Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Maple Leaf

by Edd Doerr

Rereading recently Kurt Vonnegut's 2005 book A Man without a Country reminded me of something that occurred in the early summer of 2001, a few months after the Supreme Court had chosen Bush to be President. As president of the American Humanist Association I was in Oslo, Norway, for a meeting of the board of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. As I had to make some remarks on an item of business, I opened with this  ---

"You may have noticed that I am wearing on my jacket a small Canadian flag pin. That is so that I will not be recognized as someone from a country that recently had a judicial coup d'etat."

The Europeans found that amusing

Wearing the same pin on a trip to Spain, I found that Spaniards were more likely to recognize the Maple Leaf emblem than many Americans, some of whom even think that Canada is part of the US.

Americans too often seem rather ignorant of geography. During the Reagan administration the governor of New Mexico wrote to an official of the Reagan regime, who responded that the governor should contact his own government in Mexico City. The governor wrote back that New Mexico has been a state since 1912, but the Reagan flunky did not believe him.

And so it goes, as Vonnegut would have said. BTW, Kurt and I went to high schools in Indianapolis on the same street and my wife and I were married in the Unitarian chapel designed by Kurt's father.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Challenge of Confronting Visionary Futures

By Gary Berg-Cross

When Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson penned the Humanist Manifesto II in the middle of the Viet Nam war (1973) they noted opportunities for the rapidly approaching 21st century based on “dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness.”  They went on to talk about virtually human domination of the planet, moon exploration, and dramatic travel and communication advances. It all suggested  that  we stand at the dawn of a new age. It was one they characterized as “ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets.” Well the movie 2001 certainly was in that spirit, but in 2012 we remain far short of that vision.

And it is not just space exploration.  The promise of technology suited to wise control of our environment hasn’t been promoted and we face a changed planet that could bring hurricane level flooded coasts on a permanent basis.
To be sure we have done a good job enhancing communication technology, but that gets used to let us shout alarms of problems rather than systematically solve really big systemic problems like putting poverty on the run or achieving what the Manifesto signaled as “an abundant and meaningful life.”  At times technological advances seem to go sideways towards profit as opposed to investing in the solution of large problems. “Shale boom derails U.S. investments in clean coal technology” reads a recent headline in the vein.

Why haven’t we done a better job of providing for the common good?  One problem is that large scale efforts (poverty, climate, renewable energy, space exploration) require long term commitments to visions. We simply lack policy frameworks (economic and otherwise), social organization and agreements needed to advance such large-scale projects to bring about visions.  On some issue, such as energy we are maintaining the status quo, rather than going with the new. This  makes narrow plutocratic sense based on old economic models.  Fractured policies and entrenched interests with political connections make change difficult and expensive. 

Take the issue and promise of residential,rooftop solar. According to the Department of Energy the US has more than 18,000 jurisdictions at state & local levels that have a say in how rooftop solar is rolled out. In Germany, at a latitude equal to Maine’s, they have addressed the problem as a whole society and reached a working consensus on solar's importance.  In Germany the price of installed rooftop solar has fallen to $2.24 per watt and on a sunny day in May, rooftop solar provided all of Germany's power needs for two hours. In the US it was $9 a watt in 2006 and is now closer to $5 and if commercial industrial installations are included the national installed price plummets to $3.45 a watt (Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington trade group).

This point on the organizational rather than technical nature of problems is made in Solar energy is ready, the U.S. isn't which notes:

The trouble is, many of the big, investor-owned utilities that provide about 85 percent of America's electricity see solar as both a technical challenge and a long-term threat to their 100-year-old profit models. And the lack of a national energy policy means regulation of solar is up to states, public service commissions, and a wealth of local governments and bureaucracies - many of whom have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The rule of thumb had been that once rooftop installations made up 15 percent of the power on a given circuit, utilities could stay new connections until residents undertook an engineering study - costing as much as $50,000 - that showed their addition wouldn't destabilize the power grid. The hidden costs of obtaining permits and regulators' approval to install rooftop panels is a big reason the United States lags behind Germany, which leads the world in rooftop installations, with more than 1 million.

On big problems is that we need to formulate new plans of action and response and get some agreement. Such agreements may even cross national boundaries and so hint of some global governance based on common values. Follow ups to Humanist Manifesto II have taken modest steps in proposing things in that direction. It’s a long haul and vision starts with discussion and understanding of the issues. 

Some of each of this will be afforded at the discussion of an Agenda for a Democratized Economy So it is the People’s Economy Saturday, Nov 3rd, from (2-4 p.m.) when the MDC chapter of WASH hosts  Margaret Flowers & Kevin Zeese (co-directors of Its Our Economy).  This will be at the Wheaton regional library 11701 Georgia Avenue  Wheaton, MD 20902.


  1. Dawn of Man from 2001:
  2. 2001 Logo:
  3. The promise of Solar panels:
  4. Plutocrats and Poverty:

Building Humanist Communities in Baltimore

by Emil Volcheck, BES President, BaltimoreCOR coordinator

Three years ago this month, the Baltimore Coalition of Reason (Baltimore CoR) formed. What started with three groups has since grown to a coalition of nine humanist and atheist organizations. The CoR got off to a strong start – with a lecture by Greg Epstein speaking about his book Good Without Godthat drew an audience of nearly 200 at First Unitarian thanks to the electronic billboard advertisement at Ravens Stadium funded by the United Coalition of Reason.

Looking back over the past year, Baltimore CoR has kept a pace of events that has exceeded my expectations. The highlight of the year for many of us was attending the Reason Rally, which brought to the National Mall an estimated 20,000 humanists and atheists and employed several of us as volunteer VIP ushers. Since September 2011, the CoR has organized or co-sponsored a diverse range of events, including:
  • a “Parenting Beyond Belief” workshop by Dale McGowan;
  • a lecture on religious fundamentalism by Professor Bjorn Krondorfer;
  • a lecture by Sean Faircloth on his book Attack of the Theocrats;
  • the second annual celebration of HumanLight in Baltimore;
  • a lecture on LGBT rights in Uganda by Reverend Kiyimba;
  • two lectures marking Darwin Day;
  • a concert by singer and political satirist Roy Zimmerman;
  • a celebration of World Humanist Day that featured a documentary about the impact of religious millennialism on U.S. foreign policy, followed by a counterpoint Humanist view of the future provided by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and
  • Skepticamp DC 2012.
Catherine Blackwell, past president of the UMBC Secular Student Alliance, represented Baltimore CoR on the TV debate show “Square Off with Richard Sher.” Baltimore CoR also helped launch the LGBTQ Humanist Council of Baltimore, the newest chapter of the American Humanist Association in the city. The events of the CoR serve to build and strengthen a greater humanist community in Baltimore. For a young and loosely knit coalition, this is an impressive record of activity.

Last March, it was my privilege to address an audience of over seven hundred at Ignite Baltimore #10 on the theme of this essay. Baltimore CoR is a publicity coalition whose purpose is to raise public awareness that people can be good without believing in God. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have found a home in Ethical Culture (or any member of Baltimore CoR), this message might seem obvious, or a distraction from our primary focus. But we must not forget there are those less fortunate who suffer hardship as a result of their beliefs. Army Reserve Captain Ryan Jean was rated “spiritually deficient” by an Army psychological fitness test and berated by an Army chaplain who told him he should resign his commission if he did not believe in God. (Listen to the podcast of his platform address at Jessica Ahlquist, a high-school student in Cranston, Rhode Island, faced threats of bodily harm that required police to protect her at school. Ahlquist received a 2012 Humanist Pioneer Award from the American Humanist Association. Also receiving the Pioneer Award was Damon Fowler, a high school student in Louisiana who was disowned by his family and shunned by his classmates after he objected to a unconstitutional graduation prayer. Misunderstanding and discrimination can indirectly impact atheists and humanists causing them to self-censor their views. A member of our society revealed to me that when they recently began a search for a new job, they deleted a profile on a popular social networking website that listed them as atheist so that this fact would not be seen by potential employers.

I am proud that the Baltimore Ethical Society has played a vital role in supporting the Baltimore Coalition of Reason through the volunteer work of our members and the use of our facilities. The message of Ethical Culture – “Deed Before Creed” – means that we believe it is what we do that matters, not what religious beliefs we hold. We have an ethical duty to stand up against discrimination based on religious beliefs or nonbeliefs because this diminishes the dignity of our friends and family. Whether this discrimination affects employment opportunities – or marriage rights – it’s unethical, and the Baltimore Ethical Society stands against it.
I hope that you will help build the greater humanist community in Baltimore by supporting the message of Baltimore CoR and participating in some of the upcoming events of the coalition, including lecture and lunch with Herb Silverman on November 11th and HumanLight on December 23rd at BES. Please watch for the announcements of Darwin Day in February and World Humanist Day on June 21st.

(Baltimore Secular Humanists, the Baltimore chapter of WASH, was a founding member of the BaltimoreCOR, and cosponsored these events.  More past BSH events are listed here.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Houston launches a Freethinking Community

By Gary Berg-Cross

Earlier, in the days of the Reason Rally (March 2012), MSNBC’s Up w/Chris Hayes aired an episode on non-believers/Atheism. The guests included Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins and local favorite Jamila Bey, but also Pastor Mike Aus who publicly came out of the atheist closet on Chris Hayes’ show.
Aus said that he'd long had doubts about his faith and beliefs, but never abandoned the idea that Christianity provided for basic human needs for support and community.
"Regardless of theological orientation, there is some kind of deeply ingrained basic human need for community. Homo sapiens are a tribal species that need support from others, that cannot be denied."

Well, Up with Chris Hayes had an update in October.  According to the Houston paper Aus, along with several other atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists in Houston, launched Houston Oasis - a community that offers sanctuary for freethinkers. Houston Oasis is a community grounded in reason rather than revelation, celebrating the human experience as opposed to any deity.  

The Houston Chronicle's profile on Houston Oasis called it a “church” which did prompt the Oasis folks to  clarify that they do NOT see themselves as an:

‘Atheist church" nor do we use the term "church" as a descriptor. We are simply a community of freethinkers--atheists, agnostics, deists--and even theists-- dedicated to understanding life through reason and promoting humanistic values. We attempt to avoid labels and accept people wherever they may be.’

The first Houston Oasis Sunday morning gatherings was held in early September and featured live music by local artists, personal testimonies, a message and time for fellowship and  for “those who do not want to be part of organized religion...but who do want to be part of organized-something.” 
More music was featured in later gatherings. Now it has a Facebook page.

It’s probably a good place for some of what has been called Nones and, of course, secular humanists. Perhaps a  good spot for WASH folks to stop by on there.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Discussing an Agenda for a Democratized Economy So it is the People’s Economy

By Gary Berg-Cross

Saturday, Nov 3rd, from (2-4 p.m.) the MDC chapter of WASH will have a talk Margaret Flowers & Kevin Zeese (co-directors of Its Our Economy) entitled: "Shifting Economic and Political Power to the People. ”  This will be at the Wheaton regional library 11701 Georgia Avenue  Wheaton, MD 20902.

As attorney Kevin Zeese notes the Roman philosopher/statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero defined “Freedom” as “participation in power.” By that standard most of we Americans are not free since do not participate in real power and decision making. Yes, we get to vote every now and then, but this seems a distant form of influence now.  Real power resides in organizations like the Bank of America which has spent millions lobbying the US Congress to pass laws that benefit then directly or indirectly by deregulating industry. One example cited is their spending millions to oppose bills like the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights &  the Foreclosure Prevention Act, Helping Families Save their Homes Act, Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, all of which would have directly benefited consumers and hence the Public. 

Self advancement and deregulation explains in part why our system could not avoid a Bush-era economic/financial system collapse in 2008.  This followed the longer, contextual 30 year decline of basically stagnant and minimized worker wages. The result has been to produce a numbing, record household, personal and educational debt. 

An article on the Its Our Economy site described the scene this way:
At the same time working Americans saw jobs disappearing, hours reduced, salaries shrinking and more under-employment.  They also saw their retirement savings disappear, 5 million foreclosures, record bankruptcies, record poverty and shrinking housing values.  The cost of everything from health care, to food to energy kept rising while incomes fell. And, the social safety net, limited as it was compared to other developed countries, was shredded, a process continuing as austerity budgets take hold across the United States.

Why doesn’t the economy work better for most Americans? 

One particular chicken and egg problem seems to be the growing wealth gap caused in part by stagnant wages and debt. This inequality creates an imbalance of actual intertwined economic & political power. Eggs that hatch from such confluence craft economic and political policies that seemed designed to extract wealth from the economy and direct it at a favored few. The result is a form of structural poverty leading to struggle on many fronts (education, health care, home ownership, saving etc.). 

Margaret & Kevin will describe a 20 point:“ strategy and tactics to shift economic power, and thereby political power, to the people.

As time permits they may cover parts of their 20 point agenda to stabilizes the economy in the short term & turn things around from misguided policy to a more sustainable democratic economy. The outlined action evolved from a Prosperity Agenda (www.ProsperityAgenda.US) written in 2009 to provide for a democratized economy that combines policies that have proven to be effective along with innovative new solutions.  Here are highlights of the proposal.
*  *  *
New, Efficient, Clean Energy Economy
1. The foundation for a new economy is a carbon-free/nuclear-free energy economy; that distributes energy production down to individual homes and businesses and uses energy efficiently.  
2. The U.S. automobile industry, recovering from near collapse, is caught in the web of long-term costs for its retired and current employees, especially the uncontrollable cost of health care and rapidly changing transit needs.  Further, the auto industry has to move toward the new green economy, instead continuing to build SUV’s rather than hybrids and electric cars.
3. Infrastructure in the United States is literally falling apart and not keeping up with the needs for a sustainable carbon-free/nuclear-free energy economy. Long term investment is needed for new infrastructure. 
4. The U.S. and world need to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. A critical step is to tax carbon emissions at the source as they enter the economy, i.e. tax coal, oil and gas for their emissions

5. Develop local economies to reduce use of fossil fuel in transport and allow local businesses and communities to flourish. 
Creating Jobs, Providing Housing, Health Care and Building Local Economies
6. Individuals as well as state and local governments are in fragile financial positions and thus in need of an economic and social safety net.
7. Another tool for developing local economies, particularly around housing and land use. This is a nonprofit corporation which acquires and manages land on behalf of the residents of a community.
8. To address housing we must stop the mortgage crisis by requiring mortgage holders to reconfigure mortgages to allow homeowners to stay in their homes and not lose them to foreclosure. 
9. Face up to the health care crisis which is approaching 20% of U.S. GDP.  The United States has the most cost-inefficient health care system in the world.

End the Wars and Reduce the Military Budget
10. End the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libyan wars and reduce military spending.  The United States needs to end a foreign policy based on empire and militarism

Re-making Finance, Shared Prosperity
11. Transform corporate welfare into taxpayer investment. Even before the current bailout, the U.S. government provided hundreds of billions of dollars annually to big business interests in loans, tax breaks, under-valued access to federal lands and a host of other mechanisms. 
12. Democratize access to financing by re-making the Federal Reserve and re-forming the nation’s money system. The Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors leadership is the exact opposite of democracy; it is control of the money system by the wealthy few, plutocracy.
13. Democratize corporate power by increasing shareholder rights, expanding the rights of shareholders to choose directors of corporations and submit resolutions to set the direction and priorities of the corporation they invest in and of which they are part owners. End corporate personhood, so that corporations do not have the rights of human beings. 
Financing the Government: Taxes and Deficits
14. Reconsider the tax structure to make it more equitable. 
15. Be mindful of the deficit and debt at all levels of government but also recognize there times when government must spend to rebuild the economy. 
Workers Rights
16. Democratize the workplace by encouraging employee-owned businesses
17. Reduce the work week with no reduction in pay. Before the economic collapse, 7% of the U.S. GDP was based on consumer buying.  Since the early 1970s wages have been flat in the U.S. and the consumer economy has continued because of two-income families, increasing personal debt and cheap goods from abroad.  This is unsustainable
18. Establish a national guaranteed income for all Americans based on the model proposed by Richard Nixon in 1969.
International Trade and Finance
19. End World Bank and IMF dominance (which means ending U.S. and European dominance) of the world financial markets.  These entities need competition and regional banks in Latin America, Asia, Africa and other regions should encouraged as should stabilization funds to assure currency stabilization.  These organizations need to be democratized, made more transparent and include appropriate representation and decision-making by developing nations.
20. Remake international trade from corporate trade to people’s trade.  The current rhetoric calls trade agreements “Free Trade” but in reality they are trade agreements that favor corporations over the interests of labor, the environment and consumers.  Trade agreements need to be redesigned so they serve the interests of people and the planet rather than the interests of corporations. 

Kevin Zeese, co-director of Its Our Economy, is an attorney who has been a political activist since graduating from George Washington Law School in 1980.  He works on peace, economic justice, criminal law reform and reviving American democracy.

Margaret Flowers, co-director of Its Our Economy, is a Maryland pediatrician. After graduation from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1990 and completion of pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Flowers worked first as a hospitalist and then in private practice. She left practice in 2007 to advocate full-time for a single payer health care system at both the state and national levels.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mourning the loss of a great Humanist

by Gary Berg-Cross

As many will know Paul Kurtz, often called the father of modern secular humanism, died Saturday Oct. 20th . There have been many outpourings of grief and sympathy as well as a celebration of his life.  WASH MDC had a panel honoring his thought and contributions earlier in the year and there have been several write-ups on this Blog (e.g. Kurtz by Edd Doerr or one on his thoughts) about Paul’s thoughts.

On his death he Associated Press article lauded him as a secular humanist and religion skeptic :
“A prolific author and organizer, Kurtz also founded the not-for-profit Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism, as well as the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which takes on such topics as alien sightings, paranormal claims and homeopathic remedies. Most recently, he formed the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV).”  

The New York Times called him a Humanist Publisher noting his founding of Prometheus Books noting that he taught philosophy at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, from 1965 until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1991. They also noted:

In 1973, as editor of the magazine The Humanist, Professor Kurtz drafted what came to be known as Humanist Manifesto II, in which he updated a 1933 document by addressing issues that the earlier document, which was largely a critique of theism, had failed to touch on, among them nuclear arms, population control, racism and sexism.

John Shook provided a tribute to Paul on the CFI site, which included this:

Paul Kurtz’s philosophizing has never been just about negativity. If the limitations of faith can be charted, it is because the finest achievements of human reason have brought us farther and higher. Kurtz’s living naturalism is a philosophical achievement to stitch together a cohesive worldview from what all of the sciences are telling us, yielding an optimistic outlook for growing meaning and value, and a fulfilling ethical life for every person.

D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundtion and a colleague wrote:

Paul Kurtz was not only my dear friend, but an inspiration. His humanity, his passion, his creativity and his organizational skills were the be
bedrock of a number of international organizations, and he worked tirelessly to grow the worldwide skeptics and humanist movements. In this respect, his impact remains unrivaled. His death is deeply felt and he will be sorely missed.”

Nathan Bupp, who was mentored by Paul and worked with him at ISHV, provided this snippet from Paul’s affirmative life that included great intellectual adventures at SUNY Buffalo:

"In 1987, Dr. (Paul) Kurtz was asked by the Chicago Tribune what he would do if he ever encountered God. 'I’d immediately pass out pamphlets, asking God to change the furniture in the universe and reorder it in a more just way,' he said, before adding: 'This is hypothetical, of course.'”

(from The Washington Post, 10/23/12)

Paul will be missed, but like many great people he has given us a legacy to work with if we have the wisdom to build on it.

Photo from NYT Obit article

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is "god of the gaps" a terrible slogan?

By Mathew Goldstein

Graham Veale is a theology graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. He argues that Christianity is true on his website Saints and Sceptics. In an article titled "God of the Gaps: Five Problems with a Terrible Slogan" he tries to argue that it is difficult to take seriously the "McAtheist" complaint "that 'goddidit' is a lazy man’s approach to explaining phenomena".

Graham Veale starts his attempt at refuting "McAtheist" with the observation that "we cannot be confident that every puzzle has a scientific answer". So lets set the record straight on this major misconception about atheism once and for all. Atheists have no problem with the fact that humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. On the contrary, atheists are well aware that we will forever never know everything that has happened in the past, nor what will happen in the future, nor the present. Since our access to information is forever and permanently limited by temporal-spatial constraints we will always be unable to answer every puzzle. How does this fact refute the observation that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale doesn't say.

Graham Veale then begins his second argument thusly: "There are persistent gaps that have never been filled in, and might never be filled in, by naturalistic science." OK, that is reasonable, and atheists agree with this. But why does this count as a second argument different from the first argument and how does this contribute to refuting the characterization of "goddidit" as a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale cites consciousness as an example of "persistent gaps" that he thinks are beyond the reach of naturalistic explanations. In the not so distant past religious believers like Mr. Veale would have the said the same about disease or the diversity of life forms. Throughout history religionists have persistently underestimated the reach of naturalistic explanations. He apparently is not aware that progress is being made in understanding consciousness. That none of this progress in acquiring such understandings have ever been made with the non-scientific methods of religious worship and divine revelation is one-sidedly ignored by Mr. Veale.

The argument he labels as three, but is really number two, begins as: "It is obviously false that theists invoke God to explain every phenomenon." Correct. Atheists are aware of the fact that theists have a tendency to be inconsistently selective in identifying God as the cause of their own good fortune but not their own misfortune. Graham Veale then cites the large amount of effort that theologians have put into debating for centuries the problem of evil. Again, he is correct that many believers have been active and assertive in defending and promoting their beliefs. However, the fact that laziness is not a general trait that characterizes believers does not contribute to refuting the criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena.

Graham Veale finally attempts to address the evidence with the argument he labels as his fourth: "However, if there is some evidence that does not fit neatly with theism, then there is an abundance of evidence which theism can account for." He then cites as two evidences favoring Christianity, or at least theism, "our finely-tuned universe and the living world around us." However, both phenomena are themselves strictly naturalistic. To get to supernaturalism from such naturalistic phenomena, religionists make an intuitive appeal to probability. Mr. Veale states it this way "Each is extremely unlikely to have happened by chance." But is that true? What are the probabilities here?

Given the billion of years, the size of our planet, the amount of energy and water available, the tendency of carbon and other elements to interact to form organic compounds, the ability of some organic molecules to auto-catalyze their own replication, the ability of reproducing organisms to change over time, the tremendous size of our universe, why should the living world around us be deemed too unlikely to have formed this one time? Given that our universe could be residing in a huge multi-verse, ditto for "fine-tuning". Furthermore, cosmologists don't currently know how many different combinations of the possible different values of all of the constants would produce viable universes containing living worlds over the entire multi-variate landscape.

Graham Veale then cites as argument five that if the “God-of-the-Gaps” criticism of theism is taken seriously then atheism becomes unfalsifiable. However, neither theism nor atheism can be decisively falsified, they are both in the same boat here. The question with all such competing beliefs about how the world works is overall weight of the evidence, not proof or falsification in some impossible to achieve sense. Again, humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. We are capable of obtaining, accumulating, and evaluating empirical evidences. We know that this empirical method for justifying our beliefs about how the world works has been uniquely successfull. The criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explanation neither interferes with, nor contradicts, our ability to obtain, accumulate, and evaluate the empirical evidences.

Graham Veale fails to demonstrate that the "goddidit" catch-all is a valid explanation for anything or that arguments for theism based on filling the gaps in our knowledge with a god have any merit.

The real problem with theism

By Mathew Goldstein

Paul Wallace has a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University, is a former university professor in physics and astronomy, a former NASA researcher, and is a Christian hospital chaplain, who recently wrote an article that was published in the Huffington Post under the title "The Real Problem With Atheism". Within his article is a concise summary of his argument in the following two sentences: "It [science] wears blinders and refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning. And it seems that New Atheism, in its wholesale dependence upon science as a philosophy, imports science's blinders -- bound as they are to its optimism -- into its overall worldview." Paul Wallace also claims that atheists do not "take note of", and "roll jauntily past", the poverty-stricken, those desperate for a job, drug addicts, and mothers who just lost a child to social services. So do we all need to be Christians, or at least theists, in order to acknowledge these important classes of questions and address the problems of those among us who are experiencing difficulties?

Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing the impacts of behaviors and actions on themselves and others. Atheists appear to be generally competent at distinguishing the positive from negative impacts. Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing that people have shortcomings. Atheists appear to be generally competent at finding meaning. Atheists appear to generally participate in, and contribute to, various efforts to reduce poverty, increase employment, treat addictions, and support parents whose children were taken from their custody. Contrary to what Paul Wallace asserts in his article, there is no convincing evidence that atheists are deficient overall, relative to Christians or theists generally, in acknowledging good and evil, human weakness, or meaning, or with assisting others in need.

In addition to the aspersions on the competencies and character of atheists lacking veracity, there is also a problem with Paul Wallace's argument being illogical because his conclusion that Christianity is true doesn't follow from his premises. If we accept his argument that atheists are lacking in those competencies, and in their character, then it still doesn't logically follow that Christianity, any other religion, or theism is true. The bottom line here is always the same, and it cannot be stated too often or be overemphasized. The only way to properly justify Christianity, any other religion, or theism is to show that the empirical evidences overall favor the supernatural world-views of Christianity, any other religion, or theism over the natural worldview of atheism. That many Christians, religionists, and theists either avoid altogether even attempting to make such an argument, as is the case here, or don't come close to succeeding when they do attempt to make such arguments, is the real problem with Christianity, all religions and theism.

Friday, October 19, 2012


by Edd Doerr

Two books from the '80s are relevant today: E.D. Hirsch, Jr's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know (1987), and Robert Logan's The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization (1986). Hirsch writes that there is a basic set of information, facts, expressions, etc that every adult needs to have in order to function in today's world, a common core of knowledge, if you will. Hirsch shows that the wide gap between the well off and the poor inhibits cultural literacy, and says that we ought to close that gap through educational policy. As Hirsch is a conservative, it's too bad that today's conservatives pay no attention to this wisdom, preferring instead  to defund and privatize education and divert public funds to special interest private schools, most of which are run by conservative religious interests.

Logan's book's title says it all. The phonetic alphabet, developed 3,000 years ago , is what made our civilization possible. The printing press, developed shortly before 1500, then made possible the rise of science, widespread literacy, the industrial revolution, democracy, and modern humanism.

The only alternative system of writing to the phonetic alphabet is the Chinese/Japanese pictograph system, which, Logan shows, is not conducive to logical thinking or science. He  admits that China was technologically far more advanced than Europe, until, that is, the advent of the printing press, when the West shot ahead. With China now catching up with the West industrially and economically -- by using European languages for the tasks not possible with pictographic writing -- who knows where all this will lead.

I am reminded of historian Noel Perrin's fascinating book Giving up the Gun, the story of how the Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan around 1560. Within ten years Japan was producing more and better firearms than any country in Europe. By 1640 the shogunate realized that a peasant with a gun could kill a samurai at over 100 yards., terribly disruptive in a tradition bound society.  So the shogunate collected and warehoused all the firearms until after the US opened Japan to trade after our Civil War. During the  Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, when the Japanese ran short of weapons they opened the warehouses, rifled the barrels of the ancient guns, and used them to shoot Russians and win the war.

I think of this stuff when I drive my Subaru or Honda.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Holy Politics Batman

By Gary Berg-Cross

I read in the papers that the Billy Graham group no longer calls Mormonism a cult. Mormonism has long been considered beyond the pale of American Protestantism. But in early October the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association quietly de-listed Mormonism from its role of religious cults. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists and Scientologists, are among the remaining list of cults. Wait, Unitarians are there along with Scientologists? What is the criteria for a cult in their ideas? A cult (derived from the Lain for worship) usually means the ideas are consider bizarre and outside the mainstream - "deriving inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture" You can see a discussion of the sociology of the concept in Wikipedia.

OK so it is some type of  consensus thing and not based on principles, although bizarre behavior is what some expect is involved in the characterization.  What bizarre behavior is attributed to Unitarians?  Well perhaps it is that they might not be followers of Jesus.  But then again neither are Mormans in the strict sense.  Jesus is one of many prophets.  Maybe not God.  But here I start to wonder if Muslims might qualify along with Mormons. Jesus is a prophet, but not the last one.  It's just who will call the last in the chain that seems an issue.

Great, so with the right PR Muslims might get in and keep Unitarians out.

According to reports Mark DeMoss, who is  head of an Atlanta public relations firm and a close adviser to the Franklin Graham, has acted as a liaison between traditional evangelicals and the last two Romney campaigns for president. Muslims, Spiritists etc. can take note of who to call if they want to be de-listed.

The upgrade to accepting Mormons is just because some large, influential groups says that you are in.  This change of cult status follows Romney’s earlier visit to Graham’s mountain home which included Graham’s son Franklin, who now runs the BGE association for his aged (93) father.

Well this is strange progress, but perhaps illustrates what drives change in fundamentalist circles. Or maybe 1% ruling class circles in general.  I sure hope that some of the help recording the negotiations.  It might give a chilling picture of a Romney administration if fundamentalists are the path to his victory. According to the article the closeness of the Graham and Romney families started with” Franklin’s call before the S.C. presidential primary for conservative Christians to not hold Romney’s religion against him.” In a word it is driven by politics and such things as getting out the vote to beat a political enemy.

There are also other concrete steps that Spiritists might note. One is that  Mark DeMoss that PR man who has been Franklin Graham’s longtime spokesman, is now a Romney adviser. That’s the way things get done in the holy alliance of religion, politics and the PR/lobby business. You can see some of how it works in my blog on the 2nd political life of Ralph Reed.  Has he met with Romney and does anyone have the tape?
There may be other favored ones are meeting to exert pressure, just the way the ultra-Orthodox exert leverage in Israel and get involved in decisions of war and peace.

It’s a long way from Humanist principles.

Meeting Billy:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thinking about the Growing Number of Nones

By Gary Berg-Cross

“’Nones’ on the Rise” was the title of the recent Pew Forum poll on Religion and Public Life. The simple statistics was that 1-in-5 adults surveyed had no religious affiliation. Even more ( third of adults) of respondents under 30 report having no religious affiliated today. Room for the Secular Student Alliance to grow. These are the highest percentages ever found in Pew Research Center polling and one can see a trend. The Christian Post summarized the implication as: “The Latest Pew Survey: Christianity Losing, Secularism Winning.” Those identifying with Protestantism was down 5%. What’s the turn off?  Perhaps not a deep study of religion’s tenets but a practical disgust. Most of the unaffiliated say religious organizations are too concerned with money, power, politics and rules. But there are lots of buts. Sure the 20% of adults (46 million or so) include some atheists.  More than 13 million of Americans are self-described atheists and agnostics. But that is only about 6% of the U.S. public. One may be a None and not an atheist.  One might fancy crystals.  Only 12 percent of the "nones" identify themselves as atheist. The largest category (13.9 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated are those who say they are "nothing in particular." What are the rest? What does the survey tells us about the Nones?    “Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.”
Just because organized religion isn’t important to nones doesn’t mean that ideas of meaning and belonging traditionally identified with religion isn’t important.

But only 10% report that they are actively looking for a religion “just right” for them. It seems that modern society has unhooked some folks from the traditional and organized religion.  Maybe they can find meaning and community elsewhere. There is a range of substitutes and perhaps a friendly community of Humanists would be one. It might be nice to include them in our conversations and see if free inquiry, critical thinking, an appreciation for science , humanist principles/values and healthy skepticism have some appeal. People like Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard is already reaching out with some plans from his point of view for a national discussion on religion. We might want to broaden that a bit and hope for some more assimilation into the secular community.

We know something about None’s political leanings too:

“the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.”

Another trend to consider.

Image Credit

Pew Poll:

School Vouchers

by Edd Doerr

The Center for Inquiry has just put on its web site my position paper on school vouchers, ""The School Voucher Crisis". Check it out. And feel free to spread it around. It is probably the most comprehensive yet compact treatment of this subject of interest to not only humanists but to Americans of all religious persuasions and is the subject of a  major referendum  in Florida on Nov 6.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Catholic VP

by Edd Doerr

Whoever wins on Nov 6 we will have a Catholic vice president. Melinda Henneberger addressed this subject in her Nov 10 column in the Washington Post-- rather sloppily, I thought. Following is the comment I posted on line. Please note that nothing I  wrote is incompatible with my being a confirmed secular humanist.

"Henneberger looks at Biden and Ryan through a distorted lens. Joe Biden is a modern, Vatican II, William Brennan, Nuns on the Bus, social justice, National Catholic Reporter kind of Catholic. Paul Ryan is a throwback, a pre-Vatican II, Pius XII, Paul VI, Inquisition, clericalist sort, the kind of reactionary who wants to impose his misogynist medieval morality and theology on everyone by law. Ryan's type of thinking is why so many Catholics today have little regard for the bishops and the Vatican. As an alumnus of Catholic schools I prefer the Joe Biden type of Catholic. -- Edd Doerr ("

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

What was the Case for FDR’s re-election?

By Gary Berg-Cross

One hears FDR and his run for re-election in 1936 being referenced during the 2012 campaign. President Obama's Re-election does mirror FDR's situation in some ways.  FDR took office following a disastrous administration and the economy in crisis.  In 1932 Hoover was still promising better days ahead, but mostly without  specific details on programs or policies that would be different from what had lead to collapse. FDR was more activist and was able to stabilize things and reduce unemployment substantially. The economy was characteristically sluggish and 8 million Americans still were unemployed . As in 2008 the New Deal fiscal stimulus was partially successful and mitigated things. Would people understand and re-elect FDR? It wasn't a sure thing.

US GDP went up as shown in the diagram below, but these are abstract stats. Monthly data for industrial production show a near 3-year collapse under Hoover and conservative economic policies. Things turning around when FDR took office in March 1933. Production rose by 44 percent in the 1st 3 months of the New Deal.  Just after re-election in Nov. 1936, the production had completely recovered to surpass its 1929 peak. Gee, Keynesian economics seems to work unlike trickle down!

And it is interesting to note that New Deal job intervention also provided environmental conservation, highway infrastructure, and rural electrification. Unlike now, the New deal spurred  the union movent with long-range benefits to workers reaching well into the 50s and 60s.

What about campaigns then and now?  Somewhat different but FDR did face criticism & hostility from various points on the political spectrum. There were religio-conservatives like Father Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend who had spent 34 and 35 years attacking FDR. They supported Representative William Lemke of the newly formed Union Party in the 1936 election.

Most of us don't remembers something called the American Liberty League (ALL). Prominent Democrats and Republicans joined together to form the ALL. Here is how one history source describes ALL:

 The organization, according to the founders, exists “to combat radicalism, preserve property rights, uphold and preserve the Constitution.” ALL spokesman Jouett Shouse says ALL will fight to preserve “traditional American political values.” According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, ALL was organized by “disgruntled business conservatives, Wall Street financiers, right-wing opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and defeated rivals within Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.” ALL is financed by, among others, industrialists Pierre, Irenee, and Lammot du Pont; former Democratic Party chairman John J. Raskob; financier E.F. Hutton; and executive Sewell Avery of the department store chain Montgomery Ward. Most of the politicians in the organization are Republicans, but these are joined by anti-Roosevelt Democrats such as Alfred E. Smith, who ran for president in 1928. Many ALL members were once part of the Association against the Prohibition Amendment, which fought to re-legalize the US liquor industry. ALL unsuccessfully fights to block federal regulations and additional taxes on business, the creation of public power utilities, pro-labor barganing rights, agricultural production controls and subsidies, New Deal relief and public jobs programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Social Security, and other Roosevelt-era programs and initiatives. According to the Encyclopedia, “critics effectively lampooned league members as champions of privilege, ungrateful critics of an administration that had saved capitalism, and vindictive and selfish individuals seeking revenge on a president for betraying his social class.” 
ALL worked diligently, but unsuccessfully, to unseat Roosevelt in 1936, backing Republican contender Alfred M. Landon.

So  by 1936 FDR had lost most of the backing he once held in the business community in part because of his support for the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act.

How did it react? In some of his 1936 campaign speeches FDR’s includes proudly spoke of his accomplishments  and crafted arguments remain powerful today. There are several things in his Madison Sq. garden speech on the eve of the 1936 election that framed what was at stake:

“In 1932 the issue was the restoration of American democracy; and the American people were in a mood to win. They did win. In 1936 the issue is the preservation of their victory. Again they are in a mood to win. Again they will win.”

Win what?  Win what was accomplished the social net established in his 100 days.

Win against whom?  FDR  defended the New Deal. Sure he provided a help to the banking system, but he also imposed  new regulations on them. There was direct aid for the poor, the disabled, the elderly. 
And he seemed to relish the opportunity to take on conservative Republican positions. A central argument was that his New Deal programs had protected the average American against predatory elite – AKA the 1%. FDR was glad to talk about the need for government to serve as a check on Wall Street. Beyond this the New Deal demonstrated a new way of thinking about the role of government, and what US citizens could expect from it. Here are his fighting words on forces that opposed this role:

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

Here’s another one that might be appropriate for a campaign argument on the role of government in tough times:

We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.
For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.
For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

Perhaps thoughts that are still relevant today and perhaps we will hear some of this before the campaign ends.

More quotes from the speech are available at a Thom Hartmann site.

Image Credit

Mitt & PEARL

by Edd Doerr

What is PEARL?  PEARL is the acronym for public education and religious liberty; the name of several state and national coalitions over the years in New York, Maryland and elsewhere  devoted to defending these two values, which are prized by humansts and most Americans.

Where does Mitt Romney stand on PEARL? In the recent debate he indicated that he favored tax aid for special interest sectarian private schools and has said he wants to cut back on federal aid to education.

Which three states is Romney most closely associated with? Massachusetts, Michigan and Utah.

What is one thing these three states have in common? Strong constitutional provisions that prohibit tax aid to religious private schools.

Anything else? Yes. These three states have had a total of seven -- SEVEN! --  referendum elections in which the voters defeated all attempts to authorize tax aid to sectarian schools by landslide margins. (For  details, see my article "The Great School Voucher Fraud" on my web sire -- arlinc,org)

What are we to make of the above? That Romney has only scorn for the relevant constitutional provisions in the states with which he is most closely associated. That he is contemptuous of the voters in these three states -- and in the other states that have also had referenda on this issue  (NY, MD, DC, MO, SD, CO, CA, OR, WA, AK); that he looks down on the liberals and Catholics of Massachusetts, the state of which he was once governor; that he looks down on the auto workers and farmers and miners of the state in which he was born; that he thumbs his nose at the conservatives and Mormons in the state where his faith is based.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Atheists deserve better treatment

Posted for A. Charles Catania by Gary Berg-Cross
WASH Board member Charles Catania published  a letter in the October 5 edition of the Washington Post.

You can read Dana Millbank's orignal posting at A case of nonbelief.
It included arguments such as: practice, atheists aren’t about to become capable of breaching the “fence of piety” that makes religious expression a virtue for American politicians. This is because the very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron. Those who identify themselves as atheists and agnostics tend not to be the type to join affinity groups. That’s why there isn’t an International Brotherhood of Individualists. “Although it’s a movement, it’s not so much monolithic in terms of unanimity on a lot of issues,” Niose allowed. 

 Below is Charles response.

'Dana Milbank laced his Oct. 2 column, “No suspension of disbelief,” with snide asides:

“They don’t have a prayer”; “Good heavens”; “God willing.” Imagine the reaction if Jesus had been invoked in mocking Jewish or Muslim views, or if the Buddha had been invoked in lampooning Christian ones.

To take the conviction of atheists seriously, one has only to listen to the former Catholic student who has been disowned by her family after confessing to a lapse in belief, or to the former Muslim who worries that it might be dangerous even to admit that he can no longer follow Islamic precepts, or to the Jew grappling with the oxymoron of Jewish atheism, or to the African American who finds that he is now ostracized by his Baptist friends and neighbors for expressing doubts about God.

Probe further, and you will discover their shared deep moral and ethical convictions, including one that says that a country built upon the separation of church and state should have their backs, too. They are as entitled to their disbeliefs as others are to their beliefs, and it is unseemly to make fun of their views.'

Charles wasn't the only response online a person took unbrig with Dana throw away line -
"But that obvious fact won’t stop them from exercising their God-given right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. "Reader and commentator ron64740 corrected the record with this:
The right to petition the government is is not a "God-given right" -- it's was granted under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a document written by MEN.

If it were a "God-given" right, it would cover ALL humanity. Go tell the people of North Korea and Syria that they have the "God-given" right to petition their governments -- see how that goes over.