In The News (April 2021)

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer joins Freethought Caucus

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia is the newest member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was started by Reps. Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin.

Speaking at the Secular Coalition for America members’ meeting on Feb. 6, Beyer said:

“I was honored to be invited to join the Congressional Freethought Caucus in Congress. Congressman Jared Huffman and Congressman Jamie Raskin are two men I admire immensely. Together, we will do our best to minimize the impact and influence of religious rules and dogmas and intolerances on our laws and our budgets. If we are a nation founded on freedom, then it is essential that every person be free to think, believe, even worship in their own way — to the extent, of course, that it is lawful and does not impinge on the freedom of others.

“I have four children, none of whom have even the slightest inclination toward God, religion or church. Religion means 19 Muslims killing 3,000 people and themselves on 9/11, to earn virgins in heaven. It means Jerry Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Moral Majority, which was neither. It means Shiites vs. Sunnis, Catholics vs. Protestants, burning at the stake because you don’t believe in baptism. Religion is equivalent to intolerance — of skin color, sexual orientation, class, and on and on. Religion means imposing your rules and practices and beliefs on everyone else — especially, especially when it comes to sexuality.”

Alabama can’t execute inmate without pastor

The Supreme Court on Feb. 12 said Alabama could not execute a death row inmate without the man’s pastor by his side, the Washington Post reported.

The court also indicated that other states must find a way to honor final requests for a spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The court’s order came an hour before Alabama’s self-imposed deadline of executing Willie B. Smith III, convicted of a 1991 robbery and murder. A lower court had put the execution on hold, and Alabama asked the Supreme Court to step in.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett sided with liberal colleagues, saying federal law requires states to make accommodations for prisoners like Smith.

Tennessee bill would let man stop abortion

Tennessee lawmakers proposed a bill on Feb. 15 that would let a biological impregnator stop a woman from getting an abortion, according to a report by The Hill.

An injunction would only be granted to an individual if there is evidence the woman is considering an abortion and if there is evidence the man is the impregnator.

However, DNA evidence is not required for the injunction.

Once the injunction is issued, the court must hold a hearing with both parties within 14 days. If a woman violates the injunction and gets an abortion, “the court may hold the respondent in civil or criminal contempt and punish the respondent in accordance with the law.”

If the bills are passed and approved by the governor, they would take effect starting July 1.

Religion’s relevance down in Iran, Middle East

Several recent surveys in the Middle East show an increase in secularization and growing calls for reforms in religious political institutions, according to a report by Deutsche Welle.

“Personal piety has declined some 43 percent over the past decade, indicating less than a quarter of the population now define themselves as religious,” it said in the Middle East survey report.

In Iran, the survey showed 47 percent reported “having transitioned from being religious to nonreligious.”

Pooyan Tamimi Arab, assistant professor of religious studies at Utrecht University and co-author of the survey, sees this transition as a logical consequence of Iran’s secularization.

“Iranian society has undergone huge transformations, such as the literacy rate has gone up spectacularly,” Tamimi Arab said.

Evangelicals more likely to believe QAnon theory

A survey shows that more than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants believe the QAnon conspiracy theory that purports former President Donald Trump was secretly battling a cabal of pedophile Democrats, the Religion News Service reports.

It also showed that about half of the evangelicals expressed support for the debunked claim that antifa was responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Experts say the data point to a widening ideological divide not only between white evangelicals and other religious groups in the country, but also between white evangelical Republicans and other members of their own party, RNS reports.

There was also significant support among white evangelicals for the claim that members of antifa, or anti-fascist activists, were “mostly responsible” for the attack on the U.S. Capitol — a discredited claim repeated by former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and conservative religious leaders such as the Rev. Franklin Graham. FBI officials have said there is “no indication” antifa played a role in the insurrection.

Young Black adults becoming less religious

Young Black adults are less religious and less engaged in Black churches than older generations, a Pew Research Center survey shows.

Black Millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches and less likely to say religion is an important part of their lives, the Pew report states. Fewer attend religious services, and those who do attend are less likely to go to a predominantly Black congregation.

About one-in-five Black Americans are not affiliated with any religion and instead identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and this phenomenon is increasing by generation: Roughly three-in-ten Black Gen Zers (28 percent) and Millennials (33 percent) in the survey are religiously unaffiliated, compared with just 11 percent of Baby Boomers and 5 percent of those in the Silent Generation.

But Black Americans are still more religious than the American public. They are more likely to say they believe in God or a higher power, and to report that they attend religious services regularly. They also are more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives and to be affiliated with a religion, and to believe prayers to ancestors have protective power and that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s life, the Pew report states.

God belief not needed to tell right from wrong

One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe in goodness, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, analyzing various values driving the morals of atheists and religious believers.

The poll revealed more than half (51 percent) of people polled in 34 countries do not think believing in God is fundamental to being moral and having good values.

Overall, respondents in nations with lower gross domestic product are more likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values.

Also, individuals with more education are less likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral. This pattern closely tracks the connection between income levels and the way people answer this question, because there is a significant correlation between educational attainment and earnings.

Religious institutions not trustworthy for Gen Z

Trust in institutions among Americans in general has dwindled over the years and Gen Z — those born between 1995 and 2010 — are among the most distrustful, according to a story on the Religion In Public blog on Feb. 19. Gen Z members are also the generation most likely to self-identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” according to surveys.

The State of Religion and Young People 2020 confirmed that trust in organized religion was not very high — around two-thirds of young people rated their trust of religious institutions at 5 or below out of maximum of 10, with an overall mean score of 4.5 out of 10. This compares with an average score of 5.3 for banks.

Atheist Rep. running for Lt. Gov. in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims, an outspoken progressive who is, according to “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, “openly gay, openly atheist, and never afraid to pick a fight with conservatives who want to use their power to hurt people,” is running for lieutenant governor.

The office is up for election in 2022.

If elected, he would become one of the highest-ranking openly atheist officials in the country — and the only one in statewide office.

According to the Advocate website, Sims “once posted a photo of him giving Mike Pence the middle finger at a protest where Sims and others were voicing opposition to the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families. He has filmed himself calling out an anti-choice demonstrator at a Planned Parenthood facility in Philadelphia.”

Being godless might be good for your health

Atheists may be just as healthy as devoted believers, according to a new study from Canada called “Godless in the Great White North,” published in the Journal of Religion and Health.

In some cases, belief in God might actually be bad for your health. A 2020 study published in the Review of Religious Research found that “doubting theists” — those who believe in God but are less certain about those beliefs — reported poorer health outcomes.

Joseph Baker, a sociologist of religion at East Tennessee State University who worked on the study, said that atheism can give people a strong sense of identity and a clear set of values, which may help with their well-being, even if they don’t have the same kind of built-in social support that religious people do.

Archdioceses: Vaccine is ‘morally compromised’

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and at least six other dioceses from across the country have released statements expressing “moral concerns” about using the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because cells used to create the vaccine are derived from aborted fetal tissue in the 1970s.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans and Archdiocese of Detroit are among those that have stated that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “morally compromised” and “morally problematic.”

The decision puts those dioceses in conflict with the Vatican and Pope Francis, who have been aggressively pro-vaccine. Last December, the Vatican approved the use of vaccines “that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” adding it’s “morally acceptable.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hedged and said Catholics should get vaccinated, but should push for other options than the Johnson & Johnson one.

Vatican: Priests can’t bless same-sex unions

In a decree approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican on March 15 said priests cannot bless same-sex marriages, saying that such relationships are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” according to a report in the Washington Post.

“The blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit,” the church said.

The “explanatory note,” issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, carries the weight of a universal ground rule for the Roman Catholic Church — and it regards one of the most controversial inside an institution divided over its stance on sexuality.

“The Catholic church has long fought against LGBT rights, and past popes have called same sex unions deviant or a moral evil,” the Washington Post reports.

‘In God We Trust’ to be OK in OK state buildings?

Oklahoma’s House speaker is pushing for the national motto, “In God We Trust,” to be displayed prominently in state buildings.

The Oklahoma House on March 1 passed Speaker Charles McCall’s House Bill 2085 to add the phrase in 342 state buildings at an estimated cost of $85,000.

Democrats argued that the bill violates the separation of church and state and could alienate Oklahomans with diverse religious beliefs.

Rep. Mauree Turner, who is Muslim, said whether it’s intentional or not, the legislation will hurt atheists and non-Christians.

“This bill sends a message,” she said. “It sends a message to folks who don’t believe in religion, to folks who believe in different religions and quite frankly, it sends a message to me.”

Rep. Regina Goodwin, made a similar point, noting additions to state buildings wouldn’t say, “In Buddha We Trust” or “In (Prophet) Muhammad We Trust,” nods to Buddhism and Islam, respectively.

Catholic schools hit by large enrollment drop

Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools in the United States dropped 6.4 percent from the previous academic year — the largest single-year decline in at least five decades, Catholic education officials reported March 1, according to ABC News.

Among the factors were the closure or consolidation of more than 200 schools and the difficulty for many parents of paying tuition fees that average more than $5,000 for grades K-8 and more than $10,000 for secondary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

John Reyes, the NCEA’s executive director for operational vitality, said the pandemic has been an “accelerant” for longstanding challenges facing Catholic education.

Between the 2019-2020 school year and the current year, nationwide enrollment dropped by 110,000 to about 1.6 million students. Back in the 1960s, enrollment was more than 5 million.

Atheists are most likely to get Covid vaccine

According to a recent survey reported by Religion News Service, atheists and agnostics scored highest of all religious groups in their willingness to get vaccinated.

Ninety percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said they would “definitely or probably” get the Covid-19 vaccine.

Only 54 percent of white evangelicals said the same. It was the lowest of any religious or nonreligious group.

White evangelicals are the least likely to say they should consider the health effects on their community when making a decision to be vaccinated. Only 48 percent of white evangelicals said they would consider the community health effects “a lot” when deciding to be vaccinated. That compares with 70 percent of Black Protestants, 65 percent of Catholics and 68 percent of unaffiliated Americans.

John Fea, a U.S. historian at Messiah University who studies evangelicals, said he wasn’t surprised that white evangelicals seemed least likely to want to take advantage of the vaccine.

“There’s a long history of anti-science within American evangelicalism,” Fea said.

Swiss ‘burka ban’ accepted by slim majority

Switzerland will introduce a clause in its constitution to outlaw face coverings, including the Islamic burka and niqab, in public spaces after a 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent vote on March 7.

It will join five other European countries, including France and Austria, who have already banned such garments in public.

Exceptions to the law will include face coverings for reasons of security, climate, or health – which means protective masks worn against Covid-19 are acceptable. Niqabs and burkas will still be allowed in places of worship.

Supreme Court: Graduated student can seek damages

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 8 sided with a former Georgia college student who sued his school after it prevented him from expressing religious views in a free-speech zone on campus.

The 8-1 decision, with only Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, said that Chike Uzuegbunam, who was silenced by Georgia Gwinnett College officials even after he had obtained a permit to proselytize and handout religious literature, can seek nominal damages despite the fact that the school ultimately changed course and Uzuegbunam subsequently graduated.

First Amendment advocates, including FFRF, called the decision a win for free speech and religious expression. The decision reversed two lower court rulings that agreed with the school in calling the case moot.

Pandemic has Vatican bracing for $60M deficit

According to a statement released by the Vatican on Feb. 19, Catholic Church leaders say the financial toll of the Covid-19  pandemic on Vatican coffers will be more than $60 million.

Expenses for the tiny city-state this year are expected to reach almost $376 million, while revenues lag behind at just above $316 million.

The Vatican said that its finances were “heavily impacted by the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” which shrank donations and closed the high-earning Vatican museums for months.

The Vatican has not been particularly forthcoming with the state of its finances in the past, but it released its 2021 budget, the statement said, “with the objective of providing more visibility and transparency to the economic transactions of the Holy See.”

In the United States, Catholic dioceses and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion in federal aid from the Paycheck Protection Program.

‘QAnon Shaman’ denied request to leave jail

Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman” who is facing federal charges for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, has been denied a request to be released until trial, despite appeals to his “Shamanic faith,” Religion News Service reports.

A lawyer representing Chansley asked that his client be released from prison while he awaits trial because of his refusal accept a vaccine for Covid-19. Chansley’s refusal to be vaccinated, combined with various COVID-19 protocols in place at prisons where he is being held, have made communication with his attorney impossible, his lawyer said.

But U.S. District Court Judge Royce  Lamberth rejected Chansley’s request on March 8, dismissing several of the arguments — including religious ones.

“To put it plainly, defendant’s religious objection to the Covid-19 vaccine is not a relevant reason, let alone a ‘compelling reason,’ to grant his temporary release,” Lamberth wrote.