Heads Up poetry column: Will

A Poetry Column By Philip Appleman


More or less sound

of mind and memory,

I venture this testament.


To the poets, in the perfect pitch

of your dangerous music,

I bequeath the fiber of quench and gravel,

slush and splinter, ratchet,

forage, and fizz.

And though you will face the welter

of blizzard, tussle, and brawl, the scud

of umbrage, rankle, and jeer,

I leave you the spell

of periwinkle, condor, daffodil, velvet,

trickle, rapture, and pine.

Even in the wasteland of writer’s block

and the quicksand of murderous deadlines,

you will find them sprouting up

somewhere in the sunshine: impudent, racy,

passionate, irresistible.

Gather them in

with pleasure.


To the lovers, in the blooming

of each new moment, I hereby bequeath

a lifetime of honor and cherish.

I endow you with a glimpse of forsythia,

the shimmer of silk on a chair back,

the smell of bakeries at sunrise,

the secrets of sparrows.

And because there will be detours and chuckholes,

fields of nettles, and weeks of freezing rain,

I leave you my vested interest

in maple trees, jonquils, coral, and amber,

the flavor of raspberries, a taste of skin,

and yells of joy in troubled skies—

all of it for worse,

for better.

In witness whereof, this day

I set my hand—

and hope.

Meet a member: Atheism became professor’s philosophy

Tom Shipka

Name: Tom Shipka.

Where I live: Youngstown, Ohio.

Family: Katie Kane Shipka, spouse; Anne Louise White, daughter; Andrew Shipka, son.

Education: A.B. in philosophy from John Carroll University; Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College.

Occupation: Emeritus professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University.

How I got where I am today: I was raised in a Roman Catholic family and even spent two years in a seminary with the intent to become a priest. The change in plans was triggered during college largely by the exposure to philosophy courses, where the distinction between faith-based beliefs and reason-based beliefs took hold. This led to graduate work in philosophy, a doctoral dissertation which featured two atheists — Sartre and Dewey — and a 49-year career of teaching, researching, and publishing philosophy. 

Where I’m headed: During my retirement, I continue reading a lot, serving as president of my condo association, backing political candidates who support a strong social safety net, and, with FFRF, supporting the separation of government and religion and opposing Christian Nationalism.

Person in history I admire and why: Thomas Jefferson for his invaluable role in the founding of our nation.

A quotation I like: “Science is the answer to our prayers.” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a television interview about the coronavirus pandemic, March 31, 2020.

Things I like: Teaching, motorcycling, reading, eating out, eating sweets, exercising, talking over coffee with friends, doing commentaries on the local NPR affiliate, attending YSU football and basketball games.

Things I smite: The role of wealth and religious extremism in undermining our government and the separation of government and religion.

My doubts about religion started:  Thanks to philosophy courses in college.

Before I die:  I hope to continue doing what I do now as long as my health permits.  As my will and other legal documents provide, I will not acquiesce in an extended disability, especially a mental one.

Ways I promote freethought: During 10 years of commentaries on the local NPR affiliate, I often highlighted our Founders (especially James Madison and Jefferson), prominent atheists, and the roots of terrorism, violence, and intolerance in religious scriptures, including the “Good Book.” Also, I am a member of all the major national organizations which promote secularism and the separation of government and religion.

What cultural changes worry you a lot today? The decline in reading books, newspapers, and magazines across all age groups in the United States due initially to the spread of television and more recently the global spread of cellphones and social media

FFRF welcomes 13 new Lifers

FFRF welcomes and thanks its 13 new Lifetime Members and one new After-Life Member.

The newest After-Life Member is Virginia Massa. She was gifted the membership by Kenneth Fahrenholtz. (Thanks, Ken!) After-Life Membership is a tongue-in-cheek-named membership category of $5,000 for those who want their membership to “live on” after them.

The newest $1,000 Lifetime Members are Jehnana L. Balzer, Bill Chollett, Carolyn Crites, Daniel Fregin, Carole Iverson, Joe Leventhal, John Martinez, Matthew Neiger, Peter Norris, Diane Sollee, W. Andrew Stover, Nancy Ungar and Randall Scott Walden. 

States represented are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Pastors arrested for public health violations

The first known U.S. arrest of a pastor for holding church services amid the COVID-19 pandemic occurred March 30 in Tampa, Fla., when Rodney Howard-Browne, 58, was booked on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He’s the pastor of the River at Tampa Bay megachurch and he and his congregation had been warned earlier by sheriff’s officials about the “dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community,” reported the Tampa Bay Times.

Instead, Howard-Browne held two large services March 29 and even offered to bus people to the church, where it live-streamed the three-hour “Main Event” service on its Facebook page, showing congregants shoulder-to-shoulder while the church band played.

He joined evangelical leaders who laid hands on President Trump during a 2017 Oval Office meeting and has promulgated conspiracy theories about the pandemic, including that it was planned at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event. He’s being represented by the Liberty Counsel, a right-wing legal group.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, a Republican, said at a press conference that he ordered the arrest “because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings” were ignored.

Two days later, Howard-Browne said in a social media livestream that he would not open the church for Palm Sunday services April 5. “I’m doing this to protect the congregation,” he said, then added he was protecting them from a “tyrannical government,” not the coronavirus.

Louisiana pastor charged

A Pentecostal pastor in the Baton Rouge suburb of Central, La., was charged with six counts of violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency order barring gatherings of over 10 people, and later arrested for almost backing his church bus into a protester.

Mark A. “Tony” Spell, 42, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, drew about 1,000 people to services March 22, in part by bussing people in from five parishes. He also had been holding services on Tuesdays. Spell told CNN that response to the pandemic is “politically motivated.”

After being charged, Spell vowed to hold services again and said, “[I]f I am arrested, the second man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the third man in charge will step in. If he is arrested, the thousands of people who are members of this congregation are gonna step in, but you can’t take us all.”

The next night, hundreds of parishioners, young and old, packed the church and were monitored from outside by law enforcement and media, WAFB-TV reported. On Easter Sunday, reports from various sources say more than 1,300 people filled his church, despite the governor’s order.

On April 19, police say Spell was charged with aggravated assault in connection to the church bus incident that was caught on tape, according to NBC News.

Rodney Howard-Browne

In the News (May 2020)

Atheist loses appeal over citizenship oath

On April 3, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2018 ruling that reciting the phrase “so help me God” in the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance was not unconstitutional.

Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo had filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in 2017. The French citizen, who has lived in the United States since 2000, said she could not “in good conscience include those words in her oath.”

Cardinal Pell

U.S. District Judge William Young said in his ruling that the phrase was a “well-established tradition” and was merely ceremonial.

Pastor dies from disease after keeping church open

A prominent Virginia pastor died April 11 from the coronavirus after telling his congregation in March, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.”

Bishop Gerald Glenn founded New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield and spoke about the coronavirus on March 22, days after Virginians were urged to avoid large non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people.

“I am essential,” he said of remaining open, adding, “I’m a preacher — I talk to God,” according to the New York Post.

Atheists most politically active group in U.S.

Atheists are near the top or at the top in political participation, according to an analysis of the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey by Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

In all six scenarios offered by the survey, atheists were first or second in likelihood to participate. A quarter of atheists attended a march or protest compared to just 4.4 percent of white evangelicals. Four in 10 atheists have contacted a public official or donated money to a candidate. That’s tied with Jews, but is much higher than most Christian groups in the sample.

At every level on the education spectrum, atheists and agnostics are more politically active than Protestants or Catholics. More education leads to higher levels of political activity among all religious groups, but the relationship is even stronger for atheists than other groups.

Cardinal Pell freed after conviction overturned

Australia’s highest court on April 7 overturned the sexual abuse conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader ever found guilty in the church’s clergy pedophilia crisis.

Pell, 78, who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison last March for molesting two 13-year-old boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.

He was freed after a panel of seven judges ruled that the jury ought to have entertained a doubt about his guilt. The judges cited “compounding improbabilities” to conclude that the verdicts on five counts reached in 2018 were “unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence.”

Pell had receded from the public mind during his time in prison, and with the exception of his die-hard supporters, most Australians had come to accept his guilt as an established fact.

Michigan drops opposition to secular celebrants

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) withdrew its lawsuit against Michigan after the state attorney general reversed the government’s opposition to let secular celebrants  officiate weddings.

The Center for Inquiry reports that in May 2018, it “challenged Michigan’s marriage laws for unconstitutionally granting exclusive authority to solemnize marriages to religious ministers, while denying that authority to Secular Celebrants trained and certified by CFI, which advances reason, science, and humanist values.

But the new state administration that took office in 2019 interpreted the existing statutes as expressly permitting CFI’s Secular Celebrants to perform marriages, leading the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan to dismiss the case as a settled matter.”

Poll: Majority has prayed for end of coronavirus

A majority of Americans have prayed for the end of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.

According to the survey, published April 6, 55 percent of U.S. adults say they have prayed for an end to the spread of coronavirus. Evangelicals are among the most likely to say that they have prayed for an end to the virus, with 82 percent saying they’ve done so. Among religious “Nones” — those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” — 36 percent say they have prayed about the virus. And 15 percent of those who generally seldom or never pray say they have prayed for an end to the crisis.

Muslims clash with           police over lockdown

On April 3, Pakistani Muslims at a Karachi mosque clashed with baton-wielding police trying to enforce new curbs on gatherings to prevent Friday prayers and contain coronavirus infections, officials said.

According to Reuters, television footage showed dozens of people chasing two police vehicles and pelting them with stones as an officer fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

Health experts warned that the pandemic could easily overwhelm the weak public health systems in the region.

But Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh, and India, home to the world’s largest Muslim minority, have struggled to persuade conservative religious groups to maintain social distancing.

South Carolina school district owes AHA $450K

In South Carolina, the Greenville County School District must pay more than $450,000 to the American Humanist Association after losing a six-year legal battle over graduation prayers.

In August 2019, U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks stopped the district from including prayers at graduation ceremonies.

The school board claimed the ruling was unclear, caused “confusion,” and favored secular speech over religious speech.

The school district owes AHA $446,466 in attorneys’ fees and $9,776 for other expenses. The district said it would appeal the fees.

Andrew L. Seidel: Bailout for religious entities unconstitutional

Don Addis cartoon

By Andrew L. Seidel

Lurking within the recently passed congressional stimulus package is a constitutional violation that virtually guarantees massive fraud and abuse.

Churches, houses of worship and nonprofits with religious missions are eligible for a sizable part of the $2 trillion stimulus under the CARES Act, which allows businesses and nonprofits to take out forgivable loans from the federal government. That’s a problem because it’s unconstitutional for our government to tax citizens and then turn around and hand that money to churches to pay their preachers or mortgages. The federal government can’t take our money and give it to Joel Osteen or Robert Jeffress or Paula White — even in the wake of a pandemic. It’s also a nightmare because churches and religious nonprofits, unlike every other charity in the United States, don’t disclose any financial information to the government or taxpayer.

As part of their public trust, 501(c)(3) nonprofits file an annual report with the IRS that details specific financial information — down to every penny. Unlike other 501(c)(3)s, churches are not required to file anything. They are financial black holes. Public trust requires public transparency. Without it, the public cannot verify that nonprofits are honoring that trust and that it is not being abused or exploited.

For instance, how much of our money will flow to Trump’s inner circle of preachers? Will we be covering the mortgage on Jeffress’ $130 million church? Will we be paying President Trump’s “spiritual adviser” White’s church and White House salaries? Will the Catholic Church, mired in scandal and with a bank all its own, be dipping into taxpayers’ pockets? What about the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church? Because they entirely lack financial transparency and accountability, churches are already rife with fraud and abuse. Churches qualify for CARES Act funds even if they have never registered as a church with the IRS. Receiving these taxpayer funds could be literally both the first and last time the government ever hears of them.

There are no safeguards built into the CARES Act. It is irresponsible to provide financial support to such organizations, and doubly so without requiring transparent accounting. Taxpayer funds should only be available to nonprofits that file financial information with the IRS, even if not required to do so by federal law. Otherwise, Congress is handing out taxpayer money with no accountability whatsoever.

But Congress can’t give taxpayer money to churches in the first place. That is the original safeguard and a unique principle that America bequeathed to humanity. This rule dates back to before the founding of our republic. The constitutional ban on taxing citizens for the benefit of religion guarantees religious liberty, for as Thomas Jefferson put it in the “Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom” (1786), “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”

Some will argue that this is just a question of equality and that churches should be treated like every other business and nonprofit. But that’s the very problem: Churches are not. They are substantially favored under our system. State-church separation gives religion significant benefits, for instance, preventing the courts from adjudicating internal church disputes. Attached to these benefits are relatively few burdens, most importantly, that taxpayers cannot be forced to fund religion.

Funneling money to churches under the CARES Act augments the benefits churches receive under the separation of state and church, while eliminating the burdens. Churches get to have their cake — which the American taxpayers must buy — and eat it, too.

Andrew L. Seidel is the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He’s the author of the recently published The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.

FFRF’s first music video makes ‘heavenly’ splash

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to release its first animated music video, which takes a gentle jibe at unreasonable beliefs in an afterlife.

What better time than the here and now to enjoy the 2-D music video, featuring a clever poem, “Heaven,” by Rupert Brooke, which pokes fun at that fishy story of the afterlife. The video exposes the irrationality of heavenly hopes by framing wishful thinking about an afterlife from the point of view of a fish. The poem is a favorite of God Delusion author Richard Dawkins, and his father was particularly fond of it, too. You can view it on FFRF’s YouTube channel.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker set the 1913 poem to music with calypso overtones several years ago. Recent art school grad Kati Treu brings the song and verses to life with her winning cartoon depiction of the religious longings of a fish.

The protagonist fish in Treu’s depiction is cast down by the idea of there being nothing “beyond” and insists that “somehow, good shall come of water and of mud” and there must be “a purpose in liquidity.” The fish imagines an afterlife filled with fat caterpillars, paradisal grubs, “unfading moths, immortal flies, and the worm that never dies.” (Watch the final few seconds, which reveal the fish’s fondest dream about heaven.)

Brooke died tragically young during World War I. Barker, an accomplished piano player and songwriter, has recorded three musical CDs for FFRF. This song is not yet available on a CD.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, briefly introduces the video and clarifies the freethought view on heaven. She comments: “Those who have taken the religious bait are all wet. Thinking people understand why hell is a disturbing idea. But the concept of heaven is also destructive, promising pie in the sky when you die, and discouraging humanity from making this world, our only life, heaven on Earth.”

Illustration by Kati Treu

Where was God?

Many churches were damaged or destroyed by “acts of God” in March and April, including Easter Sunday.

In New Kensington, Pa., the steeple on St. Mary of Czestochowa was damaged by a tornado on April 8.

In Nashville, the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was left in complete ruins by a tornado on March 3. Also in Nashville, the East End United Methodist Church bell tower was toppled during the storm. In Bradley County, Tenn., the Church of Jesus Christ was left badly damaged.

The Grants Hill CMW Church in Carbon Hill, Ala., was destroyed by a tornado on April 12 (Easter Sunday), the second time in less than 20 years it has been hit by a tornado. And the Cornerstone Apostolic Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., was damaged during a tornado that same day.

And, finally, Lawler Missionary Baptist Church in Dora, Ala., was hit by tornado on Easter, including three crosses outside the church, although the middle one was left standing. Believers were quick to say that it was a sign from God because the “Jesus” center cross was not destroyed.

The steeple of the Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Priceville, Ala., was hit by lightning and started a fire on Easter Sunday. The fire destroyed the steeple, but firefighters were able to salvage the rest of the building.
(Photo by Jenn Powell)

Overheard (May 2020)

I had done a tour in Gitmo, in Guantanamo Bay, and that really kind of sealed the deal for me. I decided, yeah, I don’t believe in [religion] anymore.

Arlene Rios, a former military service member, who started a LatinX atheist support group in El Monte, Calif.

Spectrum News 1, 3-3-20

I have been hearing the argument that we do not have a right to close or restrict places of worship. I disagree with that legal analysis in all respects.

Sunrise, Fla., Mayor Mike Ryan, in April 3 email to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Chief of Staff Shane Strum, after getting mixed messages from DeSantis on whether local authorities have the right to restrict gatherings.

Politico, 4-7-20

Downplaying the threat and refusing to comply with social distancing measures require an indifference toward the common good, a certainty that the ends will justify the means and a brash confidence that God will be on one’s own side.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her op-ed “Some evangelicals deny the coronavirus threat. It’s because they love tough guys.”

Washington Post, 4-2-20

If Texas is any indicator, the rise to power of Christian Americanists may not mean an immediate shift to conservative Christian theocracy. Instead, church-state separation and religious freedom may die a death of a thousand cuts.

David R. Brockman, in his column, “New study of Christian Nationalism in Texas should be a warning for the whole country.” 

Religion Dispatches, 4-2-20

Belief in the Rapture should disqualify anyone from holding public office.

Actor Michael McKean.

Twitter, 4-8-20

Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a press conference.

CNN, 4-14-20

Universal vote by mail is a secular issue

The injustice of forcing citizens to endanger their lives to vote in the midst of a pandemic was recently brought home to FFRF during the debacle that was Wisconsin’s in-person primary election.

Several FFRF staff members were forced to risk their lives — and the lives of their families — on April 7 in order to vote, after requesting absentee ballots that never arrived. Both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts compelled the state’s voters to violate stay-at-home orders and risk health and plague to exercise their constitutional right to vote. (Note that both courts safely issued these undemocratic decisions via remote work.)

I’m secular and I vote.

Dissenting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the decision would result “in massive disenfranchisement” and wrote that the reasoning of her conservative colleagues “boggles” the mind.

All evidence so far backs up Ginsburg’s prediction. Only five polling places were even open in Milwaukee, a county of nearly 1 million people (down from more than 180 polling sites in normal elections). Lines were long at many polling stations, making social distancing a joke. Poll workers had to sit close to each other, and handle countless IDs, thanks to Wisconsin’s unnecessary voter ID requirement. Even worse, the decision to override Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ accommodation, which would have allowed a longer time frame to mail in ballots, was purely ugly partisan politicking, a preview of coming attractions in November.

The pandemic has brought renewed attention to the advantages of universal vote by mail. American secular voters are becoming a force. Secular voters sharply increased their share of the U.S. electorate to 17 percent by 2018: a massive 55 percent increase. FFRF wants to see those numbers continue to climb. After all, the nonreligious are 26 percent of the U.S. population, so we have secular muscle to flex.

Currently, five states conduct all elections entirely by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah) and 21 allow voting by mail in lesser elections. Conveniences include privacy, fewer barriers for those with disabilities, more time to vote (ballots are sent out in advance), and to consider one’s vote. Even better, voting by mail costs less — in one study up to 40 percent less. Best of all, the convenience tends to increase turnout and enhance democracy at work.

Universal vote by mail will not just help secular voters, but will assist all Americans to exercise their supreme right of citizenship. FFRF supports it. We hope you will, too.