Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A few more weeks left to the semester -- don't dISSAppear just yet!

The weekly email of the Illini Secular Student Alliance!
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Illini Secular
Student Alliance


Greetings, invigorated irreligionists!
We hope break left you refreshed and ready for more! With a few weeks left to the semester, we've still got two meetings, a blood drive and a party planned! Read on for details...

Weekly Meeting
This week's meeting will take place Thursday, Nov. 29th at 7:00pm in 1090 Lincoln Hall. Click here for a map.

On The Agenda
Join us this week as we take action to help people get the facts about homeopathy. BRING A LAPTOP and be ready to change the world -- one Amazon review at a time!

ISSA at Murphy's
After the meeting, we'll adjourn to Murphy's, as is our tradition. We welcome anyone and everyone who can make it, regardless of whether or not you plan to drink. It's a great chance to get to know your godless cohorts better!
Bleedin' Heathens
Blood Drive
(Friday, Dec. 7th)

Save a life... or three!
Come donate blood with your favorite heathens. RSVP via the Facebook event page.
The "War On
Christmas" Party
(Saturday, Dec. 8th)

Bah, humbug! Join us for a party to confirm the suspicions of every Fox News pundit and Keep-the-Christ-in-Christmas fanatic! RSVP via the Facebook event page.
Have you seen our blog?
Member posts are always welcome! Email us at 
lliniSSA@illinois.edu 
for more information.
Heathens gotta represent! Get your ISSAwear here.
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Mass Media & the Moocher Mindset

It's that time of year again! As the Fiscal Cliff negotiations begin to dominate the next month news coverage, we once again find our media focusing its attention on the foundations of the modern welfare state itself. And beyond the, erm, creative interpretations of taxing and spending policy we will inevitably hear from politicians, I ask you to go a bit deeper and be skeptical of the media portrayal of those receiving the benefits of welfare.

By now, most of you are probably familiar with former candidate Mitt Romney's sweeping statements about half the nation being "dependent on government" with no sense of personal responsibility. However, what I found even more astounding than the statement itself was the sheer number of people who went out of their way to defend it. Why is it that so many could find it reasonable that half the country could simply be a drain on the system?

In a groundbreaking study of the way impoverished Americans are portrayed by the media, Professor Martin Gilens found several significant discrepancies between the media and reality. His 1996 paper, Race and Poverty: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media, strongly suggests that journalists and editors have linked African-Americans with poverty in a way that is simply not accurate. According to Gilens:

"...the black urban poor have come to dominate public images of poverty...the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor and that such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare" (emphasis added).

In a nutshell, this kind of attitude is indicative of a larger problem plaguing the way many Americans approach welfare policy. The media has created in their minds an artificial link between poverty and race. And while it is totally inaccurate, it nonetheless results in drastically lower support for welfare programs. Let's take a bit of a closer look at Gilens' data:



Clearly, the media outlets Gilens studied were far more likely to illustrate issues of poverty and welfare with images of African Americans. But what are the actual statistics? Again, let's look at Gilens' data...



These same sources have disproportionately portrayed black urban poor as working age, but unemployed. These grossly inaccurate depictions - after decades of repitition - have led to pervasive cultural stereotypes that now dominate the mainstream discussion of welfare policy. Put bluntly, this has enabled pundits and politicians to characterize those  receiving welfare benefits as lazy black people - when in fact most poverty in America effects rural white families.


I understand that some may have objections to the use of Gilens' article in the first place. It is obviously somewhat dated - seeing as it is sixteen years old - but it nonetheless can be considered as something like a gold standard of this field. This article has been cited by over one thousand academic sources and went on to serve as the basis for his critically acclaimed book "Why Americans Hate Welfare." More recent research has supported his conclusions, and goes on to suggest that the 24 hour news cycle of cable media may even be exacerbating these sorts of false associations. For those who are interested, I can point you to several sources for further reading, including...

Professor van Doorn's "Media Portrayals of Poverty and Race in Pre and Post Welfare Reform America," in which it is suggested:

"...that media portrayals of the poor are still racialized and that explainable differences exist between how Hispanics and African Americans are pictured alongside stories about poverty."

As well as Lauren Krizay's "Begging For Change," which finds:

"dehumanizing affects in the depiction of United States Poverty...a disproportionate representation of poverty within minority groups and a stronger focus on government budget and economics in the articles on domestic poverty."

And Bullock et al.'s "Media Images of the Poor," asserting that:

"Welfare recipients are among one of the most hated and stereotyped groups in contemporary society...Paradoxically, the largest group of welfare recipients in the United States is poor children, a group that is typically viewed sympathetically...Racist stereotypes underlie antiwelfare attitudes and media images emphasizing the relationship between poverty and ethnicity clearly fuel the perception that most poor people are Afican American."

There's no denying it. The media portrayal of welfare recipients is systematically racist, and a lack of critical thinking actively contributes to its effects on policymaking. So while the latest horserace has finally ended, I must urge you to remain active in the way you process information related to policy. We ought to let our attitudes towards the welfare state and federal tax structure be driven by hard data, not by baseless cultural stereotypes. We are bombarded with subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages like this constantly, but I firmly believe the power of a skeptical citizenry can overcome these challenges.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christians don't truly believe in Heaven or Hell.

For eight years as an atheist, I’ve had an outside perspective on Christianity in the United States, and one of the things I’ve noticed most frequently is an apparent lack of conviction among Christians that Heaven and Hell are real places where people go when they die. A small example of this might be college-age Christians who say “YOLO”.

Perhaps a better example is the fact that Christians who think they are saved aren’t hoping to die tomorrow.

Think about it: If you believe Heaven, a place of infinite, never-ending happiness, is a real place, and that you get to go there when you die, then surely you should be longing to go there every day of your life, right? Now, of course, you can’t actually do anything to get there more quickly because suicide is a sin (that’s a real catch 22 right there), so all you can really do is hope that God’s plan will include your death in the near future.

But what about the process of dying? I mean, yeah, if a lethal injection fell out of the sky and stuck you while you were sleeping, that’d be fine. But what if you got hit by a bus and were lying disfigured in the street and in the hospital for hours in horrible pain until you finally died? You'd definitely be regretting your desire to die.


Well if Heaven really is a place of infinite pleasure, then any amount of Earthly suffering would seem infinitesimally small the second you arrived, wouldn't it? So the process of dying itself should not impede the desire to die so that you can go to Heaven.
But what about the people you'd be leaving behind? What if you have young children and you're the only one taking care of them? Surely that would give you a good incentive to want to stay on Earth, right?

Well if your death was part of God’s plan, then surely your childrens' lack of a parent is also part of God’s plan, isn't it? And if God’s plan is perfect, then that should be the best thing for those children. For example: my mother died when I was nine, leaving me with just my brother and father, and as a result, I learned how to be independent and responsible at a very young age, which has helped my character a lot. So the predicted difficulties for others as a result of your death should not impede the desire to die so that you can go to Heaven. 
And despite all of this, most Christians, in my experience, are not hoping to die, which, to me, signals a lack of conviction that Heaven is actually real.

But Heaven isn’t the only place that many Christians don’t seem sure of; many of them also don’t seem to believe that Hell is a real place, either. Hell is commonly described as a horrifying place of unimaginable pain and suffering that will never ever stop ever, so you’d think Christians would be at least “very concerned” about themselves and about the people around them going to Hell, right? Well… not always. 




Let’s take a look at the Christians who both oppose abortion on religious grounds (it’s immoral to kill the fetus, which has a soul), and who also believe in the salvation of infants (they believe that babies and young children who die will automatically go to Heaven). Clearly, given this philosophy, there is no problem with killing the pre-born babies except for the fact that the people doing the abortions, the mothers and doctors, are in danger of going to Hell for murder. So you’d think that these Christians who oppose abortion would be motivated by their fear of the mothers and doctors going to Hell, right? But this never comes across: it’s all about saving the babies that are already saved, and it’s never about the mothers and doctors except to condemn them for being murderers, rather than trying to save them.

A simpler example of this lack of concern of Hell could be any attempt by Christians to get rid of things they deem “immoral” (homosexuality, drugs, pornography, sodomy, etc) where they never bring up the concern that people who, for example, watch pornography, will go to Hell. That’s not their beef with porn; their beef is that it’s “just wrong”. If they really believe that people who watch porn will go to Hell, you’d think that would be their primary concern, but it rarely is.

This overall lack of apparent conviction among Christians has always fascinated me, and while I wouldn’t say that it supports my own conclusion that Christianity is not true, it does give me reason to believe that I am not so outnumbered in thinking this. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Should Atheists Celebrate Thanksgiving?


With the holidays around the corner, atheists and the religious alike often begin to ask, "Should atheists celebrate?" This question mainly arises for holidays that have both religious and secular aspects (In other words, all of them).

To answer this question for Thanksgiving, we should examine how the tradition began - did its founders intend for it to be religious in nature, or was it a purely cultural celebration?

Actually, never mind; let's not examine how the tradition began. Why do people think a tradition's origin matters? If a document was discovered that revealed our nation's founders intended for America to forever be Christian, would we say, "Oh, alright. I guess we should have Christianity taught in schools, then." Of course not; our constitution currently outlines a secular government. So why do we hold such reverence for the "original intent" of holidays - our most treasured traditions - that have become such an integral part of our culture?














I would like to see us atheists use holiday names freely and openly. Why let it bother us if someone wishes us a happy Thanksgiving, or a merry Christmas? Let's go further, and say we're celebrating these holidays this year. By using these terms, people will begin to realize semantics are just semantics, and that just because we don't have religion doesn't mean we don't have culture.

We should accept that Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc, have become part of what it means to be American - and that isn't a bad thing. Let's not be afraid to say we're "celebrating" these days. If someone dares to tell you an atheist "can't" do so, simply explain that the holiday has sufficient secular aspects to celebrate; the coming together of friends, family, and more often than not - sharing great food.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Who's Who of Atheism

There are many different "types" of atheists (you may recognize some of the ones listed below) and they all have something in common: they’re rarely used by atheists to describe themselves, but commonly used by the religious (or other atheists) to label atheists in a negative way.

The Apathetic Atheist: These people don't believe in any gods, but don't care enough about the influence and actions religious people to voice their opinions. In some cases, it may be that simply informing them about religious issues is all that's needed, but if the person isn't voicing his/her opinion in order to avoid conflict with religious peers, it's more up to the individual.


The Wait-It-Out-eist: These folks don't really know or care whether or not there's a deity, but insist that they’ll find out when they die. Of course, if there is no afterlife, they won’t be conscious to realize it.


The Angry Atheist: We've all met an angry atheist - and although there are legitimate reasons to be angry - there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing it. I probably fit in this category for a year or so after I left religion.


The Anti-theist: These atheists think there is something inherently wrong with religion, and that it harms society. If an anti-theist writes a book or has a blog, he/she is probably labeled "militant" on the internet.


For some reason I find this Dawkins picture adorable.
The Agnostic: Although some people who call themselves agnostics are really deists or pantheists, I find that most are really agnostic atheists. The problem here is that they don't know how to label themselves, or prefer to be non-confrontational and ambiguous about their lack of belief.

The Angry Agnostic: These people don't know if there's a higher power or not - but goddammit neither do you!


Although these labels are often used in a derogatory way, we should realize that none of these stereotypes are inherently negative - and few people fit into just one category. It's often difficult to label ourselves, because we don't want to align ourselves with the stereotype that accompanies the label, but it can actually help disprove the stereotypes themselves. With this in mind, it’s important to remember to not give labels, but rather listen to how atheists choose to categorize themselves, and observe how their label corresponds to their words and actions.

Friday, November 16, 2012

God on the Silver Screen

     When it comes to movies, the role of God is both ubiquitous and erratic. Disregarding a couple extremely obvious films (Bruce and Even Almighty come to mind), a lot of modern flicks seem to actively dance around the existence of a god, rather than ignoring it or openly stating the characters' views. 
And it's funny, because the guy who played God twice is an atheist!

     Looking through the rather extensive list of movies based on Christianity (The Prince of Egypt, Lawrence of Arabia), one of the most poignant examples in recent years is The Truman Show.

      The Truman Show is a movie about a man (Truman) whose entire life is a reality show; he's unknowingly lived his entire life on a large TV show set designed and conceived by one man, a man who, when he finally talks to Truman, is portrayed as a glowing ball of evanescence, and happens to be extremely manipulative and insecure. Sound familiar? While many movies aren't quite so shameless in their portrayal of a higher power as distinctly Christian, the subtle implication of a Christian higher power is very widespread. Don't believe me? Ask the Barna Group, a major non-profit dedicated to film research. According to them, the existence of a god plays a 'major role' in about a fifth of all movies, like Jesus Camp.
     So, are there any movies that are critical of the Christian god? Well, some examples are secular documentaries. Many have been based on the scandal surrounding pedophile priests, such as Deliver Us from Evil, Our Fathers, and others. These are films that aren't afraid to criticize the Church, and they're made by independent filmmakers, so they aren't afraid to make serious claims. 

     Additionally, over the past few years we've also seen quite a few blockbuster movies with characters who aren't afraid to question religion. Prometheus features a protagonist (Charlie) who is vocal about his lack of faith. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also dismissive of organized religion. My personal favorite example is Liam Neeson's character in The Grey, described by some as a 'bleak atheist parable'...the protagonist's disappointment with his faith is portrayed vividly and repeatedly.

     The subset of blockbusters that are 'bleak atheist parables' and the increasing amount of secular documentaries perhaps showcase the same tendency of Christians I explored in my last blog--although these films aren't designed to challenge their viewers' faith, just by featuring atheist main characters they serve to remind their viewers of our presence in society. Not every blockbuster can be The Grey, but even Liam Neeson (who happens to be very religious personally) can be persuaded to portray an atheist on screen. While I don't expect such characters to be in vogue in the near future, the director's decisions bode well for the future portrayals of atheists in film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Better bundle up or you'll turn into an ISSAcle!



The weekly email of the Illini Secular Student Alliance!
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Illini Secular
Student Alliance




Greetings, energetic empiricists!
Thanksgiving Break is almost upon us, but never fear! You'll get to see your favorite heathens one last time before that long week off. Read on for details...

Weekly Meeting
This week's meeting will take place Thursday, Nov. 15th at 7:00pm in 317 David Kinley Hall. Click here for a map. PLEASE NOTE THE CHANGE OF LOCATION!

On The Agenda
It's board game night! Bring your favorite board games (consult this Googledoc for ideas) and we'll have a grand old time with our friends from Building Bridges and the Philosophy Club. All are welcome.

ISSA at Murphy's
After the meeting, we'll adjourn to Murphy's, as is our tradition. We welcome anyone and everyone who can make it, regardless of whether or not you plan to drink. It's a great chance to get to know your godless cohorts better!


Bleedin' Heathens
Blood Drive
(Thursday, Dec. 6th)

Save a life... or three!
Come donate blood with your favorite heathens. Details TBA.




Have you seen our blog?
Member posts are always welcome! Email us at
lliniSSA@illinois.edu 
for more information.


Heathens gotta represent! Get your ISSAwear here.


Not diggin' it? Click here to unsubscribe.







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Sunday, November 4, 2012

It's barcrawl week and there's mISSAchief afoot!

The weekly email of the Illini Secular Student Alliance!
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Illini Secular
Student Alliance


Greetings, tipsy heretics!
This week is going to be a whirlwind of activities, so read the following closely...

Fall Barcrawl
Remember, remember the fifth of November... Or try to, at least! Join us TOMORROW -- Monday, November 5th at 8pm at Murphy's -- for drinks, karaoke and more! We'll have the official ISSA barcrawl shirt available for purchase for $15 if you need one. RSVP via the Facebook event page for the complete schedule!

Weekly Meeting
This week's meeting will take place Thursday, Nov. 8th at 7:00pm in 1090 Lincoln Hall. Click here for a map. Please note that this meeting will run ~30 mins longer than usual.

On The Agenda
Back by popular demand... JESUS CAMP! Join us for this fascinating -- albeit slightly upsetting -- documentary on the Christian indoctrination of children via that most sacred institution of youth: the summer camp.

ISSA at Murphy's
After the meeting, we'll adjourn to Murphy's, as is our tradition. We welcome anyone and everyone who can make it, regardless of whether or not you plan to drink. It's a great chance to get to know your godless cohorts better!

Roadtrip to Skepticon!
If you're signed up for Skepticon this coming weekend, be sure to check your email and the Facebook event page for updates and to touch base with your carpool buddies!
Have you seen our blog?
Member posts are always welcome! Email us at 
lliniSSA@illinois.edu 
for more information.
Heathens gotta represent! Get your ISSAwear here.
Not diggin' it? Click here to unsubscribe.







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