September 17, 2013 - 12:34 pm

As a baseball-loving elementary school student in the early 1950s, two apparently unrelated changes became part of my daily life. The Cincinnati Reds transformed into the Cincinnati Redlegs, and the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Actually, they were related-to the fear of Communism then prevalent in the United States during the shameful McCarthy era.

Patriotism, at the time, was often displayed through symbolic gestures that distinguished us from the Soviet Union. Both the Cincinnati team and the Soviet Union were "Reds," and we didn't want anyone in 1953 to believe participants in our national pastime could be card-carrying members of the Communist Party. It's a wonder we didn't remove a color and give two cheers for a new version of "Old Glory" in just white and blue. By 1959 our national chromatic fears had diminished, so the team once again became the Cincinnati Reds, their original name when they joined the National League in 1890.

Besides being red, the Soviet Union was also godless. So in 1954 our politicians added "under God" to the "one nation, indivisible" Pledge of Allegiance, which was originally written in 1892, only two years after the Reds entered the National League. And thus we turned our unifying and inclusive secular pledge into a divisive and exclusive religious pledge that public school students were expected to recite every day.

Here my analogy ends. Professional baseball teams are private, and it's none of the government's business what a team calls itself. The Reds changed their name for a silly reason and wisely returned to their traditional name, but that was their choice. They can change their name to the "Under God Reds" if they want, though they would lose a lot of atheist fans. On the other hand, public schools are not private. The government funds public schools and it must not imply to students or their parents that the government favors one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

Recent court cases have argued that the pledge should be declared unconstitutional, and perhaps brought back to the traditional "one nation, indivisible" form. A lower court agreed with attorney Michael Newdow, bringing suit on behalf of his school-aged daughter, that the phrase "under God" in the pledge constitutes an endorsement of religion, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Newdow on procedural grounds, citing that he did not have custody of his daughter after a divorce and therefore didn't have the right to bring suit on her behalf.


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September 6, 2013 - 1:27 pm

Since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar, why would an atheist Jew like me note these high holidays? And I’m by no means unique. There are atheist Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox congregations. And the openly nontheistic Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates all the Jewish holidays.

Regardless of belief, there is a one-word reason why most Jews remember Jewish holidays—God. Without that concept, there would be no Jews. So I’m happy to credit God for the holidays, even if he/she/it doesn’t exist. I commemorate this time of year partly due to my Jewish tradition, but also because I want to help change that tradition into a more godless one.

There are two religious reasons for celebrating the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. One is bad, and the other is worse. Here’s the bad: Rosh Hashanah commemorates the scientifically indefensible anniversary of the creation of the world, 5,774 years ago. And here’s worse: It’s also the anniversary of Abraham agreeing to kill his son Isaac, as proof of his faith and obedience to God. This Torah portion in Genesis 22 is read every Rosh Hashanah.

That biblical passage also refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only son, which means his first-born son Ishmael doesn’t count. Why? Because Isaac’s mother, Sarah, was Jewish and Ishmael’s mother was merely Sarah’s gentile servent whom Sarah lent to Abraham when she thought she was barren. On the other hand, in Islamic tradition it is Ishmael and not Isaac who was to be sacrificed by Abraham. And Muhammad is believed to be a direct descendent of Ishmael.

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September 4, 2013 - 10:04 am

What should we make of a recent study that, like earlier ones, says atheists are more intelligent than religious believers? This latest is really a study of 63 individual studies, in which 53 showed less religiosity among the more intelligent participants. Hmmm. Most atheists, myself included, have a skeptical nature and want to delve deeper into such studies—even when they put us in a favorable light.

For instance, how was intelligence defined and measured? Intelligence was defined in this study as the capacity for analytical thought, problem solving, and the understanding of complex ideas. The studies, which included a life-long analysis of the beliefs of 1,500 gifted children with IQs over 135, showed fewer religious believers among the gifted than in the overall population. Additional studies corroborated that religiosity tends to decrease with increased educational level. For example, only 7 percent of the members in the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god.

You could argue that the studies might be flawed for a variety of reasons, which include ignoring emotional intelligence and other worthwhile qualities that can contribute to a high quality of life. However, religion aside, I think most people believe that scientists (and even mathematicians) are smart. The cliché, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” means you can do it even if you’re not that smart.

But I’d rather let others discuss the relationship between religiosity and intelligence.

I’m more interested in perceived character flaws of atheists, perhaps related to intelligence. Some atheists come across as arrogant and smug when they gratuitously criticize and even mock religious beliefs, occasionally quoting ludicrous biblical passages to those who don’t interpret the Bible literally. Yet I can make a case for ardent atheists being more humble and open to change than religious fundamentalists, illustrated by the T-shirt phrase: “Will Convert for Evidence.” Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, supported a bus ad campaign with the relatively humble slogan, “There’s probably no God.” I’ve yet to see a comparable religious ad that says “There’s probably a God.”


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August 26, 2013 - 2:40 pm

Most Americans, religious or not, agree on the importance of religious freedom as enshrined in the First Amendment, though they disagree about specifics. Should the government promote religion? Give special tax breaks to religion? Favor one religion over another? Favor religion over non-religion? My answers are no, no, no, and no, and also no to the claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

American interests often trump religious freedom abroad. Take our oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia, for example, probably the most theocratic country in the Middle East. Our government doesn't loudly protest Saudi Arabia's denial of basic human rights to women, as it imposes Islamic law on its citizens. Although 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, we attacked Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with it. We attacked Iraq because, well, I'm still not sure.

While I often don't know what we should do about complex foreign policy, I do know what we should not do either abroad or at home. We should not tell citizens or governments how to interpret holy books. Regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, I think we can all come up with many good reasons to condemn suicide bombings. Unfortunately, our government came up with a bad reason. Presumably after delving deeply into nuances in the Koran, our State Department pronounced recent Iraq suicide bombers to be "enemies of Islam."

There are interpretations of the Koran that justify suicide bombings, and interpretations that do not. There are interpretations of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles that justify killing infidels, and interpretations that do not. Did Jesus come to bring peace or a sword? In an attempt to ease troubles in Egypt, Pope Francis recently observed that faith and violence are incompatible. Not if you read a comprehensive history of religion.

I've heard debates between liberal and conservative Christians about whether homosexuality is natural or sinful. If I were judging based on their biblical arguments alone, I'd unfortunately have to decide that the winner is "sin."

We are a secular country with secular laws that apply to all citizens. Our religious freedom allows individuals to practice and promote any religion or no religion without government interference. We can encourage other countries (and our own) to support human rights for humanistic reasons, but not by interpreting holy books. If we play with religion cards, the theocrats will always find alternate interpretations.

While our support for religious freedom abroad might have limited resultants, we must remain vigilant at home. Sharia law may be a problem in some Islamic countries, but not a possibility in secular America. That hasn't stopped legislators, including some in my home state of South Carolina, from introducing bills to prevent Sharia law from being imposed on us. S.C. State Senator Mike Fair, a conservative Christian, introduced such a bill. His other bills have included mandating that sex education classes teach abstinence only, and that homosexual behavior is unnatural, unhealthy and illegal. An anti-evolutionist, he would also encourage public school teachers to critique evolution in their classrooms. Ironically, such bills sound a lot more like what you might expect from an Islamic country than a secular one. Fundamentalists in different religions have a lot in common, usually to the detriment of those who support religious freedom and diversity.

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August 19, 2013 - 10:06 am

I think I speak for many atheists who browse the religion section of bookstores, notice a portion of books set aside for religious fiction, and say to myself, "Isn't that redundant?"

Apparently authors can usually choose whether to call their books fiction or nonfiction. But we don't always know the author's true identity, as with most of the books contained in the Bible. We recognize that some of the biblical writers made up stories as motivation for people to believe or act in certain ways. Some composed nice poetry, some described events that likely occurred, and some wrote "just so" stories to explain what they didn't understand. I would classify nearly the entire Bible as fiction, especially the God stories. But since many believe the Bible to be factual, bookstores won't risk community outrage by filing it under "religious fiction."

I could write a nonfiction book about how I was abducted by aliens who took me on their spacecraft, showed me my past lives, and described my next life. I could write the same book and call it fiction. Were I to write such a book, I would reluctantly file it under fiction even though a gullible public would undoubtedly buy more of the nonfictional version.

This brings me to "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back," a book that climbed to the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2010, and will soon become a movie. On it has nearly 4,000 five-star reviews.

The book describes four-year-old Colton Burpo's account of his visit to heaven as he almost died on an operating table. The book was written by his father, a pastor, and with Sarah Palin's ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent. The most compelling "evidence" for Colton's heavenly experience is that he met a sister (from his mother's miscarriage) who his parents had never told him about. Do all fetuses go to heaven? Colton's sister in heaven looked a lot like his sister on earth.

Colton also met God, Jesus, and John the Baptist in heaven. God is a really big man. How big is he? He's big enough to hold the whole world in his hands, confirming the Sunday school song. Colton sat on Jesus's lap and observed his stigmata and sparkling blue eyes. Colton met his great-grandfather, who had wings. Colton had many more adventures in heaven during the brief time he was under anesthesia on earth. Kind of coincidental that Colton's stories about heaven mimic stories told to children by Christian adults.

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August 13, 2013 - 10:04 am

Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Muslim, but I now feel an affinity toward Muslims or, more accurately, toward one Muslim- Reza Aslan. Fox News personality Lauren Green unintentionally helped Aslan's book reach the top of bestseller lists when she repeatedly asked him why a Muslim would write about the "founder of Christianity." Aslan responded as a professional, mentioning his scholarly credentials and careful research that had helped him draw conclusions independent of his religious beliefs.

 I must confess that I have a fantasy of Fox News interviewing me about my book, during which Lauren Green substitutes "atheist" for "Muslim" to discredit anything I say about Jesus. And here's my snarky response: "Jesus was born and died a Jew, knowing nothing of Christianity. The Bible refers to him as ‘king of the Jews,' not ‘king of the Christians.' My vote for founder of Christianity goes to a Jew named Saul, who later became Paul. Perhaps my Jewish background makes me more qualified to talk about Jesus, a fellow Jew, than does someone like you with a Gentile background. Just as we're both skeptical when members of the American Nazi Party praise Adolph Hitler, shouldn't we also be skeptical when Christians make claims about an infallible Jesus while literally worshipping the ground he walked on? Of course I'm not comparing Christians to Nazis. I'm just asking whether we have reason to suspect such biased accounts."

My Jewish upbringing neither qualifies nor disqualifies me from writing about Jesus, Hitler, or anyone else. It's fair to ask how any author's background or beliefs might have influenced his or her writings, but the focus should be on whether the author justifies assertions made.

Students in secular colleges are often surprised to learn that courses on religion are not designed to strengthen their faith, since classes in a weekday school have different orientations than classes in a Sunday school.

Green probably spent a lot more time in Sunday school than in religious studies classes. Her bio from Fox News mentions her degree in piano performance, but nothing about scholarly religious credentials. Fox adds that she was Miss Minnesota in 1984 and third runner-up in the 1985 Miss America contest. Gretchen Carlson, another Fox News personality, seems to have followed in the same high heels as Loren Green. Carlson was Miss Minnesota in 1988 and went on to become Miss America.

Wait a minute. Am I doing to Green what she did to Aslan-focusing on background and beliefs in an attempt to discredit? After all, winning a beauty contest neither qualifies nor disqualifies anyone from pontificating about religion or interviewing religious scholars. Are my comments about Green even relevant to this discussion? As Fox News is fond of saying, "We report, you decide."


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August 5, 2013 - 1:19 pm

I've been married for many years, although not particularly enthusiastic about it-until now. Don't misunderstand. Sharon and I have had a loving, committed relationship for decades. But recent consciousness-raising arguments over same-sex marriage changed my overall opinion about marriage. You might even say that support for gay marriage became my personal DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act).

In 1999, after living happily together for 10 years, Sharon thought we should get married. I responded with a cliché, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I followed with counter-religious arguments like marriage is a religious tradition and we're atheists, or the purpose of marriage is to have children and we're too old. I quipped that religious conservatives were always ranting about the evils of  "living in sin," so I needed to promote the joys of sin. I also wanted to boycott heterosexual marriage until gays had the right to marry.

Sharon and I married on January 1, 2000 because she wanted us to get married more than I didn't, and I loved her and wished to please her. We had a nice secular ceremony at midnight in our home, with friends sharing our delicious Ben & Jerry ice cream wedding cake. My first-year anniversary present to Sharon was to tell her, "You know, being married isn't as bad as I thought it would be."

So why did same-sex marriage change me from marriage detractor to marriage supporter? I had naively assumed that gays wanted the right to marry for the same reason I became a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate without a prayer in 1990. I wanted to challenge our discriminatory state constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office, and I had no wild expectations of actually being elected and serving. But I soon learned that same-sex couples weren't simply advocating for marriage equality. Most couples (myself excluded) view marriage as a stronger and more loving commitment than just cohabiting. And a bonus for gays is becoming part of a new mainstream culture that has a broader definition of traditional marriage.

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July 31, 2013 - 12:19 pm

A recent blog in the London Guardian entitled “The six types of atheist” has created quite a stir among atheists. The six types are based on a study at the University of Tennessee. Curiosity has led many an atheist to consider if he or she really belongs to any of them. Please bear with me, as I explain why I’m not contradicting myself when I call the study both meaningless and constructive.

The so-called six types of atheist, listed here alphabetically, are: activist (vocal about issues), anti-theist (assertive and outspoken), intellectual (philosophical and scientific), non-theist (apathetic), ritual (enjoy culture and ceremony), and seeker (open to different views).

Even the authors acknowledge that separating atheists in this way is arbitrary, and atheists can fall into more than one category. Many atheists prefer different labels, including agnostic, humanist, and freethinker. Depending on context, I put myself in these as well as all six of the atheist categories.

Most of my life I was a non-theist because I didn’t much care about my atheism. I became an activist atheist after moving to South Carolina and learning that the state’s Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. I worked for eight years to change that unconstitutional provision. As a curious intellectual who questions all religions, you could call me both a seeker and an anti-theist because I have the audacity to challenge religious belief. I also appreciate some religious ritual through godless Humanistic Judaism.

My biggest disappointment about the study is that it left out the largest category: closeted atheists. They are the elephants in the room and the ones most likely to change the culture by coming out. However, many of them feel they have good reasons not to, including potential ostracism from family and friends as well as loss of income or employment. Another unmentioned category is what I call functional atheists, those who may or may not have vague supernatural beliefs that play no practical role in their lives. They live as if there is no god, just as all atheists do.

An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any deities. But disbelief in gods doesn’t describe individual atheists any more than disbelief in the divinity of Muhammad, Krishna, and Zeus describes individual Christians. Everybody disbelieves in some gods; atheists just disbelieve in more gods than theists do.

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July 24, 2013 - 11:29 pm

Former Christian evangelist turned-atheist Dan Barker has composed over 200 songs, and one of my favorites is "Nothing fails like prayer." Even so, I take some issue with the title because I can think of worse failures than prayer.

For instance, I'm pleased Exodus International has acknowledged that its "pray the gay away" campaign was an abysmal failure and that their "reparative therapy" patients have suffered psychological damage. However, looking at the bright side, praying was preferable to criminalizing homosexuality, which all 50 states did until 1962. And praying for homosexuals is certainly preferable to killing them, as prescribed in Leviticus 20:13.

George Washington likely would have lived longer had he requested prayer for his throat inflammation instead of bloodletting, a standard medical practice of his era. Usually performed by barbers, bloodletting was the most common medical practice until the late 19th century. The traditional red and white striped poles outside barbershops represented red for the blood drawn and white for the bandages used to soak up the blood.

Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science religion in 1879, initially attracted some reasonable followers because prayer usually worked better than bloodletting. She taught that the sick should be treated by a special form of prayer rather than by medicine. Eddy may have inadvertently adhered to the advice Hippocrates gave 2,400 years ago. He coined the phrase now repeated in the Hippocratic oath: "First do no harm." Doing nothing instead of doing harm is as valid today as it was then.

I think that prayer, at its best, serves as a placebo. People may improve because their expectation to do so is strong. Whatever your theology, there is power in positive thinking. Focusing on the half-full glass might put you in a better frame of mind to accomplish your objectives, but the placebo effect does have obvious limitations. Though doctors are fallible, we appreciate the enormous strides that have been made in medicine. Along with scientific advances comes the recognition that prayer alone is a harmful alternative decision for many maladies.

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith. 



July 15, 2013 - 2:14 pm

In a study of 137 countries, atheism was generally more widespread in those with well-developed welfare programs. I’m not surprised. Countries that provide universal health care and education, along with adequate social safety nets, are likely to have citizens who feel more secure and in control of their own lives. Atheism flourishes with economic satisfaction, while religion often thrives when people are undereducated and desperate.

Welfare battles in the U.S. usually focus on government social safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Conservatives complain that the government transfers their hard-earned tax money to people allegedly unwilling to work, and many claim we should leave it to the church rather than the state to assist the truly needy. So it’s no coincidence that our poorest states are mainly in the Bible Belt.

Most Americans will agree that work should be available for everyone, that we should encourage self-reliance, and that we should discourage potentially productive citizens from living entirely off government programs for their entire lives. But, as usual, the God is in the details.

Speaking of God, or the lack thereof, Israel is one of the most secular countries in the world and it provides significant welfare benefits to its citizens. So why do I and probably all other atheists think there is a major flaw in the Israeli welfare system? The problem started in 1949, when the first chief rabbi of Israel persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox students from military service so they could study full time in yeshivas. The rationale was that tens of thousands of students in Europe had been wiped out during the Holocaust, and some of the best surviving scholars should be released from military obligations and given financial assistance in order to continue their religious studies.

That temporary solution became permanent, and the original handful of full-time students grew to 60,000 in 2012. Even the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) acknowledge that not all are fine scholars, but they insist on continued military exemptions and generous taxpayer subsidies for all who wish to devote their lives to Torah study. As a consequence, graduates from these religious schools have received the equivalent of zero to four years of secular education, while secular work force participation among Haredi men is only about 40 percent. These Haredim currently make up about nine percent of the population, but may receive half the country’s total welfare payments. To make matters worse, the situation is rapidly becoming even more unsustainable because of astronomical fertility rates in these impoverished and ghettoized religious communities, while the more affluent Israeli secular Jews aren’t bound by a “be fruitful and multiply” theology.

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith.

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