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24th National Convention

Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, opened the organization's 24th National Convention in Washington, D.C. to a packed audience at the Crystall City Hyatt-Regency Hotel. Ms. Johnson first outlined the situation concerning the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hair and emphasized the organization's active role in legal proceedings to recover missing funds taken by Jon Murray. She pledged a continued effort in also reaching out for new members, and drawing former members back into the organization.

Ms. Johnson then moved on to discuss what American Atheists is doing nationwide. She discussed our efforts to build a full-time presence "inside the beltway," by establishing our Washington, D.C. office, with Mr. Robert Zauner as our National Legislative Director. She also announced the goal of having State Directors in every state of the union by the end of next year, to create "eyes, ears and an articulate activist presence for speaking out on First Amendment issues."

DR. WILLIAM PROVINE, Cornell University Professor, addressed the convention on the theological concept of "free will." He began with a detailed discussion on recent developments in evolutionary biology as formulated by Charles Darwin. He noted that the idea of a universe created by a deity - "intelligent design" - was refuted by the findings of science, specifically the doctrine of natural selection.

Provine asseted that "when you're dead, you're dead," and that in looking at life from an evolutionary perspective, one sees that there is no ultimate, absolute reference in formulating an ethical system. "No, human beings on this planet are alone, and we exist in a world which was made by processes that don't care one whit about us... we live in a universe that will probably continue to expand for some time, then contract."

"The meaning we seek in our lives cannot be ultimate meaning, but a meaning which we create."

Dr. Provine then continued that "free will is a terrible cultural myth." He added that "Giving up the idea of God is great for a rational mind."

Provine also made a strong plea for competing viewpoints to be aired throughout the academy, and society; he called upon Atheists to actively debate creationists. "Some of my best friends are creationists, and they like me, because they know I want to see their ideas presented and contested in class."

RICHARD ANDREWS followed with a lecture on the life and works of Atheist novelist-historian Vardis Fisher. For many years, Mr. Andrews was a personal friend of Opal Fisher, Vardis Fisher's wife.

Fisher wrote 36 novels, and was compared favorably with his good friend Thomas Wolfe. His most recognized work was "Mountain Men" which served as the basis of the film "Jeremiah Johnson." Another was "Children of God," which tracked the history of the early Mormon pioneers, from their migration from the west through the settlement in Utah. Read internationally, "Children of God" won the prestigious Harper Prize. Mr. Andrews noted, "During the depression two books were read widely throughout the country. One was Seinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," the other was 'Children of God'."

Fisher also penned "Mothers," a story about the infamous Donner Party, and "Tale of Valor" which was about the Louis and Clark expedition, and other novels dealing mostly with the American west.

"But the problem with Fisher was that he was an Atheist," said Andrews. "He wrote a 12-volume 'TESTMENT OF MAN' series which doomed him."

In his autobiography "Tiger on the Road," Fisher wrote that "people would sooner face a Tiger on the Road than face the truth." He noted that his TESTAMENT OF MAN series often divided critics and readers alike, and that people often told him that he was wasting time concentrating on scholarly works and histories of the past. "Fisher didn't write TESTAMENT OF MAN for the public," Mr. Andrews noted. "He wrote it for the ages."

"Imitations Of Eve," was certainly one of Fisher's most controversial, his history of the matriarchal impulses in early human society. Fisher followed that with "The Divine Passion," detailing the rise of patriarchy and the worship of the male-principled Sun god.

"Peace Like A River" also touched upon the subject of women and religion, focusing on Christian asceticism. Fisher continued this with works detailing the pagan origins of Christianity.

In "Jesus Came Again," Fisher hypothesized a time without Jesus, but with a messiah-like figure. This novel got Fisher into trouble with his publisher, who feared that the criticism of Christian values was not appropriate to the time of the cold war.

In "My Holy Satan," Fisher discussed the vivid horrors of the Inquisition. "Orphans of Gethsemane" was meant to confront western society's unwholesome fixation with Judeo-Christian values, and to underscore the author's opposition to war. Mr. Andrews considers this work to be semi-autobiographical, Fisher's musings on his own life and subjects of personal interest.

Fisher was denied many grants and other forms of recognition because of his controversial writings. Publishers considered him a bad financial risk, and some feared his works as profane, underming the traditional views concerning the sanctity of religious belief.

But Fisher's works managed to survive, and were read by many in the academic and ntelectul community. At the time of his death, the Mormon church attempted to claim Fisher as one of their own, appropriating his history as a writer, and citing his alleged deep Mormon roots. This happened despite Fisher's less-than-flattering view of the religion founded by Joseph Smith. At the end of life, Fisher was certainly a maverick.

The attempts by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to coopt Fisher infuriated his wife, Opal. She denounced the selective and biased articles which appeared in Church publications which attempted to render the novelist as being sympathetic with the Mormon teachings. "She could not believe that the Church officials could be so 'stupid' as to attempt to claim Vardis Fisher, an Atheist, as one of their own" added Richard Andrews.He cited Fisher's columns which appeared for years in THE IDAHO STATESMAN, such as editorials questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Mr. Andrews called for an effort to ensure that Fisher's works are brought back into print, and suggested that historical fiction can ofen have a profound impact on a culture.


The morning convention session closed with a debate covered by C-SPAN, CBN, CNN and other news media, between Steve McFarland of the Christian Legal Society and Ron Barrier, National Spokesperson for American Atheists.The topic was: "Is a Religious Freedom Amendment necessary for the United States?"

Mr. Barrier, winning a coin toss, made the first remarks. He quoted the writer and observer DeToqueville who in his work "Democracy of America," praised the "complete separation of church and state."

Mr. McFarland said that an amendment was necessary, arguing that religious speech was in need of protection, and that the free exercise of religion was important to the majority of the population.

With the introductory remarks made, Mr. Barrier inquired of Mr. McFarland "What religious practices would have the government protect?" McFarland cited one example which he considered the most glaring example of a need for the RFA, zoning requests by churches and other religious groups.

Mr. McFarland expressed support for the Equal Access Act. That act requires school districts which receive federal aid to permit religious groups to freely organize and meet, if other non-curriculum related groups have that right. But Mr. Barrier mused that "we're heading toward a society with a two-tier system of justice, one for religious groups, another for all others.

Mr. McFarland then stated that religion was the important value in his own life, and for the health of society. Ron Barrier, in response to a question, then cited the need for all to have rights in expressing their respective opinions, and praised the idea of both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. He added that American Atheists has always supported "legitimate" classes in topics such as comparative religion. "Let children be exposed to ALL of the varying views..."

McFarland and Barrier both agreed that compulsory indoctrination in class rooms was wrong. Mr. McFarlnd added that he distinguished between such mandatory instruction, and student-initiated clubs or organization. Barrier then pointed out that there are already 350,000 churches, temples and mosques throughout the country where religious people could worship as they see fit. But McFarland then argued for student-initiated prayer at graduation ceremonies; and he distinguished between a "subsidy" for religion and the status of religious groups as being tax exempt.

In the question period, Mr. McFarland defended the concept of religious neutrality, and affirmed the right of churches to discriminate in employment practices. He did agree, though, that the government had a legitimate interest in protecting society and individuals from possible abuses of religious exercise; "you have the right be make yourself a martyr, but you don't have the right to make a martyr of your child."

In closing remarks, Mr. McFarland repeated his claim that the free exercise of religion needed protection since it was a bedrock for American society, and needed protection as deemed by the Founders. "That kind of watchdog required not preference by the government, but a policy of 'hands-off'" He also saw this policy as vital to the flourishing of what he termed "a civic morality that is the presupposition of our society."

McFarland then delineated the points of the new Religious Liberty Protection Act which was introduced in the congress last Tuesday; it has certain differences when compared to the Religious Freedom Amendment that was turned down in the House of Representatives. He also called for passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which has been passed in Florida and Illinois.

Mr. Barrier retorted that the First Amendment has worked well in generally protecting rights of religious groups, and expressed skepticism about the need to amend the U.S. Constitution. "I would hope that debate we have had today will be a bridge in more communication between believers and nonbelievers."

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