Thursday, May 31, 2012

Presidential Religious Affiliations

by Gary Berg-Cross

I was surprised to read the other day an article in the Washington Post on how Mitt Romney’s nomination marks milestone for Mormon faith. The article noted how America this campaign is silently observing another milestone as Willard Romney has become the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party. This on top of the first four years ago with the election of the first African American president.
What followed in the article was breakdown of the religious affiliations of the nation's presidents. They all had one in the chart in WAPO (shown below). Who knew taht LBJ was affiliated with Disciples of Christ.  along with Garfield?
Now I had always heard that there was some debate on this. After all as Wikipedia notes:
"Throughout much of American history, the religion of past American presidents has been the subject of contentious debate. Some devout Christian Americans have been disinclined to believe that there may have been non-religious or even non-Christian presidents, especially amongst the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a result, apocryphal stories of a religious nature have appeared over the years about particularly beloved presidents such as Washington and Lincoln."

To be sure Thomas Jefferson (listed as "no specific Christian denomination" in  WAPO along with Abraham Lincoln), William Howard Taft  (Unitarian??) and Barack Obama  were all at least accused of being atheists during election campaigns. A list of U.S. presidents most widely considered to be closet atheists includes Grant too.
includes Grant who WAPO lists as Methodist. 

If it is reasonable to argue that religion teaches followers to be satisfied with not understanding the world we are condemned to have candidates for President who lack some potentially critical understanding.  It might help explain the political state we are in.


by Edd Doerr

Ramon Sender was one of the very best of Spain's 20th century writers. His 1982 book Epilog to Nancy contains this little gem.  My translation  ----


When I was visiting the village of Ecija last summer I saw a little girl of eleven or twelve walking down the main street behind a cow. The parish priest, who was at his window reading his breviary, said to her, "Hi, Maria, where are you going so early in the morning?"

"To take the cow to the bull, sir."

The priest put on an expression of disgust and said, "And your dad? Where is your dad? Can't he do this?"

"No, Father," she replied, "it has to be the bull".

"Hemingway and Gellhorn"

by Edd Doerr

HBO's "Hemingway and Gellhorn" premiered on Memorial Day. Although the Washington Post's reviewer turned uo his nose at the 2.5 hour movie, it was actually quite good. Starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, who nicely shed their British and Australian accents, the film follows the stormy  affair and marriage of the pair of writers from the Spanish Civil War through the Soviet-Finnish conflict of 1940 and World War II. Over half of the film takes place during the Spanish Civil War, highlighting its complexities, hitting the Catholic Church for its support of Franco, and not sparing Hemingway's flaws. Martha Gellhorn comes across as the gutsier of the writing duo. Among the characters in the biopic are photographer Robert Capa and American writer John Dos Passos. I give the film at least four stars.

While we are on the subject of the Spanish Civil War, let me recommend three other films. First is "Land and Freedom", a terrific British film of a decade or so ago, a slightly fictionalized rendition of George Orwell's great book Homage to Catalonia, though, oddly, without attribution. This moving film shows the complexity of the republican forces opposing Franco's rebellion against the elected secular government. Its international cast reflects the actual diversity of the opponents of fascism. This one is worth five stars.

Then there is "Pan's Labyrinth", the Spanish movie that won the best foreign film Oscar a couple of years or so ago. It takes place during the summer of 1944, when republican holdouts were still fighting in the mountains, hoping that when the Allies finished with Hitler they would head south and  oust Franco. I won't give away the sort of "magic realism" story plot but will say that this is one you will not forget. One of the main characters is a little girl of eleven or so, but DO NOT take little kids to see this splendid work. Five stars.

Finally, we have "Ay, Carmela!", another great Spanish film. Two republican entertainers get trapped behind enemy lines and are captured by Italian troops sent by Mussolini to aid Franco. The funniest scene is where the Italian commander, a theatrical producer in civilian life, persuades the Spaniard to put on an awful musical the Italian has written, for which he will spare their lives. The Spaniard and the Italian cannot speak each other's languages, but their similarity allows them to communicate in one of the most hilarious exchanges ever filmed. Again, five stars.

Natural Law??

by Don Wharton

Robert Park is another commentator for whom I have become fond.  His roughly weekly missive What's New today included this paragraph on natural law:


The lawsuit argues that the Obama healthcare plan violates the religious freedom of Catholic institutions by requiring them to cover the contraception costs of employees. In the eyes of the Church, artificial contraception violates the doctrine of Natural Law. If sexual intercourse cannot lead to procreation it removes the sovereignty of God over Creation. Try thinking that through while having sex. What are the odds of the Church winning its suit? The Church hasn't won a case based on Natural Law since 615 when the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his belief in a heliocentric universe.

People can subscribe to Dr. Park's What's New here.

Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

by Don Wharton

Greg Paul has done a lot for the secular cause.  He has published an article with the above title showing the recent data from the International Social Survey Program (ISSP).  He compares the results from a 1998 and a 2008 survey with atheism looking quite good overall.  A teaser paragraph and link follow:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade...

continue reading:  Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

“Killer” Historical Stories

By Gary Berg-Cross
Channeling Kahneman I’ve recently written about the persuasive ability of stories and anecdotes compared to logic and formal reasoning. I was surprisingly reminded of this looking at Niall Ferguson’s recent PBS show Civilization: The West and the Rest. On the surface his show is in the spirit of earlier grand PBS documentaries, but perhaps as the NYTs noted a bit more tendentious that earlier series like Connections or Collapse. Based on the book, “Civilization,” it asserts, with some simplified certainty, that we are now sadly living through “the end of 500 years of Western predominance.” And with China is on the rise, the question is not whether East and West will clash, but whether “the weaker” — that is, the US & Europe — “will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.” How did this come about? Well British historian Ferguson tells a convincing, if simplified, conservative flavored story that punch through the rational style with bumper sticker phrases like “ killer apps”. According to NF, the West rose above the Rest through the development of six ‘killer apps’:
1. a more fragmented political setting that worked to encourage competition and innovation both between and within states;
2. a predilection for open inquiry and a scientific attitude towards nature;
3. property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected assemblies;
4. modern medicine (which Ferguson argues makes up for European colonialism, in Africa. )
5. an industrial revolution based on both a supply of sustained innovations and a demand for mass consumer goods; and
6. a work ethic that included more productive labor with higher savings and capital accumulation.
The app story and anecdotes strung together like pearls that suggests historical continuity and key insights. I can agree on some, such as open inquiry and a scientific attitude as important, but then again they were lest characteristic of the West from 500 to 1450 than elsewhere and were somewhat imported into the West by rediscovery of Greek work.
The discovery and colonization of America does play an appealing role in NF’s stories. An example appealing to fans of American exceptionalism is the founding of the Carolina Colony. Ferguson argues, perhaps with some justification that it represented a new opportunity for social mobility. In less than a decade, various member of the English underclass could use something as distasteful as indentured servitude as way forward to a Western dream of free and clear title to one’s own land holdings. And property allowed men (but not women) to vote and thus move on to a fully vested member of the economic and political establishment. There’s lots left out in this story, but it fits the conservative story of App # 3 property rights.
Reader’s of this blog might be particularly interested in the religious aspect of Western culture favored in NF’s view. We see this in his discussion of Western work ethic (aka the Protestant Work Ethic). Important for the West but now the Rest who have adopted Western ways (NF calls then Resteners). Here the Chinese are exhibit # 1 as they now outperform the West (even exceptional America) by standards of productivity. Why? They have Killer App #6 because as Ferguson posits there is an upsurge in Protestant religious observance in Mainland China. Specifically Ferguson’s note:
“today there may actually be more practicing Christians in China than in Europe.”
Maybe but I am reminded of the comment that:
"History is the lie that historians agree on."
Ferguson’s “history” is full of claims like the role of a Western work ethic in China that seem grounded on some facts (and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) , but any such general conclusion can be questioned on one or more details. A conservative idea of Western civilization would include the influence of a more liberal Enlightenment as well as the Christian tradition, but how these factor in is subject to interpretation. Conservative historians like NF take great delight in exposing the “errors” of earlier and more liberal historians. Every history book, even the most carefully and most honestly researched and written, is interpretive. It focuses on something and thus omits or misinterprets many facts. One reviewer of the book noted:
“Ferguson’s selection of the 1600s as the time when the West moved ahead seems amazingly ignorant for a professional historian.”
Maybe. It’s the type of things historians can argue about. With such gaps it’s hard to say one is all right and the other all wrong. This is especially hard to due when other’s work with different explanations is not addressed. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, for example, provides a different rationale for the dominance of the West, but these arguments are not addressed directly by Ferguson. Then there is the fact that our sense of history evolves. New historical discoveries are constantly being made. For example some documents are found or become available and their review affords reinterpretation of earlier beliefs and generalizations even of the most authoritative historians of the past. In my adult life this has been the case with our understanding of the Founders and it has been wonderful to hear these new stories. I like entertaining stories, but some attempt at balance is also important.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tuition Tax Credits

This letter was published in the New York Times on May 29, 2012 ----

"Tuition Tax Credits"

"Thank you for exposing the tuition tax credit scam ('Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools,' front page, May 22). Tuition tax credits, also known as tax cide vouchers, violate the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the First Amendment and comparable provisions in at least 38 state constitutions.

"They are a serious threat to religiously neutral democratic public education and to the fundamental right of Americans not to be taxed directly or indirectly for the support of religious institutions.

"Tens of millions of voters in 26 statewide referendums have rejected tuition tax credit,  vouchers or their analogues by a  margin of 2 to 1. Legislatures that approve such measures lack the decency to propose appropriate constitutional amendments that would allow voters to say yea or nay.

"Edd Doerr
"Pres., Americans for Religious Liberty
"Silver Spring, Md., May 22, 2012"

Monday, May 28, 2012

Video of Kahneman Talk on Knowing along with some Notes.

By Gary Berg-Cross
2002 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman delivered the 12th Annual Sackler Lecture recently. See my earlier Blog on this.  Some interested parties may have missed this talk entitled "Thinking that We Know". You can see a review of the talk as well as a video of the entire thing at the NYT Review. If you don’t have time for that, the following are some notes from the hour lecture which touched on topics from his recent book (“Thinking, Fast and Slow”).

Kahneman started off in a commonsense philosophical manner talking about knowing. To know implies absence of doubt and true belief. But truth is a philosophical concept, and people disagree about what is true. There’s scientific truth that comes from a shared search for agreed and objective truth. This is the central mission of science. But in science just any belief is not part of the conception. It is possible for “true believers “ not to accept science as the way to truth. They argue that since some belief is central to science therefore it is just another religion.

We need to recognize this gap in ideas of knowing.

As a psychologist a starting point for Kahneman was a discussion of what we have learned from Psychology devised laboratory paradigms of reasoning, especially in natural/social environments.
Here he discussed 'dual-process' model of the brain & theories of reasoning . This is the distinction between 2 types of reasoning systems -  ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ processes.
System 1 is an older and FAST form of universal cognition shared between animals and humans. It is probably actually not a single system but a set of subsystems that operate with some autonomy. System 1 includes what people call instinctive or intuitive knowing and behaviors. Kahneman and others like to System 1 processes as those that are formed by associate learning ((associative memory is often called instinctive). They are probably the kind produced by neural networks. System 1 processes are characterized as rapid, parallel and automatic in nature and usually only their resulting product becomes consciousness in humans.
System 2 In contrast is a more recent evolutionary development and is often called deliberate. It is slow and sequential in nature, takes effort (cognitive resources). K asks "What is 13 x 27?" System 2 makes use of the central working memory system. This leads to 2 different ideas of rationality. we apprehend the world in two radically opposed ways, employing two fundamentally different modes of thought – fast and slow.

Kahneman’s earliest study was mentioned in the NAS president’s introduction and Karhneman cites it as evidence of System 2 thinking. Pupils dilate when we engage in deliberately thinking. Yes the eyes are the windows into the mind!

While we like to think of ourselves as deliberate thinkers we are often associative thinkers. But to be fast we think that networks of associations need to be activated. These are not necessarily logical and they provide some quick but biased interpretations and are afforded by other associations. This makes for a Blink knowing, but often a deceptive one.
Take an association to the work “bank” in "approach the bank". A quick interpretation might select a meaning by frequency of use. Then "approach the bank" means going towards a financial institution rather than a river bank. It could also be primed by a related word so if we hear “fish” and “bank” then river is a more likely association.
You’ll have to see the video to see how Kahneman woos the audience with his story about his wife’s phrase "sexy man" and what he felt he knew she said afterwards as “doesn't undress the maid himself.”

As shown by studies a
ssociative memory interprets the present in terms of the past. In effect we produces stories that make sense based on these past associations (“sexy and “undress” are related). A good story makes associative sense. And this happens on stock market. It’s not deliberate reasoning but sloppy associative. Stats for atctual analysis of the performance of fund managers over the longer term shows that investors do just as well when basing financial decisions to a monkey throwing darts at a board. There is a tremendously powerful illusion of expertise that sustains managers in their belief their results, when good, are the result of skill. Kahneman explains this as a bias and thus "performance bonuses" are largely awarded for luck or stacking the deck and not real skill at projecting the future.

At this point K started citing studies showing how our interpretations of the likelihood of things is often not logical. What is the overall probability of a flood in California. People say small. Bit if asked the probability of a Flood from an earthquake in CA, the probability is higher, even though the probability of such things such be part of the first probability. Why the illogic? It’s just a better story.

At this point K moved to the topic of what is a valid argument? Truth and validity get confused as shown in the example below”
  • All roses are Flowers
  • Some Flowers fade quickly
· Therefore some Roes fade…..while that seems possible it is not logically true.

This shows that we reason by associations back from conclusion. Correct order is important for valid inference but not associations.

Kahneman provided some examples on the synergy of associations and how the environment influences what we think. If you hold a pencil between your teeth, forcing your mouth into the shape of a smile, you'll find a cartoon funnier than if you hold the pencil pointing forward, by pursing your lips round it in a frown-inducing way you feel more disgust for the cartoon. K had fun with this story. See also Timothy D Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves.

Associative coherence and emotion work differently than logical coherence. For emotions that have fit and adhere. This is suggested by a
Paul Rozin’s poison experiment (Rozin et al. 1990). In Rozin’s experiment participants are shown 2 empty bottles that are subsequently filled with sugar. The experimenter then shows the participant two labels, one saying ‘Sugar’, the other saying ‘Sodium Cyanide.’ After reading the labels, participants are more hesitant to drink from the bottle with the ‘Sodium Cyanide’ label even it has OJ in it. There is associaton-based discomfort with.
And associations with particular people works strongly too. What we associate with a person has a great deal with how we believe and how we feel.
Most ideas come from people we like. That is a social belief comes from emotional trust.

K mentioned AmosTversky’s socialcultural theory of attitudes. Social leaders may have attitudes on certain topics for arbitrary historical reason. But as likeable leaders they often can influence many attitudes.

Interactions between System 1 and 2 was a big part of K’s talk.
System 2 is used for control and may follow a series of rules. It partially monitors system 1. How it works is shown by the classic math problem: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Your intuitive system for association may quickly tell you that the ball costs 10 cents. That would be an easy solution, but it would also be incorrect but it is the choice of may even at MIT. Why? We are cognitively lazy. People who delay gratification as shown by a Psych test and have more self control do better on this type of problem. It is more System 1 control.

Scientists should be big System 2. After all they have to pass hostile reviews to get published.

Kahneman says one of his favorite examples of System 1 thinking is what happens when you hear an upper-class British voice say, "I have large tattoos all down my back. People who speak with an upper-class British accent don't have large tattoos down their back. It violates our associative knowledge. So the brain must be bringing vast world knowledge to registers that there is an incongruity here. It happens within three- or four-tenths of a second and it's the same response you'd get if you heard a male voice say, "I believe I am pregnant."

So association makes us ready to respond, but it comes with rigid expectations. An example was hearing that “Julie reads in year 4.
Then you get asked “What's here GPA?” Usually it is high.
It’s as if we have a distribution for each (GPA and reading) which gets mapped together. But there are too many intervening events to accurately predict this.

An example concerns airport insurance. During [the ’90s] when there was terrorist activity in Thailand, people were asked how much they’d pay for a travel-insurance policy that pays $100,000 in case of death for any reason. Others were asked how much they’d pay for a policy that pays $100,000 for death in a terrorist act. Turns out that people will pay more for the second, even though it’s less likely. Why” It’s a policy for an instance of terror vs. dying in general.
We pay more to the terror policy since we fear terror more than death.

this suggests that our associate story telling system 1 is usually in charge.

We like stories and how they sound. If we hear “woes unite foes” it is more persuasive aphorism than “Woes unite enemies.”
A lesson is to communicate to non-experts in a different way. Speak to their story with assoc coherence. This is a lesson for getting the Climate Change story understood. Also the source of the message has to be liked and trusted.
Global warming too distant and abstract so it will take trusted leaders to make the case and do it in associative language. Anecdotes are concrete and specific so they are preferred over facts.

From nothing to something to nothing

By Mathew Goldstein

Why is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun and the distance from Earth to Mars between 34 and 250 million miles? Questions like these, that seek the underlying purpose, are the sort of questions that theology falsely claims to answer. Such questions assume that there is a purpose behind everything and then assume that we can discern that purpose. But this flies in the face of all of the empirical evidence that there is no such purpose associated with everything and that, in any case, we have no way to discern any such purpose.

And so it is also with one of the favorite question of theists: Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no human focused, purpose based, explanation since humans are not the goal, and purpose is not the essential, or foundational, property of reality. So as long theists keep falsely insisting, a-priori, and contrary to the evidence we have, that the only "satisfactory" answers to the "why" questions must provide ultimate purpose from a human-centric perspective, they will continue to give priority to their own make-believe version of reality over the evidence.

We can fruitfully address the related "how" questions, such as what physical processes led to the Earth ending up in its present position. Most of theology, with it's insistence on finding the imaginary holy grail of the ultimate purpose, is non-productive. Unlike science, theology never has produced, and we have every reason to think cannot, and therefore never will produce, any knowledge.

Lawrence M. Krauss, in his new book, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing", advocates for the productive, empirical evidence first, skepticism based approach of science to resolve the mysteries of origins. He summarizes what we know, including what we know we don't know, about the origin of our universe, and he also discusses the possibility that there are mysteries about origins that we will never be able answer.

There is no way around the fact that the laws of physics are counter-intuitive and can only be understood by people who spend years learning the mathematics and studying the subject. So, for example, it turns out that empty space has gravitationally repulsive energy "... because it causes empty space to have "negative" pressure. As a result of this negative pressure, the universe actually does work on empty space as it expands". The end result is an initial period of inflation, after which "... one ends up with a universe full of stuff (matter and radiation), and the total Newtonian gravitational energy of that stuff will be as close as one can ever imagine to zero". Starting with "an infinitesimally small region of empty space" with a vacuum energy, we end up with an arbitrarily large and flat universe, without costing any energy. Our best measurements of our universe's curvature favor the conclusion that our universe is flat, exactly as predicated for a universe born from a tiny empty space.

The book has 11 chapters plus an epilogue. In chapter 9 he states: "Just as Darwin, albeit reluctantly, removed the need for divine intervention in the evolution of the modern world, teeming with diverse life throughout the planet ..., our current understanding of the universe, it's past, and it's future make it more plausible that "something" can arise out of nothing without the need for any divine guidance." But so far we have assumed a starting point of an infinitesimally tiny empty space. Where did that tiny empty space come from?

It turns out that everything happens that is not forbidden by the laws of physics. And according to the laws of physics, nothingness is an unstable condition, nothing always produces something. Not only can nothing become something, it is required to, but in a way that balances negative and positive energy so that they sum to zero.

At this point we encounter several of the big unresolved mysteries of cosmology. One question is what generated the asymmetry between matter and anti-matter? Dr. Krauss emphasizes that "independent of this uncertainty [regarding how our universe became dominated by matter], however, is the remarkable fact that a feature of the underlying laws of physics can allow quantum process to drive the universe away from a featureless state".

Another unresolved question is whether or not "small, possibly compact spaces ... themselves pop in and out existence?" And here Dr. Krauss follows the general principle that anything "not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen...". Citing Stephen Hawking, Dr. Krauss says "a quantum theory of gravity [which we currently do not have] allows for the creation, albeit perhaps momentarily, of space itself where none existed before." Furthermore, "a compact universe with zero total energy" could spontaneously appear and remain for a long time, without violating the Uncertainty Principle (a basic principle of quantum mechanics).

This suggests that our universe not only has total Newtonian gravitational energy of zero, and is therefore geometrically flat, but also has total energy, including the mass energy (e=mc2), of zero, and therefore our universe was initially geometrically closed. In other words, an initially tiny, closed universe can pop into existence, rapidly and exponentially expand (inflate) into an infinitely large flat universe, spontaneously, with impunity, carrying no net energy.

It is said that "out of nothing nothing comes". This has no foundation in science. Instead, the laws of physics imply there is a multiverse, with the other universes existing either in extra dimensions or in a context of eternal inflation within three dimensional space [the existence of extra dimensions is another unresolved question of cosmology]. The laws of nature in each universe may be set stochastically and randomly. It is even possible that there is no fundamental theory. It could be that "there is something simply because, if there was nothing, we wouldn't find ourselves living here." The question why is there something rather than nothing "... may be no more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue."

It may be that in the multiverse there are an infinite set of different laws of nature, or there may be a very restricted combination of laws that results in viable universes. Lawrence Krauss has clearly given considerable thought to the subject of origins, and he makes winning and important arguments on behalf of the conclusion in his epilogue that "I find oddly satisfying the conclusion that, in either scenario [infinite or restricted set of laws of nature], a seemingly omnipotent God would have no freedom in the creation of our universe. No doubt because it further suggests that God is unnecessary - or at best redundant."

This book received a strongly negative review in the NY Times. Having read the book, I can say that that negative book review was unfair. This is a very good book.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Notes from Sean Faircloth's April WASH Talk on Attack of the Theocrats

By Gary Berg-Cross

In April Sean Faircloth (Director of Strategy & Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason ) held forth in a wide ranging talk from making your own sarcastic Willy Wonka meme to innovations for a secular world.

He set the state of a
ffairs with his visit accompanying Richard Dawkins during a joint book promotion ( "The Magic of Reality" and “Attack of the Theocrats”) at Eastern Kentucky University were first in Eastern Kentucky. In this relatively religious, Bible Belt area there was a large turnout with just a public announcement. Pretty impression and part Sean’s story line of a mission with a vision of what type of activism that is needed for a secular America. We might see atheism and secularism as a new stories that need to be told with proper anecdotes that are critical opening doors. The idea is to influence social direction, but do it humanely and don't exclude others who disagree.

Sean makes the point that hanging America is not trivial and requires more than a philosophical understanding and rhetoric. Religious “stories” have seductive simplicity of certainty that is a powerful brand message. These get folded into Lies about science and other topics. Non-religious humanists can take lessons from how the religious right worked their way into political power. This power now has to be countered thoughtfully. It requires action by people who don't disdain politics. An innovative framing of issue is more than just saying no.

From this general frame Sean launched into
his latest book Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What to Do About It where he discusses religious influence that American’s may not be aware of. In Chapter 1 he notes that there already are laws on the books with a Theocratic theme to them. One example are laws that exempt religious child care from laws that apply to everyone else. Children can indeed be harmed by religious-tinged laws as well as by so called “faith healing.” Does it make sense for Muslim taxpayers to subsidize mega mansions of fundamentalists Christian preachers?

Sean suggests that people can look at his video interview with Liz Heywood on fundamental mentalists, who get physically harmed by “Faith Healing.” Over 35 states have laws which give some greater leeway to "faith-healing." Another problem is how religion lessens parent’s or girl’s rights or how people lose job for having the “wrong” religion.

Chapter 2 - Jefferson Making the Religious Right Mad was an important part of Sean’s talk. It concerned the secular government described by the Founders. The message is simply to bring back Madison’s constitution and Jefferson’s 1st Amendment. It should be our mission. The freedom of man is the main goal.

Sean noted that we will shortly be coming up to celebration of the 400th anniversary
of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) which provided a scientific method that influenced Jefferson in his day and still provides inspiration. Maybe we can accomplish a significant part of our secular decade plan by then.

A help may be Sean’s 10 point plan which is positive in nature and is designed to persuade people to join us through a vision of compassion that addresses people being harmed by the status quo. We should speak of being free from others religion not freedom of religion and turn the issue to our advantage.

One part of the plan is to show the pervasiveness of the problem. Expose the religio-industrial complex and help put fundamentalists on defensive. We need to expose the gravy train religion provides for people like Joyce Meyer and Austin or Paul and Janice Crouch. The Crouches of the California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network preach a prosperity gospel. Good for them. Really good for them. With donations they built a single station into the world's largest Christian television network and have his-and-her mansions 1 street apart in a gated community. All provided by the network using viewer donations & tax-free earnings.

We also need to humanize the secular and make people aware of these humanist values. As part of this we need to separate faith from virtue and show that we are the tribunes of justice.

Sean is one secularist that believes that the blatant certainty of “I'm smarter than you” done well like people like Chis Hitchens turns people off. Perhaps it is a better starter to show that your beliefs are genuine.

Sean had a quire a bit to say about organizing. Locally, such as here is Maryland we should have a
State wide presence. People might work with Fred Edwords (national director of the United Coalition of Reason) on secular laws. RDF promises to work with local people who are interested in secular change and are looking at new ways of making a Dawkins visit pay off and count to build a community we want.

Nationally the
Richard Dawkins Foundation is working to organize things broadly and help facilitate state-wide groups.

RDF will have new web site coming out and the existing site gets millions of hits.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sponsors a special fund to help ministers and priests who want to get out of the pulpit. Named the Clergy Project it will help ministers, priests, rabbis and other clergy who no longer believe in the supernatural (atheists, agnostics, secular humanists) and are looking for an exit strategy to a secular life.

Other thing to do include:

· working with secular parents

· Support Groups with unique issues, such as the military.

· Considers speakers as organizers

In summary. We have the best cause and as Wily Wonka suggested:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsake

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Among the Q and As were:

The observation that in earlier times Rockefeller and Goldwater didn't care for religion in Government and spoke out against it.

On the role of libertarians in the movement, Sean agreed that there are some non-liberals in movement but the % is small. Perhaps 15% or so. They differ on economics but not on other important issues like evolution. So try to have the big tent.

One Q was. “Is the take away message that we should proselytize?”
Sean said that it depends on what we mean, but we should state what we believe and hope to get others to join us. It is important to not be discriminated against as non-believers. But this is not so much of an issue in some areas of the country. Elsewhere it is, but there are other problems there too.

A related Q was what we can do about religious movement? Sean believes in advocating and educating but not to imply that people who don’t agree with us are necessarily ignorant. He is worried about the mix with politics and people like Steve King of Iowa who opposed honor of slaves who worked on the National Capital in the capital building.

We have to remember that we can’t win just by defeating a national candidate like a Perry or the Theocrat Romney. They are wrong on the issue and have power since they are or were governors. But people like Newt and Santorium get elected to legislatures which a national election won't settle. We have to work there too.

Steve Lowe asked if we should create separate issue like the Log Cabin Republicans there?
This provides a space where they can have their own meetings.

See Sean Faircloth videos.

UNO is against blasphemy laws-welcome

Happy news . UNO is against blasphemy laws and asserting secular life. Hitherto all religions under the pretext of religious holy books ,harassing people. Religions fail to answer criticism and hence resort to put people in jail , torture, kill. This should be stopped. Islamic countries are at top level in this inhuman practice while other religions are also following them in lesser degree.
Innaiah Narisetti

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Is Kansas Anti-Catholic?

by Edd Doerr

Following is an email I just received from by my old friends Krystyna Korzibska and Brendan O'Casey.

"Edd: Today's NY Times reports that Kansas Gov Brownback has just signed into law a bill to prevent the state's  courts and agencies from basing decisions on foreign legal codes. The law makes no mention of Muslim Sharia law. So could it be aimed at the Vatican's (Holy See's) 1968 formal condemnation of contraception? After all, in 1984 Reagan extended diplomatic recognition to the Holy See (and didn't you testify against that move at congressional hearings and weren't you a plaintiff in the lawsuit that tried to challenge that recognition?) and the Holy enjoys sovereign status at the UN General Assembly, a status which has been fought by Catholics for Choice and many other groups.

"So Kansas should oppose any attempt to enforce the Vatican's position on birth control. But wait, isn't Kansas in the forefront of the campaign to enforce the Vatican's position on abortion? We have trouble getting out heads around what is happening in Kansas. Has the state become schizophrenic? Maybe  we should avoid going through Kansas when we drive to California this summer."

Friday, May 25, 2012

The "Global Gag Rule" Goes to Europe

According to Allan Carlson, the most important challenge of the 21st century is "demographic implosion" (so I guess human population is not rising fast enough for this guy?). One of the main factors of this "crisis" is gay marriage, he says.

By Hos
The Global Gag Rule is a US presidential policy according to which health related organizations that receive financial aid from the US may not have anything to do with abortion. This includes providing abortions, advocating legalization of abortion, or even discussing therapeutic abortion with their patients. The rule has been in place on and off since 1984. Like clockwork, the republicans reinstate this rule they take the White House and the democrats repeal it when they come in. It has done tremendous harm to reproductive health organizations as they must choose between discussing health related options fully with their patients or seeing their funding cut off.

Now, a member of European Parliament from Spain is circulating a petition asking the European Union to do the same. He unveiled it at the World Congress of the Families, an ultraconservative gathering that wants to remove women from the workforce.

The international organizer of this gathering is the religious right organization Howard Center. One of their employees, Allan Carlson, is directly involved with this event.

While the fate of the petition for the Global Gag Rule in Europe is not clear, it is just one example of the tremendous harm the religious right is trying to do all over the globe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Religious Nutjob and His "Final Solution" to "Gay Problem"

By Hos

Religion is a gift that keeps on giving. Every time you think men of god couldn't get any worse-they manage to come up with something even more incredible, more insane, more inhuman. The most recent example: pastor Charles L Worley of (should I ask where else?) North Carolina. He is not pleased that President Obama has endorsed gay marriage, and he has an "answer". The only issue (according to him) is that it won't "pass the congress". (The constitution, anyone?)
And what is his brilliant idea? Build an electrified fence, confine all gay people inside, feed them from the air, and let them die of old age as they "can't reproduce".
While he has every right to spew his bile, he doesn't seem to be too happy that the cat is out of the bag: he has taken it off of his website. Anyone sees any hypocrisy here?
For all the religious people who are horrified at this lunacy-and good for them-I have a question. If your scripture (New Testament as well as Old) can be used to justify this barbarism and worse, isn't it time to stop using it as a moral guide? I know it has good bits too, but don't you think every time you cite those parts to encourage any deeds, you are cracking the door a bit further open to raving lunatics like this one?

Condorcet and Dreams of Reason

By Gary Berg-Cross
I’m a big fan of the Enlightenment, its products (Encyclopedia), values (the notion of progress), traditions and influence. I agree with Jürgen Habermas that its ideas along with democratic ideas has the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason. I agree with Kant, that the Enlightenment marked:
"Mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error."
But I also agree with Habermas (and others like E.O. Wilson in Consilience ) that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project." It was a start on emancipated thinking but has not been able to universalize this or remove large islands of ignorance, intolerance and error. It’s successes and shortcomings are something we can learn from. Like Habermas I think that one of its passionate, strategic thrusts, the idea that certainty in moral, social and politics issues will emerge from the application of the scientific method to society, should be corrected and complemented by modern understanding, but not discarded. 
What type of corrections? Well considerations of rationality for one and how it is applied successfully to reform society, understand morals and politics. With the idea of progress comes the idea that morals and politics will become more the products of rationality and greater factual knowledge generated by Science. That’s not exactly what happened in the 19th and 20th century. 
One inspirational starting point and humbling lesson comes from that the great French mathematician, philosopher Revolutionist, and Enlightenment figure Condorcet (1743-1794- full name Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet). In NNDB, an intelligence aggregator that tracks the activities of people they have determined to be noteworthy, H B Acton described Condorcet as:

Wholly a man of the Enlightenment, an advocate of economic freedom, religious toleration, legal and educational reform, and the abolition of slavery, Condorcet sought to extend the empire of reason to social affairs. Rather than elucidate human behaviour, as had been done thus far, by recourse to either the moral or physical sciences, he sought to explain it by a merger of the two sciences that eventually became transmuted into the discipline of sociology.

He was indeed one of the pioneers in the invention of an analytic, Social Science. He provided the Enlightenment movement some social theory and these remain an important contribution, but his approach did not provide a simple path to Enlightenment goals. Among other things Condorcet struggled to find logical-scientific ways to understand individual and group choice.  One issue was how best (most rationally) conduct voting to advance Democracy. The idea was to apply mathematical principles to social/group decision making and human choice? (Condorcet was a mathematician and well versed in probability which he was eager to apply to social issues. )
So he expected that rational/mathematical analysis could (and would) establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge -something we are still debating and working on. Early on Condorcet argued that through voting, people were more likely to make correct group decisions. But when he modeled voting analytically to check this out he found mathematical paradoxes in it, as did Noble prize winner Ken Arrow many decades later. (In 1972 American economist Kenneth Arrow, together with Sir John Hicks, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for work in this area - “pioneering contributions to general equilibrium theory and welfare theory.”) As explained in Wikipedia the voting paradox (also known as Condorcet's paradox) is a situation noted by the Condorcet, in which collective preferences can be cyclic (i.e. not transitive meaning that if A beats B and B beats C then A also beats C - but this isn't what happens in a cycle). Cycles are paradoxical, because they mean that majority wishes can be in conflict with each other. When this occurs, it is because the conflicting majorities are each made up of different groups of individuals. Thus the usual collective democratic decision-making principles don’t generate correct, consistent and stable results. 
Discouraging as was Condorcet personal  participation in the French Revolution.  Part of that story based on brief biographies is culled below:

When the French Revolution broke out Condorcet championed the liberal cause. He was elected as the Paris representative in the Legislative Assembly and he became the secretary of the Assembly. He drew up plans for a state education system which were adopted. By 1792 Condorcet had become one of the leaders of the Republican cause. He joined the moderate Girondists and argued strongly that the King's life should be spared.
When the Girondists fell from favour and the Jacobins, a more radical political group led by Robespierre, took over, Condorcet argued strongly against the new, hurriedly written, constitution which was drawn up to replace the one which he himself had been chiefly responsible for drawing up. This showed a lack of sense and he paid for it when a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Condorcet went into hiding and wrote his very interesting, seminal philosophical work Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1795). Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind . Sketch pretty much descibes all he had time for. It was a sketch outlining what was supposed to be a much larger,full picture work. In March 1794 he thought that the house in which he was hiding in Paris was being watched by his enemies and he no longer felt safe. So he fled from Paris but after 3 days he was arrested and imprisoned. Two days later he was tragicaly found dead in his prison cell of unknown causes. Was he murdered or did he take his own life? His death robbed of much including his plan Historical Picture, which was to be the grand defense of his philosophical system.

As J Herival notes of Condorcet:

... Condorcet was no politician. His uncompromising directness of manner and inability to suffer illogical windbags in silence made him many enemies and few friends. His weak voice, lack of oratorical powers, and tendency to bore the Convention by the excessive height of his arguments was one of the tragedies of the Revolution.
Condorcet left us with a martyr to the dream that mankind might directly be freed from error with a simple progressive idea that improves on past belief.  The dream is if only we had processes to get factual information and cogent arguments widely disseminated. Sounds good, but it didn’t work in the emotions of a revolution and now we now understand the problem a bit better. I don't blame a devil , nor do I deem the dreams of reason.  But emotions can override reason, and it happens with some people more than others. Progress can be blocked and the dream of reason deferred. Furthermore, there are probably evolutionary reasons that establish this variability of emotion/reason balance. People who are not as open to the facts are not necessarily stupid or stubborn. Some may be, but others are wired (and acculturated further) to process and react to information differently. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff put it:
So to attack (that) “belief” through logical or reasoned argument, and thereby expect it to vanish and cease to exist in a brain, is really a rather naive idea. Certainly, it is not the wisest or most effective way of trying to “change brains,”
And changing brains is something needed to advance the Enlightenment vision. One modern interpretation of our dilemma is that rationality and the advancement of knowledge are great values, but they need strategic allies in the Enlightenment effort against institutionalized ignorance that prevent progress.  
For more  on this see my blogs on Confirmatory Bias and for more on Condorcet see Mooney’s "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Thinking that We Know and the Science of Thinking

by Gary Berg-Cross

2002 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman delivers the free 12th Annual Sackler Lecture tonight at 6 at the National Academy of Sciences Building - 2101 Constitution Avenue NW - Auditorium (Washington). The talk is called "Thinking that We Know". Kahneman got the Nobel Prize for research that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making. Steven Pinker, who I hope is know to this group, called him "one of the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today."

For those who have not read his recent book (“Thinking, Fast and Slow”) the talk should covers some of his ideas on different modes of thinking and the search for the truth. Here is the abstract for the talk:

Truth is a philosophical concept, and the shared search for agreed and objective truth is the central mission of science. But the sense of truth is a subjective experience, which falls in the domain of psychology. Carefu
lly reasoned argument is one way to induce a sense of truth, but it is not the only way, or indeed the most common. The distinction between different modes of thinking – fast and automatic vs. slow and controlled – provides a framework for understanding the variety of experiences of truth.

The New York Times review of
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” noted this:

Human irrationality is Kahneman’s great theme. There are essentially three phases to his career. In the first, he and Tversky did a series of ingenious experiments that revealed twenty or so “cognitive biases” — unconscious errors of reasoning that distort our judgment of the world. Typical of these is the “anchoring effect”: our tendency to be influenced by irrelevant numbers that we happen to be exposed to. (In one experiment, for instance, experienced German judges were inclined to give a shoplifter a longer sentence if they had just rolled a pair of dice loaded to give a high number.) In the second phase, Kahneman and Tversky showed that people making decisions under uncertain conditions do not behave in the way that economic models have traditionally assumed; they do not “maximize utility.” The two then developed an alternative account of decision making, one more faithful to human psychology, which they called “prospect theory.” (It was for this achievement that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel.) In the third phase of his career, mainly after the death of Tversky, Kahneman has delved into “hedonic psychology”: the science of happiness, its nature and its causes. His findings in this area have proved disquieting — and not just because one of the key experiments involved a deliberately prolonged colonoscopy.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” spans all three of these phases. It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching, especially when Kahneman is recounting his collaboration with Tversky. (“The pleasure we found in working together made us exceptionally patient; it is much easier to strive for perfection when you are never bored.”) So impressive is its vision of flawed human reason that the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that Kahneman and Tversky’s work “will be remembered hundreds of years from now,” and that it is “a crucial pivot point in the way we see ourselves.” They are, Brooks said, “like the Lewis and Clark of the mind.”

Daniel Kahneman,
P.h.D., is a Senior Scholar and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Emeritus, at Princeton University. His bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, was selected by The New York Times as one of its Best Books of 2011. A 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences, Dr. Kahneman has laid the foundation for a new field of research, called behavioral economics.

'Night Sessions'

 a book review by Edd Doerr

The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod. PYR (an imprint of Prometheus Books), 2012, 263 pp. $17.95.

A Catholic priest and an Anglican bishop are murdered. In Edinburgh, Scotland. This fast-paced science-fiction mystery involves robots, computers, AI, creationists, fundamentalists, "Faith Wars", space elevators, terrorism, church-state separation, climate change, cops and politicians.

Here is a sample from the middle of the novel: "Ferguson [the cop] knew what she meant. The bad times encompassed the final years of  the Faith Wars, and the upheavals that followed, all played out against the climate crisis  .... The mood of revulsion against the Faith Wars had crystallised around the notion of a Second Enlightenment, one that would separate not merely the Church from the state,  but religion from politics, and from public life altogether. The fall of the great religious establishments had been as swift and sudden as that of communism. After decades of religious inspiration or exacerbation of terrorism, fundamentalism, apocalyptic wars, creationism, climate-change denial, women's oppression, poverty, ignorance and disease, it was payback time. In a variety of forms, secularism had swept the board in all the advanced countries. .... The faith-heads had called it the Great Rejection....."

I can say no more without giving away the plot. This is the kind of s-f that Isaac Asimov would have liked.

Ken MacLeod is a prolific writer from  Scotland.

Donohue Tries to Bully Jon Stewart

by Edd Doerr

Bill Donohue, the bully who is  president of the extreme right Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has a 1/4 page ad on the NY Times op ed page on May 21 attacking comic Jon Stewart. Several weeks ago Stewart, one of the funniest guys on TV, made fun of Fox News for ignoring the "war on women" and reportedly said "Maybe women could protect their reproductive organs from unwanted medical intrusions with vaginal mangers." Donohue then notes (I missed that Stewart show) that "On the screen behind him was the picture of a naked woman with her legs spread and a nativity scene ornament in between."

Donohue urges readers to e-mail Steve Albani, communications head at Comedy Central, [] to complain about  Stewart. Donohue, who has a long history of bullying people he disagrees with, writes that "We want everyone to know what this man stands for and how he treats Christianity." Note that Stewart is Jewish, so Donohue's screed may give off a whiff of anti-Semitism.

I would like to urge all readers of this blog to e-mail Albani and urge Comedy Central to ignore Donohue's efforts to pressure advertisers into dumping on Stewart. Stewart's four nights per week of biting satire is more informative than most newscasts. His satire hits everyone, left and right and center. He is a brilliant successor to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hypocrisy is the Handmaiden of Fascism

In Mississippi, GOP state Rep. Andy Gipson posted a message on his Facebook page which calls for putting gays and lesbians to death.
On May 10, Gipson made the following post:
“Been a lot of press on Obama’s opinion on “homosexual marriage.” The only opinion that counts is God’s: see Romans 1:26-28 and Leviticus 20:13. Anyway you slice it, it is sin. Not to mention horrific social policy.”

Later on in the thread, Gipson posts a comment about how homosexuality is “unnatural” and causes “disease.”

According to Leviticus 20:13, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
And, apparently, he’s not made any apologies for it and has if anything, doubled down on it.
This is, to date, the very worst examples of cherry picking one’s religious beliefs - or, as it is known in the religious world, “cafeteria christianity.”  Much has been written in the atheistic blogosphere lately about this, ranging from serious, outraged posts outlining all the commandments in the Old Testament that these cafeteria christians have rejected to amusing, yet cutting satirical pieces excoriating them for the parts they conveniently ignore, yet never talk about.
Lets be very clear here.
If you are one of those people who think gays (which, by the way, includes lesbians) are an abomination, unnatural and just plain icky, and you base your opinions on the bible, you’d damn well better be one of those fundies who think that selling your daughter into slavery is ok.
Because if you don’t, you are a hypocrite.
Andy Gipson is a hypocrite, because he hasn’t promoted putting apostate christians to death, nor does he still support slavery, nor stoning adulterers to death, nor stoning people who work on Saturday (NOT SUNDAY - that’s the work of a later Pope, and isn’t the traditional Sabbath the Ten Commandments refer to!) nor killing teens who are disrespectful of their parents.
All of this, and more, is commanded in the Old Testament, yet, inexplicably, the ONLY Old Testament command christians deign to obey is the one about homosexuality!  (Besides the Ten.)
Even worse than the hypocrisy is the thought that it would be ok, in the modern 21st century America, for the GOVERNMENT to be able to execute its citizens, in violation of every principle men and women have fought and died to preserve in our Constitution, just because of a personal characteristic!  I don’t know who really made the statement about fascism (there seems to be some disagreement as to authorship) coming to America carrying a cross and being wrapped in the flag, but, dang it, THAT should be engraved above the doors of every courthouse in the US!
It’s wrong, it’s unAmerican, and it should be treated as treason.
Even Republican pollsters are telling them that they are on the wrong side of history, and are urging them to modify their views to just give up the fight if they still want to be electable.
See how damaging religion is?  If it weren’t for the bronze age biases inherent in the judeo-christian-islamic triad, none of this would be an issue, as the old world Mediterranean civilizations never had any issues with the homosexual lifestyle, in fact, often embraced it as a part of the culture.

Robert Ahrens