An attack on the freedom to criticize religion

Yes, a free press was attacked in Paris when gunman slaughtered cartoonists at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper. But it was not just a free press that was attacked, and not enough people are recognizing that.

The freedom to choose a religion, along with the freedom to choose NO religion, was attacked in Paris. The freedom to criticize a religion was attacked. The freedom to be unbound by the dictates of a faith you do not share was attacked. The statement made by the terrorists was not about foreign policy or domestic policy. It was not about the use of force or respect for state authority.

This was about a group of people who decided that the feelings of their omnipotent friend were hurt, and who took it upon themselves to commit murder because someone ELSE did not follow THEIR religion’s mandates.

And that is unconscionable.

Freedom of religion does not oblige ME to live by the restrictions imposed by YOUR religion (nor does it oblige you to live by the restrictions — or allowances — of mine). If your faith says you can’t spell out the name G-d, well, then, by God, YOU don’t do that. But you don’t get to stop me. You don’t get to stop me from drawing a picture of Mohammed. You don’t get to stop me from picking up sticks on a Friday night, or picking up chicks on a Saturday night (although my wife’s religion might have something to say about that). You don’t get to stop me from eating shrimp or cheeseburgers. You don’t get to stop me from officiating at the wedding of two atheists, two Christians, two Jews, two Scientologists, two men or two women. You don’t get to decide that. And I don’t get to make you eat cheeseburgers or shrimp. I don’t get to make you attend a gay wedding.

Freedom is awesome that way.My Pen

But what happened in Paris — that was an attack on freedom from religion. We were just told, violently, that some ideas are not to be criticized, that when someone is revered by an intolerant few, that person must be respected by everyone, under penalty of death.

No. To hell with you. Not how it’s gonna work.

I have no trouble being respectful of anyone’s faith. Tell me not to make fun of the pope, and I won’t. Tell me not to make fun of the pope or you’ll kill me, and I’m gonna make fun of the pope. Or Mohammed. Or the Governing Body of the Watchtower Society in Brookyn. Or Pat Batcrap Crazy Robertson.

Religion has a privileged position in our society. It’s considered uncouth to mock it unnecessarily. LACK a religion, and you can be presumed immoral. LACK a religion, and you can be presumed arrogant or rude or full of yourself.

Maybe, but we don’t go around gunning people down for questioning evolution by natural selection.

No one else gets the privilege religion does. If you’re a Democrat, you don’t get to demand that people not criticize the Democratic Party. Same goes for Republicans. Same goes for fans of TV shows, musical genres, movies or anything else. You like Star Wars better than Star Trek? LET’S FIGHT! Only in religion do we suddenly tell people, Thou shalt not evaluate and critique what I believe. No matter how ridiculous it is (his strength was in his hair? AYFKM?). No matter how debunked it is (how many animals were on that boat?). We’re supposed to be respectful.

Or die?

No. To hell with you. Not how it’s going to work.


They’re coming for your children! And so are Satanists!

When you take something seriously, it is sometimes difficult to tell when you are being mocked.

In no area of life is this more evident than it is in the field of religion. Tell a devout Christian that there is no God, and the Christian will respond with assurances that you are wrong. But tell him you are a Satanist, and he thinks you really believe in and worship the Dark One.

Rationally speaking, there is no such thing as a Satanist. A person who truly believes that there is a spirit being named Satan who opposes the Creator God of the Old and New Testaments would never worship such a being, for to do so would be to deliberately enlist in the losing side of a war.

There are words for people who believe in a literal Satan at work in this world. Those words are Christian, Jew and Muslim. Not Satanist.

Whenever I encounter someone who calls himself a Satanist, I chuckle. This person is not a “Satanist,” the way a devout Christian would describe such a person. He is an in-your-face, obnoxious atheist. Not content to carry the banner of “skeptic” or “unbeliever,” the Satanist intentionally presses buttons to antagonize those who believe in the Islamo-Judeo-Christian God.

If you don’t feel intimidated by the idea, visit the Church of Satan website, and you’ll quickly learn that Satanists are not what Christians portray them to be.

“To us, Satan is the symbol that best suits the nature of we who are carnal by birth—people who feel no battles raging between our thoughts and feelings, we who do not embrace the concept of a soul imprisoned in a body. He represents pride, liberty, and individualism—qualities often defined as Evil by those who worship external deities, who feel there is a war between their minds and emotions… Man—using his brain—invented all the Gods, doing so because many of our species cannot accept or control their personal egos, feeling compelled to conjure up one or a multiplicity of characters who can act without hindrance or guilt upon whims and desires.”

Did you catch it? The simplicity is a bit disarming. “Satan,” to the Church of Satan, is a symbol, not a real being. They don’t worship “Satan” for the simple reason that they do not believe Satan exists. They do not believe in supernatural beings, at all.

Let me insert an asterisk here: There are all sorts of wacky beliefs about all sorts of supposed gods, so when I generalize about Satanists not believing in a literal Satan, I do so fully expecting that somewhere out there is a silly (and for all I know quite dangerous) sect of people who really do believe in a literal Satan and choose to worship him anyway. Then again, I know people who voted for Sarah Palin, Ross Perot and Walter Mondale on purpose. What can I say.

By and large, when “Satanists” emerge in the public sphere, it is far more likely that they are atheists trying to make a point than worshipers of a literal Lucifer. Atheists have been known to invoke the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” as God in order to mock theists. “Satan” takes the affront one step further, from mockery to downright antagonism.

And good Lord, does it work!

satanic17n-1-webWitness the reaction to reports that a group calling itself “The Satanic Temple” wants to distribute “satanic” literature to public school children in Orange County, Florida. Outrageous, right? Well, yes, and that is their modus operandi – to instill outrage. To what end? Well, in this case, their goal is rather transparent. They are seeking to protest the distribution of religious material to schoolchildren by advocating the distribution of religious material to schoolchildren.

Rush Limbaugh would (or should) recognize it as an example of “demonstrating absurdity by being absurd.”

It. Is. Brilliant.

“Prayer warriors, unite!” one friend wrote on her Facebook page. And while I completely respect my friend’s right to express her religious views and concerns, I can’t help but feel that she completely missed the point. In short, she did not realize or recognize that her religious beliefs were being exploited and mocked for a legitimate purpose.

It turns out that the school board in Orange County has permitted “World Changers of Florida” to distribute Bibles in schools, then allowed an atheist group to distribute materials earlier this year.

The Satanic Temple rightly recognizes that the school board cannot discriminate against any group on religious grounds, so they are seeking to distribute something called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

According to the book, Satan can only be appeased by blood sacrifice. Otherwise, he is unable to welcome those who have previously acted against his interest in the world.

Oh, wait, that’s not what the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities says about Satan. It’s what the Bible says about God. An easy mistake to make.

No, the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities includes admonitions about friendship, respect and freedom.

It should offend Christians that Satanists want to distribute this book to children. Children are not old enough to appreciate the satire being aimed at religious adults who see nothing wrong with using the state to promote a religion they like, but whine like sacrificed goats when the state is used to promote a religion they don’t like.

Christians have every right to send their children to a public school without being concerned that some other religious group is going to use that school as a recruiting ground. And non-Christians have every right to send their children to a public school without being concerned that Christians are going to use that school as a recruiting ground, too. It works both ways.

Why exactly is it that any Christian group would want to distribute Bibles in a public school? Why not select a private place where adults gather, such as, I don’t know, a church? If a religious group wants to recruit new members, why go to a public school? Why not go to a playground, where there’s a good chance the children’s parents will be there? (Oh, that’s it, isn’t it?)

Give credit where it’s due: Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are not seeking to distribute their materials in public schools) at least have the integrity to knock on doors and speak to adults about their faith. They don’t come after your children when you’re not looking.

The way I see it, the solution is not that difficult. If you don’t want state resources co-opted to promote every religion, you stand against state resources being co-opted to promote any religion (including atheism). Problem solved.

Recommended reading: Dear Oklahoma: Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan.

The Pledge of Allegiance: Resistance is Not Futile

The American Humanist Association has started a new campaign to get people to boycott saying the Pledge of Allegiance until the words “Under God” are removed. I can sympathize with the campaign for a variety of reasons, but I suspect it is doomed to failure. As long as The U.S. Supreme Court stubbornly and wrongheadedly refuses to admit that the insertion of those words constitutes an endorsement of religion, the Pledge of Allegiance will never be changed back to its original, religiously neutral, inclusive form.

FlagThat last point should be emphasized: The American Humanist Association does not want to change the Pledge of Allegiance. It wants to change it back. And no matter where you stand on the question of God, if you really think about it, you should stand with the American Humanist Association on this one. Because they’re right.

I have problems with the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in schools on a number of levels. I don’t know that a single article can do justice to the complexity of how I feel, but I’ll give it my best effort.

First off, we’re expecting children as young as kindergarten and first grade to recite something they could not possibly have the maturity to understand. Ask them what allegiance is, and they can’t tell you. Ask them what a republic is, and they can’t tell you. Ask them what “indivisible” means, and they’ll say it means you can’t see it.

The Pledge of Allegiance is an adult commitment that should be made by adults, or at least by children old enough to fully appreciate what it means. Civics should teach us why our country deserves allegiance. It should not instill so-called allegiance through mindless daily repetition.

I was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was instructed early in life that I was not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance – not because I didn’t love the USA, but because pledging allegiance to a flag constitutes idolatry. Agree or disagree, that is what my religion taught. And government had no right, none, to compel me to recite a pledge that violates my religion. The Supreme Court eventually agreed in 1943, after first deciding three years earlier that children could be compelled to violate their religion by reciting the pledge.

What changed? I can only imagine that common sense prevailed (and enough Witnesses got their butts kicked by so-called patriots who failed to understand that dissent is part of the fabric of this nation).

Ever since the 1943 decision, no student could be compelled to recite the Pledge. At least, not by law or policy. But social and peer pressure is strong, and many schoolchildren are too young to realize they have rights and can stand up – or sit down – for them.

By the way, that is still the law of the land, so when the American Humanist Association calls on people to sit out the Pledge, it is asking them to do something perfectly legal.

The words “under God” were not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. For decades before that, the Pledge was recited daily without those words, and no one was accused of being unpatriotic for it. The insertion of those words was entirely and exclusively for religious reasons – it was initiated by a chaplain and promoted by religious groups, including the Knights of Columbus (a private organization of adults making an adult decision in keeping with their religious views). The KoC believed the pledge was “incomplete without any reference to a deity.” Religious leaders called on President Truman to add the words in 1952.

To conclude, as the U.S. Supreme Court does, that the insertion of the words “under God” do not constitute an endorsement of religion by Congress, in direct violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, is nothing short of willful ignorance and historical revisionism.

If you don’t believe the words endorse religion, I invite you to conduct this simple experiment:
First, find someone to express the view that “under God” should be removed.
Next, watch what happens. Pay careful attention to who defends the insertion of those words, and what their arguments are.

What many people don’t realize, because they rarely see it, is that there is a stigma attached to sitting out the Pledge. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked to defend my non-participation as a child. Not once, not a single time, did I challenge someone’s decision to recite the Pledge. It may not have been legally required, but it was certainly expected.

No child should ever be put in that position by his or her own government, using schools as an agent.

When the Pledge was recited while I was growing up, I would stand (I didn’t know I could remain seated) and I would pray in silence (turns out you can say the Lord’s Prayer in the same amount of time it takes to recite the Pledge of Allegiance).

Would I have remained seated had I known that was an option? Probably not. The peer pressure to stand would have been great (not to mention, teachers who honestly and sincerely believe they are doing the right thing instruct children to stand even if they’re not reciting the Pledge. Legally, such teachers are mistaken, but their hearts are in the right place).

And let me get this out of the way: it is NOT a show of disrespect to our military for anyone, child or adult, to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. The men and women who serve in our armed forces do so to protect our freedom, not to force us to violate our religion or our conscience. It is a perversion to tell me what I must do to show respect for those who serve, fight and even die for my freedom. What part of “freedom” are some people not understanding?

It is not unAmerican or unpatriotic to sit out the Pledge. It is unAmerican and unpatriotic to force someone to stand up for it when he or she objects to it on principle.

So here’s my advice to anyone upset with the American Humanist Association and its “Don’t Say the Pledge” campaign: Embrace it. Embrace every child and adult who exercises his or her fundamental right to sit out the Pledge, for whatever reason. Let them know, and let everyone around them know, that the right to sit down is part of what makes this country great. Do that, and you help this country earn the allegiance it is seeking.

As an adult, I typically remain silent for the Pledge during government meetings or other events I cover. But in my mind, for various reasons, I have my own pledge, one that is no less patriotic.

I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, to the democratic republic it both is and strives to be, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

[Clarification: This post is not intended to present a complete history of how “under God” came to be inserted into the Pledge. I am well aware that it was inserted during the Eisenhower Administration, not the Truman. And Eisenhower was motivated to insert the words because of a sermon he heard on the topic. The major point I was making is that the insertion of those words was motivated by religion, not mere civics].

Convert or Die: Unacceptable for any religion

I don’t know what it is about Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s comments on ISIL* that infuriated me the most. His statements struck a chord for many Americans sickened by the militant group’s beheading of two American journalists and the Obama Administration’s allegedly insipid reaction to it [I included the word “allegedly” because I am not passing judgment, pro or con, on the administration’s response]. Robertson’s solution for how America should handle ISIL is, to me, as sickening as ISIL itself. Yes, I feel that strong about it.

Let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying America should not respond to ISIL. I’m not saying our response should not be decisive and unequivocal. I’m not saying we should not eliminate the threat any way that we can. At the same time, I’m no expert on Middle Eastern politics (neither is Robertson, by the way). I would like to see this handled intelligently. Robertson’s solution is not intelligent. It is abhorrent to any decent thinking person whose views are governed by reason rather than bloodthirsty passion.

Here’s what Robertson actually said:

Watch the latest video at

In this case you either have to convert them, which I think would be next to impossible. I’m not giving up on them, but I’m just saying, either convert them or kill them. One or the other.

Convert them or kill them. Note that I’ve linked to the Fox News video and transcript of Robertson’s comments, and I invite you to watch and read them in context. I will be quoting from that transcript, but lest I be accused of taking his comments out of context, I strongly urge you to read them in context before deciding whether you agree with me.

I’d much rather have a Bible study with all of them and show them the error of their ways and point them to Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of having your sins removed and being raised from the dead. I would rather preach the gospel of Jesus to them. However, if it’s a gun fight and a gun fight alone, if that is what they’re looking for, me, personally I am prepared for either one.

Honestly, I doubt Phil Robertson is prepared for either one. I doubt he’s prepared to preach the gospel to ISIL, and I doubt he’s prepared to enlist and take the fight to them, “personally.” But I do think his sentiment is honest.

Look, I’d much rather have ISIL converted to Zen Buddhism if it will stop the violence. To me, the key is getting ISIL to stop and renounce the violence. Religion has nothing to do with it. The problem with ISIL is not Islam, it’s what ISIL has shown it will do in the name of Islam. Changing religions is meaningless if it won’t change their behavior.

You can speak your mind, Rev. And I can criticize what you say. It works both ways.

But make no mistake — Phil Robertson’s comments had nothing to do with peace and everything to do with imposing his religion at the end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Don’t believe me? Read his words IN CONTEXT. Here’s what preceded “convert them or kill them”:

Worldwide, planet-wide, Biblically speaking, two groups of people, the children of God, and the whole world is under the control of the evil one. That’s First John 5:19. The evil one works in those who are disobedient. Galatians 3, they are prisoners of sin. Second Timothy 2, the Bible says they’ve been taken captive by Satan to do his will.

Listen, let me show you one. I’ve got the old — hey, America, Declaration of Independence, it’s my book marker. Don’t forget that. Listen to this, Sean. Solomon, one of the wisest men on earth if not the wisest, he’s speaking of wisdom, “Whoever finds me, wisdom finds light. Watch and receives favor from the lord. But whoever fails to find me,” this is the God of the Bible, “harms himself.” Now, listen to this on this ISIS thing, “All who hate me love death.”

So you scratch your head and you say, well, why is it that when we’re not even over there in the Middle East, why do they continue to slaughter each other when we’re not even on the premises? They can’t blame us. We left Iraq. You said what happened in Egypt and Syria, you say in Libya. They just slaughter each other. You say, what? “All who hate me love death,” Sean.

Did you catch that? If you’re not Christian, you’re under the control of the evil one, taken captive by Satan to do his will. ISIL, to Robertson, is just an example of evil. If you’re not a Christian, you’re another example of evil. If you’re not a Christian, you harm yourself. If you’re not a Christian, you love death.

Robertson has a right to his religious beliefs, and I have a right to call his application of his religious belief slanderous, barbaric and dangerous. I’m not criticizing Robertson’s religion. I could care less what he does on Sundays (or any other day, for that matter). I’m criticizing his views on what America should do in his religion’s name.

[Side note: I do find it odd that Robertson can slander all non-Christians in such a blanket fashion, while anyone who criticizes him is accused of attacking his religion. My view is, if your religion makes statements and judgments about me, then I am entitled to respond to it without being accused of “attacking” it. But we can handle that double standard another day].

So when we piece his comment together, here’s what he’s saying: ISIL is a threat because ISIL hasn’t found the God of Christianity. What we need to do is make them Christian. If they don’t want to become Christian, we have to kill them.

There is nothing laudable about that position.

ISIL is a threat because ISIL is willing to wage war and commit atrocities in furtherance of its vision of an Islamic State in the region. What we need to do is stop them from waging war, by convincing them it’s not in their best interest or by crushing them until the threat is eliminated. Millions of Muslims live in the United States peacefully, and in the world, peacefully. The quarrel is not with Islam, per se, as much as it is with what certain people are willing to do in its name. It is a political battle, not a religious war.

A friend of mine suggested the following: “I think he is pretty much saying..let’s kill them. And really…what are the other options? He is really stating the obvious…convert them so that they no longer act on hatred and bloodshed OR do unto them what they are doing unto others. What is bothering you the most about his statement? That he is speaking of Christianity or that he believes they should be killed? These are barbarians. Plain and simple. If he would have left out religion completely and simply said I would rather change their minds on how they feel about us but if I can’t and all they want is a fight then that’s what they will get…would that be more acceptable?”

Let’s clear something up: Robertson DID NOT SAY “convert them so that they no longer act on hatred and bloodshed OR do unto them what they are doing unto others.” His solution was not focused on changing their behavior, it was focused on changing their God.

That’s the fallacy in his comments: it presents us with a false dilemma. Convert or kill, as if there are no other options. There are oodles of other options, all of which have one goal in mind: a peaceful alternative to the need for force. “Convert” is arguably the least peaceful alternative on the list, one almost guaranteed to instigate further hostility. THAT’s why it’s dangerous and repugnant. Robertson himself admits that “convert” is not even remotely likely. He’s right about that. But the alternatives he ignores, the ones that don’t make any religious demands, have a greater capacity to bring peace, assuming ISIL wants peace (which doesn’t seem to be a reasonable assumption at this stage).

Anyone who thinks the solution to a problem in the Middle East is to force Muslims to change religions under threat of death is a first class, grade A, bona fide moron.

The solution to murder in the name of religious extremism is NOT to threaten war in the name of another religion.

So, the answer to my friend’s second question [“if he would have left out religion completely and simply said I would rather change their minds on how they feel about us but if I can’t and all they want is a fight then that’s what they will get…would that be more acceptable?”] is an unqualified YES!

“Convert or die” was the cry of the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is also ISIL’s m.o. It has no place in enlightened civil dialogue in the 21st Century.

*ISIL and ISIS are the same organization. I use ISIL because as an acronym, it more accurately reflects what the organization claims to be: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Click here for an explanation.

Can the state force the hand of faith?

Imagine for a moment that you are on the Board of Governors of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (whose followers are better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses). Imagine the government required you to purchase health insurance for your employees. You gladly do so. Now imagine the government demanded that the coverage you provide to your employees MUST include coverage for blood transfusions.

One of the elements of the Jehovah’s Witness faith is a prohibition against blood transfusions. Might as well require them to curse God and die. They won’t do it.

Knock knock.

Can the government FORCE the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to provide health insurance that covers blood transfusions?

It’s a difficult question. Who is able to answer it? That is, who is qualified to discuss this issue? Would you bring in a Jehovah’s Witness? Maybe for show, but the truth is it’s not a question about the Jehovah’s Witness faith. It’s a question about governmental power and its restrictions. How about bringing in 10 people whose lives were saved by blood transfusions? Again, some emotional power there, but it fails to address the central question: can government force a religious organization to provide insurance coverage for a practice that violates that religion?

Now, there may be, within the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, an expert in Constitutional law as it applies to religious organizations. Wouldn’t be surprised to find more than one such follow in the Watchtower Society, which has battled the federal government on First Amendment grounds numerous times in the past. In that case, the person would not be qualified by his expertise as a Jehovah’s Witness, but by his expertise in Constitutional law, since that is the question at hand.

Can government force the Watchtower Society to provide health insurance that covers blood transfusions?

It is not an insult to Jehovah’s Witnesses to suggest that merely being a Jehovah’s Witness does not qualify you to answer that question.

It is not an insult to people whose lives have been saved by blood transfusions to suggest that receiving the blood transfusions that saved their lives does not qualify them to answer that question.

It is not an insult to the American Medical Association to suggest that an entire panel of doctors who perform blood transfusions and can vouch for the practice’s safety is not qualified to answer that question.

Because the question is not one of faith, is not one of the value of the practice or of the safety of the practice.

The question is whether it is Constitutionally permissible for the Federal Government to require a religious organization to, in essence, fund a practice that is antithetical to its beliefs.

I can understand why the original congressional committee that discussed birth control did not allow Sandra Fluke to speak when she was offered to address the issue. Her issue was not the one being discussed. Fluke made a passionate case for birth control coverage in health care/health insurance policies (a case I find myself in agreement with). But it wasn’t the point. The question wasn’t whether health insurance should cover birth control. The question was whether the Federal Government has the right to compel the Catholic Church to offer health insurance that covers birth control when birth control is antithetical to the teaching of the church. People were being called in to testify about an issue of Constitutional law, not one of women’s health.

I’m not going to dignify what a certain someone said to demean Fluke in response to the testimony she gave to a different congressional group sometime later. Fluke did not deserve the bile that hurled in her direction.

But the larger point that got lost in all the controversy, the one it’s probably now too late to retrieve, is that a hearing on the power of the presidency and the legislative branch has been misrepresented, and the omission of certain tangential but ultimately irrelevant witnesses has been grossly mischaracterized.

It is a shame the organizers of the original hearing did not find any women to discuss the central question about the power of government to tell the Catholic Church what to do. That question, not the availability of contraception, was the central issue being discussed. It raised many issues, all of them worthy of discussion. Being a woman neither qualified someone as an expert nor disqualified her. Expertise in Constitutional law, not gender, was the qualifying factor that determined who would and would not testify.

I applaud Sandra Fluke’s stand and I agree with it, but it strikes me as only tangentially relevant – if that – to the question being debated at the hearing where she was not allowed to testify.

Her omission was not an insult to women. If anything, women should be insulted that neither Republicans nor Democrats could find women to testify about the actual issue being debated.

The mischaracterization of that original hearing, however, should insult us all.