Fun times in Boston

FFRF Lifetime Member Ellery Schempp offers a hearty laugh while speaking with Barbara Alvarez, FFRF’s reproductive rights intern, during the Saturday dinner at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 20. Schempp was the initiator of the landmark 1963 United States Supreme Court decision of Abington School District v. Schempp, which declared that required public school sanctioned Lord’s Prayer and bible readings were unconstitutional.

(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Linda Greenhouse speech: Cheesecake, anyone?

Linda Greenhouse (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Linda Greenhouse holds her Clarence Darrow Award, given to her at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 19, 2021.

Journalist and author Linda Greenhouse was introduced on stage by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor during FFRF’s convention on Nov. 19:

“Veteran Supreme Court observer and commentator Linda Greenhouse has earned this year’s Clarence Darrow Award. You know her for her Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Supreme Court for 30 years and for her continuing and important biweekly column on the court for The New York Times.  

“A fierce defender of reproductive rights, her books include Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court. 

“Linda finds deft and effective ways to question the role of religion in the political or judicial agenda. Linda, you are FFRF’s legal touchstone and we are so grateful to you for your acumen, your empathy, for sharing wise, frank expertise and warnings about the evolving state of the Supreme Court, especially your writings on the Establishment Clause.”

Linda Greenhouse gave this speech (slightly edited) at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 19. 

By Linda Greenhouse

My brief talk has a title: “Cheesecake, anyone?” I will explain that title soon. But first, I want to mention something that occurred to me as I heard other convention presentations today. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received several shout-outs — well-deserved, because by the end of her time on the Supreme Court, she was the most committed separationist among the justices. But I want to remember another distinguished woman who served on the Supreme Court: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who left the court in early 2006. She is still alive at 90, living with dementia.

In the summer of 2005, Justice O’Connor wrote an opinion concurring with the majority in a case called McCreary County that invalidated a Ten Commandments display on the wall of a Kentucky courthouse. Justice David Souter’s majority opinion found the display to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Justice O’Connor agreed. This is what she wrote:

“At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate. Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

FFRF asks people to ask this question. It could be an FFRF motto.

And now to my talk.

Even were I not receiving this wonderful award, it would be an honor and a pleasure simply to be here, among people who are not shy about challenging the surge in religiosity that is sweeping across our supposedly secular country. In my new book and in my opinion columns, I look at this growing problem with a focus on the Supreme Court’s role. But of course, the court is a reflection, not a source of the problem. Supreme Court justices don’t fall from the sky, and the makeup of the current court is a reflection of our domestic politics.

I don’t mean to let the court off the hook for its series of decisions that have placed religion in a position of privilege that would have astounded our Constitution’s Framers, to whom conservative judges and justices purport to pay so much homage. I’m only suggesting that “We the People” paved the way to the Supreme Court we have today, either by active participation in or by passive acquiescence to the wave of religiosity that deposited the most recent justices onto the court’s bench. 

What distinguishes FFRF is its refusal to stand silently by. To stand silent, as most people do, even those who are troubled by what they see, is to enable. Religion, as I’ve written, is the last taboo in American society. Unlike when most of us grew up, we can now talk unabashedly about sexual identity, gender nonconformity, money, race, social class — anything but religion. To comment on the fact that the last three Republican presidents have placed a total of five conservative Catholics on the court — and I mean doctrinally conservative, not simply politically conservative — and you risk being considered rude or even bigoted. But to remain silent in the face of this astonishing fact is to become an enabler. What I admire about FFRF is that you refuse to be enablers.

Now, what could I possibly mean by the title for my talk? Last month, one of our great federal appeals courts declared that Jewish prison inmates had a legal right to be served cheesecake on the Jewish holiday of Shavous.

Yes, you heard that right. It’s the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan, which is where the case of Ackerman v. Washington arose. I’m guessing that some in this audience have some acquaintance with Jewish tradition and practice, as I do. For those from Christian backgrounds, Shavous is Revelation, the handing down of the Ten Commandments.  What on heaven or Earth does this have to do with cheesecake? This is the story.

The Michigan Department of Corrections makes vegan kosher meals available to any prisoner with a religious objection to the standard prison diet. This is a universal meal for prisoners with any religious objection, whether based on Jewish, Muslim or other religious dietary requirements. Two Jewish inmates challenged the prison’s practice, claiming that, based on their religious beliefs, they were entitled to kosher meat on the Sabbath and to a dairy meal on Shavous — not just a generic dairy meal but, according to one of the inmates, cheesecake. 

Testifying at trial, one of the inmates, who claimed familiarity with Jewish law, first said that “Shavous is generally associated with cheesecake in the Jewish community,” but later amplified that remark to say that eating cheesecake was, in fact, required. The district court ordered the prison system to provide kosher meat to prisoners requesting it on the Jewish Sabbath and to provide cheesecake on Shavous. 

The prison system appealed, challenging the sincerity of the prisoner’s claims. The 6th Circuit affirmed, crediting the inmates’ sincerity and noting that both had grown up eating kosher food at home. Two of the three judges on the appellate panel were appointed by Donald Trump, but, in fact, that’s largely irrelevant, as I will explain. Writing for the panel, one of those two judges, John Nalbandian, said that while the kosher meat claim for the Sabbath was an easy question, the cheesecake claim was “trickier.” The judge observed that “religious texts don’t say that cheesecake is mandatory.” He cited a note in the Code of Jewish Law that “some have a custom to just eat some dairy” on the holiday of Shavous. 

Why didn’t that end the judges’ inquiry? Why didn’t a finding of “no religious requirement” equate to a finding of “no entitlement”? Aha, and I quote: “But there’s also evidence suggesting that these prisoners do, in fact, sincerely believe that cheesecake is required on Shavout” [a more modern spelling of the name of the holiday]. Noting that the District Court judge had accepted the prisoners’ sincerity on this point, Judge Nalbandian said: “That’s all that is required. Even if we may have come out differently on this issue if we were sitting as district judges, we affirm under the applicable standard of review.” 

Theoretically, Michigan might have rebutted this finding by showing that the state had a compelling interest in not yielding to the inmates’ request. The state offered a financial interest: meeting the dietary demand would cost $10,000 a year. The 6th Circuit rejected that effort, noting that the prison system’s annual food budget was $39 million, and that an addition $10,000 represented “just a tiny 0.02 percent in that multi-million-dollar-food-budget bucket.”

Now, I’m no expert on Jewish law. But I was married in an Orthodox synagogue, and I’m here to tell you that Jews no more require cheesecake on Shavous than Christians require colored eggs on Easter. Fun to have, in both cases, but how did we come to a point where a federal appeals court issues a 23-page opinion addressing a matter that to a person without a stake in the outcome would appear frivolous, even ridiculous?

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to religious claims, nothing is frivolous or ridiculous. And given where the Supreme Court has driven the law, the chain of reasoning that produced the outcome in this case was completely plausible and even predictable. The case was litigated under a 20-year-old federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. The law provides that the government must show a “compelling interest” to justify imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.” “Religious exercise” is defined as “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Given that statutory language, it’s hardly surprising that the Supreme Court has interpreted the law as triggered by any “sincere” belief, no matter how unfounded. And if all that matters is “sincerity,” who, after all, is to judge?

The law essentially enables judges, if so inclined, to take themselves out of the role of judging. To this effect, it mirrors a companion federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was the law at issue in the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court decided in 2014. This was the case about whether a corporation with a religious owner could exempt itself from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide birth control as part of the employee health insurance plan. The owner of Hobby Lobby claimed that he couldn’t possibly abide by this mandate because certain forms of birth control cause abortion. This does not happen to be true. But it was, ostensibly, the man’s belief. So, the court credited it and ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor, to the detriment of thousands of women all over the country who work for such employers and as a result have been deprived of an employment benefit contemplated by Congress and enjoyed by women who are lucky enough to work for companies that obey the law.

My point in telling you the cheesecake story, then, is really about a lot more than cheesecake. In context, the 6th Circuit opinion was not crazy. It was, as I said, completely predictable. It’s the law itself that has gone off the rails in full view of anyone who cared to watch. Prisoners can be denied decent medical care, can be abused by guards, of course forfeit their right to vote — but, by God, let them eat cheesecake. 

Something is seriously out of balance, and by the end of the current Supreme Court term it is highly likely to become even more so. The situation urgently requires our attention. I’m comforted by the knowledge that FFRF will keep doing its part.

Science and reason must prevail over religious exemptions

Steve Benson cartoon

Failure to be fully vaccinated in the United States — where the vaccines have been long available for free and where most children are now eligible — is, to state the obvious, prolonging the pandemic. 

There’s no excuse —not even a religious one — in a secular nation predicated on science, not to do one’s part to stop the spread of Covid-19 and its ever-growing variants. Atheists and nonbelievers can take pride that we are the most vaccinated sector in the United States. Unfortunately, white Christian evangelicals, the least vaccinated and most resistant group, wield disproportionate political power to disrupt rational public health policy.

The remedy is at hand, yet vaccine mandates and even “vaccine passports” at the state, public school or other local levels remain the exception. Lawsuits, mostly by religious politicians, individuals or entities, abound against existing mandates, including President Joe Biden’s OSHA rule that companies with 100 or more employees must require vaccination. Litigation, backlash and resistance greet mandates, and the demand for religious exemptions from public health rules is growing.

Public health policy emphatically does require universal mandates, yet confusion reigns over the legality of religious exemptions. 

Vaccine mandates are neutral. A vaccine mandate is a neutral rule that applies to everyone, religious or not. The mandate doesn’t discriminate among religions, just as the novel coronavirus doesn’t “discriminate” among who it infects. 

Vaccine mandates are constitutional. The government’s authority to protect the health and safety of citizens is well-established. The Supreme Court ruled vaccine mandates constitutional over 100 years ago in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), and has affirmed that ruling multiple times over the past century. Jacobson involved the constitutionality of a regulation by the board of health in Cambridge, Mass., to require vaccinations in response to a smallpox epidemic. The Supreme Court held that the mandate represented a valid exercise of the state’s police power and affirmed that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” 

The Supreme Court again found, in Zucht v. King (1922), that the school district of San Antonio, Texas, could constitutionally exclude unvaccinated students from attending district schools. In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court concluded that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” In Employment Division v. Smith, (1990), the court reaffirmed that the free exercise clause does not “require religious exemptions from . . . health and safety regulation such as . . . compulsory vaccination laws.” 

Mandatory vaccinations are longstanding. Mandatory vaccinations date to a decision by George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, to order an 18th century version against smallpox, which he termed the “most dangerous enemy.” It was a good thing he did, as historian Thomas Schactman notes: “Nothing that Washington did had a greater impact on the outcome of the war than his actions to protect his troops from death by smallpox.” The infection rate among the American soldiers dropped from 17 percent to 1 percent in a year. 

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have long required school-aged children to receive vaccines for measles, rubella and polio. The state of Mississippi does not provide for any exemptions from school vaccinations.

Religious entities do not oppose vaccination policies. No major U.S. religious denomination opposes vaccination outright, with only a few tiny Christian denominations as outliers. 

Legal and practical problems in “accommodating” religious exemptions. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman warns, “Employers who choose to accommodate religious exemptions . . . have to investigate subjective matters on which they have no expertise,” noting the exception invites “every phony and crank to escape a basic measure needed to protect those around them.”

Curtis Chang, who is affiliated with Duke Divinity School and is cofounder of Christians and the Vaccine, points out in a New York Times guest essay that any institution considering religious exemptions should require applicants to demonstrate they’ve consistently refused other immunizations for religious reasons. Most evangelicals have historically chosen to be immunized against polio, measles, tetanus and other diseases.

The burden should be on the individual seeking the exemption anyway. Government officials rolling out vaccination mandates have misguidedly assumed they have a legal duty to offer an exemption.

Who’s behind anti-vaccine backlash? Arch-conservative governors, uniformly Christian and rightwing, are outracing each other to ban Covid mandates, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s banned private entities from mandating vaccination. Other Christian nationalist governors include Ron DeSantis, of Florida, who banned vaccine passports, and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who’s using Covid funds to reward private schools for banning masking. Multiple states with Christian right-dominated legislatures are suing Biden over the OSHA rule. Litigating private entities include Christian Employers Alliance, defended by Alliance Defending Freedom. Among petitioners against the OSHA rules are Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Liberty Counsel is spearheading anti-mandate challenges.

It’s no coincidence that zealous evangelical Gov. Abbott, who signed SB 8  — the notorious law careening Texas into the land of The Handmaid’s Tale — has been among the most aggressive public officials in banning Covid mandates, hypocritically condemning them as federal “overreach.” Mandatory motherhood is not government “overreach,” but a jab in the arm to protect health and defeat a pandemic is? The religious motivation to ban both abortion and Covid mandates is irrefutable.

Two closely-watched lawsuits involve Christian, anti-abortion healthcare workers in Maine and New York State. The Maine religious healthcare workers, so far losing their lawsuit, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Sooner or later this or a similar case will be scheduled for the Trump court’s “shadow” or regular docket. Then, watch out. We can expect to see the Religious Freedom Restoration Act invoked to assert that those with “sincerely held religious beliefs” are above the law. Clearly, individuals who deny science and/or who place their idiosyncratic religious beliefs above the health of patients don’t belong in the health care or nursing home care professions.

“Religiously-motivated anti-vaxxers challenging mandates act like not being vaccinated is somehow a courageous act of personal integrity,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is in fact the height of selfishness. These latter-day Know-Nothings fail to grasp or honor the fact that vaccinations work not only by providing protection to the individual, but to the community through herd immunity.” Unfortunately, the current estimate is that we will only reach Covid-19 herd immunity when 90 percent or more of the population is vaccinated. 

As the centuries-old battle of science versus faith continues unabated, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will continue our vital work to ensure that reason and science — not religious obstructionism — end up prevailing in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The United States and the world have a long way to go, and irrationality is still “the most dangerous enemy.”

Thanks to FFRF Attorney Chris Line for his research and drafting of much of this statement.

FFRF’s Capitol exhibit marks 25 years

FFRF Legal Assistant Stephanie Dyer, Director of Operations Lisa Strand and Freethought Today Editor PJ Slinger installed the two displays in the Wisconsin Capitol on Dec. 1

FFRF’s annual Winter Solstice exhibit is celebrating its (almost unbroken) silver jubilee at the Wisconsin Capitol.

The secular display is back in FFRF’s hometown legislative building for a breathtaking 25th time after a pandemic-forced hiatus last year. A gilt sign in the Madison-located Statehouse features FFRF’s traditional message from its principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor. 

A major addition to the exhibit in the rotunda for more than half a decade now is FFRF’s whimsical Bill of Rights “nativity.” The irreverent cutout by artist Jacob Fortin depicts Founders Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington gazing in adoration at a “baby” Bill of Rights while the Statue of Liberty looks on.

In memoriam: Bobbie Kirkhart was a longtime atheist leader

Atheist activist and FFRF Lifetime Member Bobbie Kirkhart, 78, died on Oct. 31 in her home in Los Angeles. 

“Bobbie was a joyful, generous, courageous and fearless trailblazer for freethought and humanism,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “She was also a faithful faithless friend. She will be deeply missed.”

Bobbie was born April 16, 1943, in Enid, Oklahoma. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma in 1965 before moving to Los Angeles that same year.

Bobbie’s first job was as a social worker for the Department of Children and Family Services, where she participated in one of the first public employee strikes in the country. She completed some graduate-level coursework in linguistics before divorce sent her back into the workforce. She taught in private business colleges for a few years before becoming a teacher with Los Angeles Unified School District’s Adult Division, teaching Individualized Instruction Labs. She retired from LAUSD when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. After she recovered, she poured her energy into the freethought movement. 

For nearly four decades, Bobbie was a fixture in the atheist movement. She served as president of both Atheist Alliance International and Atheists United, served on the board of Camp Quest and the advisory board for Humanist Association of Nepal, helped form the Secular Coalition for America, and was an informal advisor and mentor to dozens of freethought leaders. Bobbie had spoken to freethought groups throughout the United States, and had addressed atheists and humanists in Canada, Germany, France, India, Ireland, Nigeria and Cameroon. She also was a platform speaker at the first of its kind Godless Americans March in Washington, D.C., in 2002 and accepted the Freethought Backbone Award from the Secular Student Alliance in 2013. 

In 2009, she purchased and opened up her century-old Victorian home (known as Heretic House) to speakers and local groups, giving atheists and progressive organizers a dependable and rent-free meeting space. Hundreds of fundraisers, parties, choir rehearsals, jam-sessions, board retreats, recovery meetings, and volunteer events have called Heretic House home over the last decade, while dozens of well-known speakers and activists have crashed for a few nights at a time. 

Bobbie was first married in 1969 to William Mason, and then divorced in 1982. She remarried in 1997 to Harvey Tippit, whom she met through Atheists United. She became a widow in 2006. Bobbie continued to travel and took her daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons on an adventure to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula in 2019, which would be her last major trip.

Karen Heineman: Advice to Aaron Rodgers — Follow the (vet) science

Karen Heineman

By Karen Heineman

I am a veterinarian as well as an attorney. That’s why I was particularly disheartened to hear Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ dismissal of science and the benefits of vaccination and learn that he instead chose to use questionable remedies such as ivermectin to treat his Covid-19 infection.

I am familiar with ivermectin and vaccines. As everyone is now likely aware, ivermectin is a “horse dewormer.” That description is simplistic but not inaccurate. Ivermectin is primarily a veterinary product used to treat parasites. Even though it is used widely in the profession, it is not a drug without serious potential complications. Ivermectin toxicity is not pretty, since it can result in neurologic abnormalities, including coma and death.

I am familiar with death due to ivermectin. Horse dewormers containing ivermectin are readily available over the counter. One client of mine decided to treat her barn cats with ivermectin — with the disastrous result that the cats who pushed through the pack and ate the most died.

And although ivermectin has been available in veterinary medicine for a long time, it isn’t used to treat viral infections. Rodgers’ admission — late in the game — that he is not vaccinated and chose to treat his Covid-19 infection with medications, including ivermectin, which are not approved for this use, is frustrating. Rodgers’ reasons are particularly offensive, in part because he did not seem to fit the “dumb jock” mold. His deliberate verbal sleight of hand, choosing “immunized” to answer the question about his vaccination status, has slammed the door on his credibility.

Despite his declaration, Rodgers is not a critical thinker. A critical thinker does not base decisions on anecdotal evidence, untested theories and extrapolation of Petri dish observations. Rodgers professed to be concerned about what the Covid-19 vaccinations would do to his body, choosing homeopathic “immunization” instead, but when his preventative protocol was unsuccessful, he did not hesitate to use unproven prescription medications with potentially significant side effects. The quarterback chose the Hail Mary option for treatment.

Rodgers continues to search for excuses to justify his selfish and ignorant behavior. The NFL provides an option for players who do not want to be vaccinated, but Rodgers wasn’t keen on following the protocols with that option. He chose instead to not believe the science behind the vaccines, put the Pack around him at risk and then invoke Martin Luther King Jr. to justify his right to go his own way.

Unfortunately, his athletic prowess provides a platform for Rodgers to misinform and influence how others will view vaccination and treatment. 

To be clear, the fact that someone uses ivermectin and recovers from Covid-19 is not evidence, yet we can assume the use of ivermectin will increase because of Rodgers’ sponsorship of vigilante medicine. When the quarterback could be using his position to help the vaccine efforts, recently expanded to children, he has chosen instead to suggest that the vaccine can do more harm than good.

Be a responsible critical thinker. Follow the science, not the quarterback. Choose vaccination, not ivermectin.

Karen Heineman is an FFRF legal fellow and has been a practicing veterinarian in Wisconsin since 1992. She graduated from Marquette University Law School in 2020.

Valerie Tarico: Religious thought habits are hard to break

Valerie Tarico

By Valerie Tarico

Perhaps it’s been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the “Good Book.” It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that praying believers don’t avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn’t so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the bible is a jerk — or worse. 

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure. 

Here are 10 mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians, even when we think we’ve done the work of moving on. None of these is unique to former Christians, but all are reinforced by bible belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.  

1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You’re either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are “lukewarm.” 

This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn’t enough; you need to be all in. No pain, no gain. Work? You’re a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you’ll gain a following. 

2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-and-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes — good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent — just fallen (“utterly depraved” in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan. 

3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between “I’m awesome” and “I suck.” Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn’t perfect, and that’s the biblical standard.  

4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of “confessing our sins one to another” turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.

5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people, but also straight guys who like sex, it’s impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more a matter of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor’s wife. Then there’s virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don’t forget God hates fags. 

6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn’t the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues. The consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small everyday wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to breathe in, center in the moment, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.

7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large, nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown and unknowable.

8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what’s right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don’t share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated. 

9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side — just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks! 

Fiction, in particular fiction from Christian-dominant cultures, often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes. And it’s all too easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren’t that simple, but it’s so much easier to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, orcs and elves. 

10. Incessant what-ifs. And so we struggle. We tell ourselves it’s OK; that we’re OK. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I’m wrong? Many years ago, I told a therapist that I didn’t believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real. The journey out is — a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting, a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn’t mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.   

In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence: Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out. 

I often find myself quoting one former bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the present — a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets. 

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas . . . and Other Imaginings.

They Said What? (December 2021)

What we see happening in our schools today is no accident. This is a result of, literally, over a hundred years of planning, and activism and organization by ungodly people. And if I could just be frank, it’s by atheists, and communists, and secular humanists. OK? I’m just going to call a spade a spade here.

Truth and Liberty Coalition Executive Director Richard Harris, in the article, “The Christian Right revolution starts small and local.”

Religion Dispatches, 10-26-21

While a free nation cannot and should not try to coerce atheists toward belief, people of faith, while we still have a voice, have an urgent duty to alert our fellow citizens that, although religious freedom protects atheists, atheism itself nonetheless has an inherent and — alas — well-established tendency to work not only against religious freedom, but against all freedoms.

Eric Metaxas, Christian author and radio host, in his column, “Is atheism the enemy of freedom?”

Fox News, 10-25-21

There’s no such thing as separation of church and state. . . .

In the classroom, kids would learn about good vs. evil, and that Judeo-Christian ethic separates itself from Islam and atheism and all these other belief sets on so many levels.

Josh Mandel, Ohio Senate candidate and former Ohio treasurer, during a GOP candidate debate, saying the authors of the Constitution envisioned a country where school children would be taught about God.

Newsweek, 10-25-21

In the light of my seriously held God-following beliefs, my heart, soul and mind belong to the Almighty Creator Elohim, it is against my faith and conscience to have any of this injected into my body. I truly believe the God-given immune system has been proven to be the strongest against communicable disease.

Jamal Y. Speakes, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, who successfully applied for a religious exemption so he could continue teaching, despite Los Angeles Unified School District’s vaccine mandate for all employees.

Los Angeles Times, 10-29-21

Nearly everything that plagues our society can be attributed to a failure to follow God’s laws for morality and his rules for and definition of marriage and family.

Rep. Bob Good R-Va., during a House debate Oct. 26 on anti-domestic violence legislation called the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act.

Huffington Post, 10-26-21

The dilemma for the atheist is that he is compelled to oscillate unhappily between self-importance and no importance.

Donald DeMarco, senior fellow of Human Life International, in his column, “Atheism’s ‘eccentric’ nature.”

National Catholic Register, 11-8-21

John Compere: The many reasons for the holiday season

John Compere

By John Compere

Our American winter holiday season begins and ends with secular holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day). In between are various secular, sectarian, ethnic, cultural and regional celebrations. They are merging, yet different, American holiday traditions. 

Our winter holidays become the season of peace and goodwill when they are inclusive of all traditions and not exclusive for any one tradition. 

Peace and goodwill are also the principles proclaimed by one of the popular songs of the holiday season. There will be “peace on Earth and goodwill to men,” women and children when we respect other traditions and reject the badwill of those who arrogantly claim their tradition is the exclusive reason for the season.  

The inclusive secular celebration for all choosing to participate can involve Santa Claus, elves, Rudolph and other flying reindeer, sleighs with bells, gift giving, snowmen/women, fireplace stockings, decorative trees, poinsettias, mistletoe, holly, eggnog, candy canes, caroling, the Grinch, holiday cheer and much more. 

The exclusive sectarian celebrations are for those practicing a particular religion. Christianity, for example, commemorates the fictitious birth date of a Jewish figure from the ancient Middle East. Christian biblical scripture also blesses and encourages peacemaking (Matthew 5:9; Romans 14:19; James 3:18). It is important to note that less than 50 percent of Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque (Gallup poll).

“Season’s greetings” and “Happy holidays” refer to the entire festive period and all traditions. “Merry Christmas” refers to one day (Dec. 25) and one tradition. The word “Christmas” comes from Greek, Latin and Hebrew translations of “Christ’s mass,” which is an exclusive ritual of one religious denomination. 

American colonists (Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, et. al.) opposed celebrating Christmas because it was a sectarian ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church. Southern states were the first to begin celebrating Dec. 25 with feasting, drinking, dancing, gambling, hunting, fishing and socializing. It later became an American public holiday at the initiation of banks and businesses and is our biggest commercial holiday. 

Yuletide celebrations and decorated trees originated with pagan winter festivals of Germanic people in early Europe. Neither are mentioned in religious scripture. 

Saint Nicholas was a gift giver to children and a fourth-century Eastern Orthodox bishop in Asia. His Dec. 6 festival day was a European holiday dedicated to children. He was recreated in America as our secular Santa Claus and the date changed to Dec. 25, becoming the genesis for our secular gift-giving tradition.

The day, month or year of Jesus’ birth is not known. It was celebrated at different times for 300 years until a fourth-century Catholic pope arbitrarily set it on Dec. 25 to compete with the popular pagan winter solstice festival celebrated throughout Europe. There is not just one birth story, but three contradictory birth versions (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2; Revelation 12). All were compiled from oral stories (hearsay) and written in ancient Greek by different anonymous and non-eyewitness authors long after Jesus reportedly lived. They cannot be reconciled when compared.

The term “Xmas” is not sacrilegious, does not replace Christ with an English “X” and does not remove Christ from Christmas. Those who claim otherwise display ignorance of Christian history. “Xmas” originated in the early Christian church as an acceptable abbreviation for Christmas because the New Testament was written in ancient Greek and its letter for Christ was “X.” The Greek letter “X” is deeply rooted in Christianity and has been used as a sacred Christ symbol for centuries.

The historic facts about our winter holiday season provide an important perspective. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” as English philosopher and writer Aldous Huxley perceptively penned.  

Respect for all Americans and their traditions fosters peace and goodwill. Peacemakers and Goodwillers care about others, welcome different holiday traditions, keep personal beliefs in perspective and accept human diversity. Peacebreakers and Badwillers do not. More respectful inclusiveness and less disrespectful exclusiveness will ensure peace and goodwill for all during this winter holiday season.

“So many gods, so many creeds,

So many paths that wind and wind,

While just the art of being kind

Is all this sad world needs.”

— Ella Wheeler Wilson

FFRF Member John Compere is a retired lawyer, retired judge and Texas rancher.