Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Celebrating Nelson Mandela

By Gary Berg-Cross

When I was growing up Martin Luther King was a clear, heroic voice speaking truth to established power.  He seemed a moral giant then and continues to inspire and motivate us.

Today Nelson Mandela, former president and anti-apartheid leader, has that robe of moral hero with a life painted with patient strength, topped with a crowning wisdom and a generosity of spirit.  He never served on the military battlefield, and is humble in words, but his is a life of bravery and dedication.

“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” – Nelson Mandela

He mastered, what must have been great, imprisoned emotional pain with a willingness to smile. Other so called fathers of a nation, our George Washington or Italy's Giuseppe Garibaldi, birthed a nation on a battlefield. But Mandela did it with smiles and understanding. It's a long range strategy of an imprisonment. Knowledge came in time, but it served a lingering wisdom that was self learned.

He could see the big picture and make sacrifices for the cause of others. His largeness of spirit and self mastery is not deniable even by his enemies.  As John Carlin author of  Playing the Enemy , noted he showed his supposed enemies “ordinary respect” – and it won them over. He overcame them by changing them. It's not something military. It is social.

Ever since Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa after winning his country’s first democratic elections in April 1994, the national anthem has consisted of two songs spliced—not particularly mellifluously—together. One is “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa,” sung at black protest rallies during the forty-six years between the rise and fall of apartheid. The other is “Die Stem,” (“The Call”), the old white anthem, a celebration of the European settlers’ conquest of Africa’s southern tip. It was Mandela’s idea to juxtapose the two, his purpose being to forge from the rival tunes’ discordant notes a powerfully symbolic message of national harmony.

All of this allowed what has been called a double miracle. He didn't just bring a political settlement that parceled out things for different races. He also started on a settlement path in ordinary South African everyday life.

Recently millions around the world celebrated his 95th birthday and his homeland South Africans there were songs and hundreds gathered outside his hospital bearing  cards, balloons and flowers. Others  participated in special charitable events. They celebrate by volunteering 67 minutes of good deeds in recognition of Mandela’s 67 years in public service. (One only wishes that MLK had had that time.)

And its no longer just for South African now the event that has been internationally designated “Nelson Mandela Day”. A good chance to celebrate some of his values such as promoting a fair, just and equitable world.

Here's to a great Humanitarian voice.

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela 

Nelson Mandela after his release from twenty-seven years in prison, Soweto, South Africa, Feb. 17, 1990. Photograph by Louise Gubb

Smiling image below by Luis Grañena

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ambrose Bierce

by Edd Doerr

There is naught so fierce
As the wit of Ambrose Bierce
As folly he'd pierce.                 (ED, 2013)

Ambrose Bierce vanished in Mexico exactly 100 years ago, presumably killed during the Revolution. We will never know. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' novel The Old Gringo (Gringo Viejo) speculates as to what might have happened. The novel was made into a great film of that name starring Gregory Peck, as Bierce, and Jane Fonda, who sparked the film.

Bierce was born in Ohio and grew up in Indiana, two states in which Republican legislators have defecated on their state constitutions and started tsunamis of public funds to religious private schools through vouchers as a way of undermining religiously neutral public schools. Too bad Bierce has not been around to properly lambast  these subversives.

Bierce was the only major American writer to serve in combat throughout the Civil War, in which he was seriously wounded. His writings about war would turn anyone pacifist. For the rest of his life he was a major journalist and writer, outshone, but just barely, only by Mark Twain. Like Twain he was a humanist. He was married in a Unitarian church in California, though it is not known if he ever attended services.

Bierce's voluminous writings are readily available. The best recent collection of some of his best work is the 2011  800-page Library of America book, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales and Memoirs, edited by S.T. Joshi, the current editor of The American Rationalist (a post I held for a while 50 years ago).  The 220-page Devil's Dictionary, included in the volume in toto, is a classic that belongs in everyone's library.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Guardian's atheist defender of ignorance and superstition

By Mathew Goldstein

Andrew Brown of the Guardian newspaper denies that it makes any difference whether most people's beliefs about how our universe works, which he labels "our stories", are true or false.  In his recent article "Virginia Heffernan's creationism is wrong but makes good sense", he also argues that it makes "good sense" for people to give justifications for their factual beliefs that provide zero probability of establishing that their factual beliefs are true.  He argues that only some small minority of people who specialize in building useful things need to have some narrowly focused skills required for them to be productive.  Therefore, he argues, only those people need to be epistemologically and ontologically competent within only the confines of their expertise.  But is work time specialization really the only place and time epistemological and ontological competence is needed?  

If we imagine two different countries, one where all citizens are epistemologically and ontologically competent and one where, outside of their narrow areas of work time specialization, all people are epistemologically and ontologically incompetent, which country would you rather live in?  Which country would you prefer shared a border with your country?  After all, our conclusions about how are universe works, and how we go about reaching these conclusions, influences many of the other decisions we make, including the laws we favor, our lifestyles, what and who we accept or reject morally, who is our friend or enemy, whether we ourselves are reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, etc.  

People who choose creationism over evolution, regardless of whether they do this because they find creationism aesthetically more pleasing, or morally uplifting, or meaningful, or any other such entirely inappropriate reason, are asserting that humans are not primates with a common ancestor with other apes.  This is a factual claim, and as such it is not merely a story, and it is not a choice we make like selecting a novel to read.  Factual claims are foundations upon which we construct our laws, our morality, our aesthetics, and our decisions generally, including daily decisions and important decisions impacting not only ourselves but others around us.  To say, as Andrew Brown does, that "they are the clash of two competing stories", and "it is a story which derives most of its power from the way that believers suppose that it is true", is to wrongly trivialize the basic task of making true/false judgements down to the level of picking a novel in a bookstore.

Have we become so accustomed to the fact that epistemological and ontological incompetence are widespread that we have become inured to it?  Do we prefer to scapegoat the rich, the politicians, the boss, the big corporations, particular other religions, for all problems because that is easier?  Is this why people who know better keep making bad excuses that such incompetency is OK as long as it is other people doing this, not me and not my children?  We are told people will forever be stupid so give up, we have no way to reliably make any true/false decisions so one method is as good as any other, one person's truth is another person's falsehood, the primary function of holding true/false beliefs is something other than accurately modeling reality, etc.  Yet some of the same people who argue thusly for denying or ignoring this problem also advocate for public policies which are themselves responses to the symptoms of this same problem.  This refusal to deal with the underlying source of the problems that they argue against thus carries with it a whiff of pusillanimity.

The reality is that, insofar as anything at all has importance, what we believe is true about how our universe works and how we justify our beliefs are also important.  These are actually fundamental.  The Enlightenment was a major positive achievement for humanity exactly because it was about humanity getting a better grip on reality from a commitment to better epistemology and ontology.  Andrew Brown's populist defense of post-modern relativism is lazy, it is bad excuses for bad epistemology and ontology, it is regressive and harmful Counter-Enlightment advocacy. Virginia Heffernan's creationism is not merely mistaken, it is also foolish, there is no good sense to be found there.

Vouchers vs Public Schools

In its August issue The Progressive (409 E. Main St., Madison, WI 53703 -- www.progressive.org) announced that it is starting a new web site -- publicschoolshakedown.org -- "to follow the money and expose the privatizers, and help parents, students, teachers, and public school supporters across the country to understand what is going on."

The announcement was followed by excellent articles by Ruth Conniff, Rebecca Kemble and Brendan Fischer on the serious and growing voucher and privatization threats to public education. The authors name names and identify the right wing lobby groups, think tanks, foundations, and funders behind the massive drive to undermine public education, sabotage the teaching profession, divert public funds to religious private schools, and allow corporate profiteers to get even richer.

You can order this issue of The Progressive from the publisher (address above) free, though I would suggest sending them $5 for postage and handling.

Those concerned might also get my 23-page monograph "The Great School Voucher Fraud", accessible on  line at arlinc.org, or in print for $5 from ARL, Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.

Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty (ARL)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Church-State Separation Defended

a review by Edd Doerr

In Freedom We Trust, by Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner, Prometheus Books,  2013, 281 pp, $18.

This "guide to religious liberty" is a spirited defense of church-state separation and secular (i.e. religiously neutral) government. On the one hand, the authors show that historically the US pioneered separation as the best possible way to protect individual religious freedom. They thoroughly debunk the anti-separation nonsense spewed by Newt Gingrich, David Barton, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and other champions of Religious Right theocratic ideology and clericalism. They explore a number of the church-state controversies that have muddied the waters over the years.

On the other hand, the book is seriously deficient,  essentially ignoring the three most important campaigns to tear down the wall of separation. It devotes a mere three skimpy, inadequate pages to the Religious Right, conservative, Republican drive to divert public funds to religious private schools through vouchers and to undermine democratic public education. As for the major ongoing Religious Right, conservative, Republican drive to seriously undermine women's rights and women's religious liberty and rights of conscience on abortion and contraception the book is utterly, inexplicably silent.  Equally silent are the authors on the growing problem of fundamentalist infiltration of and proselytizing in public schools.

Further, the book's bibliography ignores the work of such important church-state experts as Leo Pfeffer and other books on church-state issues by their own  publisher, Prometheus Books. The authors also list only a few of the organizations on the firing line defending separation and, although the authors are secular humanists, they pointedly ignore the church-state separation organization founded by humanists Edward Ericson  and Sherwin Wine over 30 years ago (Americans for Religious Liberty, of which I have been CEO since 1982). Finally, the authors fail to adequately discuss the long list of important Supreme Court rulings on these vital issues. In short, this is only half  the book it could have and should have been.

Monday, July 22, 2013

George Erickson's "Time Traveling"

a belated review by Edd Doerr

In a writing career of over 60-plus years I have published well over a thousand book reviews in a variety of venues and the review copies from publishers continue to clog my mailbox. One book that came in long ago stood in a bookshelf unread for a decade, until a few days ago. I  owe my friend George Erickson a profound apology for not seeing it sooner. But better late than ever, especially for a book that is really timeless. So ----

Time Traveling with Science and the Saints, by George A. Erickson (Prometheus Books, 2003, 177 pp)

Science began and flourished in the ancient Greek world but went into a 16 century eclipse with the fall of the Roman Empire and rapid spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Slowly during the vague period called the Renaissance science was reborn, fitfully swimming against the powerful currents of stiff-necked conservative religious leaders not averse to the most brutal bullying imaginable, from burning books to burning science pioneers at the stake. Science began to come into its own with the Enlightenment and flowered during the 19th century but even today faces reactionary resistance from creationists and assorted religious fundamentalists.

Erickson tells this  story in a sweeping, wonderfully readable book, suitable for all ages and levels of education, that summarizes the lives, careers and accomplishments of  the great innovators who bequeathed us their invaluable heritage in every field of science. He concludes that clericalism's and conservative religion's giving way to reason and science is what has made our world today as good as it is and points us in the right direction.

This is a book that belongs in everyone's library, complete with its excellent bibliography.

Among the book's useful quotes is this one from the Roman Seneca: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers [politicians?] as useful."

Erickson's citation of Descartes reminded me of a limerick I wrote years ago ---

There was an old man from Potsdam,
Whose odor was like rotten spam.
To my query theoretical
He replied philosophical,
"I stink, therefore I am."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Letter on Marijuana

Dear Reader,
Once the power of religion to destroy intelligent thought has been removed, minds become free to use the empirical tools of science and critical thinking to clearly examine the consequences of our actions. This freedom is an important quality that makes any atheist community a profoundly powerful force for the ethical good. Many of our discussions have touched on the madness of current drug policy. To my recollection, there have been hundreds of statements confirming the madness of current drug policy and not one ever voicing support for current policy. It is time to put that consensus to work to change the world outside our community. I have put a substantial amount of time into providing us with some background information which I hope we will find to be helpful. You will find that most people from religious communities will be on our side. Let's mobilize their support where we can and clearly confront the madness with good humor and clear intellect where we can't.
Tommy Wells and Marion Barry worked together to introduced legislation to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. There are still modest civil penalties, $100 fine for those over 18 and mandatory attendance at an alcohol and drug awareness program for those under 18. The text of the bill can be found here.
I have spoken with passion about my desire to do away with this most absurd aspect of the “war on drugs.” Given that Colorado and Washington states have passed laws legalizing recreational use of marijuana last year we now have proof that the public is willing to support a more rational legal approach to marijuana. A North Carolina group, Public Policy Polling, in a poll of DC residents in April of this year determined that 63% somewhat supported or strongly supported what these states accomplished in in their respective referendums. The poll also asked DC residents about the more modest legal change advocated by the Wells/Barry law. In this case DC residents reported 75% support and only 21% in opposition.
In June the ACLU release a report titled The War on Marijuana inBlack and White. The subtitle is Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests. It is a staggering indictment of DC policy. As you read this bear in mind that marijuana use rates are very similar across racial groups. Washington DC is spending at a higher rate to prosecute and incarcerate marijuana users than any American state. This “investment” has resulted in a record 846 people arrested per 100,000 population during 2010. The highest state rate was in New York with 535 per 100,000. It is also over three times the national rate of 256 per 100,000. Even worse, the arrest rates of 1,489 blacks and 185 whites (per 100,000) is a ratio greater than 8 to 1. This is higher than all other states with the exception of Iowa at 8.35. It is over double the 3.73 to 1 ratio for the nation as a whole. A huge 91% of marijuana arrests were of blacks. Thus Washington DC has the national record for arrest rate and spending on marijuana arrests and prosecution with almost a national record high rate for differentially targeting African-Americans. In 2011 DC graduated 2,868 people from high school and arrested 5,759 (over twice the HS graduations) for marijuana possession. The high unemployment rate among blacks in DC is a serious problem. The extremely high rates at which DC gives “criminal records” to DC blacks for a victimless “crime” largely ignored among whites explains a big part of how and why we have this problem.
The legal structure of this system was laid down by Congressional Dixiecrats with a deep racial bias in a period prior to 1974. This bias does not serve our current interests and should end as soon as possible. There is no valid white interest in maintaining a black underclass. The city as a whole would be much more pleasant for everyone if there were greater equality and economic inclusion. The current policy regarding marijuana is the single most significant engine creating the current black underclass. At our Secular Values Candidates' Forum earlier this year I raised the issue of ameliorating criminal records. I specifically considered these minor records for marijuana use as the most important records to be expunged. The Wells/Barry bill does not deal with prior records. However, it is a massive step in the right direction because most current criminal prosecution for marijuana will cease.
People should fully understand the medical implications for cannabis users (cannabis is the name of the genus for marijuana). There is a complex system of cannabinoid receptors that are specifically designed to process cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the primary active components of marijuana. There are many functions for these receptors and their importance can be seen in the fact that many cannabinoids in marijuana are found in mother's milk. The well known tendency of THC to enhance enjoyment of sensation includes delight in taste, colloquially called “having the munchies.” The endocannabinoids of mother's milk specifically activate the receptors to reinforce the critically important sucking response in infants. For people who are addicted to other drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco or alcohol) marijuana can ease the symptoms and provide an alternative which, for most people, will cause less harm to the body and mind. A list of effects and comparisons with other drugs will be included in a postscript. This list documents that cannabis has many categories of potential harm, some of them very significant. People should not indulge without considering the risks that are involved. However, even with these negative effects it is one of the most benign recreational drugs in common usage. It has on average less negative effects than any other recreational or illicit drug with the possible exception of ecstasy.
I think that this possible change in the law is the single largest move toward social justice that could be accomplished in the near future. Hopefully the information in this letter to the reader will help in making your decision in regard to this bill.
Sincerely yours,
Donald Wharton

PS: Marijuana Negative Medical Effects (with comparisons to other drugs)

There can be significant harm to IQ, memory and motivation among young users who start in their teen years. This effect is not found among those starting as adults. The smoking of any organic compound is likely to be carcinogenic although amounts smoked are much less than is the case with tobacco. A cancer link has not been formally proven. There is some chance that the claimed anti-cancer properties of marijuana counteract the known carcinogens shown to exist in marijuana smoke. The largest epidemiological study I could find actually showed a lower lung cancer rate in those who smoked marijuana. The carcinogens created by smoking should be avoided by ingesting it or using a vaporizer which does not burn it. People should obviously not mix smoking and driving. Smoking can produce dry mouth and all the irritation to the throat and lungs that are caused by cigarettes. Reddening of the eyes is also possible.
Some people say with justification that Internet use can be an addiction. Anything that is pleasurable can be addictive and create other problems in life. The most commonly cited statistic that I could find on Federal government web sites says that 9% of marijuana users will become addicted. These same agencies report much higher rates of addiction for alcohol, nicotine, cocaine or heroin. Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs known. About half of addicted marijuana users will report some explicit withdrawal symptoms. The rest will be addicted because of the pleasurable experience. Based on the relative ease of dealing with withdrawal symptoms a number of researchers have rated caffeine as more addictive than marijuana. For other researchers the greater pleasure and intoxication effect from marijuana indicates to them it is more addictive than caffeine. This illustrates the subjective nature of addiction assessment.
While the psychoactive qualities of marijuana are generally deemed to be positive, the very high levels of THC in modern strains can produce hallucinations, anxiety, depersonalization, paranoia, nausea and other negative effects. While the rates for each of these might be low the implications for a particular person can be significant. All psychedelic drugs have no physiologically addictive qualities. For most of them the psychological risks are greater than for marijuana. The relatively shorter duration and effect from ecstasy gives us some reason to think the overall risks might be less than those documented for marijuana.
There can also be a modest to substantial increase in heart rate with a corresponding short term increase in heart attack risk until the heart rate returns to normal. The increase in heart attack risk is comparable to a similar increase in rates during exercise. There are several ways in which outcomes from marijuana use are empirically similar to actual exercise. A recently published study based on the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (4657 adult men and women) reported marijuana users had lower waist sizes, higher HDL ratios and lower fasting insulin levels. Based on these findings, in an editorial Joseph S. Alpert, Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Medicine, said that THC might in the future be commonly prescribed for patients with diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Given the well know anti-cancer effect from exercise this might also explain the inability of researchers to document an increase in lung cancer rates for marijuana smokers when many well known carcinogens exist in marijuana smoke. These results should be considered preliminary. There are very few studies done with large population samples and sound methodology.
People typically do not get violent on marijuana as they do with alcohol. Three out of four reported cases of spousal abuse are associated with alcohol. One third of convicted inmates of local jails self report they had used alcohol at the time of offense and 37.7% of violent criminals say they had used alcohol. Victim's reports of alcohol use at the time of the crime are modestly higher. PCP and methamphetamine are other drugs known to engender violence. Roughly 12% of males arrested in DC tested positive for PCP in 2012.
In toxicology the lethal dose of a compound is usually designated with the term LD50 (lethal for 50% of organisms dosed). The level of THC that would be fatal to half of dosed people is 40,000 times greater than the amount required to saturate all cannabinoid receptors and cause maximum intoxication. For comparison, nicotine absorbed from 60 average cigarettes will be at the LD50 level for the majority of 60kg people. (60kg=132 pounds) A similar amount of cocaine will be fatal. Caffeine from 80 to 100 cups of coffee is understood to be lethal at the LD50 level. A small number of deaths from caffeine have been seen with the growing popularity of energy drinks. The LD50 level for alcohol is considered to be between 0.4% and 0.5% in the blood. There are fatalities recorded with blood alcohol levels less than this range. Eight ounces of pure alcohol absorbed in less than an hour will produce this level in most people weighing 160 pounds or less. Fifteen to 21 average drinks can easily provide this depending on what is being consumed. Heroin is not directly toxic. However, as with all opioids it is a potent respiratory depressant and deaths can occur from a dose of 75mg to 400 mg in an opiate naive user. The CDC reported the opioids Oxycontin and Vicodin were responsible for three fourths of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths reported in 2010 in U.S. Heroin deaths are about 3,500 per year. Additional deaths from injectable drug use are sometimes caused by the transmission of HIV or hepatitis C viruses. The CDC estimates 80,000 deaths from alcohol each year and about 1.2 million hospital admissions. The CDC estimates that 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking tobacco or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking. Marijuana use has none of these lethal risks based on current evidence in the literature. I remain confident that a lung cancer risk will eventually be documented with some future well structured study that properly separates the carcinogenic elements from effects that now obscure them.
Nothing in the above analysis should be taken to encourage anyone to use marijuana. An objective understanding of the entire range of effects is needed so that policy focus can be placed on the societal and racial implications of current policy.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ways of knowing

By Mathew Goldstein

Theists tend to claim that by applying theological principles we can determine not only that a god really exists, but the actual identity of this real god.  They then argue that atheists fail to take theology seriously and thus fail to acknowledge the strong justifications for theism.  We atheists tend to think theists are wasting their time on chimeras because theological principles are incapable of discriminating between what is true and what is false about how our universe works.

We can divide questions about truth into at least three categories:  what could be true, what is true, what should be true. The what should be true category can be further subdivided into moral and aesthetic judgements. That which is good/beautiful should be true while that which is bad/ugly should not be true.

Atheists start with the could be true question, compare the could be scenarios against the data, which consists of the empirical evidences, and then conclude that the could be true scenario which is the best fit with the available data identifies what is true.  Theistic theology mostly either does not do this, or does this in a biased, incomplete manner.  This is because theistic theology instead tries to derive conclusions about what is true on the basis of combining what could be true with what should be true.  An example of this is Pascal's Wager which argues that we could be punished by a god who should exist for the purpose of imposing an after death reckoning for before death misbehavior.

Theists complain atheists are being too narrow and closed minded by rejecting this sort of reasoning from theological principles.  Yet we all have excellent reason to think that we cannot derive what is true conclusions from what should be true principles.  Everyone experiences conflicts throughout their lives between what should be true and what is true.  People should not become injured, should not become sick, should not forget things, should not lack food or shelter, should not die, etc.  So atheists are merely guilty of being consistent when they reject reaching any is true conclusions from should be true derived principles.

God exists and has a particular identity versus gods do not exist are competing statements asserting alternative contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.  The only way to reliably evaluate such competing statements about how our universe works is empirically.   No judgement about good/bad or beautiful/ugly is involved.  Because moral and aesthetic statements entail these additional judgements they are arguably different kinds of truth, and we cannot reach conclusions for such should be statements only empirically.

Yet empirically determined conclusions about how our universe works are needed to properly anchor our moral and aesthetic judgements.  Our moral and aesthetic judgements are built on top of our empirically derived prior conclusions about how our universe works.  Our subsequent judgements regarding what is good/bad and beautiful/ugly are informed by our true/false conclusions.  People who build their true/false conclusions about how our universe works from their moral and aesthetic judgements (a.k.a. from theological principles), although often well-intentioned, are making a mistake, like a home builder constructing a house underneath its foundation.


by Edd Doerr

Years ago I ran into an old Spanish saying -- I can't recall where -- that goes like this: "A priest is a guy whom everyone calls father, except his own children, who call him uncle." ("Un cura es un tipo que todos llaman padre, sino sus propios hijos, que le llaman tio.") Last evening I was reading Spanish writer Ramon Sender's novel "Mosen Millan", about the lead-up to the Spanish civil war, written some time before 1960, and found this sentence coming from one of the characters: "Los curas  son las unicas personas a quienes todo el mundo llama padre, menos sus hijos, que los llaman tios." ("Priests are the only persons whom everyone calls father, except their own children, who call them uncles.")

Spanish psychologist Pepe Rodriguez published a book in 1995 titled "The Sex Life of the Clergy" that explored this matter in  detail. In 2002 he published another book on the clergy sexual abuse of minors, with a subtitle nailing that as a scandal covered up by the bishops. Unfortunately, the books are available only in Spanish. It was in 2002, you may recall, that the clerical abuse problem in the Boston area hit the papers.

The bishops, of course, are the guys who are largely behind the campaigns to divert public funds to religious private schools through vouchers and tax credits, to restrict or  deny women the right to decide whether or not to continue problem pregnancies, and to tear down the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. On these matters, of course, they are out of sync with most Catholics and other Americans.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Diane Ravitch's Blog

by Edd Doerr

All who care about preserving church-state separation, stopping the diversion of public funds to religious and other private schools, saving American public education from corporate, Religious Right  and ultraconservative machinations should check out Diane Ravitch's Blog. Ravitch is the author of the tremendously important 2011 book The Death and Life of the Great American  School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Secular Look at the Bible

a review by Edd Doerr

Noah's flood and the David/Goliath story  are pure fiction, based on the many centuries earlier Epic of Gilgamesh. So begins Allen Wright's interesting, naturalistic, secular, humanistic summary of the books of the Bible from Genesis through Kings II, the first half of the Jewish Bible and the first third of the combined JudeoChristian scriptures. The author makes repeatedly clear that these writings are pure fiction, but goes on to show when, why, how and for whom they were put together. These anonymous writings were  developed during the Hebrews' Babylonian Captivity of 586 to 537 BCE, probably begun around the time of the death of the Babylonian empire's King Nabuchadnezzar in 562 BCE.

When the Babylonians occupied Judea in 586 BCE they hauled off to their capital only the Hebrew upper classes, leaving the commoners or lower classes behind in Judea. Beginning around 562 BCE Jewish writers in Babylon wrote these books to "sustain their ancient civilization and society during the years of the Babylonian-imposed exile of their upper classes", to "prevent the cultural  demise that had befallen the Judeans' northern brothers and sisters in Israel".  It worked, and when Christianity developed and spread, the whole collection of the books called the  Bible came to be an important and influential cultural artifact, even though very largely fiction.

Reading the Bible can be very boring, but Allen Wright's condensed summary and explanation of its earliest portions is useful and not lacking in  humorous touches. It fits nicely on the shelf with humanist rabbi Sherwin Wine's magisterial A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews (2012), which I have also reviewed for this blog.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Robert George Attacks Religious Freedom

by Edd Doerr

On June 23 the New York Times Book Review published a 1-page review of Robert P. George's book "Conscience and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism" by Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the very conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. Among the four critical comments published in the Times Book Review on July 7 is this  ----

"Kay Hymowitz errs in writing that Robert George's book is 'a plea for liberty of conscience, or more specifically, for religious liberty.' In pushing his 'personhood at conception' ideology, George is lining up with the enemies of women's religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Hymowitz, as a Manhattan Institute fellow, is simply parroting George's misogynist conservatism.

"Edd Doerr, Silver Spring, MD   (The writer is president of Americans for Religious Liberty)"

Now let's look at George's book itself, a rambling mistitled agglomeration of Tea Party and narrow clericalist screeds that provides something of a monochromatic pseudointellectual veneer for attacks on everything to the left of Jerry Falwell. He nowhere really discusses religious freedom, but does write that government's role is to be "subsidiary" to the work of "religious communities" and other local institutions. In a word, he wants to shrink government until it can be drowned in a baptismal font.

The book's main thrusts are extremely one-sided attacks on abortion rights, reproductive choice and same-sex marriage. Not a word about real women or real women's religious liberty, rights of conscience, or health, not a hint of understanding or compassion for women or anyone else not sharing his far-out extremism. His definition of traditional marriage would would produce widespread head-shaking and amusement. He misapplies science and indulges in a nasty ad hominem attack on Justice Harry Blackmun.

George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton  (where James Madison studied and formed views on religious freedom the opposite of George's) and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by George W. Bush.

It is sad to think of all the poor trees that were sacrificed to produce this abomination.

The Charter School Scam

a review by Edd Doerr

Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What's at Stake?, by Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine. Teachers College Press,  2012, 151 pp, $25.95.

In June Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) published a major study of charter schools, concluding that three-fourths of them continue to be either worse than or no better than regular public schools. And this despite the fact that they enjoy such advantages over regular public schools as the ability to skim students from more "concerned/functional" families, to serve proportionately far fewer special needs kids, and ease in pushing out students they don't want.

Social scientists Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine explore every angle of the two decade old charter school movement in this devastating comprehensive analysis and critique. While charters were originally conceived as a small scale experimental reform run by professional educators and tied to local communities, the movement was soon taken over by interests aimed at private profit, undermining and defunding public education, busting teacher unions, and pushing the country to the Right.  Public attention has been distracted by a few good charters and a tsunami of propaganda veering to the political right, often the same forces behind the school voucher and tax-credit voucher drives to divert public funds to church-run private schools (as in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, etc).

Charters "churn" teachers far more than regular public schools, disrupt many public schools through locating charters in the  same buildings, pay their non-union teachers less, force many public schools to be consolidated with consequent damage to the poorest communities, spend less per student on actual instruction, and provide a cushy deal for private profiteers.

The book defies facile summary despite being short. But it is must reading for all who care a  good public education for all kids of every class,  race and condition. A healthy democracy needs well-funded good public schools for all kids.

Finally, this fight to defend public education is far more important than placing little bench monuments in Tobacco Road towns or getting worked up over religious statues on ski slopes in Montana.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Belief and English language deficiency

By Mathew Goldstein

Many people have recognized that English vocabulary is sometimes deficient and some have tried to add words, usually without success.  For example, many of the world's languages do not have gender-specific pronouns. Others, however – particularly those which have a pervasive system of grammatical gender (or have historically had such a system, as with English) – have gender-specificity in certain of their pronouns, particularly personal pronouns of the third person.  Problems of usage arise in languages such as English, in contexts where a person of unspecified gender is being referred to, but the most natural available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific.  Michael Newdow tried to encourage us to substitute re, rees, and erm for gender non-neutral he, his, and him.

There is a similar, but more subtle, problem with the words belief and proof.  The word belief is broad, it encompasses both justified and non-justified beliefs.  The word proof is narrow, it designates an established fact.  The problem is that we lack a good noun for properly justified belief that falls short of proof.  

One symptom of this vocabulary deficiency is that some people overuse the word proof.  If you see a link to an article with a title like "proof of existence of god" or "disproof of existence of gods" the best course of action is likely to not click on that link.  Another result is that some people refuse to utilize the word belief on the grounds that they do not want to taint their well justified beliefs with the unjustified beliefs of the hoi polloi by sharing the same noun.

I do not know of any efforts to coin a new word that is synonymous with justified belief.  The obvious problem is that the same hoi polloi will misuse the new word much like they already misuse the word proof.  The goal of avoiding a "guilt by association" type of taint by utilizing a more obscure vocabulary also has a cost.  Using a different word implies a different entity, but the entity itself is the same here. Belief is not the problem to be avoided.  The problem is holding beliefs that are poorly justified.  

There are some people who go so far as to claim that belief is the problem.  I strongly disagree.  A belief is what we have whenever the available evidences overall have a favored direction.  I keep encountering people who claim that atheism is about having no beliefs.  Yet I can no more not have a belief about the existence of gods than I can not have a belief about the existence of Leprechauns.  The evidences do speak on these existence questions, the evidences are not neutral, and therefore the corresponding belief follows. We can expect one set of evidences if those entities existed, and a different set of evidences if they do not exist.  

With an ultrasound we can detect pregnancy.  That is proof.  With Leprechauns, as with gods, as with the supernatural more generally, we can only infer. It is still proper to utilize the word proof in contexts where conclusions are inferred provided that there is a consensus of the experts that the conclusion is true. Without this usage restriction the word proof becomes too political and loses much of its meaning. There is a sense in which we arguably do have such a consensus -  scientists de-facto abandoned supernaturalism several centuries ago. Unfortunately, many scientists are unwilling to acknowledge that this constitutes a consensus answer to this question.

Evidences can speak loudly by being consistent and pervasive, which is the case here. We do not need proof to have properly justified strong beliefs. Mind is a natural emergent property of particular physical configurations of matter-energy, matter-energy is not a supernatural product of a non-physical mind - so I believe.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Defining supernatural

By Mathew Goldstein

A mutually exclusive, yes or no, binary type of decision can be simple to make.  For some decisions we can directly observe the physical presence or absence of something and reach a definitive conclusion.  But we often have no direct access to the answer and therefore we must infer a conclusion on a best overall fit with the available evidences basis.  The conclusion is now going to be a probabilistic estimate, and therefore will represent a location on a continuous line joining the two end points.  The binary, one or the other, proposition is thus converted into a continuum by the decision making process.

However, it is impractical to assign a particular probability number to our conclusion since we typically lack enough information to be that precise.  Fortunately, Baysian probability analysis is still viable with only three discrete outcomes:  Positive, neutral, and negative.  We can assign the evidences one of three values, 1, 0, and -1 so that we can accumulate evidences into a single sum.  Every evidence for the proposition adds to the total, every evidence against subtracts from the total.  Does this conversion of our proposition from its original binary form to a discrete line form indicate that our proposition is incoherent and meaningless?  No, this is merely the unavoidable outcome of the fact that we are not omnipresent and omniscient so we often need to retreat to approximate Bayesian probabilities to infer a conclusion.

Many propositions are not well defined.  For example, we may ask if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  We cannot even begin to reach an approximate probability estimate until we have a definition of intelligent life that includes a criteria which can be utilized for evaluating the evidences.  The criteria selected to clarify the proposition will often unavoidably be somewhat arbitrary.  Does this arbitrariness and ambiguity in the definition of a proposition indicate that the proposition itself is incoherent and meaningless?  Lets try to answer this by identifying a criteria for intelligent life.

Our relationship with our pets, for better or worse, is limited by our inability to converse with them.  So we can specify as a meaningful criteria for intelligent life the ability to symbolically communicate with an extensive vocabulary.  There is still ambiguity here about what qualifies as extensive, but since inferring on the evidences is an approximation anyway we are not likely to benefit much from a more precisely defined proposition. Inferring on the evidence can be a coherent and meaningful activity even when we lack a precisely defined proposition.

We may sometimes need more than one criteria for evidencing a particular proposition.  Furthermore, we may decide that each criteria by itself evidences for the proposition.  This results in a complex proposition.  When we apply the evidences we may find that according to one of the criteria the proposition is affirmed, but according to the other criteria the proposition is disconfirmed.  Does the possibility of a such a paradoxical result mean that all complex propositions are incoherent and meaningless?  Again, the answer is no.  The possibility of such a paradoxical result is merely the unavoidable outcome of combining inference with a complex proposition.  Nevertheless, we should try to avoid making the proposition more complex than is necessary to reduce the risk of a paradoxical outcome.

In their excellent essay "Does Science Presuppose Naturalism?" (the correct answer is no), philosophers Yonatan Fishman and Maartin Boudry propose a complex, three criteria definition of supernatural.  I think their definition is a good start, but is unnecessarily complex and too weak.  I am going to propose a simpler and more stringent definition using their proposal as a starting point.

I will drop the criteria that they label as (2), which is that the phenomena "exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe".  Although this criteria is associated with the supernatural, I want to keep the proposition as simple as possible and this criteria is not essential.  I will then modify the criteria they label as (1) and reverse the order of the two remaining criteria. This results in the following two criteria for identifying supernatural phenomena:  (1) They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme and (2) they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.

The first criteria is important because it enables us to distinguish natural laws from supernatural laws.  We need to be able to make this distinction to apply the second criteria.  The second criteria is important because it defines the scope of what is possible within the natural framework.  Many people greatly underestimate the capabilities of the laws of nature and as a result of this ignorance are overly dismissive of the viability of naturalism.

The existing natural laws are incomplete. Therefore the quality of residing outside the scope of natural law is an insufficient condition for identifying supernatural phenomena.  Natural phenomena occurring outside the incomplete natural law framework are to be expected.  This is why the criteria says that a fundamental violation of a natural law constraint must occur. 

These two criteria can be combined into a single criteria.  This results in the following definition of supernatural phenomena:  They suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme, and they operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current scientific understanding of what is permissible within the constraints set by natural laws.  This requires an initial categorization of the existing scientific laws of the universe as being either natural or supernatural, which is done using the first half of the combined criteria.  A violation of at least one natural law is now a requisite indicator of supernatural phenomena, but is by itself insufficient.  Because we approach claims of supernaturalism skeptically, we will also require that the violation evince a mind-like, judgmental or supervised, purposefulness.

One common objection to any attempt to define supernaturalism is that the supernatural concept is always ruled out because it violates Occam's Razor.  But Occam's Razor is a rule of thumb focused on dropping superfluous adornments, its not a fundamental law for disregarding the direction of the evidences.  Another common objection is that all evidences favorable to supernaturalism should instead be interpreted as evidence of an advanced technology civilization trying to fool us.  This is a mirror image of the perspective of some theists that evidences favorable naturalism are really favorable for god.  Some people assert that supernaturalism entails unpredictability, undetectability, and similar attributes that place it outside the reach of evidences, rendering any attempt to evidence supernaturalism futile.  This is actually false, supernaturalism entails no such particular set of attributes (the previously referenced essay by Fishman and Boudry addresses this).

Supernaturalists are inclined to try to argue that the current scientific laws of the universe are themselves supernatural.  One argument that our laws are supernatural is the Fine Tuning argument.  Victor Stenger, among others, argues that the premises of the Fine Tuning argument are false.  But even if the Fine Tuning argument was valid, our current scientific laws predict a multiverse, and combining the Anthropic  Principle with a multiverse undermines the Fine Tuning argument.  Another argument that our laws are supernatural is the First Cause argument.  However, the consensus of cosmologists is that there is no need for a non-natural first cause.   It is difficult to avoid concluding that our universe overall is indifferent to humanity and to life more generally.  Even people who should know better nevertheless avoid this conclusion for psychological and psychology related political reasons (people prefer to believe that our universe is about us).

Merely accepting the possibility of supernaturalism being evidenced doesn't produce such evidence or otherwise render our universe any less naturalistic.  On the contrary, the fact that supernaturalism could be evidenced, but is not, is all the more reason to conclude that our universe is naturalistic.  As philosophical naturalists, we can and should be willing to acknowledge that if our universe did evidence supernaturalism then we should be supernaturalists.  Best fit with the evidences, despite its limitations, is the only viable method we have to accurately model our universe.  At the end of the day the goal of our beliefs about how the world works is to accurately model reality, not to reach any particular, fixed conclusion.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Through Orators Robert Green Ingersoll Speaks

By Gary Berg-Cross

Americans would be wiser and better informed if their reading and education included a good dose of the thoughts of 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll. It's a point made before in my blog - Hearing the Voice of Freethinking Robert IngersollAs Susan Jacoby illustrates in her new book Robert Ingersoll: "The Great Agnostic and American Freethought" Ingersoll is one of the indispensable public figures.  He not only speaks bravely on the issues of the day, but helps protect the historical record and keeps a deeper, alternative version of history alive. In Ingersoll’s case that alternative history included Tom Paine’s forgotten secular history. In the case of issues from Ingersoll's time these included women's rights, immigration, humanistic literature and evolution.  It is worth noting that these retain their divisive potency in our times.  And it is wonderful to report that these and other topics were on display recently at the 3rd Ingersoll Oratory Contest held in DC.

While rain forced a change of venue Sunday (to James Hoban's Restaurant ) we had a very nice event. Eleven contestants, traveling from as far as Florida, Indiana, and Delaware competed for 4 prizes.  Steve Lowe served nobly as Master of Ceremonies with assistance from Beth Kingsley, Brian Magee and Suzanne Perry. Links to photographs and videos will be posted on the Ingersoll Oratory Facebook site and now are available, but a random sample of quotes and images is below.

Carol Ardell kicked off the event by a reciting, from memory, Ingersoll’s Twentieth Anniversary Lotos Club Dinner speech(1890). It begins sagely:

YOU have talked so much of old age and gray hairs and thin locks, so much about the past, that I feel sad. Now, I want to destroy the impression that baldness is a sign of age. The very youngest people I ever saw were bald.
                                                    (These and other quotes from Secular Web)

It goes on:

I am perfectly satisfied that the highest possible philosophy is to enjoy today, not regretting yesterday, and not fearing tomorrow. So, let us suck this orange of life dry, so that when death does come, we can politely say to him, "You are welcome to the peelings. What little there was we have enjoyed."

Terrance Madden followed with a reading from “Thomas Paine (with his name left out the history of liberty cannot be written.)”

At the age of thirty-seven, Thomas Paine left England for
America, with the high hope of being instrumental in the
establishment of a free government. In his own country he could accomplish nothing. Those two vultures Church and State – were ready to tear in pieces and devour the heart of any one who might deny their divine right to enslave the world.

This was followed by Mike Schmidtmann who greeted fellow Humanists before reading “About the Bible” & “The Ten Commandments.” Donald Ardell also recited part of Ingersoll’s About the Holy Bible  which starts:

Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not, because they would be driven from their pulpits. Professors in colleges dare not, because they would lose their salaries. Politicians dare not. They would be defeated. Editors dare not. They would lose subscribers. Merchants dare not, because they might lose customers. Men of fashion dare not, fearing that they would lose caste. Even clerks  dare not, because they might be discharged. And so I thought I would do it myself."

Speaker selected topical talk including:

Jesse Christopherson, reciting “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child”, 
"There is no slavery but ignorance. Liberty is the child of intelligence."

Cody Smart heartfully recited, “What is Religion” -  Ingersoll's last public address,delivered before the American Free Religious association, Boston, June 2, 1899.

"For many centuries and by many peoples it was believed that
this God demanded sacrifices; that he was pleased when parents 
shedthe blood of their babes. Afterward it was supposed that he was
satisfied with the blood of oxen, lambs and doves, and that in
exchange for or on  account of these sacrifices, this God gave rain,
sunshine and harvest. It was also believed that if the sacrifices
were not made, this God sent pestilence, famine, flood and
and Amelia Vogel read some of Ingersoll's beliefs from, “Suicide and Sanity.”

"man is under no obligation to the imaginary gods; that all his 
obligations and duties are to be discharged and done in this world; 
that right and wrong do not depend on the will of an infinite Being, but on the consequences of actions, and that these consequences 
necessarily flow from the nature of things. I believe that the universe 
is natural."

As to what the 3 judges decided:

  1.  Sarah Henry took first place reading from "Improved Man"
  2.   Terence Madden took second place reading from Ingersoll's talk about Thomas Paine.
  4. Third place was won by Tya M. Pope who chose from two related speeches: "A Christmas Sermon" and What I Want for Christmas".

 All agreed that the performances were excellent and left us a bit more thoughtful and perhaps wiser:

‘I believe that all actions that tend to the well-being
of sentient beings are virtuous and moral. I believe that real
religion consists in doing good. I do not believe in phantoms. I
believe in the uniformity of nature; that matter will forever
attract matter in proportion to mass and distance;’….

          Partial answer to QUESTION: What is your belief about virtue, morality            and religion? In Suicide N Sanity



Taken by Gary Berg-Cross at the Event.
Brian - a helper.