November 29, 2006

The War on Dawkins

Speaking of Richard Dawkins (see my recent post), it appears that his in-your-face antics have caught the attention of the South Park guys. Dawkins may view this as a positive development, thinking that it will help spread the word about atheism. I'm not so sure. I fear that this episode may end up being an important warning to atheists that insulting people may not be the best way to change their minds.

I have not read The God Delusion yet, but I plan to start it soon. I have read other books by Dawkins, and I generally like what he has to say. However, I do have some questions about how he says it. If his intent is to write solely for atheists, then bravo - change nothing and keep writing. However, if he wants to persuade believers to embrace reality instead of superstition, then I fear his approach may backfire.

News of the South Park episode suggests that Dawkins is already earning a reputation as an abrasive ideologue. In The Revealer article, Daniel Sorrell writes, "Dawkins’ strident, aggressive brand of atheism and his haughty poise undercut an argument that would be more persuasive if made in a cooler, more judicious tone." According to Sorrell, South Park is attacking Dawkins because his approach has crossed from science into extremist ideology, making him no different from the dogmatic believers he criticizes.

I understand this criticism, but I have to point out a vital difference between Dawkins and the religious extremists. His views are based on reality rather than myth. That is, the core of his belief system is rooted in empirical data derived through the scientific method and refined by the self-correcting discipline of science. In contrast, the religious believers rely simply on faith. Their beliefs have no basis in, and are often in direct conflict with, reality. Thus, if we are to compare Dawkins to religious extremists, we must focus exclusively on his style. There are simply too many other important differences.

Is it true that Dawkins would be more influential if he wasn't quite so antagonistic? Probably, but he certainly would not be nearly as well known. My fear is that if Dawkins ends up becoming little more than a caricature, his worthwhile views will be dismissed without provoking the sort of meaningful dialogue they might otherwise yield. Worse, this effect could spread to other atheist authors.

For more on this topic, see Daylight Atheism and Pharyngula.

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November 27, 2006

Marital Freedom: A Church-State Issue

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a great article about the freedom to marry on their blog. The thesis of the article, "The Source of U.S. Law: Leviticus or the Constitution," is that efforts by Christian extremists to deprive Americans of the freedom to marry persons of their choosing is a church-state issue. Drawing on recent articles from two prominent American newspapers, this article makes a solid case for marriage bans being a violation of church-state separation. I admit that I hadn't really thought about the issue this way, focusing more on the expression of religious intolerance.

It is a good read, so check it out.

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November 26, 2006

Any Hate Groups Near You?

Religion may be an important factor in perpetuating hatred and intolerance, but it is certainly not the only one. Here in Mississippi, we know a thing or two about hate groups. Believe it or not, the Klan is still alive, and we still have some misguided folks who think the Confederacy is a source of pride.

Black Separatist
Christian Identity
Ku Klux Klan
Racist Skinhead

Tempting as it may be, don't start feeling superior until you've checked out your state on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. You just might be surprised.

Thanks to Pharyngula and Stupid Evil Bastard for the links.

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November 25, 2006

Evangelizing Science

Science and religion: complementary methods of studying competing spheres of experience or opposing forces with irreconcilable views of reality? Regardless of your position on this question, I suspect you will agree that science has been marginalized under the Bush administration. If you are still not convinced of this, do yourself a favor and read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science.

In this post, I'd like to draw your attention to a recent article in the New York Times by George Johnson, "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion." The article discusses the manner in which science should respond to religion, and you will see that there is anything but unanimous agreement here. In fact, this article reflects some fairly heated disagreement among atheist scientists.

Acknowledging some oversimplification, let me label one side of the argument as cautious realism. According to this position, our goals should be realistic. According to Francisco J. Ayala, “If we think that we are going to persuade them [theists] to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.” Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect a world without religion anytime soon or to expect that science will provide people with the meaning they currently find in religion. Perhaps our efforts should be both cautious and respectful. As Lawrence M. Krauss suggests, maybe science does not necessarily render theism impossible. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

I will label the other side of the debate aggressive secularism for lack of a better phrase. This is the position of Dawkins and Harris, and I'll assume that you are generally familiar with it. According to Dawkins, “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” The idea here is that science should be hostile to religion and that respect for religious belief simply perpetuates ignorance and the many maladaptive effects of religion.

While I generally find myself in closer agreement with the aggressive secularist camp, I do worry that their methods may do more to increase hostility to science and lead to an even more thorough embrace of religion. Why? Because their attacks are unlikely to reach anyone who is susceptible to influence. They will remain popular among atheists, continue to be demonized by theists, and be largely misunderstood by the rest.

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November 24, 2006

Where Elton Went Wrong

According to Elton John, religion should be banned because of the harm it causes. I agree that religion is harmful, but Elton is wrong about banning it. I suspect that most of my atheist readers will agree with me on this, but I'd still like to explain my position.

Elton correctly points out that religion promotes hatred and intolerance. Faith is the enemy of science and those of us who want our leaders to make decisions based on sound reasoning are likely to oppose it. Of course, the list of religiously-motivated ills is long and has been addressed previously here and elsewhere, so I will not indulge in this tangent right now. Instead, I will limit myself to pointing out that Christianity is quick to condemn persons with non-Christian beliefs. Rather than simply acknowledging that there are persons with other beliefs, Christianity chooses to disparage them. So much for tolerance.

The issue is what to do about religion. Banning it is a ridiculous idea, and communist societies have aptly illustrated that attempts to abolish religion through state power will not succeed. Not only would what Elton is calling for never work, but it would turn us into precisely the sort of authoritarian bullies that make up the very Christian extremists we oppose. As much as I oppose religion, I have no desire to see it banned.

The alternative to banning religion is to gradually help people realize that it is an unnecessary and dangerous presence in their lives. Through science and reason, we must help people progress beyond their primitive religious dogmas. I don't blame Elton for being impatient with this process. I can relate to his desire to see this happen faster, but attempting draconian solutions would certainly backfire.

Elton says that religion does not work. I disagree. Religion works extremely well - just not at making people compassionate. He seems to think that this is the only goal for religion to serve, and he's wrong about this. Religion is extremely effective in brainwashing the masses so they will endure deplorable conditions. It is a highly effective means of social control. It interfaces well with patriotism, allowing corrupt governments to manipulate citizens. Psychologically, it provides comfort, appeases guilt, and offers a sense of community. In fact, we are still stuck with religion precisely because it works so well!

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November 22, 2006

Giving Thanks: An Atheist's Way

English: Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine,...
Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine, USA 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have never considered Thanksgiving to be a religious holiday, although I have known many people who treat it as if it is. Their rationale, if questioned, is often that it is meaningless to be thankful without having a supernatural entity to which one gives thanks. I disagree. I've always had people in my life to whom I give thanks, and I've never had any problem expressing joy at positive circumstances. None of this has ever required me to posit a supernatural entity.

On past Thanksgivings spent with family, it was common for someone to ask everyone at the table to join hands, bow their heads and go around stating something they were particularly thankful for that year. Most of the time, no religious references were made. Nobody invoked various gods, and nobody said "amen." It never struck me that something supernatural was missing or that the exercise would be any more meaningful if I was thanking someone other than living persons or general good fortune.

Of course, I've also experienced a religious version of this ritual on the few occasions I've spent Thanksgiving with friends' families rather than my own. This version generally includes an explicit prayer, references gods, and concludes with an "amen." I just omitted these parts.

This year, I'm thankful for having a job that I look forward to on most days, for my increasing comfort with expressing what I believe in (and what I don't believe in), and for the optimism brought about by the growth of freethought and the many recent blows suffered by Christian extremists. Compared to the past few years, the future seems a bit brighter. I'm encouraged by what appears to be a shift in American politics and by a rising secular community. You know what else? I'm thankful for you. Seriously. I can't tell you how much I've learned from your comments and how the interaction - whether it is through comments or posts on your own blogs - has inspired me. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

November 20, 2006

What's a Little Atheist-Bashing Among Friends?

Working out the angles
Working out the angles (Photo credit: psiaki)
If you are like me, most of the people you spend time with are Christian. Like most employed people, I spend the vast majority of my waking hours at work. All of my co-workers are either Christian or Jewish, and religion does periodically come up, even though it is by no means a frequent topic. The most common way it comes up is in the form of references to church (e.g., "I know him from church," "The other day at church...," etc.). However, it also comes up at times in the context of poking fun at Muslims or atheists.

I am not what you'd call openly atheist at work. My co-workers know that I do not attend church, but this is about the extent of it. I suspect they simply assume that I am a lapsed Christian; however, nobody has ever posed the question directly. I would be honest to direct questions, but I have not seen it as being in my best interest to volunteer this information at work.

November 18, 2006

Responding to Haggard: Falwell and Robertson are Nuts

As fun as the whole Ted Haggard scandal was, especially following so closely on the heels of the Mark Foley incident and reports that top Republicans have been laughing at the Religious Right for some time, I was particularly fascinated by the response of Falwell and Robertson to the story.

Ted Haggard was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization which represents more people than Robertson and Falwell combined. And yet, both Falwell and Robertson decided to respond to the Haggard scandal by describing Haggard's role and influence as being relatively minor. It is certainly true that Haggard lacks their celebrity, but he was the leader of a large and rather influential Christian group. By trying to minimize his role instead of addressing the pathology in their ranks, Robertson and Falwell sent a message to their flock that Haggard was merely an isolated case and not a symptom of an underlying disease.

Perhaps this is a perfect opportunity for the Christian Right to focus on themselves instead of their usual enemies. Robertson and Falwell have made careers out of hate-mongering and their holier than thou attitude. Perhaps the conviction that Christians are automatically better than everyone else because of their Christian values is part of the problem here. The higher you make that pedestal, the harder the fall.

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November 17, 2006

Churches and Political Intervention

Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently asked the IRS to investigate four specific churches for inappropriate political activity. As you know, churches enjoy tax exempt status as long as they refrain from partisan politics. In other words, they are not supposed to tell their members how to vote.
“Unfortunately, some churches allow candidate endorsements from the pulpit, distribute biased voter guides and host partisan rallies,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Such blatant electioneering by tax-exempt churches flouts federal law and threatens the integrity of religion.”
As I have previously noted, I disagree that churches should be granted tax exempt status in the first place. It seems to me that such an exemption constitutes governmental support of religion. I would like to see the government support effective, reality-based programs instead. However, the issue here is one of enforcement of existing laws. I wonder how many churches break this law without consequences? Perhaps it is time to revisit the decision not to tax churches.

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November 14, 2006

Mobilizing for the War on Christmas

"Give War Bonds for Christmas" - NARA - 514402You may recall that I had some rare praise for Wal-Mart last year. They decided to replace "merry Christmas" with "happy holidays" and other more appropriate greetings. Sadly, it was not to last. Wal-Mart has announced that they are going to change their advertising policy this year to fully embrace Christmas. Evidently, last year's religious protests and boycotts were effective.

Christmas trees, nativity scenes, and other holiday decor are starting to emerge around town. Stores are rolling out their Christmas decorations and hoping to entice shoppers to start early. I suppose it is time for we evil atheists to rally our troops to fight yet another battle in our war on Christmas.

I'm joking, of course. There is no war on Christmas, never has been, and probably never will be. We atheists are used to celebrating this and many other holidays. Just because Christmas has no religious significance for us doesn't mean we would rather work that day. Sure, it is generally a time for me to renew my feelings of disgust toward religious belief, but it can also be a time to enjoy family, get a break from work, and reflect on the happy memories of holidays past, or whatever else one might want to do.

November 12, 2006

Eulogy for BOTD

I was sad to learn that one of my favorite atheist blogs, Beware of the Dogma (BOTD) is calling it quits after a distinguished blogging career. This is an important loss to the atheist blogosphere because BOTD could always be counted on for thought-provoking posts. But more than that, BOTD has influenced me in countless ways, providing me with many examples from which to learn. In fact, the last full redesign of Atheist Revolution was inspired by BOTD, and I modeled some parts of the current template on BOTD's layout.

Although BOTD's departure is clearly a loss for us, the decision to hang it up is understandable. Blogging is hard work, but quality blogging is more than that. It takes considerable time, regular inspiration, and sacrifice. I can't count the number of times I've seriously considered quitting the blogging routine, so I understand what BOTD said about working 12+ hours a day and not feeling like blogging in the tiny bit of free time one has. The good news is that the person behind BOTD is not going anywhere, remains a freethinker, and will probably continue to visit some of our blogs.

BOTD, thank you for your presence, your influence, the words of wisdom you have offered, and the many instructive examples you have provided. Your blog was a class act, one of my main sources of inspiration. BOTD will be missed.

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November 10, 2006

Midterm Elections: One Atheist's Perspective

I will admit that the cynic in me wonders whether the shift in Congressional power will make a real difference. Perhaps politicians of both parties are equally guilty of corruption, pandering to corporate interests, and pushing Christianity as a form of social control. Call me naive if you must, but I am silencing this inner cynic for now and hoping for the best - a meaningful change.

We've all been saturated with political analysis since the election results started to emerge, but one important implication of these elections has barely been addressed in the mainstream media: the Midterm elections represent a tremendous blow to Christian extremists in America.

I know that we won't see the end of Christian extremism anytime soon, but I think it is worth noting that these election results may indicate a major decline in their influence over national politics. According to the Secular Coalition for America, some encouraging signs include the lack of atheist-bashing in political speeches and no clear efforts to dismantle church-state separation. I also expect to see increased support for stem cell research and women's reproductive rights, opposition to proselytizing military personnel, and support for the right to marry whoever one wants. In a recent interview, Pelosi indicated that she thought policy should be based on reality. How refreshing!

People for the American Way had a similar take, suggesting that the election can be interpreted as a victory for progressive values and a defeat of the Religious Right. If nothing else, it appears that the right's holier than thou attitude ended up working against them. This was echoed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Personally, I believe that the single most pivotal result was the defeat of Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. CNN described Santorum as the 3rd most powerful Republican in the Senate, and I know he is also a prominent political figure of the Religious Right. Thus, his defeat was a big deal and should be celebrated by freethinkers everywhere.

Naturally, it wasn't all good news. Several states passed legislation to restrict one's right to marry who one wants. In addition, the Secular Coalition is correct to point out that few politicians of either party are going to be eager to speak on our behalf. As they note in their analysis, many Democrats had to promise that they would fight to keep supernatural entities and belief in them protected in the public arena. However, we may be able to make progress here if our numbers continue to grow and we strive to make our voices heard.

November 8, 2006

Senate Hangs in the Balance

It is now up to the voters of Virginia and Montana whether the Senate will go to the Democrats or stay Republican. Democrats need to pick up both seats to gain a majority. Now that they have already won the House, a Senate victory would be huge. Without the Senate, I remain skeptical about what the Democratic House can accomplish.

Looking at the Virginia Senate race, I have to wonder what it says about the voters that George "Macaca" Allen appears to have received roughly half of the vote. Evidently, racism is not enough to lose an election. Then again, those of you who remember Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond won't be surprised by this.

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November 7, 2006

Clinton Blames Christian Extremists for Dividing the Nation

I ran across this article out of Des Moines a few weeks ago and have meant to post it ever since. With the midterm elections, it seems particularly relevant. In a recent speech before Iowa's Democratic Party, Bill Clinton placed blame for a divided America where it belongs - on the Christian extremist wing of the Republican Party.

Clinton is right in noting that the core Republican political strategy has been to manufacture a culture war by focusing on divisive but rather trivial issues such as gay marriage. He's also right about the holier than thou attitude coming from the Christian right.

America has been divided before and has managed to survive. I expect we will again find a way to move beyond our differences and unite. However, this is going to require a fairly major shift in the Republican Party. Still, I remain optimistic that Clinton may be wrong about Democrats having to do it alone. There are rational elements within the Republican Party who are growing increasingly tired of the Christian extremists.

What Clinton is wrong about, however, is that Hillary Clinton is who should represent the Democratic Party in 2008. Hillary is way too divisive to ever be elected. I don't mean divisive in the sense that Republicans will rally around opposing her; I mean divisive within the Democratic party. We need a uniter, and Hillary is not it.

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November 6, 2006

Vote For Me, I'm Christian

With midterm elections around the corner, I have been getting flooded with campaign material for local candidates for school board, various judgeships, and other local offices. One thing these materials have in common is that they all flaunt the Christian credentials of the person running for office.

From reading these materials, I learned that one for school board candidate has an MBA from a local Baptist college, is "conservative on discipline issues," and is a member of the largest Baptist church in town. A candidate for circuit court judge attended this same Baptist college and is a member of another Baptist church in the community.

This is a transparent strategy to convince voters that they should vote for someone because he or she is one of them, a believer. I'm much more interested to learn where candidates stand on relevant issues and the scope of their professional experience. Since the school board candidates do not provide any information about their stance on evolution or prayer in school, it is hard to know who deserves my vote. I have to conclude that their need to flaunt their religious beliefs is a bad sign. Thus, I plan to reward the few candidates who do not do this with my support.

These midterm elections are important for America. I am convinced that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils and would very much like to see them retake Congress. I've never been a single-issue voter, but it generally seems that Democrats are more interested in preserving church-state separation. This is important to me, even if it is not the only issue on which I compare candidates.

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November 3, 2006

Puzzling Christian Litter

You may remember how I feel about Christian litter from a previous post on the subject. The idea of Christians covering public places with propaganda fliers sickens me both because their message is usually so absurd and because their fliers always end up littering the ground around wherever they distribute them. Can't they spread there nonsense without polluting the environment?

Last week was a tough week at work for a variety of reasons not relevant to this post. Let's just say that I wasn't in the best of moods as I walked to the parking lot one day last week much later than I had planned to leave. I climbed into my car, put on the seat belt, and started out of the parking lot. As I left the lot, I noticed something on my windshield that had somehow escaped my attention earlier. There was a line of florescent green paper under one of my windshield wipers. It was not convenient to pull over, and the paper didn't look like it was going anywhere, so I kept going.

For some reason, I decided that the paper must be a flier for a new restaurant. Many new ones have been opening lately, and I just figured that was what it must be. I made it home with the flier still securely under my wiper. It was an 8.5 x 11 sheet of florescent green paper with the following printed on one side in a very large font:

"Stop, look, and listen
God is trying to get your attention!"

There I stood in my garage looking at these words and trying to comprehend why anyone would have put them on my car. You see, this was all that was on the paper. The back was blank, and the front contained nothing else. No church names, no phone numbers to call for information, nothing! What was the meaning of this? Was this silly phrase supposed to convert me? Since there was no contact information, how would whoever left this on my car know if their words let me to discover Jee-zuhs?

I want to meet the person who left this on my car. No, not to hurt them. I want to probe their mind, learn their goals, and attempt to understand how this flier was supposed to accomplish these goals. Did someone really believe that this would bring me closer to their god, whichever god that might be?

Tags: atheist, atheism, Christian, pollution, religion, god