Secular separatists

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week with more background on the “Imagine No Religion” ad campaign and related developments:

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists — in short, nonbelievers of every description — will gather in dozens of cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.

Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they’ll celebrate what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless — a surge in recognition that has many convinced they’re on the brink of making a mark on mainstream America…

Building on that momentum, nonbelievers have begun a very public campaign to win broad acceptance. On billboards and bus ads, radio commercials and the Internet, atheists are coming forward to declare, quite simply: We’re here. And we’re just like you.

The article is interesting throughout and includes the revelation that atheists now fund a congressional lobbyist. I’m looking forward to receiving a federal subsidy for the time I spend not worshiping. Hey, it works for farmers.

So what is this HumanLight day and what happened to its founders’ space bar?

In Western societies, late December is a season of good cheer and a time for gatherings of friends and families. During the winter holiday season, where the word “holiday” has taken on a more secular meaning, many events are observed. This tradition of celebrations, however, is grounded in supernatural religious beliefs that many people in modern society cannot accept. HumanLight presents an alternative reason to celebrate: a Humanist’s vision of a good future. It is a future in which all people can identify with each other, behave with the highest moral standards, and work together toward a happy, just and peaceful world.

I don’t want to denigrate a holiday that’s clearly filling a need for some people, but it seems a bit overly sensitive to think that Christmas is unfit for non-believers. The holiday has already become highly secularized and represents the very things listed above to millions of Americans, leaving them free to attach specific Christian meanings only if they choose to. For many non-Christians the day has as little do with the birth of Christ as it does with the pagan festivals that give it form. Given that HumanLight is not going to knock Christmas off its perch as the primary winter holiday any time soon, this is a good thing. It seems to me truer to the theme of universal good will to continue co-opting Christmas and making it our own than to replace it with an esoteric, separate celebration two days earlier. And if our aim is to make secularism more accepted and appealing, then we should perhaps not send the message that being an atheist requires giving up a treasured holiday with centuries of tradition behind it. (Though if HumanLight makes you happy, by all means enjoy it. The group responds to criticism, including discussion of the capitalized ‘L’, here.)

On a semi-related note, head over to the new Secular Right weblog. It’s got some good names behind it and is off to a promising start.

[WSJ link via Freedom and Shit.]

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God smites

A billboard conveying an atheist message has been taken down in Rancho Cucamunga:

The billboard, at the busy corner of Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, says “Imagine No Religion” in large letters on a stained-glass background. Underneath is the name of the group, “Freedom From Religion Foundation,” and the group’s Web address…

Judy Rooze, administrator of First Baptist Church of Rancho Cucamonga, which is two blocks from the billboard, was relieved it was coming down.

Rooze said it was unsettling.

“I understand people have freedom of speech, but this is taking it too far,” she said. “It’s very jarring.”

The request to remove the billboard came from the city, which had received 90 complaints from tolerant people of faith like Judy Rooze. It’s not clear from the reports how voluntary that request was, but that’s getting dangerously close to censorship. Cities have no business asking a billboard companies to take down signs just because they have an anti-religious message.

I wonder if Ms. Rooze was offended by the clever “God speaks” billboard suggesting that non-believers will spend eternity in Hell? I’m guessing not, and it’s hard to imagine a city asking that it be taken down so as not to offend secularists.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the dumbest anti-atheist prejudice I came across today. That dubious honor goes to Wall Street Journal editor Dan Henninger, whose columns I’m embarrassed to admit I enjoyed in college.

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What would Jesus palm?

I really enjoyed this behind the scenes look from Mother Jones at the annual convention of the Fellowship for Christian Magicians:

To demonstrate one of his favorite bits of legerdemain, [Duane] Laflin selects a boy named Drake and asks him to mark a quarter.

“This quarter represents Drake’s life,” announces Laflin, delivering a stream of well-rehearsed patter. “Now, it’s a treasure, isn’t it?” He places the coin in a small box, and retrieves a silver cube, which, he says, represents God’s will for Drake’s life. “Would you like to know what’s in the cube?” Laflin asks. Drake nods. Music swells from a set of portable speakers. “There’s only one way for you to know—you must give up your life. You can keep the quarter or pick God’s plan for your life. What’s your choice, Drake?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Drake picks God’s plan. Laflin hands him the silver cube. Nervously, the boy lifts its lid—only to find that it contains six smaller boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Inside the final box is a handkerchief with two quarters inside. One is unmarked; the other is his original coin. “When you make the decision to live for God and give your life to him, God gives your life back to you so you can live for God,” Laflin says as Drake stares at the coins in amazement. After Laflin finishes his lecture, audience members—mostly middle-aged men and teenage boys—line up for autographs.

One of the magicians covered is Andre Kole, whose gospel show I saw in Texas many years ago:

For some gospel magicians, the very fact that their powers aren’t supernatural is proof that the biblical miracles were real. “I carry tons of equipment in order to do my shows,” says André Kole, a famed magician who consults for David Copperfield and has mastered an illusion where he appears to walk on water. “If Jesus was a magician, you’d have to visualize 2,000 years ago Jesus and the disciples walking through the dusty streets of Galilee wearing sandals, with three diesel trucks behind them carrying all their equipment.”

Kole puts on a good show, but really, that’s an absurd argument. (It’s not just a random quote — the argument is a central part of his presentation.) I don’t know anyone who believes that Jesus was a magician. I know lots of people who think we shouldn’t be taking ancient religious books as literal truth. Can Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven from the Dome of the Rock be explained by advanced Middle Eastern illusion technology? No? Then we’d better start pulling rabbits out of our keffiyahs, because we’re all Muslims now.

The FCM convention does have one thing going for it that I envy: “The five-day event coincides with a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders.” The overwhelmingly male secular magic conventions I’ve attended would have been a lot more fun with a Gathering of Skeptical Cheerleaders going on next door.

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Praying for lower gas prices

From The Washington Post:

…unlike the customers rolling up to the station’s pumps this week, resigned to the fact that their wallets were about to take a beating, Rocky Twyman and company had a plan to bring that number tumbling down.

They would ask God to do it.

“Our pockets are empty, but we’re going to hold on to God!” Twyman, a community organizer from Rockville, said as he and seven other people formed a semicircle, held hands and sang, pleading for divine intervention to lower fuel prices.

It was the latest demonstration by Twyman’s movement, Pray at the Pump, which began in April. Since then, he has held group prayers at gas stations as far away as San Francisco, garnering international media attention and even claiming success in at least a couple of cases.

Some would say the proof of whether Twyman has the ear of the Almighty is in the result. On the first day of the movement, April 23, the national average price of a gallon of unleaded was $3.53, according to AAA. As of yesterday, it was $3.96.

The sad thing is this isn’t even close to being the dumbest energy policy idea to come out of Washington this year.

[Via TMN.]

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