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.

Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith >>

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.

July 11, 2013 - 10:31 am

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. That’s why I feel less comfortable criticizing Catholicism than Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised. Occasionally, though, I just can’t help myself. In my defense, some of my best friends are Catholics (actually just one—a guy named Tony). But many of my best friends are ex-Catholics, including my wife.

Which brings me to sainthood. Because I prefer behavior to belief and life to death, I recently criticized Catholic doctrines that make martyrdom an easier path to sainthood than good works. But part of me wishes Congress were as willing to craft political compromises as Pope Francis, who approved making Popes John Paul II and John XXIII simultaneous saints. The first is a conservative and the second a liberal. (I’m grading on a curve here because “liberal pope” seems like an oxymoron.)

Pope Francis has been so anxious to elevate both that he put John Paul II on the fast track to sainthood and waved a second miracle for John XXIII. As I understand sainthood, you must first be dead and in heaven. You must then perform miracles, usually by answering a live person’s prayer for assistance in a desperate situation. “Proof” of such miracles is frequently a medical cure that the Vatican has found to be instantaneous and without scientific explanation. Prayers to win the lottery don’t count, despite overcoming greater odds, one would think, than inexplicable medical cures. If there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the chutzpah of one man (the pope) declaring someone to be in heaven.

It would make more sense to me if sainthood were simply a lifetime achievement award for good works, reserved for those whose character others are invited to emulate. But good works are downgraded when miracles play a key role.

The Catholic Church is known to move slowly. For example, it wasn’t until he had been dead for 350 years that the Vatican admitted Galileo had been right after all about the earth orbiting the sun. Even if I believed in sainthood, I would prefer that the church take its time to declare saints. A long waiting period allows for a legacy to endure or for scandals to emerge. How many of the thousands of official saints would stand up to careful scrutiny today?

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith >>

July 3, 2013 - 2:45 pm

When I was six, I began Hebrew School as an Orthodox Jew because that’s what my family was and that’s the kind of synagogue I attended. At age 11, I started thinking seriously about the concept of God and soon became an Orthodox Jewish atheist, although I could not have used the word “atheist” to describe myself because I didn’t know what “atheist” meant (a person without a belief in any gods). Nonetheless, I felt comfortable participating in Orthodox rituals for a couple more years, mostly because I was a good student who could read Hebrew faster than the other boys. There are satirical movies (like Keeping up with the Steins) about families who compete to throw the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvahs, but mine was simple and inexpensive. However, I won my invented “competition” of reading the complete Torah portion for the week with fewer mistakes than others in our congregation at their bar mitzvahs.

Our congregation considered the Jews at a nearby Reform synagogue to be almost as bad as the Goyim (Gentiles) because they not only failed to observe many of the Jewish rituals, but also conducted their services in English instead of Hebrew. Had I understood the English version of all my ritual Hebrew prayers, I’d undoubtedly have become an atheist even sooner. Eventually I stopped performing the rituals and moved from being an Orthodox Jewish atheist to just a Jewish atheist, without passing through Conservative or Reform branches.

Now when I give public talks, I’m invariably asked how a person can be both Jewish and an atheist. But “Jewish atheist” is not an oxymoron, as indicated by the subtitle of my book, “Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.” Since Jewish law is based on matrilineal decent, even Orthodox Jews consider an atheist born to a Jewish mother as fully Jewish. Consequently, one can be a religious, cultural, or ethnic Jew.

Within traditional Judaism, there is little interest in what one believes compared to what one does. Fixed prayers are standardized and required for the entire Jewish community, regardless of God belief. Saying these community prayers is not assumed to be an individual declaration of faith. There are 613 Torah commandments, and Orthodox Jews try to follow as many as possible. Some, like performing a ritual animal sacrifice at a temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists, are impossible. A commandment to believe in God is also impossible because people can’t will themselves to believe something they have solid reasons for not believing.

Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

June 25, 2013 - 1:31 am

There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those who could not. I joined the small first category in 1958, at sixteen, after fortuitously discovering Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian." That single book was the complete atheist wing of my local public library.

I didn't know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn't know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many "nots" as I was, and brave enough to say so.  Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.

Today there are countless "nonspiritual" heirs to Bertrand Russell. Many teens who consider themselves religious fundamentalists have heard about or even read best-selling books like "The God Delusion," "God is Not Great," "The End of Faith," "Breaking the Spell," and "The Demon-Haunted World."  Conservative religionists might believe that Satan inspired these and other such authors, but godless views are gaining traction in our culture. (Note to fundamentalists: Is Satan winning?) I agree that God is both a delusion and not great, and that it would be nice if we could bring an end to faith by breaking the spell of a demon-haunted world. But in-your-face books aren't always the most effective ways to change minds or activate atheists.

There aren't many atheist evangelists to take on that challenge. In fact, most of them rarely discuss their atheism because it's not a big issue in their lives. I had long been an apathetic atheist, and turned into an accidental activist atheist only when I saw how the religious right had become politically influential and was impacting my life. I still fear for our country when politicians base decisions more on theocratic than on secular values.

Religions have long known how to organize communities. For a long time, atheists were so proud of their independent thinking that the idea of bringing atheists together seemed like trying to herd cats. It's much easier to herd religious sheep, as in "The Lord is my Shepherd." But the times they are a changing. Atheists have seen the light, so to speak, and now lots of atheist and humanist communities exist locally and nationally. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America counts eleven national nontheistic organizations as members.


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June 19, 2013 - 9:37 am

I could not have had a more patriotic beginning. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. My first public speech was at a fourth grade Flag Day ceremony. I had been chosen to read my essay, “What the American Flag Means to Me.” I wrote about looking at the flag when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at major league baseball games, hoping I would one day be a player on that field. I’m pretty sure my essay was picked because I happened to mention Flag Day was my birthday. Or maybe the other essays were even worse.

My views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years. The anniversary of my birth has become a day when opportunistic politicians periodically attempt to take away freedoms for which our flag is supposed to stand. On my twelfth birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this 1954 Flag Day ceremony, perhaps because the Constitution, which is dedicated to “We the People,” prohibits religious tests for public office and makes no mention of any almighties. This melding of God and country, turning a secular pledge into a religious one, only resulted in my feeling less patriotic when I no longer believed we were under any gods.

The Pledge is not simply a passive reference to religion. It calls on every child in public school to affirm that our country believes in God. No child should go to school each day and have the class declare that her religious beliefs are wrong in an exercise that portrays her family as less patriotic than God-believers.

We once had a fine pledge written in 1892, slightly modified in 1923, and recited without controversy for decades. So why in 1954 were the words “under God” added? Almost certainly because it was the time of the shameful McCarthy era, when pandering or fearful politicians wanted to distinguish themselves from the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union by creating a holy Cold War. Of course, a government that feels entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under God can also feel entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under no gods, as the Soviet Union did. Clearly, our secular government began, and must remain, neutral about religion.

Continue reading at the Washington Post.

June 12, 2013 - 2:27 pm

Recently, I wrote about a Democratic Representative of Congress who used biblical arguments for doing something about global warming to counter a Republican Representative’s biblical arguments for doing nothing about global warming. I advocated for evidence-based decisions rather than faith-based decisions, which put me on the do-something side.

Now we have a Republican who used biblical arguments against food stamps to counter Democrats who used biblical arguments for food stamps. During a meeting of the House Agricultural Committee, Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher quoted from Matthew and Thessalonians that the poor will always be with us and that those unwilling to work shall not eat. Fincher acknowledged that caring for the hungry might be something for Christians to do, but not with government money. While I strongly support separation of church and state, I think that’s a rather bizarre framing of the concept. Private support for the least among us can be for religious or secular reasons, but I hope we will never have a government that ignores the least among us.

Unfortunately, biblical arguments have become so commonplace in politics that they are hardly worth noting. This one, however, has an added dimension. Although Fincher complained about Washington stealing taxpayer money from some and giving it to others, he had no problem with Washington giving him $3.48 million of taxpayer dollars since 1999 for farm subsidies. Last year he reportedly received over $70,000, which I assume he needed more than those low-income people he wants to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It’s easy for powerful members of Congress to help themselves to such largess and justify it biblically with “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not really in the Bible, but no matter. It sounds like it could be, and that’s good enough. If Rep. Fincher were to read his Bible carefully, he might find a word or two about hypocrites.

Interdisciplinary courses, especially those that can lead to good jobs, are popular at colleges and universities. So I propose one that combines political science with religious studies. The course would have four components:

Choose about a dozen hot political issues such as taxes, healthcare, education, science, environment, gay rights, women’s rights, homeland security, immigration, war, foreign aid, religious freedom, church/state separation, climate change, gun control, capital punishment, drugs, etc.

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith.

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