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.




Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

By Mathew Goldstein

This essay, Jesus: Fact or Fiction?, is a recently updated version of a presentation given to the Iowa City Secular Humanists several years ago. Although the author, Peter Nothnagle, is not a credentialed expert on this topic, his presentation is good in all respects and therefore worth your time to read if you are interested in this topic: It is well written and appears to be well researched and thought out. Plus, it mostly matches with my own opinion on this topic, bingo.

It is implausible that many of the famous stories of Bible are non-fictional. Yet at the same time, it is plausible that some of these stories have origins in actual historical events. So Noah’s Ark may have been inspired by a large flood, Sodom and Gemorrah may have inspired by a meteor that destroyed a city, the Exodus may have been inspired by a series of natural disasters that resulted in a large migration of people away from a civilization collapse, various stories written in the gospels may have been inspired by retellings of what various preachers said, etc.. There is some evidence to support scenarios like this.  Yet some people appear to be overly eager to draw connections between the religious texts and historical events, so skepticism is warranted, with the greatest skepticism for the events that would have occurred long before the text was written.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

What are Democrats and Republicans Fighting About?

The U.S. political system is a two-party political system. Other countries with parliamentary systems have minority, specialized parties. The prime minister has the job of assembling a ruling coalition of several parties, and sometimes the small parties have disproportionate power in making a majority. The specialized small parties, like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, can assemble a group of interested people and apply that group directly to the legislative assembly.

In the U.S., minority parties are pretty powerless, because the winning majority party can control much of the legislative or executive branches of government. There are lots of special interest groups, but they have to go to the leadership of one of the parties and get the party to endorse their issue. So all the people who are passionately interested in women's issues or in climate change can't directly appeal to a legislator in a special party. They can join a nonprofit group, and that group sends many reminders to vote or to attend protests. But those passionate people may end up feeling like their votes don't count, unless something brings their issue to the top of the priority list of one of the two parties.

So Democrats and Republicans fight, one on one. But what they fight about changes from year to year, issue to issue, depending on what gets "traction" or attention and gets people to show up to vote. Democrats are generally called liberal and Republicans are conservative, but what does that mean?

Paul Rosenberg wrote an article, "Did Trump destroy the conservative movement? No--he cashed in on its darkest tendencies," in Salon.com, on Oct. 28, 2018.  A point of Rosenberg's article is that definitions of what is liberal and what is conservative keeps changing over time, and each party has a mix of both, to the extent that we can even tell which is which. Policies change for each election, and even the definitions of liberal and conservative vary. 

According to Rosenberg, a main difference between the parties is really psychological. Conservatives tend to be worried about dangers and fearful about the future. They expect that they will have to handle the danger by themselves. In some cases, those dangers may come from other people who can't be trusted or relied on. As a result, they want freedom to do what they need to without restrictions. If they feel threatened and want to buy lots of guns, they want to be able to. So they focus on certain rights.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be empathic and more aware about other people's problems. They also can see dangers, but think they will be threatened by problems that already affect other people. They are more inclined to cooperate with others to solve common problems. So if they see that lots of people are getting shot, their response is to control access to guns, not to get more guns for themselves to shoot the "bad guys."

These are general individual psychological methods that people tend to use. The methods are expanded to view the state of society. So people tend to join the party that represents their way of thinking. The approach can apply to many situations and aren't restricted to particular issues. So if people see a social problem that gets on the national party's agenda, the individuals gravitate to a solution that is agreeable to their way of thinking.

This can lead to policies that look contradictory on a rational, ideological basis. Republicans are in favor of gun rights so they can shoot people in self defense. They favor capital punishment to kill the worst criminals. But they are opposed to abortion rights, arguing that unborn fetuses are innocent and don't deserve to be killed. 

Democrats, on the other hand, empathize with adults, concluding that no adult deserves to die regardless of their threat or crime. So criminals shouldn't be shot or executed. Unborn fetuses may seem innocent, but they require years of support by willing parents, and the unwillingness of the adult mother can outweigh the right of an fetus that can't survive on its own.

As Rosenberg pointed out, it's easy to find examples of times when parties changed their priority issues. Republican were for civil rights and Democrats were opposed, until suddenly under President Johnson they reversed. Republican Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment, until Republicans Ronald Reagan and the Bushes opposed it and Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore supported it. Republican Eisenhower was fiscally conservative and promoted a balanced budget, opposing Democrat Franklin Roosevelt's deficit spending, until Republicans Reagan and G. W. Bush generated larger budget deficits than any of their predecessors because of tax cuts. Trump has carried on this tradition with a huge tax cut.


It is a common complaint among American voters that both parties are for rich people, and there isn't really much difference. Of course, when Republican get a president like Donald Trump, the character of the party can change based only on the whims of the leader, and ideology goes by the wayside.

Ideology based on reason or a liberal/conservative dichotomy is not necessarily the foundation of the parties, and it is pointless to expect consistency. The pragmatic problem of assembling an enthusiastic coalition of people and winning elections is the basic requirement. 

In a larger picture, politics is about assembling a coalition of people with related self-interest to form a cooperating voting majority. This was the purpose of political parties as they arose under Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. It is done when party leaders find particular biases, fears, and hopes that can be used by politicians to unite a majority of people into supporting them. This effort has to be done interactively, so that one year people care about deficit spending, and they next they are more interested in tax cuts.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

John Gray’s pessimistic, pro-religion, atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

The Vox website says that “Vox's journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters.” An interview by Vox’s agnostic journalist Sean Illing with atheist John Gray was recently published October 31 under the title “Why science can’t replace religion” with the subtitle “John Gray on the myths the “New Atheists” tell themselves.” Although I have not read John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism, here is some commentary on that interview.

Sean Illing begins with the comment that the question - does god exist - is probably unanswerable. He then says ‘That’s probably why I’ve always found the so-called “New Atheists” misguided in their critiques of religion.’ A question about how our universe operates is unanswerable when available empirical evidence cannot favor one answer over competing answers. Sean Illing could claim that religious supernaturalism versus non-religious naturalism is unanswerable because no amount of empirical evidence will provide decisive proof with absolutely zero chance of being mistaken. But that is an impractical standard that no one applies in any other similar context, and as such is a double standard that must be discarded in any balanced, reasonable, discussion.

When we discover something new about how the universe operates it is sometimes possible to evaluate whether that new discovery is more consistent with the constraints of naturalism or with the absence of such constraints. Therefore, the overall available empirical evidence is not silent or missing on this question. Therefore, this question is answerable by the only reliable method we have to adjudicate such a question: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Before we declare that this question is unanswerable, we need some explanation for why we should disregard the large amount of empirical evidence that we have that our universe operates within the constraints of naturalism and the corresponding lack of good evidence to the contrary.

Sean Illing says “New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.” Sean Illing is exhibiting a bias here by miscategorizing atheism, an intellectual conclusion regarding how the universe operates, as a “literary movement” such as Misty Poets or New Formalism.

He then says atheists fail to recognize that “religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world”. Religion without claims about how the universe operates is akin to frying without heat. Yes, frying food is about more than placing items in hot oil. But at the end of day, regardless of the fact that frying food is about more than the mechanics of frying, without the mechanics of frying there is no fried food. People can, and no doubt there are people who do, go through the motions of being religious, by worshipping a deity they do not believe in, by praying to deity they do not believe listens, by observing holidays honoring events that they do not believe occurred. But then it a social activity cloaked in a religious veneer which could easily be replaced by strictly secular social activities, it is no longer a genuinely religious activity anymore. This is what is so misguided about the “it’s about so much more than a set of claims about the world.” Many claims about the world are about more than the claims in isolation because claims about the world can also have implications for us. Claims about how the world functions are foundational for our decision making. This is all the more reason to try to be careful to try to get it right when making claims about how the world operates.

The interview then focuses on John Gray’s criticisms of his fellow atheists. John Gray equates religious myths with “myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths” that he claims animate other atheists. He disagrees with Steven Pinker’s argument that the numbers demonstrate that the scientific revolution has brought with it large gains for the quality of human lives. Steven Pinker collected a lot of hard evidence on behalf of his argument. His dismissing Pinker's arguments as myths akin to the myth that Moses parted the Reed (or Red) Sea is unfair.

John Gray characterizes religions as “profound, as inexhaustibly rich” and claims other atheists are “mostly ignorant of religion”. Yet John Gray is himself an atheist. This implies that such additional insight and knowledge regarding religion still falls short in justifying religious beliefs. Yet he does not appear to be eager to share with his audience why he is an atheist. Instead, he points out that human minds evolved for survival, not for rationality, implying that religious beliefs are not rational. He considers it foolish to claim “we have no need for religion anymore”, implying that religious beliefs are needed for human survival. Looking around, we see different countries with different degrees of religiosity. The evidence we have not only does not support, it tends to oppose, the notion that the less religious countries are the weaker countries. The approach of pitting rationality against survival implies that there is a conflict between the two, but that is arguably an artificial conflict, there need not be a conflict.

I do not know the basis for John Gray’s claim that the stories in the book of Genesis “were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.” But let’s assume this is true for the sake of argument. Genesis obtains it special authority by claiming to reveal the actual actions of an actual god that people then worshipped and prayed to, thus giving us very good reason to think they believed this particular god existed. So insofar as thinkers or theologians did not interpret Genesis as revealing the actual actions of an actual god, insofar as they also failed to tell their fellow Jews that Genesis was a fictional parable, they were misleading their constituency.

Today there is an additional problem here that was less acute a thousand years ago. The story of Genesis contradicts modern knowledge. John Gray dismisses this problem on the grounds that the Torah (and presumably also the Bible, Quran, and the holy books of other religions) never was, and is not, about knowledge, but instead is about creating, and finding, meaning. Yet if Jewish thinkers and theologians were knowingly and deliberately misleading their constituency about the fictional nature of god and the Torah, they were presumably doing so because creating and finding meaning from the religion was, and presumably still is, rooted in believing that particular holy books are revealing factual knowledge about a real, existing God, or supernatural realm. If this is not the case then why was denying the existence of god considered to be a punishable criminal offense in John Gray’s United Kingdom for many centuries, and why is that still the case in some countries?

John Gray acknowledges that “ideas do have consequences.” He does not tackle the question of whether false ideas are more likely to flourish with bad consequences in those societies where ideas about how the universe operate are unanchored in empirical evidence and thus not well constrained. Instead, he points out that both non-religious and religious ideas can be bad ideas. True, but isn’t the truth versus falsity of beliefs also a factor here, and if it is a factor isn’t that reason to place value on that distinction? Ultimately, theism and atheism are conclusions about how universe operates. So if we want to avoid bad consequences then maybe a better focus is to take the distinction between poorly justified and well justified beliefs, as measured by the criteria of best fit with the available empirical evidence, seriously.

He claims that “we should regard religions as great works of imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true” and that “any atheism that fails to do this ... probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.״ Smuggling in the word “empirically” here is weaselly because religions exhibit a self-interested tendency to claim that empiricism is biased, too restrictive, or unreliable and that circular faith (they deny, or do not acknowledge, the circularity) is epistemologically more important, reliable, and valuable. John Gray identified Pascal as one of three “very clever” philosophers, so he should be aware that Pascal’s Wager is a good example of a non-empirical, or anti-empirical, and therefore weak, justification for believing religious claims about how the universe functions. John Gray is trying to convert a third person discussion about religious beliefs into a first person self-assertion of those religious belief by the atheist speaker. He appears to want to try to convince his audience that when an atheist claims that religious beliefs are distinct and different from non-religious beliefs then ipso-fact that atheist has somehow adopted those religious beliefs. This seems to be a deliberate strategy to try to discourage honest conversation by atheists about religious beliefs. That transparently false strategy will not work. We know that various beliefs, such as the belief that not worshipping, or not having faith, prompts god to initiate deadly weather events, or the belief that macro-evolution is a false conspiracy of dishonest scientists, mostly originate from, and are mostly promoted by, religions. We know that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. make different and distinct, sometimes incompatible, factual claims. John Gray’s description of religion as lacking any intention to assert what is true lacks integrity. He is falsely redefining religion as something akin to a set of fantasy novel books like Lord of the Rings.

He then generalizes that we all “live by our fictions.” If we “all” fail to live with no fictions then therefore it makes no difference if we live by fewer fictions? Does John Gray prefer cleverness over integrity? How does John Gray define sophistry? He does not like people who are conceited and claim to stand above others. Good advice. At the same time, publicly arguing for beliefs is a secular activity. Arguing that particular conclusions or ethics are better is not a religious activity. Atheists who publicly argue for atheism are not ipso-facto adopting religious beliefs or practices. Keeping silent about why we favor atheism is not an attribute of the genuine, or a better, atheism.