Friday, June 15, 2012

Gene sequencing and Bonobos -- (Don't) Think of the Implications!

This is post 6 of 6 in our part of the SSA Week Blogathon!
I am a biologist at heart, so I love hearing about new developments in the field. But now and I come across a bit of ignorance that is surprising from writers at major newspapers. Case in point, today I found this article from the WashingtonPost about how the genome of the bonobo has recently been mapped. The science behind the article, however, should raise eyebrows for any skeptic reader.

Seth Borenstein (author of the piece) begins by comparing the genetic similarity of bonobos and homo sapiens (98.7%) to bonobos and chimps (99.6%). This is the foundation for the rest of his article, wherein he cites a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute: "Humans are a little like a mosaic of bonobo and chimpanzee genomes.” Right off the bat this makes no sense. We are a branch of the primate evolutionary path that happened far before bonobos and chimps differentiated, not some mix of the two species as the piece implies.

Chimps and Bonobos on the left, humans on the center.
Quite the mosaic right?

At this point, the article goes completely off the rails. Comparing the peaceful nature of bonobos to their more aggressive chimp cousins, Duke researcher Brian Hare tries to assert that by comparing the two genomes we can find the secret of the bonobos' more peaceful nature, asking “Is the bonobo genome the secret to the biology of peace?” The short answer is no.

The posing of this preposterous question in such a prominent newspaper highlights an issue I have noticed in the public perception of molecular biology: Once an organism's genome is mapped (as in, we have a big list of what all its DNA says in terms of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs) we now have all the information we need to know everything about that organism. This is very much not the case, and making claims to the effect that "bonobos are the secret to the biology of peace" is not just silly -- it's harmful to the advancement of scientific understanding.

The truth of the matter is that mapping the genome is just the first step. From there scientists need to consider gene expression, epigenetic factors, and many other steps before we can come close to linking bonobos' peaceful nature to a genetic cause. And even then, the author completely disregards the possiblity that this characteristic could be purely a cultural or social development.

Let this serve as a reminder to us all -- it's important for us as skeptics to be aware that some scientific discoveries may not have immediate and far-reaching effects by themselves. It takes years of supporting research before we can make any real judgements. When non-scientific journalists write about scientific topics, they tend to make conclusions that real science simply cannot confirm.

We can do better, guys!

This is post 4 of 6 in our part of the SSA Week Blogathon! 
Sometimes when I’m browsing Facebook or reddit I come across an image that irks me, and recently I’ve done a little bit of collecting. So, my question to you, dear blog readers, is this: What do all of these images have in common? (click to enlarge)

The obvious answer – that they are all offensive towards religious people, is definitely true, but I’m looking to hit a bit finer of a point – after all, I would by no means argue that it is always bad to be offensive. No, the way I see it is that all these images, in one way or another, are making assumptions about what religious people believe, poised in a manner to make the group in question seem silly or stupid. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, all these are creating some sort of religious strawman to mock, disguised as an example of standard religious practice.

You might think these are harmless and funny. But I ask, what’s the point? Some of these images are presenting fairly legitimate criticisms of how religion is currently practiced – for example, questioning why some Christians choose to follow some laws in the Old Testament but not others is a valid starting place for a conversation. But the image in question fails miserably to portray that inquiry in any sort of reasonable light. The title, “CHRISTIAN LOGIC,” suggests that this sort of thinking is standard among Christian individuals. It then has (only, I might add) “HATE GAYS” in the obey category. Really? If you’ve talked to just about any Christian, you won’t hear any of them say they hate gays. Personally disapprove of the homosexual lifestyle? Decent chance. Think they should stop being gay? Possibly. Some people you talk to may even think that society should forbid the LGBT community from practicing homosexual acts. But I’m willing to bet that none of them would ever say that they hate homosexuals. And that’s not because they are hiding it from you; it’s because they honestly don’t.

While all these images could hypothetically start conversations (although I’d say on the wrong footing), the truth is that none of these were posted with the intention of doing so in the first place. These were all found in the r/atheism subreddit, which, as one might guess, is mostly read and commented on by those who are already nonreligious. Yes, there are religious people who read r/atheism that then begin to question their beliefs; but is it really these stupid image posts that are doing the trick? I don’t think so. And, for every one person that might be positively affected with said image, you will have dozens whose perceptions of atheists are solidified by viewing it, propagating the idea that atheists think that all religious people are idiots who haven’t put any thought into their belief system. I know that you (probably) don’t think that. But the religious people that see these images don’t know that. And that perception of us is exactly what these images portray.

The atheism movement has multiple goals, which is fine, but one of the most important ones we need to focus on is improving our perception. The more you think about it, the more essential this is – after all, if society believes that atheists are largely a group of smug bastards who think they’re better than everyone else, who will want to join our cause? People most frequently join religious groups because of the community it offers. Is this the kind of community one should expect when joining ours? Why should people want to call themselves “atheists” if they know that this is how people will view them? Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson  (1:30 for most relevant part) has a problem identifying himself with the term. This is a problem.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that you can’t post pictures like this – you are free to do whatever you want. But always keep in mind that when you’re posting on a public medium, you’re not only representing yourself. You are representing all atheists, whether you like it or not. It’s just a hazard of being a minority! So when you see these kinds of images, hold off on that upvote, and maybe take the time to mention the problems you see with the fundamental assumptions they make. Who knows, maybe a religious person will see your comment and realize that maybe not all of us are so bad after all. Perception changes gradually and with baby steps, but every bit helps, and if we want to improve, it has to be a group effort. Go atheism!

If Greta can post pictures of her cats, so can I!

This is our intermission post for our part of the SSA Week Blogathon!

After seeing that Greta Christina posted pictures of her cats to raise money for SSA, I felt obligated to do the same. Enjoy!

Yes, this is a kitten in a box.
Blue Steel.

"Will you please donate to the SSA?" -Bentley

Bear wants you to donate as well.

Man, these kittens/cats/dogs really make me want to donate to the SSA and enter ISSA's drawing for a free Portal/atheism t-shirt! (On the SSA donation page, where it says SSA Week 2012 Topic Suggestion & Mailing Information, put "ISSA" in the Blogger field and "Portal Tee" in the Topic Suggestion field.)

Can't Brothas Get Along?

This is post 3 of 6 in our part of the SSA Week Blogathon!
In the midst of all this feel-good secular blogging, it's important to keep something in mind: No matter how much we do to promote the values of logic, reason, and good vibes, we live in a time when almost HALF of America believes in creationism (and four in ten believe in strict, young-earth creationism). That said, I'm dedicating this blog to a topic we could all use a little practice in... discourse. Since turning friends into enemies and dismissing people's beliefs (even when they're ridiculous) only goes so far, let's see how we can get along.

Considering that fundamentalism is also trending upward, it's unlikely that America will be an island of secular values and idyllic happiness anytime in the near future. But in the meantime, how can we better deal with our 5000-year-old brethren? Is there hope for the future, or is our nation beginning its slow slide from pluralism into two radically different sets of religious ideologies? Short of convincing all of our friends to stop attending church immediately (really), let's take comfort from the all-time high number of Americans who see religion as losing influence in America. This does present the dilemma of how a force that's losing ground in popular opinion can still be convincing people of made-up shit poorly-supported biological and historical claims, but that's a story for another time.

But seriously, how can we get along?

Professional Christian-hugger. Don't try this at home.

Let's use the most fundamental tool of secular inquiry, or just inquiry in general: ask them questions. Remember that a lot of creationists probably acquire their beliefs from the same places you and I do -- the news, their friends, and the people they respect. Since in their case at least one person they respect probably tells them about once a week that they're going to Hell, it makes sense that that particular respected person might influence them more strongly than others. But just because a priest is shoving fundamentalism down their throats doesn't mean they enjoy it; remember, church attendance in America is also declining. Astronomer Adam Frank recently wrote a wonderful article on NPR (yes, they do things other than This American Life) about the amazing power of uncertainty. If you make a believer uncertain, you're leading him or her down the first path towards real introspection.
The other major tool I would encourage everyone to use in our ongoing struggle to find common ground with believers is the element of surprise. Surprise them! Surprise them that you have a rigorous and complex set of morals, even if it isn't codified in some nonsense book. Surprise them that you're an atheist, if you feel that's wise. Surprise them that you've been listening to their spiritual hootenanny for years and find it extremely amusing. We don't always have to quarrel with believers, or despise their beliefs. Let's take a while to learn from each other.

SSA Under Fire: Hysteria Over a Millennial "Crisis of Faith"

This is post 2 of 6 in our part of the SSA Week Blogathon!
A summer lull has settled into the news cycle, leaving mainstream media networks struggling to fill the gaps between their wall-to-wall doom and gloom over European debt. As always, the so-called culture wars provide ample fodder for pundits looking to shake up a little controversy for the ratings' sake. And, since we're no longer talking about Obama's "War on Religion" vis-a-vis equal access to contraceptives or his bumbling endorsement of gay marriage, we might as well shift on over to the degradation of American society as a whole.

Enter Washington Times columnist Marybeth Hicks. Writing in the "Culture" section of the Times, Hicks (or her editor) titles her article as an innocent affirmation of American religious freedom. So how bad could it be? Here's the first paragraph:

When historians one day look back on the rise and fall of the American republic, it won’t only be our habitual deficit spending and lack of financial discipline they blame for our demise, but the deficit of faith and lack of religion in our children’s generation.

Whoa. That's pretty heavy. And before I go any further, let me stress that this article was not published as an editorial or opinion piece. It was published as news in the section of the paper dedicated to Washington D.C. and popular culture -- meaning the article is technically the official opinion of the Washington Times.

ISSA's national affiliate group, the Secular Student Alliance, was specifically targeted as the sort of "aggressive atheists" pushing for a "pervasively more godless society." How's that, you ask? By "[envisioning] a future 'in which nontheistic students are respected voices in public discourse,'" according to Hicks.

The inevitable result of a more secular society. (See also: Sweden)
That's right. By wanting to ensure that the conclusions of freethinking students in America are respected - not obeyed, not mandated, but respected - the SSA and every group like it is therefore responsible for the downfall of the American Republic itself. For shame.

It would be lovely if Hicks' hysterical hyperbole were nothing more than the lurid ravings of a fanatic. Unfortunately, that hardly seems to be the case. The next day Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, was interviewed on CNN about our nation's increasingly nonreligious youth. Below is the video, followed by a small excerpt for those too lazy to watch four minutes of television.

Anchor: Some Christians might argue that because such groups are in high schools, you're indoctrinating young people at a time when, you know, it's not proper because they're not old enough to handle questions like that."
Galef: We don't go out finding students, we empower them to form groups if they want...It's not about forcing anybody to be nonreligious, it's about giving them a safe place to discuss and live out their values.
Anchor: Well some people accuse organizations like yours of trying to shape the beliefs of young people and they say that's dangerous because most religions, most religious people, um - you know religion helps you in your life. It's not a bad thing.
Galef: Yeah, you know it's not about forcing anyone to leave their faith. I think more and more students are acting as role models on campuses and in their communities showing that you can be a good person without believing in god.

Wait a minute. Where was that famous liberal bias I'm always hearing so much about? The interview started off fine, but near the end all I heard were veiled accusations. The hypothetical "some people say" or "some Christians might argue" is a classic Fox News tactic to force people into addressing accusations that may never have been made but nonetheless are implied to be conventional wisdom.

Hicks' ravings were one thing, but this is a mainstream media news segment perpetuating a societal norm in which "religion helps you in your life" and alternative thought should be considered nothing more than indoctrination. I, for one, applaud Mr. Galef's tact in addressing such outrageous claims. And for anyone who readily dismisses the fact that atheists have it pretty rough here in America, this week stands out as a stark reminder of the obstacles we have yet to face. As we reach the end of the SSA Week, I urge all atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers to donate to the SSA. Let this week's media coverage serve as a reminder that we need their services now and for years to come.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turkey's Religious Upheaval

Amid the turbulent religious waters of the West, we often pass over the astonishing progress, and lapses, visible in the religious atmosphere of the Eastern hemisphere. We’re numb to news of religious extremism in countries like Pakistan and Iran, while we’ve become accustomed to the strength of atheism in Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Spanning both Europe and Asia, Turkey has become a fusion of both these worlds, demonstrating a peculiar mix of secular headway and alarming religious upheaval.

During the 7th and 8th centuries, Arab armies established the Islamic Empire, and through their conquests created a strong Islamic foundation in Turkey, which has remained, unattested, to this day. As the most religious country in Europe, Turkey boasts approximately a 98% Islamic following. It is astounding, then, to consider how secularism was quite literally (and successfully) thrown upon Turkey overnight. This was largely, if not exclusively, due to the incredible leadership of Mustafa Kemal – now affectionately called Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks”. After leading the Turkish War of Independence, Atatürk became President of Turkey in 1923. At the declaration, crowds shouted “We are returning to the days of the first caliphs!” – precisely the opposite of what was to come.

Atatürk believed Islam was a barrier to the country's progress, and immediately began fighting to minimize the religion’s role in Turkey. On March 3rd, 1924, Atatürk abolished the caliphate, claiming that there was no religious or political justification for the caliph’s power, which included a personal military and treasury. The equivalent of suddenly abolishing the role of the Pope and the Vatican, this had widespread effects in the Muslim world. Other Islamic nations convened in Cairo on May 1926, and declared that the caliphate was a necessity in Islam, yet no new caliph was ever appointed, or has been since.

Atatürk next abolished the Sharia legal system, replacing it with a system mirroring those of Switzerland and Italy. Then, he changed the weekly day of rest from Friday (the Islamic holy day) to Sunday, to match the West. It should also be mentioned that he changed the written language of Turkey from Arabic to Latin, despite the implications this held for the Koran, which is only considered the Koran when in Arabic. To finish off this list of achievements, I’ll mention that in 1934, Atatürk gave women the right to vote, long before much of the civilized world.

Remarkably, people accepted his radical secular position because he was still viewed as a hero from his leadership in the War of Independence. However, the government’s power could only solidify such hasty social changes in urban areas. Atatürk believed that rapid secularization in the cities would spread outward to rural Turkey. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and by the time Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party lost power, the secularization of Turkey was not universal, and still held much opposition.

The way in which the Republican People’s Party lost power was as intriguing as any of Atatürk’s religious policies. In 1945, (seven years after Atatürk’s death), Atatürk’s successor İsmet İnönü formally invited the formation of opposing political parties – ending the Turkish one party system. There had been no demonstrations in the streets and no political unrest; İnönü thrust democracy upon a complacent nation. I recently traveled to Turkey, and I had the opportunity to meet Professor Sabri Sayarı, who teaches political science at Sabancı University – one of the top three universities in Turkey. He had interviewed İnönü shortly before his death. At the time, some of his colleagues thought İnönü had given Turkey democracy because of implicit pressure from the growing middle class, while others thought that there was rising pressure from other nations for Turkey to abolish its single party system in order to join the UN. However, İnönü told him that “From the very beginning, we [İnönü and Atatürk] believed Turkey should be a free country…” but that they had needed to establish power before founding democracy.

Despite the secular progress Atatürk brought to Turkey, many still ignorantly consider him a Muslim. However, he was openly – even fiercely - an atheist. The following quotes best exemplify his personal thoughts on religion.

I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the teachings of science.... Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow man.

“For nearly five hundred years, these rules and theories of an Arab Shaikh and the interpretations of generations of lazy and good-for-nothing priests have decided the civil and criminal law of Turkey. They have decided the form of the Constitution, the details of the lives of each Turk, his food, his hours of rising and sleeping the shape of his clothes, the routine of the midwife who produced his children, what he learned in his schools, his customs, his thoughts-even his most intimate habits. This theology of an immoral Arab [presented as Islam] is a dead thing. Possibly it might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for modern, progressive state. God's revelation! There is no God! These are only the chains by which the priests and bad rulers bound the people down. A ruler who needs religion is a weaklings. No weaklings should rule!

Yet “weaklings” gained power in 2002, and have controlled the government ever since. The AKP, a socially conservative, religious political party, has been unraveling Atatürk’s progress for the past ten years. The fact that this government firmly claims to be secular is laughable. Children are forced to learn prayers and Sunni practices in public schools, and while "religious institutions" are banned, the government controls an explicitly Sunni private school. There are plenty more examples of how religion and government are intertwined, but  the most overt are the calls to prayer broadcast by loudspeaker five times a day across Turkey. In the cities where I stayed during my visit, the calls were just background noise, ignored by all.

It's hard to imagine how rapidly Turkey has turned away from Atatürk’s reforms, but it comes down to simple demographics and population density. Turkey has seen extensive migration from rural to urban areas, and these migrants bring conservatism with them. Even today, Istanbul’s population increases by 2,000 per month, as people continue to move from Anatolia into the city. The AKP currently holds nearly 50% of votes, mainly due to Turkey’s economic success in the decade accompanying their governmental control. According to Professor Sayarı, the less educated population gives the greatest support to the AKP, while college educated Turks oppose the party. Still, Sayarı suspects that many educated Turks still vote for the AKP simply because of the economic success of the past years. Although this success is quite evident, the social changes the party endorses represent a dangerous backlash against Atatürk’s reforms. The AKP objects to “immoral” television shows, supports women wearing headscarves, and is pushing for more religion in education (even though children are already required to learn prayers and Sunni practices in public schools).

My friend Orhan Taşkiran, who lives in Istanbul, calls the AKP, “The perfect government”. This is, at least in part, due to his 19 year old sister, who wears a headscarf. She told me that in the city she’s looked down upon, especially considering the university she attends has a Western mindset. Strangely, women who work in the public sector in Turkey are banned from wearing headscarves - due to a law meant to curtail discrimination. (I still can't understand how this was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights). It’s hard to grasp how Atatürk created such a secular atmosphere in one of the most religious countries in the world – to the extent that openly devout Muslims face discrimination. After speaking with her, it was easy to see why she supports the AKP. Although the previous secular government never hindered the rights of those who wore headscarves, the westernized urban culture has, quite disappointingly, tended toward discrimination rather than openness towards this minority.

May 19th was the Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day – a national holiday in Turkey marking the beginning of the War of Independence. I was in İzmir at the time, and had the incredible experience of joining a youth protest against AKP controlled government and the merging of religion and politics. While carrying a block-long Turkish banner through the streets of Selçuk, and chanting what roughly translates to “Atatürk is the soldier of the people” in lousy Turkish, it was clear to me that Turkey still has hope of becoming a secular leader in the Middle East. Although this protest remained peaceful, others weren’t as fortunate.

Like this ... except with one banner and less people
Despite the heavy Islamic presence, a minority Christian influence is still visible in Turkey – largely due to Paul’s supposed influence in the area. One of the more laughable incarnations of this influence is the so called “House of the Virgin Mary.” In short, a 19th century Catholic nun reportedly had a vision of the house where Mary died, and over half a century later a French priest interpreted a building on Mt. Koressos to fit the description. Now, it serves as a Christian pilgrimage site and holy water money machine.

Holy water mud


Another historically questionable attraction is the Basilica of Saint John. However, I was rather impressed by the humble nature of the location. It cost 8 TL (about $4) to enter the ruins, but there was no gift shop, vendors, or general pomp that I had come to expect. Even the supposed grave of John was simple and unadorned (perhaps because it’s known that there’s no body within). This is how religious sites should be – quiet, unassuming, and out of your pocket. Thankfully the location’s tradition of selling dust to pilgrims seems to have died out.

The most interesting Christian site in Turkey was, of course, the Hagia Sophia, the famous basilica-turned-mosque in Istanbul. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the building was converted into a mosque, but much of the Christian mosaics and artifacts have been restored, despite the extensive looting and Islamic refurbishing. It’s interesting to think that when we picture the typical mosque, such as the Sultan Ahmed (pictured below), the architecture was heavily influenced by this Christian basilica. Nowadays the site is a museum, thanks to Atatürk, no less.

Women are required to cover their heads and  ankles inside the mosques
Turkey is a country where women are judged for their headwear, where calls to prayer are blasted five times a day on loudspeaker, where the government forces Islam to be taught in schools, and where only two percent of the population speaks English but everyone knows the word “secular”. This eastern nation will undoubtedly lead its neighbors in the coming years, and let us not pray, but write, speak, and act – so that Atatürk’s secular vision can be realized.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Summer Freethought Library Update

A truly awesome selection of books from FFRF!
It's been nearly a year since the Freethought Library project began, and our progress is officially too great to put on the timeline graphic without, as Franklin keeps warning me, crossing the line into longest picture on the internet territory. Anyway, the length of the cutesy graphic is just one indicator of how far we've come. Here's a better one: We're almost to a hundred books! We have many, many people to thank as we near this milestone, but most recently the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, ISSA's founder/archduke Chris Calvey, and U of I alum (and former ISSA officer) Karthik Manamcheri. This has been a particularly awesome round of donations, and it seems that our collection is not just getting bigger by the day -- it's getting better, too.

That said, a year of hard work (and superb results like these) warrants a little reflection. Over the course of the last two semesters, we've managed to compile a massive collection of texts related to non-religion, philosophy, skepticism, science, etc, with the enduring goal of keeping our own informed, thoughtful and articulate. The response from our membership has been overwhelmingly positive and, from the very beginning, we’ve had a significant portion of our collection checked out at any given moment.

...And a whole bunch of goodies from RDFRS!
While other groups have certainly had similar projects in the past, we’re fairly confident that none have rivaled the size and level of professionalism of ours. All books include library pockets and cards with a stamp bearing the name of our group, the library, and our contact info in the event that the book is lost. Hardcover books have mylar covers -- just like at a real library! -- to ensure that the dust jackets are not lost or damaged, and the collection is managed via two Googledocs, one public and one private. Members can reserve a book via the public Googedoc, and I then bring that book to the next meeting. Return is arranged privately.

The distinct character of the collection is also worth mentioning. A significant portion of our books include signatures of and messages from the authors themselves, many of which we’ve procured at conferences. These inscriptions inspire our members and make the collection uniquely ours.

This one made me blush... :)
But collection development is only part of the story. We’ve posted frequent updates on our progress here on the blog and promoted the project on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, allowing us to forge ties with a variety of groups and individuals -- not just from the U.S. but all over the world.

So much awesomeness in one place!

Our wishlist has changed dramatically from the early days of the project -- we've received at least half of the items we've requested, and discovered a few more must-haves along the way! As usual, if you happen to have copies of any of the following books to spare, please consider donating them. Simply email us at for more information, or give what you can to the Freethought Library fund by clicking the "donate" button in the upper right hand corner of this page.

Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love
Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design
Frans de Waal's Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
Bart D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings
Timothy Freke's The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?
Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote The Bible?
Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens' The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism
Robert G. Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses
Michael Martin's The Cambridge Companion to Atheism
Michael Onfray's In Defence of Atheism (a.k.a. The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)
Bertrand Russell's Religion and Science
Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Victor J. Stenger's The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason
Victor J. Stenger's The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why The Universe Is Not Designed For Us
Phil Zuckerman's Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

I think that just about wraps things up... And so, to everyone who's helped us along the way, we have to say just one more time: We can't thank you guys enough for your ongoing support. Here's to another year and, if we're lucky, another hundred books!


Monday, June 4, 2012

Honoring the Fallen

Memorial Day (when I began writing this) has always stood to me as a day of quiet introspection, a way for us to cool our heels for a day and remember those who have died for the country they love. However while most are quietly enjoying themselves, there are people heating up and getting loud about religious symbols used in war memorials.

On one side of this discussion we have the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation who, in their quest for complete separation of church and state, have filed a lawsuit with the city of San Diego to have the Mount Soledad Cross (A war memorial erected by the city in 1954) removed from city property (the story of which is described well here) on the grounds of it being a violation of the establishment clause. On the other side of thing we have the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit group "working to defend and restore religious liberty across America". This Memorial Day they began the big kickoff to their PR campaign dedicated to the preservation of the cross and memorials like it, called Don't Tear Me Down, complete with a heavy-handedly patriotic country song including the delightfully ignorant lyric: "Don't tear me down/ just walk away/ our founding fathers/ what would they say?" . 

The thing is, as adamant as I am against religious iconography, I do not think the memorial should be literally torn down. It does serve as meaningful site for those Christians in the area, and when it comes down to it, the point of a memorial is to console those who have lost loved ones and serve as a reminder for the cost of freedom. Now before the comments section explodes into an angry blur, I am not for the continuing association between the cross and the government; I believe the most reasonable solution would be for the monument to be privately owned. Have the city donate or sell the monument to a local church, having them act as caretakers so that the monument can stand without violation of religious liberties. 

Thinking about all this got me feeling rather introspective, and the question for me became: what sets the case of religious symbols on war memorials apart from other cases of states using religious iconography? Why, when I was so adamantly for the removal of the school prayer banner in the Jessica Ahlquist case, did I get so fuzzy and conciliatory when this came up? Empirically and legally speaking, the cases are more or less the same; the issue being government sponsored endorsement of a religious symbol, the answer being the removal of the symbol from state sponsorship. The problem is that memorials are about remembering, and the removal of a memorial, even a constitutionally illegal chunk of that memorial, is seen as actively destroying the memory of those who were lost.

That is why my hardline approach wavers and why this fight- this clash between the values of the constitution and the minds of the Christian majority- is so much harder then many others. I am all for enforcing the separation of church and state, but it is worth being aware of why religious people, even the less-than-fundamentalist ones, are not instantly agreeing with your constitution-backed values. Emotions get involved, that is the nature of humanity; and while they should not be cause for appeasement, they should at least be cause for consideration.

Trying to determine how I feel the atheist movement should approach the issue is difficult for the reasons described above. I know the secular community is all about its black and white decisions, but this is a tricky grey area. I believe that when the memorial is private and centered on one person or their family, then it is the choice of the family to give him or her a religious marking; if a man wants a cross on his tombstone, let him have it, it should not be at the mercy of the constitution. When a memorial sculpture or building represents multiple people, it should only hold a religious symbol if all those the memorial represents adhere to that faith (e.g. a cross to commemorate all  those Christians who lost their lives in a war) otherwise if you wish to have a war memorial representing the state or city, it must be inclusive of all religious opinions by having none visible. 

If the city wishes for its own memorial, build one not focused on a religious symbol. Secular memorials are just as good if not better than those with religious ties. One of the most sobering experiences I have had was visiting the Korean and Vietnam war memorials during ISSA's trip to the reason rally. And anyhow, the cross or religion is not what is being commemorated, it is those men and women who laid down their lives for the countries they loved. Everyone, religious or not, should respect that above all else.