Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Agnostic, Atheist and Bigots Say it an't So


July 19, 2006

American Atheists Press Release

Apology Needed as National Guard General Blasts “Agnostics, Atheists, Bigots” During NAACP Speech

In a shocking “about face,” the Chief of the National Guard Bureau praised American diversity and the role played by minorities in our nation’s military defense, but then suddenly chastised “Agnostics, atheists and bigots.”

Lt. Army Gen. H. Steven Blum made the remarks while speaking to the NAACPs Annual Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Awards Dinner in Washington, DC on July 18. The story, including quotes from Blum’s talk, was reported in an American Forces Press Service dispatch. According to writer Rudi Williams:

“As for the military’s diversity, Blum said, the battlefield might be the greatest equalizer. ‘Agnostics, atheists and bigots suddenly lose all that when their life is on the line,’ Blum said. ‘Something that they lived with their whole life believing gets thrown out the door, and they grasp the comrade next them, and they don’t care what color their skin is, and they don’t care where they pray…’”

American Atheists President Ellen Johnson said that much of Blum’s talk emphasizing themes such as tolerance and diversity was “stained by an animus directed at Agnostics and Atheists.”

“Why is he singling out the millions of Americans who simply have doubts about religion or do not believe in religious teachings, and then comparing this group to ‘bigots’?”

Johnson said that if religious groups and ethnic minorities deserve praise for their role in defending America, the patriotism and intellectual integrity of Atheists, Agnostics and other Freethinkers should be respected as well.

Dave Silverman, Communications Director for American Atheists said that Lt. Gen. Blum’s remarks suggest that the military still has a problem when it comes to religious belief.

“We’ve had the scandal at the Air Force Academy where officials were promoting Christian fundamentalism, and we have a problem with military chaplains insulting service men and women who happen to be Atheists,” said Silverman. “Now the top official in the National Guard is singling out Atheists with these narrow and unfair remarks.”

Silverman added that Atheists have always been present in the military, and noted that last year “Foxhole Atheists” from across the nation rallied in Washington, DC on Veterans Day.

“Religious belief, or the lack of it, shouldn’t be a litmus for patriotism, on or off the battlefield.” said Ellen Johnson. “Officials with the National Guard need to issue an apology for these ill-considered remarks made by Gen. Blum.”

American Atheists is a nationwide movement which defends the civil rights of nonbelievers, works for the separation of church and state, and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy.

Contact American Atheists

'Atheists in foxholes' demand respect, recognition and honor

Ron Brynaert
Published: Sunday August 20, 2006

"'There are no atheists in foxholes,' the old saw goes," begins the Beliefwatch column in the latest issue of Newsweek "The line, attributed to a WWII chaplain, has since been uttered countless times by grunts, chaplains and news anchors."

"But an increasingly vocal group of activists and soldiers—atheist soldiers—disagrees," the column continues.

"It's a denial of our contributions," Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson tells Newsweek. "A lot of people manage to serve without having to call on a higher power."

Master Sgt. Johnson founded the group, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) as "a community support network that connects military members from around the world with each other and with local organizations."

"In addition to our community services, we take action to educate and train both the military and civilian community about athiesm in the military and the issues that face us," reads the "About" page at MAAF's Website. "Where necessary, MAAF identifies, examines, and responds to insensitive practices that illegally promote religion over non-religion within the military or unethically discriminate against minority religions or differing beliefs."

MAAF keeps a running list of "Atheists in Foxholes, in Cockpits, on Ships, and Hitting the Beach," who are willing to "come out" on the Internet.

On July 19, some remarks from a speech given by Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 31st annual Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Awards drew the attention of MAAF and other atheist organizations.

"Agnostics, atheists and bigots suddenly lose all that when their life is on the line," Lt. Gen. Blum said. "Something that they lived their whole life believing gets thrown out the door, and they grasp the comrade next to them, and they don't care what color their skin is, and they don't care where they pray."

"They just care,'Can you save them?'" Blum continued. "'Can I trust you? Are you going to cover my back? Are you going to get me out of this?'"

After MAAF complained to National Guard Bureau Affairs, Air National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Michael Milord wrote back in a letter that Blum's remarks were "intended to clearly illustrate the positive spirit of camaraderie, human understanding and inclusion of our fine men and women in the National Guard" and there "was, and is, no intent to offend anyone."

Lt. Col. Milord said that the words MAAF found "objectionable...were taken out of context in a news article," although he didn't mention that it had been published by the American Forces Information Service.

"These fine soldiers and airmen who put their lives on the line to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, know that our people of all philosophies and convictions work together and count on each other, no matter what other issues may sometimes divide people," Milord added.

Another organization, American Atheists, has demanded an apology not only from the National Guard, but also the NAACP.

"Religious belief, or the lack of it, shouldn’t be a litmus for patriotism, on or off the battlefield," Dave Silverman, Communications Director for American Atheists said in a press release.

"Officials with the National Guard need to issue an apology for these ill-considered remarks made by Gen. Blum," Silverman continued.

A year ago, MAAF was instrumental in pushing the Air Force's decision to compose a script for flag-folding ceremonies.

"There is no shortage of scripts available that can be read aloud during a flag folding, but many of those scripts are religious in nature and also ascribe meaning to the individual folds put into the flag," reported Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez for Air Force Print News.

"Individuals who hear those scripts end up attributing the contents of the script to the U.S. Air Force," Lopez wrote.

Lt. Col. Samuel Hudspath told Air Force Print News that that was the "primary motive" for composing an official script which would "just speak to the importance of the flag in U.S. Air Force history."

An article at Christianity Today wondered why there was little reaction from the religious right about the change.

"Perhaps surprisingly, the Air Force changes have not become a latest battleground in America's culture wars even though Congress has recently shown interest in protecting the American flag and the religious rights of military personnel," Jason Bailey wrote for Christianity Today.

"Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, suggests that conservative religious groups have been silent on the change because they understand that the military cannot take an official position on religion if it is supposed to accommodate all faiths," wrote Bailey.

Historically, many atheists have had a difficult time serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

"An atheist was perceived as tantamount to being a communist," wrote Philip K. Paulson about his mid-sixties Army tour of duty in Vietnam, from the essay "I Was an Atheist in a Foxhole" for The Humanist magazine in 1989.

"I knew that proclaiming to be an atheist while on duty in South Vietnam could likely prejudiced promotions and possibly cause harmful reprisals," Paulson wrote.

Last year, Athiests in Foxholes organized a Veteran's Day rally in Washington D.C. and a march down the National Mall.

The rally wasn't a "referendum on war in general or about a specific military action," but a call for recognition of "those many Atheists, Freethinkers and other nonbelievers who 'stepped up' when they were needed in times of war or other crisis, and often put their lives at risk" and a plea to be "appreciated and honored like all other members of the U.S. military."

Go to Original

Why Doesn't America Believe in Evolution?
By Jeff Hecht
The New Scientist

Sunday 20 August 2006

Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact.

Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."

Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That's despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says.

There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last?year. "That is a group of people that can be reached," says Scott.

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6000 years ago.

Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind act is instituting standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level.

Miller thinks more genetics should be on the syllabus to reinforce the idea of evolution. American adults may be harder to reach: nearly two-thirds don't agree that more than half of human genes are common to chimpanzees. How would these people respond when told that humans and chimps share 99 per cent of their genes?

Go to Original

Brain Gene Shows Dramatic Difference From Chimp to Human
University of California, Davis

Thursday 17 August 2006

One of the fastest-evolving pieces of DNA in the human genome is a gene linked to brain development, according to findings by an international team of researchers published in the Aug. 17 issue of the journal Nature.

In a computer-based search for pieces of DNA that have undergone the most change since the ancestors of humans and chimps diverged, "Human Accelerated Region 1" or HAR1, was a clear standout, said lead author Katie Pollard, assistant professor at the UC Davis Genome Center and the Department of Statistics.

"It's evolving incredibly rapidly," Pollard said. "It's really an extreme case."

As a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of David Haussler at UC Santa Cruz, Pollard first scanned the chimpanzee genome for stretches of DNA that were highly similar between chimpanzees, mice and rats. Then she compared those regions between chimpanzees and humans, looking for the DNA that, presumably, makes a big difference between other animals and ourselves.

HAR1 has only two changes in its 118 letters of DNA code between chimpanzees and chickens. But in the roughly five million years s?nce we shared an ancestor with the chimpanzees, 18 of the 118 letters that make up HAR1 in the human genome have changed.

Experiments led by Sofie Salama at UC Santa Cruz showed that HAR1 is part of two overlapping genes, named HAR1F and HAR1R. Evidence suggests that neither gene produces a protein, but the RNA produced by the HAR1 sequence probably has its own function. Most of the other genes identified by the study also fall outside protein-coding regions, Pollard said.

Structurally, the HAR1 RNA appears to form a stable structure made up of a series of helices. The shapes of human and chimpanzee HAR1 RNA molecules are significantly different, the researchers found.

RNA is usually thought of as an intermediate step in translating DNA into protein. But scientists have begun to realize that some pieces of RNA can have their own direct effects, especially in controlling other genes.

The proteins of humans and chimps are very similar to each other, but are put together in different ways, Pollard said. Differences in how, when and where genes are turned on likely give rise to many of the physical differences between humans and other primates.

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz, the University of Brussels, Belgium and University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, showed that HAR1F is active during a critical stage in development of the cerebral cortex, a much more complicated structure in humans than in apes and monkeys. The researchers found HAR1F RNA associated with a protein called reelin in the cortex of embryos early in development. The same pattern of expression is found in both humans and rhesus monkeys, but since the human HAR1F has a unique structure, it may act in a slightly different way. Those differences may explain some of the differences between a human and chimp brain.

The chimpanzee genome was published in Nature in 2005, showing that the DNA sequences of humans and chimps are more than 98 percent identical. The current work was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other agencies.

Bites, just as the top pick did. filed under woes.

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