Sunday, October 27, 2013

Talk on Climate Change by Mark Hertsgaard

by Bill Creasy

The University of Maryland Baltimore County hosted a lecture by Mark Hertsgaard, journalist and author of "HOT: Living through the next Fifty Years on Earth" on October 16, 2013. The book was adopted campus-wide by UMBC, which has reduced carbon footprint by 13%. Baltimore Secular Humanists listed this lecture as an event on their meetup site.

Hertsgaard gave some good news about climate change. He pointed out that cell phones have been adopted rapidly in 15 years, and solar power use is being adopted now faster than cell phones were. Germany is adopting it rapidly. Japan added more solar than the nuclear that they shut down the nuclear reactors following the Fukishima disaster. Solar power is going to poor villages in Africa, beating the transmission grid. The Dutch are most prepared nation esp. for sea level rise, and they are selling the expertise.

Solar is getting cheap quickly, and business analysts agree. A company called Sunjevity installs solar panels, but it leases the panels and consumers only sign contract to consume power. The company has no fuel costs, and company makes money on electricity. 
The silver lining of climate change: it will create jobs. The bad news is in the latest IPCC report. There is a time lag between release of gas into atmosphere and heating. Temperatures will increase for 30 years even with no additional emissions.

Most of the book is about how to live through increasing temperatures by "generation HOT," current college students and younger children, including Hertsgaard's young daughter. Society must "avoid an unmanagable amount of warming, and manage the unavoidable."

There is a target of 2 degree threshold, and countries will try to limit change to 2 C. Even with this target, there will still be sea level rise and glacier melting. The target should give 30 years to stop using carbon-based fuels. That is the challenge for the current generation.

Victories are being won: 168 coal plants are being stopped, even in the red states. Keystone XL pipeline is being resisted. Environmental groups are becoming a movement with political power only in the last 2 years. But in order to meet the 2 C target, some fossil fuels will have to be left in the ground.

What can students do? Ask what you can do, and get an education; do something, don't just worry; change your lifestyle as a start; but a change of policies is needed to make big changes, by getting politically active. He asks people to get involved, for the sake of his children. He said that on Nov. 12 at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) will have a protest against LNG terminal byChesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), which he called the most effective local group in the country.

Natural gas was considered to be an improvement over coal power plants because there is less carbon dioxide emission per unit energy from burning it. But natural gas has problems that are only beginning to be assessed, because leakage of gas into the atmosphere contributes to warming, and methane is about twenty times as effective for warming as carbon dioxide. So it may not have as much advantage over coal as has been thought.

The biggest myth is that adapting to climate change will make life worse or force a return to lower technology. He thinks if we do it right, life will get better.

Secular Coalition for America story in Newsweek

by Bill Creasy

The Secular Coalition for America got a story in Newsweek about tax exemptions for religious organizations.  Granted, Newsweek isn't what it used to be, but a story is a story.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wrestling with Spiritual Concepts

By Gary Berg-Cross

Spirituality and religion are often conflated. In conversation there are terms like “soul” that gets used in each, but some freethinkers are bit more comfortable believing in some spiritual concepts than religious ones like god. This was recently discussed as part of a movement from religion to a non-god spirtual realm by the Nones.  Spirituality lacks a definitive definition, but the general idea is that it is a realm of existence set apart from the ordinary (think - the natural world as shown by science) and worthy of special attention. That is, more attention should be given to these special, transcendent ideas than the mundane, material world that science gives us. In a word spirituality leads us into a supernatural realm.
As the Wikipedia entry suggests, religion and spirituality were largely synonymous for a long time. But in about the 11th century this identity began to break. Spirituality began to denote the mental aspect of life, in between the material and sensual aspects of life and pure spirit. In other words a socio-psychological distinction began to be part of "spirituality" and indeed it might be considered the more foundational piece to explain religion. William Irwin Thompson puts it in a way that makes sense to me:

 "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization."

Sure, if we can agree on what those elements of spirituality are and that religion is a construct. 
One may follow this growing distinction through the Enlightenment and into 20th century thinking as Psychology grew as a science and discussed spirituality in more scientific ways.

After World War II spirituality & religion were further distanced as more ideas on the nature of spirituality arose.  New humanistic discourse developed, which including things like existentialism, humanist psychology, but also the import of mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions such as Buddhism. Quite a blend of efforts to talk about topics like the true self, true life, free expression, mindfulness and meditation.
I find this a bit of a strange stew and while some of the common language of spirituality is now a distance from religious dogma, it can seem arbitrary and unscientific in the hands of layman but also the spiritually inclined. It provides perhaps too much of an easy frame to experiences and thus may hinder deeper understanding. Take the idea of soul.  We can use it as shorthand for some inner complexity. We might agree that Morgan Freeman has great "soul."  But I might think of that not as some indwelling spirit, but as great presence, a calm confidence etc.  It might be OK to use the soul-shorthand, for some open discussions. Sloppy use may mislead at times. An example is a new (killer) phone App called GPS for the Soul.  What is that about - some higher level of being?  No it uses the phone to monitor "stress" levels.  How?  It measures your pulse. Here we have the physical pulse standing in as a proxy for a mental concept of stress/good living, but labeled for the soul.  Discuss children.

And all too often we start to jump from a simple word sense to a huge image via a false analogy. Consider this one about soul that uses an image of life as if we’re all at a swimming pool, with the water in the pool standing in for a Pool of Spiritual Understanding. Some are fully in the pool and exhibit a large, spiritual soul, while others are along the sides of the pool, are just dangling their feet in, and still others are sitting out of the pool on the lounge chairs, just watching and listening. Horror! Explaining complex phenomena with untestable hunches is the slippery slope of spiritual concepts that frightens me.

Giving spirit the central role is to imply that we are NOT human beings on a spiritual journey, but instead, we are spiritual beings who just happen to be on a human journey. This idea of primary spiritual beings pulls us back to this early idea of a spiritual source of life, the breath of god, for example.  We started to break away from this idea centuries ago, but keep getting tripped up in sloppy thinking and trapped in vague terms that remain in the culture like "soul".
Sure there is great mystery in the mind, and some oceanic experience of some unexplained connection to a larger reality greater than oneself, but we should not allow loose talk to cloud our understanding or explain away phenomena that we still don’t understand by labeling them too readily and believing that we are really having a meaningful conversations using them. Here I’m thinking of phrases like spirituality as a way of life, an inner path, inner peace or the overuse of the terms love, wisdom, virtue & tolerance. We see language examples from people like Deepak Chopra:

"...we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention."   Deepak Chopra 

 We may all agree on the importance and great value of concepts like love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others, but are these spiritual concepts or better framed of as part of our humanity and psychology?  Give me good scientific studies of selfishness and altruism and I see the Enlightenment still progressively at work.  

Biology is the science that studies life, but nobody has a precise, general definition of life. We are still learning about the subject but I don't speak in terms of life vitality or design rather than evolution.  We do make progress by making careful and empirical distinctions even in everyday life with our common sense vocabulary to describe our experience. To paraphrase Elbert Hubbard - the spiritual (aka supernatural) is the natural not yet understood.
Talk about it in vague Buddhist terms (harmony & order etc.) and I see a good conversation but little progress. Worse yet, perhaps, is to collapse too easily into a mysterious belief that there are things unknowable or that can’t be expressed in some form of language.  There may be some, since we are cognitively limited, but I think we are not close to practical limits and do not yet want to cede a large territory to something vaguely reifiied and called spirituality.

 Some see spirituality in everything, and want to "walk in the spirit." As a reaction against naive materialism, I may have sympathy for this. But I prefer to try the path via sciences like Psychology. It's a surer path to where we'd like to go and makes for interesting conversation along the empirical way.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Some pointed humor

By Mathew Goldstein

Enjoy this popular video poking fun at religious believers by NonStampCollector: Quiz Show. It is absolutely OK to lampoon ridiculous beliefs and willful ignorance, guilt free and at their expense.  We do not exhibit respect for humanity by refusing to actively criticize unjustified beliefs or by refusing to actively advocate for civic equality for atheists.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Discussing Joseph Tainter ideas about the “Collapse of Complex Societies”

by Gary Berg-Cross

Our October meeting of the WASH MDC chapter discussed the topic of the collapse of complex societies, inspired by a book of that title by Joseph Tainter.  This wasn't quite the planned topic of "Energy and the Evolution of Culture" but anthropologist Nancie Gonzalez could not make it, so a related topic was used as a general discussion and it seemed topical with a government shutdown and a looming debt limit crisis possible.

Tainter, also an anthropologist (Head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University), builds on 2 key ideas reflected in the title of his book - complexity and collapse. You can see a nice summary on a youtube video

The idea of social complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. 

A society is said to have collapsed, Tainter argues, when it "displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity." This collapse then is "not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity."

Why do societies collapse?  Well in his first chapter Tainter does a swift, historical (but still academic 7 archeological) survey of 18 collapsed societies around the world, from the Harappans to the Hohokams with the Western Roman empire a more detailed example. Societies collapse, he argues, because to solve problems they invest in complexity  for such things as agriculture, government bureaucracy, militarism, monetary and market systems, infrastructure, etc.

Complexity initially provides a net benefit to society and high return on investment (ROI) means that society flourishes as shown in the diagram above. But as also shown, complex growth has problems which in turn means that ROI falls & turns negative. As returns turn negative, and problems and stresses (energy/resource limits, environmental degradation, competing societies, human competence etc.) continue or emerge, the society is no longer able to cope and eventually succumbs to a collapse - return to a "simpler" state, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts.

It's an appealing theory and the idea can be applied more and more it seems to the American situation.  There was a general sense by the discussion group that America is in a decline and that some notion of complexity breakdown could be applied. 

As was said in Chris Hayes' 'Twilight of the Elites':

Institutional failure across the board has landed us in modern America, where wages are falling, fraud and corruption in the banking industry are flourishing, jobs are lost, and everyone—correctly, cynically—believes the game is rigged against the little guy.

The problems of a wealth gap may be a harbinger of coming breakdown and some type of event in the protest- reform-rebellion-revolution axis.  Since the gap if growing and the bottom is sinking rather than rising, the problems are expanding.

Among the discussion points the group noted:

This idea of breakdown is reminiscent of Marx's view of conflict and tensions driving change, although Tainter does not focus on social groups.

America has had revolutions before, staring in the 18th century, but our civil war and one might view changes during the Depression as a form of radical governmental change. The idea of change during times of crisis such as discussed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine was raised. In the past conservative movements have exploited these as opportunities to get policies in place that were not acceptable by normal democratic processes.

America has a range of problem-solving organisations, but we have a proliferation of problems such as the previously noted redistribution issues and the wealth gap, overpopulating, resource depletion etc. This fits the abstract Tainter model, but a wealth of details need to be added to make this a predictive model, although we clearly have difficulty managing the increased costs per capita of society, such as the basic for food, shelter, education and the like.

We have been unable to decide on and execute the difficult political choices to assign resources.  There are many reasons including the democratic challenge of citizen understanding of the many details of how things operate.  Good examples of this can be found in David Cay Johnston's The Fine Print

"No other modern country gives corporations the unfettered power found in America to gouge cus­tomers, shortchange workers, and erect barriers to fair play. A big reason is that so little of the news ... addresses the private, government-approved mechanisms by which price gouging is employed to redistribute income upward."

Competing ideas of fairness, greed and freedom were mentioned as well as rule by powerful elites. The role of greed in things like the housing crisis was debated.  Were greedy home owners at fault or was it largely the lenders who manipulated the system for their own gain and took advantage of people trying to achieve a reasonable version of the American Dream? The decline of the middle class and sucking up their wealth was pointed. Efforts to privatize their social security retirement was one example of where greedy efforts to tap others resources was beaten back.

The ability to fool a relatively ignorant, ill-attending populace was discussed - see my earlier blog on Misinformation, Lies and Ignorance. Some personal cases were discussed where knowing the details of tax law could be used by individuals and not just large organizations who bend law to their interests.

The ideas of meritocracy (rule by the best) vs oligarchy in America were discussed.  Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites was cited as a good discussion of the issues.

Our techno-society requires high energy use and we may be reaching its safe use limits or depletion with no tech solutions yet available. We seem to be declining in some tech area. According to 
David Cay Johnston wpay high prices for poor quality Internet speeds — speeds that are now slower than in other countries like Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldavia. 

"If you buy one of these triple-play packages that are heavily advertised — where you get Internet, telephone and cable TV together — typically you'll pay what I pay, about $160 a month including fees. The same service in France is $38 a month."

                              from Johnston's book, 
The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use "Plain English" to Rob You Blind.

That hurts the American Exceptionalism myth.

Misinformation, Lies and Ignorance

By Gary Berg-Cross

At a recent meeting I attended the topic of American decline came up somewhat as an obvious assertion as fact with the subsequent search for why this was happening.  After the usual suspects of ineffective government and various stresses such the wealth gap and declining resources it was suggested that an additional reason was “ignorance.” This was elaborated a bit as people not understanding they are being fooled, lied to and manipulated.  For a number of reasons people are just misinformed. We can blame Fox unNews and others parts of conservative media for misinformation on the Affordable Care Act - see What Epic Propaganda Looks Like Obamacare And Permanent Right-Wing Misinformation which includes the sensational rumor mongering ideas of “death panels” and fact-free claims that:

These are the type of unbalanced, sensational, emotion-generating stories that abuse common sense but appeal to some bias and thus spawns meme waves.  The more boring reality of a neutral story can't compete. 

How do we handle this? One idea is to simply ask, "what is the source or these claims?"  Challenging the source is one way to fight misinformation (MI) in a person, but it may not stem a tide of MIs.  Media and political machines provide an easy way to spread these oversimplified memes which are not sourced back to facts, but are just myths.

 As Mark Twain wrote:
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
 It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Yes, and Psychology tells us a bit about why people hold on this this Foxian misinformation. You can read a bit about it in Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing by Australian Stephan Lewandowsky and others.  

Novelty, emotional capability and over simplicity making misinformation memetic is part of it.  Having a megaphone to get the meme out is another, but it is also important that we live an nonintellectual climate that
accepts a naive idea of binary balance or what I called binary thinking.  You see in arguments about evolution vs. creationism.  There are 2 sides and so it is balanced to give them equal discussion.  No, this is not the way to balance fact and opinion, although Fox news seems to place the asymmetry in the other direction – more opinion than facts.  People will believe something if it comes from a well-positioned source.  Should I believe in creationism?  Well if it is good enough for my moral leaders (Rabbis, priests, ministers etc.) than it is good enough for me.

 The internet and the social web makes this easier than ever to get a preponderance of opinion and advocacy out there as opposed to literal fact. And of course people believe internet misinformation because it sounds literal like an authoritative source.

“A survey of the first 50 Web sites matching the search term “weight loss diets” revealed that only 3 delivered sound dietary advice.” Why People Believe Weird Things and 8 Ways to Change Their Minds by Jeremy Dean

I once had a conversation with a person who thought the facts were against climate change.  His source was a site with some authoritative  definitive name like Climate Facts I don’t remember the actual name, but I looked it up and found it was funded by Exxon. That gave me something to use aside from different climate change facts. With my confused friend I could show why the site he found might be misinforming him – they had hidden motives.

The lesson here is that people are partly ignorant because it is hard to keep up with the flow of information, and not critical thinking or skeptical enough. But there is also responsibility on the part or the 4th Estate to inform.  As Carl Bernstein noted:

The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives - has overrun real journalism. 

Psychologist Jeremy Dean proposes a few other ways to unstick folks from misinformation.  These include keeping the rebuttal short and sweet. By sweet one means not attacking the person and being affirmative and not just negative. Don’t overload a misinformed person but dose things out as they may be able to assimilate it and do it in an exchange
An interesting idea which I haven’t tried systematically is to, as Dean calls it “affirm identity.” The idea is to mitigate people’s natural resistance to new, countering, unpleasant facts by getting them to affirm their identity. So if people think of themselves as generous or open or having Christian values they may be better able to accept the value of funding food for hungry people while thinking of those identities. Research suggests this helps people deal with inconsistencies between their beliefs and the new information that is conflicting with it.

In this informative process there are some things to avoid.  After you have noted a topic you are addressing, don’t keep repeating a myth associated with it, such as “death panels”. It just activates emotions, so re-frame the discussion and repeat your main points, which should include facts to give

them a chance to replace unfacts. Think of it as dismantling a structure in stages, but providing a new, sturdy structure to replace it.  I had that experience in that same meeting where we discussed ignorance.  One person supported the idea that our society was declining because it was, yes, too complex, but that this was driven by the government making things too complex in order to be “fair.”  Step by step people in the group offered simple examples of how things like the tax code or laws are complex due to greed and interest on the part of power groups able to influence the construction of tax exemptions etc.  By the end we had a group understanding and the myth of government imposition of fairness was dismantled.

Lewandowsky and colleagues conclude their article with a mixed note of caution and information consumer advice:
“Correcting misinformation is cognitively indistinguishable from misinforming people to replace their preexisting correct beliefs. It follows that it is important for the general public to have a basic understanding of misinformation effects… Widespread awareness of the fact that people may “throw mud” because they know it will “stick”…will contribute to a well-informed populace.”

 Yes, we are all information consumers and know how to move other’s opinions.  It is the task of ethical information agents to pursue the true and educate our fellow citizens.


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Senator Mikulski sponsored medical quackery week

By Mathew Goldstein

As if we do not have enough problems due to a refusal of most Republicans to accept and follow the overall direction of the available empirical evidences when setting national policies, particularly in the House of Representatives, one of the senior Maryland Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski, decided to introduce a resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” that applauds "the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care."  Naturopaths claim to be holistic, which apparently means they believe that the natural body is joined to a supernatural soul and a non-physical mind and the three must be treated as a unit.  Naturopaths offer treatment at their offices and at spas where patients may reside for several weeks. Their offerings include fasting, "natural food" diets, vitamins, herbs, tissue minerals, homeopathic "remedies", cell salts, manipulation, massage, exercise, colonic enemasacupunctureChinese medicine, natural childbirth, minor surgery, and applications of water, heat, cold, air, sunlight, and electricity.  Many of these methods are said to "detoxify" the body.

This encomium for medical quackery was passed by the Senate with unanimous consent on September 9.  Eleanor Norton sponsored a similar resolution in the House, but that resolution was not voted.  Seventeen U.S. states, and the District of Columbia (but not Maryland), allow people who are trained at an accredited school of naturopathic medicine in North America to use the designation ND or NMD, some states even license such people to write prescriptions for drugs.  If this resolution is typical of popular, bipartisan, middle of the road, moderation, then don't look for me there.  Here is Senator Mikulski's resolution:

Designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’ to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.
Whereas, in the United States, 75 percent of all health care spending is for the treatment of preventable chronic illnesses, including high blood pressure, which affects 68,000,000 people in the United States, and diabetes, which affects 26,000,000 people in the United States;
Whereas nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese and, consequently, at risk for serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and depression;
Whereas 70 percent of people in the United States experience physical or nonphysical symptoms of stress, which can contribute to chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes;
Whereas the aforementioned health conditions are among the most preventable health conditions and are especially responsive to the preventive, whole-person approach favored by naturopathic medicine;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides noninvasive, holistic treatments that support the inherent self-healing capacity of the human body and encourage self-responsibility in health care;
Whereas naturopathic medicine reduces health care costs because of its focus on patient-centered care, the prevention of chronic illnesses, and early intervention in the treatment of chronic illnesses;
Whereas naturopathic physicians attend 4-year, graduate level programs with rigorous admission requirements at institutions that are recognized by the Department of Education;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are especially skilled in treating chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders, because of their focus on whole-body medicine rather than symptom management;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to serve as primary care physicians and can help redress the shortage of primary care providers in the United States;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to refer patients to conventional physicians and specialists when necessary;
Whereas patients of naturopathic physicians report higher patient satisfaction and health improvement than patients of conventional medicine;
Whereas the profession of naturopathic medicine is dedicated to providing health care to underserved populations;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides consumers in the United States with more choice in health care, in line with the increased use of a variety of integrative medical treatments; and
Whereas the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148; 124 Stat. 119) requires that insurers include and reimburse licensed health care providers, including naturopathic physicians, in health insurance plans: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate–
(1) designates the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’;
(2) recognizes the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care; and
(3) encourages the people of the United States to learn about naturopathic medicine and the role that naturopathic physicians play in preventing chronic and debilitating illnesses and conditions.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

ExxonMobil's Cart before the Horse

by Edd Doerr

On October 8 ExxonMobil ran an extravagant two-page full-color ad in the New York Times plugging the new Common Core State Standards for schools. But there was not a word about such common sense, real world recommendations for improving American education as those put forward by Diane Ravitch in her important new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.

Here, briefly, are Ravitch's recommendations: prenatal care for all women; proper care-giving, nutrition and medical care for all children; pre-kindergarten for all kids;  small classes and rich balanced curricula for all kids; cutting back on standardized testing; PE every day; librarians and media specialists in all schools; nurses, psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers for all schools; after school programs. And I would add summer programs for lower income kids.

Equally important: elimination of all diversion of public funds to church-run and other private schools though vouchers or tax credits; trimming back charter schools until there are only a small number of experimental ones locally controlled and working with regular public schools; elimination from public schools of all traces of sectarian proselytizing. Teaching "about" religion is acceptable, but this area is so sensitive to imbalance that  very few schools are able to handle it satisfactorily.

All this will cost money, but our rich country can afford it. All it takes is will.

(Edd Doerr is a former teacher, has headed Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982, and is a columnist for Free Inquiry.)

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Cooperation, Sacred Values & Songs of Reason, Justice and Truth

By Gary Berg-Cross

To be sure the patterned form of communal behavior we call rituals are very human phenomena and belong in our social life. Rituals serve many symbolic roles such as an identity reminder as we celebrate the 4th of July or a family birthday. Although artifactual they may help slate periodic human needs for a sense of meaning, belonging, history purpose, hope, love, forgiveness or gratitude. A collective ritualistic celebration like a Memorial Day parade brings historical traditions into ongoing life.

In many cultures the religious aspects of every event and act in life are often celebrated in ritual pattern such as a baptism. Religions have also developed some very specific patterns of public or private worship and celebration that exhibit devotion and commitment. Requiring Jews to walk to temple or Moslems to clean & pray on a rug pointed to Mecca a few times a day come to mind. Of course some big rituals are the religious ones that take place communally on places of worship like temples, churches and mosques.

Sociologists and anthropologists have long studied and theorized on these sorts of phenomena especially those using
synchronized or cooperative actions such as the kneeling, standing sitting sequences at a catholic mass.  The basic idea behind this was hypothesized a while ago by Emile Durkheim (The Sociology of Religion) who suggested that synchronized activities draw upon & enhance “intellectual” and “moral” conformity. By moving or vocalizing together as a unit (think Buddhist chanting), participants think of themselves as a unit. This firms up individuals as a unit and potential enriches their subsequent cooperation. That’s always useful if down the road it is “us against them” or a need to share water in drought etc.

Recently a range of laboratory experiments (for example Miles, et al 2009. The rhythm of rapport: interpersonal synchrony and social perception) have tested some of these ideas and have begun to offer some real evidence supporting this action/perception synchrony hypothesis. People investigate synchronous behaviors among pairs and find that partners who match each other’s postures, motions, and vocalizations tend to express higher levels of subjective liking, tend to sense enhanced oneness (we are a single entity) with others). We become more prosocial to others we partner with in this way as opposed to more passive and unvocalized pairings.  Behaviorally we tend to trust them more, seeing you and they as a unit and become more charitable towards them synchronous behavior partners, as in “pass the basket.”  Well actually researchers use what they call a public goods & charitable game where you make donations, but you get the point. One can see why organized religions would want to leverage this phenomena.

But there is another part of this group cooperation.  Durkheim hypothesized a sacred dimension in religious rituals affect cooperation.  Engaging in ritual reinforces a shared conceptions of the “sacred,” which he defined as “things set apart and forbidden” To test the hypothesis contemporary sociologists  operationalize this ideas “sacred values” as that a moral community treats as possessing transcendental significance.  That is they are just proclaimed as separate from secular values and hence can’t be compared to them or involved in a trade-off/balancing between the two types. In effect religious rituals help create a divide between the sacred and secular/profane domain. German researchers developing the following type of questions to identify if sacred values were involved in ritual activities:

“This activity is something that you cannot value in terms of money,”
“This activity is something that we should not sacrifice no matter how high the benefits,” and “This activity concerns things or values that are untouchable and should never be violated.”

Sure enough research (Fisher et al How Do Rituals Affect Cooperation? 2013) shows that feelings of belonging to a distinct and coherent group (one entity) intensify sacred values, which in turn increases cooperative behaviors in a public goods game.

So here we have religious synchronous ritual around some sacred concept producing people who feel more part of the ritual group and are more generous/prosocial.  This is part of what people think of as perhaps a good part of religion.  Is there something the secular community can learn from this?  Perhaps. 

We might more vigorously employ this very human part of us to generate prosocial behavior from synchronic secular rituals.  We have some, such as a moment of silence used in response to a national or international tragedy.  WASH did this in response to 9/11.

We have seasonal celebrations and Humanlight, but perhaps these lack agreed upon behaviors.  Free thinking humanists tend not to be conformists, so there is an issue there.

What about the sacred value component?  Well perhaps we can consider ideas from this research which suggests that non-religious groups might target special values such as rationalism, humanism, justice, democracy, truth, the scientific method, or beauty as of this kind.  I’m not sure we are ready to put that book of rational-humanist-justice songs together yet, but it might be fun to experiment.  After all we have a head start on prosocial behavior and society should be hearing from us.


When atheism is religion

By Mathew Goldstein

Gary Berg-Cross recently commented on the question "is atheism a religion?".  He concluded that, while there is no one correct answer to what qualifies as a religion, a reasonable way to tackle this question is to look for various indicators of religion.  One is a reliance on faith as a way of knowing.  Another is the notion that there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities.  More generally, there is the belief in some non-natural power.  This approach implies that theism is "a religion", but it is not.

A problem here is that atheism and theism are particular beliefs and a particular belief is not necessarily unique to a particular religion.  A religion has a name that is capitalized.  So asking this question about theism, or atheism, is a category error.  Instead, we can properly ask if theism, or atheism, is a religious belief. 

Gary's thoughts on how to address the question, so re-worded, are good.  The conclusion we reach is that individual atheists who think faith is a valid way of acquiring knowledge, who think there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities, and the like, can be considered to be religious.  Otherwise, Bill Maher is correct.  Atheism, unlike theism, is usually not a religious belief.  It depends on how the atheism is held and the overall context of beliefs in which the atheism is embedded.

But does this answer really address the original question?  Why do some people seem to think this is a significant question? What difference does it make if atheism is deemed to be a religious belief or not?

One place where this question has significance is the law because the first amendment calls for no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion and the tax code gives special benefits to religious organizations.  So let's not beat around the bush and pretend that "is atheism a religion?" is a direct philosophical question.  It is really about those laws and their applicability.  What the people who are asking this question do not appear to fully appreciate is that nouns can have different meanings in legal contexts than they do in everyday contexts.  That is the case here.  The people who are asking this question are actually asking if the no establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the tax benefits, apply to atheists and atheist organizations.  Gary commented only very briefly on these questions in his article.

Let's tackle tax benefits first.  There is no proper justification for treating different beliefs differently in the tax code.  We can properly make distinctions on various other criteria, but not on the beliefs of citizens regarding the nature or existence of gods.  Ideally, our tax code would distinguish between profit and non-profit organizations, and between organizations that advocate for or against candidates in government elections and those that do not. The tax benefits that are unique to religious organizations, such as the tax return filing exemption and the parsonage exemption, are unfair and should be eliminated.  If an organization is religious or non-religious should be irrelevant to the IRS.   But for now, given that the tax code does make this distinction, atheists are fully justified in insisting that we are fully entitled to all of the same tax benefits as theists.  So in the tax law context, religion includes both theism and atheism.

In the non-establishment context it is important to recognize that the first amendment does not refer to "a religion", it refers to religion in the plural sense.  We can only identify what is religion in this plural sense by identifying the presence of, and the role of, a religious belief.  Furthermore, in a legal context, a partisan belief is always paired with its opposing belief.  We can either assent or dissent to a partisan belief, and there is no difference in the legal standing of assenting and dissenting.  So here again, since theism is a faith-based, religious belief, and atheism is the dissenting belief relative to theism, both theism and atheism are covered by the noun religion in the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause is paired with the Free Exercise Clause, so atheism also has the same free exercise protections as theism in principle.  However, in practice, atheism makes few, if any, free exercise demands against secular laws.  Protecting free exercise will tend to favor assenting religious beliefs over the corresponding dissenting beliefs.  Free exercise protection should not be allowed to interfere with the health, general welfare, or civil rights freedoms of other citizens.  Therefore, free exercise should have lower priority than most other civil rights protections.  Free exercise should prevail over secular laws only when such accommodation of religious beliefs otherwise does no significant harm.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Progressive and Public Schools

This letter was published in the October issue of The Progressive. The same issue featured a cover story by Diane Ravitch, "Saving Our Public Schools", a long excerpt from her new book Reign of Error.

"Good School Coverage"

"The Progressive is to be commended for its new website,, and the excellent articles by Ruth Conniff, Brendan Fischer, and Rebecca Kemble (August issue) on the serious threats to public education by the privatizers who would divert public funds to religious private schools through vouchers and/or tax credits.

"By the way, Fischer's article showed the twenty-seven referendum defeats of vouchers or their variants as spanning the years "1996 through 2007". The actual span was 1966 through 2012. The details of the referendum elections are in my monograph, The Great School Voucher Fraud, accessible online at

"Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty, Silver Spring, Maryland"

Thoughts on Improved Discussions: Is Atheism a Religion?

By Gary Berg-Cross

Over the summer I attended some meetups where the role of religion is society was discussed.  Occasionally the discussion drifted into a topic that people were hot about and one of these was the perennial question of “Is Atheism a Religion?”  It’s a topic which can be discussed from practical, personal and philosophical perspectives. You can start by focus on clarifying what is meant by Atheism and its practice. But you also need to delve into definitions of religion and how it is practiced, then do some analytic comparisons.

You can for example, just take the simple semantics of atheism as “no belief in a god.” Then if to be a religion there must be belief in a god (a debatable point), then a narrow view of atheism doesn’t qualify.  That would make for a short discussion, but there is more to say about what is involved in atheist organization or secular,/non-faith groups expressing social beliefs as well the definition of religion. After all, the practice of atheism beyond a philosophical position allies with secular beliefs and organizes to become effective in countering religious influence as well as expressing its own values.  Often these may be packaged in practices that seem religious.

To point to just one way that so called organized atheism/non-belief acts like a religion take the London-based” The Sunday Assembly a so called “Atheist Church  -a godless congregation that meets to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. They have regular services in London and have launched what they call a “global missionary tour.” Indeed an Assembly event is planned in DC on Wed, Nov. 6, 2012 Center for Inquiry-DC. So an organizational form of godlessness is on the march.  If this march includes bands and songs within some physical infrastructure analogous to a temple holding some ceremonial events and ministered to by a hierarchical “leader” with stories of scientific and philosophical heroes, well maybe it should qualify for tax-free benefits. That seems OK to many. Why should these human ways of expressing ourselves be shut off to us? Religions have grabbed and are occupying ground that might be part of our humanness.  Let's take it back, especially if it helps a secular story compete with the religious stories on more of an equal footing.  This trappings of the traditional religions behave is just part of a practical-tactical decision to operate effectively within a social system in order to change it for the better.

Another perspective is to just to focus on religion as something that has a set of committed beliefs.  So if atheists, free thinkers (or scientists) start expressing beliefs in things like evolution, well then it’s their religion. The counter, of course, is that religion is organized about superstitious not scientific beliefs.  The essential religious beliefs seems to be involve an unchangeable idea of a higher or supernatural power, which is often expressed as some type of god. Religion puts beliefs in a range of super-natural phenomena and powers that aren’t testable, but relies on faith. It is not regular & practical belief, but faith-based.  The power of prayer is one example. 

Religions also proposes quality concepts and judgments like 'good' or 'evil' that are measured and defined by non-human entities, but must be bought into.  Sorry these are nothing like my natural beliefs in gravity and a physical cosmos.  Sure, I commit to them in some practical way every day, but my understanding of gravity is open to allow a Higgs boson to enter that understanding and expand and refine it. But that understanding comes without the idea of something beyond the natural. As Robert G. Ingersoll said in What is Religion” (his last public speech delivered in Boston, Massachusetts the evening of June 2, 1899):

“Religion rests on the idea that Nature has a master and that this master will listen to prayer; that this master punishes and rewards; that he loves praise and flattery and hates the brave and the free.”

No such system of beliefs for free thinkers.  For us it is more like what Ingersoll expressed in what was labeled his "Creed" including - Justice is the only worship and Love is the only priest. If you accept my "praise" of justice as a form of religious worship, then OK I'm that kind of religious, but not the one that expects some hidden master's punishment if I stray.
But perhaps love of love and such should qualify as something larger that society recognizes as worth supporting in the way that it does traditional religion which gets beaucoup benefits as studies have shown -see the figure alongside for examples.
One source that I often consult on issues like “what is religion” where a deeper perspective is needed is Tom Flynn’s “The New Encyclopedia of UNBELIEF.”  (BTW Tom will be speaking at WASH's MDC chapter Dec. 14 in the Rockville library from 2-4).
 Opportunisitc conversations on such things can be better grounded by consulting its pages which are tripped up or hung up discussing colloquially ideas of “religious”.  We run into these things is the loose semantics of conversation, such as when we describe a friend that is “religiously adhering to a diet”. Sure it is a type of commitment, but not what gets fully to the ideas of religion which Tom's Encyclopedia explores more systematically. Perhaps I can put on my wish list an online version of this to be consulted at Meetups!  
Under the Religion entry, for example, the Encyclopedia, starts by quoting from the International Humanist and Ethical Union statement on the use of the term religion.  Here is what they said which clarifies the Humanist position quite a bit with 3 ideas that people may hold about religion and whether there is one definition we can agree on:
Being concerned about the confusion and contention sometimes caused by the words "religion" and "religious",
This board wishes to place on record the following points which can be agreed by all humanists:
1. Some humanists use the word "religion" as roughly equivalent to "life stance"; others take it to imply some theistic or non-naturalistic reality.
2. Those humanists who use the word "religious" to describe themselves or their organisations do not imply that their humanism accepts any theistic or non-naturalist realities.
3. In the sense of the word "religion" which implies "accepting a god", humanism is not a religion; in the sense of "religion" meaning "life stance", humanism is a religion.
4. There is disagreement among humanists about which is the "true" or "appropriate" meaning of the word "religion".
From the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)  site and its 1989 resolution on Use of the word "religion"

Which brings me back to the occasional conversation on this question of Is X a religion (take your pick on X as atheism, Humanism, Secular Humanism etc.). If you want to use religion as a life style well then, yes, but you may not be talking tax benefits style religion recognized in legal codes.  Should we have to believe in some non-natural power to be considered a religion?  I may disagree, but society may draw some lines to advantage such beliefs. I think that a mistake, but it is something to be discussed more broadly than just at Meetups.  

I guess that one other thing one might inject into these conversations after the depth of Tom’s Encyclopedia is a little bit of modern, edgy humor that ignores some nuanced differences between belief and faith to make its point.  Bill Maher backhands the idea that atheism is a religion with stinging putdowns:

"Idiots must stop claiming that atheism is a religion…..religion is defined as the belief in a “superhuman controlling power” (god), and atheism is precisely not that. Indeed, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a god or gods. It is not a world view, a philosophy, or a religion. It is simply the absence of belief. To be without a belief in god, is to be an atheist….Treating atheism like a religion would be like saying “abstinence is a sex position.” After all, when was the last time a non-believer ever claimed to see the silhouette of Christopher Hitchens on the side of a tree?"