<![CDATA[Freethought House - Foes of Faith]]>Sun, 19 Mar 2017 18:42:06 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[I’ve Never Understood]]>Sat, 18 Mar 2017 12:45:14 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/ive-never-understoodby Mike Haubrich
I have a friend - a very close friend. We have known each other since we started working together at DecisionOne in Richfield, MN, nearly 20 years ago. When we met, I had separated and was in the process of ending a marriage of 7 years. I had taken a job supporting customers of a dial-up internet company. This friend was a fellow smoker there, and that is how we began our relationship.
We’ve been through ups and downs. There have been arguments over politics and religion. I am a liberal and an atheist, he is conservative and a Christian. I don’t mind so much that he is a Christian, in the sense that he has never been one to judge me for being an atheist. He has never been one to threaten me with Hell.  He doesn’t go to church and he doesn’t make a show in public of his religion. I asked him once why he believes in God and he told me that his life was so shitty as a child growing up in the foster system, that he started believing in God because then there would at least be someone, somewhere, who cared for him. There would be someone watching after him. 
I restrained myself from stating that God was doing a really shitty job of watching after him.
Three years ago he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He’s an independent business owner doing web design, and when he shopped for insurance he had trouble finding policies. He went to the emergency room at a catholic hospital in Las Vegas. They cleaned out the polyps that he had, told him he had cancer, and when they found out that he had no insurance they discharged him. Because of the premiums for a cancer patient being very high, he had difficulty maintaining coverage and being able to obtain treatment. Cancer has taken a serious toll on his body as well as his mental state.
He often talks about how he feels guilty and worthless and writes posts on Facebook, apologizing for not being a good Christian because his faith is weak and hard to maintain as his body fails him. He apologizes for not being able to show the strength he thinks that he should project to the world as a Christian. He writes that he realizes he is letting people down and letting God down.
The selling point of Christianity is that Jesus loved his people so much that he was willing to die a brutal death, nailed to a cross with his legs broken so that he couldn’t lift himself up to ease the agony of not being able to breathe. And he had been whipped and mocked and generally treated badly for a few days before he was crucified. It’s an uplifting story for some, that they have been redeemed by this sacrifice made willingly by their God so that they might avoid eternal hell. Somehow, and in some way, some of the poor and downtrodden look to this story and feel comforted that they are not worthy of being saved or healed of their natural inborn sinning nature, but God did this for them anyway.
I’ve never understood what they are healed from, and what they are being saved from is a mystery to me, but for those who believe, their faith in the healing and salvation are intended to bring aid and comfort. In their time of need and sorrow, they look to their faith to give them strength when they need it most, when they are at their weakest.
What happens, then, when their faith and their hope and their prayers leave them weakened and the hope for grace and comfort don’t come? Is it God’s failing, or theirs? Rather than blame God for failing them and for not living up to his promises, they blame themselves for not having enough faith to earn relief from their agony.
The story of Christianity is that humanity did not live up to God’s expectations of us, the aspirations he had for us to be satisfied in the Garden of Eden with all of our earthly needs met. No, Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation. They spoiled his Plan by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  One wonders why that stupid tree was in the Garden in the first place. Were Adam and Eve, those guileless and innocent child-like souls, set up for failure? I suspect they were. They were led to sin and temptation in the Garden of Eden. They trusted God, God failed them, and all mankind had to be punished as death and menstruation and the pain of childbirth entered the world.
And also cancer.
Now Christians look at the Salvation of the Cross and they clutch this Salvation to their chest and the look up at God, like Sally Field holding her Oscar, and say “You like me, you really like me!” Then they pray for the comfort that rarely comes and they blame themselves for not having enough faith to deserve respite from the pain.
When my friend posts his doubt, his circle of Christian friends tell him he is in their thoughts and prayers. They tell him to have hope and strength and not give up because “With God, all things are possible!” When God, the Almighty, doesn’t bestow grace on one of us, but does on others, what effect does it have on the confidence of the less fortunate that the god, who could do anything, doesn’t favor them?
The Catholics say at Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be held.” The Lord remains silent, I am not healed. It’s my fault.
Christianity is a dehumanizing belief system. Humans are lowly, God and the angels are perfect. They could fix things, but they don’t. We beg and pray and hope and debase ourselves. We admit our wrongs and confess our weaknesses. We acknowledge our sins and take our punishment for the imagined wrongs against the Creator, the tyrant who demands so much and delivers so little.
My friend’s circle of Christians provide him with so little empathy, instead offering reproofs to pray harder, to believe harder and things will get better for him. He tells me that what he needs most of the time are love and sympathy and understanding, but he gets so little of it. I provide what I can, but when the pain of cancer and the reflection of a life of loneliness and his own feeling of inadequacy hammer at his heart, I can only give him so much relief.
He wants comfort from the god he has believed in all his life and he doesn’t get it, and he takes it as another one of his failings for not leading a blameless life.
Christianity doesn’t help people, it hurts them. It doesn’t give people dignity, it strips them of it. Faith isn’t a tool, it’s a measuring stick and it always reads that people come up short. 
This is why I am so dismissive of religion. Okay, to be honest, it is one of the many reasons I am dismissive of religion.
Mike Haubrich is a co-host of Ikonokast, a science podcast.  He survived several Minnesota winters, but is cagey on exactly how many, and is now happily hiking trails in Arizona.  He contributed an essay to the collection Atheist Voices of Minnesota.
<![CDATA[Religions and Rigidity  ]]>Wed, 15 Mar 2017 13:20:51 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/religions-and-rigidityby Karen I. Shragg
It always comes up when you travel with strangers. You know, the discussion about your religious background and beliefs. One’s deeply held beliefs are often the last thing you want to share with people you are about to share long van rides and boat trips with. This time, however, on a trip to La Paz, Mexico, it turned into a positive experience.

Our home base was a very nice hotel, ironically named for the Catholic Church across the street. During the discussion on one of our longer van rides, I made sure to distinguish between personal philosophies and organized religion. I explained how I really respected the role of religious institutions as a place for the solidification of community support, especially around the rituals of life’s inevitable occasions. What I have a deeper problem with is the inflexibility of church doctrine to grow with the new and terrifying conditions we collectively face on planet Earth.

It is true that many religious institutions have charity drives and scholarship funds, preschools and weekly lectures. They give newcomers a place to feel at home. People like traditions. It makes them feel connected to their ancestors and in turn churches keep promoting them to insure that people will fill their pews with those who will fill the collection plate.

But underneath the veneer of these soft and fuzzy projects is a rigidity towards change. They have ritualized rules and traditions that were thought of when the world was a very different place. They are operating from a world view that formed before industrialization and technology. Their creation stories began long before the earth reached its first billion and now we are pushing 8 billion with little indication of slowing down. While it is deeply problematic that monotheism, at its heart and soul, never placed people in the web of life, this discussion was focused solely on adaptability.  

I got my co-traveler to agree that we need all institutions to adapt to our tenuous situation on our planet. Overpopulation-inspired climate change requires us to adapt and recreate our habits to ones which will sustain us and other species. The animals we were trying to save in the Baja are having a hard time adapting to the world we have created for them. Sea Turtles and Whale sharks are hurting because they cannot adapt to the way we overfish them and pollute their waters. Adaptation is the key to survival.  Raccoons do so well because they can change their preference for living in hollow trees to storm water pipes. They can eat french fries if necessary and make it. To be more like raccoons and less like the endangered species of the world, we need to be adaptable.

Research shows that it is our values which frame our behaviors, and so many of our values are inspired by how we grew up; and if it was in a church, then those voices have a lot of control over our ability to change.

If religions valued warnings from the scientific world and if they were flexible in their messaging, they would be screaming from their pulpits in an alarmed voice to their parishioners. They would be telling us more than to just take care of creation, they would create and read a new chapter and verse about pro-creation. They would preach that the old teachings about family size are no longer relevant in an overpopulated, resource weary world. They would have everyone sign a pledge to have just one-child families and frame it as an ethical choice.  For the future of life for their faith-based community, they would promote ways in which we can reduce our impact on our planet. Instead year after year, they continue to proselytize ancient interpretation of texts that do little to prepare their flocks for the chaos which lies ahead.

My last act in the lovely town of La Paz in Baha de la Sur Mexico was to give my remaining pesos to an old blind woman in a wheelchair who was left to fend for herself in a Catholic society that has no social safety net for its elderly. This woman was sitting across the street from the church where nuns were having a Sunday bake sale and priests were conducting Sunday services.

I do not have much hope that the churches will become the leaders we need as long as people keep filling their pews with those who continue to ignore their ecological irrelevance.

Perhaps the first step is to point out that at least they should stop praying for salvation long enough to go across the street and offer shelter to a woman discarded by a world that needs to stop lying about how much they care. 

Karen I. Shragg. Shragg is a naturalist, writer and overpopulation activist. Her books include, Move Upsteam: A Call to Solve OverpopulationGrieving Outside the Box, and the Nature’s Yucky! children’s series. She lives in Bloomington, Minnesota.
<![CDATA[Exposing Everyday Entrenchment: A Review of Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture*]]>Sat, 04 Mar 2017 16:57:55 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/exposing-everyday-entrenchment-a-review-of-farm-to-fable-the-fictions-of-our-animal-consuming-culture

by Kim Socha

A secular blog may seem an unexpected place to review a book that seeks to liberate other animals from the lowly positions into which humans have forced them. In contrast, Robert Grillo’s well-researched, accessible text demonstrates the ways in which our view of other animals has been crafted, at times with meticulous care, by the cultural, corporate, and religious ideologies that permeate the Western world and beyond. Indeed, in the book’s Preface, the author notes that from childhood onward, “we’ve come to accept this fictional world” of animals as facts beyond reproach.
Any secularist worth her salt has foregone the fictions of religion that many still cling to. Thus, I pose Farm to Fable as a challenge to freethinkers to question yet another set of entrenched fictions: the value and purpose of non-human animal species.
Chapter 1 takes on the complex nature of human belief systems, a project aptly followed by the next chapter which explores truths about others species, most of which make our treatment of them suspect at best and abhorrent at worst. The third and fourth chapters pair well. In the former, Grillo explores what he terms the “foundational fictions” about animals, many of which arise from world religions, though such narratives permeate the secular world too. As the author notes, “The ubiquity of the naturalistic fictions used to defend or promote eating animals, used by religious and secular leaders of all faiths and cultures, is dizzying.” In the latter chapter, Grillo explains the ways in which these fallacies are cemented by corporations whose financial bottom lines are premised upon consumers’ continual acceptance of animal myths.
Chapter 5 delves deeper into those mythologies through analysis of the ways in which the lives of animals as individual persons are erased by a virulent propaganda machine; herein, chickens receive special attention, as they, combined with turkeys, comprise about 99 percent of animals slaughtered for American consumption. (Grillo, President and Director of Free from Harm, runs a sanctuary for domesticated fowl, so he has regular interaction with this fascinating, misunderstood species.) The next chapter takes readers through the many rituals of animal slaughter and consumption, identifying the logical fallacies needed to maintain our continued acceptance of supposed facts such as a hierarchical food chain and the “meat eating = big brain” theory.
The good news is that if you read Grillo’s book and decide to go vegan, the final chapter—indeed, the book as a whole—provides an arsenal of responses for the questions others will pose to you, from earnest inquiries (Won’t chickens’ eggs be wasted if humans don’t eat them?), to debatable assumptions taken as truth (Don’t you know humans have canine teeth expressly made for eating meat?), to inane questions meant to undermine vegan ethics (Isn’t eating a plant the same as eating a cow?). The author addresses such fictions, and then some, with a range of resources pulled from popular culture and leading-edge scientific research. Thus, this book should be of interest to vegan readers as well, for Grillo concludes with analysis of best (and worst) practices for vegan outreach. The short conclusion: tell the truth. Read the book for more on the potency of truth telling.
While there are many audiences for Farm to Fable, the freethought community is an ideal reader base. For some, becoming atheist, humanist, or agnostic requires giving up the narrative of human exceptionalism, a fiction underpinned by the Judeo-Christian presumption that humans alone are made in God’s divine image. In a broader sense, that is similar to Grillo’s purpose, to help readers “dispense with the grand delusion—the myth of human supremacy and how we abuse our power over other powerless beings just because we can.” With this goal in mind, the author introduces the idea of psychological hoarding: holding on to beliefs that make one feel protected by a cloak of “normalcy.” By way of concluding, he collectivizes animal fictions by noting how “they all appeal to our deeply held beliefs and values about farmed animals, our role as humans in the world, and eating as a daily social and cultural ritual.”
There’s another reason secularists should read Farm to Fable: they are already overwhelmingly overrepresented in animal rights and liberation communities. Studies arising from the social sciences support this contention, as do formal and informal surveys. As such, the secular community is well primed to question oppressive and violent fables that perpetuate needless suffering.
This brings me to a final fiction that Grillo lays to rest: the myth of vegan purity. He asserts, “One of the most damaging misconceptions of veganism” is its characterization “as a state of moral perfection.” Veganism is about avoiding engagement in animal exploitation and harm as much as is practically possible, not ceasing to be a cog in the cycle of life and death on planet Earth. While I’m certainly not posing vegans as a minority on par with historically oppressed populations, vegans face a lot of hostility (perform a Google search of “why do people hate vegans” for a panoply or reasons why, one of which is, as Grillo points out, misconceptions about their self-conceptions). Atheists are in a similar cultural position.
Michael Lipka’s “10 Facts about Atheists,” published by the Pew Research Center, reports the following: “Americans like atheists less than they like members of most major religious groups” and “[a]bout half of Americans (51%) say they would be less likely to support an atheist candidate for president, more than say the same about a candidate with any other trait mentioned in a Pew Research Center survey—including being Muslim.” If nothing else, my hope is that this shared ideological marginalization will make secularists, most of whom still accept human supremacy as fact, open to the message of Farm to Fable.
It isn’t always easy to take a stance that makes one unpopular; in fact, it can lead to ridicule and out-of-hand dismissal. There are billions of dollars riding on the promise that human beings will continue to ignore the lived realities of the animals they consume. At the same time, there are literally, when bringing aquatic animals into the equation, trillions of more-than-human species dying every year for human pleasure, not necessity. Consequently, we have a planet suffering immense destruction from the animal agricultural industry. We also have chickens, cows, pigs and other species being fed vast amounts of food to get fattened for slaughter while our fellow humans suffer malnutrition and starvation. This state of affairs leads to a conclusion that many have come to when confronted with religious myths: none of it makes sense. Robert Grillo’s Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture will help you make sense of why you and/or others view animals as consumable goods, as opposed to sentient beings with distinct identities. With evidence in hand, here’s hoping his non-vegan readers give up their position on the paradoxically secular Great Chain of Being.
   *Full disclosure: The author provided me with an advanced copy for review.
Kim Socha, Ph.D., is author of Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed; she’s also an English instructor, animal advocate, and intersectional social justice activist. She publishes and speaks on topics such as animal liberation, ageism, atheism, feminism, radical pedagogy, and youth justice.
<![CDATA[Top 5 Worst Presidents for the Separation of Church and State]]>Sun, 26 Feb 2017 14:13:36 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/top-five-worst-presidents-for-the-separation-of-church-and-stateby Bill Lehto
The founders had every opportunity to create religious creeds, mottos, and pledges, but they didn't.  In fact, they explicitly added the Establishment Clause to the US Constitution in order to prevent the mingling of government with religion. But despite their intentions, it’s obvious that religion still plays a big role in the US government. Every president swears the oath of office with one hand on the Bible. Witnesses in court swear to tell the whole truth, “So help me God.” The Supreme Court opens its sessions after the bailiff has asked God to save the Court and the United States. Congress starts its daily sessions with a prayer from a chaplain whose salary is paid with tax money. Schoolchildren invoke God on behalf of our nation when pledging allegiance to the flag. Our currency even announces “In God We Trust”. What gives? The truth is that despite the Constitution having the separation clause, as well as no mention of religion, politics and religion have often intermingled in our history, and our presidents get a mixed review on upholding separation. Last week we looked at the top five best American presidents for the separation of church and state – this week we’ll look at the five worst for separation.
5. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
“The First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny."–Ronald Reagan, 1979 rally
Though not a regular churchgoer, Reagan openly encouraged and supported Christianity as president. In a 1982 letter, he wrote: "My daily prayer is that God will help me to use this position so as to serve Him. Teddy Roosevelt once called the presidency a bully pulpit. I intend to use it to the best of my ability to serve the Lord." That same year, Reagan supported a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary school prayer. A year later he awarded the Rev. Billy Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom and proclaimed 1983 the "Year of the Bible." He asked Americans to join him: "Let us take up the challenge to reawaken America's religious and moral heart, recognizing that a deep and abiding faith in God is the rock upon which this great nation was founded."
4. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
“The will of God prevails … He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest - Yet the contest began - And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day - Yet the contest proceeds.” –Abraham Lincoln, Meditation on the Divine Will, 1862
Lincoln had a lot on his plate as president (more than any other) and keeping God out of government was not a priority. In fact, Lincoln did a lot of putting God into government. It was under His watch that in 1864 Congress passed an Act to allow, but not require, the addition of the phrase "In God We Trust" to currency. Known as the theological president, Lincoln’s speeches and writing became more and more religiously toned as he tried to get the nation, and himself, through the Civil War. This culminated in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, which would be his final address to the American people.  A work of political theology now known as America’s Sermon, the second Inaugural addresses the nation’s relationship to God in great depth; within 701 words Lincoln mentions God fourteen times and quotes the Bible four times, and invokes prayer three times. In it, Lincoln gave the Civil War sacred meaning and created an American scripture of sorts, suffusing the very idea of the United States with religious significance. Widely considered Lincoln’s greatest speech, its weaving of religion into our nation has had a lasting impact.
3. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
“I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job.” –George W. Bush, during 2004 campaign
Bush, one of the most openly religious presidents in our history, seemingly sought to undermine the separation of church and state at every turn during his presidency. He claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He promoted “faith-based” initiatives - federal programs that provide religious organizations and other faith-based institutions with federal funding to deliver government-mandated social services. He advocated religious-school vouchers and praised the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. He also chose John Ashcroft as his attorney general, who, in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones said that America recognizes “the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus."
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
“Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952 a month before his inauguration
A deeply religious man, Eisenhower was the first and only president to write and read his own prayer at his inaugural ceremony. With the Cold War in the background, in 1954 Eisenhower signed a bill to add the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. At the bill-signing ceremony, he said, "From this day forward, millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country's true meaning. … In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” Two years later, Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto (replacing "E Pluribus Unum") and also mandating that the phrase be printed on all American paper currency.
1. Donald J. Trump (2017-?)
We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it.” –Donald J. Trump, 2016 campaign speech

Since his presidency is only a month old at the time of this writing, it might seem unfair to include Trump in this list. His legacy is hardly complete. But his record on separation thus far is so atrocious, especially when including his campaign language and promises, that he nevertheless deserves the number one spot on this list. During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, and also the creation of a Muslim registry. While his actual attempt at the travel ban did not explicitly name Muslims, it did call for temporarily barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, and he stated that the US government would give Christians priority over other refugees seeking to enter the United States. Trump also recently called for the abolishment of a statutory barrier between politics and religion called the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as churches and other places of worship, charities, and educational institutions from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign in favor or against a political candidate. The Trump administration is also expected to push for taxpayer-funded vouchers which could be used toward private religious schools.

​​Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota
<![CDATA[The Top 5 Presidents for the Separation of Church and State]]>Sat, 18 Feb 2017 19:57:17 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/the-top-5-presidents-for-the-separation-of-church-and-stateby Bill Lehto
​“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” reads the beginning of the first amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791. Throughout our relatively short history, American presidents have taken various interests in upholding this part of the first amendment, some holding it with reverence, others interpreting it loosely or wanting to ignore it. In honor of Presidents Day weekend, here are the top five US presidents who were the staunchest advocates for the separation of church and state. Next week will be top five worst presidents on the topic.
5. James A. Garfield (1881)
"The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community." James A. Garfield, Congressional Record, 1874
Garfield was assassinated only 100 days after taking the oath, but in his short time in office he proved to be one of the fiercest advocates of the separation of church and state. A deeply religious man who converted to Christianity in 1850, joining the Disciples of Christ Church, he actively preached until he became a member of Congress in 1863. Upon becoming president, he left his position as an elder in the church. In his inaugural address in 1881, he spoke of the danger the Mormons posed, having established what he felt was a theocracy in the Utah territory: "The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them.”
4. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
"It is my firm belief that there should be separation of church and state in the United States–that is, that both church and state should be free to operate, without interference from each other in their respective areas of jurisdiction. We live in a liberal, democratic society which embraces wide varieties of belief and disbelief." John F. Kennedy, Letter, 1959
In 1961, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to win the presidency. Due to the controversy around his religion during the presidential campaign, in 1960 he gave a speech in Houston directly addressing the issue: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, also Catholic, said Kennedy’s 1960 speech makes him want to throw up. Santorum said on ABC “the idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” When your views on church and state make Rick Santorum want to throw up, you earn a spot on this list.
3. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
"Let us labor for the security of free thought, free speech, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and equal rights and privileges for all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion;…. leave the matter of religious teaching to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep church and state forever separate." Ulysses S. Grant, Address, 1875
Known primarily as the Union general who won the civil war, during his presidency Grant was a clear and staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. He was also one of the least outwardly religious presidents we’ve had. He was not a member of a church, nor was he baptized. In his youth he had a negative experience with organized religion, and at West Point he got into trouble for missing religious services. During his presidency, Grant argued for a strict separation of church and state. In a speech in 1875 he called, unsuccessfully, for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for religious schools. The failed amendment read: “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.” In the 1870s Grant fought, successfully, against an Evangelical Protestant effort to seek a constitutional amendment that affirmed the existence of God, confessed Christ as savior, and acknowledged true religion as the bases for civil government.
2. James Madison (1809-1817)
"The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity." –James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, 1821
No other person did more work to assure religious liberty in the United States than James Madison. A religious man who was baptized in the Anglican Church, Madison was deeply concerned with religious persecution by the state. In Virginia, Madison led the fight for guaranteed religious liberty, making his case in Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments: “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” In 1786, due to Madison’s effort, Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom finally passed in Virginia. In 1787 Madison served as the primary architect of the US Constitution, and, following Virginia's model, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion. And after prodding from Jefferson, Madison successfully supported an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious freedom.
1. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." Thomas Jefferson, to Danbury Baptists, 1802
While Madison was the workhorse in terms of the separation of church and state, Jefferson was trailblazer, making the defense of religious liberty one of the hallmarks of his career. The term “separation of church and state” can be traced back directly to him. Like many of the “Founding Fathers”, Jefferson was considered a Deist who valued reason over revelation and rejected traditional Christian doctrines, including the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. He saw Jesus not as divine, but as a teacher of morals. In 1776 Jefferson he introduced to the Virginia Legislature the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and in 1787 he convinced his friend James Madison to amend the US Constitution to include a guarantee of religious freedom. He won the presidency in 1801 after a vicious campaign in which he was vilified as an atheist. Even after his presidency, he continued to be an advocate of religious liberty. From 1814: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” A man of contradictions, even today the slaveholding Jefferson is seen as an icon of individual liberty.
Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota
<![CDATA[Do Jehovah's Witnesses Vote?]]>Tue, 14 Feb 2017 22:52:27 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/do-jehovahs-witnesses-voteby James Zimmerman
Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral. Or, at least, they are supposed to be.

Often, when I’ve delivered presentations about my former religion, attendees ask about the political bend of Witnesses. I mention that they don’t vote. Actually, most members of the religion seem to have little knowledge of political candidates, elections, or parties. For example, as an eighth-grader, I once brought home an assignment from American Government class. Among the questions on the worksheet was: Name one of the Representatives for Minnesota? Neither I nor my parents could think of a single one. We looked in our encyclopedias but weren’t sure the information was still current. My dad ultimately called the mother of one of my classmates – also a Witness – and she said her daughter had also struggled with that question. Thankfully, this woman was married to a non-Witness, and he knew the name of our local rep.

But, pressing further, a few people have asked if Witnesses are generally conservative or liberal. This is a frustrating dichotomy regardless, but it’s even more difficult to surmise a guess on behalf of an apolitical group.

Primarily, Witnesses view all governments as evil. They understand them as necessary in our present world – but under the Devil’s control. Though they appreciate the freedoms afforded them in many of the world’s democracies, and though they are swift to take advantage of legal means to protect and advance their causes, they believe that all governments will collectively be dismantled by God in the near future. They pray on behalf of Witnesses living in oppressive regimes and will write to officials in countries where Witnesses are banned. They also celebrate any widening berth a government grants Witnesses, viewing this as fulfillment of bible prophecy.

Like most secularists, Witnesses believe in the complete separation of church and state. In fact, they view any appeals to the supernatural in the public sphere as grossly misplaced. When they hear public prayers – such as those often delivered prior to a town hall meeting – they shake their heads in disgust. The frequent mention of God in George W. Bush’s first inaugural address made several Witnesses – myself included, as I was still a Witness then – wonder if his words were signaling the onset of the final stage of the End Times. High religiosity in political candidates and office-holders causes nervousness among Witnesses because they know they don’t fit in with the nation’s dominant religion, and they know that those who push their religion hardest into the public sphere are the ones most likely to restrict the freedoms of religious minorities, Witnesses included.

With their strong stance on church-state separation, their disdain for armed conflict, and their dismay at our current environmental degradation (unlike most fundamentalists, Witnesses not only accept human-made climate change as real, but perceive it as another sign of Armageddon’s nearness), it might seem like Witnesses, if they were allowed to vote, would largely vote for liberal candidates. Indeed, that is how most of the former Witnesses that I know do vote. Perhaps, if the thousands of Witness Floridians had been allowed to vote back in 2000, that state’s electoral outcome might have been known within hours, instead of devolving into the mess it became. Or perhaps the thousands of Witnesses living in states with close results in our most recent presidential election could have tipped the tally in favor of someone qualified for the office.

However, Witnesses view many of the world’s problems as intractable issues that can only be repaired by God and, hence, don’t believe that any politician – irrespective of their sincerity or intentions – can make any headway regarding climate change, overpopulation, pollution, or other pressing problem. Additionally, Witnesses are against abortion (for any reason), gender equality, and LGBT rights. So I’m not surprised that a sizeable minority of the former Witnesses I know have identified more strongly with conservative mores.

Another aspect to consider is the person’s life prior to becoming a Witness. If they were of a conservative bend prior to joining the Witnesses, they are likely to continue in that mindset if and when they leave. But for many, myself included, membership in the Witness religion came at birth. Thus, the rationale for nearly all of their viewpoints is predicated on the religion. So when I discontinued my life as a Witness, I had to ask myself: Now that I no longer had to abide by Witness-endorsed arguments opposing abortion, was I still opposed to abortion? Now that I no longer saw environmental issues through the lens of bible prophecies, did I still care about the planet? Now that I no longer believed voting was a sin, would I engage in the political process?

James Zimmerman is the author of Deliverance at Hand!: The Redemption of a Devout Jehovah's Witness and a contributor to Atheist Voices of Minnesota: An Anthology of Personal Stories. His writings have also appeared in The 2013 St. Paul Almanac and Breathing In: Stories from the Century College Community, Volume II, and several periodicals including The Humanist, American Atheist, and Free Inquiry. A lifelong Minnesota resident, James currently lives in St. Paul.
<![CDATA[Selections from Organic Dreams and Pickled Nightmares]]>Sun, 05 Feb 2017 18:26:08 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/selection-from-organic-dreams-and-pickled-nightmaresby Karen Shragg
​Holy Moses
I tremble at the word
It signals the trampling of rights
and fuels the fire of wars between those
whose god was wronged in ancient worlds
so irrelevant  now, yet kept alive by holy
stories and places deemed sacred by their believers
rituals which should be reserved
for the mentally challenged and the seriously bored
run around in robes and take money from the poor
Only paid up members may enter
the gates where a story is so often told
it becomes the worshipped truth
no matter the price that is paid in the wake of
a story not shared by all.
Holy Moses.

My Karma just
ran over your dogma
so the bumper sticker says
I want to have that kind of strength
I want to be that kind of force
to question the assumptions 
that go unchallenged
to offer an alternate way of living
in a universe full of wonder
needing only the laws of physics
and the deep sense of compassion
as guideposts
the time is
long overdue
for religion to take
a seat on the witness stand 
and confess 
to the pain
their stories
manifest to this day.

Letting Go
Buying in
is always easier than buying out
Because that would come with an admission
that time and money were spent in
the wrong direction.
Buy in to the notion of religion
and spend hours in a pew
Buy in to the idea that we can shop our
way to happiness and our
our hangers fill with yesterday’s fashions
But let go
buy out
and we could lose our friends
and erase our paths
lose a grip on who we are
and where we should go next
unless we can become satisfied
with the strength we gain
by letting go.

The above three poems are from the book Organic Dreams and Pickled Nightmares: A pocket full of political poems for the resistancedue out this spring by Karen I. Shragg. Shragg is a naturalist, writer and overpopulation activist. Her books include, Move Upsteam: A Call to Solve OverpopulationGrieving Outside the Box, and the Nature’s Yucky! children’s series. She lives in Bloomington, Minnesota.
<![CDATA[Madison Weighs In]]>Sat, 28 Jan 2017 22:44:23 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/january-28th-2017by Bill Lehto
This is a photo I took in October during an excursion into Kentucky to visit the birth site of Abraham Lincoln. I had heard of police departments using the slogan “In God We Trust,” but it was still a bit jarring to see it plastered on the back of a police car. Of course “In God We Trust” is also on our currency via a law signed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto, two years after he had pushed to have the phrase “under God” inserted into the pledge of allegiance. And this has been in the news over the last few years, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation has bravely and diligently sent letters and filed lawsuits arguing that this violates the first amendment.
But despite having been in the news, and on the money since before I came around, there’s still something jarring and threatening about seeing “In God We Trust” on a government owned car, driven by an officer sworn to indiscriminately serve and protect its community of citizens. That’s my experience at least, as someone who certainly doesn’t trust a god he doesn’t even believe in. And besides any of that, it just seems stupid. What is the point of it? What benefit does it have?
A little research shows that city police departments using this motto are in, at least, the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. If we took out our US maps and colored in those states, the color wouldn’t exactly be spread evenly throughout the country.
But despite my own feelings, it may seem (by itself) not to matter a whole lot. But it's a road we don't want to go down. Hopefully no police are likely using religion as any kind of litmus test for who they help. 
But apparently our country’s federal government will be now.
Donald Trump stated on Friday that (following the four-month hold he has put on allowing any refugees into the United States and temporarily barring travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries) the US government will give Christians priority over other refugees seeking to enter the United States. That this is a very blatant violation of the separation of church and state—that it is pissing on it and then setting it on fire—is obvious, and others have expounded on this better than I can. But I would like to point to just a few examples of what James Madison, the man known as the "Father of the Constitution" for his central role in drafting and promoting the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution—that same Constitution that Trump and Pence always pledge such allegiance to—had to say about the relationship between religions and government:
We maintain that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. … Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” –James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments June 20, 1785
The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, Dec 3, 1821
Madison, I believe, if he were here today would argue that Christians, not just Muslims, secularists, and other non-Christians, should be terrified about the direction the separation of church and state is going in.

Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota
<![CDATA[Book Review: The Underground Railroad]]>Sun, 22 Jan 2017 21:01:59 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/book-review-underground-railroadby Bill Lehto
"I accidentally bought a novel. A book of fiction. Made-up stuff. I’ve been plowing through nonfiction books over the past several years – mostly history – and had pretty much shut fiction out of the loop. I don’t know if it’s the atheist and skeptic in me, but it’s just been difficult to enjoy fiction for a while. I just want the facts, or at least for someone to argue the facts or give their interpretation or analysis. I want to learn. I like being able to discover something new, and then spin off of that and do more research or read more books on the topic.
Lately I’ve especially been focused on American history and biography in the antebellum and civil war eras, with Battle Cry of Freedom and Team of Rivals on that list and two of the best books I’ve ever read. With all of this Civil War era reading I’ve become quite fascinated with Lincoln, and decided to stop by Springfield, Illinois (I had to drive a car from Nashville to Minnesota) to check out the historic Lincoln sites. A gift shop at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site had stacks of the book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I saw had won the 2016 National Book Award and which I had seen on several readings lists, including Obama’s. I didn’t know much about the subject, and thought I should, so I snagged it.
It wasn’t until I got back to Minnesota that I realized it was a novel. Oops. Oh well. My favorite type of fiction is historic fiction, and assuming that’s what it was I still decided to give it a read. 
The book tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and her journey following her escape via the Underground Railroad. The description of plantation life is jarring and historically based, but following her escape things start to get a little fantastical. Wait, did the Underground Railroad really include literal underground railroads? I did some internet searching. Hold on – South Carolina relatively progressive in regards to slavery? As I continued to fact-check it finally dawned on me that this was not traditional historical fiction and that I needed to let the skeptic in me go so I could experience the book.
The Underground Railroad is a fantastic, heart-wrenching book. It has gripping language. Here Cora considers the limits of her new-found freedom: "What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits."
Here Cora recalls a dream following a harrowing night: "In the night she had dreamed she was at sea and chained belowdecks. Next to her was another captive, and another, hundreds of them crying in terror. The ship bucked on swells, dove and slammed into anvils of water."

As the book follows Cora’s journey, it takes a tour of slavery in the US – its reality, the turns it could have but didn’t take, its legacy, and how it haunts our present. It is a powerful and provocative book.
The Underground Railroad has reminded me of the joy of reading good novels, and how different it is from reading nonfiction. Reading’s not just about the learning, but also the experience of engaging with the author at a different, more emotional level than you can with narrative history. And reading novels may be beneficial in other ways: a recent study suggest that reading novels makes us kinder and more empathetic. Emanuele Castano, the study author, said that fiction “forces you as a reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character.” This is so true of The Underground Railroad.
So whether you love fiction or, like me, prefer nonfiction, give this book a read.

​​Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota
<![CDATA[We Just Lost Our Paddle: The Election in the Overpopulation Context]]>Wed, 28 Dec 2016 14:16:04 GMThttp://freethoughthouse.com/foes-of-faith/we-just-lost-our-paddle-the-election-in-the-overpopulation-contextby Karen I. Shragg
I write this as a devastated overpopulation, social justice, and women’s rights activist. I write it as a free-thinking atheist who is not burdened by ancient doctrine. But, I do not write this from a perspective of shock. I am not surprised by the rise to power of our president elect. I think it is all pretty predictable in an overpopulated world. A world, by the way, that seems clueless that it is exactly that: overpopulated, overshot, over-baked, and way past well done when it comes to using up our planet’s limited and irreplaceable resources.
We may not know intellectually that the US is actually and provably at least 150 million people over its limit to provide long-term resources like water to our citizens, but I believe we know it in our subconscious. Because so many green groups refuse to tell the carrying capacity story, we are uninformed. We know deep inside that we cannot continue to make promises of prosperity to growing millions when that very prosperity is based on dwindling natural capital. We know that prosperity isn’t just being limited because of greedy people at the top; it is also because there isn’t enough to go around forever.
When scarcity is knocking on our door, people behave in new and intolerable ways. They protect their own with racism as their mantra. They point fingers at the innocent and reach for the lowest hanging fruit on which to base their problems. They want strangers to get out of “their” land, and they use a made up version of their religion to justify their abhorrent actions. With God on their side and a fear for their families’ future, they listen with great interest to fascist based speech. They follow these fascists in the sad belief that their battle cry of “Make America Great Again” includes them.
No politician today would dare tell the full truth that the US is already beyond its carrying capacity for its people and has been for decades. So the political landscape becomes divided between those who are kind hearted and want to share our country with everyone and those who spew hatred and want to build walls. One party offers going off the resource cliff with civility and the other offers going off the cliff with violence and evil.
The direction this country must go in is one that strikes a delicate balance between policies that reflect both our current ecological reality and our desire to operate from a place of compassion. We need to see that overpopulation drives climate change and that this is far more critical to our future than foreign threats. Without that insight both sides of the political spectrum will lose. The overpopulation taboo must end. We must change our narrative from one of abundance to one of overshoot. We must tell the full truth that we are 5.5 billion overpopulated relative to our resources and growing by 1 million every 4.5 days. We must not let religious doctrine get in our way, and must instead insist on evidence-based decisions. We must not make the political mistake of suggesting policy decisions before we change our narrative. Many population groups, worried about the detrimental effects of added immigrants, come out sounding like racists because they have done a poor job of changing the narrative first. Imagine if a doctor prescribed brain surgery before you even realized you are really sick.
Overpopulation is compassionately solvable with very small (one child average) families. We need the country and the world to move upstream and see that overpopulation is driving the causes of our angst, but I am afraid we just lost our paddle.

Karen I. Shragg is a naturalist, writer and overpopulation activist. She joined the advisory board of World Population Balance in 2004, and regularly delivers lectures on overpopulation to local, state and national groups. Karen holds an Ed.D. from the University of St. Thomas in critical pedagogy  and is director of the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, Minnesota. Her books include, Move Upsteam: A Call to Solve OverpopulationGrieving Outside the Box, and the Nature’s Yucky! children’s series. She lives in Bloomington, Minnesota.