Praying for Toyota?

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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.

State-Church Separation (parody of “My Generation”)

Here’s my latest project, which I’ve just posted on YouTube. It’s called “State-Church Separation”, and is a political parody of The Who’s song “My Generation.” I wrote the song last month and just finally was able to finish recording and make a quick YouTube video. It’s a very nice coincidence that The Who will be doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl! When I found this out, it gave me even more motivation to finish this up and post it this weekend. (I’m an amateur singer and this is my first YouTube video, so please bear that in mind when viewing it or commenting!)

More and more, I’ve been reading about cases of government officials ignoring the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. I’ve reported on the Memphis City Council having official Chaplains of the Day who pronounce prayers, often in Jesus’ name, and get cuff links emblazoned with the city’s logo paid for at taxpayer expense.

Cases such as these, with the government promoting or endorsing religion, or even more egregious ones (such as a Mississippi police department trying to collect funds to rebuild a church in Haiti, saying “Jesus Christ [is] the answer for this life and the next”) are coming to light as more atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-religious people are standing up for their rights. We are being marginalized in society, often by our own government at the local, state, and national levels.

This country was formed on religious freedom for individuals, not state-sponsored religion imposed on citizens. There are thousands of religious denominations in the United States, as well as millions of Americans who do not subscribe to any religious beliefs. The government should not be spending taxpayer money to support the religious practices of their choosing (nativity scenes, religious memorials, etc.). Our elected representantives, and other government officials, should not be holding religious prayers while doing government business for their constituents, many of whom may believe in a different god than that of the majority, or in no god at all. There is a time and place for everything. A church service is not the time or place for goverment business, and a city council meeting is not the time or place for prayer.

There is a growing movement of atheists and other freethinkers who are speaking out, and I thought a parody of “My Generation” might be able to capture this. Hopefully as more people speak out about this issue, public officials will realize that the rights of all citizens, no matter what religion if any they profess, need to be respected.

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.

Atheist Ireland Publishes 25 Blasphemous Quotes

If I lived in Ireland right now, I couldn’t legally say St. Patrick was responsible for a horrible crime: inflicting Christianity on the Emerld Isle. Image from Wikipedia.

Below is a post from Atheist Ireland, reposted in its entirety in support of their campaign to protest the new blasphemy laws (which I covered previously here). If you believe in freedom of speech and church-state separation in the world, please read this, visit and spread the word if you support their cause.

From today, 1 January 2010, the new Irish blasphemy law becomes operational, and we begin our campaign to have it repealed. Blasphemy is now a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine. The new law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.

This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentivises religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

We believe in the golden rule: that we have a right to be treated justly, and that we have a responsibility to treat other people justly. Blasphemy laws are unjust: they silence people in order to protect ideas. In a civilised society, people have a right to to express and to hear ideas about religion even if other people find those ideas to be outrageous.

Publication of 25 blasphemous quotes

In this context we now publish a list of 25 blasphemous quotes, which have previously been published by or uttered by or attributed to Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Mark Twain, Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, James Kirkup, Monty Python, Rev Ian Paisley, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Frank Zappa, Salman Rushdie, Bjork, Amanda Donohoe, George Carlin, Paul Woodfull, Jerry Springer the Opera, Tim Minchin, Richard Dawkins, Pope Benedict XVI, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ian O’Doherty, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Dermot Ahern.

Despite these quotes being abusive and insulting in relation to matters held sacred by various religions, we unreservedly support the right of these people to have published or uttered them, and we unreservedly support the right of any Irish citizen to make comparable statements about matters held sacred by any religion without fear of being criminalised, and without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.

Campaign begins to repeal the Irish blasphemy law

We ask Fianna Fail and the Green Party to repeal their anachronistic blasphemy law, as part of the revision of the Defamation Act that is included within the Act. We ask them to hold a referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Irish Constitution.

We also ask all TDs and Senators to support a referendum to remove references to God from the Irish Constitution, including the clauses that prevent atheists from being appointed as President of Ireland or as a Judge without swearing a religious oath asking God to direct them in their work.

If you run a website, blog or other media publication, please feel free to republish this statement and the list of quotes yourself, in order to show your support for the campaign to repeal the Irish blasphemy law and to promote a rational, ethical, secular Ireland.

List of 25 Blasphemous Quotes Published by Atheist Ireland

1. Jesus Christ, when asked if he was the son of God, in Matthew 26:64: “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” According to the Christian Bible, the Jewish chief priests and elders and council deemed this statement by Jesus to be blasphemous, and they sentenced Jesus to death for saying it.

2. Jesus Christ, talking to Jews about their God, in John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” This is one of several chapters in the Christian Bible that can give a scriptural foundation to Christian anti-Semitism. The first part of John 8, the story of “whoever is without sin cast the first stone”, was not in the original version, but was added centuries later. The original John 8 is a debate between Jesus and some Jews. In brief, Jesus calls the Jews who disbelieve him sons of the Devil, the Jews try to stone him, and Jesus runs away and hides.

3. Muhammad, quoted in Hadith of Bukhari, Vol 1 Book 8 Hadith 427: “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” This quote is attributed to Muhammad on his death-bed as a warning to Muslims not to copy this practice of the Jews and Christians. It is one of several passages in the Koran and in Hadith that can give a scriptural foundation to Islamic anti-Semitism, including the assertion in Sura 5:60 that Allah cursed Jews and turned some of them into apes and swine.

4. Mark Twain, describing the Christian Bible in Letters from the Earth, 1909: “Also it has another name – The Word of God. For the Christian thinks every word of it was dictated by God. It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies… But you notice that when the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. He is totally without mercy – he, who is called the Fountain of Mercy. He slays, slays, slays! All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies; also all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. He makes no distinction between innocent and guilty… What the insane Father required was blood and misery; he was indifferent as to who furnished it.” Twain’s book was published posthumously in 1939. His daughter, Clara Clemens, at first objected to it being published, but later changed her mind in 1960 when she believed that public opinion had grown more tolerant of the expression of such ideas. That was half a century before Fianna Fail and the Green Party imposed a new blasphemy law on the people of Ireland.

5. Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag, 1963: “Get in line in that processional, step into that small confessional. There, the guy who’s got religion’ll tell you if your sin’s original. If it is, try playing it safer, drink the wine and chew the wafer. Two, four, six, eight, time to transubstantiate!”

6. Randy Newman, God’s Song, 1972: “And the Lord said: I burn down your cities – how blind you must be. I take from you your children, and you say how blessed are we. You all must be crazy to put your faith in me. That’s why I love mankind.”

7. James Kirkup, The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, 1976: “While they prepared the tomb I kept guard over him. His mother and the Magdalen had gone to fetch clean linen to shroud his nakedness. I was alone with him… I laid my lips around the tip of that great cock, the instrument of our salvation, our eternal joy. The shaft, still throbbed, anointed with death’s final ejaculation.” This extract is from a poem that led to the last successful blasphemy prosecution in Britain, when Denis Lemon was given a suspended prison sentence after he published it in the now-defunct magazine Gay News. In 2002, a public reading of the poem, on the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, failed to lead to any prosecution. In 2008, the British Parliament abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

8. Matthias, son of Deuteronomy of Gath, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979: “Look, I had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.”

9. Rev Ian Paisley MEP to the Pope in the European Parliament, 1988: “I denounce you as the Antichrist.” Paisley’s website describes the Antichrist as being “a liar, the true son of the father of lies, the original liar from the beginning… he will imitate Christ, a diabolical imitation, Satan transformed into an angel of light, which will deceive the world.”

10. Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1989: “In the last century the Arab thinker Jamal al-Afghani wrote: ‘Every Muslim is sick and his only remedy is in the Koran.’ Unfortunately the sickness gets worse the more the remedy is taken.”

11. Frank Zappa, 1989: “If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine – but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.”

12. Salman Rushdie, 1990: “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – uncertainty, progress, change – into crimes.” In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie because of blasphemous passages in Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

13. Bjork, 1995: “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men… I’ve been reading about reincarnation, and the Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.”

14. Amanda Donohoe on her role in the Ken Russell movie Lair of the White Worm, 1995: “Spitting on Christ was a great deal of fun. I can’t embrace a male god who has persecuted female sexuality throughout the ages, and that persecution still goes on today all over the world.”

15. George Carlin, 1999: “Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!”

16. Paul Woodfull as Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly, The Ballad of Jaysus Christ, 2000: “He said me ma’s a virgin and sure no one disagreed, Cause they knew a lad who walks on water’s handy with his feet… Jaysus oh Jaysus, as cool as bleedin’ ice, With all the scrubbers in Israel he could not be enticed, Jaysus oh Jaysus, it’s funny you never rode, Cause it’s you I do be shoutin’ for each time I shoot me load.”

17. Jesus Christ, in Jerry Springer The Opera, 2003: “Actually, I’m a bit gay.” In 2005, the Christian Institute tried to bring a prosecution against the BBC for screening Jerry Springer the Opera, but the UK courts refused to issue a summons.

18. Tim Minchin, Ten-foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins, 2005: “So you’re gonna live in paradise, With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins, So you’re gonna sacrifice your life, For a shot at the greener grass, And when the Lord comes down with his shiny rod of judgment, He’s gonna kick my heathen ass.”

19. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, 2006: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” In 2007 Turkish publisher Erol Karaaslan was charged with the crime of insulting believers for publishing a Turkish translation of The God Delusion. He was acquitted in 2008, but another charge was brought in 2009. Karaaslan told the court that “it is a right to criticise religions and beliefs as part of the freedom of thought and expression.”

20. Pope Benedict XVI quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, 2006: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This statement has already led to both outrage and condemnation of the outrage. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim body, said it was a “character assassination of the prophet Muhammad”. The Malaysian Prime Minister said that “the Pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created.” Pakistan’s foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence”. The European Commission said that “reactions which are disproportionate and which are tantamount to rejecting freedom of speech are unacceptable.”

21. Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great, 2007: “There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all… Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require… It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or ‘surrender’ as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing-absolutely nothing-in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.”

22. PZ Myers, on the Roman Catholic communion host, 2008: “You would not believe how many people are writing to me, insisting that these horrible little crackers (they look like flattened bits of styrofoam) are literally pieces of their god, and that this omnipotent being who created the universe can actually be seriously harmed by some third-rate liberal intellectual at a third-rate university… However, inspired by an old woodcut of Jews stabbing the host, I thought of a simple, quick thing to do: I pierced it with a rusty nail (I hope Jesus’s tetanus shots are up to date). And then I simply threw it in the trash, followed by the classic, decorative items of trash cans everywhere, old coffeegrounds and a banana peel.”

23. Ian O’Doherty, 2009: “(If defamation of religion was illegal) it would be a crime for me to say that the notion of transubstantiation is so ridiculous that even a small child should be able to see the insanity and utter physical impossibility of a piece of bread and some wine somehow taking on corporeal form. It would be a crime for me to say that Islam is a backward desert superstition that has no place in modern, enlightened Europe and it would be a crime to point out that Jewish settlers in Israel who believe they have a God given right to take the land are, frankly, mad. All the above assertions will, no doubt, offend someone or other.”

24. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, 2009: “Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact in my view something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent… we call it God… I think that if you leave that out you are not fully human.” Because atheism is not a religion, the Irish blasphemy law does not protect atheists from abusive and insulting statements about their fundamental beliefs. While atheists are not seeking such protection, we include the statement here to point out that it is discriminatory that this law does not hold all citizens equal.

25. Dermot Ahern, Irish Minister for Justice, introducing his blasphemy law at an Oireachtas Justice Committee meeting, 2009, and referring to comments made about him personally: “They are blasphemous.” Deputy Pat Rabbitte replied: “Given the Minister’s self-image, it could very well be that we are blaspheming,” and Minister Ahern replied: “Deputy Rabbitte says that I am close to the baby Jesus, I am so pure.” So here we have an Irish Justice Minister joking about himself being blasphemed, at a parliamentary Justice Committee discussing his own blasphemy law, that could make his own jokes illegal.

Finally, as a bonus, Micheal Martin, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, opposing attempts by Islamic States to make defamation of religion a crime at UN level, 2009: “We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.” Just months after Minister Martin made this comment, his colleague Dermot Ahern introduced Ireland’s new blasphemy law.

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.

How The Religious Right Stole Christmas

Americans UnitedSource: American United

I’m hoping to have time in the next day or two to post more on Dan Barker’s visit. In the meantime, here’s an interesting article from AU: Americans United (for the Separation of Church and State) about the so-called “War on Christmas” that the Religious Right bemoans around this time of year.

AU is not an atheist/freethought group, but they do actively support having a secular government, following the principle that church and state should be separate. (Fancy that!)

Oregon may soon allow teachers to wear headscarves, crosses in class

Teacher with headscarfPhoto source : The Oregonian

Since 1923, it has been illegal in Oregon for teachers to wear religious clothing in the classroom. This ban may be eliminated in February, paving the way for teachers to show their religious affiliation to their students, according to a recent article in The Oregonian (via The Focus).

As with the issue of burqas in France (or even burqini swimsuits in England), this is a tricky one. Currently, teachers in Oregon are not allowed to wear anything identifiably religious, such as “turbans, yarmulkes, crosses and headscarves” according to the Oregonian. Dave Hunt, speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, says the law dates back to anti-immigrant hatred against Catholics. The legislature is expected to vote on removing this ban, after a similar law for allowing religious symbols at private-sector jobs was recently passed in the state.

Currently, the law is applied unevenly, according to Hunt.

“Teachers in some school districts are allowed to wear yarmulkes or crosses, while in other areas, they are forbidden. He has found no examples of a public school teacher being permitted to wear a Sikh turban or a Muslim headscarf”

But is lifting the ban the right solution? I don’t think that teachers should try to proselytize among their students, that much is clear. But a ban on overt religious symbols would tend to disfavor people of certain religions over others.

Most Christian teachers, for example, could simply not wear their cross, or wear it under their shirts out of sight. A Muslim woman who believes she must cover her head, however, can be precluded from teaching at all unless she gives up her headscarf, which many believe are a required part of their religion.

At the same time, I think required headscarves are sexist and should not be endorsed by the government. If a kid sees their teacher wearing a headscarf, that makes it seem like it’s okay to do. I don’t think children should be taught that women should be subjugated to men. Plus, you can bet that once the ban is lifted, there will be teachers who will wear crosses as well, promoting their religion to students as well, as well as teachers wearing clothes or accessories from other religious traditions. So it’s a sticky situation: possible exclusion of Muslims or others if the ban is in place, possible endorsement of religion(s) if the ban is lifted.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in this case. The issue of the burqa, to my knowledge, has not flamed up here in the US anywhere near like it has in many European countries. Hopefully this situation will not be the start of a slippery slope towards more Muslim American women demeaning themselves for their religion, with the government’s blessing. Young, impressionable eyes will be watching.