February 29, 2008

Complaining About God in School Can Have Dire Consequences

Being open about one's atheism or standing up for separation of church and state are admirable but sadly not always without consequences. A reader sent me a disturbing e-mail describing what has happened to his family after he and his wife complained to school officials that his 11-year-old son was being required by his music teacher to "sing a song of worship" during which he was told to point skyward to "show he loved God." I think we can all agree that he was right to bring this to the attention of the school, but what happened next serves as a scary reminder that speaking out for what is right may have unimaginable consequences.

Matthew, the reader who contributed this story graciously gave me permission to post it here. He could really use some input, and I told him I thought many of you would be as helpful (and probably more so) than I could be. Here is the e-mail I received (unedited except for a spell check and the insertion paragraph breaks):
I have a story to tell and I hope that you are able to advise me in some way that is helpful. A few years back our son came home from school...he was eleven at the time...he had an unusual assignment from his music class. He was to sing a song of worship for a grade. His teacher also instructed him to point skyward at certain points of the song. She said that he was to do this to show he loved God.

This did not set well with us at all. We immediately contacted the school but the teacher would not even speak to us on this matter...neither would the principal. After that I contacted Channel 4 Action News WTAE out of Pittsburgh. They were very happy to speak with us. They sent a camera crew to the school and then to my home. The school backed down from their position and did not require David to perform the song of worship for a grade. We also mandated that we did not wish for David to have any future contact with that teacher.

We thought that that was going to be the end of the subject. We simply wanted to get on with our lives but it did not work out that way. We lived in a very small rural area with several churches. Our neighbors turned on us. We endured threatening phone calls and even had trash thrown on our front lawn at night. School became unbearable for David. Teachers would single him out and he would get reprimanded on a very regular basis. We then received a notice from our landlord informing us that we were to be evicted for non-payment of rent. We were completely paid in full and he knew it. His only response to this was "God Bless You". We left our home and moved into another community but our troubles followed us. David was still harassed on a regular basis.

It was at this point that we decided that if David were going to have any type of an education then we would have to homeschool him. We contacted the school to arrange this but they were not very helpful. We finally located what we were led to believe was a substitute teacher and she was to arrange this for us. We paid her $150. A week later I met with her again and she informed me that all of the paperwork had been filed and we could begin David's homeschooling. That was one problem out of the way...or so we thought.

Our new landlord sent us an eviction notice for non-payment of rent...it was unbelievable...so we simply paid it again...($550)...three days later we were served with a notice from the magistrate. We lost...and we lost our home once again. We were forced to live in a small dump of a motel for the next seven months. It was unbearable. I left my mother's address for our mail and that was when our troubles really began. The school was sending and calling...you guessed it...no paperwork had ever been filed for David's homeschooling and now we have serious problems. Even though we now have a beautiful home in the country we are uncertain how we are going to deal with this situation. Any advise or help that you can offer in this situation would be most helpful.

- Matthew
Have you, especially those of you with children, ever faced anything like this? What advice could you offer for Matthew?

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February 28, 2008

"In God We Trust" Must Go

How do you suppose Christians would feel about using currency on which "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is the greatest) was printed? How about "We Believe in Evolution," "Secular Democracy," or a similar slogan? Can you imagine the outrage? They might even have to set aside their all out war against "teh gay" and refocus against the evil forces of secularism. And yet, atheists in the U.S. are repeatedly told that we have little choice but to accept the "In God We Trust" motto printed on our currency.

The Tyranny of the Majority

Some misunderstand democracy to mean "majority rules" and forget about the notion of protecting minority rights. Such individuals might go so far as to say that because the United States is largely Christian in terms of self-reported religious identification, the wishes of non-Christians should be given less weight. If the Christian majority wants god statements in their currency, they should have them.

Of course, such a line of reasoning is clearly at odds with the ideal of the American democracy, the Constitution, and volumes of case law. This is simply not how our democracy was designed to function. Part of our system is designed to protect minority rights and to prevent any majority from discriminating against minorities.

Argument From Tradition

It is often suggested that atheists should accept this motto because, whether we like it or not, Christianity has had a deep and profound influence on the U.S. I do not dispute this claim. Indeed, Christianity has had a significant influence on the U.S. But so has slavery, racism, smallpox, Communism, and a vast array of mass hysterias. Should we incorporate celebrations of all of these into our currency? Just because Christianity was influential does not mean the influence was positive.

Moreover, one of the most important ways the founders were influenced by Christianity involved their recognition of need to keep it separate from government. The separation of church and state was designed to protect government from the influence of religion and to protect religion from the influence of government. Secularism is not anti-religion like modern Christian extremists would have you believe, although it is certainly a barrier to their theocratic agenda. Thus, it was the deliberate and controversial decision of the founders to establish the U.S. as a secular democracy that distinguished our country from most others.

Also rebutting the claim of tradition are the circumstances surrounding "In God We Trust" becoming the national motto. It was not our motto from the beginning and appeared in conjunction with rising religious sentiment around the Civil War.

The Legal Rationale

Perhaps most bizarre of all is the legal rationale for permitting such a slogan on our currency. This rationale involves the notion that this motto has become secular over time, losing its religious significance. Through such reasoning, courts are able to rule that the motto does not violate the separation clause.

I would argue that the heart of this claim (i.e., that this motto is void of religious significance) is absurd on its face and cannot be taken seriously by anyone with a shred of common sense. Since when did god become void of religious significance, and how can anyone reasonably claim that professing trust in some god is not akin to professing belief in said god?

We Don't Trust Non-Existent Entities

The moment I look at the bill in my hand and see the reference to supernatural entities, I am both embarrassed and angry. It feels like the bill might as well carry a pro-slavery slogan. It reflects ignorance, promotes irrationality, and condones the destructive influence of religion in the modern world. As an atheist, I find the inclusion of this slogan on my currency to be abhorrent. I will not go along with pretending it is merely trivial symbolism.

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February 27, 2008

Increasing Your Technorati Authority

Your Technorati authority increases as more blogs and web pages link to you. Reciprocal links are a great way to boost your authority, but adding each other to your Technorati favorites can also help. Some bloggers (like this one) even use software to automatically add everyone who has added them to their favorites. So if you have your own blog, it might be worth your while to add your favorite blogs to your favorites in Technorati. You never know who might add you in return, boosting your authority.

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February 26, 2008

Chuck Norris is a Douche

Who do you turn to when faced with one of life's difficult questions? When things look particularly grim and you just can't find a way out, where do you go for wisdom and solace? When confronted with the mysteries of the universe and desperate to make sense out of a tragic event, from whom do you find meaning? What's that you say? Chuck Norris? Yeah, me too.

While a nation unwilling to consider effective gun control struggles with yet another school shooting (this time in Illinois), the tragic events may appear beyond comprehension. Even scientists who base their careers on the study of human aggression have difficulty identifying how myriad causal factors come together to produce this type of abhorrent behavior. The limitations of our knowledge are staggering when it comes to assessing the risk of violence. Fortunately, Chuck Norris is here.

As explained in this excellent post by Austin Cline, Chuck Norris places the blame for the Illinois shooting squarely on the shoulders of we atheists. Okay, that's not entirely fair. Mr. Norris also blames scientists and "secularists." Could this mean that my high school biology teacher had a hand in these shootings, even though he's long since retired and lived on the other side of the country?

I joke, but the sentiment expressed by Mr. Norris is as bad as the worst forms of anti-Semitism or racism. We as a society would not tolerate him saying that Jews or African Americans were responsible for this tragedy, and we should not tolerate him pointing the finger at the reality-based community. That he remains so visible in the campaign of Christian extremist Mike Huckabee, even while making statements of this nature, speaks volumes about the character of Gov. Huckabee and his supporters. At the same time, it is a sobering reminder of just how far we have to go.

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Secular Student Alliance Gives Voice to Atheist College Students

If you are an atheist attending college, you should know about the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). In fact, they may already have a group on your campus (check the directory). If not, they provide a wealth of useful information for starting a group yourself.

According to the SSA website,
The mission of the Secular Student Alliance is to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human based ethics.
The site provides a directory of campus SSA groups, information about scholarships available to secular students, and much more. Think of it as a one-stop resource center for college students interested in supporting the secular movement.

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February 25, 2008

Calling Mississippi Atheists: I'd Like To Hear From You

Mississippi is a difficult place for atheists. Evangelical Christianity is a way of life here, and I encounter it every day. Anti-atheist bigotry is widespread, and the potential for discrimination seems high although I've not personally been a victim. I would imagine that most Mississippi atheists are rather careful about disclosing their lack of belief. Moreover, there seem to be very few atheist, humanist, or freethought groups in the state.

If you are an atheist in Mississippi, even if you are not able to be particularly open about it, I'd really like to hear from you. Maybe we could start a team blog focused on our experiences in the state. Maybe we could get a Google group listserv going to stay connected, share information, and support each other. At the very least, I'd like to be able to post a list of recommended resources for my fellow Mississippi atheists to find in order to make it easier to locate existing groups around the state.

Leave a comment in this thread or e-mail me directly.

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Christians Rely on Ex Post Facto Arguments

Practical arguments
Practical arguments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nathan at Very Special Monkeys has an interesting post on the subject of "rational Christianity" and why it is inherently flawed. The crux of his argument centers on the nature of ex post facto discourse and how Christians are often guilty of using it to defend their beliefs. I thought this was worth highlighting here since it is likely to be a concept with which many people are unfamiliar.

Briefly, an ex post facto argument is a logically flawed claim in which claimant begins by assuming that an unsupported claim is true and then reasons backward from the claim in order to support it. Students of logic will immediately recognize the problems with such an approach. Instead of offering premises which lead to a conclusion, the ex post facto claim begins with the conclusion, assumes it to be true without having demonstrated it as such, and then attempts to manufacture support for the conclusion. The merit, falsifiability or, or veracity of the conclusion is never questioned.

When Christians attempt to use reason to support their claims, they do so in an ex post facto manner. They start by accepting the conclusion that their god exists and then try develop what appear to be reasoned arguments to support this conclusion. This violates the most rudimentary principles of logic, ensuring that the result will be irrational. They are claiming to support the claim that their god exists, but this claim is never actually up for debate; it is the core presupposition from which the argument begins.

Another striking and extremely common example of ex post facto reasoning can be observed whenever a Christian commits a heinous criminal act (e.g., pastors molesting children). The unsupported conclusion is something like, "Christians don't do bad things." From this point, you hear them work backward to deny that the perpetrator was a "real Christian." What is never questioned is the claim that Christians don't do bad things.

As Nathan points out, ex post facto arguments should not be accepted. They are irrational on their face and should be identified as such. Beginning with the assumption that some god exists without first proving it is a logical fallacy.

February 24, 2008

Obama Campaign Could Force America To Address Race

Despite the best efforts of many, most Americans are uncomfortable with discussions of race and racism. Like many things with which we are uncomfortable, we tend to avoid dealing with them whenever possible. And yet, whether it is Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" or Bill O'Reilly's "lynching party," the spectre of racism is impossible to ignore and flat-out delusional to deny. Might one of the effects of Obama receiving the Democratic nomination be that it forces us to have a much needed national discussion of race and racism?

When prominent media figures make racist comments, the American people are shocked. It isn't that we are unfamiliar with racism. Depending on where one lives and with whom one socializes, many Americans are exposed to racist attitudes and expressions of racism frequently. Still, most of us do not expect to hear such expressions made out in the open from public figures. Outside of the white power movement, most American adults understand that racism is something of which one should be embarrassed. It is something many seek to overcome and most certainly not a source of pride.

And yet, many Americans harbor doubts about their own beliefs when it comes to race. We may catch ourselves feeling uncomfortable around members of other races. We may become aware of our own racist attitudes, thoughts which we would never express but which might nevertheless influence our behavior in subtle ways. We recognize that modern racism is more covert than than the overt acts which litter our nation's history, but that this makes them no less destructive. We do not want to deal with our own misgivings about race; we would prefer to ignore it and hope that it just goes away.

With it looking increasingly likely that Obama will win the Democratic nomination, I expect that an increasingly brighter spotlight will shine on race in America. We are already seeing disturbing signs that the racists among us are awakening. I can't help but fear that this will only get worse. And yet, the true test will occur within each of us. Only time will tell whether we will be willing to confront our own attitudes about race or run from what could be an opportunity for growth.

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Words of Wisdom: Susan B. Anthony

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
-Susan B. Anthony (1896 address to the National-American Woman Suffrage Association)

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February 23, 2008

Christian Extremism on the Playground: 11-Year-Old Threatened With Hell

Combination playground equipment (plastic)
Combination playground equipment (plastic) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Imagine that your 11-year-old daughter returned from school one day and told you that she had been tormented on the playground during recess. No, it wasn't the school bully. In fact, it was her two closest friends. You see, these friends informed your daughter that the rapture was coming and that she was headed for hell because that is where non-Christians go.

In June of 2007, I wrote a post called Prayer Circles on the Playground. It generated a fair bit of interest at the time, but it is not a topic I have pondered much since then. Since I am not a parent, this is one source of heartache among atheists from which I am relatively free.

A reader, Angela, e-mailed me the story of her daughter and her ordeals with Christian extremist children in their Oklahoma community. Sadly, this reminds me that Christian extremism is alive and well on the playgrounds of our nation's schools. Here is Angela's post:
My family recently moved to a rural community near Tulsa, OK. My 11 year-old daughter previously lived in Morocco for seven years with her loving, Muslim relatives. Everything was going very well at her new school until a couple of weeks ago. During recess, her two very sweet friends tried to save her soul. They informed her that the "rapture" was coming in five years and everyone who wasn't a Christian was going to hell.

My daughter came home from school in tears, telling me she was afraid her family in Morocco were all going to hell. She became violently ill and spent two days in bed without eating or drinking. I took her to a local Unitarian church in Tulsa last Sunday hoping to surround her with some open minded people. She loved it. In fact, there was a female speaker from the local Islam society explaining her religion to the congregation.

We will be attending every Sunday because she loved it so much. My problem is that I don't. The people were very sweet but the chairs in the worship room were uncomfortable and I can't stand the boring hymns everyone sang.

I believe in evolution and really feel uncomfortable in the belief of an all-knowing God. She wants to go to church so she can be "normal" like everyone else. We're stuck between church and social rejection.
I know that children can be cruel, but I would argue that religious extremism leads them to be cruel in particularly devastating ways, many of which are unfortunately regarded as being immune from criticism.

Parents have many responsibilities to their children. One such responsibility should be to steer children toward adaptive belief systems and away from those which are clearly destructive. To raise a child who believes in "souls" or "hell" does the child and the rest of us a great disservice. I do not envy Angela's situation one bit.

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February 22, 2008

Why Are We Paying For Police Chaplains?

In the community where you live, who pays for the police department? You do, right? Your tax dollars support your city police and/or county sheriff, right? Law enforcement is a well recognized function of the state that even the most rabidly conservative anti-big-government sort values. So how do you feel about your tax dollars going to pay for police chaplains?

If you've ever wondered what a police chaplain does, you might be interested in this article from the Faith News Network. I have no idea how representative it is, but it does describe the day-to-day life of one particular police chaplain in quite a bit of detail.

While reading it, I began to wonder how I would feel if I realized that an officer with whom I was interacting was a chaplain. I imagined such an officer coming to give me bad news and wondered whether it would bother me even a little that he or she was a chaplain. I decided that it probably would make me feel uncomfortable. The blurring of police power with religion seems like a dangerous mixture to this atheist.

As this thought faded, I realized that the real issue was that I would be indirectly paying for such an individual. As a taxpaying citizen, I would be helping to pay the salary of a police chaplain. In fact, it strikes me as fairly likely that I am currently helping to pay the salary of at least one police chaplain! I don't mind supporting local law enforcement one bit, but I would like my support to be reality-based. I'd rather buy bullets than prayers. I'd rather buy fuel for their cars than sponsor superstition.

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February 21, 2008

Secular Alliance at CU

According to the Colorado Daily, there the University of Colorado in Boulder now has an atheist group on campus. The CU Secular Alliance provides a regular forum for secular students to meet. While the new group was welcomed by the Muslim Student Association, campus Christians do not seem to be able to interact with the Secular Alliance without attempting to convert them.

The article quoted Tom Miller, campus minister of the Flatirons Baptist Church, as saying,
Some (atheists) are not open to dialogue and they'd think I was being obnoxious. I would be going there to convert them and we'd clash before you even said your first name.
You admit that your focus in any interaction would be on conversion, but they are the ones not likely to be open to dialogue, huh? Nice. What an incredibly warped view of dialogue!

I'd just like to extend a word of congratulations to the CU Secular Alliance. I wish them success in their efforts. Every institution of higher learning should have such an organization.

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February 20, 2008

My Conflict Over Religious Bigotry, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this series, you can find it here. I had to re-read it to orient myself to the task of continuing with this post, however, I have the feeling that I may have gained a little clarity since then. I guess we'll see.

Am I An Anti-Christian Bigot?

I think we can all agree that anti-Christian bigotry is possible. If someone hates Christians simply because they are Christian, it is difficult to see that such a person would not qualify as an anti-Christian bigot. But are there other pathways to anti-Christian bigotry?

It seems that there are an infinite number of pathways, depending on who one asks. What if I regularly use "goddamn" when I'm upset? Would this qualify? Some Christians think so. Suppose I think that persons who believe what Christians claim to about the natural world are simply wrong. Would this make me an anti-Christian bigot? What if I actively criticize Christianity? Some would say yes; others would say no. I'm not even sure who gets to decide a question like this.

It would not surprise me to discover that a majority of Christian respondents believed I was a bigot and a majority of atheist respondents believed that I was not a bigot. But what would that signify? Should such a finding be cause for concern, for celebration, or absolutely unimportant?

Opposing Religion Does Not Equal Bigotry

It seems to me that the heart of bigotry, in all cases, involves making sweeping and unsupported generalizations about members of a group on the basis of group membership. Thus, saying something like "I hate Christians," or "Christians are stupid" reflects bigotry. On the other hand, criticizing Christianity itself and demonstrating that Christian belief is both irrational and destructive does not appear to warrant the bigotry label.

Criticism of religion typically proceeds on two independent fronts. First, one can examine the rationality or irrationality of religious belief. Such an examination reveals that religious belief is irrational because of its reliance on faith. Faith, generally accepted as the core of Christian belief, is inherently irrational in that it involves maintaining belief in something without sufficient evidence to justify the belief in question. Second, the consequences of religious belief can be examined. Most fair-minded observers would agree that religious belief has both positive and negative consequences. The key questions are whether the good outweighs the bad or whether there may be more adaptive ways of obtaining the benefits without the costs.

To the degree that such inquiry proceeds in an informed and rational manner, this sort of criticism is not bigotry. This does not mean that believers will welcome it, but the fact that they do not like it is completely irrelevant to the bigotry question. Hurting someone's feelings or even attacking their cherished beliefs is not sufficient to get us to bigotry.

I think I can respect another person without necessarily respecting everything this person believes. In fact, I know I can. I've had many close friends with political and/or religious beliefs with which I strongly disagreed. I did not respect their beliefs, but I did respect their right to hold them and even the persons who held them.

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February 19, 2008

Did You Miss the Super Bowl Miracle?

Maybe it is just me, but one of the things that really turns my stomach is the experience of someone wallowing in Christian idiocy like a pig in the mud. I recognize that most Christians are not idiots. Many are actually good people I'd be proud to know. But every so often, an example of absolutely wretched ignorance and blind superstition hits me between the eyes, nearly triggering that gag reflect and making my knees wobble.

Remember the Super Bowl? You know, the one where the underdog Giants defeated the much despised Patriots who had been caught cheating earlier in the season. I wasn't planning to watch it, but I did catch some of it. Not a bad game at all if you ask me. But did you realize that the outcome of this game was actually a miracle? Yep, an honest to goodness miracle right in front of us. Did you miss it too?

You see, Giants wide receiver, David Tyree, knew that his team would win before the game started. Apparently, he had spoken to some god and had been informed that his team would win the game.
"That's kind of how I felt going into it. I was never moved. My faith was never rocked. I knew God would do what He said He was going to do."
According to Chad Bonham's article for the Faith News Network, Tyree never lost faith in his team, even after their 0-2 start to the season.
When New York started the season 0-2, Tyree wrote a letter to his team. In that letter, he encouraged the other players and coaches to keep the faith. Tyree was confident that God has a special plan for the Giants. This confidence for the born-again, spirit-filled believer came from prophetic words he was receiving from the Holy Spirit through various friends and spiritual confidantes.
But the real miracle came out of Tyree's relationship with so-called "spiritual mom" Apostle Kimberly Daniels, founder of Spoken Word Ministries in Jacksonville, FL.
The night before the Super Bowl, Daniels and husband Ardell prayed with Tyree and received some very specific prophecies about his role in the game.

Daniels told Tyree that the Lord would "quicken" his feet and give him "hind's feet" which she later explained to him were like the feet of a kangaroo. She also told him that he would have "spiritual glue" on his hands and would make "the big play." Daniels' husband prophesied that the sports world would no longer know him as just a special teams player but as, "David Tyree, the receiver."
Silly me! I thought the Giants won because of talent, hard work, and coaching. I guess none of that really matters when some god is on their side. And yes, I've heard the "god helps those who help themselves" drivel enough that I can do without hearing it again. If I were one of Tyree's teammates, I think I would take his comments as a slap in the face. As it is, my rational mind takes them as a punch to the gut.

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Time to Buy a PS3?

The big news in the tech section of the blogosphere for some time has been the high-definition format war raging between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. I almost took the plunge on an inexpensive HD-DVD player some time ago but decided to remain on the sidelines until a clear winner emerged. With Warner going Blu-ray exclusive, Wal-Mart announcing that they will only sell Blu-ray, and Toshiba finally indicating that they are stopping HD-DVD production, it looks like we have our winner (I realize that there is still no guarantee that Blu-ray won't be supplanted by downloaded content at some point). Might now be the time to finally take the Blu-ray plunge?

Sony's PlayStation 3 is widely considered to be the best low-cost Blu-ray player currently available. I'm not particularly into video games, but this certainly boosts the appeal of the PS3 for many. For me, it is simply about having a relatively inexpensive Blu-ray player.

I'm one of those people who buys his favorite films on DVD and watches them over and over again. I haven't been buying much of anything since the format war began to wind down, and there are some titles I'd really like to pick up. With Blu-ray emerging as the high definition winner, it seems silly to by standard DVD versions when Blu media is available.

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February 18, 2008

Humanist Symposium #15 at Cafe Philos

The 15th edition of the Humanist Symposium has been posted at Cafe Philos. I have a contribution, and so do many others you'll recognize. It is tough for Humanist Symposium to get the attention it deserves when it comes out on the same day as Carnival of the Godless, but now is your chance to check it out if you missed it on Sunday.


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Defending the Atheist Movement

Driving down the freeway, I observe two men, both riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, pass each other while heading in opposite directions. Both extend the well-known "low wave," a one-armed salute one often sees among bikers. There was no reason to suspect that these men knew each other, only that they share a common bond. They belong to no real community and have no organizational structure. Their bond is about a shared identity. And even though they may never meet face-to-face, the connection is palpable.

The atheist movement has been criticized for not being a real movement at all. The sharpest critics are atheists themselves, and some seem to have a general distaste for any attempts to foster a secular community. Time and time again, they point out that atheists need not have anything in common except atheism and that atheism itself is ill-suited for bringing people together.

Others acknowledge that there is some sort of movement but reject it for a variety of reasons. The most common reason, one I've seen again and again, is the attempts by some atheists to distinguish between "real atheists" and those posing as atheists for some inexplicable reason. Of course, this almost always ends up being about tactics. Some are criticized for being too "militant" and others for not being "strong" enough. As someone who is regular criticized for being both, I'd have to agree that this sort of thing is not helpful.

My ideal atheist movement would be broader than any definition of atheism and would involve the following components:

  1. Sharp, sustained criticism of religion as irrational and destructive
  2. Promotion of a reality-based worldview including reason, science, skepticism, critical thinking, secular education, and secular humanism
  3. Defense of atheist rights from a civil rights perspective to end anti-atheist discrimination and reduce anti-atheist bigotry
  4. Support for atheists in their escape from religion
Again, I readily acknowledge that such a movement goes beyond the definition of atheism. Moreover, I recognize that there may be atheists who reject secular humanism, skepticism, or some of the other components I am suggesting. Perhaps what I am proposing should even be called something other than atheism. I do not necessarily see this as an insurmountable obstacle.

If the atheist movement is to flourish and become increasingly organized, there will be different factions emerging. This is inevitable and must be acknowledged. If we can do this while recognizing that all factions are beneficial and that each brings something unique to the table, we just might succeed. If not, the atheist movement could end up doing more harm than good. In this case, we might consider whether it is better to become more like the bikers, bonded in identity but without the ties of community or organization.

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February 17, 2008

Bravo, Sir Charles

Brace yourself for some loud right-wing protests and maybe even some sort of media boycott by the Christian extremists. Charles Barkley's on-air comments during a CNN interview are almost sure to prompt cries of persecution from the fundies. If you haven't heard about Barkley's "fake Christians" comments to Wolf Blitzer, head over to Pam's House Blend to learn more. Charles, thank you for having the courage to say what needed to be said.

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Carnival of the Godless #85 at Greta Christina's

Carnival of the Godless #85 is now up at Greta Christina's Blog, and fans of pulp fiction art will love this one. Of course, I'm linking to the dirty version of the carnival, but there is a clean one as well (perhaps in case any Christians want to read it too). Thanks to Greta Christina for a wonderful carnival.


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February 16, 2008

Christians Pray for Death of Americans United Staff

You can put this in your "and Christians accuse us of not being moral?" file. Americans United for Separation of Church and State complained to the IRS that California pastor Wiley Drake was violating federal law by using his church to campaign for Christian extremist candidate Mike Huckabee. Drake's response was to once again call for imprecatory prayers against Americans United staff. That's right - this Southern Baptist Pastor is asking his followers to pray for the deaths of AU's staff.

From the Americans United press release:
Wrote Drake, "In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State…. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing [sic] and their leader Rev. Barry Lynn. They are those who lead the attack."
Lest we think that Drake is simply another irrelevant Christian crackpot, Americans United points out that his status should be acknowledged.
Drake is a prominent pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He recently completed a term as second vice president of the group, its third highest post. He currently is running for president of the denomination, which became increasingly political after a fundamentalist takeover in the 1980s.
It is time that we recognize this for what it is - Christian extremism.

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Ellen Johnson is Wrong, Atheists Should Vote

The atheist blogosphere is up in arms over a recent statement by American Atheists president, Ellen Johnson, that American atheists should not vote in the 2008 presidential election. I am happy to see the outrage because I find Johnson's comments wrong and potentially damaging. Atheists must vote if we want to have any sort of voice in national politics.

Given that atheists represent at least 11% of the American population, we could be a powerful voting block if we chose to organize. But even without any formal organization, I think it is fair to assume that we tend to be a bit more oriented to reality than many of our theistic neighbors. I suspect that we are more likely to value secular humanism, science, reason, and critical thinking. Why would we not want these priorities to influence presidential politics?

I'll admit that I generally believe that encouraging a group of people not to vote for any reason is a bad idea. I am convinced that an informed citizenry is essential to effective democracy. But I also find that my atheist colleagues tend to be some of the best informed, largely because we have so much at stake. Lastly, I agree with the notion that citizens in a democracy have a moral responsibility to participate in the democratic process. If we don't want another Bush term (which is essentially what a McCain presidency would bring), we need to get out and vote.

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February 15, 2008

Coming Soon: Iraq War Blogswarm

Delta over at Freethought Weekly brought this one to my attention. March 19th will be the 5 year anniversary of Bush's unjust war against Iraq. In anticipation that this may not receive the attention it deserves in the media, there will be a blogswarm against the war on this date.


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February 14, 2008

Atheist Identity

A recent post at the Bad Idea Blog titled "What’s Best for Atheism Isn’t What’s Best" and featured at the last Carnival of the Godless really got me thinking. Is atheism the inevitable outcome of the application of reason? If so, what good is an atheist movement? Might such a movement actually distract from more important priorities (e.g., critical thinking, reason, science, etc.) and contribute to confusion?

According to "Bad,"

What I care about is rationalism. Skepticism. Science. And while these values do, in fact, feed into why I don’t share the beliefs of theists, they aren’t necessary for me to be an atheist (I could imagine not believing even without them). Nor do I think that sharing similar values would make it necessary for someone else to become an atheist. But I care about these values, and there’s a big ole’ period at the end of that sentence.
From this standpoint, atheism can be viewed as an incidental outcome. If one applies reason, skepticism, science, and the like, one arrives at atheism. No atheist movement is needed, and in fact, any such movement might even detract from a focus on reason.

This is an argument I have heard many times before, and each time I encounter it, it strikes me as attractive but incomplete. The thing is, this is an argument that cannot simply be discarded wholesale. It contains a vital kernel of truth that must be acknowledged.

Bad is absolutely correct that atheism is often a consequence of reason's application. It is not a path from which one accomplishes a goal, but an endpoint. Reason leads to atheism; not the other way around. Bad is also right to point out that atheism does not mean anything other than the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy, religion, or worldview.

But does this necessarily mean that there should be no atheist movement? Not when one recognizes what the atheist movement is really about - shared identity.

It is natural for humans to seek shared identity. We label everything around us as a way of understanding our world and helping us react to it more quickly. By uniting under the atheist banner, we communicate something to each other and to the believers. As long as we continue to remember what atheism is and is not, I see little problem with using it in such a way. Of course, I will also advocate for reason, skepticism, and science. I have taken these tools to their logical conclusion - atheism.

The atheist movement is a movement about shared identity. It is not synonymous with atheism but quite a bit larger and oriented toward social change. The atheist movement is about promoting atheism and celebrating our shared identity as atheists. It is also about overcoming anti-atheist bigotry, helping others develop more realistic ideas of what atheism is, and working toward a secular society. While atheism is not a worldview, the atheist movement does often start to look like one. Atheism does not define us, but it is a part of how we define ourselves.

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February 13, 2008

Crazed Christian Assaults Atheist in Coffee Shop

Kristine at Amused Muse has a disturbing post in which she describes a scary encounter with a crazed Christian. Fortunately, this particular assault was of the verbal variety, but Kristine's tears tell me that it had quite an impact. Her description of the incident reminds us all that this sort of thing happens more than many of us would like to admit.

Kristine's post begins with the following:
I can't imagine a mentality more degraded than someone marching up to us in a coffee shop and saying, essentially, "You'll be sorry that you're atheists!" and asking a person why they exist.
I wholeheartedly agree. What sort of individual would decide that it was acceptable to antagonize a complete stranger in this manner? As I have said before, I think part of the answer lies in the notion that the very existence of atheists is problematic for many Christians. They may be willing to consider us a theoretical possibility living in some distant city but not as their neighbors.

Kristine's post breaks down much of what this rabid Christian said and identifies the many false assumptions. I'm too outraged by the encounter to think along those lines. The man who launched this unprovoked verbal attack may have been mentally ill (referring to the kind of mental illness even Christians would acknowledge and not the variety these same Christians suffer from). But he may have simply been a particularly rabid Christian. Some of us have encountered his sort before, and I'm not sure that every such person can be dismissed as genuinely crazy.

In fact, Kristine's encounter reminds me of several encounters my ex-wife had with similarly rabid Christians while living in Mississippi. I realize that many of us men are going to want to boast about how we would have punched the guy, told him where he could go, etc. Try to get over the chest-pounding for now and simply appreciate what this must have been like for Kristine to experience. This sort of thing is traumatizing, and nobody deserves it.

I cannot imagine more fitting words with which to end than those Kristine uses to conclude her post:
Nature will eventually kill you, but it will never mock you, call you fat, make you feel ugly, call you stupid, humiliate you in front of others, scare you with hell-talk, engage in emotional blackmail, or make you feel like you can never be perfect enough. Nature just is, as I just am, in all our glorious imperfections. Screw the people who are always looking for perfection, an answer, or "meaning." They are more hurtful and incomprehensible than the so-called "meaninglessness" of life could ever be.
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February 12, 2008

America's Evolution Denial

If you have ever used a computer, talked on a cell phone, visited a physician, or operated a motor vehicle, you have benefited from science. Much of the food you eat, the medicines you use, and so many other things you may take for granted have been influenced by the biological sciences in particular. In addition to being the foundation of the modern biological sciences, evolutionary theory has been more rigorously evaluated and received more empirical support than any other theory from any branch of science. And yet, more Americans endorse creationist explanations for human origins than evolutionary ones (2001 Gallup poll).

The Importance of America's Evolution Denial

America has a long history of religious fundamentalism, and Americans' distaste for evolution is not exactly a new phenomenon. Despite widespread rejection of evolution in the general population, American science has continued to advance to the benefit of all citizens. Why then should this be a pressing concern now?

It is important to recognize that our modern world is becoming increasingly complex, as increased technological prowess is required in one's daily life. I remember making fun of my grandparents for not understanding how to hook up a VCR, but I now struggle to set up some of the high-end HDTV setups. My competence with computers far outstrips that of my parents, but I am confident that many 10 year-olds would blow me away without breaking a sweat.

Increased complexity requires increasingly sophisticated levels of scientific literacy and education, especially if America hopes to compete with the rest of the world in science and technology. The numbers are not encouraging in this regard, as America trails all countries but Turkey in acceptance of evolution. It is also concerning that the percentage of Americans who accept evolution has declined over the past 20 years.

Sources of the Problem

When one considers the sources of America's denial of evolution, the first thing that likely comes to mind is Christian fundamentalism. According to Michigan State University professor, Jon Miller, "American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close" (LiveScience).
Far too often, the media, and even many scientists, refuse to point the finger at religious fundamentalism. We are taught that we must respect religious beliefs, and a surprising number of scientists adopt the position that science and religion are two mutually exclusive domains which should not poach each other's subject matter.

In addition to religious fundamentalism, poor scientific literacy is a relevant contributing factor. Simply put, if the American educational system continues to turn out children who lack a solid science education, it is reasonable to expect that Americans will remain vulnerable to pseudoscience and other forms of misinformation. Facing tremendous pressure from vocal parent groups, many high schools water down their science curricula to the point where students are unlikely to learn the basics they will need.

Partisan politics appears to be yet another factor contributing to evolution denial in America. A surprising 70% of Republicans deny evolution, and the lead up to the 2008 election has revealed a number of Republican candidates willingly to publicly proclaim their rejection of evolution. If nothing else, this suggests that they do not fear being laughed out of the room for making such absurd statements.

Solutions

A complex problem with multiple causes requires a multi-pronged solution. First, we need to increase public awareness of the problem. A public awareness campaign is needed to show our fellow citizens that science education is under attack by religious fundamentalists and that this has important consequences for all Americans.

Second, scientists must be strong advocates for science education and improved scientific literacy. The good news is that many Americans want to hear more from scientists. This should be cause for optimism, but it will require more scientists to advocate for their fields.

Third, political candidates should be asked about their views of science and how they plan to improve science education. One excellent proposal for doing so would involve a science debate, where scientific issues took center stage. Americans should have deep reservations about supporting any candidate who denies evolution.

Fourth, all concerned Americans should proudly carry the banner of reason. If there is one point we must get across in every interaction and every blog post, it is this: Americans are free to believe anything they want, but believing something does not make it true or immune from criticism. Cloaking a false belief in the mantle of religion does not make it any less false and must not be allowed to shield it from criticism. We can maintain respect for one's right to believe something without having to respect the belief itself.

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February 11, 2008

Scientists Colluding with Ignorance on Evolution Weekend

An odd article appeared in the Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan) reporting on an Evolution Weekend event held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. According to the article, a panel of "experts" came to the conclusion that science and religion can agree on the origins of the universe. And no, I still haven't told you the really odd part.

The panel of 7 "experts" appeared to consist of at least a few scientists: professors of physics, geology, neurobiology. Don't ask me what any of these fields have to do with evolution or why nobody would think to invite a biologist or two. The rest of the "experts" were clergy. Somehow, being a rector or deacon makes one an expert on evolution too.

The truly odd part came at the end of the panel presentations when audience members were offered the opportunity to ask questions.
Fred Betz, 63, of Galesburg told the panelists he took the words of the Bible at face value, and his understanding of scripture disproved evolution.

"What's wrong with my simplistic view of reading the Bible?" Betz asked.
And the answer? Wait for it...wait for it...
Panelists said nothing was wrong and pointed to the central themes of Evolution Weekend: open-mindedness and discussion.

"The way we deal with each other is more important than any of our individual theories," Brabson [the physics professor] answered.
Nothing is wrong with this guy reading his bible literally, huh? And the reason nothing is wrong is that we are trying to be open-minded and facilitate discussion? I guess any desire for accuracy is checked at the door, huh? I would hope this "scientist" is more serious about science than that! And what is this drivel about how interacting politely with one another is more important than the foundation of modern biology? This sounds an awful lot like colluding with ignorance to me.

Mr. Betz, you have every right to take your bible literally and believe as you do. However, I'd like you to reflect for a moment on the many ways in which you have personally benefited from science. Your transportation, your television, the medicine you take when you are ill and the medical professionals with whom you interact - all are here because of science. Of all the scientific theories that have ever existed, none have received as much support as Darwin's theory of natural selection. Quite simply, evolution is accepted as fact by the scientific community. So I suppose what I am saying is that you have the right to be wrong, but you are indeed wrong if you place your bible above the vast body of scientific evidence supporting evolution. What is wrong with your bible is that it does not accurately reflect the world in which you live.

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February 10, 2008

God Wants Scorched Earth Warfare

Continuing on with this project to read the Christian bible cover to cover is becoming increasingly arduous. I find that I have to be in the right mood to read it, and that even then, it is slow going. My last post in this series dealt with Deuteronomy and Joshua. This one has me moving through Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel. Frankly, it also has me wondering how much more of this I can take.

The first thing to strike me about Judges is that we have seen a pattern across several Old Testament books of the Israelites repeatedly committing evil acts in the eyes of their god. They are punished in a variety of ways, ranging from famine to enslavement by foreign nations. Each time misery befalls them, it is because their god either punishes them directly or punishes indirectly by withholding protection of some sort.

The reader can certainly sympathize with poor Gideon when he asks one of god's prophets, "But sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian" (Judges 6:13). He seems to be asking why the miracles he heard about in his youth have dried up and how a supposedly loving god could permit such horrors to befall his people. Inexplicably, this god returns to lead Gideon to greatness after some groveling and animal sacrifice.

The intensity of the superstition at this time is so great that human sacrifice is also needed to satisfy the bloodthirsty god created by this ancient people. In exchange for god's help in his military campaign Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter (Judges 11:29-40).

In Judges, we also see yet another mention of the scorched earth sort of warfare utilized by god's chosen people. They kill every last one of their enemies, including their livestock, and burn their towns to the ground (Judges 20:41-48). But the atrocities do not stop here, for the conquering Israelites also kill the women and children, saving only the female virgins (Judges 21:10-11). After all, they need to capture wives. Surely the Christian god would not condone such practices! Actually, this god not only condones but commands these very war crimes. When the Israelites refuse to kill sheep and cattle which they might actually be able to use, they are severely punished (1 Samuel 15:7-34).

That all of this appears to be condoned by the same Christian god whose name is today tossed around in the context of "family values" should give pause to even the most rabid believer. Considered against this context, atrocities ranging from the Inquisition to Bush's modern day crusades in Iraq take on a new meaning. This book is teaching me things about what Christians believe that I am starting to wish I didn't know.

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February 9, 2008

Florida Atheists to Celebrate Darwin Day

Florida atheists recently received some positive media attention in the form of an article by Lois K. Solomon in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The article mentioned that over 200 atheists are expected at Fern Forest Nature Preserve to celebrate Darwin Day.
"It's empowering to be among people who share your world view," said Madea, 60, a Broward Community College chemistry professor. "You don't have to apologize for who you are and what you believe."
I am going to e-mail Ms. Solomon to thank her for her article.

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Discussion on Atheist Parenting

There seems to be a real shortage of information available for atheist parents, and I know this is a topic of great interest to atheists with children or those planning to have children soon. If this is a topic of interest to you, I encourage you to head over to Exercise in Futility for a discussion of how atheist parents discuss religion with their children. You might also want to check out either Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion or Humanism for Parents - Parenting without Religion.

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February 8, 2008

Community-Building: Atheist Support Groups

In many parts of the U.S., atheists do not feel free to be open about their atheism. Reasons range from social ostracization to threats to one's personal safety. Indeed, living as an atheist in many parts of the U.S. can be a lonely experience. Atheist groups do exist in many communities, but they tend to attract few active members, suggesting that they may not adequately meet the needs of other atheist residents. Could we learn something from the support group model? Perhaps atheist support groups would be an attractive option to consider.

Many larger communities have some sort of informal groups for atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and the like. I do not have much personal experience with such groups because my community lacks one. When I examine such groups in this region, I find that most seem to operate as either loosely organized social clubs. Examples of common activities include potlucks, presentations on various freethought topics, and community cleanup projects.

My primary complaint with such groups is that they seem to be oriented toward routine social activities (e.g., going to a movie or attending a potluck dinner) or activities which have nothing to do with atheism/humanism (e.g., picking up trash at a community beach). I realize that this may be precisely what some people are seeking, but I see little appeal. I'd like to see more of a focus on navigating the challenges of living as an atheist in the region. I'd like to learn something from others about the perils of dating as an atheist surrounded by Christian extremists, raising children in oppressive religious environments, dealing with religion in the workplace, and many other topics.

If I want to pick up trash, I hardly need an atheist group to do so. If I want to attend a party, I have opportunities to do so without caring what the other party goers believe. No, if I'm going to spend time with an atheist group, I'd like something meaningful that I can't get elsewhere - the support and understanding of other atheists.

Perhaps the support group model could be adapted to provide something along these lines. What would an atheist support group be like? Imagine an open group of 5-10 atheists coming together on a regular basis to discuss atheism, share their experiences, and support each other. Such groups would have the advantage of being able to function effectively with even only a few members and would have the flexibility of growing over time. As the group expanded, it would likely split into multiple groups or perhaps change in scope a bit so as to remain useful.

I'm not saying that this sort of group would replace others, only that it might be more appealing to those less interested in the other options. I think I would find this sort of group more appealing than many of the options I see in my region.


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February 7, 2008

Believer Promotes Her Church

For nonbelievers, the appeal of church can be somewhat puzzling. We tend to understand the fellowship part, but the notion of worshiping what we know to be the product of human fantasy tends to seem little more than an exercise in narcissistic self-delusion (i.e., it must be true because I really want it to be true). Let's examine how a believer describes the appeal of her church.

Every Saturday, my local paper includes a "Faith & Vales." Among other things, this section always includes a brief profile of a local church. One such profile caught my eye earlier this month, and I've been saving it for just such a post.

The profile, titled "Christian Tabernacle is place of love, warmth," included a quote from a church member attempting to verbalize what was so wonderful about her church, Christian Tabernacle Church of the Apostolic Faith. Here is what she had to say, grammatical mistakes and all:
Christian Tabernacle is a place of love and warmth. If you are looking for a church home, stop look no further. This is the place to be, where there is loving and welcoming arms waiting for you. There the praises go up, where you won't feel out of place, you will feel right at home. Where the truth is taught. We believe in one God, one baptism, in the name of Jesus, one faith. We believe strictly in the Word. If it's not in the Bible, we don't believe it. We believe Jesus Christ is our savior, the Messiah. We love and adore Jesus Christ.
She obviously feels happy with her church. To her, it is a welcoming place where anyone would be accepted and feel at home. The Christian privilege through which she evidently views the world seems to blind her to the reality that a great many people would probably not be welcomed nor would feel comfortable. She implicitly assumes that her worldview is the only worldview, without realizing that this is false even right here in her own community.

Perhaps it is this sort of egocentric worldview (i.e., everyone believes as I do) which leads her to refer to the teachings of her church as "truth." Apparently, she does not realize that "truth" refers to empirically verifiable reality and has almost nothing to do with belief. She has every right to articulate what she and her fellow congregants believe, but she should not confuse their shared beliefs with truth.

Not surprisingly, my favorite sentence is the one about how her congregation does not believe anything that is not in their bible. I hope this is simply awkward phrasing and not an accurate statement. To the degree that she really means this, I pity her for this level of ignorance and wonder how she manages to navigate the modern world at all.

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February 6, 2008

Conform to Christianity or Else

Anyone who has successfully navigated their own adolescence has some understanding of the peer pressure and related phenomena which compel many youth to try to fit in with the crowd. In adulthood, the pressures change a bit, but many people continue to experience them to some degree, especially in the workplace. So it should come as little surprise that our elected officials are not immune to the demands of conformity. What may be surprising is the degree to which these pressures influence their decision-making.

Sally Quinn's article in the Washington Post appeared back in December and has been in my queue of to-blog material ever since. Sally opens by describing some disturbing childhood recollections involving a "born again" teacher who took advantage of childhood pressures to conform and fear of punishment to push her beliefs on his pupils.
As a child, I went to a small school in rural Alabama near an Army post where my father was stationed. It was a very Christian town, and our teacher was "born again."

This was decades ago, but I remember clearly how she used to tell us that we must accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Then she would ask for hands to see who had. By age 11 I had become a nonbeliever. My father was in the Army and had fought in World War II and Korea; I concluded quickly that no loving God could have allowed those atrocities to be committed.

But we had all seen our teacher, when crossed, call an unlucky member of our class up to the front of the room, make the student lie down on her desk and be paddled. The humiliation was worse than the pain. So, when she called on us to admit that we had accepted Jesus as our savior, I dutifully raised my hand.
The anguish of being expected to accept a set of beliefs we know to be false is something with which many of us can relate, even if we never personally experienced something quite as horrific as what Sally endured. And yet, I was still caught off guard by where Sally headed next: H.Res. 847.
Among those voting for the resolution was a Jewish member of Congress who has asked me not to print his name. He was outraged and appalled by the bill, he told me. But he was also afraid. He thought it would hurt him with his mostly Christian constituency if he voted against it. He told some of his colleagues about his anguish. They advised him not to be stupid. It would be better for him politically if he voted for it.
I do not envy this individual, and yet, I find myself wishing that more had been able to stand against this absurd resolution. I understand the pressure. Standing up for reason here may well have cost this individual his job. In fact, I think we can assume that it almost certainly would have. And yet, we need our elected officials to be able to stand up for what is right and to make tough decisions.

I agree completely with Sally's outrage that something like this could happen in present day America. This resolution had no "teeth" and was one of many symbolic gestures Congress passes. Still, Sally's words ring true:
This resolution was as anti-American as anything Congress has ever passed. It disenfranchised and marginalized millions and millions of men and women, reducing them to second-class citizens.
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