During the Thanksgiving Day season it is appropriate to reflect on how this day came about. I am not talking about the nice, sanitized visions of turkeys, corn and peaceful Indians. I am talking about the reason the Pilgrims came to the New World in the first place: religious freedom (sort of). In the present political and religious climate, where certain Christians would like their particular god, religion and morality enshrined in our laws, we should pause and reflect on what happens when one religion gets the upper hand in politics and government.

First a little history. The term “Pilgrim” was not used for the settlers until William Bradford, the governor of the Plymonth Colony, published his Of Plymouth Plantation, but I will use the term here for convenience. Pilgrims were originally a splinter group in the English Separatist Church movement which basically was a radical splinter group of Puritanism which in turn was a splinter group in the Church of England.

Confused? You should be, so let’s take it step by step.

The Church of England (Anglican Church) officially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. While there were forces, theological and political, that were driving England in this direction, the catalyst was Rome’s refusal to give King Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn (Ahhh.. What a King could do for love!) The Wikipedia article on The Church of England has a good summary for those wanting more details. While separated from Rome, the Anglican Church retained many of the theological and ceremonial trappings of Rome, essentially substituting the King of England for the Pope. The Puritans were a group of Protestants within the Anglican Church that were strong Calvinists, disagreeing with much of the doctrine, ceremonial practices, and clerical training of the Church of England; however, they had no desire to leave their mother church. They felt they should work within the Anglican Church to be a force for good and, more importantly, change. They wanted the church to largely conform to their theology and practice. The English Separatist Church was basically a group of Puritan leaning theologies, such as Adamites, Anabaptist, Barrowists, Brownists, Diggers, & Sabbatarians (English Dissenters from Wikipedia, English Dissenters from ExLibris), that recognized that the Anglican Church was not going to change and adopt to their theology and ways. In a sense, they were even more radical than the Puritans, advocating separation and distance from their Church of England “brethren.” A summary of the Pilgrim Calvinistic beliefs can be found here: Religious Beliefs of the Pilgrims.

The story is, as we have all heard it, that the Pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom – the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity without fear of persecution or even death. Like many stories, there is some true to this one.

The Church of England was not only the official church of England, it was the only correct church. As such, it had the full weight of the government behind it and the government (aka the King) was also the head of the church. Thus church doctrine and government mixed, in a way that some Christians in the United States would love to have happen today. Of course, it is one thing to have a government-sponsored church IF your particular belief system is aligned with it. It is quite another, though, if you happen to disagree with the official state religion. In that case, you aren’t only disagreeing with the church, you are going against the state itself. Such was the case in England.

For example, Church attendance was mandatory and you were fined for failing to attend and fines were also leaved for unofficial services and preaching, which could also lead to imprisonment. The Book of Common Prayer had to be used in worship. For the crime of sedition, the death penalty was imposed (1559 Act of Uniformity, Full Text). Two men that influenced the Pilgrims, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood were executed in 1593 for sedition.

The mixture of church and government can be explosive, so the fears of the English Dissenters were not unfounded. They originally fled to Holland, which was more religiously liberal than England, but was culturally very different. Afraid of losing their cultural underpinnings and dismayed by the economic outlook, they decided to go to the New World where they could practice their religion without fear, instill their cultural heritage upon their children and gain some measure of economic success. (See Pilgrim Fathers for a brief overview)

The Pilgrims experience as a persecuted minority and their favorable treatment in Holland (even though they were outsiders) seems to have influenced their relationships with native peoples:

The Pilgrims’ experience of tolerance and accommodation in Holland would greatly influence their encounter with both Native Americans and dissenters. The colonists’ fortuitous meeting with Samoset and Squanto, and their warm relations with the sachem Massasoit, led to a peace treaty with the Wampanoag that would endure for forty years. In contrast to the too-common pattern of European paternalism and mistreatment of native peoples, the Pilgrims respected the inhabitants who, Edward Winslow wrote, “considered themselves caretakers of this land […] owned by none, but held and used with respect by all.” Unlike later Puritans, the Pilgrims did not engage in witch hunts or persecute dissenters. Following John Robinson’s farewell injunction at Delfshaven—that “If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word”—Plymouth would stand as the most liberal and tolerant religious community in the New World. (Pilgrim Fathers).

However, this rosy picture of the peaceful, tolerant Pilgrims is not entirely accurate. While gentler than their Puritan brethren to the north, if a person did not give at least outward adherence to Pilgrim ways they were punished. Worship on Sunday was required. People who were absent could be rounded up and forced to attend. Several ministers including the controversial John Lyford where removed from the community. Freedom of conscience often meant freedom only if you worshiped in the correct manner – the Pilgrim manner! It is well worth reading Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation as you can read the details in Bradford’s own words.

Free copies of this work can be downloaded from American LibrariesProject GutenbergACLS Humanities if you have a University account, and Early America’s Digital Library. In addition various paid editions, some with more modern wording, can be obtained from Amazon.com. A very brief summary, from a religious point of view, can also read at Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims)

The Puritans were even worst and they eventually overtook and engulfed the Pilgrims. As Kenneth Davis said:

The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political. The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. (America’s True History of Religious Tolerance)

Roger Williams was indeed a famous dissident. He was forced to leave the Plymouth colony because, as Governor Bradford said, he fell ”into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him”. Ideas like concern over the treatment of the Indians as well as some very strict theological issues such as:

”it is not lawful for an unregenerate man to pray, nor to take an oath, and in special not the oath of fidelity to the civil government; nor was it lawful for a godly man to have communion, either in family prayer, or in an oath, with such as they judged unregenerate; also, that it was not lawful so much as to hear the godly ministers of England, when they occasionally went thither.” (Religious Controversies in Plymouth Colony)

Williams moved back to Salem where he was eventually convicted of sedition and heresy. Not to be dismayed by such action he founded the colony of Rhode Island (Providence) in 1636. The Rhode Island charter was based on complete separation of church and state as well as religious tolerance and freedom.

Anne Hutchinson was a woman who challenged the religious authorities at Boston both theologically and because of her gender. She was also convicted and banished from the Colony and eventually joined Williams in Rhode Island. Hutchinson became a symbol of religious tolerance, freedom, courage and women’s rights. The State House in Massachusetts has a monument to here stating that she was a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.”

It is a shame, given the history of Rhode Island, that in 2011 Cranston High School West refused to take down a prayer banner forcing 16 year old Jessica Ahlquist to sue the school and eventually win the case. The way she was treated for standing up for the separation of church and state would have made the Puritan’s proud.  It probably had poor Williams and Hutchinson rolling over in their graves. (Rhode Island town shows ugly side to teenager Jessica Ahlquist)

Both Williams and Hutchinson and the Pilgrim and Puritan Colonies illustrate the importance of the separation of church and state. The importance extends not only to atheists, such as myself, but should also be of prime importance to the religious.

The differences between Williams, Hutchinson, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans were not one of belief vs. unbelief but strong belief vs. strong belief. One person’s clear orthodoxy is another’s heresy. One person’s clear conscience is another’s sin. One person’s religious god enshrined in laws and rules of a government is another’s refusal to bow the knee to obvious wrong.

Those Christians who want their theology and their god promoted in the public square, especially as we enter this Christmas season, should think hard and fast about what they really believe. Do they really want the government to endorse those beliefs Of course they do BUT they should consider this:

What if their particular belief system is not the one in power?

What if Catholic theology ruled, as it once did. Would Protestants feel comfortable with the supposed idolatry and theology that lead to their separation in the first place? What if a Calvinist denomination were to rule and their view of keeping the Sabbath became the rule of the land? What if Mormon theology ruled? Or Islamic? The Founding Fathers were wise in there insistence on keeping church and state separate. Unbelievers as well as believers should promote, encourage and make sure that this separation is maintained. They should fight against those who would like to see their particular theological bent become the rule of the land. Rightly did James Madison say:

”It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”  (Federalist Paper 51)

Please join me in supporting the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, or other like organizations as they fight vigilantly to maintain the separation of church and state.

The Calm Before the Storm

As I write this, it has been 1 week since the Reason Rally took place in Washington D.C. About this time last week, it was the same dreary weather. The same light drizzling rain was in the air as I arrived at the Smithsonian Metro Station before the Rally to receive some brief training as a Volunteer Information Usher. We were spread out, in bright yellow Rally shirts, in key places to help answer questions such as: What is going on? Where are the bathrooms? Where can I get a poncho? In spite of the rain, the mood was cheerful. We were all excited about being part of this historic event.

People were arriving early and the rain, drizzle and cold temperatures (it was in the 80s the day before) didn’t put a damper on anyones spirit or enthusiasm. As a volunteer with a big sign plastered to my chest and back saying “Ask Me”, I was in the envious position of talking to a large number of people – those attending for the Rally and tourists who had no clue what was going one. Many foreign tourists I talked to (Japan, Germany, Dominican Republic, Sweden) were amazed that the United States had to have a Reason Rally. They simply assumed that the United States valued reason, logic and science in the arena of public policy. After all it has a secular Constitution and values separation of church and state – doesn’t it? It is simply stunning how far religion has entered the public arena, all the while claiming they have been discriminated against and the “liberal” media is keeping them second class citizens. What an amazing brain-washing job the Christian right has succeeded in doing. If you want to see just how far the religious right has entwined itself within the political system, and the pandering of the 3 Republican candidates and numerous other political candidates is not enough, I would suggest reading “The Family. The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” by Jeff Sharlet or “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It” by Sean Faircloth.

On the lighter side, skeptics can also be a bit irrational. Mix some bad weather, a tent, a few people standing around it, an unstarted Rally, and what do you get? A spontaneous line forms and a rather large one at that. It was amazing to me how many people joined the line with absolutely no idea what was in the tent! In fact, the most common question I was asked all day was “What was in the tent?” This was a great experiment in human psychology and group behavior. LOL. (BTW. The tent was for rally sponsor exhibits.)

A line forms to a mysterious tent!

As the Rally began, so came the people – a whole lot of people, in the rain and in the cold, to support the first Rally to promote secular values and to unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide.” The official park district estimates were between 20,000 and 25,000 people!

A View from the back.
A View from the front. (Photo from www.reasonrally.org)
Of course, Jesus showed up in various forms. Here he is riding a dinosaur!
Our lovely Janet (StateLine Atheist Society) was all smiles.
So now what? We had a successful Rally but where do we go from here? I have a couple of suggestions:
  1. If you haven’t already come out as an atheist – do so. The more people that know someone who is an atheist, the less “scary” we become. I know it can be hard and there can be severe consequences for some, but it is a basic first step. If you need encouragement, look to an incident that happened at the American Atheist convention which followed the Reason Rally. “Lynn” was going to speak as a minister who had to remain a closeted atheist in order to support herself while trying to find a way out. Well, “Lynn” outed herself, giving her real name of Teresa MacBain, in a moving speech that is truely inspiring. You can view it here. If someone like Teresa can do it, with so much to lose, so can you.
  2. Get involved in politics. Not all of us can run for political office but all of us can be involved in the process, whether at the local, state or national level.

What can you do?

  • Run. Run for office, if you can and have the skills (I don’t). Run on a secular platform and as an open atheist. Sure you may lose but until more people start doing this and people grow aware that there are lots of us in this country, the ideal of an atheist politician will still be a rarity.
  • Be Aware. Be aware of violations of church-state separation in your community and on the state and local level. It seems like school boards and local governments violate the separation clause routinely. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition for American are good starting points to get information on church state issues. If there is a violation then challenge it!
  • Lobby! The Secular Coalition for America held a Lobby Day for Reason the day before the Reason Rally. After a morning of training some 200 people had over 125 meetings with Congressional and Senate staff members (Lobby Day for Reason a Success). Sure it was a bit scary and intimidating, but in spite of all the pomp and ceremony, politicians are just people.
  • Write. Write to politicians. Support them when they take unpopular secular stances and challenge them when they don’t. Let them know we are out there and we VOTE.
  • Stand Up. It there a problem with your school or town government in relation to church-state separation issues, then go to a school board meeting or town meeting and speak out. Write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, to each board member, to the city council and to anyone else in a position of power. If need be, get the aid of the Freedom for Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or American Atheists. Stand up! The religious have had their way for too long. Don’t let them continue to get away with it. They may feel otherwise, but you are doing this for them too. A secular America is the only way to protect their religious freedom!
  • Join. Join any of the above groups and support them in any way you can. Also, get involved with a local group. They can rally around local issues, so you are not alone when you “Stand Up” for what is right. If you are in the Northern Ilinois / Southern Wisconsin area, the Stateline Atheist Society welcomes you.
  • In other words – be an activist in any way you can.

It’s going to be interesting to see what momentum there will be from the Reason Rally. Hopefully it won’t be an end but a beginning of returning this nation back to its secular foundation.

Here’s to Us.



I find it interesting when a church, any church, or religious organization cries “persecution.”  Recently Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic  in the Roman Catholic Church (I love the pretentious titles the Roman Catholic Church gives its officers.) said:

“It is a war,” he stated, describing the battle lines between “a culture of secularization which is quite strong in our nation,” and “the Christian culture which has marked the life of the United States strongly during the first 200 years of its history.”  He says it is “critical at this time that Christians stand up for the natural moral law,” especially in defense of life and the family. “If Christians do not stand strong, give a strong witness and insist on what is right and good for us both as and individuals and society,” he warned, “this secularization will in fact predominate and it will destroy us.” But the cardinal also thinks persecution may be looming for the U.S. Church. “Yes, I think we’re well on the way to it,” he said, pointing to areas of social outreach – such as adoption and foster care – where the Church has had to withdraw rather than compromise its principles.  This trend could reach a point where the Church, “even by announcing her own teaching,” is accused of “engaging in illegal activity, for instance, in its teaching on human sexuality.” Asked if he could envision U.S. Catholics ever being arrested for preaching their faith, he replied: “I can see it happening, yes.” (Cardinal Burke reflects on his first year in the Sacred College)

Bill Donohue agrees:

Catholic League President Bill Donohue told LifeSiteNews that Cardinal Burke’s remarks were accurate and not exaggerations.  “Secularism has become militant,” he said. “Many elites are taking an aggressive secular approach. They have lined up against the Catholic Church and other Christian churches particularly for their stand on moral values.” (Vatican Cardinal Burke: ‘We’re well on the way’ to Christian persecution in the U.S.)

My first reaction to this news item was poppycock! It takes a lot of moxie for any religious group to cry “persecution” especially when directed at secularism and atheism.  The Pew Research Center published on Nov 21, 2011 the results of a study examining Religious Lobbying in Washington D.C. (Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C).  They found:

The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. These groups collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $390 million a year on efforts to influence national public policy.

In addition to formal lobbying groups with Washington D.C. offices and staff, the same study reports:

…religious advocacy undoubtedly is conducted, formally and informally, by many individuals and groups beyond the 212 organizations included in this report. Numerous other religious groups send delegations to the nation’s capital, organize campaigns from a distance, join coalitions and contact legislators in their home districts as well as in Washington. For example, the American Family Association, based in Mississippi, operates an extensive legislative alert system that identifies legislation relevant to its members and urges them to contact lawmakers, but it does not have a Washington office. This study focuses on formal, institutional efforts by groups with paid staff and physical offices in or near the nation’s capital. Given the limits of the study, it is likely that the findings reported here underestimate the full breadth and depth of religious advocacy in Washington.

This is in comparision to secular and atheist groups which the same study found:

Just 1% of the advocacy organizations in this study reflect an expressly secular, atheist or humanist point of view, though nonreligious Americans (atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated people who say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives) make up 10.3% of all U.S. adults.

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, looks at this study in light of the “persecution” claim here: 5 Reasons the Religious Right Should Stop Whining About Being Persecuted.

I’ve looked at the claim that the media is biased against Christianity here: Media Bias Against Christianity.

With this kind of influence and clout, persecution is hardly the term I would use. Yet, upon reflection, the comments made by Cardinal Burke are encouraging. In spite of the small numbers of people actively involved in the secular and atheist movements and in spite of our pitful lobbying efforts when compared to the efforts of the religious, WE ARE HAVING AN IMPACT!

Groups such as American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation,  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Secular Coalition for America, and many others are fighting back. They are saying ENOUGH and, amazingly enough, they are being heard. Religious incursion into public and civil areas where they once held uncontested power and influence is being challenged.

Respected men such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett amoug many, many others openly talk about atheism and challenge religious belief and the foolishness of faith. Billboards and bus sign campaigns have successfully been deployed letting closeted atheists know that they are not alone.  Several atheist books have gone on to become best sellers.  The Internet has greatly expanded the ability of a person to find arguments against religion and to “fact-check” sermons.  The days when a preacher could bamboozle his congregation are rapidly coming to an end.

We are having an impact on society and the religious establishment doesn’t like it.  They aren’t used to being challenged and having the foolishness of their beliefs exposed. Faith requires unquestioning obedience – challenge the vacuous nature of faith and belief starts to crumble. So, if you want to redefine persecution as “not getting your way” I suppose you can say, in some warped sense, religion is being persecuted.

As encouraging as these signs are, we still have a long way to go. Atheists are still a hated minority. Republican candidates for the current presidental election in the U.S. are still falling over themselves trying to show how “Christian” and “god-fearing” they are. There are still places in the U.S. where you can lose your job or be actively persecuted by religious believers for being an atheist. The battle has not been won by either side and religion still has the advantage.

Get involved in the fight.  Join me and thousands (hopefully 10’s or 100’s of thousands) of others this March in Washington D.C.

Lobby Day for Reason – Secular Coalition of America – March 23, 2012
This is an event to allow atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secular Americans to directly lobby their members of Congress on the issues that matter to us.

The Reason Rally – March 24, 2012
The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 4:00PM at the National Mall.

American Atheist Convention – March 25 – March 26, 2012
This year’s theme: “Come out! Come out! Wherever you Are!” We will be concentrating this packed-to-the gills convention with help in all aspects of coming out of the atheist closet to your friends, family, and co-workers.

I’ll be at all 3 events.  I hope to see you there.