Atheists Have an Islam Problem

Don’t worry, this is one is not about Trump, socialism, or racism. It’s time for an old-fashioned religion post.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/24/richard-dawkins-event-cancelled-over-his-abusive-speech-against-islam

So, Richard Dawkins has been banned from speaking at Berkeley because of his negative statements on Islam. I could do a whole post on that issue alone, but again I want to avoid politics on this one. At the end of the day, Berkeley is legally permitted to ban whoever they want from speaking on their campus. Whether or not it’s a good idea is where the debate would come in.

Anyway, I want to talk about the relationship between atheism and Islam. Things seem to be a bit tense right now for both sides so I want to attempt to inject some sanity into the discussion. Look, atheists are never going to agree with most of the tenets of Islam. Muslims are never going to agree with most of the tenets of atheism. I am not here to provide some magical solution that enables the two sides to co-exist, though. I don’t have one. There is certain to be disagreement between the two groups as long they both continue existing.

What I do know however is that atheists in particular need to be a lot more careful and thoughtful in their critiques of Islam. Not necessarily for legal or moral reasons, but for academic reasons and credibility. Famous atheists like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are all excellent at reasoning and logic for the most part, but their arguments tend to fall apart from a rational perspective whenever they start talking about Islam. They seem to be capable of separating Christians from Christianity and Jews from Judaism, but they seem to be incapable of separating Muslims from Islam. This is problematic, as those guys tend to be the ones people think of when people think “atheism.” I’m especially displeased with Dawkins these days, as he is supposed to be the one with special skills in communicating with people. He says that he’s misunderstood by people a lot, and while that is possible, he needs to realize that if he’s the one being perpetually misunderstood then the problem lies with him and not everyone else.

Is there plenty to criticize within the doctrines of Islam? Absolutely. There’s plenty to criticize in the books of all major religions. That’s what atheists do, for the most part. We criticize and try to spur others into critical thinking as well. What is particularly annoying though for me is that many atheists, along with the 3 mentioned above, subconsciously revert to the logical fallacy that just because someone follows or adheres to a religion that means they believe everything presented by the religion. Of course, this is simply not true. While some religious folk do believe that the Bible/Koran/Torah/whatever is literally true, many more do not. Many Christians for example view the story of man’s creation in the Bible as a parable, not a factual accounting of how it all happened.

The same is true of Muslims. There are over 1 billion of them in the world. They are not a hive mind and it is guaranteed that no two Muslims view Islam in the exact same way. When Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris go in on some of the more backward tenets of Islam, what they do is they end up offending the whole religion because of their mysterious inability to put nuance to their arguments. It comes across to me like they view all of Islam as being like ISIS or Saudi Arabia, when of course it is much more complicated than that. Just because those groups are hostile to human rights doesn’t mean every Muslim thinks that way. I can’t believe I have to say this to 3 men with advanced degrees from prestigious universities, but not every Muslim is out to kill or convert you! You thinking that is ironically exactly what groups like ISIS want you to think. They want a radicalization of the entirety of Islam, and you guys spewing your asinine criticisms is only going to contribute to that.

Go to the cities in America and Canada with a large Muslim population. Go to the UK, France, and Germany. Meet the Muslims in those places. You will find that the overwhelming majority of them love the places they live and want nothing more than to practice their religion in peace. Even if you still don’t agree with their individual values, you’ll still see that they aren’t interested in harming anyone.

Is it wrong for ISIS and for countries like Saudi Arabia to force people to follow their religious beliefs? Yes. Islamo-fascism is evil and it must be stopped. Simultaneously however, the atheist must be able to realize that the government of Saudi Arabia and Khaled down the street do not share the same views. After all, Muslims would not live in the West if they did not like at least some of the values of this society.

Why is the burden on atheists though? Atheists aren’t out here forming paramilitary groups and nation-states based on atheism. Atheist’s aren’t forcing people to adhere to their view of the world through violence. Why do we have to be the ones who are careful with what we say? Well, because atheists are supposed to value reason and logic above all else. Atheists are supposed to criticize based on fact, not emotion or belief. Whenever an atheist starts saying things like “Islam is _______” or “Christianity is ______”, he seems to be stating more what he believes instead of what is objectively true. No atheist should be able to support such stereotypical thinking.

What really pisses me off most though is when atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens play the victim when they are criticized for their statements. Dawkins acted like he was personally offended that Berkeley cancelled his speaking gig, and when Hitchens was alive he always complained about being attacked for his “free speech” whenever he made his sometimes-bigoted arguments against Islam. Well, what did you think was going to happen? If you come out and attack over a billion people, those people and friends of those people are going to get pissed off. I might be more on the atheists’ side if they were simply making valid criticisms, but too often those valid criticisms are wrapped in layers of fear-mongering and xenophobia. It’s incredibly off-putting. It gets even worse when those who actively dislike Muslims hear these arguments, and then they start using those arguments from Dawkins and Hitchens to bolster their own bigoted beliefs! While this is incidental and not intended, they still need to realize what the full consequences of their statements are.

Atheists can and should criticize organized religion as much as possible. However, atheists need to be clear in their criticisms and must, at all costs, avoid slipping into logical fallacies. Separate the people from the religion. Otherwise, people won’t take atheism seriously and the movement will suffer.

Dear White People? Shouldn’t It Be Dear Capitalism?

Alright, I want to talk about Dear White People, the new TV show on Netflix. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I want to share my thoughts while they’re still fresh. Right off the top, I’d like to say I found the show to be extremely well-written and performed. It presents several viewpoints on the very divisive and controversial issues of race and identity politics (sometimes called “idpol”, defined as a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances) in the setting of an Ivy League campus. I don’t want to go into any specific plot points, but suffice it to say it’s about a black girl who has a campus radio show where she talks about all the idiotic and insensitive things white people say to black people about race, even when the white person thinks they are being friendly.

As the show progresses, the characters discuss the topic of race frequently and in-depth, and in doing so I learned a ton of new viewpoints and perspectives on what is probably America’s oldest and simultaneously most volatile issue. There’s a ton to talk about here, way more than one post can possibly cover, but I want to talk about some of the issues that are relevant to me as a leftist and critical thinker.

Now, I fully realize that I am a white, cis-hetero male. That means there are certain things about being a victim of racism that I will never truly understand or have to deal with. Privilege checked. But let me ask this question, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but should it not be “Dear Capitalism” or “Dear Bourgeoisie”? I’d even accept “Dear US Government” as a better title for a show about racism.

Hear me out. I am not trying to diminish or minimize the harmful impact of institutional racism in America nor the fact that we have struggled with this issue since before this country was even colonized. This show does an amazing job of depicting how that racism exists in the modern era. White people have gone from being outwardly hateful to being condescending instead. Racism has gone subliminal and passive-aggressive. I’m not talking about personal prejudices and biases of course, as every person on the planet has those. However, as white people are the majority in this country and in control of most institutions (public and private), the collective prejudices and biases of white people result in racist laws, racist cultural tropes, and racist government institutions. These aspects of society perpetuate themselves over time and we are left with what we have today. It’s not as bad as it once was, but it’s still bad.

But why does it persist? Why is something as ignorantly stupid as racism persisting (and thriving, it seems) in our society? Having been raised by and around white people for a lot of my life, I think I can safely say that deep down, most white people do not feel blind rage or anger towards other races. This is not because white people are inherently more virtuous than anyone else, it’s because they simply don’t care. They don’t care because they don’t have to care. I can personally tell you that I usually don’t have to think about my race on a daily basis. It is a luxury us white folks have we frequently take for granted. It seems that because we/they don’t have to care, there is no real pressing reason to do anything from correcting racially biased laws to stopping others from making racist jokes.

So, as we are the majority and we seem to be in charge of most things, our inherent self-centered nature is partially to blame for the persistence of racism. However, if you want to really find the source of racism, the very reason why we have racism, you need to look no further than capitalism and the government policies that support it.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” These immortal words by Karl Marx outline my point. The idea of race, as an institutional feature of society, is entirely a social construct engineered and perpetuated by the ruling class and their legislator-servants in our government. The ruling class preys upon people’s prejudices to create conflict within the working class. White people as a majority let it exist, but the wealthy of this country stand to benefit the most by a divided working class. That’s the name of the game, people.

“Sex and race, because they are easy, visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups, and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends.” Gloria Steinem is absolutely right. The rich, who are admittedly mostly white, want poor whites and POC to keep hating each other. To keep fighting. To keep arguing about what it means to be black, white, or any other ethnicity. Indeed, they are counting on it. If we are all obsessed with our own ethnicity and obsessed with claiming our own ethnic identities, it’s much harder to get people to realize how much they are being exploited by the ruling class (the 1%, the bourgeoisie, whatever you want to call them) and how the government is enabling the ruling class to do that. Here’s one more quote: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” That’s not a communist or radical feminist saying that either. That’s a quote from Lyndon Johnson, ardent capitalist and former US president. He’s literally giving away the strategy!

This, to me, is the most glaring issue with Dear White People and the glaring issue with idpol in general: it focuses everyone way too much on their own identity. It re-enforces the inherent selfishness we are indoctrinated under in a capitalistic system. America is all about looking out for you and yours, and idpol re-enforces these ideas. Who we are and where we come from is very important, but if you want to eradicate the root cause of institutional racism in America you have to get rid of capitalism and the governing body that supports it. This cannot be done if the people are divided. This cannot be done if the people are  obsessed with themselves and their own identities. A truly liberating revolution cannot be achieved by a select few. It must be the people en masse.

I don’t want anyone to forget who they are or where they come from, of course. Wouldn’t dream of it. If you identify as white, black, green, or even as an Apache attack helicopter, it honestly does not matter as long as you don’t let it prevent you from seeing the struggles of your fellow proletariat. Let’s focus on what we have in common: the overwhelming majority of us getting our labor exploited for the profit of the ruling class and the state. A black woman and a white man, both of whom make minimum wage, have wayyyyyyy (7 y’s!) more in common with one another than the black woman does with Oprah Winfrey or the white man has with Bill Gates. We have to look past the physical differences we have and see each other how the ruling class sees us: as cheap and replaceable labor.

I’m not here to start a pissing contest about which group of people is exploited more or who has had it worse, because the obvious answer is that POC, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ community usually have it the worst out of any portion of the working class. That’s obvious. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. One suggestion for white comrades: stop getting pissed off when a POC calls you on your racism. Instead, just stop being racist. Even if you think you aren’t being racist, you aren’t the person who gets to decide that. Simply stop doing the thing they are asking you to stop doing. It’s not hard. I did it, and so can you. To my black comrades and other POC comrades: please be patient with us. That’s a lot to ask for after 500 years of oppression, but we are coming around slowly, believe it or not. You can help by continuing to call us out on our racism when you see it, and also by pointing out the similarities between us instead of the differences.

I don’t know exactly what each person should say to another in any given situation, so I won’t try to tell you. Generally though everyone should be as respectful of one another as possible, be patient, express yourselves clearly, and always remember that at the end of the conversation you are both workers who’s labor is exploited for the profit of others. I don’t envision scenes of hand-holding and singing happy songs, but I do think it’s possible for us to begin to heal divides if we focus less on identity politics and more on our common enemy: the ruling class.

Obama? 6.5/10

It’s way too early of course to assess Obama’s legacy. He still even has a few days left in office, as it were. I’ve just seen a lot of people providing their own assessments of his presidency so I figured I’d join in too. Unsurprisingly, he’s a very polarizing figure. My liberal friends adore him, my conservative friends loathe him, and it seems there are very few people in the middle. We’ll have to look back 20 years from now to be able to fully assess the impact of his policies, but I think it’s fair to give out at least a preliminary grade now.

I’m not going to talk about every single policy or issue related to his presidency, but I would like to point out a few key issues that I think are very important but don’t often get talked about.

The Good

Ok, first and foremost, social justice progress and that he was the first president in modern history to pass healthcare reform. He also has made great progress on criminal justice reform in a number of ways, including ushering in the beginning of the end of War on Drugs and commuting/pardoning federally imprisoned inmates facing lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. Edit 1/17/17: The commutation of the majority of Chelsea Manning’s sentence is a shining example of this.

Importantly, during his administration, we saw the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide. This was not Obama’s decision of course, but his administration did openly adopt a pro same-sex marriage position and submitted amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court factors in such briefs when writing their opinions and decision, and presidential support for an issue is not something they take lightly. This is how a president is able to use his office to enact policy is a constitutional way.

On the touchy subject of race, I often see critics on the right trying to blame Obama for all the racial tension in the country. I don’t understand how that’s possible, but that is our current political climate. What I think Obama has inadvertently done though is exposed how much of problem racism still is in America. It’s under the surface now, but it is definitely still there. Racism is of course not a “good” thing, but bringing the problem to the surface is somewhat of a good thing because it allows for the problem to begin to be addressed. It’s a problem well beyond any one person’s ability to solve of course, but I think helping to bring it to forefront is very important.

I think it’s also important to point out how much of an improvement he was over George Bush. I know people on the left might say my 6.5/10 is too low, but given that Bush was like a 1/10 I think a 6.5 is pretty good in comparison. Obama’s eloquence, intelligence, and charisma all very much work in his favor. I think also the fact that he always seems to come across as level-headed and calm in the face of terrible news re-assures a lot of people that even in the worst circumstances (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, etc), he’s in control of the situation. Even if he has no control over what’s happening, he is good at projecting an image like everything will eventually be fine.

These are not all the good things the Obama administration has done, but they are the important ones for me. If I ask myself if I am better off now than I was in 2008, then the answer is yes. I think America is also better off than it was, on the whole. Could it be better? Yes, but it’s also better than it was.

The Meh

There’s a lot to be criticized of course, even in the “good” section, but hear me out on healthcare for a second. If it weren’t for the Affordable Care Act, which allowed me to remain on my mom’s insurance until age 26, I’d be several thousand dollars in medical debt. Because I was able to use her insurance, I got the treatment I needed and didn’t have to pay an excessive amount for it. Now I know the ACA has it’s a large number of flaws and that it’s nowhere near perfect, but that was how it benefited me personally.

On the other hand, I think the biggest issue with the ACA is that it mandated that everyone get medical insurance, not mandated healthcare. True reform would have been some form of universal healthcare, not simply requiring everyone to have health insurance. The ACA may have slowed down the rising cost of healthcare for at least a bit, and certain provisions of it benefited people such as myself, but overall it was a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery. It was written by lobbyists, lobbyists who represent health insurance companies. There was never going to be any way that they would lose money in the long run because of this legislation. Obama still signed it and it hasn’t solved the problem, so that’s why the ACA is in the “meh” section. Helped me out a lot, but it didn’t really fix the problem overall.

And I think that the whole healthcare issue is a microcosm of a much bigger issue, and its why the “meh” section would be the longest section of this post if I listed everything that belongs in it. Obama was not the best at compromising, but it must be said that he dealt with one of the most obstructionist Congresses in all of American history. Even  when the Dems had a majority early on in his presidency, the GOP worked as a block of voters to hinder and delay every single piece of legislation the Dems tried to pass. When they became the majority in both houses, it got even worse. Certain GOP politicians even went as far as to say that their goal was to deny Obama a second term. They failed to do that, but they did succeed in basically refusing to govern the country. They decided to work on trying to repeal the ACA 50 times instead of passing gun control reform or immigration reform.

I know Obama tried to close Guantanamo, but he was hindered by Congress. I know he always publicly pleaded for gun control reform, but he was hindered by willful inaction from Congress. I don’t know what kind of negotiations strategies Obama employed or what kind of responses he was getting from the GOP in private conversations, but when the GOP party leader in the Senate comes out and refuses to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court, I’m not sure what more Obama could do. It’s fine to criticize Obama, but if you are also not criticizing Congress simultaneously then you will lose credibility quickly.

That’s really the best way to summarize the “meh” section. Obama tried to do many more positive things, but he either couldn’t negotiate for what he wanted or more likely the GOP refused to even engage in discussions on the issues.

The Bad

I’m going to focus on stuff here that is at the sole discretion of the Obama administration. He can justifiably blame Congress for some of his shortcomings, but certainly not all of them.

Drones

Ok, first and foremost, the drone program and our foreign policy overall. Sure, citizens of certain Western nations might like Obama, but I think you’ll find that the opinion of him among the common people in countries like Yemen or Pakistan might not be so positive. I think the drone program and Obama’s continuance of Bush’s “do whatever we want and not think of the consequences” foreign policy is nothing but harmful. Sure, he’s largely avoided putting new boots on the ground in the Middle East (aside from a few in Syria), but the war has gone automated. Drones can kill anyone in the world, and they can be controlled from anywhere in the world. I simply do not think the president, any president, should have the authority to kill people extra-judicially  who have not even been charged with a crime. If someone is even suspected of being a terrorist, Obama has shown no hesitancy to pull the figurative trigger on them.

This creates a litany of problems, the most obvious of which is the flagrant human rights violations created by drone strikes. Even if you want to call the killing of someone merely suspected of being a terrorist “justified”, a drone strike usually kills more people than just the suspected terrorist. Usually, innocent people such as children are in the vicinity of the missile strike and are killed as well. This is all assuming the intelligence on the suspected terrorist was even valid in the first place. Obama’s drones have hit completely innocent events, such as weddings and other kinds of normal gatherings.

Not only are there human rights issues created by the drone program, it’s also a terrible idea as a matter of policy. Arbitrarily causing civilian casualties is not a good method of rooting out terrorism in the Middle East. Even if you kill one person who actually had terrorist intentions, you radicalize the family members of the civilians you also kill in the process. They know that America is responsible for the death of their mother/sister/father/brother/other relation, and they have very negative feelings towards America because of it. This issue is the main reason why I can’t give Obama anything higher than a 6.5/10. We are killing innocent people for no reason and it bothers me a great deal.

NSA Wiretaps 

Did you forget about this issue? I think a lot of people did. Edward Snowden leaked to us that the Obama administration (and the Bush administration previously) were recording the metadata on people’s cell phones. He also made it very clear that if the government wished to listen in on all your phone calls and read all your emails, it would be quite easy for them to do so. Not only would it be easy, there would be very little penalty on them for doing so. This sort of data collection, although it pissed us off for a little bit, never actually stopped and is still going on.

Obama came out and said that the NSA wasn’t listening in on anyone’s calls without search warrants, but even the mere recording of the metadata is on the fringes of legality. There is also little oversight into what their capabilities are and how routinely they engage in wiretapping. I also believe there are elements of the NSA that do not necessarily follow all presidential directives. I think Obama, if he really was against the metadata collection, would/should have stepped in and handled the matter personally. From what I can see, he did not. I highly value my right to privacy as outlined in Constitutional case law, and it bothers me that a former professor of Constitutional law has been so reckless with the 4th Amendment.

Deportations

Although Obama attempted to grant a degree of amnesty to about 4 million undocumented immigrants, his record on immigration is still pretty bad. That “executive action” he took has been held up by lawsuit in federal court, but that’s not the worst thing about his enforcement of immigration laws.

Obama has deported more than 2.5 million people since he took office in 2009. That is more than any other president in our history. Some people applaud this fact, but I find it disturbing. Deportations tend to break up families. Deportations create poverty. Further, and perhaps worst of all, the current deportation policy frequently targets the wrong people.

Obama said in 2008 he was only going to deport criminals, and on the surface that sounds fine. Being undocumented is one thing, but if you are going to commit crimes here then you don’t get to stay. However, when this is tied in with aggressive enforcement of laws by the police and racial profiling, it often leads to good people being given overly harsh punishment. We also need to re-examine which kind of crimes we want people to be deported over.

Sure the immigration laws are a mess, but Obama could instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (an executive-branch agency) to enforce the laws differently. He has ways to affect how we go after people, but he seems to have used a sledgehammer when a scalpel was required.

Summary 

I could go on and on here, but I never intended to include every issue that I like or don’t like. I could go on about the lack of prosecutions for Wall Street bankers or how we are going about dealing with ISIS, but I feel the issues I presented in depth are the ones that I feel most passionately about.

Was he better than Bush? Yes. Will Trump be better than him? Doubtful. I think overall Obama was a modest step in the right direction for America, but I worry about the presidential powers he has further expanded that he is now handing over to a man with the temperament of a 5 year-old. That may be one of the more important aspects of his legacy going forward, but only time will tell.

Make Labor Great Again

In the past few months to a year, I’ve become a lot more interested in ideas like class struggle, class consciousness, and the rights of the working class, both in America and abroad. I’ve always had at least some degree of interest in those topics but they are at the forefront of my mind now more than ever.

I feel like Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to discuss these issues, because people’s attitudes towards the holiday itself are reflective of their attitudes towards the working class in general. People are happy for a day off, but they’ve either forgotten or they don’t care about the original reason for the day off.

Labor Day, as it is now celebrated, is fairly far-removed from how it was originally celebrated. Much like Xmas, Labor Day has evolved significantly from what it started out as. The original holiday took shape over a span of several years, but it was always intended to be a celebration of labor unions and the triumphs of the working class in an unforgiving capitalist system. A history of labor struggle is beyond the scope of this post, but feel free to read about the Haymarket Riot as an example of how much blood was spilled in the name of achieving the relatively common-sense idea of an 8-hour work day.

Nowadays most people, even those in the working class themselves, see Labor Day as a final end-of-summer party where everyone eats, drinks, goes swimming, or enjoys other outdoor activities. Businesses even use Labor Day as an excuse to have sales, and then pound us with even more advertisements than usual for stuff we don’t really need.

The ad stuff is one thing, but the even sadder reality is that people whom Labor Day was originally intended for often do not get the day off themselves. If you work in retail, the service industry, agriculture, or a number of other sectors of the economy, you are lucky to get one day off during this weekend, let alone three.

It’s about more than just a day off in early September, though. The fact that Labor Day does not guarantee a day off to a large part of the working populace is, to me, indicative of a much larger problem. I very much get the impression that employers and business owners, along with government, care less and less about the people that make their businesses and offices run every day.

Several facts have led me to this conclusion. Wages have generally not kept up with inflation since the Reagan administration (citation 1). Union membership is also at a historical low, from 1 in 3 workers 50 years ago to 1 in 10 workers now (citation 2). Also, whenever a business runs into financial troubles, it is the lowest-level employees that are often sacrificed in order to keep profits steady (examples in citation 3). CEOs make a disproportionately higher amount of money than the median worker (citation 4). Workers are also routinely denied overtime pay, meal breaks, and paid time off (this I know from personal experience). The most damning example though is the fact that the only goal of a given corporation is to make money for its shareholders. Corporations have no legal duty to care for their employees nor to be responsible members of the communities in which they do business, and as a result, it is the ordinary workers who suffer the losses of the business most.

There has to be a shift in mentality among the working class. I’m not talking about just those who get paid hourly, I mean everyone. From the guy who picks strawberries in the hot sun to the six-figure salaried attorney, we all have to wake up and realize that we are being exploited by this system. Workers have to realize just how much power they really have. Think about it: who are the real wealth creators in a business? Does the boss do literally everything that makes the business run? No. He might have an idea for a business, but he needs others to help him run the business. He then hires people to do the various tasks needed for the business to be successful. So then the question becomes, “at what point does the owner or manager of a business become useless?” If all the workers are doing their jobs correctly and dedicated to making the business successful, why do we need an owner?

Until and unless the workers wake up, there is nothing to keep employers and business owners from shitting on those who actually run the businesses they own. Unless the workers collectively realize that the wealth of this nation is slowly being concentrated in the hands of a few, we will continue to be underpaid and unappreciated. The rich love to divide us in as many ways as they can, because the more divided we are, the easier it is for them to exploit us. Race, religion, national origin, politics, sex, and sexual orientation are some of the many mechanisms they use to make us hate others who are just as much victims of exploitation as we are. It shouldn’t be about black vs. white, Democrat vs. Republican, or gay vs. straight. It should be about the working class vs. the wealthy.

I’d like to think that some simple legislative reforms could fix these problems, and while reforms might make things a little better for workers, at the end of the day the problem is our capitalistic system. It is a system that is exploitative by it’s very nature. For every positive product or service capitalism produces, someone somewhere has to suffer. Any and all reforms would just be band-aids on a problem that requires intensive surgery. Until the workers own their own means of production, we will continue to be exploited, disrespected, and unhappy.

So what can we do about this problem right now? Well, I can’t in good conscious advocate for armed revolution right now. It simply wouldn’t work in the current mentality we have as a nation. No revolution will be successful without the support of at least the majority of the population, and we are a long way off from that right now. Right now we have conservatives (who generally think that only white Christian men should be allowed to exploit working class labor), and liberals (who generally think anyone should be be allowed to exploit working class labor). No matter who we vote for, all we get is more exploitation.

What we can start working on right now is a revolution of the mind. We have to stop looking down and being negative towards the poor. Being poor does not mean one is inherently lazy or incompetent. Don’t think less of a person because they are unemployed or working a shitty job. In essence, members of the working class have to stop hating other members of the working class. If we can spread some class consciousness (understanding your class position and recognizing exploitation of the lower classes), then that is big first step towards making the world a better place for everyone.

The good news is that this awakening has begun, kind of. Although Bernie Sanders is still a capitalist, he did a great job of spreading awareness about income inequality and the fact that corporations essentially run this country during his campaign. We have to take that momentum he created and turn it into something more substantive. More progressive/leftist leaders at the local, state, and national level can help create a new national mentality: one that favors people over profits instead of the other way around. Then and only then can we have a real revolution, one in which the workers take control and become masters of their own destinies.

1. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/09/for-most-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/02/24/the-incredible-decline-of-american-unions-in-one-animated-map/

3. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/05/us-job-cuts-rise-to-65141-in-april-2016-layoffs-at-7-year-high-challenger.html

4. https://www.glassdoor.com/research/ceo-pay-ratio/

The Sad State of American Democracy

This is not a post about Bernie, Hillary, Trump, Cruz, or any individual candidate. This is a post about the system we use to elect such candidates. The events in Arizona’s recent Presidential primary are what spurred me to write on the topic. Hillary and Trump both won Arizona, but again the result of the primary is nowhere near as upsetting to me as the process by which it happened.

From my perspective, it seems to me that American democracy and the power of the vote are slowly but surely being wrestled away from the American people. We pride ourselves on the idea that one person gets one vote, and each person is free to vote for whoever they want to vote for. The latter idea still seems to hold true to a certain degree, but whether or not people are even allowed or able to vote in the first place is where problems lie.

I think our electoral system is being slowly but surely tilted against the poor and working classes. I think that legislatures at the local, state, and federal levels are actively attempting to keep the most under-represented in our society from voting for those who represent their interests. Of course, there is no one law or legal ruling that says, “poor/working class people can’t vote.” Such a law phrased in that way would be unconstitutional. It’s much more subtle than that, and it is happening in a variety of ways instead of just one blanket-ban.

Less Access to Polling Stations

What happened yesterday in AZ is a microcosm of what is happening nationwide. The primary was held on a workday in a state where the legislature recently reduced the number of polling stations from over 200 in 2012 to just 60 now. Less polling stations inevitably lead to longer lines at each polling station that was actually open. Some voters were forced to wait in line for 3-4 hours just to cast a vote.

For the retired or those who don’t need to work everyday, this is not a problem. They have the luxury of being able to wait around for their turn. However, the poorest among us who work for hourly wages simply cannot afford to stand in line for that long on a day in which employers will be expecting them to work. If I am working my hourly job and my boss affords me an hour to go vote, I would have to leave the polling station or risk discipline or even losing my job. This is just one way in which the working classes are forced to choose between exercising constitutional rights or providing for themselves/their families.

Gerrymandering

For those who are unfamiliar with this term, gerrymandering occurs when a legislative body redraws the lines of election districts in order to give the party or person in power an unfair advantage in the next election. Districts are frequently redrawn not only along the lines of voting demographics, but racial demographics as well. Gerrymandering happens at all levels of American government, and I think it’s about time people realized just how much this process hurts democracy.

Lets say (for example) that one particular area of the country, or a particular state, always votes Democrat. No matter who the candidate is or what the issues are, this particular chunk of America always votes Democrat. Well, those in power can fix that. Through re-drawing the election district lines, they can dilute the Democrat-leaning sentiment in the area. Let’s now say that the Republicans win control of Congress, despite the votes of those in the Democrat stronghold. That happens, and that’s democracy. Where I have an issue is when the party in power then passes legislation that divides that one Democrat district into 5 or 6 different districts that are more mixed ideologically, thus giving the Republicans more of an advantage in the next election.

In America, district lines are not redrawn based purely on ideology. Sadly, they are often redrawn based on race as well. This is technically unconstitutional, but it still happens frequently anyway due to the difficulty of being able to prove that race was the main factor in redrawing the lines. If an area of the country is populated by a racial minority, then that electoral district is frequently redrawn or re-defined to include people of all races. That might sound like a good idea on paper (more equal for everyone), but due to the fact that there are less black/Latino/Asian people in America than white/Caucasian people, it leads to disproportionate racial representation in our governing bodies. People still get to vote, but their vote now means less.

Gerrymandering has existed since the inception of America, but it’s time that something was done so that no political party can gain an unfair advantage in retaining it’s power within our legislatures.

Voting Laws

The Voting Rights Act of 1964 was designed and implemented to make sure that states and the federal government did not unfairly restrict anyone’s right to vote, particularly that of racial minorities. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, making it much easier for states to discriminate against the poor/minorities. Again, states cannot simply come out and say “people under a certain income can’t vote” or “people of a certain race can’t vote”, it’s more subtle than that.

Since that ruling in 2013, many states have enacted new voter ID laws designed to keep the poor from voting. This is all done in the name of supposedly protecting the integrity of the voting process and to reduce voter fraud, but all it has done is prevent thousands from casting votes they have the right to cast. It’s one thing to require some form of ID to be able to vote, but it’s another thing to require specific IDs that can be hard to obtain. It’s also difficult to obtain the requisite ID when the government office that issues the ID is only open on certain days when the voter has other obligations (work, family) to fulfill. This is exactly what is happening in many US states, mainly in the south and midwest.

Further, there are laws that also prevent former felons from voting. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the rate of incarceration is so high in this country that those who escape the hell of prison cannot be ignored as a voting bloc. It could easily be argued that those who are in prison should not be allowed to vote, but that’s not what I’m going for here. Part of the punishment for committing a crime worthy of incarceration is that you don’t get to choose who runs the government. I do feel however that once a person has served his/her time and been released, there should be no law that prevents them from voting.

We all know the demographics of our prisons by now. They are predominantly populated by blacks and Latinos. So in states where former convicts cannot vote, it is blacks and Latinos that are prevented from casting their vote. It is estimated that 1/3 of black men in the state of Florida cannot vote because of laws such as these. That means a full 1/3 of black men have no say in how their state is governed, even though they have fully paid their debt to society.

Your Voting Rights are Shrinking, but Corporate Voting Rights are Expanding

As if reducing the individual person’s right to vote wasn’t bad enough, it is also simultaneously getting easier for corporations to exercise influence over elections. Of course, corporations cannot vote. Representatives for McDonald’s can’t show up to polling stations and cast votes in McDonald’s name. That doesn’t mean that corporations don’t have influence, though. Another infamous Supreme Court ruling, which has become known as the Citizens United ruling, essentially struck down most of the restrictions and limits on corporate campaign contributions. This is why elections from the local level all the way up to the Presidency are funded by corporations with deep pockets.

A simplistic but nonetheless realistic example: Nestle gives millions to Hillary Clinton to help her become president. Nestle is not just giving Hillary money because they believe she is the best candidate. They are giving her money because in the future they know that it buys support from Hillary for future legislation that directly or indirectly affects Nestle and it’s business operations. Let’s say there is an environmental bill that Congress just passed which would prevent the construction of a Nestle factory where they want to build one. Nestle then can say to Hillary, “Look, we gave you funds to get elected. Those funds will not be there next time you run if you sign this bill.” Guess what happens 9 times out of 10? That bill does not get signed. Hillary would not then come out and say that it’s because of Nestle’s campaign contributions that she didn’t sign the bill, but that would be the real reason why.

Does the individual voter have this kind of power? No. I can call my local legislator and tell him not to vote for a bill, but unless I’ve donated thousands (or millions) to his campaign, he’s probably not going to listen to me. It’s not worth his time.

This All Can Be Fixed–But It Won’t Be

To fix the access problem, we only need to design a system for online voting. That’s difficult, but it surely can be done. Allowing people the option to vote online means they don’t have to leave work or take time off. This way we don’t have to force employers to give people time off to vote. As long as the process is secure, there is no reason why our government can’t work with tech companies to come up with a way to allow people to vote online. Pretty much everyone has access to the internet in America, and those who don’t can still go to a library or even vote in-person if they choose to do so. There are tons of ways to make access to the polls more open for everyone.

We can also fix the gerrymandering, voter ID issues, and campaign finance with simple legislation. None of that is going to happen though, because of the problem I mentioned just before this one: corporations indirectly run this country. They are the ones with the power because they are the ones with the money. No corporation in its right mind would give tons of money to a politician if they know that politician is going to change campaign finance laws while he/she is in office. Both the politician and the corporation would lose their power and influence if that were to happen, and the biggest fear of anyone who holds power is losing that power.

Everyone can still choose who they want to vote for (if they can see through the bullshit fed to us by a corporate media), but the power of the vote has been heavily diluted in a variety of ways entirely beyond our control. We have less access to the polls in a number of ways and our vote has been diluted even when we are allowed to cast it, because in the eyes of politicians the will of the people matters less than what the corporate donors want.

America is well on it’s way to becoming a plutocracy, or a government run by the rich, rather than a democracy. That’s not the America I grew up in and not the America I want to live in.

Faith

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to write for fun. That’s what happens during the final semester of your third year of law school. Now however it’s a few days until studying for the bar begins in earnest, so I thought I would share my thoughts on an issue that has been on my mind on backburner over the course of the semester. I’ve had a lot of discussions about religion with a lot of people and I have come to a few conclusions in the process.

As suggested by the name of this blog, I am a friendly atheist. For me, one of the main ideas behind friendly atheism is bridging the gap between the religious and the secular. I’m not talking about some sort of cosmic compromise on the idea of god, since I feel that right now that’s unrealistic. I just think that people in both camps often focus too frequently on what differentiates the religious and secular, rather than focusing on what makes the two groups similar. When I talk about “bridging the gap”, I mean forcing people to look past their differences with people not like them while simultaneously looking for and embracing the things they have in common.

When these differences are the only things that each group focuses on, it can lead to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings lead to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to us as a society getting nowhere on the issue of religion. I want to tone down the anger. I want to clear up the misunderstandings. Obviously I can’t clear up every issue between the religious and the secular in this blog post, but what I can do is point out the fact that the two groups have a lot more in common than not in common. In my opinion, there is really only one major difference between those who claim to be religious and those who claim secularism: one side has faith in the existence of the divine, the other does not.

Faith, as once explained to me by a Catholic priest, is “belief without proof.” Of course, everyone has a little bit of faith when it comes to mundane, everyday things. I have faith that when I go to the grocery store and buy tomato soup that what I’m actually getting is tomato soup. Aside from the label, there is no evidence at all that what I’m getting is a can of tomato soup. It could be mushroom. It could be chicken noodle. It could not even be soup at all. I have to have faith that the soup company has labelled its product correctly. Where things get tricky is when we talk about faith in a divine entity. I have an easy recourse if my soup is not tomato; I can just take it back to the store and exchange my faulty can of soup for the correct one. There is no such recourse when it comes to debating the existence of god. If you die and subsequently find out there is no afterlife, you don’t get to go back and live your life over again.

Of course, having a lack of faith in the divine is really the only rule of being an atheist. Some atheists try to attach other ideologies, but at the end of the day that’s really the only rule. Atheists need independently verifiable proof of the existence of something before we accept it as actually existing. On the other hand, faith is the main staple of every religion on this planet that calls for belief in the divine. Every religion on the planet with a god or gods in it requires belief without proof.

But when it comes to differences, the issue of faith is really the biggest one. Aside from that admittedly large issue, the religious and secular often have quite a lot in common. Atheists represent a very diverse cross-section of America, as do the religious. We simply can’t judge each other on the sole basis of religion or lack thereof. I know some religious people who are incredibly politically progressive, while I know atheists who are very conservative. I know religious people who are pro-choice, and atheists who are pro-birth. These are just a few examples, but it’s poor reasoning to think that all secular people are one way and that all religious people are another way.

That being said, it is important to acknowledge that the religious far outnumber the secular both in America and around the world. It is true that secularism is on the rise, but it will be many years before nonreligious people are the majority around the world. Because of this, it is important for the religious in particular to realize that there is nothing “wrong” with being nonreligious. Having a lack of faith in a divine entity does not make someone a morally corrupt person. Too often I hear the religious claim this, and frankly its nonsense. I say this phrase very frequently: you don’t need god to be good.

It is often the extremists of both ends of the spectrum that cause problems. Religious extremists see a person with a lack of faith as a threat to their belief system; while secular extremists (which do exist) find the religious to be ignorant and archaic in their views. Both sides have got to knock. This. Shit. Off. If we all agree on the preservation of the human race and the betterment of our species as a whole, we have got to learn to stop judging people who do not think like us. Faith is really the only thing that divides us at the end of the day. If we can acknowledge that and not make other negative associations based on this one difference, and judge each person on an individual basis, then I feel that the two groups can really start to see that we agree on more often than we disagree.

Get out there and talk to some people who don’t agree with you. You never know what you might learn.

Christmas vs. Xmas

Well, finals are over so now I can get back to the writing I really enjoy doing. This is my first post since August, so I have decided to take the blog back to it’s roots. This is supposed to be a religion blog after all, and I feel like I’ve strayed too far away from the subject in my previous posts.

Anyway, in case you miraculously haven’t noticed, the holidays are upon us once again. Trees are being sold in parking lots, images of Santa Clause are literally everywhere, “Jingle Bells” is on repeat in department stores, and Fox News is taking personal offense at every instance of someone saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Tis the season!

Since I make no secret of my atheism, I am often asked by people (either in-person or online) about what atheists do during this time of year. It makes sense, given that Christmas is easily the biggest holiday in most parts of the West and it has a tendency to make people a bit more cognizant of religion. People will often ask me if I celebrate Christmas or if I do any sort of substitute holiday, and I often hear, “I could never be an atheist; I love Christmas too much” before I can respond. Interestingly, one of the main questions I get asked is whether or not I give/receive any presents at Christmas time. People ask me all this because they are looking for an explanation of the seemingly hypocritical nature of an atheist celebrating a religious holiday.

*Disclaimer – every atheist is an individual person and is going to go about celebrating/not celebrating holidays in their own way. What follows is my particular approach.*

We all know that Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, which happened roughly 2000 years ago. They believe that Jesus, who was born of a virgin, would be the Christ who saves all of mankind from its sins. Even though Biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born in early spring, his birth is celebrated on December 25th. This is the date that was adopted by the Catholic Church in the 4th century, so adopted because it coincided with the celebration of the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice, usually celebrated on December 20th, 21st, or 22nd. Since Christianity wasn’t especially prevalent in Europe yet, everyone who wasn’t a Christian was a pagan of one form or another. Pagans, for those who don’t know, are polytheists who generally worship the divinity they find in objects in nature; such as the sun, the moon, trees, rain, etc. Since everyone was already used to celebrating a holiday in late December, the Church thought it would be prudent to just substitute the birth of the Christ in for the Winter Solstice.

So right away, we see that Christmas is not free from the influence of paganism, even in its inception. Even though Christmas is based on the event of the birth of the Christ, almost nothing about Christmas as it is celebrated today is reflective of those events. Christmas trees, lights, Santa Clause, elves, flying reindeer, many Christmas carols, Christmas dinner, and even mistletoe are all added-on traditions to the celebration of the birth of the Christ. Finally, thanks to the rise and influence of capitalism, there are now abundant amounts of consumerism and materialism included in the holiday as well.

All of these add-ons and outside influences (whether it be from paganism, secularism, or economics) are the reason why I think that what started off as “Christmas” has since devolved into two separate holidays: Christmas and Xmas. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Christ, but nothing more. Xmas is everything else that has since become familiar tradition around this time of year. Xmas is leaving out cookies for Santa. Xmas is Black Friday shopping. Xmas is buying a tree and putting ornaments on it with your family. None of that is included in the doctrines of Christianity, so I feel no conflict about partaking in any of those traditions if I so choose. I know for a fact I feel no conflict about my favorite Xmas tradition, hanging lights on my house. I am Clark Griswold when it comes to Xmas lights. I feel no conflict about Xmas lights because 1) Jesus didn’t have electricity in the manger, and 2) decorative lights have nothing to do with the birth of the Christ. There’s simply nothing to feel hypocritical about.

The one crossover tradition (and it’s a big one) found both in the original Christmas story and the later “add-ons” is the tradition of gift giving. Putting presents under a coniferous tree was originally a Germanic tradition that has been incorporated into Christmas, and the Three Magi in the Christmas story brought gifts to baby Jesus after following a star to where he was born. People love giving and receiving gifts, so this is what people really mean when they ask if I “celebrate” Christmas. Personally, I see no hypocrisy in gift-giving around this time of year. As an adherent to secular humanism (the philosophy behind friendly atheism), I always encourage people to be more thoughtful of others, and if it takes a holiday season to accomplish that then so be it. I like it when people take the time to consider other people’s wants and needs before their own, and Christmas/Xmas generally does a good job of making people feel that way, if even for a short while. There should be a limit of course, as we all see every year the economic behemoth that the holiday has become. Hell, if retailers have had a crappy year they sometimes rely on Black Friday and Xmas shopping to boost revenue. Again, economics have nothing to do with the original Christmas story.

Christians sometimes purport to be offended at the spelling of “Xmas” with the X, as they say it separates the religious story from the holiday, something they don’t feel is right. That’s fine, but what some of those same people need to do is take a look in the mirror. Christians are the very people that fuel Christmas, and are primarily responsible for the reason why I feel we now have this “Xmas” distinction. It’s not Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or secularists out there breaking down the doors of Wal-Mart and Best Buy the day after Thanksgiving. There might be a few for sure, but the majority of the people that feed into the consumerism of the holiday (a trait abhorred by Jesus of Nazareth by the way) are ones who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. They are primarily the ones who contribute to the non-Christian myths as well, such as Santa and the flying reindeer. I think that if they don’t want Christmas to be further separated from its religious roots, then they shouldn’t perpetuate the myths and consumerism that divided Christmas/Xmas in the first place. Don’t get mad about the perversion of your religious holiday if you are helping to pervert it.

Last argument, in case you are still not convinced that there is no hypocrisy here. When I am asked if I celebrate Christmas, I ask if the other person celebrates Halloween. Unless the person is a Jehovah’s Witness, then I find that Christians almost invariably do some sort of Halloween celebration. They’ll let their kids go trick-or-treating, they’ll carve pumpkins, tell scary stories, and go to costume parties. If me putting a present under a tree is supposedly hypocritical, then surely pumpkin carving is hypocritical for a Christian to do. Pagans originally carved pumpkins as representatives of spirits or demons that they believed to be active or present during the festival of Samhain, which was an annual celebration of the fall harvest. These pagan spirits and demons do not exist in Christianity, but does a Christian feel a sense of hypocrisy when carving a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern? No, of course not. Halloween, just like Christmas, has been largely separated from its religious roots and turned into a secular, culture-based holiday. It is easy to argue that Easter has also gone the same route.

The only time it would be hypocritical for an atheist to celebrate a religious holiday is if the atheist actively believes and partakes in the religious/divine origins of the holiday. I personally do not believe in the original Christmas story, but I still partake in the Western/American holiday of Xmas.