Atheist Myth #5: War on Christmas

This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the third in a series of five posts that will run this week. Links to all the posts in this series can be found at the bottom of this post.

Myth #5: Atheists are waging a War on Christmas.

American Secular Census logo, bar graph next to organization name.

The winter holiday season faithfully delivers at least three predictable “presents” to all good Americans each year. The first is a creche or other religious display on some public property somewhere. The second is pushback and the occasional counterdisplay from the secular community.

And the third, as original as a department store tie in a predecorated box, is the announcement by religious conservatives and news media that atheists have declared a War on Christmas.

Atheists do oppose government-endorsed religious holiday symbols, just as they oppose civic religion in other settings like public schools and the military. This year right-wing shock jocks have been using words like “fascist” and “terrorist” to describe atheists who speak out at Christmas, but many people of faith actually agree with secularists that state and church don’t mix.

In any case, it isn’t atheists who spin Christmas as the ultimate secular controversy shot through with the language of wars and coups d’etat; all that’s just a media marketing ploy.

In their personal lives, atheists themselves celebrate the secular aspects of the season: 87% of those completing a holiday survey on the Secular Census indicated they’d observed Christmas in 2011, and 39% of those polled had celebrated more than one winter holiday, with Solstice as the second most popular. Atheists say they celebrate by putting up a tree, exchanging gifts, getting together with family and friends, enjoying festive music and food, and in many cases helping the less fortunate — not so different from many religious families, really.

What if Fox News gave a war and no one came? Reasons Greetings to all, and to all a good light.

 


Myth #1: Atheists are bitter, unhappy people who contribute nothing to society.

Myth #2: Atheists want a government that is anti-God and anti-religion.

Myth #3: Atheists want to kick God out of public schools and indoctrinate children in atheism.

Myth #4: Atheists disbelieve because they are ignorant about God and religion.

Myth #5: Atheists are waging a War on Christmas.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.

Screen capture of American Secular Census About page.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

Joking About Rape

Jamie Kilstein shows you how it’s done, at least if your joking about rape is supposed to be funny to anyone who understands that rape isn’t some far off abstraction.

It doesn’t even have to be done with a ton of forethought. Jamie and I joked about this stuff a little while back on Twitter. I don’t remember whether it was the incident he talks about here, or whether he’d just mentioned Rebecca Watson while spelling her last name correctly. Either way, he was sharing some of the most ridiculous tweets, and he remarked on the sheer volume (in both senses of the word).

So I asked him where the pushback fell on a scale of zero to “publicly vegan”. He laughed and responded that it was right around “Don’t want kids in Gaza to die”.

This is why, while my friends think I’m funny, he’s the pro.

But yeah, it doesn’t take great care to make a rape joke (though you can take such care and anyone unclear on the concept probably should). You just have to understand which targets are appropriate. Jamie has that part down cold.

Spoilers: For those of you who need more information before deciding whether to watch the video, most of it is Jamie marveling over internet dumbasses and recounting one particularly brazen bit of street harassment he witnessed. The last part, where he’s reading, relies very much on sarcasm, however. It’s Jamie saying stupid things other people say with the intent that they sound as stupid as they are.

Atheist Myth #4: Ignorance of God

This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the third in a series of five posts that will run this week. The first myth and the introduction to this series are here. The second myth is here. The third is here.


Myth #4: Atheists disbelieve because they are ignorant about God and religion.

American Secular Census logo, bar graph next to organization name.

More than 71% of those providing religious background data to the Secular Census have a former faith, most dating back to childhood. 30.9% received religious training in a theistic congregation, 16.7% attended religious schools during all or most of their K-6 years, and 12% during all or most of grades 7 through 12. It can’t be a lack of exposure to theology that leads to atheism.

Blame it on knowledge: by far the most frequently cited reasons for leaving the fold are “Became too educated to remain religious” (79%) and “Too much skepticism about basic tenets” (78%).

Because the journey to atheism is a rational, exploratory one rather than a burning-bush conversion, many atheists know more about dogma and practice than their religious counterparts, an irony confirmed in 2010 when atheists and agnostics scored higher than believers on a test of religious knowledge given by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.

“If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.

 


Tomorrow: Myth #5: Atheists are waging a War on Christmas.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.

Screen capture of American Secular Census About page.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

Chivalry Versus Civilization

I will give Emily Esfahani Smith this: She’s got a much lighter touch than anyone in the Schlafly family. After that, the comparisons start to get more even.

Phyllis Schlafly herself has long been arguing for a return to “traditional” gender relations. She’s also long been known for making rather bizarre claims in support of that argument. A couple of weeks ago, her niece, Suzanne Venker received lots of attention–and derision–for doing the same.

Then, yesterday, Esfahani Smith had a piece published in The Atlantic calling for a return to chivalry. Yes, chivalry. Yes, The Atlantic. Not only that, but people I would normally expect to react to appeals to tradition with at least suspicion weren’t incredulous.

So, well played Esfahani Smith. Well played. That said, let’s look at what you’re actually proposing.
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Atheist Myth #3: Indoctrination

This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the third in a series of five posts that will run this week. The first myth and the introduction to this series are here. The second myth is here.


Myth #3: Atheists want to kick God out of public schools and indoctrinate children in atheism.

American Secular Census logo, bar graph next to organization name.

Some of the most begrudged church-state rulings in the U.S. have centered around the nation’s public schools.

It’s a fact that the majority of these court cases have validated the secular vision of public schools at the expense of the sectarian one. Ending prayer and bible readings as school-sponsored exercises jettisoned a century or more of Christian privilege in public education.

And being reminded that students have never lost their right to private, individual free exercise is small comfort to those who miss the special status (their) religion used to enjoy, though it does become harder to lob serious criticism at atheists, who’ve shown no interest in attacking children’s pre-test prayers.

The American Secular Census asks respondents to weigh in on a more complex issue: how teachers should cover religious and secular influences on subject matter like art and literature. Only 13% felt that secular influences and notable atheists, but not religious influences and people, should be covered, whereas 62% felt that “Religious topics should be taught in an unbiased manner and should be balanced by related secular topics” — hardly the stance one would associate with a desire to indoctrinate children in atheism. (17.7% felt that these discussions should be avoided entirely.)

Predictably, teaching about creationism and intelligent design is opposed by a majority (58.6%) of respondents; yet a non-trivial minority (40.5%) are willing to accommodate their presentation as myth or literature in non-science classes.

Atheists don’t expect or want public schools to promote atheism. They do want a neutral secularism that values minority children equally with those from religious majorities. As one Census registrant put it:

“Living in a secular world would not mean people would be less privileged to believe as they choose, regarding philosophical opinions. It would simply provide a neutral common ground where we, as people, focus on our similarities for the good of all.”


Tomorrow: Myth #4: Atheists disbelieve because they are ignorant about God and religion.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.

Screen capture of American Secular Census About page.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

Atheist Myth #2: A Government Against God

This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the second in a series of five posts that will run this week. The first myth and the introduction to this series are here.


Myth #2: Atheists want a government that is anti-God and anti-religion.

American Secular Census logo, bar graph next to organization name.Atheist activism is often interpreted as hostility to religion, but most atheists only want to see laws balanced so that religious citizens and organizations are playing by the same rules as secular individuals and unaffiliated non-profits. Religion actually receives preferential treatment from the U.S. government in many areas such as tax-funded grants for faith groups, exemptions for religious homeschooling parents and church-owned schools, property taxes, IRS reporting, and employment law.

Still, what would an anti-religious government look like? It could criminalize private religious observances, something even atheists would oppose, but a more realistic indicator would be whether churches that run social service programs are denied government grants made available to other types of non-profits.

Currently, religious organizations do receive tax dollars through the “faith-based initiative.” The majority of Secular Census registrants (54%) polled about this practice did object to it, but another 45% took a softer stance: “Religious organizations should be eligible for government funding if they are held to the same standards as other organizations.”

Since other issues like gay marriage earned near-unanimous support in the Secular Census, this close a split on the question of faith-based funding reveals more ambivalence than antipathy in the atheist community’s views of religion and government.

What about a military that privileged atheist soldiers — and disadvantaged religious ones — by hiring only secular humanist chaplains? (Presently, the exact opposite is the case.) That would signify an anti-religious government.

Less than 1% of Secular Census respondents expressing an opinion about military chaplains selected that option, while 68% chose the response which accommodates all soldiers regardless of faith status: “Both religious and specifically secular or humanist chaplains should serve in the military.” Even the position of total neutrality, no chaplains at all, received just 16% support.

The take-away message? Atheists don’t like to see government endorsement or funding of religion, but we aren’t as hard core as many would assume.


Tomorrow: Myth #3: Atheists want to kick God out of public schools and indoctrinate children in atheism.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.

Screen capture of American Secular Census About page.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

Evolutionary Psychology, Necessary Complexity, and the Null Hypothesis

There is a tendency in discussing evolutionary psychology toward confusion over what should be the proper null hypothesis. To put it simply, what do we assume* in the absence of evidence for an hypothesis?

This confusion is not specific to evolutionary psychology. It is a problem whenever we talk about studying topics in which many of us already consider ourselves experts. Being human, we are, of course, all experts on what that means. Or we think we are. So we think we know what base assumptions about humanity we should use absent any evidence to the contrary.

Picture of graffito by Banksy: caveman with fast food burger, fries, and shake

Detail of photo by Lord Jim of Banksy’s caveman. Some rights reserved.

The fact of the matter is, however, that we are not experts, not most of us. We haven’t studied the huge bodies of literature coming out of anthropology, psychology, and sociology that would be required to have to the first clue what kind of assumptions are warranted. Our assumptions are based on “Everybody knows” and some very simplified understanding of biology and living in a world in which variability is to a large degree defined as dysfunction. They are rarely nuanced or complex.

This means that when we hear someone arguing against a particular interpretation of data, when we hear someone say that a hypothesis was not supported, we tend to think that person is arguing for a null hypothesis that is…well, somewhat out there. Someone tells us that the data is insufficient to determine whether a particular difference observed between two groups is genetic, and far too many of us hear that person assert that there is no genetic influence on behavior. Genetic influence is treated as an all-or-nothing proposition.

I know. When I put it like that, it sounds a bit silly, but it happens with amazing regularity.
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Atheist Myth #1: Contributing Nothing

This is a guest post from Mary Ellen Sykes, who runs the American Secular Census. It’s the first in a series of five posts that will run this week.

Five Myths About Atheists
Does your preconception agree with reality? The data may surprise you.

American Secular Census logo, bar graph next to organization name.Atheists: the untrusted, the maligned, the “other.” Poll a sampling of Americans on their attitudes toward the godless, and you’ll find that atheists are less likely than almost any other group to be voted for, welcomed into the family, or included in a broad vision of what it means to be American. Yet little of substance is known about this demographic, many of whom are closeted, hard to identify, or statistically lumped together with unchurched believers.

Maintaining a body of empirical data about atheists, humanists, and other freethinkers is the idea behind the Web-based American Secular Census, the independent national registry of demographic and viewpoint data recorded by Secular Americans. Census registrants are U.S. citizens or permanent residents over 18 years of age who are skeptical of supernatural claims, including those generally associated with religion. Each registrant maintains an American Secular Census website account used to complete Census forms collecting personal and household information, a secular profile, a religious profile, political activism and voting patterns, philanthropy habits, parenting information, military service, public policy and social views, and opinions about secular advocacy. Users are encouraged to update their forms as frequently as needed so that at any given time the Census represents the most accurate possible snapshot of the Secular American population.

Launched in November of 2011, the American Secular Census periodically releases data analyses to address common questions and misconceptions about atheists. Here we zero in on five pervasive stereotypes – one myth per day – contradicted by the responses of Census registrants.

Myth #1: Atheists are bitter, unhappy people who contribute nothing to society.

The fact that atheists are most visible when criticizing religion and its abuses may leave others with a mental image of non-believers as perpetually angry, but conflict of this nature is apparently a minor bump in the typical atheist’s life journey. A mere 4% of Secular Census respondents describe themselves as unhappy, and 99% enjoy hobbies ranging from travel to hiking to the arts.

In the past two years, 82% of Census respondents have made charitable donations. So great, in fact, is the demand among atheists for charitable giving as a secular community activity that new organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief are springing up to fill a previously unimagined niche.

And, non-believers are politically engaged: more than 80% of Secular Census registrants providing activism data have contacted a legislator in the past two years about an issue of concern to them. Over 92% (compared with 68% in the U.S. overall) are registered to vote and, of those, 83% say that they turn out to vote all or most of the time.

“People make our country great, not a god,” one registrant wrote.


Tomorrow: Myth #2: Atheists want a government that is anti-God and anti-religion.


Mary Ellen Sikes is the founder, president, and developer of the American Secular Census. She became involved in the secular movement in the early 1990s, went on to found and lead a local humanist group, and has served in various staff, officer, advisory, and board positions for regional and national organizations, most recently as a co-founder of Secular Woman.

Screen capture of American Secular Census About page.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

We Have No Authority

By now I think we all know how the corruption and unparalleled power of the Catholic Church has led to the sexual assault and rape of an appalling number of children. Because Benny the Rat was responsible for policies that kept priests abusing, it’s easy to point to the top and say that we’ve found the problem.

Of course, that isn’t actually true. The unearned authority of an institution like the Catholic Church means that when a corrupt decision is made, it has far-reaching effects. It doesn’t mean that corruption can’t be a factor in similar cases on a much smaller scale.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

Instead, authority resides at the local church level. And that’s true even amid allegations of clergy misconduct.

Would anyone care to guess what kind of considerations are being used to decide this? [Read more...]