The Catholic Church Welcomes a Holocaust Denier

I knew the Catholics were having trouble finding enough people to be clergy, but I didn't think things had gotten this bad (HT: Pam's House Blend):

I believe that the historical evidence — the historical evidence — is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolph Hitler... I believe there were no gas chambers.

Those are some choice words from Richard Williamson, one of four bishops excommunicated 20 years ago after being appointed by the breakaway archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and whose excommunication Pope Benedict has now lifted. Here are some other viewpoints of Williamson's. First, there's the ever-popular "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" meme:

By lies, Judeo-Masonry brought about the first two World Wars... By lies, Judeo-Masonry is preparing for the Third World War. (source)

He says that homosexuality naturally evokes a "violent repugnance", that homosexual behavior is a sin "crying to Heaven for vengeance", and favors us with the following quote, which I swear I'm not making up:

"Oh, but Our Lord had chawity, (unlike thumwun we know who wath tho nathty to Pwintheth Di!). Our Lord loved thinnerth, and faggotth, and tho thould we!!" So runs the objection! (source)

Predictably, he thinks that women should not receive higher education:

...because of all kinds of natural reasons, almost no girl should go to any university!

The deep-down reason is the same as for the wrongness of women's trousers [yes, he's also against those —Ebonmuse]: the unwomaning of woman. The deep-down cause in both cases is that Revolutionary man has betrayed modern woman; since she is not respected and loved for being a woman, she tries to make herself a man. Since modern man does not want her to do what God meant her to do, namely to have children, she takes her revenge by invading all kinds of things that man is meant to do. (source)

And just for good measure, how about throwing in some 9/11 conspiracy lunacy as well?

None of you believe that 9-11 is what it was presented to be. It was, of course, the two towers came down, but it was absolutely for certain not two airplanes which brought down those two towers. They were professionally demolished by a series of demolition charges from top to bottom of the towers. (source)

Make no mistake about it: By personally lifting this man's excommunication and welcoming him back into the fold, Benedict has sent an unmistakable message that he, and by extension the entire Catholic church, condones sentiments like this. His decision signals that these views are acceptable ones for a Catholic bishop to have. (Meanwhile, Catholics who believe that women should be ordained or that being gay is not a sin continue to be persona non grata to the leadership.)

Based on decisions like this one, it appears that whatever progress was achieved by John Paul II, this pope intends to roll it all back and then some. Even as the world advances, Benedict is deliberately moving the church backwards, as if intending to position it as a bulwark against modernity. And if that's what he wants, so be it. Nothing could better support the atheist contention that the Catholic church is an archaic and obsolete institution.

As parishes shrink and the church fades, ultraconservatives like Benedict are bent on accelerating the decline, by promoting the attitudes that have led to so many people leaving in the first place. They may well wind up presiding over a tiny and hardened remnant, one that matches their medieval vision but is otherwise irrelevant, as the rest of the world progresses in its moral outlook and ultimately leaves them behind.

January 29, 2009, 8:16 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink45 comments
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Sharing the Kook Mail

For whatever reason, I don't get as much entertaining e-mail from religious nuts as some other atheist bloggers I know of. If I were inclined to flatter myself, I'd say it's because they're silenced by the devastating power of my arguments. More likely, it's just because most of the notorious crazies haven't come across my site.

In either case, crackpot e-mail in my inbox is sufficiently rare that when I do get e-mail from genuine kooks, I can't keep it to myself. I just have to share it with you all. Following is a message I received the other night from a person whose hatred of atheists is evident, whose hold on reality is debatable, and who holds a unique interpretation of the death of Jesus. All spelling and grammar is as in the original. Enjoy!

To: ebonmusings@gmail.com
Date: 16 May 2008 11:22
Subject: Feedback: An Easter Blessing

One thing is sure. The devil has his ring in your nose and is controlling your every thought and action.

He has you convinced that there is no proof of Jesus. As with all of his other lies he is wrong.

I have proven the reality of Jesus for years. I live in perfect health because of Him. I live a life of miracles including divine protection.

I have seen Him as He hung on the cross. Because He had suffered the worst case of every sickness and disease that would ever touch a human body, His body was so grotesque rhat if the people had been able to see it, they could not have handled seeing it.

I have seen Him seated at the roght hand of the Father in heaven.

The devil has you so deluded that you are arrogant and condescending, thinking you are smarter than we who know Jesus.

Unless you rejest the lies of the devil you will spend eternity in hell with your father, rhe devil.

May God have mercy on your pitiful soul.

As a rule, I don't make fun of people who are clearly mentally ill (although I consider anyone who attracts a substantial following to be fair game). On the other hand, the line between excessive religiosity and psychosis is a blurry one. This writer's soteriology is a bit unorthodox, but his religious visions and his claims to be the beneficiary of miracles would not be out of place in many large, conventional churches. Nor, for that matter, would his denunciations of atheists.

Unfortunately, the way that religious belief exalts irrationality means that genuine mental disorders can go unnoticed. Primordial Blog tells the sad story of Blair Donnelly, a man whose untreated psychosis resulted in him murdering his daughter because he believed God had told him to do so. This tragedy might have been averted if Donnelly had received psychiatric treatment, but he was a member of a Pentecostal sect that viewed his constant claims of hearing voices and seeing demons not as symptoms of illness, but great spiritual gifts. I have no reason to believe that my correspondent suffers from any similar disorder, but the possibility cannot be completely dismissed.

May 17, 2008, 9:53 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink30 comments
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Michael Medved: Clueless Dominionist

I don't make it my mission to slap down every loudmouth religious-right crackpot on the internet. Really, I don't. If I wanted to make it my mission, I could do nothing else, but it wouldn't accomplish anything and it wouldn't make for a very interesting site.

However, the other day, this giant, flaming meteor of stupidity landed in my inbox, and it was just too tempting not to have a go. The author of this benighted epistle is Michael Medved, nationally syndicated right-wing radio host. In it, he applies his talents to the issue of why atheists are unfit to serve as president of the United States of America.

First:

Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the "Church of America" – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.

The "Church of America"? Good grief. Does Medved really think a vital part of the President's job description is to issue mushy ecumenical proclamations reassuring voters that God approves of us? I must have missed that line in Article II. Somehow, I think the nation could soldier on if the President didn't come out of the White House every so often to give us all a theistic pat on the head. The President is the President, not the Pope of America. His job is to faithfully execute the laws. That's all. I can assure Medved that those Americans who wish to go on believing have more than ample opportunity to find like-minded clergy members elsewhere.

For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation–-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Oh, the horrors that would ensue if a president refused to issue a religious proclamation at Thanksgiving! Good thing we never had a president who dared such an impious act!

What? We did?

Who was he, some kind of liberal?

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it... every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

Oh, yeah: it was the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Then there's the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words "under God"? If he did, he'd stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn't, he'd pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

I have a third alternative: why not say the Pledge as it was originally written, by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, before a meddling Congress inserted the words "under God" in the 1950s to give themselves a talking point about how we were superior to those evil, godless commies?

Medved unintentionally puts his finger on a reason why the Pledge should be restored. It's quite true that the President should be able to participate in the patriotic rituals that unite us as a people. That's why the current, religionized Pledge is so unfortunate - because it divides us, and makes a large number of Americans reluctant to participate in this civic institution without being made to violate their own consciences or feel like outsiders. And that's why it should be fixed, so that all Americans, religious or not, can participate. Medved's solution is to preserve that bigotry and keep the atheists out; I would rather get rid of the divisive language so that atheists can enter fully into the fold of American citizenship.

Next, Medved says, the "United States remains a profoundly, uniquely religious society" and should have a leader whose beliefs reflect that. Yet at the same time, he says, a candidate like Mitt Romney or Joe Lieberman would still be qualified:

There's a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups.

Uh, no. The most recent major survey done on this issue, last month's Pew poll, found that self-declared atheists and agnostics account for about 4% of the population. That's 12 million people. The "secular unaffiliated", very likely atheists in all but name, are another 6%. That's 30 million people, not five. Perhaps five million people seems like a small enough minority for Medved to safely ignore, but 10% of the population is pushing it.

For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn't show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.

This is the old canard that atheism is somehow intrinsically disrespectful of the religious in the way that other religions are not. It's hard to see how this claim can be sustained, though, because Mormonism and Judaism both deny fundamental tenets of Christianity: one rejects Jesus' claim to be the messiah, while the other asserts that he was just one in a potentially infinite line of deified humans. These faiths already deny so many of each other's major tenets: why does the one additional tenet denied by atheism make all the difference?

Finally, Medved asserts, only a religious president could win the war against "Islamo-Nazism" (yes, he actually calls it that; I cracked up laughing too).

Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.

Is Medved really saying that al-Qaeda would go away and leave us alone if only we prove to them that we hate atheists as much as they do?

I have a news flash for you, sir: Al-Qaeda devotes considerable time and effort to killing their fellow Muslims for practicing the "wrong" faith. Do you really think that electing a Christian of any denomination is going to appease them? And what about the Jews? You just said that a Jewish person could be qualified to be president. Would that choice ever satisfy the evil Islamo-Nazis? Or do you want to rethink your plan of selecting presidents based on whom our enemies hate the least?

In this context, an atheist president conforms to the most hostile anti-America stereotypes of Islamic fanatics and makes it that much harder to appeal to Muslim moderates whose cooperation (or at least neutrality) we very much need.

Uh-huh. Because presidents who call the war on terrorism a "crusade", and presidential candidates whose chief religious advisers openly preach that we are in a divinely ordained "religious war" against Islam, are not going to inflame Muslim sentiment in any way. Mr. Medved, you seem oddly open to diplomacy for a member of the right, but I have to break it to you: if you think that's how this fight is going to be won, then you're backing the wrong side altogether.

In sum: Like nearly all members of the religious right, Michael Medved's view of America is aggressively anti-historical, his idea of our enemies is an ignorant cartoon, and his beliefs about atheists are a load of smug tripe. His popularity shows the widespread and glaring lack of intellectual standards among the religious right. His opinions can be safely dismissed by people of intelligence and good sense.

There, I feel better. Sometimes you just need a little bit of catharsis. Now, on to more important subjects.

April 11, 2008, 6:45 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments
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The Million-Dollar Challenge Ends

Some news from earlier this year you might have missed: James Randi is officially ending his million-dollar challenge to those who claim they have psychic or supernatural powers. The challenge will be offered for two more years, and assuming no one succeeds and claims the money, will be terminated in March 2010.

It's not hard to see why Randi would do this. After ten years without a single successful applicant, I think he's made his point. Unsurprisingly, the best-known, most prominent psychic pretenders (Sylvia Browne, John Edward, etc.) have refused to even come near the challenge. The people who do apply are usually either recalcitrant and uncooperative or obviously mentally disturbed, in either case forcing Randi's staff to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to get them to commit to a clear, testable claim. Here are some typical applications from the JREF's blog:

There are alternate versions of myself in different types of highly evolved states that work interchangeably to form the time process in its phasic reflective capacitations of experiential transience.

I want to show the matrix. To prove solutions and cures are withheld. Prove manipulations of sinister intent exist.

This money can be more effectively used to promote the causes of scientific inquiry and skepticism, rather than being held in trust while its caretakers try to sort through this river of nonsense. If there were any prospect that high-profile psychic claimants would agree to be tested, then I would encourage the challenge to continue, since debunking their claims in a major public forum could attract attention and interest that would greatly advance the skeptics' cause. But of course, these famous psychic pretenders know full well that this would be the outcome, and so they steadfastly avoid Randi's challenge. From their perspective, sad to say, it's a rational decision: why risk near-certain exposure and embarrassment by going up against a canny skeptic, when they can make comparable sums by safely exploiting the credulous and the gullible?

Interestingly, Randi's challenge is not the only one of its kind. The Skeptic's Dictionary lists numerous similar challenges offered by skeptical groups around the world. So, to handle the inevitable flood of flimflam artists who will step forward just after the challenge ends and announce that they could have won it, I advise pointing them to one of these challenges instead. A person who could win one or several of them would have an excellent claim for having their powers scientifically validated. Randi has also said, I believe, that he'd consider temporarily resurrecting the challenge if a famous psychic wanted to apply - so we can rest assured that woo-woo advocates will not be able to wriggle away from those pesky requests for proof, either now or in the years to come.

March 13, 2008, 7:22 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments
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Delusions of Persecution

Late last year on Freethought Radio, Dan and Annie Laurie played a remarkable clip from James Dobson, talking on his own radio show about their program:

The problem is that the Christian ethic is literally hanging by a thread. I heard just a few weeks ago that Air America, the very leftist radio entity... have come up with a program that will be aired across the country that is atheistic - admittedly atheistic in nature.

Freethought Radio was on the air for some time before it was picked up nationally by Air America, but never mind that. What I find most amusing is Dobson's claim that Freethought Radio's debut has left Christianity "hanging by a thread". When last I checked, there were more than 2,000 religious radio stations in America, many of which play Christian programming twenty-four hours a day - not to mention the Christian TV channels, magazines, book publishers, megachurches, private colleges, evangelism programs, political lobbying organizations, and so on. Who'd have thought that this multibillion-dollar infrastructure was so fragile that one hour a week of radio pitched explicitly to freethinkers could bring it all to the edge of ruin? Shades of David and Goliath!

Dobson isn't the only one making noise like this. Last year, Ed Brayton reported on a hysterical column written by Janet Folger of the right-wing site WorldNetDaily, in which she imagines a future where Hillary Clinton has become President and has outlawed Christianity. No, I'm not making that up. In a similar story, the creationist Discovery Institute complains about the "unprecedented wave of persecution" it has suffered from nasty, mean scientists - as if academia's refusal to take them seriously was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone. And again, Greg Laurie of WorldNetDaily wrings his hands over "the ugly results of banning God from the culture".

Another right-wing site, Hal Lindsay's Oracle Cartoons, has comics with titles like "Jail For Jesus", in which the cartoonist fantasizes about Christianity being outlawed worldwide and himself and other Christians being jailed, persecuted and tortured. In fact, judging by his strips with titles like "Another Illegal Cartoon", he seems to have persuaded himself that this is already in progress.

This is not to say that fears about the restriction of speech are entirely meritless. There are some legitimate threats to free speech in the world, and these need to be treated with the seriousness and gravity they deserve. What we do not need is the shrieking hysteria of Christians who treat the situation all out of proportion to its seriousness, as if their entire religion was on the very edge of being stamped out. A rational person would take the view that, while persecution of individuals is still atrocious where it exists, Christianity constitutes one-third of the population of this planet and commands a substantial portion of its wealth and power; it is not in danger of dying out any time soon. Even worse is the odious, conceited belief held by many Christians that everyone is against them and that their religion is the only one whose free speech is under threat. (Most tyrants suppress differing views indiscriminately.)

There is no global tide of persecution poised to sweep down on Christians, as these people ridiculously imagine. They should recognize that protections on free speech have always been a patchwork at best. Some nations are strong bulwarks of free speech; others allow it in some cases but restrict it in others; and in a handful of totalitarian states, there is no free speech at all. Every infringement on free speech is serious, but to assume that Christianity as a whole is in dire peril or is prevented from communicating its message is a delusion in stark conflict with reality.

March 12, 2008, 7:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink38 comments
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Daylight Atheism in the News

I wasn't going to post today, but I was going through my Google news alerts and what do I find:

The Daylight Atheism author states, "Over the past several years, I have observed to my dismay the forces of militant religious fundamentalism gaining in strength, both in my home country, the United States of America, and worldwide. This ominous development, driven by those who are dedicated enemies of all the progress and enlightenment that has been achieved over the past several centuries, threatens the liberty and happiness of all people everywhere. As a result, I have been compelled to grow more involved in political causes to help oppose it. We need as many voices as possible calling attention to the evil of the religious right and shining the light of scrutiny on their true goals. Only by doing so can we hope to stop them, and I hope to play some small part in that."

This brief article appeared in the Navasota Examiner, which printed a howler of a column back in December wondering if America's separation of church and state was meant to punish Christianity for the Inquisition, and fretting that the atheist cabal which apparently controls our country now is about to ban the celebration of Christmas. In "The Real Enemies of Christmas", I gave the column's author, Joy Stephenson, a brief lesson in American history and encouraged readers to write in to correct her faulty understanding. Evidently some of you took me up on that, and evidently, Joy Stephenson's bosses at the Examiner are just as blinkered and ignorant as she is.

The letters sent in which were reprinted in my comment thread were very reasonable and polite, but the Examiner's Evalynn Christiansen immediately takes a tone of huffy dismissal, gasping in shock that we dare to disagree with her:

These atheists have declared themselves intellectually superior to all who do not hold their beliefs. That sounds like hypocrisy to me.

In the first place, if disagreeing with someone amounts to declaring yourself their intellectual superior, then one can only assume that Christians must consider themselves the intellectual superiors of everyone who believes differently. I doubt most believers actually feel that way, but it's a direct consequence of this columnist's own logic - which, as usual, she selectively applies only to people she dislikes, with no thought to how the same reasoning would affect her own position.

Second, Christiansen apparently doesn't know what the word "hypocrite" means. Hypocrisy means speaking for one position and acting to support a different one. We atheists are clear and consistent: we advocate free speech, religious neutrality in government, and the use of reason - but since she doesn't like that, she evidently gropes for the first term of insult that comes to mind and then throws it out without thought for its relevance.

Joy Stephenson writes witty op-ed pieces with her audience in mind and was really "preaching to the choir" with this one.

Joy is a delight to read. Keep it up!

Keep what up? Making foolish errors based on a pervasive misunderstanding of America's laws and history? It's notable that Christiansen doesn't even respond to the corrections sent to her, nor does she acknowledge that her columnist was in any way mistaken. She just insults the letter writers, assumes that by doing this she's dealt with their criticisms, and then cheers on her laughably uninformed colleague.

To finish her column, Christiansen announces that most of her paper's subscribers "believe in Christian values" - as if that somehow excused their getting the facts so outrageously wrong. Like many believers, she assumes that her religion should be exempt from criticism and that everyone else should treat her pronouncements with unquestioning assent. Perhaps we need to show her the error of that way of thinking. Here's a link to send a letter to the editor. Anyone care to join me in giving this paper another volley?

January 10, 2008, 8:36 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink31 comments
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Pat Robertson's Pathetic Predictions

At the beginning of last year, I mentioned a prediction made by Pat Robertson:

As reported by Americans United, Pat Robertson has joined in the fun, predicting "mass killings" to occur on American soil due to a terrorist attack sometime this year. (Robertson said he expected this to come in the form of a nuclear attack, but emphasized that this was only his educated guess - as opposed to the rest of this prophecy, which was clearly straight from God's mouth and not at all just made up.)

The video of this prediction can be viewed here. The prophecy in question comes around the two-minute mark, where Robertson forecasts "very serious terrorist attacks" against America, resulting in "mass killings... possibly [of] millions of people", and "major cities injured".

By now, I think we can safely assume that this is another prophetic failure. The only question is, was Pat Robertson making up prophecies on his own initiative and attributing them to God, or was it God himself who blew it?

In either case, Robertson does not have a good track record as a fortuneteller. This latest embarrassment joins a long string of failures chronicled by AU (see also):

Of course, Robertson has suffered no fallout from these repeated failures. Like most religious phonies, he can count on his followers never doing any follow-up work. He can make whatever absurd guesses he likes, and his devoted true believers will oblige him by forgetting about all the ones that fail to pan out. (Or, like many other failed apocalyptic prophets, he can claim that the disaster was going to occur but was averted just in time by the prayers of his followers - a time-tested excuse hinted at in the video.) The usual pattern is, if any prophecies do come true, for the prophet to endlessly remind his followers of that fact and counting on their being awed and amazed. However, I'm not aware of any major predictions made by Robertson that turned out successful.

January 1, 2008, 11:59 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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The Religious Right Hates America

Via Talking Points Memo, I've come across a story I still find almost unbelievable. It happened at the "Values Voter" debate for Republican presidential candidates that took place last week in Fort Lauderdale.

This event was skipped by the major candidates, Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney, which left seven minor candidates who spent the evening attempting to one-up each other in competing for the Republican base. If you, readers, have ever wondered about the roughly 25% of Americans who still support George W. Bush, look no further: this debate provided a raw glimpse into the furious, fanatic heart of what remains of the party and its distorted carnival-funhouse-mirror worldview. Inflammatory anti-Islam rhetoric, anti-gay rhetoric, denunciations of the judiciary, and calls for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and gay marriage were the order of the night. Several of the candidates, in wording more suitable for a church revival meeting than a political debate, spoke at length of how they converted to Christianity and how much they adore Jesus.

But these grotesque panderings were not the highlight of the evening, amazingly enough. That designation rightfully belongs to another event which took place at the opening of the debate, and fortunately, it was filmed. The video, posted at Right Wing Watch, simply has to be seen to be believed. In what is best described as a seething rant set to gospel music, the Church of God Choir from Springfield, Ohio sings an altered version of "God Bless America" - but rather than calling for God's favor, the rewritten song bitterly reviles America for all the sins it has supposedly committed, and denounces us as unworthy to receive God's blessing. I am not in any way making this up. Right Wing Watch has the video, and here are the lyrics:

Why should God bless America?
She's forgotten he exists
And has turned her back
On everything that made her what she is

Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sin and heal our land

The courts ruled prayer out of our schools
In June of '62
Told the children "you are your own God now
So you can make the rules"
O say can you see what that choice
Has cost us to this day
America, one nation under God, has gone astray

In '73 the Courts said we
Could take the unborn lives
The choice is yours don't worry now
It's not a wrong, it's your right

But just because they made it law
Does not change God's command
The most that we can hope for is
God's mercy on our land

The non-response to this event in the mainstream media showcases the shameful double standard of the country's pundit class. If a Democratic debate featured an altered version of "God Bless America" denouncing America for its misdeeds, Republican spokesmen blast the party to high heaven on every media outlet in the land, and the chattering sycophants of the press would have a field day over how this proves that the Democrats are too radical and extremist to be elected and how badly this will damage their political fortunes in 2008. Instead, from the conventional media, there has been silence. This does not excuse the Democrats for their own lack of fortitude in standing up to George W. Bush so far despite an enormous popular mandate, but it does show how progressive politicians must fight an uphill battle in a media landscape that is still strongly tilted against them.

This also shows that the religious right, for all their phony claims of patriotism, does not like or admire America at all. The only thing they desire is an America obedient to their beliefs and ideals, a country that has become a right-wing Christian theocracy with themselves as the rulers - one where women's bodies are the property of the state, where gays and nonbelievers are second-class citizens by law, and where the government draws up mandatory religious exercises for schoolchildren and other captive audiences. If they cannot have this, they angrily reject and attack the nation as a whole; their affection for America is solely a function of whether it bows to their demands. If it will not, the religious right in all its arrogance has no hesitation in threatening all the rest of us with divine retribution from their angry, mythical god.

September 25, 2007, 6:50 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments
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A Legal Development

I've said on previous occasions that Daylight Atheism is a weblog devoted to commentary and analysis, not breaking news. However, I've heard of a case sufficiently noteworthy that I think it merits an exception.

Last month, the indomitable P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula posted a review of Stuart Pivar's book Lifecode, which purports to explain the embryonic development of organisms through topological manipulation of an initially fluid form. Myers' review, though sympathetic to the principles espoused, was negative on balance:

I am thoroughly unconvinced, and am unimpressed with the unscientific and fabulously concocted imagery of the book.

After the initial review was posted, Pivar wrote in to object vociferously, and promised a second, revised edition which would address these criticisms. This was delivered, and Myers read it and posted a second review, which was similarly unfavorable.

Pivar's response, apparently, was to sue P.Z. Myers and Seed Media (publisher of ScienceBlogs.com, which includes Pharyngula) for "assault, libel and slander".

I haven't yet seen comments about this lawsuit on Pharyngula or on any of the other Science Blogs sites. Quite possibly, as defendants in the suit, they're required to keep quiet about it. I came across this story through two other, independent blogs, Boing Boing and SciAm Observations.

I am not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect this suit will be dismissed immediately if it ever makes it to court. I don't know what specific grounds Pivar is alleging, but in the United States of America, book reviews do not lose their First Amendment protection because they are negative, not even if the author's feelings are hurt. Indeed, the very purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that others may find disturbing or upsetting, but that is part of the free interchange of ideas and opinion that is vital to a healthy, democratic society. The bar for slander and libel is deliberately set high, requiring the plaintiff to show that the defendant made false statements and did so either with knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, their falsity, and is especially high in cases like this one where the post was explicitly intended as a review and critique. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation's rundown.)

If Pivar won his lawsuit, unlikely as I believe that to be, it would have a chilling effect on book reviews on the Internet and beyond. Seemingly any negative review that wounds the author's feelings might be grounds for a lawsuit. Hopefully, the suit will be dropped soon, but if not, I hope Seed Media is willing to fight for the free-speech rights of its bloggers. I'll post updates on this story as they become available.

August 20, 2007, 9:09 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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Falwell's Feeble Prognostications

A recent article by Reuters presents an interview with Jerry Falwell, the aging but still influential figure of the theocratic religious right, and his views on the 2008 American presidential election and other issues of concern. I found some of Falwell's remarks worth commenting on.

The article does not shy away from mentioning some of Falwell's more idiotic proclamations, such as a few days after September 11, 2001 when he blamed homosexuals, civil rights groups and non-Christians for the terrorist attacks of that dreadful day. For reference, here are Falwell's own words:

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

It's worth noting that Falwell never actually apologized for these remarks, though some media groups reported otherwise. Instead, he issued the standard religious right non-apology - "I'm sorry if anyone was offended by what I said" - which stops short of expressing any genuine regret for his words, and instead implies that the people who were angered were at fault for being too thin-skinned. Hateful words such as this, which make it clear both that Falwell's god is a sadistic, tyrannical psychopath and also that Falwell has invented this god in his own image, should render him utterly unworthy of consideration by any rational or moral person.

However, that is not the case in our world, and though Falwell is less influential than he once was, he still commands the allegiance of thousands of conservative Christians through organizations such as the laughably misnamed Liberty University, a bastion of right-wing indoctrination where young-earth creationism is taught in science classes, aspiring theocrats are trained in politics and law, and professors are deliberately never granted tenure, so they can be immediately fired if they ever express views that the college administration does not approve of (which is, of course, the very purpose of tenure).

Most of the article is about American politics, and Falwell's ruminations on his past victories and defeats.

Despite his years in the trenches of America's culture wars, Falwell... said a major victory in his broader crusade to restore the country's moral righteousness has so far eluded him.

Ironically, this is one point where I agree with Jerry Falwell. Despite decades of increasing influence and a recent (now recently over, thank goodness) several-year period in which they had almost total control of the media and government, the religious right has largely failed in their goal to turn America into a Christian theocracy. Though the religious right has unfortunately made significant gains, such as the "faith-based initiative" which is a blatant attempt to pay churches for their members' votes, many of their most cherished issues have ended in defeat for them. Creationism and its offspring, intelligent design, have been dealt a decisive blow by the courts; organized school prayer and other forms of coercive religious proselytizing by government remain unconstitutional; homosexuals continue to make progress, however laborious, toward full equality; abortion, though very difficult to obtain in some places, remains legal. It is a testament to the wisdom of America's founders that the system of laws they created has largely withstood the assaults of a determined minority. The safeguards they put in place to thwart just such a takeover as the one the religious right attempted to carry out have held firm.

But Falwell, unlike me, sees victory ahead for his side. He has his eye on the 2008 presidential elections, the winner of which may appoint a potentially decisive vote to the Supreme Court. In contrast to other prominent religious right figures such as James Dobson, who have pointedly refused to endorse Republican primary candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, Falwell says he "like[s] every one of them". However, he says he will not officially endorse any before the primaries - not even McCain, who has by now thoroughly thrown off his "moderate" costume and has been obsessively genuflecting to the lovers of theocracy, even delivering an address at Falwell's own Liberty University last year. Surprisingly, Falwell even comes close to praising Hillary Clinton, whom he considers the likely Democratic nominee, calling her a "formidable opponent".

The divisions among the religious right's leaders promise a very interesting Republican presidential primary season. George W. Bush, in the brief period before his popularity plummeted into the chasm it now inhabits, was the last politician who accomplished the difficult balancing act of both appeasing extreme Christian fundamentalists and appealing to the general public. None of the current crop of Republican candidates have that ability, I think, and that is a severe problem for Republicans, because the religious right controls the party and its primaries.

While they could break away en masse to support a third party, I think the more likely scenario is that the religious right will fragment and split their support among the major Republican candidates. Until now, they have been an impressively monolithic voting bloc, and though this probably isn't a great achievement, coming from a belief system that values conformity as highly as theirs, it has given politicians an enormous incentive to take them seriously. But if they prove unable to get behind a single candidate next year, as I expect, this may go a long way toward convincing outside observers that the era of their political domination is over.

In short, 2008 may well be the start of a long-lasting decline in the political influence of right-wing fundamentalists, and that is a consummation devoutly to be hoped for. The sooner Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ideological comrades in hate begin the slide into irrelevancy, the better. It is beyond the pale that views as factually false, oppressive and dangerously medieval as theirs carry any sort of weight in a prosperous, advanced First World democracy.

America has long been a unique contradiction: a modern society, founded on the rational principles of the Enlightenment, is still heavily influenced by dangerous, destructive superstitious beliefs from thousands of years ago. In a country with a proud tradition of secularism, human rights, and other reason-based innovations of the modern era, millions of voters still operate under the paradigm of a dictatorial divine-right monarchy where forgiveness is achieved through a magical ceremony involving the ceremonial shedding of blood. In a country that has the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine to its credit, a book containing the collected myths of ancient nomadic tribes of the Middle East is still held up as the supreme repository of ethics and wisdom. It would be a grand irony if it were not so tragic. We have so much better things to our credit than being one nation allegedly under God!

Falwell says his ultimate goal is to preserve "the kind of America that I grew up in". But the days that Jerry Falwell longs to return to, that bygone era when America was conservative, Christian and conformist, are a fantasy of his idealized imagination. We have never been as homogeneous as he desires, and we never will be. And the past was hardly an idyllic time, as even Falwell acknowledges:

"I was born in 1933 in Virginia. I didn't know anyone who wasn't a segregationist. My father was an ardent one. It wasn't until I became a Christian as a sophomore in college that I got past that," he said.

"I wasn't changed by any politician; I was changed by the Lord," he added.

Falwell's attempt to sweep the ugly truths of the past under the rug only makes him foolish to anyone who knows about history. For centuries in America and elsewhere, Christianity was not the enemy of racism, but one of its most ardent sources of support. The many Bible verses which exhort slaves to obey their masters were used to justify the shame-filled centuries of the colonial trade in human beings, and even after slavery was abolished, Christianity and the Bible regularly turned up to defend the racism and segregation that persisted for decades afterward and still linger today. Consider the rationale employed by Judge Leon Bazile in 1958, prior to the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision, in sentencing that interracial couple for violating antimiscegenation laws:

"Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix."

The irony is no doubt lost on Jerry Falwell that, although he repudiates racism now that that position is firmly established and safe, he is now the establishment figure using almost identical arguments against gay marriage. In all likelihood the religious right leaders of a few decades hence, when freedom to marry has become the norm, will be talking about how they grew up in places where everyone was against civil rights for homosexuals, but once they converted to Christianity, God changed their hearts and caused them to recognize the sense of it. Regardless of what era they live in, Falwell and his ideological brethren are always on the wrong side of the issues of the day.

February 9, 2007, 8:04 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink1 comment
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