Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Show #3: Ed Buckner, Ph.D. on the History of Christmas and its Antecedent December Celebrations


Click here to listen to The Curious Minds Podcast Show #3 with Ed. Buckner, Ph.D.

Ed Buckner, Ph.D., Treasurer Atlanta Freethought Society, appears on the show to discuss his comments made recently in Creative Loafing magazine about the traditions of Christmas being pagan in origin. We wanted to see what lead Ed to such conclusions. During the show he explains his views and also gives us more information about The Atlanta Freethought Society's recent protest of the recent state-sponsored prayer vigil in Georgia by Governor Sonny Purdue aimed at asking for rain assistance from God.

Ed's Quotes in Creative Loafing

See the full story at:

What's their deal

"I lost my faith over a long period of time. My religious beliefs gradually died out. Although I see no harm in the secular parts of Christmas, most of the signs of Christian celebration are pagan anyways."

Ideal holiday meal

"Thanksgiving. It's a holiday where atheists and freethinkers get wrongly treated. People think we can't be thankful without believing in God. We should be giving thanks to the cooks and the farmers, not to some supernatural power."

Perfect gift

"My family stopped exchanging presents about 15 years ago as the commercial exchange became ridiculous. We wrote friends and asked to be removed from the gift list. If you have extra money, give it to a charity."

Where's the party?

"As human beings, we need ritual and celebration, but it doesn't need to be infused with belief in a supernatural being."

Feel-good activity

"Getting together with friends and relatives. It's important to maintain connections."


Ed Buckner, Ph.D. Biography

Here is an excerpt about Ed from the following web site:

Ed Buckner is a freethought activist, writer, debater and speaker whose engagements have taken him throughout the U.S. A native of Georgia, he is the former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which he represented as a prominent speaker at the Godless Americans' March on Washington. He is one of the leaders of the Atlanta Freethought Society.

Buckner is co-editor, with his son Michael Buckner, of Quotations That Support the Separation of Church and State (1995), and author of the concluding chapter of Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America, ed. Kimberly Blaker (2003). He has also edited several publications by noted freethinkers and skeptics, and has written articles for freethought magazines such as Free Inquiry.

Buckner has served in various offices of the Georgia state chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He speaks frequently on topics related to separation of religion and government, particularly about the Treaty of Tripoli and about the misperception that the U.S. is a "Christian nation."

Before embarking on his professional freethought career, Buckner was an administrator at what is now Atlanta Technical College and, earlier, an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University. His 1983 doctoral dissertation studied science teachers' attitudes towards curricular changes within the context of Cobb County, Georgia's creationism campaign.

Links and Resources from the Show

Ed mentioned the following book during the show:

The Trouble With Christmas, by Tom Flynn:

Ed's Affiliations

Ed's Publications

Videos and Music from the Show

Here are some videos and music from or mentioned in the show. 

Christians and Pagans by Dar Williams

Mean Girls Jingle Bell Rock

Jingle Bell Rock - The top video clips of the week are here


Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah by Virgin Mobile

Christmas Unwrapped Part I

Christmas Unwrapped Part II

Christmas Unwrapped Part III

Christmas Unwrapped Part IV

Christmas Unwrapped Part V

Information about The Atlanta Freethought Society's Protest of Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue's Prayer Event on Taxpayer Property

Ed passed along the following wealth of information related to the Atlanta Freethought Society's protest related to the recent state-sponsored prayer event.

Media hits from the protest:

  • MSNBC--audio & video, live, 5 or 6 minutes, nationally, Sunday a.m.,11 Nov 2007\
  • CBS Evening News--audio/video, a minute or so--got Ed's name wrong ("Bruckner"), 13 Nov 2007
  • CBS Radio nationally--taped 11 or 12 Nov--b'cst but not sure when--12 or 13 Nov 2007?
  • Fox News, nationally--TV, live but only audio, a.m. before protest, 13 Nov 2007
  • National Public Radio nationally--called a couple of times; ran at least once or twice I think--unknown dates/times
  • Good Morning America--audio and video, maybe a minute, 13 Nov 2007
  • Associated Press--at least two interviews & three stories which ran nation-wide (hundreds of papers) and at least some international hits:
  • Singapore, Manchester/UK
  • CNN--Headline News--"printed" quote only on screen 12 or 13 Nov 2007
  • USA Today--interviewed; story/quote on 14 Nov
  • LA Times--tel interview on 13 Nov--ran on 14 Nov
  • Virtually every local news or talk radio station (several with live interviews), both Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Bo Emerson interview; article on 13 Nov 2007) and the Marietta paper, more than once; Jack McKinney, Ed, and Steve quoted on the radio and interviewed, live or on tape, many times on local radio; Ed, live on 96.1 talk show early in a.m. of protest (they called at 6 am to set it up for 7 am) and the talk jockey said, live and on the air, that he had thought we were wrong till he heard why we were going to protest--and now thinks we're right!; WGST live interview, two hours before protest; most local TV stations, if not all, ran short taped interviews with Steve or Ed or both Air America news item(s)--several, probably--at least one for sure, on 12 or 13 Nov 200
  • Athens GA radio WGAU/Tim Bryant interview, live, a.m. just hours before protest on 13 Nov 2007
  • Family Research Council, Internet national news (disapproving, of course)
  • BBC Radio (14 or 15 Nov 2007?), Steve Yothment
  • WSB Radio, locally, live, Saturday 17 Nov 2007, Allen Hunt Show, Steve Yothment

FAQ on the protest:

Atlanta Freethought Society:

Our Protest— Frequently Asked Questions Governor Sonny Perdue’s Prayer for Rain Service Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia, USA
—by Ed Buckner (for more on Ed, see
(Reviewed/Edited by AFS President Steve Yothment)

We received hundreds of e-mails, telephone calls, and comments from inquirers all over the U.S. (and beyond) about our recent protest. Some
of these were rude or angry or even vicious, including one person who thought enough of his own crude, obscene message to submit it 161 times
(his service provider has been notified). Some were grateful, supportive messages, including at least a few from religious people who
believe in prayer but who realize that Governor Perdue’s unconstitutional actions threatened their rights as well as ours. We are most grateful for the support we have received. We had no idea that we would get world-wide attention as a result of our protest, but we are glad of the opportunity to learn and to educate others—that is and always has been our core purpose. Many of those who sent us messages, especially among the majority that did not support us, asked us questions, some polite and reasonable, some less so. We have no staff—AFS has never had even a part-time employee; we function as an entirely member-run, volunteer organization—and could not reasonably get around to providing a
personal reply to every question. We appreciate the chance, using these Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) with our answers (below) to respond to most of the questions. Some questions take books (we can recommend many—and have published several), not mere sentences, to answer.  More detailed answers to some of these questions can be found at the AFS web-site,, or by going to . If anyone sends us a relevant question that is not addressed below and that can be
answered quickly, we will attempt to reply and perhaps add it to a future FAQ list.


1. “Why does AFS oppose people’s right, including the Governor’s, to pray?”

We don’t. Religious liberty, certainly including the right to pray for everyone who believes in prayer, is a fundamental American principle, protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by the Constitution of the State of Georgia. Most if not all members of AFS think that prayer does little good beyond occasionally helping the person offering the prayer think more carefully about something, and few if any of us pray. But we value religious liberty for all, including those who disagree with us. What we protested and vigorously disapprove of is having an elected official, a secular governmental leader, organizing a prayer service on the Georgia Capitol grounds. No such official, including Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia, in this nation has the right to make any religious decisions on behalf of American—including Georgian—citizens. Any citizen, including Governor Perdue, has the unquestionable right to pray, to seek religious leaders of his choice to lead or join him in prayer, and to engage in similar religious practices. But as Governor, he must represent all the people and he must not represent his personal religious beliefs as the official ones for his state. Try a simple thought experiment (suggested by AFS director Jack McKinney): imagine in the future a Governor is elected who is an atheist (or perhaps some other non-Christian). Would he have the right to call together a group of prominent atheistic leaders to a public meeting at the state capitol and proclaim that “CHRISTIANITY IS A MYTH” and “NOTHING FAILS LIKE PRAYER”? After all, just because the Governor is a representative doesn't mean his freedom to ridicule prayer should be taken away, right? We assert that the hypothetical Governor has no right to do that, for exactly the same reason Governor Perdue has no right to convene religious services on the state capitol grounds.


2. “Why is AFS any better than those crazies who picket soldiers’ funerals?” OR “Have some decency and respect—don’t interrupt or protest against or distract from a prayer service.” OR “Why does AFS ridicule religious beliefs and practices? Aren’t religious people entitled to respect?” OR “Why does AFS insult religious people and their practices?”

We do not advocate (and have never practiced) protesting against private, non-government-sponsored prayer services in homes or institutions of religion, or going door-to-door to advocate against religion. AFS members have a wide range of opinions about most issues, including about the war the U.S. is conducting in Iraq, but none of us would interfere with or protest at a soldier’s funeral. Religious people have exactly the same—no more but also no less—right to have their beliefs and ideas treated with respect as do irreligious people. If ideas (ours included) are brought into the public arena and claimed to be valuable, correct, desirable ideas, they must be open to criticism and argument. Some religious people are insulted because we don’t accept their beliefs—just because we exist—and we cannot help that—but we are not interested in gratuitous insults of religious believers. Thousands of individual Georgians, on their own or in hundreds of different churches, temples, and mosques, had been praying
for rain for many months—and we never protested any of that praying. It was the Governor, not us, who turned the prayers for rain into a political spectacle, a publicity stunt.


3. “What could it possibly hurt to pray for rain? What have we got to lose?”

When the prayers don’t end the drought, the Governor and Georgia look primitive and silly. When the Governor—not just a religious leader—lets the world think that Georgians are part of a primitive, pre-scientific culture, it embarrasses and harms all Georgians. When the Governor violates principles proven by long experience to protect everyone’s religious liberty, everyone loses. When the Governor acts as if his prayers, his service led by preachers he picked, can work, while prayers of ordinary Georgians have failed, he insults Georgians and mocks any god that might exist.


4. “Why does AFS hate God?” “Don’t you realize you’ll all wind up roasting in hell if you mock God?”

We don’t. We don’t see any good reason to believe any god exists. We know we’re in the minority in Georgia—but majority votes cannot settle
religious questions and individual religious rights of each citizen outweigh majority votes. We’re certainly aware of the interpretation of many fundamentalist Christians that suggests that God is a petty, spiteful tyrant who will arrange for eternal, horrific punishment for people who dare to say the emperor has no clothes. We do not accept the conclusion that there is a god—but it seems even less likely that any god who might exist would be so absurdly human in his pettiness. It is in any case a risk we take knowingly, and we wonder why anyone thinks his all-powerful god  needs help harassing us.

5. “Why should anyone pay any attention to a small group of troublemakers [that was one of the more polite names we were called] like AFS members?”

Religious liberty is important to everyone, no matter what their beliefs or lack of them. It is worth defending even if unreasonable people call you names.


6. “Don’t you know that separation of church and state is not even in the Constitution; and besides, that it only means that government cannot interfere with churches or choose denominations?”

This question is based on common but thoroughly discredited notions that imply that constitutional concepts can only be represented by the  short-hand labels often used to express them and that religion can get government support under the Constitution. Crucial constitutional principles are often not addressed in the Constitution with the precise words that we usually use for them. Thomas Jefferson, as President, in a carefully worded formal letter sent in 1802, not long after the First Amendment was ratified, popularized the words we now use for the constitutional protection of religious liberty: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” The words “religious liberty” or “freedom of religion” are also not in the documents, along with many other ideas of the most basic importance to our rights as U.S. citizens (a right to privacy, a right to vote, “innocent until proven guilty,” etc. Any who want more examples and more details (and discussions of each of them) can go to if you have access to the Internet. Baptist preachers were among the fiercest, strongest advocates of separation of church and state in the 1780s and 1790s. One, John Leland, wrote in 1791, “Let every man speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions.” The principle plainly precludes a Governor from making religious decisions for citizens of his state, especially in light of the 14th Amendment. These ideas are well established constitutional law—and even the words are in the Georgia Constitution, in Article I, Section II: "Paragraph VII. Separation of church and state. No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution."


7. “Haven’t you got anything better to do? Why don’t you get a life?”


It strikes us as odd that someone who takes the time and effort to rail against us in outrageous ways believes it is we who need to get a life. Most AFS members could not attend the protest because they had to work on a Tuesday, but those of us who protested generally have rich, fulfilling lives—and protecting religious liberty and our right to live free of government-sponsored religiosity is one of the reasons we think our lives are worthwhile.

8. “How dare you call yourself ‘freethinkers’ when you won’t even allow anyone to disagree?”


We call ourselves freethinkers because we sincerely believe that thoughts are clearer and lives better when religious orthodoxy and religious authorities are set aside, when we are free from religion. We have no illusions about the number of people who disagree with us, we don’t think we have the power to force anyone to agree with us, and we certainly don’t seek such power.


9. “Why would freethinkers, who don’t even believe in the Bible, quote Bible verses like Matthew 6:5-6 out of context at a protest and on your
web site? Isn’t that hypocritical?”

We do not accept the Bible as a valid authority, but we did not use Matthew 6:5-6 out of context or inappropriately. We made clear in interviews that we do not accept biblical authority, but we do think some valid ideas are included therein. Hypocrisy is in fact the “sin” described in Matthew 6:5-6 and sums up exactly one of the key reasons the prayer service should not have been held. If I said publicly, “I rely on the Boy Scout Oath to guide me” and someone else—who happens not perhaps to be a Boy Scout fan—pointed out that I'm not “brave, clean, and reverent,” he is not being hypocritical, whether or not he is correct.

10. “Why does AFS complain that there was not broad enough representation of different faiths at the Governor’s prayer service, when everyone knows you wouldn’t be satisfied no matter how many religions were represented?”

Indeed we would not be satisfied no matter how many faith communities were represented, because the Governor has no authority to call a prayer service at the state capitol or to choose which religious leaders will speak at such a service. The fact that Governor Perdue only had a few denominations of one faith represented (some news reports said only three clergy, all of them Protestant ministers, spoke) does, however, show more clearly that the Governor was only trying to promote his own religion.


11. “Do you really think the world would be better off without religion—what about morality?”

Yes. Much good and much evil is done in the name of religion and in the name of other absolutist orthodoxies, but we like what Nobel-Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” To those that claim that reliable, consistent, absolute morality can only come from a god, we ask why the
moral standards (not just the moral behavior) of religious people vary so widely from group to group and historical period to historical period. For example, the great majority of Christian preachers here in Georgia in the 1840s and 1850s preached, loudly and frequently, that human slavery was an institution provided by and approved of by Almighty God. They easily produced many biblical verses to support that assertion. Contemporary Christians nearly all reject such a claim, as we do. And apparently sincere modern Christians disagree, as we do, on abortion, capital punishment, gun control, war, stem cell research, death with dignity, and much more.

12. “We prayed for rain—and it rained! It worked! What’s your problem with that?”

It’s early days yet, but the few sprinkles we have had so far were predicted before the prayer service was announced (Coincidence? You decide!) and have not begun to solve the drought problem. We have no doubt that if and when enough rain comes to really do some good, the Governor and some simplistic Christians will claim the prayer service or God caused it—but we also have no doubt that the Governor and his supporters will refuse to blame any failures on the prayer service or their God. The hits will be counted and the misses ignored, to Georgia’s continuing shame.

13. “We elected Governor Perdue, not you—and he’s a good man. Where do you get the right to say he embarrasses you or Georgia?”

Probably most AFS members did not vote for Perdue (we do have some Republican members), but, once elected, he is required to serve all
Georgians and to obey the Georgia and U.S. Constitutions. If the Governor or some other elected official committed some other form of
fraud or foolishness, these same questioners would probably disclaim association with him. (Imagine a future Democratic or Independent
leader of Georgia has an indiscreet, messy affair while in office—do you suppose Republicans would be embarrassed at the shame brought on
our state?)


14. “The news media reported you were out of sight of the prayer service—why?”

Only Governor Perdue and the capitol police know for sure, but we had an approved (by the Georgia Building Authority/Georgia Capitol Police)  permit to meet on “Washington Street, Georgia Capitol” to hold our protest—and when we assembled there, well away from the service but in sight of it and on our capitol grounds, we were moved by capitol police. They refused to give any reason, saying “We’re just following orders. You have to move or we’ll arrest you and take you to jail.” At that point, we were still in sight of the service—but not for long. After only a very few minutes, we were moved again, down the block, out of sight of the service (and no longer on Washington Street nor on the grounds of the capitol). We never got loud enough to disrupt or even disturb the service, nor had we intended to—in fact we had said, to the police and to the media, repeatedly, that this would be a polite, peaceful protest and that we would in no way disrupt the service. It is speculation on our part to say so, but the most likely explanation seems to be that the Governor did not want to see us. If he had been at a religious service, in a private, non-governmental place, that would have been quite reasonable—but the Governor, not the AFS, made this into a political event.


15. “Why all the quotes from and interviews with Ed Buckner—who is just your treasurer, after all?”

The protest happened to be my (Ed Buckner’s) idea. It was approved by the AFS officers before we proceeded, but my name was first on the first e-mails going out seeking support—and the media therefore called and interviewed me (dozens of times). Our president, Steve Yothment, approved of the protest as soon as he learned of the idea, and he has been interviewed many times as well, as have some of our other leaders. Ed and Steve and no doubt others are still available for interviews, talks to groups (religious or not), debates, and more.

16. “If a Muslim Governor called for prayers to Allah, would you have the guts to oppose that?”



17. “Why don’t you answer my question?”

We have no paid staff, only volunteers. We have tried to answer, here, most of the questions we’ve received. Some questions have been so utterly groundless—like “Why do you people hate America?” or “Why does AFS support terrorism?” that they don’t deserve answers. Some seemed not to be seeking answers at all—like “Why don’t you bastards go f**k yourselves?” Some few would take many books—books that are in fact readily available—to answer. But if we missed your sincere, relevant question, please try again.