Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Negative Influences of Islam in Africa

In the last blog post, we examined some of the negative influences of Christianity in Africa. We should now turn our attention to some of the negative influences of Islam in Africa, of which there are many.

Black Muslim apologists often contend that, unlike Christianity, Islam teaches its adherents to defend themselves against violent attacks. These apologists point to Muslims that fought against slavery and other forms of oppression throughout history.

However, like Christianity, Islam is not "all good." North Sudan offers the best example of how extremist Muslims have harmed African people, identity, and culture. Though many people in North Sudan physically resemble Black people, they identify as Arabs, embracing the Arabic language, Arab dress, culture, etc. They have long oppressed the Black Sudanese of the South, literally enslaving many of them and killing many others. The mainstream media have given much attention to the plight of people in Darfur.

However, much less attention has been given to the Black people of the Nuba Mountains, who have also been victims of genocidal attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The government of Sudan denied them the right to vote, laid waste to their farms and villages and starved them.

This hatred against Black Africans in Sudan has been aided and abetted by the likes of the late Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was a racist, and like many of the Muslims in Sudan, he used the word "abd," or "slave," when referring to a Black person.

Sadly, many African Americans willingly ignored the plight of the Blacks of South Sudan and/or sided with the oppressors in Khartoum. Indeed, in the 1990s, leaders in Khartoum invited members of the Black press on a supposed "fact-finding mission," on which the government carefully controlled their every move. Most of the Black journalists bought it hook, line and sinker, and did not even report on what little they were permitted to see.

Nigeria also offers a great example of the negative aspects of Islam in Africa. In the 1990s, dictator Sani Abacha ruled the nation with an iron fist. He was opposed by Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Ogoni people. The Ogoni were fighting for land rights and against exploitation by wealthy oil companies.

Abacha sided with the oil companies and had Saro-Wiwa and about seven other Ogoni activists arrested on trumped up charges. They were eventually hanged amid a vast international outcry. However, Louis Farrakhan, a friend of Abacha, said that, considering that so many African Americans had been lynched in the U.S. during the 20th century, Americans should not express outrage about the hangings of a few Africans.

Muslims and Christians are constantly at war in Nigeria. Thousands have been killed in recent years. The south is predominantly Christian. In the predominantly Muslim north, there are 12 states under sharia law. This is despite the fact that Nigeria is a secular country with a secular constitution.

In Nigerian sharia states, amputations and death by stoning are permissable (though there have been no deaths by stoning to date). In September 2011, two men, Auwala Abubaka, 23, and Lawalli Musa, 22, were sentenced to be amputated in public, after pleading guilty to stealing a bull. In previous years, an illiterate woman found guilty of "adultery" was sentenced to death by stoning. (Due to international outrage, the woman was spared. In sharia courts, "adultery" oftentimes is, in actuality, fornication.)

Islam in Africa does not have to lead to conflict, oppression, or sharia. For example, Senegal is a predominantly Muslim nation. However, Christians and Muslims there get along very well. Such good relations were cemented by secular values promoted by Senegalese intellectuals with a firm foundation in French secular culture.

Like their reactionary Christian counterparts, reactionary Muslims are thoroughly homophobic. People having sex with members of the same sex can be put to death under sharia law in Nigeria. In African nations such as Malawi and Nigeria, reactionary Muslims and Christians are united in attempting to strengthen laws against homosexuality.

Christianity and Islam will continue to have great influence in Africa. Indeed, the Catholic Church has become dependent upon Africa to make up for the shortage of priests in the West. Africans in the Anglican Church are becoming increasingly infuential. It is up to secularists and progressive religionists to constantly battle against the negative and reactionary influences of religion wherever they rear their ugly heads. However, forward-thinking Africans must have the chief leadership roles in efforts to combat these insisdious and invidious ideas and actions on the African continent.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Freethought in Texas

By Naima Washington

October 6-9, 2011 marked the 4th
Annual Texas Freethought Convention.
This year’s event attracted more than
600 participants and was co-hosted by
the Atheist Alliance of America. The
theme was “From Grassroots to Global
Impact,” and according to Nike Lee,
the Alliance’s president, “We want this
[convention] to be a springboard for
local activism all over the United
States. This is a time for non-believers
to step forward, make their presence
known in their communities, and to
challenge the impression that all
Americans are religious zealots… we
need YOU to enlist in this effort and
become politically and socially active
in your own community.”

Paul Mitchell, president of the
Texas Freethought Convention echoed
these sentiments, “We want to keep
you engaged and have you come away
enriched and empowered with the
tools and ideas you need to take back
to your communities and make an
impact.” The convention program lists
22 sponsor s and friends who
assured its success; there was a film
festival; Camp Quest was on hand to
engage children and the Richard
Dawkins Foundation sponsored day
care services. There was a blood drive
held during the convention and the
League of Women Voters provided onsite
voter registration.

It was great to hear Christopher
Hitchens speak during Saturday’s
banquet as well as participate in a lively
Q&A session. He was also named by
the Atheist Alliance of America as this
year’s recipient of the Richard Dawkins
Award which was presented to Mr.
Hitchens by Richard Dawkins. There
were at least twenty other presenters at
the convention and needless to say, I
was unable to hear all of them. I did see
a few WASH members including
author, Donald Wright who lives in
Houston and is the Vice President of the
Humani s t s of Hous ton. Sikivu
Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics
of Los Angeles gave a dynamic
presentation where she explored the
relationships between race, class,
gender, and religion. Her latest book,
Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender
Politics, and the Values Wars, explores
these relationships even further. Many
other speakers gave presentations
including Eugenie C. Scott, Michael
Shermer, P.Z. Meyers as well as former
Marine and rapper, Greydon Square
whose music deals with atheism, social
and political criticism.

I met and was able to spend time
with some incredible people including
African American atheists many of
whom live in Texas and said this was
their first convention. There were many students present and
it’s probably safe to say that the Secular
Students Alliance can take credit for
that due to so much of their work on
campuses. The convention was
organized so that the SSA participation
was almost a convention within a
convention since the Alliance had many
specific programs and activities for
their members. Houston residents
probably outnumbered all other
attendees; however I did meet an
African American man who had
recently joined SSA. He was from
Spokane, Washington; another woman I
met flew in from Hong Kong for the
convention. One very dynamic speaker
was blogger, Sunsara Taylor, a writer
for Revolution newspaper as well as the
host of radio station WBAI’s program
entitled “Equal Time for Freethought.”
A radical, well-informed, and elegant
speaker, she was also very engaging as
she fielded questions and comments
after her presentation.

The accommodations and staff at
the Hyatt Regency were excellent, and
the organizers of the convention earned
a five-star rating. I am interested,
however, in what organizations do with
all of the information they collect when
registering people at conferences and
conventions. I see the potential to use
this information as a tool for helping
non-theists organize at the local level.
It would be easy enough to find out if
attendees would like to have their email
addresses shared with other
attendees in their cities and/or home
states. This would give people an
opportunity to meet after a conference
or convention since it is often
impossible to know how many atheists,
especially those who are unaffiliated,
live in any given area. I have no idea
who else from our area may have
attended the convention, and if we are
really intent on organizing people at the
local level, being able to get in touch
with them after the convention would
be helpful.

Even so, the convention presented
me with many opportunities to meet
many people, give out back issues of
the WASHline and to have a wonderful

Naima Washington is the secretary of
WASH and a member of the Board of

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Negative Influences of Christianity in Africa

Christianity has done much good in Africa. Christians have built roads, orphanages, schools, hospitals, etc. Many Christians in Africa have drawn upon their faith to survive and thrive, and to help their fellow human beings in numerous ways.

However, the ugly side of Chrisitianity in Africa cannot be ignored. U.S. missionaries have been especially influential in Africa. In the mid-1990s, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club made inroads into Zambia, which he labeled a Christian nation. Robertson and other theocrats planned to help set up a reactionary Christian theocracy there, to serve as a model for assuming control over the U.S.

Robertson established ties with then-president Frederick Chiluba. However, Chiluba and his wife were brought up on charges of mass corruption. They were found not guilty in a court in Zambia. However, in England, the former Zambian president was found guilty in a civil court of stealing $46 million.

Robertson also had designs on Zaire (now the Congo) while the brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko still ruled the country. (Mobutu allegedly stole between $3 billion and $5 billion from his people. ) Robertson was primarily interested in gaining access to the nation's diamond business. After Mobutu was driven from power in 1997, Robertson tried to establish ties to the new regime, to no avail.

In 2001, Robertson established ties with Charles Taylor, the infamous dictator of Liberia. Robertson was primarily interested in gaining access to that country's gold mines. However, Taylor was eventually put to death, and again, Robertson's designs on Africa were frustrated.

In the summer of 2010, Robertson made inroads into Zimbabwe, which is still largely under the sway of Robert Mugabe. (In 1995, Mugabe made history by becoming the first African head of state to publicly denounce gays. A group of gays and lesbians wanted to open a booth at an international book fair in the nation. Mugabe balked and said that gays were lower than pigs and dogs. Just imagine a Western leader making such a statement!)

Robertson established the American Center for Law and Justice. Members of this group have made efforts to help turn Zimbabwe into a Christian theocracy, with a strong emphasis upon discriminating against LGBTQI people and passing harsher laws against them.

Western faith healers have also invaded Africa. Africans in poor health lose faith in the medical profession and place it in Christ, thereby worsening their conditions. Amazingly, evengelists that have been exposed as frauds in the U.S., often go on to successfully ply their trade in Africa.

Western Christians have helped to strengthen a belief in witches among Africans. Those most likely to be charged with witchcraft are the most vulnerable members of society--young girls and elderly women.

According to humanist activist Leo Igwe of Nigeria, Adama Mamuda and Ibrahim Shehu Ganye were recently sentenced to two years in prison by a magistrate court in Bauchi State. They were found guilty of practicing witchcraft. They were ordered to pay monetary damages to Hafsatu Sani, their alleged victim.

In July, police inspector Matu Albasu arraigned the two for conspiracy and allegedly imprisoning Sani via withccraft for four years. Albasu told the court that Adama removed Sani's spirit and delivered it to Ganye. The court ordered the accused persons to return the spirit to its proper owner. The accused were forced to walk over the body of the alleged victim in the courtroom. Later, they were forced to go to the bush to procure traditional medicine for the alleged victim.

An entire book could be written on Christian-influenced homophobia in Africa. Over two-thirds of African nations have laws against homosexuality. Such laws mean that men that have sex with men (MSM), a major group at risk of contracting AIDS, are unable to be properly educated about the disease. This means that they will be unable to protect themselves against it, and that they will be unable to get proper medical treatment for it. (For example, because homosexuality is illegal, MSM are excluded from Uganda's successful efforts to combat AIDS. Many of those that come out of the closet are berated by medical staff.)

Since 2009, lawmakers in Uganda have been trying to pass an Anti-homosexuality Bill that would require the death sentence for "aggravated homosexuality" if a person that is HIV-positive has homosexual sex with a disabled person or a person under the age of 18. (It is also known as the "Kill the Gays" bill.)

In South Africa, some lesbians are victims of "corrective rape," in which men rape them in efforts to turn them into heterosexuals. There have been dozens of murders of lesbian women in South Africa since 1998. However, there have only been a few cases to reach the courts, and just a single conviction.

In Nigeria, for the past five years, lawmakers have been trying to pass a bill against "Same Gender" marriage. The bill would also target anyone who attends a same-gender ceremony or gathering, or anyone who sees and aids such a relationship.

According to a 2008 survey of 6,000 Nigerians conducted by Information for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a mere 1.4 percent considered themselves to be tolerant of LGBTQI people.

It is certainly true that Christianity has brought about much good in Africa, and indeed, the world. However, what the 19th century freethinker said of the Catholic Church, can be said of Christianity in general. "In one hand she carrie[s] the alms dish, in the other, the dagger."

Next we will take a look at some of the negative influences of Islam in Africa.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Due to the great number of Black atheists that have come out of Harlem, I have decided to blog about them. My last posting focused on some of the women. Now I will focus on some of the men.

Claude McKay was one of the leading poets of the humanistic arts and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1940s. He was raised a Catholic. However, he was exposed to atheism, freethought, and rationalism at an early age during his childhood in Jamaica. His older brother, U. Theo, was a freethinker and embraced Fabian socialism. U. Theo had contacts with influential British humanists, and he became a member of Britain's Rationalist Association. He read widely on rationalism. Eventually, young Claude founded an agnostics group composed of boys his age.

McKay's best-known poem is "If We Must Die." McKay was motivated to write the poem in response to deadly violence against Blacks by White supremacists. He called upon Black people to defend themselves rather than die "like hogs." Winston Churchill read the poem aloud (without properly accrediting McKay) to rally his people against the Germans during W.W. II.

Though McKay had been a nonbeliever for several years, he again embraced Catholicism near the end of his life.

Langston Hughes was widely regarded as Black America's poet laureate. His poetry influenced Martin Luther King, Lorraine Hansberry and numerous other prominent African Americans. His writings were wildly popular among the Black masses, from whom he drew his strength. He, too, was a major poet during the Harlem Renaissance.

In "Salvation" from his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes discussed a negative experience with religion when he was about 13. He asked Jesus to come into his life and save him from sin. However, nothing happened, and he was devastated.

As an adult, Hughes wrote some works deemed blashpemous by critics. Two poems, "Goodbye Chrsist," and "Christ in Alabama," were strong targets of religious critics. Hughes's leading biographer, noted scholar Arnold Rampersad, wrote that Hughes was "secular to the bone." However, he loved the drama and passion of religion, such as the singing.

In personal correspondence to humanist writer Warren Allen Smith, Hughes stated that he was certainly nonreligious. However, he rejected the term "humanist," even though the term could certainly describe his life stance. Like Claude McKay, Hughes became increasingly religious in his later years.

Jean Toomer wrote what is widely regarded as the greatest masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane. The novel features non-religious characters that critique religion's hold upon African Americans. One character, Kabnis, refers to Blacks as "a preacher-ridden race."

Toomer attended lectures on atheism, science and numerous other topics. He was familiar with the work of Clarence Darrow and other agnostics of his day. He was very well-read in history, religion, and many other subjects, and drew upon his vast knowledge to add depth to his writing.

Carlos Cooks was the leader of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement in Harlem during the 1960s. Cooks and other members of the group spoke on the streets of Harlem. They displayed red, black and green flags at their rallies and called for Black self-determination. They promoted atheism. However, the group was essentially reactionary, and they made homophobic comments and assumed other reactionary positions.

John Henrik Clarke was a major Afrocentric historian. He was the man behind Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, and other excellent books. He wrote the introduction, commentary, and bibliographic notes for the 1972 edition of anthropologist J.A. Rogers's World's Great Men of Color (2 volumes).

Clarke seemed to have believed in some vague concept of God. However, he was a strong critic of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He was highly critical of the late Libyan dictator Mu'ammer Gaddafi and Louis Farrakhan, calling them "fakers." He accused Gaddafi of using his oil money to buy African leaders. He said that Farrakhan is a theocrat, and that only a fool wants to live in a "religious" society. He was especially furious over Farrakhan's support of the slave-owning regime of mass murderers in North Sudan. Prior to the first Million Man March, Clarke said that as long as Farrakhan supported the regime in Khartoum, "I'm not marching anywhere with Farrakhan."

Joel Augustus Rogers spent over 50 years researching history and uncovering little-known facts about Black people throughout the world. He traveled to 60 nations and won numerous awards. He spoke at rallies organized by the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. As an atheist, he believed that Black people should read more Nietzsche and less Jesus. He believed that Christianity did a great deal of harm to people of African descent. However, he generally thought highly of Islam.

Rogers's books include Africa's Gift to America, As Nature Leads, Nature Knows No Color Line, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, Your History: From the Beginning of Time to the Present, The Ku Klux Spirit, The Real Facts About Ethiopia, and Sex and Race (Three Volumes).

James Baldwin was one of the greatest essayists in U.S. history. His best-known work is The Fire Next Time. He wrote movingly and shockingly about race relations. During his youth, Baldwin was a preacher. He came to the conclusion that religion was phony at an early age. He was highly critical of Christianity. However, though he rejected the racial dogma of the Nation of Islam, he had a great deal of respect for its leaders, particularly Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

Last but not least, Hubert Henry Harrison was one of the leading intellectuals of the early part of the 20th century. He was originally from St. Croix, a Caribbean island. He supported women's rights and human rights struggles throughout the world. He became an agnostic during his first ten years in New York City, and he was skeptical of paranormal claims.

According to Harrison's leading biographer, Jeffrey B. Perry, Harrison's New Negro Movement paved the way for Alain Locke's 1925 highly influential publication of The New Negro. Harrison's movement was embraced by the ordinary people and was political. Conversely, Locke's movement was not political, and it was embraced primarily by the middle class.

Harrison argued for the taxation of churches and in defense of the separation of church and state. He defended evolution and wondered how Black people could worship a White Jesus. He viewed Christianity as a major weapon used in the war against the poor. In Harlem, he sold books containing speeches of the 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll.

Harrison greatly influenced Marcus Garvey. He devised the first tripartite colored flag for unity. (Garvey would later develop the red, black and green flag.) Harrison promoted the idea of "Negro First" when he discovered that the socialists of his day put the interests of Whites before class interests. Harrison advocated armed self-defense against White supremacists. (Garvey would later popularize the expression, "The New Negro is ready for the Klan.")

Perry summed up Harrison well by stating that he "was the most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals. " (Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, (Vol. 1).

These are just some of the great Black atheist men of Harlem. Harlem has been home to groups of nontheists such as the Harlem Atheist Association and the Center for Inquiry/Harlem group. Harlem has hosted debates on the role of religion in the Black community and other important issues. Influential people from this community have long provided strong evidence that not all Black people embrace the God concept.

(For more information on great Black atheists of Harlem, see my first book African-American Humanism: An Anthology.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Great Black Women Atheists of Harlem

Not many years ago, I spoke at a standing room only event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library System, in Harlem, New York. I was invited to discuss humanism and great humanists of African descent. As I was speaking, it dawned on me that I could have given a whole lecture discussing great non-religious Harlemites.

Harlem has been home to some remarkable non-religious women. Nella Larsen was a major writer during the humanistic arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1940s. In her novellas Quicksand and Passing, Larsen made her mark as one of the most important contributors to the movement.

In Quicksand, the author wrote about the oppressive nature of religious conversion. Helga Crane, the woman at the center of the story, is forced to embrace religion. However, religion only causes her psychic and emotional duress. Helga is not religious. On the contrary, she opposes the suffocating grip of the Black church. Yet, due to the overwhelming religious pressure, she marries the pastor of the church responsible for her conversion.

In the beginning, Helga tries to convince herself that she is happy. However, as time passes, she feels that she is being suffocated by religion and her life with the pastor. She comes to see how religion is a tool of oppression, not only for individuals, but for the poor and Black people, and especially African American women.

Another major leader of the Harlem Renaissance was Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was an anthropologist and novelist. She grew up in a very religious household and regularly attended church.

However, it was just a matter of time before she started asking questions and thought her way out of the faith. She had problems with the concept of sin, finding that to be sinful and human seemed to be one and the same. She did not understand how theists could profess love for a being that could not be perceived through the senses.

While in college, she studied history, philosophy, and the history of Christianity. It became obvious to her that Christianity, like the other religions, had human origins. She stopped praying and embraced a naturalistic worldview.

Hurston's writings profoundly influenced many African American female writers, including the Pultizer Prize-winning author and former Humanist of the Year laureate, Alice Walker. During her lifetime, Hurston was the most widely published African American woman author. Her most well-known works are Dust Tracks on a Road and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The great playwright Lorraine Hansberry was another highly impressive non-religious Harlemite. Hansberry was born to Carl and Nannie Hansberry at Provident Medical Center on the South Side of Chicago. Her parents encouraged their children to think critically and to be actively engaged with political ideas.

Lorraine's uncle was the Africanist William Leo Hansberry, who encouraged her to read widely on Africa. He would sometimes bring students from Africa home for the holidays to meet Lorraine and her family. Lorraine read Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya so many times that she remembered entire pages. Such literature greatly influence her literary themes. She rejoiced the more she learned of African nations such as Kenya and Malawi gaining their political independence from neo-colonial powers. These developments also found their way into her writings.

Lorraine Hansberry is best known as the author of A Raisin in the Sun. Her play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, influenced her friend, singer Nina Simone, to write an anthem of the same title.

However, Hansberry was also an activist. She fell in love with Harlem, and while living there, she joined the Harlem Youth Chorus and served as an usher at rallies in churches, and at the Golden Gate Ballroom. She spoke on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Hansberry was a secular humanist, and was not primarily concerned with the question of why human beings exist. She was mainly interested in exploring how human beings ought to live. She believed it was up to human beings to impose reason upon their existence.

When Hansberry died from cancer at the age of 34, her funeral was held at the small Presbyterian Church of the Master in Harlem. Malcolm X was in attendance, and activist and actor Paul Robeson and actress Ruby Dee spoke. Martin Luther King sent a message of condolence.

Last but not least, Florynce ("Flo") Rae Kennedy was one of the most dynamic leading second-wave feminists. Kennedy was a lawyer, political activist, and an opponent of racism, homophobia, militarism, nuclear weapons, police brutality, the war on drugs, corporate greed, etc.

Kennedy, the second of five daughters, was born to Wiley and Zella Kennedy, in Kansas City, Missouri. In essence, her parents taught her and her sisters to disobey authority, a lesson that Flo learned extremely well. Years later, after her mother died, Flo and her sister Grayce moved to an apartment in Harlem.

Flo attended Columbia University. However, when she tried to apply to Columbia Law School, she was denied entry because of her sex. She threatened to sue, and won admission. In 1951, she was the second African American woman to graduate from the law school (the first was Elreda Alexander in 1945).

As an attorney, Flo defended the Black militant H. Rap Brown and a female member of the Black Liberation Front. Both were charged with bank robbery. She also defended radical activist Assata Shakur and Black Panthers charged with conspiracy to commit bombings.

Flo was a member of NOW and worked closely with leading feminist Gloria Steinem. She left NOW to form the Feminist Party, which nominated African American Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm for President.

Flo also supported some unusual causes. She fought for the decriminilization of prostitution, and she led a mass urination on the campus grounds of Harvard to protest that institution's lack of bathrooms for women.

By the late 1980s, Flo had had two heart attacks and three strokes. She had to use a wheelchair. However, she had still not lost her sense of humor. She would hold memorial parties for herself to see what people would say about her after she died. She eventually died on December 22, 2000, at the age of 84.

These are just some of the fascinating figures of non-theism from Harlem. Later, we will learn about some of the fascinating male figures from the Mecca of Black America.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Islam and the Rest of Us

On November 3, 2011, the Associated Press reported that the offices of the satirical weekly publication, Charlie Hedbo, in Paris, France, were firebombed. The director of the weekly publication issued an "invitation" to the Prophet Muhammad to be its guest editor. Evidently, some Muslim extremists did not find the joke to be very amusing.

The issue of the publication was centered around the recent victory of Tunisia's Islamist party in that nation's first free elections, and by the move by Libya's new leaders to implement Sharia law in their country. Evidently, in response to the reference to Muhammad, an angry zealot threw a molotov cocktail into the offices of the publication.

This is not the first time that intolerant Muslims have carried out violence in the name of their supposedly peaceful God. Islamic law usually forbids depictions of the Prophet, even positive images.

When a Danish publication depicted images of Muhammad a few years ago (one of them featuring the Prophet with a bomb tied to his head), angry Muslims all over the world reacted with death threats and violence.

Perhaps the most infamous Muslim furor arose when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah Khomeni (aslo know as the Ayatollah Khomaniac) of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. The author was forced into hiding.

However, Rushdie had his many defenders, among them Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. The African secular humanist stated that if any harm came to Rushdie, the world should bomb Iran with "pastiches" of The Satanic Verses. For expressing his opinion, Muslim leaders in Kano, in northern Nigeria, issued a fatwa against Soyinka. And so it goes.

It obviously doesn't take much to infuriate Muslim religious nuts. Not long ago, a Western teacher in Afghanistan was persecuted for agreeing to name a teddy bear Muhammad. (That's right! A freakin' teddy bear!) The bear was actually named after a young boy named Muhammad, not the Prophet.

In Nigeria, a woman was terrorized and threatened with death for saying that, were Muhammad alive, he would have approved of the Miss World Contest, which was scheduled to be held in Nigeria. (Due to threats of violence, Miss World officials held the contest in another country.)

Theo Van Gogh, a Muslim critic in the Netherlands, was grotesequely murdered for criticizing Islam. Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was threatened with death by Muslim fanatics in Holland for the same offense.

I have only mentioned examples of Muslim intolerance. That is because when people from other faiths or worldviews are offended when their deeply cherished beliefs are attacked, they generally respond in a civilized manner. For example, when conservative Christians are infuriated by such images as "The Piss Christ" (a crucifix dipped in urine), or a film which negatively depicts their faith, they simply protest nonviolently. Likewise, you never hear of Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitatian Universalists, tradional African religionists, and others killing or threatening to kill those that have allegedly commited blasphemy or some related vicitimless crime. Of course, needless to say, there is no secular humanist equivalent of blasphemy for which offenders must be killed.

Exremist Muslims are easily offended. Indeed, they seem to be constantly on the hunt for ideas and actions to drive them crazy, no matter how mundane. They obviously have too much time on their hands. They demand that they be held to different standards than everyone else. They scoff at any democratic ideal calling for genuine freedom of speech and expression. They have a seventh-century mentality, and they are proud of it.

What is especially sad is that these religious hypocrites demand religious liberty in the defense of Islam. For example, though they think nothing of crushing freedom of speech and expression, they demand that Muslims in the West be able to build mosques wherever they see fit. They rushed to the defense of moderate Muslims wishing to build an Islamic center in Manhattan near Ground Zero. (Yet, they believe that is just fine and dandy that Christians cannot even preach in Saudi Arabia, let alone build churches there.) That is to say, they defend freedom of religion (though only for Muslims), but oppose freedom of speech and expression for the rest of us. They insist upon having it both ways.

What is the best way to respond to this blatant religous hypocrisy? Some people participate in blasphemy days in order to show their belief in freedom of expression. The main problem with this kind of reaction is that such actions are often sponsored by intolerant Islamophobes. It is important to understand the importance of standing up to Muslim extremist bullies without being lowered to their standards.

Freedom-loving people should always rush to the defense of victims of religious bullies. This could include purchasing copies of the "offending" works to let the bullies know that they cannot win. (I still have the copy of The Satanic Verses that my mother bought for me.) People should write letters to the editors of publications to demonstrate their outrage at religious intolerance. Bloggers should defend freedom of expression. People should engage in mass protests in defense of liberty. Non-Muslims should hold dialogues with moderate and progressive Muslims to foster mutual understanding. Last but not least, vicitims of religious violence should understand that they are well within their rights to defend themselves. Religious bigots should never be given the moral sanction to terrorize and kill their victims.

The bottom line is that religions--including religious images--do not deserve respect or protection any more than do political ideas, secular philosophies, etc. People and their rights must be respected and protected, and all freedom-loving people should stand united under that sterling ideal.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Gawd! It's a Miracle!

On October 29, 2011, the Associated Press ran a heartwarming story about an adorable dog that cheated death. ("Stray dog awaits adoption after surving gas chamber," The Buffalo News, p. A7.)

On October 3rd, a new operator of a gas chamber run by the Animal Control Department in Florence, Alabama, placed the dog into the chamber with other animals. Carbon monoxide was fed into the chamber. The lucky dog was the only survivor.

Surely a genuine miracle of a religious nature must have occurred. After all, there is no other possible explanation as to how the dog could have survived. Indeed, workers at the animal shelter named the dog Daniel, after the biblical hero that made it out of the lion's den.

Not so fast. About four paragraphs into the news story, a spokesman for the city, Phil Stevenson, offered another possible scenario. "It may be that his breathing was shallow because of a cold or something." Sadly, however, Stevenson added, "Or maybe God just had a better plan for this one."

Fortunately, Julie Morris, senior vice president of community outreach for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, delved more thoughtfully into the subject. According to the news article, Morris said:

Variables that could allow a dog to survive such a gassing include the number of animals placed in the chamber, the concentration of carbon monoxide, whether the chamber is airtight and the health of the animal, with young healthy animals having the best chance for survival...Since carbon monoxide is heavier than air, it sinks, so a tall dog, or one that climbed to the top of a pile, would have a better chance of surviving....

Such cases are extremely rare. However, they do occur. A rare case, an amazing coincidence, or a mystery should never be mistaken for the occurrence of a genuine miracle of a religious nature.

However, such ignorance lies at the foundation of theistic religion. For example, Bible believers claim that God created the rainbow as a promise to humanity that he would never again destroy the Earth with a Flood. Yet we now know that rainbows are created by the refraction and dispersioin of sunlight on drops of rain. Still, people prefer the poetic religious tale.

Similarly, many theists embrace the biblical story that God created the stars. However,we have known for years how stars are formed naturally. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we can see areas in the galaxy where stars and planetary systems are being born. (There is no reason to suppose that a mystery God is making it all happen.)

What about the "miracle" of life? Certainly God must have created life on Earth. However, amino acids, the basic building blocks of life, oranize themselves. Moreover, they do so selectively. Again, there is no reason to suppose that there is a God lying at the bottom of it all.

Still, certainly genuine religious miracles occur with regularity throuhout the world. For example, what about all of the wonderful faith healers doing good through the power of Jesus? Many faith healers are simply dishonest. The skeptic James Randi has exposed such faith healers as Peter Popoff. For example, Randi discovered that Popoff was able to secretly get information from his followers because he had a tiny electronic transmitter in his ear. His wife, unbeknown to his followers, was relaying him the information, and he appeared to be quite the impressive man of God. Steve Martin revisted this faith healing trick in his film, "Leap of Faith."

One could talk about morality, the origins of life or the universe as we know it, etc. Unless there is a Theory of Everything (TOE), it is highly likely that there will always be gaps in human knowledge. However, why are theists always so anxious to rush and fill in those gaps by positing a mystery God? Why should there be so much shame in saying, "I simply do not know"? After all, once the gaps are finally filled (always by naturalistic explanations), theistic explanations come to look embarrassingly foolish. (For example, since the germ theory supplanted the belief that demons caused diseases, the demon theory has come to be viewed as ridiculously childish, and rightfully so.)

Nature is not nearly as lame as most theists seem to believe. On the contrary, nature is far more complex and powerful than most theists dare to imagine. It operates according to its own laws. Most importantly, it seems in no way obligated to humanity or any other life form to reveal any of its secrets. It is up to human beings to try to learn as much about the universe as possible. Deists used to talk about Nature's God. However, most human beings believe they need God. Nature is in need of no God.

We should not be afraid to confront perplexing questions. Bill Cosby used to joke about his experience with philosophy. He was once faced with the question, "Why is there air?" He responded, "to blow up basketballs." That is certainly a better answer than to simply say, "because God created it."

After all is said and done, there is no good reason to assume that miracles of a religious nature occur. We will be confronted with questions such as, "Where does gravity come from?" However, rather than copping out and resorting to miracle mongering, we can pursue another course. We can say, "We don't know, but in all probablity, it is the result of natural, though deeply mysterious, processes." Such a response would certaily embolden scientists to try get to the bottom of the matter. The truth is not always poetic. Then again, why should it have to be?

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Christian Fascists' Personhood Campaign

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Taking its “life begins at conception” assault from State Legislature to State legislature, one of the most dangerous political forces in the U.S. is stepping up its crusade for the “rights” of the unborn. Backed by an organization called Personhood USA, the latest offensive by anti-choice Christian fascists involves a renewed movement to amend state constitutions to establish human rights and personhood status for fertilized eggs. On November 8th, Mississippi voters will decide the fate of Initiative 26, a personhood amendment that could precipitate the dismantling of Roe vs. Wade. Ever immune to morality, reason, church-state separation precedents and an understanding of the basic laws of biology, the most flat earth reactionary segment of the pro-death anti-choice movement wants to circumvent constitutional protections for abortion by conferring personhood on fertilized eggs. This would eviscerate the premise that women have a sovereign and singular right to control their bodies by designating rights before implantation and a clinically viable pregnancy has been determined. For those who have any elementary grasp of the human reproductive process, conception does not automatically result in pregnancy and the vast majority of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. Yet if the egg crusade zealots have their way this new initiative would potentially criminalize any woman attempting to use birth control pills or IUDs, and jeopardize in vitro fertilization procedures and stem cell research.

We’ve been down this road before. In 2009, the egg crusaders were able to convince the North Dakota House of Representatives to pass a constitutional amendment on personhood. It was later vetoed by the State Senate. Colorado voters also rejected a similar ballot initiative 73% to 27%. New initiatives are being slated for Wisconsin, Florida and other states.

One of the most reprehensible arguments that the personhood campaign makes to bolster its cause is a comparison between egg rights and the movement to abolish slavery. The California campaign’s website cites Joshua Giddings, a 19th century American anti-slavery legislator who held that “God” as “author” of all life grants the inalienable right to life to every being. Following this argument it is unclear who is exactly “enslaving” pre-implanted fertilized eggs. Is it potential mothers who arrogantly lay claim to their own bodies? Is it the state for failing to protect the right of pre-implanted fertilized eggs to implantation? By cloaking its propaganda in the rhetoric of civil and human rights the movement avoids delineation of the real life consequences for women, once again reducing them to vessels with no agency, right to privacy or control over their own bodies.

This imagery draws from the same demonizing language evoked in the recent anti-abortion Radiance Foundation campaign targeting the “dangerous wombs” of women of color. The parenthood website does not specify what rights un-implanted eggs would be conferred with other than, presumably, the right to progress to the implantation stage, fetal development and then birth. There are no details about who or what could act on the behalf of the un-implanted egg as person if the host carrier (formerly known as mother) of the egg were to determine that she should receive medical treatment. There was no information on who would legally be empowered to intervene or act on behalf of the un-implanted egg as person (the state perhaps?) to object to any stance that the mother might take. It stands to reason that if contraception were used to prevent the inalienable right of the egg as “person” to implant then host carriers who did so would be criminalized and prosecuted for murder. As a preventive measure, potentially offending host carriers could perhaps be fitted with special ankle bracelets or encoded with state monitored electronic microchips to preclude violations.

The Catholic and fundamentalist Christian activists at the forefront of the egg crusade are curiously silent on these small details. In true schizoid fashion they push for special faith-based government entitlements and yet scream about government interference, rallying big government to run roughshod over women’s fundamental right to privacy through a new regime of policing. And indeed, their own “family planning” policies have proven an abysmal failure, as evidenced by the exploding teen birth rates in Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi, in comparison to lower rates in the relatively godless Northeast and Northwest (abstinence-only sex education programs and fundamentalist Christian propaganda against fornication outside marriage would seem to be a source of cognitive dissonance for Southern teens).

The anti-human rights egg crusade would take this national obscenity one step further by deepening the region’s poverty and straining its already overburdened, family-averse social welfare net. Fortunately, Initiative 26 has elicited grassroots activism and backlash from groups as diverse as fertility rights organizations to Mississippians for Healthy Families to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. The fervor of this “new” brand of anti-abortion activism only underscores the need for a vigorous secular defense against the continued incursions of the Religious Right. It’s either that or get ready for the ankle bracelets.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The End is Near--Again!

Harold Camping of Oakland is at it again. The 90-year-old minister predicited that the world would end on October 21, 2011. This is the same prophet that predicted that the world was to have ended on May 21st of this year. Amazingly--or perhaps not--he made the same prediction in 1994.

Camping raised millions of dollars from his followers after he made the prediction for May 21st. However, according to religious scholar Jason Bruner, there is an ugly side to Camping's otherwise hilarious proclamations.

Slightly prior to May 21, 2011, Hmong Christians that followed Camping's pronouncements via short wave radio broadcasts gathered at a hilltop in Dien Bien, Vietnam to await the apocalypse, and to be rewarded with their own land.

The Hmong have long been persecuted as a despised minority in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. As they gathered for the expected Good News, they became involved in a violent confrontation with Vietnamese troops, and some believers were detained by the Vietnamese government. (For more information, see Bruner's piece, "The Other Forgotten Apocalypse of 2011," at http://www.religiondispatches.org/atheologies/5035/)

Though the Bible teaches that no one knows the day or the hour that the world will end, religious fanatics continue to insist otherwise. The Y2K hysteria near the turn of the century led up to the biggest non-event of all time. Computers were supposed to malfunction, water, food, and other resources were to supposed to be scarce, etc. Y2K enthusiasts were hoarding food, bottled water, matches, flashlights, guns, ammunition, etc. It was all for nothing.

Did religious fanatics finally learn their lesson? Of course not! Like Camping, many thought their calculations were simply off. They said that perhaps 2007 would be the actual year of the end times. Others believe that 2030 will be the actual date.

That raises the question: What does "near" mean? The Nation of Islam has been predicting "the coming destruction of America" since 1930. Many Jehovah's Witnesses claim that we have been living in the end times since World War I.

Jesus taught that the end was near during his lifetime. He said that there were people to whom he spoke that would not taste death before the events leading up to the end times would occur. The biblical Jesus made such statements as "give no care for the morrow," and "let the dead bury the dead." Such statements make no sense whatsoever unless considered from the viewpoint of someone who believed that the end of the world was coming soon.

Rather than concede that this is obviously the granddaddy of all failed biblical prophecies, most Christians simply believe that the end is coming one day. It has been over 2,000 years, but that's no problem. God has a different sense of time than do we mere mortals. And what if two million years pass and Jesus still does not show? Just refer to that deep time thingy.

A belief in the rapture isn't just foolish. It thwarts genuine human progress. Imagine if the great reformers and transformers of the world had embraced this kind of quietistic eschatology. Chattel slavery would have never been abolished. The civil rights movement would have never taken place. Civil liberties would not exist. After all is said and done, end times theology seems to have no redeeming value whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to be the most useless idea to have ever emanated from the God delusion. Yet it persists.

The idealistic dreamers have much more to offer the world than do the gloom-and-doom naysayers peddling their theologies of despair. The former are concerned with improving life in the here and now. They are striving for social and economic justice, freedom and equality. Even if their schemes are not entirely successful, some of their ideas have practical value. The eight-hour workday, paid vacations, health care, retirement benefits, anti-discrimination laws, literacy for the masses, voting rights for women, etc. were all radical ideas when they were first proposed.

It is indeed true that no one knows the day or the hour when the rapture will occur. That is because it is not going to happen. It is time that humanity kicked this utterly useless fantasy to the curb and get on with the business of improving life in the here and now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Strong, Steady, and, of course, Secular!

By Naima Cabelle Washington

I believe that it was the African American poet, Sterling Brown who wrote that “the strong men keep on coming!” During a recent visit to Houston, Texas for the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention, I was privileged to meet Glenn Ellison, Jr., a man with a gentle smile and a friendly easy-going approach. I'm not a real fan of poetry but the words of that poem came to mind..."the strong men keep on coming," each time I spoke with Glenn. Perhaps, that because he's built like a Sherman tank, and when it comes down to foolish talk and religious nonsense, he easily shifts gears and uses an intellectual steamroller approach to effortlessly flatten every bit of superstitious claptrap which dares to raise its head around him. Born in Woodland, Georgia in 1942, Mr. Ellison is the eldest son in his family; there were eight children including a stepsister. According to Glenn, his initial rebellion against religion came at an early age. "It was all her fault," he tells me, referring to an aunt. One Sunday, she saw him with a math book and told him he had no business reading it; he should have been reading the Bible. Glenn wanted to know, "Why?" Still sounding very much like a mischievous nephew, and still sticking to his story, he says, "It’s all her fault! She started it!"

As the saying goes, he's been around a while, including around the world a few times as a member of the United States Air Force. Just listen to Glenn and it won't take long to conclude that he's a man who lives according to his own conscience. While stationed in Vietnam he decided to read the Bible "...from beginning to end...and when I put it down, I said, 'this is all bullshit!'" He says that up until that point, "I played the game," but after reading the Bible he was finished with religion because according to him, "nothing matched." He saw through the Bible's many contradictions. His travels were so extensive that he's lost count of the many countries he's visited, but he's been on every continent. I've met many people who have traveled extensively and some seem to lack any interest in other people or their cultures. Not so with Mr. Ellison who is upbeat and seems to thrive on personal interaction and intellectual stimulus. He sat attentively through many of the presentations at the convention, soaking up every word; evaluating every idea, but at the same time, doesn't mind having a good laugh.

Despite his robust appearance, he's had some very serious health challenges and in 1992 was hospitalized to undergo grueling surgical procedures. When his wife, who is a believer, was asked by the hospital administrator who filled out her husband's paperwork for his religious denomination, she said 'none.' According to Glenn, when his wife was asked if she wanted to put down a religious affiliation on his behalf, she bluntly said 'no' and warned them not to do it either!

Some time before his surgery, Mr. Ellison was asked if he wanted to see the Chaplain; he wanted to know, "What for?" I happen to think it is cruel and insensitive to badger a patient about to undergo surgery with such questions. People who are religious won't hesitate to request a priest, rabbi, etc. and I really become angry when I hear stories like this. But, in my own jaded way, I also can imagine a 'bright' side to this: A dying man's spiritual adviser assures him that his place in paradise is guaranteed if he is willing to confess his sins. The dying man says that he not only wants to confess his sins, but has a special ‘thanks’ for his spiritual adviser as well. He confesses that for the past 25 years he's committed adultery―with the wife of his spiritual advisor; he also wants to thank him for supporting all of the ten children that he fathered with his advisor's wife as well as putting each of them through college! Anyway, after his surgery, Glenn was asked again if he wanted to see the Chaplin, and he asked, "Can he get rid of this pain? ...Then I don't want to see him!"

He views San Antonio, his hometown, as a place where most of the people, especially Hispanics, are controlled and impoverished mainly by the Catholic Church. In 1992, he joined the Texas Alliance of San Antonio, the freethought organization that he has belonged to ever since. The group meets monthly and closes out the year with a celebration of the Winter Solstice. When he dropped his religious baggage, he says that he also "removed the shackles, the doubts and fears." He would do anything or suffer any consequence for the sake of his wife and children, but, "I have no fears for my own life." He also expressed a sentiment that I and probably many other atheists share. Once freed from the burden of religious dogma, we feel relieved and happier than ever. A man who is intent on living life to the fullest, Glenn is 'living quite well and wanting for nothing!'

Since this was his first secular convention, I wondered if he had any expectations; he said, "I came with no expectations, but neither am I disappointed!" I understand that there were over 600 people in attendance, and during the two-and-a-half days of the convention, I had conversations with many people including Glenn, who mentioned many times how much he enjoyed being around so many like-minded people. He had a good impression of everyone he met; they were "well-informed, intelligent, and well-educated...Education is what's needed to break the bonds of religions. It's hard to forget what one learns at their mother's breast."

Atheism, of course, cannot be forced on anyone and he compared the introduction to non-theistic ideas to a believer with farming, "Plant the seed, step back, and watch it grow." He’d advise anyone who is still grappling with religious questions to "not trust anything outside of the laws of physics." I told him about my visit to the Central branch of the Houston Public Library. I was surprised that there were a number of very good books on non-theism; but that number shrivels when compared to the several hundred books available on religion. He's visited the library at Cambridge University in England and spoke of the tremendous volumes dedicated to religion as well as an equally impressive number of books dedicated to non-theism. When he retired from the Air Force after 26 years of service, his wife who was teaching at that time encouraged him to also become a teacher because she felt he had a real passion for it. And, so he became a teacher. He also heard his share of criticism with respect to his lack of religiosity. Eventually, he was promoted to the position of Vice Principal where he taught school, perhaps to the dismay of some of his more narrow-minded colleagues. Glenn said that one teacher, who apparently noted his refusal to bow to peer pressure by claiming to be religious, also didn't understand how someone who didn't believe God still enjoyed professional advancement. His colleague noted in amazement, "But, you don't believe," to which Glenn replied, "And, yet I prosper. Go figure."

Glenn is well aware of the racial turmoil of this country. In the 1960's, America the Beautiful would once again expose its ugliness as groups of people desperate to maintain control of other human beings spewed hatred, acted-out violently, and told others which of their fellow human beings deserved to be hated. Glenn who is a proud African American wasn't about to have anyone tell him who to hate or love. In December of 2011, he and his wife Manuela, a native of Spain, will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary. I'm sure they both know that it takes no character to indulge in hatred, but they each have the character and internal resources needed to resist and overcome the ugliness that fills the hearts and minds of pathetic and narrow-minded human beings. He also expressed dismay over the fact that African Americans spend more money than any other group and own less than one percent of the GNP. A person with his character, discipline, intelligence, and life experiences often has little patience for those who are undisciplined, foolish, and wasteful. Yet, our current economic system teases and tantalizes especially impoverished people, with both unobtainable and useless status symbols. Corporate America encourages nearly everyone to be foolish and wasteful; few are educated to understand the difference between substance and symbolism; between necessities and desires; between price and value. Compare the amount of advertising dollars spent encouraging people to attend college, to develop their intellect, and the amount of money spent on ads encouraging people to buy showy cars, designer clothes, flashy jewelry, cell phones, etc. There's no doubt that the corporations peddling manufactured goods will win their way into the wallets of most people. Many people, especially those living on the margins of society, are aware of how often the necessities of life are simply out of their reach: a decent education, affordable housing in quality neighborhoods, health care, and a living wage. Many poor people have also learned from their priests, rabbis, imams, etc., that it is sinful to be poor, but also learned that poverty is also the punishment for sins and yet can be a 'blessing' in disguise. Advertisers preach a gospel of mindless consumerism that says if we are poor we certainly don't have to go around looking poor; while the rest of us are told that we can look and feel better and richer with every purchase that we make―affordable or not. So in many respects, we are all targeted to become servants to the corporations; our loyalty is expected by the US politicians at the voting booth as well as by Corporate America at the cash register! The doors to the public library can lead to an unlimited access to knowledge, but when is the last time that an ad on the TV, radio, or in a newspaper encouraged the public to obtain a library card? The cost of a library card that might lead to the eradication of ignorance: zero. The cost of a wallet full of credit cards that can lead to a life of debt and poverty: priceless!

When Glenn was no longer willing to "play the game," to indulge in religious pretense, he was more easily able to do so because he is intelligent, clearheaded, and saw the benefit of no longer playing any self-destructive games. I recently heard a talk given on the topic of ethics and the benefits of developing an ethical society―not just ethical individuals. According to the speaker, when people live in an environment which encourages and promotes ways for them to do good, most of them, in fact, will do good. Conversely, when people are in an environment that encourages and promotes ways for them to behave negatively, most of them will behave negatively. By creating a society that invests in the total development of human beings, by creating communities where people are encouraged and supported to do what is good, fewer people will end up making wasteful and foolish choices. We will always be a little better off with a few more individuals like Glenn; we will much better off in a society that teaches, supports, promotes, and therefore expects its members to do what is good and to make intelligent choices.

There are many who have traded a fearful, burdensome existence for one where they are free to enjoy the beauty of nature and the company of good people; who have rejected the demands of religious obedience and empty rituals, and have accepted the responsibility to do the right thing but not in hopes of obtaining a reward or avoiding punishment. They accept the responsibility for doing the right thing for no reason other than the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The world is a better place with people like that in it; and I’m certainly better off for having met the genuine article: Mr. Glenn Ellison, Jr.!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mormonism and Politics

On October 11, 2011, the Associated Press carried a news story about a conservative Christian minister's condemnation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormons. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, minister of the First Baptist church in Dallas, told news reporters that presidential contender Mitt Romney is "not a Christian," and called Mormonism a "cult."

Jeffress has refused to back down from his statements. He believes it is his duty as a minister to let people know the supposed truth about alleged "false religions," such as Mormonism. "Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism are all false religions," he declared.

The implication for voters is clear. Jeffress supports Rick Perry for President. The pastor is saying that U.S. voters should not elect anyone who is not a "true" Christian. Therefore, Romney or any other Mormon is unfit for the presidency.

This sounds like religious bigotry. In fact, it sounds like the same bigoted nonsense directed at the "alleged" Muslim, President Obama. Tea bigots and others still maintain that Obama--a Christian--is a Muslim, and therefore, not to be trusted as the Commander in Chief.

Still, others claim that Jeffress' stance is not an example of intolerance. On the contrary, the Bible warns believers against following false prophets. (Is that redundant?) They would agree that Jeffress is only doing what he is called to do.

This might be so. However, the Bible often condones and encourages reprehensible behavior. The text has passages condoning patriarchy, slavery, genocide, and numerous other crimes against humanity. Only someone that believes that the Bible truly is the "Good Book" could fail to see what a colossal mistake it is to defend all of its teachings.

Could it be that the LDS Church is simply, to use a biblical idea, reaping what it has sown? After all, it was not until 1978 that the church ended its rule that Blacks were not permitted full participation in the church. (One has to wonder why the immutable, infallible God of the Mormons waited until several years after fallible human beings gave the world the civil rights movement to discover the error of his ways.)

The Black anthropologist (and atheist) Joel Augustus Rogers was highly critical of Christianity. He was especially critical of Mormonism. Rogers spoke to Mormon missionaries and other practioners of the religion. He noted that Mormons believed that Blacks could not get to Heaven because of their race. (For more on Rogers and Mormonism, see Michael McBryde's article in my book, African-American Humanism: An Anthology, Prometheus, 1991.)

In the early 1990s, the LDS Church appeared to have made inroads in Ghana. However, then-President Jerry Rawlings started learning more about the Church's racist past. Eventually, the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation did an expose of the Church, and the Mormons were pretty much banished from the country.

In other African nations, the LDS Church has been frowned upon. Yohannes Gebregeorgis, former head of the Ethiopian Humanist Organization, has been critical of Mormon missionaries in Africa. In my book, The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion (Prometheus, 2003) he wrote that Mormons and other religious groups "are infecting the minds of young people with their pie-in-the-sky and reward in the afterworld nonsense." (p. 103) (Gebregeorgis won a CNN Hero Award in 2008. He heads the literacy organization, Ethiopia Reads.)

Despite the Church's critics, the faith is growing rapidly throughout the world, including Africa. In any case, it is no more a cult than is the Nation of Islam (NOI). Adherents of the NOI believe that Master Fard was God in human form. They believe in an extraterrestrial Mother Plane (complete with baby planes), etc. Still, the NOI is embraced by many influential Muslims throughout the world. They still worship Allah, assume Arabic names, make the pilgrimage to Mecca if they can afford it, etc. Similarly, the LDS Church has many teachings that do not conform to mainstream Christianity. Yet, they embrace the Bible, consider Jesus to be their savior, etc.

Religion and polticis always makes for a dangerous concoction. It can certainly be valuable to know a candidate's religion or worldview. However, it is bigoted (and unwise) to judge someone as unworthy of political leadership simply because he or she allegedly worships a "false" God.

Interestingly, Jeffress did not raise any objections to any particular Mormon practices. If he would have said that, as a practicing Mormon, Romney is sexist or patriarchal, for example, that would have been relevant. However, no matter how irrational or old-fashioned the beliefs of a church might be, ultimately, people have to be judged on what they actually do. After all, most people compartmentalize their beliefs on some level. For example, one can believe in the Bible without believing that alleged witches should be stoned to death.

Generally speaking, in politics, people from all but the most thoroughly bigoted and dangerous religions or philosophies should receive a fair hearing and be judged on the content of their character, and not whether they have the One, True Religion. Religious bigotry should have no place in politics or anywhere else.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Atheism for the New Millennium

By Naima Cabelle Washington

In his autobiography, Mirror to America, Dr. John Hope Franklin writes, "From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society.... While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations."

During his career, John Hope Franklin encouraged his students and colleagues to embrace both scholarship and activism. On October 7, 2011, I thought about those words while listening to Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, as she made her presentation at the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, Texas. I have no doubt that Dr. Franklin, who is the recipient of hundreds of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a prominent historian and noted African American scholar, would agree that Sikivu is using her own scholarship, her credentials, and her professional career in her fight to eradicate the stain of racism that is clouding the vision of the intellectual, academic, and secular communities.

The content of her talk presented a secular audience with America’s historical inequities, as well as a contemporary picture of America, and it is not a very pretty picture. The grim unemployment figures, the housing crises, the lack of access to a quality education, the abysmal health care crisis and the frontal assaults on the human rights of people who are denied access to basic services have all served to further marginalize the already oppressed or under-served segments of our society: people of color, women, children, the poor, sick, elderly, and disabled. In the most professional, eloquent, yet no-nonsense fashion possible, she delivered some very bad news to her audience. I was proud to be in that auditorium and to witness a presentation that met every standard of excellence. Here was an activist and a scholar who was at her best, yet privately she expressed doubts as to whether the audience, which was virtually all-white, really heard and understood what she said, or if her message, had in fact, fell on deaf ears. She said the members of the audience appeared to be uniformly unresponsive; that their faces were blank and expressionless. I have tried to picture an audience as it listens to the recounting of the social, physical, and economic horrors inflicted on human beings who lived in the past. I’ve tried to picture an audience that has also been made brutally aware of the continuation of those horrors even in the year 2011, and frankly, I can only imagine faces that may appear to be expressionless. The audience members who were already aware of some of the things she spoke of were certainly confronted with a new awareness as she explained with a new clarity how race, class, gender, and religion are issues that are connected, interwoven, and are literally devastating hundreds of millions of people in America and throughout the world.

Whenever these issues are raised, I’m reminded that I must assume both the collective and personal responsibility for aiding and abetting in the ultimate dismemberment of these anti-human power structures. The content of her presentation failed to mirror that of the usual hand-wringing lectures concerning the religiosity of African Americans. Instead, her presentation put each member of the secular community on notice; and let them know that beyond the challenges to theism, they also have the responsibility to challenge all anti-human power structures. I happen to believe that the members of her audience were serious people because frivolous non-thinkers won't attend, much less pay to hear, thoughtful discussions. If the members of the audience were hearing for the first time the genuine "state of the union" spelled out for them in unapologetic language, then they had good reasons for looking expressionless. There was much to think about, and there is even much more to do!

Religion has certainly taken a toll on humanity. The cultural and psychological wounds will remain long after the stranglehold of religious instutitions on society is broken. But religious institutions clearly have not functioned without the assistance of nearly every corrupt secular institution; and over time, religious institutions have interacted with, replaced, and certainly worked in concert with secular institutions whenever possible and whenever necessary. Yet, breaking religious institutions’ stranglehold on society (which will indeed be a cause for celebration) will still leave much of our ethnic, gender, and class issues unresolved. Currently these issues are scattered throughout the social landscape just like landmines ―- hiding in plain sight as they readily explode as though connected to motion-detectors. A presentation that notes how most forms of oppression reinforce one another; cites historical data; uses contemporary models, and points to an even more horrific future should we fail to address all power structures designed to deny social justice and universal human rights, certainly delivers the psychological equivalent of physical blunt force trauma.

We must have a total transformation of values that informs all relationships ―- a system which evaluates and improves how we deal with societal ills; a system that leaves little room for the exploitation, violence, and inhumanity which is currently taking place. We must all elevate our private and collective consciousness if we are to effectively answer this urgent call. Having open, respectful, and honest dialogue in the secular community would be a good place to start; educating ourselves about the issues is a must; collaborating, working in concert with people both inside and outside of the community is also a must; toward the development of a collective leadership within the secular community. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts for transforming our society. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and the process will last as long as humanity lasts.

After our boldest and most influential critical thinkers in the secular community have confronted and confounded the enemies of reason; after they appear to have said all that there is to say, Sikivu Hutchinson has stepped forward to demand the expansion of the discussion beyond the separation of church and state by illuminating the conditions that exist in America, especially with regard to oppressed and marginalized people. She is a disciplined, first-rate intellectual and speaks with authority on the issues of race, class, gender, and religion. She represents the role model for the atheists of this millennium who are ready to work towards a total societal transformation and who reject a piecemeal approach. With respect to her ability to accurately articulate the totality of the problems that we must face as well as outline what must be done to move towards the achievement of social justice and universal human rights, Sikivu Hutchinson has no equal.

Naima Cabelle Washington is an atheist, feminist and socialist activist who currently serves on the board of the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors and publishes the D.C. Atheist Advocate.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Black Skeptics Group: Book Review: "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Ar...

Book Review: "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith" by David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins

By Don R Barbera

Proselytizing for Professionals

As a researcher, I've found the Barna Group to be highly professional and focused on making sure the minutiae often lost by others receives attention. Although the latest book from Barna Group president, David Kinnaman, receives the same attention it's appeal is limited defined by its focus on evangelism and "discipleship."

For churches, pastors or even parents, Kinnaman's new book, "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith," holds some interesting ideas to connect with the younger generation and foster discipleship. It might be interesting reading for those thoroughly steeped in religious mysticism and evangelical Christian tradition that hope to slow the leak of young Christians from the church, but for the informational reader or researcher, it holds little of interest.

"You Lost Me" is primarily a book about recruiting that seeks explain and mend generational fences by pointing out changes in today's society that affect a younger society's views of Christianity. The information presented may be news for those sheltered within the evangelical faith community, but most of it is nearly common knowledge. Although a bit "preachy," considering the target audience it may ring a bell with conservative Christians trying to understand losses in young membership and what to do about it.

Research from hundreds of interviews contribute to the book' best segment, reading what young Christians had to say about the church and its practices. Kinnaman's previous book, "unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... and Why it Matters, contains much of the same information, but presented in a different fashion. In that book Kinnaman reveals Christianity's public relations problem and uncovers the opinions of the 18-29 age group. "You Lost Me" is the follow-up to the views revealed in that book.

Other research lists proselytizing among the things young Christians find out of date and bothersome, but "You Lost Me" is a blueprint promoting recruiting and how to do it. To be fair, there are other ideas in the book such as creating two-way communications between church generations to bring about better understanding between generations. Still, recruitment is the book's main focus.

Religious research is one of my specialties and one of my favorite resources for information on current religious events and trends is the Barna Research Group. There are many others, but what distinguishes Barna from many is a willingness to let the "chips fall where they may" for the most part. Publication of the group's research often meets opposition from fellow evangelical groups that apparently believe keeping unfavorable or questionable information quiet as a better policy.

Except for a select group, there is little of merit to recommend the book as it does not address the main problems facing the Christian church in general such as relevance of religion in today's scientific world. Neither does it address the problems of the much quoted Bible compared to the very real world in which potential recruits dwell. Falling back on scripture is not a valid choice for many that seek spirituality, but evade organized religion. Whether Kinnaman's ideas will appeal to those that escaped the church is doubtful. For those teetering on the edge, it may be enough to bring them back or finish the job of pushing them into the first group.

If you are a Christian and concerned about the continuing loss of adherents, this book might give you a few ideas about bringing people back to the church or it could forever make you persona non grata at any social gathering. "You Lost Me" is the first book I read electronically and I'm sorry I paid $9.99 for the download, but it could have been worse, as the hardcopy version cost three dollars more plus shipping.

Monday, October 10, 2011


A wise man once said that "the mind of the bigot is like the eye of the pupil. The more light you shed upon it, the more it contracts." This thought came to mind after my incredibly brief appearance (perhaps ten minutes at the most) on a recent podcast hosted by the Black Atheists of Atlanta. (Gluttons for punishment can tune in to the show on Mondays at www.wain-tv.tv. Click on "live broadcasts" from 7:00 pm-8:30 pm EST.)

The sheer hatred that the hosts of the show directed at me was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. It was the kind of hatred I would expect to have directed at me by Tea bigots and their ilk. (In fact, the Black Atheists of Atlanta seem to be a sort of Black version of the Tea Party.) I wondered why Black atheists would be so hostile toward other Black atheists. Then it dawned on me that hate often knows no bounds. Hatred often takes people places they thought they would never go. It is never satisfied. It always seeks new victims. It is an insatiable beast that must be constantly fed by any means necessary. And when all other possibilities are exhausted, it feeds upon itself.

A great example of this goes back to the Nation of Islam (NOI) during the days of Malcolm X. Members of the NOI grew to hate Malcolm and other alleged "hypocrites" as much as they hated Whites (especially Jews), homosexuals and women. Indeed, though Louis Farrakhan never implicates the NOI in Malcolm's assassination, he admits that he helped "create the climate of hate" that ultimately led to Malcolm's murder.

Former talk show host Phil Donahue used to say that "racism is a lot like cancer. You don't always know you have it." It is indeed true that many racists cannot imagine that they could possibly be racists. However, the Black Atheists have not only expressed hatred toward me. They have also expressed it toward Ayanna Watson and her organization, the Black Atheists of America, the Black Non-Theists of Atlanta, and others. They are as hostile toward us as they are toward Whites and people that engage in same-sex relations.

If you can recognize the hatred of Black bigots, they are likely to accuse you of "thinking like White people." Even worse, they are likely to accuse you of suffering from "Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome." Imagine that! You have crazy people trying to diagnose sane people!

I wonder how much this animosity has to do with arrogance, competition, and megalomania. After all, Black Son of the Black Atheists of Atlanta is the self-styled "King of Black Atheists." (He also professes to be the "King of Electronics.") From what I can gather, he seems to believe he is fit to be king because he has close ties with the NOI and members of a Black Israelite sect, two of the most reactionary (and religious!) Black groups in the U.S. In any case, perhaps Black Son is worried about pretenders to his imaginary throne. (Just for the record, I don't want it.)

The Black Atheists of Atlanta seem to have very little complimentary to say about Black atheists, in general. They often compliment Black religious leaders such as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Khalid Muhammad, and even the alleged sexual predator Bishop Eddie Long. Yet they never promote Black atheists in any substantive way.

When the Black Atheists of Atlanta first came to the fore under Black Son's direction, I wondered, "why us?" Why do Black non-theists have to deal with this madness? But then it hit me with the force of a revelation. Practically every movement has its lunatic fringe. Why should we be any different? However, it is up to courageous, principled people to stand up and oppose this foolishness. We are confronted with the bigoted, reactionary lunatic fringe of atheism, and we must combat it before blind hatred makes victims of us all.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Malcolm X was saved from a life of crime by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (NOI). However, after Malcolm left the NOI, he said that he felt a sense of intellectual freedom. He no longer felt compelled to say "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us..." before every utterance. He no longer thought inside a box. He said that he felt free to think for himself.

As far as Black leaders of national renown go, Malcolm seems to have been the leading critical thinker. He seemed to examine every angle in sincere efforts to achieve liberation for people of African descent. He studied history, politics, religion, socialism, capitalism, etc.

During and after his involvement with the NOI, Malcolm challenged some deeply cherished beliefs among African Americans. First and foremost, he forcefully critiqued Christianity. He questioned how Black people could embrace a White Jesus, a White Mary, white angels, etc. He said that doing so amounted to supporting "White nationalism."

He was critical of the belief that Black Christians would be rewarded in heaven "when they died." He questioned the value of Christianity to Blacks, and remarked, "If your religion hasn't done any more for you than it has, you need to forget it, anyway."

Perhaps what Malcolm disliked most about Christianity was its emphasis on turning the other cheek. It infuriated Malcolm to no end that so many African Americans were unwilling to defend their people against racist violence inflicted upon them by White supremacists. In his famous "Message to the Grassroots," Malcolm said that Blacks anxiously fought in wars condoned by the U.S. government. However, when it came to retaliating against White supremacists for murdering Black girls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, violence was not an option.

Malcolm also wondered why civil rights workers were quick to denounce Blacks that advocated self-defense against white supremacist attackers; yet, they never denounced Black-on-Black violence. He noted that on any given Friday or Saturday night, men in Black neighborhoods all over the U.S. could be found committing acts of violence against one another. This, however, was not being addressed by civil rights activists.

After Malcolm left the NOI, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He also formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. However, he gave the bulk of his time and attention to the OAAU. It was a secular organization open to Black Christians, Muslims, Confucianists, atheists, and others committed to meeting its aims and objectives. Malcolm had long believed that religion should be personal and kept out of efforts to organize the masses.

Malcolm was deeply influenced by secular thinkers. A great influence upon him was the Black atheist and anthropologist Joel Augustus Rogers. Malcolm read Rogers' three volumes of Sex and Race and Africa's Gift to America. Malcolm drew upon Rogers' writings in his speeches on African American history.

Of course, Malcolm was not without his faults. For example, he had sexist views. However, he was always trying to become a better person. His emphasis upon the importance of critical thinking is one of his most important legacies to people of African descent. The way forward must always be guided by human thought and human action. Though he was a Muslim, Malcolm always seemed to understand that. Indeed, he seemed to agree with his friend, the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jr., that there is nothing more sacred than the liberation of his people. This is certainly a sentiment that secular humanists could greatly appreciate.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Martin Luther King from a Black Humanist View

We are familiar with Martin Luther King's important work in the civil rights movement, and the tremendous role that some churches played in the fight for social justice. However, there were great humanists and humanistic ideals that preceded King and the movement.

King is best known for using passive resistance to fight for freedom, justice and equality. However, in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." His theory became influential after his death, largely because it is completely secular.

Thoreau's earliest protest was lodged over a church/state separation issue. He was a schoolmaster in 1838, and the state of Massachusetts required him to pay a tax to a church he did not even attend. He refused to pay the tax, though another man paid it without his knowledge or approval.

Thoreau did not attend church and associated primarily with unchurched individuals. He believed that people have the right to disobey unjust laws, and that they were required to follow the dictates of their conscience, as opposed to divine or secular authorities.

Ironically, though King was a Christian, his entire crusade was in opposition to the biblical command to obey the authorities that were supposedly ordained by God (Romans 13: 1-3). Moreover, he opposed the First (Old) Testament law supporting "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life." Rather, like Gandhi, King said, "That old law about an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind."

Christians had the support of many humanists during the civil rights movement. People such as A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, James Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and numerous others were major voices in the movement. Indeed, in his book, From Strength to Love, King wrote:

"I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an uncommited Christian."

King also firmly believed in church/state separation. In his famous 1965 interview in Playboy, he addressed the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional. He remarked:

"I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision."

This should not be surprising. According to his biographer David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross, King read the writings of philosopher Paul Tillich and almost became an atheist. King's major attraction to Christianity was its emphasis upon communal love, or agape.

King was also knowledgable about the so-called pagan origins of Christianity. He knew about the religion of Mithraism and its influence upon Christianity. He knew that, before Christians, devotees of Mithra accepted Sunday as their holy day, December 25th as the birth of Mithra, etc. (From the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 4, University Press of California.)

Martin Luther King was one of the most important individuals in American history. His religion greatly motivated him. However, after all is said and done, there is no evidence that God had anything whatsoever to do with the success of the civil rights movement. Everything that King and his supporters accomplished can be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. King and his followers, sang, spoke, marched, protested, etc. Human beings have always engaged in such behaviors. However, King performed no miracles of a religious nature. What King demonstrated is that human thought and human activism will always have to be at the center of any program of action geared toward gaining freedom, justice, and equality. This is a message that humanists have been trying to get across for years, and one we will continue to promote.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Standing with Troy Davis as a Non-Believer

By Sikivu Hutchinson

This is a day of outrage for all who believe in justice and morality. The pending execution of Georgia Death Row inmate Troy Davis is an egregious reminder of the vicious cycle of immoral lynch mob justice that masquerades as due process in the United States, the exceptionalist "Christian Nation." With 25% of the world’s prison population, the U.S. has devolved into the largest penitentiary on the planet. For poor people of color, the revolving door of incarceration often starts in K-12 schools that disproportionately suspend, transfer and expel black and Latino youth. But the media framing of black youth as violent lawless criminals influences their sense of self-image much earlier. When it comes to black youth, mainstream images of urban communities as crime-ridden cesspits with dysfunctional families shape the cultural perceptions of teachers, administrators, policymakers and law enforcement. These images disfigure the psyches of very young black children who see white lives humanized, prized and valued in the white supremacist American TV and film industries. Clearly, If Davis had been a white defendant the international outcry over his death sentence would have led to clemency. But in a nation in which African Americans are presumed guilty until proven innocent, the recanted testimony of seven witnesses is not enough to spare the life of an innocent black man.

Over the past several weeks, many prayers have been offered for Davis, his family and other Death Row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted. Certainly humanist atheists like me believe that the atrocity of Davis’ pending execution is yet another example of Epicurus’ caveat about the impotence of “God.” But the national visibility and leadership of the faith community around this issue highlights the need to develop explicitly secular humanist culturally responsive traditions for coping with death, mourning and grief in communities of color. It also highlights the continued need for the so-called secular movement to speak out on state-sanctioned human rights abuses perpetrated upon communities of color right here in the U.S.

At 9% of the Los Angeles Unified School District student population, black children are over 30% of those suspended. At 9% of the L.A. County population, black children and adults are nearly 40% of the County’s incarcerated population. In the final analysis, segregation, white supremacy and economic disenfranchisement—as well as heterosexism and patriarchy—keep many blacks and Latinos beholden to the faith community and faith traditions. Secularists who can’t wrap their mind around that, and continue to bemoan the lack of “diversity” in the movement, are a waste of crucial time and energy.

As activists across the globe stand for Davis against the all-American death machine, it should be clear that true justice has no faith and no religion.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.