May 9, 2014 - 7:50 pm

In 1952, Congress established the National Day of Prayer. It has been observed on every first Thursday in May since 1988, but this year's day of prayer celebration was my favorite--by default. It was the first I've attended, quite by accident.

Here's how that happened. On Thursday, May 1, a film crew from Holland'sHumanist Broadcasting Foundation arrived at my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina to interview me about atheism in the Bible Belt. They planned to film me at an evening event called Reason Fest, sponsored by the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. When the film crew learned that the National Day of Prayer rally would also be taking place nearby, they wanted to film me at that prayer event, too.

Though I think a government-sponsored day of prayer should be unconstitutional because our government may not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion, I reluctantly agreed to attend.


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May 2, 2014 - 7:52 pm

I moved to South Carolina in 1976 to be a math professor at the College of Charleston, a school founded in 1770 that had been receiving modest publicity for its steadily improving liberal arts program. However, it became even better known in 1998 when the College's then-president Alex Sanders jokingly (I think) called its basketball team's upset of third-ranked University of North Carolina the greatest day in the college's glorious history.

Over the past few weeks, the College of Charleston has received more publicity than in its previous 244 years, as the New York TimesWashington PostMSNBC, and other national media outlets featured stories about the college. While I think almost all publicity is good, the "almost" might be applicable here because of the two controversies that led to this publicity. Each involved a choice: of a new president and of a new book.

The Board of Trustees unanimously chose state Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell as the next college president, despite strong opposition by faculty and students. A long time defender of the Confederacy, McConnell fought to keep the Confederate flag atop the Capitol dome. While a state senator, his Confederate memorabilia store sold items that included Maurice Bessinger's barbeque sauce, which lots of shoppers and stores were boycotting because of Bessinger's biblically justified pro-slavery tracts, and toilet paper with the image of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

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April 23, 2014 - 2:26 pm

Atheists bad, Christians good. That’s my four-word summary of God’s Not Dead.

This anti-atheist movie would be more effective if it didn’t portray every atheist as smug, angry, selfish, obnoxious, and unhappy. In contrast, nearly every Christian is kind, happy, generous. . . well, you get the idea.

The movie’s two protagonists are atheist philosophy Professor Jeffrey Radisson and Christian student Josh Wheaton at fictional Hadleigh University.

Professor Radisson is a bully who on the first day of class uses his bully pulpit to require that each student sign a “God is dead” statement or else convince him that God’s not dead — and, failing that, receive an F in the course. Radisson has been doing this for years, presumably without a complaint from students, other faculty, or administrators. In fact, he is about to become head of the Philosophy Department. He has a live-in girlfriend whom he started dating when she was his student, and he continually berates and belittles her in front of his academic colleagues. She turns to Christianity and finds the strength to get out of this abusive relationship after talking to Pastor Dave (more about him later).

Continue reading at Faith Street>>

April 16, 2014 - 2:48 pm

Few people will change their worldviews because of a debate. But some Christians might become less inclined to stereotype atheists if atheists debate differently.

As an atheist, I’ve had a number of debates with Christians on topics like whether God exists, whether we can be moral without God, whether science makes belief in God harder or easier, and more recently, whether atheism makes more sense than Christianity.

Usually, debate preparation depends on the topic and what your opponent has previously said, but there are some common strategies that work well in any situation. With a mostly Christian audience, I look for opportunities to change atheist stereotypes and raise questions some might never have considered.

Here are five ways to behave and ten questions to answer in every debate with Christian counterparts:

Five Behaviors

1. Praise the Bible. I like to mention that every educated person should read the Bible (this line is the only time I get cheers from conservative Christians) because it’s an important part of our culture. I also provide a list that includes books like A Demon Haunted World and The History of God to hand out to audience members after the debate.

2. Target the audience. Most conservative Christians are skeptical of whatever I say in a debate. The best I usually hear from them afterward is, “The atheist seemed like a nice person, even though he’s going to hell.” While atheists usually want me to bash religion, I try not to do that because I want to reach open-minded Christians who have never heard an atheist’s point of view from an atheist.

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April 9, 2014 - 10:39 am

What will an atheist find when he attends services at a conservative Christian church in South Carolina?

Editor’s note: Church Invitation is an occasional series at OnFaith where we ask people of various backgrounds to attend houses of worship and write about the experience.    

On Sunday, March 30, I visited St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just outside of Charleston where I live. The church’s stated vision is to re-evangelize our society and transform our culture. My intention was to learn more about this church that was established in 1827 and now has more than 3000 members. So I attended both the 9 a.m. contemporary service along with several hundred young and old congregants, and then the 10:45 a.m. traditional service with fewer than a hundred people, mostly older.

Both services began with music (guitar in the first and organ in the second), followed by the minister reading Bible passages. The homily was titled “TODAY: How Should I Read the Bible?” I translated that in my mind to “How Should I Read the Bible TODAY?” However, the homilies were specifically about reading the Bible without concessions to modernity.

Rev. Chris Hancock, who led the contemporary service, was dynamic and sometimes humorous. After a little trouble with his PowerPoint presentation, he riffed off the Lord Acton quote, “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically. He warned of scorners (like me, I guess) who use difficult passages to undermine the Bible’s authority, and quoted 2 Timothy 3:16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”

Rev. John Burley had a more serious demeanor at the traditional service, though he made the same points. He warned of cultural biases that might lead us to follow only some parts of the Bible, saying that if any parts offend us, it’s because we don’t understand them. He also made the only reference to atheism, claiminginaccuracies in the film Noah were to be expected because the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is an atheist. Burley added that we must trust only Jesus rather than those who appear to be good and moral. (Hmm . . . should congregants then not trust Rev. Burley?)

He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically.

I might have put money in the collection plate if the minister had said it was for a good cause, like helping the poor, but the first minister merely quoted Acts 20:35, “It is better to give than to receive,” and the second asked for an offering to God. So I kept my money.

Continue reading at Faith Street>>

April 2, 2014 - 2:53 pm

Why do I prefer our United States Constitution to the Bible? Lots of reasons, but I'll focus on one. The Constitution allows for do-overs. Its authors understood the document to be imperfect and made provisions for future generations to amend it.

Alas, there is no such biblical escape clause. What you see from way back then is what you get.

Neither the Constitution nor the Bible included freedom of religion, equal rights for women, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or the abolition of slavery - but today, through amendments, the Constitution does. We also have a democratic form of government that allows for progressive laws that our 18th-century founders might not have considered or desired.

So what about those who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, yet can't reconcile some portions with a loving deity? It's difficult to justify passages about killing witches, slaying all women and little children in a city, the blood of Jesus being on all Jews and their children, killing homosexuals, and many more. Even biblical literalists now try to interpret some of these passages in more enlightened ways.

Not only is slavery nowhere condemned in the Bible, but some have used Noah's curse of Canaan to justify it. ("Cursed be Canaan [presumed black]! The lowest of slaves will he be to his [presumed white] brothers.") Since nobody today condones slavery (and groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have even apologized for promoting slavery), interpretations abound. For instance, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis says Noah's curse had to do with a rebellious son, not skin color.

Apparently, it's easier for some Christians to be on the moral rather than on the scientific side of history. Albert Mohler, who Time called the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U. S., believes that the incredible Adam and Eve story goes to the heart of Christianity - because the whole point of the crucifixion and the resurrection was to undo Adam's original sin, and that without a historical Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense.

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March 19, 2014 - 10:29 am

I'm a "big-tent" atheist, which includes whatever non-theistic labels people prefer: agnostic, humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, secularist, and more. This list applies to the whole tent:

1. The prefix "a" can mean "anti" or "non." While some atheists are anti-theists, most are non-theists who have no desire to destroy religion. We don't have a problem with believers until they try to force their beliefs on others.

2. Atheists are not necessarily protesters, though that's how they are usually portrayed in the media. When they do protest, they protest government privileging of one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

3. Atheists are not angry at God (just as they are not angry at the Tooth Fairy), and most of us didn't become atheists because something bad happened to us. We became atheists because we find no evidence for any gods.

4. Atheists are not less trustworthy just because we don't believe in a judging God.Believing that of us only makes us think you would be untrustworthy were it not for your fear of God.

5. We can find joy without belief in God and an afterlife. We may not see any cosmic purpose of life, but we do find our own joyful purposes in life.

6. Most religious people are secular most of the time. Ask yourself how you would behave differently if you stopped believing in God. If you can't come up with a good answer, then you are what I call a functional atheist.

7. Calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a hair color. The "religion" of atheism and secular humanism is not taught in public schools, unless you think that conveying the best available scientific information is a religious act. If you wind up abandoning faith in supernatural things because of science, as many do, that is a collateral benefit to critical thinking.


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March 12, 2014 - 2:30 pm

First, the nonsense: original sin.

Much of the Christian world believes that a talking snake convinced Adam and Eve to eat a piece of fruit forbidden by God, who then became so angry that he condemned all humankind to be born with what Christians call “original sin.” But then came the “good news”: God’s sinless son, Jesus, who is also God, paid a brief visit to earth to redeem us for that sin committed by Adam and Eve. So God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself, and when we die we will be rewarded or punished for eternity based on whether or not we believe this unbelievable story.

But rather than just make fun of such fables, I also think it’s important to read the Bible and try to understand why it has so deeply influenced our culture. Even non-religious people can find meaningful messages in “holy” books. In a previous piece, I gave a fewmoral lessons from the Bible, including the snake fable. My take was that Adam and Eve were correct to follow the snake’s advice to eat forbidden fruit in order to gain knowledge, because ignorance is not bliss and blind obedience is not a supreme virtue.

The concept of sin has evolved beyond the so-called “original” one. In Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised, I was taught that sin is violating any of the 613 Commandments found in the Hebrew Bible. Some seem reasonable (don’t murder, steal, or lie), some seem silly (don’t mix wool and cotton; don’t eat meat with milk), and some impossible (offering animal sacrifices at a Temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists). But at least we had a choice about whether to sin, rather than having been born with it.

My wife, Sharon, who grew up Catholic and is now an atheist, recalls how frightened she was as a child when she was required to go into a shadowy booth with a man hidden behind a screen and told to confess her sins. In order to comply with the pressure, even when she had no sins to confess, she made them up, like saying she had lied to her mother when she hadn’t. At the time, young Sharon failed to see the irony of committing the sin of lying to a Father (priest) about lying to her mother. Sharon’s early life was filled with warnings and worries about sin in all its many Catholic categories, including mortal, venial, and occasions of sin, which threatened to send her to hell, or at least purgatory after death.

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March 12, 2014 - 2:27 pm

As an atheist, I'm often asked if I believe in Satan because "I have to believe in something." I point out that I don't believe in the existence of any supernatural forces, including Yahweh, Satan, angels or devils. But I can make theological and strategic cases for embracing the mythical Satan.

Satan comes out looking pretty good in Genesis. After God tells Adam he will die on the day he eats a particular piece of fruit, Satan (in a snake costume) tells Eve that the snack will give them knowledge. So they eat the forbidden fruit, enjoy their newly acquired knowledge, and learn that God was bluffing when he said they would die on the day they ate the fruit. A wrathful God then banishes the first couple from the Garden of Eden and tells them they must now work for a living. Adam and Eve presumably discover that ignorance is not bliss and that blind obedience is not a virtue. Though many Christians view this disobedience as the "original sin," I think Satan teaches humans that it's better to have freedom without a guarantee of security than to have security without freedom.

Interpretations of the biblical character "Satan" can motivate some people to live decent, rational lives. For instance: be curious and seek knowledge; question the sacred; reject authorities that expect blind obedience; encourage free inquiry; welcome diversity of opinion; judge individuals by their actions, not by whether they conform to arbitrary norms; respect the freedom of others, including the freedom to offend; and acknowledge the worth and dignity of the "out" group.

The word "Satan" in Hebrew means adversary. The Catholic Church recognized this adversarial role when it established in 1587 the position Promoter of the Faith, more commonly known as the devil's advocate. He was required to argue against declaring a particular dead person a saint, and to be skeptical of so-called miracles attributed to the deceased. Given the number of recognized miracles and named saints by the Church, I think most devil's advocates were probably incompetent (the number of miracles I accept is zero). Pope John Paul II must have thought that these advocates were too evidence-based, because he abolished the position in 1983, and then named to sainthood more than five times as many individuals as had all his 20th-century predecessors combined.

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February 24, 2014 - 4:11 pm

Before we get to the snakes, what do we mean by religious freedom? I think it means that individuals can practice, promote, and proselytize for their religion, but that government cannot favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. If government exempts an action from law because of a person's religious belief, I think that same exemption should apply to non-religious conscientious belief. Example? The Supreme Court ruling in favor of an atheist conscientious objector to war.

However, claims of religious belief or conscience cannot be used as a valid excuse to undermine society's promotion of the general welfare. For instance, we must pay taxes even for government expenses we morally oppose. For me that would include wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Drugs; for others it might include Obamacare. A pharmacist should be required to dispense prescriptions regardless of religious belief, just as a supermarket cashier is required to check out meat products regardless of vegan belief.

An unconscionable bill passed by the Arizona Legislature would allow widespread discrimination against the LGBT community in the name of religious liberty. If the governor signs it into law, business owners can refuse to serve gay customers by claiming that it would violate their religious principles. A similar measure was recently defeated in Kansas, but such bills are being considered in other states.

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