Sunday, May 15, 2016

"Great Author" yes, "God" no

By Mathew Goldstein

The article George Washington: Recognizing God’s hand in America by Dennis Jamison argues that "Washington inserted the words, "So help me God" into his oath of office; there's a movement to yank them out, history and tradition be damned with the Almighty." Mr. Jamison identifies himself as an adjunct faculty member of a community college.  However, the college's web site identifies him as a community instructor with no academic credentials and no expertise in American history.  He is determined to convey his strong conviction on this topic but he is allowing his convictions to substitute for the historical facts, which is the mistake that academics and historians are trained to avoid.  Mr. Jamison confidently makes several firm factual assertions, but he offers no evidence to back them up because there is none.

One such assertion that fails to be supported by historical evidence is "This first inauguration set the tradition, and subsequent inaugurations have change little since Washington’s day."  Since his article is arguing that his presidential oath of office was theistic, this implies all of the subsequent inaugurations included kissing a bible.  Yet there is no evidence that George Washington's second oath of office featured a bible. There are no known inauguration Bibles for presidents John Adams through John Tyler; in fact, there's no concrete evidence that those early presidents used a Bible at all for the oath. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. Both John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law.  Nor is their any evidence that any president appended "so help me God" to his oath office until maybe Lincoln at the earliest. But the evidence that Lincoln did this is weak and contradicted.  Chester Arthur was the first president widely reported to have appended that phrase. So if president George Washington did this, as Mr. Jamison claims, then that did not set a precedent that the other presidents followed.  Nor was the Chief Justice prompting for this theistic codicil, as has been the case since the 1930's.  That is a substantial change, and a relatively recent change. Originally the Chief Justice recited the oath and asked the president elect to affirm, now the Chief Justice recites the oath one sentence at a time and asks the president elect to repeat each sentence.

Another such factual assertion that lacks supporting evidence is 'It is reported that after the official oath, Washington said “so help me God,” and bent down to kiss the open Bible."'  Now, if by "it is reported" Mr. Jamison means that there are people who have asserted that Washington said that then technically he is correct.  But then so what? Many people throughout history have thusly reported many false claims, it merely takes one person to falsely assert something and other people to repeat the same false assertion, which demonstrates nothing at all about what actually happened.  That is exactly the situation here.  There is one, and only one, eyewitness account from someone standing on the balcony that quotes the oath recitation and that account does not include a theistic codicil. Sixty five years later several biographies were published that claimed for the first time that George Washington spatchcocked that phrase to his oath of office, but they are not eyewitness accounts and thus lack credibility.

He then makes the following misleading statement "Those final words have raised controversy among some Americans. Some claim that Washington never said them, as they are recorded nowhere in the official records of the ceremony."  This is false. I have never heard anyone argue that because the words are not in "the official records of the ceremony" they were not spoken.  The actual argument is that there are no contemporaneous eyewitness accounts that George Washington appended that phrase.  None.  Zero.  Neither in "official" records nor in "unofficial" records.  Nor is there such evidence for any other president until Chester Arthur, with weak and contradictory evidence for Lincoln's second oath.  Therefore we lack proper justification to claim that George Washington, or any other president until Chester Arthur, appended that phrase to his oath office.

Mr. Jamison also wrote: "He tended to make references to God in his speeches."  Now it is true, as the two examples in his article show, that George Washington employed multiple different euphemisms for divinity such as the "Almighty Being", "Great Author", "benign parent of human race", etc. He is not known to have utilized the word "God" more than once or twice in his entire life, and then it was while reading a document out loud that was written by someone else.  This is a fact about George Washington that disfavors the conclusion that he said "so help me God" after is oath of office.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

DC Marijuana Protest

by Don Wharton

I attended the protest demonstration in front of the White House held April 2, 2016. Their 51 foot long plastic joint, inflated by a fan, said “Obama Deschedule Cannabis Now.” This referred to Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, which lists drugs with a high potential for abuse, no medical use, and no safe use even under medical supervision. Marijuana does not belong on Schedule 1.

A number of speakers described how some variety of cannabis was needed to deal with their seizures, pain, or side effects of cancer. There are many more medical uses for marijuana with various levels of credibility in the published literature. A religious fanatic pranced around the demonstration holding a Bible above his head and spouted various verses. Not until he appeared right next to me did I find out the Healing Church had won a court case defining marijuana as a sacrament. The passages he cited were ones he thought referred to cannabis. It shows how the metaphorical language of religion can justify just about anything.

The single most common reason people cite for using cannabis is to enhance their delight in the world. I consumed some edibles someone gave me at the demonstration. I had five hits from joints that people shared with me including one from Adam Eidinger, organizer of the event. This was in a sea of cameras so there is likely to be ample evidence I was violating the law as a point of civil disobedience. I also got royally stoned for the first time in decades. I love life as it is, so I feel little need to chemically enhance things. My choice to engage was purely political.

That said, the experience was quite delightful. I use mindfulness meditation where the goal is let go of all ideas and abstract understandings to attend solely to what is real. Perception can be maximized by choosing to place attention only on one's physical being and surroundings. The cannabis enhancement of this effect brings it to an amazing new level. I was richly reminded of the peak in joy that can occur when someone feels totally unified with everything that is. Many people have mistakenly presumed such peak experiences are a transcendental communicating with God. The vibrancy of flowers and the singing of birds are examples of experiences that become massively richer. A wren landed a few feet in front me. I stopped walking and attended to the bird. I was amazed this small wild creature showed no fear. It cocked its head five different ways to look at me. It felt like a quasi-conversation where each of us shared awareness of the consciousness of the other.

Given my delight in interacting with the wren it was obvious I was enjoying my abstract understanding of what happened. I then looked what I was doing in front of the White House. There were five million people arrested for marijuana just during the Obama administration. Some of these suffered radically outsized penalties such as the veteran who got life in prison for the two pound stash used to manage the pain from his wounds. Ehrlichman in the Nixon administration had made it clear the motivation for the war on drugs was to target their major political opposition, the anti-war left and blacks. The facts about marijuana literally did not matter. What mattered was allocating power to the pro-war conservatives who supported Nixon. I loved the idea of being there in civil disobedience against the repressive stupidity of that drug war. I was standing against the pain and destruction of millions of lives because a power elite deemed segments of the population to be their political enemy. These ideas and many others covered by the protest speakers were included in one massive non-verbal network of ideas that somehow appeared in my mind as a single unified whole. It became clear that ideas could be as awesomely vibrant and luminous as direct sensory perceptions. With this awareness the goal ceased to be a mindfulness empty of ego and abstractions. Instead I became aware of the vast range of choices possible concerning consciousness and savored exploring that range. Later I spent an extremely delightful evening with my loving significant other with no hangover the next day. In fact the next day had a wonderful afterglow of happiness.

A central scientific claim by those who support keeping cannabis on Schedule 1 is that there is no safe use and no medical use. It is not a goal of this article to do an extensive review of either the benefits or possible negatives, but we do need to review the major problems and fears. There are some allergic reactions which can be severe. Some people get panic attacks. Some cannabis supporters claim that users do not get addicted. Routine use does increase the prevalence of cannabinoid receptors and there are some negative symptoms such as irritability upon withdrawal. The fact the percent who get addicted is much lower than the case for alcohol and tobacco and the symptoms more mild is no excuse to pretend that cannabis addiction does not occur. It does. There are no deaths whatsoever from the direct chemical effect for average people. It is nominally even safer than caffeine. Caffeine has a lethal dose level only 75 to 100 times the typical dose in a cup of coffee. With marijuana the lethal dose of tetrahydrocannabinol is not know with precision but it is certain to be thousands of times greater than the amount required to saturate all cannabinoid receptors in the human body and produce the maximum possible psychoactive response.

Obviously, it is highly recommended that people not drive or engage in dangerous activities while under the influence of marijuana or any drug. The possible harms from marijuana are the exception and it is clear the vast majority of people can safely use it. Medical services are needed only to determine which variety and dosage is required to provide benefit and to respond to the small percent who have the unfortunate responses noted above.

Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill, S. 2237, titled "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015"1. In his opinion it is crazy to continue having marijuana on Schedule 1. A recent Gallup poll had 58% of American favoring legal use of marijuana2. As with LGBT rights there is a sharp differential across generations. A PEW Research poll earlier found 68% of the millennial generation supporting legal use3. Personal quotes cited in the PEW report:
“It is not as harmful as alcohol. [...] It also helps medical conditions as a more natural substitute to pharmaceuticals.” Female, 46
“My grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy a year ago and it has been proven that it helps with the seizures.” Female, 69
“I think crime would be lower if they legalized marijuana. It would put the drug dealers out of business.” Female, 62
“Because people should be allowed to have control over their body and not have the government intervene in that.” Male, 18
“I think that we would have more control over it by allowing a federal agency to tax and regulate it like alcohol.” Male, 25

Footnotes
1: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s2237/text
2: http://www.gallup.com/poll/186260/back-legal-marijuana.aspx
3: http://www.people-press.org/2015/04/14/in-debate-over-legalizing-marijuana-disagreement-over-drugs-dangers/

Establishment of atheism in China

By Mathew Goldstein

Questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt regarding the existence of a supernatural realm, or for that matter questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt on other topics, are ultimately individual decisions.  Being human entails freely adopting, possessing, and expressing, our own beliefs.  In a democracy the citizens guide the government.  To the extent that government is telling its citizens what they are supposed to believe, and openly favoring one belief over another, the government is attempting to influence its citizens in ways that restrict their governing role.  Accordingly, democratic government tries to avoid using its authority and powers to actively instruct people, or lead people, on what their beliefs should be.  

Yet government also has responsibilities and interests and accordingly needs freedom of action to carry out its responsibilities regardless of whether or not some of the citizens disagree with the government policies.  Religious beliefs can dictate what is deemed to be ethical or unethical over a wide range of behaviors.  Non-ideological, pragmatic, evidenced based, government policies, enacted and enforced without regard to religious beliefs, are going to sometimes conflict, to some extent, with the religious beliefs of some citizens.  This is, like death and taxes, an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of life.  Non-establishment of religion does not entail that there will be no conflicts.  It merely entails that government will avoid actively taking sides, either for or against, religious beliefs.  We make an effort to accommodate religious believers by recognizing free exercise as an individual liberty also meriting legal protection.

China has a more top down, authoritarian, ideological, approach to governing. There is one political party and that political party governs.  Government censors all sources of information that could influence its citizens beliefs about government policy, including the Internet, and sometimes imprisons people merely for criticizing government policy or officials or for trying to utilize otherwise legal process to try to help people harmed by questionable government practices.

Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the advisory body to China’s legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently wrote in the official Global Times newspaper that the party should “unambiguously promote Marxist atheism to society,” and preserve "its leading position in the thinking of the masses of the people," describing it as “the nations’ mainstream ideology.” And he said it was particularly important to “strengthen propaganda education about a scientific worldview, including atheism, for young people." He said that while China protected the rights of religious believers, “as a nation led by the Communist Party, we cannot abandon atheism and turn to religion for spiritual support, nor take a neutral or conciliatory attitude [when choosing] between atheism and religion, and cannot allow religion to spread without limits and become the mainstream ideology."

China has overtly promoted atheism to Communist Party members, who are not supposed to believe in any religion. It imposes controls on its five officially registered religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Catholic and Protestant churches – and acts against unregistered religious groups.  Yet in recent years the number of religious believers has grown rapidly.

Since President Xi took office more than three years ago, the leadership has increasingly sought to promote more communist party orthodoxy, criticizing Western cultural and liberal values and other “unhealthy foreign infiltration".  Zhu Weiqun said that a number of party members had “found consolation in religions,” something that had “seriously damaged the party’s ideology, organization and work style.” The Communist Party had not come to power by “guiding people to put their hope on heaven or future life.”  Zhu said it was necessary to guide people to “draw a clear line” between “atheism and religion, science and superstition, civilization and ignorance.”

Here in the United States, organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion, Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, American Humanists, etc. do not want, or seek, government establishment of atheism.  We hear some critics of government non-establishment try to associate government non-establishment of religion in the United States with the policies of the former Soviet Union or the current Chinese Communist Party government.  They are mistaken.  Insofar as the U.S. government resembles those governments, it is partly because of our government establishments of theism. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950's it was argued that by passing laws implementing establishments of theism we were asserting one of the most important differences between them and us.  In fact, we actually accomplished the opposite.  We made ourselves less democratic and more like the Soviet Union and China.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

How's that for evidence that God exists?

By Mathew Goldstein

The Resurrection and the Death of Atheism: Jesus rose from the dead.  How's that for evidence that God exists? was written by a Catholic priest, Father Dwight Longenecker, who was ordained a decade ago under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.  Since he claims to refute atheism from the empirical evidence, and arguments of this sort appear to be accepted by many believers, it merits a response.  He claims there is forensic evidence, documentary evidence, archaeological evidence, botanical and biological evidence, photographic evidence, logical evidence, historical evidence, eyewitness evidence, and legal evidence that Jesus was God.

But first, he says, we should begin with some "philosophical head  games".  He described the philosophical underpinnings of what follows thusly:  "If there is just one miracle, however — and we only need one — then nature is not a closed system and there is a force greater than nature and outside of nature. If that miracle is intelligible, that is to say, it makes sense, then the force that is greater than nature is intelligent, and if it is intelligent than it is more than a force, it is a personality."  

While this philosophical starting point has some merit it is biased in favor of the author's preferred conclusion.  It elides the difficulties in establishing that any claimed one time anomalous event actually was "greater than nature and outside of nature" or that it is "intelligent" if it appears to be "intelligible".  It also allows evidence for one such anomalous event to suffice when, in fact, evidence favoring a freak, one time anomaly is a dubious basis for abandoning a naturalistic worldview when the evidence for naturalism is ongoing, pervasive, diverse, and persistent.  A lot will depend here on the quantity and quality of the alleged evidence.  We need a very large quantity of exceptional quality evidence to overcome the evidence for naturalism when all we have is a single event from 2000 years ago that is claimed to be supernatural.

He then says "The one miracle that Christians claim above all others is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."  He then claims that '... there are really only three options.  First, that he did not really die and the “resurrection” was therefore only a form of resuscitation; second that he did die, but something happened so that his body vanished and third, the witnesses to the resurrection were deluded, deceived or were themselves deceptive.'

There is another possibility, lets refer to this as option number four: The stories about witnesses to a resurrection are false, no one witnessed the alleged resurrection.  In other words, the delusion or deception begins with the stories themselves, and with the authors of the stories, not with the people appearing in the story.  It is interesting that Father Dwight Longenecker excludes this possibility from the start.  Instead, the rest of his article argues against his three godless options.  So let's focus on this fourth possibility.

I am no expert in the history of the time and place of the bible, so I must concede from the start that I am speculating.  The first thing to note is that in the seven epistles that most experts (about 80%) think were written by Paul there is very little historical information regarding Jesus.  Paul's Jesus is an archetype of an imaginary, mythical, fictional, fantasy character.  His other-worldly visions related to Jesus are strongly apocalyptic.  According to Paul, no one reading his writings would outlive the end of times, and therefore his message was extremely urgent.  Reading his epistles it should be easy for anyone who is not gullible to conclude that Paul was a deluded individual who literally dreamed his Jesus into existence.  When you see the guy on the street corner with a sign that says repent now, the end of times is near, that person has a mindset in common with Paul's.

Then came the book of Mark, written in Greek for a Greek (and therefore mostly non-Jewish) audience.  It was probably written sometime after 65 A.D.  The book of Mark contains historical details that had not yet occurred at the time that Jesus was said to be executed.  So we date the book of Mark to several decades after the alleged resurrection, when the events referenced in the book had already occurred.  

Paul had previously persuaded small groups of people that his strictly supernatural visions were factual, and some of those eager to believe people met regularly among themselves for many years to discuss the implications.  Some of them may have thought about their own past encounters with roaming preachers, associated what they heard from these religious preachers with Paul's stories, and linked them to Paul's imaginary Jesus.  Some of them may have been Jewish, and they may have looked to Jewish religious texts to fill in the story gaps. Some of them may have been familiar with other popular stories that circulated at the time, such as those written by Homer, and filled in the story gaps by borrowing from those sources.  Others may have traveled between the different discussion groups and added to the stories to make them fit together better.   The initially abstract, ghostly Jesus thus acquired, with the assistance of ordinary human credulity, an earthly, human biography.  The anonymous author, or authors, of the book of Mark put these stories down in writing, and that became the basis for what later became the bible as we know it today.

So what is the status of the resurrection?  It originated with Paul, in his head.  It is all fiction, and therefore so are the subsequent books that were inspired by Paul's visions of his imaginary Jesus.  All of Father Dwight Longenecker's arguments opposing his three no god options are arguing from the contents of the book of Mark, as if that book, or the subsequent books derived from Mark, are reliable sources of historical information regarding an actual personality named Jesus, which they certainly are not, and thus fail to demonstrate that the available empirical evidence favors Jesus as deity.  But we are not finished yet.

Father Dwight Longenecker ends his argument by citing the Shroud of Turin as empirical evidence for Jesus.  The problem here is that the age of the cloth was carbon 14 dated to a little before the start of the 12th century by three different laboratories, which is not long after it was first discovered.  To get around this problem there is a new video attacking the veracity of that date.  However, the carbon 14 dating was valid and it stands, notwithstanding the efforts to try to discredit it.

That is about the best that anyone can argue, from a Christian perspective, for their being empirical evidence that God exists.  Arguments from a Jewish or Islamic perspective, or other religious perspective, are very unlikely to do any better.  There is plenty of hand waving and grand assertions but little substance.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Tax support for church-run schools in Canada

by Edd Doerr

A February poll in Ontario found that Ontarians oppose tax support for Catholic schools by 52% to 38%. Ontario Education Ministry spokesperson  Liz Sandals, however, said that Ontario will continue to provide full tax support for four separate school systems – English language public, French public, English Catholic and French Catholic. The church-run schools get more per student public  funding than the two public school systems. Protestant, Jewish and other private schools in the province get zero public funding. British Columbia provides funding to various church-run schools, but less than in the other three provinces.  This system goes back to Canada’s constitution, the British North America Act of 1867, which created modern Canada. Only three provinces require public funding for Catholic schools – Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Predominantly French and nominally Catholic Quebec ended Catholic school funding in 1999. Newfoundland, which had only  tax-supported church-run schools  – five systems of them – switched to public schools only in two sweeping referenda in the 1990s.

In mid-March Canadian columnist Samantha Emann wrote that it’s time to “put out the fire” in the burning debate over Catholic school funding. Changing the constitution requires only the approval of the House of Commons and the Senate and, importantly, only the province that is affected. Emann notes that this is what happened regarding Quebec in 1999.

Samantha Emann writes, “are unfair to Canada’s many other religious groups and cultures. Funding all religious schools would be a logistical nightmare, and in my view, public services should be affirmatively secular.” She adds, “As should be apparent to anyone who has been following the news for the past year, some Catholic schools boards, trustees, teachers and advising clergy have  a record of discriminatory, socially regressive efforts to hinder advances made in the interest of student safety and learning. . . .  In Ontario there was opposition from Catholic leaders to the much-needed, recently updated sex-education curricula.”

Emann continues: “That deficit-plagued province [Ontario] recently asked voters for ideas online for ways it could save money in its budget. Here’s an idea. According to a 2012 report from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods, mergimg Ontario’s Catholic and public school boards would save the province more than $1 billion.”

The 2016 poll was conducted by Forum Research. Its president, Lorne Bozinoff, said recently that “If it were ever put to a public referendum, Catholic school funding would lose, fair and square.” Just as, I might add, it has in the US in 28 referendum elections by large margins from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014.

In related news, the Ontario-based Civil Rights in Public Education organization (CRIPEweb.org) reports that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal will consider a complaint “about the treatment one student [non-Catholic Claudia Sorgini] has received from Roman Catholic school board personnel when she applied for an exemption from religious courses and programs in one of the board’s high schools.” The complaint is based on the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which are supposed to provide protection from religious or creed-based pressure.

Some History on Too Big to Fail

by Gary Berg-Cross

Both Andrew Jackson, he of the $20 bill, and banks being too big to fail are in the news.  There is an interesting historical connection here in that Jackson’s fight with the 2nd Bank of the United States illustrates some of the issues about moneyed interest and breaking up that influence and banks.

As most of us know Founder Alexander Hamilton set the stage for a big national bank, replacing state banks as part of a centralizing, mercantilist approach consistent with his “English” policies. Within early America’s growingly competitive capitalistic system the first national bank provided a large sources of credit for commerce.

In 1816, Congress provided money to establish the 2nd Bank of the US with considerable power & influence to print money, provide loans, pay bills and yes, collect taxes as well as circulating dollars around the country to spark growth.

This Bank was a hybrid affair with most of the money coming from private  investors but the government provided 1/5th of the bank and thus “owned” a 1/5 share.. something that became quite important in later battles.
By 1820 or so the Bank of the US had $35 million in capital which meant it had lots of influence. It could make money easy or hard to access and since it had investor stockholders its decisions could and did give "exclusive money-making opportunities to its stockholders.”

As historian Daniel Feller explains:

 "the Bank of the United States helped the government to do its business 
effectively and efficiently. But it also helped the people who owned stock in the bank. "

According to historian Michael Beschlos in “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.” The Bank had considerable power over average citizens and politicians as well.  The well known Pol Henry Clay, for example, had a hidden “loan” from the Bank. Indeed “many of his political enemies had loans from the bank or were on its payroll. http://www.britannica.com/event/Bank-War

Andrew Jackson, a man of the 99% here, had his reasons to  oppose the Bank:

  • It was a dangerously centralized financial power
  • It held an unconstitutional monopoly on finance that only helped the rich get richer
  • It made the economy vulnerable to foreign and special interests
  • It held too much influence over federal politicians
  • It favored the North (where most financial centers were located) over the South and West
 And, of course Bank President Nicholas Biddle, his agents and political allies opposed Jackson and made him look like a tyrant. 
“ With an ability to spread vast sums of money among newspaper editors, Senators and Congressmen, Biddle seemed unassailable.” http://americastrust.us/presidentialcourage.html

Despite this and the threat to destroy the economy as Jackson campaigned for re-election (shades of today), Jackson prevailed. 

When Congress, at Biddle’s behest, voted to renew the Bank’s charter Jackson vetoed the measure and gradually moved to cripple the Bank by withdrawing government money. Here's how he did it:

“On October 1, 1833, Jackson decreed that no more government money could be deposited into the (Bank) B.U.S. Instead, Jackson thought the states should have more control, so he made it easy for all kinds of individuals to charter their own institutions, many of which were classic fly-by-night operations. The banks then would often issue their own notes and a bit of trivia is the fact that the term "wildcat" originated long before it was used in the oil industry.” https://www.buyandhold.com/bh/en/education/history/2002/a_jackson_pt_4.html


Sort of a break up strategy in effect which ultimately succeeded in crippling the Bank.  And enough of the 99% understood and supported this type of breakup.  The Senate couldn't come up with a two-thirds majority to override the election year veto and Jackson's defeat of Clay in the election meant that the Bank was not renewed.  What followed was not great economic times, but perhaps we can learn from that lesson too along with the influence of too-big-to- fail capital and its influence on politics and income disparity. 

More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_War

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Secular has two contexts and definitions

By Mathew Goldstein

Secular and non-religious are synonyms.  Insofar as we know what it means to be religious we also know what it means to be non-religious.  Secular can describe individuals or institutions.  A secular individual can have, or a secular institution can represent, opinions that range anywhere between being pro-religion and anti-religion. An individual with anti-religion opinions, or an institution representing anti-religion opinions, is more likely to be secular than religious because being both religious and anti-religion tends to be self-contradictory.  

However, when the secular institution is government we are talking about laws. Therefore our definition of secular is now the definition found in legal dictionaries. Legal definitions often differ from the definitions for the same word found in general usage dictionaries.  Legal concepts are rooted in legal concerns such as civic equality and liberty.  So it is with secularism as a legal concept.  Secular government is non-religious government.  But unlike opinionated secular individuals and non-government institutions, secular government also requires religious neutrality.

This is a substantial difference and it is important.  Secular government does not represent pro-religion or anti-religion opinions.  Secular government does not favor theism over atheism or vice-a-versa.  Secular individuals and non-government institutions may advocate either for, or against, religions or religious beliefs.  Secular government institutions avoid taking sides on questions of religious beliefs or practices.

When we advocate for secular government we should be advocating for government neutrality vis-a-vis religious beliefs and practices.  This entails sometimes accommodating religious beliefs and practices when it is practical to do so without sacrificing the enactment or enforcement of secular policies.  Secular policies are justified by the overall available empirical evidence.  Individual liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, are secular values.  Religious convictions and practices are considered for accommodation, but not as legal or policy justification.  

Advocating for secular government, advocating for religious beliefs, and being religious, are all mutually compatible, at least in theory if not always in practice. A conflict occurs when religious beliefs are actively opposed to secular laws and polices.  In that zero sum context secularists should be willing to stand against those particular religious beliefs, not because they are religious beliefs but because the beliefs conflict with secular government.  The notion that secular government avoids all conflict with all religions and religious beliefs is false.

As individuals, some secularists are anti-religion.  Religions are fictions, with no exceptions, and that alone is proper justification to be anti-religion.  Believing that falsehoods are truths, whether it is believing that there is no global warming problem, that humans are not primates with single celled ancestors, or that some holy book contain instructions from a deity, is bad for humanity.  I would prefer living in a country, and on a planet, where people accurately recognized the difference between fiction and fact and lived in the non-fictional universe instead of living in a human imagination created parallel fictional universe.

Yet it would be a mistake to look to government policy and laws as instruments for converting individuals from religion to secularism. That would betray secular government as a legal principle rooted in neutrality.  Government neutrality as a legal principle has merit and should not be sacrificed.  Converting people away from religion also has merit and that should be pursued separately through individual advocacy and non-government institutional advocacy.  We can each advocate for both types of secularism, or we can advocate for secular government without advocating generally against religious beliefs.  Either way, we should respect this distinction between the two different definitions of secular for the two different contexts.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

2016 legislative recap Secular Coalition for Maryland

Bills that passed


One of the bills that we opposed,  HB1028 cross filed with SB0682, passed.  This requires voters to decide if alcohol will be sold on Sundays in Garrett County.  Hopefully they will vote yes, but we think that government should not be making religious practice based activity restriction decisions for everyone by citizen vote or by legislation. Religions make distinctions between different days of the week, government lacks sufficient secular justifications for implementing the same distinctions in the laws.

A bill that removes some of the Sunday hunting restrictions in Carroll County, HB0169 cross-filed with SB0219, passed.  Two Allegheny County bills that remove some Sunday alcohol sales restrictions also passed.  These were HB0994 cross-filed with SB0736, and HB0995 cross-filed with SB0878.  We prefer that the blue laws be eliminated, but meanwhile we will support each little step that moves us closer to that goal.

A bill applying to Anne Arundel County that, among other things, replaced the sectarian word "church" with the more generic phrase "house of worship",  HB0642 cross-filed with SB0033, passed.  Although we take no position on the overall bill, we thanked the sponsor of this bill for taking a positive step towards our goal of dropping excessively sectarian language from our laws.

HB1005 cross-filed with SB0848, which requires insurers to cover contraception without fees or prior authorization, passed. Some religious people not only oppose contraception, they also oppose insurance coverage for contraception. Those people can be given an individual opt out, everyone else should not need to opt in.

Bills we opposed that failed


HB0016 allows places of public accommodation to discriminate in providing goods and services to weddings.  Although this bill failed, the same provisions were previously written into a different section of the law.  We want those provisions to be revoked.

HB0453, HB1213, and HB1343 cross-filed with SB0706, give millions of dollars in tax credits covering 60% or 70% of donations to private schools.  If lawmakers want state government funding of private education then we suggest lending privately educated children the same textbooks utilized by public schools and allowing otherwise privately educated children to enroll in a limited number of public school courses.

HB0568 one sidedly allows health provider institutions to forbid employees from providing aid in dying to the terminally ill.  We want the laws granting institutions the option to mandate that their employees not provide a health care service to also allow institutions to mandate that their employees provide the same health care service.  We will oppose institutional level "freedom of conscience" bills lacking such reciprocity.

HB0603 cross-filed with SB0749 makes unsubstantiated factual assertions about fetal pain perception to justify banning most abortions at 20 weeks.  HB1357 prohibits government funding of abortions or insurance that covers abortions.

HB0719 cross-filed with SB0522 gives a special sales tax exemption specifically for Boy Scouts of America which has a no atheists, and no atheist leaning agnostics, membership policy for both youth participants and adult leaders.

HB0955 requires all public schools to allow student prayer at all school sponsored events. Public schools are not free speech forums and prayer should not be privileged over all other speech at public school events.

Bills we supported that failed


HB0316 requires publication of video of government meetings.  The videos are useful for understanding the bills.

HB0404 cross-filed with SB0418 makes it legal for doctors to give terminally ill people a prescription of barbiturates that they can self-administer to hasten their deaths. This bill creates procedures to protect the civil rights of health providers and patients.

HB0996 changes Easter Monday from a state wide public school holiday to an optional school district wide public school holiday.  We think government closures on religious holidays should occur only when a majority of employees or customers say they will be absent on that day.

SB0948 requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.