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 ParkWear 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.

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Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

Photo credit: djv2130

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  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

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.

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

James Dobson Needs My Money (and an Education)

Big wad of US currencyJames Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was good enough to send me a letter a few days ago.  Not a personal letter—he basically just wants me to give him some of my money—but a letter nonetheless.  He outlined some of his views about the Christian foundation our country was built on, reported how our country is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, and made the irresistible swipe at homosexuality.

In case he forgot to send you one, I’ve highlighted a few interesting bits of his letter to reply to.

Our Founding Fathers clearly understood the relationship between Christian Truth and the stability of our (then) new nation. Here are just a few quotes that express that essential connection.

And he goes on to quote mine the founding fathers’ writings to find their most pro-Christian statements.

When pundits bring up quotes from the founders, you know that they’re out of arguments.  The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, regardless of what the founders thought, wrote, or wanted.  They had their chance to define how the country should be run, and they seized it.  That document was revolutionary at the time and now, with a few amendments, effectively governs us more than two centuries later.  It supersedes the other writings of the founders.

Thomas Jefferson, … revisionists tell us, wanted a “wall of separation” to protect the government from people of faith.

No need for revisionists—Thomas Jefferson himself talked about “a wall of separation between church and state.”  And, to be precise, the First Amendment protects the people (whether or not of faith) from the government, not the other way around.

Dobson then goes on to give a long quote by Abraham Lincoln.  Well, not really by Lincoln.  This was a Senate resolution for a National Fast Day signed by Lincoln.  And this was the same Lincoln who said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.  That’s my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

The private Lincoln wasn’t the strong Christian that Dobson imagines.  (And it wouldn’t change the Constitution if he were.)

We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and “de-moralize” our institutions from the top down. …  Most forms of prayer have been declared unconstitutional in the nation’s schools. The Ten Commandments have been prohibited on school bulletin boards. …  In this wonderful Land of the Free, we have gagged and bound all of our public officials, our teachers, our elected representatives, and our judges.

Again: read the Constitution.  Prayer should never have been allowed in schools.  Ten Commandments in courthouses or in schools?  Clearly out of step with the Constitution.

I don’t want to see Christian citizens gagged; I want them to have the same public speech rights that I do.  But when you’re acting as a public official, teacher, or elected representative, the rules are different.  The First Amendment demands that you create an unbiased environment.  Evangelism with prayer or religious documents is forbidden.  Dobson somehow finds this a shocking new realization, but the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

As a secularist, I know when to stop.  I’m only asking that the First Amendment be followed.  I want no Christian preferences—such as “In God We Trust” as the motto, prayers before government meetings, Creationism in schools, crosses on public land, and so on—but when we have that situation, I will stop.  I’m not striving for a society where Christianity is illegal.  (See what a good friend a secular Constitution is for the Christian?)

But I see no stopping point on the other side, no fairly unambiguous standard that Christians are pushing for.  If they got prayer back in schools, what would be next?

Since we have effectively censored their expressions of faith in public life, the predictable is happening: a generation of young people is growing up with very little understanding of the spiritual principles on which our country was founded. And we wonder why so many of them can kill, steal, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex with no pangs of conscience.

I wonder what happens when Christianity fades away?  Does that society devolve into the post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that Dobson imagines?

Let’s compare other Western societies to find out.  Looking at quantifiable social metrics (homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, income disparity, and so on) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”1

Ouch—religiosity is inversely correlated with social health.  Sorry, Dr. Dobson.

It is breathtaking to see how hostile our government has become to traditional marriage, and how both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly antagonistic to parental rights, Christian training, and the financial underpinnings of family life.

I assume that “hostile … to traditional marriage” refers to same-sex marriage.

Help me understand this.  At a time when Christian traditionalists like Dobson lament the high divorce rate and the acceptability of couples living together and even having children without the benefit of marriage, they dismiss a group that is actually embracing marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a celebration of marriage, not an attack.

The hope of the future is prayer and a spiritual renewal that will sweep the nation. It has happened before, and with concerted prayer, could occur again. …  If we continue down the road we are now traveling, I fear for us all.

Yeah, following the rise in Christian fundamentalism does sound like a worrisome future.  We’ve seen that secular, gay-loving Europe eclipses the U.S. in social metrics.

Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

Translated: “Give me some money.”

Please pray with us about the future of this ministry.

Translated: “Give me some money.”  (I’ve written before about how prayer requests of this sort admit that prayer is useless.)

I suppose that this kind of lashing out at other people brings in the money.  But it’d be nice to see more credible arguments.

1Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, www.epjournal.net (2009).  7(3): 416.

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Bungling the Facts Behind Evolution

A series of images show how the horse evolved over 50 million yearsA Huffington Post article earlier this week asked, “Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

Yeah, pretty much.

The author notes the flak Rick Perry received for stating that evolution was “just a theory” and that it has “some gaps in it” and tried to make the case that Republicans aren’t as anti-science as they’re portrayed.  I’m not interested in the politics here, but the science (or failure to understand science) is worth mentioning.

Denial of both climate change and evolution is popular among conservatives.  The author said, “While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.”  He lists his credentials as organizing an annual science vs. religion debate at Oxford University, which were typically about evolution, and giving Richard Dawkins a good thrashing at another debate for good measure.

But for someone who’s well versed in these matters, his understanding of science seems stunted.

What I learned from these debates, as well as reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue.

I doubt that, but let’s assume it’s the case.  Who cares?  Science, not debate, is where our confidence in evolution comes from.

[Attacks on evolution do not] mean that evolution is not true or that theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Governor Perry said.  Evolution is a theory.  Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true.

Wow—where do you start?

Evolution is an explanation.  It claims to give us the mechanism explaining how life got to be the way it is.  The best evolution can hope for is to become a theory, and it has done so.  The same is true for germ theory, another explanation, which has also reached that pinnacle and can’t become anything better.

By contrast, a scientific law is Continue reading