And about the claim that Christianity is true. Third, president of the United States Thomas Jefferson wrote the second president, the United States. John Adams, April 11th, 1823. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. Jefferson was saying the notion of the virgin birth is as mythological as anything you find in Greek and Roman mythology.
Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Jim Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry West in Los Angeles.
Is the United States a Christian nation? And what did the founders of the country have in mind when it comes to religion and the separation of church and state? Today, we’re going to talk to Eddie Tarboosh. Eddie is an attorney here in Los Angeles. He is chairman of the board of the Center for Inquiry. He’s a pretty well-known debater on the issue of God’s existence and other debate topics between theists and non theists atheists. And he’s a longtime activist and dealing with making sure the landscape is fair when it comes to how nonbelievers are treated in our country, both in the laws and in our society. So today we’re going to get a primer from one of the great experts about church state separation and and also someone who follows a Supreme Court quite closely. You know, people that I don’t believe in paranormal ability, but Eddie has been predicting for a while now that the Supreme Court majority is in jeopardy of tipping toward the religious right for the first time in generations.
We have a decidedly Christian conservative Supreme Court, which is bad news to us atheists, as we will discuss.
Welcome, everybody, to another episode of Point of Inquiry, I’m your host, Jim Underdown, and I’m here with Eddie Tabar, who is chairman of the board of the Center for Inquiry.
He’s also a constitutional expert and an expert about the church state separation that is supposed to exist in this country.
Eddie, welcome to the program. Thank you for having me, Jim. How long’s it been? How long have you been doing Athie ism, secularism, all that?
Well, Athie ism and secularism actually began while I was still a New Age seeker. But as a spiritual seeker and now as an atheist, I was equally concerned. That governments should treat everybody equally. So I’ve been involved in politics since 1968, but in 1981, right after Reagan’s election to the presidency, when he brought the religious right with him to D.C.. Then I got involved in fighting the religious right primarily for 20 years. I was the most active man in California in the abortion rights movement.
And and while and in that case and in that era and still those two worlds, the the freethinker advocate world and abortion rights, they’re compatible.
They were they were very, very compatible. And then what happened? My mother was an Auschwitz survivor from Hungary and my dad was a rabbi from Lithuania. And I’d always rejected conventional religion. But even when I realized through all these meditative experiences that they exist because of the physical brain, I began to reject all belief in the supernatural and paranormal and became an atheist. The joke is, in August of 1995, I introduced ZF Ice founder Paul Kurtz at a speech and just two years before I introduced myself Indian meditation guru at a speech. So I had quite an accelerated odyssey in that span of two years. And then starting in the early 90s, I began to branch out from just abortion rights and get a Boldon church state separation generally. I also remember in the 1980 presidential election cycle when I was volunteering for Jimmy Carter’s reelection and I was telling the people sending me out to speak here in California, we are not addressing the number one issue of this and all presidential campaigns, and that’s the Supreme Court. Now, Jim, you’ll remember in the spring of 04, when I took you to an event to meet John Kerry, you and I were talking to him one of our more enjoyable moments. And he said, oh, yes, Eddie, I know the three words, the Supreme Court. And I said, Senator, that is the most important issue. So for 40 years, I have been concerned that a religious right wing Supreme Court would intentionally misinterpret the intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment and nullify what has now been almost 70 years of precedent in which believers and nonbelievers are to be equal before the law.
And the current makeup of the court is putting that notion in jeopardy.
Here’s what happened as I started predicting back in 1980, a religious right wing president, curiously in the form of Donald Trump this time, has put the fifth religious right winger in Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. And the essence of church state separation is this. No branch of government can treat anyone differently based on what they believe and what they don’t believe. No branch of government can favor one religion over others. No branch of government can collectively favor. Belief over nonbelief. So we. Church state separationists are the benevolent ones in this struggle. We’re saying we’re all equal before the law. But the religious right is saying no government can favor belief collectively over nonbelief. So what the religious right is saying is that the religion clauses of the First Amendment allow a form of second class citizenship for the nonbeliever, whereas we take the benevolent, magnanimous posture that church state separation is to ensure the equality of everybody, regardless of our viewpoint on how the universe is put together.
Well, let’s take a let’s go back and look at the First Amendment a little bit here and talk about what the ideas were that brought it in to what what were the antecedents of the First Amendment?
Well, what happened is that the framers and the primary architect of the First Amendment, the primary author was James Madison, and his main influence was Thomas Jefferson. So though Jefferson didn’t write the First Amendment, he was the main influence on the author of it. And historians do not dispute that the two of them held views that were identical on church state separation. So we can cross attribute the attitudes of each one to the other. Madison, four years before drafting what was to become the First Amendment, opposed an assessment to benefit all clergy. In his native Virginia. And for those who say that the First Amendment or the United States Constitution not only doesn’t mandate church state separation, it was designed to have a Christian nation. Look at what the principal author of the First Amendment wrote in 1785 during almost 15 centuries. Has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial? Would have been its fruits more or less in all places. Pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and civility in the laity, in both superstition, bigotry and persecution. Then a year later, when Jefferson was in Paris, Madison pushed through the Virginia legislature. His and Jefferson’s bill for.
Religious liberty and.
The main purpose of that was to protect everyone. In fact, later on in 1821, Jefferson exulted in his autobiography that the statute that he and Madison got through the Virginia legislature so many years ago. Protected everyone, including the infidel of every denomination, that he would even say that was revolutionary for its time, and Madison wrote to Jefferson after the passage of the Virginia statute. And said that this bill has extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws to contain the human mind. The one thing which is the most dominant theme in the creation of the First Amendment is protecting the rights of conscience. Even though the record is somewhat sparse of the debates in the House and Senate, there is remarkable history from what Jefferson and Madison wrote and from even the debates in the House and Senate, that the protection of the rights of conscience of everyone were uppermost. For instance, when Madison had the First Amendment in its initial form, which essentially was that government but not abridge civil rights of anyone because of religious belief or worship. And in the House debates, Representative Daniel Carol. Who was one of the signers of the original constitution said the rights of conscience are in their nature of such peculiar delicacy that they would little bear the gentlest touch of government hand. So that shows that the concern of everybody was making sure there was no government coercion to believe or not believe. So therefore, you cannot intend for there to be no coercion to believe or not believe unless government was mandated to treat everybody equally.
Well, it seems that the so the language in this earlier draft was even a little bit more explicit about that than the eventual.
Well, the eventual was actually stronger. By the language of the Times now Madison introduced the original draft of the First Amendment. In the summer of 1789, but proof that his intent was that the religion clauses would protect US nonbelievers equally is what he wrote in October of 1788, just about eight months before to Jefferson. He expressed concern that people would deny infidels the right to hold office and once again that the general public would substantially narrow the rights of conscience if given the chance. So there’s no way that Madison could have entered into the crafting of the First Amendment with the intent to allow government to favor belief over nonbelief.
And this is this is your message to the originalists.
So, yes, absolutely. That I do now. Another message to the originalists who say that the First Amendment allows government to favor religion generally over nonbelief. Is that on September 3rd of 1789, when what was to become the First Amendment was in the hands of the Senate? The Senate twice considered language that would have done just that and rejected it. One proposal said no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to any other than the others said no law establishing any particular denomination or religion in preference to any other. If all the establishment clause of the First Amendment was supposed to mean is that government just can’t favor one religion over others but can favor religion collectively against nonbelief. One of those two wordings would have been adopt. OK. Right. And then in September of 1789, Madison. Chaired the joint House and Senate Conference Committee. And the final wording was no law respecting an establishment of religion, no law even showing respect to an establishment of religion. And to show you what Madison had in mind later on in his detached memorandum, he had misgivings about religious organizations holding property. He opposed a chaplaincy for Congress. Jefferson, as president, refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations because he felt they were a religious exercise that even sounded too religious.
And then since we can attribute.
Attitudes of Jefferson and Madison to each other because their views were identical when it came to church state separation. We look at what Jefferson wrote in his notes on Virginia in the seventeen eighty seven publication of that, the only book Jefferson ever wrote. And once again we see the consistent theme that has never dropped for one moment during this entire process, which is the protection of the equal rights of conscience of everyone. Jefferson wrote, The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as our injurious to others. But it does mean no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Jefferson in 1823.
Closer to the end of his life, Jefferson, the retired third president of the United States, wrote to John Adams, the retired second president of the United States, and said about God of the nature of this being, we know nothing, and about the claim that Christianity is true. Third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson wrote the second president in United States, John Adams, April 11th, 1823, and the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva. In the brain of Jupiter. So Jefferson was saying the notion of the virgin birth is as mythological as anything you find in Greek and Roman mythology.
Right. And all us atheists know about the Jefferson Bible as well. Right. So I talk about that for just to say Jefferson Bible.
I’m glad you mentioned that is where Jefferson rewrote the Bible but took out all claims of miracle or supernatural events.
So basically, he wanted to divest the Bible of all miracle claims. Also to give you their feelings. Toward conventional religious doctrine.
And to demonstrate that there is no way that Jefferson and Madison wanted to enact Christianity, they were both desists, primarily Jefferson, who believed in a mechanistic God who may have jumpstarted the universe but then took an eternal coffee break. Right. And neither of them believed in a DHT that concerned itself with the affairs of people, which meant that neither of them would have wanted government to mandate prayer because they didn’t believe prayer would be answered, would they?
They wouldn’t have even called themselves Christians.
Or probably not. They call themselves desists. And they couldn’t have call in if they called themselves Christians.
It would have been in a secular sense of seeing Jesus as a great moral teacher. Right. But not as someone divine. So. Someone can be a Christian. In the sense that someone can be a Marxist, you might hang on the founders, every word, which you don’t think the founder is divine or infallible.
The notion for those who call this a Christian nation is an extraordinary misnomer because two of the key founders of the nation were decidedly not big followers or believers in the definitive Jesus.
Exactly. And to give you another example. On January 17th of 1825. Jefferson wrote to General Alexander Smith, totally disparaging the Book of Revelation. You cannot be.
A believer in Christian supernaturalism and reject the Book of Revelation. And Jefferson referring to some of the things in that book, and I have to say that whoever wrote the Book of Revelation must have been smoking the best stuff they had available in the Middle East at that time. Creatures emerging from the Earth with the sting of a scorpion.
Breastplates. It’s like Noah’s deeds, her hair of a lion.
Anyway, Jefferson said about the Book of Revelation. It’s merely the ravings of a lunatic. No more worthy or capable of explanation than the incoherence of our nightly dreams.
Right. So that’s that’s not a quote you would hear in a modern evangelical church.
And for Madison later on to have misgivings about religious institutions holding property.
That’s not something you would hear today either. So there is every reason to believe that the founders intended.
Believers and nonbelievers to be equal before the law and wanted to deprive the government of the opportunity and the power to favorable leaf over nonbelief. Then another sort of gushed stalled overview is the entire Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, were meant as a restraint on government. Not as an empowerment of. It was meant to reduce the power of government over the people rather than expand it. So this would not be consistent with empowering a government to play favorites among people because of their theological beliefs or lack thereof.
Something. Former Justice led Justice Antonin Scalia would have disagreed with Scalia said some pretty radical things about favoring believers over nonbelievers.
Well, the worst thing that Scalia said was in a 2005 dissent from when the court luckily.
Still had a majority to strike down the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky classrooms. And what Scalia wrote. That the establishment clause permits the disregard of polytheists and believers and unconcerned dieties, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists. Well, if the First Amendment, the establishment clause permits the disregard of devout atheist, how far does that go? Does that mean that we atheists have no constitutional right to avoid discrimination? If a bank does business with the general public, refuses to give us a home loan because we’re an atheist? If the owner of a restaurant who seats members of the general public at the lunch counter refuses to seat atheists, and what does that remind us of? Yeah, if that happens. Do we have no recourse?
Also, Scalia went further in saying not only could we atheists be disregarded, but so could polytheists, which meant that Hindus and Buddhists but be excluded. And the disregard of unconcerned believers and unconcerned deities was a direct attack on Jesus like Jefferson. So it seemed that only those who believe those religions that assert a single monotheistic deity would be within the orbit of Scalia’s constitutional protection.
So what kind of mental gymnastics does Scalia? Did Scalia have to go through to read the First Amendment and let that come out of his mouth?
Well, he violated his own concern with originalism because. The history showing the original intent, particularly of Madison, the principal author, is very clear, remarkably clear.
The worst construction on the First Amendment is given to us by Justice Clarence Thomas, who takes the view that if all the Bill of Rights, the establishment clause, is the only one that doesn’t apply to the states but exists for the sole purpose, he completely warps this for the sole purpose of preventing the federal government from interfering in a state’s desire to have an official religion. So Thomas takes the very perverse view that the establishment clause does not stop. State government from Disfavoring Nonbeliever’s, the establishment clause stops the federal government from preventing a state from having an official church if it wants one.
Though the state of Maryland could become officially Catholic, but the U.S. government couldn’t become officially anything that would be more or less what it would come down to mean.
Wow. And it I mean, certainly. It means that in the New York legislature, you could have a pitched battle between Catholics, Orthodox, conservative and reform Jews over which would be the official religion.
And what would I mean, what would stop even smaller jurisdictions within states from doing that?
This is you know, this is a has seen a town that that’s a Muslim town. This is a whatever.
In the Grumet case in 1994, the Supreme Court luckily struck down a New York statute which allowed a certain branch of Hasidic Jews to have their own officially government recognized school district.
It’s not just potentially favoring evangelical Christians.
It could favor any group in the majority in a certain area.
Now, in addition to the Supreme Court, Jim. We have a very, very bad and powerful enemy in Trump’s attorney general, William Barr.
Couple months ago, he gave a speech at Notre Dame where he blamed all the nation’s problems on secularism and secular people dance like Pat Roberts.
Yeah, he was actually taking the position that you can’t have any morality based on secular values and that morality must ensue from the Bible.
In the Bible, God commands Moses’s armies with a certain tribe. The book of numbers to kill all the non virgins in the tribe being invaded and to forcibly take the virgins for themselves. God also. Sense of flood that destroys everyone, including innocent children in the Old Testament, God orders the Old Testament, God’s armies to kill every last. Woman and child in certain tribes being invaded and animals in some case, yes, too. So how do we derive morality from that? And then in the New Testament, the biblical God says that regardless of how good you are, unless you believe in the right theology, you are tortured for ever. So how do we derive morality from that? How do we derive morality from a book that mandates the inferiority of women? With respect to men agenesis three. The husband shall rule over the wife in the New Testament. St. Paul woman should not speak in the church, but ask her husband later. Also, the slaves should be obedient to the master. With all of this, where does the attorney general derive a superior morality for a modern nation from these ancient, barbaric texts?
We. Have to talk about.
The unforgivably immense power that certain religious institutions have not withstanding the worst conduct and scandals in history. For instance, today on the News.
It said that of the 60 million euros raised to help the poor by the Catholic Church in Europe, most of it went to help the Vatican with its debt.
And that this was misleading those who contributed. But my question is, who would even give 60 million euros to a religious institution that has the worst record of institutional child rape in human history? Right. And who would give. All that money and power to an institution in which. A group of men only with no women choose one among themselves. And then the claim is that the one chosen speaks more infallibly for the ultimate force in the universe than any other human alive.
That institution has all this power. Also, given that global overpopulation is one of the most serious environmental threats to the planet. Why, in addition to all its abuse and scandals, do people continue to support the church and provided with so much wealth when it is the number one institutional opponent of family planning in the world?
Yeah, and especially in places like Mexico who in certain areas are having huge. Mexico City is one of the most overcrowded places in the world.
What this shows us. That there is a need. At least in the United States, as far as we can for government to be neutral, again, as I said at the beginning, in the battle over church state separation, we, the church state separationists are the ones adopting the magnanimous.
We take the view that everybody should be equal before the law. Regardless what they believe.
We’re not a religious shut anyone down. Right. The religious right believes that government should be able to favor only those who believe in a definable deity.
So what’s the what’s what’s next with the Supreme Court? I mean, very bad things. Yeah. What do you see happening?
I see a lot of very bad things happening now that Kavanaugh replaced Justice Kennedy. A year before the president picked cabinet for the Supreme Court.
Cavanaugh extolled former Chief Justice Rehnquist. For Rehnquist’s opposition to church status. Kavanagh is so extreme. Many times you see the religious right, the fundamentalist Protestants, supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but they didn’t realize that in the 2008 case of Navy chaplaincy see a full gospel church versus United States Navy.
Cavanaugh authored an opinion allowing the Navy to give a greater the branch of government, mind you, to give greater benefits to retired Catholic Church clergy than Protestant clergy.
So the way to start a war even among religious.
And and then those wars happened before the Catholic Protestant is what got some of the early cases going in the first place, like prayer in schools happened because some people wanted a Catholic prayer and someone at a Protestant prayer. And it was easier just to say no prayers at all than to have that discussion.
But by the time that the Bible reading and the prayer in school cases got to the Supreme Court in 62 and 63 respectively, the issue was over prayer and Bible reading itself.
You cannot say that any worshiping of a DHT or reading scripture as if it were authoritative is not a religious act. It definitely is one of the. First, liberties to fall. The way things are going appears to be abortion rights. It appears that this court does have five votes to overturn Roe versus Wade, which means that. Ever since January 22nd, 1973. A woman’s constitutional right to determine the course of a pregnancy was hers. Now it will be given to state legislatures and Congress. So. Overturning of abortion rights. The allowing. Of primarily religious motivated legislators. Do Brak ban a woman’s control over a process unfolding in her body? Will be, I think, the first major cataclysm then, even though Trump claim that he supported same sex marriage.
I think that we’re going to see the possible loss of the Ogura foot Goodfellow case from 2015 recognizing a constitutional right of same sex.
I also believe and again, this will be the most lobal profound threat. That there will be a. Reversal. Of the nineteen forty seven Everson case, where the court said for the first time definitively that no branch of government can favor belief over nonbelief. There will be a new opinion allowing government to favor belief generally over nonbelief. And there will be no way for us to know.
How far that goes? I mean, certainly. To say that you and I.
Can be disfavored by our branches of government because we don’t believe in a supernatural being. Where does it end? Does it only mean that we’ll have to endure? Government religious symbols on public property. Or does it mean that if a state passes a law saying that known atheists can’t testify in court, that that would be upheld?
In the case of gay rights, this had real world consequences about visitation and hospitals and death benefits and all sorts of things that directly affected people’s lives.
When I wrote the brief for CFI in 2007 in the first same sex marriage case that came before the California Supreme Court. What I told the justices was that confining marriage to heterosexuals alone is a church state separation violation because it is the enactment of a religious doctrine into law, a religious right.
Yes, a the notion that marriage should be confined to only heterosexuals is not a secular notion. It is a religious one. And so what it does is it not only impermissibly favors belief over one belief, it also, as I told the California Supreme Court. Violates the prohibition against favoring one religious view over others, because there are some religions that favor same sex.
So the violation is complete all the way around.
Both for if Roe v. Wade and anything else, it exists. Upholding secular people’s rights on a national level. If they are overturned by this court. Individual states will have to enact their own laws and we’ll have this patchwork. Is that what you see happening for abortion rights and gay rights?
Worse than that, the state legislatures have the most religion promoting. Members even more than Congress. You take legislatures in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, even Ohio. Now. A measure was introduced. In the Ohio state legislature.
That is from the standpoint of.
Church, state separation, secular freedoms and even empirical science. The most outlandish bill we’ve ever seen, it requires that a doctor.
Who removes an embryo?
An ectopic pregnancy from a fallopian tube which has to be removed. Tries to reimplanted the pregnancy in the uterus, which is medically impossible.
And physicians who don’t attempt this could be charged with murder of the embryo now deemed a human being. So not only does it require embryos to be treated as fully formed human beings. It requires doctors to do something which is physically impossible to accomplish.
And that then the whole idea behind that is purely a religiously based idea that it is because even if some people believe that there are questions of personhood in later pregnancy and if there is controversy over third trimester abortions on the rare occasion when they might occur. Certainly the notion that an embryo that is implanted on the fallopian tube is the equivalent of a full person is religious. Now, what this also means if such a law is upheld.
Governments will be able to deem life to begin at fertilization. Now, we used to have some anti-abortion people like the otherwise liberal Republican senator from Oregon, Mark O. Hatfield, who claimed that life began when the fertilized egg was implanted in the uterus, so that. Abortion should be prohibited from then on. But. Methods of contraception that prevent implantation, like certain pills or the IUD, should be permitted. But when you take the view like it does in the proposed Ohio law, that life begins at fertilization. You can’t have the morning after pill. You can’t have IUD. And you can’t have any method of contraception other than berrier methods, because if anything dissolves an already fertilized egg, it’ll be considered killing a person.
You mentioned the sort of inherent sexism in the Bible. How is that contributing to these laws being made? I mean, these legislatures, national and statewide, are a majority of men. There are a majority of Christian men and it’s influencing all these laws that have to do with women.
If there could be in a given state.
A definitive threat that’s credible that any legislator.
Who supports anti reproductive freedom laws would be defeated. At the polls and not reelected, we wouldn’t see those laws introduce. So if women voted in their full numbers. If secular minded people and moderate religious. And even fundamentalist religious people. Who believe in church state separation. Now the latter. I know a lot of our listeners are friends. Center for Inquiry in the Movement. Can’t even remember the letter. I do. Before the religious right took over. The Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. The Southern Baptist Convention, who were fundamentalists, were led by liberal Baptists. Such as Jimmy Alan.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who believed in soul freedom. They believed that.
Notwithstanding their fervent conviction that certain attitudes were necessary for salvation, that it should not be legislated by the civil authority that could separate their beliefs from right in.
In fact. It used to be.
That until the nineteen seventy nine coup of the rise of the religious right. Beginning with the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, that the emphasis up to then by traditional Southern Baptists. As opposed to maybe, let’s say, a generalized Baptist like Billy Graham, who had always harbored antipathy toward church state separation. But the Southern Baptist Convention itself always asserted what they called the soul freedom, the right of the individual to choose without government coercion. So if we could see a restoration of even more traditionally religious people who don’t want government to impose their views, moderate religious people, women, and then those of us who are nonreligious, we might be able to defeat such laws. But as long as members of a state legislature. And rightfully, unfortunately, count numbers and realize that pushing. Religious dogma inspired legislation will help them get reelected. There’s no reason for them to stay.
I think that’s a great place to end it. That’s the recipe for a truly secular nation with a separation of religion and government. Eddie Tarboosh, thank you for being here. And I’m sorry you were you made this prediction years ago. I don’t believe in psychic powers, but you are right. This the Supreme Court is here, and I hope what you just said helps us get out of it and bring us to better days.
Thank you for having.
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