Further Thoughts on Penn's Libertarianism

The last thread about Penn Jillette's book sparked some debate, so I'd like to revisit the topic. This is what Penn says is his view of the legitimate powers of government:

If I had a gun, and I knew a murder was happening... I would use that gun to stop that murder. I might be too much of a coward to use a gun myself to stop murder or rape or robbery, but I think that use of a gun is justified. I'm even okay with using force to enforce voluntary contracts. I would use a gun to protect the other people who chose to live under this free system. If I were a hero, I would use a gun to stop another country from attacking us and taking away our freedoms. [p.150]

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. We started out with Penn declaring that, in an ideal world, he would heroically use a gun to stop a murder, rape, or robbery. Fair enough, I can get behind that. But then he slides to "enforcing voluntary contracts"? That job may be useful to society, even necessary - but is it heroic? Why is that a more legitimate use of force than the ones he decries?

For instance, why isn't it equally "heroic" to help the sick and the needy? Why isn't it heroic to contribute to building hospitals, schools, libraries, shelters? Personally, I think it's pretty damn heroic to cure someone of cancer, give them a warm bed to sleep in, or get them a heart transplant. A libertarian like Penn might say that there's no merit in doing this if our support is compelled, but it's not at all obvious to me why using guns to enforce voluntary contracts is intrinsically more admirable than using guns to build hospitals or schools.

Penn says he likes libraries but wouldn't object if someone else thinks he has a better use for his own money than spending it to build a library. Well, I can say the same thing: Why should my money be spent on judges and courts just to resolve byzantine legal disputes between massive corporations that have no effect on my life? (The vast majority of lawsuits are filed by corporations suing each other, not by private individuals.) What if I think I have better uses for my money than paying men with guns to enforce voluntary contracts? For example, I can easily imagine an anarcho-libertarian viewpoint which holds that damage to one's own reputation should be the only penalty for breaking a contract.

Or, an even more pertinent example: What if I think I have better things to spend my money on than the police or the military? What if I'm a pacifist and don't believe in having an army at all, or what if I just believe that military spending is too high as it is and disproportionate to any threat our country actually faces? What if I believe the police are unfairly arresting innocent people and want to withhold my funding in protest? Is that a choice I would have in Penn's ideal libertarian state, or would it result in "men with guns" showing up at my doorstep? If the latter, then it seems Penn doesn't believe, after all, that each individual is the best judge of how to spend his or her own money.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

This hysterical, ridiculous "men with guns!" meme works both ways. Using this emotionally charged phrasing, I could say, "There's great joy in running my own business and providing a service that people want and need, but there's no joy in doing it if libertarian government thugs are holding me at gunpoint and forcing me to contribute to this free-market economy." (If you don't think that would happen, try imagining a person living in a libertarian state who declares he doesn't believe in private property and, say, plants a garden on a plot of unused land legally owned by someone else. The guns would come out very quickly, I assure you.)

I would use a gun for defense, police, and courts. Well, well, I'll be hornswoggled, that's pretty much what the Founding Fathers came up with.

Actually, if you want to get technical about it, our founding fathers came up with quite a bit more than just that. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of public schools and libraries. President John Adams signed into law a bill establishing a government-run health care system for sailors, funded by payroll deductions (yes, really), which in its broad outlines isn't all that different from modern systems like Medicare.

More to the point, of course, the founding fathers didn't permanently enshrine a minimal state, nor did they claim to be infallible. They left us a living Constitution which can be changed and amended, precisely because they knew that future generations might see necessities they overlooked or correct errors they made. To name an obvious one, the founding fathers also didn't seem to have a problem with using guns to enforce slavery - a glaring error which we've thankfully corrected.

If there's an argument to be made for a minimal state, it's going to have to be a better one than a subjective list of what seems most "heroic" to one person. It's inherent in all democracies that the majority will sometimes vote for a course of action, such as establishing an income tax, that not everyone will agree with. That's not necessarily an infringement of human rights; it's the inevitable consequence of having a social contract. And even though not everyone can always get their own way, the social contract of democracy is - should be - sustained by the recognition that we're all better off, on average, living in a democracy than we would be under any other kind of government. If that bargain is intolerable to you, you're welcome to seek a country that's more congenial to your viewpoint, whether it be a cooperative communist utopia, a benevolent theocracy, or a completely free libertarian market-state. And if there are no countries which fit your chosen model anywhere in the world, well, there just may be a reason for that.

September 28, 2011, 5:58 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink83 comments

Theocracy Causes Famine

Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.

September 26, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments

The Foo Fighters Outsmart Fred Phelps

Last week, the Westboro Baptist Church (which is choosing increasingly random and bizarre protest targets, including a Swedish vacuum cleaner store) decided to picket a Foo Fighters concert in Kansas City, Missouri. As is their usual strategy, they were no doubt hoping to provoke police or counterprotesters into assaulting them or otherwise violating their constitutional rights, so that they can win a legal settlement to support their continued spreading of hate.

But instead, the WBC was on the receiving end of a hilarious counterprotest. The Foo Fighters themselves came out, dressed up in hillbilly costumes, and put on an impromptu concert on the back of a flatbed truck, singing the song "Hot Buns" (sample lyrics: "Think I'm in the mood for some hot man muffins", which is inexplicably bleeped in the video). Watch it below:

If you watch the video, pay particular attention around 1:20. I think even some of the Westboro Baptist picketers couldn't help cracking smiles!

Like many fundamentalist groups who hunger for persecution, the WBC thrives on being hated; they've come to expect it and feel validated when it occurs. That's precisely why we shouldn't give them what they want, and should instead treat them with laughter and mockery.

That's a response that fundamentalists can't easily tolerate, and the Foo Fighters did the exact right thing - which is one more reason to love them. I already listen to them all the time when I'm at the gym or running, and hearing them mock Fred Phelps is just the icing on the cake. Here's one of my favorites from their latest album Wasting Light:

September 24, 2011, 12:57 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 comments

The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

Although many sects of Christianity consider their own beliefs to be infallible, Catholicism has a formal, bureaucratic process for adding new inerrant teachings to its canon. When the pope speaks "ex cathedra", officially defining a new dogma, it's becomes something that all Catholics are required to profess. (I like to think he has a special "infallible hat" hanging in his wardrobe.) As the church thoughtfully explains, an ex cathedra statement must be true "independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result".

Now, admittedly, it's true that the pope doesn't claim to be infallible about everything he says. (I know, what a humble guy, right?) Although he can theoretically decide to issue an ex cathedra proclamation about anything at any time, it's true that the claim of papal infallibility has only been formally invoked on rare occasions. The last time it was used was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven was an article of dogmatic belief for Catholics.

However, what's less well known is that an official proclamation from the Pope isn't the only way for the Catholic church to issue an infallible teaching. If all bishops throughout the world at any given time agree on a particular belief, then that belief is considered to automatically be infallibly true and dogmatically binding on all Catholics present and future. The church calls this the "ordinary and universal magisterium". Pope John Paul II, for example, explicitly stated that the prohibition on women priests is a permanent and infallible part of Catholic faith because of this doctrine.

The ordinary and universal magisterium is probably also why Pope Paul VI overruled his own handpicked commission when they recommended that the church permit contraception: because even though the pope has never made an ex cathedra statement about birth control, the unanimous agreement of bishops up till that point made it an infallible matter of morals, and therefore, according to the church, impossible for them to ever change their position.

Now, I've got a question: Under the doctrine of the ordinary and universal magisterium, is it an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic church that priests who rape children should be sheltered and protected from the law?

If I understand the principle, the dissent of even one bishop would render this null and void as a church doctrine. But, as far as I'm aware, this has never happened. As far as I'm aware, no Catholic bishop anywhere has ever informed the police voluntarily when a priest was accused of molestation, as opposed to turning over said priest because his proclivities were already known or as part of a legal settlement in which that disclosure was compelled.

It seems absurd that the Catholic hierarchy should hold as an infallible truth of faith that the church should protect pedophiles. And yet, the church's officials have consistently acted as if this is the case. They've consistently acted as if avoiding the embarrassment of a sex predator being discovered among the clergy is more important than preventing that person from preying upon children in his pastoral care. Whether they've explicitly said so or not, they certainly seem to think that shielding child molesters from the law is an essential part of Catholic morals.

September 16, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

The Biblical Cruelty of Child Beating

In 1877, the great freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll wrote these words about the then-common practice of corporal punishment:

I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought to treat them as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality. That is my idea of children.

...I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind.

Even back then, Ingersoll recognized the barbarity of punishing children with beatings and pain. Even then, he was a much greater man, a more loving man, a more compassionate man than the evil, sadistic fundamentalists who still exist today - the ones who believe that whipping a child is an appropriate response to disobedience, that parental decrees should be enforced with fear and pain. Two such people have just been sentenced in California after pleading guilty to beating their 7-year-old adopted daughter to death.

Lydia Schatz's parents were followers of Debi and Michael Pearl, whom I've written about before - the Christian couple who believe that an abused wife's only recourse is to pray to God to strike her husband dead. The Pearls also teach that beating a child is the proper way to make them obedient, and they specifically recommend implements to use for the purpose, such as belts, wooden spoons or quarter-inch plumbing supply tube.

The CNN interview shows the disturbingly large influence the Pearls have in the Christian community - their warehouse full of books, covers boasting "660,000 Sold". Predictably, they deny all responsibility for Lydia Schatz's death, though the interviewer probes no further than that. He also doesn't mention that, in one respect at least, the Pearls are correct: the Bible does teach parents to beat their children. In fact, the Bible treats child-beating not just as one method of discipline among others, but says clearly that it is essential:

"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

—Proverbs 13:24

"Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying."

—Proverbs 19:18

"The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly."

—Proverbs 20:30

"Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."

—Proverbs 23:13-14

So, yes, the Christians who advocate whipping children are following the Bible. That's how we know the Bible is a wicked book, one that teaches a flawed and savage morality far inferior to the compassionate humanism of Robert Ingersoll. Punishing children with beatings doesn't make them moral; it makes them cruel, by teaching them that inflicting pain is a legitimate way of solving a problem. As studies have found, corporal punishment correlates with aggression, antisocial behavior, mental illness, and abuse of one's own family later in life.

The harm done by religion to helpless, vulnerable children is enormous: whether it's religious sects which shun medicine and let their children suffer and slowly die from treatable illnesses, or religious sects which advocate mutilating a child's genitals, or religious sects which actively teach the goodness of beating and torture, or religious sects which simply teach children to be terrified of being attacked by demons or of burning forever in a fiery hell. Lydia Schatz is dead because of cruel and evil teachings like these, and she probably won't be the last. (Did her parents call themselves "pro-life", do you think?) Robert Ingersoll had advice that seems like it was written just for the Schatzes, advice that I hope they'll follow some day, hopefully many years in the future, after they're released from prison:

If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

August 24, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments

Rick Perry's Prayer Follies

Whether you're an atheist or not, you should be alarmed by the sight of elected officials making a big public show of praying during a crisis. It's not that prayer itself does anything one way or the other - it's that their beseeching the gods for help is a good hint, not just that they have no ideas, but that they've given up even trying and are staking their hopes on a miracle. Which is why this story, about the man who happens to be the most recent entrant in the Republican presidential field, is even more disturbing than the usual drumbeat of Christian privilege:

A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:
    "Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas."
    Then the governor prayed, publicly and often. Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the
hottest month in recorded Texas history... In the four months since Perry's request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Nearly all of Texas is now in "extreme or exceptional" drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.

In fact, as reported in a later article, the economic losses from Texas' severe and ongoing drought have now topped $5 billion, setting a record. What conclusion should we draw from this story? Should it be that Perry was praying to the wrong god and the real one got angry and worsened the drought? (Maybe he should try praying to other gods - bowing toward Mecca, say, or sacrificing a bull to Zeus - just to see if one of them will help out.) Or maybe Rick Perry himself is just bad at praying. Maybe he's committed some secret sin that God is punishing him for, and any state or country that he governs will be afflicted by drought and devastation. Or, of course, maybe it's just that God doesn't exist or doesn't answer prayers.

An empirically-minded voter would at least consider all these possibilities. But as a Republican, Perry has the advantage of a huge faction of constituents who think that ostentatious public displays of piety are the same thing as character and virtue, and who can be counted on to remember the prayer and forget the result. The inconvenient fact that his praying didn't help will be filed in a mental drawer and forgotten, just as they're used to forgetting all the times prayer made no difference in their own lives. On the other hand, if he had issued a prayer proclamation and the skies had opened up the day afterward, it would be a miracle remembered for decades, and Perry would probably be using it in his campaign literature right now. From a politician's standpoint, it's a win-win situation (which explains why Georgia's governor tried the same thing in 2007, with equally pathetic results).

The elephant lurking in the room is that these increasingly extreme swings of weather are likely due in part to global climate change. But rather than taking effective action, like shutting down coal-fired power plants or offering tax incentives for alternative energy, the anti-science evangelicals would prefer to squeeze their eyes tightly shut and pray for God to magically rescue them from the crisis of their own making. In fact, they're dead set on continuing to foster antiscientific ignorance.

When hurricanes strike our coasts, the religious right won't call for engineers to build seawalls or restore barrier reefs, they'll bow their heads and try to pray the next storm away. When drought and wildfire strikes, they won't call for more efficient water use, they'll just beg God to send more rain so they can continue their wasteful ways. When the economy plunges, they won't vote for government stimulus to put people back to work, they'll just kneel and implore God to fix it (how they expect this to happen, they never quite say - this one is especially mysterious).

As a growing human population presses against the limits of what our planet can sustain, nothing is more important than steering our course wisely through the next few decades if we're going to thread the needle of survival. This will be difficult enough if we rely on science, but the religious right, having amply demonstrated how relying on faith has worsened their own lives, now wants to have a faith-based civilization. This is like taking a road trip by blindfolding yourself before you get in the driver's seat, spinning the steering wheel at random, and trusting that God will see to it that you end up where you want to go. Unfortunately, we're stuck on the same planet as them, which makes it all the more urgent for those of us who don't share this suicidally irrational faith to loudly and fearlessly defend science and reason.

August 19, 2011, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink47 comments

The Real Meaning of Islamophobia

I don't usually say these sorts of things about Republicans, but good for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is defending his pick of a Muslim for a state judgeship, saying critics of a lawyer who represented suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are "ignorant" and "crazies".

..."This Shariah law business is crap," said Christie, 48. "It's just crazy and I'm tired of dealing with the crazies."

Gov. Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, who represented Muslims swept up in indiscriminate FBI dragnets after 9/11, to a seat on the Superior Court of Passaic County. Many of Mohammed's clients were American citizens, and none of them were convicted or even charged with terrorism, but that naturally doesn't matter to the raving, insane Christianist right:

Some political columnists and bloggers have accused Mohammed of having links to terrorism and said he'll be more likely to follow Shariah law, religious standards based on the Koran, instead of state or federal statutes....

Mohammed was nominated by Christie in January. That month, Debbie Schlussel, a columnist for publications including the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, wrote: "Chris Christie rewarded those Muslim mobs who cheered on U.S. soil for the mass murder of 3,000 Americans with a judgeship."

I wanted to mention this because, especially in the aftermath of the horrifying rampage in Norway last month, "Islamophobia" is a word that too often gets applied to every critic of Islam. I want to make the difference clear - if there's such a thing as Islamophobia, this is it: treating all Muslims as collectively guilty of the 9/11 attacks or other crimes of terrorism, making no distinction between those who supported those acts and those who didn't. To right-wing crazies like Schlussel, Muslims are an undifferentiated mob who all think and believe exactly the same things and who are all equally evil (see also this article, with some equally demented quotes from other right-wingers). It shouldn't escape notice that this is exactly the same way the Jewish people were often caricatured by anti-Semites.

The atheist critique of Islam, however, should be better aimed than this clumsy and belligerent racism. (Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race, but let's not pretend that Sohail Mohammed's being a brown person - he's actually Indian - isn't a factor in this.) We can and should point out the the violent, disturbing or otherwise immoral verses in the Qur'an without thereby accusing every Muslim of complicity in those deeds, just as we can point out the huge number of atrocious and violent verses in the Bible without calling every Christian or Jew a supporter of genocide. And we can and should criticize the evils that have been committed in the name of Islam, not to imply that every Muslim is guilty of them - in fact, other Muslims are more often the victims of these crimes than Westerners - but to encourage people of good will to see the harm done by religion and take a stand against it.

As Sam Harris has said, all major religious texts are "engines of extremism": they all teach primitive, irrational and long-outdated moral standards, and they all condone acts of evil and bloodshed against those who are declared to be enemies of God. When people believe in these texts and take them literally, then we know the result: acid attacks, honor killings, forced veilings of women, mutilation and stoning as punishments, censorship of free speech, oppression of religious minorities, all of which are endemic in Islamic theocracies. The fact that some Western fundamentalists respond with crazed violence of their own doesn't mean that the original acts should escape condemnation. There's a difference between irrational, unjustified fear of all the 1.5 billion people in the world who practice a particular religion, and rational, justified fear of the subset of that larger group who use their faith as an excuse to commit violence and attempt to force medieval moral norms on all of us.

August 10, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

More Filth-Based Initiatives

One of my earliest posts on Daylight Atheism was about the torrent of angry, obscene, hateful messages that inevitably greets any atheist who speaks out in public. We're seeing this happen again, this time aimed at Blair Scott of American Atheists, who recently appeared on Fox News to discuss that group's lawsuit against a cross in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. (Appearing on Fox is a surefire way to bring the angry lunatics out from under their rocks.) Here's a sample:

"i say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is God" —Paul Altum

"Shoot them. Shoot to kill." —Bob O'Connell

"Nail them to that cross then display it" —Mike Holeschek

"these people are f'ing scum of the earth. can we start killing them now?" —Michael Perri [Editor's Note: He can gleefully fantasize about committing mass murder, but he won't type the word "fucking"?]

"I love Jesus, and the cross and if you dont, I hope someone rapes you!" —Sindy Clock

Note, I didn't redact the names. These were Facebook comments, and if anyone is stupid enough to post this kind of filth under their real name, they deserve what they get. As far as I'm concerned, when you start making threats, you forfeit your right to anonymity. You can see these comments and more preserved for posterity, here and here, as well as a third page that preserved a different sampling, although it unfortunately redacted the names of the guilty. (I do have to give credit to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who actually discussed the lawsuit without demagoguing, a rarity among politicians.)

These violent, deranged messages put the lie to the claim that religion is a superior source of morality compared to atheism, much less that it's the only valid source of morality. What it really is, is a tribal marker - a convenient way of identifying those who belong versus those who are outsiders. And while believers can be very compassionate and generous toward fellow members of the tribe, they're equally swift to turn aggressive and violent when someone trespasses on one of the tribe's taboos.

Ths isn't even a new phenomenon. In the 1870s, the famous biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, agreed to answer the challenge of a flat-earther who bet £500 - good money even today and an enormous sum back then - that no one could prove the Earth's surface was curved. The wager involved hanging markers from two bridges along a canal, each at the same distance above the water, and then sighting through a telescope to prove that one was higher than the other due to the planet's curvature. The judge declared that Wallace had won the bet, but his victory brought on a flood of death threats and bile from infuriated flat-earthers. As Steve Jones writes:

A hint of their response comes from a letter to his wife: "Madam – If your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to pulp, you will know the reason."

Although Wallace's hate mail was slightly more literate than the drooling maniacs on Facebook, the striking similarity shows that it doesn't matter what the taboo is, whether it's the flat Earth or crosses in a 9/11 museum. It only matters that a religious faction holds it to be sacred. Announce yourself in opposition to it, and you can be sure you'll attract the hate of the mob. The bright side of this ugliness is that, unlike in ages past, there's a secular community that can point it out and publicize it, which aids our cause by helping to sever the perceived link between religion and morality.

August 5, 2011, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink41 comments

Religious Gas-Lighting

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Religionists are those who wish to make religious law the law of the land and impose their personal interpretations of religious law upon others. They come in many flavors, be they Christianists, Islamists, or what have you. The Republican Christianists in the US are a particularly vile sort of religionist.

See, we have a little thing called the First Amendment to the US Constitution, including both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment is a thing of great beauty, and whatever else may be said about the Founding Fathers, they got this point right. The First Amendment to the US Constitution establishes a near-impenetrable wall of separation between religion and state, despite the Republican Christianists’ efforts to tear it down.

So, the Republican Christianists in the US, since they can’t pass through the wall, are forced to scale the wall. They have to make like wolves in sheep’s clothing and disperse themselves amongst the secularists. They have to feign secular purposes for their religious doctrinal commandments, which they would impose upon the American citizenry. They have to pretend that their personal interpretations of religious canon just happen to coincide with moral majority opinion. It’s not that they are trying to impose religious law upon the citizenry. Oh, no. It’s just that moral majority opinion just happens to coincide perfectly with their personal interpretations of religious law.

This is why you will always see an anti-abortion and anti-women advocate begin with sweeping pronouncements about how EVERYONE wants to make abortion rare. EVERYONE wants to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. EVERYONE hates abortion. EVERYONE thinks abortion is evil.

They don’t want to make women sex slaves and baby incubators, as God demands. Oh, no. They just care so much about the human rights of the unborn babies.

They don’t want to shove their religious doctrine into my uterus. They don’t want to rape me with religious law. Oh, no. They just care so much about the health and safety and wellbeing of women, that they are willing to forego their commitment to small government and a free market and their libertarian principles, in order to spend time with me in my doctor’s office to help me make my own medical decisions.

They don’t want to legalize the sub-human and second-class citizenship status of women. Oh, no. They just want women to make fully informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive choices. They want them to have all of the information.

Or, all of the misinformation.

We can’t let them get away with this anymore. We have to call a spade a spade.

This is also why I would broaden the definition of secularism to preclude the consideration of, not just religious doctrine, but also subjective moral opinions, in the promulgation of secular law. And, think about it. Religious opinion is just another subjective moral opinion. Regardless of the number of adherents.

This is also why I refuse to play their game. This is why I reject the moniker of pro-choice. I am Pro-Abortion and proud. I do NOT want to make abortion rare. I do NOT want to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. I do NOT regard abortion as a necessary evil or as an evil at all. I do NOT hate abortion. I LOVE abortion. I want to encourage women to have abortions. I think abortion may save our overpopulated, dying world and our species. Abortion is safer than pregnancy. It is almost always in a woman’s best medical interests to abort a pregnancy. If you want to save the world, have an abortion.

I am not going to let them get away with their misinformation campaign. I am not going to let them get away with pretending that the moral majority agrees with them. I am not going to let them spread lies.

We will not be gas-lighted anymore. The best way to counteract the societal effects of cultural gas-lighting? Counter-stories of truth and facts and reason and logic.

I am so incensed by the prevalence of “Pregnancy Crisis Centers”, I can’t even tell you. Why are we letting them get away with this? Why? Why are we letting them masquerade as medical professionals to trick and coerce women out of having abortions? Why are we letting them put women’s health and lives and wellbeing at risk? Why are we letting them advertise under false pretenses and spread potentially harmful medical misinformation? Why are we letting them violate the privacy of private citizens? When the government turns a knowing blind eye to violations of our secular laws, based upon religious doctrine, it perpetrates egregious Establishment Clause violations. The charade is over. The cat is out of the bag. The jig is up. Everyone knows where the white elephant is. The emperor is naked.

To show what an abomination it is to allow these “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” to continue operating as they have been, consider the following scenario:

Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose blood transfusions. Blood is regarded as sacred. Knowingly and willingly giving blood or receiving a blood transfusion is regarded as the gravest of sins against Jehovah God.

Now, the blood supply in the US has actually had a checkered safety record. There have been real concerns, in the past, about the hazards that blood transfusions pose. I am not intending to be an alarmist. I know that every precaution is made to keep the blood supply safe and that transmissions of diseases from blood transfusions are now rare. But, my point is that, compared to abortion, there have been real reasons to be concerned about the safety of blood transfusions on a large scale.

Imagine for a moment that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the majority Christian sect in the United States. Suppose that they decide to create a slew of non-profits, which they refer to as Blood Crisis Centers, with the goals of dissuading persons from having blood transfusions and of spreading medical misinformation about blood transfusions. Suppose that they employ insidious tactics, such as placing their Blood Crisis Centers near the entrances of hospital emergency rooms, making their Blood Crisis Centers look like medical clinics, and having their staff look and act as if they were medical professionals.

Would we stand for this? Not for one moment.

Would we be confused about the religious motivations of the perpetrators? Not for one second.

Would we allow the perpetrators to feign secular purposes? Are you fucking kidding me?

I find that removing the issue from a context to which we’ve been desensitized, after having been bombarded with religious propaganda and sophistry disguised as secular in nature, and placing the issue in the context of a non-mainstream Christian sect, illuminates the problem as little else can. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of employing a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times and changing all instances of abortion to blood.

The following is a parody of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, which can be found here:


This parody constitutes a ‘fair use’ of this copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

Why Won’t They Say?

In a setback for ill persons facing a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives, a federal judge has temporarily barred New York City from enforcing a new law that would require so-called blood crisis centers masquerading as licensed medical facilities to disclose basic facts about their services.

These centers, run by blood opponents, have sprung up in many places around the country. They typically draw clients with advertisements that appear to promise neutral blood counseling. Staff members in medical attire collect information and perform blood tests and try to convince ill persons not to have a blood transfusion. Ill persons who share personal information are also unaware that the centers are not covered by medical confidentiality rules.

The New York City law would require these centers to disclose in ads and waiting-room signs whether they have a licensed medical provider supervising services and whether they make referrals for blood transfusions. Client information they collect would be subject to confidentiality rules.

The decision by Judge Adam Lee of Federal District Court in Manhattan acknowledges the city’s interest in preventing deception related to time-sensitive health care. The judge still granted a preliminary injunction, mistakenly perceiving a violation of free expression in the law’s modest consumer protections.

The law does not prevent the centers from disseminating their anti-blood message or discriminate against the centers on the basis of their viewpoint. Rather, it requires them to make truthful, factual disclosures about their services. The judge claimed the measure’s description of the facilities it covers is too vague. But the criteria seem adequate to guide enforcement.

As the law stands, medical doctors can be required to convey certain factual information to ill persons to help them make informed choices. Under Judge Lee’s ruling, blood crisis centers pretending to be real medical facilities cannot be made to disclose essential facts about their real services. That makes no sense at all.

August 2, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink62 comments

6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.

It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.

There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.

A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.

Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.

So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:

1. Atheists can be good people.

This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.

To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).

2. Greater support for separation of church and state.

This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.

Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.

3. Greater support for free speech.

One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!

In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.

Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.

4. Greater support for science and reason.

Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.

Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.

5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.

For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."

Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?

I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.

6. Greater support for reproductive choice.

With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.

Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.

In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be  unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.

* * *

I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.

What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.

August 1, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

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