Author Archives: Matt Foss

I love this city

Columbus, Ohio is not only home to the wonderful people who head the Secular Student Alliance, it’s also probably the most tolerant city in the Midwest when it comes to the LGBT population.

latenightsliceOf course, we have our share of not-so-tolerant individuals as well. A guy standing in line at Mikey’s Late Night Slice this past weekend didn’t take kindly to the sight of two men holding hands in line, and he decided it was his place to harass them whilst waiting for street pizza:

It was really cold so Ethan and I were holding hands and standing close together to keep warm, we were laughing and joking about all the fun we’d had that night, when all of the sudden the guy in front of us turns around and tells us to cut our “gay shit” out.

He might have got his way in another time or another place, but this sort of thing doesn’t fly here, particularly in the Short North.

I was a bit startled by his words but I didn’t expect what happened next. Almost every single person in that line made it known to him it was not OK for him to speak to us like that.

He wasn’t discouraged, and continued to rant about how disgusting it was for two men to hold hands in public.  This attracted the attention of the pizza truck’s proprietors:

The best part though was as he grew more irate and vocal the guys who work the truck stopped what they were doing and leaned towards the window and told him they would not serve him because he was spewing hate. They said they support everyone in our community and that he should get out of line because they would not be serving him.

I don’t doubt that this guy feels like he was being discriminated against for his beliefs, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing comments to that effect from the religious right (though I have resolved to stop reading the comments section on news articles). That’s bollocks. He was refused service for harassing other customers who were minding their own business. Any shopkeeper has the right to do what Late Night Slice did, and I applaud them for doing so.

Fahoo fores, dahoo dores

grinch - who hash‘Tis the season to put up festive decorations, share time and gifts and food with friends and family, and apparently for some Christians to get riled up against atheists over the specter of persecution.

Every year around this time, in spite of my efforts to avoid watching Fox News, I invariably hear about the supposed “War on Christmas” in which I am unwittingly a foot soldier, seeking and destroying all mention of the C-word in the public square. On occasion, Christians who know I’m an atheist wish me a Merry Christmas with a tone of rebellion in their voices, as though they’re brazenly defying some unjust law by doing so, just daring me to call the Secular Spetsnaz on them. I like to respond by thanking them and wishing them a “Happy _____”, inserting a random late December holiday to throw them off.

All this divisive talk of who owns the reason for the season can make the holidays a stressful time to be an atheist, a time when all I want to do is don my gay apparel, look at the pretty lights, sip on a peppermint mocha, brave the pandemonium at the mall to find thoughtful (and/or practical) presents for the people I care about, and then snuggle on the couch with my wife and the dogs. It just so happens that the only December 25th birthday I’ll be giving a nod to will be that of Sir Isaac Newton.

I’m not out to take away anyone’s Nativity scene or last can of Who Hash. I couldn’t care less about who in my vicinity is celebrating the birthday of which mythological/religious figure, so long as they aren’t forcing their beliefs on anyone else or using taxpayers’ money to promote their faith. I don’t think those are unreasonable requests, and I don’t see why we can’t all have a pleasant December while following those guidelines.

So, fellow humans: be ye faithful or godless, whatever the reason you’re celebrating, let’s all have a good night and a merry day tomorrow.

School prayer doesn’t stop bullets

No doubt many of you have seen this chain letter in the recent days. It’s popped up at times in my Facebook feed, shared by a few of my devoutly Christian friends and acquaintances.

godschools

COLUMBINE STUDENT’S FATHER 12 YEARS LATER!!

Guess our national leaders didn’t expect this. On Thursday, Darrell Scott, the father of Rachel Scott, a victim of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was invited to address the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee. What he said to our national leaders during this special session of Congress was painfully truthful.

They were not prepared for what he was to say, nor was it received well. It needs to be heard by every parent, every teacher, every politician, every sociologist, every psychologist, and every so-called expert! These courageous words spoken by Darrell Scott are powerful, penetrating, and deeply personal. There is no doubt that God sent this man as a voice crying in the wilderness. The following is a portion of the transcript:
“Since the dawn of creation there has been both good &evil in the hearts of men and women. We all contain the seeds of kindness or the seeds of violence. The death of my wonderful daughter, Rachel Joy Scott, and the deaths of that heroic teacher, and the other eleven children who died must not be in vain. Their blood cries out for answers.

“The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used.. Neither was it the NCA, the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cain’s heart.

“In the days that followed the Columbine tragedy, I was amazed at how quickly fingers began to be pointed at groups such as the NRA. I am not a member of the NRA. I am not a hunter. I do not even own a gun. I am not here to represent or defend the NRA – because I don’t believe that they are responsible for my daughter’s death. Therefore I do not believe that they need to be defended. If I believed they had anything to do with Rachel’s murder I would be their strongest opponent.

I am here today to declare that Columbine was not just a tragedy — it was a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies! Much of the blame lies here in this room. Much of the blame lies behind the pointing fingers of the accusers themselves. I wrote a poem just four nights ago that expresses my feelings best. 

Your laws ignore our deepest needs,
Your words are empty air.
You’ve stripped away our heritage,
You’ve outlawed simple prayer.

Now gunshots fill our classrooms,
And precious children die.
You seek for answers everywhere,
And ask the question “Why?”

You regulate restrictive laws,
Through legislative creed.
And yet you fail to understand,
That God is what we need!

“Men and women are three-part beings. We all consist of body, mind, and spirit. When we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our make-up, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice, and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc. Spiritual presences were present within our educational systems for most of our nation’s history. Many of our major colleges began as theological seminaries. This is a historical fact. 

What has happened to us as a nation? We have refused to honor God, and in so doing, we open the doors to hatred and violence. And when something as terrible as Columbine’s tragedy occurs — politicians immediately look for a scapegoat such as the NRA. They immediately seek to pass more restrictive laws that contribute to erode away our personal and private liberties. We do not need more restrictive laws. 

Eric and Dylan would not have been stopped by metal detectors. No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre. The real villain lies within our own hearts. 

“As my son Craig lay under that table in the school library and saw his two friends murdered before his very eyes, he did not hesitate to pray in school. I defy any law or politician to deny him that right! I challenge every young person in America , and around the world, to realize that on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School prayer was brought back to our schools. Do not let the many prayers offered by those students be in vain. Dare to move into the new millennium with a sacred disregard for legislation that violates your God-given right to communicate with Him. 

To those of you who would point your finger at the NRA — I give to you a sincere challenge.. Dare to examine your own heart before casting the first stone! 

My daughter’s death will not be in vain! The young people of this country will not allow that to happen!”
- Darrell Scott

Do what the media did not – – let the nation hear this man’s speech. Please share this with your FB friends!

 

Being a Good Skeptic™, I of course Snopes‘d it to make sure this is what he actually said. Then I typed out this lengthy response, which I was about to leave as a comment on a colleague’s Facebook post until I decided it would make a great blog post instead.

I get rather upset when people post this (and I’ve been seeing it a lot this week). I’m sorry for Mr. Scott’s loss on that terrible day, and for everyone else who lost loved ones in all the mass shootings since, but there are some major problems with what this chain letter says.

schoolprayerviolence

First off, there are no laws in this country preventing students from praying on their own in schools – only preventing teachers and principals from telling them to pray. It’s frustrating that so many Christians in this country can’t seem to tell the difference.

Secondly, what you’re insinuating here is that such tragedies wouldn’t happen if only more students were praying in the classroom. Is this because you believe that your God would have protected them if they’d prayed, or is it because you believe that the killers would never have pulled the trigger if they had more Jesus in their lives? If it’s the former, you’re essentially saying that your God punishes people for not praying enough by slaughtering their children. If it’s the latter, you’re ignoring the twisted individuals who kill in the name of their faith.

And finally, while you’re correct that it’s wrong to simply pin the blame on the NRA, you’re only shifting the blame to another group: secularists. That isn’t any less wrong, and it’s intellectually dishonest to try to boil the tragedy’s causes down to a single factor.

I do not have the answers as to how to prevent these tragedies either, but as an atheist I feel personally insulted when people blame them on a lack of religion. The fact that I don’t go out committing horrible acts of violence isn’t because of faith in a higher power – it’s because I have empathy for my fellow human beings. Perhaps that’s what is lacking in our culture.

A few seconds of Google research turned up a campaign launched in Rachel Scott’s memory that does exactly that: a call for compassion and an end to bullying.  The campaign, called Rachel’s Challenge, is “a non-profit, non-political, non-religious organization based in Littleton, Colorado” according to its website.

Let’s honor the innocent victims of these tragedies by working to end hatred and violence, not by the divisive tactic of scapegoating the godless.

Three Minutes in the Moon’s Shadow

My awesome MS-Paint rendition of a total solar eclipse progression. You know you love it.

Last month I had the unforgettable experience of watching a total solar eclipse for the first time in my life. I’d say it is, hands down, the most spectacular natural phenomenon that you can observe with the naked eye.

It’s a sight that many people only get to see in pictures and videos during their lifetimes, unless they happen to live in the right place at the right time or have the wherewithal to travel there.

Given that I married into a family whose favorite pastime is travelling the world to observe solar eclipses, I’d say I lucked out. They’ve been everywhere from the jungles of Zambia to a plane flying over the Arctic ice to watch the moon blot out the sun for just a few minutes at a time. They’re self-proclaimed eclipse chasers, and my father-in-law runs a website and blog dedicated to their hobby.

My in-laws decided that it was time for me to lose my eclipse virginity, so they brought me along on a voyage to the South Pacific.

(For an excellent interactive map of where this eclipse was visible, you can go here.)

Some eclipse chasers elected to go to Australia to view this eclipse from land. Our group had a different idea.  Our destination: 26 degrees South, 166 degrees East.

And so we traveled to Fiji, and left on a cruise ship chartered by a bunch of astronomy nerds for the specific purpose of seeing the eclipse at sea. Having not yet seen an eclipse, I was amazed at the lengths that people would go to in order to get good seats to the show. I was certainly looking forward to the trip, but still had no idea how amazing the experience would be.

read more »

Put a gun to an atheist’s head…

Astrid drew attention to this heartwarming tweet this afternoon:

Sorry, kiddo.  That’s not God I’d be talking to.  I’d be talking to the psychopath holding the gun.  Though, hey, I’m pragmatic.  I might say just about anything to get you to put the gun down.

If the only way you can get an atheist to pay lip service to your God is with a gun to their head, you might want to seriously reconsider the merits of your faith.

Tell Obama to Pressure Indonesia to free Alexander Aan!

If you are an atheist and have ever expressed your offensive views online, you would be a criminal in Indonesia.

Such is the case for Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist currently serving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence for posting blasphemous statements in an atheist group on Facebook.  He also has to pay a fine amounting to about $10,000 US, and has received numerous death threats from Islamic fundamentalists calling for his head on a platter.

This outrageous case has received a fair amount of attention within the atheist community, prompting a protest outside the Indonesian embassy by the Center for Inquiry earlier this month.

Not all of Aan’s supporters here in the US could make it to New York City for the protest, but now there’s something that all of us can do: sign this petition to the White House urging President Obama to take a stand for religious freedom and tell the Indonesian government to let Aan go.

Like all “We the People” petitions on the White House website, it needs 25,000 digital signatures in order to end up on the President’s desk.  Go sign it now!  Atheism should not be a crime anywhere.

The different flavors of atheism

Despite what The Oatmeal may think, this isn't every atheist's idea of a good time.

For better or for worse, some people like to categorize.  I can be one of those people at times.

PZ Myers recently posted a list of taxa that he believes describe different personalities within the atheist movement; I did something similar on my personal blog last fall, though with a slightly different focus.  PZ focused on patterns of thought, while I looked at patterns of behavior (I also marked each of mine with a card suit for symbolism).  Here’s an executive summary of both of our lists:

PZ’s Taxa:

  • Scientific AtheistKnows that there is no god due to total lack of empirical evidence for one.  Sometimes a little too arrogant.
  • Philosophical Atheist: Doesn’t believe in god because believing in one requires making unfounded assumptions.  Sometimes overly long-winded.
  • Political Atheist: Motivated to fight the political and legal battles to make the world a better place for atheists.  Sometimes makes compromises that other atheists don’t like.
  • Humanist: Altruistic do-gooder who wants to help people in the name of godlessness.  Sometimes “pragmatically fickle” and may join up with liberal churches instead of expressly atheist organizations.

My Taxa:

  • Agitating Anti-theist (spade): Sees religion as an enemy to be vanquished, and fights its advances tooth and claw.
  • Incredulous Inquirer (club): Skeptical toward religion, but wants to discuss rather than fight.
  • Mainstream Materialist (diamond): Doesn’t believe in god, stops worrying, and enjoys life.
  • Diplomatic Disbeliever (heart): Strives to form friendly alliances with open-minded religious people.

Many people who read either or both of these posts may find themselves identifying with more than one category.  They’re archetypes, and very few people strictly belong to any one of them.  Each one of us has a different story behind how we realized we were atheists, how we came to join up with other atheists in this ever-evolving movement, and where we’d like to see the movement go.

And yet I unfortunately continually see bickering among these different “kinds” of atheists, the most vitriolic of which occurs on the internet.  Atheists call one another “bullies” and “accommodationists” and accuse one another of dogmatism and “Tinkerbellism” over different approaches toward the movement.  We see nasty exchanges of ad-hominems and passive-aggressive head shaking on Twitter because one party is either too critical or not critical enough of religion for the other party’s tastes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that atheists who speak out in the name of atheism should be willing to defend why they say, and if an atheist says or does something reprehensible then others can and should call him or her out on it.  But let’s try to keep it civil.

A diversity of perspectives and approaches toward living without religion is, in my opinion, healthy for the movement.  We need people who uncompromisingly fight for the truth, we need people who make nice with theists, and we need average citizens who aren’t full-time activists to show the general public that we do walk among them.  This movement isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Don’t take freedom of speech for granted – Blasphemy Rights Day

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, as designated by the Center for Inquiry (see Astrid’s previous post for some of the history behind it). It used to be called Blasphemy Day; the word “Rights” was inserted to more accurately represent the purpose behind it.

It’s not about infidels and apostates having a day to antagonize people who still hold religious beliefs. It’s not about members of a mainstream religion ritualistically taunting and harassing people of a minority faith. It’s not about goading religious extremists into a murderous rage.

It’s about people who value freedom of speech raising awareness of how easily that freedom can be trampled upon. It’s about recognizing that as another set of claims in the marketplace of ideas, religion should not be immune from the same scrutiny, criticism, and satire that we freely apply to other forms of speech. It’s about believing that offending someone’s religious sensibilities is not a crime.

Chances are that right now as you read this, you are committing blasphemy against someone’s religion. It might be the clothes or jewelry you’re wearing. It might be a symbol or phrase you have tattooed on your skin. It might be the person you are in a relationship with or are attracted to. It might be the “unclean” food digesting in your stomach right now.

Forbidden food AND irreverence to a revered tale! It's sacrilicious!

It might be the lighthearted joke you made about a traditional practice. It might be the way you celebrate a certain holiday. It might be the particular translation of your religion’s holy book that you read. It might be a recent (or centuries old) scientific discovery that you now know as fact.

It might be the fact that you find a particular supernatural claim so absurd that you snicker at the very idea of it.

His Merriness will not be mocked!

The bottom line is that someone somewhere believes that their god hates what you’re doing right now, and that person would be deeply offended to know that you’re doing it so brazenly. In some parts of the world, that makes you a criminal who deserves fines, imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty.

If you live in a country where treating religion with anything short of veneration is legal, consider yourself lucky. Don’t take freedom of speech for granted.

Disingenuous fearmongering about the “gay agenda”

I was recently alerted to this video’s existence via a Facebook post by a conservative Christian associate of mine.  It was created by CitizenLink, a Focus on the Family affiliate.

CitizenLink Report: Tools for Parents

It’s more of the same message we often see from “pro-family” organizations: that “parents” (read: heterosexual Christian parents) should be “concerned” (read: alarmed) about “homosexual indoctrination” (read: teaching kids that they shouldn’t regard gay people as horrible, immoral monsters) in schools.

For what it’s worth, I know that there are at least a handful of gay activists out there who do have a disdain for heterosexuals and do want special treatment for their sexual orientation (I know this because I met one).  With a little bit of dressing up, this fringe element serves as a handy strawman for anti-gay activists to reference in videos like this.  Don’t be fooled.  The vast majority of homosexuals just want to be who they are without being treated like freaks.  That’s your real “gay agenda”.

If you don’t want to sit through the whole thing, skip to 6:48 for the part that really made my blood boil.

“. . . it is clear that these kids are struggling.”

Around the 7-minute mark the show’s host plays a clip from a “tolerance” video promoted by a gay advocacy group.  In the clip we see teenagers giving their candid perceptions of their own gender identities, followed by the host and her guest reacting with thinly veiled disgust.  They no doubt picked this clip thinking that it represents the worst of the gay indoctrination that students face, and I personally saw nothing wrong with what that clip depicted.  What exactly is wrong with boys not acting masculine?  Girls admitting that they’re not 100% feminine?  More importantly, what evidence is there that these kids are “struggling” any more than any other teenager struggles with life?

Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.  I know that the people who are alarmed by the blurring of boundaries between gendered behaviors feel that way because it demolishes two immutable categories that they’ve constructed in their minds.  “Men and women are fundamentally different, even without counting the genitals and physiological differences, and should always behave as such, and you’ll never convince me otherwise!” says my social conservative strawman.

What’s really damaging is the idea that there can’t be middle ground in gender issues, that you’re either a manly man, a womanly woman, a girly gay boy, or a butch lesbian.  No room for bisexuals, or even heterosexuals who exhibit personality traits of both genders, exists in this mindset (let alone trans- or intersexuals!).

An admonition for conservatives who aren’t anti-gay

I understand that there are plenty of economic conservatives out there who don’t have a problem with anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity so long as they’re productive citizens.  I understand your sentiment that gay advocacy is intruding on public school curriculum with programs like those described in the video, and likewise that lawsuits for the same cause are frivolous and that government intervention on it is excessive.  I don’t completely agree with that sentiment, but I understand where it comes from.

What secular conservatives should understand is that much of the left-wing sentiment backing this type of aggressive advocacy was forged by the backlash from social conservatives against those homosexuals who have “come out” over the past few decades.  Gay rights activists built up this momentum while fighting a culture war for their right to exist in society.  Tell the religious zealots who have hijacked the Republican Party to stop fighting culture wars and focus on the economy, and you won’t have to listen to this senseless debate any longer.

Why some people don’t accept evolution: a layperson’s perspective

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science.  I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology.  I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein

I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it.  I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen.  I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature.  It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it.  It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I’m not so sure that there’s a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they’ll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like “evolution is just a theory”, people who don’t believe the science because they don’t understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false.  It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text.  A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don’t seem to want an amendable explanation that says “We can’t know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we’ve found so far.”  It doesn’t satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us.  It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable.  No, people want an ironclad explanation that says “We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons.”

Science can’t offer that.  It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered.  Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?