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.