Adam Lee

Here are 10 Things I Learned About the World from Ayn Rand's Insane 'Atlas Shrugged'

Over the past year, I've been reading and reviewing Ayn Rand's massive paean to capitalismAtlas Shrugged. If you're not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.

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Here Are 9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?

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Ayn Rand's Demented Mind Is Best Understood by Her Idea of the 'Happy Ending' in Her Bestseller 'Atlas Shrugged'

Over the past year, I've been reading and reviewing the third and final section of Ayn Rand's epic celebration of I've-got-mine-so-screw-youism, Atlas Shrugged. (See parts one and two.) Like the first two parts, it has important lessons for liberals and progressives to learn from.

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4 Things the Atheist Movement Has Done Badly (and How to Do Them Better)

Born in the shadow of September 11, the New Atheist movement took up the mission of pushing back against religious dogma and warning the world about the danger of unchecked fundamentalism. In the years since, this community of modern nonbelievers has made some surprising inroads and can claim some major victories to its credit. Atheists have fought tirelessly for a truly secular state, where no religion receives preference in the law and no one is disadvantaged because of their beliefs or lack thereof. Atheists have supported science and stood against dangerously irrational ideologies like climate-change denial. Atheists have called attention to the evils of totalitarian theocratic regimes around the world. Atheists have stood for people's absolute right to leave cruel, oppressive, patriarchal religions, to live and think freely, and to choose for themselves what makes their lives worthwhile and meaningful.

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10 Things I Discovered About Ayn Rand's Addled Brain After Reading 'Atlas Shrugged'

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged can teach us a lot about the vaunted American ideal of pompous, adolescent selfishness. The primary message of the book can be boiled down to the general theme that all economic regulations and worker safeguards should be abolished and that rich corporate executives should be allowed to do anything they want. But even so, you may be surprised by some of the ways Rand applies this principle. Here are 10 things I've learned from diving into Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (Part 1 here).

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It's Time for Atheists to Stop Debating God's Existence and Decide What to Do About It

It’s time for atheists to move past theoretical questions about the existence of God and onto more practical pursuits – like how to fight for justice.

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Right-Wingers' Secession Threats: Fighting Tooth and Nail on the Wrong Side of History

When a U.S. federal judge - an appointee of George W. Bush, no less - ruled in favor of marriage equality in Alabama, Judge Roy Moore didn't take it lying down. The chief justice of the state supreme court in this reddest of red states immediately blasted out this furious letter to all the state's probate courts, which issue marriage licenses, ordering that "no probate judge of the State of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent" with the state's same-sex marriage ban. Moore used even more brazen language in a separate letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

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When Will Atheists Become a Political Force?

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law -- or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans -- it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general, and Christianity in particular, play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

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Do Right-Wing Christians Want People to be Destitute?

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is now in its fourth year, and the numbers point to a solid success. Thanks to Obamacare, millions of people can afford health insurance for the first time, and millions more still have health insurance because now they can't be dropped by their insurance company for getting sick. The once-astronomical growth of costs has slowed substantially, and in some markets is even decreasing.

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Godless Millennials Could End the Power of the Religious Right

The 2014 midterm elections are drawing near, and it appears that the Democrats may well lose the Senate, since they’re fighting on unfriendly territory – a large number of seats in red states are up for grabs.

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Some Right-Wing Christians Enthusiastically Promoting a Form of Genocide

Recently, Charisma magazine, a major media outlet for evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, published an open call to genocide. The article in question, titled "Why I Am Absolutely Islamaphobic" [sic] and written by Gary Cass, begins with the premise that "every true follower of Mohammed" wants to "subjugate and murder" non-Muslims, and therefore it's impossible for Christians to live together peacefully with them.

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Richard Dawkins' Ignorant Sexism Gives Atheists a Bad Name

I became an atheist on my own, but it was Richard Dawkins who strengthened and confirmed my decision. For a long time, I admired his insightful science writing, his fierce polemics, his uncompromising passion for the truth. When something I’d written got a (brief) mention in The God Delusion, it was one of the high points of my life. 

So, I’m not saying this is easy, but I have to say it: Richard Dawkins, I’m just not that into you anymore.

The atheist movement—a loosely-knit community of conference-goers, advocacy organizations, writers and activists—has been wracked by infighting the last few years over its persistent gender imbalance and the causes of it. Many female atheists have explained that they don’t get more involved because of the casual sexism endemic to the movement: parts of it see nothing problematic about hosting conferences with all-male speakers or having all-male leadership—and that’s before you get to the vitriolic and dangerous sexual harassment, online and off, that’s designed to intimidate women into silence.

Richard Dawkins has involved himself in some of these controversies, and rarely for the better, as with his infamous “Dear Muslima” letter in 2011, in which he essentially argued that, because women in Muslim countries suffer more from sexist mistreatment, women in the west shouldn’t speak up about sexual harassment or physical intimidation. There was also his sneer at women who advocate anti-sexual harassment policies.

But over the last few months, Dawkins showed signs of détente with his feminist critics; even progress. He signed a joint letter with the writer Ophelia Benson, denouncing and rejecting harassment; he even apologized for the “Dear Muslima” letter. On stage at a conference in Oxford in August, Dawkins claimed to be a feminist and said everyone else should be, too.

Then another prominent male atheist, Sam Harris, crammed his foot in his mouth and said that atheist activism lacks an “estrogen vibe” and was “to some degree intrinsically male.” And, just like that, the brief Dawkins Spring was over.

On Twitter these last few days, Dawkins has reverted to his old, sexist ways and then some. He’s been very busy snarling about how feminists are shrill harridans who just want an excuse to take offense, and how Harris’ critics (and his own) are not unlike thought police witch-hunter lynch mobs. Dawkins claimed that his critics are engaged in “clickbait for profit,” that they “fake outrage,” and that he wished there were some way to penalize them. 

For good measure, Dawkins argued that rape victims shouldn’t be considered trustworthy if they were drinking.

Benson, with whom Dawkins had signed the anti-harassment letter just weeks earlier, was not impressed. “I’m surprised and, frankly, shocked by Richard’s belligerent remarks about feminist bloggers over the past couple of days,” she told me. “Part of what made The God Delusion so popular was, surely, its indignant bluntness about religion. It was a best-seller; does that mean he ‘faked’ his outrage?”

There’s no denying that Dawkins played a formative role in the atheist movement, but it’s grown beyond just him. Remarks like these make him a liability at best, a punchline at worst. He may have convinced himself that he’s the Most Rational Man Alive, but if his goal is to persuade everyone else that atheism is a welcoming and attractive option, Richard Dawkins is doing a terrible job. Blogger Greta Christina told me, “I can’t tell you how many women, people of color, other marginalized people I’ve talked with who’ve told me, ‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t want anything to do with organized atheism if these guys are the leaders.’” 

It’s not just women who are outraged by Dawkins these days: author and blogger PZ Myers told me, “At a time when our movement needs to expand its reach, it’s a tragedy that our most eminent spokesman has so enthusiastically expressed such a regressive attitude.”

What’s so frustrating, from the standpoint of the large and growing non-religious demographic, is that Dawkins is failing badly to live up to his own standards. As both an atheist and a scientist, he should be the first to defend the principle that no one is above criticism, and that any idea can be challenged, especially an idea in accord with popular prejudices. Instead, with no discernible sense of irony, Dawkins is publicly recycling the bad arguments so often used against him as an atheist: accusing his critics of being “outrage junkies” who are only picking fights for the sake of notoriety; roaring about “thought police” as though it were a bad thing to argue that someone is mistaken and attempt to change their mind; scoffing that they’re “looking for excuses to be angry” as though the tone of the argument, rather than its factual merits, were the most important thing; encouraging those who are targets of criticism to ignore it rather than respond.

The artist Amy Roth, who recently debuted an exhibit in which she literally wallpapered a room with the misogynist messages that she and other feminists have received, finds the systemic sexism incredibly frustrating. As she told me this week:

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Is Religion Inherently Authoritarian?

Human history is a story of gradual moral enlightenment. Over the ages, we've become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant, more committed to the ideals of democracy and equality under the law. Of course, moral progress is painfully slow, with many holdouts and local reversals, and we have a very long way left to go. But it's hard to deny that the world we live in today is less prejudiced and more peaceful than the world 500 years ago, or even just 100.

Religion is a noteworthy exception to this trend of progress. Secular moral reasoning, founded on considerations of fairness and human good, allows for continual self-questioning and improvement as less-privileged groups speak out to demand justice and call our attention to evils that we'd been overlooking. In sharp contrast to this, the immutable doctrines of religion are supposed to be elevated above skepticism. Even if we know more or see farther than the clerics who once came up with them, many religious authorities tell us we should submit our wills and believe without questioning.

The result is that, in most cases, moral progress has left the churches behind. Like the tide going out and leaving once-submerged rocks high and dry on the shore, the archaic doctrines of conservative religion are increasingly isolated and exposed as the immoral and vicious absurdities they are. This has led to more conflict and dissension within the ranks, as believers who grew up in the modern era see the contradictions between what they're taught and know to be right, and inevitably come into conflict with religious authorities who are determined to enforce the old rules at any cost.

A case in point is the Mormon church's excommunication of Kate Kelly, a lawyer and human-rights activist who founded a movement called Ordain Women. Kelly's crime was calling for the all-male priesthood of the Mormon church to be opened to people of all genders, and doing so loudly and publicly enough to embarrass the church leaders. (Although the LDS church calls it a "priesthood," it's not a clerical or ministerial position; it's a rite of initiation, like a Jewish bar mitzvah or a Catholic confirmation.)

Kelly wasn't a firebrand atheist. She considers herself a faithful Mormon; she was married in the Salt Lake City Temple and went on an overseas mission trip as Mormonism requires. Yet she refused several orders to take her website down and stop speaking out, and just before her excommunication, she was defiant:
"I am not an apostate, unless every single person who has questions to ask out loud is an apostate," Ms. Kelly said in a telephone interview on Sunday, just before her disciplinary council met.
While she may have meant this comment as a reductio ad absurdum, I think it hits closer to the truth than she realizes. Almost every religion, throughout the ages, has looked unfavorably on people who have inconvenient questions and who insist on asking them out loud. What Kelly has yet to grasp is that religion is a fundamentally conservative force (unlike, say, science, where those who overturn conventional wisdom are rewarded). To claim that the tenets of some existing religion are wrong is to implicitly claim that you understand the will of God better than the authorities of that religion. Naturally, the people who've gained status and power within the existing strictures of the church will always look with extreme disfavor on this.

It's for this reason that religion is not only fundamentally conservative, but anti-democratic. Aside from a few rare exceptions, religion claims that God's will is delivered through special revelation: it was given to certain people, at certain times and places, and not others. If that were true—if there were people in possession of special, important truths that no one else could ever discover—then it would be the case that those people would be uniquely qualified to tell the rest of us how to live.

But that expectation bumps up against the modern world, where divine-right monarchy is a discredited theory and democracy is a nearly universal idea (so much so that even rulers of autocratic states often feel the need to hold sham elections). The clash between these principles is most visible in the religious people who believe their leaders have a specially privileged understanding of God, but who also apparently believe the doctrines of their church should be put to a vote. The lay Mormons petitioning on Kate Kelly's behalf are an excellent example:
More than a thousand Mormons sent letters of support for Ms. Kelly to the bishop and two of his counselors considering her case in Oakton, Va. Hundreds turned out for a vigil in Salt Lake City while the hearing was underway, and smaller groups of supporters gathered at 50 sites in 17 countries, according to Ordain Women.
Mormonism isn't the only authoritarian religion whose members incorrectly believe they're participating in a democracy rather than an oligarchy. Roman Catholicism has the same affliction: for example, when Pope Francis was being selected, the author Anne Rice and others asked Catholics to tell the Vatican what they wanted to see in a new pope, as if such feedback would be welcomed or even acknowledged.

The sharp divide between lay Catholics and hierarchy is perhaps best illustrated by the issue of women as priests. As recently as 2013, 70% of Catholics believe women should be allowed to be ordained even though Pope John Paul II announced that the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood was an infallible article of dogma and could never be changed. Kindly, progressive Pope Francis has said the same, stating that the "church has spoken and says no... that door is closed" with regard to women's ordination.

It happens in Judaism as well, even though that religion has no single central authority. In Israel, Jewish women fought for years for the right to pray at the Western Wall, braving routine threats, abuse and harassment by ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews who believe the holy site should only be open to men. Finally, the reformers won a ruling in Israel's courts, opening up a designated prayer section at the wall for women. The ultra-Orthodox responded by ordering their own wives and daughters to show up en masse and pack the women's section, so that the women who actually want to pray there and who fought for the right to do so couldn't get in.
Granted, there are some cases where churches have joined the modern world without being forced to. For example, the Presbyterian church now allows its ministers to perform same-sex weddings, joining some other mainline Protestant denominations that have already taken this step. But this is the exception that proves the rule, since most of the tolerant and progressive mainline churches are in the midst of a demographic plummet. (The more conservative and evangelical denominations are also shrinking, just not quite as quickly.)
And on the rare occasions that churches recognize their past errors, they steadfastly refuse to draw any general lessons from the fact. Earlier this year, the Mormon church formally repudiated the racism of its past rules which barred black men from the priesthood until 1978. This would be a laudable step, except that the church is determined to learn absolutely nothing from it. In its ongoing fight against women in the priesthood, not to mention its fervent and continued opposition to same-sex marriage, it is falling into the same mistake all over again, refusing to recognize that its leadership is fallible, and that any rule treating human beings unequally is morally wrong. This will no doubt be viewed as another stain on the Mormon church's record, just as its history of racism now is.
Ethically speaking, there's no doubt that reformers like Kate Kelly and the Women of the Wall have their hearts in the right place, but it's legitimate to question their strategy. As the ex-nun Mary Johnson has said, at some point you have to ask yourself where your energies are best spent.
Is it worth the effort trying to change religion from within, beating your head against the metaphorical brick wall of a church that's run by an oligarchy of old conservative men who choose their own successors and who are determined never to change anything? Or does it make more sense to leave that frozen and fossilized cathedral, to renounce religion and step out into the wild garden of the wider world, where anyone can speak their mind and no one can cite the will of God as a trump card?

Why Do Many Christians Still Literally Believe in Demons and Satan?

If there's anywhere in the U.S. where you'd expect aggressively conservative, domineering religion to be a relic of the past, it's tolerant and culturally liberal Massachusetts. But even in that blue enclave, the theocratic impulse is still surprisingly powerful. We found this out when a student group at Harvard University, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, ignited a furor by announcing that they were planning an educational program of ceremonies from different belief systems around the world, and that one of these ceremonies, in partnership with the New York-based Satanic Temple, was going to be a Satanist black mass.

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10 Things I Learned About the World from Ayn Rand's Insane "Atlas Shrugged'

Over the past year, I've been reading and reviewing Ayn Rand's massive paean to capitalism, Atlas Shrugged. If you're not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.

Rand's protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who's invented a revolutionary new alloy which he's modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase "Who is John Galt?"

Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, but as far as many prominent conservatives are concerned, it's sacred scripture. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle, and opposed regulation of financial markets because he believed her dictum that the greed of businessmen was always the public's best protection. Paul Ryan said that he required his campaign staffers to read the book, while Glenn Beck has announced grandiose plans to build his own real-life "Galt's Gulch," the hidden refuge where the book's capitalist heroes go to watch civilization collapse without them.

Reading Atlas Shrugged is like entering into a strange mirror universe where everything we thought we knew about economics and morality is turned upside down. I've already learned some valuable lessons from it.

1. All evil people are unattractive; all good and trustworthy people are handsome.

The first and most important we learn from Atlas Shrugged is that you can tell good and bad people apart at a glance. All the villains — the "looters," in Rand's terminology — are rotund, fleshy and sweaty, with receding hairlines, sagging jowls and floppy limbs, while her millionaire industrialist heroes are portraits of steely determination, with sharp chins and angular features like people in a Cubist painting. Nearly all of them are conspicuously Aryan. Here's a typical example, the steel magnate Hank Rearden:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe

The new Cosmos TV series airing on Fox is a worthy reboot of Carl Sagan's original. Following in Sagan's footsteps, host Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a voyage through the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, showing how our sun is just one star out of a hundred billion in the majestic spiral of the Milky Way galaxy, and even the Milky Way itself is a speck in the observable universe. As in the original series, he compresses the history of the universe into a single year, showing that on that scale, the human species emerges only in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31.

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Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches

In the last 30 years, atheism and secularism have been booming in America. As many as one in four members of the Millennial generation now say they have no religion. Given the vast size of the Millennials—78 million people, slightly more than the Baby Boomers—that adds up to almost 20 million freethinking Americans. And from all indications, the up-and-coming generations are even more secular.

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Meet the American Religious Right Figures Thrilled by Russia's Brutal Anti-Gay Laws

Russia has become a dangerous place for dissent. Its ex-KGB president, Vladimir Putin, has accomplished what Republicans in America only dream of: he's built an electoral majority by appealing to the most religious and conservative elements of society, including by courting the alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church. With his victories, he's becoming increasingly autocratic, dispensing with even the pretense of democracy.

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There's Nothing About Abortion in the Bible -- So How Do Right-Wing Christians Justify Their Crusade Against Women?

While America languishes in an economic depression, Republican officeholders are bending all their efforts... to ban abortion. In the last few weeks and months, we've seen a blizzard of anti-choice legislation in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and many other places. These laws stall women seeking abortions with mandatory waiting periods, brutalize them with invasive and unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, force doctors to read shaming scripts rife with falsehoods, and impose onerous regulatory requirements that are designed to be impossible to comply with so that family-planning clinics will be forced to close. At the federal level, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted for a bill banning all abortion after 20 weeks, without even putting up a pretense that this was constitutional.

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Outrageous Attacks on Supporters of Church-State Separation: Death Threats, Murdered Pets, and Vandalized Property

When it comes to the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a state religion by the government even if a majority supports it, is something most of us heartedly support.

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You Wouldn't Believe How Fast Americans Are Losing Their Religion -- But the Fundamentalists Have a Plan

Sometime last year, the US quietly passed a milestone demographers had long been predicting: for the first time in its history, this country is no longer majority Protestant. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans now identify as Protestant Christians of any denomination.

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Notable (and Hilarious) Examples of the Christian Right's Failed Prophecies

The Christian right in America, like all organized religions, claims to have a correct and exclusive understanding of God's will. To hear them tell it, the almighty creator of the universe has strong opinions about corporate tax rates, firearm ownership and what consenting adults do with their genitals, and he's delegated them to speak on his behalf.

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There Are Now As Many Nonreligious Americans As Evangelicals -- 6 Ways Politicians Can Court Their Vote

In the aftermath of President Obama's electoral romp over Mitt Romney, the media and pundits have paid much attention to the demographics that propelled him to victory, especially women, Hispanics and young voters. But there's one more group that played an underappreciated yet crucial role in his reelection, and which only now is starting to get the recognition it deserves.

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50 Reasons to Boycott the Catholic Church

Last month in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died, and she shouldn't have. Savita was a 31-year-old married woman, four months pregnant, who went to the hospital with a miscarriage in progress that developed into a blood infection. She could easily have been saved if the already doomed fetus was aborted. Instead, her doctors did nothing, explaining that "this is a Catholic country," and left her to suffer in agony for days, only intervening once it was too late.

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Atheism’s Growing Pains

In the last decade, atheism in America has risen from a tiny, demonized fringe to a serious presence in the public and political arenas. The latest polls show that almost 20 percent of Americans now identify as non-religious, and the atheist movement — a loose coalition of skeptical, rationalist and humanist groups — is making inroads everywhere from high school campuses to the halls of Congress. Last March, as many as 20,000 American nonbelievers braved cold and rain to gather on the National Mall for an event called the Reason Rally, with a lineup of prominent speakers that ran the gamut from student activists to elected officials.

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Right-Wing Religions of the World Unite to Oppress Women and Gays More Ruthlessly

When you hear the word "interfaith," you might think of people from different religions working together to do charitable deeds: running a soup kitchen, for example, or collecting clothes for the poor. But there's a darker side to interfaith as well. Whatever good that religion does in the world has to be balanced against the harm it has caused in so many other ways: sanctioning slavery, sowing xenophobia and division, excusing inequality, propping up oppressive power structures of class, race and caste.

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The Biggest Threats We Face From Conservative Religion

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Adam Lee's new book, Daylight Atheism.

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9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?

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Why Is Atheism a Bigger Obstacle to Political Office Than Mormonism?

When America was founded, it was the first modern nation to throw off the rule of absolute monarchy and prove that democracy was feasible. But at the same time, when America was founded, it was hardly a democracy at all. The vote was denied to women, to millions of enslaved human beings -- to everyone except a relatively small number of its citizens. Despite the Constitution's prohibition on religious tests, many states had their own established churches that their citizens were compelled to support, and prejudice against Jews, Roman Catholics and other disfavored groups was ferocious.

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Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

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Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation

Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.

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