President Trump’s newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is going to be a disaster for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and will complete the Christian Nationalist takeover of the high court for more than a generation, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts.
Barrett’s biography and writings reveal a startling, life-long allegiance to religion over the law. The 48-year-old Roman Catholic attended a Catholic high school and a Presbyterian-affiliated college and then graduated from Notre Dame Law School, where she taught for 15 years. She clerked for archconservative Justice Antonin Scalia, and significantly, like the late justice, is considered an “originalist” or “textualist” who insists on applying what is claimed to be the “original intent” of the framers. She and her parents have belonged to a fringe conservative Christian group, People of Praise, which teaches that husbands are the heads of household. Barrett’s nomination hearing for a judgeship on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where she has served for less than three years, documented her many controversial and disturbing positions on religion vis-à-vis the law.
Barrett is now the sixth Catholic on the nine-member court. (This count does not include Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but describes himself as Episcopalian.) Throughout her career and personal life, Barrett has made it clear that everything, including the law, is a means to promoting her personal religion and the “Kingdom of God.”
“Barrett will unquestionably eviscerate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” warn FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Many of our other hard-won freedoms will also likely be gutted.”
During her rushed confirmation hearings, Barrett refused to answer any questions regarding Roe V. Wade, the Affordable Care Act and climate change.
“I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial,” Barrett told Sen. Kamala Harris in response to a question on whether climate change is a fact.
However, Barrett lied when she testified that “I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference.” She recently served as trustee of Christian schools which barred gay teachers and children of same-sex parents.
Crucially, Barrett replaces Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a brilliant legal mind and defender of vital constitutional and secular values, including separation of state and church, women’s equality, reproductive justice, voting rights, LGBTQ equality and environmental justice. In 2015, Barrett publicly pledged to support Catholic teachings against death with dignity legislation, against contraception and abortion, against LGBTQ rights and marriage equality and even against divorce.
Alarmingly, Barrett has been critical of the principle of stare decisis or precedent, writing that a justice’s duty is to “enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it.” This signals she would have no compunctions overturning Roe v. Wade or the more than 70 years of clear Supreme Court precedent protecting the rights of conscience and keeping religious ritual out of our public schools.
During her confirmation hearings, Barrett said that Roe V. Wade is not a “super-precedent” that can’t be overturned.
Even more alarmingly, Barrett wants to use the law to make a “Kingdom of God.” For Barrett, her “legal career is but a means to an end . . . and that end is building the Kingdom of God,” according to her 2006 commencement address to Notre Dame Law School. She added: “Keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.”
Nearly 200 faculty of Notre Dame signed letters opposing her confirmation.
And yet more alarming, Barrett has made statements indicating that her religion would trump her oath of office. Barrett co-authored an article in 1998 about the conflict of Catholic dogma and the law, which, she wrote, can put “Catholic judges in a bind.” The article was couched in terms of judges recusing themselves from death penalty cases, but she added: “The prohibitions against abortion and euthanasia (properly defined) are absolute; those against war and capital punishment are not.”
When such a conflict arises, Barrett has recommended that judges should “conform their own behavior to the [Catholic] Church’s standard,” rather than upholding their secular oath. When invited to repudiate this statement at her confirmation hearing in 2017, Barrett declined to do so.
A cause for concern is Barrett’s membership in a Charismatic Catholic group. Barrett is part of People of Praise, a “Charismatic Christian parachurch organization.” Former members call it “a cult.” The group was founded in South Bend, Ind., where Barrett was a professor. “Members are in spiritual bondage,” an ex-member has said. In 2005, People of Praise’s official magazine described Barrett’s own mother, Linda, as a “handmaid.” The group seems to require loyalty oaths of its members, which could conflict with her oath of office.
“There are serious and deep concerns about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise and her past comments about the conflict between faith and law,” as FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel told ABC News. “Not only is her connection to this community and her previous writings fair to ask about, but senators have a duty to the Constitution to ask those questions.”
Her short time on the bench has been marked by a series of objectionable votes that predict how calamitous her appointment to the high court would become: Barrett believes that women should not be permitted to obtain an abortion even in cases of severe fetal abnormality. Even if a judge finds that a pregnant minor is mature enough to exercise her right to choose to terminate the pregnancy, Barrett believes that the minors’ parents must be told. Combine that with her view that health care should be stripped from Americans (a position she has not publicly repudiated even in the midst of a pandemic) and it reveals a supremely cruel vision of the law — a total betrayal of Ginsburg’s ethos. People will die and families will go financially and emotionally bankrupt under Barrett’s medieval jurisprudence.
During the pandemic, Barrett has ruled that religious services should be exempt from a general ban on large gatherings in Illinois, even though the ban applied to other large gatherings, such as political rallies, and even though the sweeping exemption undermines the entire point of the emergency health order. This dangerous decision put the 7th Circuit at odds with the vast majority of federal courts, which have correctly concluded that religion does not entitle a believer to flout public health laws.
Barrett’s writings, statements and affiliations attest to her conviction that Catholic lawyers are on a religious mission to serve their God and build that deity’s kingdom — clearly conflicting with the oath Supreme Court justices must take to uphold our secular Constitution. Barrett’s lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court will have far-reaching and ruinous effects on a woman’s right to choose, the right to die with dignity, the death penalty, and the collision of Catholic health care and our secular law.
This article first appeared in Le Devoir (from Quebec, Canada) on Sept. 28 and is reprinted with permission. Special thanks to FFRF Board Member Steve Salemson and Joan Wallace for translating the text from French.
In the United States, religion occupies such an important place in society that atheism has now become a real political movement, with its own lobbying effort, demands, and, recently, representatives in Congress. This article features a portrait of Ronald Reagan Jr., son of the former president and a major figure in this growing movement, which is becoming more mainstream among Americans.
By Isabelle Porter
Ronald Reagan Jr. is one of the best-known faces in the atheist movement in the United States. In a TV spot, the son of the former president declares with a sly smile that he is “not afraid of burning in hell.”
“Hello, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” he says in the understated ad. How could the son of one of the most conservative presidents in modern American history have ended up here? Partly by chance, he told Le Devoir.
“It started about 40 years ago, when my father was elected president. The New York Times asked me in an interview whether I was going to get into politics, too. You know, I had been asked this question all my life, and I used to answer that it wasn’t for me, that I didn’t like politics . . . But there, I had an even better answer. I told them that I wasn’t interested and that, in any case, I could never be elected because I’m not a believer.”
As he had hoped, this reply put an end to the conversation, but it also caused a scandal. “The response was incredible,” Reagan said. “It made many people angry. I received indignant letters from some friends who wanted to know why I had said that, what I was hoping to achieve . . . It was the first time I realized just how much people really care about what other people believe. I found that interesting.”
Born in 1958, Ron Reagan was the youngest child of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who also had a daughter together. The other two Reagan children are from a previous marriage.
Ron was 22 when his father was elected president, but only 8 when Ronald Reagan Sr. was first elected governor of California. In family photos from that time, the couple often posed only with their young son, as the other children were already grown.
It was at this time that he came to the conclusion that God did not exist. “By 10 years of age, I had already moved away from most Christian beliefs,” he says. “Then, when I was 12, I told my parents that I wouldn’t go to church with them anymore because it would be hypocritical. After all, if they were right about God, he himself would know that I was faking it!”
Where did these early convictions come from? Perhaps from his passion for prehistory. He remembers that his mother was not sure what to say to him when he wanted to know whether Adam and Eve were “cavemen.” Santa Claus didn’t help, either. “When you’re little, your parents tell you that there is a Santa Claus at the North Pole, that he has a big white beard, and that he knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. That sounds a lot like God, but then you find out that Santa doesn’t exist.”
Ron can’t recall much about his father’s reaction to his rejection of the Church. But one thing is certain: Ronald Reagan Sr. was not the type to meddle in the faith of others. “He was a religious man, but he never made the mistake that many politicians do who use their faith for political gain,” Ron said at his father’s funeral in 2004. “It’s true that after being the target of an attempted assassination, he came to think that God had spared him to do good. But he accepted it as a responsibility, not a mandate.”
Despite being a well-known Democrat, Ron Reagan insists his father would have disapproved of what the Republican Party has become, even before Trump’s accession to power. “My father signed a law legalizing abortion, he raised taxes after having reduced them, and gave amnesty to 3 million immigrants,” he recounted on Bill Maher’s show in 2015. “And when a hole formed in the ozone layer over the South Pole [. . .] he didn’t decide it was a leftist plot to deprive us of cold beer, and he acted!” He concedes, however, that it was also during his father’s time that Republicans began approaching the Evangelical lobby. “The party wanted to woo the Evangelical vote, and it was pretty simple to do: My father was a Christian; he could claim he was on their side. “
Then it got out of hand. “Now we end up with a Donald Trump who is clearly not a believer, but who has sought the vote of the Evangelicals. Why? Because he hates or claims to hate the same people that they do: all those progressives who want to allow homosexuals to marry, have black friends, want to deprive them of their white privilege, threaten their way of life, and so forth,” he said.
Reagan is never at a loss for words and wields sarcasm with relish. He is also occasionally invited on television as a political commentator, especially on MSNBC. He even had his own show, “The Ron Reagan Show,” before Air America Media went bankrupt. He splits his life between Seattle and Italy with his second wife.
Despite his numerous public statements on atheism, he does not consider himself an activist. After his interview in The New York Times, he became “the atheist who had a famous father,” he recounts, amused. “After that, I could allude to it, they would ask me the question again and I would confirm it. Eventually, the Freedom From Religion Foundation heard about it and asked me to make the TV spot.”
That was in 2014, and the ad is still running and continues to generate strong reactions. During one of the televised Democratic debates, commentators even said that it stole the show from the debate itself by sparking a surge of positive comments on Twitter. Conversely, some major national TV networks still censor the message, because of the passage where Reagan says that he is “not afraid of burning in Hell.”
From FFRF’s perspective, his contribution is invaluable, especially since celebrities who dare to publicly call themselves atheists are very rare in the United States. “Having the son of a very conservative president do a promotion for a controversial group like ours, by presenting himself openly as an atheist, has had a huge educational impact. It’s helped show the nation that people of this sort exist, and that they are normal,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“This sort of publicity was a huge coup for us,” she added. “He took a short 30-second clip and made it much more effective by force of his personality. He was the one who added the expression, ‘lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in Hell.’”
Whom does he think he is addressing with this message? “I would like this to be heard by atheists who are still ‘in the closet.’ That would probably be the most useful thing, so that people are less afraid of coming out. I’m not trying to convert anyone to atheism or to lead believers away from their faith. That’s something they have to do on their own.”
But beyond that, it’s a way for him to defend science. “What bothers me the most is the negative effect religion has on stem cell research, for example. People can believe whatever they want, but when it gets into the public sphere and affects everyone’s life, then we have a problem.”
Philip Appleman — renowned poet, friend, avid nonbeliever and After-Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — died April 11, 2020. Before Richard Dawkins pleaded in Unweaving the Rainbow for more integration of science into the arts, Phil was doing it. His nine books of poetry, three novels (two with explicitly freethinking themes) and six volumes of nonfiction largely examined Darwin, natural selection or skewered religious belief, including the bible.
Although a distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, he was such a Darwin scholar that he was asked to edit the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. Phil liked to point out that he was conceived the same month that John Scopes was arrested for the crime of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. In his “12 years of education, including a high school course in biology, I never heard the name of Charles Robert Darwin,” he later wrote, which he called the educational equivalent of the Flat Earth Society abolishing gravitation. Phil’s life-altering experience came after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, when he signed up as a Merchant Marine, and took along for reading material Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
“I am sure it is difficult for anyone reared in a more enlightened time and place to imagine the sense of exhilaration in a young person schooled in Midwestern fundamentalism, reading Darwin and understanding evolution for the very first time,” Phil recalled.
Born in Indiana on Feb. 8, 1926, he later earned degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and University of Lyon, did his dissertation on Darwin, edited an abridged version of The Origin, edited the Norton Critical Edition on Darwin, and wrote a series of Darwin-inspired poems, including Darwin’s Ark. Mourning the fact that about half the American public still doubts that biological evolution occurred, Phil suggested “perhaps poetry and satire can be of some assistance.” Darwin, Phil wrote, finally released him from allegiance to the “incredible creation myths of Genesis,” so he also turned his wit and incisive pen to the bible.
I still remember the moment Dan (Barker) came into my office in the early 1990s, back when I was editor of Freethought Today, holding a small book called Let There Be Light, excitement catching in his voice as he started reading from Philip Appleman’s book of poems, subtitled, “The Bible Retold for Grownups.”
Phil’s spare, ironic voice captured Eve (“I didn’t ask to be cursed with curiosity, I only wanted the apple”), a confused, querulous Noah (“already six hundred years old, more than a little weary from all that virtuous living”), and Sarah, who, after retelling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, trenchantly concludes about God, “ . . . if there’s a Judgment Day, as some folks think, He’s going to have a lot to answer for.” Phil had reached out to Dan after seeing him on some talk show or another, sending a copy of his 1991 book of poetry on the bible. And then we thankfully reached out to Phil.
While New and Selected Poems,1956-1996, is the most comprehensive overview of his poetry, Phil wrote prolifically and inspiredly into his mid-80s, including some lighter (yet deep) verse in Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (2009) as well as Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible (2011). Freethought Today was honored to have been first to publish several of his later poems, and to have featured his regular poetry column, “Head’s Up” for many years.
Phil was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education and was published in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review and Yale Review. Sadly, The New York Times, of which he was an avid reader, has yet to publish an obituary.
What’s some consolation is that we can not only read Philip Appleman’s words and poetry, but see and hear him recite them. Bill Moyers, a fan, invited Phil on his show in 2015, when Phil was about 88, thus lending him a kind of immortality. To experience Phil reading and talking about his views and his poetry, you have only to Google “Bill Moyers Philip Appleman” to watch the interview and many bonus poetry readings. On that show, Phil read “Five Easy Prayers for Pagans,” including the stanza that concludes with this line, one of my favorites: “ . . . and before our world goes over the brink, teach the believers how to think.”
On that show, Phil also read his short, devastating poem, “A Simple Explanation for Everything,” which briefly listed religious violence throughout history, concluding with the refrain: “Why did they kill? They killed for the Lord.”
Dan has set to music several of Philip’s poems, including “Fleas” (on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”), Phil’s clever riff on the saccharine poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Where Kilmer prayerfully declaims, “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” Phil rejoins: “I think that I shall never see/a poem as ugly as a flea…” Dan also set to music “In a Dark Time” (on FFRF’s CD, “Adrift on a Star”) written in 2006 at the height of the U.S. war against Afghanistan and Iraq — a poem I have often thought of in the past four years:
The warnings come in whispers and in shadows,
The messages are fire and black contagion
As prophets rise to chant their midnight terrors,
And empires all atremble charge their legions:
The winds are blowing cold above the cities
And lights are going out around the world.
Even as the preachers thunder Treason,
And holy horrors dance with petty scandals,
Even in this dusk, the dream of reason
Beckons with its flickering bright candles.
But winds are blowing cold above the cities
And lights are going out around the world . . .
Dan likewise set to music Phil’s satiric poem, “God’s Grandeur” (on FFRF’s CD, “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist”), a delicious take-down of a deity who, when “they hunger and thirst . . . I send down a famine,” and whose motto is, “never apologize, never explain.” Dan set to music one of Phil’s musings on romance, “Summers of Love” (reprinted by Freethought Today, and on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”).
Speaking of love, one cannot memorialize Phil without remembering his love for the women in his life: his mother, Gertrude; his mother-in-law, Martha; and his dear wife, Marjorie. He immortalized his mother in an eponymous, unforgettable poem about the right to die with dignity, beginning, “I wish that all the people who peddle God could watch my mother die . . .” He remembers her “young, lovely in gardens and beautiful in kitchens,” then racked by “thirty years of pain,” followed by stabbing cancer, and her plea, “Philip, I want to die.” He also described the needless suffering of mother-in-law, Martha Haberkorn, a loving individual tormented at the end of her life by religious fear of her “sins.”
And he cherished and celebrated his wife Marjorie, who survives him, “all sleep and love, there in the sun with sea birds calling,” as he put it in his 1968 book of poems, “Summer Love and Surf.” He promised in “S*x After S*xty”: “You kids in your fifties, listen, if you think it’s perfect now, just hang around: the best is yet to come.” He honored Marjorie’s beauty and youth in a poem FFRF ran in his poetry column about her endurance through health crises, including a mastectomy, sending us a photograph to run with it showing the two of them, a young, glamorous couple on a beach vacation in Spain, Marjorie impossibly lithe and lovely.
Phil and Marjorie, a devoted couple, attended and spoke at three national FFRF conventions, bringing down the house as they read his classic, humorous epic, “Noah” (I won’t give it away, but it has to do with “termites”). Marjorie, a playwright, read the female parts while gentle Phil, a closet ham, reached convincingly stentorian strains as the vengeful biblical deity. About 10 years ago, they gamely did an audio recording in a New York studio, to which Dan, on piano, and Abigail Cantor, on sax, added appropriate musical interludes. Watch it on YouTube: bit.ly/3khiM3M
Phil’s intellectual curiosity had taken him from Darwin to Malthus, and he became so concerned with overpopulation that he wrote a book about it, called The Silent Explosion, then edited the Norton Critical Edition on Malthus. Phil believed the problem of overpopulation is “deplorably neglected,” as do I. Phil noted that “the continued proliferation of human bodies and human needs, with the resulting competition for limited resources, destruction of natural habitats, growing pollution of the environment, endangering of other species, even the threat of extinction itself: all of these are ultimately Malthusian as well as Darwinian themes.” Phil, 94, died in the midst of a pandemic partly caused by human encroachment on other species’ habitats.
One of my favorite poems (reproduced on the previous page) is Phil’s “Last-Minute Message for a Time-Capsule,” which warns, so truly, “to beware the righteous ones.” (Despite its modern misuse as a new word for “cool” or “excellent,” the primary definition of “righteous” is “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.” Phil got that warning right.)
The couple retired to New York City, and were together for nearly 67 years at the time of his death, from unknown causes, which, sadly, was not reported for about six months.
In his last book, The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life, really a monograph, published in 2014, Phil fearlessly wrestled with religion and reality: “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” He wrote that “God” may “soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same.”
His writings are studded with secular epiphanies, compassion and yes, a slow-burning indignation over those “easy answers” that unfortunately have led the human race astray. As the FFRF bumper sticker he suggested says: “The truth shall set you free . . . from religion.” Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy and understanding to our lives. He will be greatly missed. I look forward, when this pandemic is over, to once again walking daily past the framed photograph of Phil and Margie gracing FFRF’s editorial wing.
Here is my epitaph for him:
Philip Appleman decreed: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and co-president, with Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Most of Philip Appleman’s books of poetry may be found at ffrf.org/shop.
The Supreme Court is trying to stop civil rights advances
This article first appeared in The Atlantic on Sept. 18 and is republished with permission.
By Erwin Chemerinsky
and Howard Gillman
There was a time when the Constitution’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion was a sort of shield, a protection for religious minorities from the prejudices of the powerful. No longer. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority is in the process of transforming this First Amendment clause into a sword that politically powerful Christian conservatives can use to strike down hard-fought advances in civil rights, especially for LGBTQ individuals and women.
At issue is whether religious believers who object to laws governing matters such as health care, labor protections and antidiscrimination in public accommodations should have a right to an “exemption” from having to obey those laws. In recent years, religious pharmacists have claimed that they should not be required to fill prescriptions for a legal and authorized medical procedure if that procedure is inconsistent with their beliefs. A court clerk whose religion defined marriage as a union of a man and woman has claimed a free-exercise right to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples who have a constitutional right to marry. Religious business owners, such as bakers and florists, who object to same-sex marriage have claimed a right to refuse service to same-sex couples. And employers have successfully asserted a right to deny their workers health-care benefits that they would otherwise be entitled to, such as contraception or abortion counseling.
Providing such religious exemptions has required a dramatic change in the law by the Supreme Court. In 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment cannot be used as a basis for an exception to a general law, no matter how great the burden on religion, unless the government’s action can be shown to be based on animus to religion. The case involved a claim by Native Americans for a religious exception to an Oregon law prohibiting consumption of peyote.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for the court, ruling against the Native Americans and explained that it would be impossible to provide religious exemptions from civic obligations whenever a person disagreed with the law — there are just too many civic obligations and too many different religious views about those obligations. Also, if the government were to begin down this path, it inevitably would face the impossible task of defining a “religious” belief. Such an approach would force the court to make intrinsically controversial and discriminatory decisions about which religious views were most deserving of special accommodation and which social values should be considered less important than the favored religious views.
This decision was in line with the approach taken by the Supreme Court, in almost all cases, through American history. Courts long held that the Constitution did not require an exception to general laws on account of religious beliefs — that parents could not deny medical aid to their children, that they could not have them work in violation of child-labor laws, even if the work involved dispensing religious literature, that religious schools could not violate laws against racial discrimination, and that a Jewish Air Force psychologist could not ignore the uniform requirement by wearing a yarmulke.
Unfortunately, the conservative justices on the current Supreme Court reject Scalia’s reasoning and may be about to overrule Employment Division v. Smith. If they do so, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority will in essence be saying that the views of Christian conservatives are more important than legal protections for workers and people who seek to engage in ordinary commercial activity without suffering discrimination.
The first sign of this shift came with the 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, when for the first time in American history, the court held that the religious beliefs of a business’s owner allowed it to refuse to provide employees with a benefit required by law. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide health-insurance coverage, including coverage for contraceptives for women. The Affordable Care Act had already carved out an exemption for religious not-for-profit organizations, so that, for example, a Catholic diocese would not have to provide contraceptive care to its employees. (Legislatures can choose to give religious exemptions, even though the Constitution does not require them.) But at issue in Hobby Lobby were the rights of the owners of a purely secular business. The five conservative justices held that a family-owned corporation could deny contraceptive coverage to women employees based on the business owners’ religious beliefs.
The dissenters, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pointed out that “the distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the court’s attention,” and wondered about religious employers who were offended by health coverage of vaccines, or equal pay for women, or medications derived from pigs, or the use of antidepressants. At the very least, there is a compelling interest in protecting access to contraceptives, which the Supreme Court has deemed a fundamental right.
In June 2020, the court ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru that teachers at a Catholic school could not sue for employment discrimination. The two cases before the court involved a teacher who had sued for disability discrimination after losing her job following a breast-cancer diagnosis and a teacher who had sued for age discrimination after being replaced by a younger instructor.
Previously, in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), the court said that a narrow exception protects religious organizations from being held liable for choices they make about their “ministers,” which traditionally have been considered “exclusively ecclesiastical questions” that the government should not second-guess. But now the court has expanded that exception to all religious-school teachers, meaning that the schools can discriminate based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, age and disability with impunity.
This reflects a court that is likely to expand the ability of businesses to discriminate based on their owners’ religious beliefs. A few years ago, the court considered in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission whether a baker could refuse, on account of his religious beliefs, to design and bake a cake for a same-sex couple. This should be an easy decision: People should not be allowed to violate anti-discrimination laws because of religious beliefs or any beliefs. For more than half a century, courts have consistently recognized that enforcing antidiscrimination laws is more important than protecting freedom to discriminate on account of religious beliefs. A person cannot invoke religious beliefs to refuse service or employment to Black people or women. Discrimination by sexual orientation is just as wrong. Although the justices in this case sidestepped the question of whether the Free Exercise Clause requires such an exemption, a number of other courts have ruled that compliance with general antidiscrimination laws might impose an impermissible burden on the free exercise of the owner’s religious beliefs, at least when the beliefs are Christian and the protected class includes gay and lesbian people. Moreover, the Religious Right has demanded that it is entitled to such exemptions.
In recent months, the court expanded civil-rights protection for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, but there is reason to fear that the conservative justices are about to undercut this. In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, forbids employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion left open the possibility of giving an exception to employers who discriminate because of their religious beliefs. The court should emphatically reject such claims. Selling goods and hiring people on the open market is not the exercise of religion, and stopping discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a compelling government interest that judges should not dismiss because members of a favored religion disagree with the policy.
Unfortunately, the court appears to be headed in exactly the opposite direction. Next term, which began in October, the court will consider, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, whether free exercise was violated by a city’s barring a Catholic Social Services agency from participating in placing children in foster care, because the agency refused to certify same-sex couples as foster parents — in violation of the city’s general nondiscrimination policy. One of the questions before the Court is whether to “revisit” Employment Division v. Smith.
Five justices [perhaps six, pending Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation status] may be about to do just that — paving the way for the court to allow religious organizations and persons to ignore nondiscrimination laws that protect the LGBTQ community, as well as ignore federal requirements to provide full health benefits to women.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Howard Gillman is the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine. They co-authored The Religion Clauses: The Case for Separating Church and State.
Nate Phelps is the 2020 recipient of FFRF’s Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award for his years of speaking out publicly for freethought and humanism as the son of Fred Phelps. Nate has received $10,000, thanks to FFRF Member Henry Zumach, who has so generously set up this annual award to reward individuals who are making a difference in fighting religious fundamentalism. Since the 2020 national convention had to be canceled this year due to COVID-19, instead of delivering this speech in person, Nate has submitted this moving article about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by his father Fred Phelps, known for its inflammatory hate speech.
By Nate Phelps
I am the sixth of 13 children born to Fred and Margie Phelps. I was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Our childhood was defined by my father’s interpretation and application of the fundamentalist ideology of John Calvin.
Twice every Sunday, we sat in his small church learning the doctrines of his faith. Absolute Predestination, the cornerstone of Calvinism, turns a key aspect of Christianity on its ear. The notion that one can ask God into their heart and be saved is rejected. Instead, Calvinism argues that humankind is dead in his trespasses and sins and has no capacity to receive salvation unless God first acts on the heart. Humankind has no say about its salvation. God decides. This key doctrine, coupled with the biblical notion that only a “remnant” of humans will be saved, led my father to the conclusion that only those within his church would go to heaven.
Other ideas gleaned from Calvin’s bible (the subservient position of women, corporeal discipline, and lifetime dominion over his children), coupled with Fred’s predisposition to extreme black and white thinking, created an environment of physical and emotional violence in our home.
Because Eve had been fooled by the snake in the Garden of Eden, women were second-class citizens in the Church. They were to be silent. Men were to have dominion over them. They were to wear head coverings in the sanctuary to cover their shame. Paul’s instruction in Corinthians that a woman have long hair became a rigid biblical standard that no woman in our church could ever put scissors to her hair.
Returning from school one day, I found my mother weeping in the vestibule of the church building where we lived. A scarf covered her head. My older brother Mark rubbed her back, trying to console. Suddenly, she tore the scarf from her head exposing the butchered remains of her hair. Her white scalp showed through in several places. “He cut my hair off!” she cried. I recall the feeling of horror, not just for her distress, but because I knew this meant she would go to hell. My father was all-powerful, consigning the disobedient to their eternal destinations.
When the barber strap that he used to beat his children began to fray at one end, he went in search for a new tool of discipline. Calling a meeting of all the children, he held up the handle of a mattock. Quoting from Proverbs, he reminded us that “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” This would be his new rod of correction. He called my brother Mark up for an example blow. Swinging the mattock in a high arc like a baseball bat, he struck him on the backside. Mark went white and the lesson was learned.
Several years later, in the early 1970s, my younger brother Jon and I brought home less than perfect report cards from middle school. Forty blows later, the skin on the back of our legs was broken and bleeding. Suspecting abuse, the principal of our school notified the police. An investigation led to charges of child abuse, but my father’s combative and litigious predisposition succeeded in getting the charges dropped. The long-term fallout was more violence for subjecting the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ to ridicule and shame.
Another passage claiming that our physical bodies were God’s temple became the impetus for several extreme experiences in our youth. It began with a health scare when Fred collapsed in his bedroom. Rushed to the hospital, his excess weight and abuse of drugs was determined to be the cause.
Back home from the hospital, Fred read the back of a box of Wheaties where exercise guru Jack LaLanne had outlined an exercise program where one could earn “benefit points.” Within a few days, we were all at the local high school track running laps. Soon, Fred decided he needed to find a way to drop the weight quicker. So, he went on a fast. No calories . . . zero. Days passed and he soon retired to his bed from the weakness. Weeks passed. He dove deep into the bible for inspiration and motivation. At one point late in his fast, his body and mind muted, he spoke of seeing an angel at his bedside. Too weak to move, he used a bell on his nightstand to summon his wife or a child for his every need.
Forty-seven days and nearly 100 pounds lighter, he rose from his bed and rejoined the world. To avoid regaining the lost weight, he returned to the track with renewed vigor and motivation. Like in so many other areas in his life, he went to extremes. A regular running routine quickly morphed into a rigid training regime to run a marathon. Charts were displayed in the back of the church showing the activity and benefit points each child had earned. If a child fell behind, the mattock came out of the corner.
Reading everything he could find on fitness and health, he began imposing a variety of unusual nutrition experiments on his family. One book extolled the virtues of raw eggs, so each child was required to slide two or three eggs, “Rocky” style, down their throat. A variety of nutritional supplements soon became standard fare in our diets. It was not unusual to sit down to a dinner plate of 25 brewer’s yeast tablets, 10 bone meal tablets, rose hips and a half head of steamed cabbage.
Eventually his focus on health turned dark. Our mother, having gone through 16 pregnancies, had lost her youthful shape and that was unacceptable. Entering puberty, several of the children were also putting on a bit too much weight for his liking. Again, citing God’s instruction to treat the body as a temple, he demanded that the weight be dropped. A daily routine of weighing outside his bedroom door led to violent beatings if a child had not lost weight that day.
Several years after Fred began practicing law in Kansas, he was suspended for two years for ethical violations. Without an income, he hit upon the idea to send his children out to sell candy. The official line was that we were raising money for a new piano for our church. Early successes prompted a more expansive effort where the children were spending three or four hours every evening after school, covering the entire city over and over.
When people questioned whether we had raised enough for a piano, it became new carpet and a new organ. After several years, sales in town began to dry up so we started working other communities nearby. On Saturdays, we would travel greater distances to Kansas City and other larger cities. On weekend nights, young children would canvas the bars where drunken patrons were more apt to buy candy and offer generous tips. If a bit of violence occurred, it was a small price to pay to insure the solvency of the Church. And like everything else, corporeal discipline was instilled to motivate the children to maintain proper sales volumes.
Our lives were soaked in his religious ideology. Verses were posted and required memorization. At a young age, the children were required to memorize the names and order of all the books in the bible to minimize the time it took to look up passages while he preached. As the children grew, Fred’s sermons became interactive experiences. A child would be called upon to look up a verse and be prepared to read it aloud when directed. Sometimes commentary on the passages read were demanded. Any misstep in this process would lead to a command from my father, “Someone smack that kid!” He was building his army for God and had no patience for ignorance, incompetence or delay.
While all of this was going on, we returned every Sunday to the pews to be trained up in the way we should go. Much like Fred in those years, his God was an angry God. His brand of Christianity beat us over the head constantly about our sinful, evil nature and the righteousness of God’s wrath if he were to condemn us to an eternity of flames where the worm that eats on you never dies. Throughout our childhood, we were constantly reminded of our duty to church and family. It was made clear early on that Fred would have absolute authority over us for our lifetime. An obscure passage in the bible about a man leaving his father and mother to cleave to his wife secured his authority, as our father, until marriage.
From that point on, his authority was derived from his role as our pastor. Any attempt to defy that authority, to forge our own paths in life, meant banishment from the Church and family and eternal damnation.
Approaching the age of maturity, several of the older children attempted to assert control over their own lives. Our father was not having any of that. When my oldest sister left several months before turning 18, he mounted a posse of minions and kidnapped her back home. For several months, she was locked in a room upstairs at the church. My father was determined to beat the rebellion out of her by regularly abusing her and forcing her to fast. When the two oldest boys left as adults, he employed a variety of means to coerce them back. When the second oldest boy, Mark, succeeded in leaving, Fred exploded with anger. Behind the pulpit he made sure the entire congregation knew they were subject to excommunication and other discipline if they had anything to do with him.
Observing Mark’s success, a guttering flame of hope ignited within me. You see, I had taken Fred’s message to heart. I knew that Christ was going to return around the year 2000 and I knew when he did, I would be cast into Gehenna, the final hell of punishment. But perhaps I could live life just a little outside the violence and control of my father. So, at the age of 16, I began to plan. Over the next year, I worked out my strategy. Each violent encounter with my father reinforced my determination. Late in my 17th year, I purchased an old Rambler Classic from the security officer at my high school. I kept it hidden from my family. As my 18th birthday approached, I quietly packed my meager belongings, a box at a time, and hid them in the cluttered garage.
On the night before my 18th birthday, I waited until the household was quiet. I walked down the street to my car and backed it into the driveway. Checking to ensure no one had awoken, I returned to the garage and packed my belongings into the trunk. Returning to the house, I stood in the dining room and watched the clock move slowly toward midnight. I was both excited for a future away from this place and terrified that God would strike me down. When the clock reached midnight, I turned and walked away from a childhood of extreme religious indoctrination and violence.
For years, I lived in fear, certain that God was waiting for the best time to exact his revenge. Walking down the sidewalk in downtown Kansas City, I recall looking up to see if a piece of the building was falling toward me. As much as possible, I avoided thinking about it. I moved to southern California and got married. When my wife announced that she was pregnant, I was elated and terrified. I had never told her that I was certain God would never give me children. My father was clear on the message that children were a gift from God. He surely would not bestow that blessing upon me. The birth of my son changed everything. As I considered my responsibilities for that tiny life, I was forced to confront the past that haunted me. How would I raise this child? What would I teach him about this God I lived in fear of?
I entered counseling for several years. At the same time, we joined an Evangelical Free congregation, where I began my search for the kinder, gentler God of mainstream Christianity. Meanwhile, we had two more children, twins. My most fervent desire was to raise them in a healthy, happy environment where they could grow into self-realized adults.
Angry God of Calvin
As I studied the bible with a new focus, I could not reconcile its words with the messages from our pastor. Where they preached an all-loving, all-caring creator, I saw passage after passage that pointed squarely to the angry God of Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. As I began to ask questions of religious leaders both locally and nationally, I was shocked to discover that their answers were shallow and unresponsive.
When I confided in a few close friends that I had doubts, their response was unsatisfying. One day, my oldest son asked me about Jesus. I tried to describe him in the loving terms I hoped for, but he interrupted me with a question. “What about the people who don’t believe?” Bless his little atheist heart. I had no better answer than to tell him they went to hell. He began to weep and my heart burst. What was I doing? How could I expose my little children to such an idea? So, I began to pull away from Christianity.
When the Gulf War came along, roughly the same time my family began their campaign of hate against the gay community, I was terrified that Armageddon was starting. The undefinable fear returned. Weeping at the dinner table one night, I told my wife I did not want to go to hell. But the year 2000 was rapidly approaching, and with it my eternal destruction. The new century arrived without any sign of Jesus. As the months passed, a tiny spark of hope came with it. While I continued to try and reconcile my own experiences and my doubts with the message of the bible, I was quietly entertaining doubts about the whole thing. Then 9/11 happened.
A young lady in our community who had attended school with my stepdaughter had just graduated from Boston College. She was returning home on the second plane that flew into the World Trade Center. The impact was devastating locally and nationally. Then, I noticed something that struck me as odd, even dangerous. The entire country was responding to a violent act of faith by turning to their own blind faith. For the first time I considered, in a personal way, the harm that religion was causing the world. I considered the world my children would inherit, and I was afraid all over again.
In 2005, following a painful separation, I moved to Canada. By this time, my birth family had gained international notoriety as they focused their “God Hates Fags” campaign on the funerals of soldiers who had died in the war on terrorism. For the most part, I avoided requests for interviews about my family. Then, in 2008, a young journalism student climbed into the back of my cab. As we drove to the airport, he mentioned a documentary he had recently seen on a small church in Kansas. I told him I knew about it, that it was my family. After the shock wore off, he requested an interview. The ensuing article garnered several hundred thousand views online. He called me one day and said he had contact information requests from several people who had read the article. I gave him permission to provide it.
I had recently read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and for the first time in my life I was willing to consider that I might be an atheist. That was such a horrible, terrifying word that I would not say it out loud. But this was much bigger than that. This would be, for the first time, me embracing my own ideas about God publicly. At the same time, I would be openly defiant toward my family and their campaign of hate. You see, even in all that had passed, I still hoped for a reconciliation. If I did this very public speech, if I was finally truthful to myself and the world, that hope was lost. I also knew that the hard-wired message of my rebellious, sinful, damned nature would be forced back out into the open. The words . . . the emotions that were so psychologically destructive would be laid bare.
No answers or evidence
And what was that truth? The story of a god that I grew up with was wholly predicated on the words written in the bible. But no one could provide answers that satisfied the lifelong question I struggled with, the question, by my estimation, that is at the heart of faith: What evidence proves that the bible is the inspired, inerrant, immutable word of a divine creator? Absent adequate evidence supporting that claim, everything I had been taught was a lie.
Every effort to discover the truth of this matter was met with more and more strident, defensive challenges to my lack of faith. Challenging this claim, I came to understand that faithful ideas, by definition, are unaccountable to reality. Injecting an all-powerful, divisive, punitive entity into a belief system robs the adherents of any hope of analysis and reason. Really, what choice does a person have if they believe not believing will cause separation from all they love AND an eternity of unspeakable pain? Surely, you can argue that those who embrace it wholly are happier for that choice, but at what cost?
At a social level, a system that judges and condemns those who act outside their moral parameters must be harmful. Any attempt at social change is stymied and corrupted by the truculence of immutable faith. We see a rich history of that with Christianity. From using scripture to justify slavery for generations, to the longstanding assault of our LGBTQ brethren, Christianity — this unsustainable assertion that an all-knowing, all-powerful lawmaker hates them — has been the spear tip of condemnation and injustice for broad swathes of our fellow humans.
Since my family began their picketing campaign in 1991, Christian America has, with one voice, condemned their message. But I would argue that Westboro Baptist Church is just giving voice to the same destructive ideology at the foundation of even the most moderate iteration of that faith. How do we sit idly by considering that reality? So, I gave my first public talk before a gathering of nonbelievers. Then, I gave more talks. I talked about the ugly truth behind the ugly, God-ordained placards of my family’s protests.
Today, I embrace the humanistic ideas that this life, this brief moment in time we share, is all we have. I see concern and love toward our fellow humans as paramount. I reject any idea that marginalizes one group over another. Today in America, as we once again face separation and division inspired by religious ideology, the words of British philosopher, Bertrand Russell come to mind.
When asked what message he would want people to take from his example, he said: “I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth those facts bear out? Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effect if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say love is wise, and hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.
We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
Manuela Cano, 19, University of South Carolina, $300.
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Je-Woo Im, 18, Northwestern University.
Nicole Kye, 19, Cornell University.
Jonathan Le, 18, University of
Grace Okafor, 21, University of
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FFRF thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular group, student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $28,150 reflects those bonuses.
FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other student essays competitions, with Kati Treu assisting. And we also would like to thank out “faithful faithless” volunteer and staff readers and judges, including: Don Ardell, Dan Barker, Darrell Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Judi Jacobs, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Katya Maes, Gloria Marquardt, Amit Pal, Dave Petrashek, Sue Schuetz, Lauryn Seering, PJ Slinger, Mandisa Thomas, David Tomayo and Karen Lee Weidig.
FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, one geared explicitly for students of color since 2016 and a fifth contest for law students since 2019.
In the mid-1800s, a prisoner in Persia (as Iran was then known) allegedly saw a vision of a “heavenly maiden” who informed him of his holy status. Later he declared that he was Baha’u’llah, the Promised One of All Religions. In effect, he said he was Jesus returning for Christians, the Messiah coming for Jews, Lord Krishna coming for Hindus, a long-awaited divine imam coming for Muslims, and so on. He drew thousands of followers, called Baha’i. Surrounding Shi’ite Muslims massacred them, but they persisted. The Persian’s brother tried to poison him and declared himself, instead, the Promised One of All Religions. But the brother’s attempt fizzled. Baha’is slowly grew to 7 million around the world today, although they remain cruelly persecuted in Iran.
Also in the mid-1800s, a Chinese man read Christian missionary tracts and said he experienced a vision in which God told him he was a divine younger brother of Jesus. God commanded him to “destroy demons.” The vision-receiver drew followers, launched the Taiping religion and a Taiping army that conquered much of China, causing an estimated 20 million deaths.
Around the same time period (a fertile era for revelations apparently), a much-arrested mystic named Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel named Moroni who showed him golden tablets buried on a New York state hill. The angel allegedly gave him magic stones that enabled him to translate ancient writing on the tablets. It became the Book of Mormon, describing a North American civilization that was visited by Jesus. But nobody could see the golden tablets and magic stones as proof, because the angel supposedly took them back to heaven. Today, the Mormon faith numbers 15 million worldwide.
Mary Baker Eddy said she heard supernatural voices as a child, and she later became devoted to a hypnotist healer. Then she claimed that divine inspiration led her to write a faith-healing book and launch the Church of Christ Scientist in the 1870s. But critics claimed that she lifted most of her spiritual healing ideas from the hypnotist and from Eastern religions.
In 1935, according to the Unification Church, Jesus appeared to Sun Myung Moon in Korea and commanded him to finish the “incomplete” work that Christ started 2,000 years earlier. Moon began evangelizing and slowly created the “Moonie” faith that spread worldwide.
In the 1970s, a French racecar driver called Rael said he was visited by ancient extraterrestrials called the Elohim, who originally created all life on Earth. Rael wrote books and launched a religion that consists mostly of naked assemblies, casual sex, and efforts to bring the Elohim back to the planet. Estimates of the number of Raelians range from 50,000 to 90,000.
And, as everyone knows, the Prophet Muhammad claimed in the seventh century that the Angel Gabriel visited him repeatedly for 23 years, dictating the Quran. Muhammad was illiterate, but supposedly relayed the angel’s words to others and scribes, who put them on paper. This launched the Muslim faith, which now has 1.5 billion adherents.
You get the picture. Time after time throughout history, various people have claimed miraculous visits. The visionaries began preaching and spawned religions. They drew great numbers of followers — showing a remarkable human craving for miracle tales.
Alleged communication from gods and godlings goes back to the earliest known writings. Greek King Agamemnon supposedly offended the goddess Artemis, who calmed winds when the king’s army tried to sail for Troy. The goddess supposedly told the prophet Calchas that she would relent only if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and it was done.
The bible reports many angel visitations. Genesis 6 implies that fallen angels came to Earth, impregnated women and bred giants.
The all-time champion of holy appearances is the Virgin Mary, who often makes herself visible to believers — in 1531 at Guadalupe, Mexico; in 1858 at Lourdes, France; in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal; in 1981 at Medjugorje, Bosnia; in 1983 at a farm in Georgia, to name a few. Vast multitudes of worshipers flock to these sites. It’s odd that Mary doesn’t appear to Jews, Buddhists, Protestants or atheists. As a wag said, “Some things must be believed to be seen.”
Troy Taylor, a collector of ghost tales, wrote that the Virgin made numerous appearances in Illinois. A retired railroader, praying by a crucifix at Queen of Heaven Cemetery at Hillsdale in 1990, was visited by Mary, St. Michael and three angels, he said. Swarms of believers rushed to the spot and made miracle reports of their own. At Belleville in 1993, a man said a voice told him to visit the Lady of the Snows shrine, where Mary appeared from a bright light and gave him messages. Meanwhile, various Orthodox churches around Illinois reported weeping or bleeding statues or paintings of the Virgin. And a family at Hanover Park said Mary appeared in 1997 in shadows on an apartment wall, drawing crowds of the faithful.
Taylor wrote that all these happenings may be “the fevered imaginings of a religious mind” or they may be genuine miracles — “We leave that up to you to decide.”
How many divine revelations and visitations have been claimed through the centuries? Tens of thousands? Millions? The total is uncountable. Clearly, it’s part of human experience. It’s somewhat akin to people who say they were abducted by space aliens, taken aboard UFOs and subjected to sexual experiments.
Are these vision-seers psychotics or “fantasy-prone” neurotics who really believe their tales? Or are they charlatans who invent lies, then spend the rest of their lives repeating them?
One exception to the lie-repeating premise is an American named Alex Malarkey. In 2004, when he was 6, a car crash sent him into a coma. After he woke up, he said he had gone to heaven and visited Jesus and Satan. His father helped him write a best-selling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which sold a million copies and was made into a television movie. But at age 16, the paralyzed boy said his tale was a hoax to get attention. The publisher halted sales of his book. His name should have been a giveaway.
The widespread phenomenon of miraculous encounters should be a field of study for psychiatrists. What facet of the mind causes some people to claim that divine visitors came to them — and causes other people to believe them?
FFRF member James A. Haught was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015.
My great-grandmother used to tell me stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana every night before bed. I would curl up at her feet and swat away the mosquitos that would plague us in the sweltering Indian heat. She would drink her tea and raise a wrinkled, trembling finger before enthralling me with stories of brave heroes, epic wars, beautiful heroines and wily gods.
Her stories made me feel proud to be a Hindu and an Indian. Even at a young age, I sensed the rich tapestry of culture and history that thrived in these tales, narrated through centuries by people who understood the enduring humanity of anger, passion, betrayal, lust and pride. I carried this appreciation for my religion throughout my childhood.
However, I experienced a paradigm shift in my thinking when my parents decided to move from Mumbai to a small town in South India called Kochi. They enrolled me in an orthodox Hindu school (Chinmaya Vidyalaya School), where I faced forced indoctrination of Hindu values. After enduring weekly Bhagavad Gita classes, where we spent many exhausting hours analyzing the ancient poem and long prayer sessions that consisted of angry mass chanting, I started feeling stifled and constrained at school.
Hinduism became more than the glorious and imaginative epic stories I heard from my grandmother. In my mind, Hinduism became the malignant force that restricted me from going to the temple when I was menstruating, and the justification for the sexist beliefs that gave my male classmates wonderful academic opportunities when I was equally talented. It became the religion that reinforced Indian patriarchy, which viewed me as the property of men, and the impetus for the pervasive caste system and mass communal violence. As I watched poor people get lynched by fanatical Hindus for selling cows and young Hindu-Muslim couples get brutally murdered for falling in love, it became clear to me that my religion was unscientific, monolithic and cruel.
In response to my views, my father always told me that Hinduism was not a static religion, and that each generation had to reinterpret its core values to suit their era. He told me stories of how Hinduism “liberated” women and how the “divine” female body was venerated. However, in my teenage years, stories of Hindu greatness no longer made a positive impact on me. I grew more and more intellectually curious and increasingly skeptical of traditional Hindu values, and whenever I thought of the religion I was born into, I could only see the hate crimes, violence and nationalism it spawned.
Slowly, I began to disaffiliate from Hinduism. My personal identity morphed to include my atheism, and I stopped labeling myself as a Hindu. I started falling in love with data science, and I inculcated a passion for reason and logic. I started seeing the value of having a scientific temper, and, as my worldview expanded, I felt released from the shackles of tribalistic religious emotion. When I moved to the United States to study economics and statistics at the University of Connecticut, I felt like a new person, unbound by any religious or ideological constraints. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free.
Today, I am grateful for my divorce from Hinduism, because it forced me to undergo a journey of self-discovery that helped me become the woman I am today — independent and strong, fearless and free.
Nidhi, 19, is an international student from India studying economics and statistics at the University of Connecticut. Nidhi conducts a weekly radio show, “Content is King,” at WHUS Radio and contributes to the Daily Campus.
Sky blue fabric, washi tape and popsicle sticks. In first grade, when I was invited by friends to attend a “craft club,” I wasn’t aware that these innocent craft supplies were actually tools for indoctrination. Growing up in a small town in Utah, which is dominated by the Mormon church, I was the constant target for conversion. Before every craft club, I sat awkwardly as the group said a prayer. After a few meetings, I was given the Book of Mormon. Slowly, I began to feel ashamed for being an “aberration” in my town: as an atheist, feminist and daughter of Chinese immigrants.
Yet, although I did not have access to many resources about independent thought, I began spending afternoons at the library. Reading gave me companionship. More importantly, literature taught me to evaluate objective evidence, to think for myself, and to think critically. I began recognizing the hypocrisy of a church which claimed to welcome all, yet which denied women status outside of the family and portrayed homosexuality as sinful. I realized that following one’s own moral conscience and beliefs, rather than dogma and tradition, is the path to ultimate freedom of conscience.
I can especially recall a moment of enlightenment while reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood depicts a theocratic society where priests use religion for social control. Faith is weaponized to justify the subjugation of certain groups. “Nothing changes instantaneously: In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it,” writes Atwood. In Atwood’s words, I recognized the danger of a society based on religious fanaticism. I had been slowly proselytized into believing the only way I could fit in was through conversion. When I refused, I was excluded from friend groups, discussions, social events and gatherings. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale illuminated to me that struggling against the grain is necessary to escape this religious-based manipulation.
I’ve begun realizing that I can employ science and logic to answer questions about the world, rather than using religion as a veil to cloud reality and truth. I can apply my time and energy to raising awareness of important social issues, rather than looking toward a church leader’s dogma on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. And I can strive to support marginalized groups through service.
Throughout the past three years, I’ve especially worked to help educate females in my community. Education is the path to greater understanding. After learning that Utah is last in the entire nation for women in STEM, I started teaching my own seven-week afterschool coding program for middle-school girls. Since 2017, I’ve directly impacted 150 Utah girls and dedicated over 200 hours to this project. My goal is to teach my students to think critically and independently, and to encourage them to step outside the Mormon gender role where “a woman’s place is in the family.”
A world where church and state are separate is a more equal world — one where ignorance has no place and empathy can build true community. Rather than seeing faith weaponized to justify conservative values, I hope to continue speaking up and advocating for free thought. I’m grateful to have strong role models in this journey. My parents were not fluent in English when they came to United States, and they felt further isolated for being non-Mormon. Yet still, they persevered. Their story inspires me to continue pursuing my ambitions as a woman of color. I envision a more compassionate world where minorities are respected for their identities, and where all individuals, no matter their background, have the freedom to think for themselves.
Taylor, 17, is a freshman at Harvard University. She is a nationally recognized poet and has been published in the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center. Taylor is also the founder of Girls Explore Tech (GET), a seven-week series of coding workshops for local Utah middle-school girls.
In his speech, “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace claims “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” I think about this quote frequently because it has since left me with the question of what I worship.
The African slave trade was the beginning of what would turn into a long history of dispossession and displacement for my people. In a twist of fate, my ancestors were forced to worship the Christian God by the very people they needed saving from. Like many colonized groups around the world, my ancestors were robbed of their gods and to this day the majority of Black Americans subscribe to the Abrahamic religions forced on them across generations.
My ancestors were continuously robbed of autonomy. They were never given a choice of what to worship. It is because of this I am extremely grateful for the freedom of choice, and in part why I am not religious. I do not reject religion simply because it was forced on my ancestors. It is because it was forced on them that I have taken the time to analyze my own thoughts toward spirituality and reach my own conclusions. This process has made me analyze and critique established systems and power structures in my life. It has enabled me to search for what I worship.
I have tried to be a Christian and I have looked to other religions to try to discover spiritual worship. I could not rationalize any religion I came across. I found contradictions everywhere.
Religion is not immune from hatred, it is not immune from sexism, it is not immune from power imbalances — in fact, it thrives on them. And this is not because religion is inherently hierarchical, it is because religion is a reflection humanity has made of itself and humanity is deeply flawed. I once read the reason why the Catholic Church has yet to stomp out its pedophilia problem is that the church provides the perfect cover for abusers. The Catholic Church is a space where maleness + authority = untouchable. I have yet to find a religion where this equation is not true — a religion where women are not seen as subservient either in holy text or by its practitioners.
Where then am I left as a Black woman? Where do I belong? Is there a space that will accept me, treat me as an equal? Where I am free to ask questions?
In my family, being nonreligious is generally met with disapproval and subtle attempts to convert me — the casual text message inviting me to a bible service or reminder that God loves me even if I am astray. I love my family, and I am not upset with them or their actions because I know they are acting out of love. However, I think that they and secular communities at large could learn to respect and acknowledge our differences. Do not ignore my culture, my gender, my individual identities because they do not matter to a God or higher power. They matter to me and they affect how the world sees me and in turn how I see the world. Acknowledge differences, but do not let them cause alienation.
Know that I, too, worship. I do not worship in a spiritual sense, instead, I worship freedom. I worship love, togetherness, perseverance, empathy. I worship the best aspects of humanity, the same principles that govern most religions. All I ask is that others respect my choice of worship.
Gianna, 20, is a junior at New York University, majoring in sustainable urban environments. Gianna is an organizer for March for Science NYC and volunteers with environmental and social justice groups, including Sunrise Movement, Earth Day Initiative, Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives.