Mayor Should Learn Law about Church and State

For today's second letter to the editor about Jacksonville's “Day of Faith”, I am reverting to my usual style because my comments are fewer as I agree with its basic position. This letter by Harry B. Parrott, Jr., president of the Clay County chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was published today under the heading, “Day of Faith: Taxpayers carry burden.”

I respectfully urge Mayor John Peyton and his legal staff to take a basic course in matters regarding separation of church and state. The taxpayers of Jacksonville might well have saved $106,000 just in the last six months.

The event under scrutiny was clearly a Christian event. Indeed, the designation "Day of Faith" should have read "Day of Christian Faith." Preacher after preacher focused on Jesus as the answer to the terrible problem of street violence. Gospel choirs provided the background. Yes, there was one Jewish and one Muslim speaker, but Jesus was center stage.

In many ways, it was a powerful occasion. I certainly hope it was helpful and effective in its aim of curbing violence. But the bottom line remains: Taxpayers should not be paying for this Christian evangelistic event. It was a flagrant constitutional violation just waiting to be challenged, and it was. So, now the taxpayers are out an additional $5,000, and Peyton must admit that both he and his legal staff were asleep at the wheel.

Absolutely basic to the principle of church and state separation is the understanding that government should not be promoting or funding sectarian religion. It's a principle clearly understood by millions of Americans. It is a principle that has served our nation well since our founding. I urge Peyton and his legal staff to get back to these basics.
While the particular religion promoted is irrelevant to the legality of the event, the heavy focus on Christianity does bring the issue into stronger contrast. Fundamentalist Christians are not known for being especially tolerant of other religions such as Judaism or Islam, but they certainly show their adherents more respect than they show to atheists whom, as we saw yesterday, they may castigate as liars without any consequences. Casting it as favoring Christianity in a special manner will find a more sympathetic audience.

For those outside of the area, Clay County is a neighboring county of Jacksonville, so the letter writer probably does not pay property taxes in the city. Many Clay County residents, however, including me, work and shop in Jacksonville and pay a fair amount of sales tax there. In fact, all Americans should be concerned about the erosion of the wall of separation of church and state in our country.


Theocracy via Democracy

For today's first letter to the editor about Jacksonville's “Day of Faith”, I am adopting a new style of response whereby I insert my comments between the text rather than place it all at the end. The letter by Rev. Marcius O. King was published today under the heading, “Day of Faith: Event was clearly defined.”

As a taxpayer, I am appalled at the city of Jacksonville giving in to a group of atheists. Although the amount of money seems small, it is the principle. We are allowing a small group to prevail in a city where the majority of its citizens are God-fearing people. It was stated that the city has agreed to pay the cost of mediation. This will take more taxpayers' money. Is it still a valid statement to say: In a democratic society, the majority rules?
Yes, one principle of democracy is majority rule. There are, however, other principles such as minority rights and rule of law which this event violated.
The atheists' argument is that the event was called "A Day of Faith." I wonder if there would have been a problem if the event (the rally) had been called "A Day of Concern" or "A Unity Day Against Crime"?
If it had had a secular name and secular nature, then there would have been no problem. It did not and that was precisely the point of the lawsuit.
Mayor John Peyton's repeated statements that the word "faith" denoted faith not just in God, but in our community as well, in my opinion, clearly defines the major intent of the event.
Such concessions were mere lip service to secular interests, and they don't negate the fact that this event was an ecumenical church service funded by local tax dollars. The government cannot promote religious faith, regardless whether other types of faith are also promoted.
It is sad that the offense of any group takes precedence over the issue at hand, which is the homicide rate.
Yes, rule of law indeed takes precedence over a rally whose only apparent affect was to create the illusion that the mayor's office was doing something special to decrease violence.
If this group is offended by this rally and the word "prayer," why not sue the federal government and the president of the United States when he calls on America for a "National Day of Prayer"?
There are probably lawsuits regarding that.
People who believe in a supreme being are also taxpayers.
People who believe in Xenu are taxpayers as well, but we don't spend tax money on Scientology rallies, do we? No, we maintain neutrality in government regarding religion, not fund the services of the largest group.
If we, as a people, believe in a higher power, then we believe we have someone to call on and have at least the possibility of having problems solved. If we fail to believe in a higher power, then we fail to believe that anything can be done.
You, “as a people,” can use any of the hundreds or thousands of churches throughout the city to do exactly that without spending a dime from public funds. The mayor can even come to your church and speak without costing the city anything. The worst part is that you actually believe that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god has been letting scores of innocent people be murdered and would continue to do so unless you ask him to stop it. That sort of theology only makes sense for an imperfect, selfish deity, not the God you claim to worship.



A Visit to a Unitarian Universalist Service

This morning I visited the Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Society, one of the two Unitarian Universalist congregations here in Jacksonville, for the first time. Although I have been aware of UUism for a couple years and have read about it online more than once, yesterday I decided almost on a whim to check out a service and see what it was like. BBUUS is closer to my home than the other congregation and I was also attracted to their lay leadership, which I presume results in a greater variety of speakers and thus viewpoints.

The Sunday service begins at 10:30am, but not knowing how long it would take to drive there, I arrived not long after 10:00am. Although I should have gone inside immediately, I felt somewhat nervous and sat in my car in the parking lot until almost 10:20am. The congregation doesn't own their own building at present, so they rent a small community center which resembles a church from the outside and a theater from the inside. I later learned that they own a property on the opposite side of the river upon which they have long-term plans to construct their own building. Immediately upon entering I was greeted by a woman designated to greet members as they arrived. I was encouraged to make a name tag for myself and sign their guest book, which I did gladly. All of the regular members of the congregation have computer-printed name tags which they put on inside the building and which are kept on a large board on a table. Not all of those in attendance wore their name tags for whatever reason, and it initially seemed slightly corny, but it was helpful for me as newcomer. The original greeter introduced me to several other members and I picked up some materials before sitting down in my chair near the back of the seating area, where I glanced through the program for the day and the hymnal. The main area consists of perhaps one hundred chairs arranged in rows facing the front with an aisle down the center where at the far end is a podium with table upon which is a candle and metal ring resembling the UU logo. While I was sitting there I encountered a young woman I had met online over a year ago whom I knew was a member of this congregation and then a former coworker whom I did not. Two other women sitting nearby also introduced themselves to me. There were about eighty people in attendance when the time arrived to begin.

The service was lead by a lay woman who said a few opening words before asking visitors to stand and introduce themselves. I introduced myself with a few words after two other visitors on the opposite side of the room had done the same. Then the lay leader “lit” the candle in front of the podium, which consisted in turning on what I then saw was an electric candle. It seemed somewhat odd to use an artificial candle, but perhaps there is a good reason for this. Next there was something called the “call to worship” which consisted of a four-line poem recited by the congregation. Afterward there was a “story for all ages”, which was a short children's book read by the lay leader, presumably for the children right before they left for their separate religious instruction in another room or maybe even building. Then it was time for a few quick announcements. Next was something called “sharing of personal joys and concerns” during which members of the congregation came forward to present personal news. As they did this, they symbolically took a small polished stone from a container and placed it in a big bowl in front of the candle. There were about five or six people who came forward and afterward the lay leader placed “silent stones” for other people who raised their hands before placing one additional stone for everything else. Next came the offering plate to which I contributed a small amount. Then everyone sang a hymn from the hymnal which I didn't know and which I tried my best to sight-read. After that it was time for the speaker, an Iranian member of the Baha’i religion who discussed the common foundations of all religions. As an atheist, I don't believe the common foundations of religion are divine but rather purely human, but I enjoyed his sermon and it served the purpose of getting me to think about this topic. Afterward there was a comment and question session during which I asked why, if they all come from the same “source”, were claims to exclusivity so common among world religions. His answer was in agreement with everything else he said and plausible within that context. I don't accept the premise that a deity exists, an idea which he asked the non-theists in attendance to entertain for the sake of argument, but his discussion was interesting and worth listening to. It was refreshing to be able present one's comments and questions during the official service in a democratic manner. The service ended with another unfamiliar hymn and a few closing words by the lay leader.

After the service I spoke with several more members of the congregation who asked me about my background and what brought me to their service today. I also got some apple juice and a chocolate-frosted doughnut decorated to resemble a football. After about fifteen minutes talking to several different people, I said that I would return the following week and then drove home.

The experience was quite positive. The organization and many individual members went out of their way to welcome me and make me feel comfortable. Unitarian Universalists hold a wide variety of beliefs regarding religion. A fair number of them are atheists and agnostics, a majority even identify themselves as humanists, and this particular congregation even had the Happy Human on the program with assorted religious symbols, so I felt fully comfortable saying that I was a Humanist. From what I had read online about other locations, I was afraid that the congregation would be made up mostly of older people with whom I would have less in common, but there were people of all ages including some young adults around my age and perhaps ten or fifteen young children with their parents. The service was positive with only the most innocuous references to the divine, no prayers, no mention of sin or anything else that would have made me feel uncomfortable. I enjoyed it and intend to attend again next week.

I am quite firm in my atheism and I am not seeking a god whom I don't believe exists. Rather I am seeking a sense of community among a group of people with similar values and, if not similar beliefs, at least similar outlooks on the formation of beliefs. I am seeking to expand my social circle and meet new people. I am seeking to hear new ideas and to share my own ideas with others in a friendly, welcoming environment. This Unitarian Universalist congregation seems like an excellent place to do this seeking.


An Alternate Christian Opinion on Gay Marriage

Several months ago I had a brief but interesting conversation with my younger sister on the topic of gay marriage. Along with the rest of my family, she is a practicing Catholic who accepts the teachings of the Church, to the best of my knowledge, on all topics. She mentioned, however, that there was a petition after Mass about making gay marriage explicitly illegal in Florida which she declined to sign and my mother, who was with her, asked her why. She said that it was none of her business who anyone else wanted to marry because it didn't affect her at all. That particular sentiment is fairly common among moderate and liberal Christians, but what she said next was more novel. She said that pre-martial sex is considered just as sinful as homosexual sex, but no one was trying to make fornication illegal. She understands that you can't legally prohibit something if it doesn't hurt anyone just because you think it is sinful. If only more Christians in the United States shared her simple appreciation for separation of church and state.


Atheists Lie about Faith?

Today we find an editorial response to the news item discussed in my last entry about Jacksonville's “Day of Faith. This letter by Linn W. Howard was published today under the heading, “Religion: All are people of faith.”

As a former resident of Jacksonville and now a Presbyterian minister serving in Pittsburgh, Pa., I was sad to see that the city of Jacksonville paid $5,000 to American Atheists, Inc. The city of Jacksonville and our nation would be better served if we would recognize that all of us are people of faith.

The nonbeliever and the believer both make faith decisions about the multitude of unknowns in our world as they establish a framework for living their lives. The scientific community is full of men and women of faith. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, has written a fascinating book, The Language of God, in which he outlines his journey from being an atheist scientist to a scientist of faith. Even if you disagree with his faith decision after reading this book, you will more fully understand that all people are "people of faith."

I commend Mayor John Peyton and the leaders of the city of Jacksonville for their intellectual, social, civil and community integrity for calling together the whole community, with people of all faiths, in order to respond to the growing homicide rate in the city.

It is time that we call the bluff of those who are atheists and refuse to give in to their claim that they are people of "no faith." This is a simple lie they are using for their advantage over every other citizen in the United States.

Ms. Howard presents the tired argument that atheists have faith, but her attempts to justify this claim are particularly feeble. Instead of showing how an atheist might have faith, she shows that some scientists are not atheists! She says that the scientific community is full of people of faith, which is partially true. At the lower levels, it's not much different from society in general in levels of religiosity, but the higher and more distinguished a level you examine, the less faith you find. Citing one famous scientist's faith proves nothing. I haven't read Collins' book, but I read in a review that it was the sight of a waterfall that convinced him of the truth of the Christianity. That is indeed faith and of no interest to those of us who seek reasons for our beliefs. In the end, Ms. Howard has nothing but an unsupported argument.

The final paragraph is particularly infuriating. First, Ms. Howard accuses atheists of being liars. This professed Christian isn't even charitable enough to give atheists the benefit of the doubt and say we are mistaken. Rather she presumes to know our minds and our moral choices. There is no other group in the United States which it is acceptable to publicly insult in this manner without considerable backlash. Second, Ms. Howard states that atheists have some advantage by claiming not to believe, but this is absurd. She doesn't support her claim at all and the previous insult itself demonstrates the considerable disadvantages we face in living in bigoted American society.



Jacksonville's “Day of Faith”

On August 12th, 2006, the city of Jacksonville conducted and financed an anti-violence rally in the Jacksonville Veterans' Memorial Arena named “Day of Faith: Arming Our Prayer Warriors” which featured several Christian ministers and choirs, one Jewish leader and one Muslim leader. Although legal action was taken to stop the event before it happened because of church-state separation issues, the challenges were rejected and the event proceeded as planned. Last Friday, on January 19th, 2007, however, the city agreed to pay $5,000 for lawyer fees in a settlement with American Atheists, which was suing the city to return the $101,000 it spent on the event to the taxpayers of Jacksonville, and to issue a new directive to avoid such violations in the future. As an out-of-court settlement, it doesn't set legal precedent but it remains a victory for church-state separation in the Bible Belt. You can read more about the event and lawsuit in this Associated Press article which appeared in today's edition of the Florida-Times Union.

My reaction to this news is somewhat mixed. I am generally rather pleased that this violation of church-state separation was acknowledged and partially rectified, but I am also slightly concerned about the image of atheists as detractors from a program intended to fight violence, an undoubtedly admirable cause. This is a lamentable yet necessary evil, however, in the fight to preserve secularism in government, especially with such a large sum of money involved.

In addition to the legal issues, I also object to making the rally religious on pragmatic grounds. It essentially excluded not only non-believers, but those who don't take religion seriously and even those who simply don't want to mix faith with civic action. It's difficult to measure the effect of a large gathering of people focusing on one issue, but I doubt few would say that the rally would have been less effective if more people had attended.

As a final note, it seems ironic that an anti-violence rally would refer to its participants as “prayer warriors.”



Religious Opposition to Violence

Today we find the first letter to the editor of the year about religion, after a flurry of letters about freethought. This letter by John Gallo, was published today under the heading, “Religion: Oppose violence in any form.”

I get quite amused when I read about the struggle some Episcopal leaders are having in allowing their homosexual brothers and sisters full participation in the church.

Most American believers aren't really concerned about boys kissing boys. They worry much more about existential matters of faith. Examples are the immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq, the failure of our health care system, the absurd Medicare drug plan, the genocide of young black males, the oppression of the poor, and the total corruption of our political system by money and corporations.

Somehow these Anglican defenders of the faith suffer from amnesia in failing to remember Jesus' inclusive ministry to the excluded and marginalized, and his harsh condemnation of the religious and social structures that perpetuated injustice and violence against individuals and groups. Frankly, the biblical writers had no scientific concept of human sexuality and all its complexity. What Scripture does condemn is the misuse and abuse of all of God's good gifts.

All of us should heed the pope's words that urged religious leaders to oppose violence in any form. Whether it be the persecution of people because of their God-given sexual orientation or the slaughter of the innocents in Iraq, our calling is to be the peacemakers and agents of God's reconciling love.

Although Gallo's signature indicated that he is a pastor, it didn't indicate of which church. An online search returned several relevant pages, but I couldn't find his association listed anywhere, even in a newspaper article explicitly about him and another local pastor! It's not really important to the above discussion, but I wanted to provide my readers with as much information as possible before I begin my critique.

As a condemnation of violence, hatred and moral apathy, I agree with the major sentiments of this message and I am glad to see it published. There are a number of points, however, with which I disagree or upon which I would otherwise like comment.

First, although the issues listed as examples in the second paragraph are very important, none of them are matters of faith and none are existential. Perhaps the author meant to say that they should be of concern to people of faith, but they have nothing to do with religion itself and nothing to do with the philosophy of existentialism, so he should be more careful with his words.

Second, I object to some of the labels used to describe the issues. Violence among young black men is certainly a major problem in the United States, but characterizing it as a genocide is simply an abuse of the word. I wouldn't label it genocide because it's not large-scale, it's not organized, it's mostly perpetrated by members of the community itself, and it's mostly committed on an individual basis rather than according to the victim's race. It doesn't resemble a true genocide like the Rwandan genocide in which almost one million victims died in about three months during a well-organized extermination by militias of one ethnic group by another. I also object to the use of oppression of the poor because it sounds like an active conspiracy rather than culpable neglect and total corruption because corruption in the United States is actually rather low compared to most of the rest of the world.

Third, characterizing Jesus' ministry, as portrayed in the Gospels, as “inclusive” is at the best incomplete and at the worst inaccurate. Jesus repeatedly condemned to the eternal fires of hell everyone who failed to believe in him and his message. This could not be less tolerant and compassionate. And while Jesus reached out to everyone within Jewish society, he also repeatedly stated that he came to save only the children of Israel, not the Gentiles. This is hardly any more inclusive. It was only after his death, and thus after his own ministry had ended, that his message was adapted and brought to the rest of the world.

Fourth, Jesus did repeatedly condemn the religious leaders of his time, but he failed even to address two major unjust institutions of his time: slavery and the subjugation of women. In fact, by approving of the entire Old Testament and by failing to select any women as apostles, Jesus gave tacit approval to both of these social systems. A human revolutionary could be forgiven for moral shortsightedness, but a supposedly divine revolutionary has no excuse.

Fifth, I wholeheartedly agree that the authors of the Bible had no scientific concept of human sexuality and all its complexities, but their ignorance is more extensive than is suggested by this humble comment. They also had no scientific understanding about the origins of the universe, the origins of mankind, the connection between body and mind, the inefficacy of prayer, the impossibility of miracles and the very definition of God himself. One can't ignore the parts of scripture which one doesn't like on the grounds that they're unscientific unless one is willing to apply this principle consistently and examine the Bible thoroughly until all we have is a collection of occasionally interesting stories.

It's good to see someone in favor of social justice but disappointing to see them clinging to ancient superstitions as primary justification for purely human compassion.



My Freethought Library

The following is a list of works in my personal freethought library. In truth, there are a few books here which I don't own but which I instead checked out from the library, but I included them for completeness. I will provide a link to this post on the main page and update this list whenever I add a new work to the library. If you would like to recommend something, leave me a comment.

  • Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
  • Atheist Universe by David Mills
  • Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
  • The Case Against Christianity by Michael Martin
  • Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor
  • Critiques of God by Peter A. Angeles
  • Fifty Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison
  • Meditations for the Humanist by A.C. Grayling
  • Natural Atheism by David Eller
  • Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier
  • The Philosophy of Humanism by Corliss Lamont
  • Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier
  • Why Atheism? by George H. Smith
  • Why I Am Not a Christian by Richard Carrier
  • Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
  • Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq
  • Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett
  • The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
  • Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett
  • God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • The God Virus: How Religion Affects Our Lives and Culture by Darrel W. Ray
  • How We Believe by Michael Shermer
  • Looking for a Miracle by Joe Nickell
  • The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  • The New Atheism by Victor Stenger
  • Relics of the Christ by Joe Nickell
  • The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
  • Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht
  • Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
  • Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers by Brooke Allen
  • The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris
  • God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
  • Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg
  • Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
  • The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey
  • Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina
  • The Atheist's Bible by Joan Konner
  • The Quotable Atheist by Jack Huberman
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Godless by Dan Barker
  • Big Domino in the Sky by Michael Martin
  • The Book Against God by James Wood
  • Candide by Voltaire
  • The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
  • The Atheist's Guide to Christmas
  • Free Inquiry — regular reader since November 2006



Secular Ethics

In addition to the editorial on the benefits of worship, today we find yet another letter about atheism and Humanism. This letter by Carrie Renwick, president of the First Coast Freethought Society, was published today under the heading, “Secular Humanism: Ethics derived from within.”

Thumbs up to the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism for his defense of secular humanism! As the voice of secular humanism on the First Coast, the First Coast Freethought Society applauds his contention that secular humanists are just as moral, brave and patriotic as religious people.

Churches demonize secular humanists in the pulpit, but look around. I am your neighbor. I am your co-worker in the cubicle next to yours. I am your doctor. I am a member of your family. Unless I tell you that I am a secular humanist, you will think that I am good, joyful, moral and happy because of God or religion.

Humanists affirm that ethics are derived from the application of reason and from within, not from religious scripture like the Bible. We reject the supernatural. We affirm science as the best way to understand the natural world and our place within it. We believe that this Earth is the only home we have. Therefore, we must treat it with care for the benefit of future generations. We affirm that life in this world is the only life we have, so we should live it to the fullest and be as kind to each other as possible.

If you agree with these affirmations, you could find a home in our group. You can find out more about us at firstcoastfreethoughtsociety.org.

There is not much to comment upon with the text itself, but I am pleased to see more positive exposure for Humanism within the local press, especially from a local resident!

Due to conflicts with my work schedule, I have only been able to attend one monthly meeting of the First Coast Freethought Society in the past two years, but it was a positive experience and I wish that I could attend more often. Almost every member was at least twice and in some cases three times my age, and it would be better if organization had more members from every age group, so I regret that I cannot currently help diversify the membership by my own attendance. If you are a local reader, please consider visiting their website.


Supposed Benefits of Worship

This morning I discovered the first editorial by the staff of the Florida Times-Union this year on the topic of religion or irreligion. It was published today under the heading, “Benefits of Worship.”

Want a better, longer life? Try a house of worship.

That's the conclusion of a Heritage Foundation research paper that summarizes dozens of studies on religion and its impact. The peer-reviewed papers found those who worship regularly tended to have better marriages, stronger work ethics and healthier parent-child relationships. They had less depression, suicide and domestic violence.

This can be explained in secular terms. Behavior defined as "moral" tends to be more moderate, and thus healthier, both medically and psychologically. Twelve-step programs insist on the involvement with a spiritual, higher power as part of their reform process. Also, many people establish close friendships at church, and that support sometimes helps them get through the difficult times of life. Praying involves expressing good intentions. The more people express them, the more likely they are to act on them.

Health in mind, body and spirit - ancient advice. The basis for all of it, which sets apart human beings, is spiritual health.
Although this was written regarding a particular research paper by the Heritage Foundation, I have been unable to locate any more information on this document by the conservative think-tank within the pages of the newspaper. It appears to conflict with other studies on similar topics and it's difficult to determine which studies are accurate without becoming a professional pollster oneself. The editors are most certainly aware of these conflicting studies given that three letters to the editor have been published in their very newspaper on this topic within the last two weeks, yet they choose to base their recommendation on the most favorable study without even mentioning the others.

The middle section seems rather garbled from an argumentative standpoint. First, the author states that even if the findings are true, they may have secular explanations, thus saying nothing about the truth of religion. I agree wholeheartedly. Then they imply that religion leads to more “moderate” behavior although the study investigated frequency of worship and various indicators of health, not actual behavior. It may or may not be true, but that's not what the study examined from what I have gathered. Next they state that 12-step programs depend on trust in God, but within a paragraph about secular explanations, it almost seems to imply that this trust may be nothing more than the equivalent of Dumbo's feather. Finally, regarding the usefulness of prayer, I am unconvinced that expressing a good intention within prayer correlates to a higher rate of fulfilling that intention. It's quite conceivable that a person who asks God to do something will at least occasionally actually trust him to do it and be less likely to try to achieve that goal by their own efforts. Whatever the case, this is pure speculation without any hard data.

The author recommends attending a worship service in order to improve health, but I believe they instead should have cut out the middle man and simply recommended practicing “moderate” behavior and establishing close friendships within the community. Many people find worship services meaningless and tedious, but lead healthy, fulfilling lives without God.

The final sentence of the text is notable from a linguistic viewpoint. The author used set apart as an inseparable phrasal verb (“sets apart humans”) which normally denotes to save or to preserve instead of as a separable phrasal verb (“sets humans apart”) which normally denotes to distinguish. The second construction would have fit the context much better, assuming that the author meant to say that spirituality distinguishes humans from other animals.



Atheists in Foxholes

After the conflicting claims made by two letter writers regarding atheism which appeared during the first week of the year, it was not surprising to find yet another letter on the topic this week. This letter by Norm Allen, assistant director of the Council for Secular Humanism, was published today under the heading, “Atheists: Studies are ambiguous.”

A recent letter writer challenged the notion that atheists are better behaved than theists, and that there are thousands of atheists in foxholes.

The truth is that there are studies that both support and refute the first claim. (Still, it is a curious fact that one rarely finds atheists in jails and prisons.)

However, there is no doubt regarding the second claim. In fact, there is an organization called the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers that works hard to put this vicious lie to death. As a member for the past 17 years of a leading secular humanist organization, I have personally met hundreds of former atheist military members all over the world who have served courageously in battle. Indeed, Paul Kurtz, the leading secular humanist in the world, served valiantly during World War II. The letter writer seems to think because he commanded a battalion in Vietnam that he knows for certain that there were no atheists on the battlefield. However, he would have to be God himself to know this for certain. In any case, even if there were no atheists in Vietnam, that would hardly prove that God exists. After all, during times of war, people are most likely to revert to all kinds of superstition out of fear and desperation.

What would really be shocking is if there were no atheists in science labs and philosophy classes, where reason, rather than fear and irrationality, is more likely to prevail.

I am familiar with Mr. Allen from his appearances on multiple radio shows and podcasts and am pleased that he mentioned the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers to counter the simply anecdotal claim by the writer of the anti-atheist letter to which he is responding. My only disappointment is that this letter was written by someone outside of the area instead of by a local resident like the original pro-atheist letter. The people of Jacksonville need to understand that there are more atheists, agnostics and other non-believers in the area than they probably think. The first step toward being respected for any group is standing up and being heard.



Atheism is Not a Religion

Critics of atheism often claim that atheism itself is a religion, but I have never encountered any atheist who agrees with this view. Atheists insist rather that atheism is the lack of religious belief. I would like to examine the idea that not believing in any gods is a religion by analyzing two associated claims.

“Atheism requires faith.”

This often seems to mean only that the speaker believes atheism to be incorrect, so therefore it requires faith to believe that it is correct. If this were so, then one could claim every view with with one disagrees is a religion, whether the question is religion, politics, economics, science, history or even sports. This is obviously absurd.

A more charitable interpretation of this statement is that the speaker believes that there is no proof for atheism, thefore it requires faith to believe it is true. There are at least two problems with this. First, weak atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods. A weak atheist doesn't make a claim about gods to consider true, so there can be no faith. Second, strong atheism indeed does make a claim that no gods exist, but this is based on the lack of evidence for gods and certain arguments like the problem of evil. It is true that this does not constitute absolute proof, but that doesn't mean it is believed on faith. We don't have absolute proof that the atomic theory of matter is correct, but the evidence points in that direction and it's reasonable to believe it. We also don't have absolute proof that Santa Claus doesn't exist, but again the evidence points in that direction and no one claims that disbelieving in Santa is a matter of faith. If one wants to argue that atheists just don't have good evidence, that is reasonable, but as discussed above that doesn't entail that atheism is a religion unless one wants to label as a religion every opinion with which one disagrees based on the evidence.

“Atheism worships mankind.”

The only thing all atheists have in common is that they don't believe in gods. Outside of this one opinion, there is infinite variety of other opinions. Some atheists are liberals while some are conservatives, while others are libertarians or socialists or fascists or communists or even monarchists. Some atheists believe in nothing supernatural while others believe in ghosts and the afterlife. Some atheists attend religious services while others don't. Some atheists are open about their disbelief while others hide it. Some denounce religion while some want to preserve it, while others simply don't care. There are general tendencies one can identify among atheists, such as the tendency to think independently, but even this tendency is a source of more disunity than unity. It has been said, correctly in my estimation, that organizing atheists is like herding cats. The reason is that atheists are a negatively defined group. It makes as much sense to make generalizations about people who don't believe in gods as it does to make generalizations about people who don't like chocolate ice cream.

People who make the claim that atheists worship mankind make two major mistakes. First, they think that all atheists are Humanists and thus they use the terms interchangeably. This is simply not true; nihilists are just one example of atheists who are not Humanists. Incidentally, many of the very same people also claim that atheists don't believe in morality, making the exact opposite error of thinking that all atheists are nihilists. Second, they think Humanists worship mankind, but this is also simply not true. Humanists do consider humans to be the most advanced beings we know about and do think humans should solve their own problems without help from deities, but that certainly doesn't constitute worship in any sense. Yes, there are a small number of Humanist celebrants who perform certain secular ceremonies like marriages and funerals, but none of these gatherings involve anything resembling worship like kneeling before humans and offering prayers. These ceremonies instead fulfill the desires some people have for formal rituals like graduation. No one claims that schools worship education simply because they recognize students who do well in a formal program! It should also be noted that only a tiny fraction of Humanists have ever attended even one of these services and most aren't even interested in special Humanist ceremonies. Humanism is more of a label than anything else.

Why do religious people make the argument that atheism is a religion? At first it seems odd because they themselves are religious and they obviously don't consider religion to be inherently bad. I presume, however, that it's a defense mechanism because they encounter atheists who criticize religion as irrational, so they label atheism as a religion in order to cast atheists as hypocrites. This argument might convince many faithful, but it holds no weight for atheists who understand their own position.

If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. — Unknown



Anti-Atheist Letter

After this week's unexpected pro-atheist letter, it was not unexpected that someone would respond with an anti-atheist letter. This letter by Howard Jelinek was published today under the heading, “Atheists: No atheists in Vietnam.”

A recent letter titled "Atheists: Nonbelievers are coming out" was grossly incorrect. The letter writer stated that "you will find less crime, less divorce, less child molestation, less spousal abuse, etc., per capita among nontheists than any religious group." This is an incorrect statement without proof.

She also stated "there are also thousands of atheists in foxholes." I had the privilege of commanding a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division during the Tet offensive in Vietnam. On several occasions, I flew chaplains to combat airborne troops fighting near Hue. During a lull in fighting, religious services were held at the battle scene. Perimeter guards had to be rotated so that all could attend the brief service. It was impressive to see all the young men take time out to bow their heads in prayer. I did not see any atheists; everyone wanted the opportunity to pray. On other occasions, I brought a Catholic chaplain to a monastery that had been partially destroyed in a fierce battle. Without being announced, church bells were rung and the nearby Vietnamese would stop their activities and come immediately to worship. This was risky for them, for the area was still contested. Again, the fields became empty, and I saw no atheists among the Vietnamese.

Mr. Jelinek's first point is completely unsubstantiated. Yes, there was no evidence presented for Ms. Perry's statistical claims, but there was also no evidence presented against Ms. Perry's claims either. I don't know whether the letter writers failed to include them in their letters or whether the newspaper failed to print them, but as it stands now, neither claim is supported.

Mr. Jelinek's second point is equally weak. He denies Ms. Perry's claim about the number of atheists in the military based solely on anecdotal evidence from a single incident! I suggest that he visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers with detailed statements from over 100 individual servicemen, and the Atheists in Foxholes event with the names of over 500 servicemen. I also suggest that he bear in mind that this represents only a small fraction of atheists in the ranks of the military.



Pro-Atheist Letter

It was unexpected that the first mention of religion or irreligion in the editorial section of The Florida-Times Union under my monitoring policy would be a pro-atheist letter to the editor. This letter by Beth Perry was published today under the heading, “Atheists: Non-believers are coming out.”

I was surprised and delighted to see the article on American atheists, and how they are vilified by people who claim to be "good Christians." Is this any different than what is happening in Iraq presently between the religious sects?

Non-believers are beginning to come out of the closet because of theocratic issues that have developed in Washington, D.C., by our present president, such as the faith-based office, as well as giving tax monies to mostly Christian churches for charity work. This is violating our Constitution and what it stands for, although that does not seem to bother our present commander-in-chief as far as how many violations he has made. On New Year's Day, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a reply from the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., to their request for an explanation of the meaning of the First Amendment phrase, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ..." Jefferson replied, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

For those who think non-believers cannot be good citizens, you will find less crime, less divorce, less child molestation, less spousal abuse, etc., per capita among non-theists than any religious group.

There are also thousands of "atheists in foxholes."

Having only been an atheist for two years, I am not in a position to determine whether atheists are coming out more so in recent years than previously, but this trend been noted by others who also identify the growth of theocracy as a primary cause. I agree with all of Ms. Perry's other points and am pleased to see something positive about atheism in the local newspaper.



Newspaper Monitoring Policy

Today I am adopting the policy of regularly monitoring the editorial section of my local newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, and commenting on each item regarding religion and irreligion appearing on its pages. Jacksonville is considered part of the American Bible Belt and the views presented in the only major newspaper in the area reflect this. While the editorial staff at the newspaper seem just as conservative and religious as the general populace, they usually present their opinions with greater precision and tact, so the letters to the editor will often receive more of my attention.

One does not have to be a subscriber or even register at their website to read the articles, so I will be able to link to them directly. Unfortunately today's edition contained nothing of interest. I expect, however, to publish my first comment of this series very soon.


Happy New Year 2007!

New Year's is one my favorite holidays of the year.

  • non-religious — no controversy about how or why we celebrate it
  • simple decorations — balloons, streamers, party hats, noisemakers, confetti and fireworks
  • reflection — opportunity to consider the previous year
  • resolution — opportunity to consider the next year
  • football — lots of good football games on television in the United States
  • end of the holiday season — time for our lives to return to normal
The only aspect of the celebration that I dislike is the emphasis on alcohol, but at least many people also stress the importance of moderation and taking safety precautions.

I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year!