Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Assault on Religion

An article in the January 18, 2012 edition of Newsday titled "Parents push back on school closings" highlighted the efforts by parents of children who attend six Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island that are slated for closure at the end of the school year.

As an atheist, I don't normally have a personal interest in such stories.  I can empathize with the parents in the sense that they are very disappointed, and in some cases, distraught, that the schools they want their children to attend are closing.

But what caught my eye in this story was a quote attributed to one of Long Island's representatives in the New York State Assembly.

The article quoted Alfred Graf, a Republican (of course!) from Holbrook, as saying, "With the onslaught of attacks on religion, I feel it is important for parents in my district to send their children to a religious-based academic institution."

An onslaught of attacks on religion?  What the hell is he talking about?  The last time I checked, there hasn't been any wave of vandalism against churches, synagogues and mosques on Long Island.  Religious people are not being physically prevented from going to their houses of worship.  Bibles, Torahs and Qurans are not being confiscated from peoples homes.

Want to know what an attack is, Assemblyman Graf, ask Jessia Ahlquist.

Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House and a current contender for the Republican presidential nomination, declared not long ago that an atheist has no business in the White House, and went on to add:

“Does faith matter? Absolutely,” Gingrich said. “How can you have judgment if you have no faith? How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” He continued, “the notion that you are endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary of what we mean by America.” Gingrich said that Americans should value religion first, above morality and knowledge.

This from a guy who couldn't be trusted to honor his marital vows to his first two wives.  I think the only reason why we shouldn't expect him to cheat on his third wife is because at his age and physical shape no other woman would be remotely interested in sleeping with him.  

No, religion is not under assault in America.  What is being challenged (I think assault is hardly the right word to use) is the notion of religious privilege in this country.  And history shows that whenever people believe that their privileged position is threatened, they lash out, sometimes violently, though more often it is confined to verbal vitriol.  

Witness Jessica Ahlquist's state representative, Peter Palumbo, referring to the 16-year old girl as an "evil little thing." 

If you look at the press release page for Palumbo's web site, what would you think of him had you known nothing about Jessica Ahlquist and what he said about her?  One conclusion that you would draw is that he is an advocate for parents of children with autism.  Another area he focuses on is strengthening laws against sex offenders.  Palumbo also regularly goes on volunteer humanitarian missions, most recently to Nicaragua.

If you are an atheist and all you knew about Palumbo was the terrible things he said about Jessica Ahlquist, you might think that he is one of the biggest assholes in the world.  I would be more nuanced about it and say that Palumbo overall is probably a good guy, but because of his religious beliefs, he reverts to being a knee jerk asshole when the religious privilege he supports is challenged.

Where does this anger and hatred stem from?  I intend to do a fuller post about it at some point in the near future, but in summary, I would attribute it to the ceremonial deism that suffuses this country, the notion that we are a "nation under God", or as I like to call it, one of the bullshit stories we tell ourselves.  Because we supposedly have some special connection to a deity that is said to have created the entire universe, it's taken for granted by a segment of the population that having "In God We Trust" on our money, "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, and having Christian denominated prayers and sayings on display in our schools and court houses is not only normal, but obligatory.   People don't like having their cherished myths challenged.  It is that myth that is starting to be challenged, and, which I would argue, should be replaced by a better reality, one that acknowledges that we are a diverse, pluralistic nation of believers and nonbelievers that can and should serve as a beacon to the rest of the world.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Indonesia Sucks

Many in the atheist blogosphere by now know that an Indonesian man has been arrested for writing that God did not exist on a Facebook page.

According to the Indonesian Embassy website, "Six world religions are formally recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism."  Of course, atheism isn't a religion, but the Indonesian government doesn't even give you the option to opt out of having to select any religion at all.

The problem with Indonesia is more than just the fact that atheism is not legally permitted.  Even adherents of officially recognised religions are facing increasing discrimination at the hands of militant Sunni Muslims.

The following excerpt from this article from Human Rights Watch tells the story:

Religious tolerance in Indonesia is in danger. There has been a surge in deadly sectarian attacks against religious communities and dozens of mosques and churches have been forced to close. In the first nine months of 2011, the Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 184 incidents of religious violence — a higher rate than the annual average of 204 such attacks over the last four years. About 80 percent of these attacks took place on Java, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and targeted Christians, Shia Muslims, Bahai, and the Ahmadiyah, who consider themselves Muslim but whom many Muslims consider heretics.

Attacks against the Ahmadiyah have gotten increasingly violent because perpetrators know sectarian violence is not seriously prosecuted in Indonesia. In a deadly attack in February, a 1,500-strong mob of Islamist militants beat three Ahmadiyah men to death and seriously injured five others in the village of Cikeusik, Banten. Although the brutal violence was captured on film, only 12 of the attackers were tried and they received prison sentences of just three to six months. The prosecutors claimed the Ahmadiyah provoked the attack and sentenced one victim who nearly lost an arm to six months in prison for assault and disobeying police orders.

The Ahmadiyah are not the only victims. This year, militants have burned down Christian churches in Temanggung, Central Java, and a suicide bomber targeted a church in Solo, killing himself and wounding 14 churchgoers. Churches in Riau were burned down in August and now, perhaps in retaliation, a mosque in predominantly Christian West Timor is facing similar pressure to close.

The situation will only get worse unless the Indonesian government starts to take this problem seriously.  No pluralistic society can survive if the fanatic members of one group start engaging in discriminatory and violent behavior against the other groups.  My fellow atheists should condemn those who seek to denigrate, by their words or by their actions, people of other religions just as they would condemn those, like a certain presidential candidate, who attack atheists.

The address and contact info for the Indonesian Embassy are as follows:

2020 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036, USA
Phone (202) 775 - 5200; Fax. (202) 775 - 5365

The Bahamas Trip - Closing Thoughts

Yeah, I know.  The trip was nearly six months ago and I'm still writing about it.

If you are looking to go scuba diving on a live aboard, you can't go wrong with the Aqua Cat.  For myself, it was a different experience than most divers, as I took my two kids with me, aged 10 and 8.  Unlike my Belize trip in 2009, this wasn't going to be a complete escape from the daily humdrum of life.

Still, I am glad that I took my son and daughter along for the trip.  It was a chance for them to experience something totally different from what they had done before.  For my son in particular, it proved to be an opportunity to push his boundaries and do things that I never thought he was capable of.   My son is normally a timid child who is hesitant to take chances or do anything outside of his comfort zone.   But on this trip, as I believe I wrote in an earlier post, he took me totally by surprise.  Not only did he take to snorkelling, getting the hang of it quickly in a rather calm lagoon, he took the bold step of going into waters filled with Caribbean Reef sharks. 

Andrew might even go so far as trying his hand at scuba diving when we go on our trip to the Caymans in July.

Where my kids are concerned, I have to give a special shout out to Aqua Cat crew members Nathan and Stacey.  Nathan in particular spent a lot of time with my kids and keeping them occupied with fun activities.  My kids each got to captain two of four teams in a series of contests that required participants to engage in some silly and sometimes embarrasing tasks.  My daugher's team The Goofballs ended up winning, and in the video below Kellyanne gets her prize.

Stacey was the crew member kind enough to take my son snorkelling while I was away on my diving misadventure.  She is the one pictured in the photo above with the yellow finds swimming alongside Andrew.  Stacey also was in the awkward position of being the lone female in a crew of ten.  I hope that future voyages had some better gender ratios for her.

For myself, it was a wonderful trip.  Our group included a lot of friends I made from the Belize trip and some great new people.  When I made the decision to go to Belize in 2009 and take up scuba diving, it just opened up a whole new world for me and changed my life for the better in so many ways.  When I hit middle age, I had a yearning to do something adventurous in my life, and scuba diving really fit the bill.

Exercise in Futility at Reason Rally on March 24, 2012

I've just recently become aware of the Reason Rally scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, March 24.  Barring anything unexpected that might come up to prevent me from going, I am planning to attend.

If you haven't heard about it yet, here's the website for Reason Rally

The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 4:00PM at the National Mall. There will be music, comedy, speakers, and so much more.

If anyone from the New York area wants to go and is interested in carpooling, let me know and we'll see what we can work out.  Just leave a message in the comments.  I imagine some people will want to head down there Friday evening, though I'll more likely drive down very early in the morning and either return Saturday night or stay the night and return early Sunday.

Exercise In Futility Drunken Blogathon

In a sort of tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens, I will be doing a blogathon tonight while under the increasing influence of alcohol.  It's a cold Friday night, I'm stuck in the house, so why the hell not.  Let's see if the quality of my posts goes up or down as the night progresses.  Alright, here we go!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Shifting Attitudes on Gay Marriage and Abortion - The Personal Factor

I finished Putnam and Campbell's Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us last week.  In Chapter 11, titled Religion in American Politics, the authors look at how attitudes towards gay marriage and abortion have changed over the recent decades.

The authors cite a 1988 General Social Survery in which only 12% of respondents supported same-sex marriage.  In the 2006 Faith Matters survey, 34% of respondents supported gay marriage while another 30% supported civil unions.  Support for same-sex marriage rises among younger generations.

Putnam and Campbell attribute greater acceptance towards gay marriage among people to two main factors.  First, younger Americans "have become politically and socially aware during a period in which homosexuality has been increasingly featured positively in the popular media.  Gay characters are common in TV programs and movies and many prominent gay celebrities project an image of respectabilty."

Second, "[y]oung people are also the least religious age group.  Since religiosity is such a strong predictor of attitudes toward same-sex marriage, and homosexuality more generally, it comes as no surprise that the most secular cohort of the population is the most accepting of gay marriage."

The trend towards increasingly liberal views among younger Americans with regard to social issues like gay marriage or premarital sex is not matched by increasing acceptance for abortion.  The authors note that this does not mean that younger Americans are increasingly supportive of banning abortions completely, but rather are more in favor of restricting abortion in certain circumstances.

Putnam and Campbell do offer "another hypothesis for young people's unease with abortion that...remains a plausible hunch rather than a tested proposition - the prevalence of in utero ultrasound images."

This could explain why the anti-choice movement has its best successes when it aims to chip away at abortion rights a piece at a time here and there.   For example, Texas passed a law last year requring women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound image of the fetus before getting an abortion.  Other states, like South Dakota have sought to impose mandatory waiting periods and to require women seeking an abortion to visit a crisis pregnancy center.  But when the anti-choice movement tries to go for the whole enchilada, as with the Personhood ballot initiative that was shot down by voters in Mississippi last year, they tend to lose badly.

Another factor cited by the authors, and one that I have seen mentioned elsewhere, is that younger voters today are far removed from the era of backalley abortions that existed prior to Roe v. Wade.  In a way, the very success of the pro-choice movement to provide safe, legal abortions for such a long period of time has seen the coming of age of a generation that knows almost nothing about the conditions that gave rise to the pro-choice movement in the first place.

While probably true, there is another reason that attitudes towards abortion have not matched the increasingly liberal views towards gays and same-sex marriage, and that would be the personal factor.  In this day and age, I think it is safe to say that an overwhelming number of people in the United States who are heterosexual have a family member, friend or acquaintance who is gay and who is known to that heterosexual to be gay.

It is a lot easier to demonize homosexuals when they are some abstract other, reduced to crude stereotypes of parading drag queens and limp-wristed sissies.  It is not so easy to be homophobic when the person who admits his/her homosexuality to you is your beloved sibling, uncle, close friend, popular teacher or someone else you have long admired.  A person with negative attitudes towards gays in such a situation finds themselves faced with a dilemma.  Does one's loathing towards homosexuals outweigh the high regard held for the person who has come out to you as a homosexual?  Or does one's love and affection for that person tip the scales towards acceptance?   If this person will be a part of your life for years to come, the realization seeps in that not only is this person a homosexual today, he or she will still be gay tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and so on.

Of course, having a family member or close friend who is gay does not automatically translate towards acceptance of homosexuals.  Think Newt Gingrich and his lesbian half-sister Candace.  Phyllis Schlafly, one of America's longest serving right wing culture warriors, who has a gay son.  And then there's Alan Keyes and his lesbian daughter Maya.  What probably does happen for most people in such a situation is a gradual shift in attitudes towards gays.  Accepting a close family member or friend who is homosexual might result at first in a grudging acceptance, sort of "Well, this one is okay, but the others are still just a bunch of queers!" to gradual feelings of repulsion at hearing homophobic rhetoric when one realizes, "Wait a minute, my best friend is gay, so how can you say that?"

With abortion, the personal factor greatly diminishes.  As I wrote above, a person who is gay today will be gay tomorrow and for the remainder of that person's life.  Abortion, on the other hand, is something a woman who opts for the procedure might need once or at most twice in her life.  Unplanned pregnancy and abortion is generally a private matter that a woman in such a situation will keep entirely to herself.  No woman will tell her boss, "I need to have next Thursday off.  I just found out I'm three weeks pregnant and I need the day off to get an abortion."  She won't walk out of the clinic after the procedure sporting a button on her shirt that reads "Be Nice To Me.  I Had An Abortion Today." 

Because abortion is such a private matter, the personal factor does not come into play like it does with gays.  We probably all are related to or are friends with women who have had abortions but have no idea that they have had an abortion.  It probably makes it a lot easier to support restricting or even banning abortion when you do not know of any women who have ever had one, and just as importantly, why they felt they needed it.  The secrecy of abortion might also contribute to the phenomenon of women who have gotten abortions themselves but who still believe that abortion is wrong

One of the reasons why acceptance of homosexuality increased in recent years was due to an active campaign by the gay community to encourage gays to come out of the closet, which forced many heterosexual Americans to face the choice that I described above.  With a record number of abortion restriction measures being introduced, and in some cases passed, by state legislatures in 2011, perhaps the time has come for a similar Out campaign by women who have had abortions.  I'm sure that there are some women who are pro-choice activists who do speak about their own personal experiences when lobbying and advocating for abortion rights.  Indeed, when I was at a Planned Parenthood rally in downtown Manhattan last February, several of the women speakers did say that they themselves had an abortion at some point in their lives.  Still, I don't think it is as easy to form a large scale campaign for women who have had abortions that could match the gay Out campaign.  As I reiterated already, gay people will always be gay.  A 47 year old woman who had an abortion when she was 20 because she didn't want to have kids before she finished college and who will likely never need to have an abortion again at her age might see it as something from her past better left undisturbed. 

That being the case, with the anti-choice movement trying to push personhood amendments and fetal hearbeat bills in state legislatures, there is going to have to be a strong pushback from the abortion rights to put the focus where is belongs, back on the women whose bodies the forced birthers want to hijack with the backing of the coercive apparatus of the state.  One way of doing that would be a vocal campaign made up of large numbers of women who have had abortions, thereby putting a true human face back on the debate instead of ceding the debate to ultrasound pictures.

God's Quarterback Part 2

The picture above basically sums up what the New England Patriots did to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos yesterday in an incredibly lopsided 45-10 win.  If it weren't for the one pass that Denver intercepted in Patriots territory putting them in good field position to score their one touchdown, the score likely would have ended up being 45-3.

In last month's post, God's Quarterback, I put forward what I call my Tim Tebow Challenge.  If Tebow could win three consecutive Super Bowls, one for each part of the Trinity, I would become a born again Christian.  Thanks to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos won't be in the Super Bowl this year, thus earning me a one year reprieve.  If Tebow is ever going to notch three Super Bowl victories in a row, I'm good until at least February of 2015.

In an interesting irony, the Denver Broncos this season were 1-4 when Tebow took over as starting quarterback, and in Tebow's last five games, the Denver Broncos are 1-4.   A reversion to the mean, perhaps?

Still, because I strive to be fair-minded, I'm happy to give Tebow and the Broncos their due.  They achieved far more than their critics predicted.  During Tebow's time as their starting quarterback, the Broncos went from being in the basement to being in the playoffs.   As I wrote in my previous post on Tim Tebow, the part of me that wants to root for the underdog got a kick out of seeing Tebow defy his critics who said he couldn't cut it in the NFL.  I know a lot of his critics like to dismiss his winning streak, chalking it up to injuries on the opposing team, the other team playing not to lose in the 4th quarter, or just dumb luck, among other things.  While there is validity to these criticisms, ultimately, a win is a win is a win. 

On the other hand, what I cannot abide are the Tebow fans who accuse his critics of being motivated by Tebow's religiosity.  While clearly some are, as I've written before, this atheist couldn't give a shit about Tebow's ostentatious religiosity.  In fact, I love it, precisely because when he and the Broncos get their asses kicked by top tier teams, it shows how ridiculous Tebow's Bible thumper fans are to claim he is some kind of divine instrument when the Broncos win in overtime on a Matt Prater field goal.

I like to think I see Tim Tebow for what he really is, a mediocre quarterback given to public displays of Christian piety who is sometimes somewhat better than his critics give him credit for.

With Denver knocked out of the playoffs, thankfully we won't be hearing much about Tebowmania for the next 8 months until the 2012 season gets under way.  My prediction for Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos is that they won't have an awful season like this season's Indianapolis Colts, nor will they have any six game winning streaks like they managed this season.  Tebow will probably have a season like Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets had in 2011, he'll win a game or two, then lose a game or two, and so on until the end of the season.  Not exactly what one would expect or hope for if Tebow really was God's quarterback.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Revelling In His Own Douchebaggery

With the exception of Jon Huntsman, when I look at the batch of candidates campaigning to be the Republican presidential nominee, I see a collection of vile, meanspirited assholes.  For a while, I felt that Newt Gingrich was at the head of the pack in terms of prickery.  But with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's near win in the Iowa caucuses last week, he is finding himself more and more in the spotlight, propelling him ahead of Newt in the douchebag department.

Santorum's had quiet a few juicy nuggets lately to rile the masses.  His message to children with gay parents is that they would be better off with a father in prison.  He was booed by members of an audience when he declared that gays weren't entitled to marriage or military service.  And here's what he had to say when a woman complained about the cost of her prescription medication:

I had a woman the other day who came up and complained to me that she has to pay $200 a month for her prescriptions…I said, in other words, this $200 a month keeps you alive, she goes yes. I said, and you’re complaining that you’re paying $200 a month and it keeps you alive? What’s your cable bill? I mean, what’s your cell phone bill? Because she had a cell phone. And how can you say that you complain that you have $200 to keep you alive and that’s a problem? No, that’s a blessing!"

ThinkProgress has a collection of some of Ricky's outrageous statements here.

It almost seems as if Ricky gets off on pissing people off.  And then as I read more about him, I understood Rick Santorum perfectly.  He's the "bad guy" that you see in those professional wrestling matches on tv.  He's the one who taunts the crowd and gets them to boo him. 

This excerpt from a recent article from The New York Times is rather telling:

People in both parties over the years have accused him of hotheaded name-calling, reliance on immature antics and attempts to reduce politics to steel-cage matches between people cast as heroes or heels.

“He would attack people in a smug way that was harder-edged and more insulting than was necessary, said Mark Salter, the former chief of staff to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, adding that lawmakers in both parties shared this view. “He was a bully who was not a potent enough force to be a bully.”

Not surprisingly, Rick Santorum has a connection to professional wrestling, as "prior to getting involved in politics, Santorum worked at a law firm, where he once argued in court—successfully—that pro wrestling should be exempt from steroid regulations because it's staged (and therefore not a sport)."

From what I have read so far, Mitt Romney will likely win the New Hampshire primary by a comfortable margin, so Santorum will be looking to the more socially conservative South Carolina voters to give him a boost.  I suspect that Santorum knows he doesn't really have a chance to win the Republican nomination.  But he will stay in the race anyway because it will give him the chance to do what he loves the most, stand in front of a camera and an audience so he can rail against abortion and butt sex.

Measuring Generosity - Charity and Food Stamps

Because of the length of space devoted to addressing the Boy Scouts and why secular Americans are largely not involved in it, I decided to address my second critique of Putnam and Campbell's American Grace in a separate post.

Again, my intention is not to dispute in its entirety the authors contention that religious people are more generous than secular people, though if any atheist bloggers reading this want to take on the whole enchilada, feel free to take a crack at it. 

Putnam and Campbell write on page 448 of the hardcover edition that "Regular churchgoers are more likely to give to secular causes than nonchurchgoers, and highly religious people give a larger fraction of their income to secular causes than do most secular people."

If that is indeed the case, then all I can say is bravo to you generous religious people.  In a society where donating time and money to worthy causes is a metric for measuring the positive contributions of individuals, those who contribute more than the average are certainly to be commended for their efforts and good works.

As a full time employee and father of two young children, I wish I had more free time to volunteer for causes that were important to me.  During my college years, I was a hotline counselor and I did a stint as a volunteer firefighter around 10 years or so ago before dropping out because my parental responsibilities made it impossible for me to meet my alarm requirements.  I do try to donate blood at least once a year, and last year managed a record five times, one shy of the maximum persmissible in a one year span.  For 2012, my New Years resolution is to repeat the feat (rhyme intended!).  I also make an effort to contribute monetarily to charities such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, as well as local hunger relief organizations like Island Harvest and Long Island Cares

So yeah, volunteering and donating to causes that genuinely help people like hunger relief is wonderful. In these difficult economic times when so many people are out of work and struggling to put food on the table, food banks here on Long Island, among many other places, are being taxed to the limit to meet the increased demand. 

While people volunteer for altruistic reasons, it shouldn't be a surprise that a lot of volunteers are motivated in part by the feelings of self worth they derive from helping others.  In other words, in order for them to derive the satisfaction of helping the needy, they need a pool of people who need help in order to provide them with this experience.   When you are volunteering at a soup kitchen handing a tray with a meal to a hungry person, the volunteer can feel a personal connection to the person who needs that meal and know that at least that night, that needy person will not go hungry and that you were part of the process that made that happen.  But is it the best way to address the problem of hunger in America?

Of course, volunteer food pantries and soup kitchens are not the only ways we try to feed the poor in this country.

One of the best known government programs to provide food assistance to low income Americans is the Department of Agriculture's SNAP program, more popularly known as food stamps.  In order to be able to apply for food stamps, one has to meet certain eligibility requirements, which can be found here

The Food Stamp program, as you probably know, is funded by our tax dollars.  It is probably precisely for that reason that makes it impersonal to us, unlike volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry, where you may very likely be giving the food to the person in need and getting that personal connection.  Unless you have been on food stamps yourself, or know someone personally who has, the only personal involvement you might have is seeing someone using them to purchase groceries ahead of you at the checkout counter at your local supermarket once in a while.  I doubt very many people in this country, when they look at their paystubs, think to themselves "Wow, I'm so glad I am able to contribute a portion of my salary so that the less fortunate in this country can have food stamps and be able to feed their children!"

In Chapter 8, titled The Women's Revolution, the Rise of Inequality, and Religion, Putnam and Campbell note that "68 percent of the most secular Americans favor government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor comprated to 57 percent of the most religious fifth of the populationRoughly two thirds of secular Americans favor increased government aid to poor people compared to 46 percent among the most religious fifth of the population."

The authors go on to add that "highly religious Americans today are somewhat less supportive than the general population of public policies to address poverty and inequality, and they prefer private provision to public action.  They have not worked to stem the growth of inequality, unlike past religious people who, as we have seen, often campaigned passionately for greater equality and social justice."

One can see that reflected in the rhetoric of at least two of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  Gingrich derisively referred to President Obama as the "food stamp president" and recently declared "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps" as if the choice was between food stamps and jobs, when eligibility for food stamps is based on income.  The Frothy One, on the other hand, claimed food stamps were not necessary because so many low income people were obese.

Gingrich and Santorum are among the more vocal culture warriors in the Republican presidential pack, and they were both avidly seeking the evangelical vote in Iowa.   Putnam and Campbell note in their book that the Republican Party is perceived by a large swathe of religious voters as the religion friendly party.  It's rather telling, therefore, that Gingrich and Santorum felt that attacking a well known government program to provide food assistance to needy Americans was part of their message to these voters.   Please note though that I am not trying to say that being an evangelical Christian or devoutly religious person means that such a person is inclined to support eliminating food stamps, but rather that Gingrich and Santorum seem to think it is a message that "values voters" want to hear.  While such a message may not resonate with all of them, unfortunately, it probably does appeal to some of them.

Because of the influence of the Tea Party movement and elements of the Religious Right, advocating government assistance for the needy in the Republican Party has become toxic.   Raising tax rates back to what they were under President Clinton is condemned as class warfare, while shredding the social safety net is praised as fiscal responsibility.  What ends up happening in all of this is that real people, vulnerable people, get hurt.   But you can feel better about yourself if you hand them a can of chicken noodle soup and a box of Cheerios at the food pantry.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Measuring Generosity and Community Involvement - The Boy Scouts

First off, Belated Happy New Year to you all.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading American Grace: How Religions Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.  American Grace examines religiosity in America and how it impacts so many aspects of our lives, including how we vote in elections and how we relate to one another.  Putnam and Campbell also have a blog connected with the book at here.  It's a very good read filled with lots of interesting information.  The book has also provided me with some topics for future blog posts, but there a couple of critiques I wanted to make to address one of the later chapters in the book.

In Chapter 13, titled Religion and Good Neighborliness, the authors claim that the data from the Faith Matters Survey of 2006 show that people who attend church frequently are better neighbors, that they are more generous in donating to charity, volunteering for charitable causes, more likely to be involved in community organizations, and are more engaged in local and civic political life.  One reason the authors suggest this might be is that people who attend church frequently develop stronger social networks that facilitate greater involvement in civic activities outside of church than either religious people who do not regularly attend church or those who are secular and do not attend religious services at all.

I don't intend to dispute this, though of course I am sure even Putnam and Campbell would agree that some secular people are more generous and involved in their community than some regular churchgoers.

One bone I have to pick with them though is when they cite the involvement of religious people in youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts.  The authors don't address a very important reason, at least in their book, why secular people are not involved with the Boys Scouts (and presumably the Girl Scouts) anywhere near the level of involvement as religious people.  And that is because the Boy Scouts have a mandatory religious component to their programs.  (Emphasis mine)  I know this because a couple of years ago I enrolled my then 9 year old son into the Cub Scouts.  At the time he expressed an interest in joining.  When I was filling out the application form, I noted a reference to religion and raised it with one of the Boy Scout parents there.  He tried to assuage me by telling me that the religion part only really comes into play later on.  So, I suppressed my concerns and submitted the check and the application form.

At the orientation that night, they also provided a list of items that we needed to purchase for our children from the Boy Scouts store in Massapequa, including the uniform.  My son, because of his age, was supposed to be at the Webelos level, so I also had to buy the Webelos Handbook.

The handbook advised that if your son joins the Scouts as a Webelos, he first has to earn the Bobcat badge.  Okay, I thought, let's get that out of the way. 

Item number one for earning the Bobcat badge is learning the Cub Scout Promise, which appears on page 43 of the handbook.  And that's where my first problem arose.  Here are the words to the Cub Scout Promise:

"I [say your name], promise
To do my best
To do my duty to God
And my country,
To help other people, and
To obey the Law of the Pack."

Further down the page, each line of the promise is explained, with the "duty to God" part explained as follows:

"Your duty to God is done with God's help.  That means you practice your religion at home, in your church or synagogue or other religious group, and in everything you do." (Bolded in original)

Right off the bat I was faced with a conundrum.  As an atheist parent, I was put in the awkward position of asking my son to memorize a pledge to perform a duty to a god when I am not only not raising him in any religious tradition or belief, but do not believe in the existence of a deity that wants or requires us to owe it any duty.  Furthermore, how could a 9 year old child even develop an informed opinion about whether there is a god and what, if anything, it wants from him?  One might as well ask my son for his opinion about a complex topic such as health care reform.

But then it got worse.  I read the Webelos Handbook further to see what else might lay in store down the road in the religion department.  I did not have to go very far.  Seven pages later, the handbook listed the requirements for earning the Webelos badge.  Item number eight concerned "Faith."  Jump to page 68, which had the following under the heading "Your Religious Duties":

"Webelos badge requirement 8 concerns your religious duties; it helps you learn more about your religious beliefs and how to commit to and practice ways to be closer to God."  I couldn't help but think, "That's BULLSHIT!"

Back to page 50, the handbook went into more specific detail about the religion requirement. Among the choice items:

"KNOW: Tell what you have learned about faith."

"COMMIT: Tell how these faith experiences help you live your duty to God."

"With your religious leader, discuss and make a plan to do two things you think will help you draw nearer to God."

I raised these concerns with the local Scout pack leadership.  I asked if my son could recite the Cub Scout Promise with the God language omitted, but they said they could not accomodate that.  The one sop they offered was that we could decide ourselves what God meant.  They even said that my son could fulfill his religious requirement through a humanist organization such as the Ethical Culture Society of Long Island.   But that didn't even cut to the heart of what I felt the real problem was, that there was a religious requirement at all.  My secondary objection to the religious requirement was that it only serves to reinforce societal prejudice against atheists in America by equating good citizenship with being religious and going to church.  Is it any wonder that atheists often find themselves as one of the least trusted groups of people in the United States in surveys?  Why couldn't the Boy Scouts have a character requirement of which religion could be an optional part?

After maybe six months, I pulled my son out of the Scouts.  The religious requirement issue was the main reason, though not the only one.  Several times a month my son's den had meetings at one of the elementary schools in the district.  Because it was a school at the other end of town, I often stayed in the cafeteria where the meetings were held.  Even though there were only about ten kids at the most, several of them were frequently very rowdy and poorly behaved, resulting in the Scout parents conducting the meetings to lose their patience and sometimes blow their stacks.  I couldn't help but wonder what was so great about the Boy Scouts being some kind of conduit for teaching kids good citizenship and values when the meetings of my son's den were frequently disrupted by poorly behaved children. 

I will check out Putnam and Campbell's Amazing Grace blog to see if the issue of religion and the Boy Scouts is raised, and if not, I will bring it to their attention and see if they address it.