Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

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.

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.)

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?

Do Atheists Have Morals?

November 1, 2008

Do atheists have morals? The question makes about as much sense as these: “Do horses like rock ‘n’ roll?” “Do cheese wheels pilot helicopters?” “Does TV watch you?” In short, the subject and object have nothing to do with each other, as I hope to demonstrate. First, the reason I felt compelled to write this post.

A Pastor Steve Cornell posted a comment to this post of mine today. For whatever reason, he decided not to make a comment relevant to the post, but simply copied and pasted a screed from his own blog. Maybe he’s short on time. In any case, I deleted the screed and left the link to his blog. Here it is again.

A major point of Pastor Steve’s post is that atheists can have no basis for objective morality. As I said above, this statement is nonsensical. It’s like saying that new wave fans can have no basis for enjoying cheese cake. The two have nothing to do with each other.

This is because atheism is not a moral philosophy. It is not a worldview. It is not a conceptual framework. It’s not even a set of nice ideas. Atheism is simply a name for people with a particular position on one question. We don’t believe that there are any gods. That’s it. Under the definition of the word that I endorse, anyone who doesn’t believe in any gods is an atheist, whether that person is an agnostic, humanist, or someone who is entirely convinced that there are no gods. The word contains no more information about a person’s worldview than the words “Teetotaller” or “abolitionist.”

The claim made by Pastor Steve’s post is that since atheists don’t believe in the supernatural, then they can have no basis for objective morality. I don’t understand what the supernatural has to do with morality, but it’s a fairly common argument among some theists. The answer is pretty simple: people do not obey laws because they’re afraid of God. They obey laws because they’re afraid of being thrown in prison, or hurting their friends or loved ones, or damaging their reputations, or any number of other reasons. Objective morality isn’t necessary. Ordinary, everyday morality is more than enough.

In short, this “atheists have no morals” crap is just another specious canard thrown about to give atheists a bad name. No matter; our numbers are growing, which means that there are more and more of us all the time to explain patiently why this particular argument is full of holes. That will leave Pastor Steve with one less thing to spam our blogs about.

Washington Atheists! Dinesh D’Souza to speak in Spokane

November 1, 2008

2007 Bad Faith Award winner Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative and apologist known best for “debating” such prominent atheists as Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, will be speaking at a free fundraising event at the Spokane Convention Center today.  I put “debating” in scare quotes because, to my eyes (and ears), he seems to shout more than he debates.  In any case, he doesn’t seem to think much about what he says, given his remarks that the New Atheism (whatever that is) is destroying America.

I point this out because it’s an excellent opportunity for atheists and other freethinkers in the Spokane area (not me, unfortunately), to ask a difficult question or two, and see how D’Souza responds.  This is not an occasion to be rude, as he is speaking at a fundraiser for schools (and one shouldn’t have to stoop to rudeness anyway), but I don’t think it would be outside the bounds of propriety to ask him what’s so wrong with atheists, for example.

Ken Ham is polluting our nation’s highways

June 15, 2008

In case anyone is wondering why I didn’t make any posts yesterday, here’s the reason: I was on the road for fourteen hours.  That’s right, I drove nonstop from Montana to Vancouver, BC.  It’s a beautiful ride, with majestic mountains, fertile forests, and whimsical wildlife in view all the way.  But for one blemish, it would have been perfect.  Unfortunately, that one blemish was enough nearly to spoil the whole package.

Here’s the offender:

Right in my native Montana, too. I knew that Ken Ham, from atop his dark tower, had sent his minions of filth and ignorance far abroad, but I never imagined that they had penetrated the fair and fertile lands of the West. The war on science has reached our borders.

(I didn’t have a camera; the image comes from this blog.)

I wish I could afford to buy my own billboard:

On a serious note, it’s obvious what the real billboard above is trying to invoke: Atheists have no morals, because morality comes from God. This is transparently ridiculous to anyone who a) is an atheist, or b) knows an atheist. We all have a moral sense, believers and nonbelievers alike, and this sense of what kinds of actions are permissible and what kinds are not appears to be inborn, even if there is a good deal of cultural variation in which specific actions are considered moral. Further, if our morals came from God, those Christians and Jews among us would still be stoning children for talking back, and forcing rape victims to marry their attackers. It’s pretty clear that wherever our morals may come from, it’s not our respective religions.

The person responsible for the billboard should have known better. That makes him/her a liar. Ken Ham must have endorsed it, so he’s a liar too. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” my ass.