One Nation, Indivisible, As Long as You Believe In God

March 11, 2010

As a science teacher, I’m required by Washington state law (RCW 28A.230.140) to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. I despise doing so. For one, it reminds me uncomfortably of the fascistic pledges of loyalty we observe in the subjects of every oppressive regime through history. For another, it contains the words, “under God.” Now, I may be an atheist, but I respect every student’s right to whatever beliefs they arrive upon. The words are a problem because they force teachers to lead their students in chanting that the USA is God’s country, that you can’t be a patriotic American unless you believe in God. This seems to me as obvious a violation of the Establishment Clause as is humanly possible. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed with me at least twice.

Not so anymore. I’ve just started reading the decision in Newdow v. Rio Linda today, in which the 9th Circuit ruled that the current wording of the pledge is perfectly constitutional. I don’t have much knowledge of the law, but there are some things that stick out at me about this.

One, the decision holds that the words “Under God” don’t violate the Establishment Clause because the purpose of their inclusion was “to foster national unity and pride.” In other words, because the purpose was not to establish a religious viewpoint, the phrasing does not violate the Establishment Clause. But the Lemon test has two parts: purpose and effect. While the government’s purpose in adding the words “Under God” to the pledge may not have violated the First Amendment, its effect is certainly to discriminate against those who hold no theistic belief. If the purpose is to foster national unity, but the effect is to imply that only God-believers are true patriots, how is this not an establishment of religion?

Two, the decision holds that “not every mention of God or religion by our government or at the government’s discretion is a violation of the Establishment Clause.” The decision goes on to mention some decisions by the Supreme Court to uphold such actions, such as the display of the Ten Commandments at the Texas State Capitol. The decision goes on to claim that, were we to focus on the religious aspect of government actions, we would have to overturn these actions on the basis of the Establishment Clause. Not only would we have to remove “Under God” from the Pledge, but we would also have to strike the Ten Commandments monument, and the Nativity scenes on public property, and the explicitly Christian prayers outside so many police stations. To which I say: It would be about time! All of these are unwarranted uses of public funds to favor one religious view over another. The Supreme Court’s position that they are valuable for their “history” is laughable, given how divisive they are.

Finally, the decision references the Founding Fathers’ belief that “people derive their most important rights, not from the government, but from God: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ ” Well, the Declaration of Independence might refer to a Creator (not necessarily to a God), but it is not the highest law of the United States. The Constitution has that honored place, and it makes no mention whatever of a God. A cursory glance at the Preamble reveals that it is We the People, not God, who endow ourselves with rights, among them freedom of religion.

This is a bad decision in a long line of bad decisions in Establishment Clause cases. For the foreseeable future, at least, it looks like I will be dragging my students through a Pledge that divides this Nation right down the middle.

Thank Goodness

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Yes, this holiday was manufactured out of whole cloth in the 19th Century, built atop a wholly fictional story of Pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal with Indians (rather than killing and enslaving them), yet I, a damned liberal, do not feel the least compunction in wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving. Why?

I just read a delightfully curmudgeonly piece by everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, PZ Myers, in which he lambastes Thanksgiving for its mindless direction of gratitude at a cold, unfeeling universe. The point seems to be that, since there is no sentient being out there to receive this gratitude, the gratitude itself is a pointless exertion of energy. After all:

We’re all doomed. We are currently survivors by luck, sustained by selfish processes, and I don’t thank luck, because she (if she were an autonomous self-aware agent, and she isn’t) will turn for me or against me without concern for my feelings. Nature is not appeasable, get over it.

He goes on to imagine how unlucky turkeys would feel this time of year, if unlucky is something they know how to feel. It’s difficult to argue that.

I think he misses the point, though. Why should gratitude be pointless just because it’s not directed at anyone in particular? Isn’t the feeling of gratitude itself a pleasant thing? Doesn’t it help to teach us not to take our existence for granted? When I feel gratitude for someone, I generally want to return the favor, or at the very least, make sure that the generosity at which the gratitude is directed does not go to waste. Certainly a cold, unfeeling universe is incapable of generosity, but the fact is that we live in a tiny blip of oasis in a yawning, roaring chasm of quenchless unlife. It’s the only such blip we know about. Perhaps if people felt more grateful for its existence, more would be interested in protecting it.

Besides which, there is a different between gratitude and groveling. Gratitude feels good. Groveling doesn’t. It’s perfectly possible to feel warm, wholesome gratitude at the fact of being alive, without groveling before some imagined supernatural benefactor.

Daniel Dennett put it best: Thank Goodness! He, of course, was referring to the goodness of human beings, but I don’t think it needs to stop there. There’s no shame in feeling grateful at being alive in a universe which, as inhospitable as the better part of it may be, is staggeringly beautiful, and endlessly wonderful.

Thank goodness for that.

I carried two flags today

November 11, 2009

On my lapel, actually. One was the standard U.S. flag lapel pin, and the other a large, round, glossy button with a Rainbow Flag motif. I marched in Walla Walla’s Veteran’s Day Parade today, with the Walla Walla chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG.

Walla Walla is not an especially friendly place for LGBT people. Referendum 71, Washington’s “everything but marriage law,” received about 6,000 votes for and 9,000 votes against here. For that reason, it was with some trepidation that I marched holding one side of the Walla Walla PFLAG banner.

Some, but not much. I firmly believe that equal rights for LGBT people is one of the great civil rights causes of our time, and I was prepared to face any kind of opposition in standing up for it. I held one corner of the banner in one hand, and a smaller sign reading “Don’t ask, who cares?” in the other. I smiled and waved good morning at everyone we passed on the way, whether the answer was a stony-faced silence or a warm-hearted wave in return.

When our group was announced at the center of the parade, a small but vocal smattering of spectators raised raucous applause. Certainly many of them, if not all, were a part of the 6000 I mentioned earlier. For this reason, the smile I wore through the march lasted long after, even as my rain-soaked clothes continued to dry.

I carried two flags today, representing two entities in which I believe absolutely. One is participatory democracy, in which any group of people, if their cause is just and their will resolute, can bring about change. The other is equal rights for all, and no rights withheld from any minority provided they do not clash with the rights of others. Both causes were represented in force today on Walla Walla’s Main Street. May that ever be so.

Do you think this counts as hate speech?

May 7, 2009

As noted below, I went to see the new Star Trek movie earlier tonight. I strode into the theater, sat in a choice location near the center, and what did I see? Some high school age kids filing in. In costume.

In Star Wars costume.

Here I am waiting to see Kirk and Spock pummel each other (like in the trailer), and I see Jar Jar Binks, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia sit in front of me, waving their cheap plastic light sticks at each other. I almost tapped one of them on the shoulder to remind them what movie they were about to see.

I mean, what’s with that? Can’t we all just live in peace, without provoking each other with antagonistic cosplaying? They’re lucky I didn’t have my phaser. I would have set it to “melt fanboys.”

Star Trek Babies Vs. the Hard Rock Romulans

May 7, 2009

Seriously, they’ve got shaved heads, tattooed faces, and they wear Army green bomber jackets. These Romulans are effin’ metal.

I just returned for an unhoped-for opportunity to see Star Trek before its ostensible opening day tomorrow. Being a huge Star Trek nerd for as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking forward to this movie with an uncomfortable mix of excitement and trepidation for well over a year, and while I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, it was definitely not what I expected.

What I expected, at the least, was a sort of analog of the recent superhero movies: an introduction to the characters, against an impending calamity that introduces them to each other. This it was, right down to John Cho as the slightly less baritone but kickass younger version of Sulu. Also on par with my expectations, and awesome, was the look and feel of the film. Unlike the six movies starring the original cast, much of the visual and sound design was clearly inspired directly by the original TV show. That, and the ludicrous hand-to-hand fight scenes.

As much as the film was true to the source material, however, it mangled up canon in an enormous way. I won’t say much more about it, because if you care enough to be reading this post, you’ll be seeing the movie anyway, but trust me. J.J. Abrams and the lot mean a lot more than you think when they call this a “franchise reboot.”

Lest I confuse, I loved the movie, and I’ll likely be seeing it again. Having said that, I wouldn’t be a true fanboy if I didn’t rant for a while about some minor glaring inconsistencies with canon and reality for a few paragraphs. You’ve been warned!

First off, I wonder if I’m alone in thinking that Spock’s dialogue was a bit wooden. Of course Spock has always spoken in a formal manner, but with precision and a characteristic distinction. Either this was missing with Quinto’s Spock, or I’m just not used to the new voice and I want to make more of it than that.

Next, red supergiants go supernova. Big, big stars that have already depleted their fuel. Not pristine, yellow stars in the primes of their lives.

Third, what in the heck is an “inert reactant?” Didn’t anybody tell the set designers that that’s an oxymoron?

Fourth, I don’t know the requisite mathematics, but I would think that a black hole massive enough to devour an Earth-sized planet in under a minute would have a larger event horizon than the one in the movie. But I could be wrong.

And lastly, what’s with that thing that hangs around Scotty?

That’s enough for now. I’ll probably pick up more things to bore you with when I see it again, as I inevitably must. Let’s hope the next one has them boldly going where no one had gone before Picard came along.

Covert ops in the war on science

December 5, 2008

I stumbled upon this on Richard Dawkins’ website: a collection of Evolution Outreach Projects by Colin Purrington of Swarthmore College. These are a must-see.

A lot of it is cute little stickers and temporary tattoos of Darwin, but at the heart of the effort is a push to get evolution taught to young children. Purrington advocates what every education expert should already know: children are perfectly capable of understanding evolution, and the only reason they do not learn about it is indoctrination in their early years and the delay into high school of the introduction of the concept. As Purrington says:

The notion that young kids cannot understand evolution is a myth perpetuated by those who don’t want kids to understand evolution.

I’ll be starting a unit on evolution soon in my high school biology class, and I’ll certainly be using some of these materials. (I should be right in time for Darwin Day!) Check it out; it’s wonderful, and the author’s self-effacing humor is quite charming.

Because I have too much free time

December 5, 2008

A fellow named Jeff left a comment on an earlier post of mine, regarding some actions taken by Barbara Forrest of the National Center for Science Education to counter a creationist Trojan Horse bill in Louisiana. (The bill made it into law, as the reader may recall. We’re still waiting for the hammer of the courts to fall upon that one.)

Jeff’s comment was completely unrelated to that post. Instead, it was a self-styled “critique” of a speech Forrest apparently gave at a Southern Methodist Church. In the interest of promoting good science, and because I have little better to do, I have deleted Jeff’s comment and reproduced it here. I have attempted to counter his specious and often ludicrous arguments with some semblance of objective rationality.

It’s long. I hope you have too much free time as well!

Read the rest of this entry »

Something to anger atheists

November 30, 2008

Richard Dawkins’ website recently reposted a rather disturbing column from a Northern Ireland newspaper: apparently, the atheist bus ads running in London are pulling London down the S-bend of morality, and this is no surprise, because atheists are the scum of the Earth. Here’s a highlight:

The advertising campaign has cost around stg £100,000. It was all started up by — predictably — Professor Richard Dawkins, the neo-Darwinist scientist and atheist campaigner. He put down a deposit of some £8,000, and the rest came from public contributions — mostly from readers of The Guardian newspaper, in which the campaign was publicised.

It says something about the affluence of Guardian readers that, in a time of recession, they can contribute £90,000 to a bus campaign dissing the notion of God.

One note: Richard Dawkins did not begin the campaign. It was started by the Guardian. I thought fact-checking was still a part of journalistic practice. Another: It’s true that over 100,000 pounds were raised, but it is also true that over 8,500 people donated to the campaign. That’s about 15 pounds each, on average. That must count as affluence to this deluded person.

I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters.

How many atheists does she know? Perhaps more pertinently, how many religionists does she know? What does sexual repression and subjugation of women do for people’s happiness? After all, most of the world’s believers live under such conditions, or worse. Have I hit her problem on the head?

Well-meaning folk might suppose that atheists are simply searchingly honest persons who, doubting the tenets of faith and committed to reason and logic, conclude that they just cannot commit to faith.

There may be some of this ilk, but militant atheists, in particular, are deeply unpleasant and caustically intolerant. Any time I have written about this subject, I have received offensive e-mails from militant atheists. While professing themselves to be campaigners for “freedom of thought”, “reason”, and “logic”, their main tool of argument is often personal abuse; they quickly start shrieking that believers are simply “stupid”, or, in the case of a female believer, “a stupid cow”.

“Caustically intolerant”? She must have forgotten what “caustic” and “intolerant” mean. She would have remembered if she had read her own writing. And she wonders why she gets offensive e-mails?

Now, we all know that believers of this particular stripe find the very existence of atheists offensive. The very fact that we are not daily struck by lightning, or found grovelling in leprous huddles in our own filth, is an affront to their worldview. But that does not excuse the use of truly offensive language in countering their delusions.

That said, I feel entirely justified in saying that Mary Kenny, the author of this deeply offensive and profoundly ridiculous column, is stupid.

She is a stupid cow.

(Here’s a nice letter to the newspaper in question that politely puts Mary Kenny in her place.)

New Star Trek Trailer

November 23, 2008

As with most things, I’m pretty late on this. The new Star Trek trailer has been up for almost a week now, after all. Still, I decided to hold off on writing my impressions until they’ve had time to gestate a bit. Now that they’ve reached full term, I’m finally ready to birth them into the world, with an ugly placenta to follow afterward. (How’s that for imagery?)

My first impression is that six months is an uncomfortably long time to wait. I’m a Star Trek fan, after all. I’d go see this thing if it were titled Star Trek: Klingons on Ice! (Come to think of it, that sounds pretty awesome.)

My second impression is one of trepidation. I’m of course not alone in this. The makers of this film are in a position to manhandle the very heart of Star Trek canon. By recasting the original characters and setting the film in their pre-Enterprise days, they are in a position to completely undo the foundation of the original stories, or even to start Star Trek over from scratch. (The former is known in Nerdish as “retconning.” The second has become known to those prone to fan-rage as a “reboot.”)

From what I’ve seen, J.J. Abrams and the rest don’t intend to let this happen. They intend to stay true to canon. And to their credit, the cast they’ve assembled so far seems to fit with that intention. None of them looks badly out of place in the shoes they’re trying to fill. (Except perhaps for the young James T. Kirk, but no amount of handsome young faces are going to fill those shoes.)

I like what glimpses of the design of the film I’ve seen. They have the bright, clean feel of the original series, with the high-tech gloss that a 1960′s TV budget couldn’t bring to bear. The starship design manages to be new and interesting, while also true to the aesthetic of the show. I’m nothing but excited by the design so far.

That leaves me with one last point of concern. I’m just old enough to have lived through about ten years of Hollywood revisitations of 1960′s and 1970′s TV shows. I’ve sat through enough Brady Bunches, Beverly Hillbillies, Dukes of Hazzard, and even Rocky and Bullwinkles to know that no decade of television is safe from being realized on the big screen, if the whiff of profit is on it. I fear that Star Trek will see this treatment. I fear that there will be too many moments of “Ooh, look how nice the Enterprise looks now!” too many CG-powered space battles, too many strings of technobabble (and “bairns”) and not enough attention to advancing our understanding of the original characters. This is not a rational fear, but I feel it nonetheless.

In any case, I’m extremely excited about this movie, and I’ll be first in line to see it when it opens. Maybe even in uniform. I’ve been known to be precisely that nerdy sometimes.

Atheist Bus Campaigns

November 17, 2008

Yes, this is old news. Yes, I’m still going to write about it. Tough, I say!

You’ve probably read about the atheist ads being purchased on buses in London and Washington, DC. The one in London reads, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The one that will run on DC Metro buses reads, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

Predictably, a lot of religious folk are already screaming “War on Christmas!” Said American Family Association Tom Wildmon:

It’s a stupid ad,” he said. “How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.

Said Matthew Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel:

It’s the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting.

(Both quotes from this Fox News article.)

So, we have the tired “how can you be good without God?” crap, and the notion that suggesting that there might be no god is insulting. OK.

If this ad should be insulting to Christians, then what am I to make of Gideon bibles in hotel rooms? Are they insulting to us non-believers? What about church billboards? What about people standing on the street preaching for Jesus, or handing out tracts? Are they offensive enough to warrant being shut down?

To my mind, the response to the DC Metro ad demonstrates why these campaigns are necessary. As long as some people are comfortable in declaring that atheists have no grounds for morals, that their very attempts to express themselves are offensive, that their very existence is offensive, than forms of expression like these ads will be needed to show them why they’re wrong.

No one needs God to be good. God is more than sufficient to make some people bad. Can’t we just leave Him (or Her, or as I prefer, It) aside, and be good for goodness’ sake?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.