Eryn Johnson: Father’s death mixes my grief with nonbelief

Eryn Johnson enjoyed spending time with her father Randy.

By Eryn Johnson

A bout a year and a half ago, my dad went to the ER with what he believed was a kidney stone. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few months, but with five out of six high risk factors, he put off going to the doctor as long as he possibly could to avoid being exposed to Covid-19.  

He called me on the way home from the emergency room after being gone for several hours, and it was so much bigger than a kidney stone. It was cancer — and it was everywhere. He had just been screened in December 2019, so it was violently aggressive. He made it from his diagnosis at the end of June to Aug. 9, 2020.

Rest assured, there were no death-bed conversions. If anything, he went into that good night completely at peace with his convictions. He died at home with a small entourage. The pandemic prohibited most friends and family from getting one last visit or being there for him crossing the finish line.  

Crossing the finish line may seem like an odd turn of phrase for leaving this world, but we have always considered birthdays “victory laps.” It is a miracle there is one good kidney among our Scotchophile crew. When you live like you will die tomorrow, every spin around the sun is indeed a victory lap, so when the race is over, what is there to do but cross the finish line?

The morning before he died, we agreed on one last scotch. Johnny Walker Green Label. Nothing too fancy, but it was his favorite daily dram. By that night, he couldn’t swallow. So, a little after midnight, I poured a double. I held his hand as I sipped and sobbed and he squeezed my hand every time he heard the ice rattle in my glass. A few hours later, he breathed his last.

I come from a fairly long line of nonbelievers. Our family has a tradition of donating our bodies to science, but we like to have something of a bodiless Irish wake after someone dies. Essentially, you throw a party where everyone tells the best “remember that one time” stories about the loved ones we lost, and play their favorite music and celebrate their life. We don’t have a particularly large family, so these events don’t happen often, but when they do, they bring laughter and tears and tremendous catharsis. With the pandemic, a get-together was out of the question. And, as most of his friends are in their 60s, 70s and 80s and not particularly tech savvy, a Zoom call may have sent a few more over the finish line prematurely. So, no tech-togethers, either. 

I had to tell people, one by one, that he was gone. It was gut-wrenching. And when I had to tell believers the news, they all said the inevitable banalities. Every time I heard “thoughts and prayers” or “he’s in a better place,” I had to bite my tongue. I know they meant well, but those platitudes hit differently when you know that they know he was an ardent atheist. You know that they know that you are also atheist. It comes from a good place, but it still makes your eye twitch.

At some point, you reach the end of the list of folks that need to be notified individually. Social media reaches the secondary and tertiary circles of friends, which creates another wave of support. After all the texts and calls die down, you are finally allowed to grieve.  

The grief of a nonbeliever is a more permanent sort. It’s not, “I’ll see you later in heaven” or “maybe we’ll meet again in another life.” There is a finality in the loss of people you love. Death releases all their life force energy back into the universe and it becomes whatever it becomes — but the one thing you know it won’t become is the person you just lost. They are gone forever.

Memories and stories, letters and writings, pictures and videos all give us some comfort, but death is the heartbreaking, inescapable consequence of life.

It is for this reason that I believe the nonbelievers live fuller, more connected lives. We know that we only have one shot at this.  We know there’s no posthumous paradise.  

We are trying to make our paradise in the here and now because we have no idea when or where the finish line will be for us. But, we know when we cross it, this glorious race is over.

My dad donated his body to research, but asked that we get back his ashes so that he could become a tree. They have living urn kits you can buy and pick any kind of tree you’d like to be. Due to the pandemic, it took quite a while to get his ashes back, so we missed planting him on his birthday this year, but we are all set to plant him on his next birthday.  

He will be an orange geiger tree in the Florida Keys. So, if ever you’re in the Keys and you pass an obnoxiously orange flowering tree, the tree’s name just might be Randy.  

FFRF Member Eryn Johnson is a logistician who lives in Florida with her rescued Cane Corso, Amaretto. 

Convention speech: Chris Cameron — A history of Black secularism

Author and Associate Professor Chris Cameron speaks about his book Black Freethinkers at FFRF’s convention at the Boston Park Plaza on Nov. 20, 2021. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Chris Cameron speaks with an FFRF member following his book signing during the convention. Order Black Freethinkers from ffrf.org/shop.
(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Chris Cameron gave this speech (edited for length) on Nov. 20, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston. (To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/speeches-2021) He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Dan Barker: Chris Cameron earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and he’s an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research interests are Africa American religious and intellectual history, slavery and abolition, religious liberalism and American

Chris Cameron (Photo by Ingrid laas)

secularism. He’s the founding president of the African American Intellectual History Society and has a group blog called Black Perspectives. He’s author of a fascinating book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. Please welcome Professor Chris Cameron. 

By Chris Cameron

I

’ll give sort of a broad overview of the research I did in some of my main findings from my book Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism.

From March 21–26, 1953, Langston Hughes — poet, author and playwright of Harlem Renaissance fame — testified before Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations regarding the atheist and communist themes in his 1932 poem, “Goodbye Christ.” At one point during the testimony, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois wanted to know whether Hughes thought the book is dead, referring to the bible, and whether or not “Goodbye Christ” could be considered an accurate reflection of African American religious values. Dirksen noted that he was very familiar with African Americans. (He wasn’t.) And that he knew them to be innately very devout and religious people, in his words. 

Dirksen’s statement regarding the supposed innate religiosity of African Americans has become a widespread belief among scholars and in American popular culture. It is an idea that stretches back at least to the 1830s, when Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing noted in his 1835 book Slavery that “The colored race is said to be peculiarly susceptible of the religious sentiment,” something that he argued led to an overly affectionate nature. 

Freethinkers, later in the 19th century, gave credence to this idea, with William MacDonald, editor of The Truth Seeker, proclaiming in an 1883 article that “There is no class of people in the world more religious than the Negroes. Their fervent African temperament makes them peculiarly susceptible to religious sentiment.” 

These notions are themselves rooted in the idea that African Americans are barbarous, uncivilized, controlled by their emotions rather than logic and reason, and thus incapable of grasping the subtleties of secular thought. As Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones noted in surprise among encountering deism and skepticism in the antebellum slave community, these ideas were usually only found in the cultivated minds, the ripe scholarship and profound intelligence of critics and philosophers. 

My book, Black Freethinkers, builds off the pioneering work of contemporary scholars and Black atheists such as Sikivu Hutchinson and Anthony Pinn, to show that, despite the ubiquity of notions of Blacks as naturally religious, there is a long and storied tradition of secularism within African American culture.

Early Black freethought

African American freethought first arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it was a homegrown domestic movement. Unlike the European Enlightenment origins of freethought among intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, Black freethought grew out of the lived realities of enslaved people and the conditions that Blacks endured within it. 

The increased evangelism to slaves that characterized the second Great Awakening of the 19th century also brought to the fore what many saw to be the hypocritical nature of their Christian masters, including the very practice of holding slaves, but also the way that their masters treated them. So, one of the key reasons that African Americans in the 19th century embraced freethought was an inability to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the presence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity. For many, if not all, slaves, the problem of evil was intimately related to their daily lives when they experienced brutal punishments, sexual assault or families being sold away. 

While many enslaved people did find meaning in religion, whether monotheistic ones such as Christianity or African-derived traditions such as Conjure, others rejected religion altogether. And I found quite a lot of evidence for this in some of the same sources that scholars use to explore the Black religious experience, namely slave narratives. When I went to these sources asking different questions than most other scholars, I found that these narratives also speak to the presence of atheism within 19th-century slave communities. 

One enslaved man named Austin Steward, for example, from Prince William County, Va., immediately after he discusses a brutal whipping that his sister endured on Sabbath, asks in his narrative, “Can anyone wonder that I and other slaves often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion? Can it be a matter of astonishment as slaves often feel, there is no just god for the poor African.” 

Another enslaved man named Charles Ball likewise reflects in his autobiography on the irreligiosity present within slave communities. He writes, “There is in general very little sense of religious obligation or duty among the slaves on the cotton plantations, and Christianity cannot be, with propriety, called the religion of these people. They have not the slightest religious regard for the Sabbath Day, and their masters make no efforts to impress them with the least respect for this sacred institution.” He goes on to say many slaves just prefer to rest on their one day off, have a few drinks, spend time with their families. Some even cultivated a garden plot. 

But he also speaks to another key factor pushing slaves away from religion, namely, the opposition of their masters. And there were different schools of thought on this. A lot of masters believed that inculcating a particular type of Christianity would make their slaves more docile in compliance. But then there were events like Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, whereby 69 whites were killed by a rebellion led by a slave preacher that led a lot of other masters to think that there are some really dangerous elements in Christianity, and we want to keep those away from enslaved people. 

Pro-slavery religion

Another key development that fostered the growth of African American atheism during the 19th century was the rise and increasing prevalence of pro-slavery religion. This became much more prominent after 1830, when the abolitionist movement sort of ramped up with the creation of groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society and the start of publications like William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator magazine. 

Prior to that, there were certainly individuals who argued and took action against slavery, but the movement became much more widespread and much more organized after the 1830s, so defenders of slavery felt that they sort of needed to do the same. And they kind of ramped up their efforts and came up with a lot of religious defenses of slavery: The curse of Ham; the fact that Jesus never preached against it; but, probably, the main one was that slavery was a tool to Christianize uncivilized and savage Africans. While their bodies might be enslaved here on Earth, their souls will be free in heaven.

Most enslaved people felt they were destined to die in bondage unless they were delivered by some deity, and slave Henry Bibb noted in his autobiography that when that doesn’t happen, they cannot believe or trust in such a religion. So, most of the evidence that we have for freethought comes from these slave narratives. 

A lot of the people are sort of anonymous. You get writers like Bibb or Charles Ball reflecting on atheism within their communities, but we don’t necessarily know who these people are. There are some exceptions. Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown are probably the two main ones that we know of, but our freethought in the 19th century among African Americans wouldn’t necessarily be an organized movement. You have bits and pieces and pockets of atheism here and there. That would start to change during the 20th century, especially with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance or the new Negro Renaissance, a literary, artistic and cultural movement that spanned the years from roughly 1919 to about 1935. The Harlem Renaissance itself was a product of the Great Migration to the North, which saw approximately one and a half million Black Southerners migrating to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. 

New approach to racism

So, after World War I, one development that we saw was anti-communist hysteria that ran rampant throughout the country, and any association of anti-racist efforts and activism that was quickly associated with communism. So, there is an increasing prevalence of race riots in 1919 and 1920, and it led a lot of Black leaders to try to take different or creative approaches to solving the problem of racism. And one was the rise of cultural politics. If we’re going to be the victims of race riots by openly protesting against racism, maybe another tack to take, Black leaders said, is to show our equality, to show our fitness for citizenship through our artistic and literary productions. This is one sort of impetus behind the Harlem Renaissance. And it became such an important moment because it had the effect of bringing together a lot of religious skeptics and freethinkers who might have been isolated in their small Midwestern or Southern communities. 

But now, all of a sudden, they’re in a place like Harlem, or they’re in a place like Chicago with like-minded, educated, cosmopolitan people. 

The Harlem Renaissance was rife with writings by atheists. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, the man widely heralded as a father of the Harlem Renaissance, and James Walden Johnson, novels, plays, poems allowed freethinkers to express their critiques of religion in kind of creative ways where they could almost disassociate themselves from it. They could say, “Oh, that’s just a poem.” Or, “I’m just being creative” or “That’s just a novel. It isn’t necessarily my ideas.” 

One of the most important sources to explore freethought during this Renaissance period was Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. The central character in this novel was a woman named Helga Crane. It begins with her stating her dissatisfaction with the school in Naxos, an anagram of Saxon, and the main thing that causes her discomfort with the school is religion and the respectability of the middle-class African Americans around her. She doesn’t like that. She’s forced to go to church, to wear certain types of clothes, to act a certain way. She quickly leaves there. She goes to Chicago. She thinks she might be able to build community there with other African Americans and goes to a large Black church. She’s pretty much spurned and ignored by everybody there. Throughout the novel, every time she’s encountering religious people, they’re always pretty negative. And even at the very end, the same is true. She makes a very rash decision toward the end of the novel to marry a revival preacher from Alabama named Rev. Mr. Pleasant Green. She moves from Harlem down to this rural community in Alabama. She’s the preacher’s wife. In three years, she has four children, including a set of twins. And after the fourth, she’s pretty much laid up on her deathbed, realizing how her life is just absolutely terrible. It’s not what she wanted for herself, and it all boils down to her decision to accept this heteronormative, patriarchal life, which itself was based on Christianity. At the very end, she writes, “With the obscuring curtain of religion rent, she was able to look about her and see with shocked eyes this thing she had done to herself. She couldn’t, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew he didn’t exist.” 

This is one example of how literature becomes a really important source for Black freethinkers, especially, to be able to express their ideas without it necessarily being associated with them personally.  

Embracing communism

During the 1910s, in the 1920s, we see an increasing number of African Americans embracing socialism and communism, and this worked hand in hand with the rise of African American secularism during this period because socialists and communists were very antithetical to religion. The Comintern, the Communist International in 1926, put out a very explicit directive that we expect communists to be atheists. If you went to a communist meeting anywhere in the United States, and probably most places in the world, and they knew you went to church or they knew you were religious or something, you would be ostracized and shunned. You’d be expected to put your religion away. And socialism and communism became increasingly appealing to African Americans because, at least theoretically, they subsumed issues of race under issues of class. 

Many African American intellectuals and Black secularists also embraced communism, including Claude McKay, Louise Thompson Patterson, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, publishers of the Messenger magazine, and Hubert Harrison, who was widely held during his time as one of the most towering Black intellectuals of the day. Harrison played an important role in Harlem politics and saw himself as an apostle of freethought to African American communities. 

And with Hubert Harrison and with early 20th-century Black freethought, this is where you start to see the traditions of Black and white freethought beginning to converge a little bit. This is where you see African Americans starting to come to their religious skepticism through an engagement with readings by Thomas Paine or Robert Ingersoll.

Indeed, Hubert Harrison saw himself as a figure very much akin to Paine, somebody who could take really kind of complicated ideas, boil them down for his broad audience in New York City and try to convert African Americans to secularism. He thought that Black people had suffered more than any other group in this country under Christianity, and that they should be the very first ones to embrace freethought. 

From there, my book turns to a discussion of secularism and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. And just as in earlier periods, Black freethinkers are central players in civil rights, and we can see this, especially with the Black Power movement. Black Power emerged out of the civil rights activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966. SNCC had had been created in 1960 and was initially led by Christian activists such as James Lawson and John Lewis, who were committed to the philosophy of nonviolence. This philosophy and approach soon began to change, however, especially after James Forman took over the group. 

Forman grew up in rural Mississippi, and he started moving away from religion as a young man. In a scene repeated in many autobiographies and memoirs of Black freethinkers, Forman writes in his book The Making of Black Revolutionaries, that, at the age of 12, he was attending a revival service. Some of his friends shouted out that they had gotten religion, and the older people shouted this, too. He says, “I did not have the courage to tell my grandmother that I thought this was all nonsense. I simply observe what had been happening around me and knew that I, too, could fabricate some tears in this emotionally charged atmosphere. So, I covered my face with my handkerchief and cried, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ It worked. I was taken off the mourners bench and the people talked of how many children got saved that day by the grace of the Lord.”

Langston Hughes has a very similar story about growing up in Joplin, Mo., and attending a revival service there. Richard Wright has one. James Baldwin. This is sort of a recurring theme among Black freethinkers — the pressure from their community to convert to Christianity. But, also, the moments where they fake this conversion actually becomes the moment where they become atheists or they become agnostics. 

Black Power movement

Forman would formally embrace atheism after studying philosophy at Wilson Junior College in Chicago, and he would bring his secular perspective to his civil rights activity. He became the executive secretary of SNCC in 1963 and grounded his activism in secular humanism as he believed that Christianity was a prime reason that Blacks were in a subordinate position in the United States. 

In 1966, Forman, along with Stokely Carmichael, led the transition of SNCC from a religious to a secular organization and inaugurated the Black Power movement, the major goals of which were promoting Black economic advancement, a pride in Black culture, independent Black political action and armed self-reliance, or a rejection of nonviolence. 

The main institutional expression of Black Power as an ideology was the Black Panther Party for self-defense. This was formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 in response to issues of police brutality and police murdering unarmed African Americans. And it began as an explicitly secular organization — not that it promoted secularism, but that it was based off of secular humanism and a desire for human beings to do for themselves without the assistance of a deity. Some of its main goals were ending health disparities within African American communities. They created clinics and ran ambulance services and created schools for African Americans. And probably the most famous of their endeavors was the free breakfast program for children that was run throughout the nation. 

And Huey Newton, one of the founders of the party, is very explicit in his autobiography that these were sort of humanist endeavors. Newton, along with Stokely Carmichael, David Hilliard and Eldridge Cleaver, some of the key leaders of the Black Panther Party, were all very outspoken in their atheism. And the newspaper of the party, the Black Panther, also contained poems and other writers by Blacks secular thinkers. Like earlier freethinkers, they saw the church as conservative, and they advanced a humanist politics that rejected the authority of what they termed “Uncle Tom boot-licking preachers.”

While we often see the civil rights movement as a religious movement dependent on ministers and churches, an examination of Black Power in the Black Panther Party, especially in urban regions such as Oakland or New York City, shows that secularism was often just as, if not more, prominent than religion among these activists. 

And indeed, even if we look at the traditional civil rights movement in the South, it was actually the case that only a small minority of Black churches engaged in open political activity. In a pioneering work, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, historian Barbara Savage notes that the fact that we’ve come to see the civil rights movement as a religious one is a miracle in and of itself. 

Despite views of Blacks as naturally religious, freethought has been a vital and significant component of Black culture and politics since the 19th century. This history is not an obscure one, as sources on Black freethinkers are readily available in print and online. And it’s a history that’s not of obscure people. As you know, some of the people I discuss in my book include Frederick Douglass, Hubert Harrison, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Huey Newton and Alice Walker, some of the leading intellectuals, some of the leading political figures in African American culture.

It’s vital to understand and teach this history to show Black skeptics today that they are part of a long and prominent tradition of Black freethinkers. Thank you.

1st place: Grad student essay contest — Elias Rodriguez 

Elias Rodriguez

FFRF awarded Elias $3,500.

By Elias Rodriguez 

I was 7 years old when a group of religious extremists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. Although I was still relatively young at the time, I can remember being baffled at the thought of someone doing something so heinous. It seems that, with each passing year, instances of religious extremism have increased, especially recently. The instances that have stood out the most to me were President Trump’s photo-op in front of a church and the QAnon conspiracies that culminated with the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. 

Although these recent events were not as deadly as a terrorist attack, they highlight a serious problem — an increase in religious extremism in the U.S. The events from this past year are evidence of an insidious approach of the encroachment of religious extremism into government, a government that was set up and intended to be secular. These events have threatened the most basic of American principles, such as the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and the peaceful transfer of power after a democratically held election. These events highlight why we, as a society, should strive toward a secular approach to analyzing our beliefs. 

There has always been a religious divide in this country that affects both politicians and policy, but this divide seems to have come to a head. One of the most egregious displays of this divide was perpetrated by an elected official to the highest office of our government. On June 1, 2020, President Trump commanded law enforcement officers to use tear gas and forcefully remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square (ironic, considering how instrumental Marquis de Lafayette was to the American and French revolutions) to pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a bible. This act of religious extremism not only violated one of the most fundamental rights of this country — the right to peacefully assemble — it also violated the established principle that this country was founded as a secular nation. Trump’s posturing could reasonably lead anyone to believe that he views himself as president to only a fraction of the American electorate and he is willing to use religious extremist acts to pander to his voters, even at the cost of American principles. 

It is said that the sleep of reason creates monsters. This was very much apparent during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by religious extremists, spurred on by words from Trump just hours before the insurrection. Angry extremists, most of whom viewed Trump as appointed by God or who have delved so deep into QAnon conspiracies that they have turned support for him into a pseudo-religious endeavor, broke into the Capitol to overturn the official results of a democratically held election. There has been documentation of insurrectionists shouting things such as, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name,” as they broke into the building, culminating with a prayer led by the “QAnon Shaman” in the middle of the Senate floor. Although not all insurrectionists think alike, there seems to be a through line as to the underlying motivations to invade the Capitol outside of the president’s words. 

Either way you slice it, there’s a significant overlap between QAnon followers and evangelicals. These actions to overturn the results of a democratic election, the most fundamental principle of this country and quite literally the reason for the war of independence, were nothing short of a coup attempt. I was watching the most fundamental American principle be eroded in real time. 

Religious extremism can come in many forms, from flying airplanes into buildings to trying to overthrow a democratically elected government. When your religion is the only thing that informs your worldview, you are less likely to critically examine your viewpoints and are thus more likely to fall victim to bad information. 

As it stands, Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to our civil rights and principles as is evidenced over the past year. If we examine our beliefs from a secular standpoint, where no political figure is appointed by a god or is part of a divine plan, then we will be able to see that we are all striving for the same thing: equality. 

Elias, 27, attends the University of Texas at Dallas and plans to get a master’s degree in business analytics. “When I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I knew that I wanted a career in health care to help fix the system that we have,” Elias writes.

2nd place: Grad student essay contest — Devin Vertrees 

Devin Vertrees

FFRF awarded Devin $3,000.

By Devin Vertrees 

I first witnessed the dangers of religious extremism as a young child raised in a private Catholic school. In fourth grade, our jovial principal known for his kindness and fairness was fired over rumors of a homosexual relationship and was replaced by a domineering disciplinarian hellbent on stifling free thought in the pursuit of “religious redemption.” 

Where our original principal cared about fostering community and learning, his replacement cared little about our well-being or education. Instead, she singularly focused on “atoning for our original sin” and achieving “religious enlightenment,” in effect, punishing children for things they had not done. This obviously negates the American principle of justice and imparts on impressionable young children that they are inherently bad. Even worse, if any of the children I attended school with were questioning their sexuality, they would have been shown that expressing their true selves was unacceptable.

I saw that religious extremism led parents and faculty to make decisions not in the best interest of the students, but, rather, in support of some ridiculous religious dogma. The negative impacts of this religious extremism on the lives of scores of impressionable children passing through this school cannot be overstated as it undermined our sense of justice, fairness and individual rights to privacy — core principles of American society. 

In the years since, examples of the danger of religious (and particularly Christian) extremism have arisen again and again. I grew up down the street from Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery at the center of a contentious Supreme Court case regarding its refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on their Catholic beliefs. This case divided my hometown while I was in high school and college as neighbors denounced neighbors and the baker proclaimed his “God-given right” to deny this couple’s humanity. I was struck that religious beliefs in this country could be so pervasive as to affect things as simple as confectionaries.

I felt that we, as a society, had completely lost the plot when a cake could be perceived as threat to these Christians’ way of life. It seemed rather obvious to me that religious extremism was the real threat when it interfered with this couple’s civil rights. Religious extremism yet again tore at the fabric of American society as this baker’s personal beliefs superseded the tenets of America’s guaranteed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

And now, as a woman in my mid-20s, Christian extremists continually express and enforce opinions about my body and my ability to obtain contraception and an abortion. Somehow, the religious extremists in power, predominantly white men, are able to exert power over what happens with my body. Women are denied healthcare every day in this country in yet another example of religion superseding our right to life and liberty.

Indeed, many women, including myself, require contraception for the treatment of medical conditions. The regulation of these treatments by religious extremists has tangible impacts on my health and well-being. This is perhaps the most egregious example of religious extremism (and religion in general) interfering with American principles. The thought that some perfect stranger’s religious beliefs holds weight over my medical treatment obliterates my bodily autonomy. This runs counter to everything this country stands for, including religious freedom. This precludes my right to life and liberty, and the right to live according to my specific religious (or anti-religious) principles and not those of extremists. The common factor of all these examples and experiences, some of which have had an indelible effect on the country, is that religious extremists believe their tenets come before others’ individual rights. This makes religious extremism a threat to the most significant American principles, the ones upon which this country was founded. We must resist this threat as this society values individual freedom and autonomy above all. This country was founded on the belief that governance and religion should be wholly removed from each other, and it is our duty to sustain this separation. A society built on the foundation of secularism is one that respects individual rights — perhaps the cornerstone of this country’s founding. Nothing could be more patriotic, then, than freedom from religion and the centering of the rights of the individual. 

Devin, 26, attends Johns Hopkins University, where she started a master’s program in biotechnology. “I spent four years working as a microbiologist following my graduation from the University of Denver,” she writes. “I hope to go on to do research in developing vaccines and understanding infectious diseases.”

3rd place: Grad student essay contest — Hannah Howell

Hannah Howell

FFRF awarded Hannah $2,500.

By Hannah Howell

The aggrandizing of Christian nationalism poses a great threat to American principles and civil rights. Despite the United States’ founding as a secular nation, events throughout history have attempted to transform the country into a Christian-dominated nation, where political ideology and cultural norms are influenced by extremist thought. 

A false narrative romanticizing America’s history is the foundation of many Christian nationalist leaders. During times of political instability, this narrative re-emerges into American politics, peddled as what will “save” America. The call to regress rather than progress is particularly threatening. Given the country’s turbulent history with both race and gender, the call to “go back” is alarming, and puts many Americans’ freedoms at risk. Religious and political leaders alike peddle these sentiments with rhetoric synonymous with white power, violence and alt-right perspectives. The most recent example of this is the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Footage of the event proves the underlying danger and existing power of white nationalist ideals. Rioters proudly wore “Camp Auschwitz” merchandise and swung Confederate flags. The sentiment behind this attack — the desire to restore America for God — is founded in a false belief that this violence and destruction was for a higher power. President Trump’s ideology heavily aligned with the Christian nationalist resurgence, promulgating the notorious slogan “Make America Great Again,” which may epitomize the foundation of Christian nationalist movements. The vague language leaves room for Americans to identify with it and think back to a time in their life that was “ideal” — ultimately viewing this slogan and its belief system through the rose-colored glasses of their own nostalgia. 

The harsh reality is that the time they wish to revert to never existed. As history points out, the same rhetoric was echoed in eras past. Instead of learning from history and expanding upon the freedoms established during the country’s infancy, religious extremists romanticize a nonexistent time. Trump might be the most notable and recent perpetrator of these ideas, but the rise of religious extremism, specifically Christian nationalism, is deeply ingrained in American history. Trump simply amplified these voices, culminating in the horrific incident at the Capitol. 

To fully understand the threat this movement has to current civil rights, it is imperative to view the rise of Christian nationalism in the context of the origins of our Constitution. The document is inherently secular, a testament to the Founding Fathers’ apprehension of the combining of church and state, from the generic language of “our creator” to the latter inclusion of the First Amendment. 

America was founded by freethinkers for the diverse population who call the United States home, a mission substantiated by the rhetoric and sentiments reflected in early documents. Attempts to use religion and grandiose Christian values to bolster the power of one group over another are a threat to the government’s structure. At the core of the Christian nationalist belief system is the linking of American and Christian values. 

The ensnaring of political and religious ideology only intensifies radicalism. Consequently, when Christian nationalism becomes not only a social movement but a political one, democratic institutions are threatened. Much like the Trump era, the 1970s saw an influx in Christian leaders becoming actively involved in politics — often referred to as the new Christian right during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. This right-wing group often used biblical teachings and scripture as guidance for political decisions, and to gain support and leverage political power. 

One prominent example was Christian minister and conservative political commentator Jerry Falwell. In 1976, he wrote, “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” His desire to transform the United States into a Christian nation was clear and has echoed throughout history. 

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump adopted the dogma of Falwell, announcing, “I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community because I’ll tell you what. Because the support they’ve given me, and I’m not sure I totally deserve it, has been so amazing.” Under the Trump brand of politics, religion persisted as a dangerous and ubiquitous force in American dynamics. 

It is imperative the country uphold the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, promising “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This distinction, and protection it provides, is the only way to grow as a country and preserve the freedoms of all Americans. 

Hannah, 23, is from Corona, Calif., and attends Stanford University, where she is working toward a master’s degree in sustainable science and practice. As an undergrad, Hannah majored in art history while competing on the varsity softball team. 

4th place: Grad student essay contest — Kyra Miller 

Kyra Miller

FFRF awarded Kyra $2,000.

By Kyra Miller 

Since the founding of the United States, secularism has been the law of the land. But this idea of a separation of church and state has never been favored in practice. Throughout history, religion, particularly Christianity, has crept its way into every branch of government and every social institution. Many institutions, from law enforcement to medicine to education, have ties to religion, and these ties have led to inequalities and injustices that are still being felt today. Although a comfort to many on an individual level, religion is a threat to the lives of many and the freedom of all. 

The threat that extreme religious views poses on society and individuals comes in many forms, one of the most prevalent being that of legislation. Every day, laws are being proposed and passed with the justification being nothing more than moral superiority on the basis of religion. These laws often help nobody directly but instead infringe on the rights of many, often minority populations, and put many people at risk for harm. These laws and orders are passed on the executive, legislative and judicial branches, elected officials often voting in favor of their own holy views rather than in the interest of their constituents. 

A study by the Pew Research Center found that about 88 percent of Congress identifies as Christian, compared to 65 percent of U.S. adults, and only 0.2 percent of Congress identifies as religiously unaffiliated, while 26 percent of U.S. adults identify as nonreligious. It is common on the debate floor to hear congresspersons profess that “their faith” makes them vote a certain way, as if faith has any room in government. 

But it is not just lawmakers who pose a risk to the lives of U.S. citizens. Extremist groups and terrorist groups have been increasing within the United States in recent years and these groups are often fueled by religious motivations. One report found that 67 percent of “terrorist plots and attacks” were carried out by white supremacist groups. The Department of Homeland Security named these groups as some of the most lethal threats within the United States. These far-right groups often use religious justifications for their attacks and activities and Christianity is often at the root of these justifications. The danger that these groups pose is often dismissed or minimized because the members of these groups often look like and share similar viewpoints as a majority of U.S. citizens. But their extremist nature and inflated ego from being unchallenged make these right-wing groups even more dangerous. Members of these groups could be anywhere, and anyone who does not agree with their beliefs could be their next victim. 

Religious extremists and their beliefs that everyone should hold the same views as them is also a threat to the science and medical community. This war between science and religion dates back thousands of years and today still inhibits many people from getting the help they need. Not only have medical professionals refused to give patients the medication or treatment they need because it goes against their personal beliefs, but so many people and children under the care of their religious parents are refused treatment because it goes against “God’s plan,” or they deem medical intervention to be unnatural. This action of forcing a person’s own beliefs onto others, especially vulnerable populations, is a danger to individuals and the collective. Scientific and medical advances will always fall behind as long as religion remains intertwined in the institutions that they are supposed to be separated from. 

The First Amendment states that people have the right to participate in any religion or no religion. This freedom to not believe can feel like an attack to people who choose to believe, but it is only faith in ourselves and our community without religious intervention that can fight against the dangers of religious extremism.

Kyra, 22, attends Rutgers University, where she is working toward a master’s degree in forensic science with a concentration in forensic biology.“I am hoping to build a career where I can work within a specialized interest and work in the processing of rape kits,” writes Kyra. “I want to have a part in rewriting the definition of justice so it can help to build a better future for everyone.

5th place: Grad student essay contest — George Jean-Babets

George Jean-Babets

FFRF awarded George $1,500.

By George Jean-Babets

In training to become a social worker, much of my education has surrounded ideas of diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural competence. In my personal experience, the dogma of religious extremism does not align with these principles. 

The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics has various guiding principles, including social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, and integrity. Historically, religious extremist groups have infringed upon these guiding principles by spreading enmity and voicing their censure of marginalized groups. 

Religious extremism, as evidenced by radical agendas, tends to procure violence as seen in the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Extremism can be seen at the group level and individual level. Simplistic representations are often problematic and consequential in that they determine the perception of extremist groups. 

For example, following the Sept. 11 attacks, almost 70 percent of the U.S. security policies targeted Arabs and Muslims, since they were seen to be affiliated with the devotees of the extremist group al-Qaeda. It is crucial to be cognizant of bias born from stereotypes of what constitutes a “religious extremist.” It is important to be self-reflective by recognizing implicit biases and buried assumptions we all hold. 

In the essay, “Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin?,” Alex P. Schmid proposes that either for individuals or groups, the five warning signs of religious extremism include belief in absolute truth, endorsement of blind obedience, a quest to establish utopia, belief that the end justifies the means, and a declaration of holy war. 

One of the most dangerous instances of non-violent religious extremism involves public officials’ use of religion-based doctrine as conviction for legislation and public policy. Some officials see fit to govern a woman’s bodily autonomy by promoting increasingly restrictive laws that limit one’s ability to find reasonable access to abortion services. 

Regarding the public sphere, I value the First Amendment’s decree that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While I am no legal scholar, I believe this should mean that no member of the legislature should put forth policy based on religious edict. I respect this first section of the First Amendment because it also respects the free practice of religion and denounces religious persecution. 

Religious fundamentalist movements such as the Christian right and interest groups like the Family Research Council represent contemporary examples of religious extremism in the United States. Some sects of the Christian right advocate for the removal of sex education in schools, view the LGBTQ+ community as immoral, and believe in strict binary gender roles for men and women. 

The mission of the Family Research Council is “to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview.” This religion-based, biblical worldview holds political influence through its lobbying efforts. The Family Research Council opposes and lobbies against embryonic stem-cell research, abortion, pornography, divorce and LGBTQ+ rights (such as anti-discrimination laws, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ adoption). 

While I firmly believe in the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs, contemporary religious nationalist groups represent an extreme platform for many ideas that are regressive and discriminatory. Religious nationalist groups denounce inclusion and multiculturalism in favor of an ideology more aligned with white supremacy. Religious extremism and much of its agenda remain a clear and present threat to the well-being and prosperity of people who call the United States of America home in the 21st century. 

George, 29, is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Boston College. “I am passionate about mental health and have an internship placement at the Department of Mental Health,” George writes. “I have bipolar disorder and have struggled through the extremes of mania and depression.”

6th place: Grad student essay contest — Benjamin Schreiner 

Benjamin Schreiner

FFRF awarded Benjamin $1,000.

By Benjamin Schreiner 

Religious extremism in the United States has always existed on the fringes of the church and larger population. Today, that extreme fringe has now successfully breached, in varied capacity, the mainstream within many Christian churches in the United States. This fringe brings with it not the morally righteous content typically preached, but rather hate, twisted biblical interpretations and conspiracies. What’s more, religious extremism has not just bled into the Christian mainstream, but also up through the political spectrum in the United States. 

Today, there are two primary threats associated with religious extremism in the United States. 

1) Many Christian constituents are being exposed to extremist ideology on an increasingly regular basis, therefore making extreme ideology “less extreme” in the eyes of Christians. 

2) Some Christian politicians within the U.S. government have begun to tolerate or agree with extremist ideology. Additionally, other politicians within the U.S. government understand that they need Christian voters to win elections and exploit or encourage extremist ideology to appeal to voters. 

Examples that show the connection between these threats are not hard to find. One must only look back to Jan. 6, 2021, to understand how these elements pose an active threat to the United States of America. On that day, thousands of people arrived in Washington, D.C., to protest the 2020 election results and, at the request of President Trump, to “stop the steal.” Around the National Mall, there was an abundance of Christian symbols, prayer groups and vendors. The presence of religion was not just a coincidence, and evidence shows that many of those who faced charges for their involvement in the insurrection referenced religious motivation as to why they decided to break into the Capitol building. 

One such person is Matthew Black, who on Jan. 8, 2021, posted a video on YouTube describing his experience inside the Capitol. Referencing an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint and arrest warrant, Black stated: “I wanted to get inside the building to plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.” Additionally, he said, “I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go into the Senate room, you know?” Statements like Black’s are not uncommon, as they are found in dozens of comments from those who talked about their motivations to act on Jan. 6, 2021.

When analyzing the events of that day and the religious context involved, comments such as Black’s only lead researchers to unravel how extremism has affected the larger Christian community and political sphere. 

In the same month as the insurrection, Lifeway Research, which assists Christian ministries by conducting custom research projects, found that 49 percent of Protestant pastors frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard. When the mass circulation of conspiracies, such as the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, are put into the echo chamber of a church congregation and then emboldened by elected politicians, events such as the Jan. 6 insurrection become possible. Additionally, within otherwise peaceful congregations, events like the insurrection are seen as a necessary undertaking at worst, or understandable at best, by many members of the Christian community. 

Secularism is necessary in the United States to preserve the foundation of American principles. The effects of religion on policy, be it abortion or immigration, are apparent. Unfortunately, often the results of politicians preaching what should be done because the bible says so are violent interactions of those who believe they must act. Some people are becoming encouraged to share and act upon their nationalist, racist and anti-immigration beliefs. With increased radicalization among Christians, more people will be willing to act upon what they believe to be true, predominantly when those beliefs originate from two highly influential sources: God and country. The leaders of this country need to be the example of peaceful debate and reason. When religion becomes involved in government, it offers people reasons to become extreme. They believe their country and their souls are at stake, and when that is the case, the extreme then becomes mainstream. 

Benjamin, 26, is a student veteran attending American University in Washington, D.C. Benjamin served for six years in the U.S. Navy and plans to pursue a career working within the U.S. government.

7th place: Grad student essay contest — Katherine Ferran

Katherine Ferran

FFRF awarded Katherine $750.

By Katherine Ferran 

On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in Atlanta, targeting Asian employees of three different spas from which he may have frequented in the past to solicit sex work. Thus, the narrative emerged that Robert struggled with sex addiction, and his rampage was an expression of guilt over his uncontrollable urges. Even the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office leaned heavily on this narrative. A spokesperson described the mass shooter as a troubled-but-upright young man just having a “bad day.” He was even seeking treatment with his church, and sympathy from evangelicals everywhere poured in upon the discovery of this detail. Meanwhile, following this one mass shooting of many that shook the United States in 2021, outcry for gun control was this time accompanied by pleas for empathy and justice from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, as well as from sex worker advocates. It baffled many of us that their outrage was matched with seemingly earnest sympathies for the killer. 

But, as Slate reporter Kelsy Burke pointed out, one may interpret “sex addiction” in this case to be a largely manufactured ailment created by evangelical Christian organizations to sell an entire industry of abstinence and control to young Christian men like Robert. The true ailment underlying sexual frustration and dysfunction in young white American men is the natural result of a culture that teaches them shame and entitlement in equal parts. The entitlement to objects of desire can perhaps be traced to the capitalist and patriarchal pillars of American culture, but I would argue that the shame has nearly exclusive roots in religion, namely Christianity. In the case of the sex addiction myth, the evangelical church has taken advantage of this legacy to take purity culture to its religious extreme.

What makes this a case of religious extremism is debatable. Defining religious extremism itself is already a complex debate waged between religious scholars, historians, sociologists, political scientists, etc. Some argue it is done at the individual level to seek martyrdom, others that it must be performed as a group toward a political goal. Most challengingly, there is difficulty in assessing if a belief is actually extreme within a community. I am choosing to emphasize the dimension of religious extremism that is identifiable by the normative restriction of behaviors as imposed by a religious group. In this way, Long’s actions are in line with an act of extremism in that he perceived his own deviation from his group’s teachings and took it upon himself to both correct himself and attempt to correct the world in honor of his beliefs. 

To clarify, the beliefs at the root of the violence are that sexual indulgence is wrong, and that simultaneously men cannot be expected to control their urges, topped off with racist notions of women of color being inherently more sexual than white women, and therefore greater sources of temptation. If Long had perceived his sexual desires as socially deviant and instead pursued therapy from a sex therapist without religious affinities, these beliefs may have been challenged. The objectification of women, the xenophobia surrounding AAPI people, and the use of violence as self-expression are symptoms of an American psychosis that secular scholars, doctors and activists work tirelessly to treat. I do not believe it is religion’s place to do the same. For a church to attempt to shape a multicultural society toward its own moral ideals under the guise of mental health and community support is now demonstrably a pathway by which religious extremism may flourish. 

Katherine, 26, attends Michigan State University. “I am a conservation ecologist seeking further education to break into the world of nature-based climate change solutions,” Katherine writes. “Don’t worry, my environmental science degree from a Catholic university was surprisingly secular. I currently work at a wildlife preserve in southeast Michigan and volunteer regularly as a corporate accountability researcher with Change the Chamber.”

8th place: Grad student essay contest — Lydia Taylor

Lydia Taylor

FFRF awarded Lydia $500.

By Lydia Taylor 

I was 2 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, when religious extremists first altered the fabric of modern American society. I was 21 years old on Jan. 6, 2021, when religious extremists struck again and attacked America and its principles. I don’t remember any details from Sept. 11. During the second attack, however, I was much more aware and could only watch in horror as insurrectionists chanting “stop the steal” and waving Christian flags stormed the Capitol. 

Although the immeasurable tragic impact of 9/11 on American society cannot be understated, the events of Jan. 6 reveal an intent perhaps even more malicious than that of the religious extremists who orchestrated 9/11. The insurrectionist and religiously fueled mob that stormed the Capitol was made up of Americans, not radicals from a faraway land. The violent mob that attacked not only our government buildings but also our elected officials came armed with weapons, zip ties and materials to erect crosses and even a noose. 

As I and countless others across the nation and across the world watched with bated breath, this mob pushed through barricades and security forces, while bright yellow signs reading “Jesus Saves” bounced above the crowd next to confederate, Trump 2021 and American flags. Yet, in the aftermath of this disturbing scene, during which it seemed American democracy was in its dying days, the bipartisan unity that swept Washington in the wake of 9/11 was nowhere to be found. Instead, our nation faced a stark divide between those who seek to protect American values and those that wish to twist them for their own gain and other malicious ends. The events of Jan. 6 have revealed what those in the secular community have long known: Christian nationalists pose a clear and present danger to American national security, the American people and American principles. The evidence is all around us. From coordinated legislation aimed at restricting voting rights to limiting the bodily autonomy of women and the freedom of the LGBTQ+ community. 

These issues are often grouped together under the term “culture wars,” but this is a mistake made at our own peril. We as a society should not underestimate the ability of the religious right, and Christian nationalists in particular, to create and perpetuate narratives that paint the secular community and others who seek to protect American principles and democracy as “dangerous radicals” seeking to destroy “true” American culture. 

Although America and its principles can signify many different things to different people, most can agree that America stands for freedom and liberty, although successfully ensuring these rights for all has been a struggle for more than 200 years. 

One of the most influential of these freedoms — so important, in fact, that it was ensured by the First Amendment to the Constitution — is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In short, America was established to be a secular nation where those of different religions, and none at all, could live freely. That is precisely why the strategy of Christian nationalists is so dangerous. To seek to redefine the narrative of America to that of a Christian nation, governed by Christian principles is to delete all those who are “different” from the story of America and to corrupt and manipulate America’s founding principles.

In America, the case for secularism has always been present, though not always clear to all. Today, re-establishing separation of church and state is vital to the protections of other freedoms and to prevent the bastardization and destruction of American democracy. In a truly secular America, civil rights could be better ensured, and all religions could have the ability to practice freely. Those who are secular would be truly free from religious domination in public life. 

In sum, the case for secularism in America is strong, although it must be accepted by, and not forced on, the American people in order to be truly successful. 

In the wake of the most recent tragedy spurred on by religious extremists, and Christian nationalists in particular, our nation had a rocky start in 2021. But thankfully, Americans have always risen to past challenges to our nation’s founding principles. This time will be no different. Though the road ahead may seem uncertain and even polarized, this could be just the moment to rebuild and re-unify America on its founding principles: freedom, liberty and secularism. 

Lydia, 21, attends the University of Denver. She would like to become a foreign service officer and represent the United States abroad.