November 30, 2008

Black Friday Death: Were The Deals Worth It?

I have but one question for the more than 2,000 shoppers in Long Island who trampled a Wal-Mart employee to death on Black Friday: Was it worth it? Get some good deals, did you? How much money did you end up saving, and was it a fair price for this man's death? Was that copy of Rush Hour 2 you picked up for $2 worth it?

According to reporting by Newsday, Nassau police reported that Jdimytai Damour, a seasonal employee of Wal-Mart, was trampled to death "after an impatient crowd broke down the store doors." Among the details released to the media were the following:

  • Hundreds of shoppers "stepped over, around and on the 34-year-old worker as they rushed into the store."
  • Nobody attempted to help Mr. Damour.
  • First responders struggled to reach Damour and were actually "jostled" by the crowd of shoppers.
  • Shoppers asked to leave by crying Wal-Mart employees who witnessed the trampling ignored them and continued shopping.
When I first heard reports of this story from friends, I thought it was merely a bad joke. I figured it must have been something someone pulled off The Onion and was trying to pass off as a real story (yes, I have friends who sometimes forget that The Onion is satirical). But it was real.

If this story isn't a scathing commentary on our "American values," I'm not sure what is. As such, it will receive little attention and quickly be forgotten. Of this, I think we can be quite confident. Personally, I am absolutely disgusted with humanity right now.

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November 29, 2008

Glorifying Stupidity is Bad for Society

Roman-Catholic ChurchImage by tskdesign via FlickrIt is no secret that religion and science are at odds. Attempts to reconcile them have been popular but also in vain. Most of us recognize this now and may have even tuned out some of the continued noise in this area. However, I would hope that everyone would sit up and take notice when the religious community attacks education itself. Yes, religion has long been the enemy of reason, but there is something truly despicable about religiously-motivated anti-intellectualism. It reminds us that the lessons of Galileo have not stayed with humanity. Indeed, the Catholic Church is once again condemning knowledge in order to preserve itself.

In looking at our modern world, it is difficult to see how anyone could argue that what we really need is less education. And yet, the institutions of organized religion seem to have little choice. They have painted themselves into a corner by clinging to their "god of the gaps."

Religious belief does stand in opposition to reason, science, critical thinking, and education (as distinct from indoctrination). Increasing numbers of people are realizing this and either leaving superstition behind or embracing a watered-down version of various religious traditions void of actual belief.

Because the churches depend on the ignorant masses for their very survival, they oppose what we as a society most need. It is time for the trumpet of reason to sound. Our neighbors need to see what is at stake here.

H/T to Spanish Inquisitor

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November 28, 2008

Offended By "Merry Christmas?"

English: merry christmas
merry christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Austin Cline recently posted a question he received on his forums asking why some atheists seemed to be offended by someone saying "Merry Christmas." At least for me, "offended" seems a bit strong. I'd prefer to use the term "annoyed" to describe how I feel upon hearing "Merry Christmas." I certainly notice it, but I do not take offense at hearing those words.

What could possibly be annoying about hearing someone wish me a merry Christmas? I find it annoying because it is insensitive. The person making the statement is either incorrectly assuming that I am Christian (a reflection of Christian privilege), doesn't give a damn, or has not bothered to consider the potential impact of these words on persons with different beliefs.

In these situations, I almost always assume good intentions on the part of the speaker. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the speaker thinks everyone is Christian or that they don't care how their words might make me feel, I assume that they are trying to be nice and are simply operating in a state of blissful ignorance. A bit annoying but hardly what I'd consider offensive.

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November 27, 2008

Thankful for the Atheist Movement

{{Potd/2005-11-24 (en)}}Image via WikipediaI slept late this morning and hadn't really thought about writing a Thanksgiving post. I'm not big on holidays of any sort, and other than enjoying some time off work, I don't do anything different from what I usually do. I know that makes me quite odd, but I'm getting more comfortable embracing that. Still, my upbringing leaves me with an almost irresistible urge to reflect on what I am thankful for today. To the degree that it makes sense for an atheist to talk of being thankful, I am thankful for having an atheist movement. Even a largely disorganized and ineffective one is better than none at all, and so I extend warm wishes to all who make this movement happen.

For the purposes of this post, all I mean by atheist movement is a group of people interested in working together to defend and even promote the rights of atheists. Such a group recognizes that atheist equality is a civil rights issue. Such a group cares about making the world a better place for those of us in the reality-based community. Certainly, these brave people deserve our thanks.

It is good to simply know that there are others out there who have managed to throw off the shackles of ancient superstition and accept the world as it is rather than how they want it to be. Our brand of activism is about moving forward while benefiting from the lessons of the past. I thank the atheist activists for engaging in their long struggle.

Whether you write an atheist blog or visit them from time to time, whether you engage in brief acts of positive activism or are a full-time activist, whether you belong to one secular organization or several, I thank you. Your efforts help each of us feel less alone and more a part of our civil rights struggle. If I'm going to be thankful today, it is for your presence.

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November 26, 2008

It Is About Reducing Isolation

American AtheistsImage via WikipediaI've got news for the Christians who are upset about atheist billboards, atheist bus advertisements, and atheist greeting cards. It is not about trying to take "Christ" out of Christmas at all. In fact, it isn't really even about you and your jealous little god at all. It is about letting millions of American atheists know that they are not alone. Nobody likes feeling alienated from the culture in which they live. These various campaigns are simply about normalizing the experience of countless atheists.

If the idea of atheists feeling free to be themselves threatens you for some reason, tough shit. We are here to stay, and we are not willing to keep our opinions to ourselves any more than you are. We are going to be more visible in the next few years, and you can expect to hear more from us.

We live fulfilled, ethical, and joyful lives without any need for monsters, ghosts, or gods. It is unfortunate that you haven't been able to do this yet. We hope that you will be able to do so eventually. We also understand how you feel about us. Many of us were once Christians, and we know what you have been taught about us. This allows us to empathize with you and even experience compassion for your struggle. But we will not apologize for our existence, and we will not stop working to promote education, reason, and skepticism.

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November 25, 2008

The Jealous Atheist

Wal-Mart HermosilloImage via WikipediaIf you've read the Christian bible, you know that their god is repeatedly described as being a jealous god. I always found the notion of anything godlike being jealous of what humans thought or believed to be the height of absurdity, but this does not seem to bother those who claim to believe in such a god. Maybe being jealous is not so bad after all. In fact, I happen to be seriously jealous at this very moment. In fact, I am coveting someone else's property in the worst way.

Who am I jealous of, and what is the object of my coveting? I am jealous of fellow atheist blogger, Dubito Ergo Sum, for obtaining what has to be one of the coolest pieces of Americana I've seen in a long time.
Yep, a talking Jesus action figure found in the clearance section at Wal-Mart. I know what you're thinking - why would any self-respecting atheist even consider owning one of these, much less paying for it? I don't know what to tell you except to say that it is taking every bit of self-control I have not to get in the car and head for Wal-Mart right now.

Sure, there's the fun that could be had from posing the figure in all sorts of poses and take pictures which could be posted here to entertain you. I'll admit that this is appealing. But I think it is also about the horrified look on the faces of those who know me when they see me with something like this. Could there be a better decoration for my office?

Back in college, I was very open about my atheism to the point where anyone who knew me, even casually, knew my thoughts on religion. During this time, I found some of the ugliest Jesus candles you can possible imagine at a flea market for $1 each. I bought as many as I could carry and littered my apartment with them. My friends thought I was crazy, and the believers who came over were never sure what to make of it.

Yes, I know I have a sickness - some sort of strange addiction to finding the most repugnant Jesus crap out there. Maybe my jealousy of Dubito Ergo Sum is a symptom. Still, I suppose it means that I am more godlike than I previously thought.

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November 24, 2008

What Do Christians Have To Live For?

Afterlife (comics)
Afterlife (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A recent post at Separate Spectrum (Update: blog is no longer active) started me thinking about the question posed in the title. What do Christians have to live for? Some will answer that they live for their god. Fair enough, but I'm not sure how they do this? Many will claim to believe in some sort of afterlife, but most still fear and avoid death. Do they live primarily for this imagined afterlife? If so, that seems like it would be an awfully empty sort of existence. Nothing in the here-and-now would matter except insofar as it affected a poorly characterized afterlife.

Many Christians are clearly uninterested in making the world a better place. They obsess about something called "the rapture" and imagine that their time here will be too brief to make any sort of impact. I suppose these Christians are in fact living for some sort of afterlife.

But others at least claim to care about improving their present worlds. Why is this important to them? Is it because they think they will be rewarded for it, or are there other reasons?

And how about morality? Some Christians believe that one of their deities (Jesus I think) already somehow guaranteed their place in "heaven." When he died, their sins were forgiven. For these Christians, I wonder how they could refrain from raping and murdering at will. After all, if they are already destined for eternal rewards, why would they remain moral during their brief time on Earth?

If you recognized that I am writing this post in something other than a completely serious tone for the purpose of highlighting the absurdity of many of the things atheists hear from Christians on the subject of morality, kudos to you.

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November 23, 2008

Promoting Atheist Community: Atheist Philanthropy

Board_directors_heidelberg.Image via WikipediaIn a recent post on promoting atheist community, I offered some suggestions about how best to begin the process of developing atheist community. I indicated that the first step would involve determining the sort of community we wanted, and I provided some brief recommendations. It was my hope that others would chime in, and I am happy to report that this is indeed happening.

Mojoey of Deep Thoughts and the Atheist Blogroll (join the Atheist Blogroll here) had an interesting recommendation of his own:
I would like to suggest another area for consideration, Philanthropy. I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a philanthropic organization whose members are part of the atheist blogging community. Funds could be collected via donations. A small board of directors could oversee dispersal to appropriate charities or programs.
I think this is a fascinating possibility with a few different benefits. First, an effort like this would indeed promote atheist community. Those involved in running, promoting, and communicating with the organization would be coming together to work on common goals.

Second, as Mojoey mentions, this would be good for our image. Now, let me be very clear in what I am about to say so there is no confusion. I am not generally in favor of atheists worrying too much about our public image because I believe that our efforts along these lines will matter little to those who demonize us. However, I believe that something along the lines of what Mojoey is describing here would be good for our self-image and might help us gain access to the media in order to educate the uninformed about atheism. In these ways, I do see such an effort as having a positive impact on our image.

Third and perhaps most intriguing of all, Mojoey's plan would allow us to help others in the name of atheism. Like many of you, I contribute regularly to a variety of charitable organizations as well as those dedicated to preserving separation of church and state, promoting atheism, and the like. But this would be different. This would allow me to reach out in various ways to help others in the name of atheism. Of course, I can do this now as an individual through targeted contributions to select groups, but under Mojoey's plan, this would actually be a way to come together with other atheists.

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November 22, 2008

Blogging Tip #13: Searching Blogs Efficiently

Google, Inc.Image via WikipediaCross-blog collaboration benefits those who engage in it and strengthens the atheist blogosphere as well. Few posts address topics or issues so unique that they have not been previously discussed elsewhere. When writing a post, it is often helpful to review what others have written and to point readers to these sources for additional information or other opinions. This post suggests a helpful but underutilized method for identifying relevant blog posts.

You are probably already familiar with the Atheist Blogroll, but did you know that there was a search engine just for searching blog posts written by members? That's right, Larro developed an Atheist Blogroll Search Engine through Google so that we can search posts from Atheist Blogroll members.

I have found this tool to be incredibly useful. If I'm writing a post and want to know what other atheist bloggers are saying about it, the Atheist Blogroll Search Engine is my first stop. Consider it the next time you want to know what others in our community are writing about an issue.

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November 21, 2008

On The Logical Impossibility Of God

Mount Scopus הר הצופים
Mount Scopus הר הצופים (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was rereading a portion of George Smith's excellent Atheism: The case against God recently and found a part I'd like to summarize for the reader. It deals with a core aspect of what many atheists (this one included) believe, namely that the god of the major monotheistic religions is logically impossible.

In a nutshell, Smith suggests that "...the entire notion of a supernatural being is incomprehensible" because nothing can exist apart from that which exists naturally.
To be is to be something as opposed to nothing, and to be something is to be something specific. If a god is to have any characteristics (which it must to exist), these characteristics must be specific - but to assign definite attributes, to say that a being is this as opposed to that, is to limit the capacities of that being and to subject it to the uniformity imposed by those capacities. A supernatural being, if it is to differ in kind from natural existence, must exist without a limited nature - which amounts to existing without any nature at all (p. 41).
The theist who is not ready to concede defeat has one obvious place of retreat. He or she will claim that his or her god is unknowable. Of course! Theists make this claim all the time. Their god is not merely unknown in the present time but unknowable in principle. The human mind simply cannot comprehend their god.

As Smith suggests, this shifts the discussion away from metaphysics and back to epistemology. However, before making this shift, it is important to understand that the theist is now admitting that his or her god (and any other supernatural entity) is beyond comprehension of the human mind. Is this really what theists believe? Perhaps it gets them around the many metaphysical problems with their god, but it may well come back to haunt them.

How might the concession that their god is unknowable haunt the theist? Consider the following dialogue which Smith provides:
Theist: "I believe in god."
Atheist: "What is 'god'?"
Theist: "I don't know."
Atheist: "But what is it that you believe in?"
Theist: "I don't know that either."
The hole into which the theist has dug himself/herself should now be apparent. The theistic belief claim (i.e., god exists) has been effectively neutered and is now thoroughly void of meaning.

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November 20, 2008

Promoting Atheist Community: What Do We Want?

PZ Myers at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention.
PZ Myers at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has been clear to me for some time that we need a secular community, and I am happy to see others making similar arguments. I have called on my fellow atheist bloggers to begin the task of cataloging options for uniting nonbelievers. I think it is time to again pick up this task and move forward in building community among atheists. This post will serve as a reorientation to the task and attempt to outline some characteristics of the sort of community I think we need. My goal here is not to persuade but to spark greater dialogue.

The question in a task like this is always, "Where do we start?" In this case, I think we need to begin with a clear idea about what sort of community we are trying to encourage. For example, do we want a broad secular community that might include atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, etc., or should we limit our initial efforts to fostering atheist community? This is an important question, and not an easy one to answer. Perhaps we could even do both simultaneously, conceptualizing our task as involving parallel efforts operating at different levels of inclusion.

To begin the discussion about what sort of community we should try to foster, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. Even though a broad secular community (i.e., atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, etc.) may be our ultimate goal, we should start with building atheist community.
  2. One of the more important initial steps should involve atheist identity, educating our fellow nonbelievers about the meaning of atheism and giving them something with which to identify.
  3. Initial efforts to develop atheist community should emphasize common political concerns where support is likely to be nearly unanimous (e.g., preserving separation of church and state, opposing religious extremism, ending informal religious tests for political office, opposing anti-atheist bigotry, etc.).
  4. When encountering resistance from our fellow nonbelievers, we should frame the issue as one of ensuring political representation.
Each of these recommendations is likely to be controversial, and each could easily be the subject of considerable discussion. My hope is that by throwing them out there, some of this discussion will happen.

I'll end with a quote from PZ Myers worth remembering:

And at the same time, as skeptics and science-minded people, the principles of tolerance we adopt are going to have to include frank disagreement and criticism of ourselves and others. That should be a central part of who we are, that we do not muzzle our ideas and that we can go up to our fellow atheists and say, "you're wrong" on just about anything, but without simultaneously implying that they're going to be ostracized from the community.
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November 19, 2008

Proposition 8 Protests Offer Lesson For Atheists

Why aren't more atheists vocal about their feelings on religion? Why aren't more atheists willing to take a stand against anti-atheist bigotry and demand equality? In a word, fear. We fear losing friends, alienating family, getting fired from our jobs, or even being physically assaulted by religious extremists. These concerns are understandable, but true equality for atheists is likely to require some measure of risk. I submit that we could learn quite a bit from the protests of Proposition 8.

Yes, I realize that the protests we are now seeing in every state (even Mississippi) were prompted by a specific political action which removed rights previously granted to same-sex couples in California. Some may argue that atheists have faced no such denial of rights previously granted and that our efforts would be every bit as impressive if this were to happen to us. I'm sorry, but I don't believe that for a second.

Over at Mississippi Atheists, I posted a video from a small protest in Mississippi last weekend. Roughly 40-50 brave individuals gathered in a Mississippi town across the street from a college campus only a couple hours before a home football game. Those of you familiar with football in the South know what this means. For everyone else, think hordes of drunken rednecks pouring in from tiny rural communities for the game.

And yet, these protesters were out there, wrapped in rainbow flags and holding signs calling for equality. Some may have been terrified, but they did it anyway. They spread their message to passersby and received local television and newspaper coverage. And all over America, people were doing the same.

I know that atheists typically beat out all other groups, including members of the GLBT community, on lists of the most hated persons in America. But I simply do not believe that it would be measurably more perilous for us to take a stand. We can (and should) learn as much as possible about how to organize and foster activism from the GLBT community. However, I suspect that the crucial lesson on which all others may depend is one of working through our fear.

I'll tell you what I learned yesterday - I have no excuse for not standing up for atheist equality. None whatsoever. It is time to face the fear.

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November 18, 2008

Online Dating For Atheists

Has anybody tried Atheist Passions? I'd never heard of them until seeing them mentioned in a newspaper article somewhere. They advertise themselves as focusing on "atheist dating & social networking." Sounds like it might be worth a look. Or are there others out there you prefer?

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November 17, 2008

Rethinking the War on Christmas

war on christmas
The month of November brings both Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving, but it also heralds something even more special - the war on Christmas. It is almost unfortunate that this war is nothing more than a marketing campaign by Christian extremists to solicit donations from their deluded supporters. If the war was real, it could bring atheists together to denounce Christian privilege as a potent cultural factor for maintaining extremism. But sadly, the war on Christmas is nothing more than an exercise in atheist-bashing where we become the boogeyman long enough to fill right-wing coffers. For this season, I have but one simple question: is there any way we could use this imagined war to benefit ourselves and our compatriots in reality?

I realize that this may seem like a strange question, and to be honest, I'm writing this post without much idea of where it will end up. That is, I'm not sure how we could turn this war to our advantage. It only occurs to me that it might be a question worth asking.

The Christian right has a platform from which to loudly blather about our fictional attacks on their religion. Each year, representatives from atheist groups set the record straight, pointing out there there is no such war. It makes no difference, and the dance is repeated next year.

What if we went off script? What if we embraced their imagined war and made it real? I don't mean armed conflict, of course, but an unflinching war of ideas. Perhaps this would give them exactly what they most want - an enemy they could use to incite fear and raise dollars. But in a way, they already have this even without our participation.

Instead of using our limited public forums to defend ourselves against Christian extremists, what do you suppose would happen if we went on the offensive? Imagine an atheist saying something like the following on national TV:
We all know that there is no actual war on Christmas and that windbags like Bill O'Reilly talk about it just to raise money for Christian extremists groups. But maybe there should be a war - not necessarily on Christmas itself - but on the Christian extremism responsible for spreading hate and blocking our educational and scientific progress as a nation.
If nothing else, might this force the mainstream media to discuss Christian extremism and how it impacts our nation? Might that not be a place to start?

Personally, I'm on board with boycotting Christmas altogether as just another celebration of superstition. But I recognize that this idea has little traction in the atheist community, and am fine with that. After all, Christmas isn't the problem; Christian extremism (and arguably Christianity itself) is the problem.

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November 16, 2008

Nobody Wants To Be Alone, Atheists Included

When I was in high school, a friend and I took a trip from our home in the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. Neither of us had any money, so we traveled via bus (Greyhound). In retrospect, I'm really not sure what my parents were thinking. Not only was I not particularly responsible, but the cast of characters we encountered along the way were not exactly tame. Among the many memorable experiences, one sticks with me to this day. In fact, this particular experience has contributed greatly to my experience of atheism.

Getting off the bus in Oakland, CA, my friend and I discovered that we were the only White people in a crowded bus station. Now, I'd been to Oakland a few times before. I knew that it was a predominately Black city. But knowing this had not prepared me for experiencing it like this.

Looking around that bus station while waiting for the next bus to arrive was the first time in my life that I had the experience of being a minority. As a White male, I'd been benefiting from privileges I had rarely been forced to recognize. Here I was feeling like an outsider, someone who stood out in the crowd as not belonging.

At the time, I recall a vivid sensation of being out of place. To be sure, there was an element of fear. Where my friend and I were coming from, there were very few African Americans. While we had a couple Black friends, it was possible in our town to go for weeks without ever seeing a Black face. But whatever fear of the unknown we experienced paled in comparison to the sense of simply being outsiders.

I have had similar experiences since then but none have been quite so striking or have affected me to the same degree. I chalk this up to my relatively sheltered upbringing and developmental level at the time.

What has this experience taught me? Simply put, it reminds me of the importance of community. Nobody relishes the thought that they may be the only [insert whatever you wish] in a particular situation or environment. We all need support, belonging, and the sense of identification with others.

This applies to atheists too, whether we like to admit it or not. I don't know about you, but I have had the thought that I am the only atheist in a particular environment many times. In fact, it is a thought which I continue to have at least weekly. It is not an especially pleasant thought to have. I suspect this is why the most common comment my fellow godless Mississippians make when they first discover Mississippi Atheists is, "It is so good to find out that I'm not the only one."

Some atheists have convinced themselves that our lack of organization and community are assets. I think that this is a narrow view which undermines efforts to spread rationality and blunt superstition. If we want a viable atheist movement, we must recognize that community is essential. Helping others realize that they are not alone is going to be a crucial task.

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November 15, 2008

Nationwide Protests of Proposition 8

Protests over California's Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) are scheduled in every state today. Growing numbers of Americans are fed up with intolerance and are speaking out against it. The GLBT community is understandably upset over this case of religiously-motivated bigotry. It is good to also see a number of straight allies protesting too. I just want to take this opportunity to remind readers that we all have a stake in ending bigotry.

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November 14, 2008

Arguments For The Existence Of God

:Image:Religious syms.png bitmap traced (and h...Image via WikipediaSome religious believers have no problem whatsoever with admitting that there is no evidence to support their belief. They perceive their faith as virtuous and recognize that it is precisely the absence of evidence that permits faith in the first place. Other believers accept that evidence would strengthen their case dramatically and are not eager to appear irrational. Such believers are convinced, however, that there are solid arguments and compelling evidence for the existence of their god. They use reason and experience to make their case. Theirs is a case we should understand.

From what I have been able to gather, there are roughly six categories of arguments for the existence of the Christian-Jewish-Muslim god. They are as follows:
  1. Ontology (denying god's existence is logically contradictory)
  2. Cosmology (god as first-cause or "unmoved mover")
  3. Design (god as designer)
  4. Consciousness (the emergence of human consciousness requires a god)
  5. Moral (god as required source of human morality)
  6. Revelation (spiritual experience, revelation, and miracles show us that god exists)
Did I miss anything? If you think you have an argument - or have encountered an argument - for the existence of
the Christian-Jewish-Muslim god that does not fit into any of these categories, please let me know.

In upcoming posts, I'd like to look at some of these arguments in greater detail and have some discussion around them. I bet we could even get some good cross-blog dialogue going. At this point, I just want to make sure I'm not leaving anything out.

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November 13, 2008

Obama Is Not The Antichrist

the 44th President of the United States...Bara...Image by jmtimages via FlickrIn looking at the HitTail search results from Mississippi Atheists, I noticed a disturbing trend since the election was called for Barack Obama on November 4. I observed a strong surge in traffic from people searching for "obama antichrist evidence" and "obama antichrist" on Google. At first, I didn't remember that one of my co-authors once wrote a post containing these keywords. Sadly, these keywords were now attracting the nutjobs in droves. Yes, it appears that there are still plenty of people out there who believe (or want to believe) that the American voters just elected the Antichrist. As the mainstream media drones on about the Obama presidency uniting America, it would seem that some Christians are not ready to be united around anything other than religiously-motivated hatred and fear.

If we allow ourselves to move past the obvious point that there is no Antichrist and was very likely no Christ either, we see what is happening here for what it really is - fear. The Republican campaign may not have succeeded in getting their candidate elected, but it certainly succeeded in further dividing America and in convincing many Americans that they had reason to fear Obama.

That these searches happened right after Obama was announced as the winner tells me that many people were surprised and were beginning to struggle with how their country could have just elected some sort of demonic presence. If we give them more credit than they may deserve and interpret this as little more than a metaphor for evil, we see the scar of the Republican campaign of intolerance and misinformation.

The implications of McCain's strategy and its effects must not be minimized in the spirit of reconciliation. By demonizing Obama for holding different opinions (and this is precisely what McCain did), McCain worsened the cultural divide. His concession speech, while generally laudable, did nothing to undo the damage he inflicted.

"Politics is a dirty business," you say. Maybe so, but I want you to remember what happened here. A political campaign and their supporters pushed the view that their opponent was evil incarnate. Doesn't this strike you as excessive? And who was overwhelmingly the most receptive to this strategy? You guessed it - Christians.

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November 12, 2008

Atheists, What Did You Put Under "Religious Views" On Facebook?

Facebook logo
Facebook logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I believe I mentioned here recently that I had been playing around with Facebook. Since I am using my real name and not planning to promote my blog there (at least not just yet), I was not sure what to make of the "religious views" line on my profile. Coincidentally, a reader e-mailed me and asked my opinion about this very issue just as I was confronting it myself. She did not want to put "atheist" under religion because she recognized that atheism is not a religion and did not want to pretend it was. This led her to think of simply putting "none" in the space. However, she wasn't sure she liked this idea much better. Given my goals in using Facebook, I ended up just leaving the religion line blank for now. For those of you using Facebook, what was your solution?

November 11, 2008

Time to Revisit Church Picketing?

With the well-deserved outrage over California's Proposition 8, I wonder if it might be time to revisit the topic of picketing churches. When I initially posted about the possibility of picketing churches, I was not advocating it as a strategy as much I as I was soliciting input from readers about whether they thought it would be effective. Although I had framed the question as one of picketing Christian extremist churches on the grounds that they were destructive, many of those who left comments generally thought that picketing a church would be far more effective if it was done for a specific issue. Perhaps Proposition 8 is just such an issue.

I recently commented via Twitter that I was troubled by some opponents of gay marriage touting civil unions as a different but equal alternative, noting that this was too reminiscent of "separate but equal." That did not end up working, and offering civil unions to homosexual couples will not work either. We learned (or certainly should have learned) during the civil rights movement that separate is never equal.

As I noted recently, the pervasive influence of religion in the debate over gay marriage is inescapable. Churches, including but not limited to the Mormon church, were instrumental in funding Proposition 8 and in mobilizing voters to pass it.

In fact, picketing is already underway at the largest backer of Proposition 8, the Mormon church. Proponents of marital freedom for all Americans have been protesting outside the LDS church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

What about the smaller churches who played an important if less evident role in Proposition 8? You can find a list of these churches at Deep Thoughts. Should advocates of marital equality consider picketing these churches too?

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November 10, 2008

Free Speech Under Assault at Texas Community College

A photo by Hans Olde from the photographic ser...Image via WikipediaAs a college professor and an atheist, you can imagine how sensitive I am to issues of free speech in academia. Failing to protect free speech in such an environment seriously undermines the mission of higher education. And yet, the assault on this basic freedom at our nation's universities is nothing new. In this post, I will address a disturbing case from Temple College, a community college in Texas, that may be of particular interest to my readers.

Kerry Laird, a first-year professor of literature and composition, was recently reprimanded for placing a sign that said "Gott ist tot" (German for "God is dead") on his office door. Astute readers may recognize this as one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes.

The college has informed Laird that he may not post this quote on his door on the grounds that it might be offensive to some. Laird and many of his colleagues see this as a violation of academic freedom.

According to Inside Higher Ed,
He [Laird] said that, as a student and instructor, he always enjoyed the way professors use their office doors to reveal bits of their personality and to challenge students with cartoons, artwork, and various phrases. So when he started at Temple, he put a cartoon up showing Smokey the Bear, a girl scout and a boy scout and the tag line: “Kids — don’t fuck with God or bears will eat you.” He received a complaint and decided that he understood why the college “might not want the f-word” in the hallway, and so he decided to put up something else.

This time he turned to Nietzsche and, striving to challenge while being more subtle, he only used the German version of the quote, not the English translation. “I didn’t want to be too blunt,” he said.
Was it appropriate for Laird to place a cartoon containing the word "fuck" on his office door? Probably not. I wouldn't have done it. It is harder to make an argument that a word commonly considered profane falls under academic freedom, although I suspect such an argument could be made. After all, Laird's students and colleagues are adults.

But the Nietzsche quote, in German or English, strikes me as very different. It has literary value and overwhelming cultural familiarity in that nearly everyone will have heard it. To say that a college professor may not use a quote that can be found in any book of great quotations is absurd.

When Interim Vice President of Educational Services, Mark A. Smith, demanded that the quote be removed, he offered the following rationale:
Temple College as a public institution cannot be represented as showing preference toward any religious philosophy/perspective or toward the opposite, being atheism. The same practice goes for politics. The decision to have the quote removed was that the quote can be considered very controversial and offensive to others. In fact, other people have already expressed that the wording is offensive!
According to Smith, a professor has the right to discuss such a quote in class but not to have it displayed on his/her door. Does this mean that professors who want to display pro-religion messages or religious symbols on their doors would also be asked to remove them? Evidently not, at least not according to the students at Temple. Smith's explanation? Nobody has complained about the Christian quotes.

I think there just might be a new addition to my office door tomorrow.

Updated 11/11/08: It turns out that this one had a happy ending, thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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November 9, 2008

One Atheist's Post-Election Thoughts

Sen. Barack Obama in Austin, TX
Sen. Barack Obama in Austin, TX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After the historic victory of Sen. Barack Obama, now President-Elect Obama, it seems that two words are on the lips of every media pundit: "Now what?" It hardly seems fair to be asking this already, but I think we better get used to it. As if Obama didn't already have his hands full with an economic crisis, two wars, and 8 years of destructive Bush rule, he has the added pressure of being the first African American president. He is going to be under far more scrutiny than usual. The last thing he needs right now are the outstretched hands of his supporters, expecting immediate favors. And yet, this is precisely what he will get. In the aftermath of the election, we are all trying to figure out what his victory means for us.

How might Obama's victory affect atheists? The very question is misleading because it suggests that we are a far more cohesive group than is the case and that we have some sort of shared agenda, which is sadly also not the case. The best we can do is select a few issues which are likely to be of interest to the majority of atheists and speculate about them.

This is precisely the strategy the Humanist Network News (HNN) selected for a recent article (update: link no longer active) on the subject. They identified issues likely to be of interest to atheists and humanists as "separation of church and state, First Amendment rights, protecting a woman's right to choose, marriage equality for gays, etc." I agree that all these issues are important to me. I'd add others, but these are a good starting point.

Perhaps the most important point made by the HNN article was that those of us in the reality-based community cannot afford to be complacent. Improved grassroots and political organization is essential. I sincerely hope that this will prove to be the primary lesson learned from Elizabeth Dole's campaign of anti-atheist bigotry.

The Secular Coalition for America, the first lobbying organization that focuses on promoting the rights of American atheists must be strengthened. Perhaps (and we really don't know this yet) the new administration will be more receptive to their message.

The election results as a whole, and not just focusing on the presidency, seem to indicate some reduction in power of the Christian right at the national level. Personally, I perceive any decline as both small and temporary. I am convinced that the Christian right will regroup, focus their efforts on local and state politics, and regain any strength they might have lost. I think history suggests that this is the most likely outcome.

What I encourage every one of us to think about is how we, both as individuals and collectively, can work more effectively to accomplish our goals. Obama is not going to do it for us, and some evidence has already surfaced suggesting that he may not be much of a friend to atheists. No, this task is ours. The best we can realistically hope for from Obama is that he will throw fewer obstacles in our path.
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