Sunday, May 15, 2016

"Great Author" yes, "God" no

By Mathew Goldstein

The article George Washington: Recognizing God’s hand in America by Dennis Jamison argues that "Washington inserted the words, "So help me God" into his oath of office; there's a movement to yank them out, history and tradition be damned with the Almighty." Mr. Jamison identifies himself as an adjunct faculty member of a community college.  However, the college's web site identifies him as a community instructor with no academic credentials and no expertise in American history.  He is determined to convey his strong conviction on this topic but he is allowing his convictions to substitute for the historical facts, which is the mistake that academics and historians are trained to avoid.  Mr. Jamison confidently makes several firm factual assertions, but he offers no evidence to back them up because there is none.

One such assertion that fails to be supported by historical evidence is "This first inauguration set the tradition, and subsequent inaugurations have change little since Washington’s day."  Since his article is arguing that his presidential oath of office was theistic, this implies all of the subsequent inaugurations included kissing a bible.  Yet there is no evidence that George Washington's second oath of office featured a bible. There are no known inauguration Bibles for presidents John Adams through John Tyler; in fact, there's no concrete evidence that those early presidents used a Bible at all for the oath. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. John Quincy Adams swore on a book of law.  Nor is their any evidence that any president appended "so help me God" to his oath office until maybe Lincoln at the earliest. But the evidence that Lincoln did this is weak and contradicted.  Chester Arthur was the first president widely reported to have appended that phrase. So if president George Washington did this, as Mr. Jamison claims, then that did not set a precedent that the other presidents followed.  Nor was the Chief Justice prompting for this theistic codicil, as has been the case since the 1930's.  That is a substantial change, and a relatively recent change. Originally the Chief Justice recited the oath and asked the president elect to affirm, now the Chief Justice recites the oath one sentence at a time and asks the president elect to repeat each sentence.

Another such factual assertion that lacks supporting evidence is 'It is reported that after the official oath, Washington said “so help me God,” and bent down to kiss the open Bible."'  Now, if by "it is reported" Mr. Jamison means that there are people who have asserted that Washington said that then technically he is correct.  But then so what? Many people throughout history have thusly reported many false claims, it merely takes one person to falsely assert something and other people to repeat the same false assertion, which demonstrates nothing at all about what actually happened.  That is exactly the situation here.  There is one, and only one, eyewitness account from someone standing on the balcony that quotes the oath recitation and that account does not include a theistic codicil. Sixty five years later several biographies were published that claimed for the first time that George Washington spatchcocked that phrase to his oath of office, but they are not eyewitness accounts and thus lack credibility.

He then makes the following misleading statement "Those final words have raised controversy among some Americans. Some claim that Washington never said them, as they are recorded nowhere in the official records of the ceremony."  This is false. I have never heard anyone argue that because the words are not in "the official records of the ceremony" they were not spoken.  The actual argument is that there are no contemporaneous eyewitness accounts that George Washington appended that phrase.  None.  Zero.  Neither in "official" records nor in "unofficial" records.  Nor is there such evidence for any other president until Chester Arthur, with weak and contradictory evidence for Lincoln's second oath.  Therefore we lack proper justification to claim that George Washington, or any other president until Chester Arthur, appended that phrase to his oath office.

Mr. Jamison also wrote: "He tended to make references to God in his speeches."  Now it is true, as the two examples in his article show, that George Washington employed multiple different euphemisms for divinity such as the "Almighty Being", "Great Author", "benign parent of human race", etc. He is not known to have utilized the word "God" more than once or twice in his entire life, and then it was while reading a document out loud that was written by someone else.  This is a fact about George Washington that disfavors the conclusion that he said "so help me God" after is oath of office.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

DC Marijuana Protest

by Don Wharton

I attended the protest demonstration in front of the White House held April 2, 2016. Their 51 foot long plastic joint, inflated by a fan, said “Obama Deschedule Cannabis Now.” This referred to Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, which lists drugs with a high potential for abuse, no medical use, and no safe use even under medical supervision. Marijuana does not belong on Schedule 1.

A number of speakers described how some variety of cannabis was needed to deal with their seizures, pain, or side effects of cancer. There are many more medical uses for marijuana with various levels of credibility in the published literature. A religious fanatic pranced around the demonstration holding a Bible above his head and spouted various verses. Not until he appeared right next to me did I find out the Healing Church had won a court case defining marijuana as a sacrament. The passages he cited were ones he thought referred to cannabis. It shows how the metaphorical language of religion can justify just about anything.

The single most common reason people cite for using cannabis is to enhance their delight in the world. I consumed some edibles someone gave me at the demonstration. I had five hits from joints that people shared with me including one from Adam Eidinger, organizer of the event. This was in a sea of cameras so there is likely to be ample evidence I was violating the law as a point of civil disobedience. I also got royally stoned for the first time in decades. I love life as it is, so I feel little need to chemically enhance things. My choice to engage was purely political.

That said, the experience was quite delightful. I use mindfulness meditation where the goal is let go of all ideas and abstract understandings to attend solely to what is real. Perception can be maximized by choosing to place attention only on one's physical being and surroundings. The cannabis enhancement of this effect brings it to an amazing new level. I was richly reminded of the peak in joy that can occur when someone feels totally unified with everything that is. Many people have mistakenly presumed such peak experiences are a transcendental communicating with God. The vibrancy of flowers and the singing of birds are examples of experiences that become massively richer. A wren landed a few feet in front me. I stopped walking and attended to the bird. I was amazed this small wild creature showed no fear. It cocked its head five different ways to look at me. It felt like a quasi-conversation where each of us shared awareness of the consciousness of the other.

Given my delight in interacting with the wren it was obvious I was enjoying my abstract understanding of what happened. I then looked what I was doing in front of the White House. There were five million people arrested for marijuana just during the Obama administration. Some of these suffered radically outsized penalties such as the veteran who got life in prison for the two pound stash used to manage the pain from his wounds. Ehrlichman in the Nixon administration had made it clear the motivation for the war on drugs was to target their major political opposition, the anti-war left and blacks. The facts about marijuana literally did not matter. What mattered was allocating power to the pro-war conservatives who supported Nixon. I loved the idea of being there in civil disobedience against the repressive stupidity of that drug war. I was standing against the pain and destruction of millions of lives because a power elite deemed segments of the population to be their political enemy. These ideas and many others covered by the protest speakers were included in one massive non-verbal network of ideas that somehow appeared in my mind as a single unified whole. It became clear that ideas could be as awesomely vibrant and luminous as direct sensory perceptions. With this awareness the goal ceased to be a mindfulness empty of ego and abstractions. Instead I became aware of the vast range of choices possible concerning consciousness and savored exploring that range. Later I spent an extremely delightful evening with my loving significant other with no hangover the next day. In fact the next day had a wonderful afterglow of happiness.

A central scientific claim by those who support keeping cannabis on Schedule 1 is that there is no safe use and no medical use. It is not a goal of this article to do an extensive review of either the benefits or possible negatives, but we do need to review the major problems and fears. There are some allergic reactions which can be severe. Some people get panic attacks. Some cannabis supporters claim that users do not get addicted. Routine use does increase the prevalence of cannabinoid receptors and there are some negative symptoms such as irritability upon withdrawal. The fact the percent who get addicted is much lower than the case for alcohol and tobacco and the symptoms more mild is no excuse to pretend that cannabis addiction does not occur. It does. There are no deaths whatsoever from the direct chemical effect for average people. It is nominally even safer than caffeine. Caffeine has a lethal dose level only 75 to 100 times the typical dose in a cup of coffee. With marijuana the lethal dose of tetrahydrocannabinol is not know with precision but it is certain to be thousands of times greater than the amount required to saturate all cannabinoid receptors in the human body and produce the maximum possible psychoactive response.

Obviously, it is highly recommended that people not drive or engage in dangerous activities while under the influence of marijuana or any drug. The possible harms from marijuana are the exception and it is clear the vast majority of people can safely use it. Medical services are needed only to determine which variety and dosage is required to provide benefit and to respond to the small percent who have the unfortunate responses noted above.

Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill, S. 2237, titled "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015"1. In his opinion it is crazy to continue having marijuana on Schedule 1. A recent Gallup poll had 58% of American favoring legal use of marijuana2. As with LGBT rights there is a sharp differential across generations. A PEW Research poll earlier found 68% of the millennial generation supporting legal use3. Personal quotes cited in the PEW report:
“It is not as harmful as alcohol. [...] It also helps medical conditions as a more natural substitute to pharmaceuticals.” Female, 46
“My grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy a year ago and it has been proven that it helps with the seizures.” Female, 69
“I think crime would be lower if they legalized marijuana. It would put the drug dealers out of business.” Female, 62
“Because people should be allowed to have control over their body and not have the government intervene in that.” Male, 18
“I think that we would have more control over it by allowing a federal agency to tax and regulate it like alcohol.” Male, 25


Establishment of atheism in China

By Mathew Goldstein

Questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt regarding the existence of a supernatural realm, or for that matter questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt on other topics, are ultimately individual decisions.  Being human entails freely adopting, possessing, and expressing, our own beliefs.  In a democracy the citizens guide the government.  To the extent that government is telling its citizens what they are supposed to believe, and openly favoring one belief over another, the government is attempting to influence its citizens in ways that restrict their governing role.  Accordingly, democratic government tries to avoid using its authority and powers to actively instruct people, or lead people, on what their beliefs should be.  

Yet government also has responsibilities and interests and accordingly needs freedom of action to carry out its responsibilities regardless of whether or not some of the citizens disagree with the government policies.  Religious beliefs can dictate what is deemed to be ethical or unethical over a wide range of behaviors.  Non-ideological, pragmatic, evidenced based, government policies, enacted and enforced without regard to religious beliefs, are going to sometimes conflict, to some extent, with the religious beliefs of some citizens.  This is, like death and taxes, an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of life.  Non-establishment of religion does not entail that there will be no conflicts.  It merely entails that government will avoid actively taking sides, either for or against, religious beliefs.  We make an effort to accommodate religious believers by recognizing free exercise as an individual liberty also meriting legal protection.

China has a more top down, authoritarian, ideological, approach to governing. There is one political party and that political party governs.  Government censors all sources of information that could influence its citizens beliefs about government policy, including the Internet, and sometimes imprisons people merely for criticizing government policy or officials or for trying to utilize otherwise legal process to try to help people harmed by questionable government practices.

Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the advisory body to China’s legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently wrote in the official Global Times newspaper that the party should “unambiguously promote Marxist atheism to society,” and preserve "its leading position in the thinking of the masses of the people," describing it as “the nations’ mainstream ideology.” And he said it was particularly important to “strengthen propaganda education about a scientific worldview, including atheism, for young people." He said that while China protected the rights of religious believers, “as a nation led by the Communist Party, we cannot abandon atheism and turn to religion for spiritual support, nor take a neutral or conciliatory attitude [when choosing] between atheism and religion, and cannot allow religion to spread without limits and become the mainstream ideology."

China has overtly promoted atheism to Communist Party members, who are not supposed to believe in any religion. It imposes controls on its five officially registered religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Catholic and Protestant churches – and acts against unregistered religious groups.  Yet in recent years the number of religious believers has grown rapidly.

Since President Xi took office more than three years ago, the leadership has increasingly sought to promote more communist party orthodoxy, criticizing Western cultural and liberal values and other “unhealthy foreign infiltration".  Zhu Weiqun said that a number of party members had “found consolation in religions,” something that had “seriously damaged the party’s ideology, organization and work style.” The Communist Party had not come to power by “guiding people to put their hope on heaven or future life.”  Zhu said it was necessary to guide people to “draw a clear line” between “atheism and religion, science and superstition, civilization and ignorance.”

Here in the United States, organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion, Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, American Humanists, etc. do not want, or seek, government establishment of atheism.  We hear some critics of government non-establishment try to associate government non-establishment of religion in the United States with the policies of the former Soviet Union or the current Chinese Communist Party government.  They are mistaken.  Insofar as the U.S. government resembles those governments, it is partly because of our government establishments of theism. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950's it was argued that by passing laws implementing establishments of theism we were asserting one of the most important differences between them and us.  In fact, we actually accomplished the opposite.  We made ourselves less democratic and more like the Soviet Union and China.