Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Edd Doer on The Importance of This Year’s Elections for Secularists

Edd's column from the current (April/May) issue of Free Inquiry, “The Importance of This Year’s Elections,”  is featured on the British web site
Climate change, reproductive choice, and saving public education may be the most crucial issues in this election season
This year’s elections may be the most crucial since 1860. Foreign policy, the economy, social justice, tax policy, the appointment of Supreme Court justices, and the stagnation/retrogression of the middle and lower classes are just some of the many issues that our under-informed, distracted electorate will be asked to consider when choosing among the candidates. But in this column let me just highlight three of the most important ones.
Climate change
While the Paris agreements of late fall 2015 are a small step forward, it is fair to say that most American voters have yet to wrap their heads around the climate-change problem in all its depth and complexity. In addition to the global-warming effects of atmospheric carbon-dioxide buildup caused by burning fossil fuels and consequent sea-level rise, which poses threats to the 40 percent of the world’s population living in coastal areas, there are at least these other serious concomitants: environmental degradation; resource depletion; soil erosion and nutrient loss; deforestation; desertification; biodiversity shrinkage; toxic waste accumulation; growing freshwater shortages; decreasing access to rare minerals essential to modern manufacturing; rising consumer demand and consumption; and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence. Much of this was detailed in Michael Klare’s 2001 book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, and many other books.
Though too rarely mentioned, all of this is fueled by human population growth, tripled since World War II to well over seven billion. Scientists have been warning that this would happen since the 1950s. In 1974, the U.S. government produced the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) report, signed by President Gerald Ford and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, which spelled out the problem and recommended universal access to contraception and abortion. Mysteriously, however, the NSSM 200 report was “classified”  and buried until shortly before the 1994 United Nations population conference in  Cairo. When the report was finally published in 1996 in The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy by Stephen Mumford, I was one of the very few writers who published reviews of it, in several forums. Meanwhile, reactionary Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Henry Hyde succeeded in getting Congress to pass legislation designed to interfere with broad domestic and foreign access to reproductive health aid. As I pointed out a year ago in the National Catholic Reporter, were it not for the 1.5 billion  abortions performed worldwide since 1974 (far too many of them illegal and dangerous), world population today would exceed a mind-boggling, unsustainable nine billion!
This brings us to the conservative religious and political leaders who have gone all-out to deny the dangers posed by overpopulation and to obstruct efforts to deal with the problem. Pope Francis may be commended for his good words on  climate change and social justice, but if he fails to reverse the Vatican’s absurd ban on contraception, ignored by most Catholics but all too influential with politicians, those good words will fall well short. Opponents of  universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion must be seen as inimical to our species’ surviving, much less thriving.
Reproductive choice
Who by now is not aware of the massive Republican effort, in Congress and state legislatures, to defund Planned Parenthood on the phony charge of selling fetal tissue? Only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget is devoted to abortions, while the rest is used for a variety of women’s health issues, particularly those of women of more limited means. Then there is in recent years the massive Republican flood of  state laws clamping down on clinics that perform abortions, thus denying an increasing number of women—mostly poor women—access to various forms of health care.
Religion is inserted into the issue by conservative religious leaders and politicians who insist that the Bible is on their side, a claim that is clearly phony. The Bible does not really deal with abortion. Anyone who bothers to look into it would see that the Bible actually supports the science side of the argument. Here is how: Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 state that “God created man in his own image” and humans became persons at their first breath. To cut to the chase, if “God” is not flesh and blood and DNA, then the Bible authors must be referring to some other qualities, such as consciousness and will, which modern science shows are not possible until sometime after the fetal brain is sufficiently wired to permit consciousness, after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. About 90 percent of abortions are performed by thirteen weeks and over 99 percent by twenty weeks. The small percentage that occur after “viability” at twenty-three to twenty-four weeks are due only to serious medical problems, such as threat to the woman’s life or severe fetal abnormality. This point was made in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the 1988 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, signed by 165 distinguished scientists including twelve Nobel laureates, one of whom was DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick. (Note: I engineered the brief, which grew out of an Americans for Religious Liberty conference of scientists, lawyers, and theologians on “Abortion Rights and Fetal ‘Personhood.’”) Judaism, we might note, has always generally regarded personhood as beginning at birth.
Of course, readers of this column may well be indifferent to what the Bible says on this matter, but it is useful to know that one of the main arguments against women’s rights of conscience and religious freedom on this issue is essentially groundless. Opposition to abortion rights, if not based on what the Bible actually says, must be based on something else. That something else is the misogyny found throughout the Bible (and the Qur’an) and deeply rooted in most societies today. Official Catholic opposition to women priests and assorted evangelical forms of misogyny, not to mention Orthodox Jewish and Muslim forms of it, are among the many manifestations of that worldwide ailment.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Maryland Education Credit bill could become law

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland Senate Bill 706, House Bill 1343, and House Bill 453 (Maryland Education Credit) propose providing a tax credit to reimburse individuals and businesses 60% of their donation to charities that finance private school scholarships for children and teenagers, capped at 15 million dollars in tax credits each year.  All of these bills only offer the tax credits for schools that charge no more per student than the public schools.  This cost restriction provision favors religious schools because religious institutions already have paid staff who can be teachers or administrators and whose salaries are already paid by members and because a quality secular education is costly to provide.  House Bill 1213 (BOOST) proposes a 70% tax credit to reimburse business donations for private school tuition.

Religious schools often have an institutional self-interest to try to convince children that they should accept the sponsoring organization's definition of deity.  They may actively teach children to distrust and fear secular academics or competing perspectives.  In pursuit of this self-interest some religious schools stridently teach children blatant falsehoods that contradict a large amount of modern knowledge.  Other religious schools more mildly teach subtle falsehoods that contradict a smaller amount of modern knowledge.  Either way, young children are impressionable, teenagers are responsive to peer pressure, and as a result they are vulnerable to carefully crafted indoctrination.  Private schools can mix political advocacy with religion with academics tightly together, there are no restrictions on what they can teach their students.  The result is harmful miseducation that can be difficult to undo.

Some private schools in Maryland (for example, Windsor Christian Academy and Calvary Christian Academy) teach a curriculum provided by publisher A Beka Book.  A Beka Book takes a biblical literalist and young earth creationist position in its science curriculum, portraying the Genesis creation narrative as a fact.  Some Maryland private schools are members of Accelerated Christian Education which promotes young earth creationism and declares solar fusion to be a myth invented by evolutionary scientists.  Some private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools that was founded by Douglas Wilson who advocates for exiling gays and executing adulterers. Many private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Christian Schools International which endorses intelligent design creationism.  A student and her mother who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee for these bills were from Chapelgate Christian Academy which is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International.  These schools are prioritizing promoting their own religious world view over providing an unbiased, comprehensive, and factually accurate education to children.  

A tax credit to reimburse donations that fund private school scholarships would offer no guarantee of better educational outcomes for Maryland’s children.  The finances of private schools can be opaque, making financial abuses difficult to detect.  Private schools do not have to report or administer teacher qualifications, class sizes, curriculum taught, student retention rates, graduation rates, demographics, or discipline or suspension policies.  The private schools eligible to benefit from the tax credits may legally discriminate against both students and staff on the basis of academic ability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.  Insofar as these bills provide any anti-discrimination protections, those protections apply only to admissions, not to ongoing fair treatment of the admitted students, and even those limited admissions protections lack an enforcement mechanism.  Non-theists need not apply is no doubt the admissions policy of some of the schools that would benefit from the government subsidized tuition.

If lawmakers want to reduce the cost of private education then they can provide additional funding to public schools to allow otherwise privately educated children to attend public school classes part time and/or to participate in public school sponsored extracurricular activities.  Each county can have their own law regarding the extent to which their state public school classes and facilities are available to children who are otherwise receiving a private education.  Additionally, private schools and home schooled children can be lent the same government purchased textbooks that are utilized by the secular public schools.  These approaches to assisting privately educated children avoid most of the problems that result from direct or indirect government funding of unaccountable private schools with ideological conflicts of interest.

Senate Bill 706 has passed in the Senate and is now being considered in the House.  If it passes in the House then it will be signed by Republican Governor Hogan. If you live in Maryland and oppose these "Maryland Education Credit" bills then send your representatives an email now, before the House floor vote.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself? by By Daniel Quinn author of Ishmael

by Gary Berg-Cross

Author Dan Quinn takes the animist point of view as being our real roots in a reverent way of looking at the world. We humans belong in our places (wherever our early tribes were)  because they  are special niches which we call "sacred". 

"Not sacred in a special way, not more sacred than anything else, but merely as sacred as anything else--as sacred as bison or salmon or crows or crickets or bears or sunflowers."

As a run up to Big Religions sweeping this early idea away Quinn provides and interesting interpretation of a range of stories from Genesis.

See for the full story which includes the fall from Innocence.

What knowledge tempted Man?  Was it the discovery of agriculture? 
Quinn explores the conventional Cain and Abel story to find - "the elder, Cain, a tiller of the soil, and the younger, Abel, a herder. The improbability that two members of the same family would embrace antithetical lifestyles should tip us off to the fact that these were not individuals but emblematic figures, just as Adam was (Adam merely being the Hebrew word for Man).

If we understand these as emblematic figures, then the story begins to make sense. The firstborn of agriculture was indeed the tiller of the soil, as Cain was said to be the firstborn of Adam. This is an undoubted historical fact. The domestication of plants is a process that begins the day you plant your first seed, but the domestication of animals takes generations. So the herder Abel was indeed the second-born--by centuries, if not millennia....Another piece of background that needs to be understood is that in very ancient times farmers and herders had radically different lifestyles. Farmers were by the very nature of their work settled villagers; but herders (by the very nature of their work) were nomads, just as many present-day herding peoples are. The herding lifestyle was in fact closer to the hunting-gathering lifestyle than it was to the farming lifestyle.

As the farming peoples of the north expanded, it was inevitable that they would confront their Semitic herding neighbors to the south, perhaps below what is now Iraq--with the predictable result. As they have done from the beginning to the present moment, the tillers of the soil needed more land to put to the plow, and as they've done from the beginning to the present moment, they took it.

As the Semites saw it (and it is of course their version of the story that we have), the tiller of the soil Cain was watering his fields with the blood of Abel the herder."

As we know farmers need land and so the conquest is on and tribal mores are swept aside.

Quinn Delivered October this talk 18, 2000, as a Fleming Lecture in Religion, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas