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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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FFRF state/church victories

District to stop showing religious films

FFRF has convinced a Texas school district to take a harder stance against showing Christian propaganda and anti-evolution movies to students.

In Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, two teachers showed their students questionable films. In a ninth-grade health class, an instructor screened "God's Not Dead," a movie blatantly Christian and proselytizing in nature. And in a ninth-grade science class, another teacher, remarking to his students that he didn't believe in evolution, played "Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed," an intelligent design propaganda work that the New York Times described as "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."

FFRF contacted the Central Heights Independent School District in May to alert school officials that the teachers were out of line. FFRF received a letter stating that district staff members will be trained on First Amendment issues to educate them better on the separation of state and church.

Lord's Prayer removed from ceremony

A long-standing tradition of reciting or singing the Lord's Prayer at Ohio's East Liverpool High School's graduation ceremony has been corrected.

A complainant informed FFRF that the prayer has been recited at graduation for the past 70 years. In 2015, the school choir sang the prayer as part of the event's program.

"It is wholly inappropriate to put on performances of songs of worship in a public school setting," said FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district. "The song has a devotional, biblical message, and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school. There are a multitude of secular songs that would be far more appropriate."

The Board of Education president shared his view with a news reporter in May. "When I was first on this board I expressed a concern about us singing. The comment made was that 'we know we are breaking the law, we will do it until we get caught.' Well, ladies and gentlemen, we got caught."

On May 16, the superintendent told FFRF that the prayer would not be included in this year's ceremony. Although the valedictorian then led the prayer of his own accord, the prayer was not school-sanctioned or on the ceremony program.

Apology given for denial of service

A regional freethinkers group has received an apology for discriminatory denial of services during a recent protest at a religious theme park after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

On June 30, Five Star Septic and Portable Toilet Rentals agreed to send portable toilets to a July 7 demonstration against the Ark Encounter park put on by the Tri-State Freethinkers. But when the company's office called Tri-State Freethinkers to get directions to the site, it asked whether the portable toilets were for the protest. Upon learning that they were, the office denied service, indicating that this was partially because it did not want its name associated with the atheists' protest.

It is unlawful for legitimate businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion, FFRF contended in a formal letter of complaint.

With such short notice, Tri-State Freethinkers had to hastily organize a shuttle caravan to a nearby gas station for the nearly 200 attendees needing to use toilets.
Arwood Waste & Demolition, with which Five Star Septic has been a subcontractor, said sorry to Tri-State Freethinkers and made a pledge that the inappropriate behavior will not recur.

Email signature now in compliance

FFRF has persuaded an Ohio county commissioner to remove religion from her official email signature.

Crawford County Commissioner Jenny Vermillion used two inappropriate signature lines in her county email address. The first of these was a reference to an Old Testament verse, Jeremiah 1:5, along with the politically charged commentary "Choose LIFE!!" (The actual verse reads: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.") The second was a President Eisenhower quote that promotes religion and disparages atheists.

FFRF requested that Vermillion delete all these references from her email signature.

And she indeed did. In a terse but to-the-point letter a few days ago, Vermillion replied: "Dear Sir or Madame, It has been removed."

FFRF gets religion off of fishing team

The Cherokee County School District in Centre, Ala., has addressed several church/state violations occurring on the fishing team, after receiving a complaint from FFRF.

A concerned parent informed FFRF that the team's coach had shirts printed depicting an ichthys (Jesus fish) with a Christian cross inside. The school raised funds by selling the shirts, and students had to wear the shirts at competitions. The coach also encouraged students to pray and attend religious events.

The superintendent of the district called FFRF on June 26. He stated that the fishing coach "understands" her constitutional obligations and that the fishing team was approving new, religiously neutral competition shirts and that the problematic shirts would no longer be sold to the public.

Teacher won't show Christian film again

A physical education teacher in the Tattnall School District in Georgia will not show "Woodlawn" or other Christian films to his class again after hearing from FFRF.

The film was shown at Reedsville Middle School over two class periods. The movie, produced by a Christian film production company, follows a struggling football team that unites over faith to make a run at the playoffs. It features quotes such as "This is what happens when God shows up," and "I'm asking you to choose Jesus. Can you do that? Will you do that? Right now."

In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote, "When the district allows teachers to show Christian propaganda to middle school students, the district becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust."

The superintendent responded on July 5, saying that she had met with the relevant teachers and administrators and that the district would review its procedure for approving classroom-appropriate media.

Band won't return to Ark Encounter

Williamstown High School will not be returning to the newly opened Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel complained to the district on July 7 after the school's marching band performed at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Ark Encounter on July 5.

"There are . . . serious constitutional issues with public schools helping a private religious ministry to launch a park meant to convert people and collect a fair bit of money in the process," wrote Seidel. "It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham's Christian theme parks."

The attorney for Williamstown School District spoke with FFRF on July 18, stating that the there are no current plans for the band or any school group to visit the park in the future and that he would notify FFRF if any came up.

Proselytizing ends in school district

After an FFRF complaint, the Payson (Ariz.) Unified School District has directed teachers not to promote their personal religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF was notified of the situation by the parents of a local kindergarten student. The student had shared that his music teacher was telling the story of baby Jesus being born and that his homeroom teacher showed a movie about "baby God saving people" and that "he died doing it."

Multiple other issues were also addressed. The school promoted its winter concert with a flier that repeatedly referenced Christmas as "Christ"mas. Additionally, at the end of the concert, all of the teachers sang the hymn "Silent Night" on stage together.

On March 17, the district responded to FFRF that the principal had spoken to the music teacher and that they would amend future district-wide staff training to prevent teachers from promoting religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF sees end to school prayer club

Yucca Valley Elementary School in the Morongo Unified School District in California does not plan to continue its after-school prayer club.

FFRF received a complaint from a local parent that a fourth-grade teacher was leading a Good News Club in her classroom directly after school, having her daughters encourage other students to pray, and using a whiteboard in the staff lounge to advertise her search for finding a new club leader. Additionally, FFRF received reports of teachers participating in the National Day of Prayer at the "old flagpole" on campus. Good News Club is a Christian program for 5-12 year olds with various bible-related activities.

FFRF received a reply from the district's attorneys on July 14. They informed FFRF that the teacher in question was no longer an employee of the district and that administrators across the district had been informed of "the limitations imposed on district employees by the Constitution."

Coach prayers to end in Minneapolis

Athletic directors across the entire Minneapolis Public School District have been reminded not to lead, initiate, require or facilitate prayer with students at any school athletic events.

FFRF lodged its complaint with the district in response to reports that the North Community High School football coach regularly gathered the team for prayer and participated in the prayer.

After more than five months, FFRF finally received a reply. The district sent a memo to all building athletic directors reminding them of their constitutional obligations promised to address the issue at a district-wide preseason coaches meeting.

Jehovah's Witnesses won't be at post office

The United States Postal Service has responded to an FFRF complaint by promising to prevent Jehovah's Witness literature distribution at the Bay City Post Office in Texas.

A local complainant requested that FFRF take action to end the proselytizing practice. The Witnesses set up chairs, an umbrella and a stand with pamphlets next to the post office entrance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the situation as a violation of both postal regulations and the United States Constitution. She pointed out that regulations prohibit "tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type... on postal walkways, . . . driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces."

FFRF was notified on July 12 that postmaster of the Bay City Post Office has reviewed regulations and that the regulations "will be adhered to in the future."

City removes itself as ChristFest sponsor

The city of Muncie, Ind., is not listed as a sponsor of ChristFest 2016 after FFRF complained about sponsorship of the 2015 event.

ChristFest is an all-day event meant "to give praise, worship, and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ." It features "praise & worship teams, drama teams, and Christian comedians."

The event, which occurred on Aug. 15, 2015, at the Canan Commons, had the city of Muncie seal and the city's name listed as gold level event sponsors. Gold level sponsors must give a donation of at least $1,500.

"Even if the city of Muncie did not donate funds to ChristFest, it is improper to allow the city seal to appear on the ChristFest website," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the city.

The city replied that it had not given any money to the event and were already attempting to have the seal removed. The city's name and seal are no longer on the 2016 event website.

Church land transfers stopped for now

FFRF has persuaded a Tennessee county to stop giving away land to churches.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.

FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.

FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.

Shelby County heeded FFRF's advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF's letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.

Post office removes religious literature

The post office in Morristown, Tenn., removed its Sign of the Times magazine rack after FFRF complained to the postmaster.

The rack was placed just outside the building on the post office's property.
According to its website, the magazine "encourages readers to lead joyful Christian lives as they await the soon return of Jesus."

Seven weeks later, the postmaster replied that "an investigation was made" and that "proper steps were taken to remove the rack and signage from postal property.

FFRF has complained to other Tennessee post offices about Sign of the Times magazine racks, most recently in Harrison.

Nativity scene won't be redisplayed

The Porum Police Department in Oklahoma has agreed not to redisplay a nativity scene in front of the department's building.

The scene, erected on public property, was displayed in November 2015 and faced Main Street.

"Displaying an inherently Christian message unmistakably sends the message that Porum Police Department endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police chief.

After nearly six months, FFRF received a reply denying that the holiday display was solely a nativity scene but agreed not to display it in the future.

Publicly run hotel rids itself of bibles

Following an FFRF complaint, the Thunderbird Executive Inn in Arizona has removed the Gideon bibles that resided in all of its rooms.

The hotel is part of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, recently made a unit of Arizona State University. A concerned citizen contacted FFRF.

"Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion," explained FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. "Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading."

The hotel's director informed FFRF on July 19 that religious materials would be removed from guest rooms.

FFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded $10,000 in scholarship awards in memory of Catherine Fahringer to four students chosen by the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, an African-American atheist community-based group.

The scholarship is part of the First in the Family Humanist Scholarship program, which focuses on undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.

"We are excited and proud to offer these four students $2,500 each in the name of Catherine Fahringer," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Fahringer was a San Antonio feminist and freethinking activist who ran a long-lived FFRF chapter and served on the executive board for many years. She was especially interested in nurturing the next generation of freethinkers. She died in 2008.

Faith is something that has stayed on people's minds for millennia. Something about belief — belief in a higher power, belief in a superior leadership position, or belief in the environment itself — ensnares our minds.

I not only identify as a secular person but as an African-American, which brings into play two different cultural aspects that contrast with mainstream society's view of who is secular. Secular people are rarely seen in media as people of color, let alone a young black man raised by an African-American mother and a Nigerian-American father in a nonreligious household. One of the biggest lessons I learned while being raised in this secular household is to question everything. Everything was up for debate, even the idea of not believing in religion.

I was never convinced to personally believe in a religious system. Even so, exploring the significance of religious systems sparked my interest in the reasons why people decide to believe in a higher power, and the various ways people express their belief. These questions have kept me interested in learning about religion for years, and I incorporate these questions heavily in my fictional writing. Most of my fiction takes place in a unified fictional universe. A central conflict stems from debates about the differences between "good" and "bad" faith, how religion can be used to advance personal agendas and the influence of religion on the making of civilizations.

In my next few years at Amherst College, I plan on continuing to ask questions concerning religion and religion's role in peoples' lives. Creative writing will be a great outlet for this process, and I hope to publish the trilogy of Afro-Asian inspired fantasy novels that I am developing while I am in undergrad. I also want to give underprivileged students the opportunity to prove their scientific assumptions like I do and come to their own conclusions. I will attempt to achieve this through creating a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving STEM education of communities lacking in educational resources worldwide.

Kola graduated from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and will be attending Amherst College in the fall.

When you grow up in the Caribbean, there are certain traditions and teachings that no one is allowed to escape. From the way you dress to the food you eat to the number of times you attend church services, there is an explicit list of things you must do. Wrong!

Contrary to popular belief about atheists, freethinkers and other secular identifying persons like myself, I am not without faith. My faith, however, does not lie within an intangible, imaginative being who punishes, kills and loves at his/her discretion. It lies within the tangible and remarkably enigmatic and beautiful creation that are human beings. I believe in humankind.

I didn't identify as atheist or a freethinker until recently. In addition, I was also slow to self-identify because on top of being a "radical thinker" and an "anarchist," as my family has so courteously classified me, I am a black gay female. My life has been centered around criticisms just for thinking the way I do and being who I am. Now that I am older and more mature, I've come to the realization that these groups, these minorities, these cultures that I belong to, are empowering. A lot of the achievements and strides I have made are owed to the strength and support I have garnered from others like me.

I take pride in saying I'm a nonbeliever. I take pride in saying I'm black. I take pride in saying I'm a lesbian. I take pride in saying I'm a woman. I don't conform to societal norms, and that's OK.

As it stands right now, there is an enormous issue within the young colored LGBTQ community in Iowa. LGBTQ youth, colored youth and youth in general tend to struggle independently with self-acceptance, but from experience and observation, the magnitude to which self-love and acceptance becomes obscured is heightened when adequate resources and opportunities for support and connection are limited.

Iowa is a majority white state, with very low percentages of minorities. It also has a largely religious population. This causes many LGBTQ minorities to feel misplaced, misrepresented and underrepresented. What I want to do is to create an outreach in my community where young colored LGBTQ persons can participate in events that will grant them a sense of involvement. I want to use the principles behind humanism as my platform. Humanism proselytizes human equality and value, and that is something these youths need to be reminded of. It teaches us there is beauty in idiosyncrasy. I believe that I can and should be a beacon for change in this world, and that it begins at home.

Makeda will be attending the University of Iowa.

I remember the day that I told my family that I had doubts about religion. Doubts, not vehement opposition. Not affirmative rejection, not an outright refusal to participate in religious activities, but doubts. Reasonable doubts.

I told my family that I did not find it reasonable to have to accept without question any fact of life. Even before I finished telling them how I felt, I could feel the dynamic shift from one of love and warmth to outright rejection. After I saw what my mere expression of doubt could do, I was not the same.

I grew up in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, going three generations back to my great-grandmother. It didn't sit easy with me that I had to automatically accept an Earthly hierarchy connected to a mystic, ethereal creator. I didn't like the communal peer pressure to follow a preset life pattern, nor did I appreciate the full devotion to some texts, but lenience toward other beliefs. As I grew, I told myself that I owed it to my well-being and my conscience to not maintain this façade for the emotional comfort of those halfway vested in me. So I didn't.

The thing that affected me the most in my experience was the power of doubt and the importance of human experience. Religions are meant to be pre-ordered courses of life and explanations for real phenomena that better the believer. But when this goal actually materializes, the believer falls by the wayside, leaving an institution that only focuses on surviving. The institution does not care for the long-lasting well-being of the believer. Religion operates like a pharmaceutical company; it creates dependent customers rather than healthy, happy people. And the rejection I faced validates this claim.

For a while, I beat myself up over the emotional distance in the family. But I then realized that it was not my fault. I don't reject the religious mindset altogether, since the human race needs dialogue over experience. But in that same breath we need experience-based dialogue, not ideological ramblings. Civil rights have only progressed so far because we used the rationale "God created us with rights and made us equals" instead of "People are suffering and we must respect their struggles." We reached a legislative equality, which is only equality in theory, and thus felt that the fight was over. Experience says otherwise, and that should be valued more.

Humanism helped me to value myself and my experiences, and that is the only reason I need. It gave me confidence and it helped assuage my anxiety. It can do the same for others when they learn their true power is based on the sole fact that they exist. Humanism builds confidence, it fosters independence and it tells the disenfranchised exactly what they need to hear: that they matter.

Jorge graduated from Wichita High School and now attends Carleton College.

Discrimination is the one thing all religions have in common. Whether it's Christians against homosexuality or other religions discriminating against each other, all try to exclude people based off of something they cannot help. This is part of the reason I don't have a religion.

Having a religion is having faith in something that can't be proven or explained scientifically. While others choose to believe in "God," I choose to believe in myself and the tangible reasons for the things that happen in our lives. The greatest technological innovations, and basic everyday occurrences were not created by faith, but by things physically and scientifically seen and proven. Believing in anything more is not only irresponsible and unrealistic, but also dangerous. Religions create more problems than they could ever solve.

I live in a community where Caucasian Catholics are the norm. Living in one of the very few black households in the neighborhood, I have noticed many of my neighbors are either ignorant or inattentive to the issues of the black community. That is something I would like to change.

Many black issues, such as increasing incarceration rates, unequal pay and representation in companies and blatant racism, are being ignored due to the lack of awareness and support in my community. If we simply educated our communities, we would not only increase support in numbers, but also increase the support of races that objectify African-Americans. If those who commit the racist acts see their peers supporting black causes, point of views could change, racism and violence could end, and the world would be a better place.

I know it isn't that simple, but it is a place to start. By fixing discrimination and racism, we can fix the issues of today, and those to come.

The equality of all, no matter what race, sexual orientation or gender, is an ideology that should become part of our way of life. Humanism is a practice that could fully address social issues, and make the world stronger as a whole. It could eliminate all faults within our society economically, socially and politically. Black CEOs would be common, and women would get the same wages as men. There wouldn't be a need for the Black Lives Matter movement because everyone would know that all lives matter.

Humanism is the key to fixing us and making our society the best it can possibly be.

Sabria graduated from Milikan High School in Long Beach, Calif., and now attends UC-Berkeley.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 10 winners of the 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest for Students of Color.

Essayists were asked to write a personal persuasive essay about why they are a nonbeliever and their experiences as young nonbelievers of color.

Winners are listed below and include the award amount and the college or university they are attending. FFRF has paid out a total of $8,750 in award money for this contest.

First place
Nadia Duncan, SUNY Purchase College ($3,000)

Second place
Anuj Krishnamurthy, Brown University ($2,000)

Third place
Bahram Sherwani, San Francisco State University ($1,000)

Fourth place
Jonathan Azpeitia, Pomona College ($750)

Fifth place (tie)
Kamerin Winston, Spelman College ($500)

Fifth place (tie)
Tyneshia Griffin, Virginia Tech University ($500)

Sixth place
Benjamin Duru, California University–Long Beach ($400)

Honorable mentions ($200 each)
Ana Almeida-Rojo, Oglethorpe University
Taylor Johnson, SUNY at Purchase
Alexandra Lewis, East Carolina University

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979.

"It's a myth that most African-Americans, Latinos or Hispanic-Americans are uniformly religious," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "FFRF wants to showcase diversity and reward minorities in the freethought movement who are especially courageous in 'coming out of the closet.' "

The college contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.

I am an Unapologetic Black Atheist

FFRF awarded Nadia $3,000.

By Nadia Duncan

I used to call myself a "soft agnostic." It was a term I coined to try to be as inoffensive as possible in my hometown of Vienna, Va., while still remaining honest about my unenthusiastic attitude toward organized religious practice. People hear the word "atheist" and they recoil, as if it describes some sort of violent, dangerous iconoclast. But "agnostic" sounds tame. People hear "agnostic" and think, "Oh, there's still some hope for her." There isn't.

I've grown tired of being inoffensive. I can no longer pretend to subscribe to the rampant ignorance I see in my community. Therefore, I have claimed a new title: Unapologetic Black Atheist.

The church is a huge part of culture in the South, especially among black people. My grandparents' generation was raised in devout Christianity, and, through them, the teachings were passed down to me. As dubious as I was about their validity, I couldn't escape them. How ironic, considering Christianity came to many African tribes on the continent through the work of white Christian missionaries throughout the 19th century, people who considered African peoples to be no more than savages. Enslaved people of African descent in America were stripped of their native religions and forced to adopt the Christianity of their white oppressors, or risk punishment that could be as grave as death.

The same black Americans who understand and detest what white supremacy has done to their lives are worshipping in a practice that was forced upon their ancestors centuries earlier. In turn, they force it upon their children. People in my community give their money and their time to the church, and in return receive an indoctrination that compels them to hate other marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community. How can people who have experienced marginalization themselves be able to project it onto others so easily? The answer is painfully simple. Across cultures, religion is a tool of control.

The three major Abrahamic religions have all been used on many different occasions as tools to rally the masses and convince people to follow the will of God. Yet somehow, the word of God always seems to come from groups of men who have derived status and authority and intend to keep it. From the Crusades to the Westboro Baptist Church, to the conflicts over Palestine and the Holy Land that have lasted centuries, to Islamic extremism and violence across the Middle East, religious indoctrination has caused the death of millions of people throughout human history, all in the name of a faceless, chameleon God whose will aligns with the will of those who wish to control others.

I understand. People need comfort when the worst comes into their life. We want to feel accepted in communities of like-minded people. Religious centers can be places of healing and support for some. I get it. Human beings are naturally curious, and we seek solace from the fear of an inevitable death. We want to ascribe a meaning to our lives, to find a purpose; we want to be able to name the source from which we came. I don't condemn spirituality or the belief in greater forces outside of ourselves. But I do believe that morality comes from within, and not from a devotion to a series of religious practices, regardless of their origin. I believe that I can be a good person, a person of value, a black person, without claiming a religious affiliation. I am, and always will be, an Unapologetic Black Atheist.

Nadia, 18, from Vienna, Va., is a student of theatre and classical voice at SUNY Purchase College and will be a sophomore in the fall. Her interests include singing, acting, dance, creative writing and historical and not-so-historical reading.

We must save ourselves

FFRF awarded Anuj $2,000.

By Anuj Krishnamurthy

In recent years, "international development" has become a popular discipline in scholarly and diplomatic circles. Achieving sustainable growth in the developing world is, of course, one of the 21st century's toughest challenges. The World Bank estimates that more than 2 billion people in the developing world live on less than $3 a day; a third of the world's poorest live on the South Asian subcontinent, where my immigrant parents hail from.

Yet, while the obvious impediments to development — corruption, conflict, disease — have been examined exhaustively by academics, a particularly pernicious phenomenon has been overwhelmingly neglected: God, religion and all the associated accoutrements.

I am a freethinker of color because religiosity has proven an intractable hindrance to economic growth in developing countries. So long as religion remains humanity's preeminent mechanism of social control, I've come to believe that people of color all over the developing world will continue to suffer from material misery and spiritual starvation.

The summer before I entered college, I spent a month visiting family in central India. It had been five years since I'd last been there, and, as soon as I stepped out from the air-conditioned sanctuary of New Delhi's airport, I could immediately discern the new developments: more gleaming skyscrapers, more smartphones, more Western fast-food franchises. Yet, in seeming defiance of India's nascent capitalist tradition came something wholly unexpected: more houses of worship. I noticed it instantly — more orange flags perched atop Hindu mandirs and more ornate minarets guarding Muslim mosques.

I was perplexed: What role did ancient religions, often propagating backwards sentiments, have in a burgeoning economy? It is self-evidently absurd to expect the proliferation of temples to automatically rectify, or even alleviate, India's domestic troubles. In fact, the extravagance by which Indians celebrate their holy texts, statues of deities, and conceptions of heaven contrasts sharply with the realities on the ground. India's gods seem to merely watch as poverty, illiteracy and hunger continue to abound, unchecked and uncontested. Religion is far from empowering; it callously compels people to accept their present circumstances, however undesirable, and submissively hope for something better in the afterlife.

What most Indians — and most religious residents of the developing world, I imagine — fail to recognize is that God cannot miraculously imbue their lives with prosperity and happiness and relieve their sorrows. God cannot cure disease; only doctors can. God cannot teach children; only educators and parents can. God cannot improve democracy; only effective leaders can.

Indeed, the agents of any society's collective progress are not divine figures — they are people, people who reject the passivity of prayer and dare to make their dreams reality. Putting our faith in God to solve our problems, then, is tantamount to sheepishly shirking our civic duty. Individuals in any society have a robust obligation to participate in their communities, both commercially and politically.
To the adversaries of atheism and proponents of religion, I say this: Demanding progress from God isn't enough; we must realize the cornerstones of development — healthcare, education, good governance — for ourselves.

Religious fervor in India has also stymied development because it incubates excruciating sociopolitical disharmony. Each election year, embattled political parties pander to religious groups for votes, promising to bolster the standing of certain faiths at the expense of others. Political classes essentially hijack religion, rerouting devotees to serve their own ethically dubious interests. The result is irreconcilable interfaith dissensions, frequently manifested in violent Hindu-Muslim riots and acts of terrorism. Yet, just as there is no divine reward for civic complacency, there is no salvation in self-superior, religious politicking.

As a freethinker of color, I care deeply about my roots. Much of my family still lives in India, and I am genuinely invested in the vitality of India's government and economy. But I fear that religious obsession may upend the tremendous progress India has made.

The secular movement, thus, would do well to consider the identities and backgrounds of young people of color in its critique of religion. After all, the whole world does better when the developing world, long encumbered by unproductive religiosity and colonial exploitation, secures its own economic voice. Secular thinkers can help advance this noble project by incorporating communities of color and issues of development in their work.

Anuj, 18, lives in Monmouth Junction, N.J, and attends Brown University, where he intends to major in international relations and economics. His interests include volunteering at the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, playing pickup basketball, and playing the tabla, an Indian classical percussion instrument.

Raised to value science

FFRF awarded Bahram $1,000.

By Bahram Sherwani

I remember the day I began questioning. People across the nation were in shock as the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed. I was then an 8-year-old who went by "Zack," because somehow, even as a child, I knew that a name of Persian origin wouldn't be as welcome in the majority-Caucasian suburb where I resided. Regardless of this moniker, my heritage had eventually become known, and the effects of the anti-Muslim sentiment in this country haunted the rest of my younger years.

It wasn't long after those attacks that I felt the need to educate myself on the religion I was born into. I never understood why I was going to mosque a few times a year, why I couldn't eat pork, or why I was shown hate, even at a young age, for a belief that I never asked to believe in.

In this diverse nation, I was exposed to many other monotheist religions from my peers in school, Little League and Boy Scouts. Even in all of these traditionally American activities, I felt like I was considered an outsider by those around me, and a constant theme of exclusion rose from my rejections to their attempts of conversion to whatever faith they blindly followed. While discovering many outrageous descriptions of holy stories, choral worship songs and divine beliefs across multiple faiths, I realized that religion was never a choice for most people. Some found strength and comfort in submitting to their faith in a God, while others had only known and followed what their families have wanted them to. Some converts also chose to benefit from social inclusion aspects, and the support system a faith community usually provides. I seem to have been born with an understanding of logic, rather than a belief in blind faith.

I left Islam in my late teens after I had comfortably researched enough to understand the reasons people believe and the lack of evidence behind popular organized religions. Fortunately for me, my mother was a school teacher and my father was an air force captain in Afghanistan before escaping to the United States as refugees. Because of their higher levels of education, my parents kept an open mind on beliefs, and encouraged me in learning about anything I chose, especially in science-related fields. This is uncommon among immigrant Muslim families.

As a student raised to value science, where the indisputable evidence shows evolution, the lack of a geocentric universe, and the existence of predated stories of origin, I had no reason to believe in an all-powerful god that created these aspects of life. I had no reason to believe my life was dedicated to serving this deity, and that I'd be punished after death if I did not. As selfish as it seems, I made the choice to live for myself, to gather experiences, and to maybe one day change the world. Organized religion has changed the world in more negative ways than positive. I refuse to let an ancient text that contradicts itself and exerts power over people dictate how I live my life.

For all of my brothers currently in the Muslim faith, wondering if you should have to be apologetic for the crimes against humanity committed in the name of your religion: It is never too late to open your mind to a new way of thinking that is based on law, logically consistent theories and solid evidence. I challenge you to reject the certainty in your beliefs. As we continue in our destined path of discovery, I hope more people of color accept the proven ideas of science, and successfully escape beliefs that are responsible for many of the atrocities of this world.

As an agnostic, I personally don't deny the possibility of a god. But I can honestly say that there is much more evidence to disprove the existence of a being that provides society with hate, sickness and war. Science, law and love provide a good moral foundation. This is why I am a freethinker.

Bahram, 23, is studying political science at San Francisco State University in California. He is the youngest child of two refugee immigrants from Afghanistan who left everything in their war-broken country as a last attempt to secure a better future for their children. He grew up in the suburban vineyard town of Livermore, Calif. He hopes to finish school as a transfer student at San Diego State University, earning a degree in political science with a minor in economics. He enjoys playing with his dog Jake, writing music or watching informational videos.

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