The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

How Secularists Should Respond to the SCOTUS Ruling on Sectarian Prayer at Government Meetings

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2014

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard the news about Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows sectarian prayers at government meetings.  My skeptical colleague Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist has an excellent breakdown on the background of this case – check it out here.

Essentially, the SCOTUS ruled that explicitly Christian and other sectarian prayers are allowed in the opening of local government meetings (just as they have been for years in the federal and state legislatures) under the Constitution.  Regarding this ruling, I think the devil is in the details; specifically, the SCOTUS did not rule that only Christian prayers were allowed.  It ruled that sectarian prayers are allowed… from any religion (or non-religion)… which means that anyone can make a motion to pray at such meetings.  Further, Justice Kennedy stated in his opinion that:

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

Whoops, that’s already happened; just look at how there are some self-righteous fundamentalist religious jerks who misinterpret this ruling as saying that “only Christian prayers are allowed” – which is exactly the kind of thing more reasonably-minded members of the SCOTUS noted might happen.  Indeed, the problem here is that this ruling has a huge potential to cause even greater religious animosity and division at the same time our country is becoming ever more (non)religiously diverse (with as many as 20% claiming “no religion”).  Specifically, Justice Kagan said:

“The monthly chaplains appear almost always to assume that everyone in the room is Christian. … The Town itself has never urged its chaplains to reach out to members of other faiths, or even to recall that they might be present. And accordingly, few chaplains have made any effort to be inclusive; none has thought even to assure attending members of the public that they need not participate in the prayer session. Indeed, as the majority forthrightly recognizes, when the plaintiffs here began to voice concern over prayers that excluded some Town residents, one pastor pointedly thanked the Board “[o]n behalf of all God-fearing people” for holding fast, and another declared the objectors “in the minority and … ignorant of the history of our country.””

So… what is a secularist to do?  Shall we bemoan our fate, lamenting that “this was another win for the religious right”?  I think not.  In fact, I think this ruling can lead to a really big problem for the religious right; but don’t take it from me, take it from an evangelical Christian writer (and constitutional scholar) for Christianity Today magazine:

“So what’s the harm of government prayer? First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity. One need look no further than the two complainants here. Many more of our fellow citizens are confused about evangelical methods and motives when we hitch our wagon to Caesar, and they are misled about the nature of Christ’s invitation and a person’s freedom in response to him. Moreover, because what goes around comes around, municipalities in less friendly territory than Greece, New York, will seize this newly approved legality and use it to offer up invocational prayers that will be unrecognizable to evangelicals. Already this is occurring in the Town of Greece, where a Wiccan priestess has offered up prayers to Athena and Apollo. An atheist has also petitioned, by appealing to “inclusion,” that she be allowed to take a turn at rendering the invocation. She did so, not because she wanted to pray, to protest the city policy by rendering it absurd. The Supreme Court’s ruling means we will be seeing more of this mischief.” [emphasis added]

Did you hear that?  Mischief!  🙂


At the next county board meeting, ask if you can get a “Hail Satan!” (image source)

And he’s right.  Now that the SCOTUS has explicitly opened the door to sectarian (note, that’s a different word that “Christian”) prayers, then all those Christians who so badly wanted to win this case had better be prepared for people of other religious (or non-religious) beliefs to come calling for their turn to give invocations at local government meetings.  I’m guessing they won’t be too happy to have a Muslim imam, Jewish rabbi, Hindu priest, or humanist/atheist open with a prayer or statement; just look at how they threw a hissy-fit when a Hindu priest opened a session of the U.S. Senate with a prayer:

Well, these conservative Christians had better get used to it, because plenty of highly non-Christian folks are now more than ready to start attending local government meetings with the express purpose of opening them with non-Christian prayers/invocations.  For example:

**The American Humanist Association is planning to launch a program to “provide resources for atheists and humanists to deliver secular invocations during legislative meetings.”

**The Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced “Nothing Fails Like A Prayer”, a nationwide contest for the best secular invocation delivered at a government meeting.

**And the Satanic Temple (yes, the same one that is petitioning to erect a statue of Satan outside the Oklahoma state house under their “religious monument” law) is getting in on the act, too.  In fact, they’ve already got the following prayer/invocation ready to go:

“Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old. Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations. Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true. Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All. That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is Done. Hail Satan.”

I have a message for all the conservative Christians hailing this ruling: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it  🙂



Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Resolve to Fight Deadly Anti-Vaccine Propaganda: Start with the NVIC’s New Years Ad

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 28, 2011

Just yesterday I learned that the National Vaccine Information Center, a deceptive title for one of the worst anti-vaccine propaganda groups out there, has a new ad playing in New York City’s Times Square.  Worse yet, this ad is going to be playing on the megatron screen there during the New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec. 31st!  Folks, this is bad, not just because of the content of the ad, which plays on the “pro-choice” mentality that parents are better equipped to make medical decisions than doctors and also directs viewers to the NVIC’s website, but because of the timing: due to the fact that millions (perhaps even billions) of people watch the Times Square festivities on television, this ad could easily get worldwide exposure.

The NVIC and other anti-vax groups would rather this kid get whooping cough or another deadly disease than take a life-saving vaccine.

We need to fight back, and we’ve already started.  Elyse Anders has already written a post at Skepchick on this, and I’ve also blown the whistle via the JREF Swift blog.  But more needs to be done, so here’s what you can do:

1. Direct people to reliable and trustworthy outlets for vaccine information – a quick and handy one is the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s Hug Me I’m Vaccinated FAQ.

2. Sign the new petition demanding that ABC Full Circle pull the NVIC Times Square ad.

3. Join our Twitter campaign: Tweet @DisneyChannelPR using #ABCsSickNYE. You can copy/paste one of these or write your own:

I resolve to end deadly anti-vaccine propaganda. @DisneyChannelPR Pull NVIC’s anti-vax Times Square ad  #ABCsSickNYE

Whooping cough is on the rise thanks to things like NVIC advertising on @DisneyChannelPR screens in NYC. #ABCsSickNYE

4. Go to the NVIC YouTube video link and “dislike” the video.

5. Share this information on Facebook and other social media outlets.

6. Contact Gerald Griffin at ABC Full Circle by emailing or calling 212.456.7389 to voice your displeasure with them playing the NVIC ad.

And this campaign needs to be mounted from the inside as well as the outside: it seems we in the skeptical and pro-science community need media connections within the companies which rent out space for these high-profile ads.  We need to inform and educate these companies about the part they are playing in spreading this dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation, and we need to raise such a fuss that they’ll simply refuse the NVIC the next time they come wanting to rent the space.

Of course, none of this will work without you, because we are going up against an organization that has literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on anti-vaccine propaganda.  So please take some time to get involved and take action now – it really is a matter of life or death.

Posted in environmental hysteria, media woo, medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

9/11 and “How the World Changed”: My Thoughts Ten Years Later

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 11, 2011

Here I sit on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I find myself reflecting on the last ten years since that day.  I wanted to write down some of my thoughts in this blog post, because when it comes to the issue of 9/11 specifically and the broader issue of terrorism in general, I think there is much need for skepticism and critical thinking.  This is most especially true because of the high level of emotion and passion the whole issue of 9/11 invokes, and when our emotions are stirred so strongly we must make sure to temper our passion with reason.  So, here goes…

After ten years, what has become glaringly apparent to me is that the events of 9/11 changed things, but in my opinion it was not really in the way that many people think.  First, I have to say that every time I hear someone say or read that “On Sept. 11th the world changed” or something similar, I just have to shake my head because I think this kind of statement shows an interesting bias.  I say this because, fundamentally, nothing about the world around us really changed on that day – both before and after 9/11, the Earth turns on its axis, the sun rises and sets, and the universe trundles merrily along.  What did change on that day is the perspective which many people, mostly those of us within the United States, view the world around us.  It is unfortunate, I think, that many of us conflate these two things in our minds: we equate how they view the world with how the world actually works.  And this is, I think, the cause of much irrationality and muddled thinking.

Many of us were shaken to our core at the horrors we witnessed as not one, but two, planes slammed into the World Trade Center buildings, and as we heard the news of the attack on the Pentagon.  The sight of the Twin Towers collapsing further sent a shudder down our collective spines, and we lamented the seemingly senseless loss of life in such magnitude.  In some ways, we were brutally and startlingly shaken out of our complacency, which for some consisted of a belief that we in the United States were somehow – magically – immune to such devastation.  And when evidence to the contrary was presented to us, in a most horrific fashion, the reaction of many was precisely what one would expect: fear and anger.

There have been a lot of things written about 9/11 and its aftermath, but one thing I want to note is the manner in which many different people have reacted to the fear and anger brought to the surface due to 9/11: by seeking out some kind of evil “Other” to use as a boogeyman.  Now, don’t misinterpret me here – it is obvious that the attacks of 9/11 were planned and carried out by Al Qaeda, and the concern about groups such as Al Qaeda and the terrorism they perpetuate is a legitimate subject of concern that should be addressed.  What I am talking about goes beyond pointing out the very real threat posed by groups such as Al Qaeda; I am instead speaking of a broader pattern which has become apparent to me over the years.

For example, there are some people who have chosen the “Other” to be all Muslims, equating them with terrorists.  They point to the religion of Islam and its followers and make erroneous statements that we are now in some kind of cultural (or, more disturbingly, “holy”) war between the Western world and the Islamic world.

There are also those who choose the nefarious “Other” to be atheists and godless liberals.  These people tend towards the view espoused by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that the Sept. 11th attacks were somehow a punishment from God against the United States for our nation tolerating atheism and homosexuality in our population.  Many people who cater to this view of the “Other” also seem to view all Muslims as the enemy, as stated above.

Then some people take a look at 9/11 and see the “Other” as the United States government or some portion of it.  These tend to be the people who buy into various 9/11 conspiracy theories, and they are in complete denial about the mountain of facts and evidence that show the September 11th attacks were the result of terrorism at the hands of Al Qaeda.  Many of these people also have a talent for blatantly denying physics in an attempt to justify their worldview, and some even try to work in versions of anti-Semitism by implying that 9/11 was some kind of Jewish plot (thus making Jews the “Other” as well).

Last, but not least, there are those – many of whom are in the skeptical movement – who blame all religion as the evil “Other”.  This includes many of the so-called New Atheist writers (many of whose writings I have read and, in many ways, admire) who seem to think there is something inherently dangerous about any kind of religious belief.  I think it is worth noting that many who call themselves skeptics should be a bit skeptical of making such a sweeping generalization without a more rigorous analysis of the available data.  For reference on this particular point, I suggest the reader listen to a recent, excellent interview of Scott Atran on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

There are numerous variations on this theme of paranoia, fear, and the desire to find an “Other” to blame for the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent repercussions throughout society since that day, but one thing that unites them all is an irrational desire to categorize the situation into a simplistic, black and white, us versus them kind of worldview.  This is perfectly understandable once you know that humans are basically tribalistic in the manner in which they form societies and groups within those societies.  We are, in many ways, hard wired to engage in this kind of simplistic tribal thinking, and we carry it out in our everyday lives all the time.

Our tribal tendencies manifest themselves in myriad ways: in what religion/God/gods we worship, in what political beliefs/parties we adhere to, in our choice of sports team that we support, and even among those of us who call ourselves skeptics.  Sometimes these tribal tendencies are relatively harmless, but in other situations they can be downright dangerous.

Of course, the problem is that in reality the world isn’t always so simplistic.  And this goes back to my original point about our perspective of the world is not the same thing as how the world actually works, which forms the core of this particular blog post.  Most especially when we are frightened and our passions are inflamed by events such as Sept. 11th, it is critical that we not make the fundamental mistake of buying into this mode of thinking because it is the very root of how so much thinking can go terribly wrong.

In closing, allow me to finish with this thought: September 11th, 2001 was an awful enough day as it was… we shouldn’t add insult to injury by allowing our darker natures to overwhelm our ability to reason.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

ALERT: Demand That CBS Not Air Outdoor Anti-Vaccine Ad!

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 9, 2011

[**Update (4-15-11): The American Academy of Pediatrics has requested that CBS pull the anti-vax ad.]

[**Update (4-11-11): It seems the ads have already started to run.  Here’s more information from Elyse Anders over at Skepchick on this developing situation.  Please take action now!]

Okay folks, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get skeptically active.  I have found out that CBS plans to air an anti-vaccination ad on the Jumbotron at 42nd Street in New York’s Times Square starting on April 28th.  The sponsoring organizations are the notoriously anti-vaccinationist Mercola and National Vaccine Information Center. These are a couple of the biggest groups out there promoting the falsehood that, among other things, vaccines cause autism (they don’t, btw).  And while their ad gives the impression that they want to simply inform people about their “vaccine choices”, what they are really about is spreading flagrantly non-scientific, incorrect, and fear-mongering bilge about vaccines.  If you’d like to see some accurate info on vaccines, check out this link to the Hug Me, I’m Vaccinated website.

Folks, we have to do something to stop this.  Why?  Simple: because vaccines save lives.  Period.

Thus I propose that we not only light candles in the gathering darkness, I propose that we start up a huge frakkin’ bonfire!  So what can we do about this nonsense?  Elyse Anders of Skepchick has a few ideas on that…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in media woo, medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: