Student activist award: State/church separation fight has been stressful

Daniel Roe (not his real name) received FFRF’s $2,000 Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award, endowed by a generous couple in the Northwest who prefer anonymity.

By Daniel Roe

There comes a moment in every person’s life when they have to make the choice to stand up for what they believe in — that moment when a thought turns into action. If we don’t align our actions with our thoughts, then our actions are empty and our thoughts are worthless.

Standing up and standing out for what I believed in seemed like a distant, unreachable goal. I have always been passionate and opinionated, but the thought of being alone in my actions was reason enough to justify remaining silent at the time. That fear of loneliness kept me from opening up about myself and speaking out against all of the injustice I saw. However, as I grew in age, I also grew in knowledge and courage. I started to fully accept the idea that I didn’t believe in God after years of religious conflict and pretending to believe for the sake of my loved ones. Over the course of the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I researched a lot and realized the importance of upholding my rights as an atheist and protecting the Constitution. Reading story after story about people’s hard experiences fighting for state/church separation made me realize that freedom doesn’t come easy. That would be one of many discoveries throughout the year being involved in a conflict that I never imagined being a part of.

At the beginning of the year, I paid more attention to my school environment than I had previously. Despite the large crowds and my tight schedule, I noticed a large number of historical documents collectively framed together in one of our main hallways. As I looked at the displays, I saw a Ten Commandments plaque in the middle of it. At first, I felt surprised by its presence and eventually grew upset with the fact that my public school was promoting a religious display. My school was illegally promoting Christianity by displaying such a plaque on the wall and I knew that I had to do something. So, after much discussion with friends, I contacted my principal. I received a response that showed me that this was an issue going on throughout most schools in my district. I knew I could only do so much by myself and that’s why I contacted FFRF. After many email exchanges with the legal team, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott sent a nice letter of complaint to the school board’s attorney for the board to address. This led to several months of painful waiting, public backlash and personal conflict.

The reaction on social media was largely negative. People were calling FFRF and atheists evil, stupid, oversensitive, overly offended, and the used the bible to defend the plaques. Numerous citizens at board meetings justified the plaques by referring to the importance of Christian morals in schools. In one case, a friend, who I told about my complaint, betrayed me and told dozens of people about it after she got mad at me. This led to several people making rude comments, cutting me off from them, and one girl yelling, for everyone to hear, about how bad a person I was. Additionally, I received pushback from my family. My parents got nervous with the whole situation and said they didn’t want me involved in this controversy anymore. They told me that we were living in the Bible Belt and that messing with religion was the worst thing I could do.

The situation caused me to feel lonely and like I had no one to turn to for support. Even worse, on my birthday, hundreds of local citizens rallied at the board meeting for the board’s deciding the fate of the plaques. After endless public comments and unnecessary drama, the Cumberland County Board of Education voted 6-3 to keep the plaques up in the schools. I felt like a lone outsider in a community that was supposed to be for everyone.

In the aftermath of the decision, I turned to support of the local atheists and secularists around me. They understood my feelings, encouraged me to keep the issue ongoing, and inspired me to fight even harder for separation of church and state. Thankfully, I took their advice and continued to address issues as I observed them in my area.

The issue of the Ten Commandments in the local schools is still an ongoing issue that I want to further pursue. Besides that, I resolved an issue involving a teacher preaching in her class after a letter of complaint by FFRF was sent out. I have also complained about issues involving my representative promoting religion, religious displays in our school library, school endorsements of baccalaureate services, and other violations as they come up.

All of this proves time and time again why the separation of church and state should be valued. It prevents the government from having a religious preference and makes the government take a neutral position. Ultimately, this governmental neutrality upholds our country’s long history of religious freedom for all people. Therefore, it is so important for everyone to start speaking out and turning our thoughts into actions so everyone can be equal and free.”

Daniel, 17, from Tennessee, enjoys music, history, reading and the outdoors. He would like to work in human services and help defend civil liberties.

Student activist award: Getting bullied for my nonbelief

Devin Estes, 10, received a $1,000 Strong Backbone Student Activist Award endowed by a kind octogenarian FFRF member from New York, who prefers to remain anonymous and donates the scholarship fund annually to celebrate his birthday. 

This essay was written with help from Devin’s father.

By Devin Estes

Devin Estes

Every morning, my elementary school has a teacher-led, religious program called “Upper Room.” During Upper Room, teachers lead the students in prayer and in singing religious songs. Students who don’t want to attend must go to the lunch room. I was one of only two students who didn’t attend Upper Room. However, I know of at least two others who also didn’t want to go, but they didn’t want everybody to know that they didn’t want to attend. They wanted to fit in and didn’t want to be treated the way I was being treated.

For example, one of my teachers said during class that she would debate any atheist, because, according to her, God would send bears to maul and eat atheists and those atheists would pray when they were being eaten. While she said all of this, I sat there in class and cried. This wasn’t the only time that this particular teacher bullied me in front of the entire class.

This teacher didn’t just say hateful things about me when I was present, however. She also enjoyed criticizing me for my atheism when I wasn’t in class. She enjoyed enlisting my fellow students into her brand of bullying. One of my classmates shoved a table into me, and told me that she did it because she heard that I didn’t believe in God. As you might expect, my school did absolutely nothing to prevent my teachers from criticizing me, or to discipline any of the students who bullied me.

My school was an interesting place. I say “was” because I am now home-schooled. And I say “interesting” because I’m being charitable. My teacher enjoyed playing gospel music during class, and teaching about the personal histories of those gospel singers.

Another example of just how “interesting” my school was is its annual “Bring Your Bible to School Day.”  As my father pointed out, they never had a day to bring your Quran or your Kitab’I’Aqdas or any other religious book to school. This was not an exercise to teach about religion, but rather was merely the school’s attempt to indoctrinate students into Christianity.    

The attempts to indoctrinate didn’t end there, however. On one occasion, we had a mandatory school-wide program during which participants performed feats of strength, and then told us that God had made them strong. The whole thing was just one more God-fest. Students weren’t told ahead of time, and we weren’t given the option of not attending. Did I mention that this is a public school?

One day, when my mother was dropping me off at school, I showed her what was actually going on in the Upper Room morning program. She saw the teachers leading the students in religious songs. She saw them projecting the words to those songs on the gymnasium wall so that the kids could sing along. She was appalled. I’d told her about Upper Room, but as an attorney, she had trouble believing that something so wildly unconstitutional was still happening in this day and age. As they say, however, “Seeing is believing.”

As soon as my mother saw what was going on, she posted it on Facebook. Some of my mother’s friends on Facebook forwarded her video to newspapers and television stations here in Kentucky. When reporters contacted my mother, she asked me if I wanted to remain anonymous or if I wanted to tell the world about what was going on at my elementary school. I chose to talk. The broadcast media didn’t ask to interview me on the air, which is just as well, because my parents wouldn’t have allowed that. I’m only 10 years old, after all.

I did, however, talk to newspaper reporters from the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. As soon as my story was broadcast on television, the city in which I live showed just how “Christian” they really are. Oddly enough, the medium used most to express their particular brand of Christian hatred was Facebook. Although both newspapers ran stories about me, and about the Upper Room religious program at my elementary school, most of the hatred expressed by my neighbors was focused on the very short broadcast stories. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the hatred being heaped upon me at my school by two teachers and many students has forced me to withdraw and to be home-schooled, for now. My family is hoping to move to a nearby city before the next school year begins.

In my absence, Upper Room is still continuing at that elementary school. At first, when the news stories were broadcast and printed, they moved Upper Room to the county courthouse, which is only about a block from the school. Yes, that’s right, I said “county courthouse” — the same place where court is held, and that is paid for with taxpayer money. Perhaps my entire city is “interesting.” After a while, though, it got moved back to the school. But now, I’m told, they simply play pop music. One of the songs that my sister tells me they play is Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” So, I suppose that’s progress. Small steps, right?

My mom worries about me and the bullying. I tell her not to worry and that it is important to always speak up for equality, whether it is about religion, race, gender, nationality, etc. I may only have one voice, but that is all that anyone has. We all have a responsibility to speak up against inequality whenever we can. I’m not saying that we will achieve equality in my lifetime, but maybe future generations will make progress to further the lives of the human race. I am a bit disappointed that the human race still treats people differently because of religion, race, gender, nationally, or anything else, but I still have hope.

Freethought Books (June/July 2018)

The following books are by FFRF members on the topics of religion or freethinking. FFRF does not do traditional book reviews.


Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith — And For Freedom

Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith — And For Freedom

Edited by Karen L. Garst

$16.95 (paperback)

Pitchstone Publishing, 2018

Throughout history, religion has been used as a tool of female subjugation. As this volume explores, it would be hard to find a bigger culprit than religion when identifying the last cultural barriers to full gender equality. With topics ranging from the subjugation of women in the bible to the shame and guilt felt by women due to religious teaching, this volume makes clear that only by rejecting the very system that limits their autonomy will women be fully liberated from its malignant influences, not just in codified law but also in cultural practice.

Time is Irreverent

By Marty Essen

$14.70 (paperback)

Encante Press, 2018

What if you could change history to eliminate religion, World War II, global warming, and an egomaniacal nuclear-bomb-dropping president? What if that change also made 5 billion people poof from existence? Would you do it? Time Is Irreverent explores those questions, as benevolent aliens send Marty Mann to AD 31 to correct an error in history.

The Party Line

By Dennis D. Gagnon

$26.75 (hardcover),
$17.99  (paperback)

ArchwayPublishing, 2018

Discovering a realm of unconscious, extrasensory communication revealing a world filled with gods, a 17-year-old explores an ethereal realm inhabited by a monster, a ghost, dragons, a phoenix, and perhaps a goddess or two. Through sustained meditations on the logic of scientific proof, including examination of fundamental evidence for quantum theory, the youth becomes convinced that all is consciousness and no material world exists. But he soon realizes that just as there are laws of the physical world, there are also inexorable forces in the conscious domain.

The Party Line
Time is Irreverent

Crankmail (June/July 2018)

Here is our latest compilation of anti-FFRF letters and email sent to our heathen headquarters (or commented on our YouTube videos), printed as received.

You’re frauds!: What is it like knowing you’re going to burn in hell for eternity, with no recompense? You’re a fraud, your organization is a disgrace, and your interpretation of the US Constitution is an abomination. The founding fathers would have both you and your handlers hanged and we both know that. Emerson Smith

Joke: You people are a joke, really take a cross down in Guernsey county. I hope karma hits ya full force. — Angela Rose

accept jesus: these people are ignorant of the bible and i wish i was close by i would answer them,infact listen to the gentleman say jesus never existed,common there is more evidence in history about jesus of nazareth from even secular historians such as tactitus,josphus and even the jews that reject jesus says on the eve of the passover they hang yeshua of nazareth,yeshua is jesus hebrew name,you sceptics can sit their and criticize my saviour the problem is if you do McLawrence

Help for you: There’s a man named Todd White that has many amazing videos on YouTube. He explains how he found God in such a way, that you can literally feel the Holy Spirit touching you. Look him up when you have time…you have nothing to lose, and eternal life to gain! — Cathy Gomez

FRFF: I continue to pray for your utter failure & institutional demise. May all of you experience the light of Freedom OF Religion, a value that so many have died protecting. — Bob Washington

LIARS!: NO WAY THESE PEOPLE ARE ATHEISTS, THEIR LYING , THEY ARE FUCKING APOLOGIST THE WORST ENEMY TO FREEDOM FROM RELIGION THEIR HAS EVER BEEN. I DON`T BELIEVE FOR ONE MOMENT THESE PEOPLE ARE ATHEISTS — Ossie Dunstan

Jesus is real: The evidence for Jesus is so overwhelming that NO RESPECTED classicist, ancient Historian, Biblical scholars, theologian in the world would deny that Jesus existed. That’s why people who deny that Jesus existed are like Flat Earthers. Flat Earthers are more rational though! — Joel Rodriguez

DON’T WORSHIP SATAN: THE CHRISTIAN GOD JESUS IS SATAN THE DEVIL AN HE IS NOT COMING BACK…CHRISTIANS WORSHIP SATAN WITH A  HUMAN SACRIFICE OF JESUS TO SATAN…YOUVE BEEN DECIVED…REPENT, ACCEPT JAHOVAH AN DO GOOD WORKS. — Charles Dorr

Listen: Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who believe without evidence,” i rather listen and believe Jesus then be in Thomas’ shoe — Malaks Peters

Nonsense: I’m really embarrassed for Mr. Barker: all of the answers to these “Top 5 Contradictions” are easily obtained through a simple Google search… The nonsense about Old Testament and New Testament? Oy, vey… Besides being clueless, do you meatballs think that anything you do is of any value to anyone other than your tiny clan – outside of reducing the costs of some church projects?? The irony is this: if the only value of atheism is some “intellectual edification”, wouldn’t it be nice if the 3 of you had a clue? Like I said, your lack of ability to discern the difference between small and large issues is amusing, and the fact your entire movement has no value to anyone is just painful to watch. And your sin analysis is another joke… please, don’t think anyone that knows OT and NT theology is even offended – you’re not worth the ink on this video… — Dan Myers

Free!: get inspired by the free word of Jesus Christ BITCH — Usher Lovell

Leave us alone: You people need to butt out of other people business . So suck it up buttercup. You people took praying out of school. Now look at our school system good job  dumass. Your trying to take down the ten Commandments from our court houses and crime is going up. Everything you people do to take GOD our crountry things get  worse every Dan time  look at the schools the kids in them. So keep on destroying our country. Then in 5 or 20 years down the road when everything is going to HELL I’ll texted back and say GREAT JOB. O ya ever mind there all ready there great job dumass!!! — Gary Bone

House’s Freethought Caucus ‘pretty historic’

This article first appeared in Pacific Standard magazine on May 10. It is reprinted with permission.

By Francie Diep

Francie Diep

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a founder of the Freethought Caucus, identifies as a humanist. He will be speaking at FFRF’s convention in San Francisco. (Photo by U.S. Department of Labor/Flickr)

The nearly 500 registered caucuses in the House of Representatives cover seemingly every issue. They represent social problems (Homelessness Caucus, Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus); industries (Coal Caucus, Steel Caucus); diseases (Caucus on Parkinson’s Disease, Childhood Cancer Caucus); and foreign relations (Friends of Switzerland Caucus, U.S.-China Working Group). They are liberal (Progressive Caucus), conservative (Freedom Caucus), and bipartisan (Bipartisan Congressional Task Force to Combat Identity Theft and Fraud). They can be made up of only a single member, or dozens.

Despite this diversity, historians Pacific Standard consulted have never heard of anything like the new caucus announced last week by four Democratic congressmen: the Freethought Caucus. Formed in consultation with groups that advocate for nontheist world views, the Freethought Caucus has four goals, according to its press release:

1) to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; 2) to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; 3) to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons … and 4) to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values and personal religious journeys.

“It harks back to Enlightenment ideas from when this country was started,” says Ray Smock, who was the House of Representatives historian from 1983 to 1995. “Aside from that thought, I’ve never heard of anything quite like it.”

Stephen Weldon, a historian of science and religion at the University of Oklahoma, pointed to polls showing what a political liability it is for a candidate to be atheist. “So to have a Congressional Freethought Caucus is pretty historic, I would say,” he writes in an email exchange.

Moment is right

That said, it might just be the right moment for something like this. The timing doesn’t surprise Matt Glassman, a researcher who once wrote about caucuses for the Congressional Research Service. “I think there’s a fair number of groups in politics who are concerned about the role religion’s playing in public policy,” he says. “That’s not new, but it does seem to be a growing sentiment among some factions, particularly on the liberal side of things.”

The caucus’ founding members are Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). Huffman is the second member of Congress ever to openly profess to having an ethical system that’s not based on God. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state’s liberal Seattle area, has tweeted that she’s a member of the caucus as well. The offices of co-chairs Huffman and Raskin didn’t respond to interview requests.

In an interview, Ron Millar, who is the coordinator of the Freethought Equality Fund Political Action Committee and helped plan the caucus, mentioned more specific aims that the PAC wants to see: action against climate change; access to contraception and abortion; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; and maintaining the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, including religious organizations, from endorsing political candidates.

In a speech last year, President Trump promised he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment, but he then signed an executive order that made little substantive change to the law, which remains in effect.

“Church-state separation has been under attack now for quite a while, and we just want to make sure policies are promoted with evidence and rational thought behind them,” Millar says.

Personal and policy

At first glance, it seems strange to package discussions of personal religious journeys and the rest of these policy goals into one cohesive platform. After all, you don’t have to be an atheist to support science-based policy, and there seems to be no natural connection between climate action and separation of church and state. But the Freethought Caucus is a reaction against how some conservatives have blended faith and policy over the past few decades, Millar says: “The connection is that we wouldn’t be talking about these things without the Religious Right.”

Conservative evangelical Christians first became associated with climate deregulation during the George W. Bush administration. In a recent textbook about religion and environmentalism, historians Myrna Perez Sheldon and Naomi Oreskes describe the steps that they argue led evangelical Christians to become climate deniers: Christian fundamentalists began to develop an ethos of interpreting the bible plainly and rejecting Darwinian evolution in the 1920s. It was not until the 1980s, however, that evangelicals really began to participate in politics, when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan courted them and evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, touted the Republican Party as the surest route to goals such as curtailing abortion access and gay rights.

During that decade, evangelicals pushed to get public schools to teach creationism and evolution equally — but courts struck them down, ruling that creationism is religion, not science, and therefore can’t be taught in taxpayer-funded programs. In response, creationists argued that they too had science on their side, but that mainstream researchers refused to acknowledge the supposed evidence undermining evolution. It was no surprise, then, when creationists began to doubt scientific consensus when it came to climate change too.

Thus, denying evolution set the stage for denying climate change among certain religious folks. It doesn’t have to be this way: There are evangelical environmentalists who support climate action as either a way of being good stewards of God’s creation, or of protecting the world’s poor, who are most vulnerable to global warming. But those aren’t the people who show up most visibly in politics.

“People have really diverse views on what they think God is, and so I think we need to allow people to have that and explore it,” says Millar, who is an atheist but grew up in a fundamentalist church. So now there’s a caucus ostensibly for religion in all its forms outside of the usual conservative platform. The Freethought Caucus is not an “atheist club,” Millar says, and is “open to everyone who believes in church-state separation and nondiscrimination.”

Whether the caucus will be able to garner enough support to be effective remains to be seen. Former House historian Smock thinks the group needs to attract at least a couple dozen members before it can have much clout. Right now, “this caucus is so small it could meet in a phone booth,” he says. “It’s not big enough to affect policy, but I’m certainly glad to see the ideas. There’s room for a larger caucus to discuss public policy and moral values, that’s for sure.”

Francie Diep is a science journalist and staff writer at Pacific Standard. She formerly wrote for Popular Science and was a freelancer for Scientific American, Smithsonian and others.

Ireland overwhelmingly votes to end abortion ban

Ireland voted decisively to repeal its restrictive abortion ban that had been in place since 1983. The vote is considered a strong rebuke to the Roman Catholic Church.

“This is devastating for the Roman Catholic hierarchy,” said Gail McElroy, professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin. “It is the final nail in the coffin for them. They’re no longer the pillar of society, and their hopes of re-establishing themselves are gone.”

The measure passed with more than two-thirds of the vote.

The vote repeals the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. “It was the latest, and harshest, in a string of rejections of the church’s authority in recent years,” writes Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura in The New York Times.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said just 12 percent of voters cited religion as a factor in their decision, leading him to wonder, “What is the place of religion in Irish society and what is the place of the church in Irish society? We have to be ruthless in looking at the reality.”

Court: Arkansas abortion restrictions to stand

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to an Arkansas law that could force two of the state’s three abortion clinics to close.

The law concerns medication abortions, which use pills to induce abortions in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.

The law requires providers of the procedure to have contracts with doctors who have admitting privileges at a hospital in the state. Abortion clinics in Arkansas said they were unable to find any doctors willing to sign such contracts.

Planned Parenthood said it would for now stop providing medication abortions in the state.

“Arkansas is now shamefully responsible for being the first state to ban medication abortion,” Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president, told the New York Times. “This dangerous law immediately ends access to safe, legal abortion at all but one health center in the state.”

No reason was given for turning away the appeal. The case will continue in the lower courts.

Iowa bans most abortions after about 6 weeks

On May 4, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bills into law.

The so-called “heartbeat” legislation bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy. Exceptions are made in cases of rape, incest or medical emergency.

The legislation drew strong Republican support, but no Democrats voted for the bill.

“This unconstitutional bill is nothing but a thinly veiled attack on Iowa women’s most basic rights and freedoms — every woman deserves the fundamental right to make decisions about her own body with her doctor,” Democratic National Committee Women’s Media Director Elizabeth Renda said in a written statement.

‘Nones’ could shake up American politics

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City on March 6, and is reprinted with permission.

By Kelsey Dallas

In 2016, religiously unaffiliated Americans, or “Nones,” represented 21 percent of registered voters, one percentage point more than white evangelical Christians. However, they only accounted for 15 percent of actual voters, according to Pew Research Center and national exit polls.

Secular activists see the gap between these two figures as a call to action for 2018 and beyond. They plan to improve voter turnout and shape the Nones into a dominant political force.

“We want to be seen as a powerhouse constituency,” said Sarah Levin, director of grassroots and community programs at the Secular Coalition for America.

If that happens, the Nones could help drive faith groups from the public square, reducing religious exemptions meant to protect people with more conservative beliefs, said John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. But that’s a big “if,” he added.

“Many of the markers you’d use to target people are not available with this group,” he said, noting that religiously unaffiliated adults don’t meet with one another on Sunday mornings or follow the same set of leaders.

Secular activists will never unify all Americans who’ve dropped out of organized religion, said David Campbell, chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. However, even mobilizing just those Nones who actively identify as atheist, agnostic or secular will boost the political influence of the nonreligious community in dramatic ways.

“There is a clear historical parallel between the secular population today and evangelical Christians in 1978 and 1979,” he said. “This is a voting bloc emerging right before our eyes.”

Forming a bloc

Political scientists often define voting blocs in terms of the attention they receive from candidates. Established blocs inspire targeted campaign speeches and campaign stops at their gathering places.

For example, politicians court evangelical Christians by appearing at houses of worship. They promise new limitations on abortion rights or the appointment of conservative judges.

“We see candidates, a large number of candidates, actively seeking the support of these voters,” Green said.

Although around one in five registered voters is a None, this community has yet to receive this kind of targeted attention from politicians, Campbell said. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke about being not very religious, but not as a direct pitch to nonreligious voters.

“I can’t point to a single national politician who has truly made it a point to speak directly to the secular population to bring them to the polls,” Campbell said.

Secular activists want to change that, so they’re working to be more visible in their communities and more visible to candidates. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, they plan to host voter registration drives and attend political rallies.

“We’re having teams of activists across the country going to town halls and asking questions or going to campaign events and asking questions,” Levin said.

They’re hoping to increase voter turnout and strengthen connections between religious Nones, said Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists.

“What we’re trying to do is look at things churches do well, things like getting their members registered to vote, to turn out (on Election Day) and be visible as members of their community,” he said.

Through this process, the Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, [Freedom From Religion Foundation]  and other secular groups will work to raise their national profile, gaining more members and building relationships with politicians. Better organization is key to being recognized as a voting bloc, Green said.

“The question is, can we point to one or a small number of organizations that speak for this group (of voters) and have a fairly large membership?” he said.

Seeking identity

As the nickname “None” implies, religiously unaffiliated Americans are linked together by their lack of a religious identity, not their participation in something new. Two people who left their childhood faith may not have much in common beyond that departure, Green said.

“One of the reasons it’s been difficult for secular activists to build a cohesive voting bloc out of the Nones is that they’re so internally diverse,” he said.

Few religiously unaffiliated Americans see voting as a way to express their secular identity. Many don’t even claim a secular identity, said Michael Wear, who led faith outreach during President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Religious disaffiliation is “not a key identifier for them,” he said. “They’re coming to politics as a member of a political party or a person who cares about the environment or health care. Very few come with the identity of a religious None.”

Groups like the Secular Coalition for America hope to change that by increasing community outreach. They want to meet the Nones where they are, after they determine exactly where that is.

“We would love to figure out where the unaffiliated are on Sundays,” Levin said.

Some Nones actually are in church-like settings on Sunday mornings. Members of Sunday Assembly Salt Lake City, an organization for atheists, agnostics and other secular folks in Utah, gather once a month to discuss interesting research and sing popular songs.

Brian O’Saurus, the group’s vice chairman, plans to do his part to boost political engagement in his community. He already helped arrange a visit from an expert on immigration policy and is considering a how-to event on political lobbying.

“As the elections draw near, we’ll encourage people to vote. We may offer rides to the polls for people who need one,” he said.

To find the Nones who aren’t part of groups like Sunday Assembly, Levin’s urged her team of community leaders to set up voter registration drives at highly trafficked events, like state fairs and music festivals. She also wants them to think outside the box.

“I was talking to someone in Texas, asking him where he thought he could do voter registration. He said, ‘On Sunday, everyone is at the IHOP,’” Levin said.

These outreach events will work toward solving the community’s leadership problem, drawing more Nones into politically active groups with trained spokesmen. They will also create opportunities to discover shared values, helping groups like the Secular Coalition  craft a political agenda that appeals to most, or at least many, religiously unaffiliated adults.

“We want to have a conversation about what our values are and what we’re looking for in our candidates across political spectrum,” Levin said.

Similar efforts have succeeded in other countries, drawing Nones into community groups and encouraging political engagement, Wear said. Humanists UK has brought enough people together that its leaders have true political clout.

They “can speak for tens of thousands of people and carry legitimacy in public conversations,” he said.

However, secular activists in America are still a long way from that result, and they need to target their outreach better if they hope to get there, Campbell said. He estimates that only around one-third of the religiously unaffiliated are “actively secular” and able to be drawn into a recognizable voting bloc.

“We speak of the religious Nones or the unaffiliated population as though they’re one large group,” he said. “But there is a very clear divide within that population.”

Actively secular Americans search for truth in philosophy or science, finding meaning in mostly nonreligious sources. Passively secular adults, on the other hand, aren’t very concerned with life’s big questions and may still cite the bible as a source of inspiration, he added.

Two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and around one in five say this belief is a necessary part of being a moral person, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

Campbell’s demarcation deals a blow to the claim that a voting bloc of Nones could capture up to a quarter of Americans. But a smaller population of organized, nonreligious voters could still have a big impact, he said.

“Actively secular Nones represent something like 8 to 10 percent of the population. That’s more than the number of Southern Baptists and five times as many as Mormons. It’s a group that’s growing,” said Campbell, who is currently studying the Nones for a book about the future of religion and politics.

Political goals

For religious folks, the rise of religious Nones has created a host of challenges. Houses of worship are closing due to low membership, and religiously affiliated charities are struggling to keep up with demand for their services as disengagement from religion leads to fewer donations.

If actively secular Americans form a strong voting bloc, faith groups could face additional problems. Democratic politicians are already more willing to battle with faith groups today than they were in the past, Wear said.

“You see politicians being able to say, ‘Stop with your thoughts and prayers and focus on policies.’ You wouldn’t have been able to say that 15 to 20 years ago,” he said.

But secular activists assert that they’re not on a warpath against religion. They want to raise the profile of the Nones,  not attack other religious demographics.

“We want to normalize atheism” for everyday people, as well as politicians, Fish said.

FFRF’s “I’m an Atheist and I Vote” campaign includes full-size billboards.
FFRF’s “I’m Secular and I Vote” ad campaign includes outreach to voters across the nation through FFRF chapters, media ads and efforts to mobilize students on college campuses.

Like faithful Americans, secular people value religious freedom, Levin said, noting that it includes the freedom to believe in nothing at all.

“Our view of a secular America includes people of all faiths and no faiths living out their faith or lack of faith without imposing on their neighbors,” she said.

However, this vision for America still holds consequences for faith groups, Green said.

Secular activists’ commitment to the strict separation of church and state means that religious communities could have a harder time passing or protecting policies they favor.

“If the affirmative concerns of secular people become more prominent in politics, there will be a diminution of the influence of religious groups,” he said.

For example, tax-exempt status may one day be based on the types of services offered to the community, rather than on religious commitments, Green added.

Moving forward, American politics will increasingly be shaped by battles over how far religious teachings should shape public life, Campbell said.

“It won’t be as much about a pro-religion camp versus an anti-religion camp, but, rather, an ongoing debate about to what degree the government should be entangled with religion,” he said.

Learning from past

In 2018, a Nones voting bloc feels a long way off. Secular groups are still honing their outreach efforts, and faith groups continue to receive far more attention from candidates than the nonreligious community.

However, many political scientists are convinced that change is coming. They look at religiously unaffiliated Americans today and draw comparisons to evangelical Christians in the 1970s, a community of believers that, over the last four decades, has become the country’s most notable religion-related voting bloc.

Low voter turnout plagued evangelicals for half of the 20th century, and, in the mid-1970s, few members of the community saw voting as a way to express their religious concerns, according to Randall Balmer, chairman of Dartmouth College’s religion department.

“From about 1925 to 1975, evangelicals weren’t organized politically,” he said. They regarded the political world as “both corrupt and corrupting.”

That started to change in 1976 during Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. Carter, who self-identified as a born-again Christian, was an exciting candidate for committed Christians.

“There was a novelty to being able to vote for one of your own,” Balmer said.

Political activists saw this renewed interest in the election and sprang into action.

They turned pastors into political operatives, training them to help their congregations approach voting in new ways.

At the time, these efforts seemed almost laughable, Green said. Evangelical Christians in different denominations shared little more in common than religious texts. However, it was clear they could be mobilized around certain issues.

“They didn’t read the bible the same way or practice the same customs, but they agreed that abortion was bad,” he said.

Secular activists will have to do the same type of work among nonreligious Americans, identifying the issues that get them to the polls.

They may benefit from religiously unaffiliated Americans’ distaste for President Trump, just as evangelical activists benefitted from an appreciation for Carter.

Only 1 in 4 religiously unaffiliated Americans (25 percent) approve of how Trump is handling his job, according to an October survey from Pew.

It may take years before candidates routinely meet with secular groups and politicians craft legislation meant to please the Nones.

But secular groups  are ready to put in the work, Fish said.

The problem with teaching the bible in public schools

By James A. Haught

Image by Shutterstock

Around America, fundamentalist politicians often try to breach the separation of church and state by requiring public schools to teach about the bible. Such an attempt was made in my state of West Virginia this year, but it stalled in a legislative committee.

The fundamentalists don’t quite grasp what they’re doing. They don’t realize that classroom warfare might erupt over some of the bible’s hideous commandments. For example:

Exodus 31:15 decrees: “Whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.” Exodus 35:2 is almost identical.

Would teachers apply this mandate to police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, hospital aides, paramedics, snowplow drivers, power repair crews, bus drivers, airline crews, radio and television staffs, store clerks and others who must work on Sundays?

The 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy commands that brides who aren’t virgins must be taken to their fathers’ doorsteps and stoned to death. With millions of unwed American couples living together, will that decree apply to females among them?

Several verses instruct how to buy and sell slaves. Leviticus 25:44 says: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.”

Which neighbor nations will be deemed appropriate sources of slaves?

Exodus 21:7 gives rules when “a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant.”

Leviticus 20:13 says gay males “shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (But lesbians aren’t mentioned.) Now that America approves same-sex marriage, what’s the effect of this commandment?

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Hebrew soldiers to attack a neighbor tribe “and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

Numbers 31 orders a similar massacre, with this exception: “But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Would these decrees apply to U.S. soldiers today?

1 Kings 11 says Solomon “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.” What would teachers tell pupils about such biblical family values?

In the Great Commission (Mark 16), Jesus tells the apostles that “these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents.” Some mountain worshipers obey this command by picking up rattlesnakes. What would schools teach?

Actually, the bible — written in brutal, ignorant times — contains literally hundreds of grotesque verses decreeing cruel punishments for trivial offenses. It mandates death for many sexual encounters — and for doubting the bible’s version of religion.

As you can see, teaching the bible in public schools could open a floodgate for classroom arguments over these horrors. And it could open people’s eyes to the savagery in the “Good Book.”

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Using a chrysalis instead of a crucifix

This article first appeared April 30 on the “Just a Couple of Atheists” blog at coupleofatheists.com and is reprinted with permission.

By Allison Hess

Allison Hess

The other day I snapped a picture of my 3-year-old daughter Arabella sitting in our office. It has been a joke between me and my husband that his little collection of Freethought Today newspapers makes it look like our office is actually an FFRF waiting room.

Well, I tweeted out the picture and the description, and one comment I received really stood out to me. “Hmmm. Something the religious might do; expose their children to only one way of thin

Arabella Hess sits next to a stack of Freethought Todays at the Hess household in Pittsburgh.

king & the literature supporting that. Sounds like indoctrination to me.”

I was surprised to see this response because I felt that it was clear my post was meant as a joke. Then I started thinking about the idea that simply exposing Arabella to nonreligious texts would be the same as indoctrination through daily teachings from a holy book. Even if Arabella was able to fully understand the content, I hardly think “FFRF defeats Gov. Abbott over Capitol nativity display” compares to “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me.”

If anything, the FFRF text would be beneficial, as it provided insight into the legal system and the Constitution of the United States. Even taking Arabella to an FFRF convention or making her a member of FFRF wouldn’t compare to the relationship between a church and its followers.

Clearly the comment was nonsense and yet the concept is something nonbelievers are often confronted with when the topic of secular parenting comes up.

Our society assumes that since many people were/are raised with religion, that a lack of religion leaves a void to be filled. I simply don’t see it this way. People have asked me many times how I will raise Arabella in an atheist family and I find the question to be ridiculous. I just don’t believe that someone is taught to be an atheist, but more that they are taught to follow God. People are not born with knowledge of a higher power so there isn’t anything to undo. Just like a Christian family would grow up skipping over all of history and traditions of Muslims, our secular family functions each day just like everyone else, except no restrictions from God.

Instead of nightly prayers, we have nightly books. Right now, we read and discuss bugs, planets, maps and dinosaurs. Instead of a crucifix, she is learning about a chrysalis . . . and guess what, she sleeps soundly through the night.

As the earlier Twitter comment shows, it was suggested that as atheists we could be exposing our daughter to just one way of thinking, but that isn’t the case in our household. Rich and I have a huge library of books covering nearly every perspective you could want.

Though she may be years away from comparing the The Purpose Driven Life and Life Driven Purpose (by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker), we also have a range of children’s books. Right there on her bedroom bookshelf sit I Found a Dead Bird, The Book of Myths and The Golden Book of God and I am happy to read all of them to her.

See, unlike children raised in religious families, Arabella will have the chance to openly explore what various belief systems exist and why people find them to be true. We can hope that, by teaching her critical thinking skills, she will be able to understand the flaws that come with organized religions.

At the same time, I will not ever fault her for exploring and will gladly help her research any topic she finds interesting. I have no doubt that if she has a bunch of Christian friends, she will eventually ask if she can go to a youth group meeting. The answer will be yes, as I do not believe in sheltering children from religion. I would simply use it as a chance to discuss the logic behind why we do not believe in God so that she can approach it knowing it is based on theory and not fact.

One of my favorite things about living a secular life is there are no limitations on what interests I can hold and what activities I can enjoy. I am thankful to be able to speak for myself, to treat people as I wish to be treated and to learn the natural consequence of life choices. As Arabella gets older, I look forward to watching her enjoy this freedom as well.

I believe that secular parenting has an extra level of responsibility because, unlike believers who can write everything off as “God’s word” or “God’s will,” you are the one who is providing the knowledge and the skills to use it. Having the opportunity to teach my child kindness, love, dignity and respect without adding in God’s piece of the pie is a true honor for this mom.

FFRF Members Allison and Richard Hess live in Pittsburgh with their daughter.

‘Be happy’: Don Ardell promotes wellness

This article was first published May 3 in The Gabber, the weekly newspaper of Pinellas County (Fla.). It is reprinted with permission. Don Ardell is a member of FFRF.

By Angelina Bruno

Don Ardell: winning triathlete, published author, wellness advocate and Gulfport, Fla., resident. Even with multiple triathlon world championship titles and over 10 books published, Ardell isn’t ready to slow down.

His latest accomplishment is national championship title at a duathlon in Greenville, S.C. On the weekend of April 7, Ardell completed his race (5K run, 18K cycle and a second run of 2.85K) in one hour and 29 minutes. The twist? Ardell is 79 years old.

“It’s because of my age I do triathlons,” said Ardell. “I can’t afford not to.”

Ardell was born in Philadelphia in 1938 and has lived across the United States, calling states like California, Minnesota and North Carolina home. Now Ardell and his wife, Carol, split time between a condo in Gulfport and a home in Madison, Wis.

Ardell has focused his life around wellness, health and aging, publishing titles like High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease in 1976 and Aging Beyond Belief in 2007. Originally, Ardell thought he wanted to work in city planning, but in 1977 got his doctorate in health and public policy from Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.

His approach to aging and wellness is holistic, he says, focusing on both mental and physical health. On a list for three easy tips for wellness, he includes “associate with positive people,” and “be happy.”

But health has its ups and down, even for athletes. Shortly after the 2015 ITU World Championship in Chicago marked a big moment for Ardell. He found himself sitting on the edge of the sidewalk during a run by the Salvador Dali museum in downtown St. Petersburg, unsure on what had landed him there.

“I’d just had stroke,” said Ardell, reflecting on that day. “And I’d never had a health problem in my life!” A passerby told him he’d had a stroke, but he refused to believe it. “Hey, I’m in great shape,” he told the group that’d gathered. “Leave me alone.” A doctor happened to be nearby and convinced Ardell to seek professional health care. Ardell later left the scene in an ambulance.

After tests at a nearby hospital, Ardell learned he had atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that causes irregular heartbeat leading to other conditions like strokes, blood clots and heart failure. Ardell says he’s seen no after-effects from the stroke, however. The 79-year-old still races and exercises, and while he’s not as fast as he used to be, he’s says he’s still faster than others in his age group.

It seems Ardell isn’t letting atrial fib, as he calls it, slow him much.

In the works for Ardell is a new book, titled Not Dead Yet: World Champions 75+ Offer Tips on Successful Aging. In this book, Ardell and 17 other world champion triathletes, 75 years of age and older, give their tips on successful aging and happiness. The book is still in the writing stages, but Ardell says it will be published by a major publisher. For more information, the website notdeadyetthebook.com has biographies and photos of all of the featured athletes.

In his section on the site, Ardell puts emphasis on the importance of happiness in longevity and health, quoting his favorite orator Robert Green Ingersoll. “Seek out and pick up every jewel of joy that can be found in your path … the time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

Photo by James A. Randell, courtesy of Don Ardell
FFRF Member Don Ardell, a 79-year-old triathlete, shows no signs of slowing down, even after a stroke.