December 31, 2008

Atheist Revolution's Best of 2008

I hadn't thought much about writing any sort of year-end post until a few minutes ago. I think I'll be content to leave that task to others who have taken more time to reflect on 2008. Instead of trying to sum up all the events of the year, I think I'll ask a different question. Of all the Atheist Revolution posts written during 2008, which were your favorites? I've listed the top 5 posts, based on Google Analytics pageviews below. From this list, I've learned something unexpected about this blog.

Based on pageviews, the top 5 posts of 2008 in descending order were:
  1. "In God We Trust" Must Go
  2. Morality Police Go After Indiana Adult Store
  3. Christian Extremist on 30 Days
  4. Democratic Party Fires Shot Across Atheists' Bow
  5. No Church-State Separation in Kearny: Matthew LaClair Revisited
So, what have I learned from this list? Simply put, I have learned that I have absolutely no ability to predict what will end up being a popular post as I write. None of the posts that I would consider my best, most influential, etc. made this list. Not even close. Does this bother me? Not one bit! I plan to keep doing what I'm doing.

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Atheists and Gays: Time For An Alliance

Gay rights demonstration at the Democratic Nat...Image via WikipediaThe role of many branches of the Christian church in passing Proposition 8 in California and Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his presidential inauguration suggest that an alliance between the atheist and LGBT communities might be worthy of serious consideration. We have a great deal in common. We also share a common "enemy" in Christian extremists, a group determined to treat us as second-class citizens with restricted civil rights. In this post, I'd like to address what I perceive as the two primary obstacles to such an alliance.

At the outset, let me be clear in stating that I recognize that there are probably many obstacles to such an alliance than what I will mention here. I am focusing on the two I perceive to be the most serious. I would also like to mention that I believe that both of these obstacles can be overcome.

Obstacle #1: Atheists Have Yet To Embrace Activism

Of course, there are many atheist activists, including some who have been leaders in this regard. However, there is still far too much apathy among atheists. The mindset of just wanting to be left alone by one's religious neighbors is far more common than any true activist impulse among atheists. Too many of us resist any sort of organization and turn our backs on the politics which has alienated us for so long.

In the so-called "new atheism," we have witnessed the beginnings of what might be described as an awakening; an awakening in the sense that some of us are beginning to realize that sitting idly by imperils us all. There is a genuine undercurrent of atheist activism building, but it is still being resisted by many.

To make real progress, we need to recognize that the atheist movement is about civil rights. We need to learn that by working for the good of all atheists, we are simultaneously helping ourselves, opposing religious extremism, and making it easier for future generations of atheists to be themselves. Getting involved in atheist activism can start small, but it does need to start.

Obstacle #2: Attitudes Toward Atheists in the Gay Community

What I am about to say may be unpopular, but it needs to be said. One of the main obstacles preventing an effective atheist-gay alliance is anti-atheist bigotry within the gay community. Since I am not gay, I realize that I may have precious little credibility here. For this reason, I'd like to draw your attention to an excellent post written by Greta Christina about her experience as an atheist in the gay community. She describes her experience as follows:
And yet I'm finding that I feel more at home -- more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood -- as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.

Like, a lot more.
In her post, she describes many experiences of being made to feel like less of a gay activist because of her atheism. There are probably many reasons for this. Certainly, there are many gay people who are also religious. Even among those who aren't, there are differences of opinion regarding how best to work with those in the religious community.
I've heard the LGBT movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the reasonable ones who want to work with religious groups, and the unreasonable ones who think that religion is a delusion.
Sound familiar? See, I told you we had a lot in common!

Greta Christina perceives the atheist community as being very supportive of gay rights. I agree. I recognize that this is not a universal sentiment, but it is good to hear that it seems to apply to the majority. She attributes much of the difference (i.e., atheists tend to be more supportive of gay rights than gays do of atheist rights) to the length with which each movement has been active. I think this is an excellent point. We've had 40 years to learn about LGBT Americans and only a couple to learn about atheists.

Greta Christina offers many useful suggestions for how members of the gay community can ally with atheists. Best of all, her ideas apply to members of any group interesting in allying with atheists. And if you are an atheist, make sure you read what she has to say too. Unfortunately, I see some atheists making many of the same mistakes she highlights here (e.g., there is no such thing as a "fundamentalist" atheist).

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December 30, 2008

We Need a List of Atheist Debaters and Media Contacts

Portrait of Socrates, Roman marble, Louvre museumImage via WikipediaI have been receiving an increasing number of requests lately for two similar but distinct types of public activity. First, I have been asked to help groups hoping to put on atheist vs. Christian debates (some of whom will pay travel expenses plus an honorarium) find a suitable atheist debater. Second, I've been asked by various media outlets to recommend an atheist for radio and/or print interviews. Other than referring such requests to the Freedom From Religion Foundation or American Atheists, I'm not sure what else to do. I wonder if it might be worthwhile to develop some sort of directory of persons willing to do this sort of thing. Any ideas?

Here is what I've come up with so far:
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Could Same-Sex Marriage Bring the End of Christian Extremism?

Older LGBT Community
Older LGBT Community (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I fully realize that I will not live to see the end of Christian extremism in the United States. Far from being a source of despair, this encourages me to do what I can while I'm here. In fact, I'm feeling a bit optimistic at this moment that we may finally be nearing the beginning of what is almost sure to be a long and tortured decline of at least one form of Christian extremism. Specifically, I am very encouraged by what I'm seeing in the LGBT community in response to having the recent blow to their civil rights in California and elsewhere.

The Atheist Experience posted a great rant that really got me thinking. Here is an excerpt:
What a sickening cesspool of hate and fear Christianity has become. How can so many of its adherents live with themselves, when they actively take steps to bully, victimize, and bring misery to the lives of a group of people for the sole crime of being different? Word comes from California that it isn't enough for the supporters of Proposition H8 that they've banned gay marriage. Now they want to nullify the thousands of marriages that were performed in the few brief weeks that gays and lesbians actually got to see what having a basic human right was like.
Of course, the Christian extremists referenced in the first couple of sentences do not interpret what they are doing as bullying and the like. That is okay. The point, and the source of at least some of my optimism, is that others are starting to do so.

The degree to which hatred of LGBT persons is socially acceptable has declined substantially in the U.S. during my lifetime (except for when it is directed at atheists). Homophobia and anti-LGBT bigotry are still with us, to be sure. However, for a variety of reasons (mostly attributable to the LGBT community itself) it is somewhat less possible to express them with impunity than it used to be.

I believe this trend will continue, much as it has for racism and sexism. I will not live to see the end of Christian extremism, but I am confident that I will live to see the day when the majority of Americans not only accept same-sex marriage but look upon the current period of homophobia and bigotry with embarrassment. Children will grow up as puzzled by what they hear about gay rights as some of us have about equal rights for women or African Americans. It will not occur to them how they ever could have been a period in history when it was not okay for two consenting adults to marry.

What does this mean for the atheist movement? Plenty. First, I worry that anti-atheist bigotry may actually intensify as anti-gay bigotry becomes less acceptable. We have done such a poor job of organizing and becoming a political force that we are going to make an easy target. And if there is one thing we better have learned about Christian extremists by now, it is that they need a target.

But the news is not all bad. The second implication for us is that we have an effective model in the LGBT community from which we can learn a great deal. There is no need to start from square-one. We have a viable map if we are willing to use it.

Third, the Christian right (and to some degree Christianity itself) is at a real crossroads. Christian extremists have attached themselves so pervasively to bigotry and hatred of anyone who does not believe as they do that they are decreasing their odds of surviving in a multicultural world. Moderate Christians, on the other hand, have been doing some remarkable and praiseworthy things lately (e.g., working to end global poverty, fighting the spread of AIDS, protecting the environment, etc.). As gay rights becomes the norm, the gap between the extremists and the moderates will continue to widen. Perhaps moderates will finally realize that they can truly elevate their religion by jettisoning the extremists.

If my atheist readers are tempted at this point to protest that even such an improved religion would still be a religion and therefore bad, I'd have to say that I'm not sure I agree. Yes, an elevated sort of Christianity such as what I describe here would still make use of faith and would therefore be inherently irrational. But such a revitalized form of Christianity could end up being a genuine force for good. Imagine a religion focused on improving our world for all people. I'm not saying I'd join up, but I'd certainly see such a religion as a step in the right direction.

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December 29, 2008

Patron Who Complained About Indiana Library Nativity Faces Retaliation

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: The Librarian First uploa...Image via WikipediaWhen I posted about the Elwood Public Library in Indiana choosing to ignore a complaint from a patron about their nativity scene, I never dreamed I would need to address the situation again. After all, I frequently post stories involving Christians failing to grasp the fact that America is a secular democracy where separation of church and state is the law. I figured that this was just another routine example of the sort of things with which we atheists are always dealing. Boy, was I wrong! I've been contacted by the library patron who made the complaint, and his story must be told.

Tyson e-mailed me after learning of my previous post. Here is what he had to say:
I am the Elwood Public Library patron who complained about the nativity scene. I need help here – these people do not think the law applies to them. Please share this information with your readers. There is now a witch hunt against me, and I am seriously fearful of someone hurting me and my family. Please take a look at this link: If you notice the signing of the name, this is a library employee that started this. If you read the comments, you will see what I am dealing with here. This is the PG version of what people are saying about me. There are other sites that people are posting to that you must have a membership to view, which are definitely rated R.
The remarkable thing about this lengthy and publicly available thread of opinions is that it was started by an employee of the library! Just imagine that for a second. You encounter something which you suspect may be a violation of the law, and you bring it to the attention of someone in authority at the institution. Then you discover that you have been rudely insulted in a public forum by an employee of the institution.

I know it is long, but take some time to read through the thread and see what Tyson is dealing with here. As you read, keep in mind that all of this is happening because he dared to complain about a nativity scene in a public library supported with tax dollars.

So what exactly happened here? How did Tyson complain, and what is his version of the events which transpired? What follows is a comprehensive description provided by Tyson in a letter he wrote to the library board. I have not edited it in any way except to remove the name of the subject of the complaint.
Dear Library Board:

During my visit to the Elwood Public Library on Friday, December 19, 2008, I noticed the library’s nativity scene on display in one of the showcases. Being a professional librarian with an MLS, I was curious as to why the library’s director would permit such a display in a public library. To get an answer to my inquiry, I decided to discuss the appropriateness of the display with the library’s director. I did not approach the director with the intent of demanding the display be taken down; I simply wanted to engage in discourse with her. I began our discussion by asking her if she thought it was appropriate for a public library to have a nativity scene on display. She then told me that the library has had the scene on display for the last 29 years and that the library had not received any complaints. I then told her I was there to complain. Unlike what The Call-Leader reported on Monday, December 22, 2008, I did not mention the words offended or atheist. However, the library director reported to The Call-Leader that I did use these words. I do not know why she chose to falsely report to the media what was actually said in her office, but in doing so, she has caused me and my family a great deal of grief.

I will explain here what actually took place in the director’s office. After telling her I was there to complain, the library director responded by saying she was tired of me coming into her library and complaining. Since I have never complained to the director before, I was shocked to hear her say this. She continued her unprofessional rant by accusing me of mistreating her staff and abusing the library’s services. I reminded ____ that I am a professional librarian who is committed to library service; therefore, I would never abuse the library or its staff. Additionally, I informed her that her accusation of staff mistreatment was based on misinformation. I explained to her the truth of what had actually happened regarding the particular situation she was referring to, but instead of listening to me, the director continued to argue. Since I felt the director was very upset, I explained to her that I was not going to argue with her. She responded by telling me that if I am unhappy with the library’s services, maybe I should not visit the library. I then held up the movie I had just checked out and explained to her that I was just looking for some entertainment. Furthermore, I asked for the library board president’s contact information, I encouraged her to speak with the library board about my inquiry, and I informed her that if the display was not taken down by the following Monday, I would pursue further action. I did not enter the director’s office with the intent of demanding the display be taken down. My professional experience as a librarian causes me to question the legality of displaying a nativity scene within a public library, which is why I wanted to discuss the issue with a fellow professional. It was in response to the director’s unprofessionalism and unwillingness to engage in professional discourse that I demanded the display be removed.

I immediately contacted the board president to complain about the director’s unprofessionalism, but since he was unavailable, I was only able to leave a message. The board president did not return my call. I tried to contact him again on Tuesday, December 23, 2008, but I was again unsuccessful. I finally was able to reach the board president on Wednesday, December 24, 2008. He informed me that he did not have time to take my complaint and that he would speak to me at an undetermined future date. Since I have been unsuccessful at getting the board president to listen to me, I decided to write this letter to all board members.

I am requesting the library board terminate ________ from her position as library director immediately. Not only do I make this request based on the unprofessionalism she demonstrated in her office, I also think she should be terminated for lying to the press about the conversation that took place in her office. I never used the words offended or atheist, but she obviously felt it was appropriate to go to the press and make this false accusation. Furthermore, I have been contacted by the Herald Bulletin for an interview about the native scene. The discussion about the nativity scene took place between ____ and I behind closed doors. I cannot figure out how the Herald Bulletin learned of my name or my phone number for that matter unless the library or its board members revealed this information. As a result of ____’s lie about what was said in her office and the revealing of my name, my mother has received phone calls from family members questioning if what was said is true. Her false reporting to the press has not only been a burden on me, it has been a burden on my family as well. For these reasons, I think ________ should be terminated as the North Madison County Pubic Library System Director immediately.
As bad as this all seems, it got worse - much worse. Tyson reports that an employee of the library made his library record public in a blog post. Not only is this highly inappropriate, but it is a crime under Indiana law. Tyson is now asking the library board to dismiss the library's director.

I am not sure how we can best help Tyson. I welcome suggests in the comments thread. How would you advise him to handle the situation from this point on? It seems to be that publicity is one way we can help. We can use our blogs and our votes on the various social networking sites to spread the word about what is happening in this small Indiana town. We can contact the library board ourselves. Their attention could be brought to two interrelated issues: (1) nativity scenes do not belong in public libraries (they claim Tyson was the first to complain in 29 years; we can make sure he won't be the last), and (2) the sort of retaliation Tyson has experienced is unacceptable and should be punished. I suspect that writing to the board about either or both of these issues might get their attention.

Update: The Associated Press has picked up the library's version of this story, naturally omitting Tyson's account completely (here is one exception). Several major media outlets in Indiana are now running with the incomplete version. If Tyson's side is going to be told, it is up to us to tell it.

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December 28, 2008

Welcome to New Readers

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via WikipediaReadership is growing here at Atheist Revolution, reflecting increasing interest in atheism, skepticism, secularism, freethought, and related subjects. I'd like to take a moment to welcome the new readers and to share a few quick bits of information that may help you enjoy your time here. I don't know about you, but I rarely bother to read the "About" or "FAQ" sections that so many of us bloggers obsessively include in our headers unless I have questions. So I'd like to offer you a condensed version of the highlights:
  • This blog is written by an atheist and is directed at a primarily atheist audience, as well as others wanting to learn more about atheism, skepticism, secularism, and freethought. There are many excellent pro-religion blogs out there; this is not one of them.
  • If you have questions about why I post what I post, check out the About page. It gives you some information about me, about this blog, and explains that I do write about topics besides atheism from time-to-time.
  • Comments from readers are encouraged, appreciated, and considered an important part of this blog. I use the IntenseDebate commenting system because I believe it does the best job of facilitating discussion among readers. I cannot respond directly to every comment, but I am reading them (and so are other readers).
  • This is not a news site. If you are new to blogs, this means that you should not be surprised to find that you are getting my opinion. Don't expect purely objective reporting here because you will not find it here.

How To Make Atheists Believe In God

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921Image via WikipediaI imagine some religious believers may arrive on this post because their Internet search was fairly close to its title. Kind of pathetic, isn't it? How insecure must one be to scour the Internet searching for ways to force others to conform to one's god belief? Since you are here, let's get on with it.

Let me say at the outset that this is not a challenge, a demand for evidence, a call for miracles, or anything of the sort. I pose no grand test for believers to meet, nor do I intend this as a trap for the dimwitted. There is a very simple way that atheists can be persuaded to believe in god, and I will reveal it in this post. If those who call themselves religious ever want to defeat the big bad atheism once and for all, this is how to do it. Just realize that it will come at a bit of a price.

To persuade an atheist to believe in god, all one has to do is define "god" so broadly that it cannot possibly be doubted. A recent opinion piece in The Toronto Star by Rabbi Dow Marmur gives us an example of how this works.
Readers of books for or against religion, not least at this time of the year, may bear it in mind. Though exponents of dogmas and norms of every faith and denomination may be flawed, and though affirming God doesn't necessarily solve the vexing question about the persistence of evil in the world, or the mysteries of life and death, no amount of scientific advances can eradicate the fundamental human awareness of a power that's beyond us and which tradition has often identified as God.
By defining god as merely something beyond us, only the solipsist can doubt god. I told you it was simple.

But surely, the religious person will argue, a god defined this broadly is rendered meaningless. I do not disagree. In fact, I suggest that we're already there. But remember, this all-inclusive sort of "god" was the god of Einstein, Sagan, Darwin, and countless others who both religious and atheist communities claim as their own. And just think of the appeal! The religious could claim every prominent scientist as one of their own if they would merely expand their definition of god and jettison that little matter of the supernatural.

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December 27, 2008

King of Misinformation

Sean Hannity at King of Prussia Mall, PAImage via WikipediaCongratulations to Fox "News" pundit Sean Hannity, just named Media Matters' 2008 Misinformer of the Year. It sounds like the 2008 election really put him over the top in this contest.
But never has he so enthusiastically applied his talents for spreading misinformation as he did to the 2008 presidential race, focusing his energies primarily on President-elect Barack Obama. Day after day, Hannity devoted his two Fox News shows and his three-hour ABC Radio Networks program to "demonizing" the Democratic presidential candidates...
If someone decides to watch television because they want to hear someone reinforcing their worldview by feeding them demonstrably false propaganda, so be it. But anyone looking for truthful information is advised to look elsewhere.

H/T to Dispatches From the Culture Wars

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Atheist Rappers

Greydon Square This proud metalhead has never minded a little rap. I'm not up on most of the new stuff, but I still enjoy the rap of the late 80s and early 90s at times. And yes, I am talking about the gangsta stuff everybody loves to hate. What can I say, it is something of a guilty pleasure.

One thing I've never had any desire for, however, has been atheist rap. In fact, I didn't know such a thing existed until roughly a year ago. And having heard some, I'm quite confident that I haven't been missing anything. I don't have any urge to hear atheist metal either, although I do so love the Satanic stuff for its shock value when played around Christians.

After I'd been at this blog for awhile, I felt the need to familiarize myself with the Rational Response Squad (you can find a review here). They came to my attention first for the blasphemy challenge and then for their slaughter of Ray Comfort on TV. I no longer follow them, but there was a time when one could not read anything on their site without being bombarded with references and ads for someone calling himself Greydon Square. He is a rapper who raps about atheism.

December 26, 2008

Young Australian Skeptics

Artist's rendition of Port Jackson, the site w...Image via WikipediaA reader asked me to let you know, especially you Aussies, about a new website and podcast from Australia. Pay a visit to the Young Australian Skeptics website and consider subscribing to the Pseudo Scientists podcast. And for those of you on Facebook, they also have a Facebook page.

It is so nice to see new groups appearing with the goal of welcome young people into the reality-based community. I wish them the best in their efforts.

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Indiana Library Keeps Nativity Scene

Indiana state welcome signImage via WikipediaA public library in Indiana decided to ignore an atheist's complaint and keep their nativity display. According to the director of the Elwood Public Library, this was the first time anyone has complained about their nativity scene. Their rationale for ignoring the complaint was that "...the scene is not intended as an endorsement of the religion." Hmmm. I wonder what an endorsement would look like then?

The library's director says,
The way I feel about it is this is something that was donated to the library and has been a part of our holiday season decorations for almost 30 years. We were not trying to promote any religion.
Pastor James Stout of the local Joy Christian Church isn't so sure.
This is a Christian country that was founded on Christian principles.
Forget for a second that Pastor Stout's claim about the U.S. being founded on Christian principles is known to be false by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of early American history. What the pastor, and the millions like him, must begin to understand is that making declarations of this sort amount to saying "fuck you" to every single U.S. citizen who is not a Christian. That is an awful lot of people!

You know, I have met some exceptionally bright Christians during my life. Stories like this make me appreciate them that much more.

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December 25, 2008

Reporting From The Battle Lines

An 8 year old Male Fox Terrier of the common '...Image via WikipediaI am filing this report from sidelines of a heated battle being waged in my home office. No, this is not about any ludicrous "war on Christmas." The combatants in this case are my two dogs, a 10 year-old Toy Fox Terrier and a 1 year-old terrier mix I recently adopted from the shelter. And no, they aren't really fighting but playing as intensely as dogs do. It has been a hilarious distraction at a time when I am plenty busy without distractions, and I must say that I am now convinced that dogs are much smarter than I realized.

The prize in this particular battle is a stuffed George W. Bush dog toy we received as a gift. It is fairly mangled at this point, but that just seems to make it more appealing. The fascinating thing is not so much the frantic running around, wrestling, biting, growling, or even my destroyed scanner (both the USB cable and power supply were chewed through by the puppy). No, the part I have enjoyed more than anything has been the use of strategy.

While the younger dog is pure chaos, flying all over the place, crashing into furniture, and biting at everything in sight, the older one can be observed doing what I can only describe as planning and executing a form of strategy. The skeptic in me says that this is unlikely, but I'm not sure how else to explain what I've observed.

When the puppy has a desired toy, the older dog will come to me, pace back and forth, whine a bit, and look up at me. When I do not intervene, he finds another toy - sometimes one he has not played with in years - and carries it back and forth in front of the younger dog. The moment she drops the toy that is at the center of the conflict to investigate, he drops his and pounces. She ends up with the less desirable toy, and he gains possession of what he wanted all along. I'm probably over-interpreting what I'm seeing, but it sure as hell looks like he's using a decoy to trick her into giving up the toy that he wants.

I've seen him execute this trick again and again. Since it continues to work, I expect he will continue. With entertainment like this, it is no wonder I haven't been very productive lately.

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Blip. What Are You Listening To?

Image representing Blip as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBaseWhat do you get if you combine Twitter and listening to music? What you get is, a social site where users DJ for each other. I have been playing around with for a couple days now and am finding it a great way to discover new music, hear songs I haven't heard in ages, and get acquainted with others through their musical tastes. If any of this sounds interesting, check it out. You'll find me there as vjack. Just be forewarned that if you love music like I do, it can be pretty addicting.

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This Ad Widget is Backfiring

Image representing Amazon as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBaseI added the ad widget you see on the right sidebar in early December for two reasons. First, I thought it might help boost ad revenues a bit with all the shopping going on. Second, the other Amazon widget I had been using was slowing load times too much. Well, this one is faster, but the idea of boosting ad revenues has not been very successful. In fact, it has essentially backfired. You see, I keep buying stuff from my own widget! Some of those "lighting deals" have just been too good for me to pass up. At least I'm doing my part to help our ailing economy.

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December 24, 2008

You're Damn Right It's Mockery!

The festivus pole, unadorned and non-lit.
The festivus pole, unadorned and non-lit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Festivus poles were erected in at least two state capitols this season (Washington and Illinois). The response from Christians was predictable outrage. According to the Associated Press (link no longer functional), Dan Zanoza, chairman of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee said, "I think it's a mockery." Yes, Mr. Zanoza, that is precisely what it is. And yet, it is not the sort of mockery you think.

Does anyone really think that a Festivus pole is needed in state capitol buildings? No. This is a statement. It is an attempt to mock the need that some Christians seem to have to get monuments to their religion placed in government buildings this time of year.

Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is quoted as saying, "If the state's going to create a forum for religion at this time of year, which we do not approve of, this is what's going to happen." Until Christians learn to keep their religious paraphernalia out of government buildings, this sort of mockery will continue. In fact, I expect we may soon see it get more creative.

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Ask Obama To Uninvite Bigot Rick Warren

I have been fairly clear in expressing my disappointment here over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, and I have tried to explain why I think it is a mistake to sweep this one under the rug. However, I may have made a mistake in suggesting that there was little we could do to change Obama's mind. Even if not, the last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from trying to have Warren uninvited. I sent the message below, adapted from the Secular Coalition for America, to Obama's transition team last week. If you'd like to do something similar, here is the form.

December 19, 2008

Dear President-elect Obama,

I am writing to urge you to reconsider your decision to have Reverend Rick Warren deliver the invocation at your inauguration. Sure, it can be argued that such a gesture is merely symbolic. However, your choice of Warren alienates the millions of American atheists, not to mention the gay community. Sometimes symbolism matters greatly.

You already know what Warren has said about gay people and reproductive freedom. But Warren is also on the record (Larry King) saying that he would never consider voting for an atheist presidential candidate. He has also stated that the only reason atheists can act ethically is because his god makes us so and that not believing in his god is intellectually dishonest. This sort of bigotry has no place at the inauguration of a president planning to unite America. Would you even consider a speaker who expressed similar views about Jews, women, or African Americans? Of course not!

Who on your inaugural dais will express the viewpoints of the tens of millions of us who do not believe in any gods, not to mention the majority of Americans who believe there is now too much religious influence in our politics and government?

By choosing someone known for bigotry to open your presidency, you are not creating change, but rather following the dismal tradition of your predecessor. Please reconsider.

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The Psychology of Christmas Wars

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)Image via WikipediaA reader by the name of Frozen Summers left a comment on a recent post that really got me thinking:
As a former Evangelical and Campus Crusade for Christ worker I remember when I too saw anything that was even remotely not pro-jesus as an attack. This included all the Santa stuff and secular carols, as well as the blatant commercialism, and the obvious stuff like the displays by ffrf.

I wish I knew enough psychology to explain why, but I think its partly due to the whole persecution complex that the Bible fosters....
Why haven't I been wrestling with this excellent question here? What is it precisely that drives someone to perceive the absence of pro-Jesus material in December as an attack of some sort? Time to put on the psychologist hat and struggle with this one a bit.

In order to make any sense out of this one, I think we must examine three components: (1) the importance of religion to personal identity, (2) threatened egotism, and (3) Christian privilege.

Religion and Identity

We have to start by understanding that religion, broadly construed, is an important part of personal identity for many Christians. For our analysis, I am going to lump church attendance, beliefs about the supernatural, the conviction that one has a "personal relationship" with some sort of mythical zombie, and the many traditions and practices surrounding all of this under the heading of religion. As such, religion is an important aspect of culture.

Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that many Christians rank their identity as a Christian rather high among their various roles. A typical study might ask respondents to write down the 10 most important components of their identities (e.g., father, husband, son, teacher, Christian, etc.). Respondents might then be instructed to list these various components in order of importance to them. "Christian" is often ranked at or near the top. In fact, there are plenty of people among us who indicate that it is more important than their marriage, their children, etc.

Why is it so important? I don't want to deviate on this tangent any more than necessary, so I'll simply suggest that it is so important largely because many people have been taught that it should be so important. Some have been indoctrinated into various religious traditions, read the Christian bible, or been persuaded by clergy. Part of what they have learned involves what Frozen mentioned with regard to persecution. The persecution complex is indeed a vital tactic used by the religious to maintain their religion and build group solidarity.

Threatened Egotism

Psychological studies on human anger and aggression show that attacks on one's identity, including perceived attacks, often provoke the most intense responses. In fact, perceived attacks elicit every bit as potent a response as real ones. It is the individual's perception that matters. Unfortunately, highly aggressive individuals have been shown to have seriously skewed perceptions, interpreting neutral events as insults or threats.

If I am convinced that others are likely to attack me, constantly scan my environment for threats, and then perceive such threats in emotionally neutral situations, it is only natural that I would strike first. Convinced that I have deciphered others' motives and can predict their hostility toward me, I strike first to protect myself.

Christian Privilege

The feminist literature is replete with references to male privilege, and the multicultural literature has explored white privilege in the U.S. extensively. In a nutshell, privilege results from a group's status in the culture being so elevated for so long that it comes to define the norms of the culture. Members of the privileged class do not experience themselves as privileged in any way because they are basing their sense of "normal" on their experience as a member of the privileged class to which they belong. My white privilege, while invisible to me, is obvious to members of racial minority groups.

Christian privilege is an undeniable fact of modern American society. The assumption is that everyone shares Christian beliefs, participates in Christian traditions, and affords Christians a higher moral status. Those who deviate are clearly outside this norm and often regarded as aberrant.

It is because of Christian privilege that good, well-mannered, tolerant people wish strangers "Merry Christmas" without stopping to consider that the stranger might be Jewish, atheist, etc. It is because of Christian privilege that many people expect to see Christmas trees in government buildings, don't understand how anyone could object to "under god" in the pledge, and wish those damn atheists would just leave well enough alone. It is because of Christian privilege that we are perceived as undermining cherished traditions and trying to change "normal."


Perceived attacks on one's religious beliefs provoke such an intense response precisely because the beliefs are normative for the believer's culture (i.e., Christian privilege) and so central to the believer's identity. Throwing the persecution complex into the mix makes it more likely that Christians will expect that they will indeed face persecution. We now have a recipe for hypervigilance and overreaction. We have effectively reduced the threshold for taking offense.

For such a Christian, anyone speaking out against what they regard as normal is a threat. However, when the subject is religion, the nature of the threat takes on a whole new dimension. Now the threat is not only personal but aimed at a core aspect of identity. As the believer experiences the threat as being against his or her very self, we see more intense reactions.

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December 23, 2008

Treating Christians How They Treat Atheists

Richard Dawkins has an angry mobImage by Colin Purrington via FlickrPam's House Blend is one of a handful of non-atheist-related blogs I read regularly. In a recent post, cindik asks an intriguing question: "What might it look like if someone wanted to treat Christians the way gay people are treated?" The post was an interesting read, and I couldn't help noticing many parallels to how Christians treat atheists. So with cindik's post as an inspiring point of departure, what might it look like if someone wanted to treat Christians the way they treat atheists?

A few of cindik's points about the treatment of gays apply to my question without much modification. For example,
  • There would be no tax benefits extended to churches.
  • Some judges would use a parent's Christian beliefs as a reason to deny custody, questioning their moral character.
  • Christian groups on college campuses would routinely have their signs ripped down and receive threats from other students.
Others I would add:
  • Christians would be regarded as morally deficient, evil people, lacking in even basic human goodness.
  • Atheists might regularly go door-to-door proselytizing to Christians.
  • Raising children to be Christian would be viewed as a serious abrogation of parental responsibility.
  • Persons convicted of criminal offenses would receive shorter sentences and be eligible for early release if they rejected their Christian beliefs.
  • Christians would be under tremendous pressure to keep their Christianity hidden for fear of being ostracized by their families and assaulted by strangers.
  • Christians could be fired from their jobs simply for being Christian and would have little legal recourse.
  • Virtually every negative event would be blamed on Christians.
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War on Christmas Over, Christians Victorious

Our Festivus PoleNow that Washington State has approved the addition of a Festivus pole to the holiday display at the state capitol, I think we can properly hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner on our metaphorical air craft carriers. Yes, combat operations have ended in the so-called "Christmas wars." Of course, atheists can only join the celebration as observers since we were never actually involved in the conflict. In fact, it turns out that the only combatant in this bitter dispute, a handful of dimwitted Christians, have finally achieved victory over themselves. They have made a thorough mockery of the very holiday they were allegedly defending from imagined threats.

At first, nobody objected to the "holiday tree" erected in the Washington State Capitol. However, a handful of thin-skinned Christians soon decided that using the more inclusive term "holiday" was a blow to their preferred religion. They requested the addition of a nativity scene, and with the help of a lawsuit filed last year by the Alliance Defense Fund, their request was granted this year.

The thing is, Washington State recognized that the only legal way to permit a nativity display in a public building would be to permit all other groups to add their own displays. So, in getting their nativity scene, the Christians opened the door to virtually any other sort of display. Washington State deserves credit for understanding the implications of the Establishment Clause.

The Christians demanding a nativity scene were shortsighted indeed, and I bet they are now wishing they had been content with the tree. After the Freedom From Religion Foundation added an atheist sign to the display, Fox "News" windbag Bill O'Reilly called for Christians to protest. Strangely, he thought that atheists should be the target of the protest rather than the Alliance Defense Fund. Some gullible viewers heeded his call, bringing even more attention to an already contentious issue.

Now a Festivus pole is joining the display, and Westboro Baptist is seeking to add a bizarre Christian extremist display. What will be next? I have no idea. Maybe no displays at all. Still, I think it is clear that the Christian extremists fighting these Christmas wars against themselves have finally managed to defeat themselves, making a mockery of their holiday in the process. Congratulations, I suppose.

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December 22, 2008

Words of Wisdom: Barney Frank

Barney FrankImage via Wikipedia
Mr. Warren compared same-sex couples to incest. I found that deeply offensive and unfair.

If he was inviting the Rev. Warren to participate in a forum and to make a speech, that would be a good thing. But being singled out to give the prayer at the inauguration is a high honor. It has traditionally given as a mark of great respect. And, yes, I think it was wrong to single him out for this mark of respect.
-- Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass)

H/T to Truthdig

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Wake Up, Indeed

Church and StateImage by TheFemGeek via FlickrJustin Panzer, Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Abilene, KS, wrote an opinion piece in The Abilene Reflector-Chronicle titled simply "Wake up people." At first glance, it offers nothing but the same tired Christian lament over the evils of atheism you've heard again and again. But read more closely, I must say that Panzer's article is a particularly schizophrenic bit of writing that should not be missed.

Pastor Panzer (he-he) hopes that his article will "encourage others to start fighting increasing your awareness and raising your voice." He focuses on a recent Newsweek article on gay marriage and claims that the article's author makes "logical fallacies" regarding what his bible says about marriage. True, Pastor Panzer seems to have little idea what is meant by "logical fallacy," but we can forget about that and consider the heart of his complaint.

The good pastor is convinced that his religion is being attacked by people who have little understanding of it.
Christian teaching and beliefs are being attacked all over. Here are some recent examples: the lighting of the “non-denominational holiday shrub in Boston”; the “atheist creed being placed by the nativity scene in the Washington State capital”; the attack of “Prop 8 proponents in California in regards to those who supported the defeat of the gay marriage amendment.”
With the possible exception of the atheist sign in Washington, how can any of these examples be construed as attacks on anything but intolerance?

But Panzer's inconsistency kicks into high gear when it comes to his bible. His words will likely do little but confuse already confused believers. After appearing to proudly accept the fundamentalist mantle, he immediately reverses himself by implying that his bible is open to correction.
So, call me John the Baptist if you will. I believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God written for our teaching, rebuking, and correcting. I believe that it’s just as valid and certain today as it was back then. Its purpose is to point us to Christ for our redemption, life and salvation. So, call me Patrick Henry too. I believe in the blood of the soldiers who have given us this great country with so many freedoms, including the freedom of capitalism. I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that they are just as valid and certain for us today as they were back then.
If his particular bible is "the inspired, inerrant Word of God," how can it have been "written for our...rebuking, and correcting?" Does Pastor Panzer not know what "inerrant" means? Who is he to rebuke or correct the word of his god?

Wake up, pastor. Articles like this make Christians look stupid, and that really isn't fair. Many are not stupid in the least. You do your congregation a disservice here.

Update: Some readers have pointed out in the comments to this post that I may have misread what Panzer was saying. They believe that his point was not that his bible should be corrected by us but that it should be used to correct us. I agree that it is possible to read his statements this way and that it probably makes more sense to do so.

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December 21, 2008

Special Carnival of the Godless at Skeptico

Skeptico is hosting Carnival of the Godless, and it is a special edition - a Special Newtonmass Edition to be precise. Check it out. It sure beats church!

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Obama's Warren Pick: Not a Big Deal?

LAKE FOREST, CA - DECEMBER 1:  Sen. Barack Oba...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeIt turns out that the atheist blogosphere is not of one mind on Obama's selection of Christian extremist pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. While few are defending the choice as a good idea, Friendly Atheist went so far as to say that those of us who object should "Chill. The. Fuck. Out." Like many who commented on my initial post on the subject, he does not regard the Warren pick as a big deal. I disagree. I acknowledge that there may be other battles worth fighting, but I think this is important.

I think I finally found the perfect summary of how I feel about the Warren pick in a recent post at Homosecular Gaytheist:
Mr. President, an advocate for Jewish rights would not allow Heinrich Himmler to speak at an event in which they control the speakers list. Why would you allow a man who 1) hates gays, 2) hates Muslims, 3) hates liberals and 4) hates “moderate Christians (i.e. the ones that voted for you) to speak at your inauguration? That is not the act of a “fierce advocate for equality”. It’s the act of a cowardly advocate for the same old shit.
Brilliant! Couldn't have said it better myself.

Now, I am happy that Obama wants to be perceived as a "fierce advocate for equality" for gays, but I do not see how Warren will help this perception. As Bligbi puts it, "Fierce advocates of equality do not give a seat of honour to the fierce advocates of inequality!"

Am I just over-reacting here? After all, invoking some imaginary being in a ceremony is a far cry from advising Obama on policy. I find it useful to turn to Daylight Atheism at this point, as there is no way I could possibly improve upon the following:
...I think this invitation will be viewed as a slap in the face by liberal and progressive Americans - the very people who supported Obama's bid for the presidency and worked to put him into office. And while it may generate some fleeting goodwill among evangelical voters, I have no doubt that the vast majority of them will vote Republican in the next election anyway. Meanwhile, the lost goodwill among Obama's supporters may not be as easy to win back as he apparently thinks. It's very likely that he'll need us again to pressure Congress to support his proposals. Will we be willing to work again for him, having been denigrated in this way?

Insulting your allies for the sake of a futile gesture to your sworn enemies is a bad idea and bad politics. And I suspect the blowback has been far more intense and sustained than Obama's team anticipated, causing controversy and embarrassment where they had hoped to avoid both. Although I still consider Obama's election a tremendous net positive for America, this shameful pick may be a sign of how much work we'll have to do in the next eight years to prod our leaders toward implementing a truly progressive agenda.
I am happy that we in the atheist community can disagree with one another without things devolving into personal attacks. Christians could learn a great deal from us in that regard. I agree with Hemant (Friendly Atheist) far more than I disagree with him, and I have great respect for him. This just happens to be one of those times when I disagree.

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December 20, 2008

Atheist Billboard Comes to Little Rock

I just received word from a reader that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has placed another one of their "Beware of Dogma" billboards in Little Rock, Arkansas. Good news for those of us in the bible belt. I'd love to see one of these billboards in Mississippi.

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Tagged With Comment Wars Meme

Image representing Intense Debate as depicted ...Image via CrunchBase, source unknownDb0 tagged me with another blog meme. Looks like some people have too much time on their hands (including me since I'm doing this one too). I guess not needing to get all Jee-zuhsed up this time of years leaves us with extra time. The rules of this one are as follows:
  1. Declare which system you prefer and perhaps give a short history of your decision.
  2. List the reasons why you prefer your current system choice over the direct competitor (If you're using IDC, your competitor is Disqus and the other way around).
  3. (Optionally) list the reasons why you prefer your current system over your blog's default comment system (Wordpress, Blogger or Typepad most likely). If you're still using your default system, instead list the reasons why you consider it superior to both IDC and Disqus.
  4. Link to the person who tagged you for this meme.
  5. Link to any other people who are using any third-part comment system of whom you care to know why they chose as they did. You can also link to any people who are still using the built-in comment system and you want to know why. Make sure to leave the a comment or send an email to inform them that they have been tagged.
My responses:
  1. I have been using the Intense Debate commenting (IDC) system since October of 2008. Prior to that, I was using Haloscan. The #1 reason I switched to IDC was threaded comments. Haloscan offered no such option. This was fine when I was only getting a couple comments per post but made it too difficult to readers to carry on discussions with one another once more were commenting.
  2. I chose IDC largely because Db0 convinced me that it was the best choice. I looked at Disqus only briefly and read some comparative reviews. When I learned that the Wordpress folks were integrating IDC, that settled it.
  3. Um...have you seen the commenting system built into Blogger? Seriously though, it works fine when one is only getting 2-3 comments per post. As the number climbs, it it painful to use. Threaded comments are so nice.
  4. That would be Db0 of A Division by Zer0.
  5. Links to others: Cuddly Atheism, Proud Atheists, and The Stubborn Curmudgeon.
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