Friday, May 31, 2013

Playing with Forgivenss & Redemption

By Gary Berg-Cross

It’s a big time for redemption as acts of atoning for a sin, fault or mistake). Recently we had adulator and trail hiker Mark Sanford’s successful bid in the South Carolina special general election.  He was forgiven his sins, at least by his Tea Party backers. The NRCC chose not to provide him funds.  As one religio-conservative publication put it in a post called, “Mark Sanford: Welcome Back to Washington”:

He [Sanford] has always been a consistent, principled, and courageous conservative. And he has always done it with showmanship and clarity that gets the points across to voters.

He unfurled this showmanship in this campaign of redemption, in which he was combatting not just his opponent, but also his deeply tarnished image as result of serious ethical transgressions during his second term as governor.

Standing by the flawed man was surprising in one way, since Conservatives generally are less forgiving than Liberals and ague that a politician who commits a moral error in his personal life is likely to commit one as part of official duties. Well perhaps not for members of their own team. And in very Christian South Carolina, at least, another factor was at play, the Christian idea of redemption. One read that clearly in Sanford’s  post-win self-analysis with thanks to God & redeeming grace:

“Some guy came up to me the other day and said you look a lot like Lazarus,” Sanford told the crowd Tuesday night, referring to the man who, according to the Bible, Christ raised from the dead. “I’ve talked a lot about grace during the course of this campaign,” he said. “Until you experience human grace as a reflection of God’s grace, I don’t think you really get it. And I didn’t get it before.” (reported in NYT opinion piece)

One may be a bit uncomfortable with this version of American style religio-politics that loves sinners, who prostrate themselves before us and beg for forgiveness.  After all it shows they buy into the sin idea.  And maybe the devil made them do it.

Another religious excursion into redemption territory, perhaps a more progressive hike than the Sanford style was visible in the widely reported remarks by Pope Francis' regarding atheists who he gave credit for possible good works. .

According to Catholic News Service, the pope was speaking of a broad horizon people of all or no faith working together to do good. "The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone," he said. Some may ask, "'Father, even the atheists?' Them, too. Everyone."

Well this simple redemptive stance didn’t last long. One day after the inclusive Every-Do-Gooder idea we were treated to damage control headlines of “Vatican Clarifies Pope's 'Atheist' Remarks.”   A less progressive Vatican spokesman (a Rev. Thomas Rosica) released a statement that clarified that redemption isn’t salvation. Quoting from Church “Catechism” we learn that people who reject the teachings of Jesus Christ cannot attain salvation.  Bad news for many.

"All salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her."

Anthony Weiner’s redemption tour as part of his announced candidacy for mayor of New York City is just starting up, so we are likely to hear more about sinners and redemption, this time with the New York Jewish twist. Lots of ideas on redemption in that Creed. We’ll see if forgiveness gets wrapped up with the condition that you seek it from god. It seems like yet another uncomfortable scene in which special speakers to god exercise some semi-official brand of religio-morality calculus using the vocabulary of sin.  Self selected people get to divine God’s plans which gets all tangled in democratic processes of judgment.  

All in all forgiveness is a good thing, but I’m more comfortable with a non-sinner. humanist take on it like Mark Twain, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."



Remembering Humanist Walt Whitman (& his friend Bob Ingersoll)

By Gary Berg-Cross

It is wonderful to celebrate May 31 as the birthday of poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892).  Like many other non-DC natives (Ingersoll for one & WW was very much a native New Yorker), he spent time here in later life.  No fluke that one of Bethesda's HSs is named after him.

Like Ingersoll there is even a DC tour of his life here (see map at end of article).
Whitman’s DC-time occurred during the Civil War and is notable for many reasons, including the fact that Lincoln served as a kindred spirit and Robert Ingersoll as a friend. To his friend, Horace Traubel, Whitman said of Ingersoll:

“I consider Bob one of the constellations of our time—our country—America—a bright, magnificent constellation.”

It's a bit like what Emerson had said earlier of Whitman. In turn, as one might expect Ingersoll, the orator, could entertain people on Whitman virtues and we have a record of some of this. In his testimonial of Whitman Ingersoll said of his first publication Leaves of Grass:

At this time a young man—he to whom this testimonial is given—he upon whose head have fallen the snows of more than seventy winters—this man, born within the sound of the sea, gave to the world a book, "Leaves of Grass." This book was, and is, the true transcript of a soul. The man is unmasked. No drapery of hypocrisy, no pretense, no fear. The book was as original in form as in thought. All customs were forgotten or disregarded, all rules broken—nothing mechanical—no imitation—spontaneous, running and winding like a river, multitudinous in its thoughts as the waves of the sea—nothing mathematical or measured. In everything a touch of chaos—lacking what is called form as clouds lack form, but not lacking the splendor of sunrise or the glory of sunset. It was a marvelous collection and aggregation of fragments, hints, suggestions, memories, and prophecies, weeds and flowers, clouds and clods, sights and sounds, emotions and passions, waves, shadows and constellations.

Like Ben Franklin WW spent early years in the print business and publication, including one run by Edgar Allen Poe. (They met in the offices of the Broadway Journal at 304 Broadway Street, New York City, where Poe was editor in 1845.) The result was a liberal & lusty mind like Ben’s that was able to analyze early American life. Leaves of Grass is an American epic that celebrated the common man and captures some of it growing immigrant-worker experience in contemplative poems like "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh'd,

Whitman was by all measures a freethinking Humanist – “There is no God more divine than yourself”. This is evidenced in his first, great work Leaves of Grass as well as his later advice dealing with problems like slavery and women's lack of freedom: “Resist much, obey little” and ““Be curious, not judgmental.” This free voice of the common man had  his classic Leaves poem banned in Boston, as they say, in the 1880.  It was deemed ‘obscene,’ ‘too sensual,’ and ‘shocking’ because of its frank portrayal of sexuality including women's sexuality.

All of this independent spirit is amplified in details in a famous passage copied below, which remains among the best of advice even unto our age:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem

(Links to books by WW )


Whitman Tour in DC:             

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Secular and Religious Cities

By Gary Berg-Cross

It is perhaps not surprising to find studies measuring various religious qualities in the United States. One from 2010 is aptly called the, “2010 U.S. Religious Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study (RCMS)”.  The report was the work of Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). It provides detailed county by county information on congregations, members, adherents and attendance for 236 different faiths groups.

Perhaps most interesting are the summaries of which are the most “religious” city/metropolitan areas.  And the results aren’t that surprising.  Salt Lake City comes out as the most religious city ( of 52 with populations > 1 million) based on what the study called its 74 percent population identifying as a religious adherent (73,487 religious adherents per 100,000 persons). Most of the other top cities (or states) were in the South as one might expect. A slightly different study, focusing on Bible belief and including smaller cities finds Knoxville TN as what they called the most Bible-Minded city.

Where are the more secular cities and states?  Again not surprising the research found them in the West and Northeast. The greater area of Portland, OR-WA was the least religious/most secular city with about 32 percent identifying as a religious adherent. States like NY and Rhode Island are about the same level. That’s less than half of Salt Lake or Mississippi which is the most religious state. DC came in as the 3rd most secular city.

It is a bit interesting that the surveys of religious observance provides an inverse look at secularity. It will be more interesting when we have funded surveys of the various forms of secularity and non-belief.  Just as some surveys covers a wealth of religious sects, it would be interesting to see a bigger spectrum on non-belief.  We might need a comparable large secular/humanist organization to fund such a detailed look, but it might be an important barometer to measure trends. We might just need a secular angel to fund it.  Perhaps the next Reason Rally will generate enough interest to pull that off.

See a HuPo article for more on this topic.



Secular City:



Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chance Conversation with a Free Mason

by Gary Berg-Cross

On a recent trip by train I ran into a friendly and helpful fellow, a native of France who had worked in the US.  As we exchanged info and I identified my self as a Secular Humanist, he surprised me by saying, "Isn't that a bit like Free Masonry? "  I hadn't made the connection and some early Mason statements do talk about a belief in God along with their three great benign principles:

  • Brotherly Love – Every true Freemason will show tolerance and respect for the opinions of others and behave with kindness and understanding to his fellow creatures.
  • Relief – Freemasons are taught to practice charity, and to care, not only for their own, but also for the community as a whole, both by charitable giving, and by voluntary efforts and works as individuals.
  • Truth – Freemasons strive for truth, requiring high moral standards and aiming to achieve them in their own lives.but indeed a quick comparison of values  confirmed that we both had an interest in a secular non-religious society, separation of church and state, equality, tolerance, and a general concern with individual liberties.

Tom Flynn's New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, does not have an entry for Free Masons. But my  new traveling friend assured me that modern Free Masonry, at least in France is more secular and follows the post French Revolutionary idea of  laïcité (which is discussed in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief)  a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs.
As noted in one article at, generally there are some common key principles and values that show up in things Manifestos by the Mason and Secularists:
  • Freedom of conscience of all people, and that it is an essential component of liberty, equality and fraternity
  • Separation of religion and government, and religious and spiritual tolerance among all people.
  • Freedom of the press as a necessary component of maintaining the inalienable rights of all human beings, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • The need for higher education and life-long learning
  • An impartial judiciary system as essential to guaranteeing the preservation of human rights
  • Arts and sciences as essential elements in the progress and evolution of humanity
  • Efforts that work towards global environmental and ecological sustainability as essential to the survival of the human species

After the trip it took me only a little while to track down the history of position of Liberal European Freemasonry regarding religion.    In 1877 the Grand Orient of France decided to abolish the requirement that a candidate profess a belief in God. A blog on Free Masonry discusses how they defined their position:

"Whereas Freemasonry is not a religion and has therefore no
doctrine or dogma to affirm in its constitution, this Assembly has
decided and decreed that the second paragraph of Article 1, of the
Constitution (requiring a belief in Deity) shall be erased, and that for the words
of the said article the following shall be substituted:

"Being an Institution essentially philanthropic, philosophic, and
progressive, Freemasonry has for its object, search after truth,
study of universal morality, science and arts, and the practice of
benevolence. It has for its principles absolute liberty of
conscience and human solidarity. It excludes no person on account
of his belief, and its motto is 'Liberty, Equality and

They went bit further discussing the freedom of beliefs in a January, 1918 statement that  is attributed to a member of the Grand Orient of France in the article:

"The Grand Orient of France and the Three Great Lights" published in the Builder:

"The Grand Orient of France, while it respects all philosophical
beliefs, insists upon absolute liberty of belief. This does not
mean that we banish from our lodges the belief in God. The United
Grand Lodge of England on the contrary desires to make a belief in
God in some manner compulsory. The Grand Orient of France is much
more liberal, since in proclaiming the absolute liberty of belief
it permits to each one of its members the liberty to believe or not
to believe in God, and by so doing desires to respect its members
in their convictions, their doctrines and their beliefs."
Free Masons, like other freethinking groups, do have a continuum of people  who tend to be non-religious but tolerate religious members. Some might say they are secular rather than anti-religious.


Trowel at Free Mason site:

French Secularism:


Saturday, May 18, 2013

CO2, Fish, IQ

by Edd Doerr

In recent days scientists have reported that atmospheric CO2 levels have exceeded 400 ppb, somewhat over the 350 ppb considered sustainable, and also reported that oceanic fish are migrating to cooler waters. Doesn't this suggest that fish are smarter than Republican/conservative climate change deniers?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In Possession of All our Faculties - a history of exorcism

By Gary Berg-Cross

We live in so called “modern, post-enlightenment” times.  Therefore I am often surprised by old, unenlightened things that thrash about and make jangling noises in the culture.  Take the devil and demonic possession.  I would have guessed that, aside from a Hollywood blockbuster or 2,  we have gotten far from the fear of witches and such.  I normally operate with a sense that it’s an idea that has been dying out since the good old Judeo-Christian story days. For example, Luke has a little story in Acts 16 that gives us some common talk about spirits in Judaic life:

"Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, "These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation." And this she did for many days.

But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities."
Acts 16:16-19 (KJV)

To be sure there are contemporary images or Obama as a devil and an anti-Christ, but that’s fringe now, right?  I guess there is Pat Robertson who claims that Islam Is 'Demonic'. He also claimed the devastating Haiti earthquake in early 2010 was caused by a pact between the island nation and the devil. I'm not surprised to find nonsense from this source,

 Well it turns out that demonic possession is a trending item – at least in some sectors of the world.  An example is an article with the jarring title “Famous Nollywood actress delivered from demonic possession.”  OK, it says Nollywood, not Hollywood, but Africa’s Nollywood is the 3rd largest film industry in the world. So it was good to know that actress Camilla Mberekpe was recently delivered of:
 “an alleged demon that had been tormenting her life …... The deliverance which was telecast on Emmanuel TV took place during last Sunday service at the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in Nigeria headed by Prophet T.B. Joshua….. Asked what her mission was in the life of the actress, the unknown spirit disclosed that she wanted to ‘destroy her because she has refused to worship me. She is always praying. She is a very serious prayer worrier but I always make sure she does not get there.’”

Now there is a new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West  by Brian Levack, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin,  that brings an historical focus and some analysis.  Levack investigates some of the history and brings the story up to date and closer to home.  Demonic possession has surprising cache in parts of Catholicism perhaps as a legacy of the olden days - after all the devil is after the ones with the true belief. 

It wasn’t just the old world or even early, modern Europe that was bathed in demon-haunted beliefs. Reports of people in various types of passion are still reported especially by Catholic cultures and, of course, evangelical and charismatic communities.  By some reckoning about half a million people in Italy today see an exorcist annually.  This is about as easy a choice as visiting a chiropractor. 
Passed down through time the faithful have an idea if how possession is manifested. You can see it in a supposed documentary called "The Devil Inside" Some converse in unknown languages, tearing at their own flesh and screaming. Well if not that then the easier to generate hot mix of blasphemies and profanities. They probably still abound.

Levack described the current surge in belief in demonic possession this way:

“It’s in communities, especially in highly religious communities, especially evangelical and charismatic religious communities, who believe in a direct relationship between demonic spirits and human beings […] and whenever you have that belief, and that is a belief that has been cultivated greatly in the late twentieth century, you’re going to get cases of demonic possession. And then you have the demand for exorcists to relieve people of these symptoms of demonic possession. You also have a number of exorcists, especially in Italy and in Latin America, and in Poland, far fewer in America – and that might help to explain why we’re not familiar with this, I don’t meet demoniacs every day! – but you have these exorcists who actually go out and drum up business. They’re celebrity exorcists. There’s one in Italy who claims to have exorcised 70,000 people!”

And in 2011 there was help for those interested in drumming up business via  an international conference on exorcism. The Catholic News Service called it an  Exorcist boot camp and reported that “church leaders call for more training against evil.” One attendee, an  80-year-old retired priest said that about once a month he sees a serious case of possession and "tons" of cases of demonic influence in which people are being "bothered or attacked by evil spirits." Those kinds of cases, he said, are "a daily thing." We might instead diagnosis it as an unconscious out of control and behaving according to some guidelines of how evil is manifested.

Although the book is largely historical, Levack puts such things in a modern perspective with rational-medical-cultural explanations from mental (e.g. brain infections) or physical illness, to deliberate fraud. Trances we can explain, but how else to explain and exorcist being hit in the head by a ball of fire (reported by Rev Thomas Thomson, who  died in 1718).  Levack covers classic cases with detailed reports of vomiting including vast quantities of nails, pins, blood, feathers, stones, coins, coal, dung, meat, cloth and hair – (Being on the wrong side of allotriophagy - An unnatural desire for abnormal foods; also known as cissa, cittosis, and pica.?). Thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza and latterly Charcot and Freud were of the opinion that possessions could be attributed to illness but also. And Levack documents many confessions of fraud.

Illnesses might explain bestial sounds are popular along with distorted limbs and faces and of course convulsive writhing (Tourette’s Syndrome?). There is the occasional floated in the air, which has to be fraud or illusion. 
Now that fraud I’m not surprised about, but it is probably the small cases of discomfort that many people have, that is being served by that old profession of exorcist.  Out with it. In post modern life we can do better.
Book cover:

Exorcism and The Devil Inside:

Indiana High Court Missteps on Vouchers

This letter was published in Education Week on May 15, 2013 ----

Regarding "Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Voucher Law" (News in Brief, April 3, 2013): In upholding the Republican-sponsored school voucher plan, the Indiana Supreme Court sanctioned the state's doing indirectly what Article I, Section 6 of the state constitution says may not be done directly -- divert funds from the treasury to benefit "any religious or theological institution."

Had the legislature had the decency to propose an appropriate amendment to the state constitution, to allow voters to say yea or nay, the voucher plan would not have survived a popular vote, just as state schools superintendent Tony Bennett, a voucher supporter, failed to survive his bid for re-election last November.

The ruling was hardly a good lesson in ethics for Hoosier children.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, MD

(The writer previously taught in pub,kic schools in Indiana.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gosnell's House of Horrors

by Edd Doerr

The following comment was posted in the Washington Post (on line) on 5/14/2013 ---

News coverage of and opinions voiced about Gosnell's housde of horrors clinic in Philadelphia have generally left out somethng very important: the fact that so many poor women in need of abortions could find no accessible alternative to this disgraceful outfit. The remedies: comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, ready access to contraceptives and family planning services, abortion providers that meet decent medical standards (as most do), broad compliance with the new healthcare law's mandate for insurance coverage for contraception, and, lastly, serious attention to the poverty that is increasing in our country and the growing gap between the small percentage of the wealthy and all the rest of us.

What the vociferous anti-choice and anti-Planned Parenthood movement doesn't grasp is that good comprehensive sexuality education, readier access to contraception and the reduction of poverty  would actually shrink the need and demand for abortion, especially procedures after 12 weeks.

Finally, it needs to be recognized that the anti-choice movement is actually  seeking to impose their unscientific and unbiblical misogynist patriarchalist religious opinions on all women,in violation of women's religious freedom and rights of conscience.

Edd Doerr (

Hearing the Voice of Freethinking Robert Ingersoll

By Gary Berg-Cross

You may have heard that WASH is holding its annual banquet in Lynchburg, VA this year on May 25. All are welcome to come. You don't need to be a WASH member to attend. Details and registration are available at:

It’s a chance to join other secularists in what many call the "belly" of the fundamentalist beast.  It’s an easy label since Lynchburg is the home of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's evangelical Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. WASH will be e serving an excellent buffet with a cash bar and food for thought.  Our speaker will be Dr. J. Anderson Thomson and the topic will be the cognitive science of religious belief.

I’m sure that Robert Ingersoll would attend if he were alive today, but I’m glad to see his ideas and life abroad in the land. Bill Moyers had a show on in March 2013 called Fighting Creeping Creationism. The 2nd part of the show, which you can see via the link above, was a wide-ranging conversation with journalist and historian Susan Jacoby who expounded on the role secularism and intellectual curiosity have played throughout America’s history from its founders on.

This is a topic explored in her new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Jacoby is the perfect person to play the role of bringing Ingersoll,  “mover and shaker” of the early Republican Party, back into mainstream discussion.  Seven score years ago Ingersoll did the same secular resurrection for Tom Paine.

For most of us Ingersoll, like Paine is largely forgotten today although earlier he was listened to on topics of the separation of church and state, Darwin’s theory of evolution,  women's rights and much more.
His Centennial Oration gives one a feeling about the timely relevance of his thought:

THE Declaration of Independence is the grandest, the bravest, and the profoundest political document that was ever signed by the representatives of a people. It is the embodiment of physical and moral courage and of political wisdom....

Such things had occasionally been said by some political enthusiast in the olden time, but, for the first time in the history of the world, the representatives of a nation, the representatives of a real, living, breathing, hoping people, declared that all men are created equal. With one blow, with one stroke of the pen, they struck down all the cruel, heartless barriers that aristocracy, that priestcraft, that king-craft had raised between man and man. They struck down with one immortal blow that infamous spirit of caste that makes a God almost a beast, and a beast almost a god. With one word, with one blow, they wiped away and utterly destroyed, all that had been done by centuries of war — centuries of hypocrisy — centuries of injustice.

What more did they do? They then declared that each man has a right to live. And what does that mean? It means that he has the right to make his living. It means that he has the right to breathe the air, to work the land, that he stands the equal of every other human being beneath the shining stars; entitled to the product of his labor — the labor of his hand and of his brain.

What more? That every man has the right to pursue his own happiness in his own way. Grander words than. these have never been spoken by man.”
If you would like to hear more about Ingersoll’s “controversial” ideas come to the  Ingersoll Oratory contest in Dupont Circle starting at noon June 30th, 2013. There’s a lot of great oratory to chose from, the great Ingersoll  delivered more than 1,200 speeches to packed houses across the country in the late 1800s. His arguments were usually succinct, thought provoking, insightful and still speaks to contemporary issues.
Fifteen speakers will select their favorite pieces to orate some of these ideas.  Susan Jacoby will be there as one of the judges making it a great event for secular DC.

Also of note, WASH board member Steven Lowe offers walking tours of Ingersoll’s life in DC. Upcoming are morning walks June 20th and 29th.

Sunday, June 23, 10 am: short version** - meet at SW corner 13th & E St. NW

Saturday, June 29, 9:30 am: long version* - meet at 450 F St. NW

*Long Version: a 1.5 mile walk lasting 2 hours, visiting 11 locations.
- Meet at 450 F Street NW.( the Building Museum/Judiciary Square METRO street level)


These take you through the oldest parts of Washington, D.C., to visit the sites where Ingersoll lived, worked, or spoke.



Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vacate Humanae Vitae

 by Edd Doerr

This letter was published in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) on May 10, 2013  ----

"Vacate Humanae Vitae"

"Brian Roewe's piece on global warming (NCR, April 12) is an important contribution to the vital conversation on climate change. What needs also to be discussed is the role played by human overpopulation in this huge problem; our numbers have grown from a little more than 2 billion in the 1950s to more than 7 billion today while our damage to the environment has grown on a hockey stick curve.

"Pope Francis could take an important step toward saving our planet by a stroke of the pen, by following the sound advice that Paul VI declined and vacating the 1968 Humanae Vitae condemnation of contraception. The vast majority of Catholics would approve."

"Edd Doerr
"Silver Spring, MD"

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Really "Must Read" Book

a review by Edd Doerr

Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, by Barbara J. Miner, The New Press, 2013.305 pp,  $27.95.

In early May of 2013 the US Department of Justice announced, nearly two years after the complaint was filed, that Milwaukee private schools, mostly sectarian, funded by tax-paid vouchers to the tune of about $6400 per year per student, must not discriminate against students with disabilities. Only about 1.6% of  students in Milwaukee's voucher-funded private schools are classified as having disabilities, compared to 20% in the public schools.  In March of 2011 the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that, despite their selectivity advantage, Milwaukee's voucher schools were significantly behind the public schools in math and reading. Milwaukee's vaunted school voucher plan, the oldest in the country, then, is an obvious flop, in addition to everything else that is wrong with it.

In this timely and extremely important book veteran Milwaukee journalist and native Barbara Miner traces the history of this pioneering experiment in diverting public funds to private, mostly religious,  schools, from rather modest beginnings in 1990, through its expansion to religious schools in 1995, to today's Scott Walker fueled Wisconsin nightmare.  She does this by presenting the whole fifty year background of the civil rights and desegregation movements -- touching on race, racism,  demographic evolution, white flight, religion, politics, educational pseudo-reforms, court rulings, the influence of zillionaire conservative private foundations, enrollment statistics, and more -- providing a comprehensive picture of developments in Milwaukee, a sort of microcosm of major cities throughout the country.

Sadly, the Wisconsin supreme court approved this tax aid to religious schools in 1998 in defiance of the obvious intent of Article I, Section 18 of the state constitution and the US Supreme Court  declined to accept an appeal, perhaps in anticipation of its own mistaken 2002 5-4 ruling to uphold Ohio's equally objectionable voucher plan.

Indiana and Louisiana  followed Wisconsin's lead with even more ambitious and damaging voucher plans, as did Florida, though at least Florida voters were allowed to reject vouchers in a referendum in November of 2012. It is abundantly clear that when the voters in a state are allowed to pass on voucher, tax credit or similar plans they invariably reject them, as has happened in 27 statewide referenda from coast to coast. But voucher promoters will do anything to bar the voters from having their say.

Throughout the country conservatives and the religious right are fanatically bent on voucherizing and privatizing our public schools, which serve 90% of our kids, aided and abetted by school pseudo-reformers, fat cat conservative foundations and media, and public ignorance and apathy.

Barbara Miner's explosively important book should be a primary tool for defending public education, religious liberty, and democratic values.

(Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty and author of "The Great School Voucher Fraud", available at

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Eden Foods' Fundamentalist Kowtow

by Edd Doerr

I have just sent the following message to Eden Foods, 761 Tecumseh Road, Clinton, MI 49236 ( ----

"Eden Foods: Our family is vegetarian. We have been using your products for years. Now we learn that your company has filed suit in federal court challenging the new healthcare law's contraceptive insurance mandate. We are appalled by this blatant kowtowing to religious fundamentalism. So we will not buy your products until we know that you have withdrawn this malicious lawsuit. Further, as a well-published writer I will be conveying this message far and wide on the internet. --- Edd Doerr (

Anyone care to follow our example?

Why everyone should be an atheist

By Mathew Goldstein

We start from scratch, from the perspective that we will give both possibilities, atheistic naturalism and theistic supernaturalism, equal opportunity to be adopted.  We can define supernaturalism as immaterial willful agency and/or immaterial mind, or god.  We know nothing and we are born into a universe.  What would we experience in a universe where we would be properly justified to be theists, and how does that universe compare to our universe?

We need an unbiased criteria to decide.  The bottom line is practical success versus failure, so that is the criteria. Success is whatever works to meet our needs and desires.  We need things like food, health, shelter, we desire things like travel and knowledge.  So what delivers our needs and desires?

The answer could be divine revelation.  By studying the holy texts, adopting the specified beliefs, worshipping, praying, following the rituals, obeying the laws, as revealed to us by deity, we receive food, health, shelter, transportation, and knowledge.  In other words, by practicing methodological supernaturalism we are successful.  Given a choice of what to believe, we follow the available evidences and become theists because the universe evidences supernaturalism.  However, in our universe, agriculture, medicine, housing, and transportation are human built and maintained products of human acquired knowledge, our knowledge is built exclusively on methodological naturalism, and the content of our knowledge is also naturalistic.  Therefore, when we follow the available evidences we become atheists because our universe evidences naturalism.

Some theists will probably object to this argument for atheism by saying it is bad theology.  Should we respect this objection?  If we are committed to holding beliefs that accurately model how the universe works then we should disregard this objection.  Success, not self-referencing ideology, must be our guide because success is the most plausibly unbiased criteria available to us, it is the way that our universe itself communicates to us regarding how our universe works.  Lacking omniscience we lack certainty that our conclusion is correct.  But such unavoidable uncertainty makes no difference.  We are rationally obliged to adopt the conclusion favored by a pervasive and unchallenged track record of success.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Abelard's Early Humanist Reasoning

by Gary Berg-Cross

At a recent conference a lunchtime conversation turned to examples of sound reasoning and the scholar Peter Abelard was raised as an interesting example.  Abelard is better known to most of us as a tragic love story.  Abelard and Heloise remain one of the more a celebrated couples of all time, in part from their writing and in part from the classic tragic events that eventually separated them:

1.    two well-educated people, brought together by their passion they fell in love;

2.    Heloise became pregnant, so

3.    they married secretly in 1118.

4.    Her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Paris,  had Abelard castrated by thugs believing that he had abandoned Heloise,

5.    after which he became a monk and

6.    Sent to a convent by her uncle, Heloise later became a nun
In a letter to Abelard, Heloise reflected on her loss:

"You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you."

This part of the history I knew a bit, but Peter Abelard (1079-1142) as an12th century medieval French philosopher, theologian, and logician I had heard less about.  After all these are the Middle Ages, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn the history and form of his thinking.
It goes something like this. A bright boy he rapidly jumped from school to school gaining an easy rise to fame. He wound up in a pre-University of Paris setting to study under William of Champeaux, head of the cathedral school and archdeacon of Notre Dame. Along the way his brilliant reasoning and debate were matched by a Chris-Hitchens-like arrogance. As with Hitch he generated many foes as wells as admirers. His mentor William, for example, was famous for a realist stance on the nature of universals, while pupil Peter took a nominalist and soundly won a series of debates. This success lead to a following, among students who provided a core for what was late to become the great University in Paris. Abélard's deep understanding of Aristotle's theory of knowledge surpassed anything widely available in 12th century Europe, which he cultivated in his Paris students. His was an example of great teaching that came to live as a Liberal Arts curriculum and style of teaching when universities were formally founded.
One of his important contributions was a work on ethics which took as its title the Socratic admonition, "Know thyself." In this work Abelard veered from the established course of strict commandments to stress the importance of intention in evaluating the moral/immoral character of an action. This was a step towards more nuanced reasoning about moral action.

Some of his early persuasive arguments swayed leaders like Pope Innocent III, who accepted Abelard's Doctrine of Limbo – children are innocent before the age of reason. But reasoned debate about reason itself was his real forte and passion - outside of Heloise. A famous debate was with Bernard of Clairvaux over the conflicts of reason and religion.  This conflict that made him a hero of the Enlightenment.

In Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian Abelard plays a combination of a Socrates and Swift like character as he debated religious dogma. Abélard juxtaposes apparently contradictory quotations from the Church Fathers & the Bible on many of the traditional topics of Judeo-Christian theology (he was the first to use ‘theology’ in its modern sense) only to “discover(ed) the Jews to be stupid and the Christians insane.”  As you can imagine making common folks reasoning look foolish does get noticed. His teachings backed by sound reasoning were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. His book on the Trinity was condemned to be burnt at Soissons in 1121.

One can see the controversy in one his works on Logic Reasoning "Sic et Non," an early scholastic teaching text whose title translates from Medieval Latin into a simple “Yes and No" dichotomy (for more on limitations of dichotomy see my article on Binary Thinking). As in his previous “Dialog” we see what happens when we apply reason to the teaching of revelation or at least questions that come out of revealed truths.

In the Prologue, Abélard outlines logical rules for reconciling contradictions but the core of the book is a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions.  The first five questions give a sense of these:

  1. Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?
  2. Does faith deal only with unseen things, or not?
  3. Is there any knowledge of things unseen, or not?
  4. May one believe only in God alone, or not?
  5. Is God a single unitary being, or not?

  • Use systematic doubt and question everything
  • Learn the difference between statements of rational proof and those merely of persuasion
  • Be precise in use of words, and expect precision of others
  • Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture (danger Will Robinson!!)
Wonderful advice even today.  Maybe especially today.
One can why Peter got in trouble as the rational arguments on the non-doctrinaire side seem as good as the Church’s position. And rational argument is still getting freethinkers in trouble.
Abelard was probably not the forerunner of modern atheism as some have argued. He seems more comfortably fit into a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates. He takes a  bold Medieval step towards human centering in ethics by taking moral authority and responsibility away from gods and their servant. Intentions and reasoning make it our responsibility.  Bravo Peter A for your love of reason and balance along with the worthy Heloise.