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Op-ed: Importance of freedom FROM religion

I don’t think anything could be more Appalachian than being an activist. I’m a volunteer activist on many fronts and, second only to my children, fiancee and the rest of my family and loved ones, I find activism to be the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my life. My climate and environmental forms of activism are particularly important in these dire times, but another form is at least equally important: my non-theist and secular activism.

As Assistant State Director in West Virginia for the national organization American Atheists, my journey to atheist Humanism is discussed in a piece in the American Atheist Magazine for the second quarter of 2021. It wasn’t a short journey. As a teen and young adult, I was a baptized member of a very conservative Christian church for several years. I took three elective courses in college on Christianity and Judaism: The Protestant Faith, Literature of the New Testament, and The Jewish Way of Life. For years I kept and read a study Bible that contained not only the 66 books of the best-known Old and New Testament Bible, but also the apocryphal or deuterocanonical texts (i.e. the Books of Maccabees). Christianity was part of who I was.

I can’t point to a precise moment when I started questioning and rethinking Christianity in particular or religion in general. Many things took place in many facets of my life that lead to this. Eventually, I decided that religion of any kind was not for me. I settled on atheist Humanism. I like to say that atheism represents what I am not (I’m not a theist or in any way a spiritual person), while Humanism represents what I am–I live my life in accordance with what are known as the Ten Commitments of Humanism. These Commitments, as defined by the American Humanist Association, are Altruism, Humility, Environmentalism, Global Awareness, Responsibility, Empathy, Critical Thinking, Ethical Development, Peace and Social Justice, and Service and Participation.

Everyone should be free from coercion, intimidation, and/or discrimination on the basis of religious belief or, critically, lack thereof. That’s one reason why I am a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the City of Parkersburg for its City Council’s unconstitutional prayer invocation practice at public meetings. I’m represented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and I sued three years ago because the Parkersburg City Council should not be leading the uniquely Christian Lord’s Prayer at public meetings, regardless of when the meeting is gaveled in or whether or not the public is compelled to participate (they are not, but indirect pressure to do so or be singled out is heavy).

I have also contacted FFRF regarding several issues in Wood County Schools where church/state separation in public, taxpayer-funded educational institutions was not being followed. FFRF wrote to the Superintendent of schools on more than one occasion at my request, calling for certain activities like captive audience prayer and the placing of biblical text on schools’ walls to cease. Ours is a secular constitutional democratic-republic and it is important that we maintain a strong wall of separation between church and state–a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson.

To that end, the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State has issued three “Know Your Rights” guides for public school students, parents and teachers. The “Know Your Rights” guides are available at www.au.org/knowyourrights and potential violations of religious freedom can be reported to Americans United at www.au.org/get-involved/report-a-violation/form. I encourage all parents and teachers to study these guides and share them with their children and students.

True freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, there’s no way around it. We cannot allow extremist culture warriors to strip us of our freedoms for the growth of their own wealth and influence. Speak out and stand strong for yourselves, your children, and our future.

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Eric Engle is assistant state director for Parkersburg for the national organization American Atheists.

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