Saturday, June 29, 2013

Differing Views of our Place in the Cosmos

By Gary Berg-Cross

One of the ironies of modern life is to live simultaneously in a rich culture alive with scientific advance while also stewing in a conservative, religious culture denying much of that science and limiting its sights to old visions.

It seems like every month, if not every week there is a major new discovery of our place in the cosmos. Just in early June there was an update measurements by Astronomers of the Hubble parameter, the rate at which the Universe expands.  And  Voyager 1 traveling at at 38,000 mph &  11 billion miles from the sun, is the remote outpost on human exploration of space as it still beams back data to Earth. Voyager 1 will be the first manmade object to travel beyond the outer edge of our Solar System.  There are always discoveries on such scientific advents and Voyager I sends evidence that there isn’t a sharp boundary to the solar system aka the heliopause.

What a contrasting vision of complexity to an old, faith-based view of the cosmos such as seen in the ornamental engraving called the Flammarion woodcut. This has an simple world view illustrated by a Pilgrim (carrying a pilgrim's staff ) peering through a sky curtain at the edge of the mundane world of things.  There is little effort to represent physical reality. The pilgrim’s search is for the ethereal world beyond the curtain. And what to do we know of that?  All we see are some vaguely hidden, absolute Aristotelian metaphysical entities that one supposed underlie the workings of universe.

“engraving bears a strong resemblance to traditional pictorial representations of the "wheel in the middle of a wheel" described in the visions of the prophet Ezekiel….The caption in Flammarion's book translates as "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touched..."

The image accompanies a text which reads, in part:

 "What, then, is this blue sky, which certainly does exist, and which veils from us the stars during the day?" The print is often described as being medieval due to its visual style, its fanciful vision of the world, and to what appears to be a depiction of a flat Earth.

What a contrast to the nuanced and complex view of what people like Robert Ingersoll had at the end of the 19th century. A good summary is in his " Suicide N Sanity" 
 where he states what he believes in and what he doesn't which ends this way:

 I believe in the uniformity of nature; that matter will forever attract 
matter in proportion to mass and distance; that, under the same circumstances, falling bodies will attain the same speed, increasing in exact proportion to distance; that light will always,under the same circumstances. be reflected at the same angle; that
it will always travel with the same velocity that air will forever
be lighter than water, and gold heavier than iron; that all
substances will be true to their natures; that a certain degree of
heat will always expand the metals and change water into steam;
that a certain degree of cold will cause the metals to shrink and
change water into ice; that all atoms will forever be in motion;
that like causes will forever produce like effects, that force will
be overcome only by force; that no atom of matter will ever he
created or destroyed; that the energy in the universe will forever
remain the same, nothing lost, nothing gained; that all that has
been possible has happened, and that all that will be possible will
happen; that the seeds and causes of all thoughts, dreams, fancies
and actions, of all virtues and all vices, of all successes and all
failures, are in nature; that there is in the universe no power
superior to nature; that man is under no obligation to the
imaginary gods; that all his obligations and duties are to be
discharged and done in this world; that right and wrong do not
depend on the will of an infinite Being, but on the consequences of
actions, and that these consequences necessarily flow from the
nature of things. I believe that the universe is natural.

We now have an even richer view of the Universe coming from a n inflationaryBig Bang. This is a realexpanding universe beyond our real sky curtain made up of remarkable structrures like Black Holes, galaxies and neurtron starts. A very nice, (zoomable) modern  modern map of the Universe with 600,000 scientific items is called “Mapping the Universe: Space. Time. Discovery!” A zoomed up version of it, with some labels is shown below.  Like the woodcut it is a geo-centric view, starting with earth at the center of Space &Time, but this is a much, much more detailed view of them along with the Humanist view of when and who made discoveries about cosmic phenomena.  

The Map is from  the 3rd Places & Spaces Mapping Science exhibit and has too many wonderful multi-dimensional elements to cover here, but note that it uses a geo-centric orientation to focus us on the familiar We are Here and then we can zoom through space and time to see discoveries unfold. It has legends and a log-scale, info boxes and charts supplement our visual journey. There is spiral showing science candidate areas for growth. In the distance at the edges of the map in blue we see filaments of galaxies and beyond that early universe quasars in red.

Below is a more detailed View of a section of the Collaborative product created by scientists Chen et all.  You can zoom to this on the Map Exhibit site. 
As we zoon in for details we see the time scale of discovery & their type as legended items. Besides asteroids (grey circles) and exo planets (yellow circles) we have items like The Great Attractor.”  This is something our pilgrim didn’t know. Turns out that the Milky Way is being pulled  towards a concentration of mass now called the Shapley Supercluster which lies ~ 500 million light-years away.  That’s a long way for a pilgrim’s voyage, but science reports on these frontiers.  At the edge we see the Sloan Great Wall,  a structure approximately 1/60 of the diameter of observable universe which is located approximately one billion light-years from Earth. 

Finally this astro science map also uses science citations to note (red star markers) discovery work that is “bursting” that is, where our scientific knowledge is advancing rapidly. You may see them just below the caption. What a better view of the cosmos and our place in it than that old woodcut-pilgrim image. How good it is to continue the human search for our place in the cosmos.  An how strange, it seems to me, to be surrounded by slumbering fellow citizens who care little for such maps telling of cosmic explorations and who little value the accompanying contextual voyages of self-discovery they allow.


Mapping the Universe: Space. Time. Discovery!:

Friday, June 28, 2013

Did the Gay Rights Decision Make an Intolerant God Angry?

By Gary Berg-Cross

The recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings ruling on DOMA and gay marriage is rightly celebrated as a civilized advance. But it has caused some cultural consternation in conservative and religious circles who see rights as something God provides rather than something human's decide. Dan Cathy son of founder Truett Cathy & president of the closed-on-Sunday fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A bull-tweeted his way into the debate. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he tweeted:

"Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies," The post was later deleted but not before the paper and others captured screenshots of it.
As reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy had earlier told an online religious magazine that he was “guilty as charged” in his opposition to gay marriage.: “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” Cathy edged into harsher comments of vengeance: “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,”

That’s not the tone of some mainstream religious groups even if they support the religious conception of marriage and speak of gay marriage as some type of sin. Their compromise position is to “tolerate” gays. But as reported by Crooks and Liars tolerance wasn’t the tone taken by televangelist Pat Robertson who pointed to HebrewTestament style vengeance: 

"Look what happened to Sodom. After a while, there wasn't any other way, and God did something pretty drastic."

Robertson also had some thoughts on how we’ve come to this. It the fault of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may have law clerks "who happen to be gays." Another sign of faulty reasoning about why the arc of history bends towards justice.  And another sign of embedded intolerance among some who are very sure of their god-generated wisdom. As the Dalai Lama said:

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”



Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Charter Schools What?

by Edd Doerr (

Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes has just released a new study of charter schools. But press coverage of the report has been  rather weird. Here are the major headlines on June 25 ----  New York Times: "Charter Schools Are Improving, a Study Says."  Wall Street Journal: "Charter Schools Receive a Passing Grade." Bloomberg News: "Stanford Study Says Charter Schools Outperform." Huffington Post: "Charter School  Performance Study Finds Small Gains." Education Week: "Charters Show 'Slow and Steady Progress,' Multistate Study Finds." Washington Post: "Report questions effect of nation's charter schools." And finally, the Deseret News (Utah): "Study: Majority of US charter schools perform equal or worse than traditional schools."

It turns out that the Deseret News and Washington Post headlines are the most accurate. While the study does show that charter schools have shown some improvement since Stanford's 2009 study, the bottom line is that the vast majority of charter schools are actually worse than or no better than regular or traditional public schools. Further, the new study deals only with reading and math. So what about art, music, science, social studies?

Still further, "Labor Lawyer", a frequent commentator on educational matters in Education Week, pointed out in that journal that charter schools serve a larger percentage of kids of  more "concerned/functional" parents than do regular public schools, this giving them a "skimming" advantage.

Finally, let me call attention to the new 2012 book from Teachers College Press, "Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What's at Stake?" by Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine, with a foreword by prominent education expert Deborah Meier.

The Vatican at the UN

a review by Edd Doerr

The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State? Catholics for Choice, 24 pp, 2013. (Available free from Catholics for Choice, 1436 U St NW, Suite 301, Washington, DC 20009. May also be accessed at

The Catholic Church is the only religious body in the world that enjoys Permanent Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. It uses that position to impede or block UN action on women's rights and reproductive  choice (contraception and abortion). This important and unique monograph comprehensively explains how the church "wormed its way" into this position after World War II, a process that is too irreducibly complex for easy summary, and how it uses that position.

We might note that the Catholic Church is the only religious body with which the United States government has formal diplomatic relations, an arrangement begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 over substantial opposition. (I testified at a congressional hearing on the matter and was one of the plaintiffs in the unsuccessful effort to block that recognition as a violation of the First Amendment.) But that matter is beyond the scope of this review.

For clarity, the Catholic Church is headed by what is called the Holy See, which is headquartered  at the Vatican (citta del Vaticano), a sovereign enclave smaller than an 18-hole golf course in Rome created by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929. The US and the other 177 nations that now have diplomatic relations with the church have them with the Holy See, not Vatican City. The church for centuries ruled an actual country called the Papal States in central Italy, but they were incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1970. The church remained "stateless" from 1870 until the Lateran Pacts of 1929. During that 59 year period, however, the Holy See concluded concordats (treaties) with a  number of countries, such as Colombia. In 1933 the Holy See signed a concordat with the Nazi government in Germany.

Catholics for Choice for several years has led a broad effort called "See Change" to get the Holy See's (Vatican's) status at the UN reduced to the level of myriad other NGOs. Given the ongoing worldwide war on women's rights and reproductive choice and the feeble efforts to deal with climate change, resource depletion, poverty, and overpopulation, the Catholic Church's obstructionism needs to be challenged by all concerned people of all religious persuasions.

If readers order the print edition of this monograph, let me suggest that they send a check for $5 to cover costs.

"Anti-Abortion Buddies"

by Edd Doerr

This letter was published in the July 2013 issue of The Progressive ---

"Anti-Abortion Buddies" (cap provided by editor)

Thanks for Abby Scher's excellent "Anti-Abortion Forces on the March" (May issue).

But we should also note that the conservative/Republican drive to return women to medieval patriacrhy is matched by their endless campaigns to have state and federal governments divert public funds through voucher and tax-credit schemes to church-run private schools, the vast majority of which indoctrinate kids with anti-choice ideologies.

Progressives need to fight both of these closely-linked campaigns.

Recall that both issues were on the ballot last fall in Florida and, fortunately, both lost.

Edd Doerr, President
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Maryland

"Anti-Abortion Buddies"

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Updating Common Sense

By Gary Berg-Cross

Thomas Paine, author of COMMON SENSE, is perhaps the most controversial of America’s founding fathers. He certainly captured the democratic, revolutionary spirit and provided cogent arguments about the nature of society  While unjust government was the focus of that time, I wonder how he might adapt some of his arguments in Common Sense for our times.  Below is my reworking of the first few paragraphs of his Intro to Government to Common Sense. It is perhaps a bit of what Tom Paine might consider now.

SOME writers have so confounded corporations with society or government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different and have different interests, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, which government should help ensure and has licensed corporations to help in that task. Civil society promotes our happiness positively  by uniting our affections, and is balanced by governance that can restrain human vice and should likewise restrain corporate vice and encourage productive intercourse.  
  Society in every state is a blessing, but corporations like government even in their best state are but a necessary evil. In their worst state untied as crony capitalism or fascism an intolerable one. Crony capitalism seeks a largely society indifferent cooperation between the governing class, government representatives and business.

And in this crony capitalism cooperation many sly mechanisms are employed:

While this cooperation benefits invested business and political interests, its sly mechanisms generally hurts the politically and corporately unconnected and through them society as a whole. Over time the power and narrow benefits of crony capitalism lead to political and social corruption, a fact which my friend James Madison recognized when he noted, in a letter to mutual friend Tom Jefferson in 1788:

"Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done, and not less readily by a powerful & interested party than by a powerful and interested prince."

 For were the impulses of need to be satisfied by corporations be clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, consuming people would need not sign the fine print of arrangements and need a lawyer at every turn. But this not being the case in our daily life, we find it necessary to surrender up a part of our property and property to satisfy daily needs. ; Wherefore, the pursuit of happiness being the true design and end of society and its tools of corporation and government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Looking for another Johann Friedrich Struensee

by Gary Berg-Cross

As the House Republican argue for prosecute journalists for reporting on leaks Freedom of the press is in the news again.  It is not widely known that Denmark was the first country officially to declare freedom of the press. This small step for freedom came about through the influence of an interesting Enlightenment and atheist figure, called Johann Friedrich Struensee. Along with Hume and Voltaire, Struensee is given credit for an early role in the freedom of the press battle in the late 18th century when banning books was in high season.  His Shakespearean-flavored, but true story of early Enlightenment battles against ignorance and entrenched power remains one for our times because it shows how a person of vision, skill and fortitude can marshal progressive forces.

The full story of enlightened ups and downs (he was executed by reactionaries) is told in books like Per Olov Enquist ‘s THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN'S VISIT (Translated by Tiina Nunnally  & Reviewed in the NYT) and by  the book and movie A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) nominated for the Best Foreign film Oscar, based on the novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. The film allows one to feel the changing times of 18th century Europe filled with possibilities and obstacles.
In the late 1760s Denmark was nominally ruled by Christian VII, but a strange childhood and apparent mental illness made for erratic rule as factions of advisers struggled for influence. All this changed when he came under the care of doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, his personal physician.


The ambassador was however, alarmed by Struensee’s disdain for religion and established authority. - ‘It cannot easily be determined whether his talents are more formidable, his principles more relaxed or his address more seducing’.

Altona was the right place for reform. It had attracted some influential freethinkers who had fallen out of power with the King’s court in Copenhagen. Through them Struensee was introduced to the King becoming his personal doctor, and through this executive he was able to provide wise advice. Medical advances that worked, like vaccinating the elite's children gained him an audience and following. (NB while also ministering to the poor in times of Smallbox). Radical medicine was part of Enlightenment and what you could do with the human body (such as dissection for autopsies.)

Brilliant and brave he steadily rose in power & influence. In 1768 Struensee was described by then British ambassador as having: ‘carried freedom of thinking as far as any man’

Struensee eventually gabbed enormous power, becoming "de facto" regent which allowed him to  introduce widespread progressive reforms such as the abolition of torture. Of course the irony is that he seemed to act as a benign dictator, a role that his enemies could use against him. The paradoxes are well captured in the film A Royal Affair viewable on instantly Netflicks.

Still many reforms were enacted and set a tone that was to prevail after some decades of reversal later on and the torturing of Struensee as one of many ironies. 

A notable achievement was King Christian VII's declaration of freedom of the press in his territories  Norway and Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein) on 4 September 1770. It was in the form of a Cabinet Order to his Danish Chancellery, in the following words:

We are fully convinced that it is as harmful to the impartial search for truth as it is to the discovery of obsolete errors and prejudices, if upright patriots, zealous for the common good and what is genuinely best for their fellow citizens, because they are frightened by reputation, orders, and preconceived opinions, are hindered from being free to write according to their insight, conscience, and conviction, attacking abuses and uncovering prejudices.

And thus in this regard, after ripe consideration, we have decided to permit in our kingdoms and lands in general an unlimited freedom of the press of such a form, that from now on no one shall be required and obliged to submit books and writings that he wants to bring to the press to the previously required censorship and approval, and thus to submit them to the control of those who have undertaken the business until now of inspecting them; so have we graciously revealed and made known this our will concerning our kingdoms to our Danish Chancellery.

Given at Friedrichsberg, the 4 September 1770. Christian.

These are principles and values worth conserving. The Enlightenment atmosphere gave Europe a chance to overcome the chill of entrenched authorities including sacred spaces and intrusions into private lives.  We may face a new treat based on a security state mentality. We can only hope for some small chance that we will also have champions like Johann Friedrich Struensee.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ask Congress to hire humanist military chaplains

By Mathew Goldstein

Atheists, agnostics, deists, humanists, freethinkers, and others identifying as nontheists serve honorably within our nation’s military. Chaplains should support nontheistic service members with the same enthusiasm, resources, and services that they provide for theistic service members.  But the reality is that at least some religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic soldiers.  The House of Representatives will be voting this Thursday on an amendment that proposes to open the military chaplaincy to humanists.  Send an email to your Representative today from the Secular Coalition of America Action Alert page.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Senate GOP: Old Tricks

by Edd Doerr

Two days after Sen Tom Harkin (D-IA) released his new bill for updating federal aid to education Sen Lanar Alexander (R-TN) threw in the GOP bill. Worth noting is what the NY Times reported on the GOP bill on June 6.

"Mr Alexander  said he wanted to include a provision allowing parents to take public money  and put it toward any public school or accredited private school of their choice. He said that he and Sen Rand Paul (R-KY) would be introducing an amendment to the bill once it reached the Senate floor to give vouchers to families to use federal dollars to attend private schools."

Alexander's bill, of course, will not reach the floor in the Democratic majority Senate.

But there you have it. The Republican Party once again is pouring the same old sour whine into the  same old dirty bottle. They are locked into trying to divert public funds to religious private schools despite the federal and state constitutions, despite over 40 years of landslide defeats of such measures in 27 statewide referendum elections. They brazenly thumb their noses at the religious freedom of American taxpayers not to be forced by government to support religious institutions, at our religiously neutral public schools, at our public school teachers and teacher unions.

Once again let me recommend my article "The Great School Voucher Fraud", accessible at the Americans for Religious Liberty web site ---

They aren't giving up. Neither should the sensible majority who value our freedoms and our democratic public schools.