December 20, 2011 - 11:16 am

Secular movement has never been identity-oriented

Ever notice that you almost never see the terms "equal rights" and "atheists" in the same sentence? Let me explain why.

Imagine a public high school with a serious discrimination problem, an institution with attitudes and practices about race, gender, and religion that are terribly outdated. Three students have decided they've had enough, and each sues to fight back against the unfair prejudice.

George, an African-American, has been excluded from the school's marching band because the band director is racist and will only let white kids participate. Lisa, an excellent math student, was denied membership in the school's math club because the teacher running the club feels that girls are naturally unfit for the field of mathematics. Tony, an atheist, is upset because his history teacher aggressively proselytizes Christianity, leading the class in a prayer each day and always encouraging the teens to "find Jesus."

As these three plaintiffs proceed through the courts to enforce their rights, we can learn much about the unique status of atheists in American society. George and Lisa, suing based on racial discrimination and gender discrimination respectively, will center their cases on basic principles of equal protection. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, no state or local government may deny citizens equal protection under law, and via this constitutional avenue minorities and women have successfully sought recourse against governmental discrimination.

Tony's case, however, will be much different. Tony will almost certainly base his lawsuit on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, arguing that the injection of religion into his classroom violates important church-state separation principles. The Establishment Clause approach, bypassing the equal protection arguments utilized by most minorities, is reflexively used by most aggrieved atheist-humanist litigants objecting to governmental religiosity. Though rarely questioned, this stategy of downplaying equality arguments in favor of the Establishment Clause has had far-reaching consequences.

When George brings his racial discrimination claim, nobody will ask him to justify his case by showing that the founding fathers would have supported the notion of racial equality. As we all know, many of the founders owned slaves, and the concept of full equality for African-Americans would have seemed preposterous to most of them. Similarly, nobody will ask Lisa to justify her lawsuit by showing that the framers would have supported equality for women, because of course in the late eighteenth century the idea of full rights for women would have been viewed as radical. Indeed, the concept of equal protection—providing recourse through the courts to protect minority groups from discrimination—is very much a modern notion.

Tony, however, in bringing his Establishment Clause claim, will almost certainly be asked to demonstrate that the founding fathers would view his claim favorably. When any plaintiff brings an Establishment Clause case, questions of "the intent of the founders" will inevitably arise. Parties will always be asked: What would Adams, Jefferson, and Madison think of this claim? Rarely raised, however, is the simple but important question of whether the governmental action discriminates against a minority group.

Read the remainder of the article here.

August 23, 2011 - 12:02 pm

In a Washington Post "On Faith" column a few days ago, Lisa Miller, a senior Newsweek religion writer, makes a rather puzzling argument, saying that concerns of secular progressives about the influence of conservative religion in presidential politics are overblown.

"Here we go again," she complains. "The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about 'crazy Christians.'"

Miller points to criticism of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann as evidence of these unfounded "fears on the left," implying that the critics are alarmist. This analysis, however, is demonstrably flawed, because it essentially asks us to ignore over three decades of history, to accept as "normal" the fact that major-party presidential contenders conduct themselves in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. If we raise concerns that Bachmann calls church-state separation "a myth," for example, Miller's response seems to be simple: Chill out. Be not afraid of evangelicals.

As a religion reporter, Miller has become so desensitized to the Religious Right that she has apparently become oblivious to the wrecking ball effect that it has had on American politics. To her, politics-as-usual apparently includes high-profile prayer festivals by presidential hopefuls, like Rick Perry's "Response" rally

Rational observers (and not just those on "the left") responded to such overt religious pandering with serious concern, but vocal criticism of Perry's political religiosity only seems to cause Miller to roll her eyes and quip, "Here we go again . . ."

The fact that Miller, responsible for religion coverage for a major national publication, doesn't seem to understand the big-picture significance of candidates exhibiting religion-based behavior and making religion-based statements that would have gotten them laughed off the political stage not very long ago, is a sign of just how far the Religious Right has dragged America from the realm of reason. We now routinely have candidates for the highest office who vocally deny evolution, resist efforts to address climate change, care about education only when the issues involve prayer or Intelligent Design, are hostile to the Environmental Protection Agency (which was created by Richard Nixon), and claim the moral high ground via a constant outward display of conservative religion.

None of this would have been remotely "mainstream" in either party before the Religious Right, but Miller nevertheless sees concerns about politically mobilized fundamentalist Christianity as an annoyance. It's easy to forget, as Miller apparently has, that entities such as the Congressional Prayer Caucus, now taken for granted as a powerful center of religious conservatism on Capitol Hill, did not even exist until just a few years ago. More and more, we see overt fundamentalist Christianity asserting itself in American public policy and, worst of all, being seen as normal. To secular citizens, this is a troubling development, made even worse by mainstream writers like Miller accusing us of overreacting.

Before the rise of the Religious Right, even the Republican Party had a significant faction that was basically libertarian on social issues, taking the position that "small government" meant a government that kept its nose out of its citizens' bedrooms and personal lives. Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, both major GOP national leaders, were prochoice on abortion, for example, and Goldwater was so disgusted by the religious fundamentalists who took over the party in the 1980s that he called them "a bunch of kooks."

Because that "bunch of kooks" grew in power, anti-intellectualism is now an exalted trait in American politics.

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June 28, 2011 - 12:37 pm

Moral dilemma. Suspense. Passion.

Infidelity. Jealousy. Retribution.

What more could you want from a summer film?

How about an atheist out on a ledge?

The Ledge, one of the most talked-about films of the summer, an intense story from writer-director Matthew Chapman (screenplay credits include Consenting Adults, The Color of Night, and Runaway Jury), opens July 8. With an all-star cast that includes Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Charlie Hunnam, the film is generating an extraordinary level of interest, partly because it breaks new demographic ground.

"The Ledge is the first Hollywood drama to target the broader movie-going public with an openly atheist hero in a production big enough to attract A-list stars," says Chapman, who happens to be the great-grandson of an A-list scientist, Charles Darwin.

A trailer of the film is available here. The compelling plot has Tyler married to a devout Christian (Wilson), but embarking on a passionate, illicit affair with Hunnam. Discovering the infidelity, Wilson eventually reverts to an unusual remedy that finds Hunnam standing out on a ledge high above a city street.

This would be a rivoting storyline even without the religion factor, but the philosophical issues surrounding an atheist contemplating suicide, cutting life short due to complexities and moral shortcomings by all of the main characters, brings Hollywood filmmaking to unchartered territory. What is he dying for? Is there no alternative? Is this justice?

Secularity is nothing new to show business, of course, but talking about it and making it a serious part of a mainstream film is.

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June 23, 2011 - 9:43 am

If ever you needed evidence of the Religious Right's impressive organization and zeal, take a look at the gross overreaction of the American Family Association to NBC's decision last weekend to run the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag" without the "under God" wording at the start of the U.S. Open golf tournament broadcast. Someone in the NBC chain of command decided to edit out those words, not just once but twice, although it's not clear whether the edit was done by mistake, for reasons of time limitations, or as some kind of religious-political statement.

Whatever the reason, NBC apologized during the U.S. Open broadcast, apparently having received complaints immediately after the edited Pledge was aired. So you might think that the whole issue would go away quickly.

Not so fast. Dissatisfied with the apology, the right-wing American Family Association issued an action alert to its members this week urging them to "demand an explanation" by bombarding NBC with phone calls and emails. The AFA even gives "talking points" to its members, advising them to tell NBC, "I am furious with NBC for leaving 'under God' out of the Pledge," that "NBC's on-air apology is completely unsatisfactory, because NBC did not admit which part of the Pledge has been removed," and that "I am calling to insist on an explanation from NBC for this grossly unpatriotic act."

Of course, since the "under God" wording was added to the Pledge in 1954 during the McCarthy era, and since the "under God" wording unnecessarily excludes millions of Americans who don't believe the nation is under a deity, one could argue that utilizing the God-free version of the Pledge is actually more patriotic. After all, the God-free version was used during the victorious First and Second World Wars.

More importantly, however, the AFA's religious bullying highlights the need for an organized, zealous Secular American demographic to counter the Religious Right's aggressive tactics.

Continue Reading (via Our Humanity, Naturally)

June 7, 2011 - 10:38 am

Last year on Flag Day (June 14) many secular Americans posted an interesting video on their Facebook profiles and elsewhere. The video, a 1939 clip of Porky Pig reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, is a great educational tool, because he recites the Pledge in its original version without any "under God" wording. See the Youtube video here:

Many Americans are unaware of the history of the Pledge. It was written in the 1890s, but the "under God" wording wasn't added until 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era, hardly a proud chapter of American history, after heavy lobbying by religious groups. Thus, the original (God-free) Pledge was used during the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War.

 

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May 31, 2011 - 2:27 pm

When it comes to prayer at public school graduation ceremonies, applicable constitutional law is very clear: school-sponsored prayers are simply not allowed. The issue was decided unambiguously by the United States Supreme Court in the 1992 case of Lee vs. Weisman, a decision wherein Justice Kennedy pointed out that school-sponsored prayers can be construed by some "to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy."

This of course is a basic question of church-state separation, but it also relates to freedom of conscience and equal rights for religious minorities. A graduation ceremony is a landmark event in life, Justice Kennedy said, and religious dissenters should not have to endure a religious exercise that they find objectionable as the price of participation.

Rather than respect the court's ruling, some conservative Christians have developed a strategy to disregard it. The mature, responsible way of mixing prayer with graduation, of course, would be to have local churches or religious groups conduct private prayer exercises that could take place before or after the graduation ceremony and be attended on a voluntary basis. But this is not adequate for some on the Religious Right, who feel that anything less than a public display of their faith, in full view of all members of the community, is an injustice.

Thus, to bypass the law, religious conservatives have begun hijacking graduation ceremonies via student speakers who launch into unscheduled prayers during their allotted speaking time. In this manner, the prayer is not technically "school-sponsored" but instead is conducted by a renegade student, and therefore the government (i.e. the school) can maintain "plausible deniability" in the face of allegations that it unlawfully inserted prayer into its ceremony.

This was done in Louisiana recently in response to a request by a student there to keep the ceremony secular, as required by law. Not only was the secular student, Damon Fowler, harassed, threatened, and ostracized for asking the school to respect the law by keeping prayer out of the graduation ceremony, but his class went ahead with the prayer anyway via the stealth tactic outlined above. A student was supposed to announce a moment of silence, but instead broke into a public prayer to Jesus her savior. When the prayer was finished, the auditorium erupted into applause and cheers, as if somehow the defiant prayer was an indication that the forces of good had triumphed. A video of the event is here:

Obviously, in that Louisiana school, respect for the religious minority and church-state separation were irrelevant to many of the Christian majority. Even setting aside the possibility that a conspiracy to inject the prayer may have had official sanction at some level, there has been no indication that the school has apologized to the secular student (who was reportedly in the auditorium during the fiasco) or disciplined the student who improperly injected the prayer into the ceremony.

And this event apparently is not isolated.

Continue Reading (via Our Humanity, Naturally)

May 26, 2011 - 9:31 am

If atheists take over America in a generation or two, you can thank (or blame, depending on how you view it) Jay Sekulow.

Anyone immersed in the culture wars knows Sekulow, who currently runs the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Religious Right's answer to the ACLU. Founded by fundamentalist televangelist Pat Robertson, the ACLJ asserts and defends the conservative religious agenda in the courts.

How then, you may ask, could Sekulow, as a Religious Right litigator, be responsible for spreading atheism? To answer this, we need some history.

Before Sekulow rose to prominence in the late 1980s, the Religious Right had been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to inject Christianity into public schools. In landmark cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court had ruled that school-sponsored prayer and Bible study were unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. In the following decades, religious conservatives saw little success in their efforts to bring Christianity back into public schools, as they were consistently blocked by Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

Sekulow, however, turned things around for the Religious Right. In the case of Westside Community Board of Education vs. Mergens (1990) Sekulow successfully argued, on Free Speech grounds, that public schools generally cannot prohibit formation of Christian clubs if other kinds of clubs are allowed. Since then, Bible clubs, prayer clubs, and other voluntary Christian-oriented extracurricular activities have become commonplace in public schools across the country.

At first glance, this would seem like a clear victory for religious conservatives seeking to use public schools as a beachhead for proselytizing. Although membership is voluntary, such clubs can create a culture of Christianity within public schools in communities with strong Christian churches and few dissenting alternatives. And even in more pluralistic communities, a high school Christian club, if led by a charismatic student or teacher with missionary zeal, can effectively proselytize.

What Sekulow and others on the Christian Right may not have considered, however, is that the Mergens decision opened the doors not just for Christian groups in public schools, but for other groups as well. In fact, it was a game-changer. If Free Speech standards dictate that Christian clubs cannot be banned, then neither can Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim clubs.

Or atheist clubs.

Twenty years ago, it was rare to find a student atheist group even on a college campus, let alone in a high school. But, thanks to Jay Sekulow, organized atheist groups are now rapidly sprouting in high schools all over the country, protected by First Amendment rights and recognized by the school administration. Atheism, unfortunately, has often been seen by the public as mysterious and foreign, as something strange and perhaps dangerous, but thanks to the Mergens decision organized atheist groups can demonstrate to young people that the secular worldview is valid, nothing to be afraid of, and certainly nothing to vilify.

Indeed, because high school atheist groups are normalizing atheism, children are seeing classmates and teachers openly and proudly identify as nonbelievers, as religious skeptics who nevertheless affirm admirable values while rejecting ancient texts and supernatural explanations of the world.

Spearheading this effort to bring atheism to public schools is a remarkable team of activists known as the Secular Student Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded only a few years ago. Until recently the SSA focused only on building college secular groups, and has had great success in doing so. Just a few months ago, however, the organization launched its high school initiative, with staff dedicated specifically to providing resources to high school students interested in starting and running secular groups. Business is booming, with atheist and humanist kids all over the country expressing interest in joining the secular movement.

Continue Reading (via Our Humanity, Naturally)

 

May 24, 2011 - 9:38 am

Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, recently became the first elected Democrat to announce that he will be trying to unseat U.S. Senator Scott Brown in next year's election. Warren produced a video to introduce himself to Massachusetts voters and, regardless of your political views, you'd have to agree that it comes across as polished and professional, presenting Warren in a positive light. See the video here.

From a secular, humanist perspective, one particularly interesting thing about this video is Warren's statement just after the five-minute mark, as he's finishing up his comments. He looks into the camera and says to voters, "God bless you."  

Not even the usual "God bless America," but a more personal "God bless you."

This caught me by surprise a bit, since Massachusetts is a liberal state and would never be mistaken for the Bible belt. Whereas nationally about 16 percent of voters identify as nonreligious, that figure is about 23 percent in Massachusetts.

I understand that most would consider Warren's religious gesture harmless and almost meaningless, but personally I wonder whether it's appropriate for candidates to be blessing voters. Of course Warren has the right to bless anyone he wants, but does he realize that many secular citizens don't appreciate it?

Continue Reading (via Our Humanity, Naturally)

May 4, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Mixed emotions are to be expected after an event like the killing of Osama bin Laden. For most of us it seems strange to feel any sense of joy over the death of another human being, but of course bin Laden was no ordinary person. National pride, revenge, and certainly a sense of justice - such responses, if we experienced them, were to some degree natural and understandable.

Most of this, of course, is not very pretty. The sober reality is that a madman has been brought to justice, but only after a decade of turmoil, wars, and untold human suffering. The first decade of this century should have ushered in an era of peace, hope, and progress but, because of Osama bin Laden, will instead be remembered as a time of conflict, fear, and disunity. Worse yet, even with his death we know that the "War on Terror" will most likely be unending, a phenomenon that we will probably live with for the rest of our lives.

Thus, for most of us any surge of exhilaration upon learning of bin Laden's death was eventually replaced by a more somber emotion, a realization that his violent demise was probably a necessary step on the road to closure, but hardly an event worthy of wild celebration.

That is, unless you're Jeff Jacoby.

Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, was downright gleeful in his comments on the bin Laden news. In fact, his column demonstrates the eerie brutality of his conservative and religious mindset.

"Good people rejoice when evil monsters are cut down," Jacoby tell us, apparently unaware that a sense of fulfilling vengeance, though natural, is hardly itself a reason for celebration. We may be naturally inclined to relish violent retribution, and even justified on a pragmatic level in pursuing it, but that does not make vengeance itself morally admirable, nor does it make any violence a reason for joyous festivity.

Jacoby is a professional moralist, conservative in his religion and quick to claim the righteous high ground in his writing. This makes his exaltation of revenge (which, predictably, he cloaks in the language of "justice") particularly distasteful, for one can see the delight with which he cherishes the bloodletting of the enemy whom he despises. Of course nobody is shedding tears over bin Laden's demise, but Jacoby's hypocritical exaltation of vengeful justice, his celebratory rationalization of violence, is a textbook example of the conservative religious mind in its unguarded form.

Continue Reading (via "Our Humanity, Naturally")

April 28, 2011 - 10:01 am

Rachel Maddow, the popular MSNBC news anchor who is openly gay, caused a stir this week when she said that closeted gay anchors "have a responsibility to come out." The statement renewed an old debate about whether coming out is a right or a responsibility.

What is the basis for arguing that one has a duty, not just a right, to come out?

To help understand, we can refer to some words from Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978, explaining why open identification can be so important: "I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine."

Pride in identity can be empowering, an antidote to even the most venomous prejudice. By forcing society to rethink what was once considered wrong or shameful, Milk and other identity-oriented LGBT activists changed the cultural landscape and weakened longstanding biases.

But still, is the good that results from coming out enough to make it a duty? If staying in the closet helps perpetuate discriminatory attitudes, does that give rise to a responsibility to come out?

Taking it further, as a humanist activist I wonder whether Maddow's comment might be applicable to the secular movement. After all, in a 2006 study atheists were found to be the most disliked and distrusted minority group in America, ranking below gays, Muslims, and recent immigrants. While prejudice against any of these groups would be wrong, one must question why atheists would be so disfavored, especially since numerous studies show that, from a statistical standpoint, atheism does not correlate to high crime rates, health risks, or any other immoral or socially undesirable outcome. With so much prejudice against them, it's not surprising that many atheists are "closeted" to some degree, hesitant to identify openly.

Hence, is there an argument that secular individuals - atheists, agnostics, and humanists - have not just a right, but a responsibility, to come out, to identify openly in some manner to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and/or the world at-large?

Statistics suggest that significant portions of the American population are essentially secular in outlook: About half the population does not attend any regular religious services, about 15 percent identify as "none" when asked for religious affiliation, and almost one in five will not affirm a belief in a divinity. Yet, despite the undeniable existence of this large demographic, politicians and media pundits rarely even acknowledge nonreligious Americans when discussing policy or current events. This no doubt can be attributed to the fact that, despite the size of the nonreligious population, relatively few have historically asserted self-identity as atheist, agnostic, humanist, or otherwise secular.

Would a concerted campaign to encourage secular individuals to "come out" change public attitudes? The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science thinks so, and even launched the "Out Campaign" to encourage atheists to come out. The campaign's scarlet "A" is now seen frequently in online profiles and elsewhere.


In the 1980s and 1990s we saw the landscape change when congressmen and other high-profile public figures began coming out as gay. Today, only one congressman is an open atheist (Rep. Pete Stark of California), though it is well known that many others are closeted. Do they have a responsibility to come out? Would doing so help to diminish unfair prejudice and challenge the Religious Right's claim of moral superiority based on religiosity?


Of course, there are significant differences between being gay and being an atheist, and few would suggest that the discrimination experienced by atheists is equivalent to that experienced by gays and lesbians. Even though atheists are the most disliked minority, being an atheist is not an experience that is particularly difficult on a day-to-day basis. The realization of a teen that he or she doesn't believe in a divinity, for example, doesn't normally carry with it the gravity and real-life ramifications that come with realizing that one is gay.

Nonetheless, there are serious personal and social consequences that come with keeping atheists closeted. Religion becomes exalted and validated in an atmosphere of apparent general consensus about its value, while the public's association of religion with morality is reinforced, thereby affecting the entire social, cultural, and political landscape. All of us, including future generations, pay a price as a result thereof.

Thus, perhaps some would argue that Maddow's statement holds true for the secular community as well, that atheists, agnostics, and humanists have a responsibility to assert their identity to some degree. If it does, even under Maddow's standard the duty arises only "if and when we feel that we can." As such, whether seen as a right or a responsibility, the decision to come out is ultimately a personal one.

(via "Our Humanity, Naturally")

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