Comparing Secular Services

The Sunday Assemblies have gotten more people than ever talking about what people want or need from their atheist and humanist organizations. They didn’t start these discussions, of course, but expanding them is good. I have been, however, struck by how many of the articles and blog posts focus on what one person does or doesn’t want from a meeting with other nonbelievers.

Here in the Twin Cities, we were approached by Sunday Assembly, and there’s been some curiosity. The moderate amount of interest wasn’t enough to draw the founders all the way out here on their tour this summer (though it is ongoing).

Back in November, for the Atheists Talk television program, I sat down with representatives from three Twin Cities groups to talk about the general concept of atheist and humanist congregations and what these groups had to offer their members. I’ll note that we have many more than three groups for nonbelievers here, but I only had three chairs to work with. I spoke with August Berkshire of Minnesota Atheists and Scott Lohman, president of Humanists of Minnesota, representatives of the largest local atheist and humanist groups. I also spoke with Rev. David Bredeen, pastor at Minneapolis’s First Unitarian Society, which is unusual for a UU group in that it was founded specifically as an atheist congregation.

Things only got a little competitive.

Minnesota Nonbelievers, Your Opinions Please

Minnesota law, like most states’ laws, restrict who can “solemnize” a marriage–certify to the state that a legal marriage has occurred after whatever type of formalities are deemed appropriate. Here is Minnesota’s current list of people who can be authorized to solemnize marriages (section 517.04 of Minnesota law):

Civil marriages may be solemnized throughout the state by an individual who has attained the age of 21 years and is a judge of a court of record, a retired judge of a court of record, a court administrator, a retired court administrator with the approval of the chief judge of the judicial district, a former court commissioner who is employed by the court system or is acting pursuant to an order of the chief judge of the commissioner’s judicial district, the residential school administrators of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination, or by any mode recognized in section 517.18. For purposes of this section, a court of record includes the Office of Administrative Hearings under section 14.48.

Section 517.18 is a list of special provisions for groups that don’t recognize their traditions (or may be at risk of the state not recognizing their traditions) under the description “a licensed or ordained minister of any religious denomination”:

Subdivision 1. Friends or Quakers. All civil marriages solemnized among the people called Friends or Quakers, in the form heretofore practiced and in use in their meetings, shall be valid and not affected by any of the foregoing provisions. The clerk of the meeting in which such civil marriage is solemnized, within one month after any such civil marriage, shall deliver a certificate of the same to the local registrar of the county where the civil marriage took place, under penalty of not more than $100. Such certificate shall be filed and recorded by the court administrator under a like penalty. If such civil marriage does not take place in such meeting, such certificate shall be signed by the parties and at least six witnesses present, and shall be filed and recorded as above provided under a like penalty.

Subd. 2. Baha’i. Civil marriages may be solemnized among members of the Baha’i faith by the chair of an incorporated local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, according to the form and usage of such society.

Subd. 3. Hindus; Muslims. Civil marriages may be solemnized among Hindus or Muslims by the person chosen by a local Hindu or Muslim association, according to the form and usage of their respective religions.

Subd. 4. American Indians. Civil marriages may be solemnized among American Indians according to the form and usage of their religion by an Indian Mide’ or holy person chosen by the parties to the civil marriage.

Subd. 5. Construction of section. Nothing in subdivisions 2 to 4 shall be construed to alter the requirements of section 517.01, 517.09 or 517.10.

Based on this law and on discussions with lawmakers, we note that there is no way for a non-religious community to be treated equally on this matter. An atheist or secular humanist could become a celebrant by working with a branch of their community identified as religious. For example, humanists have been allowed to perform marriages working through the religious branch of humanism. Ethical Societies identify as religious groups. An atheist group could potentially choose to do the same if its membership were in favor. However, an atheist group that is clear that it is not a “religious denomination” with “licensed or ordained minister[s]” is excluded under the law as it now stands.

Some members of the Minnesota Atheists board (including me) have also talked to lawmakers about options for changing this. And we heard from members and others with very strong opinions about what should be done about the situation, including doing nothing at all.

In response, we’ve put together a very short survey to find out from nonbelievers in Minnesota where they stand on the question. If that description fits you, please, take a few minutes and let us know where you stand. We have an opportunity to represent you on this issue, and we want to know what that means.

Is This Life as an Atheist?

There is a post from a former pastor at Huffington Post that’s making the rounds. Ryan Bell was recently asked to resign his position as a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor after being unable to affirm some of the articles of faith of that tradition and for being a generally decent human being.

The commentary I’ve seen has been interesting, particularly the suggestions that he won’t really be living as an atheist. The reasons for this vary. There’s one commenter who says Bell can’t live like an atheist until he tells people he’s an atheist so he can experience anti-atheist prejudice. Of course, not all of us who are openly atheist experience much in the way of prejudice.

More importantly, however, in being removed from his church, Bell has already experienced the kind of dislocating rejection that’s common to preachers turned atheist. [Read more…]

Anti-Theist Activism Is Social Justice Activism

I’ve seen many atheist activists, particularly young atheist activists, dismiss the idea of doing anti-theist activism because they’re “interested in social justice”. This is wrong.

It isn’t wrong that they don’t want to do anti-theist activism. Being confrontational, particularly about a topic that raises emotions and tangles with taboo the way religion does, isn’t for everyone. It’s a long haul without much in the way of immediate reward. Besides, there is plenty of social justice work needing good, dedicated, atheist hands. As long as you’re accomplishing something in line with your goals, the good kind of activism is the kind that keeps you motivated to keep pouring your time, energy, and money into it.

However, I have to disagree with the idea that anti-theist activism isn’t social justice activism. [Read more…]

Permission to Shock and Anger

Chris Stedman has done a good job advocating for atheists recently, which made his opinion piece for CNN this Saturday all the more disappointing. What did he do with his opportunity to speak to a national media audience? He told Dave Silverman and American Atheists to stop waging their War on Christmas. Specifically, he objected to this ad, which ran in Times Square in New York City this month:

Stedman gives several reasons for his suggestion, and even aside from the fact that I oppose limiting our types of activism on principle, I disagree with them all. Let’s start with his basic statement of the “problem”. [Read more…]

St. Paul’s Catholic Abuse Scandal Heating Up

They were, and are, pillars of the community. Saint Paul is a Catholic city, you see. Walk through the Catholic cemetery in the northern part of the city, and looking at the monuments is like looking at the street signs. So these men, these archbishops, were welcomed anywhere, feted, their opinions sought.

And they moved their child-raping priests around to new parishes and hushed up their crimes just like those other respected men in other cities. The only difference was that when earlier scandals broke, they assured us that they were following the proper procedures to make sure they didn’t happen here. Minnesota Public Radio just uncovered one of those former priests living “less than a block from a school”. [Read more…]

Honoring Its Promise to Protect

It’s good to see religious people standing up to demand an end to sexual abuse in their churches. First a prominent Protestant evangelical, now a prominent Catholic.

In a publicly released statement, Jennifer Haselberger asked Archbishop John Nienstedt to allow an independent review of clergy files and “make public the list of clergy who have been determined to have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct, as well as those whom could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children and young people.”

She added, “Until this occurs, I do not believe that it can be said that the Archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect.” Haselberger has been at the center of two investigative reports by MPR News about the archdiocese’s handling of allegations against two priests.

Haselberger worked at the Roman Catholic archdiocese from Aug. 18, 2008 to April 30, 2013. She said she resigned in April because of concerns about the handling of clergy sexual abuse, allegations of abuse, and other matters.

Haselberger said she resigned because she concluded that it was, “impossible for me to continue in that position given my personal ethics, religious convictions, and sense of integrity.”

No deity is stepping in to stop this. The church hierarchy isn’t fixing the problem. We need more people like Haselberger.

Evangelicals Have Their Own Means of Quashing Abuse Accusations

I’ve mentioned before that part of the reason we pay so much attention to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is that they have good central recordkeeping and central authority. Paper trails are great for pointing fingers. However, that doesn’t mean the Catholic Church has a worse record than, say, Protestant evangelicalism.

In fact, when you’ve got a Liberty University law professor (yes, I know) who also happens to be Billy Graham’s grandson saying that Protestant evangelicalism is worse than the Catholic Church on this score, maybe it’s time to sit up and pay some attention. [Read more…]

But There’s No Theocracy Here

Why did this go as far as a government shutdown? Why is our country once again the laughing stock of the world? As Senator Warren explains, it’s because some members of our House would prefer a theocracy to the democracy we have.

Yes, it’s about the Affordable Care Act, but the specific issue the House Republicans have been using is a religious one.