Nov 23

November 23: Ronald Bruce Meyer (1954)

It was on this date, November 23, 1954, that American voice actor, educator and atheist blogger Ronald Bruce Meyer was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the first of three children, to a homemaker mother (d. 2002) and a utility company executive (now retired). As he likes to point out, he was born 310 years to the day after John Milton published Areopagitica, his pamphlet decrying censorship. Meyer’s entire formal education was in tax-supported public schools: elementary, middle school and high school, graduating in 1972. Meyer attended public colleges, earning an Associates degree in speech and theater from Baltimore County Community College (1975), and both a BA (1977) in broadcasting and an MA (1989) in government, both from the University of Maryland. Indeed, he wrote about the nexus of religion and government in a blog posting from 2011:

The United States is no more a Christian nation because most of its citizens are Christians than it is a ‘white’ nation because most of its citizens are white. We are Americans not because we practice revealed religion and believe in Bible-based government, but because we practice democracy and believe in republican government.[1]

He was a member of the Boy Scouts from the 1960s, earning the rank of Eagle Scout in 1973. As Meyer says, “The Scouts taught me how to camp and cook and clean. They taught me hiking, canoeing, first aid, home repairs, lifesaving and personal safety. They taught me to preserve the environment and to respect nature. They taught me the meaning of citizenship.” Although he has had grave doubts about religion and God since a teenager, he “came out” as an atheist in 1971, during his early radio days, after reading the writings of Robert Ingersoll, Joseph McCabe and Bertrand Russell. As he says, “In fact, I spent my every spare nickel on Freethought writings – I couldn’t get enough!” He was particularly influenced by the scholarship of McCabe (1875-1955) and agreed with his evidence-based approach to the criticism of religion, saying in another 2011 blog posting that religion is not helpful to society:

Singing “Jesus Loves Me” in church never lifted one American out of poverty. Posting a copy of the 10 Commandments in a school never got anybody into college. Passing laws to make abortion difficult never helped one mother feed her child. Making gay marriage illegal never stopped one divorce. Failing to teach about contraception never prevented one teenage girl from getting pregnant. Evangelizing for Jesus never repaired a rotting road or beefed up a broken bridge. And none of these things got anybody a job, or a home, or helped to support a family. Where are the churches?[2]

A member of SAG-AFTRA, Meyer’s radio career, spanning 1975-1999, included easy listening, country, pop/rock, classical and public affairs announcing. For the Library of Congress talking-books-for-the-blind program, Meyer recorded about 100 titles from 1981-1992. From 1992-1995, he worked for a non-profit civil right organization for blind people, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), learning much from its executive director emeritus, Kenneth Jernigan (1926-1998). His teaching career (1990-2006) included courses in government, but Meyer principally lectured in speech communication and public speaking at colleges from the Washington DC and Baltimore suburbs to the Bronx in New York.

Although changing his career path to writing for a government agency after 2002, and to real estate, home construction and health care after 2004, Meyer began regular, after-hours volunteer work with in early 2003, creating and recording (in collaboration with Freethought Radio founder Don Souza) the “Freethought Almanac,” a series of 365 days to remember in the history of Freethought. Meyer also created his alter ego, John Mill, the radio voice of Ronald Bruce Meyer. The text of Meyer’s recordings can be found (revised, updated and expanded) at Meyer’s blog,

Politically, Meyer considers himself a liberal-progressive,[3] saying in a 2012 blog posting, for example:

It’s not OK for those of us who were born on third base to believe we hit a triple, when most of us are still waiting for an at-bat. It’s not OK to think you made it to the top on your own and then have the audacity to pull up the ladder of success behind you. That’s really un-American. … It’s not OK to say you love America but to hate everything American government does. It’s not OK to stand for freedom and liberty for some. That’s un-American. What’s truly American? Freedom and liberty for all. That’s a creed we can believe in because we built that.[4]

And elsewhere, about teacher unions and “public school reform,” he says:

It’s a major PR achievement making teachers look greedy and billionaires look altruistic! Sure, Chicago teachers make more money than the low-income parents whose children they teach (in fact, so do most of the corporate media journalists who covered the strike). But teachers are highly educated professionals with a serious responsibility. Teachers deserve respect, not derision. If they are protected from being fired for reasons unconnected with job performance (tenure), that is a good thing. If they make good money, that’s another measure of respect. Teachers are not the problem. They don’t teach because they make a lot of money, they teach because they make a lot of difference.[5]

Meyer continues to blog. He is an atheist and a materialist, a feminist, opposes the war on drugs, opposes the war on terror and believes the prison-industrial complex needs major reform. And, countering those who would make flag burning illegal, he advocates instead—if the flag stands for nothing else, and “our troops” died for nothing else, it was for this—making voting in elections a legal requirement and election day a state and national holiday. But he blogs mostly about religion and has said, “If there is a vengeful God, who condemns honest unbelievers, while refusing to offer the slightest evidence of his existence, then he is unjust and unworthy of worship and I would rightly despise him.” Skeptical about a future life, Ronald Bruce Meyer says, “A belief in personal immortality cheapens life. Nobody will love you or remember you for what you did during your residence in heaven—only for what you did and who you affected in your brief hours on earth. If you believe, as I do, that nothing of your personality will go on after you die, then you absolutely must make a success of this, your one and only life!”

If you would like to hear an audio version of this posting, go to this link:

[1] From “Visualize No Liberals” AH Blog – August 19, 2011
[2] From “Where Are The Churches?” AH Blog – June 17, 2011
[3] It should be noted that Meyer disagrees with most progressives on only two big issues: hate crimes legislation (see this blog posting), which he considers a violation of liberty of conscience, and the “politically correct” defense of Islam as a religion, where he agrees with Sam Harris (see the commentary here).
[4] From “Patriotic and Idiotic” AH Blog – September 2, 2012
[5] From “Teachers Are Not the Problem” AH Blog – September 22, 2012

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Nov 17

No Nuance Please, We’re American

By Ronald Bruce Meyer

In case anybody remembers it, the 1971 British farce, No Sex Please, We’re British (written by Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott) was about a newlywed bride who mail-orders some glassware but instead receives a flood of pornography, which she and her husband have to hide from nosy relatives, employers and others. I sometimes get the idea that when Bill Maher proposed a nuanced critique of liberals for not standing up for liberal values when it comes to criticizing the “mother lode of bad ideas” that comprises Islam, the concept of nuance seemed to get lost among the liberal nonsense. And I’m a liberal!

Maher, Harris and Affleck

Maher, Harris and Affleck

I’m concerned that liberals conflate criticism of a religion or ideology with criticism of people espousing that ideology or religion. It’s almost as if the farce playing out could be called, “No Nuance Please, We’re American.” We saw that in the exchange between Ben Affleck on the one side, and Bill Maher and Sam Harris on the other, during a recent episode of “Real Time” (10/3/14). Maher and Harris were clearly criticizing the religion, as they repeatedly pointed out and took pains to emphasize—and neither Maher nor Harris has been reticent about applying the same critique to Christianity—but Affleck seemed primed for debate, interrupting the Sam Harris segment (he who made the “mother lode” comment) and conflating not only the religion with its practitioners but making the basic but common mistake of calling Islam a “race.” At that point, everybody should have stopped listening to Affleck, because he was not listening to anybody himself!

Maher and Jebreal

Maher and Jebreal

I’m sure Mr. Maher doesn’t need me to defend him, just as I’m sure he wishes the issue would go away. But it won’t: in a subsequent episode of “Real Time” (10/31/14) another guest, Israeli-born Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, also seemed primed for debate and similarly deaf to nuance. The former MSNBC correspondent prefaced her every interruption with “I’m sorry” and proceeded to call Bill Maher a bigot for pointing out flaws in the religion and claimed that Maher makes Muslims feel threatened. So anybody criticizing a majority religion is a hero and anybody criticizing a minority religion is a bigot? That’s how Jay Tomlinson characterized it in the coda to his recent (11/14/14) “Best of the Left” podcast.

My fear is that nobody can criticize the majority religion with impunity in Muslim countries, but it’s easy to do that and still live in majority Christian countries. And in this debate over criticizing Islam—the religion, not the people following it—it is good to remember three things:

1. People have rights; ideas do not. If you intend to call yourself liberal and if you truly subscribe to liberal values, then every religion, every ideology, must be freely and openly examined and discussed. Mr. Affleck’s intent was to shut off debate about Islam by conflating it with the rights of Muslims to be treated with the respect. He ignored the point that both Harris and Maher were arguing—that Islam (like most religions) is a bad idea and only the people acting on it literally should be condemned. Jebreal, who elsewhere said she considers criticism of Islam “un-American,” would not even allow that Maher had a serious point to make if he disagreed with her. But I say no religion, not even a minority religion—which Islam is only in the US and the rest of the developed world—gets a free pass from criticism just because some truly odious people, like Bill O’Reilly, hate Muslims and Islam together.

2. Liberals must not tolerate intolerance—whatever religion practices it. That includes minority religions in the US, but liberals have a duty to decry intolerance practiced by intolerant people, including Muslims, everywhere: whether directed at a Salman Rushdie, at a Malala Yousafzai or at publishers of cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper and depicting Muhammad. Furthermore, I get that there is a difference between literalist religion and religion as it is practiced. But the literalist practices of Christianity and Judaism have not survived into this century: the death penalty for apostasy, for example, and the multitude of laws and policies amounting to the subjugation of women and the LGBT. Do you think (I ask rhetorically) that is because liberals used to have a backbone? It is not racism, or even bigotry, to point out for contrast that drawing unflattering pictures of Jesus, or leaving Catholicism, carries no risk to life or limb in the West, but the same cannot be safely done in most Muslim-dominated countries of the world.

3. Islam needs a Reformation and a “Higher Criticism.” But this is not going to happen so long as (a) Muslim-dominated governments and non-state armies criminalize dissent and punish it with death, dismemberment or prison and (b) liberal Muslims in the West, and their liberal Christian and nonbeliever allies, mute their criticism of anti-liberal policies and actions, based in the Islamic religion and tradition, for fear of appearing to support the true Islamophobes.

As Bill Maher pointed out, when it comes to Islam, liberals won’t stand up for liberal values. In my opinion, we liberals and progressives (and I consider myself both) should not backslide in support of unlimited free speech, equal rights for women and the LGBT, and freedom of and from religion, no matter where in the world we are looking. These ideals are just better. And these ideals are not conspicuously present in any Muslim-dominated country today. So if we liberals don’t get that some values transcend religion, and if we can’t practice a little nuance in our understanding and discourse, then, instead of liberal, we need to call ourselves by another name.

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Nov 02

November 2: Annie Laurie Gaylor (1955)

It was on this date, November 2, 1955, that the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor was born in Madison, Wisconsin. She was educated in journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. With her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, and John Sontarck, the three founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1976, expanding their advocacy for reproductive rights, and incorporated FFRF in 1978. The FFRF promotes the separation of church and state and, through radio broadcasts, media appearances, print publications and podcasts, educates the public about atheism, agnosticism and religious freedom – often engaging in legal action to help cities and towns comply with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Since 1978, and with co-president and husband Dan Barker since 2004, Gaylor has worked to make the FFRF the largest organization of atheists and agnostics in the United States.

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Describing herself as a feminist and liberal, Gaylor edits Freethought Today, the official newspaper of the FFRF (10 times/year). She has written Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So (1981) about the treatment of women in the Bible, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children (1988), documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy and Women Without Superstition: “No Gods—No Masters” (1997), an anthology of the writings of women freethinkers. Her activism dates back to the late 1970s, when she and her mother successfully got an ultra-religious judge recalled for claiming “rape is a normal reaction,” and making other victim-blaming remarks, when sentencing three juveniles who gang-raped a teenaged girl at their Madison high school. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Women’s Medical Fund, the longest continuously-operating abortion rights charity in the nation – kind of an “underground railroad” for women needing abortion services – founded by her mother, Anne Gaylor (herself author of the book Abortion is a Blessing, 1976). Gaylor has appeared on national TV talk shows, as well as many regional and local TV and radio shows, representing the FFRF.

In response to a 2009 Seattle bus campaign, in which placards displaying the message with Santa saying, “Yes Virginia… there is no God,” were criticized, Gaylor replied, “If [Christians] are so insecure that they can’t even stand that somebody has a bus sign, a funny bus sign saying there’s no God, what does that say about their beliefs? They must have a lack of confidence…to be so angry just because there’s something saying there are atheists and agnostics in this country and here’s our view.” Pointing out that every minority group in the nation is more widely accepted now than in the 1960s, except atheists, Gaylor said in a 2009 interview timed for Christmas, “Nonreligious people in this country are scarcely tolerated. It’s considered aggressive to even tell somebody in the context of a conversation about religion that you’re an atheist.”

Perhaps overstating the percentage, on October 12, 2013 in “Opposing Views,” Gaylor noted, in response to creationist billboards saying “To all of our atheist friends: THANK GOD YOU’RE WRONG,” “A fifth of the U.S. population identifies as nonbelievers. We don’t thank a nonexistent god, we put faith in each other and human ingenuity… We believe in deeds, not creeds. We believe the only afterlife that ought to concern us is leaving our descendants a secure and pleasant future.” About the declining reticence of Americans, the most-churched nation in the developed world to self-identify as nonreligious, Gaylor said in a 2007 interview for “The Eloquent Atheist,”

We think there is no question that concern over the theocratic trends in our government and nation have woken up many Americans to the dangers of remaining silent. But I think there is also a change in the air, that our nation is slowly experiencing the secularization that Europe has gone through long before our country. I call it an ‘atheist renaissance.’ Ironically, while the courts have never been more hostile to the separation of church and state, the court of public opinion is liberalizing. There have never been more people in the United States willing to make known their dissent from religion. The atheist and nonreligious bestsellers have certainly helped, and the media scent a major story, and their coverage helps as well.

I remain concerned at the hemorrhage of public money flowing to “faith-based” groups. I think it will be essential for state/church separatists and freethinkers to keep up the pressure on Democratic as well as Republican officials. They have not caught up with the changing demographics, and the 14% of us who are not religious must flex more muscle, so that politicians are wooing us, not just courting the vote of the religious right.

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