Monday, January 23, 2023

American Atheists on The State of the Secular States

As many of you know I feel that democracy itself is at risk in this country. January 6, 2020 was but one tiny but very threatening example of that risk. I think that democracy has a decent chance at the national level, but at the state level not so much. Some states are turning into right wing Hell holes of theocratic repression. The nuts and bolts of the American theocratic assault on democracy needs to be analyzed in detail across all states.

The American Atheists do precisely this both in their day-to-day operations and in their annual State of the Secular States reports. The second sentence of the introduction to that document cites “…a network of extreme, well-funded, and well-organized groups aligned with the white Christian nationalist ideology.” Project Blitz was also cited as a prime example of these groups. Blitz focused on creating very innovative model legislation making sure that fundamentalist Christians have a radically greater share of the political and cultural power throughout many of our social and governmental institutions.

Obviously special privileges for religion, limitations on health care and reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues and control of schools have been areas of primary focus for theocrats. AA does not include many issues that I see to be central to the assault of the Christian far right on democracy and simple human decency. This includes opposition to immigration, gun control, mask-wearing, vaccine requirements or support for punitive policing, mass incarceration, capital punishment, gerrymandering and other opportunities for voter suppression. Any vote by anyone not supporting their extremist agenda must be avoided if they can find any way for law to select only voters supporting white Christian supremacy. The war on drugs was conceived by Nixon as a mechanism to minimize minority and liberal votes. Christian theocrats love their very incoherent notion of ‘guilt.’ There is the regrettable fact that selective gerrymandering can give a minority of a state’s voters a super majority in a state legislature. And do not forget the lowering of taxes, cutting of spending, and deregulating the economy. A public social safety net would obviously limit the theocrats desire for the church to be seen as central in the fulfilling of social needs. These last issues are not tracked by AA.

They do track all laws that either specifically undermine or protect religious equality. Last year they tracked 557 such bills undermining religious liberty and 141 that supported it. Of those undermining, 78 passed and positive legislation had 24 passed. This is roughly three to one in favor of bad legislation. The report has a complete profile of existing legislation for each state. They separated have an on-line list of proposed and possibly pending legislation for each state. I highly recommend that people download the report for last year and consider supporting this superb work by the American Atheists.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Thomas Jefferson 2nd inaugural book

 By Mathew Goldstein


The National Archives has a “Founders Online” web site that focuses on “CORRESPONDENCE AND OTHER WRITINGS OF SEVEN MAJOR SHAPERS OF THE UNITED STATES” one of whom is Thomas Jefferson. A section titled “Second Inaugural Address: Editorial Note” cites “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 45, 11 November 1804 to 8 March 1805, ed. James P. McClure et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021, pp. 625–638.” The first sentence of the eighth paragraph describes his second inauguration thusly “On finishing the address, Jefferson kissed the Bible, swore the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Marshall, and bowed.” 


In 2010, the National Archives entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create the Founders Online site. David Sewell, Manager of Digital Initiatives and the Rotunda Imprint at the University of a Virginia Press, contacted James P. McClure, General Editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, to verify his source for this. It turns out that the source cited for "kissed the Bible" is private correspondence written by British diplomat Augustus Foster in a 1 July 1805 letter to Frederick Foster, his older brother. A. Foster was writing a few months after the event. The contents of the letter imply that he attended the inauguration, but the phrase he uses in his letter is "kissed the book". This claim is not corroborated by any other witness.  


McClure acknowledges that Foster wrote “book”, not “Bible”. He explains why he changed “book” to “Bible” as follows: “… but I cannot come up with any other book that would fit the bill. It was established English (and by then American) custom to swear oaths on the Bible in such settings. Jefferson respected those traditions and did not reject the Bible. I assume that the Bible would have been used for the swearing-in by Marshall as a matter of course. As for Jefferson’s kissing of the book, the fact that no one commented on that makes me think that it may have been customary and not out of the ordinary. It is possible too that Jefferson wanted to make a point by demonstrating that he was not in fact an atheist despite opponents’ attacks on him with reference to religion.”


The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide, 2020 - Page 389 (https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Bible_in_American_Law_and_Politics.html?id=s-nyDwAAQBAJ) contains a section titled “Presidential Inaugurations” with the following second paragraph: “In 1969, the National Cathedral displayed all known presidential inaugural Bibles. They were unable to locate inaugural Bibles from [GW’s 2nd inauguration, &] Presidents John Adams through John Tyler or from Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, or Franklin Pierce (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7). John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that Chief Justice John Marshall had brought a volume on laws on which to take the oath, and Marshall might have done so for the  previous presidents as well (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7).” The wording “on which to take the oath” above is a little sloppy, the oath was actually read from the book, and there was no other book, thus no Bible. A description of J. Q. Adam’s inauguration appears in the March 12, 1825 Niles Weekly RegisterJohn Quincy Adams said that he thought the Bible should be reserved for strictly religious purposes.


A recent search of the Library of Congress newspaper databases found, unsurprisingly, no evidence that there was a Bible at Virginian Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration. Such a no-Bible-is-evidenced result is par for the course for the first six presidents, with an exception for the first inauguration because it was conducted under New York State law that mandated a Bible. Kissing the Bible persisted among northern states after the revolution as a legal requirement that they inherited from the legal framework set in place by Royal Governor Sir Edmund AndrosOver time those states changed course and followed the lead of Virginia and the federal government in rejecting the authoritarian and discriminatory theocratic Bible mandates. The last president to kiss a Bible at their inauguration was Truman in 1949.


The Bible kiss seals the promises just made and as such occurs after the oath recitation, whereas Foster says the book was kissed before the oath recitation. One of the purposes of the British legal mandate to kiss a King James Bible was to publicly demonstrate fealty to the same British monarchy that was militarily defeated by the recent armed rebellion against its rule. The failure to repeat that British legal mandate in U.S. federal law implies somewhat less than full respect for that particular British tradition. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s redactions to the Bible imply a less than full acceptance of the Bible on his part. And relevant to the governmental business context of a presidential inauguration, Thomas Jefferson endorsed the phrase “separation of church and state” which links individual freedom of conscience to secular government. One of his projects was creating the University of a Virginia, the first public university in the country. He fought to retain a ban on teaching religion there against the lobbying of evangelical churches and the Federalists.


Foster was clearly aware of the nationalist perspective that favored a religion attached monarchy. In an April 19, 1802 letter to his mother, discussing “… the great ceremony celebrating the peace and establishment of Religion” in Paris the day before, Foster wrote: “Mounier, Camille Jourdan [a French writer], and most of that set consider it a deathblow to the hopes of Louis 18, who is now called Le Pretedant, as he went till now hand in hand with religion, and as religion was the principle link which linked his interests to the interests of the Honettes Gens [honest people] of France, because Atheism was encouraged and Piety laughed at. Now that the government proclaims Liberty of Conscience, … and that they see they may pray without the aid of Louis, it will weaken his interest very much in the country.”


Foster’s letter is not only silent about the type book, it is also silent about whose book it was, where the book was located, the size of the book, who was holding the book, etc. The simplest explanation for why Foster said “book” is that he did not know what type of book it was. People who are honest tend to refrain from unnecessarily adding assertions that are beyond their knowledge. The law book likely provided to the president elects by Chief Justice Marshall for them to read their oath of office from was characterized as “small” by a witness at Jackson’s second inauguration [THE SALEM GAZETTE (Mass.), Mar. 12, 1833: “ John Marshall rose, ascended the steps, was received by General Jackson standing, to whom he presented a small book with his right hand, containing the oath, and with his left, the Bible. The General took hold of each, and having read the oath, kissed the book and Mr. Van Buren did the same. Here the ceremony ended.”]. Maybe Jefferson kissed a small law book, provided to him by Chief Justice Marshall, that contained a copy of the constitution, sometime prior to reading the oath from that same book, to emphasize his respect for those laws?


A conclusion regarding what type of book he kissed at his inauguration can go either way when it is based on nothing more substantial than biased cherry picking of conjectures regarding the possible motivations of the president elect and the Chief Justice with assumptions to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, people are not always self-consistent. Jefferson was critical of slavery, which fundamentally conflicted with some of his expressed values, yet he relied on slave labor. Accordingly, unless some heretofore unknown eyewitness account that there was a Bible at that inauguration is found, notwithstanding the editorial note published on the National Archives web site and The Jefferson Papers claiming he kissed a Bible, there is room for doubt that there was a Bible. The only reliable way for us to know is for someone who witnessed the event to tell us. We lack sufficient justification to declare there was a Bible as an established historical fact without a witness from the past telling us there was a Bible. Anyone, regardless of their credentials or authority, who claims otherwise is overstepping, and should be called out for doing so.


Founders Online is funded, in part, by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a statutory body affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration whose mission is encouraging the use of documentary sources relating to the history of the United States. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson is also partially government funded by the NHPRC and by the National Endowment for the HumanitiesJames Sewell averred that the “opinions and interpretations in the notes to documents in Founders Online are those of the editorial projects that created the original editions, and do not represent official views of the NHPRC or National Archives.” However, such a disclaimer does not appear on Founders Online.

British commentary on U.S. atheism taboo

 Mathew Goldstein


The Economist newspaper’s explanation for why Atheism still a taboo for American politicians: Members of Congress are far more religious than their constituents (https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2023/01/06/atheism-is-still-a-taboo-for-american-politicians).

Saturday, December 17, 2022

We have free choice and no free will

 By Mathew Goldstein


Free will can be a confusing and complicated topic and some people are intellectually or emotionally invested in the notion that we have free will. For these reasons I have hesitated to write about it. Yet there is a wrong perspective regarding free will that merits being debunked, all the more so because it is commonly held. That wrong perspective is that we all have a supernatural, contra-causal, libertarian, free will. Will and choice are not synonyms and conflating the two is a primary cause of confusion.


Choice occurs whenever there are alternative courses of action and we select one, inclusive of selecting taking no action when that is an available option. We can characterize our choices as “free” when there is no disproportionate coercion intentionally directed against any of the choices, notwithstanding that our available choices are always limited and/or constrained and often entail tradeoffs. So lack of coercion is all we need to establish that we have meaningfully significant, albeit incomplete/limited/compromised, free choice. We sometimes have more than enough choices, even too many choices. We all have freedom of choice. Free will is different.


Free will is a claim that the choices we make when we are free to choose are not inevitable. Defined thusly, free will, if it existed, would be a strictly libertarian phenomena that, unlike all other known phenomena, evinces an other-worldly absence of a causal constraint (it is contra-causal). Some people may think this distinction between free choice and free will is a meaningless distinction. While this is far from the most important issue that humanity confronts, it is still a meaningful distinction. Compatibalists do a very good job of arguing, correctly in my view, that free choice is all we need and all we really want if we consider the question more carefully. They defend free will anyway by redefining it as free choice (which is why they are called Compatibalists). I am not going to do that.


Some compatibalists argue that, even though in principle our future behaviors can be predicted in advance, in practice that will not happen, or will happen only to a limited extent, because of the immensity of the practical obstacles and maybe also the uncertainty principle in physics ruling out our having complete knowledge altogether even in principle. They then link this unpredictability to free will. However, insofar as free will is defined as being dependent on our being unable to predict the future it becomes a product of our unavoidable ignorance and as such is otherwise not a phenomena meaningfully distinct from free choice. Fermions do not have free will because of the uncertainty principle, neither do we. Nor do we obtain an additional degree of freedom from ignorance. Poetic language is sometimes our best option for communicating effectively. We exercise free will poetically. Yet there is also value in precision and clarity that is lost when we communicate poetically. Accordingly, this discussion retains the traditional definition of free will as libertarian in the strong sense that renders it different from free choice.


If we lack free will than the story of a deity punishing serpents and humanity for the first reproducing human pair choosing to eat apples at the behest of the former makes no sense. Not that a talking serpent, a first human couple, eating an apple generating an ability to discern bad versus good behaviors, etc., makes sense even if we did have free will. But that story doubly makes no sense given that the choices people make are inevitable. This is because there is no logical justification for such perpetual retribution against humanity because two people made a bad free choice given that no human could do other than what they freely choose to do.


The notion that we freely make choices and at the same time the decisions we make are inevitable is somewhat contradictory, which contributes to an unwillingness to accept that we lack free will. What does it mean to have choices when the choices we make are inevitable? It means that we are choice deciding and selecting biological/metabolic machines. The choices we make go a long way towards defining who we are as individuals. Humans are one living animal among many animals, plants, and single cells, confronted with, and freely selecting among, alternative possible actions. Humans uniquely have the capacity to be aware of this, but our additional self awareness and reasoning capabilities are not evidence that we are otherwise distinct and operate very differently from the rest of the universe. The universe may operate stochastically, it may operate deterministically, it may operate both ways, but as far as we have been able to determine, everything operates mechanically (which is one of the defining characteristics of naturalism).


We no more will our choices/decisions/behaviors than we will the weather. Both are inevitable and outside of our control. The difference is that we are each the agents/actors behind our choices/decisions/behaviors and we are thusly self-responsible for our choices/decisions/behaviors while we have no such self-responsibility for the weather.


Another source of confusion is the notion that justice requires free will. That notion is rooted in an unrealistically idealistic notion of justice. We have a practical need to discourage misbehaviors. It follows that we have a need to punish bad behavior for the purpose of discouraging bad behavior. Against some bad behaviors there is a need to protect ourselves by removing the bad actor from the rest of the community. A lack of free will does not equate to a lack of need to protect ourselves from bad actors. We organize to protect ourselves from bad actors by acting against the transgressors who harm others. We are ourselves one person who is similar to other people and this is a reason we are justified in prioritizing human life over other life. Humanity depends on other life and our planet’s ecosystems more generally, so we also cannot safely disregard the rest of life. We do this because it makes for a better life for ourselves and for the rest of humanity. Justice is as much, if not more so, pragmatic, as it is idealistic. 


Justice, to be meaningfully realized, has to be rooted in the facts. Facts come first, there is an always present need to be careful to distinguish what is true from what is false to accurately achieve our goals. Free will (defined as contra-causal and libertarian) is inconsistent with a current science based understanding of how the universe works. Accordingly, vengeful retribution is unjustified and incompatible with justice.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Free Inquiry article by Robyn Blumner

 By Mathew Goldstein


I recommend this article Robyn Blumner, the CEO of CI, published recently in their Free Inquiry magazine  The Truth Matters and Secular Humanists Should Defend It.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Catholic Church Abuse in Maryland

Brian Frosh, the Maryland Attorney General, has developed a 463 page document on his investigation of the Catholic Church in Maryland. Given that some of the details were developed in Grand Jury testimony he cannot release this document without court approval. The Religion News Service has published some of the details of the AG court request for asking for this release. This includes:


  • 158 Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore who have been accused of sexually and physically abusing more than 600 victims over the past 80 years

  • While the court filing noted that more than 600 victims were identified, it also said “there are almost certainly hundreds more, as the Department of Justice’s Annual Crime Victimization Report has demonstrated that most incidents of sexual assault go unreported.”

  • “One congregation was assigned eleven sexually abusive priests over 40 years.”

Read the entire Religion News Service article here:

https://religionnews.com/2022/11/18/maryland-probe-finds-158-abusive-priests-over-600-victims/


Sunday, November 20, 2022

American Theocracy after November 2022 Elections

 Democracy in our nation dodged a bullet in the recent election. Kay Ivey was the only election denier elected as the Governor of a state. It is not as if the Democratic Party is likely to win Alabama in the near future. To my knowledge there were no state level candidates who denied Biden’s proper election and achieved state level control over future elections. However, there were over 100 Big Lie lunatics elected, mostly to the House of Representatives. The American Taliban remains alive and well.

The primary success of American theocracy remains the systematic dismantling of women’s rights to reproductive choice in at least half the states. Gov. Youngkin very much wants to include Virginia in that group of states. There is a systematic attack on the school systems with claims of critical race theory being used to denigrate white people, libraries peddling LGBT porn, grooming of young children to adopt other sexual identities, book banning, etc. The radical support for the gun nut crowd has resulted in a nation nearly choking on a flood of lethal firepower. This has created a reign of terror with nearly daily mass shootings. We have five dead and 18 injured late yesterday, at a Colorado Springs gay night club. The gays have in many ways won the culture war. They are accepted almost everywhere. Theocrats do not like that. Their hate speech is the foundational reason for this and other varieties of mass shootings. Welcome to the culture war where people actually die.

AG Garland appointed a special counsel to prosecute Trump. It is highly likely that this will result in his conviction and removal as a candidate for 2024. That is my expectation. Ron DeSantis released a preposterous hyper-religious ad declaring that God created a fighter, specifically him. I am sure the Christian nationalists of his base will love this “fighter” for their cause. DeSantis won a resounding reelection in Florida and most people are now saying that Florida is now a firmly red state. I doubt that, but he does have Trump-like charisma and ability to inspire the right wing theocratic base. It is excessively likely that an election between Biden and DeSantis would lock down the White House into Ron’s variety of hate spewing theocracy. DeSantis loves to say, “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Woke is any semblance of compassion or respect for those outside his preposterous world view. Secular liberalism has no one who can own a stage as much as this God inspired travesty of political mayhem.

I have been asserting that our culture, and the wider world, is teetering on the brink authoritarianism analogous the 1930s. Many tens of millions died in the resulting WWII. I am now asserting that our present spin on authoritarian madness can be projected to cause an order of magnitude more deaths. This is implicit in the ecosystem collapse from the climate change crisis mandated by right-wing denialism. I see no possibility for the long term dead to not approach at least a billion if we do not act more forcefully than permitted by these theocrats. We currently have many countries that are on a glide path to becoming failed states ruled by competing drug gangs and private armies. This is not a good thing.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

Blaise Pascal’s argument for truth from faith

 By Mathew Goldstein


Vance Morgan is the author of “Freelance Christianity” on the Progressive Christianity channel of Patheos.  Patheos describes itself as “… the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality, and to explore and experience the world's beliefs.” His most recent post is “The Heart Has Its Reasons . . .: My Evidence Against Atheism”.  He defends Christianity as a “ first principle”, quoting Blaise Pascal.


“We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it.”


He says “the problem is the atheist’s refusal to accept that there are more kinds of evidence than rational and more sources of belief than reason.”, again quoting Blaise Pascal.


“Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.”


Of course, we disagree. My take is that Blaise Pascal was mistaken. This is not all that surprising given that Pascal was writing in the 17th century. In the 17th century it was arguably easier to be both a top tier intellectual and be a theist, and maybe even be a self-described Christian, without obvious self-contradictions. This is because our knowledge of how the universe works has advanced since the 17th century, and what we have learned over the last three centuries favors ontological naturalism.


Mr. Pascal decided that salvation was by grace, not by human merit, and he defended overcoming uncertainty by relying on faith. Yet there is no testable evidence favoring any theological concept of salvation. So there are no reliable grounds, none!, for concluding in favor of the theological concept of grace as a path to salvation, all the more so given that grace also lacks supporting testable evidence. Once we go fishing for conclusions about how the universe works without anchoring our boat in testable evidence, the remaining constraints on which conclusions we reach are far too arbitrary and feeble to give us even a reasonable chance of landing on non-fiction. Insofar as atheists recognize this, and theists do not, it is the theists who are mistaken, not the atheists.


Mr. Vance claims that Christianity “provides the best cognitive framework for understanding myself and the world around me than I have ever encountered”. No religion comes close to qualifying as a good framework for understanding the world, let alone the ‘best framework’. This is why scientists are not hired based on their religious credentials, beliefs, or practices. They are hired based on their secular (non-religious) academic training and track record of productive output. The Bible in particular offers a mistaken, pre-scientific, perspective reflecting the ignorance of the people who wrote it. In Genesis we learn why people die (retaliation for Eve and Adam eating an apple, a.k.a. original sin), why there are rainbows (rainbows are a sign of God’s covenant), where rain comes from (the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens), why snakes slither on the ground (retaliation for a serpent persuading Eve and Adam to eat an apple), why there is pain during childbirth (retaliation for Eve eating an apple), why there are thorns (retaliation for Adam eating an apple), why there are thousands of different languages (retaliation for people disobeying God). We also learn that stars are hung in the firmament above the mountains. 


Mr. Vance ends his defense of Christian theism thusly:  “Most importantly, the best evidence in support of faith (or whatever you choose to call it) is a changed life. That’s my own story.” There are many factors that go into “a changed life”. When people who were theists become atheists they sometimes say the conversion changed their life for the better. Is whether or not our life changed a valid measure, let alone “the best” measure”, of the accuracy of our ontological beliefs? Throughout history there are examples of many happy people being wrong, people who arguably could have been happy without being mistaken. It needs to be said that being mistaken, even when well-intentioned, is a potential source of misdirected, and harmful, behavior. 


Principles and ethics are applied to the factual context. Thusly “the heart”, in the sense of principles and ethics, remains intact and an active participant within a facts chronologically first approach. The sequence is first, determine the relevant facts to the best of our abilities, second, apply ethical concerns to our decisions to the best of our abilities. They are not incompatible with each other. On the contrary, we need the facts to get our ethics right, which is why getting the facts right places first chronologically. This linkage with facts is always needed for everything that needs a non-fictional basis.


This does not mean there are no conflicts or complications. Ethical considerations range from clear cut and easy to ambiguous and difficult. There can be uncertainties about the facts, uncertainties about the past, present, and future, uncertainties about the ethics, multiple competing considerations that favor different conclusions, time constraints along with a slew of other constraints, etc. My guess is that there are almost enough non-fictional books documenting human weaknesses and flaws to fill a library. Add the fictional literature and the typical library will probably be short of shelf space. 


Furthermore, facts regarding how the universe works are not in and of themselves ethical. They are two different to categories. There can be a need to actively intervene to pushback against the negative implications of the facts when it is feasible to do so to realize better outcomes. For example, global warming, malaria, plastic pollution, carcinogens, poverty, crime, etcetera are examples of facts we should be pushing back against. Blaise Pascal’s argument relies on a category error and special pleading. He is selectively transferring particular fact category claims over to ethical category claims to exempt those particular fact claims from scrutiny. When we start with a commitment to believing that an all knowing and all good god created the universe we have set the stage for conflating factual claims with ethical claims.


Any ideology, most definitely including secular ideologies, that disregard, that override, that contradict, that denigrate, the best fit with the available evidence conclusions are potential additional sources of misdirected behaviors. Selectively overlooking, or denigrating, both the available evidence and competent epistemology more generally, are distinguishing traits of ideology. Religion has no monopoly on ideology, secular ideologies are equally remiss and culpable. The difference is that all religions are ideologies. Secular humanists should not be exempting secular ideologies from critical scrutiny. Ideologies tend to do more harm than good.