Saturday, December 31, 2011

Great Thoughts at the Library of Congress

by Gary Berg-Cross

Washington DC is a great city to visit for scientific and humanities treasures. One repository of humanist and intellectual expression is the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. This Beaux-Arts palace was constructed from the wealth of the Gilded Age which yielded its prosperity to the more hopeful reform of a Progressive era. It was an age of science and technology celebrating in World Fairs and Edison seeming to invent just what we needed.

In this atmosphere the Library of Congress building was constructed,. The building as a whole reflects a Jeffersonian spirit, child of the Enlightenment idea that intelligence and an informed public is necessary for democracy and society. One can enjoy the joyful expression of this principle and many supporting ideas on the walls of the Jefferson building of the Library.

Above the windows of the great hall’s East corridor on the 2nd floor there are, for example, some very humanistic quotations:

Herbert Spencer, Essays, "The Genesis of Science," Vol. ii, 1.

Around the corner, facing the staircase, a poet speaks:

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

On the other side of the staircase a 17th mediation on life and death:

Edward Young, Night Thoughts, "Night," viii, 215

And around the corner, facing the Great Hall is something naturalistic philosophy:

Novalis, Philosophy and Physics

The feeling of historical wisdom washes over me in the presence of these thoughts. Lucky visitors can enjoy these and more that show some of humanistic cultural wisdom inherited from Greco-Roman times up to the great writers, thinkers and artists of the 19th century. They have much to say that is worth reflecting about in our times.


Read Thought and action: magazine from India

see the website magazine from Pune,India edited by Mr Prabhakar Nanawaty, rationalist: Thought and action.
Read articles and not to miss Mr Narendra Naik`s devastating exposure of Nadi Sastram ( palm study) which is prevalent in South India.
Innaiah Narisetti

Friday, December 30, 2011

Perplexed by the Language of the Christian Warriors

Now that the whole season of the “War on Christmas” is hopefully over for another year, I do want to raise one question that has been puzzling me. Please bear with me.

Stores are criticized for having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Thus presumably the warriors (those who have declared that a war exists) want employees to say “Merry Christmas” to not only Christians, but also to Jews, Hindus and atheists, among others. What are the words “Merry Christmas” supposed to mean in that context?

The phrase “Merry Christmas” can’t have a religious meaning if uttered as a matter of course to non-Christians because surely even the warriors aren’t saying that stores should proselytize to their non-Christian customers for a month every year. The phrase, if directed to every customer, must be expanded beyond its original religious meaning to mean something like “Happy Holidays” – it’s just that the warriors want Christian customers to be directed to have happy holidays in words that are familiar to them and if that means that non-Christians are directed to have happy holidays in words which originally had a specifically Christian meaning, then that is okay.

If I am correct, then the phrase “Merry Christmas” in the warriors’ minds must have at least two meanings. One specifically religious, to be used while keeping Christ in Christmas and uttered by Christians to each other as they leave church on December 24, and another non-religious, general meaning when used out in the world where people may be followers of different religions or no religion.

If a phrase that is so special that it contains the Christian’s savior’s name can be used in multiple ways, why can’t the word marriage similarly be used in multiple ways with one meaning describing a religiously blessed union and another describing a legal union available to all?

Away with Anti-Islamic activity!

By Hos

What do you do if you are a devout Muslim nation and your main source of revenue is tourism?
You start with public floggings and banning other faiths, while trying to keep the visitors away from the mess.
But ultimately...
You shoot yourself in the foot.

Opus Dei

by Edd Doerr

Opus Dei is a secretive ultraconservative Catholic organization founded in Spain in 1928 by a priest, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. It is active in the US and elsewhere. It was given a bit of a slam in Dan Brown's book and movie The Da Vinci Code. Numerous books have exposed its cultlike operation.

Abundant info on the group is available from the Opus Dei Awareness Network (ODAN), Box 4333, Pittsfield, MA 01202. See their web site ---
If you have not already come across this great eye opener, I advice that it should be read. Wafa Sultan is eye opener. All lovers of secularism should see this.

A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam 

Wafa Sultan

Posted by Innaiah N


by Edd Doerr

Peter Schjeldahl's long review of Anthony Bailey's new book "Velasquez and the Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece" in the Jan 2, 2012, New Yorker is superb. And it contains a half-page reproduction of the painting ("La rendicion de Breda" in Spanish) by the early 17th century master of an incident in Spain's long and stupid war in the Netherlands. (I might note that the painting contains an image that some today would regard as a portrayal of either George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich.) The painting reminds me of something that happened thirty years or so ago when I was in Spain for a conference. I had a five hour layover at Madrid's Barajas Airport, so I took the short cab ride to downtown Madrid to the Corte Ingles department store, where I bought two full-size replica antique swords (at $15 each they were a steal).

On returning to the airport (my bags had already been checked through to New York) I walked up to an airport cop, held out the two swords, and asked "Donde se rinden las armas?" (Literally, "Where does one surrender one's weapons?") The cop was not amused. Either he didn't get the joke or he was not familiar with his country's most well known painter.

When I got to New York the swords had gone missing, but two days later they turned up and were sent to my office in Washington.

The moral: Don't expect airport cops to know much about art history -- or have a sense of humor.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Disgust & Contamination Explanations for Prejudices

By Gary Berg-Cross

American culture has a bit of a prejudice against secular humanists and atheists (see for example
Margaret Downey’s Discrimination Against Atheists -The Facts). As widely noted the atheist/non-theist/freethinker group is highly unpopular, although it may be scant comfort to know we are more popular than the tea party.

Why this seemingly deep down prejudice, feeling of disgust and “yuck” response towards non-believers? A partial explanation seems to involve an interplay of how primitive emotions are evoked in a socially intelligent beings and how some stereotypical views frame these. Social Psychology has studied such things as part of inter-group prejudice and offers some explanations to help understand the basis of out-group perception.

A naive psychology thinks of prejudice and discrimination as a simple summative response of positive and negative affects. So if non-believers are seen as say “untrustworthy” with great affect then it may cancel out any good affects for being “intelligent”. But it turns out that a simple additive-subtractive model doesn’t capture what is observed in such things as prejudice and aversion. One obvious problem is that not all affects are the same and can’t be summed along one dimension. Anger, fear sadness and disgust are all negative affects, but they tend to produce different behaviors which seem to have a long evolutionary history. For example anger tends to prompt aggression, while fear prompts avoidance/escape. Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, notes that humans and animals express emotions in similar ways which suggests that a core of affective reactions were conserved during evolution and have a common form. Disgust, for example, produces a characteristic facial expression that includes a grimace, the lower jaw dropping, the tongue sticks out, and a wrinkled nose (part of which is seem in the picture above). A consistent emotional response is evidence that it is functional for species survival. We can easily imagine how anger and fear would serve survival. An emotion like disgust is a bit harder to understand, but probably has to do with avoiding contagious illness or consistent sickness problems with food sources. Young humans are cautious about new foods, which probably has survival value.

But it’s not just young children that show a yuck factor/response to unfamiliar food. Research suggests that while there is a core of universally repugnant items (bodily emissions like feces, vomit & spit seem like universal avoidances) but the yuck response is often culturally based too. We see that often in food biases some of which involve religious taboos, such as kosher food commands. But some are not forbidden, but discouraged. You wouldn’t expose your kids to eating insects would you? Well many cultures do. In 2007 a California referendum banned restaurants from selling dog or horse meat because the majority of voters viewed their consumption by people as repugnant. But throughout Africa & Asia, both these meats are about as popular as hot dogs and hamburgers.

The point is that disgust/repugnance is the emotional expression of something deep down and when it is evoked it seems an intuitive wisdom that people don’t need to explain - “I just don’t like it.”When cultures pick these up they can make some behaviors seem as detestable by evoking negative emotion works - "yuck".

So humans come with these deep seated animal feelings but they now lie under and serve newly social cognitive abilities used by our species to communicate and interact within a larger culture. The older emotions now have a greater sphere to play in and more than a summative pattern. When different groups argue (e.g. non-theists and theist) it matters what emotion word-concepts are used, what mix of emotions are evoked, how they are conceptualized and how the groups respond to these.

The new reality is that for a highly cognitive animal affect doesn’t remain an isolated quantity, but usually is harnesses to serve a cognitive construct that mediates understanding. Thus an affect like disgust can be dynamically framed and made to serve interpretations. Consider the idea that atheists may be “smart” but also “unethical”. People can isolate the smart aspect and categorize it as high status which may be construed as “uppity” or “too good” and thus dangerous for the rest of us. Thus positive characteristics may be interpreted in a way that categorizes them as something else, something dangerously manipulative – Machiavellian perhaps. Machiavelli, Marx these are people that "yuck" responses are attached to reflexively. This construct could be assembled to evoke a disgusting image such as intelligence being unmercifully used to batter innocent beliefs. This idea of disgustingly unethical, untrustworthy but intelligent nonbelievers may produce considerable negative feelings which, as Paul Meade suggests, trigger a defense mechanism to an assumed threat:

When a theist, who considers himself a well informed person, see's people he considers as intelligent or more intelligent than himself, who do not agree with his religious views, he may feel that his views are possibly not 100% correct. This may trigger a defense mechanism, and a necessity to pigeonhole those persons into a definition of character that is acceptable to his peer group. So atheists become immoral, untrustworthy, etc. This predefined identity is easier to accept then having to discover the truth personally.

This formulation touches on what social psychologies call the "social contamination" hypothesis of group prejudice. This is the idea that a hated group may be seen, not primarily as a direct threat to physical survival or to resources, but as a bearer of pollution or disease. Framed this way non-theists are a danger to the integrity, rightness and purity of an individual or group of theists. Likewise Marx is a danger to all right thinking capitalists. If we are successfully exposed to these "dangerous ideas" we become contaminated and therefore contagious. Something like this view may help explain the feelings of danger and the need for protection from their thoughts that freethinkers evoke. The contaminated label makes the aggressive brand of atheists and freethinkers unclean, dangerous and socially unacceptable.But all types of freethinkers get a bit of this branding.

But of course this type of construct is not unique to religious believers. The angst and disgust many atheists have with religious culture is just as likely to be based on a fear of being contaminated by dangerous religious ideas. In this way there is a symmetry of views with each having its reasons not to think well of the other. So are theists and non-theists equally guilty of prejudice towards the other? Not exactly.

One of the things that breaks this simple symmetry is that freethinkers tend to use a validated method of reason and empiricism for their concerns. Indeed on the average they seem to know more about some aspects of religion and its history that theists. This is partly due to intellectual curiosity, valuing knowledge and reasoning. Another is that religions are the majority culture and most people get to swim, often unconsciously, in its constructs enshrined in language, the arts and institutions. This cultural combination, combined with a style that does not question social conventions, makes it seem natural for theists to have a feeling of contamination-driven disgust accompanies feelings of fear and perhaps anger or sadness when something comes along to challenge their religious taste for ideas. The response then is to seek separation from these ideas and the people who espouse them. The contaminating people then are seen as a of an out-group from the larger society who evokes a mix of emotions like anger followed by aggression or sadness followed by withdrawal.

All emotions we’ve probably experienced with religious friends or perhaps in debates on blogs. Understanding the phenomena helps a bit, but it still leaves open the question of how best to battle a prejudice that is felt deep down and not in need of analysis and justification by experience. As with all group conflicts actual interaction in favorable settings can help dispel the misconceptions between groups. Participating in inter-faith conversations is one direction and this may be good in that many do not know what non-theists are like and the basis of our values and beliefs. But of course to actually challenge other people's beliefs in these conversations may be perceived as out of bounds. Some inter-faith discussions seem more like pro-forma affairs than honest inquiries.

And alas changing people's prejudices is a long process.
Understanding is slow to take effect
may be localized to an individual or small group.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Secularism-Indian style!!

India is following its own peculiar secularism. Often the political parties, especially the religious oriented, dub Secularism as “Western”.  It all started with the perverted interpretation of Secularism by Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan ( the president of India and interpreter of Hinduism).  Dr Radhakrishnan defined secularism as equal respect to all religions and never should be considered as irreligious. Political parties in power follow this definition and take advantage of the situation to their advantage.  Mahatma Gandhi realized in the last days of his life the need for separation of religion from politics, especially the state. Gandhiji always practiced religion in politics through prayers. He followed the principle of equal respect to all religions. At the fag end of his life Gandhi wanted non-interference of State in the religious matters. He also emphasized the separation of religion so that it can be practiced only at personal level. But that was too late. He did not live long enough to propagate the separation of religion from politics.  Jawaharlal Nehru as first prime minister of India always stood for secularism. But he could not take it to the logical end due to pressures from political and religious lobbies. He even failed to bring uniform civil code in the country.
Indian Constitution: 
The founding fathers of Indian Constitution makers clearly stated, “that nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the state from making any law regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.” (Article 25 (2) (a) constitution.

Through 42nd amendment to the Constitution in 1976, the preamble clearly stated: "We the people of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Secular Democratic Republic."  Yet the political parties who oppose the secular principle and who support the practice of Secularism dare not interpret in proper perspective. 
Congress Party: Usually the Congress party is considered to be secular-by and large.  Barring Jawaharlal Nehru, all the congress prime ministers, ministers, and others at various levels followed religious practices “officially”.
The invite Hindu priests on the occasion of oath taking ceremonies, inaugurations, opening of new projects, laying foundations, etc. To avoid criticism they involve Christian priests and Muslim Mullahs too.  They visit temples and receive honors “officially”. They exhibit their faith publicly at the cost of government funds, which means peoples money. The government officially declares holidays to all religious festivals. Temples, Masjid and churches are allowed in the premises of government offices. During office hours the prayers are allowed.  Persons bring their own individual Guru’s pictures, images into the offices. Government officially patronage the pilgrimages, provide all facilities and extend financial concessions. Government lands are allotted to religious purposes.
Each religion took advantage of the weakness of political parties and gained much to benefit in several ways. Religious establishments became powerful institutions with huge amounts accumulated. All religions get exemptions from taxes. There is no accountability either for the illegal money or business affairs conducted in the name spiritual activity.  Cult Babas, holy women gather around politicians and built empires of ashrams. Even criminal activity of holy persons goes undetected except in rare cases.
Dhirendra Brahmachari a cult holy persons was very powerful during Mrs. Indira Gandhi`s tenure of Prime Minister ship. Chanda Swami, a cult person emerged as spiritual ambassador during the time of Mr. P .V.Narasimharao`s premiership. In each state several holy cult persons amassed wealth and established powerful empires. They developed connections with politicians who always come to their support in need.  Presidents of India prostrated before the holy persons and visited several of them “officially”. Similarly prime ministers, ministers, judges, officials made their religious visits official. All these practices made secularism more difficult in public life. The confusion about secularism percolated to all levels. The compulsion of elections, made the political parties impotent before cults, religious holy persons.
Communist parties too!  The left parties are supposed to be secular and non-religious, if not irreligious. But this is not so. Communists gained power in states several times. They did not practice secularism. Take the example of Kerala. Communists ruled the south Indian state quite for some time.  There is Ayyappa cult in Kerala. People annually visit the Ayyappa temple located on the top of a hill Sabarmalai. Neighboring state devoted visit in thousands. On the last day of the visit during January month, the government officially involves electricity department, forest department, and temple administration in the function. On the other hill near Sabarimalai, the government arranges to light camphor so
that devotees see the light. It is described as Divine Light. Of course it is make belief. This practice is going every year. Communists also practice this anti secular make belief.
When there were protests, the chief minister of communist party
defended the practice saying that the state gains much through revenue from pilgrims and hence there should be no protest.
Communist party (Marxist) is in power in West Bengal state. Every
year Durga cult religious sacrifices were performed for 9 days with all pomp. The State government makes all arrangements and encourages the religious practice. The communist government described this practice as “cultural” and continues to gain popularity among people.

This is another compromising attitude to perpetuate political power.
Communists never tried to educate people about wrong notions of
Durga cult, lest they should lose cheap popularity.  Mr. Surjit Singh, communist party leader from Punjab state wear Sikh turban, grows beard and moustache. He looks like typical Sikh religious person. Sikh religion insists that hair should not be cut; turban
is must and so on and so forth. The communist leader never resisted
this Sikh religious practice nor tried to educate the Sikhs that dress is personal. On the other hand they defend these cult practices in dress, food as “cultural” and follow them!
Scientist President Kalam`s Secularism Mr. Kalam is the scientist from South India. When he was elected as president of India, secularists felt happy and expected genuine secular practice from the highest dignitary. But Mr. Kalam started visiting cult holy persons like Satya Sai Baba, Matha Amrithananda Mayi and Brahma Kumaris. This practice of encouraging holy persons
started with the first President of India Mr. Rajendra Prasad. The first president not only visited the religious persons but also even went to the extent of washing their feet in public. The Presidents Sankar Dayal Sarma, Venkataraman officially exhibited their faith.
The Bharatiya Janata Party was in power for some time in the center and in some states. They stood for religion and hence there is no expectation from them to practice secularism. The disappointment came from Congress party and left parties.
Muslims and Christians, Sikhs etc took advantage of misinterpretation of secularism and gained much for their religious practices. Muslims started ignoring the rulings of Supreme Court regarding noise pollution at the time of prayers. Muslims use mikes and loud speakers causing nuisance to residents, students during examination time. Christians and Hindus also imitate them and started using mikes and loud speakers as though god is deaf! Religious churches, masjids, Hindu mandirs are built obstructing the roads and traffic. In the name of religion it is shown as though anything and everything is possible.

Thousands of holy persons emerge to earn illegal money, property since exemptions are there and accountability is absent. Most religious places involve in business that has become very lucrative and powerful centers.  Tirumala-Tirupati has become largest pilgrimage center with enormous amounts of income. The money source at this temple is not questioned.  Hence much illegal amount reaches the holy place and government accepts this practice in the name of religion. All such illegal and anti-secular activity is rampant throughout the country, shared by all the political parties.
Is there future for Secularism in India?  India has to begin the practice of Secularism, somewhere. To start with there should be clear understanding that Secularism means separation of State and religion in all matters. Religion is faith based and hence confine to individual belief related to god and supernatural spirituality.  In the matters of state the law should be equal to all irrespective of
religion. There should be no exemptions to the principle that all are
equal before law. Some people including religious persons should not be kept above law under any circumstance.  In India some judges visit holy persons “publicly”. This creates problems. It would be difficult for victims of holy persons to fight against injustice when judges openly prostrate before the holy persons.
Justice cannot be expected from such persons.
Similarly law officers, Police should not exhibit their personal faith
openly. Holy persons who indulge criminal activity take shelter with the support of police devotees. These things are happening continuously in India. Religious crimes also are crimes. There should be no exemptions
to spiritual and religious persons so far as crimes, misappropriation of funds, sexual abuses are concerned.  Religious practices of untouchbility, castes, child marriages, burning of wife when husband dies, oppression of minorities, discrimination against women, child labor should not be tolerated and there should be
no exemption to those who practice them.  In the field of education, scientific method should be inculcated from primary level. Religious instruction should not be included in texts curriculum since that belongs to faith and belief.  Holy loafers should not get any exemption from law, answerability and accountability.
Rights of minorities so far as religion is concerned should be confined to personal level. This includes prayer, holidays, dress, food habits and civil law. They must not be brought to the streets.
In India Religion encroached into politics and public life. Thus religious belief system vitiated the moral life of the people.
Religious morality should not be confused with values and ethics.
Religious values, morality are strictly confined to divine laws and
supernatural realm. There is no verification, nor proof for religious
belief systems and religious values including moral faith. They should not be confused with human rights, human values and human morals.  Secular values are moral, and human. Secular values are not in any way connected with supernatural and para normal systems.  Human rights and religions often don’t go together. When human rights and values emphasize that all are equal, men and women have the same rights, religions don’t accept. That is the crux of the point. In such cases religions wish to follow their holy texts like Gita, Koran, Bible which preach inequality between men and women. Secularism stands for sincere equality and genuine practice human rights and values.

India needs secular practices in all walks of life. That will put India in futuristic stance.  All state and Central governments can observe secular holidays leaving the religious holidays to those who observe them.That will make a good beginning for secular practice in India
The fighters for Dalits, depressed groups, scheduled castes think that temple entry on euqal footing with Hindus will solve the problem.  Some reformers mistakenly think that if Dalits can be taught to become temple priests and marriage performance priests, that will uplift them. They are mistaken. In fact they are leading blindly into the Hindu caste system, gradation method and accepting Karma theory!
Exactly that is the reason why B R Ambedkar wanted the Dalits to
leave Hinduism so that they can bid good bye to untouchbility, caste degradation. Temples , priesthood and religion will not uplift the Dalits and suppressed classes. On the other hand those deceitful practices lure the weak minds to accept suppression.  Secular practices with human dignity, human values and human
morality will alone bring them into great future.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Strangely Believe It

by Edd Doerr

Our state commemorative 25-cent coins contain a couple of oddities. Alabama, one of our most conservative states religiously and politically, honors Helen Keller on its quarter. Yet she was a humanist/freethinker and liberal. And Kentucky's two-bit piece has a portrait of former president George W. Bush smack in the center, though there are some who think that the portrayal, lacking a name, is that of Jerry Falwell from the neighboring state of Virginia. Check it out and see what you think.

Happy Times at the 2011 Maryland-DC HumanLight Celebration

By Gary Berg-Cross

This Dec. 23rd the Kalmansons of Laurel MD hosted the annual Maryland-DC Humanlight Celebration. It was wonderful chance to spend time with friends seeking to “illuminate Humanism's positive secular vision” and “affirm the positive values of humanism during the time period of the 'traditional' winter holidays.”

This year was again a special time to cultivate an attitude of clarity, tolerance and openness. It was also a family affair with an Ingresoll of bright, happy children, the next generation of secular humanists, in playful attendance. Phil Kalmanson’s 3 aquariums, including the corals in salt water, were a hit with everyone and you had only ask and he would was ready with a friendly tutorial on the fish filled ecology. Jenny provided explanations on the latest puzzles secured from Marbles: The Brain Store in the Columbia mall.

WASH members were in attendance and the adult conversation was as diverse as humanism allows with plenty of time to meet new folks, each of whom is invited to post their memories of the event. A C Grayling wasn't there, but one felt his ideas on Humanism in play:

Humanism in the modern sense of the term is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world. This means that it does not, in its thinking about the good and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another, premise putative data from astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind's remote and more ignorant past.

A C Grayling, Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness

Maggie Ardiente from AHA was there sprinkling interesting comments on every topic from plans from Darwin Day 2012 (including legislation) to national politics, to the varieties of atheism, to a discussion of atheist posters – the last-supper-flying-spaghetti-monster poster sits among the Kalmanson’s art collection. Comments on the cuisine flowed as easily as the potables. This year the pot luck items were anchored by the venison Phil’s stew and Jenny’s the vegetarian chili. Many were so good, I asked for the recipe including of course the theme appropriate Sun Cookies, which included a dash of cardamon for spice.

I’m already looking forward to next year. Thanks to all for driving away gloom and darkness with an enlightening time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

St Anthony and the Man of Importance

a short story by Edd Doerr

Don Nepomuceno climbed from the back seat of his Mercedes, smoothed his silk suit, adjusted his white Panama hat, and instructed his driver to wait. The street was deserted, but for a mangy mutt examining orange peels in the middle of the dusty thoroughfare. It was not yet noon, but the heat was already intense. All the windows to the street were closed, though faint sounds of children could be heard.

Don Nepomuceno looked up and down the street and then strode into the dark cavernous church, dimly lit by candles at the various side altars, down the center aisle to the communion rail, made a sharp left turn, stopped, and knelt before the statue of St Anthony.

"Dear San Antonio," he mumbled, elbows on the rail, looking up at the statue, "I know that I am not very regular in my mass attendance, but I assure you that that is because I am a man of many responsibilities, which keep me far more occupied than most of the riff-raff in this town.
But you know all about me, how this town would go to rack and ruin without the leadership which I exercise through the mayor and the chief of police.

"Today I wish to appeal to you for help, you who are the patron saint of those who are looking for things, deserving people, of course. It's like this, you see. Coffee and banana export prices are down and my costs are going up. My wife is in Miami spending my money. My son at the university is pestering me to buy him a new car to replace the BMW he smashed up. My daughter's clothes are costing me more than I pay the servants. My Mercedes is beginning to look almost as shabby as the one that viejo pendejo Galindez drives. And as if that were not enough, my girlfriend's period is late again.

"So you can surely see, San Antonio, that I need your help. It should be a simple matter for you to help me find oil on one of my haciendas, or maybe emeralds on my property in the mountains, or maybe the nomination for the Chamber of Deputies from this district. Anything at all. And if you help me this time, I promise that I will donate five percent of all new income to the church, even though Padre Fernando is a lazy bastard hijodeputa who has tried to sleep with my girlfriend. . . . "

At that moment, Don Nepomuceno became aware that someone else had entered the church. He looked around. It seems that a beggar, a vile-smelling peasant, had crept into the church and was kneeling in the shadows, hands clasped together, eyes downcast. He was a skinny devil, dressed in filthy rags, shoeless, unshaven, hair unkempt.

Don Nepomuceno heard the creature whisper. "San Antonio, I know that you must be busy with many very important matters, with people vastly more important than I. I am an undeserving wretch, unfit even to lift my eyes to look upon your statue. I hate to ask you for anything, but, you see, I have had nothing to eat for three days, nothing whatever. I have no money, not even one centavo. I have tried to find work doing anything, cleaning toilets or shovelling manure, but there simply is no work.

"I do not ask for much, perhaps only to help me find some scraps of food the dogs and pigs do not want, maybe a piece of moldy discarded bread, anything. Maybe even a few centavos so I can by some old hard bread. I know that I am completely undeserving, and I will pray to the Virgin to assist you with your work even if you do not help me. But please . . . ."

Don Nepomuceno had heard quite enough. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and threw them in the direction of the beggar. "Here," he called out, "take this and get the hell out of here. Can't you see that you are distracting the saint from dealing with more important matters?"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vague Policy, Agreements & Political Language

by Gary Berg-Cross

Politicians, lawyers and ad men make a living exploiting the vagaries of language. This is not always bad since it may be used to circumvent some prejudices that are fired up by particular language. Growing up Abe Lincoln read the philosophical works of the deist Thomas Paine which greatly influenced his thinking. Historian Craig Nelson reports that Lincoln’s friends & neighbors believed the Lincoln largely agreed with Paine’s deist and infidel position expressed in The Age of Reason. But in his political life Lincoln employed masterfully vague & deferential speech when he referred to religion, marshalling it in his efforts to save the Union. Indeed he was pragmatic in his need for the support of ministers and their congregations in the civil war effort. See for example Abraham Lincoln's Humanistic. Religious Beliefs. We live far from an age of politicians like Lincoln but vague language remains a factor for good or bad in society.

Some people’s efforts to be ambiguous is intentional, but our everyday language used for ordinary activities is often vague even though it serves non-exploitative interests. Certainly, that are particular parts of the physical world where there is a strong connection between that reality, our experience of reality and the words we use. A word like rock is precise because it describes a well–defined set of objects. So we may feel confident with a claim like, “a rock in on the table.” By contrast, words like “tall”, “kind”, “justice”, “soul”, & “life” seem open ended and vague.

Consider, for example, the word “tall.” There is no precise, known height which defines the line between a person who is tall and a person who is not. There is no fixed agreement on the meaning. I may say that my grandson Caden is tall because he is taller than other boys his age that I see. But he would not be tall in comparison to an adult. Or in olden days we might have said that a man 5’10 was tall. In today’s world 5’10 isn’t tall and on the basketball court maybe 6”3 isn’t either. Tallness is a relative term and is understood in some context or by some fiat, such as declaring that 6’4’’ is tall for a man. This provides some additional information to base a judgment and we might reach an agreement on what “tall” means. But even with context some word-concepts like “kind”, “good”, “enemy combatant” or “justice” remain vague and people don’t agree on their meaning.

I might believe and say that Barak Obama is “kind” or that people are by nature “good” or that Muslims are “enemies”, but what does this mean? The meaning of an individual belief might be pragmatically tied ultimately and necessarily to some observed experience for justification. I might say that Obama was seen performing acts of “kindness” and I have some personal notion of what this is, but it may differ from other peoples. While a pragmatic approach to the concept helps provide a context it also pushes the problem a bit further on since it implies some way of identifying a kind or good act. They can’t be easily localized to an object or act or some easy combination of them. Thus there remain entire sections of Philosophy devoted to understanding the concept of values like goodness.

I was thinking of the vagaries of language and agreements on meaning recently as I read about the debate over the 2012 National Defense Authorization Bill which taken as a whole includes powers for indefinite detention of alleged terrorists (aka ‘terrorist sympathizers’) anywhere in the world (including the US). The bill gives the US military the duty to arrest, imprison and interrogate suspects without benefit of counsel. In the bill one finds Orwellian doublespeak phrasing including: ‘substantially supports’ and ‘associated forces.’ The later seems to allow rendition of suspects to other countries for interrogation.

One worries about vague language getting into legislation and being interpreted politically according to intentions not stated in the Bill. There was a similar problem with the recent
climate change agreement and the convoluted language of the agreement. Here one may subscribe better intentions to the effort, but an equally troubling result which relies on vague language. Clearly climate change is a complex topic, even if measurements of average temperatures are not. As with many advanced scientific areas our understanding is based on a mixture of historical data, current measurement and interpretation via models. Still taken as a whole the scientific case is strong and growing stronger rapidly so the question is what can be done to mitigate the likely effects?

This was what the Climate Change meeting was about and brings me to the so called “agreement” reached after 2 weeks of grueling negotiations held at the 94-party climate conference in Durban South Africa. On the verge of collapse in the final days, the parties reached not exactly an immediately binding protocol. So they formulated a vaguer concept expressed in clause in the documents that called on countries, within three years, to complete negotiations on ‘a protocol, another legal instrument, or a legal outcome’ that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol. But the EU objected to the wording of this phrase ‘legal outcome,’ which it said would allow countries to wriggle out of commitments. The final compromise, reached at 3:30 a.m., changed the final option to ‘an agreed outcome with legal force.’ Better, but what does this mean? It might seem clear to a layman, but it is a technical term and will take on different meanings to different people.

The agreement gives about five years for ratification. So we face more negotiations to reach a later new global climate agreement by 2015 with this agreement to come into effect by 2020. It's better than "the worst" possible outcome, but as some said it's still a cowardly, and builds in an unacceptable delay on global climate action. To some of us delay seems like and a recipe for climate disasters. The so-called Durban platform is not exactly the plain language of Science, or the inspired phrasing of a Lincoln. It’s more of a dose of artful diplomatic wording that glosses over political divisions and makes some feel that success progress has been achieved. What seems less unambiguous is that it is unambitious and kicks a can down the road and heads mitigation pledges and efforts in a sideways direction. Climate science gives us an increasingly detailed projection of a warming and changing earth ecology that will take the world of our children into a red zone of catastrophe. It’s language of urgency grows clearer while the political and diplomatic effort lack courage to commit to reasonable mitigation actions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Secular Studies

by Edd Doerr

This letter was published in the Washington Post on 12/21/11 (which happens, by the way, to be Paul Kurtz's birthday as well as mine).

"On a secularist course"

"Jacques Berlinerblau and Georgetown University are to be commended for offering a course on secularism ['Delving into the study of secularism,' On Faith, Dec 17]. Americans across the religious and nonreligious spectrum come together to support the Jeffersonian/Madisonian principle of separation of church and state, which protects the religious freedom of all.

"Such courses are vital, especially now that opponents of secularism (i.e., respectful government neutrality on religious matters) have virtually taken over one of our two political parties with the aim of wrecking one of our country's most important contributions to political thinking.

"Edd Doerr, Silver Spring

"The writer is president of Americans for Religious Liberty"

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Nature of Consciousness

by Don Wharton

I treasure Sam Harris is a great many ways. However, he recently posted a two part essay on consciousness which demonstrate complete confusion about the subject (link1, link2). I think that we should start with the obvious point that some objects are complex biological machines which are conscious. Humans are the preeminent examples and they can more richly demonstrate their consciousness by verbal reports on the content and nature of what they are conscious of. There are an increasingly well understood array of cognitive function which support that activity.

What does Sam Harris do in response to the fact of human consciousness? He basically assumes that something magical happens that cannot be explained. He has many statements such as the following:

“How is it that unconscious events can give rise to consciousness? Not only do we have no idea, but it seems impossible to imagine what sort of idea could fit in the space provided. Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life.”

It not difficult in the slightest for me to imagine that science will explain this phenomenon. Our universe is profoundly and completely natural with no supernatural elements. Our instrumentation is increasingly sophisticated in deriving data about how the brain works and where various types of emotion and cognition occur. The entirety of our subjective experience is created by these various brain functions combined with the sensory and support mechanisms for the brain supplied by the rest of our bodies. I an not only certain that this is true; I am certain that when we eventually build systems that adequately emulate the entire array of these functions we will have a system that is aware and will be able to demonstrate that subjective awareness as well as any person. If it is built on a computer system (as is most likely) we might have a feeling of incredulity in response to our relationship to the invented system. However, it should be an undeniable fact when it is achieved.

The fact is that nothing is ever proved by incredulity. Sam Harris, simply repeats one layer of incredulity after another with the expectation that we will accept his assertion that there is something that cannot be explained. For example: “Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness.” 

What should we do in the face of such claims. I think it is appropriate to approach these claims with the scorn we express for all unsupported religious claims. That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. That was a standard line used by Christopher Hitchens and it fully applies here. There simply is no reason to assume that subjective experience is anything other than the well integrated collection of more primitive functions in the system that experiences.

There is the obvious fact that no description of any object, such as a brick, would ever be equal to the brick itself. Reality is different from any of our maps of that reality. This is not rocket science. However somehow very bright people can trip over this very obvious and simple distinction when it comes to consciousness.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Great Loss to Humanist world-Hitchens dies

Christopher Hitchens, the author of GOD IS NOT GREAT
died on 15 dec 2011. It is great loss to atheist, humanist,rationalist, secular world. I express my deep sorrow at his demise.
I translated his best seller: God is not great into Telugu ( Indian language) with his permission and presented a copy to him on the stage at CFI function in Washington DC. Earlier I met him during the Atheist allinace convention organised by Margaret Downey in Washington DC during 2008.He told me his tour experiences in India and wished to travel again.
Innaiah Narisetti

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

scientific analysis of present trends in Journalism

Here is the scientific analysis as to why print journalism is declining day by day and digital journalism is going on with leaps and bounds.
Mr Raju Narisetti, managing editor of Washington post did this.Please read:


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Unbeknownst Media!

by Edd Doerr

Three common English misuses have been annoying me.

Journalists and broadcasters, some of whom I like, have taken of late to using "media" as a singular noun. Hey, "media" is plural; "medium" is singular. What next? "Phenomena is"? "Men is"? "Barack Obama are"? Did George Bush start this with his utterance "Is our children learning"?

"Unbeknownst". Aargh! A half century ago ago I was teaching high school students that the word is archaic. Use "unknown". Gad zooks and Od's bodkins, what next? Thee, thou, thine and prithee?

And the ubiquitous "the". It's a DEFINITE article. Saying "the" writer Joe Blow, or "the" fashion model Jane Roe, suggests that they are the only two in their professions. And think of all the trees wasted with all the extra "the"s.

Yeah, I know that languages evolve. But DEvolve? No, thank you.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Time to Break Gridlock & Get Something Done about Climate Change

By Gary Berg-Cross

I had to turn to the inner pages in the Washington Post to find out what was happening on the final days of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durbin. It seems to have been crowded out by a mix of political hot topics such as the Euro Debt crisis, the Blagovish sentence and troop ashes put in a landfill. All news. But perhaps no more so than news of the U.N. Summit Conference effort to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto accord in a meaningful time frame (before 2020) that also would put countries under legal obligations. Americans looking to follow events in Durbin have to hunt around a bit in most corporate media takes on this topic. This is a bit paradoxical since the US puts more than its share of greenhouse gases in the atmospheric. Yet we push for the meekist emissions reduction pledge and put it off till 2020 when the best science says this is too late to avoid warming that will be costly and punishing. We will fail to limit warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.

On Thursday, US special climate change envoy Todd Stern was asked to clarify reports that he had described the 2 degree goal as "aspirational." What he said was interesting:

"that knowing ahead of time that we will overshoot the warming limit that the IPCC has identified as the point after which the globe and all of its people are thrust into out-of-control climate change did not amount to 'some kind of mandatory obligation to change what you're doing, whether you are in the United States or Europe, China or wherever you might be..."

Google News didn’t have any space for such on its front news either. On the final scheduled day of the COP Google’s priority news was:

Indian Hospital Fire Death Toll Rises to 88

Tensions Rise at EU Summit

Twitter redesigns to take on Facebook

Samsung wins in Australia against Apple, Galaxy Tab 10.1 injunction lifted

Gaza rocket fire continues: 3 more Kassams fired at Israel

This was not the same news I heard from the only US news group that seemed to be on site and covering the daily activities – Pacifica’s Democracy now. There I could hear Anjali Appadurai, a student at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, addressed the U.N. Summit Conference on behalf of youth non-governmental organizations & delegates. Her message urged climate justice and getting something done. Her short, moving & impassioned speech is reproduced below:

“I speak for more than half the world’s population. We are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not on the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises. But you’ve heard this all before.

We’re in Africa, home to communities on the front line of climate change. The world’s poorest countries need funding for adaptation now. The Horn of Africa and those nearby in KwaMashu needed it yesterday. But as 2012 dawns, our Green Climate Fund remains empty. The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes. The science tells us that we have five years maximum. You’re saying, "Give us 10."

The most stark betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours is that you call this "ambition." Where is the courage in these rooms? Now is not the time for incremental action. In the long run, these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion.

There is real ambition in this room, but it’s been dismissed as radical, deemed not politically possible. Stand with Africa. Long-term thinking is not radical. What’s radical is to completely alter the planet’s climate, to betray the future of my generation, and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What’s radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach. 2011 was the year in which the silent majority found their voice, the year when the bottom shook the top. 2011 was the year when the radical became reality.

Common, but differentiated, and historical responsibility are not up for debate. Respect the foundational principles of this convention. Respect the integral values of humanity. Respect the future of your descendants. Mandela said, "It always seems impossible, until it’s done." So, distinguished delegates and governments around the world, governments of the developed world, deep cuts now. Get it done.

Mic check!”

I love this mix of passion, insight and courage. Good for a younger generation of leaders Perhaps this generation will have the courage to face the prospects of a different Earth with more than talk and aspirations .

Friday, December 09, 2011

HumanLight Celebrations A Chance to Illuminate Humanism's Positive Secular Vision

By Gary Berg-Cross

Here in DC, late December comes with darkening and colder evenings which we compensate for with events that promote cheerfulness. As in other Western countries there’s a post harvest tradition of settling in by a fire with some time for food-centric gatherings of friends and families. Fred Edwords has a nice summary on the origins of celebrating holiday events in a Keynote address given at Bridgewater, NJ, 12/18/05.

Religious cultures have colonized these winter days in a variety of ways. The result is a “traditional holiday season” aha Christmas. It’s veined through with old and new supernatural religious spirit and beliefs and now peppered with shopping fever. For many people in modern society aren’t comfortable with late December as a Christian religious holiday. To be sure there are people of different faiths who also have their holidays and want to occupy late December with their cultural message and style of celebrating. More recently that interesting secular minority of Americans without religious faith have elbowed themselves into the December holiday window. In 2001 a new Humanist way to observe the winter season was inaugurated in New Jersey by members of the New Jersey Humanist Network. It's call HumanLight.

On Dec 23rd (between the Winter Solstice and Christmas) an increasing number of secularists celebrate HumanLight. It’s an event that the HumanLight organization promotes to “illuminate Humanism's positive secular vision” and as the AHA said in a 2009 announcement – “affirm the positive values of humanism during the time period of the “traditional” winter holidays.”

Gary Brill, who co-founded the holiday, says that HumanLight events or parties are usually family occasions. Here is DC we are lucky to have a community holiday party event due to the Kalmanson’s (Jenny and Phil) WASH members of Laurel MD. In past years dozens of guests have gathered in his home to celebrate a secular holiday. You can see details on the WASH community event page. But now there are more events in the area.

The Baltimore Coalition of Reason also has a cerebration at 7:00 pm, Friday, December 23, 2011 at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, 12 W. Franklin St. (Corner of Charles and Franklin) (Directions at )

The Baltimore Coalition of Reason also has a cerebration at 7:00 pm, Friday, December 23, 2011 at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, 12 W. Franklin St. (Corner of Charles and Franklin) (Directions at

The Alexandria HumanLight and Solstice Celebration is Tuesday, December 20, 2011, 6:00 PM at Hard Times Cafe 1404 King St, Alexandria, VA (map). This is a "low-key celebration with plans to deliver about 5 minutes of presentation to contemplate what science tells about about our place in the universe (Solstice) and to celebrate the awesome responsibility and inspiration we gain by making our universe a better place."

Last year there were 27 places around the world that had community events and if the DC-Baltimore area is any indication the # is growing. It’s just a small, fun step towards a new tradition and something to make the December a little bit fuller time for non-believers.

See for an interview with the Kalmansons.