Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Catholic university teaches humanist ethics

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Innes Mitchell has taught at Saint Edward’s University in Texas for twenty years. The university describes itself this way: “St. Edward’s expresses its Catholic identity by communicating the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.” The Catholic Church is not what I would call a font of intellectualism. It promotes and endorses beliefs that are not grounded in best fit with the available evidence, such as the claim that everyone is descended from a single “Adam and Eve” pair. The story of Jesus is rooted in that first couple tainting humanity with a sin, so that claim is difficult for Christianity (in general, across denominations) to discard. Quoting Pius XII’s “Humani Generis” 1950 encyclical: “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that … Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which … the documents of the teaching authority of the church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam.”

It is most likely that the evolution of humanity was complicated and messy, it was a many generation, many century, many locations, gradual process. Trying to fit that into an Adam and Eve scenario sounds more like sophistry than reason. Some Catholics in particular cite Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical, sometimes non—literalist approach, but they conveniently overlook that he believed in a literal seven day = 168 hours creation, a literal Adam, and a literal Eve. Christianity is big and diverse, and at St. Edward University we find a positive example of a deeper commitment to the students and society from within a Catholic institution.

Professor Mitchell teaches a course Perspectives of Atheism. This is not a course where students are introduced to arguments for why we should be atheists. Instead, A.C. Greyling’s book “Meditations from the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age” is assigned to the students. Given the tendency for too many religions to negatively promote fear of atheism (for example, the Vatican equates atheism with Hell) instead of positively promoting understanding, it is noteworthy that every now and then some institutions with religious affiliations are better than that. We should not underestimate how significant and positive it is that we sometimes have a willingness like this to reach across differences of belief. To be flexible this way can also be good for religiously affiliated institutions that want to attract and retain religion skeptical and non-believing current and future customers.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The historical monument defense

By Mathew Goldstein

It appears that Justice Breyer may want to avoid a decision that the Bladensburg Cross violates the EC. Maybe he thinks that voters will retaliate and vote Republican in future elections. At the same time it appears that he does not want government favoring Christianity over other religions. This could explain why he argued as follows: “What about saying past is past ... but no more?” On the one hand “we’re not going to have people trying to tear down historical monuments,” but on the hand “we are a different country now” that is more pluralistic. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act established the World War I Centennial Commission, which was given the authority to build a memorial in Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., so it’s not as if absent this particular memorial there would be no WWI memorial in this area. Nor would the expense of maintaining this old memorial likely be much different from the expense of replacing it given it’s decrepit condition.

Justice Sotomayer, to her credit, pointed out that there are few government sponsored large crosses across the nation. “We don’t have a long tradition of that. It’s sectarian.” she said. But the current Supreme Court majority was nominated by Republican presidents. And the Republican party has been ambivalent at best, antagonistic at worst, towards non-establishment of religion for as long as anyone alive today has lived. Non-establishment of religion entails refraining from citing Jesus or a God in the laws and government documents. For people who live and breath Jesus, or a God, non-establishment of their religion can easily be misperceived as being threatening or destructive.


Existing precedent favors a ruling against the Bladensburg Cross. Although the Supreme Court has allowed unequivocally sectarian Ten Commandment displays, with some assistance from Justice Breyer’s search for excuses to allow sectarian displays while denying that the concessions further weaken the already diminished EC, it has been less accommodating of crosses. This distinction between the Ten Commandments and crosses makes little sense, they are both sectarian. Allowing government sponsored Ten Commandment displays is a mistake. Mistake by mistake, the unpopular EC is being eroded by the Supreme Court.


At the same time it is necessary to consider the overall context of the displays as Justice Breyer advocates. So, for example, the frieze on the Supreme Court building that depicts multiple “historical” figures from different times, places, and religions, is about the history of the development of laws and therefore the depictions of Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammad, etc. is not an establishment of religion. There is no Babylonian or Jewish or Islamic religious iconography or any depictions of past law makers from different times and places accompanying the Bladensburg Cross. There was no proper reason for the Supreme Court to take this case.


Maybe we will get a positive ruling in this case. I hope so. The introduction of the EC was one of the big advances in human government. China has an establishment of atheism which is consistent with its authoritarianism. Non-establishment of religion is a democratic limitation on government power. It is tragic to witness the EC being attacked and weakened in its country of origin. This is a symptom of the reality that the future of democratic government has not been secured.


Yet there has been some recent progress in reducing establishments of religion in some European countries. It is encouraging to witness people pursuing this lawsuit and advocating for the EC. Our world can be a better place and the EC has a role in making it so.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Bladensburg Cross case by the American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association argued a case in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 about the Bladensburg Cross.  
A demonstration was  held in front of the Supreme Court building. Watch the video of the speakers here, and WASH president Samantha McGuire speaks at 24:00.  The case was based on the idea that the war memorial that is a cross doesn't represent non-Christian soldiers.  The cross is large and imposing, it is located on land owned by the State of Maryland, and it doesn't have any obvious or easily seen reference to a war, but rather it just looks like a big cross.

I'd like to add another argument that is actually a defense of Christians.  The cross is a symbol of the Christian religion, recognized by both Christians and non-Christians.  The argument that a cross can be a secular or historical monument, rather than a symbol of a religion, is a ridiculous, absurd statement.  I don't understand why Christians will sit by silently and allow this argument to be made into legal precedents.  It is an outrageous insult to Christianity to claim that their symbol is nothing more than a secular marker.

Naturally, non-Christians like Jews, Muslims, and Humanists have more to object to in this memorial than Christians do.  It simply doesn't represent non-Christian veterans as a war memorial.  Memorials to veterans who sacrificed to fight a war for the country are close to the most honored public art, as a tribute to their patriotism and personal sacrifice for the good of the country.  But the United States is based on the idea of cooperation between people of all national backgrounds and faiths, and memorials shouldn't be based on a symbol of only one religion.

The principal is greater than just one memorial.  The principal is whether the use of a religious symbol can be justified as a secular or historical marker that is independent of the religion.  Why are Christians silently sitting by when the symbol of their religion is being stolen from them and debased?  Sometimes politicians want use religion to indicate their personal piety, while at the same time they argue that legally the religious symbol is not really religious.  It is hypocritical by politicians who are not doing their job of defending the Constitution, and it is an outrageous way of coopting the religious symbol.  For example, Justice Scalia said in Supreme Court oral arguments, 
“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.” 
I would respond that his is the outrageous conclusion.  Justice Sotomayor said in the oral arguments to the Bladensburg Cross case
"There is a brief here that says that, to deeply religious Christians, secularizing the cross is blasphemy. Christ died on the cross. He was resurrected from his grave. So those people don't view secularizing the cross as something -- it's not just Jewish people or Hindu people who might be offended.  It could be Christians as well."
The Christian cross is simply not a secular symbol that can be separated from its religious significance.  Any politician or Supreme Court justice who argues that it is should be ashamed of themselves.  If atheists must be the ones to stand up and make this defense of the Christian cross for the benefit of Christians, then bring it on! 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

End of Life Options Act is better this year

By Mathew Goldstein

This year’s End of Life Options Act bill is a significant improvement over the bill offered two years ago. The procedure for the patient and the doctors are mostly the same as before. The difference is that various omissions in the original bill have been corrected so that we now have a comprehensive law that covers most of the forseeable issues and complications, such as dispensing with unused medication, recording and reporting the implementation of the law, the insurance impact, and health care facility opt-out details. It is apparent when reading the bill that considerable effort was made to protect the interests of all involved. The End of Life Options Act provides a procedure for people who have been diagnosed to probably die within six months from a fatal illness to hasten their deaths by overdosing on barbiturates. If you agree then visit the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobby page to send an email to the committees considering this bill, and the Death with Dignity Maryland action page to send emails to your state lawmakers, requesting that they approve it.

There are a few weaknesses with the current bill. One flaw is that the provision for dispensing with unused medicine is somewhat vague, I think it can be strengthened. However, the problem of properly dispensing with unused medicine transcends this particular bill and may need a separate bill to address fully.

There is an imbalance in how this bill protects institutional level freedom of conscience. This imbalance is not unique to this bill, it is also found elsewhere in existing Maryland law. There is a right of conscience at the individual level that is overridden by the institutional right of conscience provision. Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to institutions opposed to a legal medical procedure. Accordingly, when non-public institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate employee refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it follows that non-public institutions that support those same medical procedures should likewise be permitted to mandate employee agreement to provide them. The latter provision is missing from this bill. An institutional level right of non-refusal is also missing from HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214. That law grants health care providers in Maryland a conscience right of refusal to provide all of their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy".

Although Maryland has few publicly controlled health care provider institutions, it would be better if refusal conscience law that apply to employment policies of entire institutions explicitly excludes publicly controlled institutions. There should be a legal requirement that all institutional wide right of refusal and right of non-refusal policies be publicized so that patients can easily identify which health providers have such policies. The public has a need to know what health care services will or will not be provided by particular health care providers whenever the law renders the provision of those services optional.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Some thoughts on Modern Philanthropy & Humanist Values in a Winners Take All World


by Gary Berg-Cross (WASH Board Member)
The super wealthy are meeting in Davos again and as one context Oxfam notes that the wealth gap widening. This is not a new topic for Oxfam but this year they observe that around the world wealth inequality is what they call "out of control." They observe that it is doing particular harm to women and provide a report with these stats:
billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year—the equivalent of $2.5 billion a day—while the 3.8 billion people who make up the world's poorest half saw their wealth decline by 11 percent. “
So while we live in what seems a productive time all around us there is also failure (like students learning less), along with but expensive new things like American medicine and its drugs that more people are being shut out from. Sure there has been a tremendous amount of innovation over the last 40 years but still there are stats that show that half of Americans, the bottom half of Americans, 117 million Americans, literally have no more money in their weekly paycheck after this 40 years of innovation. Why?
It doesn seem to be an innovation shortage. Heard about the latest AI renovation? What we have may be a progress shortage. Meaning that in this wealthy era the wealth is not trickling down in a progressive fashion to help the common need.
As Oxfam's report suggests the poorest half of the global population is actually seeing its net worth dwindle so it is also a gap era like the 1920s & the Gilded Age. It's an argument that economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, makes and explains why is simple terms. It's about the growing inherited wealth via return on investment.

The ratio of wealth to income is rising in all developed countries and absent extraordinary interventions, we should expect that trend to continue. But if it continues, the future will look like the 19th century, where economic elites have predominantly inherited their wealth rather than working for it. Since this wealth does not rely on work, or work's values it may not even care about the quality of life of those who do the work. And that is a problem.
This point is also made by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Both warn of the socio-economic impacts of a widening gap. Among those problems are changes in the lives of working-class Americans, rooted in policy choices and shifts in technology as well as the world situation. Shifts include outsourcing to poor parts of the world without union protection, stagnant wages, erratic hours, defanged unions, deindustrialization, ballooning debt, nonexistent sick leave, dismal schools, predatory lending, and dynamic scheduling. All problems.

But wait. There is mitigating charity and philanthropy. Can the super-rich and their companies may save us through enlightened charity? Take Microsoft for example. Microsoft has unveiled plans to commit $500 million to advance affordable housing solutions across the city of SeattleWashington. The money, to be distributed as loans and grants, will kick-start new solutions to the city’s housing crisis, where income increases have lagged behind rising housing costs for professions like teachers. Good.
But is it good enough and the right stuff?
Some think not. Philanthropy of the super-rich may not be an inadequate substitute for a fairer world – it may actually be intentionally and unintentionally part of the system that perpetuates the gross unfairness of mass inequality. That is the argument made in Anand Giridharadas “Winners take all.” He argues that you can inspire the rich to do more good but never tell them to do less harm (such as moderating the wealth gap by imposing inheritance taxes). And he goes to argue that you can inspire the super-rich to give back in a personal charity say, but not to take less by such things as providing a living wage or keeping jobs in the US.
And you can inspire them to join a benign, light solution, but never accuse them of being part of the problem (how come you let foreign sources run free on your web site?)
As Stiglitz insists we need to ask more of the wealthy and have them understand the larger non-economic picture. A humanist picture if you will.
It starts with us all understanding that inequality is not just the result of bottom line economic forces. It is soceo-political and always has been. With current Citizens United type rulings and policies that give wealth political influence we are stuck with the problem. It isn’t inevitable that return on large capital will also be greater than overall economic growth. It is targeted political policies, processes and laws themselves currently make this so. And these policies are affected by the historical level and nature of built in status, political and economic inequality. Greater inequality entrenches greater power in the wealthy, who will reflexively use that greater power to double-down on policies (low capital-gains rates, low inheritance taxes, low barriers to campaign finance itself) that ensure greater inequality, and so on, in a vicious cycle.

So sure, economic charity may patch things up here and there, but in a wider view only an enlightened politics can correct for the depredations that the super-rich's gobbling wealth growth promises.

As a Humanist these problems trouble me. And these things are part of a rationally compassionate future that we envision (as discussed in a September – Is this a Humanist Century). They are important for all Free Thinkers to consider. Humanists need to concentrate on improving the things of this world rather than simply combating the illusions of supernaturalism. As secular humanists we may applaud some charitable efforts, but question them from a deeper look at a deeper constellation or system based on humanist values and principles. These including promoting fairness, truth and justice.
Who can we partner with us and how can be shape philanthropy to take on some of these issues we value like the separation of church and state? This would include the continued problem of the massing of wealth and power by religious and ethically religious groups.
We can also ask, “Does a notable amount of philanthropy support value free inquiry & truth, as a norm?” or
Does a notable amount of philanthropy support ethics based on critical intelligence and critical thinking to establish truth?”
And what about supporting a moral education, that the value of a person is not entirely based on their group identify?
These and other issues such as how hard a sell is it to promote action that will mitigate likely problems and advance the common good will be discussed at the January 26th meeting of the WASH Maryland-DC chapter at the Maryland Chevy Chase library (1:30 -3:30).
All are welcome.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

A good why I am atheist film

By Mathew Goldstein

John Follis was raised by religious parents and schooled by his church to be a believer. He produced a successful advertising campaign for his New York city church. Repeated mismatches between his religious beliefs, his life experiences, and new information and arguments, initially challenged and then eventually changed his beliefs. A little over three months ago he published his “why I am an atheist” story as a forty-five minute documentary film Leaving God.  His film is good, if you have the time it is worthwhile to view.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Counselors not religious chaplains

J
By Mathew Goldstein

Government chaplains are justifiable as an accommodation of free exercise of religion when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries, as may be the case for some prisoners and military personnel. Maryland hires religious prison chaplains and pays them a salary. Law enforcement and emergency services employees have the same access to private ministries as most citizens. Yet Maryland state, county, and municipal governments also allows law enforcement and various emergency services departments to hire, equip, and reimburse non-salaried, volunteer, religious chaplains. A few examples are shown below.


Candidate Prerequisites are:

Ecclesiastically certified, and a licensed or ordained clergy, imam, priest or rabbi in good standing, and endorsed in writing from their ecclesiastical authority to serve as a law enforcement chaplain


Actively engaged in ministry, this may include retired clergy capable of fulfilling the duties of a police chaplain

Able to provide documentation supporting a minimum of five years active in ministry service


III. Qualifications

C. A Police Chaplain must be ordained, invested, or a certified member of the clergy in good standing of a recognized religious ecclesiastical denomination with at least five (5) years of full-time experience in the ministry.

D. A Police Chaplain must submit an endorsement from their denomination allowing for participation in the program. This endorsement will be submitted on a bi-yearly basis.

F. It is preferred that a Police Chaplain reside in Montgomery County or be associated or affiliated with a religious institution in Montgomery County. On a case by case basis, the Chief of Police or their designee may allow a chaplain not residing in or having an affiliation with a religious institution in Montgomery County to be a member of the program.


Director, Personnel Section

1. Ensure Police Chaplain applicants meet the following minimum eligibility requirements:

1.1. Licensed or ordained, practicing member of the clergy in good standing with a recognized religious organization.

1.2. Positively recommended by an appropriate authority within the individual’s respective denomination, such as a Bishop, District Superintendent, Head of Convention, etc.
….
1.5. Minimum of five years’ ministry experience.

City of Bowie TITLE: POLICE CHAPLAIN

IV. CHAPLAIN QUALIFICATIONS

V.

A. Must be a licensed or ordained minister of their faith;

Chaplains are trained to view the world and its problems through the lens of a religion and a god, a view inapposite to non-believers and believers in competing religions. About 23 percent of adult Americans, including about 35 percent of Americans under 30, are not religious. When a department hires only people who qualify on religious criteria to provide spiritual support they are falsely implying that only religious counseling is valid. Even when this is done on a volunteer basis it functions as an endorsement of religious beliefs over competing non-religious beliefs by the department.

Does your municipality or county hire volunteer chaplains? What are the qualifications for the job? A counselor’s credentials should be based on education, training, experience, and suitability for the job. Both chaplains and lay volunteers should be equally eligible for the office, uniforms, equipment, and expense reimbursements. Volunteer counselors should not be required to be affiliated with, or approved by, a religious organization. Restricting appointments to ordained clergy does not further a valid business purpose. Certification by a chaplaincy association, a theology degree, and clerical experience, should not be a requirement or an expectation. In the agency’s policies and procedures manual and the hiring announcements there should no mention of religion, spiritual guidance, God or prayer. Insignia should be generic symbols such as a shield, wreath, etc., not religious symbols. Liturgical vestments should not be worn while in uniform.

Examples of voluntary, secular, counseling service providers for emergency services support include the Trauma Intervention Program Inc. http://www.tipnational.org/ and The Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Foundation http://lecf.org/. They train citizen volunteers to respond to traumatic incidents at the request of police, fire, and hospital personnel to support those who are emotionally traumatized. Because these are secular, non-discriminatory, equal opportunity, organizations they can be government subsidized.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

What is the Endgame with Trump?

A problem with President Trump has been that he is entertaining, for people in a certain frame of mind.  There is the question of how much money he is really worth and what's in his tax forms that he is keeping secret.  There is the question of how much money he has gotten from Russian oligarchs or mobsters.  There are the everyday Tweets that you have to ask, "Really?  Does he seriously believe that? Does he expect us to believe it?  Does he know that he just lied about something he said that is on video?"  These questions and many other have supported a cottage industry of media reporters and commentators about what he will say next.

Our New Year's Resolution should be to ignore all this entertaining stuff, or at least treat it as entertainment by a professional clown or a village idiot.  What matters is what Trump is doing to American democracy and the American goals and aspirations.

Historian Kathleen Hall Jamieson has argued that the Russian interference may well have decided the 2016 election in favor of Trump.  A lot of information about the election is already public knowledge.  Trump won in the Electoral College because of <100,000 votes in three states, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan while losing the popular vote.  More information will be released when the Mueller investigation issues a report, which may be as soon as February.  The question is not about the 100,000 votes, of course, but the fraction of votes cast for Trump that were influenced by social media ad campaigns.  It is possible that will never be known.  It also appears that Trump was a lucky recipient of the new methods that social media companies like Facebook perfected in order to target ads.   The emotion-laden, one-sided ads were specifically targeted toward users with specific interests and intended to keep Facebook members online.  Because the users weren't aware that they were the targets of these ads, they didn't know that they were hype and "fake news."  An article by Mark Dunbar was just published in The Humanist magazine on this topic.

Having the election process compromised by a foreign government is clearly a threat to the democratic process.  Another is Trump's willingness to shut down part of the government in order to get funding for his campaign talking point, the border wall.  These issues get a lot of attention.

A problem that gets much less publicity is the sheer inattention that has been given to the routine, boring business of running the government.  A recent book on this issue is The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (whose books include Moneyball and The Big Short), reviewed by Fintan O'Toole in the New York Review of Books. The book indicates that Trump and his staff are woefully unprepared to run the government.  As O'Toole writes, they had "deliberate chaos, willful ignorance, and strategic incompetence," which they viewed as virtues.  The Republican policy since Ronald Reagan has stated that government can't be trusted.  Trump has taken that to extremes, either through intent or sheer incompetence.  He simply hasn't tried to manage the government.  By doing such a bad job, and by appointing people who are incompetent to key positions, it is possible to make the case that the government really is useless.  Add to that the fact that most Americans don't really understand what government agencies do or how much they rely on the agencies for their safety.

In spite of this lack of interest or competence in governing, and in spite of multiple investigations, it is not clear what the ending of the Trump Administration could be.  He seems intent on running for reelection in 2020, and many in Congress seem resigned to coexisting with him.  Is it possible that this president could occupy the office for 8 years?  Lewis's book seems to indicate that many functions of the federal government could be degraded by then.  

Could Trump actually resign, although he seems incapable of admitting that he ever did anything wrong?  Any other president in history, if faced with this amount of scandal and incompetence, would have had enough honor to resign.  

Or could Trump and Pence both be forced out by impeachment, leaving President Pelosi?  It doesn't look like Republicans in the Senate would stand for that.

Or, most troubling for democracy, would Trump simply refuse to leave, and rely on his base of supporters (who include many owners of firearms) and members of the Senate to back him up, to remain a dictator for life?  

How much more outrageous behavior can we expect from Trump?  2019 could be an interesting year.