The Clergy Project: Do Atheist Clergy Change The Religion Game?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

A burst of media attention has been focused on atheists of an unexpected stripe — clergy members. Could non-believing clergy change how we see religion?

What happens when a clergy person — a minister, a priest, a rabbi, an imam — realizes they don’t believe in God?

And what happens when they say it out loud? What happens when they find each other: when they support each other in coping with their crises, when they help each other with resources and job counseling and other practical assistance? What happens when they encourage each other to come out?

Could this affect more than just these clergy people and their followers? Could it change how society as a whole thinks and feels about religion?

That’s what the Clergy Project is finding out. In recent months and years, atheists have been all over the news. But over the last few weeks, a burst of media attention has been focused on atheists of an unexpected stripe — clergy members. And in particular, attention is going to the Clergy Project — an online meeting place and support group that exists specifically for these unexpected additions to the ranks of the godless. [Read more…]

Just When You Think They Couldn’t Sink Any Lower…

In yesterday’s New York Times: In Milwaukee Post, Cardinal Authorized Paying Abusers.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York authorized payments of as much as $20,000 to sexually abusive priests as an incentive for them to agree to dismissal from the priesthood when he was the archbishop of Milwaukee.

Jesus. Fictional. Christ. I think I’m going to be sick.

Questioned at the time about the news that one particularly notorious pedophile cleric had been given a “payoff” to leave the priesthood, Cardinal Dolan, then the archbishop, responded that such an inference was “false, preposterous and unjust.”

But a document unearthed during bankruptcy proceedings for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and made public by victims’ advocates reveals that the archdiocese did make such payments to multiple accused priests to encourage them to seek dismissal, thereby allowing the church to remove them from the payroll.

A spokesman for the archdiocese confirmed on Wednesday that payments of as much as $20,000 were made to “a handful” of accused priests “as a motivation” not to contest being defrocked.

Translation: “I can’t believe you would make such a heinous accusation! Paying off priests who raped children, to get them to leave the Church quietly? Outrageous! Insulting! How dare you!” (shown evidence) “Oh, right! Those payoffs!”

“It was a way to provide an incentive to go the voluntary route and make it happen quickly, and ultimately cost less,” said Jerry Topczewski, the spokesman for the archdiocese. “Their cooperation made the process a lot more expeditious.”

Right. Because when children are being raped, the important thing is to hush it up quickly and cheaply.

You know a really good way to get employees who are raping children to leave your organization?


Obama Endorses Same-Sex Marriage

I think we could all use some good news right about now. Fortunately, we just got some.

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

That’s President Obama.

Happy right now. Not much more to say.

Atheists’ Existence Is “Controversial,” “Sparks Public Debate”

You really can’t get any clearer than this.

A bus company in Pennsylvania has rejected an atheist ad. I know. You’ve heard this story before. Moderately newsworthy, but unfortunately not that unusual.

This one’s different, though.

The content of the ad?

The word “Atheists.”

Plus, in smaller type, the names and URLs of the sponsoring organizations.


The transit company says they have a policy of not accepting ads “which could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.” And apparently, this ad falls into that category.

The word “atheists.” Not, “You know it’s a myth.” Not even, “You can be good without God.” No criticism about religion being mistaken; no assertion about the nature of atheist morality. A simple statement that we exist. This is controversial. This could spark public debate.

You can’t get any clearer than this. The mere fact that we exist is controversial. The mere fact that there are people who do not believe in God — not people trying to persuade believers out of religion, not people trying to get religion out of government, just people existing in the world and thinking to themselves, “I don’t believe in God” — this is controversial. This is a matter for public debate.

To give you an idea of what they don’t consider controversial: This same transit company has been running a bus ad saying, “God bless America.” Not a paid ad, either — a public service ad, at taxpayer expense. (I know, right? It’s like they’re trying to get sued.)

So there’s two things I want to say about this.

First: If there’s any doubt in your mind at all that bigotry against atheists is real — erase it. This is as blunt as it can get. This is a flat statement, from a public, taxpayer-paid utility, that saying our name in public will spark public debate. This is a flat statement — not from some blowhard on Fox News, not from some extreme right-wing fundie picketing a funeral, not from some nimrod in their parents’ basement writing venomous comments on the USA Today website, but from a public, taxpayer-paid utility — that it is controversial for us to even fucking exist.

And second:

If you think there is any possible way for atheists to organize, to create visibility, to create community, to even just come out of the closet, without angering or upsetting or offending people?

Get it out of your head right now.

I do not want to hear another goddamn word about framing, about how all atheists should be nice and sweet and diplomatic so religious believers can hear our message, about how if we’re too blunt or mocking or confrontational people will be offended and won’t listen to us.

You know what atheists have to do to avoid offending people?


Rush Limbaugh, Free Speech, and How Gloria Allred is Being a Jerk

You’ve almost certainly heard about the Rush Limbuagh kerfuffle, in which the talk radio personality spent several days excoriating law student Sandra Fluke for testifying on Capitol Hill about employer-paid health insurance and contraception, and called her (among many, many other things) a “slut” and a “prostitute.” You may not yet have head that the well-known feminist lawyer Gloria Allred has requested that Limbaugh be prosecuted — for violating an obscure Florida statute, stating that anyone who “speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” is guilty of a first degree misdemeanor.

My response to Allred: You have got to be fucking kidding me.

This is a bad idea from just about every angle I look at it. It’s a bad idea legally. It’s a bad idea politically/ pragmatically. It’s a bad idea from a feminist perspective. It’s a bad idea from a sexual politics perspective. And it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea morally.

It’s a bad idea legally because it’s a gross violation of the First Amendment. If it doesn’t get smacked down like a bad, bad dog by every court it encounters, I will be very surprised indeed.

It’s a bad idea politically/ pragmatically because it will be seen by the right, and by opponents of feminism, as a hypocritical attempt to silence free speech simply because someone doesn’t like the content. Hell, I see it that way. And I’m a left-wing feminist.

It’s a bad idea from a feminist perspective because it furthers the notion that, in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace of ideas, women are shrinking violets who can dish it out but can’t take it.

It’s a bad idea from a sexual politics perspective because it furthers the notion that calling a woman’s chastity called into question is an especially terrible crime, worthy of its own statute. And that is bullshit on sixteen different levels. The very fact that this statute makes it a crime specifically to impugne a woman’s chastity, and says nothing of a man’s chastity, should have been a red flag to Allred. She should be campaigning against this statute’s very existence. The idea of a feminist lawyer calling for this law to be enforced makes my skin crawl.

And it’s a bad idea morally because we don’t silence free speech simply because we don’t like its content. Period. As I wrote in my defense of the recent Supreme Court decision about Fred Phelps: The First Amendment, and the right to the free expression of political ideas, is one of most crucial cornerstones of our democracy. We should not be looking for loopholes in it. Our default assumption should always, always, always be that speech should be free, unless there is a tremendously compelling reason to limit it.

If Sandra Fluke genuinely thinks that her reputation and character were defamed by Rush Limbaugh, she should sue him for libel. (I think it’s unlikely that she’d win — she made herself into a public figure when she testified before Congress, and the libels laws about public figures are looser than they are about private citizens — but IANAL, and I don’t know enough about libel laws to say for sure.) But the fact that this law about impugning a woman’s chastity is still on the books? It’s a joke at best and a travesty at worst. And it is beneath Allred, or anyone who genuinely cares about law and the guiding principles behind it, to attempt to use it just to hurt someone we don’t like.

Explaining her call for Limbaugh’s prosecution on this “impugning a woman’s chastity” statute, Allred said: “He needs to face the consequences of his conduct in every way that is meaningful.” I agree. But this is not meaningful. This is meaningless. This is laughable. This is absurd on every level. It is beneath us.

Birth Control, and Why I’m Proud of Americans Right Now

Three recent news stories. You’ve probably already heard about them ad nauseum, so I’ll just recap them quickly so I can get to my point.

Story One: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a foundation organized to fight breast cancer, recently pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, one of the major providers of breast cancer screenings for women around the country. A massive public outcry ensued — and Susan G. Komen apologized and reversed its decision, and the official generally seen as responsible for the decision resigned, all as a direct result of the fiasco.

Story Two: The Blunt Amendment, a law that would have permitted employers to refuse to fund health insurance coverage for birth control or any other medical service they had religious or moral objections to, began to wind through Congress. A massive public outcry ensued — and the amendment was voted down in the Senate.

Story Three: Rush Limbaugh spent three days spewing vitriol at a young woman, Sandra Fluke, who had testified before Congress in opposition to the Blunt Amendment, calling her (among many other things) a “slut” and a “prostitute” for supporting employer-paid birth control, and saying that she should have to post public sex videos if she wanted her birth control paid for by government funding. (Which she didn’t say, but never mind.) A massive public outcry ensued — and advertisers are pulling out of his program in droves, with some affiliates pulling his program altogether.

There’s a common theme to all these stories. And it’s making me very proud of my fellow countrypeople.

The theme: Americans are creating massive public outcries in favor of birth control.

Translation: Americans are creating massive public outcries in favor of sex for pleasure, sex for reasons other than procreation, sex for sex’s own sake. Americans are willing to stand up and acknowledge that they have sex because it feels good — and they are creating massive public outcries when people try to interfere with that, or try to shame them about it. [Read more…]

High School Atheist Wins Unsurprising Court Case, Gets Death Threats — Why?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Note: The college scholarship fund is still being raised for Jessica Ahlquist on the Friendly Atheist blog. Donations of all sizes are welcomed through February 29.)

Jessica AhlquistIf you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:

1: The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100% in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of Constitutional law.

2: As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized, and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called “evil” in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape, and death.

Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here? [Read more…]

Why Is an Atheist High School Student Getting Vicious Death Threats?

Her state representative has called the student “evil” and she has been threatened with violence, rape and death. What gives?

If you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:

1: The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100 percent in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of constitutional law.

2: As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called “evil” in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of violence, rape and death.

Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Is an Atheist High School Student Getting Vicious Death Threats? To read more — both about why the ruling in this case was so entirely unsurprising, and why the response to it has been so vicious — read the rest of the piece.

Oh, and by the way: The college scholarship fund for Jessica Ahlquist is, as of this writing, already over $24,000. Let’s get it to top $30,000!

The Best Parts of the Jessica Ahlquist Court Decision

I just finished a piece for AlterNet about the recent court decision in favor of Jessica Ahlquist, the one ruling that Cranston High School West could not have a freaking prayer banner posted in their auditorium. (I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up.) I’ve been reading the actual court decision — something most of the people vehemently decrying this decision and calling for Jessica’s blood have conspicuously failed to do. And I wanted to pull out what I thought were some of the best, most pertinent, most beautiful, most damning, and most flat-out inspiring pieces of the ruling. Kudos to U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux.

BTW, a link to a PDF with the entire ruling can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog. (I’d link to it myself, but I have some odd holes in my tech knowledge, and “how to post/ link to a PDF” is one of them.)

And for those who don’t already know about this: There’s a college scholarship fund being raised for Ahlquist, also on the Friendly Atheist blog. Ahlquist is an incredibly tough and brave young woman, who has been fighting firmly and powerfully for separation of church and state in the face of unbelievably ugly and hateful vilification, ostracism, and threats of violence and death. If you want to show your support for her, please consider contributing. Donations of all sizes are welcomed through February 29.

And now — Ahlquist v. City of Cranston, the greatest hits!

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. Its opening, calling upon the “Heavenly Father,” is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike. The Prayer concludes with the indisputably religious closing: “Amen;” a Hebrew word used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to conclude prayers. In between, the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship. While these goals are commendable, the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.

The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.

The Prayer Mural espouses important moral values, yet it does so in the context of religious supplication. The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.

When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.

…the School Committee endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren; a decision that clearly placed the ‘nonadherents’ outside of the political community.

And finally: This, this, a hundred times this:

Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.

Hell to the yes. Ahlquist is indeed an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand. The atheist community — and anyone who cares about the principle that government should stay out of people’s private religious convictions — owes her an enormous debt of gratitude.

Santorum Surges From Behind

Yes, I do sometimes make weird sexual jokes. Not all the time… but sometimes. And tonight is one of those nights.

It’s been a good night on Twitter. Jokes about Santorum are coming thick and fast. (Sheesh, even when you try to say something straightforward about the guy, it comes out dirty. There — I did it again!)

Anyway, as the Iowa caucus results pour in, Jen McCreight (@jennifurret on Twitter) and I (@gretachristina on Twitter) have been doing our best to come up with/ retweet the most disgusting Santorum jokes and made-up headlines we can manage. Here is a sampling of the best. (Oh, and in case you don’t know what the joke is about: Google the word “Santorum.” Or just go here.)

@jennifurret: Santorum rushes from behind after dislodging Romney.

@jennifurret RT @byepluto: I was wrong to think he was gonna come in number three. Everybody knows Santorum comes out of number two.

@jennifurret RT @Crommunist: Santorum surge floods Iowa caucus.

@gretachristina: Romney soaked by Santorum. Slicks path for possible Ron Paul penetration.

@gretachristina: Santorum forces Perry to withdraw.

(As @VeritasKnight noted: Anyone who says dirty jokes stop when you’re a feminist doesn’t have @GretaChristina and @jennifurret on their feeds.)

Plenty of others have been getting into the game as well:

@JoeMyGod RT @MSignorile: Tomorrow’s headline: Santorum Surges from Behind in Messy Late Night Three-Way.

@Mowgli3: Santorum gushes forth in the polls after Romney finishes early. @jennifurret

@NotThatGuy: @GretaChristina @jennifurret Santorum beneath Romney now, and Paul’s behind.

And Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a poll, asking readers to propose better headline language for Santorum than the all-too-obvious “surge.”

But honestly, some of the best are actual real-life headlines. My fave:

RT @JoeMyGod: Fox News: “Ron Paul and Romney are neck and neck with Santorum.”

I know. This is serious business, and the guy is reprehensible. But I’m fine with ridicule as a political strategy. And as vile as the guy is, my inner Beavis wants Santorum to stay in it for as long as possible. (Heh, heh!)