Opt-out required for school prayers? Teacher fired for 2nd time

It is against both Tennessee and U.S. law to lead public school students in prayer. But some people just won’t stop breaking the law and trying to find ways around it. Should students have to opt-out in order to be spared from teacher-led prayers?

According to WLBT news, “A Franklin County High School teacher was fired on Tuesday for leading her students in prayer in the classroom,” At first this sounds like good news, because the school board did not renew her contract because of her illegally leading prayer in school. But the news is not entirely good.

Apparently, teacher Alice Hawley had been fired “over 15 years ago”…for doing the same thing: leading prayers in class. “A few years later” she was asked back. So at least 15 years ago, she was let go because she was leading students in prayer. Then she was asked back, let’s say 10 years ago as a conservative estimate since we’re not given exact figures. That means she very well may have been leading class prayers for the past 10 years until a student or parent complained, or someone outside the school found out.

The principal was allegedly aware of what the teacher was doing, at least according to one student. “And sometimes our principle [sic: principal] comes and he’ll bow his head and he’ll pray with us.” If the principal was coming in and praying, he obviously was aware of the practice at some point before the teacher was let go; and since he actively participated in the prayers he may very well also be breaking the law, depending on the circumstances.

But in addition to subjecting some students who may be of different religious faiths or no faith at all to the teacher’s prayers, it’s the teacher’s defense that particularly irks me. One of her students said her policy was that if a student objected to the teacher praying:

“She said you can leave a letter an anonymous email, or just tell her raise your hand in class,”

So apparently, if the student is presenting the situation accurately, this teacher thinks that it’s okay if she imposes religious prayer upon her students, who are minors, so long as she tells them they can raise their hand to complain or leave an anonymous letter if they object. What she apparently doesn’t get is that she is in a position of authority, and that as a public school teacher, she is also acting as a representative of the government. She is not allowed to advocate religion. For her to say that the default is prayer and that you have to complain to stop it, when most or all of your other classmates support the prayer, is clearly a violation and an undue burden to put on a minor.

The video shows several students with shirts or writing on their arms saying “I broke the rule, I prayed in school” in support of their now-fired teacher and her prayers. What happens if a kid does not wear such a shirt, or does not actively support their teacher? Will they be singled out overtly or subtly and treated differently?

Teachers and other people hired by the state or federal government should not be forcing religion on anyone, especially not children. Children should not be forced to protest in order for the law to be upheld; the adults should be doing this on their own. I am glad the teacher got fired, but appalled that she was rehired in the first place, that this was the second time she had to be fired for the same thing, that the principal appears to have known about such prayers and even participated in them, and that her leaving has now further brought students into the fray. Hopefully whoever is hired to replace Hawley will start off their tenure by setting a good example for their students: respect for both students’ rights and the law by not leading classes in prayer.

Protecting victims not in the name of God, but in the name of Justice

I could not believe this headline when I saw it.

Irish cardinal to stay on despite abuse concerns (AP via Yahoo News)

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is refusing calls to step down even though he is involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse (assault and/or rape) cases.

Can you imagine the head of any other organization—the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a prime minister of a country, even the den master of a cub scout troop—refusing to step down when he admits having knowledge not only of the sexual abuse of minors, but also of efforts to coerce victims into not reporting the abuse, yet he did not come public with this knowledge while other kids were being abused?

According to the article:

In the 1970s […] he was at meetings where children had to sign oaths of silence about allegations of abuse against a Nobertine priest, Brendan Smyth, who was later convicted and died in prison.

Who else in this world, besides a so-called man of the cloth, would be allowed to continue leading an organization (with thousands if not millions of kids as members in that country, mind you) after he witnessed and kept silent about such a thing? And with 200 new allegations of abuse being brought to light between April 2009 and March 2010, who would have the audacity to declare he is going to stay on in his position?

Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Irish Catholics apologizing for the abuse in these and other cases, but

Victims of abuse said they were deeply disappointed by the letter as it failed to address the role of senior church leaders in the scandal.

But this news deeply disturbed me on the face level of sexual abuse, and the man’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his complicity in the matter, but on several other levels as well.

  • The AP article starts out by saying the cardinal was involved in “a cover-up of a sexual abuse case decades ago”. It isn’t until later that we read that “a sexual abuse case” (singular) involves “children” (plural). I find the use of the singular in the lead paragraph to be misleading.
  • Since the article doesn’t deem it worthy to mention the details of the case, I looked it up and found several sites (including a BBC News article from March) that state that it was two teenage boys, aged between 10 and 14 (is a 10-year-old a “teenager”?), who were abused. I don’t say “allegedly” because of the facts that the offender was found guilty and the Cardinal does not appear to be disputing the facts.
  • The BBC News article states that at the time Brady was a “relatively junior cleric it was not his responsibility to report Smyth to the police and that he passed all relevant information to his superiors. Smyth’s child abusing continued for many years after 1975.” The fact that he did not report the abuse and cover-up to authorities meant that other children were abused, for years.
  • The media are largely playing down the viciousness of the abuse that happened in these pedophile priest sex cases. As has been pointed out in many venues, the euphemism “abuse” in the media particularly irks me when referring to despicable rape and sexual assault of minors. “Abuse” sounds like maybe a priest touched or fondled children, which would be a serious, life-damaging event in and of itself. But Brendan Smyth was later accused of “rape”, according to a number of sites (including an article by Ireland’s public service station RTE).
  • I could not find information as to the nature of the abuse in the specific cases of the two children who were forced to sign the oath of silence, but if later children were allegedly raped, one can imagine the abuse might have gone beyond inappropriate touching. The article should have mentioned that the priest was later accused of rape. I have yet to see an American article that says a priest has been accused of rape, as Smyth was in later cases at least. For other accused rapists, and people who help cover up their tracks, do the media talk about “abuse”? Priests deserve no special treatment when it comes to reports of crime.
  • Not only do religious people not deserve a pass when it comes to reporting, they also should be equal under the law. I don’t know enough details about Cardinal Brady, but in other cases of accused rapists and abusers law enforcement and government officials have looked the other way, or given unfair and unjust treatment to accused pedophiles. I recently watched the film Deliver Us From Evil which describes an American priest (O’Grady) who abused numerous children over decades. Complaints to the police didn’t help: the church promised to keep him in a monastery away from children (which didn’t happen). If any other organization promised to keep a child abuser and raper away from children, would the law enforcement just let him go scott free, or would they be tried in the courts? He eventually was jailed, but is now free again. My understanding is that this is not an isolated set of incidents, but that some police and public officials have been knowingly letting the destruction of children’s lives go on for decades just because the accused are priests, clerics, and other religious people.
  • Lastly, when is public outcry going to be loud enough that police, government officials, and churches no longer protect rapists, abusers, and the people who cover up what they have done? It’s obvious they won’t protect children when left to their own devices, so people need to demand justice. I think some people still think the abuse is minor or not widespread, but slowly but surely the word seems to be getting out that these are not isolated incidents, but systematic cover-up allegedly going as high as the current pope (London Times, The Guardian).

The rape and sexual abuse of children is sickening and horrendous, and so is the cozy treatment the accused and their cohorts have been getting for years. The Catholic Church needs to be disabused of the notion that it is above the law and that their priests and cardinals are more important than the victims they leave behind. It is time for secular justice to get to the bottom of this and punish these criminals, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (since that apparently isn’t enough to set them straight), but in the name of justice.

Image source: Wikipedia

Darrel Ray, author of “The God Virus”, to speak in Memphis area

Darrel Ray, author of the book “The God Virus”, will be speaking in the Memphis, TN area this Sunday, March 7 at 1 p.m. The event will take place at Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church: 7350 Raleigh LaGrange Road, Cordova, TN. The event is sponsored by the Memphis Freethought Alliance.

I haven’t read “The God Virus”, but back in October I listened to his interview on Point of Inquiry and I’ve seen a few videos of Ray and I think it should be an interesting talk and hope to be able to attend. Ray’s website is http://www.thegodvirus.net, and his YouTube video channel is http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=damon132.

The video about is from YouTube, with Ray talking about one part of religion that I still have trouble getting over even now, the drumbeat of guilt that’s beat into many believers from a young age.

It’s a miracle!

The CBS News had a report on tonight’s news (they haven’t posted a video of it yet, but I’ll put it here when they do) where they 3 times mentioned that people being saved from the rubble in Haiti was a “miracle”. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to such language, but does the word “miracle”, used not by people being interviewed but by reporters, appropriate in a newscast?

It’s similar to the comments by President Obama saying of the horrible earthquakes and its aftermatch, that “there but for the Grace of God” would the United States be. These comments were covered by the mainstream press, including CBS of course. Even if he or CBS News are not overtly thinking of religion with these sorts of comments (which I happen to think they are), much of their audience will construe it as such. There are at least two things wrong with this type of thinking.

*It implies that the people who died, and did not get saved by an alleged “miracle”, deserved to die. Why else would God not save them as well? Why does God like the United States more than Haiti for us to be spared? Obviously these people in Haiti and elsewhere that God miraculously saved from this disaster must be God’s chosen, which means the ones who died certainly must have been less chosen, right? I don’t think anyone deserves to die in an earthquake, but I guess God does not agree.

*It minimizes the efforst of millions of people who have donated their time or money to help save as many people as possible from the ruins. There are actual doctors, paramedics, crane operators, civil servants, and other volunteers who searched through the rubble, often at personal risk, to try to help save people. If God is to get credit for saving these people, why isn’t he there in person (he can take human form when he wants, cf. Jesus) risking his own behind, working night and day sifting through dirt, broken concrete, and the dead remains of those who didn’t live?

It is not a miracle that these people are being saved, it is thanks to the work of many wonderful people who are working hard to save them because God will not. Obama, the media, and even some Haitians themselves may have “faith” that God is with them. What they fail to see is their worldview would mean that their God allowed the earthquake to happen (or some like Pat Robertson say he even caused it), and it’s humanity picking up the pieces afterwards from an indifferent or vengeful God.

Or maybe, just maybe, there is no God to thank for the few who are saved, or for the hundreds of thousands who perished. There’s just people who will pull together after this devastating tragedy, other people who will give aid and support to these survivors, and a world of people who will pull together to help rebuild Haiti. Isn’t that a much better way to view life?

Praying for Toyota?

Image source: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/eng/eed/research/peater/links/toyota.jpg

Individuals are free to pray as they want. But should elected officials be telling people they should pray for the success of a company?

According to Reuters, here are the comments of Kentucky state representative Charlie Hoffman.

“They are our great corporate citizen. We’ve got to pray for Toyota.”

It bears mentioning that, according to the same article by Reuters, “Toyota has invested over $5 billion in Kentucky. Some 6,600 people work full time at its Georgetown factory, the firm’s largest outside Japan and its first in the United States.” I’m sure economic concerns have nothing to do with the representative’s desire to pray for Toyota. After all, as Georgetown’s mayor, Karen Tingle-Sames, says, plant workers

“are not just employees of Toyota — they are our friends and family members. The people we go to church with and the people we shop at Wal-Mart with”

So as long as you go to church and Wal-Mart with someone, they are deserving of God’s grace, it would seem. If they didn’t go to church, I supposed the workers could just go to Hell (figuratively, of course)?

It is this sort of intrusion of religion into the state that seems the most common: elected representatives acting as if everyone can and should believe in God. Whether it’s telling people to pray, or emblazing “In God We Trust” in the U.S. Capitol entrance, it is illegal religious intrusion into our secular government.

God-awful week

It’s been a god-awful week for me personally. Nothing at all compared to the horrible situation in Haiti (Doctors Without Borders is one of the many secular charities helping there). But probably the worst week I’ve had in a very long time.

Things seems to be looking up, though. And this afternoon I finally had a little time to breathe, and was able to finish writing a song parody I got the idea for about a week ago. I’m pretty happy with it, and I plan on doing like I had done with my Baby Lord parody on my previous blog: posting a version of it online here with the lyrics. So please stay tuned!

I have to get going, but in the meantime, for those who may not have seen this yet (or heard about it on Dogma Free America), there’s been news about a US Defense Department weapons contractor who’s been sneaking Bible verses….onto guns. Not only is it illegal for the government to be providing weapons to soldiers that advertise Christianity, but there are obvious problems with using these “spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ” (as some have called them) while waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan…


Antievolution bill proposed for Missouri schools

Robert Wayne Cooper, a Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives, has proposed a bill that would require school administrators to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies.”

What scientific controversies, you may ask? According to the bill, this would include “the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization promoting the teaching of evolution in schools, reports on this bill in an article which also gives some background into previous attempts to attack evolution in Missouri. The frustrating thing is that lawmakers are getting craftier in wording such bills. On the surface, the current bill doesn’t sound that bad. According to the proposed legislation,

Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

Helping students to apply critical thinking in their learning is normally a laudable goal. But what purpose could Rep. Cooper have in mind by singling out evolution in his bill besides a veiled attempt to support the teaching of intelligent design / biblical creationism as an alternative to evolution? Especially in light of his previous efforts to legistlate in the matter, including a 2004 bill which would have mandated “equal time” for evolution and intelligent design, according to the NCSE article. That bill also stipulated that:

Willful neglect of any elementary or secondary school superintendent, principal, or teacher to observe and carry out the requirements of this section shall be cause for termination of his or her contract.

I’m not the first to point out the irony that attempts to slip creationism into the classroom have been “evolving”, but it is both frustrating and worrisome that some government officials are still trying to sneak religion into our classrooms.

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.

Congress praying/preying on health care reform

Who is responsible for new laws in the US, elected members of Congress or God? Apparently, some Congressmen and women think that it’s God, and not them, who is the highest authority on things such as health care reform. This video shows to what extent some politicans are either deluded, willing to pander to the Religious Right’s base, or both.

I try to stay as much out of politics as possible when it comes to this blog, and I am not saying whether I am for or against health care reform, but I find it very alarming that elected official would participate in the sort of insane religious prayers featured in the above clip on the Rachel Maddow Show. I don’t watch her show, but more and more often I’m coming across clips from her show that I think are important for freethinkers (such as a recent report on the Psalms 109-ers who are praying for Obama’s death). These are scary times indeed.

Thanks to Brother Richard’s Life Without Faith and Steve Wells’ Dwindling In Unbelief for originally featuring these videos.

Barker visit, Part 2: roundup and personal reaction

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Here is Part 2 of my roundup on Dan Barker’s visit on December 3 in Memphis. In this part, I’ll mention a few more highlights as well as my personal reaction and thoughts. For Part I, click here. For an excellent recap of the Dan Barker event, read Oliver’s post (oliver_poe on Twitter) on the Mississippi Atheists website.

I’ve already mentioned in my first post much of his talk about state-church separation, so I will focus on other aspects here. Perhaps the most notable thing about Dan Barker’s talk was the fact that it was a fair-minded plea for state-church separation, filled with anecdotes, examples, and humor that could appeal to both believers and non-believers. While Barker does also talk on things such as Biblical errancy, his goal in this talk was not to promote an atheist agenda but speak on state-church issues.

A nice example of this were Dan’s arguments defending religious believers. (No, that is not a typo.) Unlike the exaggerated image of angry, close-minded atheists held by some believers (and too often painted in the media), Dan Barker made it very clear at several points that religious people do a lot of good in the world.

One believer argued during the Q & A that humans by nature are not altruistic, that we are selfish and introverted by nature. Barker countered that humans are actually very social animals, and that being empathetic and altruistic comes naturally to people. Barker said that Christians, believers of different faiths, as well as nonbelievers, are just as good and kind at heart. Because of this, he argued the human qualities of kindness and generosity “transcend” religion. Instead of just attacking religion, Barker was trying to find common ground among believers and non-believers.

Dan Barker also made it clear that he does not think that the government should go on the offensive against religion, just keep religion out of government. He cited the example of the much-mediatized solstace plaques that have been placed in a few state capitals (including Olympia, Washington; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin). The plaques, which state among other things that “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell” are only placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to Christmas displays in state capitals.

In response to a questioner about the goal of such plaques, Barker made it clear that they are actually pleased when governments choose to ban all displays during the holiday season, which is what happened in Olympia after the FFRF’s plaque spurred a number of groups to post displays in addition to the Christmas one. Barker argued that banning these diplays was a victory since there shouldn’t be “religion OR irreligion” (emphasis his) in government buildings, including religious prayers.

He argued that non-believers deserve just as much protection as belivers both in Memphis and nationally. Using national statitics, he argued that few politicans would openly come out with policies that would discriminate against Jews, who represent a little over 1% of the population, while many politicians openly oppose atheists and agnostics, who represent between 9-10% of the population. The Memphis City Council, like all government bodies, should represent and support the rights of all citizens, not just believers. Instead of having Christian or other religious prayers at its meetings, the Council should neither support nor attack any religion. (As an atheist, he likened the situation of seeing councilmembers praying to seeing an airline pilot pray. A pilot should be confident in his flying skills, not asking for outside help to fly the plane. Barker joked that if he saw a pilot praying before take-off, he’d get right off the plane.)

Barker also mentioned the Founding Fathers, at a number of junctures: something that believers often do while trying to defend religious incursions into government. Barker mentioned the Jefferson Bible, for which Jefferson literally cut out with a pair of scissors all of the superstitious (miracles, etc.) parts of the New Testament. He said that while some founders were Christians, most were Deists who wanted religion separate from government. He said that as a believer, he used to think of the Pilgrims and Founders as being related to each other, when in reality they were separated by over 100 years and religious beliefs.

In order to address the fact that the Founders didn’t put the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution (Jefferson wrote this in a letter), Barker said that the concept is there even if the phrase isn’t. He gave other examples of phrases that aren’t in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that have become commonplace descriptions of the ideas found there: the words “Bill of Rights“, “interstate commerce“, “separation of powers“, and “checks and balances” also are not in the constitution either, but you don’t hear religious people criticizing those who talk about the Bill of Rights saying there is not such thing.

Barker did not completely spare religious teachings in his talk, however. There were a few critiques about religion, the majority of which were in direct response to questions attacking church-state separation or atheism. Dan Barker poked fun at the creation story in the Bible, which includes a talking snake (Barker, who is part Native American, mentioned that his tribe also had a snake myth). He also mentioned that Jesus clearly supports slavery in the New Testament, using it as an example in his parables (saying you should beat some slaves less than others) instead of speaking out against it.

Barker mentioned that Jefferson famously said that finding good in the Bible was like trying to find “diamonds in a dunghill.” Barker also defended his right in the public sphere to say that he finds the teachings of Christianity, and the Christian god, to be morally offensive, in particular the idea that humans are by nature unclean and sinful. He said that real life debunks this notion, that we see headlines of criminals in the paper (of which religious leaders aren’t exempt, he pointed out) because they are exceptions to the norm. If that’s how everyone was, then it wouldn’t be news. He also cited studies have shown that countries that are generally areligious, such as Nordic countries, often rank as the happiest and least plagued by crime and other social problems.

There is more I could comment on, but I think that sums up the main points of interest about the talk that weren’t covered in my first post or Oliver’s post.

I have a personal confession to make: I am somewhat of an admirer of Dan Barker. I was very religious when I was younger, and can identify with Dan Barker’s journey from belief to unbelief. My grandmother thought I would be good pastor material, and I seriously considered becoming a pastor. So when I first heard about Dan Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, his story really hit home with me. I’ve read his book godless, am a faithful (or faithless) listener of Freethought Radio, and have listened to and viewed many of his talks and debates online. So I was very much looking forward to seeing what he had to say about the Memphis situation, and state-church separation in general.

After the talk, I waited in line to meet Dan Barker. He talked to me briefly and was very personable both to me and the people who were in line ahead of me (he even gave out a free copy of his book to someone!). I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and I mentioned to him that I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had a bookmark “Imagine No Religion“, which FFRF had sent me for free when I ordered his book from them. I showed it to him and the person next to me said she thought at first I was trying to give him a religious tract!

Since I am not “out” as an atheist, except to my wife, standing in line in a public venue to meet Dan Barker and have him sign a book entitled “godless” for me was a big, and somewhat frightening, step for me. While I did not come out and say “I am an atheist”, it was the closest I’ve ever come to be open about my atheism in person. I told him my name for him to sign it, but I don’t think anyone there knew or recognized me, so I guess I am still officially in the closet for now. Dan Barker was wearing an “A” pin, part of the Richard Dawkins coming out campaign for atheists. Maybe someday soon I will feel comfortable enough with friends and family, and secure enough in my job, to be an open atheist, too.