Monthly Archives: November 2013

Guest Post: Religious Belief & Legal Protection

Thanks to Patricia O’Sullivan for sharing this timely post with us today!

What makes religious beliefs worthier of legal protection than secular beliefs?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
On Tuesday, November 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments on behalf of forty for-profit companies whose owners object to including birth control in their health care coverage benefit for employees. Their argument is that the ACA birth control mandate violates their freedom of religion.
“This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution,” said David Green, founder and CEO of the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby crafts chain, which won its lower court challenge. “Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law.”
(citation for italicized passage)

Rather than argue the specifics of these cases, I’d like to pose some questions:
Why are ‘sincere and deeply held religious convictions’ guaranteed by the law and the Constitution as David Green argues? What is it about his religious convictions that require legal protection over the sincere and deeply-held secular convictions of advocates of women’s health? I argued in a previous post ( that giving protected status to religious values sets them above the deeply-held values of non-believers.

Thirty percent of Americans under the age of 30 are not religiously affiliated. This does not mean, however, that they have no strong moral convictions. When these young people begin to own corporations, how will their moral views be protected against those of their employees? Will an atheist vegan employer be accorded the same legal status for her views as a Catholic CEO or a Mormon business owner? Awarding religious beliefs legal protected status creates a situation in which institutional religions have legal leverage over the religiously unaffiliated.
What makes religious beliefs worthier of legal protection than secular beliefs?
Why does a Catholic employer have the right to meddle in his employees’ health care coverage when a vegan employer does not have that same right? Why is it illegal for a white supremacist to taunt his non-white classmates while it is legal for a Christian to threaten her homosexual classmates with an eternity in hell?

I’m looking forward to your comments.

Patricia O’Sullivan teaches religion and ethics at the University of Mississippi and writes historical and contemporary novels featuring religious and ethical conflict. For more posts like this, visit For information about Patricia’s novels, visit

Can Atheists Define Morality?

I have been having a discussion with someone who believes that, as nonbelievers, we cannot know good and evil. He asked me, “….how do you know anything at all to be true according to your beliefs?”

This discussion was originally started on another site and was continued under another topic/post here at the end of the comments section.

It’s an interesting idea, and one worthy of discussion (and more appropriately under a new title). How DO we know if we have sound epistemology? How do we know what is good and evil if there is not a universal truth, handed down by god? How do we, as a society and as individuals, decide what is moral and what is not?

It’s important that those who do believe in god understand that morality, in our view, has nothing to do with god. I will continue the discussion with Derrick’s comment below, and if anyone on either side of the debate would like to join in, please remember that, no matter our views, we’re still on the same team.

@Anthony Interesting post to say the least.
I need to confront certain elements of your thinking in this post. However, I would like this to take the form of an open and public debate with words (by the good graces of our hostess, Deborah, and
good will of this on-line community).

You state: <i> Truth is that which corresponds to the mind of the biblical God. </I>

Let us begin with an understanding of the principle word at play in your argument: Truth. I am selecting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions that seem most relevant to this discussion.

OED defines “truth” as…
I. The quality of being true (and allied senses).
1. a. The character of being, or disposition to be, true to a person, principle, cause, etc.; faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, constancy, steadfast allegiance.
2. Second, we cannot rely on Blaise Pascal’s assertion (or any similar assertion) since it is grounded in the idea that goes does exist, so the wager theory of god’s existence is off the table. We must agree that, like Schrodinger’s cat, we need to keep god in an indeterminate state for the purposes of this discussion: god both exists and does not exist at the same time until we reach a point where observation proves existence.
3. a. Faith, trust, confidence; b. Belief; a formula of belief, a creed.
4. Disposition to speak or act truly or without deceit; truthfulness, veracity, sincerity; formerly sometimes in wider sense: Honesty, uprightness, righteousness, virtue, integrity.
5. a. Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).
6. Agreement with a standard or rule; accuracy, correctness; spec. accuracy of position or adjustment;
7. Genuineness, reality, actual existence.
9. a. True statement or account; that which is in accordance with the fact: chiefly in phr. to say, speak, or tell the truth; b. loosely. Mental apprehension of truth (in sense 11); knowledge.
10. a. True religious belief or doctrine; orthodoxy. Often with the, denoting a particular form of belief or teaching held by the speaker to be the true one
11. a. That which is true, real, or actual (in a general or abstract sense); reality; spec. in religious use, spiritual reality as the subject of revelation or object of faith (often not distinguishable from 10).
12. a. The fact or facts; the actual state of the case; the matter or circumstance as it really is.

Of all the possible definitional uses, I want to address 5, 6, and 7 as those tend to be central to the debate. We will fundamentally disagree as to what constitutes “fact” in this case. You content that
god exists; ipso facto that is the truth. I contend god does not exist; ipso facto that is the truth. Because we are mired in “belief”at this point, we must find another means to verify our positions.

This gives rise to the biggest question: How does one prove god exists? In order to do this, we need some ground rules.

First, we cannot ask “Prove god does not exist!” since it is impossible to prove a negative (i.e., “Prove there is no such thing as a flying pink unicorn.”). Thus, we have to rely on proving god exists.

Second, we cannot rely on Blaise Pascal’s assertion (or any similar assertion) since it is grounded in the idea that goes does exist, so s existence is off the table. We must agree s cat, we need to keep god in an indeterminate state for the purposes of this discussion: god both exists and does not exist at the same time until we reach a point where observation proves existence.

Third, we cannot simply point to the universe as a whole and state “There is proof god exists.” It is physically beyond the means of either of us to test the whole of the universe. We must use reasonable, testable, and verifiable evidence. Proposed logic, so long as it survives scrutiny, can be used as evidence.

Forth, we need to avoid semantic arguments. Should we disagree over a phrase, we need to reach consensus regarding its meaning. Since this
should be a thoughtful debate and discussion, semantic disagreements need to be dealt with post haste.

Fifth and finally, we must refrain from ad hominem attacks and keep strictly to the debate of the issue. Since we do not know one another personally, we should not attack one another in words.

If you find this acceptable, it would be a pleasure to engage in this debate.



Thanksgiving Prayers

So here it is again. Thanksgiving. The years click by so d*mn fast.

The holidays are both fun and stressful. There are beloved family members we haven’t seen in a while and delicious food that we haven’t eaten in a while. There’s the stress of relatives who drink too much and pick fights, kids who screech and scream and run through the house on sugar highs, and shopping and cooking and getting up in the wee hours to place the carcass of a decapitated, stuffed bird in the oven (turkey anyone?).

And then there are the prayers.

The thanks to god for all the food and the gifts he’s bestowed on us like health and wealth. Of course, we’re thinking of all the hypocrisies and pretenses of religious belief. And we sit there, silently, while the rest of our families pray because it would be pretty rude for us to say, “I’d just prefer to thank the cook instead.”

While the philosophers and pundits rake religion over the coals, although we may nod our heads in agreement, we are still left with the realities in our living rooms. Family and friends believe, and we don’t want something as personal and (to us) as inconsequential as religion to strain our relationships.

So I tell my kids, “bow your heads, remain silent.” We’re not compromising our views or betraying ourselves by creating peace in the space around us. Harmony and tolerance are part of our belief system.  Prayers said at the table don’t mean that we’re participants. We’re merely observers. Peace-makers. It’s no skin off our backs.

This is not to say that, if someone attacks us for not believing, that we don’t bite back. But we realize we don’t need to take the offensive, to undermine anyone’s religious belief (especially grandma’s), on a day intended for celebration and good will.

We will hear some silly god-speak this Thanksgiving, things that make us want to roll our eyes or bust out laughing. But one thing we can be thankful for is that we are all above ground, celebrating together, no matter our beliefs.

Have a safe, happy and relaxing holiday, friends!


PS   As you shop for the kids in your life after Thanksgiving, I saw this article on and thought it might be of interest.  Toys that stimulate young brains.

Guest Post: Attending Church

For some of us, attending church as a child or young adult brought a sense of community and ritual that we miss as nonbelievers. Now there are options for holding onto that tradition, even after we’ve lost our religion. Morgan share her insights and experiences as an atheist member of the UU church. I hope it will help some of you who feel a loss and were considering whether church is right for you. Thank you, Morgan, for taking the time to write this excellent guest post!


I don’t believe in god, but I am a member of a church. I even teach Sunday School.

Now before you say that’s a contradiction, this isn’t a typical church. It’s a non-creedal Unitarian Universalist, or UU, church. The tagline is that we agree to be together, not to believe together. And my current Sunday School class isn’t typical either. I teach a comprehensive sexuality education program for teens – more on that in a bit.

We joined First UU Church when our daughter was born because we wanted to have a community that would support her and our family. However, being an atheist who goes to church can feel a little unnatural, even if it’s a church where many of the members are atheists. My partner had an especially difficult time feeling comfortable using “the c word.” While she grew up in a secular family, she experienced a lot of anti-Semitism from conservative Christians in school.

But we’ve come to the conclusion that being atheist church members can be subversive. After all, if an atheist lesbian couple can go to church and teach kids about safer sex in Sunday School, doesn’t that disrupt the very meaning of church? If you can take god out of church, and still have a meaningful experience, doesn’t that say something about church?

If you’re considering becoming a church-going atheist, you may wonder what it will be like. Since all of the humanist, UU, and other similar congregations vary extensively, I will just say what we’ve found. And that is a space to meet people who share our (secular) values. A space to find support and to provide support to others. A space where everyone is able to define his or her own beliefs.

Perhaps most important to us, we’ve found a great youth education program that is really relevant to kids’ lives. Right now, I’m teaching a sexuality education program that I know I would have benefited from so much as a kid. This is a yearlong, in-depth class that covers everything from the basics of anatomy to healthy relationships, from LGBT rights to safer sex. Other classes focus on learning about different religions, and there is a “Coming Of Age” class in which teens spend a year exploring their beliefs as they currently are.

Of course, church isn’t for every atheist. But if you’re looking for a community, I wouldn’t count it out.  For our family as least, believing in the value of our church community doesn’t have anything to do with believing in god.


Morgan lives with her partner and almost three-year-old daughter in Columbus, Ohio. Together, they attend First Unitarian Universalist Church. If you’re interested in more information about UUs, visit

God Forgives Them

There was an article up on CNN today about serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. He’s a very religious man who lived a life counter to religion’s teachings, further proof that religion has no bearing on morality. But I only wanted to post this so that I could ask a question.

Franklin says he’s going to heaven because he’s repented. He says, “”The scriptures tell us when someone repents, God forgives them. Everything is forgotten, once forgiven.”

How do sinners know they’ve properly repented and that God has now approved their passports for passage to heaven?

This is the underbelly of the religious system. You can ferry all the guilt away simply by imagining your father has forgiven you. You’re still a child. You never grow up and assume the responsibility and repercussions of living by your own, internal moral code. It’s too bad we can’t rewrite the Bible to say, “You only get one shot at heaven, so don’t f*ck up. You will not be absolved.”

It seems damn unfair that this guy finds peace and relief in believing that he’s been forgiven.

Thankfully, our criminal justice system is not so forgiving.


“Dying is a living act.”

I thought this article, “Ted Turner Wants to Go to Heaven,” was interesting. I’ll summarize it here: It gives an overview of Turner’s childhood and his life’s achievements, but the focus of the article begins and ends with his beliefs about heaven. And as his life’s hourglass is running out, he’s attached himself to the possibility of an afterlife.

Or so the interviewer says. You wonder how much of these types of articles are shaped by what the writer believes. Between the actual lines of dialogue, between the leading questions, we can never really know what the subject of the interview believes for certain. Perhaps Turner was just playing along. Perhaps not. (It’s too bad they turned the focus from his good deeds to his good deeds is the ticket to heaven.)

Regardless, you can understand that, as one’s life is winding down, as the eyes and the hearing goes, as the brain loses its grip on things it once knew, one might revert once again to the stories and tales learned earlier in life, to the things that brought comfort in childhood.

In “The God Argument,” AC Grayling writes that “dying is a living act.” We experience the grief of death in losing others we care about, but we experience dying only for ourselves. Dying is part of living. It’s something we alone have to deal with, and it’s a possibility that is present from the moment we are born and grows with great urgency the longer we live.

The belief in heaven seems to help many people in their time of transition. The body seems to know when it’s in its winter, and perhaps, at some point, there is an awareness that the end is very near. You can certainly smell death on some people. Or maybe you’ve seen family or friends with terminal illness in their last days. They see shapes and shadows; they believe that people are coming for them; they hear conversations and see relatives who died years—even decades–earlier.

Some chalk these experiences up to angels and spirits and preparation for the trip to an after-world. Others—like me—see this as part of the brain’s breakdown as it moves from life back into nothingness, into its previous unborn state. Maybe these experiences are a reflex, an anesthetic nature provides to the dying to help them cope.

I don’t consider the soul a separate entity. Our essence is merely the result of the chemical workings in our individual, self-contained units. But the idea of another part of ourselves living on after death has helped people for thousands of years in many different ways. As Grayling noted, “Plato took the view that citizens should be encouraged to believe in a blissful afterlife for heroes so that they would make good soldiers.” These superstitions have not only been useful to leaders and to religions for reasons of manipulation but also to individuals who can see their deaths clearly ahead.

How do we avoid the fear of dying? One way is to concentrate on living. This works for some of us. But for those left with time to ponder death, for those who can no longer concentrate on living, I certainly would not begrudge them their hope for eternal life–to make their last living act easier.

“Atheists ‘Prove’ Existence of God With Worship of Nothing “

“Atheists ‘Prove’ Existence of God With Worship of Nothing ”

This was the title of an essay that I was going to write a post about (thanks Kathy!).  Yeah, just by the title, you can probably tell this was neither well-written nor well-thought out. In fact, it would just confirm your suspicions about some Christians. And I don’t want to waste my time or yours on pointless,  inflammatory,  juvenile,  attention-seeking drivel.  (Whew. I feel a little better now, at least!)  You must surely be tired of me addressing these asinine antics from believers who just want to provoke us.

Instead, I’m going to list the things that are worthy of  our time and attention, and I hope you’ll add to this list , too, so we can move forward instead of just spinning our wheels arguing with half-wits (sorry, I cringe to use that word, but some folks just are).

1.  Work to keep god and religion out of public school classrooms and books, unless it’s for educational purposes (see #2).

2. Teach comparative religion courses in high schools so that our kids understand where all religions came from and why.  This will help improve tolerance for kids of all beliefs.

3.  Stop religious agendas from seeping into policy making.

4.  Help vote into office more atheists, agnostics, naturalists and secular humanists.

5 .  Get old laws off the books that discriminate against nonbelievers, such as this one here in the state of Texas: “”No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

6.  Expect churches to be held to the same taxation standards as other businesses.

7. Enlighten people (as gently as possible) who believe we  1. have no hope;  2. have no morals or  3. can’t be meaning-seeking creatures without a mythological god(s).

8.  Strive to be a great example for our kids by not pushing our views on others while also expecting appropriate boundaries. (No, it’s not okay to insist that Intelligent Design be part of our biology texts. And, it’s not okay to recruit our kids when our backs are turned. That sort of stuff….)

What else have I forgotten or overlooked?

Watch This Atheist Become a Believer before Your Very Eyes

Have you seen it yet? Or again (since it first aired in December 2011)?

A heroin addict suddenly believes in god when a Secret Santa passes him a little cash. Just what a substance abuser needs, right? Cash.

CBS News did a disservice to those of us who believe and who don’t believe when they attached god to a good deed. This would have been a perfectly good example of humanism. I’ve seen this video in emails and posted on FB several times, and everyone praises god or quotes scripture.

I like people. I really do, no matter their beliefs. I don’t think these folks mean harm by pointing to god as the reason, but I do find it sad that they cannot be grateful for the good deeds of their neighbors. Instead they praise a god that, if he is responsible for the kindness of Secret Santa, is also responsible for the death of 10,000 innocent men, women and children in the Philippines.

Can we blame believers for their reaction? Like Pavlov’s dogs they learned early and often that, if you pray, you will receive some sort of response. Eventually. Maybe not the day you pray, but god will send you a sign at some point because humans are meaning-seeking creatures, and they have a propensity to find meaning when and where and as often as they can. And if god doesn’t answer prayers, they’ve learned that god’s absence is a sign, too.

God always wins. Always.

It’s also frustrating to hear people say, “I was once an atheist, but then god blessed me with ________.” And it is always some sort of perceived good fortune that recently happened. However, it seems that these folks weren’t really atheists to begin with. How do you suddenly talk yourself into believing there’s a higher power simply because you silently prayed and a stranger gave you cash the next day? This fails any test of formal logic. The two events, in reality, have no correlation.

Even worse, while Mr. Coates never explicitly identifies himself as an atheist, CBS makes his “conversion” seem like a miracle: from lowly, heroin addicted atheist to thankful, hopeful and repentant believer. They’ve portrayed nonbelievers as capricious and self-centered, ready to abandon reason and our sinful nature with the scent of money. No rationale necessary. They made us seem like one of them, like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

It would be nice if the media would not pander to believers and would just stick to the facts (like they’re supposed to do); then actions could speak for themselves. Maybe more people would just be thankful for the kindness of strangers–real people.

On a more important note, if you can help with relief efforts in the Philippines, please give what you can to the humanist relief drive. All donations are tax-deductible and will go directly toward helping.

The Joy of Teenagers (Wink, Wink)

I swear. I know why religions perform exorcisms. They want to scare the smart-ass-ness out of their young people.

Take, for example, my kid. He’s possessed by emotions and hormones right now, consumed by what peers think and if he cut his Justin Bieber-style hair straight. (Yes, he thinks he does a better job than a trained stylist. I can’t wait until he sees these teenage pictures of himself when he’s older.)

I didn’t go through this with my older teen. For whatever reason, I was let off the hook. But this kid makes me understand why we need special laws for dealing with teenagers. (For instance, it should be okay to force your child to wear a sign that says, “Dangerous animal: stand back 50 feet.”) He’s also further proof that we are born with certain temperaments, and therefore have limited free will, especially during times when our bodies have hormonal surges.

Sometimes I wish I could yank my teenage self out of retirement so that I could communicate on his terms. “Oh yeah??? (eye roll) Well YOU are even more annoying than Miley Cyrus’ tongue. (eye roll, eye roll) And, like, YOU don’t understand and, like, you’re not funny either, and you don’t have a clue and your friends are really dumb, too.” Like, take that.

That would feel better, right? (Don’t worry, I won’t actually say this. It doesn’t make us bad parents to daydream about saying these things. I think.)

One of the things that never fails to amaze me is that the words said by your kid’s teachers or friends will be “cool” (actually, “sick and nasty” these days), but if you say the same thing, your words will be “stupid.” Like totally.

Every once in a while, though, there’s a break-through, a little sun peeking through on a cloudy day, and the kid is, like the sunshine, pleasant for a bit. Human. A saint, even, offering praise and thanks for dinner and help when I’m carrying even the lightest of things.

And yesterday, when I was driving the grumpy kid south through a town we haven’t been through in a while, I tell him a story of how I brought him there when he was little and he had asked me, “How can workers make these buildings so tall?” and “Won’t they fall over?”

He doesn’t roll his eyes or say “that’s so dumb.” Instead he asks, “Do you miss me and my brother being young?” (I know, not proper grammar.)

“Sometimes,” I say. “We used to have a lot of fun, the three of us. Traveling and dancing and laughing.” I remind him of some of the things we did together.

“We did a lot. I was really lucky.” Remembering his younger self and simpler times seems to lift his mood. There’s a chance I can say a little more that will not be deemed as totally dumb.

“But I also like you bigger, too, because I can talk to you, and I am learning about who you are. I like being your mom and watching you grow.”

For a brief moment, I remembered how hard it was being a teenager, wanting to be near my parents but also wanting to push them away. I remembered how painfully embarrassing I thought my mom and dad were, but also being afraid that they would die. And I remembered my mother always telling me, “This is a phase; you’ll outgrow it.” What she said was, of course, annoying, because it discounted my feelings. But she was also right. It was a phase. I did outgrow it.

So I have to choose my words and actions carefully now in these last few years that he’s in my trust. He’ll remember hurtful words and actions, even if I forget them.

It’s an hour-by-hour thing with teenagers. I never know when his mood will change, but I know that, by ignoring the bulk of his behavior, the sullenness will dissipate. Eventually. I just have to be my adult self and stay the course; otherwise, I’ll teach him how to forever be a moody, defensive, hostile teenager. He’ll grow old, but never grow up.

Thanks for listening to me whine today. If you have stories to share, please do.

Meaningful Lives

I have to admit I was intrigued when I read about Martin Manley, the sports writer who took his life at age 60 because he felt he was no longer useful. I have often thought about that article. At some point, many of us do outlive our usefulness, we take more from society than we put in–just like when we were children. I get his reasons.

Manley’s rational and well-planned death is one example of how we can have 100% control over our bodies and destiny.  He felt it was time. His life was his to take, and he asked god for forgiveness. He didn’t choose to come into this world, but he chose exactly how he would go out and how he would be remembered. Perhaps believing in god made his life easier to take. Had he been atheist, maybe he would have waited a little longer, enjoyed more sporting events or decadent meals or times with friends. Who knows?

So why do we continue to march on, especially those of us who have no faith? So many people have asked us, “What’s the point?” Who or what are we living for?

Would you commit suicide? This is the question posed by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, which I was reminded about reading A.C. Grayling’s great book, “The God Argument.”

If your answer is “no,” then the next question, Grayling says is: “…what are the reasons I personally have for saying ‘No’ to that question? The answer contains the meaning of my life.”

What are your reasons for not taking your life today? Who would be hurt? Who would you miss? Do people depend on you? Do you help others through your love and friendship or your life’s work? Do you have goals that have not been met? Maybe your reason is simply that you love to listen to music or watch the sunrise in the morning. It doesn’t really matter what your reasons are. They are yours. And they give your life meaning.

That’s all that counts.