Saturday, January 31, 2015

Religion, Faith and Belief – well covered in the Media, but with different slants

By Gary Berg-Cross
Lots of media (newspapers, magazines, radio and online types like blog sites etc.) have a Religion section or its equivalent.  WaPo has it online under the National section where you can read about the “Latest Religion News.
This includes local Religion events from around the Washington area including music
(Dixieland jazz), Martha’s Table, food drives, Super Bowl Fellowship, Bible study, yoga, wellness, organ recitals.

Under the WAPO  RELIGION heading you read how the ubiquitous  (and Controversial)
Koch brothers give big (again) to Catholic University. But you can also find related  coverage under the Metro or Style section which has On Faith.
The NYT has a Religion and Belief section with occasional posting like:
Mark Oppenheimer Beliefs column. A January post observed that many faiths struggle with concept of animal ensoulment; cites proliferation of pet cemeteries throughout the United States.

An earlier one in January was about former NY Gov Mario Cuomo willingness to speak publicly about his religious beliefs.

On Xmas day atheist Mark Bittman Op-Ed article cross-posted there that reflects that 2014 was the 100th anniversary of Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides took break from fighting to be festive together.

Also on Xmas dayT M Luhrmann had a cross posted Op-Ed article about people attending God-neutral, growing in popularity movements like Sunday Assembly around Xmas Yes even for atheists group ritual is important to make sense of the world.

Even the Guardian has a Religion section and moving to online phenomena the news aggregating blog site called  the Huffington Post has a Religion news section. It’s under its Voices category. As a liberal site I find its coverage includes a bit more critical tone than most of the others. You can read about “Why Julianne Moore Stopped Believing In God” They break faith down into several categories and also have a  Religion and Science section that features "blog posts and news reports that address the ongoing conversation and tension between religion and science. The page has a pro-science and pro-faith point of view and highlights smart, sophisticated perspectives from all religious traditions on how to best improve relationships between these two fields of inquiry."

These feature research and fact-oriented coverage and not just opinion. Recent examples include, Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds”  and “Religious Objections To Vaccines Are A Threat To Public Health.

Still I find most of these sites could be considered religiously or faith oriented. They are labeled so.

A bit different is the Belief section of the very liberal blog aggregator Alternet.  Here we are beyond a religious and religious faith slant to one of the more general topic of belief including secular belief. Atheism is pretty prominently featured and discussed and discomfort to faith-based belief folks is likely.  They cover issues in a more confrontational way - sort of like a New Atheist style, but they include articles that might take on that topic too.

Recent posting included:
E. O. Wilson: You don't have to be an atheist to know that religion is harming the Earth.
Of course some of the coverage discusses the religio-political connections such as:

AlterNet-Jan 28, 2015
20 percent of Americans have no affiliation with organized religion. Only 0.2 percent of Congress says the same. By Zaid Jilani.

Another one with political connections was “This Week in Religion: Huckabee Claims God Blessed Him, and Mormons Back LGBT Rights.” 

Dan Arel, author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology, authors the This Week in Religion section. Just in January he has covered some critical topics:

Other recent posts on include some overviewing non-belief in a bit of the way other media feature an established religion.

AlterNet-Nov 17, 2014
The answers tell us a lot about religion and non-belief in America. ... Not all of them identify as atheist or agnostic or a non-believer, but plenty do, and while there are many people offering to defend this particular community, few are willing to speak for them. ...

Still other posts are critical of religious leaders such as:
Billy Graham's Son Is One of America's Most Dangerous Islamophobes. This one by Bill Berkowitz  was aggregated from another liberal blog site TruthOut.

Alternet is one of those challenging sites.  No one is going to agree with everything they feature, but you get some interesting topics, usually documents and well reasoned if a bit argumentative – sort of like the New Atheists. An example is the “12 Worst Ideas Religion Has Unleashed on the World” By Valerie Tarico who argues that these 12 dubious concepts advocate conflict, cruelty and suffering. Among them are things hard to disagree with:

The idea of  Heretics, kafir, or infidels (to use the medieval Catholic term) are not just outsiders, they are morally suspect and often seen as less than fully human. In the Torah, slaves taken from among outsiders don’t merit the same protections as Hebrew slaves.”  Or Holy War – If war can be holy, anything goes.”  Blasphemy the notion that some ideas are inviolable, off limits to criticism, satire, debate, or even question. is of course on the list, but the #1 listed was:

Chosen People –The term “Chosen People” typically refers to the Hebrew Bible and the ugly idea that God has given certain tribes a Promised Land (even though it is already occupied by other people). But in reality many sects endorse some version of this concept. The New Testament identifies Christians as the chosen ones. Calvinists talk about “God’s elect,” believing that they themselves are the special few who were chosen before the beginning of time. Jehovah’s witnesses believe that 144,000 souls will get a special place in the afterlife. In many cultures certain privileged and powerful bloodlines were thought to be descended directly from gods (in contrast to everyone else).

Religious sects are inherently tribal and divisive because they compete by making mutually exclusive truth claims and by promising blessings or afterlife rewards that no competing sect can offer. “Gang symbols” like special haircuts, attire, hand signals and jargon differentiate insiders from outsiders and subtly (or not so subtly) convey to both that insiders are inherently superior.

No feel good Super Bowl Fellowship coverage likely at, but lots of thought poking topics.  It not only makes you think, it makes you want to think. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blasphemy and Issues around Free Speech

by Gary Berg-Cross

The recent Charlie Hebdo shootings have stirred a range of discussion, some reasoned and some emotion driven about persistent topical ingredients such as;
·         How do we and should we define the border between freedom of expression and hate speech?
·         Does religion or associated ethnic groups with their values have special status to consider?
·         What is the role of history, including facts and law in deciding these things?
·         How does this debate relate to extremists and to establishment power structures?

People, cultures and groups will differ as to what “facts” and assumptions are to be used in the debate, some of which we see embedded in the above questions. Some very liberal people’s preference is to defend freedom of all kinds of expression, including mockery and
incitement without any limitations. That's really free and there are no real borders to worry about.  There is no hate speech. It’s a mature & proper view and perhaps take maturity, tolerance and polite reflection all around to work.  Maybe it is the goal, but we have various types of hate speech or its equivalent enshrined in law. So we have to deal with gray areas that may vary from country and culture. there is also the idea of civilized discourse. I'm in favor or that too and the idea of this can also vary from place to place.  There may be practical issues to get to the idea of free speech and civilized discourse on the way to enlightenment without conflict or giving in to bullies and crazies. Every culture has some small percentage of unstables and events often afford them opportunities to make an impact and get into the spotlight.

Then there is the emotional vs. rational aspect of our behavior. We are not always reflective or tolerant and some things get the emotions fired up, even among rational, secular folks. Take something as simple as the proposition to respect a person’s right to believe whatever they want – so long as that belief does no harm to others. Of course harm is a judgemental thing -hurting a believer's mothers feelings may not be harmful to me, but it may be the way a belief culture wants things to be and mutual politeness may allow this if all other things are equal.  Alas, they are rarely so.  It is this unevenness that makes finding a useful position difficult.  Indeed certain groups are protected by laws and others by convention which builds in some unevenness. 

Non-believers might think a "no harm respect-all" standard is an improvement over what we have now– believers should respect nonbelievers as people and not disrespect them as people.  We are human too and recent events might offer a teachable moment for respecting people.  Whether we should respect the belief itself is quite another matter that eventually leads to argument. When can we speak up about the silliness of other's belief?  

In a simple respect position non-believers would leave faith-based believers to their own thoughts.  And indeed this seems to me what many of us on the nonbelief side do - new atheists and anti-theists aside. This might be a nice peaceful world, if that was all there was to it. But there is history and custom to consider  and these conflict respect for people with having to respect certain beliefs - the religious ones for example.

For a long time, well maybe for as long as we know, believers don’t leave non-believers alone.  Believers have their hooks into the power structure and get laws, such as Blasphemy statutes, passed, which do beyond disagreeing with the belief and take action on non-believing people, such as not allowing them to hold office. 

For evidence let’s look at the International Humanist and Ethical Union. They have released their annual global report Freedom of Thought Report 2014, on discrimination against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, and their human rights and legal status. As input to the report, a group  called Atheist Ireland contributed information about religious discrimination in Ireland as part of the overall process of developing the Report.

Here are some of the General systemic issues noted on how nonbelievers are affected in Ireland: 

§  There is systematic religious privilege
§  Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general
§  Religious groups control some public or social services
§  State-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions
Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; Establishment of religion
§  Official symbolic deference to religion

Much of this is due to article 44.1 of the Constitution of Ireland in which

 “the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion”.

This clause, smells of the concept of blasphemy - the act of insulting or showing a lack of reverence for God, religious or holy persons or things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.

This Irish thing is surprisingly close to a foundational tenet of Islam, namely, submission to Allah (the Arabic word for a universal “God”). There may be thankfully fewer acts of violence seen in Ireland than the Middle East for a variety of reasons. These things happen when people are stressed and conflicts are ongoing. There are sometimes sparks from a real war with people being killed and tortured that lead to violent response.

Coming back to what we saw for Ireland, a contextual question might be “Is it legal to draw and publish caricatures like these in Europe?”

Well we think clearly yes, but it turns out with reservations, legal ones at times.

There are still laws in Europe criminalizing blasphemy, although there has been a trend to decriminalize it over the last 40 years. In the Netherlands, it was only abolished completely in 2014
In the US prosecution for blasphemy is in theory "unconstitutional” after the 1952 Supreme Court case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. But there are still laws on the books.  So although we aren't whipping people anymore we aren't pure on this issue of free expression that we hug to our breast.  We can do better.

The extremist claiming the attack in Paris declared that it was revenge for the publication of caricatures in the Charlie Hebdo symbolically depicting the Prophet Muhammad, as a terrorist, but also as revenge for torture they cited in Iraq.  The equating of a proclaimed prophet as a terrorist is certainly provoking.  As some have noted characterizing killers of abortion clinics as Christians, perhaps with a picture of Jesus doing the bombing would not be a fair, mocking characterization.  We don't blame world wide Jewry of depict Moses as a bomber of Palestinians in Gaza. A few fringe zealots and defenders of belief turf may take react violently, but we don't blame or satirize an entire religion.  They are often few, such as our US Koran burners or government building bombers, but allow broadly the scapegoating of the other side and may use religious cover for this. But then the caricature of the Prophet is also broad in seemly condemning an entire religion using its prophet symbolically.  It would seem that civilized cartooning as part of debate could be smart enough not to smear an entire religion in anger.  But maybe that is the point and one that can be debated in a civilized fashion.

There is another practical side to this too.  Some defend a more limited conception of freedom of expression to avoid the downsides.  The idea here is that some speech may incite violence and cause hate speech. Certainly we recognize this is some aspects of social media.  Ever been banned from a web site for heated argument?  What about police who crack down on targets that talk back.  Their speech seems quite limited, but perhaps if they used satire it would go better.  Well maybe not.  We read how French police are rounding people up because of the stuff they "said", including a drunk driver who was arrested for apparently feeling his freedom expression too much, and talked tough.  As troubling as well, is a know French comedian who made a joke in poor taste on Facebook. He was arrested.  There seem to be practical limits, especially if you are talking to the power structure in your society as opposed to one that your power structure is in conflict with. And that is another point people have made about Charlie Hebdo. Their criticism has been characterized as more of punching down to a minority group and its religion in the country but at odds with the power Charlie H rarely punched up against that power structure it is claimed. As one letter to WaPo put it:

It is easy to claim to promote and stand for freedom of expression and to wrap oneself in the mantle of righteousness at the expense of those who are already beleaguered, downtrodden, marginalized and oppressed. But it is a gross abuse of a worthy principle, and there is nothing admirable or praiseworthy about it.

 Freedom to speak is not nearly absolute especially when it makes groups in power uncomfortable. Secularists have understood and experienced this for a long time. You might have a right to say what you feel to the law yet you might get arrested or charged with disrespecting a law officer. Some have been killed.

As advice here, consider this practical, civilized point of  view from the David Ignatius posting , “Sorry, but this war-on-terror mobilization is the wrong response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.” It would repeat mistakes the United States made in its reaction to Sept. 11, 2001.

“The role of religion in all of this is dangerously exaggerated,” says a former State Department official who now organizes private-sector efforts to counter extremism. “When we get stuck in a religious debate we are never going to win, we miss the point, which is that extremists are offering young people a sense of belonging, an outlet for adventure, and some kind of enhanced status. To combat this, we have to appeal to them as young people more than we have to appeal to them as Muslims...
Cracking a joke or publishing satire has its place in this discourse, but so does delicacy and civility. If we want to rise above barbarity, sometimes our humor needs to rise above as well. It doesn't mean we need remain silent in the face of fraud, atrocity or illiberality or discard our fundamental right to free expression. It just means instead of a sledgehammer, sometimes the knife of subtlety is a much better tool..”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Humanism and church-state separation

by Edd Doerr

Humanist Manifesto II (1973, excerpts): “The separation of church and state and the separation of ideology and state are imperatives. . . . The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized.”

Unitarian Universalist General Assembly resolution (1982, excerpts): “Defend the democratic, pluralistic public school, opposing all forms of direct or indirect public aid to support sectarian private schools, such as tuition tax credits or vouchers. . . . Uphold religious neutrality in public education . . . oppose religious indoctrination in public schools [and] the introduction of sectarian religious doctrines, such as ‘scientific creationism’. . . . Uphold the constitutional privacy right of every woman, acknowledged by the Supreme Court in 1973 in Roe v Wade  and other rulings, to plan the number and spacing of her children and to terminate a problem pregnancy in collaboration with her physician, opposing all efforts through legislation or constitutional amendment to restrict that right or to impose by law a ‘theology of fetal personhood’.”

In 1982 prominent Humanist leaders/writers Edward Ericson and Sherwin Wine founded Americans for Religious Liberty (ARL) to defend precisely what the two above statements proclaim. To head the new organization they picked Edd Doerr, a columnist in The Humanist and editor of Americans United’s Church & State magazine since the early 1970s (and, incidentally, the author of the UUA resolution above and an original signer of Humanist Manifesto II) and currently a columnist in Free Inquiry magazine. Joining the ARL staff in 1990 was Al Menendez, an expert election analyst. Doerr and Menendez are the authors of over 60 books.

In its third of a century ARL has published 129 issues of its quarterly journal, Voice of Reason, the only church-state separation journal that reviews books in this important but neglected field, and over two dozen books and studies. All of ARL’s over 30 years of journals may be accessed on its web site –

ARL has reached millions through print and electronic media and public speaking, has presented testimony at congressional hearings, has been a member of various relevant coalitions, and has been involved in over 60 major church-state lawsuits, some before the Supreme Court. In one successful suit in the late 1980s, a challenge to the diversion of US aid to sectarian schools abroad brought in cooperation with the ACLU, the plaintiffs included Isaac Asimov and Corliss Lamont.

Attached in pdf is ARL’s most recent journal.

ARL would like to invite you to join and support this unique organization. It’s only $25 per year (tax deductible) and brings you the Voice of Reason either in print or pdf format. ARL is solely dependent on individual donations. Further information on request.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Box 6656
Silver Spring, MD 20916

Stop diverting public funds to faith-based private schools

by  Edd Doer

Wall St Journal on Jan 8 ran a piece titled “Letting Education and Religion Overlap”, by Robert Maranto and Dirk  van Raemdonck, pushing school vouchers. Below is my response. The best way to obtain the article is by Googling to its title. It appears that  2015 will see renewed efforts in Congress and the states to divert public funds to private schools. The address for letters to the WSJ is – Edd Doerr

Robert Maranto and Dirk van Raemdonck (“Letting Education and Religion Overlap”,  Jan 8) are wrong about diverting public funds to faith-based private schools for at least the following reasons:

1.      In 28 state referendum elections between 1966 and 2014 many millions of voters, of all faiths,  from Florida to Alaska and from Massachusetts to California have voted against vouchers, tax credits and all similar gimmicks by an average margin of 2 to 1, most recently in Florida in 2012 and Hawaii in 2014.

2.      As faith-based schools are pervasively sectarian institutions that tend to  separate children along religious, ideological, ethnic, socioeconomic status and other lines, tax support for them would fragment our student population and greatly worsen our social divisions.

3.       Three fourths of our state constitutions clearly forbid taxing citizens to support religious institutions.

4.      Our religiously neutral public schools, serving 90% of our kids, operate to protect America’s enormous religious diversity and religious liberty.

The Maranto/Van Raemdonck article is a simplistic screed that seeks to undermine two important pillars of American democracy,  religious freedom and public schools.

Edd Doerr President
Americans for Religious Liberty
Box 6656
Silver Spring, MD 20916

Playing on Dialogues

by Gary Berg-Cross

Atheists, skeptics and non-believers along with their issues are not often shown in a very positive light when presented to the public on either the big or small screens. They are often stereotyped as misanthropic, slightly angry doctors, "lost souls” clinging to unsatisfying rationality or perhaps something else distinctly attackable and mildly distasteful. A recent and notable exception is in the award-nominated biopic film The Theory of Everything (a theory on the birth and death of universe perhaps from “nothing”) which features seminal theoretical physicist-cosmologist Stephen Hawking.  

Hawking is a familiar stranger to most of us and wildly know author of A Brief History of Time, which is highlighted in the film along with his firm liberal and atheist stances.  It is impossible to ignore his never-give-in bravery in the face of illness and his honesty expressing controversial ideas.  His confidence and good, perhaps naughty, eye-twinkling humor while clashing with his Christian wife makes him very fully human.  These dialogues includes:

Wife "What's cosmology?"
Stephen "Religion for intelligent atheists."

Wife persisting but interestingly "What do cosmologists worship?"
Stephen "A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe."

Later at  Stephen’s family home dinner includes "You've never said why you don't believe in God."
Stephen "A physicist can't allow his calculations to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator,"
Wife gets the last word "Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists."

His humble humanity makes it hard to generate that fear-disgust reaction in the heart of believers. It is great to see this cinematic approach to not only hard science but also secular human values.

Besides this movie we have locally at the Anacostia Playhouse Theatre, a Sharpstick Productions of three plays written by Harrison Murphy and directed by Jim Giradi that take on some of these atheist-religious debates. Called Red High Heels and running from Jan 15-24 we are offered 3 one-acts that helicopter over differing perspectives.  It's a dialog feast and more than one can take in with a single viewing, but hopefully it will stay around and let repeat visits.

We start at a Bar as a middle aged man is having (by chance - randomness is a theme is these, so expect some surprises all is not as usual) a very bad day.  He is joined by a younger man, perhaps a younger version of himself, full of fight and confidence. He counsels toughness from a youthful, peanut-eating perspective.  They are quickly joined by an older man/version, perhaps from our protagonist’s future self who underlines alternate perspectives and counsels a wisdom that is the residue of living, which allows us to understand what is really important.

Play 2, Vignettes, moves from this intimate setting to the more public and impersonal and often frustrating one of waiting in an airport.  We move from friendly counselling to pairs of people falling into arguments.  A wide range of types and generations are here, flawed people in recognizable situations, including a comic relief, story-telling grandpa that leads us on an improbably journey trying to entertain (impress?) his grandson, a business man having an argument via cell phone, a prof and daughter who are stumble into the most bonding conversation as she leaves for college, and a lay preacher and hiking enthusiast with a bit of Hawking’s light humor touch sparring with a hard-headed lawyer.  

These are morally ambiguous, conflicted characters, flawed but believable folk.  Various characters introduce us to their philosophic perspectives and how they make sense of the world.  It’s about path finding, staying on track, or belief in guiding forces, but their lives are all over the landscape and lunge off track as they are all lead into a plane to take them away on a new direction. Who is steering things anyway?

This sets the stage for the final play which finds new people on a new flight with a mysterious Blue Box. It's a bit of a Hitchcock macguffin-type plot appropriate for the mysterious atmospheres generated in the plays.  But a single discovery and the evidence in the Box prove if God exists or not.  You are invited to guess as to the nature of proof. Here the extremes of debate are represented by a new-style, no holds barred Atheist, as for no quarter in conflict with a judicial Theist giving no solace except to say that Faith is the answer. 

In between we hear from professionals (Psychologist, Philosopher, and Anthropologist) as well as a Zen Buddhist as they argue whether the box should be opened.  We hear them argue their perspective of the issues in short segments. Along the way the play explores ideas about objectivity and subjectivity in our perspective beliefs, how context affects even a philosopher’s views, how intellectual passions can lead to emotional ones and more. 

As in the Hawking movie you may not learn enough about Space Time Singularity or Black Holes to write a book after watching these plays but its about the clarity of the interdisciplinary arguments. You gain into the issues and how they are discussed. The play's cosmologist shows the passions that stir up person like Stephan Hawing and perhaps an Atheist partner.You may know enough to be wary of Schrodinger's cat and Pandora's box. 

As an extra feature after the plays there is a 20 minute talkback session to hear from the audience.  These are run by people who are astrophysicists or philosophers and the like.  I was the Psychologist representative for the opening night and our after play conversation might have gone on for an hour.