November 5, 2013 - 4:55 pm

When I visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1987, and again last month, I saw evidence of many Christian missionaries along with some of the fruits of their labor (both sweet and sour, depending on your point of view). PNG is now one of the most Christian countries in the world. More than 96 percent of its citizens identify as Christian, with Catholicism the largest denomination at 27 percent. Here are some of my PNG observations, then and now.

Then:  I first went to PNG for six months as a visiting professor of mathematics at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby, the country's capital and largest city. While in the country, I only traveled outside of Port Moresby to give math talks at universities in Goroka and Lae.

About 800 languages were and still are spoken in PNG, reflecting the isolation of its many tribes. In the 1930s, Australian explorers discovered the Highlands of PNG, home to roughly one million people who had never before encountered Caucasians. In a video I saw of this first contact, one PNG woman said they thought white men were gods, until they had sex with them.

Not only were most students at UPNG the first in their family to go to college, they were the first to leave their tribes. In the tribal "payback" system, if someone from Tribe A is harmed by a member from Tribe B, then members from Tribe A can take revenge against any member from Tribe B. Part of my mission was to inform students that UPNG was a payback-free zone.

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October 15, 2013 - 11:52 am

What do Christian fundamentalists and many atheists have in common?  Both read the Bible as if it were meant to be taken literally, and both quote selected passages to buttress their case. Some atheists, for instance, cite biblical passages that justify stoning for heresy, blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, working on Sabbath, worshipping graven images, and practicing sorcery.

While atheists might attack or make fun of the Bible because of biblical literalists, it is important to distinguish between the quality of a book and the behavior of its adherents. For better or worse, the Bible and the many religions it spawned have deeply influenced our culture and the world. For that reason alone, the Bible is worth reading. Although atheists rank highest in religious knowledge, atheists should try to understand why so many love the Bible even if they haven't actually read it.

Some atheists make the same mistake as theists, treating the Bible as either all good or all bad. While it contains many boring, anachronistic, contradictory, and repetitive sections, it also has passages with rich and diverse meanings. The same can be said for Greek mythology-fictional tales that were once considered religious texts.

As a child, I enjoyed reading Aesop's fables and biblical stories. Both have talking animals, along with moral lessons and universal truths. Leaving aside the question of which imparts better advice (though no Bible story was as consequential for me as Aesop's "The boy who cried wolf"), at least Aesop's stories are recognized as fables.

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October 7, 2013 - 11:46 am

Many atheists and humanists have mixed feelings when someone compliments one of our good deeds by saying "That's a Christian thing to do." We know they mean well, but they falsely equate goodness with Christianity. Consequently, and because of Pope Francis' recent remarks, I'm tempted to compliment him with "That's an atheist thing to do."

In an interview with an Italian atheist, Pope Francis said "proselytism is solemn nonsense" and that we should listen to and get to know each other, expand our circle of ideas, and improve our knowledge of the world. He added that we should encourage people to move toward what they think is Good (he did not say God!). Pope Francis referred to heads of the Church as "narcissists," and that he will do everything he can to change a Vatican-centric view that neglects the world around us. He even called himself "anti-clerical," and said "clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity." This sounds as if he might be encouraging people to question Church dogma and then do what they think is right. That really is an atheist thing to do.

In a recent piece, I said "Pope Francis may be as good as it gets, but the Catholic Church just doesn't allow popes to get that good." I hope I was wrong. Perhaps Pope Francis will have the freedom and desire to make not just stylistic and rhetorical changes, but substantive changes as well.

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October 1, 2013 - 4:14 pm

Although I'm an atheist, I almost always vote for a Christian, not because I'm impressed by their declared God beliefs, but because I usually have no other choice - unless I vote for a third party or write-in candidate who has no chance of winning, and even they are probably religious believers. Nonetheless, in reality, closeted atheists have received hundreds of thousands of votes from constituents who probably didn't know they were voting for an atheist.

The good news for atheists, agnostics, and humanists is the creation of the Freethought Equality Fund, a new Political Action Committee (PAC) dedicated to expanding voters' choices by backing the candidacy of open nontheists to public office. It is the first such PAC with a paid staff. (Full Disclosure:  I'm an unpaid advisory board member of the Freethought Equality Fund.)

Launched by the American Humanist Association's Center for Humanist Activism, the Freethought Equality Fund will support candidates who share our goals of protecting the separation of church and state and defending the civil liberties of secular Americans. And it will probably also support some theists and "closeted" atheists who advocate for our causes.

But wait, there's more. In the future, the Secular Coalition for America will form its own PAC, and other freethought groups are also considering similar political engagement.

Why now? I first heard talk of PACs like this some 20 years ago, but back then politicians would not want to be branded with the stigma of accepting money from "godless" Americans. However, to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin.'

More than 20 percent of Americans now claim no religious identity, and the percentage is even higher among young people. Nonreligious Americans are one of the largest minorities in the United States, but you'd never know it because they have lacked political power. However, atheist and humanist communities are now better organized and more cooperative, and the new Freethought Equality Fund hopes to provide candidates who are good without a god the opportunity to make their voices heard.

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September 23, 2013 - 3:21 pm

Nobody can accuse the Catholic Church of being democratic, but as an atheist I’ll paraphrase Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy: Pope Francis is the worst pope we ever had, except for all the others. I’m no papal historian, but I’m pressed to think of a less bad pope. True, I have nothing bad to say about Pope John Paul I, perhaps because he was pope for only 33 days.

Although Pope Benedict XVI unified atheists whenever he made pronouncements on atheists, gays, pedophilia, and all matters sexual, his successor, Pope Francis, is a divider rather than a uniter within the atheist community. Some atheists see this pope glass as 1/10 full, while others see it as 9/10 empty.

For instance, what are we to make of this statement from Pope Francis? “God’s mercy does not have limits and therefore it reaches nonbelievers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God, but rather, failure to obey one’s conscience.” Pope Francis added that God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith, as long as they follow their own conscience.

I like the pope’s emphasis on conscience, though I neither want nor need forgiveness for not believing in a nonexistent deity. I doubt that the pope would appreciate someone telling him, “Zeus will forgive you for not believing in him as long as you follow your conscience.” Following one’s conscience instead of a religious “authority” is exactly what atheists and humanists do. We are also guided by reason, empathy, and a growing knowledge of the world to help live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good. No need for gods and other supernatural forces.

Promoting conscience must make a lot of conservative Christians squirm. Is the pope saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus as long as you are a good person? Not quite, but he comes closer to that position than any pope in my memory. I’d say the difference between conservative and liberal Christians is that conservatives place belief above behavior and view this life as preparation for an afterlife, while liberals place behavior above belief and focus on improving the human condition.

The issue for me is not just how much of Catholic theology this or that pope believes, but which parts he emphasizes and which parts he mostly ignores. Pope Francis is concentrating more on peace, poverty and social justice than on abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He even gave a limited shout-out to gays, asking “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” But he conditions his benevolence on a search for the Lord.

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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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