Kansas rejoins 21st century

According to Red State Rabble, the Kansas State Board of Education has adopted a new set of standards that undoes the damage done by creationists, and assures that science classes will actually be teaching science. It was only a 6-4 victory, though, indicating the forces of politicized ignorance still have a strong presence there in the heartland. But for now, students from that state won’t find schools actually making them stupid, however much they may not appreciate it.

In commemoration of this event, one day after Darwin Day, allow me to post the following inspirational message, shamelessly ganked from somebody’s MySpace page.

Leileu: a follow-up

Turns out I do have a picture, courtesy of Hollye. RIP, ol’ girl.

A few folks have asked me about helping out Purrfect Hearts, Hollye’s shelter. Right now, she could use — as all shelters could — donations, particularly for litter, which you tend to go through stupefying quantities of when you’re taking care of fifty cats. You cat fanciers can make Paypal donations here. (Yes, I’m the webmaster for the shelter, so you can e-mail me with queries.)

Non-Providencial Poetry

I received the following in my corporate e-mail today:


People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered
   Forgive them anyway
If you are kind, people accuse you of selfish ulterior motives
   Be Kind anyway
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies
   Succeed anyway
If you find serenity and happiness, there may be jealousy
   Be Happy anyway
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow
   Do Good anyway
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough
   Give the World the best you’ve got anyway

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God
It was never between You and Them anyway.

This wasn’t random spam. It was sent, to the entire company, by a Senior VP. It’s a beautiful poem, but whoever wrote the final lines, doesn’t have a solid grasp on the first line. They’ve completely ruined great sentiments by adding the concept of a God and an appeal to eventual, cosmic rewards for good deeds.

In the final sentence, replace the word ‘God’ with; Zeus, Jehova, ‘Whatever higher power you believe in, if any’, Magical Sky Pixies or Flying Spaghetti Monster and you’ll begin to see how absurd this really is.

If I had sent out this poem (to the entire company) with the last two lines replaced with; “Do good for its own sake — and not because you want a ‘gold star’ from some deity”, I would probably be writing my resume now, instead of a blog post.

If, instead, it had ended with “Do good for its own sake — do it because it makes you happy. Happiness is its own reward.” The poem would have been motivational, true and apart from a little sappy, who could really object?

Why is it so hard for people to see that appeals to a diety only serve to diminish the value of everything?

A flower can be appreciated for its own, natural beauty. To marvel at how wonderful ‘God’ is to have created a beautiful flower is completely backward. An omnipotent God could create beauty we could scarcely imagine; a flower so beautiful that gazing upon it sent one into euphoric fits. Flowers are beautiful, but they’re not miraculous.

If there’s an afterlife, isn’t this life just a place to wipe your feet until you get to the “real” life? Doesn’t the absence of a deity make this life infinitely more valuable? If there’s no cosmic justice, doesn’t that only encourage us to treat each other well, right now?

Let’s celebrate life. Let’s celebrate variety, diversity, knowledge, compassion, cooperation, good works, exploration, achievement and discovery.

No gods required.

When life intrudes…

Not much activity here the last few days. Well, the other guys post pretty rarely anyway, but I’ve had a number of other obligations on my time so it’s been quiet here overall. As for the final TAM report, I will probably post some photos and a quick rundown of the last day shortly. But to be honest, I’ve been kind of disappointed by the lack of response to the TAM coverage, so I’m wondering if the trouble I went to — running all over town to rent a laptop in the midst of an ice storm, paying the ridiculous surcharge for wifi that didn’t even extend to the Riviera’s convention center — was worth it. I’m sure it was; those reports resulted in much higher than usual traffic on the days they were posted. But the comments were light to nonexistent, making me wonder if the largest skeptic’s conference in the US is something people care all that much about. I mean, they really should. For all the work Randi’s doing, the woos and wackos still draw bigger audiences, and we need involved, not apathetic, people on the pro-reason and skepticism side making their voices heard.

Anyway, not to come across all angsty today. But I thought an explanation of why I’ve had better things to do than blog here over the past week was in order. I imagine I’ll get fired up again here soon. Somewhere out there in the world are religionists doing stupid things that deserve a smackdown, and I’ll be back here with a big smile on my face and a big stick in my hand.

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.

The Worldview Quiz

Discovered this by way of my very favorite godless blog grouch in all the world, PZ Myers at Pharyngula. Go ahead and try it yourself. The choices are pretty much A vs. B or C, but then when you think about it, the questions being asked seem to have pretty doggone obvious answers to me. Then again, I did have kind of a problem with question 8, which I thought I could give two answers to.

Anyway, I ended up in exactly the same dot on the x-y graph as Carl Sagan. Fancy that.

Exploring the boundaries of church/state separation

I’m posting in advance my topic notes for The Atheist Experience today. Expect them to be a bit scattered, as I’m writing this more as speaking notes than as a carefully planned essay.

Note: I am a new-ish member of Chorus Austin, which will be presenting the Bach B-Minor Mass on November 4. My intention is to play a portion of the music as the intro to the show. Follow the above link if you’re interested in tickets. Although this is an overtly religious piece, I think it’s a great piece of music.

A few words about Bach

Wikipedia: Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of one of the most extraordinary musical families of all time. For more than 200 years, the Bach family had produced dozens of worthy performers and composers during a period in which the church, local government and the aristocracy provided significant support for professional music making in the German-speaking world, particularly in the eastern electorates of Thuringia and Saxony. Sebastian’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist and trumpeter in Eisenach, a town of some 6,000 residents in Thuringia.

Important contributions of the church to history (direct and indirect)

Cathedrals: Talking about one of my favorite novels, Pillars of the Earth. The initial main character, Tom Builder, relies on the church for his livelihood, and his lifelong dream is to build a cathedral.

Wikipedia on Cathedral architecture: The church that has the function of cathedral is not of necessity a large building. It might be as small as the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • The cathedral was created to the Glory of God. It was seen as appropriate that it should be as grand and as beautiful as wealth and skill could make it.
  • It functioned as an ecclesiastical meeting-place for many people, not just those of the town in which it stood, but also, on occasions, for the entire region.
  • The cathedral often had its origins in a monastic foundation and was a place of worship for members of a holy order who said the mass privately at a number of small chapels within the cathedral.
  • The cathedral often became a place of worship and burial for wealthy local patrons. These patrons often endowed the cathedrals with money for successive enlargements and building programs.

The Renaissance was an explosion of art, science, and creativity. And where do modern scholars partly pinpoint the origin of the Renaissance? They consider the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) to be the first writer to embody the spirit of the Renaissance.

Protestant Reformation: Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope.

Printing press: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1447. Wikipedia says: “Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe — in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

Art: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Need I say more?

Christianity’s Place in Modern Schools

A really lame joke I heard… A dog had followed his owner to school. His owner was a fourth grader at a public elementary school. When the bell rang, the dog sidled inside the building and made it all the way to the child’s classroom with him before a teacher noticed him and shoo’ed him back outside, and closing the door behind him. The dog sat down outside the door, whimpering and staring at the closed doors and not understanding in the least as to why he was refused entry. Then – God appeared beside the dog, patted him on the head to comfort him, and said, “Don’t feel bad fella’…. they won’t let ME in there either.”

My alternate punchline is, “So the dog replies: ‘Yes, but I exist.'”

Anne Graham, Billy’s daughter, was interviewed shortly after 9/11. Interviewer Jane Clayson asked her “How could God let something like this happen?” She replied “I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?”

These two comments speak worlds about the evangelical opinion on separation of church and state. They seem to believe that if you are not spending every minute of every day talking about God, then you are performing an act directly hostile to their religion. That would mean that if you teach math, but your lesson plan actually instructs in math and doesn’t mention that math comes from God, then it’s godless math and the school is endorsing atheism.

Religious people often accuse us atheists of trying to completely eradicate God from school and forbidding government officials of expressing any religious beliefs. That is not true. (Ad lib topics: personal prayer vs. school-led prayer; personal statements vs. official government statements; during hours proselytizing vs. after-hours)

The words “Separation of Church & state”: no, as fundies love to point out, the words don’t appear in the Constitution. The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the phrase was apparently coined by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free e
xercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Jefferson ought to have known what was meant by the First Amendment; it was written by his close friend James Madison, who had earlier worked with him on a Virginia bill that served as a template for the First Amendment. The Bill was called “A BILL FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Jefferson’s draft of the bill reads in part: “We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

In 1785, Madison wrote letter denouncing “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”. Madison argued: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

Throwing some bones to the ACLJ

A few discussion topics — just because I’m quoting ACLJ doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with them, it just provides some food for thought.

ACLJ on “See you at the pole”

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the rights of students to express themselves on public school campuses and organize groups to hold events such as See You at the Pole. In 1969, the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have the right to speak and express themselves on campus. Then, in the 1990 Mergens case, the Court held that Bible clubs and prayer groups can meet on public secondary school campuses. The case interpreted the Equal Access Act which Congress passed in 1984 to insure that high school students were not discriminated against in the public schools because of their religious beliefs. The Court ruled that public secondary schools that receive federal funds and allow noncurriculum related clubs to meet on campus must also allow Bible clubs to meet on campus during non-instructional time. In this context, Bible clubs should also include prayer groups and events like See You at the Pole. As Justice O’Connor explained, writing for the Court in Mergens, “if a State refused to let religious groups use facilities open to others, then it would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion.”

ACLJ on school prayer:

As a general principle, teachers retain their First Amendment rights in public schools. The United States Supreme Court has held that “teachers [do not] shed their constitutional rights . . . at the school house gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). However, public schools have broad authority to safeguard against Establishment Clause violations. Generally speaking, teachers represent the school when in the classroom or at school-sponsored events and, therefore, should take care to avoid Establishment Clause violations. Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517, 522 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. den., 515 U.S. 1173 (1995). The Establishment Clause prohibits a state entity like a public school from endorsing religion or coercing students to participate in religion. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). Distilling multiple court decisions, the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools (issued by Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education in August 1995, since then reissued and still in effect) address the position that teachers’ and administrators’ should take:

Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.

Having said that, however, the Establishment Clause does not prohibit all religious instruction in public schools. “[T]he Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.” Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980) (citing Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)). In fact, the Supreme Court has recognized that it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” Abington, 374 U.S. at 225 (1963). Please note, however, that school boards or other officials may not be compelled to utilize such curricula. Rather, school officials are given substantial discretion in choosing their own curricula.

Jay Sekulow answering a question about religion in the workplace: “First of all, the workplace is not a religious free zone especially a county agency, which is covered by the First Amendment. There have been a series of cases-we had one of them recently decided by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit-dealing with religious freedom in the workplace. It applies: A Bible is not a forbidden book or having a mug that has a Scripture reference on it is not illegal; having a personal conversation during your break time about your faith, one on one, is not to be treated as contraband nor is it to be called ‘inappropriate conversation’-even if somebody happens to overhear it.”

Warning: you will need a shower if you click this…

Just when you thought you’d seen everything: here comes the Christian Boylove Forum.

Christian Boylove Forum participants believe that a distinction must be made between feelings of attraction (which are not chosen) and behavior (for which one must be held responsible). We believe that boylovers can control and channel their feelings so that their relationships with boys are beneficial and honor God. We are strictly opposed to any treatment of children which is contrary to the love that God intends us to have for them. This includes the manipulation, coercion and abuse of children.

If this means they’re hoping their forum will prevent pedophiles from actually acting upon their urges, more power to them. But, you know…eew!

(PS: Since they seem to be of the idea that pedophilia isn’t a choice — quite likely sadly true — I wonder if they split from mainstream Christian thought concerning whether or not adult homosexuality is a choice?)

Recent Christian cinema not benefiting from Passion halo-effect

Christian conservatives often like to complain about the sinful depradations of godless librul Hollywood, and how the entertainment industry as a whole is a repellent den of sin that is “out of touch” with the American mainstream. The wild box office success of The Passion of the Christ two years ago was trumpeted — by such mouthpieces as ersatz critic Michael Medved — as an undeniable indicator that if only the movie business made more Christian movies, the money would come pouring in like the Flood itself.

But it seems as if Passion was an of-the-moment cultural snapshot, released at a time when Bush’s poll numbers were still high and middle America was flush with the notion that we were really on the side of the angels in the War on Terror, our moral high ground unassailable. This facade has long since shattered, and anyway, Passion‘s $370 million box office take was more the result of media-manufactured controversy over its content than a genuine display of a sincere cultural shift towards preferring Christian entertainment.

Fox Faith (“Films You Can Believe In”) is a new theatrical distribution shingle from Rupert Murdoch, where the goal clearly is to cater to the Christian conservative base that has made his propaganda house, the Fox News Channel, the highest-rated cable news network.

However, their maiden release Love’s Abiding Joy did not exactly explode out of the starting gate like a greyhound its opening weekend. (Possibly the vomitrocious romance-novel title didn’t help.) Opening on 207 screens, a respectable release for an independent film, Joy only scraped up a dismal per-screen average of $704, for a total opening weekend take of $145,895. Compare this performance to that of Shortbus, the new, unrated movie by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), which includes — among other things — several scenes of unknown actors engaging in actual onscreen sex. Opening on a mere half-dozen screens (this is called a “platform” release), it drew a whopping $17,984 per-screen average. So while Love’s Abiding Joy made it to 34½ times as many screens, Shortbus did nearly 87 times more business!

So while Donald Wildmon and John Ashcroft and other evangelical leading lights love to wring their hands at Hollywood’s evil drug-crazed, sex-happy, Janet-Jackson-boob-flashing ways, offering dire warnings about the vast sums of money being lost because the industry isn’t offering True Americans the wholesome Christian entertainment they really want — in reality, Christians aren’t backing that up with their dollars. Like everyone else, they’d rather see Jackass Two instead.

(PS: Jesus Camp, excellently reviewed by Russell in the preceding post, is doing respectably, picking up 25 screens in its fourth weekend to a per-screen average of $2,748. Word is getting out.)