Here’s what I had to say in Lakeland over Labor Day weekend.
One of the most potent wrenches in the toolbox of many religions is guilt. If a person can be made to feel guilty, and particularly if that person is fearful of community approbation were the guilty secret to be exposed, there is an increased likelihood that the person will comply with prescribed behavior or avoid proscribed practices.
We’ve all got secrets. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of, be they small or large. Maybe it’s just screening your cell phone calls, later claiming to have been on another line, or busy, or had your ringer off? Maybe a little white lie to spare another’s feelings, or hide your own? Being creative on a tax return?Petty thievery as a child, with candy or other trifles? Maybe eating the last Dove bar without offering to share?
And on and on up to the profoundly serious evasions of adultery, unethical business practices, lieing under oath, leaving accident scenes, accepting bribes and all the rest of the bad acting familiar from front pages and evening news. Not to mention the most egregious crimes of rape, assault, armed robbery, and murder.
Some of the guilt is warranted for the small and large ways we have hurt or cheated others, other guilt is imposed—societal or familial expectations that we don’t share but feel constrained to obey. Mom would die if she knew I … fill in the blank.
I heard Darcy Burner, candidate for Congress in Washington state, tackle the issue of shame at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence on June 8. Darcy addressed the shame that has been heaped on the decision to abort a fetus.
She talked about cultural power and the stories people have in their heads about issues.
Darcy said, “It turns out that one in three American women will have an abortion at some time in her life, but it is an issue that is kept so much in the closet that most people have no idea that their sisters, mothers, daughter or their friends have had abortions.
Darcy went on, “The LGBT movement has done this amazing job of using the idea of coming out of the closet to change the stories in people’s heads about who it is that the right wing is demonizing when they condemn gay marriage. We’ve seen tremendous progress on that issue by helping people understand that these are their friends, neighbors and loved ones who are being talked about.”
She suggested that one thing we could do to go on offense would be for women to come out of the closet about having had abortions. She asked women who were comfortable standing up to do so — to indicate that they were one of the people who had an abortion. A large group, perhaps 150 women, stood up and then Darcy said, “Now all of you who are willing to stand with these women and every woman like them please join them.” Most all of the 2,000 people in the room stood with those women who had been courageous enough to stand up first.
Then came the applause for the courage of those women. Darcy talked later with some of the women who had stood, and they told her it was the first time in their lives they had felt like they weren’t completely isolated on the issue—that there was a community of people who loved them and who would support them. It made a great difference. The veil of silence had been lifted.
This is much the same tactic as is currently being adopted by many in the atheist, secular and humanist communities. Going public with our nonbelief gives the lie to those who paint nontheists as evil, satanic, heartless and self-absorbed. That is to say, we aren’t all like Ayn Rand.
When a person with a reputation for public spiritedness, for honesty, for rescuing stray pets, for kindness, for raising well-adjusted children, for feminism, for human rights advocacy, for reaching across racial and ethnic fences, for any of dozens of actions that commend one as a good citizen, a good person … when that person comes out as a nontheist, it triggers re-thinking on the part of the observers. The world shifts.
Religions have been quite successful in the use of shame to moderate people’s behavior. The Judeo-Christian origin story goes right to the heart of human behavior with Adam and Eve suddenly noticing their nakedness after they ate the forbidden fruit. Up until that point they were just blissful cherubs frolicking in the perfect garden and suddenly they couldn’t get their minds off sinful sex and their alluring nudity. Consequently, all their children were sex-obsessed as well, and original sin became the order of the day.
It doesn’t take much experience of the world to see through that argument. It had to be pretty clear to most people, even two millennia ago, or during the Council of Niceae, or during the Protestant reformation, how babies were made.
Given the unfortunate truth that we all die, there wouldn’t be much future for humanity absent sexual engagement. Even if you bought into the idea that Adam and Eve could have lived forever if they’d avoided the apple, it had to be a stretcher to accept the idea that the pain of childbirth was a punishment inflicted on women for Eve’s mistake.
Were all of those first-created animals and plants destined to live forever in the absence of sinful sex? Then what about the apple? The reason a plant invests great energy in creating fruit is to provide a fertile starter for the seeds inside the fruit, and collaterally to benefit from animals which ingest the seeds and distribute them at some distance from the parent plant. Why was there fruit on the tree if it wasn’t intended for procreation?
Then, given that most fruit pollination requires the activity of bees and other pollinators, were the bees sinning when they distributed pollen from one tree to the next?
What about cows and mares and ewes? Do their struggles with birthing have something to do with Eve as well? Did Elsie and Mr. Ed and Little Bo Peep’s sheep all follow Eve’s example and sample the forbidden fruit? What did animals in the Garden of Eden eat, anyway?
Because the Bible tells us that, at minimum, Adam and Eve ate. It says they were told they could eat everything else in the garden other than the fruit on one tree.
I know this is a digression, but I’d like to point out that food we ingest is broken down into constituent parts, some of which are absorbed by the body for use in powering and building cells, and a great deal of it passes through us because it is stuff we can’t use. If the fellows who wrote the Bible had walked around the neighborhood they probably could have met farmers who had a pretty keen understanding of the cycle of nutrients, in which animal waste feeds plants, and plants make seeds, which when planted become more plants, and that well-fed plants produce more seeds. They could also have explained that melons, which were a popular mid-east food, had male and female flowers, and that the female flowers produced fruit, but only if there were male flowers nearby. Sex is really central to farming.
It’s pretty clear that the writers of the Bible were blissfully ignorant of how life works.
Of course some religious philosophers would tell you that I’m missing the real import of the whole story and that the original sin was disobedience of God’s will and that the punishment inflicted was for that act of disobedience and not for eating the apple, per se.
Others would argue that the core of the disobedience was that Eve and Adam nibbled on the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that it was in seeking knowledge which ought to be reserved for God and maybe Angels, that those first humans sinned. To which I’d answer that any god that preferred beings created in His Own Image to remain stupid rather than to participate in knowing everything that could be known, had to be a compleat idiot. But, again I digress.
No matter whether it was simply eating the fruit, or disobedience or seeking knowledge, let’s cut to the chase. Suddenly Adam and Eve realized they were naked and grabbed for some fig leaves. This only made matters worse in the area of sexual arousal, since everyone knows that lingerie is sexier than straight out nudity.
In any event, and against all observable evidence, sexual urges were successfully vilified and religious leaders had their fingers on the guilt button. Sometimes this was used to keep a lid on potential community disruption—for example, the injunction against coveting your neighbor’s wife. And it has been argued that one positive effect of religion has always been to reign in the unfortunate tendency of many men to not only covet, but act on that inclination without permission of either the wife or the neighbor.
Herb Silverman, the atheist politician and notary public and Secular Coalition for America founder, tells a story along these lines. Some theist who was debating him asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from stealing and murdering and raping?” Herb answered, “If that’s all that keeps you from doing those things, I hope you continue to believe in God.”
Thou shall not steal was another rule with positive social benefits.
But converting innate desires to sins had the effect of making everyone feel guilty about something. Was a woman coveting when she thought the neighbor was a real hunk compared to her couch potato husband? What about thinking the neighbor’s horse or Ferrari was more desirable than one’s own mule or Ford Pinto? Was that the sin of envy poking up it’s head?
By the 14th Century the list had been expanded and established with a group of seven deadly sins. In addition to lust and envy we faced wrath, greed, sloth, pride and gluttony. We could then feel guilty if we were angry at a person who cheated us, wanted more than had been accorded our lot in the world, felt like we needed a break from endless toil, felt like we’d really done a pretty good job on that last project, or ate too much turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving. The clergy had a wide range of guilt buttons to push, and every one of them involved such extensive areas of grey that pretty much anyone could be made to feel guilty in one way or another.
Think of Jimmy Carter who was widely admired and scorned when he told a Playboy magazine interviewer that he had “lusted in his heart.” To most subscribers of that magazine it must have seemed a strange admission, coming a few pages before the centerfold. Lusting was more or less the whole point, wasn’t it? Then again, in the 1970s, the magazine arrived in a plain brown wrapper, so who was kidding whom concerning feelings of guilt?
Was a farmer who hoped to grow more grain next season guilty of greed? Or to grow as much grain per acre as his more successful neighbor a matter of envy?
Or was the neighbor being prideful when he reported his greater success? On and on and on, with variations and gradations in the category of sin.
It was a brilliant touch when weekly confession was thrown into the mix and it became a sin NOT to tell the priest all of the possible ways you had overstepped some imaginary line. Guilt could be lathered on, pennance exacted, and the stage set for the next failure to adhere to the rules.
The black plague helped a great deal in the selling of guilt. Not having a germ theory of disease, it was easy to believe that God was punishing sinners. Survivors believed that they had been spared by divine intervention, that their expiation of sins had been effective, and that, therefore, they must continue to confess and atone.
An interesting sidebar here is that the population collapse due to the black plague was very good for commoners. Food became more plentiful per capita, housing was cheaper and wages rose due to the labor shortage. All of this, of course, was proof of divine blessing upon the survivors.
Another nice touch was added by the Catholic church during the middle ages. As the power of the church expanded, so did its wealth. Churches were often the most substantial structures in a town, and the sale of dispensations began to add up. Churches began to acquire properties beyond the churchyard. Reasonably enough, priests wanted to pass along that wealth and power to their children. So the church invented celibacy and decided that its priests were married to Christ. The inheritance problem was solved, though that brilliant solution led to other problems which have only received much attention in the past couple of decades. Sexual urges seem to find an outlet no matter what rules the church or society might hope to impose.
Apropos priestly proclivities, a few months ago I heard comedian Bill Maher observe that the Mormon church spent millions of dollars on the Prop 8 ballot in California to ensure that the only gay people involved in California weddings are Catholic priests.
The rising power of the church ran side-by-side with the rising power of monarchs, and it was altogether rational for alliances to emerge. Where kings wielded armed power to demand obedience, priests wielded moral power to exhort obedience. The alliance offered military and police protection to the church, which, as an increasingly wealthy institution was subject to depradation. And it offered heavenly approval to the king whose wishes were no longer personal, but heaven-sent.
Both powers could claim entirely benign intent, offering to preserve the peace and protect your soul, as long as your obedience was complete. No argument was possible.
Of course, there were squabbles, as when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce and decided to divorce the Roman church along with his wife, but the basic plan remained.
And then came the American revolution. The immediate cause was economic. One of the earliest multi-national corporations, the British East India Company, was cheating colonists at every turn. The British government was imposing taxes on commodities, most particularly caffeine tea which, like coffee in the modern era, was the most widely used drug in North America. And many of those who had settled the colonies had come here to escape the strictures of European religion. They were indisposed to respect the rule of governors and overseers working for the English crown and the Church of England.
But the guiding lights of the American effort saw beyond immediate disgruntlements and understood something more profound. Freedom required more than the unfettered life available at the margins of civlization. It would need governance that answered to a majority while protecting the rights of the minority, and it would require the rule-making of government to be decoupled from the dictates of any religious authority.
No priesthood could be permitted to overrule the will of a free people. At the same time, no government could be permitted to dictate what any person must believe. Thus was born the separation of church and state which made American democracy the most revolutionary step in the history of the modern world. I’ll leave it to others to debate where it ranks compared to the control of fire, the invention of the wheel and plow, and the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But the change was profound.
As Thomas Jefferson noted in the years following our founding:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
However, despite the carefully crafted separation that is fundamental to our government, politicians are constantly tempted to use religion and its tools of guilt and fear, to sway public opinion. And when was the last time you heard a president end a speech without saying “God Bless America”?
They parade their personal piety, whether real or feigned. They decry a purported lack of faith in their opponents. They cast foreign enemies as godless or without morality and invent stories to make those others seem less than human. Recall the fabricated stories of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers pulling premature infants from incubators in Kuwait. Notice the continued effort to paint Barack Obama as a Muslim.
The obvious question here, to any rational citizen, is, “What difference would it make if Obama were a Muslim?” Would that be of any more importance than John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism? Or Jimmy Carter’s Baptism? Or John Adams’ Universalism? Well, okay, Adams was more rational. But the point is that people believe or profess a lot of weird things. Isn’t the real question for politicians whether or not their theory of governance rests on rationalism or superstition?
Theodore Roosevelt observed, “To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to some particular church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not avowed his allegience to any church, is an outrage against that liberty of conscience which is one of the foundations of American life.”
But look at the recent vote on Amendment One in North Carolina, an amendment to the state constitution which aimed to ban not just gay marriage, but any recognition of civil union between same sex partners. Ministers were preaching in favor of the amendment from pulpits across the state. Billy Graham weighed in and lent the power and wealth of his ministry to advertising efforts to support the bill. Pro-amendment politicians went on about the sinful lives of same-sex couples, and enjoined voters to protect their families and their communities from the looming threat of gay marriage. This in a state that already had a statutory ban on same sex marriage.
As it happens, my own bid for the Congressional nomination in my district was affected as well. We learned that fundamentalist preachers were telling parishioners to vote for Amendment One and against the atheist, Cecil Bothwell.
It is striking how far conservative politicians have travelled since the 1960s when Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency.
In 1981, Goldwater said:
“The great decisions of government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”
Sadly, Goldwater’s conservatism has given way to religious pandering, particularly within his Republican party.
Consider Rick Perry’s comment last week during an evangelical conference call put together by the Rev. Rick Scarborough.
“Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you and one of the untruths out there that is driven is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. Somehow or another there’s this, ya know, steel wall, this iron curtain or whatever you want to call it between the church and people of faith and this separation of church and state is just false on its face. We have a biblical responsibility to be involved in the public arena proclaiming God’s truth.”
Whew, Rick, don’t know exactly where to start. But I haven’t heard anyone say that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. All we are saying, is park your faith at the door. We need public policy based on science and democracy. And nobody is saying you can’t proclaim your myths in the public arena, we’re just telling you
that your imaginary friend doesn’t have a voter ID card.
If such pandering were only verbal, it would be simple enough to pass it off as opportunistic politicking. However, fundamentalist religious beliefs have increasingly found their way into American law, and they are eroding the wall of separation that has stood our democratic system in good stead for more than 235 years.
Look at the textbook industry in Rick Perry’s Texas, for example. Texas is one of the largest school systems in the U.S., therefore textbooks distributed nationwide are frequently tailored to fit Texan preferences. The Texas school authorities lately tried to exclude Thomas Jefferson from history lessons about the founding of America because of his non-theist view of the world.
Imagine that: the founding of our country without mentioning the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a major influence on Madison’s framing of the Constitution, the guiding light of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the leading advocate for the Louisiana Purchase! And like many Texan conservatives, Jefferson was a great advocate of states’ rights and argued against federal interference in local affairs. But he wrote that pesky Jefferson Bible that left out all the miracles! We can’t let the kids think Jefferson is part of OUR history!
Look at the George W. Bush administration programs supporting faith-based initiatives which have channeled tax money to churches and religious-based private schools. In most states such schools are subject to far fewer rules and regulations. Corporal punishment, for example, is commonly permitted. Should public money support practices that are deemed to be child abuse in the eyes of many taxpayers?
Faith-based day-care facilities are another beneficiary of such programs, and again are usually not subject to the same health and care rules we demand of for-profit or public day-care facilities. Furthermore, this embrace of religious priorities has permitted religious schools to fire employees who do not adhere to their religious tenets.
Bush’s faith-based regulations were extended to our health care efforts in Africa and elsewhere around the world, where, for those eight years, funding for any organization which offered abortion services was curtailed. Abstinence education took the place of birth control efforts including distribution of condoms, and AIDS prevention efforts were stymied.
How many more people are starving today thanks to the Bush administration’s moral strictures is hard to say. How many more people will suffer and die with AIDS is another impossible calculation. But the devastating results of faith-based public policy are very real.
Note the fuss that some Catholics have lately made about the requirement under Obamacare that insurance plans cover birth control pills. What the Catholic church fails to mention is that birth control pills will only be provided to women employees who want them. And as far as paying for those pills, they seem to miss the fact that insurance coverage for making a baby is FAR more expensive than the Pill. Fewer childbirths ought to make insurance rates lower.
It strikes me that the Catholic Church seems very intent on both having their cake and eating it, accepting Medicare and Medicaid payments, enrolling students with Federal loans, but not participating in the wider rule of law.
How would Catholic Bishops feel if Islamic institutions were allowed to impose Sharia Law on their employees? Or ignore aspects of secular law that contradicted their dictates? Separation works in both directions.
Some jurisdictions have imposed laws which permit pharmacists to deny medication to people if the pharmacist embraces a moral objection to family planning. Hence, if a woman is raped and receives a prescription for a morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy, in some places a pharmacist who doesn’t believe in abortion can refuse to sell her the pill. If this occurs in a region where pharmacies are few and far between, this can amount to the pharmacist being able to decide that the woman will become pregnant due to the rape. Is that just? Is it reasonable for a practitioner licensed by the state, who is making a good living thanks to that licensure, to be allowed to pick and choose who will receive the benefit of professional activities conducted under that license?
The influence of conservative religions on our government and society cannot be easily quantified, but it seems to be growing, even as our culture as a whole becomes more secular. Today young people are twice as likely to be non-religious as their grandparents, but since the 1960s conservative churches have become mega-churches and have come to wield enormous political power.
Those churches turned out the vote in North Carolina for the vote on Amendment One last May. A religious organization known as The Family has intruded into the inner circles of government around the world. My current congressman, Heath Shuler, lives in the C-Street House owned by The Family when he is in Washington—a building defined as a church and which therefore yields no property tax to the District of Columbia.
No wonder the rent is cheap!
Religionists have diverted our tax dollars to church schools and hospitals and community centers. And they are shaping the textbooks and curricula used in our public schools.
What can be done? My suggestion is that those of us who take a more humanist view of the world need to continue to speak out. We need to challenge those who would impose their mythologies on the rest of
society. And, if I had my way I would impose my own version of moral suasion on everyone in the movement. I would make you feel very, very guilty if you didn’t bother to vote.
We can make change, we can enable change, we can give permission to others to change. And we can do that by telling our stories and reminding others of the true story of the founding of our nation.
When I ran for City Council in Asheville, I didn’t think my nontheism was of any importance. I had only once made any public statement about my nonbelief. In the acknowledgments at the end of my political biography of Billy Graham, I observed that while the point of the book was to expose Graham’s political maneuvering, I anticipated that some critics would accuse me of attacking his religious beliefs. So just to get the cards on the table, I admitted that I did not believe in supernatural beings of any stripe.
I came in first among 10 candidates in an open primary race to fill three seats on Council, and some right-wingers were shocked into action. They mailed out two smear letters to thousands of likely voters. The first informed voters that I was an atheist, hell bent on destroying Asheville. The second said that I had written that Billy Graham was influenced by Adolph Hitler.
A man stepped up to my campaign manager in one precinct on election day. He said, “I’m not voting for Bothwell, he said Billy Graham was influenced by Hitler.”
Linda said, “Have you read the book?”
He said, “I don’t need to.”
Linda replied, “I did read the book and Cecil did write that. His source was Billy Graham’s autobiography.”
“Yeah, who wrote that?”
I came in third in the general election, winning one of the three open seats, but I don’t doubt that the smear tactic affected the outcome.
And here’s where the story turns very positive. The other two winners were a woman, Jewish attorney and a quietly secular humanist fellow.
Several years ago, the Asheville City Council routinely had a Christian minister deliver an invocation at every meeting. The City Attorney warned that other municipalities had faced legal challenges for the practice. Some of those challenges were from Dan and Annie Laurie at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Council decided to rotate the invocation among Council members. Of course it was still a Christian message. But following my election, I offer purely secular inspirational messages from various thinkers, the Jewish woman composes her invocations with her father, a retired professor. Her messages range widely, from poetry to natural history to the thinking of various philosophers. The quiet humanist refuses to deliver invocations.
Some still offer up Christian prayers, but they ask people to bow their heads if they wish to do so. Meanwhile I sit head up during the prayers and notice that more and more people sitting in the audience have quit pretending to pray. 15 to 20 percent of attendees now look around, or read text messages on their cell phones, and otherwise ignore the religious ritual.
The culture of Council meetings has changed.
We have just come through a decade with hightly visible atheist books from Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others. The literature has branched out in non-fiction, including David Niose and Darrel Ray who are speaking here this weekend. There are books for children and young adults, like Dawkins recent science text, “The Magic of Reality.”
I think the next phase needs to be fiction, film, video, music and poetry in which humanism is taken as a matter of fact. To that end, my current project is a novel in which two protagonists, one in Haiti following the earthquake, and one in Japan, following Fukushima, find that humanistic nontheism offers better moral answers than the religious alternatives they have been exposed to during their young lives. That isn’t the main story, it is simply a matter of fact piece of each of their lives. We can make humanism normative.
Or, again, as Herb Silverman wryly observes: “Why is it that reporters call us ‘self-described atheists’? Do they ever say “self-described Catholic?’ or ‘an admitted Baptist?”
By the way, I’m an admitted Floridian. I graduated from Winter Park High School in 1968. I realize that I received a better foundation in science education here than I would have in many other states, and I am really proud that this state mandated the teaching of evolution in 2008. I have been honored to be included in this conference.