April 7, 2015 - 4:07 pm

"In Indiana, Using Religion as a Cover for Bigotry," an editorial in the March 31 New York Times, reminded me of a line by Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca as he accepted a bribe: "I'm shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on in here." I'm also reminded of lyrics in "National Brotherhood Week," Tom Lehrer's satirical song: "The Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews." Conclusion: Religious bigotry is as old as religion, itself.

Although it might not ring as true as in previous generations, religious hate is protected by freedom of religion. We have the right to hate anyone, but not the right to commit crimes. It's OK to hate gays, but not to kill them. Perhaps that's why Bob Jones III, former president of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian institution in my home state of South Carolina, recently apologized for his 1980 remark that we should follow the biblical injunction of stoning gays to death.

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March 17, 2015 - 4:31 pm

My family shed "tears of joy" on May 14, 1948, when the Jewish State of Israel was established as a safe haven for Jews. I was five at the time and didn't quite understand its significance, but I had been taught that an integral part of Judaism was anti anti-Semitism. A number of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) lived in my neighborhood, some of whom had been in concentration camps. I also had relatives who had died in the Holocaust, and my parents warned me to never trust the Goyim (Gentiles).

When I grew up and evolved from Orthodox to secular Jew, I still felt a non-religious affinity to my Jewish "homeland." I had no desire to make Israel my home, but I viewed it as a prophylactic against future Holocausts. I later learned that the establishment of Israel was not a day of unadulterated joy for everyone -- because Jews settled in a country inhabited by other people and forced many of them to leave. In other words, Israel created Palestinian DPs. Nevertheless, I continued to support Israel, focusing mostly on the anti-Semitism of countries in the Middle East that denied Israel's right to exist. However, I had a more nuanced view that required balancing security for Israelis with human rights for Palestinians.

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March 10, 2015 - 11:41 am

Periodically we hear Republicans skeptically ask if President Obama is a patriot who loves his country, and is he a Christian? I'm more interested in why people ask these questions, and how their answers of "No" or "I don't know" reveal more about the questioners than about Obama. I'm also interested in how such people respond to these two questions: What is a patriot? What is a Christian?

I could not have had a more patriotic beginning, or so I was taught to believe. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. But my views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years.

On my 12th birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this Flag Day ceremony in 1954, perhaps because the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office and says nothing about any almighties.

"Under God" was inserted at the height of the McCarthy era to distinguish patriotic Americans from those "godless Communists." This melding of God and country turned a secular pledge into a religious one, and caused me to feel less, rather than more, patriotic when I no longer believed in any gods.

Although we tend to deify our nation's founders and hold them up as role models, we act more like them when we question the old order and try to improve it. Criticizing our country and working to eliminate its faults is definitely patriotic -- a lot more so than merely reciting pledges and prayers or waving flags.

One of the many differences between Evangelical Christians and atheists in this country is that the majority of evangelicals believe America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 20 percent of those without religion.

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February 23, 2015 - 2:40 pm

I was horrified when I heard of the tragic murders on February 10 of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My sorrow was compounded when I learned that Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were shot by an atheist, Craig Stephen Hicks.

Media, of course, tried to learn as much as possible about Hicks and his motive for these senseless killings. Speculation included his hatred of religion, disputes over parking spaces, and whether it was a "hate crime." In Facebook postings, Hicks said, "I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do." Hicks might be more pro-Second Amendment than anti-religion, because one post included a photo of a revolver and the warning, "If you are anti-gun, defriend me NOW!!!" (Several people said Hicks would show up at their door, gun on hip, to complain about a visitor who had parked in someone else's spot.)


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February 12, 2015 - 9:55 am

February 12, 1809 must have seemed like an ordinary day to those alive at the time, but we now know it was the day that two giants of humanity were born: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln ended slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century, and Darwin made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century.

But the same people vilified both of these great men, often for the same reason: biblical literalists found scriptural reasons to promote slavery and denigrate the theory of evolution.

Lincoln is now revered for what he accomplished — the humanist principle that it is morally wrong for one person to own another is commonly accepted. But moral issues are more easily understood than scientific ones, which is why so many Americans today who reject slavery still cling to a creationist worldview.

Continue reading at Faith Street >>

January 28, 2015 - 11:01 am

A few months ago, Patton Dodd highly recommended two books for Christians who are experiencing acute and painful doubt. Though I’m an atheist who experiences no such painful doubts, I do experience painless curiosity about books meant to “cure” such doubts. Eternally behind on my to-read list (if I believed in eternity), I decided to read one of these books.

Both recommended books promote liberal Christianity. I only read excerpts of My Bright Abyss, about Christian Wiman’s spiritual growth when confronted with his own mortality, coupled with suggestions on resolving faith paradoxes. I fully read the book with the more intriguing title, The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns. Maybe I was inspired by childhood memories of the song by the same simplistic title.

Most atheists would agree with much of what Enns says about the Bible. I’ll first mention my points of agreement before explaining why we come to opposite conclusions.

Points of agreement

I agree with Enns that the Bible largely consists of made-up stories by unknown authors attempting to explain their views of the world and its origins. These authors sometimes modified stories from earlier cultures to shape their present needs and goals. There are countless biblical contradictions, as well as historical and scientific falsities.


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January 14, 2015 - 1:01 pm

Many people tell me they wouldn’t mind if I were an agnostic, but that I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to be an atheist.

I used to call myself an agnostic because I could not logically prove whether a god exists, so I took the agnostic position that the existence of any god is unknown — and perhaps unknowable. I was without belief in any gods and thought it highly improbable that any supernatural beings exist. When I learned that this view is consistent with atheism, I became an atheist.

So, my “conversion” from agnosticism to atheism was more definitional than theological. In reality, depending on how terms are defined and their context, I can accurately call myself an atheist or an agnostic, as well as a humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, infidel, and more.

I’m curious about why people find “atheist” so much more threatening than “agnostic” when self-described “atheists” and “agnostics” often hold identical views about deities. As with atheists, agnostics almost never give equal merit to belief and disbelief. For instance, I can neither prove nor disprove the following claims.


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January 8, 2015 - 9:24 am

The recent PBS documentary, Thinking Money: The psychology behind our best and worst financial decisions, never mentions religion, but I couldn’t help but relate the worst money decisions it describes to belief in God. (My favorite connection between money and God is the George Carlin routine about an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-wise God who just can’t manage money. His “messengers” always need more.)

Consider these 5 points from the PBS documentary, along with my related God thoughts.

Money Point 1: Security

People used to work for the same company all their lives and retire with a comfortable pension. Today’s workers are insecure about their financial future, which makes them more vulnerable to financial charlatans. For instance, some brokers promise big upsides to penny stocks with essentially no downside, even though such faith in future rewards almost never pays off.

Related God Thought

People who are insecure and unhappy in this life are more vulnerable to evangelical charlatans who promote big upsides in an afterlife. This requires lots of faith, often furthered by a financial “love offering.”

Money Point 2: Gambling

Most casino gamblers lose money most of the time. But casinos are designed so that a few players will occasionally win big if they play long enough. People remember wins more than losses (an example of confirmation bias), and so they return again and again.


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December 22, 2014 - 9:38 am

I recently I gave suggestions on what religious people shouldnot say to the atheist in the family. Here are conversations and suggestions that might improve family relations, especially at holiday gatherings.

1. Listen to the atheist.

You might have preconceived ideas on why a family member “turned his back on God.” You are probably wrong. Try to understand and respect his point of view, even if you disagree. That’s a prerequisite for most conversations, especially ones that can become touchy or emotional. Listening to the atheist will be an added incentive for the atheist to listen to you.

2. Look for common ground.

You and your atheist family member might differ on God beliefs, but you likely have a lot more in common than what sets you apart. You probably appreciate the same foods at family dinners. And since watching holiday football games has become somewhat of a national religion, you might all be cheering for the same team. Talk about those common interests and why you are grateful that you can still get along so well. If you also think behavior is more important than belief, say so.

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December 19, 2014 - 1:35 pm

I recently gave tips on how atheists can peaceably interact with religious family members at Thanksgiving. Now, here are tips for religious family members on what not to say to an atheist during holidays or any other family gathering. Next week, I’ll suggest what they should say.

I hope these tips help make family visits more pleasant for everyone. I also hope they won’t deter theists from talking about religion with atheists. Nothing here precludes having a respectful and friendly conversation with your family atheist, but more about that next time.

Here are seven things you shouldn’t say to the atheist in your family:

1. “Why are you angry with God?”

Atheists are no angrier with God than with the Tooth Fairy. Only God-believers can be angry with God. Some people might have become atheists because they are not satisfied with theodicyexplanations about why a good and powerful god would allow so much evil in the world, but most have become atheists primarily because they find no evidence for the existence of any gods.

2. “You’ll be a believer when you have a big problem.”

This is an offshoot of the “no atheists in foxholes” cliché. (See, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.) Atheists tend to address problems by looking for practical solutions to resolve them, and through supportive friends, family, and medical doctors. Many believers “talk” to God only when they have a problem, so such a comment is more applicable to theists than to atheists.


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