Monday, August 29, 2011

Faith in Faith: Shifting Sands?

By Hos
I haven't read this book and I can't critically examine all of its claims. Yet some of the conclusions are rather interesting. For example, while 92% of Americans profess to believe in God, that still shows a significant decline compared to several decades ago.
And this:

“Several decades ago there was not a strong correlation between how religiously active you were and whether you voted Republican or Democrat,” Chaves says. “Now, there is. If you’re religiously active, you’re now more likely to vote Republican.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irish Church on the Verge of Financial Collapse

Translated by: Hos

In the wake of the revelations of repeat child abuse by memebers of the clergy in the past few decades, the catholic church in Ireland is facing a financial crisis. It has to make great compensations at a time of economic crisis and shrinking flocks and donations. In a nation where 87% are self-proclaimed catholics, many parishes have seen a drastic decline in their income; in cases of Cashel, Armagh and Tuam, this has been 15%.
The diocese of Dublin, according to a now officially recognized internal document, is on the verge of "financial collapse", as confirmed by the director of communications of the diocese, Annette O'Donnell. The coffers of the dioceses have been depleted after making a payout of 13,5 millons of euros (about $19.4 millions) to the victims of sexual abuse. Some of the 199 parishes of the diocese receive weekly contributions from as few as 3% of the faithful, while the average in the capital is 20%. The economic difficulties come on top of the pressure from the government for the congregations responsible for sexual, physical and pychological abuses to accept the foreclosure of some of their assets to cover the compensations to the victims and the legal costs. The minister of education, Ruairi Quinn, is planning to have a reunion of 18 religious organizations. Only 2 of these have responded affirmatively to the demands of the minister, who blames these organizations for falling way short at the time of compensating the victims.The total bill runs up to 1.360 billion euros (about $1.960 billion), which is to be shared equally between the church and the Irish state, according to the agreement reached after the release of the Ryan Report of 2009, which showed the extent of the horrors suffered systemcatically by boys and girls at the hands of the priests, monks and the laity at religious centers. As of now the bills have run up to 300 million euros (about $420 million), of which only a small portion (20.6 million euros, according to Quinn's data) and the rest as services and real estate, of which the state has been able to cash in only on a forth, due to the financial crisis.The government insists on a full payout and as such demands that some of the church property be taken over by the state, including land and buildings. The foreclosure of schools in particular is a very sensitive issue for the church, which controls 90% of primary schools, according to the data of the Ministry of Education. This is one the main levers of influence of the church, which traditionally has played a dominant role in the country, including on its policital establishment. As an exmaple, until 1985 condoms could be sold by prescription only and legalization of divorce wouldn't come until 10 years later. The very Irish state (the prosecutor's office and the police) helped the coverup of cases of abuse by the catholic clergy, as detailed in an investigation by the Ministry of Justice published several months after the release of the Ryan Report.
It was for this reason that the harshness of prime minister Edna Kenny came as a surprise, who last July attacked the Vatican for minimizing the abuse of children for years, giving precedence to the primacy and the reputation of the church. This lead to the Vatican calling its embassador to Ireland Giuseppe Leanza for consults

Atheist and Tea Party Favorability Ratings

By Gary Berg-Cross

I’ve seen this good news/bad news type of statement in a number of places now:

Across the larger American political spectrum, the Tea Party is even less popular than “Muslims” and “atheists”. You can see a chart rating favorability of groups (poor (65%), Blacks, Catholics…down to Muslims, Christian Right, Atheists (37%), Sarah Palin (32%) and on the bottom the Tea party with around 32% favorability).

First the longer story on the good part.

It’s fine with me that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. Earlier surveys like the New York Times/CBS News one found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Tea Party, only 21 percent had a favorable opinion while 46 percent thought that they didn’t know enough to judge. Not knowing how to gauge the Tea Party may partially do to the fact they some Tea Members don’t really expose themselves to deep discussion. Former candidate Christine O’Donnell walked off the Piers Morgan Tonight show not wanting to answer a question about gay marriage. She said she hadn’t come on the show to deal with “a rude talk- show host” (or I guess hard questions that critical thinking produces), but to promote her book and, I guess, the way it pro-packages talking points.

So people are getting onto the Tea Party dodge, but its support numbers have slipped only slightly to 20 percent. So there are true believers out there who like to talk as it the Tea party is a really new animal. But outside of this core its unfavorable ratings have more doubled to 40%. This may be because the Party now has elected spokesman who have taken uncompromising positions that yield visibly negative consequences, such as the US credit downgrade or anti-union laws. They are also increasingly seen as anti-gay and too eager to mix religion and politics. That’s a conclusion supported by the 2 researchers who found atheists and Muslims are more popular than the Tea Party movement. More on that in a moment.

David E. Campbell, political scientist at Notre Dame and Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard analyzed data from a survey sample of 3,000 Americans for their 2007 book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" “.”By going back to many of the same respondents, the researchers gleaned several interesting facts about the tea party (beside the fact that atheists and Muslims are more popular than the Tea Party movement). The recent update provides some empirical evidence for the real nature of the Tea Party. Polling before and after the rise of the Tea Party, Campbell and Putnam identified the two characteristics that were likely to turn someone into a Tea Partier. It’s no real surprise these are:

  • being strongly active in and identified as Republican politics and
  • identifying with the religious right which is consistent with the February Pew study that found that 69 percent of white evangelicals agree with the Tea Party.

Here are some of the other characteristics that Putnam & Campbell report:

  • Tea Party supporters are typically: white and unfriendly toward immigrants and Blacks, as well as self reportingly “deeply religious”.
  • Tea Party supporters typically want religion in government.
    • It’s not a wild assumption that they want to this religion to be of the Christian fundamentalist variety (no Muslim influence allowed).
  • They approve of religious leaders engaging in politics and political leaders engaging in religion.
    • So besides Rick Perry’s event, Tea Party supporters typically approve of things like the National Day of Pray, and formalizing the national motto to: “In God We Trust”.
  • Despite using the Constitution in their talk they have little or no sympathy for the Constitutional Principle of Separation of Church & State.
    • The survey suggests that, Tea Party supporters don’t believe that that this is really stated in the Constitution as a Principle.
    • Instead that is just an idea invented by liberal, secular, atheistic agents to keep religion ( and “True Americans” such as graduates of Bob Jones University) out of government
    • Putnam and Campbell also report that Tea Party rank and file is much more religious than the Tea Party's leaders of say their overriding concern is a smaller government. "But not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government."
  • Tea Party supporters idea of a good presidential candidate in 2012 is: a white, fiscally conservative, Christian fundamentalist who prays earnestly and in public (could be from Texas).

As I said, the good news is that the survey shows that while Americans in general have become somewhat more fiscally conservative over the past 5 years, they are typically opposed to mixing religion in politics the way the Tea Party prefers. Even this America growing more conservative believes that mixing religion with politics is too extreme.

The same survey put the Tea Party below 23 other entries including Barrack Obama, Sarah Palin, Republicans, Democrats and Atheists. That last part if the disappointing part. Atheists were rated higher that Sarah Palln and the Tea Party but were right there on the bottom with less than a 40% favorability rating. At least the category of “non-religious” scored higher at 51%, just below Democrats and above Obama.

A 75 year old atheist wrote in on the American Grace Blog asking about the rating and wondering if a different term like non-believe would have faired better since atheist may be identified with “people who are confrontational/militant and want to get a rise out of people or choose deliberately to alienate religious people.

It was interesting to hear Robert D. Putnam’s reply:

“ It’s useful to distinguish three different sorts of people who are, like you, not into religion. First, some people use the term “atheist” to describe themselves and their beliefs. That was what Paul Solman asked me about in the excerpt that appeared in the video, and as I told him, only about 0.1% of Americans describe themselves that way. (I’m drawing on a large nationwide random survey that accurately represents the whole adult population. Ours were entirely confidential, private, and non-judgmental interviews. Many other researchers have found the same thing.)

Second, exactly as you say (and as I explained in a portion of the longer interview that was not broadcast), some people say they don’t believe in God, whether or not they call themselves “atheists.” That’s a larger group, but still not very large. We asked people “Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure you believe in God or are you sure you do not believe in God?” (We asked parallel questions about heaven, hell, life after death, and horoscopes.) Of all American adults. 3.6 % say they are sure they do NOT believe in God, another 2.2% say they are “not at all sure” that they believe in God, and 4.6% say they are “not quite sure” they believe in God. So somewhere between 4% and 6% of Americans could reasonably be considered atheists, and another 5% might be called agnostics (though very few of them would use that term). You may be surprised to find that a substantial minority of those atheists and agnostics (in this second sense) are found in the pews on Sunday-that is, they attend religious services even though they have doubts about God. (St. Augustine put himself in that category.) Again, all these figures are entirely consistent with the results reported by many other researchers.

Third, a significantly larger group of Americans (17%) say that they have “no religion,” when we ask them what religion they identify with, if any. Moreover, this third, larger group is heavily concentrated among younger Americans (27% of Americans under 30 say they have no religion), so we (and other researchers) call them the “young nones.” As I explain in the book and in an op-ed that will appear in the L.A. Times this weekend, the young nones are a very interesting and important group, but only a minority of them are really “atheists,” since virtually none of the nones use that term themselves, and many of them say they DO believe in God. In short, alienation from organized religion is not at all uncommon, especially among younger Americans, but atheism itself actually is uncommon.”

Putnam says there is more in the book, but it certainly is a chilling idea to be lumped in the bottom portion of the scale.

The Enemy of My Enemy

by Luis Granados

Last week the Vatican published an extraordinary letter, of the man-bites-dog genre. The letter was from Cardinal Tauran, head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and addressed simply to his “Dear Muslim friends.” Putting aside 1300 years of bitter rivalry, Cardinal Tauran called on his Muslim friends to unite with the Church to combat a common foe: you, me, and everyone else who objects to God expert domination of society. Cardinal Tauran warned Muslims to face up to “ a reality which Christians and Muslims consider to be of prime importance ... the challenges of materialism and secularisation.” Then he got down to brass tacks:

[T]he transmission of such human and moral values to the younger generations constitutes a common concern. It is our duty to help them discover that there is both good and evil, that conscience is a sanctuary to be respected, and that cultivating the spiritual dimension makes us more responsible, more supportive, more available for the common good.

Christians and Muslims are too often witnesses to the violation of the sacred, of the mistrust of which those who call themselves believers are the target. We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

There are more code words here than you can shake a stick at.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stressed Buffet Offered by the Hurricane, News Quake

By Gary Berg-Cross

It’s not your parent’s news cycle. Between the jolt of Earthquakes to our attention, a slow moving hurricane that just might wash out our beach resorts or dismantle a major city we are in one of those super-busy News cycles. Add to this the Libyan situation which mixes war, tyrants, democracy and oil and it’s all too much making it feels like the cognitive counterpart to overeating at some junky food buffet. But its hard to resist watching what is unfolding, which seems as hard to resist fried onions.

It’s been a summer news buffet starting with politically high stakes showdowns like the US debt ceiling drama. At times we have been on watch for imminent implosions of such as with the Greek or Italian economy. Important topics, all too often covered in a sleazy, political way. We have become hyper-vigilant after our credit rating took a hit and people pointed heated fingers without much light. The series of sudden stock market plunges was juxtaposed with the creeping famine in the Horn of Africa. Any of these would normally have held the front pages and commentator attention for days, even weeks. But this buffet cycle they are pushed off by scandal stories like the Murdoch affair or the Norwegian massacre.

It’s a head spinning news overload. Stories step on each other so fast that reflective time is lacking to digest seed information that often rings of half truth and innuendo. There are so many channels of info that the low achieving popular push out the more thoughtful channels and
commentators. The result for the consumer is a stuffed head lacking in healthy, meaningful knowledge. Are they really cutting
the small budget of the National Endowment for the Arts & the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to reduce the deficit in a meaningful way? The effect is what one Guardian Reporter called “news twilight.” That’s a condition where there is little story follow up, so one cannot even be sure what has been confirmed and what has not.
Information, especially TV just spews by and there isn’t time to reel it back. So it just passes into memory as a fragment without analysis. I was reminded of a vivid version of this as we approach the 9/11 anniversary. Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive & the Open Content Alliance, a group of organizations committed to making a permanent, publicly accessible archive of digitized texts) was discussing their effort to building a library archive that allows people to go back and analyze and understand TV and Internet materials, that we can have critical thinking about what is broadcast on television or across the Web. One project is "Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive," which catalogs 3,000 hours of domestic and international TV news footage from 20 channels from the week around September 11, 2001. Kahle was asked about the snippet showing Palestinians celebrating on the streets after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Most of us didn’t hear or see Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian responding that;

Palestinians were totally shocked by what had happened. Israel immediately started showing footage, footage that were not related to jubilation by Palestinians about the innocent victims of September 11. The footage that they showed is when Palestinians, in 1993, went down the streets, gave the soldiers the olive branch, and they were in festivity that peace is around the corner. OK? So there was a mix-up there. It was not the Palestinians rejoicing what happened on September 11th.”

Which version is the truth? Honestly I don’t know. Kahle’s archive apparently doesn’t yet go back to 1993 on this item. It’s not easy to go back, go capturing information going forward is possible. It’s just going to be one giant archive.

I’m a fan of archiving, libraries, information and easy access to it. So I will be watching the path of Hurricane Irene. But unexamined medium without library discipline and critical analysis is often a poor diet. When the earthquake shook my world I got on Twitter to find out what the collective cloud of tweeters knew. It was a start and soon I had a link to a definitive USGS site for FACTS. I later read in WAPO that minutes after the quake there was an article about it posted on Wikipedia

Wikipedians needed just eight minutes to cooly consign the “2011 Virginia earthquake” to history — the elapsed time between the temblor and the first bulletin in the online encyclopedia.”

Not everything that was posted was accurate, since some had anti-Washington message, but the editors corrected it. Great!

Twitter and Wikipedia can be informative and empowering if not enlightening. But too much of contemporary Western societies now lives on a diet of information overload. This is stressful, reducing intellectual performance and resulting in poor judgments. These are symptoms of a new concern in the Information Age which some call cognitive overload. This is a term originally used to describe the state noticed earlier among computer workers. Now we are all highly multi-tasked and as a result experience distractions & stress. We all may experience a form of cognitive overload called “technostress” from the abundance of information that we can’t easily incorporate into our normal schedule. Everywhere there is information being thrown at us. The naked, human information processing system can’t keep up and adequately digest one tragedy before another
happens. It is compounded by new means of communicating which is
a major contributing factor to people’s super-saturation with vast amounts of information instantly served via Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Like all advances these offer their challenges and are part of an enlightened road we started on centuries ago. The original Encyclopedie was a step towards information overload by a quality team of writers. You could argue it put us on the road to information overload. But unlike our current media diet is was a very structured one bound together as they said with a progressive principle, “only by the general interests of humanity and the sense of mutual-good will.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let people discuss this before believing

Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” is a wonderful primer on the subject, and offers us a “baloney-detection kit” for identifying bad arguments:
  • Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.
  • Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
  • "In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts."
  • Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
  • Don't get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
  • Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses' relative explanatory powers.
  • Every step in an argument must be logically sound, a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
  • When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam's Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.
  • Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions
arranged by Innaiah Narisetti
with inspiration from Carl Sagan whom he met in 1994 in Washington DC

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Not all Free Books are Free Thinking

By Gary Berg-Cross

The other day

I got a free copy of Darwin’s On The Origins of Species from my daughter-in-law.

She had picked it up at a State Fair along with some religious material on “What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs. As a Physical Anthropologist, studying our Australopithecus ancestors, she was outraged with what she saw as an anti-science effort to rebut Darwin. The book was one of those infamous new, antievolution versions first printed in 2009 by Minister and TV host Ray Comfort. The problem with the book is that it starts with a 54-page "special" introduction. This Intro is a crafty construction beginning with a brief, factual Bio of Darwin. But it quickly heads South into an irrelevant discussion of Darwin’s musing on atheism. This is followed by a shallow section on DNA. Comfort merely describes DNA complexity and then calls on Francis Collins, of human genome mapping fame, to find the mind of God glimpsed therein. Succeeding sections (Missing Links, Mutations, Disdain for Women etc.) are critical without showing respect for critical thinking and smear Darwin with a mix of faint praise and louder dissing arguments. For example, on DNA similarity between species to gauge species evolution he somehow confuses functional similarity (bats and birds) to genetic ones. He argues that the DNA complexity seen in humans couldn’t arrive by chance, seemingly forgetting that the selection process is at the heart of Origins. Hardly something that we would expect from a critical analysis (such as I discussed on my recent blog). And indeed Comfort shows his confusion on simple things like Atheist positions:

"An atheist is someone who believes that nothing made everything. He will deny that through gritted teeth, because it is an intellectual embarrassment. But if he says of his Toyota that he has no belief that there was a maker, then he thinks that nothing made it (it just happened), which is a scientific impossibility. So, to remain credible, he falls back on something made everything, but he just doesn’t know what that something was. So he’s not an atheist--he believes in an initial cause." from

But luckily there are many good, critical analyses and fact checking of Comforts Intro. One example, that real Scientists note, is that Comfort sneers at the fossil evidence for transitional forms such as seen in the terrestrial ancestry of whales and the dinosaur ancestry of birds. These turn out to bad examples since are good and growing fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs, sometimes with proto feet. Just recently Exceptionally well preserved dinosaur fossils uncovered in north-eastern China display the earliest known feathers. These creatures are all more than 150 million years old

Darwin biographer and science writer David Quammen characterized the Intro this way:

Comfort's confused polemic, disguised as an informational Introduction but full of mistakes, half truths, untruths, muddled logic, old creationist arguments, misleadingly excerpted quotations, and ill-framed analogies — plus a good dose of fire and brimstone at the end — will do a severe disservice to anyone who takes it for an entryway to Darwin's great book.

Back in November of 2009 LA-based creationist Ray Comfort launched an effort to distribute thousands of free copies of Darwin's On the Origin of Species to students at the "100 top U.S. universities." The effort was thwarted by my responses including a wonderfully coordinated campaign by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) that reached to colleges across the U.S. in an effort to “put the record straight”. You can see great material and NCSE alert on their site including resources, that provide a:

“ blow-by-blow analysis of the Comfort introduction, a one page flier ("Why Ray Comfort is Wrong"), the NCSE Safety Bookmark (for use with Comfort's edition of Origin), details on the best web sites and books devoted to evolutionary science, and a Public Service film about the dangers of certain book introductions.”

Thanks to such efforts the attempt to give out a planned 100,000 out on college campuses was not a total success. He probably didn't help himself in later debates where he argued that the banana was designed for humans. They did apparently give away the first print run of 30,000. But now they seem to be at it again at State and County Summer Fairs. Comfort recently reported they had placed an order for 175,000 more books. As Ray explains:

“ My name will be on the cover (for those who think that we are somehow being deceptive). In one day, 170,000 future doctors, lawyers and politicians will freely get information about Intelligent Design (and the gospel) placed directly into their hands!”

So we may need another campaign to knock down Comfort's silly attempts again. They are especially dangerous in these times that mix conservative politics and conservative religion.

And it is deeply troubling to see an ideological group hijack quality works, such as Darwin’s for their own purposes. Ray Comfort, of course, describes his mission benignly as providing "world-weary Christians the refreshing opportunity to dive deeper into God's Word". But you can see his anti-freethinking strategy in books such as "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence But You Can't Make Him Think," . Indeed this book and the free Origins seems to be part of a roll-out of a campaign. It is also preparation for the Deeper Conference, scheduled for Oct. 14-15 at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, Calif. The conference has the same tone as Rick Perry’s Texas event calling on God to get us out the mess we’ve created:

"While much of this world gets itself deeper into debt," says Comfort, "we want to see you set aside such concerns and, for two days, dive deeper into God and His Word."

It perhaps prefigures a witches brew of Religion and Politics we'll see in 2011-12.

As extra motivation Comfort notes an alarming trend – a survey showed 61 percent of U.S. professors in biology or psychology said they were atheists or agnostics. Moreover,

"Atheism has doubled in the last 20 years among 19 to 25 year olds. So young people are being brainwashed by this stuff," he said. "All we want to do is give an alternative."

"So many young people are being convinced that atheism is right, that evolution is right, there's no god, there are no moral absolutes," he said. "Who cares if you marry a dog? What's the big deal? And that's what atheism believes, too. It's very sad, and we're going to do our best to fight back."

Yes, and I imagine many atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and biology teachers will too. It is just that we’ll use different tools, such as real Science, Empiricism, Skepticism and Critical Thinking.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Critical Thinking in a Time of Political Truthiness

By Gary Berg-Cross
You can tell from just a few campaign snippets that a form of cultural mania approaches. Conservative politicians who oppose tax increases un-reflectively and inconsistently oppose keeping the payroll tax cut. Rick Perry & friends espouse some very scary thoughts in the name of religion with little discussion of the consequences. There’s talk of dismantling Social Security as FDR's safety net legacies are described as affronts to the Constitution. There’s nary a line of historical validity or facts in the frayed debates. And the assault of principled thinking and honest debate goes on. Truthiness boldly rides  forth, as reason, clear thinking and real problem solving is shoved back a few steps and the popular mind is numbed. There’s little real analyze of arguments and/or assumptions. On the rare occasion that challenge questions are asked, non-stick talking points are ejected without the structure of a reasonable argument.

 It’s yet another phenomena supporting Susan Jacoby’s theory explored in The Age of American Unreason that America has immatured into an anti-intellectual culture filled with junk thought.
The tone of discussion already takes me back to a moment in 2004 when George W. was running for re-election. I happened to walk by a college’s Humanities' office. Some professor has posted a description of a course on Critical Thinking. It was full of good sense and the search for truth, but seemed like something from an earlier age when liberal education was in vogue and before the ascendency of a vocational brand of higher education. Looking at the course description I could see an enlightened view of education that fosters some skill in reading, reflection, and interpretation. 

 These are needed and should be highly prized in any culture, but they seem to be drifting out of the reach for many people. This is part of the argument made by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their Academically Adrift (2011), which summarizes the findings of their analysis of the efforts and expectations of a large sample of American undergraduates. An example of findings is that 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college and 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.
As I walked on I imagined how a person teaching critical thinking might feel during an election campaign. There might be so much to talk about, but they might also feel like a salmon jumping barriers and swimming upstream. It’s what I felt in 2004 and I feel it again as we approach the full campaign of 2012. The distance between political posturing and a real examination of issues is disappointing. There’s an unreality to it, at least from the rational part of the mind.
One legacy of the Bush administration is a disdain for reality as we understand it from a critical standpoint. Exhibit 1 of this was reported by The New York Times correspondent Ron Suskind during Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. Suskind described a meeting with a senior Bush aide who put down journalist’s as members of a “reality-based community”. This he defined as one which is based on the belief that “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” Seems reasonable to me, but the aide argued at the time that this was old thinking and no longer practical. In this he echoed VP Cheney who preferred his theories of reality (remember not only weapons of mass destruction but also “deficits don’t matter) to any validated reality. His preference was for what seems to me a Napoleonic, action-oriented take on the new reality, which Bush’s aide explained this way:
“That’s not the way the world works anymore…when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too…all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
As I listen to some economic arguments this philosophy of artificial, reactively created “reality” seems to be riding forth again. At least this is the way the idea of cutting stimulus efforts in an attempt to reduce the deficit strikes me. This again reminds me how frustrating it must be to teach critical thinking when the culture abounds in uncritical thinking on so many levels. In a season with the media filled with talking points and sound bites (or bytes), I have that feeling again that we under-value skepticism, challenging questions and reality testing. Maybe it is the new normal. But we still have time to heed Ernest Hemingway's paraphrased advice that writers (all of us) need a built-in baloney detector.

What we should insist on is that any pols' explanations on subjects like the economy, unemployment, the role of stimulus to reduce unemployment, and the value of tax cutting be treated critically. These should be treated as theories or testable hypotheses. As a theory they make claims about what is true and real of the world. How do we know they are valid or even plausible? We test them critically to winnow the good from the bad, the real from the fake. For one thing theories must be consistent with observations. These include historical as well as contemporary observations, so what happened to the economy and employment under FDR should be part of the discussion. The rise of deficits under Reagan and George W. Bush are more recent observations. No observation can contradict a true theory. But many observations may be irrelevant to a theory that is true about some limited aspect of the world. And that is what we often get in political debates. People get away with it because social theories are complex and because critical analysis is hard. They require disciplined reasoning and command of the facts. They also require careful clarifications supported by credible & reliable judgments about sources of information and the quality of observations.It's all part of a good conversation about a topic.

(Picture above  from

But these are all hard things to do in an anti-intellectual stew of mis-information.  What we need to understand and agree on is that they are worth the effort and needed in a Democracy.

 It’s an educational imperative as Jefferson noted -the time to start teaching the process of critical thinking is as early as possible so it becomes a habit and natural.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Pain in Spain, Part 2

by Edd Doerr

(See my "The Pain in Spain", August 16)

At the close of his 4-day trip to Madrid, Pope Benny told the million-plus youth attending the World Youth Day affair to "swim against the tide" and to "resist secularism", all of which suggests that secularism is winning in Europe. In reporting on the matter on 8/22 the NY Times noted that "the number of civil weddings [in Spain] overtook religious ones in 2009." This in a country in which 70% of the population identify as Catholics but fewer than 10% attend services.

The 8/22 Washington Times (ultraconservative; Moonie-owned) reported that the over one million "pilgrims" from "nearly 200 countries" paid a "registration fee" to attend the WYD of $110 to $300, depending on "their country of origin, housing and meals". Note that "The city provided housing for pilgrims by opening public schools and youth centers that usually are closed in August."

Question: If over one million youth paid at least $110 each to register and had free boarding, who gets the at least $11 million in fees? I was in Colombia in 1968 when Pope Paul was there for a "Eucharistic Congress" at which one million "pilgrims" were expected. For many reasons very few showed up, which cost restaurants and hotels a bundle. The "pilgrims' were expected to pay the church for lodging, though Bogota's residents were expected to provide lodging free. Again, somebody expected to make a haul.

Many Spaniards -- of all persuasions -- would like to know who picks up what bills and who walks away with a haul.

All theisms are created equal

By Mathew Goldstein

I recently read the article Why I am not an Atheist by Pierre Whalon, Bishop of Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, published in the Huffington Post on August 9. He starts by asserting that "by definition" there is no evidence for god, approvingly citing German Jesuit and theologian Karl Rahner for saying "God is not a datum in the universe." He also approvingly cites Thomas Aguinas for arguing that nothing can be proven from nature or scripture to those who do not have faith already.

Karl Rahner may have been right, but not because there is no evidence by definition according to the Christian bible, where God speaks and performs witnessed physical miracles onymously. Bishop Whalon, however, defines god as subsisting "completely outside of the universe". I will simply accept Bishop Whalon's definition of god since he is entitled to argue for his god on his own terms. I will then leave it to the reader to decide whether Bishop Whalon is being inconsistent here insofar as he also claims to be Christian according to the authority of the Christian bible.

I am not impressed with Bishop Whalon's citing some recent Scientific American articles for asserting that the existence of the multiverse "cannot be proven" and that the reason why math works "cannot be understood scientifically". "Cannot" is a strong word here, and my understanding is that supporting evidence for both is not outside the realm of the possible. In particular, we already have evidence for a multiverse in the sense that existing theories of how our universe functions which are favored by cosmologists appear to imply a multiverse. A multiverse is currently a highly speculative possibility and yet it is also better evidenced than any gods. This is important because we don't require "proof" to justify our theism/atheism beliefs, what is required is overall weight of the available evidence, and the evidence we have for a multiverse is unfavorable to gods being non-fictional.

Nevertheless, putting aside that his two examples may be be flawed, Bishop Whalon is no doubt correct on his main point, that "there are limits to the 'evidence' science can produce." He also says "the questions these limits raise are clearly not the confines writ large of human inquiry." But surely it is not merely inquiry that Bishop Whalon is advocating for when he advocates for Episcopalianism in particular, or even monotheism more generally. So its not clear what Bishop Whalon's point is here.

Since Bishop Whalon put the word evidence inside scare quotes, it is worth noting that evidence is not produced by science, at least not in an active sense. Evidence is that which was observed to happen. Scientists seek out, verify, and consume the evidence, they don't produce the evidence.

Bishop Whalon has conceded most of his argument from the start: There is no evidence for god. For some inexplicable reason, Bishop Whalon appears to think that theism is justified without providing any explanation for how it is justified. He mentions faith and intuition, but faith and intuition alone cannot justify belief. No belief about how the world works is justified without evidence.

Having first conceded that there is no evidence for god, he then concedes that the evils manifest in our universe are evidences against an all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, god. When we combine concession one with this second concession its even less clear why Bishop Whalon is a Christian theist. Bishop Whalon puts in a pitch for theism when he says "... a theist can be called to account because her religion has an ethical standard that stands completely over her. An atheist can have no such check." However, this isn't an argument that theisms are true. Its an assertion that only theistic religions provide ethical standards transcending the individual. Yet the individual is not transcended by any religions. Individuals have the option to believe or not in any particular religion. Furthermore, the ethical standards that religions provide may be unethical, or poorly defined, or undefined in any given context, thus taking us back to square one, or maybe worse.

Bishop Whalon, citing Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as examples, points out that evil in the world is also a problem for atheists. Of course, evil is a problem for all people, but its not evidence against atheism. It is evidence against the set of theisms that posit a omnibenevolent deity.

Bishop Whalon then characterizes awe, intuition of a hidden order, curiosity, beauty of order, and the like as the domain of the "queen of of sciences" - theology. It is "that intuition -- that life has a meaning that transcends my momentary flicking in and out of it -- is for me confirmed by the revelation of God on the cross of Jesus...". Mesopotamians also had intuitions. The forces of Taimat and Abzu, who had emerged from a primordial chaos of water, created the 4 creator gods. The highest of the 4 gods was the sky-god An, the over-arching bowl of heaven. Next came Enlil who could either produce raging storms or act to help man. Nin-khursag was the earth goddess. The 4th god was Enki, the water god and patron of wisdom. These 4 gods did not act alone, but consulted with an assembly of 50, which is called the Annunaki. Innumerable spirits and demons shared the world with the Annunaki.

So, Bishop Whalon, why are your intuitions more accurate descriptions of how the world works than the Mesopotamians intuitions? You asserted "not all theologies are created equal", but I fail to see how we can logically adopt any particular religion when all religions are non-evidenced, counter-evidenced, intuitions. Intuitions about how the universe ultimately works are diverse, inconsistent, and, as human history amply demonstrates, inevitably false. Human intuition here is synonymous with human ignorance. You may think that relying on intuition to answer questions such as who created the universe, the ultimate purpose of people, the ultimate meaning of human lives, and the like is rational. I am convinced that the evidence demonstrates otherwise and you are mistaken. Those questions have simple, non-intuitive, negative answers. No intelligent agent intentionally created our universe, there is no ultimate purpose of people, there is no ultimate meaning to human lives.

Contrary to what Bishop Whalon argues, a story is not true because its implications "are trustworthy in the abstract" or because it is "personally relevant". Fictions can be trustworthy in the abstract and personally relevant. Bishop Whalon asserts that "what you believe ... makes up what you are ..." But we shouldn't be utilizing belief as a method of defining ourselves. Our beliefs reflect our best efforts at deciding what is true and false. Accordingly, we believe because the overall weight of the evidence directs us to what we must believe.

Bishop Whalon then confuses evidence justified belief with faith by concluding thusly: "Faith, atheist or otherwise, is never just a personal option. At least, not for long." On the contrary, faiths, no matter what their implications for the holders of those faiths and for others, are always a personal option. It is evidence alone that enables us to transcend personal options. In my judgment, the available evidence is that all gods are human created fictions, these fictions accurately reflect ignorant human intuitions, gods almost certainly do not exist, and in any case, by definition, we cannot be justified in believing in anything that resides completely outside of the universe.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Remembering Younus Shaikh

By Luis Granados

Like clockwork, on August 11 the news agencies clicked on their coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. What they’re skipping over, though, is the 10th anniversary of an event that tells us far more about what’s truly wrong with Islam than what happened on September 11.

It is true, as Islam’s defenders maintain, that nothing in the Koran or the traditions of Muhammad sanctions the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, especially those Muslim civilians who died in the World Trade Center. There are concepts of holy war as part of a sustained campaign to spread Muslim rule over specific locations, but there is nothing to recommend killing thousands of innocent people outside the context of territorial conquest just to make a political point. This isn’t to say that religion can’t be blamed for the massacre; there are varieties of thought under the Islamic umbrella, some of them more violence-prone than others, and nearly all of them elevate doing the will of God (once you decide what that is) above mere laws designed by humans. Still, it is fair to conclude that the attacks fell outside the parameters of conventional, mainstream Islam.

Conventional, mainstream Islam, though, does quite explicitly provide for a death penalty for blasphemy. Muhammad himself authorized the execution of anyone “who reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims.” Clearly this covers the offense of apostasy, i.e., deciding not to be a Muslim anymore. But Sharia experts over the centuries have concluded that the line between outright apostasy and blasphemy, normally defined as irreverent words or behavior, is too fuzzy to worry about, and thus in many jurisdictions extended Muhammad’s death penalty to blasphemy as well.

That’s certainly the view of the God experts who took over Pakistan in the late 1970s. Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code was amended to state that:

Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

Younus Shaikh was a medical doctor, teaching at a university in Islamabad. He had spent many years working in the United Kingdom, but returned home to give what he could to people who needed it most. He brought back with him UK Enlightenment ideas. After his return founded a group fittingly called “Enlightenment,” affiliated with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the international umbrella group to which the American Humanist Association belongs. As Dr. Shaikh put it, “One of my reasons for returning to Pakistan was to campaign for Human Rights and civil liberties in Pakistan: to work for the Pakistan-India peace movement, to struggle for liberalism, secularism and humanism, and to counter the forces of religious extremism and fundamentalism.”

He was particularly interested in urging a peaceful solution to the troubles between India and Pakistan, especially after the Kargil War of 1999 that had both countries brandishing their newly-minted nuclear weapons. Even aside from the threat of nuclear war, Dr. Shaikh knew that from the first day of its existence, Pakistan had devoted a staggering proportion of its government spending to the military – as much as 80% – while shortchanging critical needs like medical care.

In a meeting of the South Asia Union in October, 2000, Dr. Shaikh expressed the shocking view that the 50-year old conflict between India and Pakistan should end, that both sides should start treating the de facto Kashmiri border like the real border, and that if Pakistan kept supporting terrorists inside India then perhaps the Indians might start doing the same thing inside Pakistan. Apparently, a military intelligence officer was in the audience, who threatened to “crush the heads” of people who thought like that.

Next thing you know, Dr. Shaikh is fired from his job, then thrown in jail. Not for being a peacenik, which is not a crime in Pakistan, but for blasphemy, which is. Since nothing he had said about the conflict with India was blasphemous, it became necessary to invent something. Thus, a student was found to allege that Dr. Shaikh had mentioned in class that Muhammad was not a Muslim before his chats with God in the cave, and that he probably didn’t even shave his armpits before then, since that was not a custom of his tribe. Dr. Shaikh was confined without bail for nine months; then, exactly ten years ago last Thursday, he was tried before a panel of God experts, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to death (plus a fine of 100,000 rupees, so his family would suffer as well).

What’s puzzling is why they didn’t invent something a little juicier. If I were trying to frame someone for blasphemy, I’d have him calling Muhammad a liar, or a pervert, or a commie. Hairy armpits would be pretty far down on the list; I guess I’m just not cut out for this sort of thing.

Pending appeal, Dr. Shaikh was held in solitary confinement in a filthy, tiny death cell, without access to books, newspapers, exercise, medication, or treatment for his worsening diabetes. His first appeal, before two mullahs, resulted in a split decision, which got him nowhere. On his subsequent appeal to the High Court, he was unable to find a lawyer willing to buck the establishment, so he represented himself, with the aid of law books smuggled into his cell. He chose not to attack the stupidity or inhumanity of the blasphemy statute, as an ambitious lawyer might have, but instead relied on a simpler “I didn’t do it” strategy. In fact, the school schedule showed that he wasn’t even teaching a class at the time the crime was supposed to have been committed.

Showing some courage, the High Court agreed that there was no evidence against Dr. Shaikh, and reversed his conviction. So they all lived happily ever after. Not in Pakistan, though. Dr. Shaikh soon realized that his life wasn’t worth a plugged nickel in a land where God experts don’t like being shown up by smartasses, and have plenty of power to do something about it. So he took his family and decamped for Switzerland, a civilized country.

Dr. Shaikh’s case is far from an isolated instance. It is Exhibit A for why President Obama was so wrong to go to al-Azhar University in 2009 and proclaim that: “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Tell that to Dr. Shaikh. Terrorist bombing may not be a central principle of Islam, but blasphemy law undoubtedly is, as Obama could have confirmed with his al-Azhar hosts. So is the symbiotic relationship between God experts and the state, which America withstood for so long but is rearing its ugly head again, thanks in no small part to Barack Obama’s political ambition. America and Islam had better be in competition – and we had better win.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

School Vouchers? Hell, NO: Gallup

by Edd Doerr

Missing from the major media this past week was any mention of the results of the 43rd annual Gallup poll on public opinion on educational issues, released in mid-August. The entire poll, involving 41 separate questions, may be accessed by Googling to Phi Delta Kappa, the sponsor of this excellent poll these past 43 years. Here are the highlights ---

By 65% to 34% Americans are opposed to diversion of public funds to private schools, which, the poll question did not say, are predominantly religious and sectarian. This percentage is almost exactly the same as the average percentage by which tens of millions of Americans have defeated school voucher and all similar schemes in over two dozen statewide referenda fr0m coast to coast.

Asked to give a letter grade to public schools, only 17% gave an A or B to public schools nationally, but 51 % of the same sampling gave an A or B grade to the schools in their community and 71% gave an A or B to the public schools attended by their oldest child. What accounts for this wild discrepancy? Not hard to figure out. Gallup found that 68% had seen media stories dumping on public schools, compared to fewer than half of that for stories favoring public schools. And conservative media have engaged in systematic attacks on public education. People give a higher rating to the schools they know rather than the schools farther away that are the subject of media badmouthing.

Asked to say whether they approved or disapprove of PS teachers, 69% approve of teachers, 54% approve of school principals, 37% approve of school boards (remember that Pat Roberson's stooge Ralph Reed stressed the importance of fundamentalists and conservatives gaining control of local school boards?), and only 36% approve of the parents who send their kids to public schools. This is an answer of sorts to the Michelle Rhees and others in the "blame the teacher" crowd.

By 74% to 25% respondents said that public schools are underfunded, while 36% rate underfunding as the schools single most serious problem, the next most serious problem being school overcrowding, rated so by 6%.

With Republican governors and legislatures going all out this year to slash public school funding and to divert public funds to religious and other private schools (viz. Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona, etc), it should be clear that one of the top priorities of humanists and everyone else in the American mainstream should be to stop this massive assault on one of our country's most important democratic institutions, not to mention our "sacred", if you will, principle of separation of church and state.

(By the way, let me suggest that you check out my Americans for Religious Liberty web site -- -- thirty years of stuff on a central humanist area of concern.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Buddhist Butchery -- Part 2

The 60s and early 70s were relatively quiet times in Sri Lanka, as the Buddhist God experts consolidated their educational gains. Both principal parties competed for their affection, plying them with subsidies, new temples, and government-paid automobiles – Mercedes-Benz was a particular favorite. Clerical appetites, however, were insatiable. Younger monks helped form a guerrilla force called the JVP to help attack Tamil interests, that was only put down with the help of the Indian army.

[caption id="attachment_1297" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Flag preferred by Buddhist militants"][/caption]The most interesting thing about the JVP was its flag. The official national flag, depicted above, shows the lion of the Buddhist warrior-king Dutthagamani, along side green and orange stripes to represent the island’s Muslim and Hindu Tamil minorities. The JVP flag shows the lion without the minority stripes.

In 1978 the Buddhists won a huge political victory when the constitution was revised, to state explicitly that Buddhism held the “foremost place” of all religions in the country. More and more government money flowed their way, especially in the form of a massive program to establish Buddhist “settlers” in Tamil-majority areas – a concept not unlike that of the Jewish “settlers” in the Israeli-occupied territories on the west bank of the Jordan, who aroused pretty much the same level of hatred. After decades of fruitless peaceful lobbying for greater local autonomy in heavily Tamil areas, some hotheaded young Tamils began blowing things up, hoping to touch off a conflagration that might result in complete independence.

Step One succeeded, as thoroughly as Osama bin Laden succeeded in starting the wars that ruined America’s economy. In “Black July,” 1983, a Buddhist-inspired rampage in Colombo resulted in the murder of some 2,000 to 3,000 Tamils, including 53 young political detainees lynched in the capital’s main prison, while making another 150,000 homeless. A devastating civil war ensued, as the frustrated Tamils sought the extreme of full-blown independence rather than mere local autonomy. Over the next quarter-century, the fighting took from 80,000 to 100,000 lives – far more than have been lost in the current war in Afghanistan.

As wars go, the Sri Lankan civil war ranked high on the stupid scale. It was excruciatingly obvious that having two separate countries on one island was absurd, that having the Buddhists force their ways on the non-Buddhist minority just because Buddha was said to have claimed the island for himself 2500 years ago was equally absurd, and that an unromantic limited local autonomy scheme for the Tamils was really the only plausible outcome. But try telling that to the monks. Norway did, offering itself as a mediator to try to end the carnage; for its efforts, it found monks brawling and burning the Norwegian flag in front of its embassy. Buddhist monks have now formed their own political party, which holds the balance of power between the two major parties in the parliament, just as the ultra-Orthodox parties hold the balance of power in the Israeli Knesset.

In 2005, a new prime minister took office with the support of the Buddhist radicals, pledging to reignite a conflict that had wound down due to mutual exhaustion. He kept his word, and the result was the war crime allegations now being investigated by the UN.

[caption id="attachment_1299" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="Premadasa, before"][/caption]Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka took a bizarre turn in the middle of the war under the leadership of president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who took office in 1989, with full backing of large elements of the Buddhist clergy. First, he got into a public spat with a dissident monk named Ariyaratne, who opposed plans to build a hotel to boost the tourism industry because it would be located near a Buddhist shrine. The president might have made a rational argument that the hotel was necessary to boost a war-ravaged economy, and that since the island had Buddhist shrines everywhere you turned Ariyaratne’s logic would see the island’s business activity grind to a halt. Instead, he turned to religion, arguing that Ariyaratne was a bad Buddhist. Why? Because he allowed Catholics to participate in his anti-hotel demonstration, who had the gall to display a crucifix near a holy Buddhist shrine. “Will the Buddhist clergy ever be allowed to display the Buddhist flag and perform satyagraha in the Vatican?” a government paper snarled. There soon followed a crackdown on Ariyaratne’s followers, shutting them off from the media, denying them passports, etc.

[caption id="attachment_1300" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Premadasa, after"][/caption]Where this would have ended we’ll never know, because of another Premadasa initiative that backfired. When a former political ally named Lalith Athulathmudali turned into a political rival, Premadasa resorted to a tried-and-true tactic: he had Athulathmudali assassinated. In a Hollywood twist, he killed two birds with one stone by making it look like poor Athulathmudali had been killed by a Tamil terrorist, who then had the good sportsmanship to take his own life with cyanide. Premadasa even brought in Scotland Yard to confirm this conclusion to a skeptical nation. Not until years later did the truth come out, after an investigation resulted in a confession from the bodyguard who had actually done the deed. The Tamils, perhaps figuring that if they were going to be blamed for an assassination they may as well commit one, proceeded to blow up Premadasa in his car.

Now that the war is over, what is the biggest issue in Sri Lanka? Why, the demand for local autonomy in Tamil-majority areas, just as it was back in 1956 when the problems started. Just last week, the Associated Press dryly reported that “Talks aimed at power sharing after Sri Lanka's civil war appeared near collapse Friday, with an ethnic minority Tamil party demanding that the government explain its position within two weeks but the government saying it is unable to do so.”

The Moral

It’s important to sort out what the Sri Lankan war does and does not prove about the role of religion in public life. It cannot, for example, be classed as a religious conflict exactly akin to the bloodletting in India at partition, or the continuing Sunni-Shia mayhem in Iraq. In Sri Lanka, religion combined with ethnicity as one of multiple causes. It must also be noted that the Tamils perpetrated their share (or more) of atrocities as well. They didn’t actually invent the technique of suicide bombing, but they pioneered its use as a routine tactic in organized warfare. The fact that the Tamils were not religiously driven, at least to any serious extent, also proves that religion has no monopoly on brutality.

And yet, it is still eminently fair to blame Buddhism for the 80-100,000 deaths that happened on what everyone agrees is a particularly beautiful island. God experts took a minor issue involving official languages that could have been – and on multiple occasions was about to be – easily resolved, and blew it up into a test of divine will, for their own narrow purposes. Don’t tell me this isn’t the “real” Buddhism. The real Buddhism is whatever the recipients of government handouts say it is.

Not all Buddhists think alike, any more than all Christians, Muslims, or Hindus think alike. There are some genuinely peaceful Buddhist monks out there, just as there are some genuinely peaceful God experts in other religions. The problems arise when God experts of any flavor start throwing their weight around, telling others what to do – which in practice seems to be a particularly strong temptation for those who earn their living purveying any brand of supernatural fraud.