Secularism is the Future. The Present Still Kind of Sucks.

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A recent piece by noted-skeptic Michael Shermer in Politico, “Who Cares if Trump is Religious?,” underscores how all is not lost in the age of Trump. As Shermer writes:

I’m not saying Trump is a closeted atheist, but he’s no evangelical. As a self-proclaimed Protestant, or Presbyterian, or something he describes as “a wonderful religion,” Trump nominally attends the nondenominational Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate was the one-time pulpit for the self-help evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking, an amalgam of pop psychology and cherry-picked scripture (without the guilt and sin), who presided over Trump’s wedding to Ivana. In other words, at most this is Christianity Lite, or Cafeteria Christianity, where one orders only the most appealing items on the menu.

Shermer argues that Trump was easily the most secular candidate on the Republican side during the 2016 election and that the U.S.’s demographics are moving toward a more overall secular polity. “It looks like the U.S. religious reawakening from the 1950s through the 2000s, then, might have been an anomaly. The long-term trend is certainly toward secularization,” Shermer noted.

While it is safe to say that Trump is not the most godly man to enter the Oval Office (remember the “Two Corinthians” thing), evangelicals still voted for him by 81%. That’s higher than for Romney (76%), McCain (74%), or even George W. Bush during the values-voters-drenched election of 2004 (78%). If he’s so secular, why did the evangelicals support him more than they did George W. Bush?

The answer is fairly simple, which makes Shermer’s piece a bit disappointing; he can’t see the trees for the forest. While the trend towards secularization is steadily growing in the U.S., our current problems are continually plagued with the usual evangelical patina. As such, Trump gave the religious right what they wanted in exchange for their votes. He didn’t play to their piety; he played to their pocketbooks.

Candidate Trump routinely said that, as President, he would undo the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s era tax code regulation mandating that preachers can’t politic from the pulpit. According to the Washington Post, Trump met with faith leaders in February and recommitted himself to this promise. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would allow churches and religious non-profits to function as dark money political operations, all the while continuing to receive donations and income tax-free. This would completely eliminate the line between charity and electioneering, at least in regards to taxes. So much for freer and fairer elections.

Trump also chose noted climate “skeptics” for his cabinet, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and EPA Administrator Tom Price. Trump has also indicated his interest in having the US pull out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, despite a split cabinet, potentially unraveling the first realistic global effort against climate change. He’s even signed executive orders curtailing Obama-era regulations on “greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants.” As for his education secretary, Betsy DeVos is nothing more than a well-connected Republican Party hack who advocates for school choice as a way to “advance god’s kingdom.”

This isn’t the kind of leadership we’d expect from a secular leader who studies the issues and makes reasonable conclusions. These are the kinds of decisions that an evangelical, corporatist Christian would make, with an attitude of “Who cares if the Earth goes up in a ball of flames? We’ll be taken up in the rapture anyway.”

Finally, and I think this is linchpin for why evangelicals supported Trump, he promised them a conservative on the Supreme Court. As early as the fall of 2016, the Trump campaign released a list of prospective candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. The choices underscored his commitment to giving evangelicals what they wanted: a conservative, Scalia-esque justice that would side with them on issues of reproductive rights, religious freedom, and the role of government. This led to the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, one of the candidates on Trump’s list who will do the evangelical’s bidding, especially in a pivotal church-state case this month.

As writer Trav Mamone noted earlier this week, “Trump’s lack of religiosity doesn’t mean a damn thing to me because his secular values are not humanist values.” Mamone rightly pointed out that Trump’s travel ban (known colloquially as the “Muslim Ban), policy reversals on transgender rights in public schools, and the choice of uber-Christian dominionist Mike Pence as his Vice President don’t resonate as being very secular. In fact, they strike me as being exactly what we’d expect from the presidency of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or even Ben Carson (come on, weirder things have happened).

Like Shermer, I acknowledge that our world is getting better every day, in so many demonstrable ways. Extreme poverty and disease are being eliminated; innovations are making our lives easier and cheaper, and the average American consumes cheaper, nutritious food more than at any time in our history. There’s so much to be proud of, but we still face enormous challenges in energy, climate change, education, health care, and tax reform. Even though our nation is getting more secular, especially within the last ten years, our leadership doesn’t reflect that. Trump may not be much of an evangelical Christian, but he sure as hell governs like one. That I do care about.

 

Aron Ra Resigns as President of Atheist Alliance of America, Focuses on State Senate Run

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Atheist Activist and Science Communicator Aron Ra. Image: YouTube screen capture.

Aron Ra, the atheist activist and science communicator, has resigned as President of the Atheist Alliance of America, according to an article from his blog. He has decided to move on from the organization to focus on an increasingly busy schedule related to his Texas State Senate run. “So in an effort to minimize distractions, I have resigned as President of Atheist Alliance of America to concentrate on my increasingly busy State Senate Campaign. Yes, I’m really doing this despite how much of a long shot this is,” Ra noted.

He is running as a Democrat in Texas State Senate District 2, whose incumbent, Bob Hall, is a Republican. If Ra wins the Democratic primary in the spring of 2018, he will face a district where a Democrat has not run since 2002. Nevertheless, as an insurgency grows against President Donald Trump and the GOP, he may have an opportunity to stage a spectacular upset.

During his time as Atheist Alliance of America president, he helped to relaunch the Secular Nation podcast (disclosure: co-hosted by yours truly), assisted with the coming relaunch of Secular Nation magazine, and helped rebuild its presence within the growing Atheist movement.

If you are interested in learning more about Aron Ra’s candidacy and ways to support, visit his campaign website, aronra.org.

Where are the Scientists in Congress?

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A few years ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson brought up a very interesting point about the United States Congress. “I wonder what profession all these Senators and Congressmen are? Law, law, law, law, business man, law, law. . . . There are no scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life?,” quipped Tyson. The rest of life, indeed. According to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service, there were only 11 members of Congress (out of 535) that were scientists or engineers; all of them were in the House of Representatives, with the exception of one engineer in the Senate. This is the very definition of disproportionate, seeing as by 2010, one in every 18 jobs in the United States was in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). By 2018, it is projected to be nearly one in five. If our congressional representation kept a parity with the private sector, there should be 30 scientists, rather than merely 11. By 2018, it should be closer to 91.

This is a sad state of affairs, something that should have changed years ago. However, with the election of one of the most unqualified, anti-science administrations in history, scientists are beginning to get political. As a recent piece in the New York Times noted, scientists are now beginning to organize and even run for office, namely UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen. Within the growing secular movement, activist and science communicator Aron Ra is running for the Texas State Senate. This is all culminating in a national March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and all-around rationalists from across the country are getting organized to take on the anti-science, anti-reason impulses of our body politic. But it doesn’t end there.

The March for Science should be the starting point of an even larger movement to reshape Congress. Our Congress needs to be more aligned with the growing body of knowledge about the harmful effects of climate change, the wrong-headed hysteria over GMO foods and vaccines, as well as a larger commitment to critical thinking. We need to have organizations and activist resources that help us find, groom, canvass for, and finally elect science-oriented reformers to Congress. So much of the rancor and divisiveness plaguing our politics is rooted in a partisan view of the truth. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” An objective, non-partisan view of facts and science should come back to our politics. Liberals, conservatives, and independents should more than happily disagree about specific actions we take on the issues, but if we can’t even agree on what the issues are, we can never really change them. Electing science-minded members to Congress will go a long way to fix many such ills we face in our country and the world.

Without the Net: Depression and Anxiety as an Atheist

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Content Note: This article is about my experiences with depression and anxiety. I’m not a medical professional or psychologist, so if you’re worried about your own condition, I strongly advise you to visit your doctor. This article is not intended to be medical advice.

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I often wonder what it feels like to die, to give up on everything; to finally feel the release of this tortured frame of my body and be free. It’s a thought I’ve had many times in my life. Despite my successes, my family and friends, and the passions that animate my curiosity, the creeping darkness of my own mind still haunts me.

To know these feelings is to know depression, at least how it manifests in me. I’ve lived with clinical depression for over ten years, and clinical anxiety for three. Alongside the darkness and thoughts of death, I also experience episodes of intense worry, regret, and self-destruction. These moments paralyze me, make me feel the urgency of my body. The constant wrenching in the stomach, the deep and stentorian beats of my heart. This combination makes it very hard for me to relate to people, especially ones whose easy-going nature and calm demeanor often aggravate my own intensity.

I try not to take it out on them, of course. It is not their fault I am who I am. I am the product of biology as well my environment. My family has a history of depression, often undiagnosed. My father’s depression, of which his undiagnosed case catalyzed the end of his marriage to my mother, still creates in him an inner turmoil. Today, he does seek treatment for it, but as I do, lives with the lingering emotional scars. However, I’m unlike my father in that I’m an extrovert and desire the approval and attention of others. These interactions are a great source of strength.

I have what is called dysthymia, or low-grade depression. It doesn’t appear like other forms of depression do, where you have long-bouts of completely debilitating experiences. Instead, this type of depression smolders under the surface, constantly picking away at you for weeks or months before you have a bad day, month, or even year. You still function, but you battle fatigue, irritability, and loss of attentiveness. In my experience, I often have a poor temper with regards to my episodes. Things will wear on me all day until the smallest thing sets me off. Whether it’s my wife asking me to do something, dropping an item on the floor, or forgetting a task that was important, these send me into a sort of mania that makes me really unpleasant. I have to be talked down from these moments, and thankfully for me, I have a partner who is patient and understands my symptoms.

My depression started when I was 15 years old, about a year into some major life changes. My parents divorced, my father and I moved away from my mom and sister, and I started life at a new school. The first year was pretty great; I gained new friends, found new hobbies, and improved academically, but then a series of misfortunes triggered my first bout with serious depression. I suffered a break-up, being kicked out of my band (due to my increasing moodiness), and was struck with a serious sinus infection that lingered for months. These experiences awakened a melancholy that was brewing all my life. I had an intense childhood that left me with mild trauma. Emotional, verbal, and rare, but very real physical abuse from my past played over and over again in my mind. I blamed myself for the pain that I took, for the breakup of my parents’ marriage, for the poor relationship with my sister. I had a complete breakdown of my self-esteem and personal growth.

It was around this time that began to study religion. I tried to grab on to something, anything that might help me understand what was going on in my mind. I studied the Bible (the book of Ecclesiastes and its poetry still fills me with comfort) as well as Buddhism. I began to meditate and tried to seek answers to my all-encompassing problems. Despite some semblance of recovery, it didn’t really help. It wasn’t until I understood the science of depression that I began to understand my condition. This discovery, alongside other reasons, also led me to my abandonment of religious belief in 2009.

At the suggestion of my doctor, I began taking anti-depressant medication, Lexapro. It was a low dose, but I had to take it every day. Lexapro is a SSRI, or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. People with depression and anxiety often have problems with the neural framework of their brains; serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is blocked from performing its task as a mood regulator. A SSRI signals in on these serotonin irregularities and helps to normalize the neurotransmission process. In doing so, it helps to regulate mood. I took it as a teenager, spent a few years off of it, and then resumed it in 2014.

The catalyst for resuming the medication was the second major depressive episode in my life, now more pronounced due to my anxiety. My anger, sadness, worry, and impulsiveness began to get the best of me. While my grades were good in college and I was excelling in my professional life, I often came home a shattered wreck of a person. It made me have serious relationship problems with my girlfriend and I found it absolutely exhausting performing even the most basic of activities. I finally had a period of intense panic attacks and breakdowns, especially once I began graduate school, which convinced me to resume my medication and begin another period of talk therapy.

I began seeing a talk therapist during my first depressive period in high school. While he was helpful, I think he thought I was just a moody teenager in need of friends rather than a seriously depressed person. It wasn’t until I began my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), rebuilt my self-esteem, and climbed out of the hole that I realized that I really didn’t need to see him anymore. Also, the sessions were rather expensive, and our finances also motivated my decision.

I resumed talk therapy, this time with another therapist, in 2014, after the second round of depression with added anxiety. He was a very helpful and kind listener, who respected my lack of religious belief, encouraged me to follow my passions, and gave advice as to how to alleviate some of my symptoms. While I no longer see him, I’m in the process of finding another therapist. I’ve also continued meditating, this time focusing on the practices of Mindfulness.

So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with atheism? For me, everything. When I lost my religious inclinations in 2009, I began to explore the world as it is, not how I wanted it to be. I no longer expected the world or the universe to care about me, because they don’t. The person who is calling the shots in your life is you; atheism is the realization that your life belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to the church. It’s yours to make worthwhile. This was a revelation to me (pardon the religious phrasing). Once I realized that my life was mine to mold as I wish, I had a renewed sense of purpose that reinvigorated my self-esteem and helped me with my depression and anxiety.

This is what a secular, atheist, and broadly humanist outlook on the world has given me. When people say that life is purposeless without God, they are working with a poverty of ambition. When you understand that life is precious, that each moment can be used to laugh, to love, to live, to speak, to think, and to be down once in a while, it gives you the resolve to be better. Realizing that chemistry, biology, and society, not sin or karma, were responsible for my depression and anxiety gave me the necessary tools to live a fulfilling life. As the author Andrew Solomon once wrote, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Vitality is what we should strive for, not mere contentment. I’m not happy every waking moment of my day. Hell, no one is. But what I am trying to be is vital, thriving, and dedicated to my own values.

For those who suffer from depression and anxiety, it can get better. There are people who love you and will support you if you ask for their help. There are medical and psychiatric professionals who are there to help you get better. The world can be a beautiful and rewarding place if you face it head-on and not cave to superstition or wishful thinking. Clear and honest reasoning about your own troubles is difficult, but in doing so, you can combat almost any inner struggles you have. My atheism has helped me understand and then care for my depression and anxiety, because I’m not waiting for someone to help me from the sky. I know it’s upon me to take the path that I know will make my life better. It isn’t easy, nor is it the be-all, end-all solution, but being a reasonable person in an often unreasonable world will push back the inner demons. It did, at least, for me.

Renew the Four Freedoms

img_7090On January 6, 1941, on the eve of the most disastrous conflict of the 20th century, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. In his address, he stressed the need for American self-determination at home and international engagement abroad. Yet, this speech is less remembered for what the President described but for what he called for. It was in this address that FDR laid out his vision of freedom for both Americans and citizens of the world. He called these proscriptions “The Four Freedoms,” and he outlined them towards the end of his speech. Roosevelt declared:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

In my estimation, this is the most succinct and powerful statement of freedom ever uttered by an American President, and its vision for the world embodies my own ideals. Roosevelt’s idea of freedom was complex yet understandable, attentive to the heritage of our nation as well as its future.

The first two, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, are the foundational liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Philosophically, they are “negative liberties,” meaning that they are freedoms that are protected from government intrusion or degradation. I have always been a champion of free speech and expression. The freedom to think, write, publish, and speak exist beyond an American sense of rights. They are human rights that under-gird every other right or liberty we can claim as citizens. It is our task, in triumphant as well as troubled times, to defend these rights from any threat or limitation.

The second set expand the nature of freedom, from mere rights granted to us in spite of government to rights guaranteed by government. As such, they are called “positive liberties.” “Freedom from want” ensures that a society takes care of its citizens who are without the means for a better life, from food, shelter, and clothing to basic medical and social services. Roosevelt’s inclusion of this freedom came from his experience of being President during the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed, living in shacks, and barely had enough to eat. He believed in a world where those with less would never suffer the iniquities that had plagued his fellow citizens. Thus, as economist Karl Polanyi noted, when a person’s economic position is stable, their overall personal liberty increases. Put another way by another president, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The last was “freedom from fear,” meaning that a society protects not only its own but those who can’t protect themselves. In this freedom, Franklin Roosevelt established a liberal, internationalist order that has kept the world largely peaceful for over 70 years. An international political order, with the United States at its center, should supply the military and diplomatic resources necessary to stave off conflicts and to ameliorate others from starting. Every president since FDR has kept this promise. In doing so, they have kept a foreign conflict from hitting our shores, with the exception of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Even so, 9/11 rededicated the United States and its allies to the same principles that Roosevelt outlined in 1941; a world without the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth will be less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful. We haven’t always gotten it right; we’ve made mistakes and blunders that have set our goals back. But FDR’s principle stands. A world without fear is a world worth fighting for.

It is in this tradition that I begin a new campaign, a campaign to reaffirm Roosevelt’s principles for a new generation of Americans. I call this project “Renew the Four Freedoms.” With the election of a President very much the opposite of FDR, we need a movement that will place these ideals at the forefront of our national dialogue. These aren’t partisan values, but are American values. These are the values that Lincoln believed to resonate in “every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.” I hope that you will join me in the fight for these freedoms. Use the hashtag #renewthefour when discussing these values on social media. Talk about them with your friends and loved ones, on your own podcast or radio show, and on television. Start conversations about what we must do in the coming years. America needs a vision that will unite us, more now than ever before. This is that vision.

 

#RENEWTHEFOUR

The Year Ahead

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2016 has been an extremely rewarding year for me. I began this blog, started my first podcast, An Army of Principles, continued my activism as an admin for Philosophical Atheism, and began a partnership with the Atheist Alliance of America. It was this partnership that led to my next podcast project, Secular Nation. I am finally beginning to find my voice within the growing and diverse atheist movement.

With the new year, I have decided to change course. Trying to do both An Army of Principles and Secular Nation, alongside a full-time job and other projects, has been rather taxing on me. I think it is the right time for me to focus on specific projects and end others. It is with this in mind that I am ending An Army of Principles: The Podcast. I plan on doing one, final episode talking about the show and what I hoped to achieve. I will also end my show with a final “Special Comment” about the future of my activism and laying out a new vision for 2017.

With the troubling political landscape personified in the age of Trump, 2017 provides a unique opportunity to be a persistent opposition. Secular Nation is just the show for this opposition. I also hope to get back to some blogging, particularly about longer, more in-depth topics. The sharpening of focus will allow me to give you all more content that I’m passionate about that hopefully entertains and educates in the process. 2017 appears to be a rollicking year and I hope you will come along for the ride.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

trump_machado-jpg_1718483346I was recently browsing one of my favorite bookstores when a realization hit me—again. I was in the presidential book section, gleaning over the latest titles they had shelved. Among the biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, I spotted a couple of books both by and about Donald J. Trump. I thought to myself, “wow, that’s rather odd. Did someone misplace these books? Surely they don’t belong here.” And then it happened; the stark truth hit me in the face like a cold, unwelcome breeze. Those books did belong there, because he will be the 45th President of the United States.

Donald Trump’s election to the White House is a reality I still haven’t gotten used to. With each passing day it feels like a bad nightmare coming apart at the seams. This incoming administration is getting dangerously close to being not only one of the most plutocratic but also one of the most ignorant. His cabinet picks are akin to a rogue’s gallery of villains, each with their own disastrous idiosyncrasies. First, there’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General. His own antipathy towards civil rights during the 1960s made him too toxic for a federal judgeship in the 1980s. Also, he’s a climate change “skeptic,” which is a theme we will come back to.

Next, there’s Betsy DeVos, the prospective Secretary of Education. A billionaire and school choice advocate, DeVos has been a champion of voucher programs and charter schools, which have been shown in initial studies to be either below or barely on par with public schools on basic reading or math. She’s also never been educated in the public schools, sent her children to public schools, or served as a public schools administrator. On top of all of this, vouchers have been consistently used to fund religious and parochial schools, which are often at odds with a proper understanding of evolution, climate change, or reproductive health. If you are someone who values public education as I do, having attended them my whole life, this is a terrible choice.

Trump’s potential cabinet is also filled with climate “skeptics” who seek to undermine the international community’s efforts to combat climate change. Scott Pruitt, the man he’s chosen to run the EPA, was described by Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart as a “climate denier who fought the expansion of the Clean Water Act and formed a secretive alliance with energy corporations to fight air-pollution regulations. . . .” His pick for Interior, Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, also doubts the science of climate change, saying that, “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Finally, there’s Rick Perry, his choice for Secretary of Energy, who’s called climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” As a coincidental aside, Perry also currently serves on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline. So much for trying to take climate change seriously.

The most outlandish pick he’s made since becoming president-elect is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, who backed out of becoming HHS secretary because he thought he was unqualified, is now more than happy to take a job he has even less qualifications for. How does being one of the best brain surgeons in the world prepare you to lead a multi-faceted government bureaucracy dedicated to fair housing and urban planning? I guess being a critic of desegregating housing practices, standing against government programs for those he simply calls the “needy,” and having a friend who helped orchestrate successful real estate deals before his conviction for fraud in 2007.

Then there’s the vice president-elect, Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence supported its controversial version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which harmed its business reputation as well as harmed the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. He also supported a law that required miscarriages and abortions to be given cremation or burial. To be fair, the law never mandated the parents be present or choose which method, and it was deemed unconstitutional, but the fact that he supported it is still pretty egregious. And, as the icing on this fundamentalist cake, he gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of intelligent design in the classrooms. (Check out AAA President AronRa’s YouTube video, PWNing Pence, which refutes the former representative’s ideas on intelligent design and evolution.) Yet, I haven’t even given you the half of it.

So Trump’s cabinet picks and his vp-elect are only the initial soundings of things to come, but they have nonetheless shocked most of the scientific, atheist, and freethought communities. His choices have shown a complete lack of regard for science, the separation of religion and government, and plain common sense. As I reflect back on that day in the bookstore, I keep saying to myself, “One of these things is not like the other.” Trump certainly isn’t like most of the others leaders we’ve had. While there have been presidential failures like James Buchanan and Warren Harding, Trump feels like he belongs in a class of his own. As such, his choices for some of the nation’s most important jobs demonstrate that he has no idea what it means to be reasonable, ethical, or presidential.