Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: January, 2009

Does it Matter if Ted Kaufman is an Atheist?

I’m not sure what to make of the completely-unconfirmed-yet-fascinating possibility that arose today that Ted Kaufman, the newly appointed U.S. Senator from Delaware, might be an atheist. (Props to Trina at Examiner.com for beating me to the story…she is quick!) The germ of this idea comes from a New York Times article today in which Kaufman refers to his “way of thinking” as “humanistic.”

Characteristically overblowing the word’s implication, as is their wont, Gawker sounded the we-might-have-an-atheist-in-our-midst alarm. As has been noted, if Sen. Kaufman is an atheist, and he confirms it, he would be the highest-ranking avowed atheist in American political history. But I wonder if such a confirmation would really do anything to advance atheists in the political realm, rather than simply serve as a brief oddity. Conventional wisdom has it that Kaufman is a mere placeholder for the vice president’s son Beau Biden, and even if he isn’t, he has announced that he has no intention of seeking the seat in the next election. One way or the other, he’s out of here in two.

For real advancement, I think, atheists need to run for office, not just be appointed. And with great respect to Rep. Pete Stark’s groundbreaking admission of nonbelief in 2007, what the atheist community really needs is for its like-minded office-seekers already be “out” before they get elected. Atheists won’t really start breaking the Election Barrier* until then; and yes, the first batch will have run and lose, run and lose, and probably maddeningly often.

But over time, the idea of an admitted atheist politician will stop seeming alien. With every “loss,” Americans will be better able to envision a nonbeliever in office without all the irrational cognitive dissonance, and the atheist politicians will get better and better at communicating their messages.

And then one day we’ll win, on our own. Not through a revelation 30 years into a career, not by accident of appointment, but by earning more votes than the other guy.

I suspect Ted Kaufman is going to do his state proud over the next two years. If he is a staunch atheist, it just might help to erode the reticence that too many Americans feel about entrusting some of their representation to their nonreligious neighbors. But we should make no mistake; as milestones go, it will be an accidental one only.

* I hearby trademark the term “Election Barrier,” newly impressed with my own cleverness.

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Morning Scare

I would hate to meet this guy in a dark alley while sporting, say, a Darwin fish. His name is Brian Baker, and he just read a book, and boy did it make him angry:

The most heinous atrocities in human history have been committed by godless communists. This is a fact that is supported and written about in “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.” I have witnessed many atheists try to put this at the foot of Christianity, but this is untrue. It is true that the Catholic Church has inflicted persecution in God’s name in the past, but nothing holds a candle to the brutality inflicted by godless communism. One hundred million people died in the 20th century alone at the bloody hands of the godless communists. Only atheism is capable of such atrocities.

This is not a new attack on atheism, but it’s much worse than you think, because there are more books…countless books!

Countless books have been written that detail the horrors and abuses that have followed when the [“godless communist”] police state has been instituted.

Atheism has been the road that this terror has traveled. When one follows the teachings of Darwin and Marx, these teachings provide the ammo to absolve the conscience of the heinous acts that the human heart is capable of. The absence of God always gives an easy existence to evil. This has been exhibited time and time again when godless communism takes the reins.

Wow, those guys must have been awful. But you know who else is awful? You’ll never guess.

I write of these things because I feel this country is heading toward the way of Marxism and has been since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I knew it! Democrats lead to communists lead to godlessness leads to mass murder. You just take FDR + Marx + Darwin and you get, um, F’Darxwin! Head for the hills.

Oh, by the way. This guy is a pastor. Just so you know.

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It’s Not Always About That God Thing

Secularist folk hero Rob Sherman, fresh from a victory over prayer/moments of silence in public schools, is taking on another issue of fairness, equality, and the responsibilities of the government to our children. Per Chicago’s Daily Herald:

Atheist activist Rob Sherman filed a lawsuit on behalf of his daughter to protest Northwest Suburban High School District 214’s driver education fee of $350. The fee overcharges students because a good portion of the $350 pays for teacher salaries and benefits, Sherman said.

“For me, it’s not about the money; I’m a multimillionaire,” said Sherman, who filed his lawsuit Thursday. “There are a lot of students who haven’t taken driver’s education because they can’t afford the $350. It’s our job as taxpayers to fund teachers salaries and benefits, not kids who are trying to learn to drive.”

You see? Not-God isn’t all we nonbelievers think about. Go, Rob, go!

Baby Steps

Bonnie Erbe at Scripps News wishes for a presidency with a particular sensitivity to atheists:

President Bush’s eight-year tenure, in which religion formed and mis formed federal laws, trumped science in federal policy and even may have been partly responsible for launching an unsuccessful war, allowed situations such as Scott’s to flourish throughout the land. This is hardly the only way in which the Bush presidency took us back 50 years. It is, however, a dominant theme of his tenure as is the takeover of the Republican Party by the religious right.

President Obama has turned back some of the most flagrantly religious driven Bush policies. Executive orders he issued during his first week in office rescinded Bush’s ban on most embryonic stem cell research. He also lifted the so-called global gag rule, which barred U.S. aid to charity groups overseas that provide abortion or even information about abortion to women in developing nations.

[ . . . ]

Obama has already signaled his administration wants to address the concerns of the religiously oppressed in America, by mentioning “non-believers” in his inaugural address.

We enter the Obama presidency in an era in which freedom from religious oppression has become a bigger problem than freedom to practice one’s religion. President Obama, though himself a religious man, seems to understand that and let us hope he continues to act accordingly.

Hope is the right word. Walking back blatantly religiously doctrinal rules is one thing (and an extremely important thing), but understanding that atheists are a particularly maligned minority subject to real loathing is quite another. Hope, indeed.

Those Small-Minded Freethinkers

Mark Fefer of Seattle Weekly critiques recent moves by atheist activists, and just when I think he may be on to something, he loses me. While Fefer (a believer who nonetheless opposes religious encroachment into government) praises attempts to remove prayer from the inauguration ceremony, he has no patience for the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s much-derided solstice sign, which I had reservations about as well.

Fefer:

. . . what keeps me from sending the Foundation a check is that they’re also the ones who installed that pro-atheism sign in the state capitol building in Olympia at Christmastime—the one that was picked up by Bill O’Reilly and caused Governor Gregoire’s phone to ring off the hook for days.

And no wonder: The sign read in part “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—exactly the kind of boneheaded provocation that undermines the cause. The Foundation also paid for the “Imagine No Religion” billboard that was up this summer along Denny Way.

Okay, okay, I understand you so far. Tell me more.

The atheist lobby and its standard-bearers, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, attack all religion as dangerous and delusional. But religion is no different from sports, music, or any other part of our culture. It can be a life-enriching experience that promotes community feeling and social values. It can also lead to destructive extremes. Should we Imagine No Sports because of steroids, concussions, and Pioneer Square knife fights?

Ooooh! Lost me!

Now this analogy is actually really clever from a rhetorical standpoint, I have to give him that. But those “Imagine No Religion” signs don’t imply that without religion, a few bad apples will merely be thrown in the trash. Many of those signs, at least, show the Twin Towers, reminding us that the stakes are not something on par with steroid abuse, but death and suffering on a massive scale, all for someone’s mythical version of piety. Rather, my understanding is that the phrase is meant to evoke thoughts of the calamities that have been wrought in religion’s name. As FfRF’s Annie Laurie Gaylor said about that campaign, “The Twin Towers would still be standing, for example. If people couldn’t pretend ‘God told me to do this’ or insist ‘God is on my side,’ most wars could have been avoided.”* Fefer’s is a funny, yet woefully mistaken analogy.

Just to put a bow on it, he advances an old canard, one which I think might be the most popular these days: atheists-as-fundamentalists:

Fanaticism, bigotry, and the divisive intrusion of religious dogma into our public life are what we should be fighting against. And we’ll have more success when atheists stop being as small-minded and doctrinaire as their enemies.

At its worst, the FFRF’s sign was bad PR. But doctrinaire? There was no doctrine involved, no code of behavior demanded; activist atheists’ battle is not to squelch the rights of the individual, but to keep government from endorsing religion or imposing it upon those who do not wish it. That is an opposition to doctrine.

But as usual, it’s easier to deal with the discomfort or cognitive dissonance atheists can engender in otherwise smart people by categorizing them as “just as bad” as the bad folks on their own side. It’s a misunderstanding of the atheist outlook and the atheist cause, but it also helps moderate believers feel better.

I think it’s a good thing for activist atheists to hear critiques on strategy, even from those who don’t necessarily share all our views. But it’s also important for misconceptions to be corrected and discouraged, because nothing can be learned when we’re not talking about the same thing.

* Update/Correction: Loyal reader Kenzoid corrected my misunderstanding that the FfRF had been responsible for an iteration of the “Imagine” billboards that featured the Twin Towers. They were not; those particular images are, in fact, someone else’s doing. Apologies. This is what happens when your team of researchers falls down on the job! Stupid interns! They’re all fired!**

** I have no interns or researchers of any kind.

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“Act As If There Is No God…”

I just stumbled upon a rather moving article in a Catholic publication called America by Daniel F. Polish, in which the central idea is that atheists are not so bad, and in fact even religious believers ought to think more like them because of God’s inherent incomprehensibility. Some highlights:

. . . the voices of religious certainty continue to be shrill and vexing even in our day. We hear words of certainty about the “will of God” preached in mosques all around the world and on the lips of suicide bombers. When these words come from afar they frighten us, but they should be no less disconcerting when uttered within our midst. Have we become inured to hearing such sentiments espoused close to home? It may be the media preachers claiming that God sent the World Trade Center attacks or Hurricane Katrina. It may be Pastor John Hagee saying that God intended the Holocaust for one purpose or another. This past year a religious party member of Israel’s Knesset asserted that God had sent an earthquake, which mildly disturbed the country, as a punishment for the attorney general’s having granted gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children. If faith involves such certainty about the will and purposes of God, perhaps a dose of atheism would do us all some good.

[ . . . ]

There is one more face of atheism that I can embrace wholeheartedly. It is embodied in a story about the revered leader of European Jewish Orthodoxy at the beginning of the 20th century, Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radun, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim. It was his wont to teach that there was a purpose for everything in God’s creation. Once one of his students challenged him, “What can be the purpose of atheism?” The Chafetz Chayim replied, “so that when you see a person who is in need, you shouldn’t pass them by, believing that God will take care of them.” In other words, act as if there were no God: take care of them yourself. That is an atheism that is life-affirming. Would that the religious world were populated by more atheists like that.

Polish, of course, rejects all-out atheism, but this is certainly a more open-minded and insult-free theist position, one that I think has far more potential for understanding and discussion between philosophies.

Go read the whole thing.

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Disbelieving Outside the Lines

Ross Douthat writes in defense of the Yahweh concept, reminding we stuffy atheists that it’s not as silly as Russell’s teapot assumes:

This analogy – like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is.

I’m fairly certain that atheists’ diselief in God is not contingent upon the assumption of some conspiracy of Jesus Christ Superstar-type priests looking to fool the drooling masses with a prefab script. It is the lack of any evidence that is the beginning and end of the story.

Douthat doesn’t discount atheism entirely, but if you don’t disbelieve within his parameters, you’re probably just a weirdo (emphasis mine):

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn’t thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

Ouch! But truly, the best reason I can think of that one would not see the two ideas as equally absurd is that the concept of God is either incredibly vague or incredibly anthropomorphic; that is to say, fuzzy yet familiar enough not to jump out in our own minds as patently nutty. Orbital teapots and sentient pasta, not so much. But there is equal evidence for all of these things: none.

The 16.1 Percent Solution: Atheists and the Unaffiliated

Over the course of the last few days, many writers have congratulated or condemned President Obama for his inclusion of “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address. Though there is disagreement even within like-minded communities as to how important or meaningful the mention was, there seems to be from my anecdotal perspective a fairly universal acknowledgment that part of the reasoning for the shout-out was raw numbers. And that raw, magic number is 16.1 percent.

16.1 comes from the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which sampled over 35,000 adults to see how many people believe what in the United States. Atheists are included in that very sizable number, and according to Pew, it is the fasted growing segment of all! Hooray!

But 16.1 percent of the country are not atheists. This number actually signifies those who are “unaffiliated.” That means exactly what it sounds like, and I’m just going to quote the Pew website here to clarify exactly how this breaks down:

Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).

So what we really have is a 12.1 percent segment for whom organized religion doesn’t float their arcs as well as those who don’t seem to give religion enough thought to warrant an affiliation. It does not imply atheism. Then we have the 2.4 percent who are agnostics, and they are not atheists either. Out and out atheists are relegated to a meager 1.6 percent. Might there be atheists within these larger groups? Sure, there might be! It may very well be that most of this 12.1 percent (including, for that matter, the 0.8 percent who said they didn’t know or refused to answer) are what we would consider atheists for all intents and purposes. But if so, it’s not in the data, and we cannot infer it.

(At the same time, it may even leave out atheists who happen to attend Unitarian Universalist and similar churches because they, according to Pew, are religious by virtue of church membership versus God-belief. Pew’s own survey of Congress’s religious makeup shows this flaw by showing no atheists in Congress, and classifying Rep. Pete Stark, R-Calif., a nonbeliever, as a Unitarian only.)

So, for example, when Obama or anyone else talks about “nonbelievers,” I don’t imagine that they’re thinking of people who are religious but not part of an organized sect (the 5.8 percent). Likewise, I think it might be unwise and disingenuous for atheists to wield the 16.1 number as though all within it were of like mind as to the existence of a supreme deity. If anything, I think it would be safe to use 10.3 percent (atheists plus agnostics plus the secular unaffiliated) when talking about a bloc of Americans who do not feel beholden to said deity. But we should make no mistake; that 16.1 number does not mean nonbelievers, it really means “other.”

Do not misunderstand me. That “other” is still a sizable share of the population and it is of great importance that so many Americans do not subscribe to any particular religious organization or dogma. And in matters of public policy, it is essential that a bloc that rejects dogma or revealed word as a foundation for policy be heard loudly and clearly; not as cranks or gadflies, but as a demographic with electoral veto power.

Also, one should not underestimate atheists’ 1.6 percent. As I have noted before, the same survey shows that Jews and Mormons each make up only 1.7 percent of the population, and no one would claim that these groups are political ineffectual. But if 1.6 is not enough, different polls can show different numbers, especially when the question is reworded. Therefore, atheists might take more solace from a 2007 Gallup poll that differentiates belief in the following manner:

There are a number of ways to ask about belief in God. Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 8-11, used a question structure that gave Americans three choices concerning their belief: a) You believe in God, b) You don’t believe in God, but you do believe in a universal spirit or higher power, or c) You don’t believe in either. The inclusion of the middle alternative has the overall impact of lowering the percentage of those interviewed who say straight-out that they believe in God.

Rather than deal with labels that can confuse and blur, Gallup asked 1017 adults exactly what it is they think is “out there,” and the numbers are a little better for us secular types (keeping in mind margin of error for a far smaller sample than Pew). The measly Pew 1.6 percent jumps to 6 percent of Americans who believe neither in God nor any supernatural force. And if you like the idea of building coalitions with those “universal spirit” folks (and why wouldn’t we?), you have a voting bloc of 21 percent of the electorate.

Now we’re talking.

But again, we have to be careful when we use these numbers in our rhetoric and when dealing with the press and politicians. As champions of facts over faith, we have to be honest about which numbers correspond to what group, without allowing for venial sins of omission (“Well, if they infer that 16.1 percent of Americans are atheists, so what?“). Rest assured: our voices are worth heeding, our opinions are worth sincere consideration, our votes are worth courting, and our citizenship is worthy of fully honoring, all regardless of whatever our exact numbers might be.
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Glenn Beck Explains It All For You

I couldn’t believe this.

Glenn Beck, perhaps the biggest fool on television, mocks atheists, claims that all rights come from God, and even makes light of the idea of the children of religious parents bullying the children of nonbelievers. He also seems to want to make out with James Dobson through the satellite feed, but that just might be my subjective impression.

Prepare to be ill with anger.

I post it only to remind us all how atheists and their issues are portrayed on the top rated news network, for it surely possesses no further value.

(Hat tip for video to Atheist Media Blog)

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Who Are You Calling a Nonbeliever?

Kevin Brooker, writing for the Calgary Head, appreciates Obama’s thought, but doesn’t like the word choice.

Non-believers?

That’s hardly a flattering term when it follows up a grocery list of superstar faiths. Really, just the one catch-all for the Buddhists, atheists and pagans among us?

In one sense the term can even be considered a slur. To call atheists non-believers is to subtly reinforce the malign notion that they don’t believe in anything apart from their hedonistic impulses.

What say you? Is it the same phenomenon as using the word “atheist,” defining one by a negative? Is this a good case to promote the Bright label?