Is Atheism a Religion? 

If you’re an out atheist chances are you’ve probably had someone try to tell you that atheism is “a religion itself”. I know I’ve found myself on the receiving end of such claims, and my normal response is to point out that religions are almost always centered around the veneration and worship of a supernatural entity of some sort and therefore atheism is not a religion. I’ve generally been happy with that argument, but it turns out it’s not how the law sees it. Supernatural beliefs are not required to exist in a belief system for the courts to view said belief system as “religious”. My guess is the courts have probably avoided such a ruling because “supernatural” seems kinda judgy and nobody wants to tell their family and neighbors they worship something magical, so they’ve worked around it. Besides, how could you “prove” the supernatural in a court of law anyway? However, it seems we may have a new(ish) standard for what’s considered a religion from a legal standpoint.

The California Court of Appeals has ruled against Mr. Marshel Copple, seemingly the only follower of  “Sun Worshipping Atheism”, in his claim that he was discriminated against by the California Department of Corrections on the basis of his religious beliefs. (You can read the entire ruling here.) I won’t go into my opinion of Mr. Copple’s legal arguments or the relative validity of his beliefs, but I will say the entire scenario seems like one intended to challenge the veracity of the “religious belief” exclusions commonly found in the law. If this is the case the good on him. More folks should challenge those exclusions.

But back to the question at hand: is atheism a religion? Included in the ruling was a three part “test” for determining if a belief system is indeed a religion. (This test was originally introduced in Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical Group  and the court in the Copple case relied heavily on it.) So, in order for a belief system to be considered a religion under the law it must meet these three requirements:

1. It must addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.

2. It must be is comprehensive in nature; it must consist of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.

3. It’s often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

So let’s apply this test to atheism. The first and third requirements seem to be met. The first requirement is pretty much guaranteed when it comes to atheism, since it does address the deep and imponderable matter of “Do deities exist?” This is one of the most basic questions ever pondered by humanity, one that has dogged us since before we could even truly articulate the question. Humanity has always attributed the unknowable to a deity, and a sub-set of humanity has always rejected those attributions (usually at their peril).

The third requirement is a little wobbly, if you ask me, since currently there are graphic artists graduating by the truckload and print shops on nearly every corner of any mid-sized city so formal and external signs seem easy to come by even if you don’t have a “belief system”. But of course atheism has these signs, which are generally recognized to the community, so I think we can say atheism meets the third requirement.

As far as the second requirement, since atheism isn’t a “system” in and of itself, and is isolated to the single question concerning the existence of deities I think we can say that no, atheism doesn’t meet the standard of a belief system and is indeed an isolated teaching.

So, there ya go folks. Legally, it seems, atheism is not a religion. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. Of course, this does seem to mean that the legal system can continue to carve out special legal privileges for sincerely held religious belief systems and their followers while continuing to deny those privileges to atheists, especially when it comes to labor law, so maybe that’s not such a good thing. Maybe everyone should be held to the same standard Mr. Copple was: that nobody should take a job if the requirements of that job interfere with their sincerely held beliefs, and the law should not allow anyone to carve out exceptions to those job requirements based on those sincerely held beliefs. I’m certain there are more than few pharmacists in this country who wouldn’t be so happy if they were held to the same legal standard as Mr. Copple, and more than a few women (and the men who love them) who are unhappy they aren’t.

 

 

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The Marriage Trap, Part 2

Recently members of the secular community here in Oklahoma, many of them our leaders, have been reminding us that they are ordained in the state, authorized to perform marriages as an ordained “minister” under Oklahoma law, and are willing to do so for non-believers. They, along with several churches and religious leaders, have been doing this in response to recent legislation and made it clear that they will perform marriage ceremonies for atheists in order to allow us the opportunity to comply with this bill.


I have three words for my leadership:

 

CUT IT OUT.

 

As I’ve mentioned before, a bill establishing new restrictions on how marriages are licensed in Oklahoma has been introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature. In its original form HB 1125 by Rep. Todd Russ gave the authority to issue marriage licenses exclusively to ordained pastors, ministers, and other religious authority figures. But while the fact that the bill was subsequently amended to once again add judges to the list of folks allowed to issue marriage licenses, along with reports that the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, are positive signs that marriage won’t be restricted to the religious any time soon in Oklahoma, these reminders that there are secular officiants out there willing to perform pseudo-religious ceremonies for non-believers are not helpful in the fight against this abhorrent legislation. 

 

The State has no compelling public policy reason to limit marriage licenses to those undergoing religious ceremonies or that said marriages must be sanctioned by real or pretend religious leaders, and leaders in the secular community shouldn’t be giving tacit approval to this effort by announcing they are “ordained”. The impulse here is, I assume, to let us all know that non-believers can avoid this blatantly unconstitutional action by the State by participating in a quasi-religious ceremony officiated by a phony religious leader. But that’s the wrong impulse. Our leadership should be calling this action out for what it is: an egregious breach of the wall of separation between Church and State.

 

Look, I understand that there are lots of folks out there who’ve left their faith but want to keep the ceremonies, rites and events that came with that faith. There are others who like big parties or want the traditional ceremony without the religious talk. I think it is marvelous that there are people willing to perform those ceremonies, and I’ve recommended several of them to friends who want this service. My best friend is ordained to perform marriage ceremonies (and an atheist), and my own husband is halfway to being ordained as a Dudist Priest. It’s all wonderful so long as participation in such activity is a choice.


But the State is attempting to take away that choice. Making it easier for the State to do this and trying to divert the damage this legislation does by offering these services to the community should not be the actions of our leadership. I know people have their heart in the right place here; I believe they are trying to mitigate an ugly action by being positive. But seriously, stop. Just stop. 


I know we can all just go through the motions, pretending to uphold the spirit of the law while patting ourselves on the back about how we’ve fooled the powers that be and faked our way through their illegal requirements. But its phony, and nobody should be forced to fake their way through the most important and life-changing decision they will ever make. They certainly shouldn’t be forced to do so by the State.

 

Our leadership should be representing the best interests of the community, and in this case they’ve failed. They should be standing up to make it harder for the State to implement violations of the Constitution, not easier. Start fighting for the rights of the people to be free from government imposition of religious ceremonies in order to access civil rights and privileges. It’s what a leader would do.


EDIT:  It occurs to me that as a co-organizer of the Lawton Area Secular Society I should include myself in this failure. I did write a personal blog post about this legislation at the time it was introduced, but LASS should have issued a statement on it as well. That is my failure and I’ll own it. 

 

P.S. This bill was originally intended to prevent same-sex marriage equality by putting marriage exclusively in the hands of the Church. I guess the authors didn’t realize there are literally dozens and dozens of ministers in the state more than willing to perform marriages and issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples. If this bill passes it will actually have exactly the opposite outcome than the original intent. Legislating is hard when you only see the world from one viewpoint, isn’t it?

The recent outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma seems to have brought out the asshole in some folks. From Minister David Brassfield and his preaching about non-believers being “conspicuously absent whenever people need comforting” to Joe Klein’s foot-in-mouth disease, it seems to be open season for slander and hatred toward the secular community.

We all know the stereotypes spread around about non-believers : we’re selfish, narcissistic, immoral, uncaring, and eat babies to boot (delicious in Pad Thai by the way). These ugly lies are certainly what lead people to trust atheists about as much as they do rapists, and they aren’t going away on their own, apparently.

These nasty biases are very hurtful to not only the secular movement as a whole, but to individual atheists in particular. Atheists face stigma and hatred because it’s assumed we’re evil, due in large part to these biases. We all know (or are) that person who was rejected by their friends and family when they came out as non-believers.  Some have been discriminated against in employment and child custody disputes when it’s found out they don’t believe in deities.  We’re forced to carry these misconceptions around and constantly fight them on a personal basis with those we encounter. They permeate the public conscious so completely that we spend much of our time explaining to believers that that, yes, we actually do donate to charity, volunteer our time for good causes, raise money for children’s hospitals and battered women’s shelters, and just generally do good things as a regular part of our lives. It’s exhausting, and not very effective on an individual level.

So, what can be done? How can we combat these prejudices? Clues about this can be found in  the words of our slanderers.

Joe Klein’s “excuseapology” included this: “…it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.”

Minister Brassfield also gave us some clues. In his “regretraction” he said: “Another error was taking personal observations as a final say in a matter. In this area, I adopted a method of which I believe some atheists employ: Namely, the “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” attitude. If it is wrong for one to use that approach to determine the existence of God, then it is wrong for me to use it to determine someone’s involvement in relief efforts.”

They’re kinda right. Ask yourself this – suppose you accused a church of only helping those who share their faith, that their good works aren’t really good works because they only benefit those who agree to listen to the “good word” in exchange for help, and the membership said “No way man, we help anyone no matter their belief”. Wouldn’t the skeptic in you insist on some evidence of this? Wouldn’t you expect to see some corroborating evidence of these unselfish good works? Why should we expect more evidence of their good works than we’re willing or able to present ourselves?

I think we can conclude that more open, organized and obvious good works on behalf of free-thought groups could combat some of the nastier stereotypes of atheists. After all, it’s really hard to hold on to the belief that atheists are selfish if you can see them as an organized group cleaning up what’s left of a stranger’s house after a tornado. The strange thing is, when I express this idea to the members of my local atheist group, I’m met with resistance. My friends fear that increasing the visibility of our good works by wearing matching t-shirts (or my favorite, Action Vests), using publicity methods like media interviews and press releases to promote our good works, or even organizing as a group (as opposed to “just showing up and working individually”) would lead to accusations of grandstanding or being media whores.

But it’s not just the stereotypes of others that seem so unfair. A member of my group stated on a public forum that identifying ourselves “to show others that we are helping is using the misfortune of victims to further our cause.” This and similar comments I’ve seen lately seem to be stereotypes themselves; that people who help as coordinated groups are only doing so to promote themselves and gain media attention.

While that may be true for some, and it is true that altruism should be the main reason anyone helps another, it doesn’t have to be the only reason. To think the only reason one helps another is for self promotion seems terribly cynical. I think it is possible to combine a selfless desire to help others with promotion that highlights the good works. Do we all really believe that Jimmy Carter only talks to the media about how he helps builds houses for the homeless in an effort to promote himself and how awesome he is? He does so to encourage others to serve, either by joining his group or another, or even starting their own. He promotes his efforts so he can expand the movement and bring more help to more people. As a result he and his organization Habitat for Humanity are highly respected and admired. He doesn’t promote Habitat to gain that respect and admiration, they are simply a byproduct of his efforts.

Look, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I think we have a bigger fight to wage against these stereotypes. But I do think one of the tools we could use against these ugly prejudices is media attention on the good works WE’RE ALREADY DOING. Coordinate matching shirts or vests so people can easily identify your group. If there is media present don’t be afraid to ask for an interview. Send press releases out when your group raises money for the local VA hospital or animal shelter. Learn to use the media for what it is – an enormously successful platform for disseminating information and knowledge.

Organization is extremely important because it allows small groups to punch above their weight while giving others a highly visible and effective example. You can get more work from 20 organized people than you can from 100 unorganized people. So set up a “Good Works Action Plan”. Identify those in your group who are natural leaders and task them with organizing small groups of people to plan fundraisers or charity events, then promote the hell out of them. Make sure you’ve identified those in your organization with special skills that would be helpful in crisis/emergency situations and keep them informed as to what’s needed and where. Plan ahead for potential relief and quick response efforts. But above all, don’t be afraid to tell the world who you are, what you’re doing and how they can join in and help.

Let’s all make sure we’re fighting these stereotypes in an effective and productive manner. Who knows, the unfair bias you crush just might be your own.

Good Without God (But Don’t Tell Anyone)

LASS Finally Comes Out

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I wrote anything. I’m sorry. It is true that I’m pretty lazy, so postings will probably be few and far between. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing ANYTHING. As a matter of fact I, along with my good friend Kelli Vanpool, have been organizing a relatively new secular organization called Lawton Area Secular Society, which happens to be approaching it’s first anniversary on Memorial Day (yay!).

Anyhoo, since Lawton is attached at the brain to Ft. Sill, a U.S. Army base where soldiers practice bombing stuff (day and night, for weeks on end, till you ignore approaching thunderstorms because you assume it’s just millions of tax payer dollars at work again), we pay particular attention to the role religion has assumed in our military. Kelli, being ex-Army and married to an Army guy, is especially interested in it. So you can imagine how amused we were to see the stories being spread about Christians being court-martialed for expressing their beliefs! We decided to write something about it for the Lawton Constitution, our local paper, and I thought I’d share it with you. I have no idea if they’ll publish it, but I’ll keep y’all posted! So here’s what we wrote:

The internet rumor mill is working overtime trying to convince us all that loyal soldiers are being court-martialed for simply professing their Christian faith. Sounds terrible, right? Nobody should be persecuted for simply expressing their faith, especially here in the United States! How could something like that happen?

Well, the good news is that there isn’t a single verifiable instance of this happening, and if DoD regulations are enforced, there never will. Regulations specifically require commanding officers in our military services to protect the religious liberty rights of our service members, and to make reasonable accommodations for the expression of those religious beliefs. This guarantee of religious freedom is codified in Title 10 USC, sections 3073, 3547, 5142, and 8067. Free exercise of religious freedom for military personnel is further detailed in DoD Directive (DODD) 1300.17, “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services,” which describes the commander’s responsibility to provide for religious accommodation.

So why all the hoopla? Maybe it’s the second part of that rule – requests for accommodation should be approved, but only “when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.” It’s becoming clear that the actions of a few devout service members, especially in the higher levels of the command structure, are edging close, if not crossing, this line.

Reported events at various military installations across the country show that some commanders and ranking service personnel have been using their religious beliefs as an excuse to harass, punish and haze others, especially those of a lower rank. Some of these reports include:

•In May 2010 soldiers attending training at Ft. Eustice in Virginia reported being confined to their quarters and ordered to do maintenance for opting out of attending a concert by Christian band BarlowGirl organized by the base command structure.

•Mandatory “spiritual Fitness Assessments” are commonly used to evaluate leadership and command skills, with required remediation for service members who are deemed “not spiritual enough”.

•There are numerous reports from soldiers suffering from PTSD who were referred to chaplains for counseling rather than licensed mental health professionals. Suffering soldiers are commonly told their mental health problems are a result of their lack of faith.

•In 2007 several senior officers, including generals, participated in a video promoting Christianity. These interviews were conducted in their Pentagon offices, during normal work hours, and they were all in full uniform. Three of these officers were allowed to retire with full benefits without any disciplinary action, and several others were subsequently promoted as high as three star general.

•At West Point, cadets report that officers “routinely equate resiliency and leadership ability with religious devotion”, and are told that including prayer in mandatory events is “what will be expected of you as officers”. At least one cadet reports having been asked by a superior officer during a formal development meeting “How can you have morals if you don’t believe in God?”

•At the Air Force Academy there is an underground group of more than 100 members, most self described Christians, who exaggerate their devoutness because they believe it’s necessary to be considered cadets in good standing. A recent survey at the academy shows that at more than 170 cadets face routine religious pressure, primarily from evangelical Christians, and fear reprisal if they complain about it.

Before we all assume these are just a handful of disgruntled disbelievers trying to stir up trouble for those they disagree with, Mikey Weinstein, founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation, estimates 90% of mail he receives are from Christians seeking relief from evangelical or fundamental Christians.

It’s clear from even the most cursory review of these reports that there is a problem with some in the chain of command using their proselytization as a means of “recruiting” new members for their faith, and lower level service members feel they must comply or risk be punished or having their career endangered.

Members of the Armed Forces willingly surrender on a temporary basis certain free exercise rights when it impinges on military discipline and the successful completion of a military objective. Any activity that adversely affects unit cohesion, mission readiness or discipline, religiously based or not, is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including court martial. These regulations are in place to protect service members, not persecute them.

We applaud DoD’s reminder to it’s chain of command that aggressive proselytizing which lessens unit cohesion or infringes on a service member’s First Amendment rights is unacceptable in today’s military. We believe that military readiness can and has been damaged by the aggressive actions of some evangelicals in the military to browbeat their subordinates into embracing their own religious beliefs.

If any service member has experienced this type of discrimination, intimidation or punishment, we encourage them to contact either the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) or Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) for help. We appreciate and support all our brothers and sisters in the armed services, and hope that anyone who needs help seeks it out sooner rather than later.

Sincerely,
Brenda Weber and Kellina VanPool
Organizers, Lawton Area Secular Society (LASS)

(LASS can be contacted on Facebook, Meetup.com or at LawtonAreaSecularSociety@gmail.com)

Fact : I’m A Bad Feminist Who Wishes She Were A Badass Feminist

I’m pretty new to the Twittersphere (follow me if ya want, @BrenWeber), but I do understand inside that ‘verse rages a vast and mostly ridiculous debate about the role of women in the skeptical community. I’ve been trying to educate myself more on this, which lead me to this: .

image

I couldn’t help myself, my first thought was to tweet back “Dunno, maybe just tell them there will be lots of chicks there?” That thought makes me a bad feminist, at least in some back alleys of the internet.

The fact that I didn’t send it is evidence I’m not a badass feminist. I need to work on that.

Now With 47% Less Emotion

Well, I got all the emotional baggage out the way with my last post about A+, so time to move on to the analytical. Emotions are interesting, no doubt, but when it comes to the heavy lifting of being a rational person I usually engage the more utilitarian side of myself. Unfortunately for A+ my practical side isn’t really excited about it either, to tell the truth. I actually think A+ has the potential to harm the non-belief movement.

The A+ movement wishes to present itself as a combination of disbelief and political ideology. They claim the disbelief ultimately leads one to embrace the more liberal side of the political spectrum, so melding the two is not only appropriate but inevitable. Too bad it isn’t wise.

There is an example of melding atheism to a political position that resulted in damage to the secularism they were seeking: Communism. Now I’m not talking about the fur-hat wearing, parade loving Ruskies (although I do kinda miss their showmanship, their costumes were fantastic!) I’m talking about all those writers, thinkers and rabble-rousers McCarthy was seemingly terrified of. Since communists were (incorrectly) believed to be wholly atheistic, during the “red scare” of the 1950’s Congress added the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance as a defense against their influence. According David Greenberg in an article written for Slate magazine:

“The legislative history of the 1954 act stated that the hope was to “acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon … the Creator … [and] deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism.”

It’s clear the intent was to distinguish America as fundamentally opposite of those “godless commies”. Of course 60 years later we realize we were never under any serious attack by communists in our country, but those words are still there, all because someone married disbelief with a political position. It just goes to show that given even the smallest opportunity to, the faithful in the halls of power will impose their beliefs on others, especially if they can earn political points in doing so. We shouldn’t be giving them these opportunities, because the laws of unforseen consequences will rear their ugly heads.

Additionally, considering the current Pew poll regarding faith and religiosity in America, it’s safe to say that an increasing number of young people are leaving their churches, and it’s pretty well-known that the push by churches to combine faith and politics is one of the driving forces behind this trend. They are rejecting the notion that their faith and politics are one in the same, and therefore are rejecting their churches and religion. This does not mean they are embracing disbelief, indeed they primarily self describe as being “spiritual but not religious”. But it does mean, as my friend Damion points out:

…since the “nothing in particulars” are marginally less skeptical than the general public, the only really good news here is that both of those groups are probably willing to hear us atheists and skeptics out when we try to explain to them that gods, spirits, souls, ghosts, astrology, reincarnation, faith-healing, and alt-med all fall into the same evidential category. To be sure, our mission field is expanding, but we still have to do the hard work of teaching people why and how to think critically about such claims.

Does anyone think our job of recruiting those who are leaving their churches because of politics will flock to us if we conflate our movement with politics? I think exactly the opposite, they will simply view our movement as just the same old crap they just left, only with a more “liberal” bent. These people might be open to a discussion of rationality, reason and logic as it pertains to their “spirituality”, but not if we muck up the process with politics.