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September 10, 2020

The Cowtown Regional Atheist Meet was held on Sunday, September 10 at the beautiful Renaissance Worthington Hotel in Ft. Worth, Texas. Conference visitors had a full day of interesting talks covering everything from Atheist and state-church activism to the paranormal, and the history of freethought.

Kudos to Dick Hogan, Randall Gorman, and John and Shelly Hattan of the Metroplex Atheists. Congratulations, also, to Shelly for becoming the new Texas State Director for American Atheists!

Dick Hogan welcomed everyone to the Regional Atheist Meet, and underscored the need for Atheists to become active.

Randall Gorman talked about his activities which has included picketing religious events and unconstitutional religious displays throughout the area. Mr. Gorman told conferees that “whenever religious groups put themselves out in the public square, they are fair game for protest and criticism. It’s what is known as free speech.” Randall discussed state-church violations in the Dallas- Ft. Worth area, such as the official sponsorship of an Interfaith Conference by the City of Ft. Worth. He noted that the mayor even opened the conference by leading those present in a Christian prayer. Mr. Gorman also mentioned the use of public money from the outgoing Tarrant County Sheriff, who has raided jail commissary funds to finance a prison religious ministry.

John Hattan of Metroplex Atheists spoke about that group’s recent activities, beginning with the “Save Our Constitution” rally held last fall to protest “prayer disruptions” at high school football games. Other demonstrations focused on the National Day of Prayer, which John aptly dubbed The National Browbeat Your Legislators Into Endorsing Your Color of Evangelical Protestantism. He noted that 49 of fifty governors throughout the nation endorsed the NDOP event, with only Jesse Ventura demonstrating the courage to abstain.

Shelly Hattan, new Texas State Director for American Atheists, then spoke about the flap over Ten Commandment book covers being distributed in the local public school system. Shelly and the group immediately jumped on this issue coming out with their own covers, and demanding “equal access” from officials. The district ignored their plea until Metroplex Atheists issued a press release on the matter; within hours of the story hitting the wires, the district relented. Covers were distributed as various schools, and there was a range of reaction from different principals.

Ms. Hattan also talked about the group’s various projects, including participation last month in the protest against the discriminatory admissions policy of the Boy Scouts of America. One favorite protest sign was DO YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN GOD TO LEARN HOW TO TIE A KNOT?

Shelly and John also discussed what they have done right as activists, and what needs to be improved.

Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists spoke next and presented a brief history of American Atheists beginning with the historic 1963 school prayer case in MURRAY v. CURLETT. She talked about the travails the Murray family endured as a result of their outspoken opposition to coercive public religion, including harassment, police beatings, legal and other threats, and finally being (literally) run out of Baltimore, Maryland. For several years, the Murrays traveled -- always with the threat of legal extradition hanging over their heads -- first to Hawaii, then Mexico where Mrs. Murray obtained a teaching job. When the legal charges were dropped, the Murray-O’Hairs crossed back into the United States and settled in Austin, Texas. There, they gradually re-built the Atheist organization they had established and lost back in Baltimore. In the process, they achieved a number of historic “firsts,” including yearly conventions; the establishment of a permanent archive of Atheist books, pamphlets, videos and other materials; the American Atheist Radio Series; the American Atheists TV Forum; a press for the production of books and other materials; a membership organization; a legal arm for state-church litigation, and much more.

Ms. Johnson urged everyone present, including those who for any reason might not agree with the “style” of American Atheists, to nevertheless become active in the process of formulating public policy.

Roahn Wynar gave the first of two delightful and informative presentations about Atheism, reason and pseudoscience. He noted that pseudoscience is popular today and “dominates the culture” because “Science is not the thing out there for everyone to look at...”

He discussed several reasons why we should worry about this cultural predicament. He noted that the contemporary fascination with pseudoscience tends to displace news about “real science” in the media, has a negative impact on public support for science, and is a financial drain which often can destroy families and present health hazards. He then listed “warning signs” which indicate when a form of pseudoscience is being presented. Purveyors of pseudoscience:

  • Rely on the presentation of “factoids” and anecdotal evidence
  • Show an indifference to valid criteria of evidence.
  • Rely on publicizing a quantity of experiences rather than some kind of verifiable evidence
  • Often employ conspiratorial claims and language. “The government doesn’t want you to know this...”

Pseudoscience, unlike legitimate science, does not progress. Mystery is a permanent feature. Whereas the accumulated body of scientific knowledge increases, pseudoscientific information does not. Pseudoscience also invents a vocabulary which appropriates scientific language, but without using the methodology of science.

In his second talk, Mr. Wynar -- a graduate research assistant in Physics at the University of Texas -- discussed how many pseudoscience themes appear to originate from the science fiction literary genre. Items of belief such as matter transmitters, ESP, lost civilizations, “vibrations,” parallel worlds, invisibility, time travel and more all can be found in that style of writing. He also discussed quack claims in the field of health. Contrasting quackery with legitimate medicine, he noted:

• Real medicine often involves scary, painful treatment with side effects. Quacks claim gentle, trivial regimens which “always help,” and never supposedly fail.

• Authentic medicine has to employ complex models using physiology, chemistry, biology and much more. Quackery involves vague, easy to grasp models without verifiable evidence. As a result, quacks use esoteric tools, magical devices, and emphasize soothing personal contacts.

• Quacks position themselves as the “underdog” in a conspiratorial scenario where they are combating a medical or scientific establishment

Dr. Fred Whitehead, former Professor at the University of Kansas, and noted author and historian spoke on “Freethought and the American Frontier.” This began with a discussion of the Indian uprisings at Acuma Pueblo, suggesting the early roots of religious conflict in the New World and the forced proselytizing of the original inhabitants by the Spanish. He then talked about interesting early utopian experiments including the New Harmony community established by Robert Owen, Scottish industrialist. Other interesting characters who were frontier freethinkers included “Pitchfork” Smith, an outspoken writer, publisher and agitator.

Dr. Whitehead also touched upon the Civil War period of American history, and noted how General Sherman, General (and later President) Grant, and others were deists or skeptical of Christian religion. He pointed out that freethinkers had played a vital role in pivotal events in the American experience. Other topics included the German migration to the American Midwest, with its heavy influence of Hegelian and freethinker ideologies. Other residue of atheist, heretical and freethought impulses are found on everything from public monuments (such as the “Naked Truth” statue at Compton Hill Reservoir in St. Louis) to tombstones which boast quotes from Ingersoll, or stone replicas of philosophical tomes by Voltaire and other intellectual luminaries.

Dallas attorney Windle Turley spoke about his legal efforts on behalf of children and others who have been victims of child abuse. Turley, one of the nation’s leading trial lawyers, obtained a multi-million dollar judgment against the Roman Catholic Church in Texas in respect to a case involving a paedophile priest. He currently represents dozens of plaintiffs in a suit against the Hare Krishna sect, and regaled the RAM audience with the horrific stories of sexual abuse, physical violence, harassment and mental torture inflicted upon these young victims. Turley thinks that there are over a thousand such victims today who were part of the sect’s “Gurukulas” or school system which involved little in the way of useful education, and emphasized mostly religious indoctrination and chanting.

Mr. Turley suggested that these allegations constitute an important test of how the judicial system will balance the free exercise of religion with the rights of youngsters. How far can parents (who often lost the control over the education of their offspring by turning them over to the sect) and religious leaders go in justifying their brutal treatment, suggesting that it is protected under the mantle of First Amendment freedom?

Turley said that he has three goals in this current case: seeking “validation” for the victims of the abuse to assure them that the punishment they received was uncalled for, arbitrary and not in response to any actions they may have carried out; money for their schooling, training and mainstreaming into secular society, even psychotherapy; and “have this and other institutions take heed of the consequences of such abusive acts...”

Turley pointed out that many of the youngsters -- now grown adults -- lack basic, everyday skills in interacting with others, obtaining useful employment and exercising other social behaviors. Some have committed suicide, frustrated by their inability to navigate the larger culture.

Writer and investigative reporter P.A. Humphrey spoke on the situation in Tarrant County, Texas, and outgoing sheriff David Williams who used his law enforcement post to promote sectarian religion. Humphrey exposed Williams while at the Fort Worth Free Weekly alternative newspaper. Among the outrages: Williams persuaded Tarrant County officials to hire a full-time chaplain and expand the so-called “God Pod” within the county jail facility which uses a religion-based rehabilitation program. The “Chaplain’s Educational Unit” relied heavily on religious materials provided by the nearby ministry of television evangelist Kenneth Copeland.

The Sheriff signed a contract which runs past his own time in office for the “God Pod” minister. This individual works out of a private apartment with funds and resources (including phones and computers) from the County. The Sheriff also allegedly used his deputies and other public resources to organize a gathering at a nearby “Cathedral,” where local religious groups were rallying in his support. “Department employees had been instructed to grab their spouses, kids, and anyone else they could find and come on down to support the sheriff...” Humphrey wrote.

Fortunately, Sheriff Williams will be out of office in November, and both Republican and Democrat candidates for the post say they will have to spend “months cleaning up the mess” he left behind.

Conrad Goeringer, Associate Editor for the American Atheist Magazine spoke on “Charitable Choice, Faith-based Partnerships, and the public funding of religion.” Mr. Goeringer began by discussing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which included a section requiring faith-based groups now be included in considering contract awards for social service programs. He noted that this provision and other “partnership” schemes erodes the separation of church and state, by making it easier for sectarian groups to obtain public funding while still retaining their religious character and mission.

“We are on the verge of the largest transfer of wealth in American history between the public treasury and the coffers of sectarian religious groups,” said Goeringer.

He added that increasingly, what the public believes to be “religious charities” are, in fact, funded with public monies and have little or no effective oversight. Goeringer suggested that Atheists and other state-church separationists need to get involved in the public policy debate over charitable choice and partnership schemes.

Joe Zamecki in the book and registration room.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.