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The Future of FreeThought

I have spent the last few days putting my thoughts to digital paper but they weren’t really my thoughts. They were thoughts that I only think are mine but really have come about from reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. In my first post on the matter I mentioned how profoundly this book has changed my view. How I feel to some extent a sense of connection with the past.

I liken it very loosely* to what I can imagine perhaps a homosexual in America might feel and may I be so bold as to draw a comparison between FreeThought and Homosexual Rights. The first step in the acceptance of homosexuals was the acknowledgement that “they” exist and that there is a community of them. I suppose step 2 was try not to get killed but then came step 3 begin to discover a shared history. There hasn’t been much of history for the GLBT community to draw on, they sort of sprang out of nowhere as you might be led to believe. Of couse, it’s becoming more and more apparent that there is an extensive “gay history” however it hasn’t been very pleasant and we’ll never know the full extent to which the homosexual community has always been around.

I suppose this is the natural evolution, if you will, of all groups as they struggle for identity.

This brings us to the main point of this article, the Future of FreeThought. What does tomorrow or even 5 years bring. Maybe we should be saying to ourselves, “Forget about the future. What does the present look like?”

Where we stand today

There are plenty of very good reasons to be pessimistic about the future of FreeThought considering the last 20 years in one sense hasn’t been that great. We’ve seen the ascendancy of the Religious Right during the 70’s through such organizations as Falwell’s Moral Majority and their ability to shape the political landscape of today (not to mention their power within the Republican party out of proportion to their numbers). The 80’s brought us the almost laughable Satanic Panic. The 90’s brought us the Republican Revolution and the rise of the Christian Coalition led by Ralph Reed. The 21st century was kicked off with a bang, specifically 4 bangs on 9/11. An event that should have led to soul-searching within religious circles on the power of faith and that without some kind of check or measure like reason and evidence all ideology particularly religious ideology can lead to some of the greatest atrocities of mankind. Instead, in America, the various Christian sects circled the wagons and drew Us vs. Them distinctions while the liberal left called Islam the Religion of Peace and tried to categorize the 19 young men as fundamentalists or extremists. No doubt they don’t represent the mainstream muslim but there are some very basic questions that are not being asked.

Today secularists and skeptics, atheists and agnostics face some of the same recurring issues that have cropped over the decades, nay, centuries. That thing called Intelligent Design (AKA warmed-over creationism) has been making inroads or at least the strategy has changed again to “academic freedom” bills. The broad support for faith-based initiatives and school vouchers is a reincarnated version of the very same kind of bill that was working it’s way through the Virginia Assembly that attempted to get the state of Virginia to fund religious education. The very thing that Madison and Jefferson worked vigorously to oppose and many evangelical groups of the day also opposed.

Susan Jacoby begins the final chapter of her book with a recent speech given by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia [full text here],

… the real underpinnings of Scalia’s support for the death penalty are to be found not in constitutional law but in the justice’s religious convictions. He believes that the state derives its power not from the consent of the governed – “We, the People,” as the [Constitution] plainly states – but from God. God has the power of life and death, and therefore lawful governments also have the right to exact the ultimate penalty. Democracy, with its pernicous idea that citizens are the ultimate arbiters of public policy, is responsible for the rise of opposition to the death penalty in the twentieth century. “Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings,” Scalia noted in his speech. He would have been just as accurate had he pointed out that most subjects in absolute monarchies also supported the right of kings to torture and to impose the death penalty by drawing and quartering. To bolster his argument, Scalia turned to the perennial favorite of conservative politicians the evangelist Paul: [quotes Romans 13:1-4]

And this is from a Supreme Court justice. What happens when abortion makes it’s way to the SCOTUS? I wonder what a devout Catholic will make his decision based on, clearly not case law or prior precedent or any other impartial manner. I wouldn’t doubt if he quotes Psalms 139:13-16 in his opinion.

Now all of that is kind of a drag and I’m generally an optimistic person.

A Plan for the Future

If you are looking for me to start making predictions of what will happen in the future you can stop reading now. I don’t know and neither does anybody else but I do have some ideas about what we can begin to build today.

1) Identify that non-believers exist, acknowledge that you exist

  • A recent Pew Study shows that approximately 10.3% of the U.S. population identifies itself as either atheist, agnostic or secular-unaffiliated, there’s an additional 5-6% of the U.S. population that is religious-unaffiliated, maybe they just need to be told it’s OK to not believe. 
  • Read that again 10% (that’s about 30 million people). We more than exist, we are significant chunk of the population.

2) Recognize that you have a history

  • I hope the last 3 posts have given you a taste of the extremely rich history that secular and free thought have in America. If you don’t know about the last 3 posts here they are:
  1. Revolutionary FreeThought
  2. The Golden Age of FreeThought
  3. FreeThought in the 20th Century

3) Get involved

  • Join a group or start one. I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, not exactly a liberal bastion by any stretch. We have a group, you can find us here, freethoughtfortwayne.org. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in starting your own.
  • Groups like CFI On Campus provide excellent resources for starting college campus groups.
  • Write letters to the editor, attend speeches and conferences promoting secular thought, scientific literacy and freethought.
  • Write your story, start a blog, write a book. We don’t live in an age anymore where you have to jump through hoops and sell your soul to get published anymore. You can self-publish. Every piece of literature out there adds to the growing number of freethought voices.

4) Begin Building Bridges

  • Instead of fighting or resisting religious groups, we should be defining where we have common ground. I suppose this goes back to that old adage, “The frontiers that trade won’t cross, armies will”, or something like that. If we won’t engage with religious groups we will only ever exchange volleys and that won’t get us anywhere
  • I’ve said it before and I say it again, we really should promote advocacy for secular government within the religious community.

Let’s do what we can to change the tone and tenor of the nation. If you are unhappy about the invasion of religion into every nook and cranny of our political discourse then speak up. Write your congressman, yours can’t be any worse than mine, Mark Souder (R) – 3rd Dist. IN. He or she works for you, remember that.

I would be interested in your comments. AM I missing something? Am I too optimistic?

* Of course, I’m a heterosexual, middle-class white guy, so what do I really know about being gay or even oppressed for that matter. Like I said “very loosely” based on the recent history of homosexuals.

Filed under: Science, , , , , , , , , , , ,

FreeThought in the 20th Century

This is the 3rd in a series of posts exploring the Past, Present and Future of FreeThought. In this installment I would like to discuss how poorly FreeThought faired in the early parts of the 20th century but I promise to end on a high note. The primary focus will be from the turn of the century to the about the 70’s.

Comstock Laws, Contraception and Catholics

To understand the problems that eventually overwhelmed FreeThought in the first half of the 20th century we must first start with the enacting of the Comstock Laws of 1870’s. These laws essentially allowed the federal government the right to inspect and seize anything moving through the U.S. Postal service deemed “obscene” as determined by the local postmaster. Those things that were deemed obscene were anything from “diatribes against marriage to advertisements for veneral disease remedies”. Ingersoll himself spoke against the government being in the business of censoring and ultimately defining what was obscene.

Until the early 20th century the Catholic church held very little sway and was still considered a suspicious minority religion. However despite their small numbers the Catholic church actively began to crusade against public (and therefore secular and godless) education and contraception. Margaret Sanger, the inventor of the term birth control and it’s biggest crusader was ultimately arrested in New York City at the prompting of the local Catholic clergy. While opposition of contraception didn’t seem to win the Catholics any Protestant fans their eventual embrace of some of the most virulent, anti-communism would finally assuage the mainstream Protestant fears.

Bolshevism and the Red Scare

As the dawn of the Great War approached many freethinkers were imprisoned for sedition (such as Eugene Debs, a socialist, vocal opponent of the America’s entry into the Great War and an Indiana State Representative). After the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution created a backlash against those that were perceived as godless and therefore un-American. Mainstream Protestantism began to link bolshevism and eventually communism with evolution much like the Catholic church linked communism and atheism. While true the Bolsheviks ostensibly embraced atheism it didn’t prevent them from replacing the State as the new religion. This of course didn’t stop the link from being made.

During the decades preceding the second World War, 2 Catholic personalities emerged on the national stage, Charles Coughlin and Fulton Sheen. Charles Coughlin was,

… dubbed “the father of hate radio” by a recent biographer, was destined to rise no higher in the church than the priesthood: his early populist message of Christian justice for the working man turned in the thirties into an anti-New Deal, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic – as well as anticommunist – platform. Coughlin’s diatribes were tolerated by Vatican officials and encouraged by his bishop for much of the thirties, but he was finally muzzled by an embarrassed hierarchy after Pearl Harbor.

Fulton Sheen on the other hand was an unblemished darling of the church hierarchy. His Catholic Hour radio show was broadcast by 106 radio stations throughout the 1940’s to eventually become a television star in the 1950’s with his show, Life is Worth Living, reach an estimated 5.5 million viewers. There is no doubt Sheen was virulently anticommunist as Coughlin even going so far as to advocate for spying on school teachers who might celebrate May Day (a socialist holiday, and one shared by labor unions). A close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, that bastion of free speech, Sheen would often get his personal friends appointed to what would ultimately become the FBI.

What does all of this mean for freethought in the first half of the 20th century? Nothing good. Freethinkers were more often labeled socialist (which many were) or communists. In general, an unpleasant period in freethought history.

Let the good times roll

I will end this section on a high note before I delve into my opinions on the Future of FreeThought. A number of important court cases would be decided in the mid-century. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Illinois (1948)  would all but prevent public funds (even indirectly) from being used for religious instruction. The McCollum case would directly challenge “released time” when students would be released during the school day to receive religious instruction from local religious groups. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which desegregated schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962) found that even non-denominational school prayer was unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade (1973) which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Within the political arena a Catholic would be elected president and give a speech clearly stating that, “I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me”. A clear difference that was lost on Mitt Romney. Of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would finally pass The Congress.

I won’t detail the activities of secularist involved in the struggle for civil rights, such as, Andrew Goodman Michael Schwerner and James Chaney (who were eventually killed by racist shitbags), Stanley Levison and W.E.B. Du Bois. And modern day feminism, such as, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. I will simply assume you know all about it 😉

More in this series:

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The Golden Age of FreeThought

In my continuing series on the history of freethought and secularism in America I would like to spend a little time focusing on the “Golden Age of FreeThought”. It’s called by the author of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, the Golden Age for good reason. During the period following the Civil War it was perhaps the most open period in American history to disagree with religious authority and even mock the more irrational aspects of religion. This openness wasn’t nearly as utopian as it may sound.

Unbelief during the Civil War

Perhaps the most telling comments about the status of secular thought during the 19th century comes from the following passage of Susan Jacoby’s book,

Today’s Christian conservatives frequently use the slogan “let’s put God back into the Constitution,” thereby implying that “secular humanists” have managed to overturn what was originally intended to be a marriage of church and state. Nineteenth-century clerics knew better and were honest about their desire to reverse what they regarded as the founders’ erroneous decision to separate church and state.

The late nineteenth-century was merely a foreshadowing of the kinds of vitriol that would be poured out on our elected leaders in recent decades. “In God We Trust” was first engraved onto our currency during the end of the Civil War and was soon made the butt of a number of jokes, such as “In gold we trust” during the debates surrounding the removal of U.S. currency from the gold standard. 

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most devout Christians ever to be elected president, attempted in 1907 to dispense with the motto precisely because of the sacrilegious puns. He succeeded only in arousing a storm of criticism from ministers who had previously been among his strongest supporters. Roosevelt, who had dubbed Paine a “filthy little atheist,” was himself called an infidel for his attempt to remove God from American money.” 

Ah, the irony is overwhelming.

The Great Agnostic

Much as Thomas Paine was perhaps the most reviled infidel of his time, Robert Green Ingersoll was much admired and called the Great Agnostic. Ingersoll wrote many pamphlets during his time (c. 1870-1899), including the Gods and Other Lectures and Some mistakes of Moses.

Unlike today, the American people often went to see speakers give lectures. In fact, you could make quite a living going on the lecture circuit. Ingersoll was an extremely popular speaker with many connections to the Republican party of the day. In many of his talks he did not pull any punches in his ridicule of religious belief and social issues such as slavery and women’s rights.

From the Gods and other lectures, after quoting Deuteronomy chapter 20 from the Old Testament detailing the slaughter of men and the… uh… acquisition of the women,

Is it possible for man to conceive of anything more perfectly infamous? Can you believe that such directions were given by any being except an infinite fiend? Remember that the army receiving these instructions was one of invasion. Peace was offered upon condition that the people submitting should be the slaves of the invader; but if any should have the courage to defend their homes, to fight for the love of wife and child, then the word was to spare none – not even the prattling, dimpled babe.

And we are called upon to worship such a god; to get upon our knees and tell him that he is good, that he is merciful, that he is just, that he is love.

The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Reading Ingersoll is like reading Dawkins or particularly Hitchens. In fact, I dare say The God Delusion and god is not great are modern day versions of the very lectures that Ingersoll was so famously recognized for and the Four Horseman are so roundly criticized for.

FreeThought Activism

I don’t want to make it sound like the late-nineteenth century was a free and unfettered time to be a freethinker. In fact, the roots of what would ultimately become the “red scare” and much of the McCarthy-ist persecution was beginning to take root at this time particularly during the turn of the century. I will wait to delve into those issues with the next post, FreeThought in the 20th Century.

Among perhaps one of the most astounding things of the mid to late-1800’s was the prevalence of Freethought literature, newspapers and pamphlet printing organizations. Throughout the 1800’s FreeThought periodicals began popping up everywhere, the most famous of the bunch would be D.M. and Mary Bennett’s Truth Seeker. Some of the other periodicals were the Boston Investigator, the Blue Grass Blade, the Free-Thought Ideal and Free-Thought Vindicator, and my personal favorite the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer. Of course, like all “movements” they are rarely centralized and cooridinated as evidenced by the Iconoclast of Austin, Texas run by William Cowper Brann, a strident racist who was ultimately shot in the back by an enraged Baptist. The diversity of thought among those who wore the FreeThought banner was loosely held together by the almost universal opposition to organized religion and their support for a clear separation of church and state.

During this time period the roots of feminism were planted beginning with attempts to gain women the right to vote and the dissemination of information regarding contraception. There are so many famous figures from the women’s rights movement who came to fame during this time period, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine L. Rose.

There are so many things that happened during this time period that I have only barely scratched the surface. I only glossed over Ingersoll’s life and almost the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement and spoke nothing about the emancipation of the slaves and Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. I guess you’ll just have to read the book 😉

More in this series:

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What would an atheist nation look like?

Here’s an interesting YouTube video with some statistics regarding atheism. It’s an interesting video however there are not enough citations of where these statistics came from. There is one statistics that 16% of Americans are atheists and references a Pew study, hmmm…. that number I believe a) significantly diverges from the 4%-5% that I believe is generally agreed upon (and I discussed on my personal blog), and b) that number seems to neatly correlate with this Pew study’s categorization of the number of U.S. citizens that are “Unaffiliated” with any particular religion, not necessarily that they are atheist/agnostic. Ah well, you know what they say about statistics…

via FriendlyAtheist

Filed under: Science, , , ,

Christopher Hedges doesn’t believe in atheists

Somehow I missed this really good interview with Christopher Hedges the author of American Fascists, a scathing attack on the Religious Right in America, about his new work I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

Christopher Hedges has debated by Dawkins and Hitchens,

I haven’t read the new book but it’s now on my evergrowing and seemingly never shrinking list of books to read. In his debates, watch the youtube video to see an example of this, his primary criticism is that there is this belief among the New Atheists, or Secular Fundamentalists as he calls them, is that once you remove religion the world will be great and that Religion was holding us back. And I have to agree that that criticism is legitimate in the sense that that does seem to be the way many of the New Atheists arguments seemed to get boiled down to. In addition, if you simply replace Religion with Atheism as the new set of “moral” standards you have essentially replaced something (religion) with a nothing (atheism) and therefore that criticism stands as well.

What I think perhaps Christopher Hedges best illustrates is that many of the New Atheists arguments are “against” religion but not specifically “for” anything and therefore leave a whole that must be filled. I personally think that is a legitimate criticism. There is a basis for morality or at least a basis for how we determine that morality.

What I anticipate happening in the coming years is a flood of books by authors whole we be dubbed as the New Moralists or New Philosphers. These books will actually put forward in laymen’s terms the basis for a new morality which anybody who reads this stuff will recognize as simply Humanism or some variant of it. These books will also come under attack as well but for different reasons. These new books will actually make “positive statements of belief” that can be directly attacked as opposed to the current batch of books whose “negative statements of belief” are really just attacks themselves. Of course, you will also have these new beliefs attacked as being morally relativistic however the current books by the New Atheists do a pretty good job of showing religions, particularly Christianity, are morally relativistic as well, although the phrase “subject to interpretation” is more appropriate, such as the rights of women, slavery and racism.

I think Hedges makes some great arguments that I hope some of the New Atheists and others will take to heart and  move the debate forward away from the irrational basis of religion and towards this so called “New Enlightenment”.

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Politics, , , , , , ,

Freethought Fort Wayne website

I have recently begun to participate in a local (Fort Wayne, Indiana) freethought group affiliated with the Center for Inquiry – Indianapolis chapter of that august skeptical and freethinking society known simply as CFI. They have an excellent podcast, Point of Inquiry, check out info in my cleverly named Ear Food page.

As one of my official acts within the group is the coordination and setup of new website, FreethoughtFortWayne.org. It is essentially a blog but we will get things setup so that you can quickly find meeting times and places, various group activities and most importantly read what’s on our minds.

There are currently 3 authors (including yours truly) but I imagine there will be many more over time. I would suggest you set their blog up in your favority RSS reader and enjoy.

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, , , ,

The Atheist Market in Fort Wayne, IN

I’ve been sitting on this USA Today article, Americans freely change, or drop, their religions, for a couple days now. I’m not really sure what to make of this survey. Part of me sees the statistic that atheist/agnostics make up about 4% of the U.S. population and see that in a pessimistic light. Just to put that number in perspective if you take the total population of the city of Fort Wayne, IN (where I am located) with a population of about 215,000 (500,000 if you include the Metro Fort Wayne area). This means about 8,600 of my fellow Fort Wayners are atheist/agnostic, about 19,000 if you inclulde the whole Metro area.

One of the statistics for Indiana particularly is the number of unaffiliated people. And of course the number of unaffiliated people is the whole point of the article. I wonder how many of them would simply declare atheist/agnostic if the social pressure to believe in God were removed. I think all these things in the hopes of understanding what percentage of those people would participate in an atheist group, like Freethought Fort Wayne. I don’t really have any stats on what is the likely percentage of any group to actively participate in a group of some kind. For example, let’s say that any given grouping of people will have 20% of its members actually participating in groups. Let’s say there are 1,000 people in a given area who self-identify that they are Bird enthusiasts so it’s reasonable to assume that the most members of an organized, self-identified group of Bird enthusiasts would be 200 members. Your job as the the Bird Enthusiast evangelist is to get your group to that magic 200 number. If for example you advertise or whatever and you can only ever get 75 people to join then you know that you are doing something wrong or missing a whole target group of about 125 people. But without that 20% number how could you ever know that 75 people isn’t supposed to be the max number.

It’s easy to say there are 8,000-20,000 potential members of an atheist/agnostic group in the Greater Fort Wayne Area and let’s be honest if you state that you are “unaffiliated” and not simply agnostic then you are very, very unlikely to join a group that self-identifies with atheism since you can’t even fill out an anonymous survey and say you are atheist. What percentage of those group members would be willing to actively participate in a group,  1%? 2%? 10%?

Part of me holds out hope because even with a 1%-2% participation rate that creates a pool of 80-400 members. Can you imagine that 80-400 possible members in Fort Wayne, imagine the potential pool of candidates in Indianapolis with 4 times the population. Actually I could probably find out the membership of CFI- Indiana and reverse calculate and estimate of what Fort Wayne could draw, I’ll re-edit when I get that information.

Filed under: Religion, , , , ,

Atheism: The Case Against God

I have FINALLY finished reading George Smith’s seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God. I say finally because this book is a very substantial work and I don’t recommend you read it while you are sleepy because I could barely get 3 pages into it before nodding off.

When you read this you will clearly see that a lot of the ideas captured in this book have found there way into the books of the “New Atheists”. What isn’t touched on in this book is fundamentalist Islam (I think that might be redundant). Clearly this book is a product of it’s time 1978 I believe. Christianity is clearly the default theistic religion that George Smith atheistic beliefs attempt to counter.

I have spent several weeks chewing through this book which is unusual for anyone who knows me since I am a very fast reader. It took so long becuase I had to reread several sections to really understand what he was trying to say or how he was attempting to connect several different concepts together. The book is clearly written by a philosopher and I think he does a good job of writing this to the lay person but there’s only so much you can do with the subject matter.

If you are looking for the philosophical underpinnings of Sam Harris’ book End of Faith or a more in-depth treatise on atheism that Dawkins or Hitchens’ books don’t go then this is your book.

Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Reviews, , , , , , ,

End of Faith & it’s little cousin

I completed reading Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation several weeks ago but found that it was very short (only about 100 pages) and that if I wanted to better understand Harris’ position I should read his longer and more in-depth book End of Faith.

End of Faith definitely has more meat than it’s little cousin. I especially enjoyed his discussions regarding the ethics of torture. Often when I read articles or interviews with Sam Harris he mentions yoga or meditation. He clearly finds value in this and mentions it regularly and End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are no exception.

Both of these books have been on my list for quite some time and I have finally taken the time to read them. They are well worth a read if you enjoy Dawkins and Hitchens, his books have the same tone and essentially the same kind of content.

If you are looking for a Reader’s Digest version of End of Faith read Letter to a Christian Nation.

Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Reviews, , ,

Friendly Atheist Motivation Poster #2

I couldn’t help myself, here’s another one with a little humor. By the way, this will be funnier if you’ve seen History of the World Part I.

Theism 

*Mel Brooks singing* “It’s the Inquisition”

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, , ,

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