The Good Friday Turtle stops by (while James Madison does a facepalm)

The yummy treats that the Good Friday Turtle (if he exists) might bring us next year!

Unlike Christmas and Easter, which unfortunately have become widely commercialized and somewhat secularized, Good Friday remains very unambiguously a religious holiday: specifically a Christian one. Very few people would claim that Good Friday is a secular holiday. There is no Good Friday Turtle that crawls around giving presents to good little girls and boys, no exchanging of Turtles chocolate and pecan candies, no TMNT marathons on TV, no playing of music from The Turtles (though “Happy Together” would make a nice holiday song!).

Although it’s nice to think about, no Virigina, there is no Good Friday Turtle. The only reason that someone would treat Good Friday differently than any other day is for religious reasons. It is a religious observance of the day that some guy named Jesus, who only some people believe was the son of their god, died on a cross before going to hell for a couple of days, after which he miraculously (magically) rose from the dead to go back to heaven. All this trouble just so daddy would agree to let some people up into heaven, while leaving the rest burn for all eternity.

Personally, and for the record, I like the Good Friday Turtle idea much better, but the Constitution says people have a right to believe that whole God-sent-his-son-to-be-tortured-to-death mumbo jumbo. The Constitution also tells us however that government cannot endorse one religion over another. So when the Shelby County Clerk in Tennessee reportedly closes on Good Friday, or the state of Wisconsin recognizes Good Friday as a holiday, these government entities certainly seem to be celebrating a Christian-only holiday.

So what’s the harm in these and other government agencies closing for Good Friday? What’s wrong with people having a day off or people having to wait until Monday to renew their licences? Giving this strictly religious holiday preferential treatment shows an official bias in favor of that religion (Christianity) over other religions or non-religion.

Despite what many religious folk claim, the founding fathers did not intend the US to be a Christian nation, unless you think the entire Constititional Convention did a collective facepalm once they realized they had accidentally left “The United States is a Christian nation” out of the Preamble. Doesn’t seem likely to me.


A photo of James Madison after realizing he and other founding fathers forgot to establish the United States as a Christian nation in the Constitution??

The country was intentionally founded with freedom of religion in mind. People may celebrate their religious holidays if they so please, but government is not and should not be involved. Holidays of other religions besides Christianity are generally not observed or usually even mentioned by government bodies, and this is the way it should be. An occasional nod to Jewish or Muslim holidays may occur, but they normally don’t shut down government just because some religion somewhere thinks a given day is important to their deity of choice. And that’s the way it should be.

Government agencies get around this issue for Christmas because it has now taken on a largely (if not predominately) non-religious life of its own. Few would dispute this fact, although many might justifiably object to it. The main objections to Christmas arise when government steps over the line and starts inserting Christian words and symbols into what has become a secular celebration. Easter has followed Christmas along the path to secularization to a lesser extent (with pagan and secular symbols such as the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps); but since most government agencies are closed on weekends anyway, the issue of officially recognizing Easter by closing offices normally doesn’t come up.

But when government or government-funded agencies (schools, libraries, etc.) declare Good Friday to be a holiday and shut down in observance of that Holy Day, they are very clearly moving from secular celebration to religious observance. That’s something that government isn’t allowed to do. It wouldn’t be an honest argument to claim that Good Friday is just part of some sort of long weekend of a secularized Easter, since Christians obviously must separate Good Friday from Easter enough to want a separate day to observe it. Good Friday is clearly, in practice and by definition, a Christian-only holiday. One that most religions don’t recognize, and some people object to. I don’t want my government telling me or my fellow citizens (whether child or adult) that one religion’s primitive idea of human sacrifice to appease the gods is something to be respected and revered. And the Constitution has my back on this one. Religions can teach this, but governments can’t endorse it by saying Good Friday is a holiday.

Unless The Good Friday Turtle stops by Tennessee, Wisconsin, or elsewhere next year, bringing candies and presents for all, I expect government to drop Good Friday as a holiday and get back to the business of running the country, not promoting religion.

Source of Turtles image: http://www.candyfavorites.com/i/t_3822.jpg and facepalm image: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/facepalm.jpg

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.

Memphis council ready to go to court over prayers

Official city emblem on the Memphis City Council website. The Council gives cufflinks with this official emblem to Chaplains of the Day.

The Memphis City Council, under fire for allowing prayers “in Jesus’ name” and giving gifts to preachers at its public meetings, would be willing to take the matter to court if challenged, according to an article in Memphis’ top-selling daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal .

The Commercial Appeal article fills in some of the details of the situation, including the fact that these invocations have been occurring for “almost 18 years” and that the goody bags given to each officially- appointed Chaplain of the Day includes “city emblem cufflinks and necklace pendants for spiritual leaders”.

On the one side is the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), whose co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said “They’re not separating their personal faith with their governmental duty. It’s really crossing the line.”

On the other side is Memphis City Council chairman Harold Collins, who defended the practice, saying “It does not alienate people who are not of faith […] They don’t have to participate in the prayer.” He states that the reason invited chaplains are Christians is because council members are Christian. If FFRF challenges the practice and threatens to sue them, Collins said “We’d have to see them in court.”

The Pro Tem Mayor, Myron Lowery, who is also a former council chairman, has decided not to step into the fray except to say that “I am not going to stop the council from doing what it’s been doing for years and to which I feel is to their benefit.”

I believe the case is even more clear-cut than I originally thought. In addition to the fact that most of the prayers are clearly Christian in nature, and the councilman admits that they invite mostly Christians, it also appears the Council gives these Chaplains cufflinks with the city’s emblem on them. This certainly could be interpreted as city approval of these chaplains, unless they give the cufflinks to anyone who comes by. There are also the “necklace pendants”. I wonder what these “necklace pendants” look like. A cross is a type of pendant, but no mention is made of this in the article.

In any case, it sounds like these gifts are specially given to the chaplains. The Council is using city money to reward preachers from one religion, Christianity. If that isn’t government endorsement of religion, what is?

In general, FFRF diligently pursues cities who make illegal sectarian prayers at town meetings. As I mentioned earlier , such official endorsement of religion has been found to unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. The initial reaction of the council chairman does not sound like they are willing to find a compromise or re-evaluate the council’s practice in light of the allegations. If they’re unwilling to even attempt to fall into constitutional guidelines, it looks like they’re headed for a lawsuit.

Memphis does work “in Jesus’ name”, in violation of Constitution


Image Source: Tennessee Department of Tourism Development

Memphis, TN is the latest city to come under scrutiny for invocations “in Jesus’ name” at City Council sessions. The Memphis City Council joins a growing list of institutions which the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent complaints to due to their unconstitutional endorsement of religion during official government business.

It is fairly common practice for city councils in the United States to open their sessions with an “invocation”. The Supreme Court has held that such invocations must non-denominational in nature. In other words, a government institution is not supposed to pray to Jesus or Mohammad, or favor one congregation or another, since this would appear to be supporting one religion over another and promoting belief over unbelief.

In practice, invocations at government meetings all too often turn into openly Christian prayers. Such practices clearly go against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (which Thomas Jefferson described as “a wall of separation between Church and State”). As a resident of the Mid-South, I am sad to say that Memphis is unfortunately no exception.

Here are some examples of objectionable quotes and occurrences at Memphis City Council meetings this year which clearly seem to show the city choosing sides in religion. From FFRF’s News Release and letter of complaint ,

  • The Memphis City Council, at each of its general meetings, names an official “Chaplain of the Day”, giving them a certificate and a “goody bag” of gifts that includes cuff links.
  • Repeated references to praying “Jesus’ name” during and at the end of invocations, clearly showing a preference for Christianity.
  • A call by one Chaplain of the Day on June 2nd saying that “These legislative leaders you have allowed to sit at the table of decision now acknowledge the inability within themselves to fix these ills of society and they now recognize and depend on your sufficiency,” followed later by the Lord’s Prayer.
  • A quote from Psalms saying that “The Lord knows the ways of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish,” ending the invocation by saying “in the name of Jesus Christ we pray”.

These examples, among many others like them, clearly show that the Memphis City Council is not only preferring religion over non-religion, but Christianity over other faiths. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that invocational prayers at government meetings cannot be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith, or belief” (Marsh v. Chambers , as quoted by FFRF). Under this ruling, the invocations cited by FFRF clearly seem to violate the Constitution.

I also have looked into this somewhat (audio archives of all Memphis City Council meetings can be found at http://memphis.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2 ), and it’s clear that city council members are not only aware of these unconstitutional appeals to Christianity made by the Chaplains of the Day (who the City Council officially names), but council members sometimes even praise the Chaplains after making such statements.

The message is clear: as far as the council is concerned, Memphis is a Christian city. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Memphis, or any other city, should not be pushing anyone’s religion on city time and on the city’s dime. Just as churchgoers would not want council members to go into churches to make sermons about city ordinances, why should civic-minded Jews, Buddhists, or atheists be subjected to Christian dogma at city council meetings?

Memphis City Council joins the list of other government bodies (The Wisconsin Assembly and the city councils of Toledo, OH and Lodi, CA , among others) caught mixing religion with official business. It will be interesting to see what Memphis’ response to these clear violations will be. I’ll be sure to post any updates to this story as I find out about them.

I Am … (partially) out as an atheist

Imagine (Original Soundtrack)

I finally had "the talk" with my wife. It was very difficult to do, but it turned out a lot better than I had expected.

I had been considering coming out to her for the past month or so. I’m becoming more and more active in the atheist/freethought community. It just didn’t feel right for something that is such a big part of who I am to remain a secret from my wife. I’m posting this in hopes that the experience might help others who aren’t "out" yet to their wife/husband/significant other. I’m glad to say that coming out to your loved one doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

[UPDATE : This post is a play-by-play, which I’m hoping will be interesting and useful. A more concise version of my story can also be found here on Atheist Nexus.]

My decision to come out was helped along by a discussion from a less successful experience by a fellow Atheist Nexus member. His wife flat-out told him that she wouldn’t have married him if she had known he didn’t believe in God. I felt very sorry for him, especially since I’ve been fearing a similar reaction from my wife (who considers herself a Christian) if and when she found out I didn’t believe in God. So although I’d like to say I bravely announced my atheism, it was much less courage and more of a desire to deal with something that’s been worrying me for quite a while and a decision to be more open with my wife about my non-belief.

I was very nervous the night I had decided to come out to her. She could tell I was nervous, which made it a little easier to bring up the subject. If she can tell something’s bothering me, she’ll keep asking me what’s wrong until I tell her. So when there was a good moment that I knew we could talk for as long as we wanted, I told her there was something very important to me that I’d like to tell her about.We sat down, I took a deep breath, and just started talking. I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, but no specific speech written out.

She saw me reading the Bible a few weeks ago on my computer, which surprised her. So I started with this incident, saying that over a number of years, I have read a lot about the Bible, read a lot of the passages, and reminded her that for a while I had considered going to seminary to become a pastor. I told her that the more I had read, the more I started to have questions about some of the things the Bible said. I said that I had come to the conclusion that there were some things in the Bible that I just couldn’t believe — things that either didn’t make sense, or that contradicted other things, or that didn’t seem like they could happen. I told her that a lot of what I’ve been doing online lately has been related to this.

After this introduction to the topic, it was mostly she who led the conversation, with her asking questions and me answering. She asked me what sort of things I didn’t think were true. I asked if she remembered our nephew’s baptism, when we talked about whether or not to get him a Noah’s Ark book (she did). I didn’t tell her I was an atheist at the time, but had told her that the Bible doesn’t teach child baptism and that I felt children should be old enough to make up their minds before being baptized (a position she disagreed with, but understood). I said that I felt the Noah’s Ark passage in the Bible, like others, basically says that all people are evil by nature, and that God can kill them because of this.

I said I don’t believe humans are bad by nature, and that I didn’t like that this is what the Bible teaches. I then moved on to another example, and said I didn’t like what the Bible says happened in Egypt, where God kills all the firstborn male Egyptians just because the Pharaoh wouldn’t free the Israelites, even though the Bible says God was the one who made the Pharaoh act that way. I didn’t want to say too much to make it seem like I was just trying to rip apart the Bible, but I wanted to bring up a few specific instances that I thought she would be familiar with, and that I could make a clear argument about why I didn’t agree with them.

She didn’t dispute any of this, but said that there are parts of the Bible she doesn’t understand and like as much as other parts, but that she liked the New Testament better and that she thought it had a good message in it. I said I agreed that the Bible does have some very good messages in it, but that they are often surrounded by messages that are not so good that people don’t quote or talk about much. I brought up the massacre of the innocents sermon that I had blogged about earlier as an example of something bad that happened in the New Testament. I said I couldn’t understand why a loving God would let all those children be killed. She said that she didn’t know what to say, but that maybe that was the best thing that could have happened, that maybe that prevented something worse from happening. So I said that if God were able to do anything he wanted, I believe that he could have found a way around it.

Interestingly enough, she brought up at this point the fact that there was a lot of evidence for the stuff that happened in the New Testament, which I wasn’t expecting. I said that unfortunately, it isn’t always true that the Bible’s claims can be verified outside the Bible. Confirmation for some of the events in the New Testament comes over a hundred years later, and no independent evidence of a large amount of things in the New Testament has ever been found, such as for the massacre of the innocents.

At this point, she shifted gears. I don’t know if it’s because she realized that I had done a lot of looking into the Bible, or if my answers were satisfying her, or if they weren’t satisfying but she didn’t know how to respond. But then she asked me what I do believe if I don’t believe everything in the Bible. This was the question that I was the most afraid of. I told her that I used to be a very strong believer, much stronger than other people in my family. I gave the example of thinking songs shouldn’t be played because they were "lustful" (the Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" was one song in particular), I told her I was confirmed, and then eventually I started to have little questions about my faith. Instead of finding answers, from looking at the Bible, looking online, listening to sermons, asking people, I just kept having more questions. Eventually, I realized there were some things I would never find answers to.

She asked me if I believed in the Bible at all, and I said that there are too many things in it that I don’t agree with, that I can’t say I believe in the Bible anymore. She then asked what I thought happens to people when they die. I think the atheist answer to this is very unsatisfying; I would like to believe something happens to us after death, but I know now that this isn’t so. This sounded depressing, so I thought for a few moments and said that I believe that we are all part of the circle of life, and that when we die our remains go back into nature, and life continues from there. This is not a main aspect of my belief system, but I do believe this occurs and I felt was a more satisfying answer than just "we cease to exist".

She asked if I believed in heaven. I told her that while I think it would be nice to think that heaven exists, I more have a problem with the fact that Christianity teaches that there’s a hell — that even though Jesus was said to die for our sins that there are still people who go to hell. I think that if there was a God and if he loved us, he would send us all to heaven. So at this point, I asked her one of the few questions I asked all night. I asked if she thought that people who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell.

My wife obviously had thought about the issue before, and said that she didn’t know what happens to people who don’t believe. She said that some people think that if you don’t believe in Christianity, then you go to hell, but other people think that if you’re a good person, that you’ll be saved even if you don’t believe in God. She brought up the issue of what happened to people who never heard of Jesus before, which I was glad to hear that she had heard of and considered before. She mentioned that Catholics believe in purgatory, so just because you don’t go to heaven doesn’t mean you go to hell. She said she wasn’t sure what happens, and that there were other things that she wasn’t sure about, but that she still has faith in God.

This was the only thing that frustrated me during the conversation. She used the word "faith" a couple of times basically when there was something that she couldn’t explain. I realized that she doesn’t know that having faith in something isn’t really an answer, since I’m sure she’s heard this thousands of times in her life. I felt she thought this was a perfectly acceptable answer, so I though it would be counterproductive to try to tackle the issue of faith then. So I told her that I respect her beliefs and that I’m not trying to say that she’s wrong, but just that based on the Bible, on what I’ve read, and what I’ve thought about for a long time, I don’t have faith anymore. I did not say I’m an "atheist", because of the baggage attached to this term. But she knows now that I don’t believe in God.

She had said a few times recently that I "don’t like church", so I asked her why she said this. She said that she could tell from some comments I made. I asked her what these were (since I had tried very hard not to make any such comments!), and she brought up the Noah’s Ark incident that I had mentioned earlier, and the fact that I made comments about the Catholic Church after the tragic child rape / excommunication case that was in the news (where they excommunicated a mother and her daughter’s doctors for giving the girl an abortion after she had been raped by her stepfather. They did not excommunicate the father, however.) I also apparently mentioned at some point about religious displays on public property being against the constitution, which I might have thought was a safe topic to bring up since there are many believers who also think religion should be kept out of government.

I told her I wasn’t "against" churches, but that I just didn’t believe in some of the things they taught. She mentioned that churches do good things, and I said that while I know that churches and people who go to church do a lot of good things, you can do these same things without going to church — you don’t need to believe in the Bible to be a good person. She didn’t argue with this. I then asked her if she remembered the fact that I brought up the fact that the town we used to live in had an intersection of "Church and State", and I had told her it was my favorite intersection. She said yes and she said she thought that was another clue. So I guess she had suspected for quite a while, but just didn’t know exactly where on the spectrum I was.

The only time religion really came up between us, except for the Noah’s Ark occasion, was a few months after we met. I had told her that I was brought up a Lutheran, that I had considered becoming a pastor. I had read a whole lot about religion, and I wasn’t sure what I believed, but I was pretty sure what I didn’t believe. She had never asked me to elaborate on this. She’s a Christian, and even did some missionary work when she was younger, but in the years I’ve known her, I don’t think she’s ever brought up God just out of the blue — both before the Noah’s Ark thing and afterwards, and even when she’s with other believers. I hoped that this was a good sign, and since things turned out well, I think it was.

She had revealed a secret to me early on in our relationship, and I told her that I had a secret too that I would tell her someday. I told her this was the secret. She said "That was it?! I thought it was something more serious than that!" I laughed and I told her it was kind of funny then, because I thought she would think it was a big deal. She said she may not agree with me, but she respects it. She then asked if I mind if she goes to church.

This was another thing that the Atheist Nexus thread I mentioned earlier helped with. One of the commenters mentioned Unitarian Universalism as a possibility for atheists with companions who still want to go to church, and it’s something I had looked at from time to time. I had a friend who had said he had gone to a UU church. I didn’t tell him much about much beliefs (or lack thereof) on Christianity since I was afraid he would tell others, but I did tell him that I wasn’t a typical Christian. He had liked it overall, so I looked into UU again after reading the post on Atheist Nexus.

When my wife brought up church, I told her that I would be willing to consider going to a UU church. I don’t believe in going to church — since I don’t believe in God, I don’t see the need of going to church. But I know church is something that is very important to my wife, so I told her I would be willing to try it. She said she had heard of UU, and I explained a little more of what I understood about it. I said that I liked the fact that they welcome people who have all sorts of beliefs there, but that they were generally based on a Judeo-Christian model and that a lot of people who come from different denominations go to UU to find a common ground.

I found a couple of UU churches online the next day, sent the links to her and we separately looked at them. We both looked at other ones as well, and we both decided on the same one, which I thought was a very good sign. We went to the first service this weekend, and overall I was pleased with how it went. The service started with a welcome to newcomers, which was very warm and funny; a thoughtful and at times funny sermon that my wife and I said we both enjoyed; and included several Christian hymns that we both recognized, with some altered lyrics. My wife said this  after the service, and it was funny because even the pastor pointed it out that for the one hymn, he would understand if some people accidentally did the old lyrics since he liked those, too.

Although there were a couple of things on the website I find mildly objectionable, and I don’t feel comfortable with the mentions of God, even if I understand it’s not meant in the same way that it would be in a Baptist church for example, there was nothing in the service that I found objectionable (no "massacre of the innocents" moment, for example). The pastor mentioned non-belief and embracing doubt several times in his sermon, even though from references in church and on the site, it seems clear he believes in some sort of higher power personally. I very highly disagreed with this, but thought the repeated nods to doubt and non-belief in a God were good and inclusive, and I was glad in a way that God was mentioned since I thought this would be more welcoming to my wife. I was worried after the service because of what I would deem, with no offense meant to any UU followers, to be a "watered down" version of God, as compared to the one mentioned in Christianiaty. But my wife said she really liked the service and would like to go again.

Not only that, but she thanked me for going to church with her. I didn’t think she would thank me for asking her to go to a different church that she grew up in and did missionary work in. I think she very much likes the fact that I’m willing to go to church, and since she doesn’t bring up God herself very often she might be interested in more than just the God speak found in many services (she’s mentioned before that she really likes church music, so familiar hymns probably helped).

In turn, I thanked her for being willing to try out a different church that’s more inclusive of people. She mentioned some of the elements of the service that were like other churches she had been at, so I thought it was good that we were both trying to find common ground. She said that the sermon and other parts of the service seemed like it would be more my kind of thing than other churches we’ve gone to probably were, and I said I agreed. Hopefully we will both get something out of it.

I wouldn’t say I’m a UU, I don’t believe in a god of any kind, and I don’t think all atheists would be comfortable about this solution, but I think it will work for us for now. I would like to imagine a day where no one feels the need to talk about god, heaven, or hell, but that day is far off. For now, I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders and that I don’t have to keep my stance on religion secret from my wife, and she gets to go to church. Since we disagree, I won’t go out of my way to bring up various things I disagree with, but if she asks I feel like I can talk with her openly about it.

My coworkers and other family are another story. My grandmother just retired as church secretary after decades of service, and my future sister-in-law is becoming a pastor in about year, to give you an idea of some of the believers in my and my wife’s family. My mother seems to be becoming more religious and not less. Plus, I’m in a profession that does not lend itself to religious discussion in theory, although it comes up surprisingly often. Two of my coworkers have discussed religion with me — one very religious and one not very religious at all — and I’ve tried to be as vague as possible on my own views to avoid any problems down the road.

So for family and professional reasons, I’m not coming out to the whole world just yet, although someday I hope to do so. Hopefully this post will help someone who also hasn’t told their significant other yet about their atheism: it doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

I will continue posting and seeking out atheist news under my assumed name for now. I am out to the most important person for me now, which was a very huge step.

Pat Condell speaks out against “appeasement monkeys” (on burkas, women’s rights)

Pat Condell ‘s latest video "Apologists for Evil" takes people to task, especially politically-correct liberals, who defend the sexism of Islam (including in the recent burqa debate ) because they are either too afraid to speak out against it or because they say that it is "racism" to criticize Islam and Muslims.

I agree with Pat Condell: standing up for women’s rights against a religion or a culture that wants to subjugate women is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not racist to support equal rights for women. It’s crazy that people would even suggest this, since Islam isn’t even a race! But it’s not the first time I’ve heard criticism of Islam wrongly linked to racism.

Expecting women to cover their faces or to obey men (among a myriad of other sexist things supported by the Quran, the Bible, or many of their followers) are misogynistic cultural and religious practices which are against values laid out by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and those held by most people in Western societies. It has absolutely nothing to do with race, since people of any race can be Muslims and people of any race can, unfortunately, discriminate against women.

A person should be able to support a woman’s right to equality and dignity without being labeled a racist. Atheists and others should not be afraid to speak out when religions, and their proponents, support things which are clearly dehumanizing or discriminatory.

Proposed game show should be called “Who Wants To Be A Believer?”


Mecca. Photograph: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

There’s a new game show which is causing controversy in Turkey. The basic premise of the game, "Penitents Compete", is trying to convert an atheists by offering them a prize to the holy site of whatever religion they are converted to. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. From Yahoo! News:

Turkish television station Kanal T hopes the answer is a ratings success as it prepares to launch a gameshow where spiritual guides from the four faiths [Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism] will seek to convert a group of non-believers. […]

But religious authorities in Muslim but secular Turkey are not amused by the twist on the popular reality game show format and the Religious Affairs Directorate is refusing to provide an imam for the show.

"Doing something like this for the sake of ratings is disrespectful to all religions. Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs," High Board of Religious Affairs Chairman Hamza Aktan told state news agency Anatolian […]

"We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God," Kanal T chief executive Seyhan Soylu told Reuters.

"We don’t approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe," Soylu said.

My guess would be that the last quote by Soylu is the problem: Turkey is officially Islamic, and this show would appear to put Islam as on equal footing with 3 other religions. I guess this goes to show that people from different religions, who fight over just about everything, can agree on one thing: atheists are bad and need to be converted. Even converting them to a religion you don’t believe in is apparently better than them just not believing in any God. If I find any updates on this, I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: Here from the Guardian’s website is an audio discussion of the new show. In it, it is claimed that 3 out of 4 Turks say they would not want to live next to an atheist. Sounds like similar polls I’ve read in the US (such as this one from Gallup ) where people would be willing to elect pretty much anyone over an atheist to public office.

Fourth of July — Celebrate true freedom

When I was out and about recently, I saw this church marquee.

As with many church marquees, I assume it’s meant to be a clever reference to both God and a topical issue, in this case Independence Day / The 4th of July in the US and being Jesus freeing us from sin, or something similar I would guess.

But is being a Christian really about celebrating freedom? If you actually read the Bible, it talks a lot about slavery, going as far as to say that we should serve God as a slave!

Ephesians 6:6Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (Scripture quotation taken from the New American Standard Bible, NASB . )

This is the New Testament we’re talking about here, not the endless rules about what you can and can’t due to slaves in the Old Testament. We are to be "slaves of Christ ", according to the Bible.

The King James Version would have you believe it’s "servant", but if you check nearly all more modern versions, you will see "slave" as the translation. It seems clear to me from this and other contexts that it means "slave." You’re not just supposed to serve God, you’re are a slave unto the Lord. You must serve him! "Down on your knees! ", as proclaims the song "O Holy Night."

Can one find "true freedom" in being a slave?? Slavery is freedom apparently, according to this church; sounds Orwellian to me.

To me, freedom means making up your own mind about what you believe or don’t believe, what religion if any you will choose, who you love or don’t love, who you marry or don’t marry (and whether or not you can get divorced if the need arises), without the threat of eternal punishment looming over you.

Some more liberal Christians would argue that God is love and grants us all these things because he loves us; and some may say that hell doesn’t even exist, or is only for truly evil people (even some non-believers and pets can come along). But that’s the thing: the United States doesn’t have freedom of religion (and from it ) because some god gave it to us.

We, just like many other nations around the world, created our own government. We are only truly free when we take our lives into our own hands and decide for ourselves what our destiny will be. For me, that means breaking away from the chains of religious dogma and being a freethinker.

On the 4th of July I will celebrate true freedom: the freedom to not be a slave to any god or government, the freedom to think and say what I believe. Now that’s something worth celebrating this 4th of July.

Christmas hits home, part II – Suffer, little children

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas hits home, part II – Suffer, little children

While visiting family over Christmas, there were several other disappointing things that happened involving family members. One involves politics (hogwash), one involves teaching (brainwash), and one involves preaching (whitewash).

* POLITICS (aka hogwash): One thing deserves just a fairly brief mention: somebody suggested that there should be a religion-based party in the US, one based on their denomination, to make it easier to know who to vote for. We already have entirely too much religion in politics. Many Christians even think so. It’s sad that someone, much less a family member, would think that religion should be the main defining point of a party or candidate. Shouldn’t their positions on issues figure in there somewhere? Christians, even within denominations, often disagree very strongly on a number of important issues. JFK, in a famous speech I became (re)acquainted with thanks to the FFRF , stated that politicians should not take their policies from the Pope or any other religious authority. If you’re a Baptist, would you want a Catholic running the country based on the Pope’s dictates?!? Politicians should not use or abuse religion to run for office or run the country. People have a right to their opinion, but I don’t think one religion should be preferred over another, and I have the Constitution to back me up on this one.

* TEACHING (aka brainwash): One of the little kids in our family received a manger scene for Christmas. When his mom asked who the baby was, he knew right away it was Jesus. This cute kid, who is just barely a toddler, can hardly say anything at all, is still learning his numbers, etc. Yet, he’s being taught about Jesus already, so much that he immediately could say who the little baby figurine represented. He’s obviously been exposed to a lot of religion at home or with his parents in church. He went to Sunday School for the first time the Sunday after Christmas. Now I don’t know what they do or don’t teach a toddler in Sunday School, but I don’t think a child should be taught religion before he can even form full sentences or do enough math to figure out that 1 + 1 + 1 equal 3 and not 1 (a little reference to the Trinity there). People should be allowed to make informed decisions about their religious beliefs, and a small child isn’t mentally prepared to make such decisions.

I don’t know what age would be good, but I would think they should at least be in regular school before they can be in Sunday School. (People aren’t allowed to even vote until they’re 18, and isn’t religion an even more important choice?!) Most kids who are indocrinated with Christianity seem to turn out more or less normal, but other people like me who took religion very seriously can be seriously damaged by the threats of hell and suffering or the crazy, warped logic (or lack of logic) found in the Bible. At best, the child is not taught to think critically. "Why do we believe what the Bible says? Because that’s what Pastor says, that’s what your Sunday School teacher says, and that’s what Mommy and Daddy say." "You’re just supposed to believe it and have faith!" etc. Not a lot of people go to Sunday School and then decide to read the whole Bible to find out more. Instead, they just listen to what their teachers and preacher say, go to church, do and say what you’re supposed to, love or be afraid of God (or both) and be duped into believing that doing what your church says will make you live forever, and don’t ruin your chances by asking too many questions.

That’s maybe a cynical way of viewing things, but not an untrue way of looking at it. It may not be the parents’ intent (who are themselves presumably brainwashed), but it is the result. It’s sad to think I have a little relative who is going to be brainwashed by Christianity before he can see through it. Maybe eventually I can "come out" as a non-believer and be an example to him (or at least he might wonder why I’ve been disowned even though I seem like a nice enough person).

* PREACHING (aka whitewash) I have another family member who will soon be ordained. I will name this person Pat, for the purposes of this blog. Since I once considered this route myself, I am very sympathetic to Pat and find we share a lot in common. So I have been curious as to what sorts of things Pat believes in terms of the nitty-gritty of religion, and how Pat will preach. I got a good sample of it over Christmas, since the family went to service on Sunday and Pat delivered the sermon. I didn’t know until fairly recently that for many denominations, you don’t have to be ordained to give a sermon. Pat is well on the way and was invited as a guest minister for Sunday. I was actually almost looking forward to going to church, to satisfy my curiosity as to whether Pat would be a kinder, gentler love-and-peace sort of minister or more of a traditionalist, fire-and-brimstone type.

The result was somewhere in between, but the message of the sermon simply infuriated me. It may have been the worst message I’ve ever heard in a sermon. I say "may have been" because I don’t know what sort of craziness I heard as a kid. The few sermons I’ve heard as an adult and after deconverting have been surprisingly tame and overall positive. Not this one.

To give Pat credit, it did something that I accused most Christians of not doing normally: linking Christmas with Easter. The reading was Matthew 2:1-16 , and was apparently what is normally taught the Sunday after Christmas. But Pat’s take on it was an interpretation that is inhuman, inhumane, and for lack of a better word, crazy. The fact that several family members thought it was a good sermon shows how much people just can’t get past the idea that they have to accept the Bible as the truth, no matter what atrocities are commitment or what flimsy excuse, or lack of any excuse, is given for it.

In these verses, we find out how King Herod supposedly had all children (presumably "just" the boys, but it doesn’t say) under 2 killed in Bethlehem in an attempt to have the rumored son of God killed. Herod figured having all kids under 2 killed should make sure God’s son was killed and that Herod’s power would go unchallenged. But Mary et al. had fled to Egypt (to fulfill prophesy, according to Matthew), so Jesus was spared. The lesson was that even though Christmas is a season of joy, we have to remember why Jesus came down to Earth. We sinners are responsible for Jesus’ coming to Earth and dying on the cross because, like Herod, we want to be king instead of God. We put our selfish desires first and God second. We are selfish with our time and think and say bad things (soon-to-be pastor Pat gave the example of us not wanting our life from last week to be displayed on film to the congregation). But in spite of the fact that we all do this, God still loves us anyway, so much that Jesus would come down to Earth and die for us. That is the reason we should be joyous on Christmas.

There is so much wrong with this sermon, and I am getting so upset again, that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll just do bullet points

* Why Jesus came down to Earth: God decided he wanted to send him here. Instead of just forgiving our sins, God the father was out for blood. He wanted someone to pay, and that someone was Jesus. He took on human flesh so he could suffer in our place and appease the bloodthirsty father.

* We want to be kings instead of God: The continual use of lord and king to refer to God is appropriate, but people don’t think behind this. In America, we got rid of kings centuries ago because no one should have to put a king ahead of what is important for the people. Why should we put God’s desires first? What should matter is what’s important for people, not some ruler (divine or not). I’m not saying that people aren’t too selfish, but the whole idea that we should devote ourselves to Christ the King is very harmful. People should not be taught unquestioning obedience to anyone or anything. Wouldn’t it be a much better idea to teach people compassion and justice instead of being taught to serve a master? Then maybe we wouldn’t have so many killings in the name of religion, or in the name of blind obedience to one’s leaders (I was just followin’ orders).

* We don’t want our lives displayed on movie for all to see. The old make-people-feel-unworthy trick. We humans are horrible beings that think and do disgusting things. We should be ashamed! We don’t deserve to live! This is a very negative vision of humanity, that I still have trouble shaking sometimes. Yes, humans do, say, and think horrible things, but they also do very positive things. Why don’t we put up a film of all the generous, kind, and thoughtful things congregants did in the past week, and then do a reel of all the good things God or Jesus did this past week. We haven’t heard from God in almost 2000 years, so the second half of the presentation would be rather short. Some people have undoubtedly done good things in Jesus’ name, but Jesus hasn’t bothered to show up in millennia.

Some would argue that Jesus does good things: save kittens from trees, etc., but just doesn’t show himself to us (he’s too camera shy? Yahweh would have to pay him more if he had a speaking part?). But if we’re going to say he does good things, then he obviously either does bad things as well or lets bad things happen. Let’s show all the bad things that people in the congregation did in the past week, and all the bad things God did or let happen in the past week. I’ll betcha God’s total active or passive wickedness is much higher than the whole congregation put together.

* One important thing that was not explained in the sermon was: why did all those innocent toddlers in Bethlehem have to die? Couldn’t God have struck down Herod instead of letting him kill all those kids? What purpose did their deaths serve? Why should they be killed and baby Jesus spared? God’s responsibility for allowing these deaths was whitewashed by the message of us being unworthy of his love and sacrifice. But what of the sacrifice of those little children? We don’t know how much a 2-year-old or so deity can do, but I would think he or his father could have just stayed in Bethlehem to ward off Herod’s men, or persuade them not to kill those kids.

Jesus, son of the all-powerful God, being carried off to Egypt and letting those kids be slaughtered is nothing short of an act of cowardice . If Jesus was too young in his human form to know better, then his father should have done something about it. It’s inhuman for God to have let those babies die, it’s inhumane to have let them and Jesus be killed just because God was still upset about our sins, and the reasoning behind the whole thing is absolutely crazy. Allowing the mass slaughter of children is not justifiable, which is why Pat, either consciously or unconsciously, chose not to dwell on the most striking and appalling part of this story.

And yet, I heard more than one person say that this was a good sermon. It explained nothing about why Jesus had to come to Earth or why the children had to be killed. It unnecessarily ruined the joyous mood that many certainly had going into church on the Sunday after Christmas by telling people how bad and unworthy they are of God’s love because we don’t love God enough and we do or think bad things. I really doubt that made most people "joyous" as promised. Perhaps ashamed and falsely grateful to God for dying for and forgiving us. But I guess that’s what people expect sometimes from a sermon. I think I may have just been lucky in the few recent sermon’s I’ve heard.

Fortunately, I’ve read that it’s pretty unlikely this massacre of the innocents actually took place historically. But the fact that it is being taught as the gospel truth and being used to brainwash people into submission to a supposedly merciful God is so disappointing and frustrating. If God were really merciful, he wouldn’t have let those children be killed. If God were really loving, he wouldn’t have needed to send Jesus to Earth on Christmas to suffer and die on Easter, he would just forgive us and love us as the imperfect beings we are. Does Pat truly not see what is wrong with all this?!

So I am deeply upset by the fact that one of my relatives will be teaching hundreds of people (and probably thousands over a lifetime) lessons like this one. I’m sorry that I probably sound really upset about all this, but I was really hoping Pat would have a more enlightened take on Christianity than "You are not worthy, bow down to your master." or "You’re a very bad person, but God loves you anyway even though you don’t deserve it." or "The slaughter of children while Jesus was safe elsewhere is okay because Jesus was coming to die to save wretched old humanity." Pat delivered the sermon very well: very filled with what appeared to be genuine emotion. If only people of Pat’s intelligence and talent could work towards improving humanity instead of beating down children and adults alike with the same old myths.

The King James version of Luke 18:16 reports Jesus as saying "Suffer little children to come unto me". This "suffer" is in the olden sense of "allow" or "let". But by perpetuating violent, morally harmful stories such as these among adults, and teaching them to kids too young to know what a horrible story this is, I feel that "suffer, little children" would be an appropriate motto for Christianity. Let’s hope someday children won’t have to suffer because of their parents’ religion and can make an informed choice as adults whether or not they want to listen to this crap.