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What Makes It All Worthwhile

It’s been a long week, and I have a million things I want to write about.

First up: update on Damon Fowler, the recently-graduated high schooler who was kicked out of his community and his house for challenging an illegal school-sponsored prayer.

Greta Christina wrote a long post with all the important details about his situation and the response of the secular community. This passage struck me the most.

But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

Reflections like the one above don’t just make me feel warm and fuzzy; they make me proud to be part of this movement.

I’ve been thinking about this movement lately, and I realize that the road doesn’t stop here. There’s a lot more to be done. There will be more troubles ahead. We’ll face misunderstanding, ignorance, and outright hatred.

But we have to remember to never ever give into the belief that only religious communities can provide real support and comfort. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there are some things that others can provide that we can’t.

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If Christians Took Over Public Education

After all the prayers at graduation rehearsal, all the complaints by atheist Damon Fowler, all the insults and threats issued at him, all the drama involving his mother effectively disowning him, all the support from secular Netizens around the world, after donations totaling over $10,000 (and counting) for Fowler’s scholarship fund (in addition to $1000 from FFRF), the graduation at Bastrop High School finally happened.

In Christian form, unfortunately.

The sound is a bit off, so let me quote directly and translate.

I respect the beliefs of others, but…

Plug this into Google translate from Christianspeak –> English, and you’ll get this as output.

I claim to respect your beliefs, but I don’t give a shit about your constitutional rights. I’m going to lead everyone in Christian prayer in a publicly funded high school ceremony because I can’t stand the idea of praying silently and privately. Prayer must be in-your-face. Fuck all you nonbelievers if you don’t agree.

Not just any prayer, of course. Christian prayer, and Christian prayer only.

Of course, it’s useless trying to educate these people on basic civics. The only option we have left is to talk to them in a language that everyone understands: money.

The courts have ruled consistently that official prayer at a publicly funded ceremony, even if student-led, is government endorsement of religion and violates the Establishment Clause. The fact that prayer was rehearsed beforehand and no action was taken (e.g., the moment of silence could have been faculty-led) puts the final nail in their coffin.

Public education is for everyone and should be inclusive of everyone, not just people of one religion.

Inspiration of the day: Jessica Ahlquist.

A High Schooler Makes Us Proud, A Community Should Be Ashamed

Damon Fowler is a senior at Bastrop, a public high school in Louisiana. When he found out that his high school graduation ceremony would include Christian prayer, he shared his concerns with the principal and threatened to take legal action if his constitutional rights were to be violated.

As a result, the principal, Stacey Pullen, changed the program and agreed not to have official prayer at the ceremony.

For this, Damon Fowler was ostracized by virtually all his peers, many teachers, and even his mother. As his brother notes, the whole community is against him.

The town is creating mobs at churches as of last night to fight the decision of the school not to go through with the prayer (they didn’t want the ACLU breathing down their necks). Teachers have publicly insulted him.

One of those people was Mitzi Quinn, who said the following.

“And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates,” Quinn said.

That’s right. That’s a faculty member dissing a student for not contributing ANYTHING (just so she can justify an action so unconstitutional that it baffles even the most religious of minds).

All of this is bad enough. But guess what? The school let the prayer happen anyways [at a rehearsal, I think]. This went on without interruption, cheered on by Christians.

You can even watch the video.

This is beyond insane. Mobs and mobs of people cheering like it’s a football game. It’s like they win because they have an overwhelming majority.

This is exactly why the separation of church and state is so important. This is why something so seemingly trivial to some – school led prayer – is so fucking important. They’ve proved our point. This girl used prayer as a weapon to separate the Good Christians from The Others. To alienate. To shun. To mock. And even more disgustingly, the community cheers along like a pack of warriors who have defeated their enemy, and laugh condescendingly at the mention of a moment of silence.

Of course, the likelihood that these people are going to make a clean escape is zero. This is so illegal that it’s going to cost the school and the district much more money than they could possibly imagine, and it’s already sparking absolute outrage in the secular community.

But as we wait and see what happens next, there’s one thing I want to say from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you, Damon Fowler. There’s a support group on Facebook, and as you can see, there are many many people supportive of you. There are millions and millions of people around the world not only supporting you, supporting your cause, supporting your right to be treated fairly, but very inspired by you and your courage to fight for what is right.

I’m fortunate enough to have never been in your situation before, and I can only imagine what it feels like. “It’s the loneliest feeling in the world,” as Henry Drummond says in Inherit the Wind.

It’s that feeling when you know nobody sees you for who you are. It’s that feeling when your own mother refuses to talk to you because you’re an “agnostic.” It’s that feeling when you realize “the whole town hates me, aside from a few closet atheists that are silently supporting”. It’s that feeling when you hear people preaching all about love, fairness, and compassion and see those same people acting in the most cruel and illegal ways possible.

Sometimes it sucks to be a high schooler. But let me tell you something. I couldn’t have imagined how different life would be in college. I went to high school in a liberal city, but I still didn’t realize how many opportunities I would get later in life to meet amazingly smart, compassionate, and tolerant people . There are true friends everywhere to be found, and the world is much much bigger than the community you come from.

So my readers, please support Damon by joining the Facebook group and reading the inspirational comments on the Wall.

There’s also a scholarship fund for Damon.

Hear Ingersoll’s Voice

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as the Great Agnostic. He was decades ahead of his contemporaries and even many people today; he was a strong advocate for women’s rights, birth control, political reform, the separation of church and state, and the abolition of slavery. He said that science was the only possible savior of mankind. And he was a brilliant speech maker who captivated crowds of thousands across America and campaigned for many Republican presidential candidates.

Unfortunately, like many non-Christians of his generation, he had no practical chances of getting elected to a high public office. Like many, his contributions have been erased from mainstream American history. I think it’s about time his character is revived, and what better community to aid this cause than the modern American secularists?

This is why I found it so inspiring to find out that Thomas Edison (another great non-theist) actually recorded his voice.

Other things that Ingersoll wrote:

It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.

Our civilization is not Christian. It does not come from the skies. It is not a result of “inspiration.” It is the child of invention, of discovery, of applied knowledge — that is to say, of science. When man becomes great and grand enough to admit that all have equal rights; when thought is untrammeled; when worship shall consist in doing useful things; when religion means the discharge of obligations to our fellow-men, then, and not until then, will the world be civilized.

And my favorite:

“Religion has not civilized man, man has civilized religion.”

Indeed, we’ve come very far in promoting humanism, in supporting the importance of science and reason, and in building a more just and equal society. I daresay that there’s no time in human history when religious people and institutions have faced so much criticism, so much pressure to offer evidence instead of resorting to faith. At no time in human history have societies and people changed so much for the better.

Many obstacles still lie ahead. Our work still goes on.

Theocratic Intentions on UChicago Campus?

Have any of my fellow UChicago classmates seen this ad put out by the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship?

You’ve probably seen the cheesy video from the National Day of Prayer Task Force that I previously commented on.  That’s exactly where the imagery in the poster is from.

The imagery of the buildings of the three branches of the United States government, shown with hands wrapped in Christian prayer, gives a deeply troubling message about what Christians believe is the connection between church and state. It’s also taking sides on a serious constitutional question, and of course, they are on the wrong side of it.

The apologists are going to spin this as an “interfaith” thing, a movement that is supposed to be some humanistic outreach to people of all beliefs and backgrounds. Don’t be fooled. The vision of the National Day of Prayer, as articulated by ads like the one above, is clearly stated on the organization’s own website:

In accordance with Biblical truth, the National Day of Prayer Task Force seeks to:

  • Mobilize and encourage personal and corporate prayer, regardless of current issues and positions (Colossians 4:2, Romans 12:12, Matthew 18:19-20, Joel 2:13-16, II Chronicles 7:14)
  • Preserve America’s Christian heritage and defend the religious freedoms granted by the Constitution (Deuteronomy 6:6-8, Proverbs 14:34)
  • Emphasize prayer for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family (I Timothy 2:1-6)
  • Foster unity within the Christian Church (Psalm 133:1, Ephesians 4:11-13

They also describe who they are:

Our Task Force is a privately funded organization whose purpose is to encourage participation on the National Day of Prayer. It exists to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, to create appropriate materials, and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families. The Task Force represents a Judeo Christian expression of the national observance, based on our understanding that this country was birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible.

In other words, this is a private organization that perpetuates the lie that this country was founded on Christianity. It doesn’t matter if there are hundreds of examples of what the Founding Fathers believed or wrote. It doesn’t matter if we point out that we have a secular Constitution and a separation of church and state. History and evidence mean nothing to them; they won’t be happy until they get the government to have a “holiday” just for their religion.

Apparently, it isn’t enough that private individuals keep their religion to themselves; it has to be recognized by government, connected to government, and embedded into government. Sometimes, it even has to be sponsored by government, which is exactly what the National Day of Prayer is.

The NDP Task Force is headed Mrs. Shirley Dobson, the wife of Dr. James Dobson. Dr. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, is an influential evangelical Christian known for his right-wing views on marriage, homosexuality, and education. (He’s a sponsor of the ex-gay, “curing” homosexuality movement, for example.) NDP Task Force and Focus on the Family are officially independent organizations, but they were literally working together from 1991 to 2009.

Where does this put nonbelievers? Nowhere, really. The court cases are still pending.

We’ll just have to sit back and observe the government endorsement of religion.

We’ll just have to watch Christians pretend to support the separation of church and state.

Too Sick to Speak and Staring at Death, Christopher Hitchens Addresses His Friends

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.

Sincerely

Christopher Hitchens

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Half of this video is filled with the same old Pat Robertson (he’s actually in the video) nonsense. These mistaken ideas include:

a) Majority always rules.
b) America is a Christian nation.
c) “In God We Trust” and “Under God” have always existed.
d) The Founding Fathers were Christians and were motivated by Christianity.
e) The “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence refers to the Christian deity.
f) The Ten Commandments is a good framework for morality.

If you suffer from any of the delusions above, I suggest starting to read about American history. You can start with the writings of the Founding Fathers, especially those of Thomas Jefferson, who actually drafted the Declaration of Independence. You can also read the entire Constitution, the very document that made this country. You can also read about the Red Scare (and the events that led to edits to the Pledge of Allegiance). You should also read the Ten Commandments and then try to explain how the first three commandments have anything to do with morality.

But aside from the terrible attempt of the creators of this video to maintain “balance,” there are some very good stories in here. Especially inspiring is the struggle of students to fight for their rights (to start a high school group or to go to a religiously neutral public school, for example) and the amazing work that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is doing around the country. We need more leaders like the brave kids (and their supportive parents) in this video to stand up for what is right.

National Day of Prayer – A Secular Holiday

As you can clearly see from the video above, the National Day of Prayer is a day dedicated to the secular and generic values that this country was founded upon. In no way does it appeal to Christians in particular or religious people in general. The video clearly does not have any crosses and Bibles connected to scenes of the Capitol Building. In no way does this pose a problem for the separation of church and state. In no way does this video suggest that Christians are trying to gain government endorsement and recognition for a particular religion. Nope. Nothing to be afraid of.

Another Trojan Horse

The Dangerous Army

The Christians are at it again. When the Giles County School Board made the right decision to remove public display of the Ten Commandments from its school buildings, the Christians got really upset. So upset that about 200 students walked out of class to protest. Their message: If you don’t like our illegal government-sanctioned endorsement of religion, you should just move away.

“This is Giles County and Christ is a big, big, big part of Giles County. For those who don’t like it, go somewhere else,” shouted one student.  She was greeted by a round of cheers from the crowd.

The students prayed and then one by one students spoke out on the reasons they wanted the Ten Commandments placed back in their school.

“This is America and we can have our Ten Commandments and if they don’t like it, they can get out,” said one boy.

“If you don’t like the Ten Commandments, don’t look at them. They are ours to look at if we like to look at them. If you don’t like them, don’t look at them,” said one girl.

“It’s just freedom of religion and speech,” said one boy.

“It’s our choice to have the Ten Commandments. It’s not the law’s choice or anything, it’s not the state’s choice or anything. It’s Giles County’s choice. It’s the kid’s choice,” said another student.

Too bad these people don’t understand that there’s no such thing as a collective right to proselytize one’s own religion via our tax dollars. The Constitution protects individuals, not certain interest groups. It does not matter if everyone in the county wants the Ten Commandments shown. Atheists have rights, and they don’t disappear no matter how hard or how many Christians pray or vote.

Also, these people are protesting against the ACLU, who threatened to sue the Giles County School Board over the public, government-endorsed display of religion. What they might have troubling getting their heads around, however, is that the ACLU is actually defending the students’ right to have their own private displays of the Ten Commandments.

The Trojan Horse

The Trojan Horse is a new attack on the separation of church and state organized by parents in Giles County. They now want to put a display of the Declaration of Independence alongside multiple documents that they claim influenced its creation. Of course, one of those “documents” just happens to be the Ten Commandments.

These people first have to explain what having no Gods before Yahweh, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, not coveting my neighbor’s wife, ox, or donkey, and keeping the Sabbath holy have to do with our country’s independence. People who claim that the Ten Commandments gives us general, humanistic values to live by often have no idea what the Ten Commandments actually are.

Also, Thomas Jefferson, the person who actually drafted the Declaration of Independence, had this to say in 1814:

Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.

Jefferson in 1808:

Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

Finally, the one I find most inspiring of all. Thomas Jefferson talks about his view of independent self-government.

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.

I think we should therefore call out this attempt for what it really is: another Christian distortion of history and an attack on our Constitutional rights.

Rock Beyond Belief

On September 25, 2010, thousands of Christians gathered in the military base at Fort Bragg to celebrate “Rock the Fort,” an event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelical Assocation as part of the military’s Spiritual Fitness initiative. The event involved a full line-up of speakers and musicians and had to goal of converting as many people to Christianity as possible. Afterwards, there were reports of as many as five hundred conversions on stage.

More importantly, the event was funded by more than $54,000 of taxpayer money and directly sponsored by Fort Bragg’s Religious Support Office. Each piece of advertisement contained official Fort Bragg contact information, and press releases were on Fort Bragg letterhead. The event was also publicized through official Fort Bragg emails from the Public Affairs Office.

Okay. You might think you know where this is going. We atheists are very upset about this, so we kick and scream all the way, right?

Well, a very hard-working group of volunteers decided to put together a new event called “Rock Beyond Belief.” The event includes speakers like Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, our very own Hemant Mehta, musician Roy Zimmerman, and many many others. Yes, it was going to be a huge event at Fort Bragg, but with a leaner budget (only $42,000). To make this event possible, the organizers were counting on promises from Fort Bragg officials for “equal treatment” and “a similar level of support” as well as large donations from groups like the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

Up until a few days ago, things were going great. Then Fort Bragg officials suddenly decided to rescind their pledge to support this event. Instead, the organizers of Rock Beyond Belief were instructed to put a disclaimer on their advertisements saying that the event was not associated with Fort Bragg. They were also approved for a whopping zero dollars.

Basically, Fort Bragg spent $54,000 of our tax money on a huge Christian rock party, as well as considerable resources sponsoring and advertising for it directly. But when a secular group comes along and asks for a similar deal, they are told to not even to associate themselves with Fort Bragg and to go find their own money.

Here’s what I want to see happen next:

1) Sue the hell out of them. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), along with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, has already agreed to litigate. Full speed ahead.

2) Have the event. There are thousands of atheists in the military, tens of millions of nonbelievers in the U.S., and hundreds of millions around the world. And I have to admit, we are on average a pretty wealthy/successful group of people. You don’t think we can find $50,000 in a couple weeks?

For inspiration, I encourage you to look on the website of MRFF. They are a very important advocacy and support group, especially for atheists serving in the U.S. military.