Trials and Textbooks: Jeffrey Selman on Fighting Creationism in Schools

September 29, 2015

When the public school board in Cobb County, Georgia, placed a disclaimer describing evolution as “just a theory” (in the non-scientific sense) and not a fact, citizen and author Jeffrey Selman knew he had to take a stand for the integrity of his son’s education.

This week on Point of Inquiry Josh Zepps talks to Selman about his new book, God Sent Me: A Textbook Case On Evolution vs. Creation, which is Selman’s personal account of reaching out to the ACLU and taking the entire school board of Cobb County to court for misrepresenting the credibility of evolution in order to promote religious belief. A strong supporter of religious freedom and a person of faith, Selman explains why separation of church and state is especially crucial in public schools, where vulnerable younger minds are heavily influenced by peer pressure and institutional coercion.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, September 20, 9th, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast at the Center for Inquiry. In 2002, the school board in Cobb County, Georgia, voted unanimously to add a sticker to the inside of the front cover of school biology textbooks, stating this test textbook contains material on evolution. 

Evolution is a theory, not a fact. Regarding the origin of living things, this material should be approached with an open mind that studied carefully and critically considered. In response, Jeffrey Selman sued the school board and four years later, in Silman v. Cobb County School District, he won. Jeffrey has since become the president of the Atlanta Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And his new book is God Sent Me a Textbook Case on Evolution vs. Creation. Jeffrey, thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks for having me, sir. So can you take us back to who you were and what you were doing before all of this began when you were in Georgia? 

Yeah, well, after getting out of college, I joined a thing called Vista, which is now called AmeriCorps, because growing up in an area in the Bronx, being involved in all the protest back in the 60s and stuff like that, it was very much interested in helping that aspect of American society and culture to move up from the bottom into the middle class and possibly up into the top. And that’s what Vista was geared to do. It was started by President Johnson and went out and I lived with the NATO Indians for a while, but it was a different culture. And so I was having a hard time there, doing what I thought I could be doing the best. So I wound up coming home after my term there, and I became a school teacher in the South Bronx where I grew up, being a poverty area, basically. I started to bring some of the things I had learned in college and around the world at about peace in my older, you know, demonstration days to my students, both in elementary school and then in high school history, taught for a while. What happened then, after about 10 years of that, said Jim, like to have a family. I like to meet somebody and get married. And I went to buy a piece of land up in Vermont where I had lived for a little while, and some airline pilot pilot bought it out from under me for cash. And I knew that I wasn’t making enough money because in those days it was totally on the quality in the school system. It was a woman’s profession, quote unquote. So they underpaid the teachers until many years later when they had a strike. Did the money come back up? So I said, I gotta get out of here. And so I wondered, becoming a computer programmer. And after a little while, I realized that I wanted to travel some. So I became a consultant and moved around the United States and Canada assignments in Atlanta. I met my wife was from Burlington, Vermont, and we got married and we wound up staying here. And then the rest is history. 

And what was going on? So you met you’d been intending on moving to Vermont and you met your wife from Vermont when both of you were in Atlanta? Yeah, it was meant to be excellent. 

So then fast forward to the late 90s, I guess, the turn of the century. I’m also interested in, you know, this is a time when America was very much on edge in the wake of 9/11. I hadn’t landslips put together the fact that this that this whole brouhaha erupted in, I guess, the early the first half of 2002. Yes. What were you doing and where was your head at that time? 

Well, yeah, it still hits me. 

I was working at Lucent Technologies the time when Y2K problems, which had just ended and we were moving on forward from there. And I got a phone call from a friend and he said he was in New York and he let me know what happened. And we all immediately just shut down and went home. And then I started following it and I just I didn’t know what to do with the time. You know, we just hoped and prayed that everything would be fine. And about a year later is when I was reading a newspaper and I’m a vegetarian. I was a new vegetarian restaurant in in Atlanta. 

And I saw in one of the locals alternate newspapers that they had stuck the sticker in the science textbooks. And I just I just went off and I said, this can’t be done. So I contacted the ACLU and I called him a few times. This is one of the things I try to get across in my book. There is so much going on in the world, in our country today that has to be addressed that there are only a few organizations out there really that can really aid us. And so with all the things coming up, we have to be patient with them. They will be with us, OK? They’ll get to us. And it took a while before the ACLU reached me. 

And I was I was ready to give up and look around for some other organizations and being I’ve got a phone call. And after that, we started the lawsuit, which, you know, getting the text that the sticker out of the textbooks. 

I do think that’s a really valuable point as well to make that, you know, if you if at first you don’t succeed, you’ve just got to keep hammering on the door until you do, because people will often interpret a lack of response as being an unwillingness or a lack of interest. But I can I can tell you, as someone who is often on the receiving end, as a media person, like people will come and try to bring stories to my attention. And very often there are far too many for me to be able to handle’s. And the reality is that the person who reaches out four or five times is going to be a lot more likely to get my attention than to get me moving on on a stool and the story that they want me to focus on than someone who e-mails me once and then concludes that I must not be interested. Mm hmm. Absolutely. 

It’s so true. And the digits can’t give up. You just can’t give up. I mean, I’m suffering through it right now. I mean, I get phone calls from people sometimes and I send it off to Washington. And because that’s what we have all lawyers and Americans united. And it takes a while for them to get back to because they’re inundated. And sometimes I lose contact with the people I’m trying to help. You know, I’ve learned now as soon as somebody contacts me, please be patient, we’re going to get through it. Sometimes it takes years. And if it’s like a kid that gets on high school and he’s got one or two more years to go, then they lose standing anyway because the courts won’t look at it unless you’ve got a kid involved in it or you pay in taxes. 

So why did you have standing incidentally? 

Did you have a child in the school system or was the night my son was in the school system at the time? Yes, he was in elementary school and he was headed to middle school. You know, had some textbooks that had to deal with science. And, you know, it’s an interesting thing. Also, there was several years prior to me getting involved in all this. There was an elementary school textbook that was brought out that mentioned the Big Bang Theory and evolution. And of course, I didn’t know it was going on at the time. It didn’t hit the papers. And so the school board asked at the direction of some of the parents in the area that they didn’t believe in that stuff and it didn’t belong in the book because they weren’t going to give alternative theories. This is an elementary school book. And so they contacted the publisher and the publisher said, well, it’s not up to us to determine, you know, what you want to teach your kids. So what they did was they put blank pages in it. That was still no the right pages, but had eliminated the information on the Big Bang and evolution. 

And then they didn’t change the index. So there was an index pointing to Big Bang and evolution. But they were blank pages that it pointed to. And nobody picked up on that. And I I didn’t pick up on it, it happened prior to my kid going into the school system, actually. So what I encountered that once I got involved with the sticker case in the night, I put that in the book also just amazing things that have happened. 

It’s incredible. I mean, it’s a William. It’s like it’s like something from the Soviet era. 

Wouldn’t I be crazy that a publisher would even do something like that? They want to sell the book again. It’s business. 

Yeah. So take us through the the executive series of events. You read this newspaper article. What is it exactly that the the school district has decided to do that decides to put these stickers in these books? Is it all biology textbooks or am I remember incorrectly that there was a specific new biology textbook that had a large trunk on evolution that had had stirred up some some feathers, ruffled several books. 

Got it. Okay. The only one that I really encountered was the one biology. It was the main book that that we had gone after because it stuck out most, you know, and even during the trial, one of the things that the lawyer for the boy tried to point out was that here’s this book with something like 500 pages in it and this little tiny sticker is up in the corner of the front of the book. How could that be overwhelming to disclaim actually destroyed? Because they said it was a warning, not a disclaimer, but it’s obviously a disclaimer. And I just looked at the guy during my testimony and they said, you can kill an elephant by shooting into the heart with its small 22 caliber bullet. And he just his mouth fell open. And then Michael Monali, who was the lawyer on the case, he just he used that as a summation. 

So just talk to me about the legal reasoning here. When you went to the lawyers and when you were putting together your case, you you brugada this sticker as being unconstitutional under the establishment clause and also unconstitutional for the Georgia Constitution. Can you unpack those two approaches and getting that right? 

Well, a lot of people say that the separation of church and state doesn’t exist in the United States Constitution. The exact words aren’t there, but the implication is very clear. I mean, even in the body of the Constitution, before you get to the Bill of Rights, which declares judicial be no religion established by Congress in one of the articles, it specifically says there shall be no religious test to hold public office in this country. OK. Now, some of the people running for office is getting that, and that’s just it’s just wrong. So one of the things with separation of church and state is that’s been decided through the courts because they put a wall between certain aspects of government also when you have an kept public education system versus the government itself. OK, they allow for government prayers. OK, as long as everybody who wants to pray has a chance to pray at an invocation, at the government meeting the justifications. We’ve done it for history. But, I mean, some precedents aren’t set well, because we had slavery in this country. That’s not a very good precedent. So that they allow for certain prayers. And as long as everybody is allowed, in fact, we suit in Cobb County again over that. And the guy semblances attorney general to Georgia right now, he was one of the people backing the fact that we had a right, that there was probably political move and we won that case, even though he says we didn’t, because the judge said that one of the aspects of the government crossed the Mormon religion out of the phone book. And so they weren’t going to call any Mormon. Well, that’s not fair at all. OK. So government bodies, aside from public education, can deal somewhat in it, religious actions, as long as they leave it open to everybody in the public school, though, since you have children who were so open and and variable and, you know, you could twist and mold them according to the way that you teach there. So, you know, Clay, like for the teachers and the administration, that you can’t go out and impose religious belief on children. And the imposition has. When I was in school back in the 50s, you know, we always had a prayer in the morning. I mean, you could pray any which way you wanted to, basically, but it usually came out of the the new or Old Testament. Usually the New Testament. And it just everybody else, you know, was. Well, you had to go along with it. In fact, Americans United for Separation Church and State came about because of a case like that in the public school. There was always witness child who didn’t want to stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag because the only allegiance Jehovah’s Witnesses have is to God. And so he wasn’t that a pledge to something that that was outside his religious faith. And so they were basically embarrassing him and forcing him into doing it. So the case eventually we won and Americans United. And I say we, meaning the citizenry. Americans United came out of that case. And so this is a distinction there. So here we are in a science textbook. OK. And you’re supposed to teach the science. You’re not going to teach French in a Russian class the kids that they had to learn Russian, not French. So if you’re in a science class, why do you believe in it or understand it is irrelevant. That’s the topic. And so you should be taught the topic. OK, if you want to teach the difference between the religions and things like that belongs in a social science class or history class or something like that, not in the science class. Here they would defining a definition that evolution is a theory, not a fact. Now that’s outside even the meaning of the word in the science class, because the. We’re using the word serious colloquially, like we would in the street where it means a hypothesis. It’s a guess once it’s a theory which evolution is. There’s so much evidence out there. It’s it’s already proven to be happening exactly how it happens. We’re still learning. But it does happen. OK. So we as soon as I saw that sticker in there, I knew was a violation of separation of church and state. Plus, my kid was eventually going to go there and I wanted him to understand the real science that’s going on out there. And he was raised Jewish. My wife is Catholic. So he’s had an aspect to both of them. And it’s just, you know, we’re we’re open to everything. And he knows about faith and he also knows about science. So that’s why I took up the case. 

So the establishment clause of the Constitution will know it anyway. Well, Americans know it. Some of them not American listeners. I should probably spell it out for it’s the first of a bunch of pronouncements in the First Amendment. It’s the bit that says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. What you need to do, presumably, and everything that you’ve just said about the about how bad it is to smuggle religious precepts into science class, I think every reasonable person would agree with. The question is, is it necessarily unconstitutional? Does it necessarily contravene that particular part of the Constitution to say that evolution is just a theory? And there are alternative theories. 

How did you approach the question of making it clear that that statement, which doesn’t include any reference to religion, is in fact a religious statement? 

Again, I mean, when you say separation of church and state, it doesn’t have to appear directly as those words in the United States Constitution, by the way, does appear in the Georgia Constitution. 

The phrase separation of church and state. 

Yeah. Those words are used exactly in the Georgia Constitution. So here we are with the situation, using the word theory incorrectly within a science class, because, again, a theory in a science class has been proven. If they’re saying it’s a guess, then it’s a hypothesis. So they’re using the word wrong and a sticker put in a science books that using wrong language right off the bat. OK. Number two, what was going on in the country at the time and still going on now is the fact that people believe in certain amount of creationism and that’s their right. But it’s not the way science works. And so when you start demeaning and undermining something that’s going on in science, you’re undermining the subject matter itself. That’s just basic, you know, religion coming out of that, because that’s the only aspect in our society that declares evolution as phony. Is something coming out of religion. Months later and our case in KLOP spotted before Dover, Pennsylvania case, but the Dover pencil case smack the situation harder than we did because the Supreme we don’t know all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

Yeah. Can you. Can you just just pause here and do a do an aside and remind us of what the Dover case was? I think most of our listeners will probably know. But for those who don’t. It’s worth revisiting. 

Okay. After we started our case, the case in Dover, Pennsylvania, started. And what happened there? They were trying to actually get a thing called intelligent design into the science classes, saying it’s a scientific aspect of explaining the creation and the scientific way. Well, that’s just spin. I mean, that’s that’s just that’s just them turning it around to trying to make it look like it’s scientific. But there’s no scientific evidence for that at all. And so once that started happening in Dover and they won the case there, the judge said intelligent design is not a science and cannot be taught in a science class as such. So they were going one step beyond what we did in Cobb, in Cobb, we just disclaimed evolution in Dover. They were actually going to teach a subject in science class that opposed evolution that kind of in their mind proved evolution wrong. And after Dover happened, that just solidified opposition even more. I mean, it gave us more proof that these people are just out there pushing their religious beliefs into this classroom where it didn’t belong. Again, I’m not opposed to religion. I’m a faith based patient also, and I don’t mind it being talked about in a school in the proper context. Again, in history, social science is something like that because there’s been so much conflict as well as love about different religions on this planet. We should know about all the differences so we start understanding each other and stop fighting with each other. I mean, terrorism stuff would be eliminated if we’d stopped being honest about respecting each other instead of saying mine’s right, yours is wrong. 

One of the interesting ironies, of course, is that the people who are most opposed to the teaching of comparative religions in schools, religious fundamentalists, it’s secular people who are keen on teaching all the world’s religions to our children, because then you can see you can compare them. You can appreciate them. And you can also see that they are clearly just tissue’s of lies and fabrications and culturally contingent claims and historical claims. The people who don’t want you to boot to see that out of the people who are most keen on indoctrinating their own children with a particular dogma. Yeah, sort of ironic. So talk to us. I want to dig into the legal. The legal side of this. A little bit, because there’s something called the lemon test, which I was reading about, which is a Supreme Court precedent from, I believe, 1971, that God’s courts as to how they should think about the establishment clause. There are three conditions. A government sponsored mission message violates the establishment clause if A, it doesn’t have a secular purpose. 

Right. B, its principal or primary effect advances or inhibits religion. Or C, it creates an excessive entanglement of the government with religion. 

As I understand it, in your case, the court found that one was not satisfied. The first point was not satisfied. In other words, it wasn’t the case that this sticker absolutely did not have a secular purpose, but it was the case that its principle of primary effect was to advance or inhibit religion. Do I have that right? 

Yes, I think it violated all three prongs myself. But again, I wasn’t the judge. He was on our side enough to win the case. But I thought it was obvious that there was a religious purpose because the petitions that got it into the book to begin with. Were all circulated through religious organizations. Right. They did it through the churches. So how could that not be a religious backing? 

So then the case gets appealed. What happens in the appeal? This is a bit confusing. Basically, the appeals court, the appellate court just kicks it back to the original court and you have to end up settling out of court. 

Yeah. What happened was, again, back to the petitions, which was signed in churches when we were getting involved in it. And this is hard for me to say because I screwed up big time, big time. I made amends for it down the road. Now, explain that in a minute, Michael me nearly as a fantastic lawyer, and he won our case on the local federal court level. When the school board decided to appeal. OK, and here’s how they decided to appeal because they thought it wasn’t cost them any more money. The contract was coming up for their legal team that they were hired, which is an outside government thing. They harm on contract. And so the legal team basically said, well, we’ll handle the appeal pro bono, which means they’re going to do it for no cost. And they got their contract renewed. OK. So I’m not pointing anything, as I just pointed a finger and they took on the case and they went after it and they basically said, where’s this petition you keep saying is out there that was signed in the churches that led to this thing? Well, lo and behold, daunting got lost. People like Marjorie Rogers, who’s a lawyer herself, and circulated a petition and she testified at the case that she sent to put petitions around and she was doing that. The newspapers all reported upon it. Nobody denied it existed until we went to appeal. So it’s there in the lower court that the people sent it around. They all said they did. Well, then it disappeared. So I think there was a certain bias by some of the new members in the 11th Circuit at that point. And they just said, well, there’s not enough evidence to back up why this was declared the way it was. So they remanded it back to the lower court. Well, that didn’t tend well, I think with the whole environment. And so initially, we weren’t allowed to have expert witnesses about what evolution is and about what creationism is and all this other stuff. Ken Miller got him back. He’s the guy that one of the guys that wrote the book with Joe Lieberman. They were the two authors of the main textbook that we did. So as we were going through this whole thing in the case, they just said, well, we’re going to they’re going to wind up leading expert witnesses in this time to prove the case. On another aspect, instead of just the petitions, which, of course, we couldn’t find anymore. So instead of spending a gazillion dollars, they settled. And what the settlement was going forward forever, no matter what the school board is made up of who’s on it or anything like that, they cannot do anything to undermine the teaching of evolution as it is supposed to be taught in a science class. And they signed off on it and save them a lot of money. You know, the lawyers, of course, made some money on it, which is they should. And my mistake that I started to talk about was Michael McNeilly knew the case, but he didn’t have any appeals experience at that time. And so certain people were saying, listen, you got to go with somebody who’s been in front of appeals judges before, who knows how to deal with them and won’t be intimidated by anything that’s going on there. So they talked me into switching lawyers. And so we got another group of lawyers to work on this thing. And lo and behold, they didn’t have enough experience on the case. And so we lost and I consider having remanded back down as a loss. Now, many years later, Michael McNeely was working on another case for international law that was going to appear in front of the Supreme Court not to go into the details. People can look that up elsewhere. And the client called me up and, you know, because we had arranged that we would talk. And I told him, don’t make the same mistake that I did. When you’re involved in a court case with somebody want with you. They know the case. Even if they’ve never been in front of the appeals court. They know your case. They’ve got it inside and back. They don’t have to go relearnt it. They lived it while he stuck with Michael Michael in front of the Supreme Court of the United States one. So my advice to everybody out there is, number one, if you can’t get in touch with the organization right away, that will back you stick with it. And number two, once you’re in there, do not give up your lawyer because they know your case. 

I want to pull back a little bit because you were talking about growing up in the Bronx and the influence of the civil rights movement on you and traveling around a lot. And that it sounds like you’re a guy who was who was always interested in other cultures and other other peoples. 

And I wonder what you make of the uniqueness of the debate around evolution in the United States that have all of the rich countries in the world, rich, educated countries. 

This is the only one where there is a significant contingent of the population that is so religious as to deny scientific. Sect. 

OK. Here I get in trouble again. OK. I am a person of faith. That is my business. My wife is a person of faith. That’s how this is my child as a person of whatever faith he has. He grew up with a mix. It is something personal. When you have faith, it’s your connection between whatever’s out there. You will eventually meet it. That’s your business. 

OK, now through the ages and this is my own feeling, I’m not pushing this on anybody. This is just how my brain and art work at the beginning of whatever was out here. People saw things in the sky. If they had, you know, they hadn’t done any research. They know what this was, what that was. You know, that you need water to grow a tree. It just happens. And they grew up put things together. I don’t know. But they had no explanation. So when they saw something shoot through the sky like the moon, they decided, well, gee, that was maybe that’s controlling everything because I don’t know what is that must be God or the son or some star or something like that. And neighbors living next door would see the same thing and they’d start to talk. So all of a sudden that became God. And this is kind of what happened in the Greek and Roman times where they had all these different multi gods in other places also. Well, in the middle of that whole group of people with faith believing something some guys stood up in the middle of and said, I can make a business out of it and religion was born. Now, that’s me talking, not my rabbi and not my wife’s priest. OK. That’s just me. So religion to me has very little in the real world today to do with true faith. Some people have it and they’re so busy trying to make ends meet that they just listen to things without thinking it through because it’s easier to just accept it and fight it. And our education system, I don’t know about the whole world, but here in this country is mishmosh. OK. They just came out with this thing recently with Advanced Placement courses in the high schools. And it’s done in Princeton University where it comes out of. And they came up with these things showing American exceptionalism and America’s not exceptionalism. We have to see that some of the things we thought in our growth, you know, in our evolution, you should pardon the expression towards being a real democracy wasn’t good. Slavery wasn’t great. OK. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t great. All these different things we’ve had happen in our history. Warren, great. So here we’ve got this new thing for the SATs, placement classes and places like Georgia say, no, we’re not going to teach that. 

It’s against American exceptionalism. It teaches against America. It’s not teaching against America. It’s teaching how we grew to be the great country we are. We did wrong things in our past sometimes. We also did a lot of right things. But, you know, come on. History is history. You can’t change it. You can’t alter it. And this is what happens in some of the religions. People go out there and to keep the faithful, they tell them things that make Thomas Jefferson when he reinterpreted the New Testament and that his examination of the Bible is in the Library of Congress. People can go look it up. He basically saw Jesus as a real wonderful man, a human being, a human being. But as the new religion started to take off, they had to sell it to new groups of people like the Romans and the Greeks. Well, when you try to sell a product to somebody, you try to make something in it, relate to what they already know. 

Well, the Greeks had, you know, Zus sired Hercules, Hercules with quite human import God. So that was a concept that they understood. Now, this is Jefferson talking, not me. I got this from him. So some people throw it out the door. Thomas Jefferson didn’t. He said this was a fabrication to sell the new faith. 

But this is this is all this is all sort of ancient history. I mean, what’s interesting to me is that in the 21st century, Jeffrey, we we live in a time where, regardless of the reasons for which people were originally hoodwinked by formal the formal dogmas of religion, most people have outgrown that. The Danes about Groner, the Canadians about going to the US is not the America that America is about criminality. 

Irish, I’m reason. I’m sorry. I’m interrupting. No, go for it. 

I was just going to recite all of the countries that well, maybe not Ireland, but when you think about, you know, Ireland is probably the only other country that still has a large proportion of the population believing in the literal truth of a of a particular dogma. 

It’s still prevalent here, but it is changing. I mean, the temple I go to is a reformed temple and. 

Well, I would include Jews necessarily. I mean, I. I would be Muslim. I’m very Monya. 

You know, I got letters from all different religious groups that were very, you know, Orthodox from Christians, Catholics, Baptists, the Jews. I got things from from Orthodox Jews also sending me little clips from the Bible saying this is proof. But, you know, it just it doesn’t work because the Bible is interpreted so many different ways that I mean, again, it was used politically to control people. So in America, it’s Ben Franklin had it right. But we’ve thrown his principles. He said, you need an educated population with real education to be able to maintain your democracy. But the conflict between the different religious groups have come up in the bias and the bigotry that we’ve gone through and are non exceptional times just have led people to hide a lot. And just I can’t deal with the bad taste. I’ll listen to whatever the pastor, the priest, the rabbi or whoever says to me. And they buy it and they go out because they just try because we’re a country of immigrants. We always start at the bottom and work our way up. OK. Although it’s getting harder today. And so they haven’t got time. They’ve got to just listen to the rabbi. They’ve got to just listen to the priest and move on. And if I have to start worrying about all this stuff in the afterlife on my own and reason it out, I’m going to be dissuaded from having to keep my family alive. I think in America, being a country of immigrants, that that’s kind of led to this. 

I think you’re touching on something also about. About inequality, though, which is that, you know, when you’re when you’re too busy to do anything apart from just work and just desperately try to keep your head above water, it’s not a time to be analyzing theological questions like you will believe what your pastor is going to tell you, because it’s comforting not to be too condescending about the religion. 

But I you know, condescending people have a right to believe what they want to just on impose it on other people who aren’t so strong with separation. Here’s what’s interesting, Jeffrey. Like, I would not have expected. 

You know, you you are sort of a sort of secular hero in that you are the name on the court case. That is one of these things that secular people look to as enshrining the separation of church and state in the past couple of decades. And yet you’re talking to me as a man of faith. You’re talking about your wife’s faith. You’re talking about your child’s face. A lot of our listeners who are atheists and agnostics would be surprised and curious and maybe even confused about why you bother with faith. 

It does. I don’t know what’s out there. I did the best I can with what talents I have here, how I got them. I don’t know. I don’t care. I have them. I use them. I was raised as a Jewish kid. 

Right. But what does any of that have to do with whether or not the Torah is true or whether or not Catholicism is true or whether or not saying a certain set of Latin words over a cracker is going to turn it into the body of someone who lived the way my family raised me within it, in the way my wife’s family raised her within her faith, was to be a good person. 

Now, here’s something I do live by which Kurt Vonnegut, an atheist, brought out into the universe. OK, doing the right thing without expectation of reward or punishment day after death is the mark of true morality. So whether or not I have faith doesn’t drive my life. The fact I want to do good. I want to treat people well. I want to elevate everybody to a good, comfortable way of being alive. What happens after that? If there is something after that? I worry about it then. So while I talk culturally about my faith and I have that, I guess I don’t know. It’s like I haven’t got time to worry about what’s really common later. I have to worry about what’s in front of me right now. And the way I was raised was to be a good person and to do the right thing and to respect intellect. I mean, this is going to sound terrible, but this is something that’s in my head and my heart. 

The reason and is an expression, a Yiddish, a cup, which means that Jewish mind, we always seem to be ahead of certain things intellectually. And the reason I see that is because of evolution, because somebody people hated us. And this will probably get me shot tomorrow. Hated us that they were chasing us from one place to another to another place. And the ones that could survive, they could escape. The form of evolution, because the strongest, the smartest survive to get away, the weakest got caught and could reproduce to put the weaker genes in, just like the rest of evolution happened. OK. 

Yeah, I think we can say that Jews are smarter than other people. We can certainly say that as a as a culture. They punch above their weight numerically in the sciences and in literature and so on. And whether or not that has any evolutionary basis or whether it’s a it’s a sort of a cultural and an organ of Meems about. 


I mean, I, I think probably has a lot to do with the value that the Jewish culture places on education and hard work. And I suppose, you know, set to a certain extent, you’re right that being outsiders, even if, you know, you always have to work doubly as hard as you know, that’s the experience of minorities. 

It doesn’t relate to other people being smart also. You know, I wasn’t demeaning anybody else. She’ll say, and why we are where we are. 

Just went on the quit on them. On the question of faith before we wrap up. You know, when you say you are a person of faith, whatever that means, what does that mean to me personally? 

And this has nothing to do with other people’s definition of it. Again, I don’t know what’s out there. I respect what might be out there because I don’t do anything on purpose saying, well, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to do what I want. 

But no, I mean what I would no secular person, no atheist thinks that they know what’s out there either. Right. I mean, not the smart ones. We don’t we don’t know what’s out there. But. Right. Our answer is. Well, I guess that is the end of that question then. And we will we will gradually grope towards some kind of an answer. But we’re not convinced that the answer is likely to lie in any religious text. So why not just do away with the religious text and say and embrace the unknowability of everything? 

Well, on my on my aspect, personally, I follow the tenets that I was raised with. I really want to go to temple once in a while and it’s around the holidays. We listen to the talk that they give and they read from the Torah, etc. like that. I don’t read it personally whenever people argue with me and bring things up. I’ll give an example to somebody I went to high school with. 

He’s he’s converted these evangelical Christians and he’s talking about how, you know, the Supreme Court has thwarted the definition of marriage in the Bible. 

And he pointed out the two parts of which I don’t remember the exact pointings of them, but basically it said that a father gives his daughter to another man’s son. OK. Now, that’s a religious definition of marriage. I don’t see a rabbi. I don’t see a priest. I don’t see a minister saying there’s a join. You would union to accept this person. This is a father giving a daughter away. There’s no connection to any. If you had a concept of God that has it tied to the religion. 

Know not the most loving Balwinder. 

Talking about changing the tone, about changing the definition of marriage. Well, we changed the definition of marriage from a father giving away a daughter so that she could be the property of his friend’s son. A long time ago. 

Exactly. So it’s not biblical anymore. So why are they complaining about us changing now? The definition of marriage? The definition of marriage of two loving people want to get married. They can. OK. And if you’re living together, working together, you know, why shouldn’t you be able to get the benefits like other people who were married under the law? Why can’t we have love instead of all this controversy? Because I mean, when they claim it’s in the Bible. I don’t see it in the Bible. I just don’t see it there. And they keep pointing. It’s in the Bible where the way they’re talking about it in the Bible looks like a common law marriage to me in today’s terms that you don’t have to go through any ceremony, which in some places, if you live together for a certain amount of time, it’s automatic. You get the benefits. Yeah. So people who were man and female aren’t going through a lawyer or through a rabbi or anything like that. If they could be declared married and get the benefits like you two other loving people of the same sex being declared the same. I don’t understand how if you were a citizen of this country and everybody forgets the 14th Amendment, if you were a citizen of this country, you’re a citizen of this country no matter where you are. So the laws in Georgia or here or anywhere else do not trump you being a United States citizen. You are a United States citizen before a state citizen. 

And these people have got to start understanding and they don’t even read their own constitutions. 

So what do you think in the long term, sort of looking forward to see to how people should be activists and how people should work towards the kind of secular America that we all favor. 

What is the takeaway from from your experience in the Cobb County case? 

Well, there’s more and more things coming up all the time. We just have to keep doing it. Like recently, they just had a whole football team at a high school baptized on the school grounds. 

Well, the people seem to forget that there’s a lot of peer pressure in school. And somebody who might be an atheist who wants to play football is maybe going to hide the fact that, gee, I don’t want to be baptized. 

So he gets coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to say. This whole thing is happening right now. That’s one thing that’s going on in other things. And so we have to keep up and stay alert and fight these issues and let people know nobody told me this. If you have an issue that you want to bring up, you don’t have to go out there with you or face the. I know who you are, but you can be a John Doe or a Jane Doe. That way it doesn’t get into the public. So you can’t have people jump on you or attack. You say, look what you did. You ruined my religion and you’re in the country now, OK? You can go out there and stand up and have the courts know who you are again. OK. Make sure you have standing. Whatever it is pertinent to that time. But you have to stand up. You can’t just hide and keep hiding because we’re never going to get our true freedoms that way. And I’m not demeaning anybody if those kids wanted to be baptized. A church that conducted it could say come to our our home of worship on Sunday if you want to be baptized. And we’ll do it. Why did they have to do it at the school? Because, again, it’s an advertising for their business. 

Wrap is up by. I’d like to get briefly your thoughts about whether or not you’re optimistic or sort of pessimistic about the trajectory that things are taking. Do you feel like secularism is on the march or is under attack? 

Well, it’s obviously under attack because the groups that, you know, are losing position because of secularism are not going to want to give up their business. So they’re building up stronger. But the way I feel about it, it’s kind of like when you’re boiling water in a pot, what is boiling and boiling? It’s mixing and mixing. And as the water drops down and you get down to a really thin layer, the boiling really gets going. The public get bigger. It’s less pressure on them. I see that happening in our society. Possibly I might be mis reading this, but I think because secularism is on the rise and I’m not in favor of crushing religion. People have a right to believe and I defend their right to believe against separation of church and state. But I see that they feel so threatened in the Dominion sheikhdom and I can see the word diminution. Thank you. Of the amount of people that are still joining their groups, it’s getting less and less all the time that they’re starting to push harder to try to get more people back in. And so the bubbles are boiling more as their numbers shrink. The bubbles get bigger because they’re putting more energy into less. 

And so it’s a big mishmash and the honest I hope faith doesn’t go away for people that needed it more wanted and everything. And it’s a comfort to many people that’s a good thing. Faith is a good thing if it helps you get through things. It’s when people turn it into the business, it’s bad. And so I see secularism on the rise in America and it will hit a point where it will not destroy religion. It will become an atheistic nation. OK. We will always have some sort of faith and follow in our hearts what we think God is and still do. The things that Kurt Vonnegut talked about doing the right thing for no other reason, except for that it’s the right thing. 

I’ll agree with you on Vonnegut. And we can agree to disagree about the about the utility of faith. I think if people if people need faith in order to feel comfort, there are there are other ways of getting comfort than by deluding oneself about the nature of the cosmos and claiming to have that right. So Luther himself, what century was. Absolutely. Yes. They’ll always have that right. Thank you so much for your work. And thank you so much for being a guest on Point of Inquiry. Jeffrey’s book is God Sent Me a Textbook Case on Evolution vs. Creation. Thanks so much for being on the show. 

Thank you. Joshua was a great talking with you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.