Margaret Downey on NPR October 5, 1998

National Public Radio
 
Talk of the Nation
Monday, October 5, 1998 -- Hour Two
Host: Lynne Neary, substituting for Ray Suarez
LN = Lynn Neary, Host, National Public Radio
TG = Timothy Gorski, M.D., Pastoral Director, The North Texas Church of Freethought
MD = Margeret Downey, President, Anti-Discrimination Support Network & President, Freethought Society of Greater PA
DS = David Silverman, Director, NJ State Office, American Atheists, Inc.

LN: The controversy over President Clinton's involvement with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the deception surrounding the affair has led to a lot of talk about morality on Sunday morning TV. Not so much on the televised prayer services and sermons that have long been part of Sunday fare, but on the weekly talk shows; and the moral musings are not confined to Sunday morning. Words like sin and repentance have become part of the journalistic and political lexicon of the nation. President Clinton has fed into all this by attending church services with his wife, Hillary, asking forgiveness from a group of clergy at the National Prayer Breakfast and meeting regularly with spiritual advisors at the White House.

Regardless of where they stand politically, all this must be off-putting to at least one group of Americans-atheists. For atheists this is certainly a high-profile, but by no means singular, example of the way our society frequently adopts the language and symbolism of religion in debates that they view as strictly secular. How do atheists react when a national debate on morality takes on religious overtones? How would atheists frame the moral issues involved? Is it ever appropriate to hear religious views in public debates? Atheism is the topic today on talk of the nation. Joining me this hour are: Dr. Timothy Gorski, he's pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought; Margaret Downey, President of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network and President of the Freethought Society of Greater Pennsylvania; and David Silverman, director of the New Jersey State office of the American Atheists. Welcome to all of you.

All: Thank you

LN: Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. I'd like to start out-I know that as with all groups of people it is dangerous to assume that all atheists think alike. In fact I think they probably all more than any group think individually. So, let me start out by asking each of you what is your take on the discussion that's currently surrounding the White House scandal? Does it seem to you that the tone of the debate has at times been too religious? And let me start out by asking you, Margaret, what's your take on that?

MD: Well I feel that the human animal, human beings, has a basis for morality, not because religion dictates it, but because human beings need to interact with other human beings and form an ethical paradigm where we know what's right and wrong. We understand ethics through not a biblical knowledge, but through common sense.

LN: OK and with regard to what's going on right now in terms of the Clinton scandal and sort of the religious language which has accompanied that, do you have any take on that at all?

MD: Well people tend to use religious language simply because they are used to using religious language. I feel that morality and ethical behavior actually comes from your conscience and when you act in the duty to be ethically conscientious you don't tend to have a moral problem, your moral compass is really within you and the English language is inundated with religious terminology.

LN: Dr. Gorski, do you think that this is particularly true in our American society, that religious language, religious symbols are very dominant? And specifically in what we're going through now as a nation?

TG: Well I think the theological underpinnings of morality that are claimed by many really serve as a proxy for what really ought to be discussed and that is what the basis of morality is in terms of our responsibility to ourselves and to each other, not only in situations where people are married and have certain expectations of each other but in government where people have expectations of our leaders and these kinds of issues. In other words, I am agreeing with Margaret, you know it arrives out of common sense and it arrives out of a process of thinking. Human beings are, yes we're human animals, but at the same time, we're not fish that swim or birds that fly. We are human beings which means we think and we choose, and they are the most important things that we can do.

LN: I guess I'm wondering what-you know-what-how does an atheist feel when they hear their president talking about the need to atone for his sins when he is talking about what seems to be a situation that is purely secular. I mean what is your reaction when you hear the president using that kind of language?

TG: Well my take on this particular item is just that I hear the president talking all in terms of it being him, him, him, him, and me, me, me, instead of looking at his responsibilities to others. It's not just one thing to be forgiven, it's a matter of looking at what's been done and now how can we repair or try to restore people's expectations that we can continue to deal with him?

LN: David Silverman, what's your take on this?

DS: Well, I see that there's a sad link between morality and religion in this country and I see it as a obviously as a false link, and I see it when the president has done this and he has committed this act of falsehood to his wife he goes and he takes the ministers into his, into the White House in a very, very public forum, and he does that not in an attempt to get religious guidance but really to play along with the falsehood that religion and morality are linked. Now I don't have any problem with the president seeing his ministers whenever he wants to. The man is an American citizen. He has the right to see whatever preacher he wants. But, he is doing it specifically because he wants to look moral, which is wrong. If he wants to look moral, he can admit to his problems and move on from there.

LN: So in terms of the sort of the trappings, that is this idea that he is going to be meeting with spiritual advisors, that's not something in and of itself that-or that he appear before a group of clergy at the National Prayer Breakfast and spoke about this-that in itself doesn't bother you, you are saying?

DS: Well, I ëm not exactly fond of the fact that he is appearing before a National Prayer Breakfast on American time. I'm just saying that as an American citizen he has the right to see his own clergy. The problem is when he is seeing his own clergy in public in a very, very big and obvious attempt to say hey look at me. I'm really a moral guy. That's what he is doing. This is not an attempt by the president to atone for his sins so much as it for him to save his butt and he's doing so by playing along with the religious right's assertion that morality and religion are linked, and that is not the case.

LN: For many people, though, many people base their ideas about morality in their religious beliefs. This just happens to be the case. You don't, but in many people's minds religion and morality is linked.

DS: And it's a false linkage. You'd be surprised how often people say ëOh you're an atheist, therefore you have no morals, because you don't have some supreme being watching over you ready to zap you down with a lightening bolt the second that you sin.' This is a fallacy-you know it's been perpetrated by the religious right in order to make religion more palatable. And to make atheism less palatable. But that is an individual's choice.

MD: The atheist...

TG: I agree with that. I agree completely with that

MD: The atheist community

LN: Go ahead Margaret.

MD: The atheist community has many, many heros that we can hold up for our children as good examples... All the women who were involved in the women's suffrage. All of the people, the heros involved in desegregation efforts. We have many heros that are not necessarily attached to a Bible. They are not religious figures. That we can find moral guidance by telling true stories and it serves as a good example to our children and the ethical choices that we have in our own lives.

LN: All this raises in my own mind the question of what it's like to be an atheist in this country. And before we go to the phones I would like to talk to each of you about that a little bit. I mean, Margaret, were you raised in a religious household and then you became an atheist, or you chose this for yourself, or were you raised in an atheist household. I mean how did you come to atheism?

MD: Well, everyone is born an atheist. They are indoctrinated by their family who they live with, what they are involved in, and I have always rejected any type of story that doesn't carry weight. I've always asked a lot of questions. Tradition has always been something I question. Authority has always been something I question. Revelation, of course, I want scientific evidence rather than someone just telling me that something is so. And this critical thinking I think is just a part of me. I think many, many people have critical thinking skills, but they are afraid to apply them. They are in a safe little cocoon by not asking too many questions about tradition, authority or revelation.

LN: Does being an atheist, do you feel, frequently put you in the role of being an outsider in your own society?

MD: Oh, definitely. Whenever there is public prayer and I feel like I'm being pushed to identify myself as a religious person and be part of the majority, it makes a person feel very inadequate and very lonely. I always think that neutrality is the best policy because you don't insult anyone in that way. You don't insult the Muslim community by having a Christian prayer. You don't insult the Jewish community, and of course you don't insult the non-theist community when you adopt a form of neutrality.

LN: Dr. Gorski, I'm interested-Margaret just mentioned, it sounds like she's saying it can be lonely out there being an atheist, and you call yourself a pastor of a Church of Freethought and I'm just curious, first of all, why you use those terms which are thought to be religious: pastor and church, and why you felt the need to bring together a congregation of people who think alike?

TG: Well primarily for the reasons that Margaret just pointed out. There's no reason why just because someone is an atheist which is merely an adjective which means you don't believe in god. It doesn't say what other things you don't believe in and it doesn't say what you do believe in. And so, there's no reason atheists have to do without the community, the mutual support, the discussion and help from others in terms of sorting through some of these big questions about life. How to meet its challenges and opportunities, how to raise our children, how to be happy at work. All of these kinds of things. The North Texas Church of Freethought is a church in every sense of the word, except instead of the religion of belief, this is a religion of thinking.

LN: Has the scandal at the White House come up at your church? Do you give sermons. Do you talk about it? How does it work?

TG: Well actually I wrote about this in the church bulletin the month before last and my main point was just to point out that there are many issues involved here concerning Mr. Clinton's responsibilities to his wife, to the due process of law, the Paula Jones lawsuit, and to his constituents and so forth. It's really not something you can sum up and the other thing is we don't at our church try to tell people what to believe or how to vote politically. We feel that they are smart enough to figure all of that out on their own and what we're really after is to talk about these larger issues. And parenthetically I'm just going to agree with my colleague from American Atheists and Margaret, too, that many times all of this religious-And let's be clear of what we're talking about. We're talking about theology. It serves as a way to distract attention from the real moral issues. The problem with someone saying ëOh I've sinned and I'm talking to my god' is it goes completely around anything that anybody has any reference to in real life. We're talking about spirits and immaterial essences and what does that have to do with hurting people or lying and really being not true to yourself and others?

LN: All right, we're discussing atheism today on talk of the nation. My guests today are Timothy Gorski. He's the pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought. Margaret Downey is president of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network; and David Silverman is the director of the New Jersey State Office of American Atheists, Inc. The number here at talk of the Nation is 1-800-989-TALK. And we are going to go to the phones now. Jim, in Phoenix, Arizona. Hello.

Jim: Yes, one of the things that most theologians perpetrate on society is the concept that American was founded on the freedom of religion. And I wonder if maybe we should be moving towards freedom from religion. And I'd be curious as to your guests' thoughts on that.

MD: I have a thought on that.

LN: I would guess they would agree with you, if I were a guessing person. [chuckles]

MD: Well, freedom from religion is actually freedom to choose your own religion, so you're opening up an avenue where when you are not dictated to what is the popular or the majority religion you have rights, you have freedom to choose, and there's nothing more beautiful in life than having freedom to choose.

DS: I think if I can jump in, freedom from religion is a subset of freedom of religion. It's already included in the Constitution, and it is already included in that which our forefathers originally meant. What the problem is, is that freedom of religion is now becoming freedom to belong to the majority religion. And, that's the problem, where atheism is being subjugated as a non-choice in today's society. If you're asking me whether we should be moving toward an atheistic mandated society, I would say no. We should not be in a situation where people are forced to be atheists or forced to be anything. What we are advocating at American Atheists is that people should be allowed to make their choice completely by themselves without any pressure from society, without any pressure from government, and without the government telling them which way is right and which way is wrong.

LN: Now it's interesting. Because I think that if you're going to look at the majority opinion out there, a lot of people would view atheists as sometimes, might view them as trouble makers, might say they're making mountains out of molehills, they take on what are sort of sacred cows, I mean they take on some issues, let's say like nativity scenes and the reaction among many people is ëWhat is the big deal with a nativity scene?' ëWhy do they go to court over these kinds of things?' ëWhy do they make so much trouble?' And ëThey are trying to impose their beliefs on us.'

TG: Well I think as any religious minority though, if I may interrupt, is going to be concerned with the co-opting of government, the organs of government, in the service of one particular religion. The whole point of freedom of religion is that freedom of religion is freedom from everyone else's religion. Now, I don't agree that we should be able to be out in society and never see the religious symbols of other people and other beliefs or ways of looking at things. But certainly the government, the organs of government, ought to take no part in either encouraging or discouraging or in any way taking sides on religious questions.

MD: Well then, out of chaos comes harmony, so perhaps what we can add to society is a dialog, a conversation, a communication that enables society to establish respect for every human being, rather than just without thinking pushing religion onto anybody in every place.

DS: Lynne, if I could just make one more comment.

LN: That is David Silverman, is that right?

DS: Yeah, David Silverman. We're not out to get nativity scenes and things like that. We're out to get them off public land. There's a big difference between American Atheists being against nativity scenes and against nativity scenes on public land funded by public property, maintained by public workers and no other religious or non-religious displays available. We have no problems whatsoever, with an individual displaying his religious convictions on his own private property, with his own private funds. It's a Constitutional right and we will never fight that.

LN: But I wonder if you-you do know and you do understand at all why it is people react so strongly to those kinds of battles that take place.

Yeah, go ahead

DS: It's a tough situation because, the religious right is really afraid of atheism, in my opinion. The religious right are afraid of people who can say who can you know really turn people off of religion with just more than a conversation. And, they will do anything that they can to discredit us and one of the things they do is exaggerate the truth. We fight to say, ëHey, this town can't support Christianity by putting this big creche on the public land and they say we are against nativity scenes. We say ëHey, you can't force children to pray in school.' And they say ëWe have teams out to outlaw anyone who prays in school or even reads a Bible on the bus.' It's all legal. So basically what they are doing is they're mounting an attack on us and the people do react. The people do listen to them. And, that makes atheists the victim.

LN: I just want to ask you also a little bit about using the religious right sort of equating all religious people with the religious right, which it seems to be you're almost doing when you refer to .....

DS: No, it's actually, it's something that I go out of my way not to do. I think that the religious majority is not the religious right and that's why I specify the religious right out there. The religious majority are believing Christians and Jews and Moslems who really don't want to bother with how I believe and really don't want to bother with forcing anybody to do anything that's against their will. It is a very, very vocal minority with a lot of money that's doing most of the unconstitutional stuff out there and making regular Christians and Jews and Moslems look bad.

LN: OK. Martha, you're on Talk of the Nation. Hello.

Martha: Hello

LN: Hi Martha?

Martha: Yeah

LN: You're on talk of the Nation.

Martha: OK My question is why is it offensive to atheists to have a conversation modeled around religion. I have no doubt that Clinton used the prayer breakfast as a ploy to make himself look good. I have my doubts about you know, his sincerity, but he is a citizen. Why does he not have the right to express his beliefs. I don't see how that he's forcing someone to believe against his will.

DS: I would agree with that. I've already stated that the president has the right to believe as he wishes. We only object-I personally only object-when he uses his religion as an ëOh, look at me, I'm such a nice moral guy.' When in fact it doesn't really say anything about his morals at all. I don't care what he practices. It's none of my business.

LN: Margaret Downey or Timothy Gorski, either one of you? Would you like to say ...

TG: Well, I want to jump in here to say that I think it needs to be appreciated that a Prayer Breakfast in and of itself promotes a certain theological kind of a framework. Not everyone thinks that you go and pray to god to solve all of your little problems. You know, some atheists who are still believers in the supernatural-Buddhists for instance-don't pray to god. Buddhists do not worship Buddha, contrary to what Christians often say. So, the very idea of a prayer breakfast is really an unconstitutional endorsement of a certain religious point of view.

MD: I wouldn't feel so bad about the prayer breakfast if we had a

national day of Freethought that would counter balance the National Day

of Prayer, but

DS: That would be a great idea.

MD: Thank you.

DS: I love that idea.

TG: It's October 12th, folks, October 12 is Freethought Day.

LN: Oh wait. Who designated that? [chuckles]

MD: Well, we've been... It's sort of an ongoing campaign.

LN: Oh I see, OK

TG: Well amongst ourselves, that is one of the days that we really attach a special importance to because on October 12, 1692 Governor William Phipps of Massachusetts barred the introduction or use of spectral evidence in court, and that's what put an end to the Salem Witch Trials. Now of course Governor Phipps was not a Christian-was not an atheist. None of the people involved were atheists or freethinkers, but we celebrate that day as one of the watersheds of human history because people acted rationally, because they had to.

MD: Yes, they placed reason over superstition and myth.

LN: Margaret did you want to finish your point, the point you were making about the idea of a prayer breakfast? You were starting to say something here?

MD: Oh, the national day of prayer. You know I just see that there are too many situations where atheists do not have a place at the table. We have a voice. We have a voice of reason. We do not have the opportunity to deliver that voice on a national basis or even to the government. We are really starving for a place to interact and communicate with out theistic friends, so I would hope that out of all of this that there would be some type of dialogue beginning that could include the atheist community.

LN: Margaret Downey is the president of the Freethought Society of Greater Pennsylvania. I'm Lynn Neery and you're listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR News. We're discussing atheism today on Talk of the Nation and the number here is 1-800-989-TALK if your would like to join us give us a call. Dan, in Madison, Wisconsin. Hello, Dan. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Dan [Barker]: Hey, I'm glad I caught this show. What a great opportunity to hear a show about freethinkers. I'm an ordained minister, an evangelical minister, but I don't practice anymore because after studying I gave it up. I became an atheist, and it's quite a story. In fact I know a lot of others like that who realized like some of your guests have said that morality and religion are not connected. And it's also interesting that you mentioned freedom from religion, because I work with a national Freedom From Religion Foundation here in Madison, Wisconsin, and we do take law suits against nativity scenes and religion in government and all that. But this whole topic about sin and atonement and redemption that I used to preach and that our president and many others are using as sort of an image, I realized a long time ago that sin really doesn't really mean anything. Sin is supposedly offending some deity, some ghost, somebody outside whose got his feelings hurt. What really matters in the real world, in the natural world, is harm. What actions cause harm to others and ourselves and what actions don't? And that's the essence of morality. It doesn't matter what god you are offending or what religious rules your are breaking. If your actions cause unnecessary harm and they can be avoided, then that is wrong, by definition. It's not cosmic. It's not some big moral precept. A moral person strives to live in a way that minimizes that harm and for many of us atheists and agnostics we also live in a way to enhance beauty and enhance life and we call that compassion and positive ethics. In fact we notice that a lot of people tend to hide behind religion. Religion has been a source of much evil. Most Christians are good people in this country, but you can see historically that religion has been a cloak for evil. So, I'm really glad you had a show like this to bring up some of these issues that really get talked about.

LN: Let me ask you something, Dan, because what you are talking about that harm as opposed to sin-don't harm another person-compassion. These are ideas that are encompassed in many religious beliefs and promoted by many religions. What's wrong with finding those values through religion?

Dan: Well, if you need that. If you're the kind of person who needs that, then fine. I'm all for it. If your religion makes you a better person, then who am I to criticize that? In the end result it's not what you think, it's what you do that makes the difference. It doesn't matter if I think there's a god or not if my life is good. But we have noticed that, historically, for example, people who base their morality on the Bible-harm-gets twisted. Suddenly it becomes OK to kill in the name of a god. And we've seen through religions-through history-that people have done horrible things because by definition it becomes good in the name of the god. For example the old testament.

LN: OK Dan, I think we unfortunately we are going to have to interrupt you because we are running out of time.

[station break] [stuff about Ray Suarez in Norfolk, Virginia Thursday deleted]

LN: Today we are talking with a group of atheists for their take on the recent national discussion on morality, forgiveness and redemption. My guests are Timothy Gorski, pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought, Margaret Downey, president of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network and president of the Freethought Society of Greater Pennsylvania; and David Silver, director of the New Jersey State Office of American Atheists, Inc. If you would like to join us our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1800-989-TALK. And we'll go to the phones now again. Adam in Collegedale, Tennessee. Hello.

Adam: I'm sort of on both sides of the fence here. I agree with your panel on many points, specifically because I am a believer of God and I do agree that some of the greatest threats to a relationship with god are our religious traditions. Thank you. And I think that the Bible, for example, warns against that specifically. If we at least take the definition of Satan being a deceiver being good and love, the warding is that there are those who say they are of god but they are actually of the deceiver, and I really advocate a strong separation between church and state. There are other prophesies, for example, that warn of really the end of all things, the end of opportunity to see god because of the encroachment of church and state. Does that ring true with any of your panel? Does it sound familiar.

LN: One thing I am curious about just to add on to Adam's question is, is how often you do in fact get support from religious people in many of your views, particularly on issues relating to the separation of church and state?

DS: Well, significantly often, frankly. I think Dan goes to show you that what I said before is true that the religious right, those who would see the church and state melded, are a minority, and the majority of believers, like the caller, are... they can believe what they want, but they are not going to sit here and force us to do it. So, basically, we get a lot of support from believers who say, ëWell, you know I completely disagree with you but I will stand up for your right to say or think what you wish. I mean it's your brain, you can think what you wish.'

MD: I would refer Adam to a Bible passage, actually, it is Matthew 22 [Matthew 6:6 ëBut thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet ... '] Jesus actually recommends that you pray in your closet as a true believer and only hypocrites pray in the streets. So, this is exactly the type of philosophy that most Christians adopt but it's the religious right that tend to go on the rampage in the public forum to demand not only their religion is pushed along and endorsed, but also to enforce that on other people and to push them.

LN: Well, Margaret, it is not only religious conservatives who make their views known on policy issues and in the public forum. I mean, many times-I cover religion for NPR-and many times I am talking with people who are very liberal, politically and theologically, and who feel that they have the right to weigh in on any number of issues.

MD: It almost becomes reactionary.

TG: Let me add here, let me throw in that this whole Bible business is what really gets people confused, I think, because if somebody wants to take one book and say all of what I'm about comes from this and I am going to read this and that into this and that passage, again, that's fine, But to come into the public square where policy decisions are being made that affect everyone and say well this says this in this book and so you all have to do this, to me is ridiculous. It would be like my coming in with Moby Dick and saying well it says this and that, that Captain Ahab went and did this so therefore we have to follow this certain public policy. That's what I think atheism objects to, and other believers, believers of others stripes as well. Believers can't even agree among themselves as to what the Bible means.

LN: Well do you think... do you think any of you that it is ever appropriate for religious views to be part of a public policy discussion, whether they are liberal or conservative?

TG: Let's distinguish between theological and religious, also, because

DS: Right

TG: Because there .. Many atheists harbor very strong moral views and ideas that would otherwise be characterized as religious or spiritual except that we tend to be wary of those terms because they often imply a belief in the supernatural and these kinds of things.

DS: If we are talking about a religious discussion on the part of well we are here to decide the law and we're going to decide the law and one of the factors in that decision is going to be what it says in the Bible, no, that is not appropriate because the Bible does not apply to everybody. If we are talking about your getting in the way of my religious expression by passing a law outlawing Christmas trees, well, then, yeah, I guess that would at least become a factor. But, if we are talking about a moral issue; if we are talking about a law that's going to affect everybody in a locality or a city or a state or a nation, then no. Religion should not be a factor in that decision.

LN: What about if somebody's moral values that are religiously based lead them to oppose an act of war, for instance. I can think of two great movements in the 1960's that had a great deal of religious people involved. One was the civil rights movement. The other was the anti-war movement. I am sure many atheists also were involved. But many religious people were, and it was an expression of their religious beliefs.

TG: Well, the slavery issue is a good an example of that. You had people on both sides of that issue citing the Bible for evidence that they were right. And, that's really the problem. You can pull just about anything you like, just as President Clinton is doing now with semantical kinds of arguments and twisting around. Let's stop referring to these kinds of things that can be misinterpreted. Let's talk about reality. Let's talk about the world we all share. That's the kind of world we ought to be able to agree on. We shouldn't be arguing over whether vanilla or chocolate tastes the best. We certainly can talk about the content of butter fat and whether or not that may be a risk for atherosclerosis, and things of that nature.

LN: You know...

DS: I'm getting hungry.

[chuckles}

TG: There you go.

MD: Lynne, the fact is that atheists always have had to work very hard to have their beliefs recognized and respected. In the 70's we had an atheists who had to actually go to the supreme court as a conscientious objector and he valued life and could not take life away not because it was his religion, but because he was an atheist. And, having to take your claim that you value life not on a religious tenet needed to be settled at the U.S. Supreme Court.

LN: OK Let's go to another caller. Lynne in Limonia, I believe it is, Iowa? Hello Lynne? [There's static on the line with this caller.]

Lynne: The [static] that I can a specific thing on that last point is that the Supreme Court actually ruled that if a person had a strong moral conviction equivalent to religious in the traditional belief and objected to all war then they could get the C.O. status. But, a person of religious belief or strong moral views who objected to a specific war would not get the C.O. status. I recall that was the decision. I agree with some things and disagree with others. I don't agree that Clinton is trying to say he is a good moral person. I think he is trying to cue [key? Static] on the views of atonement and forgiveness and to take advantage of that. I don't think a prayer breakfast itself is unconstitutional, but oh my it certainly is favoritism. A day of prayer, I think, is unconstitutional.

TG: Wouldn't you think that favoritism by itself is unconstitutional by definition?

Lynne: I think that it is not .. I think it is a personal favoritism rather than making it a law and making it a law and I don't like the big display of it but I don't think you could get a court case to rule it out. But, I do think that the courts are making a bit of a mistake in allowing prayers at the public state legislature.

MD: Lynne, how would you feel if your tax dollars were going to endorse and support and favor atheism?

Lynne: I am an ecumenical agnostic. That's my general view and I would not want my tax dollars to go for vouchers to send children to private schools or to pay for buses to take them there, things of that sort.

But, if it is a privately financed breakfast, rather than a publicly paid

for chaplain,

MD: Well, we have publicly paid for chaplains opening Congress every single day.

Lynne: I don't like that. I disagree with that. In fact I think that a voluntary prayer breakfast somewhere off campus, so to speak, is a much, is a much ...

LN: Well let me ask you

Lynne: It's about the first amendment. There should be no establishment. That means tax money paying for it.

LN: What do you think of using that forum... the president using that

forum to

Lynne: I think it's just old politics because the vast majority of people have sentiments that are pro-Christian or pro-religious and it is a way of mobilizing and it's been done by people for so long that there going to do it. I don't see it as being an issue that one could go to court on. I think it is something that one can be uncomfortable with, but not specifically a violation of the First Amendment, but if it were paid for by tax payers' money, I would agree with you entirely that it would be unconstitutional.

DS: That's the line. That's the line that has to be drawing. Whether or not it is paid for by tax payer dollars.

Lynne: Yes indeed. In fact, maybe Clinton should pay for all their breakfasts and it shouldn't be funded by the tax payers [ ] . I'll go that far with you. OK?

LN: I think we're going to move on to another

Lynne: I want to say that there is not always the belief in choice. That a person like myself is a determinist and an agnostic and does not believe that even the people who believe necessarily have the choice. They're brought up to believe this way by their parents. They're brought up to believe by their society. Some people are brought up to have rational minds because they have good education. Some people have rational minds because they have brilliant genetic backgrounds and other people do not have and cannot reason well. So, even the question of choice is a debatable one, I think, between people of different views.

LN: Thank you very much.

DS [?]: Interesting theory

LN: That is an interesting point. I wonder how you react to that?

TG: Well one thing I will throw in here about this whole forgiveness and choices business is that you know if you were emotionally invested in some act like President Clinton has been engaged in and you bear him some ill will-you're mad at him-you are angry-that forgiveness means setting aside those kinds of things. Now I think the vast majority of Americans were never very emotionally invested in all of this anyway, so that's why there's not been some huge call to punish the man. But, I think the same is true of Jeff Dahmer and gee, anyone who does any kind of wrong doing. We should be past all of this forgiveness thing. Granted, if you are married to someone and they cheat on you, how can you control those emotions? You need to have some forgiveness. But, the real question is what can we do in order to perpetuate a system and maintain its viability. How can we keep ourselves safe from Jeff Dahmer? How can we have leadership that we can look up to and believe in again? That's really the real question.

MD: In other words, we need to overcome evil or sin. We must first understand it, from which it came. Psychological? Evolution? Genes. Whatever it is we can build to find the answers.

TG: Let's just take rational steps to deal with it.

LN: I have an email here from a listener I believe in Buffalo, New York. It is fairly long so I am going to try and just real a little bit of it and get the gist of it. It says: ëI was in court recently and was asked to swear to god that I would tell the truth. In New York no one is permitted to swear or affirm without invoking god. I asked to be permitted to do that. Permission was granted but, the judge first remonstrated with me that I still had to tell the truth. He made it clear that he did not trust a person who chose not to swear to god. Um. That's an interesting story and it sort of raises again the question I raised earlier.

DS: By definition that judge has committed an act of discrimination and should be removed from the bench. Period.

TG: I agree. I agree.

LN: Mmm hmm.

MD: We have all kinds of things happening to us as atheists on an every day basis. We are forced as atheists to pass religious tracts. Our money ëIn god we trust' we have to do business with currency and here we are passing on a religious tract. We are expected ...

DS: And isn't it a sad .. OK .. Sorry

MD: Go ahead

DS: I was just about to say ... oh please call me Dave. My father is Mr. Silverman. Isn't it a sad statement to say that in this society we have to have a threat of recrimination in order to believe that somebody is telling the truth? Isn't it a sad statement to say that ëif you don't believe that god is going to believe you to permanent hell or strike you down with a lightning bolt, that I can't trust you to tell the truth or even be a nice person?' I think the fact that the emailer went through this... the fact that you have to swear to god in public courts is by definition a violation of the separation of church and state. The fact that he had to get a special request by signifying himself out as an atheist is by definition a violation of the separation of church and state and I think that any sort of extra warning given by the judge is a grotesque violation of separation of church and state. I think it is a crime and I think that this happens way too often. And I think the result is and this is the saddest result of all: that most atheists will not put themselves through that. Most atheists will say: ëyeah, yeah, yeah, I swear to god.' And first of all they don't mean it, and second of all they are closeted. They count themselves in the one of the many religious people simply for the fact that they don't want to go through what the email sender said. I think it's disgraceful. That's one of the things that American Atheists is fighting with all of our energy.

LN: David Silverman is the director of the New Jersey State Office of American Atheists, Inc. I'm Lynne Neery and you are listening to talk of the nation from NPR News. You've just raised a question that I have in the back of my mind which is: Are a lot of atheists in the closet? Do a lot of people not want to talk publicly about the fact that they are atheists because they are concerned about the effect it would have?

DS: Tons

MD: Lynne, First of all I would like to qualify something. Freethinkers are filling the pews on religious holidays and it's because society demands of them to fit into a certain type of morally conscious person and the only way that they can exhibit it is to go to church. And actually, freethinkers are people who would question tradition and revelation and question authority. What I would like to put forth is that if you are a freethinker there are many, many organizations that you can turn to rather than the church. American Humanist Association, you have the Council for Secular Humanism. There's African Americans for Humanism. And so many times people feel lonely, alone, they don't want to speak out and question. But, I am here to tell you that there are people like me, like Mr. Gorski, like David Silverman, and we are here to support you.

LN: We are discussing atheism on Talk of the Nation. Michael in Fort Lauderdale, Hello. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Michael: Yes, you had an earlier caller who talked about freedom from religion versus freedom of religion. And it's freedom of religion. And, I get annoyed with the religious right that wraps itself in our founding fathers, you know, belief in god and if they really looked at history, our founding fathers were the greatest liberal minds of their time. If they were conservatives, we would all be British. We would have a king. We'd belong to the Church of England. The difference was that they realized it doesn't matter-atheist, Buddhist, Christian, when we all die, we are going to wind up in the same spot, and they trusted their got, whoever it happened to be, to put them there, and they were adamant about freedom of religion. The lady was just talking about the freethinkers. Thomas Jefferson is one of the original freethinkers in this country.

LN: Alright Michael. Let me see if any of our guests would like to respond to that comment.

DS: Well, my co-panelists were talking a little bit about the national day of freethinkers. One of the things that American Atheists is doing in November is called the Proof Positive Party and it is celebrating the signing of the treaty of Tripoli. Now the Treat of Tripoli is-check my dates, but I believe it was 1779, or 1789 rather, and it states under no uncertain terms that America is not founded in Christianity and it is signed by the President John Adams and it was ratified unanimously by the Senate. It think he points at a very good point that the founding fathers, some of them were Christians, some of them were Deists, and some of them were atheists. Thomas Jefferson being a staunch, main supporter of the separation of church and state. And, I think if they had done anything except go way out of their way to separate church and state we would have a religious society.

LN: Tom in Salt Lake City. Hello, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Tom: I guess I have a comment. It's very difficult to have any kind of discussion right now about President Clinton and all this impeachment stuff with religious or slash or morality type people. And discuss Clinton's record down to the budget or whatever. They're possessed with morality, religion. Of course, I am in Salt Lake City, Utah, maybe that's the problem. But, it seems to be fanatical. Whether I'm an atheist or not is not the issue, but I don't want to discuss the religious issues, the morality issues, in terms of Clinton as a president; I want to discuss him as a governor, and there seems to be no room for that. And, I feel like this is an extreme movement right now that's going on, that's been set up for a decade or so, that we're not seeing.

TG: Can I respond to that?

LN: So you think .. Yes go ahead. Just briefly.

TG: Well what I want to say is that again this goes back to something we said earlier in the hour, and that is there has been this identification of morality with theology to the point where the theological stuff drags down the morality questions. And this is a real problem because all the people have to do is talk theology and it is assumed that they are moral people, and by the same token atheists are often accused of being immoral because they reject theology. And that's simply not true. There are a lot of ways you can get morality besides from some god saying you're going to hell if you don't do what I say. That's not morality. That's just the law of the jungle. That's might makes right. Let's talk about why things are right and why things are wrong.

LN: OK Thanks very much. That's all we have time to talk about today. I want to thank all of you who called and my guests: Timothy Gorski, pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought. He joined us from member station KERA in Dallas. Margaret Downey is president of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network and president of the Freethought Society of Greater Pennsylvania. She joined us from NPR's New York Bureau. And David Silverman, director of the New Jersey State Office of American Atheists. He joined us from the commercial station WCTC in Somerset, New Jersey.