Saturday, January 23, 2016

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY January 16, 2016, the 230th anniversar

Charles Sumner, a church-state separation activist in Tennessee wrote the following for posting on Blogs.

On the 230th anniversary of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, it is important for today's generations to understand the tremendous change this measure represented to world history. Until the American experiment, there had never been a complete separation between the institutions of religion and government. Passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786, this statute is regarded by historians as the precursor of the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 1776, Virginia took a step toward disestablishing the Anglican Church. The leading figure in that monumental change was an Anglican, George Mason. But Virginia did not stop collecting taxes for the support of the Anglican (soon to be Episcopal) Church at that time. An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 but not acted upon until 1785, when Jefferson was in France. At that time the great orator and patriot, Patrick Henry, introduced a general assessment bill that would continue the tax for religion but alter its distribution.

At the time of the American Revolution there were established religions in nine of the 13 colonies, following the European pattern. It meant that one religious denomination was favored. It often meant you were taxed for someone else's religion. That became apparent to Patrick Henry because the church that had received the money no longer was the predominant religion in Virginia. He proposed that the tax be altered to go to some other denominations as well.  He called it a tax for "teachers of the Christian religion."

Jefferson's desire was to have no tax for religion, but support for Henry's bill seemed strong. So James Madison and other supporters of Jefferson's plan managed to delay action while they let the citizens know of the situation. Madison, Mason and others circulated petitions.

Madison's argument was made in the now famous "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." This document stated, "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"

The wide circulation of this among the citizenry had the desired effect; the tax for religion failed. And in 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom passed. It was one of the three items Thomas Jefferson wanted memorialized on his tombstone. It might seem odd, but president of the United States was not one of the three.

"No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry, whatever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief ; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of  religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities," the statute said.

It was Madison, author of the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," who was also the primary architect of the First Amendment and is regarded as the Father of the Constitution. That gives you a clue as to the true significance of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

It might also let you know how Madison and Jefferson would regard a Tennessee bill that would take tax money from the public schools and channel it to private schools, most of which are religious schools.

Celebrate Religious Freedom Day by reading these documents and their history. Celebrate that in the United States, with its separation of church and state, we have vibrant religions existing not because they are supported by the state but because people believe in their religion's worth.

CHARLES SUMNER, President-Emeritus, Nashville Chapter
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
PO Box 210005, Nashville TN 37221


Celebrate Religious Freedom with the Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason

Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason (FredCor) will host Professor Emile Lester on January 10, 2016 as the speaker for the Religious Freedom Celebration. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Shopping at Walmart is equivalent to drinking water from the Flint River

Edd Doer cites Courtland Milloy’s Jan 20 column in the Washington Post: 

“To get approval to build three stores in wealthier parts of the city, Walmart promised to build two in under-served neighborhoods. So they built the three they wanted. Then, last week, Walmart told city officials that it . . . decided not to build them. . . . To make room for the new, Walmart-anchored Skyland Town Center in SE Washington, the city had demolished a tattered but vital neighborhood economy. . .  Some apartments were also demolished, and residents were displaced.”

Walmart, probably the world’s largest retailer, is noted for underpaying its employees, many of whom need food stamps to survive, while exporting American jobs to foreign sweatshops. Walmart’s incredible profits feed the Walmart Family Foundation, which in turn pours tsunamis of tax-free money into massive efforts to undermine public education through vouchers  and charter schools not answerable to taxpayers. On Jan 13 Education Week reported that the Walton Family Foundation will now spend $1 billion on its efforts to sabotage public education.

So the Walton gang is giving the finger to Americans generally, the middle class (what’s left of it) and the poor (whose numbers are growing), and the public schools and teachers serving nearly 90% of American kids.

So shopping at Walmart is equivalent to drinking water from the Flint River or voting for Scott Walker.

 Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Muslim Reform Movement embraces secularism and universal human rights

Gabriel Glazer mentions an unusual and noteworthy event in which Muslims discuss the need for reform of Islam and are ready to act on this perception of the need to embrace secularism.

See which discusses a coalition of Muslim writers, activists and politicians has launched a "Muslim Reform Movement" rejecting violence and calling for a defence of secularism, democracy and liberty.

The reformers have issued a Declaration defending gender equality, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, stating that they are for "secular governance" and "against political movements in the name of religion."  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Religion and the rise and fall of Islamic science

By Mathew Goldstein

One of the questions people have been asking lately is the significance of the dominance of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages and its subsequent decline.  Some people claim that they know the answer.  For example, Reza Aslan claims that religion is not to be blamed for the decline because it functions as nothing more than a Rorschach test, so that whatever people claim that they find in their religion to influence their behavior is actually instead a reflection of them and not of their religion.  Some people assert that it is an indisputable fact that any decline can be attributed entirely to rapacious non-Muslims invaders who militarily conquered and then destroyed Islamic civilization. This is a factual, and therefore potentially empirically resolvable, question. We should look to evidence to measure if there was a decline over time to answer this question.  Then we can align evidence of decline with contemporaneous events to see if we can uncover the most likely culprits via consistent chronological correlation.

The question now becomes one of how to measure the rise and fall of Islamic civilization using available historical data.  Eric Chaney, an Economist at Harvard University, figured that he may be able to measure the success of Islamic civilization by counting the number of scientific books published over time by authors with Muslim names.  Harvard University is famous for the size of its library which has many books from past centuries.

He identified 21,275 books written by 3,784 authors with Muslim names who died between the years 250 and 1799.  When there was no death date he substituted birth date plus 69 years or initial publication date of the author's final book if there was no birth or death date.  He grouped the statistic into century intervals.  During the two centuries from 900 to 1100 an average of 12% of the published books were on scientific subjects and 30% on religious subjects.  This was followed by a decline in the percentage of books on scientific subjects.  By 1300 7% of the books cover a science subject and by 1700 it is 2% while the percentage books on religious subjects rose to 40%.

To better pinpoint the correlation of this decline in scientific output with other historical events, Chaney divided the results geographically into three regions: East (Chaney refers to this region as "Iran"), Levant, and West.  The East region experienced the Mongol invasions, the Levant experienced the Crusader invasions, the West experienced the invasions of European colonialists. He found that the decline in publication of science subject books began in the East and spread from there to the Levant and subsequently to the West.  The scientific decline in the East began a century before the Mongol invasion.  The subsequent decline in the Levant and West similarly began centuries before the Crusader and European colonist conquests.  The Levant experienced an anomalous increase in publication of science books (as a percentage of overall book publications) during the Crusader invasions.

In his draft study titled Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science, Eric Chaney concludes that the role of Islamic civilization in world affairs correlates best with the relative dominance of the rationalist versus the traditionalist strains of Islam.  The Mu`tazila movement was one example of rationalist Islam. They believed that good and evil were not determined by revealed scripture or interpretation of scripture, but are rational categories that could be established through unaided reason.  These rationalist movements first emerged in the preceding Umayyad Era and reached their height in the Abbasid period.  During Islam's "Golden Age" the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate forceably favored a rationalist Islam over the competing traditionalist Islam, they tortured traditionalists. The Abbasid Caliphate systematically translated every available science text into Arabic (their motive may have been to equip theologians with knowledge to win debates for the purpose of converting people to Islam).  After the 10th century the Islamic rationalist movement declined.

Why did the Islamic rationalist movement lose its influence?  One possible reason is that they had angered people by being extreme in their intolerance of Muslims with opposing beliefs and by linking themselves to the brutality of the rulers.  Another reason was a demographic change.  During the Abbasid period the population of large parts of the Caliphate were non-Muslim.  Muslims were initially a minority of citizens overall.  This changed as a result of conversions to Islam with Muslims becoming the majority first in what is now Iran and Iraq, later in the Levant, and then in the West.  By the start of the eleventh century the Abbasid Caliphate had switched sides, outlawing rationalist Islam as heresy and endorsing traditionalist Islam (by then the Caliphate was weak and had little temporal power).  The number of madrasas, which are schools of Islam, increased.  Traditionalist Islam, which emphasizes the importance of revelation and opposes rationalist Islam, became increasingly dominant.  The number of authors employed by government declined and the number employed by madrasas increased.  The relatively more secular state bureaucracy that pre-dated Islam was replaced by Islamic religious institutions.  

Although a partial dose of rationalism was advantageous for converting non-Muslims to Islam, a full dose was corrosive towards religious faith, promoting skepticism, agnosticism, deism, and atheism.  That is why it was abandoned.  Today rationalist Islam is often deemed heretical by scholars in mainstream Islamic theology.

Islam itself contained the anti-rationalist seeds that contributed to the diminished role of Islam in world affairs.  Contrary to what apologists for Islam say, there is good reason to think that the religion of Islam has been, and continues to be, its own worst enemy.  No foreign interventions caused this weakness.  The weakness resulted from rationalism being disfavored when the influence of Islam increased following a majority of citizens self-identifying as Muslim.  A diminishment of the negative influence of traditionalist Islam's anti-rationalism is the way forward.  That is also a good prescription for everyone, everywhere.  A good place to start is a willingness to abandon religion altogether.  We need fewer people who fear not being religious (secularophobia?), including fewer people who fear atheism (atheismophobia?).

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

We require evidence, mere argument fails

By Mathew Goldstein

Mr. Deity (Brian Keith Dalton) ably explains in this video (the first in what he promises will be a series of videos) why we should all reject efforts to determine the truth or falsity of existence claims, including the existence claims of theisms, that rely on argument (such as the Kalam argument) instead of evidence: We require evidence, mere argument fails. Some philosophy, and especially theology, has a tendency to rely far too much on the unsuccessful method of logical argument from human intuitions and asserted first principles (over reliance on first principle correlates with ideology which increases the probability of error) instead of the successful method of seeking the frequently non-intuitive best logical fit with the overall available evidence.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The 2015 Year in Secular Perspective Blogs

by Gary Berg-Cross

2015 was a diverse year with many issues, some ups and more seemingly downward trends.  In between, as they say there were some learning situations and perhaps some insights. On this Secular Perspective site we had range of topics posted which offers its own perspective.  In case you missed it here are some of the top ones from our volunteer posters. Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, provided the first 6 or so on some of his favorite issues.

10. Aborting Aristotle  Edd Doerr’s review of a book by  Dave Sterrett had over 200 readers.  He found it an “odd little opus” with an “ anti-abortion screed extruded by an evangelical publisher and concocted by a youngish Southern Evangelical Seminary grad who evidently dwells in a rickety Ivory Tower somewhere in the Twilight Zone beyond Cloud Nine.”
9. Edd Doerr  also had A brief comment on "Zombies of 2016"
Based on Paul Krugman’s column in the April 24 NY Times, that  choped up Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and other Repubs who would like to infest the White House.

Freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition, like religious freedom  and church-state  separation, were/are intended to be protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. However, in 1798, less than a decade after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the Federalist controlled Congress and President John Adams enacted the Sedition Act, which was immediately used to prosecute/persecute the slightest printed or spoken utterance that annoyed the Federalist establishment.

7. Edd published several on vouchers including, “The unpopularity of vouchers” which discussed the DC situation with the Congress and the Obama administration on the wrong side of the issue.   “Despite the council’s objections, Congress seems determined to continue D.C. school vouchers

6. School Choice Works, Privatization Won't noted the importance of knowing  where the candidates stand on important issues like improving public education.

5. Edd’s Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? Had over 300 readings and give a 5 star rating to a book by Mercedes K. Schneideron the controversial “Common Core State Standards” system.  The “Core” was largely pushed by big-money entrepreneurs and so-called “reformers” with little actual connection to teaching, including such conservative school-voucher-promoting outfits as the Fordham Institute.

4. I authored the next three mostly popular starting with the seasonal Channeling  Robert Ingersoll for Thanksgiving which had over 300 views.  It excerpted Robert Ingersoll’s 1897 , “Thanksgiving Sermon.” Turning from the divine he instead asked who should be thanked.  He found real groups of people - scientists, artists, statesmen, mothers, fathers, poets in contrast to religious organizations and their operatives.. He found plenty of things to be thankful for starting with the long rise from savagery to civilization.  
3. The trouble with Hanukkah? Had over 600 views since it was posted in Dec. based on a fact finding article on the Jewish Holiday.  The blog’s title is based on Tom Flynn’s more famous take on that bigger winter holiday in The Trouble with Christmas.

2. Also seasonally popular (>800 views) was my Sustained Seasonal Symbolic Struggles noting various symbolic struggles over words and associated values.
 such as Italian parents who were reportedly furious when a school canceled the "Christmas" concert with a winter recital.

1.  By far our most popular blog was by Matt Goldstein whose recent Can leftism be saved from Jeff Sparrow?  Had over 1000 views since published on Dec. 6th. Matt notes that the Guardian newspaper’s Jeff Sparrow has been on the attack against New Atheism for some time. Matt rebuts Jeff’s latest salvo We Can Save Atheism From the New Atheists which begins with the question "Why are the New Atheists such jerks?". The provided explanation for the New Atheist's "dickishness" is "anti-Muslim bigotry" and "paranoid, racist shit". Matt sides with Chris Hitchens & Sam Harris’ idea that, "All religions are bad but some religions – especially those in the Middle East, by sheer coincidence! – are worse than others." 
Matt proposes that “What we really need is to save liberalism from bigoted regressive leftist dickish know-it-all jerks like Jeff Sparrow.

Happy New year all, from one of the editors of Secular Perspectives.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Humanist Part of the Techno Dissent Discussion

by Gary Berg-Cross

I do like the term and think of myself as a humanist -  secular humanist. And in the Washington Post recent series on Tech Doubters kicked off by Joel Achenbach's THE RESISTANCE. I see that there may be an opportunity to get the humanist position, even the progressive, nature centered and deliberately rational, progressive secular view into the conversation.  At least this can be in regard to the human-technical interaction in society.

The article kicks off the issues thus way identifying people uncomfortable with how the internet and associated technology is influencing modern life.

"They are the digital dissenters.

They see tech companies tracking our every move.

They want to go back to the basics – to a world where the interests of

humans come before robots, algorithms and the needs of Silicon Valley.

 Meet the people on “Team Human."n.” █ 

From a distance I don't much object to this stance.  I don't like the invasion of privacy with companies (or governments) tracking our behavior etc. And I share the view of human values being central.  It is just that I also appreciate science and technology and perhaps want more thought to go into its use. Some of the critics do too and 
Achenbach starts introducing them like this:

"Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.

'I’m on Team Human!' author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk."

Well again, I agree with part of these critiques including the judgment that parts of our digital age has nightmare elements run by digital "robber barons" who mine data our personal info for profit. So it is not paranoid, that one of the tech skeptics, political activist Astra Taylor keeps duct tape over the camera lens on her laptop computer. Someone might be listening.

There are many people who have this view:

"You could fill a college syllabus with books espousing some kind of technological resistance. Start the class with “You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier), move on to “The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen), and then, to scare the students silly, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat)."

Also cited is Pope Francis' recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” which "contemplates the mixed blessings of technology." He acknowledges the marvels of modern technology such as the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper), but warns of potential dangers,unless technological development isn't been matched by "development in human values and conscience." There might be a spiritual ting to Francis' values though.

I might a bit more uncomfortable with the broad brush labeling of techno-skeptics as humanists. There are some qualifications to make along the way.  
I would agree with the point that humanism, and in particular a secular humanist position has potential here. There is something lost in blindly designing things for machine culture in an arms race, first to the market, winner take all style that we have. I would feel some affinity to both ‘believe’ in humanism and trust (well hope) in a fair view of technical innovation;which includes that humans find some meaning in through work (Jörns, 1997). As the article notes we currently have a problem here:

 “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings."

Yes, and humanist values could be the basis of doing this in a human friendly way.  The humanist movement, has what Roy Speckhardt calls a forward-thinking outlook with an emphasis on critical thinking and self-reflection. It also has a naturalist outlook which wouldn't want an intrusion of spiritual values into this conversation. So that type of humanism is what we want now.  It is more sophisticated than a human vs. computer labeled wrestling match. Secularism, understood as the dominance of naturalistic and scientific thought over supernatural explanations of reality, was seen as the future for America and might be seen in light of techno skepticism a solution again. What come along with a "progressive secularism" view is a belief-stance that human beings are alone in the world and must act responsibly by forming their ethics solely from their human experience, human reason and science (source Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.)

To me then is not an either machines/computers or us issue (human reason & science apply), although I can understand dissent in the face of an un-thought through tech "advance" imposed by a morals-free system.  Few of us want to be slippery sloped or bludgeoned into accepting an unacceptable future. The problem is as much a slow versus fast thinking for-profit style. In a deliberate manner we may be able to answer how humans and smart, communicating systems can usefully interact and profit all human life not just the masters.

It seems to me it also the values of a shallow capitalist culture (the robber baron image again) allowing tech use for company profit.  It is the old fire is good or bad depending on how you balance its use within a cultural system. We need reflection to do this.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Why is the Post knuckling under on D.C. vouchers?

On Dec 19 the Washington Post ran an editorial titled “Knuckling under on D.C. vouchers” deploring Congress’s refusal to expand the D.C. school voucher program. 

Here is a portion
of the original article followed by comments:

"Left by the wayside — despite pleas from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — was a five-yearreauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows children from low-income families to attend private schools with federal vouchers. The program was created in 2004 as part of a three-pronged investment in D.C. public education that funds the vouchers and provides extra allocations of federal dollars to the public school system and public charter schools. Indeed, the three-sector federal approach has brought more than $600 million to D.C. schools, with traditional public schools receiving $239 million, public charter schools $195 million and the voucher program $183 million. The vouchers have allowed thousands of students, predominantly minorities, to attend private schools. Parents of scholarship students have extolled the benefits of school choice and the positive impact of better schooling on their children’s lives. Interest in the program, according to its administrators, has never been higher."

Responses Here are replies by LaborLawyer and myself.  – Edd Doerr
LaborLawyer 12/19/2015

Given that taxpayer $ is already supporting two K-12 school systems in DC, what rationale -- other than helping parents send their children to religious schools -- is there for the voucher program?

Parents who do not like their regular neighborhood school, can apply to regular out-of-neighborhood schools. Parents who do not like any of the regular schools, can apply to a wide variety of charter schools. Why do parents need yet another option? This editorial fails to even attempt to offer an answer to this obvious question.

Two possible answers -- 1) the WaPo editorial board wants to encourage parents sending their children to religious schools; and 2) the WaPo editorial board wants to weaken the DC teachers union. I'd say the answer is almost certainly #2. The WaPo editorial board has long been irrationally hostile to teachers unions, public sector unions, and unions in general.

(And no, I'm not a union "mouthpiece"; in 30+ years practicing labor law, I represented govt and management, never unions or employees. I have, however, been reading the WaPo editorials for many years and, given my real-world knowledge regarding the good/bad/ugly of unions, am surprised by the WaPo editorial board's irrational animosity towards unions -- particularly the public sector unions which have relatively little economic power and whose impact is largely limited to providing some protection against arbitrary or invidious management action.)

Edd Doerr 12/19/2015 1:00 PM EST
Excellent comment. As for the voucher plan forcing all taxpayers to support pervasively sectarian private schools, it should be clear that this means violating every taxpayer's right not to be compelled by government to support religious institutions. James Madison made this point in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, which was the forerunner to the First Amendment.

Let me cite a Washington Post editorial from March 3, 1971: "Americans have every right, of course, to seek for their children a religiously oriented education and to send their children to private schools which provide the sort of religious orientation they want. But they have no more right to ask the general public to,pay for such schools -- and for the religious instruction they provide -- than to ask the general public to pay for the churches in which, happily, they are free to gather for prayer and for worship as they please. The religious schools are organs of a church. The public schools are organs of a secular authority, the state. Would it not ne wiser, as the Founders of the Republic concluded, to keep church and state altogether separate?"

The Post ran a similar editorial on June 21, 1969.

Edd Doerr (

12/19/2015 10:20 AM EST
The DC school voucher plan is paid for by US taxpayers nationwide -- and US taxpayers have made it clear that they oppose vouchers. The 2015 Gallup education poll showed opposition at 57% to 31%. State referendums from coast to coast -- 28 of them from 1966 to 2014 -- have shown that Americans oppose vouchers and their variants by 2 to 1. In 1981 DC voters defeated a school voucher plan by 89% to 11%. DC's city council majority opposes vouchers. A coalition of over 50 national religious, educational, civic and civil rights organizations told Congress in October that they oppose vouchers. Why on earth are the Post's editors so keen on vouchers? It makes no sense. Who does not see that diverting public funds to sectarian and other private schools through vouchers or tax credits can only fragment our student population along religious, ideological, social class, ethnic and other lines while undermining our public schools?