Science and Religion Cannot Be Reconciled

From: HuffPost

N.B.: A very clear distinction

By: Victor Stenger

“(This essay is based on my 2012 book, God and the Folly of Faith (Prometheus Books).

Religious apologists, spiritualist gurus, and accommodating atheists have been bombarding us with assertions that science and religion have no reason not to get along. This may be politically convenient, but it’s simply untrue. Science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable, and they always will be.

Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence. No one disputes that religion is based on faith. Some authors claim that science is also based on faith. They argue that science takes it on faith that the world is rational and that nature can be ordered in an intelligible way.

However, science makes no such assumption on faith. It analyzes observations by applying certain methodological rules and formulates models to describe those observations. It justifies that process by its practical success, not by any logical deduction derived from dubious metaphysical assumptions. We must distinguish faith from trust. Science has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failure.

Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it.

Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies — the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. Science is the systematic study of the observations made of the natural world with our senses and scientific instruments.

By contrast, all major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the visible world — a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural. If it does not involve the transcendent, it is not religion.

No doubt science has its limits. However, that fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits. For example, science cannot yet show precisely how the universe and life originated naturally, although many plausible scenarios exist. But the fact that science does not at present have a definitive answer to this question does not mean that ancient creation myths such as those in Genesis have any substance, any chance of eventually being verified.

Most of the scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science as they are currently practiced exclude supernatural causes. However, if we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means.

If someone’s inner sense were to warn of an impending earthquake unpredicted by science, which then occurred on schedule, we would have evidence for this extrasensory source of knowledge. Claims of “divine prophecies” have been made throughout history, but not one has been conclusively confirmed.

So far we see no evidence that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads, and have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. However, if such evidence or reason should show up, then scientists will have to consider it whether they like it or not.

We cannot sweep under the rug the many serious problems brought about by the scientific revolution and the exponential burst in humanity’s ability to exploit Earth’s resources made possible by the accompanying technology. There would be no problems with overpopulation, pollution, global warming, or the threat of nuclear holocaust if science had not made them possible. The growing distrust of science found now in America can be understood by observing the disgraceful examples of scientists employed by oil, food, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies who have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of millions by allowing products to be marketed that these scientists knew full well were unsafe.

But does anyone want to return to the pre-scientific age when human life was nasty, brutish, and short? Even fire was once a new technology.

Unsafe products are more than overshadowed by miracle drugs, foods, and technologies that have made all our lives immeasurably better than those of humans in the not-too-distant past. At least in developed countries, women now rarely die in childbirth and most children grow to adulthood. This was not the case even just a few generations ago. Unlike our ancestors, we lead long, fulfilling lives largely free of pain and drudgery. The aged are so numerous that they are becoming a social problem. All this is the result of scientific developments.

We can solve the problems brought about by the misuse of science only by better use of science and more rational behavior on the part of scientists, politicians, corporations, and citizens in all walks of life. And religion, as it is currently practiced, with its continued focus on closed thinking and ancient mythology, is not doing much to support the goal of a better, safer world. In fact, religion is hindering our attempts to attain that goal.

Today science and religion find themselves in serious conflict. Even moderate believers do not fully accept Darwinian evolution. Although they claim to see no conflict between their faith and evolution, they insist that God still controlled the development of life so humans would evolve, which is not at all what the theory of evolution says. Evolution, as understood by science, has no room for God. Anti-evolution fundamentalists are absolutely right about that.

In another example, greedy corporate interests and unscrupulous politicians are exploiting the antiscience attitudes embedded in popular religion to suppress scientific results on issues of global importance, such as the overpopulation and environmental degradation, that threaten the generations of humanity that will follow ours.

Those who rely on observation and reason to provide an understanding of the world must stop viewing as harmless those who rely instead on superstition and the mythologies in ancient texts passed down from the childhood of our species. For the sake of the future of humanity, we must fight to expunge the fantasies of faith from human thinking.

Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today where the large majority of the public hold on to a whole set of beliefs despite the total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them. Magical thinking and blind faith are the worst mental system we can apply under these circumstances. They allow the most outrageous lies to be accepted as facts.

From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today as religious groups are manipulated to work against believers’ own best interests in health and economic well-being in order to cast doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed world-views of science and religion. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

Emphasis Mine



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.


Teen Birth rates drop to record low – birth control!

From: Think Progress

By: Tara Culp-Ressler

“U.S. teen birth rates have dropped to a record low, down nearly 50 percent since 1991, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. There was only a slight decline in the number of teens having sex, suggesting that more adolescents are preventing pregnancy by practicing safer sex.

Experts caution that since the new study didn’t investigate teen behavior, they can’t say exactly what caused the drop in teenage pregnancies — but they suspect some encouraging trends in contraceptive use played a role. Laura Lindberg, a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute,told NBC News that teens are increasingly opting to use more effective forms of birth control as soon as they become sexually active, and the adolescents who use birth control during their first sexual experiences are more likely to use it down the road.

And Lindberg explained that several new policies — including guidelines encouraging doctors to prescribe long-lasting forms of contraception, new Obamacare rulesremoving cost barriers to birth control, and guidelines easing some of the hurdles to obtaining a birth control prescription — have helped ensure that teens now have better access to the best forms of birth control:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines on contraception, and now recommends long-acting birth control methods such as IUDs, which are devices implanted in the uterus, and hormonal birth control drug implants, as the first-line contraceptives offered to teens. “The reason that is important is failure rates are much lower,” Lindberg said. […]

The Obama administration rules now require health insurers to provide birth control care for free, without even a co-pay.

Another important change — fewer doctors now require teenagers to get full pelvic exams before they will prescribe birth control. New federal guidelines say a woman doesn’t need such an exam before she’s 21, even if she is sexually active.

We think that’s lowered what we call the psychic barrier to getting prescription contraception methods,” Lindberg said. “For teenaged girls that first (exam) can be frightening.”

But there’s even more the U.S. could do to make contraception more readily available to the young women who need it. The United States currently uses an antiquated system of tying birth control prescriptions to annual gynecological check-ups, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended that the U.S. put an end to that practice and make birth control available over the counter — whichmost countries around the world already do.

And increasing access to all types of birth control, including emergency contraception, could also make a difference. The Department of Health and Human Services still requires women under the age of 17 to obtain a prescription for Plan B, even though health officials have come out in opposition to the unnecessary federal policy. Particularly since a right-wing smear campaign has falsely construed emergency contraception as an abortifacient, the stigma surrounding Plan B can make it difficult for young adults to access that type of birth control — but, as a pilot program in New York City demonstrates, making Plan B available to teens can drastically lower unplanned pregnancies.

Emphasis Mine



The Contraception Mandate and Religious Liberty

From: Pew Forum

By: (interview)

“On Feb. 1, 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed new rules that would exempt certain religious organizations, including houses of worship, schools and hospitals, from a new mandate to offer free contraception services to women employees. The new regulations would instead require the nonprofits’ health-insurance providers to offer and pay for contraceptive services. The new proposal is the latest step in a controversy that first arose in 2010, with the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The contraception mandate has been the subject of much debate and the object of many lawsuits (read more about public opinion on the birth control insurance mandate). To help explain what today’s announcement might mean for the debate, the Pew Forum asked Professors Ira C. Lupu and Robert Tuttle of The George Washington University Law School to discuss the new rules and the possible outcome of the legal challenges to them.

1. Briefly explain the roots of controversy. How did we get where we are today?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers to offer employees health insurance that provides some preventative medical services free of charge. Part of this mandate includes reproductive health services, such as birth control, sterilization and emergency contraception.

Under regulations drafted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal agencies in 2011, the contraception mandate would not apply to churches or other religious organizations – if their primary purpose is to inculcate religious values and if they primarily serve and primarily employ people of their faith tradition. Under the 2011 rules, houses of worship were clearly exempt, but other religiously affiliated organizations were not exempt because they have purposes other than promoting religion (such as providing education or health care) and they usually serve and employ people of many faiths. HHS gave these groups an extra year to comply with the mandate – meaning that they would have to offer their employees insurance providing the pregnancy prevention services by August 2013.

Many religiously affiliated organizations criticized the new mandate, and some sued the government in federal court. The opponents argued that the requirement violates the guarantees of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) of 1993, which bars the government from substantially burdening religious exercise without having a compelling interest for doing so.

Leading the opposition have been Roman Catholic organizations that oppose abortion and the use of artificial birth control. Some Protestant and Jewish groups that oppose abortion and the use of emergency contraceptives also have sued the government to stop the mandate. Some businesses owned and operated by religious people also have sued, arguing that their religious rights are being abridged. All of the opponents of the mandate contend that they should not be forced to pay for health insurance that provides services that conflict with their religious beliefs. Supporters of the mandate counter that a woman’s access to pregnancy prevention services should not depend on which employer they work for. Supporters also argue that hospitals, schools and other nonprofits, as well as businesses, have no right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

In February 2012, President Obama sought to resolve the controversy by proposing a compromise. With respect to religiously affiliated nonprofits that did not qualify for the full exemption, the president proposed that the groups would still need to provide insurance that covered women’s reproductive health, but they would not have to bear any of the financial cost of these services. Instead, in cases where a religious employer objected, the insurance companies that covered the relevant employees would have to bear all of these costs. The compromise did not change the obligations of for-profit businesses.

Many groups that had objected to the original regulations argued that the compromise did not change the situation. Religious organizations would still have to offer their employees insurance that included coverage of reproductive services, they said, and the insurance companies required to pay for these services would find another way to pass along the cost to employers. Furthermore, the details of the president’s proposal were still somewhat uncertain because they had not been fleshed out into regulatory language – until now.

2. Please explain the newly promulgated rules released today by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The newly proposed rules apply to those religious nonprofits, such as schools, hospitals and social service providers, that HHS did not intend to exempt under the original regulations. Under the new regulations, these religious nonprofits may purchase insurance plans for their workforce that do not offer contraception services. If they do so, their insurance provider will be required to enroll the nonprofit’s female employees in a separate policy that only provides contraceptive services. The insurer will be required to provide these services to employees at no cost. In addition, the insurer, rather than the nonprofit, will have to administer the policy and cover its entire cost. For religious nonprofits that self-insure, the proposed rules require that such organizations must select a third-party administrator that would provide contraceptive coverage to female employees.

3. Are the new rules likely to satisfy the nonprofit organizations that have filed suits in federal courts?

From the beginning of this controversy, religiously affiliated nonprofits have objected to being involved in any way in the provision of one or more of these kinds of services to their employees, whether or not the employer directly paid for the services. Some object to all medical forms of contraception; others object only to emergency contraception, which they view as abortion-inducing. But all object to being put in a role where they are helping their employees gain access to such services. In light of these objections, the new rules may not sufficiently relieve these organizations of what they see as “sinful complicity” in the provision of pregnancy prevention services.

4. What is the status of the lawsuits brought by business or for-profit entities against the original Affordable Care Act rules? Could the outcome of these cases affect the lawsuits brought by nonprofit entities?

As of this date, there have been at least a dozen lower court decisions in cases brought by for-profit businesses objecting to the mandate. Other such cases have recently been filed. In a few cases, lower courts have upheld the position of the United States that corporations and other business entities cannot “exercise religion,” the way individuals can. In addition, some courts have ruled that the contraception mandate does not substantially burden religious exercise, and violates neither RFRA nor the Free Exercise Clause.

However, in a larger number of cases, the lower courts have decided that businesses do have the right to bring such challenges and that the mandate does violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Courts in these cases have concluded that requiring businesses to cooperate in the provision of services that the employer views as sinful is a substantial burden, and that the government’s interest in imposing the mandate to provide services is not “compelling.”

The outcome of these cases could affect the cases brought by religious nonprofits. Of course, religiously affiliated nonprofits, organized in part for religious purposes, will not have to overcome any hurdles about whether they can challenge the regulations. But the nonprofits will have claims similar to those of for-profit businesses, even though, under the new rules, the nonprofits will not be bearing the cost of coverage of pregnancy prevention services in the way that for-profit businesses do. But both make the same basic claim: that they are being forced to facilitate what they believe to be sinful activity in direct violation of their religious rights under RFRA and the Constitution.

5. Do you think it is likely that this issue will be taken up by the Supreme Court?

Because the lower courts will inevitably disagree on a number of questions presented by these cases, the Supreme Court is likely to eventually accept one or more of them to resolve those conflicts. In particular, the high court will have to resolve whether for-profit businesses may assert the same claims of religious freedom as individuals and religious nonprofits. It also will need to determine whether the mandate is a substantial burden on the religious exercise of employers of any kind – whether for profit or nonprofit. Finally, if the justices determine that the mandate does constitute such a burden, the court still must decide whether it violates RFRA or the Constitution.

Emphasis Mine


Godless America: The New Religious-less Reality

From:Huff Post

By: Staks Rosch

Religion is still very important to many Americans and it will be a very long time before we will live in a world without religion. It might not ever happen. However, we are getting much closer to that world, and before we know it, religious belief will occupy the same place as fortunetellers in our society. We are at the dawn of a new reality in America in which people are starting to be more interested in actual reality than they are in ancient superstitions.

According to a 2012 Gallup-International poll (PDF), the number of “convinced atheists” in the United States has risen from 1 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2012. I want to point out here that we are not talking about some vague group of “nones,” or even people who shy away from the “A” label. That 5 percent doesn’t count those who only identify as agnostic or secular. It doesn’t count those who only use the Humanist or rationalist labels, either. We aren’t even talking about people who are just a little bit atheist; we are talking about “convinced atheists.” That’s 5 percent of the American public.

Let’s put this in context with some religious group identities. Muslims make up just .6 percent of the population in America. Although you wouldn’t know that by watching Fox News or by listening to many religious fundamentalists who insist that Sharia Law is going to take over the country any day now.

While Jewish groups have a strong lobby in Washington, they only make up 1.7 percent of the population in the nation. That’s it! Plus, there are still a lot of Jews who are secular and “convinced atheists.” So that number is probably inflated.

There are more “convinced atheists” in America than all the Muslims and Jews combined and doubled. But that’s not all. Not by a long shot. Atheism is still considered a dirty word in much of this country. So there are a lot of people who lack a belief in gods but don’t call themselves atheists.

The media loves the fact that according to the new Gallup tracking poll, the so-called “nones” only grew .3 percent from the previous year. Religious leaders are thrilled that the rise of the “nones” is slowing down. But the media reported it wrong. The “nones” are still rising! Looking at the context of how the other religious identities have risen or fallen, it becomes clear that this is a win for atheism. Protestants actually shrunk by .6 percent. Catholics can’t brag either. They fell .2 percent. Jews and Muslims stayed the same at the previously mentioned 1.7 percent and .6 percent, respectively.

In fact, aside from the Mormons, no religious group increased their numbers in 2012. But the religiously unaffiliated did grow! The story shouldn’t have been that the rise of the “nones” was slowing down, but rather that the religiously unaffiliated is still the fastest growing religious identity. More people are leaving religion than joining religion. Even in the most Bible-minded cities in the country, 48 percent of people are “resistant” to the Bible.

The religiously unaffiliated or “nones” make up about 19 percent of the American population. That’s nearly one in five Americans. I know, not all those people are “convinced atheists,” but the Pew Research Centerdoes break down those numbers a little bit and most of the “nones” don’t believe in any deities. So yeah,they’re atheists. Thirty-six percent of the “nones” are flat-out convinced atheists and agnostics. Thirty-nine percent consider themselves secular or not religious. In other words, they don’t like to use the “A-labels” but they still don’t believe in any deities. Only 23 percent of the religiously unaffiliated “nones” consider themselves to be unattached believers. That means that 77 percent of the “nones” don’t believe in deities. That’s about 14 percent of the American people and 0 percent of Congress.

While religious lawmakers continue to waste tax-payer monepushing laws that affirm “In God We Trust” as our national motto, it is their religious-based laws which continue to attack the rights of women, gays people and racial minorities that are most problematic. Those things aren’t helping religions grow one bit. On the contrary, they are making it easier for me to make my case that basing our laws on the Bible is silly and dangerous. It is much better to base our laws on secular values like human compassion, fairness and reason.

Religious apologists like to talk about a clash of world-views but there is no clash. There are people who live in reality and people who believe ancient stories on bad evidence and faith. When it comes to understanding the world we actually live in, there is no better tool than science. Stephen Hawking put it best:

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

As information becomes more available to the general public via the Internet, religion can no longer hide. When religious leaders make claims, people can now turn to Google and research those claims. You won’t find a religious leader claiming that there are no contradictions in the Bible anymore because a quick Google search can expose that as nonsense. That old line claiming that something can’t come from nothing is easily refuted with a YouTube search on Lawrence Krauss.

Whether religious believers like it or not, we are at the dawn of a new godless age in America. Religious leaders know it and they are afraid. The greater community of reason is organizing and we are starting to demand equal treatment and representation. It won’t be long before we actually get it, either. Religious believers can deface our billboards, but they cannot prevent the inevitable reality that our message is getting out there. People are starting to think critically about the beliefs they have been indoctrinated to believe and they are leaving their religions behind.


Emphasis Mine


Does the Internet Spell Doom For Organized Religion?

From: AlterNet

Author: Valerie Tarico

“As we head into a new year, the guardians of traditional religion are ramping up efforts to keep their flocks—or in crass economic terms, to retain market share. Some Christians have turned to soul searching [3] while others have turned to marketing. Last fall, the LDS church spent millions on billboards, bus banners and Facebook ads touting “I’m a Mormon.” In Canada, the Catholic Church has launched a “Come Home [4]” marketing campaign. The Southern Baptists Convention voted to rebrand itself [5]. A hipster mega-church[6] in Seattle combines smart advertising with sales force training for members and a strategy the Catholics have emphasized for centuries: competitive breeding.

In October 2012 the Pew Research Center announced [7] that for the first time ever Protestant Christians had fallen below 50 percent of the American population. Atheists cheered while evangelicals beat their breasts and lamented the end of the world as we know it. Historian of religion Molly Worthen has since offered [8] big-picture insights that may dampen the most extreme hopes and allay the fears. Anthropologist Jennifer James [9], on the other hand, has called fundamentalism the “death rattle” of the Abrahamic traditions.

In all of the frenzy, few seem to give any recognition to the player that I see as the primary hero, or if you prefer, culprit—and I’m not talking about science populizer and atheist superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson [10]. Then again, maybe I am talking about Tyson in a sense, because in his various viral guises—as atalk show host [11] and tweeter [12] and as the face [13] of scores of smartass Facebook memes—Tyson is an incarnation of the biggest threat organized religion has ever faced: the Internet.

A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden [14] to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull [15] moms home-school their kids with carefully screened textbooks. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist Uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does [16]!)

Religions have spent eons honing defenses [17] that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments [18] to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.

Here are six kinds of web content that are like, well, like electrolysis on religion’s hairy toes.

1. Radically cool science videos and articles.

Religion evokes some of our most deeply satisfying emotions: joy, for example, and transcendence, and wonder. This is what Einstein was talking about when he said that “science without religion is lame.” If scientific inquiry doesn’t fill us at times with delight and even speechless awe at new discoveries or the mysteries that remain, then we are missing out on the richest part of the experience. Fortunately, science can provide all of the above, and certain masters of the trade and sectors of the Internet are remarkably effective at evoking the wonder—the spirituality if you will—of the natural world unveiled.  Some of my own favorites include Symphony of science [19], NOVA [20], TED [21], RSA Animate [22], and Birdnote[23].

It should be no surprise that so many fundamentalists are determined to take down the whole scientific endeavor. They see in science not only a critique of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance.  For millennia, each religion has made an exclusive claim, that it alone had the power to draw people into a grand vision worth a lifetime of devotion. Each offered the assurance that our brief lives matter and that, in some small way, we might live on. Now we are getting glimpses of a reality so beautiful and intricate that it offers some of the same promise.

2. Curated collections of ridiculous beliefs.

Religious beliefs that aren’t yours often sound silly, and the later in life you encounter them the more laughable they are likely to sound. Web writers are after eyeballs, which means that if there’s something ridiculous to showcase, one is guaranteed to write about it. It may be a nuanced exposé or a snarky list or a flaming meme, but the point, invariably, is to call attention to the stuff that makes you roll your eyes [24], shake your head in disbelief, laugh, and then hit Share.

3. The kinky, exploitative, oppressive, opportunistic and violent sides of religion. 

Of course, the case against religion doesn’t stop at weird and wacky. It gets nasty, sometimes in ways that are titillating and sometimes in ways that are simply dark. The Bible is full of sex slavery, polygamy and incest [25], and these are catalogued at places like [26]. Alternately, a student writing about holidays can find a proclamation [27] in which Puritans give thanks to God for the burning of Indian villages or an interview on the mythic origins of the Christmas story. And if the Catholic come-home plea sounds a little desperate, it may well be because the sins of the bishops [28] are getting hard to cover up. On the net, whatever the story may be, someone will be more than willing to expose it.

4. Supportive communities for people coming out of religion.

With or without the net (but especially with it) believers sometimes find their worldview in pieces. Before the Internet existed most people who lost their faith kept their doubts to themselves. There was no way to figure out who else might be thinking forbidden thoughts. In some sects, a doubting member may be shunned, excommunicated, or “disfellowshipped” to ensure that doubts don’t spread. So, doubters used to keep silent and then disappear into the surrounding culture. Now they can create Web sites, and today there are as many communities of former believers as there are kinds of belief. These communities range from therapeutic to political [29], and they cover the range of sects:Evangelical [30], Mormon [31], Jehovah’s Witness [32], and Muslim [33]. There’s even a web home for recovering clergy [34]. Heaven help the unsuspecting believer who wanders into one of these sites and tries to tell members in recovery that they’re all bound for hell.

5. Lifestyles of the fine and faithless.

When they emerge from the recovery process former Christians and Muslims and whatnot find that there’s a whole secular world waiting for them on the web. This can be a lifesaver, literally, for folks who are trapped in closed religious communities on the outside.  On the web, they can explore lifestyles in which people stay surprisingly decent and kind without a sacred text or authority figures telling them what to do. In actuality, since so much of religion is about social support (and social control) lots of people skip the intellectual arguments and exposes, and go straight to building a new identity based in a new social network. Some web resources are specifically aimed at creating alternatives to theism, like Good without God [35], Parenting Beyond Belief [36] or the Foundation Beyond Belief [37].

6. Interspiritual okayness. This might sound odd, but one of the threats to traditional religion are interfaith communities [38] that focus on shared spiritual values. Many religions make exclusive truth claims and see other religions as competitors. Without such claims, there is no need for evangelism, missionaries or a set of doctrines that I call donkey motivators (ie. carrots and sticks) like heaven and hell. The web showcases the fact that humanity’s bad and good qualities are universal [39], spread across cultures and regions, across both secular and religious wisdom traditions [40]. It offers reassurance that we won’t lose the moral or spiritual dimension of life if we outgrow religion, while at the same time providing the means to glean [41] what is truly timeless and wise from old traditions. In doing so, it inevitably reveals that the limitations of any single tradition alone.

The  Dalai Lama, who has led interspiritual dialogue for many years made waves recently by saying as much: “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

The power of interspiritual dialogue is analogous to the broader power of the web in that, at the very heart it is about people finding common ground, exchanging information, and breaking through walls to find a bigger community waiting outside. Last year, Jim Gilliam, founder of Nationbuilder, gave a talk titled, “The Internet is My Religion [42].” Gilliam is a former fundamentalist who has survived two bouts of cancer thanks to the power of science and the Internet. His existence today has required a bone marrow transplant and a double lung transplant organized in part through social media. Looking back on the experience, he speaks with the same passion that drove him when he was on fire for Jesus:

I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body. Three different DNAs. Individually they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human. What an incredible debt to repay. I didn’t even know where to start. And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God.

The Vatican, and the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Southern Baptist Convention should be very worried.”

Emphasis Mine


10 Key Court Decisions That Prevent Right-Wing Christians from Controlling Your Sex Life

From: Alternet

By: Alex Henderson

If the Christian Right had its way, the United States would be a fundamentalist theocracy in which contraception, homosexuality, abortion, sexually explicit hip-hop lyrics and all adult pornography were illegal. But making the U.S. that much of a theocracy would mean overturning a lot of major Supreme Court decisions. Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has had many rulings that helped to advance sexual freedom in the United States—and it will be easier to protect those advances if fewer socially conservative justices of the Antonin Scalia/Clarence Thomas variety are appointed in the future.

Certainly, the Christian Right would have had a better chance of bringing more hardcore social conservatives to the High Court if Republican Mitt Romney had been elected president on November 6, whereas President Barack Obama has shown a tendency to nominate justices who are at least centrist in their judicial philosophy. And now that Obama is getting ready to begin his second term, he will be more likely to appoint justices who will uphold or perhaps even expand Supreme Court decisions that are favorable to gay rights (Lawrence v. Texas), contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird), or one’s right to possess sexually explicit adult erotica (Stanley v. Georgia).

Below are 10 landmark decisions that have had major implications for sexual freedom in the United States.

1. Stanley v. Georgia (1969)

The Christian Right loves to demonize the late Earl Warren, who served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1953-1969—and social conservatives’ hatred of Warren is quite ironic in light of the fact that he was a Republican who was nominated by GOP President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Warren served three terms as California’s Republican governor and was Republican Thomas E. Dewey’s running mate in the 1948 presidential election). But then, the term “socially liberal Republican” wasn’t an oxymoron in the days of the Warren Court. And shortly before Warren’s retirement in 1969, the Warren Court handed down one of the rulings social conservatives are still cursing 43 years later: its decision in Stanley v. Georgia, which said that simple possession of adult pornography is not a crime even if the material is obscene. The Stanley v. Georgia ruling upheld that selling, creating or distributing obscene adult material was illegal, but a consumer could not be charged with obscenity merely for being in possession of that material. In the U.K., civil libertarians have been quite critical of what has been called the “extreme porn law” (which says Internet users can be sent to prison for up to three years merely for downloading “extreme pornography”). Britain’s extreme porn law would not be possible in the U.S. because it would be a violation of the Supreme Court’s Stanley v. Georgia ruling. Only if the Supreme Court overturned Stanley v. Georgia could the U.S. adopt a possession-oriented adult obscenity law along the lines of Britain’s law.

2. Roe v. Wade (1973)

If there is one High Court decision that the Christian Right hates more than any others, it is the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Before that, abortion laws varied considerably from state to state—and Roe v. Wade declared most of the state abortion laws that existed at the time to be unconstitutional. Nationwide, Roe v. Wade made it much easier to obtain abortions during the first trimester of a pregnancy. The Christian Right, after all these years, continues to hope that Roe v. Wade will eventually be overturned—which could happen if enough socially conservative justices are appointed to the Supreme Court. Were that to happen, it wouldn’t be a total nationwide ban on abortion; rather, one would likely see abortion banned in some states and maintained in others. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there would be more abortions in liberal-leaning states than in socially conservative Republican-dominated states. Possibly, the more socially liberal states would encourage comprehensive sex education and easier access to contraception, thus reducing the need for abortions—whereas in the Bible Belt states that banned abortion, Christian Right attacks on sex-ed and birth control would lead to more unplanned pregnancies and an abundance of illegal, unsafe back-alley abortions. So per capita, there might be more abortions (albeit illegal ones) in so-called “red states” should Roe v. Wade be overturned. But that is pure speculation. What we can say with certainty is that President Obama favors upholding Roe v. Wade while Romney favors overturning it.

3. Regina v. Hicklin (1868)

Although the Regina v. Hicklin decision of 1868 was a British case rather than a U.S. case, it had a profound influence on American obscenity law—one that lasted 89 years. Regina v. Hicklin came about because of a British man named Henry Scott, who distributed copies of an anti-Catholic pamphlet titled “The Confessional Unmasked.” When a lower court decided the pamphlet was obscene and ordered it to be destroyed, Scott appealed that decision—and when Regina v. Hicklin went to the Court of Queen’s Bench, the higher court upheld the lower court’s ruling. Scott argued that the pamphlet wasn’t obscene because he wasn’t trying to be offensive; he was merely trying to shed some light on the problems of the Catholic Church. But the Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that Scott’s intent was irrelevant—that if even a small portion of a book or pamphlet had a “tendency to deprave and corrupt,” all of it was obscene. Across the Atlantic Ocean in Britain’s former colonies, that “tendency to deprave and corrupt” standard was adopted in American obscenity law. The Hicklin standard was applied in the U.S. in 1873 when Anthony Comstock (a lobbyist and extreme social conservative) got Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd and/or lascivious” material, which included not only erotic literature, but also pamphlets dealing with birth control and abortion. In 1896, the Hicklin test was upheld with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Rosen v. the United States.

4. Roth v. the United States (1957)

No less than 144 years after Regina v. Hicklin, U.S. law continues to state that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But what has changed dramatically since then is the way obscenity is defined. In 1957, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren redefined obscenity in a major way with its landmark ruling in Roth v. the United States. The Roth decision threw out the Hicklin standard and said that an artistic or literary work could not be obscene because of a small or isolated passage; the intent of the entire work had to be considered. The Roth test made it much harder for prosecutors to get obscenity convictions. Christian Right zealot Phyllis Schlafly, a vehement critic of the Roth decision, has complained that “the flood of pornography started with the Warren Court.” Hugh Hefner’sPlayboy magazine (which was founded in 1953) existed before the Roth decision, but Roth no doubt made it safer for Hefner to publish photos of nude or scantily clad women, and the Roth test certainly made it less risky for Bob Guccione, Sr. to launchPenthousemagazine in 1965.

5. Miller v. California  (1973)

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger tweaked the Roth decision with its Miller v. California ruling, which established the three-prong Miller test for obscenity. According to the Miller test, a film, book or magazine is obscene if it 1) appeals to a prurient interest when contemporary community standards are applied; 2) is patently offensive; and 3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value when taken as a whole (the so-called SLAPS test). And #3 was somewhat of a departure from Roth, which said that obscene material was “utterly without redeeming social value.” Some people in the adult entertainment industry were worried about the SLAPS test, which they feared would make it easier for prosecutors to get convictions in obscenity cases. For example, they thought it would be easier for a prosecutor to convince jurors that Deep Throat (which came out in 1972) lacked serious social value than to convince them that it was totally devoid of social value. But in fact, the market for hardcore triple-X adult films grew considerably in the 1970s (a decade that also saw the birth of Larry Flynt’sHustler magazine, which was much cruder thanPlayboy orPenthouse). The Miller decision, like Rothbefore it, essentially stated that adult pornography is legal as long as it isn’t “obscene.” If a social conservative of the 1970s claimed that porn films like Debbie Does Dallas, The Opening of Misty Beethoven and Behind the Green Door were obscene, the films’ supporters would counter that no, they weren’t obscene because they did, in fact, have serious artistic value. And 39 years after the Miller test was established, it continues to be the standard for determining obscenity in the United States.

6. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)

Another Warren Court ruling that social conservatives detest is the 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down a Connecticut law that forbade the use of contraceptives for married couples. That law, which had been on the books since 1879, had been unsuccessfully challenged in previous cases, including Tileston v. Ullman in 1943 and Poe v. Ullman in 1961. But it wasn’t until Griswold v. Connecticutthat the law was finally declared to be unconstitutional, and the person we can thank for that case is the late feminist Estelle Griswold (who served as executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Connecticut branch). Griswold began to challenge the Connecticut law in the 1950s, when she organized “border runs” in which Connecticut women were taken to New York State or Rhode Island in order to obtain the contraception they couldn’t legally obtain in Connecticut. Griswold later opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, which resulted in her being arrested and fined $100 for violating the 1879 law. Griswold’s arrest was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court, but that ruling was overturned when Griswold v. Connecticut went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1972, the Griswold v. Connecticut decision was expanded to unmarried couples with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird. That case went to the High Court thanks to pro-birth control activist William Baird, who was arrested in 1967 for violating a Massachusetts law that prohibited the distribution of contraception to unmarried people. The Massachusetts law wasn’t as restrictive as the 1879 Connecticut law that was struck down in 1965, but it did say that contraception could only be given to married people and only by doctors and pharmacists. Baird’s arrest came about when he gave a condom and a package of contraceptive foam to an unmarried 19-year-old woman after a lecture at Boston University. The Massachusetts law, however, was declared unconstitutional when Baird appealed his arrest all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

7. Lawrence v. Texas (2003)

In 2003, the Supreme Court was way to the right of where it had been in the days of the Warren Court or even the Burger Court. Yet it was in 2003 that the Supreme Court handed down its historic ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which declared a Texas sodomy law to be unconstitutional and in effect invalidated sodomy laws in 13 other states. Lawrence v. Texas was passed by a 6-3 majority, with justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissenting. Like Stanley v. GeorgiaLawrence v. Texas was a “right to privacy in the home” decision—and it was a major victory for gay rights, which is why Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum (a senator at the time) opposed it so vociferously. Santorum infamously stated that the ruling was flawed because a right to privacy “doesn’t exist” in the U.S. Constitution.

8. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997)

The 1990s saw the rise of a new medium that could be used to sell and distribute sexually explicit or erotic material: the Internet—and the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was Congress’ first major attempt to regulate obscenity and indecency online. The CDA made it a crime to knowingly transmit “obscene or indecent” images to anyone under 18; using some of the language of the Miller test, the CDA made it a crime to send minors material that “depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” But when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the CDA, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-indecency elements of the CDA on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. Justice John Paul Stevens, who felt the CDA’s language was much too broad, wrote that “the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.” In other words, the Supreme Court ruled that some material can be inappropriate for minors but perfectly OK for adults. Stevens’ assertion was a major blow to those who wanted to suppress adult-oriented material on the grounds that minors shouldn’t see it. In that sense, it was yet another nail in the coffin of the old 19th-century Regina v. Hicklin belief that material was obscene if it wasn’t appropriate for “the most susceptible members of society.”

9. Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002)

While the laws governing the creation, sale and distribution of adult entertainment in the United States are complex and nuanced, the Supreme Court has been much more clear-cut where child pornography is concerned. Child pornography is flat-out illegal in the U.S., and that includes simple possession (Stanley v. Georgia only applies to adult erotica). The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in New York v. Ferber in 1982 that child pornography doesn’t enjoy the protections of the Miller test. So when Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA) in 1996, civil libertarians had no problem with Congress reaffirming the illegality of child pornography. But they found parts of the CPPA to be overly broad and problematic, including a ban on “virtual child pornography” (material, including computer-generated images, that appears to depict sexual activity with minors but doesn’t involve any actual minors). The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), a Los Angeles-based trade organization for the adult entertainment industry, challenged those parts of the CPPA—and they were struck down when Ashcroft v. the Free Speech Coalition went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. The Supreme Court upheld the illegality of actual child pornography — and rightly so — but pointed out that countless mainstream Hollywood films have had stories depicting sexual situations among teenagers, including American Beauty and Traffic. The High Court said: “If these films, or hundreds of others of lesser note that explore those subjects, contain a single graphic depiction of sexual activity within the statutory definition, the possessor of the film would be subject to severe punishment without inquiry into the work’s redeeming value. This is inconsistent with an essential First Amendment rule: the artistic merit of a work does not depend on the presence of a single explicit scene.” The FSC applauded the High Court’s decision, asserting that government’s prosecutorial efforts should be focused on real child pornography instead of “virtual child pornography.”

10. Jack Thompson v. the 2 Live Crew (1992)

The majority of obscenity cases in the United States have involved films, magazines or books. But in 1990, Florida-based Christian Right activist Jack Thompson (who was an attorney at the time) tried to prove that U.S. obscenity law applied to music as well—and his main target was 2 Live Crew, a Miami-based rap group known for its sexually explicit lyrics, raunchy humor and song titles like “We Want Some Pussy,” “Head, Booty & Cock,” “The Fuck Shop,” “Me So Horny” and “S&M.” Thompson’s campaign against 2 Live Crew led to Jose Gonzalez (a district court judge in Florida) ruling that its 1989 album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, was obscene and illegal to sell; some retailers were even arrested for selling it. But in 1992, a court of appeals in Georgia overturned Gonzalez’ ruling and asserted that As Nasty As They Wanna Be did not fit the Miller test for obscenity—and that decision was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Thompson continued to rail against rap lyrics, and after that, video games that he didn’t like, although his legal career came to end when, in 2008, the Florida Supreme Court permanently disbarred him for his long history of unprofessional conduct (which included, among other things, libel and slander, frivolous filings and making false statements to tribunals).

Emphasis Mine



Election Blurring of Church, State Separation Draws Complaints


By:Mary Wisniewski, Reuters

Emphasis Mine:

“Political watchdog and secularist groups are asking the U.S. government to investigate whether Catholic bishops and a Christian evangelical group headed by preacher Billy Graham should lose tax breaks for telling followers how to vote in this year’s election.

Under constitutional protections of free speech and separation of church and state, churches are free to speak on any issue. But they risk losing tax breaks worth $145 billion in the past decade if they violate Internal Revenue Service rules by promoting or opposing any particular candidate. Other non-profits also have special tax status.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a political watchdog group, in its complaint to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, cited reports of individual bishops “abusing their positions to advocate against the election of President Barack Obama.”

The group’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, said some bishops went too far by saying a vote for Democrats would mean going to hell. “I don’t think the Catholic bishops should be intimidating parishioners to advocate for any particular candidate,” said Sloan.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the IRS about possible illegal political campaign intervention by Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

IRS spokesman Dean Patterson declined to comment on the complaints or on whether there was any investigation. “Federal law prohibits the IRS from discussing specific taxpayers or situations,” Patterson said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said it would not comment on what a bishop says in his diocese.

The Billy Graham group said that its newspaper ads in publications like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today advocated votes for candidates who support “biblical values” but mentioned no candidate or party.

The ads, signed by Graham, asked voters to back candidates who support “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman” and who protect “the sanctity of life,” an apparent reference to the group’s opposition to abortion.

The conference of bishops waged a campaign this year against the Obama administration’s health care requirement birth control be covered by health insurance.

Church doctrine is opposed to contraception as a means of birth control. Church leaders also spoke out against same-sex marriage but were on the losing side in four states where the issue was on the ballot.

The Power Of The Pulpit

Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University who worked for the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh, said some bishops seemed particularly politically active in this election.

In Cafardi’s opinion, the bishops’ conference did not cross any tax-law lines but some individual bishops may have done so.

“The larger issue is that, irrespective of what the tax code says, churches should be sacred spaces, free of partisan politics,” said Cafardi.

Among those whose political positions created controversy in this campaign season was Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki who warned his flock in a letter of “intrinsic evils” in the Democratic platform’s support of abortion and same-sex marriage. A vote for someone who promotes such actions “places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy,” he said.

Peter Breen, executive director of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a law firm focused on Catholic issues, said the complaint against Catholic bishops was meant to frighten people of faith from challenging their political leaders, which religious people have always been called to do.

“That’s not electioneering – it’s merely making statements about public concern,” said Breen of Paprocki’s statement. “He’s not saying vote for Candidate A as opposed to Candidate B.”

Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop David Ricken made a statement similar to Paprocki’s in an October 24 letter to parishioners, but later said his comments “should not be misunderstood as an endorsement of any political candidates or parties.”

In an April sermon, Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky said Obama, with his “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path” to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and German dictator Adolf Hitler. The homily is posted on the diocese newspaper’s web site.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the IRS in October to investigate a Texas church that advised on its marquee to “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim!” – a reference to Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Obama, who is not a Muslim.

Conservatives were not the only ones getting support from the pulpit. According to an October Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of Black Protestants reported hearing about presidential candidates from clergy at church, and the messages overwhelmingly favored Obama.

Americans United also complained in the 2008 election about a North Carolina Baptist group that invited Michelle Obama to speak at an event that they said appeared to be a campaign rally.

The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the IRS needs to start vigorously enforcing restrictions against political speech by churches.

This is extraordinarily important – one of the few remaining restrictions on campaign spending,” said Lynn. He warned that if churches are allowed to say anything they want politically and keep their tax benefits, “this would be a gigantic new loophole and would not serve the church’s interest, or the public’s.”


How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds the Toxic Partisanship of US Politics

From: AlterNet

By: Katherine Stewart

“Mix It Up at Lunch Day is one of those programs that just seems like a nice thing to do.

The idea is that on one day of the school year, kids are invited to have lunch with the kind of kids they don’t usually hang out with: the jocks mix with the nerds, lunch tables are racially integrated, et cetera. Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of their Teaching Tolerance [3] division, it arose out of a broad effort to tackle the problems of bullying in the schools [4] and bigotry in society – and it appears to have been effective in breaking down stereotypes and reducing prejudice. Over 2,000 schools nationwide now participate in the program, which is set to take place this year on 30 October.

You can argue about how permanent its effects are, or whether other approaches might be better, but the idea of making new friends in the lunchroom seems utterly benign. Right?

Wrong, as it turns out – at least, according to the American Family Association, a radical rightwing evangelical policy group. Mix It Up at Lunch Day is, in fact, part of “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools,” according to the AFA literature [5]. The program “is an entry-level ‘diversity’ program designed specifically by SPCL (sic) to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools, including elementary and junior high schools,” warns the AFA website. “See if your child’s school is on the list.”

The AFA has urged parents to keep their kids home on 30 October, and claims that at least 200 schools have responded to its charge by canceling the program.

There’s a backstory here. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has fought for civil rights causes since its founding in 1971, conceived and promoted Mix It Up at Lunch as part of their Teaching Tolerance program. The SPLC also, as it happens, named the AFA, along with a dozen other “pro-family” groups, as a “hate group” in 2010, citing, among other factors, AFA’s expressed views on same-sex relationships. The “homosexual agenda” is not the only factor in the SPLC’s decision to include AFA on the list. AFA’s director of issues analysis, Bryan Fischer [6], has appeared to suggest that what is biblically deemed “sexual immorality” merits punishment by death [7]. He evidently hates Muslims, too, having recently opined that “allowing a mosque to be built in town is fundamentally no different than granting a building permit to a KKK cultural center.”

So, now it’s payback time. The AFA’s jihad against Mix It Up at Lunch Day [8] is its way of saying “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” It has come up with its own list of boycotts and hate groups, and sure enough the SPLC, on account of its “incendiary language,” is on that list.

Funny word games aside, the SPLC is right. It is, by now, well known that the AFA and the kind of interests they represent spread conspiratorial falsehoods about the LGBT community, placing blame for a wide variety of social ills on a “gay agenda.” They also seem to support a certain type of bullying and bigotry in public schools – the faith-based kind – and believe there should be more of it.

One example comes from an AFA cultural ally: Gateways to Better Education, formed in 1991 by Focus on the Family in tandem with a rightwing Christian legal advocacy group that calls itself the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Gateways publishes a “Guide for Commemorating Religious Freedom at School.” But the freedom Gateways and the ADF have in mind applies only to those who share their religion [9].

“Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity-day,'” members are reminded [10]. Gateways advocates a “Biblical approach to tolerance”, which apparently consists of intolerant attitudes toward what the ADF and Gateways call “pro-homosexual education” [11] and “the gay activist agenda.” [12] Parents’ No 1 goal, they say, should be to “encourage your children to be bolder” in expressing their faith at school.

The far right [13]’s fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let’s take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

Consider Mix it Up at Lunch Day from the perspective of the almost limitless other conceptions of the Christian religion that are out there. You could, for example, construe it as an exercise in “loving thy neighbor.” You could quote the gospel of John that “God is love.” You could view it as part of the religious mission of charity. I have no doubt that there are countless Christian and non-Christian people in the US who would view Mix It Up Day in just this way.

So why does the form of religion that seeks to claim the term “Christian” in the political realm have to focus so relentlessly on a “gay conspiracy” – not to mention sexually active singles and the purely evil Muslims?

I don’t believe for a moment that this hysterical voice that screeches in America’s political sphere is the authentic voice of religion in America. Most religious Americans want to mix it up at lunch! They want to make friends across party lines, and they want to help people who are less fortunate. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute, released on 24 October, reveals that 60% of Catholics believe the Church should place a greater emphasis on social justice issues and their obligation to the poor, even if that means focusing less on culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, in response to the Ryan budget, the United States [14] Conference of Catholic Bishops joined other Christian leaders in insisting that a “circle of protection” [15] be drawn around “essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people.”

So why is it that the so-called “values voters” are urged to vote against the politician who supports choice, not the politician who wants to shred that “circle of protection” for the poor and vulnerable? Why is it that when politicians want to demonstrate just how religiously righteous they are, they talk about banning same-sex marriage and making contraceptives hard to get, instead of showing what they have done to protect the weak?

There is an obvious answer, and it is, in a sense, staring you in the face every time you watch a political debate or read about the latest antics of Focus on the Family and the AFA. The kind of religion that succeeds in politics tends to focus on the divisive element of religion. If you want to use religion to advance a partisan political agenda, the main objective you use it for is to divide people between us and them, between the in-group and the out-group, the believers and the infidels.

The result is a reduction of religion to a small handful of wedge issues. According to the religious leaders and policy organizations urging Americans to vote with their “Biblical values,” to be Christian now means to support one or, at most, a small handful of policy positions. And it means voting for the Republican party.

This type of rhetoric is also championed by a segment of Jewish conservatives. Alarmed that Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008, they accused Democratic Jews of being “Jinos” – Jews In Name Only. “They eat bagels and lox; they watch ‘Schindler’s List,'” writes Town Hall columnist Ben Shapiro [16], “but they do not care about Israel” – at least, not in the way that Shapiro thinks we should.

When religion is thus reduced to a single policy decision and support for a political party, it becomes shrill and bigoted. This abuse of religion for political purposes has been tremendously damaging for American politics. But it is worth pointing out that it has been destructive of religion, too. According to another poll this month, this one by the Pew Research Center [17], record numbers of Americans are now reporting that they have no particular religious affiliation. Perhaps that is because, right now, the God of hate seems to be shouting louder than the God of love.

Emphasis Mine


The Secular Revival

From: Tablet Magazine

By: Liel Lebovitz

“Later this month, as Republicans flock to Tampa, Fla., to crown Mitt Romney their candidate for president, they’ll be greeted by a billboard mocking Mormons for believing that God is a space alien. Democrats, congregating shortly thereafter in Charlotte, N.C., will scarcely enjoy a more hospitable welcome: A sign awaiting them will feature Jesus’ face seared onto a piece of toast, along with the assertion that Christians—a group that includes President Obama, despite vicious and insistent rumors to the contrary—worship a “sadistic God” and a “useless savior.” Both billboards are paid for by American Atheists, an organization that describes itself as “the Marines of free thought.”

Of course, it’s only too easy to find similar vitriol on the other bank of the religious divide: To hear too many Americans tell it, this nation’s pious soul is under constant and vicious attack from those who want to turn it into a smoldering Sodom of late-term abortions, gay marriages, and decadent popular culture.

Both forms of extremism are bad, and both—one by espousing the absolute removal of religion from all recesses of public life, the other by demanding the very opposite—are ruinous to the intricate attempt at liberty that has set America apart from other nations.

In a splendid new book, Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, warns that the indispensable hedge that keeps church and state apart is being trimmed to within an inch of its existence and that if America is ever to be America again, we must rush to the hedge’s defense.

The hedge Berlinerblau calls by a funny name: secularism. Berlinerblau, who writes frequently and astutely about religion, acknowledges that the concept is difficult to define. As he explains in his book How To Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, secularism isn’t the same as atheism. In fact, many of its advocates, Jews first and foremost, have defined themselves along secular principles while simultaneously remaining faithful to religious beliefs and traditions. At its core, secularism isn’t a rejection of religion, but rather a political philosophy that “is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.”

But before we join the ranks of those who, like the pontiff, believe that secularism’s end goal is the censoring of religious freedoms, we would do well to consider American secularism’s history. Its founding fathers, Berlinerblau argues, include Martin Luther, John Locke, and Roger Williams—religious men who, even if they never used the term “secularism,” saw the hedge as a necessary precondition for the ultimate religious liberty: the right to worship freely and without intervention. “The care of souls does not belong to the magistrate,” wrote Locke. “The care therefore of every man’s soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself.” For that to happen, the state’s power must end at the church’s door.

With such theologically intricate roots, secularism was bound to grow more and more tangled. Thomas Jefferson, another of its founding fathers, may have been the tangler-in-chief: The most ardent advocate of separation, his views were, most likely, so out of touch with the majority of his contemporaries that George Washington was urged to acknowledge the discrepancy in his farewell address. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” said the departing colossus. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

It was, perhaps, precisely the peculiar structure of his mind that enabled Jefferson—and, later, James Madisonto kindle the fire of secularism. Centuries later, in a brief golden period ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s, a host of Supreme Court decisions fanned Jefferson’s flames and established secularism as a dominant force in American public life. In a helpful aside, Berlinerblau compares our version of secularism with that practiced in France; while to some the laïcité may look more appealing in its nearly absolutist insistence on separation of church and state, it is achieved at the cost of the state closely supervising religion, which puts the two in a tight embrace. France has a ministry of religions that deems some legitimate and others, like Scientology, not. It also pays for things like Muslim soldiers’ pilgrimage to Mecca. In America, Berlinerblau argues, things are simpler, as our brand of secularism allows the state to keep the church at an arm’s length, granting it the freedom to do as it pleases (tax-free) so long as it does not violate any laws.

It doesn’t take a scholar, however, to know that this blissful vision is everywhere under attack. For at least three decades, a well-organized coalition of religious activists—Berlinerblau calls them Revivalists—has worked to subject the state to church dogma, whether by meddling with textbooks that teach evolution or by vowing to repeal Roe v. Wade. Often, these Revivalists enjoy the majority’s support; what’s secularism to do when its opponents charge it with being undemocratic for opposing the will of the people? Here, Berlinerblau is adamant. Secularism, he argues, is not synonymous with democracy; rather, it is the soil in which democracy is planted. And when that soil is upended by zealots, the state can and must resist. Locke, again, is instrumental here. “It appears not that God has ever given any such Authority to one Man over another, as to compel anyone to his Religion,” the philosopher wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “Nor can any such Power be vested in the Magistrate by the consent of the people.” Berlinerblau calls this the Lockean Escape Clause: Not even a democratic vote should be allowed to compromise the state’s sovereignty over the church in matters of policy and governance.

Even geared with this intellectual resolve, proponents of secularism in America are still forced to fight an uphill battle. They are not only undermanned, Berlinerblau explains, but also philosophically underprivileged: While their opponents believe in communities, secularists tend to sanctify the virtue of the individual and are therefore loath to join mass movements or march on D.C. or form single-issue voter blocs. Instead, they have fought their battles in court, an intellectual jujitsu move that launched them to great heights in the short term but left them susceptible to attack in the long run.

How, then, to preserve secularism and its many gifts? Berlinerblau has a blueprint, and it rests on a few surprising assertions. The first is that secularism and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, he admits, if secularism is to persevere, it will do so primarily thanks to religious moderates who see no contradiction between their faith and their desire for a government unencumbered by dogma. These folk may be called secularish, and Berlinerblau, in a brief but instructive passage, posits the American Jewish community as an example for doing just that. Far more than any other religious group, he writes, American Jews were capable of producing a culture that “was intolerant of excessive religiosity. It abhorred displays of hyper-‘fruminess,’ or by-the-book adherence to Jewish law. Nor did it show an exaggerated respect for the institution of the rabbinate. In its more communistic variants it was aggressively anti-theistic. Yet for the most part these secular Jews were fiercely proud to be Jewish Americans.”

Then there are the doubters. Rather than adopt the hard and scornful line that defines so many of the contemporary luminaries of American atheism, Berlinerblau argues that even those secularists who find any tinge of religion disturbing would be well-advised to build coalitions with religious moderates and accept meaningful compromises. Complete separation of church and state, as history shows, is an impossibility anyway, and accommodationism—which argues for some allowances of religion into civic life, such as the current federal support for faith-based initiatives—is not without its merits. To regain prominence, secularists need to be known, once again, for a nuanced understanding of the past and inspiring ideas for the future. Berlinerblau’s book, erudite and warm and not without humor, is a great step in this direction.”


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.

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