Happy Thanksgiving, Mississippi Atheists

My Mother's Thanksgiving TableImage by jwinfred via FlickrWhether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I hope you have a great day and enjoy some time off work. I'm thankful to all who have been contributing to the growing atheist movement. This takes hard work and great courage (especially in our state). However, promoting atheist equality remains an important civil rights issue that cannot be neglected.

A Non-Believer in Church: Yellow Leaf Baptist in Oxford

(Hello, Mr. Jerry! Thanks for visiting the site. To everyone else: This post will be longer than usual. I'm going to include more of my thoughts on the lesson and discussion afterward.)

Since first seeing the Church and State billboards around Oxford, I've been curious as to who did this promotion work. I contacted the Lamar Sign Company and they informed me that it was the work of the Yellow Leaf Baptist Church. A group somewhat associated with this church known as the "Citizens for God and Country" is responsible for the billboards, as well as for the yard signs that say "Let's Honor God in America again." The group was recently highlighted in The Oxford Eagle and The Daily Mississippian. So I did what I do best: I visited this church to ask someone about their signs.

Services at the Yellow Leaf Baptist Church begin at 10:30 AM. For being an out-of-the-way country church, it was unexpected to see an attendance of over 150. At least 8 people took the initiative to welcome me to their service. There was even a small girl who ran up to me and asked, "What are you doing?" I had to tell her, "I'm getting ready for church." She quickly ran away. Walking into new churches for the first time still makes me nervous, so I appreciate it when they are friendlier.

The service began with the morning announcements and the recital of the following lines (which was repeated at various times throughout the service):

(The pastor says) "God is good!"
(The audience says) "All the time!"
(The pastor says) "And all the time..."
(The audience says) "God is good!"

I filled out the visitor card and wrote "msatheists.org" on it and slipped it into the collection plate.

The pastor's message was titled "An Attitude of Gratitude: A Hebrew Thanksgiving". The supporting verse came from Psalms 100. At the beginning of his talk, he reminded the congregation that the Bible was the infallible word of God. It was a five part lesson that covered the following areas why we ought to be thanking God:

1) He is God. YAHWEH.

Thanks for clearing that up. Not only do we have to believe in God, we need to thank him too.

2) He is our creator. He designed us.

He asked everyone to turn to someone and say "You are a masterpiece." It was at this point that he mentioned that our stomach acid is capable of eating through "18 inches of concrete." I would have liked to have asked him: so is this an example of good design or bad design? (I spent part of my afternoon researching gastric acid and hydrochloric acid to see if there was any truth to this. I found that hydrochloric acid is capable of softening concrete to make it more pliable. I'm a skeptic: I double check all scientific claims.)

3) God is benevolent.

He barely mentions this point. With everyone repeating the "God is good" line, apparently we don't need to discuss this further. Why is God good? Has any positive event ever happened that must be attributed to a supernatural creator? If you can answer that one, let me know.

4) God is merciful.

He told us the story of "Brownlee North", who (supposedly) was threatened with death if he preached Christianity. North preached anyway because God is merciful. (I tried googling that name but nothing came up.)

5) God is the truthful one.

The Bible is infallible, God's truth does not change, and God will only speak truth to you. (Come on. You are pulling my leg. Not one tiny little error in the Bible? This is my favorite oddball mistake in the Bible.)

The lesson ended. (We repeated the "God is good" line again.) It was announced that there would be a "Feast on the Grounds" immediately after the service. Usually I leave after the service, but I still wanted to ask about these signs, so I stuck around for the meal.

I caught up with the pastor after the meal and had a long chat with him. I got permission to use his name: Jerry. Someone already alerted him that my visitor card mentioned an atheist website, so he asked if I was an atheist. I told him "yes". Jerry was kind enough to talk with me about the billboards. He also seemed eager to defend his faith right then and there.

He asked me to prove that there is no God. I wasn't ready to debate him, so I just told him that there isn't sufficient evidence to make the claim for a God and that proof rest on Christians. The way he sees things, it us, the atheists, who are responsible for proving our claim. I tried to explain that it is very difficult to prove a negative claim, which is what the Christian is asking of the atheist.

He asked me where we all come from. I told him that it was a good question and I didn't know the answer. Saying "I don't know" is perfectly reasonable. His answer (and I'm paraphrasing) was that God created everything and put us here. We have no proof of God, so we have no proof that "God did it." This is the crux of skepticism: only speak where you have sufficient evidence and demand evidence from those who speak.

He was concerned about how many people I have lead away from Christ due to this blog. (If I lead you away from Christ by simply talking about churches, please let me know. I would love to hear your story.) In a round-about way, he gave me the Pascal's Wager argument for why I should return to being a Christian. I think my eyes glazed over as soon I noticed our old friend Pascal's.

We talked some about the signs. I explained some of the errors found on the billboards and he defended them saying that the group researched each quote. He claimed that the billboard regarding the quote from "Supreme Court, 1811" is a real example of our Christian heritage because the defendant in the case lost his appeal. I still contend the trial never went to the United States Supreme Court (which is what the sign depicts). He had little to say over the mistake regarding the James Madison and Benjamin Franklin mix up.

He mentioned that some people are trying to rewrite the Christian heritage out of our country's history. I'm not denying that there has always been a strong Christian presence in America's history. Our founding fathers wanted to make sure of two things: the people may practice their religion however they wish and the government is not allowed to endorse a religious viewpoint. Our founding fathers may have paid lip service to Christianity's better qualities, but they created a religion-neutral government. This is a heritage of which we can be proud.

As I drove away from the church, I passed another one of this group's billboards that said, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. -George Washington". That quote has also been debunked. We have no proof that he said it. Three billboards; three historical goofs. If atheists sponsored billboards to say anything, there would probably be public outcry. This group prints three billboards promoting a skewed view of history and has historical goofs to top it off, and they get a positive review in local papers.

One last thing: I want to put Jerry at ease about the content of this blog post. We pretty much disagreed (respectfully!) on everything we discussed. He recommended a book to me: Evidence that Demands a Verdict. For all of my regular atheist readers, if you need any winter reading, try digesting part of this book. I plan to read at least part of it over the break. I probably couldn't digest all of it; 800 pages is a bit much.

Mr. Jerry: The other post in this series are found here. If you are not interested, you are welcome clear your browser's history. We won't be bothered at all.

Mississippi: Least Competitive State in America

Beacon Hill InstituteImage via WikipediaAccording to the Beacon Hill Institute's Competitive Report, the state of Mississippi ranks dead last in terms of attracting and keeping businesses that contribute to economic growth. According to KATC.com,
The competitiveness index is based on 43 indicators that evaluate government and fiscal policy, security, infrastructure, human resources, technology, business incubation, openness and environmental policy.
Among Mississippi's many disadvantages, education remains a big one. Without a highly educated workforce, we will remain a poor choice for many businesses. It seems to be that one important strategy for us to consider to improve our situation would involve opposing the anti-intellectualism which seems so rampant in our state.

Mississippi Republicans Happy

This article in The Daily Journal certainly makes it sound like Mississippi is very different politically from the rest of America. Do you think the political dominance of the Republican Party in our state is mostly due to the popularity of Christian extremism here, or are there other more important factors?

Mississippi Thinks Sarah Palin Was A Good Choice?

Up for a bit of poll crashing? Mississippi atheists, head over to The Magnolia Report to cast your vote on whether Sarah Palin was a wise choice for VP. Let reason prevail, even in Mississippi.

Proposition 8 Protests in Mississippi

Protests of California's Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) were held in every state yesterday, and Mississippi was no exception. Here is some video footage of the Hattiesburg protest, which was held across the street from the University of Southern Mississippi's campus.




Video of the protest in Jackson can be found on Fox40 News.

Great Southern Humanist Society: Feed the Needy 2008

The Great Southern Humanist Society plans to celebrate Thanksgiving with a Meetup event, Thanksgiving: Feed the Needy 2008. It will be held on November 27, 2008, at 9:00 AM in the Bayou View Middle School Cafeteria in Gulfport. For more information, visit their Meetup.com page.

ACLU Expresses Concern Regarding Violations of Students' Free Speech after the Elections

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 11, 2008

CONTACT:
Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director, 601-573-3978, [email protected]
Kristy Bennett, Staff Attorney, 601-540-6642, [email protected]

Jackson, MS- The ACLU of Mississippi has received numerous reports from throughout the state from parents and students regarding prohibitions against speech related to President-elect, Barak (sic) Obama, as well as the election results, generally. The complaints encompass harassment, bullying, intimidation and students being disciplined for saying President Elect Obama’s name or discussing the recent presidential election. The variety of incidents—including an incident in Pearl on Thursday, when two students were forced from a school bus, and the fact that they appear to be arising all over the state are of great concern to the ACLU of MS. As such, we want to remind Mississippians that student speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution. A complete prohibition of political speech violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and will not be tolerated. This election should serve as an opportunity to educate students and encourage tolerance. Speech regarding the President-elect and this historic election should not serve as an antagonist or be used to suppress the political voice of students or teachers. We applaud the appropriate and timely action of the superintendent of the Pearl School District and we encourage other school districts to take similar actions if these situations arise.

We encourage students and parents to contact us if they are subjected to or witness any form of restrictions on speech, discipline or sanctions in response to protected speech activities or any questionable conduct by school administrators, teachers or district employees as a result of students or others discussing political views at school or school related functions. You may call our office at (601) 354-3408, 888-354-ACLU (2258), email us at [email protected] or submit a complaint on our website at www.msaclu.org.

Central MS Atheist November Meeting

The Central MS Atheist Meetup Group is planning their November meeting for Thursday, November 20, 2008, at 7:00 PM. They'll meet at the Rainbow Co-Op Plaza on Old Canton Rd. in Jackson. For more information or to RSVP, visit their Meetup.com page.

Mississippi Children Punished For Saying Obama's Name

Well, its official now. The state of Mississippi joined most of the rest of the country in exceeding our previous voter turnout record. Roughly 1.2 million Mississippians cast their vote on November 4. Good for us! It was no surprise that McCain won the state easily, but the turnout suggests that many in our state considered this an important election and were willing to do their civic duty. That is encouraging. Less encouraging are the reports surfacing that it is not safe to mention Obama's name after the election.

According to WAPT News, two employees at Pearl Junior High threatened students in separate incidents for merely saying Obama's name. First, two boys were kicked off a school bus for commenting that Sen. Obama had won the election. Next, a girl's basketball coach told students that they would be suspended for saying Obama's name.

The employees have been disciplined, but the school refuses to specify how. Unbelievable. Truly unbelievable.

The ACLU of Mississippi reported that they have received multiple complaints from around the state by parents and students reporting alleged violations of students’ free speech.

Truth Has Nothing To Do With Fear

The pursuit of knowledge, whether through formal education or life experience, is one of the many joys of humanity. By coming to understand ourselves and the environments in which we dwell, we are empowered to shape ourselves (i.e., adapt) and bring about meaningful change in the world around us. And yet, we must acknowledge that the quest for knowledge can be terrifying for those who would prefer to cling to ancient superstitions, preferring the shadows of authoritarian "truth" to any semblance of the real thing.

Fortunately, there are those among us who are not willing to see eyesores like this one from Long Beach, MS, go unchecked. Below is a letter to the editor written by our own Mims Carter after running across this sign.

I saw a sign (photo above) in downtown Long Beach Saturday morning. It was an advertisement for something called 'Eternity House', obviously a special sort of Halloween Haunted House. The sign went on to say 'Truth Begins With Fear'. I did shudder momentarily when I read the sign, but it wasn't fear, it was anger. What kind of message is this? Especially since, given the context, the target audience of this fear mongering was children, innocent, gullible, trusting children who rely on adults to keep them from physical, mental and emotional harm. We should be teaching our children that the road to truth requires courage, insight, clear thinking, and hard work, not fear.

Given the quirks of our emotional wiring, we do get a thrill out of being scared. I have no problem with haunted houses, thrill rides, monster movies and such things. With children, I believe it is important to be there during these activities to let them know it is just entertainment, not real or dangerous. To actively promote fear and to link it to some message of truth is a different story. There is a technical term for such tactics - child abuse. Any 'truth' that requires such reprehensible behavior towards innocent children in order for them to learn it is obviously unworthy of the term.

Mims H. Carter
Pass Christian

Some Ballot Oddities in Mississippi

Before voting this afternoon, I spoke with several co-workers about their experience. Two common themes emerged immediately. First, the section of the ballot in which we voted on the senate race between Musgrove and Wicker omitted party designations from both candidates. This stood out because it was the only section of the ballot where partisan candidates were listed without party affiliations. Second, there was apparently some sort of delay in the presidential section of the ballot which caused McCain-Palin to be displayed first and without other candidates. This basically meant that voters had to wait patiently for their other choices to appear. I don't consider myself especially paranoid, but this news didn't make me happy.

I voted in a different county (Lamar) than most of my co-workers (Forrest). My experience on the first issue (i.e., no party affiliations listed for Wicker and Musgrove) was identical to theirs. This was the only section of the ballot where partisan candidates were listed without party affiliation. I worry that this may have been confusing to many voters and might have limited any down-ticket impact of the presidential candidates.

Fortunately, I did not experience the second problem when I voted. All presidential candidates came up simultaneously. No unusual delay or puzzling order. What concerns me is that the county in which this problem was reported just so happens to have a much higher African American population than the one in which I reside.

Election Day Briefing

Democratic Party logoImage via Wikipedia
MISSISSIPPI DEMOCRATIC PARTY
ELECTION DAY BRIEFING

Mississippi has two election protection programs in place for Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 4. Here is a quick look at both of them, as well as what you can do if you or other people experience any problems Tuesday.

PROTECT THE VOTE 2008
This non-partisan, nonprofit coalition of advocacy groups will provide help with voting problems Tuesday. The coalition will staff a toll-free hotline, (888) 601-VOTE, with access to more than 200 lawyers statewide ready to help resolve issues on Election Day. Protect the Vote also will maintain and update Election Day issues at a blog, www.601vote.wordpress.com. You can visit the blog throughout the day for the latest information on Election Day issues. Coalition members are the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union, the Mississippi Association for Justice, the Magnolia Bar Association and the Mississippi Center for Justice. Protect the Vote 2008 is not sponsored by any political party, candidate or campaign.

VOTER DEFENSE PROJECT
The Mississippi Democratic Party’s Voter Defense Project will include legal and communications experts on hand to ensure Mississippi voters understand their Election Day rights and that no lawful voter is turned away from the polls.
The program will include the following elements:
  • Attorneys, known as “vote defenders,” will be prepositioned throughout Mississippi and prepared to deploy to areas that report polling problems.
  • Election Monitors at each polling location will ensure lawful voters are not turned away and will report “aggressive challenge patterns.”
  • Legal experts will be on standby to interpret federal, state and local election laws and guidelines.
  • Rapid-response communicators will be on-hand to rebut misleading and inconsistent statements from state or regional officials
And as always, if you have any questions about anything on Election Day, you can call the Mississippi Democratic Party headquarters at (601) 969-2913.

-- The Mississippi Democratic Party Staff

Hey Bubba, What Mississippi Values?

OXFORD, MS - SEPTEMBER 26:  Mississippi Gov. H...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeMy mailbox has been bombarded with ads for Randy "Bubba" Pierce, a chancery court judge running for the Mississippi Supreme Court. Bubba's ads provide very little information about him or his qualifications. We are told that he has "integrity and judgment" that we can trust. For a judge, I'd hope that this would go without saying. But the most interesting thing learned from Bubba's ads is that he "has the right Mississippi values."

Before exploring the issue of "Mississippi values," I must make one observation that I suspect most of you are expecting. Someone who wants to serve on the highest court in our state is calling himself "Bubba." Bubba! If there was any doubt, anti-intellectualism appears to be alive in well in Mississippi. Okay, I feel better after getting that out of my system.
Bubba Pierce has the right Mississippi values to protect the Constitution and Laws of the State of Mississippi.
I think that the best way to interpret this statement is that it is code for communicating with the vast population of fundamentalist Christians in Mississippi. The phrase "right Mississippi values" means something to these fundamentalists than some voters might miss. It signals that Bubba is one of them, a proud member of Sarah Palin's "real America." Regardless of whether that is actually true, this seems to be the intention behind using code phrases like this.

The ad also tells us that Bubba was appointed to his present position as chancery court judge by conservative Republican governor and close Bush-McCain ally, Gov. Barbour. Thus, we can expect Bubba to be very conservative.

But what precisely are Mississippi values? Does the phrase have any real meaning apart from the coded message it sends? I would guess not, but I'd be interested to hear what you think.



Roger Wicker: Bad For Mississippi College Students

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 31, 2008

Roger Wicker Hides His Anti-Student Policy Positions from Young People

Senator does not put policy on website where students can find them

Washington, DC – The College Democrats of America are disappointed to find that Mississippi interim Senator Roger Wicker will not share his policy positions on his website – the research medium utilized by most young people. However given Senator Wicker's long history of voting against Mississippi's young people, it's not surprising that the Senator would try to conceal his record. [http://www.wickerforsenate.com/]

Just last year, Senator Wicker stood among a small number of Congressmen in voting against the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. With the cost of attending college skyrocketing and family income levels remaining stagnant, the bill increased the amount of money available for student aid by roughly $18 billion over the next 5 years – the largest increase in student aid since the passage of the GI bill after World War II. [HR 2669, Vote 864, 9/7/07; House Committee on Education and Labor, September 2007]

Unfortunately, his vote on the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 is only emblematic of Senator Wicker's disappointing record with regard to college students.

Senator Wicker has a long record of opposition to the Pell Grant – indeed he voted against raising the Pell Grant nine times. [Vote 864, 9/7/07; House Appropriations Committee Markup, 6/13/06; Vote 301, 6/24/04; AP, 6/25/04; Washington Times, 6/25/04; House Appropriations Committee Markup, 6/9/04; House Appropriations Committee Markup, 6/25/03; Vote 415, 7/19/00; House Appropriations Committee Markup, 5/24/00; Vote 124, 5/5/98; House Appropriations Subcommittee Markup, 6/13/96]

In 2006, Senator Wicker voted against lowering the fixed interest rate from 6.8 to 3.4 percent on student loans and against allocating $84 million of grants to middle and low-income students. Indeed Wicker's extreme anti-student record has placed him on the fringe of the Mississippi delegation – he was the only member of the Mississippi delegation to oppose again lowering the student loan rate cuts from 6.8 to 3.4 percent. [H Amdt 772 to HR 609, Vote 80, 3/30/06; HR 5, Vote 32, 1/17/07]

Additionally in 1997, Wicker opposed amending the tax code to help make college more affordable. The bill he opposed aimed to provide a "$500-per-child tax credit to working families, support a HOPE Scholarship credit for the first two years of a college education, and include tax benefits for families paying tuition costs for the second two years of a college education out of wage and salary income." [HR 2014, Vote 258, 7/10/97]

In Contrast, Governor Ronnie Musgrove has spent his career fighting for Mississippi students. He chaired the Education committee during his tenure in the State Senate. Over his career he has also served on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and as Chair of the Southern Regional Education Board. In Washington, he will fight to ensure that every Mississippi student has the ability to attend college.

"Time and again Roger Wicker has voted against the youth of Mississippi," said Katie Naranjo, President of the College Democrats of America. "It's no wonder he won't put his policy positions on his website where students are looking for them. Young people want a Senator who will address the inaccessibility of college to otherwise qualified students. Despite Roger Wicker's tactics, young people know that Governor Musgrove will bring Mississippi's students the change they need."

Moreover as one of President Bush's most loyal allies in the Congress – voting with the president over 90 percent of the time – Roger Wicker has carried the economic policies of deregulation on Wall Street that led directly to the current financial crisis and made it harder for Mississippi's students to secure college loans given the frozen credit market. Just last year, Senator Wicker voted against regulating the sub-prime mortgage industry – the industry that led to the current financial collapse. [CQ House Presidential Support Scores, 109th Congress; HR 3915, Vote 1118, 11/15/2007]

In addition, while Senator Wicker has voted against students, the interests of our economy, and increasing the minimum wage he has repeatedly taken care of himself – voting to increase his own salary nine times. [HR 2, Vote 18, 1/10/2007; HR 2378, Vote 435, 9/24/97; HR 246, Vote 300, 7/15/1999; HR 560, Vote 419, 7/20/2000; HR 206, Vote 267, 7/25/2001; HR 488, Vote 322, 7/18/2002; HR 517, Vote 580, 6/27/2007]

"Mississippi needs a Senator who will put an end to the Bush-Wicker policies that have jeopardized the ability of Mississippi youth to pursue higher education – a Senator who will look out for Mississippi students rather than for himself," added Naranjo. "Mississippi students deserve a Senator who will vote to increase jobs, increase the minimum wage, and increase student aid, not a Senator who will increase his own salary. Governor Musgrove will restore much needed fiscal responsibility to Washington – as Senator, he'll never put the priorities of Wall Street before those on Mississippi Main Street."

The College Democrats of America is the official youth outreach arm of the Democratic Party.

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