Theocracy Watch VI: Thoughts in Captivity

There have been many pieces of good news for atheists in November, and I’m happy to be able to report another one. As reported in the November issue of Freethought Today, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has done it again, winning a major victory against the creeping theocracy that is infiltrating our government due to the unconstitutional actions of the Bush administration.

Specifically, an FFRF legal challenge has persuaded the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to cancel its plans for five government-sponsored “single-faith” programs to be run in federal prisons. In March of this year, as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the government had planned to set aside cellblocks in as many as six federal prisons that would be reserved exclusively for prisoners who had agreed to undergo pre-release counseling by approved religious ministries.

In other words, in this program religious groups would be able to bid for government support, and the winners would receive taxpayer money to support proselytization toward a captive audience. In such a program, it would be highly likely that an inmate’s willingness to participate and to give assent to the religious group’s doctrines would affect the conditions of their release. There would be no guarantee that a given prison would have this program available to all faiths who wished to participate, and no guarantee that there would be a secular alternative. Indeed, it seems likely that there would not be one: according to people like David Kuo, this and other “faith-based initiatives” were created by the Bush administration as a way to preferentially funnel government money to conservative religious groups in exchange for votes, and members of review panels disbursing this money stated explicitly on some occasions that they intended to disregard applications from non-Christian groups.

No matter how it is viewed, it is clear that this program would be an egregious entanglement of church and state. The fact that it has been dropped is a resounding victory for friends of the First Amendment, and we should all be grateful to FFRF for their work.

A sample graphic from the Life Principles curriculum used in a New Mexico women’s prison. From Freethought Today, Nov. 2006.

The battle over religious establishment in prisons is not over, though. There are still “multi-faith” federal prison programs that are being challenged in court by the FFRF, as well as some truly glaring violations at the state level. One of the latter is the “Life Principles” program in a New Mexico women’s prison that is also the subject of an FFRF lawsuit. Solicited by the state, this program requires participants to participate in activities including extensive Bible memorization, community prayer, weekly evening services in addition to general prison chapel services, discussions of how the inmate’s “new purpose” in life is to “make disciples” and how they intend to achieve this, and mandatory participation in a graduation ceremony that includes hymn-singing and prayer. Inmates are coerced into attending this religious indoctrination by offers of a reduced sentence and reassignment to a different cellblock that is less crowded and has more amenities than are offered to the general prison population.

Worst of all, this program teaches not just a generically Christian viewpoint but an extreme fundamentalist and literalist viewpoint. Inmates are expected to attend courses where they answer questions such as, “Are rulers to execute God’s wrath?” (the correct answer is “yes”), “Can we resist God-given authority and still have a good conscience?” (no), and “Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?” (yes). This program, which is run in a women’s prison, also teaches the outdated and offensive view that women are inferior to men and should be obedient.

As with public schools, we must be especially vigilant in defending church-state separation in areas where a person’s participation is involuntary or coerced. Few Christian evangelist groups have such scruples, and to judge by their comments, many of them view government-sponsored prison-indoctrination programs as an excellent opportunity to force their views and beliefs on potential converts who have little ability to resist. But the purpose of prison is not as a factory for churning out more believers; it is to punish the guilty and teach them how to fit back into society. Thankfully, we have a Constitution that mandates a secular government, and its clear principles have turned back many unconstitutional attempts at religious establishment before. A wise judicial system will uphold that history and continue to ensure that, whatever the faiths of its citizens, America remains an officially religiously neutral nation.

Other posts in this series:

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Weekend Coffee: March 28
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jeromy

    Very nice post. Good graphics, too! While I normally prefer the woman on top, the depiction in your graphic will serve just as well as a change. That perverted little diatribe done….

    There are other people doing good in the name of atheism. In this video:

    …the nice man makes the evangelical atheist proud. Sorry, no real comment, I just wanted to share the video. Promise I’ll be more serious in the future ; )

  • andrea

    I find it amazingly pathetic that Christianity (because I think I’m pretty safe in that no other religion is trying this crap) has to hold people hostage and bribe people to mouth its nonsense, just like the chaplain who forced soldiers in Iraq to “convert” to get a moment in his “baptismal pool” when water was rationed everywhere else.

    The whole thing that “”Can we resist God-given authority and still have a good conscience?” (no), and “Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?” (yes).” is such a resounding affirmation that at least some Christians evidently think is just peachy to obey people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the instigators of the “Cultural Revolution” in China, etc. Just sick. But hey, it says it in the Bible, so they gotta go with it. Poor fools.

  • mac

    Hey, I am a christian but i am starting to have questions.
    can you explain in plain simple terms what you think is wrong with believing in god?

  • Ebonmuse

    Hello Mac,

    Welcome! There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. I hope I can help you find some answers you consider satisfactory, whatever those answers may be.

    I’m afraid I couldn’t do justice to the reasons why I’m an atheist in a single comment. However, it just so happens I have another site, Ebon Musings, devoted to that very topic. I recommend any of the Foundational Essays, especially “All Possible Worlds“, “One More Burning Bush“, and “Life of Wonder“. If you have any more specific questions, I’d be glad to address them, and I’m sure plenty of the commenters here will chime in as well.

  • Infophile

    Hey, I am a christian but i am starting to have questions.
    can you explain in plain simple terms what you think is wrong with believing in god?

    In short, I think it’s wrong to believe in a god because there’s no evidence for the existence of a god, and in light of this, the absense of gods is a much more plausible explanation. If you want a more detailed explanation of why there’s no evidence for a god, Ebonmuse’s essay, “One More Burning Bush,” linked above, is a good start.

    And, in anticipated reply to the complaint that absense of evidence isn’t evidence of absense: (taken from a post in my blog)

    That’s often true, but there is an important exceptional case: when it can be put into a Modus Tollens form. In this case, here’s what the argument looks like:

    If God exists as you describe him (A), and if we perform experiment B, we would get result C. (If A and B, then C.)

    We performed experiment B, and didn’t get result C. (B and not C)

    Not C implies not both A and B. Since B is true, A must false. No evidence was found for God’s existence, so this serves as evidence against it.

  • Alex Weaver

    I should add, pending a longer comment, that in philosophy and logic the burden of proof is inherently on the affirmative, and every claim defaults to false until established as true. It’s the principle at work when the defense in a trial doesn’t have to prove that the defendant didn’t commit the crime of which they stand accused; rather, the prosecution must prove that they did commit it. Similarly, we don’t have to prove that God’s existence is impossible in order for nonbelief to be justified; we merely need to demonstrate that those claiming he does exist have not made a convincing case. So far, they haven’t.

  • andrea

    IMO, believing in God requires an abandonment of responsbility which isn’t good. You become willing to blindly accept the bad because it’s “God’s Will” so you don’t do anything to change it. Just like the acceptance of evil people in power. The Bible says that God puts every person into power, no exceptions on the evil ones, and you have to obey them to be obedient to God.

  • Jeff T.

    I just read a couple of news articles concerning the Pope in Turkey and Al Sadr in Iraq. If those 2 are the representatives of a god—I would rather puke than pray. If those 2 told me that the earth revolved around the sun, I would seriously begin to question my telescope. If the ones professing god are made in his image, then we are screwed.
    Therefore, disbelief is the only logical conclusion—unless you give room for pity and a profound sadness.

  • Jeromy

    Mac: If you are having questions, all the answers are right there in your bible. The easiest way to become an atheist is to be raised catholic. Catholic schools not only urge students to read the bible, they actually force them. Through forced, but very careful study of the bible, I was able to conclude at a fairly young age that the whole thing is ridiculous. This is not a reflection on my education, which was very good, or a reflection of my attitude, which has always been a little crazy. Say what you will, a catholic education is a good education. A bit painful. But very, very good. Read your bible. All the way through. Twice.

  • Catholic Schools

    Mac, I think some people are not given a choice about whelther they believe in God. It’s drilled into them from a young age. I think that is why there was so many non practicing catholics in the world.