Friday, August 31, 2012

A Matter of Semantics - Words, Concepts and Things

By Gary Berg-Cross

Modern society bombards us with words and no more than during a political season when candidates compete for our attention with punchy slogans and catchy phrases. It seems too close to the word manipulation of George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 isn’t yet the good old days, but people seem pretty confused by the flood of political language as we descend into a world of thin, distorted or made up meanings. Paid wordsmiths now hawk a language of fractional facts, non-sense, almost sense and truthiness that is captured in the Lewis Carroll quote:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

In ordinary conversations, when people debate a point and the words they are using for discussion, they often backhand this disagreement with the phrase “It’s a matter of semantics.” Well perhaps, but that seems to trivialize meaning a bit. It’s more than a choice of words. Semantics is about the meaning of things, which seems more important than a making it something like “you say Po-tat-o and I say Po-ta-to.” 

In comparison to marketers and political writers most layman seem to understand little about semantics, but it is a deeply refined field over the last 120 years or so. Semantics is often contrasted with syntax in language. Syntax gets at the structure of language expressions, while semantics has a focus on the relations between a class of signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs, and symbols, and what they stand for or denote. The meaning of meaning is a lot to think about so one needs a bit of model to help.

A core of what is written above and what we should know about semantics, readily applied  at least simple, single word semantics, is represented by what is called a triangle of reference shown below. BTW. it is also known, as noted in Wikipedia, as the triangle of meaning, and the semantic triangle. A version of the triangle, shown below, was published in The Meaning of Meaning (1923) by Ogden and Richards, but a more sophisticated version was penned earlier by the great American, pragmatic philosopher Charles Peirce, but also by French linguist Sassaure.

Ok, so what does this model assert? It’s a model of how linguistic symbols are related to the objects (or whatever) they represent. These are the 3 corners of the triangle and each relates to the other. I represent concept parts in sq. brackets [] and word parts in quotes ‘’ “ to make clear which vertex part is being discussed. 

Let’s start with the referent, which in my example is some thing we recognize as a [tree]. This is to say that we have a concept [] or category for the referent part of reality. A concept should be adequate and fit reality. That's part of a meaning, but only part. And we have a word for that concept “tree.” That's another part. If we say “tree” for that concept , we are correct. If we say “bush”, well close, but not correct. "Bush" shows we've used the wrong category.  That concept is not adequate for the isolated part of reality that makes up the referent - tree in reality.
A clearer example is when, say a child, has an initial concept for the category of thing that we see in the world –[bird]. If we categorize them by a flying attribute a child can quickly realize, or be told, that a flying thing I/we call a “plane” would then be classified as  [bird]. Not true, or at least we can do better and not be so confused as to not mean what we say. So the child should align the concept and referent part and not use the word "bird" for it.

And what about an ostrich? Not all birds fly. 
So I might make several types of mistakes in relation to a concept for a part of reality and its name. The correct, scientific alignment is that birds have feathers. That's a much better, consistent model for bird that aligns with we see when we test the world systematically with observations. Here we have the very important point that there should be a relation between our words and things.  The connection is through our thoughts but they are fallible. 

And even here the semantic game is difficult, since what we call "dinosaurs" seem to have had feathers. We have different names for things along an evolutionary path as our knowledge or reality advances.

So “it’s a matter of semantics" turns out to cover a pretty complicated, cognitive and scientific situation. Meaning is not in the referent of something like a tree. It’s isn’t just in the concept we have or in the words we use. When we are expressing ourselves with language the meaning is in the relation of 3 parts and is constructed.

There’s the rub. Or at least a starting part of a much deeper, but interesting story of semantics.

You can also see another challenge in the diagram in that the part of reality that I've tried to isolate and call "tree" is embedded in a larger context.  I could call it "tree in a yard" or "tree near a cemetery." What  I call it depends on the concepts evoked and this my meaning.  Or digging deeper into what Cognitive Science has revealed, the mental models we have that organize our understanding of the world. Another person hearing the phrase "tree in a yard" may have a similar concept and comprehend it in a similar way, but it is in this complicate conceptual processing that meaning comes about. Thinking fast with associative memory as discussed in my earlier blogs plays a big part in what meaning we come to.

When we are communicating we may share a common vocabulary, but differ on how we hook them up to our concepts. What do we mean by a term like “god”, “pro-life”, "legitimate rape" or “American”? Hooking "American" and "Exceptionalism" together is not just a syntactic affair and not something that has one, consistent meaning as discussed in earlier blogs

These are all pretty complex affairs and often used with different referents.  Using different words can evoke many different concepts in a cognitive agent.  The referents aren’t clear and the concepts are varied even in normal life let along in the wolf whistle world of current politics . Misunderstandings fly by and sometimes intentionally so as meanings get bent to a Humpty Dumpty purpose.  

Oh, and by the way, that is a third part of language - the pragmatics of what we say which is driven by what we are trying to communicate or not communicate.  We may just be trying to confuse someone's concepts and take over the usual meaning of words.  Over time words get weighed down by various associations. "Indian" used to mean something a bit evil, but the concept has evolved as we have gotten away from the Indian Wars.

This side of Socrates many don’t seem to make an effort to connect the parts and communicate. Next time you hear that it is “just a matter of semantics” you might have some concepts and new words to communicate back to the speaker.

                                          Image Credits
God as a concept:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The School Voucher Conspiracy

by Edd Doerr

Diversion of public funds to mostly pervasively sectarian private schools through school vouchers or tuition tax credits (tax code vouchers) is an uncontestably serious movement to wreck church-state separation, undermine religious freedom, and destroy religiously neutral public education. The threat is spelled out in detail in my comprehensive 23-page position paper titled "The Great School Voucher Fraud", which is available for download on the Americans for Reigious Liberty web site --

A totally different but equally important paper on the  same subjetr is Rachel Tabachnick's 9-page document "The Right's 'School Choice' Scheme",  available for download from the Summer 2012 issue of "The Public Eye", published by Political Research Associates. Google to their web site.

Republican legislatures in Indiana and Louisiana have passed devastating school voucher plans in the last two years, and Florida will have a referendum on  vouchers (Amendment 8) in November.

Church-state separation,  religious freedom and democratic religiously neutral public schools  are central humanist values. All humanists need to get involved in these struggles.

Evolving Conversations on Belief and Faith Blogs

by Gary Berg-Cross

In an idle moment checking news on my "smart" phone I discovered that CNN online news has not only a Religion section but a Belief blog as part of its news categories (e.g. weather, special coverage, tech, CNN heroes). Do they really have a slogan "The faith angles behind the biggest stories? It seems so.

You can see what they cover, including the Belief Blog's Morning Speed Read for the current day. Groups can also post ads for with church sign photos . Wow, the humanist community has a way to go to compete with this melange. It's perhaps a bit like WAPO coverage on Faith or the faith angle to things including politics. So I learned that Cardinal Timothy Dolan has accepted an invitation to give the closing prayer at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. I try to think of a future in which there might be humanist parallels used for our large national meetings. We seem a host of Ingersolls away from such a possibility.

Reading the Beief or Faith blog is not the way I would start my day but I was interested to see that Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor, has a blog article called: Bill Nye slams creationism"

As the article noted Nye posted a YouTube video that pointed out - denial of evolution is unique to the United States and that teaching of creationism in schools is undermining children and the future of the United States.

The video quickly has quickly picked up steam and by the time of the CNN article had been viewed more than 1,100,000 times.

There was an interesting angle to the CNN coverage. It was what they called "five schools of reaction that have emerged in comments."

The first was what the blog editor called "a small portion of the population", but which (interestingly) made up about half of their commentators!!! They joined with Nye to cheer him on. I'm in that group..

More article space was given to the other 4 categories which included a "wait a minute" crowd, a "stupid science" crowd (we have faith and don't need to debate science), a "Nye shouldn't comment on us" group and a "CNN is stirring up trouble" group.

The freethinking community and the half of the commentators that responded might open a debate with the first of these groups, but its less likely with the other 3. Nevertheless I applaud the half that joined with Nye and posted on that blog. It was, after all, the plurality of responses even if the editors gave it faint praise in their analysis.

Image Credit
Bill Nye:


Monday, August 27, 2012

Concern that ultra-Orthodox are tightening an intolerant grip in Israel.

by Gary Berg-Cross
Ruth Marcus, published a small article August 7 in WAPO called The ultra-Orthodox tighten their grip in Israel. It started with an eye opener story about the treatment of some women by conservative (aka ultra orthrodox) Jewish groups. We have been reading a bit about the war of women here from fundamentalists and certainly of women in some Moslim countries, but the Jewish story has been perhaps less reported on. Marcus bravely took it on.
Nili Philipp is an observant, modern Orthodox Jew. Marcus reports how Philipp was hit by a “rock on the side of her helmet as she biked last year along the main road in this Jerusalem suburb. A few years earlier, the spitting had begun, as Philipp jogged on a road bordering an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Men called her names: Shikseh, the derogatory term for a Gentile woman. Prutzah, whore.”
As reported the Philipp’s story “speaks volumes about intolerance among the ultra-Orthodox”

Whenever people tell me, respect their society — their society doesn’t respect me,” Philipp says, voice quivering as she describes a recent incident in which a woman with an infant was pelted with stones while shopping here. “We all see ourselves as vulnerable, and we’re all scared.”

Marcus’ story got over a 1000 responses and resonated with many woman. One talked about having to had to give up her seat on a flight home from Israel

“because a religious man had to sit next to another man. I’m ashamed to say that three years ago on that Continental flight bound to the U.S., I gave into the demands of one such fanatical Jew.… Good for you for exposing this ugly reality in Israel. I love Israel, but this radicalization of Judaism cannot be ignored.”

You can read more about here experience in her blog. She deepens the feelings by discussing how just these types of separations and frustration of 2nd class status were describe in a book about Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham and Joshua Heschel.
As the book notes Young Martin, for example, grew up in the 1930′s in segregated South and was not allowed to swim in a pool or drink from a water fountain or even use a public bathroom because he was black. This was paralleled also in the 30′s by a “scared young Jewish rabbi Nazi-occupied Poland who could not find a job, use regular transportation, or attend university because he was a Jew.”
One might add Rosa Parks later experience, but the point being made is the concern about a something like this happening now:
“new kind of segregation taking hold in certain Israeli towns where small but fanatical groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews are looking to bend and warp Halacha (Jewish law) to their benefit in order to separate Jewish women from public life. All in the name of modesty.”
Marcus describes some of the problems in a way that may sound familiar to those of us fighting intolerance that mixes gender & culture wars with a separation of church and state battle:
One difficult set of questions in a country where religion and government are officially entangled is how much the state should accommodate the religious needs of the ultra-Orthodox — for example, the ultra-Orthodox public radio station that bleeps out the voices of female members of the national legislature, the Knesset, lest men suffer from “impure” thoughts on hearing women’s voices, or public health clinics with separate days for men and women. If higher education is key to integrating the ultra-Orthodox, should the state fund scholarships for gender-segregated classes?
Even more troubling are the mounting instances in which the ultra-Orthodox have insisted that their religious needs take precedence — for instance, demanding separate seating at public ceremonies or even, as happened last year, barring a female pediatrics professor from going on stage to accept an award from the ultra-Orthodox health minister.
There are other signs of growing power going along with this intolerance among some of these Jewish conservative communities and their leaders. In an infamous sermon, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the head of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages and a senior Sephardi adjudicator showed perhaps a bit too much of the implications of that politically incorrect, old time, bronze age, tribal religion when he said, among other things "The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews.
This, is his answer to the Q “Do Jews have the right to treat all non-Jews as god-created servants? according to. but you can read about it in his Wikipedia entry and you can apparently see a version of some of the sermon’s translated quotes on YouTube. Some of his attributed (translated) quotes include:

  • “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel,” he said in his weekly Saturday night sermon on the laws regarding the actions non-Jews are permitted to perform on Shabbat.
  • the liv"es of non-Jews in Israel are safeguarded by divinity, to prevent losses to Jews."
  • “In Israel, death has no dominion over them... With gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, they’d lose their money.
  • This is his servant... That’s why he gets a long life, to work well for this Jew,” Yosef said.
  • “Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.
  • That is why gentiles were created,”

It’s a bit retro and if Marcus is right disappointing to see it ascending in influence. Yosef’s Saturday night sermons have seen many controversial statements from the 90-year-old rabbi. Yosef caused a diplomatic uproar when he wished a plague upon the Palestinian people and their leaders, a curse he retracted a few weeks later, when he blessed them along with all of Israel’s other peace-seeking neighbors.

The Shas Rabbi is apparently not that much a fringe person in Israel. A recent article notes him as Key Israeli Spiritual Leader Calls Jews to Pray for Iran’s Destruction (from Yossi Gestetner reports political news associated with and relevant to the Jewish Community.) Now that is a scary religious-state and military fusion.

Image Credits:

Ultra orthodox and athletic women confrontation:

Caption - Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man hurries to distance himself from Hundreds of women taking part in an Athena Women's Walk physical fitness event near the Jaffa Gate. Jerusalem, Israel. 15/09/2011.

Ruth Marcus:

Rabbi Picture from

Jerusalem Post page from:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

WAPO discusses political leaders & religious beliefs

by Gary Berg-Cross

As part of their "Liberty, through the lens" series on the proper role for government in America today the Washington Post has moved to cover the topic of "Faith" (aka Religious Faith). 

They have started by asking a dozen Virginia  folks or so the Q -"Do you think a political leader should or should not rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions? How much does it matter to you that a candidate for president shares your religious beliefs?"

Johari Abdul-Malik (55) pictured above had one of the more liberal answers which sounded almost Unitarian although he was identified as Director of outreach, imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center (Falls Church)

"What I’m looking for in a candidate is a relationship with the golden rule. I’m not looking for whether you pray to the east or to the west as part of your religious underpinning, but do you have a relationship with the source of those values. "

We'll see how the series turns out. Virginia is an interesting state to discuss and the section starts with founding father Jefferson and his raised eyebrows about much of scripture. So far they haven't gotten around to asking Qs of people who have Jefferson's skepticism or are clearly Humanists, although they include Mormons who said "it’s not important to me for a politician to share my particular kind of faith." and Buddhists  who said "I think it's incumbent upon the political person to understand that there are different views of reality." In their second installment they has a Korean American pastor, Peter Chin, who became  interim pastor of the  Peace Fellowship in Northeast Washington. This seems like one of those "liberal churches" much discussed on this blog and Pastor Peter discusses being open-minded to help build relationships. In another life I might imagine him working for a humanist group.

As one can see from comments on the first article, a number of non-theists have jumped in to emphasize some of the Founder's ideas on the US as a country of laws - secular laws - guided by the Constitution.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Considering Some of Paul Kurtz's Thoughts

by Gary Berg-Cross
Paul Kurtz has had a long and remarkable career as a public intellectual which includes major contributor to secular humanism but also to critical thinking, ethics, skepticism and American philosophy in general. From a perspective that started in the 50s by 1980 he could look at 30s years of struggle to advance the humanist community against the rising power of fundamentalism and still has perhaps good advice for our current struggle. There is some backlast, fundamentalist similarity

As James A. Haught noted in Fundamentalist Political Power in America

The historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and 1963 against government-led school prayer, plus the 1973 opinion legalizing a woman’s right to choose abortion, along with the easing of social stigmas against gays and the like, all convinced them that Satan was gaining control of America.
Evangelist Jerry Falwell coalesced this group by forming the Moral Majority.
What to do as fundamentalism tipped the ballot balance to conservative hero Ronald Reagan and the 80s and 90s saw growing politicio-religious influence of groups like the moral majority? It was the issue facing the humanists, secularists (and the country) at the turn of the century and we feel it surging again.
Writing in the 80s Paul Kurtz drew up analysis of the problems and added some reasonable strategic ideas. These have sometimes been simplified down to an accomodationist label and contrasted with the New Atheists’ strong anti-religious stances and statements. As one might expect from a strategic and philosophical thinker the Kurtz position is, I think, more complicated than can be covered by the passivism evoked by the accomodationist tag. Here is a very small bit of the advice he offered the Humanist Movement back in the 8Os:
“First it is vital that we offer strong negative criticism of false religions and ideologies. All the great religions have grown by attacking those about them. As secular humanists, we need to defend skepticism, nontheism, agnosticism, atheism, and we need to question false doctrines found in Judaism, Christianity,, Islam and Marxist ideology, as well as the newer cults of unreason. Moreover, we need to guard against the intrusion of religion into our secular institutions.
Second, we need to enunciate the positive thrust of humanism. That is why humanism is more than atheism, for humanism is committed to an alternative set of ethical values. We are not simply negative naysayers; we have a constructive, alternative perspective full of meaning and significance.
Third, we should not clothe our message solely in rational terms but must make it eloquent and dramatic, appealing to the whole person, including his emotions, and expressing both the tragic and numerous elements of the human condition. This means we are committed to the expansion of the creative dimensions of humanism.
From “The Future of the Humanist Movement”, Free Inquiry, Fall, 1983, reproduced In Defense of Secular Humanism. By Paul Kurtz(1983)
I take this argument to subsume some of the strategy of the New Atheists. Point one is supportive of that effort and Paul has said that New Atheists have had a positive impact. People are talking about the issues.. But point 2 adds an important aspect to a strategy. You need to be positive as well as negative and go farther into discussion of things like ethics and how we live. As Kurtz said in interview speaking of the New Atheist writings:
“But for the secular humanist, it is not so much the stridency of these books that is at issue, as it is what’s missing from these books. Are there any ethical values and principles that nonreligious individuals can live by?"
I would add that point 3 shows Kurtz’s a John Dewey-like psychological sophistication of human understanding of factors, as discussed in earlier blogs on associative thought, cognitive biases and the role of emotions in holding on to beliefs.
In my opinion Kurtz has lead a noble life. His many ideas  span a long period of time are deep and remain contemporary.  Many would profit from hearing considering them. 
To this end WASH’s MDC chapter has invited a panel of 4 people who know him well. The will be on hand Saturday, Sept 8th, 2 -4 p.m. at the Wheaton Regional Public Library, 11701 Georgia Ave to discuss this and his effects to build a constructive secular alternative to religion.
The Panel: Edd Doerr, Stuart Jordan, Margeret Downey and Nathan Bupp

Please come and invite your friends. The meeting if free and open to the public.

Image credits:
Margaret Downey and Nathan Bupp: Provided by them
Stuart Jordan:
Wordle graphic at the top was created by Gary Berg-Cross from the Kurtz quote used above and is publically available online.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Evelyn Trent, rare book by Innaiah Narisetti

Evelyn Trent, wife of  M.N. Roy, was a mystery in political circles for a long time. That

mystery was solved for the first time with the publication of this
book by Dr Innaiah Narisetti.
M.N.Roy the internationally known political philosopher  married in 1917
Evelyn Trent, a Stanford University graduate  in  political science..  From 1917 to  1925 she
  collaborated both with M.N.Roy in the physical and intellectual   development of the international
communist movement in the Soviet Union, Mexico, and Europe.
In this period she  was known as Santi Devi M.N.Roy wrote his Memoirs of his activities in this period, which were serialized in the Indian Radical Humanist
weekly,  and were later published as a book in Bombay. But surprisingly he did not
mention her name nor about his  life with her. Hence the
mystery remained and even close associates of M N Roy were not aware of
Evelyn Trent.
But things cannot be hidden for long. Muzafar
Ahmed recorded In the history of communist
party of India the role of Evelyn Trent as  the founder member of Indian
communist party in exile at Tashkent  in 1920.
Earlier In 191? Evelyn Trent travelled  with M N Roy to Mexico, they
founded  the communist party of Mexico the first toutside soviet union.  This brought Roy and Trent to the attention of  Lenin,  leader of the international communist
movement at the time.

On his invitation both Roys travelled to Soviet Union in 1919 and
there Evelyn taught in the international political school.
She published  articles under thename: Santi Devi. In addition
She   was managing  the international journals: Masses, and Imprecor published from (give city name) when Roy was busy travelling .

Dhan Gopal, poet from India and a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was at
Stanford University  from 1910   introduced Evelyn to M N Roy.
Evelyn the 8 th child of  Mr Lamartine, mining engineer, was

brilliant student.
Again for reasons not known to the public, M N Roy and Evelyn
separated in 1925 and she returned to USA where she settled and died

in 1970.
Several eminent scholars on political science interviewed Evelyn
through Robert C.North, the political science professor in Stanford
But she preferred to remain anonymous.
M N Roy was supposed to be a truthful person,  but did not tell truth about
his first wife. He married (give first name also) Allen later and lived in India.
Dr Innaiah Narisetti researched the contributions of  Evelyn Trent and
gathered several valuable information about her. The Institute of social
sciences at Amsterdam supplied him some of her papers. He also interviewed the

son of Evelyn Trent`s sister namely Mr Diven Merideth in Los Angeles
during 1990s.
This book on Evelyn with all the available documentation is the first of its kind in the world.
We are able  to make  this available as e-book for the first time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Religious Conservatives Lie, But Sometimes They Have A Point

                            Rod Drehrer. Image from the Frum Forum

By Hos
There have been a number of (rather amusing) reactions to the recent poll showing a decrease in religiosity and an uptake in atheism in the US. The BBC is offering two takes.

New Blog Network Started By John Loftus

John Loftus

By Hos
I have quoted John Loftus before. He is one of my favorite authors. I also like his collaborators, most notably Hector Avalos, a professor at the University of Iowa and an atheist. His book, the End of Biblical Studies, has been one of the most enlightening I have read on the subject.
Now, Loftus and others have started a new network of blogs, Skeptic Blogs, which looks very promising, as a source of information for secularism and skepticism. There is a lot of ground to be covered and information to be spread, and the more of us are around the better.

Voltaire on Injustices

by Don Wharton

My Episcopalian friend sent me this:

"Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices." – Voltaire

A Young Atheist on Humanism

This is a paragraph from Jen McCreight on her Blag Hag blog:

"Why keep atheism as the label, then? Well, for one, the atheist movement is the one I most associate with, and progressive atheists interested in social justice are already a growing group within the atheist movement. It seemed natural to focus my efforts there. But also, “atheist” is still seen as a dirty, confrontational word, while “humanism” is often a softer way to dodge the drama…since most people don’t really know what humanism means. Trust me, I used to use the label “secular humanist” a lot when I lived in Indiana and was too scared to out myself. No one had a clue what it meant and never wanted to appear stupid by asking me to explain. But now I want to keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized."

Jen was talking about why she wanted to create a new label Atheist+ in prior posts. It was obvious to me that secular humanist was a good label for what she wanted to do. I had documented the substantial decline in the use of humanism and secular humanism in our language with numerous WASHline articles. Note what she is saying here:

“since most people don’t really know what humanism means.”

“No one had a clue what it (humanism) meant and never wanted to appear stupid by asking me to explain.”

This is an authentic report of the views of a younger secular woman. It accurately reflects the consciousness of her generation. The implications for WASH are obvious.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Economist vs the Bishops

by Edd Doerr

The August 18, 2012, issue of the prestigious weekly journal The Economist  features a devastating 4-page article titled "The Catholic Church in America: Earthly Concerns" (p 19). (Please note that in this comment I am not criticizing ordinary Catholics, just the hierarchy.) The article is far to long to summarize -- you can Google to it -- but here are some of the high points:

The various sexual abuse scandals just in the US have cost the church over $3 billion. Some parts of the church have allegedly "engaged in ungainly financial contortions ... both to divert funds away from uses intended by donors and to frustrate creditors with legitimate claims, including its own nuns and priests." "The church is  also increasingly keen to defend its access to public healthcare subsidies while claiming a right not to provide medical services to which it objects, such as contraception; this increased reliance on taxpayers has not been matched by increased openness and accountability" [a point I have been hammering loudly for some time]. The church and its entities have been spending an estimated $170 billion per year, as much as perhaps half from public funds for hospitals, colleges, lower schools, and charities. The US church "may account for as much as 60% of the the global institution's wealth. In New York State the church may be spending up tp $1 million in lobbying to prevent the state from expanding the statute of limitations in clergy sexual abuse cases. Church donations are down, perhaps by 20%. NY's Cardinal Dolan, head of the US hierarchy and former bishop of Milwaukee, seems to have approved of multimillion dollar fund transfers there to shield cash form sexual abuse victims.

Whew! Go read the whole article.

Curiously, the same issue of The Economist ran an article (p 28) praising Indiana new school voucher plan that diverts public funds to Catholic and other sectarian private schools, but  fails to mention that the Republican-passed voucher scheme rather clearly violates at least two sections of the Indiana constitution.

On November 6, by the way, Florida voters will vote on a proposed change in the state constitution intended to allow tax support for assorted church-run private schools.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Murderous Dictator vs. Taliban-Style Sharia

                                       A mass murderer prays to God.
                             (Image distributed by Syria's state run media)

By Hos
Atrocities committed by the regime of Syria, with full blessing of Iran’s theocracy, are no secret to the outside world, which has done nothing to stop them. The mass murdering machine of the Assad dynasty is still taking lives at a breakneck pace.
But now there is a new, disturbing angle to this human tragedy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Questions of Balance and Reasonable Accommodation with Religious Cultural Symbols

By Gary Berg-Cross

Our neighbors to the north have an election coming up. In Quebec the word “secular” has been thrown into the political debate by the Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois.

The background to this is interesting and regional and immigrant issues. To be sure no part of Canada is entirely free from prejudice toward minorities. But in the providence of Quebec the issue is often a tad more politically charged, especially in elections, as what groups stand for comes into discussion. The province of Quebec’s culture (and religion) is different from the rest of Canada and has a linguistic minority status within the country. So leaders have to carefully discuss toleration since they ask for toleration from the bulk of the country.

But now there is a 3rd group to consider - the so called New Canadians, such as Muslims. Quebecers are now being asked to consider how they protect their historically distinct identity, while respecting the rights and identities of new minorities. Where is the balance?
It’s a bit of a challenge with PQ provincial candidate Pauline Marois taking a bit of a 2 track approach:
“Quebecers are open and proud to welcome people from all over the world. However, we insist on conserving our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”

Front and center are Muslims and how they exhibit their identity, but also Jews, other religious groups and perhaps down the road non-believers. But for now the issue has been public employees wearing religious symbols such as women wearing hijabs, or men wearing turbans or skull caps. There’s less “tradition” for all of that so what accommodation can be reached?

Under PQ’s newly proposed Quebec Charter of Secularism, the government would seek what they called a a balance between protecting the province’s historical values (think French and Catholicism) and allowing for “different culture to interact”. Pauline Marois said it this way in an interview:

“I think it is important for the government to be neutral. There are many people from different religions. That is respect for all these religions to say to these people when you will work for the government, you will be neutral.”

Neutral? To some this is an implicit message to the New Canadians that it is better to quietly adhere to the provincial culture and values. It is a the type of message that non-theists understand coming from a religious majority.

Under the proposed charter, civil servants would be barred from wearing any (well most) religious symbols. This of course includes the controversial hijab. I’m not sure how they would handle a flying spaghetti monster pin, but Marois says she wouldn’t object to people wearing less obvious symbols like a cross around their neck. The opposition has made much of an exception to the secular stance that would be made for the crucifix. This includes the one in the National Assembly. The PQ party considers the crucifix in the blue chamber of the National Assembly a symbol of Quebec’s heritage. This religious symbol above the Assembly speaker’s podium has already created a rift among PQ members. One assembly candidate, Djemila Benhabib, announced on Tuesday that for consistency she would fight to have the crucifix removed. Djemila is in the PQ, but is an immigrant from Algeria, and takes a real state-religion separation stance - show no preference for any religion.

The mayor of Saguenay in Quebec (not a PQ member) , Jean Tremblay, waded into the debate during a radio interview recently showing a bit of the underlying thinking and emotions.

“What’s outraging me this morning is to see us, the soft French Canadians, being dictated to about how to behave, how to respect our culture, by a person who’s come here from Algeria, and we can’t even pronounce her name,”

OK so the other side is not tolerant either.

It’s all this mix of religious cultural identity that is so hard to move. The proposed secular charter is certainly not a sure step forward. It is an uncomfortable and very partial accommodation which offers an opportunity of Quebecers to look at the issues. It has a lot of people talking and exchanging ideas online. It confronts the question of how, what seems (or seemed) a modern, free and open society, like Canadian handles diversity of thought and behavior. Where is the balance in toleration when you say people cannot wear outwardly religious symbols while working in the public system? It is hard to say, since there seem to be hidden motives here hiding under a secular-neutral label. It is easier to accept the part of the law that would also prohibit citizen’s from refusing to be served by a member of the opposite sex. That seems like more of an accommodation and progress.

The worry is that some parts of the legislation could firm up subtle division in province Quebec as it struggles to assimilate the new immigrant Canadians. Perhaps we will see how this plays out.

Image Credits:


National Assembly Crucifix:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Religious Decline , Liberal Churches, and their Evolution in Canada

By Gary Berg-Cross

Liberal churches and falling religiosity have been discussed on the blog recently. Here is some follow up on these topics using Canadian examples.

A while ago one could think that French Catholic Canada was a more religious place than the US. But in French Canada, and even across broader Canada, there seems to be a pronounced secular movement. Religiosity is in decline. In contemporary, decidedly secular Québec religion has been eroded by a secular nationalism. In Quebec city you can find an old church turned into a public library. Laval University formerly Catholic has become secular.  Another manifestation has been the national conversation promoted by  people like Gretta Vosper who founded  the
Canadian Centre for Pryogressive Christianity in 2004. Her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important that What We Believe, emphasized just and compassionate living, and a new and wholly humanistic approach to religion. It quickly became a Canadian national bestseller.
Part of the Canadian religious sceine is the swath of Protestant sects, such as Canada’s Anglicans, in decline.  From 1,343,000 parishioners in 1960 Anglicans declined to just under 642,000 by 2001.

Why so? Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why sees a gradual, painful emergence or evolution of  various religions. Her belief is that there is "recurrent pattern" in which every 500 years Christianity has shed  "the incrustations of an overly established" institution and reinvents itself. She sees a similar phenomenon in Islam and Judaism. What Tickle sees emerging in the future is several different types of Christianity which selectively emphasize different aspects of the Christian message.
In her view there are 4 evolving types making up quadrant. In the upper left, quadrant there would be “Liturgical Christians” (hung on established practices without a deep philosophy); while the upper right we have“Social Justice Christians” (more on these from liberal groups later). In the lower part are 2 fundamentalist groups “Renewalist Christians” (Pentecostal/charismatic/neo-charismaticsmay  who may be very activist  ) and  more “Conservative Christians.”

As Tickle puts it, “One locates oneself or one’s faith community on the map in terms of that which is more, or most, important in one’s Christian practice.”
It’s already possible to see a version of "Social Justice Christians”. It is common to speak of liberal churches in Canada which has located their faith this way. One of these is the United Church of Canada, a pillar of Canadian society, UC is the largest Protestant group and seems to be moving in the direction of “Social Justice Christians” away from the other 3 types. In 1965, but in decline, United Church membership hit its peak at 1,064,033. It then began a decline that has continued for 45 years till today. In 2008, membership was almost half of 45 years ago at 525,673. More recently a candid document from the office of the church’s general secretary itemized some problems generated in part from a shifting (the average age of its members is 65 ) and more secular population:
“They include declining membership, aging congregations and ministers, eroding finances, and a model of ministry and mission that has failed to engage the spiritual yearnings of many young people. Many Canadians find community in workplaces, book clubs, sports teams and Facebook, but church simply is not on their radar.” 
The church reaction has been a bit of following its members many of whom are interested in social justice. Members and congregations have diverse beliefs, which does not necessarily include God. Some congregations describe themselves as “post-theistic,” and as one church elder said, it shows the church is not “stuck in the past.” One disaffected branch of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver has voted to join a Humanist association in reaction to ongoing disputes within its national executive around social issues. At least three churches in Canada have ratified a merger with Humanism this year, and at least some say that more may follow. One reason offered is that so called liberal churches are converging with humanism. Designated Pastor John Meagher of Ottawa’s Humanist Church described it this way:
“Christian and Humanist ethics are almost identical, and we are learning from each other that liberal Christianity and an inclusive Humanism have much to share and to teach each other.”
And at least in the UC social justice issues are driving agendas outside of the usual religious sphere in Canadian society. It shows us what various evolving religious groups may be like as they collaboratively take on social issues.
Members of the United Church of Canada’s general council with more than 350 delegates from across Canada, recently to affirm a motion supporting a boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. United Church’s Moderator, Mardi Tindal, in response to the Canadian senator’s criticism of the new activism, smacking of politics said: “We are very political, as was Jesus—that’s why he was crucified.” She she added that political does not mean partisan.
In a press release, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) commended the Church and applauded their affirmation of the boycott resolution.
The press release adds:
“By adopting this historic resolution, the United Church of Canada joins a growing movement of churches, trade unions, and other organizations in Canada and around the world that are boycotting Israel’s illegal,” says IJV spokesperson Sid Shniad. “It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel. Given the state’s ongoing illegal activities it is a moral imperative. We are very encouraged that the United Church has recognized the difference and we look forward to working with the church to move this important human rights work forward.”

Image Credits:

United Church of Canada Dove:

"The Milky Way"

by Edd Doerr

According to Spanish legend, James the Apostle (Santiago, Sant Iago, San Diego) journeyed to NW Spain, where he died and was buried. (Santiago is to Spain what St George is to England.) Since the 9th century pilgrims from all over Europe have been walking from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain/s far NW corner. The path was called "The Milky Way" ("Via Lactea"). Spanish film maker Luis Bunuel made a very funny French flick by that name about an assortment of such pilgrim; in it Jesus is arguing with his mom about whether to shave his beard.

Spanish writer Ramon Sender (1902-1982) touched on it in his 1981 comic novel "Chambrio en la plaza de las cortes". He has a statue of Cervantes (1547-1616, "Don Quixote") tell the following. Many priests who heard pilgrims' confessions in churches along the road to Compostela would sell the confessed sins/secrets to con men and crooks who would later pretend to be fortunetellers and con the same pilgrims out of money.

Hmmm, sounds like some of the tricks that Paul Kurtz and James Randi showed being used by faith-healers in our times.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

David Niose on the Political Impact of the Religious Right

by Don Wharton

David Niose is the author of a recently published book NonBeliever Nation, The Rise of Secular Americans. His Introduction has a dramatic illustration with a review of the language used by the four candidates in the Presidential election of 100 years ago in 1912. Each of them were comfortable making statements that would have deeply offended the religious right of today. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The great Darwin” and “Thank Heaven that I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley. Woodrow Wilson said, “Of course, like everyman of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions could be raised.” William Howard Taft said in a 1899 letter, “I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and there are many other tenets of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.” Eugene Debs was highly critical of organized religion. He said, “I do not know of any crime that the oppressors or their hirelings have not proven with the Bible.”

The rise of the religious right can also be illustrated by the frank and clear statements by John Kennedy in 1960 when he said among other things, “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute.” He elaborated on that in detail and had the courage to oppose sending an ambassador to the Vatican. Very few national level politicians would now have the courage to say what Kennedy said or oppose diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

The religious right is highly supportive of the military even when the Bible is very explicit that Jesus was an advocate of pacifism. By far the majority of the religious right think that the US was attacked on 9/11 by Iraq. Only 38% of secular people believe that. The religious right so dominates the military that there are repeated violations of religious liberty for many who are not Evangelical Christians.

We all know that GLBT rights are opposed by the religious right. The Mormon effort in California was very large, visible and certainly made the difference in defeating Proposition 8 in California. They largely support an anti-science perspective on global warming, the teaching of evolution, condom use to prevent AIDS or to deal with over population.

There are religious right groups that are currently advocating for prosecution under existing blasphemy laws which have never been removed from state laws. Niose also points out that the religious right currently has a majority on the Supreme Court and there is reason to believe that the 14th Amendment might not have the legal power to really enforce the non-establishment clause of the first amendment. After all it says, “Congress shall make no law...”. Clarence Thomas has explicitly said that, in his origionalist view, states do not have to respect the establishment clause.

Mitt Romney is very much in bed with the religious right. He said, “There is no freedom without religion.” Frankly the only thing preserving our freedoms are the secular sanctions that are placed on those who violate our rights.

This is hardly a complete list of the issues of political importance in David Niose's book. However, it does give a sample that can be worthy of thought and discussion.

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

Percentage Who Would Vote for Presidential Candidate, Gallup Polls, 1937-2012

By Hos
The importance of us, atheists and secularists, identifying ourselves as such and having visibility cannot be overemphasized. The goals of having public policies based on evidence as opposed to political and religious ideologies are never going to be met if politicians continue to ignore us, as they always have. This has always been attributed to our low numbers in the polls. But finally, there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
A new poll called "The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism" featured in the Washington Post gives us some interesting perspectives on how things have unfolded and where we are headed. (All the while remembering some of the data like the percentage of atheists in Saudi Arabia are implausible and need to be taken with a grain of salt.)

A Tidbit from Spain

by Edd   Doerr

Ramon Sender (1902-1982) was one of Spain's finest novelists. Here us a snip from his 1981 short novel "Chambrio en la plaza de las cortes" ("Scandalous Confusion in Parliament Plaza").

"Spanish history is full of martyred men of letters. One was Miguel Servet [Michael Servetus], specialist in science and philosophy, discoverer of the circulation of blood, philosopher read and admired in Italy, France, Holland, Switzerland. He did not believe in the Trinity because, really, the only reference to it in the Old or New Testaments is as  a pagan doctrine in Egypt and remote India, with their triplicate deities: Orus, Isis and Osiris, or Brahma, Siva and Vishnu. The first to hear of it in Rome was Constantine, who was never a Christian but protected the nacent church for political reasons. Servet was persecuted by both Catholics and Lutherans, and when the heroes of the Battle of Pavia had been forgotten in their graves Servet went to Geneva to talk with Calvin, who had him jailed, tortiured and burned at the stake."

Servetus is regarded today as a forerunner of Unitarianism in addition to his scientific achievements. When I was in Geneva some years ago I wandered along the Rue Calvin and found the church in which Servetus was apprehended by Calvin. If memory serves, Servetus' statue is not among the other leaders honored in Geneva's Reformation Plaza.

Nellie Gray -- RIP (?)

by Edd Doerr

The Washington Post on Aug 15 ran an obituary for Nellie Gray, the dare of whose death was not mentioned. Gray was the main organizer of the annual Jan 22 "March for Life" at the Supreme Court to protest Roe v Wade. Following is the comment I posted in the Post on line ---

"As someone who debated Nellie Gray more than once, I must say that I admired her tenacity.  However,  I must add that it is sad and tragic that this woman spent decades working to deny women freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, that she expended so much effort to have government impose on all women a malicious medieval misogynist morality akin to slavery. The suffering she caused countless women is beyond calculation. Nellie Gray betrayed all women and undermined the basic freedom of religion of all Americans. Pathetic.

"Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty,"

I well remember my last debate with her several years ago before an audience of Jewish high school students. She stupidly threw at the students the Catholic bishops outdated arguments against reproductive choice. I won the debate  hands down, as I usually do.

Incidentally, ARL has just joined an amicus curiae brief to the 9th Circuit of Appeals in a defense of the Washington  State law requiring all pharmacies to provide emergency contraception medications. Other religious groups joining Planned Parenthood and ARL in the brief include Catholics for Choice, an admirable Washington-based organization of pro-choice Catholics.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Catholic Church and Gay Marriage in France

Why do virgin men in funny robes like to preach to the rest of us about sex?

By Hos
France is a country where secularism is a national value. Unlike in the US, the separation of Church (which in France would be the Catholic Church) and the State is not in dispute. Or it wasn’t until recently.