Saturday, April 30, 2011

Who Owns Human Rights?

by Carl Coon,

How serious is our disagreement with China over Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese prison? A pro-democracy activist, the Chinese locked him up, the Nobel people decided to give him an award, and the Chinese wouldn’t let him out to receive it. Now the West is indignant and the Chinese are protesting that the Western idea of universal human rights is anything but universal, rather it is a part of the imperialist effort to impose western values on the rest of the world.[1]
This raises the issue, who has the right to define human rights? The prevailing view here in the USA is that the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, with its emphasis on individual freedom, is the last word, the gold standard as it were. But others. like the Chinese, disagree, and how do we deal with the charge that the values expressed in the UN declaration are culturally biased and don’t represent the values of humanity as a whole? What is the proper stance from a humanist perspective?
As humanists, we start with respect for the value of each individual member of our species. Parse this out and you eventually get to a set of values like the UN Declaration. That statement is undoubtedly thoroughly consistent with what we humanists believe. But is this enough? As a humanist, I also tend to be dubious about anyone’s claim that values as defined in any document are absolute. This sounds too much like religious faith. Let me see if I can reconcile my strong support for the UN Declaration with my discomfort at being asked to accept the validity of any document or doctrine on faith and faith alone.
Part of my reluctance to genuflect before the UN Declaration is my sense that humanity is still very much a work in progress, and we have a long road to travel before we arrive at a state where the kinds of human rights we believe in are accepted by the great majority of humankind. If we are ever to achieve global cooperation and the world at peace we aspire to, we shall need to have a common sense consensus on human rights that will provide a foundation for the shared values that such a world will require. How are we going to get that consensus, by persuasion, or by letting the powerful impose it on the weak?
I’ve had a certain amount of experience dealing with values in societies where they differ from ours. I have found that while the other society quickly adopts technology that lets them make more money, they resist any overt effort to push our values on them. You cannot just go in and tell them they’re wrong and expect them to change. You have show them what our values are and how they work in practice. Eventually they will work out the ways in which the material successes of our culture that they admire are contingent on many of the values they are resisting—and then they will change. But it takes time, and patience.
Another part of my reluctance to go the whole hog with the UN Declaration is my sense that it isn’t necessary to get into a messianic froth over it in order to get the whole world to agree to it. I’m old enough to remember when we were seriously debating whether we could only defeat communism if we fought the Soviet Union and defeated it on the battlefield, or whether there was some other way out. Back in 1969 I predicted that our very different ideologies would converge over time, and that since our system worked better in the long run, the USSR would have to do most if not all of the converging. Fortunately for everyone, my prediction (which was contrary to conventional wisdom at the time) was essentially correct.[2]
This brings me back to China, and the Liu Xiaobo affair. Chinese values emphasize the importance of maintaining harmony where Westerners stress individual freedom.[3] When some incident arises that focuses attention on these differences, we express outrage and they fire back at us. Mutual irritation follows which will probably die down fairly soon, inasmuch as neither side has important interests (as opposed to values) tied up in the dispute. You can chalk the whole incident up as another small step in a learning process where each side gets to understand the other side’s feelings a little better, and hope that the end result will be a beneficial convergence.
Whoa! I hear you saying, do you really believe that values are not important? Well, the point I want to make is that while values are supremely important in the long run, differences in values should not be important factors in the management of daily relations between states. If we manage those affairs sensibly, looking for win-win solutions to problems, and finding them frequently, we can expect that over time there will be a convergence that narrows the gap between our different values, and hopefully eventually eliminates it. If our own values are as robust as we think they are, then the other party will be doing most of the converging, as was the case with the USSR. The world will end up with the kind of respect for individual rights that will lead to the world at peace we all aspire to–a world congenial to our values.
/1/ Boston Globe, December 18, 2010, “Human Rights are Absolute” by Rene Loth
/2/ My thesis when a student at the National War College, class of ’69.
/3/ Article by Dai Bingguo: “Persisting with Taking the Path of Peaceful Development” 12/6/10
Posted for Carl Coon
Originally posted  on his blog, Progressive Humanism  January 21, 2011 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Faith and Skepticism about American Exceptionalism

by Gary Berg-Cross
The topic of American Exceptionalism (AE) keeps cropping up like spring blossoms. Maybe it is more like weeds sprouting out of the fertile but dark earth from causal seeds casually sown by conservative sources. It is part of the title of Newt Gingrich’s new book, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters and there is a short film on this being heavily flogged. The AE concept disparages the simple view of the United States as part of an expanded Western civilization zone. Instead the thrust of the AE argument is that the United States is more of a separate civilization. In this image we have a fundamentally different political system, are self made, highly educated, calm in crisis, devout, are composed of faithful families etc. Conservative say this was the exceptional American described by de Toqueville in Democracy in America (1835) . Indeed the AE term is attributed to Tocqueville. The concept serves as the justification and fortification for American conservative politics. Why was America so different from the aristocratic Europe? Well according to the conservative mantra we were/are a different society where hard work (and money-making) was/is the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites (at least not academic ones). Instead (what de Toqueville described as) crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.True until the 20th century, and in contrast with rest of Western civilization, the US never had a true aristocracy or a peasantry. We had more of free farming tradition in the United States that for a while provided some different economic behavior and political impulses. One might argue, however, that we now have corporate and financial aristocracy and little left of small farm independence.
In The Myth of American Exceptionalism Godfrey Hodgson takes on the very notion of America as the “divinely anointed homeland of freedom, bravery, democracy and economic opportunity, with everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it, is so entrenched that this perceptive portrait of America the Ordinary seems downright radical.” He points instead to a lingering mythic memory of this older culture and its reality in terms of Western traditions:

“Observing the sheer density of the claims made for the uniqueness of the American experience and the exceptional qualities of American society, however, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are motivated at least in part by a wish to believe in them. On one level it’s not difficult to render the idea of American Exceptionalism to the realm of mythology. After all despite America being established in the so called New World its philosophical foundation came from the philosophy of Europe’s Enlightenment and religion. Even the great western frontier expansion was powered by European investment, European markets, and not to mention European immigration. Plus if immigration and diversity are so much a part of the exceptionalism imagery would that not limit the idea of American as one exceptional, unified culture, or would its multiculturalism paradoxically be a big part of its exceptional nature? “
In 2009 Hodgson may well have been thinking back to the image Ronald Reagan spun in his Shining City Upon A Hill speech of January 25, 1974. Here Reagan appealed to a mystical plan to explain AE:

"You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage."
For conservatives this frames the issues nicely since they see themselves in a very un-American battle with a newly imported version of European socialism. Washington Post Reporter Karen Tumulty has studied the conservative’s belief that America “is inherently superior to the world’s other nations” and finds it to be widely held. Indeed, most Americans believe our superiority is not only inherent but divinely ordained. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agree with the Reagan-like statement, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

On the other hand progressives (and many secularist without that devine vision) tend to see this type of extreme American Exceptionalism as a conservative myth. Yes, we have exceptional resources and can look back to wonderful founders and pioneers who gave it a go. We established some institutions to be proud of, but the nation endured slavery and to a larger extent that we are comfortable saying ,was built on “stolen land with stolen people.”

Another problem with clinging so dearly to the AE idea is that it lessens the ability to learn anything from other countries experiences and approaches. If we are so exceptional then little that happens elsewhere that informs us. Indeed we may just look at them from our perspective and ask, "what is in it for us." In the case of the Middle East it is oil. And if Holland is looking at a 200 year plan to combat climate change effects, we can learn nothing from those unexceptional people. Lucky for us all the good Dutch immigrated to America in pre-colonial times.

So this idea has serious consequences. Yet the AE debate seems interminable like a religious one. And as in religious debates people can’t agree on terms. What is the exact meaning of the concept? What current and historical data provides evidence for and against? AE is a broad concept built on other broad concepts like: liberty (or, freedom if you like), egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faireness. This point is made by Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword. The varied interpretations of history and the American Experience produce such an explosive combination of possibilities that individual terms quickly lose any testable meaning the way biblical passages do. The simple, but vague EA frame leaves us with difficult questions.
  • Were the country’s geographical attributes critical to our exceptional development?
  • How about resource abundance and the make up of immigration populations?
  • How important were economic systems and are systems like contemporary “free” markets a threat to egalitarianism, individualism, and populism?
It’s a complicated chemistry, which makes it fair game for spinning tales around a willfully vague concept.

Besides the interminable argue that has political impacts a long-term problem and real issue with AE is that American culture has changed and maybe we are losing some of what has made us “great”. This is the message of a long, critical article by David Morris called The Real American Exceptionalism. Morris explores the issue from several angles provides a nice discussion of how the myth is used by conservatives despite evidence to the contrary. He has some rude awakening charts that clash with the idea that we are a better nation than others. Two of these are shown below on military expenditures and prisoner populations.

Another shot across our exceptional bow comes
from our failing financial strength. This and our dollar currency have been dominant since the end of WWII. Now we have been put on notice by Standard & Poor’s that both may be on the path to a second rate status. Analysts are now working up the possibility of life after AAA ratings as S&P’s shifts to a negative outlook for U.S. sovereign debt.
Perhaps the most symbolic dent in our exceptional armor comes from the comics. Superman appears to be taking another step that could have major implications for his national identity and it is happening in Action Comics #900 where Superman announces that he is going to give up his U.S. citizenship. Despite his alien immigrant beginnings, Superman has been patriotic icon for "truth, justice, and the American way. " A white man in a red and blue costume he embraces that 1930s traditional image of small town America ideals and what it means to stand up for the "American way". Now it is increasingly complicated even for him and other superheroes who have come to mirror essy mcurrent events.  This includes dealing with moral and political complexities rather than the earlier era with its simple black and white morality. Exceptionally hard times indeed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Towards Grand Challenges – why not an SH Prize for Secular Humanist Challenges?

There are lots of big challenges out there for society to wrestle with. Some such as in the energy, development and health care are well recognized and indeed fall under the rubric of Grand Challenges with prizes. So far as I know we have none in the secular humanist domain, but perhaps we should.

Calling out "grand challenges" to stimulate progress isn't new. Some old paradoxes like squaring the circle might qualify, but recent challenges have largely been less philosophical and more technical. The British government offered the equivalent of about $12 million in 1714 to solve their Navy’s problem: How could British ships calculate their longitude location which allowed avoid shipwrecks & calculating how far east or west they were from home. Many scientists of the day attacked the problem, but it was solved by a humble, self-taught watchmaker named John Harrison.

The first modern grand challenge was pretty intellectual and introduced over a century ago by mathematician David Hilbert. At a conference in 1900, Hilbert asked a colleague what would be a compelling presentation topic who suggested that he “look into the future and compile a list of problems on which mathematicians should test themselves during the coming century.” Hilbert issued 23 challenges which were grand in mathematical concepts and represented problem which long resisted solution, and whose solution is expected to have some real consequence. The challenge inspired a generation of mathematicians with generally successful results - nearly all of his challenges have now been solved.

The success of Hilbert’s challenge has spawned several grand challenges over the last few years and they cross many disciplines. A modern grand challenges looks at specific critical barrier that, if removed, would help solve an important problem in the world. In October 2004 Space Ship One was the first privately funded spacecraft ever to reach sub-orbit nearly 70 miles above Earth. The Ansari X spaceflight Prize paid out $10 million to the first privately-financed team to fly a spaceship capable of carrying 3 people to 100km twice in 2 weeks. In 2005, "Stanley," a Volkswagen modified by Stanford University students, survived 130 miles of desert driving without a human driver. It was a robot navigating the rough terrain guided by computer programs and sensors. The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) prize for robotic vehicles paid $2 million in public money.

The success of the X prize for “space exploration” has launched other Prize Groups including a general Exploration, Energy & Environment, Education &
Global Development. These represent movement from single challenge prizes to whole lists of grand challenges. One of them was developed by the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. They framed the problem in a way that I think many secularists would agree with:

“As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate. Old and new threats to personal and public health demand more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention. And products and processes that enhance the joy of living remain a top priority of engineering innovation, as they have been since the taming of fire and the invention of the wheel.

In each of these broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living — specific grand challenges await engineering solutions.”

Among the many challenges they list are to manage the nitrogen cycle, provide affordable clean water and reverse engineer the brain. Many efforts have picked up on Grand Challenges that bring focus and energy to defining and addressing environmental and global health issues. Such global problems have supports from large scale donors such as the Gates Foundation which as a special Grand Challenges Initiatives ( Among other things this has increased funding for research on diseases that affect the world's poor. One goal is to develop superior diagnostic tools, prevention strategies, and interventions to counter the debilitating impact of these diseases.

Factors that go into making for successful grand challenges has also been studied. McKinsey & Co.’s analysis of the promise of philanthropic prizes improve current prizes and stimulate effective future use by developing a number of simple frameworks and compiling useful lessons for sponsors is detailed in their article “And the winner is..”

A summary graphic from their report is shown below:

And now there are even University programs to support such broad work. Princeton University, for example, has a program to train people on global scale problems with scientific, technological and public policy dimensions. One example is energy problems which have a financial dimension but also confronts climate change science, the management of fossil-fuel carbon, the expansion of non-fossil energy sources, and other environmental impacts of the various energy systems. Confronting infectious disease around the globe is another complex challenge that has genetic, interdisciplinary epidemiology and modern medicine dimensions, but also demands community support and environmental action. To master these problems one needs integrating knowledge from a variety of disciplines including biology, engineering, the social sciences, ethics and public policy. See

There are many things that I like about the grand challenge prizes. They are highly leveraged and efficient so that $X often sparks contestants into an aggregate $10X or more effort. In some cases it helps spawn a new industry. And it is often not about one technology. It’s more about transforming the way humanity as whole addresses some of our greatest challenges.

I am particularly inspired by some bold efforts in Europe to bring together hundreds of the best scientists for 10 year projects to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to such as financial activity (see FuturICT flagship proposal - Projects like FuturICT flagship hope to “produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict.”

Which makes me wonder if we will ever have a Secular Humanist Grand Challenge. Certainly the current efforts on education and environment are things that humanists can support. But might there be a place for a very specific challenge that we could agree would help address our challenges. One thought is to have something like the Humanipedia - The Free Encyclopedia for New Humanists! ( That site seems to be an idea that hasn’t been carried through. It just created a place for organizations that work on “new humanism” to list their websites. I can imagine a more ambitious effort to create a real, online secular encyclopedia like Wikipedia. It might be a great educational tool for community. It does raise the question of who would fund it. Perhaps the right prize might launch it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Critical Thinking about the Future

by Gary Berg-Cross

Yogi Berra famously said “The future ain't what it used to be.” There are several ways to take this and recently I’ve been thinking about this from a futurist perspective. Obviously we have been having some hard times and seeking for some better things to look forward to. Some in the Techno-futurist camp are pretty bullish about things. There are light, business-tech futurists like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who FLAT- out predicted global prosperity. A broader, professional effect comes out of the World Future Society (WFS) organization is in nearby Bethesda MD and I’ve read their THE FUTURIST magazine from time to time which features professional futurists, but also other interesting thinkers, scientists and passionate, informed lay-people who write and sometimes dialogue on interesting topics. Lisa Donchak, for example, has a blog on the WFS site ( ) with many interesting topics such as:

Traditional Futurists have frameworks that assist in understanding topics like social, historical and technology trends. Serious Futurist workshops, such as the one coming up in July in address issues like:
  • How will people in your part of the world live, work, and think in 2025?
  • Which values, lifestyles, and structuring institutions will prevail?
  • Will lifestyles be more complex or simpler?
  • Which professions will be the most highly valued, and which personality types will best adapt?
  • What culture-based hidden assumptions define the boxes in which you think and your notion of personal identity? (See
Perhaps the best now-Futurist is Alvin Toffler who predicted main aspects of globalization 40 years ago. He popularized futurist views and terms in his portrait of things to come in his book called Future Shock. Toffler had mixed success with his crystal ball. He was good in predicting social trends and we continued to move into a more networked world that he foresaw. But not all predictions have been good. We have not achieved the substantial exploitation of the oceans or relative control of the weather that he proposed Two other major predictions of Toffler's – the paperless office and human cloning – have yet to be realized, although Toffler like some futurists can be fuzzy on exact time schedules and just point to a trend to more control of more of this. So while we continue a trend to expand into outer space, things have been slow and we have not generally profited financially from an initial move into space.
In the face of slow progress some fall back on interesting but challenging ideas of using space elevators as our means of getting into space. These replace rockets with structure designed to transport material from the surface of the Earth on or near the equator to geostationary orbit. Such discussions date back to 1895 when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to geostationary orbit which is 35,785 km from the surface (see Although this sounds like classic science fiction some “experts” say that research advances in nanotech could soon provide the materials necessary for this effort. Perhaps there will be a Grand Prize in this area. Already there are great sales pitches for the ride on a space elevator:
Our first stop will be the Bigelow Sky Hotel where some of you will begin your vacation among the stars. We will then continue on to the GEO area, 22,300 miles high where the rest of you will board a Virgin Shuttlecraft and continue to your destinations. For your convenience, the elevator is Internet-enabled allowing contact with loved ones on Earth. The trip takes seven days, so relax in your luxury suite and enjoy the beautiful views from space. From Dick Pelletier
Wild!  But as people note there’s lots of serious engineering that has addressed the issue. Still, like nuclear power, costs and safety seem serious issues. Can you imagine one of these structures failing and falling? What costly war targets they would represent. Much of our future may depend on our living in a much friendlier and safer world.
Futurology (aka futures studies) seems less a science of prediction than a branch art under the field of history about possibilities. Natural futurists Galileo and Leonardo could imagine helicopter flight and submarines. In fact, they did, following some highly inferencable trends. But they could not foresee advances like radar installation, nuclear reactors or carbon-dating, since these rely on physical systems they were unaware of.
Still, perhaps for fun, USA Today recently asked the Toffler team to project 40 more years into the future ("40 For The Next 40") -see
The Toffler group seems to follow somewhat of a linear trend model in 4-5 area that they say will “shape our world from now to 2050”. So in Politics they see an increase in female leaders and a push by religious groups to get into government and what they call "Philanthro-capitalists" such as Microsoft's Bill Gates will have more global influence. Technology they see as better linking of "answer seekers" with "problem solvers", having chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear & meteorological sensors integrated into our mobile devices. And it is easy to predict more invasions of our personal privacy— Data may be collected faster than it can be analyzed, resulting in what the Toffler group calls "cyberdust."
A different kind of la-la futurists has a strange combination of oddball scientists and skeptics. Some engage in UFO investigations. Such endless investigations appeal to a sort of grand skeptic type who raises the question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Some extreme futurists have a strange mix of rejection of consensus and an almost religious faith in some topics such as anti-gravitational technology. You can see some of their writing on some internet groups such as
They claim special source of 'secret information' that is limited to a handful of people. They develop followers and can then make money selling books and getting paid for talks. They are weak on making testable predictions. To me this extreme form feels more like a religious faith if something that a scientific style belief mixed with skepticism and critical thinking. Techno-science is something to respect but when it becomes like a god then faith in the progress of science to solve everything takes on a religious tone.

One such area seems to exist around the idea of radical life extension. Technologists like Ray Kurzweil inventor, futurist, and author of The Singularity is Near is a well know voice on life extension. He is part of the baby boom generation that has an ever pressing, personal interest in the expansion of human life. Kurzweil believes that hyper expansion of technology is coming rapidly. By around 2029 he predicts that information technology will become more sophisticated than the human brain. This and other innovations that he trend-fully predicts will enable reversing of human aging, illness and death to be “cured.” These ideas, like space elevators, has lots of science appeal at first blush. The expanding technology innovation is summarized in his new book on the Singularity where info science, nanotechnology and biology hyper advance to allow us a singular freedom. The idea is that we will break free of previous biological constraints (see

As I mentioned, one particular idea is about life expansion which is described at There is also a Barry Ptolemy documentary film called Transcendent Man which chronicles Ray Kurzweil life and ideas. Transcendent Man presents Kurzweil’s vision of what he calls a technological singularity. This is a point in the future (2040?) where ever accelerating technology will have advanced so rapidly that we humans will have to enhance ourselves with artificial intelligence in order to keep up with the change (and extreme Future Shock).

One appeal of the Kurzweil vision is that it not only avoids a decline, but predicts a Science-enabled dawning of a new civilization where world hunger and poverty will be solved. Future humans
will no longer be dependent upon their physical bodies. Instead we will become billions or trillions of times more intelligent than what evolution has provided. As part of this we will essentially leave the real world and the ability to distinguish between real and virtual reality. 
Powerful ideas, and appealing in a down time for the USA. But I tend to doubt the vision, if only because it relies in part on a simple, linear projection. Like Galileo and Leonardo, it can see some things but not others. Some things like evolved intelligence are a highly dynamic.  The fulfillment of IT future visions rely on more than processing speed and large memory storage. The costly and limiting part of IT systems is now the design effort that goes into the programming and data structuring. It's like the building of a human body, which have chemical elements that cost a few bucks to purchase. The cost of structuring a cell from these elements is beyond a billion dollars, to say nothing of all the interacting systems assembled from many cells. There is no royal, linear road to this complexity. And there may be Black Swans along the way!
My worry is that there are groups of people who seem to be reacting a bit naively, if not slavishly, to the easy life expansion and immorality message. They assemble around a thought leader as in a church. Futurists like Kurzweil become high priests, if not a messiahs, to the Sci-Fi-ish faithful. Their writings become a bit like a sacred script projecting a vivid view of the future with little constraints. They create narratives, or at least lead to narratives, that break the bounds of critical thinking. 

Some disciples seem to become spin-meisters and profit oriented motivational speakers. They minister to a fearful flock who need an upbeat message in a time of crisis. Their talks and articles resemble Science Fiction more and more. They speak to a new-faith community, clinging to a message of tech-hope and avoiding critical thinking that may counter their new hopes.

I wish that Kurzweilian predictions were true. I am of the same generation so I here time's steps.  But I’m skeptical of a simple techno-fix as an easy way out of our problems (climate change included). It seems something like a royal road and I doubt that it will be so easy. We certainly need serious work along these lines and a spirit of hope, but hyping expectations can be a problem and developing religious-like atmospheres sets off alarm bells in my mind.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nature Does NOT have Rights

We need to have a clear notion of what a right is and how and why government should be used to define and protect a right. I think the only coherent source of a “right” is a social agreement between people that their interests are better served with a legally enforced understanding that a right exists. Without an understanding that rights rest only with people we can get the preposterous behavior in the United Nations which resulted in the notion that religions have rights.

Frankly we are now in the embarrassing position of having little to say against the draconian blasphemy laws in Islamic countries when European countries also have blasphemy laws on their books. Ireland is a case in point on this. Irish atheists are trying to challenge the law which imposes a fine of up to 25,000 Euros on anyone who is guilty of "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion...” Michael Nugent, the Chair of Atheist Ireland said, “This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic states led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.” This quote is from the Guardian. As secularists we cannot object to Islamic governments supporting abusive laws punishing blasphemy if we do not have a clear notion that rights of necessity apply to people only.

A right is a liberty or privilege protected by the force of law. Rights do not exist as transcendental artifacts coming from a supreme being or our over active imaginations. Where does this leave the currently popular notion of nature having rights? I will argue that almost every legitimate right that would be in place from a theory that nature has rights can be derived from ascribing those rights to people.

We need to make it clear that people have a right to very limited pollution of their environment. People should have a right to expect that the vast array of services provided by the wider ecosystem will not collapse because capitalists do not want to pay for the devastation they leave behind in their quest for money. Our children should have a right to live in a world that has not been devastated by the early stages of a great extinction that will massively reduce the number of species in their future world.

I think most importantly we should have a right to have the food supply that is critical for the survival of humanity to remain intact. We should have a right to have the fisheries of the world survive into the future. We should have a right to be able to eat fish without ingesting unacceptable loads of mercury from coal fired power plants. We should have a right to see the Midwest, the bread basket of our nation, not be turned into a scrub desert due to global warming. We should have a right to have our beach-front property not be flooded out by a rising ocean. We should have a right to not see our forests destroyed by a vastly longer fire season caused by anthropogenic global warming.

Obviously by the time we list and enforce the all the rights that people should have we will have protected nature also. That is because our survival and positive well being is tightly linked to the preservation of the wider natural ecosystem within which we have evolved as a species.

Nature has Rights

This Earth Day you can read the proposed Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth at:

This declaration was adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in Bolivia on April 22, 2010.

Essentially the draft United Nations treaty gives "Mother Earth" the same rights as humans. Bolivia proposed this at the UN having passed a "Law of the Rights of Mother Earth", which Bolivian President Evo Morales enacted in January.

That document speaks about Bolivia's natural resources in reverent terms ("blessings") while granting the concept of "Earth" or perhaps Nature a series of specific rights analogous to people such as include rights to life, water and clean air; the right to repair livelihoods affected by human activities; and the right to be free from pollution. The law established a Ministry of Mother Earth, and provides the planet with Representation. That is, there is a Nature ombudsman whose job is to hear "nature's complaints" as voiced by activist, activist groups, and state organizations.

Pablo Salon, Bolivia's ambassador to the UN, describe it this way to Postmedia News.

"If you want to have balance, and you think that the only (entities) who have rights are humans or companies, then how can you reach balance? But if you recognize that nature too has rights, and (if you provide) legal forms to protect and preserve those rights, then you can achieve balance."

Closer to us Canadian activist Maude Barlow who is former Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly and chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She is a leading contributor to The Rights of Nature and among global environmentalists backing the UN drive with a book (The Rights of Nature) the group will launch in New York during the UN debate o whether Nature Has Rights. Here is how she makes the argument:

"The case for acknowledging the Rights of Nature cannot be understated." Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the Earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is a crucial link in this process and will one day stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time. "

Of the campaign Barlow said:

"It's going to have huge resonance around the world," . "It's going to start first with these southern countries trying to protect their land and their people from exploitation, but I think it will be grabbed onto by communities in our countries, for example, fighting the tar sands in Alberta."

You can see an interview with Barlow and others talking about this topic on this at

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Literal and Propagandistic Views of Terrorism

I see that terrorism and anti-terrorism is in the news again. A Nashville paper reported a protest of > 200 Tennessee Muslims who turned out at the Legislative Plaza to oppose an anti-terrorism bill which they argue grew out of a direct assault against Islam. As first drafted, the so called anti-terrorism bill made it a felony to follow Shariah law. Eventually the references to the Muslin religion were excised but perhaps the spirit driving it is there.

The religious and sometime nationality profiling of terrorism and terrorist got me thinking on how we got to position so irrational that we see a boogie man of Shariah law taking over when other religions seem more front and center in the influence game in this country. This is only a small part of what is probably shaping up to be a loud, finger-pointing debate in the 2012 political season. There are broad issue like terror in Libya and definitions of terrorist acts and groups. For example, is Pakistan supporting Taliban terrorists? Or is this US 'negative propaganda' - Is the use and the threat of the use of force, that some described as coercive diplomacy, a form of terrorism? In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man John Perkins describes it that way ( So I went back to some earlier Progressive writing on the history and of some of the thinking that goes into the terrorist idea.

I didn't need to go very find when I retrieved from my "files" a Noam Chomsky article called International Terrorism: Image and Reality from 1991 which at 10 years before 9/11 seemed a reasonable distance. But as Chomsky notes terrorism became a major public issue back in the 1980s of the Reagan administration. He took office announcing its dedication to stamping out what the was called:

"the evil scourge of terrorism," a plague spread by "depraved opponents of civilization itself" in "a return to barbarism in the modern age" (Secretary of State George Shultz).

The way Chomsky likes to frame this type of terrorism discussion is as a propagandistic approach. The propagandistic exposition of terrorism and terrorist acts is the one that is prevalent in corporate media. Chomsky argues that this is a particular, manufactured construct of the concept of terrorism which can be used, "as a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power." We claim some group is terrorist and thus we may do violent things against them to protect ourselves and our values. In Reagan's reign we had a US proxy war against Nicaragua which killed many. Was this support of terrorism? Chomsky's history on this is:

"The State Department specifically authorized attacks on agricultural cooperatives -- exactly what we denounce with horror when the agent is Abu Nidal. Media doves expressed thoughtful approval of this stand. New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, at the liberal extreme of mainstream commentary, argued that we should not be too quick to dismiss State Department justifications for terrorist attacks on farming cooperatives: a "sensible policy" must "meet the test of cost-benefit analysis," an analysis of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end." It is understood that US elites have the right to conduct the analysis and pursue the project if it passes their tests."

When civilians are killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Gaza these are judged as not terrorist acts in the light of there being protective acts against groups labeled terrorist.

There is another way to study & understand terrorism - a literal approach. As you might expect Chomksy prefers a literal approach which takes the topic seriously and uses an historical-fact-rational perspective to understand it. Some of the history of the development of the concepts of terrorism is above. You don't have to be a linguist to appreciate Chomsky's rational- literal approach that Socratically asks what constitutes terrorism and then explored instances of the phenomenon teasing out causal relations. Although he has issues with it Chomsky gets great mileage out of using official United States Code definition of "act of terrorism" to mean an activity that --

(A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and
(B) appears to be intended
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.

Chomsky sees much of this intimidation of civilian populations in our support of the Contras in Nicaragua. His other example of terrorism during pre-Reagan period is Israel's involvements in southern Lebanon going back to the 1970s when the civilian population was first held hostage with the idea that pressuring these populations would force agreement on Israeli arrangements for the region. He cites Abba Eban, commenting on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's account of atrocities in Lebanon committed under the Labor government, in the style "of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name,"

Eban normally portrayed as a Labor dove describes Israel policy in terms that would fit US and international concept of terrorism (if not aggression). Indeed as Chomsky notes thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes in these attacks as a modern form of terrorism came to the Middle East. Israel's invasion left some 18,000 killed to achieve political ends, as discussed in Israel. We see the consequences of it as terrorism but may not label the sources of it in a literal way. As Chomksy reports:

"ABC correspondent Charles Glass, then a journalist in Lebanon, found "little American editorial interest in the conditions of the south Lebanese. The Israeli raids and shelling of their villages, their gradual exodus from south Lebanon to the growing slums on the outskirts of Beirut were nothing compared to the lurid tales of the 'terrorists' who threatened Israel, hijacked aeroplanes and seized embassies." The reaction was much the same, he continues, when Israeli death squads were operating in southern Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion. One could read about them in the London Times, but US editors were not interested. Had the media reported the operations of "these death squads of plainclothes Shin Beth [secret police] men who assassinated suspects in the villages and camps of south Lebanon," "stirring up the Shiite Muslim population and helping to make the Marine presence untenable," there might have been some appreciation of the plight of the US Marines deployed in Lebanon. They seemed to have no idea of why they were there apart from "the black enlisted men: almost all of them said, though sadly never on camera, that they had been sent to protect the rich against the poor." "

For more on the introduction of terrorism to the Middle East see Chomsky's "Who are the Global Terrorists?" which describes the 1985 Israeli attack on Tunis and the CIA and Saudi car-bombing in Beirut to get a Shi'ite leader accused of complicity in terrorism which didn't kill him but killed 80 people and wounded 256. The Similar violence was noted in Peres's 1996 invasion and who can forget the use of cluster bombs as Obama took office. These relied on US military and diplomatic support. Accordingly, Chomksy notes "they too do not enter the annals of international terrorism."

In light of our more recent "interventions" in the Middle East (how many civilians died in our Iraq War?) it is useful to remember this history and how things were portrayed. We (and our friends) have a history of organizing proxy army to subdue some recalcitrant population. We see this as a legitimate option but it fits the concept of of a terrorism. In Reagan's day Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that "forceful intervention in the affairs of another nation" is neither "impractical" nor "immoral". As Chomsky noted, this doesn't make it legal. It may make it a hot topic for the coming campaign season in late 2011.

Secular Perspectives: King James and Citizen Grayling

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

King James and Citizen Grayling

A few days ago I was surprised to hear an NPR story about the 400th anniversary of the completion of the King James Bible (KJB) in 1611. The story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty was entitled "Hallelujah! At Age 400, King James Bible Still Reigns"

One of the themes of the celebration is to honor its general status as one of the great masterpieces of world literature. The early 17th century was indeed a great era for literature since it comes roundly in Shakespeare's time. Perhaps for this reason one of the celebrating events in a marathon recital of the King James Bible at London's Globe theater with 20 actors working in rotation to present all 69 hours of this historic book.

The NPR story was interesting to me because it not only covered the language of the KJB, but some of the background history about how it came to be written. Interestingly there were several poltical-religious ingredients starting around 1603. That's when King James I, whose name leads in KJB, ascended to the English throne after ruling Scotland. According to Gordon Campbell, a historian at the University of Leicester the English were suspicious of this seemingly foreign king, He may not have been born in Kenya or a Hawaii-like distance but he:
"spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, and one of the things he needed to legitimize himself as head of the Church of England was a Bible dedicated to him."

This was timely because England was warring over 2 earlier English translations of the Bible. There was the Bishops' Bible which was read in churches, but was clunky & inelegant. Then there was the Puritan choice, called the Geneva Bible which was more accessible and "bolder" because it included "marginal notes" according to David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor University historian). From the point of view of the royalists, and the new King there was a executive problem:

"these marginal comments often did not pay sufficient respect to the idea of the divine right of kings."

Shades of Social Justice Christianity! The notes referred to kings as tyrants and challenged regal authority. Good King James needed another, more favorable version. Perhaps they had PR and Presidential Commission folks back, because they got the bishops and the Puritans together like 2 opposing groups to compromise and work out the differences. The hidden agenda was to eliminate the Social Justice flavored notes while losing the clunky language that hindered the kingly message.

What astonishes many is the quality of language that could emerge from something started with such devious motives. It's not every committee compromise that produces poetry of extraordinarily high quality. The KJB's pleasant phrasing has allowed it to find a home in our language, thoughts, customs and laws. As one commenter summarized it:
"It's memorable. It's beautiful. And in the KJB, it's distinctively the voice of God."

Of course as we've seen how it was engineered to be that kingly voice. It's been reworked to have an impact.

Examples offered of its powerful language include:

Isaiah 40 , where God speaks out of the whirlwind saying:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
Hagerty's article summarizes many English Phrases which seem to have been coinage in the KJB. These are mostly non-religious and include:

  • A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)
  • A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25)
  • A man after his own heart (Samuel 13:14 or Acts 13:22)
  • A wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15)

These are all fine and good, but I think that admirers of Mark Twain can find equally good ones that were inspired more recently and didn't take a committee of bishops. For example:

  • You can't reach old age by another man's road.
  • Honor is a harder master than the law.
  • Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.
Going back a little farther in US history an Enlightenment Age Benjamin Franklin coined some pretty good ones too:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • A place for everything, everything in its place.
  • Lost time is never found again.

But there's more. I happened to have attended a talk by the noted philosopher A. C. Grayling a few days ago. He happen to also talk about the history of the Bible and had a few additional things insights(from what we might say is a Secular Perspective) about how the the language came about and its influence.

For one thing Grayling pointed out that the 6 committees of 50 translators did not achieve remarkable quality, clarity and consistency by themselves. They all drew heavily on an earlier 16th century translation by William Tyndale (see As noted in Wikipedia "Although the authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation."

The Catholic Church in particular did not like much of Tyndale's translations which in their opion did not provide a proper view- using words like "overseer" where they preferred "bishop," "elder" for "priest" etc. So “In 1535, Tyndale was arrested by church authorities and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536."

However, the KJB committees liked the tone of Tyndal's archaic language. They could use this is set a proper kingly tone for god. As Grayling notes, groups tweaked Tyndale translation to suit their purposes. This is part of a long history or reworking it to suit particular messages. Folks redact what they don't want and enhance what message they are selling. The translated Bible, like Shakespeare's works, draws heavily on prior work, making an older story into a bolder more digestible one. Old testament tribal leaders are made to seem like 17th century Kings and societies from 2500 years earlier are made to seem more like nation states than tribes. Great Scott! Mark Twain would have had fun with this if he gotten a chance as he did with the Romantic era's view of a King Arthur!

We don't have Twain to deconstruct the KJB, but A. C. Grayling has gone one better. He has constructed a new version, "The Good Book: A secular Bible." Like the KJB this is intended to make bold but is easy to digest since it can be taken in small bites such as "Be gentle since life is short."

This Good, or I would say Wise Book, mirrors the Bible in both form and language, but is a manifesto for rational thought. Grayling calls the work "ambitious and hubristic – a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who've really experienced life, and thought about it". To do this he draws on some classical secular texts from both east and west. So he has sources like Hume, Socrates, & Cicero. But he has reworked them into a "great treasury of insight and consolation and inspiration and uplift and understanding in the great non-religious traditions of the world".

While the book begins with a scientific view of our genesis it ends with a secular humanist version of the 10 Commandments. The Bible's has God giving Moses a small list include laws forbidding idol worship along with prohibition of killing and stealing. In Grayling's secular alternative, he mines and refines past secular humanists to give the reader these 10 commandments:

  1. "Love well,
  2. seek the good in all things,
  3. harm no others,
  4. think for yourself,
  5. take responsibility,
  6. respect nature,
  7. do your utmost,
  8. be informed,
  9. be kind,
  10. be courageous: at least, sincerely try."

Thank you Dr. Graylin. I was so charmed by the effort and his talk I bought a copy for my son. Something to grow on.

Why I Don't Believe in "Interfaith" Community Service Projects

There is an argument going around in the blogosphere this week (and maybe every week) about whether or not atheists, humanists and secularists should be involved in “interfaith community service projects.” Blag Hag had a post up yesterday in which she said “no” (; today at the Friendly Atheist, my friend, Jesse Galef says “yes” ( Sorry, Jesse, but I’m not buying your argument.

First, I would like to point out that “interfaith” is not a word that makes sense for community service projects even where all of the participants come from a faith tradition. “Interfaith” makes sense in the context of interfaith dialogues, where members of different faith communities come together and talk about issues “between” or “among” their faiths. “Interfaith” does not make sense in the context of service projects because the projects are not between or among the faith groups – the projects aren’t Baptists fixing the roof on a mosque or Catholics collecting for a food pantry for poor Lutheran children. The projects are projects of people from many communities to help people in the larger community. The proper prefix is “multi-“ not “inter-“.

Second, if we’re there, the proper root word is not “faith”. There are a lot of root words that could be used, for example, community or association. I kind of like “fellowship” despite the gendered language – multifellowship service projects instead of interfaith ones. The only reasons to use the word faith in the banner over a project involving both theists and nontheists are ignorance or arrogance, and I think that the day when one could get by with the excuse of ignorance on this issue are over.

Third, if we permit the word “interfaith” to be used, then we are permitting our contributions to be erased. We may know that the “interfaith” workers include nontheists, President Obama may know that the projects include people of faith and no faith, but the person on the street is still going to believe that only theists do good works and they’re going to believe that we aren’t there.

Fourth, beyond whether or not the word “faith” works for us, the idea of “interfaith” projects is a bad one for society. I have been involved in several volunteer projects this winter and spring that have brought people together from different communities to do service. One was organized by a synagogue, another by a secular non-profit and the third by my county government. None of the projects was labeled “interfaith.” Crews at the various events were organized by churches, employee groups, atheist/humanist groups, Rotary Clubs, housing projects, a club for people who like to volunteer and a high school honor society to name a few. Do you know who would have been left out if all of the credit went to an interfaith effort – the employees, atheists and humanists, Rotarians, housing project residents, volunteer club members, high schoolers and others who came just to help. Let’s stop pretending that we live in a society where everything good is organized by churches.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Defense of Sarah

Sarah Hippolitus posted an interesting essay on Responsible Atheism. There were several people who criticized her for not providing evidence to support her case. They cited claims such as "Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy." When I read this my thought was, of course this is the case. When others read this they thought she is providing no facts to back up this claim and there was no reason to accept this and other claims made by Sarah.

Let me start by saying that I am profoundly confident that Sarah can defend herself on this and related points. My title reference above really has less to do with defending Sarah than my desire to look at the issues that arise when considering the criticisms of her essay. What evidence is relevant and what should a person writing to a blog assume about the audience reading an essay?

I recalled a story about a couple of deeply religious Christians working in Afghanistan who got captured by the Taliban. Coalition forces found where they were imprisoned and a firefight ensued. The two Christians reported that when this happened they “prayed furiously.” They presumed that an infinitely powerful force controlled their lives and imploring help from this force could protect them.

In the same context I would have been thinking about where the bullets were coming from, what solid objects could shield me and if perhaps getting closer to the floor might be safer. Taking charge of my life would obviously allow me to best protect my own health in that context. I also recalled back when I was very young, 8, 9 or 10 year old, I would put enormous effort into praying. I had been told that prayers were answered and for a while I believed it. When I figured out that this did not work I was outraged. All that time and effort had been wasted. Obviously attempts to invoke magical supernatural actions is a waste of time that is a needless burden on a person's life. All such burdens of necessity reduces a person's ability to pursue healthy goals in life.

In short I had extensive data from news reports and my personal experience to document how and why Sarah's claim was valid. The people people criticizing Sarah almost certainly had a similar variety of common knowledge which they could use to evaluate this particular claim. Similar detailed analyzes could be made with all of Sarah's claims. Somehow her critics chose to not invoke the knowledge which would support this type of understanding.

What did they want? Did they want carefully controlled studies with empirical evidence concerning the degree of power allocated to a being with dominion over the person's life correlated with metrics of mental health? Perhaps that is what they might prefer but Sarah was doing something else. She was doing a very thoughtful analysis of extremely common religious assumptions and the probable implications in people's lives.

Any blogger must of necessity define a scope for a given post. If all implications and threads of evidence are covered a post on any complex subject it would have to have the length of an encyclopedia volume. Just before posting this essay I noticed that Sarah commented that she would be posting followup essays with supporting evidence. I very much look forward to those posts.

There were also that there were a couple of comments noting that religion also had positive effects. To be fair and balanced we need to look at and understand the positive elements of religion. I hope to post some thoughts on that issue if time permits.