Back in April, I had the pleasure of meeting Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker. It was a fun evening consisting of a lecture on his newest book, Mere Morality, and a following book signing. At the event, there was a table where you could buy one of Barker’s books or pick up a copy of the FFRF’s periodical, Freethought Today. Also on the table were several “nontracts,” courtesy of the FFRF. Dan explained that if you’re familiar with the tracts that religious people tend to hand out, these are the same idea except… the opposite.
The FFRF has fourteen nontracts in total, and I now have five of them from the event. Today I’d like to go through them and find out what a nontract might say. Do they treat freethought as some sort of alternative religion, or are they merely a natural response to what religious evangelicals already do? Let’s see!
1. “Is America a Christian Nation?” by Dan Barker in 1990
The first nontract I read was “Is America a Christian Nation?” I found it to be immensely informative without being overwhelming. It contains questions such as “Do the words ‘separation of church and state’ appear in the Constitution?” “Isn’t removing religion from public places hostile to religion?” and “What about ‘One nation under God’ and ‘In God We Trust?'” I think it’s important to remind people, religious or not, that none of these questions lead to America being a Christian nation.
My favorite quote from this nontract was found in response to the question “What about the Pilgrims and Puritans?” and it reads, “If tradition requires us to return to the views of a few early settlers, why not adopt the polytheistic and natural beliefs of the Native Americans, the true founders of the continent at least 12,000 years earlier?”
Why the Christian Persecution Complex Hurts Everyone
Can Religion Save America?
The Founding Myth (the FFRF’s new book that seems to be what you might get if you took this nontract and made it book-length)
2. “Ten Common Myths About Atheists” by Annie Laurie Gaylor in 1988
I wasn’t as big a fan of this one as I was the first. In this nontract, Gaylor addressed, well, ten common myths about atheists. They included “Atheists are all immoral,” “Atheists must be unhappy,” and “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Probably my biggest qualm from this nontract was the use of the term “religionist”. It’s not a word I hear a lot, and I wasn’t sure if it was even a real word. It turns out it is, but it’s somewhat derogatory, as it can often refer to a religious zealot.
Other than that, it was good to see Gaylor addressing these myths, some of which are more common than others. Many of the answers were obvious to me (such as “[Atheists] seek happiness here, now, in the real world, the only world”), but that is not to say that others wouldn’t be insulting if a religious person were to read them.
In response to the myth “Atheists are angry people,” Gaylor responds, “Atheists can hardly be angry at something that does not exist! Angry religionists abound.” I think there’s so much wrong with this. You don’t have to believe in something for it to make you angry. That’s the point; atheists are often angry at what religion does to people and to society, especially because they believe it is unfounded. And theists are then mad at atheists. Everyone is angry. We’re all people, and we’re all mad.
3. “What is a Freethinker?” by Dan Barker in 1993
This nontract is like an introduction to freethought and freethinkers. I don’t normally use the word freethought except when I’m trying to refer to large, dynamic groups of nonbelievers or skeptics. I think it’s an encompassing term for when you don’t want to list out atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, secularists, or the like, but you don’t want to leave anyone out. This nontract sort of lumps everyone together, but sometimes that’s the most efficient way to communicate, so I see why Barker did it.
It contains many similar questions to the nontract about atheist myths, adding in questions like “Doesn’t the complexity of life require a designer?” and “Is atheism/humanism a religion?” You can see that Barker is trying to cover a lot of ground with not a lot of time (or room). I think it would have been helpful if he had given definitions of some related words (like atheism and humanism, which are mentioned only once) at the risk of confusing people. Nonetheless, I appreciated this nontract more compared to the last, because it was less aggressive.
4. “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments?” by Anne Nicol Gaylor in 1983
I enjoyed this nontract, because it draws attention to something you might not think about as often as everything else we’ve read so far. In it, Anne Nicol Gaylor goes through each (typical) commandment one by one, not forgetting about the little-known list in Exodus 34 which actually refers to itself as the “Ten Commandments”.
After the usual atheist’s objections to Commandments 1-4, she even goes through the more obvious bits of moral instruction: refraining from murder, theft, adultery, stealing, lying, and envy. She points out that there’s nothing in this list that doesn’t carry an exception, like killing in self defense or stealing if you’re a starving child. At the end of the nontract, she challenges readers to come up with their own list of ten commandments which are “kinder, wiser, [and] more reasonable . . . than those which Christians insist we honor.” I’ll do the same: why not drop your list in the comments?
5. “Dear Christian” by Dan Barker in 1987
I saved this one for last, because I knew it would probably be my favorite, and I was absolutely right. In the case of all of the other nontracts, I wasn’t sure what the situation would be in which case these would be distributed to people. Wouldn’t you find it weird if atheists (or other freethinkers) were out on the streets evangelizing unbelief?
For “Dear Christian,” I could picture a situation clearly. An evangelist comes up to you on the street with a tract and a pitch. You say “All right, I’ll take it. But I’ll only read it if you read this,” at which time you hand them this nontract. The gist of it is “Whatever you’re trying to tell me about your religion, trust me, I’ve heard it before. I already know.” But it puts a compassionate spin on it. It isn’t insulting to theists, which is a trait that is hard to come by in explicit “atheist vs. theist” propaganda. It’s written like a letter showcasing how the writer feels, and I think that it eloquently sums up the feelings of almost all atheists.
Barker writes, “I will ask if your conclusions are logical. If you want me to consider your beliefs, then be ready to tackle questions like these.” The ten following questions include “What is morality, and is it possible without a deity?” “What is a contradiction, and what would the bible have to say in order to be discrepant?” and “Is there anything wrong with skepticism?” They’re non-threatening, but they’re level-headed and honest questions that most atheists might urge theists to think about.
I think that “Dear Christian” nontracts would be valuable to have around if you have a lot of religious people in your life whom you want to get through to without insulting them. Maybe if you have someone who keeps nagging you to change your mind or if you plan to come out to someone but don’t know what to say, this might help. The FFRF sells them at 12 for $5 or 100 for $15. Alternatively, you could get one of each nontract for $5. (Not sponsored.)
What do you think of the idea of nontracts? Is it weird to advertise a lack of belief, or is it fair play as a response to religious evangelism?