Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side

Source: Churchandstate.org/uk

Author: Greta Christina

“Why would any organization or social change movement want to ally itself with a community that’s energetic, excited about activism, highly motivated, increasingly visible, good at fundraising, good at getting into the news, increasingly populated by young people, and with a proven track record of mobilizing online in massive numbers on a moment’s notice?

If you need to ask that — maybe you shouldn’t be in political activism.

And if you don’t need to ask that — if reading that paragraph is making you clutch your chest and drool like a baby — maybe you should be paying attention to the atheist movement.

The so-called “new atheist” movement is definitely not so new. Atheists have been around for decades, and they’ve been organizing for decades. But something new, something big, has been happening in atheism in the last few years — atheism has become much more visible, more vocal, more activist, better organized, and more readily mobilized — especially online, but increasingly in the flesh as well. The recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC brought an estimated 20,000 attendees to the National Mall on March 24 — and that was in the rain. Twenty thousand atheists trucked in from around the country, indeed from around the world, and stood in the rain, all day: to mingle, network, listen to speakers and musicians and comedians, check out organizations, schmooze, celebrate, and show the world the face of happy, diverse, energetic, organized atheism.

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Atheists are gaining clout. Atheists are becoming a powerful ally when we’re inspired to take action — and a powerful opponent when we get treated like dirt.

Case Study Number One, “Powerful Ally” Division: The million dollars currently being raised — and the goodness knows how many people being mobilized — for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Light the Night Walks,” by the non-theistic Foundation Beyond Belief and the Todd Stiefel family.

The Stiefel Family and the Foundation Beyond Belief have wanted to make a large atheist contribution to the fight against cancer for some time. Like many people, Todd Stiefel has had many people in his life afflicted with cancer. His family has the resources to make a large financial donation to the fight against it. And as the largest non-theistic charitable organization in the world, the Foundation Beyond Belief was the perfect organization to channel and structure the Stiefel family’s matching offer — and to round up supporters for it.

But it was distressingly difficult to give this money away. If this whole “atheists donating pots of money to the fight against cancer” story seems familiar … you may be remembering the American Cancer Society controversy, in which the ACS initially accepted a $250,000 matching offer from the Stiefel family and the Foundation Beyond Belief to participate as a national team in the ACS’s Relay for Life — and then, suddenly and mysteriously, turned it down. (And were then deluged with angry protests — and withdrawals of donations — when the story hit the Internet. More on that in a tic.)

That isn’t happening this time around. The Stiefel family and the Foundation Beyond Belief have found an organization that’s more than happy to partner with them in the fight against cancer. When Stiefel reached out to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, they cheerfully accepted his offer — a half million dollars in matching funds, as a “Special Friend” team partner in the LL&S’s “Light the Night” Walks, with the goal of uniting the freethought movement around the world to raise a million dollars for the fight against cancer. Andrea Greif, Director of Public Relations for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, says, “LLS is appreciative that Foundation Beyond Belief has set such a generous goal to help us beat blood cancer and we look forward to having their teams join LLS’s Light the Night Walk.” And Stiefel describes the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as “enthusiastic at the prospect of working with us.” He went on to say, “We LOVE working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They have been very kind, supportive and helpful. They have made it very clear that cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither do they. LLS just wants to put the mission of fighting cancer first.”

This could easily have been a controversial effort. For one thing, the Honored Hero for the FBB in this year’s Light the Night Walk is the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens — a hero to many in the atheist movement, but a very controversial figure to many outside of it (and indeed, even to many atheists). But Hitchens’ status as the FBB’s Honored Hero is apparently not an issue. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is accepting FBB’s partnership and generosity with open arms. And these efforts have been extremely effective. As of this writing, the Foundation Beyond Belief has already hit 50 LLS local teams — halfway to the 100 team minimum goal. (By the way: If you were ticked off about the American Cancer Society thing, and you want to translate that anger into action? Participating in the FBB’s Light the Night Walks in your area — or starting an FBB LTN team in your area — would be a great way to do that.)

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In recent months, the atheist community has proven to be extraordinarily good at raising money, visibility, and support for people and causes that capture their imagination. And they have exceptional skills when it comes to fundraising and hell-raising on the Internet.

When high school atheist Jessica Ahlquist was being harassed, bullied and threatened by her schoolmates and community for asking her public school to enforce the state/church separation laws and take down a prayer banner from the school auditorium, the atheist community rose to her aid, with an outpouring of love, admiration, and emotional support… and a college fund totaling over $62,000. When high school atheist Damon Fowler was being harassed, bullied, and threatened by his schoolmates and community for standing up against prayer at his public high school graduation — and was kicked out of his home by his parents — the atheist community rose to his aid, with an outpouring of sympathy and support… and a college fund totaling over $31,000. When Camp Quest, the summer camp for children of non-theist families, was engaged in a major fundraising drive last year, several atheist bloggers (conflict of interest alert — including me) teamed up in a fundraising contest involving a series of grandiose and increasingly ridiculous dares and forfeits, ultimately raising $30,074.80 for the cause.

Atheists aren’t just raising money for their own, either. On Kiva — the microlending organization working to alleviate poverty and empower people in need around the world — the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and Non-Religious team is the #1 all-time leader in amount of money loaned… not just among religious affiliation teams, but among all the teams on Kiva. The Reddit atheist community raised over $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders last November, in a fundraising drive that came close to crashing Reddit with the traffic. The Foundation Beyond Belief has been supporting charitable and human rights projects for over two years — well before the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society project began — and to date has raised over a quarter of a million dollars to support human rights, the environment, education, child welfare, anti-poverty efforts, public health, and more.

And the power of atheist organizing extends beyond simple fundraising. To give just two recent examples: When preacher Sean Harris was caught on tape exhorting parents to beat their gay kids, the local atheist communities in the area immediately began sounding the alarm — and rounded up activists to protest at the church the following Sunday. According to Priscilla Parker, President of Military Atheists & Secular Humanists, 27 of the Sean Harris protestors last Sunday were from secular/atheist groups. That may not sound like much — but when you realize that there were a total of about 70 protestors at the event, the atheist presence suddenly looks a lot more significant. (Especially for an event in a highly religious, largely conservative town — and especially for an event that was organized on extremely short notice.) And when American Airlines was planning to air an anti-vaccination ad on their planes’ video systems and in their in-flight magazines, the atheist and skeptical communities dove into action: publicizing the Change.org petition against the Australian Vaccination Network’s ad, and slamming the decision all around the Internet. The story went viral, in large part because of the Internet power of atheists and skeptics — and the joint effort between heathens and other activists ultimately pressured the airline into rejecting the ad.

When a cause catches their hearts, the atheist community can be a powerful ally.

And when a cause catches their hearts in a different way, they can be a powerful opponent.

The American Cancer Society snafu is probably the most obvious example of this. When the ACS turned down the Foundation Beyond Belief’s offer to participate as a national team in the Relay for Life, they apparently didn’t expect much pushback. But when the story broke, it went viral — and made misery for the ACS. For weeks, the ACS was deluged with emails, letters, phone calls, and posts to their Facebook wall. For weeks, their Facebook wall was taken up almost entirely with angry posts about the story. Importantly, while the chief instigators of the rage-fest were atheists, they were quickly followed by a crowd of religious believers, who were just as outraged at the anti-atheist bigotry — and at the rejection of perfectly good money — as the heathens. And very importantly, a flood of people halted their donations to the ACS… including many people who had been regular donors for years.

But there are plenty of other examples as well. The above mentioned American Airlines anti-vaccination ad. The above mentioned Sean Harris protest. The sublimely ridiculous Gelatogate, in which a local gelato merchant in Springfield, Missouri posted a sign in his store window reading, “Skepticon [a skeptical/ atheist conference] is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business”… and then got a faceful of Internet fury when a photo of the sign was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and generally spread through the atheosphere like wildfire… and then backpedaled as fast as it is possible for a human being to backpedal. Like many social change movements, organizing atheists is like herding cats, and it’s not easy to predict which issues will catch their imaginations — but when it happens, the combination of passionate motivation and Internet savvy turns them into a powerhouse.

And very importantly, the atheist movement is increasingly becoming a youth movement. TheSecular Student Alliance — an umbrella organization of non-theistic college and high school groups around the United States and the world — is growing at an astonishing rate. In 2009, they had 143 affiliates: in 2012, they had 351. Impressively, their high school rates are climbing at an even faster clip. In 2010, the organization had only four high school affiliates: this year, that number has climbed to 37. And as anyone knows who understands politics getting young people inspired and on board is enormously important for the long-term future of any social change movement. What’s more, many of these student groups are active in service projects and social change activism outside of atheism… and are eager to partner with other groups to get the job done. If you’re in any doubt about the power of atheism to help move political mountains, now and in the coming years — pay attention to those SSA affiliate numbers. And pay attention to how they keep growing… and growing… and growing.

So what’s the take-home message?

Atheists are your friend. Or they can be. And they can be a very powerful friend indeed.

Progressive and social-change organizers and organizations are having a hard time seeing the atheist movement as… well, as anything, really. Except maybe as a pain in the neck. Many progressives are undoubtedly aware of the existence of atheists: the atheist community’s efforts at visibility have been paying off, and atheism is being discussed in progressive circles as widely as it is everywhere else. But somehow, while the existence of atheists has become undeniable, the existence of atheism as a social change movement is still largely being ignored. To give just one example: In over 100 panels, training sessions, and other presentations at the upcoming 2012Netroots Nation conference for online progressive activists, not one is about atheists or atheism. (Conflict of interest alert: I was one of the proposed panelists on a proposed atheism panel for Netroots Nation 2012.)

It’s hard to tell what this is about. Do social change organizations see atheists as toxic — too controversial, too likely to draw negative attention, more trouble than we’re worth? Or are these organizations simply unaware that atheists have formed into a serious social change movement — and are growing this movement at a rapid pace?

If it’s the former… then shame on you. In the early days of the LGBT movement, queers were far more controversial than they are now, and associating with queers was considered by many to be toxic. It was still the right thing to do. (Not to mention the smart thing to do.)

If it’s the latter… then sit up. Pay attention. Atheists are here. In just a few short years, the movement has gone from zero to sixty, in both visibility and mobilization. And the atheist movement is largely comprised of people who are passionate, compassionate, courageous, Internet savvy, skilled at seeing through bullshit, willing to defy the status quo, excited about activism… and dedicated to changing the world. After all, as far as they’re concerned, it’s the only world they’ve got.

You want these people on your side.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

Emphasis Mine

see: http://churchandstate.org.uk/2012/05/why-atheists-have-become-a-kick-ass-movement-you-want-on-your-side/

 

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Pope resigns: An atheist’s reflections

Source:  Examiner

By: Staks Rosch

“On Feb. 11, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI), announced his retirement. He is the first pope in 600 years to resign from the position. The reactions have been mostly that of surprise. Even Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the top Vatican official in the United States was completely stunned.

As an atheist, I’m a little stunned too. I’m surprised that Ratzinger was so willing to give up the power of the pope. I thought they would have to pry that scepter from his cold dead hand.

In hindsight, I’m not all that surprised. This pope has been a bit of a disaster for the Catholic Church. While it was pretty well known that Catholic priests have been sexually assaulting minors for a long time, the scandal really erupted during Ratzinger’s reign. Plus, his involvement in covering up these crimes prior to pope-hood and his continued obstruction of justice around the world as pope has been devastating. If that wasn’t enough, his lame attempts to blame atheism, gays, and the media didn’t help his legacy.

The Pope has been particularly vocal in his attacks on atheists. His comical attempt to reach out to atheists called, the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” was a complete failure. Then he had the audacity to associate modern atheism with the Nazis. And just a few months ago during the Winter Solstice season, the Pope tweeted that atheists deny human dignity. How’s that for spreading good will?

I’ll be happy to see this pope’s reign come to an end. Hopefully, the new pope will be someone who is more progressive-minded and will be less hateful toward atheists and gays. It would really be something if the next pope was actually a woman, but the likelihood of that is about on par with Christopher Hitchens being anointed to sainthood.”

Please check out the Atheism 101 Series for frequently asked topics.

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Emphasis Mine.

see: http://www.examiner.com/article/pope-resigns-an-atheist-s-reflections

Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect?

From: AlterNet

By: Valerie Tarico

“A Midwestern (sic) atheist tells of sitting in her lunchroom at work and listening as conversation opened up around her about religious differences. Her co-workers included several kinds of Protestants, a Catholic, even a Jew. Sensing they were in risky territory, they worked to find common ground. “At least there aren’t any atheists around here,” one woman said in a warm inclusive tone.

What’s a girl to do in a situation like that? Should she out herself or just keep quiet? In his seminal book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, sociologist Erving Goffman posed the perennial quandary of stigmatized persons: “To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.” (p. 42)

Disclosure feels risky because it is. In 2008, Atheist Nexus gathered “coming out” stories from over 8000 visitors who described themselves as atheist, humanist, freethinker, agnostic, skeptic, and so forth.  Some of the tales are painful to read. One woman said, “I’ve had people literally, physically BACK away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home.” A man’s confession of lost faith almost cost his marriage: “My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip, and confessed that after I deconverted she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me.” Elsewhere a young woman tells of losing thirty-four Facebook friends when she announced her lack of belief.

The consequences of anti-atheist stigma are public as well as private. Most self-described atheists are acutely aware of survey results showing that U.S. atheists are less electable than reviled minorities including Muslims and gays. Seven states still have laws on the books that ban nonbelievers from holding public office.  A Florida minister whose deconversion recently made national news said that job interviews were cancelled when prospective employers found out.

In the minds of many believers atheism is linked with immorality, and despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, religious leaders reinforce this stereotype. I once attended a Palm Sunday service at a popular Calvinist megachurch in Seattle. The minister was determined that his congregation should believe the resurrection of Christ to be a physical, historical event. He said, “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here. If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are parties to be had. There are women to be had. There are guns to shoot. There are people to shoot.” I found myself thinking, if the only thing that stands between you and debauchery, lechery and violence is a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, I’m really glad you believe that. But what are you saying about the rest of us?!

Anti-atheist stereotypes work to bond believers together in part because many Americans think that they have never met an atheist. A stigmatized minority can be the nameless faceless “other” that people love to hate as long as members remain nameless and faceless. But as the gay rights movement has shown, things get more complicated—and attitudes start changing–when we realize we are talking about our friends, beloved family members, and co-workers. Coming out has been such a powerful change agent for gays, that atheists (along with other faceless groups like Mormons and women who have had abortions) are explicitly taking a page from the gay rights movement and launching visibility campaigns.

That is easier than it sounds. Among atheist and humanist leaders, passionate disagreements have erupted about what kind of visibility will actually help advance acceptance and rights for those who eschew supernaturalism.

As a social cause, rather than just a life stance, atheism was catapulted forward by 9-11 and the ascendancy of the Religious Right. Cognitive scientist Sam Harris says that he began writingThe End of Faith the morning after seeing the trade towers bombed with jet fuel and airline passengers. Biologist Richard Dawkins, who had previously hosted a gracious series of televised interviews exploring faith and non-faith, shifted tone and became a patriarch of anti-theistic activism. Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote his scathing indictment, God is not Great. Doubters started coming out of the closet. I, myself, began publically challengingEvangelical Christian teachings when George Bush pointed to heaven to indicate where he had sought advice before invading Iraq.

It takes energy and guts to buck taboos and norms as strong as those surrounding religion, and so the first out the door were anti-theists who felt so strongly that they were willing to throw themselves into the fray, do or die. The “New Atheists” attracted a preponderance of young males who largely fit godless stereotypes: some defiant, some nerdy, many hyper-intellectual.  All were, for one reason or another, either impervious to rules protecting faith from criticism or willing to pay a price for breaking those rules.

Some of these firebrands can be counted among today’s leaders, and many have kept an edge that is honed by the seemingly relentless assaults on science and civil rights perpetrated by Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. They remain fiercely defiant, unapologetic about their scorn for religion, willing to use shock tactics if that’s what it takes to break what they see as a terminal religious stranglehold on society.  Several years back, a group called the Rational Response Squad promoted a “blasphemy challenge” urging people to videotape themselves denying the Holy Spirit because one Bible writer calls such blasphemy an unforgiveable sin. In 2010, a Seattle cartoonist launched “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” after learning about death threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone for depicting Mohammed in Southpark . This winter American Atheists provoked quite an outcry with a billboard that quoted a Bible verse: “Slaves Submit to Your Masters – Colossians 3:22.”

The organizers of these irreverent events see them as advancing values that they cherish deeply –perhaps one could say values they hold sacred: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom from cruelty grounded in dogma or superstition.  And yet, criticism of such in-your-face attacks on religion has often come from people who share their goals. As the atheist visibility movement has expanded, quieter, more diplomatic leaders have emerged.  Many of them insist that aggressive confrontation does more harm than good –that atheists need to be changing stereotypes, not reinforcing them, and that there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Biologist P. Z. Meyers and Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein have staked out two very different positions in the naughty-or-nice controversy.  Meyers writes a popular blog,Pharyngula, which evolved from a primary focus on biology and politics to include broad-based uncensored anti-religious news and commentary. Meyers doesn’t suffer fools lightly and makes no bones about letting people know that he finds most religion not only destructive but also stupid. Epstein, by contrast, seeks to build ethical and spiritual community that builds bridges between faith and non-faith. His Humanist Community Project encourages humanists to develop the traditional virtues of religion: communities built around shared values and social service. Where Meyers might rail against “faith in faith,” Epstein’s colleagues find common ground with open, inclusive religious groups like the Interfaith Youth Corps.

Blogger Greta Christina has said that atheists should “let firebrands be firebrands and diplomats be diplomats.” She argues that both confrontational and collaborative tactics made the gay rights movement stronger and will do the same for non-theism. But what kind of confrontation? Ugly partisanship can backfire. For example, Fred Phelps and Sean Harris give homophobia such a vile face that they trigger disgust, pushing people in the opposite direction. Some atheist activism may do the same.

Even reasonable confrontation tactics can backfire –especially in the hands of a hostile journalist. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USAToday attended the April Reason Rally in D.C.,  a gathering she described as “hell-bent on damning religion and mocking beliefs.”  There she found plenty which, when taken out of context, could be used to reinforce stereotypes.  Her article headlined with a quote from Richard Dawkins, encouraging nonbelievers to “show contempt” for baseless dogmas. It was accompanied by a picture of Jen McCreight  cheerfully carrying a sign that read: Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion, I am. Other speakers were depicted as ornery, offensive and more than a little scary.

Ad campaigns by nontheist organizations reflects a struggle to find messages that connect with either teetering believers or closeted skeptics while avoiding backlash. In 2009 a London publicity campaign went viral internationally with bus ads proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  A variety of billboard campaigns have followed, some more provocative than others:  “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,”  “You Know It’s a Myth.  Solstice is the Reason for the Season.”  “In the Beginning Man Created God.”  “We are all Atheists about Most Gods; Some of Us Just Go One God Further.” “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”  All have drawn protests or vandalism from indignant theists.

It may be almost impossible to avoiding causing offense while challenging the religious status quo. Nontheist organizations have traditionally ignored communities of color, but African Americans for Humanism recently launched an outreach campaign with the tag line, “Doubts About Religion? You’re one of many.” Billboards and posters show faces of familiar Black leaders – as well as ordinary group members. Coalition of Reason organizer, Alix Jules of Dallas says that even this understated approach is plenty controversial for two reasons:  Almost 90% of African Americans express certainty about the existence of God, and honoring religion is seen as a matter of loyalty.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Humanists of Canada wanted to run a bus campaign that said, simply,You can be good without God . But the public bus agency refused the ads because they “could be too controversial and upsetting to people.” One reader commented,

I think we should make atheist ads as innocent and non-confrontational as possible. Not because we should avoid controversy, but because it we will get the controversy no matter what we put up, and the kinder and gentler our message the more obvious the hypocrisy of our critics. I’m hard put to think of one more innocent than this one, though.

Humanist blogger and speaker James Croft, a doctoral student in educational philosophy at Harvard, insists that it can be done:

There are ways of conveying our values that are both strong and civil, which avoid insults and (except in certain cases) ridicule without giving one inch of ground on the battlefield of our core values. All the evidence shows that this hybrid approach is more effective than simply seeking to be likable, or relying on confrontation alone.

In their effort to find the balance that Croft calls “strong and civil,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation has moved toward more personal messages, ones that offer a glimpse into a godless individual (or family) rather than some form of universal claim. Since 2007, they have purchased billboard space for messages including “Imagine No Religion,” “Beware of Dogma,” and “Thank Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief.” But their latest campaign, “Out of the Closet,” puts real names and faces together with simple statements of values or disbelief: “Atheists work to make this life heavenly,” says Dr. Stephen Uhl of Tucson on one sign. “Compassion is my religion,” says Olivia Chen, a Columbus student whose appears on another.  A recent campaign in Clarkville, Tennessee, merely shows a young woman identified as Grace beside the words, “This is what an atheist looks like.”

Atheist visibility is more than ad campaigns.  In 2009 psychologist Dale McGowan, author ofParenting Beyond Belief, launched the Foundation Beyond Belief , a tool that lets the non-religious visibly contribute to nonprofits working on education, health, human rights and the environment. Last year, the foundation add a donation category called “Challenge the Gap” that builds bridges by contributing to the work of religious groups with shared values. Hemant Mehta of “The Friendly Atheist” hosts news and commentary of interest to young nonbelievers—absent the edge that characterizes an earlier generation of blogs. He brings more humor than anger when he talks with secular student groups about outreach.  Small local groups are doing their part. Seattle Atheists dress as pirates and carry a Flying Spaghetti Monster in summer parades. But they also participate in food drives and blood drives. They hand out water during an annual marathon. The aim is not only to make themselves more visible but to show that they too are compassionate members of the community of humankind.

As nonbelievers gain recognition as normal and ethical members of society, I think we will find that confrontation diminishes and bridge building grows.  It’s not only that both are necessary but that one paves the way for the other. The Stonewall riots and San Francisco drag scene laid the foundation for Feather Boa Fathers and It Gets Better and  pride parades that include local businesses and church banners. Early feminists who stayed defiant even when beaten and jailed made way for the apple pie tactics of Moms Rising, which has stenciled messages on onesies and delivered cookies to congressmen to get their equal pay message across.  In the words of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The questions are in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.

Greta Christina has estimated that atheist visibility is about thirty-five years behind the gay rights movement. That sounds close. We’ll have caught up when a majority of Americans know they know a nontheist – and that friends, family members, and fellow citizens really can be good without God.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.


Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/story/155278/should_atheists_slam_religion_or_show_respect?akid=8723.123424.sDTZId&rd=1&t=5

Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?

From: The Atlantic

By:Ross Andersen

It is hard to know how our future descendants will regard the little sliver of history that we live in. It is hard to know what events will seem important to them, what the narrative of now will look like to the twenty-fifth century mind. We tend to think of our time as one uniquely shaped by the advance of technology, but more and more I suspect that this will be remembered as an age of cosmology—as the moment when the human mind first internalized the cosmos that gave rise to it. Over the past century, since the discovery that our universe is expanding, science has quietly begun to sketch the structure of the entire cosmos, extending its explanatory powers across a hundred billion galaxies, to the dawn of space and time itself. It is breathtaking to consider how quickly we have come to understand the basics of everything from star formation to galaxy formation to universe formation. And now, equipped with the predictive power of quantum physics, theoretical physicists are beginning to push even further, into new universes and new physics, into controversies once thought to be squarely within the domain of theology or philosophy.

In January, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and Director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, published A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, a book that, as its title suggests, purports to explain how something—and not just any something, but the entire universe—could have emerged from nothing, the kind of nothing implicated by quantum field theory. But before attempting to do so, the book first tells the story of modern cosmology, whipping its way through the big bang to microwave background radiation and the discovery of dark energy. It’s a story that Krauss is well positioned to tell; in recent years he has emerged as an unusually gifted explainer of astrophysics. One of his lectures has been viewed over a million times on YouTube and his cultural reach extends to some unlikely places—last year Miley Cyrus came under fire when she tweeted a quote from Krauss that some Christians found offensive. Krauss’ book quickly became a bestseller, drawing raves from popular atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the latter of which even compared it to The Origin of Species for the way its final chapters were supposed to finally upend “last trump card of the theologian.”
By early spring, media coverage of “A Universe From Nothing” seemed to have run its course, but then on March 23rd the New York Times ran a blistering review of the book, written by David Albert, a philosopher of physics from Columbia University. Albert, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, argued that Krauss’ “nothing” was in fact a something and did so in uncompromising terms:

“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

Because the story of modern cosmology has such deep implications for the way that we humans see ourselves and the universe, it must be told correctly and without exaggeration-–in the classroom, in the press and in works of popular science. To see two academics, both versed in theoretical physics, disagreeing so intensely on such a fundamental point is troubling. Not because scientists shouldn’t disagree with each other, but because here they’re disagreeing about a claim being disseminated to the public as a legitimate scientific discovery. Readers of popular science often assume that what they’re reading is backed by a strong consensus. Having recently interviewed Krauss for a different project, I reached out to him to see if he was interested in discussing Albert’s criticisms with me. He said that he was, and mentioned that he would be traveling to New York on April 20th to speak at a memorial service for Christopher Hitchens. As it happened, I was also due to be in New York that weekend and so, last Friday, we were able to sit down for the extensive, and at times contentious, conversation that follows.

I know that you’re just coming from Christopher Hitchens’ memorial service. How did that go?
Krauss: It was a remarkable event for a remarkable man, and I felt very fortunate to be there. I was invited to give the opening presentation in front of all of these literary figures and dignitaries of various sorts, and so I began the only way I think you can begin, and that’s with music from Monty Python. That got me over my initial stage fright and my concern about what to say about someone as extraordinary as Christopher. I was able to talk about a lot of the aspects of Christopher that people may not know about, including the fact that he was fascinated by science. And I also got to talk about what it felt like to be his friend.
I closed with an anecdote, a true story about the last time I was with him. I was reading the New York Times at his kitchen table, and there was an article about the ongoing effort to keep Catholic students at elite colleges like Yale from losing their faith. The article said something like “faced with Nietzsche, coed dorms, Hitchens, and beer pong, students are likely to stray.” There are two really amazing aspects of that. For one, to be so culturally ubiquitous that you can be mentioned in a sentence like that without any further explanation is pretty exceptional. But also to be sandwiched between “Nietzsche” and “beer pong” is an honor that very few of us can ever aspire to.
I want to start with a general question about the relationship between philosophy and physics. There has been a fair amount of sniping between these two disciplines over the past few years. Why the sudden, public antagonism between philosophy and physics? 
Krauss: That’s a good question. I expect it’s because physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them—
Is that really a claim that you see often?
Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.
KraussLawrence_4177.JPGLawrence Krauss, author of “A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing”
On that note, you were recently quoted as saying that philosophy “hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.” But computer science, particularly research into artificial intelligence was to a large degree built on foundational work done by philosophers in logic and other formal languages. And certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?
Krauss: Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention. There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics—it’s not talking about things that have affected computer science, it’s mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that’s generated in other areas.
I’m not sure that’s right. I think that in some cases philosophy actually generates new fields. Computer science is a perfect example. Certainly philosophical work in logic can be said to have been subsumed by computer science, but subsumed might be the wrong word—
Krauss: Well, you name me the philosophers that did key work for computer science; I think of John Von Neumann and other mathematicians, and—
But Bertrand Russell paved the way for Von Neumann.
Krauss: But Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. I mean, he was a philosopher too and he was interested in the philosophical foundations of mathematics, but by the way, when he wrote about the philosophical foundations of mathematics, what did he do? He got it wrong.
But Einstein got it wrong, too—
Krauss: Sure, but the difference is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn. And look, one can play semantic games, but I think that if you look at the people whose work really pushed the computer revolution from Turing to Von Neumann and, you’re right, Bertrand Russell in some general way, I think you’ll find it’s the mathematicians who had the big impact. And logic can certainly be claimed to be a part of philosophy, but to me the content of logic is mathematical.
Do you find this same tension between theoretical and empirical physics?
Krauss: Sometimes, but it shouldn’t be there. Physics is an empirical science. As a theoretical physicist I can tell you that I recognize that it’s the experiment that drives the field, and it’s very rare to have it go the other way; Einstein is of course the obvious exception, but even he was guided by observation. It’s usually the universe that’s surprising us, not the other way around.

“It’s usually the universe that’s surpising us, not the other way around.”

Moving on to your book “A Universe From Nothing,” what did you hope to accomplish when you set out to write it?
Krauss: Every time I write a book, I try and think of a hook. People are interested in science, but they don’t always know they’re interested in science, and so I try to find a way to get them interested. Teaching and writing, to me, is really just seduction; you go to where people are and you find something that they’re interested in and you try and use that to convince them that they should be interested in what you have to say.
The religious question “why is there something rather than nothing,” has been around since people have been around, and now we’re actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question. And so I figured I could use that question as a way to celebrate the revolutionary changes that we’ve achieved in refining our picture of the universe. I didn’t write the book to attack religion, per se. The purpose of the book is to point out all of these amazing things that we now know about the universe. Reading some of the reactions to the book, it seems like you automatically become strident the minute you try to explain something naturally.
Richard Dawkins wrote the afterword for the book—and I thought it was pretentious at the time, but I just decided to go with it—where he compares the book to The Origin of Species. And of course as a scientific work it doesn’t some close to The Origin of Species, which is one of the greatest scientific works ever produced. And I say that as a physicist; I’ve often argued that Darwin was a greater scientist than Einstein. But there is one similarity between my book and Darwin’s—before Darwin life was a miracle; every aspect of life was a miracle, every species was designed, etc. And then what Darwin showed was that simple laws could, in principle, plausibly explain the incredible diversity of life. And while we don’t yet know the ultimate origin of life, for most people it’s plausible that at some point chemistry became biology. What’s amazing to me is that we’re now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing. That’s been driven by profound revolutions in our understanding of the universe, and that seemed to me to be something worth celebrating, and so what I wanted to do was use this question to get people to face this remarkable universe that we live in.
school_of_athens2.jpg“Philosophy hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.”
Your book argues that physics has definitively demonstrated how something can come from nothing. Do you mean that physics has explained how particles can emerge from so-called empty space, or are you making a deeper claim? 
Krauss: I’m making a deeper claim, but at the same time I think you’re overstating what I argued. I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. I try to be intellectually honest in everything that I write, especially about what we know and what we don’t know. If you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you. They see I’m a physicist and so if I say that protons are little pink elephants, people might believe me. And so I try to be very careful and responsible. We don’t know how something can come from nothing, but we do know some plausible ways that it might.
But I am certainly claiming a lot more than just that. That it’s possible to create particles from no particles is remarkable—that you can do that with impunity, without violating the conservation of energy and all that, is a remarkable thing. The fact that “nothing,” namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I’ll be the first to say that empty space as I’m describing it isn’t necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain’t nothing anymore.
But debating physics with Augustine might not be an interesting thing to do in 2012.
Krauss: It might be more interesting than debating some of the moronic philosophers that have written about my book. Given what we know about quantum gravity, or what we presume about quantum gravity, we know you can create space from where there was no space. And so you’ve got a situation where there were no particles in space, but also there was no space. That’s a lot closer to “nothing.”
But of course then people say that’s not “nothing,” because you can create something from it. They ask, justifiably, where the laws come from. And the last part of the book argues that we’ve been driven to this notion—a notion that I don’t like—that the laws of physics themselves could be an environmental accident. On that theory, physics itself becomes an environmental science, and the laws of physics come into being when the universe comes into being. And to me that’s the last nail in the coffin for “nothingness.”
It sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?
Krauss: That would be a legitimate argument if that were all I was arguing. By the way it’s a nebulous term to say that something is a quantum vacuum in this way. That’s another term that these theologians and philosophers have started using because they don’t know what the hell it is, but it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about. When I talk about empty space, I am talking about a quantum vacuum, but when I’m talking about no space whatsoever, I don’t see how you can call it a quantum vacuum. It’s true that I’m applying the laws of quantum mechanics to it, but I’m applying it to nothing, to literally nothing. No space, no time, nothing. There may have been meta-laws that created it, but how you can call that universe that didn’t exist “something” is beyond me. When you go to the level of creating space, you have to argue that if there was no space and no time, there wasn’t any pre-existing quantum vacuum. That’s a later stage.
Even if you accept this argument that nothing is not nothing, you have to acknowledge that nothing is being used in a philosophical sense. But I don’t really give a damn about what “nothing” means to philosophers; I care about the “nothing” of reality. And if the “nothing” of reality is full of stuff, then I’ll go with that.

“But I don’t really give a damn what “nothing” means to philosophers; I care about the “nothing” of reality.”

But I don’t have to accept that argument, because space didn’t exist in the state I’m talking about, and of course then you’ll say that the laws of quantum mechanics existed, and that those are something. But I don’t know what laws existed then. In fact, most of the laws of nature didn’t exist before the universe was created; they were created along with the universe, at least in the multiverse picture. The forces of nature, the definition of particles—all these things come into existence with the universe, and in a different universe, different forces and different particles might exist. We don’t yet have the mathematics to describe a multiverse, and so I don’t know what laws are fixed. I also don’t have a quantum theory of gravity, so I can’t tell you for certain how space comes into existence, but to make the argument that a quantum vacuum that has particles is the same as one that doesn’t have particles is to not understand field theory.
I’m not sure that anyone is arguing that they’re the same thing–
Krauss: Well, I read a moronic philosopher who did a review of my book in the New York Times who somehow said that having particles and no particles is the same thing, and it’s not. The quantum state of the universe can change and it’s dynamical. He didn’t understand that when you apply quantum field theory to a dynamic universe, things change and you can go from one kind of vacuum to another. When you go from no particles to particles, it means something.
I think the problem for me, coming at this as a layperson, is that when you’re talking about the explanatory power of science, for every stage where you have a “something,”—even if it’s just a wisp of something, or even just a set of laws—there has to be a further question about the origins of that “something.” And so when I read the title of your book, I read it as “questions about origins are over.”
Krauss: Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that you can keep asking “Why?” forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can’t answer, but if we can answer the “How?” questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter. And it may just be an infinite set of questions, but what I point out at the end of the book is that the multiverse may resolve all of those questions. From Aristotle’s prime mover to the Catholic Church’s first cause, we’re always driven to the idea of something eternal. If the multiverse really exists, then you could have an infinite object—infinite in time and space as opposed to our universe, which is finite. That may beg the question as to where the multiverse came from, but if it’s infinite, it’s infinite. You might not be able to answer that final question, and I try to be honest about that in the book. But if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it’s worth celebrating. I don’t ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it’s turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there’s a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds.
In the past you’ve spoken quite eloquently about the Multiverse, this idea that our universe might be one of many universes, perhaps an infinite number. In your view does theoretical physics give a convincing account of how such a structure could come to exist?
Krauss: In certain ways, yes—in other ways, no. There are a variety of multiverses that people in physics talk about. The most convincing one derives from something called inflation, which we’re pretty certain happened because it produces effects that agree with almost everything we can observe. From what we know about particle physics, it seems quite likely that the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion early on. But inflation, insofar as we understand it, never ends—it only ends in certain regions and then those regions become a universe like ours. You can show that in an inflationary universe, you produce a multiverse, you produce an infinite number of causally separated universes over time, and the laws of physics are different in each one. There’s a real mechanism where you can calculate it.
And all of that comes, theoretically, from a very small region of space that becomes infinitely large over time. There’s a calculable multiverse; it’s almost required for inflation-–it’s very hard to get around it. All the evidence suggests that our universe resulted from a period of inflation, and it’s strongly suggestive that well beyond our horizon there are other universes that are being created out of inflation, and that most of the multiverse is still expanding exponentially.
multiverse.pngAn artist’s rendering of the multiverse.
Is there an empirical frontier for this? How do we observe a multiverse?
Krauss: Right. How do you tell that there’s a multiverse if the rest of the universes are outside your causal horizon? It sounds like philosophy. At best. But imagine that we had a fundamental particle theory that explained why there are three generations of fundamental particles, and why the proton is two thousand times heavier than the electron, and why there are four forces of nature, etc. And it also predicted a period of inflation in the early universe, and it predicts everything that we see and you can follow it through the entire evolution of the early universe to see how we got here. Such a theory might, in addition to predicting everything we see, also predict a host of universes that we don’t see. If we had such a theory, the accurate predictions it makes about what we can see would also make its predictions about what we can’t see extremely likely. And so I could see empirical evidence internal to this universe validating the existence of a multiverse, even if we could never see it directly.
You have said that your book is meant to describe “the remarkable revolutions that have taken place in our understanding of the universe over the past 50 years–revolutions that should be celebrated as the pinnacle of our intellectual experience.” I think that’s a worthy project and, like you, I find it lamentable that some of physics’ most extraordinary discoveries have yet to fully penetrate our culture. But might it be possible to communicate the beauty of those discoveries without tacking on an assault on previous belief systems, especially when those belief systems aren’t necessarily scientific? 
Krauss: Well, yes. I’m sympathetic to your point in one sense, and I’ve had this debate with Richard Dawkins; I’ve often said to him that if you want people to listen to you, the best way is not to go up to them and say, “You’re stupid.” Somehow it doesn’t get through.
It’s a fine line and it’s hard to tell where to fall on this one. What drove me to write this book was this discovery that the nature of “nothing” had changed, that we’ve discovered that “nothing” is almost everything and that it has properties. That to me is an amazing discovery. So how do I frame that? I frame it in terms of this question about something coming from nothing. And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, “out of nothing, nothing comes,” because those are just empty words. I think at some point you need to provoke people. Science is meant to make people uncomfortable. And whether I went too far on one side or another of that line is an interesting question, but I suspect that if I can get people to be upset about that issue, then on some level I’ve raised awareness of it.
The unfortunate aspect of it is, and I’ve come to realize this recently, is that some people feel they don’t even need to read the book, because they think I’ve missed the point of the fundamental theological question. But I suspect that those people weren’t open to it anyway. I think Steven Weinberg said it best when he said that science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God. That’s a profoundly important point, and to the extent that cosmology is bringing us to a place where we can address those very questions, it’s undoubtedly going to make people uncomfortable. It was a judgment call on my part and I can’t go back on it, so it’s hard to know.
You’ve developed this wonderful ability to translate difficult scientific concepts into language that can enlighten, and even inspire a layperson. There are people in faith communities who are genuinely curious about physics and cosmology, and your book might be just the thing to quench and multiply that curiosity. But I worry that by framing these discoveries in language that is in some sense borrowed from the culture war, that you run the risk of shrinking the potential audience for them—and that could ultimately be a disservice to the ideas. 
Krauss: Ultimately, it might be. I’ve gone to these fundamentalist colleges and I’ve gone to Fox News and it’s interesting, the biggest impact I’ve ever had is when I said, “you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution.” I’ve had young kids come up to me and say that affected them deeply. So yes it’s nice to point that out, but I actually think that if you read my book I never say that we know all the answers, I say that it’s pompous to say that we can’t know the answers. And so yeah I think that maybe there will be some people who are craving this stuff and who won’t pick up my book because of the way I’ve framed it, but at the same time I do think that people need to be aware that they can be brave enough to ask the question “Is it possible to understand the universe without God?” And so you’re right that I’m going to lose some people, but I’m hoping that at the same time I’ll gain some people who are going to be brave enough to come out of the closet and ask that question. And that’s what amazes me, that nowadays when you simply ask the question you’re told that you’re offending people.
But let me bring that back full circle. You opened this conversation talking about seduction. You’re not giving an account of seduction right now. 
Krauss: That’s true, but let me take it back full circle to Hitchens. What Christopher had was charm, humor, wit and culture as weapons against nonsense, and in my own small way what I try and do in my books is exactly that. I try and infuse them with humor and culture and that’s the seduction part. And in this case the seduction might be causing people to ask, “How can he say that? How can he have the temerity to suggest that it’s possible to get something from nothing? Let me see what’s wrong with these arguments.” If I’d just titled the book “A Marvelous Universe,” not as many people would have been attracted to it. But it’s hard to know. I’m acutely aware of this seduction problem, and my hope is that what I can do is get people to listen long enough to where I can show some of what’s going on, and at the same time make them laugh.

Emphasis Mine

see:

American Atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious

From:Washington Post Social Reader

N.B.: This is why Separation of Church and State is more important than ever!

By: Susan Jacoby

“I am sorry to tell you that this will be my last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, and I want to thank all of you who have followed my essays, including many who have taken the trouble to write me lengthy personal letters on my author Web site. Although I will continue to write occasionally on issues of unusual importance, a weekly column diverts too much time from the research for my next book, to be titled, “Conversions: A Secular History.”

In the new book, I will be examining the full range of historical and personal factors influencing ostensibly religious conversions, from that old favorite, the threat of execution, to marrying a third wife who happens to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant. For the former, see under: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; for the latter, under: Gingrich, Newt.

Looking back on my five years as a contributor to “On Faith,” I see a great paradox in the progress of American secularism: The numbers and visibility of atheists and secularists in the United States have increased but their political and social influence has not.

The large audience for the writings of atheists, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right. For the warriors of the Christian right, in particular, this exaggeration serves the purpose of presenting themselves as victims in a nation where they in fact wield a power that they do not enjoy anywhere else in the developed world.

For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.

Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.

The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.

I have also observed that secularists, unlike the religious right, do not always have the same political values. There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.

But there is another, much more important difficulty in the secular struggle to alter default assumptions about religion. Since the 1980s, the far right, especially the religious right, has been masterful at taking control of public language in a way that always places secularism and secular liberalism on the defensive.

First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label, as evinced by the current efforts of those fighting abortion restrictions to characterize themselves as “the real pro-lifers.” Once you start trying to appropriate the meaning of your opponents’ already twisted labels, you’re already halfway to losing whatever battle you’re fighting.

Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.

Now the same people are trying to take control of the term “religious liberty” and redefine it to mean the freedom of religious groups to accept government money but spend it only on providing services that have their particular faith imprimatur..

At an October hearing, titled “Religious Liberty in the United States,” largely ignored by the mainstream media, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, asserted that religious freedom is under attack in America as it has never been in the past.

What Franks actually means by “religious freedom” is the liberty of religion to spend government money as it pleases. He is right, however, that this was never an issue on a national level in the past, because for most of the nation’s existence, the federal government never made the grievous error of giving money for secular purposes to faith-based organizations.

A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.

Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.

Note, again, the use of the term “religious liberty” to mean liberty for religious institutions to impose their values with taxpayer money. In practical terms, what Bishop Lori means is that when a rape victim walks into a government-funded Catholic emergency clinic, the clinic can not only refuse to offer the morning-after pill to protect her against pregnancy but can even fail to tell her about the existence of such a pill or to refer her to a nonsectarian institution that does provide such services.

The belief that religious institutions have the right to feed at the government trough while rejecting any government rules is the glue of the lobbying alliance between the Catholic bishops and right-wing evangelical Protestant leaders — an odd coupling that has never before existed in American history.

The only person at the hearing to point out that this redefinition of religious liberty is actually a demand for “special government blessings for those in favored faiths, and conversely, the treatment of members of other faiths as second-class citizens” was Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Nothing could be further from religious liberty as originally conceived by both the secularists and the people of liberal religion (mainly Baptists, liberal Congregationalists on the road to Unitarianism, and Quakers) who wrote the founding documents for this nation. All of these religious believers would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money to underwrite their beliefs. That is why they joined with freethinkers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to pass the the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The first state law to officially draw a line between government and religious institutions was written when religious conservatives in Virginia attempted to tax citizens for Christian teaching in public schools. This act would become the template for the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What religious liberty has traditionally meant in the United States is the right of all to believe and proselytize as they wish without government interference or favoritism. It also means the right of minority religions and of those who do not believe in any religion to be free from harassment by a state-favored religious majority.

Language distortion bolsters every aspect of religion as the default position. Twenty years ago, I could be reasonably sure, if I opened a fundraising appeal mentioning religious liberty on the envelope, that the notice came from a group like Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the ACLU. Now such appeals come from the likes of Focus on the Family and the Catholic hierarchy. They have no shame, and they want religious liberty only for themselves.

If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.

There is another related, equally important task for the secular movement today. We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. Ross Douthaut, writing in the Times, argued that “many Christian readers felt that in Hichens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible…surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.”

This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”

One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.

I will close this column on the same note that I ended my book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” in which I quoted Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles onto a place of shelter:

Poor naked wretches, wereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

[Make sure to set this so it appears as poetry.]

Yes, let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.”

Emphasis Mine

see:https://apps.facebook.com/wpsocialreader/me/channels/read/content/dkR5A?utm_source=redirect&utm_medium=headline&utm_campaign=networknews&denyRedirect=http%3A%2F%2Fwpsocialreader.washingtonpost.com%2Ffbwapolabs%2Fme%2Fredirect%2Fwww.washingtonpost.com%2Fblogs%2Fspirited-atheist%2Fpost%2Famerican-atheists-must-define-themselves-not-be-defined-by-the-religious%2F2011%2F12%2F27%2FgIQAovELMP_blog.html%3Ffb_ref%3DNetworkNews%26socialreader_check%3D0%26denied%3D1

10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists, Debunked

From Alternet, by Amanda Marcotte

“In a regular poll conducted by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell on American political attitudes, atheists recently lost their spot as as the most disliked group in America to the Tea Party. Still, number two is simply way too high in the unpopularity rankings for a group of people who just happen to spend Sunday mornings in bed instead of in church. Polling data shows that nearly half of Americans would disapprove if their child married an atheist and nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t see atheists as sharing their vision of American society, numbers that outstripped similar prejudices toward Muslims and African Americans.

Of course, the real reason atheists are so hated has little to do with jealousy for all their free time, but largely because most Americans are better acquainted with myths than with the realities of atheists’ lives. Unfortunately, atheists often have these myths tossed in their faces, usually by believers who would rather talk about what they heard atheists are like rather than uncomfortable subjects such as the lack of proof for any gods.

These myths do more than hurt atheists. They also harm the basic religious freedoms of all Americans, regardless of their beliefs. Religious freedom and tolerance don’t mean much if they can’t be expanded to include those without religion. With that in mind, here’s 10 of the ugliest myths about atheists, debunked:

1) There are no atheists in foxholes. There are many variations on this myth, but the basic idea behind it is that atheism is a luxury of the problem-free, and as soon as they feel fear or weakness, atheists will run straight into the arms of religion. This myth irritates atheists, because it tries to make a virtue out of preying on people’s weaknesses in order to sell them a lie. If you heard a marketer brag that he targets people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal illnesses because they’re easier targets, or a guy say he likes to cruise funerals because grieving women are easier to pick up, you’d think that person had no morals at all. But targeting people in moments of weakness to sell them religion is regarded as a normal and even virtuous strategy for proselytizing.

Beyond concerns about manipulation are the concerns about accuracy. Believers argue religion offers unique comforts to people in fear or pain, but what many atheists realize is that religion often provokes more anxiety and fear than it soothes. If we accept that God is all-powerful, as many religions claim, then it’s like being in an abusive relationship that can’t be escaped for eternity; a relationship with a God who will throw us into hell for not fearing him and who allows horrors like the Holocaust to happen. Many religious teachings aren’t actually that soothing at allif you take a step back and look at them clearly. For atheists, believing that evil is more an accident of nature than something imposed on us by an inscrutable supernatural being is the far greater comfort than any prayer could be.

2) Atheists are just angry with God. Atheists often point out the logical inconsistencies of many religious beliefs—such as the belief both that God is all-good and all-powerful, but he somehow also allows evil to exist—and believers use that to conclude that atheists are angry with God. We aren’t. You can’t be angry with a being that you don’t believe exists. I’m no angrier with God than I am angry with Zeus or the aliens that keep kidnapping drunks sleeping in their cars. Anger with religions for promoting false beliefs isn’t the same thing as being angry at the being that believers invented.

But I also have to quarrel with the very notion that a person’s arguments can be dismissed because of anger. Smugly accusing someone of anger doesn’t do anything to discount the content of the argument. I’d argue that people who see vile behavior in the name of religion and don’t get angry are the ones who have something wrong with them.

3) Atheists are aggressive and rude. This myth has been around in various forms for a long time, but it really took off after the rise of “New Atheism,” which focuses its energy on disproving religious claims instead of merely pleading for tolerance of atheists. This myth only persists because belief is unconsciously privileged over atheism, causing people to believe it’s somehow ruder for an atheist to say, “I don’t believe in God and here’s why” than for a believer to intrude in your personal space with pamphlets, attack people when they’re feeling low with religious claims, knock on your door to proselytize, or force your children to recite religious language in school. Objectively speaking, believers commit transgressions against good manners far more than atheists. But atheist arguments tend to disturb believers more than arguments for God disturb atheists, so atheists get an unfair reputation for being rude, even when they are merely outspoken or unapologetic.

4) Atheism is a white dude thing. It’s easy if atheism makes you uncomfortable to write off atheism as the hobbyhorse of a tiny minority of men with overly high opinions of their own intelligence. That men such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins get most of the media attention devoted to atheism only reinforces this myth. If you scratch the surface, however, you’ll see that the ranks of outspoken atheists have far more women that the media would let on. Atheist blogger Jen McCreight grew so tired of this myth that she compiled an extensive list of prominent female atheists such as Susan Jacoby, Rebecca Watson and Lori Lipman Brown. Greta Christina followed up with a list of prominent atheists of color, such as Debbie Goddard, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Hemant Mehta. Women are specially targeted for religious oppression around the world, so of course, many of us will be open to arguments against the legitimacy of religion.

5) Atheism is just a faith like any other. You occasionally see agnostics trot this one out, as well. The idea is that arguments for and against the existence of any gods have equal value, but it’s simply not true. The logical position toward an extraordinary, supernatural claim is skepticism until proof is offered, and so far none of the thousands of gods that have been claimed to exist throughout history have lifted a finger to prove themselves. In fact, most believers grasp this for themselves; they automatically disbelieve all religious claims except their own, barring actual proof that never produces itself. Atheists just do religious people one better, and make no exceptions for a religion because it happens to be the one we were raised in or convinced by friends to convert to.

I always flinch in embarrassment for the believer who trots out, “Atheism is just another kind of faith,” because it’s a tacit admission that taking claims on faith is a silly thing to do. When you’ve succumbed to arguing that the opposition is just as misguided as you are, it’s time to take a step back and rethink your attitudes.

6) Atheists don’t have a moral code. Atheist are routinely asked how people will know not to rape and murder without religion telling them not to do it, especially a religion that backs up the orders with threats of hell. Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you’re trying to argue from a position of moral superiority.

If anything, atheism correlates to better behavior on average. Atheists are under-represented in prison, for instance, and more religious nations have higher rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy, early adult mortality and even abortion. But setting the numbers aside, we can see that even religious people generally believe that morality exists outside of religion. After all, most religious people condemn people who commit acts of evil in the name of religion. If religiosity were the measure of morality, terrorists who murder in the name of God would be more moral than atheists who pay their taxes and give to charity. You’ll find few believers agreeing that a murderous terrorist for God is a better person than a nonviolent atheist, showing that believers grasp that morality doesn’t come from religion, but that we can measure religious claims against our pre-existing understanding of morality.

7) Atheist lives are bleak and lack meaning. Those in the atheist activist community find this one particularly insipid, because we so often deal with people who suffered religious abuse and were only able to find peace by abandoning religion. There’s really no reason to believe that happiness and fulfillment come from a supernatural place, or else believers would have no need for fulfilling work, loving families, friends, and hobbies, since their spiritual beliefs would suffice. Most atheists actually find our lack of belief in a supernatural being makes it easier to fill our lives with meaning and joy. Since we don’t believe in an afterlife, many of us find ourselves more motivated to make the most out of the time we do have instead of looking to the next life to make us happy.

8) Atheists are hedonists who don’t understand the true meaning of love. As an open reproductive rights supporter, I’ve certainly faced my share of believers accusing me of being an atheist so I can simply indulge my sexual appetites and avoid some abstract true meaning of love. It is true that one of the benefits of being an atheist is that you’re no longer crippled by religious phobias that assume that sexual fulfillment and real love are mutually exclusive, but that certainly doesn’t mean atheists don’t feel genuine love. I suspect some Christians enjoy making high-minded claims about feeling deeper love because they know there’s no way to measure their claims. But the higher divorce rates in more religious states don’t bode well for claims that sexual purity and Christianity make love deeper and truer.

9) Atheists have no way to cope after losing loved ones without the belief in an afterlife. The belief that religion has sole ownership over death is so ingrained that it often causes believers to behave in inappropriate ways toward grieving atheists, using the occasion of a loved one’s death to try to coax us into taking up religion. Some believers who do this are openly predatory, but some mean well, and simply can’t imagine how atheists cope without telling ourselves pretty stories about an afterlife. Atheists have every right to be skeptical of the argument that belief in the afterlife quiets the pain of grief. After all, many religions teach that the dead person could be burning forever in hell, which can cause far more anxiety than relief.

I imagine the nothingness of death is much like the nothingness that existed before birth. Believing in the afterlife seems to have more to do with the egos of the living than concerns about the dead, and by letting go of the need to make the end of someone else’s life about your own fears of death, many atheists can focus on working through the grief in a healthy way. So please, believers, don’t use the death of loved ones as an opportunity to proselytize.

10) Atheists are out to destroy Christmas. It’s September and so this myth is relatively quiet, but it tends to come out every year after Halloween, to accompany Christmas decorations going up. For Fox News, ratcheting fears about a “war on Christmas” has replaced caroling as the annual holiday ritual. It’s all very silly. Atheists don’t oppose ritual or holidays. Most atheists in America tend to see Christmas as a mostly secular holiday celebrating family that can be turned into a completely secular holiday with a few minor tweaks. Even the few atheists who don’t celebrate Christmas at all certainly have no plan to make war on the holiday, beyond simply requesting that the government obey the First Amendment by not promoting Christianity above other beliefs, no matter what time of year.

In my experience, non-believers have some of the best Christmas celebrations around. You can get a tree and decorate it in punk rock style, or put up a pro-atheist sign in your yard surrounded by festive Christmas decorations. My family tends to prefer all-night poker games for Christmas instead of going to Christmas mass–all the family togetherness, but with less boredom. Or you can choose to have “Christmas” in July and save yourself the expense and headaches of holiday travel.

Debunking these myths about atheists in print can only do so much to quell believer fears about the supposed atheist menace. Even better would be for believers to find themselves an atheist, and instead of simply attacking them with these myths in an effort to frustrate them into submission, instead get to know them better. You might find they’re basically like everyone else, except more rested on Sundays and less afraid that invisible beings are judging them for masturbating.

Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/story/152395/10_myths_many_religious_people_hold_about_atheists%2C_debunked?page=entire

No Need to Choose Between Religious and Secular America

N.B: We still need to maintain church/state separation!

By Bruce Ledewitz, from Religion Dispatches

“Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism

What inspired you to write it? What sparked your interest (person, event book)?

After what I considered the disastrous reelection of President George Bush in 2004, I began to ponder the implications of the fact that the more often a person went to church, the more likely she was to vote for the president. We were developing two political blocs: a pro-God and an anti-God coalition, roughly Republican and Democratic. While there was some overlap—there were of course many believing Democrats—this belief division was true to a dangerous extent and it undermined the possibility of a genuinely popular, progressive political movement.

At the same time, in constitutional law, Americans were being told by both the left and the right, by both Ronald Dworkin and Antonin Scalia, that we had to choose whether we were a secular society that tolerates religion or a religious society that tolerates non-belief. This was all the worst kind of identity politics.

Finally, rapidly growing secularism, especially among the young, was being fed anti-religious propaganda by Christopher Hitchens and the other “New Atheists.” I was a part of this secularism, having fallen away from a Yeshiva upbringing, but I saw this reflexive hostility toward religion as leading to materialism, relativism, and nihilism among secularists.

In a trilogy of books on the public and private roles of religion and secularism, I have tried to counter these trends. In American Religious Democracy in 2007, I defended religious beliefs in politics against the charge of theocracy. In Hallowed Secularism in 2009, I described a path to a secularism very close to the religious traditions. And now, in Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism, I interpret the Establishment Clause to permit government use of religious imagery in the service of commitments, such as objective values, that transcend the religious/secular divide.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

There is no chasm between religious belief and non-belief, certainly not in terms of politics and not even in personal terms. For example, the reference in the Declaration of Independence to “unalienable rights” with which we are endowed by our “Creator” was not understood at the time as a claim about the existence of God but about the reality of rights. Are rights in some sense real or are they just gifts from government? This is a question for all of us, for my fellow secularists as well as for believers. The national motto, In God We Trust, raises the question whether reality is trustworthy or is just random events? These questions have nothing to do essentially with the existence of supernatural beings. There is a great deal of common ground possible here. We don’t have to choose between being a secular nation or a religious one.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

In three books, I said everything I had to say. Now comes the opportunity to engage secularism and try to broaden it.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The misuse of terms like “reason.” All human beings employ faith commitments of various kinds. It cannot even be conclusively established that there is a mind-independent reality “out there.” So, when secularists claim that they live lives based on reason whereas religious believers base their lives on faith, they are just fooling themselves. We would do better to examine our faith commitments with humility and try to understand ourselves better.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Clearly, my intended audience is non-believers. I want to see a secularism more open to religious imagery and the wisdom that it contains for living. Since my constitutional analysis permits more mixing of church and state than the doctrine of separation would suggest, some religious believers like the book and have pushed for its acceptance. But in my own mind, I am defending a genuine government neutrality toward religion.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I wrote this book to change the world, both in the courtroom and in the culture. For years now, Establishment Clause doctrine has been stuck trying to answer the divisive Dworkin/Scalia question. I am trying to help us get beyond the formulation of religion versus secularism to find common ground.

What alternative title would you give the book?

My original title was “Higher Law in the Public Square” but Indiana University Press found that a little obscure. Still, the higher law tradition has always included believers and non-believers, so it had advantages as a title.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the cover though I had nothing to do with it. The State Capitol and a church were obvious symbols to capture my meaning and IUP used color very effectively. It’s sort of a little red book.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I wish I had written Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. If more non-believers read that book, we would find it easier to talk with each other and with religious believers. We would also be happier and more fulfilled.

What’s your next book?

No book soon, that’s for sure. I hope to be able one day to write a serious book challenging the assumptions of capitalism on behalf of a resurgent Marxism.”

Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/politics/4724/