rattle on about their Mormonism or fundamentalist beliefs.
I find the best way is to throw out nuggets every so often, and use humor as often as possible.
My cousin (who is on the ragged edges of faith already) knows I'm an atheist but had never heard about Elisha and the bears in 2 Kings. As I was telling the story, I said something like, "Elisha was being teased about his bald head by some 8-year-olds, so what was his only option? He picked up the Bat-Phone and told God to take care of those merciless kids. Pronto!" The moment I said "Bat-Phone" she broke out into one of those uncontrollable, unstoppable bouts of laughter, which caused me to join in. We haven't laughed together that hard in years. I'm pretty sure she will never forget Elisha and the bears!
Freethinking activist Justin Scott has been busy these past few months. As we noted in January's Freethought Today, Scott met with all the then-candidates for president at various town hall meetings in Iowa. Since then, he has given a secular invocation (see transcript on page 21) and was able to get Iowa City to proclaim a Day of Reason.
Scott says that Iowa City is the third city in Iowa to accept a Day of Reason proclamation. The others were Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.
Scott sent out emails to 28 cities asking them for a Day of Reason proclamation.
"There have been a handful of cities that have refused to issue this proclamation with very little reason, without stating the specific reason, although they informed me that they have no actual procedure in place for proclamation requests," Scott said. "One mayor told me they 'don't want to stick their neck out there,' another told me they 'only like to work out of their comfort zone' on issues, and another told me that they would only issue this proclamation if '20 or so other cities did it first' because their city doesn't want to be the only one to do it."
Scott said Davenport has been one of the most difficult to work with, even though the city has had Days of Reason in 2008 and 2011.
"I finally spoke to the mayor on the phone, after not responding to me for nearly a month," Scott said. "His initial hesitation was whether or not the proclamation had to include the word 'atheist' and that because two out of the 10 council members objected to it, the proclamation was considered 'controversial' and 'would require a majority vote of support' from the council. One Davenport council member even suggested that next year I collect signatures in support of my proclamation despite the fact that the city clerk, who has worked in the office for nearly 30 years, advised me that no other group has ever had to collect signatures to have a proclamation be issued."
Only 53% of Americans now say religion is very important in their lives, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
This figure has declined since 2007, when 56% said religion was very important in their lives. Americans are in the middle in terms of importance of religion when compared with people from other countries.
The share of Americans who say religion is very important is close to the global median of respondents who say this in a separate Pew survey.
U.S. residents place less importance on religion in their lives than do people in a many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Almost all Ethiopians (98%), Senegalese (97%) and Indonesians (95%) say religion is very important, as do most Nigerians (88%), Filipinos (87%) and Indians (80%).
Meanwhile, religion is considerably more important to Americans than to residents of many other Western and European countries, as well as other advanced economy nations, such as Japan.
Metro areas less religious
Nearly 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians. But some of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas have a very different look.
Only about half of the residents in the Seattle (52%) and San Francisco (48%) areas identify as Christians, as well as less than 60% of those living in Boston (57%) and New York (59%).
The Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study looked at the religious affiliations of Americans overall as well as those in all 50 states and the 17 largest metropolitan areas in the country. While Christians make up between 65% and 75% of adults in most of those metro areas — and people with no religious affiliation generally make up roughly 20-25% of the population — some cities stand out.
Seattle, San Francisco and Boston are notable not only because they have relatively few Christians, but also for their considerable populations of religious "nones" (atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular"). A third or more of people in each of those metropolitan areas (37% in Seattle, 35% in San Francisco and 33% in Boston) are religious "nones."
How religious is your state?
Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states are among the most highly religious states in the U.S., while New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine are among the least devout, according to Pew's Religious Landscape Study.
Pew used four common measures of religious observance: worship attendance, prayer frequency, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one's life.
What does it mean to be "highly religious"? In Pew's analysis, it includes any adult who reports at least two of those four highly observant behaviors, while also not reporting a low level of religious observance in any of these areas, such as seldom or never attending religious services, seldom or never praying, not believing in God and saying that religion is "not too" or "not at all" important in their life.
Islam vs. government
The Muslim world is sharply divided on what the relationship should be between the tenets of Islam and the laws of governments. Across 10 countries with significant Muslim populations surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2015, there is a striking difference in the extent to which people think the Quran should influence their nation's laws.
In Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Malaysia and Senegal, roughly half or more of the full population says that laws in their country should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. By contrast, in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Lebanon and Indonesia, less than a quarter agree. And in many of these countries where non-Muslims make up a significant portion of the population, there are strong disagreements between major religious groups on this issue.
For example, a 42% plurality of Nigerians think laws should not be influenced by the Quran, while 27% think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, among Nigerian Muslims, 52% say national laws should conform to Islamic law, compared with only 2% among Nigerian Christians.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with the American Humanist Association, filed suit against the city of Pensacola, Fla., to challenge a 25-foot-tall Christian cross in a public park.
According to the lawsuit filed May 4, the white Christian cross dominates Bayview Park, where it is maintained by the city. The cross is also the site of numerous Easter Sunrise services, frequently co-hosted by Christian churches. A plaque specifically referencing Easter sits at the base of a platform near the cross.
"There are tax-free churches throughout Pensacola where this pinnacle symbol of Christianity may be appropriately displayed," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
"But when a city park serving all citizens — nonreligious, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — contains a towering Latin cross, this sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians, and a corresponding message to Christians that they are favored citizens."
But not everyone understands this.
Florida state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a candidate for the U.S. House, wrote an op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal on May 15.
"We need leadership in Washington that understands America is a Christian nation founded on Christian values," an ill-informed Gaetz writes. "I hope you will join me in praying for the courts to make the right decision and dismiss the lawsuit."
Gaetz also seems to think that majority rule should trump the Constitution.
"The extremist groups that filed this lawsuit . . . as well as liberal Amanda Kondrat'yev, who is running [against Gaetz] for the 1st Congressional District, make a mockery of the right to religious freedom. They do not share the values of Northwest Florida."
Kondrat'yev is one of the four individual plaintiffs in the suit. Gaetz has challenged her to a debate over the cross. No date has been set.
"The way I see it, having a cross in a park that's supposed to be for everybody is obviously showing preference to one religion over another," Kondrat'yev writes. "If it were a satanic symbol or a Muslim symbol, they would be livid. . . . The cross towers above the trees and it's a clear violation of our constitutional rights. My grandfather and father are both U.S. military veterans, and this is not what they fought for at all."
The Pensacola News Journal itself took a stand against the lawsuit, using bizarre logic in its editorial on May 6.
"The Bayview Cross is not a government endorsement of religion," the editorial states. "It's simply there, and that's why it ought to be left alone."
But Brian Curtis, who commented on the online article, called the newspaper on its faulty reasoning.
"We'll see a good demonstration of just how religious it is as soon as the suggestion is made to take it down," he writes. "Suddenly the air will be filled with cries of 'war on Christianity!'"
For at least the past 15 years, the city has received requests from citizens to remove the cross. In July 2015, FFRF and AHA sent warnings to the city that the public display and maintenance of the cross was a form of religious endorsement by the government. The city did not respond to these complaints. The local plaintiffs are nonbelievers who feel marginalized and excluded by their government's display of a large Christian symbol.
The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, asks the court to declare that the Bayview cross is unconstitutional. It also asks the court to require the city to remove the Bayview Cross and to prohibit displaying Christian crosses on public land in the future.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.
The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.
The case of a Ten Commandments monument on school property is back in court.
A three-judge panel in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on May 19 heard oral arguments in a challenge to the monument in front of a high school in the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pennsylvania.
FFRF and Marie Schaub, who is a parent of a student, appealed a district court decision last year ruling they didn't have standing to bring the case against the district. But now her daughter is in high school, so it is likely that standing will be granted in the case.
"I believe so, and the district would have a decision to make," district lawyer Anthony Sanchez told the panel, as reported by Brian Bowling of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
In its brief, FFRF points out that the plaintiffs were forced either to have "contact with an unwelcome religious exercise" or assume the burden of avoiding such contact. The plaintiffs had encountered the 6-foot, 2,000-pound monolith while attending school events prior to enrollment. Schaub ultimately refused to enroll her child at the high school because of the prominent monument in front of the school.
"Parents and students who have been injured by a school's religious practices must have access to the courts," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We look forward to this case proceeding so that the school will be welcoming to nonreligious students."
Bowling reports that Superintendent John Pallone, an alumnus of Valley High School (now Valley Junior-Senior High School), said he "probably walked by the monument twice daily as a student and frequently since then as a school official." Despite the substantial size of the monument, Pallone embarrassingly called it "innocuous."
"Until this lawsuit was filed, I never even knew that monument was there," Pallone said. "It's so innocuous that I can't even believe that there's an issue about that monument."
Last year, a similar federal court challenge by FFRF and local parents and students ended with a court decision in FFRF's favor and removal of an identical Ten Commandments monument from a junior high school in nearby Connellsville Area School District.
Schaub will be speaking about this case at FFRF's annual convention, held Oct. 7-9, in Pittsburgh.
FFRF has once again received a stellar assessment from the country's premier nonprofit charity rating organization.
For the sixth consecutive year, FFRF has gotten four stars, the highest ranking from Charity Navigator in its just-released annual survey. Four stars indicate that the state/church watchdog organization is collecting and spending donation money in an exemplary way.
FFRF scores very well as compared to its peers in a number of categories. In the Human and Civil Rights category, for instance, it has an overall score of 97.17, much higher than the average. Its revenue growth and program growth are three times the average, as is its net revenue for the year.
Similarly, in the Advocacy and Education category, FFRF's overall score of 97.17 is once more much higher than the average. Its revenue and program growth are again three times the average.
And FFRF does superbly in comparison to other charities based in its home state, since its overall score is way higher than the Wisconsin average. And still again, its revenue growth and program growth are many times that of its peers.
In other key areas, its numbers are lower (better) than its fellow nonprofits. Its CEO compensation is tens of thousands of dollars less than that for its counterparts in all three categories. Its fundraising expenses as a portion of its budget are a tiny fraction of the average.
"Charity Navigator issues the gold standard of nonprofit ratings, and so we are delighted that we've been rated 24 karat," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
"This sends an important message to all our members and donors that their donations are going to work for intended purposes and not for fundraising bells and whistles," Barker added.