Phil Zuckerman: There’s no reason to fear a secular nation

Phil Zuckerman
Secularization has increased because of things such as quality education and the ubiquity of the internet. (Image from Shutterstock)

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 2 and is reprinted with permission.

By Phil Zuckerman

The secularization of U.S. society — the waning of religious faith, practice and affiliation — is continuing at a dramatic and historically unprecedented pace. While many may consider such a development as cause for concern, such a worry is not warranted. This increasing godlessness in America is actually a good thing, to be welcomed and embraced.

Democratic societies that have experienced the greatest degrees of secularization are among the healthiest, wealthiest and safest in the world, enjoying relatively low rates of violent crime and high degrees of well-being and happiness. Clearly, a rapid loss of religion does not result in societal ruin.

For the first time since Gallup began tracking the numbers in 1937, Americans who are members of a church, synagogue or mosque are not in the majority, according to a Gallup report released this week. Compare today’s 47 percent to 1945, when more than 75 percent of Americans belonged to a religious congregation.

This decline in religious affiliation aligns closely with many similar secularizing trends. For example, in the early 1970s, only one in 20 Americans claimed “none” as their religion, but today it is closer to one in three. Over this same time period, weekly church attendance has decreased, and the percentage of Americans who never attend religious services has increased from 9 percent to 30 percent.

In 1976, nearly 40 percent of Americans said they believed that the bible was the actual word of God, to be taken literally. Today only about a quarter of Americans believe that, with slightly more decreeing the bible is simply a collection of fables, history and morality tales written by men. And the percentage of Americans who confidently believe in God’s existence, without a doubt, has declined from 63 percent in 1990 to 53 percent today.

Fears that this rise of irreligion might result in the deterioration of our nation’s moral fiber — and threaten our liberties and freedoms — are understandable. Such concerns are not without historical merit: The former Soviet Union was a communist country deeply rooted in atheism and was one of the most corrupt, bloody regimes of the 20th century. Other atheistic authoritarian regimes, such as the former Albania and Cambodia, were equally crooked and vicious.

But here’s the thing — they were all godless dictatorships that tried to forcibly destroy religion by persecuting the faithful, actively oppressing religious institutions, and making a demagogic cult out of their thuggish rulers. Such coercive secularization is, indeed, something to dread.

However, there is another, alternative kind of secularization, one that emerges organically, amid free and open societies where human rights, including religious freedom, are upheld and respected. Many societies qualify for this label — including those in Japan, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada and Uruguay, among many others. In these places, religion is not actively repressed, nor do governments promote secularization. And yet, it occurs simply because the people living in these societies lose interest in the whole religious enterprise.

Organic secularization can occur for many reasons. It happens when members of a society become better educated, more prosperous, and live safer, more secure and more peaceful lives; when societies experience increases in social isolation; when people have better healthcare; when more women hold paying jobs; when more people wait longer to get married and have kids. All of these, especially in combination, can decrease religiosity.

Another major factor is the ubiquity of the internet, which provides open windows to alternative worldviews and different cultures that can corrode religious conviction — and allows budding skeptics and nascent freethinkers to find, support and encourage one another.

In the United States, these factors are further compounded by strong backlashes against the Religious Right, the evangelical-Republican alliance, conservative religion’s anti-gay agenda and the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals. This has resulted in “the winds of secularization . . . swirling like never before,” Ryan P. Burge, a political scientist, recently said.

Fears of atheistic authoritarianism aside, some may worry about religious organizations fading away because they do so much good. They do engage in a tremendous amount of charitable work that includes holding food drives and setting up soup kitchens and homeless shelters. However, such welcome charity is ultimately an altruistic response to symptoms, not a structural cure for root causes.

This is why highly secular democracies do a much better job of ameliorating homelessness and poverty by employing decidedly secular solutions, such as responding with rational social policies and wise economic strategies, and setting up more responsive institutions. Affordable housing and subsidized healthcare do a far better job of alleviating the suffering of the poor and the sick than faith-based charities.

Secularity is highly correlated with a host of moral orientations that will markedly improve our nation. For instance, secular people — when compared to their religious peers — are far more likely to understand and respect the scientific method, which results in their increased willingness to get vaccinated, for instance, and adhere to empirically grounded health recommendations, a rational orientation that saves lives. Secular people are also more supportive of sex education, which reduces unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Research shows that secular people are more likely to support women’s reproductive rights, universal health care, gay rights, environmental protections, death with dignity, gun safety legislation and treating drug abuse as a medical rather than criminal problem — all of which will serve to increase dignity, liberty and well-being in America.

The organic secularization we are experiencing in the United States is a progressive force for good, one that is associated with improved human rights, more protections for planet Earth and an increased sociocultural propensity to make this life as fair and just as we can — in the here and now — rather than in a heavenly reward that fewer and fewer of us believe in.

Phil Zuckerman is associate dean of Pitzer College and author of Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He will be speaking at FFRF’s convention in Boston in November.

Valerie Tarico: Future of women is more than just breeding

Valerie Tarico
Women at a pregnancy yoga class

By Valerie Tarico

Depopulation doomsaying is trending. You may have noticed some of the headlines and book titles as they’ve cropped up: “With global births expected to decline, experts warn ‘crisis’ looms” — CBS News; “The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out.” — The Washington Post; “The US needs more babies, more immigrants, and more integration” — Vox; Empty Planet — The Shock of Global Population Decline — Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson. Though global population will grow for decades and maybe generations to come, a demographic shift is happening. 

In the 20th century, population skyrocketed, but birthrates dropped from an average of over five children per woman in 1900 to just over two by the end of the century. If you think about this in terms of individual empowerment or health, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment: Fewer women dying in childbirth, healthier babies, parents who are more able to form the families of their choosing and then invest deeply in their children, and more women able to pursue other interests and roles. (In a parallel trend, lifespans have doubled, partly due to lower childhood mortality and partly due to better health later on.)

This should be cause for celebration, but that is not how everyone thinks about it. Instead, recent reporting feeds anxieties about scarcity and competition, sometimes making the untrue claim that population growth is needed for economic growth or social security programs. These false claims have grave implications for the rights of women and well-being of children, taking us back toward the roles dictated in the bible.

New times, old roles

Historically and traditionally, women tend to think about reproduction in terms of caretaking, family well-being, healthy children and the trajectory of their own lives. Men — especially men in positions of power — have often thought about reproduction in economic and competitive terms: More children means more workers for the field, more adherents for the church, more serfs or slaves, and more soldiers to help one clan or tribe or kingdom or nation beat others. 

We glimpse this historical view in the Iron Age texts of the bible and Quran, where women and children are economic assets belonging to a patriarch, the head of family. The Ten Commandments forbid a man to covet his neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, livestock or anything that belongs to his neighbor. A girl can be given by her father in marriage; virginity is guarded to ensure progeny of known lineage; a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods; and a father can sell his offspring into slavery or even sacrifice his son. In one story, God gives Satan the right to destroy Job’s wealth — including his children — and then later replaces them. 

In recent centuries, societies have gradually evolved toward a different view of women and children, one in which each is fully a person, valued not as a means to an end, but as an individual whose thoughts, feelings, preferences, intentions and life experience matter in their own right. Women and children are seen to merit life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the reasons that men merit the same. 

In his book The Prophet, poet Kahlil Gibran beautifully expressed this view:

Your children are not your children. 

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. 

They come through you but not from you, 

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 

For they have their own thoughts. 

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow. 

This is a radical shift from the culture that gave a man the right to sacrifice his son or daughter (like Abraham and Jeptheh in the bible), but this transition is far from complete. Mixed feelings abound even at the liberal edge of the shift, and old scripts still dominate life in traditional and conservative subcultures. The World Health Organization estimates that each day 39,000 families “give” underage girls in marriage, often as soon as they are capable of pregnancy. Many of these child brides drop out of school, joining 129 million unschooled girls and 12 million teens who give birth annually. Among women, 190 million would like to prevent or delay the next pregnancy, but lack modern means to do so. These girls and women have the highest rates of unsought pregnancy today, and they will stay vulnerable if depopulation narratives begin to drive philanthropic and government priorities. 

Ironically, the second most vulnerable group may be those women in countries with the greatest degree of female education and contraception, the women whose below-replacement birthrates lie at the heart of the angst about declining fertility. These women lead very different lives than their sisters in the Global South, but depopulation alarmism poses the same threat for both groups. Psychologically, it creates a powerful subconscious shift in which the thought of female empowerment elicits anxiety, ambivalence, uncertainty, frustration or overt hostility. 

This emotional shift has the potential to stall progress on female empowerment. Mixed feelings often lead to bureaucratic resistance, sluggish public investment and philanthropic skittishness. That is because when people feel unsure about the fundamental goodness of a course of action, they cease to act. 

The family planning sector already faces obstruction from the ongoing influence of religion in society. Conservative religious leaders laud motherhood as the pinnacle of female virtue. The pope recently called Italy’s shift in family size a cold, dark “demographic winter.” Bureaucrats, aid agencies and charitable foundations often seek noncontroversial strategies, leading them to avoid family planning investments, even when these might be central to attaining their goals — as, for example, in PEPFAR (AIDS relief) or the Green Climate Fund. But until now, education of girls has been seen, at least by those in power, as an unmitigated good. 

What should we do?

In recent decades, advocates have fought to protect women (especially poor brown women) from being pressured not to have babies. Now, humanity may be returning to a phase when many women will face pressure in the opposite direction, as has been the case through much of history. Safeguards against coercion need to be broad enough to protect against both. 

To avert problems, we need to start with the facts. Human population skyrocketed during the 20th century and the curve is bending. Global population will grow for at least another generation, exacerbating climate change and resource depletion and some countries now face new challenges associated with shrinking populations. With women having fewer babies and people living longer, a few countries now have more retirees than kids — Japan and Spain, for examples. Others will soon follow.  

Advocates for women and girls need to take seriously some of the concerns raised by alarmists — for example, questions about geopolitical power dynamics, changing dependency ratios — meaning fewer working age people relative to everyone else — and potential loss of creativity or productivity as populations become older. We need to press relevant experts (e.g., economists, social scientists, policy makers) to engage on these topics, and we need to be prepared with answers when hyperbole and legitimate questions come up. Unless there are credible paths forward, depopulation alarmists will continue to center on their current old “solutions” to new challenges — that women produce more babies or, temporarily, that wealthy countries recruit immigrants from places where women have less means to manage their fertility.

We need to ensure that women who do want more babies are supported in having them. Some portion of declining birthrates is due to factors that discourage women from having babies they might want — financial constraints, lack of child care options, fertility problems, health issues, and in the most extreme, anti-conceptive policies or practices that are coercive. As depopulation alarmists raise these concerns, we must validate and address them. 

We must speak up against the doom and gloom. Depopulation alarmism often extrapolates unlikely trendlines. It relies on economic indicators that ignore individual prosperity. It brushes past dimensions of well-being that don’t have a dollar price tag. It ignores climate change and the well-being of other species. It underestimates technology shifts such as artificial intelligence and robotics that will make legions of low-paid economic foot soldiers obsolete. Lastly, it overlooks the many ways that a smaller, older population might be awesome. If we are well informed, we can round out the conversation.  

The alternative to depopulation alarmism is creative innovation. Old school Malthusians made the mistake of underestimating human ingenuity, specifically our ability to feed people and grow prosperity as world population swelled from under 2 billion at the start of the 20th century to almost 8 billion at the close. Now, reverse Malthusians make the same mistake and derive similarly wrong conclusions. 

If we can reach Mars, we can create a future that merges declining population, broad prosperity and individual reproductive freedom. Rocket science takes will, work, smarts, imagination and teamwork; that’s how we as a species cross uncharted distances. So, let’s get on it. We can’t roll up our sleeves if we’re busy wringing our hands. 

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

James A. Haught: Mainstream silence about freethinkers

James A. Haught

By James A. Haught

The modern freethought movement is gigantic. Numerous skeptic organizations, magazines, websites, books, online blogs, student secular chapters, videos, podcasts and other voices spread the message that supernatural religion is absurd. But America has a strange contradiction: Mainstream magazines, newspapers, television shows, radio programs and other general media rarely allow a direct challenge to supernatural faith.

I think it’s because they’re mostly for-profit commercial businesses dependent on advertising and/or subscribers. They have multitudes of religious customers who would stop paying or listening if insulted, causing severe audience and ad revenue loss. Print media is an especially endangered species these days, barely clinging to life. Hazards must be avoided like the plague.

As a longtime newspaper editor in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, I have known the dilemma firsthand. Years ago, a column syndication agent visited our newsroom. I told him I’d like to write a national atheist column. He choked on his coffee. I knew my proposal was impossible. No newspaper would print such a column. We couldn’t even print it in my own paper. We would lose thousands of subscribers, maybe sink into bankruptcy.

Since for-profit mainstream outlets are forced into silence, our nonprofit freethought movement lives mostly within its own realm, greatly aided by the wide-open internet. We have freedom to speak in our own domain, but aren’t fully welcome outside it.

However, religion is dying in the United States. American churches have lost 20 percent of their members in the past two decades. About one-fourth of adults now say their religion is “none” — and for young adults, it’s one-third. Eventually, I hope, “Nones” will become the largest category.

In other words, we skeptics are winning the cultural struggle. Scientific-minded honesty is prevailing. Maybe this snowballing trend will eventually force mainstream media to open their doors.

As for now, commercial media outlets don’t dare assert that religion is hokum. But our freethought community can. We don’t depend on religious subscribers or advertisers. We can proceed full steam ahead to proclaim rational truths without risking losses. We are free to act — driven by convictions, not by the profit motive — and thus the “free” in freethought has multiple meanings.

A great social transformation is occurring in America. Supernaturalism is withering away. The Secular Age is blossoming. Our freethought movement is delivering the message because for-profit media cannot.

FFRF Member James A. Haught was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. This column is adapted from a piece originally published on July 22, 2019, at Daylight Atheism/Patheos.

Anthony B. Pinn: It’s time to acknowledge Blacks as being alive

Anthony B. Pinn
Photo by Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Free Inquiry in its October/November 2020 issue and is reprinted with permission.

By Anthony B. Pinn

Before leaving theism, I spent a good number of years in the church. I wasn’t simply a member of the gathered “faithful,” whose obligation to Christianity is defined by church attendance and the monetary offering placed in the collection plate. 

No, I was a minister, an office I entered at a fairly young age. Much of my responsibility as a “minister of the Gospel” had to do with helping congregations critique individual as well as collective sin and celebrate what we assumed was the goodness of God. These activities, in sum, involved fighting back spiritual death to safeguard morality and ethics in the world and eternal life after the material trappings of physical existence ended. 

Yet this was only a part of what I did as a minister. I was also responsible for ritualizing physical death — funerals, eulogies and burial committals at the gravesite: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

I left ministry more than two decades ago, but what remains is the challenge of death. Of course, this challenge isn’t a theological dilemma — a matter of souls and immortality against the fragile nature of our mortality. No, those religious circumstances no longer define my take on life and death. But even as a humanist — particularly as a Black humanist — death remains a significant marker, a profound possibility.

Put differently, I left the church and entered a community I believe better values life, one that better understands the need to safeguard the life web of which humans are part. And on some level, I think “disbelief” in general, and humanism in particular, have positioned us to engage collective circumstances with clarity and moral maturity. However, humanism (and I would also include atheism and other forms of disbelief) often falls short when it’s time to center conversation on the ramifications of anti-Black racism on the nature and meaning of a humanist philosophy of life. 

Furthermore, this failure is one reason most of those writing and lecturing on racism are from the community suffering the consequences of racism and White privilege. In a word, too many humanists rely on Black people to educate them on their White privilege and participation in anti-Black racism (to the extent they aren’t, as Ibram Kendi has insightfully outlined, anti-racist in thought and practice). 

While that is a different conversation, one for another time, this brief reference to White privilege does serve to highlight humanism’s general failure to adequately note the unique relationship between anti-Black racism and death in the United States.

Recent events — the murders and memorials — over the past year have reinforced for me this race problem within humanist circles. It’s time for humanists — and add to them the list atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, and so on — to better appreciate the relationship between Blackness and death lamented and protested across the United States (and the world).

Being Black in the United States entails two connections with death. First, regardless of age, one is seen as a danger to society capable of causing death. And, second, one is born into circumstances defined by the constant exposure to the possibility of being killed. And so, the “talk” so many Black parents have with their children speaks awareness of these relationships to death in hopes of avoiding a different talk — their child’s eulogy.

How does one change this situation in light of Professor Sharon Patricia Holland’s haunting words from Raising the Dead? “What,” she writes, “if some subjects never achieve . . . the status of the ‘living’?” Holland frames the question through the lens of Toni Morrison’s brilliant novel Beloved and raises the specter of some existing with the dead, being “at one with the dead.” For Holland, African Americans are perceived as ghosts and aren’t considered alive — not in the way Whites are considered alive.

Recently we’ve come to see proof of this relationship of African Americans to the dead as it has taken images of death for many Whites to see African Americans’ frustrating struggle to gain “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is what I mean: the normalcy, beauty, and significance of Blacks going about the business of nurturing relationships and growing families are recognized only in their absence. These practices of togetherness that represent a desire to nurture love-based connections generally aren’t named with respect to African Americans, and they aren’t highlighted as defining characteristics of Black communities. Instead, they are lamented as what might have been if society where different, and we are left to collect mutilated corpses on city streets, hanging from trees, riddled with bullets in homes, and lifeless in jail cells. Over the past year, many responded by carving out spaces for mourning.

What does it mean to mourn those never recognized as having been alive?

Pushing against anti-Black brutality, protesters have called for an end to African Americans being killed for being Black. However, to protest death isn’t the same thing as recognizing and safeguarding life. Protests resulting in charges against those filmed killing Blacks, financial resources committed to Black business and interests, as well as removal of statues celebrating discrimination are examples of steps forward. However, these positive developments don’t dig deep enough into the underlying problem.

There are unacknowledged patterns of thought that justify racial violence by questioning the humanity of Blacks — and, by extension, Black life. Not only part of formal schooling, they also are entangled from the beginning in our informal socialization processes. Think about negative images of Blacks in print and on screen; unchallenged comments that render Blacks hypersexual or lazy; and colorblindness that maintains the normalcy and privilege of Whiteness while allowing Whites to feel innocent of racism.

White privilege functions as a code providing the “proper” look of life as White families, Whites in parks, and Whites enjoying restaurants. It is present in the weaponizing of mobile phones by Whites who call the police when pushed to acknowledge Blacks rightfully occupying space. It shapes interactions and perceptions of who poses a threat and who is “law-abiding.” To drive a car while White doesn’t immediately run the risk of death; to walk through one’s neighborhood while White doesn’t generate suspicion and fear that is likely to result in death; and the list goes on. 

White supremacy means Black people in so many ways are defined as not fully alive and always under threat, while White privilege affords Whites rights and resources making it possible for them to flourish. They don’t need to have the “talk” with their children.

It’s time to challenge faulty thinking that safeguards White privilege, that sanctions racial disregard, and that invites Black demise. It’s time to reject the assumption that structural anti-Black racism died with the Emancipation Proclamation and now individual Whites behaving properly is enough to neutralize “the race problem.” This work marks the difference between mourning those who were never acknowledged to be alive and establishing that Black lives matter. Otherwise, because they aren’t White and can’t have White privilege, Black people remain outside the land of the living.

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion at Rice University. He is also director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies. Pinn is the author of 35 books.

Vee Roebuck: I have been damn lucky

Vee Roebuck on her wedding day.

From the time the nurses carried me around the hospital where I was born to show off the red ringlets on my head to my 70s, my hair has been my distinguishing feature.

My first 10 years were spent on the ranch where I had 3,000 acres to run and roam. In Colorado Springs, we lived on the edge of the Garden of the Gods, where I was able to climb in the caves of the gigantic red rocks.

In Inglewood High School, I took four years of Latin and developed a halfway decent game of tennis. I was able to attend the University of Redlands, thanks to my father. While there, I was inducted into the honorary society for sophomore women.

I worked for Pacific Telephone for 30 years when it was only a telephone company.

I met the love of my life when I was in my early 30s. Charlie was well worth the wait.

I had three sons without having to go through the pangs of childbirth. Kenneth, Mark and Gary all grew up to be respectable adults.

For the past 35 years, I have lived in the best unit in my apartment complex, with a view, privacy and quiet.

In my early 60s, I discovered The Center for Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, giving me a cause to devote my energy and resources to.

I have had no chronic or long-lasting illnesses and no major injuries until I fractured my hip at age 86.

I have endured no natural disasters or severe accidents of any kind.

I have had sufficient income throughout my life to provide everything I need or want. Luckily, neither Charlie nor I had extravagant tastes.

My friends are my major asset. I have made long-lasting friends in high school and college, at the telephone company and at my apartment complex. 

Vee, 89, a longtime major supporter of FFRF, was born in 1932. Her husband Charlie died in 2019 at age 87. Vee says her father was an agnostic, her mother “vaguely religious,” who went to Sunday school, but didn’t attend church. Before her baptism in her early teens, Vee asked her minister a number of questions, which he did not answer to her satisfaction. “I never went back,” Vee said. 

Sage Miller: That magic moment I found my irreligion

Sage Miller
Image by Shutterstock

By Sage Miller

For most of my wretched life, I’d wandered in a fog, yearning for a guiding light that never dawned. Paleness, wanness, grayness — that was my life. Never any “there” there, at the core of me. I was a spiritual vacuum.

Was something missing? Yes, and it was something crucial. Something at the core of my life. I lacked purpose. What, really, was I living for? There was an emptiness in my heart and soul that couldn’t be filled by things associated with conventional success.

Did I crave wealth and fame? Who doesn’t? In a way, there’s nothing wrong with those. In fact, I’ll take all I can get. But they couldn’t fill the emptiness inside.

Sex, gambling, drink, drugs? Fun for a while, I suppose. Fun for kids. But once you’re out of college, they’re just so immature. I’m ashamed to admit, though, that I wandered into three of those swamps, and, surprise, surprise, none was the Answer, the One True Light. None got me even close to the Answer. And I was nearing the end.

It’s crazy what can trigger U-turns in lives. My awakening came like a bolt of lightning on the 18th green (and I was lifted to even more bliss as I reflected on it at the 19th hole in the clubhouse). This time, I flung my putter into the lake out of exultation instead of rage.

I was hearing a voice — I swear — that I recognized as that of Bertrand Russell. He thundered:

“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comforting myths. Almost inevitably, some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dares not face this thought, and he therefore cannot carry his thought to any logical conclusion.”

And then came another voice that I recognized as that of H.L. Mencken:

To sum up: (1) The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. (2) Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. (3) Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.

And don’t get me started with Nietzsche.

There it was! My Answer! And I wasn’t stopping there. Agnosticism? Not for me! Atheism? Not for me! I was blasting beyond even Russell and Mencken to anti-theism!

I realized not only that religion was ludicrous, but that belief in it, even apart from its preposterous virgin-birth, water-into-wine absurdities, did immense damage by destroying belief in science and independent thinking and instilling the mindset of sheepish obedience. At that magic moment, I became no longer a mere nonbeliever but a warrior for reason, decency and justice, dedicated forevermore to fighting religion’s curses. Turn me loose! With stunning clarity, I realized that religion was not only evil in itself, but the cause of so much more evil.

Of course, I realize loathsome politicians will never stop pandering to theocrats by attacking reproductive freedom and education, trying to use public power and spaces for religious indoctrination, curbing and corrupting scientific research, and maintaining religion’s unconscionable tax exemptions and subsidies (“faith-based initiatives”).

But, at least, I would never let religion warp and oppress me. I could free myself from its chains, indoctrinations, dogmas and delusions forevermore. And maybe I could help the world recover from its curses and become a better place. Maybe you, too, can break its chains, even if you’ve long been pummeled into sheepishness. (“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”). Maybe you, too, now or in the fullness of time, can get yourself free!

FFRF Member Sage Miller, a former columnist for the Dallas Morning News, writes humor and general-interest essays from Manhattan, Kan.

FFRF’s 2021 law student essay contest winners

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the four winners of the Cornelius Vanderbroek Memorial Essay Competition for Law Students.

FFRF paid out a total of $9,500 to the winners of this year’s contest.

Law school students were asked to write on the topic of “Why ‘history’ shouldn’t justify violations of the separation between state and church.”

The topic explores a change in Supreme Court interpretation that has become central to state/church litigation in recent years. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court wrote that “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted ‘by reference to historical practices and understandings.’” In the wake of that decision, courts have struggled to define the exact contours of the historical considerations at play, with some courts treating Galloway as announcing a broadly applicable “history test,” while others have continued to apply more traditional Establishment Clause tests.

Essayists were to identify the dangers in interpreting Galloway as establishing a broadly applicable “history test” and, with citation to at least two post-Galloway cases, from any courts, define the outer boundaries where a history test should be applied.

For ease of reading, the essays appearing in this issue do not include the footnotes and citations that were included in the authors’ submissions.

Winners are listed below and include the law school they are attending and the award amount.

First Place: Ty Jameson, Wake Forest University School of Law, $4,000.

Second Place: Jimmy Morrissey, University of Wisconsin Law School, $3,000.

Third Place: Jordan Glassman, University of North Carolina Law School, $2,000.

Honorable Mention: Ryan Shaner, Chicago Kent College of Law, $500.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and grad students since 2010. The law school contest began in 2019.

Law student essay contest

First place: Law student essay contest — Ty Jameson

FFRF awarded Ty $4,000.

By Ty Jameson 

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Known as the Establishment Clause, this constitutional provision “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” 

Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once wrote that the Establishment Clause is meant to “promote a viable, pluralistic society.” However, a new method of interpreting the Establishment Clause “by reference to historical practices and understandings” is severely diminishing this constitutional protection and has the potential to effectively erase the Establishment Clause from our nation’s founding document.  

This new “history test” presents several problems as a method of interpreting the Establishment Clause. The history test’s vague direction to refer to “historical practices and understandings” provides little guidance to judges when analyzing an Establishment Clause case. Importantly, the history test “does not make clear what history [judges] should consider.” Thus, the history test allows judges to engage in selective historical analyses, reaching back to any point in our nation’s 240-year-plus history to consider fragmented — and even irrelevant — history when analyzing an Establishment Clause claim.  

Take, for example, a case where the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals used the history test to hold that placing the motto “In God We Trust” on national currency does not violate the Establishment Clause. The “history” the Eighth Circuit referenced included an “unbroken history of official acknowledgement . . . of the role of religion in American life from at least 1789” and that “the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God.” 

Neither of these two assertions answer whether placing “In God We Trust” on currency violates the Establishment Clause. As to the first assertion, an official acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life is far different from placing a motto that endorses belief of, and trust in, a monotheistic god on national currency — something all citizens regularly see and use. As to the second assertion, assuming, arguendo, that all the Founding Fathers believed in a god, this sheds no light on what the Founding Fathers believed to be the proper relationship between religion and government. 

To be sure, history is not totally irrelevant to interpreting the Constitution. Courts often invoke history to examine how the Founders envisioned a constitutional provision would apply and to identify the overarching purposes a constitutional provision is meant to serve. In engaging in this type of historical analysis with respect to the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court has previously examined  colonial history that led to the inclusion of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution and has noted how Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Establishment Clause was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state.” The Supreme Court has also repeatedly mentioned how James Madison, “the leading architect of the religion clauses,” wrote a memorial and remonstrance opposing a tax to fund preachers and providing several arguments against government support of religions. Highlighting the history test’s potential for selective historical analysis, the 8th Circuit failed to consider any of this history when it upheld the use of “In God We Trust” on national currency. 

Prior tests

To fully appreciate the implications of this new history test, it is important to pause and take note of prior Establishment Clause tests that the history test replaces. For the past several decades, courts have analyzed Establishment Clause cases by examining the purpose and effect of the government conduct at issue and by asking whether the conduct endorses or coerces religion. These prior tests provide far more guidance to judges when deciding Establishment Clause cases than does the history test. These prior tests also help judges reach outcomes that “promote a viable, pluralistic society” and fulfill the clause’s mandate of “government neutrality” with respect to religion. 

A recent case where FFRF assisted the plaintiff in challenging the constitutionality of a nativity scene outside of a county courthouse demonstrates the difference between the prior Establishment Clause tests and the new history test. The district court ruled that the nativity scene violated the Establishment Clause using the prior tests of examining the purpose of placing a nativity scene outside of the county courthouse and whether it endorses or coerces religion. In so doing, the district court noted that the “evidence in the record indicates that the county’s purpose in displaying the nativity scene was religious” and that the nativity scene “would give a reasonable observer the impression that the government is endorsing a religion.” 

However, on appeal, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, using the history test to hold that the nativity scene does not violate the Establishment Clause. Rather than taking a careful look at the purpose and effect of the nativity scene at issue in the present case, the appellate court merely referenced a “long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays.” Like the 8th Circuit’s analysis of “In God We Trust” on national currency, the appellate court here failed to mention any history that led to the inclusion of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution or how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison interpreted the provision. 

Another troubling aspect of the appellate court’s decision is that the court used the history of other nativity scenes on government property to hold that the nativity scene at issue did not violate the Establishment Clause, rather than considering that perhaps all those other nativity scenes violate the Establishment Clause. This notion that we are bound by prior history — rather than examining the constitutionality of such prior history — impedes progress toward the “viable, pluralistic society” mentioned by Justice Douglas and is direct contrast to the use of history in other areas of constitutional law.  

Imagine if a similar history test applied to the interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.” It would be deeply troubling if courts evaluating claims of racial or sexual-orientation discrimination could point to our nation’s history of discrimination, even after the passage of the 14th Amendment, to hold that such discrimination does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Thankfully, such a history test does not apply to the Fourteenth Amendment.  

History and tradition

Rather, the Supreme Court has noted that history and tradition do not set the outer boundaries of constitutional interpretation and that we must be able to learn from our nation’s history “without allowing the past alone to rule the present.” Constitutional interpretation must recognize “that new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality . . . that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.” Similarly, interpretation of the Establishment Clause must recognize our nation’s history of dominant religious groups using the power of government to promote their faiths and impose them upon others, while allowing us to learn from that history rather than being bound by it. 

If use of this new history continues, the fate of the Establishment Clause is clear — courts will repeatedly use the history test to abandon the Establishment Clause’s principles and protections. In addition to the cases already mentioned, the First Circuit recently used the history test to hold that the inclusion of the phrase “so help me God” at the end of the oath of allegiance administered at naturalization ceremonies does not violate the Establishment Clause because of a “longstanding” history of similar words as a means of completing an oath. 

Additionally, in FFRF’s lawsuit against a Pennsylvania county, the Third Circuit used the history test to hold that a county seal containing a Latin cross did not violate the Establishment Clause because it fit “within a long tradition of state and municipal seals and flags throughout our Republic that include religious symbols or mottos.” After reading these opinions, one wonders whether any government conduct will be held to violate the Establishment Clause under this new history test.  

The emergence of the history test is particularly troublesome considering Christian nationalists’ recent efforts to use the force of government to inject Christianity into society, and in particular, public schools. For example, several states — including Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Utah — have passed laws that require displays of the motto “In God We Trust” in public schools. Religious indoctrination has no place in public schools and challenging these types of laws will be particularly difficult if courts can reference vague, incomplete and irrelevant history to ignore the true purposes of the Establishment Clause. Thankfully, not all courts are using the new history test to analyze Establishment Clause cases, instead using the prior tests. The Supreme Court has so far only used the history test when analyzing cases involving prayers before legislative meetings. The lower courts applying the history test to other contexts have misread those cases as setting forth a broad new test that abandons the prior Establishment Clause tests. For the sake of separation of religion and government, this trend must not continue. If it does, we may soon find that the Establishment Clause, for all intents and purposes, has been erased from the Constitution.

Ty Jameson attends the Wake Forest School of Law. “My interests in advocating for secular causes largely originated while learning about the First Amendment’s religion clauses at college in Utah,” Ty writes. “This interest ultimately led me to spend a summer as a law clerk with American Atheists. At school, I serve on the editorial board of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy. I recently wrote an article on Article III standing to challenge political and religious displays that will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal. This summer, I am interning at the U.S. Department of Justice, in an office that enforces various civil rights laws.”

Ty Jameson

Second place: Law student essay contest — Jimmy Morrissey

FFRF awarded Jimmy $3,000.

By Jimmy Morrissey 

Of the many protections offered by the U.S. Constitution, there are few as notable and impactful as those offered by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The importance of a secular state was not lost on the founders when they ensured that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

Over 200 years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by analyzing the history and tradition behind a challenged practice. 

Courts have struggled to implement the Town of Greece court’s analysis, and several circuits have begun using a “history test” when reviewing Establishment Clause claims.

Use of such a test is profoundly dangerous in two ways: First, an otherwise unconstitutional practice may pass muster merely because it is rooted in tradition. Second, the test’s lack of specificity gives courts an opportunity to carve out exceptions on an ad hoc basis, thereby undermining the protections offered by the Establishment Clause. These protections are foundational to the rights of an individual in a democratic society and must be upheld. 

Before its 1983 ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court had relied on a series of tests to determine whether a practice violated the Establishment Clause. These tests typically focused on whether the practice advanced or inhibited a particular religion, made adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s political standing, or directed a formal religious exercise in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors. However, the court carved out an exception to these tests in Marsh when it ruled that “legislative prayer” — the practice of employing a legislative chaplain and beginning legislative meetings with a prayer — was constitutional under the Establishment Clause. 

In Town of Greece, the Supreme Court attempted to clarify its ruling in Marsh by establishing that legislative prayer had a firm rooting in the country’s political traditions. The court held that a prayer given at a monthly town board meeting comported with the tradition of legislative prayer and was not unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. Reasoning that legislative prayer involved a limited context where prayer “could coexist with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom” and that such prayer was properly constrained by its occurrence at the beginning of legislative sessions, the court invoked Marsh to declare the town board invocations constitutional. 

The first danger of the court’s reliance on a practice’s history and tradition has already manifested itself in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In Fields, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applied a history test that it derived from Town of Greece to rule that an opening prayer before legislative meetings was constitutional. What separates this case from those mentioned above, however, is that the Pennsylvania Legislature had prohibited nontheists from offering the opening prayer. In its bizarre reasoning, the 3rd Circuit found that because the historical practice of legislative prayer involved the necessary element of praying to a higher power, a legislature may insist on having traditional, theistic opening prayers. 

Fields provides an example of a court upholding an otherwise unconstitutional practice merely because it is in line with tradition. Even the court in Town of Greece was clear that Marsh “must not be understood as permitting a practice that would amount to a constitutional violation if not for its historical foundation.” And yet, the 3rd Circuit upheld a policy that on its face discriminates on the basis of one’s religious beliefs and makes adherence to religion plainly relevant to a person’s political standing, citing the history behind the tradition of legislative prayer as a justification. If the court wishes to take history and tradition into account when evaluating an Establishment Clause claim, it must make clear that such considerations should never be dispositive, especially where a challenged practice discriminates so freely and flagrantly. 

The second danger of a widespread history test is more subtle than the first, but no less insidious. Circuit courts have already begun to apply the historical analysis undergone in Town of Greece to other contexts, making broad comparisons between legislative prayer and more novel practices. In American Humanist Association v. McCarty, the 5th Circuit found that invocations given before school board meetings open to the public were constitutional. The court applied a history test that it had derived from Town of Greece, drawing a comparison between prayers given before a legislative session with only lawmakers present and invocations given before a public school board meeting. While acknowledging that there was a difference in the context of each practice, namely through the presence of children, the court ultimately reasoned that the mere presence of children or other members of the public who were not lawmakers themselves did not exclude the school board invocations from the same historical exception given to legislative prayer. 

American Humanist Association provides an example of how a history test can be stretched to allow for any number of practices to be excepted from the Establishment Clause’s requirements. The 5th Circuit acknowledged that prayers at such meetings lacked the exact historical practice of the sort in Town of Greece, and while noting the difference in context between the tradition of legislative prayer and the school board invocations, was still willing to stretch the traditional understanding of legislative prayer to include the practice at issue. It is not hard to see how any number of practices could be given a similar treatment by a sympathetic  court, transforming the tradition and history analysis into mere pretext for carving out more and  more exceptions to constitutional safeguards. A proper analysis of a practice’s tradition and history under the Establishment Clause should focus on the history of the specific practice being challenged; to be more flexible with a history analysis would erode the clause’s meaning over time. 

In Marsh and Town of Greece, the Supreme Court may have intended to provide a pragmatic alternative in Establishment Clause cases where longstanding practices were challenged for their constitutionality. However, the lack of specificity with which this analysis was implemented has led to confusion and the possibility of attacks on the protection offered by the clause. The first danger of a widespread history test in response to this unclear analysis is that practices which are clearly unconstitutional, such as the exclusion of nontheist chaplains in Fields, may pass constitutional muster. Additionally, courts may seize upon the opportunity created by such a vague test to create multiple exceptions to the Establishment Clause, eroding its force over time.

In order to avoid these outcomes, the Supreme Court must firmly address that any such history test cannot be dispositive of a practice’s constitutionality, and that a historical analysis must be focused on the specific practice in question. Surely no tradition in such a test is more important than the tradition of free religious practice in a democratic society. 

Jimmy Morrissey is from St. Paul, Minn., and graduated from DePaul University with a degree in political science. Jimmy attends the University of Wisconsin School of Law and is a member of the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society.

Jimmy Morrissey

Third place: Law student essay contest — Jordan Glassman

Jordan Glassman

FFRF awarded Jordan $2,000.

By Jordan Glassman 

In 2014, the Supreme Court drew sufficient analogies between the pro forma prayer at the Nebraska Legislature at issue in Marsh v. Chambers and the invocations preceding the intimate town hall meetings of Town of Greece v. Galloway to extend the 1983 holding and uphold the mostly Christian prayers recited for over a decade in upstate New York. Despite Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent and its unsubtle portrait of alienation, none of the justices questioned the central holding of Marsh. Instead, they debated its fact-sensitive application to the town hall setting. Since then, indications that this history analysis is seeping out of the narrow context of these seminal rulings and morphing into a broadly applicable “history test” have begun to mount. 

The court insisted that these holdings should “not be understood as permitting a practice that would amount to a constitutional violation if not for its historical foundation.” Instead, “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings” and “it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted.” 

But five years later, the court again expanded the scope of Marsh’s history test in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. This holding went beyond “specific practices” to include a “presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.” With the court’s sympathy toward religion near its zenith, it is worth considering the dangers of a still more broadly applicable history test and insisting on “[defining] the precise boundaries” of its application to guard against those dangers. 

Ascertaining history with perfect fidelity is difficult or impossible, especially if it concerns subjective states of mind. In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, Justice Robert H. Jackson famously lamented the futility of trying to divine what the founders might have had in mind: 

“Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for pharaoh. A century and a half of partisan debate and scholarly speculation yields no net result but only supplies more or less apt quotations from respected sources on each side of any question. They largely cancel each other.” 

Compounding the literal difficulty of knowing facts about the past is the certainty that historical accuracy will give way to unreliable “law office history” in the adversarial context. The result is dubious historical claims which, unlike facts in a typical decision, attain precedential value. 

In addition to the difficulty of ascertaining the distant past with any confidence, the scope of its application should be quite narrow, if the reasoning of Marsh is to be taken seriously. Scholars at Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently criticized the naively applied history test of Galloway as, at best, only applying to a small sliver of federal actions in the few years following the ratification of the First Amendment. They argue persuasively that expanding the history test of Marsh and Galloway beyond this narrow scope is likely to result in jurisprudence that strays unpredictably from well-established Establishment Clause doctrine. 

Moreover, members of the court have noted for some time that the historical test fails to account for the evolution of American society. For example, throughout Galloway, the court assumes as if uncontroversial that prayer “[lends] gravity to the occasion” and “sets the mind to a higher purpose.” But as Justice William J. Brennan noted in his dissent in Marsh, “practices which may have been objectionable to no one in the time of Jefferson and Madison may today be highly offensive to many persons, the deeply devout and the nonbelievers alike.” Any historical practice, “even if it might look ‘nonsectarian’ to nine justices of the Supreme Court” could induce divisive reactions at any point in the future. “[T]he Constitution is not a static document whose meaning on every detail is fixed for all time by the life experience of the Framers.” 

Perhaps the biggest present danger is how the doctrine seems likely to seep into more and more Establishment Clause jurisprudence given the sympathies of the current court. In his concurrence in American Legion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh posits an informal taxonomy of Establishment Clause cases: 

(1) religious symbols on government property and religious speech at government events; (2) religious accommodations and exemptions from generally applicable laws; (3) government benefits and tax exemptions for religious organizations; (4) religious expression in public schools; and (5) regulation of private religious speech in public forums. 

While insisting that the history test is only applicable to the first category, he also invites its application to the remaining four: “each category of Establishment Clause cases has its own principles based on history, tradition, and precedent. . . . If the challenged government practice is not coercive and . . . is rooted in history and tradition . . . then there ordinarily is no Establishment Clause violation.”

The remaining categories are ripe for being brought into the fold of the historical test. For example, in the second category concerning exemptions, Galloway appeared in the plaintiffs’ reply brief in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case involving religious organizations’ right to discriminate. The petitioners argued that “Catholic’s five decades of service to Philadelphia children under city contracts, unchallenged until 2018, easily passes muster under . . . the historical practices test,” apparently reducing the range of the necessary historical reach from 250 years to only 50. 

In Gaylor v. Mnuchin, a lawsuit brought by the venerable Freedom From Religion Foundation challenging tax breaks for ministers, the 7th Circuit upheld the benefit. The court takes note of a “lengthy tradition of tax exemptions for religion” and held that the tax break “does not violate the Establishment Clause under the historical significance test. 

In fact, it is easy to imagine the historical test applied to any of the categories enumerated by Kavanaugh. From the graduation prayers of Lee v.  Weisman to the generally applicable drug laws of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the broadly applicable history test brings to mind Justice Arthur Goldberg’s concession that “great consequences can grow from small beginnings.” 

Since there is no reason to expect the current court will move away from an unsympathetic view toward Establishment Clause challenges, an overinclusive history test will remain the law of the land for some time. Advocates representing plaintiffs seeking to resist the establishment of religion should assist courts in articulating boundaries to prevent overreach. 

To do so, the application of the test must be limited to objective questions about history, to the extent that such questions are even answerable. The test cannot be allowed to expand to include subjective questions about how people thought or felt. Recent post-Galloway cases illustrate judges beginning to push this boundary. 

In Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Concord Community Schools, the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court decision allowing the performance of a nativity scene at a public school to continue in an abated form. In a concurrence, one judge cites to Galloway approvingly while opining that “[p]erforming a work of art does not establish [a state religion] . . . The Supreme Court’s decisions permitting legislatures to open their sessions with prayer show this.” While the historical fact of whether certain works of art were exhibited in the past might be ascertainable, inferring therefrom that something has “become part of the fabric of our society” allows the court to invade the conscience of those engaged in the intensely personal consumption of artwork. A court cannot possibly know how people felt about artwork. 

Likewise, in Doe v. United States, the 8th Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of an action to remove a religious motto from the national currency. The court muses that “given that our founding documents protect rights that were thought to derive from God, it is unsurprising that religion has been closely identified with our history and government, a relationship still evidenced today in our public life,” while citing approvingly to Galloway. Once again, the court makes an inference about how people thought on the basis of some historical series of events. But the court cannot possibly know how people thought. 

These are not harmless comments made in dicta. To be applied objectively, the historical test must be applied only to ascertainable facts about the past. Inferences about how or what people thought about those practices cannot be allowed. This approach will cabin the historical test’s application to contexts like the benign legislative prayer of Marsh, where how those in proximity to the practice thought or felt about it is beside the point. For when the door is opened to make post-Galloway decisions on the basis of what people apparently thought or what their art seems to reflect, the test can accommodate any proposition whatsoever. 

Jordan Glassman, who attends the University of North Carolina Law School, has an academic background in astronomy and physics. After serving in the Navy as a submarine officer and then working as a software engineer, Jordan returned to law school to pursue a career in tech-adjacent areas of law. He lives in Durham, N.C., with his partner Beth and son River.