News and Notes

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By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

I have participated in two debates at the Argument of the Month Club. This is a Catholic men’s club that meets in the basement of St. Augustine Church in South St. Paul. Looking through their online recordings of their events I see that my first debate there was in January of 2009, and the second in April 2010.

I cleared it with them that it would be permissible for me to advertise the debates, that the debates were open to non-Catholics. They were quick to point out that theirs is a men’s club, and that no women would be admitted. I hated listing the event in AWE, but as I recall I was quite sarcastic about the exclusion of women. I think that I wrote that there would be a penis-check at the door.

So I was quite interested when a Catholic friend wrote to me that Dan Barker, the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, would debate a Catholic theologian on February 12 on the question “Do the Gospels Give Us the Real Jesus?” I was all set to announce the event in AWE when I got word that Barker had canceled his attendance when he learned that women could not attend.

Good for him. I don’t think I considered canceling out at all. I heard several complaints about the men-only policy, but no one suggested that I should withdraw from my debates. I think that things have changed in the last couple of years. Probably the single event that did the most to raise sensitivity to sexism was the elevator incident at the Skepticon in June 2011, when Rebecca Watson complained about being sexualized at atheist conferences. That ignited troll warfare in the blogosphere that has made it hard for any atheist organization, leader or event to stand on the sidelines. As a leader of the largest nationwide atheist organization, Barker could not afford to endanger the FfRF’s reputation by participating in a sexist event.

Minnesota Atheists adopted an anti-harassment policy last year before our conference in August. That policy, which is on our web site, expresses our complete opposition to discrimination against women.

According to the Secular Coalition for America, the Republican National Committee discussed how they can appeal to the religiously unaffiliated in future elections. This is an unexpected development, because the religious right took over the Republican Party decades ago, and has held it firmly ever since. We will have to wait and see, but it is likely that the Republicans will still recoil from atheists while conducting their outreach to the religiously unaffiliated. Nevertheless, it is positive news. The Democratic Party only pays lip-service to the separation of church and state, because they are convinced that they are the only choice for committed secularists. They will only take our position seriously when there is competition for our vote.

Meanwhile, in state legislatures the Republican Party continues its aggressive religious assault on public school students. Missouri’s House Bill 291, the so-called “Missouri Standard Science Act” is yet another in their unceasing efforts to force Christian dogma into public school science classrooms. This bill starts off by incorrectly defining evolution as “a theory of the origin of life and its ascent by naturalistic means.” In fact, the theory of evolution begins only after the origin of life; not enough is known of the original abiogenesis to substantiate a scientific theory. The bill goes on to require that biology textbooks used in Missouri’s public schools must allot equal space to coverage of the theory of evolution and “Intelligent Design,” while at the same time requiring that only “scientific evidence” can be included. Since there is no scientific evidence for Intelligent Design, these requirements would have the practical effect of forcing publishers to take evolution out of their textbooks. It seems unlikely that this bill will be passed out of committee.  Since court decisions have clearly ruled that Intelligent Design is a religious doctrine, it would be overturned even if it were passed.

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