Be very skeptical of claims that Donald Trump is an atheist

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, holds up his bible who was giving to him by his mother as he speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Washington ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

As I mentioned on the show several times in the last few weeks, the Atheist Community of Austin is a non-profit group and we don’t endorse political candidates as a matter of policy. We do encourage political engagement though, and there is a big difference.

Donald Trump won the election a week ago today, and will take office in two months. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts about Hillary Clinton, but at this point they are pretty much irrelevant. The question is no longer “Should we vote for Trump?” but “What will a Trump presidency look like?” That is a hard question to answer decisively, because one of the main features of Trump’s campaign was that he was incredibly erratic and unpredictable. When you come right down to it, who the hell knows what he will do?

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Atheists Want Religious Freedom, Too!

There are a number of bills in various states of enactment across the country with the claimed purpose of advancing religious freedom. One of the latest is a Mississippi law that allows anyone to deny services to members of the LGBT community, including some government services. As I write this, the controversial law has yet to be signed by the Mississippi governor. And just this week, the Austin American Statesman reports that Texas also may be entering the fray with a bill of its own.

It must be said that these laws are nothing more than government permission to discriminate. But it’s more than that. Believers want to have the freedom to discriminate without any consequences. They don’t even want the taint of the word “discrimination,” so the legislators enacting these laws will swear that they’re not discriminatory, though they seem to single out gays and lesbians based on “lifestyle” or some religious right code word. Supporters of these bills want to go to their churches as part of their communities and hold their heads up high and be seen as the upright and moral people that they mistakenly believe they are. They want the joy of watching the auto-da-fé of those they hate without being seen in public getting off to it.

One hypothetical way these people could claim their religious freedom would be to post signs on their businesses openly stating the religious restrictions adhered to by the business. (Do businesses have religious beliefs?) Such a sign might say, “No wedding cakes for gays”, “No car washes for Catholics,” “No interracial couples served,” or even “Jews not allowed.” While this would be an efficient way for the market to honor these random religious “freedoms,” it has the obvious negative side effect of the business owners having their wacky and malicious beliefs being subject to public opinion. What if the entire community figured out that Fred’s Bakery, say, is a bastion of hatred and they took their business elsewhere? No, no, no. That won’t do. Supporters of these laws don’t want any responsibility for those religious beliefs. They want their “freedoms” without those pesky consequences. That’s the nature of these laws; rights without responsibility.

But why gays in particular? The simple answer is that the modern business model of Christianity is to sell hatred of gays. As US laws are changed to treat gays and lesbians as normal citizens, their business model (and power) is increasingly under threat. Hatred of people who have done you no harm is bigotry, pure and simple. These laws carve out a niche for the bigotry peddlers.

Sure. There are some verses in the Bible that call homosexual behavior and effeminacy abominations. But the same Bible calls lying an abomination and shrimp and crabs seem to also be abominations. While these quaint and silly laws appear in the Pentateuch, Jews aren’t banging down the door of government so that they can have the “religious freedom” to persecute gays and lesbians—or seafood restaurants. According to the good book, the punishment for finding two men together in bed is to kill them both. But Christians don’t seem to want that. Too messy. They just want government permission to discriminate—as if they know instinctively that the US government is far more powerful than their god. If they really believed their god was more powerful and they wanted to obey the god’s laws, they would just do so, consequences be damned.

Isn’t it ironic that these religious freedom laws never seem to mention any concrete religious tenet? I think there are three reasons for this.

  • First, I think that most Christians don’t know that their holy book is loaded with atrocities and highly embarrassing stories that would not be taken seriously outside the walls of a church. Take, for example the silly golden hemorrhoid story or the immoral Abraham and Isaac story.
  • Next, by staying away from concrete Biblical tenets, they avoid being put in the position of arguing for one right while NOT arguing for one of those embarrassing rights just a few pages away, like killing witches, holding slaves, or women and children being property. By keeping the argument abstract, they can pick and choose.
  • Finally, as SCOTUS indicated in the Hobby Lobby decision, the government can’t take a stance what is a valid religious belief. Apparently, even a falsehood like Plan-B being an abortifacient is a perfectly valid religious belief from the government’s perspective. So anything goes, whether it’s justified by some actual religion or not. So yes, I suppose people can have deeply held religious beliefs about trans-gender bathroom use or that blacks are inferior people.

If there’s a shining light here, its that these laws are written in such a way they also apply to non-Christians. Even atheists have religious beliefs. We believe (based on fact) that religions are malicious frauds. I see no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of these ill-conceived laws and turn the tables on them. Ditto for RFRA and its state versions.

Religious Right AGs Blow Gaskets

Check out this rant about the same-sex marriage verdict. It’s the kind of thing we might usually see in all capital letters. Sadly, it’s from the Texas State Attorney General, who seems to not understand the establishment clause or 14th Amendment and thinks of himself as the only one in the world who has the correct opinion on law. Reminds me of Alabama’s Roy Moore who also went ape shit.

Open Thread for AE #906: Matt and Jen

Last Thursday, a very lovely couple of 31 years got married in Austin. The Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, immediately set about trying to have their marriage declared void. His reason? They’re a lesbian couple. Yes, these two women who’ve been together for 31 years and who’ve raised two children are a dire threat to the institution of marriage in Texas. In case you were wondering, yep, Paxton’s a fundamentalist evangelical, as well as a craven political panderer. He’s also one of the most mean-spirited assholes on the planet.

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Statement on the Chapel Hill shootings

On February 10 a man named Craig Stephen Hicks turned himself in to the police after fatally shooting three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC. According to news reports, Hicks was a fan of The Atheist Experience, and had been critical of religion on his Facebook page. The precise motivations of Hicks are not currently known.

The Atheist Community of Austin strongly opposes violence in all forms, whether it is motivated by hatred of someone else’s religious convictions, or a parking dispute. Acts of unprovoked violence may be inspired by a complex combination of factors that include ideology, mental disposition, and the social acceptability of various attitudes. It is overly simplistic to reduce the cause to any one factor. It is vital for believers and non-believers alike to draw a sharp distinction between criticism of someone’s philosophical positions, and the use or threat of deadly force.

We condemn this senseless act of murder, and extend our condolences to the families of the victims.

5th Circuit Court of Appeals Hears Same-Sex Marriage Arguments

Have they lost their minds?

Yesterday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments heard arguments on the legal challenges to same-sex marriage bans Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Some of the arguments were jaw-droppingly stupid. Article here.

According to a Texas state lawyer, the same-sex marriage ban is not meant to discriminate against same-sex couples but is it is instead designed to promote “responsible procreation.”

Wow. Let’s unpack that.

Apparently, the state is in the procreation business. Of all the places the government should intrude, the bedroom is perhaps the last. This is coming from the same Republican party that wants to get government out of nearly everything: gun licensing, regulation, taxes, etc. all in the name of “freedom.” When they paint themselves as champions of freedom, they lie. I know of very few Christians who claim to support “religious freedom” when it means allowing minority religions marry same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage bans are faith based initiatives and the majority religion is happy to trample on the rights of anyone who gets in the way.

The spin doctors must have thought up the phrase “responsible procreation.” They seem to be saying that turkey baster babies are “irresponsible procreation.” It doesn’t matter to them if the child produced is cared for and raised in a loving family. If it’s lesbians, it’s irresponsible. What about having a child in one of their “responsible” heterosexual marriages and then the couple putting the child up for adoption? Is that responsible? Is that what the state would like to promote? What about when a same-sex male couple adopts and raises that child same child? That’s bad, apparently. That family should remain unmarried and without family protections for the parents. The same Republican Party fueled by Christian crazy, has worked overtime to force women in the state who cannot afford a child to have one anyway. Family planning and sex education in the state have been sabotaged by the same bunch. Now that’s what “responsible procreation” must be!

If “responsible procreation” were my best argument for a case, I’d save face, pack it up, and just go home. Thankfully, members of the court challenged the insanity. With their questioning, they also poked holes in the idea that marriage is “for” procreation. That’s primarily a religious idea. Remember: religions try to control reproduction because there is no god who can make the next generation of gullible tithers necessary to keep them in business.

Even if the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decides favorably on same-sex marriage, the question will eventually be taken up by the US Supreme Court. Maybe this time, they’ll consider bans under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. If that isn’t a slam dunk on this issue, I’ll be shocked.

Related reference:

Atheist in trouble for renouncing Islam

A couple of weeks ago, we at the Atheist Experience were contacted by several people about a story that many of you are probably familiar with by now, the story of Mubarak Bala. According to news reports, Mubarak is 29 years old, and has been active on Twitter under the handle @MubarakBala for quite a while. He came out publicly as an atheist on social media a while back, and his father — a Muslim public figure named Bala Mohammed — is a prominent newspaper columnist. Mubarak let several of his Twitter contacts know that his father had committed him to a mental ward at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, characterizing his atheism as a mental disease.

We chose not to spread the story for a while, because several details aroused our suspicion. We weren’t familiar with the individuals involved, we got contacted by relative strangers, and the story originated in Nigeria. Many of you are familiar with the rampant 419 scams that come out of Nigeria. Most of us have been trained, by long experience with the internet, to assume that any time that we hear about a mysterious prince seeking asylum, or an international lottery we don’t remember entering, to watch out for advance fee fraud. People have been known to chase a greedy dream and throw away thousands of dollars of their own money to recover imaginary millions that they think they stand to gain. This crime is so rampant in Nigeria that by some accounts it may constitute a significant portion of their economy, and in 2009 was estimated to take in $9.3 billion.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I have been fully convinced at this point that Mubarak Bala is a real person, and that he is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano. I’m bringing up these points only to anticipate the same suspicions I originally had while looking into the story. I’ll outline the reasons I changed my mind shortly, but I wanted to make this clear up front.

Initially several activists contacted us with what sounded like wild rumors. We were all fairly dismissive towards them in the beginning. A few days later, we began hearing that the International Humanist and Ethical Union had decided to get involved in the case. They put out a press release, saying they were getting reports of Mubarak’s condition through a lawyer specifically recommended by one of the Nigerian Twitter users who had brought the case to our attention in the first place. We remained skeptical. At that point, I was still suspicious that all three of them — Mubarak, the activist, and the lawyer — might be working together to build confidence. I got in touch with Bob Churchill, communications director of IHEU, and told him about my concerns. Bob informed me that the Twitter user, Bamidele Adeneye, was an activist known to him by another source he trusts.

I still wasn’t willing to accept the story at this point. It struck me as suspicious that after more than a week, no one pushing the story had been able to get a clarifying statement from either the hospital — which, despite being in a fairly poor city under heavy Muslim influence, is considered to be a fairly reputable organization — or the father, who is a known public figure. I even thought it possible we would eventually hear something from Mohammed Bala along the lines of “I never heard of this guy, he’s not my son.” Even when the BBC picked up the story, it seemed to me as if they were only reporting information given directly by IHEU, whom I presumed to be taking direction from rumormongers and their recommended lawyer.

During this time, I was also in contact with a fellow blogger at Freethought Blogs, Yemisi Ilesanmi, who writes over at YEMMYnisting. Yemisi is a Nigerian human rights activist and trade unionist who is currently based in London. Like me, she had heard the story from multiple sources and, being familiar with 419 scams, felt like this was an obvious candidate for such a trick. Unlike me, Yemisi had reputable contacts living in Nigeria who were able to seek out independent confirmation of the story. However, I didn’t hear any updates for several days. Yemisi tells me now that she had some initial difficulty getting people to send her contact information for the lawyer, as some of those involved might have resented her skepticism. During this time I continued to exchange emails with Yemisi, Bob Churchill, and several other members of The Atheist Experience and Freethought Blogs.

On Sunday several new pieces of information came to light which finally cleared up any doubts I previously had.

  1. Leo Igwe, a noted humanitarian, wrote his own article confirming that he has a working relationship with Bamidele, the Twitter activist.
  2. Yemisi’s contacts finally got back to her. As she detailed in a post written yesterday, Yemisi was greatly surprised to learn that Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital does indeed acknowledge they were treating a patient named Mubarak Bala there. In addition, sources at the Daily Trust newspaper, where the father works, confirmed that Mubarak was his son, and there were many prior indications that he was treating Mubarak badly due to his public atheism.
  3. This press release from Aminu Kano surfaced to corroborate the story. Although they acknowledge that they have him, they do contradict Mubarak’s story by asserting that they are not holding him prisoner.
  4. The family put out a press release as well. They acknowledge they had their son committed for treatment. They dispute that it is due to his atheism, and say that Mubarak is experiencing a “challenging psychiatric condition which needed close treatment and supervision.”

At this point I think the evidence confirms the following facts to be true beyond reasonable doubt: Mubarak Bala is a real person. Mubarak is an atheist. His father is Bala Mohammed, a newspaper columnist at Daily Trust. Mubarak is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. By his own statements, he is there against his will.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether the family and the hospital are telling the truth, that Mubarak has a mental illness. However, currently I’m strongly inclined to side with Mubarak. He is 29 years old, long past being a dependent child, and unless he is a serious danger to those around him, treatment at this hospital should be voluntary. IHEU’s lawyer claims he has been beaten, although no pictures have surfaced to back up that claim, but if true then that’s pretty scary. Nigeria in general, and Kano in particular, does indeed have a history of Sharia Law. As such, it is plausible to me that an atheist can expect to receive worse treatment than someone “properly” following Muslim traditions. That isn’t generic Islamophobia speaking; these are the hardcore groups we’re dealing with.

Now I’m hearing that Yemisi may be working to bring other groups in on this case, and hopefully Mubarak will wind up with a dedicated human rights lawyer who can promote his interests. I will be very interested to hear more developments as they arise.

In summary, I would like to acknowledge the people who have worked hard to bring this to light:

  • Godless Mom, a blogger who first publicized this story.
  • Bamidele Adeneye, a citizen of the Nigerian city of Lagos, also known as @deezer234 on Twitter. We know now that he was genuinely concerned about this case and worked hard to bring it to light. Although I hope our initial skepticism about him was understandable under the circumstances, he didn’t deserve the personal invective he got early on.
  • IHEU, for bringing more people into this, and investing their time and resources into getting more answers about the case. They are doing good work and deserve your support. Bob Churchill in particular, who devoted a remarkable amount of time to personally explaining the case to me despite what must have come across as relentless criticism. Thanks very much for giving me your ear.
  • Yemisi Ilesanmi, who was added to our group as a Freethought Blogger just last year. She has been a tireless skeptic in the best way, not just looking for inconsistencies but gathering real evidence to satisfy those doubts. Thank you Yemisi.

In conclusion I’d like to say that it is good to be skeptical, but it is also vital to be willing to change your mind as new information comes in. Here’s hoping Mubarak’s situation will improve soon.

(Correction: Previously I identified Bala Mohammed as a former Senator and current columnist. I think I mixed up two different people of the same name, and the columnist was not a senator. A mini bio of the columnist can be found here.)

Want to be an excellent skeptic? Learn computer programming

Next week's lesson: Proving that all horses have an infinite number of legs

How To Logic

I don’t go into a lot of detail about my work on the show, because it doesn’t necessarily interest everyone. But I do occasionally mention that I’m a software engineer, and work it into my discussions here and there. I had to take a break from the show for a year or so while I finished my Master’s Degree at UT in 2008. I have a second blog for writing thoughts about my profession; it’s called Castles of Air.

Occasionally people ask a question like the following: “I like your show. I’m a young skeptical atheist and I’m trying to decide what to do with my life. What should I study in school?” Some common answers are: Go into science. You will learn how to study the world in a naturalistic way and be better equipped to answer questions without resorting to supernatural answers. Or: Try politics. You can work to reinforce separation of church and state, and use your influence to advance causes you care about. Or: How about religious studies? You can get a real handle on how major world religions developed, and promote skepticism from the inside.

Those are all good answers, but I’d like to take a minute to speak in praise of the career track I picked.

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Christian Prick Bills

Just this week, the Arizona legislature passed a bill giving believers the right to discriminate against gays and others based on their religious belief. The bill has been touted for protecting “religious liberty”. And indeed, it allows people holding particular religious beliefs to run roughshod over the wishes, desires, and even religious liberty of their victims.

 “Except as provided in subsection C, OF THIS SECTION, STATE ACTION shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” (From the text of SB 1062)

 I say “particular religious beliefs” because we know that minority religious beliefs will never be upheld in Arizona or most Christian dominated communities. And let’s be clear: this is a Christian initiative and just another “Christian Prick Bill.”

The bill reminds me of other Christian initiatives in recent years. Christians have pushed for the “right” of pharmacists to not fill prescriptions for which they have a religious objection. Trans-vaginal probes lie in store for women seeking abortion in many states, thanks to the efforts of Christians. Gays in schools are more likely to be the victims of bullies, thanks again to Christianity. Of course, Christians have bullied gays for money for decades. These modern initiatives echo past Christian efforts to murder Jews, Muslims, Cathars, and infidels, the Inquisitions, the justification of slavery, and the subjugation of women.

Let’s pull out the common themes in these Christian Prick Bills:

  • There is usually a claim that Christians are suffering some sort of persecution, that their religious liberty is being compromised; they are the victim. And the only way to address this terrible situation is to enable them to victimize their chosen enemy. This is a huge lie, of course. Christians rarely suffer the persecution they would gladly inflict on others. Theirs is a position of privilege in terms of power, laws, and tax breaks.
  • They want immunity from the consequences of their actions. Rarely, is there a notion of tit-for-tat. They want to bully and persecute while simultaneously being protected from any retaliation for their bullying. I’ll guarantee the Arizona bill will not protect the “religious liberty” of a doctor who refuses IVF, say, to a Christian couple because of his sincere religious belief that there are too many Christians.
  • A related idea is that Christians want to wash their hands of any personal responsibility for these efforts. They want to be pricks to gays in their businesses but not have any financial fallout from being labeled bigots. They want unwanted children to be born, but they don’t want to provide for them. They want to control people’s medical decisions, but be immune from any harm that comes from that control. Remember: with great power comes great responsibility.
  • There is a strong undertone of vindictiveness. In reading the Bible, you’d get the impression that that the Christian god is a petulant, sadistic, murderer and thug. These initiatives honor that spirit. I’m actually OK with vindictiveness, but only to the extent that it becomes synonymous with the brand of Christianity. From a recent Pew poll, we see that young people are turned off by the judgmental attitudes and hypocrisy and are leaving the church. This can only be a good thing and it will be helped by making Christianity synonymous with thuggery in the popular culture.

“But wait,” I hear some Christians say, “that doesn’t represent my version of Christianity. You’re painting with too broad a brush.” I have a number of responses to this sort of complaint:

  • First, you don’t get to do action X and the opposite of action X and claim the backing of some sort of divine moral intelligence. That’s like circling all the answers on a multiple-choice test and claiming you aced it. If you guys can’t agree on your Creator’s absolute morality despite your claims of actively conversing with him every week, that’s evidence enough for me that the whole enterprise is just a fraud. The Bible a Rorschach test for the morally challenged – it supports pretty much all positions. Ministers are just working an invisible puppet who seems to always agree with their bigoted attitudes. Atheists can see through this con.
  • Next, what kind of Christian are you? So many Christians are content to go once or twice a week and get their shot of Jesus heroin, have a magic cracker, bask in the fantasy of perpetual orgasm, or being raptured up to watch Armageddon unfold and enjoy the torments of non-believers. These people count the days when they can be relieved from being in this world and regain their “true spiritual nature”. Such people are, by their own definition, useless to this world. You would think if they really believed that stuff, they would hurry on to their reward.
  • If instead you’re a genuinely decent person who wants to make the world a better place, why do you let such an evil institution trade on your good name? Why not distance yourself from the historical and current cesspool that is Christianity?
  • If you really want to hold onto the Christian label and you don’t like the Christian Pricks defining you, please consider taking up your complaint with them. I don’t consider this my problem. So often the idea is to shut down the person pointing out a problem with Christianity, rather than address the actual complaint.

Us atheists do owe the Christian Pricks a debt of gratitude. They make our points for us and they hasten the day when belief without sufficient evidence is just the hallmark of a powerless rube.

What Russell thinks about Christmas

Hello, everyone. I’m putting my name in the post title just so it is totally clear that this is my point of view and I am not speaking for anyone else.

On Sunday’s show, someone asked me what I thought about Christmas, and I answered off the cuff. Since then we’ve received a few emails both for and against celebrating Christmas, and in line with something I predicted, Beth isn’t happy to hear that I’m bad mouthing Christmas. As I’m in a position of disagreeing with a good friend, I’m going to clear up what I think now.

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