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
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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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Paving the Way for Equality

Wedding bells will soon be ringing in New York, thanks to the legislature's historic passage of marriage equality which goes into effect on July 24. And the echoes of that victory are still being heard. Soon after the passage of the NY bill, Rhode Island legalized civil unions, joining the several other states that have done so. (Despite the fact that the Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, as well as support from independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, true marriage equality stalled in the face of opposition from M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, the president of the state senate. No surprise, she's a Roman Catholic.)

The Rhode Island bill, though it's a step in the right direction, is especially disappointing in how far it goes to appease bigots. It grants significant rights to same-sex couples under state law, but permits religious organizations to completely refuse to recognize them - thus allowing, for example, a Catholic hospital to block visitation rights or ignore care directives of a same-sex partner. With polls finding that broad majorities in Rhode Island support full equality, we can hope that these flaws will be corrected soon. (Note, however, that the Catholic church and other anti-gay groups are demanding that the bill be entirely repealed; even this small step is too much for them to tolerate.)

Meanwhile, as marriage equality takes effect in New York, we're seeing something that made me happy: the inevitable
wave of resignations
from bigots working in state government who can't stomach the thought of having to treat gay couples equally:

Laura L. Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, N.Y.... drafted a letter to the Town Board and said she would resign on July 21, three days before same-sex marriage becomes legal, because she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

"I believe that there is a higher law than the law of the land," she wrote. "It is the law of God in the Bible."

If you believe in a god who wants you to hate, Ms. Fotusky, then more power to you, and good riddance! The only people who should serve in government are the ones who believe that all people deserve the full and equal protection of the law. If you want to take a stand for discrimination and prejudice, you should do it as a private citizen.

Seeing the homophobes resign en masse is, at least, an improvement over the tack they've taken in so many other states - the petulant stance that their religious beliefs excuse them from complying with the law. And to their great credit, New York state officials are taking a hard line on this and making it clear that a person's religious beliefs don't constitute a reason not to do their job:

On Long Island, the Nassau County district attorney, Kathleen M. Rice, sent a sternly worded letter to clerks last week, warning that they could be subject to criminal prosecution if they declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"I want to ensure that our local officials appreciate that there will be ramifications in our county for exercising a personal, discriminatory belief, rather than doing their job," Ms. Rice said Tuesday.

"The law is the law; when you enforce the laws of the state, you don't get to pick and choose," [Gov. Cuomo] said at an appearance in Manhattan, adding, "If you can't enforce the law, then you shouldn't be in that position."

It's not often you hear such clear words of common sense from elected officials. But with New York as an example and a trendsetter, we have good reason to hope we'll hear similarly rational statements from more state governments in the near future.

July 18, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink25 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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To Win, We Just Have to Show Up

In the wake of marriage equality's victory in New York State last Friday, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler posted the following to Twitter:

Now, fully 1 in 9 Americans will live in a state with legalized same-sex marriage. Our mission field is getting more complicated.

On the surface, this is a strange statement. Mohler apparently believes that the legalization of same-sex marriage will make it more difficult for Christians to win converts. Why would he think this?

My wife and I discussed this, and I can only come up with one explanation that seems reasonable: Mohler is against same-sex marriage because he wants society to discriminate against non-Christians, thereby making conversion to Christianity a more attractive offer. If all people have equal rights, then Christianity will be forced to rely on its own persuasive power to make converts, rather than holding out unique privileges that are only available to Christians - and that's a competition he fears!

And it's not hard to see why. If proselytizers like Mohler seek to convince gay people that their sexual orientation is sinful, wrong and must be changed, they'll have a much harder time making the case to people in a happy, stable, committed relationship with all the benefits offered by the state to opposite-sex couples. They'd prefer that GLBT people be a downtrodden and oppressed minority, punished and scorned by the state, unprotected against discrimination in jobs or housing, shut out from all the legal benefits society has to offer. They don't want to compete on a level playing field, but one that's tilted in their favor; they want people who won't convert to suffer for their defiance.

The same thing happens with atheism. In their furious hushing of atheists and demanding that we be more respectful, in their efforts around the world to pass bills punishing speech that insults or denigrates religion, we see that what the major religious groups and their allies want is to silence dissent. Again, they don't want to compete in a marketplace of ideas; they want society to be their parishioners, sitting in enforced silence while they alone stand in the pulpit and preach.

There's a lesson here for freethinkers: to win the debate, we just have to show up. If we can speak freely and make our case, we've already won. If we can successfully claim the same rights and the same privileges as religious people, we've already won. If ordinary people have friends and family who are atheists, and know that they have friends and family who are atheists, we've already won. If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured, because we know that in an open and fair debate, our arguments are the better ones and will carry the day. It's only coercion and prejudice that can hold us back, and both those obstacles are weakening and falling one by one.

* * *

In other news, New York's churches are still sputtering in fury over the passage of marriage equality this weekend. The Catholic bishops were caught off-guard and were never able to mount an effective opposition, but now that they've lost, they're venting their anger by spitefully vowing to ban pro-equality politicians from events at Catholic schools and churches:

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of the diocese of Brooklyn, called on all Catholic schools to reject any honor bestowed upon them by Gov. Cuomo, who played a pivotal role in getting the bill passed.

He further asked all pastors and principals to "not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration."

Personally, I couldn't be happier that this naked bigotry is on open display. I want the bishops to announce it far and wide, preferably in bright neon signs. I want the whole world to hear the message loud and clear: "If you believe gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else, we don't want you in our church!"

I say this because every survey shows that the younger generations are overwhelmingly in favor of equality. By making assent to bigotry a non-negotiable condition of membership, by vocally insisting that the one thing that defines a Christian more than anything else is being anti-gay, the bishops are accelerating their slide into irrelevance. Some denominations are bowing to the inevitable, but the Catholic authorities have made this their hill to die on. And the way they're going, they'll get their wish. Already, as many as one in ten Americans are ex-Catholics, and that number is only going to increase. In twenty years or so, the religious landscape in the Western world is going to be very different, and that's a change that I look forward to seeing.

June 29, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments
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Do the Right Thing, New York!

I wrote in May about the legalization of civil unions in Delaware (which has now been signed into law), and the ongoing push to pass a marriage-equality law in my own state, New York. Although New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in any of the neighboring states that allow them, passage of the bill would be a huge symbolic victory and would give more momentum to the national push for equality.

As I write this, the bill hangs in the balance in the State Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-to-30 majority. Three of the Democrats who voted against it last time have changed their positions, making Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx the lone Democratic holdout (unsurprisingly, he's an ordained minister). Two Republicans have also announced they'll switch their votes to yes, leaving us just one vote short, and several others have suggested they may change their minds. By the time you read this, we may know what the outcome is. (And if we don't, and you're a New Yorker, call your senator!)

What's most noteworthy about this story is the wavering and uncertainty of the Republicans, who sense that gay-bashing is losing its force as a touchstone culture-war issue. Equality is becoming the accepted position, and the vocal bigots are dwindling in number. On the other hand, some groups are firmly cementing their stand on the wrong side of history. Chief among them is New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said about the proposal:

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to "redefine" rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of "family" and "marriage" means.

This confused diatribe would have a point if the government was forcing citizens into same-sex marriages who didn't want them. But it's completely clear, to everyone except head-in-the-sand bigots like the archbishop, that the push for marriage equality is coming from the people: human beings who seek the freedom to pledge their commitment to each other and receive the same legal rights and protections granted to opposite-sex couples. Passing marriage equality isn't "dictating" anything to anyone, but legitimizing the choice already made by millions of people in love, which is already real regardless of whether the Catholic church admits it.

But in one respect, the archbishop is more right than he knows: we do indeed live in the United States of America, a secular republic whose governing authority comes from we the people, not from holy books or churches who presume to speak for God. The analogy he uses is completely backwards: it's the religious groups, like the archbishop himself, who wish to act as an omnipotent, absolute authority dictating to the rest of us how we may live our lives, how large our families may be, how we may be born and how we may die. In that sense it's the anti-gay bigots, not supporters of marriage equality, who resemble the despotic tyrants of China and North Korea.

Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits: It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

This is farcical, false, and historically illiterate. Procreation is not a precondition of marriage. We don't test prospective partners for fertility or make them sign an affidavit declaring their intention to have children, nor have we ever.

And as the learned archbishop should know, marriage as the union of "a man and a woman" is a recent development. In many times and places, including in his own Bible, marriage has been defined as the union of a man and one or more women, and often in the manner of the man as the purchaser and women as the property. We've changed this to make marriage more like a partnership of equals, and instituting marriage equality will approach this ideal closer still.

Before we consign the archbishop to history's dustbin, one more quote:

Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who, along with other citizens of a diversity of creeds believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.

Although it's nothing we didn't know already, it's nice to hear confirmation that opposition to marriage equality is purely religious in nature and has no secular justification. The Catholic church, like all religious fiefdoms, can set whatever rules it wishes for its own members. But its writ extends no further than the church walls. It has no right to enact its peculiar prejudices into law and demand that everyone else be forced to live by them. That's the meaning of living in a secular nation, which is something that the Catholic church and all other aspiring theocrats in New York will, I hope, find out soon enough.

EDIT (6/24): Tonight, love won. Congratulations, New York!

June 16, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments
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Marriage Equality on the March

At the end of last month, the Delaware legislature voted to approve a civil union bill. If Democratic Governor Jack Markell signs the bill, as he's said he will, Delaware will become the newest state to grant same-sex partnerships all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples - joining, by my reckoning, ten others: Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Iowa, plus the District of Columbia.

With a little luck and a lot of political elbow grease, my own state, New York, may be next. New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere, making its refusal to perform them itself more than a little ridiculous, since a gay or lesbian couple can just step across the border into Canada or any of the neighboring states that do. Still, a coalition of Republicans and a handful of religious-bigot Democrats have so far managed to keep marriage-equality bills bottled up in the State Senate, despite the fact that polls show large majorities of New Yorkers in support. A marriage-equality bill failed in the legislature in 2009, but since then, two Democrats who voted against it have been replaced by supportive votes. Six more votes are needed, and a statewide campaign is targeting 15 potential swing votes this summer, with support from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Meanwhile, on the wider national level, the ground is shifting with dramatic speed. Back in 2009, I wrote about how supporters of marriage equality had become a plurality. Now, for the first time ever as far as I'm aware, several polls over the last few months have found that support for marriage equality has become the majority position in the United States of America!

Our losses in California and Maine were disappointing, but as these polls show, they're only temporary setbacks. Support for marriage equality is growing every year, arguably even every month. Opponents of equality are trying to hold back the tide of history, but they can't hope to plug every hole in the dike. And it's increasingly obvious that they know this too. Their opposition seems more tired and perfunctory all the time, as if they recognize that they're fighting a losing battle. In Delaware, only about 200 people, even by their own reckoning, showed up for a rally at the statehouse to oppose the civil-unions bill.

One last, feeble whine of protest came from two Christian pastors in Delaware, who filed an editorial last week which makes the following entirely secular arguments:

S.B. 30 is morally wrong and biblically incorrect... In our opinion, God's design for marriage is between one man and one woman only... Lev. 18:22 tells us that "a man should not lie with another man as he does a woman because it is detestable"... Nowhere have we read in the Bible that it is all right for people of the same sex to marry... We believe civil unions between members of the same sex are contrary to the will of God.

They plead that if the bill passes, God "will judge us, and [we] don't want our state and our nation to be judged with the wrath of God." You have to feel sorry for these people, living in a self-imposed world of fear: their argument is essentially "Help, God is holding me hostage and he'll kill me if you don't meet his demands!"

Finally, I have to report on one more piece of news to make bigots cry: Louis J. Marinelli, a former spokesman and organizer for the anti-marriage National Association for Marriage, has publicly announced that he's changed his mind and now supports civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples. That ground is shifting faster than anyone could have anticipated - and I'm willing to bet that, in the next few years, his won't be the only high-profile defection from the ranks of those who oppose equality.

May 3, 2011, 6:26 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping

Yesterday, I came across a story that was so appalling I had to write about it. It shows the true depths of the Christian right's hatred for gay and lesbian people, and the lengths they're willing to go to - up to and including defying U.S. law - in the name of that hatred. (HT: The Wall of Separation)

The story in a nutshell: A same-sex couple in Vermont, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, were married in 2000 and had a legally recognized civil union. Two years later, they had a daughter, Isabella, with Lisa the biological mother. In 2003 they separated, and a court ruled that Lisa should have primary custody of Isabella and Janet should have visitation rights.

But Lisa Miller moved to Virginia, joined an evangelical Christian church (for reasons that remain unclear to me) and decided that she had been "cured" of being a lesbian. Since Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex unions, Miller filed suit to overturn the Vermont court's custody decision, arguing that under Virginia law her former partner wasn't a parent to their daughter and should have no parental rights. In this effort she was assisted by Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group founded by Mat Staver, who's also the dean of the law school at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

This didn't go well for the religious right. The Virginia Supreme Court denied Miller's petition, citing a federal bill called the Parental Kidnapping Protection Act which was passed specifically to prevent this kind of forum-shopping. Meanwhile in late 2009, finding that Lisa Miller had been consistently refusing to permit Janet's court-ordered visitations, the Vermont family court overturned its earlier decision and awarded sole custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins.

The deadline for the custody handover was set for January 1, 2010... and at the appointed time, Lisa and Isabella didn't show up. The police obtained an arrest warrant, and since then both of them have been missing.

That was the last update in this case, until now. It was reported this week that the FBI has arrested a Tennessee pastor, Timothy David Miller, and charged him with helping to arrange for Lisa and Isabella to flee the country and travel to Nicaragua, where he had worked as a missionary. More, according to the affidavit, he wasn't acting alone:

Ms. Miller and Isabella stayed in a beach house in Nicaragua that is owned by a conservative businessman with close ties to Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., and whose daughter works at the university's law school, according to the affidavit...

[Mat Staver] said he knew nothing about the accusations involving a law school office assistant, Victoria Hyden, and her father Philip Zodhiates, the beach house's owner...

Much of the evidence in support of the criminal charges and other accusations, the affidavit said, was obtained through court-approved, covert searches of e-mail accounts, uncovering messages from Mr. Miller that appear to arrange the mother and daughter's 2009 flight to Nicaragua and from Mr. Zodhiates arranging to send them supplies.

Let's not mince words: If these charges are true, then the FBI has uncovered an international Christian child-kidnapping ring, a premeditated conspiracy to defy the law and keep same-sex parents apart from their children - and one, moreover, that has close ties to Liberty University and the religious right's political infrastructure. Notwithstanding Mat Staver's denials, I have no doubt whatsoever that even if he didn't personally participate in any illegal act, he either knows where Lisa and Isabella are or could find out if he wanted to.

Unfortunately, it seems that under the relevant law, the most that anyone could face is three years in prison. That's not nearly enough - a religious fanatic who believed he needed to "save" a child from the love of her same-sex parent could easily wait that sentence out and consider it a small sacrifice, and of course, he would be hailed as a hero by the religious right upon his release. If the law allowed, say, 20 years in prison rather than three, that might be enough to make even the most defiant zealot consider cooperating with the authorities - and give him an incentive to name the others who were part of this conspiracy. I have little doubt that the full list of names would be a major embarrassment, possibly even a crippling legal blow, for the Christian right. (I wonder if federal prosecutors have considered using RICO against Miller.)

But most of all, my heart breaks for that little girl, who must be going through intense brainwashing sessions in an attempt to poison her mind against her legal mother. I hope with all my heart that she resists and that she understands the crime that was committed against her. In the name of "protecting" her from exposure to gay people, the religious right has taken her out of the country, torn her away from her friends and family, quite possibly destroyed any hope she'll ever have for a normal life, and is no doubt trying to indoctrinate her into a cult of bigotry and hate. Are these the people who dare to call themselves "pro-family"?

April 26, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments
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Another World Creeps In

I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person.

When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What's worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I've been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there's another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes - up to and including the violent killing of children - is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here's one shining example from a recent post of mine:

...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can't be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that's used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn't difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it's perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.

But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we're left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.

This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they're not doing this themselves is because God hasn't yet commanded them to.

These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren't to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.

Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they're obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they're doing God's will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they're the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!

Here's another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:

What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all...

What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?

The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer's moral compass, to the point where they're willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don't share that opinion as evil. I say again: I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.

April 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments
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Ending Religious Discrimination in Adoption

There's welcome news out of the U.K. this week: the government-established Charity Commission has ruled that the adoption agency Catholic Care must abide by anti-discrimination laws and therefore may not refuse to consider same-sex couples as prospective parents:

The Charity Commission... ruled that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is a "serious matter" because it "departs from the principle of treating people equally", and that religious views cannot justify such bias because adoption is a public matter.

..."In certain circumstances, it is not against the law for charities to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, because the prohibition on such discrimination is a fundamental principle of human rights law, such discrimination can only be permitted in the most compelling circumstances. We have concluded that in this case the reasons Catholic Care have set out do not justify their wish to discriminate."

Predictably, Catholic Care is now planning to shut down, since as is abundantly clear by now, this church would rather see children go homeless than deliver them into the care of stable, loving families whose lifestyle the Catholic church disapproves of. Eleven other Catholic adoption agencies in England have all closed down already for the same reason, and this is the last one still in operation. If it closes its doors, that will be the end of Catholic-run adoption services in the country - and I say, good riddance.

The closure of Catholic adoption agencies can be likened to the disappearance of an industry because technology has provided a new way to do the same work more cheaply or efficiently. Yes, in the short run, this causes pain and dislocation for people who used to perform a job that's no longer required and are now out of work. But in the long run, it's better for our economy that obsolete industries vanish, because that portion of society's resources can be redirected into more valuable and productive endeavors.

Just so is the disappearance of prejudiced religious charities. In the short run, it may cause pain and hardship for the people those charities were willing to serve. But in the long run, it's better for society that they vanish, because that slack will inevitably be taken up by new groups that cater to everyone, without fear or favor, and don't arbitrarily exclude or refuse to help people who don't fit a narrow set of prejudices. (See this post for an example of how this has worked in Washington, D.C.)

This story is a classic example of why I asked how much good religious charities really do. Catholic Care's refusal to abide by pro-equality laws shows that their main priority isn't helping people in need, but enforcing religious discrimination, partitioning the world into sets of people whom they judge as worthy or unworthy of their aid. A group like this doesn't deserve the support of the public or the state, just as we wouldn't tolerate a charity that refused to serve black people. It's better that they disappear so that they can be replaced by an organization whose only goal is to do good, rather than one that sees doing good as a side effect of promoting their archaic and narrow-minded worldview.

August 24, 2010, 5:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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