Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pray The Hate Away

“Pray it away”, indeed; that was but a part of the orchestrated chant put together by the organizers of the “Organize, Reflect, Act: A Day of Action for Justice in Louisiana”, a protest on the LSU campus Saturday against the unholy union of the churchy fundamentalist group the American Family Association and state chief executive Bobby Jindal.  Arriving about thirty minutes early, I was concerned that the turnout was not going to be as strong as hoped; there were only about ten or so people mingling in the chilly sunshine in front of the Bell Tower, but Louisianans, and especially students, are notorious late arrivals, and within 30 minutes the crowd had grown to an estimated 400. 

No group of LGBTQs and heathens that large would escape the notice of a diligent street preacher, (witness the French Quarter at Mardi Gras or the Southern Decadence Festival), and the start of today’s activities was no exception, especially given the likely sizeable contingent of preachers on hand for the day’s activities. The wiry fellow was clearly flushed with Red Bull as well as the holy spirit, his carotid arteries straining visibly through his scruffy neck whiskers.

The little guy persisted and followed the group around the block to the main staging area for the rest of the demonstration near the gate entrance into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. He was soon made inaudible and even less significant when the Master of Ceremonies, a burly, part-time rap artist began introducing the speakers. A total of about 12 people spoke for 3-5 minutes each, a group that included professors, lawyers, student LGBT activists, a young Muslim woman, a city councilwoman from Grambling, La., Jessie Nieblas with the New Orleans Abortion Fund, and an aspiring youthful poet.

Halfway through the talks, a small army of pro-lifers approached the PMAC in their own march. I am not sure, but I suspect this group was put together after Response organizers realized there would be a protest. I would be misrepresenting the facts if I said it wasn’t a lot of people: there were at least as many as in our gathering. Barricades separated us from the oncoming group, which was then directed toward the ramps that enter the Assembly Center. A few chose to linger, either scowling or trying to stare down our wickedness, and one wannabe masochist-for-Christ got down on his knees on the rough asphalt and waved a crucifix at us for about 20 minutes.

At the conclusion of the talks, we made our way the Student Union and gathered in the ballroom for a panel discussion. Panel members were organizer Peter Jenkins, State Representative Patricia Smith, law professor Jack Harrison, and, now to remain nameless, an Southern Poverty Law Center representative and another of the program’s organizers. The panel did a good job of fielding and answering questions; State Representative Smith was particularly astute and politically motivational, having just been through a week of Martin Luther King activities. An unannounced and almost unnoticed appearance of Zack Kopplin in the audience for a few minutes was not mentioned. I found that a bit curious; perhaps he was on the down low for a reason.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, four small workshop groups concluded the day. I attended one on social media, the remaining NOSHAN listened to one on grassroots organizing.

“Organize, Reflect, Act” sponsors, participants, and coordinators did a professional job with this project. And mine is just one view, much like theirs, a view from the outside. Inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center? No one out here really knows if they prayed away the hate or not. But we really doubt it.   
~Marty Bankson        

Friday, January 23, 2015

Just Who The Hell Are We?

There was a thread in our Facebook group recently that elevated the apparent (and possible lack of) understanding of who non-believers are in the political spectrum of thought. It seemed that not everyone realized that "we" all don't believe the same way, whether we label ourselves atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers or whatever. On top of that, some people may have misconceptions about the non-religious because of their own limited awareness or lack of experience, especially if they have only recently left their religion.

Generally, it is safe to say there are basic perspectives that probably are held by the majority given our more progressive slant. Many people who feel religion should be at the forefront of society rarely if ever "lean left", as they say.

For instance, it is likely that if someone believes in a strong separation of church and state concerning most social and medical issues in our society, chances are they are more liberal than they are conservative. How could they not be? Part of religious group-think is to believe that everyone should accept religion as a part of how decisions are made. And by religion, they mean theirs. And they usually assume you are okay with their religion making these important decisions in your life, too. And that's whether or not you're a member of their religion. It is one of the many blind spots we encounter when we discuss certain topics with religious people.

There also might be various understandings of how secular humanism is defined and how we use this as a value system for everyday life. If a certain part of a definition resonates with one person, they may assume that it will be important to everyone else. And then there could be plain ol' misunderstanding and denial. Sometimes we simply believe the parts that confirm our suspicions and discard the rest. And that makes for another whole can of worms in discussions and is a blog for another day.

This link will give you some idea of how the religiously unaffiliated think politically, but here are the highlights of this crowd: (To be fair, this specific Pew survey does not represent only the non-religious community, but anyone who claims to be "unaffiliated", or not a member of any religion, which is the only category under which we will find non-believers. Only 32% of the people in this survey claim they do not believe in God or are unsure, for example.)

55% lean Democrat
73% consider themselves moderate or liberal
66% believe Government is too involved in morality
69% believe that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost
71% believe that homosexuality should be accepted
70% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases

None of these specific areas of opinion hits 100%, so it is unwise to assume that everyone in a group will share the same opinion on everything (duh, right?). Still there is a trend to the majority of these people, so if you are a betting man or woman, you should assume that when you join a secular humanist or non-religious group, you will be dealing with people who are more progressive than most on social issues and, depending on the group, have a settled definition of what their brand of non-belief is about.

Does this mean that these people are not willing to consider outside points of view or that they will only consider the black and white arguments of a pet topic? Of course not. But if you disagree in some way after putting an idea out there, it doesn't mean you can't hang out and discuss issues of interest at another time. It just means you may not agree on everything all of the time. Kind of like most situations. Stick around and give it a chance. You might actually like some of the people when you get to know them better and you might have more in common with us than you first thought.

One challenge to everyone: try to understand where the other person is coming from. Try. Think about what you intend to post one more time, especially if you think it could be misunderstood. Sometimes you will see a word or phrase that is confusing or could be changed for greater understanding. Confusion is part of the human condition and a little extra effort can go along way to prevent potential hurt feelings. All we have are words in social media, so let's make sure they are the best representation of ourselves that they can be.

Monday, January 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails

The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, 2010

John W. Loftus has given us a number of volumes, most famously his monograph Why I Became an Atheist : A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. Continuing the themes and arguments from that work, Loftus gathered a group of writers from different disciplines to expand on or respond to topics such as the relationship between Western society and Christianity, the psychology of religion, the relationship between world-view and reason, the morality of the Judeo-Christian God, and the like. The result is an admirable edited volume, published in 2010 under the title The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Each chapter of The Christian Delusion presents one writer’s perspective on a particular idea.  In The Cultures of Christianities, Anthropologist David Eller reminds us that Christianity is not a monolith, and that each variety of Christianity is intertwined with a particular culture.  Culture, for the most part, is something we absorb unconsciously, so changing it can be quite difficult.

“Christians are not easily reasoned out of religion,” he writes, “since they are not usually reasoned into it.  Christians, like other religionists, are not so much convinced by arguments and proofs as colonized by assumptions and premises” (p. 44). 


In Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science, psychologist Valerie Tarico asks secularists to better understand religious believers in light of the fact that our shared human nature is to be irrational. She points out that “certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing,” and that “the structure of thought itself predisposes us to religious thinking” (48). It is worth repeating the adage that the scientific method is “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.” Each of the thirteen other chapters offers its own particular perspective on similar themes.

For me, the last section of the book, dealing with Christianity and society, was the most interesting.  Anthropologist David Eller argues that Christianity Does Not Provide the Basis for Morality, while Hector Avalos, a child evangelist who became an atheist academician, clarifies that Atheism was Not the Cause of the Holocaust.  Historian Richard Carrier deftly demonstrates that Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.  To many secularists it might seem that these positions are too obvious to need argumentation. Sadly, that is not the case. Creationists and other Christian apologists repeatedly make exactly these claims, and that is one of the main reasons a volume such is this is so necessary.  

~ Jim Dugan

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hudkins' Response to Greenberger Humanist of the Year Award

This photo of Hudkins was featured in the Times-Picayune
by Dave Walker on December 9, 2014. See article link below.
    At our 15th year anniversary banquet in November 2014, we awarded Farrar Hudkins with our Greenberger Humanist Award. President Emeritus Harry Greenberger, for whom the award is named, read Hudkins' statement of acceptance to the audience. We felt that everyone should be able to enjoy it whether you attended the banquet or not. It is a lovely note on which to end our year!
"I’m tremendously humbled, honored, and really amazed, by this award. My free time comes only a few hours at a stretch, and usually in the middle of night, and when I saw that NOSHA wanted to expand its viewing audience through the Internet, I happily volunteered to convert and upload “The New Orleans Humanist Perspective” programs to YouTube.
It was the perfect way for someone like me to volunteer – someone who is quiet and prefers to work behind-the-scenes. I don’t have much time or money, but I wanted to do something for a cause that I believe in very strongly: that is, the freedom to choose, without external pressures, one’s own way of thinking about life and our place in the universe as humans. 
I value the Humanist Perspective program, and enjoy sharing it with people, because it defies the popular notion of atheists, as a group, marching in lock-step, waging war against all religious belief. It presents free-thinkers as simply human individuals, curious about the world around them, compassionate to other people … willing and eager to engage in polite, thoughtful discussion, about big and small ideas, with people of varied backgrounds and belief systems. I think it’s important to show other people that atheists and agnostics are as diverse as any other subset of humanity, and Harry’s program does that beautifully. It means so much to me that this award comes from an organization that I care deeply about, and that I have enjoyed watching grow and thrive over the years that I, in my very small way, have been involved.
I think it speaks volumes of the New Orleans Humanist community that you have chosen to honor someone like me, who works well out of public view, indeed almost anonymously. In a way, it reflects how humanists have worked for a long time: quietly, and not often in public view. But it is gratifying to see that changing – to see the Humanist causes coming into an ever-growing light, nationwide and worldwide.  
I will continue to do what I can for NOSHA in the future – perhaps even more, once I’ve finished my long tenure as a working college student! You all have my deepest and sincerest gratitude. This is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you so much."
    The Times -Picayune did a feature story on Hudkins in early December.  Read it here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Offended at the Bookstore?

I recently volunteered to do gift wrapping for holiday shoppers at a major chain bookstore in Metairie. This was mostly a pleasant experience, and an opportunity to make NOSHA visible and even to collect a few dollars in donations. Occasionally, someone would say they wouldn't donate to our group, and I always said that was entirely up to them. Everybody who came to the table got their gift wrapped.

One shopper, though, voiced some negative opinions. He photographed me and the table, accused NOSHA of being anti-Christian, tried to dissuade another patron from having her gift wrapped at our table, and proclaimed our presence “offensive.”

No doubt this fellow thinks nonbelievers are the cause of any number of problems for him, his church, and/or America. He needs to spend more time looking in the mirror.

I guess he felt that people in the bookstore were there to shop for Christmas, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and therefore only good Christians should volunteer to do gift wrapping. A long list of problems with this position seem not to have occurred to him at all. For starters, we were in a bookstore, not his home nor his church. Yet he seemed to feel he should have some kind of control over the situation, determining who should or should not be performing which services.


It also seemed not to have occurred to this poor fellow that there might be customers in the store who were not Christians. I’m sure many shoppers were buying gifts for a traditional but quite secular holiday celebration, for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule, for Solstice or Festivus or what have you. The days of overwhelmingly Christian demographics are long behind us. He might have felt disappointment that America isn't quite what he wants it to be, but declaring himself offended didn't change anything.

And if he was going to make an argument about atheists performing a public service during a religious holiday, why of all things would he choose Christmas? Exchanging gifts in celebration of Jesus’ birthday is not biblical. Celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th is not biblical. In fact, celebrating Jesus’ birthday at all is not biblical. That’s why the Puritans in early America banned the celebration of Christmas altogether. December 25th, wrapping gifts in fancy paper and exchanging them, decorating evergreens, putting up wreaths and lights, feasting and drinking, are all aspects of Christmas that Christians have avidly appropriated from a mélange of Pagan practices. Arguing about the secularization of Christmas is the weakest and most ridiculous fight any serious Christians can pick with society at large.

Christian believers need to examine themselves for this guy’s kind of behavior. He was uncivil and intolerant. He felt he should be able to control things he had no right to control. He claimed to feel offended merely because people who are different from him existed and were visible. A few unbelievers wrapping Christmas presents at the bookstore aren't going to change anybody’s religion. But this customer’s type of behavior drives people out of churches in droves.
~Jim Dugan

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Keeping It Between The Goalposts

Fifteen years…

Chances are that not many would have given a small band of atheists with a liberal social agenda much hope to last very long as a functioning organization in a city with a strong, 300 year-old Catholic tradition, or in a state situated nearly in the center of the Protestant Bible Belt spanning the southern United States. This would have to have been a pipe dream that wafted away quicker than the pungent smoke they were sharing, right?

Well, wrong.  The hypothetical skeptic would have passed over a deeper look at the message that served as the core principle of the organization, and negligently underestimated the dedication and, quite frankly, chutzpah of founding father Harry Greenberger and the devoted brothers and sisters around him at the beginning. Had the agenda been specious or the organizers easily discouraged, the prognosis of failure would have been correct, but the combination of leadership and purpose made success a fait accompli—nearly everything was right for this marriage made in…well…New Orleans.  

The one-two combination of people and purpose, directors with a directive: what a concept. The symmetry is elegant, but at the same time can be insidiously satisfying—an End, a state of zero energy, motionless poetry. It need not be, and there seems to be no one involved with the group ready to relax on past positives....and counting.


Let’s borrow from that dualism, that two-tiered approach which got us to this point in our history and apply it to a model for reevaluating the motivations and goals of the organization and how best  to proceed in implementing  its chartered mission and approaching other “issues”.

The work is on two fronts: the promotion of the Humanist ideology, which is based on our local chapter’s Statement of Principles, Humanist Manifestos I, II, and III, along with general regulations and by-laws that are in place pertaining to our unique group, including outlines of decorum in public or participating in open or closed social media discussions. The objective is recruiting new members; the method is education through public or private broadcasting (television and radio), news outlets (newspapers, print and online), social media postings, personal blogs, printed handouts, appearances at social gatherings and participation in community voluntarism.  

That in itself would be enough to keep even the more industrious of any group knee-deep (at least) with projects and activity, but there is that second pier of responsibility that must be engaged if the first standard of purpose is to have any hope of maturing and manifesting itself in the future. 

There is a justifiable and growing concern that religious fundamentalist interests are gaining a widening sphere of influence and the gains in political power that can come with it. This is the metaphorical second pillar of our self-justification, our raison d’être. This is the dirty part of our job, the negative part, the part that has to do with challenging and opposing bad ideas. This is where we must “just say no” to proposals for mean-spirited restrictions on basic human rights, and when it is the part of our job to expose the danger of an irrational fear of science and the fallacy of placing unflagging reliance for guidance on patriarchal documents and credos from cruder times. This is may be the harder part. Hard, but doable.

While IRS regulations prohibit non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing (or opposing), or contributing to, or working for particular candidates; there remains a certain flexibility that is allowed when it comes to lobbying for or against legislation. We can likewise have allies at the national level that are assuming the principle leadership role given their larger funding bases. The Bill of Rights in our Constitution has served us well generally, but some of the loose and vague provisos therein can and have been interpreted by biased judicial bodies unsatisfactorily. There has been a spate of unfavorable decisions lately on corporate “personhood” in matters of religious and campaign liberties, but at the same time more favorable decisions concerning opening marriage rights to everyone. 

It has been said that the particular faith maintained at the base of Christianity is problematic in the sense that that it is “not only faith beyond reason, but, if need be, faith against reason” (1). The same evaluation would apply to Islam. This is an unacceptable. Our values, expressed in Manifestos or privately held, must include a call for an serious condemnation of fundamentalist religion, at least those based on savage and authoritarian texts, whether that condemnation be through civil debates, public outrage, mockery, or rude disrespect, as long as it is directed to the idea, not the person, in any available format or setting and at any opportunity. Calls for religious pluralism and tolerance must be cross-examined and disregarded if they offer no solutions for the likelihood  that  some of their own are destined to assume prophet status and create an interpretation of the truth based on a novel reading of what is basically a mythology. 

Together, we can do this.

Happy Anniversary, NOSHA!
Happy Holidays, Y'all!                                                                   

~Marty Bankson
November 30, 2014

1. Barrett, William, Irrational Man (New York: Anchor Book Edition, 1990), p. 92.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do Unto Others: Are we teaching citizens what the First Amendment really means anymore?

It seems that officials at the Saint Mary Parish public schools are getting some sense about endorsing religion. If so, Saint Mary Parish is standing far ahead of many other Louisiana schools.

Apparently, a Morgan City high school recently had a mandatory assembly for Veterans’ Day, and an invited guest led that assembly in an explicitly Christian prayer. This, of course, is unambiguously illegal. A student complained to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the district, threatening legal action. The district superintendent was quick to state that the prayer fell outside of district policy. One can only hope that this settles the matter.

Perhaps of more interest than the school’s malfeasance itself was the reaction of many Louisianan’s to the news coverage. The Advocate newspaper reported on the incident on November 19th, and online comments were loaded with howls of protest from religious believers. “It is our right to prayer. Why do we have to give up our right?” asked one writer. Another asserted, “this is America. God bless America and in God we trust. If we want to pray, we will do so. You don’t like it, just leave.” “Release her name [and] see how soon this will end!” demanded another. One boldly recommended, “find out who she is and send her ass up north! Screw those people! Why should the so few have power over the majority?” One writer asked, “where does it say that you can't pray in schools?” 

Such comments are disturbing for deep intolerance they reveal. Perhaps more importantly, they are also disturbing because they show how poorly many Louisianans comprehend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The rhetoric of victimhood poured out by the Religious Right severely skews public perceptions.

This particular incident is not at all about whether an individual can pray in public schools. Students and employees are within their rights to pray in school, silently and individually, when attention is not required by school duties. Within some limits, a group of students can meet voluntarily for prayer, during non-instructional time. But what happened in Morgan City was neither student-led, nor voluntary. It was school-led prayer before a captive audience.

There is also no issue here of minorities or majorities, nor of who is a believer or non-believer, nor of who is or is not offended. Even if every student and parent associated with a certain school attended the same church, even if no individual were offended, it would still be illegal for that school to lead its students in prayer. Whether many Louisianan’s understand it or not, public schools are state agencies, and as such the Establishment Clause fully applies: no public school can endorse any religion.

None of this is new. Arguments and lawsuits over religion in schools date back at least a century. Questions about prayer and Bible-reading in schools were unambiguously settled over fifty(!) years ago, in the 1963 Supreme Court decision known as Abington School District v. Schempp. But much of Louisiana still struggles to adapt to 1863, let alone to 1963.

Unfortunately, many Louisiana public schools have long ignored the clearly settled legal facts. As multiple ACLU suits against Tangipahoa schools and last year’s consent decree signed by Sabine Parish schools show, prayer and other religious indoctrination at school remain ingrained in Louisiana culture. Sadly, this choice simply to ignore the Constitution has communicated to many citizens that prayer in their schools has been legal all along. When someone complains, the public sees this as something new, as outside agitation, pandering to a minority, or as “liberal judges legislating from the bench.” It’s as if they were caught stealing a bicycle, and then claimed they themselves were the victim because nobody every complained the other ten times they stole a bike.

This incident could easily have been avoided. Officials at the Morgan City high school could have used common sense, followed the district’s own written policy, or consulted documents available from the state Department of Education. They could simply have included a moment of silence in the program. Within that moment of silence, students who wished to pray could have done so, and no one of a different religion or no religion would have felt compelled to participate. Thus everybody’s religious beliefs and constitutional rights could easily have been accommodated. But somehow, this is never enough for some religious activists. There are always those who want to turn public schools into factories producing religious believers. 

~ Jim Dugan, NOSHA Vice-President