Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Who is Happy and Why?

Some people are cheerful, optimistic, loving and sociable. Others are they dour, critical, pessimistic and unsociable. We each have a genetic set point usually somewhere between these extremes. We know this because identical twins will report remarkably similar feelings of happiness even if raised in separate environments. Obviously our life circumstances and our choices can make a difference in our happiness. But what does research say about the factors that will make that difference?

Most people immediately think “if only I had twenty percent more income then I would be happy.” Income is increasingly either the most desired goal in life or one of the most important goals. Well, real personal income doubled from 1957 to 1990 and there was no difference at all in happiness as surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center. What happens when people do get that twenty percent increase? It does make a difference – for a few weeks. We quickly become acclimated to the new income level and then we want to get the next twenty percent increase.

The same thing happens to big lottery winners. They might be vastly richer than they were before but it seldom makes any difference in long term happiness. Money makes a difference to happiness primarily if there a lack of critical life resources such as food, clothing, shelter and required medical care. This does not mean that we should not try to get more money. This just means that we should not expect additional money to create greater happiness.

What factors do create happiness? In my reading of the research there are three factors that seem most important.

Happy people almost universally have a rich network of personal relationships and they spend a large proportion of their time with other people. This makes a lot of sense when we consider the evolutionary history of humanity. Humanity evolved in a life with small tribal groupings of hunter/gatherers. Food gathering, preparation and child rearing worked better within a band that was working together. Hunting had a greater chance of success if it were done with a band of men working together. The tribal group was critical to survival and the vast majority of one’s time was spent with group members.

Modern society is a bit different. Our extended families are vanishing and when we go hunting for filet mignon we don’t need six of our best buddies to help out.

Martin Seligman is the leader of a Positive Psychology group and a very visible advocate for my second important factor. He and his colleagues say one of the most important things to do is to find what your strengths are and spend much of your time using those strengths. There is a deep gratification that comes from being totally engrossed in some task that demands our focused attention. This makes sense. When our ancestors did this in our evolutionary history the results were typically quite good for those ancestors and their immediate group.

Meditation seems to be a specialized example of this focused attention. If one has such focused attention there is no room for the internal critic that seems central to the creation of depression. The focused attention itself implicitly places a positive value on the self that engages in that focused attention.

The research also seems to indicate that everyone should include our capacity for vigorous physical activity in our list of strengths to be utilized. Those that do that will substantially increase the likelihood of a positive sense of well being.

Modern society does not design jobs based on what would optimally engage our unique strengths. Companies have their tasks to accomplish and they have no reason to care about what tasks would be gratifying for us. And then when people get home what do they do? Most of our free time is spent in front of the boob tube.

A third important factor is to do something to make the world better for others. Many researchers presume that being generous toward others by definition will reduce the fitness of the generous person. A reduction in resources to them translates into a reduced ability to provide for oneself and one’s immediate family. They see a big problem in understanding how a spirit of generosity will evolve. Why would it be important to have this generosity of spirit?

In a tribal group there was no money. If you are wealthy in the sense that you had excess meat from a hunt, the best place to store your surplus would be the stomachs of others. The meat would spoil if you did not do this. Your wealth then becomes your enhanced status within the group and the expectation that people will reciprocate when you were in need.

It is a bit more complex than just that. Death by violence was extremely frequent in human prehistory. It was so common that during much of human evolution there were not enough men for the women. Polygamy became very common. Who got the additional women? The high status men that gained that status because they found pleasure in being generous. The higher status within the group gave the man with a generous spirit a significant advantage in the competition for the women. It makes sense that this generosity of spirit would become hard wired into our genes.

Seligman claims that there is a tenfold increase in clinical depression compared with our grandparents generation and that rampant individualism is responsible. An important part of this is the lack of wider meaning when there is no attachment to something that is larger than we are. Without wider meaning a personal failure of any form has greater impact.

In conclusion, it is my position that we are hard wired to be happy. However, we have to live a life that is consistent with that wiring. We must nurture a rich network of personal relationships. We must find ways to use our strengths in activities that are deeply engaging and we must find meaning in life by finding some way to work for the wider good.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Take Your Penn and Write to NPR!

Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) read his "This I Believe" essay on NPR this morning. It was excellent; a perfect statement of strong atheism, but one that a weak atheist or agnostic can also fully endorse and agree with.

The transcript (and audio) can be found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557.

I will write a message of praise to NPR later today, as soon as I have some time to compose something concise and coherent. I urge everyone to do the same. I am sure NPR will get all kinds of hate mail due to Penn's essay. They should also hear from people who are not sick in their heads!


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dover Monkey Trial May Be Moot

The entire intelligent-design-pushing Dover school board was ousted in yesterday's election:


I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that the judge in the trial over ID now has an option of proclaiming the case moot and closing it without issuing any opinion.

It may be interesting to see if the school board makes a motion to dismiss the case as moot. The old, lame-duck, board has a reason to do it, to avoid a court ruling that would bar them from doing the same thing if they ever get elected again. Avoiding the ruling may also help the like-minded school boards elsewhere. On the other hand, such a motion would be a signal that they expect to lose in court, on top of the already suffered loss in the election.

It would not make sense for the new board to seek dismissal of the case. However, the judge may prefer to dismiss it anyway.

From the source (link above):
It should be noted that the incoming board members from the Dover CARES campaign have a platform plank saying that “intelligent design” will be taught in Dover public schools. However, the venue of such instruction will not be the science classrooms, where it was out-of-place, but rather an elective course on comparative religion, where it fits perfectly.

I agree that there is nothing unconstitutional in teaching about ID as a religious doctrine, and also that there is nothing unconstitutional about a comparative religion class. On the contrary, it is good policy to have such a class, and to include current religious controversies in it.

The good news is that a good fight pays off. Conventional wisdom is that people hate litigation and that even when secularists (or other progressives) win cases in court, they lose in the public opinion and, hence, in elections. As it often happens, conventional wisdom was wrong.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

ID: Behe Capitulated

In the Dover monkey trial, Michael Behe, the leading "scientist" of the intelligent design movement, assumed the role of the monkey:

Behe admitted that the controversial theory would not be included in the NAS definition. “I can’t point to an external community that would agree that this was well substantiated,” he said.

It gets even better:

Rothschild suggested that Behe’s definition was so loose that astrology would come under this definition as well. He also pointed out that Behe’s definition of theory was almost identical to the NAS’s definition of a hypothesis. Behe agreed with both assertions.

Full article here.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Closed Book of Judges

As noted previously in "Rex Regnant Sed Non Gubernat" and "What Would Jesus Prescribe?," abuses of conscious clauses have enabled the denial of healthcare and pharmaceutical services on religious grounds. Now comes a story from the New York Times on Sunday, 4 September 2005 titled "On Moral Grounds, Some Judges Are Opting Out of Abortion Cases."
A pregnant teenager went to the grand and imposing county courthouse here early in the summer, saying she wanted an abortion. The circuit court judge refused to hear the case, and he announced that he would recuse himself from any others like it.

"Taking the life of an innocent human being is contrary to the moral order," the judge, John R. McCarroll of Shelby County Circuit Court, wrote in June. "I could not in good conscience make a finding that would allow the minor to proceed with the abortion."

Tennessee, where this case arose, is one of 19 states requiring parental notification and consent for abortion services; however, in this state the law provides minors the right to seek judicial permission for an abortion if they choose not to involve their parents.

Good and valid arguments can be made in support of parental notification laws, but prerequisite to their enactment is a viable judicial appeal process. Minors subject to abuse, retribution or abandonment on the basis of their decision to seek an abortion must have recourse to the courts. If judges frequently recuse themselves from hearing such pleas, the system becomes untenable.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Pledge of Allegiance: The Next Generation

CNN on-line reports ("Appeals Court Upholds Pledge Law") that a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a suit filed against a public school system requiring daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Undoubtedly, the pledge contains a religious phrase, and it is demeaning to persons of any faith to assert that the words 'under God' contain no religious significance," Judge Karen Williams wrote. "The inclusion of those two words, however, does not alter the nature of the pledge as a patriotic activity."
Look for this case in a Supreme Court near you.

A Rushdie Judgment

A column in today's Times of London by Salman Rushdie (titled "Muslims Unite! A New Reformation Will Bring Your Faith Into the Modern Era") calls for a reformation of Islam, to "combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air."

It would be good to see governments and community leaders inside the Muslim world as well as outside it throwing their weight behind this idea, because creating and sustaining such a reform movement will require, above all, a new educational impetus whose results may take a generation to be felt, a new scholarship to replace the literalist diktats and narrow dogmatisms that plague present-day Muslim thinking.

It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it.

Humanists should applaud Rushdie's call for scholarly reassessment of Islam, and its potential to wrest control of this major world faith from the hands of the Islamofascists who now hold it hostage and threaten world peace.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Scientific Support, By Design

Paul Krugman has an excellent op-ed in today's New York Times ("Design for Confusion") discussing the continued use of pseudo-scientific "theories" to support an ideological agenda.
The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn't have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends with banishing Darwin from the classroom.
The question, of course, is what can be done about this situation. Clearly it is unproductive (and even counter-productive) to debate the merits of evolutionary theory, and proponents of ID have yet to put forth a falsifiable hypothesis that can be attacked directly.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bush Promotes Faith-based Science

A number of sources have reported that President Bush has come out in favor of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. According to the 3 August 2005 Washington Post story titled "Bush Remarks on 'Intelligent Design' Theory Fuel Debate:"
"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about," he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
The complete transcript of the exchange from which this excerpt is taken was published by the Washington Post on 2 August 2005 as part of its "White House Briefing" feature.

Predictably, this pronouncement has resulted in widespread denouncement by such organizations as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Humanist Association, National Science Teachers Association, and American Geophysical Union,

An interesting parody of the case for teaching ID may be found here.

The Back of the Bus?

US News and World Reports has posted an article about a Universist group in Alabama being denied use of a local coffee shop for their meetings.
The problem arose, says Universist Movement founder Ford Vox, when he met with Anderson to discuss holding a gathering at Cool Beans. After she asked what the group believed in, he claims, Anderson said she was not comfortable with it meeting in her cafe because she is Christian.
This is somewhat reminiscent of WASH being denied the use of Winchester Hall in Frederick, Maryland for a forum on the public display of the Ten Commandments a few years ago.

embrace a "progressive, natural religious philosophy" not entirely unlike Humanism.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Decades of the Decalogue

In his concurring opinion in today's disappointing Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry Justice Breyer notes:
As far as I can tell, 4o years passed in which the presence of this monument, legally speaking, went unchallenged (until the single legal objection raised by petitioner). And I am not aware of any evidence that this was due to a climate of intimidation. Hence, those 40 years suggest more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect, primarily to promote religion over nonreligion, to "engage in" any "religious practice," to "compel" any "religious practice," or to "work deterrence" of any "religious belief."
This is quite a precedent, amounting to a sort of squatter's right for the surrender of our constitutional protections. While good arguments have been made that opposition to such ostensibly harmless public religious displays is not as important as contesting more substantive forms of religious discrimination, today's decision seems to invalidate this line of reasoning. Instead, the folly of tolerating even minor public endorsement of religion is laid bare before us. Similar arguments have been made in other venues, with respect to the "one nation, under god" clause of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, and the "in god we trust" motto on our currency. Methinks, perhaps, we doth protest too little.

While challenging these monuments on constitutional grounds may no longer be tenable, there is ample opportunity to argue with their very substance. Perhaps if the surrounding citations from Exodus were regularly displayed (see, for example, http://www.wash.org/wlapr05_6_1.html) the absurdity of promoting such religious codes as the basis for our contemporary legal system would be more apparent.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Thou Shalt Not Enforce the 1st Amendment

In January of this year a federal court ruled that Gibson County, Indiana's courthouse lawn display of the Decalogue was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Not content to permit the judiciary such latitude, U.S. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind) decided to take the issue to Congress. This week, he succeded in attaching an amendment to a House appropriations bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used to enforce the ruling.

The New York Times, in an editorial yesterday, called on the Senate to excise the offensive provision:
Since the Supreme Court decided Marbury v. Madison in 1803, it has been clearly established that the courts have the ultimate power to interpret the Constitution. But right-wing ideologues, unhappy with some of the courts' rulings, have begun to question this principle as part of a broader war on the federal judiciary. The amendment that passed this week reflected an effort to use Congress's power to stop the courts from standing up for the First Amendment and other constitutional principles.
According to an Associated Press story appearing in the Indianapolis Star, even Mr. Hostettler's local constituents are loathe to support his latest crusade:
Gibson County officials have distanced themselves from Hostettler, saying there was never any intent to defy the federal court order, which could prompt U.S. marshals to descend on the city to remove it instead.

“We’re law-abiding people,” said Jerry Stilwell, the Princeton attorney who defended the county in a lawsuit seeking the monument’s removal. “Whether we like the ruling or not is irrelevant.”
We probably have less than a week until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on two Ten Commandments display cases - depending on the reception given that opinion we might see more creative legislative attempts to eviscerate our Constitution.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Team Jesus Christ

In an editorial titled "Team Jesus Christ" the Washington Post opines on the recent investigation into accusations of religious intolerance at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
More important, it's imperative that the Air Force ensure that the academy welcomes and accommodates cadets of all faiths, or none at all. Cadet training is, by its nature, an experience in which young men and women are under enormous pressure to conform. It is especially important, in that atmosphere, that cadets not feel that professing a certain religion is part of the norm to which they must adhere. Cadets need to know that they can serve the Air Force, and their country, even if they haven't signed up for Team Jesus Christ.
In a separate story in the Post, the superintendent of the Academy has acknowledged that religious intolerance at the institution is pervasive.

Friday, June 03, 2005

What did Einstein Say?

NBC television Monday, May 30, had an absurd segment on "The Power of Prayer." In it was asserted that scientists are increasingly believing in the power of prayer. This is quite false. Research shows no effect whatsoever from prayer at a distance if the subject has no knowledge of the prayer.

The only reference to a scientist in this piece was to Einstein. The comment was to the effect that Einstein tried to find a unified field theory and that a unified field theory was God. The incoherence of this as a reference to demonstrate that scientists are now believing in the power of prayer is positively breathtaking.

Einstein did not believe in a personal God at all and he certainly did not believe that anything could be gained by praying to a God. Quotes of Einstein:

"Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being." [Einstein - The Human Side]

"The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events - provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously." [New York Times Magazine November 9, 1930]

Einstein had a deep sense of reverence but that reverence was exclusively for the lawful behavior of the universe. Einstein did talk about a "cosmic religious feeling" that is associate with experiencing "the Universe as a single significant whole." This has nothing whatsoever to do with classical religious teaching about a personal god. It is unfortunate that sloppy journalism would slander the memory of this most noble scientist.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Stem Cell Theology

In today's Washington Post is a column by Jerome Groopman titled "Beware of Stem Cell Theology," noting the difficulty involved in gleaning a definitive Biblical position on human personhood and the ease with which selected passages can be manipulated for political gain.
But it is also foolish, and wrong, to use the founders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity as foils to support the current administration's views on pressing moral questions in medicine. It demonstrates a remarkable ignorance about the diversity of religious thought concerning when life begins, when it ends and what makes it sacred.
The Bible is nothing if not malleable, and has been used at one time or another to justify all sorts of absurd practices and proscriptions. While we understand and accept that documents like the U.S. Constitution are subject to evolving interpretation, it seems that the basis for an absolutist morality should provide clear, definitive and unalterable guidance. That it does not - especially with respect to the stem cell issue - should preclude its use as the basis for imposing restrictions on scientific progress.

Putting the "Science" in Pseudoscience

The New York Times reports that the venerable Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History has lent the patina of legitimacy to the creationists by hosting the premiere of the Discovery Institute's propaganda film "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe." This film makes the argument that the hand of a creator - an intelligent designer - is evident in the universe. Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Smithsonian, claims that the presentation is not meant to infer endorsement of the ideas expressed in the film.
He added that staff members viewed the film before approving the event to make sure that it complied with the museum's policy, which states that "events of a religious or partisan political nature" are not permitted...
Clearly some museum staffers are unaware that the basis of Intelligent Design is wholly (or holy) religious, and as "scientific theory" it lacks both science and theory (in the sense of a testable hypothesis). Perhaps thoughtful people should vociferously bring this to the museum's attention (an email to Heather Rostker, designated contact for the museum's exhibits and public programs, for example).

Combined with pressure by religious groups to prevent Imax theaters at museums from showing films that include the presumption of natural evolution (see "On the Ash Heap of Science"), this situation is really quite alarming.

Dismembers Only

The Dallas Morning News, in an article titled "How Language is Framing the Stem Cell Debate," has taken to task Tom DeLay's characterization of embryonic stem cell research as the "dismemberment of living, distinct human beings."
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor, said that by using the word dismemberment, Mr. DeLay and others opposed to embryonic stem cell research are trying to associate it with the controversial late-term abortion, which critics also refer to as "partial-birth" abortion.
"That was such a successful campaign because it gave the impression that they were dismembering a child," Dr. Tannen said. "They are trying to create an association with babies, and they want to push it back earlier and earlier. I guess stem cells would be the extreme of that, but they're just cells. In order to dismember something, it has to have limbs, and cells don't have limbs."
The use of language and metaphor to frame these controversial debates is dissected (although not dismembered) by The Rockridge Institute, and in books such as George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Burning Books About Burning Books

Virtually every news story about Laura Bush's visit to Egypt mentiones that she visited the new library, erected at the site of the ancient Library of Alexandria, "which was destroyed in the first century".

I don't know where this fabrication came from, but Encyclopaedia Britannica and other reputable sources say that the Library was destroyed by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius in 391. It had suffered partial destruction earlier, most likely during the civil war in 3rd century, and perhaps also in the 1st century BCE (Plutarch, two centuries later, blamed Caesar for a fire, but the authenticity of that account is questionable). I have not found any references to a 1st century destruction, and it is certain that the Library existed after that time.

So is this an attempt to rewrite history and hide the embarrassing fact that Christians burned the library? If so, rewriting history is really equivalent to burning books, and what White House Christians may be doing is burning books that tell how Imperial Christians burned books...

Saturday, May 21, 2005


In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, former Secretary of the Interior James Watt rails against "The Religious Left's Lies." Watt seeks to counter accusations that biblical literalists are more apt to exploit the earth's natural resources because of their reliance on the coming Rapture.
Now political activists of the religious left are refreshing those two-decades-old lies and applying them with a broad brush to whole segments of the Christian community: "people who believe the Bible," members of Congress and "Rapture proponents." If these merging groups -- the extreme environmentalists and the religious left -- are successful in their campaign, the Christian community will be marginalized, its conservative values maligned and its electoral clout diminished.
Dare we dream that this will come to pass? While Watt makes some valid points about the possible misattribution of statements to him, it is clearly difficult to reconcile biblical literalism with any substantive concern for our planet or its inhabitants. Too many fundamentalists interpret "dominion... over all the earth" not as an admonition to conservation, but as validation for myopic and exploitative practices.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Attack of the Clones

Among the most cogent arguments against the evisceration of science in this country is the potential threat to our economic and national security. Diminished standards for science education ( such as the presentation of fanciful mythology as valid scientific hypothesis) and severe restrictions on research into the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells, for example, may result in abdication of our role as leader of the world's scientific enterprise.

This point is brought home today by a story in the Washington Post titled "Koreans Say They Cloned Embryos for Stem Cells." South Korean scientists have succeeded in somatic cell nuclear transfer - so-called "therapeutic cloning" - from patient tissue samples, potentially enabling regenerative therapies. This and other stellar advances in Asia might help to push our conservative, business-friendly government closer to permitting such research in this country, but, as the Post notes:
That legislation would not allow funding of cloning research like that done in South Korea -- a kind of research the House has twice voted to ban and which the Senate has deadlocked over for years. Rather, it would facilitate the less contentious use of frozen embryos about to be discarded by fertility clinics.
While Congress continues to wrestle with the silly issue of whether a pre-implantation human embryo is entitled to the same moral status as an autonomous adult, the scientific community is beginning to deal with some of the real ethical issues raised by such technological advances. An article published online by Science Magazine gives an overview of three issues that deserve particular attention: the reconciliation of varying international standards, the protection of oocyte donors, and the avoidance of unrealistic expectations. These, and other downstream questions, will require an informed public debate - and, thus, and informed public. The Humanist community must play a leadership role in this process.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

1776, In A Parallel Universe Far, Far Away...

Jedderson to Yoditor:

Here is my great piece of writing. I am sure no yoditing will be necessary.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Galaxy, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Yoditor to Jedderson:

Too wordy, Tom. Change it to: "When colonies are about to fight for independence from the Empire, it is considered polite to explain to the Universe why they want to do it." Your mention of "Nature's God" is gratuitous. Two centuries from now, there will be manuals of style telling writers not to write like that.

Jedderson to Yoditor:

But my gratuitous mention of "Nature's God" is intentional. I want to piss off my Christian contemporaries, and I want to confuse the Nature's Hell out of Christians two centuries from now.

Yoditor to Jedderson:

OK (as they will say sixty years from now), keep it in, young master Tom. But you'll see it's dangerous to write above a 12-year-old's level. Those confused Christians may end up convincing everyone that you were one of them.

Final version:

When colonies are about to fight for independence from the Empire, it is considered polite to explain to the Universe why they want to do it, Nature's God damn it!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Zealots Hurt Their Cause, Even If It Is Separation

Unless AP has seriously misreported the events, preventing a mom from reading a Bible story in a Pennsylvania kindergarten class seems to have been a case of unthinking, mechanical interpretation of the Establishment Clause and education law.

Wesley's teacher had invited Busch to her classroom at Culbertson Elementary School on Oct. 18 as part of "Me Week," in which the class would learn more about a featured student, according to the complaint.

One of the activities involves the student's parent reading aloud from a favorite book in class. Busch said her son's favorite book is the Bible.

But before the teacher would let Busch continue, she said she would have to get permission from Principal Thomas Cook. After a meeting in the hall, Cook informed Busch she couldn't read the Bible in class, the lawsuit said.

If this was in fact the principal's application of separation of church and state, then it was utterly stupid. Obviously, "Me Week" is meant for the kids to share something personal with the class; therefore, religion presented in that context is not endorsed by the school, but acknowledged as a personal affair.

If Wesley's favorite story had been "Sleeping Beauty" instead, and his Mom read it to the class, would the school be seen as endorsing monarchy and the belief in fairies? How difficult is it to switch the brain on before telling somebody they may not do something - especially when it is guaranteed to piss them off?

Mrs. Busch's reaction was equally irrational, but individuals - unlike the school - have the right to be irrational:
"What Wesley has learned in all of this is that the Bible is bad in school, and they don't like it," Donna Busch said of her 6-year-old son.

Outcomes like this hurt the separation of religion form government, and hurt the image of secularism in general. If the facts, as reported, are true, the school principal did a great service to the Religious Right.

Of course, it is possible that the facts are different. Perhaps the particular story was deemed not suitable for the class. After all, no reasonable school official would allow showing "Scarface" or "9 1/2 Weeks" in a kindergarten class even if they were the boy's favorite movies, and there are plenty of stories in the Bible that are far more violent or sexually explicit.

If so, the school should have had the policy of advance review of all materials to be presented in the "Me Week" and should have explained the reason for rejection in terms independent of religion. (Perhaps they did, which would bring us back to the caveat from the opening sentence. We'll see...)

Monday, May 09, 2005

IDiot America

Yet again proponents of "Intelligent Design" (or, more correctly, a religiously-inspired pseudoscientific call for the introduction of supernaturalism into the natural sciences) have gained control of the Kansas State Board of Education. An editorial in the Washington Post this weekend takes them to task:
But there is no serious scientific controversy over whether Darwinian evolution takes place. Intelligent design is not science. Whatever its rhetoric, the public questioning of evolution is fundamentally religious, not scienific, in nature. That is not to say that wonder is illegitimate; it is a perfectly reasonable response to the beauty and enormity of the universe to believe that it could not have happened without a divine hand. But the proper place to discuss such belief is not the public schools. Biology classes need to be taught with sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of students but not by casting doubt on evolution.
As the Kansas State Board of Education science committee begins hearings on the subject, scientists - including the American Association for the Advancement of Science - have opted to boycott the proceedings.

The format and agenda of the hearing before the board's education subcommittee "suggests that the theory of evolution may be debated," wrote Leshner. "It implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data."

But, he added: "The concept of evolution is well-supported by extensive evidence and accepted by virtually every scientist. Moreover, we see no purpose in debating interpretations of Genesis and 'intelligent design' which are a matter of faith, not facts."

Anyone doubting the true motivations of Intelligent Design advocates should see the disturbing internal memo from the Center for Science and Culture commonly referred to as "The Wedge Document."
Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.
And, in stating their goals:
The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the "thin edge of the wedge," was Phillip Johnson's critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeatng Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe's highly successful Darwin's Black Box followed Johnson's work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

What would Jesus eat?

What could possibly explain this news item from the Houston Chronicle?

"A 1998 Purdue University survey found that religious Americans were more likely to be overweight than their nonreligious peers, a finding that should surprise no one who has sampled the fare at a church coffee hour or fish fry, to say nothing of a Jewish wedding.

Baptists were the fattest, according to the study; Jews, Muslims and Buddhists were the least overweight, though the researchers attributed this to differences in income, ethnicity and marital status rather than denomination."


Friday, May 06, 2005

Religious Freedom Is for Everyone

Progressive blogs are full of outrage over a Baptist church in North Carolina that has excommunicated all its members who voted Democratic. A frequent comment is that the church is breaking the law and should at least lose its tax-exempt status. Those suggesting such drastic measures should perhaps think twice.

I am not a lawyer and don't know if the church broke the law, but comments written by lawyers tend to say it is unlikely. The church did not intervene in a political campaign; it has merely reacted, after the fact, to past political actions that cannot be undone. Unless it had threatened to do so before the last election, it probably did not violate the tax laws.

But a more important issue is, legal technicalities aside, should a religious institution be allowed to deny membership to those whose opinions it dislikes? I think it should; moreover, forbidding it to do so would be absurd. A religious congregation is based on a common set of beliefs. It cannot meaningfully exist if it has no right to set the criteria for membership, as long as the criteria are reasonably related to beliefs. If you accept this principle, you can still ban discrimination based on factors like race, which have nothing to do with beliefs; but one's political, moral, and other social views are often impossible to disentangle from one's religious beliefs; the church should then be free to consider them.

Clinton Really Did Appoint Activist Judges...

...but activist on the side of the Christian right. In Maryland, US District Judge Alexander Williams blocked a school curriculum that includes discussion of homosexuality, agreeing with the plaintiffs that such discussions gave preference to religions tolerant of homosexuality over those that reject it.

I suppose the next case will reveal that science curriculum gives preference to the religions that accept that the Earth is round over those that believe it is flat.

But other religious activists might want to jump on the bandwagon. Maybe the family of the late psychopathic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer can sue the state of Wisconsin for violating his rights by imposing laws that favor those religions that reject murder and cannibalism over those that encourage them. After all, Judge Williams and the so-called "Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum" have just shown us that everything is an Establishment Clause issue.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Harry Potter and the Infallible Rottweiler

Uh-oh! Pope Benedict XVI has declared Harry Potter books "a subtle seduction" that is "undermining the soul of Christianity".

This could be just a Quaylesque attack on a fictional character. But it could be more serious business: as Deutsche Welle and BBC have reported, the Pope's books are competing with the (yet unpublished) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the top position on the German best-selling list.

I find myself reaching for my wand and, for some reason, the incantation "conflict of interest" comes to mind...

Banging Hush Puppies on the Table

Certainly, Mr. John McCandlish Phillips is free to hold and express any opinion. On the other hand, to be given a third of a page in today's Washington Post (Wednesday, May 4, 2005; Page A19), he ought to satisfy some standard of quality and provide arguments supporting his position. Otherwise, I don't see why the other 200+ million American adults are not given equally prominent public forum for their musings. As it happens, the only plausible explanation for his privilege seems to be that he is an evangelical Christian.

The main thesis of his column, titled "When Columnists Cry 'Jihad'", is that the major news media (specifically, The New York Times and The Washington Post) have been staging a coordinated and improper attack on traditional Catholics and his fellow evangelicals. While he does not use big words like "conspiracy", he conveys an unambiguous message that a secularist offensive is directly threatening the liberty - and perhaps more - of people like him. (If you read his column, pay attention to how he uses the pronoun "we/us" with varying degree of specificity, at least three times clearly encompassing only conservative Christians.)

What evidence does he show that such an offensive exists?

From March 24 through April 23 (...), I counted 13 opinion columns of similarly alarmist tone aimed at us on the Christian right

Aha - "It's the numbers, stupid!" But what does that say about whether the columns are justified and well argued or not? Nothing, of course. Not to mention that he conveniently forgot to count the pro-religion opinion columns in the same papers. The Washington Post is often unkind to secularists even in its editorials.

Unencumbered by inconvenient passages from his religion's sacred texts (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37), Phillips judges the liberal columnists. Here is what he says about Krugman:

Krugman, conceding the wide majority of secular liberals over conservatives on the faculties of our major universities, had the supreme chutzpah to tell us why: The former, unfettered by presuppositions of faith, are free to commit genuine investigative work and to reach valid scholarly conclusions, while the latter are disabled in that critical respect by their unprovable prior assumptions.

I would say that Phillips has the "supreme chutzpah" to misrepresent Krugman's explanation and attack it without demonstrating a single flaw in it. And here is his message to Frank Rich:

Frank Rich (...) went on to tell Times readers that GOP zealots in Congress and the White House have edged our country over into "a full-scale jihad." If Rich were to have the misfortune to live for one week in a genuine jihad, and the unlikely fortune to survive it, he would temper his categorization of the perceived President Bush-driven jihad by a minimum of 77 percent.

I wonder what authority Phillips possesses to adjudicate which jihad is genuine and which is fake. His own seems quite genuine to me; I admire the overt and shameless nature of his statements, such as:

Evangelicals are concerned about the frequently advanced and historically untenable secularists' view of the intent of our non-establishment/free exercise of religion clause (...) That view (...) constitutes what seems dangerous to most evangelicals: the strict and entire separation of God from state.

Never mind that he exaggerated the secularist position in the parts I omitted from the quote. What counts is that he openly and unconditionally pronounces that the separation of religion and government is dangerous. He did not include James Madison among the objectionable columnists, but he must find him profoundly disagreeable.

Phillips' only attempts at actual counter-arguments refer to religious faith of the founders of the (now woefully secularist) elite universities, and to the Congressional resolution authorizing Washington to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Those arguments fail because they are based on a fallacy of applying modern standards to actions from another historical period. Harvard and Yale, of course, were not centers of scientific research when they were founded. (There hardly was any scientific research then.) Moreover, a purely declarative Congressional action is an exceedingly weal example to support the far-reaching interpretation of history Phillips is pushing.

Phillips spends considerable page space to show personal-level affinity for the columnists he criticizes. Maureen Dowd is an "ever-so-readable columnist" and "[r]eading everything [she] writes" is, for Phillips, "one of life's guilty pleasures". Frank Rich is "an often acute, broadly knowledgeable and witty cultural observer". Richard Cohen is "generally amiable and highly communicative", Eugene Robinson is "urbane", and so on. Thus the writer maintains a formal appearance of politeness and respect for the columnists as persons. But, in reality, he displays utmost disrespect as he objects to their columns, and even implies a sinister context for them, without providing any valid counterarguments.

The general style of Phillips' column - civilized on surface, but vacuous and malevolent below - is symptomatic of much that passes as acceptable discourse these days, especially by conservatives. Under scrutiny, there is no more content in his article than in a child's claim "My daddy is stronger than yours!" and hence it amounts to nothing more (or less) than a demonstration of the raw power of the legions of evangelicals in whose name he writes.

I view such expression as essentially equivalent to the shoe-banging by that quintessential populist authoritarian, Nikita Khrushchev. Yes, our religious conservatives are far less temperamental and behave more amiably, so they may be banging soft Hush Puppies instead of heavy Soviet-made leather shoes, and the sound of it may be more pleasant, but, by golly, shoe banging is still shoe banging.

While Nero Fiddles with the Education System...

A letter from former U.S. senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman in today's New York Times highlights the national security risk inherent in sacrificing this nation's leadership in science and technology. This was in response to, and support of, a column on 29 April 2005 by Thomas Friedman titled "What, Me Worry?" In that piece, Friedman says:
India and China know they can't just depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom. Producing a comprehensive U.S. response - encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy - to focus on developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has never done: ask Americans to do something hard.
Symptomatic of our inattention to the quality of our future scientists is the inordinate emphasis on the teaching of "intelligent design" concepts, wasting time that would more productively be spent teaching important critical thinking skills and the value of the scientific method. Although neither the letter nor the column referenced above specifically deals with theological intrusions into science curricula, they suggest a sound basis for countering such nonsense in terms that might even resonate with conservatives - if we diminish the quality of our science education we risk our national security, and our prosperity.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Pray, Aim, Fire!

In his New York Times column, Bob Herbert relays the experience of Army private Aidan Delgado in Iraq. Mr. Delgado witnessed so much gratuitous violence by American troops that it led him to seek conscientious objector status, with which he was honorably discharged.

A scene he witnessed in the Abu Ghraib prison, where four detainees throwing rocks at the guards were shot to death, illustrates how religion can have detrimental effect on ethical behavior:

Mr. Delgado confronted a sergeant who, he said, had fired on the detainees. "I asked him," said Mr. Delgado, "if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.' "

The article does not explain what the prayer's purpose was, but it is hard to imagine it was anything other than clearing the sergeant's conscience, making him feel his sins were absolved. I wonder if he would have been able to shoot at those people had he lacked religious faith.

In all fairness to religion, Mr. Delgado is a college student majoring in Religion, so one can fairly infer that this brave young man, who stood up against such unethical acts, is also religious, and probably feels that faith guides his ethical behavior. It can also be argued that the sergeant, although he probably considers himself Christian, practices a grotesque travesty of Christianity. Nevertheless, I see no reason to believe that Mr. Delgado would be any less ethical without religion, while, sadly, the perverted Christianity of the sergeant is probably the most common version practiced in the real world.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

In the beginning was the MS Word...

Suburban Guerrilla reports that Microsoft is paying $20,000 a month to Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and now a "public affairs consultant".

WASHINGTON -- Microsoft Corp. is paying social conservative Ralph Reed $20,000 a month as a consultant, triggering complaints that the well-connected Republican with close ties to the White House and to evangelist Pat Robertson may have persuaded the company to oppose gay rights legislation.


Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray said the company has hired Reed on several occasions to provide advice on "trade and competition issues." He said Reed's relationship as a consultant with the software company extends back "several years.

Can you even buy computer software these days without financing school prayer, teaching of creationism, coerced parenthood,...?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Designs on the University

The prestigious science journal Nature has a feature in its 28 April 2005 issue titled "Who Has Designs on Your Students' Minds?" This article points out the increasing prevalence with which ID is given attention at our colleges and universities, and the alarmingly receptive audience found among incoming students.
But despite researchers' apparent lack of interest, or perhaps because of it, the movement is catching on among students on US university campuses. Much of the interest can be traced to US teenagers, more than three-quarters of whom believe, before they reach university, that God played some part in the origin of humans. But others are drawn to the idea out of sheer curiosity.
As the article points out, only 20% of adults with a high school education or less believe that the theory of evolution is well supported by the scientific evidence, and only 18% of US teenagers accept human evolution as an unguided process occurring over millions of years. Fully 38% of teens believe that God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 or so years.

That's a lot of children being left behind.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Onward Christian Soldiers...

Could it be that those secular Humanists who have supposedly taken over the American judiciary, media, and schools are actually... Christian?

A Washington Post op-ed by Paul Gaston titled "...Smearing Christian Judges" makes just that case.
What these self-avowed Christians do not acknowledge -- and what the American public seems little aware of -- is that the war they are waging is actually against other people calling themselves Christians. To simplify: Right-wing and fundamentalist Christians are really at war with left-wing and mainstream Christians. It is a battle over both the meaning and practice of Christianity as well as over the definition and destiny of the republic. Secular humanism is a bogeyman, a smoke screen obscuring the right-wing Christians' struggle for supremacy.
As Gaston notes, nearly all of the judges demonized for their secular Humanist commitment are, in fact, practicing Christians.

Yet another reason that the Humanist community should forge alliances with liberal religionists in opposing the increasingly theocratic leanings of the right-wing extremists in our midst.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Pop Goes, per Weigel

George Will, in an Op-Ed piece titled "Suicide by Secularism," paints a bleak picture of Europe's future, laying its demise at the feet of secular humanism. Based on John Paul II biographer George Weigel's new book, "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God," Will speaks of a shrinking reproduction rate and increasing secularism in Europe as leading, in the very near future, to Europe's "demographic suicide."
"What," Weigel asks, "is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?" His diagnosis is that Europe's deepening anemia is a consequence of living on what he considers the thin gruel of secular humanism that excludes transcendent reference points for cultural and political life. Such reference points are, he thinks, prerequisites for freedom understood as "the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit."
It seems that secularists don't take seriously enough the biblical admonition to be fruitful and multiply. In a world contending with an ever-increasing population and a finite resource base, this should be a good thing. Will's concern, though, seems to be that by failing to do their part to over-populate the world Europeans may abdicate control over their futures to hordes of migrating Muslims - in essence, he suggests procreation as the duty of Europeans and, by extension, Christian Americans.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Republicans: Keepers of the Faith

The front page of today's New York Times features an article titled "Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue." According to the article Senate majority leader Bill Frist is going to participate in a conservative Christian religious broadcast characterizing Democratic opponents of some of President Bush's judicial nominees as employing a "fillibuster against people of faith."
"As the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, wrote in a message on the group's Web site. "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the A.C.L.U., have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."
In other words, only the judiciary, and the U.S. Constitution, stand between us and theocracy.

As the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of two Ten Commandments displays within a matter of days or weeks, it is almost certain that the opinion will either embolden the religious right if in their favor, or invigorate the religious right if against them. The culture war seems now to be escalating.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Secular Assault

The Washington Times has started a three-part series titled "Religion Under a Secular Assault," focused primarily on the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The New Crusade

Rolling Stone Online has posted a feature titled "The Crusaders."
Meet the Dominionists -- biblical literalists who believe God has called them to take over the U.S. government. As the far-right wing of the evangelical movement, Dominionists are pressing an agenda that makes Newt Gingrich's Contract With America look like the Communist Manifesto. They want to rewrite schoolbooks to reflect a Christian version of American history, pack the nation's courts with judges who follow Old Testament law, post the Ten Commandments in every courthouse and make it a felony for gay men to have sex and women to have abortions.
It's enough to put the fear of god in an atheist.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Rx Regnant Sed Non Gubernat

Ellen Goodman has an op-ed in today's Washington Post titled "Dispensing Morality," on the theme previously raised here (see "What Would Jesus Prescribe?") about pharmacists exercising conscience clauses and refusing to fill prescriptions for, among other things, contraceptives.

The pharmacist who refuses emergency contraception is not just following his moral code, he's trumping the moral beliefs of the doctor and the patient. "If you open the door to this, I don't see any place to draw a line," says Anita Allen, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "The New Ethics." If the pharmacist is officially sanctioned as the moral arbiter of the drugstore, does he then ask the customer whether the pills are for cramps or contraception? If he's parsing his conscience with each prescription, can he ask if the morning-after pill is for carelessness or rape? For that matter, can his conscience be the guide to second-guessing Ritalin as well as Viagra?
Today's New York Times published several letters on this subject.

As Goodman notes, while we need to respect the conscience of each individual we can ill afford to allow healthcare providers and others who have accepted responsibility for protecting our lives to become the self-appointed arbiters of our morality. In the case of pharmacists, their responsibility to ensure the validity and safety of physician instructions should not extend to subjective judgments on morality. We would scarely tolerate such moralizing by providers of non-essential services (e.g. a hotel refusing a room to a homosexual couple or a bookstore refusing the sale of books promoting secular Humanism), and must not tolerate it among physicians, pharmacists, soldiers and first-response emergency personnel. Accepting such jobs means that, to some degree, personal morality is suspended while on duty.

Overly-permissive "conscience clauses" merely transfer the right to exercise conscience from the end user to an intermediary. It is not inconceivable that the continued liberalization of such regulations will result in pronounced regional differences in access to certain forms of healthcare. To what degree can we permit the personal autonomy of the service provider to trump that of the client?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Values Agenda on the Wane?

USA Today reports "Many wary of GOP's moral agenda." Many Americans have finally come to realize, apparently, that religious conservatives have too much influence with the Republican Party and the current administration.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

National Day of Reason (5 May 2005)

A message from the National Day of Reason web project:

Now, more than ever, America needs a Day of Reason.

With the religious right firmly in control of the Presidency and Congress, and with the threat to our Judiciary looming large, there has never been as important a moment in which to affirm our commitment to the Constitutional separation of religion and government, and to celebrate Reason as the guiding principle of our secular democracy.

View the complete message here.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Body and Soul

From today's Washington Post, a "Mystery of Body and Soul" in which author Philip Clayton explores the Terri Schiavo case from both a religious and scientific perspective.

Some who integrate science and values in this way do so in religious terms, others eschew religious categories and adhere instead to a humanist philosophy....The humanist response is more subtle, amorphous and hence harder to describe. But for many nonreligious people, the sense remains that life is somehow sacred even if it is not grounded in a divine creative act. Something more emerges in life, and something more is lost when it ends, than medicine can ever fathom. Perhaps the value of an individual's life is a product of how we treat him or her.

The distinction not made above, though, is between mere human life, and human personhood. And that is, indeed, more subtle, amorphous and hence harder to describe.

What Would Jesus Prescribe?

An Editorial in the New York Times (Sunday, 3 April 2005) titled "Moralists at the Pharmacy" brings to light the growing number of pharmacists who refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.
An organization of antiabortion pharmacists is pushing for professional associations and state legislatures to adopt "conscience clauses" recognizing the pharmacist's right to refuse to dispense a drug or even refer the customer to a pharmacist who will; many pharmacy associations have already adopted such clauses. Several states have laws granting pharmacists the right to refuse, and legislators in at least 10 states are pushing similar legislation.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has a web page dedicated to the issue of healthcare provider refusals to provide service. Among other things, this page provides data on the current regulatory environment, and on the disturbing cases where hospitals have even refused, on religious grounds, to provide emergency contraception to women who were the victims of sexual assault. For yet another perspective, see the National Women's Law Center's Pharmacy Refusal Project.

Friday, April 01, 2005

If Only HHS Would Abstain

A number of advocacy groups, including the American Humanist Association, have sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt calling for the agency to take down its new 4parents.gov web site. According to a story posted online by the Baltimore Sun, these groups claim that the site provides inaccurate and misleading information, and stresses abstinence-only approaches to reducing sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. In addition, the site portrays homosexuality as a lifestyle alternative, urging parents who suspect their child may be gay to seek a family therapist who "shares your values."

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mapping the Stem Cell Contoversy

The University of Minnesota has an informative graphic, the World Stem Cell Map, that provides a graphic representation of worldwide policies with respect to the use of human embryonic stem cells. Also on this page are links to a series of other Global Maps of Human Technological Development.

The UnWASHed and the Unchurched

An update from The Barna Group (a religious polling organization) suggests that as many as 34% of American adults are "unchurched." Lest we get too excited, they point out that only 24% of these folks are atheist or agnostic, (but, hey, that's still more than 8% of the population, which is consistent with previous polls).

Even among those professing some degree of religioius belief, the majority apparently reject such disturbing notions as biblical literacy and an interventionist deity.
They are only half as likely to firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches (25% agree with that notion); are less likely to possess a biblical view of God (only 46% see Him as the “perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe” who still rules His creation today); and are less likely to believe that the most important purpose of life is to “love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul” (63% agree).
Barna also finds that:
Surprisingly, “downscale” individuals (i.e., no college degree, below average household income) also are much more likely than their “upscale” counterparts (i.e., college graduates with above-average household income levels) to stay away from local churches.
One has to wonder if there are ways to reach out to the Unchurched and the UnWASHed by offering more options to form Humanist communities, and by making Humanism more accessible to those lacking advanced degrees in science or philosophy.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Culture of Life

Now that the U.S. Congress and our president have seen fit to circumvent the U.S. Constitution in order to exercise their will in private matter, a federal court prepares today to hear the latest appeal in the Terri Schiavo case (Federal Court to Hear Schiavo Case Today). One has to wonder why those most likely to believe that a better life awaits her are fighting so vigorously to prolong such a meaningless existence here on Earth.

While there may be legitimate controversy over Ms. Schiavo's supposed advance directive, and even if there were a modicum of hope that she might one day regain consciousness and some cognitive function, it is hard to imagine that this case warrants the attention of all three branches of our federal government. Perhaps Mr. Bush should be true to his ideals of vesting power in individuals to make personal decisions, and allow the appropriate courts - in this case, Florida's state courts - to intervene when necessary to resolve a family dispute.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

On the Ash Heap of Science

The 19 March 2005 New York Times features the story "A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano," describing how some Imax Theaters have succumbed to pressure from proponents of "intelligent design" or creationism in refusing to show films with "evolutionary overtones."
People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including "Cosmic Voyage," which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; "Galápagos," about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.
Science museums - often the last refuge of rational thought in cities battling the forces of ignorance and zealotry - would do better to invite the controversy, even at the risk of losing funding. If such a fundamental principal of the biological sciences cannot be discussed in public, what difference if the museums close their doors?

Religious fanatics have exploited the public's ignorance of science for too long. Humanists and other thinking people must find ways to improve and strengthen science education, at all levels, if the U.S. is to maintain its leadership in science and technology.

Perhaps we should ask our pharmaceutical companies to put a disclaimer on each bottle of pills or vial of vaccine saying "warning: research, development and testing of this product was based on principals of evolutionary biology." Or create a directory of physicians who value prayer more than biological science. Or post a notice at each gas pump noting that "the fuel you are purchasing was discovered by exploiting our knowledge of the Earth's geology over its billions of years in existence."

Monday, March 14, 2005

On Bush's Social Security Initiative

The odd thing about President Bush's initiative to reform Social Security is his concern that, in 13 years, Social Security will be funded partly from general government revenues. For some reason, this seems to bother Bush to extreme. It bothers him enough to want to change the most successful government program in history, to transform it from being solvent for 13 more years to being trillions of dollars in debt almost immediately.

Right now, Social Security taxes are being used to fund the general government operations. Social Security is running a surplus. Funds from the surplus taxes are being transferred to pay for the rest of government.

Why doesn't this bother Bush? This is a guy who is creating the biggest budget deficit in history. He thinks it is critically important to cut income taxes, as well as taxes on dividends and capital gains, which are benefits to wealthy individuals. But when a regressive tax like the Social Security tax is being used to fund the government, that doesn't bother him.

This is a clear indication of Bush's priorities, and it indicates his motivation for changing Social Security. He isn't concerned with the lower and middle income people who disproportionately pay for and benefit from Social Security now. He is concerned that income taxes on wealthy people may someday be necessary to fund the benefits.

Could it be that he is also concerned about stock brokers, who will be able to charge fees when they trade the vast amount of money from the Social Security fund? Could he be interested in the rise in stock prices that will occur when all the money is used to buy stocks, which will benefit people who already own stocks more than those who will get "personal accounts"?

Maybe someone should ask Bush what he really wants to accomplish, and who he really wants to benefit, before this program is driven into debt.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Confusion on Stem Cells

Two letters in today's New York Times highlight the lack of clarity on certain issues in contemporary bioethics. In the first, David Bennett rightly takes Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to task for his attempt to enact legislation prohibiting so-called "therapeutic cloning." While the Governor supports the use of stem cells derived from existing human embryos (e.g. those discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics), he opposes the creation of embryos for research purpose, esepcially when the technology of somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapauetic cloning") is used to do so. As noted by Mr. Bennett:
The word "cloning" has clouded this issue.
Indeed, it is unfortunate that the religious right has been permitted to conflate these three distinct, yet related, questions: 1) the use of human embryonic stem cells (i.e. the destruction of human embryos for research or therapeutic purposes), 2) the in vitro creation of an embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapeutic cloning"), and 3) human reproductive cloning.

But, ignoring the inherent inconsistency in permitting the destruction of an embryo in one context but not in another, there remains one legitimate reason why a ban on the creation of cloned embryos might warrant greater protection. A cloned embryo, whether created for research or therapeutic purposes, is but a single step removed from the creation of a cloned human. That is, the implantation of a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus would result in the birth of a cloned human - with unclear consequences for its (the child's) developmental potential, health, and longevity.

Do such "slippery arguments" carry any weight? Probably, but only because we recognize that no prohibition of human reproductive cloning will ever be universally enforceable, and the birth of a human clone is virtually inevitable once the technology to create such an embryo is developed. Of course, that technology will be developed whether or not Mr. Romney permits it in Massachusetts.

The second letter writer, Christine Flowers, says:
Whether one believes that the embryo deserves all of the rights of full personhood or that it is simply the essence of humanity in its earliest form, we have an obligation to refrain from treating it as nothing more than an object of experimentation.
To be sure, human embryos are deserving of greater consideration than we might give inanimate objects; however, they are certainly not entitled to any more respect than we show the sentient beings we routinely utilize in research, and as food. The "special status" of human embryos would suggest only that they should not be used capriciously - nothing more, nothing less.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Welcome to WASH Perspectives

The Washington Area Secular Humanists is a non-profit, educational organization with seven chapters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Our purpose is to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking, to provide a forum for Humanists and others to explore Humanist principles and how they relate to all aspects of human experience, and to study the significance of Humanism throughout history. Secular Humanists are distinguished by an emphasis on scientific methods of knowing, separation of church and state, and a commitment to the pursuit of Humanist goals outside religious frameworks.

This represents our first foray into the blogsphere. We hope our readers will find our perspectives on the issues of the day enlightening and challenging. We welcome your comments and feedback, and invite you to visit our web site at www.wash.org to learn more about our organization.