News and Notes: Disputes over the Gettysburg Address

george head smallBy George Kane

November 19th marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. To commemorate the occasion, Ken Burns filmed 61 political and cultural leaders, including all living presidents, reading the speech. From these videos he put together a pastiche, taking a few words from each reading. The film of President Obama’s full reading sparked conservative outrage that Obama omitted “under God” in the line “that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom,” although it was not used in the Burns collage.


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News and Notes: Religiosity Declining according to Gallop Poll

By George Kane

george head smallAt the end of July, Gallop International released its Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012, which shows that the atheist movement is advancing rapidly worldwide. The international survey asked respondents, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons [sic] or a convinced atheist?” The response to polls on religiosity and atheism is heavily influenced by the way the question is worded. For example, a 1996 poll by Free Inquiry magazine asked people if there is a personal god who can answer prayer. By selecting this wording they avoided counting as “religious” people who define god, for example, as love or the laws of physics.

As Gallop formulated the question, their “atheism index” counts only self-described atheists, thereby excluding people who prefer to call themselves, for example, rationalists, materialists, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, or secular. Gallop’s option of “convinced atheist” will also be selected only by “strong” atheists—people who believe that there are no supernatural gods—and not by “weak” atheists, who have no opinion on the existence of gods, or believe that the question of the existence of supernatural gods is unanswerable or meaningless.


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Letter to the Editor: Another reader disagrees with Scarbro

Posted at

August Berkshire, President Minnesota Atheists, Minneapolis

Ron Scarbro claims “One of the tenets of Christianity, thankfully, is tolerance.” He then spends the rest of his column berating atheists and pagans. (Newsleaders, Sartell, Opinions, “So this is Christmas - peace and goodwill to all!” Dec. 12).

Christmas is not to be found in the Bible. Judging from the nativity story, the birth of Jesus would have occurred in the spring. (Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate Christmas.) The earliest reference to Christmas being celebrated on Dec. 25 - the winter solstice in the old Julian calendar - was in Rome in 354. In 380, the Roman emperor Theodosius ordered all pagan temples to be destroyed and forced pagans to accept Christianity.

Pagans had celebrated the winter solstice as the birth/rebirth of their sun/savior gods. It was so popular the early Christians could not stamp it out, so they co-opted it for the birth of their god. However, all the fun parts of the celebration are pagan in origin: gatherings of families and friends, feasts, gift-giving, lights, music, decorated trees and more.

In fact, the Bible states, “Learn not the way of the heathen... For the customs of the people are in vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest... They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (Jeremiah 10.2-4)



From 1659 to 1680 the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited the observance of Christmas: “Whoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”

The U.S. Congress was in session on Dec. 25, 1789, and also for 64 of the next 67 years. It wasn't until 1836 that Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. In 1894, Christmas was included in the first group of federal holidays. Previously, Congress often met, and mail was delivered, on Christmas day.

Scarbro wonders if atheists and pagans can be “at least as tolerant as Christians?” We'll do better than that. We'll allow Christians to continue to imagine their god was born on Dec. 25, so long as they don't try to force their religion on the rest of us.


Season's greetings from the secular side

Reprinted with permission from the Star Tribune.

Motivations may vary, but we all can spread joy and goodwill at this time of year.

'Tis the season. With winter coming, some members of the religious right have begun bracing themselves for the so-called annual atheists' "war on Christmas." While we think that the government and public schools should remain neutral when it comes to religious celebrations, we have no interest in depriving anyone of whatever private celebrations they wish to conduct.

Nevertheless, in case you were wondering, here are the plans some of us have for December.

The cards we will be purchasing will not say "Merry Christmas" (or "Happy Hanukah" or "Happy Eid") but rather "Season's Greetings."

After all, the original "reason for the season" is the winter solstice, which has long been appropriated by religious people to celebrate the birth or rebirth of their sun/savior gods. Nowadays, with religion in decline, the reason for the season is becoming merely a time for festivities. What's wrong with that?

The trees that many of us will have in our homes will have colorful lights, originally symbolic of the postsolstice lengthening of days, but now just a pretty sight.

Of course, we will not have angels on top of our trees. We know this will make us unpatriotic as, in this economy, it is likely to lead the treetop-angel-making industry to seek a federal bailout.

The meals we will share will not have prayers said over them, but we will give thanks to those who provided them and to our families and friends.

The songs we sing will be secular -- "Jingle Bells," etc. But, fear not: Atheists are just as likely to sing them out of tune as religious people, though we will derive no less joy.

And jolly old Santa Claus? Well, the disappearance of milk and cookies left out for him and the appearance of wrapped presents are evidence in the minds of many that he exists. We'll relax our skeptical standards for a day and leave Santa's existence up to each person's imagination.

We wish everyone well in celebrating the season as they see fit. Let us set aside our differences and come together in the goodwill of our shared humanity. It is the Jewish-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-pagan-humanist-atheist thing to do.

August Berkshire is president of Minnesota Atheists.



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