Rick Perry's Prayer Follies

Whether you're an atheist or not, you should be alarmed by the sight of elected officials making a big public show of praying during a crisis. It's not that prayer itself does anything one way or the other - it's that their beseeching the gods for help is a good hint, not just that they have no ideas, but that they've given up even trying and are staking their hopes on a miracle. Which is why this story, about the man who happens to be the most recent entrant in the Republican presidential field, is even more disturbing than the usual drumbeat of Christian privilege:

A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:
    "Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas."
    Then the governor prayed, publicly and often. Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the
hottest month in recorded Texas history... In the four months since Perry's request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Nearly all of Texas is now in "extreme or exceptional" drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.

In fact, as reported in a later article, the economic losses from Texas' severe and ongoing drought have now topped $5 billion, setting a record. What conclusion should we draw from this story? Should it be that Perry was praying to the wrong god and the real one got angry and worsened the drought? (Maybe he should try praying to other gods - bowing toward Mecca, say, or sacrificing a bull to Zeus - just to see if one of them will help out.) Or maybe Rick Perry himself is just bad at praying. Maybe he's committed some secret sin that God is punishing him for, and any state or country that he governs will be afflicted by drought and devastation. Or, of course, maybe it's just that God doesn't exist or doesn't answer prayers.

An empirically-minded voter would at least consider all these possibilities. But as a Republican, Perry has the advantage of a huge faction of constituents who think that ostentatious public displays of piety are the same thing as character and virtue, and who can be counted on to remember the prayer and forget the result. The inconvenient fact that his praying didn't help will be filed in a mental drawer and forgotten, just as they're used to forgetting all the times prayer made no difference in their own lives. On the other hand, if he had issued a prayer proclamation and the skies had opened up the day afterward, it would be a miracle remembered for decades, and Perry would probably be using it in his campaign literature right now. From a politician's standpoint, it's a win-win situation (which explains why Georgia's governor tried the same thing in 2007, with equally pathetic results).

The elephant lurking in the room is that these increasingly extreme swings of weather are likely due in part to global climate change. But rather than taking effective action, like shutting down coal-fired power plants or offering tax incentives for alternative energy, the anti-science evangelicals would prefer to squeeze their eyes tightly shut and pray for God to magically rescue them from the crisis of their own making. In fact, they're dead set on continuing to foster antiscientific ignorance.

When hurricanes strike our coasts, the religious right won't call for engineers to build seawalls or restore barrier reefs, they'll bow their heads and try to pray the next storm away. When drought and wildfire strikes, they won't call for more efficient water use, they'll just beg God to send more rain so they can continue their wasteful ways. When the economy plunges, they won't vote for government stimulus to put people back to work, they'll just kneel and implore God to fix it (how they expect this to happen, they never quite say - this one is especially mysterious).

As a growing human population presses against the limits of what our planet can sustain, nothing is more important than steering our course wisely through the next few decades if we're going to thread the needle of survival. This will be difficult enough if we rely on science, but the religious right, having amply demonstrated how relying on faith has worsened their own lives, now wants to have a faith-based civilization. This is like taking a road trip by blindfolding yourself before you get in the driver's seat, spinning the steering wheel at random, and trusting that God will see to it that you end up where you want to go. Unfortunately, we're stuck on the same planet as them, which makes it all the more urgent for those of us who don't share this suicidally irrational faith to loudly and fearlessly defend science and reason.

August 19, 2011, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink47 comments
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6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.

It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.

There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.

A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.

Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.

So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:

1. Atheists can be good people.

This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.

To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).

2. Greater support for separation of church and state.

This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.

Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.

3. Greater support for free speech.

One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!

In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.

Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.

4. Greater support for science and reason.

Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.

Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.

5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.

For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."

Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?

I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.

6. Greater support for reproductive choice.

With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.

Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.

In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be  unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.

* * *

I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.

What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.

August 1, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments
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There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:

"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"

Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.

But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.

In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:

"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"

When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:

As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.

Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.

But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:

"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."

Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists - something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he's also continued the George W. Bush "faith-based initiative", which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.

Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.

Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.

The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.

After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.

The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.

July 1, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments
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To Win, We Just Have to Show Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments
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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...

June 13, 2011, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink30 comments
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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!

June 7, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink19 comments
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News Round-up

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I just thought I’d do a quick whirl through some stories of note in the papers this week:

Firstly, and probably most obviously, the Rapture failed to materialise. The herald of doom for this event, Harold Camping announced his shock and surprise that a literal, physical Rapture did not arrive in exactly the way he prophesised. Instead, the Rapture was of a spiritual nature, and we are still on track for a 21st October Armageddon. To his credit, he did guardedly offer an apology to those who feel wronged by him (and much good may it do them). I confess I raised an eyebrow that he’d make another prediction dated for so soon. He might have fumbled his way through one failed prophecy with most devotees still loyal, but surely two in the space of five months will be a fatal blow to his credibility? Or am I crediting his followers too much?

Secondly, a doctor in Britain is being threatened with the sack for refusing a written warning for counselling patients with talk of Christian faith. Alone, the incident might be unremarkable, but what troubles me particularly is the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Many of Britain’s leading papers are none-too-subtly right wing, and though the church holds far less power and influence in Britain than in the USA, the right still equates Christian values with traditional British values to be conserved at all costs while society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Taken along with the Christian van driver who would not remove a crucifix from his work van, and a couple who owned a B&B and were sued for refusing double beds to non-married couples, citing their religious beliefs for justification, the pattern is hauntingly familiar: religious people feel entitled to special dispensation and feel discriminated against when they do not get it. The papers report it this way and a worrying number of their readers dance to their tune. Sensationalism still works, even on an audience semi-aware to look out for it.

Debate rages over whether the world’s last remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The lethal virus was officially eradicated in the wild in 1979, leaving only small samples in laboratories remaining. But fears that samples could be stolen and used for biological terrorism have prompted fresh pleas for their destruction. In truth, this issue has been smoldering at the World Health Organisation for the last 25 years, lost in a cycle of deferring verdicts and appeals.

Seven Italian scientists were indicted this week in Italy for not predicting the April 2009 earthquake which devastated L’Aquila. Weeks before the quake, locals were worried by tremors, but the seismologists described a big forthcoming quake as “improbable”. The following disaster killed over 300 people. On the 20th September, the scientists will face charges of manslaughter. Many scientists have rallied around and tried to defend their colleagues – there is still no reliable way to predict an earthquake. A devastating case, and once which raises extremely important questions about the faith we should place in science and the culpability we should lay at the door of the experts.

Finally, I'd like to indulge you all in a bit of British trash. Our papers have been rather preoccupied with a story about a top, well-respected footballer, married with children, who was found to have had a six-month affair with a model and ex-reality TV star. So far, so unsurprising. But the case is of note firstly because of its legal implications - the footballer took out an injunction against his former lover, while she was thrown to the wolves. This sparked, as much as anything, a rethink of the uses of injunctions for personal cases. In the end, the truth got out via Twitter, and the police could not prosecute several thousand people breaching the injunction. But it also makes me reflect on a particular essay by Richard Dawkins in which he decries sexual jealousy. Far from being the appropriate default response for a jilted lover (justifying, apparently, all manner of revenge), he argues, we humans should try to rise above such jealousy. I'll leave it for you to savour in his own words here. It's an old essay, and the particular affair which prompted it is unrelated, but still it is a very stimulating read.

May 27, 2011, 12:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments
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Video! See My Speech at Columbia

Last night, I made my debut as a speaker for the Secular Student Alliance, appearing before the atheist student group at Columbia University to discuss the history of church-state separation. It was a short talk, about 20 minutes with Q&A, which suited me just fine for my first foray into public speaking. But I'm very happy with the way it turned out, and I'm hoping there will be more and longer engagements in the future. My thanks again to everyone at Secular Columbia for inviting me.

I've posted the video below. It's my first time, so be gentle!

April 29, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments
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The Abuse of the Doctrine of Standing

In what's becoming a depressingly predictable trend, there's bad news on the church-state front: the Freedom from Religion Foundation's legal victory over the National Day of Prayer has been tossed out by a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the FFRF lacks standing and ordering that the lower court decision be vacated. The FFRF plans to seek an en banc rehearing before the entire Seventh Circuit, although this is a long shot at best.

Sadly, I'm not surprised. It was always more likely than not that this ruling would be overturned; the only real questions were how high it would get before this happened and what legal fig leaf would be used to dismiss Judge Barbara Crabb's carefully reasoned ruling. In this case, it turned out to be the doctrine of standing, which says that only people who have a concrete interest in the outcome of a legal controversy can bring suit.

In general, there has to be something like this - as Glenn Greenwald says, the courts can't be "free-floating omnipotent tribunals" with the power to decide any controversy. A person or interest group should have to have a stake in the outcome of the case to participate in a lawsuit. But standing should be a low bar to clear, blocking only frivolous and pointless legal claims. Instead, the courts have twisted it into a convoluted and arcane rule where only certain highly specific kinds of injury are permitted as grounds to sue. This means that many meritorious claims, even those relating to the violation of constitutional rights, can never be heard.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit found that the FFRF had suffered no injury from the National Day of Prayer. Apparently, this is true even if public money is used to sponsor and organize the day's events, even if participation is restricted to certain religious sects that work hand-in-glove with elected officials, even if NDP events specifically endorse one version of religious scripture over others, even if said events include official statements questioning the patriotism, morality or citizenship of those who refuse to participate. Never mind all that - when the President tells you to pray, you can say no, and that's all it takes for your civil rights not to be violated!

Such reasoning could only come from the mind of someone who's spent their entire life comfortably in the religious majority and has never had to experience the exclusionary effect of being told that they don't belong to a privileged circle of political insiders. Under this new era of legal thinking, Congress could pass a law declaring Christianity the official religion of the U.S., and still no one would have standing to object as long as they weren't being forcibly marched into church by government agents. (And maybe not even then - after all, right-wing judges would reason, they aren't forcing you to agree with what's being preached, now are they?)

Turning "standing" into an all-purpose excuse to dismiss a lawsuit is an increasingly common tactic of conservative judges. Another example is the awful 2007 Hein decision which held that expenditures of money by Congress to promote religion confer standing to sue, but expenditures of money by the executive branch somehow don't. This nonsensical and indefensible decision was obviously decreed by conservative justices in order to reach their desired policy result: permitting the faith-based initiative to continue. (I fear that there are now five members of the Supreme Court who are prepared to bless any church-state violation whatsoever.)

Yet another example would be the Bush-era legal position, shamefully perpetuated by the Obama administration, that even if the government is spying on American citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment, no one has standing to bring a lawsuit unless they can prove that they personally were illegally surveilled. This is a ludicrous claim that creates a horrendous perverse incentive: the government can get away with any lawbreaking conduct as long as they can successfully cover it up, in which case the courts will do nothing to adjudicate the truth.

The evisceration of the standing doctrine creates a legal paradox: it may well be that some actions by the government are unconstitutional, but no one can do anything about it because no one has standing to have their objections heard. This position makes the Bill of Rights meaningless. The laws set out in the Constitution aren't just noble aspirations our government should try its best to live up to: they are strict and settled limits on what our elected public servants can and can't do, and the reason we have a system of checks and balances is to enforce that guarantee. The court, in effect, is abdicating its constitutionally given role by denying a hearing to citizens with a grievance. A more rational position, though one that stands no chance of passing in our current political climate, would be that any governmental action which breaches the Constitution confers standing on any citizen to sue.

April 19, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we've seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It's far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements - whether they'll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old - and the unwelcome news that Egypt's transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there's a dark side to people power as well. America's founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it's no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh's population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it's invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it's far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh's overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina's government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country's family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression - not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups - not just Muslims - to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

April 13, 2011, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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