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24th National Convention


The convention's afternoon session started off with a talk featuring Mr. James Monroe, attorney and representative for the Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS). SOS seeks to develop non-theistic alternatives to "faith based" recovery programs, and litigate in the field of prisoner's rights concerned religion-based therapies.

Mr. Monroe characterized SOS as a federation of autonomous groups stressing secularity as the basis of treatment programs. "We postulate religion or any religious values as a separate issue from the question of recovery from alcohol or other forms of addiction." He described the mission of the organization as one of empowerment for the individual.

But Monroe distinguished his group for those which work for "moderation management." The latter is antithetical to the SOS program which upholds abstinence from alcohol or drugs as a goal. Moderation programs, which Mr. Monroe questioned, claim that recovered alcoholics can "drink in moderation" and learn to manage their consumption of alcohol.

Mr. Monroe noted that contrary to the general public perception of the Alcoholics Anonymous program (which emphasizes a "belief in a higher power"), only about 5% of those entering the AA program and remaining in it are completely sober a year later. SOS emphasizes instead an ad hoc, individually program ("cognitive visual synchronization") where one pairs memories of past undesirable activities with a "daily affirmation," part of a larger "sobriety priority."

Monroe also noted that the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous go back to the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist Christian sect that often employed a literal translation of the Bible. He also cited apocryphal stories of AA members who reported that their dysfunctional, alcohol-based lifestyle was really "Jesus knocking at the door" or "Jesus warning me about my agnosticism or atheism..."

Another crucial distinction Monroe mentioned between AA and SOS is that the former believed that "addiction is the fault of the addicted." Monroe said that under SOS teachings, the power to overcome any addiction comes from within, not through the subordination to a "higher power."

Dr. Rita Swan was the next speaker. Swan is President of CHILD, Inc. ("Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty"), and a former member of the Christian Scientist group whose own child died from faith healing. The organization's purpose is to stop child abuse and neglect that is rationalized on religious grounds.

Ms. Swan holds a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University.

"While freedom of religion is a precious right, we affirm that religion should not confer the right to cause or allow injury to children," notes a CHILD brochure. More information on CHILD can be obtained through its web site at:

According to the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision PRINCE v. MASSACHUSETTS, 321U.S. 158 (1944),

"The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death... Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves..."

Writing in the April, 1998 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, Ms. Swan ("Child fatalities from religion-motivated medical neglect") reviewed 172 deaths of U.S. children in faith-healing sects and found that 140 were from conditions for which survival rates with medical care could have exceeded 90%.

Ms. Swan and her husband were both members of the Christian Science religion.

Research by CHILD has uncovered more than 20 religious sects and denominations which have a religious objection to medical intervention. The largest, by far, is the Christian Science denomination; it also does most of the lobbying for religious exemptions to medical care for youngsters. (She noted that today, five congressman are members of the sect.)

Medical care exemptions came about prior to legislation such as the RFRA, rather through the political process. Often, these exemptions are passed in legislatures with little or no opposition. Forty-eight states, for instance, provide for a religious exemption from vaccinations -- this despite medical problems, even deaths, in schools owned by these religious sects. Ironically, only Mississippi and Virginia do not provide such dispensations.

Cities such as Philadelphia and St. Louis have had outbreaks of measles centered on faith-groups which prohibit medical intervention. Deaths of children have been the result. Diphtheria, polio and other maladies have been found as well.

Other problem areas includes states which provide religious exemptions for testing of contagious disease in children, even California where an exemption exists in the administering of special eye drop medication to prevent blindness.

Forty one states provide religious exemptions concerning child abuse in the civil code; a thirty one have exemptions in the criminal code. Laws vary from state to state, however, and "reflect the banality of the political process."

Six states even have a religious exemption to certain homicide or manslaughter charges! In West Virginia, for instance, a parent may deny medical care to a child on the basis of religious belief, even if it results in death. Ironically, the law was passed in response to an incident where a child was being beaten by a father in a religious community; despite the public outreach, legislators specifically protected parents who withhold medical care for religious reasons.

"The church is not asking for the legal right to pray, but for the legal right to be an acceptable substitute for appropriate medical care," noted Ms. Swan.

She added that "The Christian Science church wants to be both a religion and a system of 'medical' practitioners." She cited the fact that church practitioners can sign legal documents such as disability statements and sick-leave forms, and bill for their services. "These statements are accepted in both government and private industry," noted Swan. The church also has people called "nurses," although they cannot and will not take a patient's temperature or provide medication. These "nurses" engage only in "prayer treatments" rather than medical intervention. "Their primary function is to encourage patients or parents to believe in Christian Science procedures." Both Medicare and Medicaid pay for such bogus "nurses" since these programs began in 1965. The practice had been challenged by CHILD, Inc., but a rider attached to an appropriations budget by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) provided government payments for "religious" treatments.

Swan pointed out that in our society, children are not empowered. "They don't vote, and they are often too few in number to disturb the notion that 'prayer is good medicine'." She added that the religious exemption from medical care for children reflects the insensitivity of legislators, and the lack of awareness even among child advocates. "It is a million times easier to stop a religious exemption proposal from becoming law than it is to repeal it after the fact..."

Neal Cary, National Outreach Director for American Atheists, conducted a workshop on political activism, and unveiled a new "Activist Handbook." This included sections on lobbying, media activism, organizational activism, and working on state-church separation issues.

Mr. Cary used Atheists to become involved in contacting legislators on state-church separation issues, and not be perceived as "threatening." Agree to disagree with a professional image, instead. And don't be afraid to speak out as an Atheist, or identify yourself in print as such.

Other points included the need to meet with legislators, take notes on what was discussed, and keep the national organization advised on the specific subjects which were discussed.

This was followed by a live taping of the ATHEIST VIEWPOINT television program, which is carried now on over 65 cable networks throughout the country. This program included the humorous "Soup to Nuts" segment, which highlights the more bizarre religion-oriented news. Chris Allen, Utah State Director for American Atheists, stepped onto te set to discuss the amusing situation in Salt Lake City. There, 8,500 delegates to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention are in town for a week of aggressive proselytizing and morning door-knocking in that predominately Mormon community.

Other news included hysteria in Taiwan over the alleged discovery of a tooth from Buddah; a statement by "fallen-Atheist" Bill Murray who offered to counsel the American Atheist Convention by providing a room of pastors for consultations; and a report appearing in a recent edition of the highly questionable "Weekly World News" about much-reported and often-anticipted End of the World.

Ron Barrier discussed recent apparitions of the Virgin Mary, including her image discovered in the mist of a convenience market freezer in New Jersey, and the "Lady of the Subway" -- an image in a urine or water stain in a Mexico City subway station.

Another interesting report concerned government officials in South Carolina who three years ago acted to end sex education and classes about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in schools. A new study, three years later, now indicates record levels of these diseases among youth. (Thank you, Mr. Governor!)

Still another claim in the WWN reported the find of the original Ten Commandments, personally inscribed by God and co-signed by Moses. (Does anyone REALLY believe this stuff?)

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