Archive | Atheism

Tennessee Child Custody Law Favoring Parents Who Can Best Prepare Child for “a Life of Service”

I just ran across the Tennessee statute, Tenn Code Ann. § 36-6-404, that provides the factors that courts are to consider in determining physical custody as between two parents. Many states have such lists of factors, but the bold text seems to me to be unique to Tennessee:

(b) … The court shall make residential provisions for each child, consistent with the child’s developmental level and the family’s social and economic circumstances, which encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child. The child’s residential schedule shall be consistent with this part. If the limitations of § 36-6-406 [which basically deal with abusive, neglectful, criminal, or otherwise unfit parents] are not dispositive of the child’s residential schedule, the court shall consider the following factors:

(1) The parent’s ability to instruct, inspire, and encourage the child to prepare for a life of service, and to compete successfully in the society that the child faces as an adult;

(2) The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent, including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting responsibilities relating to the daily needs of the child;

(3) The willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interests of the child;

[Other factors, which are much more common in such statutes than factor 1 is, omitted. -EV]

(16) Any other factors deemed relevant by the court.

Now I know that Tennessee is the Volunteer State, but preferring parents who can inspire and encourage the child “to prepare for a life of service” strikes me as an improper judgment on the government’s part, and an interference with the parental rights [...]

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Another Example of Unconstitutional Religious Discrimination in Virginia Marriage Law

Co-blogger Eugene Volokh recently linked to a Virginia state court decision striking down as unconstitutional a state law that allowed religious societies without official clergy to designate only one member as having the power to perform wedding ceremonies, while religious groups that do have clergy can designate more. The court concluded that the First and Fourteenth Amendments bar this law because “The General Assembly [Virginia’s state legislature] cannot favor one type of religion over another without a compelling government interest and a narrowly tailored method.”

I think the same reasoning should lead to the invalidation of another form of religious discrimination in the marriage law of our beloved Commonwealth, which I blogged about in this 2009 post:

My fiancee and I are not religious, and we plan to have our wedding performed by Judge Jerry Smith of the Fifth Circuit, the federal judge I clerked for. Unfortunately, however, Judge Smith lives in Texas. This would be fine under state law if he were a minister or other religious leader; but secular wedding officiants must be state residents.

Virginia law allows any minister of a religious denomination to perform a wedding, even if he or she is not a resident. The same applies to religious leaders of faiths that don’t have any official ministers. Similarly, state law allows any Virginia resident to perform a wedding if he posts a bond, and permits federal and state judges resident in Virginia to officiate even without posting a bond. However, Virginia does not allow out-of-state judges or any other nonresident secular personages to officiate. Thus, we have a clear case of discrimination on the basis of religion. Nonresident ministers and other religious leaders can perform weddings in Virginia; but nonresident secular leaders cannot. This holds true even if the secular figure and the

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3-Year Sentence for Blasphemy in Egypt

Al Arabiya reports:

An Egyptian Copt arrested on suspicion of posting online an anti-Islam film that ignited Muslim protests around the world was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison, a court source said

Computer science graduate Alber Saber, 27, was arrested at his Cairo home on Sept. 13 after neighbours accused him of uploading sections of the film “Innocence of Muslims” and making another movie mocking all religions….

Prosecutors accused Saber of running Facebook pages calling for atheism, insulting Islam and Christianity and questioning religious beliefs….

Thanks to Charles Chapman for the pointer. [...]

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The Boy Scouts’ Other Discriminatory Policy

Over the last decade, a lot of attention has focused on the Boy Scouts’ policy banning gays and lesbians from participating as Scouts or working for the organization. Most recently, a group of Eagle Scouts have returned their merit badges in protest of the policy. Unfortunately, very few have protested the Boy Scouts’ equally unjustified exclusion of atheists and agnostics.

It would be understandable for the Boy Scouts to exclude atheists if the purpose of the organization was to promote a particular religion, such as Catholicism or Judaism. But in fact that is not their purpose at all. They accept members of any and all religions (including ones with beliefs that most Americans would find highly objectionable) so long as they believe in God. Such an “anyone but atheists and agnostics” policy smacks of bigotry.

The most likely reason for the Boy Scouts’ policy is the belief that you can’t be a moral person without believing in God. As I explain in this article, such beliefs are widespread (shared by about 50% of Americans), but false. One can be an atheist and yet still have strong ethical commitments. And there is no evidence that atheists or agnostics have higher rates of criminal or unethical behavior than religious believers do.

It’s also worth noting that the Girl Scouts have allowed open atheists and agnostics to participate since the early 1990s, allowing members to omit the word “God” from the Girl Scout oath. There is no evidence that this has caused any problems for the organization. The Boy Scouts should follow their example.

Prejudice against atheists is more widespread than hostility towards any other religious or ethnic group, and more common even than homophobia. But the Boy Scouts – and others who aspire to moral leadership – [...]

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Is Atheism a Religion?

At the Reason website, Kennedy (who apparently has only one name), argues at length that atheism should be considered a religion:

[W]hether you make sense of the world as an atheist and don’t require the God postulate to complete your understanding, or you are a theist and your feelings and experiences tell you something greater is there, biologically speaking, that big blob of gray Jell-O in our skulls is like a giant arrow pointing us in the same direction. I believe that is delicious. And religious….

I contend that if your system is about God—or about the non-existence of God—God is still at the center of the argument’s “aboutness.” In the spirit of that “off is a TV channel” comment above: God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he’s dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there’s a TV….

When atheists rail against theists (as many did on my Facebook page), they are using the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against a secular society. By calling atheism a religion, I am not trying to craft terms or apply them out of convenience. I just see theists and atheists behaving in the same manner, approaching from opposite ends of the runway.

These kinds of claims are often made, but they fall apart under close inspection. Obviously, if you define the term “religion” broadly enough, atheism can qualify. But such a redefinition obfuscates important differences between atheism and religion, and is also contrary to ordinary English usage.

Kennedy argues that atheism is like religion because both atheists and theists 1) try to understand the nature of the world, 2) have beliefs about God, and 3) are often emotional about their beliefs and intolerant of opposing views. All of these points are [...]

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Atheism, Religion, and Presidential Voting

The New York Times Room for Debate Forum has an interesting symposium on the role of religion in presidential elections. In his contribution, polling expert Andrew Kohut cites a 2007 Pew survey showing that atheism is viewed more negatively by voters than virtually any other possible trait of a presidential candidate. A whopping 63% of respondents said they would be “less likely” to vote for a presidential candidate who “doesn’t believe in God” (3% said they would be more likely). This easily exceeds the percentages who say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who never held elected office (56), a Muslim (46), a homosexual (46), a person who had “used drugs in the past” (45), or a Mormon (30). Opposition to female, black and Hispanic candidates is several times lower (ranging from 4 to 14 percent, though some racists and sexists probably hid their true attitudes from the pollster). A more recent 2011 version of the same survey gets very similar results when it comes to atheists (61%), though there is less hostility towards gays (33%).

By contrast, 39% in the 2007 survey said they would be more likely to vote for a Christian candidate, compared to only 4% who said they would be less likely. However, many voters apparently don’t want a candidate who seems too closely associated with religion. The same poll found that 25% would be less likely to vote for a candidate who has been a minister, while only 15% said they would be more likely to support him. The questions about Christians and ministers were not repeated in the 2011 study.

The data cited by Kohut reinforce other evidence showing that atheists are by far the most widely hated religious or ethnic minority in modern America. The evidence suggests that [...]

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The Next Round of Leah Libresco’s Turing Test for Religion

Leah Libresco has now posted many of the questions and answers for the next round of her Turing Test for religion. They are available at her blog. In the previous round, her fifteen test participants (some real atheists, and some Christians) answered four questions about atheism, trying to persuade readers that they are genuine atheists. In this round, the same people answer four questions about Christianity, seeking to persuade readers that they are genuine Christians. The eight questions are available here.

Readers will be able to vote on which respondents are the real Christians and which the fakers. [...]

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Leah Libresco’s Turing Test for Religion

Atheist blogger Leah Libresco has now begun to implement her Turing Test for religion, which I previously wrote about here. At her blog, she has recruited fifteen test participants who will first answer four questions about atheism, trying to persuade readers that they are real atheists. They will then answer four questions about Christianity, seeking to persuade readers that they are genuine Christians. The eight questions are available here. Some of the participants are actual atheists and the rest are Christians.

Readers will have the opportunity to see each test participant’s answers and then vote on which “atheists” they think are real and which ones fake. Later, they will also vote which answers to the questions about Christianity are given by real Christians and which ones are atheists pretending to be Christian. Leah plans to offer a prize to the atheist who persuades the most readers that he or she is a genuine Christian, as well as to the Christian who most successfully mimics an atheist.

The fifteen sets of answers to questions about atheism are now up at Leah’s blog, and you can vote on which ones you think are written by genuine atheists here. [...]

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A Turing Test For Religion

Inspired by Bryan Caplan’s ideological Turing Test, atheist blogger Leah Libresco proposes a religious Turing test to measure the extent to which Christians and atheists understand the arguments of the other side [HT: Bryan Caplan]:

Just like Caplan, I’d like to put my money where my mouth is and play in an ideological Turing Test against a Christian blogger. We could both answer a selection of questions posed by Christians and atheists or we could each write an argument for and against the side we support and then briefly rebut the two arguments the other one had produced. I’m flexible and open to suggestions.

Debates over religion have many parallels to political debates. Public ignorance about religion is almost as widespread as political ignorance. And most people react in a highly biased way to evidence and arguments that go against their position on either subject.

A religious Turing test, however, poses challenges that a political one does not. Liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism are rough equivalents of each other in as much as all of them are ideologies that try to delineate the appropriate role of political power in society. Atheism on the other hand isn’t really an equivalent of Christianity in the same sense. Atheism is just denial of the existence of God; it is not a comprehensive moral system. That’s why thinkers as divergent as Ayn Rand and Karl Marx could both be atheists. By contrast, Christianity goes far beyond merely asserting that God exists. It also incorporates many other theological doctrines (e.g. – that Jesus Christ is the son of God), and various ethical commands. The same goes for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and many other religions. Thus, simulating a Christian who is well-informed about the arguments for his religious views is a tougher challenge [...]

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Judge Grilling Parent in Child Custody Case About the Parent’s Secular Humanism

From yesterday’s Atchley v. Atchley:

The trial court addressed the following inquiry to the husband.
Q. Now, you said you attend a Morning Star Church?
A. Correct.
Q. Do you donate money to the church?
A. I don’t donate money to the church.
Q. Do you—does [husband’s girlfriend]?
A. No, she has not yet.
Q. Okay. Do either of you serve in any ministry that the Morning Star Church is involved in, whether some sort of charity work or teaching kids or anything like that?
A. No, not at this time.
Q. Do you have prayer in your home?
A. We pray at the dinner table.
Q. Bible study?
A. Not in the home, no.
Q. You’ve described yourself as a secular humanist, right?
A. Correct.
Q. Okay. How does—how does a secular humanist determine what’s right and wrong?
A. I mean, it’s a—it’s a—that’s a very deep question. I mean, I think people innately have an idea about what’s right, what’s wrong and you have to—you have to look at it from the perspective of not just, you know, what’s good for me, but what’s good for those around me, am I doing a greater good. I mean, I can have morals and make correct decisions without having a religion per se.
Q. What’s the authority though that you submit to?
A. Just my basic philosophy in life which is that I think humans can help each other solve their own problems. I don’t think we need to look elsewhere. I think if we work hard at it, then we can make a better society and we can all get along and we can solve problems and we can improve how it is we live, what the human condition is.
Q. But ultimately what you’re telling me is

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New York Times on the Secular Right Blog

The New York Times recently ran an interesting article on the Secular Right blog, which I commented on here back when it was first established:

As a child, Razib Khan spent several weeks studying in a Bangladeshi madrasa. Heather Mac Donald once studied literary deconstructionism and clerked for a left-wing judge. In neither case did the education take. They are atheist conservatives — Mr. Khan an apostate to his family’s Islamic faith, Ms. Mac Donald to her left-wing education.

They are part of a small faction on the right: conservatives with no use for religion. Since 2008, they have been contributors to the blog Secular Right, where they argue that conservative values like small government, self-reliance and liberty can be defended without recourse to invisible deities or the religions that exalt them….

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, noted that conservatives throughout history have esteemed “mediating institutions” like schools and churches, sources of authority other than the state. “If that’s the way you’re thinking, concern for the strength of organized religion follows pretty naturally,” Mr. Ponnuru said.

I do have a small bone to pick with the article and possibly with Ramesh Ponnuru. There is a difference between being an atheist and having “no use for religion.” One can deny the existence of God, while simultaneously recognizing that religious institutions sometimes serve useful purposes. Being an atheist doesn’t prevent me from seeing that the Catholic Church runs an excellent system of private schools, for example. It also doesn’t prevent anyone from recognizing the value of “mediating institutions,” including religious ones.

At the same time, it is also the case that organized religion has often contributed to grave injustices, providing support for slavery, gender inequality, and occasionally (in the case of “Liberation Theology”) even communism. Whether a [...]

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Explaining Group Differences in Knowledge of Religion

As I noted in a recent post, the Pew Research Center survey of public knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics, Jews, and Mormons are the groups with by far the highest knowledge levels in this field. The disparity between these groups and the rest of the population persists even after controlling for education.

What explains the difference between these three groups and the general population? Jamelle Bouie and Matthew Yglesias argue that it is their status as religious minorities. As Bouie puts it:

To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority.

I am skeptical. If Bouie’s theory were correct, the disparity between the three highest-scoring groups and the rest would be mainly the result of their strong performance in knowledge of Christianity – the majority religion in the US. Mormons (an [...]

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Public Ignorance About Religion

A Recent Pew Research Center survey of American’s knowledge about religion shows widespread ignorance. The study asked 32 mostly relatively basic multiple choice questions about various religions (including a few on religion and public life):

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life…..

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.

There is also widespread ignorance about constitutional restrictions on the teaching of religion in public schools. Most survey respondents believe that the Supreme Court has banned the teaching of the Bible even as “literature,” and most believe that public schools are not allowed to have “comparative religion” classes:

[A]mong the questions most often answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Fully two-thirds of people surveyed (67%) also say “no” to this question, even though the Supreme Court has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for

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Queensland University Suspends Lawyer for YouTube-Distributed Blasphemy

The Brisbane Times reports that:

A Queensland University of Technology lawyer[,] … Alex Stewart[,] has taken leave from his non-academic position as a QUT [Queensland University of Technology] commercial contracts lawyer after controversy erupted over a YouTube clip in which he smokes self-made cigarettes rolled in pages from the [Koran and the Bible] before rating which “burns better”….

The Daily Telegraph (UK) reports,

[Stewart] on leave following a meeting on Monday and is facing an inquiry.

“The university is obviously extremely, extremely unhappy and disappointed that this sort of incident should occur,” vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake said.

Stewart’s point was apparently to argue (among other things) that people shouldn’t venerate books to the point of getting upset about others’ supposed mistreatment of the books. “Is this profanity? Is it blasphemy? Does it really matter? I guess that’s the point with all this, this crip — it’s just a [bleeped out] book. Who cares? Who cares?” I quote here a video accompanying the Brisbane Times article, which includes a short excerpt from Stewart’s YouTube clip. But I do not know where one can find the full clip; if you can point me to it, or send me a file containing it, I’d be much obliged.

Note that the Brisbane Times video also quotes a police spokesman who is saying that Stewart’s actions were likely not a criminal offense. Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

UPDATE: Just to repeat what the title says, Stewart is a lawyer working for the university, not a professor. [...]

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Property Rights for Deities?

Co-blogger Eugene Volokh links to an Indian newspaper article about a ruling concerning the property rights of Hindu gods. According to the article, Hindu deities are allowed to acquire at least some types of property rights under Indian law, though perhaps “only deities of registered public trusts were allowed to acquire property in their names.”

It actually makes more sense for deities of polytheistic religions to acquire property than for a monotheistic God to do so. Most adherents of the major monotheistic religions believe in the type of God posited by “classical theism,” who is omnipotent and omniscient. An omnipotent God has no need for physical property. Even if he did, he could effortlessly create any property he needed himself, if necessary in unlimited quantity. And of course he would not need human courts to enforce his property rights, being fully capable of doing so himself at no cost in time or effort. Moreover, anyone who wanted to sue him for using his property to commit a tort would be unable to do so because there is no way a court could force an omnipotent being to pay restitution.

By contrast, most of the deities of a polytheistic religion are necessarily not omnipotent. No more than one omnipotent being can exist in the same universe. If God A cannot coerce God B, then A is not omnipotent. If, on the other hand, A can force B to do his bidding, then B isn’t omnipotent.

Unlike the God of classical theism, non-omnipotent deities have many potential uses for property rights. They might want some items they can’t create for themselves. Even with respect to some objects they could make, they might prefer to pay humans to manufacture them in order to exploit the benefits of comparative advantage. Comparative advantage [...]

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