Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Recap of Dan Barker's Talk at the University of Memphis

Think of a typical flight on a major airline. You arrive at the airport, check in, pass through security, and then board the plane. The pilot goes through the pre-flight dialog and the flight attendants assist you with your belongings. The plane takes off and sometime later lands safely at a destination.

Notice that we haven't said anything about religion. That's because we don't need to say anything about religion. The religious views of pilot and the crew are irrelevant to the operations and business of the flight. The passengers trust that the plane will take off and land safely due to the expertise of pilot and crew and not based on appeals to supernatural forces.

"If I was getting on an airplane and saw the pilot praying, I'd get off." said Dan Barker at his talk in Memphis last Thursday.

Mr. Barker gave the airline analogy to show that there are situations when the religious views of the participants are irrelevant to the operations and business of the organization. A similar organization where the religious views of the participants are irrelevant is the Memphis City Council, which has been known to begin public meetings with a sectarian prayer. As a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, Mr. Barker is calling for this practice to end.

Mr. Barker discussed some of the highlights of his work at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, including the sign placed in the foyer of the Washington State Capitol Building, right beside a Christian nativity scene, which read:

At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
For this sign, Dan Barker became famous for attacking religion and was featured on The O'Reilly Factor for promoting a war on Christmas. Most atheists would agree with the first three sentences on the sign, but he admitted that there was plenty of discussion as to the necessity of the last sentence. "Some thought it was too harsh and some thought it wasn't harsh enough." The FFRF wanted the attention, so they went with a message that would provoke discussion.

When he announced that the sign was allowed in the Washington State Capitol, along with the nativity scene, a monument to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a Festivus pole, the crowd applauded. When he announced that this year no religious displays would be allowed in the capitol building, the crowd cheered. In his view, it is better for our government to pay no respect to the various religious views of the people than to all of them, but paying some respect to all religious views is still better than respect to some religious views.

Mr. Barker gave a brief history of the separation of church and state in America. Our founding fathers were a pretty diverse group with respect to religion. Some went to church, some didn't. Some prayed, some didn't. Some had a strong belief in the Christian notion of god and some didn't. But they all agreed that their views of religion where not infallible, and thus should not be promoted by the new government. There are three clauses which reference religion in the Constitution, and in all three cases limit the role of government. It is clear that the founding fathers wanted to protect religious freedom by keeping government as far away from it as possible. In Mr. Barker's view, the Constitution is anti-biblical because it promotes the view that we the people are capable of governing ourselves through a democratic process as opposed to governance through guidance from a deity.

Mr. Barker provided a contrast between the public sphere and the public square. The public sphere should remain free and everyone is allowed to promote their own views of religion. The public square includes the government and the people, thus should remain neutral on matters of religion. The people who are praying before Memphis City Council meetings have every right to pray, provided that they not promoting prayer in association with their governing. A Memphis City Council meeting is part of the public square.

When it came to his own religious beliefs and government, Mr. Barker was clear that even atheism should not be promoted. There is a difference between non-religion and religious neutrality. He didn't want Memphis City Council meetings to begin with the words "There is no god!", because this is also a religious viewpoint and the government should remain neutral.

When it came to prayer in public schools, Mr. Barker quipped, "As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in public schools."

Thanks to the University of Memphis' Campus Freethought Association for bringing Dan Barker to the University of Memphis.

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