Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president? While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that. Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.” Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.

Huh? The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator. Does he really not get it? I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here. The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square. Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner. Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde Park. Wear a sign proclaiming the end of the world. Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important. It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings. The rules are different here. The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion. No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools. No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay). No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well? No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools. No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall. No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Conference Notes

Why imagine that there is a god?I recently returned from the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference. Though a local conference, it had an impressive lineup. Of course, they had an advantage with some well-known Los Angeles-area speakers: Michael Shermer (Skeptic magazine), Phil Zuckerman, Jim Underdown, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity (Brian Dalton), Eddie Tabash, and Heina Dadabhoy (Muslim blogger at Skepchick.org). But they also had some great out-of-towners: Robert Price, Aron Ra, Richard Carrier, Barbara Forrest (expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover), David Silverman, and Dan Barker (FFRF).

I’ll give some (probably disjointed) highlights.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said that the next Reason Rally is scheduled for 2016 (location unknown). He also said that Fox News has reported that they will become more centrist.

Lawyer Eddie Tabash emphasized that the next president will almost surely pick a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Ginsberg (now 79 years old) at least. He spoke about being at the recent $15 million Obama fundraiser hosted by George Clooney. When he got his two minutes with Obama, Tabash quipped, “I am the first atheist in history to be in the presence of his savior.”

To emphasize the judicial predicament that thoughtful Americans are in, he gave this fun quote:

Disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State. … The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle… Homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.

That’s Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore referring to a 2002 custody case involving a lesbian mother. He was later removed from office after refusing to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse. (Perhaps that humiliation is a selling point to some voters since he’s the favorite to regain his former job this November.)

In June 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that

The [First Amendment’s] Establishment Clause … permits the disregard of devout atheists.

And Clarence Thomas has said that the Establishment Clause limits only the federal government, not state governments. That is, in his mind state governments aren’t bound by the constraint to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Sounds more like April Fool’s Day than that these are the considered opinions of state and federal Supreme Court justices.

On a lighter note, Brian Dunning (Skeptoid podcast) gave a puzzle. The full moon is the same size as what held at arm’s length? Is it a ball bearing, a pea, a dime, a nickel, a quarter, a silver dollar, a plum, or a baseball? (The answer is below.) This was an especially apt puzzle since we had a spectacular partial (80%) solar eclipse at the end of the conference.

Dunning gave himself as an example of how tenacious false beliefs can be. After he concluded that vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off of it. This is like Greta Christina’s gradual acceptance of the lack of evidence for glucosamine as joint medicine or Sam Harris’s Fireplace Delusion. It helps to understand our own blind spots when we try to understand those of other people.

Richard Carrier, newly famous because of his online argument with Bart Ehrman about the Jesus Myth theory, talked about the fine-tuning argument. It was a good talk and especially helpful because I’d read Vic Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning and hadn’t gotten the concise summary that I was hoping for. I’ll leave a more detailed summary of this talk for later.

Michael Shermer talked about “The Moral Arc of Reason.” He noted that asking, “Why should we be good without God?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry (or jealous or happy or any other human feeling) without God?” These are all natural feelings with plausible natural causes.

He used graphs and statistics to argue that things are getting better within society (wars, income, and other social metrics), much like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But why is this not simply an aberration? Why imagine that this is a legitimate trend within society and not cherry picking of the data? Shermer argued for a moral equivalent of the Flynn Effect, the startling effect that has caused an increase in average IQ scores of about three points per decade, perhaps for as long as a century. The Flynn Effect has been (tentatively) explained with the hypothesis that modern society has trained us to be better in abstract reasoning (mentally moving 3D shapes, for example). Perhaps there is a moral equivalent at work as well, that modern society has given us a new appreciation for peace and harmony.

I have long been fascinated with the work of Phil Zuckerman, who (along with Gregory Paul) has shown the far better social metrics of less-religious countries compared to the religious U.S. Zuckerman talked about the new Secular Studies major he developed at Pitzer.

Barbara Forrest of SE Louisiana University, an expert witness in the Dover trial, says that “critical analysis of evolution” and “academic freedom” are some of the new creationist code words.

Jim Underdown is a paranormal investigator who will be on Dr. Phil debunking psychics this week (“Inside the Other Side,” 5/25/12). He noted that the Bible’s miracle claims are similar to today’s paranormal claims, which have been tested and debunked. The one million dollar JREF prize for a successful paranormal demonstration remains unclaimed, for example.

The answer to Brian Dunning’s puzzle: the full moon is the same size as a pea held at arm’s length. My guess was a dime, so I need to try this myself to verify it.

Played at the conference, here’s Jesus singing “I will survive” (a must-see if you haven’t watched this before).


Photo credit: Mirror

Pastors Speak Their Mind (and Flout the Rules)

Jesus, God, and all thatIt’s another dreaded election year, and the leaders of many religious organizations somehow feel put upon by the IRS because they can’t preach about politics.

But why? No one forced tax-exempt donations on them—in fact, they took them willingly—so it’s surprising that they’re now chafing at the regulations that come along for the ride. The solution is easy: if nonprofit status is a deal with the devil, then don’t accept nonprofit status.

The Internal Revenue Service makes clear that churches and pastors may organize non-partisan voter education activities, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives (with an emphasis on non-partisan). Religious leaders speaking for themselves can say whatever they want, and they can speak “about important issues of public policy.”

However, all nonprofit organizations, including religious organizations

are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. … Religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. …

[Nonprofits] must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.

But many pastors can’t accept this. I don’t know if they honestly think that it’s unfair or if they figure that they’ve already tipped the playing field so much in their favor that they’ll try their luck for even more, but the Alliance Defense Fund has organized the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday (October 7 this year). On this day:

The pastors will exercise their First Amendment right to preach on the subject [of the moral qualifications of candidates seeking public office], despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign. …

The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. We need to get the government out of the pulpit.

Wow—strange thinking. Tax-exempt status is granted by the government. It’s a contract, not a right, and it comes with strings attached. If we the public will be subsidizing an organization, we are entitled to limit its actions. No one’s strong-arming the church, and they can drop both the nonprofit status and the strings attached any time they want.

To some extent, it’s a zero-sum game. (For example, when Mormon desires for polygamy clashed with the needs of the state, someone had to lose.) The head of the IRS addressed this conflict of tax-exempt status and freedom of speech:

Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy. But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, “Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”

If the IRS constraints against speaking out on political issues are a problem, then don’t enter into a contract with the IRS. Drop your nonprofit status, tell church members that they can no longer deduct donations, and then you can give your opinion about any candidate or issue.

But to keep your nonprofit status, you must follow the rules.

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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National Day of Actually DOING Something

People working together, like this barn raising, is more effective than praying about itToday is the National Day of Prayer. How about a National Day of Actually Doing Something instead?

The president issued the obligatory proclamation today: “Let us pray for all the citizens of our great Nation, particularly those who are sick, mourning, or without hope, and ask God for the sustenance to meet the challenges we face as a Nation” and blah, blah, blah.

We’ve had a National Day of Prayer since 1952. What good has it done? In 1952, the world had 50 million cases of smallpox each year. Today, zero. Guinea worm and polio should soon follow. Computers? Cell phones? The internet? Science delivers, not God.

I can appreciate that praying to Jesus can help someone feel better, but so can praying to Shiva or Quetzalcoatl or whatever god they’ve been raised with. In terms of actual results, praying to Jesus is as effective as praying to a jug of milk.

I understand how the National Day of Prayer helps politicians get right with Christians. But how it coexists with the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), I can’t imagine.

My own departure from Christianity was pretty gentle, and I learned a lot from the painful road taken by Julia Sweeney (creator of “Letting Go of God”). As she gradually fell away from first Catholicism, then Christianity, and finally religion, she realized with a shock how ineffective prayer had been. Prayer lets you imagine that you’re doing something when you’re actually doing absolutely nothing. All that prayer that had helped her feel like she was helping people—whether the person on hard times down the street or the city devastated by natural disaster around the world—had been worthless.

In fact, not only does prayer do nothing in cases like this, but it is actually harmful. The pain that people naturally feel when they hear of disaster—that emotion that could be the motivator for action—is drained away by prayer. Why bother doing something yourself when God is so much more capable?

Prayer becomes an abdication of responsibility, and atheism can open the doors to action.

Sweeney’s conclusion: if you want to help the victims of the tsunami in Haiti (or whatever the latest disaster is), you need to do something since God clearly isn’t doing anything. Contribute to a charity that will help, or demand that the federal government spend more to help and demand the tax increase to pay for it. If it’s a sick friend, Jesus isn’t going to take them soup and cheer them up … but you can.

Prayer doesn’t “work” like other things work.  Electricity works.  An antibiotic works.  Prayer doesn’t.  As the bumper sticker says, Nothing Fails Like Prayer.

Even televangelists make clear that prayer is useless. Their shows are just long infomercials that end with a direct appeal in two parts: please pray for us, and send lots and lots of cash. But what possible value could my $20 be compared to what the almighty Creator of the universe could do?

Televangelists’ appeals for money make clear that they know what I know: that praying is like waiting for the Great Pumpkin. People can reliably deliver money, but prayer doesn’t deliver anything.

Instead of a National Day of Prayer, how about a National Day of Actually Doing Something? Many local United Way offices organize a Day of Caring—what about something like that on a national level?

Doing something makes you feel good, just like prayer, but it actually delivers the results.

Prayer is like masturbation.
It makes you feel good but it doesn’t change the world.
Don Baker

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Related links:

  • “National Day of Prayer,” Wikipedia.
  • Elizabeth Tenety, “Do we need a National Day of Prayer?” Washington Post, 5/5/11.

Maybe it Works Better in German

A text-only box written in mock-German demands that people leave the First Amendment alone.

You’d think the reasons would be obvious, but maybe a warning in a severe font will encourage meddling Christians to respect the First Amendment.

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Marriage vs. Religious Freedom

Black and white hands, claspedCatholic League president Bill Donohue hates the idea of same-sex marriage:

There is no world religion that embraces the bizarre idea that two men can get married, and there is no state in the nation where the people have directly chosen to approve it. Yet because of some judges and state lawmakers, the prospect of same-sex marriage looms.

In fact, the Seattle Times reports about my own state, “The state Senate is just two votes shy of making Washington the seventh state to approve gay marriage.” No, that wouldn’t be by a referendum of the voters, but so what?

Donohue is pleased, however, by “Marriage and Religious Freedom” a document recently signed by a number of conservative U.S. religious leaders that predictably rejects same-sex marriage.

The letter declares that ministers forced to conduct same-sex weddings is a manufactured fear, and it trusts in the First Amendment to rule out this possibility. The real problem, it says, is same-sex married couples imposing on religion. For example:

  • Religious adoption services couldn’t discriminate against same-sex married couples.
  • Marriage counselors couldn’t reject same-sex clients simply because they’re homosexual.
  • Religious employers couldn’t discriminate when giving health benefits to employees’ spouses.
  • Nor could they demote, reassign, or fire anyone for a same-sex marriage.

I’m not swept away with concern for the church. Here’s why:

However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country.

That is part of the opinion of the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason (1890), which effectively made polygamy illegal in the U.S. In other words, when the state conflicts with religion on the definition of marriage, the state can prevail.

Another important Supreme Court case is Loving v. Virginia (1967), which overturned anti-miscegeny laws (that is, laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages) in 17 states. Time declared this one of the “Top 10 Landmark Supreme Court Cases.”

Today’s fight over same-sex marriage closely parallels this fight over mixed-race marriage. Let’s consider the facts in this case. In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple, were convicted by a Virginia court for the crime of being married. The judge used Christian justification for the decision:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Do you see the parallels? Here’s another comparison. First, consider this proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution from 1912:

Intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited.

Compare this to Proposition 8, a 2008 amendment to the California Constitution:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

If the first restriction is outrageous, why allow the second?

After listing some of the problems between religious organizations and same-sex couples, the “Marriage and Religious Freedom” manifesto says,

The refusal of these religious organizations to treat a same-sex sexual relationship as if it were a marriage marked them and their members as bigots, subjecting them to the full arsenal of government punishments and pressures reserved for racists.

Bingo! Now you’re seeing the parallels.

Imagine if the manifesto whined about restrictions on religious organizations because of the legalization of not same-sex marriage but mixed-race marriage. Adoption agencies couldn’t reject mixed-race couples who wanted to adopt. Marriage counselors would have to accept mixed-race couples as clients. Religious employers would be forced to give health benefits to (if you can believe it!) a “spouse” of another race. And they would be barred from taking any kind of punitive action against an employee who married outside their race.

It’s amazing that the signatories to this document are high-level leaders within the Christian church. Aren’t they supposed to be the enlightened, compassionate ones? Aren’t they supposed to be the ones encouraging society onto the correct moral path? Why is it the other way around?

I’m optimistic that the parallels between prohibitions on mixed-race marriage and same-sex marriage are too close for them to not eventually be treated the same. But take note of the status quo. Remember these religious arguments against same-sex marriage, because in 20 or 30 years, when same-sex marriage is as uncontroversial as mixed-race marriage, conservative Christians will be shocked that their leaders ever rejected it.

We’ll need to remind them of the harm that religious thinking can cause.

Photo credit: WolfSoul

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Related links:

  • Christopher Shay, “Loving Day,” Time, 6/11/10.
  • “Time for Washington Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage” Seattle Times editorial, 11/14/11.