Monday, July 14, 2008

The Boston Atheist: July 13 - 19th, 2008

Programs to look forward to this month: an evening get-together for drinks and blasphemy, on July 21st at the Redline in Harvard Square, and an Atheist Brunch on the 27th at the White Horse in Brighton. BA member Sarah Tractenberg is hard at work organizing our first film festival, which should go up next month. She's made use of your suggestions to develop a program, has secured screening permissions, and is now pulling together a good location. When details have been finalized, I'll send invitations out to this mailing list, and will also be advertising the event in hopes of having members of the public join us for movies, food, and conversation.

I'm writing to you from Anchorage, Alaska, where the moose ply the glacier-fed streams, the noble salmon roams the forests, and men hawk six-foot lengths of whale baleen on street corners (really). I spent a few pleasant hours wandering among the booths of a weekly weekend merchant fair downtown. Vendors were selling elk and caribou burgers, all variety of trinkets and carvings made from fossilized mammoth ivory or walrus tusks, and the usual hodge-podge of trade goods: knives, scarves, handbags, and baseball hats. I would have liked to bring back a polished oosik, but they are more expensive than you might expect. Would you believe, that there was, on the day I was walking through downtown, a protest against Scientology in Anchorage? I do now know whether the Guy Fawkes-mask-wearing protesters are directly affiliated with the group Anonymous which has been organizing protests in Boston but if not they certainly are adopting their model. The protest isn't just an expression of distaste for the Scientology brand of crazy; in the past few years, Scientologists have been peddling their wonky detox system, called Narcanon, among addiction-ravished population of poor Alaskans. It's good to want to provide support services to people struggling with addiction. It's bad to want to replace medical therapies with a system that is as medically fantastical, psychologically damaging, and autonomy destroying as Narcanon. As I drove past the Alaska protesters, I honked my support. - Zachary Bos, Director of Boston Atheists

The members of the Beltway Atheists group – for secular-minded citizens near Washington, D.C. – are organizing a first-ever "Atheist Days" festival. Visitors are invited to travel down to Half Moon Beach in Virginia, pitch a tent at the campgrounds there, and enjoy music and entertainment all weekend long. The event takes place from August 15th through August 17th, and it is highly recommended that you get a ticket now if you intend to attend.

In her column titled "The Star(bucks) Stop Here," Boston Herald writer Margery Eagan reveals that she, too, subscribes to a common prejudice: that atheists are latte-swilling urban foot soldiers in the assault on good ole American salt-of-the-earth Christians whose caffeine of choice comes, one assumes, from Dunkin Donuts only. Eagan asks, "Do you want to sit next to totally pretentious secular humanists, agnostic/atheist effete pseudo-elites (Starbucks)?" God no, who would. The article is now available for reading online only with a Herald subscriber code; however, the comments section is worth reading for the range of responses -- outrage, bemusement, confusion.

David Nicholls, the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, has penned an eloquent op-ed explaining his view that atheism quite as unconventional as some folks might have it.

BA member Dan Caless has sent in a link to the blog of Diana Hsieh, in which the "overworked graduate philosophy student" author argues that the "New Atheism" that has been prominent in the news in the past few years, via the activities of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, fails to meet the challenge put to it by the religious apologetics of Dinesh D'Souza and other commentators – the challenge of understanding the source of values and morality. Hsieh constructs a straw-man version of atheists, however, in order to evaluate atheism (as if it were a homogenous philosophy?) as being less objective and rational than Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Hsieh's blog post is interesting if for no other reason than for being a succinct example of the most common kind of wrong-headed objection to atheism – namely, that atheists are relativists or nihilists.

San Francisco Bay-area Atheist and prolific letter-to-the-editor writer David Mandell has written and published his first book, "Atheist Acrimonious." In David's own words: "This book is for the religious and the non-religious. Atheist acrimonious means an angry atheist; and why should I be angry? For one, I was brainwashed as a child into the Jewish religion and suffered because of it for over 35 years. Now that I am an atheist, I am still suffering but for different reasons. Atheists throughout history have been killed, hated, discriminated against, abused and tortured by religionists. And today it is still going on! It is time for all this to stop! I am the winner of the 2002 American Atheists "Letters to the Editor" contest. In my book there are over 70 published anti-religious "Letters to the editor", exposing my anger. Also included are many dedicated atheists with articles, essays, poems, quotes, songs, stories, and dialog. This is a one of a kind book because of its unusual contents. It is straightforward in the explanations and honest in its contents. It is a book of knowledge and should be read in the schools. It is dedicated to atheism in the hope that atheists come out of the closet."

BA member Raja Bhattacharyya has brought to our attention an interesting survey from the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) about the worldviews and opinions of scientists from India. Here are some highlights:
49% scientists of a country as important as India in today's world believe in prayer as efficacious traditional, alternative curative and diagnostic techniques? Homeopathy being the other; 50% Indian scientists believe in this

44% India's scientists approve a degree course in Vedic Astrology

41% scientists approve the rituals of Indian's space scientists going to a Temple called Tirupati to seek the blessing of Lord Venkateswara before launching the rocket and satellite.
Raja writes: "A stunning survey! Although surveys are not always reflection of reality, but this one is fascinating, and very depressing to me in particular. The matter is more depressing, because this is a survey of 'scientists.'"
Many thanks to Raja for passing this along, and to Debasis Bhattacharyya, who works with the Rationalist Society of India out of Calcutta, for bringing it to his attention originally. James Randi, in his weekly "Swift" newsletter, has often praised the incredulity and integrity of Indian skeptics and rationalists whose willingness to challenge the superstition and fundamentalism common in Indian culture puts them at great professional risk. I think this survey is uplifting news – not because we should be gladded by the high proportion of Indian scientists who reportedly believe in a lot of woo-woo, but because such surveys are being conducted at all. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," I agree – the mystical attitudes which congregate like condensation in the dark spaces of culture quickly evaporate when exposed to skeptical inquiry. At a time when religious leaders – Christian, Muslim, and Hindu – in India are mobilizing against education officials and modern textbooks for promoting "atheism" and "secularism" (as opposed to superstition and false history?), such dissent is even more dangerous, and more necessary. A little Googling will quickly alert you to the conflict between modernity and myth in Indian classrooms, e.g. the current fracas in Kerala.

The Atheist Meetup of Greater Lowell is still in need of an Organizer. If you'd like to coordinate monthly meetings and additional activities as the occasion calls for it, let me know so I can put you in touch with members of the group and acquaint you more fully with the responsibilities involved.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A quote from Mitchell Cohen

"In my view, a secular state needs a humanist basis. Yes, that means that I think secular humanist culture should be privileged in liberal democracy (or in what I would prefer, social democracy) but not religion. The reason is that it can encompass religious lives, whereas religious culture cannot do the same for secularism and atheism."
-- quoted in "The New Atheism" for the Winter 2008 issue of Dissent

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Faithlessness and the Founding Fathers

In her most recent Christianity newsletter, Mary Fairchild exhorts readers to commemorate our nation's origin "in the spirit of the founding fathers." By implying that this spirit is a Christian one, however, she is mistaken. Either she is unaware that the founders of early America were far more freethinking than her or your fellow believers, or, she is willing to ignore a preponderance of historical evidence in order to rally her audience to the belief that their faith was shared by these great leaders. In case the former explanation accounts for her lapse, I wrote to her to share the following quotes assembled by Steven Morris for a 1995 article in "Free Inquiry", titled "The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians." They're also of certain interest to all red-blooded American Atheists:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
The first president of the United States, never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. Washington Championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment. On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance.
"The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained."
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." ... "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
In her email, Fairchild mentions a letter which John Adams wrote to his wife. Perhaps she are unaware that his wife was particularly pious and devout? It's conceivable that Adams was deferring to his wife's religiosity when he made the suggestion that Independence Day "ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty." Certainly such an idea was uncharacteristic of him, as can be seen in this final excerpt from Morris' compilation:
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers 'noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces". Late in life he wrote: "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!"
One might recall from junior-high civics class that it was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states (in Article XI) that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

I hope, but cannot expect, that Fairchild will in the future give her audience a more historically accurate perspective on the religious views of the founding fathers.Their religious beliefs were quite alien from those she holds, and I think it is likely that they would be quite intolerant of her efforts to align their actions and pronouncements with her doctrines. But this should be no reason for anyone to celebrate less patriotically on the 4th: the deeds of the founding fathers were worthy of our respect and admiration, regardless of their creeds.

A final note. Fairchild writes at Christianity that "many of the founding fathers of the United States of America were men of deep religious convictions based in the Bible and their Christian faith in Jesus Christ." I won't outright deny this -- my knowledge of history perhaps isn't as deep as yours -- but I can dispute it, with a simple question about the professional roles available to a certain class of citizen in that time: what else was an intellectually-minded man to do? If he was not a lawyer or a merchant, he was bound to be a clergyman. But less important than the actual distribution of authentic religious belief among the founding fathers, is the corollary to your statement. If it is undeniable that many of the founding fathers were men of religious conviction, it is equally undeniable that many of the founding fathers rejected religion.

I hope that Fairchild, and the many thousands of Christians who receive her newsletter, can honor the virtue and legacy of skeptics, freethinkers, deists, agnostics, and atheists, with as much enthusiasm as they celebrate the legacy of the Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc., found among the founding fathers. The good fortunes and freedoms of our United States is due in large part to the work of men who had courage enough to reject the supernatural, at a time when doing so came at great cost, in order to build the world's first first modern democratic republic upon a sound, secular foundation.

For those who want to learn more, here are the sources which Morris gives in his article. It's quite an exciting bibliography, for anyone looking for summer reading.

1. From: "The Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine, pp. 8,9 (Republished 1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
2. From: "George Washington and Religion" by Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127 (1963, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX)
3. From: "Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History" by Fawn M. Brodie, p. 453 (1974, W.W) Norton and Co. Inc. New York, NY) Quoting a letter by TJ to Alexander Smyth Jan 17, 1825, and "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 246 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to John Adams, July 5, 1814.
4. From: "The Madisons" by Virginia Moore, P. 43 (1979, McGraw-Hill Co. New York, NY) quoting a letter by JM to William Bradford April 1, 1774, and "James Madison, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by Joseph Gardner, p. 93, (1974, Newsweek, New York, NY) Quoting Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments by JM, June 1785.
5. From: "The Character of John Adams" by Peter Shaw, pp. 17 (1976, North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC) Quoting a letter by JA to Charles Cushing Oct 19, 1756, and "John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by James Peabody, p. 403 (1973, Newsweek, New York NY) Quoting letter by JA to Jefferson April 19, 1817, and in reference to the treaty, "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 311 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June, 1814.