horwitz 4thHarrison received a $750 scholarship from FFRF.

By Harrison Horwitz

This is the story of how I became a devoted atheist, an impassioned heretic and an optimistic realist.

My first encounter with religion came in early childhood. I was born to a single mother of Jewish heritage who was very proud of her faith and traditions. She was murdered when I was 5.

As a young boy, I was told that God worked for the greater good of humankind. In my innocence and naiveté, I could not conceive why God would take everything I had from me and leave me with absolutely nothing. It was then that I first had the notion that there is no higher power driving humanity toward good. Rather, we are truly left to our own devices.

I looked into the heart of religion and witnessed its dark, repressive side. Shortly after my mother’s death, I was adopted by my great uncle and moved to a rural, impoverished and devoutly religious town in central California. Caliente was a town of Republicans, guns and the good Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: the holy trinity.

What Caliente residents lacked in education, they made up for in their unchallenged faith in God and Jesus. Their clergy encouraged them to loathe homosexuals, look down on blacks and immigrants and treat women like personal property.

While my adoptive parents did not force religion on me, they certainly believed in a divine being. All great things that occurred were because “He made it so.” As I became more aware of the small-minded mentality of Caliente, I pieced together parts of the puzzle. I witnessed sleazy politicians using fear-based religious platforms to win elections, while ignorant and misguided people followed them as though they were The Second Coming.

When I moved back to Los Angeles, I saw the movie “Jesus Camp” in my sociology class. Most of the students were shocked to see religion being shoved down the throats of the young and impressionable, but I had already been through my own version of “Jesus Camp.”

My high school years put everything I encountered in my early life into perspective. In pursuit of a better education with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, I pegged religion for what it is: a tool for oppression that has controlled people for thousands of years.

Leaders who have the right mix of charisma, power and ego use religion to manipulate most of the population. That may sound harsh, but the suppression of hard truths has allowed the outdated institution of religion to run rampant.

I have questioned organized religion since middle school. Then, my resistance only went so far as to inquire, “How do you know there is a God?” or “How could that which goes against proven science be right?” 

Even when spoken from a sixth-grader’s mouth, these are dangerous questions for religion. Since then, my knowledge and understanding of religion’s grasp on society has grown exponentially. Now, I actively debate the topic in and out of the classroom. Fact-based science and creationism are incongruent. Religion has no place in the educational system.

My intention is not to sound contentious or judgmental. My beef is not with the children of “Jesus Camp” who were born into religion. My issue is with the institution of religion, the camp and its leaders, that prey on ignorant and vulnerable people.

Education should be based on rational thought and supported by facts, not on fables and bedtime stories. I dream of a world in which people want to discover answers, not one in which people pretend to already have them.


Harrison was born Nov. 19, 1996, in Los Angeles. After seven years he moved to Caliente for four years and then back to L.A. He’s attending the University of California-Berkeley to major in biology and minor in political science.

3rd KaltmanPhilip received $1,000 from FFRF for his winning essay.

By Philip Kaltman

Since I was a small child, religion was a large part of my life. I attended Sunday school and Hebrew school regularly. I went to Friday night services often, and I trusted that God had a plan and was everywhere.

I have lived in the bible belt my entire life, surrounded by both Judaism and Christianity, but natural science also played a large role in my childhood. Instead of playing baseball, I stood in the outfield watching insects in the grass. Before I could read, I could tell you which dinosaur a skull or tailbone belonged to. I watched “Land Before Time” cartoons and paleontology documentaries. Dinosaurs were my life.

So when my Sunday school teacher explained that Noah put two of every animal on his ark so they would survive, my 7-year-old brain was confused. Where were the dinosaurs? Why weren’t they on the ark? Obviously, they existed once, or we wouldn’t have their bones.

I got the classic answer, “Because Noah didn’t take them.” Who was this Noah, and why did he decide to deprive me of dinosaurs?

Later, a documentary showed me that dinosaurs’ extinction was due to a massive meteor impact, an answer that made sense. It wasn’t some old man’s capricious decision, it was a natural occurrence.  

That was my first seed of doubt. My synagogue was no longer infallible. It was contradicted by smart scientists.

When I was stung by a bee several years later, it hurt horribly. My parents said the bee was trying to protect itself. So I asked, “Why did it need to protect itself? Didn’t God control everything? Wouldn’t he protect the bee and me equally?”

Then I learned about the theory of evolution, which led me to understand why animals that could hurt us existed, and to see that perhaps God didn’t control the bee and wouldn’t protect it and me. This was my first real crisis of faith. Did God exist at all?

The more I learned, the more I doubted, until in 10th grade, I declared in front of my entire synagogue that I did not believe in God. There were gasps, stares and weird looks, but I persevered. After the service, astoundingly, many people congratulated me on my speech and my willingness to share my lack of belief.  

I learned that defending my freethought was not something to be nervous about, but instead could be accepted as a good thing. So I tried it more, this time at school.

Despite how secular we want our public schools to be, religion in many places permeates almost every aspect of them. I had to awkwardly explain to my football coach that I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I repeatedly turned down the friend who invited me to his Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer sessions. 

To overcome this, I helped found my school’s first freethinker’s club, after jumping through myriad hoops and finding ways around constantly being told we couldn’t. We provided a safe haven for others who challenged the faith that is so deeply ingrained in our culture.

Recently, I attended a planning meeting for my Cobb County School District, where a woman demanded that creationist alternatives to evolution be taught in science classrooms. (Cobb County in Georgia became notorious about 10 years ago for putting labels on science textbooks that said “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.”)  

I was quick to jump in and oppose her. I explained that I had interned in an evolutionary biology lab at Emory University and had seen evolution happen in front of my eyes. 

The meeting’s leaders gave every attendee a sticker to put next to the viewpoint that they supported. I felt extremely proud as I counted line after line of stickers next to my suggestion that only evolution should be taught in schools, versus the single sticker next to my opponent’s.


Philip Kaltman, 17, Marietta, Ga., will attend the Georgia Institute of Technology and major in biology. He interned in an Emory University microbiology lab, researching evolutionary and genetic biology. He was an officer of the Science Honor Society and an officer of the Freethinker’s club at his magnet STEM high school.   

evans 2ndJulianna received $2,000 from FFRF for her winning essay.

By Julianna Evans

In schools across the country, students like me are pressured to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. While I don’t see any problem with reciting such a pledge to our country and the values which we hold important, I do have a problem with two words in it: “under God.”

In a land of freedom of expression and protection of beliefs, those two words violate the ideals and laws we value. As a nonbeliever, I think I can speak for many people — nonbelievers and members of non-Christian religions — in saying that “under God” is overtly Judeo-Christian and has no place in American public schools or government. 

I have never believed in a higher power, and I have always tried to be open-minded and a critical thinker. Although my mother took me to a Lutheran church to expose me to religion, I never felt any sort of religious connection. Both of my parents are nonreligious and have been very supportive of my nonbelief, but my school experiences have shown me that many people won’t accept those who don’t share their beliefs. 

Last year my humanities teacher required students to write a speech about a controversial topic we felt strongly about. I chose the Pledge of Allegiance and focused on why we should remove “under God” from it.

I targeted the issue in an objective way and presented it in a factual and logical manner. I did not make provocative remarks against Christianity, but focused on the viewpoint that religion has no place in public institutions. The response I received from my classmates was astonishing to me. I experienced hostile looks, eye-rolling, muttering and scoffing, primarily from classmates who were heavily involved with their church’s youth group.

That my speech was so rudely received was very hurtful to me. Due to this experience, I was less willing to express my views on religion, though I am now returning to the mindset that my nonbelief is part of who I am, and no amount of religious discrimination should prevent me from expressing myself. I would gladly present my speech again and again to advocate for separation of church and state. 

I have also been directly influenced by the enforcement of the Pledge of Allegiance in my school. Every morning I am asked to stand with my classmates and recite it with my hand placed over my heart. It has become routine for me to skip the “under God” or to simply not say the pledge at all.

It is uncomfortable for me to be participating in a tradition that, through the addition of two words, goes against my beliefs. But if I were to not participate, I would be ridiculed and regarded as unpatriotic. I love my country just as much as any other American. It’s wrong to associate a pledge and the freedom and justice the flag stands for to something as unrelated as religion. 

Many people may wonder why this such an important issue for me, when seemingly it’s a such a small issue. But we must remember that it’s not just the large violations of rights which are important. If we submit to small violations, we run the risk of accepting larger and larger violations.

In issues such as these, we must adopt a “zero tolerance” policy regarding the entanglement of religion and government. With a firewall between church and state, we will then progress in our goal of freedom of and from religion, and of being a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” 


Julianna writes: “I am 18 and attended Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Va.. and Mountain Vista Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Warrenton. I will be attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering. I was heavily involved in my school’s marching band program and was Math Club secretary and a Secular Student Alliance member. I won a Gold Medal award for innovation in computer science in March at James Madison University’s Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.” 


Editor’s note: In 1943, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that students and all others have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. From FFRF’s State-Church FAQ:

“Nor should a student be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise be penalized for following their freedom of conscience. Nor should students who participate in the pledge, or who volunteer to lead the class in the pledge or to recite it over the intercom, be rewarded or favored over students who don’t participate.” (scroll down to Pledge of Allegiance).

gold diamond 1stDelaney received $3,000 from FFRF for her winning essay.

By Delaney Gold-Diamond

The evolution of the human species has not culminated in a perfect society. It holds on to the vestigial structures of the past, such as religious orthodoxy. Yet humankind continues to grow, change and evolve.

Sometimes mutations randomly occur and our evolution begins to take a different course. We are moving forward and progressing into a society of freethinkers. And, just like evolution, it is a journey that will never end. 

My personal evolution as a freethinker mirrors this process. I did not have a sudden jolt of realization during young adulthood, like many freethinkers. I have grown and changed, taken some steps forward and some backward on this journey. But I can say that my atheist worldview has emerged as naturally and organically as the evolution of our species. 

When I was 5, my dad and I were driving past the Catholic church in the center of my small town. It was a Sunday, and many well-dressed people were milling around in front. My dad has told me the story of what happened that day many times. Our conversation went like this:

“Daddy, what is that building?”

“That is a church.” 

“What is a church?”

“A church is where people pray to God.”

“What is God?”

“Some people believe there is an all-powerful being who created the universe and all living things. They pray to this being they call God to ask for good things to happen and for bad things not to happen.”

After several seconds of awkward silence, my tiny voice piped up from the back seat, “Daddy, do you believe in God?” He said no, and with a huge sigh of relief I replied, 

“Good, because that is the dumbest thing I ever heard.” 

As with philosopher John Locke’s “tabula rasa,” I was a blank slate. No one had ever taught me to question the existence of a supreme being, nor had I ever had any kind of religious experience. While many seem to think that it is naturally human to believe in a higher power, my experience proves that logic and reason are instinctual. Because I never had any religious indoctrination, I was born a freethinker. 

Many of my peers were not so fortunate. While I was allowed to develop my own moral guidelines from reason and rationality, their families subjected them to religious indoctrination.

In first grade, I got into a fight with a boy during recess. He told me I was going to hell because I did not believe in God. I told him that I could not go to hell because it was an imaginary place. He ran off crying, and I knew I had won that debate.  

In fact, debate became my passion. Once in high school, for my first foray into the world of competitive public speaking, I chose (perhaps naively) a controversial topic, advocating for a constitutional amendment to remove the words “In God We Trust” from coins and currency. I still remember the stunned looks on the judges’ faces. I may not have won many tournaments that season, but that was a matter of secondary importance. I believed in my cause.

Ever since, I have been a devil’s advocate (pun intended) in every English, history and government class I have taken, standing up for freethought whenever necessary. I religiously cross out “In God We Trust” on every dollar bill that passes through my hands and refuse to say those two very particular, unconstitutional words in the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Evolution is ongoing, never a finished process. I will continue to evolve as a freethinker, just as society will continue to evolve and become more enlightened. I believe in our nation and one day I hope to run for office as an out-of-the-closet atheist, dedicated to the separation of church and state, as our founders intended.

My achievements prove that religion and spirituality are not necessary to lead a successful, moral life. My childhood demonstrates that atheism and freethought are as natural as evolution itself.


Delaney writes: “I’m 18 and I’ve lived my entire life in Sonoma, Calif. This fall I will be moving 2,000 miles away to attend the University of Chicago to pursue a major in law, letters and society or political science. I plan on attending law school after I obtain my undergraduate degree. While at Sonoma Valley High School, I served as captain of the speech and debate and mock trial teams. I’m a “special distinction” member of the National Forensics League and a member of the Secular Student Alliance.” 

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Karen Abbe, 1959–2014

Karen Abbe, 54, Sacramento, Calif., died of cancer at home May 30, 2014. 

She was born Sept. 3, 1959, in Sunnyvale and graduated from Encina High School in 1977 and earned an associate’s degree from American River College in 1981 in parks administration. Her career with the state of California from 1980-2012 included the Attorney General’s Office, the Board of Pharmacy and Victims of Crime program.

Karen loved to travel in her motor home and took her dog Katie and two cats across the country, from Victoria Island to Niagara Falls.

Survivors include her parents, John and Carol Abbe; a sister, Sandra Abbe; a niece, MaryAnn Estes; and a nephew, Larry Averitt. A private memorial gathering was held in July.

FFRF offers its sincerest condolences to Karen’s family.

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Elizabeth Blackwelder, 1920–2014

Elizabeth June (Gerrard) Blackwelder, 93, La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., died at home of natural causes Jan. 15, 2014. She was born June 17, 1920, in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in Atherton, Calif. She studied biology at Stanford University and during World War II was a member of the WAVES division of the Navy, assigned to the Naval Medical Research Institute, where she worked on the development of emergency life raft rations, among other projects. After the war, she returned to college at UCLA, earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology.

In 1950 she married Spencer Blackwelder, a real estate broker. She managed the insurance arm of the business.

FFRF only recently learned of her death, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Elizabeth and Spencer joined FFRF in 1978 and were among our earliest members. Freethought Today published articles by Spencer in its early editions. I enjoyed corresponding with them. They were always stalwart supporters of freethought and secularism.”

A Los Angeles Times obituary noted Elizabeth’s love of horses and her ride aboard Chungo across the nation in 1976 to observe American’s bicentennial. Her horseback ride as part of a wagon train took six months from California to Valley Forge, Pa.

She was preceded in death by her husband in 1996. Survivors include three sons, Steven of Dana Point, Robert of La Cañada Flintridge and Clyde of San Juan Capistrano; a daughter, Lenora of Glendale; and two grandchildren.

“I remember Liz’s warm hospitality when she invited me to stay in her home during a speaking tour in southern California,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “Our thoughts go out to her family and friends.”

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Victor Stenger, 1935 – 2014

The man who coined the famous phrase “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings” died Aug. 25. Longtime FFRF member and prominent atheist Victor J. Stenger died at age 79 of an aneurysm near the heart at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu while vacationing with his wife Phylliss in Hawaii. He was also an FFRF honorary director.

He was born Jan. 29, 1935, in Bayonne, N.J., and earned a degree in electrical engineering and advanced degrees in physics. In his last major research project, before retiring in Colorado in 2000, Stenger collaborated on a project in Japan that demonstrated for the first time that the neutrino has mass. The project’s head researcher won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002.

In addition to numerous and influential peer-reviewed articles, he wrote 12 books, including the 2007 New York Times best-seller God: The Failed Hypothesis and the new God and the Multiverse.

That book and subsequent ones placed Stenger in the ranks of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the so-called “four horsemen” of New Atheism. The Salt Lake Tribune dubbed him “the fifth horseman” in its obituary.

He was a member of the Department of Physics at the University of Hawaii from 1963 to 2000 and after retiring was adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.

“We were headed out for a pleasant dinner when he lost his balance on some steps outside our vacation rental and fell against me,” Phylliss wrote. “I unfortunately fell against a beam, suffered a skull fracture and concussion and was taken to the emergency room by ambulance. While there, Vic complained about not feeling well and in spite of having a team of neurologists and trauma surgeons, he died within 20 minutes.”

The Stengers were married in 1962 and have two children. He was cremated, followed by a memorial Aug. 31 in Honolulu.

“We will miss this great freethinker,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “He gave us so much to ponder and wonder about.”

“Our sincerest condolences go to Phylliss and the family,” added Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Vic gave a lot of himself to so many worthy causes and was such a preeminent scientist and skeptic. He will be missed greatly.”

To hear a clip from one of his three interviews with Freethought Radio, go to and click on the Sept. 6, 2014, podcast.

FFRF congratulates the 16 college-bound high school seniors who placed in this year’s essay competition. FFRF has offered scholarships through essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

The high school contest is named for William J. Schultz, a Wisconsin member who died at 57, was a chemical engineer and cared deeply about FFRF’s work. FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $10,250 reflects bonuses.

Essayists were asked to describe “A moment when you stood up for freethought/secularism” in 500-700 words. There were six top awards and 10 honorable mentions.

First place: Delaney Gold-Diamond, 18, University of Chicago ($3,000).

Second place: Julianna Evans, 18, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University ($2,000).

Third place: Philip Kaltman, 17, Georgia Institute of Technology ($1,000).

Fourth place: Harrison Horwitz, 17, University of California-Berkeley ($750).

Fifth place: Kali Richardson, 18, University of Arizona ($500).

Sixth place: Fallon Rowe, 17, Utah State University ($400).

Honorable mention ($200 each):

Adam Bivens, 18, Pennsylvania State University.

Erin Camia, 18, Case Western Reserve University. 

Aífe Ní Chochlain, 18, University of Pittsburgh.

Jayne M. Cosh, 18, State University of New York at New Paltz.

Sam Davidson, 18, Northwestern University. 

Alida Markgraf, 18, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Ryan Muskopf, 17, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Travis Northern, 17, University of Wisconsin-Parkside. 

Pranit Singh, 18, Creighton University. 

Tara Thankachan, 18, University of Texas-Austin.

“We consider our scholarships for freethinking students to be among FFRF’s most important investments in the future of freethought,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are thousands of scholarships for religious students and hardly any rewarding critical thinking and the use of reason opining about religion.”

Upcoming issues will feature top placers in the college and graduate/mature student competitions.

Brooke Mulder

City Council, Glendale, Ariz.

Aug. 12, 2014

The purpose of the invocation read before each council meeting is to “add solemnity” to the proceedings. I can’t think of anything more solemn or significant than the act of democracy itself. As citizens of this great country, we have the right to participate equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws. We may choose to do this directly, by serving on a city council, as governor or even as president of the United States. Or we may choose to participate indirectly by electing representatives to act in our interests.

Let us all take a moment to reflect on why we are here tonight. If you are here, you may have chosen a path of serving your electorate, to the benefit of their welfare. Or you may have concerns you’ve chosen to bring in front of the council. We should be grateful that the city of Glendale has those who are willing to serve and those who trust in the system enough to participate in the process. It is people like those that enable us to truly govern ourselves.

My principles as a secular humanist teach me to rely on reason and our common humanity. A city council is an excellent illustration of how people can come together, without supernaturalism, to provide meaningful changes in each other’s lives.  I would like to leave you with a final thought from Thomas Jefferson: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order and they will preserve them.”

Thank you. 


Brooke writes: I have spent the last nine years as an Army spouse/girlfriend. My husband attended West Point for four years, followed by five years as an active duty infantry officer. I have moved from Florida, to New York, to Georgia, to Washington and finally to Arizona. My husband is now a civilian, so hopefully we can settle down here!

One of the hardest parts of being an Army spouse (in addition to the separations, the deployments and the moves) is the exclusive, nonsecular culture in the Army, especially among the officer corps. The Army is one of the only organizations where your spouse’s behavior can affect how your chain of command feels about you and consequently promotions and performance evaluations.

It is an unspoken rule as an Army officer that you should be religious, and preferably Christian. There are constantly prayers before meetings and briefings, religious marriage retreats, invitations to church and bible study.The invitations themselves did not bother me. However, the knowledge that we’d be snubbed after we politely declined did.

I remember one instance, among many, in particular. My husband’s commanding officer’s wife asked me point blank what religion I was and what church I attended. I didn’t even use the “A word” in my answer, but politely told her I did not attend church. After she found out I was not Christian, she never spoke to me again and the social invitations dried up. Now that we are in the civilian world, we are free to admit we are not believers without the fear of career retribution.


Eric Williams

City City Council, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Aug. 12, 2014

Good afternoon. Before I begin, let me offer my thanks to Ms. Dean Beukema for allowing me this opportunity. Her service to our community over the last 25 years reflects her dedication and love for our great community.

Council members, President [Keith] King, thank you for inviting me here.

Thousands of years ago, after emerging from relative obscurity, mankind began to form communities. The first ones were simple hunter gatherers, evolved to feed their own very small camps. Soon, these small camps and tribes began to join to each other, either through violence or simple needs. Either way, they saw joining forces as being the foundation for survival.

Over the millennia, agriculture built even larger tribes. They became large villages, then towns, then cities, then city-states. And even farther, empires and great kingdoms. These people in the later ages eventually became obsessed with power and greed, driven by their beliefs that their higher powers were better than any others. Patton Oswalt, a contemporary comedian, put it simply as, “My Sky Cake is better that your Sky Baklava.” These divisions caused chaos within the overall sapien community for millennia.

Then, after centuries of great strife, the “Enlightenment” was born. The United States was built upon the principles of this Enlightenment. The deists that formed our Constitution knew the dangers of sectarian strife and therefore enshrined secular government in our most sacred document.

With this in mind, I stand before the most basic unit of human democracy, the city council. The core unit of our lives as humans living within an inherently secular system. It’s the local government that actually guides the daily lives of the citizens of this great nation.

Let us therefore, this afternoon, provide both our vocal and thoughtful support to this most fundamental institution of humanity today, and hope that reason and thoughtful reflection will guide our elected leaders to lead this great city to where it could be.

So be it.

Eric is a member of FFRF and the Atheist Community of Colorado Springs.


Michele Ritt

Dane County Board, Madison, Wis.

June 26, 2014

I find continual inspiration in my family. As a young child, my grandmother instilled in me that community service is a way of life. Me being here today is part of that. My daughter connected me directly to the country of India. 

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” 

My husband and my son brought me to a completely unexpected world. 

Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

May the force be with us all. 


Michele is a Dane County supervisor and FFRF member.


South Dakota atheist gives invocation

Amanda Novotny, Brookings, S.D., an atheist and Siouxland Freethinkers president, delivered a secular invocation Aug. 5 to open the Sioux Falls City Council meeting:

Thank you, Mr. Mayor, council members, citizens of Sioux Falls and all those present for this opportunity to provide an inspirational opening to your meeting.

Often at this time, you are asked to bow your heads. Instead, I ask you to lift your head up and look around. Turn your attention to this room, a room that has heard countless discussions, frustrations and successes, a room where important decisions regarding your city are routinely made.

Now take a moment to soak in the presence of the men and women in this room, gathered here at this time and place to engage in their civic duty, to contribute and work toward creating a better community. Think of the hundreds and thousands of others who are also affected by the ideas shared here. Let all voices be heard and understood equally.

It is also often customary to read from a book during an invocation, and tonight will be no different. I’ll be sharing a quote from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Professor Albus Dumbledore said: “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Although our differences may be many, we are bound together in similarity as members of the human species. As humans, we have the capacity to appreciate and thank each other, to utilize compassion and reason in our decision making. I ask those present to join me in showing gratitude to the men and women that serve the great city of Sioux Falls. We need only look to each other for guidance and work together to overcome any challenges we may face.

— Transcript courtesy of Hemant Mehta

May God grant you grace. And to you may He do the same. How are you? I am well, thanks be to God. God bless you. You are well? Everything is good, God bless you. Everything fine? God bless you, God bless you. Thanks be to God! OK, well, may God guide you on your path. Oh, God bless you, peace be upon you. Peace, may God grant you grace!

This is an average greeting shared between myself and a passerby in rural Morocco. As an atheist, I don’t believe that any gods have ever existed outside of their literary confines. Nope, not any of those named Jesus, Allah, Zeus, Almighty Father, Vishnu, or Woden (though perhaps I could bring to the attention of the government our “Germanic” religious heritage, thus instituting the sacrifice of several pilsners each Wodensday? A fine and honorable mid-week tradition indeed).

I would say maybe two or three of the hundreds of Moroccans I interacted with during my work as a Peace Corps volunteer knew of my lack of faith. Morocco is a nonsecular state, meaning that its citizens are required to follow Islamic Law. Over 99% of them consider themselves Muslim.

I often basked in the warmth of the large, caring family units with Muslim values, who took me in after only minutes of acquaintance. I learned how to tell who truly hoped that Allah would reward me, and those who merely said it because it would look bad if they didn’t. I watched my beloved host mother find relief in prayer and extreme pride in her son’s close relationship with the village imam.

I chose to suffer through two Sahara summers without food, only to share in the joy of breaking fast when the sun went down.

I love many Moroccan Muslims and enjoyed many of the ways they acted on their religion and how it affected their culture and day-to-day life. The women and girls with whom I worked left me with everlasting affection for the hijab. I get excited whenever I see a woman wearing one. I now see it as an elegant and graceful piece of self-expression worn by some of the kindest, hardworking women I know. I also appreciate the protection it provided from the often objectifying and unnerving glances of Moroccan males.

I have very close relationships with Moroccan men, who respected me and cared for me because of my intelligence, the authority I commanded when necessary and the equality I demanded in all situations. I had a whole community of young men who told me they would never harass me and would protect me from harassment, because they valued me. Apparently, I had earned a special level of respect.

These 14- to 20-year-old students knew me, had worked with me, had lived with me. Take those elements away and I become the thing they have been taught not to value — the object that walks around in public only to seek attention. The object that is to be obtained and used — the younger and healthier the better.

Women face a lot of pressures in Moroccan society, one of which is the heinous act of sexual harassment. When traveling alone in Marrakesh, I would leave my hotel and walk to a restaurant a couple of blocks away, encountering between 10 and 30 men who would shout various comments about my appearance at me, as if they couldn’t help themselves.

Or they would just stare, because I was a juicy piece of meat waggling my tender curves in their starving faces. It was taking everything in them not to pounce and devour me. That’s how those looks made me feel. That’s how women are made to feel when they walk around not attached to their male owner. Why leave the safety of your home when this is what you have to face? 

I also witnessed many girls of high school age being bullied to leave school by their mothers and older sisters, who wanted more hands and some company in their homes. My students were made to feel guilty for being so selfish, for taking time to learn and study or for exercising in our running club because it made them feel good. Being healthy is a luxury that women in my community didn’t feel worthy of.

So many girls quit school because they knew it was useless; they had no future beyond the home of their family or the family of their husband. Child marriage is incredibly common, and almost always the girl is substantially younger than the groom. This, I was told, is because women age faster than men. Soon she will catch up to her husband; soon her body will be useless. Finding a girl a husband early is doing them a favor, giving them stability and purpose. She finds all of her self-worth in the wealth and standing of her husband and the children they produce.

What an effective way to dominate half the population. So many women I lived with and grew to love were stuck in this cycle of oppression, in a society that doesn’t value them and often encourages them not to develop themselves beyond a wife and mother, housemaid and cook. 

Tea with Hayat

My 16-year-old neighbor’s name is Hayat, which means “life.” She is incredibly smart and is the family’s only female child. She is shy but confident. She is still in school and promised me she would finish. One afternoon we sat and drank tea, rehashing a sexual harassment discussion we had facilitated at the local youth center.

During the presentation, my host brother, one of the most loving, positive and emotional young men I knew in Morocco, had stormed out. His close study of Islam had convinced him it was inappropriate to discuss such a taboo subject, especially with men and women in the same room.

So much excitement makes for good tea conversation, but Hayat’s mother is an expert at changing the conversation, and soon we were discussing God’s omnipresence and good will. When asked to chime in with a fitting verse, Hayat mentioned she had not memorized the Quran. This was very upsetting to her mother, but equally incensed, Hayat responded that in her experience, those who memorize the Quran follow it blindly and interpret it in a way that ignores the human experience.

She was referencing my host brother, who had deemed it unnecessary and even forbidden to discuss an issue that so deeply affected women in Moroccan society. At 16, Hayat was thinking more critically than most adults I had encountered thus far. Her words and her thoughts were my hope and kept me working hard to find more freethinking young women to help rise above the fray of everyday life in abject poverty.

I can only hope the admiration that gleamed in my eyes when she spoke conveyed how important she was, and could be. 

What the future holds

With smart kids and wonderful people, what seems to be holding Morocco back? Why is Morocco’s Islam still so prominent in the poorest, most rural areas? Islam is young, virile and adaptive. Morocco’s educated elite are well-off, and its leaders are “liberal” enough to forge important domestic and global relationships, maintaining their role as a “progressive” force in the Middle East. Uprisings and protests are minimal, because those who suffer the most don’t have the power to make change.

Being stuck in the rural south, barricaded by mountains on all sides (well, apart from the side that faces the Sahara Desert), I was often frustrated by the lack of resources, the government’s apparent ignorance of the suffering of my neighbors, the forced complacency of my neighbors who had little access to quality education, and the exhausting circus that was government bureaucracy surrounding anything from traveling between cities to getting an “official” stamp with your name on it.

But it is changing, shwiya bi shwiya, or little by little as we say in Moroccan Arabic. I was constantly moved by individuals who shined despite the adversity they faced and will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I will leave you with an impressive encounter I had while traveling during the last couple of months of my service. He was a youthful stranger who was intrigued by my “American-ness,” and probably by the fact that I was a little blonde girl speaking the local language and taking the local transportation.

While I was used to men asking me why America is a secular state — asking where we got our laws if not from a holy book — and asking me to repeat a verse that would ensure my access to al Jannah (heaven), this experience was truly unique and refreshing. He asked what religion we were, and I said that although Americans are mostly Christian, you are allowed to follow whatever religion you choose, and that most of the religions in the world have some sort of representation in the U.S.

He thought this was fascinating, and pondered it for a while. After some deep reflection and lots of smiles, he said, “I think, that if everyone was allowed to find the religion that was closest to their heart, that they would choose the best elements of whichever they found, and they could be the best, kindest people possible.”

This wave of blissful inspiration is an excellent argument for the separation of church and state. 

Charlotte Stein is transitioning back into American life in Madison, Wis., helping out as a clerical assistant at FFRF. In her free time, she practices German, French and Arabic on her adorable dog Oscar. She also loves to write, read and eat cheese curds. Soon she will be moving to either of the coasts to work for a development organization.

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