Sylvia Browne: Enemy of Free Speech

I have written previously about the "psychics" so popular in our culture, whose pretense of being able to speak to the dead and otherwise gain knowledge through supernatural powers wins them wealth and accolades from a credulous public and a shallow, sensationalist media, despite the total lack of convincing evidence to date that any of them can do what they say they can do.

One of the worst of the lot is Sylvia Browne. After agreeing on national television to take James Randi's million-dollar challenge to prove her powers, she subsequently reneged on that agreement and has been avoiding it ever since. Browne's alleged powers have failed her spectacularly on numerous instances, including when she erroneously claimed on the air that the victims of the Sago mine catastrophe would be found alive, although ultimately 11 of the 12 perished, and when she falsely told Shawn Hornbeck's grieving parents that their son was dead, when in reality he had been alive all the time and was rescued from his kidnapper several weeks ago. She also wrongly predicted the discovery of a nicotine addiction vaccine, the return of American soldiers from Iraq, and the electoral defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and told a 9/11 widow that her firefighter husband had drowned, in addition to many other errors.

In the past, blunders such as these would have made little difference: skeptics would have dutifully cataloged them and pointed them out to anyone who would listen, their effort would have been almost totally ignored by the masses who idolized psychic claimants like Browne, and media pundits and book publishers would have dismissed these annoying facts and continued to seek out and promote Browne and others like her. After all, what really matters in popular culture is not the truth or accuracy of a person's claims, but only whether enough people believe those claims and are willing to support them - with their votes, their wallets, or whatever else. The lack of widespread understanding of the principles of critical thinking in our society makes it easy for psychic claims to take root. People's desire to believe in supernatural powers and an afterlife leads them to concentrate on the hits and forget the misses. And media empires driven by profit and spectacle have no interest in debunking popular delusions and fallacies, but only in showing people what they most want to see, which will attract the most eyeballs and therefore the most advertiser dollars.

As I said, that was the way it was in the past. To a large extent, that is the way it still is. But there are some very encouraging signs that skepticism and critical thinking are finally gaining a foothold, however tenuous, in the media. On several recent occasions, Browne's claims were forcefully challenged on national television - mostly by James Randi, to whose tireless efforts we all owe a debt of gratitude - on shows such as Anderson Cooper 360 and Larry King Live, and it seems she is feeling the heat. Hence, the blustery legal threat letter Browne's lawyers have sent to StopSylviaBrowne.com, an excellent website that keeps track of her blunders. The letter claims that "Sylvia Browne" is a registered trademark and that the anti-Browne website is infringing her trademark by using it.

These claims are, of course, utter and complete nonsense. The bedrock legal principle of fair use specifically protects the use of trademarked names and logos for purposes of commentary, criticism and parody, as Stanford University's page on fair use explains:

If you are commenting upon or critiquing a copyrighted work — for instance, writing a book review — fair use principles allow you to reproduce some of the work to achieve your purposes.

Browne's threat letter is an especially risible and ridiculous disregard for the principles of fair use. If claims like this were accepted by the court system, it would be impossible to criticize any person or corporation that held a trademark on its name, because merely to mention that name without permission would be an infringement of the trademark holder's rights. Such a dramatically expansive interpretation of the law would completely destroy the right of free speech.

But, as I said, that is not the law. Browne's claims are without legal foundation, something of which her lawyers must be well aware. Clearly, the letter was not sent out of a realistic hope of prevailing in court, but rather was sent in the hope that their target did not know his rights and would back down in the face of intimidating language by a much larger and better-funded adversary. (It brings to mind the incident when Fox News sued political humorist Al Franken over his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, with Fox asserting that it owned the three words "fair and balanced" and that those words could not be used in that order without its permission. This claim actually did go to court, and was promptly laughed back out of it by the judge.)

Fortunately, that was not the case. Robert Lancaster, the author of StopSylviaBrowne.com, is well aware of his rights and has held firm, for which I commend him. His courageous and principled defense of the truth against cowardly tactics of intimidation deserves to be widely known, which is why I have written this entry. It also needs to be more widely known that Sylvia Browne is so fearful of open criticism and exposure of her blunders that she would rather try to silence her critics with lawsuits than respond to them. Such tactics are reprehensible and deserve nothing but scorn from good citizens and friends of free speech everywhere.

Addendum: After posting this, I found a resource from the invaluable Electronic Frontier Foundation, a steadfast defender of online free speech, addressing the exact claim made by Browne's lawyers and pointing out that settled precedent flatly contradicts it:

Can I use a trademark in my blog's name or in the title of a blog post?

Yes, if it is relevant to the subject of your discussion and does not confuse people into thinking the trademark holder endorses your content. Courts have found that non-misleading use of trademarks in URLs and domain names of critical websites is fair. (Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp. v. Faber, URL http://www.compupix.com/ballysucks; Bosley Medical Institute v. Kremer, domain name www.bosleymedical.com). Companies can get particularly annoyed about these uses because they may make your post appear in search results relating to the company, but that doesn't give them a right to stop you.

February 5, 2007, 7:42 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments
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Kent Hovind Is Sentenced

After a nearly three-month wait, the wheels of our legal system have turned, and justice has been done at last: Kent Hovind, tax protestor and creationist con man extraordinaire, has been sentenced to ten years in federal prison for tax evasion. Hovind's wife Jo, who was also convicted on the same slate of charges, will be sentenced in March.

When writing about Hovind's conviction back in November, I said:

I think an eight- to twelve-year sentence would suit him well, although I suspect something in the neighborhood of three to six years is more likely.

This is one instance where I am pleasantly surprised to be wrong: the judge imposed the very sentence I thought would be most fitting, not the one I expected him to give. Best of all, the fact that Hovind will be serving his sentence in federal prison means that Florida's governor, Republican Charlie Crist, will not be able to pardon him to score cheap political points with Christian fundamentalists. (I suppose it's not out of the question that George W. Bush will pardon Hovind, but I doubt it.)

Ten years is a harsh sentence, no doubt about it. On the other hand, Hovind willfully chose to break the law, knowing exactly what he was getting into. Even after an earlier attempt of his to get out of paying taxes, by petitioning for bankruptcy, was rejected with the court finding that he had filed false statements in bad faith, he was unrepentant and chose to continue his illegal behavior. He has absolutely no one to blame but himself, and he now has a long time to reflect on the consequences of his actions and to learn that the privileges our society grants its citizens do not come for free.

Interestingly, it seems the time Hovind spent in jail awaiting sentencing may already have begun to affect his behavior. From the Pensacola News-Journal article reporting on the sentencing:

Prior to his sentencing, a tearful Kent Hovind, also known as "Dr. Dino" asked for the court's leniency.

"If it's just money the IRS wants, there are thousands of people out there who will help pay the money they want so I can go back out there and preach," Hovind said.

This is a fairly dramatic reversal of Hovind's previous position that he was not obligated to pay the government anything, although, as usual for him, it totally misses the point. It is not "just money" the IRS wants; it wants people who live in the United States to accept that they are subject to the law and act accordingly. Hovind instead acted as if he had a right to break the law whenever he saw fit, and he is now being punished to disabuse him of that notion. (A commenter on the PNJ forum noted perceptively that Hovind seems to think other people can shield him from punishment by complying with the law on his behalf - a result, perhaps, of the illogical notion of substitutive sacrifice at the heart of his own fundamentalist Christian beliefs.)

The PNJ article contains several amusing comments from true believers furious over the "persecution" of their idol Hovind. Here's an especially vicious example:

Doubtless, by now those involved in this case have begun to experience the first wave of horror come in their own lives. Perhaps they have not yet put 2+2 together... but soon enough they will. That extra glass of wine to relax.. the antidepressants they take will not soothe them. The inward terror will fester, grow and follow them about withersoever they go.

...Who knows the extent and weight of a divine curse, how far it reaches, how deep it pierces? God's pronouncing a man cursed makes him so; for those whom he curses are cursed indeed.

Yes, it is a sad and sorry day for the Hovinds today.. but prayer needs to go up for the wicked ones involved in this case ..if it were only the wrath of man these folks had invoked.. it would be but a small matter.. but these poor fools have placed themselves under the wrath of the almighty God and there is no escape...

Feel that Christian compassion! So much for "love your enemies", apparently. That notion, regardless of what it has to recommend it, tends to go up in smoke as soon as someone does or says something that religious fundamentalists do not like, and is replaced instead by deranged revenge fantasies. Truly, their concern for others is no more than skin-deep.

January 19, 2007, 9:23 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink77 comments
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A Disturbing Experience

In the several years I have been writing for Ebon Musings, I have received a great quantity of reader feedback. I read it all and, with a very few exceptions, respond to it all, and I am pleased to report that the large majority of it has been thoughtful, sincere and polite, regardless of whether the author agrees with my position. There has been some feedback of the other kind, warning me of the dreadful tortures that await me in the hereafter for my grievous sin of not worshipping the writer's god, but much less than one might expect. In any case, I do not take these people seriously. Their doctrines are so cruel and so ridiculous, and their ignorance of relevant evidence so total, that their assertions amuse rather than offend me.

However, I did have one experience with a reader that left me profoundly shaken. This incident happened in late 2005. I received a very complimentary note from a person who praised my site profusely, indicating that it had been a great help to him in a debate he was having with one of his students about intelligent design. He also praised my article on biblical atrocities, and invited me to view an essay he had written on his own website about the negative influence of the Bible on our culture. (I will not give the URL of this site, for reasons that will become clear momentarily.)

I visited to his site and viewed his essay, which seemed thoughtful and well-written. Out of curiosity, I then loaded the main page of the site, and received an unpleasant shock. To my horror and disgust, I found that it was a pro-pedophilia website. I did not see any actual pornographic content - at least not on the one page I viewed; obviously, I did not look around any further - rather, the site seemed to be a collection of essays lamenting the fact that our society criminalizes sex between adults and children, and arguing in favor of abolishing the age of consent.

I considered not responding to the original e-mail at all, not wanting to draw any further attention of this sort. But after some reflection, I decided it would be better to write back to this person. This I did, informing him in no uncertain terms that I wanted nothing to do with him and requesting that he remove the link to my site. (To this day, I do not actually know if he did remove it; I have not visited his site again, and do not intend to.)

I did receive one further e-mail in reply, the tone of which was disappointed rather than accusatory or upset. Here is an excerpt from that e-mail:

I am sorry that you feel that way. I was hoping that you might see that society's proscription of childhood sexuality is as superstitious as the rest of Judeo-Xian bunk. Oh well. The influence of the Bible truly runs deep.

This is more than a little ironic, considering the Bible has not a word to say about childhood sexual abuse or an age of consent, and indeed that is one of the things for which I criticize it. In my essay "The Big Ten", for example, I point out that no passage in the Bible ever speaks of the wrongness of sexually abusing children or sets a minimum age of consent for engaging in sexual activity. Our society's prohibition of sex acts between adults and children, which I believe to be entirely correct, rational and moral, exists in spite of the Bible, not because of it. This prohibition is not "superstitious" because, rather than being based on unobserved entities or effects, it is founded on something very observable and very real: the lifelong harm and emotional trauma inflicted on people who are victims of sexual predators.

I cannot help but speculate: what were this person's motives in writing to me? He invited me to view his website; he must have expected that I would discover its nature. I must conclude that this was his intent, but why? Was he trying to provoke a reaction from me, or alternatively, was he hoping I would find this content and endorse it? Was this a subtle way of testing me, to see if I would be a friend or ally to him?

His reply ("I was hoping...") suggests that something like this was the case, and if so, it is one test I was happy to fail. I am no friend of pedophiles, never have been, and never will be. Prepubescent children never have the emotional or intellectual maturity to consent to sex of any kind. Any attempt by an older adult to coerce or lure them into such a situation is categorically wrong, and any claims by the predator that he is "helping" them in any way by so doing are self-serving rationalizations to excuse an evil act of the worst sort. People who are sexually attracted to children but have not acted on those feelings should be given whatever treatment and oversight they need to prevent them from ever doing so, and people who have acted on these feelings should be given treatment in addition to a lengthy, possibly permanent, prison term.

With the immediate matter dealt with, I had another problem: should I report the existence of this site to a law enforcement agency? However repulsive I find the position, it is not illegal merely to speak in favor of pedophilia, and I had no evidence of any actual illegal activity or content. However, it did not escape me that this person claimed in his original e-mail to be a teacher, and sex predators often seek out jobs that put them in contact with potential victims. On the other hand, if he was debating his students about intelligent design, surely they would have to be old enough for a pedophile to be uninterested in them?

My very ignorance, it seemed to me, was a potential argument in favor of reporting the site to some appropriate group. Since I did not know the relevant facts, and had no power to find them out, would it not be better to bring this to the attention of an agency that did have such power? If this person was committing no crime, then surely this would not do any harm. Is it not better to err on the side of caution?

Then again, I have always considered myself a friend of free speech, and that right does not cease merely because it is used to advocate ideas of which the majority disapproves, no matter how distasteful those ideas are. I strongly believe that the cure for bad speech is not censorship, but better speech. If I reported this site, would I be contributing to a chilling effect where unpopular ideas are suppressed by intimidation? Would I be making a hypocrite of myself?

I do not exaggerate when I say this was one of the most difficult moral dilemmas I have ever faced. Would reporting this website be the right thing to do, helping to protect children, or would it be falling prey to irrational hysteria in the absence of any real evidence that harm was occurring? I cannot judge myself and so, readers, I ask you to judge me in my stead. What should I have done? What would you have done?

I am sincerely interested in feedback on this issue, so allow me to dangle my readers a carrot: I will tell you, individually, what I actually did - but only if you first leave a comment or send an e-mail with your thoughts on the matter. I am not looking for any particular answer, but the possibility has not escaped my mind that this individual or others like him may find this post and attempt to sway my opinion, and accordingly I will be more skeptical of anonymous feedback from people with whom I have never previously corresponded.

January 5, 2007, 10:22 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink55 comments
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The System Works!

I'm not normally one to indulge in schadenfreude, but here's a piece of news I cannot restrain my glee over hearing: Kent Hovind and his wife have been convicted of tax fraud - and it couldn't have happened to two nicer people.

The Hovinds were charged in July with twelve counts of willful failure to pay income taxes, forty-five counts of structuring financial transactions to avoid bank reporting requirements, and one count of impeding an IRS investigation through the filing of frivolous lawsuits and criminal complaints. The trial began in mid-October, and the prosecution rested yesterday. The Hovinds' public defender opted not to present a defense, and after deliberating for only three hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. To judge from the Pensacola News Journal's somewhat vague report, it would seem that the Hovinds were convicted on all charges. (Edit: According to an updated article, this is indeed the case.)

Regular readers of Daylight Atheism and other skeptical sites will undoubtedly be well acquainted with the antics of Kent Hovind. Hovind is a notorious bottom-of-the-barrel creationist who calls himself "Dr. Dino", although his "degree" is a worthless piece of paper from an unaccredited diploma bill called Patriot University, a picture of which one can view here, and his supposed doctoral thesis is a rambling, poorly written rehash of standard creationist fare that presents no original research or conclusions. Hovind's anti-evolution arguments are so bad that they even embarrass other creationists; for example, the young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis wrote a lengthy article rebutting Hovind titled Maintaining Creationist Integrity, although they later pulled it from their website after complaints from readers. (So much for creationist peer review!) Hovind is particularly infamous for his "$250,000 offer" for anyone who can offer proof of evolution, a challenge that is a transparently obvious scam since Hovind himself decides what evidence is or is not acceptable as proof and unilaterally hand-picks the committee members who would judge any submission.

Hovind's ideas on other topics are even more bizarre. Most of them have something to do with bizarre and paranoid conspiracy theories about secret plots engaged in by the government. According to articles published on the Internet, Hovind believes that the 9/11 attacks were a U.S. government conspiracy, as was the Oklahoma City bombing; that the flu shot (or perhaps the flu itself) is a "hoax" perpetrated by the government; that the government is secretly spraying poisonous chemicals on people to control them; that the government possesses, but has suppressed, a cure for cancer; that UFOs are either demonic apparitions or a top-secret government conspiracy, or possibly both; that bar codes are the Mark of the Beast; that the moon landing was a hoax; and that government agents can watch you through your television set. (Here are some of these quotes from a thorough web site devoted to debunking Hovind.) And, of course, the central bizarre belief that landed Hovind in all this trouble: he is a tax protestor. Until his trial, Hovind was the owner and proprietor of Dinosaur Adventure Land, a young-earth creationist theme park in Pensacola, Florida, from which he apparently made a tidy sum, selling almost $2 million in Christian merchandise in 2002 alone. However, Hovind argued that he was not a citizen of the United States, and that everything he owns "belongs to God" and therefore is not subject to laws concerning income tax. Fortunately, the jury did not buy this sophistry.

Given the number and severity of the charges against them, the Hovinds could potentially go to jail for the rest of their lives, but I very strongly doubt that this will happen. For one thing, it would be an unjustly disproportionate sentence, since despite all their ludicrous false beliefs, the Hovinds are not alleged to have harmed anyone or done any violence. However, I suspect a more realistic reason underlying the judge's sentencing decision will be a desire not to appear unduly harsh, so as not to be accused of persecuting Christians. On the other hand, I would urge the judge to keep in mind that, from all accounts, Hovind has shown no remorse and still does not admit that the law applies to him. Both of these factors indicate a high probability of recidivism whenever he is eventually released. (There is already evidence supporting this: in 1996, Hovind filed a petition claiming bankruptcy to avoid paying taxes and was rejected, with the judge finding he had filed in bad faith and falsely claimed that he owned no property.) I think an eight- to twelve-year sentence would suit him well, although I suspect something in the neighborhood of three to six years is more likely. It is extremely unlikely, in either case, that Hovind will cease his whining about religious persecution so common among the fundamentalists who run the country, but I believe it will send a strong message that justice cannot be so easily denied, and that religious beliefs do not grant a person license to exempt themself from the laws that we must all abide by.

* * *

In other news, holy cow: Ted Haggard, the president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, has resigned both positions after allegations surfaced that he has had a three-year sexual relationship with a male escort. To no one's surprise, I'm sure, Haggard was and is a fervent and vocal opponent of gay marriage and has been urging Colorado voters to approve a constitutional amendment banning it in a referendum that will be held during next week's midterm elections. Haggard is also one of the nation's most politically influential evangelicals (he was named among the top 25 in 2005 by Time magazine) and, until recently at least, participated in a weekly conference call with the White House and boasted that he had "direct access" to George W. Bush.

Atheists, more than any other group, should understand the value of evidence in reaching conclusions, and I would urge my fellow nonbelievers to maintain appropriate skepticism toward this story and not make assertions that cannot yet be supported by facts. On the other hand, though Haggard has denied this story, I find it extremely difficult to believe that he would resign so abruptly if there were nothing to it. His startlingly sudden exit, in fact, reminds me of nothing so much as the resignation of the disgraced Republican representative Mark Foley.

Even if the Haggard story turns out not to be true, it truly is remarkable how many leading Christian figures either have close gay acquaintances and relatives or have turned out to be gay themselves. It is tempting to wonder if the zeal that any other conservative firebrands show in preaching against homosexuality is driven by their own self-hatred, a self-hatred provoked by rigid religious beliefs that will not permit them to accept their own nature. Sadly, whether driven by repressed rejection of their own sexuality or not, the religious right's unrelenting and vicious bigotry is still causing untold harm to real people who want nothing more than to live in peace free of discrimination. When will we learn that it is no business of anyone else's how consenting adults live their own lives?

UPDATE: As some commenters have pointed out, Haggard has now admitted purchasing methamphetamine from the male escort who first made these allegations (after previously denying that he ever met the man). He has also admitted receiving a massage from him. He continues to deny having sex, a denial which looks far less plausible now. Dispatches from the Culture Wars has more, including a comment with a link to an amusing news story in which the Bush administration is already trying to distance itself from Haggard.

UPDATE 2 (11/05): Haggard has now admitted, without elaborating, that he has committed "sexual immorality".

November 3, 2006, 8:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments
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A Good Riddance

Almost lost in the crush of recent religion-related news, there was one important story I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss: Larry Darby, the atheist, white supremacist and Holocaust denier who ran for attorney general in Alabama and lost, announced soon thereafter that he was converting to Christianity and closing down his Atheist Law Center. He is not, however, abandoning his racist views - far from it - and recently announced his intentions to run for Congress, saying that the Democratic party "needs to be cleaned out".

Darby made a surprisingly strong showing in the Democratic primary for attorney general, winning more votes than the arrogant Republican theocrat Roy Moore received in his failed campaign for governor. Though I think Darby is a disgusting bigot and I am glad that he lost, that outcome must have humiliated Moore to no end and that can only be a good thing. Notably, in the above-cited article, Moore condemns Darby as "the former head of the atheist party" - apparently he considers this to be a greater insult than mentioning Darby's unapologetically racist, anti-Semitic views. Moore's opinion on the fact that Darby now professes to share his religion was not given.

Should Darby follow through on his promise to campaign for Congress, I doubt he will win. There is good reason to believe that he gained the support he did this time only because voters were unfamiliar with his actual views, and because his name appeared first on the ballot. (Granted, this fact may itself say something disheartening about the attentiveness of the voting public.) If he participates in another election and becomes better known, I strongly suspect he will lose by a wider margin, and I will be glad of that. Even in the conservative South, I hope, American voters know better than to confer the privilege of office on such an obnoxious bigot.

In retrospect, there is good reason to question how genuine or deeply felt Darby's atheist views ever were. Reading his rambling screed in which he explains the reasons for his conversion, it emerges that Darby opposed Roy Moore's theocratic transgression not because it violated the First Amendment, but because the Ten Commandments are a Jewish document. As far as the First Amendment goes, Darby apparently never had a problem with governments establishing religion, so long as it was not Jewish religion. Here is an excerpt:

Other aspects of Jewish Supremacism advanced by powerful government officials or condoned by the federal government that were challenged by the Atheist Law Center include the placement of Jewish idolatry in government buildings and the reciting of prayers to a [nameless] god or moments of silence in government schools, all of which are consistent with the de facto establishment of Judaism as our national or state religion.

Regarding Jewish idolatry, the Atheist Law Center consistently spoke against Chief Justice Roy Moore's efforts to maintain a monument to Jewish law in the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building in Montgomery. The Atheist Law Center recognized that States Rights are a part of the U.S. Constitution and therefore had no issue or disagreement with Justice Moore's claim that the U.S. government had no jurisdiction to interfere with his actions as an elected official of Alabama. However, the Atheist Law Center opposed Justice Moore's claims that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation and that the U.S. Constitution was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, specifically what is popularly known as the Ten Commandments but more accurately known as the Aseret ha-Dibrot.

Regardless of the reasons for his conversion or the truth of his former state of mind, I am heartily glad that Darby is no longer an atheist. His vile and ignorant views were a stain on the names of good-hearted nonbelievers everywhere, and although no atheist speaks for or defines all of atheism, it is nevertheless good to hear that we no longer need to defend ourselves against the taint of guilt by association with him. Christians, you can have him; and Mr. Darby, I strongly urge you never to come back. We atheists do not want you, we do not need you, and we are glad to be rid of you.

The encouraging part of this story is that the atheist community was similarly unanimous in their rejection of Darby's evil beliefs, which apparently was part of the motivation for his conversion. Darby complained at length about the lack of support he received from atheists, and people such as Mark Potok of the Intelligence Project said that the atheist community dropped Darby "like a hot rock" after hearing his views on race. Darby's conversion may have been sincere, or he may simply have been cynically gambling that he would find more support among Christians. Either way, again, it is a good riddance.

* * *

Speaking of atheists who give other nonbelievers a bad name, there seem to be developments on the part of the Raving Atheist, about whom I wrote in a post from June titled "Cleaning House". Other atheists who criticized him stated their belief that his own conversion to fundamentalist Christianity was imminent; and while I dislike making pronouncements on the motivations of others, I find that conclusion becoming difficult to avoid.

Witness several of his latest posts, including one titled "More Than Matter", in which he argues for dualism and the existence of a soul, using arguments from emotion seemingly drawn straight from a Christian apologetics playbook. Nowhere is any evidence for the existence of such a thing presented; instead, RA asserts that we must be immaterial souls because it would be very sad if we weren't. (Sample quote: "How can people think of themselves this way? I despair at those explanations which reduce us to nothing more than slowly-decaying heaps of steaming matter, to the proverbial robots made of meat.") Another post, entitled "Dust To?", defends the existence of an afterlife, and a third announces that he intends to revisit and criticize some of his old posts starting soon. A fourth coyly announces that he intends to "jump off" the mountain of atheism, but "[w]hich side I won't say". And for the clincher, his latest Quote of the Day is "So much for the atheist". If these are not the words of a person planning an imminent conversion to Christianity, or at least to some form of theistic religion, they are a convincing imitation.

I wrote in my earlier post about RA that I was dismayed at the aggressive irrationality of his anti-choice position, at the way he held this belief without even attempting to justify it rationally. Darby's racist views, likewise, were and are founded on a paranoid, irrational view of the world. And one of these two is now a theist, while the other is drifting in that direction. It is tempting to wonder if there is a causal relation. Irrationality begets irrationality, and I suspect, though I cannot prove, that their pre-existing acceptance of unreason and faith-based beliefs created a vulnerability, a gap in their skeptical immune systems where other bizarre and unevidenced ideas could creep in. On balance, I believe that both these two were a detriment rather than a credit to the cause of atheism, and so we should be happy that they both seem to be leaving us soon. Nevertheless, their stories serve as a useful reminder to true nonbelievers about remaining vigilant against the insidious effects of superstition.

August 5, 2006, 7:26 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink11 comments
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A Modest Proposal to Humiliate Fred Phelps

Inspired by a recent post by Pam Spaulding about the antics of Fred Phelps and his clan of lunatic hatemongers, I'd like to propose an idea for how this group could be humiliated, and possibly even stopped altogether.

The sole raison d'etre of Phelps' church is to travel around the country picketing anything and everything that they believe demonstrates pro-gay sentiments. Although they have branched out somewhat, much of their ire still seems to be directed at the play The Laramie Project, written to remember the homophobia-inspired murder of Matthew Shepard. According to the Wikipedia article, Phelps targets stagings of this play for pickets on a regular basis. By their own estimates, Phelps' family spends around $250,000 per year traveling the country to picket.

We can use that anti-gay obsession against them. Imagine if a college or theater in New York staged The Laramie Project with a run of several days; the very next day after the New York showing closed, a different theater in California could open its own run of the play, immediately followed by another theater in, say, Florida, then Washington state, and so on. The idea would be that, if Phelps' clan is determined to picket every showing of the play, we could force them to repeatedly crisscross the country, making them travel as far as possible between showings. We could even stage showings in other countries. The intent would be to keep this up until Phelps and his followers are utterly exhausted, dispirited and completely out of money for further travel. In addition, it would have the positive side effect of raising awareness of homophobia and advancing the cause of gay civil rights.

Once the point is finally reached where the Phelps clan is unable to reach the next showing, all the theater groups involved in the effort should publicly declare victory and send out press releases to every available media outlet trumpeting the fact that these hatemongers failed in their mission to picket every showing. As the culmination of this plan, every theater that took part in the effort could stage a one-day revival of the play across the country, as a way to declare that the loud voice of freedom and equality can never be drowned out by a few hateful squeaks.

Although this plan would require a substantial amount of coordination, I am confident that it could be done. In addition, it has the potential to draw much media attention to a worthy cause. The media pays shamefully little attention to the efforts of gay-rights groups to fight for equality in the face of intense religious bigotry, but they are attracted to sensationalism like a moth to a flame, which is why the Phelps family lunatics (as well as people like Ann Coulter, who falls into the same group as them) can get airtime on national media outlets despite having absolutely nothing of worth or value to say. Disgraceful as this state of affairs is, I believe we can change it by using the media's hunger for sensationalism as a hook to draw them to the scene, so that defenders of equality can engage them and present substantive information on the real issues. When a reporter is drawn to one of these stagings by the presence of Phelps, it should be possible to enlighten them to the larger story and explain what is happening and why. What does everyone think - is this a feasible idea?

June 13, 2006, 11:20 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments
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The Power of Christ Compels You

Earlier tonight I received a highly amusing e-mail whose author seemed confident that I would cease to be an atheist if I performed a magical ritual of their devising. I do not normally post feedback e-mail in full, but since this one was sent to me anonymously, I have no qualms in doing so:

From: Anonymous <anonymous@anonymous.net>
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2006 20:23:12 -0400
Subject: Want To Prove that You are a Real Atheist? TAKE THIS TEST!!!!!!!

Want to prove that you are a real atheist?
Say this out loud

If you are a real a real atheist, say this prayer out loud three times
right now:
If there is no God, then these prayers will have no effect on you, but if
there is a God, they will. Remember, you have to say these out loud 3x each,
in a row.

I bet you you will change once you says these prayers. Say them by
yourself, you don't have to do it in front of anyone. If you are reading this when
there is someone around, you can close it and print it out and say it then.

Say this out loud 3x:

OUR FATHER WHICH ART IN HEAVEN, HALLOWED BE THY NAME.
THY KINGDOM COME. THY WILL BE DONE, AS IN HEAVEN SO ON EARTH.
GIVE US DAY BY DAY OUR DAILY BREAD.
AND FORGIVE US OUR SINS;
FOR WE ALSO FORGIVE EVERY ONE THAT IS INDEBTED TO US.
AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION; BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL.
FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM AND THE POWER AND THE GLORY FOREVER
IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST,
AMEN

Then say this out loud 3x:

SPEAK OUTLOUD
SATAN, IN THE NAME OF JESUS, I COMMAND YOU TO LEAVE MY MIND, BODY, LIFE,
AND SOUL TODAY IN THE NAME OF JESUS!
YOU HAVE NO DOMINION OVER MY LIFE!
I SUBMIT MY BODY, LIFE, AND SOUL TO GOD, IN THE NAME OF JESUS!
THE BLOOD OF JESUS! THE BLOOD OF JESUS! THE BLOOD OF JESUS AGAINST YOU
SATAN!
I APPLY THE BLOOD OF JESUS OVER MY LIFE!
I APPLY THE BLOOD OF JESUS OVER WHERE I LIVE AT!
I APPLY THE BLOOD OF JESUS OVER MY FAMILY!
I DO IT ALL IN THE NAME OF JESUS
THE BLOOD OF JESUS! THE BLOOD OF JESUS! THE BLOOD OF JESUS AGAINST YOU
SATAN! IN JESUS NAME I CALL IT DONE! AMEN AND AMEN!
IN JESUS CHRIST'S HOLY NAME I PRAY, AMEN!

DO NOT DELETE THIS EMAIL UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS.
AFTER YOU HAVE CHANGED, PASS THIS ON TO YOUR FELLOW NON-BELIEVERS IN
CHRIST.

ONCE AGAIN, IF YOU WANT TO PROVE THAT YOU ARE A REAL ATHEIST, FOLLOW THESE
INSTRUCTIONS.

-YOUR FRIEND,
ANONYMOUS

Since the sender of this e-mail chose to remain anonymous, I was unable to write a letter in reply. I will respond here, instead.

First of all, I have neither the desire nor the need to "prove that I am a real atheist". I am an atheist, and I will say so to anyone who wants to know. If someone chooses not to believe me, that is their problem, not mine. I do not believe in any gods, and that is the only requirement to be an atheist; I do not have to do anything else to make my atheism "real", nor am I obligated to jump through hoops at another's bidding to prove it. I know the state of my own mind, and that is good enough for me. I assume the writer of this letter was trying to goad me into acting as they desire, but it did not work.

Second, I'm curious about the author's insistence that I must say this prayer three times for it to be effective. I cannot help wondering why they thought that was necessary. Shouldn't once be enough for a deity that hears and knows all? Does God usually ignore the first two repetitions of a prayer, so that a third is necessary to get his attention? Though the writer of this e-mail seems to be a Christian, apparently I know the Bible better than they do: "But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matthew 6:7).

And finally, to the author, whoever you are: No, I am not going to perform this superstitious ritual you have devised. If that makes you crow in triumph, so be it. I know from experience that if I announced I had said the prayer and was still an atheist, you would say that I had not done it sincerely enough, or that I have to do it in a church, or in the presence of another Christian, or that I have to attend six months of Bible study first, or otherwise come up with some excuse that involves retroactively tacking new conditions onto the original challenge. I know this because I have said versions of the "sinner's prayer" before, at the request of other Christians, and when it did absolutely nothing, those are the excuses they inevitably provide. As James Randi has said, those who are determined to be irrational are like "unsinkable rubber ducks": push them down and they pop right back up, always with some new contrived explanation for why their particular brand of magic does not work.

I say magic because what this misguided believer proposes I do is magic, no different than any other superstitious ceremony that entails speaking the proper incantation to produce the desired effect. All varieties of magical thinking are fundamentally alike in their belief that words and symbols control reality, if arranged properly, and Christian-themed magical thinking is just like every other kind in that respect. To whoever it is that bravely chose to remain anonymous, I have a counter-challenge for you: stop hiding behind anonymous proxies, step out and reveal your identity, and I will debate the truth of Christianity with you in an open forum of your choice. (If you want to prove that you're a real Christian, you'll do it. See how that feels?) If Christianity is true, then the facts will inevitably bear that out, and if it is not true, all the vain repetitions in the world will not make it otherwise. Will you show yourself, or will you remain hidden and persist in the foolish and futile delusion that your magic words can control reality?

June 10, 2006, 11:55 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink206 comments
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A Look in the Mirror

Marc Gellman, a Jewish rabbi and one-half of the "God Squad", has recently written a solo column titled "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists" in which he takes up one of the oldest religious clich├ęs - that atheists are "angry".

It starts out well enough:

I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don't think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them.

There is nothing in that passage I can disagree with, and I wish more theists held similar views. However, immediately after this, he descends to predictable stereotypes:

However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.

I will first offer some specific comments on Gellman's essay, then address the topic of "angry atheists" more generally.

I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don't get it.

I do not think that many religious people specifically intend to anger atheists, but Gellman must be aware that there are a great number of religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways to evangelize, preach to, persuade and otherwise pester their neighbors, which works out to much the same thing. Personally I do my best to respond to conversion attempts with civility, but can an atheist really be blamed for feeling frustration and annoyance upon being bombarded with the same invasive and often obnoxious religious messages every day? In my experience, evangelical Christians frequently include in their message the implication or the outright assertion that nonbelievers are selfish, bitter, immoral, greedy, cold-hearted, closed-minded, deserving of God's wrath, and so on. Surely it is not difficult to understand why the targets of such a message, atheists who are ordinary people just like everyone else, might feel offense at being told such things. Sometimes, we just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace.

And furthermore, we find some religious beliefs oppressive because they are oppressive. Again, there are a great many religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways impose their narrow-minded, hateful, even theocratic views on society in general. Again, as Gellman must surely be aware, there is a loud, determined, and well-organized segment of society composed of religious people who think that I, as an atheist, should be compelled to pay tax money to support their evangelical programs and pay for maintaining their churches; who want to deny women the right to control their own bodies by banning birth control and outlawing abortion even in the cases of rape or incest; who want to censor and stifle science and replace it with thinly disguised religious dogma; who would rather see young adults get STDs than teach them how to protect themselves; who want to rape and despoil the planet and wage war on the grounds that Jesus is coming back soon anyway; and dozens more outrages that I could list. What is the appropriate response to these injustices if not anger?

This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don't mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.

In other words, Gellman says that he does not mean to make a large and condescending generalization and then goes on to do precisely that. Is it any wonder that atheists often react with anger when we are treated in this way? We do not appreciate it any more than anyone else would to be labeled with stereotypes in this way, especially when it is a stereotype that he himself realizes sounds dismissive and condescending. When religious people consistently ignore the actual reasons we give to explain why we are atheists, and instead try to dig through our pasts to find the "real" reason, it is no surprise that we feel as if we are not being taken seriously, and feel resentment on that basis.

I have a suggestion for Gellman and those who agree with him. If you really want to understand atheists better, as you say that you do, then go find a collection of deconversion stories written by people who became atheists. (Ebon Musings has links to a large set.) Read them for yourself, and see why people become atheists, in their own words. In my experience, when we are not confronted with religious harassment and oppression, atheists are no angrier than theists, and possibly less angry. We are ordinary people, and in general we only want what everyone else wants: to live in peace and security, in a just world free of oppression and fear.

On the other hand, there are certainly are a vast number of theists filled with anger and hate, as evidenced by the blistering torrent of rage that inevitably targets everyone who opposes them. Here is an excerpt from a former post of mine, Filth-Based Initiatives, reprinting some of the e-mails sent to atheist spokeswoman Anne Laurie Gaylor after an appearance on CNN:

"You make me vomit and sick and I pray to GOD that you go to hell."

"Your a complete moron if you can't seem to understand the constitution of the United States that scum like you are trying to debase. All you liberal bitch's, along with the homosexual ACLU scum should be lined up against the wall."

"Your closed-minded bigotry is so unrepentantly sub-human."

"I bet you're a drunken whore."

"You Ms. Gaylor, and people LIKE you are the scum of America. Ane if you are going to appear on any more talk shows, I would consider some plastic surgery and perhaps some dental work!"

"People like you who interpret the bible wrong and try to sell this BS to people should be 'stoned to death'"

Or take some of the e-mails received by the Southern Poverty Law Center after successfully arguing in court that Alabama judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse building was a violation of the First Amendment and had to be removed (source):

"Dees is a godless s.o.b. jew and deserves to burn in hell."

"You're the lowest form of human waste - just human maggots! Enough is enough! Quit your ongoing battle against Christians and religion in American society. We true American citizens are going to be watching you and your organization closely now. Many Christians are just now realizing who the real enemy is, and there is no doubt - whatsoever - our #1 enemy in America is Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center. We Christians are watching you closely now."

"May the wrath of God be delivered upon you."

"I hope all of you who had anything to do with removing the Ten Commandments die in a car accident with a fuel tanker along with the rest of your filthy, stinking, traitorous families!"

Or consider this e-mail sent to atheist filmmaker Brian Flemming (source):

"You've definitely got some nerve. I'd love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all. I'll get comfort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you're completely ignorant about. The Wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh."

I do not doubt for a moment that the seething hate displayed in these missives and others like them is far worse, and occurs in far greater volume, than anything Gellman has ever seen or heard from us allegedly angry atheists. Yet he does not seem to have devoted a column to asking why theists are so angry. As I have argued, whatever anger is displayed by atheists is more than justified, in light of the violations of human freedom that are going on all around the world even now in the name of God. Any person with a functioning conscience would feel anger at that, especially when those actions are inspired by a book or a belief system that is held up as the epitome of good. On the other hand, the anger displayed by many theists seems to lack any similarly rational cause, considering how much power and influence they wield. If a person really believed that God was on their side and that they would win in the end, there would be no reason for them to lash out with such vicious fury against those who disagree with them. The subtitle of Gellman's column asks "Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?" I would turn that question around: Why do believers who are convinced that God is on their side seem to be threatened by the idea of atheists?

April 27, 2006, 2:34 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink40 comments
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Filth-Based Initiatives

The claim is often bandied about that atheists are "angry". The implication, presumably, is that life without God offers only a life of constant frustration and unhappiness (and, one imagines, damnation thereafter - wrath being one of the seven deadly sins), whereas belief in God is the road to tranquility and peace.

However, if this is the message that apologists intend to convey, they should look to their own flocks before accusing others of the sin of anger. Even casual acquaintance with our culture shows that atheists are not the only ones who are angry; far from it. On the contrary, there seems to be a very great amount of anger among theists as well. The clearest evidence for this is that whenever a person - be they a government representative, a journalist, a celebrity, or an ordinary citizen - publicly declares their support for atheism, or any other position hated by the religious right, a deluge of hostile, abusive, profane, and even violent hate mail is sure to follow.

Consider some of the vindictive e-mails that were sent to the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation after one of their spokespeople, Anne Laurie Gaylor, appeared on CNN. These e-mails were reprinted in the January/February 2006 edition of the FFRF newsletter Freethought Today, which is where I draw them from (all spelling and grammar as in originals):

"You make me vomit and sick and I pray to GOD that you go to hell."

"Your a complete moron if you can't seem to understand the constitution of the United States that scum like you are trying to debase. All you liberal bitch's, along with the homosexual ACLU scum should be lined up against the wall."

"Your closed-minded bigotry is so unrepentantly sub-human."

"I bet you're a drunken whore."

"You Ms. Gaylor, and people LIKE you are the scum of America. Ane if you are going to appear on any more talk shows, I would consider some plastic surgery and perhaps some dental work!"

"People like you who interpret the bible wrong and try to sell this BS to people should be 'stoned to death'"

Or consider the blog Molly Saves the Day, which in light of recent events in South Dakota posted an essay on how to set up an abortion clinic at home. Some of the comments sent to the author of that blog were stunning in the depth of their furious hatred and spiteful rage:

You are a fucking sicko. When you die, you will find yourself burning in the deepest depths of hell. Being Satan's chewing gum next to Hitler and Judas will be nice, won't it? And I'm no fucking conservative. The day a woman kills her baby with your procedure will be the day you are damned, you pagan bitch.

Or Michael Newdow, the atheist who filed a constitutional complaint over religious language in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The flood of hate mail and death threats against him was to be expected, of course; but more surprisingly, even some of the reporters who covered Newdow's story were targeted. Writes Bob Norman of the Palm Beach, Florida New Times, in his article "First Pledge":

...some extremist Christians... once again exposed their savage underbellies. They barraged Newdow with hundreds of death threats and hate mail. I know this not only because he shared many of them with the national media but because I received them too.

...A man who identified himself as Scott Sandlin wrote in the subject line of his e-mail: "YOU should be shot." I've written about mobsters, rogue cops, dirty politicians, and all manner of South Florida hustlers in the past, but I've never been threatened like this. (emphasis added)

Even Judge John E. Jones III, a Lutheran appointed by George W. Bush, is not immune from the religious right's bile. After a strong and incisive ruling against the Intelligent Design movement in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge Jones received so many hostile and threatening e-mails that the U.S. Marshals Service put him and his family under round-the-clock protection.

And finally, the death threats and hostility directed against Michael Schiavo in the right-to-die case that captivated the nation last year scarcely need recounting. Even William Rice, a Southern Baptist pastor who opposed Schiavo's position, wrote that he was "truly saddened and embarrassed by the level of harassment and vitriolic nature of so many comments that purportedly come from people of faith".

Clearly there is a great deal of anger seething among the partisans of the religious right, anger which their religious beliefs not only have not quelled, but have actually intensified. These theocrats regard their religion as a license to force their opinions of how society should work on everyone, to make all people everywhere speak, act and believe as they prefer, and people who stand in the way of achieving this goal are almost always met with a torrent of bitter hatred, venom, threats of violence, and other mental sewage. If, as the apologists tell us, religious belief leads to peace and satisfaction, why does it not seem to have worked on a substantial group of people? It crosses the line into hypocrisy to assert that atheism is bad because atheists are angry, when there is so much anger and hatred simmering in the minds of many believers. Following a brilliant suggestion from a letter in the March 2006 issue of Freethought Today, I propose that these outbursts of anger from the religious right be called "filth-based initiatives".

I am not suggesting that anger is always a bad thing. When directed to the right ends, aimed at injustice and inequality, anger can be a powerful force motivating people to work for the good and abolish these evils. Though anger does not dominate most atheists' lives, we would have to be heartless not to feel anger when we read about the cruelties and injustices that are still being wrought the world over in the name of religion. Reading about and witnessing these things should make any reasonable person angry. The difference is that this anger is motivated by compassion - we want to see justice done and people happy, and when this is not the case, we are naturally angered that these evils are being inflicted.

The anger of the religious right, on the other hand, does not seem to be motivated by concern for the well-being of others. Instead, the driving force behind it appears to be their own desire to impose their will on others, and their resentment when they are prevented from doing so. As their tirades make clear, they despise the people who oppose them, and want to see those people punished, hurt and humiliated. Indeed, many of their doctrines, especially the idea of Hell, seem to be nothing more than elaborate revenge fantasies. This is the kind of anger that religious evangelists are right to condemn, but it is not to be found among atheists.

April 4, 2006, 5:40 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments
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