On Bill Maher’s weekly HBO show “Real Time” on Feb. 5, the host and longtime religious skeptic pointed out how there’s tremendous overlap between religionists and the QAnon conspiracy theorists.
During his “New Rules,” segment, he said:
“Magical religious thinking is a virus and QAnon is just its current mutation. That’s why megachurches play QAnon videos. We need to stop pretending there’s no way we’ll ever understand why the Trump mob believes in him. It’s because they’re religious . . . They’ve already made space in their heads for shit that doesn’t make sense.”
He went on:
“It’s fun to laugh at QAnon with the baby-eating lizard people and the pedophile pizza parlors, but have you ever read the Book of Revelation? That’s the bible. That’s your holy book, Christians, and they’ve got . . . stuff you only see after the guy in the park sells you bad mushrooms.”
“There’s a lot of talk now about how Republicans should tell their base who still believe the election was rigged that they need to grow up and move on and stop asking the rest of us to respect their mass delusion. Of course, it is a mass delusion. But the inconvenient truth here is that if you accord religious faith the kind of exalted respect we do here in America, you’ve already lost the argument that mass delusion is bad.”
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker appeared on Seth Andrews’ “Thinking Atheist” podcast in January. The following is a transcript of a portion of his discussion.
By Dan Barker
I have done 137 formal public debates, and by now I have heard all the arguments many times over. But the most slippery disputes deal with how to understand the bible. When I quote a passage that makes believers uncomfortable, they often say I am not interpreting it properly.
For example, when I quote Psalm 137:9, which says, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little children against the stones” as an example of biblical barbarity, some apologists will yell “context” or “metaphor.” But some will say that those are not actually God’s words.
The psalmist is really saying that “Here is what a human might say in the heat of the moment when confronted with the brutality of the Babylonians, that IF someone were to dash THEIR babies against the stones, THEY would be happy.” God is not telling Christians to kill babies.
Well, OK. Then that means that verse is not part of God’s word. It’s just a human hyperbole. But if that is true, why is it in the bible?
And how are we to know where to draw the line? Using that logic, shouldn’t we dismiss the entire bible? The Old and New Testaments were written, after all — by humans. When Moses told the Israelites that “God gave me these Ten Commandments,” wasn’t that just Moses speaking — perhaps metaphorically? Hyperbolically? Maybe Yahweh himself is just one huge figure of speech.
It’s interesting that believers only invoke their interpretive defenses when confronted with passages they don’t like. I could play the same game.
When John wrote that “God is love,” couldn’t I say that that is a metaphor? If you take that verse in the entire context of God’s atrocious actions and cruel commands, it can’t possibly mean that God is really love, as we modern people understand the word. That is just John speaking, after all, and should not be considered the word of God.
Well, I do understand. If you are committed, a priori, to the requirement — to the dogma — that God is perfect and good, then you will never see a contradiction or inconsistency, even if it is right there before your eyes.
You have no choice but to twist yourself into a hermeneutic pretzel to keep that baby alive.
Dan Barker is co-president of the FFRF and author of the books Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.
Subrata Shuvo was given $5,000 as part of FFRF’s secular program to aid exiled freethinkers.
By Subrata Shuvo
I am Subrata Shuvo and was one of three bloggers who were arrested on April 1, 2013. Police took me away from my Dhaka University residential hall, which they said was for my security, but actually it was a trap to grab me for interrogation and eventually to put me in
jail. After my release from jail, I maintained a low profile to keep myself safe. But in 2015, extremists again began “blogger hunting” and I left the country for good. I flew to another country to save my life.
The history of religious killing in Bangladesh is long. Islamic fanatics believe that freethinking writers call for freedom from religion and thus they consider their beliefs under threat.
That’s why many writers, bloggers and publishers have been attacked or killed in the country for their writings and views — sometimes only for their Facebook posts. Those who live in the Western world can never imagine such a thing.
The chief of the fundamentalist Hefazot-e-Islam declared in a huge gathering that those who become infidels are subject to be killed. “We are assigned to assassinate you; it’s our holy duty. If you want to live in the country of Allah, you have to believe in Allah without any question.”
The following are among the deported or slain freethinkers from Bangladesh.
Daud Haider was the first writer and poet from Bangladesh who was forced into exile shortly after independence for his freethoughts and writings. His poem “Kalo Surjer Kalo Joshnay Kalo Bonnay,” published in 1974, depicted eminent characters of different religions. When it was released, a Dhaka College professor filed a case, accusing him of anti-religious poetry. Shortly after, religious fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh began to complain against him. He was arrested for offending the core values of religious groups. He subsequently escaped to India and then to Germany with the help of the Bangladesh government. He could never again enter Bangladesh.
The distribution of copies of the book Lajja, written by the Bangladeshi feminist author Taslima Nasreen, was restricted by the Bangladesh government in 1993. Politicized Muslims campaigned for her punishment. However, she did not stop, and the government called for her arrest under pressure from Islamist fundamentalist groups. (Later, her novel was translated into more than 30 languages and spread like fire around the world.) In May 1994, she also angered conservatives when she was quoted in the Statesman newspaper as saying that the Quran should “be thoroughly checked.” This brought more ardent protests and demands to put her to death. The government called for her detention, relying on a blasphemy law of the 19th century. She appeared before the court and was released on bail, but had to leave Bangladesh permanently.
Shamsur Rahman was one of the leading poets of Bangladesh. On Jan. 17, 1999, members of the Harkatul Jihad al-Islami group, who had begun to visit his house under the guise of collecting his poems, attacked and wounded Rahman and his wife. Nine detainees arrested in this connection stated that they planned an Islamist revolution by killing so-called anti-Islamic poets and intellectuals.
The radical organization JMB killed author Monir Hossain Sagar in 2000 for writing the book Girl, When Were You Human?
Asif Mohiuddin is a well-known Bangladeshi atheist blogger. For several years, he has been writing about issues such as atheism, religious beliefs, women’s rights and freedom of speech. He was attacked on Jan. 15, 2013, outside of his house, but has survived. He now lives in Germany.
In 2003, Humayun Azad’s novel Pak Sar Zamin Saad Bad was published in Ittefaq magazine. As soon as the book was released, radical groups in the country started protesting against Azad. In the book, Azad refers to the Jamaat-e-Islami — a fundamentalist political party opposed to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 — as a fascist organization. The writer was attacked by assassins on his way home from a book fair at Dhaka University on Feb. 26, 2004. After intensive care for years, he improved physically but died, likely due to complications from the attack, in Germany. Shaikh Abdur Rahman, the leader of the JMB militant group, admitted that he had ordered the assassination of Azad.
Cartoonist Arifur Rahman worked for the Alpine — a satirical journal. In 2007, he was arrested for one of his cartoons that allegedly hurt the religious feelings of the masses. Islamist extremists targeted him for assassination. He is now living in another country.
Ahmed Rajib Haider
Ahmed Rajib Haider was a blogger and architect. On Feb. 15, 2013, he was attacked and hacked to death by machete-wielding activists. He was the first blogger in Bangladesh to be murdered by Islamic militants.
On March 6, 2013, engineer Saniur Rahman survived a stabbing attack by extremists for anti-religious blogging. The attack on Rahman came within 20 days of the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider.
Arrest of three bloggers
On April 1, 2013, the government of Bangladesh arrested Russell Parvez, Moshiur Rahman Biplab and me, avid freethinkers and bloggers, to meet the demand of extremists. On April 3, police additionally arrested Asif Mohiuddin. After 32 days of jail, Parvez and I were released on bail, while other bloggers were released conditionally. All of us fled the country for the sake of our security.
Avijit Roy was often called the “Richard Dawkins of Bengal.” He founded the blog Muktomona, which is still the leading platform of freethinkers. Many extremists intimidated Roy in broad daylight for his writings, even announcing they would kill him. On Feb. 26, a sleeper cell was waiting with machetes near Dhaka University for Avijit and his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed. The extremists hacked at both of them, and the two were rushed to the hospital. Roy did not make it. Ahmed healed after months-long medication and treatment.
Extremists killed Washiqur Babu on March 30, 2015, in broad daylight, accusing him of hurting religious sentiments through his blogging and writings on Facebook.
Ananta Bijoy Das
Four extremists killed Ananta Bijoy with sharp machetes in May 2015. He was a vigorous writer on the Muktomona blog and was an activist against fundamentalism.
On August 7, 2015, extremists assassinated Niloy Neel at his home in Dhaka. Ansar al-Islam claimed the responsibility for the killing. One person entered the house in disguise, claiming to ask for rent. Then a bunch of killers joined in. They locked Neel’s family in a room and hacked him to death.
Attack on publishers
Extremists of Ansar al-Islam killed the publisher Foysal Arefin Dipon, who was accused of publishing Avijit Roy’s book. They hacked him at his office and then locked the gate to let him die.
Radicals also attacked writer and blogger Ranodipam Basu and poet Tarek Rahim, along with publisher Ahmed Rashid Tutul, who left Bangladesh forever and now lives in Norway. The publisher and owner of Rodela got death threats from Islamist groups, and in 2018 they killed Shajahan Bachu, who was the writer and publisher of Bishakha Publications.
Muhammed Zafar Iqbal
Professor Muhammed Zafar Iqbal is one of the prominent, popular and progressive writers of Bangladesh. He is always with freethinkers and critical of fundamentalists, which is why several times he has received death threats. On March 3, 2018, Foyzur Rahman, a self-motivated assailant, attacked Iqbal. He survived. Police arrested the attacker.
Extremists killed Nazimuddin Samad on April 6, 2016. He mainly wrote on Facebook and was killed only for his Facebook posts and comments. Samad was a law student at Jagannath University and on his way home a band of terrorists stopped him on the street and launched an attack with sharp machetes. The terrorists then shot him to ensure his death. Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility.
Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanoy
The magazine Roopban was dedicated to the news and well-being of LGBTQ community of Bangladesh. In 2016, extremists killed Xulhaz Mannan, who was the editor of Roopban. On the same day, Mahbub Tanoy was also killed by Ansar al-Islam. Tanoy was a cultural activist, theatre worker and an activist for LGBTQ rights.
Various Islamist organizations demanded arrest of bloggers. To meet their demand, the government ordered security groups to make a list of bloggers who defame religion, especially Islam. On March 31, 2013, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and leaders of the religious organization Bangladesh Awami Olama League together made a list of bloggers who were allegedly critical of religions. Most of the bloggers either killed or arrested were from that list.
The government did nothing to stop this open declaration and motivation for assassination. Rather, government and various executive bodies started victim-blaming. After the assassination of every blogger, the government became far more concerned with what the bloggers wrote rather than arresting those who were involved in the butchery. Here are some of the actions against freethinking bloggers:
• The prime minister of Bangladesh told the media on Nov. 8, 2015, that bloggers should not criticize religion.
• The law and order-related cabinet committee on Aug. 10, 2015, decided to arrest anyone who writes anything against religion.
• Just after the assassination of Nazimuddin Samad, the interior minister briefed the media on April 7, 2016, that the government would investigate his writings.
• Parliamentarian Selim Osman advocated on Nov. 12, 2016, that people should report atheists.
• The government ordered the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to open an email account and asked for the public to send detailed information of those who defame Islam.
So, it’s very clear that Bangladesh became an extermination ground for nonbelievers and alternative thinkers. Citizens usually ask their government to save them from the aggression of extremists, but that’s not what we see in Bangladesh! To save our lives, we have had to leave our beloved country forever to a completely unknown situation and culture. I am one of those exiled.
This essay appeared in The Humanist magazine, September/October 1988, and was reprinted in Haught’s 2007 book, Honest Doubt.)
By James A. Haught
id you know that Albert Einstein, although Jewish, went through a brief childhood phase of devout Christianity?
In an autobiographical sketch written at age 67, he described his short-lived faith, planted in him by daily indoctrination at a Catholic school to which his parents had sent him:
“Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the bible could not be true.
“The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies. It was a crushing impression.
“Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude which has never left me, even though later on, because of a better insight into the causal connections, it lost some of its original poignancy.
“It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation. . .
“The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise, but it has proved itself as trustworthy, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”
Commenting on Einstein’s reminiscence, physicist Heinz Pagels wrote:
“What this passage reveals is a conversion from personal religion to the ‘cosmic religion’ of science, an experience which changed him for the rest of his life. Einstein saw that the universe is governed by laws that can be known by us but that are independent of our thoughts and feelings.
“The existence of this cosmic code — the laws of material reality as confirmed by experience — is the bedrock faith that moves the natural scientist. The scientist sees in that code the eternal structure of reality, not as imposed by man or tradition but as written into the very substance of the universe. This recognition of the nature of the universe can come as a profound and moving experience to the young mind.”
Pondering the universe
Looking into the soul of the universe isn’t just for world-class physicists. It can happen to anyone who ponders the awesome discoveries of science, from quarks to quasars.
When I was a farm boy in rural West Virginia, my grandfather taught me the orbits of Earth and the moon, and I thought it was utterly amazing that these colossal balls weighing quintillions of tons whirled and circled and rolled forever in open space — and that we live on one of them.
When I studied chemistry in high school and learned the combining valences of atoms, I thought it was utterly amazing that this hidden code governs virtually all matter — Earth and the moon, our bodies, trees, water, air. How could atoms lock together into substances because of gaps in their outer layers of electrons — electrons eternally streaking at nearly the speed of light?
Why do the mysterious electrical parts of atoms whirl forever, like the planets and stars?
Why do electrically neutral atoms seize onto each other, just because their outer electrons lack the magic number of eight?
Why do they turn into remarkably different things as they combine? Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are nothing like water, yet they constitute it. Some carbon atoms lock in tetrahedrons to become diamonds; others lock in layers of six-sided carbon rings to become graphite pencil lead.
Why do atoms link into carbon-based molecules that link into amino acids that link into proteins that link into living cells as complex as whole cities — and why does all this link into a thinking, feeling, loving, fearing, aging, dying human?
How can a combination of amino acids write a symphony or join the Republican party or commit stock fraud or feel patriotism for a section of Earth likewise composed of molecules?
The old “planetary” model of the atom was envisioned like a solar system — orbits around a nucleus. This raised a far-out theory that our solar system might be an atom in some stupefyingly larger universe, and that our atoms might be tiny solar systems with people living on some of the particles. I first encountered this idea in a Captain Marvel comic book.
The great astronomer Harlow Shapley once gave a talk at West Virginia State University. I hung around afterward and asked him, “What’s the name of the theory that atoms might be solar systems?” He looked at me and said, “The name of it is damn nonsense.” I later learned that it’s called the subatomic universe theory — but Shapley’s name probably is better.
During this period, when I was muddling over the boggling impossibilities that science revealed, I started reading books on Einstein and relativity, and found that his scientific truth was even more astonishing. What our common sense tells us is real can’t be real if space shrinks to nonexistence or time runs slower and stops under some conditions.
I hatched mental experiments that short-circuited my brain. For example, Einstein says the speed of light is the great constant of the universe — nothing can go faster. He also says all speeds are relative between moving objects. Well, if you strike a match, photons of visible light fly out in all directions. If one photon is going west at the speed of light and another is going east at the speed of light, how fast are they separating from each other?
It gets even worse when you read quantum physics. The more I studied, the more I developed an eerie sense that the world we think we inhabit and all existing things are some sort of fiction.
For example, take steel. It can be a 100-foot bridge girder or it can be the coil of a bass piano string, a long wire spiraled into a hard spring. All the curves of that spring are composed of iron atoms locked rigidly to each other in a strong crystal lattice that is nearly unbreakable.
And yet, those atoms are basically empty. They are a void of unknowable electrical charges, which don’t actually touch each other. They are virtually a vacuum. They are as empty as the solar system. If you look at the night sky and see how remote the planets are, that’s how remote the parts of an atom are from each other.
If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would be a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor, too tiny to be seen. Therefore, heavy, rigid steel doesn’t exist the way we think it does. It’s 99.999999 percent vacuum — as vacant as the night sky.
Sometimes I picture atoms as soap bubbles: empty but bumping against each other and sticking together. The buzzing outer electrons are negative, and they repel the negative electron clouds of adjoining atoms. This holds the atoms apart and gives them an illusion of solidity. Yet, they are bound to each other by valence bonds and hydrogen bonds and Van der Waals bonds and other electrical links.
Atom emptiness is the key to white dwarfs, pulsars and black holes.
At the end of their life cycles, stars explode. Then, what’s left of them collapses, and gravity pulls the collapsing material into incredible density. If the residue is small, compressed electrons in the seething stellar plasma of crushed atoms push back fiercely and resist further collapse. This produces a white dwarf that is nearly impossible to comprehend. The material of a white dwarf weighs around 10 tons per thimbleful. How could something the size of a thimble be so heavy that 100 strong men couldn’t lift it? It might crush a house. A large crane would be required to pick it up.
But that’s just the first step in removing the empty space inside atoms. A teenage genius, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, computed that, if a collapsing star has 1.4 times the mass of our sun, its gravity would be too great to be stopped by the resistance of the electrons. He didn’t know it, but he was predicting pulsars, or neutron stars, which later were discovered. Their enormous gravity squeezes the electrons into the nucleus of each atom, where they merge with protons to form a solid mass of neutrons. This material weighs about 10 million tons per cubic centimeter. A cc is the size of a bouillon cube. Can you imagine a bouillon cube weighing more than the World Trade Center? But that’s what matter is when the empty space is removed between the nucleus and the electrons of atoms.
If 10 million tons of actual substance is the size of a bouillon cube, how much real material is in a 180-pound man or a 120-pound woman? Not as much as a dust speck. Not enough to see with a microscope. Our 5-foot or 6-foot bodies, like all material things, are an illusion made of vacuum and whirling electrical charges.
It gets worse. Even the packed neutrons in a pulsar are not basic material. They, too, are empty and compressible. If the remains of a collapsing star are 3.2 times larger than our sun, the gravity is too strong to be checked at the pulsar level. The collapse continues until it passes the point of no return — the Schwarzchild Radius — and becomes a black hole, the ultimate pit of gravity, where everything is compressed to nothing.
If planet Earth were squeezed to its Schwarzchild Radius, it would be the size of a pearl. Can anyone imagine the matter of the entire Earth being reduced to fingernail size — but retaining all its weight — and continuing to shrink beyond that point?
This isn’t Captain Marvel comics. Pulsars are real. So are black holes, the astrophysicists say. If they are actuality, then what is our everyday world?
The nonreality of matter is just one of many enigmas that science reveals. Consider these:
• As we lie “still” in bed, we are flying 67,000 miles an hour around the sun and 600,000 miles an hour around the Milky Way galaxy.
• When we see the North Star, we are looking back in time to the medieval era, because the light we see began traveling 680 years ago.
• Every second, the visible universe expands by a volume as large as the Milky Way.
• Peaceful atoms of rock, lying still for centuries, have a power in their nuclei that is beyond comprehension: Only as much matter as a dime was transformed into the energy that destroyed Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people.
• The smallness of atoms likewise is beyond grasping: A cubic inch of air contains 300 billion billion molecules, all moving at 1,000 miles an hour and hitting each other 5 billion times a second.
• Although atoms are generally indestructible, their electrons keep coming loose to produce lightning and the other electricity of the world.
• The light we see, the sun warmth we feel, the radio and television signals we receive, the X-rays we use — all of these come from electrons. Electromagnetic radiation is emitted by excited electrons oscillating or dropping to lower layers in atoms.
• Most life on Earth comes from a tiny electric current: When sunlight hits chlorophyll molecules, excited outer electrons jump through a mosaic of molecules, and this energy drives plant processes.
• As for the DNA that conveys our genetic code, there is six feet of it inside each cell or our bodies. The body has more than 10 trillion cells, so every person contains several billion miles of DNA.
• The “spin” of electrons is so powerful it can suspend railway locomotives in the air (in “maglev,” or magnetic levitation, trains). Electrons of most atoms are in balanced pairs with opposite spin, so the atoms have no magnetism. But ferrous atoms have a few electrons that aren’t balanced, giving each atom a magnetic field. When an electrical current induces all the atoms in a piece of iron to align their polarity in unison, a strong electromagnet is created.
These amazing realities are profoundly important, yet when I try to discuss science with my chums in the news business or music circles or political groups, they look at me as if I’m babbling in the Unknown Tongue. They are highly educated people who know multitudes of facts, but they shrug at what I think are the most crucial facts of all.
If religion and philosophy are an attempt to comprehend the universe and the meaning of life, then science is the best portal. Every time I learn another rule of subatomic forces or cell behavior or galactic motion, I get an eerie sense of glimpsing the mysterious code underlying our existence. Physicists often apply the word God to this order, but they don’t mean God in the church sense.
In a world of supernatural religions, mystical religions, guilt-based religions, violent religions, money-collecting religions, social club religions and cult religions, grasping the code of the universe is the most religious experience I know.
James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Alex Torrez received FFRF’s $1,000 Student Activist Award, endowed by a generous couple in the Northwest who prefer anonymity.
By Alex Torrez
I’m a home-schooled high school junior and I’ve been competing in national circuit Lincoln-Douglas Debate competition for three years. I’m also an atheist.
Debate has caused me to dramatically change the way I look at the world and converse with others. It’s the single most important thing I’ve done since I started high school. We debate a resolution that changes every two months, but usually revolves around a proposed policy, such as “The United States should implement a federal jobs guarantee,” or “States ought to abolish their nuclear arsenals.” When Covid-19 hit, debate went from being an in-person activity hosted by high schools and colleges around the country to an online platform. The first major online tournament was hosted by Strake Jesuit High School in Texas. It drew nearly 200 participants, making it one of the most highly attended tournaments of the year.
After signing up, I was sent to the rules page. The rules for this tournament — the first of its kind — specifically allowed debaters to use profanity, unless that profanity was “blasphemy” or “directed toward others and/or God or the saints and angels.” This tournament put three expressly Christian rules ahead of the rule prohibiting child exploitation or threats of physical harm!
I was shocked. But then I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to use my experience as both a debater and an atheist to not only raise awareness about atheist voices in debate, but also to call attention to the very real possibility that we could be excluded from all major debate tournaments going forward if they modeled themselves after this one. I couldn’t let that happen.
Like any good debater, I started by doing the research. I found peer-reviewed academic literature by psychologist Will Gervais showing that atheists are viewed as negatively as rapists. I read psychology journals proving that people are biased in favor of moral arguments when made by theists and against those same arguments when made by atheists. I also found evidence of real-world violence against atheists. But I still wasn’t sure how to turn all of that into a coherent debate case.
Then it hit me: civil disobedience. I was going to break the rules — and encourage others to break them too. I was going to accept whatever punishment they handed down for breaking them, and I was going to change this event forever. Rule 2 specified that profanity was OK, as long as it wasn’t directed towards others.
Here’s how I opened my speech: “Fuck God and all his stupid fucking angels!” (I didn’t say I was subtle.)
Then, I ran my case. I explained the research, and I wove everything together into an argument for why the judge had to join me in civil disobedience to protest. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever debated as well as I did in that round. And, after I finished my last speech and sat down, I looked at the server and realized that more than 50 people had joined the online room as observers! My room. Throughout the round, word had spread and people gathered to watch.
I lost that round. Ten minutes later, I was kicked out of the entire tournament for violating the rules.
For a second, I was hurt. I was the better debater. I wanted to win. But then I saw the bigger picture: 50 people learned something that day. A judge asked me for a copy of my case. People noticed.
Since that day, there have been dozens of online debate tournaments, including another one hosted by Strake Jesuit. And you know what? None of them use those bigoted rules. Now, I don’t know how much of that is due to my civil disobedience (if any), but I’m proud that I was the first person to raise the issue.
I’m a debater, and I’m an atheist.
Alex Torrez, 18, is a homeschooled 11th-grade student from Arbutus, Md. When not competing in high school debates, Alex enjoys designing board and card games, as well as playing a variety of other tabletop games such as Magic: The Gathering.
This article first appeared on the Religion News Service site on Jan. 7 and is reprinted with permission.
By Robert P. Jones
If there was one thing of value to come out of the shameful chaos of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it’s that the horrific events made plain the powerful ideological and theological currents of American politics that often stay just under the surface.
The emblems carried by the rioters — particularly the comfortable juxtaposition of Christian and white supremacist symbols — bear witness to these forces.
There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags.
Some of the participants, organized as part of a “Jericho March,” blew shofars — Jewish ritual horns — as they circled the Capitol, reenacting the siege of the city of Jericho by the Israelites described in the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew bible. And one video showed the Christian flag — white, with a blue canton containing a red cross, used by many white evangelical churches — being paraded into an empty congressional chamber after the doors had been breached and members of Congress evacuated.
I recall that same flag standing behind the pulpit of my Mississippi Southern Baptist church, where as a child I was led in a pledge of allegiance to both the American and Christian flags.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “the conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally” among people he interviewed. “It’s all in the bible. Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the bible. Get yourself ready,” one told him. “Give it up if you believe in Jesus!” said another, then “Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” — which elicited loud cheers from nearby rioters.
Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol.
One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.
At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.
Crowds also formed at state capitols in Ohio, Kansas and Michigan.
If we are to understand the events of Jan. 6, and the challenges ahead for us as a nation, we must take these symbols and this rhetoric seriously, not in isolation, but in combination and conversation with each other.
This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity that has plagued our nation since its inception and is still with us today. As I show in my book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, there remains a disturbingly strong link between holding racist attitudes and identifying as a white Christian.
We should remember that this moment, and the divisions of the last four years, are set against the upheaval of religious and demographic change.
Since 2008, the country has moved from being a majority Christian nation to one that is no longer a majority Christian nation (from 54 percent white and Christian to 44 percent white and Christian). This change took place during the tenure of our first African-American president. The dysfunction and violence we are seeing is in large part an attempt to preserve a vision of white Christian America that is passing from the scene.
The willingness among those in the crowd Jan. 6 to believe outlandish conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to accept the election results are born from the same source: a desperate desire by some white Christians to hang onto ownership of a diversifying country.
As many have rightly declared, the violent disregard for the rule of law we witnessed is not the best of who we are. But if we’re going to heal our nation, we need to confess that it remains, still today, a troubling part of America’s political and religious heritage.
Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and The End of White Christian America.
This article first appeared on TheConversation.com on Dec. 21, 2020, and is reprinted with permission.
By Phil Zuckerman
he voting patterns of religious groups in the United States have been scrutinized since the presidential election for evidence of shifting allegiances among the faithful. Many have wondered if a boost in Catholic support was behind Biden’s win or if a dip in support among evangelicals helped doom Trump.
But much less attention has been paid to one of the largest growing demographics among the United States electorate, one that has increased from around 5 percent of Americans to over 23 percent in the last 50 years: “Nones” — that is, the nonreligious.
I am a scholar of secularism in the United States, and my focus is on the social and cultural presence of secular people — nonreligious people such as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and those who simply don’t identify with any religion. They are an increasingly significant presence in American society, one which inevitably spills into the political arena.
In the 2020 election, the emerging influence of secular voters was felt not only at the presidential level, but also on many down-ballot issues.
New ‘values voters’
For years, both scholars and pundits have referred to the political impact of “values voters” in America. What that designation generally refers to are religious men and women whose scripturally based values coagulate around issues such as opposing marriage equality and women’s reproductive autonomy.
But dubbing such religious voters as “values voters” is a real semantic bamboozle. While it is true that many religious Americans maintain certain values that motivate their voting behavior, it is also very much the case that secular Americans also maintain their own strongly held values. My research suggests they vote on these values with just as much motivation as the religious.
This played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.
Voters in Washington state, for example, passed Referendum 90, which requires that students receive sex education in all public schools. This was the first time that such a measure was ever on a state ballot, and it passed with ease, thanks, in part, to the significant number of nonreligious voters in the Pacific Northwest.
The fact is, Washington is one of the least religious states in the union. Well over a third of all Washingtonians do not affiliate with any religion, more than a third never pray and almost 40 percent never attend religious services.
The referendum’s passing was helped by the fact that nonreligious adults tend to value comprehensive sex education. Numerous studies have found that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support comprehensive sex education in school. In his research, sociologist Mark Regnerus found that secular parents were generally much more comfortable — and more likely — to have open and frank conversations with their children about safe sex than religious parents.
Meanwhile, voters in Oregon — another Pacific Northwestern state that contains one of the most secular populations in the country — passed Measure 110, the first ever statewide law to decriminalize the possession and personal use of drugs.
This aligns with research showing that nonreligious Americans are much more likely to support the decriminalization of drugs than their religious peers. For instance, a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66 percent of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43 percent of other Christians, but only 17 percent of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.
Secular people are generally more trusting of scientific empiricism, and various studies have shown that the nonreligious are more likely to accept the evidence behind human-generated climate change. This translates to support for politicians and policies that take climate change seriously.
It may also have factored into the success of a November ballot measure in Denver, Colorado, to fund programs that eliminate greenhouse gases, fight air pollution and actively adapt to climate change. The ballot passed with over 62 percent of the vote — and it is of note that Denver is one of the most secular cities in the nation.
Meanwhile voters in California — another area of relative secularity — passed Proposition 14 supporting the funding of stem cell research, the state being one of only a handful that has a publicly funded program. Pew Research studies have repeatedly found that secular Americans are far more likely than religious Americans to support stem cell research.
Values vs. values
On issues that the Religious Right has held some sway in recent years, there is evidence of a counterbalance among secular “value voters.”
For example, while the religious have been more likely to oppose same-sex marriage, secular Americans are more likely to support it, and by significant margins. A recent Pew study found that 79 percent of secular Americans are supportive, compared to 66 percent of white mainline Protestants, 61 percent of Catholics, 44 percent of Black Protestants and 29 percent of white evangelicals.
There are many additional values that are prominent among secular Americans. For example, the U.S. Secular Survey of 2020 — the largest survey of nonreligious Americans ever conducted, with nearly 34,000 participants — found strong support for safeguarding the separation of church and state.
Other studies have found that secular Americans strongly support women’s reproductive rights, women working in the paid labor force, the DACA program, death with dignity and opposition to the death penalty.
For instance, according to FFRF’s 2020 survey of secular voters, while 75 percent of all Americans support abortion rights, 98.8 percent of secular voters do; while 61 percent of all Americans support marriage equality, 98.9 percent of secular voters do; while 78 percent of all Americans support medical aid in dying, 99.2 percent of secular voters do; while 39 percent of all Americans oppose the death penalty, 68 percent of secular voters do; while 60 percent of all Americans support gun safety laws, 94 percent of secular voters do; while 69 percent of all Americans support police/prison reform, 95 percent of secular voters do; and while 76 percent of all Americans believe that racial discrimination is a major problem in the United States, 96 percent of secular voters do.
According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80 percent of atheists and agnostics and 70 percent of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.
This may have been decisive. As Burge argues, “It’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden — and the Nones were between 28 percent and 37 percent of the population in those key states.”
As this past election has shown, secular values are not only alive and well, but they are more pronounced than ever. It is also noteworthy that more openly nonreligious candidates were elected to public office than ever before. According to an analysis by the atheist author and activist Hemant Mehta, not only did every member of the secular Congressional Freethought Caucus win re-election, but 10 state senators who are openly secular — that is, they have made it publicly known that they are nonreligious — were voted into office, up from seven two years ago. There is now an all-time high of 45 openly secular state representatives nationwide, according to Mehta’s analysis. Every one of them is a Democrat.
Religious voters will certainly continue to vote their values — and for politicians that express similar views. But so, I argue, will secular voters.
FFRF Member Phil Zuckerman is professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College.
The Constitution is often deliberately vague, but in the case of the presidential oath it is explicit. The president-elect “shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”
Period. That’s it. The popular addition “so help me God” is not there. It never was.
In other contexts, adding words to the Constitution is considered an amendment. And this is done with help from the chief justice of the Supreme Court. So why, after promising to preserve the Constitution, do presidents immediately add words to the precise oath, as President Biden did on Jan. 20? Where did this presidential tradition come from? In my recent book The Founding Myth, I set out to answer these questions.
Omitting God from the oath was no accident. The Founders deliberated this language at the Constitutional Convention, a deliberation that is mirrored in the first bill Congress passed under the Constitution and the first bill President Washington signed into law. As originally proposed, that law proposed congressional oaths with clauses reading “in the presence of Almighty God” and “So help me GOD.” Both were edited out.
The spoken words have been as deliberate as the written words. We know that Washington didn’t add the words to the oath. Nobody knows Washington’s words better than Edward Lengel, former editor-in-chief of the George Washington papers. Lengel concluded, “any attempt to prove that Washington added the words ‘so help me God’ requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze.”
Like so much American mythology, including Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, we owe this Washingtonian myth to Washington Irving.
Irving recalled as a 6-year-old watching the inauguration “from the corner of New Street and Wall Street.” You can stand on the corner of New and Wall streets today, as I did while writing The Founding Myth. The experiment is not perfect, since the current Federal Hall, with its iconic steps, was built in 1842. Washington took his oath on a balcony with no access from the street. But stand on that corner and peer through the streams of pedestrians to the tourists taking photos on the steps of Federal Hall. Try to hear what they are saying. Now imagine you’re a 6-year-old swamped, waist high, in an “innumerable throng” straining to hear a notoriously soft-spoken man whisper those few words, and accurately recalling those words 50 years later. The claim is not much more believable than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Washington did not say “so help me God” when he took the oath. Nor did any other of the first 26 presidents.
The first reliable, contemporaneous account of any president saying these words along with the oath comes nearly a century after the country’s founding, at Chester A. Arthur’s public inauguration in 1881. Arthur was actually already president. He had taken the oath immediately after learning that President James Garfield had finally succumbed to the assassin’s bullet, after a lingering 10-week-long infection. For the second, public oath, Chief Justice Morrison Waite read the oath and Arthur didn’t repeat it verbatim, instead replying simply, “I will, so help me God.” We wouldn’t hear those words in a presidential oath for another 28 years.
The first time “so help me God” was added to the oath that made a man president was 1909, 130 years after our founding. Chief Justice Melville Fuller added the phrase and William Howard Taft repeated it.
But it’s not until 1917, with the United States on the brink of entering World War I, that the tradition really takes hold. Like Arthur, Woodrow Wilson took two oaths, adding “so help me God” to the second, superfluous oath. He had taken the presidential oath the day before in a somewhat private ceremony and did not add the phrase, though he did add it in the public ceremony the next day. Up through Wilson’s private 1917 oath, the phrase was used twice in 40 oaths. Beginning with Wilson’s public 1917 oath, it has been used in 29 of 30 oaths.
Every subsequent oath has been highly public. Even those sworn privately or without the pomp of a full inauguration ceremony were recorded. Not coincidentally, every oath since, save Herbert Hoover’s in 1929, included the request for divine assistance. The public nature of the supplement suggests a desire to appear pious rather than actual piety.
Wilson was an academic before he was a politician. He authored a poorly regarded biography of Washington in 1896. In that romanticized biography, Wilson wrote that Washington “said ‘So help me God!’ in tones no man could mistake.”
The modern tradition of adding “God” to the godless oath the Constitution mandates traces directly to the 6-year-old Washington Irving standing on the corner of New and Wall streets, through Woodrow Wilson, the president largely responsible for that modern trend.
The explicit language of our Constitution’s presidential oath was good enough for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — the oath that made every one of the first 26 presidents.
Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and the author of the The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.
In 1870, two forces for freedom met for the first time in Peoria, Ill.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Peoria Magazine (peoriamagazines.com) and is reprinted with permission.
By Steve Tarter
Two of the greatest personalities of the 19th century met for the first time on a cold February morning in Peoria. The year was 1870 when Frederick Douglass, the great reformer, writer and orator, dropped by the home of Robert Ingersoll, freethought evangelist and the city’s most illustrious citizen, who was then serving as Illinois attorney general.
Visit from a stranger
Crossing the country on a speaking tour, Douglass had addressed a crowd in nearby Elmwood the previous evening. He was told that if he needed accommodations in Peoria — a city where he had been unable to secure a hotel reservation on a previous visit — he should call on Ingersoll. “It would not do to disturb a family at such a time as I shall arrive there on a night as cold as this,” Douglass protested in his autobiography. But he was assured Ingersoll would receive him warmly, regardless of circumstance.
By then a recognized celebrity, Douglass reported finding quarters that night “at the best hotel in the city.” His curiosity aroused, however, he decided “to know more of this now famous and noted ‘infidel’” — the man who reportedly would have taken him in. Before leaving to catch his train, Douglass paid a morning visit to the Ingersoll home. His published account reads:
“Mr. Ingersoll was at home, and if I have ever met a man with real living human sunshine in his face, and honest, manly kindness in his voice, I met one who possessed these qualities that morning. I received a welcome from Mr. Ingersoll and his family which would have been a cordial to the bruised heart of any proscribed and storm-beaten stranger, and one which I can never forget or fail to appreciate.”
The experience also moved Douglass to speculate openly about matters of faith in an Ingersollian vein. “Genuine goodness is the same, whether found inside or outside the church, and that to be an ‘infidel’ no more proves a man to be selfish, mean and wicked than to be evangelical proves him to be honest, just and human,” Douglass wrote. “Perhaps there were Christian ministers and Christian families in Peoria at that time by whom I might have been received in the same gracious manner . . . but in my former visits to this place I had failed to meet them.”
Ingersoll and Douglass were kindred spirits in many respects. Not only were they among the most gifted — and busiest — speakers of their day, both were heavily involved in politics, urging equal rights for African-Americans and women when those causes were anything but popular. In 1883, 13 years after their first meeting in Peoria, Douglass and Ingersoll both raised their voices to oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had been enacted in response to civil rights violations against African-Americans.
“The difference between colored and white here is that the one, by reason of color, needs legal protection, and the other, by reason of color, does not need protection,” Douglass said. “It is nevertheless true that manhood is insulted, in both cases. No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man, without at last finding the other end of it fastened about his own neck.”
“The decision takes from seven million people the shield of the Constitution,” Ingersoll said about the decision, which allowed states to set their own restrictions for minority citizens. Ingersoll’s speech on the occasion spanned 50 pages.
Both Ingersoll and Douglass became national figures for supporting causes that were considered controversial. Douglass, a former slave, focused on abolishing slavery while advancing the rights of women and African-Americans. Ingersoll took on organized religion while still promoting so-called Christian ideals, notes Susan Jacoby, author of The Great Agnostic, a 2013 biography. He also campaigned passionately for women’s rights, against racism and in opposition to the death penalty.
Promoters of freedom
At a time when attending speeches and lectures was a popular form of entertainment, Ingersoll is said to have delivered more than 1,300 in his career. “More people probably heard his voice than any other American prior to mass media,” notes Tom Krupa, who became interested in Ingersoll while volunteering at the Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House. The house, built in 1837, displays a portrait of Ingersoll and a desk he used while living in Peoria from 1857 to 1877. A successful attorney, Ingersoll later moved to Washington, D.C. and then New York City.
Douglass was also a traveling man, visiting Peoria on at least three occasions. His message — before, during and after the Civil War — called for equality for all Americans. One of his most famous speeches took place in 1852 at a Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, N.Y., where he told the predominantly white audience: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July? This is the birthday of your national independence. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass never stopped promoting freedom. It should be remembered that on the last day of his life, in 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Women’s Council in Washington, DC.
Ingersoll likewise supported women’s rights while covering a wide variety of subjects, most notably criticizing organized religion. “With soap, baptism is a good thing,” he once famously quipped. “That Ingersoll made a good living out of questioning religion particularly enraged his opponents,” wrote Jacoby. What set him apart from the crowd was his erudition and good humor. “He called Shakespeare his bible and Burns his hymnal,” Krupa notes.
Among Ingersoll’s many admirers was no less than Mark Twain, who also became successful on the lecture circuit. “It was just the supremest combination of English words that was put together since the world began,” Twain wrote to his wife after witnessing an Ingersoll speech. “Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master.”
The Douglass visit with Ingersoll that took place 150 years ago represents a special moment in American history when two giants of the freethinking world came together.
During the Civil War, Douglass made a speech that pointed to the power of photography, a technology that by then had spread across the country. Even small towns had photo studios, he said. “The universality of pictures must exert a powerful though silent influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations,” Douglass stated.
If only there were a picture of these two giants when they met in 1870 in Peoria.
Steve Tarter is a freelance writer/blogger and podcaster from Peoria, Ill.
Freedom from religion is granted by the U.S. Constitution and has been a right guaranteed to Americans since our nation’s founding. In the political debates of 2020, there was no time or place for discussing the religious convictions of candidates. The American people deserved to hear how candidates would work in service of their constituents, not their God. When considering reopening the economy in May, President Trump stated: “I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision.”
As economies reopened and coronavirus cases soared last summer, it is clear that he would have benefited from consulting other sources. In 2020, the mixing of God with political decisions presented dire consequences for the health, safety and economic prosperity of the American people.
Religious pandering poses an immediate threat to Americans’ access to healthcare. Trump’s administration was incentivized to enact policies that are favorable among white evangelical voters, a key voting block of Trump’s political success, even if such policies present health risks. Most recently, the Department of Health and Human Services rolled back regulations that barred health-care professionals from denying care to individuals based on their gender identity or expression. This policy may be welcome to evangelical voters, and advantageous for some politicians. But in the face of a deadly pandemic, the U.S. government cannot allow healthcare professionals to deny care based on their own religious convictions. Americans who profess no faith or hold beliefs different than those of their elected officials should not have to wonder whether politicians will deem them worthy of care. Every American deserves health care that is competent, compassionate and based on the facts available, rather than religious doctrine.
In addition to limiting access to health care, religious pandering poses a threat to the general safety of the entire country. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the debate over masks has grown increasingly heated. Elected officials have expressed religious objections to face coverings, such as an Ohio lawmaker who refuses to wear a mask because he believes it dishonors God. Additionally, as many states have implemented mask mandates in public spaces to try to contain the spread of coronavirus, some governors have issued exemptions to places of worship despite a complete lack of scientific justification. Of course, discourse about the factors impacting the spread of coronavirus and the government’s role in mandating such measures should be welcome in America. However, these discussions must be guided by data rather than the religious beliefs of individual lawmakers.
Finally, the entanglement of religious beliefs with policy creates economic consequences. At the time of writing, roughly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, Congress is working to roll out another trillion-dollar stimulus package, and economists warn that the impacts of COVID-19 will continue for months, if not years to come. The U.S. government will continue to need to pump money into the economy, presenting an opportunity for costly religious pandering. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act has already poured millions of dollars into the coffers of religious groups, such as religious schools, megachurches, and Trump’s own private preachers. Americans deserve not only transparency from political officials about where tax dollars are going, but also confidence that public money will not be funneled into the pockets of religious groups in hopes of political gains.
The entanglement of religious beliefs with public policy decisions poses clear threats to Americans’ health, safety and economic well-being. Trump warned that the current situation would probably “get worse before it gets better,” and it is clear that the crises facing America today will remain at the forefront of political debates. As our nation grapples with whether and how to open safely, we find ourselves in desperate need of leadership unclouded by religious beliefs. Now, more than ever, public officials must rely on data, science and the voice of the people, not the voice of God. Failure to do so threatens the founding principles of the United States and the lives and livelihoods of the American people.
Miriam, 23, of Milwaukee, attends Alverno College.
“I am working toward a master’s degree in urban education. I also work as a special education teacher at a Milwaukee high school and enjoy supporting my students as they embark on their own educational and career goals.”