In our previous issue, we announced a contest, “FI and Me.” We asked readers, “What is your story about how Free Inquiry touched your life . . . or that of someone you know very well?” The editors are pleased to announce the winning entries.
Becca Challman of Georgetown, Delaware, won the grand prize. She will be invited to designate one public library branch (or library at a public institution of higher education) to receive a complete run of Free Inquiry, from Volume 1, Number 1 to the present—totaling 130 issues—plus a library subscription for the next five years (a $75 value).
Second prize went to Steve Aldrich of Bozeman, Montana. Third prize went to Kenneth Richardson of Erie, Colorado. The editors congratulate all three contest winners, whose entries are reproduced here, and we thank all of the readers who participated in this contest.
Free Inquiry Set Me Free
Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.
I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. My parents forced me to attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall five times a week, which meant sitting still for hours or getting spanked in the restroom. Most Saturdays, they forced me to go door-to-door to push literature on often hostile householders. As a Witness, I could not stand during the flag salute. I could not celebrate holidays, even secular ones, or birthdays. I could not associate with anyone who was not a member of the organization. I could not use force to defend myself from the school bullies who found me easy prey. I could not read anything that the elders considered blasphemous or subversive, including any books about religion not published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
My parents coerced me into regurgitating their beliefs to classmates, teachers, and other uninterested parties by using the deeply indoctrinated fear of the devil and his demons to control my thoughts and actions. Many nights, I dreamt horrific nightmares of demon encounters in which I could not scream God’s name fast enough to save myself. That sense of powerlessness haunted me until I was thirteen and got baptized, at which point my parents assured me that I was now safe from Satan’s clutches. I was not, however, safe from the clutches of the men in the congregation. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a patriarchal bunch; women and children are to be seen and not heard, nor believed.
My parents forbade me to go to college, even though my teachers and guidance counselors assured me that with my grades I could anticipate a promising future in the world of academia. Instead, I dropped out of school to work as a waitress and help support my family. I became living proof of the cycle of ignorance and poverty often spawned by fundamentalism, just one of many women who bear the brunt of sacrifices made in the name of religion.
I rebelled eventually but not successfully. Forced from birth to submit blindly to male authority and scriptural law, I did not know how to think for myself. Nevertheless, once I was disfellowshipped and thus free to do as I pleased, I read widely and voraciously. Finally, when I had developed sufficient critical thinking skills, I examined what I’d been taught as a child; for the first time I understood that my childhood had been corrupted by my parents’ primitive belief in an angry, vengeful god in whose shadow I still walked. Unfortunately, by then I had endured a disastrous marriage, separation from my biological family, and the rising resentment of my teenage daughter. At thirty-five, I stumbled out of the wreckage wrought by religion and its residual trauma to begin a new life.
That was almost ten years ago, and Free Inquiry illuminated the unfamiliar path. When my second and forever husband and I were newlyweds visiting our local bookstore, he bought me a copy of the magazine specifically for an article written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Religion’s Real Child Abuse.” When I read that article, and the rest of the magazine and every one I could grab since, I felt more than validated; I felt as if I’d found a new home filled with a reasonable and sane family, a family who espoused treating all people, including children, with dignity and compassion, not under duress from the random commandments of an unseen spirit in the sky but out of respect for, as Christopher Hitchens would say, the solidarity of man. I understood that children should be afforded the same rights as adults. Forcing them to adopt beliefs they aren’t even capable of understanding, much less judging as reasonable or unreasonable, is like cramming plants into pots that are too small, restricting their growth and rotting them from the roots up.
Today, thanks in large part to Free Inquiry, my husband and I are rearing our daughter in the values of secular humanism. While her parents are atheists, she is learning to make up her own mind. Surrounded by books and free to question, she is developing the critical thinking skills she needs to examine evidence and test theories. Right now, she thinks God may exist, and if so she is definitely a woman. Of course, at five years old her vivid imagination often wins out over her developing sense of reason. That is as it should be.
The Friend I Never Knew
When I started working in Bozeman, Montana, I probably met Lyle, although neither of us had time or reason to really get to know each other. The engineering wing was occupied by two groups, and the “8800” group had neither time nor compelling reasons to get to know those “8700” guys across the hall. When we were called together on a dismal December day and told of Lyle’s death, I really had no idea who he was.
Andy Williams might croon that it is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but Montana’s December days are short and often bitterly cold. One cold dark night, loneliness and the gnawing Montana winter overcame Lyle’s will to live. I think I understand why he made the choice in December. I, too, have experienced suicidal thoughts, longing for the days to lengthen during the gloomy Montana winter.
Shortly after Lyle’s death, boxes of books appeared in the office. I was fascinated by the collection. Paradigm’s Lost, Consciousness Explained, The Faith Healers, and The Demon Haunted World. An elementary book of tricks for amateur magicians caught my conjuror’s eye. These were Lyle’s books, and each spoke to me like a volume from Alice’s library marked with a tag saying “Read me.”
And there were boxes of magazines—Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. I grabbed some copies of each and had a look. I was shocked and thrilled at what I discovered. Inside the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer I saw Jerry Andrus’s name and that of Ray Hyman, who had given me a copy of the very first issue of The Zetetic many years before when I met him on a pilgrimage to Oregon to visit Andrus, the great master magician. Within Free Inquiry, I found an article by Richard Dawkins, a famous biologist I had heard about.
Every article spoke to me. I learned about the fraud of “repressed memories” and the lives that nonsense beliefs had destroyed. A Humanist Manifesto outlined a philosophy of life that matched my own, even if I couldn’t express it so eloquently.
Thus, I realized I had lost a friend I had never known and never would. I&rsq
uo;m certain that Lyle and I would have been fast friends had we had an opportunity to learn of our common interests. I’d have dusted off my bag of tricks and delighted Lyle with a few demonstrations of mind reading, and we would have been off and running. I can only imagine the eagerness we’d have shared discussing Uri Geller and my memories of the consummate skeptic Jerry Andrus. Instantly, we would have begun a lifelong conversation about science, philosophy, and life, often talking deep into the night while observing galaxies through a telescope under the dark Montana skies.
To this day, I believe I might have saved Lyle’s life if we had established that friendship. Certainly he would have greatly enriched mine.
As a posthumous gift, Lyle introduced me to Free Inquiry. I subscribed to the magazine, and it has been an important part of my life ever since. The unique content is of course always stimulating. But more valuably, Free Inquiry connects me to a community of like-minded people. One issue announced a cruise for free thinkers. I decided to attend, and what an experience it was. Laughing it up with Pat Beauchamp, singing “Bali Hai” on the beach with Paul Kurtz, the thrill of Richard Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, watching me perform magic at the dinner table, and making new friends from across the country. What a blast! When I listen to Point of Inquiry each week, it is a treat to hear an interview conducted by my dear friend D.J. Grothe. (No kidding, I actually know the guy.) All these friends and memories because I subscribed to a magazine! Free Inquiry, and the people of the Center for Inquiry, have made a tremendously positive difference in my life.
Let us continue to champion rational thought and free inquiry. Let us continue to fight pseudoscience and harmful false beliefs. And please, help me honor the memory of Lyle, the friend I never knew. Let’s make building our community of free thinkers, our worldwide network of friends, our highest priority.
The Comfort I Found
I was born into confusion
My mother, a young woman, lost her father at 10
married a man she barely knew
embraced her mother’s unique ways
the strength of her faith grew
I didn’t fit in
My father, an alcoholic skeptic
fought in Korea at 19
A physicist at odds with himself
kept losing his way
I embraced the occult
My mother’s father a freemason born in 1865
mother’s mother a self-proclaimed prophet of a pantheon of gods
father’s father an abusive fire and brimstone Southern Baptist
father’s mother a more earthly, skeptical theist
I studied everything
a brother Catholic
a brother Protestant
a sister Buddhist
but with parts of my world unraveling, glimpses
A working designer
FI on a quantum strange interconnectedness pseudo theist friend’s coffee
table (OK I could have said “new age”)
He said look
It did not connect, I only saw his vanity
We parted ways
An agnostic in a Lutheran church’s brass choir
The preacher had a flock
I watched, listened, played
I could feel a kind of human “herd”
Words can mean almost anything
Drifting further searching for hard facts
I met and married an intelligent atheist
One day, an FI invitation in the mail
I answered the call (I’m just messing with ya)
But this time it was a comforting revelation, really
Yes Ken, the world is right here to see
The more I study, the more I test, the more I learn,
there is no invisible hand
Nice to know that others think so too
a slightly more disconnected human herd I can wander with