Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unlike watches, easy to break beliefs have more value

By Mathew Goldstein

A robust watch that "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is better than a fragile watch.  A belief is unlike a watch in this respect.  A belief should be defeasible to have merit and warrant our support.  The easier it is to defeat a belief the more justified we are to hold that belief by virtue of a failure to defeat it.  When a belief attempts to claim the allegedly unbreakable status of a Timex watch that indicates that the belief is likely to be ill-defined and to lack value.  People who proudly assert that they adopt their most important beliefs on faith and actively resist the doubting of this faith, or who deliberately select their beliefs to be as inscrutable and invulnerable to defeat as possible, are making a fundamental mistake.  They are self-defining themselves as unreasonable ideologues.

To be properly justified our beliefs need to be derived from an honest effort to obtain a best fit with the available evidence.  Accordingly, we should hold those beliefs that are most consistent with the conclusions reached by a current consensus of the experts who carefully examine the empirical evidence and who adopt only those defeasible conclusions that withstand skeptical scrutiny.  Using this standard we are not restricted to adopting only those conclusions that are published in science textbooks, but we are confined to adopting only those beliefs that are the closest match with the conclusions published in science textbooks.  

The evidence favors, as best fit beliefs, that biology is chemistry is physics, that humans are primates that evolved from evolved fish that evolved from single celled organisms that emerged from chemistry and physics, that our universe has total energy in the vicinity of zero and that a stable initial condition of absolute nothingness is a fictional concept, that human cognition is flawed and biased and the very different religious beliefs among different people reflect our cognitive biases, and that libertarian free will is a fiction.  It thus becomes difficult to simultaneously hold traditional religious beliefs.  We should not be seeking a religious belief or any pre-determined belief, we should be seeking best fit with the available evidence beliefs.

The Great Silence paradox

By Mathew Goldstein

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has detected nothing.  This result gives us "the Great Silence" paradox, which can be stated thusly:  The size and age of our universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations exist. However, this belief is in conflict with our failure to find observational evidence to support it. 

Maybe intelligent life requires more than physics and chemistry and exists only on earth because a creator god of some sort put us here.  Maybe technologically advanced intelligent life is rarer than we assumed.  Maybe our current observations are misdirected or our search methodologies are flawed.  It turns out that the last two explanations for this failure are both likely true.

Earth is located 27,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.  SETI researchers look towards the center of our galaxy because that is the direction where the largest concentration of nearby stars are found.  New evidence implies that long gamma ray bursts are more common in places where stars are more dense and also where elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are less common.  

Long gamma ray bursts function like a reset buttons, they destroy multi-cellular life.  Intelligent life, which we can define here as life that achieves an understanding of how stars give off light, is possible on earth because of our location on the outer periphery of a large galaxy where there are fewer nearby stars and where there is a significant quantity of heavier elements. Earth appears to have experienced a partial biological reset from a gamma ray burst resulting in the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth's species.

During the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang there were arguably too many long gamma ray bursts to make plausible the emergence of intelligent life.  Furthermore, most galaxies are smaller than our Milky Way galaxy, with densely packed stars and/or with fewer heavy elements.  It is estimated that about 10% of the observable galaxies are sufficiently large and with enough heavy elements to have planets in their outer regions with conditions amenable to the evolution of intelligent life.  10% of 100 billion is still 10 billion galaxies, but the large distances between galaxies reduces the probability of our finding evidence for intelligent life in other galaxies even when it exists.  

Thus the initial SETI results appear to be not so paradoxical after all.  Our chaotic universe provides a mostly harsh environment that is ill-suited for the evolution of intelligent life.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be more effective if it focused on the outer regions of our galaxy and nearby large galaxies, but this constraint also makes it less likely that we will ever find them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

State constitutions, public office and people's belief in God

Edd Doerr (

Roy Torcaso and I were friends. I met him shortly after moving to Maryland in 1966 to work for Americans United. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service at his Unitarian congregation in Maryland. Roy was a very gutsy guy.  His Supreme Court case, Torcaso v Watkins, was a great victory for church-state separation and religious freedom.

That said, it is important to comment on the Dec 7 NY Times story.

1.      Yes, there are statements mandating certain religious beliefs in order to hold public office in MD and several other state constitutions. However, thanks to the Torcaso ruling, these are all inoperative museum relics,  dead letters. But, then, many state constitutions are crammed with such inoperative relics, such as one state’s ban on a guy kissing a woman in public on a Sunday., and other nonsense.

2.      Can these relics be removed? Very unlikely. And attempts to do so will surely fail. Not only  will they fail, but they could well generate backlash that will actually harm the secularist cause. Further, tinkering with a state constitution could open a real can of worms, whether through a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment or a state constitutional convention. The result could be constitutional changes that divert public funds to faith-based private schools, further restrict abortion rights,  allow “creationism” to be taught on public schools, or cause other mischief.

3.      Let’s note that the US Constitution, Article I, Section 2, still contains language that says that African Americans only count as 3/5 of a person for determining the composition of the House of Representatives. This was rendered inoperative by the 14th Amendment, but it’s still in the Constitution forever.

4.      Attempts to remove these offensive provisions from state constitutions will not only fail but will distract attention and energy from dealing with really important hot issues like climate change, right wing attacks on public education and reproductive choice, the transfer of wealth to the top 1% from the rest of us, and other matters.

5.      Instead of wasting time, energy, money and good will on a lost cause, secularists need to be broadminded and practical enough to work with others across the religio-political spectra to accomplish important  goals on the issues that really count.

(Edd has been a Full time church-state activist for the last 50 yeara)

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.

As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus

by Don Wharton
We all know that religion is a cosmic joke. Our evolutionary background leaves us with massive opportunities to fall into quite delusional belief systems. For some the results are incredibly painful. However, there are others that celebrate the cosmic joke of it all with humor and delight. Consider the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. This is a new official religion. The high priest of this religion is Ryan Ballard.

From an article, “When asked if he felt any more spiritual since his ordination, Ballard said: "I'm absolutely on a higher plane. I can feel the furry fingers of the sacred drunken Wookiee stirring in my soul." Read the article here.

We can only hope that as more people recognize the cosmic absurdity of religion it will move the world toward a happier reality for us all.

The main web site for the group is here.

Any religion must have its rules. The major ones are that there must be no unicorns, elves or whinebots. Of course, the major purpose of these rules are to enable the dynamic civil rights contingent called the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C. or People for the inclusion of Unicorns, Elves and Whinebots in Chewbacchus. From their web site, “Unicorns, Elves, Faeries, Potterheads, Were-beasties, and all the rest of the supernatural and magical creatures in the universe can now join in the fun. Fantasy fans are welcome to roll in the Chewbacchus Parade under the mighty banner of the Mystic Krewe of P.U.E.W.C.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Justice Scalia's alternative facts

By Mathew Goldstein

According to Justice Scalia, the supernatural devil is "a real person" and demonic possession is less common today then it was in the past because today there are more atheists who function as enablers for the devil.  Scalia's views on the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause principles are unbalanced and unjust because they are rooted in facts about how the universe works that are false.  If there really is a devil who possesses people as depicted in C.S. Lewis' apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, and atheists are favoring "the devil's desires", as Scalia asserts is a fact, then Scalia's refusal to apply EC and EPC protections to atheism and atheists would be perfectly ethical.

Our model of how the universe works is the foundation that our ethics are built on.  This is why it is so important to utilize reliable methods for obtaining our facts about how the universe functions.  Antonin Scalia talks like a person who is not entirely committed to reliably anchoring his factual beliefs on the solid ground of empiricism.  Instead, he anchors at least some of his factual beliefs in today's ongoing reiteration of 4th century Catholic dogma.  The Vatican makes no distinction between its theology and the facts, and therefore neither does Justice Scalia, who is proudly committed to being a good Catholic.  

Through considerable collective effort, with important contributions of a few intelligent individuals, between the 4th century and 1789 we acquired some additional knowledge about how the world functions.  This trend of acquiring knowledge has continued, at an accelerated pace, between 1789 and 2015.   Justice William J. Brennan somehow managed to live in the real world and profess Catholicism at the same time.  But Scalia's world view pathetically, and tragically, remains partially frozen somewhere between the 4th century and 1789 because he elevates Catholic faith to a valid epistemology with equal status, or maybe superior status, to empiricism. His pathological condition is all the more troubling given that he is an intelligent and powerful man who appears to be injecting his Catholic bias into his evaluation of civil rights protections.

The United States government spends billions of dollars every year to further research that continues to advance modern knowledge.  This money does not go to the Catholic Church because Catholic Church theology contributes nothing to our modern knowledge and never has.  If Justice Scalia had more integrity then he would acknowledge this and refrain from basing EC and EPC jurisprudence on his Catholic faith.

My response to WASH banquet comment

By Mathew Goldstein

At the Phillips Seafood restaurant banquet that was co-sponsored with the American Humanist Association some months ago, I shared a table with several couples. That restaurant is good, I regret I arrived too late to take full advantage of the buffet downstairs. The first conversation was initiated by one of the two other guys at our table who declared that calling oneself an atheist is like calling oneself an aleprechaunist. Nobody calls them self an aleprechaunist, and no one should call themselves an atheist, he said.

A problem with this analogy is that almost no one calls themselves a leprechaunist either, and even those few people who may so label themselves are joking, or at least do not worship leprechauns. If it were otherwise, if 80-90% of the population called themselves leprechaunists and many of these people worshipped leprechauns, then we would be properly justified in calling ourselves aleprechaunists. That is one of the proper, valid, functions of labels, to identify significant differences in commonly held individual perspectives. Some atheists are married to theists and they do fine together. Yet this is a difference that can contribute to weakening a relationship and sometimes it does.

In addition to the social context, another context where the atheist label can have real significance is with laws and government practices. It is for this reason that arguments to stop using this label are inherently political. Labels enable debate over relevant government laws and practices. Our government, in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, actively promotes theism and sometimes discriminates against atheists. It is more difficult to challenge this if we dispense with the atheist label. This is one of the reasons I keep using the atheist label and reject arguments against using this label. For similar reasons I keep referring to atheism as a belief even though some people mistakenly insist that atheism is never a belief. For people who, like me, positively believe there are no gods, our positive atheism is a belief.

No one who calls himself atheist is thereby denying that theists and atheists can, and often do, have a lot in common. Also, no one who calls them self an atheist is only an atheist. As with any label, the atheist label is an incomplete way of characterizing oneself. We can also be humanists, secularists, freethinkers, metaphysical or philosophical naturalists, rationalists, skeptics, empiricists, non-theists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Virtuous Circles

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is certainly family and togetherness time that is an opportunity for a bit of reflection on values and internalities as grand as gratitude and as considered as kindness.  It is a time to graciously take what we have with gratitude rather than to take good things for granted. And as Richard Dawkins suggest it is a nice opportunity to “teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

It seems a bit odd, though that the day after Thanksgiving much is taken for granted and some may be grateful that the local Box Store opens early to allow the externality of charitable shopping that pre-ritualizes the winter present season of gifting.  

Our market system has found a way to take some inward feelings of kindness and the generous impulse to give more than we have and expresses these as ritualized, wrapped presents.  It’s probably not the largely solitary behavior without expression of thanks that William Arthur Ward was thinking of when he said:

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.

Nor is it the connection that Henry Van Dyke made between the kindness-gratitude-thanksgiving trilogy when he hypothesized that:

Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.

Family and friends set around the table are a nice way to spark action on feelings received kindness. It affords an opportunity to rekindle each
others kindness flames and reflect on those who in the past have contributed to our kindness flames. Such virtuous circles can parent many good things and well on the wise path to the Confucian practice that:

To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

All the more reason then in today’s times to think a bit more broadly and inclusively about thoughtful generosity reflecting kin kindness. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard, the generosity between kin can apply not only
to our extended family but inclusively to our neighbors, our village and globally beyond. After all we are the beneficiaries of exceptional American resources and its people's historical, collective generosity. With a global view we can hope, if not expect, some inclusive generosity like immigration reform and the virtuous fires it sparks for those who were not born here but seek its kindness.

There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.

Nathaniel Branden

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Another Hard-Wired in American Holiday to Enjoy

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is often called the most American of holidays. I've heard its nature captured in a contemporary tween as, "Thanksgiving — the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)"

There is always something to be Thankful for (well not the Washington football team), although a look at the paper suggests it isn’t all cranberries and stuffing.   I'm not trapped in Buffalo for example - is that too close to thinking how ungrateful I am to the forces bringing us climate change? And yes, gas prices are down if climate disruption is up - seems like that classic case of choosing to focus on something near-term, in hand, already here versus what might be behind door 2 in the far distance. Only, choosing the chocolate-covered sweet may get me the less desirable thing I fear in the future. 
And yes, I can add to my list that ebola is on the decline, no thanks to NJ governor "sweet pie".

And speaking of stuffing ourselves, sure, many of us will share an abundance of food (pass the pie please), conversation and music (Max's drawing above too). But there are paradoxes galore as a very religious country tries to celebrate an event starting with Pilgrim’s thanking their particular God. We are now in the context of a more material, secular holiday celebrating family reunion as a precursor to shop-till-you-drop Friday..  Excess represents the paradoxical tension in which we hold the two halves of our national life.

As the Boston Globe’s review of James Baker’s “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Revisiting New England)” noted there has been a culturally blown path to today’s holiday:

“Baker traces how the [Thanksgiving] celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. . . Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage. But, he argues, ‘the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’ For, he observes, ‘debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’”—

As I noted last year, I like thanking the natural world and friends for some of the joys of the year. For the feel of what contemporary Thanksgiving has evolved into, I like
author Richard Ford’s take on it.  We hear a critical and astute voice in his 3rd novel of the Frank Bascombe Trilogy - "The Lay of the Land" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).  Frank’s observations on American culture that began with The Sportswriter (1986) and continued with Independence Day (1995). Each story is centered around a holiday.  When Frank is a young man it is Easter and he is in the season of hope amidst a cruel spring. Independence Day is of course about the 4th and Frank is no fire cracker fan, adrift and no longer married.  It’s more about traffic congestion than celebration.  In the 3rd book middle age Frank is a declining realtor facing the arrival of a cold Thanksgiving as the seasons of his life have advanced. 

As in each of the novel’s Frank's internal life is full of honest observations on things around him – society, family and identity and what it means to be a New Jersey American at a particular holiday time. These times include formal and informal holiday traditions that set wheels in motion that collide in paradoxical grim/humorous family gatherings.

Cultural and neighbor collisions wash up like dead starfish on the NJ shore too. 
As the arc of Thanksgiving day approaches Frank’s narrative concern is one of the impending pressure of events and expectations.  Readers may enjoy his take on the holiday.  He calls it:

 "cloying Thanksgiving… the recapitulative, Puritan and thus most treacherous of holidays.”

Frank may be blamed for feeling down and ill with little expectation of cheer form his family, but the author had more general coping things in mind about the nature of Thanksgiving as Frank further observers how things may work out and how we got here:

" My thought is that by my plan's being unambitious, the holiday won't deteriorate into apprehension, dismay and rage, rocketing people out the door and back to the Turnpike long before sundown. Thanksgiving ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday suitable to the secular and religious...It often doesn't work out that way.... , "As everyone knows, the Thanksgiving 'concept' was originally strong-armed onto poor war-torn President Lincoln by an early prototype forceful-woman editor of a nineteenth century equivalent of "The Ladies Home Journal," with a view to upping subscriptions. And while you can argue that the holiday commemorates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great-Mother-Who-Is-in-the-Earth, it's in fact always honored storewide clearances and stacking 'em deep 'n selling 'em cheap - unless you're a Wampanoag Indian in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide, and man's indifference to who owns what............

And yet, Thanksgiving won't be ignored.  Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for.  Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude.  Even if Aunt Bella's flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still "need" her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful.”

Ford’s fictional, but very human, agent Frank organizes his events modestly “for nonconfrontational familial good cheer “ in line with his reality but also risks little by trying to creatively navigate the downsides of the paradoxes:

 “unspectacular physical state -- and to accommodate as much as possible everyone's personal agendas, biological clocks, comfort zones and need for wiggle room, while offering a pleasantly neutral setting . ". . . it is churlish not to let the spirit swell - if it can - since little enough's at stake.....Contrive, invent, engage - take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones . . . Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag."

Good advice on how to make a complex ritual filled with paradox work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excellent letter from Americans United to the Department of Natural Resources

By Mathew Goldstein

Now we know why it took Americans United for Separation of Church and State several months to write their letter to Joseph P. Gill, Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources:  It was written by AU's senior attorneys like a court brief, heavy with citations of judicial decisions.  I count over 15 citations in a two page letter. The quote below contain the highlights of their clear and unequivocal November 25 letter.

"The Department cannot operate a program that restricts access to participants who are not religious or who deny the existence of God.... Likewise, the Department cannot legally enforce policies that would violate citizens rights to equal protection of the law.... For these reasons the Department must terminate its Charter Agreement with Boy Scouts of America and stop operating Venture Crew 202."

We are now waiting for a response from the DNR.  It is our commitment to the Establishment Clause and equal protection of the law that makes it happen.  Please go to the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobbying action page and send an email to the DNR.  If you are a resident of Maryland then send a second email to the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight to reinforce this message.  Or send them a letter and call them also.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Epicurus & Apikorisim: The Influence of the Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism

Edd Doerr reviews: Epicurus & Apikorisim: The Influence of the Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism, by Yaakov Malkin. Milan Press, 173 pp, $16.80.

Apikorsim is the Hebrew word for heretics (apikorsut = heresy). The word is evidently derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus  (341-270 BCE), whose ideas spread throughout the Hellenic world, including what we call the Middle East, after the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Epicurus rejected the idea of divine providence and personal immortality. Malkin writes that Epicurus may well have influenced the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, one reason why many early Jewish religious authorities did  not want it included in the canon. Epicureanism, not to be confused with hedonism, was passed along by the great Roman writer Lucretius (95-55 BCE) and influenced secular Jewish thought, and even liberal Muslim thought, for centuries, extending all the way to the Dutch/Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a precursor of modern Humanism, and such influential thinkers as John Locke and David Hume.

Israeli scholar Yaakov Malkin makes the point that “an individual or society can improve its quality of life by adopting the principle that happiness as its ultimate goal, as did the founders of the United States of America – the only state in the world to establish the Epicurean principle of ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a bedrock of all legislation and public policy. The inclusion of this idea in the American Declaration of Independence can be traced to Thomas Jefferson, who was a declared Epicurean.”  Malkin writes that the Deism of Jefferson and his generation was essentially an Epicureanism in which the word “God” was largely code for “Nature”.

Among Malkin’s insights is this: “Capitalism driven by hedonism, consumerism and globalization is generally not restrained by the principles of social justice and legislation based upon them. One of the exceptions to this rule is the state of affairs in Scandinavia, where there is no uncontrolled population growth, and where egalitarian (between men and women) democracy has succeeded in implementing policies based on a free-market economy and social legislation. In countries and regions suffering from population explosion, the suffering of the masses simply increases, while their ‘kleptocracies’ (as termed by Saul Bellow), are the main beneficiaries of financial aid from the world’s rich countries.” (We might note that the Norwegian Humanist Association, the Norsk HumanEtisk Forbund, is the largest Humanist organization in the world in terms of both numbers and percentage of national population.)

Malkin’s book was published in 2007, but, regrettably, my library is so full that I just got around to reading it. The book, incidentally, is dedicated to my late good friend Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the modern Humanistic Judaism movement and co-founder of Americans for Religious Liberty.

Interestingly, Malkin’s views on the importance and influence of Epicurus and Epicureans are very close to those of Matthew Stewart, whose excellent 2014 book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (Norton, 566 pp), I reviewed in the most recent Americans for Religious Liberty journal, Voice of Reason No. 128, accessible at

Among the tiny few bits of good news in the Nov 4 elections were these

Edd Doerr, President of  Americans for Religious Liberty, notes that Among the tiny few bits of good news in the Nov 4 elections were these ----

Hawaii voters defeated Amendment 4 by 55% to 45%. It would have diverted public funds to  faith-based private pre-K schools. That makes 28 state referenda between 1966 and 2014 in which voters throughout the US have rejected the diversion of public funds to special interest private schools by substantial margins. (With its limited resources, ARL was involved in  this victory.)

California voters re-elected state school super Tom Torkalson by 52% to 48%. His opponent had been generously supported by Walton, Broad and other fat cat money. Professional educators supported Torkalson.

Missouri voters rejected 75% to 25% a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have ended teacher tenure and tied teachers to student test scores.

Colorado and North Dakota voters defeated “personhood at conception” anti-choice amendments by 64% to 36%. However, Tennessee voters by 53% to 47% upheld an amendment to allow the state legislature to tamper all it likes with  abortion rights, a slap at Ro v Wade. The amendment was defeated in the major cities but won in the rural areas.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Some Observation on Truth from Robert G. Ingersoll in time for the 2014 election

By Gary Berg-Cross

As you can probably tell, the flood of insincerity abroad in our politics. It’s a stunning mix of strange, false & brazenly cheesy with intrusive fear paralyzing ads to boot (note - Overall ad spending has broken $1 billion in federal elections and state governors’ races,according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)). Of course there is plenty to fear with war, pestilence and poverty abroad in the land also along with "shady,deep-pocket dark money from the establishment that undermines what we call "Democracy." Indeed all these fears can get rolled into campaigns like Scott Brown who warns that ISIS might cross the border, and bring Ebola with themAll this conservative talk about things like "restoring the values of the Christian family" moves us away from reality.
Over 100 years ago Robert Ingersoll warned about message like this that use religious beliefs in hard times to impose faith-based values about morality and the like.  He recognized the methods of silencing people with alternate opinions and even denying the vote to those not favored by class or ethnicity.  His antidote, summarized in a booklet called “The Truth” (sometimes package with another pamphlet call Ghosts) was a dose of rationality and truth with ideas forged in the Enlightenment  after the “c
ountless years” we had “groped and crawled and struggled and climbed and stumbled toward the light after being “hindered and delayed and deceived “  In Ingersoll’s time the foundation was given a boost by Darwin’s evidence-based theory of evolutions. So armed humanity seemed hungry for the facts and ready to accept Science as a benefactor.  Ingersoll’s apt observation was that:

 “Nothing is greater, nothing is of more importance, than to find amid the errors and darkness of this life, a shining truth. Truth is the intellectual wealth of the world. Truth is the mother of joy. Truth civilizes, ennobles, and purifies. The grandest ambition that can enter the soul is to know the truth.
Truth gives man the greatest power for good. Truth is sword and shield. It is the sacred light of the soul.
The man who finds a truth lights a torch.”

Like many Ingersoll would be disappointed to find so few of us with the right sword, shield or torch to spark our inner light of understanding and to speak honestly from deep conviction. Instead we are still under the say of politically correct belief buttressed by invisible ghosts of prejudiced conclusions that steals the truth from us like a mix of a tyrant and a beggar. There are just still too many factors, as Ingersoll observed, lingering from our primitive past  that hinder us from examining issues.

“Prejudice, egotism, hatred, contempt, disdain, are the enemies of truth and progress. .... all questions presented to his mind, without prejudice, -- unbiased by hatred or love -- by desire or fear.” 

Our political process and its allies tries to prevent open inquiry by “force or fear” which  is doing all it can to “degrade and enslave” us still.
In part we have not taken up with full enthusiasm the path to the truth - by investigation, experiment and reason.  We are still prey to a truth short-circuit of that self-controlled exploratory path. Open investigation of issues is still difficult and ill-supported with some topics too sensitive to discuss.  Instead we are swallowed by the dishonest propaganda of conventional and mainstream, politically correct thinking and truthiness. It comes mixed in with talking points and slogan that hide reality like a Wall Street insider.

A final thought is that those who can cut through the fog of politics to a better understanding have the obligation to reach out as Ingersoll did and communicate and to be a concerned citizen:

“If it be good for man to find the truth -- good for him to be intellectually honest and hospitable, then it is good for others to know the truths thus found.

Every man should have the courage to give his honest thought. This makes the finder and publisher of truth a public benefactor.

Those who prevent, or try to prevent, the expression of honest thought, are the foes of civilization -- the enemies of truth. Nothing can exceed the egotism and impudence of the man who claims the right to express his thought and denies the same right to others.
It will not do to say that certain ideas are sacred, and that man has not the right to investigate and test these ideas for himself."
And oh yes, vote your wisdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Some Truth about Truthy

by Gary Berg-Cross

Republican FCC member Ajit Pai had an Op-Ed in the Washington Post the other day (10/18/2014 _ called  'Truthy' project is unworthy of tax dollars. Essentially this seemed to me to be something of an unjustified and/or confused attack on a bit of NSF funded research.  Here is the way the posting started off:

If you take to Twitter to express your views on a hot-button issue, does the government have an interest in deciding whether you are spreading "misinformation"? If you tweet your support for a candidate in the November elections, should taxpayer money be used to monitor your speech and evaluate your "partisanship"?

Sounds ominous and Ajit went on to warn of NSF funding an Indiana University project to “collect and analyze your Twitter data.”  It's called Truthy and you can check out the site yourself.

What analysis do we find there? Well the aim is to detect what the researchers deem "social pollution" and to study what they call "social epidemics," including how memes -- ideas that spread throughout pop culture -- propagate. I think that Ajit alarm bells went off because the types of social pollution targeting included "Political smears," (aka "astroturfing") and other forms of "misinformation."  To Ajit this effort might be the beginning of a government effort to monitor and control social media.

Really he may been building on a scare rumor scary seems to have started with a discredited and disingenuous article at the Daily Beacon. . As noted in the Columbia Journalism ReviewConservative media’s reaction to an Indiana University project shows how shoddy information can quickly become an online narrative.”  And we actually know, due to analytic studies how the rumor meme spread:

The Free Beacon’s article was shared about 4,000 times on Twitter and 10,000 times on Facebook, according to Muck Rack analytics. It was crossposted on the next day, garnering an additional 2,000 shares on Twitter and 15,000 shares on Facebook. And it was quickly picked up by a handful of other prominent right-wing websites, becoming fodder for paranoia-inducing analyses by The Week, Reason, and “Other blogs twisted the meme and mutated the meme until it became completely outlandish,” Menczer said. “I don’t think there’s anything we can say to change that.”  - See more at:

I like knowing something about this meme contagion.  Groups that get smeared unjustly and are interested in the truth can profit know transparency.  If you go to the site you can see and read about different types of social networks and patterns. 
Social Network

Really, one thinks of outlets like the Drudge Report that have been accused of planting stories and in other conservative media. And indeed
Twitter Spam
campaign or partisan groups tweeting under the guise of grassroots activity.  Seems worth knowing and the Truthy study does not look only at conservative sources it looks at liberal ones to.

I was annoyed enough by the lack of good arguments in Ajit’s article to send a letter to WAPO which was later published as this:

It is important to remember that the study is by the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research. While it is government-funded, it is not a government project. The study aims to understand Twitter activity, such as how sentiments change over time in response to events, including political ones. Its results are published
on its Web site.

Truthy is not aimed at controlling tweets. It analyzes tweets to determine things such as, "Who are the most influential users and which are most popular over time?" It analyzes both liberal and conservative political issues and seeks to show how information spreads in the social network.

Seems like something the public would like to know."

Indeed invisible influence peddlers may be the ones who should be worried here.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We cannot choose our conclusion

By Mathew Goldstein

Our modern picture of the world counter-evidences the religious conviction that our universe has a transcendent aspect or purpose.  Epistemic humility mandates the conclusion that our picture is incomplete.  We all operate under conditions of irremediable uncertainty.  We are not following out a proof.  But when it is proposed that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations under the direction of ghostly beings, the proper reaction is to reject the proposed explanation.

We must reject interventions by ghostly beings because we do not need to know everything with certainty from proof to know enough to confidently conclude that our universe operates within the physical constraints of indifferent natural laws.  To reach this conclusion we need a commitment to truth and a recognition that the only reliable way to discover what is true about how our universe functions is to follow the empirical evidence.  We are compelled to the recognition that we are dependent on empiricism by tallying the historical success versus failure ratio of various methods of finding the truth.

Rain and war dances, prayer, meditation, incantations, voodoo, fasting, hallucinatory substances, exorcism, seance, astrology, tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls, worship, faith, intuition, imagination, divine revelation, are among the multitude of non-empirical methods that people have turned to resolve problems and obtain answers.  These methods have an unbroken track record of failure.  The only method of finding the truth about how our universe operates that has a consistent track record of success is a skeptical empiricism.  A nutritious meal, a sound sleep and a mid-day nap, some physical exercise, good music, meditation, maybe even a hallucinatory substance, etc., can all contribute, but only empiricism rejects what is fake and connects us to what is real.

The available empirical evidence is sufficient to speak decisively against our universe possessing transcendence or purpose.  Contrary to what agnosticism claims, the evidence is not silent on this question.  Every area of human inquiry that speaks on this question speaks consistently, unanimously telling us that our universe operates mechanically and is indifferent to our fate.  To continue to believe in a universal transcendence or purposefulness or higher power is to refuse to confront what the evidence says.

The unavoidable need for interpretation to get from the evidence to any given conclusion is sometimes cited as justification for accepting a wide range of conclusions.  However, skeptical empiricism connects the evidence to a particular conclusion by best fit.  Best fit discards unnecessary accouterments and attaches itself to the most economical conclusion.  Equality and pluralism are important and valuable social principles, but they are counterproductive as principles of rationality.

All conclusions are not equally good.  For those of us who are committed to responsibly matching our beliefs to the evidence, any religious belief, from the most literalist to the most metaphorical, has ceased to be a live option.  It would be otherwise only if our universe was different.  We did not choose the universe we were born into and therefore we cannot choose our conclusion.  Atheism is the best fit with the available evidence conclusion given our universe as it actually is and therefore we are atheists.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Interfaith on Campus

by Gary Berg-Cross

The British Religion in Numbers website is an online resource of survey and other data. You can see charts on church numbers and belief such as:

 It useful since many religious debates get down to questions of how many or how large or is this typical?  And of course trends are important.
And one trend at least has gotten some recent attention based on results from the first stage of the 2015 British Election Study.  This is a survey of more than 20,000 people conducted by a team of academics from Manchester, Oxford and Nottingham universities.. Apparently, as reported in Christian Today, the results show that in roughly the last five decades, the number of people reporting no religion in Britain:
 “has grown from just 3 per cent of the population to nearly half, according to a new survey. “
It’s roughly a 1% change a year going from 3 to 50% in 40 years.  Similar trends are reported in the US and even in the US South there is movement.  The Public Religion Research Institute's recent report noted that 14 percent of Alabamians describe themselves as "religiously unaffiliated." That’s a long way from Britian but as a local paper worried “In a state that put the King James Bible in "Bible belt," that's downright shocking.”  Let's see 30 years of 1% for Alabama would put them up to Britain.
And it is more of a trend for young adults aged under 25. In Britain nearly two-thirds define themselves as "nones", or people with no religious affiliation.
Part of the turn off is attributed to disgust with male-dominated church leadership who’s orthodoxy abides traditional discrimination against women and homosexuals.  One notes that Pope Frank and others are on to this issue and searching for ways to mitigate the orthodox image at least.  One worries that this is just a kinder, gentler form of orthodoxy. After all if its God's word and you're infallible.  Well there may be a ceiling effect.
Another  reaction was noted on NPR with a segment by MONIQUE PARSONS (October 16, 2014) called: Interfaith Chaplains Revitalize An Old Role On College Campuses.

The broadcast started by noting that a third of young Americans report no religious affiliation – well behind the Brits, I guess, but hope still bubbles in chaplain's offices according to the report. And why not? There was free pizza for the casual drop in!  The real innovation noted was the pull and soft sell of the new, trending Interfaith Councils aspect. “Come in and shop.  Try on my religion.  It goes well with your hair color.”
At USC's interfaith council there was a noted a mix of Muslim students, Catholics, a Sikh, an agnostic and a few unclassified or hybrid identities.
VARUN SONI provided examples of some hybrid ID :
·       I'm a Zen Christian,
·       I'm sushi. I was like, what's sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I'm sushi.
·       I'm a Hin-Jew,
·       I'm a Jew-Bu.
These may evoke a degree of tolerance mixed and respect for difference, win-win overlap with occasional bumps into ritual, observance conflicts & paradox. We do know that interfaith marriages, which in part produce these hybrids, are on the rise in the U.S. but there seems to be a wrinkle. According to one study, interfaith couples are more likely to keep their separate religious affiliations than ever before (40% keep there's compared to 20% 40 years ago - gee, less
compromise and more stick). So there is a practical limit to this blending. Sill I've long become familiar with the Atheist-Unitarians (AUs) blend that may be more tolerant than some mixes. Exposure to, and experience practicing, different religious faiths may breed some tolerance and put people on a better path.  I generally feel that way about AUs. There is even some Humanist hybrid possible -AHU is quietly in the mix.
But what about the professionals?  The chaplains and the organizations that employ them. Are they bystanders, facilitators, and participants with their own agendas?  Hard to say. Certainly they continue to churn out graduates who then seek jobs.   And the show made clear that campus chaplain offices are dynamically reconfiguring their approach to connect with those trending hybrid identities. 

I don't know if this is as much of phenomena in Britain, but the Chaplin at USC is an interesting example. Hi is named Soni.  Turns out he is not a trained clergyman. He's a Hindu with a law degree and a PhD in religious studies.  Well at least he’s found a career path. Indeed as reported, he is not the only one on the new Interfaith chaplaincy cruise path:
“In a way, chaplains like Soni are more like interfaith cruise directors than traditional pastors. Soni oversees 100 student religious groups and 50 chaplains of different faiths, including a new atheist chaplain to serve secular students. At Yale, a Catholic laywoman runs the religious life office. At Emory, in Atlanta, a school affiliated with the Methodist Church, an Imam recently made the shortlist for chaplain. Seminaries are taking note. At the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California, a student practices piano inside the chapel. There's a big cross up front, but also symbols from other faiths. The school has partnered with local Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish seminaries. It's also created new degree programs to reach millennial's interested in ministry.”

Some of the activities at USC mentioned included invites to star athletes to talk about spirituality or actor Rainn Wilson to give a lecture on his Bahai faith. There's also a popular lunch series with professors called "What Matters To Me And Why?"  Sounds like it could be a mix of Philosophy and Psychology, but Interfaith offices lay some claim to that turf too now less oriented around God and more around the big, existential questions of meaning and purpose, of significance and authenticity.  
Religions have historically crafted simple memes to appear to address these Big Questions and in the process pull shop-oriented people into a religious, cultural identity . That’s evolving and perhaps there will studies of where the interfaith path takes us.  In the meantime it is a bit of an opening for the Humanist message about life's big questions.  Along with the free pizza some humanist teachings seem like a good addition to the interfaith discussions.