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The Past Is Not Even Past

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January 31, 2018

Hi Blue

In centuries long past, religious militants could arrest, torture, and murder those suspected of heresy. But is it really the past? Today in some parts of the world, to be known as a nonbeliever can make one a target of the state, vigilantes, and angry mobs. Accusations of blasphemy can be casually hurled at others because of grudges or slights, with individuals imposing their own punishments.

Last week, The Atlantic magazine published a story on the efforts of the Center for Inquiry to help the victims of this untenable situation, the Secular Rescue program. Headlined "The Underground Railroad for Atheists," this report is awakening people around the world to the plight of the secular in militantly religious societies and how we are all working together to save their lives.

In the U.S., meanwhile, secularism is steadily on the rise. New survey data shows that the cohort just now coming into its own, "Generation Z," is the least religious yet and very favorable toward science. Contrast this with our current administration, which is overt in its privileging of religion and is now going so far as to create an office for the purpose of excusing religious health care providers from treating groups they don't approve of.

People will always harbor bad ideas, and in a video of her excellent CSICon 2017 presentation, we'll hear from Eugenie Scott about how our tribal loyalties can get the better of our rational minds. Finally, we'll take a more cosmic view of life as we consider what life on other worlds might look like and take the air out of some assumptions about what it takes to harbor life.

One more thing: We're incredibly proud of the progress being made by the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), the Richard Dawkins Foundation program that trains middle school science teachers to be more effective in the teaching of evolution. We're excited to announce that TIES is stepping into the digital realm with online workshops. The first free webinars for teachers take place today, January 31, and tomorrow, February 1. Teachers can click here for details.

Robyn E. Blumner

President & CEO, Center for Inquiry

Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science

Secular Rescue's "Underground Railroad" in The Atlantic Blasphemy, Justifying Everything Rise of the Nones: The Next Generation
In countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq, it is not safe to be an outspoken freethinker. In some parts of the world, critics of religion are not only risking their careers, status, and relationships but their very lives. Last week, The Atlantic published a major piece on our own efforts to bring to safety those secularists who have been targeted for death because of their dissent from religion—to be an "underground railroad for atheists"—with Secular Rescue. This fascinating article by David Robson profiles one of those courageous atheists who has been helped by the program, Iraqi student Lubna Yaseen, as well as staff from the Center for Inquiry and other experts on this human rights crisis. Prohibitions against blasphemy are often used as the rationale for the kind of threats and violence from which Secular Rescue seeks to help people escape, but often we find that anyone with a grudge against another person can shout "blasphemy" to justify violence and other horrors. So was the case with a college student in Pakistan who, angry at his professor for marking him absent from class, accused him of blasphemy before murdering him in his classroom. As journalist Raza Habib Raja worries, "This time there has been no misuse of the law pertaining to blasphemy, but instead, a complete bypassing of the legal process." The trend toward secularization in America continues apace, as a survey from the Barna Group (a Christian research organization) shows that "Generation Z," those born between 1999 and 2015, are the least religious generation yet. Thirty-five percent of teenagers in Generation Z claim no religious affiliation, and 13 percent explicitly claim to be atheists, compared to 7 percent of millennials. While 59 percent considered themselves Christian, a refreshingly tiny 4% said they held a "biblical worldview." On the whole, Gen Z teens said that when science and religion conflicted, they were more inclined to side with science.
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Video of the Week: Why Do People Reject Good Science?

It would be great if people harboring false beliefs would just change them in the face of compelling scientific evidence, but we all know that it doesn't quite work that way. But why? On CFI's video series Reasonable Talk, Eugenie Scott, former director of the National Center for Science Education, tries to answer that question. Speaking at CSICon 2017 in Las Vegas, Scott explores the role of ideology in shaping what humans will and will not accept as the truth and what it means for the public acceptance of things such as climate change and vaccine science.


Religious Privilege at HHS Makes Us Sick

The Trump administration never tires of looking for ways to privilege religion and appease its religious right backers. The latest example is the creation of a special office within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect health care workers who want to use their religion as an excuse to deny care to groups they don't like or refuse to perform procedures that they feel conflict with their beliefs such as abortions and sex-reassignment surgery. CFI Government Affairs Director Jason Lemeiux said this was "an abdication of the department’s vital responsibility to the health of all Americans, placing the dogmatic beliefs of a few above the health and lives of the people they serve."

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An Interstellar Search for "Methane-Belching Microbes"

When searching for life in other planetary systems, it's important to try not to be an oxygen-chauvinist. We tend to think of oxygen as necessary for a world to harbor life as we know it, but as Lee Billings reports in Scientific American, for two billion years our own planet was "ruled by methane-belching microbes for which oxygen was not a life-giving gas, but a deadly poison." This means that astronomers hunting for signs of life are not limited to planets that look like the Earth of today where oxygen is replenished by photosynthetic life. Telescopes can now be pointed at planets to look for signs of methane and carbon dioxide. In fact, if a world is shown to have an atmosphere that is just 1 percent methane, it would be considered likely to harbor microbial life.

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Debate Richard’s Paragraph of the Week

Welcome to Richard’s Paragraph, a chance to read, consider, and discuss an idea that Richard has plucked from one of his books or from the book of a colleague to spur exploration and debate. This week’s paragraph is from page 168 of Life Driven Purpose by Dan Barker.

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Question of the Week

The music industry recently spent an evening congratulating itself with the Grammy Awards, so let’s consider an imaginary Grammys just for us. If there were an award for the music that best promoted or inspired a love of science and reason, for any time period, who or what do you think should win?

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? Email submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

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