Friday, May 27, 2011


I have some new personal heroes, people who are inspiring me, adding to my courage, and frankly, renewing hope. Their names are Damon Fowler, Jessica Ahlquist, and Harrison Hopkins. All three have and are fighting to maintain a separation of church and state in our public schools, and have faced trials and tribulations that make anything I dealt with in high school seem minor in comparison. Let me tell you a little bit about them.

Jessica Ahlquist is a high school sophomore in Cranston, RI. She and a friend noticed a painting of a "school prayer" in the auditorium. Eventually, she decided to support the removal of the prayer, and when she had a chance, spoke to a sub-committee meeting about having it removed. Naturally, she thought that they would remove it, since it's obviously a constitutional violation. Well, sadly, she was wrong. After a number of meetings, and various news reports, the school board voted to keep the prayer. Many of her fellow classmates have vilified her and harassed her.  Well, happily, she hasn't given up. She's taking them to court with the assistance of the ACLU. You can find more detail at her blog. The very first post tells the story.

Harrison Hopkins is a senior, graduating this year, at Laurens District High School in Laurens, SC. Inspired in part by Jessica's activism, he contacted the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation last April regarding the plans of his school to put it to a vote whether or not to have a prayer at graduation. See, he understands that even if the majority said "yes," it would still be unconstitutional. After the FFRF sent a letter to the school, the vote and prayer were officially canceled. Despite receiving backlash from his community, he too is continuing the fight. The graduation hasn't taken place yet, so we'll see what happens.

Damon Fowler I've talked about before. A senior in Bastrop, LA, he pointed out the law forbidding prayer at graduation to his school superintendent, said he would contact the ACLU if the prayer happened, and after consulting their attorneys, the school officially canceled the prayer. When Damon was outed as the letter writer, he suffered a "shitstorm" from his community. One of his teachers publicly insulted him in a local paper, he received threats of violence, and even death threats. The worst part? Eventually, his parents disowned him. His story went international, and the outpouring of support, emotionally, pragmatically, and even financially, has been absolutely amazing. Greta Christina wrote up a very nice summation and op ed piece on Damon's story over at AlterNet, and I highly suggest reading it.

So, now let me tell you why I find these three so heroic I would call them "personal heroes," a phrase I have rarely applied -- actually, never. They have taken a stand for what they believe in, despite severe opposition. They have faced up to those who ridicule, hate, and vilify them for being atheists, for wanting to see a separation of church and state, and for daring to speak up. The hardships they've endured are appalling. They've lost friends and acquaintances (and Damon lost family). I imagine that it's been emotionally difficult as hell at times, but they maintain and continue. Not a one of them indicates any serious regret for what they've done, and continue to do. They show a courage I can only hope to mirror. Their willingness to sacrifice of themselves for a greater good, for the rights of everyone (because make no mistake: church/state separation is good for everyone, not just atheists), shows a potential future for America and the world that is bright indeed.

If you want to learn more about these three in their own words, they've got a question and answer bit going on over at Reddit. Here's the link.

----This next bit gets a lot more personal. Stop if you don't want to see it, or you think you don't want to know. Keep going, and you take responsibility for gaining that knowledge.----

Here's the hard part. Heroes, by their actions and stories, call on us to be better than we've been, and to reach for our highest potential. They encourage us to step up and show the world what we're made of. Heroes encourage us to do, rather than simply be. Heroes . . . inspire.

If heroes inspire us to do things, then these three young people must surely have inspired me to do something, right? Yes, but it's not easy. I've lived for a long time with a fear that if my family, whom I love a great deal, ever found out that I'm an atheist, it would be . . . problematic. I've feared the pain that I might cause them, and I've feared ostracism and loss. My family is (so far as I know) Christian, one and all. My grandfather's a pastor, my mother "born-again," etc. When I was given a subscription to Discover Magazine at the age of 13 by my mother, she warned me that if I started talking about evolution, that subscription would be taken away. So, I think I've had good reasons for my fear (that's just one example). And because of those reasons, I've hidden myself from them. I've not directly lied by claiming beliefs I don't have, but I've dodged topics of discussion and kept my mouth shut. When I've written online in forums or comment sections of atheist/humanist blogs, I've done so under a pseudonym, just in case (that's also just in case a potential employer should ever google me). I've been hiding less of late then in the past, and censoring myself less, but . . .

But this means that my family doesn't know me. This means I can never let them be close, know who I am. Yet, I believe truth is important, very important. Truth matters. Reality is better than an illusion. And if three young people not even out of high school can face down entire communities, then I should be able to face my own fears.

Hi, my name is Nathan Salo Tumberg. It's a pleasure to meet you. I believe that humanity is a wonderfully fascinating, evolved creature, that is hopefully still evolving. I believe we have huge potential for good, and huge potential for evil. I believe that we are completely capable of being moral. I believe that meaning is all around us, in the lives we create for ourselves, the connections we make to our fellow inhabitants of this universe. I believe that critical thinking is one of the best tools we've devised, ever. I believe that questions are good, even great, and that discussion is even better. I believe that reality is more important than comfort. I believe that compassion is powerful, and key to morality. I believe in freedom and rights, and that these are worth fighting for. I believe that humanity is capable of being greater than we have ever been before, but I do not know if we will be.

I do not, however, believe that a god, any god, is necessary to, or for, the universe, morality, meaning, hope, or anything else. This life is what we have, and it's up to us to live it. If you don't like what I believe, that's fine. You don't have to. I'm open to discussion, but if you'd rather not, that's fine too. I'm not about to force myself or my thoughts on you.

My name is Nathan Salo Tumberg. Occasionally, I think. Would you care to have a discussion?


  1. Hi Nathan! Thanks for posting such an open, honest piece. I have often felt the same way - that somehow family & friends would be let down if I were truly honest about how I think. It's easy to believe this, because sometimes you see the fruits of it on those times you do expose yourself - friends and family who are all set to judge rather than to bother to understand the *why* of what you think and how you got to the conclusions you've reached. The religious indoctrination system most children go through is a powerful deterrent to ever asking "Why?" or encouraging critical thought. We fortunate few break free of the mental shackles.

  2. Thanks for reading. That was a rough piece to write emotionally, and an even rougher one to cross post to my Facebook page so the family would be sure to see it. It's a relief to have that pressure to pretend off my shoulders.