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Obama Signs First Anti-Persecution Legislation Protecting Atheists

H.R. 1150 expressly protects non-theists from religious persecution around the world. 

Freedom of religion, as humanist groups often claim, also means freedom from religion. While not debated and publicized (and, frankly, griped over) as much as the translation of the Second Amendment, First Amendment rights are constantly being challenged. Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote about the harrowing challenging journalists could face with the new administration in light of the recent Gawker case sponsored by Peter Thiel, who used his deep pockets to destroy an organization he didn’t agree with.


Perhaps in preparation of the sea change about to occur in the former swampland known as Washington DC, President Obama signed into law amendments to H.R. 1150, otherwise known as the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Act. The bill, first signed in 1998 by Bill Clinton, is an attempt at stopping religious persecution around the planet.

The job of the committee formed by the first bill is to identify acts of persecution, then report them to the president, who will concurrently be handed a list of potential actions against that country to try to force them to stop. These actions include public or private actions or condemnations, canceling of state visits, and withdrawing U.S. aid and assistance.

In 2014 the Republican representative from Virginia’s 10th district, Frank Wolf, introduced a reauthorization to keep this independent commission alive through 2019. As a human rights activist Wolf was inspired by the Sudan crisis and Darfur genocide. He’s held numerous conferences in his home district to raise awareness of such issues worldwide.

While the bill, originally titled H.R. 4653, never found a home in that Congress, it passed in the House of Representatives in May 2016, over a year after Wolf retired from his seat. The bill is specifically notable for two reasons.

The first is that for the first time ever the term ‘non-theistic’ is included in the language. This is especially important given the heinous and deadly actions taken against secular bloggers in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in recent years. Robert P. George, former chairman of the commission founded with the 1998 bill, writes,

Persecution of atheists and theists alike is equally reprehensible and must be condemned. Religious freedom is the precious birthright of humanity and must be honored and upheld for believers and skeptics alike.

The amendment also reminds Americans of their First Amendment rights. While we might not have public stonings of atheists, there have been other methods of persecution against nonbelievers.

This is especially daunting at a time when Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has stated the educational system is the best place for restoring God’s kingdom. It’s easy to imagine how quickly nontheistic rights will fade when school systems introduce prayer and treat creationism as an equally valid course of study as evolutionary biology. There are plenty of ways to destroy a culture without bloodshed.

As of 2014, seven states still had enforceable laws prohibiting atheists from holding public office. Over half of Americans still claim they would not vote an atheist for president, a larger number than those who would shun candidates that have had extramarital affairs or never held office. For example, the 2016 election.

Persecution in America tends to take place at the local—i.e., tribal—level. Atheist veterans were heckled and mocked at a Memorial Day parade in Pennsylvania; the Central Arkansas Transit Authority refused to run ads by an atheist organization; the Mississippi chapter of the ACLU rejected a $20,000 donation because it came from an atheist group (in favor of LGBT rights, a double whammy); a high school student fighting school prayer was ostracized and threatened by peers and town mates.

The new amendment won’t necessarily stop such vitriolic attacks. But by being the first congressional bill passed that specifically cites freedom from religion in such a manner, it is an important step forward.

That said, the second notable aspect of the bill is not as productive. As Hemant Mehta reports, new language in the amendment means

if people who defend male infant circumcision or animal slaughter are “persecuted,” the U.S. will consider it a violation of religious freedom. Our government is therefore giving tacit approval to those practices.

That’s a shame. The practice of circumcision has long been debated, its purported benefits contested. Given a plethora of ritualistic slaughters and animal abuse across the planet—ten thousand dogs murdered yearly at a festival in southern China; the killing of countless chickens for Jewish atonement; males having sex with donkeys in Colombia—offering protection for such practices is a giant step backwards.

Humans have long claimed to be the planet’s superior animal, with religion playing a primary role in elevating the mindsets of followers—the whole ‘dominion over the earth and all other animals’ part. Through a few chance evolutionary steps we’ve dominated our environment, other species, each other. Recognizing a common playing field for every human is the first step. With his pen Obama brought us a step closer to that realization.

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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