Tim Gorski is one of four founding members of the North Texas Church
of Freethought (NTCOF), established in 1994, in the Dallas/Forth Worth
municipalities of Texas. This "church for the unchurched"
holds monthly services every first Sunday; a variety of meetings and
events occupy the rest of the calendar month. It is the position of
the NTCOF that a non-superstitious, non-supernatural religion is the
"filet of religion," allowing individuals and families the
benefits of religion without subjecting them to beliefs that they
likely find offensive and unpalatable. The words of Thomas Henry Huxley,
in a letter to the cleric Kingsley, on the death of Huxley’s
son, inform the moral vision of the NTCOF: "Sartor Resartus led
me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire
absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place
independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to
me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a
deep sense of responsibility."*
church’s outreach is largely to atheists, agnostics, humanists,
doubters, skeptics, and freethinkers, who have found themselves
excluded from traditional church life in America. The leaders and
members strive to kindle highest ideals of good to which human beings
can aspire: honesty, integrity, intelligence, insight, creativity,
and compassion and respect for others, to name the most important.
A second Freethought Church was founded in Houston, Texas in 2000.
For more information, visit the NTCOF’s home page at http://www.churchoffreethought.org/
interview was conducted via e-mail during late February/early March
The North Texas Church of Freethought has been a fully operating
organization for 10 years. Give us a quick summary of what it has
achieved in that decade.
Well, we did get an amicus filed with the US Supreme Court in
the Newdow case and also with the Ninth District in the Eklund
case in which a school was having children "pretend"
to be Muslims. We've also had a bit of media coverage and even
once noticed completely by chance a mention in a Wall Street Journal
Op-Ed. So maybe we are beginning to pass into the popular culture
which, if so, I think is an achievement. Our members have donated
gallons of priceless blood in our blood drives, which makes a
huge difference. Also, a fantastic group of fellow unbelievers
launched the Houston Church of Freethought which is independent
of but affiliated with us.
I think our main achievement - of both ours and the Houston church's
- has been much humbler and less flashy, which is that we have
made a decent start at creating a sense of religious identity
and self-confidence among many people who really didn't even know
what they were from a religious standpoint. Because most of our
members - great people that I would never have known otherwise
- came to us either as closet atheists, or, more often, as "agnostics,"
atheists who were afraid to acknowledge that they didn't believe
in the supernatural, as well as doubters and skeptics who hadn't
really ever given much thought to the basis of their doubt and
skepticism. This, to me, is one of the most important things that
needs to be done today: to give people who think of themselves
as "not religious" or religious "nothings,"
but who are actually as interested as devout believers in religious
questions, a sense of their identity as people whose core value
is a reliance on facts and reason. I think the usefulness of this
is primarily to our members themselves - charity begins at home!
- and then, secondarily, through the complex calculus of the vast
inter-relationship of people which is our society and culture,
to all of us as well as the cause of reason. That is, to the extent
that we have contributed even the tiniest bit towards eroding
the hatred and fear that believers have of unbelievers, I think
that is a great achievement.
Many atheists disagree with your organizing a religion for unbelievers.
I recall that American Atheists, for instance, returned a donation
made in the name of NTCOF, because it was money from a church. How
do you (or do you bother to) answer such objections?
I think the majority of those who object simply do not understand
what we're doing. And I think that many atheists have been so
turned-off and so outraged and so traumatized by superstitious
religions that words like "church" and "religion"
have become anathema to them. I spoke recently at one of our services
about the fact that cherished beliefs held by many theists and
atheists alike depend on the completely unsupported assertion
that religion and church have to be about believing in and teaching
supernatural doctrines. Well, we have shown that this is simply
not the case. In fact, churches are about how we organize ourselves
as social animals. In the case of churches, the organizing principle
can be whatever people see as the core values around which they
structure their life and intellectual and emotional outlook.
know, hospitals were once places where people with very serious
illnesses were taken to die, where nobody knew better about washing
their hands and, consequently, where many people who were not
all that sick got worse or died. Sensible people in those days
avoided hospitals at all costs. Well, all that has changed, of
course, and for the better. Our efforts are devoted to a similar
transformation of making church and religion what they really
ought to be, ways of thinking and ways of organizing people that
meet human needs in a sane and healthy way.
with respect to American Atheists, I should say that their goals
of countering state-church entanglements and earning greater respect
for atheism are ones that we share. But AA's trademark has been
a no-holds-barred down-and-dirty assault on religious faith since
it was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Their present leadership
is still very much committed to that approach, which is a bit
different than ours. They did, as you say, reject our support
for the ad project you mention. But AA subsequently accepted us
as supporters of another project they sponsored. And I've had
private assurances that they have come to see their earlier rejection
of us as an unfortunate error on their part. Still, it shows how
radical a project the Church of Freethought is embarked on, an
effort to redefine what religion and church are all about.
Do you attend or are you invited to interfaith gatherings? Have
you any indication that religious people consider your church part
of the liberal religious tradition?
We inquired about joining the Dallas Council of Churches some
years ago and were told that, as atheists, we were not welcome.
Surprisingly, when we pointed out that the Unitarian churches
were members and the Unitarians were infested with atheists, we
were told that that didn't count!
for our being considered to be a further liberalization of a faith-based
religion, no I don't think we're seen that way at all. Not that
we're trying to be. In fact, our approach is not to try to be
another, even more liberalized version of something rooted in
superstitious doctrines that are fundamentally wrong and harmful.
What we want to do is to identify the functional role of religion
in addressing healthy human needs and the puzzling questions traditionally
considered as religious in nature. And then to perform that function
while relying on facts and reason instead of fears and fairytales.
It seems to me that the NTCOF is David to the religious Goliath.
Why take on this battle? Wouldn’t it be preferable for unbelievers
to walk away from religion and support other kinds of organizations,
either secular or "spiritual?" Dan Barker, for instance,
of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in an interview for this
magazine, expressed hope that humans would progress beyond the need
I think it's important not to confuse the important issues here.
Yes, we are a "David to Goliath" in that we are small
and weak as churches go. On the other hand, there are other churches
that are small and weak. We're also small and weak in the sense
not just of numbers but because our opinions on religious questions
are in the minority. But this also creates more interest and, with
it, more opportunities to communicate our message.
the really important point is that the Church of Freethought is
not fundamentally about going up against other people's superstitious
religions. We don't devote our services to attacking belief in god(s),
for example. Our aim is to explore something much more interesting,
which is our own religion - a functional religion - that relies
on facts and reason to make sense of all the things that the superstitious
religious traditions have tried so hard and for so long and with
such dismal results to make sense of. We're not trying to take something
away from other people that they feel they need. We're trying to
provide an alternative.
course, I agree with Dan Barker that we can reasonably hope for
a future - probably a long way off, granted - when people do not
need superstition. And notice I say "superstition" and
not "religion." Because superstition, wrong-headed and
harmful ways of coming to grips with the human condition, is the
problem, not religion as such, which is only the effort to come
to grips with what we are and should be. Now it's also true that
maybe we will someday have a world where people have no need of
that - of the search for meaning and morality that grows from within
people and gives them a sense of personal integrity and purpose.
But I think for that kind of world to come about that people would
have to be reduced to the mental level of toddlers or be plugged
into the TV all day or something. Because a certain proportion of
people who can think will always become interested in what are considered
"religious questions" and the ideas and opinions that
result from that will, functionally, be religion.
I recall Michael Newdow saying at the Godless March on Washington
that atheism could be considered a religion. How do we unbelievers
reconcile our disparate views about religion? Do we need "religious
education?" I recall your saying that unbelievers should be
familiar with the Bible.
Dr. Newdow is entirely correct. But I don't think he's completely
correct because I don't think either atheism or theism can be considered
"religion" since both are simply positions or ideas with
respect to one narrow question, the question of the existence of
supernatural beings that go by the term "gods." As Isaac
Asimov once famously said, to call oneself an atheist only means
that you don't believe in gods, which is insufficient because there
is so many other kinds of nonsense. Also, there can be various reasons
why someone lacks belief in god(s), some of which would leave open
the possibility that one will come to believe in god(s). So, yes,
we do need religious education for atheists because it is important
that people understand not only the grounds for what is taken to
be true but also to understand the factual and rational basis for
doubt and unbelief.
As for the Bible, I think it's clear that it's worth knowing about
what's in it for the same reason that people should know what's
in the plays of Shakespeare or The Iliad or the Odyssey or Aesop's
Fables. The Bible is no less and no more a part of our literary
heritage than these other works and in the far-flung future that
I am imagining that is exactly how everyone will see it.
You’ve appeared on radio and television, as a spokesperson
for the NTCOF, and lately received some rough treatment from Sean
Hannity and Jerry Falwell. What impressions have you gathered, from
your experience, about the levels of religious tolerance/intolerance
in this country?
Oh, there's tremendous fear and hatred of atheists. On Hannity's
radio show that I was on this can be seen very clearly by the fact
that they simply had to tack that label "atheist" on me.
They were not going to let me get away with saying that I didn't
believe that Jesus was anything more than a man (if he ever existed
as a specific person) or that I believe in Jesus Christ in the same
way that I believe in Captain Jean Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise.
Because they know that "atheist" carries terrible connotations
with most people that they - people like Falwell especially, as
well as his ideological forbears - have themselves nurtured. Thomas
Jefferson and our intellectual forbears experienced the same thing.
For example, we know Jefferson said things like "question with
boldness even the existence of God" and that "to talk
of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the
human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings."
But these ideas have to be shouted down and the label "atheist"
applied, which, of course, stands for everything despicable and
evil. Of course, it doesn't help when someone self-identifies as
an atheist and then curses and behaves offensively for TV cameras.
there's another curious thing about fear and hatred of atheists
and it is that even many unbelievers have absorbed some of this
whether they realize it or not. It's why so many people who doubt
supernatural doctrines don't talk about it, feel guilty about it,
and refuse to think of themselves as atheists. Every single person
who says, "I'm an agnostic" is, in fact, an atheist. Because
they don't believe in god(s), which is all atheism means. Thomas Henry Huxley wrote about what agnosticism really is. We have the
essay on our website. He makes it very clear that the whole point
of agnosticism has to do with how one holds one beliefs and not
to provide a way to deny that one has a belief or lacks a belief
with the dodge that "I don't know!" Unless one is willing
to affirm a belief, one does not have the belief.
In the FAQ’s section of the NTCOF homepage, you pose and answer
the question, "How are you different from the Unitarians?"
The answer to the FAQ claims that in UU churches it is impolite
to question mysticism and supernaturalism. Did you attend a UU church?
Why are you of the opinion (expressed on NTCOF’s web site)
that UU’s "elevate" tolerance "to the level
Oh, yes, before we ever started up the Church of Freethought we
visited some Unitarian churches and listened to people preaching
numerology and homeopathy and all sorts of weird stuff with no
factual or rational basis. For someone whose core values and whole
world-view are a reliance on facts and reason, to have "tolerance"
in the sense of any kind of approval - even a tacit approval -
of such stuff is as wrongheaded as to have "tolerance"
for the most scandalous of doctrines pushed by the mainstream
faith-based religions. As I said earlier, what distinguishes churches
is that they are social organizations in which people are bound
together by the core values around which they structure their
life and intellectual and emotional outlook. To do without this
is, it seems to me, to have core values of basically no values,
to have an attitude of "anything goes" or some kind
of postmodern doctrine that there is really no real truth of any
kind. Except, of course, the truth that there is no truth.
don't mean to slam UUism and I have a lot of respect for the people
in that tradition especially who insisted that hell was a blasphemy
on the idea of a loving deity. But, honestly, one cannot have
such an open mind that one's brains fall out. I try very hard
to keep an open mind but I do rely on two "bouncers"
to keep order. Their names are Fact and Reason.
I recall a conversation in which you told me about attending Humanist
meetings in the past that were not family or child friendly. This
was a reason for starting the NTCOF, as I remember. Is this attitude
toward families and children changing? Do you think it contributed
to a declining interest, by young people, in Humanist organizations?
I really don't know the answer to that with respect to what Humanists
are doing, specifically the American Humanist Association (AHA),
but, yes, I recall it being suggested that I could bring my children
to an annual meeting of the AHA and hire a babysitter to care for
them in the hotel room. Well, I could hardly think of a better way
to turn off my kids to Humanism if their earliest memories of it
were connected to being stuck in a hotel room in another city with
a stranger. This is also why, from the beginning, the North Texas
Church of Freethought has offered childcare and Sunday School free
of charge in conjunction with our regular services. I think this
is very important because it's part of fostering a sense of religious
identity and belonging among unbelievers. Why should our kids have
to go through the struggle many of us did to find their way to the
promised land of reason? And how else are we going to have the kind
of progress that we're interested in on the subject of religion
unless the next generation can really start the world over again
as it were instead of struggling under a load of superstitious baggage?
Given all your experience, what mistakes, in your opinion, must
we unbelievers avoid making? What actions can we take to shift the
culture of the United States toward the values we endorse?
Well, I don't claim to be much of an authority on this subject.
But there are some mistakes that stand out. One is that many of
us have a kind of allergy or phobia to anything connected with religion
and churches. While understandable, this skews our perceptions in
ways that make us less effective. For example, it tends to cause
us to lump all faith-based religions and all of their followers,
no matter how watered-down or benign they may be, in with the fire-breathers
who preach a return to a civil society based on Leviticus. It also
causes many unbelievers to suppose that, since there can be no legitimate
benefits whatsoever to religion, believers must all be crazy, stupid,
evil, or all three. Yet when we blind ourselves to the more general
functions that religion and churches serve, the functions that go
beyond the specific dogmas and doctrines that they peddle, we fail
to see and take advantage of a very important means of combating
superstition, which is the real enemy. Because if we understand
the more general functions then it opens up the possibility of doing
what religion and churches do but to do it right, to do it without
superstition but with facts and reason, and to finally get on a
path that will help to bring an end to the history of religious
wars and the kinds of horrors that arise when people cannot settle
their differences by recourse to facts and reason.
unbelievers make a lot of other mistakes as well but this is the
big one, the one to which most of the others are related. For example,
I think it's because all the superstitious sects make such a big
deal out of asserting their identity that we tend not to take seriously
the need to assert our own. Because the various religious groups
insist on raising their kids "in their religion," which
basically consists of feeding them nonsense and teaching them that
it's wrong to question it, we unbelievers often don't teach our
kids anything about religion and say ridiculous things such as that
we want them to "decide for themselves" whether to believe
in superstition. I could go on.
I think that in order to begin to shift the culture towards our
values we have to stop seeing ourselves and our values in oppositional
terms. That doesn't mean we cave in to nonsense and superstition.
It doesn't even mean that we have to tolerate it anymore than we
should tolerate racism. But we have to begin showing that the way
to solve the problems that people and society have is to stick to
facts and reason and to make distinctions that correspond to reality.