Happy New Year!

There is nothing really special about New Year’s day. We add 1 to the number that represents the year, life goes on, and somewhere around March we start writing the dates correctly on our checks. (Assuming we still write checks :)). But regardless of the total arbitrariness of the day, it is still a great time to reflect on the past 12 months and make plans and goals for the next.
Here I have listed a few of my reflections on the past year, and my goals and aspirations for the next.

Highlights of 2011:

  • Record attendance at the best American Atheists convention ever, at which my husband and I signed on as life members.
    English: The American Atheists atom symbol wit...
  • My first time to attend Skepticon!
  • Kentucky Secular Society was granted official non-profit status from the IRS (even after some rather humourous questions in their letter requesting further information).
  • For the first time, we hosted the family Thanksgiving at my house, and I roasted my first turkey. And was very pleased with how it turned out. :-)
  • And, of course, the word did not end nor did the rapture happen, much to the disappointment of the followers of Harold Camping.

My Goals and Aspirations for 2012:
  • Getting my vision corrected with Lasik in January! For once I will be able to see clearly as soon as my eyes open in the morning. That is something I have not had since before I was eight years old, and I am excited.
  • Attend the Reason Rally in March!
  • Attend Skepticon V.
  • Continue to write more in the blog. For most of 2011 I neglected to write much of anything, but I have started to turn this around in December. I intend to continue to write frequently using series such as “Why I am an Atheist” and in dialogue with other bloggers such as The Warrioress.
  • In general to focus more on the positive and uplifting in my inner thought life, and less on the negative.

Here’s to a happy, sucessful, prosperous, godless New Year!

logo-300

Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command

What makes an action good or bad (or neutral)? Atheists are asked by theists, quite frequently, where we get our morals. However, I think that the Biblical theist has a much harder time when it comes to morality than the atheist. This dilemma for the theist is most elequantly stated by Plato as Euthyphro’s dilemma: Is something morally good because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally good? (my paraphrase. Click the linked text for further detail.) Unlike the Divine Command theory of morality, which states that moral duty comes from God’s or a god’s command regardless of how an act or belief looks in light of secular reason.

The Biblical story that is most cited in discussions about secular morality vs Divine Command morality is the one where God commands Abraham to kill his one and only son as an offering. If you are not familiar with the story, I recommended the illustrated version of The Brick Testament here: God Demands Child Sacrifice. So, if God were to tell you to kill your child, what would be the proper response? According to Divine Command theory, which is championed in the Bible, it is to not question God’s will but to do whatever it is he said. (That Isaac was spared at the end is irrelevant, because Abraham clearly fully intended to carry out the command and was considered righteous for that reason. ) According to secular morality, which is generally followed in modern cases such as that of Andrea Yates, the proper response if you think God wants you to kill your child (or anyone’s child!) is NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT! And it appears that most Christians that are put to the question actually agree with secular morality on this one.

The modern version of the Divine Command theory that I encounter most often comes from self-proclaimed “Biblical” Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible as the final say in all matters of morality. To an unbeliever like me, who does not trust the men who wrote the literature that came to be included in the Bible, nor the counsels of men who determine which of these writings would be considered as authoritative scripture, this assertion is absurd to the highest degree. However, there are plenty of people who, for whatever reasons, still consider the Bible to be a source of authority.

A recent prime example of this is found in the political debate over the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservative Christian politicians like,  every single GOP primary candidate, is pounding on this issue that homosexuality is a “sin” and that gay couple should not be allowed to marry or raise kids or adopt kids for really no reason whatsoever other than what they believe religiously. (Or, to be more accurate, what they think their voters believe religiously.) All of the studies that have been put forth to say that kids raised by homosexuals are harmed in some way have been exposed as the crap that they are, as pointed out most eloquently by  Al Franken (see Sen. Al Franken Slams Focus On The Family During DOMA Hearing and watch the video). The motivations here are purely religious and political. This is what it looks like when a “Biblical” idea of morality is put ahead of human happiness and autonomy, and above the wellbeing of kids who would otherwise be adopted into a loving home.

This example of how “Biblical” Christian morality to be out of step with modern society and rational morality is one more reason why I am now an atheist.

For further reading on the contrast between theistic moral beliefs and humanism, and a talk on why secular morality is superior to “Biblical” morality, see the links below.

American Humanist Associations Consider Humanism Campaign

Atheist Community of Austin: The Superiority of Secular Morality

Sunday school is for religion, not public school

I saw this story in the Friendly Atheist and thought I’d pass it along.

Battling anew over the place of religion in public schools

But in some corners of the country, especially in the rural South, open prayer and Christian symbols have never really disappeared from schools, with what legal advocates call brazen violations of the law coming to light many times each year.

At a school assembly here in South Carolina on Sept. 1, a preacher described how Christ saved him from drugs, telling his rapt audience that “a relationship with Jesus is what you need more than anything else.” A rapper shouted the Lord’s praise to a light show and most of the audience stepped forward to pledge themselves to Christ while a few remained, uncomfortable, in their seats.

Such overt evangelizing would not be unusual at a prayer rally, but this was a daytime celebration in a public school gymnasium, arranged by the principal for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Uh huh. Overt sectarian proselytizing to an immature, captive audience, curtesy of your local public school officials. There are so many reasons this should not be allowed.

See the Friendly Atheist’s commentary here.
Christian proselytyzing in public schools is becoming an epidemic.

When “religious rights” conflict with other’s rights

Last week I engaged in a discussion about Christian rights in America with The Warrioress at life of a female bible warrioress. She provided some examples that she believes proves that Christian rights are being eroded in America, though I disagree with her in several places. If you have not been following the blog posts you can read up more about it here: “Are Christians Losing Rights in America” Part 2.

The topic of religious rights and civil rights in general is very interesting to me, and I have done a bit of Googling to find recent examples where Christians have claimed that their religious rights have been violated. I have compiled a list of such examples, and I am seeing a theme.

For my first example: Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple.

LEDYARD, N.Y. — Rose Marie Belforti is a 57-year-old cheese maker, the elected town clerk in this sprawling Finger Lakes farming community and a self-described Bible-believing Christian. She believes that God has condemned homosexuality as a sin, so she does not want to sign same-sex marriage licenses; instead, she has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.

Gay marriage has been legalized in New York. Since when have clerks had the right to pass their judgement on citizen’s marriages and decide that they will refuse to personally sign their certificate? Would she expect to get a pass if the citizens seeking a license were previously divorced, and it was against her religious beliefs for divorcees to get remarried? Somehow, I doubt it.

Here is my second example: Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman

The store clerk, Natalie Johnson, is claiming a religious right to discriminate and suing Macy’s for religious discrimination. She is not claiming a right to discriminate against trans people just because they are transgender. No, she is making a very specific point of wrapping her prejudice in religion. Fine. Let’s take her position at face value and look at it.

There are only two approaches I can see to making such an argument: 1) that certain people have more rights to do whatever they want than others, or 2) that rights to engage in certain kinds discrimination supersede any rights of protection from that same discrimination. In the first approach, the only way this sales clerk can make her case is to deny the humanity and equal citizenship status of the transgender person she insists on treating unequally. That doesn’t fly. She has no special, superior citizenship rights because she professes Christianity. Changing one’s sex does not (at least legally) make one a second-class citizen and reduce one to having fewer rights and protections than others. It is reasonable to view both parties as equals in terms of rights and protections.

As the author of this piece notes, the transgender woman in this case has full rights as a citizen, and no one’s religious rights give them the right to treat her as a second class citizen. That includes the right to use to fitting rooms at a department store. And, fortunately, Macy’s agrees.

Christians have also claimed the rights to interfere with other’s medical decisions under the guise of “Conscience” laws. For a brief background and description of “conscience clause” laws, first check the article from USA Today: Conscience clauses not just about abortion anymore. Then, with that in mind, check out this story from early 2011 where a pharmacist used the conscience clause to refuse an emergency order from Planned Parenthood for medication to stop bleeding: Planned Parenthood files complaint against Nampa pharmacist.

Planned Parenthood officials said the complaint states that the pharmacist inquired if the patient needed the drug for post-abortion care. The nurse refused to answer the question based on confidentiality of health information.

According to Planned Parenthood, the pharmacist then stated that if the nurse practitioner did not disclose that information, she would not fill the prescription. The nurse alleged that the pharmacist hung up when asked for a referral to another pharmacy that would fill the prescription.

So, if the woman had an abortion, she should be left at risk of bleeding to death? Or even if she had had a miscarriage, since that was confidential information that the pharmacist has no need to know? When does someone’s religious rights (since this this is at heart what the “conscience clause” is there to protect) allow them to to withhold medication or medical aid to save a person’s life?

Here is the theme I see: Christians are sometimes put in a position of providing a service to people that they believe don’t have a legitimate right to the service they request. In these cases, the requirements of their jobs conflict with what they personally believe God wants them to do. The woman requesting birth control pills can be turned away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in it. Her right to control her fertility is taken away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in contraception. Or even more urgently, the woman who has been raped can be turned away when she requests Plan B emergency contraception, because of the moral beliefs of such a pharmacist. A city clerk can put inconveniences in the way of a lesbian couple getting married, because she doesn’t really believe they have the right to do so.

Can a citizen be legitimately deprived of their rights to made decisions for their own life by another person due to of that person’s religious belief? I think not. And is requiring a pharmacist to dispense prescribed birth control pills, or a town clerk to sign the marriage license for a perfectly legal couple mean taking away their constitutionally guaranteed rights to believe as they choose and worship or not as they choose without interference? I hate to say it, but if your religion forbids you to do your job, you should find another line of work.

For another perspective, can a Muslim man who does not believe woman should be allowed to drive be allowed to refuse to rent a car to a woman in the United States? See: Allowing women drivers in Saudi Arabia will be ‘end of virginity’ Would it not be the same thing?

In short, your right to belief ends where my right to autonomy begins.

For further reading, see the links below.

Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/nyregion/rights-clash-as-town-clerk-rejects-her-role-in-gay-marriages.html?_r=2

http://www.truthwinsout.org/pressreleases/2011/12/20852/

Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-keppler/religious-discrimination-macys-transgender-woman_b_1137472.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/07/macys-employee-fired-transgender_n_1133831.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/video/macys-fires-worker-transgender-discrimination-dressing-room-flap-15115740

http://jezebel.com/5866187/employee-fired-for-harassing-transgender-customer-accuses-macys-of-religious-discrimination

Pharmacist “Conscious Clause”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4425603.stm (Pharmacists ‘denying birth control’)

http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-24-conscience-doctors_N.htm

http://secular.org/blogs/lauren-anderson-youngblood/forcing-your-beliefs-others-not-religious-freedom

http://www.care2.com/causes/when-conscious-clauses-can-kill.html

http://www.idahopress.com/news/article_528847ac-1e9f-11e0-8247-001cc4c03286.html

Louisville KY University Hospital Merger with Catholic system limits patient’s choices, especially regarding reproductive choices.

http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20110718/BUSINESS/307180002/Hospital-merger-limits-medical-options-Catholic-rules-will-bar-tubal-ligations-University-hospital

http://www.whas11.com/home/132013243.html

Pew Research Center: Rights of Conscience vs Civil Rights

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1612/legal-conflict-between-religious-beliefs-and-antidiscrimination-protections-in-health-care

The Bible and Gender Equality

http://www.stopthereligiousright.org/suffrage.htm

EDIT (I thought to add these after a discussion on a previous thread): If you think it is ok to have a religious recital at public schools, you should watch these videos regarding the Smalkowski case. I cannot help but see it as the height of religious privilege, indeed Christian privilege, to think that it is ok to have a bit of religious ritual in a public school when it divides up the students in this way. There is prejudice against atheists in a lot of places, and it is not nice to be outed as the only atheist in school in a small conservative town.

Kicked out of school for refusing to join prayer circle:

The Price of Atheism (ABC 20/20 Interview with Nicole Smalkowski)
Pay attention around 3:14 and especially at 7:20 on.

How to Respond to “Merry Christmas” as an atheist

Not sure where this picture came from originally (I think I know the site actually but I can’t remember what it’s called). This was shared by New York Atheists on their Facebook page, and I could not resist passing it on.  It describes my sentiments exactly!

Merry Christmas!

“Are Christians Losing Rights in America?” Part 2

As promised, Warrioress has provided a list of examples of Christian rights being eroded in the United States at Erosion of Religious Rights in America. Starting with a long list of cases that the ACLU has presented in court on behalf a Christian plaintiff. That list can be found here: ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression.

The warrioress surprised me a bit here, because most conservative Christians I talk to totally despise the ACLU, which is a secularist organization and strong upholder of the separation between church and state. Several of the higher profile cases they take on are actually to defend non-Christians against Christians. For this reason they make a huge point on their website to prove they are not anti-religion, by posting such lists as the one I posted above. The ACLU, which I usually agree with and to which I give a monthly donation, has shown a track record of defending the rights of US citizens of every religion.

In light of all this, I can only see this long list of Christian lawsuits upheld by the ACLU as legitimate Christian (and other religious) rights upheld in the secular court of law, not eroded. So the bulk of her own examples belies the point she was trying to make.

The next example is of a Campus Crusade for Christ group that had difficulty getting approval to organize a group on their campus.

They denied Campus Crusade status as a student group, citing concerns about the group’s leadership, their views on homosexuality and the negative connotations of the word “Crusade.” As a result, student government said that Mark and others with Campus Crusade couldn’t advertise, seek membership, have an office or hold meetings on campus.

source: http://www.ccci.org/ministries-and-locations/ministries/campus-ministry/religious-freedom-attacked.htm

For all I know, this may very well be a legitimate case of discrimination, though a couple of red flags pop out at me. Later in the article it reads:

Across the country, there has been increased pressure on college campuses to quiet Christians about their beliefs. The challenges come on many fronts — restrictions on evangelism, “speech codes” (rules about what to say about sensitive topics like religion or sexual orientation), and about the teaching of evolution as the only acceptable view in science classes.

Which makes me wonder…were they really being blocked from creating an organization because they were harassing fellow students (“restrictions on evangelism”?), and discriminating against homosexuals for membership (which is easily against school policies)? Like I said, it’s possible that this could be religious discrimination, but I’d need to see the school official’s side of the story before making any judgement.

The other college example clearly had the group violating the anti-discrimination policy towards homosexuals. Apparently many colleges don’t consider discrimination based on sexual orientation to be a religious right.
http://www.theblaze.com/stories/is-vanderbilt-university-denying-religious-freedom-to-christian-groups-on-campus/

And even if these are examples legitimate discrimination, would it really be a sign of a larger erosion of Christian rights? After all, just about every college campus in the country has Christian and other religious student groups. But there has also been an amazing surge of atheist and freethought student groups in the past few years, both in high school and in college, yet many of them face severe obstacles in getting the official recognition of their schools for no apparent reason other than their being atheists. The Secular Student Alliance does a great work in getting atheist campus groups started, and helping them when they face the typical obstacles. Many of these stories are not posted online in order to protect the privacy of the students involved, but this summary of the purpose of the SSA states exactly why we need secular clubs to assure that non-theistic students have their rights protected just the same as the religious students.

Here is a specific example I found from earlier this year in a very quick Google search. Southern Illinois University Rejects Atheist Student Group… Then Quickly Backtracks. And there are plenty more where that came from.

Christian rights are not being undermined in this country. They have been losing their accustomed privileges, such as the ability to discriminate against others based on sexual orientation without consequence, as shown above. And when their rights really are being stepped on, they will be defended in the court of law even by a secular organization like the ACLU.

(There was also one other example given, of the guy who was denied a post at the University of Kentucky in part because of his creationist views, but not because he is a Christian. There is a lot to that one, and that was a case I followed as it was unfolding, and it will take up a whole post of it’s own. And I need a break after writing this one, so I will address it later if needed. )

Are Christians Losing Rights in America?

I am in the midst of a very interesting comment conversation at life of a female bible warrioress over the intent of the Founding Fathers regarding the meaning of “Separation of Church and State” and whether or not Christian rights are being eroded in America due to the influence of secularists and atheists. Warrioress has offered to provide some specific examples of Christians being denied their rights. I am skeptical that she will find much of anything that is actual persecution as opposed to the removal of accustomed privilege. And I have a feeling that the examples she gives will be nothing compared to what atheists face in America. But I am trying to be open-minded about it. And curious.

Come and join the conversation if you like @ One Nation Under God.

The conversation continues here: “Are Christians Losing Rights in America?” Part 2

Why I am an Atheist: Christianity’s Dubious History

Like most children brought up in the Christian religion, I was taught that the Bible, at least certain portions of the Bible, was historically accurate in every detail. The first chapter of Genesis might be open to poetic interpretation, but everything from Adam and Eve on was to be taken at historical face-value. The battles, miracles, and exiles of the Old Testament, totally historical. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were historical biographical sketches of Jesus from four different points of view. My upbringing was not one that demanded literal belief of every word, but we came pretty close to that ideal pretty much of the time. To me as a teenager, even if I saw no other confirmation that Christian belief was true, I was certain that the Bible was a solid foundation that would bolster my belief even though the stormiest trials of faith.

Then I learned a bit about the history of the Christian church, including that of the Bible. After about two decades of Sunday School instruction, what I learned was deeply unsetting.The most disturbing thing I found out was that there were many different sects of Christianity from the beginning, and the differences between them made the most volatile disagreement between modern denominations look piddly. In fact, for a couple of centuries after Jesus was said to have lived and died, they could not even agree on who he was. Let me say that again…for about the first two centuries, different sects of Christianity could not agree on who Jesus was exactly or what his true nature was. Seriously. (Most of these differences are now called heresies, and I found the way they were determined to be heresies and how the “heretics” were dealt with to be just as troubling as their disagreements.)

Some believed that Jesus was born in the normal way, was adopted with God’s spirit at baptism, and then was abandoned by God’s spirit before he died (since God cannot die, of course). Some thought he was a special prophet of God, but totally separate from God in being. Others thought he was totally a spiritual being and not really human at all! Didn’t Jesus clearly reveal what his nature was when he was on earth? How could there be such discord on this very important point among the early Christians so very soon after they had met him in the flesh (don’t forget some didn’t even think he HAD flesh)? And if there was so much confusion back then, how are we supposed know what to believe today?

Actually, a unified Christian view of the nature of Jesus was not nailed down (no pun intended) until about 325 CE, with the Nicene Council. By this time, some of the Christians had gained some clout with the Roman government. It was declared church dogma that Jesus was “one substance” with “God the Father” and was therefore 100% God and 100% man at the same time. All who taught otherwise were persecuted or killed as heretics, and their books were burned. In other words, the winning view did not win because it had evidence on its side, but because it had the power to censor and destroy opposing ideas on its side. With the full approval of God’s Holy Spirit of course, if you take the council leaders at their word. How someone would go about confirming this with the Holy Spirit is not exactly clear. Also suspect to me was the idea that it was of utmost importance that everyone believe exactly the same way…where was the idea of religious tolerance in those days?

Consider the time frames here as well. Assuming Jesus lived from about year 0 to 30 CE (give or take a few years) and the orthodox view of Jesus was officially decided in 325 CE, that means the church didn’t come up with a unified belief about the nature of Jesus until 300 years later! Is this not like a group of people who claim authority in historical matters getting together to decide on some nuance about the American Revolution, and then declaring that if anyone henceforth questions their pronouncement, that person shall be declared a heretic and their research burned?

There is a lot more to the the dubious nature of Christian history, but this early disagreement over the nature of Jesus is the one I found the most worrying when I learned about it. If Jesus so clearly revealed himself to his disciples, who then immediately passed his teachings on to the rest of the world, how could there be such confusion and disagreement over who he even was or whether or not he even had a physical body? And what about Paul, from whom the modern church gets the bulk of its theology? He never even met Jesus, but claims (and we have the collaboration of his servants to back him up) to have had a vision. Consider this is in light of the his severe disagreements with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, who had supposedly had personal ties with Jesus himself. There are also known forgeries and serious inconsistencies in the biblical manuscripts themselves, and the inconvenient fact that we have no idea who wrote any of the Gospels (they were written anonymously, decades after the events they claim to describe). It goes on and on.

Small caveat: I am not a historian myself, and no kind of authority on historical matters. I have only taken a couple of classes in Christian history and read a few books. If my blog post has piqued your curiosity and made you want to read more, then my goal has been accomplished. If you would like to read it from people who have actually done the research, I recommend the sources below.

Anything by Bart Ehrman, especially Misquoting Jesus regarding forgery in the New Testament, Lost Christianities regarding early Christian sects that are little known today, and Jesus, Interrupted. Click on his name for more information on the author and his books.

Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier. An earlier version of this work can also be found for free online at The Secular Web. See Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?

For a pretty quick read of the arguments that Jesus never existed as a historical character at all, see Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald.

To clarify the point on Christian persecution of so-called heretics, is this passage from the Wikipedia article on Christian Heresy. According to this, the Christians who deemed themselves “orthodox” were not able to really persecute the heretics immediately after the Nicene Council, but they did so when they gained the power.

The first known usage of the term ‘heresy’ in a civil legal context was in 380 AD by the “Edict of Thessalonica” of Theodosius I. Prior to the issuance of this edict, the Church had no state sponsored support for any particular legal mechanism to counter what it perceived as ‘heresy’. By this edict, in some senses, the line between the Catholic Church’s spiritual authority and the Roman State’s jurisdiction was blurred. One of the outcomes of this blurring of Church and State was a sharing of State powers of legal enforcement between Church and State authorities. At its most extreme reach, this new legal backing of the Church gave its leaders the power to, in effect, pronounce the death sentence upon those whom they might perceive to be ‘heretics’.

Within 5 years of the official ‘criminalization’ of heresy by the emperor, the first Christian heretic, Priscillian was executed in 385 by Roman officials. For some years after the Protestant Reformation, Protestant denominations were also known to execute those whom they considered as heretics. The last known heretic executed by sentence of the Roman Catholic Church was Cayetano Ripoll in 1826. The number of people executed as heretics under the authority of the various ‘church authorities’ is not known, however it most certainly numbers into the several thousands.

Christopher Hitchens: 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”
― Christopher Hitchens

I miss him already.