Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement:

To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy: a major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70% of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute - both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields - and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party's rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.

By contrast, the Republican party's denial of evolution is much older and more grass-roots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science - from Tennessee's Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana's 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that "creation science" had to be given an equal share of classroom time.

But while fundamentalists have always been hostile to evolution, the modern creationist movement got its start in the 1960s, primarily due to the influence of an evangelical author named Henry Morris. Morris' 1964 book The Genesis Flood argued, among other things, that Noah's flood happened just as the Bible describes it - in other words, that it was reasonable to believe that eight people could care for a floating zoo containing at least two members of every species on Earth. Imagine trying to run the entire Bronx Zoo with just eight employees. Now consider that Noah's leaky tub, by even the most forgiving estimates, would have to have had far more kinds of animals (including dinosaurs, which creationists believe existed simultaneously with humans, a la the Flintstones). Imagine how much feeding, watering, and manure-carrying that would be. Imagine all this frenetic activity taking place in the cramped, dark, foul-smelling confines of a wooden boat, with predators and prey side-by-side in narrow pens, during the most violent and catastrophic storm in the history of the planet, with an absolute requirement that not a single animal get sick or die. Now try not to laugh too hard at the people who seriously believe that all this really happened.

As already mentioned, the creationist movement's original strategy revolved around getting friendly state legislatures to decree that their ideas had to be taught in public schools, regardless of scientific merit or lack thereof. This strategy hasn't fared well in court: aside from a Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, judges have repeatedly recognized this for the obvious violation of separation of church and state that it is. And each time they lost, the creationist movement responded the same way: like a snake shedding its skin, they rebranded themselves with a new name, then tried again with the same ideas. "Creation science" became "scientific creationism," which became "abrupt-appearance theory," and so on. The currently preferred nomenclature is "intelligent design" (which is totally constitutional and not at all religious, because we're not saying who we think the intelligent designer is - nudge nudge, wink wink!). But even this watered-down creationism met with defeat in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a judge appointed by George W. Bush handed down a resounding ruling that teaching intelligent design in public school is unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen how they'll rebrand themselves next, though we can be confident that their basic strategy won't change. One of the most hilarious parts of the Dover case was evidence showing that, after a court ruling which made it illegal to teach creationism in public schools, the authors of a creationist textbook did a find-and-replace to change "creationism" to "intelligent design" and "creationists" to "design proponents". At one point, someone mistyped and left a transitional fossil in an early draft: a paragraph that referred to "cdesign proponentsists".

But while creationists keep bumbling on the legal front, they've had more success in the cultural arena, by infiltrating the public schools with creationist teachers who flout the law and preach their religious beliefs in class. There are some notable and egregious examples: in an earlier essay on AlterNet, I mentioned David Paskiewicz, the New Jersey high school teacher who advocated creationism in class, in addition to telling a Muslim student that she belonged in hell. There's also John Freshwater, a creationist science teacher who was fired for breaking school rules about proselytizing in the classroom. Among other things, he allegedly used a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student's arm!

And it's not just the teachers, either. Creationist churches are training students at all educational levels to refuse to learn about any science their religion rejects, as in this story:

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this."

Although there are different kinds of creationists, the most fervent and most influential are the so-called young-earth creationists, who believe the world and every species on it is about 6,000 years old. The young-earth creationists, or YECs for short, believe that the universe was created in seven twenty-four-hour days, that there was a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal talking snake just as the Book of Genesis describes.

To anyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with real science, these myths are laughably false, on the same level as believing in a literal wolf who blew down the houses of literal pigs. Anyone who knows anything about genetics can see the impossibility of a healthy species arising from a single breeding pair. A population starting from such a tiny gene pool just wouldn't have enough genetic diversity to adapt to environmental changes - not to mention the obvious problem of inbreeding depression, where sex between close relatives results in a far greater likelihood of the offspring inheriting the same rare and harmful mutations from both parents. (For fun, ask a creationist to explain about how they believe the prohibition on incest didn't apply in the beginning. After all, once Adam and Eve had sons and daughters, where was the next generation of human beings going to come from?)

Likewise, the geologic record shows that the Earth has an enormously long and intricate history. Preserved in the rock record, we see evidence of continents drifting and colliding, thrusting up mountain ranges that are then slowly worn down by erosion; glaciers advancing and retreating, carving and scouring the landscape; sedimentary rock layers slowly built up by eons of deposition, then cut into deep canyons by rivers or metamorphosed by heat and pressure; the same land becoming shallow sea, swamp, forest, plain, desert and back to sea again, as sea levels rise and fall over the ages. This grand tapestry stands in stark contrast to the creationists' cartoonish view of geology, in which Noah's flood was the only geological event of significance to happen in the planet's brief history. Geologists knew well before Charles Darwin that there was no evidence for a global flood, and modern scientists can add the evidence of radiometric dating, which shows the precise ages of ancient rocks and artifacts and proves that they're far older than the creationist worldview permits.

And then there's the direct evidence for evolution, in all its sprawling grandeur. We know evolution is true from genetic studies which show that all species share deep similarities at the genetic level. In fact, by charting which species' genomes share the same one-off mutations, we can build evolutionary trees which show the patterns of relationship between species and allow us to estimate when they branched from each other. This nested hierarchy, the pattern produced by descent with modification, binds all living and extinct species together in an unbreakable web of heredity and kinship, every bit as real as the one that connects you to your ancestors and your living relatives.

We know evolution is true from transitional fossils which preserve snapshots of evolutionary change, such as the bird-like feathered dinosaurs; the therapsids that are intermediate between reptiles and mammals; the primitive whales with legs that are ancestors of today's cetaceans; and in our own family lineage, the humanlike hominids that show how modern Homo sapiens arose from more ape-like ancestors. (Hilariously, the creationists all agree that there are no transitional fossils and that all fossil hominid species are either fully human or fully ape - but they can't agree on which is which, exactly as we'd expect from true intermediates.)

We know evolution is true from the kludges, hacks, and jury-rigs we find in the anatomy of living things, including us - evidence not of a wise and forward-looking designer, but of a slow, mindless, tinkering process of change, a "blind watchmaker" as Richard Dawkins famously termed it. From the useless goosebumps we get when cold or frightened, to the backwards-wired human retina, to the babies occasionally born with vestigial tails, human bodies bear the indelible stamp of our species' history.

The creationists are forced to deny all this and much more besides. That's not a figure of speech: major creationist organizations and religious colleges require their faculty to sign statements promising to reject any evidence that contradicts their worldview. The official statement of faith of the group Answers in Genesis, for example, requires members to affirm that "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record." And when people affiliated with these groups do express doubt or flirt with unorthodoxy, retribution is invariably swift and harsh.

But as laughable as the creationists' beliefs are, the creationist movement is no joke. They want to wipe out all the findings of hundreds of years of scientific investigation, erase everything we've learned about the vast and majestic history of the universe, and replace it with a cartoon version that grotesquely magnifies our own importance, treating human beings as the crowning glory of creation and diminishing the immensity of the universe to a tiny stage crafted only so that the Bible's small stories could play out on it.

Why does this matter so much to them? It's not just an arcane scientific debate: in their minds, only Christianity can produce virtue, and Christianity can be true only if evolution is false. It follows that they believe - and they've said that they believe - that evolution underlies every moral problem they see in the world, from drug use to pornography to people voting Democratic. Tom DeLay infamously blamed the Columbine school shootings on the teaching of evolution, stating that "our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup."

The larger lesson to be drawn from this is that the religious right isn't just targeting the theory of evolution. By their own words, they can't be. They believe that a person's morality is completely determined by their factual beliefs - that being a good person depends on believing the right things about the origin of the universe. And since they believe that all truths worth knowing have already been revealed in the Bible, it follows that science is at best unnecessary and at worst a fatal deception that leads people away from salvation. Why, then, do we need science at all?

To those who hold the creationist worldview, everything has been going downhill since the Enlightenment. The willingness of people to think for themselves, to question authority, to investigate the world for truth - they see all this as a disastrous trend, one that only takes us farther from their ideal vision of a medieval, theocratic state. They seek nothing less than to turn back the clock of progress by several centuries, abolish the rational, reality-based view of the world, and return to the superstitious mindset in which blind faith is the answer to every problem. And, again, these are the people who've completely captured one of America's two major parties. What kind of havoc will result if they gain political power again?

September 23, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink40 comments
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New on AlterNet: Why Creationism Is Dangerous

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous. In it, I survey the history of the modern creationist movement, point out how it's completely captured one of America's two major political parties, and illuminate the larger ideological goals that lie behind the assault on evolution. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!


A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute -- both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields -- and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

September 12, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

The storm may rage and the winds may howl, but I'm still here! (So far.) Here's a couple of interesting stories I didn't have time to write more about this week:

• Following Rick Perry's urgent prayers for rain in his drought-stricken state, Tropical Storm Don formed in the Gulf, headed toward Texas, and then dissipated before dropping any significant rain. The drought continues. How long will it be before Perry's Christian supporters start to seriously consider if God is punishing him for something?

• The Filipino Freethinkers win "The One" category at the Tatt Awards! Congratulations to the FF, and thanks to everyone who voted for them.

• Following some very disappointing decisions at the United Nations, here's one that's a welcome change: the UN affirms that criticizing religion is a human right.

• Jon Huntsman torpedoes his chance at the Republican presidential nomination by announcing he doesn't deny two of the foundational theories of modern science.

• The U.S. defense agency DARPA plans to award half a million dollars in seed money for a feasibility study for a ship that could send human beings to another star. This money is a drop in the bucket next to the trillions that would actually be needed to construct such a ship, but it's good to see that some people still have the ability to contemplate the biggest and most adventurous questions.

• Sam Harris writes a superb article on Objectivism. "Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers." (Edit: But please see this disclaimer.)

• In a previous post, I wondered if the Irish government would match its harsh condemnation of the Vatican with action by seizing and auctioning church property to compensate the victims of church-sanctioned sexual assault. I'm extremely pleased to read that they're doing just that, pressing the church to hand over control of land and schools and pay half the compensation bill for abuse victims in Roman Catholic children's homes.

August 28, 2011, 12:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink23 comments
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Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments
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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
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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
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Dispatches from Future America: Government Increases Budget for Christiancare Program

[Editor's Note: After the two strange messages I received earlier this year, I thought the wormhole, or whatever it was, had closed forever. Evidently not. This past week, as fighting over the debt limit reached a fever pitch, I found a new e-mail from the future in my inbox. Elaborate hoax? Frightening warning of what lies ahead? You be the judge...]

NEW YORK CITY (July 24, 2037) — Mayor Harold Ford Jr., along with a group of civic dignitaries, was on hand for the gala ribbon-cutting of the newest federally-funded Christiancare clinic, the 1000th of its kind to open nationwide. Speeches by respected media figures marked the occasion, looking back on the long political struggle that led to the Christiancare program's creation in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012.

"The 2011 fight over the debt limit nearly destroyed our economy, resulting in skyrocketing interest rates on federal debt, a worldwide stock market crash, a domino chain of collapsing corporations, and near-anarchy as government ran out of money and was forced to shut down all over the country, suspending most basic services," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "Fortunately, after two months of chaos, President Obama capitulated to the Congressional Republicans' demands by signing a bill that raised the debt limit at the price of completely eliminating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating all income taxes on corporations and individuals whose net worth was $1 billion or higher."

Liberal groups asserted that the controversial budget deal, while it preserved the structure of the American government, was responsible for the 10-year drop in average life expectancy that was noted over the following year. However, conservative groups hailed the deal as a triumph of post-partisan ideology that laid the groundwork for further reform.

"Since President Obama had shown himself to be a sensible and flexible negotiator, the Republicans were able to work with him to enact some common sense follow-ups," said the Sekulow Institute's chief historian, Dr. Michael Marcavage. "For example, the compassionate conservatives of the Tea Party knew that a few people had been slightly inconvenienced by the elimination of the New Deal programs, wasteful and unconstitutional though they were. Since President Obama himself had spoken highly of the great good that faith-based groups can provide with government support and no unnecessary strings, it proved to be a natural next step to return vital community services like medicine and elder care to the institution that had always provided them - the church."

Soon after the budget compromise came a bill establishing the first Christiancare pilot centers, federally funded clinics which "any officially recognized Christian denomination" could apply to run. Once the Supreme Court upheld this controversial law in a closely watched 2015 decision, the floodgates were opened, with the next Congress spending more than $5 billion to expand the program by building over a hundred new centers nationwide. Subsequent expansions of the program folded all other hospitals and clinics into it, as well as making it mandatory for all citizens to visit the nearest Christiancare clinic at least once per year for basic checkups and spiritual counseling.

"It's true that this program experienced some growing pains at first," said the mayor, referring to liberal groups' charges that life expectancy in Massachusetts dropped to 44.5 years after Christian Scientists were given control of Christiancare clinics throughout the state, as well as the sharply increased rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth in historically Catholic areas. "But nowadays, who can doubt its success? The skeptics have been silenced, and America's health-care system is the envy of the world! Our federally funded faith healers prescribe millions of baptisms and anointings per year, and cast out demons at rates that other countries can only dream of."

The opening ceremony was nearly overshadowed by news from Washington that further expansions to the controversial program may soon be coming. H.R. 216, sponsored by 238 members of Congress, would require all women in America to be implanted with a microchip that would detect the onset of pregnancy and wirelessly send this information to the nearest Christiancare center for "pastoral prenatal care".

"It will be so convenient, American women will hardly mind the implantation procedure," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Troy Newman. "And rest assured, our trained Christiancare counselors will be fully respectful of their patients' privacy, disclosing the expectant mother's condition only to licensed ministers of the gospel who will be on hand to provide her with the evangelistic material she'll need."

Liberal groups criticized the proposal, but their objections were not deemed newsworthy by the editors of this paper.

July 25, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments
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New on AlterNet: What Atheists Actually Agree About

I'm pleased to announce that my second column for AlterNet, 6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism, has now been posted. My first column, asking why nonbelievers haven't become a political force, drew rejoinders from a lot of people saying that it's impossible for atheists to organize because we don't agree about anything other than the existence of gods. Well, I decided to answer that criticism by listing the things that most atheists actually do agree about. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!


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...

Continue reading on AlterNet...

July 13, 2011, 9:30 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments
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The Contributions of Freethinkers: Asa Philip Randolph

The civil rights movement in America is often identified with Christianity. In large part this is because of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Baptist minister and worked the language and cadence of sermons into his most famous speeches - especially the famous paraphrase of the Book of Amos, "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

But the civil rights movement wasn't organized or led solely by Christians. As often happens in American history, there were prominent freethinkers in the vanguard of social progress, such as the person who's the subject of today's post.

Asa Philip Randolph was born in Crescent City, Florida in 1889. He was the son of an ordained minister in the black Methodist church, but his family placed great value on education, and this may be part of the reason why Randolph himself never found any attraction in religion. He attended the Cookman Institute, a segregated high school in East Jacksonville, where he excelled academically despite pervasive racism and became the valedictorian of the class of 1907.

Despite graduating with honors, Randolph's skin color barred him from all but menial labor in the South, so in 1911 he moved to New York City, where he worked and took night courses at City College. Reading The Souls of Black Folk, by fellow freethinker W.E.B. DuBois, had a major influence on his nascent political consciousness. He joined the Socialist party, where he made union organizing among black workers his mission. Together with his friend Chandler Owen, he also founded The Messenger, a literary magazine whose masthead said in part:

"Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times... Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is."

According to an article by Sikivu Hutchinson, The Messenger lived up to its freethought theme by sponsoring essay contests with titles like "Is Christianity a Menace to the Negro?"

Randolph's work in labor organizing brought him into the fold of the burgeoning civil rights movement. One of his greatest successes was in 1925, when he successfully organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for railroad employees, bringing improved salaries, job security and working conditions to mainly black workers in one of the few fields that was open to them.

Image via.

But as the country was drawn into World War II and black workers were excluded from jobs in the booming defense industry, Randolph set his sights on higher goals. He proposed a march of African-Americans on Washington, D.C. to demand jobs and an end to segregation in the military, and although the march never actually materialized, the threat of it was enough to persuade President Roosevelt to issue the milestone Executive Order 8802, ending segregation in the defense industry. (There's a famous story, possibly apocryphal, in which Randolph was introduced to FDR, who said he agreed with everything the civil rights movement was demanding but told Randolph to "make me do it".)

Randolph continued to pressure successive administrations in his role as an organizer and civil-rights spokesman. He was one of the founders of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service, a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign which was influential in persuading President Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, extending FDR's earlier declaration by ending segregation in the armed forces.

Later elected vice president of the AFL-CIO, Randolph served as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. He helped to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the famous event where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and which was instrumental in building momentum for the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Throughout his life, Randolph remained an unapologetic freethinker. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II, and was declared Humanist of the Year in 1970. This longer biography notes that he was unique in that "he made his reputation as a labor leader rather than by following the more traditional path to African-American leadership through the clergy", and that his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was a formative influence on some of the most successful civil rights leaders of the twentieth century.

Other posts in this series:

July 4, 2011, 1:54 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink5 comments
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There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:

"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"

Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.

But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.

In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:

"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"

When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:

As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.

Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.

But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:

"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."

Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists - something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he's also continued the George W. Bush "faith-based initiative", which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.

Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.

Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.

The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.

After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.

The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.

July 1, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments
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