Category Archives: Religion

Why Homeschooling Freaks Me Out

An article on Alternet today bears the ominous title: “An Army of Home-Schooled ‘Christian Soldiers’ On a Mission to ‘Take Back America for God.'” In it, Robert Kunzman discusses some of what he uncovered researching the “Generation Joshua” program for his book on the “world of conservative Christian homeschooling.” Children are quoted calling public schools tools of “the Enemy” and “quite simply humanist churches” out to undermine Christian values. (I guess they’ve never heard of Christian humanists.)

Of course, Jesus Camp probably holds the honor for the most disturbing depiction of anti-science Christian fundamentalist homeschooling: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DH_wPUVlJ38]

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Read Me On Secular Progressive

By the by–as of last Wednesday, I’m now blogging weekly at Secular Progressive on religion & politics related content, on the kind invitation of founder Mike Tracey.

I made Mike’s acquaintance when interviewing about his scoop at the Campus Progress National Conference, when Bill Clinton admitted to personally supporting same-sex marriage. (See his Nation and HuffPost articles.) It became clear during the course of this conversation that we shared interests in the realm of atheism, religion, and politics, so when he later said he was looking for more contributors to his blog on “Religion, Politics, and Everything in Between,” I agreed to jump onboard. (Granted, “jump” might not be the right verb–I did take a few weeks to make good on my commitment.)

Why Secular Progressive? Bill O’Reilly coined the term “Secular Progressive” to give a name to the group he views as destroying the foundation of society, but us “S-P’s” are more troubled by the consequences of his right-wing rants. Mike reminds us in the blog’s first post that, oh right–“secular progressive” is not an insult. It’s a label to wear with pride:

No longer can those of us who identify as secular and/or progressive allow ourselves to be caricaturized by the likes of O’Reilly without putting up a fight. That’s how the Right stole the term “liberal” and it’s how conservative Christians have demonized the term “atheist.” Us S-P’s have ourselves a set of values, and we happen to think that they’re better than the alternative, or else we wouldn’t hold them in the first place. Rather than undermine society, we think that those values will actually strengthen our communities and our governments.

So look for me at the Secular Progressive on Wednesdays, and check out Mike’s latest on what happens to him after ordering a Book of Mormon. It’s the beginning of a short series of posts–I wonder what will happen next time with the young Elders Wilcox and Marble?

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The Land Before the Fall: Atheist Field Trip to Creation Museum

I wish I could have been in Kentucky last week for the atheist field trip to the Creation, ahem, “Museum,” where “Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Alas, I couldn’t make it down–but there are plenty of blogs sharing pics and videos, in particular this one from biologist PZ Myers, who is amused that the diet of a T-Rex specifies “After the Fall.”

I’m choosing to share a good laugh with PZ, rather than tearing up over the fact that people actually believe this, about the fuzzy dating: ~2348 BC is cited as the Jurassic, Upper Cretaceous, and Lower Cretaceous eras all in one. As PZ says, “Why does the geology even matter to them if they’re just going to ignore it all and compress everything into one year, a year given with such remarkable specificity?”

But it wasn’t all fun and games at the Creation Museum: one attendee got kicked out for making a snide remark to a friend (he’d earlier been forced to turn his T-shirt, which said, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”).

Oh well. I have to get back to fantasizing about frolicking with Littlefoot in the Land Before the Fall. Does the Creation Museum have tree stars?

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Silence from the Pulpit: Torture and a Moral Voice

Until I was 17-years-old, I was what you could refer to as a “Christmas Catholic.” I’d had the baptismal waters flicked on my face as a baby, and from that point on my sole connection with the Church were the annual trips to Christmas mass with my dad; though by then agnostic and on my way to atheist, Christmas mass attracts many once-a-year Catholics and non-believers who enjoy the carols. Thus, I might have continued tagging along, if not for the unfortunate circumstance of missing Christmas mass that year, and attending the Sunday after as a substitute.

Christmas mass always presented a love and peace affair, so I’d never discovered that the priest in my dad’s town was one of the more political preachers, fond of mixing extremely conservative rhetoric in with his Bible passages. Between the lurid denunciation of murdering unborn babies and exhortations to support the war in Iraq (the war, not the soldiers, completely separate issues), I determined that I would not be attending any mass again. I couldn’t find any pleasure in the carols, knowing what the congregation supported.

Liberal Catholic friends assure me that political priests like this are unusual; I’m not sure whether this is true or not. I’m also not sure whether it’s a positive fact.

A Consortium News article clued me in to an April Pew survey that found a positive correlation between church attendance and support for torture. 54 percent of people who attend religious services at least weekly believed torture was often or sometimes justified, versus 42% of those who go seldom or never. Furthermore, people unaffiliated with any religious organization were the least likely to believe that torture is often justified; white Protestant evangelicals the most. Kudos to mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians), who are the most likely to state that torture is never justified.

I’m an atheist, and I’d fall in the “torture is never justified” bracket. But what interests me–and what Consortium News author Ray McGovern also considers–is that belief in God is not being measured here, but rather affiliation with and attendance for organized religion. McGovern hypothesizes: “My guess is that those who go to church on Sunday expect a modicum of moral leadership.  If the pastor is silent on torture, then torture must somehow be okay.” So, unlike my dad’s priest on abortion and the war, it’s not about what is being said from the pulpit–it’s about what isn’t. Continue reading

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Murky Water: Murder and Crusades by America’s Favorite Mercenary

Blackwater Founder Implicated in Murder.

I’ve been thinking about this story, published at thenation.com, all day, but am still lacking in words to respond.

It’s not exactly disbelief that stops my train of thought: we’ve been aware of a lot of dirty dealings at the infamous Blackwater, so why not that owner Erik Prince had whistle-blowers against his corrupt company murdered? It’s just a bit much, especially as the first thing I see in the morning before I’ve even eaten. (I’m not a morning person.)

It’s especially disturbing when combined with the allegations that Prince also considered himself a “Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe” who “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.” (This is from just the opening paragraph of Jeremy Scahill’s article.) The Christian supremacists he attracted even borrowed call signs from the historical crusaders themselves, the Knights of Templar.

I guess when the US President even used the term crusade offhand to describe American military force (oh, George W., when will your memory fade away?), this shouldn’t be all that surprising either.

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Filed under International, Iraq War, Religion

Believing in God: I Just Don’t

A sure sign that my New Yorker instinct has yet to fully kick back in after four years of college in small-town New Hampshire: when a guy on the street asked me to stop and lend him my ear, I actually paused. Turns out he was selling God–or at least his church.

As  I gazed at my apartment building, just a block away, if asked if I’d heard about [insert organization of spiritual salvation here]. I hadn’t.

Then: Do you believe in God?

Me: No.

Him: Why not?

Me: I just don’t.

As he started in on something about Jesus Christ, I smiled, told him sorry, but I just wasn’t interested, and moved on. He said okay and let me go, which was a relief–religious or secular, salespeople on New York City streets can be very aggressive.

What kept me thinking about this brief interaction after, however, was my own answer: “I just don’t.” I just don’t? I’ve articulated why atheism is important to me on multiple occasions in my college newspaper, the Dartmouth Free Press“I just don’t” seemed a cop-out.

Actually, the first response that flitted through my mind was “personal decision,” but I dismissed that as really empty. I can easily write 3,000 words defending atheism, describing my own atheist and humanist belief system, outlining the background which lead me to this place, from “technically Catholic,” to agnostic, to firm atheist. I enjoy discussing atheism and religion. Why can’t I give a meaningful, brief response to why I don’t believe in God?

This isn’t the first time a random stranger has asked why I don’t believe in God. Visiting a friend’s college, a guy invited me to attend his church Sunday. I informed him that wouldn’t work out since I was an atheist, leading him to ask what led me to reject God, and was there a time I cried out to him and he didn’t answer? Um…no, I replied (actually finding the scenario pretty funny), and explained that I don’t reject God, a common misunderstanding, I simply don’t believe there is one–so there’s nothing to reject.

What it comes down to is there are many reasons I find atheism and secular humanism meaningful in my life, and as many specific problems I can point out with religion/Christianity. But, I realized, the question, why don’t you believe in God, isn’t asking about that. No meaningful response to that question exists for me.

Maybe next time I’ll try asking why the Christianity salesman doesn’t believe in Aphrodite or the rest of the Greek pantheon–maybe his response can give me an idea for a better soundbite. “God” doesn’t factor into how I live my life any more than Zeus, or Muhammad. Disbelief is the default. As Stephen Roberts stated: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Many people may find (or feel) reasons for faith in God–that doesn’t mean anyone else should need a reason for not sharing their belief.

So I guess my answer truly is: I just don’t.

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Calling Atheist Women: The Public Needs You

A couple years late, I came across Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 article on why women are “backward” in generating humor. I was duly pissed off, but I’ll keep my entire unhumorous rant on the subject to myself, because otherwise I’ll never make it to my intended destination: the union between atheism and women.

A woman commented on the Katrina vanden Heuvel post I discussed on Tuesday, saying that atheism shared the same ol’ male-dominated network as religion. As fervent a feminist as I am an atheist, I wondered: is that true?

The four big names of what’s been dubbed the “new atheist” movement are best-selling authors Christopher, Richard, Sam, and Daniel. The Bible was clearly written by men, and it’s looking like the tracts of atheism are following in that patriarchal tradition.

And yet…freed from Eve-demonizing faiths, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists served a major role of the women’s rights movement. American Atheists was founded by school-prayer challenger Madalyn Murray O’Hair (think the new atheists rile people up? O’Hair called herself the “most hated woman in America”), and the Freedom From Religion Foundation was launched by a mother-daughter duo. Female writers do exist in atheist bookstores, such as Annie Laurie Gaylor and Katha Pollitt, with works focusing on the place of women in freethought vs. fundamentalist traditions.

Though some churches in the U.S., like the Episcopal congregation, have grown out of their misogyny and now ordain female priests and bishops, religion has a poor track record with women, and entrenched institutions find it hard to catch up with modern equality, even with progressive men and women working within their ranks toward change. Atheism is a logical place for women to thrive because it doesn’t have to deal with that sexist baggage–there’s no one text riddled with sexism for liberal scholars to try to explain, no one text at all to bow down to as “the word” on atheism.

But as a belief system whose explanation rests entirely in the hands of its followers, the who’s who of atheist stars does matter. It’s not so much about individual flaws and foibles as the need for missing voices (in another post, I could comment on their racial homogeneity in the same manner). Whether or not Christopher Hitchens has penchant for promoting sexist/borderline misogynistic stereotypes in his writing, the voices of public atheism are too testosterone-filled–even if raised in defense of women, it’s better that the ladies take the floor, too.

The last thing we need is another boys club.

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Oh, to be Secular in the Summer

Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel blogged on something atheists had to celebrate this 4th:

“After eight years in the Bush wilderness — and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment — a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.”

Jaws dropped when Obama referenced nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. Though the day had its issues, from Rick Warren to a multiplicity of religious references and figures, with one word Obama handed a vital commodity to “nonbelievers”: visibility.

Say what you will about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, their snark snatched attention for atheism, which it desperately needed. (Now atheism has buses–I saw one of the mobile ads in New York yesterday.) While their less-than-perfectly-tolerant rhetoric might have offended some religious people, nonetheless I think they did more good than harm in capturing the spotlight. People often distrust the unfamiliar, so as long as atheists remain in the shadows, mistrust and misunderstanding proliferate.

Of course, Obama doesn’t need to grab headlines with ploys like Dawkins’ or Hitchens’. All he has to do is make use of his Obama star power, bringing visibility and a modicum of support.

Now, maybe you could complain that he could stand to do better than just a shout-out–and that he steered clear of the term “atheist,” which, for some reason, people tend to have trouble with (I recall a comedian once talking about coming out to her parents as an atheist–they knew she didn’t believe in God, but an atheist?!). He’s paid a lot of lip service to the LGBT community that hasn’t come to fruition either, once citing his Christianity as his reason for opposing gay marriage, and the inroads the Religious Right has made have not been reset to neutral. Just because atheists have been so downtrodden doesn’t mean we should give too much applause to scraps from on high.

Still, I’m happy for any help in confronting prejudice toward “nonbelievers” and helping draw them out of the closet. And for giving atheists a momentary warm fuzzy feeling: though rising above is admirable, it’s easier to treat religion with tolerance and respect when you’re getting a little in return.

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Filed under Atheism, Obama, Religion

Queer-Friendly Mormons?

What do you think when you hear “gay-friendly Mormon”? Does it have a strange ring? Do you think of Prop 8, and nothing else?

Mormons unhappy with their church’s stance on gay rights have launched a website (ldsapology.org) to gather petition signatures for their “Plea for Reconciliation.” Organized by two California residents in the wake of the Prop 8 campaign, this coalition of active and former members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints state that “the time is right for healing.” Their hope: to convince the church to ease up on its antigay policies, and especially its political intervention and fundraising.

My mother’s side of the family, all being Mormon, have made me more personally familiar with the Church of Latter-Day Saints than the typical non-Mormon (I was baptized Catholic, am now atheist). As a result of these family ties, I’ve frequently found myself correcting misconceptions about the faith: no, they don’t practice polygamy; yes, they are Christian; no they’re not that much crazier than other religions.

BUT I’m also a harsher critic of Mormonism’s problems because, well, they’re family. While bothered by extreme prejudice against Mormonism (often coming from other conservative Christians) that is based on misunderstanding its history and practice, I’m all too aware that it is a predominantly right-wing faith with serious flaws—homophobia being the biggest of my frustrations.

So it was a relief to encounter a more progressive face of Mormonism. A few days ago, the website had a little over 100 signatures; now it’s close to 800, and growing daily.  This pressure, coming from the church’s own constituents, is harder to brush off than outsider criticism, and this is exactly what needs to happen to cause a change in harmful conservative religious stances. And the website doesn’t shy away from demonstrating just how harmful this antigay stance can be, with a list of gay and lesbian Mormon suicide victims and links to heart-wrenching–and sometimes horrific–personal stories.

Right now, ldsapology.org is a small step in a positive direction, but, hopefully, it will inspire other members of the Mormon church uncomfortable with its direction on gay rights to stand up—so that, as time passes, the term “gay-friendly Mormon” doesn’t sound so strange.

Update June 29th: A recent Nation article (disclosure: I’m an intern there) discusses the push for LGBT rights in predominantly-Mormon Utah, including the visibility of queer Mormons in Salt Lake City. While these activists aren’t confronting church policy as directly as ldsapology.org, their political fight certainly sends a similar message. Cheers for more people coming out of the Closet of Latter-Day Saints.

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