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Freethought Today · January/February 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Here’s how to increase our political clout: Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby's speech, edited for space, was delivered on Oct. 8, 2016, at FFRF's 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

Susan is an honorary director of FFRF and previously received our Freethought Heroine award. She began her writing career as a reporter for The Washington Post and today remains one of the few journalists who writes about secular issues as an open champion of freethought. This is still a rare commodity in the media, and we can count on her to speak up in her media columns on state/church and freethought issues.

Susan is author of 11 books, including Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, which came out in March. Strange Gods is a really unique book as "a secular history of conversion."

Her other books include The Age of American Unreason, a New York Times best-seller and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Welcome back, Susan Jacoby.

By Susan Jacoby

Earlier this year, I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that appeared under the headline, "Sick and Tired of 'God Bless America.'" [It was also republished in the April issue of Freethought Today.] It was their headline, not mine, but I liked it in a way I don't usually like the headlines editors put over my articles. In this piece, I was discussing the political implications of a poll by the Pew Research Center. I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the poll, which indicated that the number of Americans who do not belong to any religious group and, even more important, who say religion is not important in their lives, has risen from 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million.

That is a lot of people — and an extraordinary increase within a very short period of time. But the shift toward a more secular American population has not been reflected in our politics. No candidate thinks that he or she has anything to lose by offending us. I'm here not to talk not about the politicians, but about what we, as secularists, can do to become more influential in the public square. Inveighing against the perfidy of the Religious Right won't do it: We have to become more aggressive and more effective at bringing the message to the American public that secular values are American values, and not letting either the Religious Right get away with what they have gotten away with for the past 30 years — the claim that being religious is implict in the phrase "American values," and that the only dispute is over what kind of religion is defining the values.

At this stage of the development of the secular movement, articulating those values, and articulating them more forcefully, is our job. The question is how to do it in a way that commands the attention, particularly among the young, of that growing portion of Americans who say religion is not important in their lives. The problem is that a lot of these young people are brainwashed enough by the public culture of religion that they are afraid to openly call themselves either atheists or agnostics, and instead insist that they're "spiritual, but not religious." We may be sick and tired of "God Bless America," but we're not going to have a president any time soon who replaces it with something else.

The question is what we ourselves can do to bridge the gap between the stigma still attached to ungodliness and the reality that the ungodly are now a much larger minority group than many religious denominations.

Good without God

First, I want to talk about two tactics that don't work, in my opinion. I feel slightly nauseated every time I see the slogan "good without God." To me, there's something unseemly and self-abasing about basically saying to the world, "I am not what other people say I am."

I was once asked by the conservative talk show host Michael Medved, who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, "What's to stop you from committing murder if you don't believe in God?" I've been asked that question many times since, but that was a first, and all I managed was to say, "Well, committing murder has never actually occurred to me."

I should have asked Medved, "What's to stop you from committing murder if your God orders it? He's done that in the past; in fact, he did it at the founding of your religion."
And, of course, the answer is that Abraham would have gone ahead and murdered Isaac if God, that prankster, hadn't recanted at the last minute and said, "I didn't really mean it; I only wanted to see if you'd obey me and do it. I was just joking.'" The story of Abraham is reason enough for my reservations about "good without God" campaigns. My beliefs have never told me that I have to kill my child to please some unnamed power who controls the universe.

Choose our battles

Second, I think we ought to choose our symbolic battles very carefully. I don't mean to suggest that symbols aren't important, but that when we do go after symbols, they should be symbols that clearly violate the Constitution.

Getting Ten Commandments monuments out of courthouses is important because those monuments support and perpetuate the myth that our laws are based on the prohibitions in the bible. In fact, many of the commandments are not crimes, but, in religious terms, sins. We don't try people for adultery any more. We don't try anyone for coveting his neighbor's wife. Or ox or ass. We don't try anyone for not honoring her father and her mother, unless she's committing elder abuse, in which case we try her for assault. So the Ten Commandments monuments have no place in courthouses. One of the reasons I truly respect the Freedom from Religion Foundation is that its lawsuits generally focus on public use of symbols that directly contradict not only the letter but the spirit of the Constitution.

But engaging in symbolic battles that have little or nothing to do with the Constitution creates tremendous backlash and accomplishes nothing.

We had a classic example in New York a few years ago, when the American Atheists attempted to bar the placement at the 9/11 Memorial Museum of a cross created by two steel beams that crashed and crossed each other in a resemblance to a crucifix.

This cross was to be displayed among many different kinds of artifacts. It was part of the history of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and its presence amid the rubble was meaningful to many Christian rescue workers. And it wasn't as if the cross were being given pride of place; it was simply going to be one of thousands of exhibits of objects from those times. The lawsuit predictably got nowhere in federal court, and it shouldn't have.

You and I may think that finding meaning in two beams that became welded together at the site of a massacre is ridiculous, but the fact is this accidental cross did have meaning for many people who were pulling human remains out of that ground. What the whole episode of the lawsuit did was reinforce the image of atheists as an intolerant minority.

There would have been a constitutional issue if this cross, created out of the horror of that day, had been placed atop the museum. At the time, many atheists who supported the plaintiffs made statements saying that the nonreligious were offended by the display of this "cross" in the museum. All I can say is that these atheists must be pretty thin-skinned and prone to take offense.

Now, if there'd been a statue of Prometheus found at Ground Zero, and it had deliberately been left out of the museum because someone considered it too secular, that would be a symbolic case I'd support — just as I strongly support all of the many lawsuits FFRF has brought against the use of crosses and commandments monuments on public land, in front of public schools, and on seals of state.

One reason I think it's important to pick symbolic battles carefully is that if we're all over the map on this, it dilutes the power of our voice when secular values and secular people have every reason not only to be ethically offended, but to turn to our Constitution for a legal defense.

I wrote another New York Times op-ed after the Newtown school shootings, when President Obama went to an interfaith memorial and talked about Jesus watching over the grieving. The fact is that a number of the victims were Jews and Hindus, and we don't know — but can assume if the Newtown population mirrors the diverse views found in national polling data — that others were raised in secular homes. This would have been a perfect place for the president of the United States to acknowledge that violence violates decent secular as well as decent religious values, and that grief, mourning and consolation are not limited to people who believe in a supernatural being who guides the world. But the president didn't do that; he talked only about religious consolation. When this happens, as it does so frequently, secular organizations need to call out public officials on it.

I think that there are several other steps we can and must take — some of them are already under way — to gain the political clout that we don't yet have.

Focus on the young

First, we really need to concentrate on the young. I can tell you from my talks on campuses through the country that the secular movement has the same problem with people under 30 that traditional political parties have. The young are, in fact, much less religious than previous generations; they're largely responsible for the growth in the number of Americans who say religion isn't important in their daily lives.

But I can't even count the number of college students who have told me they don't want to be "labeled" as atheists. "It stands for a kind of nerdiness," one University of Minnesota student said. "The people who take part in campus freethought activities are seen as, well, a little obsessed."

I think just showing up — as our normal, everyday selves — on college campuses is immensely important. No, we don't have horns and tails. Yes, we do have jobs and kids and spouses and lovers and all of the concerns in our lives that the religious majority has. I don't participate in debates about the existence of God, because I, of course, agree with the 19th-century freethought hero Robert Ingersoll (and every scientist) about the impossibility of proving a negative. It's enough to say, "Based on all of the evidence before me, I see no reason to conclude that God exists." But, like all scientific theorems, this conclusion has to remain open to new evidence.

There are, however — and I've found this particularly true at historically religious colleges — all kinds of productive discussions you can have with young people who are just really beginning to think about and question the beliefs on which they were raised. By historically religious colleges, I'm sure you know I don't mean brainwashing factories like, say, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

I particularly remember one conversation with a first-year student at Augustana. He had come to Augustana planning to become a Lutheran minister, but he had already decided he wanted to change his major and work toward becoming a high school history teacher. He had been raised in a very conservative Lutheran home with fundamentalist beliefs, but Augustana had exposed him to a much more liberal religious mindset. He said, "In my mind, I know you're right when you talk about the essential equality of beliefs, and nonbelief, in a democracy. But I know that I'm in possession of the truth, and how can I not want the same thing for others?"

You know, I felt sorry for this young man, because I sensed that this question was really a result of his own questioning of his faith — because Augustana, like all good religious colleges, teaches more about comparative religion and the history of secularism than secular institutions do. That's what I was doing there — being an adjunct to the history of secularism curriculum.

I reminded this young man of the famous line in the gospel in which Pontius Pilate asks, "What is truth?" at Jesus' trial. And I talked about how nothing in secular democracy denies him the right to proselytize anywhere outside of public institutions, but it does deny him the right to teach a public school history class in which he tells his students that the bible is literally true.

Fighting for schools

The second vastly important area of secular action, which involves those who are too young to represent themselves, is concerned with everything about schools. The work FFRF is doing in battling the use of school assemblies to allow outside religious figures to promote their own afterschool religious activities — in the guise of anti-bullying or anti-drug messages — is exemplary.

In some states, like Pence's Indiana, that means going to court. In others, like Wisconsin, just writing letters to school administrators gets results. The infiltration of these conservative Christian-themed programs into schools is particularly troubling, because the people being targeted are teenagers already at risk — because of drug problems, academic difficulties, issues surrounding sexuality — sometimes all three. To open kids like this to people who are essentially telling them that their problems can be solved by religious conversion is not only unconstitutional, but medically dangerous.

But, of course, the biggest education problem — concentrated in the South and various parts of the Midwest, but also surfacing in school districts in every state in the union — involves the teaching of evolution. And this can be a tough one, because it means that secular parents have to make public trouble, which often does create trouble for their children. And it has to be accomplished at the local level, because all national organizations can really do is provide some financial and legal support.

Fighting the troglodytes who, at the very least, want to sneak intelligent design into the curriculum as a "theory" on an equal par with evolution, often requires banding together with liberal religious parents who strongly support the teaching of evolution.

That's what happened in Dover, Pa., when parents — both religious and nonreligious — successfully fought against a policy that mandated the teaching of intelligent design.
This battle ended in 2005 with a blistering federal district court ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools — one which the higher courts declined to review. I don't think it's possible to overestimate the importance of fighting these battles and of cultivating allies who aren't necessarily atheists, but who do believe in secular science and secular history.

I mention history because while we hear a lot about evolution, the right-wing attack on the teaching of the secular side of both American and world history is unremitting. Texas is the most extreme example, with regular reviews of textbooks having resulted in such gems as replacing Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Aquinas on a list of historical figures in revolutionary thought. I do think that secular parents have to make pests of themselves to get any change in such matters, and being a pest can be effective, even if you're not in the majority or anywhere near it.

Can you imagine what right-wing Christian parents would do if a teacher said something as mild as, "Some scholars don't think Jesus was a historical figure?" Well, secular parents have to make a fuss when a teacher says that all of the founders were devoutly religious and that the United States was established as a Christian nation.

Frankly, there are places where we're so outnumbered that we will be ignored even if we to speak up. But there are lots of other places — communities like Dover — throughout the country, where a great deal can be accomplished just by having discussions with likeminded parents and conversations with school administrators. One thing to remember is that school administrators don't like trouble from anyone — so if we can't get anything avowedly secular into the curriculum, we can often get avowedly anti-secular interpretations out.

Agreement on issues

Three, I'd like to see more emphasis on certain major political issues on which all secular organizations can agree.

I'll give you an example. One of the most glaring omissions throughout this election cycle, on the part of candidates from both parties, has been any reference to the persecution of freethinkers in both Muslim theocracies and countries torn by Muslim and Hindu religious nationalist terrorism. Secretary of State John Kerry has mentioned persecution of Christians, but not of secular freethinkers.

The Center for Inquiry, of which I'm also an honorary board member, has been particularly good on human rights issues, as FFRF has. But I would like to have seen a full-page ad during this campaign in a forum that politicians pay attention to — that would probably be the New York Times or The Washington Post — signed by every major secular and humanist organization and calling on all candidates to denounce not only the persecution of Christians, but the persecution of freethinkers who dare to blog about such issues as women's rights — from Saudi Arabia to the deserts controlled by terrorists to Bangladesh.

The letter should have been addressed to President Obama, Secretary Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Trump. Since these persecutions are carried out not only against freethinkers and Christians, but against dissenting Muslims, too, an ad like this would be a good way to connect freedom of religion with freedom from religion. I don't know about you, but I'd happily make a donation for a special fund to finance an ad like this.

Approach politicians

Four, we need, as secular organizations, to make constant approaches and reproaches to politicians who have a secular outlook but are reluctant to say so, when we are excluded from public events.

This is tricky, because it runs the risk, if secular voices are included at public events, of fueling the accusation that secularism is just another religion. Annie Laurie Gaylor is not the pope. Neither is Richard Dawkins. What I really want to see at public events like Newtown is a politician who presents a secular perspective on a public trauma. And I don't think this is impossible, but it will require constant lobbying.

Look, no one would have thought — even 10 years ago — that acknowledgement of LGBT rights would become so taken for granted that the phrase is in danger of losing its force. There is no reason, with the growing secular population, that this can't happen for us — especially since so much of that population is young. But it does require a relentless political lobbying effort that we don't yet have — a constant set of reminders to our elected representatives that there are more of us than they think. I don't think, for instance, that Kerry made a deliberate decision to leave secularists out his litany of persecution. I think he just overlooked us.

Make it personal

Finally, we have to come out as who we are and we have to do it with passion as well as reason — and make it personal.

One question I have been asked frequently is how it is possible to get through difficult times in life — and especially the knowledge of death — without belief in a loving supernatural being.

It was Susan B. Anthony, who played down her nonbelief so that she wouldn't alienate religious suffragists, who said, "If it be true that we die like a flower, leaving behind only a fragrance . . . what a delusion the race has ever been in — what a dream is the life of man."

She could not have been more wrong. What if we do die like a flower, leaving a faint and decidedly transient scent behind? It's so much better than leaving a stench behind. Whether our actions are remembered on a large stage, for how long, and by whom, is not the foundation of or the rationale for living what might be called the good life. The moral rightness or wrongness of our actions can no more be evaluated by how they will be judged in the future by human beings than by how they will be judged by a god in a supernatural afterlife. It is our acceptance that this life is all there is, not our expectations of immortality and perfect understanding in eternity, that gives our lives their moral meaning.

Those of you who have heard me speak before know that I rarely talk about my personal life. I keep that for my books. However, I'm going to make an exception because it is so pertinent to the question of how it's important to get personal when we try to convey our values to others. Eight years ago, my longtime partner died of cancer. He had Alzheimer's disease, but, fortunately, the cancer killed him before he entered the final stages in which all cognition and consciousness are destroyed.

More than one friend said to me, "I don't know how you can get through this without believing in God." Well, I don't know how I would have gotten through it if I did believe in a God who would slowly and methodically destroy a brilliant mind. During the last months of my partner's life, I often wrote him letters because he found it easier to absorb things when they were written down rather than spoken. Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote him after we had gone to a movie — as it turned out, the last movie he would ever see.

"Only a few weeks ago, when we saw that movie 'Starting Out in the Evening,' I was deeply moved by a line in which he was describing his love for his former wife. 'She lived in my heart,' he said, 'and I never found that again.' Well, you are the only person who has ever really lived in my heart. And that will be true, long after you are gone, until my last moment of consciousness on this Earth.

"We don't believe in life after death, you and I, and we know we're not going to meet some day again, in a place with puffy clouds and harps. We have no children together, so the memory of the love we have won't go on in that way, either. But I deeply believe that love is never wasted, and whatever good comes from it, we have passed on in some way to others — in everything from books to, perhaps, a greater tenderness than either of us might have shown without the other. Now we have only the moments of time we have, and we must use them as best we can."

I'm glad I saved a copy of this letter, because it brings back all of the conversations we had during those last months, while the light of his mind was dimming but not yet extinguished.

I know that the memory of what I was able to do to help him rests only with me — well, a small part of it now with you — but it doesn't matter. It seems to me that the very essence of the atheist's and humanist's concept of morality — a concept limited to what we do here on Earth — is that love is never wasted even though it is not eternal.

Our acts, good and evil, become a part of the world that will continue after us, as long as the world continues. There is grandeur in this view of life, as Darwin said at the end of his great work. But there is also a proportional humility in this perspective.

The knowledge that this is our one and only life, a span between unconsciousness that precedes and follows our short existence, lies at the heart of the atheist and humanist conscience. Conveying both the grandeur and humility of this view of life is the duty of all of us who are not merely sick and tired of "God Bless America" but who are convinced that rationality is the partner, not the enemy, of private love and public patriotism.