This is a reference to two big villains of opponents of secularism, the French Revolution with its guillotines and Communism with its gulags. But in recent decades at least, several nations have had a growth of secularism and outright atheism without such coercion, and they have had that growth without debilitating consequences.
A new movement has emerged in atheist activism: Atheism Plus. Its advocates describe themselves as
Atheists plus we care about social justice.
Atheists plus we support women’s rights.
Atheists plus we protest racism.
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia.
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
In my opinion, it is an entirely legitimate movement. Different activists specialize in different things, and some people may want to specialize in social-justice issues without compromising their atheism. However, it has provoked some people to call it divisive and to claim that it associates a lot of issues with atheism that do not have any real connection with atheism.
What started it?
A week ago in Washington, DC was the big Reason Rally. It was a big atheist/freethought gathering in the Washington Mall in Washington, DC, and several noted atheist/freethought authors, bloggers, and activists spoke at it. Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Taslima Nasrin, Greta Christina, Cristina Rad (ZOMGItsCriss), Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist), PZ Myers (Pharyngula), Annie Laurie Gaylor, Jessica Ahlquist, Nate Phelps, etc. Politicians Pete Stark and Tom Harkin sent video messages to the gathering.
Jessica Ahlquist is a high-school student in Cranston, RI who had successfully sued to get a prayer banner removed from her school as a violation of church-state separation. A lot of people there hated her for it, and a Cranston politician called her an “evil little thing”. A label that she has jokingly adopted.
Nate Phelps is a son of Fred Phelps, the infamous homophobe and activist and attention whore and troll. He described how he came to leave his father and to deconvert.
It was not the first such gathering. Ten years ago was the Godless Americans March on Washington (GAMOV), a name that brings to my mind physicist George Gamow. This one was even bigger, having something like 20,000 people attending, and a good variety of people at that. Seems like the New Atheist movement has staying power.
Some years back, I (lpetrich) tried to start a Freethought Literature Translation Project, to reach all those people who prefer languages other than English. I did not get much interest, however. But I am happy to report that some other people have been interested. Some of Ebonmuse’s fans have translated some of Ebon Musings: The Atheism Pages into various languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Belarusian. So the more the better.
The Beacon Library has been at beacon.wiki-site.com but it is now gone from there. Some of its content is now at atheism.wikia.com, where it joins a lot of existing content.
Why do we celebrate at a time of year that seems to offer little to celebrate about to anyone living very much north of the Equator? Why do our celebrations involved lights and evergreen trees? The ultimate answer is axial tilt, of course. As the Earth moves around the Sun, the Sun seems to move northward, then southward, then northward, then southward, …
But if you were living centuries before modern times, that would not be so apparent. What would keep the Sun from going farther and farther south until the whole world freezes? So it would be reassuring to note that the Sun would be coming back. Why lights? That’s what that time of year lacks, with the Sun rather far south and not up for very long — if at all. Why evergreens? Because they don’t drop their leaves, giving them the appearance of being alive through the winter, and not dead, like most other plants.
Needless to say, winter-solstice celebrations acquired lots of other lore, like the birth of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, his reindeer, etc. In fact, some people in recent decades have invented solstice celebrations, like Ron Karenga’s pseudo-African holiday Kwanzaa and the New Jersey Humanist Network’s HumanLight. But I’m concerned about the core here.
Winter-solstice celebrations are older than Xianity. Germanic peoples celebrated Yule at that time, and Scandinavians still call Christmas by their languages’ versions of “Yule”. So we English speakers could bring back that old name. Romans had celebrated Saturnalia at about this time. Etc.
It’s hard to look back much further, because of a lack of written records. But several ancient monuments mark out various astronomical landmarks like the solstices and equinoxes. Their builders must have done that because they thought those landmarks worth marking out, and likely celebrating.
Monuments like Newgrange and Dowth in Ireland, and Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands, which are about 5000 years old, and which are oriented toward the Sun’s winter-solstice path. Newgrange is oriented so that the Sun shines into it when it rises on the winter solstice.
But the champion so far is the 6900-year-old Goseck circle in Germany. It has gaps in it aligned to the north, to the winter solstice sunrise, and to the winter solstice sunset. So one could stand in its center and watch the Sun rise and set through its gaps on that day. And a great day it may have been back then.
Over the last few years, various atheist and freethought groups have been reaching out by creating bus ads and billboards. Most of their content has been rather innocuous, with only a few that could be called combative.
There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life
Don’t believe in God? You are not alone
Millions are good without God
Imagine no religion
In the beginning, man created God
Beware of Dogma
Faith is believing something you know ain’t true — Mark Twain
You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason! (with a traditional Nativity display)
But some transit agencies have turned down some of these ads, and some billboards have gotten “revised” by defacers. But the most remarkable reaction was what happened when the Dallas – Fort Worth Coalition of Reason ran some ads that state “Millions of Americans are good without God” on the Fort Worth transit system’s buses. Certain pastors claimed that they were so offended by this ad that they threatened to boycott the transit agency. Some local businessmen, however, sent out trucks to trail the buses with slogans like “I still love you — God”.
Why run these ads? To make converts? Unlikely. But there’s another reason, and I think a good one. To reach out to people who are on the fence or who might already be convinced, to show that they are not alone and that there are organizations that they might possibly be interested in. Discovering that one is not alone in something can be a great feeling; we are social animals, not solitary ones like cats.