Saturday, March 30, 2013

Excrement de Renard (Fox Poo)

a review by Edd Doerr

The Freedom Answer Book, by Judge (!) Andrew P. Napolitano (Thomas Nelson, 2012, 269 pp., $14.99)

Years ago in Paris I came across a gallery of works by living artists who could each display two items for a small fee. Great stuff.  I spent most of a day there. One watercolor by a painter whose acquaintance I made was a cartoonish map of Paris with little labels on monuments, churches, etc. Something tiny on a sidewalk bore the label "Excrement de chien" (dog poo). There is so much dog poo on the sidewalks there that special sanitation workers on motorcycles mounted with large vacuum cleaners patrol the sidewalks slurping up the stuff.

Well, Napolitano's book suggests the label "Excrement de Renard" (fox poo) because the author, a retired New Jersey judge,  is "Senior Judicial Analyst" for the Faux -- er, Fox News Channel.

The book is one long slam at US courts and lawmakers who ignore Natural Law, whatever the hell that is, and undermine the Constitooshun, at least in Napolitano's fevered imagination. He attacks all federal legislation that attempts to restrict the predations of 1890s Robber Barons; opposes income and sales taxes (but gives no clue as to how government is to be supported); advocates repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments (income taxes; direct election of senators); excoriates Lincoln; blames FDR for Pearl Harbor; outRomneys Romney; and displays a sad case of political paranoia.

For all his huffing and puffing about freedom, Napolitano writes nary a word about the embattled freedom of conscience of women on reproductive matters or the beleaguered freedom of Americans from taxation to support religious institutions, two major headaches facing the US today.

To top it off, the book was produced by a major conservative publisher of Bibles and religious materials that outsourced the printing of  it to -- Mon Dieu! -- China!

BTW, I did not buy the book; I got a free review copy. And as soon as I finish this review I will consign it to the recycle bin.

Monday, March 25, 2013

War is Hell

a review by Edd Doerr

A Higher Call, by Adam  Makos with Larry Alexander (Berkley Caliber, 2012, 392 pp, $26.98)

Many years ago there was a delightful French comedy called "Fan-Fan le Tulip" with Gerard Phillippe. It opens with scenes of 17th century military mayhem with the narrator gravely intoning, "War, the only sport of kings in which the common man is allowed to participate." Yes, war is hell, and it always involves ordinary people. So let me recommend this new book, a  true story about two rather ordinary young guys caught up in war, an American B-17 pilot from West Virginia and a slightly older  German Bf-109 pilot who meet in the skies over northern Germany on December 20, 1943, and again many years after the war.

I won't leak the details of this fascinating story -- that would spoil it for the reader -- but will say that it is history written not about generals and international politics and grand strategies but about the real experiences of individual guys on the ground, or in the skies, who do the actual shooting. It goes beyond old stereotypes to not often discussed realities.

In a way this story reminds me of the recent British/French/German film about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front and the recent American film, "A Midnight Clear", about a small-scale American/German encounter (presumably fictional) exactly 40 years later in a forest in Belgium. Both films are eloquently  anti-war. And the Makos book reminds me of a German 1950s era film, "Der Stern von Afrika" ("The Star of Africa") about German Afrika Korps Bf-109 ace Hans Marseille, who appears in this book, which backs the film that at the time I wrongly considered too Hollywoodish.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Life ends frequently, but began maybe only once.

By Mathew Goldstein

At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, Marco Rubio expressed a commonly held view among conservative Republicans that secularists are being inconsistent and ideological, rather than factual, regarding abortion: "The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception..." This is completely false, and it is a good example of why secularists tend to think that many of the conservatives religionists in the Republican party are not particularly intelligent and that their leadership, pandering to their base, are not particularly honest. And this is just one of many such examples.

When asked for the age of the universe, a very simple question with a single, straightforward correct answer (13.77 billion years ± 0.059 billion years), Marco Rubio (like Rand Paul and other Republicans seeking a national audience) punted, saying: “I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians”. What the bible says? A dispute among theologians? The age of the universe is an astrophysics question. Seeking the answer from the bible or from theologians is just as illogical and unreasonable as reading the bible, instead of the manufacturer's manuals, for instructions to maintain an aircraft, or hiring theologians instead of pilots to fly an aircraft.

So when does life begin? It may help to clarify this question by first addressing the related question "when does life end?". Life ends frequently, everytime an individual living creature dies. Everytime a bacteria, or an archaea, or a dust mite dies, everytime a single sperm or an unfertilized egg dies, a life ends.

It may seem intuitively logical for some people, given that we all experience our lives as individuals, to think that human life begins as human life ends, with each individual. But this intuition is wrong. Science tells us that life successfully began at least once, at least three billion years ago. Life may also have independently begun elsewhere in the universe, it may have started unsuccessfully multiple times within our solar system, we don't know. What we do know is that since life successfully got started billions of years ago, it has been continuous, and all life on earth may have a single, last common ancestor.

What about the role of conception? Conception is one of multiple requisite milestones in the continuous cycle of human life. Much of life reproduces without a conception event. Presumably Marco Rubio knows this, and he was talking only about human life. But human life evolved from single celled life, and a conception event doesn't change the overall context that all life, including individual human life, participates in the same continuous cycle of life.

So no, we secularists, or we liberals, who favor legalized abortion, are not being inconsistent, are not ideologically ignoring the evidence, are not being hypocritical, are not guilty of a double standard, for refusing to acknowledge the so called "absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception". Life is an ongoing, continuous process, it does not begin at conception. There is no scientifically established fact that human life begins at conception. It is the conservatives who keep asserting otherwise in the name of science that are being anti-scientific. They are the ones, after all, who advocate obtaining answers to scientific questions by reading the bible and asking theologians.


by Edd Doerr

"How Beer Gave Us Civilization" is the title of psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn's interesting piece in the March 17 NY Times. It's worth reading. And it reminded me of a sentence I had written years ago: "La cerveza es la fundacion de la civilizacion" ("Beer is the foundation of civilization"). I was not thinking of anthropology or archeology when I scribbled that, but, rather, of demonstrating the most noticeable difference between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that of Latin America. In Spain the "c" or "z" before a  vowel is pronounced like "th" whereas in Latin America they are pronounced like "s". No big deal, but more important than the fact that Spaniards use the second person plural but Latin Americans do not. And, of course, Spaniards tend to be less religious than Latin Americans.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Arguing vs. Discussing - The Challenge of Talking to True Believers

By Gary Berg-Cross

Annual CPAC meetings generate quite a bit of talk around the Beltway where politics, policy and lobbying are popular sports. You or I may even be that eager person who often slides into these easy conversations. They may start out on sound grounds say gun safety policy or the boundaries of religion and politics and slide into surprisingly murky concepts.  One often finds emotions rising and sound reasoning banned from the area.
CPAC seems to have more of this than some other meetings and it does attract media attention.
Did an audience member at the Conservative Political Action Committee panel on Republican minority outreach really defend slavery as good for African-Americans?  Something like argument arose when Frederick Douglas was noted as forgiving his slave masters. Forgive them for what?
“Shelter, clothing, and food?”
Boy, is this an ahistorical summary of slavery, but perhaps civics classes aren't what they once were.  It was reported that several people in the audience cheered and applauded the comment. Well, what does one say to such seemingly affirmatory bias thinking that tramples on reasonable understanding?

There have any number of practical guides generated by people of experience to better handle these situations where entrenched interests, affiliations, identity, ego, debating habits and ideology all play a role. 

One I saw recently was called “How to Talk to A Conservative” by Courtney Horne.  Her topic was “drug testing welfare recipients” but the points are a bit more general than the examples used. To be sure there are entrenched interests like the lobbying of drug testing groups, but they have analogs elsewhere such as the NRA for gun safety discussions.

In either case grounding a discussion in facts rather than arguing abstract points may be useful. In Courtney’s case she went to the cost of the policy, evidence that it wasn’t effective and implications for the idea of “welfare” and what we know about the working poor. I’m not sure that any of this would actually have worked with the CPAC audience member who may have opinions set in cement. Asked by a women about his claimed Republican Party’s roots and his demographic claims, he is reported to have responded:

 “I didn’t know the legacy of the Republican Party included women correcting men in public.”

Arg!   Well what does one say besides some people are ready to argue, but not to discuss? At least exposing such things to the light provides some perspective of the challenges we face.
This is free opinions without what Paul Kurtz described as the new paradigm of free inquiry here beliefs are treated as hypotheses to test.
We are increasingly in a fact-free zones where any opinion is equal to any other opinion and facts and skeptical stances are given the day off along with critical thinking & reasoned argument.
CPAC from CPAC site

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Leaders' Images, Words and Policies

By Gary Berg-Cross

News often arranges things such that common themes come to mind. An example is the image of leaders and the superficial aspect of their image &  words vs. the hidden policy beliefs.

This happened to me today as the election of a new pope, Mitt Romney’s updates on his “47 percent” remarks and a new PR course was launched by the new leadership in China.

Mitt Romney and the upcoming CPAC have reasons to reflecting “mistakes” in the last election and what to do going forward, Romney understands that he was hurt by his “47 percent” remarks, but argues it was a bit of messaging problem, as opposed to some important policy different.  This ‘it’s just a matter of semantics” seems to me really dishonest and a problem of our age.  Romney also said his remark that "47 percent" of Americans believed they were "victims" and expected government to provide for them was an “unfortunate statement.”

“It's not what I meant.  I didn't express myself as I wished I would have. You know, when you speak in private, uh, you don't spend as much time thinking about how something could be twisted and distorted and -- and it could come out wrong and be used,” he went on to say. 

I don’t buy this just as I didn't buy many of the empty messaging of past conservative like George Bush (see Pict above for a 47% like truth slipping out).  There is perception versus reality issue here.  Supporters & the funding class pay $50K or so for a meal and expect an idea of policy.  Romney is papering over real differences about what is likely intended policy and you can see some of this in the Ryan budget where the funding class’s taxes are not raised but programs for the 47% are and account for about 60% of Ryan’s budget savings.

I had a similar feeling of perception and policy reality differences when listening to the coverage of the new Pope Francis, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He’s describes as a Jesuit known for simplicity and his very humble lifestyle, emphasis there, but also and conservatism.  He’s described as flashback to an older view of Catholic clerics as humble leaders.  And yes he did rode the bus because he gave up a cardinal’s chauffeured limo.

This simplicity has an undeniable appeal and I like a “Prince of the Church” who cooked his own meals  & chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop’s palace.  I like his activism for the poor.  But a deeper look shows his conservative stance on some really key issues including contraception, marriage, the role of women and Liberation Theology (too much a mix of Jesus’s message and a socialist one).

When the Argentinian government considered making same-sex marriage legal he was reported as saying:

 "Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."
It’s enough to generate other views of the new pope - A pope so retro as to seem oddly new (Anthony Faiola ). That’s a view of the conservative substance living under a kinder, gentler veneer. 

I had a similar feeling reading the WaPo article:China’s Xi Jinping charts a new PR course

As noted there new leader Xi and his top advisers have introduced:

 “something previously unseen among the higher echelons of Chinese government: a retail politician…

The tactics familiar seem familiar (ala Romney or Francis) — getting control of the message and image with a simple narrative -  attacking problems in general terms (government waste) and casting the new leader as a plainspoken, unadorned man of the people.

The approach reflects a new reality confronting not just China’s leaders in the modern age.   As noted by many innovations like social media and cellphones weaken central control over the narrative. This week CPAC isn’t he only PR campaign boosting leader’s image  as the pope and China’s Xi ease into the ceremonial roles and  struggle with the various with public discontent, disillusionment & even tea party level rage over failed policies and hierarchical/oligarchic blocks of  power.


George Bush’s Litmus test for Judges- policy & message:

Xi: WaPo artice cited


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Talking about People's Rights

By Gary Berg-Cross

The Rand Paul (PR) filibuster was music to some people’s ears, but for many reasons not everyone had that reaction. To some, like The New American the nearly 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor was a politically organizing milestone and conservative rallying point:

 “a stroke of political genius that still has not yet been fully appreciated….Those who compose the base of the GOP lost much of their morale during George W. Bush’s second term. When the Democrats took back the Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama won the presidency two years later, it all but vanished. Spirits began to stir once more during the midterm elections of 2010, it is true, but since then, they’ve again been reduced to dust and ashes. Anyone who doubts this need only consider that some four million self-identified Republicans refused to vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan back in November.”

Certainly it had political implications. Mitch McConnell, for example, is fundraising off of the Rand Paul filibuster. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a #StandWithRand fundraiser for senators who “remained committed to upholding the values and the mandates of the Constitution.” McConnell himself has asked supporters to sign a petition declaring:

 “I stand WITH Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell. They are shining examples of Republican leadership.” 

With comments like this one knows that more than drone policy was on the agenda.  And Paul, PR as one might call him,  doesn’t always make sense as he speaks. At times he can bend and distort quotes from non-libertarians. One famous example is his earlier claim that Elena Kagan had claimed that the government could require citizens to eat broccoli.  Shades of Supreme Courts activists!  The actual record shows clearly that she didn't say this.

So PR’s demagogue potential is there even if he may be on the side of the angels in the drone-war debate.

PR himself followed up his standing words (“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak”) with slightly different words in an OpEd in the Post “My filibuster was just the beginning.” Here we may be seeing part that slippery, muddled slope as sound argument gets overtaken by talking points. Part of the article described his ordeal, part listed House conservatives who appearing in the back of the chamber to show their support as part of what Paul perhaps hopes in a more general movement than issues raised by drone attacks. On that issue many of us might agree with him broadly that we need more transparency into and more meaningful oversight of drone strikes.  But what rallied Paul and some conservatives was the issue that these might be against U.S. citizens and even within United States borders. In his filibuster Paul noted: “no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

 In the OpEd Paul said. “I hope my efforts help spur a national debate about the limits of executive power and the scope of every American’s natural right to be free.”

I was struck as were some others with his focus on American citizen rights. What about non-citizen rights as humans?  Where’s the humanity?  Is libertarian philosophy American-centric?

WP Opinions had a series of letter under the title Use of drones requires more than a filibuster. Some of them such as the David A. Drachsler, ACLU board member, who noted more general rights provided for by the Constitution.

‘The Fifth and 14th amendments prohibit the federal and state governments from depriving “any person” of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

OK, so we should protect foreign tourists, resident aliens, green-card-holding workers or undocumented persons. 

Randy Scope, of Silver Spring, cited the Living Under Drones” report by scholars at Stanford University and New York University. This adds even a larger scope of concern about the drone-enabled killing and wounding of children in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Where’ the compassion?

Bruce P. Heppen, of Potomac, had perhaps the strongest response to Paul’s OpEd:

“I cannot decide which is sadder, that Sen. Rand Paul thinks he has advanced the debate on the use of drones or that The Post chose to run his vapid commentary. “


Stand with Rand:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Marriage Equality

This letter was published in the Washington Examiner on March, 12, 2013  ---

"Obama policies strengthen marriage, families"

Rose Cecil (letter, March 7) wrongly accuses President Obama of hostility  toward marriage and families. But Obama's support of marriage equality does not diminish marriage or families in the slightest. It actually opens up marriage and family life to people who have suffered discrimination in the past.

And the president's health, economic and education policies should strengthen families.

Edd Doerr
Silver Spring

DC 2013 Environmental Film Festival is here

by Gary Berg-Cross

We celebrate lots of things in March. We've already had Women’s Day - March 08  and today (March 12)  is  Brazilian Librarian’s Day. The US  sent American Library Association (ALA) President Molly Raphael to  Brazil speak on two of her presidential initiatives: advocacy for libraries, and diversity in leadership.

Coming up we have St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) and the longer March 12-24, 2013) and always wonderful DC Environmental Film Festival. The Festival scheduled is online although some cancellations do happen.

This year it features 190 documentary, feature, animated, archival, experimental and children's films from around the world. It started off with the very timely:

Heavy crude oil extraction from the northern Alberta tar sands is arguably one of the world’s most environmentally devastating industries... 

There are more than 75 venues around Washington, DC, which besides our regular theatrics  gives neat value added trips to museums, embassies, libraries, & universities. Some screenings are free to the public and it is wonderful when they include discussion with filmmakers or scientists.

As with last year you can watch some past Festival films on EFF's channel at for FREE!

A special focus this year is very appropriate to our Potomac and Chesapeake locals - the critical role of rivers and watersheds.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

So help me God "history" from nothing

By Mathew Goldstein

People sometimes ask me who was behind the false claim that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential inaugural oath. Was it David Barton? The answer is that there were multiple people who shared responsibility for promoting this fiction into a fact. It happened over time with a number of milestones.

It began with four biographies of George Washington. The first biography to be published was written by the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Published in 1854, 65 years after the inauguration, it is titled "The republican court; or, American society in the days of Washington". This book mixes historical fact with apocryphal legend until one is indistinguishable from the other. His friends knew Griswold to be a consummate liar and had a saying: "Is that a Griswold or a fact?" As a literary editor he often pirated entire works even while advocating for international copyright law that would have rendered his own actions illegal. He wrote a short biography of Edgar Allan Poe that included letters which he had forged for the purpose of slandering the deceased poet. If there is a dishonest David Barton like character in this tale then it is Griswold.

If Griswold's book was the only book claiming that George Washington said "so help me God" then it is doubtful that many 20th century historians would be asserting this also. Enter Washington Irving, the first American to earn a living from writing popular books of fiction and a popular biography of Christopher Columbus. His final book was a five volume biography of George Washington published in 1857. There are no citations and it doesn't comply with modern standards of scholarship, but it is still read. Of the four George Washington biographies, this is the one that was most influential in promoting the falsehood about George Washington's inaugural. Washington Irving was also the only one of the four authors who was alive during the inauguration, and he may have been in the crowd outside of Federal Hall during the inaugural ceremony. At that time he was six years old. Griswold places him at the corner of New street and Wall street. Washington Irving never claimed to have heard the oath recitation. For his biography he copied someone else's first hand account of the inaugural ceremony with some modifications. One of those modifications was to depict George Washington saying "so help me God" immediately after the oath recitation.

John Frederick Schroeder was an Episcopalian minister whose biography of George Washington, titled Life and Times of Washington, was also published in 1857. He died before the book was published, and Griswold had a hand in completing Schroeder's book. Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, was also published in 1857. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'. Schroeder and Kirkland mingled with Griswold and Irving in the same New York city literary circles. Afterwards, many books and articles continued to claim that George Washington said SHMG.

The next milestone is the civil war. To distinguish themselves from the Unionists whose federal oath of office was godless, the Confederates advertised that Jefferson Davis included those four words when reciting his oath in 1861. The Unionists, not wanting to be outflanked by the Confederates, included this phrase in their revised federal oath of office in 1862. This phrase remains in the federal oath of office to this day.

The third milestone occurred with the assassination of president James Garfield. Chief Justice Waite led Vice President Chester Arthur in reciting the words of the presidential oath. After the oath recitation was completed, the new president, on his own initiative (without prompting from the Chief Justice), added "I will, so help me God", copying the words from the oath he had taken months earlier when being sworn in as Vice President. This was widely publicized in the newspapers.

The fourth milestone was the loudspeaker and the radio. Loudspeakers were introduced in 1921, radios in 1925. After radio became a home appliance, the inaugural oath could be heard by people across the country, whereas before only a few privileged people standing close to where the president stood could overhear the oath. By now, many people had read one of the many accounts of George Washington's first inauguration claiming that he completed his oath recitation with an appeal for divine help. Every Chief Justice during every presidential inaugural since 1933 has, while leading the oath recitation, prompted the president to say "so help me God". This is odd given that these four words are not part of the oath and the president therefore has no obligation to say them.

What appears to be happening is this: Many Americans, possibly a majority, don't know that the constitutional oath for the president is godless (and that the original federal oath of office was also godless). Some people would be upset to learn that the constitution was written to accommodate an atheist being elected president. Some people would be even more upset if they actually witnessed a president elect not saying those four words upon becoming president. To avoid disabusing these people of their false conviction that the oath is monotheistic, or of their prejudice that an oath must be monotheistic to be fully legitimate, the Chief Justice always prompts for these four words while administering the oath to the president elect.

The fifth milestone was another George Washington biography. George Washington, a Biography, by Douglas Southhall Freeman, was published in multiple volumes from 1948-1957. Volume 6, Ch. Viii, "Inauguration Day is not without Clouds, April 30, 1789", page 192 has a paragraph describing the oath recitation that depicts George Washington completing his oath with the four word appeal for divine help. Unlike the first four biographies, this is a scholarly book written by a highly respected historian. Accordingly, there is a citation to a primary source document, in this case a letter written by Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary, to George Augustine Washington, George Washington's nephew who was at that time managing the affairs of Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate. This letter was in the rare documents vault at Duke University. The first three pages of this letter were published in 1987 in "The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series," vol 2:154-155. But it was page four of this letter that described the oath recitation and apparently no one had previously tried to verify that this letter actually supported the claim that George Washington appended those four words. Here it is, take a look: Lear's letter of May 3, 1789 to George A. Washington. No SHMG.

More recently, another false historical fact was layered upon the first one. This is the additional claim that every president followed the precedent set by George Washington and likewise appended "so help me God" to their inaugural oath of office. No less than the Senate Historical Office itself, despite our complaints, persisted for years in promoting this whopper falsehood with a video titled "so help me God" on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Affairs website. David Barton was probably among those endorsing this false "fact".

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Snowed- in-Robins of 2013

Robins at a heated birdbath

by Gary Berg-Cross

Last year I could write about the robins of February. This year many of my bulbs have been up for a while but  late winter storm systems stalled bird migration in February,  Nevertheless just before our early March area snowstorm the very recognizable and social  robins were out in my neighborhood pecking at worms. It was a sunny 50-ish day so I joined their Spring celebration...Just for an afternoon there were some sign of early Spring.

March is peak migration month so the birds  are on the wing and you can track observations of them. It will be interesting to see how the adapt to these late storms and snow covering their feeding stations. Up to now it has been noted that more robins are wintering over with the expanses of lawns and golf courses offering easy meals much of the time.  This is apparently supplemented by micro climate area that host alternatives foods they can digest. When worms are scarce they can dine on juniper berries and the like.  Hopefully enough of these are left to get through the latest end of winter storm.  

Yes, by the calendar winter ends March 20th. I'm ready to celebrate it, but today I'm staying close to my shovel and loading the bird feeder with 8 inches of snow expected. 



Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Bush III?

by Edd Doerr

Make no mistake, Jeb Bush, Georgie's smarter brother and former Florida governor, has his eyes on the White House for 2016. For his new book, due out soon, Jeb chose as his co-author (and ghost writer?) a notorious conservative lawyer named Clint Bolick. Bolick has achieved some fame as a hard-driving champion of diverting public funds to church-run private schools through vouchers. This makes Bolick a declared enemy of church-state separation, religious freedom and democratic public education. By teaming up with Bolick, Bush, himself a pusher of tax aid for religious private schools when he was governor, paints himself, like his dumber brother,  as an enemy of church-state separation, religious freedom and public education.

We might remind ourselves that in November 2012 voters in Bush's Florida wisely rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to remove the barrier to tax aid to religious institutions by a 55% to 45% margin.

Two Bushes in the White House were more than enough. A third? Aaarrrrgh!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Population Growth

by Edd Doerr

This letter was published in the March 2013 issue of The Progressive ---

"Rein in Population Growth"

"Your February issue is one of the best ever. And in your 'Overheating Planet' Comment, you're right to say that worldwide action is imperative.

 "But that action must be accompanied by reining in population  growth.

 "Our numbers will rise from seven billion now to nine billion by 2050. The Ford Administration's 1975 National Security Study Memorandum 200 report, 'Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for US Security and Overseas Interests',  spelled this out, but it was mysteriously  classified and deep-sexed for nearly twenty years and then ignored.

 "The clock is ticking."

 "Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty"

(Note: Some sources believe that  Catholic Church officials were behind the suppression of the NSSM 200 report. I reviewed population scientist Stephen Mumford's 1996 book with the report and commentary, "The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a  US Population Policy", in the Americans for Religious Liberty journal Voice of Reason, in USA Today magazine  and in my column in The Humanist.)

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Religious practices are rooted in doctrine

By Mathew Goldstein

In his March 1 article in the Huffington Post titled "Faith Isn't Irrational, But Beliefs May Be", Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., citing Karen Armstrong's arguments, defends Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, as follows: "Belief in Christ has little to do with intellectual agreement on some ostensibly factual truth about God." Similarly he says "The major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine. " For him "A good Jew observed the Sabbath and remained committed to the Law and the ritual year; and a good Christian embodied the Sermon on the Mount by caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God's love." It should be impossible for intelligent people to buy into this argument for a number of reasons.

First of all, contrary to what Armstrong, or in this case Georgescu, asserts, religion has historically been doctrinal. People throughout history killed each other in wars fought over conflicting religious beliefs because they took the competing factual claims of their religions literally. The book of John, for example, self-claims to be a factual, eyewitness, historical account of real, historical events by one of the actual disciples (21:24 This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true). The Quran and the Hebrew Tanakh, like the Christian bible, are preoccupied with asserting factual, historical events, complete with the names of real locations, governments, and people. Throughout history even the most intellectual religionists claimed to extract divinely revealed facts about how the world works from their holy book. For instance, Thomas Aquinas believed that God created the body of the first human, Adam, from the "slime of the Earth" and God created the first female, Eve, immediately thereafter using Adam's rib. Similarly, he believed that God produced the fish and birds from water. Thomas Aquinas cited the book of Genesis as the source for this factual knowledge.

Secondly, the practice of religion is itself rooted in religious factual claims. It is only on the basis of endorsing the particular factual claims of a religion as being true that people can credibly justify a commitment to observing the commandments and the resulting practices of the religion on an ongoing, daily basis. According to Christianity, for example, the historical, factual, resurrection of Jesus Christ opens the way to eternal life and glory for those who believe. Anyone who claims that the resurrection is fictional is contradicting a basic premise of Christianity that is needed to justify the practice of Christianity. The religious practices of Judaism and Islam are similarly justified by, and thus dependent upon, their distinct factual claims.

Atheists don't keep kosher and observe the Sabbath because there is no proper justification for doing so. We recognize the Sermon on the Mount is seriously flawed, giving some bad advice, contradicting itself, a hodgepodge lacking any underlying theme. It characterizes poverty as a virtue and wealth as a vice, asserts that there is an afterlife, calls for lending on request without regard to need or likelihood of repayment, and the like, which are rationally unjustified. A faith that obscures or denies these flaws is a faith in conflict with the empirical evidences regarding what is true and false.

Thirdly, many of the practices of different religions are mutually compatible, while the factual beliefs associated with those practices are often mutually incompatible. Accordingly, if religion was about practice only, and not about beliefs, then it follows that there is a lack of good justification for segregating practices by religion. If religious people frequently combined the practices that originated from different religious beliefs then we would at least have some evidence that the incompatible factual claims unique to each religion don't matter to them. Yet Christians rarely commit to the religious practices of Jews and Muslims, Jews don't commit to the practices of Christians and Muslims, and Muslims don't commit to the practices of Jews and Christians.

Reading arguments like those of Karen Armstrong, and of her fans, that religion has nothing to do with beliefs regarding what is factually true or false is like reading an argument that joining a political party is properly motivated only by that political party's practices, which are devoid of factual content, and that the political party's policy statements and orientations are not rooted in any claims about what is factually true or false. That otherwise intelligent people publicly make such a superficial argument is a testament to how desperate some people are to defend religion and of the weakness of the mindless religious identity that they cling to. Liberal religionists tend to deny that their beliefs are rooted in any facts about how the world works, conservative religionists prefer to buttress their beliefs with facts about how the world works that are counter-evidenced. Underlying this disparity in approach is a single common mistake: They are both failing to take an evidence first approach to justifying their beliefs.

Capturing Non-Belief in Fiction

by Gary Berg-Cross

Interesting ideas can often be explored through the lens of fiction. If Huck Finn was an insightful character from the 19th century Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old protagonist of author J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is one from the 20th read in school.  Young Caulfield is widely recognized as a figure resistance to growing older in an irrational world manifest in an attempt to protect childhood innocence. As a 50s publication, catcher’s Holden quickly became an icon for estranged teenage rebellion and James Dean-style angst.  And, by the way along with Huck he seems very much a skeptical if not atheist figure. "Catcher" is very much about the detection of hypocrisy in American life and religion as Twain’s Huck found earlier in his trip down the river of American Culture. Religious piety about what is right and how to lead a good life is very much part of a hypocritical web. Twain, as discussed in Tom Flynn’s excellent The New Encyclopedia of UNBELIEF, held a Calvinist view of life and God as a trickster that spins a web that traps most of us in a personal hell on false belief.

Wikipedia has sort of a list of noted atheists and agnostics characters .”  in the broad category of “Fiction” who have, “either through self-admission within canon works or through admission of the character creator(s), been associated with a disbelief in a supreme deity or follow an agnostic approach toward religious matters.

It's mostly a list from TV and such.  For example, Kurt Hummel is listed from the musical comedy-drama Glee.  People like Dr. Allison Cameron  on House is obviously an example of a skeptical, free-thinking character. We might see more in pop culture as the Nones-way-of-life proceeds.

A bit more interesting is Rebecca Goldstein's (Steve Pinker’s wife) contemporary novel (36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)  This uses the New Atheism as a driver of contemporary issues such as celebrity and influence raised by the NA movement.

Goldstein's protagonist is Cass Seltzer, a psychology of religion prof who gets pulled into the spotlight by the surprise success of his book called, after William James, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Both Seltzer's fictional book and Goldstein's actual novel contain an appendix, -  36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The appendix is not actually an argument in support of god, and Matthew Goldstein (aka Explicit Atheist), often a blogger here, would have a field day in shooting down the arguments.  Maybe he has already.  These arguments are really more conversational points and the lightness of position (reflecting the lightness of what earns popularity in today’s culture) is partly what gives the Seltzer character his path to fame and media access- an atheist with a soul. It’s a bit like former Mayor Koch and the people I discussed in by blog “Do They Contradict Themselves?

Nobel Prize literature has some atheist and freethinker characters.  One is in Ferit Orhan Pamuk’s (aka Orhan Pamuk) early 80s work called Silent House. Pamik  is a multi-talented Turkish novelist/ screenwriter,  and received the Nobel Prize in Literature (2006). After winning his proze more of his work has been translated and getting reviews in English language outlets.  One of this is Silent House whose main character is a bitter, bereaving 90-year-old widow Fatma.  The silence of the book is about important issues that are not talked about directly.  The story takes place somewhere in Turkey's violent summer of 1980. The Turkish Armed Forces were about to restored order via a coup after violence had broken out between right-leaning nationalists and communists. This coup was to transform Turkey from its fading economic to a more explicit secular if very military state.  

Pamuk uses a house locale and a ritual summer visit from grandchildren to hold up a bit of mirror about the noisy, dissipation and dissonance of Turkey in that era of political and cultural change. As one reviewer noted Fatma's life is, “just like her house, isn't silent. Instead, it's pensive and nearly bursting with lament, shame, sadness, and squashed hopes.“ The widow Fatma herself is silent about the deeper things but bemoans the outer disorder:

When all that horrible hullabaloo lets up, when all that noise coming from the beach, the motorboats, the wailing kids, the drunken cursing, the songs, radios, and televisions, quiet down, and the last car goes screaming past, I slowly get up from my bed and stand just behind my shutters listening to the outdoors: nobody's there, they're all exhausted and have gone to sleep.

Fatma's shushing, keep-the-world and its problems out of here is a great part of the silence, it is her deceased husband, Selahattin the local doctor that is the atheist, intellectual voice that speaks through her. It is some of his political, rational and intellectual hopes that have been squashed and silenced.  We learn of this family patriarch as Fatma recalls him to us wile alone in her bedroom. Her monologues ruminate on their joint past and we learn that Selahattin has been exiled from Istanbul for his leftist politics. Madden the doctor doubles down on a self-and-family-destruct course by proclaiming (Nietzsche style) that God dead. For good measure he throws in darts about Eastern vs. Western/scientific values. 

Isolated in an illiberal backwater and fortified by drink, Selahattin dedicates himself to an encyclopedic task – comprehensively rewriting the world to bring secularism and the scientific method to the Turks. It’s doomed to failure and passes on the burden to  grandson Faruk, who following his grandfather (and father) in working on a manuscript whose goal is to disprove the existence of God, offer a rational if reductionist explanation of Turkey and the universe too.

The shape of the atheist doctor’s struggles is somewhat familiar from other fiction.  It is like a Russian novel (Turgenev was apparently an influence).  But his shadow casts a feeling some of us may recognize even in the West that he idolizes a relative bit.  And perhaps we see some of the doctor's questions echoed when groups of free thinkers meet in the 21st century . We wonder why science has yet to triumph over various hardened forms of superstition. We may wonder why there passive acceptance of much that is wrong and be improved on.  We may identify with lonely pioneers who struggle to organize thought around them and reason things out in times when intellect is sequestered by ignorance a conventions of hypocrisy.

For a review of “Silent house”  see Marie Arana, in WaPO October 08, 2012