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What's Next for the Reality-Based Community? Fundamentalists score major victories, but where does that leave the rest of us?

November 5, 2004

Over the past few years, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, with the assistance of such prominent thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have been calling on atheists to identify themselves as brights, but it never has caught on nearly as much as its proponents had hoped. But in just the past few weeks, another term has achieved far more popular circulation, "the reality-based community."

In his article, "Without a Doubt," published last month, author Ron Suskind brought the term into print, perhaps for the first time. He attributes it to an unnamed senior presidential adviser, who defines it as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." Recalling his conversation with the aide, Suskind writes, "I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism."

The first week in November has been a less than encouraging time for that community.

In the presidential election, a few atheists found valid reasons for preferring the current incumbent to any of his challengers (the Democratic candidate as well as several third-party and independent alternatives), but many secular people and even some religious moderates have been concerned about what George W. Bush alternately has done and has promised to do in order to court religious fundamentalists in this country--deferring to religious strictures against stem-cell research, reproductive access, and equal rights for sexual minorities, and also providing direct federal assistance to religious groups. None of the above has been particularly heartening for people who believe in scientific research, advances in health and medicine, personal liberty, or the very wall of separation between religion and state. In a statement released Wednesday, November 3, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is quoted as saying, "The Religious Right is already crowing about providing Bush's margin of victory. The movement's leaders expect to be handsomely rewarded for that. The culture war may go nuclear."

Beyond the incumbent securing another four years in office, eleven states featured ballot initiatives that asked voters to deny same-sex couples the right to marry; on Tuesday, November 2, the initiatives passed in eleven states. Since the Massachusetts Supreme Court protected that right late last year in its state, a debate about same-sex marriage rights has raged on across the nation. In late September, the leadership of the US House of Representatives tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block its legality anywhere in the country by asking its members to vote on a constitutional amendment, which the president openly supported. And back in February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom briefly sanctioned civil marriages between same-sex couples in his city, until they were stopped and invalidated by the state of California. After Newsom made his bold move, the Board of Directors of the Atheist Community of Austin weighed in on the issue with a resolution in March, announcing its opposition to applying religious strictures to what is legally a secular institution.

Across the nation, the latest victories by religious fundamentalists seemed complete by Wednesday, November 3, but in Texas, the struggle continued through Friday.

A final vote on high-school health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) still was scheduled for Friday, November 5. The proposed textbooks have been controversial because of their failure to provide medically accurate information about contraception.

The Texas State Board earlier held two public hearings on the textbooks. Health educators and medical experts, who oppose the textbooks, came out in full force for the hearing on July 14. Fundamentalist Christian groups, who support the textbooks in the name of "abstinence before marriage," dominated the hearing on September 8. While other textbooks also were being considered this year, the two hearings focused solely on the proposed health textbooks for high-school students.rnrnConsequently, the Texas State Board's initial meeting on Thursday, November 4, took an unexpected turn when SBOE member Terri Leo of District 6, arguably the member most aligned with the Christian right here in Texas, expressed contention with health textbooks proposed for students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. She faulted one textbook series for failing to include gender-specific language when discussing sexual attraction and asked that revisions specify that such attraction is explicitly and exclusively for the opposite sex. In the process, she referred to the lack of specific gender references as "asexual stealth phrases." She claimed to make her objections on the basis of Texas law, specifically the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex couples the right to marry (although it says nothing about the right to desire). After Leo voiced her objections, Don McLeroy of District 9 asked that the publishers refer explicitly to "husband and wife" when discussing marriage instead of "partners." He tried to justify his recommendation by pointing out the initiatives against equal marriage rights for same-sex couples that had been passed by voters in eleven states two days earlier. By Friday, November 5, publishers had agreed to include definitions of marriage as between a man and a woman in addition to using the phrase "husbands and wives" instead of "partners" when referring to spouses. Yet Mary Helen Berlanga of District 2 expressed reservations about these revisions, saying that the Texas State Board's political interference set a very bad precedent. Her colleague David Bradley of District 7, another supporter of the religious right, had made motions to pass all the textbooks, except for the high-school textbooks, with all the latest revisions to which the publishers had agreed, but Berlanga offered substitute motions to approve the books without those revisions. However, Berlanga only picked up the support of three of her colleagues, Renee Nunez of District 1, Joe J. Bernal of District 3, and Mavis B. Knight of District 13. Those four are the only Democrats currently serving on this elected body in a state where the Republican party effectively has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists. After Berlanga's substitute motions failed, Bradley's won decisively.

Then the Texas State Board finally voted on the high-school health textbooks, which were approved thirteen to one. Knight provided the sole dissenting vote.rnrnIn a press conference immediately afterwards, Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told reporters, "This is a sad day for Texas teens. Four million teenagers will rely on these textbooks for information that is accurate and up-to-date. Instead of doing the responsible thing and providing high school students with life-saving information about sex and health, the State Board of Education has left them to fend for themselves and get information from each other and sources like the internet and MTV."

Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, also was there to comment on the Texas State Board's dogged insistence on exclusively heterosexual terms for describing relationships. He suggested that the publishers' compromises result in textbooks that will be alienating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.

In any event, the issue of separation between religion and state remains underacknowledged in mainstream political discourse, and the extent of its stakes often has been minimized. Ironically, the only group that comes close to appreciating its full implications are the country's religious fundamentalists, who choose to oppose it. Where does that leave the rest of us?

In televised debates, the president's Democratic challenger, US Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said that he would not want to impose his own Catholic faith on other citizens, including "atheists," an explicit reference to nontheistic Americans by a national politician that is shocking because it is so seldom made. But on Wednesday, November 3, the Senator ended his concession speech with what he described as a prayer: "God Bless America."

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