Monday, October 16, 2006

Boston Atheists

Boston Atheists

I'd like to pose a question to members of this and other, related blogs. Since this is a question to which I suspect myself of already having an answer, my posing it is perhaps more akin to an experiment. My question is: Are there any instances in which the concept of 'tradition' is invoked as a causal explanation and defensive assignment of legitimacy to a belief, action or practice, that don't, in reality, represent an attempt--conscious or unconscious--on the part of the person providing the explanation, to conceal either an element or an essence of irrationality, illogic, illegitimacy, or moral/ethical failure? For instance, claiming that hoisting a Confederate flag above a state capitol is a matter of "tradition" is a clear example of an (usually conscious) attempt to conceal a moral failure and, therefore, an illegitimacy. Another way to ask my question is: Are any of the beliefs, actions or practices that are typically chalked up to 'tradition' actually rational, logical, moral/ethical, and therefore legitimate? I propose that this question is substantially more difficult to answer than most readers will realize at first glance.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On Merullo's Timidity

Member Robert Skole wrote in to say that a lot of atheists would be interested in reading Roland Merullo’s Op-Ed in yesterday’s Globe, and the writer’s forthcoming book about the “big subject” of God, as well. You can read it here, and maybe you'll agree that it's just a hapless shrug in the direction of sectarian rancor. “This God stuff is what makes the world go 'round, I guess,” writes Merullo. You guess? Surely, there is something more to be said on the incompatibility between societal progress and religiosity? On the categories of ignorance we file away in confidential, eyes-only folders labeled “faith?”

Today’s argument in favor of an increase in our collective intolerance of religion: Grandview Valley Baptist Church North, where old men are reported to molest the children of the community in service to their concept of God. Though some, even or especially in the atheist community, that would condemn religion for charging man with a powerful impulse for wrong-doing, this is not a just attack. In both explicit and implicit ways religion propels many toward an otherwise unachievable goodness. No, religion is not bad (however incorrect), but it can be bad, and when it is bad there must be a way of preserving lawfulness and protecting potential victims from harm and keeping actual victims from further harm. Religious belief and religious practice enjoy protected status in a nation where such status protects the most shameful of practices. Why do we give religion such a reckless privilege? There isn’t any answer from Merullo, who closes the case with a mantra from the Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness.” All well and good if all believes were benign, but how does “kindness” zealous bigotry? To name one of the many excesses to be found where faith resides.

It would have been nice if the Globe editors had chosen to print an article that engages the issue of religion and modernity, instead of giving Merullo space for market his new book? In which book I hope the author will be less nonplussed by child abuse in the Ozarks, the Crusader spirit of the neo-conservatives, the rational capacity of the voting pious, etc, etc.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Looking Into Boy Scout Recruitment

Margaret Downey, a board member of the organization Scouting For All and President of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, has written to ask for the help of anyone who agree that atheists shouldn't be excluded from Scouting. When I think back to the tension during my own board of review for the Life rank, I realize now that the questions were narrowly concerned with the expression of Christian faith in my life. What made me uncomfortable back then at the age of 15 makes me indignant now. The institution of Scouting has much to offer young men, yet a hypothetical youth of impeccable virtue and advanced rationality would be denied those benefits, and forced to seek the same camaraderie and wholesome experiential learning... where? Religion is irrelevant to Scouting's broader program of moral and physical development. I would rather see the religion expunged from Scouting before Scouting ejected from public schools, but on the chance that such expulsion will instigate change you can be sure I will personally be contacting local schools, as Margaret asks requests in the following missive:

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are currently involved in their annual recruitment drive usually held at all public elementary and middle schools. The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia contends that if BSA (as a declared private organization) only wants religious children as members, they should conduct their recruitment drives at private religious schools only.

I am currently presenting this argument to the Unionville/Chadds Ford School District in an attempt to stop the Boy Scout recruitment drive. Furthermore, I am using the school districts' own policy as evidence that BSA should not be allowed to use school facilities free of charge. Policy 707 reads in part, that free use of the facility is granted to non-profit organizations "...whose membership is open to district residents."

I really need your help, everyone. I can't cover the entire area (or other states) alone. I am working hard in my own area and I beg all of you to put pressure on BSA and the school where you reside. Contact your local elementary and middle schools and ask the following:

1. Is the school allowing BSA to recruit on school grounds?
2. How is BSA conducting its recruitment drive in the school?
3. Does the recruitment drive involve teachers or administrators (handing out flyers, hosting BSA representatives in the classroom or cafeteria, etc.)?
4. Does a teacher or administrator advocate for BSA membership either by announcements or posting of signs?
5. Does BSA have free use of the school facility for their meetings?
6. Where can a copy of the "Use of School Facilities" policy found?
7. Can I have a copy of that policy?

You are taxpayers whose money is used to support the public school system. You have the right to protect Atheist families from discrimination scenarios. Your calls are actually an attempt to protect the school district from becoming entangled with a discrimination lawsuit should an innocent child be treated like a second class citizen within the confines of his public school. School district funds should not be jeopardized in this way.

Friday, September 01, 2006

More Against City Council Prayer in Lowell

Steve Berthiaume wrote to let us know that another letter to the editor has appeared from a local atheist speaking out against the violation of church of state inherent in opening a city council meeting with sectarian prayer. From The Lowell Sun:

Stop prayers before City Council meetings

I join those opposing prayer before City Council meetings. Besides violating at least the spirit of the Establishment Clause, it violates the principle of separation of church and state. The Wars of Religion, which devastated Europe for centuries, and the tyranny and oppression in the Middle East today largely stem from one group trying to impose their religion on others.

Such conflict is inevitable because government is an agency of coercion. That's why we use it to stop criminals and foreign enemies, who can only be stopped with greater force. Turning government force against a religious minority only changes their behavior, not their minds. A mind cannot be forced. A gun is not an argument, as Ayn Rand said.

The result is an oppressed group just waiting for their chance to seize power and force their religion on everyone else. Civil strife is the inevitable result. Are we not seeing this now on a tiny scale here in Lowell -- religious groups arguing over which prayer the government should impose on people at City Council meetings?

Separation of church and state protects everyone from having religion imposed on them. The result has been centuries of relative religious peace and freedom here in the United States.

It's wrong for the city of Lowell to employ any prayer before council meetings because government exists to protect our rights and not to promote a religious agenda. The Lowell City Council should stop saying prayers before meetings and recognize people's right to make their own religious decisions.

DANIEL E. CALESS, Gloucester
Member, Atheists of Greater Lowell

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

He's probably a Saints fan...

Some of you may be familiar with my (decidedly not compelling) Disproof from Mundanity argument, being that any deity worth his salt wouldn't be caught dead acting as an ontological foundation to material existence, seeing how so much of the world is crumbly, dirty, and ragged. Example: cigarette butts. If the presence of the Creator really does suffuse all of the universe, wouldn't a soggy butt floating in a toilet bowl be just as full of the divine spark as any child's eyes? By which I mean really nothing more than the god concept seems exceedingly silly in a certain light. This silliness is seen clearly when theists carry out the notion that theirs is an anthropomorphic god, to extreme ends. Although this has been seen elsewhere on the Net, really, it's worth seeing again. I present: Jesus playing football. Here's a question: does a child's willingness to tackle his Lord and Savior make him a better Christian, or a worse one?

As someone who doesn't subscribe to any religious belief, it's easy for me to enjoy a laugh at the expense of religion; I don't have anything invested in it. That doesn't mean atheism, for me, is just an excuse to disdain believers and their traditions. Far from it; since I am relieved of the influence of religious dogma, I have one less excuse to be belligerent, unsympathetic, or callous toward my fellow man. But because I don't laugh at theists, does that I mean I cannot laugh at the spectacle of the Nazarene accepting a forward pass?

Political Prayer Bothers Us Now

Steve Berthiaume of the Lowell Atheists wrote earlier this month last week to tune us in to the pious habits of his local elected representatives. He wrote:
"The Lowell City Council is starting session with the Lord's Prayer! I've posted an article at the blog , and there's a hearty discussion going on at the Left in Lowell forum (didn't know there were so many atheists in Lowell!). What we need to do is write to these councilors and let them know that prayer is unacceptable at government functions. It doesn't matter whether you're from Lowell, this is happening in our Commonwealth!"
If you find the time to dash off a note objecting to this unwelcome intrusion of personal shortcomings into what should properly be a forum for clear and rational thinking, visit the Lowell Atheists blog and share your letter with Steve. Let him know that he isn't the only one who thinks religion should be kept out of government.

In an article by Nick Brown of the Lowell Sun, 79-year-old Lowell resident Terry Byrne, says, "To each his own. It hasn't bothered anybody before. Why start now?" I couldn’t do better than Steve’s own resounding answer: “Because it bothers us now.”

I’m always bothered by politicians who haven’t outgrown belief in the invisible; such beliefs call into question their competency to deal with visible affairs like reproductive rights, municipal budgeting, freedom of speech, acts of war…

Adolescent Protest is Toxic

In a profile of Maryland student Ian Gibson in the July issue of American Atheist, we learn that he proudly defied the prevailingly pious atmosphere on May 4th, the National Day of Prayer. Rather than keep quiet with his revulsion for the proceedings, he wore a subtly critical tee-shirt under his jacket. He writes:

"... as soon as I saw the hands-clasped, heads-down group talking to themselves I ripped off the coat like I was Superman."
My initial reaction to this escapade was triumphal applause. Go get 'em, etc. But as I thought about the incident, I realized that Mr. Gibson's act failed as protest and as an act of rational criticism. Atheists often respond with indignation to the suggestion that their professed worldview is a religious one, but isn't the proud and defiant defense of his beliefs shown by our young compatriot here just as fundamentalist as the culturally-determined prayerfulness of his classmates?

What teenager doesn't imagine himself a superhero, endowed with a superhuman righteousness? It's a foolish thing, to hold up a discontented student as a model of atheistic integrity, when there is no way to tell whether Mr. Gibson is acting as an autonomous and rational person, or as an adolescent content to rally against the closest form of authority at hand, whether parental, governmental or theistic. Without delving deeper than the "amazing rush" of expressing beliefs "in a loud and obnoxious way", the American Atheists profile wastes an opportunity to remind readers that it is not merely a lack of belief that unites atheists, but rather a devotion to critical thought. A commitment to reason produces atheism just as it produces justice, freedom, sensible public policy, and humane treatment for each other. When atheists define themselves through the wearing of wiseass tee-shirts, they are obscuring the thinking behind the critical.

An entire gallery of anti-this and anti-that 'political' tee-shirts can be seen and purchased at There, you'll see the other side of the Toxic shirt sports a much more productive motto: "Don't pray in my school, and I won't think in your church."

Ultimately, I have to remain agnostic on the issue of Ian Gibson and his Religion is Toxic sentiment; I'm prepared to believe that his was a reasoned and deliberate act of protest against his Pharisaic culture. Unfortunately, it's more likely that he was motivated by the falliable zeal fueling so many protesters on either side of any debate: "I'm right and good, you are wrong and stupid." I for one am unwilling to define atheism as the belief that religion is toxic. We're altogether too interesting, complex, humane, and intelligent to be reduced to belligerence.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ann Coulter's book "Godless"

Ann Coulter's widely popular and blisteringly ignorant new rant, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, is given a sensible brush-off by Jerry Coyne at Powell's Books.

That reminds me, fellow atheist. I haven't seen you in church recently. Perhaps you sat in the back? Or maybe I was just so immersed in our fiendish scripture of baby-killing and god-mocking that I failed to notice you. To be fair, Ms. Coulter's book seems to be more concerned with flaunting her avid and misinformed enthusiasm for Intelligent Design than with connecting liberalism, atheism, and depravity. I will sometimes plug a book for the sake of understanding someone else's perspective, but in this case I will tell you to take Coyne's word for it that Godless is not worth the read. Let's as a nation choose instead to turn away from her repugnant rodomontade, and hope she packs it in.

NB: In the Book Description section of the Amazon listing for this fresh wound against rationality, the publisher informs the potential book-buyer that Ms. Couter is "writing with a keen appreciation for genuine science." Wickedly malapropos, I initially thought the line said "a keen appreciation for Genesis science."

Krauss on Scientific Literacy

Matthew West directs your attention to a typically rousing essay by Lawrence Krauss in today's Times, concerning Kansas creationists: "How To Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Literate" (log-in required; e-mail me if you'd like to borrow my copy of today's issue). Says Matthew:

The article is concise, but he doesn't go far enough. By characterizing the reaction against school board creationism as "not against faith, but against ignorance", he fails to acknowledge that such ignorance is predicated upon an anti-intellectual religious culture... a culture that in various ways impedes progress toward a more competent democracy.
When Krauss says elsewhere that Intelligent Design is "not just bad science, but bad theology to imply that it is better to remain ignorant," one wonders what comprises good theology. But of course the complaint should not be directed at theology, which is a profession carried out to good effect by intelligent men and women. ID isn't theology, but rather an inviable chimera, misbegotten offspring of incompatible parents. Faith is not found through reason, though reasons it may have. A battle against faith is a battle against ignorance, and indeed shall in the long run have more enduring benefit by undermining the cause of ignorance as well as correcting it.