Dan Barker to visit Memphis, address church-state violations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why humanists can be thankful on Thanksgiving

There's Probably No God busImage Source: The Guardian

As posted on Unreasonable Faith, here are some excerpts of A Humanist Thanksgiving Proclamation by famed freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll. I know there is no spirit in the sky to give thanks to, but this passage really reinforced my gut feeling about why it’s still okay to feel thankful on Thanksgiving.

When I became convinced that the universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. […]

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings; no claims for my limbs; no lashes for my back; no fires for my flesh; no following another’s steps; no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love: To all the heroes, the thinkers, who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain For the freedom of labor and thought. […] To all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons and daughters of men and women. And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love.

On that note, Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Atheist student groups on the rise

A T-shirt from the Iowa State University Atheist and Agnostic Society.
Source: The Washington Times

It’s good to have some positive news about schools for a change. According to an article in The Washington Times, atheist groups on universities campuses are flourishing in the US. Groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance alone have skyrocketed from 80 in 2007 to 174 in 2009.

What’s also good news, in my opinion, is that there are a wide variety of groups doing a number of different activities. I think some people still think of atheists as those people who are grinchly killjoys who are out to take away people’s religion. While I personally would be very happy if we lived in a world without religion, and I think it is important to work against some of religions’ evils, it’s important to have something positive to participate in as well, even if it’s as simple as getting together to have fun. That’s what has been lacking in the past, and it sounds like a lot of atheist/freethought/secular groups are now doing.

The articles mentions a number of activities from atheist groups around the country. Here are a few examples:

  • movie and board-game nights
  • back-to-school barbecue
  • HumanLight, a sort of secular Christmas
  • sleeping outside in cardboard boxes to raise money for homeless youths
  • protesting against anti-abortion groups

They vary from the mundane but fun social gatherings that some miss when they leave their church, to new secular holiday traditions, to community and political outreach. One oft-heard criticism is that atheists don’t do any charity work. This isn’t true of course, but it is probably safe to say that there aren’t as many atheists who publicly do good deeds in the name of atheism (unlike churches, who oftem make it very clear that they are doing things in the name of their chosen god).

Now that the stigma attached to non-belief is becoming less severe, atheist groups may become more visible in the community. And with the number of groups at universities increasing so quickly, it means a new generation will be open to the idea that not having a religion is perfectly okay.

Thanks to Chad for originally posting this article on Facebook.

Selective ban of certain religions, atheism, LGBT from Indianapolis schools’ Internet

Indiana_In_God_We_TrustIndiana Licence Plate — Source wikipedia

Indianapolis public schools, in a clear breach of church-state separation, are banning students from viewing the websites of only certain religions, as well as atheist and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) sites.

According to a Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) press release, Indianapolis public schools are illegally discriminating against certain religious views, banning students from seeing sites containing what they term as “mysticism“, which apparently includes atheism. Here are some key quotes from a pdf copy provided by FFRF of the offending (and offensive) guidelines. “Blocked” categories include:

“Sites that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism.  Occult Practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or other forms of mysticism, […] the use of spells, incantations, curses, and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

Notably absent is reference to Abrahamic religions (Judeo-Christian, Muslim), of course. Not content with just banning information on non-mainstream religious views, Indianapolis public schools have also deemed LGBT sites as off-limits as well.

The people setting up these guidelines don’t realize just how ironic they are, however. The policy also details what types of sites are to be blocked, and their site arguably fails their own test. Under Violence/Hate/Racism (p. 3 of the pdf provided by FFRF), it says that included in sites that should be blocked are

“sites that advocate, depict hostility or aggression toward, or denigrate an individual or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality, ethnic origin, or other involuntary characteristics.”

Wouldn’t a site advocating (and implementing) the banning only resources related to certain religions be “hostility or aggression” or “denigrating” towards those religions?!? Never fear, though. Perhaps they realized this contradiction, since the section on exceptions to the blocked sites includes ones “that are sponsored by schools, educational facilities”. So they are allowed to denigrate other religious viewpoints through their policy as much as they want.

The ban of LGBT sites also says that sites can’t “cater to one’s one’s sexual orientation or gender identity including, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites“. Since it’s not limited to those for, it would logicially including heterosexuality as well. Any sites promoting heterosexual marriage would have to be banned according to the word here. So this document would end up banning a whole lot more than they bargained for.

In fact, I just realized that the site actually does address the Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam. Looking again at the requirements for sites that are blocked, it says:

“This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

Wouldn’t Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the Torah be considered an “unexplain event”? Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible? God turning the skin of Native Americans dark in the Book of Mormon? An angel appearing to Muhammad in the Koran? These all sound pretty unexplained to me. Maybe they have unwittingly banned students from viewing any religious content.

In spite of these possible loopholes and logical extensions of their hate-filled bans, I am still against the closing of students’ minds on religion, atheism, and sexual orientation and identity. Schools should not promote a religion or sexual orientation, but they also shouldn’t single out sites as worthy of being banned just because they mention viewpoints or orientations that aren’t in the mainstream.