Thursday, February 20, 2014

Aw, Canada

by Edd Doerr

Secular, publicly funded York University in Ontario is trying to force veteran sociology prof Paul Grayson to allow an unnamed student to opt out of a course group project because he does not wish to interact with female students for "religious reasons". Says Grayson: "Can I assume that a similar logic would apply if the group with which he did not want to interact was comprised of Blacks, Muslims [or] homosexuals?  Do we want our daughters going to universities where it's OK for male students to say that we don't want to interact with you?"

Huron University College in Ontario,  tax aided and originally an Anglican seminary,  which offers a course called "The Muslim Voice: Islamic Preaching, Public Speaking and Worship", allowed Moray Wilson to enroll in the course but then kicked him out because he is not a Muslim. Several years ago at the same college a Buddhist student was persuaded not to take a Christian homiletics class.

I generally have a high regard for Canada and Canadians, but this is ridiculous.

Also ridiculous is Ontario's providing full tax support for public and Catholic schools but not Jewish or Protestant schools, an arrangement that goes back to the British North America Act of 1867. Polls have shown that a majority of Ontario voters would like to change things, but thus far nothing has been done, even though the Ontario arrangement violates international agreements that Canada has signed.

Back in the 1990s Newfoundland province, which had no public schools but only tax-supported faith-based schools, found that the system was the worst in all of Canada. The provincial government finally did away with the old order and created a secular public school system, which was upheld by Newfie voters in a referendum by 3 to 1. Interestingly, the schools offer instruction "about"  the various religious traditions in the province (including the unchurched) at several grade levels that US schools would be afraid to do. I have a complete set of the textbooks and find them very good.

"A Church So Poor"????

by Edd Doerr

Here's a MUST READ: New York Times, Feb 20: "A Church So Poor It Has to Close Schools, Yet So Rich It Can Build a Palace", by Michael Powell. John J. Myers, archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Newark, enjoys a 4,500 square-foot mini-mansion on an 8.5 acre lot in affluent Hunterdon County, NJ, and is adding a 3,000 square-foot addition that will cost over a half-million dollars more.  Meanwhile, his Newark archdiocese two years ago closed Mater Dei Academy across the Hudson from Manhattan. The Church is said to be running low on cash. Quite separately, "His Grace" , as Myers insists on being addressed, has a spotty record on dealing with clerical child abusers. (Powell can't resist noting that Pope Francis lives in a "modest guest apartment.")

Hmmm, let's connect some dots. A Catholic archbishop can live like royalty while closing some of the church's private schools. Church brass have been campaigning vigorously for many decades to get tax support for their private sectarian schools, through federal or state vouchers, while Catholics have been leaving the church in droves and have been cutting back on financial support. (Note also that Catholic school enrollment has declined from 5.5 million in 1965 to 2 million today, for reasons having little to do with money.)  Meanwhile, the Church in the US alone has had to pay out well over $2 billion to victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Don't get me wrong. Individual Catholics are like Americans of all persuasions. It's the culture of the unelected church leaders long known for their arrogance that is the problem.

Why the hell should we taxpayers have to support the private schools run by the Catholic and other churches? Why should politicians kowtow to church leaders who want to have government impose their narrow, resyrictive doctrines on all women with regard to reproductive matters? And why are Republican politicians, federal and state, scrambling to do the bidding of church leaders?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson & Sagan's "Cosmos"

by Edd Doerr

Carl Sagan's great 1980 PBS series "Cosmos" is being "reconstructed" as a new 13-week series on Fox called "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey", to start on March 9.  The series will be hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For details see the excellent article in the Feb 17 & 24 New Yorker titled "Starman: Neil deGrasse Tyson, the new guide to the 'Cosmos'".

Though raised in a traditional religion, Tyson moved on to what we would recognize as humanism. But let's let Tyson explain it himself, as he does in the New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead. "My confidence that there is a loving God who cares at all for your health or your longevity, based on what I see in the physical universe, is so low that it is not something that I would spend any time investing in, to try to explore any further about whether or not it's true. I'll let other people to that exploring. And, if they bring the evidence to me, that's fine."

Saying that he lacks the time or energy "to enter a debate about atheism", Tyson adds, "It's odd that the word 'atheist' even exists. I don't play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather to strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, and come together, and talk about the fact that they don't ski?"

Tyson speaks for a great many humanists, secular humanists, religious humanists, naturalistic humanists, and just plain "unchurched" men and women, a far larger number of people than all the members of humanist, freethought and atheist organizations combined. And this ties in with my observations as an active humanist for over six decades. My experience leads me to recognize that labels are deceptive and too often counterproductive, that the shared interests of people of a wide range of labels (chosen, inherited . . . whatever) should pull good people of all labels together to deal with the problems that face all of us -- climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation,  increasing attacks on church-state separation and public education, mounting assaults on women's rights of conscience on reproductive matters, political stagnation, growing social inequality, poverty here and abroad, oligarchy, virulent fundamentalisms, indifference, etc.

These have been my concerns for my 32  years running Americans for Religious Liberty, 14 years as head of the AHA, 16 years at Americans United, 50 years as a writer and activist and lecturer. I am happy to be on the same page  as guys like Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Allah Willing"?

by Edd Doerr

A Malaysian court ruled last October that non-Muslims may not use the Arabic word "Allah" to refer to "God". Now that might  be a problem for tourists in Maylasia from Spanish speaking lands. The reason, you see, is that one of the most common words in Spanish is "ojala" (which is pronounced
 "oh-hah-LA", accent on the last syllable), meaning "Allah willing" or "God willing". Spanish also uses the expression "si Dios quiere" (if God wills). "Ojala" entered  Spanish (as  did very similar words in Portuguese and Maltese) during the centuries of Muslim occupation.

While  Spanish evolved from common on vulgar Latin, the Arab years of occupation added to the Spanish vocabulary such words as "admiral" and "camisa" (shirt), words for water management, a great many names of places and rivers (Cordoba, Quadalquivir, etc), and names for items unknown previously in Europe, such as cotton and various plant foods.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to lobby Maryland for secular state laws

By Mathew Goldstein 

Secular activism tends to focus on federal government and courts.  Lobbying for secularism in state and local government can be difficult.  State and local governments tend to be more parochial and more antagonistic to secularism.  Religious groups are organized and active at the state and local levels.  Candidates for public office turn to the congregants in their house of worship to staff their campaigns.  The constitutional courts at the state level tend to have elected judges, and constitutional amendments must be approved by the voters, making it more difficult to protect minority rights from public opinion.

The Secular Coalition for America is trying to organize state chapters to lobby for secularism in each state.  I am trying to help them get their Maryland chapter going.  Initially, press releases were sent by email to media contacts.  Currently the chapter is working on getting written testimony to various Senate and House committees that are reviewing bills.  The committee decisions on bills are usually decisive.  If a committee favors a bill then it is almost always approved, and vice versa.

If you are a resident of Maryland then you can help by writing to the committees reviewing the bills.  However, there are over a thousand bills in each chamber and several dozen different committees reviewing different bills every day.  The General Assembly processes all of these bills within 90 days each year starting in January and ending in March.  It is already mid February.  If you want secular government in Maryland then what can you do?

The Secular Coalition for Maryland now hosts a web page to make it a little easier to send emails to the committees that are reviewing the bills.  Please visit the lobbying action web site, while the General Assembly is still in session, here:

Atheism: The new Fundamentalism?

By Mathew Goldstein 

Someone describing herself as a "Spiritual Pundit, counselor, and coach", wrote an article recently published in Huffington Post titled Atheism: The new Fundamentalism? It begins with retelling a conversation with an atheist who keeps insisting he does not believe in any God.  The Spiritual Pundit defines god as "a placeholder for the ineffable" but the atheist rejects this as nonsense, saying he believes in science.  The Spiritual Pundit sees evolution "as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation" so she concludes that the atheist must be insisting on an "outmoded version of God" when claiming theism is incompatible with science.  

Anyone who is opened minded "must have some version of what you don't believe in", says the Spiritual Pundit, figuring that as soon as an atheist defines what he does not believe in, his or her atheism is defeated by the simple expedient of redefining god to be something else.  But the atheist will only say he believes in science, and points to historical evils as refuting god.  The Spiritual Pundit does not see historical horrors as "proof of the non-existence of God", citing "new theologies and new understandings of God" that rejects "the puppet master God".  But the atheist persists in declaring science and theism to be mutually exclusive.  To the Spiritual Pundit this demonstrates that the atheist falsely insists on a "Santa sort of a God" and believes in a "disinterested universe made of mere matter ... with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism."  

Thus, the Spiritual Pundit concludes, an atheist is a closed minded fundamentalist who "disregards mystical experience" just like a biblical literalist who "disregards carbon dating".

But disregarding carbon dating and disregarding spiritual experiences are as dissimilar from each other as disregarding science textbooks and disregarding holy books.  It is here, in the insistence on anchoring our beliefs in empirical evidence, and not relying on flights of fancy, that the atheists are correct and the spiritual pundits of the world are mistaken.  Spiritual pundits start with "theologies and understandings" as the conclusion to be reached and then look for ways to make their preferred conclusion consistent with the available evidences.  Thus god becomes "ineffable" and synonymous with our universe by definition.  The atheist, in contrast, starts with the available evidences and tries to reach the best fit conclusion.  The atheist sees in quantum mechanics an example of how critical it is to take an evidence first approach when adopting beliefs about how the universe functions.  

Spiritual pundits see quantum mechanics as an example of how "the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend".   Maybe.  But dealing with the counter-intuitive nature of our universe is the point.  Our intuitions are not up to the task of answering such questions.  A non evidenced, axiomatic, incomprehensible, God defined as "the embodiment" of evolution, or vice versa, is a 100% intuition derived belief that is completely superfluous from the perspective of what the empirical evidence communicates about how our universe functions.  We have no good excuse for abandoning an evidence first approach since that is the only approach that we have any reason to think reliably gets us to factual answers.  No one claims this method is perfect, but it does not need to be perfect to be the only game in town.

As long as the available empirical evidences overall favors the conclusion that the natural universe is fundamentally physical in nature and everything that exists is part of this natural universe, then atheism is a reasonable conclusion to hold (in my judgement, it is the singularly most reasonable conclusion, which is why I am an atheist).  If something is synonymous with our universe, or with mystery, then we already have those words to represent those concepts. Relabeling these concepts as God does not get us anywhere.  If standing firm on an insistence for grounding our beliefs about how the universe functions on empirical evidence defines atheists as "fundamentalists", and "scientific literalists", and "dogmatists", as some spiritual pundits claim, then those labels lose their negative connotations.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Bobby in the Twilight Zone

by Edd Doerr

Presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, addressing an audience on Feb 13 at the Reagan presidential library, made the wild claim that liberals are engaging in a "silent war" on religion. How? By using the Affordable Care Act's health insurance mandate to protect the right of employees to coverage of contraception. He also claimed that liberals will try to pass laws to pressure churches to perform same-sex marriages, despite the fact that our church-state separation principle does  not permit government interference with churches' right to make follow their own rules on marriages.

Jindal avoided mentioning that he and his GOP legislature have been forcing all Louisiana taxpayers to contribute to the support of pervasively sectarian private schools.

Jindal and his pals are themselves conducting a not-so-silent war on religious liberty, on public education, and on church-state separation.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Another Thing a Hebrew Bible Story Got Wrong

by Gary Berg-Cross

The story lines read "Archaeologists Carbon-Date Camel Bones, Discover Major Discrepancy In Bible Story." It's another one of those areas where scientific understanding runs up against mythic stories.  In this case Researchers Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef (Tel Aviv University) report what seems like an historical mistake  laid out in the Bible tale.

The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) mentions  camels as pack animals as early as the story of Abraham. Though there is no archaeological evidence of Abraham's life, we hear from some of the religious and scientific communities, including Chabad and the Associates For Biblical Research, cite the 20th century BCE as his time of birth. 
But carbon-dating has been used to determine the age of the oldest-known camel bones, and these support the view that camels were first introduced to Israel around the 9th century BCE. That's a few hundred years before the time the compilation Hebrew stories were written down, but perhaps a century after Abraham's life. Scholars tell us that "with the exception of a few biblical sections in the Prophets, virtually no biblical text is contemporaneous with the events it describes, and was subject to revision by later authors"....So we have reasonable evidence that writing or editing of the Hebrew text happened quite a bit after the events that are narrate stories.  (There have been large lists of Biblical criticism including sloppy editing.) Here we have a seeming case of human editing the "revealed" truth and making a rationalized, perhaps sensationalized certainly human contextualized story.  
Who to believe? There are some who revere the authors in absentia and still take the stories literally in part because the view of the world they tell of fallen heros, chosen groups, god-fearing behavior and non-interest in worldly things is compelling.
"Too bad", as someone once said of Freudian theory," it's a wonderful story, but it isn't true".

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Emmett McLoughlin

by Edd Doerr

Emmett McLoughlin (1907-1970) was a Catholic priest and hospital administrator in Phoenix. After  church superiors accused him of neglecting his "priestly duties" he left the priesthood and the church in 1948 and continued his hospital work. His book People's Padre was published in 1954 by Beacon Press (the Unitarian publisher) and became a bestseller. His 5 other books between 1960 and 1968,
published by Lyle Stuart, were very critical of the Catholic church. I have a copy of his 288-page 1965 book, Letters to an Ex-Priest, signed by McLoughlin thus, "To Edd Doerr,  Long live heresy! Emmett McLoughlin, July 30, 1966".

"Letters" is interesting for historical reasons. Much has happened since McLoughlin was bitterly attacked for his published critiques, all of which may look a bit quaint today while still meriting reading. People's Padre was published before the following occurred: The election of a Catholic President in 1960 who staunchly supported church-state separation; The 1962-63 Supreme Court rulings on school prayer that ended  the residual Protestant hegemony in many public schools; The 1962-65 Second Vatican Council that liberalized Catholicism to a degree; The sharp decline of Catholic private school enrollment from 5.5 million in 1965 to two million now; The 1968 Vatican condemnation of contraception that triggered massive resistance and opposition among Catholics worldwide; The 27 state referendum elections between 1966 and 2012 in which voters from coast to coast voted against diversion on public funds to Catholic and other private schools by an average margin of two to one (especially in heavily Catholic states like New York and Massachusetts); The 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade acknowledging a constitutional right to abortion, a ruling largely based on the thinking of Catholic Justice William Brennan; the shift of Catholic lay opinion to support for contraception, abortion rights, same sex marriage, women priests, and ending mandatory clerical celibacy; majority Catholic voter support for Obama in 2008 and 2012; the crushing defeat in 1971 in the House of a school prayer amendment by a Democratic Catholic-Jewish-Unitarian majority led largely by Rep Robert Drinan (D-MA) a Catholic priest. And that is only part of a very large and complex picture.

I will sell my mint condition copy of the "Letters" book for $25 to the first person who contacts me about it at


The Cybernetic Atheist's Mission Statement

I occurs to me that I've not truly expressed my beliefs and what I hope to show the world in my blog.

Yeah, a blog.  Everybody and his donkey has a blog.  Not a big deal.

I really don't care.  This is MY blog, and I hope to tell the world what I think about just about anything that comes to mind.  There are, however, some issues that are more important and will (have been) blogged about more than others.

Separation of Church and State
Harm from Religion
Science and Technology
Apple, Inc. products and similar cool stuff
Weird stuff
Secular Humanism

Now, taking this one step at a time, here goes.

Separation of Church and State

I am an American citizen.  I have spent over 40 years of my life serving the United States Government and have taken two oaths to support and defend the Constitution.  One was military - four years, and the other the civilian oath for Federal Civil Service - 36 years, all of that at the FDA.

The Constitution has as part of its first Amendment the guarantee of religious freedom.  Two clauses, one to keep the government out of religious affairs, and one to keep religions out of government affairs.  Together, they protect all Americans from any one religion (or religious sect) from dominating the government and dictating religious affairs to the rest of the country.  A clause in the Constitution itself forbids any religious test of office, going further to protect us from religious influence.

It isn't perfect, as today's struggle to keep fundamentalist Christianity from overturning the US Constitution and creating a Theocracy is proof of.  (Yes, Dominionists really ARE trying to do that.)

I am opposed to that, and am avowed to do anything I can to support separating religion from public affairs.  The First Amendment provides excellent cover for religious folks to go to church and even practice their religion in the privacy of their own lives without the rest of us interfering.  It also guarantees them the right to associate with others of like belief.

The oaths I took obligate me to protect the rights of ALL Americans, religious and non-religious, and I WILL do that, but I will NOT support anybody forcing their religious practices on anyone who does not believe.  I will also not support anybody forcibly stopping people from believing in a god, either. 

Believe how you want, practice - or not - as you wish.  But you cannot use the power of the government - Local, State or Federal - to force your religious practices on the entire country.


I am pretty much an Independent.  I am registered in Maryland as a Democrat - mostly because that's the best way I see to use my vote.  I refuse, on principle, to vote for a Republican, until that party regains its senses and dumps both the religious loonies and the Tea Party extremists.  If they ever do, and become a viable party with sensible and competent leaders, then I'll begin looking at individual Republicans running for office again.

I support universal single payer health care, legalization of marijuana, reasonable limitations on firearm ownership, separation of Church and State, immediate measures to curb human contributions to climate change, a reasonable balance between human and animal habitation of our planet, strict control over our capitalistic economic system, including harsh prison sentences for economic leaders who endanger the system by emphasizing private gain, government programs to assist the unfortunate and the impoverished.

I am in complete support of full, free public education, from pre-school through four year University level.  There is nothing more critical to a functioning and healthy democracy than a fully educated and reasoning citizenry, and it is our obligation to future generations of Americans to see that they receive the full benefits of the best education this country can provide.  Nothing else is as likely to eliminate poverty than that.

I am in full support of full and complete equality of all human beings, regardless of race, sex, gender identification or sexual orientation.  Human rights are HUMAN rights, and no sub-classification by arbitrary label has the power to abrogate any of those rights, no matter what label that may be.

I also explicitly support the freedom of women to choose their own way when it comes to procreation.  Or the choice to NOT procreate.  They have the right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term or not, and in consultation with the physician of their choice, the right to end that pregnancy however is appropriate to their individual circumstances, should those circumstances demand it.


I have seen the evidence and firmly am of the opinion that the group known as Dominionists are determined to overthrow the United States government as a democracy and transform it into a theocracy.  I will publish and repost whatever information I see to bring awareness of them and their activities to public light, in an effort to persuade as many people as possible to oppose their lunacy.


I am a firm atheist.  I do not believe in a god of any kind, and believe that religions of all kinds represent some form of confidence game with the purpose of gaining political and economic power for whatever priestly or guiding group controls the organizations supporting worship of any particular god or gods.

While I do see the lack of evidence for a "historical Jesus" as lacking, which makes that historicity unlikely, I think that the more important point is that since there is no god, there can have been no son, so even if there WAS a man whose existence may have been overblown into legendary status, the claims of godhood cannot be true, by definition.  Ergo, stop bothering me with it.


Being an atheist is similar to not believing in the tooth fairy.  The word defines something I DON'T believe in, not what I do.  There are other, more positive things that define my ethics and my moralities.

Harm from Religion

I believe that the widespread belief in religion brings harm to all mankind and retards our progress into the future.

It does so by causing people to filter reality through a false lens, altering their responses and making them do things which actively harm others as well as, often, themselves.  It causes people to make political decisions based on bronze age ethics and morals in an age where such practices have long been discarded as cruel and unusual, causing turmoil, dissension and violent political strife and, often, war.  It causes people to make claims on land based on ancient legends and stories backed by no more than books of dubious authenticity and provenance - claims which have roiled the entire globe with violence and untold turmoil for decades, with little possibility for any reasonable settlement.

It breaks up families, promotes child abuse, opposes public education and encourages people to blindly follow authorities who have no competence or ability to lead, and often, only lead to aggrandize themselves.

It encourages entire sects of people to disbelieve climate change based on a false sense of believing that god will somehow come back to repair the damage we have done.

Historically, it has encouraged its believers to kill those who do not believe the same as themselves, and many sects still do so today.  Many of these will kill apostates.

I could go on, but you get the gist of what I am saying.


I believe that when human beings die, our personality dies with the death of the body, in which the personality resides.  There is no soul, no spirit.  No ghosts.  Yes, ghost stories may be fun, and scare the crap out of your younger siblings, but there is no basis for believing in their existence.

Spiritualism is, in short, something that resides within ourselves, and gives us the ability to improve the way we use our minds.  It helps us to balance ourselves, removing stress and tension and improving our mental state of mind.

It does not connect us to a greater power, nor does it make us one with the Universe.

Science and Technology

I believe that mankind will improve our standard of living, our health and our relationship with the rest of mankind as we learn more and more about the Universe, how it works and how our own biology works.  I encourage the continued activities of people the world over to invest in the continued and growing research and development of science and technology.

Apple, Inc. and all its products.

I love Apple.  I love its tech, I love its products.  I will occasionally talk about anything I see as cool that they  are coming out with.

Weird stuff

As knowledgeable about Science and the universe as we may be, any scientist will tell you that the whole point of science is to discover the things we do NOT know.  I like to occasionally explore the weird stuff that indicates things we may still be ignorant about.

Secular Humanism

I am at heart, a secular humanist.  This pretty much sums up what I feel.

  • A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.

  • Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

  • A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

  • A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

  • A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.

  • A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.

  • A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Robert W. Ahrens
Rockville, MD

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Corruption and religious belief within states

By Mathew Goldstein

The question of what effectively prevents corruption, and what contributes to corruption, cannot be answered by only looking at the influence of religion. China appears to have relatively high corruption and one of the highest proportion of self-declared atheists. Nevertheless, given that religions so frequently claim an ethical advantage for believers over skeptics, it is good to know a little about what social science has to say about the correlations between religious beliefs and ethical standards. Since data is often collected on a national level, such comparisons are often most practical to make between states. The Epiphenom blog focuses on social science studies of religion and non-belief. Recently, they reported on the results of a study using standard assessments of national corruption by Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA. They found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.