Friday, January 24, 2014

"Murder in Paradise"

by Edd Doerr

While I spend little time watching TV, a recent British mystery series, "Murder in Paradise", has been interesting. It is filmed in the Caribbean and the central character is a crotchety London police inspector stationed on the island. In the one hour episode we watched last night (previously recorded), the murderer is a Catholic nun who heads a local convent and runs a racket  touting a Lourdes-like "holy water" spring. The victim is an 18 year old postulant nun who turns out to be the daughter of the local priest, who had had an affair with her mother back in Strassbourg, France. The British cop refers several times to nuns as "spooky". The series is somewhat lighthearted. I rather doubt that the series could have been produced in the US.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Public School Advantage

a review by Edd Doerr

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski. University of Chicago Press,  2013, 276 pp, $18.00.

For decades well-funded promoters of school privatization, vouchers and charter schools have criticized our public schools and pushed the notion that market-based models of education and diversion of public funds to faith-based and other private schools would improve education. In this important new book University of Illinois education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski let the privatizers and voucher pushers -- Milton Friedman, John Chubb and Terry Moe, and many others -- toot their ideas for dozens of pages. Then WHAM, they lower the boom. With serious analyses of published and peer-reviewed studies, like NAEP, they show that the supposedly beneficial effects of vouchers, competition, and educational marketization are really just the effects of the various kinds of SES (socio-econimic status) selectivity, and that in the real world regular public schools offer better education, despite the endless attacks on public education, on teachers and their unions, and on public school budgets. They show how and why public schools work better, though that might seem counterintuitive to some. Their book contains full documentation.

The authors do not even need to refer to the referenda and polls showing strong public opposition to school privatization, or to what actually is the religio-ideological nature of the vast majority of private schools. This book reinforces and stands with such other recent works as Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the  Danger to America's Public Schools, and Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine's Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What's at Stake. These three books are indispensable for all who care about education and the future of our country.

(Edd Doerr, a former teacher of history and Spanish, is president of Americans for Religious Liberty,

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Church-State Separation

Religio-political ultraconservatives and their media regularly deprecate church-state separation as the exclusive province of secularists, humanists and "unbelievers". They are dead wrong. Separation was incorporated in our federal and state constitutions  through the collaboration of deists, secularists and a whole range of devout Christians. In our lifetimes voters from California to Massachusetts and from Florida to Alaska in 27 referenda have voted overwhelmingly for separation and against diversion of public funds to faith-based private schools. Even in Mississippi, our most conservative and Christian state, voters a couple of years ago voted 58% to 42% against an effort to outlaw abortion by putting into law the theological notion that human personhood begins at conception.

During the years when efforts were being made in Congress to amend the Constitution to authorize
government sponsored prayer in public schools, divert public funds to church schools, and diminish women's rights of conscience on reproduction, Christian and Jewish groups made it clear that they opposed government tinkering with our most fundamental freedoms. And let me cite the Declaration of Principles of Liberty magazine, founded in 1906 by the theologically conservative Seventh-day Adventist church:

"The God-given right of religious liberty is best exercised when church and state are separate. . . .
Religious liberty entails freedom of conscience: to worship or not to worship; to profess, practice, and promulgate religious beliefs, or to change them. In exercising these rights, however, one must respect the equivalent rights of all others. Attempts to unite church and state are opposed to the interests of each, subversive of human rights, and potentially persecuting in character; to oppose union, lawfully and honorably, is not only the citizen's duty but the exercise of the golden rule -- to treat others as one wishes to be treated."

Now that is a statement that should be approved by Americans of all shades of belief and "unbelief", by liberals and conservatives and moderates.

Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty (

Monday, January 20, 2014

Russia: The Pendulum Swings

by Edd Doerr

For decades the now defunct Soviet Union strongly opposed all religion and allowed women free choice on abortion. Now, however, Russia did not turn into Sweden, as Gorbachev seemed to have wanted, but, under the leadership of former  KGB agent Putin, has reverted to Orthodoxy, which never experienced the Reformation or Enlightenment. The pendulum has swung past the midpoint and is moving  in the direction of the American "Religious Right". Efforts are now being made, in cooperation with US fundamentalists, to roll back women's rights of conscience and religious liberty on abortion. Now, according to Dr Lyubov Erofeeva, a gynacologist, anti-choice groups are "growing like mushrooms. They are attracting young people with little knowledge, with little life experience." For details see Adam Federman's article "Seeding Russia's Culture War" in The Nation magazine for Jan 27.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Overuse of "the"

by Edd Doerr

Despite its incomparably rich vocabulary and other virtues, our English tongue is rather a mess phonetically. Not long ago I wrote a short story that read perfectly well  phonetically though every single word in it was misspelled. Example: "Thuh Kween uv Gnawrweigh phell  doun thuh stares."

Especially annoying is to see the plural nouns "media" and "data" used as singulars in so much writing today. And the increasing substitution of the archaic "unbeknownst" for "unknown" or the use of the inaccurate and antique "dashboard" for the "instrument panel" of a car.

Then there is the overuse of the definite article "the", as in "The psychologist Joe Blow said . . . ",  implying that Joe is the only psychologist, instead of the more accurate and less grating "Psychologist Joe Blow said . . ." This overuse of "the" is found in even the best newspapers and magazines. How many trees have been wasted producing the paper for excessive use of the unnecessary "the"?


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Alan Weisman's "Countdown"

a review by Edd Doerr

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman. Little, Brown & Co,  2013, 528 pp, $28.00.

Over the last 60 years in which I have been involved with the matter,  world population has tripled to over 7 billion. Without the increasing access to contraception and the over 50 million abortions per year, world population would now easily top a totally unsustainable 10 billion people.

Alan Weisman's comprehensive and wide-ranging Countdown is the best, most important book on this vital topic in years and demands to be read by all. Not only does the author -- an experienced journalist who spent time in 21 countries on 5 continents to write the book -- thoroughly explore the complexities of population growth but he details how this growth in  numbers is related to what is happening to our world, what we collectively are doing to the environment that sustains us and all life on our planet. In short, population growth is fueling climate change and global warming, rising sea levels, environmental degradation, resource depletion, topsoil erosion, waste accumulation, deforestation, desertification, fresh water shortages, food crop disturbances, droughts, biodiversity shrinkage, overcrowding, increased pollution, and a rise in sociopolitical disorganization and violence.

Our numbers will be reined in, either humanely and intelligently by us or harshly and brutally by nature.

Weisman makes all this comprehensible, leaving no stone unturned. And he does  not spare the conservative religious leaders who have obstructed efforts to deal with overpopulation and/or been indifferent to what we are doing to our environment. He recommends solutions, including equalizing educational and political opportunities for women, which leads to family size reduction and to freedom from patriarchalism and misogyny.

This book is "must reading" for 2014.

(Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty, a columnist in  Free Inquiry, and a widely published writer.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Washington Area Secular Humanists on Wikipedia

By Gary Berg-Cross

Just as Humanlight commenced in December, 2013 and the year was ending we got word that WASH now has a. entry on Wikipedia - see our page. Thanks to  WASH Board member Phil Kalmanson for taking on this effort and hanging in there thru several seemingly contradictory directions to add or delete details to satisfy the Wiki criteria.  We tried not to take it personally.

The page is a nice summary place and will perhaps help build the community. It’s much bigger than pages for things like Humanlight.  Bu there are still things to do.  Now that we have a page I added WASH to the list or secular organizations listed under Secular Humanism.

Perhaps others will find some things to add and places to add info.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Atheists need to assert ourselves! Here's how.

By Mathew Goldstein

Jeffrey Taylor is a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine.  Salon magazine recently published his short article 15 ways atheists can stand up for rationality. He recommends that we "arm ourselves with the courage of our rationalist convictions and go forth. We will all be better off for it." I agree.

Substituting metaphor for evidence

By Mathew Goldstein

When a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used for one thing is applied to another the result is a metaphor.  Metaphors rely on utilizing one or more words whose actual definition renders the sentence nonsensical or false.  The sentence must be reinterpreted non-literally by substituting a context sensitive inferred meaning for the actual meaning of one or more of the words to extract it's intended meaning.  For example "all the world's a stage", "he drowned in a sea of grief", "she is fishing in troubled waters", etc.  Metaphors implicitly compare a situation to something else, but the situation is not actually that particular other thing and that other thing may itself be fictional.

A factual assertion that an entity of type X does not exist is not contradicted or challenged by citing the use of the noun for X as a metaphor.  It is silly to argue that a sea of grief exists because at some point in our lives many people experience the sentiment of being drowned in a sea of grief.  This is a variety  of category error.  Metaphors interpreted literally are false and therefore cannot be rationally cited as evidence to demonstrate that the thing referenced by the metaphor actually exists.

Yet so-called "sophisticated theology" relies on such misuse of metaphor to argue for the existence of a god.  An open reliance on metaphorical interpretations gives liberal theology in particular more flexibility than the more literalist conservative theology.  Liberal theology often puts this flexibility to good use in selectively shedding itself of the most blatantly untenable content of its holy books by dismissing it as metaphor. Good metaphors are meaningful, so by converting falsehoods into metaphors the falsehoods can be converted to potentially meaningful fiction.  But a reliance on converting falsehoods to meaningful fictions can only go so far.  Religion needs something more than meaningful fiction alone to justify the clerical salaries.  Religion needs factual content.  Both liberal and conservative theologians will cite metaphors as evidence for factual claims.  In particular, they rely on metaphors as substitutes for evidence of the existence of divinity.

The desire for a god to exist is so strong that many people consider it a serious character flaw to not believe in a god.  Famous people, particularly if they hold positions of responsibility, will often be challenged to publicly aver a belief in god.  If that famous person wants to avoid becoming a target of popular disdain and derision then that person is obliged to respond affirmatively.  So the best that they can often do under the circumstance is give a metaphorical response to try to have it both ways.  The problem here is that by doing that we play into the hands of sophisticated theologians who take that gift ball and run with it, claiming that the celebrity has publicly endorsed belief in their god.   I know from personal experience that many people cite such publicly stated metaphors from people such as Einstein and Hawking as support for their belief that theism is more reasonable than atheism.  This further isolates us atheists.

When someone says god is the "ultimate ground of being", we can respond by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, who once said "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?  Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg".  How many gods exist if you call the ultimate grounds of being a god?  Zero.  Calling the ultimate grounds of being a god doesn't make it a god.  Richard Dawkins is correct when he asks "There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?”  Supernatural types of willful agents that reside outside the laws of physics are all in the same boat, there is insufficient reason to give gods more slack than any other such imaginary, supernatural entities.  Accommodating popular intolerance is not a good reason.

It is better to not hide behind the metaphors.  If you believe that there are no immaterial willful agents, no immaterial minds, no creator and chief managing administrator of the universe, then come out of the closet.  Say so publicly and unambiguously.  Call yourself an atheist.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Stephen Law on what is humanism

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Outpost blog has a thoughtful, and somewhat lengthy, post by Stephen Law titled What is humanism? It addresses various questions, some of which overlap with the questions appearing in Don  Wharton's previous post.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Questions from a Theologian

I have an interview with a theologian tomorrow. I like the guy. He is teaching a class on cross cultural understanding. His students are saying that the most typical problem they are encountering is relating to atheists. He wants to address that problem in his class. I told him that I likewise value compassion and understanding across cultures. I also made it clear that I was firmly on the side of the “new atheists” in their clear philosophical principles. He did not have a problem with that. He claimed they they also vigorously debate and confront issues. That implies that he might also be a rather liberal Christian, a bit closer to where we stand. That still can be a rather vast distance from our views. Anyhow, if he really wants answers to his questions he will likely appreciate some broader answers from our community than just what I would have to say. His questions are:

1) Why are you an atheist?

2) Would you say that you are a part of a community of like-minded people? What does belonging to this community mean for its members?

3) How are atheists different from religious individuals?

4) What are the goals of Atheism for us as human beings?

5) How do you see evidence and reason as leading to prosperity and compassion? How would you define your individual source of compassion?

6) How would you define atheism?

Responses from our community are appreciated

Don Wharton