“ugly”

Another piece of joy from Twitter, in response to my #YesAllWomen tear.

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 10.56.43 PM

Me: #YesAllWomen The fact that I get 10x more threats from men who hate me b/c I’m a feminist than believers who hate me b/c I’m an atheist.

Asshole on Twitter: @GretaChristina lol or your just ugly

I see. On the one hand, feminist women get targeted with misogynist threats and hatred on a daily basis. On the other hand, I’m ugly, and that’s why I get threatened. (Because threatening ugly women would totally not be misogynist.) A fine example of logic at its best. /sarcasm

BTW, I might be ugly, but at least I know the difference between “your” and “you’re.”

(And for the record: Yes, I know I’m not ugly. I don’t need to be reassured about my looks. The point isn’t whether I’m ugly. The point is that it’s irrelevant.)

Oh, interesting piece of info: I’ve been puzzled as to why my #YesAllWomen tweet saying “The fact that I get 10x more threats from men who hate me b/c I’m a feminist than believers who hate me b/c I’m an atheist.” is the one getting such a disproportionate number of asshole replies. I did a little digging, and found that my other #YesAllWomen tweets got three retweets, five retweets, nine retweets. The one about atheism got, as of this writing, 43 retweets. Not sure what that’s about.

Child Rape, Penn State, and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

The child rape scandal at Penn State raises inevitable comparisons with the Catholic Church. Does religion make these kinds of abuses worse?

I can’t be the only person who heard about the Penn State child rape scandal and thought, “Holy crap — it’s just like the Catholic Church.” The abuse of power by a trusted authority figure; the cover-up by people in authority; the unwillingness of witnesses to speak out; the grotesque, morally bankrupt defenses of a beloved institution by its followers… all of it is depressingly familiar.

And I can’t be the only critic of religion who’s been wondering, “Hmmm. If Penn State has been acting like the Catholic Church… then did the Catholic Church child rape scandal actually have anything to do with religion?”

I still think it does. But I think it’s a complicated question… and I want to take a closer look.

Apologists for the Catholic Church and its role in the extensive child rape scandal often use the “But everyone else does it!” defense. “Priests aren’t the only people in positions of trust and power over children who abuse that power,” they say. “Parents, relatives, teachers, babysitters, coaches — they rape children as well. It’s all terrible… but it’s unfair to single out the Catholic Church as if it were special.”

Atheists and other critics of the Church typically respond to this defense — after tearing their hair out and screaming — by pointing out: The rapes aren’t the scandal. The cover-up — that’s the scandal. The rapes of children are a horrible tragedy. The scandal is the fact that the Catholic Church hid the rapes, and protected the child-raping priests from discovery and prosecution: lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, paying off witnesses, moving child-raping priests from diocese to diocese so they could rape a whole new batch of children in a place where they wouldn’t be suspected. The scandal is the fact that it wasn’t just a few individuals in the ranks who protected and enabled the child-raping priests: it was large numbers of Church officials, including high-ranking officials, acting as a cold-blooded matter of Church policy. The scandal is the fact that the Church treated their own stability and reputation as a higher priority than, for fuck’s sake, children not being raped.

And many critics of religion have concluded that the nature of religion itself is largely to blame for this scandal. They have argued that religion’s lack of any sort of reality check, and its belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that transcends mere human concerns, makes religious institutions like the Catholic Church far more vulnerable to abuses of this kind.

I’ve made this argument myself. And in my own writings on this subject, I’ve asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it? If it were your political party, your softball league, your university, your children’s school, your employer? Would you still be part of it? Would you still pay your league dues and show up for softball night? Would you still pay your tuition and send your kids off to the school every day? Or would you be walking out in moral outrage?”

But it seems that this question wasn’t so rhetorical. It seems that, at least sometimes, the answer to that question is, “Yup — we’d be defending our school.”

At least sometimes, the answer is, “If we see our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police. If we’re in positions of authority in a school and we hear reports about our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police, and we won’t investigate. And if we hear that a coach at our school raped children, and that the authorities at the school knew about it and didn’t alert the police or investigate, we will become outraged — not at the fact that the rapes occurred, not at the fact that the witnesses and school authorities did nothing, but at what we see as unfair treatment of the perpetrators, and at the very fact that the media is covering it.”

Clearly, defending the indefensible is not unique to religion.

Clearly, institutions centered on something other than a belief in the supernatural are perfectly capable of inspiring this grotesquely contorted form of loyalty. This unwillingness to believe that the people and institutions we admire could do anything that vile; this ability to rationalize actions we would normally find thoroughly despicable when we’ve made a commitment to the people who perpetrated them… this clearly isn’t just about religion. This is about the more fucked-up directions that the human brain can go in.

So I want to take a step back. I want to be rigorous, and ask: Is there anything special about the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church? Does the fact that the Catholic Church is a religious organization have any effect on how the child rape scandal has been playing out for them? Is there any real difference between the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church, and the child rape scandal at Penn State? [Read more...]

Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad?

The child rape scandal at Penn State raises inevitable comparisons with the Catholic Church. Does religion make these kinds of abuses worse?

I can’t be the only person who heard about the Penn State child rape scandal and thought, “Holy crap — it’s just like the Catholic Church.” The abuse of power by a trusted authority figure; the coverup by people in authority; the unwillingness of witnesses to speak out; the grotesque, morally bankrupt defenses of a beloved institution by its followers… all of it is depressingly familiar.

And I can’t be the only critic of religion who’s been wondering, “Hmm. If Penn State has been acting like the Catholic Church… then did the Catholic Church child rape scandal actually have anything to do with religion?”

I still think it does. But it’s a complicated question. Let’s take a closer look.

Apologists for the Catholic Church and its role in the extensive child rape scandal often use the “But everyone else does it!” defense. “Priests aren’t the only people in positions of trust and power over children who abuse that power,” they say. “Parents, relatives, teachers, babysitters, coaches — they rape children as well. It’s all terrible… but it’s unfair to single out the Catholic Church as if it were special.”

Atheists and other critics of the Church typically respond to this defense — after tearing their hair out and screaming — by pointing out: The rapes aren’t the scandal. The coverup is the scandal. The rapes of children are a horrible tragedy. The scandal is the fact that the Catholic Church hid the rapes, and protected the child-raping priests from discovery and prosecution: lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, paying off witnesses, moving child-raping priests from diocese to diocese so they could rape a whole new batch of children in a place where they wouldn’t be suspected. The scandal is the fact that it wasn’t just a few individuals in the ranks who protected and enabled the child-raping priests: it was large numbers of Church officials, including high-ranking officials, acting as a cold-blooded matter of Church policy. The scandal is the fact that the Church treated their own stability and reputation as a higher priority than, for fuck’s sake, children not being raped.

And many critics of religion have concluded that the nature of religion itself is largely to blame for this scandal. They have argued that religion’s lack of any sort of reality check, and its belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that transcends mere human concerns, makes religious institutions like the Catholic Church far more vulnerable to abuses of this kind.

I’ve made this argument myself. And in my own writings on this subject, I’ve asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it? If it were your political party, your softball league, your university, your children’s school, your employer? Would you still be part of it? Would you still pay your league dues and show up for softball night? Would you still pay your tuition and send your kids off to the school every day? Or would you be walking out in moral outrage?”

But it seems that this question wasn’t so rhetorical. It seems that, at least sometimes, the answer to that question is, “Yup — we’d be defending our school.”

At least sometimes, the answer is, “If we see our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police. If we’re in positions of authority in a school and we hear reports about our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police, and we won’t investigate. And if we hear that a coach at our school raped children, and that the authorities at the school knew about it and didn’t alert the police or investigate, we will become outraged — not at the fact that the rapes occurred, not at the fact that the witnesses and school authorities did nothing, but at what we see as unfair treatment of the perpetrators, and at the very fact that the media is covering it.”

Clearly, defending the indefensible is not unique to religion.

Clearly, institutions centered on something other than a belief in the supernatural are perfectly capable of inspiring this grotesquely contorted form of loyalty. This unwillingness to believe that the people and institutions we admire could do anything that vile; this ability to rationalize actions we would normally find thoroughly despicable when we’ve made a commitment to the people who perpetrated them… this clearly isn’t just about religion. This is about the more fucked-up directions that the human brain can go in.

So I want to take a step back. I want to be rigorous, and ask: Is there anything special about the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church? Does the fact that the Catholic Church is a religious organization have any effect on how the child rape scandal has been playing out for them? Is there any real difference between the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church, and the child rape scandal at Penn State?

I’ve been looking at this hard. And I’ll acknowledge that I don’t think the difference is as great as I’d originally thought. The degree to which many students and supporters of Penn State have behaved like blind religious zealots has, quite frankly, shocked me.

But I still think there is a difference. There are non-trivial differences between these two scandals: differences of degree, and differences of kind. I want to look carefully at those differences and at whether religion has any part in how the Catholic Church has behaved, and continues to behave, when it comes to the rape of children.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad? To find out why, exactly, I think that, as horrific as the Penn State child rape scandal is, it is far eclipsed by the Catholic Church child rape scandal — and why I think religion is responsible for how much worse it is in the Catholic Church — read the rest of the piece. (Normally I’d say “Enjoy!” at this point, but that seems ghoulish in this case, so I’m going to skip it. I hope you find the piece edifying and thought-provoking.)

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

High School Atheist Ostracized by Town — Atheist Community Steps Up

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was ostracized, threatened, and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.

Whatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.

Damon Fowler Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.

Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Duerer-Prayer Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all. And it’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody — not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.

Okay. I hope that’s clear.

So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.. He’s become the center of what he terms a “shitstorm”: he has been harassed, vilified, targeted with insults and name-calling and hateful remarks. He’s been told that he’s the Devil. He’s been told, “Go cry to your mommy… oh, wait. You can’t.” (A reference to him being disowned by his parents.) He’s been told that he’s only doing this to get attention. A student’s public prayer at a pre-graduation “Class Night” event was turned into an opportunity for the school and community to gang up on Fowler and publicly close ranks against him — teachers as well as students. (Here’s video). And people seen defending him have been targeted as well.

Bastrop enterprise As just a taste, here are a few comments on the Bastrop Enterprise news story about the controversy: “I personally see him as a coward.” “I hope they [Christians] put enough pressure on this kid to convert him and save his soul from the fire of hell.” “The kid was likely a recluse and apathetic about most everything until now.” “If he don’t want prayer at graduation he can stay at home and not come to graduation.” “Afterall, that’s what she or he wants isn’t it to be singled out! This just makes me ill.” “I hope that the little athiest is offended.” “What he is really doing is trying to shove his views down people’s throats.” “Why does this student only now decide to get engaged in what is happening at the school? Is it nothing more than our own self-destructive human nature to break down anything of which we may not approve?” “That student should just have to have his/her one man graduation ceremony all alone.” “Satan continues to prowl and is deceiving many in this world.”

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him. From the story in the Bastrop Enterprise:

Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who “had no problems” with the prayer.

“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”

Throughout her time working with the student, Quinn said they never expressed their personal beliefs or that they had any problems with other students’ Christian faiths.

“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said. (emphasis mine)

In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, therefore they’re in the right. Because nobody’s ever had the courage to speak up about this before, therefore the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it’s not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up… right?) And because Fowler hasn’t “contributed anything” — other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in — therefore his basic legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant… and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.

Fist 3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

Enough said.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the porch.

Let’s be very, very clear about this one. At a time when their son was being bullied, threatened, publicly pilloried, and ostracized from his school and his community, his parents joined the party. Their initial response was to hold him in their house against his will, take his cel phone and cut off his contact with the outside world, and even cut him off from contact with his older brother, Jerrett. Their more recent response has been to cut off financial support, kick him out of the house, and throw his belongings onto the porch.

Fortunately, Damon isn’t entirely alone. His brother Jerrett is assisting Damon, and will help put him through college; and as of the last report I’ve seen, Damon is currently living with his sister, also in Texas. And Damon is fortunate enough to have the backing of the atheist community, who are providing encouragement, emotional support, practical assistance, and even a scholarship fund. (UPDATE: The scholarship fund is now closed. Info on where you can make donations is at the end of this piece.)

More on that in a moment.

Since that’s a lot of what this story is really about.

Slow-School-Zone There are a lot of hot-button issues in Damon Fowler’s story. There’s the depressing fact of how common this kind of story is: the fact that, despite the law being unambiguous on the subject, public schools around the country are continuing to sponsor prayers and otherwise promote theocracy, in flagrant violation of the law… apparently in the hopes that nobody will want to make waves and speak out against it. There’s the lack of understanding in the United States about fundamental civics: the all-too-common belief that “majority rules” in every situation, and the all-too-common failure to comprehend the principle that the minority has basic civil rights. There’s the ugly reality of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination across the country — especially in high schools. According to JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, “In Alabama, Auburn High School is refusing to allow an SSA affiliate. In Cranston, Rhode Island, a public school is facing an ACLU suit for refusing to take down a sectarian prayer [a banner posted in the school gym]. In Texas we had a student who was told he could have a secular club if he called it a philosophy club and didn’t affiliate with the SSA. The list of similar situations is a mile long and these are only the ones I’ve become aware of in my first four and a half months on the job. The Fowler incident is much closer to being the norm than the exception.”

Cross There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There’s the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There’s the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself — and how, when that consensus is threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There’s the idea that the unverifiability of religion — the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about — means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere… since there’s no reality check. There’s the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.

And of course — duh — there’s separation of church and state. There’s the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being — oh, what’s that word? — unconstitutional.

All of that is important.

But there’s something else important going on here.

And that’s the way the atheist community has stepped up to the plate.

Scarlet letter Damon Fowler was ostracized by his school, his town, even his parents. But he has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it’s been covered on Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief… the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage. American Atheists said of Fowler, “This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn’t cancelled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!” JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, “Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion.” Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about “his courage in speaking out for his and other students’ rights.”

And it’s not just the atheist thought leaders. It’s the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The “Support Damon” group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler’s position and their opposition to the prayer.

Money_in_hand This support isn’t only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course: it’s hugely important, especially when you’re being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship. And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents — and the response has been overwhelming. At the closing of the scholarship fund, the atheist community had donated over $31,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned.

Why am I bringing this up?

Church sign One of the chunks of mud that’s most commonly slung at atheists is that we’re selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly… and would just do whatever we wanted to do.

Helping hands But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do… then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.

A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.

I’m not saying that atheists are morally superior to religious believers. I don’t think that, and I’m not saying it. I’m aware that many religious believers are good, compassionate people with a strong sense of justice. I’m even aware that many religious believers, indeed many Christians, are appalled by what’s happening to Damon Fowler, and oppose it with every breath in their bodies. And I’m aware that many atheists are hostile, self-involved schmucks. (Believe me… I’m aware of that.) That’s not my point.

Good without god billboard My point is this: Human beings don’t need God to be good. Human ethics seem to be wired into our brains, through millions of years of evolution as a social species, and every human being who isn’t a sociopath has them. Some of us act on them better than others… but we all have them. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Wiccan — and atheist.

And my point is this: The next time someone tells you that atheists are selfish and amoral? Remember Damon Fowler. Remember the religious community that bullied him, harassed him, ostracized him, and drove him out.

And remember the atheist community that took him in.

Damon Fowler’s scholarship fund is now closed. If you’re inspired by this story to make a donation, Damon has asked donations to go to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Secular Student Alliance… “any will do. As long as it’s going toward students, secularization, or teaching critical thinking over superstition.”

High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

When a high school atheist tried to stop prayer at his graduation, he was harassed and kicked out of his house. But the atheist community stepped in.

Damon FowlerWhatever you think about atheists — good, bad, mixed, indifferent — this story should seriously trouble you.

Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler — knowing that government- sponsored prayer in the public schools are unconstitutional and legally forbidden — contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school — at first, anyway — agreed, and cancelled the prayer.

Then Fowler’s name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. And, as a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Before we get into the details of all this, let’s be very, very clear about the facts and the law here: Nobody — not Fowler, not the ACLU, nobody — is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can’t pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school- sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the “establishment of religion” bit and all.

It’s a law and a Constitution that protects everybody, not just atheists. If you wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government- sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government- sponsored Christian prayer.

Okay. I hope that’s clear.

So here’s a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened. To find out more about how exactly the ostracization of Damon Fowler has unfolded — and how the atheist community has stepped up to the plate — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Live-blogging the Rapture

Rapture billboard

Well, if the end of the world really is nigh, there ought to be some documentation of it for future generations. Oh, wait. There won’t be any future generations. Still. It stand to reason. I mean, if hundreds of years from now, space aliens or something visit the charred remains of our post-Apocalyptic planet and wonder, “What the heck happened here?”, perhaps there ought to be a record. It seems like the sensible thing to do.

So JT Eberhard (WWJTD?), Jen McCreight (BlagHag), and I are going to be live-blogging the Rapture.

Because where will be the first place that visiting space aliens will search for a record of the last days of human life on Earth? Snarky atheist blogs, of course!

Supposedly, the Rapture will be happening at 6pm, in each time zone around the globe. Because God cares so very much about the international date line. (As Ingrid said when we were talking about this on Facebook, “It’s almost scientific, except for the part where it has no basis in reality.”) Okay, yes, it has been pointed out that this lends an unfair advantage to those of us living in the more Westerly time zones — if we see news reports of people being raptured in Australia and Tokyo, we’ll have a chance to repent that they didn’t get. (Let’s hear it for the argument for locality!) And I don’t know what’s supposed to happen to the people on the space station. But who are we to question God’s wisdom and might? Well, his might, anyway.

So I’ll be keeping an eye on world events as they unfold at 6pm in each time zone, from New Zealand to Hawaii. And just to be fair, in case they got the 6pm thing wrong, I’ll also keep an eye on world events as they unfold at midnight in each time zone, from New Zealand to Hawaii. I won’t be making a point of being awake for each of these time zone changes — I’m not going to stay up around the clock for this damn dumb thing, especially since I’m giving a talk on Sunday the 22nd — but I’ll take a peek at the New York Times at occasional intervals, and report on how we’re doing.

If we make it to midnight of May 22 everywhere around the world, I think we can assume we’re in the clear.

***

Okay. We’re starting. 5:11 pm in San Francisco; just past midnight in New Zealand. No rapture-type events reported as of this writing. Most recent New Zealand headline on the New York Times: “Air New Zealand Videos Get Tailwind From Social Media.” To quote Peter Cook, “Not exactly the conflagration we’d been looking for.” But heck — it’s not 6pm yet. It still could happen. And monkeys could fly out of my butt. There is a vanishingly small but non-zero chance of butt monkeys.

***

Damn. It’s been pointed out to me that it’s actually just past noon in New Zealand, not just past midnight. Boy, do I have egg on my face. How am I supposed to document the beginning of the eradication of humanity if I can’t even read my World Clock right? Some Rapture reporter I am.

Anyway. It’s now 5/21 in New Zealand, Tokyo, Moscow, and London. Not 6pm yet, though. So we could still be on the hook for this thing. Stay tuned to this station for further developments.

***

It’s past 6pm in the first time zone where it could be past 6pm; an island in the Pacific called Kiribati. No earthquakes, apparently. CNN is discussing “Celebrity Apprentice.” They are clearly covering up the the real truth.

***

Well past 6pm in New Zealand: 7:54 pm, in fact. Top headline of the New Zealand Herald as of this writing: “Labour proposes dedicated ‘Ministry for Children.'” Lacking a bit in that “earthquakes/ conflagrations/ sea of blood” quality, but I suppose it could be a sign of God’s wrath in some way. Other headlines from New Zealand: “Hubbard asset freeze to be reviewed,” “MasterChef’s backer drops support for school breakfasts,” and, “MPs love property and petanque.” Well, I guess that word “petanque” could be code for something…

A few other updates on the news coverage of this literally earth-shattering event. Top headline of the New York Times as of this writing: “Divisions Are Clear as Obama and Netanyahu Discuss Peace.” On TV, Headline News has Donny and Marie on the Joy Behar Show. CNBC has a “get rich now” infomercial. MSNBC has “Lockup: Indiana.” CSPAN has the Asia Society & U.S. Institute of Peace on the Future of Pakistan. The NASA channel — and you’d think if anyone would be covering the global conflagration cascading across the globe time zone by time zone, it’d be the NASA channel — has still photos of the space station. And CNN is talking to Dick Van Dyke about his new book. I didn’t know Dick Van Dyke was still alive. I suppose that could be a supernatural event of some kind…

Oh, and the in the Los Angeles Times? New Zealand region yet to suffer destruction forecast by Oakland-based doomsday predictor. They are reporting no earthquakes in the region. I freaking love that the L.A. Times is live-blogging the Rapture.

***

7:30am California time. Tokyo and Moscow should be dust by now. Hm. Apparently not. CNN has the Doomsday story right now, but it’s a jokey, “Gee, some people think the world is ending today” piece — not a “Tokyo, Moscow collapse into the earth, repent now before it’s too late” story. Google search for “Moscow news” gets “IDF attaché sought intel. on Russia-Arab arms trade,” and “Tokyo news” gets “Wen, Lee Show Support for Japan Recovery Effort.” No, no, no! Recovery effort? That’s not apocalyptic at all! That’s, like, the opposite of apocalyptic! Harumph.

***

9:15 am California time. Family Radio (Harold Camping’s station) was on in the car ride over to the conference. Strangely non-apocalyptic. Music, light chatter, and some kid’s story about inviting people to meet Jesus. You’d think it’d be a little late for that now.

***

BTW, if you want to track earthquake activity for the day, you can do it on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

(checking)

Sheesh, dude. Is that all you got?

***

Just past 6pm in London. Main headline in the London Times as of this writing: “Twitter fury as footballer takes legal action.” Well, Twitter fury is sort of like the wrath of God… right?

***

Update in London: Guardian U.K. DOES have a story about the Rapture!

Oh, wait. It’s about how the Rapture isn’t happening. Never mind.

You know, I really do love how many news outlets are covering the “Rapture Not Happening” story. It’s as if the worldwide news media was covering the story, “Suspension Bridges Around the World Not Turning Into Fish.”

***

Well, Jesus did make an appearance in Oakland.

Jen jesus

A little ahead of schedule, but mysterious ways, who are we to question, yada yada yada. Here at the atheist convention, oddly enough. Told a few jokes, took a few questions. Nice guy. Has some sort of beef with Ed Hardy, but pretty easy-going overall. Didn’t say anything about the world ending today, though. Hm. Wonder if they got that wrong. Naaaaah.

(Photo by Jen McCreight at BlagHag, shamelessly swiped from her own live-blogging of the Rapture.)

***

Okay. It should be hitting New York right about now.

***

OOO! Is that it? The New York Times is doing live updates!

***

Nope. False alarm. The New York Times is doing live updates of the Preakness Stakes.

***

Hm. 6:10 pm in New York City. Headlines on the New York Times website as of this reading: “Promise of Arab Uprisings Is Threatened by Divisions.” Okay: uprisings, divisions.. that’s sort of apocalyptic, right? How about, “In the Golan Heights, Anxious Eyes Look East to Syria.” Okay, anxious eyes on Syria… because of the people being raptured there, right? No? Okay, how about, “Guard Dog to the Stars (Legally Speaking).”

Oh, piffle. This is just sad.

***

Just talked to my brother in Chicago. All seems to be normal there. Or normal for Chicago. Rapture-free, at any rate. No earthquakes, no brimstone, no flocks of the faithful ascending through the skies. He says the weather was grey and drizzly earlier in the morning, but the sun came out later in the day, which may be a sign of some sort.

***

6pm in Oakland!

***

Aaaaaaaaaand…

***

Well, my soul might have been raptured up to Heaven. But Greta without a soul is indistinguishable from Greta with a soul. So I’m not sure how anybody would know.

***

Ingrid says Hi, by the way. And she says, “Cheer up. It’s not the end of the world.”

***

Oh, wait. Something’s happening…

***

Rapture<br clear=all /

***

This is me, Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight, Matt Dillahunty, Ashley Paramore, and several other atheists being raptured. We bounced off the ceiling, though, and came back. Damn acoustic tile.

***

Apparently there was just a little earthquake in Oakland. I didn’t feel it, but other people at the atheist conference did. Ripple of derisive, slightly nervous laughter. The world seems to be continuing on, though. Maybe the apocalypse is waiting until Mr. Deity finishes his talk.

***

Earthquake was a 3.6. Yeah, that’s Armageddon all right. [facepalm]

***

Well, fine. It’s past 6pm on May 21, everywhere in the world. According to Reuters, Harold Camping has gone entirely silent; the shades are drawn on his house, nobody is answering the door, and he has yet to issue any sort of comment on the complete lack of anything interesting or unusual happening today. (Well… anything other than Rapture parties, anyway…)

Headlines on the New York Times: Many of the same ones as my last update, but a few new ones. “Ivory Coast’s New President Urges Unity.” “Daniels Decides Against G.O.P. Presidential Bid.” “Blogger With ‘Man Crush’ Wins Putin Scoop.” Oh, for goodness’ sake. It’s like they’re trying to make the news as bland and non-apocalyptic as possible. (I especially love that last one.)

I’m going to give this way more of the benefit of the doubt than it deserves, and wait ’til it’s May 22 everywhere in the world before I absolutely officially call it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Sleep tight, everybody!

***

That’s it. It’s today, everywhere in the world, except in the places where it’s tomorrow. May 21, 2011 has 100% come and gone, and no Rapture. The world continues to turn, more or less as usual.

And now, a quick, slightly serious word.

Lots of us have been making fun of the Rapture in recent days and weeks. And we should: it was a ridiculous idea, and ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed. But real harm was done during this hysteria. People depleted their life’s savings, their childrens’ college funds, ran up their credit cards, to fund this stupid billboard campaign — which whipped up more people into more hysteria so they could deplete their life’s savings. Religion does real harm in the world. I am entirely in favor of making fun of it… partly because it’s fun to do so, but mostly because religion does real harm, and making fun of it is one of the most effective tools we have for dismantling it. Religion depends on social consent to survive and perpetuate itself. We have to deny that consent. We have to keep pointing out, at every available opportunity, that the Emperor has no clothes.

And we have to keep pointing out, at every available opportunity, that this world — this beautiful, terrible, ordinary, spectacular, fascinating, sad, hard, funny, and entirely small-R rapturous world — is enough.

Thank you for your patience. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Rapture Fear: What If The End Really Is Nigh?

May-21-Rapture-Billboard So I have something embarrassing to admit.

With all the talk about the Rapture that’s supposedly coming on May 21? With all the Rapture parties, the snarky jokes, the atheist conferences around the country specifically scheduled on Rapture Weekend for the purpose of making fun of it?

There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s scared.

There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s been wondering, for occasional intermittent nanoseconds, “What if they’re right?”

And I’m wondering if that’s happening with anyone else.

Homer-simpson-the-end-is-near Now, let me make this very clear, very quickly: There is no part of me that seriously thinks this Rapture thing is going to happen. It’s beyond absurd. The number of times that people have predicted the exact date of the Rapture, or some other supernatural end of the world, is off the charts. Even if the hypothesis of any sort of God or supernatural world were plausible — which I don’t think it is — this particular hypothesis? The hypothesis that if you take a demonstrably inaccurate book written by Bronze Age goatherders and crunch the numbers in it in a special way like it was the Da Vinci Code or something, you’ll know the exact date and hour that God is coming to pour suckitude on his beloved creation while he carries a handful of his bestest friends to a permanent party in the sky? It’s laughable on the face of it. It’s the equivalent of a hand-scrawled sign held up by a raving street-corner preacher saying, “The End Is Nigh”… except it’s a really big sign, being held up on street corners around the country, by a preacher who happens to have a radio show and a budget instead of a soapbox on the corner. I am appalled at how many people are taking this thing so seriously, to the point where they’re quitting their jobs and spending their life savings on this stupid ad campaign. And I’m tickled pink at the degree to which the defiant, mocking, festively scornful response to it has caught on… not just among atheist activists, but in the public at large.

Rapture-billboard-2 And yet, when I see the Rapture billboards or hear the news stories about them, there is this tiny part of me that — just for a nanosecond — gets scared. There’s a tiny part of me that wonders, just for a nanosecond, “Could this Rapture thing really happen?”

It’s embarrassing to admit this. I feel like it makes me a failure as an atheist, a failure as a skeptic. I haven’t wanted to say anything about it… even to myself. I had to screw up my courage even to mention it to Ingrid. Acknowledging it in public feels seriously uncomfortable.

But I’ve built my career on saying things that people don’t want to talk about; things that people are embarrassed and uncomfortable about; things that people keep secret. And almost every time I have, I’ve been glad. I’ve felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And almost always every time, I’ve gotten a grateful and relieved response from other people saying, “Oh, thank goodness you said something — I thought I was the only one!”

I’m not going to stop now.

I want to talk about this — and I want to look at what’s going on.

*

Brain_1 Here’s what I think is going on. Part of my mammalian hindbrain reflexively assumes that, if a whole lot of other people believe something, it’s probably true. Or at least, that it’s plausible. Or at the very least, that it can’t be completely ruled out, and isn’t just flatly stupid on the face of it, and ought to be given a moment of serious consideration. There is a part of my mammalian hindbrain that, when it sees a whole bunch of people freaking out over what they see as an imminent terrible danger, gets a little jolt of alarmed adrenaline.

And it’s not just my own mammalian hindbrain. It’s all our mammalian hindbrains. (Even if you’re not scared about the Rapture.) The human brain is wired with a number of cognitive biases and errors in thinking: biases and errors that have good evolutionary reasons to be there, that have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, but that do get in the way when we’re trying to carefully figure out what is and isn’t true in the world. And of all these biases, one of the trickiest is communal reinforcement — otherwise known as the argument from popularity. “If lots of other people think this,” our mammalian hindbrain tells us, “it must be true!”

Tiger It’s a bias that does have real evolutionary value. If everyone in your tribe is screaming “Tiger!”, and you don’t see one, it still makes sense to run. And I would argue that this bias has some genuine philosophical value as well. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check. After all, it’s not like I’m always right about everything. If everyone I know is telling me I’m wrong about something… well, that’s not automatically a reason to change my mind, but it is a reason to stop and think for a moment about whether I might want to.

So the more I thought about this, the more I realized that these fleeting moments of Rapture fear don’t actually make me a bad skeptic. In a sense, they make me a good skeptic. They show that I recognize my own limitations, and that I’m willing to consider the possibility that I might be mistaken.

And more to the point: They just make me human.

Being a good skeptic doesn’t mean that I don’t have cognitive biases. Skeptics still have human brains. Skeptics are still subject to confirmation bias, rationalization, wishful thinking, the perception of pattern where there is none, the perception of intention where there is none, yada yada yada… and yes, the argument from popularity.

Shermer_why_people_believe_weird_things Being good skeptics doesn’t mean we don’t have these cognitive biases. It means we’re aware of them. It means we can say, “My computer sure has been crashing a lot lately… but that could just be a pseudo-pattern.” It means we can say, “It seems like I’ve been getting sick less often since I started taking Vitamin C… but that could just be selective memory.” It means we can say, “I think cardamom is becoming the newest food trend… but that could be confirmation bias, and I’m just seeing the stuff everywhere because I’m looking for it.” Being good skeptics means we can see these cognitive biases, in ourselves as well as others. And that means we can compensate for them. It means that, when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the world, we can set up systems specifically designed to filter them out, as much as we humanly can. It means we don’t have to let our lives be controlled by them.

So yes. When I see the Rapture billboards, for a flashing nanosecond, I get scared. I hear a bunch of other people in the tribe screaming, “Tiger!”, and I flinch and glance around reflexively for a nanosecond… before I remember that these are the same people who have been screaming “Tiger!” for years and decades and generations, and they have never once been right about the tiger or anything else, and it is entirely reasonable and safe to ignore them.

And then I come back to my senses, and rejoin the party.

*

Atheist rapture billboard oakland

P.S. Speaking of Rapture parties, just a quick reminder: I’m going to be speaking at one! The Regional Atheists Meeting in Oakland, hosted by American Atheists, is happening on Rapture weekend, May 21-22, at at the Oakland Masonic Center at 3903 Broadway. Other speakers will include Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight (Blag Hag), Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Rebecca Watson (Skepchick), and many more. There’ll be stand-up comedy from Troy Conrad and Keith Lowell Jensen, as well as the fun, inspiring talks and an after- conference party. Advance tickets are no longer available, alas; tickets at the door are $59 for the whole weekend. The conference per se starts at 9:00 each morning, but registration takes some time, so they’re recommending that people arrive at 8:15.

My topic for the conference: “Why Are Atheists So Angry?” Summary: The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change? My talk is on Sunday, May 22. Assuming we’re not drowning in a sea of blood by then.

There’s also a special, pre-conference fundraising breakfast for Camp Quest West on Sunday 5/22 at 7:30 am. You’ll get to eat and schmooze with many of the featured speakers: me, Jen McCreight, Matt Dillahunty, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity), Rebecca Watson, David Byars, Mark Calladus and Lewis Marshall. Menu options include blood pudding, steak a la brimstone (a Bay Area specialty!), honey-roasted locusts, and lamb. (Kidding. I wish. It’s been way too long since I’ve had a good locust.) Tickets are $50 each. Come join us! I’ll be as chatty and sparkly as I can be at 7:30 in the morning after a bath of sulfur and frogs.

Why Do Atheists Have to Advertise?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

“Are you good without God? Millions are.”

“Imagine no religion.”

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Cfi-living-without-religion Atheist ad campaigns are everywhere. Around the U.S. and around the world, atheist organizations have been buying space on billboards, buses, TV and more, with messages ranging from the mild-mannered “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” to the in-your-face “You know it’s a myth.” The current “Living Without Religion” campaign from the Center for Inquiry, letting the world know that “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live” — is only the latest in a series of advertising blitzes: from American Atheists, the Coalition of Reason, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and many other organizations. Even local student atheist groups have been getting into the act, using buses in their college towns to spread the good news about atheism.

And whenever they do, they are almost guaranteed to garner resistance. Conservative religionists often object vehemently to the very concept of atheist advertising: in many cases trying to get the ad campaigns stopped altogether, and frequently even vandalizing the billboards. (In what has to be the irony of the year, some bus companies have stopped accepting all religious-themed ads, simply so they don’t have to accept ads from atheists.) And while moderate and progressive believers have never (to my knowledge) tried to stop these atheist ad campaigns from moving forward, many are still baffled and even offended by the ads. They see them as proselytizing, evangelical… and they don’t understand why people who are opposed to religion would be proselytizing and evangelical.

So why do atheists do this?

Why do atheists spend substantial amounts of money and resources to let the world know we exist, and to get our ideas across?

Which Atheists?

The first thing you have to remember is this: Not all atheist ads campaigns are created equal. Different atheist organizations create different ad campaigns, with different goals, and different strategies for achieving those goals. So when you ask, “Why do atheists have to advertise?”, the first question you have to answer is, “Which atheists?”

SecularLife Some atheist ad campaigns, for instance, are purely about visibility. The sole message behind them: “Atheists exist.” The folks behind these campaigns know that visibility is key to acceptance of atheists — just like it’s key to acceptance of LGBT people. Simply getting people familiar with atheists, and getting them comfortable with the concept of atheism, goes a long way to countering anti-atheist prejudice and hostility. What’s more, the folks behind these campaigns know that plenty of non-believers feel isolated — cut off from family and friends if they’re open about their atheism, hiding in secrecy and silence if they’re not — and they want these people know that they aren’t alone. It’s like the annual Coming Out Day campaign for LGBT people.

Good without god Other of these ad campaigns are about information. They’re there to counter myths about atheists. They’re not just telling you, “Atheists exist” — they’re telling you, “Atheists exist, and are good, happy people.” Misinformation and bigotry against atheists abound, and many atheist ad campaigns — including the current “Living Without Religion” one from the Center for Inquiry — are aimed at countering this misinformation. They’re aimed at letting the world know that, contrary to popular opinion, atheists have morality, meaning, joy, and hope in our lives… just as much as religious believers. It’s like a public service information campaign, letting you know that, contrary to popular opinion, HIV is a treatable illness/ Arab Americans are your peaceful hard-working neighbors/ the library is open late on Thursdays.

Join the club Still other campaigns are trying to gain new members for their atheist groups. They aren’t necessarily trying to persuade anyone out of religion… but they know that there are non-believers in their communities, people who feel isolated, people who may even think they’re the only ones who think they way they do. And they want those folks to know that atheist organizations are available: to provide community, to provide support, to provide education and entertainment, to simply provide reinforcement for the idea that they aren’t crazy or immoral for thinking the way they do. Like a softball team flyering for new players… or the AARP advertising for new members, and letting you know about the wonderful programs they have available for people over 50.

Theres probably no god And still others are, in fact, actively trying to change people’s minds about religion. They’re trying to persuade people that atheism is, you know, correct: that there is no God, and people should stop believing… or, at the very least, consider the possibility that their beliefs might be mistaken. Or they’re trying to persuade people to respect the separation of church and state, even if they believe in God. Like Pepsi trying to persuade you to buy their products instead of Coke’s… or Marriage Equality trying to get you to vote against Prop 8.

Of course, while these ad campaigns do have different goals, many of those goals dovetail and overlap. The “atheist visibility” folks may not be deliberately trying to persuade people out of religion, for instance… but since religion relies on social agreement to perpetuate itself, the mere act of saying “Atheists exist, not everyone believes in God” lays a small but powerful piece of dynamite under its foundations. The “deconversion” folks may be trying to get people to question their faith… but they’re also getting atheism on a lot more people’s radar. And while the “countering misinformation” campaigns aren’t necessarily designed to increase group membership, that’s often the effect.

And I would argue that every single one of these goals is valid.

After all — they’re valid for every other human endeavor.

When it comes to every other human idea/ affiliation/ activity/ organization, we think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to make themselves visible. To make information available. To let others who might be interested know that a group exists. To persuade others who don’t agree to change their minds. When it comes to politics, science, art, medicine, hobbies, philosophy, food, etc., we consider it not only acceptable, but positive and worthwhile, to share our ideas, and to get our points of view into the world, and to make our case when we really think we’re right.

Why should atheism be the exception?

Probably no cod If it’s okay for Democrats to run ads saying, “Vote Democratic”? If it’s okay for the Boston Red Sox to run ads saying, “Go Sox”? If it’s okay for the Red Hot Organization to run ads saying, “Safe sex is hot sex”? If it’s okay for Greenpeace to run ads saying (seriously) “There’s probably no cod, now let’s stop overfishing & think of the future”? Then why on Earth is it not okay for the Center for Inquiry to run ads saying, “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live”? Or even for American Atheists to run ads saying, “You know it’s a myth”?

Why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be entitled to a free ride… free from criticism and questioning and the uncomfortable reminder that not everyone in the world agrees with it?

Vandalism And in fact, when you look at the ugly responses that atheist ad campaigns typically get, the need for them becomes even more obvious. Religious believers have called the ad campaigns “aggressive,” “hateful,” “offensive,” “a disgrace,” “political correctness gone amok,” “terrible,” “disturbing,” and “dangerous.” They’ve said that they “have had their sensibilities assaulted” by the ads, that their beliefs were being “attacked” and “vandalized” by them. They’ve suggested that someone “accidentally burn” the billboards. They’ve equated atheist advertisers with Fred Phelps. And these responses are hardly isolated: they’re very much in line with general American sentiments about atheists, which view us as the most disliked and distrusted minority in America.

Of course atheists need visibility — lots of people are bigoted about us. Of course we need to spread information about who we are — lots of people are ignorant about us. Of course we need to let other atheists know that support networks are available — lots of people are hateful about us. Of course we need to advocate for separation of church and state — lots of people want to make it actually illegal for us to advertise. The very hostility that the atheist ad campaigns generate proves why we need them so badly.

Sauce for the Goose?

Now, some people may think I’m being a hypocrite here. Some people think that religious evangelism sucks, whether it’s atheists or believers doing the “evangelizing” — and they think it’s hypocritical for atheists to cut slack for the atheist ad campaigns. “Sure, she doesn’t like religious proselytizing,” these folks are probably saying, “but she thinks it’s totally okay for atheists to try to swell their ranks and change people’s minds! How is that fair?”

But these people would be mistaken.

Because I don’t, in fact, have any objection to religious evangelists trying to change people’s minds.

Biblefire Don’t get me wrong. I have serious objections to many of the religious evangelists’ methods. I object to their use of fear-mongering as a form of persuasion; to their offering of false hope; to the way they present unsubstantiated opinion as authoritative fact. I object to their arrogant use of personal experience as the keystone of their case, with little or no understanding of the fallibility of the human mind. I object to their dismissal and even contempt of the most fundamental notions of evidence and reason. I object to their use of social pressure and even shunning to enforce complicity and silence dissent within their ranks. I object to their knocking on people’s doors at eight in the morning on a Saturday.

But I do not have any objection whatsoever to the basic idea of religious believers trying to persuade people that they’re right. None. If they think they’re right, then that’s exactly what they ought to do. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works: people share their ideas, they make the case for their ideas, and (in theory, anyway) in the long run the best idea wins. In fact, if these believers were right, and our eternal afterlives in bliss or torment really were contingent on believing the right religion? Then not trying to persuade others to share the faith would be objectionable. Immoral, even. Callous to the point of being monstrous. I disagree passionately with their case, I disagree with how they typically make that case… but I have not even the slightest objection to the idea of them making it.

No religion And I’m not afraid of them. I think the case for atheism is better than the case for religion… by several orders of magnitude. I think that, when stripped of the fear-mongering and social pressure and unsubstantiated opinion and so on, religion falls apart almost laughably fast. I think that religion is a house of cards built inside a fortress, and when the fortress of excuses and diversions and non-arguments gets breached, the actual case for religion is so flimsy it’s almost pathetic. I think atheism is correct; I think the case for atheism is winning, and will continue to win… and I’m not afraid of religious believers making their case.

And the fact that so many believers are afraid of atheists making our case?

That just makes my point for me.

Atheists aren’t the ones trying to shut up religious believers. When religious ads go up on buses and billboards and TV, we roll our eyes and go about our business. We don’t agree with the advertisers… but we don’t try to stop them from advertising. Sure, we’re trying to get religious messages out of government — no Ten Commandments in City Halls, no creationism in public schools, no prayers to start city council meetings, etc. — but that’s a separation of church and state issue. (One that works for religious believers just as much as it does for atheists, I might point out.) When it comes to religious groups hawking their message on their own private property — or on other people’s private property they’ve rented with their own money — we may think it’s obnoxious or silly, but we totally respect their right to do it.

And the fact that so many believers don’t respect atheists’ right to hawk our message? It just shows how weak their message is — and how afraid they are of having it contradicted. As my wife Ingrid points out, “If you’re got God on your side, why are you so afraid of a billboard?”

If religionists thought their case for God was strong, they wouldn’t be trying to silence atheists.

And the fact that they are trying to silence atheists, all by itself, is Exhibit A for exactly why we need to keep advertising.

“Spreading the Good News About Atheism”: Why We Need Atheist Ad Campaigns

“Are you good without God? Millions are.”

“Imagine no religion.”

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Cfi-living-without-religion Atheist ad campaigns are everywhere. Around the U.S. and around the world, atheist organizations have been buying space on billboards, buses, TV and more, with messages ranging from the mild-mannered “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” to the in-your-face “You know it’s a myth.” The current “Living Without Religion” campaign from the Center for Inquiry, letting the world know that “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live” — is only the latest in a series of advertising blitzes: from American Atheists, the Coalition of Reason, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and many other organizations. Even local student atheist groups have been getting into the act, using buses in their college towns to spread the good news about atheism.

And whenever they do, they are almost guaranteed to garner resistance. Conservative religionists often object vehemently to the very concept of atheist advertising: in many cases trying to get the ad campaigns stopped altogether, and frequently even vandalizing the billboards. (In what has to be the irony of the year, some bus companies have stopped accepting all religious-themed ads, simply so they don’t have to accept ads from atheists.) And while moderate and progressive believers have never (to my knowledge) tried to stop these atheist ad campaigns from moving forward, many are still baffled and even offended by the ads. They see them as proselytizing, evangelical… and they don’t understand why people who are opposed to religion would be proselytizing and evangelical.

So why do atheists do this?

Why do atheists spend substantial amounts of money and resources to let the world know we exist, and to get our ideas across?

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, “Spreading the Good News About Atheism”: Why We Need Atheist Ad Campaigns. To find out why atheist ad campaigns are both valid and necessary — and what the hostile reactions to them says about religion — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!