August 31, 2009

On Miracles

Meissner effect: levitation of a magnet above ...Image via Wikipedia

If there was unambiguous evidence to support the existence of gods, religious believers would have little need for either faith or for so-called miracles. If gods were in the business of revealing themselves to all of humanity, which we have to assume they could do if they so desired, worship would look very different than it does today. There would be no religious faith. In its place would be the feelings of awe, devotion, and respect, with which we are all familiar. While it is conceivable that some would willingly choose to oppose these gods, they would do so with full awareness of the considerable risk their actions involved.

Of course, I have described a set of circumstances very different from those in which we now find ourselves. There is no evidence for the existence of any gods, and this leads believers to the refuge of faith, a refuge they have managed to mold into a virtue. And one of the beams supporting the structure of their faith is belief in miracles.

Most religious believers will readily admit that they have not personally witnessed a miracle, but they will profess belief in the accounts provided by others. A subset of believers appear to be so desperate to find the miraculous in their own empty lives that they will take virtually anything they can find as a sign of the divine.

Hokum-Balderdash Assay brings us the following brilliant synopsis of how believers cling to medical miracles:
I'm really so hungry for signs. So without even having the foggiest idea of the thousands of medical events occurring daily worldwide, I find this one--in my medical and scientific ignorance--to be extraordinary and see it as a miracle--a supernaturally caused event. Forget the fact that this medical event is (merely) a statistical outlier (occurring at the tail end of the bell curve--the positive end of course, not the negative). And perish the thought that I'm calling this a miracle not because there is evidence for the supernatural but because I am--in my breathtaking ignorance again of course--at a loss for the real explanation. No one else seems to know or wants to provide a natural explanation, therefore, in unabashed hubris I declare that I do know and that it was caused by G, and mind you not just any G, but my G. It is a miracle because I want to believe it is and I say it is...
It seems to me that believers cling to miracles in a desperate attempt to defend that which is indefensible. Or perhaps they simply find life without miracles so intolerable that they must craft an altered reality in which to dwell.

For more on the subject of miracles, see:
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August 30, 2009

I am a Believer

AtheismImage by metrognome0 via Flickr

I am making a concerted effort not to refer to myself as a "non-believer" anymore. It just isn't an accurate description. I am an atheist, and I prefer to call myself an atheist when discussing matters of religion. "Non-believer" may indeed be an efficient way for referring to atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and the like collectively, but it strikes me as misleading. In most respects, I am very much a believer. That's right, I believe in all sorts of things.

I have noticed that when religious people refer to "non-believers," they usually do so as a matter of convenience to describe those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, etc. I certainly understand the need for broader terminology, but the label still strikes me as a product of religious privilege. Why must "belief" be equated with "religious belief" as if no other types of belief are as worthy? As an atheist, why should I grant the religious the right to equate "belief" with "religious belief" when we are all believers in something?

And how dare any religious person give me the load of crap about "How can you be an atheist? I can't imagine going through life not believing in anything." I believe in plenty of things.

In contrast to how the religious use the "non-believer" label, we who are described by it tend to use the term as a socially desirable alternative to other labels. We recognize that "non-believer" is more socially acceptable than "atheist" and less likely to be misunderstood than other labels.

If one was so inclined, one could make the case that atheists who call themselves non-believers do so because they are too chickenshit to admit what they really think about religion. Of course, one could also point out that there are situations in which one may wish to avoid or simply not have time for the sort of responses elicited by the "atheist" label. One could even argue that atheism is so widely misunderstood that it is preferable to use a term without so much baggage.

When it comes to me, I am an atheist. That is certainly not all I am, but I am that. I see no reason to water it down for public consumption.

I do not believe in gods, but I do believe in plenty of other things. I'm not sure I am willing to allow continued religious privilege. I'm not sure I'm willing to remain a non-believer. I'm an atheist.

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August 29, 2009

Idiot of the Week: Barry Morgan

[Boddelwyddan Church (interior), Rhyl, Wales] ...Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

It is Saturday, so it must once again be time for our weekly Idiot of the Week series. Each week, one idiot is selected from a crowded field of competitors and crowned Idiot of the Week. With so much idiocy happening lately, I cannot really claim that this week's winner is the most deserving. I suppose there is just something about him that I find particularly frustrating.

Dr. Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, is this week's idiot because he does not believe that teenagers deserve religious freedom. He has been quoted as saying,
A law allowing 16-year-olds to opt out of prayers in assembly devalues and marginalises religion in schools.
Perhaps, but religion does not belong in schools in the first place. As Conversational Atheist points out,
This is just a really creepy example of allowing religion and government to mix — obligatory schooling until a certain age that requires indoctrination. And complaints come in when the obligatory nature is removed when the kids are 16? Really?
Denying a fundamental right, which even many Christians support, to someone simply because they are 16 seems to miss the point of religious freedom entirely. It is painfully clear that Morgan is doing this merely to preserve his power. He says,
Collective worship has been branded as something that young people grow out of by the age of 16, at precisely the time when it might be the best way of feeding both their minds and their hearts as they start to explore the responsibilities and consequences of adult life.
And his solution is to compel prayer so his church does not lose any more believers. Sad.

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August 28, 2009

When Our Feelings Mislead Us

Let's Talk About Feelings album coverImage via Wikipedia
Have you ever felt very strongly about something, acted on your feelings, and then turned out to be completely wrong? Yeah, me too. Whether it was that relationship you stayed in longer than you should have out of love or the gadget you bought because it seemed so exciting at the time, I think we can all relate to this experience. Clearly, our feelings, beliefs, and the like can (and often do) lead us astray. Most of us know this and try to take various precautions. For example, one of the things I've learned to do to prevent impulse buys is to force myself to wait a week before buying a big ticket item. But what about those who are not able to distinguish between their feelings and reality?

In a recent post at Cubik's Rube, we encounter those objecting to an atheist ad that reads simply, "You can be good without God." It is easy to imagine that many religious people would disagree with such a statement. It is equally easy to imagine that some opponents of free expression might oppose the right of an atheist group to publicly display such a message. What is not at all easy to understand are those who insist that such a message is offensive.

And yet, we will find the answer to this puzzle in their inability to distinguish feelings from reality. Confronted with such a ad, some Christians claim,

I feel it’s an outright attack on Christianity.
Okay. One can certainly feel this way, but that does not make it so. Here's the thing, religious people, feeling a certain way or believing something does not make it true, real, or accurate. Just as belief does not equal truth, feelings do not equal truth.

The statement above indicates only that the speaker feels a certain way. It has no bearing whatsoever on the reality of what the message of the billboard does or does not contain. If you choose to interpret billboard as an attack on Christianity, you may certainly do so. But your doing so does not change what the billboard actually says; it merely reveals something about you.
I feel like the language of it is inflammatory.
Yes, I believe you when you say that you feel this way. But the fact that you feel this way does not mean that the language is in fact inflammatory. It merely means that you are interpreting it this way.

Most educated adults understand how this works, and this includes most religious adults. Unfortunately, many of them seem all too willing to forget or willfully disregard it in matters of their preferred religion.

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August 27, 2009

Pastor Claims Husbands Should Have Right to Rape Wives

The BahamasImage via Wikipedia

It is currently legal for a husband to rape his wife in the Bahamas. Who knew? Oh, and before we get all self-righteous about that "backward" country, let's remember that marital rape was legal in the U.S. until 1976 and continues to result in lesser sentences than rapes committed by other perpetrators in many states today. So yeah, we don't have much excuse for looking down on them.

The Bahamian government is now trying to outlaw marital rape via the Sexual Offenses Act, and Amnesty International is supporting their effort to do so. Bravo! I'm glad to see them doing the right thing and happy to hear that they have Amnesty's support.

Who would oppose such legislation? Evidently, some Christians. You know, I'm not sure why this even surprises me anymore.

From The Bahama Journal:
However, many Bahamian men, like taxi driver Pemmie Sutherland, say the bill is "simply unnecessary."

"It is ridiculous for them to try to make that a law, because I don’t think a man can rape his own wife. After two people get married, the Bible says that they become one – one flesh. How is it possible to rape what is yours?" asked Mr. Sutherland.
And yes, he's referring to the Christian bible.
Deanne Sweeting said that she strongly disagrees with the bill and does not understand why so many women are supporting it.

"I disagree with the bill because I disagree that a man can rape his wife. The Bible tells me that a man’s body is his wife’s and her body is his. How could he rape her?" asked Ms. Sweeting.
This has to be a misreading of the Christian bible, doesn't it? I mean, rape is rape, isn't it? Surely, no member of the clergy would agree with such views.

According to The Tribune,
Controversial pastor Cedric Moss has vocally opposed the legislation claiming the amendment would create a "society of rapists." Citing the "word of God", Mr Moss argued that rape cannot be committed in marriage because the couple, gave each other authority over the other's body and agreed to open-ended sexual consent in the marriage contract.
I've said it before, and I am sure I'll say it again: it absolutely boggles the mind why any self-respecting woman (or man who doesn't hate women) would want to call herself a Christian.

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August 26, 2009

President Obama, Do the Ends Justify the Means?

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  President George W. ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Suppose for a moment that President Obama is correct in his calculation that holding top Bush administration officials, including Dick Cheney, accountable for war crimes and illegal spying on Americans would prevent him from accomplishing his broad legislative agenda. I do not believe this for a second, but let's suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that he's right. He can either pursue his agenda or permit a full investigation of the previous administration, appointing a special prosecutor with the authority to go up the ladder all the way to Bush if supported by the evidence.

Operating under such an assumption, we might be able to construct a cogent argument for "looking forward and not backwards." We could insist that the good accomplished by enacting universal health care, rebuilding our economy, and the other parts of Obama's agenda would outweigh the bad of allowing Bush and Cheney to get away with a multitude of crimes.

Alternatively, we might construct the opposite argument - that Obama's moral and legal obligation to uphold the U.S. Constitution and defend our nation from enemies foreign or domestic requires him to root out the malfeasance of his predecessor, whatever the political cost. We could claim that the positive ends of legislative accomplishments simply cannot justify the means if those means means that Bush and Cheney escape unscathed.

Of course, both arguments fall apart to the degree that they are based on a false assumption. Holding Bush and Cheney accountable would not necessarily render Obama's agenda impossible to enact, nor would forgoing his agenda guarantee criminal convictions.

So yes, I think that Obama's political calculation that he must "look forward" and allow criminals to escape without punishment is a serious mistake that should have devastating political consequences. I will go so far as to say that there is no way I can support a second Obama term if he persists on this course.

It is not about mere retribution, although I will not deny that the thought of Dick Cheney in a prison cell is appealing. Instead, it is about setting the record straight, showing the world that the American people will not tolerate evil done in our name, and setting a precedent for all future administrations. Where would we be today if Nixon had faced no consequences for Watergate? Now where will we be in the future if Bush and Cheney face none for their crimes?

And if you are still hoping that AG Holder will somehow do the right thing when Obama refuses to do so, think again.

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August 25, 2009

Atheist Bloggers, Take Care of Yourselves

And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
--Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future

When one spends a significant portion of one's time helping others who are suffering from emotional problems, one cannot expect to emerge unscathed. Psychologists often refer to "vicarious traumatization" when talking about this because of the manner in which treating survivors of trauma can affect the helper. I personally prefer the broader term, "compassion fatigue," because it reminds us that trauma is not the only way that the helper can be affected by his or her work. A helper who does not utilize effective self-care strategies is particularly vulnerable to this type of burnout. I mention this here because I think a related process can be observed among atheist bloggers, as demonstrated by our friend Mojoey at Deep Thoughts.

Anyone who spends enough time dealing with the dregs of humanity (i.e., pedophile priests and the church which conceals their crimes) is going to be affected by it. Mojoey has been doing just that, bringing us his Hypocrisy Watch series for some time. He wouldn't be human if this didn't affect him.

So what are some of the self-care skills that therapists have been using and from which atheist bloggers and activists might learn? Here are some examples:
  • Take a break, a real break. Even the most dedicated therapists take vacations from time-to-time, and nobody's blog is going to fade into obscurity simply because the author takes a break.
  • Prioritize. Not every battle has to be fought with the same intensity.
  • Ask for help. If you have supportive others in your life, utilize them.
  • Indulge in an enjoyable distraction. This may sound silly, but when I was doing a lot of intense clinical work, I found that playing video games shortly before I went to bed helped me sleep better.
  • Give yourself permission to focus on something else for awhile in your work. No blogger should feel so constrained by his or her niche that deviation is impossible. Do something different for awhile, and you'll likely return better for it.
Before you dismiss these as overly obvious, just remember that knowing what to do isn't the hard part. No, the hard part is convincing oneself that one needs to implement some of these for oneself. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that many of us struggle with this. I'm still not exactly what I'd call good at it even though I most certainly know better.

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August 24, 2009

Baptist Pastor Calls Tornado a Warning to Lutherans

John Piper's church.Image via Wikipedia

Pastor John Piper of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis claims that a recent tornado which damaged a Lutheran church is evidence of his god's displeasure with a proposal being considered by the Lutheran Church to permit homosexual clergy. According to The Advocate, the pastor "wrote a blog post on Thursday that called the tornado a 'gentle but firm warning' for the Lutheran general assembly. Evidently, Pastor Piper's god is a fan of religiously-motivated bigotry (or perhaps it is just Piper).

At least we won't have to worry about any hurricanes hitting Florida this season thanks to Gov. Charlie Crist.

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August 23, 2009

Words of Wisdom: Ed Brayton

Yes, even we lowly bloggers can be worth quoting from time to time. In discussing Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's recent smackdown of a birther during one of his town hall meetings, Ed Brayton of Dispatches From the Culture Wars writes:
Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success.
Absolutely! In cases like this, ridicule is imperative. And if you've been living under a rock and haven't seen the clip of Frank doing what all Democrats confronted by idiocy at their town halls should be doing, enjoy:



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Carnival of the Godless #124 at Radical Atheist


The 124th edition of Carnival of the Godless is up at Radical Atheist. What a perfect way to spend a Sunday morning! And while you're there, take some time to explore Jack's excellent blog.

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August 22, 2009

Idiot of the Week: Betsy McCaughey

Host Jon Stewart in the studio of The Daily ShowImage via Wikipedia

Since I did not post an entry in this series last week, I suppose this one can be considered Idiot of the Last Two Weeks. Rest assured, I think this one is deserving of such an honor. For this Idiot of the Week post, I believe I've found one of the more astounding examples of idiocy I've seen in a long time.

This week's award goes to Ms. Death Panels herself, Betsy McCaughey, for her unbelievable performance on the Daily Show. This is a new low point in televised idiocy, and that is really saying something! Congratulations Ms. McCaughey. You have truly reset the bar.

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The Secular Coalition for America

Logo of the Secular Coalition for AmericaImage via Wikipedia

When I recently wrote about different types of atheist groups as spokes on a wheel, I envisioned that there would need to be some sort of hub to facilitate communication among factions and offer at least some organization. I believe that such a hub already exists in the form of the Secular Coalition for America. In fact, the more I learn about this group, the more I see it as meeting many of the goals I described for an atheist organization modeled after MoveOn.org. If you are not already familiar with the Secular Coalition for America, I encourage you to check them out.

The Secular Coalition for America provides free action alerts via email (sign up here) and serves as our national lobby in Washington DC. They also write position papers and help us evaluate how our elected representatives are voting. They do not have a mechanism currently in place for individual memberships and instead encourage us to join one or more of their member organizations.

In addition to acting on their action alerts, it appears that there are two ways through which one can support the Secular Coalition for America. First, one can donate directly to them through a link on their website. Second, one can join and participate in one of their many member organizations.

The Secular Coalition does not appear to be nearly as active as I would like. At the time I'm writing this post, they have no active action alerts. How is this possible? I suspect it is possible because they need more support, more money, more staff, and perhaps even more encouragement.

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August 21, 2009

Prayer Has No Place in Government Meetings

U.S.Image via Wikipedia

Opening the meetings of various governmental bodies with prayer is inappropriate, exclusionary, and blatantly unconstitutional. It represents an abuse of power and a transparent attempt to advance a religious agenda, even if it is only some generic god belief that is being advanced. No person present at such a meeting is prohibited from silently praying (as the Christian bible would seem to endorse), and so there are no viable reasons to formalize prayer by making it part of either the official agenda or a required custom. Atheists across the U.S. should be prepared to challenge this practice, not to stamp out religion but to separate it from the halls of power.

As Austin Cline writes,
There is ultimately only one reason for such prayers: to have the government endorse, support, promote, and/or encourage the religious beliefs of one group of citizens over and above the beliefs of all other citizens. Apparently, some religious believers — and they always turn out to be Christians, don't they? — are unable or unwilling to keep their religion a matter of personal faith. Instead, they need for their religion to be sponsored in some way by the government.
Just how widespread is the practice of including prayer at official government meetings? From what I have been able to gather, it seems to be far more common than most of us probably realize. We see it at the federal level in the U.S. Congress itself, at state legislatures across America, and in many local government meetings.

I do not buy the claim that these prayers are somehow symbolic and void of any religious significance. If that was the case, those who insist upon them, would not fight so hard to maintain the practice.

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August 19, 2009

Perhaps Bush's Invasion of Iraq Really Was a Crusade

WASHINGTON - MAY 01:  President George W. Bush...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

In the aftermath of 9/11 and during the build-up and early stages of former President Bush's unprovoked war against Iraq, virtually every political pundit asked the same question of countless interviewees: "Why do they [terrorists] hate us?" Bush himself and many administration spokespeople had a consistent answer to this question, as did many of those interviewed on various news programs:
They hate us because of our freedom.
The statement had a certain self-promoting appeal. Obviously, these terrorists hated us because they were jealous of our freedom or our very way of life.

As it became clear that the post-invasion period in Iraq was not going well, the question became even more common. A variety of experts on the Middle East were brought out to answer the question. But despite the answers, the question remained in everyone's mind.

Now there is evidence that persons throughout the Middle East may have had many other reasons to hate our government. It appears that former President Bush may have invaded Iraq without provocation in order to fulfill biblical prophecies. It seems that his use of the word "crusade" was not accidental. As if that wasn't bad enough, some of those representing the U.S. in Iraq (i.e., Blackwater) are Christian extremists, determined to kill or convert Muslims.

And by the way, some of these crusaders are continuing to receive large sums of money from the Obama administration.

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August 17, 2009

Religion and Relationships: Converting for Love

Sex and Religion album coverImage via Wikipedia

You can file this one under "random thoughts." It isn't something I've thought about much, but I wanted to get it out because it has been rattling around in my head for awhile. If religious beliefs are as important to religious people as they often claim, why is it so common to hear about people converting to different religions for the sake of a relationship? We hear about people converting to their partner's faith to get married all the time. But if one's faith is supposed to be so damned important - important enough that people are willing to kill for it - what are we to make of this?

It would seem that one's faith would have to be a lower priority in such cases than one's goals for a relationship. But if this is true, why do so many religious people insist that their faith is the most important thing in their lives?

It seems like we're seeing an inconsistency here. It faith really less important than many insist, or is there another way to understand this? I can't help wondering if I am just misunderstanding these situations somehow.

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August 16, 2009

American Media Failed Us Before Iran and Iraq

George W. Bush speaks at a campaign rally in 2004.Image via Wikipedia

A big story over the past couple of years has been the impending demise of the U.S. newspaper industry. In our current recession, we have seen many big newspapers close their doors and many of the most prominent require bailouts of one sort or another. Some observers have argued that this is due primarily to ineffective business models (e.g., the failure to embrace an online subscription model, etc.). Others see it as a struggle between new media and traditional media where the traditional media is losing. There is little question that these factors are partially responsible, but I think that there is an even more important one that has received far less attention than it deserves.

Undoubtedly, new media (i.e., blogs, social networks, Twitter, etc.) do some things better than newspapers ever will be able to do. The utility of Twitter in post-election Iran was a recent example, but there will be many others. At the same time, most of us would agree that traditional media is light years ahead when it comes to investigative reporting.

I have always thought of the media, traditional or otherwise, as having a crucial role in the American democracy as providing another check and balance on government. Indeed, we often refer to the media as a "fourth estate" in recognition of this important function.

Sadly, I believe that it is the traditional media's abrogation of this critical investigative role which heralded it's demise. We tend to think of the lead up to Bush's unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the moment when the American media failed us. To be sure, this was a failure; however, it was neither the first nor the most important. In fact, based on the startling absence of investigative reporting by American newspapers following the 2000 presidential election, we should have seen it coming.

As disappointing as it was to see the mainstream media uncritically accept Bush administration propaganda in 2002, I believe that the media's refusal to investigate compelling evidence of election fraud during the 2000 presidential election was even worse. This should have been a huge story that exposed serious problems with the American democracy and uncovered the culpability of both political parties. Instead, it was buried.

I consider this to be a watershed moment because it signaled that the media was no longer willing to perform it's essential investigative role. With increasing corporate ownership and one merger after another, it had become clear that investigative reporting which might harm certain corporate/media interests was not going to happen. Sadly, this included exposing serious election fraud and taking down a corrupt administration. More recently, it involved making sure that the least threatening candidates would get elected.

Where does this leave us today? It leaves me feeling sad and discouraged but mostly just mad. I believe that we need traditional media, including newspapers, most because of the investigative role they used to perform. But as it becomes increasingly clear that they are not going to exercise this function in a manner that might harm their business interests, I have a more difficult time justifying their continued existence. By choosing to provide soft entertainment instead of hard news, the media has betrayed our democracy.

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August 15, 2009

Pouring Like a Mofo

Before the StormImage by premasagar via Flickr

You've heard the expression "When it rains, it pours," haven't you? Well, it is pouring like a mofo, and I'm not talking about rain. I'm not sure how long it is going to take me to dig out from under the latest convergence of catastrophes (only moderate exaggeration), but posting may be a bit sporadic for awhile. Worst of all, I just don't have time for my weekly Idiot of the Week post. With the health care debate still ramped up, there are probably too many to pick from anyway. I'll try to get something up tomorrow, but no promises. Besides, the Humanist Symposium should be out tomorrow for your reading pleasure.

August 13, 2009

Organizing Atheists: Advancing the Atheist Movement

How can we take the atheist movement to the next level, improving our organization to better utilize our numbers, without erecting the sort of centralized hierarchy which so many atheists oppose? I think the trick is that we need not one atheist organization but several, each with a different but complementary mission. And for this to be maximally effective, we need to limit the amount of redundancy. For example, we need at least a few active atheist think tanks, but I am not sure we need 20 or 30 of them. We need a network for informing and mobilizing activists, but we do not need several (at least not if we want to begin to effectively utilize our numbers).

Herding Cats

In response to the inevitable question about why we should even consider improving our organization, I'll offer the following:

The atheist movement has so many important tasks to accomplish that some level of organization is essential. We need to better utilize our numbers and reduce redundant effort, much of which may be wasted.
Many atheists fear that improving our organization means a loss of freedom, but this is not necessarily so. The goal is not - and should not be - the development of a single organization to "govern" all atheists. The American Atheists model is not what we need. Rather, I envision a system laid out something like a wheel. Each spoke represents an organization (or small coalition of organizations) working toward a common goal. The hub of the wheel is merely a point of coordination among all the spokes.

I realize that some are so determined to interpret any form of organization as a threat to their autonomy. I find this unfortunate because it severely limits what the atheist movement can accomplish. We are far stronger when we come together than when we refuse to affiliate.

Spokes on a Wheel

Some of the necessary spokes are already in place and functioning quite well. For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State do an impressive job of working to protect the separation of church and state. We probably don't need additional groups focused on this task as much as we need to strengthen those that already do it so well.

We also have some great options in terms of community-building and social networking in the form of Atheist Nexus, Think Atheist, and others. We do not need more of these as much as we need to strengthen those already functioning well.

Other necessary spokes are virtually absent and represent opportunities for creative individuals or groups to make a significant impact. Atheist think tanks come to mind as something we need but do not currently have, at least not to the level we need. Another example might be a system for disseminating information about instances of anti-atheist bigotry and facilitating rapid responses from the atheist community. I am sure you cant think of a few others.

Local Atheism

What about the state and local atheist groups? How do they fit in? They are perhaps the most vital of all because they reflect the true grassroots. They are a critical part of the wheel too. But like the other parts, they would benefit from increased communication and coordination.

Imagine a local atheist group in Nevada doing some wonderful things. Unless their story is picked up and accurately portrayed in the right form of media, atheists in Montana may never hear of it. Moreover, some of what has been so successful in Nevada may be just what the Montana atheists are seeking.

Imagine how much more effective state and local efforts might be if there was improved communication among the many groups. Groups would remain autonomous but could at least hear what is working or not working elsewhere.

Organizing Atheists Via the MoveOn.org Model

I suggested that we create an atheist organization to inform and mobilize ourselves modeled after MoveOn.org. Such an organization would be merely another spoke in the wheel. It would serve a vital function which is now being shared by a number of groups that are spread too thin as a function of their much broader missions. By giving our atheist version of MoveOn.org a comparatively narrow focus, we would be able to devote all our work to a smaller set of goals.

8/20/09 Update: Since writing this post, I have rediscovered the Secular Coalition for America and realized that they are already serving at least some of the MoveOn-like function I previously described. Perhaps it would make more sense to strengthen them instead of creating yet another group.

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August 12, 2009

Organizing Atheists: The MoveOn.org Model

Keep Moving
Keep Moving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As disorganized as the atheist movement is, we have been making slow, steady progress in some areas. As much time as we waste duplicating each others' efforts and retreading the same ground, it is hard to deny that atheism is experiencing something of a renaissance today. If nothing else, we are seeing increasing numbers of atheists making the decision to no longer conceal their atheism. As happy as I am to see this, I can't help wondering what more we could accomplish with even small improvements in organization. We have not even come close to realizing our vast potential.

I have written quite a bit about the benefits of increased organization, activism, community building, and the like. I'm not going to repeat that here. Instead, I just want to throw out something that I think should serve as a model of precisely the sort of organization I think we could accomplish. Best of all, I think this model has the crucial advantage of being perfectly suited for overcoming much of the resistance many atheists have to organizing. That model is MoveOn.org.

I encourage you to spend a few minutes looking around the MoveOn.org website. Forget about their politics if you need to, and just notice the layout, capabilities, etc.

MoveOn.org has signed up over 5 million members. Think about what that means. They have contact information (at least e-mail addresses) for 5 million people. That means 5 million voters, 5 million potential donors, and 5 million potential activists which can be mobilized.

MoveOn.org regularly polls their supporters and actually modifies their agenda to reflect what the majority of their supporters want. This is how grassroots is supposed to work. Imagine being part of an organization which not only listens to its members but tailors its agenda to represent them. What a welcome departure from how such groups usually seem to work.

Now that you've looked around their website, can you really tell me that we couldn't do that for the atheist movement? I may not personally have the technical expertise to design a slick website like that, but I am fairly confident that many of you could do so. What else would be needed? A web domain and host, a board of directors, a little money to get up and running, publicity, non-profit status perhaps? I'm sure it isn't quite as simple as I'm making it sound, but I cannot believe that we in the atheist community couldn't pull it off.

Just imagine the next time some jackass pundit or politician engages in anti-atheist bigotry. Action alerts go out to members via email, petitions are circulated, letters are written, calls are made, press releases go out to news agencies. And instead of every damn blogger, forum host, Twitter user, etc. having to do it themselves without necessarily knowing what others are doing, it is done from this sort of organization. Imagine the clout of a Pharyngula multiplied several times over! That is what we're talking about here.

I refuse to believe that this is beyond our means. Together, we could do this. The only question is why we aren't doing it.

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August 11, 2009

Catholic Lobbying Group Opposes Child Victims Act

Peaceful protests during the papal visitImage by Premshree Pillai via Flickr

It is not fair to portray the majority of Catholics as child molesters, those who sympathize with them, or those who seek to conceal their crimes so that they might continue. No, the majority of Catholics regard such actions as despicable. Not sufficiently bad to cut off their financial support of the Church, but bad nonetheless. Perhaps this will change their mind.

Writing for FindLaw, Marci A. Hamilton delivers the bombshell:
Based on an unscientific survey of everyone with whom I have spoken in recent months, I have come to the conclusion that there is an untold story that would shock the vast majority of Americans. Pieces of it have appeared in various publications, but never the whole story. It is the story of the New York Catholic Conference's outrageous measures to stop the reform of New York's laws that govern child sex abuse.
It seems that the Catholic Church is now devoting their considerable resources to defeat the Child Victims Act (CVA) in the New York legislature.

The CVA would extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse by five years and make it somewhat easier for abuse victims to have their day in court. Who would possibly oppose this? According to Ms. Hamilton,
The CVA's most active opponent is the New York Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the Roman Catholic bishops.
Her article summarizes the tactics this group has used in their opposition to the CVA. It seems that they will stop at nothing to defeat the legislation.

Ms. Hamilton notes that the New York Catholic Conference is opposing the legislation on the grounds that "window legislation would lead to diocesan bankruptcies and cuts in services." Wow!
The ugliest confrontation to date, which was engineered by the bishops and pitted believers against survivors, occurred in front of Lopez's office. A handful of Jewish and Catholic survivors have been staging a protest there for weeks. DiMarzio organized a group of believers to march in support of Lopez's opposition to the Child Victims Act. Two busloads of people were taken to the neighborhood and told – contrary to the facts, as noted above -- that the CVA did not apply to public institutions and that it would bankrupt the dioceses, causing losses of services. About a dozen survivors, who had been raped as children by priests and rabbis, stood across the street holding signs in favor of the Child Victims Act. When the survivors confronted the sadly uninformed marchers with the truth about the bill and the misinformation from the bishops and Lopez, they told me directly, some of the marchers actually threw coins at the survivors.
I hope Ms. Hamilton is right that this would be upsetting to most Americans. I also hope word of this story spreads far and wide.

H/T to The Good Atheist

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August 10, 2009

Remembering Sen. Jeff Sessions

Jeff SessionsImage via Wikipedia

Just because Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court does not mean we should forget about the embarrassing racism of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). For that matter, we should also remember Christian extremist Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and his Human Physical-Mental Enhancement Prohibition Act! But no, this one is about Sen. Sessions.

There was the delicious irony that Sessions, himself rejected as unqualified for a federal judgeship, had the leading Republican role on the Judiciary Committee. There was the blatant hypocrisy involved in fixating on her "wise Latina" comment when both Thomas and Alito said nearly identical things. There was the sinking feeling any astute observer probably recognized that the Republican attacks on Sotomayor are little more than attacks on Obama by proxy. And then, of course, there was Sessions' not so subtle racism.

Regardless of what one thinks of Sotomayor (and I still want to know where she stands on church-state separation), I would hope that her record would have been the focus of Sessions' inquisition instead of...well...unapologetic racism.

According to Sam Stein's article in The Huffington Post,
Ian Millhiser, a Legal Research Analyst with the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, told the Huffington Post that he was "flabbergasted that conservatives picked someone with a long history of race-based attacks as their point person on the Sotomayor hearing."
I think Stein is right on the money with his view that Sessions himself became the image by which the hearings will be remembered: a white southerner with a history of making racist comments trying to land political points by quoting Sotomayor out of context and then basically ignoring her answers.

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Telling Your Family That You Are An Atheist

A family posing for a group photo socializes t...Image via Wikipedia

Disclosing one's atheism to one's family is often one of the most dreaded experiences many atheists will face. While it is certainly safer to reveal one's atheism as an adult, it is not necessarily any easier. In fact, it is quite normal to be fearful of making such a disclosure even as a young adult. The way in which many faith communities shield members from outsiders in order to prevent exposure to contrary ideas, one escaping from such a community often risks more than the disapproval of the immediate family.

As Richard Collins writes at End Hereditary Religion,
Depending upon how insular their faith community was, leaving can be a wrenching, depressing experience that they face alone. The church and the people they have known all their lives are often the newly converted apostate’s only friends. Since leaving is seen as disloyal and a betrayal, their friends often abandon them. Millions of people leave a faith community every year and the pain they suffer is one of the dark shameful secrets that goes unrevealed in the major media and that is systematically covered up by the churches.
For more on this important subject, see the following:
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August 9, 2009

Democrats Not Selling Health Care Reform Well

Oak Knoll Hospital on LFImage by TunnelBug via Flickr

The political debate over health care reform in the U.S. is heating up and will only become more intense in the near future. It seems to me that the Democratic Party, including President Obama, has done a terrible job explaining the need for meaningful reform and the importance of the so-called "public option" to the American people. I suspect that some do not understand it themselves, and others are clearly in the pocket of the insurance companies. This is more than a PR failure, but it is most certainly that too. And on the PR front, it seems to me that many Democrats are making this far more complicated than need be the case.

For those politicians who are serious about bringing about heath care reform and are not merely pandering on a popular issue to win votes, your message must do the following:
  1. Demonstrate that the status quo is untenable (i.e., convince us that doing nothing is not an option).
  2. Convince us that your plan will improve the quality of the health care to which many of us now have access.
  3. Convince us that your plan will permit more Americans to have access to health care than is now the case.
  4. Convince us that your plan will be more cost-effective over the long-term than the current system.
So far, I feel like I have seen largely ineffective attempts to accomplish #1 and #4 with very little attention devoted to #2 and #3. This is concerning because #1 and #2 should be closely tied together if any plan is going to win widespread acceptance. Focusing on #1 and #4 while ignoring #2 is merely going to scare people and turn them off to the whole thing.

What we need to hear more of with regard to #1 is that the U.S. has the most expensive and one of the least effective health care systems that can be found in the industrialized world. But as we hit people over the head with this fact, we must follow with a cogent plan for improving the quality of health care.

What about #3? This is one of those that sounds very appealing until one realizes that lots of middle-class voters already have health insurance (or do not want health insurance) and are not really as concerned about the poor as they might want us to believe. This is a big part of why #2 must receive much more attention than it has so far. Americans will get behind #3 but only as more of a secondary benefit of #2. Without #2, I fear that #3 is going to have next to no real traction.

It also seems that #4 is getting too much attention this early in the game. It is important, but it has to be clearly tied to #1 and #2. Many people will be willing to pay a little more if they will see a clear benefit for themselves and their families. Of course, there are some other considerations which could be implemented in a health care plan that would result in improved care and significant savings.

Perhaps health care reform will fail because too many politicians of both parties are bought and paid for by the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. At least our goal would then be clear (i.e., divorcing politics from money). But if it fails due to ineffective PR, I'm not sure anyone will know where to go from there.

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August 8, 2009

Idiot of the Week: U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer

Cherry Creek in w:Denver, ColoradoImage via Wikipedia
It is Saturday, and you know what that means. Time for another installment in the Idiot of the Week series. I have been complaining lately that it is getting harder and harder to select a weekly idiot. With the rise of the "birthers," Republican thuggery at Democratic town hall meetings, anti-atheist bigotry in Iowa, and the continued presence of Rep. Michele Bachmann, it is once again a difficult choice.

Although I feel that the most obvious choice would have to be Orly Taitz, I don't want to go "birther" again. It just isn't fair to all the other deserving idiots.

In the end, I decided to go with someone you probably haven't heard of, U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer. According to Dispatches From the Culture Wars, Judge Shaffer has rejected a request for anonymity filed by the plaintiffs in a claim that the Cherry Creek School District (Denver, CO) was violating the Establishment Clause. The plaintiffs in this case sought to withhold their identities for fear that their children would be harassed at school. The school district did not oppose their motion, and Judge Shaffer noted that federal law does allow for this sort of anonymity. Then he denied the request.

Ed Brayton (Dispatches From the Culture Wars) characterizes the judge's reasoning as "rather weak," and he's absolutely correct to do so. Read what the judge said for yourself:

In this case, the individually named Plaintiffs argue that they should be permitted to proceed anonymously because of the role that religion plays in this case and the public's views toward atheists. Plaintiffs cite a 2006 public opinion poll which found that "atheists are seen by many as a threat to the American way of life and are the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry." Plaintiffs request anonymity out of their concern "about the possibility for intimidation, harassment, and physical harm should their identities become public." As support for their position, Plaintiffs cite three anecdotal accounts of religious discrimination and harassment recounted by Professor Frank S. Ravitch in his book, School Prayer and Discrimination: The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters (Northeastern University Press 1999).

While the court appreciates the highly personal aspects of religious dissent and could not condone any form of harassment that might be prompted by religious or any other considerations, the unsubstantiated potential for an adverse public reaction does not establish a compelling reason to depart from the requirements of Rule 10(a). Notably, Plaintiffs have not presented any evidence that reflects disapproval of the instant lawsuit within the relevant community or suggests they would be the target of actual threats, harassment or retaliation.
Judge Shaffer appears to be saying that since the plaintiffs' children had not yet been harassed, he was not willing to extend any protection to them. Ed Brayton notes that harassment is extremely common in these sorts of cases and provides some sad examples. I can't help wondering whether Judge Shaffer simply managed to convince himself that "real Christians" would never do such a thing.

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August 7, 2009

Atheism Does Not Require Certainty

CertaintyImage via Wikipedia
For a variety of reasons, some Christians erroneously insist that atheism entails absolute certainty that no gods exist. They attempt to paint atheists as irrational or demand that we somehow prove that there aren't any gods. This reflects either a misconception about the meaning of atheism or another less innocent motive. In fact, atheism does not require any particular level of certainty. All it requires is the failure to affirm belief in some sort of god(s).

Consider each of the following two questions for a moment, and notice the important difference between them?
  1. Do you believe in some sort of god or gods?
  2. Are you absolutely certain of your answer to question #1 to the degree that you have no doubt whatsoever that your answer is correct?
Only one of these questions is relevant to atheism. I'll give you a hint: it isn't the second one. Okay, that is not really fair. Both are relevant, but only the first is necessary to classify someone into the mutually exclusive categories of theist and atheist.

By definition, a theist is someone who believes in some sort of god or gods. That is, one must answer question #1 in the affirmative in order to be a theist. And yes, anyone who affirms question #1 is a theist. This is why atheists ask theists for evidence of their god(s). The theist is making a positive claim that something exists, and so the atheist is inquiring about the evidence to support this claim.

An atheist is someone who does not believe in any sort of god(s). One who fails to affirm question #1 is, by definition, an atheist. Again, if you do not believe in some sort of god(s), you are an atheist.

Question #2 is relevant in the sense that it contributes information about one's level of confidence, but it is not necessary in order to classify someone as theist or atheist. And as we know, one's confidence in any particular belief is not a valid indicator of the truth of that belief.

And so one is a theist if one answers "yes" to question #1 regardless of how one answers question #2. Some theists do profess quite a bit of certainty; others report considerable uncertainty. Doing so does not make them any more or less of a theist, although we might call a theist who is very low on certainty an "agnostic theist."

Likewise, those who do not answer "yes" to question #1 are atheists, regardless of how they answer question #2. That is, atheism does not require any particular level of certainty. An atheist reporting low certainty might be called an "agnostic atheist," but that does not make him or her any less of an atheist.

We would not say that a Christian who experiences some doubts about her faith is suddenly no longer a Christian because she does not claim to be 100% certain. In the same way, an atheist who is not 100% certain (or uncertain, if you prefer) does not magically stop being an atheist.

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