Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Recommended Reads

by Edd Doerr

Looking for some good reads? Then let me recommend the novels of Arturo Perez-Reverte, the Spanish novelist, journalist, columnist and former war correspondent (born 1951 in Cartagena, Spain). His two dozen novels are nearly all readily available in English. I have read over half of them in Spanish, but they translate well into English.

His seven Captain Alatriste novels are about a Spanish soldier during the period of Dumas' Three Musqueteers. Especially good is Purity of Blood, about the Inquisition and Spanish anti-Semitism.

He has written several about the Napoleonic wars, including a rather comic one, The Shadow of the Eagle, about Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. His Cape Trafalgar deals with the battle that made Nelson famous. The Fencing Master and The Nautical Chart are mysteries, the first in 1868 Madrid and the second, as good as anything by Melville, Stevenson, or Conrad, is a contemporary story that makes The Maltese Falcon look simple.

On the whole, I'd say that Perez-Reverte compares favorably with Hemingway.

His books of collected columns are terrific but available, unfortunately, only in Spanish.

I met the author in Washington several years ago and was impressed.

Separation Strategies

by Edd Doerr

Of late there has been some blogging about strategies and priorities in defending separation of church and state. Following is a back story on this that has never before appeared in print.

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled, in Lemon v Kurtzman, against Pennsylvania and Rhode Island laws diverting public funds to religious private schools. This was the Court's first ruling on this important matter and was followed by  three decades of similar rulings. Why was this the first such case? For the simple reason that from 1924 until 1968 taxpayers did not have "standing" in federal courts to challenge government spending believed to violate the First Amendment church-state separation principle.  But in 1968, in Flast v Cohen, a case argued in part by Sen Sam Ervin (D-TN), the Court granted standing. Unfortunately, the Court at the same time also upheld a NY law that allowed the state to pay for textbooks for use in parochial schools.

Let's back up to 1969 or 1970 (I do not keep a diary, so dates are approximate). I was the Sunday morning speaker on church-state separation and religious freedom at a Unitarian church in Cleveland. After the service a guy identified himself as a member of the Ohio state board education and told me that a lawsuit by Americans United in state court challenging some state aid to church schools was so badly handled that it was such a sure loser and the separationists on the state board were worried. When I returned to Washington, where I had been on the Americans United staff since 1966 (I edited their Church & State magazine from 1970 to 1982), I reported the matter to AU executive director Glenn Archer, who was not worried. However, Gaston Cogdell on the AU staff (he was the guy who had recruited me for the AU staff) was plenty worried. At his own expense he flew to Ohio (where he had served as a minister) and tried to persuade the plaintiff in the case to drop it. Archer fired Cogdell forfhis and said he would fire me if I did  not quit defending Cogdell. Later the suit was just allowed to die.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania had passed a law to divert a tiny percentage of the cigarette tax to the support of parochial schools and Rhode Island had passed similar legislation. AU's Archer sent staff attorney Franklin Salisbury to Harrisburg to find a local attorney to  challenge the state law. The very day that Salisbury (a lousy attorney in my opinion) was in Harrisburg the ACLU and other groups were meeting in Philadelphia to plan a major coalition lawsuit. So Archer sent me to Philly for that meeting. On my return to Washington I urged Archer not to file a separate suit but to join the coalition suit in Philly. The attorney retained pro bono (as I recall) by the coalition was the distinguished Henry Sawyer, the attorney who had won the Schempp case on school prayer in the Supreme Court in 1962. Archer agreed with me and the rest is history.

Lemon (and the famous "Lemon test" held for three decades, until the by then conservative Supreme Court issued the disastrous ruling in 2002 upholding the Ohio school voucher plan.

The moral of all this is that, with a conservative Supreme Court, legal actions defending separation need to be carefully planned. Priorities need to be decided on. Reckless kamikaze lawsuits, like Newdow's sure loser challenge to "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance could have serious irreversible negative consequences for the whole country.

I invite comments.

(Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty [arlinc.org] and has been a full-time church-state separation activist for nearly 50 years.)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Cultural May Evening in DC

by Gary Berg-Cross

DC offers some interesting cultural (and free)opportunities.  One of them I heard about recently is SEAD - The network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design. SEAD broad goal is to facilitate research, dialogue, and communication within and among those working in the SEAD disciplines. .
It's one of those active communities that working towards:

"healthy development of neighborhoods, cities and regions and our competitive edge in economic, educational, and social wellbeing relies upon new ways of thinking as well as transformative efforts that integrate disciplines and domains. "

There ideas on "transdisciplinary, collaborative work that combines aspects of arts, humanities, sciences, and engineering for fostering innovation to improve health, education, productivity and community sustainability" sounds interesting and I'll be glad to learn more about all of this at the Thursday May  16, 2013 meeting at the D.C. Art Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER)  (doors open at 5:30)

 It's at the Keck Center, 500 Fifth St., N.W., Room 100.

DASER co-sponsored by Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) and Leonardo, the International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology is itself an interesting cultural institution. 

DASER fosters community and discussion around the intersection of art and science. providing:

" a snapshot of the cultural environment and foster interdisciplinary networking. "
Here is some additional info on what promises to be a great DASER session with really interesting speakers:

5:30 to 6:00 p.m.       Check in

6:00 to 6:10 p.m.       Welcoming remarks and community sharing.
Anyone in the audience currently working within the intersections of art and science will have 30 seconds (or so)  to share their work. These are usually presented as teasers so that those who are interested can seek you out during social & networking time following the  event.

6:10 to 7:10 p.m.       Panelists' presentations (15 minutes or so each)  For May the schedule is like this:
 Roger Malina, Distinguished Professor of Art and Technology,
 and Professor of Physics, University of Texas, Dallas and
 Executive Editor, Leonardo Publications, MIT Press

Gunalan Nadarajan  Dean, School of Art and Design, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor                         

Bill O'Brien Senior Advisor for Program Innovation
National Endowment for the Arts,    Washington, D.C.

Carol Strohecker, Director, Center for Design Innovation,
University of North Carolina system, Winston-Salem

After Discussion  around 8 or so there is a 8:10 to 9:00 p.m.       Reception

You can register for this DASER event at http://may16daser.eventbrite.com/#

 Visit CPNAS's website for more information: http://www.cpnas.org/events/051613.html

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day

by Gary Berg-Cross

Along with natures' freebie of the 17 year brood II cicadas we have Earth Day to celebrate this spring in DC. It's one of my favorite things to celebrate and  I wrote this to enjoy and remember it with my grandchildren.

You and I are part of the earth, connected & united with all its life, and everything else that is on this planet and home we call EARTH.

It deservers our love, respect and care.

Today especially, but every day you, me and everyone else should wake up with the idea that we will  be a good steward for the planet. 

Wake up with the idea that you (and I) will do something special to make our home earth a better, stronger and safer place for all life.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Memorial service in Boston excludes secular humanists

By Mathew Goldstein

The memorial service for the victims of the Boston marathon bombings began on April 18 at 11:00 AM ET in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and clergy representing different religious denominations across the city took to the podium. President Barack Obama offered the final reflection of the service and Cardinal Sean O'Malley concluded with a closing blessing. The memorial was broadcast nationally on television, the radio, and the Internet. The published "interfaith" program features the seal of the state of Massachusetts. The state sponsored service was mostly conducted by and for theists, with most speakers making obligatory references to their God. A notable exception was Governor Deval Patrick, whose speech was inclusive. It could have been more inclusive.

Celeste Corcoran of Lowell, Massachusetts, who lost both her legs at the knees in one of the bomb blasts and her 18 year-old daughter, Sydney, who suffered severe injuries as a result of being hit by shrapnel, were part of the humanist community in the greater Boston area. According to Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, both the White House and the staff of the Governor's office who were organizing the event were contacted in advance repeatedly with requests to include the non-theist community in the memorial service. "All they had to do was say one word, or allow one official guest, and they didn't", said Epstein, "...we [the Secular Coalition for America] contacted them [the governor's staff] every hour on the hour".

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching Evolution and Climate Change

by Gary Berg-Cross

It is good to note, as the New York Times did, that educators unveiled new guidelines (called the Next Generation Science Standards) recently and called for:

" sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States  including, for the first time, a recommendation that climate change be taught as early as middle school. "

This notable with 26 states and several national scientific organizations (including National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science) cooperating, even if as has been noted the climate change recommendation is a bit buried in the report:

"Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming),”

And  as the New York Times story points out, some conservative and religious groups are challenging that inclusion, along with the teaching of evolution, which they will also be required to learn about. Lack of adequate coverage is a problem in the US curriculum. As noted by Mother Nature News in the link above "A perceived conflict between science and religion has led Americans to rank nearly last among industrialized countries in understanding evolution, educators told a major science conference this weekend."

The new guidelines comes also in response to the growing controversy over public education driven by  the influence of religious conservatives sitting on State and local Ed boards in part. Empirical evidence make evolution is a validated & predictive scientific theory for the web of life we see. It is foundational for understanding biological science, yet some conservatives insist that it is just a hypothesis and other hypotheses like intelligent design also be taught in public schools ( perhaps with other theistic ideas about creation). 

We'll see what the backlash and blockage to the new science standard will be. I can imagine it will be a bit like the reactionary efforts in some swing states as I noted in my blog on the state's as bizarre engines of reactionary policies.
A group called Citizens for Objective Public Education stated that the new curriculum would “take away the right of parents to direct the religious education of their children.” Its that rights vs. what Science-tells-us-is-true-and-I-don't-want-to-hear head-in-the-sand argument.

It's already getting noted in some states like (What's the matter with?) Kansas which in 1999 made the national news when the state board adopted a science standard that deleted references to evolution from the state guidelines.  Sort of a State's rights thing that descended to the individual school district level where  the decision to teach evolution would be made.  Makes you wonder is districts will now succeed from States to protect their religious "rights". Since 99, the Kansas state board has revised the standards at least three times based on the swing in liberal vs. conservative balance of power among the 10-member State board.

As  Robert A Heinlein said:

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creeds into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Herman Philipse's critique of religious reason

By Mathew Goldstein

In his book God in the Age of Science? A critique of religious reason, Herman Philipse tackles a question at the core of philosophy of religion: Are there good reasons for thinking that some specific subset of religious beliefs makes sense and is true? In particular, is the defense of bare theism by philosopher Richard Swinburne, which relies on Bayesian estimates of probabilities, successful? This book is too academic, and too expensive, to become a best seller, but the overall argument is easy to follow and understand.

Philipse reaches three conclusions that support atheism. First, traditional notions of gods are self-contradictory and dependent on analogy and metaphor, therefore it is an ill-defined concept. Second, theism lacks predictive power concerning existing evidence, undermining the integrity of Bayesian arguments deployed in its defense. Furthermore, the truth of theism is improbable given the scientific background knowledge concerning the dependence of mental life on brain processes. Third, the empirical arguments against theism outweigh the arguments that support, so insofar as Bayesian cumulative case strategy does work we should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism.

Philipse categorizes arguments for theism according to which of three possible pairs of opposing strategic decisions are utilized. We start with deciding whether theism is a cognitive, and thus a factual, claim. If it is non-cognitive, an approach favored by people such as Wittgenstein, then it isn't asserting anything of substance that merits being taken seriously, so that is a self-defeating strategy for defending theism.

Having selected the cognitive option, we next need to decide whether or not reasons and evidences are needed to justify theism. Alvin Plantinga is cited as an example of someone who defends the notion that no further reasons are needed for (his particular) religious beliefs to be warranted. However, theism, like all other existence beliefs, is reasonable or warranted only when there are good positive reasons to justify the conclusion that the belief is true.

Having concluded that we need good positive reasons to justify theism, our final decision is selecting the methods that provide us with good positive reasons. Either we employ the same methods that we generally rely on when investigating a factual hypothesis of existence, or we don't. If we opt to employ different methods then a public and persuasive validation is lacking, resulting in a credibility problem for theism. The outcome for theism is just as bad when we turn to the reliable methods of skeptical empiricism which refute and disconfirm theism. Page 343 summarizes the conclusion in one sentence: "Either religious believers have not succeeded in providing a meaningful characterization of their god(s), or the existence of this god or these gods is improbable given our scientific and scholarly background knowledge."

WASH MDC talk by Dr. Robert Cahalan (NASA) "Appalachian Impacts of Global Warming: Reasons For Hope"

by Gary Berg-Cross

For Earth Day weekend Dr. Robert Cahalan (NASA) will present a free talk on "Appalachian Impacts of Global Warming: Reasons For Hope."

The talk will be held from 2-4 pm at the Chevy Chase Library in Bethesda, Maryland (basement level).

Here is Dr. Calahan's Abstract:

Global disruptions of Earth's climate and biosphere are leading to
loss of biodiversity and ecosystem collapses, depletion of fish and
forests, loss of fresh water, ocean acidification and species extinctions.

What can be done to address these challenges?
Can individuals actually make a difference?
Is there a legitimate reason for hope?

Brief Bio
Dr. Robert Cahalan is Director of Sun-Climate Research at
 NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland.
 He recently retired as Chief of Goddard’s Climate and Radiation
 Laboratory, and President of the International Radiation Commission.

He has been doing science research for more than 40 years,
is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and a recipient of
numerous awards for scientific research including the United States
Outstanding Leadership and Service Medal.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Saint Frances (Perkins)

By Gary Berg-Cross


Frances Perkins, featured in an earlier blog (2 Progressive Women), is in the news again this spring.  Part of the reason is that her birthday is April 10. Another is that she just won the single-elimination online tourney of Episcopal saint of the year. She beat out St. Luke the Evangelist. But more importantly cut backs to her creation, Social Security, are in the news.

Perkins was a champion of labor & the working poor and the first woman to serve in the cabinet. Besides the Social Security Act she played a large role in the other parts of the safety net- minimum wage, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, occupational safety protections. This was featured recently on MSNBC’s Last Word as “The most important liberal you’ve never heard of.”

As noted by Lawrence O'Donnell she remains unknown to many Americans, partly due to being in FDR's shadow. Yet her words defending and explaining the Social Security Act are worth noting as we hear of plans to cut SS back. And perhaps there is enough of her balanced vision remaining to do the right thing even in tough times.


While it is not anticipated as a complete remedy for the abnormal conditions confronting us at the present time, it is designed to afford protection for the individual against future major economic vicissitudes. It is a sound and reasonable plan and framed with due regard for the present state of economic recovery. It does not represent a complete solution of the problems of economic security, but it does represent a substantial, necessary beginning. It has been developed after careful and intelligent consideration of all the facts and all of the programs that have been suggested or applied anywhere…… This is truly legislation in the interest of the national welfare. We must recognize that if we are to maintain a healthy economy and thriving production, we need to maintain the standard of living of the lower income groups of our population who constitute ninety per cent of our purchasing power. The President's Committee on Economic Security, of which I had the honor to be chairman, in drawing up the plan, was convinced that its enactment into law would not only carry us a long way toward the goal of economic security for the individual, but also a long way toward the promotion and stabilization of mass purchasing power without which the present economic system cannot endure....

Speech on the Social Security Act (September 2, 1935). From Frances Perkins, Vital Speeches of the Day (Pelham, NY: City News Publishing Co., 1935), 1: 792-94.



From sites linked to in the blog.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Herman Philipse on conflict between science and religion

By Mathew Goldstein

The Center for Inquiry of Low Countries held a conference on secularism in May 2008 in the Netherlands. One of the speakers was Herman Philipse. Herman Philipse is a professor of philosophy at Utrecht University. In this video we can see him briefly arguing for the thesis that religion as a source of knowledge is a failure and therefore we should all be atheists. Is there a warfare between science and religion?

Dan Dennett's Latest Cognitive Toolbox

by Gary Berg-Cross

Daniel Dennett's new book "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking", should be out in a few weeks but it already has some reviews. The book is about methods can we use to answer life's most fundamental questions. You can actually preview some of the chapters which stat by dealing with
General Thinking Tools - like Occam's razor, but also Occam's Broom. This is followed by discussing Tools for Meaning, tools for thinking about evolution, consciousness and the like.  These include "imagination extenders and focus-holders" that Dennett and others have developed for dealing with difficult topics that some of us like to read about and discuss: evolution, meaning, mind, and free will. In other words topics that cross and integrate great philosophical, psychological and biological ground.

As always Dennett offers insight and ideas that are debatable. A big topic here is a continuation of Dawkins' discussion of memes and how they obey some abstracted tenets of Darwinian Evolutions.

His starting argument asking if words are things, symbolic but thingy.  This going to provoke some commentary.

 If you grant that words are" things" then we offer the possibility of consider memes some kinds of "things" also perhaps in a realm between physical things and symbolic thing. Well how about calling it a conceptual thing?


Intuition: http://philosophicalchasm.blogspot.com/2010/07/intuitions-and-ethics.html

Intuition Pumps: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/intuition-pumps-and-other-tools-for-thinking-daniel-c-dennett/1113141240

Dennett: http://www.homodiscens.com/home/areas/why_philosophy/index.htm

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A C Grayling Makes a Case for Humanism

by Gary Berg-Cross

 Philosopher extraordinaire A.C. Grayling, first Master of London’s New College of the Humanities, is on tour discussing ideas from his most recent book -The  God Argument; the Case Against Religion and For Humanism. He was recently in DC as part of a CFI event and Chris Mooney's Point of Inquiry conversation.

Grayling is very much the thoughtful man and this new book attempts a calm approach that “thoroughly and calmly to examine all the arguments offered in support of religious beliefs.” Although he borrows life examples from other New Atheists, Grayling is very much less combative in tone. But still confronting arguments (e.g.  ontological, cosmological-design arguments, Pascal's wager etc,) for the necessary existence of God and the value of religion as an institution.

 From these it is a short transition to the 2nd part of the book which is the argument for ethical Humanism as a way of living a good life given the belief that there are no supernatural beings. Without religious doctrine this ethics must therefore be drawn from human experience, a history of which he draws from classic Greco-Roman thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius.  These are well represented in his previous work The Good Book.

You can see a bit of Grayling's tone and generosity of spirit in a brief video introduction to this book at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYx_rayG4ec

 For a very good summary of Grayling lecturing at length on the book see:


God Argument: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/03/reviewed-the-god-argument-by-a-c-grayling.html

Sunday, April 07, 2013

John Sexton's Religious View of Baseball

By Gary Berg-Cross

John Sexton is making the rounds on talk shows promoting his book Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game. Sexton, a former debate champion expresses himself well and apparently won an impromptu installment of The Bachelor when he guest starred on The Colbert Report to discuss his book. The book is based on a class he teaches which attempts to reveal what he calls “the basic building blocks of a spiritual or religious life.” Wrapping up ideas like miracles and mythic  belief in an extended baseball model is perhaps yet another way argue for the centrality of  religion.

Efforts to connect religious feeling to
the “secular” game of baseball is not new. Thomas Boswell ("How Time Imitates the World Series"), W.P. Kinsella ("Shoeless Joe"), Robert Coover ("The Universal Baseball Association") along
with several others going back to the classic period have rifted on how sport brings people together. Sexton attributes this to what he calls the “ineffable” qualities of baseball shares – faith and doubt , experience of the contemplative/meditative, faith (will the Nationals win it all?), an out of the normal experience of time, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, etc.. Sexton makes much of a focus on small “signs” that take on special meaning:

 it’s a way to notice, to cause us to live more slowly and to watch more keenly and thereby to discover the specialness of our life and our being, and, for some of us, something more than our being.”

Sexton gives credit for the core idea to religion historian Mircea Eliade whose
The Sacred and the Profane,” has been central to the & book. Eliade’s essential concept leveraged by Sexton is what he called “hierophany” or the manifestation of the sacred in the world. Certainly places like Stonehenge or St. Peter’s Basilica fit this labeling. Sexton just appropriates it for baseball while denying that is the stadium aspect of B-ball that he is thinking about rather than contemplating, faith, conversion and the like.

Sure these things are experienced in the phenomena in baseball and religion, but also politics, philosophy, etc. Doesn’t philosophy look for the deeper meanings to life? Secular humanist philosophers, like Paul Kurtz certainly provide views into these concepts. If we allow broad interpretations of concepts like “wishing things to come out well – aka “blessings.”  Taking advantage of a contemplative and philosophical moment or two these things seem a bit forced into religion and a path to God as opposed to a path to a place you chose to label as you will.

OK what to make of this?  In part it’s the labeling of complex human experience and shoehorning it into pre-set cultural categories such as “sacred.”  What does sacred mean to a person like Eliade?  His description ‘the intentional object of human experience that is apprehended as the real’ doesn’t really help me at all.

This is less a committed search for understanding than an opportunity to gracefully stamp things with a religious interpretation.

Sexton disarms criticism by saying we can dismiss “superficial similarities” between baseball and religion such as " a ballpark is a church and a ball game is a mass; there are three strikes to an out and three outs to an inning, another set of holy trinities." Of course.  But to then argue for deeper similarity & that baseball really is a road to God needs scrutiny too.

Actually Stephan Colbert did just a bit of this in his interview:

Colbert: “Jesus said that ‘no one gets to the Father but through me,’ are you saying that Jesus is baseball?”

Sexton: “Baseball is a road to God, just as our religion is a road to God, just as Buddhism is a road to God… The important thing is we must all get used to finding God in this world… God, like baseball, is timeless.”

Colbert: “Baseball feels timeless…”

Yes, one may label these as you wish. Sexton got a bit mystical too without mentioning metaphysics.

“There is the known… There’s the knowable… Then there’s the unknowable. We appreciate that which cannot be put into words, like love, which we know through experience. [Yet] we tend to confuse the unknowable from that which we simply do not know yet.”

“What I don’t know is what you just said,” Colbert says to audience—and our—amusement, “but I’m sure there are people out there who go to NYU who do know what you said.” (Anyone?)

Oh.  One more thing about the NYU connection.
In March the faculty of New York University’s largest college this week approved a non-binding     vote of “no confidence” for John Sexton, handing him as the NYTs said,

an embarrassing setback at a time when he is aggressively selling the university’s expansion plans at home and abroad…..Since taking office in 2001, Dr. Sexton has greatly raised the university’s profile, attracting a vast array of celebrated thinkers, raising more than $3 billion, winning approval for a huge expansion in Greenwich Village and assembling a Global Network University of campuses and study centers around the world.

But during the same period tuition rose and faculty salaries stagnated. His opponents said his emphasis on growth, along with the salaries and perks for a few top employees, were more appropriate to a corporation than a nonprofit institution."


Sexton in Class : from NYT cited article