Wednesday, March 28, 2012

3/28/2012 Secular Mass Newsletter

The listing of links and commentary which follows is a roughly-weekly compilation of items of likely interest to skeptics, atheists, and humanists in Massachusetts and the area. The range of topics is typically diverse: politics, humor, research, culture. Feel free to suggest items for inclusion in the next mailer, by writing to "zbos" at Let me know if you prefer not to receive this mailing. -- Zachary Bos, MA State Director for American Atheists 

Events in our Area

  • TOMORROW, March 29, 2012: The Disproof Atheism Society will present "Abraham, Job, & Jesus: The Bible’s Attack on Reason", a discussion in support of the Reason Rally in DC, based on N. Zangwill, 'The Myth of Religious Experience,' and M. Piper, “Why Theists Cannot Accept Skeptical Theism.” In Room 442 of the BU Photonics Center, 8 St. Mary’s St., Boston. Free & open to all. For more information, email
  • April 1, 2012: Boston Atheists John McCargar will convene a book club discussion on the new book from physicist Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing. Join the conversation at Blue State Coffee, 957 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, at noon. If you don't have a copy, but would like to take a look, reply to this newsletter message by email and I'll get a sample chapter into your hands. RSVP at
  • April 4, 2012: At the Concord Area Humanists Wednesday dialogue this week, naturalist and author Peter Alden will be speaking about "Changes in Flora and Fauna from Thoreau's Day to Today." Social at 7 PM, program at 7:30, in the First Parish church building, 20 Lexington Road, Concord. To help planning, RSVP by email with "ALDEN" in subject line.
  • April 15, 2012: 3rd Sunday Luncheon/Discussion Program, sponsored by the Greater Boston Humanists. Harvard Kennedy School Fellows Laila Atshahn and Dina Kraft will speak about "The Impact on Women of Fundamentalism in Israel/Palestine". To take place in the Phillips Brooks House Parlor; free buffet lunch at noon, lecture to begin at 1 PM. To RSVP, contact Tom Ferrick.

Articles of Interest, and Other Items of Note

TWO HOURS OF ATHEISM. This past Sunday, the MSNBC show "Up with Chris Hayes" took an in-depth look at atheism in America and its role in politics, global warming, and the culture of belief. Among the guests were Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jamila Bey, and Susan Jacoby.

BECK'S THE BLAZE REPORTS ON RALLY. "Now, at 16% of the American population, Atheists feel they are poised to effect change in the halls of America’s institutions, actively lobbying congress on issues most important to them. One current push is to dismantle any protections in place that would prevent religious employers from covering the cost of contraception to its employees per Obamacare’s controversial mandate." From Related: Video interviews of attendees at the Rally, ; and The Blaze's report on the Secular Coalition of America's lobby training session.

FAITH AS BOTH PLAYACTING AND BELIEF. Joan Acocella, for The New Yorker, reviews a new book by ethnographer T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. She writes:
Luhrmann warns us against calling the evangelicals' visions and voices 'hallucinations'; that is a psychiatric and, hence, pathologizing term. In her vocabulary, such events are 'sensory overrides'—sensory perceptions that override material evidence. [...] And she reports a vision of her own, which she had while working with the English witches. One morning, she woke up and saw six Druids looking at her through her window. (She lived on an upper floor.) In a moment, they were gone, and that was the only vision she ever had, but she has no doubt that she truly saw them.
All this hinges on what is meant by 'truly,' which, since Luhrmann, who is fifty-three, was educated in the time of postmodern theory, is not a straightforward matter. She says that the Vineyarders know that their 'faith practice'—their date nights with God, their asking him for a red convertible—is, in some measure, playacting. At the same time, they see it as a way of encountering God. She later adds, 'The playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, self-aware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals. It allows them to waver between the metaphorical and the literal.'
JIMMY CARTER LEAVES CHURCH. The former President Jimmy Carter has decided to abandon his long-time affiliation with the Southern Baptist Church, in view of church leaders' prohibition on women being ordained and insistence that wives be subservient role to husbands. He writes: "The truth is that male religious leaders have had -- and still have -- an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world."

ATHEIST LOGO NOT ALLOWED. A consumer wanted his custom credit card image to be the "red A" of atheism; Capital One told him that's not allowed (but Christian crosses are pre-approved).

NAP SCHOLARSHIPS ANNOUNCED. The National Atheist Party, to encourage the expansion of knowledge and the principles of secular humanism, has announced the creation of two scholarship programs: the "Our Secular Future Scholarship" and the "Science Steps Forward Scholarship". Two awards of $1,000 will be awarded in each scholarship program to a college student and a high school student. College level submission deadline: November 1st, 2012. High school level submission deadline: March 1st, 2013.

A HEATHEN MANIFESTO. Thank you to BA member Jenna D. for bringing to our attention this article by Julian Baggini in The Guardian, where he lays out his 12 rules for heathens:
The so-called 'new atheism' may have put us on the map, but in the public imagination it amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins, which is not an accurate representation of the terrain many of us occupy. We now need something else. 
This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism's involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.


... the Cambridge-Somerville Secular Buddhists? This secular meditation group is open to people, from beginners to experienced meditators, who want to practice and to discuss their meditation practice with others. It is intended to connect people of diverse backgrounds who want to explore mindfulness practice. Learn more at

A bit of aht... 

Singer/songwriter Shelley Segal -- maybe you saw her perform at the Reason Rally this weekend? -- has released the first single, "Saved", from her debut CD, An Atheist Album. A taste of the lyrics:
Say that i need to be saved
Say with me the devils got his way
I want to know how when you are praying
And when you are doomsdaying
How you think you know that someone is listening to what you are saying.

A quote in parting

Not even the visionary or mystical experience ever lasts very long. It is for art to capture that experience, to offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for a secular, materialist culture, some sort of replacement for what the love of god offers in the world of faith. -- Salman Rushdie

SUPPORT SECULAR COMMUNITY-BUILDING IN 2012. Whether you want to be more involved in secular activism, defending educational standards, or resisting the encroachment of religious influences in public matters; whether you want the companionship of like-minded freethinkers, and a social scene where you can speak your mind without fear of censure; or whether you'd like to be involved in one of the aspirational community groups developing congregation-type programs for its members, there's no shortage of groups in the area that would benefit from your participation. For a listing of secular groups in MA and New England, visit -- and let me know if you know of any groups that should be added to the roll.

WORK WITH THE BOSTON ATHEISTS. The Boston Atheists would welcome volunteer organizers who want to plan events, write for the blog or newsletter, develop programs, and work to increase the benefits of group membership. Drop us a line if you'd like to find out how you can be a part of what's going on.

What does [Catholicism] think of atheists?

This post is the first in a series which will document the official views of various religious denominations toward the worldviews of atheism and agnosticism. 

The following text is taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and was brought to our attention by a recent email from Minnesota-based Catholic Philip Zehrer, president at "Scriptural Spiritual Direction & The Risen Jesus Still Heals and Reconciles Ministry". Over the past year, Philip has been calling and emailing atheist group leaders, including people here at the Boston Atheists. We appreciate that he's concerned about the state of our everlasting souls [sic], but gosh, we can think of better things he might have been doing with his time. He's on Twitter, which is not one of those better things. 

As I'm not equipped or inclined to act the theologian, I've added only a very few comments in brackets and red text. What do YOU think of the Catholic view of things? Share your comments below. - ZWB

2123 "Many . . . of our contemporaries either do not at all perceive, or explicitly reject, this intimate and vital bond of man to God. Atheism must therefore be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time."58
2124 The name "atheism" covers many very different phenomena [I couldn't agree more]. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be "an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control [That'd be a pretty naive "atheistic humanist", to think he has "supreme control" over anything. Something secular people come to terms with is how the complex interactions of manifold forces are actualy the authors of our "history". ], of his own history."59 Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. "It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth."60
2125 Since it rejects or denies the existence of God [substitute "recognizes the incoherence or impossibility of" for "denies the existence of"], atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion.61 The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely [That's it; I'm an atheist because I haven't read the Bible correctly], or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion."62
2126 Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God.63 Yet, "to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God. . . . "64 "For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart [The idea that there is a single, compatible set of "secret desires" in the "human heart" denies dignity to human persons whose desires are incompatible.]."65
2127 Agnosticism assumes a number of forms. In certain cases the agnostic refrains from denying God; instead he postulates the existence of a transcendent being which is incapable of revealing itself, and about which nothing can be said. In other cases, the agnostic makes no judgment about God's existence, declaring it impossible to prove, or even to affirm or deny.
2128 Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God [Which god?], but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience. Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.

58 GS 19 § 1.
59 GS 20 § 2.
60 GS 20 § 2.
61 Cf. Rom 1:18.
62 GS 19 § 3.
63 Cf. GS 20 § 1.
64 GS 21 § 3.
65 GS 21 § 7.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

An unfortunate scene in "Jack & Jill"

Most of the scenes in Adam Sandler's recent film "Jack & Jill" were unfortunate, I know (the critics seem to agree). But I want to hold one scene up for particular consideration, because takes a thoughtless, mean-spirited swipe at atheism:
Jack (played by Adam Sandler): Did I ever tell you that Todd is an atheist?
Todd (Jack's underling): Oh god.
Jill (played by Sandler in drag): A WHAT?
Jack: Hehe, have a great time guys.
Jill: How could there be a Grand Canyon if God doesn't exist?
Todd: (stammering) That's a very good point. I'm just saying maybe...
Jill: Maybe God wouldn't have given you a rat-face if you believed in Him!
Todd: I don't have a rat-face.
Jill: Yes you do have a rat-face, it's scary!
John McEnroe (playing himself, popping into the conversation from the crowd): Whoa whoa whoa wait a minute, this guy doesn't believe in God?
Jill: No!
Todd: (stammering) I'm, I'm, I'm just saying that there's no real proof...
McEnroe: (yelling) IDIOTS like you really make me MAD!
Crowd members: FIGHT! (chanting in unison) Fight, fight, fight...
(More people in the crowd join the chant, but as a birthday cake is wheeled in, their chanting turns into the "Happy Birthday" song.)
I don't object at all to seeing my worldview satirized -- may the nonexistent God save us from self-serious people -- but what I see in this scene doesn't pass the substitution test. By which I mean: if you replace the role of the implied majority viewpoint with that of the implied minority viewpoint (here, theism and atheism respectively), does the resulting exchange seem just as comedic, or does it reveal a darker aspect?
Jill: Maybe you wouldn't look so ugly if you didn't believe in gods!
Todd: (stammering) I'm not ugly, I'm just saying...
John McEnroe: Whoa, whoa, whoa, this guy believes in gods? IDIOTS like you really make me MAD!
This isn't comedy arising out of cultural differences; it's antagonism made presentable by silliness. Thumbs down, Happy Gilmore Productions, for mixing prejudice with scatological humor. Though perhaps I can't call this a thoughtless mistake on the part of the folks behind the movie -- maybe it was actually a savvy business decision intended to attract a pro-theistic audience. The reviewers over at (" in-depth analyses of current movies from a biblical perspective") think this anti-atheist scene "makes belief in God look cool." Because cool is whatever Adam Sandler in drag is doing... ?

In other words, I think it's unfortunate that there's this bit of anti-atheist sentiment in a movie whose main business seems to be to affirming the value of family, and in making childish audiences laugh at fart jokes. Nothing wrong with those goals; why does prejudice need to be a part of it? To the people responsible, we might say: "Idiots like you really make me mad." Prejudice and the hostility it gives fuel to, when they reveal themselves in real life, don't just go away when someone shows up with cake for everyone.


I actually really like atheist jokes. Such as: "Why can’t atheists solve exponential equations? Because they don’t believe in higher powers." This is from the Harmonia Philosophica blog; find more here.