Friday, December 31, 2010

Florida Atheists Challenge Church-State Violation by Sheriff

After Sheriff Grady Judd used inmate labor to remove basketball hoops from the county jail and relocate them at area churches, a group of atheists in Florida is taking him to task. They sent a letter and plan to file an injunction if his office does not respond in a timely manner.

See the video here.

Again and again, it falls to atheists to push for enforcement of separation of church and state. This sort of activism can be difficult, but it remains necessary. A big thanks to Atheists of Florida for setting such a wonderful example.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Understanding Why Atheists Might Contribute to Holiday Displays in Government Buildings

reason's greetingsMany Christians in Mississippi do not seem to understand the problems associated with putting a nativity scene in a government building, so I'd like to see if I can offer a clear and concise explanation. At the outset, I think it is important to understand that atheists taking offense at a religious display is not the issue. I'm not saying that atheists never take offense at religious displays - I'm sure some do. Many of us would prefer not to see religious displays on government property. But this is not what is most relevant here.

So what is most relevant here? If Christians want a Christian display on government property, two conditions must be met. First, the Christians seeking to place a display must pay for the display themselves. The government cannot do so without being guilty of showing preference to one religion over others. This is the simpler of the two conditions, and many Christians understand it perfectly well. This is why outside groups typically sponsor nativity scenes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Connecting Atheists in Mississippi

connectionsI realize that blogs can serve as useful hubs for providing information, but they are not particularly well suited for connecting people. This is part of why I finally set up a Mississippi Atheists page on Facebook. However, that is inherently limited to those who are reasonable "out" about their atheism. I previously tried an email group through Google Groups, but I have not done a good job promoting it and it is rarely utilized.

I'd like to revive the Google Group idea and see if we can turn it into a state-wide listserv that atheists in our state can use to communicate and share information. If you'd like to participate, you can subscribe here:

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Email:
Visit this group

I have adjusted the settings in an effort to accomplish the following:
  • Maximum privacy (group content can only be viewed by group members, and only managers have access to full list of subscribers)
  • Membership is restricted to atheists residing in Mississippi
  • Messages sent to the group will have the prefix "[MS Atheists]" to make it easier for subscribers to filter group messages as desired

I think this is worth trying again to see if we can indeed build a community of atheists throughout our state, but I am also open to other ideas. If anybody has ideas for how we might do a better job of helping to connect atheists in our state, I'd love to hear from you.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Haunted Cemeteries in Mississippi

haunted cemeteryThe Hattiesburg American just ran a story about haunted cemeteries in Pearl River County. As I read the first few paragraphs of the article, I found myself thinking that this was an odd story to print on Christmas. I soon realized that this is exactly the sort of thing we should expect on slow news days. And besides, how is all this Christian zombie worship really that different from believing in ghosts?

But if the title of the article was what caught my attention, it was really the last sentence that stuck with me:
Investigating the paranormal has gained popularity these days, with several reality ghost shows currently airing on TV.
Slow news day plus subject of great public interest equals this story. Now I get it. But why has investigating the so-called paranormal become increasingly popular?

Perhaps this is another indication that traditional religion is losing at least some of its appeal. Maybe interest in ghost hunting and the like reflects a growing desire to experience the supernatural entities which religion insists are real but provides no way to access. Could it be that those who are drawn to such "investigations" are merely trying to validate what they have been told to believe?

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Friday, December 24, 2010

New Look at Mississippi Atheists

There were a few things about the heavily modified template I had been using for this blog that were not working and made me want a change. The new look you are seeing here now is neither perfect nor completely finished, but I think it should load a bit quicker and work as intended. I wanted to keep things simple and not make too big of a departure.

Be sure to let me know if you find problems.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Coverage of the FFRF Sign in the Mississippi Media

Not surprisingly, the presence of a sign criticizing religion in the Mississippi State Capitol has turned into a far bigger story than the presence of a nativity scene in the same location was. And yet, there has been far less coverage by the local media than I would have predicted. Here is a sampling of how the sign and the motives behind it are being covered in the Mississippi news media:
And yet, that seems to be about it for media coverage. As I noted previously, I find the themes emerging in our local media fairly disappointing. This is not about a Wisconsin-based invasion of our state!

However, I would like to highlight an exception to the otherwise poor quality of the coverage. From what I have seen of her work, Elizabeth Crisp (Clarion-Ledger) seems to be covering this quite well. Her first article was informative and framed the issue appropriately, and her second actually played down the controversy. I hope she is right and that there will continue to be little actual controversy.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Action Alert: Ask Our Lt. Gov. to Respect Separation of Church and State

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has issued an action alert suggesting that we contact our Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and ask him to respect separation of church and state. The nativity display which now sits in our state capitol was his idea, and that is not all.

From the action alert:
Lt. Gov. Bryant, according to a news story, requested that the 9/11 Remembrance Foundation place a life-size nativity display in the capitol rotunda to "honor our troops."

Lt. Gov. Bryant told a reporter: "Recognizing our troops at Christmas, praying for our troops, I think it's a perfect fit."
The FFRF is requesting that we write to Lt. Gov. Bryant at the address below in order to make it clear that we object to his role in bringing the nativity scene to our state capitol. Here are the "talking points" they provide to assist those of us who plan to write letters:
Displaying a nativity scene in the Mississippi state capitol building sends a message of governmental endorsement of Christianity. FFRF objects to "public forums" on government property involving religion. There should be neither religious nor irreligious displays on government property.

A nativity scene on government property shows great disrespect for nonbelievers, and those of minority faiths. In the U.S., 15% of residents identify as nonreligious, and the violation makes the nonreligious feel like political outsiders in their own community (ARIS 2008).

Religious symbols and displays have no place on government property. Elected officials should not use their government position and government property as a place for promoting their religious views. FFRF will gladly remove its sign if religious displays are kept out of the state capitol.
And finally, here is the address to use:

The Honorable Phil Bryant
Office of the Lieutenant Governor
P.O. Box 1018
Jackson MS 39215
Web Form: http://www.ltgovbryant.com/contact/

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Video of the Nativity Scene in the Mississippi State Capitol

Since I imagine that things are about to get crazy around here now that the FFRF sign is up in the Mississippi State Capitol, I thought it might be interesting for those of you who haven't yet seen the nativity scene that started this mess to have the chance to do so. Again, there would be no FFRF sign if it was not for this nativity scene. The video below is from WJTV in Jackson.



Pay attention to how our local media is presenting this "controversy." Evil godless Northerners are descending upon poor Mississippi to attack Christmas and other cherished traditions. They do not seem to realize that there are atheists in our state who welcome the FFRF display and without whom it would not have happened. And yet, the presence of atheists here in our state has been pointed out to them. It seems they have decided to ignore us and make the story about Wisconsin.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

FFRF Sign Coming to Mississippi Capitol on Monday

I've got some more information to share about the nativity scene in the Mississippi State Capitol and the Freedom From Religion Foundation's response.

The nativity scene appears to still be up, contrary to some rumors floating around about it possibly being taken down. On Monday morning, the nativity scene will get some company in the form of a sign provided by the FFRF and erected by local atheists. The sign is expected to look something like the one pictured here.

If you are in the Jackson area and would like to help with the setup - or just see the sign before it is vandalized - meet at the South entrance to the Capitol on Monday morning a little before 8:30am. And if you do go, please bring a camera and share some pictures with us.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Reasonably Secular Graduation in Mississippi

GraduationI have written here before about the absurdity of sectarian prayers at the graduation ceremonies of the state university where I work in Mississippi. After sitting through such a ceremony in the Spring of 2009, I decided that I had finally reached my breaking point. It was time to do something. I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to ask about my options. They were very helpful, but in the end, their intervention did not prove necessary. I was overjoyed to find that a handful of my fellow co-workers, including more than a few theists, who felt similarly. We decided to take action.

A few of us wrote to the president of our university and other administrators. Yes, this was a big risk. That we could have sued if we had been fired was small consolation. It was not an easy thing to do, and I'd be lying if I said I lost no sleep over it.

But it worked. At the Fall ceremony, there were no sectarian prayers. No clergy were invited to speak. Yes, the commencement speaker still mentioned Jesus for no apparent reason, reminding us that our work is not finished. But at least it was done in a fairly minor way that did not come across as university sanctioned. Overall, I have to say that it was a big improvement over anything I have seen yet at graduation. It was a reasonably secular graduation, and it happened in Mississippi.

Was it worth the risk? Time will tell, but I can say one thing: this was the first graduation ceremony I have attended in Mississippi during which I did not feel like an outsider.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Update on the Capitol Nativity Scene

I am being told that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has in fact received permission to place one of their "winter solstice" displays in the Mississippi State Capitol to accompany the nativity scene. I also have unconfirmed reports that the display is in transit and may be up as soon as Monday. I hope this will be a good opportunity to educate our neighbors about the importance of church-state separation and how having one religious display in a public building necessarily opens the door to all others.

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Nativity Scene in Mississippi Capitol

I'm a bit late in getting to this, but it appears that there is a large nativity scene in our state capitol this year. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is in the process of applying to place a "winter solstice" display in the capitol.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mississippi Atheists is Now on Facebook

FacebookAlthough it has been suggested to me several times, I have held off on creating a Facebook page for Mississippi Atheists for one simple reason: I did not think there were enough people in our state who were "out" about their atheism for such a page to be worthwhile. You see, when someone "likes" a page on Facebook, this action is broadcast to all their Facebook friends. How many Mississippi atheists would be interested in that?

Of course, I finally realized that there was only one way to find out. I figured it was high time we have our own Facebook page, so we now have one. If you are one of the rare sorts of atheists who is "out" about your atheism, feel free to "like" us. And who knows, maybe the simple presence of a Facebook page will help us connect with other atheists in our state.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Freedom is Still Alive in Mississippi

This post was contributed by Skepticat:

Although it seems some days that Mississippi is at the forefront of the effort to throw away everything good that we've achieved in the past two hundred years, it seems that freedom is still alive and possibly bringing some hope with it. Back in October, I blogged about Lee County Chancellor Talmadge Littlejohn's attempt to force local attorney Danny Lampley to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When the attorney did not comply, Littlejohn had him thrown in jail for contempt of court.

The Clarion Ledger came alive with public responses. While a few (such as mine) were in favor of the attorney, most were heaping scorn upon him and praising the judge. If I saw a comment like, "OMG, IF YOU DON'T LOVE AMERICA, YOU NEED TO LEAVE IT!!" then I saw twenty of them. I couldn't believe that this red, Tea Party state that was supposedly so big on freedom would cheerfully shred the First Amendment and demand such overt loyalty to the state and it's unofficial religion. Well, actually, I could believe it. I hear this kind of nonsense everyday.

What did surprise me was the number of attorneys and educated people here in Mississippi who were outraged at the judge's actions. They seemed to be mostly confined to their own blogs and reluctant to comment in the newspaper but they spoke out nonetheless. I'm assuming that one of them filed a complaint against Littlejohn because apparently Lampley did not do so (I expect that he knew he'd be in Littlejohn's courtroom again and did not want to ruin his career). The important thing is that someone took a stand here for freedom.

This month, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance recommended that Littlejohn be "publicly reprimanded" and pay $100 court costs for violating Lampley's rights. It seems like a slap on the wrist, particularly since Littlejohn tried to justify his actions by saying: 1) he'd always required the pledge, 2) Mississippi schools did so he should be able to as well, and 3) the First Amendment pledge case Barnette didn't apply to him. What illogic! What hubris! But the Commission didn't buy it - and if the Supreme Courts takes the advice, Littlejohn will have to pay up and have this reprimand on his record.

This is a victory for Mississippi atheists and believers alike though not all may realize it. Those of us who value our freedom understand how important Barnette was to reaffirming our First Amendment right to free speech and free religious exercise. The Jehovah's Witnesses fought this battle in 1943 because their religion forbids them from swearing loyalty to any secular power. Atheists may today fight this battle because of the insidious inclusion of the phrase "under God" to the pledge. Or anyone may fight this battle because no free society should force a citizen to swear loyalty to anyone or anything. As the fervent cries of socialist, communist, and fascist ring out against the left, you'd think that the right-wing would fight this battle so they would not have to swear loyalty to Obama (something that I think is only likely in their wildest dreams of persecution). But no, it seems that many Mississippians were lockstep with the tradition that the only acceptable form of patriotism is conformity. Many Mississippians - not all.

There were some who still valued freedom and they made their stand in whatever way they could. They made their stand in a little backward state knowing that their views would not be popular. They channeled the spirit of the Revolution by claiming those inalienable rights rather than wrapping themselves in a false flag of piety and nationalism. They are the patriots that I want to be counted with.

The Commission heard them and responded with justice. The First Amendment is still alive in Mississippi. Freedom is still alive and that gives me hope.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Recent Thoughts From PK Atheist

FROM PK ATHEIST IN SOUTH MISSISSIPPI:

Oh, don't get me started on the election in Mississippi. Suffice it to say that one should never say a Mississippi politician is the worst one they can get. There's some kind of challenge that seems to bring in the minds of Mississippi voters & they outdo themselves. I'm still speechless just over having a tobacco lobbyist/Mexico lobbyist/Republican National Committee governor whose gall includes supposed national aspirations. I'd like to ridicule that as too Orwellian to be possible, but I have learned that the worse a Mississippi politician is the farther they seem likely to progress in power.

In some places in the U.S. actual liberals won; even in Mississippi Benny Thompson won. The conservative Blue Dog Democrats were the ones who lost, trying to be all things to all people, finger to the wind, but really Republicans-in-drag. The Blue Dogs lost the Democrats' their faux numbers. Since they served as place-holders for the Democratic Party to maintain the putative Congressional majority, losing them puts us in a more obvious right-wing tilt. Still, the Blue Dogs caused the Democrats to spiral downward toward a swirling vortex of all that was the worst of the right wing in this country. Every time you turned around some principle was being sold out to some Blue Dog in the usually forlorn hope that they might actually vote with the Democratic Party which they were technically members of. Therefore, Gene Taylor and Travis Childers were not much of a loss insofar as birth control and reproductive rights, church-state separation issues and so much else were concerned because they kow-towed to Republicans and, as I say, just tried to send the Democrats farther to the right. They were a loss ONLY in that they were placeholders for the Dems like the rest of the blue dogs.

I'm always surprised to remember that Mississippi actually fought against the Axis powers in World War II since now when the opportunity to vote fascist arises they vote overwhelmingly that way. While disgusting, the Mississippi votes in 2010 were not a surprise to me. The ONE positive note in Mississippi politics in my opinion was in North Mississippi where Congressman Benny Thompson won. From what I have seen and read, he seems to actually care about his constituents.

Ring Lardner, Jr. (in his 2000 autobiography) makes the point that those who believe this is the only world would be motivated to do more to protect its environment. The recent blog suggestion that the most religious states are the fattest ones would neatly fit into his thesis. Also, obesity can be an expression of unhappiness and trying to live as a religious fundamentalist is not a happiness recipe.

The reason the blogger wasn't pawed at Jackson's airport over our recent Thanksgiving holiday is (1) not all airports have the feature yet and (2) of those that do if you agree to the radiation you won't be pawed unless they have questions about, say, the wire in your bra as though they don't know that most modern bras have wire in them.

I posted that I was angered by someone at one of the soup kitchens in Jackson who wrote of encouraging the homeless to get an education as though that was their problem and as though education was appreciated in this state. Judging from one of the comments made to this blog, I did not make myself at all clear on this issue. I do think education is a most important part of life and should be ongoing and constant. Yes, formal education is very important. But formal education is NOT appreciated AT ALL in Mississippi especially not by Mississippi employers outside academia and burdening the recently homeless with student loans is not going to keep them from being homeless again. In an ideal world, they might need to take more classes and get a university degree (assuming they do not have at least one already), but my point was that they do NOT need to do it at the expense of ending up indebted to some of the villainous student loan companies that are out there these days. Some of the current student loans seem to be a form of indenturing them for life and if they aren't careful they also will be signed up to go to some proprietary "college" which teaches them nothing and gains them entrance nowhere. A disturbing number of jobs in this state are given only to those who are relatives of the oligarchs. Most of us have seen this happen time and again. It is a big fiction that the poor and homeless JUST need better educations or they wouldn't be poor and homeless. Pretending that this oft-spoken bromide that they just need education is true just comforts the consciences of the oligarchs and I want no part in comforting those who prey on the poor and downtrodden.

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