September 30, 2006

The Public Expression of Religion Act (H.R. 2679)

In a crazy week filled with important news, the atheist blogosphere has understandable been focused on the passage of H.R. 2679, the Public Expression of Religion Act. If passed by the Senate, which seems unlikely, the act denies reimbursement of legal feels and other expenses to plaintiffs who win lawsuits involving the Establishment Clause. In other words, the act makes filing lawsuits to enforce church-state separation prohibitively expensive to the plaintiff.

Supporters of the bill, including the Southern Baptist Convention, claim that it is needed in order to reduce the number of lawsuits brought in response to religious monuments on government property. In their typical fear-mongering style, they envision atheist activists suing to remove all crosses from cemeteries and other far-fetched scenarios. The want their Ten Commandments displays, and they realize that this legislation would protect their efforts. According to the Washington Post, House Republicans focused primarily on preventing removal of Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes from public property. However, the Post article also makes it sound like intelligent design was in the mind of supporters.

Calling the act "A repugnant affront to the civil rights of all Americans," Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notes that the legislation will make enforcement of the First Amendment's separation clause much more difficult. Lynn also describes the act as little more than an attempt to appease the Religious Right. "In reality this bill is a broad attempt to stop all kinds of challenges to government-sponsored religious activities. If enacted, it would bar recovery of legal fees and related expenses in an array of conflicts ranging from forcing children to recite prayers in schools to taxpayer funding of religious education."

According to the ACLU's Washington director, Caroline Fredrickson, supporters of the bill are leaving out one critical detail. The legal fees that it denies are only awarded when in cases where the suits are successful. In other words, the bill appears to punish those who bring successful lawsuits.

Religious Right Watch adds that the act opens the door to government-sponsored religion by making it much more difficult for watchdog groups to perform their necessary functions. "Many of these organizations and public interest law firms operate on shoe-string budgets. If they cannot recoup the costs required by legal battles, they will be unable to fight unconstitutional displays of religion."

There is another issue with this bill and similar efforts at "tort reform" which is rarely discussed on the atheist-oriented blogs I read. Trial lawyers are one of the largest contributors to the Democratic party. Anything Republicans can do to limit the size of punitive damages or make it more difficult for attorneys to recover their fees from successful suits hurts the Democratic party financially. With legislation like this, Republicans get to pander to their Christian extremist base and hurt Democratic opposition simultaneously. Now you know what is really driving all this fuss about "activist judges" (for more information on the Republican fascination with "tort reform," see Rockridge).

What can we do? First, we should be prepared to respond to calls from Americans United, DefCon, and other organizations to contact our senators and ask them to vote no when this bill comes before them. Be ready because it appears that this is going to go before the Senate quickly. Second, we should do what we can to get the word out about this bill and its implications. Do not alienate Christians on this matter, for many progressive Christians value the Establishment Clause too. Our approach to this issue does not need to be an assault on religion and will probably be more effective if we focus on the bill and its implications for all Americans who agree that church and state should remain separate. Third, we should learn how our Congressional representatives voted on H.R. 2679. Perhaps we will want to remember they voted when they are up for reelection.

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September 29, 2006

Christian Author Opposes Blurring of Church-State Boundaries

This brief book review from the Washington Post and reprinted here in the Miami Herald caught my attention for two reasons. First, it would be nice to have some new voices in the crowd of atheist-oriented nonfiction. Second, the author of this book, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, is a Christian. Admittedly, I don't usually go out of my way to read books written by Christians. However, I really enjoyed God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It so maybe I should be a bit more flexible in my reading habits.

According to this review, Ray Suarez, author of The Holy Vote, "is offended by the Christian right's efforts to identify their country with their faith." Frankly, I've always been surprised that there aren't many more Christians willing to speak out against this trend. I have met many progressive Christians who will privately express their disdain for the Christian right and their Christian Nationalist movement, but they rarely say anything publicly. Following Wallis in God's Politics, it appears that Suarez is willing to speak out.

My reading list is filled with books from the same distinguished authors (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Lakoff, etc.), but I am always looking to add fresh new voices. I think I'll add Suarez's new book to my list the next time I visit Amazon.com.

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September 27, 2006

Darwin Fish as "Ritual Aggression?"

Do you have a Darwin fish on your car? Ever wear a t-shirt with a freethought slogan? If so, you are engaging in "ritual aggression" according to a misguided professor at the University of Georgia. This article describes the results of a survey of attitudes from people who put Darwin fish on their cars. Believe it or not, some of these people actually want to "appropriate a sacred symbol and wreck it." The horror!

According to Dr. Lessl, "In several respects, displaying the Darwin fish is the symbolic equivalent of capturing and desecrating an enemy's flag, an act of ritual aggression." Yeah, okay. What about the Christian fish? Is it simply a statement of belief, or is it something more? Perhaps Christians' motives for displaying their fish are the same as those attributed to the Darwin fish folks here? Not surprisingly, this doesn't appear to have been considered in Dr. Lessl's survey.

This bugs me on so many different levels, that I am going to have to settle on just one for this post. I am growing increasingly tired of Christian belief being the implicit default. Nobody seems concerned with asking why any sane person would need to broadcast their Christianity in public, but the moment an atheist attempts to do so, it becomes newsworthy. When a Christian wears a t-shirt saying something about eternal salvation to believers, nobody stops to consider what this says to the nonbelievers who see it. I can accept this, but only if we can demolish the double standard.

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September 24, 2006

Christian Terrorist Attack in Iowa Ignored By Media

With America's attention focused on Bush's "Islamofascists," it should not be surprising that a despicable act of domestic Christian terrorism in Iowa went largely unnoticed by the media. If it wasn't for ReligiousRightWatch, I certainly would have missed it.

Christian terrorist David McMenemy filled the inside of his car with gasoline and crashed into an Iowa women's health clinic. Why? He opposes a particular medical procedure which he thought was being performed at this clinic (he was wrong about this) and evidently believes that he is entitled to harm others in order to get his view across. Fortunately, his attempted suicide-bombing failed.

Our focus on the Middle East is understandable. Our troops are dying over there in an unjust war while the Bush administration skillfully manipulates the media to shield us from the realization of the growing American body count. We are manipulated with various terror alerts, but we remain largely oblivious to domestic terrorism. Through 9/11, some of the lessons of Oklahoma City have been lost. It is worth pausing to consider that we have small numbers of Christian terrorists already in our country who mean to do us harm.

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September 23, 2006

Thinktanks, Political Infrastructure, and Atheists

I'm reading another book by George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. It is best described as a brief field manual for progressive politicians to teach them why the Republicans have been so successful and provide them with practical advice for turning the political tide in the favor. I have not finished it yet, and so I will not provide a review now. However, I will say that I am very impressed so far. In fact, I see how following Lakoff's suggestions could produce great benefits to those of us in the atheist community. Once I've finished the book, I'll probably address this in a review.

The topic of this post is an interesting question raised by Lakoff fairly early in this book. Given that Republicans have developed countless influential thinktanks to assist their politicians, where are the progressive thinktanks to assist ours? I had never really considered this question before. Lakoff provides a thoughtful answer, including differences in funding mechanisms used by both parties and differences in the core values of each party. However, he also suggests that progressives need to rethink those values which stress immediate gains over the long-term assistance that could come about through the development of a thinktank infrastructure.

The crux of the issue is that progressives want to put their money into organizations that will use it right away in direct assistance to the needy. This is laudable, but it may be shortsighted. The Republicans, seemingly selfish by comparison, have a clear strategic plan. They are thinking about political domination over the long haul. Since helping the needy is not their priority, they can afford to fund their thinktanks. Moreover, by cutting social programs designed to aid the needy, they make it increasingly difficult for the progressives to develop any sort of infrastructure. Selfish? Yes, but also pretty damn clever.

I think this exposes a serious weakness of the progressive side of which I consider myself a part. Given the differences in values, we may never invest the kind of money Republicans are spending on political infrastructure (e.g., media ownership, thinktanks, intellectuals, etc.). I am okay with this to a degree, but I think some compromise is necessary. A progressive political infrastructure is sorely needed to bring us together, define a common set of progressive values, and learn how to best convey these values.

What does any of this have to do with atheism? Plenty. You see, there are plenty of conservative Christian thinktanks, and we have all seen the strength of their political infrastructure. We atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, brights, etc. have a collection of organizations with different missions and a lack of shared vision. Do we need an American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Secular Coalition for America? Probably, but I sometimes wonder if an umbrella organization might be able to do more by collapsing resources. Assuming that most of us cannot afford to contribute to each of these (and countless other) organizations, how are we to choose? I also wonder how much communication is going on among these various organizations to develop a shared vision.

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Spain Ends Government Subsidies to Catholic Church

According to this brief report from the New York Times, Spain has decided to end government subsidies to the Catholic Church. This seems like fairly major news, given that this practice has been going on for a long time. Could it be more evidence for the waning influence of religion in Europe?

Unfortunately, government subsidies of religion continue in the United States under the guise of "faith-based" initiatives. It seems to me that the American taxpayer deserves more for his or her investment than this sort of nonsense. I don't know about you, but I have a problem with supporting programs which have been made exempt from the normal standards of evidence applied to secular programs.

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September 22, 2006

Stories You Might Have Missed 2

Here are some stories you might have missed that I meant to discuss here but never quite got around to doing so:

* What happened to the world's transition to secularism? Weren't we supposed to outgrow religion by now. It seems that as science makes great progress toward explaining the mysteries of the universe, people are clinging to their obsolete superstitions.
* This study of religion and societal health addresses the question of whether religion is beneficial or harmful to society. Don't miss this one.
*Watching CNN but feel like you're watching CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network)? Media Matters (quickly becoming one of my favorite sites) explores this issue in an insightful story here.

September 21, 2006

I Found God at the Gas Station

I was running a little late for work this morning, but the tank was getting close to empty. I stopped for gas at the same station I usually use. A tanker truck was there and in the midst of refilling the station's underground tank. No other cars were around, so I wondered if they had to shut the pumps off temporarily while they refilled the tanks. However, since there was no clear evidence of this, I proceeded.

Everything was normal, and the pump took my credit card without any trouble. As I reached for the nozzle, I noticed that a something was hanging from the handle. I figured it might be a notice of inspection or something, but I took a closer look when the nozzle didn't seem to operate properly. This was not an inspection notice, it was a small brochure advertising a local Baptist church. It had been inserted into the handle of the nozzle so that it had to be removed in order for the nozzle to function. The brochure prominently displayed an invitation to salvation and the church's name and address on the cover.

After throwing it in the nearby trash, I noticed another one stuck to the pump, then another, and several on the ground. I glanced behind me to see that the other pumps also had several brochures on them. I'd estimate that each had at least 4 brochures attached to them, but several had apparently blown off and were littering the ground.

My first reaction was disgust that someone would so carelessly litter with their obnoxious efforts to convert others to their superstition. Assuming that littering is illegal (and it might not be here in Mississippi judging by the endless piles of garbage lining every street), would any law enforcement agent enforce such a law when it was broken by Baptists? I would guess not. Then I started to wonder whether someone actually thought blanketing a gas station with religious propaganda would be effective. As much as it baffles me how anyone could think this would bring their church new recruits, I must remember that there the majority of Americans actually believe that supernatural beings exist and somehow influence the natural world. Thus, no set of beliefs is too absurd to be held by reasonably large groups of people.

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September 20, 2006

Atheist Activism: Sign the AU Petition


Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has launched a First Freedom First Campaign to stake a stand on church-state separation. If you haven't already signed it, please consider signing now.
We, the undersigned, call upon elected and appointed officials to join us in reaffirming America's religious freedom by demonstrating a commitment to the following:
  • Every American should have the right to make personal decisions -- about family life, reproductive health, end of life care and other matters of personal conscience.
  • American tax dollars should not go to charities that discriminate in hiring based on religious belief or that promote a particular religious faith as a requirement for receiving services.
  • Political candidates should not be endorsed or opposed by houses of worship.
  • Public schools should teach with academic integrity and without the promotion of religious preference or belief.
  • Decisions about scientific and health policies should be based on the best available scientific data, not on religious doctrine.
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    September 18, 2006

    Why Atheists Think About God

    As an atheist who maintains a blog focused on issues relevant to atheists (Atheist Revolution) and who participates in a number of online forums, there is one question I am asked perhaps more than any other. There are a couple variants on this question, but the typical version is something like this: "If you are an atheist, why do you spend so much time reading/thinking/talking about religion?" It is nearly always phrased as a challenge. The idea seems to be that atheists have no business in - or should be expected to have no interest in - religion.

    There are many ways to respond to this question and the apparent intent behind it. One would be to point out that virtually all today's high-profile atheists devote considerable time attempting to understand religion and persons who actually believe in religious doctrines. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are among the first names that come to mind. If prominent atheists often address religion, why should the topic somehow be off limits or irrelevant to average atheists? My suspicion, of course, is that most of the people asking me this question have never heard of Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins. Perhaps I am among the first atheist they have encountered.

    Another type of response is to point out that atheists are a small (but growing) minority in the United States surrounded by a large Christian majority. In any situation such as this, the minority ignores the majority at its peril. We atheists strive to understand believers and their beliefs because our political survival depends on it. In fact, if some Christians were to get their way, we might need to say that our actual survival depends on it without the political qualifier! Because we are surrounded by people who belief outrageous things, we seek to understand those things. We may also seek to change them, but understanding is an important prerequisite. When Christians are puzzled at this line of reasoning, I often ask them to imagine themselves as a tiny minority of White people living among a large population of African Americans who held all the political power in the group. In such a situation, would they not seek to understand African American culture just a bit?

    Bringing up race triggers my mental associations with Civil Rights, discrimination, and prejudice. A close variant of the previous response would be to point out that atheists living among Christians are not only a minority but an oppressed minority. This claim is controversial even within the atheist community. Many atheists have told me that because they have not personally experienced religious discrimination, they doubt that any atheist does. Come on people! Does this mean that a gay man who has never experienced homophobia should rightly assert that it doesn't exist? If you don't believe that atheists are subject to religious discrimination, run for political office. Getting back on track, the point is that because atheists are subject to religious discrimination, it is even more important that they understand and critique the majority religion.

    The last response I'll address in this post (and this brief list of responses is by no means exhaustive) is that most atheists feel pity for believers. Most believers are not bad people. Most are not even ignorant people. They have been duped by an extremely powerful system of indoctrination which is highly skilled at self-maintenance. We want to reach out to believers. We want to help them embrace reality and learn that clinging to obsolete superstition not only harms them but puts all of us at risk for continued global conflict. Yes, I suppose you might consider out motive somewhat selfish. Part of the reason we want to help them discard their delusion is that we believe the world would be better off without it. So, overcoming religion is in our self interest. However, I am confident that most atheists would agree that letting go of religious belief would be advantageous to the believer as well.

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    September 16, 2006

    Atheist Activism: Sign the DefCon Petition

    DefCon has launched their Real American Values Campaign in which they seek to mobilize Americans to stand against Christian extremists. This petition gives us the chance to be counted - to show that the values preached by the religious right are not our values.

    I support DefCon: Campaign to Defend the Constitution because the religious right is wrong. I will fight to:

    :: Stop the religious right's assault on a woman's freedom to make her own medical decisions.

    :: Protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans from the religious right's bigoted assault on their personal freedom.

    :: Fight the religious right's war on stem cell research, defending health and hope.

    I support what is truly right in America -- a society based on reason, personal freedom, the rule of law and the freedom to worship according to one's faith and beliefs.

    Signed by:
    [Your name]
    [Your address]

    I hope you will join me in signing this petition.

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    iTunes 7 Audio Distortion: A Partial Fix

    When I am using my home computer, iTunes is almost always running. I've never had a problem updating to the latest version until iTunes 7 was released. Now, I have to recommend that iTunes users avoid installing version 7 until Apple comes out with a fix for the many bugs being reported.

    Upon installing iTunes 7, audio playback was garbled, full of static, and unacceptably poor. I found a partial fix, but it is only that. If you run into this audio quality problem, right-click on the QuickTime icon in your taskbar and select QuickTime preferences. Click the audio tab and check the safe mode box. This turned constant playback problems into episodic problems. In other words, I can now use iTunes to play several songs before the audio problems return. When they do, I find that simply stopping the song and then hitting play again sometimes helps.

    Before changing the QuickTime preferences to safe mode, iTunes was unusable. It is mostly tolerable now, however, I am still hoping that Apple will fix the bugs soon.

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    Alabama Churches Endorse Political Candidates

    American churches enjoy tax exemption on the questionable grounds that they serve a public good in the way that most charitable organizations do. However, this exemption is supposed to be contingent on churches refusing to endorse political candidates and encourage their members to vote for these candidates. We are right to be suspicious of the degree to which churches conform to this legal requirement.

    According to Georgia's WTVM, the Christian Coalition of Alabama mails a 76-item questionnaire to state political candidates asking about their stand on a variety of issues. Why? "Candidate responses will be used in the coalition's voter guide." Of course, the Christian Coalition is not exactly a church so perhaps this is acceptable. However, WTVM goes on to state, "The voter guide will be distributed in churches across the state before the November Seventh general election."

    As bad as this sounds, the head of the Alabama's Christian Coalition says that we should not be concerned. "He says the purpose is to educate voters about where candidates stand on various issues and it is not intended to be an endorsement of individual candidates." Yeah right! This guy must figure that if most of his state believes in an invisible sky daddy that they'll buy this nonsense too.

    Not surprisingly, Democratic legislators are not happy with being asked to complete a survey which will almost certainly be used to bolster their opposition. The strange thing is that the report makes no mention of the tax exemption issue which is supposed to come up when churches start distributing voter guides and instructing their members how to vote.

    Want to do something about this? Signing this petition would be a good start.

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    September 15, 2006

    Court Permits Religious Recruitment in Oregon Public Schools

    From the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts in a case involving religion in the schools. The case was brought by the atheist parent of a first-grader who argued that the school's requirement for their son to attend Boy Scout recruiting held during school hours violated the separation clause. Interesting case because the Scouts not only endorse belief in supernatural beings but also discriminate against nonbelievers and homosexuals.

    The court ruled that providing information (even when attendance is mandatory) is not discrimination under Oregon law. You see, the court reasoned that there was no discrimination during the recruiting phase.

    "“It is in the later enrollment in the organization that the Boy Scouts differentiate among those who do not profess a belief in the deity and those who do."’ I can't help thinking that this logic could be applied to permit neo-Nazi recruiting. Based on a footnote cited in the opinion, it appears that this would be perfectly acceptable.

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    September 13, 2006

    Misplacing Faith

    Faith refers to a particular kind of belief in which the nature of the belief is such that it lacks evidence. To say that I have faith that my car will start tomorrow morning is misleading because I need no faith to hold such a belief. I have evidence to support such a prediction (i.e., considerable experience with my car starting previously, a basic understanding of how engines work, etc.). Similarly, if I tell you that the ball I am about to throw in the air will fall to the ground, you'd be correct to point out that this is not faith at all. Faith refers to a belief which is held in the absence of evidence.

    Suppose I show you an ordinary coin and tell you that I have faith that I can flip this coin 20 consecutive times and that it will land on "heads" every single one of the 20 flips. If we assume that this is not a trick coin, we could say that my belief requires faith. When the first of my flips comes up "tails," it is clear that my claim is wrong. If I were to deny this reality and persist in my faith regarding coin flipping, you would rightly regard me as delusional.

    Now consider religious faith. Most faith-based claims made by religion are those that by their very nature cannot be empirically tested. They cannot be shown to be true or false. However, there are exceptions. Recall the "prophets" who said that the world would end at the start of 2000. When the world did not end as they predicted, many of their followers remained. But how is this different from my coin-flip example?

    It is different because the bulk of religious faith is designed so that its claims can never be tested. As science has exposed the falsehood of many religious claims, believers have retreated into their shell of artificial reality and are far less likely to offer testable claims. Believers have decided that the continued existence of their beliefs is more important than having an accurate view of reality. Thus, they have erected a system in which it is almost impossible for them to discover that their faith has been misplaced all along.

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    September 11, 2006

    Journey of an Atheist, Part III

    This is the third part of a multi-post series. Part II can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here.

    As high school graduation neared, I found myself becoming more liberal than my parents on most issues (e.g., I supported the legalization of drugs, animal rights, and became quite concerned about the environment). I saw no use for religion, but my feelings toward it were considerably less hostile than they had been previously. I saw it more as a waste of time than a destructive force. My feelings toward most believers could be described as a mixture of pity and disdain.

    Under the guidance of my parents and a few influential high school teachers whom I trusted, my college application process focused on private liberal arts colleges. I had the grades to get in, and my grandparents were willing to help considerably with the expenses to fund what they saw as a superior education. I was in complete agreement with everyone advising me that a small liberal arts college offered too many advantages to pass up (e.g., small class sizes, an opportunity to work closely with faculty, higher academic standards than state schools, etc.). The fact that all the liberal arts colleges I was considering were religious institutions did not bother me because all the ones I applied to played down their religious origins and emphasized the quality of the education they provided.

    I ended up at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest with a student body of approximately 4,500. The influence of religion turned out to be something of a paradox. Most of the faculty were either openly atheistic or so quiet about their religion that one could not guess what they might believe. The students were another matter entirely. I would say that approximately 50% of the student body were conservative Christians. Still, conservative Christians in the Northwest are nothing like those in the Midwest and Southeast. They had no interest in converting anyone; they just preferred to hang out with their own kind.

    Academically, I was drawn to psychology, philosophy, and law. The pre-law program was fairly weak, so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. I absolutely loved the liberal arts perspective of encouraging students to expose themselves to a wide variety of subjects. I took courses in biology, anthropology, art, and even religion (Christianity and Buddhism). Outside of my major, my favorite courses by far were the philosophy of religion, a survey of Buddhism, and an advanced philosophy seminar on identity and the nature of persons.

    After reading Bertrand Russell, I fully embraced atheism and was quite open about this during at least 3 of my 4 years in college. I regularly debated Christian students, wrote most of my philosophy papers on the flaws of religious arguments, and had several great discussions with peers and faculty on the subject. I felt truly alive during this time and experienced virtually no meaningful consequences from my openness with atheism. There were plenty of rational students around, and my circle of friends was large.

    In retrospect, the lack of consequences for being so open seems surprising. Of course, the culture of the Pacific Northwest is extremely different than where I live now in Mississippi. But I don't think that this was the only factor. My mindset at the time was very different than it is now - much more idealistic and carefree. I suppose it would be accurate to say that any rejection I may have encountered due to my atheism simply rolled off my back so that I barely noticed it. If someone didn't like my viewpoint, that was their problem, and I never dwelled on it. I guess you could say that I felt much more comfortable in my own skin then than I do now. But that will have to wait for the next part of this series.

    On to Part IV.

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    September 9, 2006

    Christian Nationalism: The Platform

    Political parties (and some political movements or organizations) develop formal statements of their expressed goals, called platforms. Platforms are designed to attract supporters, however, they can also be assumed to reflect at least some of what the party stands for.

    While reading Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, I started thinking about the goals of the Christian nationalist movement. What do they hope to obtain? If they could modify the American political landscape to suit their needs, what would it look like? What do their current political efforts and the statements of their leaders tell us about their plan for America?

    I took notes while reading this book and continued to add to them as I read the national news. My hope was that this would allow me to uncover the platform of influential Christian nationalists in America. At the same time, I felt that it was important to derive the contents of the platform from their own statements, quoted in many different sources, to minimize bias and reduce potential misunderstanding.

    Goals of Christian Nationalists
    1. Replace the Constitution with the Christian bible as the ultimate legal authority and basis for all U.S. law.
    2. Criminalize homosexual behavior.
    3. Criminalize abortion and implement severe penalties for persons who perform abortions.
    4. Permit (and even encourage) prayer in the schools.
    5. Replace public welfare with faith-based assistance, the receipt of which may be contingent on conversion to Christianity.
    6. Eliminate judicial independence, making the judiciary directly responsible to the public and/or the other branches of government.
    7. A revisionist history will be developed in which America is imagined as being founded as a Christian nation.
    Under Christian Nationalism, non-Christians are second-class citizens. They may be tolerated, but they are certainly not real Americans. The basis of all law is biblical (especially Old Testament) law. Where the Constitution conflicts with this, it is to be changed or disregarded. This will require a totalitarian form of government to replace America's liberal democracy. However, this is perfectly acceptable because the Christian god selects America's political leadership, and there is no room for dissenting opinions when law is based on an inerrant source. Religious minorities do not deserve protection because they are destined for hell. There will be no separation of church and state.

    Because homosexuality is condemned in the bible, it must be condemned in society. Homosexuals are entitled to their beliefs but will be punished for acting on them. The more extreme believers are already calling for the execution of homosexuals, but I suspect most will put up with them as long as they remain celibate and have no contact with America's children.

    James Dobson describes abortion as the "biggest holocaust in world history." Abortion is to be outlawed, and abortionists will be tried (and possibly executed) for their "crimes."

    Since the bible commands worship of the Christian god, there is no reason why school children should somehow be exempt. Prayer in school will be encouraged if not mandated.

    Public welfare will become the sole purview of faith-based organizations. Aid may be withheld to nonbelievers or persons from the "wrong" religions, however, the more common approach will involve attempts at conversion. The faith-based agencies will be allowed to hire whoever they want, regardless of whether discrimination is involved.

    Judicial independence will be eliminated so that judges are accountability to the will of the Christian majority. A judge who rules against their wishes will be removed. In this way, the Christian faith of the majority will be imposed throughout society.

    Finally, a revisionist history under which America can be viewed as a Christian nation will be written to provide legitimacy for the movement. This false and misleading view of history will distort or omit the fact that America used to have a secular Constitution.

    For more information, I refer you to this excellent article by John W. Dean and this one by John Sugg. I also encourage you to visit TheocracyWatch.

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    September 7, 2006

    Making a Difference in One's Community

    This article in The Lompoc Record by Neil Nisperos describes the inspirational story of Lompoc, CA, resident Matt Hughes. This is a great example of how a single atheist activist can make a difference in one's local community.

    Hughes grew tired of seeing a "God Bless America" poster hanging in the Post Office and decided to do something about it. Specifically, he complained to a postal supervisor. As you might expect, the response he received was less than encouraging. "That's not coming down. You can complain to Washington if you want, but it's not coming down." However, it did come down approximately a week later. End of story? Not quite.

    Not surprisingly, an undisclosed number of post office employees were offended by the postmaster's removal of the poster. Why? One woman apparently viewed the action as being unpatriotic. "We're just upset and we're offended that we can't show support for our country." Really? Who is stopping her from supporting America? Something tells me that the American flag was not removed from the post office - just the god poster. Another man seemed to view removal of the poster as some kind of infringement of his rights to decorate his workplace. Seriously?

    What does Hughes think about these complaints? "They posted a religious expression, in this case, a prayer, and it's not the business of our government to be promoting religion." Hughes response to the removal of the poster was great too.
    "For some people, their god is named Jehovah or Allah. Some people worship Buddha. Some people worship the flying spaghetti monster. But the Christians and Jews have named their god, God with the capital G, and that's whose god was listed in the post office. If there is a god, I would wish he would bless everyone - not just America."
    Bravo Hughes! Not only did he accomplish his goal of having the post office remove an offensive religious symbol from a government building, he expressed himself well to the media covering the story.

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    September 5, 2006

    Atheist Activism: Picking Our Battles

    Atheist blogger KA from biblioblography has an interesting post about the Wal-Mart petition being discussed on several atheist blogs. As I indicated in my previous post on the Wal-Mart petition, I thought it was worth reading but I want readers to decide for themselves whether it is worth signing. Most other atheist bloggers have been encouraging their readers to sign, but KA makes it clear that he does not plan to sign the petition. I'd like to discuss his rationale and the larger implications he raises here.

    The crux of KA's argument against signing the petition and similar forms of atheist activism is that these actions fuel the common portrayal of atheists as complaining naysayers. He is certainly correct that most of our press is negative and that the vast majority of our coverage in the media comes about as a result of our saying "no" (i.e., no religious symbols on public property, no god on money, no prayer in school, etc.). This is partially explainable by the tendency of the media to cover conflict at the expense of virtually anything else, however, there is also an important truth here. We are seen as constantly challenging the status quo because we are frequently doing so.

    KA encourages us to pick our battles with an eye on our public image. It is easy to see that we are not going to endear ourselves to anyone by objecting to Christmas displays. Tempted as you may be, do not make the mistake of accusing KA as being overly focused on public perceptions. He also points out that some of our activist efforts may have paradoxical effects. For example, it is easy to imagine how publicity over the Wal-Mart petition could increase sales of the Christian bible.

    The alternative KA offers is that we replace our negative tactics (e.g., calling for the removal of religious symbols) with positive ones (e.g., volunteer work). In other words, we need to offer something to people instead of focusing so much on taking things away from people. If you'll allow me to put on my psychologist's hat for a second, I'll offer the example of child discipline. In working with a child to eliminate an unwanted behavior, one must provide a positive replacement behavior. For example, taking away thumbsucking is going to be much harder if one fails to provide a more desirable method of self-soothing.

    I think it would be a mistake to abandon our negative tactics completely. We must continue to fight to preserve church-state separation. We need to continue protesting government funding of religion until this faith-based insanity comes to an end. However, we can do a better job of supplementing these efforts with positive tactics. The general public is frequently exposed to what we oppose, but most have no idea what we support. We must define ourselves as more than an opposition force.

    When a Christian asks us what we do believe in, many of us reply "nothing" as if this is any sort of answer. Some of us even have the nerve to resent the question! We ridicule the Christian for needing to believe in something. If we are serious about helping our Christian neighbors overcome their religious thumbsucking, this needs to change.

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    September 4, 2006

    VA Councilman Sues for Jesus

    In this strange story out of Fredericksburg City, VA, and picked up by the Associated Press, a member of the city council brought a legal challenge against the council's requirement that prayers during their meetings be nonsectarian. That sentence raises several questions, doesn't it? For example, why does a city council feel that prayer of any kind during their meetings is appropriate? Or is this guy really suing to protect his right to invoke Jesus during government meetings?

    The background of this case is that the council had a situation with a prior member refusing to stop praising Jesus when it was his turn to give the opening prayer at council meetings. In response to threats of legal action by the Virginia ACLU, the council adopted a nonsectarian prayer policy. They would still open every meeting with a prayer, but the prayers were now to be inclusive to persons of all religious faiths (screw those damn atheists).

    Fast forward to a year later. Now we have a case where a member of the same city council decided to challenge this nonsectarian requirement in court. He framed it as an issue of free speech, but his intent seems fairly obvious. He didn't want to deliver inclusive prayers; he wanted to praise Jesus specifically. Fortunately, the judge in the case ruled that official prayers delivered at the start of council meetings cannot promote Christianity because they count as "government speech."

    Here is the part that confuses me: the judge's ruling may apply only to the official opening prayer and does not limit the councilman's right to deliver Jesus-filled prayers during the rest of the meetings. Huh? Does this mean that sectarian prayers are permissible during meetings of government agencies as long as they do not occur in the first few minutes of the meeting?

    Christians, I really don't have any problem at all with you praising Jesus at church or in the privacy of your own home. I think you are wrong to believe in something for which no supporting evidence exists, but I support your right to practice your religion at home or church. I also support your right to stand on a street corner and spout your Jesus nonsense at passersby. What I do not support is this apparently overwhelming need many of you seem to do this in government buildings, meetings, or in my workplace. If you have trouble understanding this, think about how the right of neo-Nazi skinheads to march in public does not translate into them being able to share their hate in some official government capacity or in my workplace.

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    September 3, 2006

    Carnival of the Godless #48

    COG #48 is now up at Deep Thoughts. I love how MoJoey set this one up - very nice. Anyway, it looks like I have quite a bit to read today so I better get started.

    Evangelist Pastor Drowns While Trying to Walk on Water

    According to WorldNetDaily, an evangelical pastor told his congregation that he could repeat the alleged miracle of Jesus by walking on water. Before you dismiss this as an outrageous claim or even blasphemy, consider that the pastor based his claim on a revelation. The outcome? He drowned.

    I do not blame the pastor for attempting this act. After all, he had a revelation. Many Christians will tell you that their entire faith is based on personal revelation. What I do blame him for is not being smart enough to realize that he wasn't walking on water until it was over his head, causing him to drown. When the annual Darwin awards come out, I think this pastor should be remembered.

    The Christian response will almost certainly be something along the lines of how the pastor's faith was insufficiently strong, how he offended god with his pride, or some similar nonsense. If more evangelicals would put their faith to the test in this manner, I suspect there would be far fewer evangelicals. Far be it for me to stand in their way.

    Postscript: Too harsh? Maybe. Ordinarily, mental health professionals would be compelled to try to prevent people from harming themselves. However, this would involve diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Since Christians have made sure that their religious delusions are off limits to the mental health profession, they have effectively tied our hands and assured that we will not be permitted to help them.

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    September 2, 2006

    Spreading the Book Meme

    I've been tagged by the book meme by The Uncredible Hallq, so here is my contribution:

    A book that changed my life:
    Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects was the first book on atheism I ever read. It helped me clarify my thoughts on religion at an early age and showed me that I was not alone in a world of believers.

    A book I've read more than once:
    Many to choose from in this category, but I think I'll go with something different and pick Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

    A book I would take with me if I were stuck on a desert island:
    That is a tough one. My first thought would be some sort of wilderness survival guide, but that takes all the fun out of the question. What could I imagine reading over and over again? I'd probably go with one of the books containing the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe.

    A book that made me laugh:
    Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

    A book that I wish had been written:
    How George W. Bush Lost The Presidency

    A book that I wish had never been written:
    Mein Kampf

    A book I've been meaning to read:
    Dawkins' The God Delusion will be the next book I buy.

    I'm currently reading:
    I just started Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

    Now, tag 5 bloggers:
    Evangelical Atheist
    Harvest Boston
    Heathen
    The Environmental Atheist
    The Truth About The Christian Right

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    The Wal-Mart Petition

    A petitition asking Wal-Mart to stop selling the Christian bible is generating a great deal of attention on the atheist blogosphere. The basis of the request focuses on the obscenity of the bible, and the petition provides many excellent examples of such obscenity (additional examples can be found here).
    We, the undersigned, recognize that any book which demands the death of innocent Wal-Mart employees, which commands sexual discrimination against women, which endorses slavery and the beating of slaves, which incites hate crimes against innocent citizens of the United States, and which demands the murder of people of other faiths, is so obscene that Wal-Mart should cease distribution of the book.
    The petition also notes that asking Wal-Mart to stop selling obscene material has precedent, such as their refusal to sell Jon Stewart's America.
    In Jon StewartÂ’s book, it is obvious that the intent is comedy. The Bible, on the other hand, is deadly serious and is frequently cited as an authoritative justification for discrimination and hatred.
    In reading the petition, many may protest that it calls for exactly the same sort of censorship which freethinkers typically oppose. We can't very well blame Christians for censoring atheist material and then turn around and try to censor Christian material, can we? This is where the petition must be read carefully. Since Wal-Mart has a well-known and frequently used policy about not selling materials deemed obscene, the petitition is simply asking them to apply it consistently and not make a special exception for the Christian bible. Of course, an equally appealing alternative would be to drop the policy completely.

    I encourage you to read this fascinating petition carefully. I will not advise you to sign it, and I will not discourage you from signing it. This is up to you. Personally, I think it would be great if something like this generated a public dialogue about religion. At the same time, I am sufficiently oriented to reality to predict that such publicity would consist of little more than a misleading attack on non-believers as trying to ban the bible.

    For another opinion on this petition, see Kill The Afterlife.

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    September 1, 2006

    Book Recommendation: Kingdom Coming

    I just finished reading Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and I highly recommend it. Author Michelle Goldberg describes the growing threat of Christian nationalism, synonymous with what I call Christian extremism, in America. This is a terrifying read for nonbelievers, but it is a threat we cannot afford to ignore. Fortunately, Goldberg offers a rational 3-pronged strategy for how progressive Christians and nonbelievers can confront the growing extremist threat.

    Rather than providing a comprehensive review of this book, I'd like to highlight two emergent themes I found particularly informative. First, this book helped me to realize the true scope of the Christian nationalist/extremist movement. This is not just a handful of fringe lunatics. This is an extremely well-organized movement with a clear strategic plan, considerable grassroots support in every state, and a remarkable long-term commitment to reshaping America in their image. In Kingdom Coming, Goldberg shows how this movement first emerged in America and how their rise to power involved sustained efforts and the flexibility to move in new directions when blocked. She illustrated their use of churches as the key foundation of their grassroots political efforts and their use of homeschooling to deliver thorough indoctrination in the training of future extremists. One cannot help but be somewhat impressed with what they have managed to accomplish even if one disagrees with their goals.

    The second insight I want to mention is closely related to the first but somewhat more difficult to express clearly. Many liberals and nonbelievers highlight the fascist nature of the Christian right. This is nothing new, but often ends up being little more than futile attempts to inflame the passions of a sympathetic audience. On the other hand, Goldberg builds a compelling case that the Christian nationalist movement is a totalitarian movement with striking similarities to Germany at the beginning of Hitler's rise to power. Let me be clear that she does not compare Christian extremist leaders with Hitler or claim that their followers are Nazis. However, she effectively demonstrates that the stated goals of the Christian right are anti-democracy and totalitarian, even fascist, in nature. The strategies employed by the Christian right and their attacks on gays, evolution, the "liberal" media, the courts, etc., are so similar to Hitler's early goals as he first started to gain power that it is impossible for a rational person to deny the parallels.

    As I mentioned, this was a terrifying book. There were plenty of times when I had to put it down because I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep if I kept reading. I actually did spend two sleepless nights because I was so disturbed by what I read! But I want to repeat what I said earlier about Goldberg offering sensible strategies for what we can do to oppose the threat. She does not simply leave the reader hanging without workable solutions.

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    Young Aussies Embrace Secular Humanism

    With America remaining in the grasp of Christian extremists for the foreseeable future, it important to remember that this is not a worldwide trend. As this article in the Sydney Morning Herald shows, Australian youth are increasingly rejecting theism and embracing secular humanism. In fact, less than half belief in any sort of god.

    I'm not familiar enough with Australia to attempt to explain this encouraging trend, but I can't help wondering what are they doing right that we can't seem to pull off in America. Keysar Trad, from the Islamic Friendship Foundation, is quoted as saying,
    "Increasing numbers of people are looking for the intellectual content in religion. If they find intellectual flaws in it, obviously they start to look at it as superstitious and ancient stories rather than being something of divine origin."

    Obviously. Could it be that they are teaching their children to question authority, value reality, utilize skepticism, or other ways to think critically? What a revolutionary idea!

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