by: Mitchell Stephens on May 14th, 2014 | 7 Comments »
Many Americans view atheism as an odd and obnoxious intrusion into American life – just look at the Gallup polls that have repeatedly placed atheism at the top of the list of qualities Americans would not want in a president. But atheism in fact has been a major contributor to the Enlightenment worldview that has shaped the core political and intellectual values of the United States.
Indeed, the path that leads to the modern world can be said to have begun with an atheist – an unlikely one: a French country priest who died in 1729 and had been unknown outside his two tiny parishes in northeastern France.
That priest’s name was Jean Meslier, and after his death four copies were discovered in his home of a lengthy handwritten manuscript attacking all religions – most definitely including the one he preached. “I did not dare say it during my life,” he wrote. “But I will say it at least in dying.” He says that what has been preached about “miracles,” about “the magnificence of the rewards of heaven,” about “the dreadful castigations of hell,” about the existence of God, is “nothing but delusions, errors, lies, fictions and impostures.”
Jean Meslier’s manuscript stands as perhaps the first argument for atheism published in Christian Europe to which a real name, albeit that of a man who was now dead, was attached. It became an underground sensation in Paris. “I believe that nothing will ever make more of an impression than the pamphlet of Meslier,” Voltaire gushed in a letter. Voltaire printed an excerpt himself. (Although in Voltaire’s version Meslier becomes a Voltaire-like deist rather than the atheist he was.) Denis Diderot would borrow some of Meslier’s ideas. At one point during the French Revolution the National Convention proposed erecting a statue in Paris of Jean Meslier.
by: Warren J. Blumenfeld on May 12th, 2014 | 3 Comments »
American politicians have prayed before public gatherings since the Founding Fathers crowded into a stuffy Philadelphia room to crank out the Constitution. The inaugural and emphatically Christian prayer at the First Continental Congress was delivered by an Anglican minister, who overcame objections from the assembled Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians. The prayer united the mostly Christian Founding Fathers, and the rest is history.
Indeed, as U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy write in the 5-4 majority opinion in The Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway , “…the rest is history.”
Church Ave and State Street intersect in Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: Creative Commons/ Wyoming_Jackrabbit
While a strict separation of synagogue and state, mosque and state, Hindu and Buddhist temple and state, and separation of atheists and state and virtually all the other approximately 5000 religions and state has been enacted, on the other hand, church – predominantly Protestant denominations, but also Catholic – and state, have connected virtually seamlessly to the affairs and policies of what we call the United States of America, from the first invasion of Europeans in the 15th century on the Christian Julian to the Christian Gregorian Calendars up to 2014 Anno Domini (short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi – “In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”).
In the court case, two local women from Greece, New York filed suit against city officials for approving invocations with primarily overtly Christian content at monthly public sessions held on government property. However, according to Kennedy, “The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition, and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”
by: Peter Birkenhead on April 1st, 2014 | 2 Comments »
Credit: Creative Commons
Passover is the only holiday I’ve ever felt affection for. A seder was the kind of ritual I recognized instantly as a child, from my own haunted house initiations and flashlight-in-the-basement spiels. With its serving bowls of mud, roots and tears, its affirmations of specialness, war stories, ghost stories, dirges and anthems, oaths and blood-rites, it was like deep woods camping with my grandmother’s good silver.
Our half-Jewish, half-Anglican, all-agnostic family celebrated Easter, Christmas and Hanukah, none of them with conviction. But unlike those holidays, or at least their modern, Americanized incarnations, with their generalized insistence on FUN! SOMEHOW! NOW!, Passover was a holiday we did, a physicalized story. It didn’t put the kids at a card table – it asked for our questions, made room for our mischief and spoke our language. And it was hosted by my mother’s parents, who did everything with conviction.
A story told as a meal, the seder was a project of dramatic progression, told in a familiar, child-friendly style of Biblico-magical realism, in part to help the kinder at the table digest its leaden, bitter core. It would not be easy to find a modern, non-Orthodox Jew who believes that Moses literally parted the Red Sea, but the central fact of the story, that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, is offered as a hard pit of truth, the source of an earthy gravity at the center of the evening, around which spin the fantastic stories of water turning into blood and staffs becoming snakes.
The best facts are often the least known. Here is an example: Most are unaware that the late and renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens had a great-grandfather who defended religion! Revd Edward Athanasius Hitchens (1839-1906) was curate of St. Guinefort the Holy Martyr, an Anglican parish in Gloucester, England. He was also an active participant in debates on religion as publisher and editor of the Anglo-Catholic newspaper The Invincible Aspergilium.
The Rev. E.A. Hitchens
In September 1897, The Invincible Aspergilium received a plaintive letter form a ten year old girl in Birmingham. Her plea sparked one of Revd Hitchens’ most memorable essays on atheism.
Natalie Reed, an atheist who is transgender has a new article called “God Does Not Love Trans People” over at Free Thought Blogs. It’s a very long post and raises numerous issues, many of which I simply can’t address for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to spend some time on her main assertion: transgender people should not believe in God or participate in religion because these are both harmful and dangerous and they enable the transphobic oppressive religious institutions. She states, “I honestly believe that religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.” For anyone who seeks to redefine God or say that God loves transgender people you are guilty of strengthening and bolstering a harmful and dangerous institution. She claims:
You spur on religious belief which, more often than not, maintains a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals. You insulate and protect them. You assent to the foundations of their hate, which they claim as justification. Asserting there is a God, and supporting the human tendency towards religious faith (whatever its form), does nothing but bolster the underlying principles on which the Westboro Baptist Church is based. If we wish to fight these organizations, we can’t do so simply pitting our own intuitive, faith-based assumption of God against theirs. We need to attack the foundation: the idea that faith is…good, or at least harmless…
Reed’s analysis is hard to stomach. She’s claiming that transgender people who believe in God are actually enabling a group that protests the funerals of gay soldiers simply because they believe in God. It’s not enough to face the daily oppression that trans people do, now there is the added blame of creating the culture that oppresses them for simply having faith in God. Queer people who go to church “maintain a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals.” Following this line of reasoning black people were responsible for maintaining a climate of racism and white supremacy because they participated in a religion that had been used to enslave them. African Americans must “assent to the foundations” of the hate and “bolster the underlying principles” of racism since they have enabled, supported and participated in religious organizations which have been predominantly racist. Women who attend Church on Sunday are responsible for the patriarchy that has defined so much of Christianity…etc. Blaming African Americans for racism or blaming queer people for homophobia merely because they believe in God or participate in religion is of course absurd.