June 30, 2008

FISA Delay Buys Time for Activism

Although the mainstream media has been reporting that the Bush/Hoyer FISA "compromise" is virtually uncontested and expected to sail through the Senate, grassroots activism among progressives has had some measurable impact. In fact, the Senate vote has been delayed due to opposition. Just who do we have to thank for having the courage to stand up for the Constitution? Senators Dodd, Feingold, and Bingaman appear to be the key players in the Senate. This gives us more time to contact our own Senators and ask them to oppose any measure which grants telecom immunity.

Initially pitched as a bipartisan compromise, the GOP is now claiming victory over the America-hating Democratic Party. Once it became clear that Democrats were going to cave in large numbers, it appears that it is no longer necessary to maintain the illusion of compromise.

Many Democratic voters will end up deciding that this legislation is acceptable because Obama supports it. Since Obama supporting bad policy is difficult to reconcile with support for Obama, many will conclude that the deal must not be that bad in order to maintain their support for Obama. Others will be forced to seriously question their continued support for Obama.

For the record, I am well aware that candidates of both parties tend to cater to their respective bases to win the nomination and then intentionally move toward the opposite end of the political spectrum in the general election campaign. They trust their base to come along, even as they betray them. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is only happening to Obama. The Republican Party may lose some conservatives once McSame's nomination is official.

Just because I am aware that this is usually how things work in American politics does not mean that I am happy with it. I think giving blanket immunity to the telecoms after they submitted to Bush's criminal demands is a massive mistake and an issue on which we should press our elected officials to take a stand.

To learn more about why this matters and what is at stake here, I encourage you to read this letter from Senators Dodd and Feingold.

June 29, 2008

1 in 5 Bald Men Has Full Head of Hair: The Pew Report

The story sweeping the atheist blogosphere at the moment concerns a recent report by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life claiming that 1 in 5 atheists in the U.S. say they believe in some sort of god. The Secular Coalition for America has released their response, which I have included below. It is worth reading for anyone trying to make sense out of the Pew report.

Pew Study Finds One in Five Atheists Believe in God
The Secular Coalition for America Responds

For Immediate Release: June 25, 2008
Contact: Anne Singer, 202-271-4679

Washington, DC – The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a second report from its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey on Monday concluding that Americans are highly religious and tolerant of other religions and that religion is politically relevant. While none of this is news, the study’s findings about nonreligious Americans are.

Pew reported that 21 percent of atheists in their survey said they believed in God or a universal spirit, that six percent of them considered it a personal god, and that 40 percent of agnostics feel certain that God exists. Conversely, among respondents who say they are affiliated with a religious tradition (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, etc.), a surprising number said they actually do not believe in a god or universal spirit.

“When atheists are telling you they believe in God and Catholics are admitting they don’t, that’s evidence of the stigma our society puts on nontheists,” said Lori Lipman Brown, Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Americans repeatedly tell pollsters that an atheist is the last person they’d want their children to marry, the last person they’d vote for as President. This prejudice also appears in the widespread impression that atheists lack ethics and values.”

A 2007 Newsweek study* indicates that surveys putting the number of Americans without a god belief at anywhere between 21 to 63 million are probably low: half of Newsweek’s respondents last year reported personally knowing an atheist. "Unless these small numbers of atheists have unusually vast social networks, those respondents tell us that nontheists make up a lot more than just eight or 12 percent of the U.S. population," said Brown. “It says a lot about the difficulty of coming out of the closet, whether it’s to family, pollsters or fellow parishioners.”

The Pew Center's press release also announced that religion in America is politically relevant; however, says Brown, so is its absence. "When you look at the results, you see the secular vote is much larger and more up for grabs than other groups who receive an awful lot of attention from politicians and pollsters. And yet with both major parties pandering to religion, our constituency is feeling more and more like outcasts in our own democracy.”

According to the Pew survey, there are more than twice as many atheists and agnostics (a combined 4.0 percent of all respondents) as there are Jews (1.7 percent), and about four times as many as there are Muslims (0.6 percent). Atheists and agnostics also have higher ratios of independent voters than most other groups in the study. The overall percentage of voters with no religious affiliation, which includes atheists, agnostics, and secular and religious unaffiliateds, too, is nearly equal (16.1) to the percentage who are mainline Protestant (18.1).

The Secular Coalition for America represents nine national coalition partners who share the view that a secular government offers the best guarantee for freedom of thought and belief for all Americans. In this election year, the Coalition will continue to amplify the voices of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nontheists, and will advocate for all secular voters and help boost their visibility even as pollsters, politicians and pundits are silent about their place in American public life. The Coalition’s website is www.secular.org.

* Newsweek Magazine, April 9, 2007, “Is God Real?” by Jon Meacham.

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June 28, 2008

Blogging Tip #6: When to Publish

It has been almost exactly one year since I wrote a post in which I wondered about the merits of publishing blog posts on the weekends. I had read many opinions that we should post more on the weekends, but my own traffic data led me to question this practice. The picture has not changed considerably - I still tend to experience reduced traffic on the weekends even though I nearly always post on weekends. So when should you publish blog posts in order to maximize the chances that they will be read?

Of course, there is no substitute for examining your own traffic data. You are collecting data on your traffic, aren't you? If not, you might want to review tip #1. If you don't track your own traffic, you have no good way to evaluate various methods for increasing it.

In a recent analysis of over 10,000 posts from multiple social bookmarking sites, Jake Luciani reports that he has identified the optimal times of day for submitting our posts to social bookmarking sites. It seems reasonable that we could extrapolate from his suggestions to learn about when we should publish our posts.

Here is what Jake found:
  • The best times to publish blog posts are Tuesdays to Fridays between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm Pacific Standard Time.
  • The worst times to publish blog posts are Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
As Amanda at Blogger Buster notes, the optimal times correspond to periods of peak activity for U.S. readers - around lunch and right after work on weekdays. Of course, if you are outside the U.S. or have a significant audience that is, your are likely to obtain different results.

Does this mean that you should not post on weekends? Not at all. But I would suggest that you think strategically about reserving your top posts for the optimal times described above. Direct your weekend posts toward attracting search engine users (i.e., long tail strategies). Oh, and if you have no idea what I mean by that, you'll just have to wait for the next tip!

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June 27, 2008

Strengthening American Infrastructure is a Matter of National Security

Remember when the Republican Party used to champion strong national defense and actually mean it? Even if you disagree with many of their policies, I think you can agree that their focus on defense helped to bring some balance to American politics. But since Reagan came to office, their focus has narrowed to the point where the United States has become strong globally while becoming tragically weak at home. Our infrastructure has been neglected, and it is time to recognize that this is a national security issue. Fortunately, there is much we can do to improve the situation which will also provide a significant boost to our economy.

It is too easy for us to watch images of pain and suffering on our TV screens and feel detached from what is happening. It is one thing when the images are coming from the other side of the globe but quite another when they originate right here in our own country. Not only do we often feel powerless to help, but we have started to habituate to what seems to be one crisis after another.

Whether we focus on flooding in the Midwest, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, wildfires in the West, or bridge collapses anywhere, the American public is faced with one disaster after another. This trend will get worse - and not simply because of global warming. We are beginning to pay the price for neglecting our infrastructure for the past 30 years.

The good news is that there is still much we can do. At a minimum, I would like to see the following from the next administration:
  1. Enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, such as enhancing port security.
  2. A national public works project aimed at a combination of preventative maintenance, repairing existing problems, and deliberate hardening of high-risk targets of terrorism. Think about the boost this would give to our economy.
  3. Getting serious about the research and development of alternative energy sources. Dependence on foreign oil is a serious national security concern, and ruining what is left of our wilderness areas by drilling is not a viable solution.
  4. A national public relations campaign to educate the American people about the simple fact that an investment in our infrastructure improves our lives in countless ways and makes us safer.
How would you feel if you lost your home after a levee collapsed or a dam failed? What if a member of your family fell victim to a bridge collapse? My guess is that you'd push for increased investment in American infrastructure. You would be mad that we had been neglecting our own country for so long. We desperately need such an investment now. Our people need it, and our economy needs it.

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June 26, 2008

The Real Un-Americans

When you hear the term “un-American,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Most of you are not old enough to have lived through the McCarthy era, but like me, you may have read about it in history books. I suspect many of you hear the word as a political slur, one that often comes from the mouths of Republican politicians (and some in the Democratic Party too) when describing those who disagree with them. When I hear this word, one phrase goes through my mind every time, one which embodies the meaning of un-American: “Love it or leave it.”

“Love it or leave it” is as un-American as it gets. It is far worse than “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” another favorite of idiots, because it says loud and clear that criticism makes one unwelcome here. It never seems to occur to those who proclaim this phrase that they would have none of the benefits which they now enjoy if heroic Americans had not sharply criticized the nation we call home.

Since there is a natural resistance to change, reflected by the “if it ain’t broke…” sentiment, progress rarely occurs without someone identifying problems. “Love it or leave it” is a slap in the face to every American who has helped to facilitate progress through criticism.

What does it mean that social and political conservatism is positively correlated with one’s tendency to use this phrase? Does it mean that conservatism tends to oppose change? Of course, but this hardly comes as a surprise. Does it mean that conservatives actually want to roll back many of the positive gains critical Americans have brought us (e.g., Civil Rights, assorted Constitutional rights, etc.)? Absolutely. But once again, this is not exactly news. No, the question begging to be asked is how these conservatives have managed to avoid being perceived as the enemies of America.

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June 25, 2008

What Christianity Costs Christians

I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard some variation of the following:
Why do you waste your time criticizing Christian beliefs? Even if they are not true, it isn't like they hurt anyone. They bring comfort to many, so who are you to say there is anything wrong with them?
I believe I last heard it from my own mother! In this post, I'll offer a brief response.

Of course, I do not believe for a second that criticizing Christianity is a waste of my time or anyone else's. The irrationality of Christian belief is not even debatable, and that is sufficient to warrant criticism. However, it is really the harm caused by Christian belief that drives my blogging and not merely the irrationality.

To discover several examples of how Christianity harms Christians, I refer the reader to an excellent post by Truthseeker at exChristian.net. In a nutshell, the author points out how Christianity fosters dependency, encourages false expectations, , decreases enjoyment of everyday life, leads believers to waste both time and money, drives others away, leads thinking people to intellectual anguish, and deprives believers of many opportunities.

To this, I'll add the following observations about religious belief in general:
  1. Religious belief is divisive, fostering a particularly extreme "us vs. them" mindset which spawns intolerance and cruelty through dehumanization of the other.
  2. The comfort provided by religious belief is necessarily a false comfort, and this may prevent the believer from seeking effective, reality-based solutions.
  3. Religious belief tends to promote some form of fatalism, and this also tends to discourage effective problem-solving. This can actually be life-threatening.
  4. Believing something erroneous because it makes one feel good is not laudable in any way, shape, or form.
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June 24, 2008

God Arrested for Selling Cocaine

You've heard the expression, "It's good to be the king." Wouldn't it be even better to be God? Not necessarily, as there is news out of Tampa, FL, that God was arrested by undercover detectives for selling cocaine. As if that wasn't bad enough, God was selling his drugs near a church!

Being Pro-Atheist Does Not Entail Being Anti-Christian

I’ve made little secret here about my feelings toward Christianity and the rest of the world’s religions. Religious belief is inherently irrational, and while religion has resulted in considerable good, precious little of it has been unique to religion (i.e., much of the good with which religion has been credited can be and has been achieved through non-religious routes). Worse, the considerable adverse consequences of religion have largely been unique to religion. Plenty of bad things happen for without religion, but the fingerprints of religion are found on many of the most obscene atrocities. But in this post, I’d like to ask whether it is possible to be a proponent of atheism without being an opponent of religion. I’d also like to address what may be even more important, the possibility of being pro-atheist without being anti-Christian.

In the sense that atheism refers to a lack of theistic belief, it may seem nonsensical to talk about promoting it. One can easily be a proponent of reason, science, philosophical materialism, education, humanism, and the like. But atheism? Can we promote atheism apart from criticizing theism? Unless we expand the definition of atheism to include one or more of these related notions, the answer seems to be no.

And yet, I have written here extensively about promoting atheism. I even have a “promoting atheism” label for categorizing these posts. The posts to which I apply this label tend to be those that have something positive to say about a broad atheistic worldview that extends beyond the definitional boundaries of atheism. In this sense, they are not really promoting atheism but promoting my particular atheistic worldview, a perspective based on atheism, skepticism, and materialism. A great many atheists accept the tenets of this worldview – it is hardly unique – and yet, these other ingredients take us beyond atheism.

Frankly, I am not sure that it matters greatly whether promoting a strictly defined atheism is possible without criticizing religion. I’ve known few atheists who weren’t also materialists or skeptics. But I’m not sure it matters for an entirely different reason too. It seems to me that the relevant question is whether one can be pro-atheist without being anti-Christian, and to this, I say absolutely yes.

Being pro-atheist is about people. Specifically, it is about promoting courageous people who are not willing to go along with the popular delusion. Being pro-atheist is about standing up for the rights of a thoroughly despised minority. It is about civil rights and social justice.

I am not denying that some atheists are anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, etc. There are certainly anti-theistic atheists, some of whom consider themselves anti-theists rather than atheists. But there are a great many more atheists who simply want the religionists to leave them alone, to stop trying to legislate their particular version of morality, and to end the bigotry. I happily promote these atheists and strive to be one of them. I am most certainly opposed to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the like, but I have hope for the adherents of these faiths. They can triumph over delusion as countless others have.

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June 23, 2008

Obama Could Lose Votes Over FISA Capitulation

I came to support Barack Obama for President only after Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards were ignored by the mainstream media to the point where their campaigns could not continue. He was my third choice after these two because he stuck me as being the least progressive of the three. Now, with his apparent decision to support the Bush/Hoyer FISA capitulation (H.R. 6304), I am seeing that my concerns were well founded. I am not sure I can continue to support him if he goes along with gutting the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, I am enraged to see that the Democratic Congress is once again caving in to a President with abysmal approval ratings.

The inexcusably poor judgment of the 80 Bush Democrats who gave Bush another $163 billion on Thursday to occupy Iraq and plunder its oil for another year showed that they are willing to ignore the 68% of Americans wanting to bring our troops safely home this year. The 105 Bush Democrats who voted on Friday to give immunity to Bush and the telecoms for illegally wiretapping American citizens (even before 9/11) are shredding the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. They must be hoping that their base will not find out or will not care. They could not be more wrong. Efforts are now beginning to replace the Bush Democrats with actual progressives.

I had not wanted to count Obama among these Bush Democrats, but it could soon become impossible if he refuses to oppose the Bush/Hoyer capitulation. So if I cannot continue to support him, what then? Honestly, I am not sure yet. I sincerely hope Obama does the right thing. I guess we'll see.

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June 22, 2008

The Fourth Amendment is Too Important to Flip-Flop

The embarrassing capitulation on the Bush/Hoyer FISA deal (H.R. 6304) by House Democrats is expected to head to the Senate for a vote as early as Monday. The deal, which our elected officials are hoping to pass quietly without our notice, grants immunity to the telecom companies that helped Bush illegally spy on Americans. Now MoveOn.org is calling on Sen. Obama to honor his previous promise to filibuster the legislation. Believe it or not, it appears that he's thinking of flip-flopping and has already expressed some support for the deal.

Roughly a year ago, Obama indicated that he would "support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies." MoveOn.org is calling on him to do what he said he would do.

They are asking all concerned Americans to call the Obama campaign at (866) 675-2008 and indicate that we are expecting him to keep his word by blocking any deals which include immunity for the telecom companies.
These companies helped the Bush Administration illegally spy on the emails and phone calls of innocent Americans. By giving "immunity" to these companies, all lawsuits brought against them by civil liberties groups would be thrown out of court. That means we may never find out how far Bush went in breaking the law. And once it's done, it can't be undone. That's why we need Obama to promise to block any bill that has immunity.
Unacceptable. I am not sure I'll be able to continue supporting Obama if he ends up joining the Democratic capitulation. The Fourth Amendment is simply too important.

For those who still don't understand why this is such a big deal, read Glenn Greenwald's excellent article at Salon.com.

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Words of Wisdom: Joe Biden

Sen. Joe Biden to Sen. Lindsey Graham on this morning's Meet the Press:
You’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts.
This short but powerful statement should be made to all Bush Republicans and a great many Christians. As I've said here before and will undoubtedly say again, believing something does not make it true. Really really wanting something to be true also does not make it true. So simple, but so widely misunderstood.

"God Loves ME Best" Series on YouTube

Nothing good on TV? Summer reruns got you down? Or maybe you are just tired of seeing the nauseatingly positive portrayals of religion with which TV bombards you. Check out God Loves ME Best, a YouTube video series designed as a parody of reality TV that explores hypocrisy in religion and politics. Talk about a subject with unlimited comedic material!

From the producers:
What happens when a Transvestite Muslim Extremist, a gun and porn Loving Christian Fundamentalist, a Fame hungry Jewish Radical, a pill-popping Buddhist with an anger management problem, a basket case Wiccan, and a kleptomaniac Atheist all live together under one roof?

God Loves ME Best! seeks to explore the narrow minded practices of extreme religious fanatics, stubborn non-believers, self righteous spiritual seekers and the shady washed-up reality show producers who are responsible for this madness, along with the Scientologist network executive who green lights the show.
What a great idea!

June 21, 2008

Militant Atheism

Since the media began to popularize "the new atheism," the subject of atheism is cropping up everywhere. Reports of declining church attendance and increases in the number of people indicating that they are not affiliated with any religious tradition, many commentators have found themselves faced with reporting on a poorly understood group of people describing themselves as "atheists," "freethinkers," and "secular humanists." In this post, we will explore the meaning of "militant atheism" and try to help the reader understand how it is commonly misused.

Before addressing militant atheism, we need to review the meaning of atheism and correct one of the most common misconceptions about what atheists believe. Failure to do so will prevent us from understanding militant atheism.

What is atheism?

Atheism comes from the Greek "a - theos," and since the "a" prefix means "without" or "the absence of," we must first make sure we understand theism. Theism refers to the belief that some sort of god or gods exist. A theist is one who accepts the theistic claim (i.e., some sort of god or gods exist). An atheist is one who does not accept the theistic claim. That is, atheism means "without theism" and refers to the absence or lack of theistic belief.

What do atheists believe?

This question brings us to the central misconception many uninformed theists have about atheists. You see, the atheist differs from the theist in only one crucial way: The atheist does not accept the theistic claim. Some atheists actively deny the existence of god(s); others do not. Many atheists simply do not accept the theistic claim. No active denial, rejection, or criticism is required.

This has two important implications. First, theists making statements about how atheists "deny the existence of god(s)," they are distorting the meaning of atheism (see a typical example here). Some atheists do actively deny the existence of god(s), but this is not what atheism means. Remember, atheists are simply those without theistic belief. In a nutshell, an atheist is someone who answers with anything other than "yes" to the question of whether he or she believes in god(s).

The second implication reminds us about the burden of proof in discussions of the existence of god(s). The theist is making a positive claim in that he or she is claiming that something, namely god(s), exists. The atheist is not necessarily making any claim whatsoever, although it should be recognized that some do. Typically, the atheist is saying little more than that he or she does not accept the theist's claim. The burden of proof rests solely with the theist.

In fact, knowing that someone is an atheist tells you precious little about what that person believes. It simply tells you that he or she does not accept the theist's claim that god(s) exist.

Militant atheism

Now that we've clarified the meaning of atheism and it is clear what it means and what it does not mean, we can examine militant atheism. Since atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief, militant atheism must be something like an aggressive or impassioned lack of theism. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. Once we understand what atheism is, it becomes evident that "militant atheism" is meaningless, at least in this context.

Most theists seem to use the phrase "militant atheism" when describing a broad worldview that includes atheism, Greek materialism (i.e., nothing exists outside the natural world), skepticism, and at least a moderate degree of anti-theism (i.e., hostile attitudes toward theism). That last ingredient, a certain amount of anti-theism, is usually what leads theists to attach the "militant" label.

It is beyond the scope of this post to consider whether "militant" is warranted in cases of anti-theism, however, I hope that it is clear to the reader that atheism is not synonymous with anti-theism. There simply is no such thing as militant atheism unless one adds many ingredients which take us well beyond the definition of atheism.

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June 20, 2008

Action Alert: Urge Your Senators to Vote "No" on FISA Deal

The Senate is soon voting on H.R. 6304, the Hoyer/Bush FISA Deal that passed the House of Representatives yesterday. It is time to call your Senators and urge them to vote "NO." This so-called compromise grants retroactive telecom immunity and is a blow to our civil liberties.

According to People for the American Way:
By giving legal "immunity" to these companies, all lawsuits brought against them by civil liberties groups would be thrown out of court. That means Americans may never find out how far Bush went in breaking the law and violating our rights. Bush is trying to get immunity passed before there's a new President because once it's done, it can't be undone.
We need accountability, and this will not help.

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Churches Face Declining Membership

Both Catholic and many Protestant denominations are facing declining membership. While the Catholics are coping through consolidation, many Protestant churches are continuing with tiny congregations. Evidently, some are able to do so because of their large endowments. But the real good news is that the combination of declining numbers and advancing age of the remaining members is leading to reduced evangelism. Still, I think that celebration would be a bit premature at this point. We have seen trends like this before, and they have been fairly short-lived.

It is certainly tempting to see the rise of atheism and declining churches as evidence that our neighbors were beginning to come to their senses. There may even be a kernel of truth in such an interpretation but probably not much more than that.

The truth is that there are many reasons for declining church attendance that have little to do with changes in underlying religious belief. When asked about the reasons for the decline of his church for the Boston Globe article, Donald Nass, 87, of Southbridge said,
It's a different world today. The young people have so much going on. Men and women are both working. And you've got television today. But we really believe in God, and we really believe coming to church is the thing to do.
He's certainly right about it being a different world than the pre-WWII era in which he grew up. He's probably also correct to suggest that social and cultural changes are at least partially driving down church attendance. The real test is going to be how churches respond to these changes.

The history of religion in the United States suggests that while religious practices such as church attendance may now be waning, they will likely return again with renewed vigor. Perhaps they will even return in a very different form.

I'm not sure the data support more than small shifts in belief. Perhaps it is better for us to think more about religious practices changing rather than a meaningful declines in belief. Not that I am not hoping for meaningful declines in belief - I am, but I'm not sure we are quite there yet. Besides, I tend to be far less concerned with what believers do at their churches than what they have been doing politically.

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June 19, 2008

Blue Linchpin is Back

Long-time readers may remember The Blue Linchpin, an excellent blog on atheism, progressive politics, and assorted observations on life. I first discovered the blog a little over a year ago. The author, Blue, was only 16 at the time and was writing some of the most compelling posts I had seen. I remember reflecting on what I was like at 16 (or 21 for that matter) and appreciating her all the more. And then there was the matter of Blue's failing health. She was dying of cancer and reported that her time among us was limited. Blue abruptly stopped posting, and I think we all feared the worst. In December, Humanist Symposium #12 was even dedicated to her. You can imagine my surprise when I suddenly realized that Blue is back.

In the brief period when The Blue Linchpin was active last year, Blue received widespread acclaim throughout the atheist blogosphere. She received more coverage on a variety of atheist blogs than anyone this side of PZ Myers. She deserved it.

Blue's disappearance hit us all hard. She would have been missed even if she had simply stopped posting with no context. However, the cancer made us all think we had probably lost her in an entirely different way.

I am thrilled that Blue is still with us and that she has returned to blogging. I don't know how much time she has left. Of course, none of us know how much time we have left. But let Blue be a reminder to all that our time is short and precious. As for me, I am going to discover The Blue Linchpin all over again.

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June 18, 2008

Religious Exemption to Critical Thinking for Christian College Students

classroomAccording to the Center for Inquiry, Christian extremists are claiming success in intimidating college professors who have the nerve to expect their students to learn reality-based information. The right-wing American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is bragging that they intervened to prevent a Christian student at Suffolk County Community College from receiving a failing grade from a professor who allegedly sought to penalize her because of her religious beliefs. As we learn more about the details of this case, I am convinced that anyone who values education should be alarmed.

According to the ACLJ, they were victorious in protecting the religious freedom of a Christian student of Suffolk County Community College philosophy professor, Dr. Philip Pecorino. They claim that a letter sent by one of their attorneys to the college prevented the student from receiving a failing grade from Dr. Pecorino. They insist that Dr. Pecorino was going to assign a failing grade to penalize a student for her Christian beliefs.

The Council for Secular Humanism has called these allegations baseless.

"The ACLJ's spurious claim of a legal 'victory' is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job—which is to get students to think critically," commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council of Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. "As far as I can tell," observed Lindsay, "the ACLJ's letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations."
Dr. Pecorino's academic credentials and reputation among the approximately 13,000 students he has taught over 36 years certainly do not seem to fit the ACLJ's claims.
Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in Pecorino's class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own.
Evidently, most of Dr. Pecorino's students are mature enough to handle this. That one Christian was not tells us more about her and the nature of her delusion than it does about her professor.
"I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor," explained Pecorino, "if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else's beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one's own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion 'well, this is what I believe'."
Indeed. In case the reason why we should all be deeply concerned about this sort of thing is not already apparent, it has to do with the ACLJ's claim that Christian students deserve to be exempt from a college critical thinking requirement.
As Dr. Pecorino observes, "Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society."
When extremists groups such as the ACLJ attempt to weaken education, it is good to see that organizations such as the Center for Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism are there to oppose them. They deserve our thanks and support.

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June 17, 2008

Getting "Under God" Out of the Pledge

If you are an American atheist and it does not bother you that the words "under god" are in the pledge of allegiance or that "in god we trust" is on our currency, you might want to read this before continuing with this post. In a nutshell, the issue is that the addition of these phrases have never been about allowing god(s) in the public square. Rather, they have always been about excluding non-believers from civic life, punishing us for not going along with the majority. Assuming that this bothers you, it is reasonable to ask what you could possibly do to help.

Admittedly, removing god references from the pledge of allegiance and American currency are large goals that will require effort and persistence. The good news is that there are many relatively easy things each of us can do to help.
  1. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper to raise awareness in your community.
  2. Write blog posts informing your readers about the Pledge Project and sharing ideas for what individuals can do to help.
  3. Make a short video clip of yourself, friends, family members, etc. reciting the pledge without the "under god" part and submit it to YouTube. Here is an example.
  4. Use social bookmarking sites to promote articles or posts on this topic.
  5. Contribute to the discussion expected in the aftermath of the 9th Circuit Court's ruling. This ruling is expected sometime between now and July 7.
To learn more about the Pledge Project, visit Atheist Ethicist.

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June 16, 2008

Firefox 3 Available June 17

The eagerly awaited Firefox 3 Internet browser will be available for download on June 17, and the folks at Mozilla are encouraging everyone to download it within 24 hours of its release to set a world record. In a creative bit of publicity, they are billing June 17 as Firefox Download Day 2008. You can learn about the new features here. I don't know about you, but I'm certainly looking forward to the new version and hope to download it on the 17th.

H/T to tuaw.com

June 15, 2008

God the Father

I've always liked Father's Day. It does not seem to be quite as hyped as Mother's Day, and I suppose I am somewhat more comfortable shopping for Father's Day gifts simply because I'm entering more familiar territory. On this Father's Day, I find myself thinking about a different sort of father figure, that of the Christian god. If Father's Day is an occasion for reflecting on the meaning of fatherhood, then it seems appropriate to ponder the supernatural father Christians have created for themselves.

In something of a departure from my usual focus, I'd like to consider the god of moderate Christians rather than that of the Christian extremists. Why? I suppose I find this god a bit more interesting in this context.

We can dispense so easily with the Christian extremists' god by pointing out that no god behaving in the way this one is depicted in the Christian bible deserves any sort of worship. This is an angry, cruel, and even jealous god. It is an infantile representation of the worst of the human psyche. Imagine an angry 2-year-old with unlimited power having a bad day.

In bringing us their god, Christian moderates minimize the importance of hell and essentially ignore the Old Testament and many parts of the New Testament. They are determined to give us a loving god who only sometimes finds it necessary to punish us. If we believe and try hard to lead good lives, they insist, we will be rewarded. Punishments such as hell are reserved for the worst of us. Theirs is held up as a fair god who behaves much like a nurturing parent.

While the god of Christian extremists resembles only the most psychopathic human father imaginable, the one worshiped by most Christians is one we can relate to many human fathers. If we imagine a continuum of common parenting styles ranging from mostly strict on one end to mostly nurturant on the other, we can capture much of the variability we find in conceptions of the Christian god. Liberal Christians emphasize the nurturant god; conservative Christians identify with the strict god.

George Lakoff's excellent Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think demonstrates the link between approach to parenting and where one falls on the political spectrum. He even lays the groundwork for applying the nurturant-strict continuum to conceptions of the Christian god.

We all know that there are many different kinds of fathers being celebrated today. Christians are fond of pointing out that there is great variability among them too. This seems to be the case. Perhaps there are as many conceptions of the Christian god as there are of our fathers.

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Do Your Friends Think You're Going to Hell?

Could you maintain a friendship with a Christian who thought you would end up in hell? I realize you don't believe in hell, but would this make it an easier for you to deal with your friend's belief? I am not sure whether I'd be able to maintain such a friendship. Even if the Christian did not talk about it often, my knowing they believed it would be a problem. In the end, I don't think I'd be willing to maintain such a friendship. How about you?

Hell is one part of Christian doctrine that few Christians like to discuss. I can't say I blame them. Reconciling a loving god with everlasting hell can't be easy. Those who would describe themselves as liberal or progressive Christians often seem to ignore it completely. I suspect some actually reject this part of their doctrine. Good for them! It is certainly a start.

Given what hell is supposed to be, I think I would have some trouble maintaining a relationship with someone who was convinced I was going there. I'd have a difficult time trusting them or imagining that interest whatsoever in my well-being. I imagine I'd also have some difficulty wanting to be friends with the sort of person capable of believing in hell.

The fact that I do not believe in heaven, hell, gods, souls, spirits, and the like would make little difference. Frankly, I'd be baffled as to why a Christian would want to be friends with someone bound for hell. However, I think I'd be fairly clear that I'd have little desire to maintain a relationship with them.

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June 14, 2008

Blogging Tip #5: Using Blog Carnivals

A blog carnival is a collaborative exchange where multiple bloggers submit posts from their respective blogs, posts they have already written and posted on their own blogs, to a blogger hosting the carnival on his or her blog. This system has many benefits, and it is one which more bloggers should utilize. In this post, I am going to review the benefits of participating in and hosting blog carnivals and offer some tips about how to get even more from this resource.

The benefits of blog carnivals are many. Here are some of the more important:
  • The host benefits from increased traffic from the sort of readers already likely to have an interest in the host blog's content (of course, this assumes that the host blog has similar content to the carnival being hosted).
  • Doing a good job hosting a blog carnival in one's content area is an excellent way for new bloggers to get on the map.
  • Bloggers who submit posts to blog carnivals bring additional traffic via posts they have already written. Not only is minimal effort involved, but this can be viewed as a way to breathe new life into slightly older posts.
  • Bloggers who submit posts to blog carnivals outside the main content area of their blog gain exposure to new readers.
Clearly, blog carnivals are something you need to use. The benefits are simply too good to pass up. So how can one best utilize blog carnivals to bring traffic and gain new readers? Here are some tips:
  1. Try to submit to at least one blog carnival every other week.
  2. Submit your better original posts. Remember, this is your chance to make a good impression. Use it well.
  3. If you are an atheist blogger, make sure you are aware of Carnival of the Godless and the Humanist Symposium. Understand their different goals and keep them in mind when writing your posts. Both get reasonable amounts of traffic and are an excellent way for atheist bloggers to gain exposure to readers interested in such material.
  4. Take the time to explore other blog carnivals and look for the opportunity to submit to carnivals not explicitly focused on atheism. For example, if you write a post with political content, seek a match with the various political carnivals.
  5. Recognize that some blog carnivals are more competitive than others in deciding which submissions to accept. Be persistent. It took me several tries before I had a post accepted by Carnival of the Liberals.
  6. Don't try to host a blog carnival until you are fairly confident you can do so effectively. Attracting a bunch of readers only to disappoint them is not going to help.
Used wisely, blog carnivals can be a great resource for increasing traffic, adding readers, and building a reputation in your area.

June 13, 2008

Bullying in the Schools: Lessons for Atheists and Christians

With many high-profile school shootings occurring throughout the United States and many other countries, considerable attention has been focused on bullying. Research from psychology, criminal justice, and other fields has demonstrated that bullying is a complex behavior with myriad causes. Just how are we to assign blame in cases of school bullying, and what implications does this have for educators, administrators, parents, and the rest of us? If we are willing to approach this with an open mind, we just might find valuable lessons for atheists and Christians alike.

Bullying is unfortunately common among school children. Some of you were undoubtedly bullied, others were themselves bullies, and almost everyone was a witness to some form of bullying. Bullying occurs within a system, including children, parents, teachers, and school administrators, all of whom often feel powerless to stop it.

Misconceptions about the reasons for bullying abound, many of which have been shattered by scientific research but continue to be believed nevertheless. For example, it is widely assumed that bullies suffer from low self-esteem and bully to make themselves feel better. However, considerable research has demonstrated that the opposite is often true (i.e., bullies are far more likely to have inflated self-esteem and be convinced of their own superiority).

Imagine a scenario where a child attending a predominately white school was being bullied for being African American. Parents, community leaders, and even politicians would be outraged and rightly so. Their message to the school would likely be that this had to stop and stop immediately. They might blame the bully's parents, but they would almost assuredly expect the school to resolve the situation.

Now consider a situation where the victim was being bullied not for race but for being "the wrong kind of Christian." Again, we'd expect widespread outrage and consider it justified. I imagine that atheists would agree without hesitation that a child should not be bullied on the basis of believing a different brand of Christianity than the majority. I could see atheist parents joining with Christian parents to demand a resolution in such a case.

So why then does my scenario fall apart so thoroughly when we change the details yet again and make the victim atheist and the bully or bullies Christian? The atheist child experiences the same pain and has the same right to an education. There should be equal outrage, and Christian parents should be as invested in stopping this scenario as the atheist parents were in the previous one. So why does this not seem to happen in case after case?

If we are to assign blame in such a case, we must cast the net wider than usual. What have the Christian parents learned during their lives about atheist, and what have they taught their children? Why are teachers and administrators more likely to look the other way in such a case? Why are they atheist parents often reluctant to challenge such a system until the bullying becomes increasingly serious?

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June 12, 2008

Help! There's an Atheist in My Garden!

Some call it "new atheism." Others, and I count myself among them, prefer to talk about an atheist movement, atheist revival, or even atheist pride. But no matter what we call it, I think we can agree increased visibility is likely to improve attitudes toward atheists. Just think of how many times you have heard a Christian say that he or she has never met an atheist. Could this be a factor in maintaining ignorance and even bigotry?

When confronted with the common claim from Christians that they have never met an atheist, nearly all of us respond the same way: "Of course you have! You just didn't realize it because they kept it to themselves." We all know the reasons why. They serve to remind us that we have not yet achieved atheist equality and that many atheists fear repercussions.

If you buy the idea that lack of familiarity is at least one factor contributing to intolerance and bigotry, it makes sense that exposing more Christians to atheists might help. This part of the rationale behind the Out Campaign. By concealing our thoughts about religion, we remain safe. But this comes at a high price, for it helps to maintain the reasons we have to worry about our safety in the first place.

Helping Christians overcome their fear and hatred of us begins by providing them more experience with atheists. We know it is more difficult to maintain bigotry when one has to contend with multiple exceptions. Imagine the difference between "Atheists are evil, but fortunately I've never met one" and "Atheists are evil, although I know a couple that actually seem nice." I'm not suggesting the second statement isn't still problematic, but I do think it is a step in the right direction and would expect it to produce greater cognitive dissonance.

As atheists become increasingly visible to Christians, it will become progressively easier for other atheists to reveal themselves. Instead of recoiling in horror when faced with an atheist, Christians who have interacted with us before may react quite differently. Perhaps the most effective way to promote atheism is simply to be oneself. Imagine that!

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June 11, 2008

Evangelicals Bemoan Stereotypes

In what has to be one of the most bizarre stories to emerge this year, it appears that evangelical Christians are upset that educated Americans find them ridiculously absurd and have decided to do something about it. They aim to change how they are perceived through a large-scale study of an "evangelical intelligentsia."

Where do I start here? It sounds like evangelicals feel that they have been misunderstood, stereotyped, and even persecuted. But they control the American government! The Bush administration has catered to them in a way now previous administration has (and with disastrous consequences). How bad can public perceptions be when one of theirs is still in the Oval Office and faith-based programs throughout the country receive federal funding?

According to Peter Berger, a Boston University sociologist, educated Americans look down on evangelicals. Well, yes. Educated Americans do tend to look down on bigotry, whether it is directed at homosexuals, women, ethnic or racial minorities, or even atheists. How is this a bad thing?

The crux of the evangelical persecution claim is that there is room for everyone but them under the banner of tolerance. The problem with this claim is that they re trying to have it both ways - practicing intolerance while whining that we refuse to tolerate their intolerance!
Evangelicals say people often see them as Bible-banging, evolution-hating caricatures.
Absolutely! When they show up on our doorstep waving their bible or try to force our schools to teach manufactured controversy as science, we take notice. If their complaint is that not all evangelicals are like this, then it is time for those evangelicals to take a stand against those among them who are engaging in door-to-door proselytizing and promoting intelligent design.

Personally, I think a large-scale study of American evangelicals is a good idea. However, it is disappointing to see that it will be carried out by a research team that includes only Christians. One, Timothy Shah, is even described as an evangelical. Worse, his goal involves creating "more room for a religious perspective in various academic disciplines." So much for anything scientific here.

If it is true, as Shah claims, that the American culture makes fun of evangelical Christians, we should ask why.
An estimated 75 million Americans are evangelicals, people who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and commit to spreading the message of salvation through his redemptive death.
And there is our answer. Evangelicals believe that they have a "personal relationship" with someone who has been dead for over 2,000 years, if he lived at all, and they want to tell you about it. This is why they are mocked.

I want to be very clear on what I am about to say so there are no misunderstandings. Evangelical Christians are ridiculed because of the absurdity of their beliefs and not because of who they are or even what group with which they are identified. I'll say it again - evangelicals are mocked because of what they believe. The fact that what they believe has the label of religion attached to it does not make it immune from criticism or mockery.

June 10, 2008

Church Opposition Boosts Adult Shop's Business

Only one week after opposing a permit requested by an adult boutique in West Chester (PA), a Catholic church withdrew its appeal. Did they decide it was time to stop pushing their sexually repressive view of morality on others? Not quite. It appears that the church learned that their opposition was benefiting the shop, bringing more traffic and sales.

According to Jill McDevitt, owner of Feminique Boutique, her business doubled since the church filed their complaint. And there was even more good news for Ms. McDevitt.
Since then, she said, she has received hundreds of supportive phone calls and e-mails - including one from France and one from China - donations for legal expenses, and multiple interview requests.
At the risk of over-interpreting this situation, I cannot resist suggesting that increasing numbers of people may be tiring of the whole morality police thing. Religion has long attempted to insert itself in the sex lives of consenting adults, despite the obvious inappropriateness of this (at least to me). Could there be a lesson for the church in this?

June 9, 2008

Atheists Do Not Worship Humanity

Many Christians seem so hung up on the idea of worship that they cannot comprehend how anyone could not worship something. We atheists are routinely accused of worshiping Darwin, science, humanity, and even ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not worship anything, and it baffles me why this is so difficult for some Christians to understand.

Worshiping makes no sense to me, and I'm not sure it ever has. Even as a Christian, it bothered me that the sort of god who demanded worship could be deserving of it. I dealt with this gnawing doubt the same way many Christians do - by trying not to think about it.

Among famous deceased figures from history, Charles Darwin is probably the one atheists are most likely to be accused of worshiping. And yet, the very notion of worshiping a long dead person is absurd. Darwin was certainly worthy of respect, admiration, and praise for his many contributions. But worship? I think not.

So how about science? Frankly, I am not sure what worshiping science even means or what it would look like. Do I have a high opinion of science? Of course! Not only am I a scientist by training, but I have been impressed with the countless benefits to humanity conferred by scientific advances. But I hardly regard science as somehow flawless or worthy of worship. Science both a method of acquiring knowledge and a body of knowledge. Simply because it works extremely well is no reason for worship.

Claiming that atheists worship humanity ignores the evidence that a great many atheists have fairly negative attitudes toward humanity. I can tell you that this is something with which I struggle quite regularly. I've made no secret of my episodic misanthropy, but I think my attitude is usually one of guarded optimism. I may hope for better days, but I am also realistic in my pessimism regarding the limits of our species.

So this must leave me worshiping myself, right Christians? This is the common fallback position when all other avenues are exhausted. If the Christian cannot identify anything else that we might worship, we end up here. I am not sure what I can say here except to point out that I barely tolerate myself much of the time and that this falls well short of worship. If worship includes positive feelings, then it is more likely that I worship my friends, my camera, or my dog. As great a dog as he is, he's not worthy of worship either.

Psychologically, the common tendency of Christians to denigrate atheists by making us seem more like them is fascinating. We see it with the claims that atheists must worship something and that atheism requires faith. There are many ways in which atheists and Christians are similar, but these are not among them.



June 8, 2008

Free Obama '08 Bumper Sticker

If you want to show your support for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, you get get a free Obama '08 bumper sticker from MoveOn.org while supplies last. They are rather plain looking, but I expect they will go quickly.

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