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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.

Thanks to everyone who volunteered to help out with this situation. I just received word that this student has a new sponsor and will be moving soon. However, he's been informed about the bat cruise and all of our weekly events - so we might still have him around as a guest at some of our events.

I just received the following via e-mail:

---- I'm emailing you because there is an exchange student in the Austin area that is needing a new host family ASAP. This student is living with a devout Christian family and there is much tension because the student has expressed to his host family that he believes in no God. I'm hoping that someone in your group would be willing to offer this student, from Moldova, a home for the remainder of the school year. 

-----

I've spoken to the director and they'll be sending me additional information about what is required/expected of host families and a bit more about the young man in need of rescue.

Please e-mail me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) if you think you might be interested in hosting, and I'll pass along all of the information.

Let's see if we can't save this kid a lot of misery and avoid sending him home with the wrong impression of the U.S.

----

UPDATE: The situation was resolved shortly after this announcement went out and the student no longer requires placement in a new home. Thanks to everyone who offered to help!

The ACA's Sunday morning meeting for November 12th will be at the community center Ventana del Soul at the slightly earlier time of 11am. The location is 1834 East Oltorf St., just Southeast of downtown off I-35. See their map for directions. Ventana del Soul is a special place we think you'll like. It may become a regular meeting place for ACA. Please come to our first meeting there and let us know what you think. 

Ventana del Soul charges a fee for the use of their space. We get a discount because we're a non-profit, and all of our food purchases will be deducted from our bill. In other words, if we have a good turn-out, and if people have a few bagels and muffins, we get the space for free. Just tell the cashier you are with ACA to ensure we get credit for your purchase. The cafe is downstairs, but the meeting will be upstairs in the big room on the right. 

To help kick things off, we have a guest speaker for this meeting. Oak DeBerg is a speaker for MAAF, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, http://www.maaf.info/. Oak will speak to us about atheists in the military. 

Oak DeBerg joined the US Air Force in 1965 after completing Reserve Officer Training Corps. Upon commissioning, he served as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch control officer for five years. Following this assignment, Oak worked in the areas of research and development and weapons acquisition. He was involved in the early development of unmanned aerial vehicles during the Viet Nam conflict. Later, he became responsible for integrating conventional weapons on the then new B-1B bomber. In the late 1970s, after joining the Air Staff at the Pentagon, he became an assistant executive secretary to the US Air Force scientific Advisory Board. In the early 80s, he was the scientific and technical adviser for, as well as a delegate to, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces reduction treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union. He later went on to become the Assistant Chief-of-Staff for the Air Force Systems Command. He retired in 1995 with the rank of Colonel. 

Colonel (Ret.) DeBerg holds a B.S. in Chemistry (University of California at Berkeley), a M.S. in aerospace engineering (Air Force Institute of Technology) and a B.A. in philosophy (The University of Texas at San Antonio). Colonel DeBerg has spoken at Vassar College on "The Need for a Universal Draft" as well as "Military Policy and Treatment of Gays." He also has given numerous talks to local civic groups on Charles Darwin, evolution and so-called intelligent design. On four occasions, he has given testimony to the Texas State Board of Education on the scientific and political issues involved in high school textbook selection. 

After our guest speaker's talk, we will have a board meeting. Please consider lingering and participating. The room is big, so those who want to chat should not be a distraction to anyone who wants to listen to the board meeting. 

Our reservation for the space ends at 1:00 pm. It will be possible to linger in the cafe or outside after the meeting. 

Thanks to David Kennedy for finding the space and Don Rhoades and Joe Rhodes for helping to check it out.

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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