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:

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

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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

How's that for evidence that God exists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Secular has two contexts and definitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 legislative recap Secular Coalition for Maryland

Bills that passed

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

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

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

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

Bills we opposed that failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bills we supported that failed

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

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

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

SB0948 requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Maryland Education Credit bills could become law

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A grey hair theist versus a greying atheist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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