April 29, 2006

An Opportunity to Speak Out in the Mainstream Media

As reported at NoGodBlog.com, a Newsweek writer wants to hear from "angry atheists." The author says that he wants to understand us better and figure out why the idea of his god upsets us so much. Tired of the "angry atheist" stereotype, American Atheists has issued an action alert requesting that we respond.

You can read the full Newsweek article and respond here. Here is my response:

To understand what it is like to be an atheist in America, one should imagine being a physician who is attempting to provide medical treatment in a primitive village. The villagers reject medicine while embracing ineffective superstition. They believe that illness is caused by evil spirits and refuse to permit the physician to vaccinate their children because their holy book tells them that their rituals will protect them. Although their children experience great suffering and death, they remain hostile to the physician because they are convinced that their faith is enough.

The modern atheist is not unlike this physician. We are surrounded by a form of superstition which is both obsolete in today's world and harmful to our continued existence. The "“angry atheist" depiction may be little more than an inflammatory stereotype, but atheists do have many important reasons to be upset. Surveys indicate that we are the most hated group in America, contributing to a long history of marginalization. Those who despise us because we reject religion reveal that their true agenda is anything but religious freedom. When prominent political figures such as George H. W. Bush question whether atheists can be American citizens, we are reminded of similar statements of intolerance made during the Civil Rights or Suffrage movements.

I am personally appalled at the consequences of religious faith. Each of the mainstream religions claims to have a monopoly on truth and explicitly rejects other religions as false, planting the seeds of intolerance. Your attempt to equate religious disagreements with those over baseball or music neglects many valuable lessons from history. Religious conflict has long resulted in violence, and many of the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. Even moderate faith calls on the believer to suspend rational judgment in favor of superstition, making it difficult for believers to challenge dangerous forms of religious extremism.

As for the generalization about atheists having "uncomfortable personal histories,"” you forget that we are all born atheists and only arrive at religion through indoctrination. One does not need tragedy or bad experiences with clergy to arrive at atheism. The study of Western philosophy, history, and a close reading of the Christian bible was more than enough for me to rediscover natural atheism.

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April 28, 2006

Atheist Billboards

I received several thought-provoking comments to a previous post about the prevalence of religious billboards. Many readers indicated that they would be willing to contribute to a fund to support atheist billboards. Several great possibilities for what such billboards might say were exchanged.

I wonder if any of the atheist/freethought organizations would have any interest in organizing such an effort. If American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and/or other such organizations were to sponsor such a project with a small portion of the dues they collect and set up a PayPal donation system to raise the rest of the funds, it is clear that many of us would donate to support the effort.

A well-located billboard could stimulate critical thinking about religion and would almost certainly be newsworthy, providing an occasion for the atheist/freethought community to reach people through the media. Increased attention to the cause would mean additional support for future projects, and such efforts could easily be expanded through local organizations.

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April 26, 2006

Examples of Discrimination Against Atheists

As I have learned from previous posts on this subject, the question of whether atheists face discrimination for their lack of belief is controversial, even among atheists themselves. Some of us can readily identify examples of discrimination in our own experience. Others deny the existence of discrimination seemingly because they have not personally experienced it.

This article by Margaret Downey from Free Inquiry magazine and reprinted on the Council for Secular Humanism website may be of interest. Downey makes a compelling case for acknowledging discrimination atheists face at the hands of theists, providing a few notable examples.

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April 24, 2006

More on Religious Billboards

Macon Telegraph | 02/28/2006 | Billboard owner rotates religious messages on signs

Since I just posted about seeing so many religious signs on my road trip through the South, I figured this would be an appropriate follow up. My question for you to consider after reading this brief item is quite simple: Can you imagine what would happen if someone started doing this with atheist billboards?

April 22, 2006

My Vacation, Part II

English: "Jesus Saves" A frequently ...
"Jesus Saves" A frequently vandalised and repainted declaration on a prominent rock by the roadside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Besides the constant churches I've already addressed (see Part I), there was one other interesting thing I want to note from this trip through the South. I saw more billboards and signs attempting to convey information about Jesus on this trip than I think I've seen to this point in my life cumulatively. While some were on church property, the majority were on commercial or residential property.

An especially frequent message was "Jesus Saves." Assuming we decide that someone named Jesus is currently living among us (and this is a controversial assumption), what does it mean to say that he "saves?" Does Jesus save money when he shops online by subscribing to an e-coupon delivery service? I guess that would mean I have something in common with Jesus, whoever he is. Maybe Jesus saves old newspapers because he's worried about a media conspiracy to defraud the American public. Maybe Jesus is a firefighter who saves people from burning buildings.

"No, no! Don't be silly. Jesus died for the sins of all mankind. The path to salvation is through Jesus." Wait a second. Just who is being silly here? If he died, he's incapable of saving anyone (or doing anything). This is what it means to be dead. If by salvation, you mean some sort of life after death, this is simply absurd. The "I" we all experience is a product of neural activity. When the brain dies, there is no more "I."

My favorite message by far and easily the most frequently seen was "Jesus loves you." Who is this Jesus who loves me? What if I have latent homophobia and am not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of being loved by another man? Besides, I've never met Jesus. How can he even know me? Has he been stalking me or something?

"Jesus knows your heart, and he has always been there." Wow! That's great news! I get confused sometimes and feel like I don't know my own heart. I'd like to meet this Jesus and see if he can give me some advice. Where is he? Wait a second...if he's always been there and he cares about me, why has he sat by and watched me go though some difficult periods in my life without helping? Where was he when I was drinking too much? Where was he when my grandfather died? Where was he when I was desperately trying to hold a failing marriage together? If he loves me, he sure has an odd way of showing it.

What does the Christian say at this point? "You can't see Jesus - he is within you." So if I died, Jesus would die too? "Jesus is in all who accept him as their savior." You might as well tell me that Santa Claus can deliver presents to every child in the world on Christmas Eve all by himself. When confronted with reason and logic, the replies of the Christian become increasingly absurd. It sounds an awful lot like Jesus is whatever the hell you want him to be so you can feel good. You can have him. I prefer reality to delusion.

April 20, 2006

AU Applauds "Faith Czar's" Departure From White House

I just received the following information from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I still have a very hard time believing that I live in a country with a faith-based governmental office.

AU's Lynn Says 'Faith-Based' Point Man Was First Amendment Foe, Urges President Bush To Shut Down 'Faith-Based' Office

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today applauded the departure of White House "Faith Czar" James Towey and urged President George W. Bush to close the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"Jim Towey has waged an unrelenting war against church-state separation," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "He played a key role in using the 'faith-based' initiative for improper partisan purposes, and he did little or nothing to see that Americans get the social-service help they need from their government. That's a sad legacy to leave.

"Towey was the Bush administration's point man in trying to roll back civil rights laws barring religious discrimination in hiring in government-funded programs," Lynn continued. "I am pleased that he failed to push that terrible idea through Congress."

Towey and other administration figures have worked hard to allow church-run government programs to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. In June 2003, Towey's office even issued a 12-page booklet, "Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations: Why Religious Hiring Rights Must Be Preserved," that promotes this kind of hiring discrimination.

Americans United charged that the record shows the faith-based initiative is a practical as well as civil rights and civil liberties failure.

In February, the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy reported that direct federal grants to faith-based charities actually fell from 2002 to 2004. The non-partisan research group said the number of grantees rose, but due to funding cuts, the available pool of money shrank by $230 million in the 99 federal grant-making programs studied.

Americans United urged the president to close the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"With Towey's resignation in hand, the president should do the American people a favor and close the misguided faith-based office," Lynn said. "The administration's faith-based initiative has always been about funneling public funds to favored political constituencies, not helping the poor. In the process, the White House has trampled the First Amendment principle of church-state separation and jeopardized important civil rights laws."

Lynn criticized Towey's tactic of trying to intimidate critics of the faith-based initiative.

"When civil rights and civil liberties leaders criticized the administration's faith-based plan, Towey would respond with name-calling," said Lynn. "It's a tired, but annoying strategy to defend a constitutionally suspect program."

In early 2005 not long after Bush's re-election, Towey vowed before a Washington, D.C., gathering to fight "secular extremists" who oppose the administration's scheme to fund religion and allow government-funded job discrimination.

A couple of years earlier, Towey told National Public Radio that legislation containing the administration's faith-based initiative had languished in Congress because debate on it had been "held hostage by some extremist groups that have a view that the public square should be sanitized of all religious influence."

He groused to the Boston Globe that the faith-based initiative had failed in Congress due to "extremist activity" of groups such as Americans United and the NAACP.

In fact, a large number of religious, educational, civil rights and civil liberties groups have opposed core provisions of the faith-based initiative. The General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, the president's own denomination, opposed the initiative because of the employment discrimination issue and the church-state problems.

Towey, who has served since 2002 as assistant to the president and director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, will become the 16th president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., effective July 1.

April 18, 2006

My Vacation, Part I

English: The Great Smoky Mountains National Pa...
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States of America. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Remember those essays you had to write in elementary school about how you spent your vacation? This is mine.

My vacation was a road trip through Mississippi (where I live), Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I spent the most time in North Carolina and Tennessee, just driving through the other states to get there. The point of the trip was to visit relatives in NC and check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Along the way, I passed through many small towns. Some sections seemed rather wealthy, but most appeared fairly poor. However, they all had something in common...churches. They ranged from tiny one-room buildings to massive complexes. They were everywhere.

Almost without exception, the churches were much nicer looking than the houses surrounding them. Even the older ones had been kept up well, boasting fresh paint and landscaping while the neighboring homes were often rundown. In many areas, the contrast between the surrounding homes and the churches was so dramatic that the church looked out of place.

Where does the money come from to build and maintain these monuments to American idiocy? In a way, I guess we are all paying for these churches by refusing to tax them. However, if appearances are any indication, the residents of the often poor communities surrounding these churches are sacrificing a great deal to support their churches.

I suppose one could argue that giving money to one's church is like buying peace of mind. It makes some feel better to know they are doing "a good thing." There may also be tangible benefits. One might conclude, "I may be a flawed person, but my contributions ensure that I will be regarded favorably by my neighbors and my imaginary sky daddy."

What struck me repeatedly during this trip was that there were so many better ways to spend money in these communities. Many other needs were evidently going unmet in service to these churches. I hope it is worth it.

You can find part II here.

April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

I'm back and ready to resume blogging. I plan to post soon about some interesting observations I made while on vacation, but that will be for a later post.

While Christmas gets all the attention, Easter should really be considered the core Christian holiday. With Christmas, they celebrate the birth of someone who may or may not have been a real historical figure. Even if the existence of Jesus isn't without controversy, I can at least accept that his birth was possible. On the other hand, Easter is about celebrating a scientific impossibility - resurrection. Without the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected through supernatural means, there would likely be no Christianity.

Now I ask you to consider but one simple question. Which is more likely - that a man named Jesus died and was resurrected by a supernatural entity, or that this legend was borrowed from the existing mythology of the time and slightly modified to fit the needs of a new religious movement?

I guess this is what you might call a rhetorical question, but I can't resist pointing out that the resurrection of Jesus is no more plausible than Jesus flying around the world on Easter morning laying colored eggs for children to find. The main difference seems to be that the former belief has resulted in tremendous pain and suffering in the name of religious differences while the later belief is simply entertaining.

Happy Easter.

April 6, 2006

On Vacation

I haven't had a vacation in years, and I'm finally getting to take a brief one. I expect to be away from internet access for about a week, so not much will be happening here for awhile.

April 4, 2006

Fundamentalist Christians Are Right

In the thick of the street festival, some demo...
In the thick of the street festival, some demonstrators used the occasion to get their message out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I bet you never thought you'd see a post title like that here! Amidst all the discussion in religious circles about "interpreting the bible" and how to do it, I can't help thinking that the fundamentalist Christians are on the right track. If we want to know what the Christian bible says, we should read it. No interpretation is necessary. It says what is says, and it is there for all to read.

I am convinced that most of what passes for biblical interpretation involves isolating a particular passage that makes someone uncomfortable and attempting to reinterpret it in such a way that it ends up making someone less uncomfortable. When we find pervasive themes of cruelty, intolerance, violence, etc. throughout the Christian bible, we have a hard time reconciling this with our Sunday school teachings that Christianity is about love. We then interpret away the literal meaning with something we have an easier time accepting.

The problem is that the bible is rather clear much of the time. This is a vengeful, punitive, violent sort of god. This is clear if we look at what the bible says rather than what we wish it said. Say what you will about fundamentalists, but it strikes me that they are somehow more honest in their focus on the actual words.

What could be more arrogant than reinterpreting the bible to make it seem like it said what we wish it said? It it was supposed to say what we wish it said, wouldn't it have said that?

April 1, 2006

Atheists as America’s Most Distrusted Minority

I've long suspected this was the case, and now there are data to support the claim that atheists are the most hated minority group in America. According to this University of Minnesota study, atheists were ranked below all other minority groups as to the degree to which survey respondents shared their "vision of American society." That's right - respondents were more likely to identify with members of the GLBT community than with atheists. Respondents were also least likely to allow their children to marry atheists than members of any other minority group.

"Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public." This is you and I, dear reader, threats to the American way of life. "Many of the studyÂ’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism."

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