All posts by sash

Why Secular Humanists are opposed to Nativity Scenes on public grounds

By Scott Pryor
I know it’s a bit early to start talking about Christmas but this came up at our last Humanism meeting and it gave me a topic for this week’s blog post.  I was telling the group that our family puts up a Christmas tree every year even though we’re atheists.  Some others in the group do this as well and some of the others don’t.  We think of it more as a cultural tradition rather than a religious ritual.  Halloween is the same way for most people; there aren’t too many people who leave offerings to the spirits hoping that this will help them be spared over the winter!
So if I have no problem with the symbols of Christmas, then why am I opposed to a Nativity Scene being setup on public grounds?  I’m not opposed to the Nativity Scene, I’m opposed to it being on public grounds.  If every private citizen and business put one up, that would be fine with me and most Humanists, too.  But when a municipality puts a Nativity Scene up at a courthouse or in a public square then they are endorsing Christianity.  “This country was founded as a Christian nation” is a typical response to this type of argument.  That’s not a true statement (maybe a topic for another day but not now) but even if it was, should a town or city give any official religious endorsement?  How does it hurt anyone?
According to Pew Research, a group that has been studying religiosity among populations and demographics for the last 60 years or so, only 70% of The United States identify as Christian.  The other 30% are made up of the non-religious (atheist, agnostic, etc.) – 17%, religious but not identifying with any religion – 7%, Jewish – 2%, Muslim – 1%, Buddhist/Hindu/Other – 3%.  When someone from that 30% sees their town endorsing Christianity it makes them feel a little bit more like an outsider instead of a member of their community.
Here’s an analogy that most people will get.  I live in Front Royal, VA which is about 90 miles away from FedEx Field where the Washington Redskins play.  It’s also about 110 miles away from M&T Bank stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play and about 200 miles away from Heinz stadium where the Pittsburgh Steelers play.  There are a fair number of fans for each of these teams in my town.  If I had to guess then I would say that Washington had the most fans then the Steelers then Baltimore.  Oh and don’t forget the Dallas Cowboys that have fans all over the place.
Let’s say that the town of Front Royal decided to hang a banner in front of the courthouse supporting the Redskins and they kept it up for all of football season.  How would that make the fans of the other teams feel?  What about the people that don’t follow football at all?  If they knew that the town officially endorsed the Redskins then how would they feel if they were pulled over by a police officer knowing that they could see their Steelers bumper sticker?  Was that a factor for the ticket?  Did Redskins fans get pulled over less?  What about people with a decal of Calvin taking a leak on a Redskins helmet?  They would almost HAVE to think that was a factor.
I’m not saying that the police are pulling over more people if they don’t have Jesus fish on their car but it’s human nature to treat people within your “in group” better than people within the “out group”.  It’s better for everyone if we reduce the number of places where biases can be created.  So when you see the sign promoting Secular Humanism at the courthouse this year, please don’t think that we’re objecting to the Nativity Scene itself, we’re objecting to its location.

Not All Atheists Are Alike

By Scott Pryor

Richard Dawkins was all over media this week promoting the second volume of his biography, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science.  He was a guest on The Daily Show, The Alan Colmes Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and several news outlets.  He was also at George Washington University in DC where he was interviewed by CFI’s podcaster, Josh Zepps.  My wife and I attended the interview at the Lisner Auditorium and got a book autographed afterwards.  A few weeks earlier, we had mentioned to someone that we had tickets to see him and they told us that they didn’t like Richard Dawkins since he seems to be a misogynist.  I completely understand this, some of the things he says are quite offensive.  In addition to the misogyny he’s downplayed pedophilia, supported aborting fetus’s with Down syndrome, talked about rape as being natural.  These statements are not quite as awful as they seem when they are read in their full context but they are still controversial.

I was involved in an online conversation once where someone posted a quote from Dawkins and claimed that atheism was invalid because of it.  I don’t remember what the claim was anymore, it’s not really important.  I pointed out to them that Richard Dawkins isn’t the Pope of Atheism, his opinions are his alone.  This is a strange thing about atheism.  See, if someone tells you that they are an NRA member, then you can make a few assumptions about them.  They might be a hunter, they probably take home security seriously, they are probably on the right side of the political spectrum, etc.  If someone tells you that belong to a group that opposes GMOs then you might be safe to assume that they are also hesitant about vaccines, maybe they like to smoke pot once in a while, and lean to the left politically.  This doesn’t mean that ALL NRA members or anti-GMO people are like this, there will be a lot of variation to be sure and you have to be prepared to update those assumptions when they don’t hold up as you get to know the person better.

In contrast, if someone tells you that they’re an atheist then the only thing you really know about them is that they aren’t religious.  The variety of atheists I’ve met and talked to online is incredible.  Politically from liberal to conservative and statist to anarchist, from obviously very intelligent to not so much, from arrogant and obnoxious to thoughtful and quiet, from granola-loving hippie to uptight business person.  It’s funny how there is so much religious propaganda that has stereotyped us as “militant atheists” who hate any mention of God in a pop song or yell at families that say grace in public or protest religious gatherings.  I know there are atheists like that but they seem like the minority from my experience.  I always try to comment on posts online that start with “Atheists are REALLY going to hate this!” and ask why we would hate that.  The replies usually say that I must be the exception since most atheists are angry at God and worship Satan.  In reality, knowing that someone is an atheist doesn’t tell you much at all about the person.

Islam or Muslims

By Scott Pryor
I noticed a common theme within the online secular community this week:
  • Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz released the book they co-authored, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.
  • Seth Andrews interviewed three ex-muslims in The Thinking Atheist podcast: Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider of Ex-Muslims of North America along with Armin Navabi, the founder of Atheist Republic.
  • Matt Dillahunty’s co-host on The Atheist Experience was ex-muslim Heina Dadabhoy who writes the Heinous Dealings blog on Freethought Blogs.

One of the things that they all talked about was confusing criticism of Islam with bigotry towards Muslims.  An ideology, whether it’s religious or political or socio-economic, can be (and should be) criticized and even ridiculed.  A class of people with a common race or creed or economic status, should not.  In most cases this is easily done:

  • The Catholic child abuse scandal drew criticism of Catholicism but no one accused reporters of being bigoted towards Catholics.
  • The North Korean dictatorship is criticized for their human rights violations but no one is accusing Amnesty International of being racist towards Koreans.

So why do so many people handle Islam with kid gloves?  When a tragedy like Charlie Hebdo or the Westgate mall in Nairobi or the Boston Marathon bombing occurs, reporters often refer to the attackers as “terrorists” or “extremists” even though their motives were quickly revealed to be based on Islamic dogma.  It’s likely that the reason they don’t say “Islamic terrorist” is because they don’t want to be thought of as Islamaphobic.  Don’t get me wrong, bigotry towards Muslims is real and a serious problem but we should be able to separate that bigotry from genuine criticism of Islam.

Last year when Sam Harris was on Real Time, I thought that he and Bill Maher were very clear with their criticism of Islam and not Muslims but Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof jumped all over them anyway.  Affleck called Harris “gross” and “racist” while Kristof compared it to racism towards African Americans.  I don’t think that either Affleck or Kristof were incapable of understanding the argument that Harris and Maher were making, I think that they were unwilling to risk being perceived as Islamaphobic.
I’m not sure what the answer is but I believe that we need to make a point to treat Islam just like any other ideology.  Keep holding Draw Muhammad contests, call the next terrorist that cries out “Allahu akbar” an Islamic terrorist, criticize a passage from the Qu’ran just like you would criticize a passage from the Bible.  Maybe over time this extra sensitivity towards Islam will fade.