Tonight, the Atheist Longhorns campus group sponsored a talk by Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Losing Faith in Faith and several children's books.
Turnout was excellent. The talk was held in a UT lecture hall with a capacity of 250. Somewhere between 75 and 100 people attended. The great majority of them seemed to be members of either the Atheist Longhorns or the Atheist Community of Austin, with a few Christians scattered around the room. Most of the jokes were met with appreciative laughs, and most of the stories told for shock value were met with audible outrage.
Dan introduced himself and the Center for Inquiry, then went on to discuss the religious climate in America today. Despite an upswing in fundamentalism since 2001, Dan stated that he was generally optimistic and believed that we were gaining ground over time. He stated that England and other European countries have "grown out of" their preoccupation with religion, and he believes that America will too.
Which is not to say that we shouldn't be concerned with the trends that we do see. Both Democrats and Repubiclans still seem to think they need to pander to the religious right all the time, so you won't see even a Democratic candidate fail to emphasize how important his or her faith in Jesus is. Still, Barker feels that the progress of secularists and progressives shows a clear upward trend over time. He made an analogy to the stock market: in the short term, the market may fluctuate wildly, as we just experienced a large short term rise in religiosity. In the long term, however, the zigs and zags surround an overall forward movement.
For instance, many decades ago, people like Margaret Sanger were jailed for supporting birth control. Today, birth control is so common that it is used by 90% of American Catholics, even when the pope said that it's a sin. He also claimed that the victory in cases such as Kitzmiller v. Dover has been so complete that even creationists know that fighting the case in overt, honest ways is pretty much closed to them now.
Dan then went on to discuss the history of separation of church and state, noting along the way that although those exact words to not appear in the constitution, neither does "separation of powers"; nor does the word "trinity" appear in the Bible. The concepts are the important part.
He discussed George Bush's faith-based initiatives. Essentially, according to Dan, there have been several examples of various organizations receiving government funding that didn't do anything but proselytize, and ultimately didn't even do what they claimed they were supposed to do (i.e., in the case of a group that purported to help former prisoners get jobs, their primary message was "read the Bible, trust Jesus, and then you'll get a job").
FFRF proceeded to sue some of these organizations, and win. In many cases, the state officials actually expressed gratitude over the outcome of these suits, noting that if FFRF hadn't stepped in, they wouldn't have even known that these abuses were occurring. Why is this? asks Dan. Shouldn't states be doing oversight themselves, instead of waiting for some atheists to come along with a lawsuit?
Dan claimed that Congress has never approved any faith based funding, which would be illegal if done through official channels. Instead, Bush has a certain amount of money budgeted for general appropriation, which he then used to set up an office of faith-based intiatives at the White House. What this office does is invite religious organizations to come and hear talks which encourage them to fill out some forms and get cash for their church programs.
FFRF tried to sue the executive branch for violation of the first amendment, but the first judge they spoke to denied the case, on the ground that FFRF had no standing. They then appealed the case to the 7th circuit court and won. But the government appealed the loss, petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the second ruling.
This was about the time that Alito and Roberts were placed on the supreme court, which meant that the overall composition of the court was very different from its state when the lawsuit began. By a 5-4 ruling, they agreed that no one could sue the government unless they had standing as a citizen who has been harmed, and not merely a tax payer. Although this case was similar to the various suits that FFRF had been winning around the country, suddenly the landscape changed. Now they couldn't get these cases heard on their own merits anymore; everyone was throwing up roadblocks by bringing up the issue of whether they had standing. This brought us up to the present day.
At around 7:45 Dan started fielding questions. Don Baker asked how they raised enough money for all these court challenges, and Dan said that they have a legal fund that people donate to. Also, some lawyers are more than willing to work for free if it means they might get to argue a high profile case before the Supreme Court.
I asked Dan how he and Annie managed to land a gig with Air America Radio, and the answer was: lots of money. Originally they started advertising on AAR, and later they paid more up front to get a national show.
Several people in the back row asked very similar questions about the lawsuits that FFRF had brought. I suspect that they were all part of a Christian group, and the questions may have been planned, but they weren't all that effective IMO. One asked: If these faith-based organizations receiving money had represented several different religions instead of just one, and if their work had proven effective, would FFRF still oppose them? The other two more or less repeated portions of the same question. In all responses, Dan said that 1. It was in fact mostly Christians that were courted by the office; 2. It wouldn't matter if other religions were involved; 3. It wouldn't matter if they did good things with the money, since the issue is government money going to religious programs. Dan made this analogy: If a white supremacist group set up a soup kitchen, and it was clear that they were using it for propaganda purposes, it should be opposed even if it is a really good soup kitchen.
Another guy asked Dan to expand on his comments about Europe "growing out of religion" while America didn't, and expressed some pessimism about whether we have a lot more pain to go through before religious influence starts to recede. Dan reiterated his overall optimism, but did acknowledge that things could get much worse, especially if another catastrophic even such as 9/11 occurs. He also noted that in Europe, there is official state-sponsored religion, and so churches don't have to "hustle" for money, since they are already receiving it from government. Over here, religion is a competitive enterprise, so churches work hard to get more private money as much as possible. That's his explanation for why there's so much more religious influence here even though it's not supported by government.
Matt asked whether Dan opposes tax exemption for churches. Dan said: Yes, I think it shouldn't exist, but it's so entrenched that it's not a battle worth fighting for the time being. He did go on a semi-rant about how churches still use fire stations and police stations and roads, etc., but do not pay for them, which means that the rest of us must pay their share.
After the talk, the Texas Longhorns got a group picture taken with Dan. I introduced myself and had him sign one of his children's books ("Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong") for me and Ben.
I hung around to see some of the Christian students that were starting up various conversations. One group was very friendly, said they had seen our show, and that they agreed with Dan on most points about separation of church and state. That was a very positive conversation.
I also came across Matt arguing with a fairly aggressive Christian about the philosophical issues of "ultimate morality" and his notion that atheism requires purposelessness. This discussion got somewhat heated and ranged among topics like the Euthyphro dilemma, societal construction of laws (the apologist insisted that laws don't "exist", and threw out the usual claim that he'd be killing people if he didn't believe in God), and some of the nastiness in the Bible. It was hard for me to get a word in edgewise, as the apologist was very strident and had a tendency to talk louder when interrupted; and of course Matt was doing most of the talking on our end. I threw in a few points, but basically I considered the conversation pretty much ended when Matt got the apologist to state that stoning children to death USED TO BE morally correct.
However, that apparently wasn't the end of it; Matt continued the conversation for a while longer and I think is getting roped into an email discussion. I'll look forward to that.
Anyway, I enjoyed the evening. Dan Barker's a good speaker, and a good image of the "friendly neighborhood atheist," as he likes to say.