Saturday, December 27, 2008

Founders were Outspoken against Christianity

Evangelical Christians are fond of asserting that this country was founded on Christianity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Founding Fathers all believed in God, but not necessarily the Christian god. Most were deists, believing that God and nature were substantially equivalent and that we humans create our own future and are solely responsible for our past. A minority of the Founding Fathers were Christians, but all believed that whatever your religion, it should be kept completely separate from government.

There is not one single mention of God in the Constitution of the United States. In the date, at the bottom, is written “In the Year of Our Lord,” but that was standard form for the way dates were written on official documents back then. We use the abbreviation A.D. today, which is short for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which means “in the year of our Lord.”

Looking back at the writings of the men we call the Founding Fathers, we can get a clear understanding of what they actually thought about religion in society. Although it was during a time when few doubted the existence of a supreme being, call it God, Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and many respected the lessons of the man named Jesus, few of them would be regarded as what we today call born-again Christians. They worked more to inform the populous about how religion tends to spoil and corrupt government than they worked to spread the gospel.

John Adams stressed the importance of reason over religion when he said, “When philosophic reason is clear and certain by intuition or necessary induction, no subsequent revelation supported by prophecies or miracles can supersede it.”

This was an echo of what Benjamin Franklin had written earlier in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He wrote, “The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”

And in a letter to his son, Adams wrote, “Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”

At a seeming jab at the all-knowing fundamentalists of the day, Adams wrote, “God is an essence that we know nothing of.”

And, in the clearest indication of all that the U.S. was never meant to be a Christian nation, in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli which Adams signed, are printed these words: “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation.”

Although Franklin often wrote glowingly about religion’s roll in society, he also pulled no punches in his contempt for its dogma. “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies,” he wrote in his autobiographical piece, “Toward the Mystery.”

Thomas Jefferson was one of our founders who had an utterly cynical view of religion and Christianity. He wrote in his Notes on Virginia, "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.” And, "Religions are all alike - founded upon fables and mythologies.”

And in a warning against allowing religion too much influence on government, Jefferson wrote, “In no instance have . . . the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.”

Even George Washington was not a religious person. Although he attended church on a regular basis, he did not participate, choosing instead to just sit quietly and listen.

Washington had almost nothing to say about his own religion. He was a deist. He thought religion had a stabilizing influence on society, but he never took communion at his church and was once reprimanded in public by his pastor for not setting a good example in church. He never attended that church again. But, as a deist, he thought government should be inclusive and open to all religions and even atheists.

In a 1794 letter asking for laborers to build his Mount Vernon Estate, he wrote, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”

John Quincy Adams was a big proponent of the separation of church and state. In an 1823 letter to Richard Anderson he wrote, “Civil liberty can be established on no foundation of human reason which will not at the same time demonstrate the right to religious freedom....”

Thomas Paine had quite a lot to say about religion, most of it negative. In The Age of Reason he wrote, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Paine also realized that religion can be the perverter of scientific thought and of logical reasoning, saying “There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those imposters and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.”

Yes, I know, there are a multitude of pro-Christian Web sites that list dozens of quotations by various Founding Fathers that seem to support religion and, in particular, Christianity. And, although some of the founders were Christian, none of them had in mind creating a Christian nation when they wrote the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. To claim otherwise is to lay insult at their feet, for their main goal was to create a nation free of religious entanglement.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Offended by Secularist Rhetoric? Too Bad!

For the past couple of years, humanists, agnostics, and atheists have been standing up for themselves publicly. They are starting to come out of the closet. But their stance may be producing a Christian backlash as mostly fundamentalist Christians have started pushing back.

Evangelical Christians have lost a lot of political punch over the past couple of election cycles. The big blow came this past November when Barack Obama was elected president. Evangelicals like Mike Huckabee were eliminated early in the primary race. And McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is a very conservative Christian, may have cost him the election.

But it won’t take the fundamentalists long to regroup. Their numbers are large and they have a propensity to organize when they feel they have been shut out.

This Christmas season, atheist groups in America and in Britain have been bolstering their position by putting up billboards and placards proclaiming their disbelief. While only a small minority of Americans call themselves atheists, a considerably larger minority say they have no religion. They may call themselves agnostics, humanists, pragmatists, secularists, or even Christians, but they don’t attend church and religion is not a part of their lives.

But the push by the more radical element of this group to make themselves known has caused those like newspaper columnist Tom Sears of The Daily Star in New York to become offended. He asks in his column “What are atheists afraid of?”

In his column, he wrongly accuses atheists of being too lazy to give religion a chance. In fact, many atheists and agnostics have attended church and have read the bible. I am an agnostic and I am also baptized. I was a practicing Christian for many years and I was raised in a family of practicing Christians. So, no, I was never too lazy to learn about and to even practice religion. I simply got over it.

Sears then repeats the same old tired, but utterly incorrect, mantra about this country being founded on Judeo-Christian principles. It was founded on religious tolerance and freedom. It was founded by men who purposely left any reference to God out of the Constitution. It was founded by men who were religiously diverse, some of whom professed no religion at all.

Sears asks if atheists are afraid that children might see the nativity scenes and want to learn more about Jesus. Atheists have no problem with anyone learning about the historical figure of Jesus. What we fear is that children will be indoctrinated into a religion that blinds them to the facts of science and the real world, so they will be less likely to cope and more likely to rely on blind faith, thereby becoming disappointed and disillusioned when God doesn’t come through for them in times of need.

It’s the same fear that Sears professes he has about the children of atheists. He claims they won’t be exposed to religion so that they can make their own choices. My children have made their spiritual choices as adults. They did so on their own with no prodding from me. They, as I, attended church and were exposed to all the stories of the bible when they were kids. But they correctly left religion behind when they were old enough to start questioning.

But if Sears is offended by a sign, what about the non-religious folks who are bombarded all the time by signs, placards, billboards, and bumper stickers telling us with absolute certainty that Jesus saves or that His kingdom is coming? Sears claims the placard placed in the Capitol Building in Washington State was offensive because it denigrated his religion. It didn’t; it was merely a statement of belief by the atheist group who put it there.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told an audience that maybe if atheists have a problem with Christmas they should work that day and take their day off on another day, like maybe April 1. Yes, it was with tongue in cheek, but Sears brought up the same argument, saying atheists should leave Christmas alone and celebrate their own holiday where they can look into the mirror and worship themselves because they profess no belief in a higher being.

First of all, Mr. Sears, not believing in a higher being doesn’t mean that you believe that you are really superior yourself. We are all simply people. More importantly, non-religious folks don’t have a problem with Christmas. It is, after all, just as much a secular holiday as a religious one. Christmas didn’t even become popular in this country until it was given a secular bend.

Christmas was largely shunned in the early days of this nation, even to the point of being outlawed in Massachusetts. But it wasn’t until Clement C. Moore gave Santa Claus a personality and brought in his team of reindeer, and Coca-Cola imbued its magazine ads with an image of the jolly old elf, and Christmas cards became popular that Christmas began to take off. Then, people started trading presents, which meant they had to go out and buy the presents to trade. That’s the Christmas that was made a holiday. For centuries before that, it was just a Christian tradition that many chose to utterly ignore.

But Sears is correct; Christians are a force to be reckoned with in this country. Their numbers are huge. He tried to make that point by comparing two movies: Bill Maher’s Religulous and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He noted that the former was a flop and the latter was listed among the top grossing films.

Well, sure. There are more Christians than atheists. That doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on the truth. Passion grossed more because it had a bigger core audience and because it was shown on many more screens than Religulous. But according to the votes on the Internet Movie Database, Religulous scored higher than Passion on how much viewers liked the film.

It doesn’t matter anyway. The popularity of a film doesn’t make its premise any better than another. The real test should be how a particular worldview affects humanity and its future. In this, secularism wins hands down.

Throughout history, the most backward, oppressive and imperialist countries have been theocracies or monarchies whose monarchs were supposedly chosen through divine right. Religion has produced the crusades, the modern jihads, the Spanish Inquisition, the corruption of the Church during the Reformation, the suppression of scientific inquiry, and so on ad infinitum.

Today, mostly in America, fundamentalist Christianity is trying in every conceivable way to infiltrate public schools with its view on the creation of the earth and the life upon it. We can’t teach our students about safe sex practices, only about abstinence. Our government refuses to fund birth control programs in third-world nations if there is any counseling about abortion. And let’s not forget that America, even though it is one of the most religious free nations in the world, still has one of the highest violent crime rates. Compare that with countries such as Sweden, Denmark, or Norway that have very low crime rates but whose populations stay away from church in droves.

So maybe it is the Christians who ought to be afraid, not the secularists. Maybe they see the handwriting on the wall. Maybe these last two elections have been just the vanguard of a coming trend away from the all-powerful religious oligarchy. The Bush era will soon be behind us, and not one second too soon. And with him, hopefully, will go the kowtowing to religious zealots that, since the Reagan years, have prevented this country from enjoying the progress it could have had.

In the mean time, we’ll settle for our newly-acquired ability to put up signage on the courthouse lawn proclaiming our doubts about God. And if that offends you, just get over it. Now you know how we feel when confronted with the ubiquitous religious propaganda. Besides, there is no guarantee in our Constitution that gives you the freedom from being offended.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas is for Everybody, not Just Christians

Christmas is the only religious holiday that is also a legal federal holiday. And that’s fitting, I guess, because Christmas is for everybody. It’s especially fruitful for retailers, some of whom do a third of their annual business during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Christmas has a dichotomous nature: There is the secular side which includes Santa Claus, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and the buying and giving of presents. It has a religious side which includes special church services, nativity scenes, and the yearly obligatory chant by some Christians to “put Christ back into Christmas.”

Even the season’s music has multiple personalities. On the secular side there are “Jingle Bells,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and “White Christmas.” On the religious side there are Christmas hymns like “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Holy Night.”

Most of the time, the sectarian and secular personalities of Christmas get along just fine. Some people create holiday-themed music CD mixes with both religious and non-religious songs on them. People go through the hustle and bustle of shopping and gift giving and also attend midnight mass.

But sometimes the two themes of Christmas clash. Sometimes those clashes make headlines, as was the case when an atheist organization put up a placard next to a nativity scene in the Washington State Capitol building. The wording was fairly innocuous, extolling everyone to let reason prevail. And most people have let reason prevail. They understand that in a country that is based on certain basic freedoms, two of which are religion and speech, that differing religious viewpoints should be tolerated.

But others haven’t gotten the message. News commentator Bill O’Reilly, for example, has publicly condemned the atheists’ placard. He believes it is inappropriate to put up a sign promoting secular reason next to a Christian display, even if both are on public property. Has he even read the Constitution?

Christians do not own the month of December. For over a century in this country Christians have had carte blanche access to public grounds for the display of their religious symbols. Until quite recently, the nativity scene has been the default decoration, not only in church yards, but at courthouses, in parks, and on the lawns of other public buildings.

And now when people who put reason and logic above magic and mysticism want equal time, those like O’Reilly accuse them of trying to take over the season.

Christmas is for everybody, not just Christians. It is celebrated by Christians as Jesus’ birthday, but that isn’t when Jesus was born. Nobody knows when Jesus was born. Most scholars believe it was in the late spring. We celebrate it on December 25 because the early church appropriated the already-flourishing pagan holiday of Saturnalia back in the fourth century. They even took over some of the original holiday’s customs.

To their credit, most Christians simply don’t react to billboards and placards that proclaim reason over religion. They accept that, in a free country, differing viewpoints should have equal time, or space on courthouse lawns. And, thankfully, people who espouse a worldview of humanity and reason are gaining attention. That attention will eventually lead to acceptance.

And just as homosexuality is now widely accepted, with notable exceptions, as an alternate lifestyle, maybe one day humanism will be not only tolerated, but accepted as equal to the belief that having blind faith in an unseen force will grant you eternal existence.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bush: Bible is Not Literal; Evolution is Factual

Pres. George W. Bush doesn’t take the bible literally and he believes in evolution, saying it has been proven by science. What’s this? Is this the real George W. Bush?

I have long assumed that Pres. Bush is a Christian fundamentalist. Nothing has happened lately to convince me otherwise. But in a recent television interview on ABC’s Nightline, Bush made some statements that caused me to think he might not be quite as far out in right field as I have always thought.

I mean, he’s still far too much of a fundamentalist to be a successful leader. He’s proven to almost everyone that he can’t lead this nation. And one of the most annoying, though not often publicized, aspects of his presidency has been his tendency to substitute his worldview of Christian morality for pragmatic and practical decision making. His censorship of science, even from within his own science advisory team, speaks volumes about his predilection for making policy decisions based on his religious views rather than on the facts.

He has had no qualms about referring to the war in Iraq as a “just” war and that he is carrying out God’s will in trying to spread democracy by any means necessary. He has used his personal moral compunctions to justify withholding federal research grants from institutions to fund embryonic stem cell research, despite the promise it holds to perhaps cure many genetic diseases. And he has no reservations about using federal tax dollars to fund programs run by churches and other religious organizations in faith-based initiatives that stress abstinence over contraception, leading to more proselytizing than pregnancy prevention.

He has come out in the past to support the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design in public science classrooms whenever evolution is taught. He said it would stimulate critical thinking. Well, maybe it would, but the place to incorporate the comparison of worldviews is within a social studies classroom, not in science. Creationism is not science, and every court that has had the opportunity to rule on it, even the most conservative of courts, has reaffirmed that fact.

So I was a bit surprised when Bush came out in the ABC interview and basically called evolution a fact of science. He said he didn’t think the biblical story of the creation was at odds with evolution and that one could believe both.

“I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution,” Bush said.

So Bush admitted publicly that there is scientific proof of evolution, even though he hedged it with the disclaimer that God had something to do with it. He also came right out and said that he doesn’t take the bible literally.

Yet, for someone who believes evolution has been scientifically proven and that the bible cannot be taken too literally, he seems to govern from a position that is just to the right of Pat Robertson.

The point is, it doesn’t matter so much what the president says about his beliefs, at least not at this juncture in his tenure in office. What matters is that he has ignored the beliefs he has recently professed and made policy based on the antiquated notions of the religious fundamentalists, his base.

They elected him in 2000 and re-elected him in 2004. Perhaps if he had come clean about his true beliefs back then, he wouldn’t have been elected. He won by a very narrow popular vote victory in 2004 and he lost in the popular vote back in 2000. So if he had lost just a few conservative Christian votes he would have lost the election.

Kowtowing to the religious right was good political strategy. But as we have seen, it has diminished how this country is perceived by the rest of the world; it has restricted the growth of progress in research and in education, and it has led us to economic ruin. It doesn’t matter what Bush really believes; it matters what he actually did. And most of what he did was to build a policy to embolden the religious zealots.

Now, it’s going to be up to our next president, Barack Obama, to clean up Bush’s mess. It will be quite a chore.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fundamentalism Still Presents a Danger

For many years I’ve been confused as to how otherwise intelligent people can be so passionate about their beliefs in religion. They are somehow able to compartmentalize their religious beliefs so that it does not interfere with the logic and rationality they must use every day in other areas.

Religion, whatever brand, is illogical on so many levels. Its base purpose is to serve as comfort. It raises hope that, not only is there a life beyond death, but that it could be a very comfortable and eternal existence. Maybe there is an afterlife. But if there is, nobody knows about it, including what it’s like.

The fear factor of religion is that the eternal afterlife could be quite torturous. If you’re a Christian, like most Americans claim to be, you probably believe in heaven and hell. Heaven is where you aspire to go; hell is to be avoided. And the way to avoid hell is to follow the dictates of an ancient mythology as described in the bible.

But there are myriad different religious belief systems under the banner of Christianity. Some acknowledge the allegorical nature of the bible and do not attempt to interpret it literally. Others, however, believe that the bible is literal in its meaning. But even these fundamentalists don’t believe that every dictate of the bible must be followed. They pick and choose.

It’s ok to eat shrimp and ham, but it’s a mortal sin to be homosexual, even though all these are offenses punishable by death in the Book of Leviticus.

Still, those who know that they know are unswayable. And many have such a twisted view of religion’s role in society that it’s both funny and dangerous. That point started to sink in a few years ago following a debate I had with a fundamentalist about evolution.

After the debate, I stopped to chat a minute with a group of men who were supporters of my opponent. I didn’t know them, and I don’t know if my opponent in the debate knew them, but they were obviously on the side of creationism.

But the topic quickly turned from evolution and creationism toward a more generalized discussion of religion in America. Their contention was simply that this country was founded on Christianity, so it needs to be brought back into the public schools.

I quickly reminded them that this country was founded not on Christianity, but on religious freedom and tolerance of religious differences.

Then one of the gentlemen claimed that the First Amendment right to freedom of religion simply meant that we were free to choose whichever denomination of Christian church we wanted to attend. I was a little stunned at the frankness of the remark and asked him if he was, indeed, serious. He assured me he was.

I then asked him what about all the Jews or Muslims that reside in this country as citizens. Don’t they have a right to observe their religious preferences? His answer was what really sent my mind reeling.

He told me that they had a right to worship in their way, but that they should move out of the U.S. and back to the countries that have Islam or Judaism as their national religions. He said the United States is a Christian nation and there was no place for other religions here.

I told him his statement smacked of racism. He answered that he was not a racist, and that he had nothing against these people, but that he just didn’t think they should live in this country.

It then dawned on me. Although certainly not all fundamentalists believe this way, some of the most conservative of the religious fundamentalists in this country are much more than a simple annoyance to freethinkers. They may actually be dangerous.

I don’t mean to suggest they are dangerous to individuals, in the since that they might hurt or murder someone. No, the danger applies to society, and is much more insidious.

History has shown that countries who adopt a single religion, especially those who insist that their citizens subscribe to that religion, tend to be oppressive and backward. In this country, fundamentalists have lost in the courts when they tried to force their religious belief into the classroom under the guise of creation science. So they changed tactics and are now trying a backdoor approach.

They are becoming politically active, electing fundamentalist candidates to leadership positions on school boards and in state legislatures. A few years ago, they even succeeded in kicking evolution out of textbooks in Kansas, but more moderate voters replaced the fundamentalists a year later in that state. Fundamentalists are mounting campaigns in many states to infuse the public schools with their backward beliefs. A new law in Texas, for example, mandates that each school offer a course in religion with the bible as the primary source of lessons.

The elections of this year and in 2006 have pushed the fundamentalists’ views to the back burner as we grapple with economic problems, but fundamentalism is still there. And its proponents are already plotting their comeback strategies.

If they succeed, it will be only a matter of time before the U.S. will become a scientifically and technologically second-rate nation. It happened once, in the period following the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920s. But when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the late 1950s it was a wake-up call to get our children back on track in the science class.

Now, it is being threatened again – not with a direct push, but with stealth. It is a threat that should not be taken too casually. It’s not simply about evolution; the entire school curriculum is in danger.

Winston Churchill once said, "Some people stumble over the truth, but pick themselves back up and continue on." But others don’t even stumble over it. They simply cannot be bothered with the facts when they have a country to conquer and classrooms to infiltrate.