April 1, 2013 - 5:53 pm

As an Orthodox Jew growing up in Philadelphia, Passover was my favorite holiday because children were an integral part of the ceremony, and I got to sit at the Seder table with grownups. After the Seder leader hid the Afikomen (a piece of matzo) during the meal, the child who found it received a small prize. I always enjoyed sipping the ritual wine, while my mother voiced her concern that I would become an alcoholic. (I now think that Manischevitz wine would be an effective one-step program to prevent alcoholism.)

I especially looked forward to the Mah nishtanah…, the question asked by a child, which translates to “Why is this night different from all the other nights?” The scripted answers from the leader represent the substance of the Seder. Though I no longer believe the answers, the question reminds me of my favorite Passover joke:

“Because of his generous charitable contributions in England, Morris was to become the first Jew knighted by the queen. As part of the ceremony, Morris spent a great deal of time memorizing what he would have to say in Latin. But when the queen approached, Morris panicked and forgot the Latin passage. So he blurted out a familiar foreign phrase, ‘Mah nishtana halyla hazeh meecol halaylos?’ Surprised, the puzzled queen whispered to a member of her entourage, ‘Why is this knight different from all the other knights?’”

Before accepting Seder invitations, I always make clear to the host that I am an atheist. I believe the traditional Passover story to be both fictional and horrible. Here’s why: There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Moses existed, that Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or that they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And that’s the good news. I find the Passover story of the Exodus is horribly inhumane: An insecure and sadistic God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why? So God could respond by bringing 10 plagues to Egypt, which culminated in killing innocent first-born Egyptian sons (but passing over Jewish households). Now and forever, we Jews are to thank God every Passover for creating plagues to benefit his “chosen” people.


Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

March 19, 2013 - 10:48 pm

I had been trying to persuade bestselling author Richard Dawkins to give a talk in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina for a long time, so I was thrilled when he agreed to speak at the College of Charleston on March 9. But instead of giving a typical lecture, he suggested a format I liked even more: having an amicable conversation with him over a glass of wine on stage.

Local organizations sponsoring the event included the College of Charleston Departments of Biology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies; the Secular Students of Charleston; and the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Anticipating a big audience, I reserved the College’s largest auditorium, which seats 500.

Local reporters were eager to interview Dr. Dawkins by phone and to write about him before he arrived. However, I was once again struck by how frequently articles about atheists include comments from ministers, as this nice piece about Dawkins reveals. I hasten to say I’m pleased that positive voices on atheism are finally getting coverage, even if they are invariably countered by opposing voices. I wonder how long it will be until articles about religious leaders include any comments by atheists.

As local and regional enthusiasm grew about Dawkins’ appearance, we began to worry that the auditorium might not suffice, so we reserved two overflow rooms with a capacity of 100 each. Fortunately, the event could be streamed to those rooms.

As it turned out, we had vastly underestimated the public’s interest in Dawkins. The event was to begin at 7 p.m., but by 5:30 the auditorium was filled, and by 6:00 both rooms had overflowed. We then opened a third room, with the same result, leaving many sitting or standing in the aisles. Finally, we even allowed people to sit on the stage floor, just a few feet away from where Dr. Dawkins and I would be conversing. Although we managed to accommodate about 1200, at least a couple hundred had to be turned away. Fortunately, the event was videoed, and it should be on YouTube in a few weeks. Check the Richard Dawkins Foundation website for details.


Read remainder of article at the Washington Post's On Faith.

March 13, 2013 - 8:59 am

Tradition is important to the Catholic Church, but even the Church sometimes changes procedures when it becomes beneficial to do so. With that in mind, I propose blending the current method of choosing a pope with the method adopted by another venerable tradition that has been mostly scandal free. I speak, of course, of the Miss America Pageant.

Since the pageant began in 1945, there have been 92 Miss Americas chosen, but only 4 popes elected. The first Miss America, Bess Myerson, was a Jew as was Peter, considered by the Church to be the first Pope. And, of course, Jesus was also a Jew. Another interesting similarity is that throngs of adoring fans follow Miss America for as long as she reigns, just as adoring Catholics do the pope. There are Miss America protesters just as there are pope protestors, but both have learned to handle protesters by disarming them with a smile and a hand wave.

So here is my proposed procedure for electing future popes.

To maintain tradition, we allow the cardinals — to be explicit, I mean the Catholic prelates, not the baseball team — to narrow the pope vote down to ten candidates. Then we bring in a panel of non-cardinal and non-clerical judges for the real business of choosing the next pope.

Since papal attire is just as important and elaborate as Miss America attire, the ten finalist cardinals will parade in front of the judges wearing their traditional outrageous costumes. We absolutely want our next pope to look stylish in his uniform.

Then the ten finalists will display a papal talent. For example, one might perform an exorcism on stage. Another might bring out a bottle of wine and turn it into blood.


Read remainder of article at the Friendly Atheist.

March 5, 2013 - 11:59 am

Many atheists, myself included, are offended by what we view as unwarranted antagonism toward atheists. I’ve participated in a number of debates on topics like “Can we be moral without a belief in God?” In these debates, I try to change stereotypical opinions that atheists are inherently immoral and untrustworthy. It’s sad that debates like this even take place in the twenty-first century. It would be unthinkable to see a debate in this country on “Can a Jew be moral?” or “Can a Catholic be moral?”

For decades, Gallup has asked people if they would vote for a generally well-qualified person for president who happens to be Catholic, black, Jew, atheist, woman, Mormon, Muslim, or gay. While our country is becoming more tolerant toward all these groups, atheists remain consistently at the bottom of the approval list. The good news is that “only” 43 percent of those polled in 2012 said they would vote against an atheist, the first time the percentage has fallen below 50 percent.

We are fortunate that our secular Constitution makes no mention of any gods and guarantees freedom of religion.. Nevertheless, many politicians fail to understand that religious freedom includes the freedom not to believe. Why else would Joe Lieberman, who in 2,000 became the first Jewish vice presidential candidate on a major ticket, have the chutzpah to say during his campaign, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

But enough complaining. The political climate for atheists has improved, and will continue to improve. There will come a day when an open atheist can be elected president. Some might say that atheists are “blessed” to be living in the United States rather than in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. What these countries have in common is that atheists can face the death penalty for their critical thinking. Other Islamic countries, including Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Turkey, have also stepped up prosecution for “blasphemy” and for any criticism of religion. Some countries even ban atheism, and force their people to officially adopt a faith.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) recently highlighted the criminalization of atheism in many parts of the world. In a document submitted to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, the IHEU pointed out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties protect the freedom of conscience for everyone, including the right to reject any religion or belief and the right to openly criticize religion.

Read remainder of article at the Washington Post's On Faith.

February 22, 2013 - 11:57 am

I have faith that the pope reads my On Faith blogs because he followed my advice in a column in 2010. “Popes sometimes choose the name of a previous pope whose reign they wish to emulate. Whether coincidental or not, Pope Benedict XVI can take the same action as a morally challenged namesake. In 1045, Pope Benedict IX resigned.”

However, since the pope has never taken any of my other advice, perhaps I shouldn’t rely on faith to justify a conclusion devoid of evidence.

How much faith do I have that the next pope will be significantly better than the current one? Not much, because Benedict appointed more than 57 percent of the cardinals who will choose his successor. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic, but only because the papal improvement bar is set so low.

Why should I even care who the next very fallible pope is? Thanks to the HBO documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, and other revelations, the world is finally paying attention to pedophilia within the church, and the next pope won’t have as much cover-up freedom as previous popes.

If Catholics choose to be counseled about marital or sexual difficulties by celibate priests, that’s their right. But I’m amazed by a church that opposes both abortion and condom use that reduces the number of abortions; that requires celibacy before marriage, yet opposes masturbation, which makes it easier to remain celibate; that requires married women to be fruitful and multiply regardless of circumstances, but prevents church leaders from being fruitful and multiplying; that encourages monogamous marriage to avoid promiscuity, yet opposes monogamous marriage for committed gays.

I especially worry about an increasingly politically engaged Church that tries to impose its religious prohibitions (contraception, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc.) on non-Catholics. If a pope can ignore the evidence and argue that condom use increases the risk of AIDS spreading, I can argue against a church that is helping to spread a virus that infects the rest of the world, not just its faithful sheep. I wish Catholics would ignore the pontiff when he pontificates theologically, and even more so when he pontificates politically.

Read remainder of article at the Washington Post's On Faith.

February 13, 2013 - 5:42 pm

There are two types of people who sometimes object to participating in interfaith ceremonies: religious and irreligious.

First the religious. After the horrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the local clergy sponsored an ecumenical prayer service. While I don’t believe there is a deity who listens to prayers, I do understand the value of a community coming together publicly to mourn such a tragedy. One victim was a little girl who had recently joined Christ the King Lutheran Church. Its pastor, Robert Morris, gave the benediction. President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy attended.

Pastor Morris had made it clear that participants at the service did not necessarily endorse one another’s theological views. Nonetheless, up the Lutheran authority chain Pastor Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, reprimanded Morris for participating. Pastor Harrison said he feared such ecumenical activities might give the impression that it doesn’t matter who God is, how to worship Jesus, and what we need to do to get to heaven.

After the rebuke raised a public outcry, I was hoping to hear an apology, and there was one. Unfortunately, the apology did not come from President Harrison for having criticized Pastor Morris’s attempt to comfort grieving people who might have had different beliefs about an afterlife. The apology came from Pastor Morris, who humbly acknowledged that his participation was offensive to his church. He also promised never again to take part in such ecumenical activities.

Continue Reading at Washington Post's On Faith.

February 6, 2013 - 4:15 pm

February 12, 1809 must have seemed like an ordinary day to those alive at the time, but we now know it to be the birth day of two giants of humanity: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln ended slavery in the United States in the 19th century, and Darwin made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 19th century. The same types of people vilified both these great men, often for the same reasons.

Slaveholders had economic incentives to maintain their abominable institution, encouraged by the blessing of southern clergy and politicians who biblically justified the morality of human slavery. Rev. Richard Furman, from my hometown of Charleston, was the first president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and founder of the university that bears his name. Said Furman, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, added, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” Many northern progressive Christians were abolitionists, they would have lost handily in biblical debates against southern religious literalists.

Today Abraham Lincoln is revered for what he accomplished, and the humanist principle that it is morally wrong for one person to own another is commonly accepted.

Charles Darwin, on the other hand, is far from universally respected in the United States, where too many religious authorities still treat the Bible as a science book. We wouldn’t expect scientifically ignorant biblical writers who lived thousands of years ago in a small corner of the Mediterranean to have described the theory of evolution (or DNA, or any discovery of modern science), and they didn’t. What we do find in the Bible is a flat, unmoving Earth at the center of a 6,000 year-old universe, and the whole number three as the true value of pi [1 Kings 7:23]. The modern scientific theory of evolution conflicts with Genesis, and describes how natural selection can easily explain our existence without need for a divine creator.

Continue reading at Washington Post OnFaith >>

January 30, 2013 - 1:46 pm

Here's a better-late-than-never cheer to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for reconsidering its ban on gay scouts and leaders.

That's one small step for tolerance, but one giant leap for states' rights. The modified policy would, in effect, kick the can down the road to local sponsors, who could continue the abominable policy of deeming gay teenagers too "immoral" to participate in Boy Scout activities.

There is no similar step forward for atheists. This modified policy would still require local groups to discriminate against atheists, apparently because the Boy Scout Oath implies that an atheist can't be "morally straight" unless he can do his "duty to God."

Using this twisted logic, a number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Scouts for rejecting all supernatural beliefs. Among them was my friend Darrell Lambert, an Eagle Scout, who had been supported by his entire troop.

Cut to the military, which now allows gays and has always allowed atheists to serve openly and honorably. See, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. However, even atheists with an honorable discharge are not deemed fit to serve as Boy Scout leaders. This brings to mind Pat Tillman, who left an outstanding professional football career after the 9/11 attacks to volunteer as an Army Ranger. Had Pat survived, even he would have been excluded from Boy Scout leadership.

After several combat tours, Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, becoming a poster boy for the heroic activities of the military. Tillman's family was as honest as he, and worked diligently to uncover the Army's lies surrounding his death. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, under whom Tillman was serving at the time of his death, said about the Tillman family. "These people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs." He added, "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing and now he is no more... I do not know how an atheist thinks, I can only imagine that would be pretty tough."


Continue reading at Washington Post.

January 23, 2013 - 4:25 pm

At Monday’s moving inauguration ceremony, President Barack Obama repeated the constitutionally prescribed oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Like most but not all presidents before him, he also placed his hand on a Bible and recited the words “So help me God,” which is not constitutionally required. This atheist was, of course, disappointed but not surprised at the addition.

To understand how many atheists feel about this, consider substituting “Zeus” or “Shiva” or “Allah” for “God.” Like the other approximately twenty million non-religious Americans, I wish President Obama had taken his oath on the Constitution under which our nation is governed, rather than on a divisive sectarian book under which we are not governed-thanks be to Thor.

Inauguration festivities often send symbolic messages to the country, and I give two cheers to President Obama because he talked about treating people equally regardless of race, creed, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. I liked his message, but not the justification for it-which was God. What would we think if our president had said “Freedom is a gift from Odin” or we must preserve our planet because it is “commanded by Gaia, the goddess of the Earth?”

And despite the relative inclusiveness of this inaugural, Obama took a step back from his first inaugural address, during which he gave a token nod to atheists: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus-and non-believers.” At Monday’s inaugural, atheists and their millions of non-religious friends were as invisible as deities.


Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith >>

December 19, 2012 - 11:55 am

It is with a heavy (10.5-ounce) heart that I tell my millions of supporters I am ending my campaign to become the first acknowledged atheist to serve as a U.S. senator from South Carolina. While I didn’t hear from each of the 60 million people in this country without any god beliefs, I’ve heard from enough of them (and even some religious believers) to know how proud and surprised they would have been to see South Carolina take a leadership role in such political diversity. Their support helps justify my eight-year legal challenge that ended with a 1997 South Carolina Supreme Court victory nullifying the anti-atheist clause in our Constitution. This battle forms the centerpiece of my recent book, “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, left, speaks during a news conference as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Jim DeMint look on at the Statehouse on Dec. 17, 2012. (AP)
Special thanks go to the over 3,700 people who voted for me in the straw poll conducted by the Charleston City Paper. That’s a whopping 85 percent of the votes cast, which shows an increasing awareness and political engagement by secular Americans. Charleston native Stephen Colbert, who announced his candidacy on national television, finished second in this poll. As a huge fan of Colbert, I took great pleasure in highlighting his appearance at the College of Charleston and by voting for Herman Cain in the Republican primary because Colbert had endorsed him.

Before Gov. Nikki Haley made her disappointing choice, there was a plan for the top two vote getters in the Charleston City Paper straw poll (Colbert and me) to engage in a senatorial debate on Colbert’s TV show. Regrettably, I was the only one with such a plan. Colbert didn’t come right out and admit it, but he apparently chose to duck the debate because he knew he would have had little chance of winning. Here is how I would have framed my senatorial case on his show:

Al Franken and Stephen Colbert are among my favorite comedians. Franken, however, mysteriously lost his sense of humor after becoming a U.S. Senator, and he hasn’t been heard from since. Our country cannot afford to take such a risk with a national treasure like Stephen Colbert, so he needs to stay where he is. As Senator, I promise not to fall off the humor cliff—as most politicians do. I will report to my constituents every week on C-SPAN television about the many weird things I see and hear from members of Congress. I might not be as funny as Stephen Colbert, but the C-SPAN humor bar is set so low that even a mathematician like me can clear it with ease. Finally, I hope to start a much-needed trend toward shorter political speeches by dropping the standard cliché ending, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”

During my campaign, I was thrilled to receive the endorsement of Richard Dawkins, renowned evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion.” Haley, however, was more impressed by an endorsement from Jim DeMint, so she appointed Tim Scott to the position. DeMint, as senator, wanted public school students to be taught that God created this earth and that He put Christians in charge of America.

Read remainder of article at the Washington Post.


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