A noble name and a noble cause

Good on Krystal Myers — not only does she spell her name correctly, but she’s a vocal atheist in her high school.

In a recent editorial that Myers, 18, intended for the Lenoir City High School newspaper entitled "No Rights: The Life of an Atheist," she questioned her treatment by the majority.

"Why does atheism have such a bad reputation? Why do we not have the same rights as Christians?" she wrote.

Myers’ editorial also accused school administrators, teachers and coaches of violating the constitution by promoting "pro-Christian" beliefs during school-sponsored events.

Excellent! She’s 18 and already roaring. But then…

Lenoir City school authorities have denied Myers permission to publish her editorial in the Panther Press, the staff supervised student newspaper.

They also say their policies do not violate the constitutional rights of any students.

Schools Director Wayne Miller said it was the decision of the school authorities not to allow publication of Myers’ editorial because of the potential for disruption in the school.

I agree that it doesn’t violate constitutional rights to not publish a pro-atheist opinion piece, but what about that accusation of promoting Christianity in the schools? That is unconstitutional, and maybe they should look into that.

And while it may not be illegal, it’s a little bit unethical to discourage expression of a particular point of view with the vague, blanket accusation of “disruption”. I’d like to know if they look the other way at pro-Christian editorials…or is it OK if it’s only atheists who are “disrupted”?

And finally, it’s really, really stupid. A student opinion piece in a school newspaper? It won’t even get noticed in the insular world of a school. But now that they’ve censored it, Krystal Myers is going to be much more widely known.

If anyone knows her or how to contact her, tell her to send the piece to me, and I’ll publish it here. It’ll get a far wider reading than ever it would in her school. People could also send me pro-Christian editorials, and I’ll toss them in the trash: it’s also not unconstitutional for me to treat those views as total rubbish.

The Digital Cuttlefish had the piece, so here it is in its entirety. I’d like to know what was disruptive about it, other than that it points out where the administration is breaking the law.

No Rights: The Life of an Atheist
By Krystal Myers

The point of view expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the Panther Press, its staff, adviser, or school.

As a current student in Government, I have realized that I feel that my rights as an Atheist are severely limited and unjust when compared to other students who are Christians. Not only are there multiple clubs featuring the Christian faith, but youth ministers are also allowed to come onto school campus and hand candy and other food out to Christians and their friends. However, I feel like if an Atheist did that, people would not be happy about it. This may not be true, but due to pervasive negative feelings towards Atheists in the school, I feel that it would be the case. My question is, “Why? Why does Atheism have such a bad reputation?” And an even better question, “Why do Christians have special rights not allowed to non-believers?”

Before I even begin, I just want to clear up some misconceptions about Atheism. No, we do not worship the “devil.” We do not believe in God, so we also do not believe in Satan. And we may be “godless” but that does not mean that we are without morals. I know, personally, I strive to be the best person I can be, even without religion. In fact, I have been a better person since I have rejected religion. And perhaps the most important misconception is that we want to convert everyone into Atheists and that we hate Christians. For the most part, we just want to be respected for who we are and not be judged.

Now you should know exactly what an Atheist is. Dictionary.com says that an Atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” However, this does not mean that Atheists do not believe in higher causes; we just do not believe in a higher being.

With that being said, I can move on to the real issue. Before I begin, I want you to think about your rights and how your perceived “rights” might be affecting the rights of others.

There are several instances where my rights as a non-believer, and the rights of anyone other than a Christian, have been violated. These instances inspired me to investigate the laws concerning the separation of church and state, and I learned some interesting things. However, first, I would like you to know specifically what my grievances are against the school. First and foremost is the sectarian prayer that occurs at graduation every year. Fortunately, I am not the first one to have thought that this was a problem. In the Supreme Court case, Lee v. Weisman, it was decided that allowing prayer at graduation is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Special speakers can pray, but the school cannot endorse the prayer or plan for it to happen.

Public prayer also occurs at all of the home football games using the public address system. This has, again, been covered by the Supreme Court case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. If a speaker prays, it is fine. However, as soon as the school provides sponsorship, it becomes illegal. Sponsorship can be almost anything, even something as simple as saying that the speaker can pray or choosing a speaker with a known propensity to pray or share his or her religious views.

However, it is not just the speakers who we have to fear at Lenoir City High School. We also have to fear some of the teachers and what they might say about their own religious beliefs. On at least two separate occasions, teachers have made their religious preferences known to basically the whole school.

One teacher has made her religious preferences known by wearing t-shirt depicting the crucifix while performing her duties as a public employee. Also, Kristi Brackett, a senior at Lenoir City High School, has said that the teacher, “strongly encouraged us to join [a religious club] and be on the group’s leadership team.” Yet again, this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When asked if this was true, the teacher replied, “As a teacher I would never use my power of influence to force my beliefs or the beliefs of [a religious club] on any student in the school.” Regardless, the religious t-shirts are still inappropriate in the school setting. Teachers are prohibited from making their religious preferences known; the Constitution requires them to be neutral when acting in their capacity as a public school teacher.

Not only are religious preferences shown through shirts, but also through a “Quote of the Day” that some teachers write on the boards in their classrooms. One teacher has Bible verses occasionally as the teacher’s “Quote of the Day” for students. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been violated, yet again with no regard for non-believers.

But perhaps I would have more hope in our school and the possibility of change on the horizon if our own school board did not open their meetings with prayer. A person who wished to remain anonymous that has been present at school board meetings says, “They do have prayers. They pray to ‘Our Heavenly Father’ and end with ‘In Jesus’ Name We Pray.’” Not only is this a violation of Supreme Court law, but also a violation of the board’s own policy that prohibits prayer at school-sponsored events. The whole foundation of how our school is conducted is established by obvious Christians. Somehow, this is unsurprising. If our School Board chooses to ignore the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court, then it is no surprise that teachers choose to do the same.

I know that I will keep trying to gain my rights as an Atheist and as an American citizen, but I also need your help in educating other people to realize the injustice done to all minority groups. The Christian faith cannot rule the United States. It is unconstitutional. Religion and government are supposed to be separate. If we let this slide, what other amendments to the Constitution will be ignored? I leave you to decide what you will or will not do, but just remember that non-believers are not what you originally thought we were; we are human beings just like you.

Epistasis and pathways in fly eye pigmentation

I was going to talk about a cool recent paper that described the evolution of novelties by way of modifying modular gene networks, but I started scribbling it up and realized that I was constantly backtracking to explain some fundamental concepts, so I stopped. I was concerned because one of the most common sources of confusion I’ve found in my students in the past was difficulty in distinguishing phenotypes from the complexities of the underlying genotype, and I have to be slow and thorough in setting up those differences early on until it sinks in, a habit I’m continuing here. It’s so easy for students to reify a trait, like eye color, into a single discrete property that must be somewhere on a chromosome. It’s not. It’s so much messier than that.

Let’s talk about eye color in flies. Drosophila eyes have a characteristic brick red color, and the most famous mutation in flies is white, which produces distinctly white-eyed flies. Eye color is too complex to be described as the product of a single locus and only two alleles, though: there’s actually a whole battery of genes that work together to produce eye color.

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Need another reason to go to the Reason Rally?

Oh, look who’s also going to the Reason Rally: goddamned annoying evangelical Christians. I’m beginning to feel like my long-standing personal policy of not intruding on their church services needs to be questioned, because man, is this ever arrogant and obnoxious.

Come join us there! We invite you to unite with us in a spirit of grace and truth (John 1:14, 1:18), ready to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), with godly grace and wisdom (Col. 4:6).

This is not a counter-demonstration. We are going there to share Christ person to person as opportunity arises. We will not raise our voices. We will talk with those who want to talk with us. We will offer gifts and materials to all, but we will not press ourselves on those who do not wish to converse. Knowing that the way others may choose to gather near us is not entirely in our control, we will nevertheless attempt to avoid gathering groups larger than a handful of people.

If these people bother you at the rally, I recommend one of two choices: either tell them sternly to leave you alone and walk away, or — and this is the fun part — calmly and politely take their rubbish arguments apart with much soft-spoken malice and cruelty.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This gathering will certainly attract swarms of mindless parasites…this is just the first public announcement of their intent that I’ve seen.

(via Ophelia)

My enemies…exposed!

My efforts to crush yet another internet poll are being opposed by JT, who is leading the rebel insurrection to put Greta Christina on top.

Sure you could argue that there is a lack of diversity in the choices, but that’s the whole point: will you submit to the soul-crushing power of the empire (of course you will! There are no such things as souls!) and be allowed to live, or follow some spunky kid into defeat and ignominy and total destruction?

You know the choices. It’s JT:

(You will forget that JT is rooting for Natalie Portman.)

Versus me:

The choice is clear. Vote Pharyngula every day. Know the thrill of unbridled power.

Why I am an atheist – Mike Huben

At age 14, I was sitting in the St. Pius the 10th Catholic Church, and it occurred to me that the apostolic succession and pretty much all of Catholicism could really be founded on a game of telephone.

We all know of the game of telephone: an original message is passed on from person to person, mutating in amusing ways both accidentally and deliberately. Stories of Jesus could have started false (You should have seen the miracle he worked in the previous town!) or could mutate and optimize to most effectively dazzle audiences, even during JC’s lifetime. Not to mention the decades after until they were written down.

And now, 40+ years later, I realize (thanks to Pharyngula) that “provenance” is the word I have needed to describe my path through skepticism and atheism (or agnosticism.)

From 14 to 24, I didn’t encounter any skeptical or atheist literature. I argued vigorously with quite a number of creationists online, and thought that as an evolutionary biology student that I was pretty hot stuff. Until eventually some creationist (with more than the standard two neurons to rub together) claimed I was making up evolutionary just-so stories based on my authority and nothing else. And galling as it was, I had to admit it to myself. I had a provenance problem. But the bright side was that I looked at Creationists, and saw that their provenance problem was much worse and incurable. I could drop a few of my made-up arguments, limit myself to published science and identifying creationist fallacies, and I was fine.

One of the more noisome religious arguments I encountered was the accusation that science was due to pride, while religious believers were humble. I developed my own response based on provenance. Scientists, I would say, are the humble ones. Because not only must they restrict their claims to those based on evidence, but it must also be evidence that anyone else can confirm. The religious are the prideful ones: claiming that their prophets are the only ones with access to the truth. It’s a very common trick to accuse your opponent of your own sins, and thus one of the first we should expect from the religious.

Provenance also calls most philosophy into question. 99%+ of it is crap, for the simple reason that the provenance of its assumptions is unsupportable. A priori knowledge indeed! You don’t have to look far for “gut feelings” a la Steven Colbert. My favorite recent example of appeal to gut feelings is the first clause of the first sentence of the preface to Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”: “Individuals have rights….” That’s straight from his gut, an assumption of Natural Rights. He might as well be saying that individuals have souls for all the evidence he lacks. Some more modern philosophy, such as that of Daniel Dennett, does better by starting with reasoning based on the sciences, especially the biological sciences.

I used to think I was scientific and rational. Now that I know a little more about where my knowledge comes from, I know that I cannot depend on it without confirmation. When we start learning, we accept uncritically. After a while, we do start to test our knowledge for inconsistency and coherence with our own observations. But there is such a huge welter of knowledge that we cannot take the time to test it all, nor to re-derive it for ourselves. Imagine having to re-derive all the mathematics you learn in school. Mathematics that took the efforts of hundreds of mathematicians over thousands of years to create. So the vast majority of our knowledge is accepted on faith. What sense of “rational” is that? Rational turns out to be a Humpty-Dumpty word: it means whatever we want it to when we want to bash somebody else for not being rational. Is scientific any better? Maybe. Scientific provenance has to do with intersubjective confirmation of observations and how they match models or theories. At various times I have confused this with tribal loyalty to scientific knowledge. But very little of my life is actually concerned with doing science: usually I tend to use science as a censor for claims that I judge “unscientific”, such as homeopathy. Why do I trust science to be correct for such use? Not because I have confirmed all of the science I have learned, but because when ever I have tested scientific knowledge, it has stood the test of intersubjectivity. I have recapitulated the origins of the knowledge, the provenance, on occasion. So if I want to characterize myself as scientific or rational, it is at best relative to someone who is less so in a particular field.

Questioning the provenance of knowledge is perilous. After you discard the baby falsehoods such as gods and the rest of the supernatural and fictional crud, you quickly discover that pretty much everything else is also built on a foundation of sand. There is no ultimate truth or reality that we can’t question. We are left without even a foundation of sand: we are floating. What is left is reliable knowledge: knowledge that we can confirm intersubjectively, such as science. We can assemble that knowledge into a consilient raft without a foundation. That’s plenty to construct glorious social concepts of reality. We don’t need illusory anchors such as gods or religious beliefs: fictional whimseys can be enjoyable, but we don’t need to take them seriously to deal with the real world.

Mike Huben
United States

An anti-science cartoonist

AAAAAAAAAARGH! Someone is wrong on the internet, and I don’t know whether to scream or to facepalm! (I tried doing both at once, but then it just comes out as a muffled gargle.)

Please go look at this creationist comic called “How Darwin Got It Wrong”. It’s typical creationist garbage, and practically every panel is wrong, wrong, wrong…yet it purports to be an objective discussion of the scientific problems with evolution. The author, however, knows no biology at all.

Take this page (please).

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Why I am an atheist – Thomas Lawson

I’m an atheist because I don’t need what religions are selling. It’s all about death, really. No one wants to die. Scientists are working on extending lifespans and religious people are working on eternal life, reincarnation, etc. Isn’t one life enough? Sure, it sounds great to live forever, but it would get boring I’m sure. Everyone loves the idea of heaven because no one really thinks about it. I see this life as heaven. Heaven shouldn’t last forever. I equate it with a trip to Disney World. Would you really like to stay at Disney World for a year? A month? All expenses paid? It sounds great! But even little kids would be crying to go home before too long. It would lose its charm.

Now that I’ve had kids I look forward to that day (hopefully far away) when I can rest and look back on my tiny contribution to this special world. A world that happened to settle into a spot that was conducive to it creating life. How fantastic! And it will be enough just to say I was here. That I got to be born. That I got to live when billions of others didn’t even make it out of the womb. And that my genes (through evolution) will eventually be in every human on earth, just like our genes contain bits of ancient Egyptians and other Africans. No one thinks about heaven, but at the same time it’s all they want. But only if their lives don’t feel like heaven. I have what I need in this life. And it’s enough. And now I get to experience things all over again through my children. What better gift? But I’ll have had enough when I’m old. If I spent my entire life wondering where I was going when I died, I’d forget to live.

Thomas Lawson

Those so-called “fantasy role playing games— are non-Christian!

In email, Libby Anne passed along a little jewel from her youth: some radio propaganda against that horrible demonic portal to evil, Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a radio show called Castles and Cauldrons, with a special introduction from James Dobson, warning you kiddies about the dangers of those role-playing games and their non-Christian magic and mysticism, which will lead them into contact with demons and satanism. It’s a two-parter, with summaries of Part 1 and Part 2. Warning: it’s laced with commercials for Focus on the Patriarchy.

They play a version of the games I’ve never encountered. These games give you actual magic powers that allow you to summon demons and control people and eradicate your enemies and read people’s minds. They sure seem a lot more powerful than Christianity.