April 22, 2013 - 10:22 am

Inevitably after major disasters, particularly those involving the senseless loss of life such as last week's Boston Marathon bombing, an interfaith service of some type will take shape, where various religious groups will come together to mourn and heal. This happened in Boston last week, with a high-profile service that included religious leaders from various faith communities: Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions.

In a modern pluralistic society such as ours, it not only seems natural, but arguably even healthy, that various religious groups could come together in a time of crisis. Indeed, considering that these groups have historically justified bloodshed against one another based on their theological differences, their coming together for an interfaith service, recognizing the importance of our common humanity, can only be seen as a positive development.

Nevertheless, to humanists and other nonbelievers, such interfaith services are often problematic. Though the "interfaith" concept is perhaps commendable, the specifics of how interfaith services are often conducted and presented are not. That is, most interfaith services are quite exclusive, not at all inclusive, yet they are perceived by the media and the public as representing virtually all citizens. Interfaith services are generally accepted as a forum where "everyone" comes together, but in fact they usually represent an exclusive club.

Exacerbating the misunderstanding is the fact that interfaith services often become a platform not just for various religious leaders, but for politicians. The Boston service, for example, included speeches by both President Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, adding a decidedly civic element to a religious service.

The inclusion of governmental leaders in an interfaith religious ceremony such as this adds to the misperception that the event is a reflection of the entire community. Even the word "interfaith" misleadingly conveys a sense of community unanimity, and the addition of key secular leaders to the event - leaders who, unlike the religious leaders, are indeed supposed to represent all citizens - magnifies that falsehood.

The entire exercise leaves nonbelievers with a mix of emotions and opinions. Some complain about their exclusion, saying that any interfaith ceremony should include humanist celebrants or atheist representatives. But others, uncomfortable with the word "faith" and wanting no part in an interfaith service, complain not of their exclusion, but only of the participation of government officials.

Read remainder of article at Psychology Today >>>>

April 19, 2013 - 12:47 pm

If you think it's rough being an atheist in America, consider the situation in less open societies. In Bangladesh, for example, several atheist bloggers were recently arrested and dozens of others face possible charges. Their crime, although described in various ways (including "insulting religion"), appears to be nothing more than being openly atheist.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) via an action alert and other measures, is trying to raise public awareness of troubling anti-atheist developments in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Around the world, enforcement of blasphemy laws, sometimes described as "defamation of religion," is threatening fundamental freedoms of conscience and expression, thereby making religious dissent, especially in the form of open atheist activism, very dangerous. (Some blasphemy laws call for the death penalty.) American secular groups are working with the IHEU, and plan to take steps, including possible protests and demonstrations, to call more attention to the issue. (Follow my Twitter feed for updates on these activities.)

Interestingly, mainstream American media have given little coverage to this issue, even though it presents a plain case of indefensible repression of not just one basic freedom, but several: freedom of religion, free speech, freedom of conscience, and even free press (if we consider blogging as a form of press). Guilty of little more than standing up publicly as atheists, these criminal defendants go unnoticed in the media of the free world. Where is the outrage?
Nothing is more repugnant to freedom of conscience than the notion that some ideas - whether religious, political, or philosophical - are beyond criticism. Thus, it's not surprising that we see countries governed by religious fundamentalists claim that "defamation of religion" must be discouraged. Perhaps more concerning, however, is that the idea of defending religion is gaining traction in some unexpected places, such as Russia.

One of the many problems with the concept of protecting religion from defamation is that ideas (including religious ideas) cannot be defamed - only people can be defamed. If governments feel that any idea must be shielded from scrutiny, questioning, or even ridicule and satirical commentary, that idea must be extremely weak, or alternatively the society in question must be repressive.

Read remainder of article here.




March 12, 2013 - 10:39 am

Boston media is abuzz with speculation that the city’s own Cardinal Sean O’Malley might be a contender for the papacy. Although opinions vary on his chances - he's been called the frontrunner by some, a long shot by others - the possibility of an American pope raises many issues, even for non-Catholics.

The papal selection story would normally be of little importance for humanists and other nonbelievers, but obviously an American pope could have an impact far beyond Catholic life and religious doctrine. Questions and issues would be numerous. Would an American in the Vatican ignite a religious revival of sorts in the United States (which is already one of the most religious developed countries), and how would that affect public policy? How would Protestants, and specifically the Religious Right, react to an American pontiff? Since church leaders are always vocal in condemning secularism, would this new pope be a resource for the anti-secular forces in his homeland?

There can be little doubt that an American papacy would result in a surge of energy for American Catholicism. Many local parishes would be filled for at least a few Sundays, as long-absent nominal Catholics return to the pews to participate in the victory celebration. Bill Donohue, the always camera-ready Catholic League president, would be booked solid for awhile, as news anchors wait in line for his insight and analysis. And this surge in American Catholicism would most likely result in a surge in church revenue, as the relatively wealthy American flock, appreciating its newfound connection to Rome, opens its checkbooks more generously.

The real question, however, is whether the energy would last, and whether an American pontiff would have a long-term impact on American society. Would Catholic theology suddenly be seen as more relevant in the lives of America’s Catholics, many of whom haven't practiced in years? Would the church as an institution find renewed legitimacy in the social/political arena?

Most of this remains unclear. A hometown hero rising to the top of one of the world’s oldest and largest institutions is big news, but this particular institution has seen better days. Modernity has been chipping away at the church’s credibility since at least the Reformation, and subsequent confrontations with science, from Galileo to Darwin, have often left the church appearing quite fallible. With a theology steeped in very specific supernatural claims - divine revelation, the virgin birth, the deification of a man, etc. - Catholicism, like other branches of Christianity, has struggled against the inevitable rethinking of life and values that has accompanied the awesome advancement of real-world, secular knowledge.

Read remainder of article at Psychology Today.

January 16, 2013 - 3:22 pm

Fads come and go in America, whether we’re talking about consumer products, hairstyles, or social-political ideas, so it's reasonable to wonder whether the secular movement might be just another trendy fashion. If we’re considering what’s hot and what’s not in popular culture, clearly the notion of personal secularity is in the former category, with demographic trends breaking in favor of nonbelievers and the nonreligious. But will it last?

For several reasons, it's hard to see the modern secular movement as a passing phase that will be gone tomorrow. The movement may level off, and even experience ebbs and flows over time, but the emergence of seculars resulting from the modern secular movement is highly unlikely to reverse itself, and the impact of that emergence is likely to be lasting and profound. Here are five factors indicating that the contemporary trend of secularity should have long-term traction:

1. The secular demographic won’t disappear

Secular Americans are a broad tent that includes not just atheists and agnostics, but millions of Americans who are simply not religious. These are good, taxpaying citizens who are generally skeptical of grand theological claims, who wouldn’t dream of spending Sunday morning sitting in church, and who tend to see church-state separation as important. These seculars have always been around, and there is no chance that they are suddenly going to disappear.

Indeed, if the secular movement seems like a new phenomenon (and it is), that’s because many of these nonreligious and nontheistic Americans have only recently begun to appreciate their secular identity. By remaining in the closet for decades as the religious right was growing into a major political force, seculars inadvertently helped create a landscape ripe for anti-intellectualism and disastrous public policy. The modern secular movement can be understood as a response to that mistake, taking root as seculars increasingly realize that they must be “out” and visible in order to fight back against the religious right.

About one in five Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, and many more are simply apathetic towards religion. Trends seem to suggest that those numbers will only increase, but even if there is some fluctuation it seems unlikely that the demographic will shrink to insignificance or suddenly become ambivalent about its agenda.

2. The Internet and social media have changed everything

A generation ago, if you were an nonbeliever living in, say, Columbia, South Carolina, you may have thought you were the only one for twenty miles in any direction. Today, however, by using tools such as meetup.com, you can quickly discover that there is a group called the Freethought Society of the Midlands, with almost 400 members. Thanks to the Internet and social media, seculars are identifying openly, finding community, and connecting with one another in ways that simply were not possible just a few years ago.

Through the Internet, America's religious skeptics are discovering that their views are shared by millions of others, and that there is strength in numbers. When high school sophomore Jessica Ahlquist challenged a prayer banner hanging in her public school in 2011, she was met with great hostility from her community, but she found much camaraderie online. A Facebook group formed to voice support for her effort, and thousands joined. Such solidarity among seculars was nonexistent before the Internet, but is widespread now and unlikely to disappear.

3. Seculars are organized

There are numerous national and local groups promoting the interests of nonreligious Americans, and these groups are attracting resources like never before. The Secular Student Alliance, for example, the national umbrella organization for campus atheist-humanist groups, was formed just a decade ago and has seen spectacular expansion in recent years, growing from a few dozen affiliates to over 400. Now the SSA is setting up atheist-humanist groups in high schools, a move that is sure to normalize atheism and humanism at the grassroots level. Secular Americans now also have a formal lobbying organization in Washington – the Secular Coalition for America – which has launched a grassroots initiative to lobby in all 50 states as well. Other groups, such as the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, and the Center for Inquiry, all of which have been around for decades, have committed to activism and secular visibility in ways that they didn’t years ago. These groups provide professionalism - advocacy, educational materials, lobbying, communications, etc. - that enables seculars to nurture and expand their movement.

Read remainder of article at Psychology Today.

December 6, 2012 - 3:17 pm

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) called the American Humanist Association (AHA) "extremist" because the group launched a campaign to inform newly elected members of Congress about the anti-secular agenda of the Congressional Prayer Caucus (CPC).  The AHA sent a letter to incoming lawmakers last month in an effort to dissuade them from joining the caucus, which has long avoided public scrutiny. (Full disclosure: I am currently the AHA's president.)

Over a hundred members of Congress - nearly one in four - belong to the CPC, which was formed by Forbes in 2005, and for many the decision to join must have been a no-brainer. If your district has a noteworthy base of politically engaged, conservative Christian voters, associating with the CPC would be a way of appeasing them with no apparent downside.

The Washington-based AHA is seeking to change that. Using the CPC’s own stated agenda as evidence, the AHA is arguing that membership in the CPC is an expression of hostility to secular constituents. Given that seculars are a growing and increasingly visible demographic, legislators should think twice before joining a caucus that is committed to marginalizing these constituents.

The CPC is vocal on a wide range of issues, most of which could be described as “culture war” battles. One CPC-supported proposal, for example, seeks the erection of “In God We Trust” signs on all public buildings. Not only would the significant cost of such a measure seem wasteful in the midst of lean economic times, but the proposal is also an overt attack on America's secular demographic. Little consideration is given to the taxpaying atheist family that would be sending its children to school each day to be faced with highly visible signage – paid for with their tax dollars – advocating for god-belief, implicitly suggesting that nonbelievers are less patriotic.

The supremacy of theistic religion – and implicit condemnation of secularity – is the consistent drumbeat of the caucus. Whereas most legislative caucuses focus on niche interests (such as the Congressional Bike Caucus or the Congressional Diabetes Caucus) or minority interests (such as the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus), the CPC is unique in that it focuses on majoritarian dominance. As such, it’s about as necessary as a Congressional White Caucus.

The CPC web site insists, in a statement demonstrating that it is oblivious to secular citizens, that it seeks to help Americans recognize the “vital role” that prayer plays “in uniting us as a people.” Through the legislative process, the site says, the CPC seeks “to assist the nation and its people in continuing to draw upon the benefit from this essential source of our strength and well-being.” Thus, in its own words the CPC is determined to promote religion and marginalize secular Americans.

And the CPC is willing to pursue radical means to achieve its ends. One proposal, deceptively described as a proposal “to protect the right of elected officials to express their religious beliefs,” would have removed all Establishment Clause cases involving prayer by public officials from the jurisdiction of federal courts. The caucus also devotes resources to such matters as “recognizing the significant impact of the Ten Commandments on America’s development,” fighting to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and advocating for a National Year of the Bible.

Read remainder of article at Physchology Today.

October 17, 2012 - 12:35 pm

With a new survey from Pew showing that about one in five Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, it would be reasonable to ask what impact, if any, the rapidly growing secular movement will have on public policy. (Among those under 30, the percentage is even higher: one in three.) This enormous demographic, silent for so long, is finding its voice, and the fallout could be significant.

Mistakenly, some have suggested that seculars are too diverse to convey a cohesive political message. Because nonbelievers are independent-minded and cover the entire political spectrum, some pundits say the movement will never gain political traction. "The very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, reflecting the predictable cynicism of a seasoned D.C. journalist, but also a surprising level of naivety.

Consider, for example, that this expectation of political unity seems to apply only to seculars. Surely few would dismiss the women’s movement so quickly, even though the women’s vote is usually split more or less evenly among candidates (48 percent of women voted for George W. Bush in 2004, for example). The LGBT movement, meanwhile, has seen much progress even as “conservative” gays fill the ranks of Log Cabin Republicans. And similar political differences are common within most racial and ethnic groups, despite common generalizations to the contrary.

All these minorities have seen effective identity-based movements even as their members have disagreed on political specifics, because each movement has carried a central message that resonates despite those differences. And the same can be said for the secular movement, driven by an increasingly identity-conscious demographic that is demanding long-overdue recognition. The eleven groups comprising the Secular Coalition for America, for example, include members that run the gamut from left to right, but all share a common vision of an America that embraces reason-based values.

So how might the secular movement play out in public policy? Here are a few areas where the effects of the rising tide of seculars will likely be seen:

Electoral Politics: Texas Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign last year with a prayer rally, an event that was striking evidence of how the religious right has changed the political calculus. A decade or two ago, it would have been suicidal – even in the GOP – to initiate a presidential campaign with a fundamentalist prayer rally filling a football stadium. But this tactic proved to be smart for Perry, who was soon thereafter on top of the GOP polls. (He subsequently proved to be an inept candidate, but the fact remains, sadly, that the prayer rally was politically effective.)

In the realm of politics, the rise of the religious right has resulted in increasing numbers of candidates who proudly profess anti-intellectual, fundamentalist Christian views. Candidates who vocally reject evolution, for example, are now routinely elected to Congress, and we even see them touted as presidential prospects – Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin, for example.

Thus, one outcome of a successful secular movement would be an influx of reason and sanity into the realm of electoral politics. The emergence of the secular demographic would necessarily diminish the political appeal of biblical literalism and brazen anti-intellectualism.

Read full article here.

August 22, 2012 - 11:38 am

As a humanist I don’t like saying this, but it’s true: By any objective standard, the religious right has been an enormous success. Since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority first came on the scene in 1979, politically engaged conservative Christians have steadily become more influential, and this has shifted the landscape of American public policy.

A list of all the areas affected by the religious right would be lengthy: politics (with candidates not only proudly rejecting evolution, but even holding prayer rallies to launch their campaigns); reproductive rights (where the debate is no longer just about abortion, but birth control); respect for women (with politicians saying “legitimate rape" does not cause pregnancy); education policy (with history books being rewritten to conform to a conservative Christian narrative, and anti-science activists fighting the teaching of evolution); and numerous other areas. Three decades ago much of this would have been unthinkable, and the fact that it’s happening today is evidence of the success of the religious right.

But if the religious right has succeeded, by definition that means its opposition has failed. As I point out in my new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, all those who seek rational public policy in America – and that includes religious believers and nonbelievers – should spend some time considering why the opposition to the religious right has failed.

If we carefully consider the traditional opposition to the religious right, we find that it has usually fallen into two general categories. First we had the liberal and moderate politicians who were natural opponents of the socially conservative agenda of the religious right. (To be fair, even conservative politicians sometimes opposed the religious right. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, a conservative stalwart for decades, once referred to the activist fundamentalists in his party as a “bunch of kooks.”) Second, we had advocacy groups such as People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and others, all of which have fought valiantly against the religious right.

Read remainder of article at Psychology Today.

July 2, 2012 - 11:09 am

The good news for nonbelievers is that, for the first time ever, more than half the American population would vote for a qualified, open atheist for president.  A recent Gallup poll shows that 54 percent of Americans would not consider a candidate’s atheism to be a disqualification for holding the nation's highest office.

This shows remarkable progress, a nine-point increase from 2007 and 36 points higher than the 18 percent acceptability figure that nonbelievers received when the question was first asked in 1958. Clearly, seculars are making huge strides in gaining acceptance. If the trend continues, we can expect that other open nonbelievers may soon join Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) as elected lawmakers in the nation's capital.

The bad news, however, is that atheists still rank lowest among the groups listed. Muslims (58 percent), gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Mormons (80 percent) all ranked higher. While no fair and rational observer would suggest that membership in any of those groups should disqualify a candidate for office, to secular activists it is nevertheless troubling that nonbelievers still occupy the cellar of American public opinion.


Read remainder of article at Psychology Today.

May 30, 2012 - 1:17 pm

In disputes over church-state separation, "ceremonial deism" has become a legal doctrine heavily relied upon by those who wish to defend governmental religiosity. Though the concept has been around for decades, ceremonial deism has been seen with increasing frequency since 2004, when it was used in a concurring opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to uphold the "under God"  wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ceremonial deism refers to certain governmental religious expressions, such as the Pledge wording and the national motto of In God We Trust, that defenders claim do not violate the Establishment Clause "wall of separation" between church and state. Justice William Brennan, who in 1984 was the first high court justice to refer to “ceremonial deism” in a written opinion, explained that the term covers religious references that "have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." In other words, although the expression may appear religious, it is harmless because it is understood as having no religious meaning.

The idea of an umbrella term for harmless governmental religious references might have some appeal, but use of the term "ceremonial deism" for that purpose is grossly inaccurate and even dangerous. In the real world, genuinely discriminatory governmental actions often escape scrutiny, partly because they are shielded by the euphemism of "ceremonial deism."

The presumption underlying many religious actions that are defended by the ceremonial deism argument – that the actions are harmless – is demonstrably incorrect. Exhibit one in this regard is a Cranston, Rhode Island, high school student named Jessica Ahlquist, who became the target of threats and bullying when she objected to a prayer banner in her high school last year. Even though her objections had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance, students in her school soon used the "under God" wording of the Pledge as a weapon against her.

Continue reading article at Psychologytoday.com.

May 1, 2012 - 12:03 pm

Here it comes again. On May 3, the nation will once again be subjected to the annual fiasco wherein conservative Christians utilize the apparatus of government to publicly exalt their theological beliefs, to ensure that their vociferous anti-secular views are promoted as official state doctrine. I refer, of course, to the religious pandering known as the National Day of Prayer.

As a humanist, I would not bat an eye if the nation's churches privately banded together to promote a non-governmental National Day of Prayer. If the country's evangelical leaders, Catholic bishops, and other clerics - without using the machinery of government - felt that a nationwide interfaith event encouraging prayer would be somehow beneficial, they would have my very secular blessing. Enjoy your day of prayer, folks. Knock yourselves out.

But the religious activists behind the National Day of Prayer are not content with their religious freedom. Instead, they have a compelling need to see their government (which also happens to be mine and yours) sponsor the annual prayer event and issue proclamations, preferably accompanied by grandiose ceremonies, validating their supernatural theological beliefs.

To an inattentive observer the NDOP may seem like a broadly inclusive event that pays respect to the beliefs of all theistic religions – Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc. – but in practice such ecumenical goals are absent. In fact, the NDOP is driven by a narrow fundamentalist Christian cartel that sees the entire affair as a means of promoting its worldview.

When we look at those behind the NDOP, we see not a broad interfaith coalition but a tight-knit roster of Religious Right figures. The NDOP Task Force readily concedes that it exists “to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families,” and it cites numerous New Testament passages to support its mission. Religious liberals who see the NDOP as benign should realize that the event's most visible backers have an underlying agenda of attacking science, rewriting history, denying rights to women, tearing down the wall of separation between church and state, and opposing LGBT equality.


Read more at Psychology Today