In Politics, Religion Is the Problem, Not the Solution

(Published in the Washington Post On Faith blog, October 11, 2012. Find it here: Naturally, they edited out some of the best parts. This is the article as written.)

The Slow Poison of Religion in Politics

Christopher Hitchens famously said that ‘religion poisons everything.’ While a thorough search might turn up technical exceptions to this rule, one of the things religion certainly does poison is politics. Poison politics leads to toxic government.

Religion has been leaning on government and meddled in elections since they were thanked for their input and given nice parting gifts by the Framers. The problem for christianist ideologues is this: despite some pretty extraordinary and self serving claims about mandates and dictates received directly from a micromanaging bronze age deity, the Constitution simply provides no role for religion in the government of the United States. Official endorsement of any religion is prohibited. Religious tests for elected office are prohibited. Prohibited. The result of our Constitutional non-establishment of religion has been a system of government that is nominally neutral on religion and which, by design, provides equal rights, protection, and access to all citizens regardless of their opinions on religion. What could possibly be fairer than that? Toxicity level, low.

The worst elements of religion, however, don’t consider this matter settled. Christian nationalism and rabid fundamentalism, based on biblical literalism, are rampant in our politics.  It would be a Rovewellian redistribution of the facts to argue that christianist adamancy resides equally on the left and on the right. The imbalance has grown so great that the right genuinely believes that the god and creator of the entire universe is a republican, that they are entitled to govern, that whatever it takes to install them permanently in power qualifies as “democracy,” and that compromise is the work of Satan and entirely out of the question. Claiming a mandate from a supreme deity is the ultimate untrumpable hand. Toxicity level, high.

The result of this intractable ideology is legislative paralysis at a time when we could really use some rational solutions. Instead, democracy is being commandeered and driven into a ditch by those who would inflict faith-based social legislation taken from Leviticus and whose science comes from Genesis.

Doubling down on mean and stupid does is neither a recipe for success nor the character of greatness. Science denial will never result in greater understanding of the workings of the universe. Science denial and its siblings math denial, fact denial, and utter disregard for logic, feed a disturbing resurgence of anti-intellectualism. History instructs us well on this matter.

The religion-based denial of equality and rights for women is a remnant of a life-crushing morality devised by men who thought the earth was flat. Such cultural misogyny is a declaration of war against the very notions of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Religion proposes equally dire outcomes for gays, people who get tattoos, men who get haircuts, anyone who work on Sunday, or who eats shellfish. But the cafeteria christians are focused like a laser on the gays and find prescriptions for hate in their ancient texts.

Underpinning all of these attempts to legitimize discriminatiom is the denial of separtion of church and state. Separation deniers try to make the case that since the words ‘separation of church and state’ are not in the Constitution, separation does not exist. And yet, the prohibition is explicit in the First Amendment. The absence of a role for religion in government is woven into the very fabric of the Constitution. The Constitution does not in any way support the notion of a government in collusion with religion. The Constitution is a firewall against theocracy.

By the way, other words not in the Constitution: Democracy, patriotism, capitalism, free enterprise, corporation, job creator, God, Jesus, or christian.

Words that are in the Constitution: General welfare. Twice.

It may or may not be unfair to blame every failure of government on religion when some are likely the outcome of plain vanilla stupidity. But the right, currently and openly awash in rapturous christianism, is providing a home and a pulpit to the most toxic, coercive, and repressive elements of religion. Toxicity level, off the charts.

Government should be a solution engine, populated by the informed people, focused on outcomes beneficial to all. You know, that ‘general welfare’ thang. The government of the US must never become a tool for the imposition of religion on the unwilling and the unconvinced. Done by others, we call it sharia. And Hitchens had exactly that in mind when he called it poison.

Rick Wingrove

On the Cultural Implications of the Discovery of the Ironically Named God Particle

(This article was published on July 11, 2012 in the Washington Post Local, both online and in print. It drew over 580 comments, many quite angry from people who were essentially arguing against scientific methodology.)

God particle discovery is a win for science over superstition

by Rick Wingrove

A lot of people don’t know that many of the great discoveries in particle physics are largely exercises in statistical analysis. Flipping a coin a dozen times will provide a very limited understanding of probability. A run of a million tosses will sharply define the limits of probability. Getting seven heads in ten tosses is not especially noteworthy. Getting seven hundred thousand heads out of a million tosses would reveal something real at work on the coin.

So it goes in particle physics. Small things need lots of samples to paint a complete picture. Instead of flipping coins in the air, the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, use two beams of protons traveling in a vacuum at 99.9999% of the speed of light around a 17-mile-long magnetic ring. The two beams are traveling in opposite directions and are magnetically maneuvered to collide within a detector the size of a house. Each experimental run produces hundreds of quadrillions of collisions. Those collisions are individual data points that, cumulatively show the presence of… something, right where the Higgs boson, and nothing else, ought to be. To paraphrase Joe Biden, it’s really kind of a big deal.

The 40-year-long search for the Higgs boson is a fascinating and inspiring story of really smart people doing really smart things. The technology manifest in the Large Hadron Collider is dazzling in scale, complexity and vision. It is the largest most complex machine ever devised by humans, and is being used to slowly, meticulously peel back the layers to get a glimpse of the of the inner workings of the Universe. The very asking of the question, what causes stuff to have mass, has more profound implications for understanding reality than when Isaac Newton first noticed that gravity was a thing. The discovery of the Higgs boson has already shown us something about the universe – something deep and fundamental – that we did not know a week ago. And it’s only running at half power. As a species, we are all richer for the discovery of the Higgs boson in ways that may take decades, or centuries, to understand.

Those with less propensity for fascination want to know what are the practical applications for such a discovery? Ask a person in 1957 what the laser could be used for. I hope it means that anti-gravity belts will be available by my next birthday.

But there is another aspect of this discovery that has other, equally profound implications. This discovery is not merely the validation of an important theory about the fabric of the universe. In a very big way, the discovery of the Higgs boson further anchors us to a material universe that works on principles and parameters dictated by the very nature of its component parts.

The discovery is yet another demonstration of Scientific methodology as the scrupulous process by which humankind acquires and authenticates all knowledge. The importance of this becomes more obvious when contrasted against the current resurgence of rabid religionism, especially the unabashed and exuberant anti-intellectualism of those who assert that they hold special knowledge, supplied by talkative deities, and who strive to supplant Science with bronze age origin fables.

The illiterate sheepherders of the Middle East, upon whose wisdom many people base their worldview, were wrong about the size, shape, structure, location, formation, behavior, age, and relative importance of the Earth. They were wrong about astronomy, biology, chemistry, cosmology, history, geography, geology, medicine, zoology, the treatment of women and personal grooming. And pretty much everything else. In the absence of science, they operated on superstition. It’s not that they didn’t know the right answers, they didn’t even know the questions. Rather than real knowledge, they produced urban legends and destructive cultural behaviors that plague mankind to this day. The ancient religions possess no methodology for the validation of knowledge, but are quite good at the denial and destruction of knowledge. You can look it up on their Web sites.

The discovery of the Higgs boson is new high ground in that struggle and pushes our understanding of the universe out to a new horizon. Higgs is a big win for science and for the smart people who know more than just answers, they know the right questions to ask.

Reason Rally

The Atheists are coming! The Atheists are coming!

On Saturday, March 24, 2012, the National Mall in Washington will be host to the largest gathering of atheists in history. Dubbed Reason Rally, it will be attended by thousands of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and non-believers of every stripe. It’s being called Secular Woodstock. Music will be provided by Bad Religion.

But, the rally will be more than a soggy mosh for the religiously unpersuaded. Reason Rally will show that all the cool people are atheists now and that the days of consent by silence are over. It’s an appeal to millions of hidden atheists to come out of their closets and join the fun.

Not to overstate the case, but Reason Rally has been 2000 years in the making. For most of the last twenty centuries, atheism was highly lethal. There were always plenty of non-believers, but Darwinism actively selected against the outspoken. Religious dissent was brutally discouraged and driven underground. The scope of non-belief is only now becoming apparent.

A large public gathering of atheists is a relatively new thing in the world, enabled by two pivotal events in Human history: the U.S. Constitution and the invention of the internet. The Constitution guarantees that the rights of the irreligious are exactly equal to the rights of the aggressively pious. The internet had Christians and Atheists arguing over evolution in ALL CAPS by the end of the first day

The Constitution gave us the rights but the Internet gave us the voice. After two milennia, atheists had a way to find each other and to demonstrate that we are not the hell-bound, baby-eating monsters that the preachers warned you about. It turns out that we are everywhere and we are here to stay. We are your friends, family, neighbors, plumbers, politicians, and your IT guy. We are patriotic Americans who love our country and do not, as is often suggested, have to move to Russia.

Instead, we are just going to have a big party on the National Mall.

To put it in perspective, the rally is not likely to rival the sea of people at Obama’s inauguration. But, it’s not the numbers that make Reason Rally kinduva BFD. It is the spectacle of thousands of deity-free Americans, on the Mall, carrying smart, funny signs and listening to the notorious evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, explain why reality is important.

Over 75 million Americans are not Christians. Over fifty million of those have no religious affiliation and profess little or no belief in a supreme deity. These are the “Nones” and their numbers have doubled since 1991. The few thousand godless Americans you will see on the Mall are just the tip of a large iceberg – with a Darwin fish on the side.

Reason Rally will give a heads up to those who have been reluctant to recognize the mushrooming numbers and the growing political presence of secular Americans. There are millions of us, with legitimate concerns about government endorsement of religiosity. Like women and contraception, we deserve a seat at the table when a bunch of angry white christian men are deciding our fate.

Reason Rally is happening because it’s time for Secular Americans to be seen and heard, to defend science, and separation of church and state. We’ll be on the Mall because it’s time to push back against the creeping theocratization of America.

Our October Banner: IMAGINE

The poignant lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine, serve as a de facto atheist anthem to many of us. John’s October birthday gives us ample reason to remind the public of not only his life and music, but of the message in his music, that the world would get along fine without religion. So, for our October display on the Loudoun County (VA) Court House lawn, we remember John Lennon and his tribute to freethought.

Atheists Among Us

This article was published in the Washington Post’s On Belief blog, both print and online, on Saturday, July 23, 2011. The Post edited it for length. This is the unedited version.

Rick Wingrove

Atheist in America: I’m Just Sayin’

You know that guy down the street? Nice guy, about 50, IT consultant, first guy on the block to clear his walks and mailbox after every snow, fought in Desert Storm, keeps his yard immaculate, put two daughters through college, donates to the VFD and for breast cancer research, remodeled his own basement, and puts up a flag every 4th? That guy?

Well, that guy is an atheist. Not a communist, never been in jail, and doesn’t eat babies. Just an atheist, without all that other stuff. An atheist in America in the 21st century has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union. Nor, despite what you might hear in church about the degenerate character of an atheist, is he anymore likely to end up in prison than anyone else in the general population.

The new atheist is a different kind of animal that bears no resemblance to the villainous monsters the churches have warned us about for the last fifteen hundred years. The new atheist is no longer a social pariah, though a lot of political resistance and faith-based bigotry still exist.

Despite that, non-believers enjoy the full protection of the Constitution, and possess exactly the same rights as the most religious of Americans. Still, it took the advent of the internet for non-believers to find each other and to find their voice.

Largely as a result of the electronic emergence of the vocally irreligious, America’s religious makeup is changing rapidly. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted in 1990, 2001,and 2008, shows that America is trending rapidly away from Christianity, falling from 86% to 76% of the population in only 18 years.

One in four Americans is not a Christian. That’s 75 million Americans. Over 50 million of those claim no religious affiliation. ARIS refers to them as the “Nones”. This begs the question – how, exactly, is ‘atheist’ defined? Technically an atheist is simply someone who does not believe the ancient deities are real. That definition describes 12-15% of Americans, though only 1-2% refer to themselves as atheists. But, that is likely the result of fifteen hundred years of bad press.

The Nones (including non-believers and the unaffiliated), by the way, are the 3rd largest “religious” group in the survey, outnumbering Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Southern Baptists combined. An additional irony is that even though 76% of Americans are nominally Christian, only 70% of Americans believe in a personal god. Go figure.

The average atheist in America is invisible. Many choose silence rather than upsetting their family, or for fear of losing their job, and most are not inclined to activism. That’s because ,for most of the last two thousand years, it was highly lethal to raise your hand when the question was asked.

But, atheists are everywhere. They are your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, cops, doctors, businessmen, celebrities, and the guy who fixes your computer. They are educated, they raise families, they hold jobs, they are active in their communities, they play by the rules, and are generally happy to fly under the radar of the professional evangelizers. So, when you say you don’t know any atheists, what you are really saying is that you don’t know who the atheists are.

And that guy the cops frog marched out of his house last week at 3:00AM? He’s your five term representative who ran on family values and has a wide stance. His humiliating arrest, for purchasing meth from a gay prostitute, came as he was awaiting sentencing for tax evasion on income from a sweat shop in Saipan.

Well, that guy’s not an atheist. I’m just sayin’.

Rick Wingrove

The June Banner – Treaty of Tripoli

Adams and the Treaty of Tripoli

For the June display , on the Loudoun County, Virginia Courthouse lawn, commemorates an important historic event which was a clear indicator of the thinking of the Founders about separating religion from government.

The Treaty of  Tripoli was ratified unanimously by Congress on June 7, 1797, and signed by President John Adams.

What makes this especially relevant to the ongoing Separation argument is that it states unambiguously that the United States is NOT a christian nation.

“As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

Not a bad arrow to have in your quiver when you are battling the historically challenged.

The May Banner

The Banner for May

Our Courthouse Lawn project continues.

Our Banner for May was a celebration of Science, with a brilliant quote from A.C. Grayling’s latest book, The Good Book – A Secular Bible.

Those who first set themselves to discover nature’s secrets and designs, fearlessly opposing mankind’s early ignorance, deserve our praise.
~A.C. Grayling

A Small Victory

The Banner in Question

In March, even as Einstein was still sitting proudly on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse in downtown Leesburg, I submitted an application to the county to put up our next display in April.  By luck, Thomas Jefferson has an April birthday. It just seemed ideal for our next exercise in free speech.

This morning my application was denied in a terse email from the county. Back to that in a minute.

As many of you know, Beltway Atheists is engaged in  a program I informally call Science on the Lawn, although it will inevitably include figures related to Separation. This all started before Christmas of 2009 when the county, fearing it would get sued, decided with the help of the ACLU, that if they wanted to keep the Nativity scene they had hosted for the last 40 years, they were going to have to let others put displays on the Courthouse lawn. So we did.

Free speech is a tricky thing, as the county has discovered. It turns out that certain elected officials were not counting on people, especially the atheist community, actually using it. And they seem less than enthusiastic about it now that we are actually taking advantage of it. For Christmas of 2010, the atheist community put up displays in 6 of the 10 available spots on the Courthouse lawn including the coveted corner spot where the nativity scene had always been set up.

Some local officials have made no secret of their disdain for our very presence. Prior to our Einstein display, another member, Larry M. and I attended a Grounds Committee meeting to observe the process and to make sure that no one was trying to screw us. Someone was trying to screw us. One member of the community clearly resented our presenced and seized on a technicality to try to deny us a permit. The technicality? We had not stated a specific numbered spot where we wanted to place our display. That was not an oversight – it was what we had been instructed to do by the county when there were applications for all of the spots. We were told not to ask for a specific spot because they would be handed out on a first come, firt served basis. Besides, there were no other applications for displays, so I wasnt competing agains anyone for a spot!

So when the surly board member tried to pull that , I quickly pulled out the extra copy of the application that I had brought with me, scribbled in a plot number and put it in his hands. Figuratively speaking, his head exploded. But we got our permit.

So anyway, this morning our permit for April was denied. I suspected that that might happen because there were other members of the Grounds committee who were also openly contemptuous of our assault on the regular order in the county. Another clue was when the contact for the Grounds committee emailed me a few day ago asking me to submit the content of our display in advance for consideration. I declined to do that. To do so would have been an agreement to censorship – a concession that the content was subject to the approval of people who had previously tried to prevent our participation.  The denial email stated the failure to submit content for approval as the reason for the denial.

So, I pulled out the General Rules on the county website. These are the rules the county agreed to and put into effect less than a year ago -  rules they grudgingly agreed to so that they could continue to invite the religious displays onto the lawn with legal coverage. And, just as I thought, the rules do not require anyone to submit their content for approval.

I immediately responded to the denial email, informing the county that the committee was once again seizing on a technicality to deny me permission to put up a display, but with one major difference: this technicality was not in the published rules.

I also wrote an appeal letter to be hand delivered to the office of the County Administrator the next day. As I carefully constructed a very grown up sounding appeal making my case point by point, I had no idea that it would never be delivered.

Late in the day, the Chairman of the Grounds committee called me at home. When I met him at the committee meeting  we attended, I immediately pegged him as a closet atheist and an ally. I was not mistaken. He told me that he wanted to help me get my permit through so that I could put up the Jefferson banner as requested in time for Tom’s birthday. He was going to walk it around to the other members and get it approved by the next day.

But, disappointingly,  he asked me to submit the contents of the banner for approval because it was the only way he would be able to get signoff from a mojority.

Just to put it behind us, Ioffered this compromise: I said I would, as a courtesy to the committee,  provide the text of the banner to him IF he would first get a statement from the committee acknowledging that what they were asking was not required by the rules.  The committee chairman said he would see if he could get some version of that statement agreed to by a majority.

Less than a half hour later, the chairman called me back and told me that I was correct, that I was absolutely NOT required to submit content for approval and that my permit had been approved.

If you are keeping score, that’s a clean win. Thomas Jefferson will go up as scheduled in April. This has been a very long day.

Christianist Douchebags in History

Adolph Hitler

If you have debated god-believers for more than 30 seconds, you have probably heard them claim that Hitler was an atheist. This assertion is, you might say, divergent from reality.  There are numerous examples of Hitlers religiosity. One of the most chilling is Hitler’s speech justifying the Nazi Enabling Act of 1933.

“By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life. The advantages for the individual which may be derived from compromises with atheistic organizations do not compare in any way with the consequences which are visible in the destruction of our common religious and ethical values. The national Government sees in both Christian denominations the most important factor for the maintenance of our society. It will observe the agreements drawn up between the Churches and the provinces; their rights will not be touched. The Government, however, hopes and expects that the task of national and ethical renewal of our people, which it has set itself, will receive the same respect by the other side. The Government will treat all other denominations with objective and impartial justice. It cannot, however, tolerate allowing membership of a certain denomination or of a certain race being used as a release from all common legal obligations, or as a blank cheque for unpunishable behavior, or for the toleration of crimes. [The national Government will allow and confirm to the Christian denominations the enjoyment of their due influence in schools and education.] And it will be concerned for the sincere cooperation between Church and State. The struggle against the materialistic ideology and for the erection of a true people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) serves as much the interests of the German nation as of our Christian faith. …The national Government, seeing in Christianity the unshakable foundation of the moral and ethical life of our people, attaches utmost importance to the cultivation and maintenance of the friendliest relations with the Holy See. …The rights of the churches will not be curtailed; their position in relation to the State will not be changed.” Adolph Hitler – 1933

The Nazis generated a crisis and then used that crisis to justify the suspension of democracy in Germany and the installation of Adolph Hitler as dictator. Once in power, the Nazis used the Enabling act to 1) kill the unions, 2) declare a christian nation, 3) discredit intellectuals, 4) redistribute all wealth upward, and 5)blame it on minorities. Kinda like what the republitard teabaggers are doing now.

Einstein Banner on the Court House Lawn

This month’s banner on the Court House Lawn commemorates the birthday of Albert Einstein. This is the fourth time that NOVA Atheists and Beltway Atheist have put banners on the court house lawn in response to the county governments hosting of christian displays at during the christian winter holiday. In order to continue to host the christian displays, the county was forced to adopt a policy that permits anyone to display anything at any time. NOVA and Beltway, with support from American Atheists, has started a series of banners – one every month – celebrating and promoting both Science and Separation of church and state.
Over xmas, the local atheist community put up displays in 6 of the 10 available spots on the lawn. In February, we put up our Darwin banner. In March we are honoring Einstein. In April, we plan to put up one honoring Thomas Jefferson, the author of Separation.
If you would like to help us in this ongoing program, you can make contributions at