Saturday, February 27, 2016

A grey haired theist versus a greying atheist

By Mathew Goldstein

Jerry Fogltance is a retired Air Force chaplain and lieutenant colonel.  Several weeks ago the Colorado Springs Gazette published his article Disputing the claims of atheism.

He starts by saying it is equally valid to conclude that either God does not exist or does exist given that science has not proven otherwise.  He then says we should therefore choose to believe that God exist because the atheist position carries the "greatest risk" if it is wrong.

What is needed here is evidence, not proof.  The problem that theism faces is this:  The overall available empirical evidence pervasively and strongly supports naturalism while it sparsely and weakly supports supernaturalism.  This is not about risk.  We have even less evidence that anyone "carries" any divine penalty for what they sincerely believe than we do that there is a deity.  Any deity that imposed such a penalty would be an intolerant, nasty, immoral deity who is unworthy of being worshipped.  I am no more afraid of offending a god I believe does not exist merely by having the properly justified belief that there are no gods than I am afraid of offending God for not being a Catholic instead of a Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, etc.

He then says atheism is a crutch for "those unable to live up to their own moral standards and afraid of being accountable to God."

It is true that we do not always live up to our own moral standards, but our moral standards have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the overall available evidence favors naturalism over supernaturalism and therefore has nothing to do with whether theism is properly justified.  It makes less sense to fear being accountable to an imaginary God than to fear being accountable to the people that we actually know exist during the time we actually know that we exist.

He then says "The complex forms of the universe reveal that he is personal (an intelligent designer) and the immense size of the universe that he is all powerful."

We have laws of physics which provide naturalistic explanations for most of the known particles and forces.  For example the Higgs particle and gravitational waves were predicted before they were observed. Our universe is indeed immense from our perspective.  But again, this fact fits very well with a naturalistic description of our universe.

He then asserts that "because God is infinite and we are finite, we may never know some of the deepest mysteries of his nature."

It appears to be likely that there can be facts about how the universe functions that are inaccessible to us.  The multiverse may be infinite even though we are finite.  Again, these factual assertions are a good fit with naturalism.

He then says "There are also things in the universe that cannot be explained apart from the existence and creative power of God. None can explain by natural evolution where the personal qualities of humans came from - like love, creativity, the ability to communicate thought verbally, musical expression, moral motions and free will."

Jerry Fogltance, like most theists, simply assumes we have libertarian free will.  He also assumes that the initial condition was total nothingness and therefore our universe must have sprung into existence from nothing.  Those two assumptions could both be false.  Naturalism appears to contradict the notion that we have contra-causal, otherwise known as libertarian, free will.  Naturalism also suggests that total nothingness may be a fantasy derived from human imagination, that existence may instead be eternal.  These are two tentative predictions derived from naturalism.  All of the other human traits he cites are most likely products of the evolution of materialistic life.  Jerry Fogltance, like many other theists, is underestimating what is possible within the confines of a physical and mechanical framework when he mistakenly claims emotions, creativity, verbal and musical expression, are ruled out by naturalism.  Natural forces do appear to be capable of producing us with all of our capabilities.

He then says atheism should be rejected because it "leaves humans without meaning."

Human life per se has absolutely no meaning in the grand scheme of things.  We individually find meaning in the day to day living of our life.  We are here, we breath, move, interact, think, and thusly actualize our potential until we die.  Trying to impose cosmic meaning by adopting otherwise unjustified beliefs about how the world functions is an upside down approach to determining how the universe functions.  This theist epistemology focuses on human psychology and intuitions.  It declares the universe functions the way the theist intuitively prefers that it function to fulfill the theist's psychologically rooted desires.  In effect, using this theist epistemology, theists are themselves trying to dictate to the universe how it functions instead of letting the universe itself dictate to us how it functions.  This incompetent theist epistemology creates false facts which can motivate well-intentioned human misbehavior that causes potentially serious problems for humanity.

He then says that the "atheist idea that death ends it all implies that they [various people who committed large scale crimes] will never be brought to justice for their evil, an idea that is morally reprehensible."  He then concludes: "When, however, humans deny God's existence, their accountability to him, and suppress the inner witness of his laws, evil then has no constraints."

The notion that there must be some ultimate, cosmic scale justice is false.  There is justice and injustice, there is good and evil.  These concepts do not disappear altogether for no other reason then that they do not apply on a cosmic scale in an ultimate sense. 

There is no constraint on what constitutes "inner witness of his laws" since the "inner witness" method for determining true/false facts is indistinguishable from the method of creating fiction.   By listening to ourselves think we can learn about our own psychology but we cannot learn anything about how our universe, that exists independently of ourselves, functions.  The only way to determine how the universe functions is to listen to what the universe itself communicates to us via empirical evidence.  Therefore this "accountability to him" can be the basis for justifying anything since the "him" is imaginary.  This is a big problem with theism.  With naturalism we look to empirical evidence to try to determine what is harmful so that we have a solid foundation for deciding what is ethical.  To prop up God beliefs, theists have human written holy texts containing unethical attitudes and behaviors that cannot be condemned as such, and/or theists have an unconstrained, faith based imagination indistinguishable from fictional fantasy that closed minded believers mistakenly convince themselves they should actively avoid doubting.

A big problem with some of Jerry Fogltance's arguments is that even if those arguments are true they fail to properly justify his conclusion that "I have come to know and be reconciled to the God behind my existence through faith in Christ."  His arguments merely note that under naturalism there is probably no libertarian free will, no cosmic scale ultimate meaning to human life, no complete and ultimate cosmic scale justice or accountability for bad behavior.  Atheists have no hesitation in acknowledging these three points, all of which are irrelevant to any properly grounded decision regarding whether or not any gods exist.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Moderate? No Moderates here when we are talking Women's Rights

by Gary Berg-Cross

The Ohio House recently voted to strip Planned Parenthood of $1.3 million in funding and, sent the bill to Ohio Gov. John Kasich to sign into law. 

On Sunday, John Kasich he did just that - signed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood in Ohio.  He has Conservative support:

Asked if signing this bill will help with Kasich's conservative credentials, Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said ‘he has a long track record of being pro-life.’"

But he did draw condemnation from..... well Democrats, but also women. And there was more context from the Psychological slip-of-the-tongue realm.

Speaking about his early days running for office in the Ohio Legislature, Kasich also referred to women "who left their kitchens" to help him.
Recalling the roots of his early days of campaigning, while at a town hall at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia,  he rhetorically asked "How did I get elected?” His answer may be shrouded in memory of when America was Great - 

"Nobody was -- I didn't have anybody for me. We just got an army of people, who, and many women, who left their kitchens to go out and go door to door and to put yard signs up for me. All the way back, when, you know, things were different." and a question from a town hall attendee who brought up his comment about “kitchens.”

Yes it was different then.  Neither of these played well with the many women who have more to do than kitchen work and appreciate Planned Parenthood.

Women are aware of the bigger picture as brought to life in Jill Lepore's (Harvard College Professor) Feb. 1 New Yorker article called “Baby Doe.”

It starts out like a punch in the gut:

'Last June, a woman walking her dog on Deer Island, in Boston Harbor, came across a black plastic garbage bag on the beach. Inside was a very little girl, dead. The woman called for help and collapsed in tears. Police searched the island; divers searched the water; a medical examiner collected the body. The little girl had dark eyes and pale skin and long brown hair. She weighed thirty pounds. She was wearing white-and-black polka-dot pants. She was wrapped in a zebra-striped fleece blanket. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that no child matching her description had been reported missing. “Someone has to know who this child is,” an official there said. But for a very long time no one did.'

Child abuse, child neglect, child death, and the cradle-to-prison pipeline driven by poverty are all ingredients in this US reality. And especially in the US, where short of refugees, a larger percentage of people are living in poverty than in any of the developed countries of western Europe. 

But here we have Kasich and the various Republican funders, ultraconservatives,  Tea Partyers and 1 percenters who remain dedicated to defund Planned Parenthood in a political year that wants to Make America Great Again. What's Great about limiting access to contraception, or  clamping down on a women’s rights of conscience?  

Some consider Kasich a moderate.  This suggests a frightening accomodation to the rightward drift.  Or is propelled by ignorance and anger? 
It's just too far Right to be right.

For more see 
 JI's Birthright: What’s next for Planned Parenthood?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Secularist Agenda for Maryland in 2016

By Mathew Goldstein

As the bills are published the ongoing conflict between secular (non-religious) versus non-secular (theistic or otherwise religious based) government in Maryland reveals itself.  Following is a summary of what we have as of the middle of February.  For more information about these bills, including links to the text of the bills and for sending email to the committees, please go to

HB 16 proposed allowing discrimination by places of public accommodation that are religiously affiliated non-profits providing goods or services to weddings.  There have always been religious institutions seeking to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws under the banner of free exercise, and some religious institutions endorse anti-LGBT sentiment, so this bill is no surprise.  This bill was promptly rejected by the House committee and withdrawn.

HB 48 and 656 are government loans that fund membership organizations that discriminate against non-theists (deists, agnostics, atheists).  Atheists are not entitled to civic equality according to the recently deceased, and very Catholic, Justice Antonin Scalia.  Apparently, according to this "logic", when someone concludes there are no gods they also forfeit a claim to civic equality as implied somewhere in the original, unamended constitution in accordance with the Stare Decisis obligation to follow the prejudices prevalent in the 18th century because those prejudices define the founders original intent, except when those prejudices were anti-Catholic.  We oppose loans to all theist only membership organizations.

HB 52 requires that insurers provide coverage for in vitro fertilization procedures involving a surrogate mother when infertility prevents pregnancy.   When religious institutions tell people to lobby against a law because it is against divine will, we secularists tell lawmakers to disregard the complaints and instead favorably consider voting for the bill.  Infertile women of Maryland need this coverage, divine will is not a proper argument.

HB 169, 203, 513, 514, 515 chip away at Maryland blue laws by allowing more Sunday hunting.  Death to the blue laws should be our state motto.

HB 251 ensures privately schooled children can participate in public school programs.  Public school facilities and programs should be made accessible to privately schooled children to the fullest extent that is practical.

HB 404 gives the terminally ill an option to voluntarily hasten death with barbiturates.  Many religious institutions, citing the bible, Quran, Tanach, scriptures, etc., oppose this legislation.  They claim to know divine will and want our laws to abide by it.  Some religions reach the opposite conclusion while also citing divine will.  Some religions take no position, or say there is no one consensus among their believers, or say the decision should be made by individuals.  Secularists (many of whom are theists) want the law to provide this option for those of us who may one day become terminally ill and want to hasten our deaths, provided there are procedural safeguards that protect the civil rights of patients and doctors.  HB 416 provides citizens with a booklet that explains legal end of life options.

HB 568 is all too typical of freedom of conscience exemptions tailored to religious believers. It one-sidedly allows institutions to forbid, but not to mandate, the aforementioned end of life procedures.  Any such institutional level freedom of conscience necessarily overrides individual level freedom of conscience, which renders the concept dubious.  At the individual level a doctor has the option to either opt in or opt out.  At the institutional level the laws invariably provide an opt out without providing a corresponding opt in, thus betraying that these laws are about providing special privilege to religious dissenters from secular laws rather than institutional freedom of conscience.  Secularists want all laws to either pair institutional level opt outs with corresponding opt ins, or to drop the institutional level opt outs altogether.

HB 603 restricts abortion based on speculative, unsubstantiated assertions about fetuses experiencing pain that most experts reject.

HB 642 improves the wording of a law by replacing "church" with "house of worship".  Maryland laws still extraneously refer to "church", "gospel",  and "minister" instead of using more generic language.  It is long past time to eliminate this privileging of Christianity in legal language.

HB 719 is a special sales tax exemption privilege narrowly targeted for two particular youth organizations among the many youth competing youth organizations, one of which, Boy Scouts of America, officially restricts membership to theists.  Isn't our motto in God we trust?  Doesn't the pledge of allegiance say under God?  Who do we arrogant atheists think we are, regular citizens entitled to the same legal privileges and immunities as everyone else?  As long as BSA policy is to deny non-theists membership we will oppose all government laws privileging their Scouting program over competing programs. 

The law that HB 719 amends, Article – Tax – General Section 11-204, exempts all 501(c)(3) organizations (including religious nonprofit organizations) from paying sales tax when holding an auction for fundraising.  Unfortunately, this same law also completely exempts "a bona fide church or religious organization" from all sales taxes without any restrictions.  This is unfair.  Religious organizations should be granted no tax exemptions above and beyond the tax exemptions given to the other 501(c)(3) organizations.  Note the inappropriate, and in this case redundant, use of sectarian language.

HB 955 privileges student "non-sectarian" theistic prayer speech over all other speech at all school events, including mandatory in-school events that are otherwise not free speech contexts.  What is the definition of non-sectarian?  Is it non-sectarian if it covers 51% of the population?  67%?  Who decides what qualifies as non-sectarian?  If this is about protecting free speech or free exercise then why the non-sectarian restriction?  Is 20 seconds enough time for prayer?  Is 20 minutes too much?  The bill does not say.  Can atheists speak against theism during this exercise in "free speech"?  Someone needs to give this a little more thought.

HB 994 and 995 permits more Sunday alcohol sales.  While local bills like these that chip away at the blue laws at the county and city level should be enacted, it would be better to strike down the state blue laws, thereby eliminating the need for local exemptions.

HB 996 would replace the Monday after Easter Sunday as a mandated state wide school holiday with local decisions.  This is a better way for government institutions to manage the impact of religious holidays.   A school should close if, and only if, most  students or staff will be absent.  Ideally, a poll would be conducted to enable predicting non-attendance.  A reliance on pragmatic, evidence based decision making, as much as possible, is the way to go.  We would like for another bill to similarly replace the state wide Easter Friday and Christmas holidays with as-needed local closures.

HB 1028 asks voters to decide if alcohol will be sold on Sunday.  A majority vote is not an exercise of democracy when it is about deciding whether the laws should favor those citizens who follow a majority religion.  Do our law makers understand this?  Apparently sometimes not.  Business activity follows demand, citizens vote for, or against, Sunday commerce by buying, or not buying, on Sundays.

HB 1081 is a government loan to a place of worship.  In Maryland we must trust our law makers to disregard sectarian differences.  Don't you trust them?  Will they also give government loans to Hindu temples, ethical culture meeting rooms, idol worshipping congregations, etc.? If they don't then it must be because the loan applications were flawed or uncompetitive or some legitimate reason like that.  We secularists are not so naive, we will oppose all loans to places of worship.

HB 1310 revokes the licensing of Sunday alcohol sales.  Every now and then an alcohol or hunting bill regresses.  We oppose such regressions.

HB 1357 prohibits government funding of abortions or insurance that covers abortions.  Who backs this bill? Could it be people who claim to know the Truth and claim to speak for the divine will?  Secularists generally consider legal abortion to be a proper medical service.

Most of the Senate bills are cross filed with House bills.  One that is not (yet) cross filed is SB 948 that requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.  If this bill passes will our governor sign it?  Maybe not.  Hopefully the GA will what pass this bill anyway this year and again with a future governor if our current governor vetoes.

HJ 7 calls for overturning Roe v. Wade on the grounds that science has concluded life begins at conception.  Did you also know that geometry proves that circles begin at their northernmost point?  If you want our laws to conflate theology with science then who are you going to call?  Hint: A non-theist is the wrong answer.

Monday, February 15, 2016

James Ryerson's biased book reviews in the NY Times

By Mathew Goldstein

The New York Times published a book review article on February 9 by James Ryerson titled "The Twain Shall Meet".  Mr. Ryan states several conclusions derived from the three books he reviewed.  Those conclusions are flawed as will be explained below.

The first book reviewed is a criticism of atheism written by a priest who is a psychologist and professor of religion.  James Ryerson says this: ... "it’s that these crusaders [advocates for atheism] are convinced that science is the only arbiter of reality and truth. They may be right about that. But that is a philosophical claim, Jones reminds us, not a scientific one."  

My question to James Ryerson is this: Do you know of anyone who practices this alternative philosophy that the arbiter of reality and truth is to be found somewhere other than the empirical evidence while driving a car?  Would you prefer that your taxi driver be making his driving decisions based on what he claims is a source of knowledge that only he experiences?  Or that he claims is revealed to him through some dubious interpretation of an ambiguous and self-contradictory collection of old books that makes sustained extraordinary claims about reality and truth which blatantly contradict our scientific knowledge about how the universe functions?  Or based on the same empirical evidence that all passengers simultaneously share via the physical senses of vision, hearing, smelling, and touch?  Why is it that religious people, like everyone else, apply an empirical evidence standard when making "how the universe functions" decisions that matter to their own day to day physical welfare but then abandon that same standard when making decisions that do not matter to their own daily physical welfare?  For anyone who thinks there is a coherent, logical, philosophy that properly justifies this methodological dichotomy, I say you are either fooling yourself or knowingly trying to fool others.

Mr Ryerson then favorably reviews a book that claims history demonstrates harmony between religion and science.  He says this: "Nor did Copernicus or most other early modern advocates of the new astronomy think it was incompatible with Christianity."  Has it even occurred to Mr. Ryerson that 16th century scientists who wanted to escape the prejudices of their day would not publicly concede that their discoveries conflicted with church teachings even if they actually thought so?  Copernicus refused to published his findings regarding the relative positions of the earth and sun, sharing them with only a small number of fellow scientists whom he trusted, and he confided at the time that he did this out of fear of negative repercussions to himself due to widespread intolerance, an intolerance that clergy had no small part in fostering.  Nor is what the scientists considered compatible with Christianity a better indicator of compatibility than what the church officials thought.  After all, the experts on Christian doctrine are the Christian clergy, not the scientists.  

Here is the truth, facts that Mr. Ryerson conveniently ignores in his book review, presumably because it does not comport with his commitment to the viability of compatibility:  The Catholic Church's chief censor, Dominican Bartolomeo Spina, expressed a desire to stamp out the Copernican doctrine.  But with Spina's death in 1546, his cause fell to his friend,  the Dominican theologian Giovanni Maria Tolosani.  Copernicanism was absurd, according to Tolosani, because it was scientifically unproven and unfounded.  Tolosani declared that he had written against Copernicus "for the purpose of preserving the truth to the common advantage of the Holy Church."  Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Genesis, said that "We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre."  In March 1616 the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds of ensuring that Copernicanism, which it described as a "false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture," would not "creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth.

Apologists for Christianity like James Ryerson, and maybe also the authors of the book he favorably reviews, go deep into denialism mode regarding the blatant, unequivocal, historical hostility of Christianity to science.  They do not, and frankly I think they will not, honestly confront the fundamental and profound difference between the failed methods of relying on authority, fixed revelation, personal interpretations of personal experience, and logic and reason from human intuition, versus a recognition that the only successful method of determining how the universe functions has over and over again proven itself to be the method of following the empirical evidence as closely as we can.  They fail to acknowledge the full extent of this difference and its implications because what they are engaging in is unbalanced propaganda in defense of Christianity and not an honest effort to inform and educate. The New York Times thinks such defense of revisionist history is worthy of publication.  Commercially it probably is and that is one reason why we need more atheist commentary.