Sunday, November 27, 2016

Better ways to select our leaders

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 500,000 votes. Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million. Yet she still lost the White House because Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania combined by fewer than 100,000 votes.

The electoral college is not neutral, it favors the presidential candidate who wins in the small states and/or the largest states over the candidate that is most popular. How should this problem be fixed? First we will identify where the electoral college goes bad.  Then we will examine whether the leading proposed electoral college reform, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, remedies the problems.

One problem is that all states get two electors for free, in addition to one elector per House district, the same way that each state gets two Senators.  This gives smaller states substantially more electors per voter than larger states.   

A second problem is that 48 states and the District of Columbia award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the statewide vote instead of awarding electors individually by each House district vote result or collectively in proportion to the statewide vote.  Although the electoral college is a federal institution, the states decide how their electors are selected.  State lawmakers assign their electors this way, despite it being unfair to their own voters who voted for the non-first place candidates, because it increases the influence of the state over the final result.  

When states select electors individually based on each House district result (as does Maine) then there is a different problem.  The drawing of House district boundaries for partisan advantage (a.k.a. gerrymandering) biases both the state and national results.

Avoiding these problems with the electoral college is the motive behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is an agreement among several U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Once states totaling 270 electoral votes join the compact—which only requires passing state laws—then the next presidential election will be determined by the popular vote, not the Electoral College.  As of early November 2016, 10 states and the District of Columbia have signed the compact, totaling 165 electoral votes which is over 60% of the way to 270. This approach to reforming the electoral college avoids a federal constitutional amendment that requires support from two thirds of both houses of Congress and three fifths of the states.

Under that National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, what happens if six (or more) candidates for president split the vote so that no one candidate wins more than twenty percent of the vote?  The candidate who won twenty percent of the vote would receive 100% of the electors from the majoritarian subset of the states that have adopted the compact.  Will the resulting president be the most popular candidate overall among the voters?  The popularity ranking of the newly elected president relative to the other candidates could be anywhere from first place to last place.  We do not know because the voters did not express their second (or third, etc.) preference.  This is not merely a problem of lacking information, it is a problem with the election outcome.  The election winner may, in fact, be the most disliked candidate overall who was elected by the 20% of the population that, to quote Hillary Clinton, define the "deplorables".

The only context where the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact avoids the problem of a candidate who is less preferred overall among the voters winning the election is the context where there are exactly two candidates.  The moment a third candidate draws some votes the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact makes it possible for a candidate who is not the most popular to win the election.  Our electoral college provides an imperfect mechanism for resolving this problem by requiring that the House of Representatives select the president from the three candidates with the most electoral college votes when firstly the voters, and secondly the electoral college, failed to identify a most popular candidate with their votes.  The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact subverts that mechanism by always giving one candidate an automatic majority of electors even when that candidate is unpopular nationwide.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is like a game of whack-a-mole.  It fixes a problem in one place while enabling the same problem to recur in a different place. In the short term the interstate compact could help avoid the wrong candidate winning the electoral college.  But for the longer term, fixing our 18th century method of electing people to public office will require more changes than the interstate compact would implement.

It is easy to diagnose the problems, including the problem with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is more difficult to design an optimal method for electing a single person in multi-candidate elections.  There is arguably no one election method that is the best method, certainly there is no perfect method.  

But it is not difficult to identify methods for electing a president that are technically better than both the existing electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Unfortunately, the better methods alter the electoral college and will therefore require a constitutional amendment to implement.  The integrity of our presidential elections is important.  The presidency of the United States is a very powerful position.  We need something better than either the existing electoral college or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

A constitutional amendment focusing on federal elections provides an opportunity to populate the House of Representatives with lawmakers who more accurately represent the voters by including a provision that prevents gerrymandering when drawing House district boundaries.  To create election districts without gerrymandering we can rely on automated mathematical methods designed to optimize election district compactness.  This will tend to result in major changes to election district boundaries in ten or twenty year intervals.  This potentially increases the turnover of elected officials without decreasing voter choice or eliminating all of the experienced lawmakers, as happens with term limits.  

Four changes to the electoral college would render it substantially better:  Eliminate the two statewide electors, when a candidate won a majority of votes nationally then the electoral college is dismissed and that candidate is automatically the president elect, otherwise automatically assign the electors from each state to the individual candidates proportional to the statewide vote for those candidates, and automaticaly cast each elector's vote to their assigned candidate.  Two more changes that should also be considered: Give the electoral college some time, maybe a week, to try to reach a majority consensus with several more votes before the decision is turned over to the House of Representatives, and sequester the electors, like jurors are sequestered, during their deliberations to secure them from bribes or threats.  

The first four changes to the electoral college would elect the nationwide vote winner while increasing the likelihood that the electoral college winner will also be the most popular candidate.  The latter two changes give the electoral college an opportunity to select a nationally popular candidate when no one candidate initially won a majority of votes or electors. Without those two additional changes each elector is a particular vote and there is no need for any real people to serve as the electors.  But there may be better ways to elect a popular candidate than to hand the final decision over to the electors or the House of Representatives when there is no clear winner.

For more reliably accurate election results we would need to change the method of voting and tallying votes to allow voters to approve more than one candidate, or to rank the candidates, particularly in single winner contests.  This affects the electoral college.  The state electors could now be individually elected by House district provided that gerrymandering is eliminated. Alternatively, the electoral college could be scrapped because it is very unlikely that there will not be a clear nationwide winner. A constitutional amendment should therefore choose between retaining our current election method or replacing it with a better method and then modify the electoral college to match the election method.

My personal favorite methods for tallying the overall preference of the voters in single winner contests are the Condorcet methods.  Voters are asked to rank the candidates.  A complete ranking of all candidates is best, but omitting some candidates, or even voting for only one of the candidates, is acceptable.  Condorcet methods start by pairing the candidates with each other and incrementing the count for one candidate of each pair each time a voter preferred that candidate over the other candidate.  The pairs are usually ordered based on a measure of how strongly the losing candidate of each pair is defeated.  Any circular rankings within groups of multiple pairs, referred to as cycles (e.g. A beats B beats C beats A), are then resolved.   Different Condorcet methods take different approaches to eliminating the cycles.  After all of the cycles are eliminated there is one candidate that beats all of the other candidates.  Two different approaches to eliminating the cycles can be tried simultaneously by iterating through all combinations of culling the cycles using those two approaches.  The cycle culling that disregards the fewest voter preferences then identifies the winner. 

There are also non-Condorcet methods that are better at identifying the most popular candidate than the overly simplistic method of voting for one with the candidate obtaining the most votes winning. There are technical criteria for identifying good election methods.  We need to rely on mathematicians who study election methods to tell us how well the different methods comply with various criteria.  

Voter behavior also must be considered when selecting an election method.  It may require some experimentation and time to determine which methods actually work well in different contexts.  Primary elections, where it is common for many candidates to vie to be a political party's single winner nominee, are good for experimenting with better single winner election methods.  A problem with preference voting is that voters have incentive to vote strategically by ranking the candidates they do not want to win last because the polls say those candidates are among the most popular candidates instead of voting sincerely by ranking the candidates they most dislike last.  Sincere voters may be disadvantaged by strategic voters but strategic voting undermines the integrity of the election result.

Eliminating gerrymandering and thoughtful electoral college reform, with or without voting and ballot tallying method reform, can be accompanied by other steps to improve the quality of our elections. The federal government should automatically register everyone to vote in federal elections when they turn 18. Voter registration and de-registration could be automatically linked to state driver's licenses, state tax returns, post office change of address applications, and death certificates.  There should be regular auditing of the voter registration rolls.  Ballots could be mailed to all residents.  Governments could arrange free transportation to polling places and publish videos of the candidates promoting themselves on the Internet.  Keeping polling places open 12 hours every day for one week, as is done in Maryland, should be the national standard.  Election results should always be audited before they are finalized.  

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Ayana Hirsi Ali, a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Heather's Homilies defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Southern Poverty Law Center's false accusation that she is an anti-Muslim extremist.  Again, as with Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali justifiably thinks that Islam contains within it a supremicist, triumphalist, stream that poses a threat to justice, peace, and prosperity and whose primary victims are other people like herself who are born and raised as believing Muslims.  They are both committed to promoting a liberal, secularist, reformist movement within the Islamic world, although Ayaan Hirsi Ali, unlike Maajid Nawaz who is an Islamic theist, had the good sense to abandon religion altogether and became an atheist.  The SPLC's misdirected argument that they are extremists is weak, selective, out of context, confused, sometimes anti-liberal and anti-secularist in content, and on careful examination their argument falls apart.

The SPLC cites the leaked document "Preventing Terrorism - where next for Britain" by the Quilliam Foundation, which makes recommendations for counter-terrorism policy and was co-authored by Maajid Nawaz, as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist.  That document is available on Scribd.  I read some of it and it reinforced my conclusion that the SPLC characterization of him as an extremist is deranged.  When the document was leaked it understandably made some people angry because it identified their groups as Islamist to the British counter-terrorism staff (Maajid Nawaz points out that in Muslim majority countries some of these same groups openly and proudly self-identify themselves as Islamist).  I cannot vouch that every individual and group named as Islamist actually is.  But I can say that the content of the document is thoughtful and not the writing of an extremist.  It is the writing of someone who is committed to defending secular democracy against its opponents.  I have reason to think that at least some of the recommendations in that document were subsequently adopted by the government.

Barack Obama's responses to Bill Maher's questions

I highlight sections of our president's responses and comment on them.

MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning.  And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that  are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

My commentary: Bill Maher is asking about a tendency for non-theists to be excluded and under-represented in the political process wherein people are elected to make our laws.  The response from Barack Obama that there is no "active persecution" indicates an aversion on his part to having a discussion on the question being directed to him.  Why should "active persecution" be the standard for being satisfied that all is good in the context of a discussion on the civic standing of non-theists?  That is a rather low standard and it is not the standard that Barack Obama would set for other constituencies as being sufficient, nor should it be.

MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.

My commentary: We agree that a culture in which religious beliefs are personal, like food and clothing preferences, would avoid the problems that Barack Obama correctly criticizes.  But are religious beliefs private?  Barack Obama is sidestepping this thorny question by assuming religious beliefs are private and personal.  Could it be that religion tends to resist and oppose attempts to foster a culture in which religious beliefs are personal?  Why should religious institutions want a culture where their religious beliefs have no say in public policy?  Whenever self-interested religious institutions see an opportunity to band together to form a majority to enact their religious beliefs into the public laws why would they voluntary refuse to do so?  Fostering a culture in which religious beliefs are privatized is a like fostering government without any fees or taxes, it is unrealistic.

MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…

My commentary:  Bill Maher is asking if the equation "more pro-science" = "less religious" is true. He is not asking if all anti-science attitudes will disappear without religion.  We all agree that various problems we have are not restricted to any one factor.  Again, this avoidance response suggests Barack Obama is uncomfortable with addressing the question.  

MAHER: Really?

My commentary: I agree with Bill Maher's questioning Barack Obama comment that a lot of scientists are very religious.  Some scientists are "very religious", but far fewer than the general population.  There is wiggle room in the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as "a lot" and "very religious", but I think this response from Barack Obama is misleading.  The counter-argument that scientists are significantly more likely to be less religious than non-scientists is the relevant truth that Barack Obama is obscuring here. 

OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same.  And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.

My commentary:  Here we go again, more avoidance and a reluctance to confront the question.  The watering down of scientific fact is indeed "weird" from the secularist point of view adopted by Barack Obama where religious beliefs are assumed to be personal and private.  But for many religious people, such as the religious people that the Republican Party has adopted as one of their main constituencies, there is nothing weird about contesting scientific facts.  They mistakenly think that they possess the faith based religious truth, and they then correctly apply their understanding of the truth to their public life.   Facts about how the universe functions are, by definition, not restricted to the personal and private realm.  From this religious point of view, the scientists are wrong because they contradict the divinely revealed holy texts.  Barack Obama sidesteps this problem, placing the blame on the media, the Internet (a.k.a. Facebook), and the political system.  But the problem here is not that everything is contested and nothing is deemed to be true.  That is merely a symptom of the underlying problem.  The problem is that religion claims to identify what is true in competition with, and contradiction with, the empirically derived facts.  The media, the Internet, the political system then amplify the prevailing public opinion because they are commercial or popular institutions.  Despite all that, he provided an appropriate answer to the question in the third to last sentence where he acknowledged the need to do a better job teaching our kids critical thinking.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Maajid Nawaz a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Here is Maajid Nawaz, an advocate for liberal, secular, democracy, speaking at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum.  He is the person the Southern Poverty Law Center is inexcusably slandering.  Now the SPLC is defending their mislabeling him as an anti-Muslim extremist by calling him a conspiracy monger, an accusation that has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Here is Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels explaining that the SPLC is taking critical comments made by Maajid Nawaz about Islamists (people who favor the bad idea of government implementing Sharia law theocracy) and mistakenly accusing Maajid Nawaz of making those same critical comments about Muslims generally.

As evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist the SPLC cites a statement by Mr. Nawaz that “the ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists.”’.  Mr. Nawz is correct, the ideology of Islamists is broadly the same and some Islamists are violent while others are not.  Yet the SPLC idiotically cites reasonable, common sense, factually true assertions such as this as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an extremist.

Monday, October 31, 2016

SPLC's extremist intolerance of criticism of Islam

Now and then, instead of writing too much on topics that maybe I shouldn't, I will reference an article by someone else that in my judgement is worth reading.

Atheist (and ex-Muslim) Kavah Mousavi (pseudonym) accurately characterizes the Southern Poverty Law Center's unconscionable placement of Maajid Nawaz on its list of 15 anti-Muslim extremists as "atrocious" for "misusing the tragic fact of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West to silence honest criticisms of Islam by mixing internal dissidents with bigots."  He also criticizes their placing the anti-Muslim extremist label on Ayaan Hirsi Ali for some statements she made years ago that are quoted by SPLC out of context.  Read his "Shame on you SPLC" article on his blog titled On the Margin of Error.

Now I will add my own voice here.  One of the SPLC's arguments for labeling Ayaan Hirsi Ali an anti-Muslim extremist is that a film she co-produced, Submission, provoked threats against her and the murder of the other film producer, Theo Van Gogh.  By citing the murder of the film's other producer as evidence that she is an extremist the SPLC is openly and shamelessly siding with violent Islamic fascists against liberalism.  This is probably a double standard, as the SPLC does not cite being targeted for murder when dissenting from popular opinion within any other religion as evidence for the targeted individual being an extremist. 

The SPLC cited as evidence for Maajid Nawaz being an extremist that he endorsed one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. They are wonderful cartoons, reading those cartoons is better than reading the Quran, Bible, or Tanakh.  What the SPLC is doing here is not only anti-intellectual and anti-fun, it is also crazy sick, like labeling someone an anti-Jewish extremist because they eat pork.  There is nothing ethical about requiring everyone to obey the restrictions that other people claim their version of their religion imposes.  The Jesus and Mo cartoon lampoons Judaism and Christianity together with Islam.  Therefore it cannot be the actual contents of that cartoon that is at issue here unless everyone who likes those cartoons is also an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish extremist.  But SPLC doesn't associate those equivalent labels with that cartoon, apparently because Jews and Christians have the good sense not to riot in the streets over cartoons.

SPLC's illogic appears to be a product of an unprincipled and unhinged post-modernist relativism where being extremist is misdefined as contradicting whatever the most vocal and intolerant segment of a population demands, particular if their demands are sometimes backed by threats of, or acts of, murder, regardless of whether their demands are reasonable or fair on the merits.  The SPLC actually cites the prevalence of a belief, as if that renders it unassailable in the sense that criticizing that belief becomes evidence for being an extremist.  Has it ever occurred to the SPLC that some of the ideas favored by a large number of Muslims (dare I say it, maybe even a majority of today's Muslims world wide!) could themselves sometimes be extreme and unethical and therefore openly disagreeing with that majority over that idea will be the more moderate, ethical, stance?  Can anyone who has read any history honestly think that the majority held view is always ethical?  That opposing a majority view is ipso facto evidence of extremism?

Oops, now I am an anti-Muslim extremist because I offended millions of Muslims by linking to the critical Submission film and to the Jesus and Mo cartoons.  Kavah Mousavi is correct, the SPLC has turned being designated an anti-Muslim extremist by them into an honor.  The SPLC is totally fucking up here, big time.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The unicellular origin of animals

Cell aggregation and differentiation are requisite for organisms such as animals to be multicelled.  Various biological regulatory mechanisms producing the modifications to proteins responsible for tissue differentiation have been identified and studied.  It has been known for some years now, outside of places of religious worship and "education" where knowledge inconvenient to the religious beliefs tends to be ignored or dismissed, that the same cellular mechanisms utilized for animal tissue differentiation are also present in choanoflagellates.  But it has been unclear why choanoflagellates, flagellate eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and mitochondria) whose full life cycle remains uncertain, posses these gene expression regulatory tools.

Choanoflagellates are not the only unicellular flagellate eukaryotes.  Capsaspora is the genus of another single celled flagellate eukaryote species with a known life cycle that is closely related to choanoflagellates.  A single Capsaspora changes its cell type over time, transitioning from a lone amoeba to an aggregated colony of cells to a hardy cystic form.  A new study explored whether Capsaspora uses the same mechanisms to control cell differentiation over time as animals use to control differentiation of tissues during embryo development.

The answer is yes according to researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain who collaborated with researchers from the Proteomics Unit of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A press release published by Science Daily stated that the "researchers discovered that from one stage to another, Capsaspora's suite of proteins undergoes extensive changes, and the organism uses many of the same tools as multicellular animals to regulate these cellular processes."  

Without logic anything goes because the facts provide no constraints on our conclusions.  Logically, if a god created the many species of life then that god must have been willing to deceive us by leaving us with evidence that multicellular animals evolved from unicellular flagellate eukaryotes similar to choanoflagellates and that humans are primates.  But what is mere human logic as compared to a mighty god?  Gods are supernatural so they can be said to do anything.  Therefore logic no longer applies wherever a god is said to operate.  Theism thus undermines human reason and that is a big price to pay.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Blocking immigration?

Donald Trump's signature proposal on stopping or restricting Islamic immigrants is, like his other proposals, unclear because it changes and is not fully described.  Is it possible to reliably identify who is Islamic?  I am skeptical.  What is the most effective way to the vet immigrants?  Do we have good reason to think that fewer immigrants would be effective in preventing homeland attacks?  How do we measure the additional risk of threat of attacks from accepting more immigrants?   What level of risk should be required to justify an immigration shutdown?  What are the repercussions?  I do not know and it is because I am an ignoramus that I am inclined to refrain from discussing complicated issues like this.  

Nevertheless, I can say, based on what I have read, that there is solid evidence of ongoing efforts to carry out attacks in Europe, and to encourage lone wolf attacks, that rely on religious belief based appeals.  Therefore, a review of immigration policies that includes considering options to take into account religious beliefs when vetting immigrants is not automatically an example of racism, or a violation the Establishment Clause, or Islamophobia, or siding with the religious right, or whatever the hell the latest knee jerk invective is favored by those who seek to try to shut down discussion.  When we set our immigration policies we should do our best to take into account the needs of refugees in addition to the risks and try to strike a sensible balance.  If more people die in car accidents every week than are killed by immigrants every year then restricting immigration is probably not justified.  Otherwise, in the long term, if reduced immigration succeeded in preventing attacks then we could end up accepting more immigrants than we would have if we had instead experienced major attacks and reacted by shutting down immigration.

Trump is terribly wrong in so many ways about so much, which appears to tragically be an unavoidable result for any Republican presidential nominee in 2016 given how that demographic votes.  The bombastic Trump, given his populist track record, and his divisive rhetoric, taints any proposals he makes while engaging in election year posturing in front of the electorate.  A partial immigration slowdown that tries to reduce risks from accepting immigrants is not inherently crazy or irresponsible, although a policy that rejects everyone who is Islamic, as suggested by Trump, is difficult to justify.  Being Islamic says too little about the person.  But if there is a strong enough positive correlation between criminal violence and being Islamic among immigrants, or good evidence of ongoing dangerous plots and capabilities, then it may be justified to make that one of the considerations.

While Clinton currently expresses opposition to restricting immigration, if the context changed so that risks from immigration became larger in the future then I would not be surprised if she reversed course.  I would prefer that she would say now, as a candidate, that reviewing immigration policy would be one option she would consider in the event that violence by immigrants became a substantial problem. I think Clinton has a track record of being pragmatic and thoughtful with respect to policy advocacy, more so than any other candidate, including the third party candidates.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the other candidates, this election is between Clinton and Trump.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The old Atheism of Madalyn O'Hair

Maryland is the home state of William O'Hair, a religious Baptist who is an author of an autobiography that is critical of his more famous mother (I have not read it). He is also a political activist and I watched him testify, along with clergy, at a 2016 Maryland General Assembly committee meeting in favor of a bill that proposed that the government support religion, arguing that doing so would be good for the state and country (reducing crime) and labeling secular humanism a religion while also criticizing his murdered mother and shilling for his book.  Families with some members being religious and others not religious are common.  I had a religious grand uncle (he was similar to a grandfather to me).  I also have an opinion about William O'Hair's mother.

I requested literature and an application form to join her organization.  After browsing the literature I decided not to join.  She insisted that atheism was defined as having a set of specific beliefs that went well beyond not believing in gods, or believing that there are no gods, or believing that the universe is strictly naturalistic, or believing in a set of general ethical principles.  She claimed that sharing her own conclusions on various political questions were part of the definition of atheism.  She said if you don't profess those same conclusions then you are not an atheist.  For her, atheism was a proper noun so it was capitalized.  Everyone who was an atheist was an Atheist.  Her Atheism was thus a political ideology, and it was so according to the definition of Atheism as dictated by the Madalyn O'Hair.

My reaction at the time was that if I was looking for an ideology I could join a church.  Her concept of Atheism was incompatible with my concept of atheism.  My concept of atheism was (and still is) that it is a result of abandoning ideology, it is a conclusion derived from a refusal to be ideological, it is built upon a rejection of ideology. There can be no fixed answer to most public policy questions derived only from atheism because every issue must be evaluated independently, on its own merits, to find the best fit with available evidence, and all the relevant evidence is rarely confined to recognized that the universe is strictly naturalistic.
I became an AA member years later after the organization had mostly shed its ideological narrowness, although I got the impression that some of its membership remained O'Hair Atheists and my membership did not last long. 

Nevertheless, she was smart, articulate, sharp, and she left behind some good commentary.  Reading what she wrote, I cannot help but identify with her thinking more than with that of her disaffected son.  So here is a sample from her writing from 1989:  http://infidels.org/library/modern/madalyn_ohair/fundie.html

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Street Epistemology:Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons

This video Street Epistemology: Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons from the "Skeptrack" of the 2016 Dragoncon conference features Atheist Alliance International president Robert Penczak, also a member of Richmond Humanists who sometimes appears on the Fairfax Virginia podcast Road to Reason: A Skeptic's Guide to the 21st Century, and WASH member David Tomayo who is president of Hispanic American Freethinkers.  It also features John Loftus, an author of ten books, whose blog Debunking Christianity is very good.   I always find myself agreeing with John Loftus when his topic is atheism versus competing beliefs.  Despite the title of his blog he tends to target theism and religion generally.

The aforementioned Dragoncon video advocates for practicing the street epistemology that is promoted in Peter Boghassian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  We are told that the partisan book title originated with the publisher as a marketing ploy.  I have read the book and I will say that title has some merit as a description of the book's content.  Nevertheless, epistemology is about the quality of belief justification and learning to recognize and avoid common pitfalls such as confirmation bias. Atheists are prone to employing bad epistemology.  So this topic is more general than atheism versus theism.  It is addressed to, targets, and challenges, all of us.  Atheism is merely a conclusion.  How we go about reaching our conclusions is a skill that can be honed which affects the conclusions we reach across the wider range of decisions we confront.  The web site for volunteer participants is https://streetepistemology.com/

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The essence of theism

The RenewAmerica website describes itself as having "evolved into a significant Christian political vehicle — gathering scores of talented new writers (along with a handful of well-known established ones); promoting the core issues of moral conservatism ...".  As with many such religious conservative websites there are no public comments following the articles.  I suspect that this tendency to not provide public commenting on their articles reflects an attitude that it is better to limit people's exposure to competing ideas, which is not an attitude widely shared among the authors of the U.S. constitution who these same religious conservatives nevertheless claim to be emulating.  Ronald R. Cherry, one of RenewAmerica's writers, is a board-certified specialist in lung disease who works in Tennessee.  His recent article titled The essence of atheism warrants a response.

Dr. Cherry's says that after bring raised Christian and going to a Christian University he encountered atheists in medical school.  This prompted him to consider what goes on inside the head of atheists.  He then quotes John Locke contrasting reason with various faith based religious beliefs thusly ".... These and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason, are purely matters of faith; with which reason has nothing to do."  

He then acknowledges that the assertion that an eternal God created the universe is a statement of faith.  Up to this point his article is flawless.  He then proceeds to try to justify his religious beliefs with reason by claiming his Christian monotheism is a better fit with textbook physics than atheism.  However, he omitted explaining what role faith alone should have in justifying beliefs about how the universe functions.  It is unlikely that the atheists he encountered in medical school would agree that faith without reason properly justifies such beliefs.  Maybe his reliance on arguing from reason for the remainder of his article is intended to target an atheist audience? But how many atheists read RenewAmerica?  Or maybe he is implicitly recognizing that faith alone is insufficient? 

The abandonment of justifying belief by faith alone may be attributed to the "corrupting" influence of science.  Except this is not a corrupting influence, it is a wonderfully positive influence.  By faith alone is a mistake.  Maybe belief justified on faith alone was more common in the past.  It was also more common in the past for people to live in caves.  RenewAmerica, like many conservative leaning groups, expresses admiration for the past and advocates for returning to what it claims were the principles, values, and practices of the past. This positive depiction of the past tends to be biased and incomplete.  We would not have doctors specializing in lung disease today if we were unwilling to let go of the past.  To keep living in the past, even given that the past was sometimes good, is not a positive or realistic goal.

Dr. Cherry argues that "We know from the law of conservation of energy that without outside force neither mass nor energy can create its self, nor can mass or energy be destroyed; the sum of mass and energy is always constant in any closed system including an un-created universe."  Neither of us is a physicist, and I am not a medical doctor, but I know that the last half about the sum is true.  It is the first half of what Dr. Cherry is saying above that is dubious.  It is dubious since energy is continuously bubbling in to, and out of, existence inside a vacuum.  Energy resides on both sides of nothingness, gravity is negative energy and the other forms of energy are positive.  Energy can thus newly appear in negative and positive pairs that sum to zero and then promptly disappear as the newly separated positive and negative energies recombine. 

Dr. Cherry then argues "Mass can be converted into energy, and visa-versa, so mass and energy are limited to interchangeability (E = MC2), but according to the law of conservation of energy, outside of supernatural power, only nothing can come from nothing."  This time the first half is correct and the latter half is mistaken.  It is unlikely that the conservation of energy is contradicted by quantum mechanics which nevertheless allows for an energy froth in an otherwise vacuum context.  Quantum mechanics suggests that absolute nothingness is unstable, or to put it another way, it implies that absolute nothingness may be a fiction that exists, like all fictions, only in human imagination (like the similarly imaginary concept of libertarian free will).  Zero energy is locally re-manifested as short-lived and short distanced negative and positive paired energies. When the matter and corresponding antimatter particles are paired together with gravity there are briefly three distinct energy entities instead of zero.

Dr. Cherry then asserts that "... matter-antimatter pairs do not self-generate
from nothing because they are both composed of actual mass with either positive or negative quantum numbers. The term antimatter is thus a misnomer because the mass (and therefore the energy) of matter and its corresponding antimatter is equal and additive – not subtractive."  Indeed, matter and antimatter have opposite charges that sum to zero but both will have positive energy.  While it is true that mass is a positive energy, mass is accompanied by gravity, and gravity is a negative energy.  Thus there is nothing in the law of conservation of energy that is violated by the addition of positive mass energy together with the simultaneous subtraction of an equal negative gravity energy.  Our universe, with both mass and gravity, is thought to sum to zero energy and thus is itself arguably an example of "nothing come from nothing".

Dr. Cherry then continues with the same argument, pointing out that there is no "anti-mass", that "matter-antimatter collisions produce energy", and that "matter antimatter pairs require energy to be created".  Gravity is the "anti-mass", although it is more commonly presented as a holder of debt in exchange for loaning the mass, with no need for a banker god to administer the transactions.  

If the physics Dr. Cherry asserts were factually true and complete than his argument would have merit.  His logic is good, his reliance on reason is good, and he is also articulate.  But physicists have a somewhat different understanding of what is forbidden and what is permitted by the laws of physics than Dr. Cherry does.  In particular, Dr. Cherry ignores the role of gravity (he never mentions it even though it plays a key role as the negative energy) and he discounts the full implications of all of modern physics.  Here is a quote on this topic from Dr. Stephen Hawking: "The answer is that relativity and quantum mechanics allow matter to be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. And where did the energy come from to create this matter? The answer is that it was borrowed from the gravitational energy of the universe. The universe has an enormous debt of negative gravitational energy, which exactly balances the positive energy of the matter. During the inflationary period the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The debt of gravitational energy will not have to be paid until the end of the universe."

Saturday, July 30, 2016

IGM Economic Experts Panel public policy polls

The Initiative for Global Markets asks an Economic Experts Panel public policy questions and publishes their answers on the Internet.  The panel consists of fifty one "senior faculty at the most elite research universities in the United States" that "was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars."  These are people who make a career of studying the empirical evidence to try to find the logical best fit predictions for the impacts of different public policies.  Sometimes they share a consensus, or near consensus, conclusion.  Our civic obligation as voters is to be aware of, respect, and defer to, the expert consensus.  We are not going to be better informed, or more likely to have the better answer, than they are when they reach a close to consensus view on an economics related public policy question.  

For example, no one should be voting for President, Congress, or Governer someone who advocates for re-implementing the Gold Standard, such as Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Chris Christie, and presidential candidate Donald Trump together with his choice for Vice President, Governor Mike Pence, given that economists unanimously think that is a bad policy.  It is embarrassing for our country that people who presume to know better than our own experts are elected.  Of particular interest to secularism advocates are the questions on vaccines and primary school vouchers.  There is close to a consensus here for mandating vaccines against contagious diseases that maim or kill as advocated by the Secular Coalition for America.  For anyone interested in public policy more generally there are many interesting poll results to ponder.  It should be standard practice for universities to encourage their faculty to participate in public policy opinion polls.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Allegany County v. McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky

By Mathew Goldstein

Eleven years ago the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that Ten Commandments documents displayed in a government court building in Kentucky violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The same day the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that a Ten Commandments monument on the property of a government court building in Texas was constitutional.  Justice Breyer voted differently on the two similar disputes because he concluded that the monument in Texas was more secular than the framed wall displays in Kentucky for various trivial reasons, including that the Texas monument was one of more than a dozen different monuments on the court building property.  Justice Stevens dissented from that second decision, Van Orden v. Perry, arguing that the display "has no purported connection to God's role in the formation of Texas or the founding of our Nation ..." and therefore could not be protected on the basis that it was a display dealing with secular ideals. Stevens said that the display transmits the message that Texas specifically endorses the Judeo-Christian values referenced in the display and thus violates the establishment clause.

Justice Stevens was correct, although his implied endorsement of the existence of God as a secular fact was biased.  Justice Breyer's hair splitting distinctions between the Kentucky and Texas Ten Commandments appears to reflect an effort to balance his discomfort with the displays with his discomfort with confronting public opinion.  He appears to have ruled against one display in accord with his honest preference that such religiously partisan monuments not be displayed on government property, to try to limit the harm, while carving out an exception big enough to ensure any government could continue displaying the Ten Commandments anyway.  These two inconsistent decisions place the dispute in an unresolved status that encourages more litigation.

A self-identifying secular humanist and atheist who owns property in Allegany County, Jeffrey Davis, recently filed a lawsuit in Allegany County seeking to have the McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky decision re-applied to a Ten Commandments monument on the property of an Allegany County court building.  The granite monument is one of hundreds (the actual number is disputed) purchased and donated over ten years by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to promote the 1956 Cecil B. DeMills Ten Commandments movie.  The Fraternal Order of Eagles is a theists only membership organization, with an initiation ritual that features a Bible and religious phrases and prayer, that restricted membership to Caucasians in the past.  There is also a Goerge Washington monument somewhere else on the same property.  Davis is writing the arguments himself although he is not a lawyer.  He expresses an interest in obtaining assistance from experts.  Apparently the Maryland ACLU (no surprise here) and the AHA have so far refused to assist him.  

Meanwhile the county is spending lots of money on a non-profit law organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to try to convince the judge to retain the Ten Commandments monument.  Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian organization that describes itself as "defending the right to hear and speak the Truth".  We would never argue that our government institutions should display the secular humanist manifesto to respect our freedom of expression to communicate the fact that there is most likely no God and that religions are fictions.  Our government does not function as our vocal chords, keyboards, printers, Internet, billboards, etc.  When our government remains silent regarding theism versus atheism our government does not thereby deny anyone's freedom to express themselves.  There is a time and place for conducting business and another time and place for expressing convictions about (an imaginary) god within every 24 hour day, with time remaining for eating, sleeping, etc.  Or watching T.V., it's your choice.

Ten Commandments monuments on the property of a government institution never were, never will be, never can be, a secular display in any country where a majority of citizens profess those commandments came from God as revealed in a holy text that designates death penalties for violations.  No judge, no team of well educated lawyers from an expensive law firm, no biased popular opinion, declaring otherwise will change this basic fact.  The Ten Commandments is religious by origin, by content, by usage.  It is a thoroughly religion drenched biblical document that also has some incidental secular content.  When judges falsely claim such monuments are secular they demonstrate that they, and our laws, sometimes lack integrity. As secular humanists we should say this publicly, repeatedly, and unequivocally.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Ayn Rand was not a good philosopher or economist

For about three years Adam Lee has been criticizing Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged chapter by chapter, section by section, on his Daylight Atheism blog.  His criticisms of that book, and of Ayn Rand, were also critical of Objectivism.  Objectivism is the name given to the world view that the atheist, and self claimed advocate for reason and individualism, Ayn Rand tried to promote with her books.


Atlas Shrugged the Ideologocal Event Horizon summarizes Lee's criticisms of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist movement.  He argues that Ayn Rand's Objectivism fails to deliver on its claims of being rooted in reason and individualism.  Ayn Rand's fictional books are indeed unrealistic fantasies that attempt to promote a flawed philosophy.  Various Republicans reject Objectivism as being tainted by its link to atheism (as if that link automatically defeats the philosophy), but they continue to promote her books anyway as providing insight into good economic policy.  As a guide for economic policy we lack sufficient reasons to think her writings are any more sophisticated or realistic than her Objectivism philosophy.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Off target, the Air Raid podcast

The Secular Coalition of Maryland (SCMD) is "... a radical left-wing lobbying group that wants to ensure that people of faith do not have the ability to practice their religion freely."  Or so claims Brian Griffiths who is Editor in Chief of the Red Maryland Network where his recent comments can be found on his The Air Raid podcast.  He is a former Chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans for two terms who also served four years on the Maryland Republican Party Executive Board, was President of the Anne Arundel County Young Republican, and was Assistant Secretary and Northeast Regional Vice-Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation.

He characterizes SCMD as a "left wing hate machine" who seek "to force people to participate in" what he characterizes as "state sanctioned homicide" (this is referring to the bill that proposed legalizing physicians prescribing a lethal dose of barbiturates to the terminally ill).  To make his case he cited, among other things, our opposition to the bill titled "Health Occupations - Health Care Practitioners - Exemption From Participation in Aid in Dying". That seemed to particularly annoy him.

After reading some of the contents of the SCMD web site and identifying bills SCMD opposed he devoted most of the remaining time mischaracterizing SCMD positions.  He ignored that SCMD opposed only particular provisions of some of the bills, falsely claiming that we opposed the bill sponsor's stated goal in its entirety each time. He conjured a straw man negative stereotype of SCMD and then attacked the straw man he created.  He appears to have close to zero tolerance for every legislative outcome that SCMD seeks and focused more on negatively labeling us than on making an effort to engage in any two way discussion on the substance of the issues.

SCMD argues that 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, 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 disputed medical procedures are entitled to the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.

A good freedom of conscience bill for health care providers would prioritize freedom of conscience for individuals over that of institutions (since these two goals unavoidably conflict) by restricting institutional level employee mandates to privately controlled institutions.  A good bill would also be reciprocal and not privilege institutions that want to opt-out over those institutions that want to opt-in.  With those two modest adjustments that bill would become a reasonable and balanced bill that allows individuals working in public institutions to opt-out and allows privately controlled institutions to fully opt-out or opt-in.

It is clear that the perspectives of the SCMD and those of Mr. Griffiths are very far apart and in conflict.  Mr. Griffiths' views appear to align with those of his church.   Religious institutions take their theology seriously, they are inclined to claim that they are defending the will of God, which can generate conclusions that conflict with people who think differently about what God wants, or think that there is no knowledge of what God wants, or think that there is no God.  What is unclear is if there is a genuine willingness on his side to argue on the substance of our disagreements.  His commentary sounded like an effort to shut down the possibility of a discussion.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Maryland General Assembly 2016 report card

This year two lawmakers agreed with the Secular Coalition for Maryland (SCMD) more often than anyone else.  They were Delegates Alfred C. Carr Jr. of District 18 in Montgomery county and Eric Ebersole of District 12 in Baltimore and Howard counties. Eighteen additional Delegates and one Senator frequently agreed with SCMD.  Two Delegates disagreed with SCMD more often than anyone else.  They were Delegates Susan K. McComas of District 34B in Harford county and Tony McConkey of District 33 in Anne Arundel county. Three additional Delegates and three Senators often disagreed with SCMD.  A 2016 legislative recap describes some of this year's issues.

The SCMD recently published a Maryland 2016 GA Report Card spreadsheet with scores ranging from 8 to -4 for each lawmaker so that you can see how your elected representative fared.  Senators are identified by light blue rows.  Delegate Zucker became Senator Zucker in February.  He is identified as a Senator but on some bills he voted as Delegate.  The House bills opposed by the SCMD are followed by the Senate bills we opposed.  Then the House bills and Senate bills we supported are listed.

Bold bill numbers indicate a final floor vote.  Underlined indicates final floor votes in both chambers.  Italics indicates the floor votes were unanimous.  Unanimous floor votes in either or both chambers are not counted.  Sponsorship and cosponsorship are counted when there was no final floor vote in the originating chamber.  Committee votes are counted separately.  Committee votes are prefixed or suffixed with a "c".

No vote and no sponsorship or cosponsorship is assigned a zero.  If SCMD agrees with the vote or sponsorship or cosponsorship then it is assigned a one, otherwise it is assigned negative one.

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. John Quincy Adams 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.