Sunday, July 05, 2015

Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act

By Mathew Goldstein

Our Congressional representatives want to hear our opinion on two new bills.  The Secular Coalition of America has Action Alerts making it easy to send emails.

The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015, S 991, was voted favorably out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  Tell your Senator to stand up for evidence-based policymaking.  The act would establish the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking in the executive branch. The 15-member committee, made up of academic researchers and data experts would use data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures.

Using evidence to inform policy will help ensure that policies will be effective and applicable not only on paper, but in the real world. Taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted on policies that are unproven, untested, and unscientific.  It is incredibly important to support bills that advocate for evidence and research-based policy. Too often bills are introduced and even passed despite the overwhelming evidence of the inefficacy of the policy. S 991 is a step in the right direction towards effective and evidence-based policymaking.

The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), H.R. 2802 and S. 1598, proposes to legalize religious discrimination against same gender couples. Urge your Member of Congress to Block Legalized Discrimination.  The stated purpose of FADA is to protect the tax-exempt status, government contract, or any other Federal benefit of those who do not comply with the Court’s same-sex marriage ruling. This act’s true impact would allow for sweeping, taxpayer-funded discrimination against same-sex couples and their children under the guise of religious liberty.  FADA would completely eviscerate the historic nondiscrimination Executive Order that President Obama signed last summer that prohibits federal contractors from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The first amendment protects freedom of religion and freedom from religion, not the special privileges of the religiously affiliated at the expense of the fundamental rights of other Americans.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Original intent is ahistorical

By Mathew Goldstein

The Obergefell v. Hodges decision supporting marriage equality for same gender couples is one more precedent for the principle that the U.S. Constitution protects the civil rights of minorities against a sometimes recalcitrant majority. Decisions like these depend on interpreting the Constitution as containing broadly applicable assertions of general governing principles. This explains the vehemence of the dissents by four of the Supreme Court Justices. The four dissenting Justices exhibit a substantial discomfort with ordering new equal protection before the law protections nationwide for traditionally disfavored minorities. To avoid that outcome they advocate for interpreting the constitution as freezing in place the animus towards disfavored minorities found in the 18th century laws when the constitution was written.

The Obergefell v. Hodges dissenters, however, deny that 18th century laws exhibit any animus. Instead, they claim that laws limiting marriage to couples of opposite genders were, and still are, properly justified by a government interest that is narrowly confined to regulating procreation. This claim is incoherent and thus should be understood to be an effort to mask their own animus. If regulating procreation is the primary government interest here then why do marriages everywhere remain legally in force after the female completes menopause? Why are mixed gender couples that are known in advance to be incapable of joint procreation always permitted to marry? Why are the marriages of mixed gender couples that are subsequently found to be incapable of joint procreation not routinely annulled? The judges who cite procreation as the primary government interest served by marriage fail to address these questions. The reason for this failure is easy to fathom, it is because they cannot. Marriage is, and always has been, about more than procreation. It is also about jointly raising children (who may have been procreated by a different couple) and about regulating a variety of related financial and social interactions. Today there are approximately one thousand federal benefits and regulations associated with marriage. What are the reasons for denying same gender couples access to these benefits in the 21st century? No sensible answer is ever given.

The irony of the comatose, "it's the 18th century forever," approach to constitutional interpretation, which is often referred to as original intent, is that it is claimed to be rooted in following the historical intent of the founding fathers, yet history does not support it. The 18th century authors of the constitution were well read students of history and philosophy. They were aware that the governing customs and practices of their own time and place, let alone of the 16th century 200 years in their past, were not exemplary. They sometimes criticized popular traditions and mores of their day and believed that they could facilitate future changes for the better. They wrote out specific and detailed instructions when they wanted the law to be fixed and specific and they wrote more general instructions when they preferred that the law be more flexible and broad to support future progress. They understood that the constitution was being written for a future that would be different from the present in unanticipated ways. They wanted the new constitution to retain its relevance and be adaptable for future generations. 

Interpreting the constitution to support only those claims that uphold standards already fully realized in the 18th century is hidebound and cowardly. If there are hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods then the culprit will be indifferent physics, not an angry god. The authors of the constitution, and the broad, timeless, principles articulated in the constitution that they wrote, merit more respect. The Equal Protection clause was added to the Constitution by a 19th century action (14th amendment) as an additional broad principle that is consistent with the original intent as expressed in the Bill or Rights, and it clearly applies to all citizens of the United States. Maryland legalized same gender marriage in 2013 and it is also legal in D.C.

The four votes against equal protection is only one vote short of winning and four votes too many. 

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Recent Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion articles

"Anti-Atheist Bias in the United States: Testing Two Critical Assumptions" by Lawton Swan and Martin Heesacker (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ac/) examines the  veracity of the following two assertions: a) that when people report negative attitudes toward atheists, they do so because they are reacting specifically to their lack of belief in God; and (b) that survey questions asking about attitudes toward atheists as a group yield reliable information about biases against individual atheist targets. They confirmed both assertions.  A recent Templeton Foundation funded study also supports this result by comparing the impact of Dr. Francis Collins arguments that religion and science are harmonious against the impact of Dr. Richard Dawkins arguments that science and religion are in conflict on people who first read a short biography of the authors of the competing arguments. Research shows that people are significantly more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure. "Given that there are more people in the U.S. population (and hence in our data) who would identify as a Christian than atheist, Collins is likely to have more impact with that audience", see more at: http://news.rice.edu/2015/06/17/how-science-popularizers-influence-public-opinion-on-religion/#sthash.rWa20rZN.dpuf.

J. Tuomas Harviainen reviews a book, "Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not", by Robert N. McCauley (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.af/).  This review says that the crux of the argument in the book is that religion relies more on commonplace, unreflective explanations as differentiated from the more abstract, reflection-requiring explanations of science and religion has a less restricted view of the role of agent causality than science.  It is inherently easier ("more natural") for people to accept commonplace explanations and causality via agents.  Therefore people tend to favor "theologically incorrect" religions.

"Explaining Global Secularity: Existential Security or Education?" by Claude Braun (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ae/) concludes that formal education alone explains loss of religious beliefs and that the positive correlation between secularism and material safety is not a causal relationship. Thus, religion’s primary function in the world today is being replaced, not so much by better living conditions, but by contemporary education – extensive knowledge of contemporary cultures, philosophy, modes of thought or processes of reasoning.

"Non-Theists Are No Less Moral Than Theists: Some Preliminary Results" by Justin Didyoung Eric Charles and Nicholas Rowland  (http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/snr.ai/) determined from a survey of 114 undergraduate students that, contrary to the commonly held stereotype that non-theists are less moral than theists, religious identity did not conclusively determine that an individual was more moral or more altruistic.

Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission: Stop sponsoringChristian cross

The American Humanist Association, et. al. v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission lawsuit has been in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland since February 2014.  The lawyers for the plaintiffs recently filed a motion with a supporting memorandum requesting a summary judgment from the court that the continuing Maryland state government sponsorship of a large crucification cross on state government property violates the Establishment Clause.  They are proposing as a remedy that either the two horizontal arms of the cross be removed or the entire cross be removed. Details about the lawsuit can be found on the web site of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ask State Department to oppose all blasphemy laws

The House of Representatives recently introduced House Resolution 290 calling on President Obama and the State Department to demand the repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide. Will you take just one minute to write to your Representative and ask her or him to support this bill?
As you know, blasphemy laws greatly affect atheists in particular—their efforts to promote critical thinking and progressive values are often seen as “hatred” toward the majority religion. This results in dangerous consequences—from serving jail time to even capital punishment.  Contribute an email to this worthy American Humanist Association effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why is supernaturalism not found in science?

Science restricts itself to naturalistic conclusions and methods because those are the conclusions and methods that are successful. This result leaves us with a question to answer: Why are supernatural conclusions and methods unsuccessful in science? There are at least three commonly proposed answers, but only one of the answers is arguably correct.

One proposed answer is that imagined supernatural explanations automatically convert to natural explanations the moment they are determined to be true. In other words, everything that is true is ipso-facto natural. To demonstrate that this answer is wrong all we need to do is give an example of something that could be both true and supernatural. For example, if stars gave off light energy without consuming any energy then we would discover this fact. Having discovered that no physical, material, or mechanical process is involved in the production of star light we would be justified in concluding that star light is a supernatural phenomena.

Another proposed answer is that naturalism is intrinsic to science. Under this scenario, science presupposes naturalism and is incapable of obtaining knowledge via supernatural methods. To demonstrate that this answer is wrong all we need to do is give an example of obtaining knowledge via a supernatural method. For example, if the previously unknown answers to any question in mathematics were magically revealed to worshippers of Jupiter then we would be justified in concluding that Jupiter may be a supernatural God. 

The one good answer is that science restricts itself to natural methods and conclusions because our universe is strictly naturalistic. People ask atheists for evidence that there are no gods. Here is the evidence: The monopoly of naturalistic methods and conclusions in science is substantial positive evidence that we live in a strictly naturalistic universe.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More socially advanced countries are less religious.

Dr. Alex McFarland, host of the national Stand Strong Tour, was quoted recently as saying the following: "From a societal standpoint, any time we reject a belief in God and, thereby, a belief in absolute morals based on the Word of God, we see the disintegration of a healthy society. From the breakdown of the family and the killing of the unborn to the rejection of the rule of law and of moral boundaries, the consequences are far reaching."  Given the large number of people with diverse religious affiliations who very confidently express similar unqualified sentiments, the question to ask here is what does the available evidence say about the relationship between a society being healthy and a society being religious?  To answer this question someone needs to identify measures of how healthy and religious a society is, take those measurements, and evaluate the results.

We have new data addressing both questions.  On April 13 the international polling organization WIN/Gallup released the results of a massive new survey into religion worldwide.  The latest update of the Social Progress Index was published the previous week.  This was also a mammoth undertaking, painstakingly assessing the nations of the world against a battery of benchmarks divided into three categories: “Basic Human Needs”, “Foundations of Wellbeing” (health and basic education), and “Opportunity” (personal rights, freedom, tolerance and advanced education).  Now we need someone to combine the data and see if the correlations support McFarland's assertion.

This is a task for Epiphenom. Epiphenom found that the Gallup poll allows us to rank 59 countries by the percentage of citizens who are non-religious.  The least religious countries scored highest on the Social Progress Index and the most religious countries scored worst. This trend is apparent across all three categories.

Back in 2009 Epiphenom showed the less religious countries were also more peaceful, and research since then has shown that they are more democratic, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional and have better quality of life.  Regardless of the underlying cause and effect direction, and regardless of how frequently many different people adamantly assert otherwise, there is only one properly justified conclusion here:  A non-religious society and a healthy society are mutually compatible.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Morality, consensus, commitment, and axioms

By Mathew Goldstein

The distinction between a definition in the abstract and a practical operational method for applying that definition is sometimes important, yet it tends to be under appreciated.  As Jason Rosenhouse argues in his recent blog article A Few More Words About Morality "One of the most overwrought questions in moral philosophy is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective."  Following the abstract definition "... something is objectively true if it is true independently of what anyone thinks about it."  However, to apply this abstract "objective versus subjective" distinction we need an operational method to render it concrete.

Jason Rosenhouse makes the following argument:  "The point is that appealing to the consensus is just the best we can do when trying to distinguish what is objectively true from what is a subjective belief.  I see no reason why we cannot apply the same standard to discussions of morality."  Thus, by comparing the laws of different democratic countries we can find consistencies regarding what is deemed criminal and cite this consensus to establish an objectively moral baseline.

Obviously consensus is a flawed method of determining what is true.  Consensus has historically been wrong in the context of morality.  Therefore being moral entails rejecting the consensus when it fails the “don’t hurt people unnecessarily” standard underlying morality.  Since consensus is a flawed method for concretely applying the abstract principle, this result does not mean that morality as a principle lacks objectivity.  Instead it means that humans are, for a variety of reasons, imperfect in distinguishing what is moral from what is immoral.  

Furthermore, in the context of reaching a consensus there is also a question of commitment.  Lack of commitment plays some role in historical failures of the consensus to uphold morality, particularly when people perceive a conflict with their own self-interest.  Jason Rosenhouse briefly addresses the lack of commitment issue by acknowledging that commitment is where morality becomes more subjective.  He says "Moral assertions have to be defended on some basis, and in any system of reasoning something has to be taken as axiomatic."  Mr. Rosenhouse is correct.  His article is short so, if you have not done so yet and are interested and in this topic, go ahead and take a few minutes to read it.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Rules for making a valid argument

The following five rules for making a valid argument are universally applicable.  I mention them here because they are too often not followed.*
  • We are restricted to following the evidence and going only where it takes us.  The only proper way to justify our conclusions about how the universe functions is overall best fit with all of the available evidence.  Empirical evidence comes first, conclusions follow.
  • We must accept our accumulated knowledge of the natural world. We are obligated to acknowledge the validity of scientific explanations because they are historically successful.  You don’t get to advance your hypothesis about how the universe works by throwing out accumulated human wisdom!
  • We must accept that we don’t know anything about the nature of entities outside this universe. Deities and afterlives and the like are sometimes defined as existing outside human experience.  The proper adjective for imagined entities that have no basis in human experience is 'fictional'.
  • To determine how the universe functions we need to look beyond what is going on inside someone's head by citing information that is universally accessible.  Human psychology is notoriously unreliable as a source of knowledge. When someone announces that they have knowledge of the mind of god, citing their personal interpretation of their personal experience, they are discussing their psychology.  
  • We are obligated to define our factual assertions about how the universe functions clearly and unambiguously.  Karen Armstrong-style platitudes are empty noise. Insofar as “God is Love” says nothing discernible about how the universe functions it is literally a meaningless, throw-away phrase.

PZ Myers criticized Greta Christina for her recent article proposing 6 unlikely developments that could convince her to believe in God.  PZ Myers complained that Ebonmuse and Greta Christina are 'conceding too much' by engaging in 'what if' arguments to demonstrate the application of the first criteria for valid argument from the above list. PZ claims that the latter four criteria (his four criteria were defined somewhat differently, see his article http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2015/04/04/it-is-not-close-minded-to-demand-reasonable-kinds-of-evidence/) are prerequisites that theists can’t meet and therefore discussion should end there. I disagree. While it is arguably true that theists always fail to meet all four criteria simultaneously, those four criteria are corollaries of the first criteria. The insistence on starting with, and being dependent upon, empirical evidence is not secondary to the other criteria. Providing examples of how to apply the first criteria concedes only the primacy of empirical evidence and is not rendered irrelevant or useless because theists fail to simultaneously meet all of the other four criteria.

* This list of debate rules was inspired by a recent public disagreement between bloggers Greta Christina and PZ Myers and borrows from what they wrote.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Appeal to lawmakers: Evaluate bills using strictly secular criteria

Some people argue against implementing any aid in dying law on the grounds that any such law will disrespect the ideal of facing difficulties resolutely. Struggle and tragedy are a part of life.  Being resolute in confronting adversity is the proper approach to living well.  However, living with struggles and difficulties is not therefore a public policy goal to be protected by government laws.  Laws by themselves cannot eliminate all adversity.  But insofar as there are opportunities to implement laws that mitigate or reduce struggles and difficulties we should be favorably inclined to do so.  By implementing laws aimed at reducing suffering we are not challenging or disputing our responsibilities to resolutely confront the ongoing or occasional difficulties that we experience.

People who unconditionally oppose aid in dying laws tend to rely on secular language to avoid limiting the appeal of their argument to religious people.  Their talk of adverse "cultural" impact resembles a veil covering the religious motivation behind their opposition.  There is a dissonance between holding to the conviction that a benevolent God created humans in "His" image and accepting the notion that it is proper to legally authorize terminally ill people to voluntarily hasten their own deaths.  It is this dissonance with the religious beliefs that some lawmakers esteem, not any actual adverse cultural impact, that appears to motivate their unconditional opposition to aid in dying laws.

We all agree that people who are unconditionally opposed to hastening their own death should not do so.  We who are not theists harbor no illusions that humans have a transcendent purpose different from all other animals or that voluntary human self-hastening of death contradicts the desire of a deity.  There is no God imposing suffering on people to build their character, punish them for misdeeds, or qualify them for heaven.  A revised aid in dying bill may be introduced again in the Maryland General Assembly next year.  We appeal to Maryland lawmakers to make an effort to put aside any metaphysical qualms they may have and evaluate all proposed laws, including this one, strictly on secular criteria.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

False stereotyping of science

In the past I have summarized Sean Carroll's argument for atheism. Another one of my favorite atheist philosophers is Victor Stenger. Following is my summary of Victor Stenger's argument for atheism copied from his University of Colorado presentation titled Can Science Study the Supernatural?

Scientists use only methodological naturalism primarily because it works. But it may not always be so. Scientists will go wherever the data leads. Furthermore, methodological naturalism can be utilized to investigate God.  Nothing prevents science from considering non-natural causes.

Take empirical data in the normal scientific way. If no natural explanation is even remotely plausible then we may entertain the possibility of a supernatural process. For example, suppose independent experiments showed conclusively that Catholic prayers heal the sick while Jewish, Protestant, Muslim prayers have no effect. While many published prayer experiments are poorly done and unconvincing, a few are double-blind and "good science": Mayo Clinic 2001, Duke University 2005, Harvard, Mayo, ... 2006. No significant effect found. The world looks just as it would be expected to look if there is no God who answers prayers in any significant way.

All observations have plausible natural explanations, but they need not have them. Observations could have determined that the laws of physics were violated in creating the universe. That the age of the earth was too short for evolution. That the universe and life really showed evidence of design. That the human mind was shown to have extraordinary powers. That revelations contain new information. That natural events followed moral law. That lightening just strikes the wicked. That jails are filled with atheists while believers live happy, prosperous lives surrounded by loving family and pets. Such observations would support the God hypothesis.

Intelligent design, like intercessory prayer, like astrology, etc. is testable, tentative, falsifiable. Scientific studies find that the world looks just as it would be expected to look if it contains living organisms that are not designed but the product of the jury-rigged processes of evolution. The overall universe is mostly random. 96% of matter is dark matter or dark energy which has little structure. Photons in the cosmic microwave background are random to 1/100,000 and outnumber atoms a billion to one.

The universe looks just like it would be expected to look if it is not designed with humans in mind.  Contrary to what some people claim, science can investigate the supernatural and the result is not neutral or silent vis-a-vis the God hypothesis.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Request Death With Dignity law in Maryland

State laws to allow terminally ill patients to obtain medication to hasten their deaths are opposed by the Anglican, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Christian Science, Disciples of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Jehovah Witness, Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, Mormon, Orthodox, and Russian Othodox churches, and by Islam and Orthodox Judaism.  The reasoning for this opposition varies, but it is usually rooted in a belief that humans have a special connection to a god and acting to hasten one's death is contrary to what this god wants.  Nevertheless, several states have passed such laws.  Oregon enacted a death with dignity law in 1997.  This year, a bill modeled after Oregon's law is being considered in Maryland.

Oregon's law has proven to be successful.  Few people avail themselves of this option in practice.  The most common primary motive cited by the people that opted to hasten their death is loss of autonomy.  The availability of this option provides peace of mind to people who never qualify to hasten their deaths under the law, or who qualify but do not opt to hasten their deaths.  It is more ethical to allow people to obtain an aid in dying prescription from a physician after they have been diagnosed to have a remaining life span of six months or less, with procedural safeguards, than to deny everyone this option.

Complete the HTML forms to send an email to your Senator and Delegate(s) requesting that this law be passed in Maryland:  http://secular.us6.list-manage.com/track/click?u=9241bef44976519ab9f9dff94&id=389b463027&e=9f6f3f2c59.  The Secular Coalition for Maryland is currently tracking 27 Senate and House bills.  In addition to the physician aid in dying bill, we are supporting several equal employment opportunity bills, opposing several bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, opposing several bond bills, and supporting some Sunday hunting and alcohol sales bills.  To send emails to (or telephone or mail) your lawmakers about these bills please visit the lobbying actions page.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Griswold We Trust

David B. Parker is a professor of history at Kennesaw State University who specializes in Civil War history.  As any academic historian steeped in the Civil War knows, there are sometimes two conflicting histories, the history found in the historical record and a popular "history" that originates in someone's head the same way as fiction originates, but is nevertheless promoted as factual by individuals or groups with political, commercial, or other such non-academic agendas, and is subsequently repeated over and over again by growing numbers of other people, and as a result becomes accepted by public opinion as being factually true.  This happens in multiple different contexts.  If you think that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are likely fictional characters (unlike the historical warrior Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibnʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (a.k.a. Muhammad) or the historical con-man Joseph Smith) you may want to keep this insight to yourself lest you be mischaracterized as a foolish atheist ideologue who disregards the generally accepted evidence that all sensible people, including non-religious people and people of other religions, allegedly know demonstrates that these were historical people.

And so it is also with the claims that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential oath of office and all subsequent presidents did the same.  For many years the Senate Historical Office, speaking as the experts on presidential oath history on behalf of the U.S. Senate, and therefore also on behalf of the United States government, endorsed the first claim as historical fact.  For multiple years, starting shortly after we began our correspondence with them, they also published a "so help me God" video on the Joint Congressional Committee for Inaugural Ceremonies' (JCCIC) website that endorsed the second claim as historical fact.  Years after several of us first corresponded with the Senate Historical Office to point out that neither claim is supported by the historical record, they continued to endorse both "facts" on the website. The Senate Historical Office justified their stance by pointing out that historian Douglas Southall Freeman, who won a (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize for his six-volume biography of Washington published in 1954, claimed GW appended that phrase.  We responded that the eyewitness document cited by Freeman in his biography did not assert that GW appended that phrase.  From then on we got no more responses from the Senate Historical Office to any correspondence we sent them. Even though they eventually conceded their second claim was not justified they continued to assert it on the website.  Frustrated by the years of no response from the Senate Historical Office, one day I visited the Senate Rules Committee office, which owns the JCCIC web site.  I was dismissed by the youthful staff there, somewhat rudely, as if I was a crank.

Yet people did pay attention and began reporting the history correctly, and the JCCIC website eventually also followed. Professor Parker subsequently took an interest in the origin of these two related myths about George Washington's first inauguration and about all presidential oaths.  His conclusions were recently published in Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, volume 15, no. 1 and are available for all to read under the appropriate title "In Griswold We Trust".

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unlike watches, easy to break beliefs have more value

A robust watch that "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is better than a fragile watch.  A belief is unlike a watch in this respect.  A belief should be defeasible to have merit and warrant our support.  The easier it is to defeat a belief the more justified we are to hold that belief by virtue of a failure to defeat it.  When a belief attempts to claim the allegedly unbreakable status of a Timex watch that indicates that the belief is likely to be ill-defined and to lack value.  People who proudly assert that they adopt their most important beliefs on faith and actively resist the doubting of this faith, or who deliberately select their beliefs to be as inscrutable and invulnerable to defeat as possible, are making a fundamental mistake.  They are self-defining themselves as unreasonable ideologues.

To be properly justified our beliefs need to be derived from an honest effort to obtain a best fit with the available evidence.  Accordingly, we should hold those beliefs that are most consistent with the conclusions reached by a current consensus of the experts who carefully examine the empirical evidence and who adopt only those defeasible conclusions that withstand skeptical scrutiny.  Using this standard we are not restricted to adopting only those conclusions that are published in science textbooks, but we are confined to adopting only those beliefs that are the closest match with the conclusions published in science textbooks.  

The evidence favors, as best fit beliefs, that biology is chemistry is physics, that humans are primates that evolved from evolved fish that evolved from single celled organisms that emerged from chemistry and physics, that our universe has total energy in the vicinity of zero and that a stable initial condition of absolute nothingness is a fictional concept, that human cognition is flawed and biased and the very different religious beliefs among different people reflect our cognitive biases, and that libertarian free will is a fiction.  It thus becomes difficult to simultaneously hold traditional religious beliefs.  We should not be seeking a religious belief or any pre-determined belief, we should be seeking beliefs that are the best fit with the available evidence.

The Great Silence paradox

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has detected nothing.  This result gives us "the Great Silence" paradox, which can be stated thusly:  The size and age of our universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations exist. However, this belief is in conflict with our failure to find observational evidence to support it. 

Maybe intelligent life requires more than physics and chemistry and exists only on earth because a creator god of some sort put us here.  Maybe technologically advanced intelligent life is rarer than we assumed.  Maybe our current observations are misdirected or our search methodologies are flawed.  It turns out that the last two explanations for this failure are both likely true.

Earth is located 27,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.  SETI researchers look towards the center of our galaxy because that is the direction where the largest concentration of nearby stars are found.  New evidence implies that long gamma ray bursts are more common in places where stars are more dense and also where elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are less common.  

Long gamma ray bursts function like a reset buttons, they destroy multi-cellular life.  Intelligent life, which we can define here as life that achieves an understanding of how stars give off light, is possible on earth because of our location on the outer periphery of a large galaxy where there are fewer nearby stars and where there is a significant quantity of heavier elements. Earth appears to have experienced a partial biological reset from a gamma ray burst resulting in the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth's species.

During the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang there were arguably too many long gamma ray bursts to make plausible the emergence of intelligent life.  Furthermore, most galaxies are smaller than our Milky Way galaxy, with densely packed stars and/or with fewer heavy elements.  It is estimated that about 10% of the observable galaxies are sufficiently large and with enough heavy elements to have planets in their outer regions with conditions amenable to the evolution of intelligent life.  10% of 100 billion is still 10 billion galaxies, but the large distances between galaxies reduces the probability of our finding evidence for intelligent life in other galaxies even when it exists.  

Thus the initial SETI results appear to be not so paradoxical after all.  Our chaotic universe provides a mostly harsh environment that is ill-suited for the evolution of intelligent life.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be more effective if it focused on the outer regions of our galaxy and nearby large galaxies, but this constraint also makes it less likely that we will ever find them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.



As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Justice Scalia's alternative facts

According to Justice Scalia, the supernatural devil is "a real person" and demonic possession is less common today then it was in the past because today there are more atheists who function as enablers for the devil.  Scalia's views on the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause principles are unbalanced and unjust because they are rooted in facts about how the universe works that are false.  If there really is a devil who possesses people as depicted in C.S. Lewis' apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, and atheists are favoring "the devil's desires", as Scalia asserts is a fact, then Scalia's refusal to apply EC and EPC protections to atheism and atheists would be perfectly ethical.

Our model of how the universe works is the foundation that our ethics are built on.  This is why it is so important to utilize reliable methods for obtaining our facts about how the universe functions.  Antonin Scalia talks like a person who is not entirely committed to reliably anchoring his factual beliefs on the solid ground of empiricism.  Instead, he anchors at least some of his factual beliefs in today's ongoing reiteration of 4th century Catholic dogma.  The Vatican makes no distinction between its theology and the facts, and therefore neither does Justice Scalia, who is proudly committed to being a good Catholic.  

Through considerable collective effort, with important contributions of a few intelligent individuals, between the 4th century and 1789 we acquired some additional knowledge about how the world functions.  This trend of acquiring knowledge has continued, at an accelerated pace, between 1789 and 2015.   Justice William J. Brennan somehow managed to live in the real world and profess Catholicism at the same time.  But Scalia's world view pathetically, and tragically, remains partially frozen somewhere between the 4th century and 1789 because he elevates Catholic faith to a valid epistemology with equal status, or maybe superior status, to empiricism. His pathological condition is all the more troubling given that he is an intelligent and powerful man who appears to be injecting his Catholic bias into his evaluation of civil rights protections.

The United States government spends billions of dollars every year to further research that continues to advance modern knowledge.  This money does not go to the Catholic Church because Catholic Church theology contributes nothing to our modern knowledge and never has.  If Justice Scalia had more integrity then he would acknowledge this and refrain from basing EC and EPC jurisprudence on his Catholic faith.

My response to WASH banquet comment

At the Phillips Seafood restaurant banquet that was co-sponsored with the American Humanist Association some months ago, I shared a table with several couples. That restaurant is good, I regret I arrived too late to take full advantage of the buffet downstairs. The first conversation was initiated by one of the two other guys at our table who declared that calling oneself an atheist is like calling oneself an aleprechaunist. Nobody calls them self an aleprechaunist, and no one should call themselves an atheist, he said.

A problem with this analogy is that almost no one calls themselves a leprechaunist either, and even those few people who may so label themselves are joking, or at least do not worship leprechauns. If it were otherwise, if 80-90% of the population called themselves leprechaunists and many of these people worshipped leprechauns, then we would be properly justified in calling ourselves aleprechaunists. That is one of the proper, valid, functions of labels, to identify significant differences in commonly held individual perspectives. Some atheists are married to theists and they do fine together. Yet this is a difference that can contribute to weakening a relationship and sometimes it does.

In addition to the social context, another context where the atheist label can have real significance is with laws and government practices. It is for this reason that arguments to stop using this label are inherently political. Labels enable debate over relevant government laws and practices. Our government, in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, actively promotes theism and sometimes discriminates against atheists. It is more difficult to challenge this if we dispense with the atheist label. This is one of the reasons I keep using the atheist label and reject arguments against using this label. For similar reasons I keep referring to atheism as a belief even though some people mistakenly insist that atheism is never a belief. For people who, like me, positively believe there are no gods, our positive atheism is a belief.

No one who calls himself atheist is thereby denying that theists and atheists can, and often do, have a lot in common. Also, no one who calls them self an atheist is only an atheist. As with any label, the atheist label is an incomplete way of characterizing oneself. We can also be humanists, secularists, freethinkers, metaphysical or philosophical naturalists, rationalists, skeptics, empiricists, non-theists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, etc.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excellent letter from Americans United to the Department of Natural Resources

Now we know why it took Americans United for Separation of Church and State several months to write their letter to Joseph P. Gill, Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources:  It was written by AU's senior attorneys like a court brief, heavy with citations of judicial decisions.  I count over 15 citations in a two page letter. The quote below contain the highlights of their clear and unequivocal November 25 letter.

"The Department cannot operate a program that restricts access to participants who are not religious or who deny the existence of God.... Likewise, the Department cannot legally enforce policies that would violate citizens rights to equal protection of the law.... For these reasons the Department must terminate its Charter Agreement with Boy Scouts of America and stop operating Venture Crew 202."

We are now waiting for a response from the DNR.  It is our commitment to the Establishment Clause and equal protection of the law that makes it happen.  Please go to the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobbying action page and send an email to the DNR.  If you are a resident of Maryland then send a second email to the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight to reinforce this message.  Or send them a letter and call them also.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We cannot choose our conclusion

Our modern picture of the world counter-evidences the religious conviction that our universe has a transcendent aspect or purpose.  Epistemic humility mandates the conclusion that our picture is incomplete.  We all operate under conditions of irremediable uncertainty.  We are not following out a proof.  But when it is proposed that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations under the direction of ghostly beings, the proper reaction is to reject the proposed explanation.

We must reject interventions by ghostly beings because we do not need to know everything with certainty from proof to know enough to confidently conclude that our universe operates within the physical constraints of indifferent natural laws.  To reach this conclusion we need a commitment to truth and a recognition that the only reliable way to discover what is true about how our universe functions is to follow the empirical evidence.  We are compelled to the recognition that we are dependent on empiricism by tallying the historical success versus failure ratio of various methods of finding the truth.

Rain and war dances, prayer, meditation, incantations, voodoo, fasting, hallucinatory substances, exorcism, seance, astrology, tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls, worship, faith, intuition, imagination, divine revelation, are among the multitude of non-empirical methods that people have turned to resolve problems and obtain answers.  These methods have an unbroken track record of failure.  The only method of finding the truth about how our universe operates that has a consistent track record of success is a skeptical empiricism.  A nutritious meal, a sound sleep and a mid-day nap, some physical exercise, good music, meditation, maybe even a hallucinatory substance, etc., can all contribute, but only empiricism rejects what is fake and connects us to what is real.

The available empirical evidence is sufficient to speak decisively against our universe possessing transcendence or purpose.  Contrary to what agnosticism claims, the evidence is not silent on this question.  Every area of human inquiry that speaks on this question speaks consistently, unanimously telling us that our universe operates mechanically and is indifferent to our fate.  To continue to believe in a universal transcendence or purposefulness or higher power is to refuse to confront what the evidence says.

The unavoidable need for interpretation to get from the evidence to any given conclusion is sometimes cited as justification for accepting a wide range of conclusions.  However, skeptical empiricism connects the evidence to a particular conclusion by best fit.  Best fit discards unnecessary accouterments and attaches itself to the most economical conclusion.  Equality and pluralism are important and valuable social principles, but they are counterproductive as principles of rationality.

All conclusions are not equally good.  For those of us who are committed to responsibly matching our beliefs to the evidence, any religious belief, from the most literalist to the most metaphorical, has ceased to be a live option.  It would be otherwise only if our universe was different.  We did not choose the universe we were born into and therefore we cannot choose our conclusion.  Atheism is the best fit with the available evidence conclusion given our universe as it actually is and therefore we are atheists.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A motherlode of bad ideas

Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health by Ron Hubbard is a motherlode of bad ideas.  The Westboro Baptist church is a motherlode of bad ideas.  Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy is a motherlode of bad ideas.

Anyone angry at me yet? Most of us do not want other people to be angry with us.  We could avoid criticisms of all ideas, or confine our criticisms to generalities that no one self-identifies with.  Then we would be more likely to get closer to our goal of having no one be angry at us.  Yet that should not be our only goal.  We also have good reason to share our thoughts for the purpose of improving our collective thinking, and some of our thoughts are likely going to be critical of some of the ideas that other people self-identify with.

Fortunately for me, Scientologists, Westboro Baptists, and Christian Scientists are few in number and they are not provoked to acts of violence by public criticisms of the bad ideas that they subscribe to.  There will be no riots, I will receive no threats, and the people I interact with will not now become rude towards me.  But what happens when we criticize ideas that many people self-identify with and that some of those same people think should be defended by force?

In at least five countries, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan, a majority of people think that anyone who is born into an Islamic family must profess Islam.  They think there is no option to profess any competing belief and those that leave Islam are guilty of such a serious offense that they should be killed.  This may also be true in Saudi Arabia, but no polls are allowed in that country, and it also true in the Palestinian territories, according to a 2013 Pew forum poll.  Every Arab country that was polled had a majority that either supported a death penalty for apostasy, adultery, or both, except for Tunisia.  Under Shari'a law a Muslim can testify in court against a kafir, but a kafir may not testify against a Muslim and, more generally, there is not equality before the law for non-Muslims.  These are bad ideas and not moderate ideas.  Even among those articulate, well-groomed Muslims who are repeatedly cited by non-Muslims as being reassuring spokespeople for moderate Islam, there are those who endorse at least some of Islam's motherlode of bad ideas, like the notion that the entire contents of the deeply flawed Quran flawlessly communicates divine revelation.

There are apologists for religion who say bad behavior has nothing to with religion.  They say religion is about peace, harmony, justice, and love only.  They say Islamic State, and any other militants who claim they speak for Islam, actually have nothing to do with Islam.  They say that all bad behavior is a product of poverty, imperialism, colonialism, injustice and never a result of religion.  Do not believe them.  Religion is surely not the only factor, but when a religion promotes bad ideas it also promotes bad outcomes.  Religion sometimes does contribute to making things worse, even much worse, than they otherwise would be.  Religiously motivated, violence prone, illiberal extremists sincerely take their religious beliefs seriously.  They really believe that it is good to kill kafirs, and they are actually acting on their triumphalist religious belief when they behave badly.

More than a few liberals bend over backwards in an effort to convince the public that the threat from radical Islam is no more, or less, serious than the threat from radical Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, or even from "militant" atheists. Indeed, radicals are a potential threat no matter what their ideology. Yet not all ideologies are, at any given time in history, equally threatening. Currently, more people are killing in the name of Islam than in the name of any other religion. Currently, illiberal ideas are more popular among Islamic populations than among Christian or Jewish populations and these illiberal ideas function as fertilizer for radical Islam. If we as liberals really favor liberal ideas then we should be willing to criticize illiberalism wherever it appears. We fail to do that when we selectively hold different people to different standards.  

So let's say it: The Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Quran, are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Chris Hayes, Ben Affleck, and other such liberal apologists for religion can bang their heads against the wall and say that we are being gross, bigoted, racists.  Their false ranting won't change the unpleasant facts and refusing to face the facts will not move us forward.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Unacceptable words and tone according to CBS

CBS rejected broadcasting the following Freedom From Religion Foundation advertisement with any of their TV shows on the grounds that the words and tone are unacceptable.  This video is 30 seconds, so take a look and see if you can detect the strident militancy and offensive disrespect in the FFRF's Ron Reagan ad. Is declaring oneself an atheist, or declaring oneself not in fear of spending an eternity in hell, or both, unacceptable, or is the problem elsewhere? Would the ad be acceptable to CBS if Ron Reagan, instead of appearing upbeat, appeared pained by existential angst?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Boy Scouts can deny/revoke membership at will

Since the Supreme Court declared that The Boy Scout of America organization is a strictly private organization it follows that BSA can deny or revoke any membership application at any time with no explanation. They can do this for no reason at all, or for any reason at all. This is the way it should be with strictly private organizations. BSA wanted this designation, they fought for it, they got it.

Rob Boston thinks that the law is murky as to whether or not government institutions can own and operate membership based units of such strictly private institutions. Unlike him I am not a lawyer. So I guess I look at this from a simple perspective. My simple perspective is that I do not see government institutions owning and operating church membership groups or any other such strictly private membership group. My simple perspective is that government institutions are prohibited from owning and operating such strictly private membership groups precisely because governments cannot prohibit strictly private organizations from discriminating.

Start with a clear civil rights violation, add sophistry, and the result is murky. BSA is very clear and direct about their membership policy. No atheists, no atheist leaning agnostics. Silly me, I believe there are no gods (on a weight of the overall available evidence basis) and I never consented to surrender any of my civil rights.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Dan Fincke on objectivity of morality

Advocates of religion often argue that religion is necessary to provide an objective grounding for morality. The obvious problem with this argument is that only something non-fictional can provide objective grounding for something else. Therefore religion fails to provide objective grounding for anything because religion is fiction. In other words, the horse pulls the cart, the cart does not pull the horse. So even if religion would provide an objective basis for morality if religion were true, the religion horse is fiction so it is incapable of pulling any cart of objectivity. People can pretend that religion is true and from there they can pretend that morality has objective grounding in their religion, but pretending objectivity is self-contradictory, it is disengenuity.

Having dismissed religion, the question of objectivity remains.  Contrary to what some advocates of religion claim, objectivity is clearly not dependent on religion.  We are objectively better off seeking the assistance of medical doctors who are trained and licensed according to the principle of following the empirical evidence than we are going to religious faith healers with magic potions and dances and traditional rituals.  What about morality?  Is there an objective basis for morality?

Some atheists, such as Jerry Coyne, assert there is no objective morality.  Other atheists, such as Dan Fincke (and Sam Harris), argue that morality is empirically rooted in human flourishing and therefore, in the main, objective. I have read both sides of this argument and there is a winner: Dan Fincke is correct.  Take a look at Dan Fincke disputing Jerry Coyne on his blog Empowerment Ethics: “Can There Be Objective Morality When So Many People Disagree About Morality?” Human flourishing would arguably be enhanced if everyone who has more than the bare minimum that they need gave away everything non-essential that they owned to those who otherwise lack what they need to survive. Jerry Coyne has a fair point that almost no one does that or advocates that everyone do that.  But this lack of perfection in practice, as with the lack of perfect and complete empirical knowledge or the lack of universal agreement, does not defeat the successful argument that there is an objective basis for evaluating morality.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Americans United not acknowledging the evidence

About one month after I wrote to Americans United for Seperation of Church and State regarding the apparent sponsorship by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources of a Scouting program unit, I received a reply from a staff attorney. It began with a thank you followed by an apology for the delay. The AU staff attorney then wrote: ".... Despite the use of the word "sponsor" on the Venturing Crew's website, I can find no evidence that there is any formal sponsorship relationship between the two organizations. Instead, it appears that the Venturing Crew participates in certain volunteering initiatives offered by DNR. It is not unconstitutional for a religious organization to volunteer time and effort with a government agency. If there is evidence that DNR provides funding to the Venturing Crew, please send it to me and I will review it. Otherwise, this does not look like a violation." 

This reaction to my complaint from AU contrasts sharply with the FFRF reaction. FFRF reacted by writing a letter to the DNR requesting "any department records related to sponsorship of Venturing Crew 202." FFRF did not assume that there is no formal sponsorship absent proof one way or the other. Why is AU making the assumption there is no formal relationship given that the evidence suggests that there is such a formal relationship? The Crew 202 web site says that they have been sponsored by the DNR since 2000, when the unit first started, and the advisor of the unit has a DNR email address. And why is AU emphasizing funding? Even if the DNR gave no money to the unit, they are still operating a unit of a membership youth group that excludes atheists which by itself is illegal, as the FFRF staff attorney stated in his correspondence with me.

After calling more than a dozen times and getting an answering machine, I spoke to the registrar of the Baltimore Area Council of BSA.  She confirmed that the chartered organization (a.k.a. the sponsoring organization) of Crew 202 is the DNR and the advisor with the DNR email address is also the Chartered Organization Representative.  However, she refused to give me a copy of the charter agreement.  So I separately wrote to the AU and FFRF staff attorneys to alert them of this additional evidence.  I immediately received a response from the FFRF.  From AU I have so far received no response.

Although disappointed so far with AU, I cannot say I am surprised.  AU and the ACLU are very good organizations whose membership probably consists largely of liberal theists.  Many liberal theists have a strong commitment to civic equality and non-establishment of religion that becomes weak, or antagonistic, when it comes to atheists.  A country where more than 4/5 of the population are religious believers is a very different country when many such believers are liberal from a country where few such believers are liberal.  Liberal religious believers may object to my characterization of religion as inherently having a conservative orientation, but the fact is that the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions are often (very) conservative. And taking those ancient texts seriously in the 21st century is also conservative.  So let's celebrate the liberal religious believers, with their creative hermeneutics, for their central role in making our country as tolerant and free as it is.

Yet these same liberal theists are also hypocrites when it comes to atheists.  As with the ACLU, I will continue to wait for the AU to show me that I am wrong about liberal theists being civil rights hypocrites.  I want to be wrong. I want the AU and the ACLU to tell the world that they favor civic equality for atheists and non-establishment of theism.  They both have this opportunity here and if they take it then I will be happy to let you know on this blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Maryland ACLU too small to dispute no atheists club

I recently became aware that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is still sponsoring Venturing Crew 202 through the Baltimore Area Council of The Boy Scouts of America.  The Maryland DNR has been sponsoring this Venturing Crew since 2000.   I first heard about this some years ago, and I initially thought the sponsorship may have been short term, but it has proven to be long term.  I have been a card carrying member of the ACLU for many years and I faxed a complaint to the Maryland ACLU.

Four days later I called to verify that they received the fax.  I described my complaint as being about a state sponsored youth group that discriminates. I was told my complaint was not yet entered on their computers and I was asked to identify the target of the discrimination.  After I replied "atheists and agnostics" I was told that it could take months for the ACLU to decide if they would pursue my complaint.

I faxed another copy of the complaint the next week and, this time, when I again called them four days later, I was told they had a record of the complaint.  A mere two weeks later I received a letter from the ACLU explaining that their legal staff is small and they provide legal assistance for "a small number of cases each year."  They concluded they are "unable to assist" in this matter due to their "limited resources".  The Maryland ACLU claims to have "approximately 14,000 members statewide."

Fortunately, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims "more than 400" members in Maryland, is willing to assist.  They wrote "... we are concerned about the relationship between the Boy Scouts and the DNR. One principal concern we have is that all BSA organizations have to sign an “Annual Charter Agreement.” The general form has the sponsor agree to: “Conducting the Scouting program according to its own policies and guidelines as well as those of the Boy Scouts of America.” The Venturing Oath and Code are also a problem...."

Clearly FFRF understands the problem, and furthermore it appears that the FFRF is more efficient at deploying their limited resources in contexts like this than the ACLU.  Assuming that the DNR rejects the complaint and continues sponsoring their no atheists youth group, I would not be surprised if the now reluctant ACLU reverses course and decides they are able to devote some of their resources to this matter once the complaint is scheduled for a hearing before a judge.  Meanwhile, if you are one of the 14,000 members of the Maryland ACLU, please considering calling or writing to ask them to reconsider their decision not to pursue the ACLU file number 3470 claim against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sponsorship of Venturing Crew 202.