Burning Korans, drawing Mohammed, avoiding hypocrisy, creative vs. destructive protests — religion just makes the whole frickin’ world crazy!

There’s a truth about the upcoming Koran cookout planned by Dove World Church and its grandstanding (and light-fingered) pastor Terry Jones: they have every right under the Constitution to do this thing. Are they a bunch of dicks who don’t care about the potential devastating backlash of their actions as long as they get the publicity they crave? Yeah, I suppose they are.

Recently, atheists proudly participated in an online event called Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, which was as deliberate a middle finger to Islam as we could have thought up. Before that, PZ Myers famously threw a cracker in the trash, making him the bête noire of Catholics worldwide. (Though they conveniently forget that he also trashed a copy of The God Delusion at the same time.) As people who are not above acts of deliberate provocation ourselves — indeed, as people who are currently arguing amongst ourselves about the merits of “being a dick” in our encounters with religionists — it would hardly be honest of us to join the chorus of chest-beating outrage against Jones’ church for the horrible offense of burning somebody’s holy book. While most of us, I’m sure, take Fahrenheit 451 to heart and deplore book-burning on general principles as a disgraceful act of intellectual cowardice and the suppression of ideas, we should also acknowledge the legitimacy of the act as a form of protest speech. After all, I can’t very well defend the rights of flag-burners while condemning a Koran-burner. Don’t work dat way!

I suppose where the conversation ought to go from here for atheists is in whether or not Jones is motivated by a desire to conduct a legitimate form of protest, or if he’s simply a crass political opportunist, playing into a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in order to increase his profile from “obscure pastor of an outcast hick church” to “internationally famous martyr and warrior for Christ”. Well, what is legitimate protest in this context? Yes, radical Islamists brought down the World Trade Center. But all Muslims are not radical Islamists, and all Muslims did not partake in, let alone condone, the 9/11 attacks. So if Jones’s idea is that he’s protesting Islam for 9/11, he’s clearly throwing his net way too wide. The thing is, I suppose he knows it, but doesn’t care. He’s getting the publicity he wants.

The potential for hypocrisy in criticizing the upcoming burning has been much on my mind, and I’ve been forced to think about the similarities and differences between what Jones is about to do, and, say, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. And then I’ve been forced to question whether or not any of my ideas are simply bullshit justifications I’ve been making up to feel better. I don’t think they are. But I do think it’s a positive thing, overall, that I’m willing to be self-critical. This is an advantage the godless life offers, I think, over the brazen certainties of God-botherers like Jones, who confidently assert that God (i.e., their projection of themselves upon the universe) truly wants them to do what they’re planning.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, for one thing, was on the whole a creative rather than destructive act of protest. It was a response, not only to the real Islamist violence and threats of violence that erupted in the wake of the publication of a few innocuous (and not especially good, when you think about it) cartoons, but to the arrogant assumption on the part of Islamists that non-Muslims were somehow obligated to follow Islam’s rules. Also, at the end of the day, what you had were a bunch of silly cartoons. While there was a little huffing and puffing about EDMD, in the end, the message I think got across (to the general public, if not to radicals) that taking someone’s life over a lame doodle was both insane and pitiful in equal measure. Lame doodles themselves can’t possibly hurt a fly. EDMD might have offended some Muslims. But in the end, no one killed anyone.

Now, piling up a couple hundred copies of the Koran and torching them — that would be a destructive form of protest. Furthermore, it’s hypocritical of Jones to justify it by condemning Islam as a hateful, intolerant religion, when he has a history of hate speech (against gays, the usual suspects) and intolerance. While I think Jones has the right to go through with his speech, I don’t think his motives are honest. He’s exactly what he condemns, except that his religious radicalism wears a cross rather than a crescent moon and star. (The atheists who took part in EDMD might condemn Islam and Islamist violence, but we’d never want to deprive Muslims of their right to worship, as many right-wingers do right now.)

Could this event trigger more terrorist attacks and counter-strikes against our troops overseas? Yeah, I suppose it could, though it isn’t as if they needed more reasons to do that. But if Jones ends up giving them one, the first such attack will be all the vindication he needs. “See, we were right about how violent Islam is!” Not caring that, in this instance, he threw the first punch. Yeah, it’s entirely valid to condemn radical Islamists for doing what they actually do, which is kill people who aren’t sufficiently “respectful” to their beliefs. But you limit your condemnation to those individuals and groups who do the violence. As has been pointed out to an indifferent Jones, it’s absurd and dishonest as hell for him to suggest that he’s only protesting the violent Islamists, and that “moderate Muslims” ought to support him, when it’s their holy book he’s burning too.

In the end, I think what we as atheists should take away from all this insanity is a sobering realization that this is the kind of world you get when religion runs the show. Belief pits us against our fellow man for the most absurd of reasons: failure to worship the correct invisible magic man in the correct way. And for all that defenders bleat about the alleged benefits of religion — that sense of charity, well-being, love and community we are told believers enjoy better than any of the rest of us — they always leave out the part about religion’s innate tribalism. Whatever benefits religious beliefs confer are only enjoyed by those within that particular belief community. If you’re an outsider…run.

We rationalists can only hope humanity outgrows its penchant for religious tribalism one day, and that all these vile superstitions are eradicated from our cultural landscape completely. (Not through violence, of course, but through intellectual and moral awakening.) There really ought to only be one tribe — humanity.

But until then…yeah, go ahead, burn that Koran. Whatever. I’ll be at home that day. Let me know when the smoke clears and it’s safe to breathe free again.

This is our 1000th post

…and originally I thought it would be cute to waste it in postmodern fashion simply informing you of that fact. But then I realized that would basically be an exercise in irony so banal and obvious it would tip over into mere douchebaggery. So I’m much happier to spend this post in the valuable act of informing you of an exciting legal development in the ongoing fight against the theocratizing (that’s probably not a word, but screw it) of America.

A federal judge, Barbara Crabb, in Wisconsin has ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. I simply cannot wait for the 700 Club and Whirled Nut Daily to sound off on this, let alone the raging paranoiacs over at Christian Worldview Network, who will no doubt rush to blame the ruling on the baby-eating communopinkosocialistical policies of Barack 666Satan666 Obama, despite a flack for the administration assuring the pearl-clutchers that “President Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer.” Naturally, we get a sound bite from fundie legal beagle Jay Sekulow, who distorts on cue:

“It is unfortunate that this court failed to understand that a day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it,” ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said in a statement.

Well, you see, Jay, the thing is the court did recognize that. It’s just that unlike you, the court also recognized it is the prerogative of private citizens to determine for themselves when and where and how they set aside days of prayer. It is not the privilege of the government to do that for them. See the difference? Citizens deciding their own religious observations: within 1st Amendment. Government promoting religious practice on specified day: violation of same. Come on, Jay, IANAL, and you are, and even I know that rudimentary difference.

But that is, of course, what Sekulow and the fundagelicals want: to be able to use the power and authority of the government to impose their brand of Christianity™ upon the nation. Yes, these are the same people who lose their shit and wail about “Soshullisum” when “BIG Government” tries to pass health care reform that makes it harder for your insurance company to sodomize you while rifling your wallet at will. But when it comes to pushing Jesus like he came in dime bags at the playground, oh, does the right ever love Big Government then.

Gotta heat up some popcorn for this cagematch, kids. It’ll be a good one.


Addendum: The fun begins. Nothing too mouth-foamy there yet, but there is, of course, already one falsehood present.

[Alliance Defense Fund] Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster…argued the day gives opportunity “for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith – and does not promote any particular religion or form of religious observance.”

That might have been the intent and the spirit of the NDOP on general principles. In practice, reality is much different. The Texas Freedom Network has cataloged incidents of Christians excluding non-Christians from formal NDOP events. Mother Jones also has an account of James Dobson’s (surprise surprise) bullying of those worshiping the wrong invisible man, and pluralism.org has a detailed account of Christians using legal muscle to keep a Hindu from participating in an NDOP event in Troy, MI. The idea that the NDOP has ever really been ecumenical is as transparently full of shit as Fox News’s “fair and balanced” slogan.

Sorry for the quietude

It’s been a little quiet around here the last few days, I know. Sorry for that. I think we’re all just concentrating on real-life stuff lately. There have been some things of atheist interest happening, though, so I’ll chime in on those as I have time. But for now you can consider this an open thread on the following theme: sexual shenanigans among public figures. Take, as your inspiration, the following: much as we all love to hate Fox News, I must confess their headline writers have a good sense of humor.

NY Times Magazine covers the Texas SBOE

The New York Times Magazine published a very good piece this weekend on the Texas State Board of Education, it’s Christian exceptionalist members and their motivations. The piece is called “How Christian were the Founders?“. It’s long, but thourough and fair. I recommend it.

One of the last points Russell Shorto makes at the end of the article is that a few of the SBOE members are vulnerable or not seeking reelection (Cynthia Dunbar). We Texans have a chance to correct some of these problems in the upcoming March primaries and in the general election in November. If you live in Texas, we urge you to pick candidates who will truly improve education in Texas.

Odds and ends

Other Work has kept me from posting over the weekend, but I thought I’d just toss a few kernels of corn to all you lovely pigeons!

  • The latest entry in the “Dumbass Utterances from Texas SBOE Members” Sweepstakes: An article at the Texas Tribune informs us that not only is the SBOE incompetent at determining curricula and separating their personal political and religious agendas from the educational needs of children, but they’re also ineptly managing the Permanent School Fund, a $23 billion endowment that basically pays for the state’s schools. Hardly anyone on the SBOE has experience with this level of financial management, and among their idiotic decisions was to hire consultants, against the advice of the Texas Education Agency, who were not only poorly ranked but actually being sued by the town of Fairfield, CT, for losing the town’s entire pension fund to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme! Responding to criticisms that the SBOE didn’t know their asses from their elbows, the board’s dimwit du jour David Bradley actually tried to argue…well, I’m not sure what the fuck he’s arguing. Either he’s arguing that it’s perfectly okay for unqualified people to do jobs better suited to qualified people, or the exact opposite. Either way, it’s Argument Fail By Bad Analogy for $1000, Alex: “If you sit on the mental health commission, do you have to be retarded? If you sit on the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission], do you have to be a drunk?” No no, David, the SBOE has a lock on the “drunk retard” quota, don’t worry.
  • Oh dearie dearie me! Some unscrupulous soul has either planted malware on the computers over at the Christian Worldview Network, or just spoofed their email. You remember them, Brannon Howse’s House of Lunacy, where they never met a persecution complex or conspiracy theory they didn’t like — especially both in combination. Well, I haven’t been getting their newsletters for a while, and I figured they’d learned I was a godless baby-eating hellbound librul socialist communist Marxist whatever who simply subscribed so he’d have all manner of material for blog snarkage, and deleted me. It’s a fair cop. But imagine my glee to see an email from them today, only to discover, when I opened it, this:
    Aww, boo! Boring! When I checked the link (out of curiosity, mind you), it was really nothing but the most mundane spam. I mean, it really should have been gay hentai! That would have been the most delicious cosmic justice for old Brannon!
  • In the wake of Scott Roeder’s murder conviction, news is making the rounds that some people aren’t too happy about it. I imagine you can guess who. Thing is, I’m puzzled by the who-cares obviousness of the headline “Roeder conviction angers anti-abortion militants.” So basically, a bunch of domestic terrorists are angry that a domestic terrorist is going to prison for an act of domestic terrorism. Yeah, so? I’m quite sure al Qaeda gets a little peeved whenever we blow up one of their top guys too. Does that warrant its own news coverage? How about “Crackheads angry over crack dealer conviction”? Not anyone’s problem but their own, you know? I’m just sayin’.

Stay classy, Pat

We’ve gotten an email at the TV show address alerting us that on today’s 700 Club episode, Pat Robertson has gone into his usual “blame the victims” spiel regarding the Haitian earthquake. Apparently God decided to level Port-au-Prince, kill untold numbers (estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands), and displace at least 3 million people, because in the 19th century the Haitians “made a deal with the devil to free themselves from the French.” Setting aside the native Vodou religion (which is where Pat gets his debbil from), let us remember that the Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in history, bringing to an end a minority rule by the French that was enforced — in the way slavery is always enforced — with an oppressive caste system and violence. I guess that’s the way Pat prefers things.

Pat has clearly created his God in his image: they’re both despicable douchenozzles. Decent people, on the other hand, are encouraged to help.


Here it is right from the scumbag’s mouth.

The difficulty in peddling an inferior product

A news item today talks about efforts by Christian evangelists to boost their witnessing in such New England states as Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, an area of the country that has become even more secular than the Pacific Northwest. Reportedly, up to 22% of New England residents claim no religious faith of any kind. This is absolutely wonderful news of a trend that I hope continues to spread. But it’s sad faces all around for the poor folks at places like Redeemer Fellowship Church.

Several Christian denominations see New England as a “mission field” — a term often associated with unchurched, foreign lands. As they evangelize and work to plant new churches, they speak of possibility, but also frustration. The area’s highly educated population is skeptical and often indifferent to their faith.

“About once every hour, I give up. It’s tough, man,” said a half-joking Joe Souza, a Southern Baptist missionary working north of Boston. “It’s like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it.”

That last remark illustrates with blazing clarity why fellows like Souza do not understand their difficulty in winning converts. Read the preceding sentence, Joe, where the people whom you are trying to reach are described as “highly educated” and “skeptical.” There’s your problem. You are dealing with people who are sufficiently intelligent to realize, much moreso than you, that you emphatically do not have anything to offer that can be remotely likened to a cure for cancer. (For one thing, if Souza’s religion really were both true and as good as a cure for cancer, then there would be a cure for cancer. All powerful magic sky deity, remember?)

No, Christianity is in fact peddling an inferior product, one that offers the empty solace of “faith” in response to real-world problems, and then, with staggering arrogance, turns around and threatens people with eternal torture for non-compliance. Maybe there’s a placebo effect in Christianity that can, I suppose, be argued to have better benefit than no effect at all. But “it’s better than nothing” is not exactly what you’d call a ringing endorsement for a belief system that treats the human intellect as if it’s something that can be won over with carrot (Heaven) and stick (Hell) theology.

The work is slow and its fruits can be scarce. Souza said people are generally polite, even interested in talking about spiritual matters. But they don’t hesitate to reject invitations. He recalled a man with whom he recently shared his faith at the mall courteously declining to even take a card.

Of course. This man realized that Souza had nothing to offer that he wanted or needed. This is always how people respond to empty sales pitches: with indifference. Oh, it’s a telemarketer offering me a limited-time-only deal on subscriptions to magazines I don’t even read in the first place? Gee, why am I not clamoring to take advantage of that? Golly, it’s a smiling but empty-headed buffoon in the food court telling me all about how much his invisible friend loves me? Sure, great, whatever — can you pass the sugar?

This trend, I think, is a terrific riposte to claims that those who criticize the “New Atheists” often make: that we may as well accommodate religion, because it is such a thoroughly ingrained part of our cultural landscape that we’ll never be rid of it. Clearly, as the increasingly educated and skeptical population of New England are demonstrating, that is untrue. It doesn’t take much to divest yourself of inferior products in your life. You just need to become a smart shopper.

Roman Polanski

Once again, I’ve been away from the blog for a few days, this time because I was attending the fantastic Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse, and my mind has been in movie mode for a solid, wondrous week. Which means that while ACA’ers were busily batcruising a week ago, I was a few blocks away at the Paramount theater squealing like a little girl while George A. Romero signed my ticket to the premiere screening of Survival of the Dead. Much as I love the gang, I’ll have to miss a batcruise for that one, folks. Too bad the movie was crap, though.

Anyway, another incident involving a film legend went down recently, and while it may seem to have nothing to do with atheism, it was an event that gave me lots of food for thought about matters I’ve often discussed here on the blog and the TV show. I speak, of course, of the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant for his drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago.

Opinions have been divided over Polanski ever since he fled the country upon realizing that the judge handling his case at the time — who, it must be said, has been revealed as something of a publicity hound — was about to renege on a plea deal. On the one hand, there are those who have categorically condemned Polanski as a slimy pedo, and on the other, cineastes who point to Polanski’s great films and stature as one of the world’s master directors, and the crime as simply some sick aberration that shouldn’t tarnish the man’s entire life. And besides, the victim, now in her 40’s with a family of her own, has forgiven him.

Debates along those lines can and will go on for ages, and they are. Following Polanski’s arrest, battle lines were drawn along familiar borders. Many of Polanski’s industry pals have rushed to his defense, demanded his release, and offered all manner of apologia for his misdeed. Conversely, read feminist blogs, and it’s clear they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than Polanski’s mutilated corpse dragged down Hollywood Blvd. behind a truck.

For my own part, I would not want to live in a world in which an artist like Polanski wasn’t able to create. His best films are landmarks. Repulsion is the great film about psychosexual neurosis. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror masterpiece, dealing with religious horror themes in a way the campy and atrociously scripted The Exorcist could never touch. Chinatown is one of the best movies ever to come from a major studio. And even his underrated adaptation of Macbeth, shot while he was still grieving over Sharon Tate’s murder, is the darkest and most violent version of Shakespeare ever filmed. So yes, that Polanski is a great artist ought to be beyond dispute.

He also drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.

This is a bad thing.

In deciding where I should draw my own conclusions here, I had to consider the way in which I like my atheism and overall fondness for rationalism to inform my thinking. The key factor is moral and intellectual integrity. By that. I certainly don’t mean adopting inflexible dogmatic views and attitudes, but I do mean being consistent and not a hypocrite.

Repeatedly, on this blog and the TV show, I have been ruthless in my condemnation of religious pedophiles. Tony Alamo, Warren Jeffs, adult Muslims in the Middle East who enter into arranged marriages with girls as young as eight or nine — I’ve seen no reason to cut them slack. And so I cannot cut Polanski any either. Certainly, I do and will always revere him as an artist. But the crime is a crime is a crime. Time doesn’t make it go away. Nor does the minor detail that the difference between Polanksi’s rape and those committed by the likes of Alamo and Jeffs is that Polanski never tried to justify it on religious grounds. Do I plan to denude my DVD collection of Polanski’s films? No. Why? They’re great films, that’s why. But just as O.J. Simpson’s double murders don’t diminish his accomplishments as a football star, neither can his football accomplishments be waved around as if they diminish the murders.

So if I cannot cut Warren Jeffs, Tony Alamo, and whoever-the-frak-else among religious wackaloons any slack when they victimize kids, nor can I cut Polanski slack. As an atheist, I think it’s an important factor in retaining my own integrity that I do not allow personal anti-religious bias to influence my opinion, and make me treat crimes by the religious more harshly than the same crime committed in a context where religion had no role. It’s hard for people to free themselves of biases, and those of us who pride ourselves on reason must be doubly diligent that we don’t make excuses and plunge into the same hypocrisy we see from the religious.

I think the arrest needed to happen, if only so that the whole affair can now play out as it must, and neither Polanski nor his victim have to go on living with it as some sort of Sword of Damocles hanging over their lives. Polanski will always be a great filmmaker. But he drugged and raped a kid. At 76, it’s past time for him to man up and face the consequences. If the court is harsh, so be it. If it’s lenient, so be it. But it must be faced. And Polanski’s defenders ought to know better than to embrace the casual insouciance of that last line in Polanski’s greatest movie: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Dembski has Glenn Beck Envy?

You’d think it was lame enough that the [snort] “Isaac Newton [snicker...heehee] of Information Theory [hhahahaHAHAHAHA...ahem]” is so bereft of actual material to teach his hapless students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that he bases a full 20% of their grade on how active they are in trolling the comments of science blogs (seriously…click here and scroll down to “Spring 2009…AP410″). Now, can it be that, inspired by conservative histrionics and tantrums at recent “town hall” meetings on health care reform, he now wants them to disrupt science lectures? Say it ain’t so!

SMU is hosting several awesome events this weekend celebrating Darwin’s 200th anniversary, and Dembski has told his students he wants them going.

I don’t want you going there merely as spectators but will indicate in class how you might actively participate and engage the Darwin-lovers you’ll find there.

“Darwin-lovers.” Cute. Very, erm, scientific.

Now, Dembski doesn’t exactly say “cause a disruption and shout people down.” But, here’s the thing. It’s obvious, at this point, that poor old Dembski has basically given up. That bold and courageous five-year plan indicated in the Wedge Document to undermine “materialistic” science and replace it with New & Improved Jesus Science hasn’t gone so well. Yes, we have millions of uneducated and undereducated dimwits in the general public who reject evolution, but what Dembski wanted was academic respectability, and that has eluded him. Because neither he nor anyone in the late and unlamented ID camp ever produced any research, any science, any peer reviewed papers showing that the evidence for ID was more reasonable to accept than that for evolution.

So now he’s reduced to asking his students to do his work for him, by trolling blogs and “challenging Darwin-lovers” at seminars held by real universities. As this exercise will lead to very embarrassing encounters for these poor deluded kids when real experts and scientifically literate people school them hard, one could almost call it cruel. I can see some poor 20-year-old kid, deciding to “actively engage the Darwin-lovers,” raising his hand during the Q&A, confidently spouting some ignorant ID canard, and being met with gales of laughter and some steely cold facts. It’s almost unpleasant to contemplate, like visualizing a squirrel being squashed by a semi. (Okay, I lie. It’s actually funny to contemplate and not nearly that bad. But I’m striving for “positive atheism” here. Work with me.)

It’s over, Bill. Your grade: fail.

Obama’s education speech: a quick one

So, Obama’s upcoming speech to students is now online, and it looks as if all the right-wing hysteria about how this is going to be an exercise in Marxist Hitler Youth Indoctrination (or whatever scary buzzwords conservatives have figured out how to pronounce this week) is, surprise surprise, a tad overblown. It’s a nicely composed pep talk about the value of education, not the tiniest bit controversial, not even — for me — in its standard-issue “God Bless America” signoff. I know that kind of language has earned a sneer from PZ and some other atheists, but I’m not the kind of guy to think seven words of boilerplate political-speech language detracts from the actual content in any way.

I’m hopeful that, once this speech is out there, more people will begin to wake up to just how out of control the right has become in their reactionary scaremongering over our Eeebul Socialist Kenyan President, and a few hot heads start to come off the boil a bit. I’m also hopeful I’ll find 10 million dollars in a paper grocery bag abandoned in a ditch and that Chris Jansing will knock on my front door tonight wearing nothing but baby oil. We’ll see which of these little hopes pans out first.

Now, I do think there is a legitimate objection to the idea of making the watching of this speech a mandatory class event. Let’s be honest, if Dubya had prepared a speech for mandatory school viewing, those of us who were less than his most ardent fans would have objected too, and probably voiced concerns about possible inappropriate political proselytizing. Some bloggers have made the point that, where the students are concerned, this will merely be a boring interruption in an already boring school day, something lame that the grownups want them to take part in, like eating vegetables, that you’ve got to do because it’s good for you. I’d say that, with YouTube and other internet sources set up to make a speech like this available on demand, into perpetuity, there’s no reason for watching it to be some kind of class requirement. Indeed, to make it one would smack of demagoguery, regardless of how inoffensive the actual speech content turns out to be. Better perhaps to encourage students to watch it, perhaps at home with their parents, and maybe earn extra credit for doing so and writing a couple of paragraphs of feedback. Sure, there is that terror-stricken element of the ultra-right freak fringe who hear Obama’s name and immediately think of The Scary Nazi Communist Black Man Who Wants To Kill Grandma. But those people are not exactly big on the whole education concept in the first place, are they? If they were, at the very least, they’d know that the Nazis and Communists loathed each other.