For Dr. Ray, “Religion is a sexually-transmitted disease”


My wife and I went to go see Dr. Darrel Ray, psychologist and author of the best-selling book The God Virus, speak yesterday in Memphis. His talk was a very thought-provoking and provocative look at how religion continues to spread despite the fact that logically, most religious belief makes very little logical sense. Ray compares the effects and propogation of religion to those a virus.

In addition to Ray giving a very enjoyable talk, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well the analogy holds up. I had read and heard about Dr. Ray prior to the talk and knew the general premise of his book, but Ray went into detail about a number of ways religion acts like a virus. Here are just a couple examples of many he gave (he spoke for almost 2 hours, not including the Q&A!).

* Religion “infects” its hosts through vertical and horizontal transmission. Just as a disease like HIV can be passed from mother to child (vertical) or from one adult to another (horizontal, religion can be spread through childhood indoctrination (vertical) or through adult conversion (horizontal). This explains his claim that “Religion is a sexually-transmitted disease.”

* The religion “virus” negatively affects its hosts’ behavior. Ray said that you can often see a visible change in a person when you switch from daily topics such as the weather, family, work, etc. to religion: their facial expression and look changes, and sometimes the way they speak does as well. Ray says this is because believers are reverting to back to a time in childhood when they were “infected” with the religion virus (such as 5-7 years old) when logical thinking had not fully developed. Ray argues that religious people can’t be convinced logically of the problems with their religion because the “virus” effectively stopped their logical development on religious topics at a young age. People may be geniuses at logic in other areas, but are stuck at a childhood level when it comes to their religion (but often can objectively consider others’ religions).

I have actually noticed people’s expressions change when the topic switches to religion, so I can subscribe to this part of the analogy as well. He also spoke about techniques that, wittingly or not, preachers use to make people more susceptible to and dependent on religion, such as the emotional ups and downs of a typical religious service (making you feel guilty [e.g. for sins you have committed] only to make you feel better at the end [e.g. for forgiveness of your sins), the cadence of prayers and other liturgical elements, the music and its lyrics (such as the saved wretch in “Amazing Grace”).

My wife, despite being a believer, said the Ray presented arguments well and that they made sense. Not that she agrees with them, of course, but she understands his arguments and thought overall he seemed fair and friendly. I was a little worried what her reaction would be to a talk about a “God virus”, but I think Ray overall did an excellent job of presenting his points in an interesting, matter-of-fact way that didn’t sound overly anti-religious.

The one part my wife reacted negatively to (which made me a little uncomfortable as well), was his statement that non-believers on average have a 5-point higher IQ than believers. Ray made sure to point out that it was a correlation and not a causation. But I think even this may not hold up necessarily. IQ tests have a margin of error, and my wife and I have read that they may be dependent on many other factors as well (for example, poorer students may not have been taught proper test-taking skills and so many perform more poorly on IQ tests even if their actual intelligence is higher). Even if there is a negative correlation between religion and intelligence, I don’t think it’s helpful to think in those terms; I think it could lead to further claims by religionists that atheists are being insulting or condescending to believers.

In his defense, this was a very small portion (perhaps 30 seconds) of his talk. Ray made it clear at several points that he’s not trying to demonize or insult religion or its promoters, going as far as to say that he thinks the Pat Robertsons of the world truly believe they are doing what is best even when it seems ridiculous to outsiders. He thinks that believers are just blinded by the religion virus and are doing what they think is best. Ray has also set up a foundation, Recovering from Religion, which he says aims to help people who would like to be cured of the God virus, which I think furthers the impression that I had for 99.9% of the talk: that Ray is a once-religious man who wants to explain to others why he left religion, show the world his observations as a psychologist about religion’s effects on people, and help those who wish to leave their religion. I thought the talk overall was very enjoyable and informative. I bought the book on Kindle and look forward to reading more.


Image source: http://www.midwesthumanistconference.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/darrel-ray-thumb.jpg

This is why I blog about religion

Sometimes I wonder why I bother blogging about religion and atheism. Does it really matter if I read and talk about religions I don’t even believe in anyway? I used to believe in God, after all, so why I don’t just let bygones be bygones, leave religion alone, and post about something a little more entertaining, like funny animal videos on YouTube! It’d be a lot cheerier, and I’m sure I’d get a lot more traffic on my blog.

Then I see something like this letter to the editor, and I remember why I blog.

This letter to the editor is why I write my blog. I saw this posted on the site of fellow atheist blogger Jason Mosler. Sure, it’d be easy to laugh this letter off as just the rantings of some religious nut. But reading it a second time, it disturbed me on a number of levels.

This is a real person, Alice, writing to a real small-town newspaper in Alaska just a few years ago (January 2007). Alice honestly thinks that:

  • People who don’t believe in God should be “kicked [out] of the country“.
  • The United States is based on the principle that you “must believe” in God.
  • You can believe in God “any way you want“, but Alice only cites mainstream Christian denominations as examples of acceptable beliefs
  • Atheists practice “evil“, although it is not explained what this means
  • Atheists are responsible for the “ruin” of America and for crime being “rampant“, even “if they have never committed a crime“.

People like Alice are the reason I write this blog. Her religion has closed her mind so much that I’m sure she doesn’t even realize how hate-filled and out-of-touch with reality her letter is. For all we know, Alice is like many Christians: a kind-hearted, generous person in her day-to-day life who truly wants to do what’s right. But because her religion has taught her that people who don’t believe in her god are “evil”, all critical thought stops. She says and thinks the most horrible things because she knows she is right. Crime is up, atheists are in America, my faith says atheists are bad, so atheists are to blame and must be kicked out of society.

If Alice is like most people, she did not choose her religion growing up, but was brought up in a community that is largely if not exclusively Christian. She may never have met an open atheist in her life, but her faith has her so convinced that atheists are the cause of society’s ills that everything she sees (from currency to crime reports) serves to prove it to her. It would likely be difficult if not impossible to convince her otherwise.

We should feel sorry for Alice, for her head being filled with such hateful nonsense based on a book of fairy tales written thousands of years ago. But at the same time, I think we should also have a healthy dose of fear. We live in a society where it is still perfectly acceptable in many circles to openly hate and wish harm on people who don’t believe in God. And that is scary. There are unfortunately still people who think that Jews or Blacks, for example, should be kicked out of the country, but would a letter to the editor blaming Jews for America’s problems saying they should all be sent to Israel be published in a newspaper? Thankfully, there is very little chance of that happening. It’s no longer acceptable to openly say such things in society about most minority groups. But for some reason, it’s still okay to say just about anything you want about atheists, no matter how bigoted or unsupported it is. Many readers I’m sure said or thought “Amen” upon reading Alice’s letter.

Anti-atheist sentiment is what is “rampant” in our country these days. As long as there are people who believe that non-believers are evil and don’t deserve to be citizens, then my blog has a purpose. People need to know that religion is brainwashing good people into believing nonsense and spreading hate. There are people who strongly believe that atheists don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else, some of whom are actively trying to push their bigoted beliefs onto the country as a whole.

If even one believer sees this post and thinks about their belief, or one non-believer realizes how important it is to help change minds about atheists, then writing this blog is definitely worth it.

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.

“No God” is trending right now on Twitter

TwitterNo God

As of 9:25 am Central Time, “No God” has gone from 8th or 9th to 2nd on the Trending Topics. **UPDATE** As of 9:40 am, it is now the top trending topic. Some people are voting for Know Peace = No God / No God = Know Peace, while others are voting for No God = No Peace. Check it out and make your voice heard!

No God on Twitter

Even if it’s not an in-depth discussion of religion, it’s apparently getting people thinking about the topic, which I think is a good thing.

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things — that takes religion.” — Steven Weinberg.

**ANOTHER UPDATE (Wed, Oct. 21)** Here are posts on Daily Atheist and The Examiner which attempt to track down the beginning of the “No God” blitz on Twitter yesterday. It appears that the start of it may have been @RevRunWisdom trying to get “Know God Know Peace, No God No Peace” to spread on Twitter, only to have it backfire.

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.

Jimmy Carter: The words of God do not justify cruelty to women

Jimmy Carter

Former US president Jimmy Carter published an op-ed piece in the Observer (UK) earlier this week about the relationship between women and religion. In it, Carter calls on religious leaders to promote the "dignity and equality" of women. Cartner does not, however, come out against the major religions or their holy books as misogynistic. Instead, he just claims that some leaders are just taking "carefully selected" verses to promote an agenda.

I did not know this, but Carter left the Southern Baptists about 10 years ago because they refused to recognize the equality of women. So it seems like this is a very important issue to him. I found a piece in Salon.com entitled "Jimmy Carter: How religion subjugates women", but I think this headline is a little misleading. It’s not an anti-religion piece, but it does bring up some important points that religious leaders will hopefully consider.

Here are some quotes from the article, and my thoughts. Carter says in the Observer

My decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands […] This was in conflict with my belief – confirmed in the holy scriptures – that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

I admire the fact that Carter doesn’t believe women should be subjugated to men, and it’s true that some parts of the Bible say women should be equal, including the Galatians 3:28 quote he includes at the beginning of his op-ed (along with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , attempting to show it and the Bible go hand-in-hand I assume). However, as The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible points out many other parts of the Bible where women are denigrated, including verses where women are subjugated to men, such as Genesis 3:16 ("he shall rule over thee", King James Version).

Additionally, the first creation account, in Genesis 1, does tend to indicate equality, but the second starting in Genesis 2 does not. Carter is right that Christian leaders sometimes use "carefully selected verses" to further repressing women, but you also have to carefully select your verses to find ones that promote equality. That’s why I feel his statement is somewhat misleading (although not inaccurate), making it sound like the anti-feminist verses in the Bible are hard to find, when they’re not. I’m sure he feels he’s justified in doing this sleight of hand though saying which verses he believes personally (meaning he must not believe the Bible is inerrant) to try to stop religious people from oppressing women.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive area to challenge.

Very true, but as leaders they are supposed to "lead", right? Sometimes you have to pick your battles, but I think ensuring equality for women is not a battle you pick if you’re in power, it’s a battle you have to fight for the majority of your constituents. Women are half or more than half of the population in nearly every country.

The Elders have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."

I think this is an excellent statement. It’s something that both theists and non-theists can get behind.

I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. […] During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

Again, his heart may be in the right place, but he’s not being completely truthful here. While I’ve read that there are indications that the Bible was tampered with (including the end of Luke I posted about earlier), there’s nothing I’ve read that indicates 4th century leaders rewrote Genesis to make it sound like Eve caused original sin, that she should be subjugated, and a host of other verses that indicate that God (or the leaders writing about him at the time) clearly discriminated against women.

The pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world […] is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God.

I’m not going to refute all of these, but as you may suspect, all of these figures also have times where they do not treat "all the children of God" equally. Moses kills entire races of people under God’s command, Paul tells women to be silent in church, etc. Some anti-feminist verses may be later manipulations, but they can’t all be, can they?

If there are widespread additions, deletions, or changes throughout the Bible on what would seem to be a fundamental issue like whether or not women should be equal to mean, then how can you tell what God wants in the Bible at all? The Bible would seem to be so untrustworthy as to be useless. A better explanation is that the Bible, and other holy books, are not divinely inspired, they were written by men (regardless of the century) who generally wanted to oppress women, with a few dissenters who squeaked in there.

So while Jimmy Carter should be applauded for actively supporting women’s rights and trying to engage the religious community in this pursuit, I disagree with him making it seem like he is fully supported in this by the Bible, The Quran, etc. It is he who is carefully picking and choosing from the same overwhelmingly misogynistic religions that largely served to oppress women in the first place.

American Freethought — Bill Mahr…and me!

American Freethought Podcast

Well, apparently July is the month for my comments to be read on podcasts! On American Freethought , hosted by John Snider and David Driscoll, they read some comments I had left them as their first feedback in episode 59 . This is an episode which also featured a review of Bill Mahr ‘s stand-up tour (who coincidentally I just saw on Comedy Central last night!).

It sounds like Mahr’s current tour does definitely spend some time on religious topics, but according to David Driscoll, Mahr said he leaves this mostly left at the end so that people who might be offended at such things at least see the rest of his show before walking out! (I don’t know if that’s a joke or if Mahr’s being [half-]serious about it). I’ve never seen him in person, but I have been a fan of Mahr’s since back in his Politically Incorrect days, and long before I was even close to considering myself an atheist. Based on David Driscoll’s review, it sounds like he puts on a very good show about a variety of political, social, and religious topics. Hopefully I’ll get to see it some time.

The rest of the podcast focused mostly on listener emails. My feedback, which I had left on the American Freethought Atheist Nexus page, was about an in-depth interview they had done in episode 58 with author Robert Wright . John Snider’s review of Wright’s book The Evolution of God can be found here . In a nutshell, the book is about how worldly forces (economy, politics, etc.), as opposed to divine inspiration, shaped the Abrahamic religions.

I haven’t read the book, but based on the review and the author’s comments in the interview, it seems like while the author details clearly non-theistic reasons for the development of religion, he still believes in a “greater purpose”. Frustratingly, he won’t explain what this means (is it supernatural? destiny? what?!?). This is what my comments focused on. John Snider had done a really good job of trying to pinpoint him on this as well as defending the atheist community against some preconceptions Wright seems to have. In case you’re interested, my comment is the first one that was read, from “anonymous” (because my Atheist Nexus page is under my pseudonym I Am The Blog and not my real name.)

I’d better start doing reviews of other podcasts, otherwise people will think I only care about shows that mention my comments (as I mentioned before, Dogma Free America was also nice enough to read my email on their most recent episode ). I’ve left comments for a number of shows via different media, so I guess it’s just a coincidence that my comments appeared twice in two weeks.

If you haven’t yet, I highly urge you to check out American Freethought , which is already in my links section on my website. Unlike Dogma Free America , which focuses on dogma- and atheist-related news events from around the world (with a humorous twist), American Freethought focuses mainly on interviews with notable people in the world of freethought and religion, as well as other occasional features such as “Holey Scripture” (featuring not-so-flattering Bible verses) and reports on freethought events around the country.

Ireland legislature passes blasphemy bill

Ireland is reinforcing a part of their constitution which says blasphemy is illegal by clarifying what is meant by blasphemy and imposing a hefty fine and possible house raids for anyone suspected of blaspheming.

It sounds unbelievable, but numerous sources confirm this bill was under consideration: The GuardianDogma Free America , UTV , MediaWatch UK . According to examiner.com and ProudAtheists [and apparently the Irish Times: see update at the end], the law has passed. The Examiner says:

One of the aspects of this bill would make it illegal to criticize religion… any religion under penalty of fines up to 25,000 Euros. That is the equivalent to nearly $35,000.

Here are some excerpts of the Guardian article, which includes Atheist Ireland’s co-founder Michael Nugent thoughts.

Dermot Ahern, Ireland’s justice minister, has proposed the legislation, which will outlaw anything seen as "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion , thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion". […]

[Michael] Nugent said blasphemy was not the only anomaly in the constitution. "You cannot become president of Ireland or be appointed a judge in the republic unless you take a religious oath asking God to direct and sustain you in your work. […]

"We should be amending our constitution to remove these theistic references, not creating new crimes to enforce provisions that were written in the 1930s," he added.

Here’s a direct quote from the proposed bill, which is apparently now law in Ireland.

(1) Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 36, the court may issue a warrant (a) authorising any member of the Garda Siochana [Irish police] to enter (if necessary by the use of reasonable force) at all reasonable times any premises (including a dwelling) at which he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that copies of the statement to which the offence related are to be found, and to search those premises and seize and remove all copies of the statement found therein, (b) directing the seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related […]

It’s scandalous that a country, in this day and age, is not only upholding previous law protecting religion against open debate and criticism, but is actually trying to strengthen these laws with fines and threats of raids against offenders. I’ll post any updates to this that I find.

UPDATE: It appears that the bill has passed the entire Oireachtas (Legislature), according to the Irish Times (as well as this opinion piece by Atheists Ireland published in the Irish Times). I’ve seen conflicting reports on this, but I will take the Irish Times’ word since they are an Irish newpaper and presumably know how the government works. Apparently the law will become official once the Irish president signs it. According to Wikipedia :

In most circumstances, the President is in effect obliged to sign all laws approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas, although he or she has the power to refer most bills to the Supreme Court for a ruling on constitutionality.

So it would appear that unless the President challenges the law on constitutionality (which seems unlikely since blasphemy was already illegal under the constitution), the bill will become a law. Atheists Ireland plan to challenge the new law by publishing a blasphemous statement soon.

UPDATE: It was pointed out by "droth", a poster on Cynical-C Blog , that there is a provision in the new law that states "It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates." While this is some consolation, it still puts the onus on the person making the allegedly blasphemous statement to prove it has "value".

It’s unfair to protect religion in this way. For example it’s apparently fine to say "Atheism is evil and Richard Dawkins is morally bankrupt", but I can’t say "Catholicism is evil and the Pope is morally bankrupt" unless I can prove my comments have a "literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value." Speech about religion, whether praising or criticizing it, should be protected.

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) comes out as an atheist

It is heartening news for 'nerds' everywhere. Daniel Radcliffe, star of Harry Potter, has disclosed that he endured years of bullying by classmates who considered him 'uncool' - but is now having the last laugh. Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe Photo: Alan Clarke courtesy of Esquire

I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan, but I know several people who are. This news may be shocking to many fans, but according to the UK newspaper The Telegraph , actor Daniel Radcliffe has admitted in an interview that he’s an atheist. I saw this on American Freethought and it doesn’t appear to have hit the main headlines in the US as of writing.

In an interview with Esquire magazine, Radcliffe risked the US box office prospects of the new Harry Potter film by declaring himself to be an atheist. […]

Radcliffe has been reticent on the subject of religion in the past, but in an interview to promote the latest instalment in the film franchise, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, released on July 15, he said: "I’m an atheist, but I’m very relaxed about it. I don’t preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do. Anything he does on television, I will watch."

He joked: "There we go, Dan, that’s half of America that’s not going to see the next Harry Potter film on the back of that comment."

There is no way that a comment like this from the actor who plays Harry Potter, a book and film series which has been strongly criticized by some on the Religious Right (for witchcraft, of course), will not have some effect on ticket sales right before the latest installment of the series is about to hit theatres! Not to mention future DVD and book sales in the US. It’s admirable that he is being open about his atheism, but I’m sure the studios and publishers must be furious and/or scared out of their seats right now.

Maybe his announcing he’s an atheist will help some Harry Potter fans consider religion in a light they may not have already. Especially since studies have shown that the younger generation is the least likely to find religion to be important and that the trend in the US is away from organized religion (the only group to gain in the recent ARIS survey was non-religious, who are now at 15% of the US), having a very-well known celebrity like Daniel Radcliffe openly declaring he’s an atheist could really open up some minds.

I think the more celebrities and scientists who "come out" as atheists, the more it will be an acceptable viewpoint, and the more people will examine their own beliefs. A debate of ideas is a good thing. Assuming the news does hit the radar in the US, I just hope that any protests by Christians or other believers are peaceful.