Convention speech: Michelle Goldberg — The (further) rise of Christian nationalism

This is an edited version of Michelle Goldberg’s speech from FFRF’s 40th annual convention at the Monona Terrace and Convention Center in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 15.

She was introduced by FFRF Communications Director Amit Pal:

Just this week it was announced that Michelle Goldberg will be a columnist for The New York Times. She has written for a variety of publications from Slate to Rolling Stone to Glamour, New Yorker and The Nation. And she’s written two prescient, and if I may use the word in this gathering, almost prophetic books. They are Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, written back in the Bush era, and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. Her latest book is The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. We are really pleased to welcome her to speak about the current state of the United States and the rise of Christian nationalism. So, welcome Michelle.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg spoke to the FFRF convention audience on Sept.15 at the Monona Terrace and Convention Center in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Thank you so much for having me. Eleven years ago, I published the book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which was about a kind of ascendant authoritarian fundamentalist movement in American politics. I wrote, “America is full of good people, but something dark is loose. There is a free-floating anxiety that easily metastasizes into paranoia and hatred for the same enemies always targeted by authoritarian populist movements: homosexuals, urbanites, foreigners, intellectuals and religious minorities. Rationality is losing its hold. Empirical evidence is discounted as the product of a secular worldview or a scheming liberal elite. Democracy suffocates in this atmosphere and space opens up for something else to supplant it.”

I think we’re starting to see what that something else looks like. When I wrote that book, a lot of people said that it was overwrought or hysterical, and I was never entirely sure whether they were right. There’s something about being a writer; it’s like the Buddhist parable of the blind man and the elephant. You try to describe what’s in front of you as best you can, but there’s always something that you’re missing. You try as best you can to give a picture of what you’re observing and what the people you’re talking to are saying, but you can never be sure how representative the people who    you’re talking to are of a broader phenomenon.

I thought there was something really dark and frightening in the United States. I thought that democracy, or at least liberal secular democracy, was more fragile than a lot of us hoped, but I wasn’t entirely sure. And then Barack Obama was elected in 2008. For a while it really seemed like Christian nationalism was, in fact, no longer on the rise.

One of the figures that I wrote about a lot in Kingdom Coming was Roy Moore. How many of you are familiar with him? Roy Moore at the time had become a martyr to the Christian Right. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he’d had this 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument installed at the courthouse. A judge said he’d have to remove it. He defied the judge and ended up being removed himself. And to a lot of people in the movement, he was a martyr to secular tyranny.

When I was doing reporting for the book, I saw school kids doing a modern dance about his heroism and mistreatment. He spoke at rallies of thousands and thousands of people. I think most of you do know who he is. For those who don’t, maybe I’ll give a taste of who he was. In 2002, he awarded custody of three children to their allegedly abusive father over their lesbian mother, saying that homosexuality was abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature. And then he implied that gay people should perhaps be put to death: “The state carries the power of the sword. That is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle.”

I thought it was chilling to see crowds cheering for Moore, to see children dancing for Moore. But, at the same time, this system kind of worked as it was supposed to. He was removed. And I would have never in my wildest dreams have imagined 11 years ago that Roy Moore would soon be on the cusp of winning a U.S. Senate seat, which is where we are right now.

Trump’s acolytes

I also never would have imagined in my wildest nightmares that Sessions would be the attorney general. Jeff Sessions is probably best known among a lot of people for his very strident opposition to immigrants and to civil rights law. It probably won’t surprise a lot of you that he does not like secularists. He has decried the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state.” He says it’s not constitutional and not historical. He attacked Justice Sonia Sotomayor for having a postmodern relativistic secular mindset that is directly contrary to the founding of the republic. During his confirmation hearing, he was directly asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse if a secular person could have just as good a claim to understanding the truth as someone who is religious. Sessions hedged and said, “I’m not sure.”

But he’s not the only enemy of secularism and proponent of what I then called Christian nationalism. This kind of Christian fundamentalism is tied to a very authoritarian, almost quasi-fascist kind of nationalism.

He’s not the only exponent of that sort of ideology who’s in the White House. There’s Mike Pence, who once gave a speech saying that it was un-American, or wrong, to be teaching evolution, because every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed in creationism.

In 2011, the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, which back then was still a radical idea. It’s hard to remember now, but that’s something that even George W. Bush would have never tried to defund because that was just too far out of the realm of mainstream politics. And the person who helped put it into the realm of mainstream politics was Mike Pence. When the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, the legislation was called the Pence Amendment.

Then there is Ben Carson, who has complained that “secular progressives” have succeeded in de facto redefining part of the Constitution. And Betsy DeVos, who has talked about her work in privatizing public school funding as being a way to “advance God’s kingdom.”

There’s Mike Pompeo, who’s the head of the CIA. When he was nominated, I watched some of his old rallies, including a 2015 “God and Country” rally in Kansas, where he talked about those values: “We will defend our Christian values and American exceptionalism with all our heart,” he said. And then he said that that battle is “a never-ending struggle.” Never ending, that is, until the rapture.

There have been stories in the news about Mike Pompeo “Christianizing” the CIA — trying to recruit more white conservative Christians, trying to make bible study more a part of the culture of the CIA. So, you do see this sort of slow Christianizing of the institutions of American government. This is how political change ends up getting made in the absence of legislation. It’s unlikely that any really striking Christian nationalist legislation is going to be passed in the immediate future, given a gridlocked Congress and a dysfunctional executive.

Personnel is policy

It’s a longtime truism of Washington politics that personnel is policy, and the personnel in this administration are overwhelmingly very, very conservative Catholics or fundamentalist Christians, who are using various government departments to restrict funding to family planning providers both here and abroad, to reinstitute funding for abstinence education, and to launch attacks on the Johnson Amendment, which is the amendment that stops churches from basically turning themselves into political action committees.

And you see this in the Justice Department. You’ve seen a turn away from enforcing discrimination against women and gay people and African-Americans and religious minorities, and a turn toward investigating discrimination against white Christians. All this is happening, and in some ways it’s extraordinarily strange that this would be happening under this administration. Here we have a president who is, among other things, the first American president that we know of to have appeared in a soft-core porn film, the first American president to have tried to negotiate a contract for his wife to appear nude in Playboy, the first American president to have owned a casino with a strip club in it. So, in some ways I feel like there are parts of Kingdom Coming that have now come to fruition, and some developments since then that I never in a million years could have foreseen.

It turns out that when right-wing populist authoritarianism came to power in the United States, it wasn’t some kind of radically pious, Calvinist Handmaid’s Tale-like theocratic movement. It was, in a lot of ways, a rebellion against all moral restraints whose catch phrase would be “grab ’em by the pussy.” Like a lot of people, I was confused by this.

I spent a lot of time reporting on the Trump campaign. I was in Iowa during the caucuses when you saw a lot of the Religious Right mobilizing to try and stop him and mobilizing to try and get Ted Cruz in there. But the Religious Right very quickly coalesced behind Trump once he won the nomination and has now become really the bulwark of his support. And when everyone else fades away, you still have this 35 percent of disproportionately white conservative evangelicals who are loyal to this president. White evangelicals actually voted for Trump in higher percentages than they voted for George W. Bush. And you wonder, how can that be?

There’s hypocrisy there, but there’s also something more. I think his movement and the Christian Right have more in common than it might immediately be clear — and the beginning of that lies with race.

Birth of the Christian Right

One of the myths that the Christian Right tells about itself is that it was born out of abhorrence to abortion in Roe v. Wade. But that’s not really true, because Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 and it took many years for the Christian Right to really get rolling. Most reliable historians of the Christian Right will tell you that what really drove that movement was fury when the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of the white, segregated Christian schools that had popped up in the South in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education. They were called “seg academies,” segregated academies where you could send your kids to make sure they didn’t have to go to school with black people, and the IRS eventually said that a tax-exempt school can’t discriminate. This sparked enormous outrage.

The Christian Right has always had a sort of strange, contradictory relationship with race. Its roots lie in Confederate nostalgia and Southern identity politics. But when I was writing Kingdom Coming during the administration of George W. Bush, there was a conscious effort to apologize for that past, to repent that past. There was an understanding that it was embarrassing. There would be these ceremonies where white pastors would get on their knees before African-American and Latino pastors and beg forgiveness for the sin of racism. And then they would all join hands against the gays.

Ralph Reed wrote about the movement having to basically face the fact that it was on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle. What happened is that, in 2008, we elected a black president, and suddenly a lot of that racial reconciliation language and work went by the wayside. And the white resentment that had been key to the movement since its very beginning came roaring back to the fore. So that mapped very easily onto Donald Trump’s movement.

The Christian Right had also, particularly in the last few decades, waged a pretty sustained battle against what might be called “objective knowledge” or “objective truth.” There was this strangely post-modern strain to the Christian Right, especially when I was writing about it 11 years ago, that basically said that any reality is kind of governed or shaped by your worldview. So, anything that flows from a secular worldview or flows from secular premises is itself questionable.

If it doesn’t start with the premise of God being supreme, science itself is not reliable. That sort of approach makes it very hard to get hold of anything. It makes it makes all of reality suspect. I compared it in my book to this feeling of being either in the “Matrix” or in a Borges novel where you could go to a book fair and find a whole library describing a world that didn’t exist, all footnoted to each other, completely self-contained so that if you were inside of it, you would almost have no way to comprehend a reality outside of it. And that erosion of the reality principle in our national life has obviously set the stage for a president for whom reality is no constraint whatsoever.

Finally, there’s the conspiratorial nature of the Religious Right. Another of its antecedents was the John Birch Society. There has been a tremendous amount of paranoia in the movement about the “New World Order,” The Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers. This idea that shadowy powerful actors are manipulating your life and undermining your sovereignty, which was key to the Trump administration, has been part of this movement since the beginning. When Trump came along, although in many ways he represented a style of life that was antithetical to everything that this movement claimed to be fighting for, he also hit a lot of notes or repeated a lot of the deep story of this movement. And they were able to convince themselves very quickly that he could be their albeit imperfect champion. And, to be honest, he has been. Donald Trump doesn’t really keep his promises, he’s not a loyal person, but he does tend to like people who like him.

Christian identity politics

He has elevated a kind of Christian identity politics so that, although he himself is not a pious man, he does treat white Christians as having pride of place in this country. When he says over and over again, “We’re going to say Merry Christmas again in this country!” that’s what that’s about, right? It’s not, “We’re going to celebrate the lessons of Jesus Christ.” It’s kind of, “Merry Christmas. Screw you!” I’ve seen where he says, “We’re going to protect and take care of Christian Americans!” Christian. The idea being that these people have not previously had the authority and cultural respect that they deserve.

Just as we’ve learned that a lot of the Republican Party never really cared about Paul Ryan’s tax plans, I think we’re learning that a lot of this movement maybe has never really cared about having a sexually chaste leader, never really cared about the moral example of the leader as much as they cared about having their power and authority and cultural primacy recognized. And that’s really what Donald Trump does now.

And the movement also has a level of pessimism and desperation that didn’t exist when I was covering it all those years ago. The movement always had a dark vision of America. And that’s another reason why I think Donald Trump spoke to it. There were only two major American cultural or political figures that blamed this country for 9/11: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who basically said that America had been struck because it’s so morally corrupt.

When Donald Trump talks about American carnage, when he talks about this country basically going to hell, that resonates with a lot of these people because it looks and feels like they don’t recognize this country anymore. Nevertheless, 11 years ago, George W. Bush had been re-elected, there was a sense that they were on the cusp of retaking the culture. Megachurches were growing. They felt like they were culturally ascendant. Young people were going to Patrick Henry College and then moving into the administration and moving up through the ranks of government. There was a sense that they were, not in the promised land, but on the edge of the promised land.

It’s telling that one of the main groups from back then was called “Generation Joshua,” the ones who are going to retake the land for the chosen people. And that optimism, that that kind of forward-looking momentum, really disappeared during the Obama administration, which members of this movement experienced as a profound and dislocating trauma. And there was a great deal of that that was just about racism.

The other day, a friend of mine said, “I can’t imagine what it must

feel like to be a sexual assault survivor and have to live with this president.” My husband said, “Probably how it feels to be a racist and have to live with President Obama.” There is a sense in which this administration defiles the Oval Office, and I thought the other day, “My God, now I know what Catholics felt like when they looked at Andre Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’” — that famously controversial artwork of a crucifix submerged in urine.

When I see Trump sitting at the Resolute Desk, it feels unholy. That’s how I think a lot of people in this movement experienced the Obama years, and part of it was just about Obama himself, part of that was about the legalization of gay marriage, the growing cultural intolerance for intolerance.

Fundamentalist bakers and florists refuse to cater gay weddings. You see increasingly this sense that we’re not going to take back the culture, but we need to sort of defend our metaphorical borders. This sense that the situation is so dire, they’re so ready to wipe us out that anyone who will fight on our behalf and anything that can be done on our behalf is justified. Right?

This sense of extreme victimization, even stronger than anything that was there 11 years ago, in turn leads to an extreme aggression and kind of a permissive structure to basically allow and forgive almost anything.

I think it’s extremely unlikely for that spell to break because the movement that I wrote about in 2006 believes that it has a biblical right to rule and  that being displaced from the top of American society is a kind of intolerable, un-biblical, almost satanic state of affairs.

Majority in the minority

I want to close by talking about this idea of who gets to rule, because I want to make a case that if you care about secularism, if you care about religious freedom, you need to care very, very deeply about voting.

One of the things that’s so odd about this moment of religious fundamentalists’ ascension in our politics is that the movement itself is shrinking, the country is becoming more secular.

Young people are certainly becoming more secular, positions that had a lot of power 11 years ago, like opposition to gay marriage, are increasingly minority and fringe positions, and yet people who hold these positions control everything. They control the White House, if you assume that someone besides Donald Trump is in control of most things the White House does.they control both branches of Congress. The majority of people in this country didn’t want this; the majority of people in this country didn’t vote for Donald Trump. They didn’t vote for Republican senators. The majority of people hate what’s going on.

In 2018, there is the extreme likelihood that the majority of people in this country will vote for Democrats for the House and that might not make a difference because of both gerrymandering and just the geographic concentration of the population.

Some statisticians say the Democrats need as much as 60 percent of the popular vote overall to have a chance of retaking the House. These differentials are manipulated by the Republican Party through voting restrictions and gerrymandering.

But they are also integral to the Constitution because of the Senate, which gives South Dakota and California the same number of senators. And it’s also the Electoral College, which gives such disproportionate power to the white rural conservative parts of this country.

All of this means that we’re entering a period — and I feel like this is inadequately understood on our side — of a flat-out minority rule.

It’s always been true that America was never really designed as a pure democracy. And some people would say, “Well, this is a republic, not a democracy.” But at least since the late 1900s, popular will and electoral result have coincided, so it was kind of possible to ignore those deeper structural questions.

But, of course, in 2000, for the first time in over 100 years, we got a president who had lost the popular vote. And at the time this was treated as a fluke. People would say, “Well, you know if this happens again it might call the legitimacy of the whole system into question.” And then, 16 years later, it happened again. It might happen that there are structural factors that are making this more and more likely. And so, in a way, it’s not going to matter if secularists are able to spread their message — or win converts or win the culture wars — if they’re not able to contend for political power.

Again, I would argue that as much as you’re focused on separation of church and state, you know your cause is the same as everyone else in this country who is fighting for a more democratic democracy and fighting for voting rights and fighting for more equitable forms of representation.

Because the Christian Right, the Christian nationalist movement that I wrote about in this book, it’s a minority of this country, but it’s now the minority that’s in charge.

Convention speech: Kimberly Veal — Metamorphosis: From incubation to organization

Here is an edited version of the speech Kimberly Veal gave on Sept. 16 at FFRF’s 40th annual convention at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

She was introduced by FFRF Staff Attorney Liz Cavell:

Kimberly comes to us from Chicago and hosts the “Black Freethinkers” podcast and is president of People of Color Beyond Faith. She worked with FFRF and the Chicago area chapter on a recent billboard campaign. Kimberly is currently creating a scope of work that focuses primarily on training, educating and employing women and girls of color as activists and organizers. Please welcome social justice activist, freethinker and humanist Kimberly Veal.

By Kimberly Veal

Kimberly Veal is president of People of Color Beyond Faith and president and host of the Black Freethinkers Radio Network. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Kimberly Veal is shown with FFRF Bookkeeper Eleanor McEntee. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

I would like to thank Freedom From Religion Foundation for working with me over the years. It’s been truly a privilege and an honor to be associated with this foundation and its lovely members.

Many of you may not be familiar with the “Black Freethinkers” podcast, but you should give us a listen. If you listen and don’t walk away offended, I was either having a bad day or you weren’t paying attention. The tagline for the podcast: “We are here to challenge you to think for yourself, not convert you.”

The name of my talk is “Metamorphosis,” because, over the years, becoming a part of this freethinking community, you go through this incubation period. That’s what it was for me because I was raised in a religious family. My mom was a minister. I was a minister. My grandfather was a minister, as were several cousins, and so on. My family is very deeply tied to the church.

When I was about 12, I would ask difficult questions, only to be sent to my room to allow the “Holy Spirit” to teach me to read my bible until I came back to my senses. After being forced to go to church one Sunday when I was 16, the pastor made a mistake and opened up the mike, which made its way to me. I asked, “Is it right for parents to force their children to attend church?” He said, “When a child turns 12, they’re able to make those decisions for themselves.” And I said, “OK, thank you, it was nice meeting you guys. You’ll never see me again.”

As part of that incubation period, you start reading, you start deprogramming yourself and unlearning certain things you had been taught over the years, and also things that are being reinforced by the media. If you’re an activist and an organizer and you’re not evolving or being enlightened or growing intellectually, then you’re just spinning your wheels. To know better is to do better.

One of the things that I learned when I started my research — and learning that there were more people of color who were nonbelievers than we had previously thought — is there are a number of atheists of color who still attend church. One of the reasons is that they enjoy the fellowship. That’s one of the things that I miss about no longer being a member of a church. I miss a lot of the service-related activities.

Many of them remain in church because they want to help out and donate to the community. In Chicago, we have the Greater Chicago Food Depository. One of the things that I want to work on with the church is getting the donations in and making sure that we can distribute that food and other items to the community. I’m a proud member and the communications director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, and our group has been doing quite a bit of outreach. But there’s a lot more to do.

My organization — People of Color Beyond Faith — focuses primarily on cultivating and maintaining relationships within the freethinking community, and that includes churches. There’s a church at the end of the block where I live. It’s a Unitarian Universalist church, so that kind of gives you some insight. Its pastor was an atheist and the membership included a myriad of faiths and nonbelief. It was just a congregation of people that came together. They wanted to do good for the greater community and greater humanity.

Anyway, the church has this garden, and when I found out what it was doing and what it stood for, I started sponsoring some of the plots to make sure that there was enough food being grown. It’s extremely important that we build these relationships, not only within our community, but with other groups.

Research and outreach

I began doing more research and outreach. Any time anyone sends me any money for anything, what I do is take that money, add on to it, and give it away. I support local groups and local organizations that are doing real work and I can actually see the fruit that they’re bearing. It’s very important, and that’s why I encourage people to find local groups and to help them out, send them some money. [Editor’s note: Kimberly was true to her word, as she donated her FFRF honorarium to three groups: The Black Youth Project, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, and Assata’s Daughters.]

And that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about the community, seeing a lot of these new organizations coming: Nonbelief Relief, the Clergy Project. Anybody who knows me knows I’m absolutely nuts about Daniel Dennett and the work he has done over the years. As a matter of fact, the work of Daniel Dennett, as well as Dr. Valerie Terrigal, is what ultimately helped me to come to this epiphany and be able to go out here and say, “Yes, I am an atheist.” The biggest problem for me was I didn’t know what to call it. And I’m not talking about the atheism. I’m talking about the battle that was going on in my mind. And Valerie did a seven-part series on exchristian.net, talking specifically about cognitive dissonance. I was like, “So that’s what’s happening here.” I felt liberated because I finally realized maybe I’m not crazy.

When I would talk to believers, they would say, “Well, all the rest of us believe this, you’re the only one believing that, so what’s really going on, Kim?” And being able to put words to it was lifesaving, at least it was for me, so I will always be indebted to them for that.

I led a couple of freethinking groups out in Chicago. But trying to organize atheists is like trying to herd cats. It’s like, we’re going this way, but we want to see what’s going on over there. So it was rather difficult. The more I read and became part of the secular community and explaining to people — especially when you’re talking about marginalized groups, specifically black and Latino, Hispanic, even Indigenous communities — is the lack of outreach and the lack of support that they receive.

Some people say there’s a lot of support. In theory, yes. But let’s take the example of Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger. He wrote several articles about Chicago Latino atheists and other groups around the country. The problem wasn’t the article; the article was great. It was the comments section, and this is what we deal with on a continuous basis. “Why do you have ‘black’ in front of your name?” “Why do you have ‘Muslim’ in front of your name?”

It becomes increasingly frustrating having to have that conversation over and over again. A friend of mine created a black atheist FAQ so, when people start asking questions, we can send them a link. We tell them to read that.

I was listening to the convention talks earlier this morning. The FFRF legal team was talking about separation of church and state and what’s been transpiring, especially now that we have Trump in office. And one of the things that he’s trying to do is abolish the Johnson Amendment. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, the Johnson Amendment is basically an amendment that was put in place by President Johnson in order to, through the IRS, force pastors and preachers not to endorse political candidates and not to disparage politicians.

I think what Donald Trump wants to do is abolish that amendment to allow these pastors to endorse candidates. But there is a second part that goes with that. He wants to allow churches to receive political donations, to receive money, in effect turning the church into a political action committee. This is something that we definitely need to keep an eye on.

This is a really scary time. And when you are a social justice activist and organizer, it’s become even more perilous. They’re passing these ordinances and laws making it illegal to protest in any way whatsoever, even economic boycotts. They call it “economic terrorism.”

Constructive criticism

I’m here to give some constructive criticism. Just because you’ve been given constructive criticism, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is bad, but that there’s room for growth. That’s one of the reasons why I feel that a lot of the work that we have to do in an atheist/secular/freethought/humanist community is to make sure that it’s scaleable. Our work, our mission, our agenda needs to be able to bring in other people and attract other people.

The secular community has horrible public relations. We need to do better about PR because I’m finding out that more and more people are more tolerant of who we are than we actually realize. There are things that we definitely have to do better. There have been some interesting things that have happened since I’ve become part of this community.

One of the examples is from 2010-11, when many of the atheists of color first started finding each other on Facebook. We would go into these different social media groups that were particularly mainstream and would talk about social justice and other areas of concern.

When you take on titles like humanist or freethinker, that primarily tells people what you believe in. We would have these conversations in these social media groups. I would have some white atheist say to me, “Well, I used to be a racist. I used to be a sexist and homophobic. All of these negative things. But when I left religion and became an atheist, all of that went away.”

Basically, they were tying those negative characteristic flaws to religion. I understand this excitement because I was the same way. When I finally admitted that I was an atheist, I felt this freedom. But I also felt the negative, as though I was about to lose my family, my community, my standing, and also a part of myself.

It makes you think. It makes you examine everything that you have ever learned and were ever taught. So you’re just minding your business, inching along, and next thing you know you’re going through that metamorphosis. You’re reading, you’re learning, you’re disengaging from other things and you just go through this really difficult transition period. And when you emerge, you are this little butterfly and you don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to say. You don’t know who you belong to. You’re flying around trying to figure out where you belong, what you should be doing.

That’s why I think it’s extremely important that we have more safe spaces, that we afford people a soft place to land. I’ve been seeing more of that over the years. Initially, all I saw was the socializing aspect of atheism — having a barbecue, hosting a potluck, bar hopping. All of that is fine and wonderful. But I was looking for people who were more service oriented. And then I ran across this guy who was doing outreach to the homeless. I thought that was absolutely wonderful. He told me about these other groups, these other people. And I thought, “Maybe there is a spot for me.”

Alliances and education

Last year, I was one of the strategists for the Black Friday economic boycott of businesses in downtown Chicago, and through my guidance for social media, I actually got us coverage on MSNBC and “Democracy Now.” This year’s going to be even bigger. We’ve built up these alliances. We’ve built up these relationships with other people, but we’re also educating people. And I feel that that is my goal. This is my calling, if you will — to educate people on what’s happening.

Atheism in and of itself is not enough. There’s more to it than that. One of the reasons I transitioned out of atheist organizing and more into social justice organizing is because  of the lack of support that the black community received when Trayvon Martin was killed: crickets and tumbleweeds. I didn’t see much from the secular community when it’s usually opinionated about everything. And when Mike Brown was killed, nothing. Eventually I saw some statements and press releases that were released and that was great. That was a start. However, if you go to the comments section, you’ll read things like, “Well, they probably did something to deserve that. The police are the good guys, those guys were thugs.” Every excuse in the book.

Many of these same people were the ones basically bashing President Obama because he refused to say “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet these same people have absolutely nothing to say when Donald Trump refuses to say “Nazis,” “white supremacists,” “klansmen.” I don’t understand. And what happened in Charlottesville, I was really ashamed of the nonresponse.

One of the reasons I make a lot of people upset who listen to my podcast is that within these smaller communities, they place pressure on marginalized groups to support them in what they’re doing. Yet they are not addressing certain issues. They’re not addressing the racism, they’re not addressing the sexism, the homophobia, the transphobia and, yes, there is homophobia and transphobia within the LGBTQ community. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

Well, my time is up, but there is much more.

I’m just going to read a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and this is where I stand on many things: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizen’s councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative piece which is absence of tension to a positive piece which is presence of justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient time. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I’ll give you one example of this. I would ask you all to go out and please take a look at Sam Harris’ opinions on The Bell Curve and his opinions on Black Lives Matter.

Many of you say that you don’t understand why you can’t attract more black and brown people to the community. That right there is one of the reasons why.

Thank you.

FFRF referenced in Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Origin

Origin, by Dan Brown
Dan Brown

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is mentioned by name in author Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Origin.

Brown became an international star after the 2003 release of The Da Vinci Code, one of the top-selling novels of all time. In 2006, the book was made into a movie that has grossed more $750 million, which puts it among the top 75 highest-grossing movies of all time. The movie features Tom Hanks as the lead character, Robert Langdon, who is a Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology. Origin is Brown’s fourth book to have Langdon as the protagonist. The other two are Angels and Demons, and Inferno.

Origin is currently No. 3 on The New York Times bestseller list for fiction (both hardcover and e-books).

The novel tells the story of Edmond Kirsch, a 40-year-old atheist billionaire and futurist whose high-tech inventions and amazing predictions have made him a renowned global figure. He plans a worldwide announcement that will supposedly answer the two fundamental questions of humanity: “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” But before he can make his announcement, chaos ensues.

“Navigating the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, Langdon and Ambra Vidal must evade a tormented enemy whose all-knowing power seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace itself . . . and who will stop at nothing to silence Edmond Kirsch,” reads the synopsis of the book on Dan Brown’s website. “On a trail marked by modern art and enigmatic symbols, Langdon and Vidal uncover clues that ultimately bring them face-to-face with Kirsch’s shocking discovery . . . and the breathtaking truth that has long eluded us.”

Here is the reference to FFRF in the book:

“Over the last decade, books advocating rationality over blind faith had sprung up on nonfiction bestseller lists. Langdon had to admit that the cultural shift away from religion had become increasingly visible — even on the Harvard campus. Recently, the Washington Post had run an article on ‘godlessness at Harvard,’ reporting that for the first time in the school’s 380-year history, the freshman class consisted of more agnostics and atheists than Protestants and Catholics combined.

“Similarly, across the Western world, anti-religious organizations were sprouting up, pushing back against what they considered the dangers of religious dogma — American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americanhumanist.org, the Atheist Alliance International.

Langdon had never given these groups much thought until Edmond had told him about the Brights — a global organization that, despite its often misunderstood name, endorsed a naturalistic worldview with no supernatural or mystical elements. The Brights’ membership included powerhouse intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Margaret Downey and Daniel Dennett. Apparently, the growing army of atheists was now packing some very big guns.

FFRF is pleased to be among those “big guns.”

Himu Brown: As Bangladeshi atheist blogger, I fear for my life

Here is an edited version of the letter he wrote to FFRF seeking aid from Nonbelief Relief. (Himu Brown in a pseudonym.)

By Himu Brown

was a typical Muslim — praying five times a day, fasting, and being involved in religious activities. One of my teachers introduced me to the writings of Aroj Ali Matubbar, the iconoclast of the freethinking movement of Bangladesh. After reading his writings, I was startled to find my old practiced religious beliefs were nothing but fallacies! What I believed from my childhood was wrong!

The internet also introduced me to a new era of knowledge. I joined an atheist online community to debate religious people. I started to read the blogs of famous atheist bloggers and enjoyed their strong writings with powerful logic. Then I began commenting on their posts to support them.

I started preaching the truth, rationality, scientific facts to my friends, students, and many others. To spread freethinking, I formed a group with several others called Aroz PathChakra (The Discussion Club of Aroj Ali Matubbar) in Barisal, my hometown. Unfortunately, these activities somehow got leaked to the local Islamists, which is the reason for my current dire situation.

Death threats

The Islamists were so furious that they started to make hit lists, published in the Islamic blogs, and made death threats against us.

So, some trusted atheist bloggers formed a private group on Facebook. Despite the Islamists’ constant threats, we were brave enough to face them with the power of truth and rationality.

But they were helpless and afraid of our writing, so they started to plot against us. They were waiting for a chance to abolish the atheists and freethinking community from the country. In 2013, the Islamist parties formed secret sleeper cells to kill the bloggers. Our situation became more critical.

The first attack was on Jan. 14, 2013, and the victim was renowned atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who was knifed, but somehow survived. I was alarmed, and, for the first time, I felt unsafe. On Feb. 5 that year, the Shahbagh Movement began against the acquittal of war criminal Kader Molla, who had commited atrocities during the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence. At that time, I was in Barisal and we, the secular people of Barisal who supported the Shahbagh Movement, decided to protest the verdict.

Islamist political parties plotted against the bloggers who had started the movement. So, they chose one atheist blogger to be killed to spread panic and stop the movement. On Feb. 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the Shahbagh activists, was brutally murdered by the Islamists.

On Feb. 25, 2013, I was informed that there was a hit list of atheists in Barisal. I was alarmed and stopped going outside. The next day, I was called from an unknown number and an unknown voice threatened me with death.

Being afraid, I informed my fellow bloggers and our secret Facebook thread members. They advised me to not move alone and delete all anti-Islamic posts and comments. Some suggested informing the police, but I did not dare, as I heard that the government was planning to take action against the atheist bloggers.

On March 31 of that year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to punish those who made online insults against Islam. The cabinet approved an ordinance that would empower law enforcement to arrest any person without warrant and increase the highest punishment to 14 years from seven years.

Because of this, I had to stop all my blogging activities and leave Barisal to save my life. I had to take a job in a rural nongovernment educational institution as an English instructor.

During this time, my wife gave birth to our daughter on July 3, 2014.

Feeling vulnerable

On Feb. 26, 2015, after the murder of Avijit Roy, the founder of the Mukto Mona blog, I became terrified and felt vulnerable, but could not express my mental condition to anyone, even my wife.

The killings of Wasikar Babu and Ananta Bijoy Das, two more bloggers and online activists, made me feel that my country was totally unsafe for atheists and freethinkers.

After July 26, 2015, when I went to my educational institution where I taught, I found that one young person was following me. But I ignored this. After completing my classes one day, I saw others that were coming behind me. I felt uneasy, so I hailed a motorcycle driver and he helped me get home.

After this happened several more times, I could not tolerate it anymore. I stopped going to work. After informing some of the senior bloggers and trusted friends, I went to Dhaka to find shelter.

Unfortunately, I could not stay there long, as I found some unknown people were observing me from the roof of the opposite building. Changing my location, I took shelter at my father-in-law’s house in the town of Patuakhali. But there, I also discovered two or three people always stood near my in-laws’ house trying to keep tabs on me.

Then another blogger was killed on Aug. 7, 2015. The killers even entered his home. Hearing the news, I lost all my confidence and was psychologically broken. I again changed my location, leading an unfortunate and panic-stricken life. With the help of Front-Line Defenders and Forum Asia, a well-known human rights organization, I was able to get safe temporary shelter in Nepal, but had to leave my parents, my small child and my wife in a vulnerable situation.

When the group relocated me, it told me that it was temporary help only for three months. Understanding my helplessness, however, Forum Asia extended its support for another three months. I requested to Amnesty International via Sayeed Ahmed of Front-Line Defenders to help aid in the relocation of my wife and child. When the support of Forum Asia was over in February 2016, my wife and child were relocated to Nepal with grants from Amnesty International.

Due to these circumstances, we are very anxious about our future. We don’t know how we will survive here. We don’t have any job options, as refugees aren’t allowed to work legally.

Sometimes, I think of going back to Bangladesh, but it is not possible for many reasons. The situation is worsening for atheists like me.

In such a critical situation, I am totally at a loss. I cannot return to my own country, and yet I don’t have another safe place where I can live without fear. I cannot continue my writing.

I appeal to your humanitarian organization to help me and my family, so that I can survive and live. I want to save my life not only for myself and my family, but also so that I may contribute to humanity. If I am compelled to return to Bangladesh, Islamists who know me as an atheist won’t hesitate to kill me.

Jackie Brown: Letting go of a lifetime of religious guilt

Jackie Brown

I come from a long line of devout Christians. Before I was born, my grandfather donated a piece of land in our small town in New Mexico so that a church could be built there.

My parents were married in it in 1959.

That church — with long wooden pews, the hymnals with the thin pages edged in red, the preacher’s pulpit with the fake flowers in front and the baptismal behind — was part of my life from the day I was born. I knew every nook and cranny, every room and every corner — the nursery where new mothers would nurse their babies, the numbered doors of the Sunday school classrooms that lined both sides of the small auditorium. Just inside the glass front doors, before the row of double doors that separated the vestibule from the rest of the church, were pictures of church members and their families. The small label underneath each picture put names to our faces. I was as comfortable there as I was at home.

Long list of sins

On the surface, the church seemed innocuous and inviting, even accepting. But the doctrine of the Church of Christ included a lengthy list of activities that were off limits, labeled sins, that could result in eternal damnation. The list of no-no’s was long, including, but not limited to, smoking, drinking alcohol, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, cursing, divorce and live instruments in the church building. All hymns were led by an elder or a deacon, and all were sung a capella.

According to biblical teachings, wives were to be submissive to their husbands, and men were the heads of the household, and of the church. Women were not allowed to speak from the pulpit or lead singing, and the thought of a woman doing either of those things was completely foreign to me. This was my normal.

I knew all the hymns, went to vacation bible school every summer, memorized my bible verses for Sunday school, attended devotionals and took trips with the church youth group. I felt conflicted as I got older and was attracted to boys. I was ashamed for flirting. Outwardly, I was a good Christian girl, but inside, I always knew I was falling short, and guilt was my constant companion.

My father was indeed the master of the house. My mother obeyed him, as the bible commanded, and never questioned him, or raised her voice to him, even when he raised his. My mother took me and my three sisters to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. I can count on my hands the number of times he accompanied us over the years. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me.

It was at church where we learned that if a man looked at a woman and felt lust, it was her fault because her clothing was too revealing or she wore too much makeup. Our attire was restricted to long skirts, high-collared tops, knee-high socks and flat shoes. Makeup wasn’t allowed, and our hair was often cut short. My father prohibited the use of tampons when my sisters and I were teens. I had no control over my body or how I looked, and that became increasingly difficult the older I became.

Instinctually, I knew that something wasn’t right.

Fires of hell

When I was in first grade, one of my classmates, along with the rest of his family, died in a house fire. This hit me particularly hard because he and his family did not belong to the church and I had been taught that anyone who did not would spend eternity in the raging fires of hell. I believed that my friend and his family would never, ever escape the pain of the fire that had taken their physical bodies. It didn’t matter that they were good people. They would burn — forever.

I had nightmares in which I saw my friend screaming, pain contorting his face. We were only 7 and hadn’t even had the opportunity to sin yet. His light blue sweater hung on the hook by our classroom door for a long time, reminding me of him daily, and the thought of him writhing in that fire haunted me for a very long time. It was probably then that I started asking questions.

I left home after I graduated from high school. It was then that I found the courage to explore what I perceived as the divergence between what I knew to be true and the alternate truth that had been hammered into the fabric of my being, practically since birth. I was emotionally and mentally traumatized by an internal conflict I was too afraid to voice for fear of disappointing my family, losing my friends and being different from the community of people I’d known my entire life.

It was daunting to think of turning my back on everything I’d known. Who was I if not a Christian? Who was I without the church, my family and friends? Without those things, I had no identity.

I tried — I really did. I talked to friends and family, one of whom told me that believing was a choice I could make, even without facts to support that belief. She told me she chose to believe because it gave her peace and made her happy, and I was truly happy for her. I would never begrudge anyone that kind of peace and happiness. I often wished for it myself. Instead, all I felt was turmoil and sadness, considering the enormous chasm — filled with science, logic, reason and truth — that stood between me and the faith I longed for.

Guilt and fear

Old habits die hard, so in spite of my ever-increasing doubts, I would take my two daughters to church because I was afraid there was a chance they would be damned because of me. Guilt and fear dictated my actions until it occurred to me that I was passing that on to my girls. It was a startling realization, but an obvious one once I thought about it. I did not want my daughters to ever experience what I had. Instead of removing all of their power, taking their identities and individuality, I wanted to give them what I never had as a child — the ability to think critically, make their own choices based on truth, not on fear.  I did not want them to be brainwashed like I was.

I started researching religion in earnest when I was in my 30s. I watched every documentary I could find, read every book on the topic I could get my hands on. Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code had a significant impact on me, even though it was fiction, and Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” gave me a perspective I’d not had before. It was liberating.

It was a long road that took many years. Eventually, the guilt that had been part of me for so long was gone, and I was filled with something I had longed to feel for so long — peace.

I feel it all the time now, when I’m standing in the middle of the forest, or when I feel the sun on my face. I feel it when I’m with my close friends and those family members who have accepted me as I am and I realize that I love, and I am loved. I have become more open-minded and accepting, and thereby more compassionate.

Realizing that there was no heaven or hell, or an omnipotent being watching me every second, opened up a world for me I never could have imagined as a child, and I wish the same for every person who has been raised, every child currently being raised in a strict religious environment. I want to hug them and tell them it’s OK not to be perfect, that there is no hell, and that heaven is what we make it.

Jackie Brown is an FFRF member from Arizona.

Winter solstice and Bill of Rights ‘nativity’ displays 2017

FFRF is again proud to be celebrating the winter solstice season by placing signs and “nativity” scenes on public property to counter Christian displays.
At the Wisconsin State Capitol, FFRF’s Andrew Seidel, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Sam Grover stand with the FFRF’s Winter Solstice sign, which is being displayed for the 22nd consecutive year. The sign features FFRF’s traditional message by its principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor. It reads:
“At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
“There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
FFRF erected for the first time a lighted “A” (for atheist, agnostic) display outside its office in downtown Madison, Wis., in early December.
The 8-foot display is in the Rose Zerwick Memorial Courtyard and Garden visible from the street. FFRF thanks staffers Roger Daleiden, graphic designer, and Colin McNamara, legal fellow, for putting up the eye-catching display.
The Bill of Rights “nativity” and winter solstice sign was set up by FFRF Member Will Meyer at the Grundy County Courthouse in Illinois on Nov. 26 and will be up until the end of December.
For the first time, FFRF’s Bill of Rights “nativity” display went up in the Public Square in Cleveland. FFRF Members Marni Huebner-Tiborsky (in the open blue coat) and Sam Salerno (far left, kneeling), director and secretary/vice president of the Northern Ohio Freethought Society, respectively, sponsored the display.
For the third year in a row, the “May Reason Prevail” statement by Anne Nicol Gaylor is displayed at the Reason Station in the atrium of the Warren, Mich., City Hall.
In 2011, the city of Warren banned the sign. After two court cases, Reason Station director Douglas Marshall was allowed to place the wording on the Reason Station table as a display.
FFRF’s Metropolitan Chicago Chapter, directed by Tom Cara, set up a solstice display at the Daley Center Plaza. It was erected Nov. 21 and will remain up until Dec. 28. The display includes the light-up “A,” which sits above the Winter Solstice/Founding Father “nativity” signs. This is the fourth year for the display, countering a Christian nativity scene on display since 1984.
On Dec. 1 in the Atlanta area, FFRF placed a “Reason’s Greetings” message on a lighted 14-by-48-foot digital billboard on Interstate 75. FFRF member Jack Egger was pivotal in getting the billboard up, paying the cost.
This Bill of Rights “nativity” display was put up at North School Park in Arlington Heights, Ill., and will remain until Dec. 30. “FFRFMCC has been placing a display each year since 2012 in the public forum area of the park to counter a privately-erected creche by the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee,” Tom Cara noted. “This is an organization which had pressured the Arlington Heights Park District to allow them to place a nativity in the public park, threatening the Park District with a lawsuit if they tried to prevent them from doing this.”
FFRF’s Winter Solstice display is back at the Illinois Capitol for the ninth year in a row. The exhibit was installed by FFRF Member Kathryn Koldehoff in Springfield on Dec. 1 and will be up until Dec. 31.
In 2008, Illinois members asked FFRF to erect an equal-time display in protest of a decision to permit a religious group to plant a nativity scene in the Capitol during the holiday season. A manger scene and Christmas tree were already set up in the Capitol when FFRF installed its display this year.

Meet a Member: Volunteer extraordinaire — Former board member stays busy helping others

Nora Cusack

Name: Nora Cusack

Where I live: Madison, Wis.

Where and when I was born: Born in State College, Pa., in 1952 to grad student parents. Grew up in California; moved to New York at age 13 and graduated high school there; started college in Madison and never left.

Family: Husband of almost 45 years, Brent Nicastro, age 72, retired photographer. Elderly cat, Touza.

Education: I started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, but never got a degree. I earned an associate degree from Madison Area Technical College in printing, was hired immediately and embarked on a 25-year career in graphic arts. I’m a lifelong learner, including auditing UW courses.

Occupation: Retired from paid work. I am a former small-business owner. After my business partner and I sold our graphic arts company in 1996, I have primarily been doing volunteer work, save for a five-year stint as a staffer for FFRF in the 2000s. Past volunteer experiences have included: elementary school reading tutor; permanency plan reviewer for kids in out-of-home placement; helping the Wisconsin Supreme Court produce the first statewide compilation of Volunteers in the Courts; past board member of FFRF, Wisconsin Women’s Network, NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Community Shares of Wisconsin. Currently co-administrator/treasurer of the Women’s Medical Fund, an all-volunteer, statewide, nonprofit abortion fund. I’ve also been an election poll worker for many years.

Military service: None. My husband served in the Army during the Vietnam era.

How I got where I am today: After my business partner & I sold our business, I discussed with my husband taking time out from the paid workforce & volunteering for a couple of years. A couple of years has turned into 20-plus years. Volunteering for social justice causes is sometimes frustrating but usually very satisfying work. I like being not only a witness but a participant in democracy.

Where I’m headed: Continuing to work for social justice.

Person in history I admire and why: All the women, famous and not, who have worked for reproductive justice.

A quotation I like: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” — Gloria Steinem/Florynce Kennedy.

These are a few of my favorite things: Reading, politics, cooking, gardening, watching UW basketball.

These are not: Hypocrites who are opposed to government interference in all things except women’s autonomy over their own bodies. Religious folks who want to impose their personal beliefs on others.

My doubts about religion started: I’ve never had religious belief. I am a second-generation atheist. Both my parents earned Ph.D.s in the sciences, so I grew up with a rational scientific view of the world.

Before I die: I’d like to see social justice achieved. I’d like election gerrymandering to end so that democracy can be restored.

Ways I promote freethought: Being out as an atheist, without proselytizing. I like people to get to know me, see that I am a nice, moral, honest person, then find out that I’m an atheist. Maybe change some stereotypes.

Why are you a member of FFRF? Because atheists need an effective defense against violations of state/church separation and an organization that educates about atheism. Too many people have negative judgements of atheists and think they have never met one. I’ll borrow a saying from abortion activists (“Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion”) and say, “Everyone loves someone who is an atheist.”