May 29, 2005

Missed Opportunity

Just as I'm setting down to eat dinner last night, there is a knock at the door. My dog goes crazy barking (like always), and I make my way to the door already annoyed at the interruption. All I can make out by looking through the glass in the door is that whoever it is was wearing a tie. Strange since it is 90 degrees, but I figure I better open the door now that he's seen me looking through it.

Mormons! Two of them with the standard white dress shirts and ties. More disgusted than amused, I simply informed them that I was an atheist with no interest in talking to them and closed the door. What a missed opportunity to have some fun with mormons - I don't know what I was thinking. Oh well. I'm sure I'll get another opportunity.

May 28, 2005

A Reminder of Christian Idiocy from the 1980s

Tim at Religion is Bullshit! has a great post about Christian groups destroying heavy metal records in the 1980s ("Its number is six hundred and sixty six"). Besides his perspective of someone watching this lunacy happen from outside the United States, Tim's post reminds me that several of my friends' record collections fell victim to Christian extremist parents. I also remember that organized groups of Christians would actually buy these records so that they could destroy them! Anybody else remember this?

May 26, 2005

ACLU Sues to Stop Graduation Prayer

AP Wire | 05/26/2005 | ACLU sues to stop graduation prayer in Clarion County district

Christian extremists will undoubtedly frame this as an attack on religion, so I think it is worth examining why we should applaud the ACLU's efforts here. I can think of no reason why Christian students would be offended by a graduation ceremony that did not include prayer, especially since this is not supposed to be legal at public schools. If they have learned anything in their American government or history classes, they will understand why this is unconstitutional and will not expect it. On the other hand, I can easily imagine atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christian students being offended by the inclusion of prayer (which always ends up being Christian). Allowing prayer at graduation ceremonies is a slap in the face to all non-Christian students. It contributes to the current climate of intolerance in American society where everyone is expected to be Christian and looked down upon if they are not. Bravo ACLU!

May 25, 2005

Evil and Christian Arrogance

Many Christians are fond of claiming that no human can truly know the mind of their god and that to say otherwise is arrogant. They like to say this when confronted with conflicts between science and superstition. If we assume for a second that they are correct in this assertion, how can they label certain people as evil (e.g., homosexuals, atheists, people from all other religions, etc.)? Isn't judging good and evil supposed to be the domain of their god? It strikes me as more than a bit hypocritical to insist that they know what their god wants while simultaneously protesting that claiming to know what their god wants is arrogant.

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May 24, 2005

Journey of an Atheist, Part I

I've really enjoyed reading personal accounts from several atheist bloggers about their journey from the religions in which they were raised to atheism, so I figured it was time to share mine. If nothing else, it will be a good excuse for some self reflection around how I came to believe what I do.

I was raised in a mainline Protestant church (Methodist) by parents who thought that it would be good for me to be exposed to religion. To some degree, they may have been thinking about what a disadvantage I would have been placed at by growing up in the United States without knowing anything about Christianity or being part of the privileged tribe. But the primary reason they gave me at the time involved their concern over the health of my "soul." I did not hear much about hell at home, but it was clear that it played a role in why it was so important for me to grow up as a believing Christian. My parents also attended church for the social networking, and I suspect that this was why they continued to go for awhile after I was out of the home, but the primary reason they attended at the time seemed to be that they wanted me exposed to it.

My earliest memories of religion involved fear. Like our primitive ancestors, I was afraid of the unknown. As a young child, just about everything was unknown. Added to this, I was a bit more neurotic than most. I prayed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't. Nobody really needed to threaten me with hellfire and damnation; it was just the idea that if there was this invisible man in the sky with all these amazing powers, I better not disappoint him. My prayers at this time were never about asking for crap I wanted and almost always attempts to prevent bad things from happening to those I loved.

Entering public school on the West Coast exposed me to a couple of new ideas. First, I learned that religion was something that was considered a deeply personal and private matter. One did not generally discuss it with others or hear about it at school. This was very different from experiences I would have later in Mississippi. Second, despite the private nature of religion, the children generally assumed that everyone was Christian. This type of Christianity in no way resembled the evangelical forms I would encounter years later, but there was surprise and sometimes ridicule for anyone who did not identify as Christian. I had friends of all different Christian denominations (e.g., Protestants, Catholics, Mormons), but differences in what they believed were almost never discussed.

Church was a formal, stuffy affair where children were expected to behave themselves. At the church I attended throughout most of my childhood, young children were dismissed mid-way through the service and before the actual sermon to go to Sunday school in another building. I guess the adults realized that we weren't going to understand the sermon (they were right about this). We were always relieved when it was time to exit the sanctuary and head off to Sunday school. I remember very little about Sunday school except that it involved a lot of singing and crafts (both of which I hated) and always seemed to be more focused on the younger children. I also remember being very happy when it was over.

On to Part II.

May 23, 2005

Prayer at Graduation: Is It Legal?

I've been wondering about this for a long time, but I haven't been able to find a clear answer. According to Finn Laursen, Executive Director of Christian Educators Association International, "U.S. courts have held that school leaders may not require prayers or religious content from speakers, nor invite religious personnel to lead such activities. However, while maintaining religious neutrality, under the First Amendment school officials cannot rescind students' freedom of speech."

Does this mean that it would not be legal for a school to invite a Christian minister to say a prayer at graduation? The state university where I work has done this in every graduation ceremony I have attended. If I am reading the above quote correctly, even this Christian advocacy group wouldn't consider this legal.

May 22, 2005

New York Times Defends Evolution

As reported by the National Center for Science Education, the May 17th issue of the New York Times published a strong editorial in support of evolution.

Read it here.

May 21, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

I finally got around to watching Hotel Rwanda last night. I was completely blown away by this outstanding film, although it was difficult to watch. The DVD version included interviews with the person who lived through the tragedy (Paul Rusesabagina) and on whom the entire story was based.

What really got to me was that the U.N. peacekeepers on the ground were fully aware of what was going on. Despite clear evidence of genocide, the U.S. voted against intervening. It wasn't that they didn't know what was happening; they knew and chose not to act. Why? Paul Rusesabagina suggests that part of the decision was based on our recent experience in Somalia.

This happened in 1994 during the Clinton years, before we became "a Christian nation." It couldn't possibly happen now, could it?

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May 18, 2005

How Are We To Treat Believers?

Picking up where I left off in a previous post, I will now consider the question of how we should treat believers. I've already stated that I think that attempting to respect their beliefs is counterproductive in that it fails to address the many problems caused by faith. But how then should we respond? Do we pity them for their ignorance and attempt to educate them? Treat them with contempt? Fear their determination to convert or condemn us?

By perpetuating the myth of their persecution, Christians have devised an ingenious trap for the rest of us. Throughout their climb to political power, they have maintained that they are persecuted for their beliefs. They have managed to reframe even minor disagreements with their position as evidence of persecution. If we attack the idiocy of their faith head-on, we simply confirm their claims of persecution. On the other hand, if we feign tolerance or respect for their beliefs, we permit them to continue their quest for dominion. By studying the words of Christian extremists carefully, it is clear that these plans eventually lead to the conversion or subjugation of all nonbelievers.

Since neither of these options sounds particularly appealing, what are we to do? Before addressing direct responses to superstitious individuals, I'll lay out a broad strategy for dealing with the threat of religion. First, we atheists need to continue building our own political capital. By making sure our representative organizations (e.g., American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religion Foundation, etc.) have sufficient funds to remain politically active, we give a voice to our concerns. Second, we use every opportunity to educate the public about the dangers of faith and the high cost of maintaining religious dogma. We continue to draw attention to the similarities between Christian extremists in America and extremists from other religious traditions. We do this through the internet, letters to the editor of our local papers, and through our social networks. Third, we remain active in the sphere of education, insuring that science continues to be taught without the polluting influence of religion. We let our school boards know that we want our children to be prepared to compete on the world stage and that this involves science education that is based on sound empirical principles. Fourth, we fight the growing anti-scientific/anti-intellectual bias in our culture. We reward our children for academic achievement, and we model skepticism and rational thought. We apply these principles in our daily lives (e.g., buying products based on scientific product testing, reliability, and other sound bases instead of gut-level reactions).

But how to we respond to individual believers? We focus on the practical consequences of religious belief on both individual and global levels. "What good comes of your beliefs, and why are these beliefs necessary to achieve this good?" "How are your Ten Commandments superior to the Golden Rule?" When the practical consequences are dysfunctional (e.g., racism, homophobia, war, etc.), we are not afraid to point this out. However, we focus our attacks on the belief and its consequences instead of the person who holds the belief. We do question the intelligence of anyone who accepts religious dogma, but we do not need to throw that in anyone's face. Instead, we can focus on why it is necessary, how they benefit from it, and whether alternatives would provide the same benefits without the staggering costs. Most of all, we are not afraid to criticize religious beliefs simply because they are religious. Religion is not off-limits. It is not beyond reproach. When religious beliefs do not present an accurate account of the natural world and/or result in harm, they must go.

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May 17, 2005

The Official God FAQ

Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel in Bildern 1860 001God is perhaps one of the most complex and divisive of subjects with which humanity has wrestled throughout our history. It is a subject that has stimulated countless philosophical debates, wars, and many of the worst atrocities our species has committed. It is difficult even to contemplate the number of people who have been killed over disagreements about the nature of this particular entity.

What if there was a place one could go to have all one's relevant questions about God answered once and for all? Well, now there is: The Official God FAQAQ.

Pretty clear, wasn't it. Maybe we can move on now.

May 16, 2005

Politics in Church

If you've been following the news at all, you have surely heard about East Waynesville Baptist Church in Waynesville, NC, where the pastor told church members who refused to support President Bush in the last election that they should leave the church. Not surprisingly, this has become a heated issue. First, we learned that the exiled churchgoers were exploring legal options. Next, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State asked the IRS to investigate violations of the church's tax-exempt status. Now we learn that the pastor of the church has resigned. By the way, am I the only one who finds it hilarious that this guy's name is Rev. Chan Chandler?

Anyway, the central issue here is about taxes - specifically the portion of the IRS rules which prohibits this sort of political activity by tax-exempt groups. I have always thought that granting churches tax exempt status was absurd, and now there is another reason why: many are violating the laws that pertain to their exempt status by endorsing political candidates, etc. For more information about the IRS rules and how they apply in these situations, read this.

I expect that Christian groups are already mobilizing to cast this as an attack on religion. Here is one example of the sort of response we are likely to see. Many probably welcome an IRS investigation because it will help make their case that they are persecuted. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the core of one's identity as a Christian extremist involves the conviction that the persecution of Christians in America is widespread.

Before I go off on that tangent, there is something else you should know. Christians have decided to attack the tax law itself. Yes, Christian politicians are now considering overturning the rules prohibiting clergy from endorsing political candidates. When laws run contrary to the preferences of conservative Christian extremists, it is time to change the laws. We should all monitor this situation and be prepared to express our concern to our elected representatives, local media outlets, etc. Allowing churches to maintain their tax-exempt status while removing restrictions on their politicking would clearly open the door to theocracy even wider.

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May 14, 2005

Poor Persecuted Christians: Analysis by The Raving Atheist

The Raving Atheist � Archives � May 2005 � God Squad Review CXXVII (Atheist Persecution of Christians)

The Raving Atheist has an outstanding analysis of the Christian persecution complex. I'd like to add some thoughts on this topic.

Pretend for a minute that a friend disclosed his belief that a tree in his backyard had been communicating with him and instructing him to buy certain stocks. After initially thinking he is joking, you discover that he is serious. My hunch is that respecting his nonsensical belief system would not be very high on your list of responses. You might suggest psychiatric help, you might laugh, or you might run and hide. Does the fact that this friend is able to win some converts change the craziness of his beliefs? (We will assume that he can produce no evidence to support these beliefs and that there is overwhelming evidence that he is wrong).

Should a belief system that lacks supportive evidence, is shredded by evidence from reputable sources, and causes significant harm (e.g., brutal violence, genocide, etc.) be respected? Is such a belief system worthy of respect? How should believers in such a system be treated? Is it really even disrespectful to question such a belief system?

I'd argue (and have argued repeatedly in this blog) that intelligent, rational people must speak out against such a belief system. How many times have the German people been criticized for not rising up against the Nazis prior to WWII? Would any sane person really argue that the world should have respected the beliefs of the Nazis?

Too harsh? Maybe, but the claim that Christians are not trying to force their beliefs on the rest of us is blatantly false. Christian extremists now control American politics and are seeking to redefine our culture on their terms. Non-Christian politicians cannot get elected, and morality (and even the law) is being defined according to Christian terms. Worse yet, these extremists are placing any topic that highlights their flaws off-limits to public discourse. Their entire plan is about forcing their beliefs on others!

How should we respond? Clearly, it is a mistake to respect anyone's religious beliefs simply because they are religious beliefs. Some belief systems are more deserving of respect than others. How do we decide which are worthy? We examine the degree to which a given belief system corresponds to the world. You see, all religious belief systems make claims about the natural world. Claims which science shows to be false. Expecting anyone to respect these belief systems is pure lunacy.

How are we to treat believers? I'll come back to this question in a later post.

May 13, 2005

Op-ed: Christian Militancy Corrodes American Ideal

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I have not read the Left Behind series because I generally avoid reading crap (although I did make an exception for the Bible). Local bookstores have been filled with displays for this series since it first appeared, and it appears that sales have been strong nationwide.

In this excellent op-ed, Mary Ellen Schoonmaker draws parallels between this series' depiction of Christians as being at war with nonbelievers and American politics. With all the attacks on "activist" judges and the science curriculum by Christian extremists, such comparisons seem appropriate.

I find the position that diversity and multiculturalism are merely attacks on Christianity fascinating in its pure stupidity. These Christians really do feel persecuted, don't they? Statements such as this one from the head of the National Religious Broadcasters group help remind us all of Christianity's long tradition of intolerance and hatred.

Does the average American view these "Dominionists" as true Christians or simply as nutjobs? Regardless, these people are dangerous opponents of the many freedoms which have defined America. We must preserve our freedom from religion if religious freedom is to have any meaning. I admire Ms. Schoonmaker for having the guts to take on such an important issue.

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May 9, 2005

A Great Way to Handle Evangelical Christians at Your Door

Jim, a reader commenting on my post about Christians spreading superstition door-to-door, shared a link so good I had to mention it here so that everyone could enjoy. Check out Ven. Dhammika's "Who's that knocking on the door? A Buddhist's guide to evangelical Christianity." I think I might actually have to try this.

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May 8, 2005

Cheating in College

I usually address topics such as faith, politics, and Christian extremists. How does cheating fit? I view cheating as another form of intellectual dishonesty, not all that different from the sort of mental gymnastics one must perform to justify belief in superstition. Bear with me, and I'll show you what I mean.

Cheating in college is widespread for many reasons. First, students feel tremendous pressure to earn high grades as a ticket to later opportunities. The college degree is increasingly viewed as little more than a ticket to future success. Thus, learning has become secondary to grades. Second, study after study has demonstrated that students do not define cheating in the same way their professors do. Using a copy of an exam from a prior semester (even if it was not obtained legitimately) may be seen as appropriate. Copying answers from a peer may be defended on the grounds that people help each other in "the real world." Strange as it seems, many students do not see anything wrong with copying someone else's paper and passing it off as their own. Third, students are surrounded with examples of dishonest politicians, celebrities, athletes, etc. Of course, I could go on forever, and this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

What about the relationship between academic cheating and faith? From an early age, children grow up hearing about Christian myths. When they enter school, these beliefs crystallize through peer socialization. Parents worry about peer pressure with regard to drugs (and they should), but there is another very real form of peer pressure - the pressure to blindly accept authority and reject reason. In subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) ways, our children learn that reason and science are valuable only as long as they agree with the Bible. I'd predict that those who fully embrace this sort of intellectual dishonesty would be more likely to accept others. Of course, this is an empirical question that could be put to the test with little difficulty.

May 7, 2005

Pat Robertson: God’s Spokesperson

LA Weekly: News: Filtered: God’s Spokesperson

Pat Robertson is extremely skilled in showing off his stupidity, and here he goes again. Liberals are "destroying the fabric that holds are nation together?" I guess that fabric must be superstition, bigotry, and selfishness.

May 4, 2005

Gary Leupp: Christian Fascism in America

Gary Leupp: Christian Fascism in America

This isn't exactly new, but I just found it and thought I'd share. Certainly an interesting read. Is "fascism" too strong a word to describe what is happening in American politics? Maybe, but it does seem like several of the right's religious leaders would prefer to move in that direction.

May 1, 2005

Spreading Superstition Door-to-Door

A Rodin Sculpture titled "door to hell&qu...
A Rodin Sculpture titled "door to hell" inspired by the work of Dante. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the joys of living in the Bible belt is that Christians are always knocking on the door, eager to tell me about Jesus. The doorbell rang yesterday afternoon as I was getting out of the shower. Unfortunately, by the time I got there all that was left was Christian literature about how those who didn't accept Jesus as their savior were headed for some sort of hell.

I guess this raises two questions for me. First, what is the point in going door-to-door to spread their superstitious beliefs? Do they actually get converts this way? They always want to tell me about their church. What if I already belonged to one? Would the goal then be to convince me that theirs was better? Or is the point simply to make themselves feel like they are doing something positive without actually taking any risks (i.e., risks like working with the homeless, donating their time to various shelters, etc.)? These people could do great things for the community instead of irritating me.

The second question, and perhaps more fun to consider, concerns how one should behave when one encounters these morons at the door. I am usually very polite in the beginning. "No, I'm really not interested in discussing religion with you. Thanks anyway, and have a great day." After all, I'm not interested in mass prayer sessions on my front lawn. However, I generally lose my pleasant demeanor when asked where I attend church and then told I am going to hell when I reply that I do not attend church. A friend once answered this question by explaining that he was Jewish and attends temple nearby. He received the same query about whether it bothers him that he will burn in hell for not accepting Jesus. Do you get this sort of thing in your neighborhood, and if so, how do you handle it?