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.
Be Careful What You Wish For (Why I Hate Hate Crimes Legislation, But I Love Hate Speech)
By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy
In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 - 02/02/10)
I saw a woman in niqab on the UC Berkeley campus the other week. I was shocked. I didn't approach her. I didn't speak to her. She was with two other women in hijab, on the opposite side of a wide walkway.
But, I was shocked. And, appalled. Here was a woman (or, at least, I assume she was a woman), in the heart of what is arguably the most politically liberal university campus and city in the US, a fount for civil rights and 60's hippie culture, engaging in a brazen act of gender segregation and slavery in the egalitarian public space of a secular, liberal, constitutional, democratic republic. I think it is a great shame for a woman living in a secular democracy to perpetuate a barbaric, patriarchal religio-cultural tradition when women are fighting and dying across the globe to be free from gender segregation and slavery.
My views on public anti-mask laws (burqa bans, colloquially) as both public safety and gender desegregation measures are well known. We can no more tolerate gender segregation in the public space than we can tolerate racial segregation in the public space, above and beyond the simple fact that we can neither protect nor prosecute those whom we cannot identify, creating an untenable public safety and security hazard.
I expressed my great upset at witnessing this barbarism on the UC Berkeley campus on the English-language facebook page, which I maintain for Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) is the amazing women's rights organization, with global headquarters in Paris, France, which grew out of the outrage over the egregious gender violence being perpetrated upon the Muslim immigrant women and girls of the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding the major cities of France. I maintain this page to spread the Ni Putes Ni Soumises message of Secularism, Gender Equality, and Gender Desegregation throughout the English-speaking world.
There are a handful of misogynistic Islamists who occasionally try their hand at debating me on such subjects as US constitutional law and abortion rights on my NPNS facebook page. There's little I enjoy more than publicly humiliating them online. In truth, I owe them no small amount of gratitude. Every time they bait me, and I engage them, my readership jumps precipitously. And, I relish the opportunity to vent a little of my barely contained rage.
So, of course, my misogynistic Islamist readers couldn't pass up a choice opportunity to point out my obvious anti-immigrant racism and bigotry. (I'll admit to being purposely and purposefully provocative in describing the event as an abomination.) But, after comparing the burqa/niqab to the offense of having to watch a woman walk across campus in a mini-skirt, my Islamist interlocutors took a more interesting tack.
They accused me of having perpetrated a hate crime against Muslims and threatened me with hate crimes prosecution, under the guise of being terribly concerned that I not place myself in legal hot water, of course. It was a public service on their part, really. Of course, I pointed out that, not only did I reject their presumption of the role of spokespersons for the Muslim community as a whole, but that gender-based hate crimes are also included in the federal hate crimes act, not to mention the fact that I refuse to be deterred from exercising my constitutional right to free speech.
But, here's the thing. They're right. I have reason to be worried. And, they don't. Because it's always ok to hate women in America. This is why they felt no qualms about hatefully haranguing women with impunity and turning around and intimating that I was opening myself up to hate crimes prosecution by attacking the niqab. (In fact I said nothing hateful whatsoever about Muslims, or even Islam. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is not anti-religion or anti-Islam, just anti-religionism and anti-Islamism. Most of the women advocating on behalf of secularism for NPNS are Muslim immigrants themselves.)
But, they understand that religious groups enjoy a privileged position, which is denied to women. They understand that the likelihood that they should ever be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime is all but non-existent, while the possibility that I could ever be prosecuted for a religion-based hate crime is quite real. They understand that even if they should decide to go on a raping rampage against women, that their misogynistic diatribes will never be unearthed, nor will any serious attempt ever be made to unearth them, in all probability. Because no one cares if you hate women in America.
For the rest of my life, if I should ever get into any kind of a dispute or altercation with anyone who claims to be Muslim, I could conceivably be prosecuted for a hate crime. My vehement anti-religion, and especially anti-Islam, ramblings on facebook, my personal blog, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's website, and Daylight Atheism could be used against me in a court of law.
What my misogynistic Islamist pals don't know, and how could they, since I was representing not myself, but Ni Putes Ni Soumises during our little exchange, is that literally nothing can deter me from exercising my right to free speech to advocate on behalf of women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. I am a loner. I will never marry nor have children, which is a tactical choice. I am responsible for no one. I have no possessions. I have no money. I have no family. I have no community. I have no allegiances to any person or group or organization or corporation. I am as free as can be. I have my freedom, which is the only thing I value. I am beholden to no one and nothing, save my dead brother's memory and my own conscience. Jacob's suicide freed, enraged, and empowered me. I also know a thing or two about the law. In other words, you can't scare me. What are you going to do? Kill me? Put me in prison? We're all going to die someday. I choose to take advantage of every possible moment, while I'm still here, to leave a glorious legacy for my beloved sibling and myself. And, I choose to use my freedom and my knowledge to fight for secularism, gender equality, and gender desegregation.
Since I hate to mince words, let me just say: Hate crimes legislation is stupid. Seriously stupid. Abominably stupid. I hate hate crimes legislation. But, I love hate speech. Hate crimes legislation has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association. This is why hate crimes legislation is in direct contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Under hate crimes legislation, anyone who has ever said anything, which might be deemed hateful, directed at one of the groups protected under the legislation, opens themselves up to hate crimes prosecution in perpetuity, if they should ever find themselves in a dispute or altercation with someone who claims membership in any of those aforementioned protected groups. I want the haters out in the open, in the disinfecting sunlight of free and open discourse in the public marketplace of ideas. When people feel like their voices aren't being heard, that's usually when violence erupts. Thus, the paradox of hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation couches the criminal penalty for hate speech within a crime of violence. But, in my opinion, nothing moves one to violence so much as being denied the right to speak one's mind.
Hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation. Hate crimes legislation criminalizes the motive behind a crime. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing the why. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing thoughts. A hate crime is an additional penalty, above and beyond the penalty imposed for whatever crime of violence. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her motive. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her thoughts, for his/her reason for having acted violently. This is thought crime. Pure and simple.
But, since we don't live inside a Philip K. Dick story, we can't read people's minds, which is why we can only know someone's thoughts by their speech, or, in some cases, their actions. Which brings us back to my point about the chilling effect that hate crimes legislation has upon free speech. If my speech opens me up to legal liability in perpetuity, then I'm not going to speak. (Well, I am, but my imperviousness is rather anomalous, I would think.)
There are two most commonly cited justifications for implementing hate crimes legislation, and both are egregious errors. First, proponents of hate crimes legislation argue that we already penalize perpetrators of crimes for their thoughts, because mens rea (mental intent) is always an element of any crime. Second, proponents argue that, even if hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation, this is ok, because it is thought crime legislation, which is only ever prosecuted after the point at which the perpetrator has acted violently against someone.
Mens rea (mental intent) and motive are NOT the same thing. Mental intent is always a required element of whichever crime. We don't punish people for perpetrating crimes, which they do not intend to perpetrate unless they should have been aware that they were perpetrating crimes. We don't charge people who have seizures behind the wheel, precipitating fatal car accidents, with murder. But, if they were aware of a dangerous medical condition and failed to take reasonable precautions, then that degree of negligence or recklessness could rise to the level of criminality.
The Model Penal Code defines mens rea as having done something purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or in a grossly negligent fashion. What should already be obvious to even the legal layperson is that none of these criteria for satisfying the mental intent element of a crime addresses the issue of motive. Motive is a wholly separable and severable issue. Motive is equivalent to the reason behind having perpetrated a crime. Motive asks the question, "Why did the accused perpetrate this crime?" Motive does not ask whether or not the accused intended to perpetrate the crime. If I am behaving in a criminally negligent fashion, I still have a motive, presumably, for my behavior. Perhaps I am aware of a dangerous medical condition of mine, which induces seizures. Perhaps I fail to take reasonable precautions. Perhaps, I get behind the wheel, because I am feeling incredibly ill, and I intend to drive myself to the hospital emergency room. I have a seizure and get into a fatal car accident. What was my motive? My motive was to drive myself to the hospital emergency room for medical care. What was my mental intent? Did I intend to have a seizure and get into a car accident, resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders? Should I have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? Was my degree of negligence gross? Does my motive tell you anything about whether I should have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? What if my motive was to drive myself to the movies?
Motive is never an element of any given crime, EXCEPT in the case of hate crimes legislation. Motive can be admitted as evidence of mental intent, but it is not an element of the crime. If I chose to drive myself to the movies, and I bought a ticket online immediately before getting behind the wheel, this can be admitted as evidence that I behaved in a grossly negligent fashion. But, I am not being penalized for wanting to go to the movies; I am being penalized for failing, in a gross manner, to act as a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances. Likewise, without inventing an even more extravagant scenario, perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, in the case of my having chosen to drive myself to the hospital, which led me to believe that I had no other options than to do so.
Conflating motive and mens rea is a serious error, which places our entire American legal system in jeopardy. Allow me to explain why. I'll continue with the preceding example, because I find that examples serve best in explaining difficult legal concepts. And, these concepts are difficult for everyone, lawyers included. Let's say that our legislators, responding to a popular mandate, decide to promulgate stupid crimes legislation, wherein those who perpetrate crimes of criminal negligence for particularly stupid motives, like, say, going to the movies, face additional penalties, and that this legislation is a response to moral majority outrage over the loss of life and the infliction of serious bodily harm while engaging in frivolous activities for frivolous purposes. The public is incensed by the flagrant disregard for public safety and welfare.
Stupid crimes legislation entails the imposition of vastly harsher penalties for particularly stupid motives. But, it only imposes those penalties upon those who actually end up negligently killing someone or inflicting serious bodily harm. The legislation is justified as a response to the increased and senseless harms inflicted upon the general public for especially stupid reasons. If you accidentally kill someone in the course of attempting to save someone's life, you're ok. You might still be punished for your criminal negligence, but you won't face additional penalties. But, if you accidentally kill someone in the course of going to the movies, you receive additional penalties, if convicted. The laws penalize only those motives, which are considered frivolous or stupid. Entertainment activities are generally considered frivolous or stupid.
Makes no sense, does it? It's going to make you think twice about going to see that brand new movie release or concert, won't it? Either way, you didn't intend to either purposely or knowingly kill someone. Your intent is no different. You weren't aware that you would kill someone, but you should have been aware that you could kill someone, and that negligence on your part was gross. But, now, you're going to receive additional penalties on the basis of the stupidity of your motive during the course of perpetrating a crime of gross negligence. Because the jury will be morally outraged that you ended someone's life while doing something as frivolous as going to the movie theater. You're not actually being criminalized for going to the movies, but for wanting to go the movies.
Does it make a difference that you won't actually risk these penalties until you've killed someone? None whatsoever. You're still being penalized for the additional crime of wanting to go to the movies, of thinking that you want to go to the movies. Which evokes a myriad equal protection concerns. Someone who wants to go to the movies is being punished differently than someone who wants to save someone's life. For the same crime. The only difference is motive.
Additionally, hate crimes legislation violates the constitutional rights of the accused. You can almost always bring in evidence of a defendant's motive to prove mental intent. However, Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence still applies. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence says that if the prejudicial nature of the evidence outweighs its probative value, meaning that if the evidence is going to so inflame a jury so as to call into question the defendant's right to a fair trial, then the evidence is out, no matter how on point and illuminating it is. But, hate crimes legislation throws the Federal Rules of Evidence out the window, as well as their goal of protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Hate crimes legislation specifically says that if evidence of motive is so inflammatory that it calls into question the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial, because it will provoke moral outrage in the jury, then it's admissible. And, not only is it admissible, but it is an element of the crime, and the accused faces harsher penalties, because of the inflammatory and morally outrageous nature of the evidence. It is no longer about merely proving mental intent. It is about purposely and purposefully enraging the jury. It is about criminalizing morally outrageous thoughts/speech. It is about penalizing the perpetrator for his/her morally outrageous thoughts. Hate crimes legislation tells the jury, "If you are morally outraged, then not only consider this evidence, but convict and punish on the basis of your moral outrage." If we uphold the Federal Rules of Evidence, then the Federal Rules of Evidence, which prohibits egregiously inflammatory motive evidence, will negate the existent of hate crimes legislation.
Regarding the second justification for hate crimes legislation, let's return to the Philip K. Dick story, in which we seemingly live. Hate crimes legislation is essentially future crimes legislation. If you speak hateful speech, then you will be penalized both now and in perpetuity, by the imposition of a legal liability, for some future violent crime, which you may commit. You will forever be in a position of legal vulnerability, especially with respect to anyone who claims membership in any group protected by hate crimes legislation. You are no longer fully and equally protected by the law. You are no longer a full citizen of the US.
Finally, hate crimes legislation is the granting of rights and legal personality to social groups, placing individual human rights, especially women's and children's rights in jeopardy. Proponents of hate crimes legislation also put forth the argument that hate crimes don't just affect the individual who has been transgressed, but that these crimes are harms against communities of persons, social groups. But, I'm afraid that someone is going to have to define these protected groups with some degree of certitude, including their boundaries, their membership, their protocols for inclusion/exclusion and acceptance/rejection (coming, staying, and going), their rules, their leadership, etc., etc..
Human beings are real. Social groups aren't. Not nations, not religions, not ethnicities, not cultures, and not races. Group identity is inherently arbitrary and illusory and fluid. There is no objective definition of a social group. The experience of being a self-identified member of a social group is a wholly personal and subjective experience, which only exists in the mind of one or another group member. It matters not that human beings are social creatures that evolved to live in social groups and make decisions communally. This says nothing about the objective reality of social groups. Each member of a social group experiences the group in an entirely different way than any other member. He/she understands his/her role, value, and status within the group differently. There is no objective leadership, no objective set of rules of conduct, no objective protocol for entering, maintaining, or leaving a social group. And, this is as it should remain. Social group identity should remain an arbitrary, illusory, and fluid entity, entirely the process of self-initiation. In the same way that government should pay no heed to religion whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter, government should pay no heed to social groups whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter.
Why? Why should this be so?
Just think about the consequences of legally defining social groups. By recognizing a social group as an objectively definable entity, and legalizing this so-called objective definition of whichever social group, and granting this legal fiction rights and legal personality, we do nothing so much as violate the personhood, autonomy, integrity (bodily and otherwise), and humanity of whichever social group's members. Group identity is no longer an ephemeral process of self-identification. It is now a process of government indoctrination. Typically, the government cedes its authority to write this legal fiction for whichever social group to the "leaders" of the group, which almost always means the powerful group members, and usually means men. Legalizing group rights is a license to oppress the less powerful members of a group, rendering individual human rights meaningless.
A recognized group with legal rights and personality is an entity, which will seek to perpetuate itself. The group leaders, powerful male group members most likely, will seek to control the means of reproduction of the group members, i.e. women's bodies and children. Is it any surprise that group leadership will define women group members, who may or may not have had a choice in residing within or without the group, as the sexual and reproductive property of the group? Is it any surprise that a legalized group will defend its right to police its own members, promulgate and enforce its own laws, and defend itself against attack by other groups? No one suffers more under religio-cultural / legal communitarianism than women and children. No one loses more rights than women when groups are granted rights.
Religio-cultural / legal communitarianism is a threat to our secular democracy. Legal communitarianism renders equal protection, rule of law, individual human rights, and secularism meaningless. If a religio-cultural social group can hold itself apart from our secular law and democratic institutions and make itself immune to our Constitution, then our democracy will not survive. And, our government will not be able to protect the most vulnerable and least powerful group members from egregious human rights abuses. Hermetic groups, which are impervious to government intervention, are human rights abuse laboratories. Power differentials coupled with a lack of transparency inevitably lead to human rights violations. And, women and children suffer most of all in these scenarios.
You might think I extrapolate too far from the purpose and effect of hate crimes legislation, but I don't. We lose a little more of our secular democracy each day. I want to take some of it back. I want to start with the repeal of hate crimes legislation.
I would extrapolate even further. We are a single, global human family. A single, global human race. We are one tribe. One global community. We are one. Nothing divides us. If we are not able to come to terms with this fact, then we will not survive. It is really that simple.
Promulgating criminal law based upon a subjective sense of moral indignation, be it moral majority outrage or otherwise, always sounds like a good idea until you're on the receiving end of that moral indignation. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
Additionally, hate crimes legislation raises Due Process and 5th Amendment Double Jeopardy questions. But, this essay is already sufficiently lengthy. Suffice it to say that Due Process questions particularly arise in the instance when the accused is subjected to sentencing enhancements determined by a judge, in lieu of determination of guilt by a jury. Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy issues are evoked, because the accused is being prosecuted twice over for the same crime.
There are so many ways to think that hate crimes legislation is stupid. Even if you're not convinced by one argument, it is hard to imagine that anyone can remain immune to the persuasive power of the aggregation of arguments against hate crimes legislation.
And, now we see why it's always ok to hate women in America. Women having full access to their humanity is a direct threat to the existence of social groups. Both women and groups being able to wield the power of hate crimes legislation at the same time, against one another, renders hate crimes legislation meaningless. They cancel each other out. Like matter and anti-matter.
And, so, we wait for someone to be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime.
And, we wait. And wait.
Excuse me if I don't hold my breath.
Weekly Link Roundup
Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:
• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.
• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.
• Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.
• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.
• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.
• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.
6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism
This essay was originally published on AlterNet.
If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.
I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.
It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.
There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.
A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.
Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.
So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:
1. Atheists can be good people.
This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.
To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).
2. Greater support for separation of church and state.
This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.
Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.
3. Greater support for free speech.
One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!
In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.
Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.
4. Greater support for science and reason.
Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.
Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.
5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.
More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.
For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."
Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?
I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.
6. Greater support for reproductive choice.
With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.
Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.
In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.
* * *
I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.
What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.
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.
I Am An Atom of Atheism
The blog Ungodly News has created a whimsical periodic table of atheism, and I was surprised and pleased to find out that I'm on it:
I'm an actinide, if you can't find me - one of the green rows on the bottom, labeled as "The Wicked of the Web". I'd never have counted myself as one of the basic and indivisible elements of atheism, but given the distinguished company I'm listed among, this is a true honor! You may now commence the jokes about making compounds of atheists...
In other news, here's a quick link roundup:
• I was happy to hear that Geert Wilders has been acquitted by a Dutch court, putting an end to the shameful prosecution of a man for exercising the right of free speech. Whatever one thinks of Wilders' ideas, the correct way to respond to an argument is with another argument, not the threat of punishment. The court's ruling recognized this principle, even if it disappointingly described his opinion as "the edge of what is allowed".
• The self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge at an October 2009 retreat he organized. Woo is not harmless, not even the vague and fluffy-headed New Age variety.
• Via Andrew Sullivan, this haunting and gorgeous short film of Saturn and its moons, made by splicing together thousands of still images from the Cassini mission.
• In the wake of (unfortunately small and sporadic) protests by women across Saudi Arabia asking for the right to drive, a Saudi Arabian doctor has appealed for the right to choose her own husband. The fact that women are still denied these incredibly basic human freedoms ought to be a cause for national embarrassment in this ignorant and backwards theocracy.
• Via Slacktivist, an evangelical pastor tries valiantly to silence his own flickers of conscience over the doctrine of eternal damnation:
"It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell... are troubled by its implications."
Maybe those evangelicals should consider listening to their consciences for once.
Photo Saturday: Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Circle
This past week, on a sunny spring day, I went on my lunch hour to see a new public art installation in midtown Manhattan:
This exhibit, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads", is noteworthy for being created by the internationally famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. After being chosen to design the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was considered a national hero; but when he used that prominent platform to speak out against government corruption and censorship, the thuggish despots who rule China abruptly did an about-face.
At the beginning of April, Ai Weiwei was disappeared by the Chinese government, and his status and whereabouts have been unknown since then in spite of an international campaign calling for his release. Nevertheless, the exhibits he had designed and planned before his arrest continue to be unveiled all over the world, often with pointed jabs at China during the ceremonies. (At the unveiling of this one, a curator at the Guggenheim read an apt quote: "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.")
These sculptures represent the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac, but their somewhat generic appearance hides a pointed message. I've read that they're a deliberate homage to twelve similar sculptures which were once part of a famous fountain on the grounds of the Chinese imperial family's Summer Palace, but which were stolen when the complex was looted, sacked and burned by the British and French during the Second Opium War of 1860. Only five have since been returned to China; two others have been found, but the owner has refused to repatriate them.
With this history in mind, the exhibit is a subtle statement about the harm done by imperialism. But under the present circumstances, it's possible to discern another layer of meaning in it. The absence of the original sculptures was and is a long-remembered symbol of Chinese national humiliation. In their new incarnations, they more powerfully call attention to the absence of their creator - and remind the world of the shame and ignominy the current Chinese government has brought upon itself through its outrageous arrogance in believing that it can control all human expression through brutality.
Free Speech Still Under Attack
Free speech is always and everywhere under attack in the world, and as depressing as it is to have to keep pointing that out, I think it's vital to highlight it when it happens so that this human right is never taken for granted. Unfortunately, these past few weeks have offered a surfeit of examples.
First, there's India, whose government has quietly issued new rules allowing for the censorship of any internet content deemed "blasphemous", "hateful" or "disparaging". Apparently, all it takes is for someone to file a complaint. There's no mechanism of appeal, and websites created or maintained in other countries aren't exempted. Considering that India is beset with both Muslim and Hindu mobs that have shown themselves ready to riot over the slightest provocation, it's not hard to guess what kind of websites will be among the first targets of fundamentalist complaints. Speech which "outrages religious feelings" is already illegal in India, and journalists and publishers have been arrested and charged under this law for speaking their minds, but this attempt to censor the entire Internet is a new and frightening extreme even if it's certain to fail in practice.
From India to England, where a man has been sentenced to 70 days in jail for burning a Qur'an. The local police labeled this a "hate crime", and the judge explained: "People are entitled to protest in this country... but [not] in such a way as it will inflame". Since it "inflames" me to see a nonviolent act of protest punished with imprisonment, regardless of whether or not it was done with racist intent, am I entitled to demand that this judge and these police be sent to jail as well?
Meanwhile, in Italy, the director Nanni Moretti produced a satirical film called Habemus Papam ("We Have a Pope"), which depicts a panic-stricken incompetent thrust into the papacy who seeks psychiatric help to cope with the pressure. The shrieking denunciations and fatwa envy expressed by Catholic hard-liners were to be expected, but what's more noteworthy is that a Catholic bigot named Bruno Volpe promptly filed a lawsuit against the producers under the Lateran Pact, a treaty ratified by Mussolini's government that protects the "prestige of the pope". Yes, let that sink in: Right-wing Catholics are openly using a law passed by fascists to attack free speech!
And for the European trifecta, there's Spain, where a Madrid court has banned an atheist procession that had been scheduled to coincide with Catholic marches on Easter weekend. The "State Association of Christian Lawyers" (now there's a pro-theocratic group if ever I heard of one) filed complaints which spurred the government to investigate and, astonishingly, file charges against the atheists, just for seeking permission to march:
Madrid's local government... has launched legal proceedings against the group Ateos en Lucha [great name! —Ebonmuse] insisting it is 'ridiculing religion' and 'glorifying terrorism'.
Apparently, the official position of the Spanish government is that Roman Catholics own certain dates and all nonbelievers are required to stay indoors and keep quiet. I always thought Spain was a secular country. What on earth is going on there?
On Qur'an Burning, Redux
A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur'an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.
I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don't believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner ("Free speech is a great idea, but...") Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:
"I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Quran," he said.
Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban's. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you'll notice, I'm not naming him in this post).
But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don't have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don't have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don't make anyone upset isn't worth defending.
I'll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn't control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.
Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! - on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn't that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?
Even if you grant that the Qur'an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn't also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn't be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:
There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can't limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people's disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it's exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them - neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.
Some Atheist Victories of Note
I wrote last month about the Fort Worth atheist bus ads and how the city decided to ban all religious messages in the future, so as not to have to deal with us again. At the time, I observed:
It was only when groups who aren't in the majority want to exercise their equal rights that people get angry... Still, as hypocritical as this is, I'm not bothered as long as the new policy is applied equally and fairly. Atheists have plenty of other places to advertise, and if that's what it takes to make our government a little bit more secular, I'm happy about that too!
Well, I'm pleased to note that a prominent Christian agrees with my analysis. Al Mohler, in a post titled How Not to Fight Atheism, pointed out that the ridiculous Christian overreaction ensured the bus campaign got far more publicity, and lamented the city's decision for expanding the reach of secularism:
Christians are sometimes our own worst enemy, especially when we claim to be offended. Those pastors and concerned Christians who demanded that the transportation authority ban the atheist ads actually gave the secularists the Grand Prize. By precipitating (and, of all things, celebrating) a ban on all religious messages from this public space, these Christians surrendered Gospel opportunities simply because they were offended by an atheist advertisement. No wonder the atheists clapped.
This is a disastrous strategy. Are Christians so insecure that we fear a weakly-worded advertisement on a public bus?
Allow me to answer your rhetorical question, Mr. Mohler: Yes. What other conclusion could you draw from the way that Christians actually reacted?
Mohler writes that "Being a Christian does not mean never having to be offended," which is a sentiment I'll applaud any day. It's too bad so few of his fellow believers don't share it. But regardless, his column shows why atheist advertising is such a winning strategy, and why atheists should advertise in every public forum open to us. Either Christians call for that forum to be shut down - which necessarily means surrendering their right to use it as well, which makes our government that much more secular - or they have to defend the right to free speech, even by atheists. Either way, it's a good thing for us, and either way, the inevitable publicity guarantees that our ad's reach and effectiveness will be multiplied.
I'm also pleased to report a victory over the Mount Soledad cross, a case which I mentioned in one of my earliest posts. That cross, originally erected on public land solely for Christian worship and then belatedly labeled a war memorial when secularists complained, has been the subject of a two-decade legal battle. Incredibly, the state argued throughout that an enormous 43-foot Latin cross standing alone should be considered a secular symbol with no connection to Christianity. The court finally saw through this obvious sophistry, though it took them far too long to do so. The court stopped short of immediately requiring the cross to be taken down, and more appeals lie ahead, but we can hope that this is a turning point in a case that's already dragged on for much longer than it should have.
If you want to see the inevitable religious right lying and whining, I suggest this article, which states that the cross "was dedicated... in 1954 to honor veterans of the Korean War" - a slippery little phrase that tries its hardest to imply that the cross was built that year. In fact, it was raised decades earlier and never called a war memorial until after a church-state lawsuit was filed.
The author goes on to make the bizarre and laughable claim that the 14th Amendment was never intended to apply the Bill of Rights to state governments (the drafters of the amendment would be surprised to hear that), and asks snippily if the next lawsuit will be to force a city with a name derived from Christianity, like San Diego, to change its name.
For the record, I'll answer the author's question: No, I don't believe there would be any grounds for such a lawsuit. Naming a city Los Angeles or San Diego doesn't do any harm to nonbelievers. That's a legitimate example of the "historical context" defense courts have so often used illegitimately, say, with large Christian crosses on public land. On the other hand, if a town named itself something like "Repent-and-believe-in-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-or-else-be-damned-to-the-fires-of-Hell-for-all-eternity, Alabama," I think there would be grounds for a state-church action.