October 30, 2006

Happy Halloween: Jesus Was a Zombie

zombie JesusHere in the bible belt, we hear quite a bit about the evils of Halloween. If the coverage in our local paper is any indication, most Southern Baptists (the dominant Christian denomination here) want nothing to do with Halloween and take their kids to church instead of letting them experience Halloween. Several pastors have been quoted in the paper saying that Halloween is evil and that good Christians should turn their backs on it.

I can understand parents not wanting their children to trick-or-treat in high crime areas or having other concerns about safety (even though the whole razor blades in apples thing appears to be an urban legend). What I can't understand is this conviction among many fundamentalist Christians that demons actually prowl the earth on Halloween. I realize that their religion must create threats to maintain itself, but there are so many real threats to safety (e.g., international conflict, poverty, crime, etc.) that could be addressed instead.

October 28, 2006

U.S. Monitors Antiwar Protesters

If you have studied history (or are old enough), you remember hearing about the war protests in America over Vietnam. You probably also remember hearing about how the American government monitored anti-war groups, considering them serious threats to national security.

Since Vietnam, attitudes have changed so that most Americans believe these actions by the government were wrong. In other words, most of us now believe that a democratically elected government has no business spying on its own citizens simply because such citizens are engaged in peaceful protests against government policy. Monitoring the activities of peaceful protest groups simply because they disagree with certain government policies is something we'd expect to find in a totalitarian regime but not a democracy, right?

Evidently, the Bush administration does not agree with what I have just said. Military documents released this month reveal that the Defense Department has been gathering information of peaceful groups of student war protesters. I thought that expressing dissent without fear of reprisal was supposed to be among the cherished liberties enjoyed by Americans. I am happy to see that the ACLU is mobilizing to oppose these surveilance efforts, but the cynic in me is starting to wonder if this whole "war on terror" thing has just become a ploy to exercising greater control over the American people.

Tags: , , , , , ,

October 26, 2006

The Politics of Kleptocracy

I've been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New Edition and have really been enjoying it so far. I'm a little more than halfway through with it. Even though religion is not the main topic of the book, I ran across something worth sharing.

After defining kleptocracy, author Jared Diamond says that the issue with a kleptocracy is always how to maintain it. After all, this system of government involves a small but powerful elite exploiting a large population. (Sadly, I am growing convinced that America abandoned democracy for corporate kleptocracy some time ago.) Diamond says there are four solutions to the problem of how a kleptocracy can maintain itself. Of likely interest to you, here is #4:
"The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy" (p. 277).
Religious impulses almost certainly predate civilization. However, it appears that most kleptocracies, starting with small chiefdoms and extending through modern national governments, have recognized the utility of religion. Superstitious beliefs may have originated as methods for explaining confusing natural phenomena, but it seems that they may persist today largely because of their role in justifying kleptocracy. Without state sponsorship through the ages, the type of organized religion we have today would not have been possible.

Diamond does not explicitly apply this to modern politics (at least not in what I have read so far), but I can't resist doing so. When I examine contemporary American politics, I see the Republican party talking the loudest about their religiosity. Why? Because their policies are the most kleptocratic (i.e., they favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor). In fact, they have few qualms about exploiting the poor and even blame them for being poor! The need to publicly announce their religion has been less necessary for Democrats because their policies provide a more significant benefit to the masses. Remember I said that Diamond gives four solutions to the problem of maintaining a kleptocracy? #2 involves the redistribution of wealth through popular public programs, and this describes the Democrats.

The points I'm making here are not new. They have been made repeatedly throughout the historical and political literature. And yet, they are not brought up often enough in modern political discourse. While we continue to criticize Republican efforts to merge church and state, let us also expose why they need religion so much.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

October 24, 2006

Atheist Groups are Growing

I want to keep this good news vibe going just a bit longer, so here is some more. The atheist community is growing! You don't need me to tell you that - all you have to do is look at the new atheist blogs springing up around the internet. But this article from the Contra Costa Times and reprinted in The News-Sentinel shows that there is at least some recognition that our numbers are increasing.

Since this article focuses on atheist organizations, it cannot answer the question of whether this trend is fueled by more people rejecting religion or more atheists joining organizations devoted to atheism. Either way, I consider this good news.
"Horrified by escalating religious violence and alarmed by the Bush administration's 'faith-based initiatives,' which make government money available to religious organizations, atheists are coming out of the closet - and organizing."
Yes, creating and mobilizing atheists is one of the few things the Bush administration has done extremely well. I suppose we should thank him for that.

Are you a member of any atheist-oriented group? I belong to the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are many other worthy organizations out there, and I'll probably join more eventually. Joining such an organization shows that we are there, that we are capable of organizing, and that we are interested in making sure that our rights are honored. The more of us who join at least one such organization, the harder it is for politicians to continue to ignore us.

Tags: , , , ,

October 22, 2006

Teens Say "No Thanks" to Christ

Time for some good news around here. According to The Scotsman, evangelical churches in the United States are starting to worry about a drop in their numbers as American teens increasingly reject faith. Let me say that again and enjoy the big smile spreading across my face right now. American teenagers are increasingly coming to their senses and rejecting the superstitious nonsense that plagues our society.

According to the article, "...Christian leaders believe their younger flock is being led astray by a combination of cynicism about religion, the influence of rock and rap music and casual attitudes to sex among the MTV generation." Yep, gotta be that damn rap music. It couldn't possibly be that our youth prefer reality to myth, could it?

You know, I think I'll end this post now and go out and enjoy the day. Something tells me that this smile will stick around for awhile.

Tags: , , , , ,

October 21, 2006

Bush Aides Called Evangelicals 'Nuts'

A new book by David Kuo, a former official of Bush's faith-based office, reports that top Bush aides routinely made fun of the Christian extremists who helped to elect the administration. The book is called Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, and it sounds like it might be worth a read. According to CommonDreams, the book "...says that President Bush's top political advisors privately ridiculed evangelical supporters as 'nuts' and 'goofy' while embracing them in public and using their votes to help win elections."

The implications of these allegations are potentially important. Obviously, they may take a toll on current efforts by the Rove propaganda machine to muster support for Republican candidates from conservative Christians. However, they also cast doubt on the commonly held view that Bush's cronies are true believers. Perhaps they are smarter than that and are simply manipulating Christian voters. After all, believing something without supportive evidence does suggest that one might believe other sorts of nonsense for which there is no evidence (i.e., that Republicanism is good for America). Finally, the book appears to expose to GOP's strategic use of conservative Christians. It sounds like all the faith-based programs may have been little more than a carrot for the Christian extremists.

Naturally, the Republican spin machine is firing up to oppose Kuo's allegations. Kuo has already been on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report, so this is generating some publicity. I suspect Fox "News" will find some way to blame Bill Clinton for this if they haven't already.

Tags: , , , , ,

October 19, 2006

Texas GOP Accuses Democratic Opponent of Atheism

You are in a tight politically-charged race for a seat on a Texas appellate court. This race is too important to lose. The court must be packed with ideological conservatives so that progressives will not make inroads. When it is time to pull out the big guns, what do you do? If you are a Texas Republican, you accuse your Democratic opponent of the worst possible offense. Murder? Rape? Pedophilia? No, atheism.

That's right, the Republican Party of Texas recently called the Democratic appellate nominee "a professed atheist" who believes that the Christian bible is a "collection of myths." Never mind that the Democrat has never identified himself as an atheist. According to the Republicans, "Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch 'atheist' belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas."

If you read this article, you will notice that the debate ends up being about whether or not Franks is really an atheist. The more important issue of how this is in any way relevant is minimized. Where is the reasonable viewpoint that we would be better off with more atheists holding public office because they don't suffer from religious delusions?

While it is well known that the U.S. Constitution forbids a formal religious test to qualify candidates for office, this is absolutely no relevance on the election process. In other words, the voters are free to decide that they will not elect an atheist, regardless of his/her qualifications. The only thing prohibited by the Constitution here is a state-sponsored religious test. Then again, the Texas Constitution contains the a provision stating that public officials cannot be excluded from office on the basis of their religious beliefs as long as they acknowledge "the existence of a Supreme Being." I can't see how this can possibly be Constitutional, and I am baffled that the ACLU or some other relevant organization has not gone after this.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

October 17, 2006

How's This For Activism?

I blog quite a bit about atheist activism, the importance of picking our battles, and closely related topics. I can't recall how I first heard of Freewayblogger, but I thought it was an interesting idea that might have some applicability to atheist activists.

Imagine how cool it would be to see a combination of pro-atheist and pro-reason as well as anti-superstition messages each morning on your way to work. I wouldn't expect such signs to stay up very long, especially around here. However, think of how many people would be exposed to the message in a high traffic area even in a few minutes. Then there is the possibility that the local paper might decide to do a story.

Tags: , ,

October 15, 2006

Domestic Violence and the Bible Revisited

Since there was some interest in my original post, I decided to do a follow up. In the previous post, I was struggling with the question of whether to introduce religion in general, and the Christian bible specifically, as one of many factors contributing to male subjugation of women. The intent of that post was not to argue that religion causes domestic violence; it was intended as a brief exploration of academic freedom in our politically correct environment.

During the class where I was presenting material on family violence, I ran through all the standard contributing factors. One of these factors was our patriarchical culture. No serious scholar with knowledge of family violence, disputes the importance of this cultural variable. True, it is only one among many, but this does not detract from the importance of understanding it. In addressing the patriarchical culture and related themes (e.g., rape myths, gender role socialization, etc.), I noted that organized religion has helped to maintain male-dominated culture into modern times. I offered the example of the Christian bible.

Looking at Genesis alone, we see numerous examples of a biblical basis for male subjugation of women. Woman is blamed for giving into temptation (3:12-13), and all women are punished by the Christian god for her failure with the pain of childbirth (3:16). Adam's punishment? He is sentenced to work for a living (3:17). Polygamy is condoned by the Christian god (4:19, 23, 26:34, 28:9). Lot offers up his own daughters for gang rape (19:8). We could go on and on because the bible goes on and on, providing numerous examples of male subjugation of women not just existing but being condoned by the Christian god (click here for more examples).

Again, I am not now nor have I ever said that religion causes family violence. This is far too simplistic. As evident by these biblical examples, the Christian bible teaches that men are dominant over women just as it teaches that humans are dominant over the rest of nature. This is an important reason for our patriarchical culture, and this culture is one of many causes of family violence.

As before, my intention here is not really to argue these points with you. They are not controversial among rationale persons. What is controversial, sometimes even for me, is whether and how such issues should be introduced into college-level education. If you believe, as I do, that an important function of higher education is to teach students how to think critically, then information which is highly regarded among scholars (i.e., that which has achieved a reasonable level of acceptance in the academy) is fair game. In fact, one could probably make a compelling argument that teaching such accepted information is mandatory because to do otherwise misleads students about the state of scholarship in a particular area. The key is to encourage critical thinking and debate even in these cases where a consensus position has been reached.

When I brought up religion as an important system for maintaining our patriarchical culture, the students nodded knowingly. This was not the first time they had heard this, and the overwhelming majority (who is also predominately Christian) agreed that religion serves this function. I suppose the concern I expressed in my original post over students becoming upset over this was misplaced. I think I need to give them more credit in the future. Many are here to learn and are at least open-minded enough to struggle with their beliefs.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

October 14, 2006

Friday the 13th: A Holiday for Irrationality

Did anything bad happen to you on Friday the 13th? If not, maybe it is because you weren't looking hard enough. I typically get to work from home on Fridays, but I had to go in for a mandatory meeting this Friday. That is my awful Friday the 13th story.

A sizable number of people believe that this date is somehow unlucky, sinister, or evil in some way. This cannot surprise any of us who marvel at the fact that an even larger number of people believe that some invisible being created them, hears their prayers, and cares what happens to them. Not strange enough for you? Then consider that approximately one third of Americans remain convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.

We live in a culture of belief where many people believe what they are told regardless of how little evidence there is to support it. Overwhelming scientific evidence in support of evolution does not stop these people from questioning it. Why? Because they are convinced that the ancient religion in which they have been indoctrinated is true. Never mind the complete lack of verifiable evidence to support this "truth." Even when the leader who they blindly follow reverses his position about Saddam and 9/11, the damage has already been done. In this context, Friday the 13th barely registers on my radar.

Tags: , , , , ,

October 12, 2006

Evil Scientists Play God

Heresy? Do they still burn men for heresy? Then burn me, monsieur. Light the fire. Do you think your poor candle will outshine the flame of truth?
-- Dr. Mirakle (in Murders in the Rue Morgue)

As part of my October horror movie quest, I've been watching many classics from the 1930's and 1940's. While these films were made 30-40 years before I was born, I find many of them to be more enjoyable than much of the crap being made today. During the month of October, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been showing many of these gems on Friday nights.

Cropped screenshot from the trailer for the fi...
Cropped screenshot from the trailer for the film Murders in the Rue Morgue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For this past Friday, TCM selected the theme of the "mad scientist" and showed several appropriate classics. It was fascinating to see how the stereotype of scientists as evil, arrogant, crazy, etc. started in early film. A theme that came up again and again was that scientists are evil because they "play god." In other words, they explain and manipulate things that are supposed to be "sacred." In light of today's battles over abortion, stem cell research, global warming, etc., I saw an uncomfortable number of parallels between these primitive views from the 30s and 40s and today's Christians.

1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, starring Bela Lugosi and based very loosely on Poe's story of the same name, involves one of those evil "Darwinists" who is killing women by injecting them with ape blood. It seems that he is trying to prove this crazy theory that humans descended from apes by showing that both human and ape blood can coexist in the same body. There is a great scene in which members of his audience at a carnival laugh at his crazy assertions about evolution. I had to remind myself that this was a movie and not a Republican convention!

October 10, 2006

Revisiting the Blog Readership Cap

My previous post on the topic of a possible cap on readership at most atheist-oriented blogs generated several great comments and an excellent post by NonProphet at Beware of the Dogma. I've been meaning to take up the subject once again for some time.

NonProphet was absolutely correct that any discussion of a potential readership cap must start with the distinction between regular readers and periodic "stoppers by." Based on what I have seen at Atheism Online, I would estimate that there are roughly 100 active atheist-oriented blogs. By active, I mean blogs where a new post appears at least once a week. By atheist-oriented, I mean blogs where the primary focus is on matters related to atheism. The point is that those of us who want to read atheist-focused material have many sources from which to select. To give you an idea, I have about 80 RSS feeds in the atheism folder of my RSS aggregator. I probably cannot consider myself a regular reader of many of these sources, but I do attempt to keep up in a time efficient manner.

Regular readership will be limited by the number of people seeking out this kind of information and the multitude of excellent sources. Thus, it does make sense to think of a readership cap as applying to the regular readers. Of course, we can always hope to generate more interest by attracting people to atheism. This will be slow progress, but it may bring more readers for many atheist blogs. By making freethought more visible and attractive, incremental increases in the number of regular readers are possible.

It was the "stoppers by" category I originally neglected, and growth here is virtually limitless. Since all regular readers start out as stoppers by, this group cannot be overlooked. As NonProphet notes, we get many visitors from search engines or who follow blogroll links from other blogs. This has at least two important implications. First, the use of informative (and catchy) post titles should help since this is what will show up in search engines. Second, we should make sure that we maintain and update our blogroll links to reward those bloggers who we read ourselves and who remain active. This is how many people explore the atheist blogosphere. We can improve their experience by pruning links to inactive blogs.

Tags: , , , ,

October 8, 2006

Domestic Violence and the Bible

I'm getting ready to address domestic violence in a class I teach soon, and I'm already starting to get nervous. Why? Because this topic almost inevitably brings me to criticize the Christian bible. As much as I go out of my way to be PC at work (while detesting it constantly), a student will almost always raise the question of why men think it is acceptable to treat women as subservient. I go through all the explanations that don't directly involve religion, but I do feel obligated to point out that many perpetrators will refer to the Christian bible as an authoritative source of justification for their beliefs and actions.

Naturally, this ruffles many feathers here in conservative Jee-zuhs land. Then again tenure and academic freedom have to stand for something, don't they? I am going to be as respectful as I can, but I think I would be doing the students a disservice to ignore this. Besides, teaching is supposed to be about expanding the mind rather than reinforcing ancient superstition.

October 7, 2006

Media Consolidation: Implications for Atheists

Media consolidation is a term you should understand. Frankly, it is a topic that should hold great significance to members of any minority group, including political and religious/non-religious minorities as well as the more traditional meanings of minority.

Media consolidation represents the efforts of a small number of mega-corporations to acquire all media outlets. Remember a time before all radio stations were owned by Clear Channel? I do. Radio was once actually worth listening to. Television news was once more than right-wing propaganda. Media consolidation means the extinction of truly independent media and the exclusion of dissenting voices. You think the airwaves are dominated by conservative voices now, but it can get worse.

The opposition to media consolidation is mounting, but we all need to help by spreading the word. Last week, countless Americans came before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Los Angeles in order to speak out against media consolidation (listen to the testimony). This follows news that the FCC suppressed two studies that revealed the negative impact of media consolidation. Among the findings of these studies was that consolidation harms local news coverage. In addition, a study by Free Press documents the low number of TV stations owned by women and people of color, illustrating that one impact of media consolidation. How are our elected officials to make informed decisions when they are not adequately informed?

Atheists, like all minority groups, have a stake in this issue. Local media ownership and local news coverage make it easier for us to get our voices out there. Those of us who want to continue blogging should also continue to follow the Net Neutrality issue closely and support the SavetheInternet.com coalition. With the huge $67 billion merger of AT&T and BellSouth looming on the horizon, now is the time to insure Net Neutrality.

Lest you think that I am overstating the threat posed by media consolidation, I urge you to consider that governments have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use religion as an instrument of social control. When powerful corporations essentially control both the government and the media, opposition to religion is in jeopardy. We must insure that our voices continue to be heard. I suspect we would all agree that it is preferable to live in a democracy where the voices of the people matter and are not totally obscured by corporate interests.

Resources to explore:

Free Press
Save the Internet.com

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

October 6, 2006

October is Prime Time for Horror

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the...
Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the Living Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a departure from my typical subjects, I wanted to mention that I'm intentionally overdosing on horror movies this month. During a recent visit to the Atheist Coalition forums (Update: these forms are no longer active, so the original link has been removed), someone told me about a good discussion board over at the Internet Movie Database focused on horror films. I decided to check it out and learned about something they are doing called the October Movie Challenge. The idea is to watch 31 horror movies during the month of October. Participants update their movie lists regularly so everyone can see what they are watching.

Silly? Yes. Do I have time to do this? Of course not. Nevertheless, I'm giving it a shot and have watched 11 movies so far. Some have been terrible; some have been outstanding. I've always loved horror movies, and this is a great excuse to see some of the classics that are new to me.

Tags: , , , ,

October 4, 2006

The Brights: Time to Get Past the Name?

You have no doubt heard of the Brights, a coalition of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and whatever other forms of nonbelievers one can imagine. Many of the authors you have read count themselves among the Brights, including Dawkins, Dennett, Randi, and many others.

I suspect that I am not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking any organization seriously who chooses to refer to themselves as "Brights." Any way I consider the term, it sounds arrogant. I have a much easier time imagining myself telling someone that I am an atheist than I do saying, "I am a Bright." I suppose I should confess that another of my complaints with the Bright label is that it seems like it would be primarily for people who are too afraid to call themselves atheists.

Biases aside, I think there is something to the Brights that is worth checking out. According to their website,
  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview
There is nothing here with which I can disagree. If this is their definition, I clearly meet it and can count myself among their members. Moreover, this definition is not synonymous with atheism. When I say I am an atheist, I mean nothing more than that I lack belief in a god or gods. By saying that I am both an atheist and a Bright, I convey additional meaning (i.e., that I have a naturalistic worldview free of anything supernatural and that I base my morality on such a worldview).

This definition does not get me as far as I want to go because saying that my worldview is free of supernatural elements is not the same thing as saying that I deny the existence of anything supernatural. This requires me to add labels such as naturalist, materialist, etc. However, this does not detract from the applicability of the definition of Bright.

What are the goals of the Brights? What is it that they seem to accomplish? Referring again to their website, their aims include:
  1. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  2. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
  3. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.
Again, I completely support this. As long as I do not use the name in place of "atheist," I think I can get past the connotations. While I cannot imagine referring to myself as a Bright publicly, I agree with their goals.

Tags: , , , , ,

October 2, 2006

Iraq: Staying the Course at Our Peril

According to the Bush administration and their official public relations machine, the army of pundits employed by Fox News, it is wrong to criticize the war in Iraq. Criticizing the war is unpatriotic, they claim, and comforts our enemy. We are supposed to forget that each of the reasons offered for invading Iraq has been shown to be false and that Bush has consistently misled the American people. We are expected to excuse the administration for "intelligence failures" and simply trust them to represent our interests abroad. Most of all, we are not supposed to question the flawed ideology which led the neocons to seek this war in the first place.

Recent moves by the neocons are showing that they are about as American as McCarthy. This is not the America most citizens envision. The denial of habeas corpus, preemptive war in the name of American imperialism, consistent denial of the scientific consensus that global warming is real, and efforts to infuse Christianity into the public square are blatantly un-American. It is because we love America that we cannot stand for this.

Describing a recent radio address by the president, the Associated Press reports that Bush "...argued that critics are wrongheaded to argue for a different policy in Iraq..." Does he see this as an effective political strategy, or does he actually believe this?

Clearly, critics would be wrong to criticize a highly effective set of policies, so the question that follows naturally is whether Bush's Iraq policies are effective. This is not a question that can be conclusively answered by the average American citizen. We must rely on those who have access to information which has been withheld from the public. A logical source would be our own intelligence agencies. However, we know that they are prone to disagreement and cannot be expected to reach consensus on something this complicated, right? Wrong. There is now consensus among American intelligence agencies, in the form of the National Intelligence Estimate, that the war in Iraq is making terrorism worse and increasing the likelihood of future attacks. To dismiss this sort of consensus report is a mistake. The situation in Iraq is getting worse.

The administration is doing their best to make politicians who speak out against the war pay a price. According to Tammy Duckworth, a veteran of Iraq who is now running for Congress in Illinois, "Anyone who challenges our failed policies, or suggests the need for a new strategy, is accused of 'cutting and running'...I believe the brave men and women who are serving in Iraq today, their families and the American people deserve more than the same empty slogans and political name-calling." Yep. What is more American that openly speaking one's mind without fear of retribution? We who speak out are exercising our freedom; those in the administration who are desperate to silence us have turned their backs on America.

Tags: , , , , , ,

October 1, 2006

COG #50 at Salto Sobrius

Carnival of the Godless #50 is up now at Salto Sobrius. Lots to read, but hey, it beats going to church, doesn't it?