Fred Phelps, and Why We Shouldn’t Look for Loopholes in the First Amendment

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

God Hates FagsLet’s start with something I hope we all agree on. What Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church do? It’s repulsive. Picketing people’s funerals? Specifically, picketing the funerals of gay-bashing victims and U.S. soldiers? Going to people’s funerals and essentially celebrating? Wielding big colorful signs saying, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “God Hates You,” and so on? Saying that dead soldiers — gay, straight, whatever, doesn’t matter — are God’s punishment to America for tolerating homosexuality?

Repulsive. Horrifying. The dictionary definition of evil. I get that. No argument.

The question is: What should we do about it?

As you’ve probably heard, the Supreme Court just ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church does have the right, within some reasonable limits, to picket at funerals. Background, in case you’re not familiar with the case: The Westboro Baptist Church was sued by Albert Snyder, father of fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, for picketing at his son’s funeral with their vile and hateful message. The court ruled that, since the protests happened peacefully and in a public space at a non-disruptive distance from the funeral — and since, quote, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection” — the original judgment against them could not stand.

Many progressives have expressed outrage at this ruling. And from an emotional point of view, that outrage is totally understandable. The Westboro Baptist Church is very, very good at hitting our most raw nerves. They hurt people for the sake of hurting them, and apparently take glee in doing so. They violate fundamental principles of human decency. They are loathsome. Outrage against them is entirely reasonable.

But here’s the problem.

Many of the progressive arguments against the Supreme Court ruling? They’re very contorted. They don’t look like clear thinking based on clear principles of Constitutional law. They look like rationalizations for why the Constitution doesn’t really have to apply in this case. They look like the reactions of people who are deeply upset about what the Westboro Baptist Church does — as indeed they should be — and are looking for legal loopholes to try to stop them.

And we should not be looking for loopholes in the First Amendment.

I want to get into some specific arguments progressives are making against this decision… and why, specifically, they don’t hold up. But before I go there, I need to make this core principle very, very clear:

We should not. Be looking. For loopholes. In the freaking First Amendment.

First-Amendment-flag The First Amendment, and the right to the free expression of political ideas, is one of most crucial cornerstones of our democracy. Without it, democracy collapses. Without the freedom to express political opinions, we can’t participate fully in the political process. Without the freedom to hear political opinions, we can’t make informed decisions about what we think. And without the freedom to hear and express opinions that dissent from the mainstream, there is no way that mainstream opinion can change. The right to free speech is an essential part of democracy. And it is, in and of itself, a basic human right, a value that is worth treasuring and protecting for its own sake.

So our default assumption should always, always, always be that speech should be free, unless there is a tremendously compelling reason to limit it.

And this principle especially applies to political speech: expression of opinion on matters of public concern, in a public place, that doesn’t disrupt any private activities.

Too late to pray Which is exactly what the Westboro Baptist Church was up to. They were in a public place. They were not violent; they were not disruptive; they were not invasive. Yes, they picketed a funeral. They picketed a funeral from 1,000 feet away — so far away that the plaintiff didn’t even know they were there until he heard about it on the news the next day. As repugnant as it was, what the Westboro Baptist Church did in this case was political speech. The only thing that made it different from any other political speech was the hateful, vile, abhorrent content.

And when we’re considering questions of free speech and the First Amendment, the content of the speech, and whether or not we find it hateful and vile and abhorrent, is entirely irrelevant.

Are there some reasonable limitations on speech? Of course. Some classic examples: laws against libel, fraud, false advertising, copyright violation, revealing state secrets. I’m sure we can all come up with some more.

But if we care about freedom and democracy as much as we claim to, then our default assumption should be that speech is permitted. We should not be looking for excuses to ban speech we don’t like. We should not start with the conclusion that the ghoulish expression of disgusting political opinions should be banned, and then go hunting for legal loopholes that will let us accomplish that. We should start with the assumption that the expression of political opinions should of course be permitted… and treat any attempt to limit it with extreme suspicion, and the expectation that it better have a damn good reason behind it.

We should not be looking for loopholes in the First Amendment.

And that’s exactly what progressive objections to the SCOTUS decision look like. They don’t look like sound reasoning based on solid legal and ethical principles. They look like rationalizations for an emotional reaction. They look like contorted excuses for why, in this particular case, we don’t really need to care about the First Amendment.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Gravblom1966 “Funerals are private affairs — and people have a right to not have their private affairs disrupted and invaded.”

Right. That’s a reasonable argument. Or it would be… if the WBC had been disruptive and invasive of the funeral in question.

But they weren’t. Like I said before — like I keep saying again and again when I discuss this case, since so many people seem to be doggedly ignoring it — in the particular case considered by the Supreme Court, the WBC was so non-disruptive and non-invasive of the funeral that the plaintiff didn’t even know they were there until the next day. The emotional upset wasn’t brought on by the funeral being protested. It was brought on simply by hearing about it on the news the next day, and knowing that the protests had happened at all. If the protests had happened in the next street, or the next town, or the next state, the effect would have been the same.

So how would you propose to write a law banning this? Should we write a law saying that nobody is ever allowed to express political protest on the occasion of someone’s death?

Richard_Nixon When Nelson Rockefeller died, the lefty radio station in New York played “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead.” When Spiro Agnew died, I saw op ed pieces in newspapers basically saying, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” When Richard Nixon died, Hunter S. Thompson wrote a piece excoriating him, calling him (among other things) “scum,” an “evil bastard,” ” a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal,” and “a political monster straight out of Grendel,” and expressing the wish that his body be burned in a trash bin or launched into an open- sewage canal. Tasteless? Yes. I, personally, would not do that (although I do have a sneaking admiration for the uniquely articulate vitriol of the Thompson piece). But were these legitimate forms of political speech on matters of public concern? Absolutely.

And as long as the pickets didn’t actually disrupt the funeral while it was in progress, I don’t see how the WBC protests are any different.

Except for the content of the speech.

Which is exactly what we can’t write laws limiting.

And this argument looks exactly like an attempt to write laws limiting speech, simply because we don’t like the content — and to rationalize after the fact why that would be okay.

Fire in a crowded theater “Yes, free speech is important — but there are limits. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Etc.”

Right. There are limits to free speech.

Why should this be one of them?

Again — free speech is one of the most basic and crucial cornerstones of democracy and freedom. Free political speech especially. We should not be thinking, “Why does this form of speech deserve protection?” We should be thinking, “Why is this form of speech under attack?” Our default should be that speech should always be permitted — unless there’s a powerfully compelling reason to restrict it.

And “We find the content of this speech revolting” does not qualify.

Theres probably no god In fact, the exact opposite is true. The whole freaking point of the First Amendment is the protection of unpopular speech. It wasn’t written to protect our right to say that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. It was written to protect our right to say things that make people flee in horror… from “God Hates Fags” to “Gay Is Good,” from “Stop the War” to “Bomb Them Into The Stone Age,” from “God Wants Our Soldiers To Die” to “God Does Not Exist.”

It’s true that our rights are limited when our actions impinge on others; that our right to swing our fist ends where someone else’s nose begins. But when it comes to free speech, we have to ask, “What constitutes a broken nose”? In the case of laws against fraud, libel, copyright violation, etc., the damage from the speech is clear, and it’s material. But in the case of this funeral protest? The damage was, “Hearing opinions that were profoundly upsetting.”

And that is exactly what we don’t have the right to be protected from. We don’t have the right to be protected from hearing ideas we find upsetting. The expression of opinions we find upsetting — opinions on public matters, expressed in a public place, in a manner that does not invade private space — is exactly what the First Amendment was written to defend.

You can’t just say, “There are some reasonable limits on free speech — therefore, this particular limit on free speech should be considered reasonable.” Again, the burden of proof should be on the people trying to ban the speech — not on the people speaking it. Our default assumption should not be that limiting speech is reasonable. Our default assumption should be that limiting speech is a bad, bad idea, and should only be done in rare cases, where material harm is being done, as an absolute last resort.

So if you’re going to argue that a particular form of speech should be limited, you have to make a compelling, positive argument as to why this form of speech does material harm. And it can’t have anything to do with whether the content of the speech is objectionable, or upsetting, or utterly reprehensible.

And this argument looks exactly like an attempt to write laws limiting speech, simply because we don’t like the content — and to rationalize after the fact why that would be okay.

Miss manners “This violates fundamental rules of human decency.”

Yup. It sure does.

So what?

South park “Pink Flamingos” violates fundamental rules of human decency. “I Spit On Your Grave” violates fundamental rules of human decency. Anti-abortion marches with signs showing aborted fetuses violate fundamental rules of human decency. Cartoons comparing Barack Obama to a monkey violate fundamental rules of human decency. “Robot Chicken” violates fundamental rules of human decency. “South Park” violates fundamental rules of human decency. Hell, Celine Dion violates fundamental rules of human decency.

So what? It’s still protected speech.

Basically, what people are saying here is, “They’re rude.” Okay, granted, that’s trivializing the matter. What people are saying is, “They’re really, really rude. They are truly, horribly, appallingly rude. They are offensive beyond our powers to describe.”

Yup. They sure are.

And we don’t write bad manners into law.

When people exhibit bad manners, we scowl at them. We turn our noses up at them. We tell them they’re being rude. We speak out against them. In extreme cases, we shun them from polite society, or organize protests against them, or try to get them fired from their jobs.

But trying to write bad manners into law? That’s a textbook definition of an attempt to write laws limiting speech, simply because we don’t like the content — and to rationalize after the fact why that would be okay.

Hate_crime_poster_front “This isn’t protected speech. This is harassment/ bullying/ incitement to violence/a violation of privacy/ a hate crime.”

Uh… no.

Once again, if you’re making any of these arguments, you really need to look at the facts of this case. (The New York Times has a decent summary and a link to a PDF with the full SCOTUS ruling.)

Protest sign The WBC did not follow people down the street screaming threats. They didn’t stand around a fistfight shouting, “Kill him!” They didn’t beat someone with a crowbar yelling, “Die, faggot!” They didn’t even scream in the mourners’ faces. Again — for what seems like the bezillionth time in all the conversations I’ve had on this topic — the funeral protests in this case were quiet, non-violent, compliant with local laws and police instructions, restricted to public property, and so non-invasive that the plaintiff didn’t even know they were there until he heard about it on the news the next day. If the funeral was not disrupted, it’s not an invasion of privacy. If no crime was committed apart from the disputed speech itself, it’s not a hate crime. If imminent lawless acts weren’t specifically being encouraged, it’s not incitement to violence. And it is bloody well not harassment or bullying if you have to hear about the horrible things someone said about you on the news the next day.

I’m sorry if I seem harsh. I get that this case is upsetting, and I really am trying to be sympathetic. But these arguments disturb me. These arguments show a serious lack of familiarity with even the most basic facts of this case: an unfamiliarity that reveals an unsettling lack of concern about the case, and the genuinely important legal and ethical issues connected with it. These arguments look like attempts to ignore the facts, or even distort them, because they contradict the desired conclusion — the conclusion that the WBC shouldn’t be allowed to do what they do. They look exactly like attempts to write laws limiting speech, simply because we don’t like the content — and to rationalize after the fact why that would be okay.

Why on Earth do progressives want to do that?

*

Look. I, myself, am queer. I’m one of the people the WBC is specifically targeting with their venom. I’m one of the people they specifically think God hates; one of the people they think is on the straight track to hell, cheerfully dragging the rest of the country down with me. And I am every bit as revolted by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as anyone. What they do is monstrous, and I stand against them with every fiber of my being.

Godhatesjedi And there are many, many things we can do to stand against them. We can organize counter-protests. Organize same-sex kiss-ins at their protests. Support gay-positive education and the spreading of gay-positive ideas in the culture. Work against the bullying of gay kids in schools. Wear T-shirts that say, “Fags Hate God.” Keep a vigilant eye on them, and if they do break any laws, smack them down like dogs. Make fun of them. Ignore them, on the theory that they thrive on attention and we ought not to give it to them. Speak out against homophobia whenever and wherever we see it. Make sure they not only lose the battle of history, but look like villains and fools doing it.

There are many things we can do to stand against them. But banning their speech is not one of them.

As a purely practical matter, this Supreme Court decision is one that progressives should be embracing. There is no way to make the WBC’s speech illegal without making all unpopular speech illegal. And that includes unpopular progressive speech. There is no way to ban the WBC’s non-invasive picketing of dead soldier’s funerals without also banning feminists burning bras, or anti-war protesters re-enacting Abu Ghraib, or AIDS activists lying on the sidewalks spattered in fake blood.

National_Women's_Suffrage_Association And of course, many opinions that were once considered horrifying on the face of it are now considered mainstream, or at least a reasonable perspective in the public discourse. Among those opinions: Birth control should be legal. Religion should not be taught in public schools. Gay sex is okay, and gay people have rights. Black people are fully human, and ought not to be treated as property. Black people are fully human, and have the right to marry white people. Oral sex is not sick. Workers have the right to organize and collectively bargain for contracts. Poets have the right to say the word “Fuck.” Women have the right to have orgasms. Women have the right to not be raped by their husbands. Women have the right to vote. All these opinions were once considered morally repugnant… and as a society, we couldn’t have come to accept them if we hadn’t had the right to say them out loud.

I’m not saying that the WBC’s opinions are becoming mainstream, or that they should. Their opinions are vile: they are on the fringe of the fringe of the fringe, and they should stay that way. I’m saying that, as a society, we can’t move forward and accept new ideas if we don’t let people express ideas that we find shocking and upsetting. And I’m saying that, as a purely practical matter, if we want the right to express our opinions when most people find them revolting, we need to protect other peoples right to express their own revolting opinions.

But that’s almost beside the point. We shouldn’t embrace the SCOTUS decision because it works to our benefit and lets us persuade people that we’re right. We should embrace the SCOTUS decision because we care about free speech. Period. Even when we don’t agree with what people say, we should care passionately about their right to say it. Not so we can have our turn to say what we want. Because we give a damn about the principle that people have the right to say what they want. And that means everyone. Regardless of what they’re saying.

FirstAmendment If we truly care about freedom and democracy, we shouldn’t treat the First Amendment like a local zoning law or some arcane bit of tax code. The First Amendment is one of the greatest leaps forward in human history and the evolution of human ethics. We shouldn’t be looking for clever, sneaky ways to get around it.

There are many things we can do, and should do, to stand against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.

Looking for loopholes in the First Amendment is not one of them.

The Fred Phelps Supreme Court Decision and Why We Shouldn’t Look for Loopholes in the First Amendment

When it comes to free speech and the First Amendment, the content of the speech, and whether or not we find it hateful, vile and abhorrent, is irrelevant.

Godhatesfags Let’s start with something I hope we all agree on. What Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church do? It’s repulsive. Picketing people’s funerals? Specifically, picketing the funerals of gay-bashing victims and U.S. soldiers? Going to people’s funerals and essentially celebrating? Wielding big colorful signs saying, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “God Hates You,” and so on? Saying that dead soldiers — gay, straight, whatever, doesn’t matter — are God’s punishment to America for tolerating homosexuality?

Repulsive. Horrifying. The dictionary definition of evil. I get that. No argument.

The question is: What should we do about it?

As you’ve probably heard, the Supreme Court just ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church does have the right, within some reasonable limits, to picket at funerals. Background, in case you’re not familiar with the case: The Westboro Baptist Church was sued by Albert Snyder, father of fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, for picketing at his son’s funeral with their vile and hateful message. The court ruled that, since the protests happened peacefully and in a public space at a non-disruptive distance from the funeral — and since, quote, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection” — the original judgment against them could not stand.

Many progressives have expressed outrage at this ruling. And from an emotional point of view, that outrage is totally understandable. The Westboro Baptist Church is very, very good at hitting our most raw nerves. They hurt people for the sake of hurting them, and apparently take glee in doing so. They violate fundamental principles of human decency. They are loathsome. Outrage against them is entirely reasonable.

But here’s the problem.

Many of the progressive arguments against the Supreme Court ruling? They’re very contorted. They don’t look like clear thinking based on clear principles of Constitutional law. They look like rationalizations for why the Constitution doesn’t really have to apply in this case. They look like the reactions of people who are deeply upset about what the Westboro Baptist Church does — as indeed they should be — and are looking for legal loopholes to try to stop them.

And we should not be looking for loopholes in the First Amendment.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, The Fred Phelps Supreme Court Decision and Why We Shouldn’t Look for Loopholes in the First Amendment. (This actually went up a few days ago, btw, but I somehow missed it when I was on my speaking tour.) To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

High School Atheists Courageously Battle for Their Rights… With Awesome Organization Behind Them

Ssa logo So when I was writing my recent news piece for AlterNet about the Secular Student Alliance and their new dedicated program for high school atheist groups, I kept finding myself being entertained by how hard it was to write. I am so not a news writer: I am an opinion writer, to the nucleus of the cells of the marrow of my bones, and while I’m perfectly happy to reach out of my comfort zone and write more standard news pieces, I could tell that, despite my best efforts to keep it newsy, my personal opinion was leaking out around the edges.

So for those of you who thought that the article was a bit of a puff piece, I thought you’d be entertained by the stuff I left out of the final draft. (If you haven’t already, be sure to read the original piece first, so you get the context.)

P.S. This is funnier if you know that all the interviews quoted here were, in fact, conducted via email.

*

The Secular Student Alliance, an umbrella organization supporting non-theistic student groups, whose dynamic vision for the future is backed with fierce organizational skills, passed 250 affiliates this month — a number that has doubled in just two years. (Conflict of interest alert: I’m on the speaker’s bureau for the Secular Student Alliance; I’m colleagues/ friends with several people in the organization; and I consider it an honor and a privilege to have shared their company and labored at their side.)

*

Jt eberhard According to JT Eberhard, human dynamo and Campus Organizer and High School Specialist for the SSA, “Most of them seem to elect to try and drag their feet until the interested students either lose interest or graduate.”
*

“A predictable pattern has actually emerged,” Eberhard continues, a quiver in his voice, his expressive brown eyes snapping with righteous indignation at the injustice.

*

With the help of a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, they hired organizational superstar Eberhard, co-founder of the nationally- renowned, hard-rocking, fanatically beloved atheist conference Skepticon (and of the Missouri State University Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an inspiration for atheist student groups everywhere and Skepticon’s official host), as their dedicated high school campus organizer. In an organization already recognized as a trailblazer in the movement, it was a daring move that many consider to be among their most brilliant.

*

Lyz liddell According to SSA Director of Campus Organizing Lyz Liddell, a deceptive twinkle in her eye that could transform in a second to a flashing glint of hard steel, “We’ve had around 4-6 HS groups for most of the time we’ve been around, but there’s been no consistency or sustainability until recently.”
*

August brunsman As SSA’s Executive Director August Brunsman said, compassion and humanity blazing out from behind his cherubic face, “While the law is certainly on our side, we would rather have social understanding than legal victory.” August spoke to me from the expansive, tasteful, yet warm and welcoming home he shares with his charming and vibrant wife, Camp Quest executive director Amanda K. Metskas, and their two gregarious cats, Shiva and Vishnu.
*

Says Eberhard, whose imagination and mischievous humor is matched only by his bulldog determination and his ferocious passion for justice and truth, “Some view the conclusions of religion to be maladaptive and seek to generate public dialogue about the failings of faith.”

*

As Liddell pointed out, a gleam of raw intellect glittering behind her fashionable spectacles, “For an awful lot of people, high school is the last educational system they’re in.” Liddell ran her fingers through her short, stylishly- coiffed blond hair, and continued, “If all our groups are in colleges, then only college students will be exposed to freethought as a ‘normal’ worldview.”

*

George and the dragon For other groups, who won’t be able to count on national media attention to aid their cause, the battle for their legal right to organize without intimidation may be more uphill.

But they won’t be fighting it alone. With the sword and shield of the Secular Student Alliance at their side, the youth of America have a powerful ally. The battle for righteousness carries on valiantly, and the torch of human reason shall not flicker and die.

For more information on the desperately needed Secular Student Alliance high school program, or to lend support to their eminently worthy cause, visit the Secular Student Alliance website.

High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

High school non-theist groups are finally getting dedicated support from a national organization. Why are high schools resisting — and what does this mean for the future of atheism?

School busHigh school student Brian Lisco just wanted to form a student club. A senior at Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, Lisco wanted to meet with like-minded students; students who shared common interests, who could talk about ideas they found interesting, who could give one another support.

But his efforts were consistently thwarted by the administration at his high school. His requests to form a club were stalled for months, and obstacle after obstacle was put in his path.

Why?

Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.

And his story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.

Ssa logo Atheist student groups have been organizing in colleges and universities for years, and their numbers are climbing at an astonishing rate. The Secular Student Alliance, an umbrella organization supporting non-theistic student groups, passed 250 affiliates this month — a number that has doubled in just two years. (Conflict of interest alert: I’m on the speaker’s bureau for the Secular Student Alliance, and am colleagues/ friends with several people in the organization.) And for the most part, atheist groups at colleges and universities meet with little resistance, and in many cases get a fair degree of support, from school administrations — who are familiar with the laws in such matters, and often have clear diversity policies in place.

Jt eberhard But in high schools, it’s a different story. Resistance to atheist groups from high school administrators, while not universal, is depressingly common. According to JT Eberhard, Campus Organizer and High School Specialist for the SSA, “Most of them seem to elect to try and drag their feet until the interested students either lose interest or graduate. The ‘objections’ are varied. I’ve heard ‘it would be too controversial’, ‘all clubs are secular’, ‘other groups already do the same thing’, and a whole host of other lame reasons.” Eberhard adds that a common tactic is to tell students they need a faculty adviser to form a group — a requirement that is, in fact, flatly illegal — “and then to make sure the group cannot find a willing one.” (The legal principle that high schools must give all students equal access to forming extracurricular clubs, with or without a faculty advisor and regardless of the purpose of the club, has been well- established… and it’s a principle that has been applied to religious groups, and was in fact strongly lobbied for by them.)

“A predictable pattern has actually emerged,” he continues. “1. Interested student gets everything in order, finds a faculty sponsor, and applies for their group. 2. Administration stonewalls them. 3. Students push harder. 4. Administration crumbles, but faculty sponsor withdraws. I’ve seen this exact same scenario play out almost double-digit times in the six weeks I’ve been here.” In a particularly vivid example of these tactics, an Oklahoma high school student who tried to form an atheist group was accused of trying to form a “hate group”… and when it became clear that the student knew their rights and was not going to back down, the faculty sponsor they had lined up withdrew under pressure, saying she had been told that sponsoring this group would be “a bad career move.”

But at the beginning of 2011, the Secular Student Alliance began a program specifically devoted to supporting high school atheist groups. With the help of a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, they hired Eberhard, co-founder of the nationally- renowned atheist conference Skepticon (and of the Missouri State University Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Skepticon’s official host), as their dedicated high school campus organizer.

The efforts have been paying off. It took four years for the SSA to get just twelve high school groups affiliated with their organization. According to SSA Director of Campus Organizing Lyz Liddell, “We’ve had around 4-6 HS groups for most of the time we’ve been around, but there’s been no consistency or sustainability until recently.” But in just the first month since their dedicated high school program began, they have gained five new high school affiliates.

August brunsman And while the SSA primarily supports its college and university groups through financial assistance, organizational advice and materials, access to a speaker’s bureau, and so on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that support for high school groups will need to be more aggressive. Gentle reminders about the law. Repeated gentle reminders about the law. Somewhat less gentle reminders about the law. Mediation. Media attention when the law is being defied. Possibly even legal action. It hasn’t yet come to this last option, and the SSA hopes it won’t have to. As SSA’s Executive Director August Brunsman said, “While the law is certainly on our side, we would rather have social understanding than legal victory.” But if legal action becomes necessary, the SSA is prepared to support atheist students, and their legal right to form clubs in high schools.

So why are students forming these groups, anyway?

Usa_today_logo1 The need for high school atheist groups — or indeed, for atheist groups of any kind — is baffling to many people. When USA Today ran an article about Brian Lisco and the SSA’s new high school program, it was met with a barrage of hostile comments… partly in the hysterical “Satan is trolling for the souls of our youth!” vein, but largely with puzzlement and snark, along the lines of, “Why would anyone need a club to talk about what they don’t believe in?”

But the powerful resistance these groups have encountered makes the need for them all too clear. The reality is that atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category. And this hostility can have serious consequences, in the form of harassment, bullying, ostracism, vandalism, alienation from family, loss of jobs, and more — especially in more religiously conservative parts of the country. Says Eberhard, “I can tell you that when I started here we had two leaders out of twelve that had to lead in secret. For instance, we have to send them blank packages and sometimes to other locations. Since then I’ve had a group-starting-packet request from another such student. I also have another group considering forming, but there is concern for safety.” As an example, he quotes an anonymous contact who’s interested in starting a group, but is fearful of the fallout:

We have a few families with high school students in our [atheist] group, but none of these students are “out” at school. I also have several High School teachers in the [city name redacted] Freethinkers, but almost every single one of them is afraid of anyone finding out they attend our [group] lest they lose their jobs; I’m having trouble imagining we could find a faculty adviser for students here.

And:

I do want to make sure that SSA would be prepared to support kids who might face some serious consequences should they be willing to bravely take on leadership. I am fully confident SSA will do its homework on the legal side of things, but I’m more concerned about things like anonymous vandalism or family conflict and the kind of toll that might take on kids in a pretty isolated, rural environment. I deal with this all the time with local LGBT teens, but there aren’t exactly 24-hour crisis hotlines for teenage atheists who get thrown out of their homes, etc. Since forming the Freethinkers, we’ve had several incidents of vandalism; I get hate emails all the time.

Atheist cartoon Countering anti-atheist myths is important even when the bigotry isn’t overtly threatening or grotesque. Myths about atheists are widespread, even among more moderate and progressive believers. Countering those myths requires visibility — and visibility is more effective with organization. Groups can provide emotional support to people who are coming out when they face opposition and hatred… and groups can make visibility easier to accomplish. As Eberhard points out, “One of the best ways gay students have acquired a greater level of acceptance is by ‘coming out’, so that many people are now realizing that they not only know gay people but that they like gay people. So it must be with atheists. We need to encourage non-believing students to be proud of who they are if the social stigma is to ever be dissolved.”

And even in the absence of overt anti-atheist hostility, and the need to band together for sanctuary and support in the face of it, there are plenty of reasons why atheists want to congregate — in high schools, or anywhere else. For many atheists, atheism is more than simply not believing in God: it’s a positive humanist philosophy, valuing reason, compassion, evidence, ethics, and social justice in this world. These atheists want to congregate with others who share their values: for social support, to do charity and social justice work, or just to eat pizza and hang out. What’s more, many atheists are actively engaged in countering religion and trying to persuade people out of it. As Eberhard, says, “Some view the conclusions of religion to be maladaptive and seek to generate public dialogue about the failings of faith.” They want to change the way people think — and organizing makes that more effective.

Holding hands In other words: Atheists — including high school atheists — form groups for the same reasons anyone does. Support in the face of hostility. The pleasure of spending time with people who share your ideas and values, and who like to do the same things you do. Greater visibility in the face of myths and bigotry. A more effective platform for getting your ideas into the world. A more effective platform for doing good work. Just plain fun. Humans are social animals. We like to hang out with other animals we have things in common with. Especially when other animals are being mean to us.

So why are so many high school administrators opposed to it?

“Fear of their communities is probably one thing,” says Eberhard. “In many areas the superintendent is elected, and allowing an atheist group that is bound to get local attention is something that’s bound to worry them. However, in most situations it seems like it’s just their own personal aversion.” Unsurprisingly, high school administrators have their own religious beliefs, and their own fears and misunderstandings about atheists. When coupled with fear of controversy, these beliefs and fears can generate resistance, stonewalling, delay tactics, outright intimidation, and the hope that if the problem is ignored for long enough, it will just go away.

But it’s hard to escape the notion that, at least in part, high school atheist groups are meeting such strong resistance because — when it comes to atheism gaining ground in society — they could change the game.

Lyz Liddell For one thing, as high school atheist groups become more common, the atheist presence in colleges and universities is likely to become stronger. As Liddell says, “Having high school groups will train leaders who will be able to step up and grow as leaders at the college level, adding awesomeness and sustainability for our college groups. I also think that it will further the growing expectation that there will be a secular group for them in college (after all, if they had one in high school, why wouldn’t there be one in college?), and in the cases where there isn’t yet, it will encourage them to start one (after all, it would sure have to be easier than it was in high school!).”

But the power of high school atheist groups to change the game goes beyond colleges and universities. As Liddell points out, “For an awful lot of people, high school is the last educational system they’re in. If all our groups are in colleges, then only college students will be exposed to freethought as a ‘normal’ worldview. Having these groups in high schools will go a long way toward raising awareness of our worldview, both among the students who go to school where these groups are and in the communities in which they are located.”

It isn’t surprising that people who are fearful about atheism in general would be fearful about atheist high school groups in particular. And since high school groups are so vulnerable, it isn’t surprising that they would meet with stubborn opposition.

But what does this mean for Brian Lisco — and other high school atheists trying to organize?

For Lisco and his group, the news has been good. After eight months of stalling and delay tactics, his school abruptly gave him the SSA club… shortly after USA Today contacted them for comment on the matter. For other groups, who won’t be able to count on national media attention to aid their cause, the battle for their legal right to organize without intimidation may be more uphill.

But they won’t be fighting it alone.

For more information on the Secular Student Alliance high school program, visit the Secular Student Alliance website, look at their educator’s guide for high school non-theist groups, or contact JT Eberhard, jt@secularstudents.org.

High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back?

High school non-theist groups are getting dedicated support from a national organization but their schools are flipping out. What does this mean for the future of atheism?

Schoolbus High school student Brian Lisco just wanted to form a student club. A senior at Stephen Austin High School in the Houston suburbs, Lisco wanted to meet with like-minded students; students who shared common interests, who could talk about ideas they found interesting, who could give one another support.

But his efforts were consistently thwarted by the administration at his high school. His requests to form a club were stalled for months, and obstacle after obstacle was put in his path.

Why?

Because the group he wanted to start was an atheist group.

His story is being repeated, with variations, around the country.

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, High School Atheists Are Organizing — Why Are Schools Pushing Back? To find out more about the Secular Student Alliance’s new dedicated program to support high school atheist groups — and about the resistance these groups are meeting from high school administrators — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists?

The Atheist Atheists get labeled as offensive and bitter… when we express anger, and when we express hope and morality and meaning. Why is it important for believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

Is there anything atheists can say about our atheism — or even just about our lives — that won’t make people look at us with revulsion?

Two recent stories in the news/ blogs/ opinionosphere have made me vividly aware — not for the first time — of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of non-believers in our culture. In one piece, atheists were called out for being negative and confrontational, and readers were informed that we’re angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death. In the other piece, non-believers were called out for sharing the positive, joyful aspects of our lives and the ways we find meaning and hope even in the face of death… and for failing to mention God when we do.

I know. It makes my head spin, too.

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists? To find out how atheists get accused of being hopeless, bitter nihilists, regardless of whether we’re expressing anger or joy — and why it’s so important for so many believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

How Dare You Atheists Exist?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Religious believers commonly attack atheists simply for existing. Do out- of- the- closet atheists — even polite ones — challenge attempts at theocracy?

Why believe in a god What, exactly, do religious believers want from atheists?

If you follow the atheism debates in op-ed pieces and whatnot, you’ll see that critiques of the so-called New Atheist movement are often aimed at our tone. Among the pundits and opinion-makers, atheist writers and activists are typically called out for being offensive, intolerant, disrespectful, extremist, hostile, confrontational, and just generally asshats. The question of whether atheists are, you know, right, typically gets sidestepped in favor of what is apparently the much more compelling question of whether atheists are jerks. And if these op-ed pieces and whatnot were all you knew about the atheist movement and the critiques of it, you might think that atheists were simply being asked to be reasonable, civil, and polite.

But if you follow atheism in the news, you begin to see a very different story.

You begin to see that atheists are regularly criticized — vilified, even — simply for existing.

Or, to be more accurate, for existing in the open. For declining to hide our atheism. For coming out.

Vuvuzelas.svg Case in point: In Bryan/ College Station, Texas, the Brazos Valley Vuvuzela Atheist Marching Band recently marched in the annual Christmas parade. Now, let’s be very clear about this: The 18-person marching band didn’t march with signs saying “Fuck Your Religion,” or “You Know It’s A Myth,” or even “There’s Probably No God — Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” They wished people a merry Christmas, and a happy Hanukkah, and a merry Kwanzaa. They played “Jingle Bells” on vuvuzelas. And they carried a banner saying that they were atheists.

The-atheist Which was enough, apparently, to send many Christians into fits. The atheist presence in the Christmas parade created a substantial controversy in the area. One resident interviewed by the local news, Tina Corgey, said, quote, “I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don’t feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade.” She added, “If you have younger children they weren’t going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don’t believe in God.”

And she was hardly alone. Her sentiments were echoed in many comments on the local news story. Including:

“There was one entry that should not have been in the parade. It was against Christmas.”

“We let people make a mockery out of us!!!!! My family and I have participated or watched the parade for the last 25 years, however, this was our last and hopefully other people feel the same way. Why on Earth would we allow Atheist to be in the Parade????”

“You have no idea what this holiday means for those of use who believe in a greater being. You offend me and everyone else.”

“They were there to be provocative, plain and simple. No different from a white supremacist group marching in a Juneteenth parade. This group had no business marching at that event. They are a hate group and they should be ashamed.”

“It is like the KKK going to a black church saying they are there to bring peace.”

“Last I checked, the event was called a CHRISTmas parade. Not a Happy Holidays, not a Merry Hanukkah, or a Jolly Kwanza. If you want a parade to celebrate non-Christian religious beliefs then lobby B/CS for your OWN parade.”

“If atheist are allowed to march in the parade, then maybe next year we can add some strippers advertising the silk stocking or how about some petafiles advertising their love for the kiddos! Those wouldn’t be wrong, since we are wanting to be welcoming of everyone!”

“A CHRISTMAS Parade is NOT the place for the Athiest band and they know it. They did not belong in the parade. They shouted howdy to our area of the parade and not Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays as indicated in the written article. They were mocking all the other bands and drill teams in the parade. They have a right to their beliefs or non-beliefs but flaunting it in a CHRISTMAS parade, I think not.”

“By quoting the first ammendment you just proved you were there to start trouble.”

Just to name a few.

To be fair, these sentiments weren’t the only ones being expressed. Many people clearly stated their appreciation for the atheist marching band; others said they didn’t like them but respected their right to be there; still others said Christians should embrace the atheists, and hopefully turn them to Jesus.

But this “no atheists in the Christmas parade” sentiment was widely expressed. And more to the point: Many people weren’t content to simply say, “I don’t like this.” They were saying that it should not have been allowed. They were saying that atheists, quite literally, should not have been permitted to march.

Jingle bells Just a reminder before we go on: We’re talking about playing “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade. You can’t get any less controversial than this. It’s like a freaking Norman Rockwell painting. How much more sweet and agreeable could you be? Okay, yes, they were playing “Jingle Bells” on vuvuzelas. But that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point seems to be that atheists, simply by existing, and being public about our existence, are offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers.

So the next time you hear atheists called offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers, remember this: We get called that for playing “Jingle Bells” in a marching band. We get called these things simply for being open about who we are.

If you think this is an isolated incident — think again. Look at the atheist billboard and bus ad campaigns — and the reactions to them. All over the country and all over the world, atheist organizations have been putting up bus ads and billboards: sometimes with content that deliberately challenges religious beliefs, but usually not. Usually, the atheist bus ads and billboards say things like, “Millions are good without God.” Or, “In Good We Trust.” Or, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”

Atheist-sign-vandalism And when they do, there’s almost always an angry, intensely offended reaction from religious believers. There are protests, boycotts, demands that the ads be taken down, even vandalism. Sometimes the ads actually do get stopped: transit companies will sometimes stop accepting religious or controversial ads entirely, rather than let those vile atheists defile their sacred buses and trains. With our message about, you know, existing.

In other words: When all atheists do is say, “Atheists exist,” it gets treated as an assault.

It’s hard not to see this as theocracy being threatened.

How else are we supposed to interpret it? When people say that atheists have no right to march in a public parade, and ought to be prevented from doing so? When people are deeply troubled by their curious children asking questions about different religious views, and think these children ought not to be influenced by any view other than Christianity? What is that but attempting to promote your religious views by silencing all the others?

But there’s another, more insidious way that taking offense at atheists’ existence is an attempt to establish theocracy, and to perpetuate the degree of theocracy that we already have.

War On Christmas Look at it this way. Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. clearly want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want everyone in the country to celebrate their holy days. Witness the annual freak-out over the supposed War on Christmas, in which Bill O’Reilly and company get their collective panties in a twist about stores saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”

But they don’t just want everyone to celebrate Christmas. They want everyone to celebrate it religiously. They don’t want non-Christians to adapt this holy day to their own uses. Loki forbid the atheists should march in the Christmas parade, or put up billboards in December with atheists in Santa hats saying “Don’t believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

They still want Christmas to be a religious holiday, special to the Christian faith. Yet at the same time, they want it to be a government- recognized Federal holiday that everyone has to observe.

In other words: They want theocracy.

US_Capitol_Christmas_tree_2008 See, you don’t get have it both ways. You don’t get to have Christmas be a secular holiday, universal to the culture, recognized by government agencies and celebrated by people of all faiths and of no faith at all… and still have it be a religious holiday of the Christian faith. Not if you respect people’s basic right to worship, or not, in their own way. Pick one. If Christmas is a universal secular holiday, quit whining about it being secularized. If it’s a distinct religious holiday, quit trying to ram it down everyone else’s throats.

Now, if the Christian Right wants to argue that everyone should be Christian, they absolutely have the right to do that. Heck, I argue that everyone should be atheist. I think that atheism is correct and religious belief is mistaken, and I’m working hard trying to persuade people of that. If the Christian Right thinks Christianity is correct and all other positions on religion are mistaken, by all means, they should make that case.

But there’s a huge difference between making a case for why your religious views are correct… and getting offended, insulted, and martyred over the mere fact that some people disagree with you. Making a case for your position is one thing. Trying to stop other people from making their case is quite another.

The former is simply the marketplace of ideas: bumpy, fractious, sometimes obnoxious, even at times grotesque, but a cornerstone of a free society. The latter is entitlement. The latter is hegemony: systems by which those in power perpetuate and expand their power. And, when it gets enshrined into government policy — like teaching religious beliefs in public school science classes, or funding religious organizations with tax money, or opening government meetings with prayers, or displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, or promoting one religion over another in a public school — the latter is theocracy.

And when the Christian right demands that atheists not be allowed to march in a public Christmas parade, or to advertise on public buses and trains… that’s exactly what they’re demanding.

Why Religious People Are Scared of Atheists

American+Humanist+Association+no+god+no+problem Religious believers commonly attack atheists simply for existing. Do out- of- the- closet atheists — even polite ones — challenge attempts at theocracy?

What, exactly, do religious believers want from atheists?

If you follow the atheism debates in op-ed pieces and whatnot, you’ll see that critiques of the so-called New Atheist movement are often aimed at our tone. Among the pundits and opinion-makers, atheist writers and activists are typically called out for being offensive, intolerant, disrespectful, extremist, hostile, confrontational, and just generally asshats. The question of whether atheists are, you know, right, typically gets sidestepped in favor of what is apparently the much more compelling question of whether atheists are jerks. And if these op-ed pieces and whatnot were all you knew about the atheist movement and the critiques of it, you might think that atheists were simply being asked to be reasonable, civil, and polite.

But if you follow atheism in the news, you begin to see a very different story.

You begin to see that atheists are regularly criticized — vilified, even — simply for existing.

Or, to be more accurate, for existing in the open. For declining to hide our atheism. For coming out.

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Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why Religious People Are Scared of Atheists. To read more about how atheists get attacked simply for existing — and how these attacks are an attempt to enforce theocracy — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why Are You Still Catholic?

This is an expanded version of a piece that was first published on AlterNet.

If your softball league or your children’s school did what the Catholic Church is doing, you’d quit in outrage. So why are you still Catholic?

Catholic churchFor any Catholics who might be reading this, I have a question for you:

Why are you still Catholic?

Presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the rash of child-rape scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t have to tell you about the cover-ups, the shielding of child rapists in the priesthood from law enforcement, the deliberate shuttling of child-raping priests from town to town to protect them from exposure — thus enabling them to continue raping children. I don’t have to tell you about the Church using remote, impoverished villages as a dumping ground for priests who raped children. I don’t have to tell you that this wasn’t a few isolated incidents: it was a widespread, institutional practice, authorized by high-level Church officials. Including Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — who, among other actions taken to protect child raping priests, delayed the dismissal of a child rapist in the priesthood… for the “good of the universal Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI And presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s response as this scandal has been exposed. I don’t have to tell you that, overwhelmingly, they have stonewalled, rationalized, deflected blame. I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s “Come on, the kids weren’t that young, most of them were over 11″ defense, or their “Hey, everyone else is doing it” defense. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve equated the accusations against the Church with anti-Semitism. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve blamed the child-rape scandal on gays, the media, the Devil , even the rape survivors themselves. (No, really. From the Bishop of Tenerife: “There are 13 year old adolescents who are under age and who are perfectly in agreement with, and what’s more wanting it, and if you are careless they will even provoke you.”) I don’t have to tell you that the Church is opposing a measure extending the statute of limitations on child rape. I don’t have to tell you about the Pope’s dismissal of the child-rapist-protection accusations as, quote, “petty gossip.”

And I’m just focusing on the child rape scandal. I’m not even talking today about the other recent scandals in the Church: the gay prostitution ring, the Church banning the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS, the rape of nuns by priests and the ignoring/ concealment thereof.

You know about all of it.

So here’s what I want to ask you:

Why are you still Catholic?

If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it?

Softball If it were your political party, your softball league, your university, your children’s school, your employer? If any of those organizations were involved in a massive, global conspiracy to protect and conceal child rapists? If they responded when the scandal came to light by entrenching and rationalizing, blaming the victims and making counter-accusations? Not in a few isolated incidents, but as a massive, institution-wide culture, a matter of official policy even, that extended throughout the organization and reached all the way to the top?

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? Would you be writing enraged letters to the organization’s leadership — and sending copies of those letters to your local newspaper — explaining exactly why you can no longer be part of an organization that behaves so reprehensibly? Would you be picketing, exhorting other members to leave along with you, calling law enforcement to demand a response?

And if the latter — then why on earth aren’t you doing that with the Catholic Church?

Snidely_whiplash I mean — how bad does it have to get? Let’s say I was making up a story about grotesque, nauseating, inexcusable- on- the- face- of- it evil; evil that would make all non-sociopathic people turn away in revolted horror at the very mention of it. And let’s say that, to illustrate that evil, I made up an example of a powerful, global institution that concealed and protected child rapists, shuttled them from town to town, failed to inform law enforcement officers and in many cases actually stonewalled them, deliberately dumped the child rapists in remote, impoverished villages… and then, when the horror finally came to light, responded with defensive entrenchment and equated the accusations with either anti-Semitic bigotry or petty gossip.

If I wrote that story, people would think it was over the top. “That’s ridiculous,” they’d say. “You have to make your evil more believable, more human. Nobody really does that.”

Well, people really do that.

The Church you belong to really does that.

Why on Earth are you still a part of it?

Eucharist1 Maybe you stay because of your sincere religious faith. Maybe you sincerely believe that the Catholic Church is the only way to spiritual salvation, and that if you abandon it, you’ll abandon your hope of paradise in the Afterlife.

If that’s true, then my first question to you would be: Do you really believe that? If you disagree with the Church (as many Catholics do) on a huge number of substantial issues — birth control, gay rights, women’s rights, condom use for people with AIDS, etc., not to mention the institutional protection and cover-up of priests who rape children — then what does it mean to say that you believe in the Church?

But let’s say you’re a more traditional Catholic. Let’s say you do agree with the Church on most of these positions. All of them, even, except the one about protecting child rapists and thus perpetuating child rape. Or let’s say you are a more moderate Catholic… but that your disagreement with the Church on major theological issues still doesn’t interfere with your basic belief that the rites of the Church are necessary for your spiritual redemption.

I’d like to ask you to take a step back from your beliefs for a moment, and view them the way an outsider would. If someone else belonged to a religion that, say, protected men who torture and murder their wives; or a religion that practiced widespread fraud and theft from the desperately poor; or a religion that encouraged people to blow up buildings… would you nod sagely and say, “The sincerity of your faith is a good enough reason to stay in that religion”?

Or would you recoil in horror at how profoundly their fear of eternal punishment, and their desire for eternal reward, had bent their moral compass?

And if the latter — then why should you treat your own religion any differently? Your Church protects child rapists, thus perpetuating more child rape. Why are you still a part of it?

Catholic charities Or maybe the religious part isn’t so important to you. Maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about Catholic theology being the only true theology. But you still defend the Church, and still participate in it, because they do charitable work that you support and want to be a part of. (An argument many people made when this piece was first published on AlterNet.)

In which case, I have to ask you:

Are you freaking kidding me?

There are thousands upon thousands of excellent charitable organizations in the world. Charitable organizations that don’t protect child rapists, in a consistent, cold-blooded, institution-wide system of covering their asses. I’ll ask you the same question I asked about your job or your softball league or your kids’ school: If any other charitable organization behaved the way the Catholic Church did — if the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society shielded child rapists from exposure and law enforcement, shuttled them from town to town so they could keep raping children, and then stonewalled and rationalized and deflected blame when they got caught — would you respond by saying, “Well, yes, sure they helped get a bunch of children raped… but look at all the good work they do! Doesn’t that count for something? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?”

Or instead, would you abandon that organization in revulsion, demand the arrest and prosecution of everyone involved, and immediately take your money and your time to a charity that didn’t, you know, help rape children?

Maria_LichtmessAnd maybe, again, the religious part isn’t so important to you — but you find the ritual of the Church comforting. It’s been part of your life since you were a child, your family and friends all belong, you find the music and the stained glass and the reliability of the weekly ceremony to be profoundly soothing.

If so, then I have to take a deep breath and ask you: Are you really prioritizing your own comfort over the rape of children?

Are those really and truly your priorities? Is it more important to you that you be soothed and comforted than it is to not participate in an institution that protects and conceals child rapists and actively enables them to keep doing it indefinitely? When you put the horror and the suffering and the ruined lives caused by child rape on one side of the balance — and the fact that you’re comforted by soothing rituals and pretty music on the other — do you honestly weigh those two considerations, and decide that your comfort comes out as the greater need?

And if not — if you think, as I hope you would, as I hope anyone with a shred of morality would, that your personal comfort is worth sacrificing if it means not participating in an institution that perpetuates the widespread rape of children — then why are you still part of this Church?

I don’t care whether you believe in God or not. Well, okay, that’s not true. I do care: I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, I think that on the whole it does significantly more harm than good, and I’d love to see humanity let go of it. But if people’s religious beliefs and practices don’t hurt anyone else, then it’s their business, and I don’t really care all that much about them.

But see — that’s exactly the thing.

Belonging to the Catholic Church does hurt people.

Deliver us from evil Belonging to the Catholic Church gives your support to an organization that conceals and protects child rapists. Again, not as a few isolated incidents, but as a massive, institution-wide culture, a matter of policy even, that extends throughout the organization and reaches all the way to the top. Belonging to the Catholic Church — giving them money, letting them count you in their rolls, sending your children to their schools — gives this behavior your personal thumbs-up, and actively enables it to continue.

As long as Catholics stay Catholics, no matter how repulsively evil the Church’s behavior becomes, no matter how many children get raped as a result of its institutional practices, then the Church is not going to change. It will have no reason to change. As long as Catholics continue to attend church, to donate money, to be counted in Church rolls, to send their children — their children! — to church and Catholic school for religious education and the perpetuation of Catholicism, then the Church will assume that it can do anything at all, with impunity. It will assume that it can… you know, I’m trying to think of an example of evil more grotesque and over-the-top than “protecting and concealing child rapists so they can go on raping children, just to protect the organization’s public image,” but I’m coming up short. It will assume that it can squander hospice donations on cocaine and hookers? Dump the Vatican’s sewage into the Rome subway system? Torture kittens in St. Peter’s Square? No. None of that is more grotesquely, over-the-top evil than protecting and concealing child rapists so they can go on raping children, just to protect the organization’s public image.

If you stay in the Catholic Church, even after this scandal, you are essentially telling them, “Go ahead and protect child rapists. I don’t care. As long as I personally get to keep taking Communion and go to Heaven when I die, whatever you do is hunky-dory with me. Your spiritual extortion — your indoctrination of the idea that I will be tortured with burning and fire for all eternity if I don’t drink your wine and eat your cracker — has worked. You can do anything at all that you like. You won’t hear a peep out of me.”

Is that really what you want to be saying?

The only way — and I mean the only way — that the Catholic Church is going to change its stance on this issue, or indeed on any issue, is if Catholics vote with their feet, and get the hell out of there.

When are you going to do that?

To leave the Catholic Church, visit the Count Me Out website, which walks you through the process.

Why I’m Drawing Mohammad

This is my drawing of Mohammad.
Greta drawing Mohammad

I wish I were a better artist, and could draw something other than a stick figure. But I actually kind of like its purity. If a simple, entirely undistinguished, smiling stick figure with the word “Mohammad” above it can be so offensive as to earn me a possible death sentence… that makes the whole silly idea seem even sillier. And I like the fact that it’s a photo of my hand actually making the drawing. Gives it a certain punch, I think.

Today is Everybody Draw Mohammad Day: an event in which people around the world… well, draw Mohammad. We’re deliberately violating the Muslim law against creating images of the prophet Mohammad — a law that some radical Muslim extremists are attempting to enforce with violence and death threats. On everyone. Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Draw-Mohammad-Promo Actually, strike that. It is a law that some radical Muslim extremists are successfully enforcing with violence and death threats. Everybody Draw Mohammad Day was instigated by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, after Comedy Central cut a portion of a South Park episode following a death threat from a radical Muslim group. And this is hardly an isolated incident: when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran the cartoons of Mohammad that sparked violent protests around the world, many news publications declined to publish the cartoons in question, despite their obvious newsworthiness. Many newspapers still won’t publish them. And when this self-censorship happens, the Muslim law against drawing Mohammad has successfully been enforced.

Today, along with hundreds of people (hopefully more), I’m drawing Mohammad.

I want to explain why.

*

Atheist-cartoon I don’t normally go out of my way to offend people’s religious sensibilities. I’m perfectly willing to do so, obviously: most of what I write here offends somebody’s religious sensibilities, and of course I know that most of my atheist writing is deeply offensive to many religious believers, simply because it is atheist. But offending people’s religious sensibilities, while it’s something I’m willing to do, is secondary. It’s a side effect of the fact that I’m making some point. It’s rarely the point itself. I rarely offend people’s religious sensibilities just for the sake of it, simply because people find it offensive.

That’s more or less what I’m doing today. I realize that.

I’m doing it because, in some cases, offending people’s sensibilities is, in and of itself, a valid point. And this is one of those instances.

The idea that the rules of a religion ought to apply to people who don’t follow that religion? It’s flatly absurd. As Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist so brilliantly pointed out, “You never hear about Hindus walking into McDonald’s and telling the manager they’re not allowed to use beef products anymore. If they did, we would laugh it off. We’d say that’s absurd because non-Hindus don’t have to follow their rules.”

But that’s exactly what these radical Muslim extremists are doing. Despite the fact that they will happily violate the Hindu rule against eating beef, or the Orthodox Jewish rule against interfaith marriage, or the Yazidi rule against wearing the color blue, they nevertheless feel that it is their right, and indeed their duty, to enforce the Muslim rule against drawing Mohammad — even on people who aren’t Muslim. Using violence, and threats of death.

Mohammad cartoons-thumb And it is not possible to effectively protest this by simply saying, “This is wrong.” The only way to effectively protest this is by violating the damn rule. If we all wring our hands and say, “Oh, yes, this is terrible, how dare these terrorists use violence and death threats to enforce their religious rules on people who don’t share them” — and still nobody will break the damn rule because we’re afraid they’ll hurt or kill us — then their terror tactics will have worked.

I’m drawing Mohammad to send a message to Muslim extremists — and other religious extremists — that their terror tactics will not work.

I’m drawing Mohammad to reject out of hand the attempt to make criticism of Islam — or of any other religion, for that matter — off-limits, simply out of fear of violence.

I’m drawing Mohammad because many people feel comfortable critiquing, or poking fun of, or indeed commenting on, any other religion… but avoid doing any of this with Islam, for fear of violent retribution. And I refuse to allow myself to be extorted in that way.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, I’m drawing Mohammad to spread the target around… so there are so many people drawing Mohammad, the terrorists can’t possibly go after all of us.

Infidel This is a point made by Ayaan Hirsi-Ali — former Muslim, current atheist, target of a fatwa for her outspoken blasphemous criticism and defiance of Islam. In a piece she wrote about the South Park/ Comedy Central incident — and about the seriousness of the death threats against the show’s creators — she asked, “So what can be done to help Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone?” And she answered, in part, “Do stories of Muhammad where his image is shown as much as possible. These stories do not have to be negative or insulting, they just need to spread the risk. The aim is to confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with.”

That’s the point.

And there is no way to make that point without actually violating this rule.

Perhaps you think that going out of your way to offend a cherished tenet of people’s religious beliefs is… well, offensive. Hurtful. Perhaps you think that secular groups and others organizing “Draw Mohammad” protests are engaging in anti-Muslim or anti-Arab marginalization. Perhaps you think that deliberately breaking another religion’s sacred rule, with the sole and stated purpose of breaking that rule, is a form of religious bigotry. Or even just childish jerkitude. A lot of people think that: moderate Muslims, and others.

To them, I say… well, Claudia commenting at Friendly Atheist said it way better than I could, and I’m just going to quote her: “The day drawing a bloody stick figure isn’t something you have to do while looking over your shoulder. The day cartoonists don’t have to build panic rooms in their homes (!!) for a rough picture of a dog with a mans head. The day dozens of people don’t die (again !!) because of some cartoons. On that day, I will agree that the secular group is just being immature and hurtful.”

Is it hurtful to deliberately poke people’s sore spots with a stick, just for the sake of doing it? Yes. I don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do, and I don’t generally do it.

But is it far, far more hurtful — not only to certain individuals, but to every individual in the world, and to society as a whole — to use violence and death threats to frighten people away from criticizing your religion, and to force obedience to your religious views on the entire human race?

By a thousand orders of magnitude, yes.

And in this case, the only way to oppose the latter is to engage in the former.

There’s something I want to say here: words that keep brimming up in my head and won’t shut up. I’m reluctant to write them down; I cringe a bit at the thought of posting them; they’ve become such a cliche that it’s embarrassing to even think them. I never imagined that I’d say these words as anything other than a joke. I never imagined I would say them with any sort of sincerity or passion.

But if we don’t draw Mohammad, the terrorists win.