April 30, 2009

Christian Support for Torture

Cnn.Image via Wikipedia

CNN is reporting some interesting results of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Evidently, church attendance is positively correlated with support for the torture of suspected terrorists among American Christians. Church attendance is a widely used index of religiosity, which is distinct from spirituality.
White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did.
And yet, we atheists are supposed to be the immoral ones.

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The Idiot of the Week Series

WASHINGTON - MARCH 24:  Rep. Michele Bachmann ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I am a little more than two weeks into the Idiot of the Week series here at Atheist Revolution, and I have a couple of quick observations to share. You may recall that the idea behind this simple series is for me to feature an idiot of the week each Saturday. I am happy to report that the series seems to be quite popular so far and that I am looking forward to continuing it. Here are just a few quick observations about reactions to the series:

First, there has been quite a bit of disagreement expressed over my first two selections: Joe the Plumber and Carrie Prejean (Miss California). This tells me that readers are having the same experience I am in finding that this is a crowded field and it is extremely difficult to pick just one idiot. I know I won't please everybody, and I am determined not to do the lazy thing and just make Michele Bachmann the permanent winner. In the future, I may experiment with ways to solicit reader input through Twitter or even a poll.

Second, some of those commenting are taking this series way too seriously. This is supposed to be fun, so have fun with it. I've been accused of "demonizing" the winners. All I'm doing is providing a showcase for their idiocy. They've done the hard work themselves. Others seem to want to debate whether a winner's level of idiocy is really sufficient for such recognition. Debate away, but remember that this is all in fun.

Finally, the comment threads for the first two posts have been outstanding. I've really enjoyed readers' thoughts on the first two winners. They've made me laugh, they've made me think. Much appreciated, so keep it up.

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April 29, 2009

Words of Wisdom: George W. Bush

DemocracyImage by KayVee.INC via Flickr

Evidently taking a break from idiocy during an interview on al Arabiya following the Abu Ghraib scandal, W had the following to say:
It's important for people to understand that in a democracy, there will be a full investigation. In other words, we want to know the truth. In our country, when there's an allegation of abuse ... there will be a full investigation, and justice will be delivered. ... It's very important for people and your listeners to understand that in our country, when an issue is brought to our attention on this magnitude, we act.
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The Real Torture Debate

A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of L...
A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of London, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Too much time is being wasted in the debate over torture on the question of efficacy of torture. The question of whether torture works (i.e., whether it produces reliable and accurate intelligence information) has been definitively answered: Torture does NOT work. We know this from former FBI interrogators, national security officials, military personnel, CIA operatives, and from history itself. This is no longer a valid point of contention and it merely obscures where the real debate must take place.

Once we set aside the issue of torture's efficacy in obtaining the sort of intelligence on which we can rely, we need to debate the the application of torture for other purposes. That is, should the U.S. be permitted to use torture to punish enemy combatants or elicit false but politically useful statements?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting that such questions are worthy of debate, only that they are they are relevant questions which have received little debate thus far. We now know that torture methods were authorized by the Bush administration. This is not in dispute. We now know that clearly illegal tactics were approved and applied. We also know that such methods were used, at least in part, with the goal of linking al-Qaeda and Iraq despite the fact that the intelligence community had already concluded that there was no such link.

It seems to me that this is where the current debate must take place. Is it acceptable for the U.S. to use torture for political purposes? I suspect there are few outside Washington who would seriously argue in favor of such an application.

How about simple punishment and/or revenge? Like it or not, this one is more controversial. There are people right here in America who support the death penalty, knowing full well that is has no general deterrent effect. I have heard plenty of my fellow Americans, including some atheists, say that anyone involved in 9/11 should be tortured using the most brutal methods imaginable. Perhaps this is where the debate needs to occur.

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April 28, 2009

Bigotry and Religious Freedom

God Hates Fags Picket
God Hates Fags Picket (Photo credit: John Lemieux)
Christian extremists in the United States feel threatened by the gradual progress the GLBT community has made toward gaining equal rights. I am confident that some do indeed feel threatened by same-sex marriage (or even the existence of GLBT individuals), but I suspect that most are motivated by a fear of tolerance and what it might do to the intolerant beliefs they have embraced. In a way, the extremists are probably right to be worried about tolerance. After all, denying them the right to discriminate and increasing the social penalties for outright bigotry does unfortunately limit their religious freedom. The thing is, they have dug this hole by accepting a set of religious beliefs which include hatred and intolerance as central tenets (i.e., their particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity).

Many in the atheist community have been fascinated by the sight of Christians whining that they are being persecuted against by being prohibited from discriminating against others. I suspect that we are joined by at least a few progressive Christians in wondering what bigotry, hatred, and intolerance have to do with the message for which Jesus is often credited with spreading. And yet, I see so few progressive Christians speaking out that I must be cautious about overestimating their numbers.

By making anti-gay sentiment one of the central aspects of their worldview, Christian extremists have all but ensured that they will indeed lose some measure of religious freedom. To the degree that practicing their religion is synonymous with gay bashing, it should (and will) be limited.

Imagine that a growing number of public schools decide that GLBT children should be able to count on having a safe learning environment in which they will not be subject to regular bullying on the basis of their sexual orientation. This will be actively opposed by Christian extremist forces because they recognize that hatred and intolerance are a central part of what they teach their children. The smarter ones will mask this in talk of schools "promoting the gay lifestyle," but those capable of being honest with themselves know that this is not what it is about. They want to be free to practice their religion of hate.

We saw (and continue to see in some areas) similar reactions from the Christian right in response to civil rights and feminism. I have little doubt that the quest for atheist equality will be met with precisely what we now see directed at the GLBT community. Perhaps it will be even stronger since the atheist movement is likely to be perceived as an even more direct threat.

In all fairness, I should point out that it can be argued that the intersection of fundamentalist Christianity and extreme right-wing politics is at least as much of a political philosophy as it is a religion. This is not an argument I am ready to make just yet, but I think it is one we may hear. For now, I am content to let the Christian extremists to keep telling me that this is about their hateful religion.

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April 27, 2009

America's Atheists: Linking Up and Speaking Out

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...Image via CrunchBase

There was a great article about the atheist movement in Sunday's New York Times by Laurie Goodstein. It is definitely worth a read because it actually presents what atheists are doing without all the negative baggage we have come to expect from the media.
More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out...

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The Bigotry We Don't See

The Darwin fish.Image via Wikipedia
Much anti-atheist bigotry is easy to spot, unmistakable for anything else. But what about the less obvious forms of bigotry we might not see at all? Secular Discrimination Report highlights the case of a Texas ex-Christian who recently lost a lucrative contract with a Texas school district because "a school official was disturbed after seeing a Darwin fish on his car." He only learned of this when a friend who worked for the district told him about it. Without this friend, he never would have known what happened.

Blatant, in-your-face anti-atheist bigotry may not always be easy to oppose effectively, but it is certainly easy to spot. I suspect that the covert sort of bigotry, such as that described in this report, is both more common and more damaging than we realize.

Like it or not, we live in an era where it is anti-atheist bigotry is largely considered to be socially acceptable. In fact, many of those responsible for it refuse to acknowledge that it is bigotry at all. Thus, an important part of our task involves raising awareness about anti-atheist bigotry. Attitude change will come, but it will be a gradual process that begins with awareness.

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April 26, 2009

Death and the False Comfort of Faith

Philippe <span class=Image via Wikipedia
It has been less than 48 hours since my grandmother died, and I know full well that this is not enough time to give me much perspective. I write this more in the hopes that it will be cathartic and that it may provide me with something to which I can later return when I have more perspective. Coming to terms with the death of a loved one is a gradual process, and one which I am merely beginning.

Our collective inability to deal with death in industrialized Western cultures is a central component in many psychological theories and is widely considered to be one of the factors maintaining the cultural importance of religious belief. We are so uncomfortable with the reality of our mortality that we resort to a variety of mental gymnastics to keep this reality at bay. These range from subtle psychological defenses to the actual conjuration of supernatural entities on which we impose human characteristics.

I have to say that I understand the appeal of telling myself that my grandmother is "in a better place" even though I know this is false. There is no better place unless one wants to argue that nonexistence is somehow superior to existence. But if I could somehow make myself believe this falsehood, I see how it might make me feel better, at least temporarily. Of course, so would a variety of substances that I no longer ingest, so that is a pretty weak case.

I also understand how my grandmother's strong Christian faith helped to comfort her, at least initially, as she came to terms with her impending death. Wait a second, you say, aren't such beliefs supposed to bring peace right up to the moment of death? Aren't we always hearing about atheists finding (only the Christian) god on their deathbeds? Sadly, my grandmother showed me that this is just another convenient fiction manufactured by Christians as a way of avoiding the reality of death.

You see, this devout Christian woman who had been "blessed" with good health and a sharp mind well into her 90s died slowly, gasping for air as her lungs gradually filled with fluid and her heart failed. Those with her as she died told me that she was conscience, terrified, and repeatedly called on her god to help her. This went on for more than a week. Evidently her god had better things to do.

My mother was there at the bedside to witness this torturous experience. It was what she wanted, but she was clearly traumatized by the experience. It was frustrating that the doctors would give my grandmother just enough morphine to make it possible for her to breathe but not enough to do anything about the pain. As ridiculous at it sounds, they were worried it might kill her. Remind me to eat a gun well before it gets to that point.

Contrary to what our culture insists, death is not a pretty experience. Only a tiny minority die peacefully in their sleep in familiar surroundings. I had hoped that my grandmother would be one, but her destiny lay with most of the rest of us: prolonged agony.

How then, can Christians praise a god who lets this happen to so many? It must be that the comfort of the "better place" delusion outweighs the reality of the suffering. But this is only a guess on my part. In truth, I have no idea how anyone could find such a god anything but worthy of contempt and disgust.

I'll tell you one thing - since the Christian god doesn't seem to give a damn about how much suffering we humans must endure, we had better figure out how to legalize assisted suicide and make it more accessible. Nobody deserves to go out this way, and they shouldn't have to.

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Words of Wisdom: Obama

During a speech in Turkey on April 6, 2009, President Obama said:
I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.
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April 25, 2009

Idiot of the Week: Carrie Prejean

Idiocy this astounding deserves attention, and attention it shall receive! Right here in the weekly Idiot of the Week series. Look for a new champion to be crowned each Saturday.

This week's idiot is Miss California, Carrie Prejean, who said the following when asked if she supported gay marriage during the 2009 Miss USA Pageant:
I think it's great Americans are able to choose one or the other, we live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody there, but that's how I was raised, and that's how I think it should be, between a man and a woman.
No offense, she says, but she'd just as soon deprive two consenting adults the right to marry. What Ms. Prejean and countless other Christians fail to realize is that just because one was raised to believe something does not make it right. This is bigotry, and bigotry is ugly.

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April 24, 2009

Film Review: Religulous

ReligulousI finally got around to watching Religulous last night. As most of my Twitter followers predicted when I told them I'd soon watch it, I really liked it. This is one of those films that I will probably buy, not because I plan to watch it over and over but because I want to loan it out to as many people as possible so they will see it.

As I see it, there are two primary audiences for this film, each of which will experience it in very different ways. First and most obvious, there is the atheist crowd. For them, this film contains precious little in the way of new ideas. There really wasn't anything in Maher's film that I hadn't encountered previously. For us, the film is simply funny, entertaining, and reinforcing of how we already feel about religion.

I have always liked Bill Maher, but I tend to prefer him in smaller doses than what I received in this film. Politically Incorrect was generally about right; this movie was a bit much Maher for my tastes. Still, this was a relatively minor quibble.

April 23, 2009

Taking a Stand Against War Crimes: Call for a Special Prosecutor and Impeachment of Bybee

George W. Bush, Forty-third President (2001–2009)Image by cliff1066 via Flickr

The United States must investigate officials in the Bush administration who tortured detainees for possible war crimes prosecution. This is our responsibility under federal and international law, and it is not one we can shirk without seriously damaging our moral standing. I am extremely disappointed with President Obama's reluctance to enforce the law on this matter, and as I said recently, it is time to turn up the pressure.

I would like to thank some of my favorite bloggers and other news sources for their continued calls for a special prosecutor. Here are some posts and articles I'd like to highlight:
If you have written anything recently on the importance of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate possible war crimes, please send me the link. I'll add it here or use it in an upcoming post.

I am compiling a list of resources to assist American citizens in demanding that the Obama administration appoint a special prosecutor to investigate war crimes by the Bush administration. Here is what I have found so far:
I am signing all of them and encourage my readers to do the same. Again, if you come across any I've missed, please let me know so I can add them.

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April 22, 2009

Time to Rescind DHHS "Conscience" Regulations

Hospital room (Denmark, 2005)Image via Wikipedia

When my religious beliefs begin to interfere with my ability to perform the job I was hired to perform, I should be reassigned (if possible) or fired. I join Americans United for Separation of Church and State in calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to rescind regulations enacted under the Bush administration to grant health care workers the right to refuse to perform job functions which they claim violate their religious beliefs. Patient rights are more important than catering to absurd superstitions.
"This regulation was a parting gift from President Bush to the Religious Right, and it ought to be returned to sender,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The last thing this country needs is more Religious Right meddling in our health care.”
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April 21, 2009

Why is the Atheist Movement so White?

There are certainly non-White atheists, including a couple of prominent atheist bloggers such as Friendly Atheist and the Infidel Guy, but the modern day atheist movement often seems very White to me. I am aware of the statistics showing that religiosity tends to be more common among African Americans than U.S. Whites, but I'm less clear about how other groups compare. I also wonder if such between-groups differences are large enough to explain the under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the atheist movement. If there are other relevant factors, what might they be? Any ideas?

This is mere speculation on my part, but I wonder if some persons of color view atheism as a less important part of their identity than do many White atheists. For example, I wonder if more White atheists may place "atheist" ahead of "White" in prioritizing the various components of their identity whereas some persons of color might do the opposite (e.g., placing "African American" ahead of "atheist"). I suppose another way to say this would be to suggest that atheism might be a more salient source of bigotry for Whites than for many persons of color.

Any other theories, or is my observation about the under-representation of minorities in the atheist movement simply wrong?

April 20, 2009

Jacksonville First Baptist Has Police Out Anonymous Blogger

City of JacksonvilleImage via Wikipedia

Many atheist bloggers write under various pseudonyms, despite frequent criticism that doing so somehow makes us less helpful to the atheist movement. I have previously shared my reasons for doing this, and I suspect they are not all that different from others' reasons for doing the same. Of course, I also recognize that nothing we do online is really anonymous. If I thought that being publicly outed and linked to this blog would completely destroy my life, I would not write it at all. Let this story about a blogger being outed by a church be a lesson to us all - anonymity is illusory.

What makes this story disturbing to me is not so much that the blogger was outed but how and why he was outed. It seems that a previously anonymous blogger brought himself unwanted attention by daring to criticize Pastor Mac Brunson of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. This prompted an investigation by a police detective who just so happened to be a member of the pastor's security detail. Outraged yet?

This raises at least a few questions for me:
  • Since when is criticizing someone grounds for a police investigation?
  • Does this mean that member of Jacksonville's police department (state) was also providing some sort of regular security service to a local pastor (church)?
  • Assuming that such an investigation was somehow deemed necessary (and lawful), what right did Detective Robert Hinson have to disclose the blogger's identity to the church?
According to The Florida Times-Union, Det. Hinson obtained a subpoena forcing Google to provide the blogger's identity. The complaint alleged that the blog in question, fbcjaxwatchdog.blogspot.com, had "possible criminal overtones." Despite finding that the blogger had broken no laws, his identity was revealed to the church. They responded by banning him and his wife from the church.

My favorite parts of this odd tale are as follows:
Undersheriff Frank Mackesy said Hinson’s role posed no conflict of interest because his duties include handling possible threats against the city’s large religious institutions.
It was also proper for Hinson to provide First Baptist’s leadership with Rich’s identity despite finding no criminal evidence, Mackesy said, so it could take whatever internal action it felt necessary for its own safety.
I suppose the lesson here is that we should expect consequences from criticizing those who peddle superstition to the masses. So much for freedom of speech, eh?

H/T to Exchristian.net

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April 19, 2009

Survived Parents' Visit

frustrationImage by tractorpirate via Flickr

They just left, allowing me return to the quiet monotony of my routine. So much missed action in the atheist blogosphere! All in all, I think I managed things fairly well and kept the frustration reasonably muted. I was right in predicting that I'd be asked about the D'Souza book. I'll fill you in on that later. Now I just want to tell you about something entirely unexpected that really made me smile.

Early in the week of my parents' visit, we stopped by a large bookstore because they were trying to find some good travel books that covered some of the area they would be seeing. Upon entering the store, we split up and each went to look for various things, meeting back up at the check-out line.

My dad walks over to me while my mom is paying for her books and out of earshot. He says (loudly enough for at least two nearby shoppers to hear), "I wanted to ask someone who works here why they don't put all the Christian books in the fiction section." I laughed out loud and didn't even mind the dirty looks from the woman in front of us. Way to go, dad!

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April 18, 2009

Idiot of the Week: Joe the Plumber

Joe the Plumber in Elyria todayImage by ronnie44052 via Flickr

Idiocy this astounding deserves attention, and attention it shall receive in a new Atheist Revolution series, Idiot of the Week. Look for a new champion to be crowned each Saturday.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you this week's idiot: Joe the (unlicensed) Plumber. Here is what Republican Party icon, Joe the (unlicensed) Plumber, had to say during a teabagging event in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday:
Let me give you another extremist view, 'In God We Trust.' Say that too loud in some parts of America and you will be shot. It's terrible.
Yep, terrible. Where exactly might these parts of America be, Mr. the Plumber?

H/T to Dispatches From the Culture Wars

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Demand a Special Prosecutor

American Civil Liberties UnionImage via Wikipedia

By this time, I trust you've heard about the latest torture memos authored by the Bush administration. They provide additional evidence that senior administration officials authorized torture. So far, Congressional Democrats have largely remained silent while President Obama continues to signal an unwillingness to hold anyone accountable for the war crimes committed by the previous administration. It is time to turn up the pressure and remind our leaders that inaction on such a serious matter is unacceptable.

I just signed the ACLU's petition calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the illegal torture of detainees. America's commitment to human rights is in question, and we need a thorough, nonpartisan criminal investigation.

This need not detract from Obama's focus on the economy. All he needs to do is appoint a nonpartisan special prosecutor and direct the prosecutor to investigate wrongdoing wherever it may lead. If a thorough investigation results in no criminal charges, so be it. But the investigation must take place. Enforcing the law should not be optional.

Join me in demanding accountability: http://www.aclu.org/investigatetorture

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April 15, 2009

What is Really Driving Conservative Teabagging?

A teabag containing artichoke tea (right) and ...Image via Wikipedia

All teabagging jokes aside, I find the conservative anti-tax "tea party" protests to be absolutely fascinating. It occurs to me that any blog addressing irrational belief simply must comment on the dramatic ignorance driving these anything-but-grassroots protests. On the surface, the protests are about taxes. And yet, the protesters seem oblivious to the fact that their taxes have been cut. This raises the question about the real source of the protests and what is driving them.

On the subject of taxes, the facts are quite clear for anyone who cases about such trivialities as facts. The Obama administration is cutting taxes for at least 95% of Americans. If the protesters are unaware of this, the source of their confusion of obvious. The alternative is that they are fully aware of this fact and are protesting because they believe that people with more money than they will ever see should not pay taxes. With all the outrage we are seeing now over corporate greed and the botched bailouts, I find this alternative rather unlikely.

Perhaps the protesters have consumed so much misinformation by Fox "News" that they can no longer distinguish between propaganda and news. Or perhaps the protests really have little to do with taxes.

What then? There certainly seems to be an element of racism in the continued questions about Obama's citizenship. Some Americans remain convinced that Obama is Muslim, Arab, and/or not a U.S. citizen. Once again, right-wing media has been spinning these lies. However, the question remains why this is suddenly so attractive.

I suspect that the answer lies in lingering dissatisfaction from those who opposed Obama's election. Angered and disappointed, they seek solace in the one place which can be counted on to reinforce their beliefs: extreme right-wing media. The lies make them feel better, so much better that they soon stop caring about the truth of the information they receive. Does this remind you of anything?

And this brings us to teabagging. A bunch of angry and horribly misinformed conservatives are protesting Obama's election under the guise of a tax protest. Before we condemn them as sore losers, I'll simply offer the following: there are plenty of excellent reasons to protest some of Obama's early decisions; one does not need to manufacture false ones.

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Tricking People to Believe

Campus Crusade for Christ vs. EvolutionImage by william couch via Flickr

College feels like a long time ago (probably because it was), but I do not feel as out of touch as I might otherwise since I work on a university campus. One of the things I remember from my college days and see quite a bit of in my current workplace is Campus Crusade for Christ. The thing is, their tactics have changed quite a bit. As Friendly Atheist pointed out in a recent post, they are increasingly resorting to trickery and deception to promote their superstitious nonsense.

When I was in college, you could spot the Campus Crusaders a mile away. They used to wear these t-shirts depicting a bloody crucifixion of a certain mythical figure they desperately wanted to tell everyone about. I remember sitting behind one of them in class on more than one occasion and feeling queasy (although whatever I'd had to drink the night before probably had something to do with that).

They went out of their way to insult anyone who appeared to be having fun. There were a few in the hall of my dorm, and they were never content to keep to themselves. Instead, they would sit in their open door ways and ask intrusive questions about where I was going so late and wouldn't I rather play cards with them than go to a party, etc. I had no qualms about telling them to fuck off and keep that Jesus shit to themselves, but I never initiated the interactions.

From what Friendly Atheist reports and what I have seen in my workplace, the crusaders have changed their tactics a bit. I see the sort of random messages, web addresses, and the like all the time. The goal is quite clear - put out an ambiguous message to arouse curiosity and then spring the trap when people investigate. I suppose this tactic makes sense. After all, when one's message has become aversive to so many, trickery may be one's only option.

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April 12, 2009

Happy Zombie Jesus Day!

Zombie JesusI just couldn't stand the thought of not doing any sort of Easter post, but I really didn't have time to write one since I am playing host to the family this week. What to do? I figured I'd dust off an Easter post from a previous year. What is it they used to say about reruns on TV? If you haven't read it, it is new to you! With that in mind, you'll find links to my last three Easter posts below. Happy dead Jesus hanging on a stick day! Happy zombie Jesus day! Hell, just have a good day.

Easter posts from the last three years (damn, have I really been at this that long?):
While I am somewhat bummed that I didn't have time to write an original post for this year, it really isn't a holiday that deserves much comment. Besides, something tells me that others in the atheist blogosphere will cover it thoroughly.

April 11, 2009

Fun with the Parents

Cover of "What's So Great About Christian...Cover via Amazon

By the time you read this, my parents will have descended on my little atheist sanctuary for a visit. It will be good to see them (for at least a day or two of the week they will likely be here), but I do not expect to have much time for blogging. For the next few days, I may have to be content with Twitter updates. There is at least one interesting argument I am anticipating while they are here.

My mom sent me a copy of D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity (not a damn thing) about a month ago. She knows I am an atheist but it convinced that it is just a phase I've been going through for the past 20 years that I will outgrow any day now. Denial sure is a powerful thing.

The last time they were here, my mom stared at my atheist bookshelf for an uncomfortable period of time until I asked her whether she wanted to borrow a book. You should remind me to post a picture of my atheist book collection one of these days. Anyway, I expect I'll be asked whether I've read the D'Souza book within a day or two. That should make for an interesting conversation.

Hey, here's an idea: while I'm occupied with trying to prevent my soul from being saved for the next few days or so, why don't you use the comments to share some of your experiences with your parents around the subject of religion? Could be fun.

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April 10, 2009

Words of Wisdom: Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation cover
Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments.
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage)

April 9, 2009

Film Review: Friends of God

Cover of "Friends of God: A Road Trip wit...Cover via Amazon

I have not had the opportunity to see Religulous yet, but I hope to do so fairly soon. I did recently catch a documentary that I had missed when aired on HBO in 2007: Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi. It was indeed directed by Nancy Pelosi's daughter, but don't let that dissuade you from seeing it. Alexandra was far less annoying than her mother. I think this film is definitely worth seeing, and I'll provide a brief synopsis and review below for those who have not seen it yet.

Friends of God is both a road film and an intriguing documentary about America's evangelical Christians. Pelosi and her crew film their journey across the American bible belt and provide viewers with reasonably fair portrayal of evangelical Christians in this region. What sets this film apart from many others is that it allows evangelical Christians to discuss their beliefs without any sort of mockery or antagonism. In fact, Pelosi's stance through much of the film is that of a good reporter who genuinely wants to understand her subject matter.

The film does a commendable job of including both ordinary evangelical Americans and the famous ones often tasked with speaking for them. You'll see many of the current or former big dogs in the evangelical community, including Ron Luce (Battle Cry), Ken Ham, Jerry Falwell, and Ted Haggard. They explain what they believe and why. You'll also see how they work to mold their flocks of evangelical activists.

Comparisons with Jesus Camp are inevitable, but while there are admittedly similarities, Friends of God is not merely Jesus Camp light. I liken Jesus Camp to a kick in the nuts of the reality-based community. I feel sick just thinking about it. While it was an effective wake-up call that should be required viewing for every American, it was as much about shock than about education. As disturbing as Friends of God was (and it was indeed disturbing), I did not have the same visceral reaction. In fact, the tone was much more one of trying to understand the subject matter rather than using it for shock value. As such, it is probably a better film for the purpose of creating productive dialogue.

I was not previously familiar with Alexandra Pelosi, but it turns out that she is far from just someone with a famous mother who fell into this role. She started out covering politics in Washington, D.C. before serving as a network news producer for several years. She won an Emmy for her first film, Journeys with George (2000), and earned considerable praise from conservatives for her fair coverage of the 18 months she spent with George W. Bush during his campaign. In short, she was well suited for Friends of God and managed to pull it off exceptionally well.

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April 8, 2009

Another Form of Extremism

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 13: Radio talk show host ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Atheists and Christians alike agree that Islamic extremism is a repressive force that violates human rights and spawns an unacceptably dangerous sort of conflict in our modern world. Many atheists, especially those living in highly religious areas, recognize that Christian extremism (must-see video here) is also problematic. We find the image of rapture-ready Christians in positions of political power more than a little disconcerting. But there is another form of extremism, one often intertwined with but separable from Christian extremism, to which we have payed insufficient attention.

We can disagree about whether right-wing talk radio and certain Fox pundits are engaged in hate speech, but we must not lose sight of the fact that they represent a form of extremism. Millions of Americans tune in each day to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, O'Reilly, Boortz, and their associates. In doing so, they are treated to Republican talking points and misinformation. But the problem is not merely one of well-orchestrated political propaganda; it is one of extremism.

I am not necessarily claiming that the assorted pundits are themselves extremists. I suspect that some are while others are simply opportunists. My concern is with their audience. We have seen too many disturbing examples of the effects of this sort of extremism at political rallies and in acts of domestic terrorism. We have witnessed the ease with which anyone who disagrees with them is accused of hating America. In short, we have seen the impact of hate media.

This sort of extremism presents a thorny problem because many of us would defend, at least up to a point, the right of these individuals to say what they say. One important question involves the precise location of the point at which free speech turns into the sort of hate speech that no longer warrants protection. Another question, and one which I see as even more important, involves what can be done about this sort of extremism other than censorship.

Remember, censorship involves governmental action to restrict free speech. That would be a mistake, even in this case. An alternative, which many people confuse with censorship, would be to make sure that the businesses buying ads on extremist TV and radio know what they are sponsoring and that their customers know too. I am not sure that this would be the best course of action either, but I am coming to believe that some sort of action will soon be necessary.

In the unlikely event that any avid consumers of right-wing extremism read this far, I would like to say a few words about your likely reaction: what about left-wing extremism. This label is probably used in reference to Olbermann and Maddow more than anyone else, and I will concede that both are more about liberal punditry, Democratic talking points, and biased opinion than news. The thing is, even at their most biased, Olbermann and Maddow rarely sound hateful. They are upset, frustrated, and even angry at times, but I can think of few examples where they crossed the line into hate, demonizing the opponent, or advocating violence. There is bias on the left, but there is also an important qualitative difference.

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April 7, 2009

Raising Awareness of Anti-Atheist Bigotry

Seal of the University of OklahomaImage via Wikipedia

College student, Zac Smith, has written an excellent column in The Oklahoma Daily, the University of Oklahoma's student paper. The column, "Anti-atheist prejudice widespread in America," is an impressive step toward raising awareness among readers about what it is like to be an atheist in America today. I applaud Zac for having the courage to write this. I hope it will be widely read and inspire others.

I'd like to highlight a few excerpts that really caught my attention. Remember, this is a college student writing in his college paper under his real name.
The prevalence of this sort of stereotyping, particularly in highly conservative areas like Oklahoma, is unfortunate.

The reality is that an atheist is not someone who is morally rudderless, who wants to eradicate all religion, who is “angry at God,” who worships Richard Dawkins or who is even certain of the nonexistence of a god.
Right. An atheist is someone who does not accept the theist's claim that god(s) exist. Nothing more. But the consciousness raising Zac does here is not limited to religious believers. There are plenty of atheists who would do well to heed his words too.
Nor am I incontrovertibly certain of the nonexistence of a god or gods. If evidence emerged suggesting the existence of a god, I would readily adjust the certainty of my atheism.
I have encountered nearly as many atheists who buy into this view of atheism as requiring absolute certainty that no god or gods exist as I have theists who hold this view. Both are mistaken. As Zac reminds us, we do not accept the theistic claim because there is insufficient evidence for doing so. If such evidence were to emerge, we would change our minds. That does not make us somehow agnostic; it makes us rational.

Zac also reminds his readers that atheists do not seek to ban religion. He mentions that he has never met one who would advocate a legal ban on religion, and I echo that experience here. It is not the existence of religion that bothers us.
However, it does bother me when unwarranted stereotyping is used as a justification for intolerance toward atheists.

It bothers me that coming out as an atheist would be suicide for politicians in most parts of the country.

It bothers me that my sister was mocked and harassed in high school for her own lack of belief.

It bothers me that, throughout America, people are being intimidated into silence about the very simple and unthreatening fact that they don’t believe in a god.
This is precisely why increasing numbers of American atheists are beginning to "come out" and say enough is enough. We are tired of the anti-atheist bigotry, and more of us are willing to speak out against it. If this leads panicking theists to label us as hostile, then so be it. We should remember that other marginalized groups have been called this and worse when fighting for their civil rights.

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