From the Mailbag: Deconversion Saturday

It's not every day that I get awesome letters like the one I posted last Saturday, but this makes two weeks in a row now. If this keeps up, I may have to make it a regular feature!

This letter is from a commenter who's posted here in the past as 5acos(phi/2). Although it's from a country I don't have first-hand experience of, it has a lot in common with the kind of letters I get more frequently, just with a different set of culturally dominant religious beliefs in place of Christianity. It just goes to show that religion causes the same kinds of harm wherever and whenever it becomes the dominant political power in society, and that every society has a need for secularism. Thankfully, it also shows that every society has skeptics and freethinkers to hold the torch of reason up high!

Hello Adam,

I noticed your latest mailbag post and felt compelled to finally write you a thank you note and share my story, after I have been lurking on your site for so long. Unlike other great personal stories that have been posted on your blog, I think mine is in no way emotionally moving, but I suspect that you might find it a bit unusual considering the context of your site.

I come from Thailand, where the majority of the population identify as (Theravada) Buddhists, and so did I. So by definition, I have never been a theist, nor did I know what it is like to live in a theist-dominated country. And although everyone in my family is a Buddhist in name, we lead a mostly secular lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was not a skeptic - I accepted things that were taught to me without much questioning, and though I questioned and rejected some fantastical claims, I still occasionally fell prey to some of the benign ones.

Before coming across your site, I have already rejected or treated as allegory most of the absurd claims that are rampant in my society, such as reincarnation, karma, the Hindu gods that Thai people still worship, etc. But I did not take the next step to declare myself nonreligious, nor did I feel the need to do so. Being used to a secular life, religion simply was not a big issue to me. I still went along and participated in Buddhist ceremonies and prayers when it would seem rude not to.

Then one boring day at work, I stumbled upon your "Carrot & Stick" essay after clicking through a few links on morality without religion. I found your argument extremely compelling, and by the end of the essay I had crossed over the fence to nonreligion. I then continued reading further into both of your sites, and then I perused the links to discover other atheists' and skeptics' sites, as well as ScienceBlogs (long before "PepsiGate"), and have diligently followed them until today. I have learned how to truly think critically. I have learned what the scientific method really is when school have failed to make that point clear to me. It was perhaps only a chain of coincidences, but you were my gateway to science and skepticism.

Thanks to you, the other bloggers, and the Internet, I have come to realize that there are so much brilliance in the world, but also so much insanity. I read about the religiously-driven conflicts in the US with amused curiosity like I would observe an alien life form, but it was not long before some parallels are drawn. I realized that my country is also full of craziness, from the mostly harmless astrology to the Dhammakaya Movement, our Buddhism-flavored counterpart of the Church of Scientology, but the most fearsome and influential of all are the ultra-loyalists. They are, in many aspects, the Thai equivalent of the American religious right. Politically powerful and active, they may not oppose science, but they do try to support absurd political agenda and silence dissenting opinions, and at least for a while they infected most of our brainwashed middle class, including myself. I also have to thank someone else for deprogramming me, but it was no less helpful to read about similar conflicts from abroad, which I could objectively evaluate and compare.

Thanks to you, I am now a skeptic, and I will try to spread rationality into my part of the world.

April 9, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

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).

April 5, 2011, 6:32 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

Walk Like An Egyptian

No Simo to be seen in Cairo, and God's Son has no place in Madison

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I am sure that most of you are aware of the massive grassroots demonstrations that have been taking place at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in response to Governor Scott Walker's emergency budget repair bill. I have been demonstrating all week on behalf of workers' rights and public employees and unions, alongside public school teachers and firefighters and nurses and many, many more hardworking, middle class workers and their families.

I have been amazed by how peaceful and civil the protests have been, even when a small Tea Party contingent showed up on Saturday, February 19th. The Capitol Square has been teeming with tens of thousands of teachers, students, kids, and families. There is an overwhelming spirit of camaraderie and purpose. Despite the gravity of the historical and political moment, the protests have been fun and festive, with musical acts and drum circles and insanely clever protest signs. Each and every time the firefighters procession shows up, with firefighters in uniform and led by bagpipes, the crowd goes wild. The firefighters were exempted from Walker's attacks on the other public employee unions, but they have been coming out in force to support their brother and sister unions.

Many of the protest signs reference the recent demonstrations in Egypt, which toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and many political pundits in the media have commented on similarities between the two movements. Both movements are fights for democracy (and the movement in Madison does have far reaching implications for the future of the Democratic Party and democracy in the United States, because the downfall of the unions would be the downfall, after Citizens United, of the last remaining institutions that give the people any kind of a real voice in our elections, which are now overwhelmed by the political campaign contributions of corporations). But, it does seem a bit extreme to compare those risking their lives to overthrow a brutal dictatorial regime with Governor Scott Walker's implicit threat to call out the National Guard to quell the peaceful protests of public school teachers and his explicit threat to lay off thousands of public employees if his demands are not met.

But, there is one aspect of the demonstrations in Egypt, which I would like to see duplicated in Madison. As was reported by most mainstream media outlets in the English-speaking world, almost all of the demonstrations in Egypt were secular, and purposefully and purposely so. While the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in the protests, as part of a larger coalition of democracy advocates, including secular democracy and civil society advocates, the Brotherhood agreed to refrain from using any religious slogans and from taking an obvious leadership position. Additionally, displays of religiosity were discouraged at the protests.

The Egyptians knew that the whole world was watching them, waiting to dismiss and discredit their movement as theocratic, not democratic. (It remains to be seen how steadfast will be the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to secularism. I, for one, am not expecting any miracles, but, for now, they have at least demonstrated an ability to abstain from explicit Islamism when politically expedient.) The Egyptians knew they had everything to gain, i.e., worldwide support for their grassroots movement to overthrow Mubarak, by remaining secular. They also understood how easily they could lose global public approbation, by casting their movement as overtly religious, with the implied goals of establishing an Islamic theocracy and implementing Sharia (Muslim law). They also understood the power of a visible female presence at the demonstrations, as an ostensible manifestation of secularism, and granted the women participating in the protests a reprieve from their gender punishment of unrelenting verbal and physical sexual harassment and assault, which is the norm on the streets of Cairo. (The vicious sexual assault on reporter Lara Logan, while she was covering the victory celebrations, certainly does not bode well for the status of women in the Egyptian public sphere.)

Religiosity is the determining criterion by which the West judges Egypt's resolve for both democracy and women's rights. And, rightfully so. Religiosity and democracy are at odds with one another; they are mutually incompatible, as are religiosity and women's rights. They are overlapping magisteria, which destroy one another, like matter and anti-matter, releasing devastating gamma radiation in the process. That is why Thomas Jefferson built up a wall of separation between state and church, to avoid just such a destructive conflagration.

As quick as the protesters are to make comparisons between Wisconsin and Egypt, I wish Wisconsin would mimic the Egyptians' insistence on maintaining the secular nature of their demonstrations. I wish the organizers and protesters in Madison were worried about keeping the protests democratic, not theocratic, for fear of being discredited.

Now, to be fair, the protests in Madison have been largely secular. But, to my dismay, each day of the protest has had to suffer one or another speaker's ill-conceived attempts to inject Jesus Christ into the proceedings. Someone feels the need to pray to Jesus or refer to Jesus or try to motivate us by preaching and praising the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When this occurs, most of the crowd seems palpably uncomfortable, and everyone sort of looks around at each other quizzically and incredulously. A few persons feel obligated to humor the speaker and embark on half-hearted and bungled renditions of whichever hymn or prayer.

But, I resent the concerted crescendo of Christianity being perpetrated upon the masses at the Capitol. Ours is a secular government. I think it represents a complete miscalculation on the part of the perpetrators. This began as and remains a secular, democratic movement with secular, democratic aims. I do not want to see it usurped or adulterated or obscured by religionist interlopers. Additionally, those who are waging a war on workers' rights and public and private sector unions and the lower and middle classes are those same persons who are waging a war on women and children and social safety nets, and they typically invoke religious ideology as justification for their malfeasance. They would love nothing more than to see the U.S. turned into a White American Christian Theocracy. The evangelical Scott Walker (who stated at his inauguration prayer breakfast that there is no "freedom from religion") ran on a platform that cow-towed to the religious right and was anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-stem cell research. At his inauguration prayer breakfast, he also made clear that "our freedoms are derived" from the "Great Creator" and "not the government." The religionists' insistence upon insinuating themselves into the protests in Madison comes across as unctuous and opportunistic and mercenary.

And, of course, because the Christianists are attempting to impose Christian religious law upon the American citizenry and not Sharia, they are incapable of appreciating the double standard of judging the Egyptian protesters' commitment to democracy according to their displays of religiosity, but not the Wisconsin protesters. In their minds, Christianity is compatible with democracy, but Islam is not. This is a fallacy. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafts U.S. federal legislation, which relegates American women to sub-human status, something has gone very, very wrong. This is Sharia. It is Christian Sharia. And, there is nothing democratic, and everything theocratic, about that. I would love to see how the Christianists would respond if someone stepped up to the podium in front of the Capitol and declared the fight for workers' rights an Islamic jihad, in the proud tradition of Mohammed's example.

Go sell crazy somewhere else. We don't want any in Cairo. And, we don't want any in Madison.


February 27, 2011, 10:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

On Taking Offense, and the Easiness Thereof

I wanted to point out this comment from an ongoing discussion, because it's such a perfect example of the kind of Christian privilege that American believers take for granted:

Well, I guess you atheists are more easily offended than me. I do not see how a statue of the Ten Commandments makes anyone a second-class citizen.

It's certainly easy, isn't it, for a Christian to proclaim that he wouldn't be offended by government-sponsored denigration of his beliefs, because he's never experienced it. I'm guessing this commenter has never had a stake in important litigation where, in order to have his case heard, he has to pass through courthouse doors beneath a massive sign reading "THOU SHALT NOT BELIEVE IN GOD". He's never had to buy and sell things using currency that reads "In Atheism We Trust", or be expected to pledge his patriotism with an affirmation containing the words "one nation under no gods". He's never had to lobby for his rights before a Congress where only one member is an outspoken Christian and most of the rest proclaim that Christians are vile radicals who are unfit for public office. He's never been told by his elected officials that he has no right to have them represent him, or told by one of the top jurists in the land that the law "permits the disregard" of his viewpoint.

But atheists do face equivalents of all these bigotries, and more besides. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses are part of this, and are a reminder of the countless ways in which American believers consign atheists to second-class status.

And on that note, I have to comment on a related topic. There's a great, thriving atheist community on Reddit, and I've gotten a lot of hits and feedback from posting my articles there. They've even accomplished some truly great and tangible things, like raising over $40,000 for Doctors Without Borders. It's never occurred to me that any atheist would feel unwelcome there, at least until I saw these two posts on Jen McCreight's blog.

Whenever I see that I got an uptick in traffic from reddit, I'm always afraid to go check the link. Because inevitably when someone links to my blog, many of the comments will be disparaging remarks about my gender or looks. Hell, even some of the positive comments are about my gender or looks, which are still annoying - can we please comment about the content, and not my boobs, please?

As you might expect, this resulted in a flood of comments from outraged males. Quite a few of these explained that for the grievous act of having a blog which is openly female, which doesn't try to hide that the author is a woman, she should expect to be the target of sexist leering. Here's one stellar specimen from Reddit:

Author at the Presidio

Fig. 1: I will not have my opinions dismissed for posting this.

It's the equivalent of a woman dressing up like a prostitute, giving a dissertation on Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe From Nothing" while dancing on a stripping pole, and then being surprised that someone mentions something other than Krauss's speech.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Jen's picture includes the top third of her torso, and that this is equated to "dressing up like a prostitute" and "dancing on a stripping pole". There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs, but who (I'm guessing) hardly ever have this used against them as an excuse to dismiss or belittle their arguments. It's women and women alone who can expect condescension and hostility merely for making it obvious what gender they are. Or as another Reddit poster put it:

You need thicker skin. It seems like you are looking to be victimized.

What this person obviously meant to say was, "By being openly female, you are looking to be victimized." It rather puts the lie to the other commenters who said they've never noticed sexism on Reddit, doesn't it?

Of course, there will always be emotionally stunted trolls who think it's the height of wit to make sexist or racist comments and then chortle heartily if they get an outraged response. The internet, like every other human gathering place, has its troglodytes, its bigots and its yobs (which is a fantastic Britishism and I'm officially stealing it). The real issue is how the larger community responds. Does it agree that sexism is unacceptable and say so firmly? Or does it deny, minimize, or attempt to deflect responsibility? Does it belittle the woman who's targeted, tell her that it's "no big deal" and she should just "get over it", or worst of all, tell her that she brought it on herself and call her a sexist for pointing it out? (This is the kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I schoolyard taunting that said trolls think of as brilliant repartee.)

This is how we make the atheist community larger and stronger: when someone feels unwelcome, we take the time to find out why, and if there's something happening that makes them feel excluded, we fix it. If you instead pour scorn on the person who speaks up, if you call them thin-skinned, easily offended, a chronic troublemaker - this is the response of bigotry, and since it's something atheists have so often been on the receiving end of, we ought to understand that. If we want the atheist movement to be a coherent force that can effectively challenge theocratic intrusion and religious privilege, we need to stop pushing people away, and start making sure that anyone who's on our side feels welcome among us.

February 5, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments

Women Take the Helm in Egypt

I wrote about the massive uprising in Egypt earlier this week, but events are moving so fast that I have to write again, and by the time you read this post, it may well be outdated. The latest development is that the Mubarak administration is apparently sending armed and organized gangs of thugs out onto the streets to masquerade as counter-protesters, probably in the hopes of provoking a violent confrontation that would force the army to intervene. American journalists including Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour have already been assaulted.

That notwithstanding, I continue to be enormously impressed by how peaceful and how resolute the anti-Mubarak protests have been. I also note with pleasure that women are actively taking a leadership role, especially a famous YouTube video by 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz that played a pivotal role in the January 25 initial uprising:

"As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope." That was what Ms. Mahfouz had to say in a video she posted online more than two weeks ago. She spoke straight to the camera and held a sign saying she would go out and protest to try to bring down Mr. Mubarak's regime.

This was certainly not the first time a young activist used the Internet -- later virtually shut down by the government -- as a tool to organize and mobilize, but it departed from the convenient, familiar anonymity of online activism.

More than that, it was a woman who dared put a face to the message, unfazed by the possibility of arrest for her defiance. "Do not be afraid," she said.

The major role women played in the genesis of the protests is probably part of the reason why they've been so unusually egalitarian, as outside observers found to their surprise. As reporter Sarah Topol wrote for Slate:

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt's streets — any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't been groped, a constant annoyance when I'm faced with large crowds in Cairo.

And in the square itself, women have been taking a leadership role as well - organizing checkpoints to search newcomers for weapons, and continuing to speak out for themselves:

Soheir Sadi was one of them. This morning, she sat in the square with her 14-year-old daughter. They had come every day since the protests started on Jan. 25. "I came seeking my rights, like any Egyptian. I rent my apartment, I don't own it, and I can't afford food. What kind of life is that? And for my children?" she asks. "I wasn't afraid for my daughter, because everyone is family in the square. We are all real men standing up for ourselves, even the girls. And now they have learned that they can protect themselves like men."

It's still too early to say if Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the Egyptian revolution to their own ends, but reports like these give me hope that they won't. From what I've heard, the marchers are largely young and secular, far more concerned with their national than their religious identity, and seeking reasonable, this-worldly goals like good jobs and a fairer distribution of wealth. Any religious movement that tried to hijack the protesters' energy and passion to impose sharia law, they'd surely resist as fiercely as they've resisted Mubarak's autocratic rule. And every woman like Asmaa Mahfouz who has the courage to throw off her culture's stifling prejudices about gender roles and demand liberty is a living repudiation of theocracy. Is it too ambitious to hope that some of them could ultimately sit in the Parliament of a free, secular and democratic Egypt?

UPDATE: Further thoughts.

February 3, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments

Little-Known Bible Verses: Let God Plead His Own Cause

It's indisputable that Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and there are those who'd like to keep it that way. Right-wing legal groups like the Liberty Counsel and the Thomas More Law Center exist solely to maintain Christian superiority, arguing in court that Christian believers should be afforded more rights and privileges than everyone else. But the Bible itself ridicules this effort as unnecessary, as we can see from a little-known Bible verse. (HT: Better than Esdras, a fascinating little blog that first made me aware of this passage.)

In the Old Testament book of Judges, the Israelites repeatedly go astray and wind up defeated and enslaved by their enemies, until they cry out to God and he raises up a hero to deliver them. Judges chapter 6 repeats this pattern with Gideon, of the tribe of Manasseh. Gideon is visited by an angel who instructs him to destroy his father's altar to the pagan Canaanite god Baal. He does it secretly, by night, but gets found out anyway:

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down... And after they had made search and inquired, they said, "Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing." Then the men of the town said to Joash, "Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it." But Joash said to all who were arrayed against him, "Will you contend for Baal? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down." (6:28-31)

Rare for the Bible, this passage makes a persuasive and well-reasoned argument. If Baal is a god, especially the kind of actively involved god who's performing miracles and answering the prayers of his followers, he should be able to defend his own interests. He shouldn't need humans to serve as his agents, enforcing what they believe to be his will and punishing people who go against his decrees. And if Baal never intervenes directly and it's only his believers who are ever seen to act on his behalf, wouldn't we be justified in concluding that Baal probably doesn't exist?

As I said, a good argument. But doesn't it apply every bit as well to Yahweh? Why do right-wing Christians rise up in outrage when church-state defenders force Christian crosses or Ten Commandments monuments to be removed from public land, why do they react with fury when store greeters say "Happy Holidays" or museums display blasphemous artworks? If God is real, and if he cares about these things, surely he'll contend for himself.

Why does the religious right feel they need to act as God's agents in the world, forcing everyone to live by what they assume the divine law to be? It seemingly betrays more than a hint of insecurity. Atheists and other non-Christians routinely get threats of hellfire from Christian proselytizers, who promise that God will judge them as they deserve in the next life. But if they really believe that, why are they so concerned with reinforcing social penalties for religious dissent in this one?

Other posts in this series:

January 24, 2011, 6:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink39 comments

Some Atheist Victories of Note

I wrote last month about the Fort Worth atheist bus ads and how the city decided to ban all religious messages in the future, so as not to have to deal with us again. At the time, I observed:

It was only when groups who aren't in the majority want to exercise their equal rights that people get angry... Still, as hypocritical as this is, I'm not bothered as long as the new policy is applied equally and fairly. Atheists have plenty of other places to advertise, and if that's what it takes to make our government a little bit more secular, I'm happy about that too!

Well, I'm pleased to note that a prominent Christian agrees with my analysis. Al Mohler, in a post titled How Not to Fight Atheism, pointed out that the ridiculous Christian overreaction ensured the bus campaign got far more publicity, and lamented the city's decision for expanding the reach of secularism:

Christians are sometimes our own worst enemy, especially when we claim to be offended. Those pastors and concerned Christians who demanded that the transportation authority ban the atheist ads actually gave the secularists the Grand Prize. By precipitating (and, of all things, celebrating) a ban on all religious messages from this public space, these Christians surrendered Gospel opportunities simply because they were offended by an atheist advertisement. No wonder the atheists clapped.

This is a disastrous strategy. Are Christians so insecure that we fear a weakly-worded advertisement on a public bus?

Allow me to answer your rhetorical question, Mr. Mohler: Yes. What other conclusion could you draw from the way that Christians actually reacted?

Mohler writes that "Being a Christian does not mean never having to be offended," which is a sentiment I'll applaud any day. It's too bad so few of his fellow believers don't share it. But regardless, his column shows why atheist advertising is such a winning strategy, and why atheists should advertise in every public forum open to us. Either Christians call for that forum to be shut down - which necessarily means surrendering their right to use it as well, which makes our government that much more secular - or they have to defend the right to free speech, even by atheists. Either way, it's a good thing for us, and either way, the inevitable publicity guarantees that our ad's reach and effectiveness will be multiplied.

I'm also pleased to report a victory over the Mount Soledad cross, a case which I mentioned in one of my earliest posts. That cross, originally erected on public land solely for Christian worship and then belatedly labeled a war memorial when secularists complained, has been the subject of a two-decade legal battle. Incredibly, the state argued throughout that an enormous 43-foot Latin cross standing alone should be considered a secular symbol with no connection to Christianity. The court finally saw through this obvious sophistry, though it took them far too long to do so. The court stopped short of immediately requiring the cross to be taken down, and more appeals lie ahead, but we can hope that this is a turning point in a case that's already dragged on for much longer than it should have.

If you want to see the inevitable religious right lying and whining, I suggest this article, which states that the cross "was dedicated... in 1954 to honor veterans of the Korean War" - a slippery little phrase that tries its hardest to imply that the cross was built that year. In fact, it was raised decades earlier and never called a war memorial until after a church-state lawsuit was filed.

The author goes on to make the bizarre and laughable claim that the 14th Amendment was never intended to apply the Bill of Rights to state governments (the drafters of the amendment would be surprised to hear that), and asks snippily if the next lawsuit will be to force a city with a name derived from Christianity, like San Diego, to change its name.

For the record, I'll answer the author's question: No, I don't believe there would be any grounds for such a lawsuit. Naming a city Los Angeles or San Diego doesn't do any harm to nonbelievers. That's a legitimate example of the "historical context" defense courts have so often used illegitimately, say, with large Christian crosses on public land. On the other hand, if a town named itself something like "Repent-and-believe-in-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-or-else-be-damned-to-the-fires-of-Hell-for-all-eternity, Alabama," I think there would be grounds for a state-church action.

January 12, 2011, 6:34 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink8 comments

Rolling Back Religious Privilege

Last week, I came across this story from the Telegraph. In the U.K., a coalition of liberal churches, educational and secular groups including the British Humanist Association are calling on the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to scrap a law which forces British schools to hold mandatory religious services for all their pupils.

The 1944 Education Act and its amendments require British secondary schools to hold a daily assembly of all students for Christian worship. A student's parents can choose to opt them out, but students can't opt out on their own. At least, this is the letter of the law; the article notes that many schools already ignore the rule because they don't have the time. And good for them, I say - why should valuable educational time be wasted on mandatory religious instruction when there are important subjects to teach?

Under these circumstances, the call for repealing the law is largely a fait accompli. Even so, the U.K.'s churches are adamant about not giving up their special privileges:

Any move to scrap the rules would be strongly resisted by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church.
A CofE spokesman said: "To get rid of the act of worship is to deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn't experience elsewhere in their lives."

This is a telling admission, isn't it? It's basically saying that the church wants to get its hands even on children whose parents haven't decided to give them a religious upbringing. This should be the decision of the family, not the state. If a student's parents didn't choose to raise their child with religion, what makes the church think it has the right to step in and demand that the child be forced to attend church services anyway?

This is the start of a trend we can expect to see throughout Europe in the coming decades. As church attendance plummets, religious organizations will cling even more tightly to the special privileges they were once granted, trying to squeeze the last drops of devotion out of a populace that increasingly finds them outdated and irrelevant.

In the U.S., meanwhile, defenders of secularism still have to battle even the politicians who should be our allies. This editorial from the Times points out that President Obama has conspicuously failed to keep one of his most important campaign promises regarding church-state separation:

President Obama has issued an executive order revamping the rules covering religious-based and neighborhood programs receiving federal dollars..... But the revisions have a glaring omission. Ignoring one of Mr. Obama's own important campaign promises, and a large coalition of religious, education and civil rights groups, the new decree fails to draw a firm line barring employment discrimination on the basis of religion.

Federal funding for church-run charities was once reserved to well-organized, experienced organizations that both hired employees and served the needy without regard to religious beliefs. But the Bush administration, in a thinly disguised vote-buying scheme dubbed the "faith-based initiative", threw open the floodgates to every storefront church with its hand out. Worse, Bush administration lawyers advanced the ludicrous claim that these groups could take public money, then turn around and discriminate against people who didn't share their religion - a total reversal of decades of progress in civil rights. Even worse, a right-wing Supreme Court then slammed the door in freethinkers' faces by ruling that no one has the right to sue over how this money is distributed, even if it's done in ways that violate the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, in American politics, it's much easier to prevent an entitlement from passing than to dismantle it once it's passed. I'm sure that Obama is continuing the program for the same reason Bush started it, as a means of bribing churchgoers to vote for him and distributing favors to cooperative pastors. The biggest problem with this is Obama's misguided belief that he'll ever win anything from the right-wing lunatic sects. The fundamentalists will never support Obama; even if he buried their churches in federal dollars, the only reward he'd get would be their continued undying hatred. They'll continue to do everything in their power to oppose and undermine him, and American taxpayers will continue to be on the hook for these wasteful and illegal giveaways.

December 4, 2010, 2:12 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments

Photo Sunday: Monticello

Earlier this year, I took a tour of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and wrote about the experience. But on that same trip, I also had a chance to see a more hopeful sight, a monument to human reason rather than to false dogma: Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson, now restored and turned into a museum. Unbelievably, photos weren't allowed inside the house, but I got some good pictures from the outside:

Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, Virginia, February 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

On the hill behind the house, there's a family cemetery where Jefferson and many of his relatives are buried. I also took this shot of his memorial:

The inscription on the stone, though dimmed by time, reads:

Here Was Buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the
American Independence
of the
Statute of Virginia
Religious Freedom
and Father of the
University of Virginia

The omission of Jefferson's term as President was intentional. He wrote this epitaph himself, and these were the achievements he most wished to be remembered for.

Compared to the large and noisy celebrations of ignorance on display at Liberty University, I felt ashamed that Thomas Jefferson has such a humble memorial. It's almost a metaphor for the way that American secularism has almost always been on the ropes against the loud and aggressive forces of religious supremacy. But we've won some inspiring victories as well, and while we've often been battered, we've never surrendered. And humble as it is, Monticello has been standing for over two hundred years. I'm happy to say that, at least in America, the merchants of hate and superstition have no institution they can boast of as lasting that long.

November 28, 2010, 6:16 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Theocrats on the March in Israel

Since I wrote recently about the evil mullahs of the Middle East who ferociously resist the slightest spark of progress, I think it's worth pointing out - in the name of fairness - that destructive, theocratic insanity can be found in every religion. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent column this week in Slate to remind us of that.

The right-wing government that's currently in charge of Israel is continuing the policy of building homes for Jewish settlers on land seized by force from Palestinians. Understandably, the Palestinians have demanded a freeze on these settlements as a condition of resuming peace talks. But Benjamin Netanyahu's government has been intransigent - and much of the blame for that can be laid on one man, a right-wing rabbi named Ovadia Yosef, who's the de facto head of a crucial party in Netanyahu's coalition. Hitchens calls Yosef an "elderly Sephardic ayatollah", and from a look at his record, that assessment is spot-on.

Last month, Yosef proclaimed that the sole purpose for the existence of gentiles is to be servants for Jews (and I should note that by "Jews", Yosef doubtlessly doesn't mean all people who claim Jewish heritage, but only the minority who are ultra-Orthodox like himself). Before that, he was well-known for publicly wishing that God would send a plague to eradicate the Palestinians, showing himself to be a staunch supporter of the Hebrew Bible's policy of holy genocide. He's also attributed Hurricane Katrina to insufficient Torah study in New Orleans, said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners whom God was punishing, and proclaimed that Orthodox conversion, and only Orthodox conversion, gifts the convert with the "Jewish gene".

And this is the person whose consent is a necessary element of the settlement freeze. This is the person whom all the peace negotiations and all the diplomatic efforts depend on - not a reasonable person of good will who wants to promote peace, but a religious maniac who openly doubts the humanity of everyone outside his narrow circle of dogma. It's enough to make me despair of hoping that it will ever stop.

If it weren't for all the innocent people caught on both sides of the conflict, I'd say that we should withdraw from this region entirely and let the fanatics fight it out forever - let their endless war continue until the last two fall with their hands around each other's throats, while the rest of humanity moves on. But even the most bloodthirsty, fanatical partisans on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides are still human beings, and should be capable of better than this. There must be a way, some way of persuasion, that will get them to put their spiral of grievance aside and get them all to see reason. I just wish that I could see what it was.

November 24, 2010, 6:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

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