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Archive for February, 2009

Publicity Pays

What Casey Anthony’s Donors Teach Us About Human Nature
Caylee Anthony had a lot of life left in her

Caylee Anthony had a lot of life left in her

By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Like many of you, I am bothered by Caylee Anthony’s murder.  From Casey Anthony’s lies to the grisly details of the homocide, the inhumanity of Caylee’s mother has been striking.  Equally shocking, however, has been the financial support given to the accused murderer.  WFTV in Orlando reports that Casey Anthony, mother of the murdered little girl, has received more than $1,200 in donations from across the country.

While it’s one thing to be generous to an accused murderer, given today’s economy, it’s astounding that Casey Anthony has received so much financial support.  The recession has been hitting charities hard, and many non-profits are having to cut their services.  For example, the New York City Latino Non-profit, Latin Tech, which teaches computer skills to Hispanics, has lost 4/5ths of its $700,000 operating budget.  And according to one website, non-profits’ funding could fall short $110,000,000,000, by the end of next year.

As a person who is working toward starting her own non-profit – the Freethought Books Project – I know how difficult it can be to raise  money.   From September through December, we only collected $100 worth of donations, and since the New Year, we have yet to raise a penny.  Why is it so easy for Casey Anthony to get over $1,200 – plus legal fees - when my organization, which donates secular, progressive, and educational materials to prisoners, mental institutions, and others in need, is having difficulty staying afloat?

The answer, in my estimation, is publicity.  After all, it is sensationalism that keeps the ratings up, and entices people to buy the newspapers.  The disappearance of Caylee Anthony has made headlines across the country, since the little girl was reported missing in late July.   And what better way to connect to the spotlight than by donating one’s money to Anthony’s jail account?

In short, the difference between the Freethought Books Project and Casey Anthony is that the latter’s actions have captivated the public, in a way that our social service never could.  And in our Godless, amoral universe, it is only human nature to be more sympathetic to a murderer – who is that much more real to us by being on the news every night – than to an organization, which, although it gets little publicity, tangibly benefits those whom it serves.

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A Place at the Table
Lori Lipman Brown

Lori Lipman Brown

How America’s First Non-Theist Lobbyist Has Been Received on Capitol Hill

The Reed Secular Alliance is proud to announce that Lori Lipman Brown will be speaking at Reed on March 2nd at 7:30 pm.  She will give her talk in Reed College’s Vollum Lecture Hall in Portland, Oregon.  Brown lobbied with the Secular Coalition for America from 2005-2009, and was the nation’s first Congressional lobbyist explicitly representing non-theistic Americans.

Lori Lipman Brown, former lobbyist and the Founding Director Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, reports on how this unique lobby, comprised of Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, and Freethinkers, is being received on the Hill, in the media, and by theistic church/state separation allies.  She will also address how she has been received by the conservative opposition.

Brown is a lawyer, an educator, and a former Nevada State Senator.  From 2005-2009 she served as the first director of the Secular Coalition for America, a 501(c) 4 umbrella organization, which lobbies for the rights of non-theists and for the secular character of our government.

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Ethics Without God

What the Casey Anthony Case Teaches About Morality Without Religion

Leslie Zukor Introduces Daniel Dennett

Leslie Zukor Introduces Daniel Dennett

By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Like many Americans, I have reacted with shock to the gruesome details of the death of Caylee Anthony.  Everything, from Caylee’s teeth being scattered about the crime scene, to the duct tape fastened around the little girl’s skull, has created visceral shock in me, as it has with all feeling Americans.

“What does this have to do with secularism?”  An enlightened reader may ask.  The answer is – it shouldn’t.  No American’s value system should be at stake in a murder investigation, except, of course, the criminal’s.  However, since Americans don’t have the most positive view of atheists, in a murder case, it’s often non-theists who are put on trial.

If God is dead, the religious ask, aren’t all things permitted?  The answer for me, at least,  is a resounding “no”!  I don’t believe in God, yet I rarely lie, nor do I cheat or do illicit drugs.  In short, the extent of my legal transgressions would be my propensity to jaywalk.  I also do confess that I have spat on the sidewalk.  Short of those two violations, I am a decent, law-abiding citizen.

Where do non-theists find ethics, if not in a religion?  I personally believe that morality exists out of our obligations to our fellow earth-dwellers.  Since we share this planet with others, we must treat everybody in a manner consistent with our collective needs and obligations.  This means that I should cause the least pain on others that is consistent with my own welfare.

While we may dispute the finer points of our ethical systems, in the murder of Caylee Anthony, Casey Anthony clearly violated her ethical obligations to her daughter.  She was to provide for that child.  Anthony was also in violation of basic human decency.  Her need to party outweighed her wish to be a mother, so instead of choosing adoption, she did away with little Caylee. 

Despite our differences on metaphysical matters, we can all agree that causing harm to an innocent toddler is not permissible.  And we don’t need a God to justify what common sense tells us.  Perhaps if Casey Anthony realized that this was her daughter’s – and her own – only shot at life, then she would have acted differently.  As a result of Casey Anthony’s actions, two lives have been destroyed, and all that’s left of Caylee – a little girl with a bright future – is ashes.

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Freethinking Author Michele Ulriksen

Freethinking Author Michele Ulriksen

On Tuesday, March 31st at 7:30 pm in Vollum Lecture Hall, the Reed Secular Alliance will sponsor author Michele Ulriksen’s talk, “The Perils of the Faith-Based Initiative:  A Survivor of a Religious Boot Camp Speaks Out”.  She will read from her non-fiction memoir, Reform at Victory, which describes her year-long confinement in a locked-down, unlicensed, unregulated, fundamentalist Baptist reform school in the mid-1980s.  Victory Christian Academy in Ramona, California, was closed by California authorities in the early 1990s for numerous violations, including a documented death. 

Ulriksen will discuss how and why these “schools” thrive, and will also warn of the dangers of allowing government sponsorship and deregulation of religious institutions under the Faith Based Initiative.  Michele Ulriksen had four years of work experience as a writer and editor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, and has been printed in World Kid Magazine, Listen Magazine, Freethought Today, Gazette-Times, OPB Member Guide, Willamette Freethinker, The Peaceworker, Red Room, International Library of Poetry, Willamette Week, and The Vanguard, among other publications.  We hope you’ll join us there!

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Leslie Zukor shares a laugh with Daniel Dennett

Leslie Zukor shares a laugh with Daniel Dennett

Reed Secular Alliance President Leslie Zukor’s Letter to the Editor was published on OregonLive.com on Tuesday, Febuary 10th.  In it, she defended the ethics of atheists and their capacity to do good works.  She also discusses her own service with the Freethought Books Project, as well as that of her peers, one group of which went down to Louisiana to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The morality of nontheists was under attack, due to Russell Mathews’s Letter to the Editor in last week’s Oregonian, when he suggested that “Godlessness” was to blame for the January 24th downtown shootings.  As it turns out, atheism had nothing to do with the killings.  The gunman was a young schizophrenic man without the Health Insurance to buy neuroleptic medications for his mental disorder.

Zukor was thrilled to be published on OregonLive.  “It’s great to stand up for your [secular] values,” she said.  “I consider myself to be an atheist, as well as an advocate for the mentally ill.  There’s no way that ‘Godlessness’ had anything to do with the murders.  Universal healthcare could have eliminated all of this, and the gunman, who committed suicide, could have had a reasonably productive life.”

One response to Zukor’s Letter to the Editor wasn’t positive.  “You’re only an atheist until you feel the unknown.  Your time will come; have patience.”  The blogger assumed that Zukor’s atheism is only based on inexperience.  That is hardly the case, according to the RSA President.  “I’ve faced a lot of adversity in life.  It’s only through my struggles that I’ve realized that an all-good and all-powerful God, who at the same time permits evil, cannot by necessity exist.”

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Reflections on Darwin Day

Celebrating Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon
Charles Darwin Celebrates his 200th Birthday
Charles Darwin Celebrates his 200th Birthday

 By:  Leslie A. Zukor

First, a confession:  In the four years I’ve been at Reed College, this is the first time I’ve been motivated to do anything for Darwin Day.  For me, Darwin Day was just another silly secular holiday, celebrated by the science-obsessed freethinkers, who lacked knowledge of 20th century social thought.  Although I wouldn’t admit it publicly, I’d taken our postmodern critics way too seriously, to the point of stifling my own freethought activism.

But now I felt differently.  What changed me?  Firstly, the growing realization that my success in college is due to the medical advancements of modern science.  As someone with a chronic medical condition, the only thing separating me from being bedridden is the 11 pills I swallow nightly.  If we accept that science is merely an Enlightenment metanarrative, then psychopharmacology is on an equal plain with sorcery.  And I can personally testify that only real medicine provides me with real pharmacological relief.

Does this mean that I full-heartedly agree with the science and reason freethinkers?  Hardly.  As any rational human being understands, science hasn’t been an unqualified good.  In order to provide us with the best standards of medical care, we have had to test on innocent animals, and even on less wealthy racial minorities.  Furthermore, in our haste to find cures, we sometimes have done more harm than good.  Such is the case with the overprescription of antidepressants, which have led to suicidality in some instances, not to mention mania in incorrectly diagnosed individuals.

While I recognize the pitfalls of science, the more I study postmodern critiques of science, the more I realize that we only have science to thank.  In short, the achievements of science are real and measurable, hardly on par with postmodernism.  For instance, last semester, I asked my Anthropology class to define “postmodernity”, and no one could come up with a definition, only descriptions of what phenomena are postmodern.  And as we read Foucault in After Structuralism, I realize how murky postmodernism really is, not subject to the same kind of empirical verification as science.  Its achievement – obscurantism.  Hardly the same as science, which has tangibly changed my life.

What did the Reed Secular Alliance do for Darwin Day?  Honestly, not much.  Unlike other colleges, we didn’t have wine and cheese tasting parties, nor did we have an evolution film-showing.  As it turns out, we only hung flyers and put “I support science” stickers with Darwin fish on tables in Commons.  That may not sound like much.  At “Godless” Reed College, creationists hardly exist, and the only enemy lurks in the Anthropology and English departments.  But for this freethinker, Darwin Day provided me an opportunity to reflect and be thankful – because without scientific pioneers like Charles Darwin, we’d know a lot less about man’s place on planet earth.

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Godlessness and the Shooting

Why Atheists Can Be Moral

By:  Leslie A. Zukor

Leslie Zukor and her squirrel, Fluffy

Leslie Zukor and her squirrel, Fluffy

Letter to the Editor, submitted to The Oregonian

I am disappointed that people believe that godlessness played a part in the downtown shooting.  As the leader of the Reed Secular Alliance, a college atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist group, I can attest that the vast majority of non-believers are good-natured, law-abiding people.  For example, I know a group of humanist college students who went down to Louisiana to rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Personally, I spend hours donating freethinking books to atheist prisoners as part of the Freethought Books Project.  The non-believing inmates I correspond with express an earnest desire to reform and contribute meaningfully in this one opportunity they have at life. 

Secular humanists, unlike murderers, realize that morality comes out of our human obligation to treat others as we would like to be treated.  Instead of attacking atheists, Russell Mathews would do better to spend his time making the world a better place.

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Erik Ayala - The Schizophrenic Gunman
Erik Ayala – The Schizophrenic Gunman

The following Letter to the Editor was printed in this morning’s Oregonian.  At least some Portland residents understand that “godlessness” is not to blame for the January 24th shootings:

Blame schizophrenia


Russell Mathews’ Thursday letter to the editor blaming “godlessness” for the downtown shooting appeared in the same edition of The Oregonian as the revelation that Erik Ayala had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had undergone psychiatric hospitalization as a result of a suicide attempt (Feb. 5).

He subsequently received intensive follow-up mental health treatment while in high school, after possibly making threats about bringing a gun to school.

Schizophrenia cannot be treated by a belief in God and is not caused by being taught evolution. In order for these shootings to have been prevented, we would need a mental health care system that provides the type of care Ayala received as a student and one that could have followed up with him once he left school. We would also need gun laws that don’t allow selling a lethal weapon to someone with a history of mental illness who had shown evidence of being a threat to others.

EVA GOLD
Southeast Portland

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You’ve heard the arguments for why shootings happen.  Poverty, rage, mental illness.  Gun access.  But “godlessness”?  I know it’s counterintuitive, but Milwaukie, Oregon resident Russell Mathews believes a downtown Portland shooting was due to high levels of atheism in this metropolis.  “The young shooter,” Mathews explains, “was probably taught about evolution. He was probably influenced by atheism.  This lack of God leads to dangerous things that even the strictest laws cannot prevent.”  The shooter, Erik Ayala, opened fire in downtown Portland on January 24th, killing two and injuring seven, before taking his own life.

While I normally tolerate all points of view, I have difficulty according Russell Mathews’s position any measure of respect.  In this case, the shooter was schizophrenic, denied neuroleptics in 2000 because he couldn’t show proof of Oregon residence.  Yet under Oregon law, only nine years later, Ayala was eligible to buy a gun.  According to a piece in The Oregonian, “A November 2008 state report says 15,521 adults in Oregon have a serious mental illness and are not covered by insurance or otherwise treated by state programs.” And somehow atheists are to blame? 

I sure wonder what kind of God Mathews worships – a God who is supposedly all-good and all-powerful, yet who stikes innocent people with psychosis and poverty, and doesn’t even have the consideration to give Ayala the neuroleptics that would help him?  Instead of attacking those who don’t believe in God, Russell Mathews would do well to spend his time working to get healthcare for uninsured Oregon inhabitants.  Erik Ayala could really have used it.

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Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America

Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America

Want to eat dinner with the nation’s first atheist lobbyist?  Then the Reed Secular Alliance has a great opportunity for you.  On Monday, March 2nd, the RSA will be hosting Lori Lipman Brown, the former lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) and the organization’s Founding Director Emeritus. 

Brown is a lawyer, an educator, and a former Nevada State Senator.  From 2005-2009, she served as the first director of the Secular Coalition for America, a 501 (c) 4 umbrella organization, which lobbies for the rights of non-theists and for the secular character of our government.  The dinner will start at 5 pm, and space is limited. 

To RSVP, please email rsa.secular@gmail.com.  We hope to see you there.

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