Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does the universe have a purpose?

Posted by Mathew Goldstein

A major disagreement between theists and atheists is the proper answer to this question: Does the universe have a purpose? When we approach this question from an empirical evidence first perspective, the proper answer must be no. Here is an entertaining 2 minute video recently produced by Neil deGrasse Tyson that answers this question from an empirical evidence first perspective. He places some emphasis on his not being "sure". Given that we are not omniscient it should be obvious that we cannot know with absolute certainty so prefixing and suffixing every strongly evidenced answer with "I am not sure" renders that phrase useless while attaching that phrase inconsistently to only some strongly evidenced answers makes it misleading. We all must be at least a little agnostic because we all are limited in our access to information. But he is clear in this video that there is a single best answer from the available evidence to this question.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

School Vouchers: Three More Strikes

by Edd Doerr

School vouchers -- the favorite device of the Religious Right, conservatives and pseudo-reformers for undermining religious liberty, public education and democracy by diverting public funds to religious private schools -- took three serious hits in November.

1. Florida voters on Nov 6 defeated proposed  Amendment 8 by 55 to 45. It was intended to weaken  religious freedom and church-state separation in the state constitution and allow school vouchers, a favorite project of former governor Jeb Bush, who aspires to run for president in 2016. (Weren't two Bushes enough?) The Florida vote was the 27th (27th!) defeat for school vouchers in  statewide referenda from coast to coast by superlandslide margins.

2. Indiana voters defeated Republican state school superintendent Tony Bennett and elected teacher and Democrat Glenda Ritz to the post. Bennett had made clear his contempt for teachers, teacher unions, religious freedom and the state constitution by, among other things, supporting Gov Mitch Daniels' 2011 school voucher law.

3. Louisiana federal court judge Ivan Lemelle on Nov 26 shot down Gov Bobby Jindal's 2012 school voucher law for Tangipahoa Parish (County) as conflicting with a decades-old desegregation ruling.  State school supt John White, whose dislike for teachers and public education is well known, whined that the ruling would be reversed on appeal. A state court will shortly hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the voucher law.

For a complete picture of the school voucher controversy see my article "The Great School Voucher Fraud" on the Americans for Religious Liberty web site -- A slightly modified version of the article, "The School Voucher Crisis", may be accessed on the Center for Inquiry web site.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marco "Flat-Earth" Rubio

by Edd Doerr

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) reportedly wants to run for President in 2016. However, when recently asked by GQ's Michael Hainey "How old do you think the earth is?", the Florida Boy Wonder ducked and replied, "I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians."

No, Marco, it is not. There is a scientific consensus that the universe is about 15 billion years old and our planet  well over a billion. Science, Marco, not theology. And by the way, as Marco claims to be a Catholic and a person of some education, he should be aware that the Catholic Church for quite some time has ceased arguing with scientists about the age of the earth and evolution (though it has yet to reconcile itself to what science has to say about human development prior to birth).

It seems obvious that Marco's political ambitions are leading him to go after the fundamentalist vote, something that Nov 6 should have shown him is not likely to put hin in the White House.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Some Things a Humanist is Thankful For

 By Gary Berg-Cross

Once again it is time to turn the thanking function up high in the human brain. Religious groups have their top 10 lists. Faith. Usually makes that list of things to be thankful for:

Knowing that there is a higher power you can turn to when things become to difficult for you to deal with on your own is a blessing. We all have our doubts about this from time to time and most seem to return to the idea that something much more powerful than we are has had a hand in making this all happen. 

Sports fans, comics, foodies & regular folks have their lists too filled with family, friends, food, health and prosperity. In austere times many young people, such as new grads, would be in hot water without the family safety net. Not everyone can start a business borrowing their parent’s money. And tweeting makes for silly lists of things like Justin Bieber, tanning lotion and Funyuns.

But as I asked last year, why not a humanist/nonbeliever list for Thanksgiving? Here’s a small update.

Sure family will be on that list too. My older grandkids celebrated a pilgrammy activity time in run up to turkey day at school filled.  They feasted on seasonal wordfinding along with  harvest and preparation rituals including gathering firewood and folding bedsheets. For my son's new 6 month old I am extremely thankful. He brings everyone happiness.

 Here’s a start on a list of things I’d be happy to happen, that I’m thankful for happening or that people might say or think about on Thanksgiving.

  10. The end of a long political season and I'm still glad that I won’t be bombarded by silly gaffes of politicians on Thanksgiving day. Can we hope to move to effective policies and government? Wait are pols already visiting Iowa. I’d be thankful if we could rein that in a bit and give us a break.

9. More peace efforts and more effective ones…I’m thankful for the modest success we’ve had, but people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and Israel  are only a short list of folks who, at times, can’t defend themselves from missiles of various kinds. I’m not thankful for the folly that let’s that mess continue.

8. More accurate historical skeptics to properly celebrate, educate and entertain our  dinner guests with some myth busting facts. That Pilgrims' festival?  The Pilgrims and the Indians did not, as the myth has it, sit down at tables, bless their food or pass the serving dishes. Did they really invite the natives or did the natives investigate what all the gun fire was about?. Finding a party they brought there own food and cooked accordingly.  

7. I celebrate Thanksgiving as a multicultural, humanist event rather than a religious one. Greg Epstein Humanist Chaplain @Harvard has a simple 3 item Outline for a Humanist Thanksgiving Dinner Discussion. Yes, food and thankfulness  it has  but it also has some guiding questions about community: For those who are part of a Humanist/secular group: how could our Humanist community be a better resource for ourselves and for others seeking community? How might we get more involved? Should we do dinners like this together more often? For those who aren’t part of a Humanist/secular group: what would you want your own connection to community to look like a year from now?
 6. And while we are on community, I celebrate some of the national humanist and secular organizations like CFI and AHA that move us towards a better society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. You can find secular grace statements on the AHA celebration site:
A Secular Grace:
For what we are about to receive
let us be truly thankful
…to those who planted the crops
…to those who cultivated the fields
…to those who gathered the harvest.
For what we are about to receive
let us be truly thankful
to those who prepared it and those who served it.
In this festivity let us remember too
those who have no festivity
those who cannot share this plenty
those whose lives are more affected than our own
by war, oppression and exploitation
those who are hungry, sick and cold
In sharing in this meal
let us be truly thankful
for the good things we have
for the warm hospitality 
and for this good company.
  5. Last year we  could celebrate the failure of the not-so-democratically-super, Super Committee. This year we can’t yet celebrate handing a fiscal bump in the road but I still look forward to solving our problems, rationally. Let’s celebrate rationality and balance. Let’s celebrate that type of productive thinking employed across the wider scope of society.  
4. Managing and pulling off a great Thanksgiving feast requires quality planning and critical thinking. We can celebrate people who exemplify this with an affirming balance and a concern humanity and civil society. We lost a leading practitioner this year in Paul Kurtz, but we can still celebrate his life and remember.  

3. Despite our best selfish and self-centered efforts damaging it we still have to be thankful for Nature, its system resilience and mystery. One is reminded of the Albert Einstein  quote in this regard, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”  I’m not thankful about the former part, but contemplating the latter can sure be oceanically wonderful.

2. I’m still glad that America is an exceptional nation and not yet an oligarchy. True, our stats aren’t what they once were and there is a growing wealth gap that suggests the exceptionalism isn’t trickling down, if that’s where it comes from. I’m glad that Elizabeth Warren is a senator along with people like Bernie Sanders and Angus King.  They are more in the mold of public servants that our founders might celebrate.

1. Not sure what is the # one thing to be glad of? One thought is that it’s only a month or so  till Tom Flynn (he of "The Trouble with Christmas") goes to work on Dec. 25th. That’s a Tuesday so he isn’t off the hook like last year. 

So we have to decide whose turn is it to give him a call while he's in the office?

Celebrate and make your own rituals, even if they are modest and human sized. “When some as small as speaking a simple truth for human values becomes ritual, it finds  a place in the human heart. And as  Muriel Barbery, noted in her The Elegance of the Hedgehog our ability to see greatness in small things is deeply important:

 Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”

  Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Role of Faith in Politics and Public Policy


The Center for American Progress is sponsoring "A Conversation between Bishop Gene Robinson and former Representative Patrick Murphy: on  November 28, 2012, 12:00pm - 1:00pm.

You can RSVP to attend this event  or  Bookmark this link to watch the live webcast


Here is an outline:

Welcoming Remarks:
Sally Steenland, Director, Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative, Center for American Progress
Distinguished Panelists:
Bishop Gene Robinson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Patrick Murphy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

From marriage equality to income inequality, the role of faith is crucial to the public debate. It can serve as a weapon to divide and create fear, or as an inclusive force to advance justice and equality. Please join CAP senior fellow and former congressman Patrick Murphy and CAP senior fellow Bishop Gene Robinson as they explore the role of faith in politics and public policy. Murphy and Robinson will examine marriage equality for same-sex couples, women’s reproductive health, religious liberty, and other issues in the news. In addition, Robinson will discuss ideas from his new book, God Believes in Love, where he makes the religious case for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Murphy will reflect on his time in Congress, and the role his Catholic faith played in helping him champion a wide range of issues, including gay rights, health reform, and women’s health.

Space is extremely limited. RSVP required to attend.
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis and not guaranteed.
A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.

The Center for American Progress is at:
1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Map & Directions
Nearest Metro: Blue/Orange Line to McPherson Square or Red Line to Metro Center
For more information, call 202-682-1611.

Doing CO2 Math

By Gary Berg-Cross

The Do the Math Tour and Rally organized by blew into DC for a post-election  protest on Sunday Nov. 18, 2012. The Washington Post didn’t seem to cover it on a normal weather day.  The rally chanting "Forward to Clean Energy" included 3 thousand or so people and a symbolically inflated, plastic pipeline (for the Keystone pipeline that if approved would carry tar sans oil to a port).  The pipeline, lofted by protestors, was carried from Freedom plaza, across the ellipse and in front of the White House where the chants included "Hey Obama, we don't want no climate drama," and "Michelle Obama, tell your man, stop that dirty pipeline plan!." There people called on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all because it would open a vast new reservoir of carbon-based energy at a time when we need to be moving in the opposite direction - closing strip mines, offshore oil wells, and coal-fired power plants. This and other points were made by post-march speakers including Bill McKibben, Sierra Club President Allison Chin, Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Marty Cobenais, Gulf Coast activist Cherri Foytlin, and others.

The 21-city tour is yet another creative move from the mind and heart of environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben and worthy of note, so here are a few of the points it makes.

McKibben and his organization hopes the rallies and marches will ignite  groundswell of nationwide protest movement which in turn can be focused to pressure more traditional institutions to divest funds in the fossil-fuel industry and in the immediate stop the XL pipeline.

The challenge is great as past efforts since environmentalists and regular folk are:
“ up against the most profitable, powerful, and dangerous industry in history. But we have our own currency: creativity, courage and, if needed, our bodies." (McKibben quoted from his rally speeches)

Bill Clinton was able to make quite a point about arithmetic and things not adding up at the Democratice convention and environment Bill McKibben  used arithmetic to equal effect in Rolling Stone to discuss the  Global Warming's Terrifying New Math:

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Now he adds year end stat that to this point 2012 has been the warmest year on record and points to a series of disasters (fires, floods, Sandy etc.) including “we melted the arctic this summer!” Former UN  Secretary General Kofi Annan has his own list:

 “Global warming is causing more than 300,000 deaths and about $125 billion in economic losses each year.”

What to do and where to start?  The big new statistics  concerns CO2, fossil fuel use and what it will do to the climate:

Rally at Freedom Plaza
Rally Stage
There's more fossil fuels (nearly 2,230 gigatons more) that corporations want consumers to buy and burn than climate scientists says is safe to do if people want to live on a planet the climate-wise resembles the one we live on now.  Even the most conservative governments in the world, he argues, have agreed that global warming should be limited to no more than 2°C. And climate scientists say to meet that target we can only emit an additional 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2)  into the atmosphere. But how much fossil fuel is in the ground? The fossil fuel industry itself says there is about enough reserves of fuel to produce  2795 gigatonnes of CO2. It’s simple math.  There is about  nearly five times what will produce a dire atmosphere.  Do we have the wisdom and confidence to leave some 4/5ths of the reserves where it is?  The fuel industry & funded  friends have a business model that externalizes damages.  They want to burn it all as spend their profits looking for more. As Bill says, our grandchildren  looking back 50 or more from now won’t be asking what we thought of the fiscal slope or sex scandals.  They will be asking about our moral wisdom. They will want to know what were thinking, doing and planning when the climate was changing around us.

Oh,  and with this in mind there will be another rally in February on President's day weekend.  This will be organized by front-line groups like the Sierra Club, the oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with 755,000 members, who will be driving the nation-wide efforts as a way of keeping pressure on Big Oil. is building a global movement to solve the climate crisis. You can connect with them on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for email alerts.  


Bill McKibben speaking at NTC rally:

DC rally: picture taken by Gary Berg-Cross

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What do People Want: Things, Truth, Safety, Esteem and Power?

Gary Berg-Cross

Bill O'Reilly, had a public lament over the recent election night.  Part of it was a rationalization about what people want which was rolled up in the idea that the higher values driving the " white establishment (who) is no longer the majority" These largely unstated values are being lost it is implied. That growing non-white traditional population rolled into the  50+ percent of the public voting  for Obama and  they, declared O'Reilly, have a different motivation. What motivates them  What are their needs? They:

“want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President

This seems such a naïve, boiled down theory of people and their motivation that it seems an unlikely argument even in politics.  But there it is embedded in many conservative Pols claims:

  • "You either get free stuff or you get freedom. You cannot have both," Sarah Palin September 2012.
  • "Offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives," wrote National Review's Kevin Williamson after the election.
  • "You have two generations now who believe that the government owes them something," said conservative columnist Cal Thomas.
  • "If you're looking for free stuff you don't have to pay for, vote for the other guy," said Mitt Romney simply during the campaign. Followed by his infamous on taped comment about those 47% of people who think they are "entitled" to government benefits.
Campaigns simplify things down to sound bites.  But freeze drying a political philosophy into these types of motivational theories seems a dangerous mixture for a modern society. It is perhaps less surprising, but still disappointing from a secular or freethinking perspective. There seems little truth in such claims which can be quickly challenged by facts, scientific understanding of human motivation etc.

I think that a quick look this way will suggest that the groups that conservative politicians and thinkers point to have more complex needs than some stuff or entitlement. In additon the supports of politically conservatives,including wealthy backers, have their own "stuff" needs. As Chris Mooney points out conservatives and liberal have different psychological needs on average.  Conservative have more of a psychological need for closure, or said another way, given some evidence conservatives such as O'Reilly have a need to be more definite about that  belief and need to  feel certain.  This is in the cognitive need category which is a "higher" need and appeals to many of the listeners of conservative media.  But let's understand this need in the context of still more basic ones.

A starting point for a better understanding of the dynamic complexities of human motivation is  Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid as shown in the above Figure.  At its base are the large set, of the most fundamental levels of needs which start life in infancy and childhood motivations. Maslow called then "deficiency needs" and include Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, but also the security from elements. We need shelter, warmth, sleep, order (provided in part by law), known limits, stability, etc.

OK money can buy some of these basic needs and a society that does not help provide such an ordered base is lacking in humanity.  These are not gift benefits to buy votes.  You can ask people on the NY and NJ coast if the aid they are receiving are gifts or the result of some understood social process needed by healthy societies discussed under such general ideas and implied values as maintaining order, hope and the pursuit of happiness.

In Maslow’s formulation, one satisfies lower level and more basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. And supporting this striving for constant betterment is what we want in society and support with society.  We want a floor to meet people’s basic needs so they can move on to handle the need for belongingness, love along with the built in need for sex, group & family friendship along with affection, and meaningful relationships.

When these are met we move on to esteem needs, such as self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
One doesn’t have to accept Maslow’s list or the idea that we have to satisfy all elements of a lower motivation to move to a higher one.  But the list is more of a 3D version of people and when we compare it to a summary philosophy on a large block of voters being at the “wanting thing level” it is stunning to see how thin some pols are in their view of people. Well some people.  Why assume such base needs driving the mass of people? To think of them so denies them personal worth, which we all need.

Such simplified view of human nature abound in religious cultures and serve, among other things, to define what is claimed as a positive group identity. Others have very base needs and want low level “things”, while we are the group that has higher needs and understands the truth is some way others do not. It’s a bit of “I’m Ok, You’re not OK.”

To challenge the truth of such claims based on science, facts, ethical grounds, history etc. is to challenge group identify and supporting feelings of loyalty and honor among true believers.  It also challenges an ideological perspective on the world but also their sense of self and group worth. The belief is, "We are a better group and to have votes against our group values has to be explained in some way. " Beliefs about others,despite what the data might says, is that have to be operating from “lower” in needs than "us".   Don’t even look at the data that says that red states are getting more “things’ from the federal government than blue states. Chris Mooney, the WASH MDC speaker this Dec. 1 at Wheaton Library( see WASH Events for more)  has written on conservative biases and how they often engage in motivated reasoning very strongly.
He cites for example:

 "denying the science of climate change (to preserve their belief in “individualism”), in believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (to preserve their belief in George W. Bush), in believing that President Obama was not born in the United States (for reasons that you can guess about) and so on."

There seems to be other needs at play here too - esteem and the desire for power.  The idea here is that the majority “white society” has achieved good self-esteem and the recognition of others. Here it might be useful to leverage ideas from Fred Hirsch’s  1976 book Social Limits to Growth.  Hirsch looked at  what some  people do when they have their basic needs satisfied in a consumer society.  Based on cultural values they start engaging in comparative consumption/ownership of things like cars, homes, travel - what he called positional goods. Why buy/consume a sporty car with wealth?  Well it is something I can do and others can’t.  I’m better in comparison with them. So a Honda is probably adequate for most needs but a Mercedes or Audi gives me status. I have some esteem needs satisfied above and beyond the need to drive to work. It’s a status symbol.

Going along with this is a confidence in abilities such as leadership. A desire for power if often at the center mixed in with other concepts like independence, acceptance, order, safety, and honor. Power, especially esteemed power allows us to mitigate necessity and control events around us as part of a group effort. And that status car, well that shows that I  should have the esteem that goes along with power.

With power and an esteemed leader  the group is safer when exploring possibilities and policies, which in turn affect the other needs and how society deals with them.   But in a zero sum situation, loss of leadership and/or group power cedes it to another group with different values and different polices. Worse yet is the transfer of esteem to the new group. As a group loses status it starts on a downward spiral into dishonor with possible losses of order, group safety etc.  Those “things” that showed one leader is better, or at least not worse off than one’s neighbor,  well they may be lost now too. A dreadful group prospect and something that seems perculating in the back of people’s minds despite the current, simplified sound bites about others affinity to  "gifts" and "entitlements". Society functions are  never as simple as the bumper sticker slogan one sees and it is  important to look under the labels thrown about to understand what is really motivating groups and their leaders.

Higher taxes on the wealthy doesn’t drive the ruling class to lose the ability to feed and cloth themselves.  But buying that vacation house and the esteem it brings may be a concern.  Maybe esteemed ownership of such things and their place in society is being called into question. Hirsch argues that most goods (things) consumed in advanced economies have, at least partly, the character of positional/esteem enhancing goods.  So who is it in society that wants things and what needs do they satisfy?  Can esteem be earned in other ways? If we are to satisfy human needs, which we all have, let’s start with the basics and give more of us a chance for the higher needs on a sustainable basis.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

by Edd Doerr

Delacourt Press's recent publication of a book of Kurt Vonnegut's letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, reminded me of my correspondence with him. Kurt and I attended high schools several blocks apart in Indianapolis. Following is a letter I sent him in December of 1997 and his response. At the time he was honorary president while I was president of the American Humanist Association.

Dear Kurt,

My review of [your book] Timequake is in press in the forthcoming issue of The Humanist.

I finally got to see [the film of your book] Mother Night in video. The film, as I recall, played at only one Washington area theater, about 20 miles from my house, and vanished in a week. (The same fate befell other great films such as Michael Collins and Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden.)

I had read the novel and was pleased, as I am sure you were, that the film followed it so closely. And what better way for a writer to end it all than to hang himself with typewriter ribbon!

By the way, you may be interested to know that I am publishing through the AHA a bunch of the sermons of E. Burdette Backus [Timely and Timeless, Humanist Press], minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis throughout then '40s and second president of the AHA. We Hoosiers need to do all we can to rescue our state's good name from the scorn earned by Dan Quayle, Dan Coats, and other buffoons we have sent to Congress. It's not really a consolation that we got them out of the state for a while.

Just a note of appreciation for your good work.

Best wishes,

Edd Doerr, President

And from Kurt  -----

Dear Edd --

People ask me what I'm reading now, and I say "books people send me." They ask what I am wrriting now, and I say "letters to people who've sent me books." And I thank you with sincere gratitude for the writings of E. Burdette Backus. His "In Time of Trouble" is a masterpiece of quiet reasoning, and is of help to me. Also of help has been Nietzsche's statement: "Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism."

I thank you, too, for your friendly response to the movie "Mother Night." Exhibiters in Germany and Israel have declined to screen it. Nolte's broadcasts were in fact speeches by Goebbels. Nolte says, "There are no Jews in foxholes." One critic said, "The heel there weren't. My uncle was ij a foxhole." Another one said of the book, not the movie, "I don't think there's anything funny about the Holocaust."

As for Indianapolis Unitarianism: my father claimed to be a Unitarian  for business reasons. Not many solid citizens wanted to deal with somebody who was a NOTHING. I don't recall his ever going to church, except maybe for the pagan rite of Easter. I never had to go ti Sunday school, or any of the bushwah. We already had an extended family, lots of affectionate blood relatives nearby, so we didn't need what so many other Hoosiers were hungry for --- the ersatz extended family of a congregation. And our relatives weren't in fact NOTHINGS, but freethinkers, a once respectable designation, but very German, made kaput by the hatred of all things German during the First World War.

 The true basis for that hatred, incidentally, wasn't German soldiers throwing Belgian babies in the aid, and catching them on their bayonets. It was the fact that German immigrants had arrived without proper humility, hats in hand, but were educated business people who, without asking permission and advice from the Anglos, set up their own banks and schools and so on. Anglos' resentment of this intolerable self-sufficiency persists, although unspoken, to this very day.


//Kurt Vonnegut//

And so it goes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shaw's "Black Girl"

by Edd Doerr

Looking for a fun read? May I suggest George Bernard Shaw's 1932 novella The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. It is an amusing amble through the thorny thickets of theology, the rocky realms of regressive religion, the pubescent pits of piety, a meander through the misty miasmas of myopic misogyny and moronic misanthropy, a flit through the fog-forests and fetid fields of falwellian fantasy, a puncturing of pompous pontificating and puffy popery  Try it, You'll like it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wow look at That!: Attention, Worry and Distraction

By Gary Berg-Cross The recently completed, and ever so long, election process is only one of the Big things that have commanded our attention this season. Monitoring political ups and downs became a habit in 2012 (and with discussion of a Fiscal Cliff is likely to continue). This Fall one could tune in daily, or twice daily, to the latest polling stats. These are relatively easy to follow, but making sense of the statistics is hard. And there are so many issues to consider with largely secular ones swamped by hot button economic, jobs and fairness topics. It seems that large attention is going to be distracted from some Humantist concerns for quite a while.
Superstorm Sandy was another national-level, mind grabbing event whose consequences linger after holding the media’s attention.  Over days we were fed a series of projections followed by fearful storm of sights and sounds to us. Many of us couldn’t take our eyes off of the approaching storm, it whereabouts, landings and impacts. There was plenty to it. Sandy was no joke affecting millions from NC to Mass. On one day people awoke to tsunami like destruction of homes, businesses & infrastructure. Damaged, debris and destruction everywhere and for now too ling no electricity, heat, fuel or certain recovery for too many. But those of us out of the main storm path there was and some type of automated arousal to watch unfolding events as well as a deliberate one. Sandy was something to worry about and that grabs human attention. There was a confluence of at least 3 reasons for this – natural attention grabbing, motivation from anxiety and defensive distraction.  
Abstract topics like justice and freedom don't get a lot of attention even in normal times. One has to build an intellectual environment and have teachable moments. Some states of affairs are hot topics. You can understand part of the attraction by imagining a time when we lived in small tribes that unfolding events nearby would be of immense value to know – where is that tiger going? There is a built in system for certain types of events to grab our attention. Like thinking fast and slow cognitive science tells use there are 2 different ways that our brain processes information coming from the outside world. One is the evolutionarily more recent willful focus, as when we study a school topic produces.  In the brain the neo-cortex produces  "top-down" signals.  The other is a more primitive and automatic focus such as produced by an unexpected noise.  These are produced more "bottom-up" as shown by
monkey studies.  Researchers Miller and Buschman found that when a picture or object "popped out" at the creature, the parietal cortex jumps into action. When the monkeys were merely searching for the object, however, it was activity in the prefrontal cortex controlling the brain.
Anxiety & Anxious Narratives Some signals of possible danger demand our attention, but holding it is worry and fear. Getting the amount of concern with dynamic data, where will the storm hit and how much damage will it is – am I prepared?, is hard business taking a mix of the right information and lots of deliberate reasoning more than the evidence warrants. Long after satisfying one’s basic news needs about power disruptions, travel advisories, and closings/delays we are often left unsatisfied lingers around computer, phone and TV screens. There’s always more. Look, a tweets to a live video feed of a dangling construction crane in midtown NYC.  It’s a natural short story in the larger narrative and I want to know how it ends and who is impacted, even if there are no cranes in my sage suburban area.

Wake Forest professor Eric Wilson polishes up an old Jack London observation on disaster attraction in his new book, Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away. It is simple that we evolved in a challenging environment and never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger and calamity. The modern twist is that we may now get this strange alive feeling experience 2nd or 3rd hand through TV along with the earlier cultural artifacts of movies. Wilson notes that Edison “early film The Great Train Robbery" caused a cultural sensation because he:

 "realized at the beginning of narrative cinema that audiences love looking at terrible things."
It’s something that novelist realized earlier.

People, like David Ropeik (author of “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”), who study risk perception talk about addictive following TV, scanning news sites and social media  as a weather or storm “porn” phenomena. We hook into staying informed constructing our own story interpretations much more than is useful. It’s like that habitual scanning of the environment just in case a predator will appear and trigger our fight-or-flight response, which release stress hormones and heighten our sensitivity to any new signs of danger. Hormone lifted anxiety creates a longer term positive feedback loop which in turn plunges us into more worry.  The more anxious and alarmed we become the readier we are to be anxious.


The last part of it is the value of distraction that demands attention in a stressful life. As Adam Hochschild said of it, “ Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.” This seems particularly true in modern life which is not only jammed scheduled but serviced by modern technology that affords distraction as well as convenience. It’s the ever present media mixed with social networks & mobile devices that affords opportunity for daily distractions.  And distractions are one way of handling stress and anxiety.  But in the case of a “storm porn” we have yet another part of a positive feedback process. Work is hard since we have some free floating anxiety cause by the possible impact of a storm. It is easy to think that “Perhaps a small distraction will allow me to get back to work.”  In earlier times it might have been a magazine or newspaper to read, or a movie or TV. Now it can be my smart phone. With ever present, new info these information break distractions are never ending and are just as likely to produce heightened anxiety. Tough times indeed for deliberative thinking and intellectual discourse on serious topics. Something to be reflexively anxious about.


  1.  NASA image of Sandy:  
  2. Sandy Approaches: 
  3.  How Risky Is It, Really: How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts   
  4. Afraid of Tigers?:

Friday, November 09, 2012

Send a short note to the White House

By Mathew Goldstein

Go to the White House comments web page and send them this brief message:

Before President Obama takes his oath of office, please instruct Chief Justice Roberts not to append an extralegal monotheistic codicil as he did during the previous presidential inauguration. A person taking an oath of office can speak freely after the legal oath recitation ends and should not be directed what to say by the person giving the oath. It is unseemly for the person leading a government oath to spatchcock a religious phrase.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Abortion Rights

by Edd Doerr

This letter was published in the (conservative) Washington Examiner on 11/8/12 ----

""Abortion decision based on separation of church, state"

Dino Drudi's defense of reproductive choice and Roe v Wade ("Abortion ruling based on Jeffersonian autonomy," 11/6) was right on target. We might add that the 1973 ruling was based on the Supreme Court's 1972 ruling in Baird v Eisenstadt, written by devout Catholic Jusrtice William Brennan, who was also one of the architects of Roe.

Abortion was legal and not uncommon during the lifetimes of the country's Founding Fathers. Opposition to reproductive choice is based on disdain for women's health and rights of conscience, and is backed by neither the Judeo-Christian scriptures nor modern science.

Our American heritage of religious freedom and separation of church and state demands that all levels of government respect the rights of conscience of all women.

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md

Monday, November 05, 2012

A smidgen of Mixed Judeo-Christian "Values"/Identity and Politics

By Gary Berg-Cross

Religion continues to play a big part in American elections as noted in Ralph Reed Spins a New Faith, Freedom and Conservative Politics Message . A phrase heard often in battleground states is “Souls to the Polls.” Innocent enough. On the Sunday before election in Cleveland Ohio, R&B singer John Legend joined Democratic public officials from around the county on a makeshift stage to  mitigate the angst of waiting on a 4 block long line for early votes (Kent State radio)

On the Republican side it is a bit deeper mix of religion and politics. Fundamentalist Christians are a key part of the right wing base. HufPo, for example, says that:

Most on the Right would describe themselves as religious, predominately Christian-based religious, one is left to extrapolate that their positions … are mandated by their God and doctrine. Abortion is, of course, off-the-charts wrong on every level, at any time, for any reason; birth control ,

For some time the Romney-Ryan strategy has been to bash Obama over ‘Judeo-Christian’ values.  A good bashing seems to have worked in quieting down the base and helping to overcom their uneasiness with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism  (See faith” voters were seen to have begin to rally behind Romney).  

On election eve Paul Ryan warned evangelical Christians that another 4 years of President Obama would threaten "Judeo-Christian values" whatever that is.  Maybe lower tax for money changers? 

According to the NYTs his remarks came in a conference call with the evangelical Christian Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by that new born conservative Christian strategist Ralph Reed.Yes that Ralph Reed.
Mormons and evangelicals are getting comfie.

Ryan stirred the witches pot by describing Obama’s policies this way:

 It’s a dangerous path. It’s a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.’

He also broadend the base (think Florida) by appealing to a theologically oriented, Judeo-Christian faith voters which include fundamentalist Jews as well as Christians.  

And there has been activity on that front too, thanks to casino mogul and Jewish fundamentalist Sheldon Adelson & wife who has invested heavily in the Presidential campaign with some $20 million for Newt Gingrich’s failed primary campaign,  and at least $10 million for a super PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. His rationale? A mix of politics and identity:

"There is now a visceral anti-Israel movement among rank-and-file Democrats, a disturbing development that my parents' generation would not have ignored," he wrote, citing a poll as well as the tumult at the Democratic National Convention this summer over the removal and eventual inclusion of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the party platform.” (CNN)

The Adelsons also have heaped largess on one particular New Jersey race. It has a religious connection too. According to reports Adelson, CEO of the Las Vegas Sands empire, along  with wife, Miriam,  have given $500,000 to the Patriot Prosperity PAC, an independent super PAC supporting the Republican Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Boteach  is a TV celebrity, author of “Kosher Sex,” host of the show “Shalom in the Home,” and former spiritual adviser to pop star Michael Jackson. He  is running against eight-term incumbent Democrat Bill Pascrell, Jr. in a newly redrawn 9th District that includes Paterson.

The Adelsons’ total  support for the Rabbi comes to more than $1 million this year. Pascrell and the Rabbi recently  debated at Temple Sinai in Tenafly NJ. The main topics were an exchange of  views on Israel and the economy. Boteach said taxes were too high under the Democratic administration, crippling job growth.  
We need some religious sponsored trickle down apparently.


  1. Ryan and Reed:
  2. Sheldon Adelson:
  3. Shmuley faces off with Hitch:

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Powell and Corporate Blueprints

By Gary Berg-Cross At the Nov. 3rd talk on Democratizing Society by Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, co-directors of, at WASH MDC Justice Louis Powell’s  40 year old confidential memo to the Chamber of Commerce  was mentioned. Since it seemed unfamiliar and relates to my recent blog article on winner take all society as well as the argument in Q &A following the presentation on the separation of corporations and government, the role of regulation and whether corporate-conservative efforts are based on long range blueprint plans for influence and power. I thought a small summary on the Powell (a former tobacco lawyer/lobbyist) memo history might help inform that discussion. It is useful to understand the context for Powell and friend Eugene Sydnor’s (then-chairman of the Chamber of commerce’s education committee) belief that transforming the Chamber into a powerful political force was necessary to counter what they saw as an ongoing “attack on the American free enterprise system.” (Source)

One historical source on the memo is from Winner-Take-All Politics: “How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class”.  Quotes from this book were covered in the Bill Moyer’s show: The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations and a portion is reproduced below:

the Powell Memorandum, a call-to-arms for American corporations written by Virginia lawyer (and future U.S. Supreme Court justice) Lewis Powell to a neighbor working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In the fall of 1972, the venerable National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) made a surprising announcement: It planned to move its main offices from New York to Washington, D.C. As its chief, Burt Raynes, observed:

We have been in New York since before the turn of the century, because
we regarded this city as the center of business and industry.
But the thing that affects business most today is government. The
interrelationship of business with business is no longer so important
as the interrelationship of business with government. In the last several
years, that has become very apparent to us.[ National Journal, 1974, 14.]

To be more precise, what had become very apparent to the business community was that it was getting its clock cleaned. Used to having broad sway, employers faced a series of surprising defeats in the 1960s and early 1970s. As we have seen, these defeats continued unabated when Richard Nixon won the White House. Despite electoral setbacks, the liberalism of the Great Society had surprising political momentum. “From 1969 to 1972,” as the political scientist David Vogel summarizes in one of the best books on the political role of business, “virtually the entire American business community experienced a series of political setbacks without parallel in the postwar period.” In particular, Washington undertook a vast expansion of its regulatory power, introducing tough and extensive restrictions and requirements on business in areas from the environment to occupational safety to consumer protection.
[ David Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 59; R. Shep Melnick, “From Tax-and-Spend to Mandate-and-Sue: Liberalism After the Great Society,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, Sidney Milkis and Jerome Mileur, eds. (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).]

In corporate circles, this pronounced and sustained shift was met with disbelief and then alarm. By 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

As mentioned at the talk by  Kevin Zeese what followed this activation of the Chamber was it doubling in size within a year. The Chamber’s board of directors formed a task force of 40 business executives (from U.S. Steel, GE, ABC, GM, CBS, 3M, Phillips Petroleum, Amway and numerous other companies) to review Powell’s memo and draft a list of specific proposals to “improve understanding of business and the private enterprise system,” which the board adopted on November 8, 1973.

Another consequence was the founding of conservative institutions like CATO, AEI and ALEC.  Sort of an activist approach to government-corporate relations. So I guess Powell was sort of a hidden activist judge, but then appointing a tobacco lawyer does suggest something on how the game of appointments is played.


  1. American Enterprise:
  2. Powell Memo:
  3. Winner-Take-All Politics

If Italy Can Do It ...

by Luis Granados

Last month’s headlines certainly looked exciting: “Italian church to be stripped of tax exemption,” “Catholic church to lose historic property tax exemption in Italy.” Wow! If such a heavily Catholic country like Italy can start making God experts pay property taxes like everyone else, then why can’t even less-Catholic countries – like this one – do the same thing?

Unfortunately, it turns out that the headline writers were doing their job: sensationalizing a story to make suckers like me take the time to read it, misleading without being technically inaccurate. The Italian church is not losing its entire tax exemption, just part of it – a part that largely doesn’t exist here, or in most other jurisdictions. Still, progress is progress, and it’s worth understanding exactly what is going on in Italy.

A church, operating as a church, was and will remain exempt from all Italian property taxes, even though it benefits from all the police, fire, transportation, environmental protection, dispute resolution, and other services that property taxes pay for. So will a convent, a monastery, a seminary, or any other location owned by a church. Everyone else, religious or otherwise, pays a little more so that the church can avoid paying its proportionate share.

In Italy, this bad situation is even worse, because since the days of Mussolini the Catholic Church has had far more money than it knows what to do with. So it has used some of that money to buy up vast chunks of Italian real estate, and use it for strictly commercial purposes. By one estimate, the church owns some 50,000 buildings in Italy, more than half of them of a commercial nature. Fifteen percent of Italy’s tourist lodgings are church owned.

That’s what the current controversy is about. If the church owns a hotel, for example, it pays no property tax. Meanwhile, the hotel across the street, owned by ordinary Italians trying to make a living, pays property tax not only for itself, but a little more to cover what the church isn’t paying.

To be fair, that’s an overstatement. Italian law provides that a 100% commercial-use property would be subject to property tax even if owned by a church. The issue involved mixed-use property, with some religious elements and some commercial elements, which under Italian law is entirely exempt from property tax.

So if you take that 100% commercial-use hotel and stick a little chapel in the corner, then voila! It’s now mixed-use, and entirely tax exempt. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what you’ll find in most church-owned property in Italy.

Competing business owners have complained about this for a long time, and when no one in the Italian government paid attention they took their case to Europe. The EU has been putting the squeeze on Italy for a while now, and the current prime minister – a no-nonsense economist trying to pull the government back from the brink of a bankruptcy that would surely trigger a world depression – is probably grateful that he can use EU pressure as his excuse for ending this tax scam. By some estimates, curtailing the mixed-use exemption will net the Italian government as much as two billion euros a year.

There is a sweet irony in the fact that church tax exemptions are being scaled back in Italy, because Italy is the original home of the whole sordid idea. It was the Roman Emperor Constantine, back in the fourth century, who dreamed it up:
Since it appears from many circumstances that, when religion is despised, in which is preserved the chief reverence for the most holy celestial power, great dangers are brought upon public affairs; but that when legally adopted and observed, it affords the most signal prosperity to the Roman name and remarkable felicity to all affairs of men, through the divine beneficence – it has seemed good to me, … that those men who give their services with due sanctity and with constant observance to this law, to the worship of divine religion, should receive recompense for their labors. Wherefore it is my will that those within the province entrusted to thee, in the Catholic Church, over which Caecilianus presides, who give their services to this holy religion, and who are commonly called clergymen, be entirely exempted from all public duties, that they may not by any error or sacrilegious negligence be drawn away from the service due the Deity, but may devote themselves without any hindrance to their own law. For it seems that when they show greatest reverence to the Deity, the largest benefits accrue to the State.
By Constantine’s own logic, it’s time for the tax exemption to go. Its purpose was to attract “signal prosperity” and “divine beneficence” to the state, as sort of a bribe to God. Manifestly, this isn’t working anymore, as evidenced by the fact that the Italian state is broke. Why pay for “signal prosperity” you’re not getting?

Here in the United States, for the most part, a commercial enterprise owned by a church will not be tax exempt, even if the church tries a “mixed-use” ploy like it’s been able to get away with in Italy. Still, what’s interesting about the Italian situation is that the argument used to achieve the desired result was essentially one of fair competition, brought by the EU antitrust division – the same folks who slapped a billion-euro fine on Microsoft in 2007 – rather than an explicitly anti-religious argument.

The same equal protection argument can be used for lots of other subsidies the church receives. For example, the Vatican does not pay the value-added tax (VAT) on its purchases, like every other business does. It pays a corporate income tax rate exactly half that of other businesses. It gets the benefit of 650 million euros per year in the form of state-paid “religious education” teachers, that other businesses do not get. It even gets every drop of water it uses supplied by the Italian taxpayers, absolutely free. No wonder little 108-acre Vatican City sports over 100 fountains!

The wonder is not that Italy is broke; the wonder is that it’s stayed solvent as long as it has.

Then there’s the otto per mille, or “eight per thousand,” the odd arrangement in which Italian taxpayers can choose to direct 0.8% of their tax payments either to a church of their choice, or to the government. In recent years, only 34% of Italians have requested that their money go to the Catholic Church – yet it rakes in 87% of the funds collected. Why? Because if you don’t specify a destination, then your 0.8% is allotted in the same proportion as dictated by those who do. The large majority of Italian taxpayers view this the same way I might. They don’t want to specify any religion because they don’t believe in any religion. They sure don’t want their money going to the crooks in the government, so they just leave it blank. The church then laughs all the way to the bank. The bishops devote only about 20% of this money to charity, and 35% of it to their own salaries. If there were truly a level playing field, taxpayers would be able to direct this money to any charity, not just to any religion.

The normal justification for all these subsidies is that religion provides mental comfort to its customers. Well, so do psychologists, with more measurable rates of success. If the object of the regulators is to assure even-handed competition, then why should the government favor one mental comfort-providing business over another? Why shouldn’t psychologists get the same subsidies and tax breaks the church gets? Not that psychologists are the only mental comfort providers. For some of us, bartenders provide mental comfort as well. So do musicians, especially of the quieter cool jazz and classical variety. If providing mental comfort qualifies one for subsidies, why not the same subsidies for bartenders and guitarists?