Freethought Today · Vol. 25 No. 2 March 2008

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Is Atheism the New Black? Katha Pollitt

This speech was delivered at FFRF's 2007 annual convention on Oct. 12, 2007, at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, Madison, Wis. Listen to the audio version.

By Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt, author of Learning to Drive
and columnist for the Nation
Photo by Brent Nicastro

We cannot be top country if we let science and education be run by people who think that dinosaurs drowned in Noah's flood.

It's such a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much, Freedom From Religion Foundation, for having me, and Annie Laurie for sending me multiple copies of all the complicated arrangements, and Prof. Kimbrough for driving me around and waiting for me as I did my various things, and everyone, old faces and new, for coming out tonight to show our strength. I just want to say how wonderful it was to hear that beautiful song, "Die Gedanken Sind Frei," which I grew up with. And do you know where I learned all three verses of that song? In communist summer camp. So, that tells you something about how free freethought can sometimes be or not be, and how things are complicated.

I decided I would do something that I almost never do. I would try to give an optimistic speech. That is why I chose as my title, "Is Atheism the New Black?" I thought, well, black is fashionable, OK, good. And Natalie Angier e-mailed me. She said: "Oh, I love your title! What are you going to say?" Oh, OK, better think about that. So I put out a call on a feminist journalists' e-mail list, and I said, "I want to argue that we've had a lot of secular successes recently. The tide is really turning. What do you think?"

Well. "I come from the buckle on the Texas bible belt," one person wrote. "Those people will never change." Another person wrote: "Secularism? Hah."

Never mind them. I had to make up all the optimistic things on my own. I am going to be positive here tonight, but I'm also going to raise some questions. For years we've been told that Americans are one of the most religious people on the planet, if not the most religious. Now, I tend to be skeptical of surveys, especially on messy and intangible things like belief or happiness. Some of you may have seen this new study on happiness: Who is happier, men or women? According to these particular experts, women used to be happier; now men are happier. They did this survey in this weird way. (This is a digression, but it's quite amusing and bizarre.) They asked people to go through their day and decide how happy they felt while doing each of their usual tasks. How happy are you when you do the laundry? How happy are you when you're washing the dishes? How happy are you when you're visiting your parents? Overall, men came out as happier doing or, often, not doing these things.


But in my opinion you can't tell how happy somebody is by adding up all those little moments, because at the end of the day, someone who has had the dishwashing, laundry, parent-visiting experience might still have some fabulous moment of joy that would outweigh all that. And maybe the person who comes out happier on the survey is also more dull and boring. Maybe they just feel less overall. They don't have so much exciting emotional variation in their lives. You can't really measure those possibilities, because emotions are not commensurable from person to person.

Belief is another one of those mysterious, unmeasurable things that surveys try to measure--even if we leave out deceptive answers, of which I'll bet there are many. I have to confess I lie all the time on surveys, and I even lie on surveys that no one else will see, like the ones that you can take on the Internet about your health practices to tell you how long you're going to live. I always say I exercise. In fact, I never exercise. I just never do! I lie to myself. No one else is going to see it. Why do I do that? Because it just looks so horrible to put it down in cold print: "I never exercise." You feel like you're going to die tomorrow.

I suspect that with religious belief, it's not so clear what people mean by their answers. For example, I think sometimes people give what they think is the socially appropriate response, the religious equivalent of "I exercise every day." In fact, I think this is what most people do most of the time on just about every question. Or they say what they wished they thought: "Gee, I wish I believed in God. OK, I'll say I do." Or they don't care. Or they're giving the answer they think a "good" person would give. They don't want to be a "bad" person, and they think a "good" person, a moral person, is a religious person, so they think they'll get moral points if they say they believe in God. Or none of the choices expresses how they really feel. This happens to me all the time. Or they're afraid someone in authority, like "up there," is reading their responses. They'd better say they believe in Him, just in case He exists.

Surveys don't measure intensity, either. My grandmother believed that probably there is a guiding intelligence behind it all. We don't really know what it is, but something's there, and that was enough for her. She would not have called herself an atheist, and I don't know if she would count as an agnostic, either. She positively believed in something that she couldn't define or explain. I think a lot of people are like that. So, on the one hand, there are a lot of people like her, and then there's the pope, or James Dobson, with very specific beliefs that correspond moreover to--and this is where secularism comes into it--a very specific set of laws and social practices that they want to foist on everybody.

But on many surveys of religious belief, Ralph Waldo Emerson and a Unitarian and a fundamentalist Mormon and the pope would all come out much the same. I don't accept that slippery-slope idea that if there's a little bit of belief, before you know it, you're a Jesuit, or you're marrying ten women in Hillsdale, Ariz. I think to say that in a way is like saying, "Oh, so you're for national healthcare. That makes you a socialist, which makes you a Stalinist." We have to be able to stop ourselves on our slippery slope or everybody will end up down there at the bottom.

Be that as it may, something is definitely happening in American culture, and I think it's very positive. I don't care what my friends on the feminist e-mail list think. After decades of being rebuked and scorned and generally considered weird and ridiculous and unAmerican--let's not forget that, that's very important--secularism is on the rise. Most of the surveys of religious identification show big increases in the number of Americans who identify as agnostics, atheists, antitheists, or without religion, from 8.4% in 1990 to 15% in 2001. I'm sure it's higher since. That's according to the CUNY American Religious Identification survey. And other surveys have found similar increases. According to the Financial Times Harris poll, 18% of Americans describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. That's about one in six Americans. And 73% affirm belief in God or a supreme being. So when you set it up like that, there are more atheists or agnostics in America than Episcopalians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and a whole lot of other small religions put together. There are nonbelievers all over. Even in Congress, where representative Pete Stark has come out as an atheist. He is the only one so far to be so brave and public, but I'm sure there are others, and maybe someday we'll find out who they are.

I want to talk a bit about some of our victories. You open your newspaper and read much evidence of the power of organized religion and of "faith" generally, but actually, things are going our way in many important respects. Not only are there more of us than we are given credit for, we have been mobilizing, organizing, and fighting back. We have our own organizations: the ACLU, which is way up in membership since Bush took over, People for the American Way, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and of course, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. On a more personal note, The Nation magazine's circulation has gone way up. What's bad for the country is good for the magazine, because then people feel they should read it.

The tougher it gets, the more people think, "I should join this organization and give them my $25."


We've had some big legal successes, and I just want to mention them, even though they'll be familiar to most of you. The Dover school board case was a huge victory, basically the end for creationism in the schools. In this case, creationists on the school board said, "We're going to put creationism in the classroom," and it was the local people who said, "No, no, we don't want to do that." This happened in an ordinary small town in Pennsylvania. There was a similar rebellion in Kansas, too, when the creationists took over the state school board. You can only push local people so far. People want their children to be educated. I'll get into that in a little bit, about why that is.

Another success, following the Dover case, was in Cobb County, Ga., where the school board agreed to drop its evolution disclaimer stickers from biology textbooks. This is really great. On the school board cases, we're getting to the point that the ACLU just has to say, "I'm going to sue you," and they'll say, "OK, never mind, forget it." Next, the federal court blocked Louisiana from funneling taxpayer funds to favored churches. (This measure was signed, unfortunately, by then-Democratic Gov. Katherine Blanco, which shows Republicans aren't the only villains in the story).

As Phyllis Rose was telling me today, even when the ultimate verdict goes against us, as in Freedom From Religion's wonderful lawsuit challenging the faith-based offices at the White House, it shows people what's at stake. It shows people what the issues are and that people are fighting back, and then more people fight back. I understand that hundreds of new people signed up with the Freedom From Religion Foundation because of that case. So it shows you that faith-based government offices are very controversial, among other things.

More victories? In my own state, New York, under our new governor, Elliot Spitzer, the Catholic Church will have to cover contraceptives in its healthcare plans if it covers drugs at all. That's been upheld in all the courts. They have been fighting this for decades. So that's important.

And then, there are cases where you feel the wind moving in your direction--is that a sailing metaphor? In Connecticut, in advance of a law that would require them to do so, Catholic hospitals have said, "OK, we will now offer emergency contraception to rape victims." They were going to be forced to do it, and they decided they would do it voluntarily. And their rationale was interesting, because what they said was, "Well, we've looked again at all the evidence about emergency contraception"--which as you probably all know is not a form of abortion, it is essentially two birth-control pills instead of one birth-control pill--"and actually, we're not so sure about this evidence. We're not sure enough to say that it's intrinsically evil." That's a theological term.

I want to mention a case I really love. [holding up Freethought Today] "Indiana Eliminates State Chaplain Post." This is so amazing, this is a big, major legal victory for FFRF! This is so great! Here Indiana thought, "Oh sure, let's have a state chaplain for people on the state payroll, just in case they have a theological problem." They felt things had gone far enough in the faith-based direction that they could do that. But then FFRF comes along and it wins. So we are really having a lot of victories, and it shows that if you fight back, sometimes you win.

We've also had some very big successes in the information department. I persist in believing, against a lot of evidence, that facts make a difference. So it's a triumph that numerous studies show that abstinence-only education, which is a huge, covertly religious industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, doesn't prevent teens from having sex. There's really no difference in behavior afterward. All abstinence-only sex ed does is make it somewhat less likely that teens use protection. It's very interesting how the pro-abstinence-only people deal with this information. They say, "Well, it's too soon to tell." It's always too soon to tell. When will it not be too soon to tell?

Virginity pledges are another popular faith-based antidote to teen sex. Studies show they don't work either. Do you all know what the Silver Ring Thing is? It's come to a lot of schools. The student gets a silver ring in a cool ceremony: the ring symbolizes her, or his, pledge to shun sex before marriage. The whole event is pitched in a teen-friendly way, down to calling it a "thing," as in "whatever!," and offering kids a pretty piece of jewelry. I'm happy to say that the Silver Ring Thing has been kicked out of some schools because of its explicitly Christian language.

There's been a lot of publicity about the Bush administration's attempt to conceal or remove from government websites politically inconvenient scientific information across the board, whether it's about global warming or the lack of connection between abortion and breast cancer, which is a myth that keeps cropping up on the antichoice side. The misinformation damages while it lasts, but the challenge to it adds to our credibility. We're not using the power of the state to push propaganda and falsity. The other side is doing that.

Now, I want to mention, we've had a huge run at the bookstore. Atheism really is hot! Books arguing the atheist position have hit the bestseller list: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, we have Christopher Hitchens here, and Mr. Dennett, and I want to mention that agnosticism is also hot. I recommend to you all a wonderful book by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History. Ronald Aronson wrote a good piece in The Nation recently, called "The New Atheist." He made the rather cynical point that we need to be careful about generalizing from book sales, because most Americans don't buy books, or indeed read them, and those who do either are better educated than the general population. So you can't go too far with this. But still, it's a very promising development.

It's especially promising when you consider how timid the media have been about challenging religious dogma and the notion that "here we are, we're all religious!" Think, for example, about the covers of TIME and Newsweek. The Virgin Mary shows up constantly--she's probably their most popular cover woman: "The new Mary, new facts about Mary, it's Christmas again." I'm sure they promote religion because they figure it sells magazines, but maybe something else might sell a magazine or two! You never know. Anyway, they're supposed to be newsweeklies, not religious propaganda weeklies.

Another set of victories I want to mention: our victories in the scandal wars. Which side is more immoral, us or them? It's an age-old question. Now, the Christian right still insists on Bill Clinton as the worst husband in American history. Not only was he a terrible husband, just really evil, his satanic influence is responsible for everything bad that has happened since Bush took over the White House. You'd never know he's been out of office for seven years!

For a while, blaming Bill Clinton was effective. It's wearing a little thin now. It's been a long time! And I love it, too, I have to say by way of parentheses, that when the Republicans came in, it was going to be "the grown-ups are back." Remember? And what about that personal responsibility they claimed Bill Clinton always shirked? Why don't they take a little responsibility for the total mess they've made of the country? No, it's still Bill Clinton's fault.

Anyway, there's been a lot of immoral water under the bridge since Bill. We have Rush Limbaugh and oxycontin; we have William Bennett and gambling; and then we have Mark Foley, David Vitter, Ted Haggard, and--building to a kind of a weird crescendo--the truly bizarre case of Larry Craig. Whom I feel very sorry for. In fact, I feel sorry for all these people, and if they weren't rightwing religious hypocrites I would feel even sorrier for them. But even though they're hypocrites, I do feel sorry for them. I'm just glad that all these scandals happened, for crass political reasons.

There has been a truly spectacular group of Republican Christian hypocrites parading across the news. And in the background is the ongoing scandal of priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church. It has seriously damaged the moral authority of the church. I have a friend who's a Catholic and he said, "What will people think now when they look at a priest?" He's right.

For the moment the scandal wars are going our way, but since we all are fallen sinners, we can't count on that continuing. If Americans are as devout as they claim to be, with 75% or 85% still saying that they believe in God, what is happening now is all the more fascinating and significant. What does it mean? I don't think it means that large numbers of Americans have suddenly seen the godless light. The religious right is still there. Large swaths of the country are still very deeply believing. If you drive around in the South, you'll see one billboard after another with pictures of fetuses saying "Please don't kill me." There are advertisements for churches everywhere, and that's just the way people live. Beyond the hardcore, devout believers, I think most people continue to have the messy mix of views that many of us have about many subjects. People are not very consistent. I explore that in my new book, Learning to Drive. Not everybody's so happy with the revelations of inconsistency, but that's the way people are, and I think probably they always will be that way.

But this new activism and outspokenness does show something very important. What it shows, I think, is that a lot of people have just had it. They have just had it with the Christian right.

Terri Schiavo, I think, was a huge moment when everybody got to look at what it meant to have the government placating the religious base of the Republican Christian right, invading the most awful private family moments. It was disgraceful when Congress got involved. A lot of people in Congress, who then later thought better of it, went along because they were scared. And then it turned out, lo and behold, the American people, who have more common sense sometimes than the people who govern them, said, "This is horrible. I hate this. Make these people go away. Leave this family alone." I think that was a wake-up call. For a moment it looked as if it would be a big victory for religion in government. They were even talking about changing laws so that any member of a family who wanted to say, "I will take this brain-dead person and care for them forever," could win. There were all kinds of ways that they were thinking of changing the law. None of it happened. The people who were in favor of it at the time have walked away from that. We had Senator Frist, who now claims he no longer remembers what his position was. He's forgotten all about Terri Schiavo. At the time, he was the one who said, "I'm a doctor, I've never examined the patient, but I just know she's fine. She's just tired." I'm sorry, I shouldn't be mean. It was all very tragic. But that's what happens when things like that become huge causes celebres. It brings out everybody's mean side, doesn't it? Including mine.

Another important issue is pharmacists refusing to fill birth control and emergency contraception prescriptions. There have been numerous cases of this around the country, and there's been a lot of publicity about it: excellent articles, letters to the editor, op-eds, some by women who have been put in the humiliating position of presenting their prescription to the pharmacist and having him or her say, "No, I'm sorry, I'm not going to prescribe this fetus poison to you, you immoral slut."

I think a lot of people were on the pharmacists' side at first, on simple conscience grounds: they shouldn't be forced to violate their beliefs. But now people are beginning to see where this leads. Because, while people shouldn't have to do things that they think are wrong, if their job involves doing things that they think are wrong, maybe they need to find another line of work! The idea that you could just become a pharmacist or become a nurse or become a doctor and then refuse to prescribe and treat your patients according to modern medicine is fairly fantastic. A lot of women do feel as though, "Does getting my prescriptions filled depend on the luck of the draw? Like, if Bob is on duty at the drugstore I don't get my emergency contraception and I have to wait for Sarah to come on duty?" People are waking up as the Christian right goes too, too, too far.

I think it might be in this very room that I said several years ago . . . I mean, it wasn't this room, it was a different room, but spiritually, except . . . or nonspiritually [audience laughter]. . . it was this very room. We were all together, in any case, wherever we were. I said that the Christian right was a self-limiting phenomenon. The fact is, it does go against the main currents of modernity, which include science, individualism, women's rights, and family planning. Rightwing Christianity is a response to certain failures in modern American life--to poverty, to social and cultural isolation, which breeds chauvinism and resentment of the sort described very well by Tom Frank in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas? And also to the lack of social services and other cultural outlets. There are large parts of the country where, if you need daycare, if you need help with food, you go to the church, and there's nothing else to do for fun except go to church. That is the entertainment for people. Some churches are very good at having wonderful music and all the rest, and there's not a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar in a lot of America.

So there are a lot of what you call "rice Christians" out there. Rice Christians were Chinese who converted to Christianity because the missionaries would give them rice. They didn't really convert, they just went through the motions. I think there are a lot of conservative christians today who are like that--they're in it for the daycare, the help finding jobs, the kids' programs. If secular society did a better job of taking care of people, the churches would be less popular. I think that is why there is a lot less religion in Europe than there is here. In Europe they have a lot more social solidarity, and society takes better care of the vulnerable. In this country, it's devil take the hindmost. So God takes the hindmost.

For a lot of people, too, I think religion is a recovery movement. It's how people protect themselves from drugs and alcohol and other compulsions that are part of modern life. It's how they stay married when they really need to stay married and they maybe kinda don't want to but they have to. And finally, it appeals to parents who feel--not without reason, I have to say--that their children are growing up unprotected in a harsh, vulgar, and commercially predatory world.

So, in other words, rightwing Christianity is fundamentally political: it's connected to our downwardly mobile, dog-eat-dog capitalism and rapid social change, and also to the lack of other large, hopeful, welcoming alternative beliefs. In Learning to Drive, I talk about my parents and their communism, how similar in some ways being in the communist party was to Christianity. In both cases, someone is really interested in everything you do. It could be History, it could be God. Everything you do is important. Everything is a big moral decision. That's very exciting. Most people don't get to feel that way. Both communism and Christianity share a belief in progress, that life moves toward a goal. They both hold that the way we live is intrinsically involved with issues of morality. Both issue a big trumpet call to the serious side of a person. But they also set you up. That beautiful, stirring trumpet call sends you up the garden path.

For all these reasons, conservative Christianity appeals to certain kinds of people, of whom there are many. It will not disappear anytime soon, no matter how many rational arguments we make, nor will any other kind of Christianity, because people aren't rational. However, by the same token, this account of the appeal of conservative religion explains why it is limited, and why--this is my hopeful speech--its growth may have peaked. Ultimately, the United States has to make its way in the modern world. That's the only world there is. Our modern global economy runs on knowledge, on science, on innovation, and competition. We cannot be top country if we let science and education be run by people who think the dinosaurs drowned in Noah's flood. We can't be in the forefront of biotechnology, an enormous industry, and medicine, if the federal government bans funding stem-cell research to please a religious minority in order to win votes on election day--which is really all it's about. Other countries will do that research. They will find the cures, they will get the patents, they will generate the jobs and the profits. That is why sensible states like California, Maryland, and New Jersey are now competing with each other to fund stem-cell research, because one way or another, that research has got to get done. And you can forget health and all the altruistic reasons why this research needs to be done. Enormous sums of money are at stake here, and this is a capitalist country. And I don't think you can have a successful capitalist country that is also run by religious fundamentalists. Those things just don't go together.

Now perhaps you're thinking that my materialist analysis is a little over-optimistic. So let's try this one instead: The Christian right is really annoying! As I've said, if you aren't actually in the Christian right, you probably really don't like the Christian right. Americans are a moralistic people and they always have been. This is a deep feature of our problematic and contradictory national character. But although we like to tell other people what to do, we don't like people telling us what to do and how to live. We like to have civic religion, maybe even rather a lot of civic religion. Certainly too much for Michael Newdow. I think that "under God" and all that is fine with most people. Even if they don't believe in God, they don't care. That kind of religion is all bound up with notions of patriotism, decency, conformity, and virtue. But when public religion gets too sectarian and too hard-hitting and coercive and invasive and really goes for the details of how people live, people start to say, "Enough is enough." I think that's what's happening now.

I'll just say a few words about politics, and then I'll close. I don't know if we'll be seeing the modest but hopeful reaction that we're seeing now, had the Bush Administration--which has tied its fortunes to the religious right like the tin can to a dog's tail--not been such a failure in so many ways. It's quite a spectacular record of disaster that the Bush Administration has amassed in its seven years--oh, excuse me, that Bill Clinton acting in secret with Satan--has amassed. Iraq is, of course, the most obvious example. But there's also the whole ramshackle nature of government now, the defunding of everything, Katrina, I could go on and on, but you know all this. Nobody is happy with the Bush Administration--well, 30% of the population is happy with the Bush Administration. They're like people who loved Nixon at the end. There will always be those people. My friend Pat's mother went to Mass every day to pray for Nixon during Watergate, she loved him so much. There will always be people like that. But there have to be more of them than there are now for the Republicans to be happy.

Those failures have helped to crack the Republican coalition of Christian conservatives, corporations, local business elites, libertarians--hmmm, libertarians, what are they doing in there?--and white suburbanites. Banning gay marriage and outlawing abortion, that's all very well. But you can't run on Jesus forever. Once you have banned gay marriage, which has happened in many states now, well, you can't ban it again! You've done that. So then that loses its ability to get people all riled up, because they won: OK, no gay marriage, have it your way. You can't run on Jesus forever, and certainly not when we're embroiled as we are in this disastrous war in Iraq. More people are losing health insurance every day, and jobs are fleeing, et cetera, et cetera. People have real problems, and when people have real problems, whether two people whom they've never met are permitted to marry maybe goes to the back of the list of troubles.

I'm sure you know that James Dobson and other Christian right leaders have threatened to start a third party if the Republican candidate who wins the primary does not have their values, and if they mean Rudolph Giuliani, the only one who doesn't. . . . And it's a very funny spectacle, the Republicans, I have to say. They have to have a debate about evolution. They compete with each other to be liars, I think that's what we're saying here. I don't believe they really have these ideas.

Dobson may not be entirely serious, because it would be a very desperate move, but even the threat shows their weakness. It shows that Rudolph Giuliani thinks he can win without Dobson. It's a sign of the coming marginalization of this very large minority of voters--and let's not forget it is a minority. Not every Christian conservative is going to vote on "values" either. Some might decide something else is more important and the fetuses can wait.

So you're probably thinking, "What an opportunity for the Democrats. What a happy day for them. The smart thing to do now would be to stand up for secularism--everyone to their own belief, it's a big country, it's a pluralist country, people change their religion, people have lots of different religions, let's just keep government neutral. Let's just make a little space where we have to make other kinds of arguments on questions of social policy."

If only the Democrats saw it that way! But they're too scared. They think only of 2008 and how they can attract some voters from the Republicans. Mostly they don't think (Obama may be the exception to this), "Well, there are all those people out there and they never vote, and maybe there's a whole other bunch of people who are alienated, and I can bring them in." No. They're thinking, "Let's look at the people who already vote. Mmm, they're pretty conservative. I should be more like that."

I'll give you a very good example of this in action: abstinence-only education. Rep. Waxman held hearings in which he brought forward a great deal of evidence that abstinence-only education is both ineffective and riddled with falsehoods. It's antiscientific, it's completely sexist, and the idea of young people being subjected to all this nonsense is just outrageous. These hearings got a lot of attention, and it was a very heartwarming moment for people like us.

And yet, despite the evidence uncovered by their own member of Congress, congressional Democrats have voted to keep funding abstinence education. And Waxman voted for it too! Now why did they do that? They did that because they don't want to rock any boats until 2008, maybe not even then. Then it'll be, "Oh, but what about 2012?" What about 2050? The presidential candidates are competing to portray themselves as devout. I just think this is shameful. Tim Russert asked the candidates to name a favorite passage from the bible! And you can believe they were all prepped on this. Ever since Howard Dean said that his favorite book in the New Testament was the book of Job. . . . [audience laughter] I know. And I thought that would've been a good Jewish joke, if he'd been Jewish. But not one of them refused to take the bait. Not even Dennis Kucinich. It was really a low moment that not one of them could have just said, "You know"--I said this in my column, but I'll say it here, too--"Tim, I would love to talk about scripture with you over a cup of coffee after the show, but religion is a personal and private thing, and I really don't think it belongs on national television."

I would vote for the candidate who had the guts to say that. I really would. So there it is, my vote, up for grabs. And there's Obama: "We worship an awesome god in the blue states." No, no! So the Democrats unfortunately have accepted this view that Americans are so religious that even the opposition should speak religious language. Everything has to be filteion should speak religious language. Everything has to be filte red through Christianity, and unfortunately that could mean accepting some of the less lovely features of conservative religion. I'll just mention Sojourners. This is an organization against poverty, against the war, they're for being a good person, all for that, and they're antichoice, they're antigay, and they're pro-faith-based funding. A lot of it comes down to "We want the money." These "religious leftists" are not very left. They are the people who have the ear of Democratic politicians more than secularists do. But that's going to change!

I'll just close with these two thoughts: Despite everything, despite what anybody will tell you, in some ways people truly are becoming more socially tolerant. Take gay rights. It's really quite amazing. Twenty years ago, it was definitely the minority position to say that "some people are like that, it's OK." This is all very, very new. People have come a long way in a very short time on this issue, when you consider where they started from.

Now you find even very conservative groups are wrestling with their antigay marriage position. Some of you might have seen Lynn Cheney on The Jon Stewart show a couple of nights ago. You know their daughter, Mary Cheney, is a lesbian, who with her partner, has just had a baby. So Lynn Cheney is there, and of course she represents the Republicans who have made enormous political hay out of being against gay marriage. It was very interesting to see how she, in that evasive political way, says "Mary's so wonderful, and she's helped bring people around on how wonderful gay people are." Unfortunately, Jon Stewart didn't really pin her to the wall. But you can see that that position, the antigay position, has really peaked. The younger people are, the less disapproving of homosexuality they are. So in time this will very much go in the progressive and humane direction.

I think that's true about birth control and divorce and marriage. Everybody says they hate divorce, but which is the state that has the most divorce? It's Oklahoma. Excuse me! Not Sodom-and-Gomorrah New York where I live. People know that, and they know you can't just force people to live this stern, old-fashioned, miserable life anymore. Because they have cars, and they could just leave. That's modern life.

We secularists--and I'm using the word very broadly--need to remember that we can't just rely on the courts. This has been a problem with all the progressive movements for a long time. We had a huge string of legal successes in the '60s, and I think we got a little bit out of the habit of doing the grassroots work of talking to people and building organizations and making the kinds of arguments that people can relate to, as opposed to a legal argument, which is very hard for most people to get involved with. That's been a problem for the prochoice movement as well. When you feel you're protected by the courts, you go think about something else. Meanwhile, the people on the other side are thinking about the issue all the time, they're always thinking about how to undo those legal victories. We've seen with the Bush Administration and the nominations that have gone through in the courts, that we can't really count on a sympathetic ear in the judiciary. It's been a good run, we still win from time to time, and I mentioned some of those victories, but in the long run you need to have the people with you. And so I hope we'll go away energized from this wonderful conference, thinking about how we can reach out to our neighbors and our fellow citizens, even when, like my grandmother, they think there may be a guiding spirit behind it all, despite everything.

Katha Pollitt is the author of Learning to Drive, Virginity or Death!, Reasonable Creatures, among other books of essays and poetry. She has won many prizes and awards for her work, including the National Book Critic's Circle Award for her first collection of poems, Antarctic Traveller, and new National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism. She writes "Subject to Debate," a biweekly column for The Nation. She earned her BA from Harvard, and Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia. She was previously named "Freethought Heroine" and received "The Emperor Has No Clothes" Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She lives in New York City.

Learning to Drive ($25 ppd hardback) and Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Essays of Our Time ($15 ppd paperback) by Katha Pollitt may be ordered from FFRF (, Attn: Sales, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.


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