Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Atheism at Vassar College

By:  Elad Gilo

RSA Signator, Elad Gilo

After passing the half way mark of my domestic exchange semester at Vassar College, I think it appropriate to reflect upon secularism and “non-theism” as handled within its community. Vassar in many ways fulfills the quintessential notion of a small liberal arts college.  The small student body which is broken into much smaller class sizes, a predominantly homogeneous middle and upper-middle class demographic combined with a generally liberal-minded and idealistic student body, makes it a suitable place for free thought and general discontent with dogma and established patriarchal institutions seen to be forces of oppression.

My experience however, has been all too similar to most places I visit and in some ways similar to Reed College.  Vassar’s 5 religious student organizations compared to Reed’s one religious organization (Vassar has nearly 1000 students more than Reed) shows the proportional disparity of religious organization at Vassar compared to Reed.  Despite the relatively high number of religious groups that exist, the vast majority of individuals that I have encountered proclaim themselves to be soft secularists and a large number even express themselves to be Atheists.  While all of this is merely anecdotal, the underlying non-theistic world view of the student body prevails.  As I sat in on an ethics class, the teacher jovially poked fun at Vassar’s ever prominent and increasing atheistic student body, which in this case inhibited students from providing religious doctrine as basis for ethical and moral authority in the course.  All of this is encouraging from a secular point of view.

While clearly not possessing Reed’s staunch and ostentatious atheist culture, Vassar seems to be indicative of many comparable liberal arts colleges whose student body shies away from mainstream religion and even if more agnostic than atheist are not prepared to accept conventional conceptions of god. The difficultly, like at Reed has been to convince people of the pressing need for an organized secular movement. Had I been at Vassar for a longer period of time I would have started a Vassar Secular Alliance which currently does not exist.  When speaking to people about such a group it is hard to find resounding support.  People who may be completely onboard in terms of their own personal convictions fail to see the need for such a secular organization to exist, particularly because so much of their objection to religion is mass organization itself.  This is a pressing problem all over, at Reed as well and one that must be battled on the ground, talking to people one by one explaining the need for such organization.  Nonetheless my discussions are usually met with soft agreement but not acknowledgement of the pressing urgency.  Despite being disappointed at the lack of will to organize, I am also incredibly optimistic by the level of non-theism that currently exists on the campus and that constantly reminds me of the endless number of individuals who think similarly but go under the radar for not subscribing to a visible group; they are the silent warriors.

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By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Christopher Hitchens and Leslie Zukor

When I was invited to have dinner with Christopher Hitchens, I jumped at the opportunity.  For the past several years, Hitchens has made a name as a provocateur, as someone who minces no words with regard to his personal views.

His latest target, as he wrote about in God Is Not Great, is the institution of religion.  When I had the opportunity to eat dinner with Hitchens, I was curious as to the validity of the book’s subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything.

What came next I should have expected.  Hitchens comported himself with an almost narrow-minded disdain for all things religious.  Anything good that believers did was possible without religion, and everything else was the fault of the faith.

By the end of the night, I had tired of Hitchens’s dogmatic rejection of religion.  In a room full of scholars and educated people, he could have learned something from others’ experiences.  Instead, Hitchens clung fervently to his disdain for faith.

It was ultimately Hitchens’s dogmatism that proved to be his undoing.  Such a strident rejection of religion shared more than a little in common with the religious people he condemned.  In short, Hitchens is an atheist fundamentalist.

For more about the Hitchens dinner in Portland and my objections to his dogmatism, see the Portland Monthly Magazine’s website.

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Jerry Donnelly's Letter to the Killeen Daily Herald

When Freethought Books Project webmaster, Jerry Donnelly, read about a religious prison program in his newspaper, he felt compelled to speak out.   “I would like to let readers know there is another way to reach inmates,” he said.  Donnelly went on to extol the virtues of the Freethought Books Project, which gives secular, freethinking, and humanist literature to inmates across the US.

“The Freethought Book[s] Project…does not involve indoctrination in the supernatural, but rather the simple opening of the human mind, with its incredible powers of reason and logic, to the amazing natural world that we live in through reading freethought, secular and science-oriented books.”

In short, Donnelly’s letter to the Killeen Daily Herald recommended alternatives to preaching a religious message in prison.  “Through this program…prisoners will learn to rely on their own logic, reason and inner strength to become successful, productive members of society.”  Keep up the good work, Jerry!

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Inside the Mind of a Creationist

Reflections on a Trip to the Creation Museum

By:  Patrick Julius

Patrick Julius (far right) and SSA Executive Director August Brunsman

Patrick Julius (far right) and SSA Executive Director August Brunsman

Editor’s Note:  Patrick Julius is the founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance chapter at the University of Michigan.  Recently, Julius attended the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference in Ohio.  The convention included the opportunity to go to the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  About 300 attendees went, and the following are Patrick’s reflections on the experience.

Recently I visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky. One exhibit above all hangs in my mind: A diagram showing the complex evolution of ape species, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees; the diagram is largely correct from what I’ve read, though the scale at the side is off by a factor of almost a thousand. But then, beside it is a diagram of human evolution—or lack thereof: It is a straight line, with no change, no divergence. The citation given is for a Bible verse, Acts 17:26. (I looked it up, and even more remarkably it seems that they have abridged the verse significantly, and their translation is nonstandard. Read most literally, it seems to imply only that all humans share a common ancestor, presumably Adam.) This nicely encapsulates their whole worldview: Human beings are different from all other animals, and our reading of the Bible is more important than any amount of empirical evidence. The rest of the Museum is really only so much expounding upon this one point.

Another important exhibit, also characteristic of the Museum, is what my friend called “atheistland.” This exhibit is a short, winding alley sprayed with graffiti and plastered with news articles; the general sense seems to be that this world of crime, vandalism, suffering, moral relativism (and, the exhibit can’t help but add, gay rights, secularism and feminism) is the terrible result of people turning away from God and the Bible. In fact, crime and suffering have decreased in recent decades and centuries (Pinker talks at TED about why this might be so), moral relativism is ridiculous but usually harmless (since no one actually believes it; they just like tearing down other people’s morals), and gay rights, secularism, and feminism are among the best things ever to happen to the human race. But this is plainly not how Creationists see things.

And I must confess, I have difficulty sympathizing with these people. I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea that millions of otherwise normal people could believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old. I keep feeling that they must be lying, or miscommunicating, or something; they can’t possibly really believe what they say they do.

In fact, maybe they don’t. I don’t think anyone believes in Adam and Eve the way I believe the Earth is round. The way I believe the Earth is round is such a simple, obvious matter; look, it’s round. This is clearly not how people believe in Creationism; the world doesn’t look 6,000 years old. It’s not obvious that tyrannosaurs used to be herbivorous; nor do I think it could seem obvious to anyone. Belief in Creationism could be like the way I believe in quantum mechanics; it isn’t at all obvious—indeed, it’s quite counter-intuitive—but the evidence in its favor is too overwhelming to ignore. But really, I think people believe in Creationism the way I believe in justice, or the way I believe in morality. You can’t just look at the world and see without a doubt that justice is possible, or that morality is absolute; yet on a deep level I do hold to these propositions.

Yet even this isn’t quite right, since in believing in justice I don’t have to discount a massive body of scientific evidence; rather, it merely seems like the sort of thing that cannot be directly accessed through experiment and observation. But Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and herbivorous tyrannosaurs—these are the sort of thing that ought to be accessible to empirical study; it’s just that under such study they fail miserably. Yet people continue to profess belief in these things.

The explanation for this may ultimately rest on Dennett’s concept of “belief in belief”: No one really believes in herbivorous tyrannosaurs, but they do in fact believe in morality (the same way I believe in morality), and furthermore believe that in order to sensibly believe in morality, one must profess a belief in herbivorous tyrannosaurs. Voltaire wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I agree; but I think Creationists believe quite the opposite, that in order to not commit atrocities, you must believe (or claim to believe) absurdities.

If this is correct, then no amount of scientific evidence for evolution will be persuasive to any Creationist; we must instead offer moral evidence, to show that herbivorous tyrannosaurs are not a necessary (or even beneficial) part of a sound human ethic. The answer will not be found in science, but in humanism.

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Editor’s Note:  The following is the text of Reed Secular Alliance President, Leslie Zukor’s letter to the editor of the Oregonian.  Although this letter wasn’t published, it is the latest in the RSA’s efforts to stand up for science and rational thought.

I am disappointed by Charles Hunter’s (August 1st) characterization of the practitioners of rational thought.  As the President of the Reed Secular Alliance, a college atheist and freethought group, I know that the majority of freethinkers are not advocates of genocide.

Contrary to Hunter’s assertion, leaders who use rational thought do not kill millions of their own people.  In reality, the atheists I know rebuild houses in New Orleans, give food to the hungry, and donate books to prisoners. In short, we are concerned with creating a just society in this our only chance at life.

If the world were populated with more clear-thinking rationalists, I am confident that it would be a better place to live.  In a universe of careful observation and analysis, Ava Worthington would have had the best of medical care.  Now she is dead, and we have only religious dogmatism to blame.

Leslie A. Zukor
President, Reed Secular Alliance
Portland, Oregon

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On July 17th – 22nd, Reed Secular Alliance President, Leslie Zukor, attended the Center For Inquiry’s Civic Days in Washington, DC.  The following are Zukor’s reflections about the experience.  We hope that you will enjoy what she has to say.

Leslie Zukor and CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz

Leslie Zukor and CFI Founder, Paul Kurtz

Although I had been to Washington, DC before, I never had the chance to lobby my representatives.  In high school, I had been part of the Close-Up and Presidential Classroom Foundation’s trips to the nation’s capital.  While I had enjoyed the experience, going to Washington, DC was more about meeting legislators, rather than influencing them.  However, the Center For Inquiry’s Civic Days changed all that.

Toni Van Pelt explains the process of lobbying

Toni Van Pelt explains the process of lobbying

Directed by the CFI Office of Public Policy’s Toni Van Pelt, the conference’s 20 attendees were treated to a crash course in lobbying for secular principles.   Van Pelt explained the problems with Charitable Choice, namely, Congress’s efforts to allow religious organizations to provide social services, when they discriminate in hiring and employment.  She also expressed concerns about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, regarding homosexuals in the armed forces.

The Lobbying Group, including Melody Hensley, Toni Van Pelt, and Leslie Zukor

The Lobbying Group, including Melody Hensley, Toni Van Pelt, and Leslie Zukor

In addition to discussing Charitable Choice and “don’t ask, don’t tell”, on Friday, June 17th, CFI unveiled its “Credibility Project”.  The Credibility Project is an analysis of nearly 700 global warming deniers, who were named in James Inhofe’s Senate Minority Report.  While many of those cited are indeed scientists, only 10 – 15% are actually scientists with original, peer reviewed research.  In short, there are more meteorologists than scientific experts named in Inhofe’s list.

Brian Baird explains the threat of global warming

Brian Baird explains the threat of global warming

While it was great lobbying Congressional offices, I was a little disappointed with the lack of access to our elected officials.  During the whole conference, we only had the opportunity to hear one Congressperson speak, and that was Brian Baird of Washington State.  Although I do understand that our legislators are busy, I attended a US Capitol Historical Society event later in the week, and there were three to four Congresspeople at a single event.  Despite the lack of distinguished speakers, I did enjoy my stay in Washington, DC.

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Good Without God

How I Live Out My Secular Values

By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Leslie Zukor proudly wears an irreverent t-shirt

Leslie Zukor proudly wears an irreverent t-shirt

Editor’s Note:  Leslie Zukor is the founder and President of the Reed Secular Alliance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  She is a Senior Anthropology major and an avid photographer, squirrel enthusiast, and baseball fan.  Zukor aspires to be an author and social activist.

Before I was an atheist, I didn’t believe that people could be good without god. In my conservative worldview, humans were divided into two camps, those who were good and those who were evil. Prisoners were all evil people, whose sinfulness had condemned them to a life of harsh punishment. After all, they needed draconian penalties to correct their immoral actions. Only those who had faith in an all-just and all-powerful god and lived a perfect life were worthy of my respect. However, by the time I graduated from high school, my right-wing worldview had begun to crumble.

Although I was a conservative during high school, it was reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian the summer before college that led to the undoing of my religious faith. Through perusing freethinking authors, I learned that atheists were not all dirt-worshiping materialists. In point of fact, non-believers had the same moral aspirations as did everybody else. Armed with this new-found understanding, I put my theistic beliefs under the microscope. And upon further inspection, I concluded that the preponderance of the evidence pointed toward there being no god.

After my atheist transformation, I understood that there was no god to rescue me, no divine being to reward good people with heaven and punish the wicked with hell. Rather, I had to take my own initiative here on earth to create a more just society. Furthermore, as the result of my experience with people, I have learned that “good” and “evil” are merely approximations of an individual’s total moral compass. People are shaped by their biology, the environment, and their own free choices, making them complex beings who are hardly wholly heavenly or heinous.

As a result of my new-found understanding about human nature, I wanted to help people who are often neglected by our society. Thus, as a sophomore in college, I started the Freethought Books Project, to give atheist, humanist, and freethinking literature to inmates and others in need across the United States. Freethinking literature had opened up a whole new world of human-based ethics in my life, and I believed that it had the same potential among prisoners. And it was through corresponding with the incarcerated that I truly lived out my secular values.

After corresponding with thirty inmates, I realized that the incarcerated are not all evil sociopaths, destined for divine punishment. Rather, there are a million possible reasons for why someone could be in prison, including victimless crimes such as cannabis use. While it is sometimes taxing to communicate with those who have committed great crimes, the best we can do for inmates is to inspire the critical inquiry that leads to minds being freed and rational thought about their current condition. Personally speaking, my non-theist creed is to promote justice in this our only shot at life on earth.

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Partners for Prisoners

By: Joel Justiss

Joel Justiss has partnered with the Freethought Books Project

Joel Justiss has partnered with the Freethought Books Project

I have a friend who has been very active in prison ministries for many years.  He regularly visits prisons to lead Christian worship services and Bible classes.  He spends time talking and praying with prisoners, and on their behalf solicits the prayers of others in his e-mail reports.

I was supportive of my friend’s prison activities until I left religion in 2002.  From then on, whenever I received his reports, I wished there was something I could do to encourage prisoners in their efforts to improve their lives without trying to make them religious.

Most of my family and friends are dedicated Christians, so when I left religion, I turned to the Internet to make contact with other freethinkers, and discovered the Brights.  I immediately registered as a Bright and began receiving the monthly Brights Bulletin by e-mail.

A couple of years ago, the Bulletin included a request from the Brights’ co-directors for a volunteer to correspond with prisoners on behalf of the Brights.  I saw an opportunity to do something I had thought about for years, and offered to help.

Since the Brights is an Internet constituency and the Brights Bulletin is distributed by e-mail, incarcerated people have no way to receive the Bulletin.  So what I have done is prepare a monthly printed newletter called “A Little Brightness” that includes most of the Bulletin and adds a couple of articles from blogs or other web sites that I think might be of interest to my readers.

Now, when a prisoner writes to the Brights (usually after encountering the address in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion), Paul Geisert, Associate Director of The Brights’ Network, mails the letter to me.  I then write to that prisoner, providing information about the Brights with a copy of my newsletter, and responding to any questions asked.

The other information I always include is an article about the Freethought Books Project, with Leslie Zukor’s address. I encourage the person to write Leslie and ask for books on subjects of interest.  I point out that most of my prisoner correspondents have done so and have been very pleased with the books they’ve received.

I currently have 23 subscribers to my newsletter in 13 states.  They frequently write me with comments like “I’m so glad I wrote to the Brights,” “I’ve pretty much devoured the books Leslie sent,” or “books are a window in this dark place that let me converse with some of the greatest minds in the world.”

The most striking fact I have learned from my correspondents is that the vast majority of prisoners are (or at least claim to be) very religious.  Apparently there are many reasons for this, from seeking relief from feelings of guilt to attempts to obtain favorable treatment from prison staff.

As a result, non-religious prisoners are often more socially isolated and ridiculed than freethinkers who are not incarcerated.  I have heard some reports of discrimination and even active persecution by prison staff.

I am pleased to be able to encourage my correspondents by giving them a small window of contact with other folks who share similar beliefs.  It is a great pleasure to partner with Leslie Zukor and the Freethought Books Project in supplying these incarcerated individuals with reading materials that help them understand the real world and how they can take a positive approach to living in it.

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The Hydra of the Ten Commandments

A Monumental Mistake

By:  “Prison Bob”

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments

Before the display was ruled Unconstitutional, the Reed Secular Alliance’s prisoner correspondent, wrote about the Oklahoma law that would allow the display at the State Capitol.  Prison Bob is an actually-incarcerated prisoner in the Oklahoma State penal system.  Here is what he had to say on May 27th.  We think that it is an interesting read.

The latter portion of Prison Bob's letter

The latter portion of Prison Bob's letter

On the 18th of May, 2009, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry signed legislation allowing a monument bearing the Ten Commandments a place at the State Capitol.

In another case of simplistic redneck politics, this state will fall into line with other “koolaid sipping lemmings”.  The politicians are not actual lemmings.  It would probably be safer for us if they were.

The bill, penned by Representatitive Mike Ritze (R), Broken Arrow (Prison Bob’s homeland), will allow a monumnet to be placed in a location wiht other monuments at the Capitol.

Amazingly, these dolts do not feel it will be challenged legally.  Ritze said, “The monument will simply re-emphasize the history and heritage of our country’s legal system.”  Really, Mr. Ritze?  Really?

Oh yeah, Ritze is paying for the monument.  Ritze is either from or representing the City of Broken Arrow.  Rhema Bible College and at least two other multi-thousand person congregations are located in this city.

The City Council of Broken Arrow is controlled by Ultra-Christian Fanatics, whom we locals lovingly call Rhemites (ray-mites).

The thought crosses my mind that Mr. Ritze may be one of those fundamentalist types holding a bake sale to fund his artful decoration of igneous rock.

Even if there are no public monies used in the commissioning of the atrocity – I mean, Biblical monument – how long can our under-funded state afford the legal battles certain to ensue?

Didn’t we learn anything from Georgia or Alabama?  One of those states tried something like this recently.  Oh yeah, it was outside of a Courthouse.  That’s nothing like a Capitol.

Mostly, I am curious which version of the Ten Commandments they will use.  Will it be the eleven, I mean ten from Exodus 20: 3-17?  Those are the most commonly accepted version, even though a pissed off Moses “broke the tablets”.

He was probably just drunk or clumsy.  What are you going to do?  Or will it be the elevent, oopsy again, “ten” lesser known re-print commandments of Exodus 34: 12-27?  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

The co-author of the legislation, one Sean Brogdon (R) Owassso (another semi-affluent city less than 40 miles to the north of Broken Arrow) said, “I believe it is something the people of Oklahoma would like to see at their State Capitol.”

Unfortunately, many people will feel fulfilled, pleased, and all warm and fuzzy about the unnecessary and trite monument.  If you listen closely, you can almost hear the “Dueling Banjos” in the background.

Prison Bob's signature

Prison Bob's signature

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By: Chalmer Wren

Chalmer Wren of the RSA's Freethought Books Project

Chalmer Wren of the RSA's Freethought Books Project

Editor’s Note:  Chalmer Wren is the former Vice President and the current Advisor to the Metro State Atheists in Denver, Colorado.  He is an eager supporter of the Freethought Books Project, having recruited over 30 members to the cause.  We at the Reed Secular Alliance hope that you will enjoy this article about the RSA’s Freethought Books Project.

In 1991, 8,500 volunteers and contractors provided over 191,000 religious service programs in prisons, and an average of 45,000 inmates attended chapel programs each week [1].  Monasteries and convents provided the precursory model for the modern prison, and the historical line between secularism and religion behind bars remains as blurry as it was then [1].  The persistence of religious influences in the penal system is no surprise, as it serves as a powerful management tool.  According to Mary Bosworth, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, religion is, among other things, a management tool that prison administrators use to their benefit [1].  Religious services make prison management easier by preoccupying inmates with activities, facilitating a healthier social environment in the form of religious community, and serve as a psychological coping mechanism for the emotional or circumstantial hardships that inmates face [1].

Although the religious prison programs are intended to be interfaith in nature, these programs have been abused.  For example, in December of 2006, in an Iowa lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), it was ruled by a U.S. District Court judge that a prison’s contract with faith-based program known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) was unconstitutional, in that it amounted to a government establishment of religion.  Although state funding for the IFI ceased in June 2007, the program continued to operate without state funding.  Moreover, IFI programs continue to operate in 5 other states [2].  Additionally, in March of 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined that a program run by the Prison Fellowship Ministries was discriminatory, as it acted under the guise of state law, with the intention of converting inmates [2].

The predominant religious influence perpetuated in our prisons and the lack of non-religious resources – while useful in controlling inmates – are a disservice to the incarcerated. The Freethought Books Project addresses this issue by providing literature that is not only critical of religion, but that also educates individuals about critical thinking, philosophy, and science.  Non-religious points of view can be every bit as fulfilling and motivational as religious attitudes and, as human beings, our inmates deserve the opportunity to explore secular worldviews. Providing just that, the Freethought Books Project seeks to influence the prison population itself, by providing literature on topics not encouraged by prison staff.  Since I believe that positive lifestyle changes can occur as a result of atheist and freethinking works, I strongly support this worthwhile secular charity.

While faith may be one means of rehabilitating criminals, it is not the only one, nor is it always successful.  The formal fight against religion in our government, such as the aforementioned lawsuit against the IFI program, is a strategy that approaches the problem from the top, by changing policies and management.  The Freethought Books Project, however, is an ambitious and important project, which combats the problem of religion informally and from the bottom, by attempting to influence and provide for the prison population itself.  Although politics is important, altering the mindset of the prison sub-culture is also a critical step in reinforcing the secular presence in and effectiveness of our prison system.

Religion is a prominent aspect of the prison subculture, both formally and informally.  While I do believe that inmates should be allowed their freedom of religion, as well as access to religious services and activities, the institutionalization and application of religion to rehabilitate and control prison populations is a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State.  Informally, a lack of access to alternative points of views, peer pressure, and the intention of appeasing their captors, inmates themselves provide little resistance to the strong religious presence.

If I were an atheist prisoner, I would find the majority of rehabilitation programs either hostile or neutral to my point of view.  The institutionalization of religion in our prisons, and the lack of resources that are critical of religion, that facilitate critical thinking, or that provide the personal meaning and direction outside of religion, have rendered imprisonment as more than just an incarceration of the body, but also an incarceration of the mind.  In the interest of liberating minds, I support the Freethought Books Project’s efforts to give prisoners access to secular materials.



1. Bosworth, Mary.  “U.S. federal prison system.”  SAGE, 2002.  Digital.

2. Sullivan, Winnifred.  “Prison Religion.”  Princeton University Press, 2009.  Digital.

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