New on AlterNet: The Rise of Young Atheists
My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation. It surveys the demographic transformation that's been taking place in American society, with rates of godlessness steadily increasing in each generation since World War II, highlights the work of some outstanding young activists who are part of this trend, and points out the panicked warnings from religious authorities who recognize that their influence is fading away. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!
Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.
Continue reading on AlterNet...
A Not At All Relevant to Elevatorgate Post
I first saw this on Google+ and, given the flame wars that have roiled atheism lately, I thought it was worth sharing. Who knows but that it may help some people to see these issues presented in a different context.
You may have heard of Wil Wheaton (and if you don't, and you consider yourself a geek, you have some explaining to do). Well, the other day, he posted this:
When I was a Teen Idol, and I traveled to New York for publicity all the time, it was fairly common for a handful of super weird people to hang out all day in front of my hotel, or in the lobby of my hotel, so they could pounce on me whenever I tried to enter or leave, and demand as many autographs as they could. It was really creepy and awful, and I always hated it. It was more than a little scary. I mean, who in the world spends an entire day sitting in one place waiting for someone? Oh, I know: crazy people.
...When we walked out of the SyFy party on Saturday night, a pack of people -- probably 12 or 15, I'd guess -- appeared out of nowhere, and surrounded me. They shoved pictures into my face, thrust pens at me, and made it so that I couldn't even move. They separated me from my friends and my son, and, quite frankly, terrified me.
Let's stop for a second and think about this: in what kind of world is it acceptable to surround a person you do not know, separate them from the people they are with, and essentially trap them? Maybe in crazy entitled psycho world, but not the world I live in.
I certainly hope the parallels are sufficiently clear. Stalking a person and waiting until they're in a semi-private or private setting, rather than approaching them during the public event they were just attending? Check. Trapping them in a situation they can't easily escape so that you can force your attention on them, regardless of what they may think about it? Check. And acting like a pack of braying, entitled jackasses when that person responds poorly? Yep, we've got that too:
A woman stormed up next to me and said, "If you don't sign these things for me, I'm going to tell Twitter what an asshole you really are."
Do you think we'll hear the usual excuses in this situation? "Hey, those people couldn't have known their idol wouldn't like them stalking him and waiting for him outside his hotel to demand autographs. Some stars would probably have welcomed it! They had the absolute right to talk to him, and if he didn't want to interact with them, all he had to do was say so. How would ordinary people ever meet their favorite celebrities if we declare in advance that they're never allowed to talk to them under any circumstances?" Do these rationalizations still sound plausible when transplanted to a different context? Would anyone care to defend the behavior of the people Wheaton talks about in his post?
What this shows is that the problem of That Guy-ism isn't restricted to sexual situations, or even to men. (Turns out people of every stripe don't like being stalked, cornered and harassed by creepy strangers! Who would have guessed?) But in a group like the atheist community, which has a significant imbalance of men over women, most manifestations of this problem are inevitably going to be gender-based.
If we're ever going to correct this situation, we need to make sure every atheist knows some basic rules of etiquette: don't treat others in ways that display a sense of entitlement, don't stalk or harass them, don't corner them and force your attention on them in situations where it's not likely to be welcomed, and above all, when people make reasonable requests not to be treated a certain way, don't make excuses, don't argue, just listen to them! This message really shouldn't be difficult, much less inspire the amount of resistance it has, but I intend to keep repeating it until it sinks in.
New on AlterNet: What Atheists Actually Agree About
I'm pleased to announce that my second column for AlterNet, 6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism, has now been posted. My first column, asking why nonbelievers haven't become a political force, drew rejoinders from a lot of people saying that it's impossible for atheists to organize because we don't agree about anything other than the existence of gods. Well, I decided to answer that criticism by listing the things that most atheists actually do agree about. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!
If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.
I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize...
Continue reading on AlterNet...
Atheists, Don't Be That Guy
When it comes to demolishing irrational beliefs, the atheist community has done a brilliant job. But when it comes to rooting out sexism in our own ranks, we have a long way left to go.
Witness the blowup that took place at a conference in Dublin last month, where Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave a talk about the religious right's war on women... and then, that same night, was propositioned by a stranger who cornered her in an elevator at 4 AM. (See her recap and these two third-party accounts).
This attracted the predictable crop of apologists who asserted loudly, not just that Rebecca was wrong to be frightened or upset by this, but that she was wrong to publicly disagree with the people who asserted that there was nothing wrong with this man's behavior. But what really made my jaw drop was that Richard Dawkins, or at least someone claiming to be Richard Dawkins [EDIT: It was confirmed that this was actually Dawkins —Ebonmuse], showed up on PZ's site and made the following astonishingly obtuse and ignorant comments:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and... yawn... don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator.
I'm guessing that Richard Dawkins (if this was truly him) has never lived in an environment where larger, stronger men are constantly offering him chewing gum, and getting aggressive and even violent if he declines. The uncomfortable reality is that we live in a society where sexual harassment and sexual violence against women is accepted and condoned to a far greater extent than any remotely comparable violence against men. Men who fail to grasp this and act as if women are being unreasonable to fear it are just flaunting their own ignorance. Take this classic demonstration in which men and women were both asked what they do to avoid sexual harassment every day, which brought forth a torrent of responses from the women while the men stood there in befuddlement:
For many males, public space is either something they feel an entitlement over, or something that is neutral and to be simply travelled through. For almost all women... public space is loaded with threat that must be managed.
The man who propositioned Rebecca Watson, whatever his individual intentions, can't be separated from this societal background. Maybe he was just too shy to approach her in public; maybe his intentions were entirely innocent. But that doesn't matter. We want women involved in the skeptical movement, and if they feel harassed or creeped out or uncomfortable, they won't be. It does us no good whatsoever to say, "You're wrong to take offense at this, so you should just overlook it." That won't get them to drop their objection; it will just make them stop showing up. Worse, it will only cement women's impression of atheist men as a bunch of rude, clueless know-it-alls who don't care about the effect of their behavior on others.
Let me tell you a story that wasn't about sex, but that has a similar take-away. I was at the Freedom from Religion Foundation's convention in Madison last October, where I met up with a friend (hi, Linda!), who was telling me about the correspondence she'd been having with Annie Laurie Gaylor about bringing some of the FFRF's billboards to her area. She also told me, much to my amusement, that she'd heard about a student who'd plagiarized one of my essays for the FFRF's college scholarship competition. (I'm flattered by that, in a weird way, but really - do you think you'll get away with plagiarizing something that's so easy to Google?)
Annie Laurie walked by our table while we were discussing this, and Linda said I should ask her about it. I politely demurred and said I didn't want to intrude on her time. But almost as soon as I'd said it, an elderly man got in her way and buttonholed her. "I've been wanting to talk to you," he announced without preamble. "I have a theory about the origin of religion that I think you should talk about more often. Have you heard of hypnosis—?"
"I'm sorry," she interrupted, "but I'm very busy" - which was absolutely true, and a lot politer than I would have been under the circumstances - and made a quick exit.
"You see," I said, "that's why I didn't want to go up and talk to her - because I didn't want to be that guy."
Atheist men, here's my message to you: Don't be that guy.
Being a rude, conversation-dominating boor is bad enough in any context, but in a sexual context, demonstrating your own lack of concern for others' desires is especially intimidating and frightening. There are plenty of ways to flirt, banter and chat that are friendly and non-threatening. (I did get to speak to Annie Laurie later in the conference, during a book signing when she was standing around and chatting with convention-goers.) But following women around, cornering them in private, or continuing to bother them when they're with a group that you're not part of, or after they've clearly expressed disinterest - we ought to know better than to do things like this, and I'm dismayed and angry that so many atheists apparently still don't.
There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?
This essay was originally published on AlterNet.
The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.
To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:
"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"
Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.
But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.
In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:
"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"
When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:
As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.
Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.
Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.
But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.
As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:
"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."
Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists - something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he's also continued the George W. Bush "faith-based initiative", which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.
Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.
Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.
The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!
To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.
So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.
Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.
So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?
The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.
Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.
But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.
After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.
The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.
Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.
Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.
Grieving Without Religion
Recently, a long-time reader (thanks, Stacey!) sent me an e-mail with a link to this wrenching story, about a married couple chronicling the grief and anger they've been feeling since their daughter was stillborn in late 2009. By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in irrational thinking and home-birth woo [see below —Ebonmuse], rather than medicine, and didn't go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have. The father, Gabe, has written with searing eloquence about how the death of his infant daughter and the near-death of his wife has reawakened his skepticism:
So I ask myself, why did I keep on trusting birth? Why did I believe in a supernatural aegis of protection? Did I think my family was more special than her parents? Really, I never thought about it, except to be afraid of not knowing what might happen or not being able to control it, and so responding to my fear I would prostrate myself further to this way of thinking. It would decrease my self-examination and in so doing give myself a reassuring rush of comfort, like a hit of opium.
...Now I have this space where faith used to be, not at all convinced that it was ever a virtue. I detest the supernatural explanations for things that used to satisfy me, and I miss the feelings that they used to give me. I sit in the audience at my family's church, which I saw as pleasant and innocuous but not a path to truth before Aquila died, now finding myself powerfully put off by messages everyone else takes as endearing.
If the atheist movement wants to thrive, we need to create a secular community that appeals to people in all walks of life, and to do that, it's essential that we offer help help and support to everyone, whatever their needs. That's why I was glad to get an e-mail from Greta Christina about Grief Beyond Belief, a newly formed nontheistic grief support group that's undoubtedly much needed. (See her post about the launch.)
The Grief Beyond Belief page offers an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one -- without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to join and participate on the page. Bereaved people in the process of questioning or letting go of previously held religious beliefs are also welcome to be part of the community and seek support.
In many ways, Grief Beyond Belief resembles other online grief support networks and forums. However, religious grief support -- including prayer, faith in god, and belief in an afterlife -- is not welcome in posts or comments. In this way Grief Beyond Belief offers a safe space for atheists and other non-religious people to share and process the death of a loved one. Recognizing that the death of a loved one sometimes leads to reevaluation of religious beliefs, every effort will be made to make the page accessible to people who are still struggling with these issues. However, the page is not intended as a venue for debate, but as a space for shared compassion and support. While religious believers may participate on the page, they are required to follow these guidelines.
Once a participant has "liked" Grief Beyond Belief, she or he will periodically receive a thought, question, quote or link in her or his News Feed addressing various aspects of grief, often focusing on grieving a death without faith. Participants are also invited to post memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions they would like to share, on which other members can comment. In addition, the page serves as a central location on the web where members can link to writing about grief and loss that is coming from an non-religious perspective. Bloggers are strongly encouraged to post links to blog entries on this topic on the Grief Beyond Belief wall.
Grief Beyond Belief's founder, Rebecca Hensler, discovered the need for such a group when seeking support for her own grief after the death of her three-month-old son. "I quickly found a network of parents who were also grieving the deaths of their children at The Compassionate Friends (a 42-year-old parental grief support group). But I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept. It wasn't until an atheist member reached out to me in friendship that I understood what I had been missing." Hensler soon discovered that she was not the only non-believer who felt a need for safe space to grieve without faith or belief in an afterlife. "I have been particularly moved by the experiences of non-believers who are attempting to heal from loss while surrounded by religious people pressuring them to join or rejoin their religions; at its worst that kind of so-called 'help' can verge on abuse."
The need for faith-free space to share grief and healing has been addressed frequently on atheist blogs, such as Friendly Atheist. (Hemant Mehta. "Are There Resources for Atheist Widows?" *Friendly Atheist*, June 2, 2011.) While a Facebook page may only meet a small portion of that need, Grief Beyond Belief serves to open the door to grieving non-believers seeking community and compassion.
New on Alternet: Atheists as a Political Force
Today I'm very happy to announce that I've become a contributor to AlterNet, the award-winning online progressive news and opinion magazine. My first essay is titled "There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?" Read an excerpt below, and then click through to see the rest:
The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law -- or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans -- it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular, play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.
Continue reading on AlterNet...
Standing Up for Young Freethinkers
This is another story that broke while I was away in Spain, but I wanted to write about it. I'm sure it will no longer come as news, but it's definitely worth commenting on.
Greta Christina sums it up on Alternet, but in brief: A Louisiana public high school student, Damon Fowler, objected to a prayer that his school planned to have at the graduation ceremony. What followed was a flood of hatred, harassment and violent threats from seemingly the entire town. A teacher at his school openly demeaned him in a newspaper interview, saying that "this is a student who really hasn't contributed anything". Damon's own parents, proving themselves to be the biggest bigots in the entire mob, disowned him and kicked him out of the house. (He's currently living with his brother in Texas. One of the most amazing parts of this is that such an intelligent and principled young man could come from a house where hate and resentment clearly reign supreme.) And to top it off, at the graduation, the school had the prayer anyway.
Damon Fowler isn't the only student activist who's faced a backlash for standing up for the Constitution. In Rhode Island, a high school sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist has spearheaded a campaign to get a large and blatantly illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school's auditorium. When the school board refused, she agreed to be named as a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit. Again, the response from both students and teachers (not to mention the mayor) was predictable:
The morning after the press release, I walked into homeroom. The first thing I was greeted by were my classmates gossiping about how "mad retarded" I am for doing this. These students mind you, do not speak to me. Here they are passing judgment on me and what I believe without having talked to me for even a second. As I sat down, I said "good morning" to a couple of my peers who did not return the friendly gesture or even acknowledge my existence. During the pledge that morning, the students in my homeroom turned and yelled "Under GOD!" at me. The teacher said and did nothing.
Friendly Atheist has a series of posts about the Rhode Island church-state controversy and Jessica's involvement, including a video interview.
I'm not really surprised that student activists like Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist are bullied, harassed and ostracized by their peers. Most teenagers are insecure and conformist, and they'll take any excuse to punish someone who stands out or acts differently from the crowd. But what's truly disgusting is that the teachers, the parents, the school officials, and the community - the people who are theoretically the mature adults in these situations, the ones who are supposed to know better - joined wholeheartedly in this immature, high-school-esque insulting and belittling of anyone who doesn't conform to arbitrary community standards of expected behavior. At least for them, their obnoxiously public religious beliefs haven't improved their moral sentiments, only multiplied their viciousness toward those who won't wear the expected marks of tribal conformity.
So far, none of this is new - there have always been students and families who bravely stood up to religious imposition in schools, and who were bullied, assaulted or run out of town for it. Just look at AU's roll call of church-state heroes and the backlash they faced from small-minded bullies:
Abington High School's principal... actually wrote a letter to officials at Tufts University, where Ellery had been accepted, labeling him a troublemaker and urging them to deny him admission.
But what's different now - in cases like Damon Fowler's, or Jessica Ahlquist's, or Eric Workman's, or Constance McMillen's, or Matt LaClair's - is that there's a secular community standing behind them. The FFRF has offered Damon a $1000 student activist award, his Facebook page has attracted over 15,000 supporters, and a donation drive on Friendly Atheist raised an astonishing total of over $30,000 to help him pay for college.
This is the most important function that "out" atheists can serve. Many freethinkers, especially the young ones, face unimaginable hatred and hostility just for having the courage to assert their rights. And we can't stop all of it, but we can stand in solidarity with them and let them know that they aren't alone. We can provide a safety net for those who are weighing whether to declare their identity, and by so doing, make them more likely to take that step and further expand and strengthen our community. What the religious bullies want is to force conformity - to make everyone think and behave like they do - and, I have to admit, I enjoy nothing more than the vicarious thrill of showing them that they can't make us bow to them!
Join the FFRF's Virtual Billboard Campaign
A few months ago, I mentioned the FFRF's "Out of the Closet" billboard campaign, an effort to put a human face on atheists with ads showing that we're normal, friendly people like everyone else. Today, I'm pleased to announce that the FFRF has expanded this project with a virtual billboard campaign on their website, allowing anyone to create a custom banner with an image and a quote of their choice. (See mine below, or see some of the staff picks on the FFRF website.)
As simple as it is, this may be one of the most effective things we can do to improve our public image and get our message out. The religious right has worked hard to spread poisonous stereotypes about who we are, what we stand for, even what we look like. By associating atheism with a friendly, smiling face that could be your friend or your neighbor, we go a long way toward counteracting those prejudices in the public's conception and making people more likely to listen to what we have to say. If the spirit moves you, go make a billboard yourself, and join the growing horde of out-of-the-closet atheists!
Weekly Link Roundup
If I had the time, I'd write a whole post about each of these. As it is, you can probably guess what I would say:
• There are atheists in the military!
• And in high schools!
• And for why this matters, see this post on Friendly Atheist, about a study finding that anti-atheist prejudice goes down as atheists become more numerous and visible.
• I wrote a post a few months ago asking about atheist apps for the Android platform. I'm happy to point out that a developer has answered the call.
• On Salon, an account of life with an Objectivist father. It's about time those lazy, mooching 16-year-olds stopped getting a free ride from their parents! (I can't reread that sentence without hearing it in Stephen Colbert's voice.)
• William Lane Craig, Christian apologist extraordinaire, defends the Bible's genocides. But don't worry, he's not completely heartless, as he explains:
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.
Feel that Christian love!
• Americans United reports on atheists who want to be legally ordained to perform weddings, and have had to file a lawsuit to demand that right - one of the most visible examples of the way anti-atheist prejudice is still enshrined in law.
• On another down note, the Supreme Court issues another horrendous decision further stripping atheists of the legal power to claim our rights when governments unconstitutionally hand out money to churches. Horrendous, but not surprising - this decision has been in the wings since the Hein case. As long as conservatives have a majority on the court, our power to fight encroaching theocracy will continue to erode away. (See also NFQ's excellent, detailed take.)
• But rather than close on that down note, let me leave you with something that's surely worth a few grins: an article on the secret sex lives of students at Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian college. Just try to keep a straight face when you read what the prayer rooms were used for! (HT: Violet Blue, definitely NSFW).