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.

Dan Barker calls for Memphis Council to steer clear of prayers, keep church and state separate

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), spoke out last night in Memphis against the religious convocations given at Memphis City Council meetings, arguing instead for neutrality in government when it comes to religion.

Barker opened on a light note, excusing himself for starting a little late, saying he was looking for someone who could begin the meeting in prayer (he asked if there were any councilmembers who could assist). The rest of his talk, followed by over an hour of Q & A with both supporters and detractors, combined background on state-and-church issues across the country, personal anecdotes, and light-hearted humor.

Barker specifically addressed the Memphis situation several times, explaining that it was wrong on constitutional grounds for the city to include religious prayers in its official procedings since this constitutes government speech in support of religion, something not allowed under the First Amendment. Barker noted that the very phrase of the First Amendment is one restricting the rights of the government in terms of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In its complaint letter from September, FFRF noted that this year, nearly all of the convocations were done “in Jesus’ name” or with clear references to the Bible. According to Barker, convocations like those given at Memphis council meetings “crossed the line” by subjecting citizens to prayers given by religions, more often than not “in Jesus’ name”. He also noted that the City Council website also contains a biblical reference, further indication that the Council is playing favorites in religion.

He addressed critics who claimed FFRF was trying to advance atheism in government, stating that FFRF is only seeking neutrality. He said as a former minister, he understood where some religious people were coming from, incorrectly seeing as an “attack” what is really constutionally-mandated neutrality in government.Memphis is not being called on to begin meetings with “God is dead”, for example, but simply that neither religion nor irreligion be sanctioned by government officials in the public square.

Barker made a distinction between the public square (where government and citizens meet) and the public sphere (where citizens express themselves). Government officials, just as anyone else, have the right to pray in church, talk about God, or exchange ideas on whatever they want to in the public sphere; however, once they are acting officially in the public square in their jobs as representatives of the people, government officials must remain neutral. Barker pointed out that City Council members are free to pray in their offices before the official session begins, but not during the session itself as an official act of government.

In response to a questioner who said that the founding fathers were religious and did not think government and church should be separate, Barker said that in addition to God not being in the constitution, the founders did not have official prayers at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin made a motion at the convention to have prayers at the meetings, but his motion was not even seconded, much less adopted. Barker said this showed that while some founders in their personal lives were Deists or Christians, most of them wanted to keep church out of the government and let each person decide for themselves according to their own conscience what to believe.

Another questioner wanted to know what FFRF would consider to be an acceptable solution to the current situation, where the City Council holds prayers. Barker said preferably on constitutional grounds, there should be no prayers during government meetings, but he offered at least two possibilities. The Council could have a moment of silence if it were clear that the moment was not stemming from a ploy to get around state-church separation, which Darker said would prove difficult in this case. Another possibility was establishing a system where anyone from any religion or no religion could speak to the assembly on any topic; drawing names from a hat to determine who would speak, for example, instead of the current situation of chaplains being invited to pray.

Much more was discussed during the talk and the Q & A. A summary of additional topics discussed, as well as commentary on the event, will be posted in the next few days, so please check back. In the meantime, here is an article that is appearing in today’s Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ leading daily newspaper) about the meeting, as well as some previous posts as background (1, 2, 3).

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.

Genuflects on the beach: Fight over prayer station on Cape Cod

According to several sources, a prayer station was recently set up on a public beach on Cape Cod. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is asking that the permit for the prayer station, which was approved 4-0 in a town hall meeting on August 3, not be renewed in the future.

The prayer station was located at Old Silver Beach, a public beach in Falmouth, Massachussetts. The prayer station’s permit ended this past Friday, but a resident is applying to have the prayer station return.

Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, said:

This definitely seems like it was crossing the line of separation of church and state and it seems like an endorsement of religion.

The above video gives some quotes from people on both sides of the issue. One woman sums up my feelings:

“I think it is a little out of place to be honest with you. If people want to pray they will go to church or wherever they go to pray,” said Brockton resident Darcy Britton.

While another one does bring up a valid point:

“It does surprise me. This is a place of free speech and free religion, you’d think it could take place out in open air,” said East Longmeadow resident Olga Demoracski. “I don’t understand why some people would have a problem with it.”

The problem, in my opinion, is that this is an event approved by the city as a public event. While people generally have the right to freedom of speech, the fact that this was a government-approved event on public land does tend to give the impression that the town approved of the church (United Life Church) that applied for it. This is different from someone speaking on their own in the public square or a protest, it’s government-sanctioned speech. If Satanists applied to have a booth at the beach, would it have been approved? I doubt it.

Do people really need a prayer station at a public beach of all places?!? Maybe they should also come up with a new drink called "Genuflects on the beach". But seriously, religious fervor is getting way out of hand here in the U.S. when people want to set up prayer stations on beaches.

Thanks to the following sources: FFRF ‘s "In The News" email, Cape Cod Times , and My Fox Boston

In smears we trust

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent an email noting several recent articles railing against their move to sue to keep "In God We Trust" and the god-filled Pledge of Allegiance out of the Capital Visitor Center (my take on the issue here ).

One article that caught my eye in particular was in the Examiner , a site I had recently quoted from. (See a few quick notes at the end about the Examiner and sources in general). The author directly addresses FFRF and its co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor directly, saying:

you are wrong about something… there are not 15% of Americans who identify themselves as non-religious. At best, (or worst, depending on your point of view) only 5% of our population claims atheist/agnostic status.

The Examiner article by Doug Billings cites no source refuting the claim, only makes an unsupported counter-claim about atheists and agnostics (making it seem like that’s the same as non-religious, which it’s not). I can (and did, in the comments) cite a well-publicized source identifying 15% of Americans identifying as non-religious. The ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) data was collected by Trinity College in Connecticut. Although their charter prohibits discriminating based on religion, they were founded by Episcopals  and have "Trinity" right in their name, so they don’t on the surface appear to be anti-Christian, and yet they still claim 15% of Americans self-identify as non-religious.

The majority of the rest of the article/opinion piece is just a name-calling rant against non-believers, including this image:

and referring to Annie Laurie Gaylor’s point about the country not being founded on Christianity by saying "In another gleaming example of her intellectual shortcomings […]". Everyone has a right to their opinion, but they should not pull statistics and alleged facts out of the air on a site run by a news agency, where such items are accepted by some as news articles.

Although they openly call for people from around the country to apply to be examiners to submit local news, and did have some atheist-related news on them, it is important to note that they have as their owner Philip Anschutz , funder and proponent of the Discovery Institute .

This does not mean that all information on the Examiner site is false or slanted, just that it’s important to remember for all information you get, to consider where it’s coming from, including from my site and blog. I’m obviously going to pick stories that are related to atheism, freethought, etc., but I do attempt to be as unbiased as possible when it comes to presenting facts. I also cite my sources, and when it’s not obvious from the name of the source if they have a slant, I point it out when I’m aware of it, and normally try to find out and report on it when I’m not.

We all, including myself, should be careful about the information we use: not to limit where we look, but to judge its worth and try to verify when possible. Otherwise we might be like the author of the Examiner article who may actually believe he is telling the truth, when it instead comes out as an unjustified and inaccurate smear against those who aren’t religious.

In God We Don’t Trust

File:Emancipation-Hall 1.jpg
Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, photo from Wikipedia

The U.S. House and Senate apparently need a refresher course in the Constitution. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is happy to oblige by launching a lawsuit to block them from spending federal money to tell visitors to Washington, D.C. that we are beholden to God.

The House voted 410-8 late last week to prominently include "In God We Trust" in the new Capitol Visitor Center, as well as the Pledge of Allegiance (which claims we are "one Nation, under God"). They were following the Senate’s lead earlier in the week. In biased reporting, this Yahoo News / AP article only mentions why people voted for the measure.

Rep. Dan Lungren , R-Calif., sponsor of the measure, said the importance of religion goes back to the Declaration of Independence , which states that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights " […]

And yet, the Constitution — the United States’ founding document — does not mention any Creator. Were the Founding Fathers asleep at the wheel? Did they wake up afterwards and say "Oh my, we forgot to put God in the Constitution!" and then decided, unlike the first 10 Amendments, that they just couldn’t be bothered to put it in an Amendment?

Considering that the God references in the Pledge and the national motto didn’t appear until the 1950s, it seems much more likely that it was intentionally left out by generations of lawmakers. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Constitution does not require anything religious, and omits it in places where some people think it is required (such as swearing on a Bible).

The Yahoo / AP article also states that:

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the engravings at less than $100,000.

It’s subtle, but "less than $100,000" makes it sounds like it’s not that big a deal. You could also so "almost/nearly $100,000" to make it sound like a big deal, or "under $100,000" to be more neutral.

As stated in the FFRF press release for their lawsuit (which, unlike the supposedly unbiased AP News and Yahoo News, is expected to promote a specific point of view), the Visitors Center is

"conceived as an extension of the Capitol rather than a stand-alone facility; the Capitol Visitor Center is intended to be and is the sole point of entry to the seat of American government."

So it’s basically forcing God onto people visiting the national legislature despite the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing religion. The complaint also points out that 15% of Americans identify as non-religious, as I mentioned in a previous post .

In an economic crisis, is there really nothing better the government can spend less than/nearly $100,000 on than adding religion to the Visitor Center? That’s more than a lot of people (including me) make as a salary for a year, so I don’t think it’s small peanuts.

I’ll see if I can find out the 8 who voted against it (and find out who, if anyone, voted against it in the Senate) so they can get the recognition they deserve.

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.

Godless America

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Currently Reading
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists
By Dan Barker
see related

Godless America

I just got and have started reading Dan Barker’s Godless , which you can read about here on the Freedom From Religion’s website, or here on Amazon (it’s currently #7 in the Atheism category there). I’m on page 25 for now, and so far it’s a very interesting, sometimes funny personal story of how Dan Barker started out his "calling" as a minister at the age of 15. The book will later go on to tell about his deconversion and experiences on "the other side" (he’s now the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ), including going with his wife (and co-president) Annie Laurie Gaylor to the Supreme Court to fight to protect church-state separation.

I’ve listened to their weekly radio show, Freethought Radio (or rather, the podcast archive of the show) for about the past year, and have caught up with all the previous episodes as well. I’ve also listened to or watched a number of the debates Dan Barker has participated in, linked to on his bio on FFRF’s website as well as other sources on the web (YouTube, etc.). Freethought Radio has been very important in my development and acceptance of my non-belief.

Dan Barker mentioned his deconversion story a number of times in the debates and Freethought Radio. But it’s interesting to be reading about all the little details of his journey and just how deeply he was into evangelizing. I considered becoming a pastor, but was not in the same type of congregation Dan was in (mine was a form of Lutheranism), so a lot of what I’ve read so far of the sorts of things going on in the churches he attended or preached at is rather surprising.

I can’t wait to read the rest and find out more about his story. I’m sure I will be posting on this from time to time as I read.