One thing I can say about the book is that it helped answer a question that's been in my mind for a while now: why does a non-religious person like myself care so much about religion. I came across this YouTube video by an atheist answering basically the same question: "Why does an atheist care so much about religion?" While I share all of the reasons he mentions, there are a few more that come to mind for me.
It goes back to something occurred to me when I reviewed The God Who Wasn't There, and I think it's another reason — often unspoken — why atheists or non-religous people are so concerned about religion: we have a history with it, which is nearly inevitable in the society we live in. In the case of this movie, at one point the director turns the camera on himself and delves into his fundamentalist upbringing, taking viewers back to the time and place where he basically lost his faith.
There are some people for whom, according to the reviews I've read, the director loses all credibility at this point. I think, actually, that he'd have been less than honest and thus he'd have even less credibility if he'd left that part out of the film. The problem is that it's hard to address those issues and avoid coming off looking and sounding as if one has an axe to grind. I know because I've drifted into that territory in discussing my own issues about religion (many of which were covered in Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches). The truth is, for all the good that many people will claim has been done as a result of religion, a great deal of harm has been done it the name of religion as well; perhaps an amount equal to the good.
And some of have been harmed by it (or by the uses others make of it), and still bear some of the pain of that experience. Given that religion is nearly inescapable in American or Western culture, it's little wonder that so many people who are atheist or non-believers have troubled pasts involving religion. Unfortunately, that pain isn't often recognized as legitimate, and speaking of it sometimes means being told to "get over it," if it's acknowledged at all. And when it's part of what drives someone to speak out against the stuff the creator of the video above mentioned, it's dismissed as sour grapes or a grudge if one is honest enough to own up to it.
So, that's probably one reason that atheists "proselytize" for their position as much as some religious people do. And how can you not when you see the various ways religion is being used these days, in big ways and in small? It bugs me more than a little that it religion seems to mean an automatic pass on oversight or accountability these days. Like something as simple as state licensing.
In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
… The special breaks amount to “a sort of religious affirmative action program,” said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
… The changes reflect, in part, the growing political influence of religious groups and the growing presence of conservatives in the courts and regulatory agencies. But these tax and regulatory breaks have been endorsed by politicians of both major political parties, by judges around the country, and at all levels of government.
… As a result of these special breaks, religious organizations of all faiths stand in a position that American businesses — and the thousands of nonprofit groups without that “religious” label — can only envy. And the new breaks come at a time when many religious organizations are expanding into activities — from day care centers to funeral homes, from ice cream parlors to fitness clubs, from bookstores to broadcasters — that compete with these same businesses and nonprofit organizations.
In a country that's already more than a little deferential to religion, to the point that it's become a "conversation stopper," in the sense that almost any claims anyone makes (at least any claims a conservative makes) based on religion are likely to go unchallenged lest you run the risk of offending their religious sensibilities, we now have an "affirmative action program" for religion. That's ironic considering that we have, as mentioned earlier, a faith-based initiative in the White House that doles out tax dollars to religious organizations and exempts them from civil rights laws so that they can discriminate on the basis of religion at taxpayer expense. And then there are those who are now able to proselytize for pay, again on the taxpayer's dime.
As a non-believer, I'm now supporting with my tax dollars organizations that would discriminate against me, and I'm paying them to spread their religion. Yet it's hard to challenge that without the risk of being labeled "anti-faith."
Does it help that even I think that a high school student reading the bible on her lunch break ought to be left alone?
Amber Mangum was a frequent reader during lunch breaks at her Prince George's County middle school, silently soaking up the adventures of Harry Potter and other tales in the spare minutes before afternoon classes. The habit was never viewed as a problem — not, a lawsuit alleges, until the book she was reading was the Bible.
A vice principal at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel last month ordered Amber, then 12, to stop reading the Bible or face punishment, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by Amber's mother. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleges that the vice principal's actions violated the girl's civil rights.
"Amber's a new Christian, and she's trying to learn all she can," said Maryann Mangum, the girl's mother. "She reads her Bible and she goes to Sunday school. . . . It really upset me when she was not allowed to read it on her own time."
Honestly, if the kid wants to read her bible while she's having her lunch that's fine by me. When I went to school at Hephzibah Middle School, there was a group of students who met every morning by the flagpole for a prayer session that usually included a bit of preaching by one of the boys who organized it. Every once in a while they'd invite you to join if you seemed interested. (They invited me. I declined.) But beyond that, they didn't bother anyone. I don't have a problem with that.
It's when a entire group of believers wants everyone to read it, hear it read or have it taught to them (and always without the inclusion of other faiths) in school that I have a problem with it. And stuff like what happened to this student just makes non-believers as a group look pretty bad. So why doesn't it work that way when the Believer in Chief hands out tax dollars to christian evangelist groups for the purpose of proselytizing to the nations? (Via Prometheus.)
The herders of this remote mountain village know little about America, but have learned from those who run a US-funded aid program about the American God.
A Christian God.
The US government has given $10.9 million to Food for the Hungry, a faith-based development organization, to reach deep into the arid mountains of northern Kenya to provide training in hygiene, childhood illnesses, and clean water. The group has brought all that, and something else that increasingly accompanies US-funded aid programs: r egular church service and prayer.
President Bush has almost doubled the percentage of US foreign-aid dollars going to faith-based groups such as Food for the Hungry, according to a Globe survey of government data. And in seeking to help such groups obtain more contracts, Bush has systematically eliminated or weakened rules designed to enforce the separation of church and state.
… The aim is both to abide by the Constitution's prohibition against a state religion and to ensure that aid recipients don't forgo assistance because they don't share the religion of the provider.
Since medical programs are aimed at the most serious illnesses — AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis — the decision whether to seek treatment can determine life or death.
But many of those restrictions were removed by Bush in a little-noticed series of executive orders — a policy change that cleared the way for religious groups to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in additional government funding. It also helped change the message American aid workers bring to many corners of the world, from emphasizing religious neutrality to touting the healing powers of the Christian God.
Bush's orders altered the longstanding practice that groups preach religion in one space and run government programs in another. The administration said religious organizations can conduct services in the same space as they hand out government aid, so long as the services don't take place while the aid is being delivered. But the rule allows groups to schedule prayers immediately before or after dispensing taxpayer-funded aid.
Bush's orders also reversed longstanding rules forbidding the use of government funds to pay for employees who are required to take an oath to one religion. In addition, the president's orders allowed faith-based groups to keep religious symbols in places where they distribute taxpayer-funded aid.
And in implementing the president's orders, the administration rejected efforts to require groups to inform beneficiaries that they don't have to attend religious services to get the help they need. Instead of a requirement, groups are merely encouraged to make clear to recipients that they don't have to participate in religious activities.
Read the rest of the article. Read down to the part where it says that the aid game under bush is almost exclusively a Christian arena, mostly Catholic and evangelical. Read down to the part where the Food for the Hungry director shrugs the blame onto Kenyans who don't "separate things out" when it comes to church and state, and the workers who "preach about Jesus while teaching breast-feeding and nutrition," and have converted almost an entire village to their brand of Christianity on the tax payers dime.
Read about the USAID doctor who said "There are tremendous opportunities, actually, for Christians — and for, frankly, evangelistic purposes — within a public health strategy such as TB. "
Read about the effect this brand of evangelical abstinence-only education is playing out in Africa.
Read the part about the former director of Bush's office of faith-based initiatives who says that the President insisted on allowing faith-based groups to receive government funds and discriminate against worker who don't share their faith, which basically means the one of the goals is to establish government sponsored religious discrimination. Go back and read my post about the Salvation Army, which gets 95% of it's budget from the faith-based initiative, purging non-believing employees in New York. (And queers too.) Some tax paying Americans are now supporting with their tax dollars organizations that will discriminate against them.
Read the part about the architect of Bush's faith-based initiative, who believes "An emphasis on freedom should include a willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole suffer the consequences of their misconduct. …The early Calvinists knwe that tmie spent in the pit could be what was needed to save a life from permanent debauch (and a soul from hell)." Remember this is the who thinks conversion is an important part of the process, or should be, when it comes to social services; like the Bush funded conversion-for-parol prison program.
On paper, InnerChange was open to any inmate who wanted to take part. The reality on the ground was something else. The program was so saturated with the conservative, biblically literalist form of Christianity favored by Prison Fellowship that members of other faiths found it inhospitable. During the trial, several inmates testified that they found InnerChange impossible to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.
One inmate, Benjamin Burens, who practices a Native American religion, participated in InnerChange for a while, even though he is not a Christian. Burens testified that InnerChange staff pressured him to become a born-again Christian and criticized him for taking part in Native American rituals, labeling them a form of witchcraft. Burens was eventually expelled from the program.
According to the court record, non-evangelical Christians were commonly referred to by InnerChange staff as "unsaved," "lost," "pagan," those "who served the flesh," "of Satan," "sinful" and "of darkness."
…Pratt found this reliance on conversion clear evidence of InnerChange's sectarian character.
"To anyone well-acquainted with the program — as are the state Dept. of Corrections management team and the InnerChange staff — the object of the InnerChange program is to change inmates' behavior through personal conversion to Christianity," he wrote. "InnerChange's position that no one actually is required to convert to pass through the program is mere formalism. Every waking moment in the InnerChange program is devoted to teaching and indoctrinating inmates into the Christian faith."
…But InnerChange inmates got an even bigger benefit: access to special classes that made parole much more likely. Treatment classes are a condition of parole in Iowa, and most inmates must wait until they approach their release date to take part in them. InnerChange inmates got the classes earlier, significantly increasing their odds of being granted parole.
The Silver Ring Thing has been known for integrating the gospel of Jesus Christ into its message of sexual purity, and for this it deserves praise. …
SRT hands out Bibles at its rallies, is explicitly guided by Scripture in its youth program, and states that its mission consists in “offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” This is only natural, as the group is evangelistic; the message of abstinence and biblical purity is part and parcel of the Christian gospel.
Read about all of the above and tell me how one can speak out against all of the above — and include the argument that state-funded faith-based social services is a Pandora's Box that makes abuses like the above inevitable — and not be considered anti-faith or anti-religion.
We've gone from funding the Great Society to tax payers funding the Great Commission. Whether we believe that the former was a good idea or not, can we say that the latter is questionable at the very least, and perhaps even a bad idea, without being called an enemy of faith?
Especially since the people who, if they didn't support the faith-based initiative at least allowed it to happen, are perhaps the real enemies of faith? Or at least the enemies of the evangelical faith shared by a significant portion of Bush's and the Republican's voting base?
More on that later.