Bella's Freethought Day Blog
Please return each week for a new blog about the planning, speakers, and success of Freethought Day.
In the last few days coming up to Freethought Day, comedian Keith Lowell Jensen opened up with me to discuss the role his atheism plays in his work and his approach to humor.
BF: Focusing on your comedy specifically around non-belief and atheism, what's the difference in reactions you get from people (particularly theists) with that material in comparison to what you might in just talking to people about the subject?
KLJ: As a comedian and as an atheist I feel drawn toward a less angry delivery. I'm not questioning the anger some may feel, it's just not my voice. My goal is to be very out as an atheist and to have any faithful in the audience walk away having laughed with an atheist. I try to balance this with not pulling any punches in my critique. I have had people walk out on me, but it's rare and I haven't had anyone try to engage me angrily. I got a hilarious response in a small town in Nevada when an audience member wanted a picture with me because he's never met an atheist before.
BF: Do you find that humor defuses what can otherwise be a hot button topic for some? If so, have you had any experiences where comedy has been a useful vehicle in making atheist ideas more palatable or more 'heard' by those who might otherwise resist or reject such concepts?
KLJ: I'm not sure. I suspect comedy is more useful letting those who are already questioning feel good and feel comfortable about their doubts. The stubbornly faithful might be more likely to feel taunted or ridiculed.
BF: How can humor be an effective instrument for freethought ideas?
KLJ: Like music or any other form of art it's nice to celebrate your identity and your ideas. It's a complete lack of shame, the opposite of being in the closet. Look, I'm not just thinking these thoughts, I'm singing 'em, I'm laughing, I'm sharing them. I think it gives us strength and confidence.
BF: Are you seeing audiences broadening or being more receptive to humor with an atheist slant these days? What differences have you seen over the course of your career?
KLJ: Yeah. I see a real parallel between LGBT acceptance and atheist acceptance and I think it has a lot to do with visibility and some friendly faces. I totally dig Madalyn Murray O'Hare's professional wrestling type approach, but when here theatrically angry presence is all one knows of atheists, well its not gonna win us any sympathies. When you see friendly, kind atheists all around you, suddenly we're human.
BF: You perform at so many events and conventions and meet lots of secular folk; what's your perception of where the freethought movement is going in this country?
KLJ: I hear a lot of people worrying about divisiveness. I don't mind the divisiveness at all. I think we rally around certain universal points, like church and state issues, and beyond that I'm really glad the we're fighting about inclusiveness and other important issues rather than just letting them fester because we want to present a unified front.
BF: Given the inherent ridiculousness of religion (one might say its the joke that writes itself), how difficult do you find it to write atheistic material?
KLJ: The challenge is to laugh at oneself, in fact the great Dick Gregory discovered that this is how you get people to allow you to laugh at them. The hardest part of this is to joke from a place of knowing, while avoiding doing such an inside joke that nobody but other atheists get the punch line. I'm happy to say my fellow atheists have been VERY willing to laugh at themselves.
BF: What's been your most satisfying moment on stage, and what's been the worst?
KLJ: When I started talking about France outlawing the Burka, criticizing it as further oppression of already oppressed Muslim women I got a lot of blow back from people who'd cheered the law. I ended up in debates after almost every show where I did this material, passionate, heated debates with other atheists. This made me proud and made feel like I was doing more than preaching to the choir.
My worst moment was making fun of a Muslim audience member in a way that was meant to be friendly but came across mean. I felt really bad about it.
BF: Finally – give us all some tips we can use, because we've all been there... what's the best way to handle religious hecklers?
KLJ: Well, it helps if you have a microphone and they don't. If they're being pugnacious and loud, I try to keep my arguments very simple and Socratic. "Is slavery wrong? Yeah? What did Jesus have to say about it? Just curious." "What is the proper way to beat my wives again? Can I get a quick refresher on that?"
You've heard the old line about having greatness thrust upon one, and it does take a certain amount of greatness to not only organize but grow an event like Freethought Day. We're fortunate to have a group of committed and enthusiastic folks who have made the festival better and larger every year.
Here are a few words from them - David Diskin, Ken Nahigian, Tom Ikelman, and Rachael Harrington - that they were kind enough to provide me:
BF: Why did you want to be on the committee for Freethought Day?
David: When I first visited Freethought Day several years ago, I saw the potential that the event had to unify the Sacramento region and extend even further. I wanted to use my experience in marketing and social media to announce a bigger, better Freethought Day to the freethinking masses.
Ken: I've been part of Sac FTD since the beginning, and enjoy watching it grow, evolve, send out new shoots and green twigs, and each year surprise and inspire me. How could I let go of it now? Besides, it is a good cause. And I am one of those people who just need a community, want to be part of something greater.
Rachael: I had already volunteered on the committee one year, and the next year the Chair could no longer lead the group (due to health concerns). It looked like the event might not happen if I didn't step up to be the Chair of the committee. I decided we couldn't let the event die that year, because the year before we were snubbed by the Mayor when he didn't sign our proclamation!
Tom: I came to my first FTD in I think 2005. I think I saw a listing for it in the newspaper or something. I hadn't ever joined any of the groups or attended any of their meeting. But I thought what could I lose, maybe an afternoon, so I decided to take a chance on going.
I was so elated when I got to Waterfront Park in Old Sacramento to see the set up. I felt like I had finally found "my people". It was pretty emotional for me that day, listening to the speakers, meeting people at the various booths, enjoying a nice day in the park. I still get a little choked up thinking about it today! I was so interested in what was going on that I stayed after and helped clean up. They invited me to dinner with them after the clean up was over, and before dinner was done they had me on the committee. I've been on it ever since.
We've had our good times and some difficulties along the way, but we've always managed to work things out. We were especially proud the first year we got a mayoral proclamation for Freethought Day, and then a year or 2 later we not only got a mayoral, but a governor's proclamation! But the last year or two we haven't because of the religiously oriented people now occupying those offices. They apparently think it's okay to discriminate, and give religious groups proclamations, but not secular groups. We need to work on that some more.
For several years Beverly Church (how ironic her name) was our enthusiastic chairperson, and she always wanted to have fireworks at FTD. We haven't succeeded in achieving that yet. And unfortunately we lost Bev this year, she moved away for health reasons, then succumbed to her problems. But maybe in the not so distant future we can have the Bev Church Memorial Fireworks show!
We are really happy that FTD has really grown the last several years under the direction of David Diskin, and look forward to this becoming a world class event.
BF: What do you (and the committee) hope to accomplish?
David: Our primary goal is to celebrate freethought - the people within the movement who have shed a light on reason and made it "okay" to think beyond dogma. But we also want to encourage people - no matter who they are - to see that this movement is going places. No longer should anyone feel that they are alone.
BF: Have you previously worked in setting up Sacramento's Freethought Day celebration? If so, what changes have you seen in the event over time (size, breadth, etc.)?
Ken: California Freethought Day has grown hugely over the last twelve years, in attendance, complexity and breadth. The first event was just a coterie of local freethinkers gathered on the Sacramento courthouse steps, on a Saturday afternoon, to read a proclamation and mill around for a few hours.Now FTD is a multi-track festival/conference with music and media, drawing stars like Annie Laurie Gaylor and Shelley Segal. I can't wait to see where we go from here!
BF: Would you want to be involved again? If so, how would you like to see the event develop in the future?
David: I hope it gets bigger each year - with more sponsors recognizing the value of reaching out to the secular market, with more attendees interested in being a part of the community, with more community groups hosting a table to further their causes. When I vision what Freethought Day has the potential to be, I think of current day Pride parades.
Ken: Most certainly yes, as long as I can. I hope to see Sac FTD grow into a popular public event, part of the Central Valley common culture, like the Jazz Jubilee or Greek Food Festival; not just be an 'in-house' event for freethinkers. But also stay true to itself, not sell out, keep its freethoughty essence. And along the way, perhaps inspire similar festivals across the nation. Especially since we now have energetic young folk like David Diskin, as we old-timers age out of the game. I hope we will draw more like him.
BF: What's the most difficult part about the planning and organising?
David: The worry that something - or someone - will be forgotten. Keeping copious notes and checklists is a necessity.
Ken: Difficult to say, since David seems to do most of the heavy lifting now. Maybe coordinating all the people, keeping track of all the activity threads. I'm sure I could never do it.
BF: What's the best reason for someone to come to the Freethought Day celebration? What can they expect when they attend?
David: A community of like-minded people who love to have a great time. One aspect of Freethought Day that sets it apart from similar events in our movement is that it's an outdoor venue (rain or shine). Conferences in hotel rooms are great, but Freethought Day is a celebration of reason, a giant party that offers something for everyone - even kids.
Ken: A learning experience, a chance to network and make connections, an opportunity to relax, a safe zone, a place to be yourself within a community of friends. Remember that Freethought Day is known as Freethought Coming Out Day in many quarters.
BF: How would you describe this year's lineup of speakers and performers?
David: This is the most diverse lineup of speakers I can recall us ever having, which fits in to our theme of embracing diversity. I think it's going to be very high-energy and dynamic, and it will be very hard for attendees to step away from the amphitheater until we close.
Ken: Wonderful. How did David pull in all this talent? We should all send money.
One of this year's keynote speakers, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, kindly agreed to answer a few questions I posed to her. She, her husband Dan, and their staff are committed to standing up for the rights of nonbelievers, secularists, and others and are doing remarkable and tireless work through litigation, education, and providing resources for the freethought community.
BF: Seeing as the theme of this year's Freethought Day is "The Many Voices of Reason," I have to ask - how are the FFRF's efforts going in terms of getting the voices of reason heard in this country?
ALG: We're nearly 20,000 members nationwide. We have a weekly radio show/podcast (closest in Calif. is Monterey station), and publish a 24-page newspaper reporting on FFRF actions, lawsuits and members which comes out 10 times a year. We have 4 staff attorneys who annually send well over a thousand formal letters of complaint to government officials, ending hundreds of state/church violations without going to court. We have about a dozen lawsuits, including a federal case against the IRS for failure to enforce its anti-electioneering policy when churches are openly violating it. We have a new monthly ad campaign in Scientific American Magazine. We are working very hard every day to promote the use of reason in making public policy decisions, and to enforce the constitutional separation between religion and government!
FFRF is the midst of a major building expansion, so we have room for the current staff of 13 full-time, plus volunteers, part-timers and interns, and to expand our staff and work.
BF: What are the current trends you're seeing in religion/'faith-based' efforts to insert themselves into law, policy, public institutions, and the like?
ALG: The biggest push is 1) war on reproductive rights, including, shockingly, contraception, including fighting the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare - we've seen a record number of antiabortion state laws passed this year thanks to the religious lobby, and 2) vouchers: forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious education. Ongoing are many other campaigns, such as the merging of Catholic hospitals with secular, which is a public healthcare emergency.
BF: Have the FFRF's successes in litigation and lobbying increased or otherwise changed over time, given the higher profile that secularists have these days? If so, how?
ALG: FFRF is not a lobbying group; we can do a little lobbying as a 501(C)(3) group. So I'd change your question to refer to "educational activities" rather than lobbying. Our efforts have increased because our staff and membership have increased -- we've grown by more than 130% in membership since 2006, and the requests for help from our members to end state/church entanglements is why our legal staff has grown from one in 2007 to 4 today. We have a record number of lawsuits in court, about a dozen.
The higher profile of secularists doesn't necessarily translate to a higher number of successes in litigation. Currently we have a 5-4 anti-state/church separation bloc in the Supreme Court, and most appeals circuits are dominated by those appointed by recent Republican presidents. So the decks are still a bit stacked, nor have politicians caught up with the changing demographics. It's "the best of times" to be a freethinker in terms of our numbers; it's the "worst of times" to be advocating for separation of church and state.
We have 3 major lawsuits against the IRS, where are standing to sue was upheld by the federal district court, a major victory today, and feel we have very strong cases on the merits pertaining to preferential treatment of churches and ministers by the IRS.
We are just settling with a victory our lawsuit with the ACLU of Ohio to remove a Jesus portrait from a middle school. We have two lawsuits against large monuments of the Ten Commandments in front of public high schools in Pennsylvania, and another federal lawsuit to stop illegal graduation prayer at a South Carolina high school, where the school board also prayers "to Jesus." We are also suing over a policy in a Florida school which censored freethinking books but permitted evangelists to distribute bibles.
What shocks me is that we should need to be even in court in most of these public school cases. We are dealing with a lot of ignorance and pushback even today.
BF: In your dealings with the forces of "unreason," what have been the most frustrating experiences? The most humorous?
ALG: Losing litigation we should have won to a judge's unreasonable decision is always frustrating. It's frustrating that the freethought movement continues to have to "reinvent the wheel" and defend nonbelievers from charges of immorality. Those stereotypes are very damaging and irrational, but still very common. The most humorous? I can't think of any one situation, but there's usually a lot of laughter around our offices, often inspired by really bizarre state/church violations! We often get a big kick out of the hate "crank mail" and the name-calling ("Satan's handmaiden"). I guess it means we must be doing something right!
BF: You've got a lot of experience in dealing with women's concerns in particular (thinking of "Women Without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters" specifically) - does the FFRF address any issues that pertain specifically to women's rights and how women in the US are affected by these matters?
ALG: Perhaps you saw our "It's Time to Quit the Catholic Church" ad in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, and USA Today last year. That was specifically targeting the Catholic Conference of Bishops for their war on the contraceptive mandate and the right of women employees to full contraceptive coverage. We are working hard to keep dogma out of our civil laws, to protect women, gays, children, etc.
FFRF began because of my mother's experiences in founding a group here in Wisconsin to legalize abortion in the late 1960s. I trailed around as a middle and high schooler, and our eyes were opened to the absolute necessity of keeping religious dogma out of any laws pertaining to women! We saw the enemy, and it was the organized Roman Catholic, fundamentalist and Mormon lobbies that killed the ERA and continue to make us fight and re-fight the same battles to defend reproductive liberty.
BF: What advice or recommendations might you have for the everyday freethinker who wants to help the FFRF and similar groups' efforts to organise and strengthen the freethought community both where they live and on a broader scale?
ALG: 1. If you can without losing your job, come "out of the closet" as a nonbeliever. A major survey by the Univ. of Minne. reveals that nonbelievers are still at the bottom of the social totem poll, that acceptance has grown for blacks, gays, Muslims and Arabs, but negative attitudes haven't changed since the 1960s toward atheists. In interviewing the researcher about this startling situation, she suggested to me that one of the reasons stereotypes persist is that many Americans have never knowingly met an atheist. (They have met them but didn't know it.) Freethinkers tend to avoid confrontation over religion, but it is possible to gently "come out" and this has wide ripple effects in our society. Freethinkers are the best advertisement for freethought. FFRF has a billboard campaign to literally come out, but we also offer a virtual billboard you can make using your own words, face and name, at ffrf.org/out. It's fun, can become your Facebook photo and shows strength as we amass thousands of these at our website.
2. Speak up for keeping religion out of government, when you encounter violations. If you need backup, contact FFRF at: http://ffrf.org/legal/report
3. Never let a religious right revisionist myth, misquote or disinformation go uncorrected. Write those letters to the editor, make comments at online news sources to counter such revisionism, including myths such as that "God" was always on our money, that "In God We Trust" was always our motto, that the US is a "Christian nation," etc. You can find lots of information to debunk all of this at: http://ffrf.org/news/timely-topics
BF: What do you enjoy most about the work you do? What's the worst part of the job?
ALG: The worst part of my job is when I and FFRF lose friends and members in the freethought community to death. We want to move forward in memory of FFRF's hardworking founders and activists since going national in 1978. I shed some tears today learning one of our very lovely nonagenarian members had died earlier this month. Losing this talent and support is always very sad and I cherish their memories.
The best part is filing and winning litigation, which corrects violations and makes a difference. I also love our PR, advertising and billboard campaigns. We placed about 25 "Celebrate our Godless Constitution" full-page ads on July 4 to counter Hobby Lobby's traditional July 4 bunk, and that was very satisfying. It's also very satisfying to work with our members and our staff in making a difference, and in bestowing our student essay competition awards and activist awards, and getting to know the next generation of freethinkers, who are amazing.
I'd like to thank Annie Laurie for taking the time from her busy schedule to answer my questions - she was a joy to converse with and has such a wealth of knowledge and breadth of experience that make her an excellent role model for anyone seeking to make a positive contribution to church/state separation issues.
One thing that often annoys and saddens secularists and the non-religious - OK, well, me, specifically - are the false limitations that religion, woo, and irrational thinking put on human perceptions and potential. Many's the time I've found myself bemoaning "If it weren't for [fill in the blank - religion, slavery, holy wars, phrenology, Benny Hinn's hair; you get the idea], imagine where we might be today." Every time I read about evolution or other scientific facts being denied, or breakthroughs in science being denigrated by the willfully ignorant, or members of the human race being harmed or treated differently because of 'tradition' or justification based on some old tome, or of people endangering their own or others' lives by choosing pseudoscience over true medicine, or of people living miserable and unfulfilled lives because they've had upbringings that perpetuate religious madness with their 'holy' books like a millstone around their bowed necks, I despair.
Conversely, I find one of the glorious aspects of subscribing to a freethought philosophy to be the ongoing process of throwing off the shackles that bind us in inflexible or erroneous thinking which can muffle and mar life and relationships, preventing us from being our best selves or from getting the most enjoyable experience from this one life we have. So many of the constraints that dog society in general - racism, sexism, supernaturalism, rejection of critical thinking and science, etc. - have foundations in religion and superstition. I must admit, I feel a twinge of triumph whenever I hear about someone leaving unquestioning religious obeisance behind when they've discovered that a secular worldview resonates in them - not only in the sense of "one more for our team!" but also a vicarious joy for that person entering down a path, eyes fully open, that they can create for themselves. Personal responsibility for one's life can be an immensely freeing burden.
Ideally the concept of freethinking is one that helps pull aside the obscuring veils of religion, dogma, the blind following of authority, and the many biases we may not even be aware we are entrenched in, leaving us clearer in our perceptions, thought processes, and vision. Freethought needs many voices because it's not a rigid gospel one must conform to, but a chorus of unique songs reflecting individual experiences from all avenues of life, any of which we might find meaningful in our own existence. Its precepts suffuse through politics, our social networks, careers, sexuality, self-expression, the quest for knowledge and the humbling approach to life that we always have more to learn, and that our opinions can change as evidence does. Freethought is not a doctrine, but a way of living that embraces logic and reason, empirical facts and scientific methodology, and the seeking of fulfillment based on personal, social, and political principles grounded in fair and ethical behaviour.
Being human, none of us are perfect engines of reason or untainted by bias or irrationality, of course, but the striving for better understanding of ourselves and our world through a freethinking lens is a noble pursuit. I find listening to the many varied voices the freethought philosophy has to offer immensely rewarding, educational, and entertaining in my evolving efforts to formulate my own worldview - which, thanks to a secular perspective, is a world of wonder, depth, colour, and gratitude for this rare spectacle called life. In the words of Richard Dawkins, "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born."
First Post - The History of Freethought Day
By Bella Fortuna, August 19, 2013
Freethought Day, October 12th (often celebrated on the nearest weekend), is an annual observance by secularists, humanists, freethinkers, and atheists. It's a time for those who are "out" to affiliate with the larger freethought community, and for those who aren't, to be able to do so in a supportive environment.
The date of this celebration was selected to memorialise the effective end of the infamous Salem Witch Trials in 1692. On that date, Massachusetts Governor William Phips wrote a letter to the Privy Council of the British monarchs, William and Mary, detailing the debacle the trials had descended into, in part due to the reliance of the judicial body on "spectral evidence" - testimony based on the dreams, visions, delusions, and sometimes outright fabrications, of purported witnesses - rather than a rational and evidential body of facts. (The text of this letter may be read here: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/asa_lett.htm) Phips' alert helped bring the witchcraft hysteria under control, probably sparing many lives.
With this basis, the freethought community uses this day as a rallying point to raise awareness as to the discrimination and injustices that still face the non-religious today in the United States. Sadly, America still lags behind many other countries in the world in its acceptance and normalisation of its secular and freethinking citizens. Freethought Day is also our opportunity to express pride in who we are, to teach ourselves how to be positive advocates for the secular community, educate others as to what we're all about, and to enjoy socialising and strengthen our networks of like-minded people region-wide, state-wide, and nationally.
Especially important are organisations aimed at young people, who can often feel isolated and alone in their non-belief. Groups such as the Secular Student Alliance and the Campus Freethought Alliance strive to give college and university freethinkers in the United States and across the world support and activist opportunities, while programs such as Camp Quest, the country's first secular humanist summer camp for kids, and the SSA's High School Program provide young freethinkers a place to meet others like themselves and feel a sense of belonging. Freethought Day is our chance to unify our efforts to make the freethought and secular community visible, positive, and active.
Bella Fortuna has long been a non-believer. She attended a Lutheran school for 6th grade, during which she tried hard to believe in Jesus like her beatific classmates, and was given a new bible and everything.
It didn't stick any more than at the Baptist school she went to for 1st grade, where she was cast (probably ironically) as an angel in the Nativity play.
Except for that brush with agnostic paganism, which is too embarrassing to speak about, she's been a ranting atheist for many years now. She writes stuff and complains a lot.