Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fake history from the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition

Reacting to the recent publication of an Air Force cadet handbook that omitted those words from the oath, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition has sponsored a billboard near the entrance to the Air Force Academy that features the Mount Rushmore carvings of four presidents with this question and their response: "Are you free to say So help me God?  They did."  Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USAR Retired, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, one of the organizations in the coalition, is quoted as saying "The presidents Americans admire all solemnly uttered these words when they took their oaths of office. Our Air Force cadets should be encouraged to follow their example.”  There is a problem with this.  No one with personal integrity who is genuinely knowledgeable about presidential oath history can assert that all presidents added those words to their oaths of office.

Let's start with Theodore Roosevelt's second inauguration.  The Lowville, N.Y. Journal and Republican, March 9, 1905 (PDF), the Indiana Evening Gazette, March 4, 1905 , the Newark Advocate. March 4, 1905,Weekly Kentucky New Era, March 3, 1905 (March 4 revision), and others quote the oath recitation and details Roosevelt's immediate before and after actions with no mention of shmG.

First hand accounts of Theodore Roosevelt adding the phrase "And thus do I swear" during his first inauguration [September 14, 1901] can be found in The Illustrated Buffalo Express - Sunday, September 15, 1901, The Washington Post, September 15, 1901 (PDF), The Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1901, The Last Days of President McKinley, by Walter Wellman published in The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume XXIV, New York, Review of Reviews, 1901, page 414-426, and Theodore Roosevelt, patriot and statesman the true story of an ideal American, by Robert Cornelius V Meyers, Philadelphia, Pa. and Chicago, Ill., P. W. Ziegler & co. [c1902], page 388. Roosevelt also did not use a bible during his first inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-six president of the United States. A typical American, by Charles Eugene Banks and Leroy Armstrong; c1901, page 377 quotes the oath recitation without shmG as does American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward Stratemeyer, 1904, Lee and Shepard, Boston, Chapter XXV. The Executive Register of the United States, 1789-1902: A List of the Presidents ..., by Robert Brent Mosher, 1903, Friedenwald, Baltimore, MD, page 284, shows the certificate signed by the president with the words of oath as recited without shmG. The Authentic Life of William McKinley, by Alexander K McClure, New York : W.E. Scul, 1901, page 494 quotes the oath recitation without shmG. Executive Register of the United States: 1789-1902. Compiled by Robert Brent Mosher, Washington, DC. (Baltimore, MD: The Lord Baltimore Press (The Friedenwald Company); 1903), page 284 quotes the oath recitation as certified by "JOHN R. HAZEL, U. S. J."

Chapter XXXIV of A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay, 1904, The Century Co., New York quotes the oath recitation without "so help me God" for the first and second Lincoln inaugurations. Also quoting the oath for the second inauguration is Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, by T.B. Peterson, 1865, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, p. 192. Abraham Lincoln : the true story of a great life:, by William Osborn Stoddard, 1885, New York, Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, p. 448, says "The oath of office was administered by Chief-Justice Chase; the President looked out for a moment, silently, over the multitude, and then he addressed them ...." A similiar depiction is found in The every-day life of Abraham Lincoln; a biography from an entirely new standpoint,1886, by Francis F. (Francis Fisher) Browne, New York and St. Louis, N. D. Thompson Pub. Co., p. 680.

The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 1861, page 1 (PDF) shows Chief Justice Taney reciting the constitutional oath of office to Abraham Lincoln without shmG and then "Having administered the oath, Judge Taney congratulated Mr. Lincoln amidst the loud applause of the assembled spectators, and the stirring music of several bands." Similarly, the Weekly Standard, March 13, 1861 quotes the oath recited without shmG. Also, American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Inaugural Bible, 1861 quotes the recitation of just the constitutional oath. The Life of Abraham Lincoln; from His Birth to His Inauguration as President by Ward Hill Lamon, 1872, Boston, James R. Osgood and Company, page 536, quotes the 1861 oath recitation without shmG. Ward Lamon was one of Lincoln’s few close friends. An eyewiteness account of the oath recitation is provided by a lawyer, Wilder D. Wright, who campaigned for Lincoln. Immediately after the ceremony he wrote this in a letter to his father: "When the address closed, and the cheering subsided, Taney rose, and, almost as tall as Lincoln, he administered the oath, Lincoln repeating it ; and as the words, i preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution came ringing out, he bent and kissed the book." Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, By Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, page 33.

Christ the King, by Reverand James Mitchell Foster, 1894, James H. Earle, Boston, page 277 makes the following observation about Lincoln's inaugurations:
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidentail oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take tthe presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.

The Gazette of the United States, March 10, 1801 (PDF) quotes Thomas Jefferson taking the oath without saying shmG as does the Connecticut Gazette, March 18, 1801, (PDF) and the Impartial Register, March 19, 1801, (PDF).

The Maryland Gazette, Thursday March 14, 1793, page 2 (PDF) provides a detailed account of the swearing in of George Washington during his second inauguration, including a quote of the oath recited without mention of shmG being spoken. An image of the same article from The Diary, March 7, 1793, page 3 (PDF) and the New York Daily Gazette, March 8, 1793, page 2 (PDF). The New Jersey Journal, March 13, 1793, (PDF), and The Vermont Gazette, March 15, 1793, (PDF), also quote the oath recitation.

William Ferraro, Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor of The Papers of George Washington, wrote (email January 25, 2008) "Like my much more experienced colleague at the Papers of George Washington, Senior Editor Phil Chase, I have come across no contemporary or eyewitness accounts of George Washington's first inauguration to support the tradition that he added the words "So help me God" to the presidential oath."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation saw that the billboard was double sided and had a vacancy on the other side.  Their billboard asks "Are you free NOT to say So help me God? George Washington DIDN'T in his officer's oath."  The MRFF is an advocacy organization with integrity that knows American history.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Maryland state bonds would fund sectarian religious activity

Churches and masonic lodges are privately owned and operated religious facilities, they are not places of public accommodation. They have a first amendment right to close their door on anyone who tries to enter their facilities for any reason or for no reason.  A church or masonic lodge that opened their door to the public yesterday could abruptly change their policy and close their door tomorrow.

The state of Maryland nevertheless grants itself the power to provide loans to such religious facilities by issuing state bonds backed by taxpayer money.  The text of the bond bills declare that any facility being funded this way not be a place of sectarian worship or instruction.  Yet in practice that standard is interpreted very loosely by lawmakers as exemplified by two pairs of bond bills being considered by this year's General Assembly. House bill 1498 and Senate bill 498 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Baltimore City – SS Philip and James Church Hall Renovation and Repair.   House bill 1477 and Senate bill 965 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Prince Hall Grand Lodge.  

The church hall is utilized for "LEARNING FROM THE BIBLE: Biblical Talks" by Fr. Stephen Ryan that covers topics like “AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH: BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON MARRIAGE”.  It is the meeting place for KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS COUNCIL #14102 and for SSPJ PRO-LIFE.  The Prince Hall lodge states on its web page that "no atheist can be a Mason". There is no evidence that either facility is utilized by the general public or is intended to be utilized by the general public.

Furthermore, Senate bill 22 and House bill 1387 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Anne Arundel County – Calvary Food Bank. Pastors at the Calvary Food Bank give a religious sermon to the people who are waiting to receive food.  Despite the Calvary church blatantly mixing their religion with the charity, the state Department of Human Resources gives the food bank grants to buy food.

The non-sectarian standard, even if it were to be enforced, is too weak.  Government cannot discriminate or proselytize, and it is both improper and inconsistent for government to bypass these restrictions by funding private organizations that discriminate or proselytize.  The prohibitions on government sponsored discrimination and proselytizing are bypassed when government funds third parties to do indirectly what government cannot do directly.  Yet in Maryland it appears that even the current weak non-sectarian standard is not being fully respected.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Atheism linked to economic innovation, productivity

We can reasonably assert that philosophical naturalism has nothing to do with anything beyond the belief that the physical universe obeying natural laws is all that there is.  Nevertheless, beliefs about how our universe functions are unavoidably going to tend to influence individual day to day decisions that could, in turn, have larger implications for society.  The Journal of Institutional Economics recently published a study by two economists, Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University titled Religion: productive or unproductive? that claims to have found evidence for negative correlations between religious belief commitments and some macro economic activity.

The researchers used religion data from a variety of sources: the Pew Form’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; the Gallup Poll’s State of the States surveys from 2004 and 2008; and the Census Bureau’s Religious Congregation and Membership Study of 2000 and 2010.  Religiosity was determined by four factors: regular attendance at religious services, strong belief in God, regular prayer, and viewing one’s religion as “very important.”  “Productive entrepreneurship” was calculated using a combination of new businesses created, new businesses created with 500 or more employees, per-capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, and the growth rate of self-employment.

They found that the percent of individuals reporting as atheist/agnostic is positively associated with productive entrepreneurship.  Conversely, all of the religious variables they tracked “tend to correlate negatively and significantly” with a state’s productive entrepreneurship score. The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians in particular “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Atheism: The new Fundamentalism?

Someone describing herself as a "Spiritual Pundit, counselor, and coach", wrote an article recently published in Huffington Post titled Atheism: The new Fundamentalism? It begins with retelling a conversation with an atheist who keeps insisting he does not believe in any God.  The Spiritual Pundit defines god as "a placeholder for the ineffable" but the atheist rejects this as nonsense, saying he believes in science.  The Spiritual Pundit sees evolution "as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation" so she concludes that the atheist must be insisting on an "outmoded version of God" when claiming theism is incompatible with science.  

Anyone who is opened minded "must have some version of what you don't believe in", says the Spiritual Pundit, figuring that as soon as an atheist defines what he does not believe in, his or her atheism is defeated by the simple expedient of redefining god to be something else.  But the atheist will only say he believes in science, and points to historical evils as refuting god.  The Spiritual Pundit does not see historical horrors as "proof of the non-existence of God", citing "new theologies and new understandings of God" that rejects "the puppet master God".  But the atheist persists in declaring science and theism to be mutually exclusive.  To the Spiritual Pundit this demonstrates that the atheist falsely insists on a "Santa sort of a God" and believes in a "disinterested universe made of mere matter ... with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism."  

Thus, the Spiritual Pundit concludes, an atheist is a closed minded fundamentalist who "disregards mystical experience" just like a biblical literalist who "disregards carbon dating".

But disregarding carbon dating and disregarding spiritual experiences are as dissimilar from each other as disregarding science textbooks and disregarding holy books.  It is here, in the insistence on anchoring our beliefs in empirical evidence, and not relying on flights of fancy, that the atheists are correct and the spiritual pundits of the world are mistaken.  Spiritual pundits start with "theologies and understandings" as the conclusion to be reached and then look for ways to make their preferred conclusion consistent with the available evidences.  Thus god becomes "ineffable" and synonymous with our universe by definition.  The atheist, in contrast, starts with the available evidences and tries to reach the best fit conclusion.  The atheist sees in quantum mechanics an example of how critical it is to take an evidence first approach when adopting beliefs about how the universe functions.  

Spiritual pundits see quantum mechanics as an example of how "the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend".   Maybe.  But dealing with the counter-intuitive nature of our universe is the point.  Our intuitions are not up to the task of answering such questions.  A non evidenced, axiomatic, incomprehensible, God defined as "the embodiment" of evolution, or vice versa, is a 100% intuition derived belief that is completely superfluous from the perspective of what the empirical evidence communicates about how our universe functions.  We have no good excuse for abandoning an evidence first approach since that is the only approach that we have any reason to think reliably gets us to factual answers.  No one claims this method is perfect, but it does not need to be perfect to be the only game in town.

As long as the available empirical evidences overall favors the conclusion that the natural universe is fundamentally physical in nature and everything that exists is part of this natural universe, than atheism is a reasonable conclusion to hold (in my judgement, it is the singularly most reasonable conclusion, which is why I am an atheist).  If something is synonymous with our universe, or with mystery, than we already have those words to represent those concepts. Relabeling these concepts as God does not get us anywhere.  If standing firm on an insistence for grounding our beliefs about how the universe functions on empirical evidences defines atheists as "fundamentalists", and "scientific literalists", and "dogmatists", as some spiritual pundits claim, then those labels lose their negative connotations.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Corruption and religious beliefs within states

The question of what effectively prevents corruption, and what contributes to corruption, cannot be answered by only looking at the influence of religion.  China appears to have relatively high corruption and one of the highest proportion of self-declared atheists.  Nevertheless, given that religions so frequently claim an ethical advantage for believers over skeptics, it is good to know a little about what social science has to say about the correlations between religious beliefs and ethical standards.  Since data is often collected on a national level, such comparisons are often most practical to make between states.  The Epiphenom blog focuses on social science studies of religion and non-belief.  Recently, they reported on the results of a study using standard assessments of national corruption by Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA.  They found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.

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

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.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Stephen Law on what is humanism

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.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Can we explain entanglement without supernaturalism?

Is quantum entanglement supernatural magic?  We do not have to be a New Age mystic, or a fan of Chopra Deepak, to think so.  We do not know the spin of a particle until we measure it, yet the instant we know it's spin we also know the spin of its entangled partner particle which could, in theory, be millions of miles distant.  Naturalism's dependency on physicalism sometimes appears to impose too much of a constraint for a feasible explanatory framework.  People turn to supernaturalism in part because they perceive naturalism as too restricted, and therefore too weak, a framework to explain our universe.  Are they mistaken to do this?  Can quantum entanglement be explained within the constraints imposed by naturalism? 

Some intelligent and thoughtful people, such as philosophers Thomas Nagel, Massimo Pigliucci, David Albert, and others, express doubts that a naturalistic framework is sufficient.  Some skepticism is indeed appropriate when dealing with the mysterious and the unknown, as is the case here.  Nevertheless, contra the philosopher skeptics, and popular opinion, the better answer is that naturalism is likely sufficient, and one way to illustrate this is to highlight one such possible explanation.

Physics has sometimes advanced with "what if" thought experiments imagining extreme conditions that would be difficult to replicate in a laboratory, such as Einstein's thought experiment of chasing a light beam, leading to Special Relativity.  Two physics heavyweights, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, and Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, California, recently asked this question:  What would happen if two black holes are entangled?

First, they showed that space-time tunnels emerge from quantum theory when two black holes are entangled. It's as if the wormhole is the physical manifestation of entanglement.  When space-time curves we experience that curvature as gravity.  Anytime an N dimensional object curves, it enters an N+1 dimension.  Given that space + time = 3+1 = four dimensions, gravity evidences a fifth dimension.  Such warping of space-time can produce space-time tunnels, or wormholes.

The two physicists then extended this idea to a single black hole and its Hawking radiation, resulting in a new kind of wormhole. This wormhole links a black hole and its Hawking radiation.  Hawking radiation is the result of the black hole absorbing the anti-particle and emitting the particle of the virtual particle - anti-particle pairs that are otherwise constantly bubbling into and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

Julian Sonner of MIT, Kristan Jensen of the University of Victoria, and Andreas Karch of the University of Washington decided to try to determine what happens with pairs of entangled particles. To see what geometry may emerge in the fifth dimension from entangled quarks in the fourth, these scientists employed holographic duality, a concept in string theory. They found that what emerged was a wormhole connecting the two quarks, implying that the creation of entangled quarks simultaneously creates a wormhole.

So while entangled particles are far apart in four dimensional space-time, they could be joined together, fragilely, in the fifth dimension.  Spooky action at a distance may not be what seems, it could be an illusion from our inability to directly observe the curvature of space-time.  We witness the curvature of space-time indirectly by its products of gravity, black holes, and quantum entanglement (physicists usually consider quantum mechanics to be more fundamental than gravity, so they may say that the curvature of space-time is a product of quantum entanglement).  

We cannot properly have confidence that this quantum entanglement with wormhole scenario is true without more favorable empirical evidence.  But even if this hypothesis proves to be false, the fact remains that a strictly naturalistic framework is rich with possibilities for explaining our universe.  The intuition that a naturalistic framework lacks the power to explain how our universe works repeatedly turns out to be mistaken.  We do not need to turn to supernaturalism to explain how our universe works.  With effort, time, observation, and ingenuity we continue to make progress naturally.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Freethought Equality Fund endorses six candidates

The new Political Action Committee for non-believers endorsed six candidates for Congress in 2014.  The Freethought Equality Fund was launched by the American Humanist Association's Center for Humanist Activism in September.  Two of the candidates, Carolyn Tomei of Oregan and Juan Mendez of Arizona, are secular humanists.  The other four are Jared Polis of Colorado, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Lee Rogers of California.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Harris poll says more US residents "not at all religious", agnostic, or atheist

A press release summarizing the latest Harris poll results on the religious beliefs of United States residents; shows a continuing move away from superstitions and supernaturalism and towards skepticism and atheism. The biggest increase since 2009 was among the "not at all religious", which increased from 15% to 23%.  Those who are "absolutely or somewhat certain there is no God" increased from 13% to 16%. The percentage who either do not believe in God (16%) or are unsure (also 16%) increased from 26% to 32%. The disbelievers and non-believers are younger, better educated, more male, less racially black, and less Republican, on average than the population as a whole.  A small counter-trend towards supernatural belief is evidenced by a greater likelihood for younger people to believe in witches, ghosts, and reincarnation than older people.  Presumably, older people are more inclined to reject witches, ghosts, and reincarnation because those beliefs conflict with the traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs that they are more inclined to take seriously.  The steady trend away from religion and supernaturalism in the United States is showing no signs of slowing down, but almost three fourths self identify as theists  (down from over four fifths at the start of this century).

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Protestant Universalists as activism allies

I recently listened to Deacon Perry King of Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. explain and defend his religious beliefs during a mostly cordial public talk featuring him and Don Wharton of WASH.  My understanding of his perspective is as follows:  He described his denomination as representing a liberal Protestant Christianity that embraces the pluralistic Universalist notion that people from all religions qualify to go to heaven.  He cites Paul Tillich's definition of god as the grounds of being, and he equates god with concepts like goodness and love.  He considers it possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, and points out that some other people call him an atheist, although clearly he does not self-identify as an atheist.  He appears to embrace faith as a valid alternative way of knowing, but then he claims his religious identity is not rooted in concrete beliefs, emphasizing instead that his religious identity is rooted in symbols, abstractions, and meanings.  He asserts that the bible is an important source of wisdom and that Jesus has a special role, but he rejects trinitarianism  He says he has read Sam Harris.  He says he embraces a post-modernist outlook and rejects logical positivism.  Social activism also has a central role, and he identifies the social activism as being motivated by Christianity and as being Christian in character.

For us secular humanists, deciding to join a public policy, or social activism,  or humanitarian intervention, alliance with any other group centers around answering two questions:  What public policy is needed and who else is advocating for that needed public policy?  The evidence regarding global warming related public policy is different from the evidence regarding civic equality for LGTB citizens is different from the evidence regarding atheism versus theism.  The religious belief identities of the other groups in the coalition is irrelevant, and it is counter-productive to exclude anyone from a public public advocacy coalition because of disagreements over unrelated questions, including religious beliefs.  We would never tell Unitarian Universalists that as a pre-condition for working together on a particular issue of common concern it will be necessary for Unitarian Universalists to "show respect for us" by refraining from publicly advocating for Unitarian Universalist belief, or refraining from arguing against atheism, or refraining from advocating against any other conflicting and competing belief, or attending WASH meetings.  We are entitled to insist on the same from them.  Mutual respect is based on equality, and equality entails that everyone publicly advocates for their beliefs and associates only with who they choose without restrictions.

I am confident that I will never call myself a Christian or a post-modernist, never put faith front and center as a preferred method for justifying conclusions about how the universe works, and never put so much credence in an ancient text with so little substance.  The UU Deacon's apparent denial that his religious identity is based on factual assertions (he was somewhat ambiguous here, he only denied he held "beliefs" and then gave examples of beliefs he did not hold that were all factual assertions) is inconsistent with his reliance on faith, since faith is only applicable in a context of reaching true/false conclusions about factual claims. Faith has no applicability to personal preferences or ethical commitments.  Also, a denial that his religious identity is rooted in factual assertions is inconsistent with various factual assertions he made about the nature, or character, of god and the bible. 

Apparently, from a post-modernist perspective, this distinction between factual true/false beliefs, ontological existence assertions as a distinct subcategory of factual assertions (to which logical positivism applies), personal preferences, and ethical commitments, is all blurred.  Blurring these distinctions is convenient for those who want to avoid the constraints imposed by following the evidence. The distinctions between factual true/false beliefs, personal preferences, and ethical commitments are valid and important.  Post-modernism is mistaken.  Furthermore, insofar as his religious beliefs really do refrain from making any factual assertions it loses it's Christian character, contrary to his assertion that his church and it's beliefs are Christian.

Advocacy for atheism is easily accessible to everyone who uses the internet.  The Huffington Post, as do other publications, has a religion section that features writers ably representing many different perspectives, including atheism. There are books promoting atheism published every month, and every year a few of these books sell well.  No church can stop this from happening.   We should never even consider agreeing to unilaterally curtailing public advocacy for atheism as a condition for joining public policy coalitions with anyone else.  We are not pushovers, it would be wrong to capitulate to such double standards and intolerance.  Yes to public policy, social activism, or humanitarian intervention coalitions with any group that shares any such goal with us.  No to curtailing public advocacy for atheism or against religious beliefs.  There is no contradiction here and we should never accept attempts by our competitors to impose one on us.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sean Carroll's argument for atheism

The video of Sean Carroll's Oxford-Cambridge lecture titled "God is not a good theory" is almost one hour long.  I recommend taking the time to watch the entire video.  However, for the benefit of people without an hour to spare I will summarize his argument for you.  

He starts with a definition of theory as an idea about the universe that may be true or false.  For almost all believers, god qualifies as a theory.  However, god is not a precisely specified theory, and this is one of the substantial problems with the theory of god.

Concepts of god can be placed into at least three categories:  Passive, Active, and Emergent.  A passive god, as conceived by arm chair philosophers, is justified as fulfilling some requirement for making logical sense of our universe, such as the first cause, the unmoved mover, and a necessary being.  This a passive conception because this god is not intervening to change any physical laws.  An active conception of god is that of a creator and ruler who cares about human life, communicates to humans about proper human conduct, performs miracles, grounds morality, organizes an after life.  The active god has an empirically observable presence and is justified accordingly.  An emergent conception defines god as synonymous with love, the universe, the laws of nature, feelings of awe/transcendence.  An emergent god is justified as serving a rhetorical function.  

Sean Carroll dismisses the emergent conception of god as unworthy of further discussion because we can have the same conversations about the same topics without making any references to a rhetorical god. An emergent god therefore is superfluous.

The passive conception of god has a huge problem. It is based on a-priori metaphysics.  It is rooted in rationalism rather than empiricism, it fails to give priority to observation.  Such arm chair reasoning has never taught us anything factually true about the world.  What it reveals, at its best, are consequences of axioms, and this can be useful, particularly in mathematics and logic.  But it doesn't tell us which axioms are possibly true.  Such a-priori reasoning cannot get us to the facts about what is actually true in our particular universe.

Sean Carroll then proceeds to argue that even if we take the arguments for a passive god more seriously than is merited by this major flaw in the underlying epistemology, they still do not succeed.  God as a necessary being, first cause, and similar concepts are refuted by the fact that we can easily conceive of many possible, self-consistent, self-contained, coherent, eternal universes in the forms of various mathematical constructs with no god, no first cause, etc.  Furthermore, at least one of these possible universes is plausibly our universe as it appears to represent a framework that correctly models our universe.

A counter-argument is that while it is possible to conceive of universes without god, those universe are infeasible because they lack a sufficient cause or explanation, they provide no answer to the "why" question.  A legitimate universe explanation must answer the question why there is a universe and why it is this particular universe, therefore a god is required.  Sean Carroll disagrees.  You may prefer that there be an explanation for why this universe exists instead of another, or for why this universe exists instead of no universe, but our universe could just be.  We associate causes with events because we experience our universe that way.  Cause identification is linked to the overall context, so examining the same event from different perspectives will very often result in our reaching different conclusions about the cause.  The context in which the universe appears is different from the context of our daily experiences.  So analogizing from the contexts of our experiences within the universe to the context of the universe as a whole here is a weak analogy.

Sean Carroll states that he does not think that everything within the universe can be associated with a reason or a cause.  Here is a short discussion of "Purpose and the Universe" with a video of Sean Carroll discussing the topic in more depth at an American Humanists Association meeting.  He says "The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves."

The primary point here is that all such a-priori metaphysical arguments claims ultimately boil down to contingent empirical claims.  Why must there be a sufficient reason for the universe?  We are obligated to adopt a skeptical stance to such "must be", "necessary", types of assertions.  It can then be argued that sufficient reason is needed because everything else has sufficient reason. But that is an empirical claim. Therefore, we must examine the god hypothesis like we examine all other hypothesis and look for the simplest coherent theory that explains the largest amount of data.

So does god give us a good theory on conventional scientific grounds?  For a variety of reasons, the answer is no.  Conservation of energy means there is no need for a first mover, chemistry means there is no need for a giver of life, natural selection means there is no need for a designer of the many different species of life.  Neuroscience suggests that there is no need for a provider of consciousness and cosmology suggests there is no need for a creator.  While these latter questions remain unsolved problems, there are multiple viable hypothesis and these questions appear to be resolvable using the same types of empirical methods that have successfully resolved the other questions without a god being needed.

Sean Carroll then identifies the Fine Tuning argument as the best empirical argument for God.  He identifies several weaknesses to this argument.  One is that we do not know what other possible universes would support life because we do not know enough about what different forms of life are possible and under what other conditions those different possible forms of life would be viable.  Life may be possible in many other forms and as a result the phenomena of life may be much more generic and common to many different universes than the Fine Tuning argument assumes.  What is needed for life is a very hard question to answer and we are not even close to knowing what percentage of possible universes would support some form of life.  Another weakness of the Fine Tuning argument is that modern physics predicts a multiverse, and in a multiverse where the parameters vary we would expect to find ourselves in a region of the multiverse where the parameters appear to be finely tuned to support our existence.  

Lastly, the question of the probability that god exists given the data is addressed.  If we did not know anything about the actual universe, but we have this theory that there is a god who created the universe and who cares about us human beings, what would we expect the universe to be like?  We know what the universe looks like so it can be tempting to say that god would make the universe exactly as we see it.  But that is a biased approach.  To tackle this question properly, we must try to start with a blank slate.  And here we encounter a problem with the very low entropy of our universe during the Big Bang.  It was about 10 to the -10 to the 120 smaller than its current value.  Such extremely low entropy is incompatible with the existence of life, so if god created the universe to support life then we would predict our universe would have started with much higher entropy.  This would have resulted in a universe with one galaxy instead of our universe with billions of galaxies that are unnecessary for life on earth.

There are other similar empirical arguments against the god hypothesis.  The problem of evil, the problem of random suffering, and the problem of lack of clear divine instructions.  No god ever told us that matter is made of atoms, the universe is billions of years old, people of different races, genders, etc. should be treated equally, and the like.  Trying to salvage god by assigning to god the traits of elusiveness and vagueness is counter-productive since those are traits that evidence a weakness in the god hypothesis.  We cannot have it both ways and say that god is evidenced by fine tuning but no other evidence can count against god.  That is a double standard.  God is much more ontologically problematic than a multiverse.  God is an entirely different metaphysical category from everything else, ill-defined, unnecessary, whimsical, and frustratingly reclusive.  We do better explaining the universe without the god hypothesis. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hylopathism and pantheism overlooks emergent properties

There are numerous Jewish/Christian/Muslim scientists, or at least theistic scientists. I prefer to cite atheist scientists because their arguments are better. Today, I will quote and criticize the metaphysics of physicist Freeman Dyson, who calls himself a non-denominational Christian but whose liberal theology sounds similar to traditional universalist unitarianism.  He appears to meld unitarianism with a type of animism that is known as hylopathism and also with pantheism.  This perspective appears to not be uncommon among liberal academic theologians.  Deepak Chopra, a physician and author who has turned himself into a wealthy man by presenting himself as a holistic health/New Age guru, and by promoting alternative medicine, sometimes cites Freeman Dyson's beliefs as supporting his "quantum healing" concept, which mixes ideas associated with quantum mechanics, applied outside their proper context, with ayurvedic "medicine". Chopra's popular reception in America is symptomatic of many Americans' historical inability, as Susan Jacoby puts it, "to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled theories in the guise of science."

In his book "Infinite in All Directions" Dyson Freeman asserts that there are three levels of mind: "The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is [...] constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws. [...] The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience. [...] [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus" (p. 297).

Either we get sentient life from non-sentient matter or we get non-sentient rocks from sentient matter.  After all, both life and rocks are made with quantum mechanical matter.  Some people with a religious orientation have a tendency to think the latter scenario is more plausible.  But we have lots of evidence that properties that are not found in the constituent parts  emerge from interactions that occur within large ensembles of those smaller parts. Thus, the available evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the sentience difference between rocks and brains is rooted in the differences of the molecules and their chemistry and interactions that result in an active metabolism in sentient life that is lacking in non-sentient rocks.

The fact of emergent properties is not controversial.  These are phenomena that only occur, or can only be defined, when there are a gazillion interactions occuring.  Emergent properties, which appear only within the confines of a particular context, are pervasive.  Examples of these in physics are superconductivity, fractional quantum hall effect, and magnetism.  Weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals, as driven by the random motion of water molecules within a conducive natural environment, is another example of an emergent process. The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses.   Friction, viscosity, elasticity, and tensile strength are emergent properties.  Chemistry is an emergent property of the laws of physics and biology is an emergent property of chemistry.

What is controversial here is the reductionist versus anti-reductionist interpretations of the emergent properties phenomena.  The reductionists say that all emergent properties are ultimately explainable in terms of the basic physics.  The anti-reductionists deny that this is possible.  But we do not have to take a position in that debate to recognize that sentience, and mind, are nothing more than two more instances of the ubiquitous phenomena of emergent properties.  It is a mistake to take emergent properties and assign those same properties to the constituent parts or to universe as a whole, as Dyson Freeman is selectively doing in both directions when he assigns sentience and mind to matter and to the entire universe.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Testing the God hypothesis

I recommend Victor Stenger's blog, which is on the Huffington Post.  His latest article is a synopsis of his argument that the god hypothesis is disfavored by the available evidence.  He adopts a simple, pragmatic, evidenced based approach.  We can do the same from a higher level perspective and substitute testing the closely related, but more general, supernatural hypothesis instead of the god hypothesis.  If our universe appears to exist and operate for the purpose of harboring humans, if our universe appears to exist and operate under the design and control of an intelligent agent to further that intelligent agent's goals, then that is evidence for supernaturalism.  If our universe appears to exhibit an indifference to humanity and exhibits a chaotic, random operation then it is naturalistic.  

We have determined that our universe operates according to laws.  The laws that govern our universe's operation exhibit an indifference to humanity.  Humanity lives at risk of annihilation from a large asteroid, a volcanic storm, a gamma-ray burst, contagious disease, supernovae, or even a solar flare eruption from our sun.  The patterns and constraints that define the laws governing our universe exhibit no intended purpose, no goal.  Our universe's overall organization and operation is haphazard, unstable, and random.  Galaxies are built from a small minority of all of the particles, and after they are born they all eventually disintegrate.  The immortality of the Greek gods is a fiction given that our universe dissapitates at an accelerating rate.  Furthermore, the natural laws governing our universe are not violated.  

The aforementioned considerations are the most relevant empirical evidence available to us for deciding this question.  The best fit conclusion that follows is that our universe is exclusively naturalistic.  This can easily sound sad or tragic to us but that is entirely irrelevant to determining what is true.  It may be that the popularity of supernatural belief is motivated at least in part by wishful thinking, but that is an ineffective, parochial, self-centered way of reaching conclusions about how our universe works.

One of the points Victor Stenger emphasizes in his article is that we arrive at conclusions about how our universe operates by constructing models.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters here is whether the models we construct are successful.  Does the model describe what we observe accurately and consistently?  Does it make predictions which are subsequently verified?  The reason that success is our ultimate criteria is that we have no way of measuring the truthiness of our assertions by any other criteria.  If our model is successful then we have achieved everything that we reasonably can want to achieve.  Thus, it is a mistake to worry that we are missing some additional ultimate truth as a result.  Since we do not have access to that ultimate truth we have not in any sense failed by not acquiring it.  So when some people argue for believing in an unevidenced god on faith they are making an intrinsically silly argument.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Some pointed humor

By Mathew Goldstein

Enjoy this popular video poking fun at religious believers by NonStampCollector.  It is absolutely OK to lampoon ridiculous beliefs and willful ignorance.  We are not showing respect for humanity by refusing to actively criticize unjustified beliefs or by refusing to actively advocate for civic equality for atheists.

Quiz Show

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Senator Mikulski sponsors medical quackery week

By Mathew Goldstein

As if we do not have enough problems due to a refusal of most Republicans to accept and follow the overall direction of the available empirical evidences when setting national policies, particularly in the House of Representatives, one of the senior Maryland Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski, decided to introduce a resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” that applauds "the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care."  Naturopaths claim to be holistic, which apparently means they believe that the natural body is joined to a supernatural soul and a non-physical mind and the three must be treated as a unit.  Naturopaths offer treatment at their offices and at spas where patients may reside for several weeks. Their offerings include fasting, "natural food" diets, vitamins, herbs, tissue minerals, homeopathic "remedies", cell salts, manipulation, massage, exercise, colonic enemasacupunctureChinese medicine, natural childbirth, minor surgery, and applications of water, heat, cold, air, sunlight, and electricity.  Many of these methods are said to "detoxify" the body.

This encomium for medical quackery was passed by the Senate with unanimous consent on September 9.  Eleanor Norton sponsored a similar resolution in the House, but that resolution was not voted.  Seventeen U.S. states, and the District of Columbia (but not Maryland), allow people who are trained at an accredited school of naturopathic medicine in North America to use the designation ND or NMD, some states even license such people to write prescriptions for drugs.  If this resolution is typical of popular, bipartisan, middle of the road, moderation, then don't look for me there.  Here is Senator Mikulski's resolution:

Designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’ to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.
Whereas, in the United States, 75 percent of all health care spending is for the treatment of preventable chronic illnesses, including high blood pressure, which affects 68,000,000 people in the United States, and diabetes, which affects 26,000,000 people in the United States;
Whereas nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese and, consequently, at risk for serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and depression;
Whereas 70 percent of people in the United States experience physical or nonphysical symptoms of stress, which can contribute to chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes;
Whereas the aforementioned health conditions are among the most preventable health conditions and are especially responsive to the preventive, whole-person approach favored by naturopathic medicine;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides noninvasive, holistic treatments that support the inherent self-healing capacity of the human body and encourage self-responsibility in health care;
Whereas naturopathic medicine reduces health care costs because of its focus on patient-centered care, the prevention of chronic illnesses, and early intervention in the treatment of chronic illnesses;
Whereas naturopathic physicians attend 4-year, graduate level programs with rigorous admission requirements at institutions that are recognized by the Department of Education;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are especially skilled in treating chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders, because of their focus on whole-body medicine rather than symptom management;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to serve as primary care physicians and can help redress the shortage of primary care providers in the United States;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to refer patients to conventional physicians and specialists when necessary;
Whereas patients of naturopathic physicians report higher patient satisfaction and health improvement than patients of conventional medicine;
Whereas the profession of naturopathic medicine is dedicated to providing health care to underserved populations;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides consumers in the United States with more choice in health care, in line with the increased use of a variety of integrative medical treatments; and
Whereas the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148; 124 Stat. 119) requires that insurers include and reimburse licensed health care providers, including naturopathic physicians, in health insurance plans: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate–
(1) designates the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’;
(2) recognizes the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care; and
(3) encourages the people of the United States to learn about naturopathic medicine and the role that naturopathic physicians play in preventing chronic and debilitating illnesses and conditions.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

When atheism is religion

Gary Berg-Cross recently commented on the question "is atheism a religion?".  He concluded that, while there is no one correct answer to what qualifies as a religion, a reasonable way to tackle this question is to look for various indicators of religion.  One is a reliance on faith as a way of knowing.  Another is the notion that there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities.  More generally, there is the belief in some non-natural power.  This approach implies that theism is "a religion", but it is not.

A problem here is that atheism and theism are particular beliefs and a particular belief is not necessarily unique to a particular religion.  A religion has a name that is capitalized.  So asking this question about theism, or atheism, is a category error.  Instead, we can properly ask if theism, or atheism, is a religious belief. 

Gary's thoughts on how to address the question, so re-worded, are good.  The conclusion we reach is that individual atheists who think faith is a valid way of acquiring knowledge, who think there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities, and the like, can be considered to be religious.  Otherwise, Bill Maher is correct.  Atheism, unlike theism, is usually not a religious belief.  It depends on how the atheism is held and the overall context of beliefs in which the atheism is embedded.

But does this answer really address the original question?  Why do some people seem to think this is a significant question? What difference does it make if atheism is deemed to be a religious belief or not?

One place where this question has significance is the law because the first amendment calls for no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion and the tax code gives special benefits to religious organizations.  So let's not beat around the bush and pretend that "is atheism a religion?" is a direct philosophical question.  It is really about those laws and their applicability.  What the people who are asking this question do not appear to fully appreciate is that nouns can have different meanings in legal contexts than they do in everyday contexts.  That is the case here.  The people who are asking this question are actually asking if the no establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the tax benefits, apply to atheists and atheist organizations.  Gary commented only very briefly on these questions in his article.

Let's tackle tax benefits first.  There is no proper justification for treating different beliefs differently in the tax code.  We can properly make distinctions on various other criteria, but not on the beliefs of citizens regarding the nature or existence of gods.  Ideally, our tax code would distinguish between profit and non-profit organizations, and between organizations that advocate for or against candidates in government elections and those that do not. The tax benefits that are unique to religious organizations, such as the tax return filing exemption and the parsonage exemption, are unfair and should be eliminated.  If an organization is religious or non-religious should be irrelevant to the IRS.   But for now, given that the tax code does make this distinction, atheists are fully justified in insisting that we are fully entitled to all of the same tax benefits as theists.  So in the tax law context, religion includes both theism and atheism.

In the non-establishment context it is important to recognize that the first amendment does not refer to "a religion", it refers to religion in the plural sense.  We can only identify what is religion in this plural sense by identifying the presence of, and the role of, a religious belief.  Furthermore, in a legal context, a partisan belief is always paired with its opposing belief.  We can either assent or dissent to a partisan belief, and there is no difference in the legal standing of assenting and dissenting.  So here again, since theism is a faith-based, religious belief, and atheism is the dissenting belief relative to theism, both theism and atheism are covered by the noun religion in the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause is paired with the Free Exercise Clause, so atheism also has the same free exercise protections as theism in principle.  However, in practice, atheism makes few, if any, free exercise demands against secular laws.  Protecting free exercise will tend to favor assenting religious beliefs over the corresponding dissenting beliefs.  Free exercise protection should not be allowed to interfere with the health, general welfare, or civil rights freedoms of other citizens.  Therefore, free exercise should have lower priority than most other civil rights protections.  Free exercise should prevail over secular laws only when such accommodation of religious beliefs otherwise does no significant harm.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Religious privileging in Maryland law

Laws that accommodate religious beliefs are sometimes appropriate, and even necessary, to respect individual religious liberty.  Laws should make a reasonable effort to accommodate religious beliefs, even when the religious beliefs are themselves foolish and deserving of disrespect (as is often the case).  Legal accommodation of some peoples' religious beliefs becomes unreasonable religious privileging when it is not protecting free exercise or when it infringes upon other peoples' freedom, civic equality, health, or safety.  Maryland law, like most other state law, includes some religious privileging.  Following are some examples, this is not a comprehensive summary of all such laws in this state.

There are a number of provisions in Maryland that accommodate faith healing.  Faith healing is a good example of a foolish religious belief that arguably negatively impacts primarily the religious believer and thus is at least partially protected as a religious liberty.  But Maryland law sometimes goes further and grants parents the ability to deny prudent medical care for their children. 

Most notable in this category is a religious exemption from a law that requires pregnant women to be tested for syphilis when they first become pregnant and again during the final trimester.  About 50 percent of pregnant women with untreated early syphilis end up with a baby who's infected. That's compared to 1 to 2 percent of women who get treated (thanks to atheist and materialist medicine that some people mistakenly characterize as exhibiting a methodological naturalism bias). They may lose the baby in miscarriage, stillbirth, or soon after birth, or the baby may be born with severe neurological problems. Syphilis also increases the risk of preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction. This religious exemption from syphilis testing of pregnant women in Maryland is unconscionable and should be eliminated.  Other examples of questionable religious privileging in Maryland law that undermines the welfare of innocent children are exemptions from hearing, eyesight, and lead poisoning screening and from vaccinations.

Clergy are partially exempted from reporting child abuse revelations to law enforcement and judicial authorities.  Maryland law also has a second provision that broadly exempts clergy from testifying as a witness in judicial hearings "... on any matter in relation to any confession or communication made to him in confidence by a person seeking his spiritual advice or consolation."  Parents should think twice before passing their children over to religious institutions in Maryland.

Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights in Maryland's constitution  permits "... a declaration of belief in the existence of God" mandate "... as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State".  The U.S. Supreme Court declared this provision of Maryland law to be a violation of the first and fourteenth amendments in 1961, however this law has still not been amended to comply with the federal constitution.  Oaths of office for the National Guard and the Maryland Defense Force include a "So help me God" appeal.  Article 10 of the Rules of Interpretation contradicts these oaths while still incorporating an appeal to a god as follows:

The form of judicial and all other oaths to be taken or administered in this State, and not prescribed by the Constitution, shall be as follows: “In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly promise or declare”, etc. And it shall not be lawful to add to any oath the words “So help me God”, or any imprecatory words whatever.

Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights permits anyone who does not believe "... in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come" to be involuntarily disqualified from serving as a juror or witness.  This Article was amended in 1970 but the amendment did nothing to eliminate this religious privileging.  Instead, the amendment endorsed government establishment of theism by adding this sentence:  "Nothing shall prohibit or require the making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place."

The theistic Pledge of Allegiance must be recited in public schools.  There is an opt out provision for both students and teachers.  Laws like this make it difficult for people to keep their personal beliefs private.  And children in particular shouldn't be instructed by the state that theism is the more patriotic belief.

There are exemptions from sales and property taxes for religious organizations, including a parsonage exemption from property tax.  Another provision gives localities the option of refunding part or all of the property tax that religious organizations would otherwise be required to pay.  There are also regulation exemptions for religious organizations regarding cemeteries, obtaining a trader's license, and erecting advertisement signs.