Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Smart Metering and Politically ActiveThought – a bad combination

By Gary Berg-Cross

The 2011 MacArthur Fellow Awards are out and the winners feature lots of friendly science with benefits. A good example is the work of Shwetak Patel, a 29-year-old computer science prof at U of Washington, Seattle. He received the $500,000 "genius" grant for his work on inexpensive and easy-to-deploy sensors that measure things such as energy and water use down to the level of individual appliances and faucets. We could use his technology to track household energy consumption and make buildings in general more energy efficient. It fits in well with other efforts such as using Energy report cards to boost conservation or a providing comparative information to tell people whether they use more energy than their neighbors. But will we wind up using it and reaping benefits? Maybe it will just be too laborious and conserving consumption needs to be primed by institutions. Perhaps it runs afoul of personal philosophies and requires broader cultural change.

Not everybody is happy when civil society pushes efficiency efforts this side of China. It turns out that political ideology an affect the use of such tools that are seemingly for the common good. Liberals tend to be in favor of government support for investing in things like Patel’s smart meters. It is easy to believe that it will lead to more efficient energy use when consumers of are given tools to monitor their electricity usage in more detail. With additional information, rational consumers can use their electricity smarter and take a step towards lower energy use and carbon emissions.
But to some conservatives monitoring of any kind, including personal use of energy, violates their privacy. As to carbon emissions well global warming is a hoax and we should drill a bit more baby.

On top of this objection comes a study, reported in the NYTs by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn,
conclude that providing feedback on energy use can actually backfire with some conservatives. Costa and Kahn merged utility data from 80,000 homes with corresponding voter registration and donation records of the residents. The 2 economists found differences in general between Democrats and Republicans. These differences widened when a Democratic household showed evidence for favoring green initiatives – e.g. paying for electricity from renewable sources, donating to environmental groups and living in a neighborhood of fellow liberals. These reduced consumption by 3 percent in response to energy feedback.

In contrast, Republican households that didn’t adhere to such green/environmental behaviors actually increased its consumption by 1 percent. What’s going on here? The economists speculate that some conservatives may react angrily at being “told” to save energy and thus are out to prove a point. An alternative explanation is that some see from the feedback that their energy use is lower than average and reflexively increase it to match perceived norms – “I was just being too hard on myself I’ll leave the night light on like my rich neighbors and announce that I am rich enough to consume resources too”. Waste seems like the polite thing to do in some circumstances and at odds with pure reason. Taking home a doggie bag of food seems like bad taste and doesn't "impress" most dates. Sometimes there may be an implicit taboo established. Ever been in a bathroom situation where someone hasn't flushed? Is it rational to flush before you use the facilities or just good taste which should trump any possible value of water consumption?

The authors don't address all the issues but concluded their discussion by suggesting that other tactics than just efficient use of resources reinforced by a smiley face may be needed to get conservatives to conserve.

"One solution is to tailor messages to different groups," Costa said in an e-mail. "But another possibility is that at some point we may need to make the hard choices of taking costlier actions to lower electricity consumption."

We should not expect people to be sensitive to voluntary restraint in areas where they do not see a problem, but coercing them or having an institution do it may also get their back up.

"These costly choices," she explained, "could either be raising prices, which has the advantage of not just reducing current consumption but also of making houses built in years of high energy prices more energy efficient, or of imposing stricter building codes." But again some people will oppose this because they see this as government imposition – a bigger evil than consuming resources.

Political persuasion also plays a role in overall electricity consumption, the authors found. Registered Green Party members consume 9.6 percent less energy than Republicans; Democrats consume 3.9 percent less. The difference is even greater in summer months, with Greens consuming 11.1 percent less than Republicans.

"We cannot pin down why electricity consumption is lower in more liberal communities," the authors wrote. "Either liberals who choose to live in liberal communities are more liberal and practice greater voluntary restraint or social pressure in liberal communities encourages individuals to conserve on electricity consumption."

This phenomenon is, of course, much wider than just attitudes towards energy consumption. Adam Gopnik riffed on the anti-progress meme in an article ("Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat," The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2011, pg. 42). Gopnik discusses contemporary mistakes and follies that some see as “part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline.” What Gopnik does agree with is that a big part of these seem to have an element active choice as in the energy consumption situation. In his view it’s more than laziness of some distracted, passive indifference:

“people who don't want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for….

The reason we don't have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it's that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised.”

Indeed. This uncomfortable thought explains some underlying micro-processes that foam up into the macro-level systemic paralysis that is abroad. It suggests that we’ll need much more than smart meters to save us from the path we seem to be on.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Attending a Catholic Mass


Catholic Mass. Not the words you hoped to read on a secular perspectives blog? Perhaps, but yesterday, that’s where you would have found me, me who was raised in the Jewish faith and who is now an ardent atheist. Don’t misunderstand me - I have no interest in conversion, no belief in a god and no belief that the Pope deserves my special attention unless it‘s for reasons other than religion or faith. But I’m an academic through and through and I thought I ought to know, as I come to define my own secularism, what it is that thousands of people, including some otherwise scientifically minded friends, are up to every Sunday morning…or, as I soon learned, Saturday night…or Saturday morning…or heck, any weekday, sometimes twice a day.

I am not an expert on any religion, and learning that Mass was not a Sunday-only thing was the first surprise. What to do? I was advised by someone familiar with all things Catholic to go to a Saturday night Vigil rather than a Sunday morning Mass or a weekday Mass. ’Vigil’ would get me the pomp and ceremony of a full Mass, and ‘Saturday’ would allow me to avoid the crowds who went to Church just to be seen. Wait…’just to be seen’? In a big impersonal secular-ish city like Washington, DC? Oy vey.

Where to go? St. Mary’s is where one of my favorite authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald) is buried, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has many beautiful mosaics and St. Patrick’s is the oldest Catholic church in DC, built for the masons who built the White House. History won out in the end, and I decided to go to St. Patrick’s for a Saturday night Vigil.

So, how was it?

Depressing, though not because of the religious teachings from the priest nor the readings from the laity. One could barely understand these given the echoing acoustics of the interior space. (The priest’s message encouraged parishioners to say ’I do’ to Jesus multiple times a day and to work hard to sustain that commitment.)

No, it was depressing for an unexpected reason - no one wanted to be there! Ok, that’s probably (I hope) a bit of an exaggeration. As I sat though the Mass, a sense of emptiness or obligation seemed to come from the entire congregation. Let’s take a look at the three parties I followed most carefully throughout the ordeal.

First there was the lone young woman (mid-to-upper 20s), short black hair, fashionably dressed, sitting to my right. Let’s call her Mary. Mary entered the nave on time (bravo!) but failed to cross herself as she entered (minus one point). Throughout the entrance of the officiants, the opening hymns and first prayers, Mary was deeply occupied with an amusing text conversation (minus one chance at eternal Heaven?). Rather than excusing herself to finish the conversation outside the nave, she went through the motions (kneeling, head bowing, crossing, etc.). For whom was she doing this? Wouldn’t standing outside be more comfortable than sitting on those hard straight-backed planks of wood?

There was the family in front of me. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Grandma, Elder Aunt, Mother, Father, Child. They arrived about halfway into the 50 minute Mass (minus 10 points), got to the front of the line for Communion and then left (for those of you unfamiliar with the structure of a Mass, there was a hymn/exit processional after Communion). Was Communion the only reason they were there? Did they believe they were taking in the blood and body of Jesus Christ and that was all they needed to do to check off ’Mass’ from their weekly list of things to do? If that IS the only ‘necessary’ part of a Mass, why don’t more folks show up just for Communion -- after all, isn‘t everyone busier these days?

Lastly, there was the family behind me: Mother, Father, Young Daughter (who was quite clearly ill), Older Daughter, Older Son (~8 years old). Father left to take phone calls (bravo!) throughout the Mass (minus 5 points); when he was present, his arms were folded across his chest and he stared resolutely at the back of the pew in front of him. From this posture he did not deviate. Son didn’t once crack an ‘Amen’ or ‘Jesus, hear our prayer’ and seemed to have inherited the ‘resolutely staring‘ gene from his father, but who can blame an 8 year old for wanting to spend Saturdays otherwise occupied? Mother was busy comforting red-cheeked Young Daughter who couldn’t stop coughing throughout the Mass. Poor girl. What sense of religious obligation/guilt makes it ok to have taken her out of the house that morning?

It seems that my source for all things Catholic had a different experience of Saturday Vigil than I did. If the people I observed were not there just to be seen, what were they there for? Certainly, the three parties I observed could not have been the only, or even main, contributors to the atmosphere of emptiness that permeated the nave throughout the Mass. I’ve been to other religious services relatively recently and for various reasons - Unitarian Universalist; secular Judaism (Shabbat on Sundays!); Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism; nondenominational/born again Christian; and various Protestant - but whether it was because the congregants were warmer or more sincere, or because I was in a different mood, I did not detect the same feeling of wanting to be elsewhere as I did at the Mass.

There was one person who clearly demonstrated her fervent wish to be exactly where she was. Older Daughter (~6 years old), I’m quite convinced, is the next Pope (you know, when they get around to allowing that sort of thing). Every ‘Amen’, every ‘Jesus, hear our prayer’, every invocation of God/Jesus, every line of every hymn and every word of the Lord’s Prayer issued forth from her mouth with perfect timing, but…but! also with clearly detectable ardor. How informed is her religious passion? One wonders to what it would be put if her parents weren’t churchgoers…or more to the point, were raising her in a humanist or secularist household.

As I write these lines, I realize that Older Daughter’s zeal, or rather that it should be directed at religion, is as saddening to me as the observation that hardly any (autonomous!) adult I saw showed signs of wanting to be where s/he was. We can reflect on our own childhoods, or we can observe our own children or those of others, to remember how much energy and curiosity we had to invest into figuring out the world around us. Imagine the potential contribution to human knowledge if this energy were invested in rational, critical thought at an early age.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Problem with Palestine

By Luis Granados

is in the news, asking the United Nations to be admitted as a full member despite the fact that it is occupied by a foreign army and that its government exists only at the sufferance of neighboring Israel. This move causes great consternation, because it threatens to disrupt a 40-year old status quo with which most people (other than Palestinians) have grown comfortable. I happen to think it’s a terrible idea, for reasons other than the ones usually given by pundits. I suggest a Plan B, though, that might actually improve the situation for everyone other than God experts.

In 1948, the institution to which Palestine seeks to be admitted adopted a profound statement called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN’s founders had just concluded a bloody war, which the combatants had been promised was going to mean something – that victory would result not just in one gang of politicians replacing another, but a truly fairer, freer world. Two years of effort went into crafting the Declaration’s 1,800 words, and the final document was approved without a single dissenting vote.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the Universal Declaration:
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status …

Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination …

Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
Either these words mean something, or they don’t. If they mean something, then isn’t there a problem with admitting to the club a new member state that has already announced that its first act, once it has the power to achieve it, will be the expulsion of all of the people within its borders who’ve committed the crime of being Jews?

That is precisely what the would-be Palestinian government promises to do. “After the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it would be in the best interest of the two people to be separated,” said Maen Areikat, the PLO ambassador to the United States, at a press conference on September 13. “We are trying to preserve the concept of a two-state solution,” he added, “and to make the Israelis understand there will be consequences for their actions.”

Consequences indeed. When a firestorm erupted over the ambassador’s words, he issued a “clarification,” which only digs the hole deeper. Jews would still be allowed to visit independent Palestine, he insisted; all he meant was that Jews wouldn’t be allowed to live there. And, as is typical of both sides of this conflict, he defended himself by urging that the other side was even worse:
Jerusalem right now is restricted – Palestinian Muslims and Christians cannot visit it. Christians, Muslims and Jews must be able to visit their respective sites in both countries. This wasn’t even on my mind when we [sic] asked the question – I thought he was talking about settlers staying in Palestine.
So the bad news is, half a million Jews would have to pick up and move once the Areikat team is in charge, including thousands who were born there. The good news is, they can come back and visit the folks who stole their homes.

This is hardly a novel idea. The first expulsion of Jews was effected by the Roman Empire, back in the 2nd century. After the second major rebellion in Palestine, which cost thousands of Roman lives and massive sums of Roman money to subdue, the frustrated Emperor Hadrian ordered the permanent removal of all Jews from Jerusalem, and even renamed the city.

A few centuries later, the early Muslim Caliph Umar expelled the Jews from western Arabia, quoting Muhammad as saying “Two religions shall not remain together in the peninsula of the Arabs.” Looking at a map, I don’t think one would say that Palestine is on the “peninsula,” but maybe Areikat flunked geography.

In the 13th century, it was England’s turn. King Edward I, perpetually short of funds, extracted cash from his Jewish subjects by every means he could imagine, until they had very little left. They still owned property, though; Edward solved that problem by his 1290 “Edict of Expulsion,” removing every Jew from the country. This Edict was not repealed until 1656.

King Philip the Fair of France was only mildly impressed, because Edward’s inefficiency let a lot of money slip from his grasp. Philip thought that secrecy of preparation and suddenness of action were the keys. On July 22, 1306, every Jew in France was arrested. Within weeks, they were escorted to the borders and expelled – without any of their property, which Philip retained for himself. Just as importantly, all debts owing from the king to the removed Jews were cancelled.

There weren’t that many Jews in England and France to expel, but there were lots of them in Spain. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered them all either to convert to Christianity or leave. Many of them wound up in Ottoman Turkey, whose Sultan could not believe his good fortune: “Allah has struck the king of Spain with blindness, that he should impoverish his realm to enrich mine.”

In Germany, Jews were removed from Vienna and Linz in 1421, from Cologne in 1424, Augsburg in 1439, Bavaria in 1442 and again in 1450, and from cities in Moravia in 1454. Hitler spent his first eight years in power trying to expel Jews from Germany (after relieving them of their money), before getting frustrated and deciding to murder them instead.

It doesn’t take brilliant legal analysis to figure out that the Areikat plan is as contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as you can get. So the UN either ought to tear up the Declaration and say “Just kidding,” or it ought to refuse admission to Palestine.

The drawback to leaving things at that is that the Israeli government has routinely violated the same Declaration since the day it was founded, so acting against only one of the wrongdoers would be unfair. To pick only the most recent example from hundreds over the past 60 years, just last week, the Israeli government approved a plan to kick out 30,000 non-Jewish Bedouins living in “unrecognized villages” in the Negev, to make room for 10 new Jews-only towns. “Unrecognized villages?” Orwell must be smiling somewhere. How does this square with “entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”? Not very well. Nor does the unrelenting Israeli campaign to evict non-Jews and not allow them back in that’s been going on since 1948, in both wartime and peacetime (if you can call it peace). Nor does the vast array of Israeli government benefits provided to Jews alone.

So here’s my Plan B. If you’re going to keep Palestine out of the UN, then kick Israel out at the same time. Tell both of them to call back when they’ve squeezed all the religion out of their governments, and started treating all humans the same regardless of what they do or don’t believe about the spirit world. Absolute freedom of worship for everyone; absolute exclusion of religious advantage or disadvantage for anyone, backed by meaningful international guarantees. When that happens, what will they have to argue about?

“Well,” you might be thinking, “if the UN kicked out every member nation that violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it could meet in a much smaller building – maybe a phone booth.” And you’d be right. What makes this case special is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, that it has cost the rest of humanity trillions of dollars, and that it is by far the likeliest location for the next nuclear weapon detonation. If ever there were an occasion for an audacious experiment of actually sticking to principles by refusal to countenance “disregard and contempt for human rights,” as it says in the Declaration’s preamble, this is it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

'Voice of Choice"

by Edd Doerr

On her show on MSNBC on Friday evening, Sept 23, Rachel Maddow interviewed Todd Stave, the owner of the building in Germantown, Md, where Dr Leroy Carhart has his clinic, which has been the target of anti-choice demonstrations for some time now. Some of the anti-choicers have been picketing the public school attended by one of Stave's kids .(See Wash Post story, "Anti-abortion protesters target clinic's landlord outside child's Md school", Sept 12). So Stave has been striking back by organizing pro-choicers to contact the anti-choice picketers to politely register a dissenting opinion.

For further into, Google to VOCHOICE.ORG

FYI, in 1992 Maryland voters votes 62% to 38% to lock Roe v Wade into Maryland law. We won in Montgomery County 71% to 29%. I was active in the campaign and published Al Menendez' book with the election results by voting district statewide. (I might note that as a result of my participation in the 1992 campaign anti-choice fanatics shot out windows in my car in my driveway several times.)

Stave's pro-choice activity has not been reported in any of the local papers, so we are thankful to Rachel Maddow for her efforts. Concerned pro-choicers might care to inquire of the local media why they have chosen to ignore this story.

Let me add that one of the main planks in the platforms of the GOP candidates for prez in 2012 is overturning Roe v Wade and denying women freedom of conscience in dealing with problem pregnancies. As broadcaster Ed Schultz says, "Let's get to work".

Friday, September 23, 2011

Der Papst kommt zu Deutschland

by Edd Doerr

Well, Pope Benny came to Berlin. You've read about it in the papers. The NY and Wash Times covered the story, but the Post gave it only a couple of paragraphs. The Wash (Moonie-owned) Times also had a story (9/23) about the Catholic bishops pressing Obama to oppose same-sex marriage and quoted Pope Benny as condemning "a dictator of relativism", which, I pointed out on the Times' blog, would be thought by most Americans to be a matter of "religious liberty" or "freedom of conscience" or "governmental religious neutrality".

Speaking before the Reichstag Benny obligatorily slammed the Nazi regime but uttered not a word about how the Vatican had assisted Hitler's grabbing of dictatorial power in 1933 by allowing the Catholic Zentrum Party to vote for that power grab.

Let me hasten to add that criticizing Benny and the Vatican is not a criticism of Catholics generally. Most Catholics disagree with the Vatican and the bishops on contraception, divorce/remarriage, clerical celibacy, ordination of women, the need for church-run private schools, tax support for church-schools through tax paid vouchers, and regular church attendance. In fact, Catholics tend to vote more like Humanists that do US Protestants.

Belief in God Boils Down to Intuition

I have recently posted several articles here asserting that theism is a product of adopting an intuitive way of understanding our world and that human intuition is a very poor substitute to an overall weight of the available evidence method of understanding our world which favors atheism over theism. I further argue that the well-established, true facts about how our world functions are mostly non-intuitive, and even counter-intuitive, and that an empirical, overall weight of the available evidence method is the only method that we have any reason to think works for reliably finding accurate answers to questions about how our world functions.

An article by Stephanie Pappas published in titled Belief in God Boils Down to a Gut Feeling reports on the results of a new study by researcher Amitai Shenhav of Harvard University and his colleagues, published Sept. 19 online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (also, another copy can be found here), about a difference in how non-theists and theists justify their beliefs. The study attempts to determine whether beliefs are influenced by how much an individual relies on their natural intuitions versus making the additional effort required to better understand the problem and find the correct, non-intuitive answer. People who incorrectly went with their intuition on a math test were found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to believe in God than those who got all the answers right. The results held even when taking factors such as education and income into account.

The researchers then initiated a second study to see if they could encourage people to be more theistic by encouraging them to adopt an intuitive focus. 373 participants were told to write a paragraph about either successfully using their intuition or successfully reasoning their way to an answer. Those who wrote about the intuitive experience were more likely to say they were convinced of God's existence after the experiment, suggesting that triggering intuitive thinking boosts belief.

However, contrary to what I argue, the researcher David Rand of Harvard claimed "It's not that one way is better than the other, intuitions are important and reflection is important, and you want some balance of the two. Where you are on that spectrum affects how you come out in terms of belief in God."

Of course, intuition has a proper role. Intuition is arguably the best method when evidence is unavailable, contradictory, or otherwise does not provide direction to answering a question that needs to be answered. But relying primarily on intuition to answer mathematics questions isn't balanced. That so many people turn to intuition in inappropriate contexts such as a mathematics quiz is a symptom of a counter-productive overtendency to rely far too much on intuition and far too little on going beyond intuition to reflect on the nature of the problem and how the available evidence favors some answers over others. David Rand is being too non-judgemental in his characterization of the spectrum. One way is better than the other in these contexts. Reflection takes first place, intuitition should only be our second method and only in those contexts where reflection is not viable due to lack of time or evidence constraints.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I've just gotta rant about this!

I just saw another of those idiotic news items where they take a common every day item and claim that the government has paid an exorbitant price for it. This one is for muffins.

Muffins they claim the government paid $16 for.

Yeah, right. Show me the invoice, and I'll show you an invoice that hasn't had the conference overhead costs itemized - which, of course, are loaded into the price of the items purchased. Resulting, naturally, in $16 muffins and more then likely $5 pads of butter. Stupid contractor and his crazy invoicing practices.

I'll tell you about another famous item. Remember Senator Idiot, oh, sorry, Proxmire and his Golden Fleece Awards? Remember the Senate Aide waving that toilet seat around while the good Senator claimed that it cost $600?

Well, I took a class in government purchasing some twenty years ago, and the guy that taught it had worked in the DOD purchasing office that bought that item.

It wasn't a toilet seat, it was a toilet COVER - for the B-1 bomber! It seems that the B-1 was designed to bomb the Soviet Union, a round trip of some number of hours of over twelve or so - so they built in a toilet for the pilots to do what comes naturally.

Since we never bombed the USSR, those toilets rarely got used for their intended purpose, since the B-1's rarely made long distance trips. But the pilots and air crews had to keep up their monthly flight hours to maintain their flight ratings, so they often made overnight trips to airfields across the country, therefor the need for luggage. Since the B-1 wasn't designed for stopping off in Moscow for a friendly visit, there had been no accommodations for luggage built into the aircraft.

So, the aircrews would throw the luggage into the toilet and shut the door. In the inevitable flight acrobatics, sometimes the toilet cover got cracked. Obviously, the cover would't keep the nasty stuff inside if it were cracked, so they had to be replaced.

Eventually, the replacements purchased under the original contract ran out and the Air Force had to buy more. Because they were only buying enough replacements for a fleet of 50 aircraft, the costs had to be absorbed somehow, so each unit cost $600, which included a redesign to prevent the replacements from cracking in the future, as well as the inevitable overhead costs.

Of course, none of this made a good soundbite, so Proxmire didn't tell you that, now did he? It wouldn't have been sexy enough a story about government overspending.

And so it is every daggone time someone wants to smack the government around for its spending. They aren't LYING - not directly, since the costs are close enough - but they don't tell you the whole story, either.

Now, I won't try to tell you - in a town that is almost overburdened with US Government Purchasing Agents, Contracting Officers and the people they buy from - that the government doesn't pay too much for some things, nor spend lots of money where it isn't needed. There would be too many people who would deservedly call me a liar, and be able to back it up with facts.

But, just as certain is the fact that this means that the opponents of too much government spending don't have to overreach to find examples of true overspending - like aircraft that the Air Force doesn't want nor need.

They don't have to dig for $16 muffins to prove their point!

What would David Hume Say?

By Gary Berg-Cross

Recently on Bill Maher's Real Time show Keith Olbermann and he engaged in a skit yelling at an unhearing "typical Republican voter" who was encased in a plastic bubble. It makes the point that some Republicans seem disconnected from reality and have their own set of facts. They are seemingly in denial about popular political topics like taxes. The fact is that taxes are at their lowest level in 50 years and that we’ve had relative prosperity with higher rates. They seem to be forgetful and are ahistorical at times, which can make conversation difficult.

They chose not to dwell on the fact that their hero Ronald Reagan raised taxes. They will claim that Obama’s stimulus did not create jobs. This ignores the Congressional Budget Office statement the stimulus created 1 million to 2.9 million jobs in one quarter alone. On climate change they will focus on one or two stats or a scandal and ignore the big picture. Instead they have beliefs that tie to things that seem like flat facts but are not exactly true in context. One example is the Fox news repeated claim as part of the fairness issue that “51% of Americans pay no federal taxes truths.” Well yes, but many of these are elderly and living on unemployment. Others earn less than $20,000 a year and do have payroll deductions.

These type of things are more misleading than true of untrue because they uses slippery categories. They would not pass David Hume’s principles of formalization concepts or based on observations. Long ago Hume warned that many bits of speech pretend to be knowledge, but in fact are part of metaphysical bubbles. He put it this way:

“When we feel compelled to peruse the stacks in libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion! (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg [Hackett Publishing Company, 1993])

Describing Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" that will vanish for people in their 30s and 40s is one of those grey, slippery statements perhaps generated by ideology more than facts. Social Security is not a fraudulent criminal enterprise designed only to benefit current participants in the program or some wicked set of government officials that want to personally profit from it. The scheme idea ignores Social Security’s reality as a legitimate government program with a proven record and an intent to serve both current and future generations of retirees. The New York Times did some fact checking on this subject and stated that:

“Government projections have Social Security exhausting its reserves by 2037, absent any changes, but show that the payroll tax revenues coming in would cover more than three-quarters of benefits to recipients then.”

There’s lots that Hume would commit to the flames in today’s news stream of talking points. It is perhaps a legacy of modernity to be too far from the Enlightenment to remember to use some of its sounder principles such as critical thinking and respect for testable facts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

'Faith above all'

by Edd Doerr

Did you read the excellent six-column article in the Washington Post today (Sept 21, 2011) about Jason Berry, the journalist whose new book exposes the financial shenanigans of the Catholic Church? Don't miss it.

Below is a review of the book by my colleague Al Menendez in the current issue of Voice of Reason, the quarterly journal of Americans for Religious Liberty (of which I am president).

Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, by Jason Berry. Crown Publishers, 2011, 420 pp., $25.00.

Jason Berry's meticulously-researched book concentrates on the financial profile of the Catholic Church, including a study of the Vatican legal system. Berry casts a withering eye on "dishonest bishops, concealed sex offenders and mismanaged money" from the perspective of a liberal Catholic journalist, who himself broke the story of the clerical sex abuse scandal in Louisiana two decades ago. The result of these failures is that the Catholic Church in America "is undergoing the most massive downsizing in its history and is liquidating assets at a startling pace."

Not only has the clerical sex offenders' scandal cost the church dearly in terms of income and prestige, but the closing of churches to help stop the flow of funds is causing dismay. "As the bishops shut churches against the people's will, questions of financial ethics hover like black clouds."

Some of the conflicts will end up in the US legal syatem. "The financial accountability of bishops is an issue that seems destined for more activity in the civil courts," writes Berry.

An excellent book in it own right, it would have been even better had it also considered how much government money has gone to the church.


(Most of the back issues of Voice of Reason may be found on the Americans for Religious Liberty's web site -- ARL was founded in 1982 by Humanist leaders Edward Ericson and Sherwin w\Wine.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Soft Power of the Peace Corps at 50 1961–2011

By Gary Berg-Cross

I was never a member of the Peace Corps (PC) but I have friends who were and spent 2 productive and fondly remember their overseas service. The creation PC was part of President Kennedy’s bold action during his Administration’s first forty days. It demonstrated a high commitment to what he called the fight “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty and war itself.” His original vision was to recruit 100,000 volunteers to serve abroad annually. Even in the friendlier days of the 60s he never got to that goal and in 50 years the whole program is short of a million. Today's shrinking visions and timidity leave us with only about 8,600 volunteers serving now.

many former volunteers are coning to DC in Sept to celebrate the 50th Anniversary. There will be lots of events and DC is probably going to have a better community spirit while they are here. We should welcome them as part of the best we as a country have to give. I was reminded of this reading an article on the value of serving in the PC in China:

Like many of the five hundred Americans who have served in Peace Corps China, I arrived in 1996 with no background in Chinese language, history, or culture.

Two years later, I left as a fluent speaker of Mandarin, an achievement that is common in the Peace Corps, where volunteers enjoy remarkably close contact with local communities. Most importantly, I taught English in a college that had no other foreign teachers besides the Peace Corps volunteers. My students came from the countryside, and many were the first members of their families to go beyond middle school. Often their fathers were illiterate; their grandmothers had bound feet. And yet these young people were studying English, part of China's effort to engage with the outside world after decades of Maoist isolation.

Fifteen years later, I'm still in touch with nearly one hundred former students. Most of them teach English in rural middle schools - teacher-training has always been the main priority of the Peace Corps in China. And one of the primary goals of the Peace Corps worldwide is to promote a better understanding of Americans.

It’s worth noting that the article was written partly in response to a Colorado Republican Representative (Mike Coffman) who recently called for the Obama administration to end the program in China. He described it as "an insult to the taxpayers of the United States" because not all the volunteers now work in rural areas. Some teach English in urban areas. Coffman’s see China in terms of job competition rather than social bonding and cultural understanding or passing on that broad commitment to the fight against the enlarged version of our common enemies: tyranny, poverty and war. Maybe we have to add to that ignorance, reflexive scapegoating, pollution and overpopulation now.

We can still value the 3 simple, but proven, guiding principles for the PC:

1. A meta-help approach - help others help themselves,

2. Help them learn about the United States through individual, highly-personalized contact, and

3. Encourage volunteers share their experiences with other Americans when they return home.

Republican Reps may think differently but there’s a consensus among the past volunteers that principle 2 helped foster a better understanding of the U.S. in the communities they served. The list of heads of states political leaders that studied with PC volunteers included Alejandro Toledo of Peru, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afworki of Eritrea and Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia. In a recent survey 93% of responders believed that the Peace Corps as a whole has improved America's image globally. This may be a bit hard to see like the effect of the stimulus on employment since the US policy has also been following other principles recently. We probably need 100,000 to overcome the legacy of recent wars, torture, backing dictators & training their militia and the like.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Is there actually a problem?

By Hos
The issue of FBI's surveillance of terror suspects has received new attention in the media with this article in Wired. The crux of the controversy concerns the concept that the more "pious" muslims are the likeliest to turn violent. The article goes on to some detail to point out that practice of a faith, which is perfectly legal, may lead to scrutiny and harassment. Moreover, again according the article, "depicting Islam as inseparable from political violence is exactly the narrative al-Qaida spins — as is the related idea that America and Islam are necessarily in conflict".
But is there really so much to complain about here? I understand that this is a delicate matter, and opinions are diverse, even among atheists/humanists. Profiling on the basis of national origin alone without taking into consideration the expressed views and actions of a single individual is also quite unacceptable and is a form of racism. And certainly, the claim that all devout muslims are violent is absurd-there are many who aren't. On the other hand, I think there can't be much doubt that secular muslims, who do not regularly go to mosque and do not perform the daily prayers, are not all so likely to fall for "jihadi" preachers' propaganda, hence the idea of focusing on the more religious ones doesn't strike me as so outrageous as the article make it out to be. After all, jihad is not considered as important an Islamic duty as prayer and fasting. The jihadis who do not appear to be so observant are likely just trying to "blend in".
The other thing the article finds highly controversial is this graph.

According to the graph, Judaism and Christianity, as a result of reformations, have become less and less violent with time, whereas Islam has not gone through such a transforming phase and remains fully as violent as it was at its inception.

While the graph may be considered too simplistic, and there are other criticisms that can be made (for instance, separately considering the "Meccan period" and "Medina period" makes little sense in this context because, if anything, the Medina period was more violent than Meccan period), the broad message here can hardly be challenged: most Jews and Christians no longer consider the bible as being literally true, whereas Islamic orthodoxy maintains that the Koran is the word of God transmitted to the prophet via angel Gabriel and there is no room for metaphorical interpretation or selective suppression of parts of the Koran. Openly questioning this orthodoxy in many Islamic nations can have grave consequences.

So in a nutshell, what I see here is a controversy created, where there need not be one.

For completeness sake I would like to point out this survey by the Pew Forum, according to which, "very few Muslim Americans – just 1% – say that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam from its enemies; an additional 7% say suicide bombings are sometimes justified in these circumstances." However, I consider these numbers to be an underestimation, because it is hard to imagine that people responding to such questions would be perfectly truthful with the pollsters.

Evolution Version 3.01 and The Forest of Life

By Gary Berg-cross
Science is one of those progressive forces that sometimes moves on in surprising ways. Newton’s mechanics was a great accomplishment and remains one of our most useful tools. But Physics has moved on to a grand synthesis of quantum and relativity theories which were not included in Newton’s view. Darwin’s theory grew out of a great deal of evidence which he framed into a a biological theory. When arguing with Creationist, many of us cite Darwin as the authority on the topic with lots of supporting data that the field has added over time.
But most of us know that this theory was only the start. There was a late 1930s synthesis that harmonized the ideas of Darwinian evolutionary theory with Mendelian genetics. It’s a good example of how scientific understanding advances. There was an accumulation of data and additional systemic thinking from several new biological fields, e.g. developmental biology, botany, population genetics, and paleontology. These were used to build a more complete theory. What I’ll call Evolution Version 2 successfully integrated various Darwinian postulates (e.g. the long time needed for species to evolve, the role of individual variation, some variations are selected etc.), and Mendelian genetics into a reformation of evolutionary theory. The new synthesis showed that Mendelian genetics for individuals was consistent with natural selection and gradual macro evolution of species.
But it is not the end of the story. The evolutionary field has accelerated and broadened. With the great deal we have learned in the last 50 years or so it is not surprising that there seems to be a new, and grander evolutionary synthesis that is being discussed and kicked around. As a community that likes progress and sometimes gets into conversations with creationist it’s useful to know the latest thinking. This can be challenging since theories grow complex and their principles more nuances as they do a better job to capturing a broader swath of reality. That’s certainly the case with Newtonian mechanics being superseded by Quantum Mechanics. It is no less likely in the messiness of the Biological realm.

What I’ll call here Version 3.01 of evolution seems to be forming. Like 2.0 it grows out of advances in new areas of biological study – in this case in the last 50 years. A bit part comes from the revolution in understanding DNA, and the comparative genomic analysis it allows. Rapid progress of genomics and systems biology at the end of the 20th century continuing now in the 21st century brings us enormous amounts of new data amenable to modeling and quantitative analysis.The combination of molecular genetics with mathematical modeling this has begun to build a new, much more detailed, complex, and realistic picture of evolution. By 2007 there was enough evidence for Michael Specter to write a New Yorker article on part of the revolution called Darwin’s Surprise:Why are evolutionary biologists bringing back extinct deadly viruses? In the article Specter wrote:

“When the sequence of the human genome was fully mapped, in 2003, researchers also discovered something they had not anticipated: our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made. It takes less than two per cent of our genome to create all the proteins necessary for us to live. Eight per cent, however, is composed of broken and disabled retroviruses, which, millions of years ago, managed to embed themselves in the DNA of our ancestors.”
This is not exactly the classical hierarchical view of species and inheritance via adaptation. We now understand more complex phylogenetic relationships at the genetic level of human and animal viruses (bird flu?). The data Darwin could use dealt with gross physical features, and the subtleties of the genetic engine of evolution used for Version 2 were invisible to him. Likewise viruses, bacteria or eukaryotes & their relation to species was also outside his theory. But a few years ago there was enough evidence from observation of viruses for Van Blerkom to publish a review article on the Role of viruses in human evolution. He suggested that humans as well as other animals have had to adapt to endogenous retroviruses throughout their evolutionary history because once they infect the DNA of a species they become part of that species and can change the way they function. Over time the number and types have changed but some viruses show evidence of long-standing intimate relationship and co-speciation with hominids. The defense of vertebrates against parasites and other pathogens involves common genes there are extensive and go back 30 million years, being shared by humans, apes. For more see The Tree of Life: Tangled Roots and Sexy Shoots Tracing the genetic pathway from the first Eukaryotes to Homo sapiens.
Data such as these has encouraged new models of what happens in evolution based on more generalized elementary processes similar to those used in statistical physics:
  1. domain birth (duplication with divergence),
  2. death (inactivation and/or deletion), and
  3. innovation (emergence from non-coding or non-globular sequences or acquisition via horizontal gene transfer such as discussed above).

Such generalized models are part of the picture that Eugene V. Koonin builds in his book, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological
Evolution (viewable online!!!)
which “offers a reappraisal and a new synthesis of theories, concepts, and hypotheses on the key aspects of the evolution of life on earth in light of comparative genomics and systems biology.”
Some readers may have heard of Koonin before because his arguments have been quoted out of context by Creationsists/Discovery Institute. Koonin does argue that there are problems with Version 2.0 the grand synthesis of 'evolution.' But he is arguing for an extension and not a contraction of the theory. A central part of the story is the underappreciated evolutionary importance of viruses as previously noted. But Koonin covers many other aspects that, taken together, yield a new, much more detailed, complex, and realistic picture of evolution. It’s like supplementing classical mechanics with quantum. This does not mean the traditional paradigm is rejected and abandoned. Instead it is generalized with a more complex set of layers added and richer concepts developed on such things as species and how genes get duplicated and how they get expressed. We are still on Darwin’s path but traveling with an improved vehicle.
Indeed Version 3.01 allows people like Koonin to make an even more compelling case for evolution. What Koonin does in fact is to examine a broad range of topics in evolutionary biology from a modern viewpoint and argues that such concepts as natural selection and adaptation need to be supplemented to explain evolution. Some of the concepts we’ve heard before in fragments such as the horizontal gene transfer. When we give this a more prominent role in evolution one consequence is the need to overhaul the grand “Tree of Life (ToL) concept. That’s the picture of a single starting point that branches simply to produce a new species. A more modern view based on comprehensive comparative analysis of 6901 phylogenetic trees is that the overall pattern of life’s history is more like a Forest, than a single ToL. Koonin analysis of prokaryotic genes revealed evidence for some vertical (tree like) inheritance but this was only particularly strong among a subset of 102 nearly universal trees. The non tree-like topological/inconsistency found in what he call the the Forest of Life was most likely, caused by Horizontal Gene Transfers. A messier story, but it does explain things. Within the Forest Family of Life there remains a core tree like structure dimly aware to Darwin and his data that reflect a significant central trend:

Figure above has two views of life history to replace a single Tree of Life.

(A) The ‘TOL as a central trend’ model. The history of life is represented as a tree, with connecting lines between branches depicting HGT and shaded trapezoids depicting phases of compressed cladogenesis (276). The origin of eukaryotes is depicted according to the archezoan hypothesis whereby the host of the mitochondrial endosymbiont was a proto-eukaryotes (archezoan). A cellular Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) is envisaged. (B) The ‘Big Bang’ model. The history of life is represented as a succession of tree-like phases accompanied by HGT and non-tree-like, Big Bang phases. Connecting lines between tree branches depict HGT and colored trapezoids depict Big Bang phases (151). The origin of eukaryotes is depicted according to the symbiogenesis model whereby the host of the mitochondrial endosymbiont was an archaeon. A pre-cellular Last Universal Common Ancestral State (LUCAS) is envisaged. Ar, archaeon (host of the mitochondrion in b), AZ, archezoan (host of the mitochondrion in a), BB, Big Bang, C, chloroplast, CC, compressed cladogenesis, M, mitochondrion. See “Darwinian evolution in the light of genomics,” Nucleic Acids Research 2009, 1-24.

“Evolutionary genomics effectively demolished the straightforward concept of the ToL by revealing the dynamic, reticulated character of evolution where horizontal gene transfer (HGT), genome fusion, and interaction between genomes of cellular life forms and diverse selfish genetic elements take the central stage. In this dynamic worldview, each genome is a palimpsest, a diverse collection of genes with different evolutionary fates and widely varying likelihoods of being lost, transferred, or duplicated. So the ToL becomes a network, or perhaps, most appropriately, the Forest of Life that consists of trees, bushes, thickets of lianas, and of course, numerous dead trunks and branches. Whether the ToL can be salvaged as central trend in the evolution of multiple conserved genes or this concept should be squarely abandoned for the Forest of Life image remains an open question.”
Version 3.01 may be more technical than a secular layman can across in discussions with evolutionary non-believers but it is interesting to see the continued maturation of scientific thought in this Forest of Life Family we are part of.

What We Were Spared Last Week

by Luis Granados
New York’s Mayor Bloomberg resisted intense pressure last week, refusing demands to include professional God experts on the official city program commemorating the attacks of September 11. The mayor’s explanation for this conscious omission was straightforward:
It’s a civil ceremony. There are plenty of opportunities for people to have their religious ceremonies. Some people don’t want to go to a religious ceremony with another religion. And the number of different religions in this city are really quite amazing. … It isn’t that you can’t pick and choose, you shouldn’t pick and choose. If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever.
Simple enough. The point of the ceremony was to remind the families of the victims that America still cares about them and mourns their loss, not to provide a government-sponsored platform for experts to inform us about God’s will. Nothing on the agenda was anti-religion; the program was designed in coordination with victims’ families and included readings that were “spiritual and personal in nature,” along with six different moments of silence to allow personal reflection and prayer. The only thing that was missing was the showcasing of a publicity-hungry preacher. From the reaction Bloomberg generated, though, you’d think he was Caligula, feeding Christians to the lions.

“Offensive to the families of victims.” That’s how a petition circulated by the Family Research Council described the family-designed ceremony. FRC’s president Tony Perkins also called it “A deliberate defiance and insult to people of faith across America.”

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said the omission was “a shameful example of anti-religious bigotry,” reflecting the “mindless secularist prejudice of the political establishment on our nation’s Eastern Seaboard.” (Should California’s secularists be offended at the slight?)

Pastor Joel C. Hunter, an Obama favorite who spoke at the 2008 Democratic convention and serves on the official White House religion advisory board, whined that “The bottom line is, this is not how we were founded. This is not who we are.” The American Family Association called it an insult to “God himself.” If God himself complained, that wasn’t reported in the press.

So what did we miss? As the mayor noted, it was perfectly ok for churches to put on their own programs, and plenty of them did. Pastor Bill Hybels of Chicago’s Willow Creek megachurch laid the blame for September 11 squarely on Satan:
Some of us ... are naïve to the reality of evil. We have never come to terms with what the Bible teaches about Satan and his power and how he organizes his accomplices to wreak havoc in this world and to wreak havoc in your life.
So the reality wasn’t humans deciding to use despicable means of making a political point; it was Satan, organizing his accomplices. Since the problem is in the supernatural sphere, the solution lies there as well. “I would think of our God who the Scripture says loves people even if they’re missing from His family and I would think of God kind of wandering around again figuratively with pictures of people who are still missing and just going ‘I wish this person would come home,’ ‘I wish this person would repent,’ ‘I wish this person were in the fellowship.’” So if more people would just “come home,” join the megachurch, and put money in the basket, Satan and his accomplices would be thwarted.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was in full agreement on the Satan angle. “It’s a war where evil is against good, where death is versus life, lies versus truth, pride against humility, selfishness against selflessness, revenge versus mercy, hate versus love, Satan versus Almighty God.” Dolan claimed, though, that “The side of the angels, not of the demons, conquered. Good Friday became Easter Sunday. And once again God has the last word.” As evidence, he noted that a child of one of September 11 victims had gone on to become a priest. I admit to being a selfish Godless pig, but if I had lost a family member on September 11, I would not appreciate an archbishop telling me that it was ok, because my tragedy had inspired someone else to join his ranks.

Anne Graham Lotz, the unordained evangelist daughter of Rev. Billy Graham, decided to cash in by writing and promoting a whole book about God and September 11. “I’ve been convinced that 9/11 was our wakeup call. If that wouldn’t wake up the church, what would it take?” Lotz isn’t buying the Satan theory. She lays the blame squarely on humanists. “Foundations of godliness have crumbled; things sacred have come unraveled. We have also embraced pagan teachings while rejecting the Bible in our schools, courthouses, and government institutions.”

An interesting theory, but hardly new. Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, famously characterized September 11 as “chickens coming home to roost” because of America’s lack of his brand of godliness. More to the point, just two days after the attack, Rev. Pat Robertson invited Rev. Jerry Falwell onto his television show, to announce that:
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say “You helped this happen.”
“Well,” Robertson replied, “I totally concur.”

I have a two-word response to that, but I’ll let it slide. I think Robertson may have been miffed because the attacks detracted attention from the 10th anniversary of the publication of his best-seller, The New World Order, which hit the stores in September, 1991. There he made the same point as Lotz and Falwell: “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world. How can there be peace when drunkards, drug dealers, communists, atheists, New Age worshipers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive dictators, greedy moneychangers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers, and homosexuals are on top?” The main thrust of The New World Order was that a centuries-old secret cabal called the “Illuminati,” backed by Jewish Rothschild money, was behind a Satan/secular humanist plot to dominate the world.

The New World Order was written in opposition to the international coalition against the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait in 1990 – Robertson saw the coalition as a scheme hatched by the Illuminati. He emphasized the story of the Tower of Babel, conveniently located in Iraq, which God viewed with animosity: “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Indeed, humans working together, using acquired scientific knowledge, can accomplish tremendous things. According to Robertson, “The danger of such a plan to future generations and the threat of this man-made order to the people of faith was so great that God determined to stop it at its inception.” So down the Tower came.

Robertson, of course, was in the front ranks of last week’s offended. “I am frankly shocked that Mayor Bloomberg thinks that he is doing the city of New York a favor by eliminating the spiritual element at an event commemorating tragedy, grief, and heroic sacrifice.”

The truth of the matter is that it was religion that brought down the Twin Towers, as surely as the Bible tells us it brought down the Tower of Babel. It was the God expert Osama bin Laden who brainwashed 19 young men into sacrificing themselves and thousands of others for the sake of his own supernatural musings, guaranteeing them a place in heaven for their efforts. Who was it who called on Americans in 2002 to “reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury” – Robertson, or bin Laden? It was bin Laden; but it wouldn’t be hard to find a Christian preacher making the same point at the same time, in nearly the same words.

It would have been grotesquely inappropriate for any speaker to use the 9/11 memorial as a platform for denouncing religion in general. Or for promoting it. Mayor Bloomberg got this one right.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Politics, Prayer, and Prejudice

By Mathew Goldstein

In a August 2, 2011 editorial titled Politics and Prayer, the New York Times editorial staff applauds a recent United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decision outlawing the Forsyth County prayer policy because the prayers often featured sectarian references. The NY Times argues that the constitution forbids government from favoring "one religion", citing the court's observation that the invocations must not "repeatedly suggest that government has put its weight behind a particular faith." The NY Times then quoted the court criticizing the county's policy because it favored "the majoritarian faith in the community at the expense of religious minorities." This argument is seriously flawed because it ignores that "the majoritarian faith" encompasses more than "one religion" or "a particular faith" and that the Establishment Clause forbids "an establishment of religion", not "establishment of a religion" or "establishment of one religion" arbitrarily selected.

Forsyth County is majority Protestant, it is majority trinitarian, it is majority Christian, it is majority monotheist. There is no one majority religion or faith. Different religious belief based divisions of the same set of people results in multiple different religious belief majorities. The gratuitous addition of the qualifiers "a", "the", and "one" by the NY Times and the court to mis-characterize as singular the pluralism inherent in majoritarian religion is disingenuous and mischievous. Counting religions is capricious. Delineating a single religion for large groups of citizens is inherently subjective and arbitrary because there can be as many religions as there are people. One judge could count a single religion where another judge could count hundreds of religions.

There is no basis in law for judges to pick and choose for which religions the Establishment Clause applies and for which religions it does not apply. The concocted misconception that the constitution requires judges to identity "the" majority faith or "a" majority religion when evaluating the applicability of the Establishment Clause is in conflict with the underlying principles of impartiality and equity which gives the first amendment and, more generally, all laws, their warrant to claim to be just. It should be obvious that the Establishment Clause principle equally prohibits establishments of minority religion, regardless of how unlikely that result is in a democracy, multiple establishments of religion, however many such distinct establishments there are, and a single simultaneous establishment of multiple religions, regardless of how many different religions or faiths, however delineated, are simultaneously established in a given instance. The Establishment Clause applies equally to minority and majority religions, to any and all religions, to one and many religions.

Accordingly, if, as asserted by the court here, Forsyth County violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by starting its meetings with prayers “endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths” then it also violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by starting its meetings with prayers endorsing monotheism to the exclusion of polytheism and atheism. There is no non-prejudiced basis for declaring government favoritism for Christianity to be unconstitutional while declaring government favoritism for monotheism to be constitutional. That is a completely arbitrary distinction. Jesus as deity is Christian religion, singular God as deity is Abrahamic religion, one majority is larger than the other majority, but otherwise its the same violation of the same principle against government establishment of religion. Yet it is exactly this irrelevant distinction that many judges, courts, and the NY Times, repeatedly and inconsistently endorse as a foundation of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

There is no such thing as inclusive or nonsectarian theistic prayer. Theism is exclusive to, and sectarian for, those who believe one or more gods should be worshiped, or be appealed to, with a prayer prior to starting work. If, as the NY Times asserts, "a government that favors one faith flouts the inclusive nature of American government, harming church and state" then a government that favors monotheism, or even theism more generally, is identically harming church and state by flouting the inclusive nature of American government. Excluding non-Christians and excluding non-theists is an identical harm to the identical principle. The NY Times, and the judges, by refusing to acknowledge this, are hypocritically declaring themselves to endorse a principle of inclusiveness while they simultaneously advocate against the identical inclusiveness principle. The only real difference is that one exclusion targets a different minority than the other exclusion. Prejudice or bigotry are the nouns that apply when one minority is not deemed equal before the law merely because that minority disagrees more completely or directly with the majority on a matter of opinion than the other dissenting minorities.