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Atheism in Iowa


Tom Harvey of Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers.

Tom Harvey of Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers.

As this holiday season approaches, so will the annual news rush about “the war on Christianity.” Lawsuits, or the fear of them, will encourage government entities of all sizes to ban Christmas trees, songs that mention Christmas, nativity scenes, etc.

What motivates such atheist activists? Why commit so much time and energy to removing references to something that you don’t believe exists? Josh Glasgow, a co founder of the Drake Secular Legal Society, has some answers.

“Andrew Seidel (of Freedom from Religion Foundation) talks about ‘the broken windows theory.’ You fix the little things, because if you don’t, people are far more apt to trash a deteriorating neighborhood than a clean one. If you don’t, things accumulate that grant preference to religious beliefs,” Glasgow explained, before listing a number of “broken windows” that are meant to separate religion and government, a phrase he refers to as “church and state.”

In Iowa alone, Glasgow says secular activists have shut down a public grant for a religious theme park, persuaded University of Iowa to remove Bibles from its hotel rooms, and removed biblical verses from Cedar Rapids fire trucks. He worries there are bigger problems, citing, among other things, that:

Church exemptions from taxes cost society $71 billion a year;

Pulpit Freedom Sundays allow religious leaders to stump for political candidates from the pulpit.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 allows churches to avoid zoning laws, leading to mega churches and traffic problems. The same law places undue burdens on prisoners wishing to worship, or not worship, as they please.

Unlike other non profits, churches are exempt from claiming housing allowances for priests and pastors.

There is no government supervision of religious pre-schools at a time when child molestation is worrisome.

This May’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Greece vs. Galloway overturned a finding that forbid town meetings in Greece, New York, from opening with prayers.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allowed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to find that government can not force a religious company (Hobby Lobby) to violate their beliefs unless government has “over riding reason and no other means to achieve its goals.”

Glasgow also noted that it’s very hard for an atheist to come out of the closet.

“There is so much pressure to conform. Even in our group, I am the only one to admit being atheist. Others prefer agnostic, or secularist. There is a stigma attached,“ he said, citing a Pew Charitable Foundation survey that found 20 percent of Americans are “non-religious” yet no one has ever been elected to Congress who professed his or her atheism. (A couple came out afterwards though.) For this reason, many atheists sympathize with gays. Glasgow says he grew up in Mike Huckabee’s Arkansas when religious opposition to gay marriage and hate crimes opened his eyes.

“Look around the world. Religion justifies slavery, beheadings, not allowing children to have vaccines or medical help when sick and child kidnappings. I just saw so many negative side effects of religion that I figured someone ought to work against it.”

Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers

To further my education, Glasgow arranged for me to attend a meeting of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers (IAF), held on Sunday mornings at restaurants. The group has 733 members statewide. Sixteen were present at the first meeting I attended. So was a contentious fellow who identified himself as Bruce Hall, a teacher of apologetics at Slater Baptist Church. After a brief argument, he was told he was only welcome if he did not proselytize. He called himself a freethinker, and several IAF members told him he had no idea what the word meant.

After Hall left, IAF members apologized.

“That’s the first time we threw someone out, but he came before and just attempted to convert people with scriptural arguments for the existence of God. We live our daily lives with Christian TV and billboards. Our meetings are a time and space when we can be free of that. We have welcomed curious theists and Christians here, and they provided good dialogue. This self-assured, self-righteous guy did not,” explained Randy Henderson, the Iowa State Director of American Atheists.

Two orders of business captured the group’s attention. John Freutel read a letter from an inmate at Fort Madison Penitentiary. The prisoner asked for a group endorsement for starting an atheist group there. Then Freutel advised, “Do we want to help him? This is a bad dude. He murdered a child and is serving consecutive life sentences,” he asked.

The consecutive life sentences prompted a couple jokes about afterlife beliefs, but the group decided to send literature but no endorsement. It was pointed out that Fort Madison has a Humanist Group, but it has only allowed 20 members while 200 are on its waiting list.

The second piece of business regarded dog tags that will be attached to washing machines the group purchased for Beacon of Life. There was little discussion of atheism or theism going on. Freutel said that the most contentious discussions within the group are about two issues that split them down the middle: gun control and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Roughly half the group are environmentalists and close to half are scientists. Most have critical thinking skills. When asked who believed comedian Bill Maurer was correct in asserting that a true atheist must believe that anyone who believes in God is deluded, the group split down the middle. Half of them thought the word “deluded” was unnecessarily judgmental and rude. Henderson described himself as “a former deluded faith healer.” Two others said they were former pastors or deacons. I asked about coming out of the closet.

“I was a Sunday school teacher and Bible studyist into my late 20s. Then I got my master’s degree in psychology and became a therapist. I noticed that atheists were persecuted in the work place and even in their own families, much like gays. Religious people don’t want their beliefs challenged,” Tom Harvey explained.

“Have you ever had an atheist knock on your door and try to convert you?” asked Freutel.

“I don’t start from the premise that I am right about anything. I start with an open mind,” added Henderson.

“That extends to GMOs. What we don’t know about the food we eat is related to what we don’t know about religion,” Harvey said, starting a debate.

The group suggested a reading list, and I investigated the history of atheism wondering, with all that’s been going on in the Middle East, is atheism a more tolerant alternative to religion?

From persecuted to persectuors

Atheism has precedents that go back several thousand years. Two of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism (early Mimasa and Samkhya) did not accept that a divine creator existed. Treatises were written to this effect in the 4th CE, but those beliefs are thought to have been established long before then. Ancient Jainism, which can be traced to the ninth century BCE, believed in a dualistic universe of souls and matter, neither created by a divine being. They did not, however, deny the possibility of gods, nor of man achieving “god hood.” Buddhism has long been distinguished from other major religions by its non-adherence to a supreme being or prime mover. Its scriptures discuss the possibility of gods but do not ascribe any powers of salvation, creation or judgment to them.

CV 110614 PAGE 18The Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of being an atheist in 399 BCE. Not adhering to the belief in the gods of Athens was a capital crime, though it is believed Socrates was the victim of political, not religious enemies. A hundred years before Socrates, Anaxagoras was exiled from Athens for the heresy of claiming that the sun was a fiery mass, not the god Apollo. Playwrights were given greater freedom of expression by the classical Greeks. Euripedes, in “Bellerophon” had his eponymous main character say: “Doth some one say that there be gods above? There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool, led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.” Aristophanes, in “The Knight,” wrote: “Surely you don’t believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?” Euhemerus was accused of spreading atheism over the entire world in the third century BCE by writing that gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of history.

The Bible suggests that atheism was known to the Jews. Psalms 14 says “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile.” Early Christians were deemed atheists by Romans, for not accepting the orthodox gods and goddesses of their day. It was a good excuse to execute them, too. When Christianity was established as the state religion of the Roman empire, the definition reversed and worshippers of the old gods were deemed atheists by Emperor Constantine.

Medieval Islam was a golden age of free thought, with scholar after scholar rejecting the idea of a supreme being. Imagine how long guys like Abu Bakr al Razi and Muhammad Warraq would keep their heads attached to their bodies today. Al-Ma’arri’s wrote famously that humans are of “of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

Christian Europe was not as tolerant in the Middle Ages. Any hint of atheism was punished by burning alive. Still, atheism’s existence was suggested by the fact that two great Christian scholars wrote major arguments against it — Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs of the existence of God and Anselm’s ontological argument.

The Reformation and Enlightenment changed things. The scientific and mathematical discoveries of thinkers like Copernicus, Newton and Descartes developed natural laws that would cast doubt on theological dogma. In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza was kicked out of his synagogue for claiming that God did not interfere with the universe and that natural laws determined its phenomena. Spinoza did not have many followers, as the orthodox churches fought such free thought. His contemporary in Poland, Kazimierz Łyszczyńsk, wrote that man created God, not the other way around. Despite the intercession of the Polish king, Łyszczyńsk was beheaded, after first having his tongue pulled out with a fiery iron and his hands slowly burned off. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlow, was murdered while defending himself against charges of atheism after writing a denial of the divinity of Jesus.

Jean Jacques Rousseau challenged the Christian notion that human beings had been tainted by original sin. He proposed that humans were originally good, only later to be corrupted by civilization. The French Revolution established a Cult of Reason that was celebrated with a carnival of parades, ransacking of churches, and murder of priests. Its atrocities produced perhaps the most famous line regarding atheism. The philosopher Voltaire was accused of being a main cause of many outbursts of atheism. However, observing that a belief in God restrained the atrocities of revolutionaries, he said “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

Josh Glasgow is a co-founder of Drake Secular Society.

Josh Glasgow is a co-founder of Drake Secular Society.

Jean Meslier, a Catholic priest, published the first book solely promoting atheism in the early 18th century. Paris became a center of free thought. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and David Hume visited such salons of freethinking. Hume wrote a history of England that ridiculed miracles and implied that if God existed, he was impotent. Because of Hume, Edinburgh gained a reputation as a “haven of atheism.”

Poet Percy Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University in 1811 for writing a pamphlet that is considered the first atheist literature written in English. Germany produced several atheist thinkers in the 19th century — Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Karl Marx being the most famous. Marx would call religion “the opium of the people” and Nietzsche would coin the phrase  “Gott ist tot,” (god is dead).

The 20th century produced Bertrand Russell who rejected the existence of God, Ludwig Wittgenstein who separated metaphysical and supernatural language, and H.L. Mencken who concluded that science and religion were incompatible. It sadly also produced the first militant atheist states which would brutally persecute religious believers in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Albania, China and all over Eastern Europe. Joseph Stalin’s energetic anti-Christian politics led Pope Pius XI to write that atheistic Communism was “undermining the very foundations of Christian civilization.” Atheists in power seemed no more tolerant than religious extremists in power.

CV 110614 PAGE 17While the United States became a bastion of Christianity, Vashti McCollum brought the 1948 Supreme Court case that struck down religious education in public schools, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair brought  the 1963 Supreme Court case that banned compulsory prayer in public schools. In 2013 the first atheist monument on American government property, a giant granite bench at the Bradford County (Florida) Courthouse, was inscribed with quotes by Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Murray-O’Hair.

Despite the appearance of progress this century, Iowa atheists are still wary of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Justice Scalia believes in the devil. He’s been quoted saying that atheism favors the devil’s desires,” Glasgow reminds. CV

One Comment

  1. Willard Bolinger says:

    Good article! I lived south of Fort Dodge in Gowrie for three and a half years from Sept 2006-July 2009 and would dri70 miles for the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers meetings and events, but also Gay Pride March, Book Sale Volunteer for Planned Parenthood. and more like picnics. We had a caravan of cars that went to Omaha to hear Richard Dawkins speak in their large auditorium! Good active group. I started a Fort Dodge Atheists, Humanists and Freethinkers with an online site with informatinal pages that were accessible to anyone who checked the site out. Then there was a closed site for members only to protect the identity of memers. 861 people came to the dite but anyone in the country could have found the sites, some people emailed me and said they were interested but did not want to become members, but they enjoyed the huge amount of information that I provided people and sites for them to check out for themselves.

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