November 30, 2009

Christianity Intruded on my Thanksgiving

religion.jpgHere's a quick story about a recent experience with Christian privilege. This is the sort of thing I keep in mind when Christians ask me why I devote any time to thinking about their preferred religion: I rarely have a day go by when I am given the opportunity to do so.

The family was in town from out of state for Thanksgiving. Hosting out-of-town guests is always somewhat stressful. This visit was complicated by my having one of the worst colds I've had in awhile. I felt awful for the last several days, and I know I was a lousy host. Along with the added stress, I had the guilt of knowing I was no fun to be around.

You may think that this context would be a rather volatile environment for any mention of religion. You'd be correct. To my credit, I never brought up anything remotely related to religion. I knew it could create conflict, and I was hoping to avoid that. Of course, I can't say that everyone exercised the same restraint.

The first and most annoying mention involved me being informed that my immediate family had evidently been discussing my "negative attitudes" toward religion with various extended family members who I never see anymore. Even though I don't spend any time around these other folks, I would like to maintain a cordial long-distance relationship with them. I don't think that is too much to ask. They are family, after all. Besides, discussing my atheism without me being there to speak for myself, correct misconceptions, and the like strikes me as incredibly rude.

I was plenty annoyed with how this had come up so casually, but my frustration peaked when a package arrived in the mail the next day from these extended family members containing a religious book. I'll likely vent more about the particular book in a future post and have already been doing so over Twitter. Basically, it was one of the many efforts by so-called liberal Christians to reclaim their ridiculous bible from the fundamentalists. Content aside, getting this thing in the mail on the heels of learning of this discussion was too much. It indicated that the discussion had been more serious than how it had been presented, so much so that it prompted efforts to "save" me.

I give myself credit for keeping my tirade brief and relatively free of four-letter words. The just of it would have been familiar to you, focusing mostly on the absurdity of claiming that a book is "holy" and then reinterpreting to fit one's purposes to such an extent that the resulting interpretation bears virtually no resemblance to the words contained therein. But I was mad, and I didn't hide it very well. In the end, I told my guests that they should take the book with them or else I would burn it in the backyard hours after they left. They took it.

I plan to ignore the issue as far as the extended family is concerned. Nothing to be gained there. And yet, if I receive phone calls or emails wanting to know what I thought of the book, etc., I will explain that I did not read it and have no interest in doing so. And yes, I will explain why.

So what does any of this have to do with Christian privilege? You see, I get to be the deviant one because I don't believe in souls, demons, angels, or gods. I get to be the subject of discussion when I am not present, as undoubtedly well-meaning Christians try to decide how best to fix me. I'm perfectly content being deviant and abnormal in the sense that I belong to a tiny minority (i.e., atheists). But I am not at all okay with being looked down on for it. I'm not okay with it being viewed as broken because I do not share what amounts to a popular delusion.

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November 29, 2009

Words of Wisdom: Austin Cline

Again and again, I have heard Christians scoff at anti-atheist bigotry, claiming that it is exaggerated or even imagined. They claim that we are being overly sensitive, and yet they are quick to scream bloody murder when their privileged status is threatened in any way. As Austin Cline reminded us in a recent post:
The existence of bigotry, fear, distrust, suspicion, hatred, and even discrimination against atheists in America is undeniable after any sincere appraisal of the evidence — and that evidence is probably just a small piece of the real picture, given how many atheists tend to remain in the closet about their real feelings.
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November 27, 2009

The Question Christians Must Answer

In a recent post, The Secular Thinker asked the question that many of us ask again and again when pondering Christians and what they profess to believe:
If you really believe that God exists, wouldn't you do everything you possibly could to praise and please him. The Bible sure thinks so, yet so many "Christians" take it only half way. They believe what they want to believe, and they ignore what they don't. If they could only step back and see what is going on there, perhaps they would realize the paradox of their beliefs.
I cannot count the number of times I have asked the same question. While I have received many answers, none are even remotely satisfactory.

This question, and minor variations of it, pose what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle to all Christians except for perhaps the most rabid biblical literalists. Although I have never met anyone who actually lived as if they believed every word in the Christian bible was the literal word of a divine being, I accept the possibility that such people might be out there somewhere.

The Secular Thinker draws on his (or her) experience as an atheist attending a Catholic college, noting that it was difficult to distinguish Catholic students from non-Catholics.
I know so many people who believe that the God of the Bible (which one?) actually exists, yet they break the 10 Commandments all the time. Honestly, if you believe this all knowing, all powerful, ever present being exists, then shouldn't you be doing everything you can to do what he/she/it says?
A common response, one that I have received many times, is that nobody is perfect and that these students cannot be expected to never violate god's laws. But if one really believed that one's eternal soul was in jeopardy, wouldn't one be able to avoid breaking whatever version of the 10 Commandments one was taught? The "nobody's perfect" response does not strike me as a viable one.

Observations like these lead many atheists, and more than a few Christians I suspect, to question the sincerity of the beliefs professed by some Christians. Perhaps they do not really believe what they claim to believe and simply maintain the appearance of such beliefs for the sake of the social benefits they confer (e.g., being part of a religious community, etc.). Perhaps they profess the beliefs because they were taught from an early age that this is what they are supposed to believe. Perhaps they try with all their might to convince themselves that they believe these things because doing so carries some sort of emotional benefit. What such individuals describe as a "crisis of faith" may be little more than their rational mind revolting at the incongruence between their claimed beliefs and their behavior.

What it boils down to for me, again and again, is that the overwhelming majority of those who call themselves Christians do not behave as if their souls were at risk. Few even seem to have a clear idea of what their bible says.

The funny (or sad) thing is that the last time I posted something along these lines, it was picked up and linked at a Christian blog. The blogger expressed agreement and joined me in lamenting the problem of "fake Christians," evidently missing the point entirely. It seems to me that a real Christian would have to be one who wholeheartedly rejected the arrogance associated with attempting to interpret the meaning of his or her "holy" scripture and instead lived as if every word of it was true.

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November 26, 2009

The Left Should Be Emulating Republican Infighting

republican_jesus2.jpgOne of the big political stories in the U.S. right now concerns the in-fighting taking place in the Republican Party. In a nutshell, the extreme-right wing of the already far-right party is attempting to dispel those they consider not socially conservative enough. In one of the more dramatic examples of this, they ran a Conservative Party candidate against the Republican candidate in a New York state race, which the Democratic opponent ended up winning. Those on the left are having a great time with this because they've managed to convince themselves that it marks the end of the Republican Party. I find much of their criticism to be shortsighted. While I do not agree with much of anything associated with far-right politics, I do think that their struggle to redefine what they stand for is something the left should be doing as well.

The conventional criticism of Republican infighting coming from the left is that they are promoting ideological purity at the expense of numbers. That is, by purging those deemed not socially conservative enough, they are guaranteeing that they will end up as a small, weak party that only has influence in the South. By alienating the "moderates," they are assuring that their candidates will never win general elections. Even some Republicans agree with this analysis.

I believe that this criticism glosses over some important facts:
  • The recent election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress had far more to do with Bush's colossal failures and multiple Republican scandals than it did with any disagreement with the Republican platform.
  • President Obama is no progressive and his election does not represent any sort of meaningful shift to the left. Most of the Democrats elected in the last election were to the right of center.
  • Progressives certainly helped to elect Obama, but their agenda has largely been ignored by this president.
What those on the left criticizing Republicans do not seem to realize is that there is a very real dissatisfaction with the present administration brewing among political progressives. As our agenda continues to be ignored, dissatisfaction turns to alienation. Just where is our motivation to turn out in great numbers to re-elect Democrats in 2010 and 2012?

As someone commenting from the left side of the spectrum, I envy what the Republicans are doing. I wish that we on the left were following suit, forming a progressive party far to the left of where the Democratic Party has drifted. What is the point of working to win elections when one's elected officials do not represent the base who worked so hard to elect them?

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November 25, 2009

I'm Thankful That Christians Haven't Killed Me Yet

Thanksgiving turkeyMan, I used to hate that tradition of making everyone at the Thanksgiving table go around and say what they are thankful for each year. Just another pointless ritual I could do without. But this year, I actually do have one in mind. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that Christians haven't killed me yet.

Many Christians are fond of claiming that they believe every word of their bible, consider it the inerrant word of their god, and attempt to base their lives on it. So you can imagine my concern when I picked up one of their bibles and read that it tells them to kill nonbelievers.

November 24, 2009

How to Write an Anti-Atheist Hit Piece

Reward of the AtheistDisclaimer: I am using the article referenced in this post to demonstrate the point I am trying to make about the manner in which the sort of anti-atheist hit pieces with which we are all too familiar are written. I am not claiming that the author of this particular article was necessarily trying to write such a piece. For all I know, the author is an atheist trying to raise public awareness about the subject of his article.

I draw your attention to a recent article written by Fred Swegles for The Orange County Register. If you read the article, you will see the extremely common set up for an anti-atheist hit piece perfectly illustrated.

The Set Up

Swegles' story deals with a resident of his city, San Clemente, asking questions about whether a promotional banner erected by the city violates separation of church and state. The banner depicts part of the San Clemente Presbyterian Church, including a Christian cross that is part of the church.

The good news is that the city manager evidently consulted an attorney, decided that the citizen had a point, and asked the Chamber of Commerce to replace the banner.

The Protagonist

Now we meet Lynn Wood, chief executive of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce. She agreed to remove the banner but "is saddened by it." The key in introducing the protagonist is to depict him or her in the most sympathetic way possible but also in such a way that the audience will not just empathize but will also become enraged over the wrong he or she suffered. Let's see what Swegles comes up with for our example:
With what just happened at Fort Hood and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” she said, “I think it’s sad that we can be focused on a banner and not looking at the big picture of what’s going on in this world.
Wow! Fort Hood, Afghanistan, and Iraq! Perfect images to inflame an audience. Not only is this citizen, not overtly labeled an atheist, doing something petty but also something that might somehow harm our troops!

The Villain

Just who is this depraved individual? It turns out to be local resident, Susan Pierce, who had the nerve to suggest that this banner might not be appropriate given that pesky church-state separation and all.
Can public funds be expended for church and religious symbol display?
Oh no she didn't! She has some explaining to do, but naturally, she "could not be reached for further comment." Obviously, she is hiding something, right?

Maybe what she is hiding is a desire to threaten our way of life. We are then told that banners just like this one have been used in San Clemente for 5-6 years. We're assured there is nothing wrong with such banners. And then...wait for it...we're told that this is the first time anybody has complained.


What I am suggesting here is that there is a fairly simple formula to stories designed to enrage the public and that we see it used in most anti-atheist hit pieces. I am not kidding when I say that this is the fourth such article I have read today that used exactly the same formula even though the context and players were different. I selected this article as my example because it was the one least likely to be viewed as a hit piece, and yet, it still illustrates the formula perfectly well.

November 23, 2009

Psalm 109:8 Reveals Christian Extremist Hate

281_Fascism.jpgI have repeatedly used this blog as a platform to call attention to the dangers of Christian extremism in the United States. Unfortunately, this label has still not caught on. Far too many remain content to view religious extremism as something Muslims do that doesn't apply to Christians. I used to think that the explanation was as simple as people not wanting to acknowledge that Christianity could be every bit as dangerous as Islam for fear of offending the Christian majority that controls the U.S. I'm not so sure about that anymore. Even atheists have been reluctant to apply the Christian extremist label to practitioners of this form of extremism.

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Christian extremists in the United States are rallying behind an obscure passage from their bibles to promote imprecatory prayer against President Obama. That is, they are praying for the death of their president and encouraging others to do the same by spreading this meme of hatred through a variety of commercial ventures.

Psalm 109:8 seems innocent enough at first glance.
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
They are unhappy with President Obama and want him replaced, ideally by Sarah Palin. However, the problem with this becomes readily apparent when we examine Psalm 109. Take Paliban Daily's suggestion and look over Psalm 109:1-19. Paints a very different picture, doesn't it?

Read in context, it is painfully clear that "let his days be few" is indeed an imprecatory prayer. This line is not referring to President Obama's time in office, but his time among us. Psalm 109:9 makes this extremely clear.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
These Christian extremists are praying for the death of our President. This is Christian extremism on display for all to see. As Paliban Daily notes,
They are openly praying and asking you to pray that the President of the United States be cursed by their god, that he die and his family suffer horribly in poverty and aided by none until they are all wiped out.
Where is the media on this? Where is the outrage? Where are the so-called moderate Christians? Is a religion that shields this sort of thing simply to preserve it self really worth maintaining?

I hope to see everyone with an outlet (e.g., a blog, a podcast, a local newspaper that accepts letters to the editor, etc.) talking about this and referring to Christian extremism. This sort of thing can be ignored no more.

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November 22, 2009

I Am An Atheist Because...

Atheism illustration4Image via Wikipedia
Why are you an atheist? When someone learns of your atheism for the first time, I think it makes sense to expect that the why question will soon follow. It is a fair question, especially for those of us who live in areas that are especially hostile to atheists. The thing is, this question can catch one off guard because providing a complete answer can be a lengthy exercise. I'll give you my answer below, and I'd be interested to hear yours too.

The brief version of my response would be something like the following:
I am an atheist because I find the existence of gods to be so implausible that it makes more sense to me to assume that no such beings exist.
In elaborating my response more fully, I would try to address the following points because it has been my experience that many people are confused about some of them:

  • Being an atheist simply means that I do not believe that any gods exist.
  • When I say I am an atheist, that does not mean that I am 100% certain that no gods could ever exist; it just means that I do not happen to believe that any do exist.
  • I am an atheist for the same reasons that you don't believe in other gods: there is no evidence that they exist, and you recognize that it would be nuts to believe in something so far-fetched without compelling evidence.
I recognize that it can be tiresome to constantly have to teach others about atheism. I suppose you can blame the religious for all the misconceptions and stereotypes, but that is not going to absolve any of us of the responsibility to inform others. Perhaps we should embrace a role as ambassadors of atheism.

How about you? How do you typically complete the "I am an atheist because" stem when it comes up?

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November 21, 2009

Abstinence-Only Sex Education to Make Comeback

Think Progress is reporting that the Senate version of the health care bill restores funding for abstinence-only sex education after Obama's FY2010 budget eliminate it. I'm sure you will remember that the reason it was cut from the budget in the first place was that abstinence-only sex education does not work. And yet, it has somehow made it into the Senate bill. It sounds like we have Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to thank for that.

It really baffles me why the Democrats are so eager to compromise with Republicans who are not going to vote for the final bill no matter what is in it. A bad bill may be better than no bill with regard to Obama's 2012 reelection, but I am not convinced that a bad bill is what the people need. I'm also not convinced that Obama deserves reelection.

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Invitations to Attend Religious Ceremonies

religious ceremonyA guy I work with but do not know particularly well recently invited me to a religious ceremony for one of his children. I politely declined the invitation because, at least in part, I had plans for the date in question. Later, I found myself wondering whether I would have seriously considered attending even if I did not have a prior commitment. The ceremony was one with which I was not particularly familiar, and the religion itself was one about which I know very little. I could have labeled it a cultural experience and gone to satisfy my curiosity. I might have learned something.

On the other hand, I have been fairly content to avoid religious services of any sort over the years. Ever since I reached the age where my parents decided I was too old to keep forcing me to attend church with them, I've minimized the time spent in such settings. As an adult, I've made the decision to steer clear of such settings completely. I have not set foot in a church of any kind in roughly 10 years.

November 19, 2009

Teabagging for Jesus

Start with a fundamental lack of understanding that many of the same services on which one relies are paid for by the same taxes one hates having to pay. Add a deep but highly selective mistrust for government (i.e., it really only applies to Democratic officials). Toss in a pinch of racism and a sprinkle of serious delusion (e.g., birthers, deathers, czarists, etc.). Heat to a rolling boil over the fires of misinformation and extremist propaganda provided by Fox "News" and right-wing talk radio. Now add several measures of Christian extremism. Congratulations, you have cooked up a tasty Bachmann protest that would make Sarah Palin proud!

As atheists in the U.S. watch this debacle, one of the primary sources of intrigue is the role which Christian extremism is taking. If a recent article in The New Republic is to be believed, it is an expanding role.
Well, this time, the Tea Partiers brought their Bibles with them. “It’s a bailout for the abortion industry!” one speaker on the steps of the Capitol cried. And before Bachmann took the stage, a preacher from Maryland led an opening prayer that praised the Almighty for “the torch of liberty lit in this land,” followed by a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. “One nation, UNDER GOD, indivisible…” the protesters chanted, yelling out the phrase that deserved special emphasis.
This is precisely the sort of observation of which atheists should sit up and take note. If you are like me, you are growing somewhat weary of the whole anti-health care spectacle. It is stressful to be reminded day after day that one is surrounded on all sides by idiots. One needs to turn off the news every so often and escape. And yet, if this article is correct, we may be seeing the early stages of something that should be cause for great concern.

As Christian extremists, led by those opposed to reproductive rights, enter the already volatile mix, we are forced to wonder how much worse things may get before they begin to improve. In the last week, I have found myself starting to ponder what I believe may soon become inevitable questions. What happens if the U.S. continues to become increasingly divided along political lines? Is there a point of no return beyond which there will be no clear way forward?

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Tags: Bachmann, Palin, Christian extremism

November 18, 2009

When Tolerance is Not Viable

Santa Claus
Astreja asks a thought-provoking question over at, "Where do we draw the line between tolerating or attacking someone else's weird ideas?" I suppose that "tolerating" in this context likely refers to remaining silent on the subject of someone's beliefs even if one does not agree with them. Thus, we might rephrase the question to be one of how we decide to speak out and criticize a belief versus keeping our thoughts to ourselves. I suspect the decision usually boils down to our estimation of the likelihood that a particular belief will be harmful, doesn't it?

When I encounter a parent telling her children about Santa Claus, I find it unfortunate that someone would lie to one's own child merely for entertainment purposes. However, I feel little need to say anything. The potential for harm here seems trivially small. I cannot say the same for the Muslim parent instructing his son in the virtues of martyrdom or the Christian who tells her daughter that her Jewish friends will go to hell because they have not been "saved."

These beliefs (i.e., those that are both false and have a reasonably high potential to cause harm) must not be tolerated. No, they must be challenged and criticized in the hope that the person holding them will see the error of his or her ways and modify them.

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November 17, 2009

"Support Our Troops" vs. Homeless Veterans

CFT2.jpgI am not a pacifist any more, but I do find the U.S. to be unacceptably pro-war. Although I did not support the first Gulf War, I did understand the need to intervene in order to help an ally (i.e., Kuwait). My primary objection to that war was that I found myself doubting that we would have been so quick to help an ally without oil. But I could at least swallow the concept of helping an ally who had been invaded. Similarly, I understood the need to go into Afghanistan following 9/11. This seemed like defensible move, even if it is not clear to me why we are still there and now appear to be on the verge of committing even more troops.

The second invasion of Iraq was absolutely unjustified, and never should have been permitted. As much as I detest W, I place the majority of the blame for this war on the shoulders of Congressional Democrats. They had multiple opportunities to stop it, including those that came well after they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, and yet they lacked the political will. They let our country down in a massive way and deserve to lose their offices as a result. This does not mean that I hold W blameless, only that I do not accept the Democratic claims that this was solely his war. Besides, we are still there.

When I was in college, I had great difficulty understanding why some of my friends had joined the military to go fight a war in which they did not believe. Again and again, I wondered if the real power to change U.S. foreign policy rest with those who were considering joining the military. If they just said "no," there would not be enough troops to fight unnecessary wars. Bring back the draft and see how long it would take the flag-waving morons who mindlessly chant "USA USA" at every sporting event to change their tunes.

Perhaps this was naive of me. I felt like the cost of war was being hidden and that the majority of the population was so disconnected from the true cost that supporting a war became little different from supporting a sports team. Win or lose, it doesn't really affect them. Meanwhile, the military families must bear the burden with precious little assistance. It doesn't seem fair at all.

I am well aware that criticizing those who make the decision to send our young men and women into combat inevitably brings accusations of failing to "support our troops." These same accusations should be flipped and applied to those who refuse to fund the Veterans Administration, those who deny the existence of atheists in the military, and who object to providing those who served their country with the best possible care.

There should be no homeless veterans in the U.S. One is too many. If even a tiny proportion of those who affix "support our troops" stickers to their vehicles and feel self-righteous about doing so would contribute some money, to provide shelter to those they claim to support so much, this problem would evaporate before our eyes.

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November 16, 2009

Contact Me

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Good to hear from you! As you might imagine, I receive quite a bit of email (and not all of it is hate mail). I also happen to be chronically disorganized, and this means that it may take me awhile to get back to you. I do make an effort to respond though, so please be patient.

You can also find me on Twitter (@vjack), and I tend to check that more often than email.

Atheists Face Discrimination in the U.S.

Atheists are one of the most despised minorities in the U.S., and anti-atheist bigotry is both widespread and socially acceptable in many areas. When we consider the fact that many religious believers have convinced themselves that our refusal to share their beliefs makes us inherently immoral, it is not surprising that they condemn us. Some go so far as to claim that we are less than fully human, reducing the prohibitions against inflicting harm on us that might normally be in place.

One response I have routinely encountered from Christians, and even a few atheists, is that negative attitudes aside, atheists are not actually discriminated against. Ah denial, is there nothing you can't do?

November 15, 2009

What I Like Most About Christmas

war_on_christmas.jpgI know we're still in November at Thanksgiving hasn't even happened yet, but that has not stopped Christian extremist groups such as the American Family Association from whining about the "war on Christmas." It seems that this has been such a great source of fundraising for the far right that it has become an annual tradition. Well, it also happens to be what I like most about Christmas.

You and I both know that there is no war on Christmas. This is nothing more than a marketing ploy. But you know what? It is also a showcase for Christian extremist idiocy, and I happen to find it quite entertaining. Why? Because one does not have to venture far into the manufactured controversy before discovering that the "war on Christmas" shines a very bright light on the subject of Christian privilege.

November 14, 2009

Idiot of the Week: Catholic Archdiocese of Washington

catholic-priest.gifThis bit of idiocy is perfect for pointing out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and while I expect you've already heard about it, I figured it could use additional publicity.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has provided Washington D.C. with a simple ultimatum: change a proposed same-sex marriage law or the Catholics will stop providing social service programs to the city. I so wish the city would come back with something like, "Drop your social service programs, and we'll revoke your tax exempt status."

The Catholics are upset because the law under consideration would prevent them from discriminating against homosexuals. That's it. They are threatening to drop their social service programs to make it easier for them to discriminate against others. How's that for Christian morality?

Let them drop their programs, and see how much lower their reputation can sink. Right now, their positive contributions in various communities are the only thing preventing them from being shutdown for pedophilia. If they want to throw that away, let them.

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November 13, 2009

Cincinnati Christians Threaten Landowner Over Atheist Billboard

The billboard in Cincinnati had a simple message: "Don’t Believe In God? You are not alone." And yet this was sufficient to outrage some Cincinnati Christians enough to issue "multiple, significant" threats against the owner of the land on which the billboard appeared, prompting it to be relocated.

I agree completely with co-coordinator of the Cincinnati Coalition of Reason, Shawn Jeffers on this point:
Everything that has happened shows just how vital our message is. It proves our point, that bigotry against people who don't believe in a god is still very real in America. Only when we atheists, agnostics and humanists come together and go public about our views will people have a chance to learn that we too are part of the community and deserve respect.
Absolutely! This shows me that we need one of these billboards in every community.

H/T to Pharyngula

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November 12, 2009

What's So Bad About Religion?

I have never met an atheist who would claim that religion is the source of all evil in the world and that a post-religious world would necessarily be some sort of Utopian paradise. In the interest of full disclosure, I have encountered more than a few atheists online who say things that make me suspect they may believe this; however, I am reasonably confident that these atheists are a small minority. Many atheists long for a post-religious world, but we are realistic about what it would involve. We do not imagine that perfection would be at hand if only religion would slip into the dustbin of history. Progress, yes; perfection, no.

The far more common view among the atheists I have known and most of those I have encountered online, and the one to which I personally subscribe, is that religious belief (i.e., faith) facilitates evil in a way that few other organizations or belief systems are capable. This is an important part of what is so bad about religion.

As Steven Weinberg famously said,
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Again, the claim is not that religion is somehow the source of all evil but that it facilitates a particularly devastating form of evil.

When attempting to convince theists of the perils of faith, many atheists are tempted to start listing religious atrocities. This is an understandable impulse, as there is a nearly infinite number from which to choose, but this is probably a dead end. Historic examples will be disregarded as irrelevant for occurring in another age, and modern examples will be dismissed as being committed by false believers (e.g., denial that the perpetrators were "real Christians," etc.). No, the case must be made by examining the nature of faith itself and the manner in which it was (and still is) used to justify some of the most despicable acts imaginable.

Religion is Inherently Divisive

As Richard Dawkins noted in The God Delusion, religion is inherently divisive. While it undeniably unites those who share a common belief, it does so by dividing them from all others. As Dawkins points out, religion divides us in ways that other types of human differences (e.g., nationality, politics, etc.) generally do not. Examples include labeling children as belonging to various faith traditions about which they may know little, segregating schools, and taboos about marrying out of the in-group. The effects of this divisiveness on assorted conflicts are well known and do not need repeating.

This divisiveness all by itself would be problematic but what makes it far more serious is the manner in which religion serves to dehumanize members of the out-group. We see what the Christian bible says about how nonbelievers are to be dealt with, and we are all familiar with Qur'an instructs when it comes to infidels and apostates. Not content to merely separate the out-group, religion makes the wholesale slaughter of out-group members permissible (and in some cases, almost mandatory).

Religiously-Based Systems of Morality are Deeply Flawed

Even children of a certain age typically recognize that engaging in good behavior and refraining from bad behavior solely because one anticipates reward and fears punishment are not exactly the pinnacle of moral behavior. I suppose I must admit being glad that those Christians who have claimed over the years that they would murder me but for their faith do in fact have their faith, but I have real difficulty seeing this as a moral system worth teaching.

When religious believers tell us that their preferred scripture is "holy," "divine," or the inerrant word of some god, we have little choice but to take them at their word. Unfortunately, this is a terrifying thought for those of us who are familiar with the contents of these texts and the many atrocities they sanction.

I do not deny for a second that religious systems of morality played an important historical role and that many modern institutions were influenced by them directly or indirectly. But this does not mean that we have not outgrown them or that morality has evolved beyond their scope. Moreover, I believe that the stubborn insistence that we cling to such antiquated ethical systems hinders progress in a number of important domains (e.g., human rights, gender equality, reproductive rights, slavery, stem cell research, etc.).

Some Elements of Religious Doctrine are Directly Harmful

Aside from the divisive and frequently dehumanizing effects of religion or problems associated with religious morality, some aspects of religious doctrine are directly harmful. In examining the Christian extremist plague that has been infecting the U.S. for some time now, we find a particularly striking example in the form of "end times" theology. I have previously described how this particular theology endangers us all, it can be effectively reduced to the realization that one will have little motivation to improve one's world if one is convinced that the end is coming during one's lifetime.

I describe this as "directly harmful" because the impact of this theology is direct, obvious, and needs no speculation about the pathway through which it might occur. If a politician is convinced that the end of the world is right around the corner, we cannot expect him or her to pursue policies in the long-term interest of our nation and the future generations which will inhabit it. We may even be forced to imagine the same politician attempting to hasten the end through deliberately provoking wars, foreign occupations, and the like.

Once again, nobody is claiming that religion is the source of all war. But how many other institutions or belief systems could lead one to bring about mass destruction to hasten an afterlife? How many other institutions or belief systems could so effectively motivate the sort of suicide bombings that have become so common in Iraq?


What is so bad about religion is that it divides people and demonizes the out-group to the point where virtually any fate inflicted on them can be justified as divinely sanctioned. What is so bad about religion is that it fosters a primitive form of morality that hinders progress in virtually any domain beneficial to our modern world. What is so bad about religion is that it facilitates the commission of atrocities by good people who are merely pursuing "the divine."

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November 11, 2009

One Good Reason to Oppose H.R. 3962

health care.jpgI don't know about you, but I tend to admire those who stand on principle, doing what is right rather than simply what it popular. Many atheists I have known over the years fit this category. By rejecting faith for reality, they have taken what can be a lonely path but one which has the advantage of being most congruent with reality.

Politicians, it seems, rarely have such a luxury. Their primary aim is often merely to gain re-election. As such, they rarely take principled but unpopular stands. I tend to admire those who do, but I understand that many people will not share this sentiment.

The recent House vote on their version of the health care bill, H.R. 3962, was very close. It passed by only five votes, and I could not help noticing that many Democrats voted against the bill. I admit that my initial reaction on seeing this was one of outrage but I now see that I was most likely wrong.

This bill that does not go nearly far enough. Frankly, anything short of a true single-payer system does not go far enough. Sadly, this was taken off the table at the outset in what I can only call a misguided preemptive compromise. Rather than starting from a position of strength, the Obama administration gave up on progressive health care reform before even beginning the process. They appear to have resigned themselves to the concept that passing reform-in-name-only is better than nothing and redefining this as their goal.

As much as I want to see health care reform, I want to see real reform. Thus, I think Dennis Kucinich was probably correct to vote against the House bill.

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November 10, 2009

Introducing Young Freethought

I received an email recently from Michael, editor of a new blog for young atheists and freethinkers - Young Freethought. He described the goal of his new blog as follows:
Our aim is to begin publishing articles by young people aged 16-21 on topics relating to humanism, science, philosophy and atheism.
Sounds like a great idea to me! I know that some younger atheists have an even harder time feeling like they are part of a community than some of us old farts.

Check out Young Freethought.

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November 9, 2009

Yes, There are Atheists in the Military

obama8.jpgDuring a radio address in which President Obama spoke about the recent murders at Fort Hood, he made a point to acknowledge the existence of atheists in the military. This marks the second time Obama has mentioned nonbelievers. This certainly is a pleasant change from most previous occupants of the White House.

Referring to the diversity of U.S. military personnel, President Obama said something we all know but are still not used to hearing a president acknowledge. That's right, he mentioned nonbelievers again, saying,
They are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.
So our President recognizes that atheists serve in the military. I feel sort of silly for thinking that this is a big deal, but dammit, it is a big deal!

Thank you, President Obama.

H/T to Friendly Atheist

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November 8, 2009

Trying MarsEdit

MarsEditIcon128.jpgEven though I have grown accustomed to writing my posts in Blogger's web interface, I continue to like the idea of an offline editor. Since I am on the Mac platform, I started with Ecto because I had encountered so many rave reviews. I liked it for the most part except that the manner in which it screwed up line spacing in Blogger was unacceptable. I am now trying Ecto's primary competitor, MarsEdit. In fact, I am writing this post using a 30-day trial of MarsEdit.

The interface is not as pleasing as that of Ecto, but what matters most is functionality. Will MarsEdit work with Blogger like Ecto could not?

There does not appear to be a way to construct post templates containing certain lines of HTML that I want in all posts (e.g., code to enable peek-a-boo posts, an RSS subscription link, etc.). However, MarsEdit's macros provide a fairly effective workaround. I can select a keystroke of my choice to have such code added. Not too shabby! Surprisingly, Ecto couldn't do this either.

Compared with Ecto, MarsEdit's Flickr integration is fairly primitive. I have little interest in using it to browse my own meager collection of photos. I want it to be able to search for public domain images in Flickr just like Zemanta does. In general, Ecto's image handling seemed vastly superior. In MarsEdit, it appears that any image manipulation must be done via HTML. Even Blogger's web interface seems more powerful here.

These are merely my first impressions after spending less than an hour with the software. If it can handle spacing appropriately, it might be worth a more in-depth look. However, I must say that I'm not seeing much indication so far that it is going to enhance my blogging by making anything I want to do any easier.

I should also note that I had no luck initially getting MarsEdit to connect to my blog to allow publishing. However, their tech support was extremely helpful and responsive. This is more than I can say for Ecto's support, which never bothered to respond to my questions at all.

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November 7, 2009

Idiot of the Week: John Boehner (Again)

Ah, Saturday at last. Time for another Idiot of the Week award. Let's get to it.

When I first heard that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) was calling for her teabagging supporters to converge on the Capitol to intimidate anyone who might actually support affordable health care, I knew there would be some idiocy on display. Would I have to honor Bachmann yet again in this series? It certainly looked like it. But then someone else would step forward at the last minute to take the prize.

Let me set the stage a bit more. Pictured here to the left is Greenman, a Philadelphia figure made famous by the hillarious TV show, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX). If you haven't been watching it, you are missing out. I am convinced it is the best comedy on TV these days.

The thing about Greenman is that he is supposed to be funny. When someone dons a Greenman costume, they are going to get attention and laughs. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Why the hell am I bringing this up? Good question. I am doing so because I'd like to contrast the image of Greenman with another famous figure, one that is equally hillarious but also pathetic because he isn't meant to be funny. Ladies and gentlemen, I present this week's idiot - Orangeman.

That's right, this Idiot of the Week award goes to Rep. John Boehner (R-OH). What did our winner do to deserve this award? As House Minority Leader, making him a prominent Republican leader in Congress, Rep. Boehner should have known better than to participate in Rep. Bachmann's embarrassing protest. She is well known for her crazy, but Boehner is supposed to be respectable and represent the GOP establishment rather than the fringe. By speaking at her teabagger rally on the Capitol steps, he wholeheartedly embraced her particular brand of crazy and signaled that this is the modern Republican party. Let him be known not just for his bad spray tan or tendency to sob like Glenn Beck but also for willingly associating himself with birther nutjobs comparing health care to Nazi concentration camps.

And yet, this was not enough for Rep. Boehner. During his speech, he proudly displayed a copy of the U.S. Constitution and quoted from it. The problem was, it was not the Constitution he was quoting from but the Declaration of Independence. An honest mistake for you and me, but this is a powerful Congressman who is supposed to know something about our Constitution.

This is the second time Rep. Boehner has been honored here. Something tells me it won't be the last.

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November 6, 2009

Christian Bigotry in Maine

Many people donated money in support of recent efforts to repeal civil rights in Maine, and they were successful in passing "Question 1." As Zack Ford points out after reviewing research by the National Institute on Money in State Politics,
Of the donations supporting the anti-gay Yes on 1 measure in Maine, 89% ($3 million) came from churches, Christian organizations, and their employees. The Catholic Church alone directly contributed $553,608.27.
Now that's some serious Christian bigotry!

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Christian Extremism Alive and Well

I agree completely with Americans United for Separation of Church and State that there are important lessons in the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as the abolition of civil rights in Maine. Christian extremism is alive and well.

According to Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of AU,
I wish I could say the Religious Right is dead, but this election shows that reports of its demise are inaccurate. The pundits who announced the Religious Right's demise in 2008 were simply wrong.
He's right. While nobody is saying that the outcome of these elections was solely based on Christian extremist influence, nobody should deny that there was an influence.
...Americans need to know that this movement's leaders are still influential in American politics. They haven't given up on their crusade to impose their fundamentalist beliefs on everyone through government action.
Our work is not finished. Not by a long shot.

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November 5, 2009

Left Wing Hate Speech

Alan Grayson high resCourtesy of Fox "News" and a plethora of right-wing talk radio personalities, the airwaves are filled with right-wing hate. The influence of these pervasive messages is undeniable. But what about left-wing hate speech? Few would deny that the left harbors its fair share of idiocy, but I have trouble finding much that could be considered left-wing hate speech. So many voices on the right complain about it regularly, but where is it?

We should examine some recent high-profile left-wing flubs, focusing on those that seem to elicit the most outrage from the right. Take Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-FL) use of the word "holocaust" when pointing out how many Americans die simply because they do not have health insurance. You've heard the outrage from the right, and you've seen how Rep. Grayson has been accused of trivializing the Holocaust. I agree with those on the right that this was a poor choice of words, just as I agree with those on the left that Christian extremists' recurrent use of the holocaust label when discussing abortion is a poor choice of words. But while I might disagree with Rep. Grayson's word choice, I don't see this as anywhere close to hate speech.

Unlike those issuing death threats against atheist bloggers or President Obama, Rep. Grayson was not calling for anyone to be killed. Unlike those hoping for military coups against Obama, Grayson was not calling for the Constitution to be abolished. Distasteful? Perhaps. Hate speech? Not even close.

What else? Surely the left is guilty of disparaging Republicans. Rep. Grayson did so recently on Maddow, and Olbermann makes a nightly practice of it on his show. They often sound angry, resort to name calling, and could fairly be accused of lacking in civility in the tradition of GOP hero, Rep. Joe Wilson. I get all that. But hate speech? Maybe Olbermann regularly calls for the death of those with whom he disagrees - maybe he even prays for it, but if so, why is it that I always seem to miss those episodes?

Maybe these aren't fair comparisons because the extreme right is currently out of power. Maybe I need to focus on the left-wing rage directed at Bush and Cheney. I remember hearing (and writing) all sorts of negative stuff about them. I continue to believe that the Bush regime committed war crimes and should be tried as war criminals. But this isn't hate speech anymore than Republican calls for the impeachment and criminal trial of President Clinton were hate speech.

When right-wing extremists call President Obama a fascist or a Communist, it simply indicates that they do not know what those terms mean. But when they call for his death or not-so-subtly suggest that he should be overthrown, we're witnessing something else entirely. And it is something that I don't recall seeing from the left.

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November 3, 2009

Coming Out Atheist: Is Losing Your Relationship Worth It?

coupleYou are in an intimate relationship, and you'd just as soon remain that way. The problem is, s/he is religious while you have come to doubt your faith. After some deep reflection, you have come to the conclusion that you just don't believe all this god stuff anymore. But you are worried that telling your partner about this may irreparably damage your relationship.

What do you do? I can't decide what is right for you in such a case, but I will offer some thoughts on the matter for you to consider.

I'll start by saying that I think the situation I have described, difficult as it is, tends to be far easier than a similar scenario involving one's family. After all, most people will have many more intimate partners during the course of their lives than they will have families. I realize this is not a pleasant notion because you'd prefer to maintain this relationship.

The central question I would want to ask myself in such a predicament is as follows:
How important is it that my partner loves me for being me rather than for being something he or she wants me to be that I am not?
If I do not believe in gods, I would not want to pretend that I did. I would have a hard time remaining in a relationship with someone around whom I did not feel like I could be myself. I would want to give my partner an opportunity to know the real me. This might include my thoughts on the subject of gods and the manner in which belief in them affects the culture in which I reside.

It is fairly common for people in a relationship to be as attracted to the potential of someone rather than to the actual person. And yet, it has been my experience that such relationships are often doomed if they do not quickly progress beyond this point. If I am in love with what I want someone to be rather than what they really are, I'm resigning myself to being perpetually disappointed and unhappy. One could reasonably argue that this wouldn't be a relationship at all but merely a form of narcissism. In any case, it is difficult to imagine such a relationship working in the long run.

Of course, one may decide that maintaining this particular relationship is worthwhile, even if it means concealing one's true self. This wouldn't be my choice, but it is not my place to fault you if it is yours. Being an atheist can be lonely, and there is little point in denying that.

November 2, 2009

Satanism, Atheism, and Anti-Theism

Anti-Christian/Satanic button taken from a pai...
Anti-Christian/Satanic button taken from a pair of pants. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I knew that this series was going to be controversial when I started it. Misconceptions about Satanism abound, even among atheists. And the suggestion that atheists might have something to learn from Satanists has already been criticized even though I have not written anything about it yet.

In the first part of the series, I explained that many Satanists, at least those involved in the Church of Satan, do not worship Satan but are atheists who adopt a strongly anti-theistic position and use Satanic imagery and symbolism to shock. In this post, I'll examine the relationships among this form of Satanism, atheism, and anti-theism. The next post will discuss whether atheists could learn anything from Satanists.

November 1, 2009

A Cyberwar Against Atheists?

Australia, founded July 9, 1900.Image via Wikipedia

A number of Australian atheist websites, including the Atheist Foundation of Australia, were recently hit with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Now it seems that several atheists have had their Twitter accounts hacked. Are these events related? Probably not. I seriously doubt that there is some sort of new cyberwar being organized against atheists. And yet, I think it might be a mistake to conclude that we'll never see such an effort.

If atheism seems to be growing (and it does), it is largely because of the Internet. In only the last few years, we have witnessed explosive growth in atheist blogs, forums, websites, and the like. You may not know many atheists "in real life," but you can easily find us online.

This suggests that cyberattacks will likely continue, even escalate, if the growth trend persists. I suspect we will also see more websites and blogs springing up to attack atheism. The more we are perceived as a threat, the more likely it is that there will be efforts to counter our simple message that no gods are necessary.

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