August 31, 2007

How Should a Journalist Cover Christian Extremists?

It was not long ago that American journalists were expected to approach stories with some measure of objectivity. Editors wielded great power behind the scenes, and their bias could creep in as they decided what was newsworthy, however, news columns were clearly separated from opinion columns, and anchors were clearly distinguished from pundits. Anchors and print columnist were generally expected to use a tone of objectivity without their personal opinions shaping the content they were responsible for reporting.

Times have changed to the point where we now tolerate neo-conservative propaganda masquerading as news while Anderson Cooper is praised for his emotional expressions while reporting on Hurricane Katrina. This is not an encouraging trend, and I am increasingly disturbed by a progressive erosion in the factual content of the information American citizens receive. When information is replaced with propaganda, our very democracy is threatened.

With these concerns in mind, it should be no surprise that a recent Newsweek article by Lisa Miller, "Campus Crusaders," caught my eye. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a specific portion of the article grabbed my attention. Tasked with writing about Patrick Henry college, a bastion of Christian fundamentalism and training grounds for future theocrats, Miller acknowledged the difficulty of her journalistic task.
The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often characterizes books and articles about religious groups. This tendency among reporters to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities (whether Mormons or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians) only exacerbates misunderstandings between Red and Blue Staters and fans the flames of the culture war. At the same time, she must retain her skepticism, wrestling with the fact that what liberal intellectuals fear most about evangelical Christians is in this case partially true: the students at Patrick Henry College do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.
I praise Miller's honesty, and I do not envy her task. And yet, I'm not sure I fully agree with her on the nature of her challenge. Why is "compassion" a better way to approach such a story than cool-headed analysis? Miller's task should not involve passing judgment, for that is the task of the readers and those of us who stick to commentary. I agree that she should refrain from stereotypes (unless such stereotypes are supported here by the facts). But does a group of people who readily profess their desire for world domination warrant compassion?

If reporters really tend to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities" (and I am highly skeptical of this claim), then Miller is right to avoid applying negative labels to these believers. However, she must not shy away from reporting what these people believe and encouraging the reader to decide. If the reader decides, as I certainly will, that there is something freakish or odd about these believers, so be it. This is not something about which Miller need worry.

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August 30, 2007

Agreeing to Disagree

Most of my close friends are Christians, and I've certainly had my share of good friends who were...(gasp)...Republicans. I suppose that we've generally accomplished this through implicit agreements that certain topics are off limits. Other times, we'll discuss something briefly, disagree and realize the futility of persuading the other party, and then agree to disagree, setting the topic aside.

A Load of Bright just did an interesting post on the subject of agreeing to disagree, and I think it warrants comment. The just of the post is that it isn't always easy to agree to disagree - sometimes one wants to continue the argument, risking being called "a bad sport" or worse. Often, one must make a judgment call as to whether the disagreement is genuinely unresolvable or whether the other party is merely hiding being the agreeing to disagree suggestion so as not to give serious reconsideration of his or her position.

What is not directly addressed in the post and what I believe to be critical here is the factual nature of the disagreement. Far too often, Christians jump to the agree to disagree position when the facts are against them. This is the time when agreeing to disagree is untenable.

The claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old is factually false. Overwhelming evidence contradicts this claim. If the Christian makes this claim and I challenge him, we cannot very well agree to disagree. This is a matter of fact and not a matter of beliefs or values. Remember, belief does not equal truth. The Christian can insist, "But I really believe it" until he's blue in the face. This has absolutely nothing to do with the veracity of the claim (although it would suggest that the Christian is delusional). Agreeing to disagree here might reduce conflict but would do the Christian a disservice by reinforcing his delusion.

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August 28, 2007

So Many Christians Ignorant About Their Bible

While catching up on some atheist-related reading last Sunday morning, I was struck by how ignorant many Christians are of their own "inerrant" bibles. I realize this is not a new thought, but I can't resist sharing a couple examples with you.

We can start with this great little post by the Educated Eclectic from Pam's House Blend. It is widely known that fundamentalist Christians rely on Leviticus to justify their preexisting hatred of GLBT individuals. Their argument is quite simple:
  • The bible is the inerrant word of some god.
  • The bible condemns homosexuality (in Leviticus).
  • Therefore, homosexuality is wrong.
The first claim is accepted uncritically for it is a core tenet of Christian fundamentalism. That the bible condemns homosexuality is clearly evident in Leviticus. So the conclusion is inevitable, at least to the fundamentalist Christian.

The Educated Eclectic invites us to apply exactly the same argument to another part of Leviticus.
Leviticus 19:19 says:

.. neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.
There is nothing in the Christian bible to suggest that this portion of Leviticus is any less serious than the part about homosexuality. And yet, the inescapable conclusion is that wearing clothing made of linen-wool blends is wrong in the same way homosexuality is wrong. I see two possible explanations for the fact that fundamentalist Christians ignore this passage. First, they are unaware of what the rest of Leviticus says, suggesting that they are not the Christians they claim to be. Second, their objections to homosexuality have absolutely nothing to do with their bibles and are simply based in prejudice.

Now we turn to a commentary by Jeff Mullin in Oklahoma's The Enid News & Eagle. What got my attention about this fairly pointless article was the following statement:
He [god] can’t be happy with the violence that is being, and has been throughout his history, perpetrated in His name, no matter what name that is.
In reading these words, one must wonder whether Mullin has ever read the Christian bible. The god depicted in this book is a jealous, vengeful, and bloodthirsty monster. Based on the deeds of this god, isn't it far more likely that he/she/it would delight in the atrocities committed by humans suffering from religious delusion?

Digg my article

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August 27, 2007

American Youth Walk Away From Church

I do hope that humanity will eventually perceive religion for what it is (i.e., irrational belief that causes great harm), but I am not naive enough to think I'll live to see this happen. Instead, I expect the influence of religion to gradually decline. This decline will be far from linear, as periodic religious revivals are to be anticipated. Still, I cannot help celebrating each indicator of such a decline.

A recent survey by LifeWay Research, a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, shows that Protestant churches in America are losing increasing numbers of young adult congregants. According to USA Today,
Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.
What makes this particular survey especially important is that the sample consisted young adults who attended church regularly during high school. That is, this was a sample of people more likely to be devoted believers than one would expect from a general population sample. For a group like this to be leaving the church in increasing numbers is certainly encouraging.

Not surprisingly, the survey has the Baptists scrambling to hold on to their congregations. They appear to interpret the findings as indicating that they need to change what they are doing to be more attractive to the youth they are losing.
"It seems the teen years are like a free trial on a product. By 18, when it's their choice whether to buy in to church life, many don't feel engaged and welcome," says associate director Scott McConnell.
Yet, the results of the survey suggest that their problems go far deeper than can be fixed by superficial changes to how they deliver their services.
Just over half (51%) of Protestant young people surveyed (both the church dropouts and those who stayed on in church after age 22) saw church members as "caring" or had other positive descriptions, such as "welcoming" (48%) or "authentic" (42%).
It appears that a big part of the problem is that these youth are not particularly impressed with the Christians with whom they have been attending church. This does not lend itself to the sort of easy fix the church likely has in mind. Many have experienced the hypocrisy of the Christian faithful for themselves and decided they want no part of it.

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August 26, 2007

HSM's Zac Efron is Agnostic

Zac Efron, the star of High School Musical 2, said that he was raised agnostic in an interview with Rolling Stone, and The Jewish Daily Forward reports that Efron remains agnostic. Perhaps this news will prompt some fans to think about the role of religious belief in their lives and realize that it is not necessary.

H/T to The Friendly Atheist

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World Animal Day

World Animal Day is October 4, and with the recent media interest in dogfighting, this may be a particularly good year to spread the word. Some Christian groups are already involved, and I'd like to see more atheists active in promoting awareness. As Abraham Lincoln said, "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it."

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August 25, 2007

Any Australian Readers?

I'm not sure if I have any Australian readers here, but if you are an atheist living in Australia, the Secular Party of Australia needs your help. They want their party to be listed on the ballot for the upcoming election, and they need additional members to make this happen. Membership is free, and you would be helping to bring attention to secularism in Australia.

H/T to The Friendly Atheist

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Founder of San Francisco Atheists Honored

According to an Inside Bay Area article by Julia Scott, the founder of San Francisco Atheists, Jim Heldberg, will be honored tonight with a public dinner in San Francisco. Heldberg is the rare sort of atheist activist who fully embraces atheism and is not afraid to speak out against the importance of keeping religion out of government and politics.

Like most American atheists, Heldberg was indoctrinated into Christian superstition. Fortunately, it didn't stick.
"I couldn't square religion with my goal of being a scientist," says Heldberg, now 66. "How does prayer work? Nobody can explain it. How can there be invisible people in the sky? I wanted it to fit, and it frustrated me that it didn't fit."
Although he initially felt alienated, Heldberg was fortunate enough to find fellow freethinkers in the Bay Area. He certainly was not going to find support in the Christian community.
Declaring himself as an atheist in public has caused Heldberg to receive harassing phone calls and e-mails from Christians who tell him he's going to hell.
Not only did he found San Francisco Atheists, but Heldberg also became the national affiliation director of American Atheists.

Heldberg will be honored for his service tonight at a public dinner beginning at 6 p.m. at Schroeder's German Restaurant, 240 Front St.

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August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa An Atheist?

Was Mother Teresa an atheist? Andrew Brown at Comment is Free asks this intriguing question in light of recently released writings which show that Mother Teresa had serious questions about her faith. Brown writes, "...even as she was receiving the Nobel prize, she asked her confessor to pray for her because she could feel nothing when she prayed herself and no longer had any experience of God."

The implications are certainly interesting to ponder, although I would be shocked if this new information changed any minds. Christians desperately need her to remain a symbol of Christianity, and so she will remain one.

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Intercessory Prayer and the Nature of Belief

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...
Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century popular image of penitence painted by Ary Scheffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Intercessory prayer, not to be confused with imprecatory prayer, refers to Christians praying on behalf of others. For example, such prayers might be offered for the benefit of an ill member of one's congregation. They seem innocent enough, perhaps even admirable in some cases, and yet they raise important questions about what Christians believe and the degree to which they truly hold the beliefs which they commonly espouse.

If we imagine a 6 year-old boy praying that his older sister will survive her surgery, we are hard pressed to see a problem. Science tells us that intercessory prayer does not work, so the worst we could say about the boy is that his prayers are futile. But it isn't like his prayers are distracting him from helping in some other way (he's only 6). In all likelihood, he finds his prayers a source of comfort because they provide him with feelings of control over something uncontrollable. Illusory to be sure, but not entirely without temporary benefit.

When the person praying is an adult, it is only natural for us to ask what else the adult is doing to help the situation. "You are praying, but what are you doing that might actually help?" Similarly, we might wonder whether the adult has learned developmentally appropriate coping skills.

Where things become particularly interesting is the scenario where adults ask other adults to join them in prayer (e.g., pray for the miners) or to pray en masse for a common goal. In my humble opinion, this speaks volumes about the nature of belief.

Does the believer think that more individuals praying will result in a better outcome than just an individual believer praying? Why? Is it to make sure their god hears them? I thought their omniscient god already knew what was going on without any prayers whatsoever. Of course, that would mean that intercessory prayer is always worthless because one isn't telling one's god anything he/she/it doesn't already know. Is it because their god must be persuaded to help? If their god is benevolent, added persuasion should not be necessary.

Perhaps believers know that their intercessory prayers offer no benefit to anyone other than themselves. When something good happens to a loved one, believers are going to thank their god. This will be the case even if they never offered any intercessory prayers at all. When something bad happens to a loved one, believers virtually never blame their god. This will be the case even if they offered a multitude of intercessory prayers.

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CNN's God's Warriors

CNN is airing a 3-part special on religious extremism that is well worth checking out. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity each have their own 2-hour show. It is so nice to finally have some mainstream media attention to the problem of religion.

I have not had the chance to watch any of them yet, but I've been recording them for when I might have time. I did watch Larry King's interview with Christiane Amanpour and others. I thought Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State presented himself very well.

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August 23, 2007

Get Your Camouflaged Bibles

Christian Outdoorsman is now selling camouflaged bibles. Yep, you read that right. I think this is a great idea! Now hunters who are so hopelessly Christian that they can't stand to be without their bibles for a few hours can take it with them.

H/Ts to No More Mister Nice Blog and The Carpetbagger Report

August 22, 2007

Belief Does Not Equal Truth!

Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience ...
Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience 2010. Photo by Ed Schipul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While catching up on what is happening around the atheist blogosphere, I ran across a post at Religion *is* a Problem (update: this blog is no longer available) that absolutely requires a rant. In fact, I think I may have just identified my #1 pet peeve (at least for today) about some religious believers. Of course, I recognize that many religious believers will find this every bit as upsetting as I do, but I still want to make sure they are taking the correct lesson away from it.

The story concerns scientist and entertainer Bill Nye being booed by Christians for highlighting an incompatibility between reality and their bible. Yes, as farfetched as it seems, it appears that there may be some Christians who have managed to remain so ignorant of reality that they are unaware that modern science conflicts with some of what is in their bibles.

Here is how the incident was described by Tim Woods in the Waco Tribune-Herald:
The Emmy-winning scientist angered a few audience members when he criticized literal interpretation of the biblical verse Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

He pointed out that the sun, the “greater light,” is but one of countless stars and that the “lesser light” is the moon, which really is not a light at all, rather a reflector of light.

A number of audience members left the room at that point, visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence.

“We believe in a God!” exclaimed one woman as she left the room with three young children.
What? So science should not be discussed when it conflicts with your irrational beliefs? Really? Which bothers you more - that you were the last to learn that your bible is filled with claims which have been dispelled by science or that some uppity scientist had the nerve to say so?

Science has advanced considerably since your bible was written. If you've had even minimal education, I'd expect that you'd realize that none of the modern conveniences which you enjoy were around in biblical times. None of these things were possible with the level of ignorance that ruled that time. Does this mean you should give up your car, your refrigerator, and modern medical care for your children because these things are based on the same science that dispels much of your old book?

Would it disappoint you if one of your children grew up and discovered the cure for cancer? No? You realize that this would be accomplished by medical science and that medical science is built on the same foundational sciences which contradict much of your bible?

When you protest "We believe in a god" and then leave the room with your children, what are you hoping to accomplish? Do you want to make sure your children are deprived of a modern education so they'll grow up in ignorance like you? This sounds an awful lot like child abuse (or at least willful neglect) to me. Don't you want your children to be better off than you are? Don't you want them to know more about how the world works than you do or than the authors of your bible did?

As Religion *is* a Problem noted, this would be somewhat funny if it wasn't so terribly sad.
That people can still deny this easily understood and intuitive scientific fact by relying on their holy text should give us pause considering some of the other, less benign, things that are written in it. For instance, things about the roles of women, the value of certain races, and the end of the world.
Agreed, but I think the real kick in the nuts is the idea that the woman who said "We believe in a god" before leaving with her kids probably thinks that her theistic belief is equally valid as the scientific findings which apparently upset her. This is my main pet peeve - the confusion of personal belief with truth and the unfortunately common tendency to elevate personal beliefs to the level of reality.

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August 21, 2007

More Secular Americans?

Estimates of the number of nonbelievers in America vary wildly, but recent data suggest that there may be far more of us than we've realized. If accurate, these numbers suggest that politicians who continue to ignore us are making a mistake which could become increasingly costly.

Here is some video on the subject.

H/T to Debunking Christianity

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August 20, 2007

Turning The Other Cheek?

Christians are advised in their bibles and by their "savior" to "turn the other cheek" and "love" their enemies (Matthew 5:38:45). In fact, they are expected to believe that their own savior sought forgiveness for the very people who killed him (Luke 23:34). What then are we to make of the refusal of an overwhelming majority of American Christians to follow such admonitions when it comes to someone like Osama bin Laden?

Bin Laden is once again a hot topic, especially in the presidential debates, as questions mount about why we still haven't caught him and whether Iraq was an unwelcome distraction from doing so. It is probably accurate to say that he is the man Americans most hate and that he has been so since 9/11.

It it not my intention to defend bin Laden. He is a despicable example of the consequences of religious extremism, and his very existence should be a troubling reminder of what happens when religious zealots acquire the means to harm others. He is a dangerously deluded individual, bent on destruction, and I do not believe his actions are defensible.

Instead, my intention is to ask Christians how they reconcile the much-praised advocacy of forgiveness to someone like bin Laden. I'm not looking for any of the nonsensical Christianspeak about loving the sinner and hating the sin. Such gibberish has no place in rational discourse and contributes nothing of value to advance understanding.

I'm also well aware of the many parts of the Christian bible (including the New Testament) which call for violence and retribution. However, the Christian who offers up such an example opens the door to the accusation of selective biblical interpretation to justify one's passions. Christians are well advised to keep this door closed, for it leads to an abyss for which they are unprepared.

So why are Christians not expected to offer bin Laden their other cheek? Why is it acceptable for self-professed persons of faith to call for his extermination? Are those who shed his blood not also guilty of violating the commandment against murder (Exodus 20:13)?

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August 19, 2007

Texas State/Church Separation Rally Sept. 8 in Austin

Texas may be a hotbed of religious idiocy, but the state also has its share of freethinkers who value church-state separation. There will be a rally at the Texas State Capitol Building on Saturday, September 8, featuring speakers from American Atheists, The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, The Freethinkers at the University of Texas as Arlington, and The Freethinkers Association of Central Texas.

According to Joe Zamecki, Texas State Director of American Atheists, the goals of the rally include:
  1. To speak out for the civil rights of non-religious Americans.
  2. To vocally promote the separation of government from religion.
  3. To show support for the Croft family in Carrollton who have sued over the moment of silence in their public school. (No matter how the case ends, or whether it's over by then or not.)
  4. To protest the flurry of religious bills and now religious laws coming from our current Texas State Legislature.
The rally will take place on Saturday, September 8, 2007 from Noon to 3pm. For more information, visit the Texas chapter of American Atheists or check out a video interview with Zamecki.

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August 18, 2007

More Tragic When a Christian Dies?

From the title and focus of this article, I'd have to say that the author believes that death is somehow more tragic when it happens to a Christian and even more so when it happens to a fundamentalist Christian. I'm at a loss for words. I'll be filing this one under WTF.

Learn More About Atheism Sunday Morning on CBS

CBS Sunday Morning tomorrow will feature Ellen Johnson, Christopher Hitchens, and Julia Sweeney. The show airs Sunday at 9am ET. For more information, see here. Lets hope CBS handles the topic a little better than CNN did.

H/T to The Friendly Atheist

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August 17, 2007

Operation Foxhole Atheists

The North Alabama Freethought Association and Blair Scott, the Alabama State Director for American Atheists, want you to know about Operation Foxhole Atheists.
Atheist soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines need our support in Iraq! Regardless of your views of the war, we all recognize that politicians put us in Iraq, not the soldiers. As long as politicians are keeping our men and women in uniform there, they need our moral support.

For more information please go to:

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Atheism: The Important Questions

I long for a post-religious world where congregations of believers cling to private superstitions while science, education, and government are free from the toxic influence of religion. The atheist movement has done a remarkable job of demonstrating that theistic belief is both irrational and detrimental. Efforts to promote atheism are growing, and fundamentalist Christians are worried. Now, some atheists are beginning to explore potential next steps. In this post, I try to identify some of the important questions for us to consider as we work to progress beyond religion.

I do not intend what follows to be an exhaustive list. I am trying to highlight what I think are the most critical of many possible questions we must address.
  1. What are the benefits individual believers derive (or think they derive) from theistic belief? We need to catalog the actual or imagined benefits to believers from belief itself, stripping away potential benefits derived more from the institution of religion. Secular versions of religious institutions can be created if necessary, but focusing on the potential benefits of faith itself must inform the priorities of our movement.
  2. What are the secular alternatives through which people can obtain the same benefits identified above? It is naive to think that we can overcome religion without understanding it. If there are actual benefits to the believer from religious belief, can we offer secular alternatives for obtaining the same benefits? I suspect the most important example of this will concern the topic of morality.
  3. What advantages are offered by atheism, secular humanism, freethought, etc.? Religion is the status quo, and it is natural to resist change. Identifying the costs of religion is not enough; we must also be familiar with the advantages of a secular worldview. Atheism needs a public relations campaign, and how we answer this question should help to shape it.
  4. How do we advance the level of organization which currently characterizes the larger secular community? I've tired of the whole "herding cats" metaphor. Many atheists, secular humanists, and freethinkers are active in other causes (e.g., politics, separation of church and state, etc.). We are limiting ourselves by resisting greater organization. It is time to build some political muscle to oppose the forces of theocracy.
  5. What are the most effective ways to educate the public about atheism? We are crafting an important message, and it makes sense that we should give some thought about how best to deliver it. How should stereotypes be challenged? How might we alter public perceptions?
  6. Can we learn to accept diversity within the secular community? If we're honest, I think we can agree that we've all made some mistakes here. Unless atheism is to become some bizarre cult, we need to learn how to get along and celebrate our differences. It makes me wince when I hear other atheists questioning whether so-and-so is a "real atheist." Disagreements are inevitable, but how do we make sure that they are a source of strength rather than a cause of fragmentation?
I'm sure you'll have other ideas about the most important questions we need to ask ourselves and our freethought colleagues. Share them here or on your blogs.

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August 16, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Pastor Prays For Harm to Befall AU Staff

Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently asked the IRS to investigate unlawful politicking by the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, CA. Now the pastor of this church has responded, only it isn't what you'd expect. Rather than denying the allegations, this pastor decided to respond by calling on his congregation to pray for assorted bad things to happen to AU staff.

AU's complaint indicated that the church's pastor had used church resources to endorse Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. That is, AU alleged that the church had violated the federal law prohibiting non-profit religious groups with tax-exempt status from endorsing candidates by promoting Huckabee as "god's candidate."
“Federal tax law is clear,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Churches and other non-profits may not endorse candidates, if they want to keep their tax exemption. I am confident that the vast majority of Americans do not want to see their houses of worship politicized.”
According to AU, Dr. Wiley S. Drake, the pastor of this church, explicitly endorsed Huckabee in an August 11 press release. Now AU has issued another press release alleging that Drake has encouraged his congregation to "pray for the demise" of AU staff members.
Instead of responding to Americans United’s concern of illegal activity, Drake issued yesterday afternoon a plea to his supporters to join in “imprecatory prayers” (curses) every morning for Americans United and its staff.
Fortunately, AU also provides us with a taste of Drake’s own words:
“In light of the recent attack from the ememies (sic) of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer,” Drake said, in an Aug. 14 press statement issued from the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. “Especially against Americans United for Seperation (sic) of Church and State.”
According to AU, Drake identified two specific staff members in their press release as the targets of their "imprecatory prayers."
In a section of his press release called “How To Pray,” Drake includes a long list of biblical citations that call on God to smite enemies. For example, the alleged enemies of God “shall be judged,” “condemned,” and “his days be few….” Additionally, supporters should pray that the enemy’s “children be fatherless, and his wife a widow,” and “his children be continually vagabonds, and beg; let them seek bread also out of their desolate places.”

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Atheist Symbols: The Message Matters More

Many symbols have been proposed to represent atheism and all have generated controversy within the secular community. The most recent example is the scarlet A championed by Richard Dawkins and adopted by many prominent atheist bloggers. It is natural to want such a symbol, but I'm not sure it is worth the attention many of us have been devoting to it. Instead, we must remember that the message matters far more than the symbol.

When I was in graduate school, students rotated through a placement at the university's counseling center. Our work with students was supervised by counseling center staff. One of the staff members was openly gay, and I remember that he had a rainbow sign on his office door that said something like "GLBT friendly zone." Even if I've remembered some of the words incorrectly, this was definitely the message.

Not only was this staff counselor gay, but working with GLBT students was his specialty. He carried a large load of such students, ran a number of relevant support groups, and consulted with other staff and trainees around GLBT issues. As this was in a moderately conservative community, the support he provided was important. I heard from many students, both at the center and in large undergraduate classes I would later teach, that his availability was appreciated.

Symbols matter, but clear messages are even more useful. The sign on this guy's door would have been just as valuable without the rainbow. It was the message that had the impact. As we squabble over various symbols which have been proposed to represent atheism, all of which are flawed in my opinion, we risk losing the forest for the trees. Symbol or no symbol, I want to be part of creating an atheist friendly zone.

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August 15, 2007

Mitt Romney "Not Running as Mormon?"

What do you make of Mitt Romney's recent statement during an interview on conservative radio that he is "not running as a Mormon?" Unless I'm missing something fairly obvious here, Romney is running as a Mormon. He has chosen this faith freely and could reject it for a reality-based belief system if he wanted to do so. It seems absurd that he would not realize that his religion, which many Americans associate with polygamy, would not be a topic of interest.

I noted how Romney said he was proud of his faith one minute and then indicated he did not want to talk about it the next. As Pam at Pam's House Blend explained, "Mitt's trying to navigate attracting the bible beaters by citing his faith without drawing too much attention to Mormonism specifically..." It does appear that he's trying to have it both ways, and it is hard to imagine that this will prove successful.

It seems to me that when a candidate uses his or her religious beliefs to claim morality, as a rationale for opposing reproductive rights, etc., the nature of the religious beliefs become fodder for discussion. To the degree that the beliefs are unfamiliar to a majority of potential voters, they will attract additional attention.

I understand that Romney wants to be thought of as more than just a Mormon and that he would tire of interviewers inevitably focusing on his faith. Still, it seems like this is a small price to pay for the first prominent Mormon presidential candidate. Just think how hard this will be for the first openly atheist candidate!

Whether Romney likes it or not, he is in fact running as a Mormon. He is asking to lead America, and he has indicated that his religious beliefs are an important part of his identity. If he cannot handle the questions, maybe he should discard his superstitions, his quest for the presidency, or both.

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August 13, 2007

The Great American God-Out

Smoking may be unhealthy, but it pales in comparison to the ill effects of theistic belief. Drawing on the Great American Smokeout for inspiration, Dr. Lydia Hartunian and her students are organizing a new holiday - The Great American God-Out - on November 15, 2007. Now she is calling on the secular community to make this "a huge success and an event the public and the media can not ignore."

Hartunian says the God-Out will have two goals:
It is a day to teach others how to live as if there is no god--even if just for one day. It is also a day to lobby for genuine separation of church and states and separation of church and science.
She encourages all freethinkers to spread the word and consider organizing local events. The website also has some good ideas for how to observe the day:
  1. Plan ahead to to make time for friendly conversation with others about God and religion.
  2. Be cashless for just one day and do not exchange actual US currency stamped with "In God We Trust." Ask yourself whether "God" should be included in economic gains and losses and stamped on economic tokens. Discuss your views with friends, family, church members or experts in the field.
  3. Study the websites here and take note of how you respond both emotionally and intellectually to 'godless' thinkers.
  4. Visit and read about a scientific topic you might think is related to religion and keep track of what you learn.
  5. Visit the Scientific American website and read the latest news.
  6. Learn how to identify and correct at least one logical fallacy for the day.

Digg my article

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Critical Thinking at the University: The Failure of BYU

University-level education is supposed to be about more than just getting a job after graduation; it is supposed to be an opportunity to learn how to think effectively. Regardless of the academic discipline, students learn the history of their chosen field, recent developments in the area, and current controversies. And yet, most fields of study also extol the virtues of critical thinking. This is what makes university education such a potent friend to the reality-based community. Sadly, there are exceptions, as some universities have abandoned this noble goal in pursuit of ancient superstition.

I recall my college years with fondness as a time of intense self-reflection, wide ranging interpersonal experience, identity development, and discovery. In every subject, the professors who made an impression were those who challenged my preconceptions and encouraged critical thinking. Even in religion courses (yes, I took two courses in religion), nothing was accepted at face value. Students were pushed to consider how we know what we think we know. We learned that asking the right questions was often more valuable than finding an answer.

I credit these experiences as going a long way toward making me who I am today. I suppose this is why I found this article about Brigham Young University (BYU) by Jon Adams so distressing. I join Adams in feeling sorry for the students at BYU. "They are missing out on the marketplace of ideas other universities enjoy."

Religiously-oriented universities do not have to make this mistake. I attended one, and I know that freethought and skepticism can flourish even in such environments. It must also be acknowledged that BYU is no Liberty University. In discussing the legacy of homophobia at BYU, Adams notes that change is possible and that there is some cause for optimism. Still, I think the real tragedy is that BYU often receives praise from the Mormon community precisely because of how it deprives its students of the full university experience.

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August 12, 2007

Humanist Symposium #6

The Humanist Symposium blog carnival is now up at A Load of Bright. A perfect way to spend a Sunday.

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Know Them By Their Deeds: Pastor Drags Girl Behind Van

Another tale of that Christian love you've heard so much about. This one comes out of San Antonio, TX, where a pastor and an employee of the Love Demonstrated Ministries' boot camp were arrested for aggravated assault. This "man of god," Charles E. Flowers, is accused of dragging a girl behind a van after she fell behind during a run.

Surely, such a terrible accusation must be overblown by the media (unless Flowers is not a real Christian)! Somebody better call Bill O'Reilly. Or maybe not. According to ReligionNewsBlog,
Authorities said both Flowers and Bassitt restrained the girl June 12, tying her to the back of a van with a piece of rope before dragging her on her stomach at the Love Demonstrated Ministries’ boot camp in Banquete, about 10 miles west of Corpus Christi.
The alleged victim in this terrible incident, age 15, says that this is not the first time she was assaulted at the camp. If you are as new to the whole idea of Christian boot camps as I am, it might be helpful to highlight the camp's purpose.
The camp was created to “reinstill the values that have been lost in our society for a couple of generations, values such as discipline, morality, unity and integrity.”
Not surprisingly (this is Bush country), Love Demonstrated Ministries receives money from the government. Yep, our taxes help places like this function. It also appears that the camp just might be exempt from the oversight of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Nice.

For more on this story, see Pam's House Blend.

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August 11, 2007

Pray For The Miners

The Utah mine collapse is all over the news. Several broadcasts show local residents displaying large banners that say something like "pray for the miners." When I see such signs, a question never fails to pop into my mind: Why? Of course, we're all hoping that they'll find the miners unharmed, but why would anyone call for prayer when there is clear evidence that intercessory prayer is ineffective?

Of course, many believers find evidence completely irrelevant. They believe because their parents believed, and they've never really questioned it. They believe because they are rewarded by their communities for doing so. Most of all, they believe based on faith, precluding the use of reason or evidence.

If I had a loved one who had either died or was trapped underground in the Utah mine collapse, I would not want to see any of these signs. I'd rather see my neighbors doing anything that would have a reasonable probability of actually helping. And when it became clear that there was nothing that they could do to help my loved one, I'd appreciate their emotional support.

Some day prayer will go the way of the evil eye (at least in industrialized nations). Until that day, I'll just try to pity those holding the signs for knowing no more appropriate way to express themselves. I'll also continue to hope that this story has a happy ending. What I won't do is participate in the delusion that some spirit is involved here.

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Coming Out As An Atheist

If you are considering being more open about your atheism, you might enjoy a unique new blog, Coming Out Godless, devoted to atheists sharing stories about "coming out." There are many thought-provoking posts, and one of the many things I take from them is the importance of supporting those who are navigating this difficult process.

Check out Coming Out Godless, and share your story if you want.

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PBS To Air Dover ID Trial

Thanks to Brother Richard at Life Without Faith for this announcement:

PBS is planning to air a 2-hour special called Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on November 13, 2007 at 8 pm ET. The special concerns the infamous 2004 trial in Dover, PA, during which Judge John E. Jones III ruled that teaching ID as science was unconstitutional (because ID is not science).

It will be nice for this important case to receive more attention.

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August 10, 2007

The OUT Campaign

Regular readers may be surprised to learn that I do support the idea behind the OUT Campaign given my recent reaction to what I initially perceived as little more than a marketing strategy. Although my negative reaction focused on a statement made by PZ Myers at Pharyngula, I clearly expressed distaste for Dawkins' OUT Campaign. So how can I now say that I generally support the campaign? Dawkins has since clarified what the campaign is all about, and I now believe that it is something I can support.

The negative comments I previously made about the OUT Campaign were based on the contents of the campaign website at that time and comments made by PZ Myers. I perceived the campaign as a way for Dawkins to line his pockets by encouraging atheists to buy t-shirts with his scarlet letter. However, I was careful to state, "In truth, my real objection has little to do with Dawkins trying to make a buck off of this and more to do with a statement by a certain prominent blogger that those who refuse to wear Dawkins' mark have no right to claim that they are helping the atheist movement." PZ Myers clarified the statement in question, and this issue has been resolved.

According to Dawkins, the OUT Campaign is based on his conviction that there are far more atheists in America than anyone realizes because so many are closeted.
It follows that a major part of our consciousness-raising effort should be aimed, not at converting the religious but at encouraging the non-religious to admit it – to themselves, to their families, and to the world. This is the purpose of the OUT campaign.
I am happy to see that Dawkins recognizes the risks involved in "coming out" for some atheists and is not encouraging blind disclosure when it is unsafe.
If a closet atheist wants to come out, that is her decision to make, and nobody else's. What we can do is provide support and encouragement to those who willingly decide to out themselves.
Absolutely! Regardless of whether we are out or not, we can and should provide support to other atheists. This reminds me of a letter I wrote not too long ago. Even if there are many more of us than is realized, we are still a minority. This support is invaluable.

The other point Dawkins makes, which goes even more directly to my previous reaction is that there are a multitude of ways atheists can assist the campaign. Even for those who cannot safely "come out," there is much we can do to help.

So while there are still some aspects of the campaign with which I disagree (don't look for any scarlet letters to appear here), I find that it seems generally constructive and is something which I can support. I'm glad Dawkins took the time to clarify what the campaign was all about. I just wish he had done so from the beginning.

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August 9, 2007

Future of Christianity Depends on Moderate Christians

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...
Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The future of Christianity in the United States depends far more on those Christians who would describe themselves as "moderate," "progressive," or "liberal" than on the fundamentalists who have been championing the merging of religion and government. So far, many moderates have been content to ignore the fundamentalists. However, this must change if they want a form of Christianity they will recognize to endure.

As Austin Cline suggests, an important task for moderate Christians involves shifting their energy from attacks on the secular community to the fundamentalists who give their religion such a bad name.

Christians and religious believers should spend more time dealing with believers they think are giving them a bad name than with generalizations from atheists. Which is ultimately causing more harm: generalizations made by a few atheist bloggers, or the incessant privileging of religion, religious beliefs, and religious believers?
It is understandable that moderate Christians resent being lumped into the same group as the fundamentalists. They are different, and they want these differences to be recognized. The question to ask, however, is what they are doing to draw attention to these differences. The task of opposing Christian extremism should not fall to atheists alone but should be a high priority for all moderate Christians. The longer they remain silent, refusing to vocally oppose Christian fundamentalism, the more complicit they become in maintaining it. As Cline explains,
When other members of a privileged class — the ones who insist that they "aren't like that" — expend more resources and worry over the former [atheists lumping them in with fundamentalists] than the latter [fundamentalists], then they are tacitly abetting and complicit in the harm being caused. Atheist generalizations about Christians or religious theists do not lead to any religious believers being excluded from power, being denied equality, or being forced into a second-class status. Those generalizations, even if empirically incorrect, do provide strong rhetorical force behind arguments about how insidious, unjust, and indecent religious and Christians privileges really are as well as the criticism that religious theism itself is empirically and logically unjustified.
If moderate Christians remain silent and allow Christianity to be taken over by fundamentalists, Christianity will continue to morph into something with less and less relevance for the modern world until it eventually goes the way of all previous religious mythologies. While the end of religion is something you and I might welcome, I do worry that our world may not be able to survive the rising tide of religious fundamentalism as the fundamentalists become increasingly desperate. But I guess that is up to the religious moderates too.

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August 8, 2007

Why "Know Them By Their Deeds?"

Roman Urdu Bibles are used by many Christians ...
Roman Urdu Bibles are used by many Christians from the South Asian subcontinent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Regular readers will know that I periodically post reports of crimes committed by Christians (and yes, they are real Christians). I often include the phrase "Know Them By Their Deeds" in the titles of such posts and have received criticism for doing so. So, why do I do it?

The meaning of the "know them by their deeds" phrase comes from the Christian bible. Matthew 7:16 reads, "Ye shall know them by their fruits," and translators of the Greek and Hebrew generally interpret "fruit" as "deed," "act," or "work." The meaning of the phrase is that it is often misleading to base one's impression of someone on their words and that we are better off focusing on their behavior. That is, know them not so much by what they say but what they do.

I use this phrase to highlight Christian hypocrisy. We all know that believers are fond of claiming moral superiority over nonbelievers. And yet, their deeds often suggest otherwise.

My use of this phrase is not intended to signify that I believe all believers are wicked. I believe no such thing. Rather, I use the phrase to point out the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that their religion makes them morally superior to the rest of us.

August 7, 2007

Christian Taliban Running the American Military?

Time reports on a story which I expect will be familiar to many of you - the "Christianization" of the American military. Reports of this disturbing trend have been around for awhile, but it is nice to finally see some coverage in mainstream news media.

According to Time,
...the Inspector General's office of the Department of Defense released a report concluding that a former Pentagon chaplain and several generals inappropriately loaned the prestige of their positions — and that of the Pentagon and the U.S. government — to make a fundraising film for a non-governmental evangelical group, the so-called Christian Embassy. The report identified Christian Embassy as affiliated with the group Campus Crusade for Christ.
For more on what is happening in the military and why secular Americans should be concerned, see this excellent article at Truthdig.

August 6, 2007

More Evidence That Abstinence-Only Programs Don't Work

Programs based on fundamentalist Christianity and championed by President Bush took another hit with the release of an Oxford University review of 13 US trials published in the British Medical Journal. The conclusion? "Sex abstinence programmes do not stop risky sexual behaviour or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy."

As a taxpayer, I am appalled to learn that my tax dollars are supporting a budget where "a third of the President's HIV budget is given to abstinence programmes." People continue to die of AIDS while we squander resources on demonstrably ineffective treatments.
Researchers found none of the abstinence-only programmes had an impact on the age at which individuals lost their virginity, whether they had unprotected sex, the number of sexual partners, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases or the number of pregnancies.
I have no problem at all with abstinence being part of comprehensive sex education, but to continue funding abstinence-only programs in light of mounting evidence that they do not work is absurd.

H/T to Deep Thoughts

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August 5, 2007

Carnival of the Godless 72

Welcome to the 72nd Carnival of the Godless! Contributions have been pouring in all week, and there is some great godless reading to be found here. I hope that you will enjoy the posts as much as I have.

If this is your first visit to Atheist Revolution, welcome. I am an atheist blogger living in a particularly harsh climate for atheists, Mississippi, so I appreciate the opportunity to interact with my fellow atheists more than I can quantify. I started this blog in early 2005 to promote freedom from irrationality and to oppose Christian extremism in America.

The next Carnival of the Godless will be hosted by In Defence of Reason on August 19th. Submit your entries here.

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August 4, 2007

Give Dawkins Money or You're Not a Real Atheist: Postscript

I really appreciated all the thought-provoking comments I received on my recent post, Give Dawkins Money or You're Not a Real Atheist. However, a few of the comments and some of the e-mail I received indicate that additional clarification might be beneficial. I am saddened to receive correspondence suggesting that my disagreement with either Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers is somehow harming the atheist movement. This sounds dogmatic, and this is something I think we need to avoid.

First things first, I have the greatest respect and admiration for PZ Myers. I have a category in my RSS aggregator called "Best of the Best," and Paryngula is one of only four feeds there. When I am running short on time, these are the feeds I check first. I commend PZ for putting a public face on atheism because I know what courage this takes.

Having said this, I do not necessarily agree with everything PZ says. We are not the same person, and it seems absurd to expect that we would agree on everything. In fact, I am quite confident that PZ himself would prefer that I have independent thought rather than simply mirror his views. I like it when he posts views that differ from mine because it leads me to examine my beliefs and gives me an opportunity for growth. I would be that he feels the same way.

I also have great respect for Richard Dawkins, but once again, I do not agree with everything he says. I think that those who would hold him out as some sort of atheist prophet are making a mistake, but that is because I reject the idea of prophets and not because I dislike Dawkins. Again, I fully expect that he would welcome and encourage disagreement.

In truth, I have no beef with the OUT Campaign. If it encourages those atheists for whom "coming out" is relatively safe to do so, I'm all for it. I would hate for it to push naive individuals to face unexpected peril simply because they were trying to fit in with their atheist associates, but I recognize that this is still a personal choice which must be made by every individual. To those commenters who noted the value of remaining vocal about atheism, I couldn't agree more.

The source of my disagreement, and the central focus of the post in question, was the statement by PZ Myers that people with negative reactions to the campaign should not "try to claim that you're helping." Some commenters have suggested that I misinterpreted this statement (or at least the intent behind it). They may be right. PZ himself left a comment indicating that he did not mean that wearing Dawkins' A is required to help the campaign. I appreciate his willingness to clarify this point, as it appears that I misinterpreted the statement.

To the commenters (and those who e-mailed) who criticized me not for what I said but for the fact that I expressed disagreement with Myers and/or Dawkins, it seems as though your primary complaint was that my expression of disagreement was not good for the atheist movement. You may be right, and this is something to consider. And yet, I believe that freethought must remain a central component of any atheist movement that is to succeed. I think meaningful criticism should be encouraged as long as it doesn't turn nasty.

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August 3, 2007

What's Next For Atheism?

The first step of the atheist revival has been a full-scale assault on religious belief. Books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have reminded modern atheists of classic arguments against theism, framing them in a contemporary context. Increasing numbers of atheists are utilizing the Internet to criticize religious belief, discuss atheism and secular humanism, and connect with other freethinkers. Others are coming together offline via meetup groups and secular organizations. Now some at the forefront of the atheist revival are starting to ask an important question: what's next for atheism?

Bolstered by everything from a faith-based American presidency to the explosive growth of the atheist blogosphere, 2007 really has been the year of the atheist. Fueled primarily by recent atheist books on the bestseller list, the American media is paying more attention to atheism than they have at any point during my lifetime.

With the spotlight on atheism, it is no surprise that new atheist blogs, online forums, and websites are appearing daily. Regardless of how isolated we atheists may feel in our communities, we have discovered a dynamic Internet community in which to participate.

The first step in the atheist revival has been a critique of religious belief. The books by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others have understandably focused on this critique. Given the taboo against criticizing religion, I am not sure the beginning of an atheist movement could have been anything else. While necessary, this assault on religious belief is far from sufficient. What comes next?

I believe that our next task should be one of providing a meaningful alternative to religion. Specifically, we need to popularize secular humanism. Behavior change is nearly always easier when one can be provided with an alternative. For example, if a woman is to overcome her drinking problem, part of the solution is going to help her find something to do instead of joining her friends in the bars each night.

Criticism of religion, without the provision of some alternative way for meeting the needs met by religion, is unlikely to do anything except lead to further social division along the lines of belief. Offering a meaningful alternative to religion will go a long way toward making atheism more respectable.

Of course, there are many possible next steps for us to contemplate. Hemant at The Friendly Atheist says that atheists are beginning to ask whether the next step should involve "creating new atheists or getting those who are already atheists to speak out as such?" Although I believe that this is a false dichotomy because these goals are not mutually exclusive, Hemant says that the consensus position appears to be "on getting current atheists to come out of the closet."
It’s a worthwhile and realistic goal to increase atheist visibility, and subsequently, respectability. The numbers game is the biggest barrier to a large scale change in the way atheists are perceived in this country. And that can change when more people come out and say they’re not religious. They can’t do it anonymously, either. They have to first open up to people they trust, followed by other friends and family members, and go from there.
Hemant's advocacy for this recommendation is nothing new, and I agree with it in principle. The problem, as I have pointed out repeatedly, is that giving up anonymity is simply not safe for many American atheists. Perhaps this is a worthwhile goal for some to work toward while others strive to popularize secular belief systems such as secular humanism.

I suppose what I am saying is that we should focus our energies on actualizing many next steps instead of getting stuck on finding the one ideal next step. What do you think? What should be next for atheism?

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