Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Friendly Atheist Under Attack

Hemant Mehta, one of the most tolerant, genial, and patient atheists I've ever seen, is currently under attack from a thinly-veiled far-right Christian hate group calling itself the Illinois Family Institute, which has a history of saying some pretty nutty stuff. And I'm not just calling them a hate group, either; for a while, the Southern Poverty Law Center had them listed as one, specifically for their strident anti-gay stance, comments, and leadership. Here's a sample:

The conference boiled down to a veritable jihad against gay rights. No fewer than 18 presenters railed against homosexuals and the "gay agenda." It seemed that the speakers, many of whom were ostensibly there to talk about the virtues of a Christian nation, just couldn't help but take repeated swipes at gays and lesbians.


Peter LaBarbera, head of the Illinois Family Institute and a discredited "researcher" whose work has been denounced by the American Psychological Association for producing bogus data "proving" homosexual behavior is deleterious to health and welfare, called homosexuality "disgusting." LaBarbera, who "investigates" this lifestyle by hanging out in gay chat rooms, insisted that good Christians must "stand up to homosexual aggression" and stop using "that hoary euphemism" -- "sexual orientation." He called for the repeal of all "sexual orientation laws" -- laws that ban discrimination against gays -- because they violate religious freedom. He demanded the closing down of all "homosexual establishments." And he spoke of the "need to find ways to bring back shame to those practicing homosexual behavior."

(Researching homosexual behavior by hanging out in gay chat rooms? Wow. Yeah. Not that there's anything wrong with that...)

Back to the main story. Primarily at issue is a sarcastic remark from Hemant regarding comments made by Laurie Higgins, director of the Division of School Advocacy (read: anti-church/state separation) for IFI.

The story really begins with the arrest of two gay men (for trespassing, apparently) who - GASP! - kissed each other in front of a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, and the subsequent nationwide kiss-in protests. One of the protests took place in Chicago, and the IFI certainly wasn't happy about that. Higgins said:
An adult kissing a pre-pubescent child or a high school-age adolescent in a sexual or romantic manner is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two consenting adults who are in love and who are closely related by blood is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of defenders of incest to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing among “multi-partner” unions, like those profiled in a recent Newsweek article, are both obscene and inappropriate despite the protests of polyamorists to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two people of the same biological sex is both obscene and inappropriate despite the voluble, vigorous, and often vitriolic protests of homosexuals to the contrary.
To which Hemant said:
The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins’ house.
So terrible, I know! Of course, to everyone but Higgins, this is obvious sarcasm. He was not seriously endorsing the idea of holding a kiss-in protest in front of her house. Regardless, it's time to cue the Christian persecution complex:

... Mr. Mehta doesn't merely expatiate philosophically, he gets personal too.

Last week, Mr. Mehta made an unfriendly comment on his Friendly Atheist blog that I found troubling enough that I shared it with some of the District 204's administrators and the members of the school board--something I have not done on the other occasions he has written about me.

He wrote the following in response to my IFI article about the homosexual kiss-in: "The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins' house."

In my email, I expressed my disappointment that a role model for students would make such a vindictive, irresponsible, and unprofessional public statement. My hope was that someone in the administration would have a conversation with Mr. Mehta regarding his influential role in students' lives and his inappropriate comment.
That's right; she e-mailed the people who sign his paycheck. She's applying a little pressure. Heaven forbid that anyone should think she's trying to get him fired! Just because she sent the e-mail to everyone but him and specifically to the folks who could decide whether or not his employment should be terminated, that doesn't mean she wants him gone. His higher-ups have his back, anyways:
Not surprisingly, everything is fine at work. My superiors respect my right to free speech and their concern is with my professional work, not my private life. For what it’s worth, my teaching evaluations over the past couple years have been excellent, thank you very much.

Anyway, school officially begins tomorrow. And I still have my job.
But that's not enough for Ms. Higgins. She has since posted at least two other articles on the IFI's home page attacking Hemant:
District 204 parents really should spend some time perusing Neuqua Valley math teacher, Hemant Mehta's website to determine whether he is the kind of man with whom they want their children to spend a school year. He absolutely has a First Amendment right to promote any feckless, destructive, and offensive ideas he wants via his blog, but, as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children.
Okay, it's time to cut the sarcasm. Combine this with another of her spewings:
... Parents have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling.
What Higgins is really saying is that anyone with a lifestyle or viewpoint that any parent considers factually or morally wrong shouldn’t have the right to teach. Her e-mail to Hemant’s administrators proved that much. Were she simply worried about parents’ choices, she would have e-mailed the parents and left it at that. Instead, she attempted to pressure Hemant's bosses into reprimanding or firing him. She doesn’t think he should be allowed to teach.

Since there has been such a response to her comments (with several hundred comments on Hemant's blog, calls coming in from the local media, and numerous e-mails to the IFI), she attempted to clarify her "true" intentions:
I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.
It bears repeating that this is a transparent lie. If this were all she was concerned about, she would have left the school administration out of this entirely. Her goal is to get Hemant fired, because she thinks anyone with views she disagrees with is dangerous and shouldn’t have the right to teach children. She did not contact the parents to "warn" them about Hemant. She contacted his superiors and her mailing list. The choices of the parents did not enter into it.
You fail to acknowledge a central point that I addressed in my articles, which is many teens are unduly influenced by emotion or the cult of personality and are therefore predisposed to look favorably on the ideas of teachers whom they find cool or charismatic or funny or kind or iconoclastic.

If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you—as happens often in high school—they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have no connection with you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
Yes, Ms. Higgins, let’s warn those parents about the terribly dangerous and potentially harmful different ideas that people have. Different ideas are inherently bad and should be quashed as subversive. Parents should be terrified that such things are allowed in schools. Through all this bluster all I can see is her continued assertion that since Hemant is an atheist, he must be actively promoting atheism in his classroom. Care to give us some proof? Something we can sink our teeth into? Something more than just scare tactics?

Of course not. Ms. Higgins isn't about reality here. She's about dogma and rhetoric. We're talking about a woman who endorsed the bullying of gay students on the basis that homosexuality is wrong and immoral and shouldn't be coddled, so no insult is too strong.

Ms. Higgins is so terrified of the idea that children might learn about different lifestyles and beliefs that normal standards of morality and decency have no bearing on what she's willing to do to stop Hemant's oh-so-dangerous actions and speech. She's not pro-censorship, oh no! She just wants parents to know what teachers do in their private lives:
Those parents are entitled to sufficient information to make informed choices about the very public activities of their children’s teachers–something that for some odd reason seems to offend you.

No, Miss Higgins, they are not entitled to know what goes on in teachers' personal time, no matter how public it is. Parents are entitled to know what teachers do in school. Outside of school is none of their damn business.

This sort of behavior is the double-edged sword to the phrase "If God be with us, who can be against us?". On the one hand, it is saying that nobody can oppress you if God is on your side. On the other hand, it is also saying that if God is on your side, nobody can possibly have any real or valid objections to anything you do, since you've got divine endorsement. Higgins thinks that anything she does, no matter how venomous or slimy, is justified in the promotion of her beliefs.

What's absolutely insane about this is that she was removed from her job at a high school because of anti-gay comments she made on her personal time on talk radio:
If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you--as happens often in high school--they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have little or no personal connection to you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
It's probably the same reason that three years ago a well-known homosexual blogger informed my former superintendent that I had been interviewed on Moody Radio on the topic of homosexuality. During my last three years at Deerfield High School, there were more than a few supporters of the normalization of homosexuality who wrote publicly and contacted my administration about what they believed was my unfitness as a role model for students--and I worked in the writing center where I had no classes.
So, clearly, she's an utter hypocrite. She's out for revenge. Two wrongs make a right, in her mind. She's turning the tables, rather than turning the other cheek. What a Christlike thing to do.

I'm sure the story isn't over yet. To get the full perspective straight from the source, keep up with Hemant's blog: Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

His previous posts on this subject:
His excellent book: I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes