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.

Churches fight transportation fee on 1st Amendment grounds

Image from http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13909

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is known for trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, is now claiming that churches in one town do not have to pay a new tax because of church-state separation.

According to the Huffington Post, Mission, Kansas has instituted a new “transportation utility fee” which taxes properties based on the amount of traffic they get.

“It was just a fair way to spread the cost among those who are generating the traffic,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “to help pay for the roads that you need to bring people in either for your business or for the churches or to people’s homes.”

But some churches are apparently none to happy about the tax and have asked the Alliance Defense Fund, known for fighting for religious symbols on public property and defending convocations at public schools and government meetings, to help them on 1st Amendment grounds, arguing that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from taxing churches. Again from the Post

“It makes no sense to tax churches and to limit their ability to provide their services, and it does damage to the constitutional separation between church and state,” argues Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund […] He acknowledges that church-state separation is generally not an argument made by his conservative Christian law firm; but in this instance, he says “there should be a separation here.”

So apparently the 1st amendment somehow prohibits the government from taxing churches? We could play the Christian Right’s game and bring up the fact that the exact words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, nor does it explicitly say “The government will not apply transportation utility taxes on churches.” But that would be somewhat disingenuous since the exact wording is not what matters, but the idea behind the words. And no matter how you twist it, the 1st amendment does not even come close to saying churches should pay no taxes. It is ridiculous that churches are exempt from most taxes to begin with. And in this specific case, the transportation fee has absolutely nothing to do with establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Hey, maybe that’s their plan: they’re going to claim that “free” in the Constitution doesn’t mean “unrestricted”, but rather “without cost.” If religion should be “free”, then they shouldn’t pay taxes!

The sad thing is, if the Alliance Defense Fund can suddenly become church-state defenders when it suits them, I wouldn’t put it past them to try to twist the word “free” in the Constitution. I’m glad to see the Religious Right finally recognizes the idea of Church-State separation; it’s too bad it’s only when taxes are concerned.

War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

Atheist plaque combats Christmas display in MS: is this a good thing?

Jackson, MS is the among latest cities in the news that are having illegal Christmas displays challenged. FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has put one of their plaques in the Capitol building next to a nativity scene placed there by the Mississippi 9/11 Remembrance Association, according to WLBT.

Why would a 9/11 organization put up a nativity scene? The connection between 9/11 and this nativity scene is perhaps that both were organized by religious zealots… The comparison is a little unfair, perhaps. Obviously a nativity scene is not an act of terrorism, but it’s scary that religious people feel like they can do whatever they want just because it’s honoring their god.

There shouldn’t be Christmas displays or atheistic plaques in government buildings. I will admit that, although I support the FFRF, I am concerned that the expansion of the plaques into more cities might mean that it will become the norm or accepted to have Christmas displays, they will just be accompanied by “token” displays that include secular or non-Christian themes.

I think the plaques were originally meant to represent atheists but also as a deterrent (the language in it is strong and some might prefer there  to get rid of both the Christmas decorations and the plaque). I’m not sure it’s working, though. I do not object to the plaque’s message itself, although it isn’t the most positive of fronts to present to theists. But I vacillate on whether I think it is an effective strategy. If the plaque + Christmas scene precedent gets established, Christians will (mostly) get their way of having Christmas in state buildings around the country because they can then argue, “well, the atheists get their sign, too, so what’s the problem?” I want less religion in public places, not religion and atheism mixed.

Why can’t people just celebrate holidays on their own instead of forcing it on everyone in official areas? That pesky First Amendment again always trying to protect the rights of the minority where government is involved… Christmas is alive and well, in case Christians haven’t noticed. Aren’t the gazillion Christmas displays up in stores and private residences this time of year (bad) enough?!?! Hopefully eventually people will realize that religion is a private matter, but it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon.

Images from WLBT.

Creationism still going strong


Check out Creation Science 101 by Roy Zimmerman

For anyone still actually reading this blog after my prolonged absence, here’s some news showing that while hard-core creationism has gone down slightly, the majority of Americans think that evolution didn’t happen or that God is the one guiding evolution.

From Gallup, Via The Atheist Spot

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms […] What no doubt continues to surprise many scientists is that 4 out of 10 Americans believe in the first of these explanations.

What frustrates me is how basic this one is. All you have to do is read the first two chapters of Genesis to see that something’s up: there are two different creation accounts. I guess most people just accept one or the other and leave it at that, instead of throwing the whole thing into question.

If you even ignore the Bible, does no one know about dog breeding? I think some people just think that there are minor changes that occur, and don’t think about the big picture that if little changes are occurring in a small amount of time, then big changes occur over large amount of time. But I guess thousands of fossil specimens and logic don’t go very far these days.

At least a growing percentage of Americans, 16%, believe that humans evolved without a god’s involvement. Maybe by the year 3000 we can get that up to 50%!

Prop 8 proponents — which kind(s) of Biblical marriage do you support?

A quick follow-up to my post on Prop 8. As pointed out by in a comment by a member of Atheist Nexus, the Bible is far from supporting only what Prop 8 proponents think of as “traditional” marriage. According to the site Religious Tolerance, there are at least 8 types of marriage the Bible specifically condoned by God in the Bible.

If Christians are going to only go to bat for god-friendly weddings, they’ll have to either endorse forced marriage of unwed, unbetrothed rape victims to their attackers or else explain why they are not campaigning for what the Bible clearly outlines as a required form of marriage. Do they really want to make their god angry by not allowing polygany (a man marrying multiple women) or thousands of concubines?

If we’re going to pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow or legislate, I guess then that means that men “lying” with men (and women with women) should be fair game, too.

Image from http://www.slapupsidethehead.com/2008/11/proposition-8-is-discriminatory-nonsense

Anne Rice loses her religion

Famous author Anne Rice has said she’s leaving Christianity, specifically the Catholic religion she converted to 12 years go after recovering from a coma. This Freethinker article discusses the decision more in detail. She was raised Catholic, abandoned it for atheism, converted back to Catholicism, and is once again renouncing her ties with the church. She apparently has not given up on god or on Christ himself, but on organized Christianity. A few quotes from Anne Rice:

I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.

I’ve come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this.

I’ve also found that I can’t find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can’t find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood.

She makes it clear that she’s not anti-Christ, just anti-church. Is this for PR (not wanting to alienating likely the majority of her readers who are Christians) or does she actually like the Bible and not like what churches have done with it?

I’ve heard some people say this and can sympathize to some extent, but if she’s looked at Scripture in detail though, doesn’t she see that not all, but a lot of what she is criticizing does in fact come from Scripture. To take feminism just as an example: 1 Corinthians 14, for example tells women it is “disgraceful” for them to speak in church. She might consider reading the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible’s section on women, for more insight on this…

In any case, I applaud people who reject Christianity’s hate-filled teachings, whether they do so by rejecting the religion outright, or by picking and choosing the occasional nuggets and insights — just so long as they don’t pretend that the Bible (including the New Testament) isn’t backwards, hateful, violent, contradictory, and just plain wrong a large portion of the time.

UPDATE: According to an LA Times article, Rice answers how she envisions being devoted to Christ without being Christian.

It’s talking to God, putting things in the hands of God, trusting that you’re living in God’s world and praying for God’s guidance. And being absolutely faithful to the core principles of Jesus’ teachings.

It would be interesting to know what exactly she thinks the “core principles of Jesus’ teachings” are, since the interpretations of his teachings have helped lead to thousands of denominations, religious wars…As an author herself, you’d think she would find fault with the Bible’s lack of clarity!

Christian leaders condemn overturning of Prop 8

As most people who follow the news likely know, California’s Proposition 8 (the ban against same-sex marriage in that state) was just overturned last week in federal court. There will of course be appeals, but this is a major step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in California, but if it survives appeal, possibly at the national level.

Since Christianity is all about love, they are throwing their full support towards gay marriage, right? (Did you detect a note of sarcasm there?)

Here is a link to an article by Christianity Today (which I saw posted in a few freethought-friendly places) which provides some reactions from the Christian community. To be fair, there are some quotes that are fairly neutral or even supportive of LGBT community, but here are a few gems to give you an idea of the other side of the coin.

Majorities are unstable, and while traditional marriage has the upper hand now, it may not in 20 years. [What is going to happen, LGBT people will suddenly become a majority in the next 20 years? Now that’s what I call evolution! Or will they just corrupt the rest of God-fearing people by then?]

Because gay marriage is less than God’s best for relationship, we need to equip ourselves to minister to those who will choose it and later realize it might not have been the best decision. [Will they also equip themselves to minister to those who will choose and later realize it was the best decision of their life?]

At stake in the debate is the very nature of marriage itself. Thinking biblically does not allow us to regard marriage as merely prudential or preferential (I like strawberry, you like pistachio), but as a covenantal union of one man and one woman established by God for a purpose that transcends itself. [Comparing the love and devotion of two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together…to liking pistachios. It’d be hard to make a more ignorant or belittling comparison. Although  “my cute little strawberry” does sound like a nice pet name.]

The Bible makes clear that marriage is God’s idea rather than a social contract that we are free to renegotiate based on changing social trends. [So if we have to follow God’s ideas on marriage, does this mean we’re sticking with the whole you-must-marry-your-rapist thing dictated in the Bible, then? (Deuteronomy 22:28). If we mustn’t follow social trends when it comes to marriage, should we also wear BC-era wedding attire?]

The gospel is deeply serious while Judge Walker’s decision is a jumbled mess of sloppy thinking […] [That’s funny; I would have said the exact opposite.]

Hopefully this ruling will lead society towards understanding of those who are not in the mainstream, instead of the continuing legacy of bigotry towards the “Other” that religions too often help perpetuate.

Woman sentenced to death by stoning

An Iranian woman, after already being lashed 99 times for adultery, has now been sentenced to be stoned to death. It’s hard to believe such barbaric punishment can occur in the 21st century, but Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, who is a 42-year-old mother, has exhausted all her legal options and could be put to death any day for her alleged crime.

According to CNN

Ashtiani, 42, will be buried up to her chest, according to an Amnesty International report citing the Iranian penal code. The stones that will be hurled at her will be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately.

People continued to be cruelly tortured and killed like this because of religious dogma. Some Muslim apologists claim that since stoning for adultery isn’t in the Koran, that it’s not an Islamic but rather a cultural practice. While it’s true that the Koran doesn’t condone stoning for adultery, it is condoned in hadith writings which are meant to interpret and give guidance to Muslims about the Koran. While interpretation and application of hadiths can vary (notably between sunnis and shiites), the fact remains that this practice stems from Islamic tradition.

Even worse are the facts that

• there is no conclusive proof that the woman actually committed the crime she has been sentenced to death for.
• she has already been punished for her alleged crime (99 lashes), and

According to the Guardian:

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of “judge’s knowledge” – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Amnesty International has a campaign trying to get Iran to abolish stoning, but there appears to be little chance it will work in time to save Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani or at least 10 other people who as of 2010 are awaiting stoning.

Debating whether or not there is a god may be an interesting intellectual enterprise, but in the meantime the horrible crimes committed in the name of supernatural beings goes on. Governments, no matter whether they claim to be Islamic, Christian, or secular, should not be punishing people based on religion.

Photo source: Amnesty International

Big Butter Jesus burns to the ground

Big Butter Jesus, aka Touchdown Jesus, a giant Jesus monument in southern Ohio made famous in part by comedian-songwriter Heywood Banks, just burned to the ground after being hit by lightning Monday night. Some were saddened by the fire, while others were amused that God would send a lightning bolt to consume a monument to his Son in fire. (God did allegedly send the real thing down to die a torturous death and burn in hell for 3 days, so I think setting the Jesus statue ablaze is nothing in comparison.)

This is big news; it made the mainstream newswires, which is how I found out about it. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it sounds like tons of people stopped by on the highway to see the giant fireball burn.

To look at the thing, in photos at least, you just kind of assumed if it wasn’t made out of butter, it had to be made out of something solid. Certainly somebody must have realized that making a huge flammable statue with a metal frame was not a good idea. I guess not. According to Yahoo News/AP, “it was made of plastic foam and fiberglass over a steel frame.” The steel frame is all that is left now of the $300,000 statue officially called “King of Kings”. But never fear: the church says “”It will be back, but this time we are going to try for something fireproof.” (that’s an actual quote, by the way, from co-pastor Darlene Bishop.)

I found out about the monument thanks to a friend who showed me Heywood’s song a few years back. I thought it was hilarious. My wife, who’s a Christian as I’ve mentioned before, thought the song was hilarious, too. The song is often in my head when reading about various Christian wackiness. Here’s a link to the lyrics; it’s funnier if you just listen to it before reading the lyrics, in my opinion.

Heywood Banks was asked about the fire, and according to Daytona Daily News he said he has concocted new lyrics to the song in light of it burning down (“extra crispy Jesus!”). No YouTube or audio of this version seems available yet, but when it comes out I’ll be sure to post it here.

Image sources: http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Lightning-strikes-Jesus-statue-Ohio/ss/events/us/061510lightningjesus#photoViewer=/100615/480/urn_publicid_ap_org4d3393dbfb36415fbb259184b3a8d6e2 ; http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Dayton-Daily-News-lightning-King-of-King-thunderstorm/photo//100615/480/urn_publicid_ap_org_b8bd107213aa4e03a8cbb7d90584d889//s:/ap/us_lightning_strikes_jesus_statue;_ylt=Anli0fY6DBOdEojribnAFmJH2ocA;_ylu=X3oDMTE5bGZwZGlsBHBvcwMxBHNlYwN5bl9yX3RvcF9waG90bwRzbGsDZmxhbWVzc2hvb3R1