April 30, 2007

Karl Rove Is An Atheist: More Evidence and Implications

It seems that there is tremendous interest in the possibility that Karl Rove is an atheist. The recent post in which I quoted Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, as saying that Rove "is not a believer" generated more hits than any other post in the history of Atheist Revolution. In this post, I'll consider other evidence that confirms Hitchens' statement and discuss the implications of Rove's atheism.

Hitchens' on Karl Rove and Bush

We start with Christopher Hitchens. What exactly did he say, and what was the context of his statement. During an interview with New York Magazine, Hitchens was asked whether he thought an openly atheistic candidate would ever be elected in the United States. He answered in the affirmative and was then asked whether anyone in the Bush administration has ever disclosed atheism to him. He replied,
Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”
Hitchens' response to the next question was almost as interesting. The question was, "What must Bush make of that?" Hitchens replied,
I think it’s false to say that the president acts as if he believes he has God’s instructions. Compared to Jimmy Carter, he’s nowhere. He’s a Methodist, having joined his wife’s church in the end. He also claims that Jesus got him off the demon drink. He doesn’t believe it. His wife said, “If you don’t stop, I’m leaving and I’m taking the kids.” You can say that you got help from Jesus if you want, but that’s just a polite way of putting it in Texas.
So Rove, and to a a lesser degree Bush himself, may not be the believers the American public thinks they are. In Rove's case, it appears that he has been willing to admit his lack of theistic belief to those close to him. In Bush's case, it sounds like the whole born-again thing may be little more than a public relations strategy.

David Kuo's Account of Rove

While Hitchens' statements may be new for the majority of the American people, Rove's atheism may be unsurprising to political insiders. David Kuo, former second-in-command of Bush’s Office on Faith-Based Initiatives, wrote a book detailing how the Bush administration has used Christianity to win votes. In Kuo's Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, he alleges that Bush created his faith-based office to manipulate evangelical Christians.

An excerpt from the book posted by ThinkProgress in October of 2006 states,

Three days later, a Tuesday, Karl Rove summoned [Don] Willett [a former Bush aide from Texas who initially shepherded the program] to his office to announce that the entire faith-based initiative would be rolled out the following Monday. Willett asked just how — without a director, staff, office, or plan — the president could do that. Rove looked at him, took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t know. Just get me a f—ing faith-based thing. Got it?” Willett was shown the door.

Kuo's allegations were also reported by MSNBC. According to MSNBC, Kuo "says some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as 'the nuts.'"

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.

Implications of Rove's Atheism

Does it matter that Karl Rove is an atheist? Yes and no. In one sense, it should matter greatly to all Americans because the Bush administration has long attempted to equate itself with righteous born-again Christianity. Bush himself is especially fond of speaking about his god and how he believes he is carrying out the will of his god. To find out that Rove is an atheist and that Bush is perhaps not far behind should therefore be of great interest. As Austin Cline notes,

One of the most prominent and defining characteristics of the Bush administration has been its commitment to the promotion of religion — and not just religion generally, but conservative evangelical Christianity in particular.
In another sense, whether it matters will be shaped by who you are. Atheists who despised Rove before are not suddenly going to embrace him now. We might share a lack of theistic belief, but I'm fairly confident that this is all we share. By itself, a lack of belief in gods unites us no more than a lack of belief in Santa Claus.

On the other hand, I would expect this to matter a great deal to Christians, especially those who voted for Bush. I would think that they might feel betrayed, used, and perhaps even humiliated. Such feelings would be understandable. They elected an administration who makes fun of them behind their backs, plays on their fears, makes promises which are not honored, and essentially exploits their willingness to trust someone who claims to be one of them.

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April 29, 2007

Hurricane Katrina Woes Continue to Plague Bush Administration

According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the United States government squandered the offers of international aid which poured in following Hurricane Katrina. The story appeared in today's Washington Post, and it will be interesting to see if it receives the attention it deserves.
In one exchange, State Department officials anguished over whether to tell Italy that its shipments of medicine, gauze and other medical supplies spoiled in the elements for weeks after Katrina's landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, and were destroyed. "Tell them we blew it," one disgusted official wrote. But she hedged: "The flip side is just to dispose of it and not come clean. I could be persuaded."
How about some accountability? How about explaining why so much money never reached the Mississippi and Louisiana residents in need?

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Check Out The First Humanist Symposium Blog Carnival


I've been waiting for this one since hearing about it earlier this month. With the rapid growth the atheist blogosphere is experiencing, it will be nice to have another blog carnival to complement Carnival of the Godless. This one focuses on posts that offer "a positive alternative to belief systems based on the supernatural." I think the Humanist Symposium is really going to take off. But don't take my word for it. The first edition is now up at Daylight Atheism.

Check out the Humanist Symposium.

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Introducting HitTail, A Cool New Blogging Tool

I was doing a bit of reading on blog promotion and stumbled across a few recommendations for a new service called HitTail. I wasn't exactly sure what it was at first, but that didn't stop me from signing up to give it a try. I'm glad I did because this is a neat service other bloggers should know about.

HitTail is a free real-time hit counter.
Shortly after installing HitTail, I watched a flurry of hits coming from Pharyngula. By clicking on one of them, in the HitTail "my stats" window, I discovered that PZ had linked to my recent post about Karl Rove. I could actually watch the hits coming in from Pharyngula. Very cool.

In addition to offering real-time hit monitoring, HitTail
facilitates exploration of search terms that bring visitors to one's site. Clicking the "keywords" tab shows me what search terms are being used in the popular search engines to bring visitors to my site. For example, I see that "john adams" just brought me a visitor.

I think this is going to be a useful supplement to the standard hit counter.

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April 28, 2007

Americans United Wins in Texas

According to this press release from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, there is some good news out of Texas. AU won their lawsuit over a bible display at a Texas Courthouse. And this was not just any bible display. This display "prominently featured an open Bible illuminated by neon lighting in a glass-topped case." Sounds beautiful, doesn't it?

From the press release,
By a 11-5 vote, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a legal controversy over a religious memorial outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse is moot because the display has been removed by county officials. But the judges left in place a lower court ruling that the display violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
“This is great news,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Courthouses should dispense equal justice to all Americans, whether they are Baptists, Buddhists or Bahais. When the holy scriptures of one faith are displayed at a courthouse, that sends a clear message that one religion is favored over others.”
What does the ruling mean? What significance does it have for church-state issues?
Said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, “The county has now lost this case three times, first before the trial court, then before a three-judge panel of the appeals court and now before the full appeals court. At some point, a misguided political agenda must give way to fiscal responsibility.”
Yes, one would think that the taxpayers would soon tire of these ridiculous efforts to violate the Constitution.

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Calling Current and Former Evangelical Christians

Like most Americans, I was indoctrinated with Christianity during childhood. In my case, this was a progressive and fairly liberal form of Christianity that bore little resemblance to the fundamentalist or evangelical forms which currently seem so popular. As a result, I have a difficult time understanding the motivation of those who describe themselves as evangelical. In this post, I'd like to pose a few questions to those who currently or previously considered themselves as belonging to an evangelical form of Christianity.

To elaborate a bit on the background for the questions that will follow, I should point out that I had virtually no exposure to evangelical Christianity until approximately age 16. The Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics I grew up with all shared a common perspective that religion was a private matter. At some level, I think we knew that arguing about differences among the various denominations would accomplish little besides hurt feelings. Religion was something we thought about at home and at church, but it had little relevance in the public sphere.

You can imagine my surprise when I finally begin to encounter evangelical Christians. They talked about religion constantly, prayed in public, and often reminded me of someone attempting to sell a product when they would discuss religion. It had never occurred to me that anyone would care as much as they appeared to about converting others. I suppose it is fair to say that I have remained somewhat puzzled about this through the present day.

So here are my questions for those of you who would currently or previously characterize yourself as evangelical Christians:

  1. What are evangelical Christians taught about the value of proselytizing?
  2. Is it fair to say that converting others to one's religion is an important goal for evangelical Christians?
  3. If so, what is the motivation for converting others to your religion? Are certain rewards promised, does it simply relate to believing that others would be better off as Christians, or is there some other motive?
  4. Do/did you ever feel any external pressure to convert others, or was this purely an intrinsic desire?
  5. Were you ever provided with any instruction or guidance about how to convert others?
Despite what I have heard from evangelical Christians and read by evangelical authors in my adult years, I'm not sure that I've been able to get clear answers to these questions. Perhaps I haven't been asking them correctly, but I'm trying to do so now.

Since this is obviously an atheist blog, I do not blame you for being skeptical of my intent in posing these questions. However, I am genuinely making an effort to understand something which I do not believe I understand very well. No traps, no ploys to use your responses against you, just an attempt to learn something on my part.

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April 27, 2007

Is Karl Rove an Atheist?

Could it be that one of the most powerful men in America's most overtly religious political administration is actually an atheist? According to Christopher Hitchens, Turdblossom is a non-believer.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Hitchens was asked whether anyone in the Bush administration has reported atheism. He replied,
Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”
Interesting. According to Hitchens, Bush is aware of Rove's lack of belief, however, he thinks this is unlikely to be an issue since Bush's own faith may be something less than sincere. Could it be that the pair rode to power simply because they were able to skillfully manipulate legions of uneducated Christians with gay marriage and abortion?

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Hungry? Praise Jee-zuhs

According to Christian Newswire, evangelist Dan Owens and his Eternity Minded Ministries are doing their part to combat hunger in Africa. At first glance, this is the sort of thing that an atheist cannot help but admire. Unfortunately, it seems that Owens has attached some strings to his contribution.

First, Owens and his team preach their "good news:"
Earlier this year evangelist Dan Owens and the Eternity Minded Ministries ministry team traveled to Gitega Burundi, a small village in Africa, where they ministered to the people through five evening festivals, and daily visitations to local churches, orphanages, prisons, hospitals and military quarters. Over 75,000 people heard the Gospel message, and more than 5,000 people accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior and came forward to profess their faith.
Next, they will return in May with agricultural assistance. Of course, this assistance will be provided only to those who have accepted Owens' Jee-zuhs.
Each person that stepped forward during the festival will be invited to return to a New Believers Rally to receive a brand new Bible and an Agricultural Aid Package complete with seeds and hoe to grow food for their family.
I'm not even sure what else to say about this, so I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

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April 26, 2007

Words of Wisdom: John Adams

As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?
John Adams, letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, 1816

April 25, 2007

Going Too Far: "Diversity" in Academia

There is a recent post at Secular Outpost that really got my blood boiling. The subject deals with the public pressure experienced by those in academia to be kind to the Christian delusion under the banner of multiculturalism. Since this is one of my pet peeves, I could not resist the urge to post my thoughts on the matter here.

According to this post, the Missouri General Assembly will soon consider a bill calling for "intellectual diversity" in publicly-funded universities. The bill contains the following text:

(e) Include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution's guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant;
The intent is quite clear. Christian fundamentalism should be off limits to criticism. Rather, it is to be honored under the same banner of diversity that leads us to respect race, gender, etc. 

Take a minute to consider two applications of such a policy. First, universities could fall under pressure to hire more Christian fundamentalist faculty. Just like universities are encouraged to hire more women and ethnically diverse persons, I could easily imagine a call to increase the numbers of fundamentalists to better reflect the views of the student body. Second, rational faculty would be prohibited from penalizing students for spouting religious nonsense as a replacement for factual information across the curriculum. Science professors would have to accept "intelligent" design papers as being on the same level as those on evolution.

I agree with Secular Outpost that the academic left has for the most part done this to ourselves. In a way, the right is only using our own idiocy against us. It is time to revisit the scope of diversity and multiculturalism. I'm all for religious freedom, but I do not believe that religious belief counts among factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

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April 24, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Southern Baptist Abuse Cases Getting Attention

According to The Christian Post, sex scandals involving Southern Baptist clergy are receiving increased attention, with some fearing that we are looking at a similar pattern as the widely known epidemic facing Catholicism. I find this fitting because my experience has been that Southern Baptists are among the first to condemn other denominations as not being "real Christians."

According to the article:
A six-month investigation was unfolded Friday night on ABC's 20/20 which found "preacher predators" all over the country and shielding themselves in churches.
Describing the case of Shawn Davies, a Missouri youth minister who plead guilty molesting 12-16 year-old boys, the article quotes Christa Brown, coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as saying, "What's so terrible about this crime is that the weapon is the kids' faith." Indeed.

Not surprisingly, the coverage and the controversy deals with the appropriate role of the Southern Baptist Convention in policing sexual abuse at the level of local churches. It seems to me that a more compelling story would focus on the bridge between faith and abuse. Of course, I am not claiming that faith inevitably leads to abuse. However, there is reason to explore the possibility of some connection.

That the majority of sexual abuse cases involving children are perpetrated by persons known to the children should come as no surprise (despite unhelpful media depictions of deranged strangers). Trust is an important factor which allows abuse to unfold over time. Family members, teachers, coaches, and clergy all occupy positions of trust, conferred authority, and some degree of power.

What may distinguish clergy from these other groups is the sort of halo they have been given. Unlike family members, teachers, coaches, etc., indoctrination in faith puts clergy on a supernatural pedestal. Not only are they to be respected, trusted, obeyed, but they are often viewed as being inherently virtuous, mysterious, and as having a direct connection with supernatural entities. Thus, they have the same sort of power as members of other trusted groups plus some unique aspects that are all their own. Do these unique aspects help them get away with abuse for longer periods of time, change the nature of the abuse, or even increase its likelihood? I don't know, but it seems like this might be a topic worthy of investigation.

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April 23, 2007

Fred Phelps Heading to VTech

Yes, that's right. The infamous Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church is planning to take his funeral protesting sideshow to Virginia Tech. Just stop and let that sink in for a minute.

Evidently, this new low for Phelps was finally noticed by at least one Christian. According to Christian Newswire, Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, released a statement opposing Phelps' decision to protest these particular funerals.

Sad to say, I found the nature of Rev. Schenck's outrage somewhat incomplete.
Pastor Fred Phelps and his unbiblical, non-Christian venomous message are not only supremely offensive to the survivors and families of those lost in the Virginia Tech massacre, but to those of us who have prayed and wept with them.
Yes, what Phelps stands for is offensive. You'll get no disagreement from me on that point. But it isn't offensive because it is "unbiblical" or "non-Christian." It is offensive because it is intolerance nonsense.
Mr. Phelps routinely violates the New Testament mandate of Christ in Matthew, Chapter 5, to love others, even those he perceives to be his enemies, and St. Paul's admonition that if we 'have not love,' we are as meaningless as 'a tinkling cymbal.'
Again, Phelps is doing far worse than neglecting to follow your particular interpretation of some ancient book. Besides, loving one's enemies is one of those many absurdities contained in this book which no reasonable person can be expected to follow. The American system of justice makes no attempt to follow this recommendation, nor does anyone who supports the death penalty or military action. But I digress. None of this is relevant to what Phelps is doing. You know full well why what Phelps is doing is wrong, and there is no need to cloak your reasonable objections in this mantle of superstition.
Mr. Phelps does not speak for or represent the sentiments of the majority of Bible-believing Christians or ministers in this country. He speaks only for himself and not for historic Christianity. His rants deserve to be utterly rejected and ignored by anyone of serious Christian faith.
Really? And I suppose that you do speak for and represent the sentiments of most "Bible-believing Christians?" Do you speak for them on all matters or just this one? To say that Phelps attitudes conflict with "historic Christianity" simply reflects your ignorance of the atrocities committed by Christians through the ages. Protesting funerals, no matter how distasteful it may be, pales in comparison to the torture of heretics, cannibalism during the Crusades, and many other Christian atrocities.

Phelps is a Christian extremist. Criticize him, but recognize this fact. He and his followers are not that far from other more prominent Christian extremists.

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April 22, 2007

Pharyngula on Lessons From the Women's Movement

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has a great post on the subject of atheists being criticized for being too outspoken. His post explores some of the parallels between women's suffrage in the U.S. and the "new atheism." He makes a compelling case and includes many inspiring quotes from prominent feminist pioneers. PZ writes,
When I look at the history of feminism, I see a ferocity and a record of sacrifice that puts us tame godless people to shame. Maybe we need to get more outraged and outrageous. 
He's right. We can learn a great deal from these early feminists. They were accused of nearly everything that is currently being hurled at us, but they did not back down, did not water down their approach, and certainly offered no apologies. Their perseverance in the face of injustice remains a source of inspiration. Let it be a lesson to us now.

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Christian Trolls on Atheist Blogs

"Do not feed the Trolls" sign. Photo...
"Do not feed the Trolls" sign. Photographed in South-Africa, Troll-Park near Pretoria :-) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Regular readers have noticed a growing problem with Christian trolls here at Atheist Revolution. I know that they've noticed because I've received some complaints. Since I want to encourage visits by Christians, including relevant comments, I have been reluctant to take action to better control the trolls. However, four things are now motivating me to look for solutions.

First, a recent post has generated 160 comments and counting. I realize that this is nothing for many blogs, but it is more than twice what I've had before. As tempting as it would have been to conclude that my post must have touched a nerve, it turns out that something like 75% if the comments had little to do with my post and were instead irrational arguments from Christian trolls and well-intentioned rebuttals from regular readers. When only a handful of the 160 comments addressed my post, the problem is hard to ignore.

Second, I have noticed that the comments of some of my more persistent Christian trolls are shifting in an unpleasant direction. Irrelevant bible quotes are becoming more common, as are a host of nonsensical Christianspeak phrases (e.g., "god is love," "Jesus died for your sins," etc.). I don't mind bible quotes, but I think that they should be relevant to the discussion (and hopefully to the post itself). As for the increase in Christianspeak, most atheists experience this as gibberish. It makes you look stupid and accomplishes nothing. More disturbing is the poor grasp of logic and reason, the rules of argument if you will. As one especially common example, finding what you perceive as a hole in a particular scientific explanation or body of knowledge does nothing to strengthen alternative explanations (e.g., goddidit). To strengthen alternative explanations, you need evidence supporting them. Given that most educated Christians abandoned these "god of the gaps" claims long ago, this too makes you look stupid.

Third, related to the above but certainly not limited to it, I have started to receive some complaints from my regular readers. These range from specific requests to ban certain trolls to subtle expressions of frustration over how relevant comments are getting lost amidst off-topic argument. I learn too much from - and am too often inspired by - my regular readers to continue jeopardizing their patience. When others start blogging about my trolls, you know things have gone too far!

Finally, I recently had an opportunity for some experiential learning that caused me to question one of my previously held beliefs about the value of the open forum. You see, it is safe to say that my primary objection to doing anything about trolls has always been rooted in my belief that an open forum was the best way to foster meaningful dialogue. My experience occurred in an online forum in which I participate. The short version is that the moderators have basically abandoned the forum and that it has deteriorated into little more than name-calling. Most of the serious folks have left in disgust (I will soon do the same), leaving an army of asshats to run wild. So maybe my belief in the open forum ideal was a bit naive.

Now that I have come to agree that there is a problem, what are the solutions?

  1. Clearly off-topic comments from trolls will be deleted, especially those transparently designed to bait others or filled with Christianspeak.
  2. If readers will ignore the type of comment described above, I suspect that their frequency will decrease. This will also make it easier for me to delete these comments without disrupting the thread. That is, don't feed the trolls.
  3. If you are finding yourself posting more than 10 comments in the same thread within a 24-hour period, please take it down a notch.
  4. Trolls who repeatedly post irrelevant comments, bait others, rely on Christianspeak, or regularly violate the rules of argument will be banned.
I do not take the decision to delete a comment or ban a commenter lightly. I would prefer not to do this at all, for I believe that even the most despicable sort of Christian troll can yield valuable insight into the fascinating mind of a Christian. However, for the reasons addressed here, inaction is no longer an option.

In closing, I'd like to extend a word of thanks to my regular readers. You've been great at providing a reality-based rebuttal of much of the Christian nonsense that occurs in the comments. Since I cannot visit this blog from work, I'm rarely able to address these comments until later. I really appreciate your willingness to come in and set the record straight when necessary. Keep it up.

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April 21, 2007

Beyond Negligence: Bush and Abstinence-Based Programs

Politicians who support a policy which has been discredited by scientific data of which they are unaware are acting negligently. Persons in their role should be aware of relevant evidence and should use such evidence to evaluate their policies. In other words, they should know about the evidence which they do not know about. However, the situation is far more serious when policy makers know of the contradictory evidence and continue to endorse the discredited policy. This is more serious because they had the relevant evidence and intentionally ignored it. This is an insult to the people they represent.

Take the example of abstinence-based sexual education programs. Scientific data, collected at the request of the U.S. Congress, reveal that abstinence classes are ineffective. These programs are politically popular among conservatives seeking to pander to their socially conservative base, however, they have been repeatedly criticized by educators and scientists and wasting taxpayer dollars. This is not the first time the efficacy of abstinence programs has been challenged with empirical data. Quite clearly, these programs do not work.

The rational approach is to abandon these programs and reallocate funds to demonstrably effective programs. And yet, it appears that the Bush administration has no intention of doing this. Why? You see, they are convinced that abstinence programs must work and that science just hasn't demonstrated it yet. In other words, their faith leads them to ignore the reality-based information. Then again, maybe their newest approach will prove effective.

We have seen this again and again from the Bush administration (see The Republican War on Science). The evidence is clear. To ignore it goes far beyond negligence. The United States is among the top of Western nations in terms of our unwanted pregnancy rate. In large part, this is due to the opposition to birth control which is so pervasive among conservative Christians. Coupled with faith-based reliance on ineffective sex education programs, we insure that this problem will persist.

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April 20, 2007

Christian Bible is Poor Basis of Morality

Many Christians claim that their bible is the source of morality and that it is something of a guide for Christians to determine how to live their lives. If we accept this claim (i.e., that they believe this to be the case), the implications are terrifying. Granted, there are some good things in the Christian bible, and even if they can be traced back to moral systems that pre-date Christianity, this does not necessarily diminish their value. However, there are also many terrible things in the Christian bible, making me extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that this book should guide anyone's behavior. Let's look at an example.

The following comes from Exodus 34: 13-17 and provides a decent example of why the Christian bible cannot seriously be regarded as any sort of guide to moral behavior:
...ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make they sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shall make thee no molten gods.
Even if you can ignore the obsession with "whoring" evident here, what do you think about the merits of the jealous god described here? I see little worthy of admiration and even less worthy of emulation here. For additional examples, see this post at Evolving Mind.

The Christian confronting this passage has a few widely used options, none of which strikes me as satisfactory. First, the Christian may claim that this passage has nothing to do with morality and should never be regarded as such. Okay, but what are we to make of the "ye shall" part that certainly sounds like an order? Who are we to ignore what this god tells us to do? Second, the Christian may say that I am simply misinterpreting this passage and that understanding the bible requires some form of guided bible study. Again, who am I to say that the meaning conveyed by these words is not the meaning intended by god? Can I be that arrogant? Is it really wiser to conclude that I need trained clergy to decipher this text for me because this god can't communicate well? Third, the Christian may simply say that this is not a significant passage and that many others are far more important. Says who? It seems that I should read these words attributed to this god in order to understand what this god wants of me rather than to selective pick and choose what I will follow and what I will reject. Again, how could I be so arrogant as to assume I have the right to follow what I like and disregard the rest?

A far more reasonable conclusion is to realize that this book had little to do with morality when it was written and even less so now. Then again, I don't suppose it is fair to accuse someone who claims to have a personal relationship with a dead person (who possibly never existed) of being reasonable. As nice as it might be to have an instruction manual for life, this isn't it.

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April 19, 2007

Moderate Religion: Culpability and Possibility

Most atheists believe that religious extremism is a problem. Many religious moderates in America agree with us, especially if we are discussing Islamic extremism. However, most American atheists are more focused on Christian extremism because we encounter it more frequently, see countless examples of it throughout our society, and marvel at the reach of its influence to the highest levels of our government. Unfortunately, fewer Christian moderates have been willing to stand against their extremist brethren within Christianity. What role are moderate Christians to play, if any, in our opposition to Christian extremism?

The culpability of religious moderates in facilitating religious extremism was a central theme in both Dawkins' The God Delusion and Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. In fact, this theme seems to have been an important part of what made both books unusually controversial. The point to emphasize here is that moderates are not accused of simply contributing to extremism through their inaction. Instead, they are described as actively contributing to the problem of religious extremism. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, "sensible" religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.
Non-fundamentalist (i.e., moderate) religion is accused of making it easier for fundamentalist religion to survive. How? Because, as Dawkins notes, religion (both moderate and fundamentalist) promotes faith. Faith limits discourse, restricts the sort of questions that can be asked, and thus fosters delusion. By teaching their children that strong faith is virtuous, especially when one's faith is tested and manages to survive, believers strengthen all religion - not merely the moderate type.

Unfair criticism? I don't think so. To teach a child to value faith is to teach a child to reject reason and to devalue thought. Faith puts emotions and desires above reason, science, and critical thinking.

But moderate religion does not have to remain locked in faith. Consider an alternative possibility. What if moderate Christian parents taught their children values such as compassion , empathy, and tolerance - values which are not in any way derived from scripture - along with their religious traditions and customs. Instead of learning to take pride in any sort of faith, these children might learn to appreciate the power of critical thinking. They would grow up valuing church, respecting their religious heritage, and wanting to participate in religious rituals because they would identify with this tradition. However, they would also have an adaptive moral base from which to operate and an appreciation for reality-based thinking. They would accept most of the core values Christians claim are central to Christianity but without the mental headlock of faith.

Implausible? Probably, but I'm not sure it has to be. Just think of the possibilities.

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April 18, 2007

Columbine and VTech: How Many is Enough?

Remember the outcry after Columbine? Clinton attempted to get tougher gun control legislation through Congress but was blocked by a Republican congress. Republicans preferred to blame Marilyn Manson. Here we are in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, and I expect less outrage than that which followed Columbine. On the front of gun control, I expect that little will change. I can't help wondering how many dead will be required to prompt meaningful change.

Like most rational persons, I recognize that there is no single cause for events such as Columbine and Virgina Tech. The available data indicate that multiple factors are involved, only one of which is access to weapons. Access to weapons is, however, an important variable in assessing the degree of lethality. A gun is not going to make an otherwise stable person go on a killing spree. However, the availability of a gun is going to make an unstable person more lethal should other factors prompt a spree.

The gun lobby has an answer for us. They say that the problem is that there are not enough guns. If every one of those students and Virginia had been armed, not as many people would have been killed, right?

We can concoct scenarios where not wearing a seat belt reduced injury, and we can similarly imagine scenarios where everyone having a gun would limit a particular tragedy. The question is what happens the rest of the time. I don't know about you, but when I was in high school and for at least my first year or two of college, I'm not sure I was mature enough to have been able to handle a gun. In fact, I can almost guarantee you that if I had been armed throughout this time that something bad would have happened. Under the influence of too much alcohol, I did many stupid things. I hate to think of what would have happened if guns had been involved.

How many more of these tragedies in our nation's schools will be necessary to bring about defensible gun control? At the same time my heart goes out to the victims of Virginia Tech, I can't help feeling that we have failed them. At what point will we be willing to tell our politicians to stand up to the gun lobby?

H/T to Blue Gal.

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Urinating on the Bible

When I first encountered the title of this article, I laughed out loud. It wasn't so much that the image itself was funny (although it was) as much as it seemed like such a transparent attempt to inflame Christians against Muslims. When I finally got around to actually reading the article, I discovered that it was worth sharing for more than just the title.

The story, from The Australian, describes the mildly interesting account of two Muslim students who were expelled from their Islamic school in Melbourne for defacing a Christian bible. The worthwhile part of the story, however, wasn't what these boys did, but the outrage that followed among their fellow Muslims.

Evidently, the school responded to the incident by telling its students that "...the Bible and Christianity must be respected." Really? Why? Could it be that the school, located in heavily Christian Australia, realizes its precarious position? To let the incident go unpunished might give the impression that the school was actually teaching its Muslim children to hate Christianity.
The Bible desecration comes at a time of heightened tension among Australia's 300,000-member Islamic community, many of whom believe their religion is being unfairly discriminated against because of terrorism fears.
What seems to be lost in this story is that no additional teaching is likely to be required to get Muslims to hate Christians (or Christians to hate Muslims). The "holy" books of each religion claim to be the one form of "truth," condemn non-believers and persons who worship other gods, etc. Could it be that these children's failing was that that had not adequately learned how to keep their hatred to themselves?

The Christian bible is neither sacred nor holy. It is a book. To teach children otherwise is to deceive them into accepting a harmful delusion. If the bible means something more to you, this tells us about you but says nothing about the book itself. This book is not worth dying over, killing over, or even getting upset over. Christians and Muslims, go pee all over any atheist book of your choice - it won't phase me a bit.

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April 16, 2007

Secular Humanist First, Atheist Second

English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo ...
English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo made in blender quick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am an atheist, but I am also a secular humanist. In fact, I sometimes feel like I am an atheist in part because this is where secular humanism led me. Technically, I suppose that would not be a correct assertion. I realized I did not believe in gods prior to learning about secular humanism. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that my connection to atheism is largely rational while my connection to secular humanism is both rational and emotional. That is, I have a certain fondness for secular humanism that I do not have for atheism. Does that make sense?

I focus this blog on criticizing religion and other forms of irrational belief, with Christian extremism spending the most time in my crosshairs. And while I do focus on atheism more than humanism, it is time to give secular humanism more of the attention it deserves.

What is Secular Humanism?

Secular humanism is much broader than atheism and entails many things that atheism does not. This will be easy to grasp if you remember that atheism refers to nothing more than the lack of belief in any sort of gods. So what is secular humanism?
 

According to Paul Kurtz, "Humanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook" which can be traced "back to the philosophers and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and the Charvaka movement in classical India." Humanism is an optimistic stance, entailing "confidence in the power of human beings to solve their own problems and conquer uncharted frontiers." We humanists believe that reason, science, and technology can benefit humanity and seek to promote their growth.

Secular humanism also entails scientific naturalism. That is, secular humanists are naturalists who reject the existence spiritual/supernatural entities because there is no evidence for any such entities. We maintain that reason is the path to knowledge and that faith has absolutely nothing to do with knowledge. It is not a different way of knowing because it is not a way of knowing at all - it has no bearing on knowledge.

Ethically, secular humanism has something important to offer too. Our ethics are derived from reason rather than superstition. We recognize that some of the core ethical precepts (e.g., the "Golden Rule") predate Christianity, and we do not see this as a problem. We apply reason and science in evaluating and shaping our vales.

In the political realm, secular humanists seek to foster democracy. We value human rights and believe that such rights apply to all humans. Thus, we are committed to humanity and are unlikely to get caught up in the idiocy of patriotism to the point that it blinds us to global issues. We strive to promote human dignity and respect, and we find that inherently divisive religious dogma is more of a hindrance here than an asset.

Why Does Secular Humanism Come First?

If you ask me why I am an atheist, the core of any response I will give you is that my application of reason and science gives me no reason whatsoever to accept the theistic belief claim (i.e., that any sort of god or gods exist). But why do I believe that reason and science are valid ways of acquiring knowledge while blind faith is not? This takes us to secular humanism.

Even if I respond by telling you that I do not believe because belief is harmful, skillful questioning will inevitably lead me to stating the value that I believe that it is healthier to embrace reality rather than superstition. Again, this is secular humanism. In this way, I am an atheist because I am a secular humanist. Applying the principles of secular humanism leads me to atheism.

This does not diminish the value of atheism in any way; however, it does highlight the need for recognition that atheism alone is not a sufficient worldview. This should come as no surprise to anyone who recognizes that atheism really isn't a worldview or a belief system at all. Secular humanism is a belief system and a worldview, one that includes atheism.

The Real Value of Secular Humanism

Secular humanism is optimistic, but this optimism is rooted in reality. Unlike the naive optimism associated with some religions, secular humanists are optimistic about human capabilities and realize that the responsibility rests solely with us to improve our world. We wait for no rapture, nirvana, or 72 virgins (not that I'd turn down 72 virgins, mind you). We take on the problems facing humanity ourselves and realize that our successes or failures will determine the outcome. This is both humbling and empowering at the same time.

We have reason and science on our side. We have common sense and education on our side. We are secular because this is where reason takes us. We welcome an interaction between science and values and have no need to constrain progress or discriminate against others based on the ambiguous words in some ancient book. We are vibrant, passionate, and living in harmony with reality. Secular humanism is to be celebrated. It is time to get the word out.

To learn more about secular humanism, visit the Council for Secular Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

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April 15, 2007

Tax Day: Looking on the Bright Side

Across America, Republicans, Libertarians, and anarchists are seething with rage over what today represents - the day we must pay taxes. Just because I am not a member of any of the aforementioned groups does not mean that I was excited about paying taxes this year. In fact, I owed more this year than any other year so far, and the final amount was far larger than I had planned on. Still, I think there is a bright side to taxes.

I know all too well that a large portion of my tax dollars is going to fund an unjust war that makes Americans less safe around the world and undoes much of the international reputation our country has built. I'd be lying if I said that I did not find this extremely upsetting. At the same time, I do not blame taxes nearly as much as I blame the administration who has committed so many atrocities against the international community and Americans at home.

Just because the bulk of my taxes go to sustain Bush's war machine does not mean that they do not also support many much-needed governmental programs which I applaud. For example, take the U.S. National Park system. My earliest memories and many of the happiest memories of my life were set in National Parks, National Forests, and other publicly owned land. This was where I learned to appreciate nature and the need to preserve our natural resources. Without my early experiences in these settings, it is doubtful that I would have developed an early love of science that is still with me today.

Similarly, my work in the mental health field has taught me the importance of government-funded social programs. Some mentally ill persons cannot live independently. Long-term hospitalization is far too expensive, so most are sustained in the community through a network of community mental health centers, group homes, and halfway houses. While the system is embarrassingly underfunded at both state and federal levels, this safety net keeps people alive and saves the rest of us money in what we would otherwise have to invest in the criminal justice system.

I view the taxes I pay as an investment in my country, an investment which increases the common wealth of America. There are many governmental programs that I do not support, but there are many more I do support. If I want to have access to these programs and want my fellow citizens to share this access, I recognize that such an investment is required.

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April 14, 2007

This Progressive Values Free Speech: Reacting to Imus

Confession time. Prior to the media hullabaloo over Don Imus' on air statements about Rutgers' basketball players, I had no idea who the hell Don Imus was. Now that I've seen news report after news report, I've been able to gather is that he is a radio personality and one of the strangest-looking human beings I have ever seen. In this post, I suggest that the real story is not what Imus said but how society has reacted to it and the implications of this reaction for free speech.

In case you've been living under a rock, Imus referred to Rutgers women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos" on his show. The outrage in response to his statement was swift and not particularly surprising. The comment has been repeatedly characterized as being both racist and sexist. It appears that this sort of thing was nothing new for Imus. Following the Rutgers statement, he was initially suspended for two weeks, but when some big advertisers pulled their support for his show and it became clear that public outrage was spreading, he was canceled.

It is obvious that Imus should not have said what he said in this forum. He is free to think whatever he wants, and he should be free to say whatever he wants if he is doing so as a private citizen. The thing is, Imus was not acting as a private citizen but as an employee of various companies who were providing him with a different sort of forum than that which most of us enjoy. The stations which carried his show are perfectly free to drop it when it is clear that their continued support for him would hurt their business. This is not public radio; these are companies in the business of making money. Imus was their employee, representing their company in a public sphere. This was far from a private individual expressing his/her views as a citizen. Thus, I cannot fault the stations for canceling his show once they decided that it was in their interest.

I am somewhat troubled by the inconsistency with which this decision is applied. Is what Imus said worse than what we regularly hear from Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, Beck, O'Reilly, etc.? I'm not going to make that claim here except to say that I believe it merits some thought. Is the difference one of economics in that the market for these hate-mongers is more profitable, immunizing them against consequences for their statements? Does it reflect social intolerance of racism and continued acceptance of homophobia, etc.? I don't have the answers, but I believe we should ask the questions.

The main source of my distaste for this saga relates to what I saw on a recent episode of Countdown With Keith Olbermann. There was Jesse Jackson making sweeping pronouncements that made little more sense than most of what comes out of his mouth. If Don Imus is one of the strangest-looking human beings I have ever seen, surely Jackson is one of the strangest-sounding! Who appointed this guy to represent the African-American community? Amidst Jackson's frequent mispronunciations, made-up words, and often incoherent babbling, he managed to get across a disturbing message. He repeatedly stated that his goal was one of "detoxifying their airwaves." He sees Imus as only the beginning and made frequent reference to utilizing the momentum generated by the Imus story to expand the fight. Anything he considers inappropriate must be removed. It soon became clear that Jackson has no intention of stopping with public airwaves. He referenced a comedy club which has starting fining or banning comedians who used "the N-word," expressing his approval. He's not after education, sensitivity training, or other less draconian measures; he wants bans, prohibitions, and censorship.

As I sat there listening to Jackson, I couldn't help thinking of Falwell and his Moral Majority. We on the left aren't too crazy about Falwell's ongoing efforts to impose his morality on us, and I'm not sure that we should tolerate Jackson's quest to do the same. I'm all for fighting intolerance in all its forms, but I've never understood how any reasonable person can think that restricting the sorts of free speech which make them uncomfortable is the appropriate way to do this.

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April 13, 2007

Call Us Passionate Atheists, Call Us Atheist Activists

Ever drawn to conflict, real or imagined, the media is now trying to make it sound like there is a great split in the atheist community over how vocal we should be in our criticism of religion. I am not convinced that this is a real conflict, but there are clearly differences among atheists in what is perceived as our responsibility to society. The mistake the media is making, as is its tendency, is one of oversimplification. Sure, there are atheists who just want religious people to leave them alone and who have no interest in expressing their opinions. There are also outspoken atheists, activists working toward meaningful change. The problem is that most atheists fall somewhere between these poles such that any artificial dichotomization is going to be misleading.

It is interesting that the question buzzing around the atheist blogosphere is what to call atheists who tend toward the outspoken pole. One rarely hears people asking what we should call the atheists who just want to avoid any meaningful debate or controversy. Could this be due to the fact that this is exactly how believers wish we would all behave?

As I have previously shown, there is no such thing a "fundamentalist atheist," as this is a contradiction in terms. While Similarly, while it may be possible to imagine a "militant atheist" taking up arms against believers, this is the stuff of fiction and can be discarded rather easily. I have suggested that there may be a tiny minority of my fellow atheists who could possibly warrant the label "atheist extremists" because they could be imagined engaging in the sort of irrational thinking which characterizes all forms of extremism. But even if this is possible, it is extremely rare and none of the media's favorite scapegoats fit this mold (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.). These men are passionate, but their arguments are far from irrational.

So what should we call the outspoken atheists who rightly criticize religion and work toward positive change? Call us passionate "atheist activists," and yes, I happily count myself among them. We are passionate about what we are doing because it is personally meaningful to us. We care about our fellow humans and want to help make the world a better place, free of superstition. We are activists because we work for positive change. Much like the activists of the Civil Rights era, passionate activism can accomplish worthy goals which originally seemed impossible.

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April 12, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Baptist Pastor Molests Boy

In this sordid but all too familiar report out of North Carolina, Todd Brock, a 42-year-old High Point pastor, was arrested on multiple felony charges. He is being accused of having sex with a 17-year-old boy who sought his help in dealing with the death of a friend due to cancer. The distressed youth allegedly sought the pastor's help for "spiritual guidance," and...well...you've heard similar reports enough to know what happened next. This pastor is accused of doing things that would have made Ted Haggard proud, including bondage, anal, oral, and shooting a porno.

According to Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Brock was employed for 17 years, he had no prior criminal record. In 17 years, it seems hard to believe that this was his first offense. I can't help wondering who else this pastor might have victimized during his tenure. Sick.

April 11, 2007

Plenty of Room for the Friendly Atheist

It is a sad day when atheists accuse one another of not being sufficiently outraged by all things religious. It is almost as if some are now concerned with some sort of atheist street cred! The poor media, always weeks behind any meaningful development in the blogosphere, are now highlighting and amplifying conflict to make it look like we are a bunch of bickering idiots.

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant was accused of being too nice to religion. I read Friendly Atheist regularly, and I applaud Hemant's content and the tone of his message. Just because I choose to be a bit harsher in my tone here does not mean that I value his contribution any less. If anything, I admire his patience and suspect that he will reach more of those who we might describe as on the fence than I ever will.

When Hemant says, "I can’t believe I have to defend myself for not acting like a douchebag," I know exactly how he feels. You may remember that I was recently criticized along similar grounds.

There are many different with which an atheist can deal with religion, from ignoring it completely to opposing it with great hostility. Admittedly, I tend toward the opposing end of the spectrum, but that doesn't mean I need to be an ass to maintain my atheist street cred. The approach that Hemant uses so effectively and which I attempt at times may well be more effective than in-your-face attacks. To write it off because you don't think it is harsh enough misses the point - we seek change and not empty complaining.

There are believers out there who genuinely oppose theocracy and other social-political ills. Should we refuse to interact with them simply because of their delusion? I can't speak for others, but I am a hell of a lot more interested in making our world a better place than I am in adhering to someone else's idea of what our "atheist movement" is supposed to be about.

I do not agree with Hemant when he says, "Being angry and antagonistic isn’t helping our cause." I believe that there are situations where this approach is beneficial. However, that does not mean that it has to be inflexible. There are plenty of other times when I suspect a friendly approach will be far more effective. We need the "friendly atheist" at least as much as we need the "angry atheist."

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April 10, 2007

New Blog Carnival: The Humanist Symposium

Daylight Atheism has created a new blog carnival, The Humanist Symposium, which will be of interest to many of you. With the growing number of atheist blogs and only one blog carnival for us, Carnival of the Godless, I think it will be great to have another. The key differences are contributions to The Humanist Symposium will be restricted to posts from atheists/agnostics/freethinkers that focus on supporting humanism. That is, contributions should focus on offering "a positive alternative to belief systems based on the supernatural" rather than purely criticizing religion. I think this sounds fantastic.

The first Humanist Symposium will take place on April 29 at Daylight Atheism. Submissions are now being accepted through Blog Carnival.

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Thomas Jefferson on the Supernatural

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820

April 9, 2007

Fired For Refusing Church

Christians seem to have such a difficult time understanding what it is like to live as an atheist in such an overwhelmingly Christianized culture. Rather than try to imagine what their own experience would be like if they were to live in a Muslim country as one of a handful of Christians, many prefer to call us evil and dismiss us outright. If we'd just conform to their shared delusion, we'd be accepted. Perhaps we'd even be allowed to keep our jobs.

According to this story out of Arkansas, a plumbing company apprentice (who we have no reason to believe is an atheist) is suing his former employer, claiming that he was fired for not going to church. As if that wasn't troubling enough, it seems that the fired plumber was accused of being a drug user, told he could not clear himself through a drug test, and was instead ordered by his employer to attend one of two specific evangelical churches.

Christians, what do you think about this? How would you feel if you were ordered to stop going to your current church and go to a different one that was very different from your own. I'm guessing you wouldn't like it one bit. Is it so hard to understand why non-believers have no interest in your proselytizing?

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April 8, 2007

The Christian Easter Story: Hear it Again for the First Time

An Easter Cross
An Easter Cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A recent post from Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant has me thinking. For those of you who were indoctrinated in the Christian religion as I was, how many times do you think you've heard the Easter story? I'll bet I've heard the tale about the trial, the crucifixion, and resurrection of Jee-zuhs at least 40 times during the years I spend at church, Sunday school, with religious family members, etc. Now think about how it would sound to you if you were hearing it for the first time now.

Part of what makes religious indoctrination so powerful, explaining why the vast majority of Americans continue to believe in all sorts of crazy things, is that it starts early in life before children have the capacity for certain kinds of critical thinking. I'm not saying that vulnerable adolescents and adults never embrace religion; that they do is obvious. However, the real power of the religious belief system is that it has managed to convince parents that they are doing their children a favor by indoctrinating them in this web of superstition.

Since the difference between education and indoctrination has been poorly understood by some of my readers in the past, it bears repeating here. Education is about expanding the mind of the student through the acquisition of critical thinking skills. The idea is that the learner is taught how to think. That is, questions and deep understanding are encouraged. In contrast, indoctrination is about memorization of standard components of doctrine and of standard responses to questions. This shuts down the mind, quells exploration and discovery, and fosters obedience.

When we survivors of indoctrination hear the Easter story, it sounds familiar, almost comfortable. If we deliberately activate our critical thinking and encounter the story as if we are hearing it for the first time, it is laughably absurd.

I encourage all Christians to check this out.

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April 7, 2007

Theocracy in America: No Rest for the Rational

When I first heard about the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm initiated by Blue Gal, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I regularly post about the problems with theocracy, as do the majority of the atheist blogs I read. What could I do for this blogswarm that would be different from the usual?

In the end, I decided that I would just do more of the same, with the difference being that I would attempt to pull some themes together from previous posts. Actually, it has been a long time since I posted directly on the topic of theocracy.

What is Theocracy?

Essentially, theocracy refers to the primacy of religion in government and law. A theocratic society is one in which clergy rules and in which religious law trumps secular law. When American Christians think of theocracy, they typically think of Middle Eastern countries which are characterized by repressive religious governments. Such governments may have an "elected" leader, but the real power typically lies with Muslim clerics. Law is based on religious doctrine and tends to be misogynistic.

An American Theocracy?

It is understandable that most American believers think of the Middle East when contemplating theocracy, but there are plenty of Americans who seek to bring theocracy to America. Naturally, this would be a Christian theocracy. Advocates of such a system are sometimes referred to as Christocrats, Christianists, or Dominionists. They speak of "reclaiming America for Christ" and similar absurdities. One articulate spokesman, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries said it this way:
Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. As the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors -- in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.
Other examples of what the key players in this movement think can be found here. While many American Christians will dismiss such statements as little more than the rantings of a handful of extremists, their influence reaches all the way to the American presidency.

In fact, the modern theocratic movement in America is an important wing of the Republican party. Republicans target fundamentalist churches and refer to their congregants as their "base." The Republicans gain votes at the expense of turning their party over to religious extremists who oppose stem cell research, push school prayer, meddle in end-of-life decisions, protest against evolution, and are openly bigoted toward homosexuals. These Christian extremists gain political power with which to push their theocratic agenda.

Evidence of an American Theocratic Movement

The possibility of a theocratic America is difficult to imagine, even for those of us who are concerned with preserving church-state separation, but there is evidence of both intent and progress in this direction.
This list could go on and on, but you get the idea. It is clear that many Christian extremists seek an American theocracy. It is equally clear that this is a threat to our democracy. With Bush in office, we have seen an erosion of democracy, a substitution of science with faith as a basis for policy, and a recasting of the world in terms of good and evil. Take a stand here.

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April 6, 2007

Pity the Poor Persecuted Christians

Think complaints about their persecution are simply further evidence of Christians' shared mental disorder? Think again. Persecution is real, and we have a compelling example hot off the presses - well, actually it is from Christian Newswire. The headline reads, "Christian Group Ordered to Stop Praying on a Washington, D.C. Public Sidewalk by Federal Law Enforcement Officials." When you learn of this atrocity, you'll surely pity these poor Christians as much as I do.

According to Christian Newswire, rapidly becoming my favorite source for gaining insight into the disturbed Christian mind, an organization called the Christian Defense Coalition sponsored a public celebration of their religion in which participants were kneeling in prayer on the sidewalk in front of the Library of Congress. Evidently, they were asked to leave the sidewalk by law enforcement officials.
"The Coalition calls the incident a trampling of the First Amendment and a gross violation of protecting religious expression in the public square."
This is a travesty! Why would these evil government officials seek to deprive these poor Christians of their right to express their religion in public? The horror of it all!

Wait a second. They are upset because they were discouraged from expressing their religious beliefs in public. Is this really what the controversy is about? Nobody is challenging the beliefs of these Christians. Nobody is telling them that they cannot practice their religion in the privacy of their own homes and churches. Doesn't the Christian bible actually discourage public displays of religion? Are they really upset because they can't flaunt their idiocy in public?

According to Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, this is exactly the source of their frustration.
"It is extremely troubling when American citizens are told by federal law enforcement officials that they are not allowed to pray on a public sidewalk and they must 'move along' or face the consequences."
Really? It is "extremely troubling" not to be able to kneel in prayer on a public sidewalk? Just when I think these Christians can't get any stranger...

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April 4, 2007

Atheist Strategy in the Age of New Atheism: External Attacks

I remain unconvinced that much is new about the "new atheism," however, I do welcome the attention atheism is receiving in the mainstream media. Used correctly, this is an opportunity for us to put atheism in the mind of the public, correct the many misconceptions, and to encourage believers to question the value of the superstitions to which they cling. At the same time, I encourage my fellow atheists to think strategically about how best to use this opportunity. The price of suddenly finding ourselves in the spotlight is that our mistakes will be amplified, so it is imperative that we remain mindful.

The Nature of External Attacks

Although some Christians are at least trying to recognize the value of our position, it seems accurate to characterize the most vocal Christian response as one of condemnation. While this is nothing new, there is an interesting component of the Christian response that warrants recognition. As Austin Cline recently pointed out, many believers simply refuse to address our criticism of religion and instead focus on creating imaginary types of atheists to attack (e.g., "fundamentalist" atheists, etc.). This approach puts us on the defensive and lets the Christian off the hook in that he/she can continue to ignore our points about religion.

The more outspoken the atheist, the easier it is for the Christian to confuse the matter with labels of "militant," "fundamentalist," and the like. Because the uninformed public is bombarded with Christian attacks on atheists at a much higher frequency than the actual words of atheists, they form a hostile mindset before they ever hear from us. When they do eventually hear from us, it is virtually always from Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. The manner in which Harris and Dawkins frame their criticism of religion, combined with the preconceived notion that atheists are "militant," "fundamentalist," etc. has the predicted effects.

My comments here are not intended as criticism of Harris and Dawkins for what they have said about religion. I agree with them, and I applaud their willingness to speak out. The question for me is not about how we can somehow water down our approach but about how we can supplement it with other approaches designed to defuse the Christian tactic I just described.

Responding to External Attacks

The first thing we must do is define "new atheism" for ourselves and publicize what this term means and what it does not mean. According to Gary Wolf, credited by Austin with coining the phrase, it seems that we can characterize it as an assertive form of atheism in which the atheist makes no attempt to apologize for one's atheism and in which the atheist is willing to speak out. Thus, the term describes atheists who are willing to discuss atheism, who do not shy away from it, and who are not interested in remaining silent of religion if they believe it is harmful.

My second recommendation is that we continue to highlight the contrast between religious extremism and atheist extremism. It is true that some atheists seem to make the same cognitive errors that are evident among religious extremists. However, there is simply no atheist equivalent to militant believers, fundamentalist religion, religious terrorism, or the many other dangerous forms religion takes in our modern world.

Third, we need to recognize that the Christians who attack the straw man of militant atheism are doing so as a defensive maneuver so they do not have to consider the irrationality and devastating consequences of their faith. While we are contrasting religious extremism with atheism, we must simultaneously maintain our criticism of religion. Our goal is not one of proselytizing but one of encouraging believers to think critically.

Fourth, we must take a deep breath and respond to the attacks with a cool head. This is important because Christians would like nothing better than to bait us so that we begin to look more like the militants they have created. Remember, reason is on our side. Science is on our side. Even common sense is on our side.

Fifth, don't back down. Religion by itself is nothing more than a set of irrational beliefs. However, we cannot ignore the consequences of acting on these beliefs. Whether it is bombing abortion clinics, flying planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11, using starvation as an opportunity for proselytizing, interfering with end-of-life decisions, or blocking stem cell research, the negative impact of religion is evident for all to see. We should be angry. All persons who value freedom, reason, and compassion for others have reason to be angry.

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