The FFRF and the Separation of Church and State

The Freedom From Religion Foundation catches a lot of flack from religious people. No surprise there. Given their name, they sort of describe their mission right from the word go.

Stephen was one of those who the FFRF had offended. He was incensed that the First Amendment advocacy group had taken up the cause of a person who was experiencing some type of religious overreach. Rather than sympathize with this person, Stephen felt the FFRF was instead, promoting an “atheist” religion by means of some kind of atheist inquisition. He also was convinced that the USA is a “JudeoChristian” nation, therefore Christianity should be allowed some measure of overreach.

You’ve probably heard these claims before. Today’s post is my response to Stephen:

***********************************

Dear Stephen, I can tell you are frustrated, but I think if you take a step back, you might recognize that all is not lost.

First, there is no such thing as the “atheist religion.” That’s a contradiction in terms. “A-theism” (I use the dash to highlight the two parts of the word) is simply the state of not believing the god claims of all the other religions. It’s basically the exact opposite of claiming that a particular god is real.

Second, the United States is a secular nation, not a Judeo-Christian nation. It is true however, that the US has hundreds of millions of religious people in it. It’s important to distinguish between the law and the majority. Our secularism protects your beliefs about your god as much as it does a Hindu’s beliefs about her gods, a Jew’s beliefs about her god, a Muslim’s belief about her god, and so on, as well as protecting an atheist’s right to not have any of those god beliefs foisted upon her, or anyone else for that matter, by the state.

Finally, our nation is intended to be an open marketplace of ideas and the actual Inquisition, in which Christianity was mandated by the authorities under threat of death and torture, is thankfully long gone. We live in a time when the expression of ideas is protected. And just think, without exposure to other ideas, how would you know if you were wrong? So by defending the First Amendment, the FFRF is protecting all of us, including you.

Progress, Stephen, is a good thing.

The Story of Mike and his son, Alex

Mike was one of the best car mechanics in Bloomington.

He’d been working on cars for the better part of two decades. He was making a great living, had a wonderful, supporting wife named Linda, and a steady stream of returning customers. But Mike and Linda were not able to have children of their own, so knowing that he had no one to pass his business on to, to say that Mike was discontent, would be a massive understatement. Mike and Linda were getting old.

This sad situation led Mike and Linda to make some…shall we say…questionable decisions. You see, Both Linda and Mike desperately wanted a family. One day, Linda had an idea. Linda’s housekeeper was a young and attractive woman named Natalia, and over the years they had grown very close. Since Linda couldn’t have children of her own, and since Natalia was so close to the family, she thought, why not let Mike sleep with Natalia, with the hope that Natalia might carry Mike’s child?

Mike loved the idea, and frankly, so did Natalia. Alas, nature did what nature does, and a child was born. They named him Billy.

As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, Linda become increasingly enraged with jealousy. She couldn’t stand the sight of Natalia nor Billy. Mike could see Linda’s hatred starting to bubble up.

Now here’s where things started to get a little bit weird.

Mike was getting really old, and he was starting to hear voices in his head. For him, this seemed perfectly normal. But to those around him, it was a bit freaky. He was starting to have serious, back and forth conversations with himself.

One day, Mike pulled Linda aside and told her something.

“Linda,” said Mike, “we’re going to have a baby of our own!”

Linda was of course, incredulous.

“Mike, I’m an old woman. You’re an old man. Have you completely lost your mind?”

“Linda, I don’t question the voice. And the voice told me it is to be,” said Mike.

And wouldn’t you know it, Linda got pregnant! Turns out, she wasn’t too old to have kids after all. But this had a slightly unintended side effect. Mike was now convinced that the voice in his head had some kind of magical power.

So, Mike and Linda finally had a child of their own. They named him Alex. And while there was still some tension between Natalia and Linda, with both Billy and Alex being Mike’s sons, Mike reassured them both that the voice in his head was telling them that everything was going to be great!

Until one day, when the voice told Mike that Alex had to die.

The voice in Mike’s head had grown…insecure. After all the good that it had brought to Mike, with the growing shop, the wife, the mistresses, the kids, it was beginning to question Mike’s devotion.

“Mike, the next time you’re in the shop with young Alex,” the voice said, “I’m going to need you to do something for me.”

“What is it?” answered Mike, hesitantly. He didn’t like the tone the voice in his head had adopted, but he had grown to trust its every instruction.

“Mike, I’m going to need you lay Alex across the large anvil in the back of the shop. Then you need to file the edge of spark plug so that it comes to a fine point. Finally, you need to use the ball-peen hammer, and drive that spark-plug right into Alex’s little heart.”

Do you think Mike balked at his own insanity? Do you think he dropped what he was doing and called an ambulance to come pick him up immediately for a psychological evaluation?

No.

Mike did exactly what Mike told Mike to do.

The next day, the young Alex was in the shop, watching as his dad filed the spark-plug down to a pencil sharp point.

“Dad,” said Alex, “what are you doing?”

“Following instructions my son,” said Mike, wild-eyed, as he turned to face his son, hammer in one hand, spark-plug in the other.

He lunged for Alex. The boy was no match for the much stronger mechanic, whose hands had grown powerful over decades of working on car engines.  He grabbed the child and lashed him to the anvil in the back. The boy was screaming and crying, but it was no use. He was tied fast to the cold steel.

Mike was breathing in and out in great gulps of air. His adrenaline was surging. He loved his son dearly, but he felt he must follow the commandments of the voice!  He stood over the child, placed the spark-plug over the boy’s tiny sternum, raised the ball-peen hammer high above his head, and just as he was about to plunge the metal into Alex’s rapidly beating heart, the voice spoke to him.

“Mike! Mike! It’s me. Your voice. Hang on,” said the voice.

Mike stopped mid swing.

“You don’t really have to kill him. I was just checking to see if you really liked me,” it said. “Wow. I mean, you were really going to do it weren’t you? You were about to kill your own kid!”

The voice was giddy.

Mike said, “But you told me to do it?”

“I know, I know, I just wanted to test you. Listen, never mind that you should be arrested for attempted murder and probably locked away for the rest of your life in a mental health facility for the criminally insane, and never mind that Alex will need countless hours of therapy and will probably suffer from PTSD for the rest of his life. What matters is, that you love and worship me!”

Mike had a hearty laugh, and went on to become the founding figure of the two largest religions in the world.

Terror-Go-Round: Breaking the Cycle of Xenophobia

Syrian refugeesAs the German and French national football teams entertained a crowd of 80,000 supporters inside Paris’s Stade de France on Friday, November 13, three cowardly men—hellbent on the destruction of modernity and peace—tried unsuccessfully to get inside. Rather than wreaking havoc among the fans, the terrorists were forced by a vigilant security staff to accept what must have felt like a cheap consolation prize; they blew themselves up on the outside of the stadium and claimed an innocent life in the process. The match continued unabated.

As we now know, however, the terror didn’t end with the self-annihilation of those three. Elsewhere in Paris, men armed with automatic rifles mowed down over one-hundred unarmed concert goers and restaurant patrons before blowing themselves to smithereens in a crescendo of stolen and wasted life. The terror attacks by Islamist jihadists on unsuspecting Parisians was chilling in its callousness and nauseating in its depravity. Anger and fear were sure to follow. Indeed, the detonations in Paris set off a tsunami of xenophobia that sped across the Atlantic and washed over the American psyche in a surge of dangerous anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hysteria.

Politicians are nothing if not reactive. In the days following the Paris attacks, when asked about the possibility of accepting Syrian refugees, state after state turned red with a resounding “hell no.” Governors and congressmen—mostly Republicans, but a few Democrats too—rushed to slam their doors shut. Some GOP presidential candidates (see below) even went so far as to suggest that the best method for resolving the quandary between compassion and security would be to apply a “religious” test. The verified Christian refugees would be welcomed; the Muslims would be turned away. One can only imagine what such a test might resemble in practice: “What is your favorite holy book? Do you have any cross-shaped jewelry on your person?” (And while we’re verifying religious convictions, can the politicians suggesting this absurd test please recite the parable of the goats and the sheep from Matthew 25?) The idea is as absurd as it is decidedly un-American.

While random acts of violence are certainly terrifying, how did so many end up linking the terror attacks in Paris to the Syrian refugee crisis?

Simply put, a false narrative developed—a narrative that said the violent ISIL jihadists of the Paris attacks snuck across borders by posing as Syrian refugees. The facts say otherwise; all of the identified terrorists were actually European nationals, not refugees. But as we know too well, many choose to believe what fits their own internal narrative rather than what the facts actually indicate. And as we also know, for many those internal narratives were screaming anti-Muslim invectives long before the Paris attacks. Paris was simply another opportunity to draw a tribal boundary between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

This is where the meanings of words really start to matter. While it’s true that all Islamist extremists are Muslims, it’s also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not Islamist extremists. The inability or unwillingness of some to make that distinction has created an atmosphere of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the United States that not only brings out the very worst in us—as evidenced by bigots shouting at Muslims at city council meetings, by groups of heavily armed “protestors” surrounding Muslim families at mosques, and by a ranting taxi passenger shooting his Muslim cab driver in the back—it also means terrorism is winning this round.

By vilifying all Muslims, including those refugees in the direst need, and including our friends, neighbors, and colleagues simply trying to live peacefully in America, we are priming the violent jihadist pump. Factions like ISIL, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist groups hungry for another “holy” war simply wait for the disaffected, angry, antagonized, and hypnotized to find them. They want us to retreat into tribes. In fact, they need us to retreat into tribes. To paraphrase political commentator Maajid Nawaz: terrorist groups don’t radicalize. Radicalization occurs elsewhere. Only after convincing oneself of the “righteous cause” do individuals seek out terrorist groups. Violence perpetuates fear and fear precipitates violence.

So what to do? Obviously, terror attacks happen. Obviously, Islam has something to do with attacks performed in the name of Islam. Religious freedom, which is essentially freedom of speech, is a fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans. So where does that leave us?

First, our politicians must quit fanning the flames of hysteria. They must cease the incessant xenophobic drumbeat. Because the battle against Islamism is, at its core, ideological, and retreating into competing ideological tribes is a strategy that ensures perpetual conflict. In order to extinguish the Islamist ideology, as distinct from the religion of Islam, we have to be both precise and honest in how we talk about the challenge ahead.

Second, we should lead with compassion and with the liberal, secular values that bring peace and prosperity to pluralistic societies everywhere. Rather than cower in fear from the Muslims in need, and rather than castigate our own neighbors, we should be a shining example of enlightenment values at work—not only because it’s morally right, but because, pragmatically, we need majority Muslim countries to demand the same rule of law for themselves. They must see it working. We need to have open and peaceful conversations with the 1.5 billion Muslims who are not going to suddenly jettison their religion. And if we hope to have open and peaceful conversations, we need to recognize that claiming moral authority while turning away the neediest is an indefensible position.

Helping others in need extends compassion and celebrates our shared humanity. Compassion removes cultural barriers. Removing cultural barriers encourages people to listen to new ideas. Listening to new ideas helps people learn. Learning helps people determine what’s true. Understanding what’s true helps people abandon irrational beliefs. Getting rid of irrational beliefs removes the justification for harmful behaviors inspired by those beliefs. Eliminating harmful behaviors that cause others to suffer means people no longer need to seek refuge. Thus, through compassion, the cycle is broken.