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.

On the same page: another atheist criticizes the FFRF

Just tripped over this editorial by atheist David Gleeson over at the Denver Post, where he lambastes the FFRF’s Christmas sign for most of the same reasons I did. Some good points here.

My wife’s mind is not enslaved when she lights the Hanukkah candles and sings the blessings that have been handed down to her through the generations.

She is simply taking part in a tradition that is important to her identity as a Jewish woman.

Religion certainly can harden hearts and enslave minds, but so can atheism.

The FFRF is taking the very worst that religion can muster and using it to paint everyone with the same bold brush strokes, a tactic perfected, ironically, by radical religious groups seeking to brand all nonbelievers as immoral devil-worshipping heathens. How easily the FFRF stoops to the same level. Pot, meet Kettle.


After some discussion in the comments, I must qualify my position on Gleeson’s piece. I do think that atheists can be hard-hearted people; anyone can be. I do not agree, though, that atheism itself can “enslave” a mind. Atheism is nothing more than not believing in a god, and there are no dogmas or creeds one must subscribe to, no requirement that one throw evidence to the winds in determining how you learn about the world. A person, however, can be atheist for irrational reasons, such as simple rebellion towards or hatred of religion and religious people. Most atheists I know and have had the pleasure of working with base their atheism on a rational critique of religion’s claims, but there are foolish people in any group. And if your atheism is rooted in unreason rather than reason, then yes, you can be a hard-hearted person whose mind is enslaved to anger and emotionalism, instead of being liberated by reason.

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it’s a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there’s no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn’t true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn’t all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we’re prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I’m not a Malcolm X, “by any means necessary” atheist, because not all means work. And while it’s a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn’t necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. “Ah ha,” sayeth the atheist blogosphere, “does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?” Well, maybe, but then, let’s look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called “overplaying your hand.”

Look, you won’t get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole “time and place” concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message…well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren’t going to read that last sentence and think, “By golly, they’re right. How gullible and foolish I’ve been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions.” No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you’re all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens’ faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you’re a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don’t have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that’s what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a “War on Christmas”?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn’t mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to “promoting positive atheism.”

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read “Imagine No Religion.” That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins’ words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that’s where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole “religion is superstition and, really, isn’t it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky” thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, “What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?”

“But Martin,” you say, “the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, ‘consciousness-raising’ billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!”

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I’m sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”) then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it’s easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it’s all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say “the Capitol grounds is everybody’s turf,” but I’m dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I’d have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person’s goodness comes, not from what they believe or don’t believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it’s from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don’t have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that’s more than the FFRF’s present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountif
ul Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.


Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of “Uncle Tom” atheism. Another commenter wrote, “What you are saying boils down to, ‘If you’re not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.’” Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I’ve responded in detail in the comments myself.

Report on the Dan Barker talk

Tonight, the Atheist Longhorns campus group sponsored a talk by Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Losing Faith in Faith and several children’s books.

Turnout was excellent. The talk was held in a UT lecture hall with a capacity of 250. Somewhere between 75 and 100 people attended. The great majority of them seemed to be members of either the Atheist Longhorns or the Atheist Community of Austin, with a few Christians scattered around the room. Most of the jokes were met with appreciative laughs, and most of the stories told for shock value were met with audible outrage.

Dan introduced himself and the Center for Inquiry, then went on to discuss the religious climate in America today. Despite an upswing in fundamentalism since 2001, Dan stated that he was generally optimistic and believed that we were gaining ground over time. He stated that England and other European countries have “grown out of” their preoccupation with religion, and he believes that America will too.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with the trends that we do see. Both Democrats and Repubiclans still seem to think they need to pander to the religious right all the time, so you won’t see even a Democratic candidate fail to emphasize how important his or her faith in Jesus is. Still, Barker feels that the progress of secularists and progressives shows a clear upward trend over time. He made an analogy to the stock market: in the short term, the market may fluctuate wildly, as we just experienced a large short term rise in religiosity. In the long term, however, the zigs and zags surround an overall forward movement.

For instance, many decades ago, people like Margaret Sanger were jailed for supporting birth control. Today, birth control is so common that it is used by 90% of American Catholics, even when the pope said that it’s a sin. He also claimed that the victory in cases such as Kitzmiller v. Dover has been so complete that even creationists know that fighting the case in overt, honest ways is pretty much closed to them now.

Dan then went on to discuss the history of separation of church and state, noting along the way that although those exact words to not appear in the constitution, neither does “separation of powers”; nor does the word “trinity” appear in the Bible. The concepts are the important part.

He discussed George Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Essentially, according to Dan, there have been several examples of various organizations receiving government funding that didn’t do anything but proselytize, and ultimately didn’t even do what they claimed they were supposed to do (i.e., in the case of a group that purported to help former prisoners get jobs, their primary message was “read the Bible, trust Jesus, and then you’ll get a job”).

FFRF proceeded to sue some of these organizations, and win. In many cases, the state officials actually expressed gratitude over the outcome of these suits, noting that if FFRF hadn’t stepped in, they wouldn’t have even known that these abuses were occurring. Why is this? asks Dan. Shouldn’t states be doing oversight themselves, instead of waiting for some atheists to come along with a lawsuit?

Dan claimed that Congress has never approved any faith based funding, which would be illegal if done through official channels. Instead, Bush has a certain amount of money budgeted for general appropriation, which he then used to set up an office of faith-based intiatives at the White House. What this office does is invite religious organizations to come and hear talks which encourage them to fill out some forms and get cash for their church programs.

FFRF tried to sue the executive branch for violation of the first amendment, but the first judge they spoke to denied the case, on the ground that FFRF had no standing. They then appealed the case to the 7th circuit court and won. But the government appealed the loss, petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the second ruling.

This was about the time that Alito and Roberts were placed on the supreme court, which meant that the overall composition of the court was very different from its state when the lawsuit began. By a 5-4 ruling, they agreed that no one could sue the government unless they had standing as a citizen who has been harmed, and not merely a tax payer. Although this case was similar to the various suits that FFRF had been winning around the country, suddenly the landscape changed. Now they couldn’t get these cases heard on their own merits anymore; everyone was throwing up roadblocks by bringing up the issue of whether they had standing. This brought us up to the present day.

At around 7:45 Dan started fielding questions. Don Baker asked how they raised enough money for all these court challenges, and Dan said that they have a legal fund that people donate to. Also, some lawyers are more than willing to work for free if it means they might get to argue a high profile case before the Supreme Court.

I asked Dan how he and Annie managed to land a gig with Air America Radio, and the answer was: lots of money. Originally they started advertising on AAR, and later they paid more up front to get a national show.

Several people in the back row asked very similar questions about the lawsuits that FFRF had brought. I suspect that they were all part of a Christian group, and the questions may have been planned, but they weren’t all that effective IMO. One asked: If these faith-based organizations receiving money had represented several different religions instead of just one, and if their work had proven effective, would FFRF still oppose them? The other two more or less repeated portions of the same question. In all responses, Dan said that 1. It was in fact mostly Christians that were courted by the office; 2. It wouldn’t matter if other religions were involved; 3. It wouldn’t matter if they did good things with the money, since the issue is government money going to religious programs. Dan made this analogy: If a white supremacist group set up a soup kitchen, and it was clear that they were using it for propaganda purposes, it should be opposed even if it is a really good soup kitchen.

Another guy asked Dan to expand on his comments about Europe “growing out of religion” while America didn’t, and expressed some pessimism about whether we have a lot more pain to go through before religious influence starts to recede. Dan reiterated his overall optimism, but did acknowledge that things could get much worse, especially if another catastrophic even such as 9/11 occurs. He also noted that in Europe, there is official state-sponsored religion, and so churches don’t have to “hustle” for money, since they are already receiving it from government. Over here, religion is a competitive enterprise, so churches work hard to get more private money as much as possible. That’s his explanation for why there’s so much more religious influence here even though it’s not supported by government.

Matt asked whether Dan opposes tax exemption for churches. Dan said: Yes, I think it shouldn’t exist, but it’s so entrenched that it’s not a battle worth fighting for the time being. He did go on a semi-rant about how churches still use fire stations and police stations and roads, etc., but do not pay for them, which means that the rest of us must pay their share.

After the talk, the Texas Longhorns got a group picture taken with Dan. I introduced myself and had him sign one of his children’s books (“Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong”) for me and Ben.

I hung around to see some of the Christian students that were starting up various conversations. One group was very friendly, said they had seen our show, and that they agreed with Dan on most points about separation of church and state. That was a very positive conversation.

I also came across Matt arguing with a fairly aggressive Chri
stian about the philosophical issues of “ultimate morality” and his notion that atheism requires purposelessness. This discussion got somewhat heated and ranged among topics like the Euthyphro dilemma, societal construction of laws (the apologist insisted that laws don’t “exist”, and threw out the usual claim that he’d be killing people if he didn’t believe in God), and some of the nastiness in the Bible. It was hard for me to get a word in edgewise, as the apologist was very strident and had a tendency to talk louder when interrupted; and of course Matt was doing most of the talking on our end. I threw in a few points, but basically I considered the conversation pretty much ended when Matt got the apologist to state that stoning children to death USED TO BE morally correct.

However, that apparently wasn’t the end of it; Matt continued the conversation for a while longer and I think is getting roped into an email discussion. I’ll look forward to that.

Anyway, I enjoyed the evening. Dan Barker’s a good speaker, and a good image of the “friendly neighborhood atheist,” as he likes to say.