TAM 5: Yup, I’m going

It’s official; mailed off my registration today. I look forward to blogging from it. A couple of friends went last year and confirmed its awesomeness, so I’m a little stoked.

If you’ve been thinking about going — and, like me, are prepared just to say “the hell with it” and drop the money — registration information is here.

The ongoing tragic story of Christian persecution

A report at CNN today describes the latest incident sure to be trumpeted by Dobson and Wildmon and those pushing the notion that Christians are a sad, persecuted minority in the heathen librul Gomorrah that is America today.

Every year the Marine reserves do a “Toys for Tots” program for the holidays, to collect toys so that poor kids can have lots of Christmas and holiday presents. The very model of a wonderful charity.

This year, TFT has rejected a talking Jesus doll offered by Christian toymakers one2believe. They make toys with the express purpose of religiously indoctrinating helpless little ones who, of course, lack the critical thinking skills to evaluate the Bible stories they’re being taught. As the saying goes, give ’em the boy (girl) for seven years, and they’ll give you back the man (woman). The Jesus doll they offered said such anxiety-building homilies as “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

There have been incidents where government organizations — schools and the like — have perhaps gone overboard in trying to maintain church-state separation, motivated more by the frantic hopes of avoiding lawsuits than by any honest concern for government neutrality in the matter of private belief. Keeping coercive prayer out of schools is one thing, but telling teachers they can’t wear cross necklaces is quite another. (Note: I don’t have a specific link for an incident such as this; however, there was an episode of Hannity and Colmes I saw some years ago on which a teacher claimed she had been asked to take off cross jewelry, so I assume it’s happened at least once.) So it’s important for those of us who support separation not merely to advocate the position, but then educate the public and its officials as to what constitutes unconstitutional religion-meddling.

But here, TFT is absolutely correct.

Toys are donated to kids based on financial need and “we don’t know anything about their background, their religious affiliations,” said Bill Grein, vice president of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, in Quantico, Virginia.

As a government entity, Marines “don’t profess one religion over another,” Grein said Tuesday. “We can’t take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family.”

The company’s reaction is one of predictable cluelessness.

“The idea was for them to be three-dimensional teaching tools for kids,” [Michael] La Roe said. “I believe as a churchgoing person, anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the Bible.”

Yeah dude, and Muslims believe that anyone can benefit from bowing to Mecca every day. But you wouldn’t want someone sending your kid a “three-dimensional teaching tool” delivering that lesson, would you?

What is it with some Christians that they often seem to think they’re the only people in the world, or at least the only ones with a point of view that matters? I certainly don’t expect La Roe to learn a lesson about respect for others from this. It will only be a matter of time before the whine of persecution is heard across the land again.

Christians’ moral blind spot

Numerous essays have already been written, in the never-ending war of words between Christians and atheists, over the supposed moral supremacy of theism, particularly Christian theism. Without belief in a God, we are admonished time and again, it is impossible for one to develop a sound framework for moral behavior. In this essay I intend to show that the opposite is in fact true: that there is no rational basis from which one can develop a sound basis for morals that is rooted in the worship of the Christian God. (I’ll leave the question of whether or not you can do it based upon the worship of any of the hundreds of thousands of other gods humanity has created over the centuries to someone else. Life’s too short.)

There is one crushing moral dilemma facing Christians who try to argue for their God’s being the source of all that is moral in life: the Doctrine of Hell.

At the core of Christianity is the belief that, in order to ascend to Heaven after death and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and joy, one must be a Christian. No other creed or belief system need apply. One must not only attend a Christian church; one must also answer the altar call, go up before the congregation, profess belief in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and eventual (any day now, really) second coming. I remember from my youth, when I attended a Baptist church in Houston, the pressure to perform this little ritual was intense. Failure to do so is punishable by an eternity of hell. Good works are immaterial. Membership in the club matters over all.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to realize something that I never would have even entertained as a wisp of a thought in my churchgoing days: Christianity’s entire sales-pitch involving conversion is immoral to the point of being deeply evil. And you just can’t get morals out of an immoral, much less evil, belief system.

Fundamentally it is an act of terrorism: turn or burn. A demand is being made upon humanity by God. God offers you what Christians call a “choice,” but which is really an ultimatum: worship Me, accept My Son as Savior, or else suffer the torments of hell for all eternity. What Christians can not, will not, face is the fact that such a “choice” is no different whatsoever from the modus operandi of the Mafia, whose “protection rackets” in the days of tommy guns and fedoras—in which gangs of thugs would troop into Chicago bars and offer owners the “choice” between paying the protection money or having their businesses Molotoved—have become a part of American folklore. The Christian God is the school bully who extorts your lunch money as a means of being persuaded not to beat you up at recess. But Christians can not see the connection between these behaviors. As George H. Smith writes in his seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God, “There is nothing the Christian will accept as evidence of his God’s evil.”

How, then, do Christians customarily deal with the Doctrine of Hell and the moral dilemma it introduces? I can only go by my experiences debating Christians in the years I’ve been on The Atheist Experience TV show, but it boils down to this: If Christians don’t want to be faced with a moral dilemma involving their beliefs, they won’t be. Christians have a remarkable capacity for not being bothered by aspects of their belief system they don’t want to be bothered by. This is what I call the Christians’ moral blind spot. And it’s a handy blind spot, in that—unlike that nasty one over your right shoulder they always warn you to check in drivers’ ed—this one can be moved around at will, to shield the Christian from anything unpleasant that they may be forced to face regarding their God and their beliefs.

The blind spot is what allows Christians to demand that the Ten Commandments be mounted in granite in every school and courthouse in the country, and yet, when you bring up the disturbing old divine laws regarding rapists being allowed to purchase their victims from their fathers for fifty shekels, or beating children, they’ll wave their hands and say, “Oh, pshaw—that’s just the Old Testament!”

And the blind spot is what allows Christians not to see that their God’s ultimatum, his “choice,” is no different than any terroristic threat of violence that anyone else might make.

Indeed, Christians’ defense of their God’s behavior in this context will expose you to some of the most perverse twisting of ideas you’re likely to hear. Christians will tell you, with a straight face, that the fact God is willing to offer you this choice, that he doesn’t force you to choose one way or another, that he is in effect offering you a ticket out of hell, proves how loving he is. Furthermore, if you make the choice not to become Christian, then God will respect your freedom to choose, and the fact that you’ve just condemned yourself to an eternity of torture is your fault!

The depth to which this belief is utterly deranged should be readily apparent to anyone with a shred of respect for reason or human dignity. Using the contorted reasoning this belief employs, one could argue that a gang member who walks up to you, sticks a .45 in your eyeball, and offers you the “choice” of giving him your wallet or getting your brains blown out is doing it because he loves you. And if you choose not to hand over your money, well, it’s just your own fault, isn’t it.

It never occurs to the Christian that God’s “choice” is not a choice at all, but an ultimatum. It never occurs to them that to threaten someone with violence for not complying with an ultimatum is de facto immoral even when God does it. Because if it isn’t wrong when God does it, who’s to say it’s wrong when anyone else—Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler—does it? How can a God dictate moral absolutes to humanity when he himself freely behaves in an immoral manner? Do Christians really think that a “do as I say, not as I do” God constitutes any sort of moral authority? How can I, or anybody, get our morals, our sense of right and wrong, from a God who tortures people who don’t worship him forever? A moral being would not torture anyone for any reason for two seconds, much less eternity. A moral being would not present you with a bogus “choice” between Heaven and Hell in the first place. And a moral being would not demand your worship! How can Christians claim their God is the source of my morals, when every examination of Christian beliefs as regards salvation and the Doctrine of Hell paints the picture of a deeply immoral—indeed, evil—God?

The blind spot. That’s how they can do it. That handy moral blind spot is always there, protecting the Christian from thinking thoughts he should not think, facing facts he doesn’t want to face, being troubled by anything he doesn’t want to be troubled by. The Christian God is the luckiest God anyone ever invented; he rules with absolute authority but not a shred of responsibility, and he threatens his believers with eternal torment if they stray from him, only to be hailed as “loving” for it. Thanks, folks, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have the light of reason shine through my blind spot…and it’s that selfsame reason that I use to determine my morals in life, not the dictates of some jealous, angry, vengeful, immoral—and thankfully, imaginary—God.

Elton John slams religion, but unwisely

I have boundless respect for atheist celebrities who are willing to come out and risk their fame and public goodwill by expressing their views. Granted, this is doubtless easier for atheist celebs who happen to be gay and out, because they’ve already leapt one hurdle, so to speak.

Still, Elton John’s comments about religion this week will no doubt be snapped up by the “we’re so persecuted” camp in the fundie world that all us eeebul godless heathens are out to throw them in the Gulag. And I see that as being a little on the counterproductive side.

“From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it’s not really compassionate.”

The minute you use the word “ban,” you leave your opponents an opening to make the blanket claim that all atheists are anti-freedom, and to evoke images of such religion-suppressing cultures as Stalinist Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Yes, I can fully sympathize with John’s anger at the way religion currently, even in free societies like America, denies basic freedoms to gays and oppresses them at every opportunity even without the benefit of totalitarian government helping them along. But remember, when you’re dealing with irrationalists who are convinced that Christians are the oppressed minority merely defending themselves against the depradations of homos and libruls and commies, you have, I think, a special responsibility to avoid emotionalist, hyperbolic rhetoric.

My response to religion would not be to ban it, but to promote education in critical thinking and skepticism. It really doesn’t take much of that for Christianity to crumble. So give people the cognitive tools they lack, and let them draw the obvious conclusions. Banning things is how fundies do their business. We can move humanity beyond that with rationalism alone.

Election musings + open election thread

I suppose I shouldn’t let the election pass without expressing my delight at the results. It’s true, on the one hand, that the Democrats haven’t exactly been formidable opponents for BushCo in recent years. They helped him launch the war in Iraq, they let him have his torture bill and warrantless wiretapping. They have been, for reasons that will remain long shrouded in mystery, a party that has consistently found itself (in the words of popular blogger John Scalzi) politically outmaneuvered and flummoxed time and again by the least popular and most incompetent president in history.

On the other hand, what happened yesterday at the polls was an unmistakable message from the American people: You guys are doing a shitty job, and we demand better. Now it’s up to us to make sure the new Democratic majority in the House doesn’t screw up and allow business as usual. We have to stay on their backs.

From a progressive/secularist/separationist point of view, there were a number of very important victories against the worst machinations of the Christian right. While a number of states passed the usual egregious anti-gay-marriage laws, Arizona, a pretty doggone red state, rejected one. South Dakotans sent that infamously draconian, misogynist anti-abortion law — the one that would have banned all abortions across the board, even if the mother’s life were at risk — to the dustbin where it belonged. Red State Rabble reports that pro-science school board candidates in Ohio walked all over their creationist opponents, and even in Kansas, that hotbed of Machiavellian anti-science scheming, moderates appear to be back in control.

So in all, today is a good day to feel good. Now I’m going to declare the comments section open, for you to talk about the elections, how you voted and why, what you think the next two years might bring, etc.

Now unemployed and disgraced, Haggard unburdens himself

The latest in the ongoing Haggard opera involves a letter of apology he wrote to his still-reeling ex-congregation, which was read to them today.

Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard confessed on Sunday to a “lifelong” sexual problem, and said he was “a deceiver and a liar,” in a letter read to his New Life Church.

“There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it all my life,” he said in the letter.

Five will get you ten that Haggard is still so benighted that when he refers to the “repulsive and dark” aspect of his life, he’s talking about his homosexual inclinations. Haggard’s great tragedy is not that he’s secretly gay or bi; there’s nothing repulsive or dark about either. It’s that he’s allowed himself to absorb an archaic, misanthropic superstition that requires him to hate and refuse to accept himself. The “repulsive and dark” part of his life is the hyprocrisy, self-denial, and dishonesty that his Christianity has inculcated in him, and which has now led to great pain for his family and profound disillusionment for the thousands of parishioners who have had the rug of trust whipped out from beneath them.

Had Haggard, when a younger man and first aware of his homosexual leanings, come out and rejected the religion that teaches hate and intolerance of people like him, odds are that, while he most likely wouldn’t have become a millionaire megachurch pastor and a major public figure with vast political clout, he would be much more likely to be happy and content living an honest life as an openly gay or bisexual man. He wouldn’t have the money or fame, but then he wouldn’t have had it to lose this spectacularly in a sordid scandal. What he might well have is self-respect and personal contentment, which is something money really can’t buy.

I mean, compare the shame Haggard’s experiencing to the positive vibes coming out of Neil Patrick Harris right now.

And Haggard is…

…toast with jam!

The church has spoken:

We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard. Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

Guess they looked at the weight of evidence behind the claim — something it would be nice for them to make a habit of before adopting their absurd views on homosexuality as some kind of disease and evolution as a myth — and saw that it came down in favor of the accuser.

I don’t think it can be understated how damaging this is to the Christian Right’s moral and political credibility, and the backscatter effect it could have on the GOP. They will, of course, recover, as they recovered after the Bakker and Tilton and Swaggart scandals — I predict some will adopt the “not a true Christian” stance — but in the short term, this will hurt them. Not bad, considering Election Day is in three days.

Speaking of which: remember I predicted that Washington would promptly start distancing themselves? Already happening…

On Friday, the White House sought to downplay Haggard’s influence within the administration.

Spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters Friday that it was inaccurate to portray him as being close to the White House, insisting Haggard was only an occasional participant in weekly conference calls between West Wing staff and leading evangelicals.

“He has been on a couple of calls,” Fratto said. “He’s been to the White House one or two times.”


Fear of an atheist planet

A Christian author by the name of Os Guiness is warning of a “growing atheist backlash to the political strength of Christian conservatives.” Well, duh, and it’s about bloody time, too! We’ve had it up to here with theocrats and religious demagogues attempting to legislate their faith, replace proper science education with Sunday School myths, deny large segments of the population basic rights like the ability to buy birth control or get married or have joint insurance for no reason other than ignorant prejudice, and generally running the country (and the world, if the gleeful drive towards Armageddon in the mid-east is any indication) into the ground. The fact that many of said theocratic demagogues are either arrogant bastards who think little things like tax laws don’t apply to them, or repellent hypocrites who rail publicly against giving gays and lesbians marriage rights while conducting alleged meth-fueled extramarital gay sexual liaisons with male prostitutes on the down low, only makes a backlash far more essential to the health of the body politic.

Guiness says:

…he hopes there can be a respectful exchange of ideas somewhere between the militant extremes of religious violence and militant atheism.

What is this “militant” atheism of which he speaks? I know some people have called Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins “militant,” but as far as I can tell, they only seem “militant” to theists who have heretofore gone through life enjoying an undeservedly privileged position of holding beliefs that it is considered impolite and “just not done” to question and critique in any public forum. If atheists can only be called “militant” because we exercise our free speech rights to voice our opinions, then it seems to me that cheapens the true meaning of the word “militant,” which can, I believe, be better applied to theistic maniacs who crash airplanes into buildings, shoot abortion doctors, beat up gay men, slice off women’s clitorises, and, you know, wage massive wars.

And if Christians want a “respectful exchange of ideas” with this “militant” atheist, perhaps they can start by repudiating the notion that I deserve an eternity of torture simply for not believing as they do.

That’ll do for starters.