Posts Tagged ‘Secularism’

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.

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?

The Seven Aphorisms

November 17, 2008

As you’ve probably noticed in the news, the Supreme Court has begun hearing the case of the Summum religion, who tried to erect a monument displaying their Seven Aphorisms in a public park in Park Grove Utah, and were turned down by the city. This, despite the fact that the park has a prominent display of the Ten Commandments.

Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog has a great interview on the case, the arguments being presented, and the direction the court will take. The primary disagreement seems to be whether the monument would be private speech, in which the government would not be permitted to quibble based on content, or government speech, in which the government gets more latitude about what it says.

I find that a bit puzzling. What does it matter if the monument is private or government speech? In either case, the Ten Commandments monument, and its proposed Summum counterpart, are religious statements on public land. They are promotions of religion. Either they should all be allowed, or none should be allowed at all.

The silliest opinion seems to have come from Justice Scalia. He holds that the Ten Commandments are not a religious display of all, because of their historical importance to America. Right. I suppose he doesn’t think the Establishment Clause holds much historical importance, then.

Personally, I think Park Grove should go in for a monument to the Eight I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That would be a real show of support for religious freedom.

Why Pastor Gus Booth opposes religious freedom

September 24, 2008

While listening to NPR this afternoon, I happened to hear an interview with Pastor Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church in Minnesota. Booth, along with 30 othe preachers around the country, has pledged his intent to commit a flagrant violation of the constitutional separation of church and state by endorsing a presidential candidate in his sermon.

You see, for the last 54 years, federal tax law has forbidden churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This is because churches are tax-exempt institutions, so such meddling in politics would be construed as the use of tax-free dollars to engage in a political campaign. In other words, what Booth plans to do is blatantly illegal. It may not yet be clear, however, why that means that he (and the Alliance Defense Fund, which spearheaded the Pulpit Initiative”) opposes religious freedom. I’ll spell it out.

  1. The public endorsement of a religion violates religious freedom.
  2. The public endorsement of a political candidate by a religious organization indicates that that political candidate supports the ideals of that religion.
  3. Therefore, the public endorsement of a political candidate by a religion amounts to the public endorsement of a religion.

It’s not rocket science. The Constitution dictates that religion must stay out of politics, and vice versa. People like Pastor Booth and the Alliance Defense Fund are working to undo the protections that ensure freedom of and from religion in this country. They will fail, but it saddens and enrages me that anyone would want to try.

Was the US founded on Christian principles?

July 5, 2008

No. No it wasn’t.

Pharyngula links to the webpage of the Family Research Council, which currently holds a poll titled, “Do you believe that America, as a nation, was founded upon Christian principles?” Due to the Pharynguloid influence, “No” is currently leading at 91%, but that’s not the point. The point is that this question should not be asked in the first place.

The US is emphatically not founded on Christian principles. This is explicitly stated in the Constitution, both in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”) and in Article VI, section 3 (“…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”) In addition, the Treaty of Tripoli, itself a legally binding document, bears these words: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

The United States is a secular nation, not a Christian nation. Any claim to the contrary is founded in ignorance of the Constitution, or in delusion. Check mate, I’m afraid, for the Dominionists.

John Freshwater roundup

June 23, 2008

Pharyngula links today to a very able summary of all the John Freshwater business.  John Freshwater, in case you don’t recall, is the lovable middle school science teacher who posts the Ten Commandments in his classroom, teaches creationism, and, at least once, burned a cross into a student’s forearm. 

Read the summary, if only for one thing: you get to see a picture of the cross-shaped burn mark.  I had envisioned a little thing, but this is the whole length of the students’ forearm!  You’ll also learn of a shrill religious right organization that is largely responsible for the movement to support Mr. Freshwater.

In any case, Mr. Freshwater is scheduled to be fired on July 7, unless he asks for a hearing.  Great news, although by all accounts it was eleven years too late.

We’ll see him in court

June 18, 2008

Word to Pharyngula for running this story: John Freshwater, the lovable Ohio high school science teacher who burns crosses into his students’ arms and generally supports evangelism in the public classroom, is being taken to court for violation of the Establishment Clause.

Freshwater is apparently guilty of far more transgressions than a simple cruciform branding. He keeps Bibles in the classroom, not for his own use, he openly teaches his religious beliefs to students, he taught intelligent design as early as 2003, he distributed Bibles to students, including extras so give to other students who were not present, and on and on. Perhaps most galling, a guest speaking at his invitation imparted this little gem to the students: “they should disobey the law to further their own religion, even if it means going to jail.”

These are the actions of an evangelist, not a science teacher. If even half the above allegations are true, this is an open and shut case. Mr. Freshwater violated the Constitution left and right, and by all appearances is proud of it. It is a sad testament to the condition of some school districts that he wasn’t fired years ago.

South Carolina Senate permits display of 10 Commandments

May 31, 2008

The South Carolina Senate recently passed a bill that would allow the public display of 11 “historical documents” that “make up the nation’s foundation of law and government.” I use the scare quotes because this set includes two “documents” that manifestly do not make up the foundation of US government: the ten commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ve got an idea for a law: legislators should have to read the Constitution before taking office. The Establishment Clause clearly forbids the passing of any law with the purpose or effect of establishing religion. This bill would allow public schools to post the Ten Commandments. Do they not see how blatantly unconstitutional that is?

The Establishment Clause exists for a reason: to preserve the freedom of every American to believe what they wish. This bill would singles out Christianity and Judaism. Why don’t they include Muslim commandments? Why don’t they include the Five Precepts of Buddhism? Why don’t they include the Eight I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts of the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

In order to guarantee freedom of religion, public places and proceedings must either exclude all religion, or include all religion. To endorse one religion specifically, as this bill does, denies the freedom of those who follow all the others, or who follow no religion at all.

The bill has already passed the House, but the version passed in the Senate included one or more amendments (e.g. the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer) that will need to go before the House before the bill can be sent to the governor. Let’s hope a majority of the representatives get some sense. If this bill passes, it will be challenged and struck down in federal court, but not before a gob of taxpayer money is pissed down the drain.

Is this legal?

May 27, 2008

That’s the title of a page within the website of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. This organization is responsible for producing and supporting Bible study curricula for American public schools. The mission statement assures that the curricula are perfectly objective and neutral, and thus in line with the requirements of secular government. I have my doubts, and I’ll demonstrate the source of them.

On the one hand, the page titled Is This Legal? ends with this quote:

It might be well said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literacy and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203,225 (1963)

This is a perfectly admirable quote, and nothing within it betrays an intention to subvert the Establishment Clause. However, the page begins with these words:

There has been a great social regression since the Bible was removed from our schools. We need to refer to the original documents that inspired Americanism and our religious heritage.

These words are manifestly untrue. The US has suffered no such “social regression” (whatever that might mean), and the foundation document of the United States is not the Bible, but the Constitution. The Constitution is the defining statement of Americanism (whatever that might mean), and it carries no mention of God, and mentions religion only to guarantee the free practice (or nonpractice) thereof. If the goal of the NCBCPS is to rewrite history so as to name the Bible the foundation of US culture and religion (ignoring the dozens of other faiths followed by Americans, and those who follow none), then they are no better than the “America was founded as a Christian nation” crowd.