Monday, May 16, 2016

"Great Author" yes, "God" no

By Mathew Goldstein

The article George Washington: Recognizing God’s hand in America by Dennis Jamison argues that "Washington inserted the words, "So help me God" into his oath of office; there's a movement to yank them out, history and tradition be damned with the Almighty." Mr. Jamison identifies himself as an adjunct faculty member of a community college.  However, the college's web site identifies him as a community instructor with no academic credentials and no expertise in American history.  He is determined to convey his strong conviction on this topic but he is allowing his convictions to substitute for the historical facts, which is the mistake that academics and historians are trained to avoid.  Mr. Jamison confidently makes several firm factual assertions, but he offers no evidence to back them up because there is none.

One such assertion that fails to be supported by historical evidence is "This first inauguration set the tradition, and subsequent inaugurations have change little since Washington’s day."  Since his article is arguing that his presidential oath of office was theistic, this implies all of the subsequent inaugurations included kissing a bible.  Yet there is no evidence that George Washington's second oath of office featured a bible. There are no known inauguration Bibles for presidents John Adams through John Tyler; in fact, there's no concrete evidence that those early presidents used a Bible at all for the oath. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. Both John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law.  Nor is their any evidence that any president appended "so help me God" to his oath office until maybe Lincoln at the earliest. But the evidence that Lincoln did this is weak and contradicted.  Chester Arthur was the first president widely reported to have appended that phrase. So if president George Washington did this, as Mr. Jamison claims, then that did not set a precedent that the other presidents followed.  Nor was the Chief Justice prompting for this theistic codicil, as has been the case since the 1930's.  That is a substantial change, and a relatively recent change. Originally the Chief Justice recited the oath and asked the president elect to affirm, now the Chief Justice recites the oath one sentence at a time and asks the president elect to repeat each sentence.

Another such factual assertion that lacks supporting evidence is 'It is reported that after the official oath, Washington said “so help me God,” and bent down to kiss the open Bible."'  Now, if by "it is reported" Mr. Jamison means that there are people who have asserted that Washington said that then technically he is correct.  But then so what? Many people throughout history have thusly reported many false claims, it merely takes one person to falsely assert something and other people to repeat the same false assertion, which demonstrates nothing at all about what actually happened.  That is exactly the situation here.  There is one, and only one, eyewitness account from someone standing on the balcony that quotes the oath recitation and that account does not include a theistic codicil. Sixty five years later several biographies were published that claimed for the first time that George Washington spatchcocked that phrase to his oath of office, but they are not eyewitness accounts and thus lack credibility.

He then makes the following misleading statement "Those final words have raised controversy among some Americans. Some claim that Washington never said them, as they are recorded nowhere in the official records of the ceremony."  This is false. I have never heard anyone argue that because the words are not in "the official records of the ceremony" they were not spoken.  The actual argument is that there are no contemporaneous eyewitness accounts that George Washington appended that phrase.  None.  Zero.  Neither in "official" records nor in "unofficial" records.  Nor is there such evidence for any other president until Chester Arthur, with weak and contradictory evidence for Lincoln's second oath.  Therefore we lack proper justification to claim that George Washington, or any other president until Chester Arthur, appended that phrase to his oath office.

Mr. Jamison also wrote: "He tended to make references to God in his speeches."  Now it is true, as the two examples in his article show, that George Washington employed multiple different euphemisms for divinity such as the "Almighty Being", "Great Author", "benign parent of human race", etc. He is not known to have utilized the word "God" more than once or twice in his entire life, and then it was while reading a document out loud that was written by someone else.  This is a fact about George Washington that disfavors the conclusion that he said "so help me God" after is oath of office.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Establishment of atheism in China

Questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt regarding the existence of a supernatural realm, or for that matter questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt on other topics, are ultimately individual decisions.  Being human entails freely adopting, possessing, and expressing, our own beliefs.  In a democracy the citizens guide the government.  To the extent that government is telling its citizens what they are supposed to believe, and openly favoring one belief over another, the government is attempting to influence its citizens in ways that restrict their governing role.  Accordingly, democratic government tries to avoid using its authority and powers to actively instruct people, or lead people, on what their beliefs should be.  

Yet government also has responsibilities and interests and accordingly needs freedom of action to carry out its responsibilities regardless of whether or not some of the citizens disagree with the government policies.  Religious beliefs can dictate what is deemed to be ethical or unethical over a wide range of behaviors.  Non-ideological, pragmatic, evidenced based, government policies, enacted and enforced without regard to religious beliefs, are going to sometimes conflict, to some extent, with the religious beliefs of some citizens.   This is, like death and taxes, an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of life.  Non-establishment of religion does not entail that there will be no conflicts.  It merely entails that government will avoid actively taking sides, either for or against, religious beliefs.  We make an effort to accommodate religious believers by recognizing free exercise as an individual liberty also meriting legal protection.

China has a more top down, authoritarian, ideological, approach to governing. There is one political party and that political party governs.  Government censors all sources of information that could influence its citizens beliefs about government policy, including the Internet, and sometimes imprisons people merely for criticizing government policy or trying to utilize otherwise legal process to try to help people harmed by questionable government practices.

Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the advisory body to China’s legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently wrote in the official Global Times newspaper that the party should “unambiguously promote Marxist atheism to society,” and preserve "its leading position in the thinking of the masses of the people," describing it as “the nations’ mainstream ideology.” And he said it was particularly important to “strengthen propaganda education about a scientific worldview, including atheism, for young people." He said that while China protected the rights of religious believers, “as a nation led by the Communist Party, we cannot abandon atheism and turn to religion for spiritual support, nor take a neutral or conciliatory  attitude [when choosing ] between atheism and religion, and cannot allow religion to spread without limits and become the mainstream ideology."

In recent years China has overtly promoted atheism to Communist Party members, who are not supposed to believe in any religion. It imposes controls on its five officially registered religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Catholic and Protestant churches – and acts against unregistered religious groups.  Yet the number of religious believers has grown rapidly.

Since President Xi took office more than three years ago, the leadership has increasingly sought to promote more communist party orthodoxy, criticizing Western cultural and liberal values and other “unhealthy foreign infiltration".  Zhu Weiqun said that a number of party members had “found consolation in religions,” something that had “seriously damaged the party’s ideology, organization and work style.” The Communist Party had not come to power by “guiding people to put their hope on heaven or future life.”  Zhu said it was necessary to guide people to “draw a clear line” between “atheism and religion, science and superstition, civilization and ignorance.”

Here in the United States, organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion, Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, American Humanists, etc. do not want, or seek, an establishment of atheism like that implemented in the authoritarian, single political party, China.  We hear some critics of government non-establishment try to associate government non-establishment of religion in the United States with the policies of the former Soviet Union or the current Communist Party China.  They are mistaken.  Insofar as the U.S. government resembles those governments, it is partly because of our government establishments of theism. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950's it was argued that by passing laws implementing establishments of theism we were asserting one of the most important differences between them and us.  In fact, we actually did the opposite.  We made ourselves less democratic, more authoritarian, and more like the Soviet Union and China.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

How's that for evidence that God exists?

The Resurrection and the Death of Atheism: Jesus rose from the dead.  How's that for evidence that God exists? was written by a Catholic priest, Father Dwight Longenecker, who was ordained a decade ago under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.  Since he claims to refute atheism from the empirical evidence, and arguments of this sort appear to be accepted by many believers, it merits a response.  He claims there is forensic evidence, documentary evidence, archaeological evidence, botanical and biological evidence, photographic evidence, logical evidence, historical evidence, eyewitness evidence, and legal evidence that Jesus was God.

But first, he says, we should begin with some "philosophical head  games".  He described the philosophical underpinnings of what follows thusly:  "If there is just one miracle, however — and we only need one — then nature is not a closed system and there is a force greater than nature and outside of nature. If that miracle is intelligible, that is to say, it makes sense, then the force that is greater than nature is intelligent, and if it is intelligent than it is more than a force, it is a personality."  

While this philosophical starting point has some merit it is biased in favor of the author's preferred conclusion.  It elides the difficulties in establishing that any claimed one time anomalous event actually was "greater than nature and outside of nature" or that it is "intelligent" if it appears to be "intelligible".  It also allows evidence for one such anomalous event to suffice when, in fact, evidence favoring a freak, one time anomaly is a dubious basis for abandoning a naturalistic worldview when the evidence for naturalism is ongoing, pervasive, diverse, and persistent.  A lot will depend here on the quantity and quality of the alleged evidence.  We need a very large quantity of exceptional quality evidence to overcome the evidence for naturalism when all we have is a single event from 2000 years ago claimed to be supernatural.

He then says "The one miracle that Christians claim above all others is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."  He then claims that '... there are really only three options.  First, that he did not really die and the “resurrection” was therefore only a form of resuscitation; second that he did die, but something happened so that his body vanished and third, the witnesses to the resurrection were deluded, deceived or were themselves deceptive.'

There is another possibility, lets refer to this as option number four: The stories about witnesses to a resurrection are false, no one witnessed the alleged resurrection.  In other words, the delusion or deception begins with the stories themselves, and with the authors of the stories, not with the people appearing in the story.  It is interesting that Father Dwight Longenecker excludes this possibility from the start.  Instead, the rest of his article argues against his three godless options.  So let's focus on this fourth possibility.

I am no expert in the history of the time and place of the bible, so I must concede from the start that I am speculating.  The first thing to note is that in the seven epistles that most experts (about 80%) think were written by Paul there is very little historical information regarding Jesus.  Paul's Jesus is an archetype of an imaginary, mythical, fictional, fantasy character.  His other-worldly visions related to Jesus are strongly apocalyptic.  According to Paul, no one reading his writings would outlive the end of times, and therefore his message was extremely urgent.  Reading his epistles it should be easy for anyone who is not gullible to conclude that Paul was a deluded individual who literally dreamed his Jesus into existence.  When you see the guy on the street corner with a sign that says repent now, the end of times is near, that person has a mindset in common with Paul's.

Then came the book of Mark, written in Greek for a Greek (and therefore mostly non-Jewish) audience.  It was probably written sometime after 65 A.D.  The book of Mark contains historical details that had not yet occurred at the time that Jesus was said to be executed.  So we date the book of Mark to several decades after the alleged resurrection, when the events referenced in the book had already occurred.  

Paul had previously persuaded small groups of people that his strictly supernatural visions were factual, and some of those eager to believe people met regularly among themselves for many years to discuss the implications.  Some of them may have thought about their own past encounters with roaming preachers, associated what they heard from these religious preachers with Paul's stories, and linked them to Paul's imaginary Jesus.  Some of them may have been Jewish, and they may have looked to Jewish religious texts to fill in the story gaps. Some of them may have been familiar with other popular stories that circulated at the time, such as those written by Homer, and filled in the story gaps by borrowing from those sources.  Others may have traveled between the different discussion groups and added to the stories to make them fit together better.   The initially abstract, ghostly Jesus thus acquired, with the assistance of ordinary human credulity, an earthly, human biography.  The anonymous author, or authors, of the book of Mark put these stories down in writing, and that became the basis for what later became the bible as we know it today.

So what is the status of the resurrection?  It originated with Paul, in his head.  It is all fiction, and therefore so are the subsequent books that were inspired by Paul's visions of his imaginary Jesus.  All of Father Dwight Longenecker's arguments opposing his three no god options are arguing from the contents of the book of Mark, as if that book, or the subsequent books derived from Mark, are reliable sources of historical information regarding an actual personality named Jesus, which they certainly are not, and thus fail to demonstrate that the available empirical evidence supports Jesus.  But we are not finished yet.

Father Dwight Longenecker ends his argument by citing the Shroud of Turin as empirical evidence for Jesus.  The problem here is that the age of the cloth was carbon 14 dated to a little before the start of the 12th century by three different laboratories, which is not long after it was first discovered.  To get around this problem there is a new video attacking the veracity of that date.  However, the carbon 14 dating was valid and it stands, notwithstanding the efforts to try to discredit it.

That is about the best that anyone can argue, from a Christian perspective, for their being empirical evidence that God exists.  Arguments from a Jewish or Islamic perspective, or other religious perspective, are very unlikely to do any better.  There is plenty of hand waving and grand assertions but little substance.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Secular has two contexts and definitions

Secular and non-religious are synonyms.  Insofar as we know what it means to be religious we also know what it means to be non-religious.  Secular can describe individuals or institutions.  A secular individual can have, or a secular institution can represent, opinions that range anywhere between being pro-religion and anti-religion. An individual with anti-religion opinions, or an institution representing anti-religion opinions, is more likely to be secular than religious because being both religious and anti-religion tends to be self-contradictory.  

However, when the secular institution is government we are talking about laws. Therefore our definition of secular is now the definition found in legal dictionaries. Legal definitions often differ from the definitions for the same word found in general usage dictionaries.  Legal concepts are rooted in legal concerns such as civic equality and liberty.  So it is with secularism as a legal concept.  Secular government is non-religious government.  But unlike opinionated secular individuals and non-government institutions, secular government also requires religious neutrality.

This is a substantial difference and it is important.  Secular government does not represent pro-religion or anti-religion opinions.  Secular government does not favor theism over atheism or vice-a-versa.  Secular individuals and non-government institutions may advocate either for, or against, religions or religious beliefs.  Secular government institutions avoid taking sides on questions of religious beliefs or practices.

When we advocate for secular government we should be advocating for government neutrality vis-a-vis religious beliefs and practices.  This entails sometimes accommodating religious beliefs and practices when it is practical to do so without sacrificing the enactment or enforcement of secular policies.  Secular policies are justified by the overall available empirical evidence.  Individual liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, are secular values.  Religious convictions and practices are considered for accommodation, but not as legal or policy justification.  

Advocating for secular government, advocating for religious beliefs, and being religious, are all mutually compatible, at least in theory if not always in practice. A conflict occurs when religious beliefs are actively opposed to secular laws and polices.  In that zero sum context secularists should be willing to stand against those particular religious beliefs, not because they are religious beliefs but only because the beliefs conflict with secular government.  The notion that secular government avoids all conflict with all religions and religious beliefs is false.

As individuals, some secularists are anti-religion.  Religions are fictions with no exceptions and that alone is proper justification to be anti-religion.  Believing that falsehoods are truths, whether it is believing that there is no global warming problem, that humans are not primates with single celled ancestors, or that some holy book contain instructions from a deity, is bad for humanity.  I would prefer living in a country, and on a planet, where people accurately recognized the difference between fiction and fact and lived in the non-fictional universe instead of living in a human imagination created parallel fictional universe.

Yet it would be a mistake to look to government policy and laws as instruments for converting individuals from religion to secularism. That would betray secular government as a legal principle rooted in neutrality.  Government neutrality as a legal principle has merit and should not be sacrificed.  Converting people away from religion also has merit and that should be pursued separately through individual advocacy and non-government institutional advocacy.  We can each advocate for both types of secularism, or we can advocate for secular government without advocating generally against religious beliefs.  Either way, we should respect this distinction between the two different definitions of secular for the two different contexts.

2016 legislative recap Secular Coalition for Maryland

Bills that passed

One of the bills that we opposed, HB1028 cross filed with SB0682, passed.  This requires voters to decide if alcohol will be sold on Sundays in Garrett County.  Hopefully they will vote yes, but we think that government should not be making religious practice based activity restriction decisions for everyone by citizen vote or by legislation. Religions make distinctions between different days of the week, government lacks sufficient secular justifications for implementing the same distinctions in the laws.

A bill that removes some of the Sunday hunting restrictions in Carroll County, HB0169 cross-filed with SB0219, passed.  Two Allegheny County bills that remove some Sunday alcohol sales also passed.  These were HB0994 cross-filed with SB0736, and HB0995 cross-filed with SB0878.  We prefer that the blue laws be eliminated, but meanwhile we will support each little step that moves us closer to that goal.

A bill applying to Anne Arundel County that, among other things, replaced the sectarian word "church" with the more generic phrase "house of worship",  HB0642 cross-filed with SB0033, passed.  Although we take no position on the overall bill, we thanked the sponsor of this bill for taking a positive step towards our goal of dropping excessively sectarian language from our laws.

HB1005 cross-filed with SB0848, which requires insurers to cover contraception without fees or prior authorization, passed. Some religious people not only oppose contraception, they also oppose insurance coverage for contraception. Those people can be given an individual opt out, everyone else should not need to opt in.

Bills we opposed that failed

HB0016 allows places of public accommodation to discriminate in providing goods and services to weddings.  Although this bill failed, the same provisions were previously written into a different section of the law.  We want those provisions to be revoked.

HB0453, HB1213, and HB1343 cross-filed with SB0706, give millions of dollars in tax credits covering 60% or 70% of donations to private schools.  If lawmakers want state government funding of private education then we suggest lending privately educated children the same textbooks utilized by public schools and allowing otherwise privately educated children to enroll in a limited number of public school courses.

HB0568 one sidedly allows health provider institutions to forbid employees from providing aid in dying to the terminally ill.  We want the laws granting institutions the option to mandate that their employees not provide a health care service to also allow institutions to mandate that their employees provide the same health care service.  We will oppose institutional level "freedom of conscience" bills lacking such reciprocity.

HB0603 cross-filed with SB0749 makes unsubstantiated factual assertions about fetal pain perception to justify banning most abortions at 20 weeks.  HB1357 prohibits government funding of abortions or insurance that covers abortions.

HB0719 cross-filed with SB0522 gives a special sales tax exemption specifically for Boy Scouts of America which has a no atheists, and no atheist leaning agnostics, membership policy for both youth participants and adult leaders.

HB0955 requires all public schools to allow student prayer at all school sponsored events. Public schools are not free speech forums and prayer should not be privileged over all other speech at public school events.

Bills we supported that failed

HB0316 requires publication of video of government meetings.  The videos are useful for understanding the bills.

HB0404 cross-filed with SB0418 makes it legal for doctors to give terminally ill people a prescription of barbiturates that they can self-administer to hasten their deaths. This bill creates procedures to protect the civil rights of health providers and patients.

HB0996 changes Easter Monday from a state wide public school holiday to an optional school district wide public school holiday.  We think government closures on religious holidays should occur only when a majority of employees or customers say they will be absent on that day.

SB0948 requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Maryland Education Credit bills could become law

Maryland Senate Bill 706, House Bill 1343, and House Bill 453 (Maryland a Education Credit) propose providing a tax credit to reimburse individuals and businesses 60% of their donation to charities that finance private school scholarships for children and teenagers, capped at 15 million dollars in tax credits each year.  All of these bills only offer the tax credits for schools that charge no more per student than the public schools.  This cost restriction provision favors religious schools because religious institutions already have paid staff who can be teachers or administrators and whose salaries are already paid by members and because a quality secular education is costly to provide.  House Bill 1213 (BOOST) proposes a 70% tax credit to reimburse business donations for private school tuition.

Religious schools often have an institutional self-interest to try to convince children that they should accept the sponsoring organization's definition of deity.  They may actively teach children to distrust and fear secular academics or competing perspectives.  In pursuit of this self-interest some religious schools stridently teach children blatant falsehoods that contradict a large amount of modern knowledge.  Other religious schools more mildly teach subtle falsehoods that contradict a smaller amount of modern knowledge.  Either way, young children are impressionable, teenagers are responsive to peer pressure, and as a result they are vulnerable to carefully crafted indoctrination.  Private schools can mix political advocacy with religion with academics tightly together, there are no restrictions on what they can teach their students.  The result is harmful miseducation that can be difficult to undo.

Some private schools in Maryland (for example, Windsor Christian Academy and Calvary Christian Academy) teach a curriculum provided by publisher A Beka Book.  A Beka Book takes a biblical literalist and young earth creationist position in its science curriculum, portraying the Genesis creation narrative as a fact.  Some Maryland private schools are members of Accelerated Christian Education which promotes young earth creationism and declares solar fusion to be a myth invented by evolutionary scientists.  Some private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools that was founded by Douglas Wilson who advocates for exiling gays and executing adulterers. Many private schools in Maryland belong to the Association of Christian Schools International which endorses intelligent design creationism.  A student and her mother who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee for these bills were from Chapelgate Christian Academy which is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International.  These schools are prioritizing promoting their own religious world view over providing an unbiased, comprehensive, and factually accurate education to children.  

A tax credit to reimburse donations that fund private school scholarships would offer no guarantee of better educational outcomes for Maryland’s children.  The finances of private schools can be opaque, making financial abuses difficult to detect.  Private schools do not have to report or administer teacher qualifications, class sizes, curriculum taught, student retention rates, graduation rates, demographics, or discipline or suspension policies.  The private schools eligible to benefit from the tax credits may legally discriminate against both students and staff on the basis of academic ability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.  Insofar as these bills provide any anti-discrimination protections, those protections apply only to admissions, not to ongoing fair treatment of the admitted students, and even those limited admissions protections lack an enforcement mechanism.  Non-theists need not apply is no doubt the admissions policy of some of the schools that would benefit from the government subsidized tuition.

If lawmakers want to reduce the cost of private education then they can provide additional funding to public schools to allow otherwise privately educated children to attend public school classes part time and/or to participate in public school sponsored extracurricular activities.  Each county can have their own law regarding the extent to which their state public school classes and facilities are available to children who are otherwise receiving a private education.  Additionally, private schools and home schooled children can be lent the same government purchased textbooks that are utilized by the secular public schools.  These approaches to assisting privately educated children avoid most of the problems that result from direct or indirect government funding of unaccountable private schools with ideological conflicts of interest.

Senate Bill 706 has passed in the Senate and is now being considered in the House.  If it passes in the House then it will be signed by Republican Governor Hogan. If you live in Maryland and oppose these "Maryland Education Credit" bills then send your representatives an email now, before the House floor vote.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A grey hair theist versus a greying atheist

Jerry Fogltance is a retired Air Force chaplain and lieutenant colonel.  Several weeks ago the Colorado Springs Gazette published his article Disputing the claims of atheism.

He starts by saying it is equally valid to conclude that either God does not exist or does exist given that science has not proven otherwise.  He then says we should therefore choose to believe that God exist because the atheist position carries the "greatest risk" if it is wrong.

What is needed here is evidence, not proof.  The problem that theism faces is this:  The overall available empirical evidence pervasively and strongly supports naturalism while it sparsely and weakly supports supernaturalism.  This is not about risk.  We have even less evidence that anyone "carries" any divine penalty for what they sincerely believe than we do that there is a deity.  Any deity that imposed such a penalty would be an intolerant, nasty, immoral deity who is unworthy of being worshipped.  I am no more afraid of offending a god I believe does not exist merely by having the properly justified belief that there are no gods than I am afraid of offending God for not being a Catholic instead of a Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, etc.

He then says atheism is a crutch for "those unable to live up to their own moral standards and afraid of being accountable to God."

It is true that we do not always live up to our own moral standards, but our moral standards have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the overall available evidence favors naturalism over supernaturalism and therefore has nothing to do with whether theism is properly justified.  It makes less sense to fear being accountable to an imaginary God than to fear being accountable to the people that we actually know exist during the time we actually know that we exist.

He then says "The complex forms of the universe reveal that he is personal (an intelligent designer) and the immense size of the universe that he is all powerful."

We have laws of physics which provide naturalistic explanations for most of the known particles and forces.  For example the Higgs particle and gravitational waves were predicted before they were observed. Our universe is indeed immense from our perspective.  But again, this fact fits very well with a naturalistic description of our universe.

He then asserts that "because God is infinite and we are finite, we may never know some of the deepest mysteries of his nature."

It appears to be likely that there can be facts about how the universe functions that are inaccessible to us.  The multiverse may be infinite even though we are finite.  Again, these factual assertions are a good fit with naturalism.

He then says "There are also things in the universe that cannot be explained apart from the existence and creative power of God. None can explain by natural evolution where the personal qualities of humans came from - like love, creativity, the ability to communicate thought verbally, musical expression, moral motions and free will."

Jerry Fogltance, like most theists, simply assumes we have libertarian free will.  He also assumes that the initial condition was total nothingness and therefore our universe must have sprung into existence from nothing.  Those two assumptions could both be false.  Naturalism appears to contradict the notion that we have contra-causal, otherwise known as libertarian, free will.  Naturalism also suggests that total nothingness may be a fantasy derived from human imagination, that existence may instead be eternal.  These are two tentative predictions derived from naturalism.  All of the other human traits he cites are most likely products of the evolution of materialistic life.  Jerry Fogltance, like many other theists, is underestimating what is possible within the confines of a physical and mechanical framework when he mistakenly claims emotions, creativity, verbal and musical expression, are ruled out by naturalism.  Natural forces do appear to be capable of producing us with all of our capabilities.

He then says atheism should be rejected because it "leaves humans without meaning."

Human life per se has absolutely no meaning in the grand scheme of things.  We individually find meaning in the day to day living of our life.  We are here, we breath, move, interact, think, and thusly actualize our potential until we die.  Trying to impose cosmic meaning by adopting otherwise unjustified beliefs about how the world functions is an upside down approach to determining how the universe functions.  This theist epistemology focuses on human psychology and intuitions.  It declares the universe functions the way the theist intuitively prefers that it function to fulfill the theist's psychologically rooted desires.  In effect, using this theist epistemology, theists are themselves trying to dictate to the universe how it functions instead of letting the universe itself dictate to us how it functions.  This incompetent theist epistemology creates false facts which can motivate well-intentioned human misbehavior that causes potentially serious problems for humanity.

He then says that the "atheist idea that death ends it all implies that they [various people who committed large scale crimes] will never be brought to justice for their evil, an idea that is morally reprehensible."  He then concludes: "When, however, humans deny God's existence, their accountability to him, and suppress the inner witness of his laws, evil then has no constraints."

The notion that there must be some ultimate, cosmic scale justice is false.  There is justice and injustice, there is good and evil.  These concepts do not disappear altogether for no other reason then that they do not apply on a cosmic scale in an ultimate sense. 

There is no constraint on what constitutes "inner witness of his laws" since the "inner witness" method for determining true/false facts is indistinguishable from the method of creating fiction.   By listening to ourselves think we can learn about our own psychology but we cannot learn anything about how our universe, that exists independently of ourselves, functions.  The only way to determine how the universe functions is to listen to what the universe itself communicates to us via empirical evidence.  Therefore this "accountability to him" can be the basis for justifying anything since the "him" is imaginary.  This is a big problem with theism.  With naturalism we look to empirical evidence to try to determine what is harmful so that we have a solid foundation for deciding what is ethical.  To prop up God beliefs, theists have human written holy texts containing unethical attitudes and behaviors that cannot be condemned as such, and/or theists have an unconstrained, faith based imagination indistinguishable from fictional fantasy that closed minded believers mistakenly convince themselves they should actively avoid doubting.

A big problem with some of Jerry Fogltance's arguments is that even if those arguments are true they fail to properly justify his conclusion that "I have come to know and be reconciled to the God behind my existence through faith in Christ."  His arguments merely note that under naturalism there is probably no libertarian free will, no cosmic scale ultimate meaning to human life, no complete and ultimate cosmic scale justice or accountability for bad behavior.  Atheists have no hesitation in acknowledging these three points, all of which are irrelevant to any properly grounded decision regarding whether or not any gods exist.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A secularist agenda for Maryland in 2016

By Mathew Goldstein

As the bills are published the ongoing conflict between secular (non-religious) versus non-secular (theistic or otherwise religious based) government in Maryland reveals itself.  Following is a summary of what we have as of the middle of February.  For more information about these bills, including links to the text of the bills and for sending email to the committees, please go to

HB 16 proposed allowing discrimination by places of public accommodation that are religiously affiliated non-profits providing goods or services to weddings.  There have always been religious institutions seeking to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws under the banner of free exercise, and some religious institutions endorse anti-LGBT sentiment, so this bill is no surprise.  This bill was promptly rejected by the House committee and withdrawn.

HB 48 and 656 are government loans that fund membership organizations that discriminate against non-theists (deists, agnostics, atheists).  Atheists are not entitled to civic equality according to the recently deceased, and very Catholic, Justice Antonin Scalia.  Apparently, according to this "logic", when someone concludes there are no gods they also forfeit a claim to civic equality as implied somewhere in the original, unamended constitution in accordance with the Stare Decisis obligation to follow the prejudices prevalent in the 18th century because those prejudices define the founders original intent, except when those prejudices were anti-Catholic.  We oppose loans to all theist only membership organizations.

HB 52 requires that insurers provide coverage for in vitro fertilization procedures involving a surrogate mother when infertility prevents pregnancy.   When religious institutions tell people to lobby against a law because it is against divine will, we secularists tell lawmakers to disregard the complaints and instead favorably consider voting for the bill.  Infertile women of Maryland need this coverage, divine will is not a proper argument.

HB 169, 203, 513, 514, 515 chip away at Maryland blue laws by allowing more Sunday hunting.  Death to the blue laws should be our state motto.

HB 251 ensures privately schooled children can participate in public school programs.  Public school facilities and programs should be made accessible to privately schooled children to the fullest extent that is practical.

HB 404 gives the terminally ill an option to voluntarily hasten death with barbiturates.  Many religious institutions, citing the bible, Quran, Tanach, scriptures, etc., oppose this legislation.  They claim to know divine will and want our laws to abide by it.  Some religions reach the opposite conclusion while also citing divine will.  Some religions take no position, or say there is no one consensus among their believers, or say the decision should be made by individuals.  Secularists (many of whom are theists) want the law to provide this option for those of us who may one day become terminally ill and want to hasten our deaths, provided there are procedural safeguards that protect the civil rights of patients and doctors.  HB 416 provides citizens with a booklet that explains legal end of life options.

HB 568 is all too typical of freedom of conscience exemptions tailored to religious believers. It one-sidedly allows institutions to forbid, but not to mandate, the aforementioned end of life procedures.  Any such institutional level freedom of conscience necessarily overrides individual level freedom of conscience, which renders the concept dubious.  At the individual level a doctor has the option to either opt in or opt out.  At the institutional level the laws invariably provide an opt out without providing a corresponding opt in, thus betraying that these laws are about providing special privilege to religious dissenters from secular laws rather than institutional freedom of conscience.  Secularists want all laws to either pair institutional level opt outs with corresponding opt ins, or to drop the institutional level opt outs altogether.

HB 603 restricts abortion based on speculative, unsubstantiated assertions about fetuses experiencing pain that most experts reject.

HB 642 improves the wording of a law by replacing "church" with "house of worship".  Maryland laws still extraneously refer to "church", "gospel",  and "minister" instead of using more generic language.  It is long past time to eliminate this privileging of Christianity in legal language.

HB 719 is a special sales tax exemption privilege narrowly targeted for two particular youth organizations among the many youth competing youth organizations, one of which, Boy Scouts of America, officially restricts membership to theists.  Isn't our motto in God we trust?  Doesn't the pledge of allegiance say under God?  Who do we arrogant atheists think we are, regular citizens entitled to the same legal privileges and immunities as everyone else?  As long as BSA policy is to deny non-theists membership we will oppose all government laws privileging their Scouting program over competing programs. 

The law that HB 719 amends, Article – Tax – General Section 11-204, exempts all 501(c)(3) organizations (including religious nonprofit organizations) from paying sales tax when holding an auction for fundraising.  Unfortunately, this same law also completely exempts "a bona fide church or religious organization" from all sales taxes without any restrictions.  This is unfair.  Religious organizations should be granted no tax exemptions above and beyond the tax exemptions given to the other 501(c)(3) organizations.  Note the inappropriate, and in this case redundant, use of sectarian language.

HB 955 privileges student "non-sectarian" theistic prayer speech over all other speech at all school events, including mandatory in-school events that are otherwise not free speech contexts.  What is the definition of non-sectarian?  Is it non-sectarian if it covers 51% of the population?  67%?  Who decides what qualifies as non-sectarian?  If this is about protecting free speech or free exercise then why the non-sectarian restriction?  Is 20 seconds enough time for prayer?  Is 20 minutes too much?  The bill does not say.  Can atheists speak against theism during this exercise in "free speech"?  Someone needs to give this a little more thought.

HB 994 and 995 permits more Sunday alcohol sales.  While local bills like these that chip away at the blue laws at the county and city level should be enacted, it would be better to strike down the state blue laws, thereby eliminating the need for local exemptions.

HB 996 would replace the Monday after Easter Sunday as a mandated state wide school holiday with local decisions.  This is a better way for government institutions to manage the impact of religious holidays.   A school should close if, and only if, most  students or staff will be absent.  Ideally, a poll would be conducted to enable predicting non-attendance.  A reliance on pragmatic, evidence based decision making, as much as possible, is the way to go.  We would like for another bill to similarly replace the state wide Easter Friday and Christmas holidays with as-needed local closures.

HB 1028 asks voters to decide if alcohol will be sold on Sunday.  A majority vote is not an exercise of democracy when it is about deciding whether the laws should favor those citizens who follow a majority religion.  Do our law makers understand this?  Apparently sometimes not.  Business activity follows demand, citizens vote for, or against, Sunday commerce by buying, or not buying, on Sundays.

HB 1081 is a government loan to a place of worship.  In Maryland we must trust our law makers to disregard sectarian differences.  Don't you trust them?  Will they also give government loans to Hindu temples, ethical culture meeting rooms, idol worshipping congregations, etc.? If they don't then it must be because the loan applications were flawed or uncompetitive or some legitimate reason like that.  We secularists are not so naive, we will oppose all loans to places of worship.

HB 1310 revokes the licensing of Sunday alcohol sales.  Every now and then an alcohol or hunting bill regresses.  We oppose such regressions.

HB 1357 prohibits government funding of abortions or insurance that covers abortions.  Who backs this bill? Could it be people who claim to know the Truth and claim to speak for the divine will?  Secularists generally consider legal abortion to be a proper medical service.

Most of the Senate bills are cross filed with House bills.  One that is not (yet) cross filed is SB 948 that requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.  If this bill passes will our governor sign it?  Maybe not.  Hopefully the GA will what pass this bill anyway this year and again in the future with a future governor if our current governor vetoes.

HJ 7 calls for overturning Roe v. Wade on the grounds that science has concluded life begins at conception.  Did you also know that geometry proves that circles begin at their northernmost point?  If you want our laws to conflate theology with science then who are you going to call?  Hint: A non-theist is the wrong answer.

Monday, February 15, 2016

James Ryerson's biased book reviews in the NY Times.

The New York Times published a book review article on February 9 by James Ryerson titled "The Twain Shall Meet".  Mr. Ryan states several conclusions derived from the three books he reviewed.  Those conclusions are flawed as will be explained below.

The first book reviewed is a criticism of atheism written by a priest who is a psychologist and professor of religion.  James Ryerson says this: ... "it’s that these crusaders [advocates for atheism] are convinced that science is the only arbiter of reality and truth. They may be right about that. But that is a philosophical claim, Jones reminds us, not a scientific one."  

My question to James Ryerson is this: Do you know of anyone who practices this alternative philosophy that the arbiter of reality and truth is to be found somewhere other than the empirical evidence while driving a car?  Would you prefer that your taxi driver be making his driving decisions based on what he claims is a source of knowledge that only he experiences?  Or that he claims is revealed to him through some dubious interpretation of an ambiguous and self-contradictory collection of old books that make sustained extraordinary claims about reality and truth which blatantly contradict our scientific knowledge about how the universe functions?  Or based on the same empirical evidence that all passengers simultaneously share via the physical senses of vision, hearing, smelling, and touch?  Why is it that religious people, like everyone else, apply an empirical evidence standard when making "how the universe functions" decisions that matter to their own day to day physical welfare but then abandon that same standard when making decisions that do not matter to their own daily physical welfare?  For anyone who thinks there is a coherent, logical, philosophy that properly justifies this methodological dichotomy, I say you are either fooling yourself or knowingly trying to fool others.

Mr Ryerson then favorably reviews a book that claims history demonstrates harmony between religion and science.  He says this: "Nor did Copernicus or most other early modern advocates of the new astronomy think it was incompatible with Christianity."  Has it even occurred to Mr. Ryerson that 16th century scientists who wanted to escape the prejudices of their day would not publicly concede that their discoveries conflicted with church teachings even if they actually thought so?  Copernicus refused to published his findings regarding the relative positions of the earth and sun, sharing them with only a small number of fellow scientists whom he trusted, and he confided at the time that he did this out of fear of negative repercussions to himself due to widespread intolerance, an intolerance that clergy had no small part in fostering.  Nor is what the scientists considered compatible with Christianity a better indicator of compatibility than what the church officials thought.  After all, the experts on Christian doctrine are the Christian clergy, not the scientists.  

Here is the truth, facts that Mr. Ryerson conveniently ignores in his book review, presumably because it does not comport with his commitment to the viability of compatibility:  The Catholic Church's chief censor, Dominican Bartolomeo Spina, expressed a desire to stamp out the Copernican doctrine.  But with Spina's death in 1546, his cause fell to his friend,  the Dominican theologian Giovanni Maria Tolosani.  Copernicanism was absurd, according to Tolosani, because it was scientifically unproven and unfounded.  Tolosani declared that he had written against Copernicus "for the purpose of preserving the truth to the common advantage of the Holy Church."  Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Genesis, said that "We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre."  In March 1616 the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds of ensuring that Copernicanism, which it described as a "false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture," would not "creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth.

Apologists for Christianity like James Ryerson, and maybe also the authors of the book he favorably reviews, go deep into denialism mode regarding the blatant, unequivocal, historical hostility of Christianity to science.  They do not, and frankly I think they will not, honestly confront the fundamental and profound difference between the failed methods of relying on authority, fixed revelation, personal interpretations of personal experience, and logic and reason from human intuition, versus a recognition that the only successful method of determining how the universe functions has over and over again proven itself to be the method of following the empirical evidence as closely as we can.  They fail to acknowledge the full extent of this difference and its implications because what they are engaging in is unbalanced propaganda in defense of Christianity and not an honest effort to inform and educate. The New York Times thinks such defense of revisionist history is worthy of publication.  Commercially it probably is and that is one reason why we need more atheist commentary.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Religion and the rise and fall of Islamic science

One of the questions people have been asking lately is the significance of the dominance of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages and its subsequent decline.  Some people claim that they know the answer.  For example, Reza Aslan claims that religion is not to be blamed for the decline because it functions as nothing more than a Rorschach test, so that whatever people claim that they find in their religion to influence their behavior is actually instead a reflection of them and not of their religion.  Some people assert that it is an indisputable fact that any decline can be attributed entirely to rapacious non-Muslims invaders who militarily conquered and then destroyed Islamic civilization. This is a factual, and therefore potentially empirically resolvable, question. We should look to evidence to measure if there was a decline over time to answer this question.  Then we can align evidence of decline with contemporaneous events to see if we can uncover the most likely culprits via consistent chronological correlation.

The question now becomes one of how to measure the rise and fall of Islamic civilization using available historical data.  Eric Chaney, an Economist at Harvard University, figured that he may be able to measure the success of Islamic civilization by counting the number of scientific books published over time by authors with Muslim names.  Harvard University is famous for the size of its library which has many books from past centuries.

He identified 21,275 books written by 3,784 authors with Muslim names who died between the years 250 and 1799.  When there was no death date he substituted birth date plus 69 years or initial publication date of the author's final book if there was no birth or death date.  He grouped the statistic into century intervals.  During the two centuries from 900 to 1100 an average of 12% of the published books were on scientific subjects and 30% on religious subjects.  This was followed by a decline in the percentage of books on scientific subjects.  By 1300 7% of the books cover a science subject and by 1700 it is 2% while the percentage books on religious subjects rose to 40%.

To better pinpoint the correlation of this decline in scientific output with other historical events, Chaney divided the results geographically into three regions: East (Chaney refers to this region as "Iran"), Levant, and West.  The East region experienced the Mongol invasions, the Levant experienced the Crusader invasions, the West experienced the invasions of European colonialists. He found that the decline in publication of science subject books began in the East and spread from there to the Levant and subsequently to the West.  The scientific decline in the East began a century before the Mongol invasion.  The subsequent decline in the Levant and West similarly began centuries before the Crusader and European colonist conquests.  The Levant experienced an anomalous increase in publication of science books (as a percentage of overall book publications) during the Crusader invasions.

In his draft study titled Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science, Eric Chaney concludes that the role of Islamic civilization in world affairs correlates best with the relative dominance of the rationalist versus the traditionalist strains of Islam.  The Mu`tazila movement was one example of rationalist Islam. They believed that good and evil were not determined by revealed scripture or interpretation of scripture, but are rational categories that could be established through unaided reason.  These rationalist movements first emerged in the preceding Umayyad Era and reached their height in the Abbasid period.  During Islam's "Golden Age" the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate forceably favored a rationalist Islam over the competing traditionalist Islam, they tortured traditionalists. The Abbasid Caliphate systematically translated every available science text into Arabic (their motive may have been to equip theologians with knowledge to win debates for the purpose of converting people to Islam).  After the 10th century the Islamic rationalist movement declined.

Why did the Islamic rationalist movement lose its influence?  One possible reason is that they had angered people by being extreme in their intolerance of Muslims with opposing beliefs and by linking themselves to the brutality of the rulers.  Another reason was a demographic change.  During the Abbasid period the population of large parts of the Caliphate were non-Muslim.  Muslims were initially a minority of citizens overall.  This changed as a result of conversions to Islam with Muslims becoming the majority first in what is now Iran and Iraq, later in the Levant, and then in the West.  By the start of the eleventh century the Abbasid Caliphate had switched sides, outlawing rationalist Islam as heresy and endorsing traditionalist Islam (by then the Caliphate was weak and had little temporal power).  The number of madrasas, which are schools of Islam, increased.  Traditionalist Islam, which emphasizes the importance of revelation and opposes rationalist Islam, became increasingly dominant.  The number of authors employed by government declined and the number employed by madrasas increased.  The relatively more secular state bureaucracy that pre-dated Islam was replaced by Islamic religious institutions.  

Although a partial dose of rationalism was advantageous for converting non-Muslims to Islam, a full dose of rationalism was corrosive towards religious faith, promoting skepticism, agnosticism, deism, and atheism.  That is why rationalism was abandoned.  Today rationalist Islam is often deemed heretical by scholars in mainstream Islamic theology.

Islam itself contained the anti-rationalist seeds that contributed to the diminished role of Islam in world affairs.  Contrary to what apologists for Islam say, there is good reason to think that the religion of Islam has been, and continues to be, its own worst enemy.  No foreign interventions caused this weakness.  The weakness resulted from rationalism being disfavored when the influence of Islam increased following a majority of citizens self-identifying as Muslim.  A diminishment of the negative influence of traditionalist Islam's anti-rationalism is the way forward.  That is also a good prescription for everyone, everywhere.  A good place to start is a willingness to abandon religion altogether.  We need fewer people who fear not being religious (secularophobia?), including fewer people who fear atheism (atheismophobia?).

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

We require evidence, mere argument fails

Mr. Deity (Brian Keith Dalton) ably explains in this video (the first in what he promises will be a series of videos) why we should all reject efforts to determine the truth or falsity of existence claims, including the existence claims of theisms, that rely on argument (such as the Kalam argument) instead of evidence: We require evidence, mere argument fails.  Some philosophy, and especially theology, has a tendency to rely far too much on the unsuccessful method of logical argument from human intuitions and asserted first principles (over reliance on first principle correlates with ideology which increases the probability of error) instead of the successful method of seeking the frequently non-intuitive best logical fit with the overall available evidence.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Secularizing Maryland Health Care

Many health care facilities in the United States are owned or operated by religious institutions.  About twenty percent of all hospital beds in the United States are owned or controlled by the Catholic church.  Religious health care facilities sometimes opt to give their religious authorities the final say over the provision of health care services.  Religious restrictions on the provision of health care are enforced not only on hospitals, but also on HMOs, universities, and social services agencies, which provides a significant amount of care to poor and lower income communities.  

Enforcing equal standards of care has been further hindered by an increase in the number of states with health provider conscience laws.  Maryland is one of the states with a health provider conscience law. Both individual and institutional health care providers in Maryland can refuse to provide their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy" [MD. CODE ANN., HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214].  

The role of religious institutions in trying to restrict citizen access to health care options does not stop with conscience clauses.  Some religious institutions object to allowing doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of barbiturates for the purpose of hastening the voluntary death of terminally ill people.  For some people, their religious beliefs only make sense to them if length of life always takes priority over the quality of life.  Other people think surviving as long as possible will sometimes be a misplaced goal for terminally ill people.  The strength of the religious lobby in the U.S. ensures that the only way most states can pass and enforce a law to accommodate the latter people is by including a conscience clause to accommodate the former group of people who also work in health care.

An "End of Life Options Act" bill that would legalize physician assisted dying is expected to be introduced in the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session.  Maryland patients and their families should be allowed to make their own health care decisions and need to be informed which health organizations and providers will refuse to honor their decisions.  Concerns like this make statewide action on health care laws a priority.

Oregon has been collecting data on physician assisted dying for 21 years.  Under Oregon’s law, every step of the process is in the hands of the patient, and those who interfere with or coerce the patient can face criminal prosecution.  About 0.3% of deaths in Oregon are physician assisted.  About one third of terminally ill patients who receive the barbiturates do not consume them.  People with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) are the most likely to deliberately hasten their death with prescribed drugs.  Loss of dignity, inability to enjoy life, and lack of autonomy, are the leading motives.  Similar laws were enacted in Washington in 2008, Vermont in 2013, and California in 2015.  The Montana Supreme Court legalized physician aid in dying there in 2009.

The provisions of the Maryland End of Life Options Act bill are expected to be similar to those in the other states.  To qualify the patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of death within six months, be mentally competent, and be able to self-administer the drugs.  The qualifying patient makes two oral requests to the prescribing physician separated by at least 15 days.  A written request to the prescribing physician must be signed in the presence of two eyewitness, at least one of whom is not a relative.  A prescribing and consulting physician must agree on diagnosis, prognosis, patient capability,  and the patient lacking any psychiatric or psychological disorder that would impair judgement.  Either doctor can refer the patient for psychological examination.  The patient must be informed of alternatives by the prescribing physician (comfort care, hospice care, and pain control).  The prescribing physician must talk privately with the patient to verify that the patient is freely opting to hastening their own death.  

The current draft of the End of Life Options Act specifies that the death certificate identify cause of death as pharmacological accelerated imminent death.  Some states allow death certificates to be issued without cause of death.  Maryland lawmakers may want to consider enacting a law to publish death certificates without cause of death and to restrict access to the full death certificates containing cause of death.  An option to omit cause of death helps to allay privacy concerns that may otherwise dissuade people from seeking physician aid in dying.  The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should be directed to publish a booklet that explains end of life options in Maryland.

To better protect the ability of patients to obtain appropriate health care there is also a need to enact a state law protecting patients’ right to know when a health care provider does not provide certain care based on religious or philosophical beliefs.  Such a law could require any health care provider who refuses to follow standard medical guidelines and practices, thereby resulting in any health care options being omitted, to inform patients in writing of health care services that are not available to the patients through this particular provider.  Patients could be required to provide signed consent acknowledging they have received this information. Additionally, this law could require health care providers to inform health insurance companies of the specific health care options that are not provided.  Health insurance companies will share that information with their enrollees and insured participants.

Maryland's health provider conscience law should be amended to clarify that the clauses granting institutions a conscience right to refusal apply only when the institution is privately controlled.   Also, health provider institutions should be allowed to mandate that their employees agree in their employment contracts to provide the medical procedures that the conscience laws otherwise render optional.  Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to the people who adopt one side of the two opposing sides.  Whenever institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it necessarily follows that institutions that support those same medical procedures have the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.