Monday, May 31, 2010

Targeting San Diego's judge positions

A coalition of Christian groups are campaigning to replace four San Diego judges with candidates that believe their take on religious dictates.  We recommend that San Diego residents read the entire article.  But as a summary:

"We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values," said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of the group's candidates. "Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary."
The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right's moral agenda and threatens both the impartiality of the court system and the separation of church and state.
The campaign also brings together many threads passing through the Christian right:   the USA, government and all, used to be strongly Christian;  Christianity and Christians are under threat; the emerging freedoms are a form of national decay;  Christian values are the same as the current right-wing values;  the way to return the USA to perceived glory is to use their take on Christianity as a base for governing.

Needless to say, such a position is counter to humanism, which looks only to Earthly facts and reasoning for direction.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Will religion fall by the wayside as societies advance?

Comparing the degree of religious belief between countries shows some interesting results, but does it also show future trends?  One survey from a few years ago suggested a link between religion and IQ:
When he broke down the statistics, he found a strong link between intelligence and faith. Countries with a lower national IQ tended to have the most believers.
Although there were exceptions, with the most notable being the USA, perhaps due to an origin in heavily religions immigrants.  But the measurement of national IQ is at best a vague proposition.  
A more concrete metric is national development, which includes income, education levels, standard of living, etc.  This article points out a clear scale of disbelief stretching from the nearly total religious territory or sub-Saharan Africa to the secular societies of northern Europe.  Why does religious belief decline with development?  A possible factor is that people in such societies feel less fear and uncertainty about the future, and don't need whatever hope they can grasp.  Another possibility is that these people have other coping mechanisms available for life besides religion:
Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion.
The upshot of the trend is that a faltering of belief is inevitable as the world advances.  That development, however, is not inevitable.  When will Sudan be like Sweden?  When will even the Appalachians be like Chicago?  But as humanists we maintain that all people have the ability to think rationally, and we present our viewpoint to all who are interested.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A humanist argues against euthanasia

The essence of humanist thinking is to look to Earth-based reasoning when confronting the questions of our lives.  The arguments produced may not be particularly convincing, but they at least rely on more evidence than the say-so of a a preferred holy book.  In this article, a humanist and atheist argues against legalizing assisted suicide, apparently because doing so would bureaucratize a personal situation and devalue life for those facing challenges:

The legalisation of assisted dying would replace love with law. It would put an end to ‘mercy killings’ carried out by caring families and compassionate doctors and replace them with state-sanctioned killings. [...]
[...] Secondly, legalising assisted dying would be bad for people who want to live, too. [...] This effectively sanctions suicide as a response to personal hardship, and gives a green light to hopelessness.
 And the conclusion:
The fact remains, however, that only a minority of people in pain choose to end their lives; the majority think life is worth living. But the views of the very active minority of pro-euthanasia campaigners are likely impacting on the way the majority of people experience their lives, possibly making them feel like a burden – a social, financial and environmental burden – if they choose to continue living. And as a humanist, I am also opposed to any undermining of the majority’s quality of life by a tiny minority of campaigners.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Letting go of religious dogma in Black America

The powerless and downtrodden have often been fodder for proselytizing, and Blacks in America and Africa were subject to intense missionary work, received both voluntarily and involuntarily.  This has had a lasting effect:
Within this incredibly religious culture, black Americans are the most devout and routinely rate at the top of every index that measures religiosity. It's difficult--if not impossible--to divorce religion from black culture. We can hardly get on the bus without invoking or thanking Jesus that we'll make it to work on time.
 But the African Americans for Humanism conference, held last week in Washington, is a step to relaxing that tradition and introduction rationality.  Despite the significant cultural pull to remain religious, the reasoning on display is familiar to all humanists:
[...] Not believing in the Judeo-Christian God is no different than not believing in Thor or Poseidon or Osiris. Someone told me that there's this God, but once I learned to question, I understood that the God I was told about--and the stories about that God--were no different from the mythologies of any other people who created stories to explain their worlds.
 And the conclusions are also the same as elsewhere, although applied to a new setting:
A common thread throughout the conference was the conviction that African Americans need to do a better job at thinking critically and challenging the ideas put before them. Donald Wright, author of The Only Prayer I'll Ever Pray : Let My People Go , explains that his book calls "for blacks in America to critically examine their loyalty and dedication to religion, and to begin adapting a lifestyle centered on rational thinking. It is time to break the chains of mental bondage caused by religious dogma.
 (The lengthy comments section to this article has the usual arguments:  not believing is as much a leap of faith as believing, the atheistic are as dogmatic as the theistic, etc.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Scientism: the really one true religion

An old argument:  a lack of faith is just another religion.  Here is one sighting:
Margaret Somerville, director of the Center of Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, recently called secularism “The most encompassing religion that functions as a basket holding all the other [secular faiths],” in an article she wrote for The Montreal Gazette.
One of those faiths is "scientism":

Some examples are humanism, atheism, scientism and moralism which all have adherents bound through a common belief and ideology.
Somerville said they are harmful when, as Richard Dawkins does with scientism, they are used to deny any space for spirituality and traditional  religion in the public square and replaced with secularism, according to The Montreal Gazette.
 Is scientism [fortunately the spell-checker doesn't recognize "scientism" as a real word, may it stay like that] a faith on equal footing with other religions?  A close reading of scientific history reveals that many scientific discoveries were driven by hunches and dogged adherence to unproven ideas.  The idea that everything is composed of tiny atoms, for example, was largely a matter of faith until the early 20th century.  Ernst Mach (of Mach One, the speed of sound, fame) was a prominent 19th century scientist who refused to accept atomic theory due to his strict rules of verification.

But science does eventually demand evidence.  That is why "scientism" is the one true religion.  Its gospel is true in the literal sense:  observations, measurements, repeatability.  Who knows how many ideas, hunches and theories had some acceptance and then fell by the wayside because in "scientism" faith has its limits.  There's no two-thousand year grace period in science. 

This is why "scientism" is the only religion that belongs in the public square and is the only religion that should guide public policy.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Not always a joke

Much light has been made, here and elsewhere, about the journey of George Allen Rekers, who spent a lifetime driven by self-shame to vehemently deny reality.  Religious truth told him that homosexuality was not only wrong, but an illusion from which the victim, with proper guidance, could awake.  Rekers became the scientific face of the conversion therapy movement, which has left a trail of misery.  The Miami New Times, which broke the Rekers escort story, recounts the story of a 4-year old boy with effeminate tendencies who was brought to Rekers' clinic for treatment.  Rekers set the child with his mother in a play room and instructed the mother to ignore him if he played with girlish toys:
According to a 2001 account in Brain, Child Magazine, "On one such occasion, his distress was such that he began to scream, but his mother just looked away. His anxiety increased, and he did whatever he could to get her to respond to him... Kraig became so hysterical, and his mother so uncomfortable, that one of the clinicians had to enter and take Kraig, screaming, from the room."
The treatment continued, expanding to include spankings for feminine behaviors, and after a few years the boy did become more masculine.  Yet at age 18 he attempted suicide.  These events happened in the mid-1970's, but Rekers continued to use this story (minus the devastating effects) for the intervening decades as an example of a success story.  But the real example here is of refusing to accept plain reality due to a dogmatic view that proclaims (often wrong) answers by fiat.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Video summing up our position on the National Day of Prayer

A good video of Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation concerning the National Day of Prayer.  In summary, everyone is free to pray as much as they would like, but it is not the government's place to orchestrate that prayer, or to direct people to pray.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An excellent blind spot

An exceptionally good analysis of of many religions and their problems is on the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry Site.  It offers an excellent examination of Mormonism, Catholicism, Bahai, and other religious movement large and small, from an almost anthropological perspective of skepticism.
The one exception is the part of the site that explains their own beliefs.  So, for example, Jesus fulfilled a long list of prophecies, but:
Some state that the New Testament was written and altered to make it look like Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (but there is no evidence of that).
 Their view is the default position.  In the site's analyses of other beliefs, those other followers had to present evidence that their positions were true.  Now the onus is once again on the others, who must present evidence that the site's beliefs are not true.  And:
Therefore, we can believe what Jesus said about Himself for two reasons:  one, because what He said and did agrees with the Old Testament; and two, because Jesus performed many convincing miracles in front of people who testified and wrote about what they saw Him do.
 Yet more:
Buddha did not rise from the dead.  Muhammad did not rise from the dead.  Confucius did not rise from the dead.  Krishna did not rise from the dead, etc.  Only Jesus has physically risen from the dead, walked on water, claimed to be God, and raised others from the dead.  He has conquered death.  Why trust anyone else?
The logic is completely circular:  we know the Christian Bible is true because of what's written in it.  What they really mean to say is:  we know the Christian Bible is true because we want it to be true. 
But don't read this site just from the perspective of haughty derision.  See this instead as a particularly clear example of a type of thinking we all sometimes follow and could use an occasional reminder of its pitfalls.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Revelations given to the Founders

A noted strain in the Conservative movement has been a reverence for the Founders of our government that can approach extreme magnitudes.  References to the Founders are beyond count (think of the Tea Party Movement).  The Mount Vernon Statement, a new rallying-point for Conservatives that is also serving as a purity test, is an unabashed wish to do nearly everything following the example of the Founders:
Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new. But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?
 The idealized view of the Founders has emerged as an element in the nomination of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court, since she clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, and has effusive praise for his legal mind.  Yet Justice Marshall perceived the Constitution, as originally written, to be imperfect since it distributed rights to a select few.  This prompted the Republican National Committee to release a memo entitled "Does Kagan still view Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived’ As ‘Defective’?”

At least some of this mindset is attributable to the strong religious background of many (probably most) people in the Conservative movement.  Ancient written truth is to be received, and to question all or part of that truth is unacceptable.  Studying Jesus and other religious figures, putting aside credibility, reversing rationality (first the truth, then the justification, e.g., creation science), excusing and explaining inconsistencies, etc.,  puts one in a certain frame of mind.  And switching it off is not easy.

But the Founders were human beings, and their writings are the work of Man, not of Supreme Beings.  Their conclusions are only as valid as our best and most current evidence and reasoning indicate are true.  And like all fields of human endeavor, there are constant advancements and improvements to our conception of how to run a government.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Clear thinking in the Caliphate

While countries with Islamic majorities place onerous restrictions on religious thought, the situation was quite different centuries ago.  Consider Abu Bakr al-Razi (856-925):
Al-Razi directed his most vehement attack against the holy books in general, including the Qur'an, because he saw them as illogical and self-contradictory. [...] Furthermore, he found that prophets' pronouncements and stories often contradicted those of other prophets. If their source was divine revelation as is claimed, their views would have been identical. The idea of a divinely-appointed mediator was therefore a myth.
His take on religion in general was particularly clear and modern:
Al-Razi understood the hold of religious belief on society, which he attributed to several factors. Firstly, systems of beliefs spread mainly through the human propensity for imitating and copying others. Secondly, religion's popularity rested on the close alliance between clerics and political rulers. The clerics often used this alliance to impose their own personal beliefs on people by force whenever the power of persuasion failed. Thirdly, the lavish and imposing character of the attire of religious men contributed to the high regard in which they were held by common people. Lastly, with the passage of time religious ideas became so familiar that they turned almost into deep-seated instincts that were no longer questioned.
These passages are taken from a short review of From the History of Atheism in Islam, written in Arabic (in 1945).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Denying reality due to (wrong) revelation

The hot topic of the week is George Rekers, Baptist minister and founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.  A 61-year-old former professor of Neuroscience, Rekers has spent the past three decades providing a scientific face to the idea that homosexuality is bad for society, families and the individual, and that it is a controllable factor in one's life.  His research (or "research") has found that 18 to 22 months of weekly therapy (mostly aversion therapy) can treat homosexuality.  On the legal side, he has testified as an expert witness for the Boy Scouts' discriminatory practices and against allowing homosexual people to adopt.  Now he has been caught with taking a vacation with a gay escort, and another gay prostitute has come forward with a similar story.  The irony has produced some amusing comedic segments.
In 2006 we saw an identical situation with Ted Haggard, founder of Colorado mega-church New Life Church.  While Haggard's proclamations against homosexuality were generally light, his downfall was total, as the evangelical movement sees homosexual behavior as evil.
In both cases, and many that do not make headlines, the religious are in denial about the truth.  In the past that truth could have remained hidden, but in the modern age of media and connectivity, the cover-up is not sustainable.
And the Bible only has few references to homosexual behavior.  Those passages could easily find themselves grouped with the mountain of other Biblical prohibitions we now ignore.  Recall that two centuries ago the Bible clearly and non-arguably was either pro-slavery or not anti-slavery.  Now Christian groups are at the forefront of anti-slavery actions, since the Bible obviously commands it.  Society forms religion, and religion will have to accommodate the fact that some people are unchange-ably homosexual, and they are not evil due to this detail.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

National Day of Prayer is here

Congress decreed the National Day of Prayer in 1952, partly to solidify various calls to prayer by previous Presidents, and to differentiate the USA from the USSR.  The day's significance has varied over the years, with Reagan and Bush (I) hosting formal events only once during their successive presidencies, while Bush (II) had a ceremony every year.  President Obama has offered his support:
Last Friday, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation. “Prayer has been a sustaining way for many Americans of diverse faiths to express their most cherished beliefs, and thus we have long deemed it fitting and proper to publicly recognize the important of prayer on this day across the Nation.”

While this proclamation is soft and general, the Obama administration has also taken the concrete step of appealing a judge's ruling to declare the official holiday unconstitutional.  This is good politics, since the evangelical movement has firmly latched onto the symbolism of this day:
"America was birthed in prayer and founded on the God of the Bible, on his biblical principles and on his moral values," Day of Prayer organizer Shirley Dobson said.
Another emerging pillar of the evangelical movement is that it is an oppressed minority.  The military dis-invited Franklin Graham from a Pentagon ceremony (probably due to his anti-Islam statements), and so he was forced to pray on the sidewalk
And there is a San Diego connection.  This email was sent to all county employees:
From: FGG, CountyAll
Sent: Thursday, May 06, 2010 8:26 AM
Subject: A message from Supervisor Bill Horn

Dear fellow County employee,
This year, as in past years, the Board of Supervisors has recognized the National Day of Prayer with a proclamation. In 1952, Congress established an annual day of prayer, and in 1988 that law was amended, designating the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May.
Today, May 6, I once again invite you to commemorate the National Day of Prayer at the CAC flagpole at 12:30 PM. The theme for the 59th annual National Day of Prayer is “Prayer: For Such a Time as This”.
We are thankful for the freedom to gather, the freedom to worship and the freedom to pray. This commemoration is a personal, not a government, function; and so, for those of you who choose to participate during your own personal time, I hope you will join me at the flagpole today at 12:30 P.M.

Bill Horn
Supervisor, Fifth District

The humanist position on prayer is clear and consistent:  talking to the air has no constructive, external benefit to the world.  There are internal (psychological) effects, some good and some bad.  For example, some people derive emotional strength through prayer, while others learn magical thinking.  In summary, the government is over-reaching by endorsing prayer.  See the Secular Coalition's take on the holiday and on possible humanist responses here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Scouts get what they wanted (sort of)

The Boy Scout movement began in 1908 as an organization to teach boys skills and self-reliance.  Distinctly military in form, but without the fighting practice, the Boy Scouts place much importance in honor and duty.   And that includes a required belief in revelation.

In the Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Boy Scouts et al vs Dale, the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could discriminate against gays, atheists, etc., because it is a private organization.  So the Boy Scouts can be a religious organization and the matter is settled.  But what about their quasi-public status?  Here in San Diego that manifests in a $1-a-year lease they have held on 16 acres in Balboa Park since 1957 (recently raised to an annual $2,500).  But since the Boy Scouts are now a private religious organization, and one that practices discrimination, a lawsuit challenged their special status.  The 9th Circuit Court ruled that the special lease violates the law, and now the US Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal, so the ruling stands. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Riches for the asking

Prosperity churches teach that wealth comes to the faithful.  But this isn't the Protestant work ethic.  This is windfalls of money that higher powers bestow on the deserving.  Like a religious version of The Secret, asking is the only necessary step.  Working too hard could actually be bad, since it shows lack of faith.  And you don't have to understand why it works for it to work.
An interesting article suggests that this type of thinking may have contributed to the unrealistic run-up in housing prices (and subsequent fall when those mortgages went bust).   The prosperity-based churches overlap heavily with areas of high foreclosure rates.  They may have contributed to the sense that sudden wealth just happens, and there were often real estate agents and mortgage brokers working with the church to facilitate the process.  It may not make much sense for someone with my assets and income to take a loan of this size, but I was faithful and this must be the reward.

A preacher in action: is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”
Unfortunately, the preachers get the wealth and the flock waste their time and resources.  And they walk away with some strange ideas:
He told me he feels pity for his employer. He assumes the man must have been close to God at one point, or at least his family must have been, “because the rich are closer to God.” But now the man has lost his way. He laughs when Gonzales talks to him about Jesus, and he wastes his money, buying $500 birdhouses and hiring Gonzales to clean them.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The (lack of) power of prayer

Today's light reading:  Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients:  a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer
From the American Heart Journal (Vol. 151, No. 4, April 2006):
Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer.
Was there any doubt what the result would be?
In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.
 So the patients who were certain of receiving prayer actually had a higher rate of complication (59% vs 52%), although the difference is probably a statistical blip given chance and the number of data points.  The numbers were pretty much all the same and a large enough data set would probably see all the numbers converge to one common value.
The humanist position:  to help people, do things that matter here and now;  don't say a bunch of words into the empty air and then kid yourself into thinking you've done anything constructive.