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.

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.

Aron Ra announces intention to run for Texas State Senate

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Aron Ra, the charismatic science educator and atheist activist, has announced his intention to run for Texas State Senate in 2018. On a recent episode of Dogma Debate, Aron Ra explained why he felt the time was right to announce his intention to run. Inspired by Bernie Sanders and California State Senate candidate Steve Hill, Ra remarked that “in 2018, when I run for Texas State Senate, I’m going to do an advertising campaign along those lines, and I think people are going to be completely outraged at what they’ve had to put up with for the two years leading up to that point before I do.”

What he was referring to was the phenomenal success that both Hill and Sanders had as unconventional candidates. Hill ran for the California Senate as an open Satanist during the 2016 Democratic primary, garnering nearly 12% of the vote. Sanders ran as a “democratic socialist” and won 23 states, 1865 delegates, and over 13.2 million votes against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This makes Sanders the most successful non-Christian (he’s a secular Jew) Presidential candidate in US history.

Ra faces an uphill battle in his race for the Texas State Senate. He lives in Garland, which likely puts him in either district 2, 8, or 16. These districts are Republican strongholds, where Democrats and even Libertarians haven’t had much luck against the incumbents. Nevertheless, Ra is an extremely successful activist and science educator, using his YouTube channel, podcast, and other outlets to educate the public about the dangers of creationism in public schools. He was also a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, which means that he likely cares about combating climate change, income inequality, and money in politics.

Aron Ra would be a welcome addition to the local politics in Texas and would show to the country that atheists and secularists are becoming a more influential voice in the United States.

On Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism

 

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“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Dread Scott.

In 1989, this installation, created by artist Dread Scott, was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. As Scott’s website describes:

The installation is comprised of: a photomontage (the montage consists of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch’ and flag draped coffins in a troop transport; text printed on the photomontage reads “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”), books (originally with blank pages) on a shelf, ink pens, a 3’x5′ American flag on the ground and an active audience. The audience was encouraged to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” As they did so, they had the opportunity to stand on the flag as they wrote their response. When this work has been displayed, thousands of people filled hundreds of pages with responses. Many many of those stood on the flag as they added their comments to the work.

The installation’s main goal was to critique the often sycophantic and narcissistic displays of so called “patriotism” in our society. President George H.W. Bush condemned the exhibit and the US Congress even moved to make displays like this illegal. Protesting Congress’s action, artists burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol, which led to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that defended their right to burn the flag as “protected speech.”

I bring this up because of the recent controversy concerning the actions of pro Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, as a protest against the continued violence against minorities in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.

The backlash was predictable and typically myopic. People burned his jersey, called for his firing, and publicly railed against his actions, yet did not actually acknowledge or understand why, as a person of color, he might do this. But that’s the specific circumstances of this incident; I wish to speak of its larger implications.

In my estimation, Kaepernick’s protest is just as legally defensible and morally consistent as “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” His action was exactly what people of privilege and tradition fear: showing them what’s wrong with our society and making them deal with it.

We have violence in our cities, continued high unemployment within minority communities, homelessness, and the chronic mistreatment of our past and present service members who need vital healthcare and social services. And yet this is what dominates the news.

We have a society that obsesses over meaningless objects of idolatry, like the flag or lapel pins, but ignores and actively undermines alternative acts of patriotism.

Kaepernick’s act was that of patriotism, just as much as any person who stood proudly during the anthem and sang their hearts out. Who is to say what is and is not patriotic? If patriotism is nothing more than blind deference to symbols and slogans, than we are no better than the fascists the democratic world defeated nearly 70 years ago.

Patriotism is not a showy display of hero or symbol worship; it is embodying the idea of what your nation believes in. In the U.S., our cornerstone ideal is liberty. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, when Dread Scott created their art with the flag on the floor, and when a young kid refuses to say the pledge of alliegence because of the divisive and unconstitutional phrase of “One Nation Under God,” they are all reaffirming the true nature of our Republic, which is that of freedom.

Freedom to think, freedom to act, freedom to worship or not to worship. These ideals mean far more than some piece of cloth, a metal pin, or some national song. These symbols mean absolutely nothing if the ideals upon which they stand for cannot be lived out.

Therefore, until every homeless person is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Until every child can achieve a good education and live in communities that are safe. Until every act of patriotism, both traditional and unorthodox, is honored. And until every veteran and active service member is cared for with dignity and respect, shut the fuck up about national anthems, pledges, lapel pins, and flags.

Symbols do not deserve unadulterated respect; only people do.

The End of the Road (For Now)

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Like John Oliver’s segment on the Democratic primary process, I can hear the more overzealous Bernie Sanders supporters now, getting ready to blast me as a “shill” and a “turncoat” for what I’m about to say. But I don’t care.

I am a Sanders supporter. I donated to his campaign, voted for him in the Indiana primary (which he won), and was enthusiastic about his effort to shake up the Democratic Party and electoral politics. I think he is a genuine, honest, and passionate man who speaks his mind and fights for what he believes. He’s not insane like Donald Trump and he’s not the calculating, Nixon-esque strategist like Hillary Clinton. However, after his 13-point loss to Clinton in the California primary, the writing’s on the wall.

Politico recently released an article describing the Sanders’s campaign as in complete disarray, with key strategists on the inside throwing their candidate under the bus. Many of the problems the campaign came, in their estimation, from Sanders himself, including his call that Clinton was “unqualified,” the proposed debate with Trump, and his response to the Nevada Democratic Convention’s chaos. Bernie started this race as a hopeful gadfly, a protest candidate who had a vision for America that I saw as positive. However, as the mistakes and resentment grew, I’m beginning to see a very different candidate that I originally supported.

Instead of his optimism about what America and its politics can be, I see his cynicism over the “rigged” nature of the Democratic primary. To be fair, he’s quite right about the Democratic Party’s seemingly undemocratic system of “superdelegates” and party insiders, and how its sudden shifting gave Clinton the edge to be the presumptive nominee before the California primary. Nevertheless, Clinton earned far more votes in this election than Sanders, and no amount of mid-game system changing is going to reverse that. If he didn’t like this system, he should’ve never run as a Democrat.

The reason for my frustration is that Bernie’s current demeanor as a sore, but defiant loser is going to hurt his legacy. He’s the first non-Christian in the history of American politics to win primaries and caucuses for a major political party. He’s shown the American people that a professional, strong campaign can be waged without big money donors and Super PACs. He turned his candidacy from being a mere asterisk into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, all the while heavily criticizing its system. His vision for America is the future of the Democratic Party, and his candidacy helped make that vision a reality. He’s pushed Clinton to the left on issues of trade, immigration, and finance that she would have never taken without him in the race. And he’s about to squander all that over petty electoral math.

In my estimation, for the good of his legacy and the future he wants to build, he needs to suspend his campaign and actively fight for what he believes either through helping congressional candidates or, e gads (!), the presumptive Democratic nominee. As I’m torn over whether to vote for Clinton in the fall, Bernie’s choice to support her or not weighs heavily in my decision. As he pushes the party to the left, as many of us have clamored for, he might even be her Vice President if he wants. Or, he could secure that Elizabeth Warren is her VP, which would create one of the most unprecedented presidential tickets in history.

If he decides to abandon the Democrats, I will admire that as well. The party establishment certainly hasn’t given him much to work with and I wouldn’t blame him for telling them to go to hell. It could give him the impetus to do what Theodore Roosevelt did in 1912: run as a progressive, third-party candidate that would change the nature of the race for the fall.

Regardless of what he decides, he needs to make a decision quickly, for the good of the country and the causes he cares so dearly for. Bernie Sanders is certainly one of the most important presidential candidates in the history of American politics, but it’s the end of the road. He needs to choose another path.