Sunday, December 14, 2014

State constitutions, public office and people's belief in God

Edd Doerr (

Roy Torcaso and I were friends. I met him shortly after moving to Maryland in 1966 to work for Americans United. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service at his Unitarian congregation in Maryland. Roy was a very gutsy guy.  His Supreme Court case, Torcaso v Watkins, was a great victory for church-state separation and religious freedom.

That said, it is important to comment on the Dec 7 NY Times story.

1.      Yes, there are statements mandating certain religious beliefs in order to hold public office in MD and several other state constitutions. However, thanks to the Torcaso ruling, these are all inoperative museum relics,  dead letters. But, then, many state constitutions are crammed with such inoperative relics, such as one state’s ban on a guy kissing a woman in public on a Sunday., and other nonsense.

2.      Can these relics be removed? Very unlikely. And attempts to do so will surely fail. Not only  will they fail, but they could well generate backlash that will actually harm the secularist cause. Further, tinkering with a state constitution could open a real can of worms, whether through a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment or a state constitutional convention. The result could be constitutional changes that divert public funds to faith-based private schools, further restrict abortion rights,  allow “creationism” to be taught on public schools, or cause other mischief.

3.      Let’s note that the US Constitution, Article I, Section 2, still contains language that says that African Americans only count as 3/5 of a person for determining the composition of the House of Representatives. This was rendered inoperative by the 14th Amendment, but it’s still in the Constitution forever.

4.      Attempts to remove these offensive provisions from state constitutions will not only fail but will distract attention and energy from dealing with really important hot issues like climate change, right wing attacks on public education and reproductive choice, the transfer of wealth to the top 1% from the rest of us, and other matters.

5.      Instead of wasting time, energy, money and good will on a lost cause, secularists need to be broadminded and practical enough to work with others across the religio-political spectra to accomplish important  goals on the issues that really count.

(Edd has been a Full time church-state activist for the last 50 yeara)

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.

As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus

by Don Wharton
We all know that religion is a cosmic joke. Our evolutionary background leaves us with massive opportunities to fall into quite delusional belief systems. For some the results are incredibly painful. However, there are others that celebrate the cosmic joke of it all with humor and delight. Consider the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. This is a new official religion. The high priest of this religion is Ryan Ballard.

From an article, “When asked if he felt any more spiritual since his ordination, Ballard said: "I'm absolutely on a higher plane. I can feel the furry fingers of the sacred drunken Wookiee stirring in my soul." Read the article here.

We can only hope that as more people recognize the cosmic absurdity of religion it will move the world toward a happier reality for us all.

The main web site for the group is here.

Any religion must have its rules. The major ones are that there must be no unicorns, elves or whinebots. Of course, the major purpose of these rules are to enable the dynamic civil rights contingent called the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C. or People for the inclusion of Unicorns, Elves and Whinebots in Chewbacchus. From their web site, “Unicorns, Elves, Faeries, Potterheads, Were-beasties, and all the rest of the supernatural and magical creatures in the universe can now join in the fun. Fantasy fans are welcome to roll in the Chewbacchus Parade under the mighty banner of the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Justice Scalia's alternative facts

By Mathew Goldstein

According to Justice Scalia, the supernatural devil is "a real person" and demonic possession is less common today then it was in the past because today there are more atheists who function as enablers for the devil.  Scalia's views on the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause principles are unbalanced and unjust because they are rooted in facts about how the universe works that are false.  If there really is a devil who possesses people as depicted in C.S. Lewis' apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, and atheists are favoring "the devil's desires", as Scalia asserts is a fact, then Scalia's refusal to apply EC and EPC protections to atheism and atheists would be perfectly ethical.

Our model of how the universe works is the foundation that our ethics are built on.  This is why it is so important to utilize reliable methods for obtaining our facts about how the universe functions.  Antonin Scalia talks like a person who is not entirely committed to reliably anchoring his factual beliefs on the solid ground of empiricism.  Instead, he anchors at least some of his factual beliefs in today's ongoing reiteration of 4th century Catholic dogma.  The Vatican makes no distinction between its theology and the facts, and therefore neither does Justice Scalia, who is proudly committed to being a good Catholic.  

Through considerable collective effort, with important contributions of a few intelligent individuals, between the 4th century and 1789 we acquired some additional knowledge about how the world functions.  This trend of acquiring knowledge has continued, at an accelerated pace, between 1789 and 2015.   Justice William J. Brennan somehow managed to live in the real world and profess Catholicism at the same time.  But Scalia's world view pathetically, and tragically, remains partially frozen somewhere between the 4th century and 1789 because he elevates Catholic faith to a valid epistemology with equal status, or maybe superior status, to empiricism. His pathological condition is all the more troubling given that he is an intelligent and powerful man who appears to be injecting his Catholic bias into his evaluation of civil rights protections.

The United States government spends billions of dollars every year to further research that continues to advance modern knowledge.  This money does not go to the Catholic Church because Catholic Church theology contributes nothing to our modern knowledge and never has.  If Justice Scalia had more integrity then he would acknowledge this and refrain from basing EC and EPC jurisprudence on his Catholic faith.

My response to WASH banquet comment

By Mathew Goldstein

At the Phillips Seafood restaurant banquet that was co-sponsored with the American Humanist Association some months ago, I shared a table with several couples. That restaurant is good, I regret I arrived too late to take full advantage of the buffet downstairs. The first conversation was initiated by one of the two other guys at our table who declared that calling oneself an atheist is like calling oneself an aleprechaunist. Nobody calls them self an aleprechaunist, and no one should call themselves an atheist, he said.

A problem with this analogy is that almost no one calls themselves a leprechaunist either, and even those few people who may so label themselves are joking, or at least do not worship leprechauns. If it were otherwise, if 80-90% of the population called themselves leprechaunists and many of these people worshipped leprechauns, then we would be properly justified in calling ourselves aleprechaunists. That is one of the proper, valid, functions of labels, to identify significant differences in commonly held individual perspectives. Some atheists are married to theists and they do fine together. Yet this is a difference that can contribute to weakening a relationship and sometimes it does.

In addition to the social context, another context where the atheist label can have real significance is with laws and government practices. It is for this reason that arguments to stop using this label are inherently political. Labels enable debate over relevant government laws and practices. Our government, in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, actively promotes theism and sometimes discriminates against atheists. It is more difficult to challenge this if we dispense with the atheist label. This is one of the reasons I keep using the atheist label and reject arguments against using this label. For similar reasons I keep referring to atheism as a belief even though some people mistakenly insist that atheism is never a belief. For people who, like me, positively believe there are no gods, our positive atheism is a belief.

No one who calls himself atheist is thereby denying that theists and atheists can, and often do, have a lot in common. Also, no one who calls them self an atheist is only an atheist. As with any label, the atheist label is an incomplete way of characterizing oneself. We can also be humanists, secularists, freethinkers, metaphysical or philosophical naturalists, rationalists, skeptics, empiricists, non-theists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Virtuous Circles

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is certainly family and togetherness time that is an opportunity for a bit of reflection on values and internalities as grand as gratitude and as considered as kindness.  It is a time to graciously take what we have with gratitude rather than to take good things for granted. And as Richard Dawkins suggest it is a nice opportunity to “teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

It seems a bit odd, though that the day after Thanksgiving much is taken for granted and some may be grateful that the local Box Store opens early to allow the externality of charitable shopping that pre-ritualizes the winter present season of gifting.  

Our market system has found a way to take some inward feelings of kindness and the generous impulse to give more than we have and expresses these as ritualized, wrapped presents.  It’s probably not the largely solitary behavior without expression of thanks that William Arthur Ward was thinking of when he said:

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.

Nor is it the connection that Henry Van Dyke made between the kindness-gratitude-thanksgiving trilogy when he hypothesized that:

Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.

Family and friends set around the table are a nice way to spark action on feelings received kindness. It affords an opportunity to rekindle each
others kindness flames and reflect on those who in the past have contributed to our kindness flames. Such virtuous circles can parent many good things and well on the wise path to the Confucian practice that:

To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

All the more reason then in today’s times to think a bit more broadly and inclusively about thoughtful generosity reflecting kin kindness. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard, the generosity between kin can apply not only
to our extended family but inclusively to our neighbors, our village and globally beyond. After all we are the beneficiaries of exceptional American resources and its people's historical, collective generosity. With a global view we can hope, if not expect, some inclusive generosity like immigration reform and the virtuous fires it sparks for those who were not born here but seek its kindness.

There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.

Nathaniel Branden

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Another Hard-Wired in American Holiday to Enjoy

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is often called the most American of holidays. I've heard its nature captured in a contemporary tween as, "Thanksgiving — the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)"

There is always something to be Thankful for (well not the Washington football team), although a look at the paper suggests it isn’t all cranberries and stuffing.   I'm not trapped in Buffalo for example - is that too close to thinking how ungrateful I am to the forces bringing us climate change? And yes, gas prices are down if climate disruption is up - seems like that classic case of choosing to focus on something near-term, in hand, already here versus what might be behind door 2 in the far distance. Only, choosing the chocolate-covered sweet may get me the less desirable thing I fear in the future. 
And yes, I can add to my list that ebola is on the decline, no thanks to NJ governor "sweet pie".

And speaking of stuffing ourselves, sure, many of us will share an abundance of food (pass the pie please), conversation and music (Max's drawing above too). But there are paradoxes galore as a very religious country tries to celebrate an event starting with Pilgrim’s thanking their particular God. We are now in the context of a more material, secular holiday celebrating family reunion as a precursor to shop-till-you-drop Friday..  Excess represents the paradoxical tension in which we hold the two halves of our national life.

As the Boston Globe’s review of James Baker’s “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Revisiting New England)” noted there has been a culturally blown path to today’s holiday:

“Baker traces how the [Thanksgiving] celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. . . Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage. But, he argues, ‘the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’ For, he observes, ‘debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’”—

As I noted last year, I like thanking the natural world and friends for some of the joys of the year. For the feel of what contemporary Thanksgiving has evolved into, I like
author Richard Ford’s take on it.  We hear a critical and astute voice in his 3rd novel of the Frank Bascombe Trilogy - "The Lay of the Land" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).  Frank’s observations on American culture that began with The Sportswriter (1986) and continued with Independence Day (1995). Each story is centered around a holiday.  When Frank is a young man it is Easter and he is in the season of hope amidst a cruel spring. Independence Day is of course about the 4th and Frank is no fire cracker fan, adrift and no longer married.  It’s more about traffic congestion than celebration.  In the 3rd book middle age Frank is a declining realtor facing the arrival of a cold Thanksgiving as the seasons of his life have advanced. 

As in each of the novel’s Frank's internal life is full of honest observations on things around him – society, family and identity and what it means to be a New Jersey American at a particular holiday time. These times include formal and informal holiday traditions that set wheels in motion that collide in paradoxical grim/humorous family gatherings.

Cultural and neighbor collisions wash up like dead starfish on the NJ shore too. 
As the arc of Thanksgiving day approaches Frank’s narrative concern is one of the impending pressure of events and expectations.  Readers may enjoy his take on the holiday.  He calls it:

 "cloying Thanksgiving… the recapitulative, Puritan and thus most treacherous of holidays.”

Frank may be blamed for feeling down and ill with little expectation of cheer form his family, but the author had more general coping things in mind about the nature of Thanksgiving as Frank further observers how things may work out and how we got here:

" My thought is that by my plan's being unambitious, the holiday won't deteriorate into apprehension, dismay and rage, rocketing people out the door and back to the Turnpike long before sundown. Thanksgiving ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday suitable to the secular and religious...It often doesn't work out that way.... , "As everyone knows, the Thanksgiving 'concept' was originally strong-armed onto poor war-torn President Lincoln by an early prototype forceful-woman editor of a nineteenth century equivalent of "The Ladies Home Journal," with a view to upping subscriptions. And while you can argue that the holiday commemorates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great-Mother-Who-Is-in-the-Earth, it's in fact always honored storewide clearances and stacking 'em deep 'n selling 'em cheap - unless you're a Wampanoag Indian in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide, and man's indifference to who owns what............

And yet, Thanksgiving won't be ignored.  Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for.  Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude.  Even if Aunt Bella's flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still "need" her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful.”

Ford’s fictional, but very human, agent Frank organizes his events modestly “for nonconfrontational familial good cheer “ in line with his reality but also risks little by trying to creatively navigate the downsides of the paradoxes:

 “unspectacular physical state -- and to accommodate as much as possible everyone's personal agendas, biological clocks, comfort zones and need for wiggle room, while offering a pleasantly neutral setting . ". . . it is churlish not to let the spirit swell - if it can - since little enough's at stake.....Contrive, invent, engage - take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones . . . Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag."

Good advice on how to make a complex ritual filled with paradox work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excellent letter from Americans United to the Department of Natural Resources

By Mathew Goldstein

Now we know why it took Americans United for Separation of Church and State several months to write their letter to Joseph P. Gill, Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources:  It was written by AU's senior attorneys like a court brief, heavy with citations of judicial decisions.  I count over 15 citations in a two page letter. The quote below contain the highlights of their clear and unequivocal November 25 letter.

"The Department cannot operate a program that restricts access to participants who are not religious or who deny the existence of God.... Likewise, the Department cannot legally enforce policies that would violate citizens rights to equal protection of the law.... For these reasons the Department must terminate its Charter Agreement with Boy Scouts of America and stop operating Venture Crew 202."

We are now waiting for a response from the DNR.  It is our commitment to the Establishment Clause and equal protection of the law that makes it happen.  Please go to the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobbying action page and send an email to the DNR.  If you are a resident of Maryland then send a second email to the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight to reinforce this message.  Or send them a letter and call them also.