Among the Nonbelievers

Atheist activists in Orlando talk separation of church and state, sick kids, and Evil God.


Moving Secularism Forward was the aim of the annual conference put on jointly by the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) last week in Orlando. I participated as the token libertarian on a panel discussion that asked, "Does Secular Humanism Have A Political Agenda?" Yes, but more on that at a later time. The 130 activist atheists and secular humanists at the conference were split pretty evenly between conference staple grey-hairs and students; the sorts of people who can take time off to reflect on the big questions of existence and politics.

At the opening reception, Ronald Lindsay, head of the CFI, said that the three chief goals of secular humanists are to (1) reduce the influence of religion on public policy; (2) cut the flow of tax dollars to religious groups; and (3) fight discrimination against atheists. The first formal panel at the conference dealt with all three of these issues. Lindsay opened the panel by reiterating his organization's strong support to maintaining a high wall of separation between church and state based on the First Amendment. He observed that some Republican Party presidential hopefuls didn't apparently agree, especially noting "little Ricky Santorum's tum tum gets upset when he thinks of it." 

Lindsay reviewed some of the history of First Amendment separation of church and state litigation, suggesting that the post-World War II trend toward ever stricter separation of church state began to reverse in the 1970s. He highlighted the 2001 case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in which the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio could issue vouchers to parents who could use them to pay for private education even if the schools were religiously affiliated. "Essentially the Supreme Court endorsed money laundering," declared Lindsay. I made it clear later that I don't agree with this characterization.

As another troubling example of blurring the lines between church and state, Lindsay cited the 1999 Mitchell v. Helms case in which the Supreme Court ruled that certain tax-financed educational materials, books, and computer software, could be allocated to private religiously affiliated schools. In that plurality decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "If the religious, irreligious, and areligious are all alike eligible for governmental aid, no one would conclude that any indoctrination that any particular recipient conducts has been done at the behest of the government." In addition, Lindsay said that the federal courts were much less likely to grant standing to bring a case dealing with separation of church and state issues based on the fact that a plaintiff is merely a taxpayer.

So people concerned to maintain church/state separation have turned increasingly to state courts for protection, explained Lindsay. Interestingly, 38 state constitutions have even stronger strictures against state support of religious institutions. Florida is one in which its declaration of rights in the state's constitution guarantees [PDF]: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." Lindsay highlighted the case of Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil in which the CSH is challenging the use of Florida taxpayer dollars for faith-based substance abuse prison programs run by Prisoners of Christ, Inc., and Lamb of God Ministries, Inc. While the case is still wending its way through Florida's courts, Christian opponents have mounted a referendum campaign trying to get that provision of the state's constitution repealed.

Church, State, and Cash

Next up was Willamette University law professor Steven Green who talked about the history of the various state constitutional provisions prohibiting taxpayer funding of faith-based institutions. In 1875, Republican congressman James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. constitution that would have very explicitly prohibited any tax monies from being used to support any religious activity. It passed the House of Representatives with only seven nay votes but failed by four votes in the Senate. Green countered the argument that these so-called Blaine amendments were motivated by anti-Roman Catholic animus by pointing out that 17 states in which Methodists and Baptists were asking for tax funding for their schools had already adopted such limitations many years before the Blaine Amendment was proposed. Interestingly, at the same time the National Reform Association was trying to get an amendment that would recognize the U.S. as a "Christian nation." No such amendment was ever passed by Congress. 

Tom Flynn, who is the editor of CFI's flagship publication Free Inquiry, argued that the tide of secularization has been rising in the West for the past 1,500 years. In the era of failed states known as the Dark Ages the Church was the only organization that could take on tasks like education, care of the sick, patronage of the arts, and international diplomacy. Gradually since the Dark Ages more and more of these worldly tasks have devolved to states or the private sector.

Flynn noted that if you like the environment in which contemporary parochial education operates, one can thank the "no-aid" amendments in state constitutions. Specifically, with regard to schooling, Flynn pointed to the 1864 Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius IX which stated that it is an error to believe that "the best theory of civil society requires that popular schools open to children of every class of the people, and, generally, all public institutes intended for instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education of youth, should be freed from all ecclesiastical authority, control and interference, and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power at the pleasure of the rulers, and according to the standard of the prevalent opinions of the age." Flynn noted that today's system is a compromise that permits believers to educate their children but does not require other citizens to support religious instruction.

Other errors of belief identified by Pius IX include believing that "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true"; that "the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church," and that "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization." Errors all, I am sure.

Begone Sinners!

Next came the harrowing story of EllenBeth Wachs. Wachs lives in Polk County, Florida where she challenged the regular opening of public commission and school sessions with an invocation for Jesus Christ's help. Wachs' suit to stop the practice was dismissed by a local judge whom she said was one of the main initiators of a Red Mass in Polk County. The Red Mass is a Roman Catholic tradition in which law enforcement officials and officers of the court are blessed by a priest. The judge ruled that the invocations constituted no violation of church/state separation since the prayers were offered by a wide diversity of Christian groups.

Wachs claims that most Polk County officials are members of Polk Under Prayer (PUP), an organization that, among other things, anointed all the roads leading into the county with blessed oil to encourage angels to inspect every vehicle for those who would seek to do evil and bring them to "a state of submission and repentance." What happens if sinners are not repelled by the anointed roads? PUP explains, "If they will not submit to God's way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county." According to PUP, the anointing is working since the county has recently arrested a number of sinners for drugs. (Hold on a minute. Wouldn't evidence for effective anointing be no drug arrests, thus proving that anointing roads had repelled the godless evildoers? You can't make this stuff up!)

In road-anointed Polk County, Wachs was arrested for practicing law because she signed a letter threatening to sue by adding Esq. to her name. She formerly practiced law in Pennsylvania, but is not a member of the Florida bar. Later she was arrested for allegedly making sexual noises in her home that could be heard by a 10-year-old boy. For that she spent six days in solitary confinement. After some legal rigmarole, the charges against her were dropped last August.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was next up. After he described how his organization selected separation of government and religion cases to litigate (always with an eye to winning because if one loses they become precedent for the believers), he promoted the Reason Rally, which will be held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Billed as "the largest secular event in world history," the Rally will feature an all-star cast of nonbelievers including biologist Richard Dawkins, skeptics James Randi and Michael Shermer, and activist Taslima Nasrin.

Another presenter was Rita Swan who lost her son Matthew in the 1970s to a treatable illness after being prayed for by a Christian Science practitioner. She and her husband left Christian Science and have been crusading against religious exemptions to laws that protect children from neglect and abuse by allowing parents to substitute spiritual treatments for medical treatments. She pointed to their recent success in Oregon where the legislature removed several exemptions, including one in which it was a defense against homicide by abuse or neglect if a parent claimed to have "treated" an ill child using spiritual methods and prayer instead of medicine. Swan acknowledged that not every sniffle mandates a visit to the doctor and that parents surely have the right and duty to decide how much care a kid should get when the harms of treatment are likely to outweigh the benefits.

The Challenge of Evil God

The afternoon session featured a diverse panel focusing on the International Academy of Humanism. The first presenter was University of London philosopher Stephen Law who rehearsed his Evil God Challenge. Many late-night college dorm philosophers have puzzled over the conundrums involved with the claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. If all that's true, how can there be evil in the world? The theistic response is that some evil is the price that God has to pay for greater goods. 

Law questions this by pointing out that there is an enormous amount of pointless pain and suffering in the universe. A theist might reply that it's not pointless, but then Law counters by asking the theist if the deaths of one-third of all children before the age of five in previous generations is really the price for a greater good? Theists also argue that God gave us the ability to choose evil because free will more than compensates for the suffering it brings. And then there is the argument that the material world is the "vale of soul-making" in which bad experiences cause us to grow spiritually and morally. And of course, there is the old standby: God works in mysterious ways, so how dare you question Him!

Law turns all these theodicies on their heads, by asking what if God were all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-evil? In this case, why is there so much good stuff in the world like healthy young bodies, beautiful children to love, and the ability to do good deeds? Free will is just the price that the Evil God must pay in order to produce a universe full of moral evil and enables us to suffer the agonies of temptation and guilt. The Evil God must give us the good stuff, but then takes it away to increase our suffering, including disease, old age, death, watching our beloved children die, etc. Indeed, the Evil God works in mysterious ways and puny humans simply cannot hope to understand the mind of the Evil God. Law argues that in terms of "reasonableness," both cases are roughly symmetrical. Why is first case "reasonable" and the second one not?

After Law's talk, the assembled secularists were treated to a lecture by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Lionel Tiger on "Male Original Sin." Basically, Tiger was summarizing and updating his observations about growing masculine anomie and rootlessness in modern America made in his 1999 book, The Decline of Males. As evidence, he noted that the college attendance ratio is now skewed 58 percent female to 42 male. He asserted that 90 percent of "Ritalin victims" were male, and the drug is used to modify their behaviors more in the directions characteristic of women. One consequence is that women increasingly reject these low-ambition emasculated males and choose to have children on their own. One participant later made it clear that she had not come to the conference to hear men whine about being emasculated.

The final presenter was Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harry Kroto whose nominal topic was the abject failure of our educational system with regard to the effective teaching of science. It never occurred to him (or anyone else at the conference that I could discern) to wonder if education monopolies supported by government might have something to do with the that failure. Actually, Kroto spent most of his time noting how many world leaders have visited with Pope Benedict XVI. Kroto was also obsessed with Rupert Murdoch's malevolent influence in the world, particularly the baleful effects of Fox News in America. I got the impression that Kroto thinks that most Americans are thoroughly brainwashed by Fox News, but that is hard to understand since Fox averages fewer than 2 million viewers in prime time. Kroto ended with a 1994 video clip [YouTube] of British television writer Dennis Potter who was then dying of pancreatic cancer saying that as his last act he would like to shoot Rupert Murdoch. Apparently, even secular humanists occasionally entertain violent fantasies about offing their enemies. 

Disclosure: I want to gratefully acknowledge and thank the Center for Inquiry for inviting me to participate and for paying my travel expenses. I have been out as an atheist since my early teens. 

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.