bookmark_borderWhy Does the U.S. Congress Have Official Chaplains?

Yesterday the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the U.S. Congress for barring atheist Dan Barker from delivering the invocation. (See here.) I am no attorney — constitutional or otherwise — but it seems to be a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause for Congress to allow Christian invocations, while barring atheist invocations. Why? Because the Establishment Clause implies that the U.S. Government may not favor belief or nonbelief or, if you prefer, theism over nontheism.
Now, I’m sure Barker and the FFRF would agree with what I am about to bring up, but in my mind the linked article raises a more foundational issue. Why does the U.S. Congress need an official chaplain, paid as an employee of the United States, in the first place? Even if you believe the Congress needs or should have a chaplain deliver an invocation, why would anyone believe we need that person to be a government employee? It cannot be about fiscal conservativism, since a consistent fiscal conservative would believe that this is best handled outside of the government (and so not at taxpayer expense). Nor can it be be due to any shortage of chaplains in the U.S. area; just look at the map below showing all of the church in D.C. proper.
D.C. Churches
And I cannot believe that if a pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or what-have-you were extended an invitation to deliver the invocation, they would turn down the honor.
So I ask, again, why does the U.S. Congress continue in 2016 to have official (paid) chaplains?

bookmark_borderU.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Has Died

The Governor of the State of Texas issued a press release on the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:

“Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution. His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans. We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”

Apparently he died peacefully of natural causes in his sleep.

While I often disagreed with decisions on church-state separation, I always respected his intelligence. My condolences to his wife and family.

Already it is virtually impossible to find a story about his death without some kind of speculation for when he might be replaced and — crucially — whether Obama or the next President — who may very well be a Republican — will get to nominate that person. As important as that question may be, it seems rather insensitive to discuss the topic on the same day as his death. (If you are a hard-core liberal who disagrees, think how you would feel if the tables were turned; Romney were president; Justice Ginsburg died; and conservatives were salivating at the mouth over the prospect of replacing Ginsburg with a conservative justice before the end of Romney’s term, on the day of his death .) The man was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and deserves respect. We can talk about the politics of nominating his successor later.

bookmark_borderA Catholic Blogger Offers a Very Thoughtful Reply to my Question about Prayer and Government

Dr. Gregory Popcak is a fellow Patheos blogger who blogs at “Faith on the Couch” in the Patheos Catholic Channel. He’s written a very thoughtful reply to my previous post, “Question for Theists: Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?” His reply is titled, “Prayer Works: A Psychological Case for Public Prayer and Graceful Governance.” What I like about his reply is that (a) he presents a secular case for prayer; and (b) he actually provides evidence for his position.
I’m still digesting his post. For now, I have two observations. First, I have a minor observation. He writes:

I suppose you could theoretically argue that you could get a similar benefit to civic deist prayer by simply asking the participants of a meeting to, “Please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave”  but I’m not really sure how that would be different than what civic deist prayer already is and does

My observation is this. This paragraph instantly reminded me of the metaethical theory defended by atheist philosopher Michael Martin, namely, Ideal Observer Theory. I’m not sure what that means, but I thought it was interesting.

Second, I don’t speak for all atheists, but his post got me thinking about how such governmental prayers are commenced. As a thought experiment, imagine if all governmental prayers were replaced by moments of silence and all moments of silence were preceded by the following statement.

I [the person leading the prayer] know that our citizens have a variety of beliefs about God. I know that some of you don’t even believe in God. In light of that diversity, I’d like to briefly explain why I am about to lead a moment of silence at a government meeting. Please hear me out. I am not doing this to impose my views on you. Rather, my goal is that all of us work together to find mutually satisfying solutions to the topics we are about to discuss. Psychologists have studied what happens when people in conflict are asked to imagine what a third party, who loved all of them and wished the best for all of them, would advise them to do about their conflict. We have good, solid experimental evidence that when people are asked to do that, that causes people to be less concerned with their own agendas. Instead, it makes them more willing to seek mutually satisfying solutions. In that spirit, then, I want us to have a moment of silence. If you believe in a higher being, please think about how that higher being would want us to behave. If you don’t believe in a higher being, then please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave.

With that said, let’s now please have a moment of silence…

I have no idea how that would affect the constitutionality of the moment of silence. What I do know is this. I, for one, couldn’t help but like a theist who said something like that, just for respectfully acknowledging the existence of nonbelievers in the room. I would also be grateful for the way the moment of silence is (hypothetically) framed.
Please check Pocat’s article out and, if you decide to comment on his site, please be respectful.

bookmark_borderQuestion for Theists: Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?

As I was thinking about this question, I thought to myself, “Anyone who wants to pray can always go down the street to a church, synagogue, or mosque. They can also pray silently. If I were a theist, that is what I would do. What’s the problem? Why do they feel it important to use the machinery of government to do this?” In the spirit of charity, I decided there must be another reason I’ve overlooked.
So the purpose of this post is to invite theistic readers to provide their answer to that question. I am especially interested in answers which focus on rather mundane meetings (such as local school board meetings, city council meetings, and so forth) as opposed to more momentous occasions (such as a Presidential Inauguration in the United States).
I am genuinely interested in their answer. I may ask follow-up questions in the combox, but I do not intend to argue with any theists who respond. I would urge other nontheists to show the same restraint for this post.

bookmark_borderPatheos Evangelical Blogger Rebecca Florence Miller Stands Up for Atheist Civil Rights

Photo of Rebecca Florence MillerRebecca Florence Miller, an Evangelical Christian and a fellow Patheos blogger, recently stood up for atheists in a big way on her blog. Here are some notable excerpts:

I came away from this conversation challenged that I need to do more to stand up for the rights of atheists (and those of other religions) here in the United States. Not because I agree with them on God and theology, but because they are human beings who deserve respect. Because when we stand up for someone else’s rights, we are appropriately loving our neighbor and treating them as we would want to be treated.

Miller rightly calls out the failure of some Christians to call out fellow Christians who make death threats against atheist activists:

And why do we make atheists and those of other religions actually afraid for their lives when they ask for the same freedoms we want for ourselves and our families? I am told that the joke in the atheist community when they challenge our bastions of Christian political power and privilege is, “Cue the death threats.” Now, I understand that most Christians would not make death threats against atheists, but do we enable those who do by failing to call them out? Do we contribute to a hostile, snide, unloving atmosphere of discourse in our country when we tell them their issues with us are merely their perception of Christians rather than acknowledging that we have some serious problems in our community? Do we value those loud, obnoxious voices who are more interested in “sticking it to” somebody they disagree with than treating them with love and respect (I’m looking at you, Matt Walsh, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter)? Are we willing to listen and learn?

She even defends the rights of atheist children not to have to say the words “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance:

For example, why is it necessary that children in a secular school pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God”? Why is it necessary that schoolchildren have a time of prayer led by the teacher? If we would be willing to listen to the concerns of non-theists and those of other religions about such matters, perhaps we would find that such practices are not necessary after all and that they hinder freedom of religion for everyone–ourselves included. Perhaps we would have to acknowledge that atheists are actually persecuted in this country. (boldface mine)

Miller is to be commended for making such a bold statement in support of the rights of atheists. Please go to her site and leave her a comment expressing thanks for her article.
In addition, her article serves as a useful reminder that all of us, regardless of what beliefs we hold or lack, should speak out in defense of the rights of others, especially those with who disagree. Along those lines, I cannot think of no better way to return the favor than for atheist activists to stand up for the rights of Christians. While the idea of Christian persecution in the United States is mostly a joke, it is very real outside of the West. If you have a blog or are active on social media, please consider doing that as well.
Her blog can be found here; you can subscribe to her blog in your RSS reader by using this link.
Thanks to Dale McGowan for the link!

bookmark_borderReply to Steve Hays

Steve at Triablogue has a rejoinder to my earlier post on intelligent design and he makes some great points. Just to clarify my position, I am certainly not saying that Dembski is engaging in a sleight of hand by calling ID “science” when he really means “religion.” I definitely give the Discovery Institute the benefit of the doubt and I’m quite sure that he considers ID science. Of course, the same cannot be said of the ID proponents in Dover, Kansas and elsewhere that the NCSE tracks. If the school board in Dover had listened to the Discovery Institute from the beginning and truly treated ID as science, it’s possible that the ID movement might not have suffered its recent setback.
Where I disagree with Steve is his statement that “the existence of God is an inference from the concept of design, which is, in turn, an inference from the scientific data.” Many of us on this side of the issue do not see how the scientific data leads to the conclusion of a designer. The conclusion seems driven solely by the inductive reasoning employed in the design argument. I certainly hope that the ID camp proves me wrong by publishing their scientific findings in peer-reviewed journals. But don’t hold your breath.
I’m not an attorney but what the hell, I’ll go ahead and play one on this blog. It is true that I am implicitly considering the Constitution to be a living document. I know that there are strict constructionists out there like Scalia who deny that the document should have any meaning other than what the original framers intended. But if that were so and our founding document did not evolve along with our progressing society, then we’d be forced to admit that human slavery, a woman’s right to vote, and other such norms of the eighteenth century should be legal today. I think the framer’s were wise enough to know that the Constitution would need to be durable and flexible enough to provide guidance for issues they could not possibly have anticipated in their day. Or at least I want to give them credit for such foresight.
Steve also suggests that the Establishment Clause should be narrowly understood as a prohibition against the federal government from “meddling in the internal religious affairs of the states” by establishing a national Church. Rather than say whether I agree or disagree with that argument I think it would be more fruitful merely to point out that since Everson v. Board of Education (1947) the Supreme Court has consistently held that the states are not free to establish religion. At this point stare decisis (that new term I’ve learned since watching the Sam Alito hearings) has pretty much settled the matter. We’re just not going to go back to those halcyon days of the one-room schoolhouse where a pupil either recited a Christian prayer or was kicked out of school. So maybe it’s best if we all accept that fact and move on.

Well it’s old news now. Parents have filed a lawsuit against the El Tejon Unified School District because the Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, California, is slipping an intelligent design course into its curriculum. Entitled “Philosophy of Design,” the district’s attorneys told the school board that “as the course was called ‘philosophy,’ it could pass legal muster.”
ID proponents are trying to frame this maneuver as perfectly legal because it’s a philosophy course and not a science course. For instance, the folks over at ARN say it’s “not a science course, but rather a philosophy course. That doesn’t seem to matter to opponents of ID. They want ID censored no matter what.” Obviously, the very thin disguise is an attempt to get around the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover in which Jones ruled that ID does not belong in science class. “I know,” someone at El Tejon must have said, “we’ll call it philosophy instead of science!” Then another board member jumps up and shouts, “yeah, that’s so crazy it just might work!”
Of course this sneaky tactic is doomed from the start. Their mistake is in thinking that Kitzmiller v. Dover narrowly applies to what can be taught in science class. But that wasn’t what Judge Jones ruled (see the full ruling that National Center for Science Education posted on their web site.) In his conclusion Jones wrote:
“The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”
It’s pretty clear that ID is not allowed in a public school in any capacity because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Since ID cannot decouple itself from its religious roots it will always be religious content. You could teach it during dodgeball class in the gym and it would still be unconstitutional. This is bad news for the ID intelligentsia, like Dembski and Richards, who have been telling people to treat ID strictly as science so that it will pass constitutional muster. Understandably they don’t want their baby smothered in its crib before it has had a chance to wedge its way into the classroom. Right about now the Fellows there must have that same sinking feeling in their gut that the architects of the French revolution had after the mob took over and turned the guillotine on itself.