Saturday, July 28, 2012

Atheist Rhetoric: No One Likes A Bully

“God is dead.” Scrawled across a community billboard, these words confronted my Catholic friend every day during the school year. Someone would replace the board, and shortly afterwards, “God is dead” or “Jesus sucks” would appear again. And it made her angry. It made her hate that faceless atheist that mocked her beliefs. And when she told me about it, it made me angry. It made me feel like I was being judged for something I didn’t do, even though she is generally incredibly open to other religions and to non-religion.

We atheists like to criticize billboards with such distasteful slogans as “Homo sex is a sin," but then some go and do equally distasteful things like graffiti a church. Another friend of mine, recently agnostic, told me just today that hardcore atheist rhetoric reminds her too much of her former evangelical church’s style for her to ever be comfortable looking into atheism.   

I have a game. Find the offensive picture!

So here, within my life outside of ISSA, I can easily find examples of people negatively affected by our rhetoric. It doesn’t matter that not all atheists post things like this on the internet. It still turns people off, be they religious, agnostic, or even other atheists. Derek Miller gave a great talk at the SSA conference this year about how service can help our movement's image (I wish I could provide a link -- it’ll be on our Facebook once they post it) and Max McKittrick wrote this awesome blog post about how to talk to fundamentalists. But it’s not just fundamentalists that need to be a part of the dialogue. We need to able to converse with everyone on the religious spectrum, and we can’t do that if the better part of them are turned off by intolerant mockery. Richard Dawkins told tens of thousands of us at the Reason Rally to openly mock religion. I respectfully disagree. I have yet to meet anyone who, upon being mocked, will think, “Hey, good point. Let’s talk about this some more.” They naturally just end up pissed off and want to return the mockery. 

I’m not suggesting that we lie down, bow our heads in prayer and pretend all is peachy. Far from it, in fact. Dawkins and I are in absolute agreement that religion should be a topic of discourse in our society. But there is a difference between being clear in your beliefs (or lack thereof) and instantly going on the offensive whenever religion is brought up. The only reason half my friends know anything about atheism (other than the grim picture painted for them by their church) is that I respect them enough to not be a jerk when these things come up. Generally, they’re curious about it, and we both go home having learned something about someone else’s worldview. 

I guess the moral here is: Be nice. You’ll win more friends and likely influence more people because of it. It might not be particularly funny, shocking, or redeemable for reddit karma, but in the long run atheists will be perceived better because of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

ISSA Joins the Campaign to Light the Night

This past Friday at the SSA 2012 national conference, we at ISSA were humbled to receive the Best Service award from the Secular Student Alliance. As the SSA put it:

"Illini SSA is receiving special recognition this year for Best Service for their support of a secular adoption agency following the Catholic adoption debacle. They participated in an interfaith program to bring holiday gifts to children, a blood drive to raise awareness about the MSM-ban which resulted in a donation of 33 units. They also helped to clean up a homeless housing & meal center alongside a Catholic center, and helped set up a Service Project Network on their campus."

It is a great honor to be recognized for our achievements, and we could not have accomplished the things we did without the wonderful community we have in ISSA.

Who's awesome? You're awesome!
Service is a vital part of what we do in the secular community. Our incoming president Derek Miller gave a speech on matter at the recent SSA conference (the video of which, along with the speech by VP Becca Tippens, should be released sometime in the upcoming weeks) emphasizing how it serves as an excellent way of defeating the negative stereotypes surrounding atheism that are frequently perpetuated on the internet and elsewhere.

It is for these reasons that the secular movement must pursue a means to give back to the community/nation/world with such passion. And this year looks to be a year where that passion will reach new and hitherto unimaginable heights. For the first time in history, every single notable organization in the atheist, secular, and skeptic movement will be showing its support for a single, worthy cause: The Leukemia Lymphoma Society (LLS).

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is an incredibly valuable organization for the secular movement to support. For those of you who do not know, some of the most prevalent types of cancers are found in the blood, such as leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, and hodgkin's disease. Over 1 million people in the US are living with, or in remission from, these terrible afflictions, which are responsible for approximately 9% of all cancer cases.

The bright side is that cancers of the blood are some of the most researched, and an area in which incredible amounts of progress has been made. Out of the 50 new cancer drugs recently approved by the FDA, 21 were approved for blood cancers. These progressions have a ripple effect within the cancer research community. In fact, many of these drugs are already being investigated for use on other cancers.

The Leukemia Lymphoma Society aids individuals afflicted with these terrible conditions in many different ways. First and foremost, they fund vital research -- some of which recently resulted in the significant drug developments I mentioned earlier. Their goal is to find alternatives to the conventional chemo and radiation therapies, which tend to be incredibly expensive, wreak havoc on the body, and put sufferers' lives on hold for months or even years. Ultimately, they hope to find a chemotherapy drug that can be administered orally, allowing patients to just take a pill and continue on with life.

LLS also offers more direct support to those being treated for blood cancer. This comes in many forms: Financially, they have a program to give co-pay reimbursements to those who could not otherwise afford vital treatments. Their First Connection program acts as a support group for those suffering and in remission from a blood cancer. They also (and this was the part I found most thoughtful) have something called the Trish Greene Back-to-School program. Because of the intensity of existing cancer treatments, a child suffering from leukemia or other cancers can end up missing two to three years of school. The Trish Greene program provides information and support to ease a child's transition back to school as much as possible.

The current fundraiser for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society is being spearheaded by the Foundation Beyond Belief, which recently became a corporate sponsor of the LLS. With a $500,000 matching offer from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and the backing of every secular group in the nation, the Foundation Beyond Belief hopes to be the first organization in the history of the LLS to raise one million dollars in funds for cancer treatment and research in just a year.

Of course, this begs the question: Why approach our service work as a single entity, rather than supporting our own preferred causes? The answer is simple: It is only when we move as one that we will truly see how great an effect we can have. As individuals, we are weak. As organizations, we are strong. As a movement, we are unstoppable.

ISSA considers itself to be at the forefront of secular service, so we are happy to announce that we are forming a fundraising team to aid the Foundation Beyond Belief in its fundraising goal and, through the  Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, make the world a better place. Speaking as the incoming outreach director for ISSA, I urge every one of our members (and any interested non-members or alumni) to go onto this page and register to become a walker and help raise money for the LLS. In the coming year, ISSA will be organizing a number of fundraising opportunities and, while these events are still in their earliest planning stages, I can already guarantee they will be a wonderful experience for all. I would love for each and every one of you to donate whatever you can -- time or money -- to this cause. I can think of nothing more worthwhile.

You need to watch this. Right now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Discrimination in Disguise? Faith Hiring in an Ethics Movement

If you haven’t been following the story of Feng Jianmei’s abortion in the Zhenping province of China, it’s hard to know where to start. Without an extensive understanding of the history of China’s one-child policy, and its current stipulations and nuances, it’s easy to make rash judgments. However, everyone (including the Chinese government) has agreed that this particular case is rather black and white. You can read the extremely upsetting story here, but in short: 22 year old Feng Jianmei had her pregnancy forcibly terminated at 7 months – which had no justification under the one-child policy whatsoever. The tragedy quickly gained international attention and outrage. Although the Chinese government has suspended or otherwise punished related officials and offered compensation to Feng, the story is far from over.

In this post I don’t intend to criticize China’s one-child policy or defend it. Instead, I’m going to criticize the hiring policy of All Girls Allowed – a reputable organization that strongly opposes the policy. All Girls Allowed was founded by none other than Chai Ling, known for her role as the leader of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Since then, she has received degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Beijing University, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.

Chai Ling during the Tianenman Square protests
In 2009, she attended a hearing in Washington D.C. on the effects of China's One Child Policy. After hearing the personal testimony of a story similar to Feng Jianmei’s forced abortion, Chai began to think that only god could stop such brutality. Soon after, she was baptized as a Christian. Before I continue, due to a number of hateful articles about Chai Ling, I'd like to clarify that I hold the deepest respect for her, and my criticism of one facet of her organization shouldn't reflect upon her character or the purity of her intent.

The recent media frenzy surrounding Feng Jianmei’s tragedy led me to All Girls Allowed – which Chai founded just two months after converting, with the aim of ending the One-Child Policy and bringing Christianity to China.

The title reads "Good and Evil."  Just don't ask how I  stumbled upon this gem.
Chai Ling claims that, “If there any one[sic] could stop this brutality, it had to be God, and it could only be God. I had tried and God knows how hard I had tried, and we did not succeed.” Of course Atheists are aware of the inconvenient truth; if anyone can stop instances of brutality, it has to be us, and it can only be us. Chai misjudges her efforts to bring democracy to China, and reform to its family planning policy, as failure.This is upsetting in part because it’s so hard to imagine any individual having a greater impact, and she should be extremely proud of what she’s accomplished. Few revolutions happen overnight, and they ought not be attributed to divine intervention. 

While it's perfectly possible that an organization motivated by Christian values could achieve tangible success, it appears as though Chai's religious fervor is adversely affecting her organization. I shocked to discover that All Girls Allowed openly follows a “faith hiring policy” – open discrimination that turns out to be completely legal in the U.S. Since All Girls Allowed is headquartered in Boston, the organization has free reign to pick and choose its employees based on faith – and it is extremely particular about the matter. The organization’s website states, “All Girls Allowed has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with All Girls Allowed’s Statement of Beliefs, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lausanne Covenant.” The Statement of Beliefs and Apostle’s Creed would only weed out a few Christian denominations, but the Lausanne Covenant is much more polarizing. What level-headed person could agree with assertions like this? Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture. Because men and women are God's creatures, some of their culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because they are fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic.

The organization may be called All Girls Allowed, but it would be better named "Specific Christians Employed". This hiring policy is especially surprising considering Chai Ling’s respect for Buddhists, as many had helped her flee China when she went into hiding following the Tiananmen events. In a personal testimony she even admits that she was afraid converting to Christianity would, in a way, be a betrayal to these Buddhists – and she now considers them Christians who aren’t aware they’re Christians. Although that’s a rather illogical line of thought, and a quiet artificial convenience, at least it’s a liberal and inclusive irrational interpretation. Yet the Lausanne Covenant states, “We recognize that everyone has some knowledge of God through his general revelation in nature. But we deny that this can save, for people suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the gospel every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies. This is a blatant contradiction of Chai’s beliefs concerning Buddhists, and it’s a discrepancy that gives me hope.

While this is just one example of a faith hiring policy, it should provoke serious thought as to whether such unveiled discrimination could be justified. I think to some extent, people who have similar goals and ideals can create a work environment more conducive to progress. I understand if Christian churches don’t want to hire people of different beliefs. I accept that religious institutions don’t want to hire atheists. I know the few atheist organizations in this country would be happy to work with Christians – as we have repeatedly shown, but I am sympathetic to those who would prefer to work with like-minded people. Still – what distinguishes a religious organization from a secular one? All Girls Allowed has shown that the line is unclear. Its three-step mission says nothing about evangelism, or anything directly related to religious action (I can’t consider prayer an action in this any regard).

Are All Girls Allowed and countless other “religious organizations” hiding behind that title as an excuse to discriminate? It’s something that needs to be addressed regardless of intent. As many religions are dominated by certain ethnicities, it’s all too easy to imagine how faith hiring could slip into racism, and still be considered legal under U.S. law. It’s dangerous to afford religious establishments with this permission using religion as the sole justification, and we need to be wary of organizations that have a secular purpose yet claim to be religious. For such organizations, religious screening is clearly self-defeating. If they were stripped of their ability to discriminate, I know they’d find many people of differing beliefs eager to lend their support. Isn't it time we try to work together?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Freethought Library How-To

Greetings, all! Today I'm speaking at the Secular Student Alliance 2012 Annual Conference about ISSA's Freethought Library project. I'm hoping everyone reading this is here with me right now (because, frankly, this weekend's been a blast), but I think this information will be useful whether you catch my talk or not.

One thing that sets the Freethought Library apart from other student group lending libraries is the level of professionalism we've managed to achieve, including the use of book cards/pockets and mylar covers on all hardcover books. This is really incidental; I worked for a library resource company for quite a while and received extensive training on preparing and protecting books against damage/wear. But, despite that experience, I have to tell you guys that you are almost certainly capable of doing the exact same thing. To that end, I've prepared a short how-to for anyone wanting to add mylar covers to their books. I hope to be able to post even more information in the future.

We purchased all of ISSA's library materials from Demco Library Supplies. We use the High Back No Date Grid Book Pockets (product number WS12155250), the Standard Form School Library Borrower's Cards (WS13824800) and, for the procedure below, the Superfold 12x24" Mylar Covers (WG12211240) and 1/2 Inch Film-Fiber Tape (WS16202320). The total cost of the latter two (for 72 yards of tape and 25 mylar covers) is about $25.00 before shipping.

To apply the mylar covers, you will need 1) your hardcover book and its dust-jacket, 2) a mylar cover that is both taller and wider than the dust-jacket when laid flat, 3) a roll of film fiber tape, 4) scissors and 5) a swingblade paper cutter or something else that will allow you to cut a perfectly straight line.

Unfold the mylar cover and slip the dust-jacket in so that the printed side is facing the plastic of the cover and the blank side is facing the paper part. Center it and make sure that the bottom of the dust-jacket meets the crease at the bottom of the cover.

Close the cover over the dust-jacket (making sure to keep it as flat as possible) and fold the paper portion over onto itself so that the upper edge of it is just slightly shorter than the jacket -- I usually aim for somewhere between a centimeter and an inch. 

Carefully fold the mylar over the dustjacket and towards the paper so that the crease in the mylar is flush with the top of the jacket and run your fingers over the crease a few times to smooth things out. Cut three short pieces of tape and secure the plastic part of the cover to the paper at the point where the plastic ends. You will want to place tape strategically: One piece in the center, and one near each edge of the jacket to maintain the alignment of the cover.

Once the crease is established, slide the dust-jacket towards one end of the cover so that about an inch of it is peeking out. Carefully cut the other end just a millimeter or two past where the other side of the dust-jacket ends so as not to cut the jacket itself.

Center the dust-jacket within the cover once more. You should have about a centimeter of jacket peeking out on either side. Put the jacket-cover combo back on the book the way it was previously.

Cut four pieces of fiber tape (3-4 inches each).

Secure the inner folds of the dustjacket to the book by placing the pieces of tape, one by one, roughly in the middle of each fold and then, keeping the jacket snug, slipping the other end of the tape behind the jacket so that it makes contact with the book itself. Do this four times -- once for each flap, top and bottom. It's worth noting that, once the tape is placed, attempts to move it will likely damage both the cover and the book itself, so it's important that the second piece of tape is carefully, strategically placed so that it pulls the flap snugly against the book

The other end of each piece tape should look like this!

I hope that helps! Please email if you have any additional questions or wish to show us your finished product -- we'd love to see your lending library projects unfold!

You guys are awesome.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Presentation Is Everything

It can be reasonably accepted that influencing people's thoughts is most effective when aimed at the young. With still-developing minds and ideologies, younger people are far more likely to believe your claims and follow your judgments. It's a tactic that religious organizations absolutely rely on. But this is the age of the internet, where new competing ideas and information are a click away. Religious groups can no longer rely on communion and Sunday school to hold their young flock's attention, so what are they to do?

Enter, a website spearheaded by Marc Barnes of the Patheos blog Bad Catholic and brought to my attention by the friendliest of atheists Hemant Mehta. The site itself is devoted to the usual anti-birth-control/ anti-abortion fare that we see so often, only with a hip new look and an anti-condom view that strays from the standard "It's against God's will" argument and ends up somewhere closer to "Condoms suck, go bareback instead!"

I'm not here to talk about how the statistics cited are questionable at best and actively misleading at worst, or how he proposes a glorified rhythm method as an acceptable alternative to using contraceptives that work. That is all covered pretty succinctly by Hemant. What I am talking about is the appearance of the site, and how it informs their attempted changes in appealing to the young.

Because misinformation has never looked snazzier.

If you've looked into the site for more than 30 seconds (or even just glanced at the above picture), you'll probably notice the sheer number of ragefaces and infographics used by the site. As a fairly hardcore citizen of the internet and the sort of redditor who has once unironically bragged about their karma (5000+ comment karma… Ladies) I can confidently say that those are the sort of images that are only registered by those who have been brought up with the internet, that millennial age group who are doubting their faith and disagreeing with traditional fundamentalist views at unprecedented rates. Here's the important part, this age group is going to be the next set of the world's mothers and fathers; and that’s who they need to advertise to, the ones who will be raising and teaching the next generation.

That sound you just heard was the internet
crying over abused ragefaces. Aaaw yeah.

So what does this say about the organizations which are attempting to appeal to these children of the internet age? Why the need to suddenly use online culture to advertise upholding traditional views? I think it's because the world and culture is changing faster than the church and its views can come to terms with. So it has been forced into a choice: either let its stances on family planning stand alone and sink into the obscurity of a bygone era, or try to shoehorn its views into something young and trendy, and pray it catches on to continue the cycle  of religious influence. If is any indication, they'll try everything to their power to achieve the latter, but it seems like it is only a matter of time before the reasonable path will win out and the cycle will be broken.