Blog against theocracy: Which religion?

This is my impromptu contribution to the blogswarm that is going on this Easter weekend. I’m obviously not doing this every day, since I missed posting yesterday, but I’m writing something today and perhaps tomorrow as well. I’d encourage my fellow AE posters to chime in with other posts, if they’re so inclined.

Austin is a city full of living contradictions. We Austinites live in a city that is probably the most laid back, religiously liberal locale in a very, very southern Bible belt state. Or as I sometimes describe it, “An island of blue in a sea of red.” On this island there live many people who have migrated from other states, so that I often go for several days without hearing a single Texas accent. On the other hand, there are plenty of “true Texans,” and there are quite a few people who still manage to live their lives inside a religious bubble. You can hear these people call in regularly to the TV show, perplexed about what in the world and atheist is, or why we would dare to risk eternal hellfire by not believing something that they feel is obviously true. Many of these people they aggressively defend their right not to have to leave that bubble.

Earlier this week, I was listening to a local radio show as they talked about a recent news story, in which a Muslim was invited to say a prayer in the Texas Senate. Many people were calling the show, predictably seething with outrage that the Muslim would dare to defile their upcoming sacred weekend by saying the word “Allah” in a public building. There was a woman on the show, who is not a regular, but she was the sole voice calling for tolerance of religious diversity. She was also getting berated. The callers asked, without a trace of irony, how it’s fair for this Muslim to come in our state buildings and pray to “Allah” when THEY (the callers) don’t believe in Allah.

That is, of course, exactly what atheists think about Christian prayers. I’m not going to bother making a case here that there shouldn’t be any prayers in public places (although I feel that’s important). I just want to point out — yet again — the rank hypocrisy of insisting that Christian prayers be allowed in public places while getting bent out of shape that any other prayers are also allowed. When called on it, they’ll repeat the Christian nation myth.

The fact that most people in America are Christian does not make this a Christian nation, any more than the fact that most people in America are white makes this a white nation. As the founding fathers wrote, and the supreme court has confirmed over and over again, the intent of our laws is to create a religion-neutral government. Islam has exactly the same right to our public forums as Christianity does. Either both belong, or neither does.

As atheists, we’ve begrudgingly gotten used to sucking it up most of the time when yet another effort to Christianize the government goes through, such as a giant “In God We Trust” sign gracing the lieutenant governor’s podium. We complain about it, of course, and work to bring about change, but often those things do not change and there is a certain psychological requirement to deal with it and move on. That’s why the enormous fuss about letting Muslims take up Senate time really doesn’t register with me as a serious issue. It’s not because I want Muslims to take over the government, obviously; it’s because it seems to be in the same category as things that go on already. “Oh well, Christians were wasting our time last week and this week it’s Muslims.”

In another sense, however, the general topic of religious ceremony in government is a very serious issue. The issue is simply highlighted by this Muslim prayer. Usually when anyone complains about government observation of religion, they are accused of persecuting Christians by preventing them from freely exercising their own religion. Listen, for example, to this pitiful whine by talk show host Glenn Beck, who complains that it’s really HARD to be a Christian because it’s so unpopular to be part of an 85% majority. It’s also apparently hard to be human, he says.

But as we can see, the same Christians who insist on their right to express themselves are not willing to afford the same “right” to Muslims, and that’s the point where they fall back on declaring that only Christian prayers have a place at the table.

That’s an example of theocracy. It’s a minor one. It’s not anywhere near the outrageousness of sharia law, and nobody should claim it is. But there are groups in the US that seek to install a religious government that is every bit as oppressive as fundamentalist Islamic societies. Christianity may not be unpopular but Dominionism is. However, fundamentalist Islam is also unpopular, but they still manage to take over small countries. So it’s important not to underestimate the threat. If American fundamentalists have failed to install a theocracy here, it is because they are tempered by post-enlightenment culture and not for lack of trying.

That’s why it’s important not to be intimidated and distracted by claims that keeping religion out of government is somehow oppressive and an imposition on people’s rights. People who want to put religion in government are either making this claim disingenuously, or they simply haven’t thought it through. Anyone who has a problem with bringing up “Allah” in the Senate should have a problem with religious pandering in general. It shouldn’t be solely the domain of atheists to point out that you can’t make an exception for your own favorite religion… unless you somehow figure out a way to prove that your religion is true.

On meanness

This post is longer and a lot looser than most of mine — which tend to be long and loose anyway — but I’ve just been thinking through a lot of stuff and so it’s time to set some of it down.

In the wake of the deep sigh of relief all of us have taken over the long-overdue departure of Dan Marvin, I’ve gotten all introspective and have considered the charge that atheists often are faced with: that we’re just plain mean sonsabitches who are all too quick to respond to believers with anger, invective and name calling.

Take the whole history with Dan over the past few months. I called him stupid, uneducated, hypocritical, dishonest, and a lying little turd. I probably called him a few less pleasant things too. Other people in the comments called him even worse. It cannot feel good to hear yourself being called these things. It can only being demeaning and hurtful. From the anonymity of the keyboard, it’s easy to forget that the person you’re attacking is a human being with feelings.

What kind of guy do I think Dan Marvin is in person? I imagine he’s a devoted and loving husband and father, a hard-working man who devotes 100% of himself to providing for his family and being a good citizen in his community. I can also tell from his writings that he really believes what he says he believes, even if, as was shown here by such fine commenters as Stephen and Tracie, he doesn’t fully understand, or think through all of the implications of, what he claims to believe. I think he came here because he’s genuinely possessed of a belief that there’s a place called hell where we’re all going to go to be tortured forever because we don’t believe as he does. I think his beliefs are so thoroughly branded into his map of the world that no matter how much we tried to explain, “Look, here’s why we don’t believe what you do, and here’s what we need to see from you if you think we should,” his responses went along the lines of “But…but…don’t you understand, you’re going to hell!” There’s just a fundamental difference in the way people like him and people like us process information in our minds, and that leads, particularly in extreme cases like Dan’s, to an insurmountable communication gap.

So, yeah. On the one hand, I’m willing to admit that that kind of communication gap can lead to atheists losing our temper with what we see as pure stupidity.

But as I said way back when, believers who find atheists brusque and insulting need — however hard it may be for them — to try walking in our shoes.

Truth to tell, when I called Dan a particular nasty name, it was because he’d done something to earn it. Dan’s own comments speak to his behavior well enough. If he cut-and-pasted some moronic creationist canards, I called him an idiot, because that’s the sort of thing only an idiot would do. When he projected his own behavior onto us, I’d call him a hypocrite. When he tried to refute us by making bizarre straw men out of our arguments, I’d hit him again. And again. Now, that’s just me. Life is not always meant to be easy, and some lessons need to be learned the hard way. There’s a time when the gloves have to come off. There’s a place for the Simon Cowell approach to criticism. And I’m okay with giving it. Some commenters here got even angrier with Dan. Others like Tracie were nearly heroic, in the patient way she calmly knocked down everything Dan threw at her, without the slightest hint that even one of her feathers had been ruffled.

It helps to know when being a two-fisted atheist is the right approach, and when it’s not. When I started my four-year run on the AE TV show, I was first cohost to the redoubtable Jeff Dee. Jeff is brilliant at arguing on his feet, and almost always went for the jugular. Oftimes this was needed. The flipside was that it could, on occasion, backfire. For years, we had a creationist troll named Steve (some of you remember him, I’m sure) who’d call every week with whatever bit of YEC bullshit he’d dredged up. From the fake Paluxy riverbed “man tracks” on down, there was no argument so lame and discredited he wouldn’t call with it. He was also a deeply dishonest scumbag who wouldn’t address our rebuttals. He engaged in the kind of drive-by, hit-and-run pseudo-arguing in which, every time we’d refute his latest claim, he’d just call the next week and, without even acknowledging that we’d addressed his points, simply go off on a new round of drivel as if the previous week’s conversation had never occurred.

But one thing became clear to me very quickly. Not only was Steve stupid, disingenuous, and ill-educated; he wasn’t even serious. At first, yes, it was evident he really thought he could take us on with his arguments. But soon it was obvious he’d changed his tack, and he was calling every week because he knew how easy it was to make Jeff lose his temper. Many Christians realize they can’t actually take down an atheist on the facts, and so they resort to emotional manipulation. Get the atheist angry, and they can claim a phony moral “victory.” The argument is, at this point, no longer about what is or isn’t true. It’s about a “humble” Christian trying to witness to a poor unsaved soul, and getting hate and anger in reply. Instant martyr; just add water.

After Jeff left the show and I shifted my plump cheeks into the host’s chair, Steve kept calling…for a bit. Then he just quit. Because I’d pegged him. I knew his schtick. I would just reply to his claims, without getting pissed off. I guess I wasn’t as much fun.

Still, “pissed off” is something I get at times, all on my own. And I know other atheists sympathize. There really is no understating the level of frustration that is felt when one lives without religion in a religion-addicted world. Atheists, generally speaking, are just normal folks trying to get by and do the best they can like anyone else. Our only difference is that we have dispensed with the need for irrational beliefs in the supernatural, which we think most people maintain simply because the culture in which they were raised requires it as a behavioral norm. This view, I think, is borne out by recent findings that while most Americans profess religious belief, few actually know anything about what they claim to believe.

Thus many Americans profess belief simply because everyone else does, and not to do so would mean you’re weird. On the flip side of that extreme are the Dan Marvins of the faith, who denounce those people as “false converts” while at the same time offering nothing but smoke and mirrors and nonsense in defense of their own, presumably “truer” belief.

In the midst of all this swirling supernaturalist confusion is the atheist, attempting to live a rational, humanist existence among millions of people who literally seem to be living in another world. And because we don’t buy into the God delusion, we’re vilified by people who know nothing of us, of atheism, or even of their own theism, and who think of themselves as paragons of virtue.

So to anyone who thinks atheists are mean people, I say, have you listened to Michael Newdow’s answering machine tapes? (He’s made them available, and even recorded a funny song around some of them.) Have you read the death threats and hate mail that Sam Harris gets? Have you read the vile diatribes by the Baptist minister on Possummomma’s blog? How is someone like her supposed to live a normal, peaceful life when some lunatic, self-anointed “man of God” takes to stalking her children to save their souls? Atheists are “angry,” you say? What parent, atheist or not, wouldn’t get angry about that?

So while I think it behooves atheists to always do our best to choose the high ground of reason over the low road of irrational emotionalism, we are only human after all. Anger is an entirely justified response to being on the receiving end of prejudice and stupidity, especially when it is perpetrated by ignorant hypocrites who are convinced they’re on the side of righteousness. Before you t
ell me that atheists are mean people full of anger and hate, consider what brings it on, and that many believers are in need of some serious adjustments to their own moral compasses.

In which we breathlessly await Dan Marvin’s “scientific proof of God without any verses and such”!

That genius Dan Marvin just keeps getting better and better. He has now thrown down the gauntlet. He says he’s finally got it, the “straight science” to prove God’s existence irrefutably once and for all. Here’s his brave boast. Behold!

Let’s start with a clean slate and a new blog to present a case for a creator. I challenge all of you against my evidence. Do you accept this challenge? I will prove my position in a whole radical new way do you accept my challenge?

Why yes, Dan, we do. Bring it. We will evaluate your “radical” “evidence” on its merits and on its merits alone. I will ignore the fact that in the past you have said that belief in God requires a “faith” that runs “contrary to human logic,” which contradicts the position you are taking now. I will even refrain from calling you names this time. By now your foolishness is sufficiently well-established that it no longer merits comment. No point in belaboring the obvious.

Dan is so confident he’s got the goods that his conditions are that if we cannot refute his “radical” “evidence” we will have to reounce our atheism and cancel the Atheist Experience television show. As I am not a member of the show’s crew any more, I am not in a position to agree to those terms. But I will say, as I always have done, that if I had proof positive of the existence of a deity — at least of the same caliber that I have for the existence of anything else I know to exist — that I will cease to be an atheist.

Dan has also said that if he loses this challenge, he will go away and never come back. Given Dan’s well-documented history of dishonesty and inability to understand, let alone accept, past refutations of his claims, I suspect he will not be honest and admit he’s been pwned this time either. But no matter. I control the horizontal and vertical here, so I intend to hold Dan to his admittedly worthless word. When he presents his evidence, and if it is refuted (see how generous I’m being), I will expect him to stay true to his word and go away. If he refuses to do so, I will ban him.

I know in the past, I have said I don’t do banning. But this is an unusual case. Dan has been a nuisance here for nearly two months. He hasn’t won a single point or presented a single fact in all that time, and yet every time he comes back, he does so with renewed vigor and wholly undeserved confidence. There’s a pathology here that it would take a mental health professional to evaluate most accurately. My options are easier.

While I won’t be sorry to see Dan go, I admit his idiocy has been a major source of entertainment here, and a good traffic booster as well. (Who doesn’t like to rubberneck a major wreck on the highway?) But he’s now well past his sell-by date and is starting to stink up the place. Most of his latest, blustery comments — in which he flatters himself for doing things he’s never done, like offer good arguments…oh, excuse me, “augments” — are clearly written for an audience composed of Dan Marvin, who seems to find playground bravado impressive. We don’t. We prefer facts. If you’ve got ’em, let us have ’em, Dan. If you don’t, one way or another, you will be gone.


Addendum: So Dan’s response is that his challenge was an April Fool’s joke. Makes an entirely Dan Marvinish kind of sense that he posted it on April 3rd, then.

I have tremendous faith that God will deliver some of you from these lies that are being pushed here at this blog and I hope I showed some of you the animosity and anger with some of these people that goes along with not having God in your life.

Uh, actually, Dan, our animosity and anger came from having to deal with your pathological lying, immaturity, refusal to take responsibility for yourself, and lack of integrity. That you still are thinking this way shows your personal moral compass is beyond repair.

So long, Dan. I’d tell you not to waste your time reading what the ID crowd is claiming about the bacterial flagellum and “irreducible complexity,” but there’s no point, I know.

A convoluted April Fool’s joke

I’m not really sure who perpetrated this, but bear with me, this may be a wee bit complicated.

The various folks at scienceblogs.org and pandasthumb.org have recently had great fun debunking a character at the Discovery Institute named Michael Egnor. (From Pharyngula: Example 1, Example 2.) Egnor claims to be both a neurosurgeon and an evolution skeptic, and he holds some truly laughable creationists views.

Today, both Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula are reporting that the Discovery Institute revealed, through their evolutionnews.org site, that Michael Egnor is an elaborate hoax. Egnor is not real, they say, he is a construct to see how “gullible” these “Darwinists” are and bait them into silly ad hominems. And boy, did it ever work!

Only one problem. I noticed, and apparently so did several other commenters, that the link above actually goes to evolutionnews.NET, not evolutionnews.org. And furthermore if you try to get to the main page of evolutionnews.org, as I did, you can’t — there’s a 404 error.

Cleverly, though, all the links on the .net page redirect to the appropriate areas of evolutionnews.org, so to the careless reader, it appears that they are all part of the same site. Also cleverly, the header was stolen from the .org site and so were the stylesheets, so it looks nearly identical.

The thing that tipped me off was that I went to the main site to look at what else was posted before and after the alleged “April Fool’s” post, and found that the post itself was not there. There was, however, a NEW post by Michael Egnor, which begins: “I am a devout Catholic…” I thought: “Hmmm, that’s odd that they would try to keep up the pretense after they just revealed that it was a joke…”

So, dear readers, the joke’s on YOU. As crazy as Michael Egnor sounds, he’s the genuine article. Assuming that PZ himself is in on it, sorry for ruining your joke, but I figure people will read your site before ours. :)

Tomorrow on the TV show: BAD creationist arguments

Well, it appears that tomorrow is the annual episode where the first half hour is preempted by Mormons. So it’s going to be extra short. You should tune in anyway at 5:00; we will start taking calls as early as possible, but if there aren’t enough calls then I’ll do my topic on easy evolution stuff.

In my February episode, I started what I intended to be a series on evolution. The February episode was about the reasons why evolution and atheism are so often linked. This episode will be mostly about incredibly lame anti-evolution arguments, many of them advanced by young earthers, that are even discredited by the saner creationists.

First I’ll be covering the generic “argument from incredulity” that is the cornerstone of many anti-evolution arguments. We’ll talk about evolution being only a theory, and being a theory of chance, Then I’ll briefly go over the motivation behind young earth beliefs, and some other arguments such as Lord Kelvin’s mistaken estimate of the age of the universe, the moon dust argument, and probably the Paluxy dinosaur tracks. If there’s time, I’ll wrap up by talking a little about the overall problem with the creationist approach, where they mistakenly believe that a solidly established scientific theory can be instantly dismissed with a single “magic bullet” argument.

If I don’t have time to do all this, the subject may continue into next month; I’m in no big hurry. Otherwise, next month Matt suggests that I temporarily turn away from creationism and go after the positive evidence in favor of evolution. This is assuming that I have time to appear, since I have to study for spring final next month. In any event, after that episode I’ll do one on intelligent design, likely recapping my review of Darwin’s Black Box and either my experiences at the Texas school board hearings or a recap of the Dover trial, which I know Matt has followed a lot.

If you have any additional suggestions regarding tomorrow’s show, leave it in comments.

A chocolate penis = “an all-out war on Christianity”!?

Well, blustery Catholic League bigmouth Bill Donohue has made it clear now. It’s not that there’s a statue of Jesus made of chocolate that’s sent him into apoplexy. It’s that you can see the Son of Man’s sainted peter.

“They wouldn’t show a depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. with genitals exposed on Martin Luther King Day, and they wouldn’t show Mohammed depicted this way during Ramadan. It’s always Christians, and the timing is deliberate.”

Can someone please explain to me Christians’ pathological fear of human genitalia? I mean, it’s like, the mere sight of a dick or a pair of boobs, and they run screaming into the hills, where they’re soon to be found shivering under a tree trunk and eating grass and bugs to stay alive.

Historically, if Jesus had been executed by the Romans by crucifixion, then it’s practically certain he’d have been stripped butt naked. It’s not as if the Romans had such tender sensibilities that they’d respect the dignity of someone they’d declared an enemy of the state and sentenced to death by covering him up with a loincloth. Good grief.

Donohue’s right that you wouldn’t create a statue of MLK on MLK Day showing him nude, because there’s no valid historical context for showing him nude. Duh.

Now we have this gallery director looking like he’s going to resign over this preposterous flap. Good grief.

Seriously, Christians. What is it with you and naked bodies? What’s the big deal? Grow up already.

“Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.”

A fine quote from this most worthwhile essay by A.C. Grayling, criticizing religious belief as a practice and analyzing the roots of the “quarrel” between believers and atheists. Grayling, along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, argued for the atheists’ side in a debate in England on March 27, which ended in a decisive victory for non-belief. The premise of the debate was “We’d be better off without religion.” And it carried by audience vote, 1205 to 778. Arguers for theism — Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey — found themselves thoroughly pwned. Seriously, America is slipping into becoming an intellectual third-world country compared to the UK and Europe.

Christofascism in the schools

One common whine of theocratic Christians is that mean ol’ atheists “took God out of the schools” with the 1962 Murray v. Curlett decision, and that America has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since. The omnipresence of 24-hour media makes rare, isolated crimes like Columbine stand out, creating a sufficient atmosphere of fear that people ignore the fact that overall, things like violent youth crime and teen pregnancy rates have been trending downwards steadily over the last few decades. (Unlike the Christians, I am not arguing a direct causal link here; only that the argument that crime increases if people aren’t having Christianity shoved down their throats is demonstrably false.)

Christians respond to the lack of state-mandated religion for students by complaining that this is anti-Christian presecution in action. And yet, a scan of the real world whenever religion rears its ugly, pock-marked head in a scholastic environment very often shows that the reverse is true. Christians take on a mob mentality and mercilessly harass and intimidate anyone who even suggests that open, unconstitutional religious activity in public schools might be inappropriate.

When a teacher in a Florida school complained that the principal was inappropriately placing Christian paraphernalia around the flagpole, she found herself suspended on trumped-up charges of helping a student cheat on a test, and has been blackballed in the rest of her community. A more open-and-shut case of religious harrassment you couldn’t find.

It’s entirely legal for students to do the babble-to-your-invisible-friend-around-the-flagpole-after-school thing, just as it’s entirely legal for them to take their Bibles to school, for them to pray on their own when they get a free moment, or whatever. The only thing the Constitution prohibits is the school itself, as a government-run institution, either making religious exercises mandatory, or creating an atmosphere in which students and faculty who choose not to partake in these primitive rituals feel shunned or threatened.

For the principal and other school administrators to participate in the after-school flagpole prayers created a legally questionable situation. And that is all this teacher did: raise questions. For this, she finds herself victimized, threatened with her livelihood, and defamed. Even some parents who are supportive of the teacher have been threatened.

Several parents would not comment on the record, and one mother asked that her name not be used because she “was threatened to not be allowed back on campus if I say anything about it.”

Threatened by the very same “loving,” “moral” God-botherers who think that their brand of righteousness is what is needed in our schools and workplaces — hell, just about any public venue they can grab — if the horrors of the secular, liberal world aren’t to destroy the fine fabric of our godly civilization. And if you disagree, don’t show your faces around here, bitches. It’d be a shame if somethin’ was to happen to ya.

It’s sacrelicious!

Man, and I thought Piss Christ was funny! A Manhattan art gallery has begun displaying a life-sized statue of a nude, crucified Jesus made entirely out of 200 pounds of chocolate! Hey, chocolate, Easter &#151 the connection makes sense to me.

Predictably, Catholic League blowhard Bill Donohue has blown a gasket. Thing is, I’m not entirely clear what he’s offended by — that Jesus is made out of chocolate, or that he’s in the nude (which he most likely would have been had he really been a victim of crucifixion). I know there’s a scriptural ban on graven images, but the Catholic church has ignored that one for centuries. So what’s a little chocolate hurt?

Well, it could have been worse. Think how livid Donohue would be if the artist had had colored eggs falling out of Jesus’s…uh…

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. This is a family blog.