by Madalyn O'Hair
The following is the full text of an address delivered
by Dr. Madalyn O'Hair, founder of
American Atheists, at Memphis State University, Memphis, Tennessee, on October 22, 1986.
Hopefully, everyone in this state is fed up on hearing about the Scopes trial. Even though the most famous reporter there, H. L. Mencken, was an Atheist; even though the most famous attorney there, Clarence Darrow, was an Atheist; and even though the teacher himself, John T. Scopes, later personally told me that he did not believe in god, I want to back away from references to it, other than to use it for a time-frame.
The media had a riotous time with this case back in 1925 and over the
years have billed other cases as equivalent to "the monkey trial"
which was held here in your state. One hundred fifty reporters came from
all over the world. At least two million words were dispatched via Western
Union with eight telegraph operators tapping out 175,000 words a day. WGN
radio of Chicago broadcast coverage of the trial on the first national
It was one of the most important media events of our time, and it ended with Clarence Darrow literally destroying William Jennings Bryan in examination of his biblical fundamentalism. However, most people don't remember the actual outcome, fixed as they are, in memory, on the media hype. They have no idea who William Jennings Bryan was or how important he had been to the nation. Most people see him merely as a pompous Bible Belter whose arguments were totally demolished by the brilliant Darrow. Scopes, lost in the clash between the two giants, Darrow and Bryan, was the subject of a criminal trial, and the court found him to be as guilty as sin. And this case was a major legal victory for the Fundamentalists of those times -- with consequences that we feel today.
What do I mean by Fundamentalists? The Fundamentalists came into prominence in the United States not under Falwell, but with antecedents that stretch back for many, many generations. Although their formal organization was in New York in 1895, they had been busy several scores of years earlier. It was, however, in Niagara Falls, in 1895, that they framed a famous five-point formula of creed to which all who held with them as Fundamentalists -- Protestants, not Roman Catholics -- were forced to subscribe. These spoke to:
Insofar as our culture was concerned, for the United States, they wanted to spiritually monitor young men and see that they kept sober for employment, to keep young women chaste, to maintain the status quo, and to attack any new knowledge which might challenge their formalized ideology which was Bible-based. They set up a system of protective boarding places for young working men, which they called the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA); they attacked that old demon rum with anti-saloon leagues (the Eighteenth Amendment which brought on the Prohibition Era was passed in 1914 and ratified in 1919); they kept all literature clean of sexual references and birth control information suppressed through the dreadful Comstock laws and censorship; and to maintain control of women, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) went down to a bitter defeat a hundred years ago.
In a sense, what we see today is not new. The Fundamentalist won -- over and over again. They delayed the intellectual maturation of our nation for over two hundred years, just as they had delayed that of Europe for over a thousand -- always by psychological intimidation, repressive laws, legal harassments, monetary reprisals, and if need be, raw physical force. They fought against education, science, sex education, birth control, medicine, and the amelioration of the condition of humankind. They supported slavery, child labor, exploitative capitalism, onerous punishment schemes, and wars.
Tennessee had a unique place in the history of scientific and intellectual suppression, with Vanderbilt University a leading symbol of it. The tragic Scopes trial, of course, set a label upon you [Tennessee] for all times as being one of the most backward states in the Union.
The fight against science in the public schools centered around evolution -- and few if any of you know that William Jennings Bryan during the entire decade of the 1920's stumped the country demanding that anti-evolutionary laws be adopted to protect the nation's public schools from any doctrine which was in conflict with the biblical, Genesis story of creation. Kentucky was chosen as the first possible state to have the law passed. It was defeated there by one vote. However, both Tennessee and Mississippi opted for it. Clarence Darrow did not come to Tennessee to fight for Scopes; he came because he wanted to fight against religious fanaticism, as it was represented by William Jennings Bryan. He was saddened when he left Dayton, for he feared that the media had turned the event into a circus instead of the serious attempt that it was to stop the interference of religion with the public school systems in your state.
While liberal theists rejoiced throughout the nation, the textbook manufacturers noticed that the verdict was "guilty." The next year biology texts began to delete all mention of evolution. An anti-evolutionary law was passed immediately in Arkansas. Other states followed. Evolution had been the linchpin principle which had transformed biology from a science of description and enumeration into a science of analysis and explication. It was the core of the scientific method -- and it was under attack, not by scientists, not by Atheists, not by parents, not by the students, but by the Fundamentalists in our land. By 1933 the books of the nation were not alone evolution-free, they were almost science-free. The word "evolution" was not even seen in the indices. A poll in the 1940's revealed that one-third of the teachers of our nation feared to be identified with evolution or real science. Schools began to focus on the excellence of their drill teams, teachers cowered, refusing to lose tenure; parents did not monitor their children's education, refusing to become involved. And, our nation sank into scientific ignorance.
I was born in 1919. I entered the first grade of school in 1925, the year of the Scopes trial. As I strive to recall what I learned about science, I realize that it was stripped from my education completely. I and the rest of the nation were scientific illiterates produced by this educational system. We were deprived of knowledge available in many other nations of the world. Everything changed -- for just a very short while -- On October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R. launched "Sputnik" into space (which was followed on April 12, 1961, by Yuri Gagarin; September 12, 1959, the U.S.S.R. launched its first spacecraft, LUNA-2, to land on the moon; October 4, 1959, the U.S.S.R. launched its first spacecraft, LUNA-3 to fly around the moon and send back photos of its far side). Biological science organizations woke up, looked at text books, and demanded upgrading. What little science we have in our schools today, we owe to the U.S.S.R. Without "Sputnik" the assault by the Fundamentalists would not have been stayed even for the short while that it was.
But since that time, the nation has again come into grips of the more vocal, more well-financed, Fundamentalists. And, as of today, we have pending before the U.S. Supreme Court a case ("Edwards v. Aguillard") from Louisiana, in which that state has passed a law that the Genesis theory of creation be taught wherever evolution is taught in public schools. It is the "equal access" case all over again ("Widmar v. Vincent," 454 U.S. 263 , Cornerstone religious group, University of Missouri at Kansas City, an Eighth Circuit case). Religion must be given equal access into our public school system, together with general education, or science. It matters little, if at all, whether the name given to religion is "voluntary prayer," " 'Greeneville, Tennessee, parents' choice of textbooks," "Bible study courses," "scientific creationism," or "Genesis"; a pile of manure by any other name smells just as bad.
Where, heretofore, the established religions in the United States quietly but effectively had their way with government, in a covert manner, the Fundamentalists have suddenly burst upon the Scene, uneducated, unwashed, and uncouth, demanding that we accept their insanity as a way of life. For years the Roman Catholic church exerted exquisite sub-rosa pressures on our politicians, as they sought financing for their institutions and intrusions of their dogma into the public life.
Anyone my age knows that we ate fish on Fridays in public schools, in hospitals, in the armed services, whether we liked it or not, to accommodate the food fetishes of the Roman Catholics. Our cinemas, plays, magazines, were "rated" by Roman Catholic groups so that our morals were purified according to the tenets of that church. And, many persons prefer the old way; we see, for example, "People for The American Way" lash out at the Moral Majority -- but People actually has nothing better to sell. We see the Lutherans split; the Methodists split; the Baptists perhaps splitting within the year, as the raucous, defiant, Fundamentalists of all stripes demand control of each denomination as well as or our culture as a whole.
What do they want? The most succinct statement that I have seen came from an editor (William J. Bennetta) writing for the California Academy of Sciences.
The religious right is fundamentalism's political arm. It seeks objectives that are depicted in fundamentalist literature as being derived from, or consonant with, biblical prescriptions, and prophecies. Statements of these objectives vary considerably, but the principal goals are constant and prominent: a fundamentalist theocracy -- that is, a government operated according to fundamentalist readings of the Bible; an economy of capitalism, more or less unrestrained; a foreign policy based on nationalism and chauvinism reinforced by militarism; a social organization in which women would be subordinate to men and would focus their lives on reproduction; a system of education that would discourage analytical thinking in all realms except the purely technical ones; a system of science that would serve only to support commerce and to generate sophistic demonstrations that facts of nature conform to biblical narratives; and theocratic suppression of cultural, intellectual, ethical, or sexual departures from the prescriptions of biblical authorities.
We are even going to have an effort, perhaps a successful one, by Pat
Robertson to win the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United
States, premised on these principles.
Yet in all of the discussions, there is no basic analysis of the premises of the religion upon which all should rely. It is difficult to fight anything when one is in agreement with its underlying principles. Good Baptists, as distinguished from Jerry Falwell, are bitterly opposed to these methods -- but not essentially to his theocracy, for it all rests on the same premises. That's the rub. For about two hundred years all of the liberal religions have simply tried to make Judeo-Christianity more palatable. There may be a difference in the style, arguments over some aspects of religion, but underneath it all the basic message is the same. The liberalizing tendencies of the theistic theories are only to keep the ties that bind. Judeo-Christianity is basically a philosophy of life which espouses tenets that are anti-education, anti-science, anti-peace, anti-woman, anti-human sexuality, and anti-life. Every person in this room suffers from pernicious, all-permeating disease brought by Judeo-Christianity into your life to remain there. Each and every one of you has, continually, feelings of personal inadequacy. It is bred into you, together with feelings of dependency, self-abnegation, obedience to authority, repentance, and guilt, by this religion, reinforced by this religion, emphasized by this religion.
This religion gives you goals which are outside of reality. It enriches your fantasy life with ugliness. It fills you with ideas of guilt over the most common human experiences -- usually related to sex. In this room, right now, each of you, in your own lives, has agonized over the fact that you have masturbated. Masturbation isn't sinful. If it feels good -- do it. You have my blessing, and you yourself know how it relaxes you.
Your religion, pernicious as it is, also constricts you with fear. The
fears on which it is based slop over into your culture since fear is a
powerful method of control which can be used against your own best interests.
You fear that you might not get a mate. You fear that your skin isn't clear. You fear that you are too fat. You fear that your perspiration stinks. You fear that your breath may offend. You fear "What will the neighbors think?" You fear that you might flunk math. You fear that you may not score tonight. You fear cancer and AIDS. You fear that you can't get a job, that you can't keep the one you have. You fear that you might die. Ah!
Abraham Lincoln talked about what he called "the Christian scheme of salvation at death," and I want to look at that tonight. For this -- this scheme of salvation -- you give up a rich, full life; you permit the religious to effectively kill science, to constrict women, to foster war, to control you in every aspect of your being. This scheme of salvation, and no minister or priest has ever said nay in regard to it, this is Christianity in its essence -- and it is nuts.
Adam and Eve committed the sin of disobedience, primarily through fornication,
and because of that the guild of their sin was laid on all succeeding generations.
You were born with this sin upon you. And, until you accept salvation from
your personal savior Jesus Christ, who came as a sacrificing redeemer for
the sins of the world, you will not be able to live after death
through all eternity.
That is nuts. You can take my word for it. You did not eat the apple. And, life is what you have -- death can give you nothing.
There are some inherently crazy subsets of ideas. God was sitting on
his ass in Nowhere, since at that time there was not even a universe, for
hundreds of millions of years without an idea in his head, picking his
nose and farting, when suddenly he became bored one moment in particular
and said, in clear Hebrew, "From nothing I will create something,"
and he created the entire universe (whatever that may be) for the express
purpose of creating you in his own image, complete down to the belly button.
Of course, if there was nothing, whence came god? But then, why bother with trivialities? And, since man and woman were not to fornicate, why did he create Adam complete with the family jewels, penis and scrotum, and why did he create Eve with a depository for the same, her vagina? Oh well -- ask a foolish question...
Almost all of science in our nation, because of the idea of "created man," came to a nearly complete stop for over sixty years because we have some lunatics on the loose who objected to a book written by Charles Darwin in 1859. The single objection is over the creation story. The Fundamentalists do not care to have humankind identified as primates, a part of the animal kingdom.
Everything that identifies man as an animal -- but most especially sex
-- is and has always been the subject of the most minute control by religion.
Every word that refers to a normal body function -- a life-sustaining
body function -- is a taboo (in our culture), a four-letter word.
Yet, if you could not shit for a week, would you be alive or dead? What
delightful, obscene act continues the species? And, of course, every other
so-called obscene word refers to women. Think about it.
The purpose of human life is not to prepare yourself for death. The purpose of human life is to live, free of fears, guilt, anxieties, and feelings of personal inadequacy.
But, the Fundamentalists cry out that our nation was premised on Judeo-Christianity and that as a political system we must maintain that. This is now referred to, in argument, as "the intent of the Founding Fathers." But, let me ask you -- if the Founding Fathers found merit in Judeo-Christianity, why did they not explicitly demand, at that time, that it should be commingled with government? Why should Thomas Jefferson speak in metaphor of the need for "a wall of separation" between state and church? Why build a wall to separate out that which is good for people? Even today, as the United States Supreme Court takes one state/church separation case after another, why should it use the "Lemon v. Kurtzman" tripartite test of maintaining a separation between religion and government? If religion is ennobling, if it is good for the people, why should it not be coercive upon them? If prayers are answered, everyone needs to pray. If the truth is a shining beckoning light, why modify it?
The Fundamentalists are, in fact, I think, right. If we are to accept the basic principles of Judeo-Christianity, or capitalism, why should we reform them? Why should they be modified? Why should they be explained and rationalized? If Jesus can return to the earth, to rise again and transport you, in the rapture, to heaven, why bother about whether or not he really walked on water? If capitalism in its initial premise of individual ownership of the means of production is a viable economic premise, why contort the basic thrust with any public ownership? Let's give it all to the Mellons, the Rockefellers, the DuPonts. Immediately operating exploitation of labor brings the most profit. If profit alone is the incentive, let's ditch workmen's compensation, let's junk minimum wage laws, let's abandon quality controls. "Caveat emptor": Let the buyer beware. If the measure of the worth of man is submission to the will of god, fall on your faces, you motherfuckers.
Religion -- all religions -- create a world of make-believe. Nothing in religion is related to objective reality, to science, to real life. Every religious idea you have goes on only in your head. Every bit of religion is subjective, not objective. No prayer you ever said, no outcry you ever made to god has ever been heard or answered.
This is your life: What you see is what you get. If you are gong to
make your life better for yourself -- the task is yours. If you want to
make the world better for all its inhabitants -- all animals, all life
forms, all vegetation -- you need to work on it. There needs to be a scientific
analysis of what we have, what we want, and how to get from one point to
another. No god ever gave any man anything, nor answered any prayer, nor
American Atheists, whom I represent, asks you simply to understand that the proper study of man is mankind. We can attain any number of utopian plateaus as we reach for a commonsense goal which attracted many to our nation: the greatest good for the greatest number. We can reach this goal through education, the scientific method of evaluation, planning, and work. Religion has caused more misery to all of humankind in every age of history than any other single idea. You need to be free of irrational ideas. You need to repudiate those who would attempt to return you to medievalism. you need to look forward, not backward; you need to strive for intellectual freedom, not mental bondage; you need to seek joy, not sorrow; love not fear; and you can do that only when you realize who and what your oppressor was -- and is.
©1996 by American Atheists