Reason Rally 2016!

reason-rally-logo-300x252This weekend will be the Reason Rally in Washington DC, with the highlight being the rally on Saturday, June 4th on the National Mall. There will be a variety of celebrities, scientists, activists, and public officials in attendance! The idea is to promote the importance of using reason (as opposed to religious dogma, pseudoscience, etc.) in making public decisions and to show that there are a growing number of Americans who support science- and reason-based government, as well as the separate of church and state.

Since I’ve recently been using my long-dormant account to tweet information related to the event, I thought I’d post a quick update here. In case you just happened to come to my website and don’t know about the Reason Rally, please check it out! I will also likely continue to tweet news about it before, during, and after the event from my Twitter account.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/reasonrally

Website: http://reasonrally.org 

Live feed: http://centerforinquiry.live

 

 

 

Agriculture Secretary’s answer to nation’s drought: prayer and rain dance


Image: Clipart

If you’re like most of the US this summer, you are currently living in a region experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. According to Reuters (via Yahoo News*), 60% of the contiguous 48 states are now in drought, with a state of natural disaster declared in nearly 1300 counties across this great land.

You might hope our government would be on top of the situation, engaging the public in a serious discussion of the likely causes (climate change, anyone?) and short- or long-term measures that might be needed to deal with a situation that will affect millions if not billions of people in our country and, as the top grain exporter in the world, across the globe.

Well, I’ll let you be the judge of how seriously the worst natural disaster in US history is being taken. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that faced with the current situation, “I get on my knees everyday and I’m saying an extra prayer right now […] If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” And then, at least according to the Reuters/Yahoo News article, he went on to discuss the economic effects of the drought on farmers and the stock market, but no mention of why there might be a drought or what concrete solutions there might be for those in drought regions.

Let’s give Mr. Vilsack the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking about the rain dance and “rain prayer.” Is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers, as well as millions of people worldwide who may be affected by not having access to affordable food, really something to joke about?

But perhaps a more important question is: is he truly going down on his knees to pray “everyday” for more rain? If we take him at his word, it sounds like it. I suppose if he wants to waste his breath on his own time talking to a sky god who apparently would withhold much-needed rain from his creation if he doesn’t hear enough prayers (wonder what the quota is?), then Mr. Vilsack is free to do so on his own time in private.

In his role as Secretary of Agriculture, however, one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, he is representing the American government and all of its people when he is speaking as a public figure. Instead of cracking jokes about rain dances and discussing his religious practices, why is he not engaging the country in an actual discussion of this recording-breaking heat and drought? For example:

  • What he or his fellow cabinet members can or cannot do to aid farmers should the drought continue and decimate this year’s yields
  • What the science says about how likely this year’s conditions are just a freak blip or more likely a foretaste of what’s still to come
  • Which steps need to be taken this year or in the future to deal with extreme weather conditions
  • How average citizens can or cannot help (using less water so that more can go to farmers? practicing fire safety to avoid causing fires in the city or countryside?).

To be fair, it is possible the secretary touched on some or all of these issues, but the article left them out. If this is the case, maybe he should realize that he should be on message and not talking about whether or not he thinks his god is going to send rain our way one of these days, but rather what government officials should actually be talking about: governing the country. Hopefully the drought will soon be coming to an end, but if not we need to know our officials are looking for real-world solutions and not just hoping for a Deus Ex Machina.

UPDATE: FFRF (the Freedom From Religion Foundation) was also offended by our Agriculture Secretary’s religious remarks. Here is their press release and letter to Tom Vilsack

* Note: As is seemingly becoming more and more common, news sites are updating their articles and sometimes significantly changing the content (not just correcting typos, or posting add-on updates as above.). As of this update, the Yahoo News story is almost completely rewritten from what it was last night, and does not even mention the praying that was in the original headline for the story. The Indian Express has the article in its original form, or at least the form I saw it in originally.

Halloween

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. Blame it mostly on work: when you work most of the year 12-14 hours a day during Monday-Thursday, and 3-6 hours a day on weekends, it doesn’t leave much time for relaxing, much less posting.

I did overhear a conversation relating to religion and Halloween that I thought was interesting, so I decided to do a quick post. I think if I do quick posts, I’ll be on here a lot more often, so here goes…

Standing in line at a Walgreen’s (a scary enough place most days as it is), I overheard two women in line lamenting the fact that Halloween falls on a Sunday. I don’t try to listen in on conversations, but when someone’s right ahead of you in line, you can’t help but overhear. Here is the relevant part of the conversation, as best I remember. They’re not direct quotes (didn’t have my iPhone recorder on of course!) but the general content and gist is here.

— Can’t believe they’re letting kids do trick-or-treating on a Sunday.

— Yeah, it’s a shame…on a Sunday! That ain’t right — why don’t they do it on Saturday?

— Shouldn’t do it at all, dressing up as monsters and devils for Halloween…but on Sunday?!

Now I don’t know for sure that this is related for religion, but what other moral objection could one have to children trick or treating or pretending to be monsters and devils on Sundays? Tennessee is a religious state, but I live in a part of the state (Memphis area) that is a little less Bible-Beltish. So I was rather surprised to hear this. There’s a lot of God talk I hear here and there, but this stuck out as particularly close-minded.

I’ve heard of communities “moving” Halloween / trick-or-treating to another day for safety/law-and-order reasons (to avoid people TP-ing [toilet-papering] houses, people targeting kids, etc.), but this is the first time I’ve heard it implied that Sunday is a special day that should trump Halloween.

Halloween is a pretty silly but overall harmless holiday, and does go back to religious (or a-religious) roots. My understanding is that it’s similar to Carnival, the period before Lent (that includes Mardi Gras): having fun and letting loose before a pious Christian holiday comes along. All Hallowed’s Eve preceded All Saints’ Day, so it was a time to continue a non-Christian tradition of celebrating pagan religious beliefs in spirits and such. I don’t believe in spirits, so I see absolutely no intrinsic value in Halloween, but I also see no intrinsic value in opposing it since nearly no one associates the holiday with this history. For nearly everyone, it’s just an occasion to dress up and/or have fun.

But not on a Sunday, the Lord’s day! Maybe if they can find a Bible verse that says Sunday is a holy day, I might be more understanding of the idea that Sunday is a special day that certain activities (such as purchasing alcohol or apparently trick-or-treating) can’t take place. I think the Wiccan/pagan minority has it wrong that it’s a religious occasion (which only occasionally falls on Halloween itself), but it’s their right to think so. But this is not the celebration that will be happening across America tomorrow. Halloween is only vaguely related to religion, in the minds of a small minority of Christian or Pagan kooks. Until either Christians or Wiccans change this state of affairs, I don’t think there’s a huge problem with kids or others playing dress-up for a day.

Image source: http://www.halloweenclipart.com/halloween_clipart_images/jack_o_lantern_wearing_a_witch_hat_0521-1010-1412-3503.html

For Dr. Ray, “Religion is a sexually-transmitted disease”


My wife and I went to go see Dr. Darrel Ray, psychologist and author of the best-selling book The God Virus, speak yesterday in Memphis. His talk was a very thought-provoking and provocative look at how religion continues to spread despite the fact that logically, most religious belief makes very little logical sense. Ray compares the effects and propogation of religion to those a virus.

In addition to Ray giving a very enjoyable talk, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well the analogy holds up. I had read and heard about Dr. Ray prior to the talk and knew the general premise of his book, but Ray went into detail about a number of ways religion acts like a virus. Here are just a couple examples of many he gave (he spoke for almost 2 hours, not including the Q&A!).

* Religion “infects” its hosts through vertical and horizontal transmission. Just as a disease like HIV can be passed from mother to child (vertical) or from one adult to another (horizontal, religion can be spread through childhood indoctrination (vertical) or through adult conversion (horizontal). This explains his claim that “Religion is a sexually-transmitted disease.”

* The religion “virus” negatively affects its hosts’ behavior. Ray said that you can often see a visible change in a person when you switch from daily topics such as the weather, family, work, etc. to religion: their facial expression and look changes, and sometimes the way they speak does as well. Ray says this is because believers are reverting to back to a time in childhood when they were “infected” with the religion virus (such as 5-7 years old) when logical thinking had not fully developed. Ray argues that religious people can’t be convinced logically of the problems with their religion because the “virus” effectively stopped their logical development on religious topics at a young age. People may be geniuses at logic in other areas, but are stuck at a childhood level when it comes to their religion (but often can objectively consider others’ religions).

I have actually noticed people’s expressions change when the topic switches to religion, so I can subscribe to this part of the analogy as well. He also spoke about techniques that, wittingly or not, preachers use to make people more susceptible to and dependent on religion, such as the emotional ups and downs of a typical religious service (making you feel guilty [e.g. for sins you have committed] only to make you feel better at the end [e.g. for forgiveness of your sins), the cadence of prayers and other liturgical elements, the music and its lyrics (such as the saved wretch in “Amazing Grace”).

My wife, despite being a believer, said the Ray presented arguments well and that they made sense. Not that she agrees with them, of course, but she understands his arguments and thought overall he seemed fair and friendly. I was a little worried what her reaction would be to a talk about a “God virus”, but I think Ray overall did an excellent job of presenting his points in an interesting, matter-of-fact way that didn’t sound overly anti-religious.

The one part my wife reacted negatively to (which made me a little uncomfortable as well), was his statement that non-believers on average have a 5-point higher IQ than believers. Ray made sure to point out that it was a correlation and not a causation. But I think even this may not hold up necessarily. IQ tests have a margin of error, and my wife and I have read that they may be dependent on many other factors as well (for example, poorer students may not have been taught proper test-taking skills and so many perform more poorly on IQ tests even if their actual intelligence is higher). Even if there is a negative correlation between religion and intelligence, I don’t think it’s helpful to think in those terms; I think it could lead to further claims by religionists that atheists are being insulting or condescending to believers.

In his defense, this was a very small portion (perhaps 30 seconds) of his talk. Ray made it clear at several points that he’s not trying to demonize or insult religion or its promoters, going as far as to say that he thinks the Pat Robertsons of the world truly believe they are doing what is best even when it seems ridiculous to outsiders. He thinks that believers are just blinded by the religion virus and are doing what they think is best. Ray has also set up a foundation, Recovering from Religion, which he says aims to help people who would like to be cured of the God virus, which I think furthers the impression that I had for 99.9% of the talk: that Ray is a once-religious man who wants to explain to others why he left religion, show the world his observations as a psychologist about religion’s effects on people, and help those who wish to leave their religion. I thought the talk overall was very enjoyable and informative. I bought the book on Kindle and look forward to reading more.


Image source: http://www.midwesthumanistconference.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/darrel-ray-thumb.jpg

This is why I blog about religion

Sometimes I wonder why I bother blogging about religion and atheism. Does it really matter if I read and talk about religions I don’t even believe in anyway? I used to believe in God, after all, so why I don’t just let bygones be bygones, leave religion alone, and post about something a little more entertaining, like funny animal videos on YouTube! It’d be a lot cheerier, and I’m sure I’d get a lot more traffic on my blog.

Then I see something like this letter to the editor, and I remember why I blog.

This letter to the editor is why I write my blog. I saw this posted on the site of fellow atheist blogger Jason Mosler. Sure, it’d be easy to laugh this letter off as just the rantings of some religious nut. But reading it a second time, it disturbed me on a number of levels.

This is a real person, Alice, writing to a real small-town newspaper in Alaska just a few years ago (January 2007). Alice honestly thinks that:

  • People who don’t believe in God should be “kicked [out] of the country“.
  • The United States is based on the principle that you “must believe” in God.
  • You can believe in God “any way you want“, but Alice only cites mainstream Christian denominations as examples of acceptable beliefs
  • Atheists practice “evil“, although it is not explained what this means
  • Atheists are responsible for the “ruin” of America and for crime being “rampant“, even “if they have never committed a crime“.

People like Alice are the reason I write this blog. Her religion has closed her mind so much that I’m sure she doesn’t even realize how hate-filled and out-of-touch with reality her letter is. For all we know, Alice is like many Christians: a kind-hearted, generous person in her day-to-day life who truly wants to do what’s right. But because her religion has taught her that people who don’t believe in her god are “evil”, all critical thought stops. She says and thinks the most horrible things because she knows she is right. Crime is up, atheists are in America, my faith says atheists are bad, so atheists are to blame and must be kicked out of society.

If Alice is like most people, she did not choose her religion growing up, but was brought up in a community that is largely if not exclusively Christian. She may never have met an open atheist in her life, but her faith has her so convinced that atheists are the cause of society’s ills that everything she sees (from currency to crime reports) serves to prove it to her. It would likely be difficult if not impossible to convince her otherwise.

We should feel sorry for Alice, for her head being filled with such hateful nonsense based on a book of fairy tales written thousands of years ago. But at the same time, I think we should also have a healthy dose of fear. We live in a society where it is still perfectly acceptable in many circles to openly hate and wish harm on people who don’t believe in God. And that is scary. There are unfortunately still people who think that Jews or Blacks, for example, should be kicked out of the country, but would a letter to the editor blaming Jews for America’s problems saying they should all be sent to Israel be published in a newspaper? Thankfully, there is very little chance of that happening. It’s no longer acceptable to openly say such things in society about most minority groups. But for some reason, it’s still okay to say just about anything you want about atheists, no matter how bigoted or unsupported it is. Many readers I’m sure said or thought “Amen” upon reading Alice’s letter.

Anti-atheist sentiment is what is “rampant” in our country these days. As long as there are people who believe that non-believers are evil and don’t deserve to be citizens, then my blog has a purpose. People need to know that religion is brainwashing good people into believing nonsense and spreading hate. There are people who strongly believe that atheists don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else, some of whom are actively trying to push their bigoted beliefs onto the country as a whole.

If even one believer sees this post and thinks about their belief, or one non-believer realizes how important it is to help change minds about atheists, then writing this blog is definitely worth it.

The Human Spark

Actor Alan Alda (image source: Wikipedia) hosts a new series about human origins

Last night, I was looking at the TV listings and saw that there was a show called “The Human Spark” on. It turns out it’s a three-part series about human origins and why modern humans have the special, hard-to-define “spark” (intelligence, creativity, etc.) that sets us apart from other primates. I watched the first part and it is very well-done. (Check the PBS listings here or your local listings for repeats of part one and airings of the next two parts).

Alan Alda goes around the world asking questions of experts and seeing first-hand some evidence of human ancestry, trying to figure out why we got that “spark” that makes us human, while other animals (including close relatives like Neanderthals) did not. The premise of the show is thus evolutionary in nature, so I’m sure there are some young-earth creationists out there who aren’t happy. If you’re like me and aren’t an expert in science, but are interested in where we came from (and think it has nothing to do with “Let there be light”), you should like this series.

What drew my attention to the show, I have to admit, is that it’s being hosted by Alan Alda. Alda played Hawkeye on the ground-breaking show M*A*S*H (a sitcom/drama about the Korean War which lasted longer than the Korean War itself did). Hawkeye has always been one of my favorite TV characters (probably because my dad liked him) and I had read that Alda is involved in charity work. I also thought I had read he was an atheist. I checked into it and it turns out he considers himself as “not a believer” but doesn’t like the words atheist or agnostic. According to a piece on the Edge Foundation website (found via Wikipedia)

I still don’t like the word agnostic. It’s too fancy. I’m simply not a believer. But, as simple as this notion is, it confuses some people. Someone wrote a Wikipedia entry about me, identifying me as an atheist because I’d said in a book I wrote that I wasn’t a believer. I guess in a world uncomfortable with uncertainty, an unbeliever must be an atheist, and possibly an infidel. This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people’s holding beliefs other than their own?

He did start out as a believer, though. Even though he rejects the labels atheist and agnostic, he has made a conscious movement away from religious belief. Perhaps he is more of a secular humanist, since he doesn’t believe in God or heaven.

For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. […] But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared.

In any case, Alda seems to be genuinely interested and fascinated by this series. As am atheist/non-believer , I also find myself more interested in topics like evolution and human origins than I used to be, so this show is right up my alley. The site for the show has video clips (which aren’t embeddable, unfortunately, but you can view them on their site) as well as other information. The first part in the series will be repeated several times over the next few days, so if you missed it but are interested, check your local listings.

EDIT: The show is airing on PBS, the link was there but I never said it in the text. Sorry about any confusion!

Dan Barker calls for Memphis Council to steer clear of prayers, keep church and state separate

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), spoke out last night in Memphis against the religious convocations given at Memphis City Council meetings, arguing instead for neutrality in government when it comes to religion.

Barker opened on a light note, excusing himself for starting a little late, saying he was looking for someone who could begin the meeting in prayer (he asked if there were any councilmembers who could assist). The rest of his talk, followed by over an hour of Q & A with both supporters and detractors, combined background on state-and-church issues across the country, personal anecdotes, and light-hearted humor.

Barker specifically addressed the Memphis situation several times, explaining that it was wrong on constitutional grounds for the city to include religious prayers in its official procedings since this constitutes government speech in support of religion, something not allowed under the First Amendment. Barker noted that the very phrase of the First Amendment is one restricting the rights of the government in terms of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In its complaint letter from September, FFRF noted that this year, nearly all of the convocations were done “in Jesus’ name” or with clear references to the Bible. According to Barker, convocations like those given at Memphis council meetings “crossed the line” by subjecting citizens to prayers given by religions, more often than not “in Jesus’ name”. He also noted that the City Council website also contains a biblical reference, further indication that the Council is playing favorites in religion.

He addressed critics who claimed FFRF was trying to advance atheism in government, stating that FFRF is only seeking neutrality. He said as a former minister, he understood where some religious people were coming from, incorrectly seeing as an “attack” what is really constutionally-mandated neutrality in government.Memphis is not being called on to begin meetings with “God is dead”, for example, but simply that neither religion nor irreligion be sanctioned by government officials in the public square.

Barker made a distinction between the public square (where government and citizens meet) and the public sphere (where citizens express themselves). Government officials, just as anyone else, have the right to pray in church, talk about God, or exchange ideas on whatever they want to in the public sphere; however, once they are acting officially in the public square in their jobs as representatives of the people, government officials must remain neutral. Barker pointed out that City Council members are free to pray in their offices before the official session begins, but not during the session itself as an official act of government.

In response to a questioner who said that the founding fathers were religious and did not think government and church should be separate, Barker said that in addition to God not being in the constitution, the founders did not have official prayers at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin made a motion at the convention to have prayers at the meetings, but his motion was not even seconded, much less adopted. Barker said this showed that while some founders in their personal lives were Deists or Christians, most of them wanted to keep church out of the government and let each person decide for themselves according to their own conscience what to believe.

Another questioner wanted to know what FFRF would consider to be an acceptable solution to the current situation, where the City Council holds prayers. Barker said preferably on constitutional grounds, there should be no prayers during government meetings, but he offered at least two possibilities. The Council could have a moment of silence if it were clear that the moment was not stemming from a ploy to get around state-church separation, which Darker said would prove difficult in this case. Another possibility was establishing a system where anyone from any religion or no religion could speak to the assembly on any topic; drawing names from a hat to determine who would speak, for example, instead of the current situation of chaplains being invited to pray.

Much more was discussed during the talk and the Q & A. A summary of additional topics discussed, as well as commentary on the event, will be posted in the next few days, so please check back. In the meantime, here is an article that is appearing in today’s Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ leading daily newspaper) about the meeting, as well as some previous posts as background (1, 2, 3).

Dan Barker to visit Memphis, address church-state violations


Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
from FFRF. Source: http://ffrf.org/radio

Freedom from religion is finally coming to Memphis! Well, I should say: Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is coming; since the City Council here continues its unconstitutional prayers at its official meetings, we’ll have to see if freedom from religion will soon prevail here.

Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF and author of the recent book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (foreward by Richard Dawkins), will be coming to the University of Memphis campus on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Barker, who is a minister-turned-atheist, will be speaking about the importance of state-church separation — a particularly hot issue now in Memphis.

In September, FFRF lodged a complaint with the Memphis City Council over starting its meetings with convocations (read: religious prayers) and giving gifts emblazoned with the city’s official seal to religious leaders (see my original post here and a follow-up here). The controversy made the local media and has sparked some debate in town.

For now the city is continuing the convocations, and Council Chairman Harold Collins has said they would be willing to take the matter to court. It will be interesting to see what Dan Barker has to say on the issue. The FFRF has a long history of championing the rights of non-believers to have church and state separation, including taking a case against the White House faith-based initiatives all the way to the Supreme Court.

Dan Barker’s event will be held at Dec. 3 at 7:00 pm in the Rose Theater (470 University Center: map). For more information, visit the Campus Freethought Association website or contact Jason Grosser. I’ll also be sure to post any news on the Memphis state-church situation, as well as information on Dan Barker’s visit (including a report after the event)

Churches denounce children as ‘witches'; 1000s of kids maimed and killed

Image: Accused child witches in Nigeria

“Accused child witches Jane, left, and Mary, right […] Jane’s mother tried to saw off the top of her skull after a pastor denounced her and Mary.” Source : AP, MSNBC

With Halloween just around the corner, many kids in the US will soon be joyfully donning witch costumes and visiting haunted houses at their local churches. In many parts of Africa, however, the subject of witches is no laughing matter at church.

MSNBC reports that, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, an increasing number of children are being maimed or killed because churches are accusing them of witchcraft. According to MSNBC,

“Pastors were involved in half of 200 cases of “witch children” reviewed by the AP, and 13 churches were named in the case files.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to a couple hundred cases. Over the last ten years, in just two states in Nigeria,

“around 15,000 children have been accused [of witchcraft] and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.”

In many cases, the churches involved are affiliated with churches in the US, who defend themselves by saying that they are unaware of what’s going on. And more local churches are reportedly turning to the practicing of finding witches because it is profitable to them. According to a member of the Children’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network,

“Even churches who didn’t use to ‘find’ child witches are being forced into it by the competition. They are seen as spiritually powerful because they can detect witchcraft and the parents may even pay them money for an exorcism.”

So if anything, the situation seems to have worsened since I last posted about a couple of months ago. It’s good that this crisis is starting to get into the public light a little more, but that isn’t enough since at least some of these people believe they are doing what God wants them to. Churches in the US, whether directly linked to the congregations that are conducting these literal witch hunts, or just sending missionaries over to Africa, need to spread the message that witch burning and mutilation is not okay.

My hunch is that some church leaders may be shying away from a public campaign against these horrible attacks on children because the Bible actually does say that witches shouldn’t be allowed to live. (Unfortunately for these children, it doesn’t say how to tell when someone is or isn’t a witch.) I would think it’s hard for Christians to tell people to disregard something that is right there in the Bible, without worrying about throwing the whole thing into question. But with thousands of children suffering and dying, I don’t know how they can remain silent.