Anoka, our little blight on the prairie

Rolling Stone has an excellent article on One Town’s War on Gay Teens, featuring Minnesota’s own Anoka school district, where Michele Bachmann and the Minnesota Patriarchy Council hold sway. I recommend it highly, but I also warn you: it’s a hard read, since it personalizes the kids who killed themselves after incessant taunting and bullying. I choked up a few times myself.

I’m going to leave out any discussion of the kids, because I hate crying on my keyboard — go read it yourself, if you think you can take it — and want to focus on one issue. The Anoka school district claims that it has no responsibility at all in these deaths, and instead blames gay activists for driving these kids to suicide; how, I don’t know. It’s probably a variant of the same accusation atheists face, that it’s their own fault for being themselves and provoking critics by openly existing. They also occasionally mention that right-wingers are responsible, but that rings hollow, since at every step the district has been dancing to the fundamentalist Christians’ tune.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of five students, alleging the school district’s policies on gays are not only discriminatory, but also foster an environment of unchecked anti-gay bullying. The Department of Justice has begun a civil rights investigation as well. The Anoka-Hennepin school district declined to comment on any specific incidences but denies any discrimination, maintaining that its broad anti-bullying policy is meant to protect all students. “We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating,” says superintendent Dennis Carlson, who blames right-wingers and gay activists for choosing the area as a battleground, describing the district as the victim in this fracas. “People are using kids as pawns in this political debate,” he says. “I find that abhorrent.”

Read further into the article, and there are all these little revelations that show that the district has been pandering thoughtlessly to the Religious Right all along; they are so thoroughly steeped in the cult of Christian conservatism that they are unconscious of the problem.

It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality.

Every goddamn school district in this state gets these lying whores for Jesus showing up to do “assemblies”. Here in Morris we’ve had the “You can run, but you can’t hide” ministries show up, or other variants. They’ve usually got some ridiculous “cool teen” schtick — they’re body-builders or wrestlers or rappers — and they bill themselves as presenting a positive, anti-drug message, something that they can superficially pretend is secular, and then they turn on the prayer and Jesus babble, and it’s transparent as hell — these are simply evangelical Christians in crappy camouflage, and the schools just let them sail on in and preach to the students.

It seems to happen at some school around here every year. It’s repulsive. I often don’t hear about it until after the fact, because here’s another giveaway: they don’t advertise publicly, they advertise in the churches.

So the Anoka school district wants to claim that the anti-gay bullying is not their fault, but they annually have a “Day of Truth” led by Exodus International or now, Focus on the Family (as if that’s an improvement)? The district turns the hyenas loose in the hallways, but denies responsibility if someone gets chewed up.

It’s not just the students. The schools have gay teachers and staff, who are silenced, and the straight teachers lead the way in gagging any protest.

“There has been widespread confusion,” says Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union president Julie Blaha. “You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers.” Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. “I was told by teachers, ‘You have to be careful, it’s really not safe for you to come out,'” says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. “I felt like I couldn’t have a picture of my family on my desk.” When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an “open homosexual,” he didn’t feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, “Are you gay?” he panicked. “I was terrified to answer that question,” Fietek says. “I thought, ‘If I violate the policy, what’s going to happen to me?'”

The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, “I would hear people calling people ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond.” In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a “faggot,” he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a “lesbo” and a “sinner” – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to “lay low”; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys’ bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, “It was probably water.” Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, “Get out of this town, fag”; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.

The district is aware that there is a problem — dead kids are very bad PR — and has been waffling ineffectually about doing something or other. Pointless meetings are always the preferred solution for a bureaucracy.

Just to be on the safe side, however, the district held PowerPoint presentations in a handful of schools to train teachers how to defend gay students from harassment while also remaining neutral on homosexuality. One slide instructed teachers that if they hear gay slurs – say, the word “fag” – the best response is a tepid “That language is unacceptable in this school.” (“If a more authoritative response is needed,” the slide added, the teacher could continue with the stilted, almost apologetic explanation, “In this school we are required to welcome all people and to make them feel safe.”) But teachers were, of course, reminded to never show “personal support for GLBT people” in the classroom.

Never show personal support for GLBT kids. That’s the killer right there.

I have some suggestions for the Anoka school district that would be helpful. First, repudiate the Minnesota Family Council and Focus on the Family. These are hate groups that have no business advising the school administration; they should be recognized immediately as symptomatic of the bigotry problem they have. Second, adopt a strictly secular policy on all official school events. No more preachers, no more evangelical assemblies, no more church sponsorship of days or picnics or t-shirts or whatever the hell trick they try to pull. God is the poison here, get it out. That’s not to say that Christians must be oppressed, but that we need to learn that Christianity is a personal, private preference that does not instill a moral message. Third, crack down hard on the students: seeing a few bullying jocks getting kicked off the football team for cracking jokes about faggots would send a strong signal right there.

That’s a school district that definitely needs more atheists. Maybe the SSA needs to seed the place with a little rational thought.

Anything beats church anytime

There’s going to be some kind of football game played this weekend, and American Atheists are sending a message to the pregame parties.

An Atheist civil rights group announced today that it will be flying an airplane banner on Super Bowl Sunday around Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The banner will read “Football beats church anytime –” The banner is scheduled to be in the air from 9:30-11:30 AM local time.

That’s nice. I’m going to be working on a lecture on signal transduction in cancer. Cancer beats football beats church!

I just committed an American heresy, didn’t I?

Komen changes course

I don’t think it will help, but after the Susan G. Komen foundation cut funding to Planned Parenthood, they’ve now backed down and said they’ll continue existing grants. After the wingnuts were exposed in the Komen leadership, though, I can’t honestly say that I trust them anymore, and I’d be looking for better recipients of my donations (like the BCRF)…and after this reversal, I imagine the fundies who have been slapping each other on the back and congratulating themselves on their influence won’t be so happy, either.

This has been a very bad week for Komen. I would hope that there is some substantial turnover in management, because this has been a case of rank mismanagement of the foundation’s reputation.

Making excuses

The editor of Life, Shu-Kun Lin, has published a rationalization for his shoddy journal.

Life (ISSN 2075-1729, is a new journal that deals with new and sometime difficult interdisciplinary matters. Consequently, the journal will occasionally be presented with submitted articles that are controversial and/or outside conventional scientific views. Some papers recently accepted for publication in Life have attracted significant attention. Moreover, members of the Editorial Board have objected to these papers; some have resigned, and others have questioned the scientific validity of the contributions. In response I want to first state some basic facts regarding all publications in this journal. All papers are peer-reviewed, although it is often difficult to obtain expert reviewers for some of the interdisciplinary topics covered by this journal. I feel obliged to stress that although we will strive to guarantee the scientific standard of the papers published in this journal, all the responsibility for the ideas contained in the published articles rests entirely on their authors. Discussions on previously published articles are welcome and I hope that, by fostering discussion and by keeping an open-minded attitude towards new ideas, the journal will spur progress in this little explored, difficult and very exciting area of knowledge.

In particular, the paper “Andrulis, E.D. Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life. Life 2012, 2, 1-105” was published recently online and is due to appear in Issue 1, Volume 2, 2012 of Life, at the end of March this year [1]. So that our readership has as much information as I can divulge without violating the confidentiality of the review process, what follows is the background of these events. Professor Bassez had previously guest-edited a successful special issue titled “The Origin of Life” in another MDPI journal [2]. Although Professor Bassez [3] had also planned to be the Guest Editor of the special issue “Origin of Life – Feature Papers” for Life [4], she was, for personal reasons, unable to do so. I therefore volunteered to take this responsibility on her behalf and to guest edit this special issue and supervise the editorial procedure for the papers. I made the decision of acceptance based on the peer review reports we received and their recommendation in support of publication.
As stated earlier, finding reviewers able to cross discipline boundaries as is often needed for multidisciplinary “origin of life” topics [5] is particularly difficult. The publishing process that MDPI manuscripts go through by our in-house editorial staff members is that they choose reviewers from sources like Chemical Abstracts, PubMed, Web of Science or more recently, from Google Scholar. Very often we also ask the Editorial Board members to review papers or ask those of them who have relevant knowledge and expertise to supply possible reviewer names. We also use the reviewer names suggested by the authors, but we do this with great care, checking the background of each potential reviewer and their publication record, as well as ensuring they have no collaborations with the authors that may be construed as a conflict of interest. I should stress that although we try to encourage bold, innovative science, we reject many submissions. In the case of the Dr. Andrulis’s long paper, the two reviewers were both faculty members of reputable universities different than the author’s and both went to considerable trouble presenting lengthy review reports. Dr. Andrulis revised his manuscript as requested, and the paper was subsequently published.

Regardless of opinion on specific papers that have been published to date, I sincerely hope that all of our articles, most of which are outstanding, will continue to be read and discussed. Our editorial procedure is under scrutiny by the Editorial Board, who wishes to be more closely involved in the editorial process, and we are striving to further improve our editorial service. We welcome comments on the Dr. Andrulis’s paper or any other papers that have been published in Life.

The “interdisciplinary” excuse is bogus. I am not a specialist in the fields discussed, but I could see immediately that Andrulis’s paper, and Abel’s paper as well, were “off” — to any critical, skeptical thinker their flaws are obvious. Are there any scientists in any field — general physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, for instance — who would read either of those papers and think maybe there’s something to them? You’d have to be a fellow crackpot or somebody completely unqualified to evaluate any science papers to fail to see the problems in them.

Also, you don’t need someone with great interdisciplinary knowledge to be able to screen out this kind of nonsense. I’m reminded of the comment I read on the Velikovsky affair: someone (it might have been Sagan) noted that the astronomers could see that Velikovsky’s cosmic billiard game was bad physics, but gosh, his biblical scholarship sure was impressive; while the Bible scholars were all saying his mythology was all terrible literary scholarship, but golly, he sure seemed to know a lot of physics. Evaluating interdisciplinary work does not mean you cherry pick the most favorable interpretations from those most ignorant of a specific subfield, nor does it mean you split the difference and average the opinions of the subfields together. If one part of the mix is bullshit, you throw out the whole thing.

The fact that they’re having trouble finding qualified reviewers for the work they’re publishing is also ominous. Shouldn’t the editorial board consist of people who are competent in this interdisciplinary field who can screen out the wackier submissions? And shouldn’t it be setting off alarm bells when they accept suggestions of reviewers from authors, and those are the only people they can get reviews from? It’s a situation ripe for selection by crackpots of crackpot reviewers; you just know that the Abel paper was reviewed by fellow travelers in the Intelligent Design creationism movement, and got no critical evaluation at all.

Given the spectacularly poor quality of the Andrulis and Abel papers, though, I am most amused by the claim that the editors and reviewers of Life “reject many submissions”. I would love to see the papers that they judged worse than Andrulis’s and Abel’s.

(Also on Sb)

OwlMirror found the quote in Sagan’s Broca’s Brain.

Velikovsky has called attention to a wide range of stories and legends, held by diverse peoples, separated by great distances, which stories show remarkable similarities and concordances. I am not expert in the cultures or languages of any of these peoples, but I find the concatenation of legends Velikovsky has accumulated stunning. It is true that some experts in these cultures are less impressed. I can remember vividly discussing Worlds in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semitics at a leading university. He said something like “The Assyriology, Egyptology, Biblical scholarship and all of that Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul is, of course, nonsense; but I was impressed by the astronomy.” I had rather the opposite view.

A bureaucracy doing its job

An organization in Bath called “Healing on the Streets” (HOTS) plastered flyers around town advertising their services.

Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness?

We’d love to pray for your healing right now!

We’re Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.

And then…a miracle happened. It’s utterly unbelievable, at least to an American.

The Advertising Standards Authority declared them to be irresponsible, false advertising and ordered them taken down.

Can we import them over here and put them to work? I’d like to see all the churches shut down. Also, all those annoying advertisements about “natural male enhancement” products.

HOTS Bath is stunned. They don’t understand.

All over the world as part of their normal Christian life, Christians believe in, pray for and experience God’s healing; our ministry, in common with many churches, has been active in praying for God’s healing (of Christians and non Christians) for many years.

That’s a fairly typical Christian response. They always act like they’ve been poleaxed whenever they discover someone who sees through their lies and notices that their claims are bullshit.

Why I am an atheist – Stu

I was born to a liberal Jewish family, and grew up with all the cultural trappings of Judaism…Bar Mitzvah, religious school, and holidays.

During the 60s, which is when I grew out of childhood (I was 12 in 1960) the Temple I belonged to began to deal with the social issues of the time (or, more likely, I became aware of that), most notably the Civil Rights movement and later the Vietnam War. The theme running through the discussions focused around the rights of other people to freedom…freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and freedom to say and think what they believed.

This is what I grew up with…this is what my parents and the religious tradition to which I belonged taught me. Yet even this open attitude engendered hypocrisy when combined with theism as I learned later.

This social attitude gave me very good feelings about my family, friends, and religious tradition…so much so that I went on to study “religion” in college. In 1970 I graduated with a B.A. in (secular) Religious Studies. However, by the time I got my degree I had learned that theistic religions were all based on varying degress of superstition.

As with so many others who have written on this topic here, one incident stands out in my mind as the point at which I realized that god is a myth…no more valid than Greek or Norse (or any other) myths.

I was home from college and was attending some sort of service at my Temple. At one point a prayer was read, which I had heard all my life. One passage from the prayer jumped out at me. It was a prayer for peace on earth and understanding between governments and people of different cultures and beliefs. The passage prayed for a time when “superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye.”

At that moment I realized the hypocrisy of it all…here we were, praying to a “supernatural” being to end superstition. I don’t think I laughed out loud, but this insight — which now seems so obvious that I’m embarrassed I didn’t see it years before — set me on the road to non-theism.

Other things have added to my understanding…

• I fell in love and married someone who was raised as a Christian and the response from the Rabbi of the Temple I attended was so hurtful that I realized his words throughout my life about openmindedness were just that…words. Nothing else. When faced with the results of what he, himself taught me, he reverted to bigotry.

• I took two science classes in graduate school — botany (which had a very strong genetics focus) and geology. This provided me with information about common anscestors and the age of the earth and piqued my interest in evolution. From there I did a lot of reading on my own.

• My wife was, and still is, a theist. She is very liberal, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus (though she was raised as a Presbyterian) or in heaven and hell. She wanted to have some sort of religious “base” for our family so we went around trying to find a place where we would both fit. We chose the local Unitarian-Universalist congregation in our city. The members of the congregation were a mix of religious and non-religious liberals…theists and non-theists whose philosophy was “the search is the answer.” I did more reading and learning there. One important thing I remember was that we rarely discussed whether “God” existed or not. This was because we were busy discussing things which mattered — social issues such as war, medical ethics, and political rights.

I don’t identify myself as an “atheist.” I spent my professional career as an elementary school teacher in rural Indiana and if I had admitted that I was an atheist I would have been run out of my small town. I still identify culturally with Judaism, so that was my “cover.”

Spending all those years (I’m retired now) as a closet atheist hasn’t always been easy, but there are others here with me. I have a small group of friends who are in the same position. We “share” the closet.

Maybe someday, I’ll find the courage — like Jessica Ahlquist — to “come out” and face the ignorance of family and friends who are still myth-believers. That, I think, is why I’m here…reading this blog every day (and others…Jerry Coyne, Ed Brayton, for example).

I know I didn’t actually explain WHY I’m an atheist…instead I wrote about how I realized I was an atheist…and how I grew into my atheism. The “why” to my atheism is fairly simple: I don’t believe in supernatural myths.

United States

There has to be a script somewhere

I’ve heard every one of the things said in this video, and every time I feel an urge to rampage and riot and behead people. Oh, wait, no, that’s not right — I’ve felt an urge to laugh, mock, sneer, or argue. Sorry, I just mistook cultural norms for my own for a moment there.

The Irish seem to have this poll well in hand

Ireland shut down their Vatican embassy; everyone says it was a cost-saving measure, but you know there had to have been some notion that this was a rebuke to the Catholic church for screwing over Ireland for so long. Now some groups want to reopen it…and so far the response is rather emphatic. I suspect you’ll make it even more emphatic.

Should Ireland reopen its Vatican embassy?

Yes 14%
No 84%
I don’t know 0%