Sean Faircloth talks about Catholicism at Notre Dame

Sean Faircloth is former director of the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) and now Director of Strategy and Policy at the Richard Dawkins Foundation. He was brought up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools, but is an atheist, and author of a good new book, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms America—and What We Can Do About It.  I recommend it, at least to American readers, though folks from other countries might like to read how bat-guano crazy the U.S. is about religion.

I have only two reservations about the book: the chapter on sex seems a tad excessive, almost obsessive, and his prescription for how to create a secular America seems appears to consist almost entirely of helping the SCA or donating money to it.  Oh, and the cover, a cartoonish drawing, detracts from the gravitas of the book’s message:

The book paints a scary picture of how, despite America’s official policy of church/state separation, our laws and our legislators are still deeply imbued with irrational religiosity. (Read his summaries of the 50 most religiously insane American senators and representatives.) It’s also very eloquent and convincing about how the “Founding Fathers” of America—people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin—were by no means religious, but were at best agnostics, and certainly did not form the U.S. government on Christian principles. That’s a must-read section if you want to go after the common religious claim that “America was founded as a Christian nation.”

Here’s an empassioned 32-minute talk on “Catholicism, contraception, and secular morality” that Faircloth recently gave at Notre Dame, a Catholic university in Indiana.

The main points are these:

  • Addressing the largely (and preumably liberal) Catholic audience at Notre Dame, Faircloth reminds them that their ilk doesn’t follow the doctrines and rules as dictated by the Vatican.  Futher, official Catholic doctrines about reproduction are, in fact, largely immoral.
  • American Catholics from a few decades ago were almost completely behind the Constitutional separation of church and state; this has changed for the worse.
  • Current lobbyists and politicians who claim to speak for Catholic America are more in line with hard-line Protestant thinking of the last few decades than with the thinking of practicing Catholics.
  • Current “new”  (i.e., hard-line) Catholicism espouses controversial principles that don’t belong in public policy. Religious exemption clauses are meant to protect freedom of thought and expression, not to promote the transformation of personal religious beliefs into national law.


  1. Jonathan Morgan
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    minor correction, Jerry, I believe Sean is no longer officially with Secular Coalition–he works for Richard Dawkins’ Foundation.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Righto; I should have known that given that he and Richard are touring and speaking together.

      I’ve corrected it, thanks.

  2. Atom
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I just finished this book and I and share your reservation concerning the prescription of how to create a secular America. I wish he would have provided more alternative ways to contribute outside that of the SCA.

    • Sean Faircloth
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      See my post below. The first way I suggest you contribute is a plan for activism laid out in the text of the book (though I’m happy to have you contribute to any secular organization that is not the first thing I encourage you to do in my book. This first thing, on page 132 is to take the lead in organizing). Also in my talk “Atheism: A New Strategy” on YouTube you can see more on this. To be even more specific here we need statewide joint secular organizing, as stated in my book. I encourage you to get involved Atom!I’m happy to come to your area to do a grassroots training after twenty years experience in politics (ten in elective office), two each state and federal. Let’s make this happen together!

      • Sean Faircloth
        Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        oops. clicked too quickly. That should read, after “(ten in elective office)”, four years lobbying, two each state and federal.” — The specific strategic plan is the most important part of this book. Thanks for taking an interest.

      • Atom
        Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink


        I appreciate your responding to my comment. I am from Mississippi and the resistance to secularism here is massive. I would love to have you come to this area and speak. The biggest obstacle here would be to educate the people. My hometown is right outside of Tupelo, Ms… birthplace of Elvis and home of the American Family Association. You can imagine the difficulties we would face considering AFR brainwashes daily over the airwaves. If you can e-mail me at I would love to extend the conversation and get your advice on how to begin such a task. Thanks.


  3. Sean Faircloth
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I greatly appreciate the posting. Thank you. As Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I have been articulating a specific plan for political organizing. I stand ready to visit every state in the union in pursuit of this goal. Here’s a talk I gave recently that offers a taste though much of the detail is in the book:

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Onwards and upwards, my friend.

  4. thompjs
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Sean spoke in Houston, and I don’t think the cover was his choice and if I understood him correctly he was not able to veto it.

  5. Sigmund
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Matt Dillahunty of ‘The Atheist Experience’ podcast had a good term, recently, for the neo-Catholic fundamentalists, he called them ‘Roman Baptists’.

  6. aj
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    The book sounds interesting. Glad to have stumbled across this post.

    What I’ve always wondered is, how can a U.S. president end a speech with God Bless America with this official policy of church/state separation? It’s glaring evidence of this lack of separation. Is the policy optional, then?

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Any suggestions for an alternative blessing?

      “God or gods and/or goddesses, if any, bless America – or not, as the case may be!” ?

      • Allienne Goddard
        Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Well, I, for one, embrace our new national blessing. Hilarious.

      • aj
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        While I like your suggestion (!), I was wondering why a “blessing” at all. God and blessing, for me, are terms associated with religion (and years of Catholic school). tomh kindly explained below.

        Now, I’m thinking a President uttering the statement signals a strong message about religion in government, or isn’t for separation of state/religion, or is currying the favour of voters who don’t want this separation…. In Canada, a different signal is sent. In Ontario, for example, Christmas trees are banned at provincial buildings in Toronto, although Christmas day is still an official and paid holiday. At the federal level, we’re more likely to hear a Prime Minister say God Save the Queen, but I think that hasn’t been heard since the 1970s — considered an offense against Quebec and Canadian self-determination.

        Living in the U.S. has been a bewildering experience at times! I appreciate the feedback.

        • tomh
          Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

          aj wrote:
          a President uttering the statement is…currying the favour of voters

          You’ve hit upon it, this is exactly right. When Reagan started doing it, the religious right was just beginning to flex its political muscle and it was all about pandering to the evangelicals. Since then, politicians have kept it up so their opponents couldn’t paint them as godless heathens. Since 90% of the voters are god-fearing folk, this is a major concern. Now it has become a tradition that would take a lot of courage to break.

    • tomh
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      Is the policy optional, then?

      Sure, it’s optional. The custom started, like so many things, with Ronald Reagan. Before him, the only record of it appearing in a presidential speech was from Richard Nixon, exactly once. Others occasionally called for God’s blessings, but none used the phrase, “God bless America.” Reagan said it in virtually every speech he made, and every president since has followed suit.

      • aj
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. This Canadian is still learning her U.S. history!

  7. Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    The point being, of course, that they were all for secularism when they were on the sharp end of systemic discrimination.

  8. Jacob
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    The relationship between the founding fathers and the role of religion in society is, like anything, complex. For example, John Adams and Thomas Paine believed that morality was a fundamental and necessary aspect of god without which humanity could not dispense in all manners of decision-making (though by god Paine meant a deistic god, as he was quite openly hostile to organized religion). However, both men were also exhaustive advocates of religious freedom and pluralism. Some founding fathers were less open to that idea (I want to say that John Jay argued America should choose only Christian rulers). But all this is rather fallacious, since the real point is that, despite the beliefs of the founding fathers, religion should not guide the essential principles upon which this country is governed. Some people advocate for a soft form of religious intrusion into government by arguing that one cannot separate personal beliefs from the ideologies that a politician brings to the job. While this is certainly true, the entire point of religious freedom is that America is not governed with respect to any religion. People cannot simultaneously fetishize the idea of freedom but then argue that freedom only represents what their own personal brand of religion prescribes. This is one reason why religion (as it’s commonly practiced) and secular society will always collide.

    • Allienne Goddard
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you pushed back against the idea that the “Founding Fathers” (ick!) were all agnostics/deists statement, since I didn’t have the energy to do it. I also agree with your subsequent assertions, and they were particularly well-stated.

  9. Greg Esres
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    After the Point of Inquiry podcast with him last week, I commented on that website that while his goals sound great, he hasn’t presented any concrete plan of action. He responded the strategy is laid out in his book, which I haven’t read. From what you say, it sounds like the book doesn’t present a concrete plan either.

    I’m rather pessimistic that without the funds or the pulpits that the churches have, it will be impossible to generate the political support that the religious community enjoys.

    • Sean Faircloth
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I’d respectfully urge you to read (or listen on audiobook! to) chapter 9 of my book. I respectfully submit that it is the most specific plan and strategy yet offered regarding secularism and policy. Also please consider looking at this talk, entitled Atheism: A New Strategy, on YouTube:

    • raven
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      I calculated that the US churches take in around 90 billion a year.

      88% of it is used internally, to pay the pastors, employees, bills, and building.

      12% is pass through. Some of this is kicked up to the national church for their internal use.

      Very little of it goes to missionary activities or propaganda compared to the total.

      Still, a small amount of 90 billion USD is still a lot. But they aren’t as rich as you could imagine. Much of the fundies’ money is wasted by being sent to conpeople who use it for their luxury lifestyles. I don’t have a problem with them wasting their money this way.

  10. Posted March 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t yet read the book. I was wondering if you could expand on what you mean By this Jerry? :-

    …the chapter on sex seems a tad excessive, almost obsessive…

    • DV
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      all these talk of excessive and obsessive sex is tempting me to buy the book 🙂

      • Sean Faircloth
        Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        based on this last comment, I should just shut-up 🙂 but it is my thesis that: a) fundamentalists are obsessed with sex so far as to impose their obsession on the rest of us through law; 2) that secular morality has much positive to offer, including about sex. I may have expressed it in artfully, but I gave it my best shot.

        • Allienne Goddard
          Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

          Ha! I actually think that Dr. Coyne’s remark will add to the sales. I might not have watched the lecture without that aside, but it peaked my curiosity. I will certainly be reading your book now, and agree that sexuality is a nexus of power that religions in general seek to control. I’m not sure why your presentation had such a strong affect on me, but I think it might have been that it speaks to society-at-large rather than to the converted, though I am an atheist and always have been. It spurred some strange feeling resembling optimism, at least as I have seen that feeling described.

  11. KP
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “how bat-guano crazy the U.S. is about religion.”

    Of course, Britain gets to own Alain de Botton.

    Nevertheless, we’re crazy at ALL levels, non-U.S. folks! I just had a debate with a colleague who is a relatively conservative Jew, but far from orthodox or anything. He’s an antropology professor and accepts evolution, blah blah blah. He refuses to see religion as the root of the evils for which it is obvious (9/11, Fred Phelps, etc. etc.).

    Another debating partner is a non-believer who hints at being traumatized by her religious upbringing. Yet she will still defend religion like it has something useful to offer.

    It is a cognitive dissonance that seems to make people blind and deaf to the evils of religion. If you’ve seen that KONY 2012 internet campaign going around, you’ll notice there’s no mention of the fact that Joseph Kony is a Christian fundamentalist (with a bizarre mix of witch doctor-ism thrown in) who wants to establish a theocracy in Uganda. Recruitment of children to his army is the whole basis of the atrocities that the KONY 2012 people are so appalled by and want him indicted for.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      I hadn’t heard about the Kony story until I listened to the most recent Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. There, at least, Rebecca Watson makes it clear near the beginning of her fairly long talk that Kony is the leader of a “Christian extremist rebel group”.

    • Marella
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure that Americans are crazier, maybe just louder and more in-your-face. In other places religion is considered less of a public issue and more of a private one. Though as I mentioned in another comment yesterday, the current atheist uprising is bringing the most unexpected people out of the closet, eg Delia Smith, famous English cook turns out to be a devout Catholic and has spoken up.

      • aj
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

        No, Americans aren’t crazier about religion, although many will disagree with me. (As for louder and in your face, they’re mostly usually well-behaved! sometimes surprisingly assertive, not good with critical feedback — maybe that’s a California thing — and these days rather angry about how their country doesn’t share the wealth.)

        After one year here, I find that organized religion creates a strong social support system that is sorely needed and would be missing otherwise. My home country (Canada) provides the support I’m imagining through universal health care and affordable & good education, which helps create smaller socioeconomic gaps and less strife between the classes even when the economy bombs.

        I suspect that religion in the U.S. serves a very pragmatic purpose and that conflating morality with religion exclusively supports, rather than is (clumsy 🙂 in other words, the purpose of religion in the U.S. is not assuring morality, it is … ?). People have good reason to be anxious and angry here, but I could be skewing and filtering through my Canadian perspective.

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just had a warning from the pro-gay lobby Truth Wins Out that

      ” according to researcher Bruce Wilson and the charity’s IRS 990 forms, Invisible Children [the Kony 2012 people] receives major funding from far-right, anti-gay fundamentalist donors and organizations, chief among them the U.S.-based National Christian Foundation (NCF). The NCF has also provided significant funds to fanatical groups deeply tied to the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda, including that nation’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill. ” 

      • Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        Keep in mind also that there’s Oil in them thar Uganda and Obama has already been sending marines into the area.

  12. George
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think I was ever a catholic even though my parents said I was. The first time I though seriously about what it meant to be catholic, I became an atheist. That was in sixth grade when the boys and girls were separated and given the vocation talk – why you should become a priest or nun. I thought about it very seriously and decide it was a bunch of crap. Unfortunately, I had six more years of catholic “education” to go. I had twelve years in total – which is about fifteen years too many. In high school, a priest suggested that I go to Notre Dame. I burst out in laughter.

    All that said, I have views on the American catholic church. I believe the Second Vatican Council is the cause of its current state. Vatican II was meant to liberalize the church. It did such a good job that all the liberals left the church. That left the most conservative wingnuts in control of the church. Ever since, they have worked to reverse and eradicate the liberalization of the church. Just look at the movement to revive the Latin mass. I believe this course is irreversible.

  13. Marella
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Sean Faircloth is awesome. I have listened to all his stuff on Youtube or Dawkins’ site and he is absolutely brilliant. I hope he’s coming to the GAC in April. I haven’t read his book yet because it’s about the USA, (where I am not) but I will soon.

  14. raven
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    The cover art may not reflect the serious nature of the book.

    But it is a great picture that sums it all up nicely.

    It would make a great poster.

  15. Posted March 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    True yesterday and false today. The earth is flat, no it’s not. The earth is the center of the universe, no it’s not, the earth is 6,000 years old, no it’s not, it’s a sin to work on the sabbath, no it’s not, birth control is a sin, no it’s not (to over 98% of Catholics and protestants). When will church leaders realize that, what was a sin yesterday may not be today or tomorrow? And what was a fact yesterday may not be a fact today? As usual, church leaders live in the Iron Age and have great difficulty adapting to changing times, even when the people cry out for change. Since when do old celibate men dressed in long robes know more about sex and reproduction than women? Their arrogance is astonishing.

  16. Posted March 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I see the conversation has turned to “what can we do to help the cause?” Sending money, talking to your children’s teachers, making informed voting choices in all elections are all good suggestions.

    I have one more, Wikipedia. When someone is beginning to question their beliefs, Wikipedia is waiting for them. What they find there is entirely up to us. My website offers hundreds of ideas of how to get started.

    It is also really important to support people like Sean Faircloth who are speaking for all of us. If his Wikipedia page isn’t up to par that reflects badly on all of us.

    I’ve just added the two external links mentioned here on this blog to his WP page, this helps expose those not in the choir already to listen in to his message.

    Please consider helping out with this cause.

  17. PB
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t yet read the book, have seen some youtubes, I think this Sean is the apostel Paul to Dawkins’ Jesus — he might well be the citizen that teach the empire …

    (the empire has to be taught by a citizen – both Roman and American)


    • PB
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      .. or even Constantine ? Will Faircloth run for senate ?

  18. Greg Esres
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink


    Ok, I’ve read Chapter 9. First, I want to thank you for writing this book and I want to thank you for doing what you do. You’re one of the most dynamic individuals in the secular movement today and I’m grateful for your presence.

    But I do have to repeat my observation that you haven’t yet presented a concrete plan. While chapter 9 has some good ideas, real plans have dates that certain actions will take place and has people assigned those responsibilities. They have measurable criteria about the level of effort and what results are expected and what will happen if the expected results do not occur.

    For example:

    If you’re serious about the importance of getting an SCA affiliate in every state, you should publicly ask for two volunteers from every state and get a commitment from them to have such an affiliate established by June 1, 2012. You should talk to them weekly to discuss progress.

    Now that’s the start of a plan.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Your book sets a goal of 2020 for an affiliate in every state. You need to rev up your ambition and optimism. It shouldn’t take eight years if you have a team working for you in every state. You could have thousands of people working for you free, but you’ll need to assign them responsibilities if you hope to get anything done.

      • Sean Faircloth
        Posted March 14, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        are you promising to put in many hours?

  19. E.A. Blair
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the Secular Coalition should choose a new name. WHen I see SCA, the first thing I think of is the Society for Creative Anachronism.

  20. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Not, of course, meaning to subtract from sales of Mr. Faircloth’s book (which I fully intend to buy and read), and presuming that nearly everyone on this list already knows these books, I nevertheless mention them as excellent (and terrifying) reading about the religious right:
    “Kingdom Coming” by Michelle Goldberg.
    “American Fascists” by Chris Hedges.
    Also I’d like to mention a recent article on the explosive growth of hate groups, mostly anti-black and anti-gay, at:

  21. Ted Seeber
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    ” He was brought up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools, but is an atheist”

    In other words, he took his parent’s views, 2000 years worth of sociological and theological research and said “I’m smarter than everybody in my family tree and their religion for the last 2000 years”.

    That’s enough for me to totally disregard his viewpoint, and leave this blog that I came to only because Mark Shea pointed it out.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Changing your view on religion doesn’t require claiming that you’re “smarter than everyone else.”

      Every religion has some sort of tradition behind it, with a lot of very smart people in it and a lot of parents teaching their children. And yet people change views, all the time. The same could be said about politics, or other factual issues.

      If Sean Faircloth had been raised in Islam and converted to Catholicism, would you be talking about how he must think he’s soooo smart? The truth of a religion is judged on the merit of what it claims — not on how many wise or nice people happen to belong to it. Think about it.

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