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Starting February 11th, 2007, the ACA will be moving its regular Sunday meetings to the small upstairs room of Ventana del Soul community center. Meetings will start at the usual 11:30am. The location is 1834 East Oltorf St., just Southeast of downtown off I-35. See their map for directions. The ACA Lecture Series will continue to be on the first Sunday of every month at the Austin History Center throughout 2007. 

We are trying Ventana del Soul on a trial basis for three months. We hope to explore having a different style of meeting than we are able to have in a restaurant setting. There will still be time to talk informally with other ACA members, we will devote some of our time to a more structured meeting, small presentations, and discussions about ACA events and issues. 

People will still be able to get food at Ventana del Soul as they have a cafe downstairs. In fact, we encourage people to eat there. When you buy food from their cafe, you can notify the cashier that you are attending a meeting of the ACA at the event. Part of your food purchase will then go to offset the expense of the room rental. This will help keep ACA's expense to a minimum. 

We invite feedback from ACA members on this change. We hope that the change will help members feel more involved with the group.

"Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history" is the title of a recent opinion piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor. The author, Dinesh D'Souza, feels that the recent books by Sam HarrisRichard Dawkins and others exaggerate...
 

"the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism."

After making that accusation, the author goes on to down-play religious atrocities while making the unsupported assertion that many more people have died in "the name of atheism". This sort of character assassination is a prime example of why I openly identify myself as an atheist and why I feel that it's important for us to vigilantly rebut the lies and misinformation spread by fearful zealots. They attempt to prop up their beliefs with fallacious appeals to the dire consequences they're certain will occur if we reject fanciful claims about gods. Consequences which every bit ofevidence continues to refute.

Let's dig in and expose the lies and fallacies for what they are...

The first major claim is that atheists (specifically Harris and Dawkins) are exaggerating the crimes attributed to religion. In response to this, the author claims that fewer than 25 people were killed in the Salem witch trials and that 10-110,000 died in the Spanish inquisition. If we assume that those numbers are correct, how does that prove his assertion that these atheist authors are exaggerating? Did they use different numbers? Of course not. If they had, the author surely would have provided those numbers to show how exaggerated their claims were.

There were only 12 killed in the Columbine school shooting. Does that mean it wasn't a tragedy? Is the death toll more critical than the circumstances surrounding the incident? Why does D'Souza think his low-20's number should diminish, in any way, the nature of the vile injustice committed in Salem?

D'Souza is dangling a red herring in front of us, hoping that we'll be so distracted by the facts that he's presented that we'll completely forget what he's actually claiming - that atheists misrepresented these facts. Instead of making his case that these atheists are lying, he's completely missed all the relevant points and opted to simply down-play these injustices as "not so bad" and expands this misdirection with the tired old appeal that these incidents occurred long ago.

I'm not sure why, but when faced with undeniable evidence of the harm caused by religion one common response is that religion "isn't all bad". Neither is heroin, but we generally discourage people from becoming regular users who allow it to influence or define the decisions they make. If your most salient defense of your beliefs is that they "aren't so bad", you've already sold out. You're either a junky or supporting the dealers who supply junkies. 

Does Dinesh sincerely believe that Dawkins, Harris and others are actively complaining about the Salem witch trials or Spanish inquisition? I doubt it. It's more likely that he's aware of the great social injustices and atrocities that are the direct result of religious belief and has wisely opted not to attempt to defend them. These atheist authors aren't outraged over centuries-old murders, they're railing against modern injustices which are the direct result of religious belief. They're attempting to point out the divisive, destructive and delusional mentality that religion fosters.

The second major claim is that Harris and Dawkins have ignored crimes of secular fanaticism. Based on the points that Mr. D'Souza makes on this issue, I have to conclude that he's completely in error. Both of those authors have spoken about the sort of crimes he's referring to and provided clear responses to silly accusations like the following:
 

"In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people."

Whether or not Hitler was an atheist is a subject of much debate. He repeatedly identified himself as a Catholic both publicly and privately. He was supported by the Catholic church and the Pope described Hitler's opposition to Russia as "highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture."

Even if the author is correct about Hitler (a point we have no reason to concede) he lists those men as "atheist tyrants". Was atheism the justification for their actions? Were these murders done "in the name of atheism", as the author claims? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of his article, he blamed these murders on "secular fanaticism" and now he's blaming atheism. What is "secular fanaticism"? I'm not completely sure, but D'Souza does nothing to justify the bait-and-switch he performs by equating "atheism" with "secular fanaticism". Should we equate "religious extremist" with "Christian" or "Muslim"? As a thinking person, I certainly see a much stronger tie between the two (as I see no way to justify fanatic actions from non-belief), but I don't think it's fair to portray them as equivalent.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a god. There are no tenets, no dogma, no rituals, no common socio-political beliefs, no agendas, no ethical code, no "holier than..." or "better than" - there's nothing within atheism that could support the claims he's making. Those tyrants and murderers didn't kill people "in the name of atheism" and atheism wasn't the cause of their actions.

Without a causal link between atheism and the evil actions of these men, what we really have is coincidental correlation. The author could have labeled them "male tyrants" and come closer to a causal link than his preferred label of "atheist tyrants". The actions of those men weren't carried out on behalf of atheism or caused by atheism - they were carried out for reasons that transcend atheism.

D'Souza has done nothing to support his notion that atheism is responsible for great evil - he's simply asserted that it is true and tap-danced his way around the issue.

In the case of the Salem witch trials, the cause of the action was religious beliefs. The Bible says 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' and the people persecuting witches used that verse as a justification for their action - that is a causal relationship. Whether they killed 1, 25 or 25,000 hardly matters. The same holds true for other religious atrocities including the faith-based initiative we commonly refer to as 9-11.

D'Souza fails to support his accusations about Harris and Dawkins as well as the claim made in the title of his article: that atheism is the real force behind historical mass murders. Given the actual state of affairs it's clear that a much stronger case can be made for the claim that the only people who have been killed "in the name of atheism" are those people who were killed, by religious zealots, for being atheists.

Where are the atheist suicide bombers? Where is the low-quality video of a beheading carried out by an atheist activist? Where are the atheists who string up non-atheists and burn large 'A'-frames on the lawns of Christians? Where are the budget cuts and gag rules that prohibit funding to clinics that mention abstinence?

Whenever we see a prominent religious figure publicly disgraced or read about women who slaughter their children for their god, the most common excuse is that those people weren't "real" believers. In the case of Christianity, the Big Book of Multiple Choice (also known as The Bible) includes verses that serve as warnings about false believers which are conveniently tossed around on these occasions.

What we've learned is simple: If someone does something that makes a given religion look bad - they weren't a "true believer". Until they do, they're probably a true believer, but there's no way to tell. Hopefully, more people will realize this and we'll finally have a majority that stops thinking in terms of "what you claim to believe" and focuses on what we do, what is true, and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.

This sort of 'heads I win, tails you lose' mentality is rampant among believers. It's a coping mechanism that prevents them from ever having to deal with the harsh truths of reality. Their general misconceptions about atheism are the result of a desperate need to personify evil and shift blame. Kent Hovind, in his creationist propaganda includes an entire lecture which hangs the responsibility for all of the evil in the world around the neck of Charles Darwin. Evolutionary theory is, in his mind, the root of all evil.

Dinesh D'Souza is attempting something similar here. He's desperately attempting to focus our attention on anything other than the man behind the curtain. While his attempts are as laughable and feeble as the great and powerful Oz, they're hardly as endearing. While his prose may be better, he's no different from the Internet forum troll who calls atheists evil and compares them to Hitler. His article, and the articles of those who echo his claims, may be the best evidence against his claims.

-Matt Dillahunty

The ACA Winter Solstice Party will be on Saturday, December 16, 2006 from 6pm - midnight at Mike Swift's house. Thanks to Mike for his hospitality! 

The party is for ACA members, their spouses, family, and atheist-friendly friends. Kids are welcome. RSVPs are encouraged so that Mike can gauge the size of the event. (Send him e-mail via this link.). Also, e-mail him if you'd like to volunteer to help set up. 

The early part of the evening will be a potluck dinner. Bring a dish to share, should you wish to participate. If you can, let Mike know what you plan to bring so that he can ensure a breadth of dishes. Mike will provide snacks and beer for the later crowd. 

Mike has a game room, arcade machine, and pool table. Mike will be performing some card magic and others may perform, as well. 

Mike's address, a map to his house, and his phone number are now available on the ACA member log-in page. Details will be posted later on the aca_membersonly list and a flier will be printed in December. 

Come and celebrate the new year without any of that Xmas stuff! 

This page will be updated with details as they develop, so check back here prior to the event.

This week seems to be a good time to discuss the issue of indoctrinating kids into religious faith. On Friday, October 6th, the movie Jesus Campopened in Austin and about a dozen or so ACA members went to one of the opening night showings. The movie plays at the Arbor through October 12th. The movie looked behind the scenes at a Pentecostal camp for kids, called the "Kids on Fire Summer Camp." They gave a lot of attention to youth Pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp. She leaves no doubt in the mind of the viewer that she is out to indoctrinate those kids for belief in Christianity and use them as little missionaries for God. The informal after-movie discussion by ACA members included some dialogue as to what exactly constituted child abuse in this context. It was very clear that the children in the Jesus Camp movie were emotionally manipulated and had their critical thinking skills sabotaged. It was unclear to what extent the less extreme youth ministries also use these tactics.

Ironically, also last week, Austin hosted a conference of youth ministers at the Austin Convention Center from October 5th through the 9th. The conference, called 2006 National Youth Workers Convention, had an attendance of about 3000. I'll bet many of the convention attendees actually saw the Jesus Camp movie in Austin. It would be interesting to gauge their reactions to the movie and learn which of Becky Fischer's techniques they use.

If I had the ear of 3000 youth ministers, I'd ask them about how they teach the story of Noah's Ark. The story of the flood is a black-and-white moral lesson: genocide is blatantly wrong. The Bible story is a means teach basic morality. So I'd ask the youth ministers whether they took advantage of the golden opportunity to teach the young minds in their care about basic moral principles. I imagine, however, that most youth ministers work hard to excuse the actions of Yahweh in the Bible as somehow just and good. After all, God grants tickets to heaven. You wouldn't want to piss him off. So, the flood story beomes about cute little furry animals taking a boat ride. I think it's terribly sad that so many Christian parents think their children are getting a moral education from youth ministers.

Apparently, whatever tactics are used by youth ministers don't work very well. On October 6th New York Times piece titled "Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers," reported that evangelical teens are abandoning the faith in droves. They have dubbed this phenomenon "the 4% panic attack," which allegedly is the percentage of evangelical kids who will grow up to be true "Bible Believers." Predictably, evangelical leaders blame sex, drugs, rock & roll, and popular culture. It couldn't possibly be the case that when kids acquire critical thinking skills, they realize that there is nothing there of substance, or could it? A majority of ACA members were once Christians--many were even quite serious about it. If we figured it out, perhaps others can, too. Nobody seems to ask whether being a "bible believer" is a good thing though, like most religious definitions, there seems to be a lot of debate about what it means.

Predictably, the Austin American Statesman dodged the deeper issues and published a pro-Christian puff piece on the dedication of youth ministers. Eileen Flynn's "Leading kids to CHRIST" was published October 7th. (It's not at all clear why Christ is in all capital letters, but it sure catches the eye.) While the dedication of the ministers might be admirable, nobody would question the dedication of Pastor Becky Fisher from the Jesus Camp movie. The issue of dedication lacks substance. Flynn's article focused on the clothing styles of the ministers and adroitly dodged the issue of indoctrination and what moral lessons are being taught to youth. There was no mention of the Jesus Camp movie, despite the obvious connection. The article did have several paragraphs attempting to debunk the 4% statistic, though Statesman readers were largely left in the dark as to what the controversy was about. The Statesman never published anything else about the New York Times piece. Eileen Flynn, the youth ministers, and even members of the Atheist Community of Austin are in the know about religion precisely because we don't depend on the Statesman for substantive religion news. Everyone else, it seems, gets pabulum.

Don Baker

Baylor University has recently conducted a detailed study of religious belief and released preliminary results in September 2006. The study was funding by the Templeton Foundation, famous for giving grants to organizations and individuals who try to reconcile religious belief with science. The survey's results have been widely reported. A closer look at the results, however, reveals spin, bias, and important findings that have not been widely reported. The Baylor report is available here (in PDF). 

One widely reported finding from the study was the number of "Nones," or people without religious affiliation, has allegedly been dropped from about 14% of the population (found in earlier studies) to around 10%. This finding was uncritically repeated, for example, in the Dallas News under the title "Study: Number without religion is overstated." The researchers attribute this to more targeted questions, but it is an unfortunate artifact of their biased methodology. Respondents were asked about both their religious belief and any affiliation with a church. The study's 10% finding is the result of effectively changing the answers of the people who claimed no belief affiliation but who did report a church affiliation. The findings confound the two issues. There are many reasons to attend a church beyond one's religious belief including involvement with a community, friends, or family. To confirm this problem, Baylor sociologist Kevin Dougherty says that "when we asked the same questions other surveys asked about identification or preference, we got the same roughly 13% to 14% they get." It seems their methodology was devised to reduce the number of "Nones." 

Perhaps the next version of the study should ask the number of people who have ever visited a doctor or hospital and subtract those respondents from the number of reported believers. Seeking medical help is a clear demonstration that the seeker does not believe that appeal to an omnipotent god has hope of being effective. You'll never see questions concerning practical religious belief on religious study instruments, however, because most religious studies are designed to inflate the number of believers. Numbers, whether real or not, are a source of political power. 

On a related topic, any conclusions reported about atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, brights, rationalists, or humanists are suspect. The study lumps all of these groups into either the "no religion" category or the "other" catch-all category, both of which may be problematic for characterizing non-believers who have the courage of their convictions. While the survey instrument may have some validity for believers, most non-believers would probably lose interest in the survey as they are not recognized as a group worthy of mention despite being a larger group than many of the religious beliefs individually listed. Given that and the low response rate for the survey (46%), you can bet that many non-believers were simply not counted after having been exposed to such and obviously biased survey instrument. The instrument is included in the last few pages of the above PDF file, should you care to examine it. The report even makes the claim that "Atheists are certain that God does not exist," which shows an amazing lack of understanding of their subject matter on the part of the Baylor researchers. 

A surprisingly high number of respondents (43%) were reported to have admitted to having "prophetic dreams," or dreams that predict the future. The report lists this number among the various paranormal beliefs that the study looked into. The prophetic dreams results were even included in an overall measure of paranormal belief, used in later correlations. Upon further inspection, however, one discovers that the "prophetic dreams" category is based on two questions in the survey instrument in a category listed as "The New Age":

  1. As an adult, have you ever had one of the following:... A dream that later came true?
  2. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements: ... Dreams sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths.

Atheist Community of Austin

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We define atheism as the lack of belief in gods. This definition also encompasses what most people call agnosticism.

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