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March 1989

A Journal of Atheist News and Thought



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American Atheist

March 1989

A Journal of Atheist News and Thought

American Atheist

Editor's Desk
R. Murray-O'Hair




One reader wants to find the Atheist's
role in music and art, while another
learns that there were indeed Atheists
in foxholes.

On the cover: Austrian and
German Atheists have been
charged with blasphemy for
distributing material on which
this cartoon appears. Cover
design by Nicki Jensen.


In West Germany, Atheists are risking
jobs and liberty in criminal prosecutions. The charge? Blasphemy!

Myths and Misconceptions
about Atheists and Atheism
Gary Yokie

Forbidden Words
Jon G. Murray

The Middle Ages Are Alive
Gottfried Niemietz

In the United States new blasphemy
laws are being introduced, and in Europe old ones are being enforced. But
what exactly is blasphemy, and from
where did the idea of forbidding certain thoughts come?


Religious people have some odd ideas
about nonreligious people. And it's
time to debunk them.

Talking Back


AllAtheists face "The Basic Question"
at least eighty-seven times in their lifetimes.

The Probing Mind
Frank R. Zindler


Part II of "How Did Life Begin?" finds
even more pieces to the puzzle.

Historical Notes


In the past, the Roman Catholic
church fought a gravediggers' union
and an Arizona Atheist fought school


Report from India
Margaret Bhatty


Members of an Indian sect say, "No
Sex, Please, We Are Brahma Kumaris"
and think that their celibacy willbring
world peace.

History of the Antiklerikaler
Arbeitskreis Salzburg

Volume 31, NO.3

Austin, Texas

Members of an Austrian Atheist organization are facing jail terms and fines
- simply for saying the truth about
the Roman Catholic church.
March 1989




American Atheist Radio Series
Madalyn O'Hair


George Washington, Florence Nightingale, Mark Twain, William Butler
Yeats - are these "More Freethinkers"?

Letters to the Editor


Classified Advertisements

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ADlerican Atheist

Membership Application For
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R. Murray~O'Hair
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March 1989

American Atheist

Editor's Desk

Born-again blasphemy
mericans tend to look upon Western Europe as a bastion of liber.,
ality, tolerance, and scientific
thinking. What else could one think
from what one generally learns through
the media? Here in the United States, a
politician's career can be killed if it is
learned that he had sex with a consenting' adult female who was not his lawfully wedded wife. But in Italy, a woman
with what we in the United States would
call a "very tarnished past" sits in the
national parliament. In the "land of the
free" breasts may not be bared in public
or on prime-time television, but the
Playboy Channel shows us a Munich
park in which birthday suits are the normal mode of attire. While we propose
constitutional amendments to protect
the "unborn" from abortion, France's
government orders a pharmaceutical
company to market a "morning after"
pill which induces miscarriage. While
our school boards are still debating
whether the book of Genesis is a science
text, the theory of evolution is taught
without question in European schools.
All this would make many an American from the Bible Belt (which extends
from the Canadian to the Mexican borders) long for the fields of Dijon, the
streets of Copenhagen, and the forests
of Germany. Unfortunately, the real European situation is much the same as
our own: there is all the freedom one
would want - if one does not question
the most basic ideas of religion and
government. And that is what this issue
of the American Atheist is all about.
As Jon Murray explains in his article
"Forbidden Words," the questioning
and criticism of religious and political
ideas is blasphemy. And blasphemy is
still a punishable offense in every European country except Belgium.
Are the blasphemy statutes simply
dead laws, unenforced but still on the
books? This month we feature two articles in answer to that question. The

R. Murray-O'Hair
Austin, Texas


"History of the Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis
Salzburg" chronicles the punishments
which Atheists and anticlericals have
faced as a result of trying to exercise
their freedom of speech in Austria. In
"The Middle Ages Are Alive," Gottfried
Niemietz, the defense lawyer for several blasphemy defendants, outlines the
difficulties which Atheists and secularists face in the "free" republic of West
Germany. As you read the two articles
you willbe shocked that such basic human rights abuses - for surely the desire to be free from religion is a right could exist in the Western world. Our
occidental bias would have us expect
them in some obscure Eastern country
- but in the land of Haeckel and Heine,
or of Mozart and Freud?
During the month of March, Gottfried
Niemietz and Beatrix Steinebrunner, as
representatives of the Bunte Liste Freiburg, visited the American Atheist General Headquarters, as did Anton Neureiter, the secretary-general of the Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis Salzburg. We, of
course, flooded them with questions as
to how Europe, which we in the United
States perceive as liberal, could be
home to blasphemy persecutions in this
day and age. Our German and Austrian
guests perceived that there had been a
steady increase of religious repression
since about 1983, feeling that it had
started in the German-speaking countries
and was spreading outward. They also
spoke of the massive discrimination
which we American Atheists have not
faced so much in recent years: hotels refusing to rent meeting space, print
shops declining to print their material,
merchants spurning their business. We
had not expected that Atheist groups
would face such problems in enlightened
Europe; we encounter them less and
-less frequently in these United States.
But our Austrian and German guests
also emphasized the importance of the
fight for free thought in the United
States. Overseas, the influence and
money of the United States is of importance, certainly of much more importance
March 1989

then we, the citizens of this land, tend to
consider. Our government pumps out
money to foreign governments; our entertainment industry pumps out propaganda in the form of movies, fashion,
books, and music; our military presence
is felt in many lands. What we think thus
has an impact in many other countries:
If the United States falls back into the
cesspool of the Middle Ages, it willtake
many other countries with it.
But if we as a nation choose the path
of reason, we can, with all our resources,
literally save the world from another
Age of Unreason. American impact has
already been felt in the German and
Austrian blasphemy procedures, as our
two articles attest.
Is the situation overseas dire - or are
the various German and Austrian prosecutions freak occurrences? An upcoming article by Barbara Smoker, president of England's National Secular Society, describes how the blasphemy statutes in England are under consideration, not for abandonment, but for expansion to include the Islamic religion.
The most famous recent blasphemy
case in England was in the 1970s.
The situations existing in Germany,
Austria, and England forecast such a
dire future for Atheism in Europe that
the shadow of it looms to our shores where we already are mired in religion.
If blasphemy trials would be added to
our tribulations in the United States, the
immediate future would be grim indeed.
As the experiences of our comrades in
Europe show, actual imprisonment for
the offense of blasphemy is not necessary in order to cripple or even destroy
an antireligious organ or group. The
cost of defense against such a charge bot]i in money and in time - can do the
job. The fear that one such blasphemy
action can create can silence thousands
of other Atheists.
But is there such danger of blasphemy prosecutions in the United States?
Look south, for the Louisiana legislature has, this summer, just had introduced
into it a measure against blasphemy. ~
Page 3

Ask A.A.

Art and atheism
Are there any books on the history of
art - music, painting, sculpture written from the Atheist's point of view?
The pious often refer to religious works
of art as "proof' of their beliefs. Actually,
until recently it was difficultor impossible
for an artist or musician to pursue his
craft and support himself without sponsorship of churches and royalty. This, of
course, explains the wealth of major
religious works of art.
In common with a true craftsman who
finds it impossible to turn out a shoddy
product, an artist is compelled to produce
a "perfect" product even when the subject is detestable. As a youth (about forty-fiveyears ago) I worked as a musician
for a number of years. I recall requests
for songs I disliked. Nevertheless I did
my best and often in such cases turned
out a performance which was enthusiastically applauded.
A work of art expresses emotion; it
does not reveal the intellectual convictions of the artist. I feel sure that this
subject offers a most fruitful subject for
Harry R. Le Grand

In "Letters to the Editor," readers give
their opinions, ideas, and information.
But in "Ask A.A.," American Atheists
answers questions regarding its policies, positions, and customs, as
well as queries of factual and historical
situations. Please address your
questions to "Ask A.A.," P.O. Box
140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195.

Page 4

There must be a thousand books
written, just to begin, to present to the
people and the nations of the world the
many virtues of Atheism. It is indeed
true that art, architecture, music, painting, sculpture, allprostituted themselves
to religion - fortifying it, enhancing it,
making it more palatable to humankind.
This is the tragedy of history.
But education, law, politics, science,
mathematics, astronomy, physics and
other disciplines did the same. The
world still has its feet stuck in the mud
of the most primitive ideas, all carefully
preserved, protected, and foisted still
upon the peoples of the world. This is
the tragedy of our times.
American Atheist Press publishes
books: those of you in the arts should
begin now to evaluate your own history
analyzing the coercive aspects of reliMarch 1989

gion and what it has done to your art
If you will write; we will publish.
It is exciting to obtain a letter such as
yours - for so few persons know what
has been and what is now with religion,
the harsh master it is.

Three-letter words
I support separation of state and
church. However, I do believe that
some force( s) caused and is keeping the
universe in order, and I don't see why
the name of god or GOD can't be used
to label that force or combination of
Furthermore, if I ever run for public
office I don't think it would be wise to
throwaway votes over a three-letter
Additionally, I don't understand how
provoking Christians to anger by carrying signs around which are blasphemous
to their religion is going to help our
I am sending $25 for the magazine
because I would like to know more
about the good things you're doing.
Lee N. Booher
American Atheists are agnostic concerning the "cause" of the universe.
What is more, we are agnostic about
the universe itself. That is, the universe,
as far as we are concerned, has yet to
be defined. We are agnostic about a
''force'' involved with any of it. That is
to say: we don't know the answers. The
answers are yet to come from space
exploration, from astronomy, from
astrophysics. When all the information
is in, American Atheists feel assured
that all that will be uncovered are
immutable natural laws with no "immanent conscious purpose."
Why not call this god? Because the
"god idea" brings each and all ultimately
to attendance at churches and to acceptance of church dogma. Interference in human living to the ultimate
American Atheist

Were there Atheists in foxholes? The
medals and battle stars awarded to
Madalyn O'Hair during World War II
answer an emphatic yes. Another godless
veteran, Arnold Via (seen at right picketing Jerry Falwell's church), wants to
start a group for Atheist veterans. His
four Atheist brothers would probably be
the first members.

disastrous consequences are seen everywhere because of the dominance of
religious (i.e., non rational) ideas. That's
why. Shame on you that you would
make such a suggestion.
Atheists have run and willcontinue to
runfor public office. American Atheists,
as distinguished from other wimps and
cowards, have been and will be happy
to identify their proud heritage of Atheism. Sorry that you are so gutless.
Atheists picket whenever there is
occasion to do so. We presume that had you lived in the late 1890s - you
would have found it offensive to the
male ego for women to picket for equal
recognition since that was "blasphemous" to the dominant male chauvinism of the times. Atheists have been in
the forefront of the battle for freedom of
speech: nothing is sacred. Every idea
must enter the free marketplace of
ideas prepared to defend itself. It cannot
hide behind a charge of blasphemy
against those who would strip away the
false dressing in which an idea is displayed. All religion must do is to prove
the verity of its claims. Atheism is ready
to do that.

George La Forest
It is so difficult to do statistical studies in respect to Atheism and Atheists
that one could readily say it was impossible. In this instance, the proper procedure would be to contact every soldier
who was in a particular battle area and
ask him if he had been religious at the
time or if he had been an Atheist. How
would we ever get current addresses?
How could we expect a reply - who
would care to give one?
As a modest start we have several
times surveyed our members asking
when, where, and how they came to
Atheism. We have also tried a nose
count of "Atheists in foxholes." We
know of a dozen or so. We have members who are now in the military. Dr.
o 'Hair, a commissioned officer in the
Signal Corps of the Women's Army
Corps (WAC), was a practicing Atheist
during WWII in North Africa, when she
was on General Eisenhower's staff in
Italy, and later at Supreme Allied Headquarters in Paris, France. Her medals
include two battle stars.
Perhaps in 1989 we can make another
effort to obtain such information. When
we do, it will appear in a future issue of
the American Atheist magazine. ~

Atheist veterans
I am an Atheist, though an "unchurched" freelancer and a veteran of
All of us have heard the cliche "there
is no Atheist in a foxhole." We know it
is false, and I seek to counteract it.
Has American Atheists made any
surveys of the number of Atheists in
combat or combat areas? I would like to
have such figures, for when I say that I
was an Atheist in the Pacific under
Douglas MacArthur, they say, "Oh,
George, you are an exception, you're
one of the good Atheists."
I'm sure there must have been a good
many Atheists in combat, not only in
WWII, but in the CivilWar (Cot. Ingersoll
and others), WWI, Korea, and Vietnam.
If American Atheists has some count
or estimate of their number, it would
help in the propagation of Atheism.
Austin, Texas

March 1989

Page 5



Think what you
may, but the
church and the
state can control
what you say.

What is blasphemy?


To begin, if we turn to the dictionary
for a definition of blasphemy we find:


1. Profane speaking of God or
sacred things; impious irreverence. 2. gen. Slander, evil speaking, defamation.'

Jon G. Murray
A graduate of the University of
Texas at Austin and a second
generation Atheist, Mr. Murray is
a proponent of "agressive Atheism." He is an anchorman on the
"American Atheist Forum" and
the president of American
Page 6

n this issue of the American Atheist an examination of contemporary
laws concerning state defined crimes
of blasphemy in Austria and Germany
are under consideration, chronicled
from the standpoint of those charged.
The issues and laws concerning these
modern- day blasphemy trials are welldefined and delineated by the principals
so I need not address them here. Instead,
I would like to take a look at "blasphemy" as a concept and how it has been
applied to all dissenters with regard to
religion and in particular to Atheists.
Many books could be written on the
history and development of blasphemy
as a concept and as a "crime." Many
have been. I shall only attempt here to
give a brief overview.

We see, up front, that blasphemy is
defined with reference to a deity. That
is, it is a concept derived from religious
belief, from the "god" idea. Ifone speaks
or writes against the notion of a deity or,
in the case of the religionist, the believed
deity, that is blasphemy. Thus it has
been and is one of a growing list of "victimless crimes." What is and is not to be
considered blasphemous differs from
culture to culture "andevolves over time
with regard to severity. In ancient times
much less, in terms of written or spoken
irreverence, was required to constitute
blasphemy than in modern times of
slowly increasing toleration. A mere inference or nuance could garner one the

!The Compact Edition of the Oxford English
Dictionary, Complete Text, vol. 1 (Oxford,
England: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.

March 1989

most horrific of penalties.

Old Testament blasphemy
According to Mosaic law the penalty
for blasphemy was death.
And he that blasphemeth the
name of the Lord, he shall surely
be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as
well the stranger, as he that is born
in the land, when he blasphemeth
the name of the Lord, shall be put
to death. (Lev. 24:16)2

Blasphemy in the
Holy Roman Empire
In the Roman Empire, the Seventyseventh Novel of Justinian- assigned
death as the penalty for blasphemy as
did the Capitularies.'
A large portion of the definability of
blasphemy as an indictable offense
comes from the Courts Christian and
the Courts of Common Law in England.
This is in distinction to its history as a
canonical sin. We have great bodies of
doctrine extant as relate to blasphemy
from the point of view of clerics, and
then also a fairly large body of case law
chronicling the application of that dog-

2The Holy Bible, Authorized King James
Version (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gideons
International, National Publishing Company,
3Justinian I (Flavius Anicius Justinianus),
AD. 483-565; Byzantine emperor AD. 527565. Leading jurists under his reign formulated the code of laws called the Justinian
4Aseries of legislative or administrative acts
emanating from the Merovingian (Frankish
dynasty reigning in Gaul and Germany from
about AD. 500 to 751) and Carolingian
(Frankish dynasty reigning in France from
AD. 751until 987 and in Germany until AD.
911) kings, so called as being divided into
sections or chapters (capitula). Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 5, p. 282; and
The American College Dictionary (New
York: Harper, 1944.)
American Atheist

ma by state authorities. We all know
that until the very recent past, in terms
of the history of civilization, the state
and the church have been virtually indistinguishable. It was often the case
that secular and ecclesiastical courts
shared justices, and the judgment of a
"spiritual" court usually required a secular court judgment prior to execution.
Though blasphemy is rooted in theological dogma, it has taken on the common dual definition of covering contempt for secular rules as well as those
of imaginary deities due to the conflation of biblical and statutory dicta.

a religious error held in wilful
and persistent opposition to the
truth after it has been defined and
declared by the church in an authoritative manner. 6
Heresy "denotes an opinion antagonistic to a fundamental article of the Christian faith" that is brought on through an
outside influence reaching into the body
of the faithful with ideas that contradict
what the leadership has officially determined is the "true" nature of Christianity.

It is not possible to examine blasphemy without also looking at heresy.
Throughout the literature, both legal
and theological, the two terms are used
sometimes almost interchangeably.
Opening the dictionary again, we find as
regards heresy:
1. Theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to
the "catholic" or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or,
by extension, to that of any church,
creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox.
2. By extension, Opinion or
doctrine in philosophy, politics,
science, art, etc., at variance with
those generally accepted as authoritative.
3. Opinion or doctrine characterizing particular individuals or
parties; a school of thought; a
Heresy is again a word that can only
be defined on the basis of the god idea.
A definition of heresy took centuries to
be reached by the Christian Church. It
is specifically, in church terms,

Heresy is also dependent on orthodoxy, the assumption that church authorities can declare what is truth and
what is error in matters religious. Operating on that premise, heresy is distinguished from early stages of Christian
thinking that later came to be declared
defective. If a believer forms a hypothesis regarding some aspect of Church
doctrine that is later determined by
Church hierarchy to be invalid, that person would not be considered a heretic
unless he continued to hold the "false"
view after it was so declared, and attempted "pertinaciously, in spite of
warning, remonstrance and rebuke, aggressively to win over others, and so factiously, to cause division in the church,
a breach in its unity,"?

A heretic is someone who has received instruction as to the allowable
opinion in a theological matter, within
Church teaching, and chooses voluntarily to reject that teaching and hold to
a conflicting opinion. It is, like blasphemy, a victimless crime. The term heretic
is not then applicable to an Atheist, because an Atheist does not accept the au-

6PhilipSchaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, vol.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford Eng/ish


Austin, Texas

2, pp. 512-16, as quoted in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.

March 1989

thority of any church. To be a heretic,
one needs to be a religionist to begin and
to be merely in conflict with the established doctrine of a particular sect of religion. The more fitting term, from a
Christian viewpoint, for an Atheist is
that of infidel. An infidel is one who has
had a particular faith or god belief in
general presented to him and refuses to
accept the tenets of that faith or belief
system altogether. Also, from the Christian perspective, an Atheist can be a
blasphemer because all that blasphemy
requires is the speaking or writing contemptuously of a deity figure.
Theologians and jurists have been
grappling over the boundary between
the offenses of heresy and blasphemy
for over seven hundred years. English
common law did not, through the end of
the eighteenth century, fix a firm boundary between the two offenses, treating
heretical opinion as sometimes also

The Atheist
As an Atheist I cannot see myself as
being either a heretic or a blasphemer.
Since Atheists do not have a belief system, I do not accept the premise of the
existence of a god so I cannot be held in
contempt for not adhering to the mythological dogma built upon that premise
by those who do believe. I would need
first to accept the idea of god; then I
would have to accept the complicated
belief system that has been built upon
that premise over thousands of years;
then I would need to be at variance with
a particular aspect of that entire thought
system vis-a-vis the leadership among
the set of believers - then I could qualify as a "heretic." I do not see how I can
qualify as a blasphemer either, because
I would need to accept the premise of
the existence of a god in order to have
an entity to blaspheme against. One
cannot blaspheme against something if
that something does not exist. Therefore,
from the Atheist viewpoint, both blasphemy and heresy are nonsense words.
Blasphemy and heresy are defined in
Page 7

The sculptor Phidias was charged with
impiety because of his representation

terms of the god idea, which an Atheist
does not accept. Even the term infidel
does not really apply to me. That term
also is defined on the assumption that
there is a god or that faith is a viable
human concept and that a person has
the choice of either accepting or denying that god concept or faith. All of the
labels for those who do not fit into a faith
or god belief system are necessarily defined in terms of that system being true,
or a standard against which to be judged
or defined.
Since religion has had control of the
majority of cultures for most of human
history, definitions are mostly based in
religious terms. The assumption is that
there is a "god." Once that fact is accepted then terms are coined to describe
those who do not accept that premised
"fact" and the various classes of folks
who do, but who differ on the historical
fallout from that basic acceptance. The
entity which has social and political control does the defining.
Now that we have that realization out
of the way, let us take a look at some of
the history of blasphemy. I will try to
leave heresy out of it for starters.

We must start in the pre-Christian
era. In the fifth century B.C. in Greece,
the Athenians prided themselves on
freedom of speech, except when it came
to "the gods." To the Greeks impietys
was the crime, not blasphemy. The
Greeks allowed criticism of the state but
not of the gods or any of the many rituals surrounding them. Any disruption
or mockery of the Dionysian? service

8"l.lack of piety; lack of reverence for God;
ungodliness. 2. lack of dutifulness or respect"
(The American College Dictionary).
9"The orgiastic and dramatic festivals in
honor of Dionysus or Bacchus (the gods of
wine), celebrated periodically in various
parts of Greece, especially those of Attica,
out of which Greek comedy and tragedy developed" (TIle American CollegeDictionary).
Page 8

was a punishable form of impiety. Then
came the Greek scientists and philosophers. It was acceptable for them to hypothesize about the universe as long as
they ascribed natural phenomena to the
gods, but speculation contemptuous of
the gods was impiety. .
One of the first to run afoul of the prohibition of applying the budding forms of
logic of the period to the gods was Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.). He regarded
the gods of the Athenians as mythic abstractions. He maintained, for example,
that the sun was a fiery mass of stone or
iron and the moon an earthlike sphere
and that neither were manifestations of
gods. Prompted by pronouncements of
Anaxagoras, Diopeithes persuaded the
Athenian assembly to pass a law calling
for the indictment of those who did not
believe in the gods. Anaxagoras was immediately in trouble. Pericles (490-429
B.C.), a close pupil of Anaxagoras and a
rising political figure, represented him at
his trial and saved him from a death sentence. Pericles sent him off to safety to die in exile. Pericles also had to defend his mistress Aspasia (ca. 445 B.C.)
on impiety charges as well, winning her
an acquittal. He had no such luck with
his friend Phidias (ca. 5OO-ca.433 B.C.),
the artist who had designed the interior
of the Parthenon and who was the sculptor of the statue of the goddess Athena
therein. He signed that great work by
March 1989

leaving figures of himself and Pericles on
Athena's shield. Phidias died in prison
around 433 B.C. while awaiting trial.
Euripides (480-406 B.C.), the tragic
poet and playright; Protagoras (ca. 481411 B.C.), the sophist philosopher; and
Alcibiades (450-404 B.C.), the general
and politician, all became victims of
charges of impiety - and last but certainly not least came Socrates (469-399
B.C.). One of the best-known trials for
what became blasphemy in the Christian era was that of Socrates. Even Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was forced to flee
Athens under an indictment for impiety.
The Greek crime of impiety was very
nearly the same as that of treason because the gods and the state were so
closely intertwined.

Judeo-Christian blasphemy
When Christianity reared its ugly
head and came to power, the basis for
blasphemy changed.
The Old Testament imparted to the
character Moses the authority of "lawgiver to the Jews" since he was supposedly the only person who had actually
talked to or seen god face to face,> or
who had ever seen god's bare butt for
that matter,» and who had been imbued
by god with the ability to perform miracles (Leviticus). In his capacity as lawgiver, he laid down the law on blasphemy, as I have already quoted from Leviticus. The Old Testament and the Talmudv confined blasphemy to direct defamation of the deity, quite unlike the far
broader Greek crime of impiety. Old
Testament blasphemy was a kind of
treason against the ultimate "king," the

lO"Andthe Lord spake unto Moses face to
face, as a man speaketh unto his friend"
11"1willput thee in a clift of the rock, and will
cover thee with my hands while I pass by:
And I will take away mine hand, and thou
shalt see my back parts; but my face shall
not be seen" (Exod. 33:22-23).
12Theauthoritative body of Jewish tradition.
American Atheist

Modern Bible scholars agree that if
Jesus had been tried for blasphemy as
the New Testament claims, he would
have been stoned, not crucified.

creator. Blasphemy to the Jews was not
the reviling of sacred customs, beliefs,
or institutions. Blasphemy was a capital
sin and defined tightly as an offense
against god and hence was inextricably
tied to idolatry. Both blasphemy and
idolatry were viewed as rejections of
god, one by worshipping a "false" mancreated god and the other by directly
cursing god.13
The Hebrew word for blaspheme has
a variety of meanings, one of which is
"pronounce distinctly." The Talmud required that a blasphemer had to curse
the name of god by the name. This made
the crime a little difficult because no one
knew the actual name of god because it
had never been revealed unto Moses as
it was the most sacred of the sacred.
The "ineffable"14name of God can only
be represented by the English letters
JHVH or JHWH, or alternately YHVH
or YHWH. (Ancient Hebrew writing
had no vowels.) This set of four letters
is called the tetragammaton. It can be
pronounced in Hebrew as "Adonai" (the
Lord) and transliterated into English as
"Jehovah," or "Yahweh," or "Yahve" or
"Yahveh," or "Jahveh" or "Jahve." A
rough meaning is "I am who 1am." Over
the centuries, as the usage of the tetragammaton diminished, it became more
the case that the mere utterance of the
sacred name "god" was blasphemy in
and of itself. The Hebrews avoided the
altogether by using
Adonai or "Elohim" (god).
When someone was charged with
blasphemy in the old Hebrew culture, he
was brought before the Sanhedrin. The
lower tribunal had twenty-three rabbinic judges whose jurisdiction included
criminal cases. The penalty for blasphemy was to be stoned to death. This tribunal very rarely gave that death penalty

13"Thoushalt not revile the gods, nor curse
the ruler of thy people" (Exod. 22:28).
14"1.that cannot be uttered or expressed;
inexpressible; unspeakable. 2. that must not
be uttered" (American College Dictionary).
Austin, Texas

for blasphemy prescribed by Talmudic
tradition because the crime was so difficult to prove,> and the usual form of
punishment was flogging - which in
time turned into merely excommunication.

The Romans
Then came the Romans. As the conquerors of Judea, they exercised the judicial power over life and death. Judea
became subject to Roman law after the
fallof the Temple around AD. 70 (or AD.
66 with the overthrow of the Sadduceanl6 priesthood dynasty). Thereafter
confirmation of the Roman governor
was required before the execution of a
death sentence handed down by the
native Sanhedrin, stripping it of its capital jurisdiction. The Sanhedrin still retained the functions of an inferior tribu-

15The difficulty was that the witnesses
against a person charged with blasphemy
could not repeat the blasphemous statement
because in doing so they would need to utter
the unutterable name of god. With the strict
rules of evidence in the Sanhedrin, it was
rare indeed to get a conviction and application of the ultimate penalty.
16Asingle Sadducean family, that of Annas,
dominated the high priest position over the
Temple from around A.D. 6 to 66. They
bought the position with family wealth from
the Roman governors. The high priest also
presided over the Sanhedrin.
March 1989

nal, that of arrest and the holding of
"grand jury" type hearings, to bring accusations. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction over offenses by Jews defined within religious laws, such as blasphemy,
apostasy (defection), or idolatry. Offenses against the Roman state were
handled by Roman tribunals. Charges
such as murder, robbery, or rape were
often tried by both bodies, each under
their own guidelines, but the offenses of
sedition and treason or other political
crimes were exclusively under the jurisdiction of the Roman courts.
Now enter the character of Jesus. 1
shall not go into the historicity question
except to say that it is the position of
many Atheists that Jesus was not a historical figure. Biblical accounts of Jesus
are theology rather than an accurate
historical record. The Bible goes into a
somewhat detailed accounts of the "trial
of Jesus." The Bible books of Mark,
Matthew, Luke, and John differ substantially in their accounts of what was
alleged to have been a trial for blasphemy of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Yet
many liberal religious scholars of the
Bible claim that it was impossible for
Jesus to have been tried by the Sanhedrin. If he had been and had been found
guilty, he would have been stoned," not
crucified. The scholars claim that the
trial of Jesus was all Pilate's» doing, if it
occurred at all, and that the charge for
which Jesus died was the Roman crime
of treason and not the Hebrew crime of

Christian blasphemy
For the next four hundred years after
the alleged trial of Jesus, the growing
Christian community made blasphemy
one of its primary concerns. During this

17"And thou shalt stone him with stones,
that he die" (Deut. 13:6-10) and " ... and
shall stone them with stones, till they die"
(Deut. 17:1-5).
18Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea
A.D. 26-36.
Page 9

The Council of Nicaea laid down some
of the first rules on what was and what
was not permissible thought in the
Christian world.
period, blasphemy
took on its dual
meaning, being combined with the concept of heresy. Instead of the old Hebrew concept of reviling god by name,
blasphemy's definition was broadened
to include factionalism within the body
of the Christian faithful. Blasphemy began to signify any attitude that challenged the unity of the Christian community. That notion in turn transformed
blasphemy and impiety into any viewpoint or utterance. that deviated from
the "true faith" of the group in power.
Blasphemies were, in essence, "political" crimes within the emerging sociopolitical apparatus that would become
the Roman Catholic church. The problem then became the establishment of a
"true faith," against which persons
could be judged, out of the hodgepodge
of twenty-seven early Christian books,
each contradicting one another.
When the Council of Nicaea met in
AD. 325 and formulated the first creed
of the infant Roman Catholic church, its
directives fueled the flames of blasphemy charges as the dissidents to its promulgations became blasphemers
heretics in the eyes of the Roman emperor Constantine I (AD. 324-337). The
Nicene Creed was reconfirmed at the
Council of Constantinople
of AD. 381,
and trinitarianism was confirmed at the
Council of Chalcedon in AD. 451. The
emergence of a centralized "church" required the syncretistic forces of a series
of emperors, wars, and councils to forge
a somewhat cohesive dogma out of the
doctrines of the Paulinists,'? Johannines.v

19Thecenter of Pauline thought is the doctrine of justification by faith and the acceptance of Jesus as Christ and Lord. Paul believed that baptism accomplishes unity with
Christ and that the response of faith creates
a community - the people of god. The central act of worship is the Lord's Supper a common meal in which the community celebrates the presence of Ch~ist and anticipates his coming (Harper's Bible Dictionary,
ed. Paul J. Achtemeir [New York: Harper &
Row, 1985],pp. 757-65).
Page 10

Meletians.w Arians,"

or Athanasians."
and Dona-

When Theodosius




2°The Johannines believed, according to the
Gospel of John, that Jesus was really human
as well as being the Lord, and that he had
come in the flesh. They placed emphasis on
obeying the love commandment (Ibid., pp.
21Gnosticism equated Creation with the
Fall, regarded the material world as evil, and
offered salvation from the oppressive bonds
of material existence through gnosis, or
"knowledge." They saw in Jesus the emissary from an alien god who had descended
into this world to save his kindred spirits, the
elect (Ibid., pp. 349-50).
22The followers of Marcion, active in Rome
around A.D. 140,accepted the Gnostic principle of the dualism of divine spirit versus
corrupt matter. They regarded the Passion
(the gospel narrative of the suffering of
Christ [Mark 14-15]and parallel passages in
the other gospels) as an illusion and rejected
the humanity of Jesus. They were antiSemitic and sought to purge Christianity of
its Judaic origins.
23Those who held the view that Jesus was so
nearly indistinguishable from god that one
might be led to question his humanity.
March 1989

I (ca. AD. 346-395),

24Areligious movement of the second century of persons who protested, in the name
of the Gospel, the movement of the Church
from small congregations into the world,
conforming to its customs, and acknowledging its authorities. They desired to remain in
a small group adhering to a strict Christian
lifewhile waiting for a new and final outpouring of the Spirit. Their sect was marked by
enthusiasm and prophesying and their expectation of a glorious earthly kingdom of
Christ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.,
vol. 18, p. 757).
25Inthe fourth century, Sabellianism became
a collective name for all those Unitarian doctrines in which the divine nature of Christ
was acknowledged. It was championed by
those who followed Sabellius (born ca. A.D.
230), an early Christian presbyter and theologian from Libya. The central proposition
was to the effect that Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit are the same person, three names
thus being attached to one and the same being. To explain one being's having various
forms of manifestation, Sabellius pointed to
the tripartite nature of man - body, soul,
and spirit.
26Asect founded by Meletius of Lycopolis in
the fourth century in the district of Thebes
in Egypt, otherwise known as the "Church
of the Martyrs." Meletius refused to receive
into his church those Christians who during
the persecutions under Diocletian had renounced their faith and then repented. This
was in contrast to the other Egyptian bishops who were willing to grant absolution to
those who were willing to do penance for
their infidelity (Encyclopaedia Britannica,
11th ed., vol. 18, p. 94).
27Followers of Arius of Alexandria (ca. A.D.
318)who put forth the proposition that god
was "the Father," and he was one, infinite
and indivisible. According to this position,
god was uncreated, existed forever, and
ruled as sole sovereign and judge.
28Semi-Arians thought that the "essence" of
god was similar, at least in some respects, to
that of Christ, in contrast to the Arians who
felt that god's essence was not the same as
that of Christ; it was separate and distinct.
American Atheist

At the time that Hypatia was killed for
her heresy, the Library of Alexandria,
the greatest repository of pre-Christian
thought, was also destroyed.

a devout Athanasian,» became emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in AD.
~9, he presided over legislation in AD.
380 that made Catholic Christianity the
official and exclusive religion of the Roman Empire. This made secular punishment for the theological crime of heresy possible. By AD. 435, there were sixty laws against Christian heretics. The
first use of capital punishment for heresy was in AD. 385, when Bishop Pricillius
of Spain and six followers were decapitated. Then in Alexandria in AD. 415,
under the patriarch Cyrillus, Christians
kidnapped and murdered Hypatia,"
one of the foremost neo-Platonic philosophers of the era.

Who's a Christian?
The principle focus of Christianity,
dissenter against dissenter, revolved
around the crime of heresy until the age

29The Nicenes (Athanasians) believed in
"God the Father" and in Jesus Christ, "the
Son of God," begotten of the Father, from
the essence of the Father, "God from God,"
one in essence with the Father.
30Asect of the Christian Church of northern
Africa of the fourth century. The basic belief
was that the validity of all sacerdotal (priestly) acts depended upon the personal character of the agent. "The question arising out of
that belief was as to the eligibilityfor sacer. dotal office of the traditores, or those who
had delivered up their copies of the Scriptures under the compulsion of the Diocletian persecution ... " (Ibid., vol 8, p. 410).
31Athanasians defined their faith as belief in
"God the Father" and Jesus Christ "the Son
of God" as begotten of the Father from the
essence of the Father, "God from God," begotten and not made, one in essence with
the Father.
Arianism, on the other hand, recognized
Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as divine by
the Father's grace, although not in actuality
of essence.
I have heard about "splitting hairs," but
leave it to the Christians to come up with
splitting essences.
32See "On the Cover," American Atheist,
March 1981.
Austin, Texas,

also held that
. . . blasphemy, which is a sin
committed directly against God, is
more grave than murder, which is
a sin against one's neighbor.>
Since, by these definitions, only Christians could be considered heretics, the
only group officially regarded as blasphemers in the late Middle Ages were
the Jews. Consequently they were attacked. For example, the Jews were
conveniently blamed for the bubonic
plague of 1348-49, which wiped out onethird of the population of Europe.
of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), an Italian theologian. He did not use the terms
heresy and blasphemy interchangeably.
Heresy to Aquinas applied to him who

The Inquisition

To Aquinas "blasphemy is worse than
perjury," because the perjurer "does not
say or think something false about God,
as the blasphemer does .... "35 Aquinas

This was the beginning of the Inquisition, which ran from the opening years
of the twelfth century in Italy and France
well into the seventeenth century in
Spain. In 1197 Peter of Aragon was the
first to decree, against heretics, the punishment of death by burning. It was,
however, Pope Innocent III (Giovanni
Lotario de' Conti, 1161-1216; pope 11981216) who initiated the antiheretical
movement through his frequent exhortations beginning in 1198 to the secular
princes via his letters of March 25, 1199,
and September 22, 1207. In those letters, he assimilated the crimes of treason against "temporal" rulers and treason
against god. Emperor Frederick II (11941250; German king, king of Sicily, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire 121850), with the support of Pope Honorius
III(Cencio Savelli, 1148-1227; pope 121627); sanctioned the Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite orders and authorized the Compilatio quinta, the first official book of canon law.37Particularly
Pope Gregory IX (Ugolino de' Conti;

33The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas
Aquinas, Part Two, Second Part, under
Question XI, "Of Heresy," articles 1-2
(Westminster, MD: Christian Classics,
34The American College Dictionary.

35Summa Theologica, Question XIII, "Of
Blasphemy," articles 1-3.
37The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, ed. J. N.
D. Kelly (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986).

... intends to assent to Christ
yet he fails in his choice of those
things wherein he assents to Christ,
because he chooses, not what
Christ really taught, but the suggestions of his own mind."
The proof of heresy was then a refusal
to conform when rebuked. Blasphemy
was "disparagement" (to bring reproach
or discredit upon; lower the estimation
Consequently whoever either
.denies anything befitting God, or
affirms anything unbefitting Him,
disparages the Divine goodness.

March 1989

Page 11

By the time of the Inquisition, the Christian Church had amassed enough authority to force the state to punish "blasphemers" as criminals.

pope 1227-41)established between 1220
and 1239legislation against the heretics
of his Holy Roman Empire in which the
penalties of death, banishment, and
confiscation of property were formulated as a precedent.> In February 1231,
Gregory IX extended existing legislation
against heretics, making them liable to
the death penalty imposed by the civil
authorities. In addition, without abolishing the rights of the bishops, he instituted
a papal Inquisition as distinct from the
episcopal (pertaining to a bishop) one,
givingthe Dominicans authority over its
operation.> Chief among the inquisitors
was Bernard Gui (Bernardus Guidonis,
1261-1331,a Dominican), and he pioneered the use of torture to extract confessions of heresy. The earlier Church
leaders were opposed to torture, and
canon law ruled confessions extorted by
torture as inadmissible. That changed
with the papal bullAd extirpanda of May
15, 1252,promulgated by Pope Innocent
IV (Sinibaldo de' Fieschi;' pope 124354),40 which approved the use of torture
for the discovery of heresy. That bull
also established the Inquisition as a permanent institution in Italy, combining all
earlier papal and imperial enactments."
Pope Urban IV (Jacques Pantaleon;
pope 1261-64)later confirmed the usage
of torture. The use of torture to extract
confessions of heresy had been legislated by the civilauthorities in the Veronese
Code of 1228 and the Sicilian Constitution of Frederick II in 1231.

Free Spirit
In spite of all this torture and intimidation, beginning in the thirteenth century
a "Free Spirit" movement sprang up in
Europe. The origins of this movement

38Encyc/opaedia Britannica, 11thed., vol. 12,
390xford Dictionary of Popes, p. 190.
4°Joseph S. Brusher, S. J., Imprimatur, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Popes through the
Ages (San Rafael, CA: Neff-Kane, 1959).
410xford Dictionary of Popes, p. 193.
Page 12

were in France among clerics loyal to a
theologian of the University of Paris
named Amaury of Bene. The basic nature of the "Free Spirit" movement was
pantheistic.v with a particular emphasis
on the nature of the soul. "Soul liberty"
or spiritual liberty was fundamental to
the movement. Albertus Magnus (Albert
of Cologne, 1206-1280), the scholastic
philosopher and teacher of Thomas
Aquinas, was among the founders of
this movement and what also came to
be known as the great age of Scholasticism (1193-1280).Albert argued that the
soul is immortal and independent of the
body. The existence of god was maintained by Albert to be demonstrable by
reason - not through the ontological
arqument= but via another a priori

42Pantheism: "1. the doctrine that god is the
transcendent reality of which the material
universe and man are only manifestations. It
involves a denial of god's personality, and expresses a tendency to identify god and
nature" (American College Dictionary).
43"The ontological argument is the chief
hope of the theologians. Now, this holds that
the existence of god is implied by his very
nature. The concept of god is the concept of
a perfect thing and since we can formulate
the concept of perfection it must be" (Dr.
Madalyn O'Hair, Why I Am An Atheist,
[Austin, Texas: American Atheist Press,
March 1989

proof in the manner of Aristotle, commonly known as the cosmological argument.v Albert's position was that god
was not fully comprehensible by man
because the finite would not be able to
grasp the infinite, but he argued god is
not altogether beyond our knowledge
(what would come to be the agnostic
position in the nineteenth century) since
our intellects are touched by a mere ray
of his light and through this contact man
is brought into communion with god.
The "Free Spirit" doctrine was that "all
things are One, because whatever is, is
God," and because a person's spirit or
soul was "one with God," god or Christ
dwelt within him. Numerous members
of the movement extrapolated from that
doctrine to the position that they were
god. Needless to say, this flew in the face
of the papal doctrine of the time and the
various members of the Free Spirit
movement were subject to charges of
heresy. For that crime they were convicted by the various Inquisitions and
burned, about a dozen members of the
initial group surrounding Amaury of
Bene suffering that fate. The Free Spirit
movement lasted well into the fifteenth
During all of this period, it was felt
that while all heretics blasphemed god,
blasphemy was not in principle different
from heresy. The entire nature of the Inquisitional period was, in fact, that the
Christian Church (Roman Catholic)
had amassed enough authority to force
the secular arm to accept those as
"criminals" that its ecclesiastical tribunals had convicted as blasphemers, to
be burned at the stake for the "crime"

44"Thisis based on the principle of cause, or
the principle of 'causality,' holding that
everything requires a cause to account for
its existence .... If everything must have a
cause, and this argument posits that everything is caused, then the first cause cannot
be an 'uncaused' cause. Then god had to
have a cause, too, to account for his existence" (Ibid).
American Atheist

Michael Servetus was killed because he
had a different interpretation of god
than John Calvin did.

of heretical "pravity."45The Church had
usurped the authority of the state to
turn it upon those who were in disagreement with its theological edicts. This
fact carried through to the eighteenth
century and was a primary determining
factor in the emergence of the political
ideal of separation of state and church
among European and subsequently colonial thinkers.

Enter the Protestants
We come now to the sixteenth century
Reformation and the formation of the
major protestant denominations of Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism.
Basically the Reformation taught the
supremacy of the Bible and individual
faith over hierarchical theologies such
as the Roman Catholic church. It also
disavowed the need for "agency." Individuals did not need to have an agent,
the priest, act as a kind of counsel between them and the "the great God of
the Universe." Individual communication with god and personal scrutiny and
interpretation of the Bible now grew
more acceptable. With the invention of
the printing press, the Bible became
widely disseminated. The Protestants
split initiallyinto three camps. The main
body of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans remained with the Nicene or
Athanasian Creed of a beliefin "God the·
Father, God the Son, and God the Holy
Spirit." The other two camps, Arianism
and Anabaptism, were basically antitrinitarian and dissenters to the majority. Arianism, the namesake of Arius,«
accepted Jesus as having served a divine office on god's behalf, but denied
his divinity, believing that god was one
and indivisible. The Arians held that the
three persons of the Trinity did not
share the same "essence." The Anabaptists believed that children were born

45Pravityis an archaic form of depravity or
46Christian priest at Alexandria, Egypt, died
ca. A.D. 336.
Austin, Texas

into a state of innocence and could be
received into heaven without baptism.
Baptism was to be reserved for adults
once they were old enough to read, understand, and accept the Gospel. They
believed that they were regenerated
(spiritually reborn) through faith before
baptism. In the words of Anabaptist
Menno Simons (1493-1559):
We are not reborn because we
have been baptized ... but we are
baptized because we are reborn
by faith and the Word of God. Regeneration, indeed, is not the result of baptism, but baptism is the
consequence of regeneration."
The Arians and the Anabaptists became the new blasphemers of the Protestant Reformation.

Then along came Martin Luther (14831546). In the beginning he was opposed
to dealing with the Anabaptists through
the use of force or emulating the "Papists' " tactics of the Inquisition. After
the Peasants' Revolt of 1525 and a showing of princely willingness to impose Lutheranism by force, he changed his

47Leonard W Levy, Treason Against God
(New York: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 123.
March 1989

mind in 1530. and endorsed an imperial
decree condemning Anabaptists to the
death penalty without ecclesiastical examination on the basis of their being
both blasphemers and seditionists.
Luther felt that anyone who taught that .,
Christ did not die for the sins of mankind, that there was no resurrection of
the dead, or that there was no heaven or
hell was an outright blasphemer and
that such a person could be condemned
to death without a defense. He did not
care for the term heretic because he and
other Protestants had been persecuted
by the Roman Catholics and condemned
to death for "heresy," and he did not
want to be guilty of the same actions. He
preferred the term blasphemy, although
he used it in the very same sense that
the Roman Catholics used the word
heresy to denote anything with which
they disagreed or that went against their

John Calvin" did not clearly differentiate between blasphemy and heresy
either. He did, however, opt for degrees
of blasphemy.
Swearing by the name, blood,
or body of Christ, taking frivolous
oaths, engaging in impious imprecations [cursing] and incantations, or calling on a divine power
to assist in magic or sorcery were
not nearly as serious as denying,
defying, or renouncing. God. 49
Calvin was to preside at the trial of
Michael Servetus.v who was convicted
and burned at the stake on October 28,
1553. His crime was having a different
interpretation than that of Calvin with
regard to the accepted trinitarian nature

480rig. Jean Chauvin (1509-1564), French
theologian and reformer.
49Levy,Treason against God, p. 132.
sOMichael Servetus (1511-1553), Spanish
theologian and martyr.
Page 13

Because he did not think that Yahweh,
Jesus, and the Holy Ghost were all one
person, Bruno was burned at the stake.

of other as hath byn accustomed;
the Kynges wrytte De heretico
comburendo fyrst had and opteyned for the same.»

of god in Calvin's Geneva of the period.
Servetus claimed to know only one god,
the Creator; Jesus, as the son of god,
who was not eternal; and the Holy Spirit
which was only the spirit of god in man's
.• heart and not a distinct being.

In 1531 Parliament reaffirmed that fact.
The intervention of the courts or officers of the common law was administrative as opposed to judicial in matters of
heresy in the spiritual courts. They carried out arrest, detention, and execution. The secular courts were but assistants and executioners for the spiritual
courts. In the Act of Supremacy of 1534,
spiritual jurisdiction was put on statutory footing by vesting in the king

Then came Giordano Bruno (15481600), the Italian Renaissance philosopher. The blasphemy for which he was
hunted down by the Dominicans and
tried was that he could never conceive
of god as three persons or accept the
doctrines of incarnation» or transubstantiation.v He never became a practicing Protestant or Roman Catholic
and as a metaphysicist speculated
about the nature of the universe and
that it was not centered around man
and could not be proved finite or infinite. He was convicted of heresy chiefly
with regard to his support of the Copernican theorv= and his denial of the Trinity and was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.

Church and state
in England
This was the beginning of an enduring
trend. The church would condemn for
heresy and the state for blasphemy.
Blasphemy became a secular crime, and
the state slowly took over the role of the
agency responsible for instigating and

51"2. a living being embodying a deity or
spirit. 3. assumption of human form or nature, as by a divine being" (American College Dictionary).
52"2.Theo!' the conversion, in the Eucharist,
of the whole substance of the bread into the
body, and of the whole substance of the wine
into the blood, of Christ, only the appearance
of bread and wine remaining [a doctrine of
the Roman Catholic Church]" (American
College Dictionary).
53Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543),founder
of modern astronomy, promulgated the now
accepted theory that the earth and the
planets move about the sun [the Copernican
system]. (American College Dictionary).
Page 14

conducting prosecutions.
I would now like to turn my attention
toward the historical situation in England.
The American legal system was to a
great extent the colonial child of the British system. It is fitting that we look at
what transpired in England as regards
blasphemy. Also, there has been a great
deal more written about the history of
blasphemy as a legal concept in England
than in its progeny on this side of the
Prior to 1400 the situation in England
of the courts of common law administering both common and statutory law was
such that the judgment of a secular
court was necessary after the judgment
of a "spiritual" court and before execution. Two statutes, passed in 1400 and
1414, gave spiritual courts exclusive jurisdiction over heresy.
After they shalbe soo taken and
apprehendyd shalbe comytted to
the ordynaryes to aunswere in
open Courte and in an open place
theire suche accusacion and presentmentis: And yf they shall happen to be lawfullyconvicted of the
heresie whereof they are soo accused or presented, [and refuse to
abjure or relapse after abjuration,]
That then in such cases they
shalbe comytted to lay power to
be burned in open places for exaple
March 1989

... full power & auctorite frome
tyme to tyme to visite represse
redresse reforme ordre correct
restrayne and amende all suche
errours heresies abuses offences
contemptes and enormyties what
so ever they be, whiche by any
manner spirituall auctoryte or
jurisdiccon ought or maie lawfullye
be reformyd repressyd ordred
redressyd correctyd restrayned
or amendyd .... 55
In May 1614 Nicholas Atwood uttered
a series of unorthodox religious opinions. He attacked the Anglican church,
giving first an attack upon the king in his
capacity as head of the church and upon
the law by which the church was established. In April of 1616 he was brought
into court for his remarks. Atwood was
convicted of sedition and sentenced to
six months and a fine of 100 marks. The
case was removed to the court of King's
Bench= by writ of error. It upheld the
conviction in the term of 1618. This case
was a landmark because it marked the

5425Hen. 8, c. 14, s.12. Sec. 6. from G. D.
Nokes., LL.D., A History of the Crime of
Blasphemy (London: Sweet & Maxwell,
Ltd., 1928).
55}bid.,26 Hen. 8, c. 1 : repealed by 1 & 2 Ph.
& M. c. 8, s. 4.
American Atheist

Britain's Star Chamber held that heresy
would encourage sedition - and therefore was punishable by the state.

first time that a superior court of common law took jurisdiction over an offense
which previously had been outside its
In 1618John Traske said that the Jewish sabbath should be observed instead
of the traditional Protestant one and
that persons should abstain from eating
pork. He was brought before the court
of the Star Chamber-" and convicted for
These two cases are instructive because while Atwood attacked the entire
foundation of the state church and
Traske attacked the church less severely,the Court of the King's Bench decided
that Atwood's words were seditious and
the Court of the Star Chamber decided
that Traske's nonconformity might tend
to sedition, which led the way in subsequent cases to make almost any dissent
from the government or doctrine of the
established church be regarded as seditious. In 1623 the first statute which punished swearing was passed. In 1630 a
defendant was charged with treason by
committing the act of impugning the
king's ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the
bishops, the canons, and the accepted
method of receiving the sacrament.
In 1661, shortly after the Restoration,»

That inasmuch as many of the said
words tend immediately to the Destruction of all Religion and Government, that the said John Taylor
may be proceeded against, by
Way of Indictment of Information,
in the King's Temporal Courts, as
for an high Misdemeanor. 60

common law....
On conviction
the offender was to be disabled
from holding any ecclesiastical,
civil or military office, and was to
be liable "to such further and
other punishments as by the Common Laws or Statutes of this
Realm may be inflicted in such

In 1663 a man exposed himself from a
balcony and committed blasphemy
while doing so. He was charged with indecent behavior and convicted, but it
emphasized that the Court of King's
. . . the expression of unorthoBench of the period would not tolerate
dox religious opinion was generalany attack either upon Christianity in
general or upon its founder. The court
ly recognised as an offence at
felt that indecency was derogatory of
In 1675 the Court of King's
56"BritishLaw: (formerly)the most important trial court, having primary jurisdiction Bench considered the question of comover criminal matters affecting the king's mon law jurisdiction over profanity. In
peace and an acquired civiljurisdictioncon- the case of John Taylor, a blasphemer, it
current with the Court of Common Pleas, said:
withappellatejurisdictionover the Court of
Common Pleas" (American College DictioWe are of Opinion, That John
Taylor may be proceeded against
57"1.a formercourt ofinquisitorialand crimin the King's Ecclesiastical Courts,
inal jurisdiction in England, which sat in
the horrid Words mentioned in
secret without a jury, and was noted for its
the examination to be by him spoarbitrary methods and severe punishments
ken. We are also of the Opinion,
[abolished 1641]" (American College

Then came the phenomenon of "licensing." After the Reformation in the
sixteenth century, the British Crown assumed a monopoly over the right of
printing or selling books through the
power of granting letters "patent." Printing was confined to The Stationers'
Company, founded by royal charter in
1556 under Mary I (Mary Tudor, queen
of England 1553-58). Printing was further
confined to only London and Oxford by
Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and the Star
Chamber. In 1585 The Chamber also assumed the right to limit the number of
printers and presses, to prohibit all publications issued without license, and to
enter houses to search for unlicensed
publications or presses by an officer
called the "messenger of the press." In
1637 the Star Chamber issued an order


58"8.a. the reestablishmentofthe monarchy
in England with the return of Charles II in
1660"(American College Dictionary).

"Taylor was sentenced to pay a fine of
a thousand marks, to be imprisoned until he found sureties for his good behavior or for life, and to stand in the pillory
wearing a paper inscribed, 'For Blasphemous Words and tending to the subversion of all government'."61
The relationship of blasphemy to sedition remained in force in England for
over one hundred years after the trials
of the seventeenth century. Through
the end of the eighteenth century, the
question of the "intention" of the accused
was ignored by the court. It was not an
element in considering criminal words
or libel, thus varieties of intentions were
imputed at will by the prosecution.

59Nokes,A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 42.

March 1989

6°Ibid.,p. 47.
61Ibid.,p. 49.
Page 15

After conviction for heresy, a Jew would
be forced to wear the "devil's cap and
gown" before being burned alive.

forbidding the import of books printed
outside England which brought to light
a scandal of religion, the Church, or the
government, and the printing of any
book within England that was not properly licensed. Books on. divinity, philosophy, and poetry were to be licensed by
the archbishop of Canterbury or the
bishop of London, or the chancellors or
vice-chancellors of the universities.
After the Star Chamber was abolished
in 1641, the Long Parliamentw continued
the same practices. The Licensing Act
of 166263 of Charles 1164 kept the same
type of censorship alive, being successively renewed through 1679. Then in
1685, after a gap of six years, it was renewed again to 1692 when it was continued until the end of the parliamentary
session. In 1695 the House of Commons
refused to renew it. The power of the
Star Chamber, confirmed by the Licensing Act, was not finally abolished until
1765 when it was declared illegal in the
case of Entlick v. Carrington.
While licensing was in force, once a
jury had determined that the publication
of printed matter had occurred against
god or the Church, it was unnecessary
for it to consider the intention of the
publisher, whether seditious or blasphemous, because unless it was licensed it
was ipso facto illegal. Since licensing of
publications on matters religious had to
pass the bishop's review, any blasphemy
would certainly have been stripped out
prior to publication.
During the period 1694 to 1792, the
Bench did not consider the intentions of
the accused in printed matter blasphemy cases to be relevant. The same
thinking carried over to spoken blas-

62InEnglish history, the Long Parliament was
the one which assembled November 3, 1640,
was expelled by Cromwell in 1653,reconvened
in 1659, and was dissolved in 1660 (American
College Dictionary).
6313& 14 Car. II. c. 33.
64(1630-1685), king of Great Britain and
Ireland (1660-85).
Page 16

ing anything that may tend to lessen him in the esteem of his subjects, may weaken his government, or may raise jealousies between him and his people.w
In a similar way Blackstone's contemporaries knew roughly what was blasphemous. Blasphemy was an attack
upon any person or institution identified
with or closely related to Christianity. In
1716 Hawkins wrote about blasphemy in
his book A Treatise of the Pleas of the
Crown (1716-1721), describing the common law offences of the time:
phemy. The Court of the Queen's Bench
in 1703 upheld a conviction for seditious
words in a common law court on evidence which contained no allegation of
intention. The court said:
... [T]here needs no averment
that they were spoken with an intent to injure the Government, for
the words import a crime of themselves.«

In the eighteenth century there was
no "official" definition of seditious or
blasphemous words. One can only turn
to the lawyers of the period, for only
they knew what the terms meant from
their experience in arguments in open
court. One of the most distinguished jurists of the time was the judge and legal
author Sir William Blackstone (17231780). The working definition of seditious utterances in his words follows:

Offences more immediately
against God not Capital, are ... by
the Common Law ... I. All Blasphemies against God, as denying
his Being or Providence. II.Allprofane Scoffing at the Holy Scripture, or exposing any Part thereof
to Contempt or Ridicule ... III.Impostures in Religion, as falsely pretending to extraordinary Commissions of God, and terrifying or
abusing the People with false Denunciations of Judgments, &c ...
IV.All open Lewdness ... V. Seditious Words in Derogation of the
Established Religion.... " (vol. 1,
pp. 6, 7)
Blackstone added to this later in 1766
in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), wherein he said:

Con tempts and misprisions
against the king's person and government, may be by speaking or
writing against them, cursing or
wishing him ill, giving out scandalous stories concerning him, or do-

The fourth species of offences
therefore, more immediatelyagainst
God and religion, is that of blasphemy against the Almighty, by
denying his being or providence;
or by contumelious reproaches of
our Saviour Christ. Whither also
may be referred all profane scoffing at the holy scripture, or exposing it to contempt and ridicule.

65Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 68.

66Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws
of England (1765-69), vol. 4, p. l23.

March 1989

American Atheist

Richard Carlile's bookshop on London's
Fleet Street became a focal point of
resistance to government censorship
during the early 1800s_

These are offences punishable at
common law by fine and imprisonment, or other infamous corporal
punishment: for Christianity is
part of the laws of England. [Emphasis added] (vol. 4, p. 59)
In prosecutions at common law, the
objects against which the words or writings at issue were directed determined
whether or not they were seditious or
blasphemous. If the objects were government officials or the established
church, the offense was described as
seditious. Ifthe objects were the deity or
the Bible, then the offense was labelled
blasphemous. The description "impious"
was often used for obscene libels which of religious opinion among the cases at
were entirely nonreligious.
bar. They were as follows:
Then came the Libel Act of 1792,67
(1) to adapt the language of the
which introduced the element of intention to the process of considering libel
church service to serve profane
cases. Intention then also became an elpurposes; (2) to cause it to be believed that the Bible does not conement in cases on blasphemous offenses, which fellunder the libelstatutes= tain the revealed willof God; (3) to
ifone can imagine libelinggod. In the peexcite irreligion or to render the
riod begun by the introduction of the
subjects of the king disaffected to
Libel Act up through 1842, there were
and discontented with the Christian
only five, separate, distinguishable "inreligion; (4) to vilify or revile or
tentions" with regard to the expression
scandalize or degrade or traduce
or asperse [slander] or defame or
blaspheme God or Christ; (5) and
to bring into contempt or ridicule
67"AnAct to remove Doubts respecting the
or discredit God or Christ. 69[NumFunctions of Juries in Cases of Libel (32
bers added.]

Geo. 3, c.60).
"... the Jury sworn to try the Issue may
give a general Verdict of Guilty or Not Guilty
upon the whole Matter put in Issue upon
such Indictment or Information; and shall
not be required or directed, by the Court or
Judge before whom such Indictment or
Information shall be tried, to find the Defendant or Defendants Guilty, merely on the
Proof of the Publication by such Defendant
or Defendants of the Paper charged to be a
Libel, ... " [Emphasis added] (Nokes, A
History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 79).
68R.v. Eaton, 31St. T. 0/27at 950. Trial of Mr.
Daniel Isaac Eaton for publishing Paine's
Age of Reason (1812).
R. v. Hetherington, 4 St. T. N. S. 563 at 593
R. v. Holyoake (1842).
Austin, Texas

Of these five intentions only two came
to be those which were most often
thought sufficient for indictment: the
intentions to vilifyand to bring into contempt.
In the majority of cases in England
from 1792to 1883, it was quite obvious
that the matter, printed or spoken, under consideration was blasphemous.
The judges frequently directed attention to the character of the matter complained of rather then the intention

69Nokes,A History of the Crime of Blasphemy,
March 1989

alleged by the defendant. If the matter
was obviously blasphemous, why direct
attention to its character instead of the
intent of its delivery? First, many judges
felt that the terms of the Libel Act of 1792
bound them to some expression of their
opinion on the criminality of the alleged
libel. Second, in the face of intention being raised, the court most often directed
the jury that a man must be taken to intend the natural consequences of his
actions. Third, the matter complained
of usually comprised an accurate picture of the intention of the publisher, so
there was a tendency not to consider
other evidence of intention. Fourth, that
tendency was enhanced by the use of
the misleading term libel in jury directions. The documents complained of
were often referred to in instructions as
"blasphemous libel," or the jury was
asked to decide if they were. Since one
could argue against the presumption
that the publisher intended the natural
consequences of his actions (as in the
second point above), it was inaccurate
to describe a document complained of
to a jury as a "blasphemous libel" because such a description implied that
the publisher had, in fact, committed
the offense of publishing a blasphemous
libel without a finding of fact as to his intention for the libel to be "blasphemous." Fifth, the tendency in the third
point was also increased by the almost
constant citation of the relationship of
Christianity to the law.
An aside here is necessary concerning that belabored citation of the relationship of Christianity to the law. In the
case of R. v. Taylor (1675)70reviewed by
the King's Bench in 1676from the Court
of Common Pleas by order of the House
of Lords, one of the four justices to hear
the case (Twisden, Rainsford, and Wild,

7°Allthe early English cases are cited as "R"
. The "R" stands for "Rex," which
is Latin for "king." So the case is "the King"
defendant. Taylor's first name
was John.
Page 17

Richard Carlile was arrested in 1819 for
publishing Thomas Paine's Age of

The character of
the offending material

JJ, and Hale, Czl.), Chief Judge Sir
Matthew Hale, a baron, said,
. . . For to say, Religion is a
Cheat, is to dissolve all those Obligations whereby the civil societies are preserved, and that Christianity is a parcel of the Laws of
England;and therefore to reproach
the Christian religion is to speak in
subversion of the law.
The portion of that statement I have
italized took the legal community by
storm. This dictum of Chief Judge Hale
was used for over two hundred years
against defendants in blasphemy trials.
This case became the leading
authority for the proposition that
the common law had jurisdiction
over the expression of unorthodox
religious opinion."
We have a strikingly similar situation
in modern United States law. In the Supreme Court case of Zorach v. Clauson,72 a "released time" case decided
April 28, 1952, Justice William 0. Douglas in delivering the opinion of the Court
said on page 313, "We are a religious
people whose institutions presuppose a
Supreme Being." Some 276 years after
the case of R. v. Taylor,we had not just
any justice but the most "liberal" justice
ever to serve on the Supreme Court of
the United States support the opinion of
a chief judge of the King's Bench in
England on the relationship of Christianity to law. In a like manner to the
dictum of Chief Judge Hale of 1676, the
one line delivered by Justice Douglas in
Zorach v. Clauson has been cited for
years against every Atheist or person
concerned with upholding the constitutional principle of separation of state
and church and will continue to be so

cited, I suspect, for a term in excess of
the two hundred years of longevity of
the quote of Judge Hale.
In the Sixth Report of Her Majesty's
Commissioners on Criminal Law (1841),
that body attempted to justify the 1676
dictum of Judge Hale, 165 years later, as
It appears to us that the expression can only mean either that as
a great part of the securities of our
legal system consist of judicial and
officialoaths sworn upon the Gospels, Christianity is closely interwoven with our municipal law; or
that the laws of England, like all
municipal laws of a Christian country, must upon principles of generaljurisprudence, be subservient to
the positive rules of Christianity.
In this sense Christianity may just1ybe said to be incorporated with
the law of England, so as to form
parcel of it; and it was probably in
this sense that Lord Hale intended
the expression should be understood."

71Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, pp. 48-49.
7272 S.Ct. 679,343 U.S. 306.

Page 18

73Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 56.

March 1989

This now brings us back to the consideration of the character of the material complained of as an element of intention. It seems that the character of
the material was becoming more important, trial by trial. Since defamatory intention was invariably alleged and the
measure of the intention was concentrated on the matter complained of, it
was a natural consequence to begin judicial directions to juries to delve into
the character of that matter. A case in
1817 led the way in that direction.
On August 14, 1817, Richard Carlile
was arrested for publishing The Parodies on the Book of Common Prayer,
tried, found guilty, and imprisoned for
eighteen weeks. He was released on December 20, 1817, only to be arrested
again in January 1819 for publishing
Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. The
case did not come to trial until October
of that year, with Chief Justice Abbott
presiding. Justice Abbott introduced a
new element into blasphemy trials during the back and forth with Carlile when
he said:
There is no subject to which
scoffing, calumny, and ridicule can
be lawfully applied, whether it be
the private character of an individual, the public character, or any of
the institutions of our country.
Reason and discussion, properly
conducted, are always lawful; calumny, scoffing, and ridicule are always contrary to law. The law of
England is a law of liberty and freedom; it adopts into itself - indeed,
it is founded upon - the religion
of Christ; and it is from that religion that its greatest freedom and
the principles of liberality and humanity ... emanate. It is from the
Christian religion all has been
drawn and derived .... The Christian religion being, as I have often
been reduced to the necessity of
American Atheist

The men associated with London's Freethinker were arrested more than once
for publishing "blasphemous libels."

Sunday. The placard contained the line
"Hamlet and the Holy Ghost." The objection was to the word Holy. Seymour
drew Mr. Justice Hawkins (whose opinions I have discussed earlier) for trial in
July of that year. His defense was underwritten by the society, of which Charles
Bradlaugh was president.
A brief word is given here about Mr.
Bradlaugh in order to set things into the
proper perspective. Charles Bradlaugh"
was the most outspoken Atheist of his
day. He was elected a member of parliament for Northampton on April 2, 1880.
He appeared May 3 in the House of
Commons and handed to the Clerk of
the House a written paper that said:

saying in the course of this trial, a
part of the law of the land, it is not
fit that it should be questioned in
a court of justice."
The new element that was important
in the remarks of Justice Abbott was
that disagreement with Christianity was
to be tolerated as long as it was done in
a dignified manner and did not "ridicule"
or "scoff' at any part of the Christian
dogma. Thus the character of the two
books being published by Carlile became
the crux around which the case against
him was to be built. Needless to say,
Carlile was found guilty and sentenced
to three years imprisonment plus a fine
of 1,500 pounds. Being unable to pay the
fine, he drew another three years - six
in all. Mary Ann Carlile, continuing the
publication of the aformentioned books
after her brother's imprisonment, was
tried in July 1821by Mr. Justice Best. 75
In that trial Justice Best asked the jury
to decide with regard to the books in
. . . Is this a temperate discussion, or the writing of a person
who attempts not to argue, but to
vilifyand degrade, to excite prejudices in our mind and not to convince our judgment?"

The key words here are vilify and degrade. If the writing about the Christian
religion did not ridicule, scoff, vilify,or
degrade the subject, then it seems to
have been legal, at least in 1821.The legal shift had thus been made from decisions without regard to intention, to
those based primarily on the "intention"
of the publisher or author of libeltermed
blasphemous, to the "character" of the
libel itself. "... Matter was not blasphemous unless it evidenced defamatory intention on the part of the publisher," and
by the end of the 1792to 1883period, the
character of the matter was to be taken
into consideration in determination of
that intent.

74Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Penalties
Upon Opinion (London: Watts & Co., 1912),
p. 40. Hypatia Bonner was Charles Bradlaugh's daughter.
75Carlile's wife was Jane Carlile. First Richard Carlile was jailed in 1817, then his wife
Jane on November 13, 1819, and then his
sister Mary Ann in July 1821, and then his
shopmen and shopwomen who continued
to sell the books in question. Volunteers
then came from all parts of the country and
in all perhaps some 150 persons did some
time in the "Gaol," as it was called in those
days, over the distribution of two books.
76R. v. Mary Carlile, 1 St. T. N. S. 1033 at
1045,1047, in G. D. Nokes, A History of the
Crime of Blasphemy, pp. 88,89.

77The Freethinker was founded in 1880 as the
organ of the National Secular Society, of
which Charles Bradlaugh was founder and
president. It is still in publication to this date
(March 1989).

Austin, Texas

To the Right Honorable the
Speaker of the House of Commons. I, the undersigned Charles
Bradlaugh, beg respectfully to
claim to be allowed to affirm, as a
person for the time being by the
law permitted to make a solemn
affirmation or declaration, instead
of taking an oath."?

This request stirred up a hornet's
nest of controversy and a parliamentary struggle that endured until January
13, 1886,when Mr. Bradlaugh was finally permitted to be sworn and, taking the
oath, took his seat. This was after being
re-elected for Northampton in the general election of November 1885, having
and the National Secular Society fought unsuccessfully to take his due
Then came the cases involving the seat during the entirety of his first two
National Secular Society and its publica- elected terms. Mr. Bradlaugh had to
tion, The FreethinkerJ7 On May 3, 1882, fight for over five years from the time of
Henry Seymour, secretary of the Tum- his first election to gain his seat in parbridge Wells branch of the society, was liament as an Atheist. He served there
charged with blasphemous libel for a until 1890.
The prosecution ended up dropping
placard announcing a concert by some
of the society members on an Easter the charges against Seymour, but then
on March 1, 1883, George William

March 1989

78SeeAmerican Atheist, July 1987, pp. 23-26.
by Charles Bradlaugh, annotated
by John M. Robertson (London: A. and H.
Bradlaugh Bonner, 1895), p. B.

Page 19

G. W. Foote spent one year in jail for his
work with The Freethinker. He continued
his work for freethought long after his

Foote, W J. Ramsey, and H. A. Kemp
were charged with publishing a blasphemous libel in The Freethinker. Foote=
was the editor of that journal, Ramsey
the publisher, and Kemp the printer.
The trial was before Justice North. The
first trial resulted in a hung jury. Justice
North discharged the jurors and proceeded again on March 5 with a new
jury. The second trial resulted in the
conviction of all three defendants. Foote
was sentenced to one year injail,Ramsey
to nine months, and Kemp to three
In the meantime a prosecution had
already been initiated by Sir Henry Tyler
against Mr. Bradlaugh, Mr. Foote, and
Mr. Ramsey for the publication of a
series of blasphemous libels, again in
The Freethinker. That prosecution had
been moved by certiorari to the Court
of the Queen's Bench, where it commenced on April 10, 1883, before Lord
Chief Justice Coleridge. Foote and
Ramsey, still being incarcerated from
their previous trial under Justice North,
were brought up to the Queen's Bench
on a habeas corpus. Mr. Bradlaugh
asked to be tried separately; his request
was granted by Justice Coleridge. The
issue for Mr. Bradlaugh was the question of his responsibility for the publication of the issues in question. The jury
returned a verdict of "not guilty" with
regard to Mr. Bradlaugh in terms of his
responsibility on April 14. On April 24,
trial resumed for Mr. Foote and Mr.
Ramsey. This time Justice Coleridge
adopted a new position, departing from
that annunciated by Judge Hale in his
80GeorgeWilliamFoote was born on January
11, 1850, and he died on October 17, 1915,
having lived his entire life in the London,
England, area. In 1881 he founded the Atheist journal The Freethinker and remained as
its editor until 1915. His major writings
during this period consisted of eleven titles,
all published in London, the most renowned
of which was The Bible Handbook, with W
P. Ball, in 1888 (American Atheist, January
1989, p. 27).
Page 20

famous dictum of 1676, declaring:
It is no longer true, in the sense
it was when these dicta were
uttered, that Christianity is part of
the law of the land .... Therefore
to base the prosecution of an aspersion of the truth of Christianity
on the ground that Christianity is,
in the sense used by Lord Hale, or
Lord Raymond, or Lord Tenterden, the law of the land, is in my
judgment a mistake; it is to forget
that law grows.81
Justice Coleridge did, however, reaffirm the statement of Starkie in his A
Treatise of the Law of Slander and Libel
(1830) as to the more modern view of the
law of blasphemy when Starkie said:
It is the mischievous abuse of
this state of intellectual liberty82

81Bonner,Penalties Upon Opinion, p. 89.
82Thisis "intellectual liberty" as referred to
by Justice Abbott of the Carlile trials in 1822
in the trial of Susannah Wright, one of
Carlile's volunteers. Justice Abbott said,
"the law permitted that every subject,
however sacred, should be freely, yet moderately and temperately discussed; but it
would not yield its protection to gross and
scandalous calumnies on the established
faith" (Nokes, A History of the Crime of
Blasphemy, p. 89).
March 1989

which calls for penal censure. The
law visits not the honest errors,
but the malice of mankind. A wilful
intention to pervert, insult, and
mislead others, by means of licentious and contumelious abuse applied to sacred subjects, or by wilful misrepresentations
or artful
sophistry, calculated to mislead
the ignorant and unwary, is the criterion and test of guilt. A malicious
and mischievous intention, or
what is equivalent to such an intention, in law, as well as morals a state of apathy and indifference
to the interests of society is the
broad boundary between right
and wrong.83

The worm turns
There were four main turning-point
indictments for blasphemous libel in
1883. The R. v. Foote, Ramsey and
Kemp case and the R. v. Catte1l84 case
were both before the Central Criminal
Court in February of that year. In these
two cases, the older form of prosecution
based on the Lord Hale dictum was
used. In the R. v. Seymour, SouthEastern Circuit indictment of 1882, and
the R. v. Ramsey, Foote and Bradlaugh
indictment at the Queen's Bench in
1883, those charged were prosecuted
not only under indictments based on the
more modern Starkie view but also
something else new which was the notion of "an intention to shock believers
or persons presumed to be believers.t'"
Of the total sixteen-count indictment in
the case of R. v. Ramsey, Foote and
Bradlaugh, six contained allegations of

83p'146 and 147 of the Treatise, as cited on p.
92 of Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy.
84Christopher Charles Cattell was a writer in
English secular journals and author of
Search for the First Man, Against Christianity,
and The Religion of This Life.
8sNokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 93.
American Atheist


Supporter of
forbidden words
Charles Bradlaugh, M.P. had many
brushes with the law because of his
efforts to promote freethought and birth
control literature.

an intention to shock or wound or hurt
the feelings of the subjects of the realm."
In R. v. Seymour, Lord Coleridge had directed the jury to determine the question of whether the libels "are not calculated and intended to insult the feelings and the deepest religious convictions of the great majority of the persons
amongst whom we live."87
What came out of this flurry of litigation was a threefold limitation upon the
prior law. First, Lord Coleridge's view
that blasphemous matter must manifest
some evil intention was substantiated.
Second, the House of Lords and the
Court of Criminal Appeals eventually
adopted Lord Coleridge's interpretations of Starkie's statement: that intention to mislead may be manifested by
wilfulmisrepresentations or artful sophistry; that matter was not blasphemous
unless it was expressed in offensive language. Third, the Court of Criminal Appeals began to follow Lord Coleridge's
abandonment of references to intentions to pervert and mislead in favor of
intention to insult.
In 1921, in the Court of Criminal Appeals, the case of R. v. Gott brought yet
another new standard to blasphemous
libel cases. John William Gott had originallybeen indicted for having published
a pamphlet entitled "Rib Ticklers, or
Questions for Parsons." He sold copies
thereof at a meeting addressed by
Thomas William Stewart's in Victoria
Square on July 30, 1911. The trial was
before Mr. Justice Horridge, the same
judge who had tried Stewart. Gott was

86Ibid., p. 93, the sixth, seventh, ninth,
eleventh, fourteenth, and fifteenth counts.
87Ibid., p. 94 and 95, from Cox, Three
Centuries of Derbyshire Annals (London:
1890), 15 Cox c.c. at 230.
88Stewart had been indicted for an earlier
speech in Victoria Square on August 20,
1910, for which he was found guilty and
sentenced to three months imprisonment
(Bonner, Penalties Upon Opinion, pp, 103104).
Austin, Texas

passed the circumstances in which
the words are published should be
taken into account. 90
The court laid down a pattern that
... indicated [its] opinion that in
ordinary circumstances evidence
that the words published were
likely to cause a breach of the
peace would certainly convince a
jury that the limits of decent controversy had been passed."

found guilty and sentenced to four
months imprisonment. When Gott's appeal was heard in 1921, the Court of
Criminal Appeals introduced the element of "a breach of the peace." The
appeals court stood by this new element
as annunciated by Lord Parker of Waddington in the case of Bowman v. Secular Society, Ltd. four years earlier in
1917 when he said:
In my opinion to constitute blasphemy at common law there must
be such an element of vilification,
ridicule, or irreverence as would
be likelyto exasperate the feelings
of others and so lead to a breach
of the peace.s?
The headnote of the report of Gott's
appeal said:
The essence of the crime consists in the publication of words
concerning the Christian religion
so scurrilous and offensive as to
pass the limits of decent controversy and to be calculated to outrage the feelings of any sympathizer with Christianity. In considering
whether these limits have been

89Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, p. 99.
March 1989

So, under English law, we had first
(ca. 1630) the notion that blasphemy
was the same as, or part and parcel of,
sedition and/ or treason. This was chiefly
owing to the nature of the church/state
relationship. God and the king were, by
and large, the same thing. Then by 1675
indecency and profanity (no matter to
whom directed), on their face, were
considered to also constitute blasphemy in addition to denying the authority
of the "spiritual" (or temporal) "king."
Then the licensing of publications came
along as a prior restraint to blasphemous
libel, a kind of pre-censorship, so the
courts no longer had to take the intention of the blasphemer into consideration. It was not important whether he intended to blaspheme the king or the
"king of kings." Mere publication was
enough; the exact content of what was
published (written) was not particularly
as important as the content of what was
said had been up through 1675. Anything that slipped through the precensorship of licensing was automatically in violation of the law, since the licensors were those in charge of religion.
The next change came in 1766, and it
was a major one, when blasphemy and
sedition (treason), previously considered to be the same crime, were split
into separate offenses. Blasphemy was
those things spoken or written against

90Ibid.,p. 101, 16 C. App, R. 87.
91Ibid.,p. 102.
Page 21

the deity or the Bible, and sedition was
the crime of speaking or writing against
the government or established church.
The split of the offenses of blasphemy
and sedition was by virtue of the "object"
of the crime. Then came the Libel Act of
1792, which brought "intentions" back
into consideration of written blasphemy
because the intent had to be examined
in order to determine on which side of
the blasphemy/sedition split a publication found itself. What the writings (and
soon words) were "intended" to offend
now mattered. It used to be if they offended the king or god, they were blasphemous, seditious, and treasonous all
wrapped up in one. Now the object of
the blasphemy had to be determined.
By 1817the "character" of the intentions
(now under close examination) began to
be more sharply defined, first being
broken down into the catagories of
those "scoffing," "ridiculing," "vilifying,"
and/or "degrading" religion and then
those calculated to "shock" or "insult"
believers. By 1883 the catagories of intentions were grouped together under
the notion of the first four being "defamatory" of religion in general, with the last
two, "shock" value and "insult," being
further defined as being intentions specifically directed at persons rather than
institutions or dogmas. It was now OK
to comment critically upon religion, the
institution, in a nice way, but not in a
generally defamatory way. After 1883
the maxim of Christianity being a part of
the civil law (R. v. Taylor, 1675)was finally abandoned. That made it possible
for the notion of blasphemy needing to
be. "mischievous" to come into vogue.
Blasphemy at the turn of the nineteenth
century then had to be defamatory and
mischievous with regard to religionists.
It did not need to be defined in terms of
how it libeled the state or the established,
institutional, state church anymore because it was alright to criticize the institution, "nicely," but not the individual
believer. Blasphemy was then necessarily defined in terms of its effect on individual religious persons and/or the

overall religious tone of the community.
Later, by 1921,the element that blasphemy had also to be an action constituting
a "breach of the peace" was added, thus
tying in the concept of blasphemy being
an affront to the "dignity" of the person,
'or the community made up of a majority of religious persons. What had
started out in England as any form or
method of criticism of religion in general in very broad terms, the king, or the
established church (all thought of as coexistent from 1675 to 1883) became
toned down to a twentieth-century definition of a type of criticism of individual Christianity that was merely defamatory, mischievous, and/or tended to disturb the peace. So, one could very carefully criticize religion as an institution, in
a limited way, as long as it did not offend
individual religionists.

en and hell, or the stated biblical desirability of chastity and marriage. It was
also criminal, during this entire period,
to attack the establishment of religion
by the state, and the establishment by
law of Christianity in British society.
These attacks on Christianity, of
whatever object, were classified into
those committed by words, libel or conspiracy, and gestures or actions. With
respect to actions, there is no English
case law showing the prosecution for
actions alone. Actions were always coupled with libel, conspiracy, or gestures.
The penalties inflicted on those convicted of blasphemous offenses at common law could be personal, pecuniary,
or both. Through 1816those convicted
were led around the court with papers
stating the offense committed attached
to them. It was also common for the
convicted to be set in the pillory, with or
without their "papers." Whipping, banSummary
Taking a further look then, overall, at ishment (on a second conviction for
the situation concerning blasphemy in composing or publishing between 1819
England from the period from 1617 and 1830), and imprisonment were also
through the turn of the century in 1900, applied. In 1817all public whipping was
we can also summarize in this way. First, abolished, followed by the abolishing of
whipping of women in 1820. In 1914
it was an offense, generally, at common
law to attack the deity, the Bible, or re- whipping was restricted to punishment
ligion. With regard to the deity, those under a statutory enactment of which
attacks included the members of the blasphemous offenses did not qualify.
Trinity (either singly or together) and in Prison terms for common law misdeparticular the character Jesus Christ, meanors, under which blasphemy fell,
were without restriction to length, but
concerning his divinity, his miraculous
birth, works, resurrection, teaching, his the average sentence was for two years.
sanity, his human conduct, or the histo- Sentences also ordering the payment of
ricity of his existence. With regard to the fines, during this period, operated as a
Bible, convictions were had from attacks
sentence of imprisonment terminable
conditionally upon the payment or reconfined to the Old Testament, attacks
upon the theory of inspiration or author- lease of the fine.
ship of god, attacks upon the human auIn the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, on conviction of publishers
thors or compilers, the truth of matters
narrated therein, and the validity or ap- for blasphemous libel, the libelous material was sometimes ordered to be
plication of Old or New Testament
prophecies. With regard to religion, it burned."
was an offense to attack the Christian
religion in general, with respect to par- And in the United States
ticular doctrines, as pertaining to salvaMeanwhile, in the United States, two
tion through the Christ figure, on the
subject of the second advent of Christ,
the immorality of the concepts of heav- 92Ibid., pp. 102-l20.

Page 22

March 1989


American Atheist

In 1838, Boston's Abner Kneeland spent
sixty days in jail for blasphemy.

Atheists found themselves in trouble
over statutes which had been engendered by some of the laws of Britain
transplanted to colonial America. In
1829 Francis Wright93 had founded "The
First Society of Free Enquirers" in Boston, Massachusetts. A man by the name
of Abner Kneeland went to Boston in
1830 to be the resident lecturer. It was
soon after he arrived in Boston that he
met Dr. Charles Knowlton (1800-1850),94
who wrote the first medical birth control
handbook distributed in the United
States. Dr. Knowlton had been arrested
and imprisoned for that book. Mr. Kneeland attempted to help him by covering
the trial extensively in the Boston Investigator, which he founded in 1831. The

93Francis Wright (1795-1852),a Scottish female Atheist lecturer and writer who
immigrated to the United States.
94Dr. Charles Knowlton wrote his Fruits of
Philosophy in 1832. When it was first published it was in a tiny two-by-two-and-onehalf-inch edition, was anonymously issued,
and was titled Fruits of Philosophy, or the
private companion of young married couples.
The first edition sold very quickly, and
Knowlton traveled around New England
showing copies and taking orders for the
second edition. The second edition only differed in that the author's name was known
and it was copyrighted.
Dr. Knowlton was arrested in Taunton,
Massachusetts, and found guiltyof publishing
a book likely to endanger the public morals.
Following legal advice, Knowlton pleaded
guilty and was sentenced to three months at
hard labor.
Meanwhile Abner Kneeland published the
second edition. The total number of volumes
sold during the first eight years was only
7,000. The book was also distributed in
England for forty years, with perhaps 1000
copies being sold each year until 1876.
Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besani
republished Fruits of Philosophy in England,
were tried for doing so, found guilty and
eventually freed on a technicality. (Madalyn
Murray O'Hair, Foreword to Fruits of Philosophy by Charles Knowlton, M.D. (reprint;
Austin, Texas: American Atheist Press,
Austin, Texas

principles or else is to be attributed
to mere trick and imposture.
4. Universalists believe in the
resurrection of the dead, immortality and eternal life, which I do
not; but believe that all life is material, that death is an eternal extinction of lifeto the individual who
possesses it, and that no individual
lifewas ever or ever willbe eternal.

December 20, 1833, issue of the Investigator contained three articles, two of
which were reprinted from the Free Inquirer of New York City. These first two
dealt with the subject of virgin birth and
an irreverent ridicule of prayer. The
third was a statement of the editor, Mr.
Kneeland, to wit:
1. Universalists'" believe in a
god which I do not; but believe
that their god, with all his moral attributes is nothing more than a chimera'" of their own imagination.
2. Universalists believe in Christ,
which I do not; but believe that the
whole story concerning him is as
much a fable and fiction, as that of
the god Prometheus ... 97
3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe
that every pretension to them can
either be accounted for on natural
95"2.(cap.) one who believes in the doctrine
that all men willfinally be saved, or brought
back to holiness and God; a member of a
Christian denomination which holds this
doctrine as its distinctive belief" (American
College Dictionary).
%"1. a mythological fire-breathing monster,
commonly represented with a lion's head, a
goat's body, and a serpent's tail. 3. a horrible
or unreal creature of the imagination; a vain
or idlefancy" (American College Dictionary).
March 1989

That editor's statement in the Investigator caused Kneeland to be indicted,
arrested, and brought to trial in the Boston Municipal Court within weeks after
its publication under a statute which
had been passed fifty-one years earlier
on July 3,1782, entitled "An Act against
Blasphemy." That statute bears repeating here because it gives a good picture
of the nature of the blasphemy statutes
which all of the original thirteen American colonies passed at some time. It
If any person shall wilfullyblaspheme the holy name of God, by
denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation,
government or final judging of the
world, or by cursing or reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost,
or by cursing or contumeliously
reproaching the Holy Word of
God, that is, the canonical scriptures as contained in the books of
the Old and New Testaments, or
by exposing them or any part of
them to contempt or ridicule,
which books are as follows: [lists
of all books of the Bible]; every

97"Greek Mythology: a Titan fabled to have
made men out of clay, to have stolen fire for
them from Olympus, and to have taught
them various arts, in punishment for which
he was chained by order of Zeus to a rock
in the Caucasus, where his liver was daily
gnawed by a vulture. He was freed when
Hercules killed the vulture" (American
College Dictionary).
Page 23

Despite Ingersoll's eloquence, C. B.
Reynolds was convicted of blasphemy
after exercising his right to free speech
in New Jersey.

person so offending shall be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, by sitting
in the pillory, by whipping, or by
sitting on the gallows, with a rope
about the neck, or binding to the
good behavior, at the discretion of
the Supreme Judicial Court before
whom the conviction may be according to the aggravation of the

lution in any tax-supported school. The
passage of that bill led to the famous
Scopes Trial. Smith went to Little Rock,
Arkansas, when he heard about the bill
and set up a little storefront to give away
tracts on evolution. He found himself
immediately in conflict with the local authorities. He was arrested and hauled
before municipal court Judge Harb,
who charged him with violating a city
ordinance which forbade the use of the
name of the deity except in "veneration
The verdict was "guilty," and Kneeand worship." When he asked Smith to
land was sentenced to three months in
be sworn in, Smith could not take the
jail. He appealed to the Supreme Court
god oath and gave the reason that he
of the United States. The case was rewas an Atheist. Judge Harb ruled that if
versed and remanded for a new trial.
he was, in fact, an Atheist that he could
The second trial ended on May 28, 1834, the New York Truth Seeker. He was not be sworn or could not testify in
with a hung jury, by an eleven to one elected chairman of the American Sec- court. An attorney by the name of
vote. The state launched a third trial in ular Union in 1884.In 1886Reynolds be- Shackleford just happened to be in the
November 1835and convicted Kneeland gan to give travelling lectures, with courtroom on other business and came
again. He moved for new trial which was stereopticon exhibitions, focusing on to the defense of Smith. The judge
held in March 1836. He was convicted the need for "secularism." One of the dropped the "veneration and worship"
again. He appealed to the Massachu- most acclaimed of these lectures was ordinance charge brought by the chief
setts Supreme Court but lost. In April "Why I Left The Pulpit." In 1885he be- of police and charged Smith with an al1838 (four and one-half years after the gan using a tent, purchased by funds ternative one of his own, that of violating
offense), Kneeland, then age sixty-four, raised through the Truth Seeker, for Section 479of the ordinances of the city
was sentenced to sixty days in jail.99
meetings because halls would not rent of Little Rock on "Obscene Books and
Then came the second most famous to freethinkers. He was found guilty de- Publications - Sale and Distribution
blasphemy trial in this country - fifty- spite being represented at trial by none Of." That ordinance ended with the
three years later in New Jersey. Charles other than the Great Agnostic, Robert phrase "... which shall be calculated to
B. Reynolds (August 5, 1832-JuJy3, 18%) G. Ingersoll, who had been obtained by injure the morals of the inhabitants of
was indicted for blasphemy on October
E. M. MacDonald, editor of the Truth said city - or provoke a breach of the
19, 1886,on the basis of a document he Seeker. 100
peace thereof." Does that sound familhad passed out after tent lectures in
Indictments for blasphemy continued
iar from British law of the late 1800s?
Boonton and Morristown, New Jersey.
in the United States until October 1928 Charlie Smith spent twenty-six days in
A Seventh-Day Adventist preacher
in the case of Charles Smith. In 1925 jail working off his fine from that case.
turned Atheist, Reynolds was an avid Smith had founded an organization in This marked the last case of an Atheist
reader of the Boston Investigator and New York called The American Associ- being charged with blasphemy, only unation for the Advancement of Atheism. der a hastily contrived substitute thereIn 1928, Arkansas, Smith's home state, fore, in this country.w'
98"In1977the Massachusetts legislature ...
introduced into the state legislature a bill
Unfortunately no one has ever done
voted by two-to-one not to repeal its 1697 that would prohibit the teaching of evo- a definitive work on the history of the
statute against blasphemy, although the last
"crime" of blasphemy in the United
prosecutions in that state took place in the
States. Works on the subject have pri1920s and failed" (Levy, Treason Against
marily concentrated on Europe. In this
God, p. 338).
100MadalynO'Hair, Introduction to The Trial
country, however, the crime of blaspheThe only difference between the Massa- of C.B. Reynolds, Robert G. Ingersoll's
chusetts law of 1697and that of 1782was that
in the case of the earlier law the penalty was
99"Roots of Atheism," American Atheist,
March 1981,pp. 8-10.
Page 24

Address To The Jury (Austin, Texas: American Atheist Press, 1986), consisting of the
New York Times May 20, 1887,news account
of Reynolds' blasphemy trial and Robert
Ingersoll's address to the jury.
March 1989

101MadalynO'Hair, "American Atheist Radio
Series," American Atheist, October 1986,p.
American Atheist




my can be said, overall, to have had a
fairly common evolution from the British crime.

And in conclusion

their lives, for freedom of conscience
and speech. Their hero will be a sports
star or the lead in a science fiction movie
scripted to retell the Christ story over
and over again.
The Hypatias (415), Wycliffes (1378),
the Brunos (1600), the Biddies (1647),
the Hobbes (1666), the Taylors (1676),
the Williams (1797), the Hones (1817),
the Carliles (1817-1821),the Hetheringtons (1841), the Holyoakes (1842), the
Besants (1878), the Footes (1883), the
Reynolds (1887), the Stewarts (1911),
and all the rest in between have been
lost to history in the same manner as
was Charles Bradlaugh. On January 27,
1891,when it was known that Bradlaugh
lay dying, the House of Commons
passed a resolution expunging from the
journals of the House the resolutions excluding him in former years. 102

I have gone through quite a history of
this charge of blasphemy, showing its
use against those of intellectual prowess
sufficient to compel them to be dissenters from religion as it manifested itself in
their particular geographical areas and
in their eras. It is implicit in that history
that Christianity has needed to sustain
itself through the persecution and subjugation of those who gleaned the true
backwardness of its doctrine by whatever
means, whether through the intuition of
basic intelligence or as the climax of
long hours of study and research. There
have always been dissenters from religion
and willalways be as long as it exercises
its influence over the gullible.
During many of my numerous talk And in our times
This author desires to, one day, run
show appearances each year, I have the
gauntlet of the alleged "Atheism" of for public office in this country. Should
Adolf Hitler thrown into my face by the I ever be elected, say to the United
snarling mass of ignorance that makes States House of Representatives,
up the majority of this nation's populace. could see myself standing in front of the
Hitler was a practicing Roman Catholic Speaker of the House not being able to
and not an Atheist by any stretch of the take the seat to which I had been duly
elected because I would not swear or
imagination. But Hitler was an amateur
compared with those who made it their affirm "So help me God." One hundred
lives' work to suppress dissent against and nine years after Bradlaugh's first
Christianity. The Middle Ages, with the attempt to be seated in the House of
likes of Bernard Gui doing the bidding of Commons, it could happen again and in
the popes, caused more misery to more the United States of America.
I hope you, the reader, will take spepeople over one thousand years of
human history than Hitler ever could cial care in reading this issue of the
American Atheist concerning the strughave hoped to cause.
Yet those who suffered great person- gle of our compatriots in Germany and
al grief as their reward for poking holes, Austria over contemporary blasphemy
here and there, in the great shroud of ig- laws in their countries. These are couranorance, superstition, and human de- geous individuals who need all the supbasement which had spread over Europe port that we can give them, but who, I
and the Near East, letting through little suspect, will get the same level of suprays of scientific thought, have been by port and cooperation that their foreand large written out of history. Your bears in the struggle for freedom of the
children will not go to public school to- mind received, which was the silence of
as they stood
day and learn about the misery that their contemporaries
Christianity inflicted on the world, and
their heroes willnot be those who gave
all that they had, up to and including lO2AmericanAtheist, July 1987, p. 26.
Austin, Texas

March 1989

alone in the dock.103
In the words of Justice Felix Frankfurter, late of the Supreme Court of the
United States, on the nature of the
history of blasphemy,
Blasphemy was the chameleon
phrase which meant criticism of
whatever the ruling authority of
the moment established as the
orthodox religious doctrine.t=
It is indeed an archaic concept to those
who understand its origin and history.
For the "man in the street," I am not so
certain that the concept does not still
hold the full faith and credit of its application during the Inquisition. It is, as I
have said earlier, a victimless crime.
Blasphemy is like many other concepts
of the past: its history must remain and
it must be studied and taught to succeeding generations, for it is when it has
been forgotten, along with those who
were persecuted under its various definitions, that it can most easily be resurrected.
Let me not now, therefore, hear the
worn phrase "it can't happen here."
It is now the summer of 1989,and Republican Rep. Garey Forster of the Louisiana legislature has just filed a bill in
that state which
... would make it a misdemean-

I03"The place in a courtroom where a
prisoner is placed during trial [Flemish dok
cage]" (American College Dictionary).
I04Joseph Burstyn, Inc. u. Wilson, 343 U.S.
495,529, argued April 24, 1952 - decided
May 26, 1952.
"Provisions of the New York Education
Law which forbid the commercial showing
of any motion picture film without a license
and authorize denial of a license on a
censor's conclusion that a filmis 'sacrilegious,'
held void as a prior restraint on freedom of
speech and of the press under the First
Amendment, made applicable to the states
by the Fourteenth Amendment." Syllabus at
Page 25

or for anyone to take the name of
God in vain. It also would bar
cursing Jesus Christ and the Holy
Ghost, making fun of "the holy
word of God contained in holy
scripture" or ridiculing the heads
of "any generally accepted and
recognized religion" and their
Forster explained to the media that
his proposal calls for up to six months in
jail and a fine of $500 for violators. It is
known that Massachusetts, Michigan,
Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware
still have blasphemy laws on their

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.
Westminst~r, MD: Christian Classics,
Berman, David. A History of Atheism in
Britain: From Hobbes to Russell. New
York-London-Sydney: Croom-Helm,
Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh. Penalties
Upon Opinion. London: Watts &
Co., 1912.
Brusher, Joseph S., S. J. Imprimatur,
Terence Cardinal Cooke. Popes
through the Ages. San Rafael, California: Neff-Kane, 1959.
Garker, Ambrose G. Henry Hetherington
1792-1849 - Pioneer in the Freethought and Working Class Struggles
of a Hundred )Bars Ago for the Freedom of the Press. London: Secular
Society, Ltd., Pioneer Press.
Holyoake, George Jacob. The History
of the Last Trialby Jury of Atheism in
England. London: James Watson &
Queen's Head Passage, 1851.
Kelly,J. N. D. The Oxford Dictionary of
Popes. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986.
Levy, Leonard W Treason Against God,
A History of the Offense of Blasphemy.

IOSTheTimes Picayune, New Orleans, LA, 2
May 1989,
Page 26

New York: Schocken Books, 1981.
Lincoln, Charles Z. The Civil Law and
The Church. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1916.
Nokes, G. D., LL.D. A History of the
Crime of Blasphemy. London: Sweet
& Maxwell, Limited, 1928.
Tribe, David. 100 Years of Freethought.
London: Elek Books, Limited, 1967.
Wheeler, J. M. A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and
Nations. London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1889.
The American College Dictionary. New
York: Harper, 1944.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England:
Oxford University Press, 1980.
The Encyclopcledia Britannica. 11th ed.
Cambridge, England: The Chancellor,
Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge, 1910.
Fourteen Leading Cases on Education,

Religion, and Financing Schools. St.
Paul, MN: Lincoln Research Library,
West Publishing Co.
Free Press Anthology. Compo Theodore
Schroeder. New York: The Free
Speech League & The Truth Seeker
Publishing Co., 1909.
Harper's Bible Dictionary. Paul J.
Achtemeir, gen. ed. New York: Harper
& Row, 1985.
The Holy Bible. Nashville, Tennessee:
The Gideons International, The National Publishing Company, 1978.
by Charles Bradlaugh.
Annotated by John M. Robertson.
London: A. and H. Bradlaugh Bonner,
The Truth Seeker, The National Freethought Weekly, vol. 55, no. 8 (25
February 1928).
United States Reports, vol. 343, Oct.
Term 1951.

"I'd love to be 'born again' - as long as I get to breast-reed."
March 1989

American Atheist

History of the Antiklerikaler
Arbeitskreis Salzburg
and partly physical liquidation of the
he "Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis"
was founded at the end of May Atheist movement in Austria by fas1985.Its foundation was the result cism. The threat by the §188 forced us
of a series of lectures under the name of to distribute the almanac privately. An"First Anticlerical Week of Salzburg," at other legal charge by the church would
which several historical and psycho log- surely have caused the confiscation of
icallectures on religion and the church
the almanac and thus the financial ruin
were held. The founding members of of several members. Besides, only indethe Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis were pendent bookshops were prepared to
also the organizers of the Week, which sell aggressive Atheist literature.
was initiated after the model of those of
Freiburg, West Germany, by a university students' group called "Socialistic
The anticlerical lectures attracted
considerable attention in Salzburg. The
local press started a smear campaign to
slander the organizers and the principal
ofthe university banned (without any legal basis for his actions) two lectures
from being held at the university - but
they took place in spite of the ban. Finally,the Chamber of Finance of the Catholic anchdiocese preferred a charge according to §188 of the Austrian Penal
Code, "Abasement of religious doctrines."
The aims and purposes of the founding of the Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis
were, on the one hand, to continue the
scientific and educational discussion
Anton Neureiter, the secretary general
and analysis of the phenomenon of reli- of the AK-AK, is under investigation for
gion and the church which gives it its publishing posters and leaflets for the
solid organized basis, and on the other 1988 Salzburg Anticlerical Week.
hand, to offer a counterbalance, even if
small, to the looming legal persecution
Subsequently, our activities had an efby the church.
fecton other parts of Austria. Similar
The circumstances surrounding the anticlerical lectures, inspired by the
Week justified the fact that the first ac- Anticlerical Week Salzburg, were held
in various other cities in Austria.
tivities by the Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis
In the autumn of 1986, we started a
concentrated on the documentation of
the lectures of the Week and the events campaign to distribute leaflets in front of
surrounding it. Allthis is recorded in the the schools in Salzburg. School authorTeuflischer Almanach (The Devil's Al- ities had introduced regulations rendermanac), published by our group. Even if ing it more difficult to withdraw from rethe layout is rather modest - all work ligious knowledge lessons. The leaflet
(typesetting, printing, distribution) had also explained the hostility of the church
to be accomplished by the members of towards sexuality and the current repression of the pactbetween the Roman
the AK-AK themselves - this brochure
was the first attempt to document a se- Catholic church and the European fasrious, public confrontation with the phe- cist regimes. The leaflets attracted
nomenon of religion since the practical some public attention and caused judi-


Activist .Atheists in
Austria are witnessing
the second coming of
the Inquisition.'

The text of this article is provided
courtesy of the "Antiklerikaler
Arbeitskreis Salzburg." It was
presented to American Atheists in a
specially bound edition of the history
of the organization.

Austin, Texas

March 1989

Page 27

cial investigations, which had to be
dropped after their more than dubious
beginnings. The teacher responsible for
the printing of the leaflet was publicly
denounced by an official of the school
authorities, in order to prevent him from
practicing his profession as a teacher
and also to intimidate other teachers
who might express similar ideas.
In 1987we had to concentrate our activities on averting the charge of blasphemy from 1985which was still upheld.

As the press refused to publish anything
on the legal proceedings, we had to inform the public ourselves through leaflets, information booths, and public
The public prosecutor made a point
out of trying to reach a sentence. We
succeeded, however, in getting numerous protests against the proceedings.
Apart from individual letters and signed
lists of protests from Austria, Germany,
Switzerland, and France. the interna-

tional Russell-Tribunal, various European Atheist organizations, and Amnesty
International intervened for our cause.
Members of the Green Party of Austria
put up a parliamental request in the
This wave of protests led to the withdrawal of the case by a higher court.
The reasons given were equivalent to an
acquittal. But as the public prosecutor
was hardly pleased with this outcome,
he filed an appeal, which was granted.

Charges, bans, and legal proceedings under § 188 in the 1980s in Austria,
as far as known to the Antiklerikaler Arbeitskreis
Twenty-six charges against activists in Vienna, who protested against
the visit by the pope. In four cases
trials were held, which led to acquittals of the accused only in higher
courts. The accused in these cases,
as in all the others, had to pay the
enormous legal costs themselves.
Charge and trial against the publisher of a critical monthly magazine
in Salzburg because of a satire against
the pope. Acquittal only in a higher
court. The costs of the legal proceedings ruined the magazine.

of Austria.
Charge, trial, and sentence for students who dared show the movie at
the university as a protest against the
Ban of the movie "The Love Council" by Werner Schroder in Innsbruck - valid for the whole of Austria. The movie is based on the book
by the same name by Oskar Panizza,
who was sentenced to one year of
prison in Germany in 1895. Subsequently, as he refused to give up his
critical attitude, he was driven to financial and psychological ruin. With
the help of a preacher and his religious mother, he disappeared in a
mental hospital.

mud) in Bludenz/Westaustria. Opening of disciplinary proceedings by the
school authorities against a teacher
who presides over the organization
organizing "Klerschlamm."
Ban on the showing of a play by
George Tabori at the Salzburg Festival. It was planned to take place in
a church, and the archbishop considered making a charge against it.
Charge and sentencing of a student in Graz who published an anticlerical caricature in a students' magazine.

Charge and trial against the person registering a cultural demonstration in Salzburg, because a participant, disguised as a bishop, blessed
the audience with a toilet-broom.
The "bishop" was charged as well.
Only the fact that the toilet-broom
had not been "used" and that the accused denied any antireligious intentions caused the acquittal, again in a
higher court.

Charge against the person responsible for publishing leaflets concerning.the religious knowledge lessons in

Threat of disciplinary proceedings
against a teacher in Upper-Austria
who is known for her anticlerical activities. She had suggested alternate
occupations to the pupils at her
school during school mass.

Ban of the movie "The Ghost" by
Herbert Achternbusch in the whole

Charges against lecturers and organizers of a series of anticlericallectures called "Klerschlamm" (clerical

Charge against the persons responsible for an anticlerical bookstand in Linz.

Page 28

Charge against the persons registering the "First Anticlerical Week of

March 1989

Charge against the publishers of
posters and leaflets for the "Second
Anticlerical Week of Salzburg."

American Atheist

Austrian Atheists were charged with
blasphemy for organizing the 1985
Salzburg Anticlerical Week.

A few days before the trial was to take
place - we had organized a public lecture on the church and fascist regimes
in the same week - the case was adjourned under very lame pretexts.
Some weeks later the case was finally
dismissed. The determining factors for
this were a new load of protests and the
intervention by the archbishop(!), who
realized that the trial would cause more
harm to the church than it would do
good. And he feared an acquittal of the
accused Atheists because of the massive
protests. The legal authorities gave way
to the bishop and put their reasons for
the dismissal in such a way that future
sentencing in similar cases is not in the
least obstructed. This is the much proclaimed segregation of state and church
in Austria.
The story of this trial may seem
strange, but it reflects a jurisdiction that
is willingto exercise an inquisitorial paragraph left over from the Middle Ages,
but does not dare to in front of a critical
In March 1988, we published posters
and brochures showing the role of the
church at the "Anschluss" by the Nazis
in 1938. The Roman Catholic church
welcomed the Nazis enthusiastically
and declared in a public resolution,
which was read aloud in all churches in
Austria and Germany, that a very special
deed by these barbarians was to liquidate the leftist opposition and to declare
Austria part of Germany by the "Anschluss." The theme of the poster was "To
draw the consequences from history
means to leave the church!"
The statistically visible rise in departures from the Roman Catholic church
during this month may be explained by
these activities.
In June 1988,finally,we organized the
"Second Anticlerical Week of Salzburg"
with several historical and politicallectures, among them one on the Inquisition. The occasion for the Week was the
visit of the pope in Austria. The anticlericallectures again gave cause to charges
under §188against members of the AntiAustin, Texas

klerikaler Arbeitskreis. Two Atheists
were interrogated by the state police
and by the investigating judge. They
were, for example, asked to name all
persons involved with organizing the
Second Anticlerical Week, but they refused to give evidence as a protest
against these methods of the Inquisition.

We do not yet know ifthere willbe a trial
following the charge. The judicial records concerning our case cannot be inspected, as they have been sent to a
higher court in another city. Obviously,
a political decision has to be made there
as to whether there will be a trial or




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20. ErdgeschofJ

March 1989

Page 29

The Middle Ages are alive
Section 166 of the West German
Criminal Code

Can an Atheist be jailed
for blasphemy in this
day and age?
If the Atheist is in West
the answer is yes.

Insult to confessions, religious groups
and philosophies of life (weltanschau·
(1) Whoever publicly, or by the circulation of written materials insults the substance of a religious or philosophical
confession in a manner likely to disturb
the public peace willbe given a sentence
up to three years of prison, or a fine.
(2)The same punishment applies to
whoever publicly, or by the circulation
of written materials insults a church, religious community or philosophical society in West Germany, their establishments or buildings in a manner likely to
disturb the public peace.

back at the history of the

you find you are a member
L church
of one of the world's greatest crimGottfried Niemietz is a lawyer in the
city of Freiburg, West Germany. Being
a specialist in blasphemy legislation,
he has done several defences in Section 166 cases and often lectures and
publishes on this subject in West
Germany and abroad. His extensive
knowledge in this field as well as his
uncompromising attitude in his fight
against the church have made him the
leading lawyer in Section 166 cases
and a key figure in the West German
Atheist opposition to religion.
This is why he has become the main
target of legal prosecution lately. In
May 1988 he was accused under Section 166CC for a scientific lecture on
blasphemy legislation with the same
content as this article, held in the city
of Wuerzburg in December 1987. The
main hearing began November 1988.
It is obvious that this accusation,
which is characterized by a bold ignorance of basic legal principles, is
meant to intimidate him and finally by a Berujsuerbot - aims at his elimination as a lawyer as well as a leader in
the Atheist movement.

Page 30


inal organisations. Witch-hunts, six million women burnt, genocide, religious
wars, crusades, oppression and conning
the people throughout every century,
the persecution of the Jews, the blessing
of weapons, the condemnation of desire
and so forth, and so forth, to give just a
few examples," Birgit Roemermann
wrote about the church in an enlightening brochure in 1984. Because of this
statement she was sentenced to a fine of
twenty daily rates or twenty days of prison. The Appeal Court of Celle finallydecided that it is a criminal act to publicly
draw the conclusion from the murderous record of the church that it is one of
the greatest criminal organisations of
the world.
But that was not all. The pastoral arm
of the church not only enfolded her in
the shape of the judiciary but other tentacles joined in: the city of Goettingen
prohibited her setting up her anticlerical
information stand - which she had run
for more than two years - because she
"obviously had lost all feelings of decency and morality." The Inland Revenue
cancelled the charitable status of her
"International Society for the Development of Joie de Vivre," which is imporMarch 1989

tant for tax reasons. Several house
searches were carried out, and last but
not least, the local priest called upon the
public to boycott the business run by
her and a friend. Based on blasphemy
Section 166CC, Frau Roemermann was
finally accused once more - this time
for her defence speech in court. Instead
of kowtowing to the cross and recanting, she insisted on her right of freedom
of speech and referred once again to the
slaughter of more than 100 million people - for the most part bestially - by
the church, which completely justified
the expression "greatest criminal organization of the world." That it cannot be
a criminal act to defend oneself in court
should go without saying to anyone, legallytrained or not, since defence would
otherwise become a farce.
The new proceedings were closed
after two years, but only after several
protests, particularly from abroad, had
been registered with the court and had
thus made it impossible to pass sentence in silence in good old inquisitionary style.

"And he who blasphemeth the
name of the lord shall surely
be put to death."
(Lev. 24:16)
The blasphemy law has not been in
existence only since yesterday. It is as
old as Christianity. After Christianity
was made the state religion by the emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 - which
led to an instant prohibition of all pagan
writings and cults - blasphemy and
heresy were made punishable offences
in A.D. 538 by Justinian's Amendment
77. Strictly following the rule of the
Bible, the punishment was death, in
case the more "humane" sanctions
such as brand-marking, ripping out the
tongue, or gouging out the eyes did not
achieve their particular preventive purpose. Amendment 77 served as a model
for all later laws, be it the Bambergische
Halsgerichtsordung! or the Constitutio
Criminalis Carolina, better known as
the "Painful Court Order" of Karl V,
American Atheist

Posters for the 1984 Anticlerical Week
were confiscated by the state. Later four
members of the sponsoring organization were charged with blasphemy.

right up to the present-day draft of Section 166 of the West German Criminal
Code. This version dates from 1871, if
one disregards for the moment an intensification under the Great Coalition in
19692 as well as the cosmetic removal of
the word blasphemy' by letting it remain
a punishable offence. The latter served
- as the minutes of the German parliament reveal- to avoid the tiresome discussions in court as to whether HE exists or not.
It can thus be seen that the blasphemy law has survived the turbulences of
almost fifteen hundred years, just as the
church itself has done. Countless numbers of people have been sentenced in
accordance with this law, even in the
modern, supposedly so-enlightened
age. And the judiciary did not even
spare the great figureheads of German
culture, who made us so very proud of
ourselves and caused Mdme. de Stael to
call us "the Germans, the people of
poets and thinkers" - which immediately made Karl Kraus put in his veto:
"But I say, they are a people of judges
and hangmen,"3 knowing very well what
he was talking about. Thus the "Song of
the English Choirboy" by Kurt Tucholsky
led to an indictment, as did Wilhelm
Buschs' cartoon, "Saint Anthony of
Padova," and George Grosz's caricature, "Christ with the Gas-mask." Because of his play "Das Liebeskonzil"
(The Love Council), Oscar Panizza had
to spend one year in jail. Berthold
Brecht too had to defend himself in 1926
before the Berlin general public proseIBambergische Halsgerichtsordung was a
sixteenth-century German law specifying
that anyone committing blasphemy was to
be punished by death.
2The West German government at that time
was formed by the two major parties, the
Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.
3Play on words: "Die Deutschen, das Volk
der Dichter und Denker" - "Ich aber sage,
Die Deutschen sind das Volk der Richter
und Henker."
Austin, Texas

cutor because of his Christmas poem "Maria." The
writer Arno Schmidt and
the church-historian Karlheinz Deschner were also
prosecuted on account of


und der



die Sowjetunion"

Ort: Novoter - Raum Baden

So., 14.10.84

aus seinem

Die Gegenwart



Ort: Novotet

Increased prosecution
of church opponents
in the Federal Republic
of Germany

- 17 Uhr

Hans Wollschlager:

einer Illusion


ein Monstrum
- Raum Baden

Di., 16. 10. 84 - 20 Uhr


Or. Fritz Erik Hoevels:

Ort: Novate! - Raum Baden

Mi., 17.10.84

- 20 Uhr

Fr., 19. 10. 84 - 20 Uhr


Von der Inquisition

zurn § 166 51GB

The blasphemy law, having been the scourge of art,
science, and freedom of
opinion for so long, has
been increasingly applied
during the past five years.
The case of BirgitRoemermann, outlined has been countered by a blasphemy
above, was only the start. As in 1971,the procedure. Using an expression such as
first Berufsverbot4 started an avalanche "fetish" for the crucifix (as in Muenster)
of McCarthyism; this medieval accusa- or callingChristian brotherly love "empty
tion of blasphemy became the starting words" (as in Bochum) are just as forpoint of a systematic prosecution cam- bidden as giving Cardinal Hoeffner the
paign against West German church crit- title of "chief guru" (as in Wuerzburg).
ics. Since 1984, any kind of criticism of
In October 1984the Bunte Liste FreiburgS organized the first anticlerical
church and religion in West Germany
week in West Germany. The various
events were announced by the "priestwhich has
4Berufsverbot means "prohibition of profes- with-god-puppet-poster,"
sion" and is the common term for a decree
since become famous allover the country
enacted by the German government under
and has also been used for other antithe Social Democrat Chancellor Willy clerical weeks. After this was reported
Brandt in 1972, saying that members of rad- by the archdiocese, the public prosecutor
ical parties may not be employed by the had all the posters taken down and constate, even if the party itself is not prohibitfiscated. Four members were accused
ed and participates in the elections. By this
of blasphemy. On the one hand, it was
decree the existence of thousands of oppositionists was ruined because of their mem- considered to be blasphemous or a disturbance of the public peace that thoubership in communist or socialist organisasands of people had protested against
tions. It was the beginning of a kind of "witch
hunt" for any oppositionists, quite comparathis procedure, for this had led to "a
ble to the McCarthyism in the fifties in the
considerable tensioning of the atmoUnited States. The legal term of this decree
sphere of discussion." "On the other


Die Gottespest

Ort: Kalhe-Kollwitz-GeseUschaft

is Radikalenerlass, which means "decree
about radicals." It is still being applied in
West Germany, though - having entirely
fulfilled its purpose of intimidation of oppositionists - there are few oppositionists left.
The author is threatened by a Berufsverbot
because in case of a conviction based on
article 166of the Criminal Code his recognition as a lawyer would be withdrawn.
March 1989

OM 3,50 (Schuler,

Yon der Kirche
Ort: Novotel




- Raum Baden


OM 2,-)

5Bunte Liste Freiburgis translated as "colored
list of Freiburg." When the Bunte Liste was
founded this name was chosen to indicate
that members of different parties could participate in the Bunte Liste as long as they
shared its general aims.
Page 31









Fanatische Kirchenhasser am Werk

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hand, the Roman Catholic church had
once again been accused of disgraceful
conduct in a particularly insulting manner. This is revealed by the statement
that the sticker 'Konkordat 1933' in the
drawing was meant to link the Vatican to
the Hitler fascism." The historian gapes
in amazement: it is a historical fact that
Pope Pius XI signed the Concordat with
Hitler in 1933 and was the first foreign
sovereign head to give the Nazis diplomatic recognition; Cardinal Faulhaber
even called the pope the best, in the beginning even the only, friend of the German Reich. Now it would be true that
this conduct was - to put it extremely
politely - "disgraceful." Just as little as
the murderer may complain if he is
called a criminal has the church the right
to cry out in agony like a wounded animal and claim nature conservancy for
When, ignoring the accusations, the
Bunte Liste Freiburg organized the second anticlerical week in 1985, using the
"priest -with-god-puppet -poster" again,
nine more preliminary proceedings
were instituted. The church used its
Page 32


'1LJ 5.12.85

magazine Bildpost to mobilize against the anticlerical
week with the motto: "Do
twenty-seven millionCatholic
citizens have to take this?"
(Counterquestion: Can one
million flies be wrong?) The
propagan d a did
1 no remain
without consequences: The
windows of a gallery in which
the Bunte Liste had organized an exhibition of anticlerical caricatures by F. K.
Waechter and Erich Rausch-

enbach were smashed. In the local
press, the mayor of Freiburg compared
the anticlerical week to anti-Semitic
events during the Third Reich, and the
same kind of propaganda came from the
pulpit of the Freiburg Cathedral. (And
where is the protection for Atheists?)
It is true that in the end all legal cases
ended in acquittal or withdrawal. This,
however, was as involuntary an act as
the mothballing of thumbscrews. Meanwhile, the protests had become so numerous and prominent that acquittals
were unavoidable. Five thousand persons had protested, from Erich Fried
and the president of the Russell-Tribunal
to members of parliament in Ecuador;
protest demonstrations had taken place
in front of the German embassies in
London and Los Angeles. Shortly after
this, another preliminary proceeding
was opened against a Bunte Liste member, this time because of a letter of protest against the compulsory psychiatric
examination of the Freising Atheist, Dr.
Joseph. To find out the identity of the
letter's author, the judiciary did not shy
away from searching a lawyer's office
March 1989

and sifting through confidential materials. The confidentiality between the advocate and his client is the sacred cow
of any state under the rule of law. That
even this sacred cow is led to the slaughter in the name of the Trinity shows once
more that not only are blasphemy procedures not normal criminal proceedings, their very existence is an anachronism in itself. In the meantime, the European Commission of Human Rights is
giving consideration to this question.
In the city of Aachen two students
who had set up an information desk in
front of the student restaurant during
the Christmas of 1984 to inform people
about the procedures in Goettingen and
Freiburg were accused. Because of telegrams of protest from England and the
United States which were still arriving
during the hearing, the judiciary found
itself "coerced" to pronounce a verdict
of not guilty. After an appeal was lodged
by the public prosecutor, this acquittal
was quashed at the end of 1987.Shortly,
the entire proceedings willbe started all
over again after more than three years
have elapsed in the meantime!
At the end of 1987, another anticlerical week took place in the city of
Wuerzburg, also being announced by
the "priest -with-god-puppet -poster."
Though in the Freiburg proceedings it
had already been legally determined
that the poster did not violate the blasphemy law, preliminary proceedings
were opened against the event's organizer, the local magazine, Herr Schmidt.
The reason: it had not been possible to
secure a conviction in Freiburg on account of the protests, which had taken
the court by surprise. In Wuerzburg and
American Atheist

Left: The Roman Catholic magazine Bildpost ran editorials against the
1985anticlerical week. Soon after, the gallery in which an exhibit of anticlerical caricatures had been placed was vandalized.
Right: Attorney Gottfried Niemietz, Professor Vladimir Dedijer, president of the Russell Tribunal, Freiburg psychoanalyst Dr. Fritz Erik
Hoevels, Mrs. Vera Dedijer, and Mr. Christopher Farley, former private
secretary of Bertrand Russell (in the foreground), at their meeting on
October 23, 1988, in Freiburg.

Aachen, the judiciary is now counting
on the protests having died off in order
to pronounce a guilty verdict in some
quiet back room.

Compulsory psychiatrisation
in the "Free Western World"
That the West German Judiciary in its
persecution of church opponents does
not even shy away from the method of
compulsory psychiatrisation is shown
by the case of the Freising industrialist
Dr. Joseph, who over years refused to
play the role of church tax-collector by
deducting contributions from his employees' wages. Said employees then
paid their church tax directly to the Inland Revenue on their own accord.s
When, however, years later the authorities demanded of him the church tax
which had already been paid by his employees, he accused them of, among
other things, "fraudulently attempting
to collect money twice." Immediately he
was not only accused of insult but also
had to undergo a compulsory psychiatric examination, which was justified by
the cynical explanation that the more
than"thirty-year-old legal battle with the
financial authorities over this matter
might have caused him to suffer a mental deficiency! Furthermore, during the
hearing he was questioned about childhood diseases or possible head injuries
as a child. The penalty: a fine of 8,000
But that was not enough. A few
months later, Dr. Joseph was sentenced
once more, this time to a fine of OM
6,000. The reason: following the example of the church, he declared his chemistry factory a tendency company and
planned to employ Atheists only from
then on. A Christian job applicant thereupon ran immediately to the public

61nGermany, since the Concordat in 1933,
the state has taken over the part of collecting
the church taxes through the tax office - a
practice unheard of in any other part of the
Austin, Texas

prosecutor who, at lightning
speed, formulated an indictment for coercion.

Unity of
state and church
Dr. Joseph was convicted
of coercion. Why, then, not
the church? According to the Subsidiary Principle," hospitals, kindergartens
and old people's homes are mostly in
the hands of the church. Anyone hoping
for work there not only has to be a spotless, loyal citizen, but also has to be of
the right faith - right down to the very
last housepainter. Clerks as well as physicians have to join the church and order their private lives according to the
biblical proclamation. What has the removal of the appendix to do with the insemination by way of the auditory canal
or the belief that the latter is possibler'l"
The church is one of the biggest employers in the Federal Republic of Germany. It has the right to determine
whether the painting of walls is part of its
spiritual mission or not, with the result
that, for its employees, secular law is valid only in a very limited form. The regulations governing the rights of the
unions to look after the interest of the
employees are not valid for them. What
would definitely be illegal in a "normal"
job may very well be allowed in a "Christian" one. Therefore, once more, hun-

7Subsidiary principle: this means that the
state finances hospitals, kindergartens and
the like which are run by the church. If a
community decides to put up a social institution it first has to ask the church whether
the latter wants to run this institution or not.
If the church does, the institution becomes
a confessional one, for example a Roman
Catholic kindergarten, but is still financed
by the community. The subsidiary principle
is part of the Concordat of 1933 between
Hitler and the Vatican, which is still valid in
West Germany.
8An old European legend concerning the
birth of Jesus is that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary through her ear.
March 1989

dreds of thousands of people are forced
to finance an organization that has more
murders on its record than the Nazis. In
this case, however, nobody talks about
coercion, although it would be appropriate. But if one single man (i.e., 0.01 percent) claims the same right for himself
as Dr. Joseph did - and for good reasons - he is made a criminal.
"Are we Atheists second class citizens?" asked Arno Schmidt, quite rightly. De facto, yes! Even though this contradicts our constitution, according to .
which church and state ought to be separate and there should be freedom of
belief, which of course should most of all
mean freedom from belief! The examples given above speak for themselves,
and there are many more of them. Is it
not coercion, if not rape, when children
are baptized compulsorily, have to visit
when the more intelligent part of the
population not only has to endure the
television Sunday prayer and the endless dingdong of the bells, but also has
to put up with, day by day, the neverending unatoned rejoicing and undigested Bible texts served up over the air by
thousands of radio stations? Moreover,
the medieval dictatorship Section 166
CC has no place in a democratic state
under the rule of law. Or, to use the
words of Tiberius: "Deorum iniuriae diis

If they could do as they liked
The increased prosecution of church
opponents during the past four years is
no coincidence. In 1975it was no problem to display the "priest-with-god-

9The insults of the gods are their own business.
Page 33

Gottfried Niemietz spoke at the 1985
anticlerical week. In order to inform the
public of the human rights abuses in
West Germany, Bunte Liste Freiburg
has chronicled the blasphemy persecutions in a series of booklets.

puppet-poster" in Freiburg without incurring punishment, yet it led to a
charge nine years later. Similarly, Birgit
Roemermann had had no problems running her information stand in Goettingen without prosecution the years before. The church senses very well when
the time has come to return from the
second row, where Enlightenment had
pushed it, back to the first.
There is no time like now! After the
Social Democrats under Willy Brandt
had shattered the newly sprouting opposition from the student movement by
creating the Berufsverbote, and there
were only a few left who preferred reason to home-knitted cereal,'? the path
was free for social regression. One by
one, democratic liberties were eliminated. Mysticism is spreading. The attacks on Freud, Galileo, Bruno, and
Darwin in recent years are proof enough.
And what better breeding ground could
there be for the religious nonsense! Just
as once freedom of opinion - which is
only two hundred years old - had to be
fought for against the church, so today
it again needs to be defended against the
church as time closes full circle. This is
why the fight for freedom of opinion

10Home-knitted cereal: this is a metaphor
alluding to the alternative movement in West
Germany whose main concerns, after having
been intimidated by the Berufsverbot from
doing serious political work, are now health
food and a natural way of living which includes knitting one's own garments.
Page 34

who were brotherly-loved to death are
not examples of error. Rather, their
treatment characterizes the spirit of the
church. The fact that it has to obey the
Fifth Commandment today is not its
own achievement. If it is allowed, it will
continue to exercise its "spiritual welfare" in the manner it has tried and
tested over centuries.
As the inquisitor - also called "sectspecialist" - of the Protestant Bavarian
church said to a member of a sect, a
modern Cathar so to say: "In the Middle
Ages we would have had quite a different method of dealing with you!" Another
time he said: "If I make you think about
the Inquisition you're perfectly right."
The canon law says nothing else: a canonical commentary of 1951about the
Codex Iuris Canonici states quite openly
that the church may demand "any penalty whatever in order to achieve its objectives," i.e., even the "imposition of
the death penalty." The fact that today
the church is not able "to execute such
sentences" does not mean at all "that it
does not have the right to do so."
Some time ago Cardinal Basil Hume
expressed his fervent longing for a new
Middle Ages in the Osservatore Romano
(whenever they are among themselves
they speak with most endearing frankness) with an appeal for a new crusade
as a part of the spiritual mission to
create a united Christian Europe from
the Atlantic to the Urals.~
Addresses for protest:

takes place chiefly on this front today.
Those too blind to see the light slowly going out should allow the history of
the church to pass once more in review
before their inner eyes, and should remember especially that it has not laid
aside one single thumbscrew voluntarily,
and should note that not fiftyyears have
passed since the last 750,000 murders
- Iam talking about the Roman Catholic
orgies of slaughter in Croatia between
1941and 1943.The more than 100million
March 1989

Amtsgericht Wuerzburg
8700 Wuerzburg
West Germany
Bavarian Minister of Justice
Postfach, 8000 Muenchen 35
West Germany
Please send copy to:
Bunte Liste Freiburg
Postfach 254, 7800 Freiburg
West Germany
Reference of the Procedure: 100Js 2/88
American Atheist

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0389 magazine

Austin, Texas

March 1989

Page 35

Myths and misconceptions
about Atheists and Atheism
rying to dispel a misconception is
one of the toughest tasks to undertake. First you must acknowledge that, yes, there is indeed a false
and destructive message being spread.
Then you take whatever personal and
public measures you can to correct the
negative information. The image of the
Atheist in the public consciousness offers such an example of a negative stereotype. The stereotype is vague at
best, since Atheism is practically invisible in our popular culture. On the rare
occasion that an Atheist group or individual gathers some small amount of attention, they are usually cast in a negative
light. This forces the public to draw
many bizarre conclusions. These conclusions, of course, are based on a lack
of information at best, or deliberate
falsehoods at worst. The myths and misconceptions addressed in this article
reflect the experiences of individual
Atheists. We have all wrestled with confusion, hostility, and irrational fear when
our godless outlook brushes up against
the rigid religious attitudes of family,
friends, associates, and strangers. Because Atheism is an unpopular minority
viewpoint, dispelling these myths is truly
an uphill battle. It is always easier to
spread a vicious rumor than it is to correct a false impression. Here are a select
few myths and misconceptions, in no
particular order, with which Atheists are
often forced to reckon.


Anyone who defines
Atheism in terms
of religion will come up
with a very confused and incorrect definition.

believe) that some mystical creator put
us here, guides our lives, and provides
us with a celestial retirement home after
our bodies die. We have no souls, no divine inspiration, no prayers answered,
no afterlife, no heavenly reward, no hellish punishment - just a down-to-earth
appreciation for life and a desire to get
humanity right the first time. We don't
get a second chance, brothers and

The battered Atheist
There is also a double-edged misconception about Atheists. As many members of minorities have come to realize,
when held to one image or another, one
often can't win for losing. The first half
of the fallacy is that an individual arrives
at an Atheist perspective because of
some kind of horrible, personal trauma.

Atheism is a religion

Gary Yokie is a member of the
Houston Chapter of American
Atheists, a social observer, a commer. cial artist, and a member of the American Atheist Radio Collective.

Gary Yokie
Page 36

This assumption is often made by a
few snotty practitioners of one faith or
another. Feisty agnostics and fuzzy New
Agers seem especially prone to assert
that coming to terms with a godless universe requires some small act of faith, or
a thick layer of dogma. To those surly
intellectualizers, we say, "Read my lips.
There is no god." Show us the slightest
trappings of any creed universally accepted by our organization or by individual Atheists. The common thread
that connects all Atheists is the refusal
to believe (and the key word here is
March 1989

The religious among us seem to believe
that Atheists must surely be angry with
god for their lots in life. So we're either
pained or numbed by our experiences.
Perhaps we've been abused by cults, religious zealots, pious parents, nuns,
priests, rabbis, or ministers and the like.
As usual, the truth of the matter is far
from this mistaken notion. There are
American Atheist

many happy, fulfilledAtheists who enjoy
life's mysteries while avoiding society's
mysticism. Of course, we have our troubles, too. Atheists face the complexities
of livingwithout resorting to a creed for
a false sense of security. Religion again
provides us with its view from the wrong
end of the telescope; mythology defines
the reality.

The naive Atheist
This is the flip side of the "Battered
Atheist" myth. According to this misconception, Atheists have experienced
none of life's difficult moments. These
godless folks walk among us with a
Pollyannish, overeducated
about the world in general. Atheists, as
this fable would have it, become cold,
calculating zombies who lack the most
basic human empathy that religion must
somehow provide. The Atheist, as depicted in the "naive" image, is most likely an egghead who embraces science
and the physical world with an abiding
faith that replaces religion. Here again,
misunderstanding reigns supreme. Those
who propagate this particular myth
probably have had no contact with actual, living, breathing Atheists (to say
nothing of their ignorance about the scientific process). The concept of the
Atheist as a sheltered nerd is just as
damaging as the concept of the bitter
Atheist. The public again lets religion
frame the question, and it becomes the
job of the Atheist to refute the lie.

Atheists are converts
waiting to happen
This is one of the most offensive assumptions made about Atheists. Acceptance of this myth leaves us open to all
sorts of abuse. A charismatic, evangelicalChristian fails to see an Atheist as
an equal human being entitled to a point
of view. No, to this believer, the Atheist
is a target just ripe for conversion. The
zealot erroneously sees the Atheist as a
confused heathen; if this Atheist could
only hear this particular brand of gospel,
baptism would be just around the corAustin, Texas

neroThis idea is just as sillyand pointless
as that of a stoned, first-year philosophy
major wanting to talk the pope out of his
belief in Immaculate Conception. It is
generally considered extremely poor
taste for mainline Protestant religions to
seek conversions of Roman Catholics,
Moslems, and Jews publicly. Why is it
then perfectly acceptable to cajole and
taunt Atheists with some pathetic belief
system? A profession of Atheism is not
always looked upon as part of one's
sense of identity; it is more often a challenge to the less tolerant forces that
make up our society.

Atheists want to convert
everyone else
The religion machine has once again
churned out distortions, and the general
public seems to have accepted these
distortions as fact. When organized
Atheist groups and Atheist individuals
assert themselves, many people feel
offended or threatened. If we count the
reported memberships in churches,
synagogues, and mosques in this country,
the population figures reach over a hundred million. Add to that number those
people who are adherents of cults, the
New Age, astrology, television evangelists, and radio ministries, and you have
a very influential social, political, and
economic bloc. With these odds, it is
impossible for Atheists to dissuade this
many people from their various doctrines. Besides, the world's religions
have managed to crank out plenty of
Atheists in every generation, thank you
very much. Still, the average citizen
feels a sense of obligation to protect the
powerful. Average citizens also fail to
recognize that, as any single denomination, their religionconstitutes a minority
viewpoint. Right-wing evangelicals see
the failure of our non-church institutions
to promote their diet of fundamentalism
as substitute religion. They like to call
American pluralism "secular humanism" and attack it relentlessly as though
it were a well-defined Atheist or satanic
conspiracy. A handful of intellectual theMarch 1989

ologians seem to understand that enforcing the separation clause in the
United States Constitution protects
everybody, and not just Atheists. Keeping prayer out of school and government
functions promotes tolerance. People
are not being forced to surrender their
religion. No one is even suggesting that
they even question their beliefs. Atheists
just want religions to keep their distance.
Atheists want religion to be held accountable in its commercial, legal, and
political activities, just like any other
business. Religion, however, has managed to persuade the American public
that it is above the law, and worse, that
it is beyond the bounds of taste to criticize religion intelligently.

Atheists are satanic
We should not be astonished that
Atheism and Satanism are confused in
the collective American mind, since the
distinctions are never explained. Also,
Roman Catholic pope, Jewish rabbi,
and Baptist deacon have joined forces
to promote this mistaken connection.
That perennial arch-enemy of the church
again rears his ugly horns. Thanks to
the efforts of the clerics, our national
Page '57

psyche is trained with an oversimplified
form of word-association: church good, devil - bad, Atheist - bad. If individuals find gaping flaws in the concepts of omnipotent gods, spirits, ghosts,
angels, and virgin mothers, they can
hardly put any stock in an imaginary
demon who magically compels us to do
his evil bidding. Here is another case,
though, where common sense does not
prevail. The popular, negative image of
Atheists is vague enough to allow religion to attach all its boogeymen to it.
Satan's celebrity status has increased
recently. He's rounded out his regular
stints in fundamentalist sermons with
appearances on television news, mystical
board games, heavy-metal rock records,

ficult cases, psychologists get to mail
out monthly statements, and parents
and teachers get to breathe a sigh of
relief. More significantly, religions get to
reinforce the idea of the supernatural.
Then, by false association, freethinkers
often find themselves on the receiving
end of a smear. Nonreligious is not the
same thing as antireligious; nonholy is
not the same as unholy. Religious forces
continue to blur these distinctions.

Atheists are communists

Since old Karl Marx first put pen to
paper with Das Kapita/ and The Communist Manifesto, lifehas been a wee bit
tougher on Atheists (especially with the
narrow spectrum of political opinion in
the United States of America). Call religion the opiate of the masses or the
opium of the people, however you translate from the German, and the red flag
gets hoisted in a glaring example of guilt
by association. American Atheist magazine conducted a poll a few years ago
concerning the varied political affiliations of its readers and subscribers.
Varied is a good term to use; the largest
segment was Independents, then Democrats, with Republicans and Libertarians running neck-and-neck for third
place. The other demographic information spotlighted more than a few business
owners and entrepreneurs. At any rate,
these figures ought to put this tired, old
myth to rest. Libertarians, Republicans,
corporate folks, and Democrats are
hardly the stuff of which proletarian
.revolutions are made. Those who did
and talk shows. It makes one wonder identify themselves as Communists
which hot-shot public relations firm has were way down the list. It's ironic to rethe prince of darkness for a client. Law member, while we Atheists are smeared
with broad, pink strokes, that when
enforcement personnel and counselors
from coast to coast are crediting old Marxist Communism was still a new
Beelzebub for unsolved crimes, plum- idea, it was attacked mainly for its godmeting achievement test scores, drug lessness. That attack can still be heard
abuse, and assorted psychopathic be- from the Christian Right and, unforhavior. Parents feel better when they tunately, our own president. The fact is
can blame demons for their children's that Atheism was around centuries
antisocial antics, and the kids get off the before Marx and Lenin were even
hook by saying, "the devil made me do gleams in their foreparents' eyes. Atheit." Police departments get to close dif- ism will also survive the superpower
Page 38

March 1989

conflict (that is, if enough of the human
race manages to survive as well).

Atheists are inherently evil
Once again, you have to buy into a
religious point of view to harbor this misconception. To paraphrase Madalyn
O'Hair, religion needs an enemy, and we
are it. Ronald Reagan, as president-elect
in 1980, said that we cannot trust the
Soviets to be ethical, because they are
officiallyAtheist. He based his assertion
on the fact that an Atheist, lacking the
illusion of heavenly reward or hellish
punishment, is not afraid of the afterlife
consequences of worldly actions. Whoa,
there pardner! You could say just as
easily that a born-again Christian, putting all sorts of heinous crimes under the
convenient blanket of sin, might commit
mass murder, gang rape, bestiality, and
stillbe one forgiven, heaven-bound soul.
No religion has cornered the market on
human decency; quite a few of the
world's major and minor creeds have an
incredible legacy of torture and murder .
On the other hand, an Atheist might desire to live as ethically as humanly possible. Since Atheists view the material
universe as the limit of human experience, we again insist that we want to get
this business of life right the first time.
Human life is not trial-and-error for
some ethereal existence beyond our
comprehension. We owe it to ourselves
and our fellow citizens, in the here and
now, to treat each other with tolerance,
dignity, and compassion. Atheists just
manage to hold these ideals without
benefit of hocus-pocus and irrational
American Atheist

spiritual promises.

An Atheist will eventually
accept religion
This is another particularly obnoxious
allegation. This belief is founded on the
shaky premise that the believer making
the statement holds the one, true faith,
and the Atheist will one day "see the
light." The same person who would not
dream of trying to convince a Dallas
Cowboys fan to root for the Pittsburgh
Steelers will harangue an Atheist to
accept Christ. Millions of Atheists have
allmanaged their way through setbacks
and personal tragedies without sub-

scribing to any of our native mythologies.
There are hundreds of our godless contemporaries whose lives have ended
without deathbed conversions (not that
misguided clerics fail to make the obscene gesture of trying to "save" a dying
heathen). The eventual-acceptance
myth is no doubt founded on the only
popular slogan concerning Atheists:
there are "no Atheists in the foxhole."
American Atheists has scores of battle
veterans from several United States
conflicts in its membership. The BibleAustin, Texas

mongers in our midst, however, continue to console themselves by holding
out hope that we can be persuaded.

Atheists are apathetic
This warped view gains its focus from
those who view Atheism as an "easy
way out." No responsiblity to religion,
with this faulty line of reasoning, equals
no responsibility. The popular picture of
piety and subservience to god is con- groups, human rights groups, school
stant hard work, so therefore the Atheist boards, gay alliances, animal rights
coalitions, blood drives, consumer orgais someone who just wants to escape
the duties of fellow citizens. The reality nizations - the list of concerns is
again runs quite contrary to the miscon- limitless.
ception. Any good Atheist willinsist that
faith is the cop-out. The believer has cut So there you have it
If you accept all the prevailing caricorners to avoid many of the hard, wellthought-out choices in this life. The be- catures of the Atheist, you have a very
liever hands science, law, morals, and confusing stereotype with which to deal.
ethics over to god or church. Atheists, We, as Atheists, have our hands full
in fact, have a harder time of it, especial- when we are forced to dispel these misly if they publicly acknowledge their taken assumptions about ourselves. We
Atheism to any degree. To defend an are at the same time ignorant and overAtheist perspective against attacks by intellectual; gullible and argumentative;
righteous religionists, one must be at confused and doctrinaire; world-weary
and wet behind the ears; legalistic and
once a theologian, a constitutional
scholar, a physicist, a biologist, a philos- criminal; zealously activist and apathetopher, a historian, and a lawyer. This is ic; flaky and overly rigid; communist,
quite a workload when you compare it anarchist, and libertine. Atheists are unto the relative ease of accepting a su- justly saddled with notions of intolerance,
perstition without question. It is amazing immorality, cantankerousness, censorto hear theophiles whittle away at a ship, and oppression. What do all these
microscopic detail about physics, the negative images have in common? By
Big Bang theory, or the theory of evolu- propaganda or by default, religions have
tion; they then turn around and ask us managed to convince most of us that
to consider as fact the inane concepts of the absence of religion leaves one less
virgin birth, raising the dead, walking on than whole. This means, to no one's surwater, evil spirits, heavenly angels, and prise, that religion dominates our cula mystical, human-like father of cosmic ture's way of thinking. The biggest lie
that religion perpetrates is that human
creation. Because we are outnumbered,
beings need religion. The Atheist is then
we Atheists develop a keen awareness
of the state-church relationship in the defined in terms of religion and found
United States. Far from assuming an air wanting. We say instead that religion
of apathy, we are more likelyto vote, or- needs people, and the individual who acganize or sign petitions, write our elected cepts religion chooses to carry an unrepresentatives, demonstrate, and speak natural burden. Until the population
out publicly. Many members of our var- shifts to become more tolerant of Atheious Chapters have interests that over- ism (and few of us are holding our
lap the interests of American Atheists; breath), it will be our unfortunate duty
they are also members of major political to defend ourselves against these unparties, fine arts communities, feminist founded, ridiculous
March 1989

Page 39

Talking Back

The basic question

This month's question:
How do you know there
is no god?

So you're having a hard time dealing
with the religious zanies who bug you
with what you feel are stupid
questions? Talk back. Send the question you hate most and American
Atheists will provide scholarly, tart, humorous, short, belligerent, or funpoking answers. Get into the verbal
fray; it's time to "talk back" to religion.

Page 40

Gipson Arnold, assistant director of
the Houston Chapter of American
Atheists, replies:
All the ideas on which god beliefs are
based, and all the arguments for the
existence of gods are obviously flawed
and downright ludicrous. Looking at the
development of religious ideas through
history shows us that all gods were
products of people's imaginations.
Everything that happens has a natural
explanation, therefore gods are unnecessary and absurd.

not have to try to prove the negative. It
is clear the Christians have not wasted
much time actively seeking disproof of
the existence of Horus, Zeus, Minerva,
or Uguboogloo-mama, or the myriad
other divinities that have been worshipped down through history. If they
think Atheists should be proving the
impossibility of the Christian god, Chris.tians should be proving the impossibility
of other gods, goddesses, and committees
of divine critters.
Of course, some Christians can exceed
even lead weights in density, and those
Madalyn O'Hair, founder of AmeriI challenge to prove that I am not god.
If they ask for a miracle, I reply that I
can Atheists, replies:
In the final analysis we can only know could do one ifI wanted to, but I haven't
that which is demonstrable physically, been doing them now for several millenor we can accept as "probable" that nia, and they'll just have to have faith in
my claims. If they don't, I'll punish them
which is supported by logic.
When a person contends that a prop- after they die.
Once believers realize that they can't
osition is true or an entity exists, this
exhaustively disprove my claim to divine
must be supported by one or another
status, they can be taught that only
display. If elves, gnomes, leprechauns,
minotaurs, unicorns, fairies, or gods are claims that are theoretically testable are
said to exist, at least one of the species meaningful and can be shown ultimately
must be physically produced
for to be false or probably true. My claim to
divinity is not testable, and so it not even
It is otherwise if the "idea" of such an false - it's meaningless. If Christians
existence is purported. The burden of have a god they are willingto put to the
proof is upon the person who dreams up test (e.g., call on him to strike me with
the absurdity. Theists have failed to lightning tomorrow at noon, and then
produce any physical god or to logically admit their god is false when the lightsupport the idea of god. Atheists know ning fails),I should be pleased to conduct
what is. They know also what is not. the test. But if their god's existence is
Therefore, Atheists know there is no untestable because he (like me) refuses
to get involved in tests, the god-claims of
Christians aren't even false - they're
Frank Zindler, director of the Central
Ohio Chapter of American Atheists,
The burden of proof is on the person
who claims the existence of an entity. If
someone claims the Easter bunny is
real, neither Christians nor Atheists
need actively "disprove" the claim. All
they need to do is examine critically any
"evidence" the Bunnyist adduces to
prove his claim. Christians, of course,
often deny the validityof this fundamental
principle in logic and need a bit of help
in coming to realize why Atheists should
March 1989

American Atheist


The Probing





How did life begin?
tardust isn't just for making songs:
it's the very stuff life is made of.
Life is a phoenix, born of cosmic
cinders cast into space by the deaththroes of stars no longer sparkling in the
throng above our heads. Our Sun was
not among the first generation of stars
formed when the Big Bang made possible the condensation of energy into matter and the aggregation of matter into
nebulae and stars. Theorists tell us that
the first stars were composed mostly of
hydrogen, and that although there may
have been a fair amount of primordial
helium, with traces of lithium and beryllium, the material emanating from the
explosion that generated the universe
contained no carbon, no nitrogen, no
oxygen, nor any other of the heavier elements that make up our bodies, our
planet, or our star, the Sun. Some of
those elements, particularly the lighter
ones, were generated by the fusion of
primeval hydrogen in the fiery bowels of
first-generation stars. Most of the heavier
elements, however, appear to have been
formed not during the lives of those
stars, but rather during their explosive
deaths, when they turned into novae or
It is now apparent that our day-star,
the Sun, like the lifethat it has spawned,
is also a phoenix. It has arisen from the
ashes and crematory gases hurled into
space as older stars exploded - like
nuclear pressure-cookers blowing off
their lids - creating vast funerary
clouds, or nebulae, of dust and gas in
the interstellar regions of our galaxy.
From the recondensation of such a
nebula, perhaps triggered into collapse
by a shockwave emanating from a nearby nova or supernova, was born our
Sun, with its attendant retinue of planets, satellites, and comets.
The world was a very different place
before it gave birth to the biosphere.
With no vegetation covering the surface
of the protocontinental crust, the force
of erosion was far more formidable than
now. Today, the flow of meteoric waters
is softened, slowed, and tamed by a


Part II:Stardust in the
primordial soup.

Formerly a professor of biology and
geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American
Chemical Society, and the American
Schools of Oriental Research. He is
the director of the Central Ohio Chapter of American Atheists.

Frank R. Zindler
Austin, Texas

March 1989

green velvet cloak of vegetation, which
shields the planetary surface from aerial
violence and attack. A layer of ozone,
high in the stratosphere, shields the vegetation from the withering rays of ultraviolet light streaming down upon it from
the Sun. But it was not always so.
Before the advent of algae and their
descendants, the green plants, there
was very little free oxygen in the atmosphere. This is because it is their advanced type of photosynthesis that generates almost all the oxygen of the
atmosphere. Before there were algae
and plants, there was no photosynthesis
capable of producing oxygen as a byproduct;' and the only free oxygen that
could have found its way into the earth's
atmosphere would have been the small
amount resulting from the radiationinduced breakdown of water molecules
in the upper atmosphere.
Oxygen is a highly reactive substance, and it does not stay long in the
atmosphere. It is continuously reacting,
burning organic material to produce
carbon dioxide, and rusting iron and
other mineral elements in the earth's
crust to produce redbeds and similar
memorials to photosynthetic organisms
of the past. If all lifesuddenly were to go
extinct, within approximately two thousand years there would be only trace
amounts of oxygen left in the atmosphere! It is quite obvious, therefore,
that before life existed the atmosphere
was essentially devoid of oxygen.
The fact that the primitive atmosphere
lacked oxygen was of great good fortune
during the period in which lifecame into
being, for oxygen is a fierce enemy of all
the types of molecules needed for life.
With oxygen present in the atmosphere,
sugars, amino acids, and all the other
carbon-containing compounds needed
to make living cells either would have

"There is a primitive form of photosynthesis
found in certain bacteria which, although
can utilize light energy, does not produce
oxygen as a by-product.
Page 41

been broken down by oxygen soon after
their formation, or - most probably would not have formed in the first place.
One of the major reasons life does not
originate spontaneously today is that
the presence of oxygen makes it impossible. (Another reason, known already
to Charles Darwin over a century ago,
is that any organic molecules being
formed spontaneously today would be
devoured by already livingorganisms long before those molecules could
achieve the complex organization needed
for self-replication.) Still yet today, we
find reminders of an earth before oxygen
in the many species of anaerobic microorganisms that fester in our wounds and
poison our improperly preserved vegetables. Thriving in the absence of oxygen,
these primitive organisms are snuffed
out by the same gas that feeds the fires
of higher forms of life.
Although we can be quite certain the
earth's atmosphere lacked oxygen (and
the protective shield of ozone derived
therefrom) at the time lifeevolved, there
is considerable uncertainty as to just
what its composition was. It seems clear
that the composition of the atmosphere
changed during the first half-billion
years of its existence - the period during which life originated. Arguing by
analogy (citing the atmospheres of the
giant planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn), early students of biopoiesis (the
origin of life) assumed that the early
atmosphere was highly "reduced,"2
containing substances such as hydrogen
(H2),water vapor (H20), methane (CH4),
ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulfide (H2S),

2Several definitions of reduction and oxidation can be found in the chemical literature.
Originally, "oxidize" meant adding oxygen,
and "reduce" meant adding hydrogen, usuallyto replace oxygen. A more modern, generalized definition of "oxidize" includes removal of hydrogen or an electron from a
molecule, and "reduction" is their addition.
Hydrogen-rich materials are said to be
Page 42

etc. Many of the earliest experiments attempting to learn what kinds of molecules could form spontaneously (which
we shall examine presently) employed
this type of atmosphere.
Persistent efforts to locate ancient
sedimentary rocks bearing evidence of
having been exposed to such an atmosphere have, however, been quite disappointing, and most students today feel
that the early atmosphere - generated
by volcanic out -gassing during the separation and consolidation of the earth's
core - contained mostly hydrogen,
water vapor, nitrogen (N2), carbon
monoxide (CO), and hydrogen sulfide,
with minor amounts of methane, carbon
dioxide (C02), and sulfur dioxide (S02).
There is reason to suppose that this
gradually changed into an atmosphere
composed mostly of water vapor, carbon
dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide,
with small amounts of carbon monoxide,
methane, hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen.
I am not at all surprised that we have
not yet found any rocks from the earliest
period of the earth's history. We now
know that the earth's crust is continuously being recycled by the forces
causing continental drift; the older a
hunk of real estate might be, the greater
is the probability that it has been recycled
during the four and one-half billionyears
that our planet has been in business.
Moreover, there is reason to believe that
a primordial reducing atmosphere of the
kind assumed by early investigators
would not have existed very long. Quite
rapidly, I believe, it would have been depleted of such components as methane,
ammonia, etc., by their conversion into
the biochemicals from which the first
living things were developing. It might
have taken only a few million years for
such an atmosphere to be replaced by
the less reducing atmosphere now accepted by most scholars. It is quite
possible that the evolution of living systems was already well underway by the
time sedimentary rocks had been formed
in any significant quantity!
March 1989

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the nature of the earth's primitive
atmosphere, scientists seeking to explain the origins of the chemicals needed
to form livingcells are faced by more adequate possible solutions than they can
handle at the moment. For example, it
has been demonstrated, in experiments
simulating presumed early-earth environments," that amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and other important biochemicals can be formed in both
a highlyreduced environment resembling
Jupiter's atmosphere and in the less
reduced atmosphere now assumed by
most scholars. In fact, almost any plausible atmosphere (i.e., an atmosphere
free of O2) can be used to generate a
broad suite of critically important
These facts are very encouraging to
persons who seek non magical answers
to the question "How did life begin?" but they are frustrating to scientists who
seek precise answers to all questions.
Our frustration increases, moreover,
when we realize that the early atmosphere may not have been the major site
of biochemical production: spectroscopic astronomy shows that the simpler
types of biologicallyimportant molecules
are to be found throughout our galaxy,
and analysis of meteorites (such as the
carbonaceous chondrites) shows that
most of the major biomolecules were
present in the solar nebula even before
it condensed to form our planet - with
or without an atmosphere!
We have already noted that we have
more adequate sources than we need
for the production of the chemicals we
need. However, we also have more adequate methods of production than we
need. For example, in 1953 Stanley
Miller (then a doctoral student of Nobel-

3rt is important that these experiments reproduce natural conditions and processes in
a manner requiring no intelligent guidance.
Otherwise, such experiments are no improvement over theology!
American Atheist



ist Harold Urey at the University of
Chicago) performed a now-classic experiment in which he simulated lightning
in the early atmosphere
by passing
electric sparks through a glass chamber
filled with a mixture of gasses resembling
the Jovian atmosphere
(see Figure 1).
To the delight of everyone but creationists, Miller analyzed the "soup" resulting
after the experiment had run for several
days and discovered amino acids and
other molecules of biological importance. Since then, simple variations of
Miller's experiment have yielded nearly
all the chemical building blocks needed
to form living cells.
Lightning, however, was not the only
energy source on the primitive earth,
and it is reassuring to learn that Miller's
experiment (as well as experiments with
less reduced atmospheres)
has been
rerun using ultraviolet radiation (an extremely important source of energy on
the primitive earth before the ozone
screen appeared), atomic radiation (mimicking the high-energy forms of radiation abounding
in the solar nebula
during the formation of the earth), and
heat (imitating the effects of vulcanism)
as energy sources - and in all cases the
same general results have been obtained!
Formation of the basic biochemical necessities appears to be a natural consequence of cosmic chemistry, given minimally suitable planetary conditions.
The chemistry of the cosmos is reflected in the elemental composition of
the average living cell. Despite the existence of more than one hundred different chemical elements, approximately
95 percent of the weight of a cell is
accounted for by just four elements:
oxygen (about 62 percent),
(about 20 percent), hydrogen (about 10
percent), and nitrogen (about 3 percent).
In the universe as a whole, these four
elements account for about 88 percent
of the observed mass. The universal importance of these four elements is even
greater if one ignores the chemically
inert elements helium and neon, which
together comprise about 12 percent of
Austin, Texas

To vacuum


III ,__

...JI -

Water out



r!t----Boiling water


Water in

Water containing
organic compounds


Figure 1. Diagram of the apparatus used by Stanley Miller. to simulate
discharges in the primeval atmosphere. By condensing water vapor into
liquid water and then reheating the water in the boiling flask, gasses were
forced to circulate clockwise and pass repeatedly between the spark-discharge
electrodes. Most of the more complicated reaction products formed by the
action of the spark upon the components of the atmosphere were trapped in
the liquid phase of the system (where they could be sampled periodically during
the course of the experiment)
and prevented
from being degraded
repassage through the spark chamber. Creationists claim that it is cheating to
put the trap into the system to prevent loss of the products attained. Actually,
the water trap accurately models the role of the aboriginal ocean, into which
molecules settled, protected
from further degradation
lightning. Creationists
also decry variants of this experiment
in which
ultraviolet radiation is substituted for sparks. The radiation, they claim, would
biochemicals after they were formed, and thus no significant
quantity of molecules
could accumulate
to form living systems.
Noncreationists, however, are aware of the fact that the earth rotates on itsaxis
once per day, and that ultraviolet light could not degrade molecules during the
night-time, when particles would be settling out of the atmosphere
into the
oceans, where they would be protected from degradation by solar radiation
returning on the next day. Actually, Le Chatelier's Principle, a rule well-known
to high school chemists, tells us that the oceans would serve as a trap even
during the day-time for many of the molecules created by the action of
ultraviolet light. Although many molecules would, in fact, be degraded soon
after their formation, the presence of the sea as a sink to absorb the products
of synthesis would force the overall reaction to proceed in the direction of
buildup rather than breakdown.

March 1989

Page 43

the mass of the universe. If we calculate
cosmic abundances according to the
number of atoms present, rather than
according to mass, the four most important bioelements comprise over 99 percent of the chemically active atoms in
the universe!
Besides the "Big Four," living things
contain a handful of other common elements. In decreasing order of importance, we may list calcium, phosphorus,
chlorine, sulfur, potassium, sodium,
magnesium, iodine, and iron. In terms of
cosmic abundance (ignoring the Big
Four and the inert elements), the relative
order of elemental abundances is magnesium, iron, aluminum," sodium and
calcium (approximately equal in abundance), phosphorus, and potassuim.
The stuff of life is just the ordinary stuff
of stars and nebulae.
Despite the protean morphological
qualities of organisms - found in shapes
appropriate for lifein niches as varied as
hydrothermal vents at the bottoms of
oceans, the frozen aeries of the Himalayas, and the reproductive ducts of
squids - at the chemical level organisms display an encouragingly simple
similarity. They are comprised of molecules belonging to just four major
categories: lipids (fats), carbohydrates
(sugars, starch, cellulose), proteins
(enzymes and structural fibers), and
nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), plus a
small number of important "miscellaneous" compounds such as pigments,
coenzymes, etc.
Considering the pervasive lipophobia
of our culture today, it is important to
say something nice about fats and to
point out that lipids are - quite literally
- of vital importance. Not only do they
serve as a source of energy and carbon
atoms that can be used to build almost

4Although aluminum is of little importance in
living things today, it (and silicon) may have
been of great importance in the first almostliving systems, as we shall see in the final
installment of this article.
Page 44

any other type of molecule, lipid molecules (especially in forms combined with
phosphate) are the major constituent of
cell membranes. It is no exaggeration to
say that lifewould be impossible without
membranes to prevent the dissolution
of cells, regulate what enters and exits,
serve as sites for carrying out many
chemical reactions, and to compartmentalize cells so that many chemically
conflicting processes can occur simultaneously. Imagine what it would be like to
try to bake a cake and a pie simultaneously ifboth had to be prepared together
in the same mixing bowl! Because of
their electrical insulating properties,
lipid membranes allow cells to take on
an electrical charge, making possible
the evolution of brains - and the
writing of this article.
Carbohydrates include simple sugars
as well as polymers, such as starch and
cellulose, in which thousands of single
sugar molecules (glucose) are joined together to form very long, fibrous molecules. Unlike lipids, which are composed
mostly of carbon and hydrogen, carbohydrates contain approximately as
many oxygen atoms as carbon atoms.
They are important as sources of energy,
components of the cell walls of plants,
and as components of the informationstoring nucleic acids DNA and RNA.
DNA, the stuff that genes are made of,
contains the five-carbon sugar deoxyribose. RNA, which helps translate the
information stored in DNA into protein
structures, contains the sugar ribose.
Besides sugar, nucleic acids contain
phosphate and five different nitrogencontaining components referred to as
nitrogenous bases (given the common
names of adenine, thymine, cytosine,
guanine, and uracil). Nucleic acids possess the all-important ability to reproduce themselves: they are autocatalytic.
Unlike cellulose, which is a polymer
made up of thousands of identical glucose units (monomers) strung together,
a nucleic acid is a polymer made up of
fours different types of monomers
(nucleotides) joined together. Each
March 1989

nucleotide is itself a complex entity, being comprised of a sugar molecule, a
nitrogenous base, and a phosphate
group. The ability of nucleic acids to
carry genetic information derives from
the nonrandom way in which the four
types of bases are strung out along the
length of the molecule. The four bases
can be thought of as constituting a
Morse Code-like alphabet which, although containing just four letters (A, T,
C, and G), can encode the "recipes" for
making everything from papal nuncios
up to slime molds - and even higher.
The difference between men, mosses,
and mice is that their DNAs are spelled
The last major category of biochemicals found in living cells contains the
giant molecules known as proteins. Also
known as polypeptides, proteins are
polymers made up of twenty different
types of monomer units, the amino
acids. Amino acids are named for the
fact that they contain at least two chemically active components: an amino
group (-NH2)and an organic acid group
(-COOH). All amino acids contain the
elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen,
and nitrogen. Several of them also contain the element sulfur. Amino acids can
be joined together when the amine
group of one molecule reacts with the
acid group of another molecule to form
a peptide linkage (the double molecule
resulting is called a dipeptide). Joining
hundreds or thousands of amino acids
together creates a polypeptide - a
protein. Proteins are extremely important as enzymes - giant molecules that
serve as catalysts controlling all the

SAltogether there are eight common
nucleotides: four ribonucleotides, containing ribose sugar and being the building
blocks of RNA, and four deoxyribonucleotides, containing deoxyribose sugar and
being the building blocks of DNA. Both
RNA and DNA contain the bases adenine,
cytosine, and guanine, but in RNA uracil is
substituted for the thymine found in DNA.
American Atheist

Having briefly surveyed the chemical requirements of living systems,
we must now try to answer the question:
how did these chemicals arise during the dawning days of our planet? How
could they have come into being without the aid of supernal intelligence?
multifarious chemical marriages and
divorces that constitute the livingcondition. Protein enzymes even produce the
nucleotides needed by DNA to replicate
itself or produce RNA.
Among the miscellaneous compounds
of biochemical importance we willmention only the pigments. Pigments are far
more important than one might suppose.
They do much more than color corals or
paint the petals of flowers; nor does
their major importance lie in the fact
that they fill the photoreceptor cells of
human retinas, allowing readers to see
this article! Some pigments, such as the
chlorophylls, allow livingthings to draw
energy from the nuclear fires of the sun
itself. Other pigments, such as the
cytochromes, serve to transfer that
solar energy - stored in the form of
chemical bonds - from one molecular
energy bank to another. Ultimately, all
the energy that powers the pulse of life
on earth is starlight - and all of it has
been captured by the chemical antennas
known as pigments.
Having briefly surveyed the chemical
requirements of livingsystems, we must
now try to answer the question: how did
these chemicals arise during the dawning days of our planet? How could they
have come into being without the aid of
supernal intelligence?
In the case of lipids, our problems are
few. The presence of hydrocarbons in
stellar clouds and comets, and the presence of fatty acids (hydrocarbons containing two atoms of oxygen per molecule, in addition to carbon and hydrogen) in meteorites make it likely that
fatty substances were available for
incorporation into protocells right from
the beginning. However that may be, it
is very easy to produce fatty acids and
other lipids from methane-containing
atmospheres exposed to electric spark
or the hot surfaces of volcanic lavas.
(Methane, it will be remembered, must
have been at least a minor component
of the early atmosphere.) Insoluble in
water, lipids would have formed membrane-like oilslicks on the surfaces of the
Austin, Texas

first oceans. Given the turbulence of
wave action, these oilslicks must have
frequently been broken up to form
membrane-covered vesicles filled with
sea water and other compounds present
at the water surface. Born with the lipids
- whether in the solar nebula before
the aggregation of microplanets formed
the earth, or in the same atmospheric
processes that formed the lipids - were
the most important of the pigments, especially the porphyrins, the major components of chlorophylls, cytochromes,
and heme (the pigment which gives
hemoglobin its red color).
The synthesis of sugars on the ancient
earth was not very difficult either, although it does present a chemical puzzle for which as yet no detailed solution
has been obtained. It has been known
for many years that formaldehyde
(H2CO) - one of the first substances
formed in spark-chamber experiments
- can be polymerized into simple
sugars under alkaline conditions, if catalysts such as calcium hydroxide or
calcium carbonate (limestone) are present. More exciting is the discovery that
a common clay mineral, kaolin, ifheated
to the temperature of boiling water can
convert dilute solutions of formaldehyde into a variety of sugars - including
ribose, needed for RNA and ATp'6
The puzzling problem associated
with carbohydrates is this: when sugars
are mixed with amino acids (among the
most common products of sparkchamber experiments) they put each
other out of commission, interacting by
the Maillard reaction to produce a
brown, unappealing product resembling

6ATP(adenosine triphosphate) is extremely
important as the universal energy currency
in modern cells. Energy gathered from the
sun or produced from food is stored in the
form of high-energy phosphate bonds in
ATP.This energy can then be used to energize recalcitrant chemicals and make them
do tricks that would be thermodynamically
improbable without the cattieprod of ATP.
March 1989

the stuff that forms when a slice of apple
is left exposed to the air. As far as I am
aware, no one has found any use for
such compounds in the course of
biopoiesis. A hint of solution comes,
however, from several lines of evidence.
First of all, sugars do not seem to be
formed as abundantly as are amino
acids, and so even after a bout with the
"browning reaction" there would still be
amino acids left over to be converted
into proteins. Secondly, except for the
sugars needed in nucleotides, it does
not appear that early, quasi-living protocells would have had much need for
carbohydrates, and so the loss of some
sugar molecules might not have had a
crippling effect on biopoiesis. Thirdly, it
has been discovered that the stability of
sugars actually increases after they
have been joined to nitrogenous bases
(also easily produced in spark-chamber
and other experiments). Since few experiments have been reported explaining how sugars may have joined to adenine and other bases, it is quite exciting
to learn that researchers at the Laboratory of Chemical Evolution at the University of Maryland? have experimental
evidence showing that at least five
nucleosides (nucleotides minus the
phosphate group) can be formed direct1yby spark discharges in a methane-nitrogen-water atmosphere! Add a phosphate, and we have nucleotides ready to
be polymerized into RNA and DNA.
Add two more phosphates, and we have
molecules like ATP. With ATp, there
seems to be no limit to what can be
We have several times already noted
that amino acids are among the most
abundant products of experiments simulating primitive-earth synthesis. It is interesting to note that the most common

7K. Kobayashi, et al., "Abiotic synthesis of
nucleosides by electric discharge in a simulated primitive earth atmosphere," Origins
of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, vol.
16, nos. 3-4, (1986), pp. 277-278.
Page 45



Figure 2. Left- and right-handed forms of the amino acid alanine. Living
things produce only the left-handed variety (L-alanine), whereas artificial
syntheses produce a fifty-fiftymixture of the two forms.
types of amino acids resulting from
Urey-Miller simulations (glycine, alanine, and glutamic and aspartic acids)
just happen to be four of the five most
commonly occurring amino acids found
in organisms. Serine, the fifth amino
acid, is produced abundantly in certain
other types of experiments. Once again,
the chemistry of lifeseems to be inherent
in the chemistry of the cosmos.
At this point we may note that we
have been able to account for the natural origin of most of the molecules comprising living things. We have seen that
lipids, pigments, amino acids, nitrogenous bases, and sugars could have
formed easily in the early atmosphere if in fact they were not there from the
very beginning as an inheritance from
the solar nebula which formed the solar
system. What remains to be shown in
this article is how amino acids could
have been polymerized into proteins
(using only "left-handed" amino acids),
and how nucleotides could have been
polymerized into RNA and DNA.
The remaining problems are a bit
trickier than those we have examined so
far. Let us consider first the problem of
"left-handed amino acids." All but the
simplest of amino acids, glycine, contain
what is called an asymmetric carbon
atom. This is simply a carbon atom
linked by its four possible bonds to four
different types of chemical groups. As
an example we may consider the second
simplest amino acid, alanine (see Figure
2). It is helpful to visualize the asymmetric carbon as floating in the center of a
triangular pyramid (tetrahedron), with
its four bonds stretching to chemical
groups located at the four corners of the
pyramid. As can be seen in Figure 2,
there are two different ways in which the
attached groups can be arranged, and
these two arrangements are mirror
Page 46

images of each other. Looking at both
molecular structures simultaneously,
readers can see that the "left-handed" Lalanine" appears to be a mirror reflection of the "right-handed" D-alanine.
Just as there is no way to rearrange a
left-handed glove to turn it into a righthanded one (short of turning it inside
outl), so too there is no way D-alanine
can be rotated or inverted to turn it into
It is a curious fact that all the amino
acids that go into the composition of
proteins are exclusively of the L-form.
No real proteins are known that contain
D-amino acids, although the bacterium
Bacillus brevis produces a protein-like
antibiotic known as gramicidin S, which
contains D-phenylalanine, as well as
ornithine - which is not one of the standard set of twenty amino acids found in
ordinary proteins. Why only left-handed
amino acids are used is an unsolved
puzzle. It is possible that early forms of
life used mixtures of left- and righthanded molecules. After all, when one
produces amino acids in the laboratory
and in primitive-earth simulations, half
of the molecules produced are lefthanded, half are right-handed. But when
living things produce them, all are lefthanded.
There is a tendency, when mixtures
of left- and right-handed amino acids
polymerize into peptides, for the polymers to contain more L than 0 components.? It is possible that living things
have simply exaggerated a bias inherent

8The letter L stands for the Latin word
laevus, "left," and the 0 stands for dexter,
9Clair Edwin Folsome, The Origin of Life: A
Warm Little Pond (San Francisco: W H.
Freeman & Co., 1979), p. 150.
March 1989

in the chemistry of peptide formation.
However that may be, the solution to
our puzzle awaits in studies yet to be
The discussion up until now has more
or less assumed that all the chemicals
created in the atmosphere sooner or
later ended up as components of a "primordial soup" - the oceans, seas, and
ponds of the newborn world. That such
a situation was indeed the fact seems to
me to be established beyond reasonable
doubt. But if that be true, it creates a
difficulty: joining amino acids (and nucleotides) into linear polymers involves
the process of dehydration - removing
a molecule of water from each pair of
molecules being joined together. It is not
immediately obvious how water could
have been removed from molecules that
were dissolved in it!
One of the first to solve this problem
was Professor Sidney Fox, of the University of Miami. He showed that water
containing amino acids could have
splashed up onto hot lava, the water
would have evaporated, the amino acids
would have formed a dry film, and could
have been dehydrated to produce peptides. Experimentally, this has been
done, and the result is a protein-like
polymer Fox calls "proteinoid." Proteinoid closely resembles natural proteins,
although it is less regular in its structure.
Like natural proteins, proteinoids possess catalytic abilities - including
autocatalytic abilities! Compared to
modern enzymes, however, their capabilities are quite feeble. But we must not
forget that before the advent of organisms
possessed of fancy enzymes, any molecule possessing even weak enzymatic
abilities would have a competitive advantage over other molecules in the
primeval soup.
Volcanic temperatures are not, however, necessary to dehydrate proteins
(or nucleotides, for that matter). James
Lawless, a researcher at NASA's Ames
Research Center in California, and his
colleagues have shown that clay crystals
can catalyze the polymerization of
American Atheist

amino acids and nucleotides.l? Solutions containing the molecules to be
joined together are sprayed onto clay
surfaces, and the surfaces are subjected
to fluctuations between hot, cold, and
wet conditions - such as might occur
in evaporating tidal pools. Clays containing zinc were able to link nucleotides
together, to produce nucleic acids. It is
interesting to note that DNA polymerase,
the modern enzyme that helps DNA
reproduce, also contains zinc.
Clays containing copper collected
and joined together a wide variety of different types of amino acids ..Clays containing traces of nickel, however, absorbed and polymerized only the twenty
types of amino acids found in proteins.
Why it is, that of the hundreds of
different amino acids possible, proteins
in everything from fish to philosophers
are composed of a standard set of just
twenty, has long been a puzzle. Perhaps
they are a memory of a distant shore,
long ago, where nickel ions trapped in
the atomic cages of clay particles forged
a chemical covenant among a score of
humble fellow prisoners - a company
of covenanters that have never deserted
each other, despite the flight of eons,
and have gone on to perform nearly all
the tasks that life has ever mastered.
Although details remain to be determined, the origins of the chemical ingredients of life are now reasonably well
understood. But life is more than just a
bag of chemicals. Like the flickering
flame of a candle, life is flux. Life is a
dynamic pattern maintained by a continuous flow of matter and energy, by a
delicate balance between dead matter
coming in and dead matter going out.
How the flame that is life came to be
poised between death and the nonliving
is the subject of Part III of this article,
"The First Cells."~

lOHarold M. Schmeck, "Clay on Shores of
Ancient Seas Viewed as Key to Origin of
Life," The New York Times, 15 October
IfJ77, p. 26C.
Austin, Texas

O·,aI A Minister _
---Oial A Prayer ~.




The telephone listings below are the various services where you may listen to
short comments on state/church separation issues and viewpoints originated by
the Atheist community.
Phoenix, Arizona
Tucson, Arizona
San Diego, California
San Francisco, California
Sonoma County, California
South Bay (San Jose), California
God Speaks
Greater DC
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Southern Florida
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Findley (Toledo), Ohio
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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Austin, Texas
Dallas, Texas
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Seattle, WA
March 1989

(602) 273-1336
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(206) 859-4668
Page 47



110 years ago
With the never-ending arguments
over the issue of morals, the editor of
The Index, Francis Ellingwood Abbot,
reported in the March 6, 1879,issue of
that journal (vol. 10, no. 480) that he had
delivered a speech to the DivinitySchool
of Harvard University in which he answered the question, "What is the Final
Appeal in Morals?" His four "leading"
answers were as follows:
"I. Roman Catholicism offers the Authority of the Church, represented by
the Pope and the Consensus of Councils.
"II. Protestantism offers the Authority of
the Bible, represented by the private
judgment of the believer and the Consensus of Creeds.
"III.Individualism offers the Authority of
Private Judgment, represented by the
individual in utter independence of all
"IV.Science offers the Authority of Universal Reason, represented by the private judgment of the inquirer and the
Consensus of the Competent."
It was obvious which answer he, as an
Atheist, would accept.

90 years ago
Based on the Bible edict that the man
is the head of the family,the laws of the
United States generally provided the
basis for the culture to reflect this religion-based rule. The Chicago Tribune
on March 20, 1899, reflected on the situation:
"... still existing in the common and
statute law of Illinoisand of most of the
states in regard to the status of mother
and child, the archaic law makes [the
father] the sole guardian of his children
no matter how vicious and arbitrary his
rulings may be.
"Under existing laws, the father may
choose the clothes his children shall
wear, the church they shall attend, the
kind of work they shall do, the medicines they shall take when they are sick,
and the place they shall be buried when
they die under his treatment, all in defiPage 48

ance of the mother's wishes or judgment, even though she furnish all the
funds for running the father's business.
If a daughter at the age of fourteen, falls
a victim to a seducer, her father can
drive her out of his house and forbid her
mother to help the unfortunate girl. If
the disgraced girl-mother manages to
get something to do and to support her
illegitimate infant, the girl's father can go
and . . . collect the money she has
earned, for she is still a minor ... and use
it all for drink if he pleases.
"If the wife of a worthless husband
comes into possession of a legacy she
can be ... compelled to pay the husband's
bills with it."

40 years ago
Cardinal Francis Spellman, in March
1949 busied himself as a strikebreaker.
For seven weeks, three hundred men,
most of them Roman Catholic, gravediggers at two Roman Catholic cemeteries operated by the trustees of St.
Patrick's Cathedral, had been on strike
for a forty-hour week, overtime pay, and
a general pay raise. Rather than meet
the demands of the men doing this grisly work, Spellman denounced them as
instilled with the ideas of communism.
This is not a strike for hours or
wages or other working conditions. Its very nature and conduct
from the beginning are reminders
of the anti-Christian atrocities
now being exposed abroad. They
all spring from the same evil, sinful
He then promptly herded one hundred students for the priesthood from
their classrooms into buses and headed
for the cemeteries. Under police protection they zoomed through the picket
lines and began to dig graves.
Subsequently, the union met, took an
anti-communist oath, voted to disaffiliate the parent union attacked as communist-dominated, asserted communism was not the real issue but a "redMarch 1989

herring," and adopted a resolution condemning "the union-busting tactics of
any employer, including the [Roman]
Catholic church when it acts as an
Spellman refused to deal with the
union and said that the men must return
to work not as union members but as
Roman Catholics and individuals. He
I admit to the accusation of
strikebreaker and I am proud of it.
If stopping a strike like this isn't a
thing of honor, then I don't know
what honor is.
It was several months before the
strike was settled, the workers receiving
an 8lj3 percent wage increase, but no
adjustment to a forty-hour week and no
pay for overtime.
The entire matter was very critically
reported in the journal of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Inc.,
Awake, vol. 30, no. 9. To emphasize
their distaste of the matter, the editors
printed a delightful cartoon that said it

20 years ago
The Atheist, a publication of the Indian Atheist Centre, regularly featured a
question and answer column by GORA,
its founder. The March-April issue included the following exchange:
"Q. You almost equate Atheism with
self-confidence. What is the way to grow
A. Yes, I equate Atheism with selfconfidence. Self-confidence is as natural
to man as the feeling of diffidence. Diffidence expresses itself as dependence
on some support. A support on which
people have commonly depended is
faith in the existence of god. So the faith
American Atheist

Left: GORA, founder of the Indian Atheist
Centre, once visited The American
Atheist Center in Austin, Texas.
Below: Fifteen years after Murray u,
Curlett, Pat Collins, a member of American Atheists, still found it necessary to
fight against mandatory school prayers.

in god symbolised the feeling of diffidence. A man of self-confidence will not
need the support of faith in god. Conversely discarding faith in god will discourage diffidence and will encourage
self-confidence. A baby who is always
allowed a support to learn walking will
learn it but slowly. Of course, as the
baby grows in age, the age itself will enable the baby to discard the support for
walking. If on the other hand the support is removed earlier the baby will
learn to walk earlier, though he will suffer a few falls at the beginning. The example of the baby will not fully hold good
with an adult who suffers from diffidence, because diffidence and confidence do not grow with age. They follow
the outlook. Yet this much is certain that
as long as an adult seeks a support,
conventionally or consciously, he will remain diffident. The method to increase
self-confidence, therefore, is to deliberately discard dependence upon a support, like faith in god, in fate, in an eternal justice or in a supreme power. One
who leaves a support may find his legs
totter for a while. That will help him to
learn to stand on his legs, firm and
strong. So self-confidence is an attitude
of the mind which dislikes dependence
on a support. Leave dependence,
the habit of self-confidence grows."

15 years ago
On March 24, 1974, members of the
Atheist Society of India gathered in a
slum area of Tenali in the Guntur district
of India to begin their protests against a
self-style "divine mother" named Jillellamudi Amma. The Atheists distributed
thousands of pamphlets exposing the
Austin, Texas

hoax of this woman's "divinity." At four o'clock
that afternoon, one hundred Atheists formed a
procession of protest in
which hundreds of people
joined. The successful
event was described
the first issue of The Age
of Atheism (April-May
1974) published by the Atheist Society of
India and edited by Jayagopal.

award attorneys' fees since Mrs. Collins,
who had brought the suit, was not,
herself, a student at the school.
Following her win, the Chandler
Unified School District Board of Education asked the Maricopa County attorney to appeal the decision. He, however,
declined to do so, pleading "a heavy
work load." Later, pressures from the
religious community were too great and
the case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles,

10 years ago
On March 29, 1979, a U.S. District
Court judge ruled that prayers opening
the assemblies of the Chandler, Arizona, High School were unconstitutional (Collins v. Chandler Unified School
District, 470 E Supp. 959 [D.Az. 1979]).The
suit had been brought before the court
by American Atheists member Theresa
M. Collins on behalf of her children
Krista and James.
This was another case of militant
young right-wing Christians
control of the student council at the
school. In order to appease the religious
of Phoenix, the school officials permitted prayers to become an official part of
school assemblies. With the approval of
the superintendent
of schools, the principal permitted the student council to
have prayers. When the practice was
challenged by Mrs. Collins, the school
board asked the county attorney for a
ruling as to whether or not the prayers
were constitutional.
He assured the
school that they were permissible, particularly so since attendance at the assemblies was voluntary. However, the
school administration adjusted the regular class schedules so that the assemblies could be held within the school day ..
Mrs. Collins protested
again saying that county attorney opinion or not, the prayers were unacceptable to an Atheist and, with the aid of the
Arizona Civil Liberties Union, she filed
suit on September 19, 1978.
Her attorneys
were, however, disappointed when the judge declined to
March 1989

The May 4, 1981, decision of that
court reaffirmed the lower court. When
applying the Lemon v. Kurtzman (403
U.S. 602, [1971]) tests it found that the
prayers at school assemblies (1) had no
secular purpose; that the prayers (2) did
advance religion since they were in an
institutionally coercive setting; and that
(3) the surveillance and monitoring of
the assemblies by the school constituted excessive entanglement
of religion
and government.
Happily the court went further than
that. It held that Mrs. Collins had a special status as a parent-litigant and that
her attorneys could collect legal fees.
It could not have come out any better
- and this case has been a precedent so
that prayers generally are not allowable
at public school assemblies. When just
one Atheist parent hangs in, something
can be done. ~
Page 49

Report from India

No sex, please, we are
Brahma Kumaris
rom temple prostitution, tantrik
sex, and orgies in fertility rites, all
the way through to the enforced
chastity of nunneries, female sexuality
has been exploited by men for bizarre
purposes. The world's major religions
have consolidated their hold on it by
hedging it about with taboos and linking
family and property rights to its control.
The only time women can assume a
degree of autonomy is when they are
past the age for mischief - when they
are old, unattractive, and unproductive.
Or when they turn neuter and make
their vile bodies disappear almost completely in long, enveloping garments. A
nun's habit declares her sexless vocation, and the wearer commands respect
and even some awe. Maybe that is why
the raping of ordinary women in times of
war appears a less heinous crime than
the raping of nuns. Not only their chastity but an institution is dishonoured.
In India all girls must marry. This is a
sacred duty laid on parents. However,
the single woman is not such an oddity
now, particularly if she is a career person, though there may be some nasty
speculation about how she is getting her
sex. A widow, ifstillyoung, poses a problem because she has realised her sexuality. Hindu tradition therefore placed a
seal on it by denying her further access
to society. Her hair was shaved, her jewelry removed, and her attractive clothes
exhanged for a single, coarse garment of
a colour declaring her inauspicious status. Livingfrugally at a subsistence level,
she turned to piety and penance to
prove her fidelity to her dead husband,
and to chalk up merit on his karmic record to ensure that they would be reunited in subsequent existences. Such
restrictions never applied to a man who
lost his wife. He was free to remarry.
Despite modern education, many orthodox families continue to severely restrict widows. The tradition is still widespread in the countryside. After our
stupidly futile wars with Pakistan, in
which each country fought hard to
prove its superior propensity for over-


Will semen retention
and celibacy prevent a
nuclear war? Members
of an Indian-based sect
think so.

In 1978,your editors, assisted by
Joseph Edamaruku, editor of an Indian
Atheist publication, combed India
seeking writers who would consistently
offer an interpretation of Indian religious events. Margaret Bhatty, in
Nagpur, a well-known feminist journalist, agreed that she would do so in the
future. She joined the staff of the
American Atheist in January 1983.

Margaret Bhatty
Page 50

March 1989

kill,we were left with many war widows.
Sensible social workers set about getting some of these unfortunate young
women remarried, usually to other
soldiers. For Indians, a married woman
is an institution - which is why a
divorcee is regarded as a creature
lacking in virtue. If she carries on her life
as an autonomous person, she appears
to threaten other women's marriages.
She may even find herself being
propositioned by roving males under
the distinct impression that her sexuality
has turned vicarious.

The power of semen
Primitive belief equates human sexuality with power. Female sexuality could
be exploited to ensure fertility in fields
and livestock. But Hinduism also views
male sexuality as a means to gain great
spiritual strength and mental dominance
- not by its exploitation, but by its complete suppression. Hinduism describes
semen as the "vital force," and squandering it in sex of the domestic sort can
weaken a man psychically.
Celibacy as found in Christian or
Buddhist monasticism is therefore far
less significant than in Hinduism where
magical power is achieved through the
conservation of semen and sexual energy. When a Hindu takes a vow of celibacy he is known as a brahmachari. His
vow obliges him to remain both physically
and mentally free of sex. He must avoid
all contact with women, animals, and
eunuchs, not indulge in sexually stimulating foods, and refrain from body
massages and hot baths. And, of course,
he must practise rigorous piety, because,
as Gandhi said, "The full and correct
means of brahmacharya [celibacy] is
search for the Brahman [godhead]."
(Brahman should not be confused with
brahmin, a Hindu of the priestly caste.)
Ved Mehta, in his book Mahatma
Gandhi and his Apostles (Clarion Books,
India Book Company), did an investigation of Gandhi's use of the sex drive in
his philosophy of nonviolence. "In
Hindu philosophpy," wrote Mehta,
American Atheist

the Brahman is the religious principle that involves the realisation
of the Brahman, and the Brahman
in its various manifestations Creator, Preserver, Destroyer is the Supreme Being from which
everything comes, and to which
everything, through a cycle of incarnations or reincarnations, strives
to be reunited.
Gandhi closely linked his celibacy
with his concept of satyagraha (truthforce). His ideas on passive resistance
combined with nonviolence occurred to
him just a month after he took his vow
of brahmacharya.
This vow - for
which he made his own rules - he saw
as the source of his spiritual strength.
Rather than avoid contact with women,
he had young women share his bed at
night to prove he had conquered his
sexuality and truly become "God's
eunuch." The psychological effect of
these experiments on the women concerned has not been documented. In
proof of his sincerity he spoke openly
about the matter, angering Hindu orthodoxy. Nor did it occur to him that he was
sexually exploiting the women by treating them as inferior and reinforcing the
traditional belief that they are the source
of the celibate's problems. He stopped
the practice when people around him
urged that it would discredit him as
leader of the Freedom Movement. Anyway, he had crossed seventy by then.

Semen and the fall of the Raj
But so stubborn was Gandhi's belief
in celibacy that he encouraged married
couples among his followers to become
"spiritual partners" and have celibate
marriages to keep the cause for which
they were fighting both strong and pure.
Whenever he failed to control communal riots and bloodshed, he ascribed it to
a weakening of his vow. It would be simplistic to suggest that the retention of
semen brought down the Raj in India
and changed the course of our history.
But according to Ved Mehta, Gandhi
Austin, Texas

March 1989


Page 51

Gandhi "is even reported to have boasted that if he could just be successful
in his brahmacharya experiments, just prove how potent - physically,
mentally, and spiritually - he had become through seminal continence,
he would be able to vanquish Muhammed Ali Jinnah himself, ... "
is even reported to have boasted
that if he could just be successful
in his brahmacharya experiments,
just prove how potent - physically,
mentally, and spiritually - he had
become through seminal continence, he would be able to vanquish Muhammed Ali Jinnah himself, the father of Pakistan, through
non-violence, and foil Jinnah's
plans for Partition.
Gandhi was convinced that women,
with their capacity for self-sacrifice and
suffering, are more virtuous than men.
Their submissive role in the sex act
makes them superior beings. The fact
that he did not believe women got pleasure from the sex act is an intriguing insight into his own marriage, particularly
since, by his own admission, he was
plagued by an obsessive lust from the
time he was married in his early teens.

Spiritual daughters of Brahman
Undoubtedly, as neuters for god, women's capacity for good is increased
manifold. He believed they were far
better qualified than men to teach "the
art of peace to the warring world." This
idea is being actively practised today by
an order of celibate women called Brahma Kumaris - Spiritual Daughters of
Brahman. They are deeply committed
to saving the world and are tireless in
their missionizing. In fact, according to
their reading of the signs of the times,
the world was to end in 1976.We owe
our survival to them.
The founder of the cult, Dada Lekhraj,
got in ahead of Gandhi as far back as
1937 in Hyderabad, Sind, now part of
Pakistan. He thundered against Hinduism's degradation of women as "the
doorway of Hell" and "a shackle for the
feet of men." It forced wives to worship
their husbands even ifthey were vicious
and cruel. Lekhraj soon had women
flocking to him. He was accused of enticing pretty girls with hypnosis, and his
devotees were maligned and persecuted.
Page 52

But the Brahma Kumaris grew in
number, and by 1972 they had twenty
thousand members with two hundred
centres in India and abroad. That number has increased considerably today.
Their headquarters in Mt. Abu in Rajasthan is set among gardens and vineyards, and they have a World University
with special courses for "Behavioural
transformation and self-purification" to
enable "human beings to obtain Deity
and Sovereignty of supreme peace in a
new, viceless world" (excerpted from
the Brahma Kumaris' literature). Their
founder, now dead, has been partially
sanctified, and his utterances are used
in their teachings. "Spiritual exhibitions"
in cities illustrate his theology in garishly
painted posters. Brahma Kumaris look
forward to a millenium when, after
Doomsday, there will come the Age of
Truth and the establishment of Ram
Rajya - Kingdom of God. Allpure souls
will then be born as gods and goddesses.
Originally this sisterhood of celibates
attracted only world-weary women of
the Sindhi community. Today it has
people of all castes and creeds, including foreign celibates. They are wellfunded by rich patrons and Sindhi businessmen and have a high profile because
of their activities on the peace front.
They organise international
conferences with speakers from the
West who usually get good press
There is nothing ascetic about their
appearance. Drawn chiefly from the
middle classes, they eat well and are
proud of their cooking. Their international conferences are pleasant junkets
for allparticipants. Many celibate couples
have now joined the ashram, living like
the rest, as brothers and sisters. The
Brahma Kumaris claim that "this spiritual way of lifecan solve India's population
Among their most liberal aspects is
their belief in universal brotherhood,
rejection of caste, and the importance
they give to women. But their apparent
March 1989

promotion of nuclear disarmament and
similar causes is restricted by a worldview which is more pious than pragmatic. They, however, cannot be faulted for
lagging behind in ideas. At the end of last
year their World University held an
International Conference of Scientists,
Technologists and Technocrats. Among
the delegates from abroad was "leading
West German psychologist, Dr. Heide
Fittakau." She has successfully used
hypnotic regression to cure phobias and
mental illnesses by uncovering the former existences of her patients.
The story in our papers was headlined
"Rebirth Theory No Longer a Myth!"
Fittakau, said the press report, had investigated scientific data and found
rebirth to be a proven fact. She told of
thirty Turkish children who behaved
strangely and often went and sat on
tombstones in a nearby village. A psychologist who used hypnosis on them
found they had been residents of the
place in previous births. She said some
five hundred patients who came out of
deep hypnotic trances recalled being
separated from their bodies and described themselves in different bodies in
other ages. Extensive documentation of
these patients had been done all over
western Europe and North America.

Keeping up with the West
We ought to be grateful to the Brahma
Kumaris for helping us keep up with the
Western world and its startling scientific
discoveries. With the large fallout of
frauds and charlatans from your side of
the globe, the most skeptical among us
run the risk of getting snowed under.
With even well-known scientists sometimes contributing to the heap of garbage
that passes for knowledge in this country, there is not much hope for us. Possibly, we can now look forward to data
on the scientific impact semen retention
in men and sexlessness in women will
have on the effort to prevent a nuclear
holocaust. ~

American Atheist




Reflections III

Rabbis, Reverends, Priests and Pastors
They smiled to us They cried to us And then they lied to us.

bow before no one
cause harmful activities
belittle one's significance
creating villainies
shameless idlers.

They knew we could not
prove there is no god.
That's not the point.

Then they said do not
listen to them just read the "Bible"
and make the leap
from Reason to Faith!

Norman Ghinger

follow one's own conscience
do not be caged in flight
for the untrammelled conscience
creates its own morality.
satisfy NOW
the worm which gnaws
lest it fed too long
on tomorrows.

They knew they could not
prove there is a god
and that's the point.

Faith in Fornication
Absurdities, Atrocities,
Unfulfilled Prophecies
Immoralities, Indecencies
Incest and Obscenities "The Pornographic 'Bible.' "

exalt oneself with palpitation
be dauntless with it
for esprit de corps
will never taste as sweet.

search scrupulously
beneath raging
currents of change
beyond life's
endless maze
of rapid mania
lest the familiar
fade away
strive for freedom in life
lest despair overwhelm
as though
from a horn of plenty.
shun all sorts of conventions
like the bubonic plague
lest one be compared
with nullities
of his own time.

focus on the future
with all
its desperation and uncertainty
for futile flight
into the womb
restores only
of one's birth.
janet r. griffin

Before another darkness
The sound of my voice:
unheeded by ears
tuned to obsolete litany.
I am Cassandra.
Smiles of death-wish security;
eyes vacant windows
fronting mindless ovinity.
Try once more, Cassandra.

The time has come

Speak louder ... or longer
break the spell of Apollo
myth of divinity.
Scream, Cassandra.

(with deference to Charles Dodgson)
"The time has come," the Atheist said,
"To talk of many things:
Of deceit - and fraud - and ignorance Of manipulation - and pulling strings And why the public does not see
The misery religion brings."

Angeline Bennett

Joseph R. Choate III

Austin, Texas

March 1989

Page 53

American Atheist Radio Series

More freethinkers
ast week, I was introducing you to

about "freethinkers"
L knowledge
as gathered together by one of our

Joseph McCabe gives
an alphabetical look at
freethinkers of the past.

Atheist writers, Joseph McCabe. To refresh your memory, he classified Atheists as freethinkers - and hardly anyone
else, noting the exceptions as he went
I have been tempted by his plan of
alphabetical presentation of these people to you, with emphasis on the most
famous, on Americans, and on women
where practical. Last week, I finished
through "J," and this week I continue.
John Keats (1795-1821),
... famous British poet. At the age
of 20 he deserted the study of surgery for poetry and for four years
astonished the world by his work,
but he ... already [had tuberculosis]. One of his sonnets had the
title "Written in Disgust of Vulgar
Superstition" and emphatically rejects Christianity. W Sharp, who
knew him well, says that he died
without any belief in a future life.
McCabe mentions W Sharp as if we
should know of him, but I have not
found a reference as yet. I willcontinue
to try to find out.
The Marquis Marie Jean Paul Lafayette

When the first installment of a
regularly scheduled, fifteen-minute,
weekly American Atheist radio series
on KLBJ radio (a station in Austin,
Texas, owned by then-President
Lyndon Baines Johnson) hit the
airwaves on June 3, 1968, the nation
was shocked. The programs had to be
submitted weeks in advance and were
heavily censored. The regular production of the series ended in September
1977, when no further funding was
The following is the text of "American
Atheist Radio Series" program No. 210,
first broadcast on September 9, 1972.

Madalyn Q'Hair
Page 54

. . . French general in the American
army. He was given his rank for his
services in the War of Independence. He assisted in the Revolution after his return to France as
one of the Liberal nobles but
remained a monarchist and had to
leave the country. He was out of
officeunder Napoleon and returned
to active life under the restored
royalty, but he sat on the Left in
the Chamber and remained a
Deist [believing in nature and nature's god] of advanced political
James Madison (1751-1836),
March 1989

... fourth President of the United
States and a freethinker like his
three predecessors. He learned
Hebrew and made a thorough
study of theology after graduating
at Princeton and gave up his beliefs. He helped to draft the constitution of Virginia and insisted on it
protecting religious freedom. He
effectively protested against a
proposal to make contributions to
religion in that state compulsory
and got state and church completely separated. He was President 1809 to 1817. His letters (in
Writings of James Madison, 9
vols., 1910),show that all his lifehe
opposed the churches. In a letter
of May 19,1823, he insists that the
university shall not become "an
Arena of Theological Gladiators"
(IX, 126). Apparently he was a
theist but not with much depth of
conviction. In a letter to a clergyman near the end of his life he
wrote: "There appears to be in the
nature of man what ensures his
belief in an invisible cause of his
present existence and an assurance
of his future existence." This is
hardly a personal profession of
belief, and he is one of the few
leading statesmen who did not
adorn his speeches and letters
with occasional references to
God .
Well,since McCabe has spoken of the
first three presidents, let's look at what
he has to say about Washington. We
have already discussed Adams.
George Washington (1732-1799),
... First President. Clerical writers
are naturally unwilling to admit
that he was a freethinker - a nonChristian theist - but, while the
evidence of faith which they allege
is of the flimsiest description there
is ample and solid proof of his
heresy. Jefferson says that Morris,
who was intimate with Washington,
American Atheist

George Washington

"often told me that General Washington believed no more of that
system (Christianity) than he himself did." Memoir and Correspondence of T Jefferson (Iv, p. 512).
He quotes a Chaplain to Congress
who said that when the clergy
presented an address to the President at his retirement they pointed
out that in his acknowledgement
he had not said a word that identified him with Christianity, and in
a further reply "the old fox" evaded
that point. In a sermon delivered
at Albany and reported in the
Daily Advertiser (Oct. 29, 1831),
one of the chief ministers of the
city said that "among all our Presidents from Washington downward not one was a professor of
religion,"which gives us the clerical
tradition on the question. It is true
that while he was President he
attended the Episcopal church,
but the rector, Dr. Abercrombie,
told his preacher, Dr. Wilson (who
says it in the sermon), that Washington always left before the Communion and when the rector pointed this out ceased to attend any
service that was followed by Communion. It is admitted that he did
not send for or have a clergyman
in his last hour and the statement
that he asked his family to leave
the room and let him "spend his
last hour with his Maker" shows
only that he believed in God,
which nobody ever disputed. Some
apologists give us the prayer he
said when he was "alone with
God," who must have let them
into the secret. It cannot be disputed that he said in his will:"It is
Austin, Texas

my express desire that my corpse
may be interred in a private manner
without parade or funeral oration."
Against all this the chief champion
of the angels, Jared Sparks, who
edited [italic added] Washington's
writings nearly 40 years after his
death, urges such matters as that
Washington wrote a hymn when
he was a boy of 13; that (being a
Deist) he often spoke of "the
Author of the Universe;" that a
granddaughter, who was still a
child when Washington died, said
he prayed every day in private
(which Washington's adopted
daughter questioned and was, in
any case, consistent with Deism);
and that once or twice he spoke
favorably of the Christian religion.
The man is obviously a religious
twister. He ignores decisive evidence in the very letters he edited
- as when Washington speaks of
"the professors of Christianity" (p.
404) or Bishop White says that he
never saw him kneel at prayer or
heard him speak about religion and most of the evidence given
above. The evidence on both
sides is given in Franklin Steiner's
The Religious Beliefs of Our
Presidents (Haldeman-Julius 1936)
and Remsburg's
Six Historic
Americans. See also several very
candid works on Washington by
Rupert Hughes.
Well, given the way that religionists
rewrite history or suppress events, it
may be well that a new look is taken at
some of all this:
Well, let's see who we have for "N."
Florence Nightingale (1829-1910),
... famous British hospital reformer. A rich English young woman
who took up hospital work, especially during the Crimean War,
and made such an impression that
at the close of the war $250,000
was subscribed to found a NightMarch 1989

ingale School for Nurses. She revolutionized hospital life and was
loaded with British and international honors. She was a theist but
very definitely anti-Christian, as is
shown in the standard lifeof her by
Sir Edward Cook, (2 vols., 1913).
"The Church," she wrote, "is now

Florence Nightingale

more like the Scribes and Pharisees than like Christ. ... What are
now called the essential doctrines
of the Christian religion, Christ
does not even mention" (II, 392).
Robert Owen (1771-1858),
. . . Welsh reformer. He made a
fortune in the early days of Cotton
spinning and spent the whole of it
on the workers. His industrial settlement at New Lanark in Scotland
drew social students from all parts
of the world, and his schools gave
a fine stimulus to the reform of
education. He then became the
Social Father - hence the first
use of the word Socialists (for his
followers) - of a movement to
found model colonies of the workers (manual and middle-class) of
Britain and America. At one time
he had 100,000professed followers
in Britain and an immense influence on the Trade Unions. He was
Page 55

an atheist. "All the religions of the
world are false," he said on being
challenged at an important meeting, and in an American debate on
religion he said: "When we use the
term Lord, God, or Deity we use
a term without annexing to it any
definite idea." Until he spoke out
about religion he was regarded as
the greatest former of the early
19th Century. He was 84 years old
and senile when he was duped by
a Spiritualist medium.
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936):
. . . famous Russian physiologist,
Nobel Prize winner. Son of a village
priest, he worked his way to the
position of one of the most distinguished physiologists in Europe.
His studies of conditioned reflexes
were epoch-making and have had
an immense influence on psychology. He was an atheist and materialist.

Sonetos Completos 1886). From
an early mysticism he passed into
a rather pessimistic atheism and
then to a tranquil agnosticism. His
great lyrics contributed considerably to the emancipation of Portugal that was proceeding satisfactorily when its middle-class politicians fell into quarrels and let in
the clerics and the present
Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902),
. . . founder of Rhodesia. Apart
from his imperial policy in Africa,
which at least had no taint of
greed, he was a man of high ideals,
and left nearly the whole of his
fortune of about $30,000,000 for
educational and philanthropic
purposes. Marcus Aurelius and
Gibbon were his favorite books,
and he had an immense admiration
of Reade'sMartyrdom of Man. His
biographer, Sir T. E Fuller, shows
that he was an agnostic.

George Santayana

but is seen in its most virulent form
in his letters. In a letter of August
28, 1908,he replies to a young man
who has asked if he would include
Jesus among the 100greatest men
of history. Yes, he says, if you
mean men with the greatest influence in history, but Satan also.
"These two gentlemen," he says,
"have had more influence than all
others put together, and 99 per
cent of it was Satan's." The devil
was "worth very nearly a hundred
times as much to the business as
was the influence of the rest of
Holy Family put together."

George Santayana (1863-1952),

Ivan Pavlov

Anthero de Quental (1842-1891),
. . . one of the greatest of Portuguese poets. He wrote historical
and philosophical works as well as
poems but his religious position is
best found in his sonnets (as
Page 56

... philosopher. Spanish by birth
but taken to America in boyhood.
He was professor of philosophy at
Harvard 1889-1912 but is much
more important as an educator of
the general public. He reject[ ed]
all theology and professe[d] materialism. In Reason in Science (page
90) he says: "A thorough materialist, one born to the faith and not
plunged into it by an unexpected
christening in cold water, will be,
like the superb Democritus, a
laughing philosopher."
.Mark Twain (1835-1910), who was
born Samuel Clemens:
His atheism is freely expressed in
a number of works (Eve's Diary,
1906, What is Man, 1909, The
Mysterious Stranger, 1918, etc.)
March 1989

Mark Twain

Paul Unna (b. 1850),
... German anatomist. A Hamburg
surgeon, specialist on skin diseases, whose pathological works
gave him a high position in Germany. He joined Haeckel in the work
of the Monist (atheist) Association
and frequently wrote in his monthly.
American Atheist

In the Memorial Volume to commemorate Haeckel's 80th birthday
he thanks Haeckel for his "spiritual
and talks contemptuously about "the men of
darkness round the throne and
the altar."

Francois Marie Voltaire

bishops lived in open license and
luxury, and their modern successors profess to be shocked at
the wicked Voltaire. He had a
passion for justice, religious toleration, and freedom, and he was a
man of the greatest generosity.
Besides his caustic works on religion he wrote serious works on
toleration, science, and other subjects, and was one of the leading
historians of his time and a tragedian of distinction. Few men were
ever so widely read or had such
influence yet, though all the world
still talks about him, few really
know him. He was a Deist, but his
God, though infinite and eternal,
did not create the universe, which
is eternal. He ridiculed the idea of
an immortal soul. He - contrary
to Catholic libels - died peacefully
and he courteously declined to see
the priest who wanted to be

Emile Zola

freethinkers like Morris, Huxley
and Symons. On his return to Ireland he helped to found the Irish
Theater and became the chief
literary figure in the Irish Renaissance. He never concealed his
skepticism. In an early poem ("A
Boat") he said that he would rather
be naked than wear garments
made from "mythologies." In his
Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) he
sees a "divine love in sexual passions" and holds that "the great
passions are angels of God," which
is very far from Christian. He had
a vague belief in a "supersensible
world." I have heard him discuss
the frailitiesof contemporary Catholic poets with painful freedom.

Francois Marie Voltaire (1694-1778),

Emile Zola (1840-1902),

... the greatest of all freethinkers.
Son of the Paris notary Arouet Voltaire is a later pen-name - he
was educated in a clerical college
but as a youth learned from his
clerical teacher to smile at religion.
He was banished from the capital
for insulting the Prince Regent (an
unspeakable blackguard) in his
22nd year and in the followingyear
was sent to the Bastille for further
free speech. He loved the brilliance,
in fact the dissipation, of Paris but
after the age of 20 was twice in the
Bastille and spent nearly the whole
of the rest of his life in exile for the
right of free speech. His books
were suppressed or burned by the
hangman. He spent 3 years in England and three in Prussia, and
from 1758 to death lived on the
border of Switzerland in case he
had to fly.During all this time most
of the chief bishops and arch-

. .. famous French novelist. Son of
an Italian engineer who was domiciled in France, his naturalistic
novels of the darker side of French
life had a prodigious circulation
and, though the mood of his readers was not one of high social
idealism, Zola himself, whatever
allowance we make for his desire
of profit, was a sincere. idealist.
When the clericals accused him of
simply making money out of "immoral books" he retorted by exposing the hypocrisy of the Church
in a trio of novels on Lourdes,
Rome, and ecclesiastical Paris. He
was the most powerful champion
in France of the Jewish victim of
clerical-conservative rancor, Dreyfus. His atheism is apparent enough
in most of his works.

Austin, Texas

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939),
.... leading Irish poet. The common
idea that Yeats, being one of the
chief writers of Dublin in our time,
was a Catholic is very far astray. In
early lifehe lived for some years in
London and was intimate with
March 1989

And that is Joseph McCabe speaking
- more next week.~
Page 57

Letters to the Editor

Silly sounds
I am a subscriber to your magazine
and find it "intellectually delicious." It is
well worth the money.
I have an irreverent suggestion for
your members. To make religion"sound"
silly, as indeed it is, say the letters G - 0
- D phonetically, one at a time, with the
word idea finishing off the phrase. Say it
out loud; it's sure to sound silly- an apt
reminder of religion!
Allen Mostoway
Saskatchewan, Canada

All in the family



us .•.

At the January meeting of the Tampa
Bay Chapter of American Atheists a
seventy-five-year-old lady stood up to
tell us a true story.
On Thanksgiving Day her entire family sat down to dinner - daughters,
sons, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
A little girl said, "Are you going to say
grace, grandma?"
Grandma said, "Well, ... er - no, I
am an Atheist!"
The whole family looked at each
other sheepishly, and said "Well, we are
Atheists too!" And everyone laughed to
think that all those years they had been
afraid to tell each other this deep, dark
Victor St. John

Christianity and China
"Letters to the Editor" should be either questions or comments of general
concern to Atheists or to the Atheist
community. Submissions should be
brief and to the point. Space
limitations allow that each letter
should be three hundred words or,
preferably, less. Please confine your
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Page 58

The Chinese are stillwiser than Westerners. In my graduate seminar on eighteenth and nineteenth century China,
the professor told the class that one of
the frequent questions asked of American tourists visitingthe Peoples' Republic
involves the contradiction between
modernity and tradition.
"Why is it that in a land so technologically progressive you Americans spend
so much time defending Christianity?
Don't you realize that religion is mere
myth created by man?"
March 1989

The joke of Christianizing China still
Gerald P. Lunderville

President Bush
January 20,1989, I watched the inauguration of George Bush as president of
... Hmmm ... president of what? At first
I thought it was president of the United
States, but it appears it was president of
American Christians.
I was fully expecting George Bush to
place his right hand on the Constitution
of the United States, but to my horror,
he placed his hand on a two-hundredyear-old Bible and swore an oath to a
"higher authority." A bloodless coup
d'etat, televised in living color, and
nobody noticed.
Then to consolidate his power base,
his first act in power was a religious
I urge every voter (now overthrown)
to find a loyal representative of individual freedom to revive the constitutional
principles by prohibiting an OATH to a
"higher authority."
Sterling S. Sharrar, Jr.

About being late
It is chilling to contemplate the position of the Atheist in this country without
the American Atheist organization
(a.k.a. Madalyn, Jon, and Robin).
If the fanatical, frothing fundamentalists could bring back the "good old
days" of the Inquisition, they would,
with pious righteousness, put to the
flame all us "evil" nonbelievers.
Those Atheists, closet or otherwise,
who do not support your organization,
are the ones deserving of berating.
You were mistaken, Robin, when you
wrote, "please be assured that one day
we will be on time." Since Madalyn
Murray O'Hair was born, you have all,
a/ways, been "on-time" - "in time" and "ahead of time."
American Atheist

Letters to the Editor
In the pre-World War II Pledge of Allegiance, civilians placed hands over
hearts until the words "to the Flag,"
then extended their right hands toward
the flag. The example here is from page
56 of The American Patriot's Handbook
(Chicago: Rand McNally & Company,

Thanks, thanks for being the courageous voice so many of us lack.
We desperately need you.
Kenneth J. Schmidt
New York
Many thanks for the letter. We understand the situation, but know that persistence willconquer, and you willcatch
up. So glad to hear that subscribers are
backing you. May spring bring you
many good surprises and a great convention. Sorry, age and distance rule
out help. Best wishes.
Stanley and Dorothea Mulaik
When your short explanatory note,
concerning time/production problems
of the magazine arrived, I wasn't certain
of what I should expect.
But when the December issue came
in March, I can tell you one thing for certain, and its the fact that it was certainly worth waiting for! Your [Madalyn
O'Hair's] article on Epiphany was exceptionally interesting, and I enjoyed it
Your detail and asides were detailed
enough to give me many avenues of investigation that willlast me many years.
That is what is so exciting about your
article - it provides the open doors for
additional investigations.
Let me say this about that (apologies
to R. Nixon): KEEP UP THE GOOD
WORK! There are many of us who

really appreciate your effort and work.
George Dimitruck

anathema willingly and admonish my
fellow Atheists to do likewise. "One
nation indivisible," says it best.
A. R. Bosacki

An act of treason
In a recent issue of the monthly journal ("A Pledge Too Far," November
1988), you depicted the adulteration of
our Pledge to the flag by Congress circa
While you set forth an array of reasons (all correct) why this was an unconstitutional and self-serving act on the
part of our national parliament, you
seemed to overlook the major, poignant
corruption thus incorporated in the
Pledge - namely that the inclusion of
the god phrase changed a clear, patriotic testament into a statement of treason! Instead of insinuating loyalty to
constitutional principles, it now requires
consent to the rule of an unelected foreign monarch of absolute power - a
monarch who never ran for public office
anywhere in America, who has no
known street address or social security
number, who has no power-sharing parliament, nor any supreme judiciary to
examine his writ of mandate.
Our monthly journal errs in crying out
against the Pledge as merely unconstitutional; it should shout treason, treason!
I have refrained from the recitation of
our corrupted pledge for over twenty
years, and as a result, am as persona
non grata in the union hall as I am in the
corporate boardroom. But having love
and concern for my nation, I suffer the

Hand over heart
In his article on the Pledge of Allegiance ("A Pledge Too Far," November
1989), Jon Murray records that the
Pledge was defined by the United States
Congress on December 22, 1942, as
"rendered by standing with the right
hand over the heart."
What the article does not clarify is
why the Congress felt it necessary to
issue such a precise definition of the
mode of execution of the Pledge.
I clearly recall that, as a young child in
the '30s, along with all the students in
my class, I would stand, face the flag,
and proceed to extend my arm towards
it in a fascist salute during the recitation
of the Pledge. This salute was altered
briefly so that the palm of the hand faced
upwards in order to distinguish it from
the Hitlergruss. This, in turn, was
changed less than a year later to the
hand-over-heart version which the Congress then enshrined into law.
I believe this was the real reason for
the addition of Section 7 to the 1942 law.
The use of the fascist salute in the
Pledge may still be seen in film clips of
the period.
Donald R. Westman
New York

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American Atheist


American Atheist
introductory reading list


Literature on Atheism is very hard to find in most public
and university libraries in the United States - and most of
the time when you do find a book catalogued under the
word Atheism it is a work against the Atheist position.
Therefore we suggest the following publications which are
available from American Atheist Press as an introduction


into the multifaceted areas of Atheism and state/church
separation. To achieve the best understanding of thought in
these areas the featured publications should be read in the
order listed. These by no means represent our entire collection of Atheist and separationist materials.

1. Why I Am An Atheist, including a history of material14. Atheist Truth vs. Religion's Ghosts by Col. Robert G.
Ingersoll. Stapled. 57 pp. #5156
ism, by Madalyn O'Hair. Stapled. 41 pp. Product#5416
15. Some Reasons I Am a Freethinker by 'Robert G.
Ingersoll. Stapled. 37 pp. #5184
2. The Case against Religion: A Psychotherapist's View by
Dr. Albert Ellis. Stapled. 57 pp. #5096
16. Our Constitution - The Way It Was by Madalyn
O'Hair. Stapled. 70 pp. #5400
3. All the Questions You Ever Wanted to Ask American
Atheists with All of the Answers by Jon Murray and
17. American Atheist Heritage: Jefferson, Franklin,
Madalyn O'Hair. Paperback. 348 pp. #5356
Lincoln, and Burbank by Joseph Lewis. Stapled. 56 pp.
4. What on Earth Is an Atheist! by Madalyn O'Hair.
Paperback. 288 pp. #5412
18. Fourteen Leading Cases on Education, Religion, and
Financing Schools. Paperback. 273 pp. #5500
5. An Atheist Speaks by Madalyn O'Hair. Paperback. 321
pp. #5098.
19. Sex Mythology by Sha Rocco. Stapled. 55 pp.
6. All about Atheists by Madalyn O'Hair. Paperback. 407
pp. #5097
20. Women and Atheism, The Ultimate Liberation by
Madalyn O'Hair. Stapled. 21 pp. #5420
7. Ingersoll the Magnificent by Joseph Lewis. Paperback.
342 pp. #5216
21. Christianity Before Christ by John G. Jackson.
Paperback. 237 pp. #5200
8. Essays on American Atheism, vol. I by Jon G. Murray.
Paperback. 349 pp. #5349
22. The Bible Handbook (All the contradictions, absurdities,
and atrocities from the Bible) by G.W. Foote, W.P.
9. Essays on American Atheism, vol. II by Jon G. Murray. Paperback. 284 pp. #5350
Ball, John Bowden, and Richard M. Smith. Paperback.
372 pp. #5008
10. Essays in Freethinking, vol. I by Chapman Cohen.
Paperback. 229 pp. #5052
23. The X- Rated Bible by Ben Edward Akerley. Paperback.
428 pp. #5000
II. Essays in Freethinking, vol. II by Chapman Cohen.
Paperback. 240 pp. #5056
12. Life Story of August Comte by F. J. Gould. Paperback.
179 pp. #5132
13. The Logic and Virtue of Atheism by Joseph McCabe.
Stapled. 58 pp. #5280

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American Atheist Press, P.O. Box 140195,
Austin, TX 78714-0195


Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise,
thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right
of the people peaceably to.ia~;§el11!r·"
ble, and to petition the government
for a redress of grievances.


"Atheists are often charged with blasphemy,
but it is a crime they cannot commit ....
"When the Atheist examines, denounces, or
satirises the gods, he is not dealing with persons
but with ideas. He is incapable of insulting God,
for he does not admit the existence of any such
being ....
We attack not a person but a belief, not a being
but an idea, not a fact but a fancy."
- G. W. Foote
"Who are the Blasphemers?"
in Flowers of Freethought