Why school led prayer is wrong

This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.

Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.

Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”

Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.

I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.

This isn’t a hard concept at all.

The Noble Jerry Coyne

ImageJerry Coyne, a prominent “New Atheist” and author of the popular book Why Evolution is True, is seriously immersing himself in theology by studying Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Coyne is in the vanguard of “evangelizing” Atheists, who are often criticized for not sufficiently understanding the positions of sophisticated, modern theologians. By taking time to study and respond to these ivory tower materials, Coyne shows that he’s a genuine class act. I want to applaud his decision, as it presents a positive contrast to the Courtier’s Reply position — in essence, “I don’t have to study something if I already know it’s false” — that has been creeping like a nasty weed through Atheist circles. It’s nice to see someone taking the high road of intellectual engagement.


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The big tent of libertarianism

ImageIn the United States, the term “libertarian” has been co-opted by a narrowly defined ultra-capitalist conservative philosophy embraced by the US Libertarian Party, and by some factions within the Republican Party. But the word has always had a much broader meaning, encompassing many distinct legal and philosophical views. Some libertarians  claim to have devised complete philosophical foundations for ethics and government, but others adopt a situational approach to problems of applied ethics and law.

Yesterday, over at the Friendly Atheist site, blogger Terry Firma “came out” as a libertarian. What’s great about Terry’s post is that he highlights progressive aspects of his views. He believes in a progressive income tax and single payer health care — ideas that are not typically associated with Libertarian Party USA. I love Terry’s post because I consider myself to be the same kind of libertarian, and I’ve met plenty of like-minded progressive libertarians over the years, but we’re often lumped in with the Ayn-Rand-Tea-Partier-gun-lover-climate-change-denier cult that has been so loud in recent years.

I previously wrote some very critical remarks about the Ayn Rand variant of Libertarianism, which has become a dominant influence in the US Libertarian and Conservative political movements. There is no shortage of problems with Randian thinking. But “Libertarianism” refers to a diverse collection of philosophical approaches to ethics, politics and law, and the entire batch should not be dismissed because of a few bad eggs.

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Santa, Jesus and dinosaurs

Father Christmas rides a goat

Father Christmas rides a goat

A friend of mine once shared her “skeptic origin story,” which also happens to be an amazing Christmas story. I’ll have to paraphrase the story from memory:

When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe so many people had been lying to me. I immediately stopped believing in God, Jesus and dinosaurs. They all sounded like made-up fantasies told by the same people who lied about Santa. I eventually started believing in dinosaurs again.

This story is both funny and thought provoking. On one hand, it exposes the plain similarity between religious knowledge and the Santa myth — the latter being a ubiquitous lie in which nearly everyone knowingly participates. On the other hand, it highlights a continual challenge for skeptically minded people: where do I draw the boundaries of my skepticism? This is sort of the amateur version of the demarcation problem: where are the lines that separate (1) total junk; (2) reasonable but wrong beliefs; and (3) questionable topics that warrant further study?

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Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

Look, science!

Look at all that science!

Skeptical arguments generally live in the domain of rhetoric and informal logic. Most informal arguments hinge on the correct identification of logical fallacies. There has been a slow growth in the number of alleged fallacies since the dawn of internet debate. Novel fallacies are usually a re-branding of established fallacies, with the goal of simplified rhetorical clarity. I’m concerned that this also promotes a false confidence that leads to shallow thinking and mis-identification.To paraphrase Occam, “fallacies are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In this post, I’m going to pick on two examples: Prothero’s observations about credential mongering, and Myer’s anti-theology “courtier’s reply” argument that has been referenced by Dawkins and others. I chose these specific examples because they seem to be shaky arguments that can be aimed against each other. I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these arguments in their original context, but these arguments are not able to live independently as authentic fallacies.

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Choosing our Labels

What is the difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic, and does it matter?  vanquishing the devil

Atheists are stuck with a lot of nasty stereotypes. Those stereotypes are regularly reinforced by popular media and by public figures who make uncharitable generalizations. We’re fairly accustomed to the demonizing slurs coming from religious conservatives. But what’s more disappointing is when an Agnostic celebrity says something to reinforce negative stereotypes about Atheists. I wrote about this subject previously when Neil deGrasse Tyson described a nasty caricature of Atheists who “cross off the word ‘God’ from every dollar bill that comes in [their] possession.” This time Sarah Silverman has expressed the same sort of thing:

I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious. I’m Agnostic. I don’t know, and neither do you!

Before continuing, I want to pause to clarify that I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome and, as an axiom, Sarah Silverman can do no wrong. I’ll just assume that she missed a chance to elaborate and clarify her remarks.
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There is a difference between science and debate

ImageThe goal of science is to build knowledge. The goal of a debate is to win. While these can sometimes look very similar, they are not the same. Online media have created platforms where superficial debates can flourish at the expense of scientific understanding. Skeptical communities who advocate the scientific worldview already promote a widely known collection of rules for debate. They should also consider articulating “best practices” for constructive discussion, recognizing that most discussions do not need to become debates.

Science concerns itself with analysis, observation, demonstration and refutation with the goal of building knowledge. While scientific discussions often involve the juxtaposition of arguments, they rarely proceed in the manner of formal debates unless the occasion calls for an immediate decision or action — as in a peer review decision or the adoption of a research agenda. When debate happens, it requires extensive preparation by the participants and is usually moderated by a decision maker, such as a journal editor, program manager or committee chair.
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Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
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The perrenial in-fighting of secular factions

In this post, I present a bit of history that helps illuminate the importance of a broad humanist outlook among free-thinkers and Atheists. I hope it may also help us view the current in-fighting among secularist groups within the context of a much bigger picture.


The loose-knit community of humanists, free-thinkers, Atheists and skeptics has blown its thermometer over the feminist agenda introduced by “Atheism Plus” and its supporters. Many have weighed in their opinions that humanist excursions — especially feminism — are outside the scope of the Atheist and secular movement. Meanwhile dissenting users on all sides complain of being misrepresented, shamed, harassed, demonized, banned and deleted. Lousy Canuck asks, glumly, “Is the Skeptic Empire dying?” Don’t worry, Canuck, the Cult of Reason has been around for a long, long time. It never dies, it just divides. I’d now like to highlight the story of one secular movement that devoured itself and the society around it.

Here’s the short version: Following the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary government began taking steps to strip the Catholic Church of its power. A program of systematic de-Christianization ensued, and by 1792 certain revolutionary factions were authorized to convert churches and cathedrals into “temples of reason,” administered by an atheistic Cult of Reason.  By 1793, a revolutionary leader named Robsepierre came to power. Although Robespierre supported the de-Christianization of France, he preferred a Deistic version of the Cult of Reason. To achieve this, he sent the Atheist leaders to the guillotine. In 1794, Robespierre and the Deists also visited the guillotine, and by 1801 France established a new normal in which it returned to being a more-or-less Catholic nation.

All of this happened amidst a bloody revolutionary backdrop, and all of the head-chopping was motivated by more than just philosophical differences. Nevertheless, this history offers a bit of symbolism (if exaggerated) relating to recent events in the secular community: the secularists had their moment, and all they did was destroy each other. This story has been passed around by religious apologists for well over a century, as a reason why secularism is dangerous. And they are right about one thing: reason alone is not enough, because reasonable people reach different conclusions. It seems to me that an Atheist must either be some kind of Humanist or some kind of sociopath. I think the AtheismPlus folks are right about something very important: Atheism as a belief system is just an empty box. Atheism as a movement requires something more, something better.

Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade

It is now ten days since PZ Myers’ Aug. 8 disclosure of rape allegations against a popular skeptic author, the online community continues to be galvanized in a chain reaction of heated discussions on many topics related to gender equity, sexual harassment and the politics of rape. Although I previously wrote that PZ Myers’ disclosure was improper, I now believe it may have significantly raised consciousness of these issues among free-thinking circles. I also wrote that the accusations point towards a much more general problem in modern professional life. Discussions of these problems are appearing everywhere in discussion fora and comment threads within the free-thinking blogosphere. Although the comments often reflect strong opinions (and sometimes mean-spirited opinions), I believe most participants possess flexible minds capable of evolving when exposed to new information. This debate has therefore created a rare opportunity to really deepen our collective understanding of an important but under-recognized issue.
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