Friday, December 28, 2007

Damon Linker's rant against advocating atheism.

At least three arguments and a definition are found in "Atheism's Wrong Turn: Mindless argument found in godless" by Damon Linker published in The New Republic, December 10, 2007. As a classical liberal I am dismayed by Damon Linker's article because, by declaring liberalism to be incompatible with promotion of atheism, he is actually legitimizing the illiberal sentiments expressed by some atheists that he claims to oppose. Before proceeding with the criticism of his thesis I will first quickly summarize his three arguments and one definition to spare you the need to read his article.

His guilt by association argument divides atheists into illiberal, "bellicose", "combative", "unremittingly hostile", "strident", etc., atheists, currently exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and liberal, "thoughtful", "cautious", "generous", "intellectual", etc. atheists, such as Socrates, who don't act as "missionaries for atheism". Historically, the illiberal, ideological atheism emerged in the late, fanatical phases of the French Revolution and was embraced by Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx on the far left and Friedrich Nietzsche on the far right.

His don't criticize argument cites as representative of the liberal attitude "pragmatist" atheist Sidney Hook, who said religious views such as theism should "fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended."

His false dichotomy argument characterizes liberal atheists as those who confine their advocacy to defending "the secular politics favored by the American Constitutional framers". It is only the illiberal atheists who "have the much more radical goal of producing a secular society--a society in which the American people, as a whole and individually, have abandoned religion."

Damon Linker ties all three aforementioned fallacious arguments together with the following misdefinition of liberalism:
It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

He concludes as follows:
The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

The first problem here is that the claim that theism is outside the sphere of "rational criticism" is false. Theism is a fact claim. The central claims of atheism that theism is unjustified because it is a pseudo-explanation, lacks supporting evidence, and is contradicted by evidence, are certainly within the realm of rational criticism.

His definition of liberalism wrongly asserts that reaching a popular unanimity regarding theisms and atheism is illiberal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liberalism is not about any particular fixed outcome, it is about process. The liberal process is open, vigorous, debate. If the outcome of this process is less diversity of belief then that is a success of liberalism, not a failure of liberalism. Respecting diversity of belief is not the same as respecting an unjustified belief. Turning an unjustified belief into some kind of holy writ that renders it beyond rational criticism for no other apparant reason then it is entangled with religious dogmas is illiberal, not liberal.

Furthermore, the liberal goal of secular government is not in contradiction to or incompatible with the goal of secular society. On the contrary, popular antagonism against atheism is rooted in widespread ignorance of atheism and this is one of the biggest obstacles to eliminating government establishment of Christian compatible monotheism. Ultimately, the only way to attack the anti-atheist stereotypes, prejudice, and ignorance that blocks the liberal goal of secular government vis-a-vis theism is to explain atheism to the public and maybe convert more people to atheism in the process. It is not possible to try convince people that atheism is a reasonable belief without also asserting that atheism merits more widespread adoption. There is nothing at all illiberal about advocating atheism.

Finally, it is certainly not the case that everyone who actively and vigorously advocates for atheism is doing so because of "furious certainty" or because of other illiberal sentiments or goals. On the contrary, actively and vigorously advocating for atheism makes a positive contribution to the intellectual environment of civil society in and of itself and should be encouraged by everyone who values liberalism. If some advocates of atheism have linked their advocacy with illiberal sentiments then that reflects those particular individual's illiberal tendencies. That is not an illiberalism inherent to atheism advocacy as Damon Linker falsely claims. It is illogical and unfair to label all atheism advocates as illiberal on the basis of a few marginally illiberal sentiments expressed by some advocates of atheism.

I share Damon Linker's strong preference for liberalism and agree with some of his criticism of some mildly illiberal sentiments that have occasionally been expressed by some of the "new atheists". But he goes too far by unreasonably labeling the new atheism illiberal despite the overall liberal orientation of the new atheists he criticizes and by perversely advocating censoring public advocacy of atheism in the name of "liberalism". Damon Linker's insistence that atheists respect theistic beliefs in the name of "liberalism" is not liberalism. Genuine liberalism supports open debate regarding the truth of dubious and debatable fact claims regardless of whether those fact claims are made under the banner of religion or not. Damon Linker's essay misrepresents liberalism, the new atheists, and atheism. The New Republic did a disservice to the cause liberalism and to its readership by publishing his atheism-phobic rant instead of more sober, balanced and sensible critical analysis of some illiberal tendencies exhibited by some of the new atheists.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Overview of book "Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance"

Reproduced as originally published in November 2007 Washington Secular Humanist newsletter.

"Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance" by Ronald Bishop. State University of New York Press, 2997, ISBN 0791471821

The book's Foreword, written by Nadine Strossen, has a good concise summary of both the lawsuit's assertions and the media's distorted characterization of the lawsuit. Newdow maintained that the public school policy of requiring teachers to daily lead the students in pledging allegiance to one nation Under God violated his parental rights to influence his young daughter's beliefs without the state placing its imprimatur on a particular opposing religious belief. Strossen writes "... he certainly did not seek to strip all religious references from public life, notwithstanding the widespread, overblown media accounts that mischaracterized his claims in these ways." "... the media tended to demonize him as an egocentric individualist who was taking advantage of his biological relationship with his daughter to advance his own ideological agenda." "... the media generally disparaged and trivialized Newdow's legal claims, implying that they had garnered the support of only a few judges on an allegedly--but actually not--extremist liberal court..." "In sum, the media coverage of Newdow's case wrongly impugned the virtues of both his legal claims and his motives in pursuing them."

Bishop starts by discussing "Frame Analysis". He says journalists utilized "several distinct frames to position Newdow as an erratic outsider who had the audacity to challenge one of this nation's most revered rituals in a time of national crisis." Next, under the title "Narrative Analysis", he promises to pay special attention "to what journalists invited their readers and viewers to think and to not to think about Newdow and his lawsuit." Lastly, "The Guard Dog Function" section accuses journalists of acting as "sentry for dominant institutions, patrolling the perimeter, searching for threats [in this case the threat is Newdow's lawsuit], and sounding the alarm when one is identified". This is the opposite of the better known "watchdog" role of monitoring "the conduct of public officials and large corporations, and expose corrupt behavior for the public's benefit" which journalists like to claim for themselves.

The next chapter discusses the history of the "Under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is very damning as it reveals the central role that anti-atheist bigotry had in the arguments made by the leading "Under God" advocates. With Eisenhower listening from the front pew, the Reverend George Docherty of the New York Presbyterian Church in Washington DC called atheists "spiritual parasites" that live off of the "accumulated spiritual capital of Judaio (sic)-Christian civilization" and "deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow." An atheists "cannot deny the Christian revelation and logically live by the Christian ethic. And if he denies the Christian ethic, he falls short of the American ideal of life." The 1954 Washington Post treated Docherty's bigoted sermon "like the act of a true hero." The New York Times also favored the Pledge revision. The Hearst newspapers went further, engaging in a relentless nationwide campaign to promote the revision to the Pledge. It is clear from their pronouncements that the advocates of "Under God" considered the addition of that phrase to be necessary because it was a statement of the Christian, or Judeo-Christian, character of the country and, ironically, to emphasize the difference with the Soviet Union whose government established atheism as a component of its official governing ideology.

This chapter also details the blunt arguments made by Newdow against Ninth Circuit Judge Nowinski who he characterized as not being the first federal judge to "have wounded America's atheistic religious minority due to contorted legal doctrine, his reliance on the prejudices of others does not save him here". Newdow argues that a federal judge must evaluate wrongs committed against dissenters "from the point of view of both the Constitution and the minorities they are sworn to protect" but he says the judiciary has chosen to "assault logic, invent sophistry, twist prior case law and completely disregard a denial of fundamental religious liberties because, as Judge Nowinski noted, 'no one wants to take that step'." resulting in disarray in Establishment Clause rulings.

The third chapter explains the arguments of both sides in more detail, pointing out the school district Attorney's failure to "address Newdow's contention that the policy and the Pledge contribute to the treatment of atheist's as second-class citizens" funded by his taxes. Newdow quoted Congressman Louis Rabaut, the 1953 author of the congressional resolution to amend the Pledge, as saying "an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms." He argued that the change made in 1954 was purely religious in nature, based on the invalid idea that "belief in God is morally superior to atheism." Newdow again slammed Judge Nowinski for his "ridiculous" statement that the Pledge would not be "perceived by [theists] as an endorsement, and by [atheists] as a disapproval, of their individual religious choices." This is followed by a description of the Ninth Circuit's ruling that the Pledge policy violated all three of the tests used to evaluate Establishment Clause claims and the dissenting opinion. There is a refutation here of the media's false claim that the Ninth Circuit was reversed more often than any of the other 12 circuit courts.

The rest of Bishop's book leaves no room for doubt that Strossen's Foreword contains an accurate characterization of the overall media coverage. Reporters quickly developed a "preferred reading" of Newdow's case, "one that would not allow for full consideration of his reasons for filing suit in the first place." The misleading journalism blitz cast Newdow and those who supported him as reckless zealots trying to purge God from public life. They falsely depicted the issue as a choice between supporting or opposing the Pledge with no middle ground. "Journalists reduced his challenge and the Ninth Circuit's decision to an opportunity for jingoistic chest-thumping and pathological name-calling." "Missing was even a passing acknowledgement that freedom of religion does in fact mean freedom from religion." The media trivialized Newdow's complaint, endorsing the "ceremonial deism" defense that references to God had lost their religious flavor after decades of repetition and reassured readers that the Supreme Court would almost certainly keep "Under God" in the Pledge. The mother of Newdow's daughter, Sandra Banning, was widely depicted by journalists "as victimized mother looking out for her daughter's interests."

The full Ninth Circuit ruling upholding the 3 judge panel's decision is covered in chapter 7. The media tended to falsely depict this decision as having "backed off" from the earlier decision. The accusation that this decision was an imposition of minority atheism on the majority became prominent in media coverage. Only one newspaper, the Seattle Times, sided with Newdow and the court. The argument that parents should determine how and when their children are exposed to religious messages received almost no coverage.

On to the Supreme Court and the debate regarding Newdow's standing to bring his lawsuit, how establishment was defined historically, and the religious or non-religious and inclusive or non-inclusive nature of the Pledge with the "one nation Under God" phrase. Coverage in the print media became more balanced, painting a more complete, less neurotic picture of Newdow. Coverage on television still depicted Newdow as "a publicity-obsessed zealot, bent on eradicating religion from our lives." Journalists still depicted Banning as the "good mother" and failed to explore the considerable support she was receiving from various right wing sources while implying that Newdow was exploiting his daughter.

The book ends with a discussion "On Being a Dissenter in America". Bishop writes "If we can take anything from Newdow's story, it is this: we must, as a nation, reintroduce ourselves to the notion that anyone can mount a challenge to a policy or law that is perceived to be unjust or discriminatory." He characterizes as disingenuous the assertion that we would be better off discussing "real problems instead of focusing on battles that have no significant impact on Americans' daily lives." He asks "When did the right ... to be free ... from the endorsement of religious expression by public officials ... become a secondary issue?" "Even though ... the nation was not going to rush to support Newdow; we--and the news media--at least owed him the chance to take his best shot."

Mr. Bishop is correct, the news media largely failed America here.

Applying This Good Principle to All Is Not Extreme

Originally published on Internet Infidels Kiosk 10/23/2007 and reproduced here:

Recently Republican presidential candidate John McCain got some media attention with his assertion that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." Senator McCain has a peculiar idea of what establishes a nation as Christian. This isn't a peculiarity unique to John McCain; most if not all of the candidates of both parties, at a minimum, endorse some government establishment of monotheistic religious belief even though the Constitution specifies a godless presidential oath of office and then declares that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

A good example can be found in ABC News "This Week" back in Feb. 18, 2007, which featured George Stephanopoulos interviewing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. George Stephanopoulos promptly asked questions about Romney's faith, his Mormon faith, and separation of church and state. Romney replied to the separation of church and state question thusly:

Well, we have a separation of church and state in this country, and we should, and it's served us well. I don't believe, for instance, we should take "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. I don't think we should take "IN GOD WE TRUST" off of our coins. There's a point at which we take something which is a good principle to an extreme. But I do recognize and support the idea that when you take the oath of office, you basically support something which Abraham Lincoln called America's political religion. And if I'm lucky enough to be elected president of this country and I take that oath of office, there will be no higher promise than to abide by the Constitution and the rule of law. That's Abraham Lincoln's political religion.[1]

George Stephanopoulos' question quoted John Kennedy. The Kennedy quote excerpt was directed against Catholic and Protestant clergy expressing their opinions about candidates for public office thus confusing the issues of private free expression, tax exemptions for nonpartisan nonprofits, and government establishment of religion. So it is not surprising that Romney avoided talking about Kennedy and switched the focus to Lincoln who is known to have used generic monotheistic language in some of his speeches and writings. Indeed, Lincoln was confronted by a rising tide of public religiosity that historically has sometimes accompanied war and hardship. The National Reform Association (NRA) campaigned to amend Christianity into the Constitution during Lincoln's presidency. A late 19th century book that tried to promote the NRA's platform reveals how Lincoln responded to lobbying by some religionists to add monotheism to "that oath of office" recitation.

Christ the King, by Reverend James Mitchell Foster, (published in 1894 by James H. Earle in Boston) makes the following observation about Lincoln’s inaugurations (p. 277):

Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidential oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take the presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.[2]

If Romney intends to follow Lincoln's lead here then that would be an improvement over more recent practice.

George Washington actually took both of his presidential oaths of office without appending "an appeal to God." Lincoln was following an unbroken tradition of godless presidential oath of office recitations. But alas, it wouldn't last. It isn't clear that Hayes or Garfield appended "an appeal to God" to their oaths of office either, but many newspapers reported that Chester Arthur appended "So help me God." In a departure from the letter of the Constitution, all presidents from the 1930s have appended "so help me God" to their oath of office recitations. Sometimes the Chief Justice of the United States has added that phrase to the presidential oath despite the lack of any legal authorization to do so.[3] Incredibly, the web site of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has a video which features a Senate Historian falsely claiming that all presidents starting with George Washington appended 'so help me God' to the presidential oath office recitations.[4] It wouldn't be surprising if many Americans incorrectly think all presidents have always appended that phrase because that is what they hear and read in the media and on the Internet.

The fact is that the Pledge of Allegiance didn't exist in 1789 or 1889. The Pledge of Allegiance didn't appear in U.S. law until 1945. Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance nine years later in 1954. "IN GOD WE TRUST" first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. It wasn't until 1938 that all United States coins bore that inscription and it didn't appear on paper money until 1957. In God We Trust became our national motto in 1956. The United States prospered without these phrases in any laws for many decades after 1789 and this country would continue to prosper no less in the future if we reverted back to the original laws that avoided these government establishments of monotheism.

When it comes to religious beliefs, extreme is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. People who consider themselves Christians may consider some of the beliefs of the LDS Church "extreme." For example, the LDS Church declares with complete certainty that "God has a body that looks like yours, though His body is immortal, perfected, and has a glory beyond description." Even more widely accepted and traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs are probably rather odd and somewhat extreme from the point of view of many Confucians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., and vice versa. Atheists wouldn't be atheists if we thought atheism was extreme.[5]

If the Establishment Clause is good enough for some of us then it is good enough for all us. The presidential candidates and the American public would do well to keep this in mind when they contemplate the meaning and applicability of the establishment clause in the 21st century.







Saturday, October 20, 2007

Philadelphia anti-discrimination covers atheists also.

Newspapers around country keep ignoring atheists when reporting government non-discrimination compliance. A recent example of this can be found in the newspaper articles reporting the City of Philadelphia decision to enforce their non-discrimination law by charging the Cradle of Liberty Boy Scouts full market price on their lease of a government building. The articles identified the target of the discrimination as gays. Many of the articles identified gays as the discrimination victims in the article headline. With the notable exception of the Philadelphia Inquirer, none of the articles reported that atheists are also refused membership in Boy Scouts.

This omission is a factual error no less than the inclusion of false claims would be. Government non-discrimination laws cover creed, not just sexual orientation, so government enforcement of such laws cannot be directed at upholding equal protection for gays without also protecting atheists when both groups are excluded from a membership organization.

The Philadelphia city resolution revoking of the $1 rent subsidy for Boy Scouts cited only "excluding participation on the basis of sexual orientation" and thus, ironically, was itself discriminatory in its failure to acknowledge that atheists are also excluded. Politics reflects public opinion and unfortunately, in this context, that means popular prejudice. Journalists, however, are supposed to look beyond public opinion and report the facts without bias which in this case includes the fact that BSA also discriminates against atheists.

Take action: Send an email to Paul Colford, Director of Media Relations and Jack Stokes, Manager of Media Relations of the Associated Press at Tell them that the repeated failure to mention that atheists are denied membership in their Boy Scouts discrimination news coverage, most recently in their October 18 article Boy Scouts' Rent Hiked Over Gay Ban, is biased journalism. Tell them that they are failing to adhere to the commitment to "abhor bias" that appears in their Statement of News Principles and Values.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"God" Has No Explanatory Power

This is a revision (mostly the same) of my original article "God" Has no Explanatory Power published 07/31/2003 on the Secular Web.

Theists often base their belief in God on the claim that God is the "necessary" and "ultimate" explanation for everything. Explanatory power is the ability to understand a phenomenon in terms of what is known. This short essay is a response to Dr. George Natann Schlesinger's defense of the explanatory viability of theism in his article "The House and Builder" (Jewish Action, Winter 5760/1999).

Some theists consider God to be an inherently unexplainable mystery, beyond human understanding, an unknown. Such a mysterious God has no explanatory power because it can only provide "understanding" for phenomena in terms of the unknown (itself). Other theists make specific claims regarding the nature of God. As the definition for God becomes more explicit and detailed, the number of people whose definitions are self-contradictory increases. God becomes a progressively more subjective concept as God becomes more well-defined, without thereby ridding the concept of its inherent unexplainable mystery. There is no reliable independent mechanism for choosing among the competing claims of "knowing" God. Where religion purports to explain it actually resorts to armchair tautology. Valid explanations cannot be so subjective and arbitrary.

A catchall declaration is a pseudo-explanation which accounts for a hypothesis while simultaneously accounting for the denial of the same hypothesis. There is literally no limit to what God can be invoked to "explain", including the "truth" of all falsehoods. Of course, people do not invoke God to explain "truths" that they a priori know are false. But the fact remains that God can invariably be so invoked without internal logical inconsistency. God is an intrinsically vacuous, magical, catch-all declaration (not an explanation) that provides the superficial appearance of providing explanation by avoiding the necessary constraints of proper reason and logic. God explains nothing.

"The House and Builder" article notes that scientists of the recent past were baffled by the immense amount of energy radiated by the sun. The explanation for this phenomenon was found when thermonuclear fusion was discovered. Before that discovery not even religiously committed scientists invoked God's will as an adequate explanation of how the sun could generate such tremendous energy. Yet even today many scientists invoke God as an "explanation" for the "Big Bang" without being fully cognizant of their inconsistency. Upon closer inspection it should be clear that "God's will" is no more useful for explaining the Big Bang than for explaining the source of the sun's energy. An intrinsically catchall declaration does not lose its powerlessness by merely changing the nature of the object to be explained. This is true even if there were a fundamental difference between explaining phenomena within the universe, such as the energy generated by the sun, and explaining the birth of the universe.

Is there really a fundamental difference between phenomena within our universe and the birth of our universe itself? The assumption that "something" came supernaturally from "nothing" lost most of its punch ever since energy and matter were discovered to exist in both "positive" and "negative" forms such that they cancel when combined. It is incorrect to assume that there could not be any physical causes before the birth of our physical universe since there is no evidence that a pre-universe state of "nothingness" ever existed or could exist.

Because we experience our life in a short time frame and small space, we tend to be deceived into thinking that the universe is orderly, reliable and stable, and therefore designed. However, our universe is fundamentally chaotic, dynamic and non-stable when viewed from a cosmological time frame and size scale as would be expected for a non-designed phenomenon. Indeed, all modern fundamental physics is infused with randomness. When something is random, we cannot infer any cause behind it. Randomness is also crucial for natural explanations of our intelligence and our creativity. (See "Where Science and Religion Disagree" by Taner Edis.)

We cannot assume that our universe is "unique" and "improbable" since there is no reason to believe that our universe is not one of many. Nor will our universe likely remain a cozy place for humankind since the universe's expansion is accelerating. All this is consistent with the notion that our universe emerged through chaotic processes, indifferent to human welfare, that are no different than any other subsequent emergent processes within our universe.

God as Creator would have to be more complex than our universe itself because such a God supposedly knew everything required to design and create our universe, a knowledge that the designed universe itself would not have. So resorting to such a Creator God is tantamount to "explaining" a complex mystery by postulating a more-complex mystery. As an "explanation" it is thus self-defeating unless it confers some other advantage. The explanatory advantage theists claim for theism derives from arbitrarily claiming that God is "uncaused" while simultaneously insisting that the universe itself must be independently caused.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a fundamental difference between explaining phenomena within the universe and explaining the birth of the universe. Theists argue the need for an independent cause for creation by extrapolating from the dubious assumption that all phenomena within our natural universe are entirely deterministic. But this is inconsistent with the aforementioned assumption that the natural properties of phenomena within the universe do not apply to the universe's creation because these two sets of phenomena are distinct. We are thus left with no self-consistent theistic response to the counterclaim that it is simpler and thus more logical to conclude that either our universe itself was uncaused or that it is self-caused. Because it lies outside of the understanding provided by our daily experience, an uncaused or self-caused universe is counterintuitive, of course, as is much of modern cosmology and physics. But positing a God provides no explanatory relief or advantage here.

There is no pressing need for claiming to have explanations to the big mysteries of our universe and existence. Some mysteries may remain forever beyond our ken. Questions are not meaningful simply because we are capable of articulating them. Asking for ultimate purpose when there is no ultimate purpose does not bring us closer to truth. If honesty and truth is our goal, then it is better to properly identify what we do not know then to claim knowledge we do not have.

Atheism, properly understood, makes the fewest unsubstantiated, unnecessary, knowledge claims and is thus more sensible than theism or agnosticism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

An appeal to agnostics: Try atheism, it fits.

There is a correct answer to the ultimate question: Why is there this universe with this planet where we reside? It is a three word answer and those three words are not "God did it". Agnostics and atheists agree that the answer is "we don't know" while theists cling to the faux god did it "explanation".

Unfortunately, some agnostics don't understand that agnosticism has more in common with atheism than with theism. These agnostics are repelled by what they assume is atheism's certainty that there is no god. They challange the atheists to show how we can know there is no god, they complain that atheists are making the same mistake as religionists by asserting too much. However, atheists are not claiming such certainty, we are just not adopting beliefs which lack adequate justification. Maybe I can clarify why atheism and agnosticism are almost the same beliefs by analogy.

A pet is ill. The owner takes the pet to the local animal hospital and is told that the pet has fluid in the chest. The hospital staff asks: Did the pet drink anti-freeze? That is possible, the pet owner doesn't know. The pet dies. A pagan religionist has an "explanation" for the pet's premature death: An evil spirit cast a death spell on the pet. We skeptics know something is wrong with this "explanation", we honestly can't accept this "explanation", its too far-fetched. The problem here is that we have a declaration, not an explanation. These declarations are catch-alls, anyone can assert such a declaration for any dead pet because the declaration is rooted in fantasy, not in evidence. We don't know the cause of the pet's death but we can still rule out a death spell cast by an evil spirit while we cannot rule out the evidence supported explanation that the pet drank anti-freeze.

Most agnostics will concede there is no Ahura Mazda, Zeus, etc. but they lack the courage and insight to recognize that generic god belief is just as unjustified as all the other no evidence catch-all declarations that lack explanatory validity and logical coherence. The god did it declaration, like the evil spirit cast a death spell declaration, gets us nowhere. It just replaces one mystery with another mystery without moving us forward even a nanometer towards acquiring a genuine explanation. We don't know, but not knowing doesn't mean we have to accept as viable every declaration that someone mistakenly asserts is an explanation. To justify any belief we need evidence, we need explanatory validity. God did it, like the evil spirit's death spell, is a catch-all declaration lacking the attributes necessary to justify the belief.

My appeal to agnostics is this: You reject many other imaginary, no evidence, catch-all declarations as lacking explanatory validity. Employ the same skepticism consistently and across the board. Find the courage to take the small additional step of letting go of god altogether. You will be no more mistakenly certain as an atheist than you are as an agnostic who doesn't believe in Ahura Mazda or evil spirit death spells.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Seven high ranking military officers violated establishment clause

The DoD Inspector General recently issued a 47 page report that demonstrates the DoD IG's office remains committed to enforcing the establishment clause , even if only reluctantly so. The report, prompted by persistent requests by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) ( for an investigation, found that the Pentagon's Chaplain office together with high ranking Christian military officers illegally gave a non-profit, non-Federal Christian religious organization known as "Christian Embassy" various selective benefits that other organizations would not have received. Christian Embassy utilized this privileged access to Pentagon facilities and high ranking officers to produce a fundraising video.

Former Pentagon chaplain Colonel Ralph G. Benson (the Pentagon Chaplain since June 2006 is Colonel William B. Broome) and seven high-ranking military officers, four of them generals, violated federal government ethics rules by participating in the 2005 filming while in uniform that showed their rank in the halls of the Pentagon. None of the officers had sought or received the required pre-approval to participate in a film in an official capacity or uniform. The officers’ remarks conferred approval of and support to “Christian Embassy”, and some officers’ remarks implied that they spoke for a group of senior military leaders.

The serial ethics rules violators include Major Generals Peter U. Sutton and Jack J. Catton Jr. (Air Force), and Brigadier Generals Vincent K. Brooks and Robert L. Caslen Jr. (Army). Chaplain Bensons falsely claimed that the video was to document the Pentagon’s own ministry rather than that of a non-Federal entity, when it was actually intended to attract new supporters for Christian Embassy. This lie enabled Christian Embassy unescorted access to Pentagon areas and personnel. Christian Embassy, which seeks to "help national and international leaders working in D.C., their spouses and staffs integrate their faith and their work", was founded by Bill Bright, and is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, a worldwide evangelical missionary organization also founded by Bill Bright.

Time magazine reported 'In the course of defending himself to the Inspector General's office, one of the generals asserted his belief that the Christian Embassy had become a "quasi-federal entity." This seems to support assertions by Weinstein that there is real confusion in high ranks of the military regarding armed service's secular status.' Mike Weinstein is the President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He was a White House counsel to President Reagan. An Honor Graduate from the USAF Academy, he served on active duty in the USAF as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) for ten years. Weinstein said of the Inspector General's report, "This is a victory, but a pyrrhic victory. The Pentagon's response has been at best tepid." He predicts that the Inspector General's recommendation for "appropriate corrective action" will be interpreted leniently.

Lets hope the Pentagon will act swiftly and firmly, penalizing the Chaplain and the officers to the full extent allowed by the law for these direct and brazen ethics violations. If, as Mr. Weinstein predicts, the violators just get at most token slaps on the wrist, then we can expect that similarly brazen establishment clause violations by the Pentagon will unfortunately continue due to the ongoing efforts of anti-establishment clause organizations like Christian Embassy.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Constitutional Principles Versus Conflicting Traditions

It took us 218 years (1789-2007) for an unambiguously non-Christian to be honored with the privilege of giving one of the daily invocations in the United States Senate. This hundreds of years overdue implementation of our original pluralistic ‘E Pluribus Unum' motto is incomplete since only one of our two major political parties appears to be willing to go even this far. Our government still favors Christian compatible monotheism not only in federal congressional invocations, but in state and local legislative invocations, in the text of laws, in the custodial rulings of divorce judges, in daily public school ritual, and more.

The establishment clause is intrinsically egalitarian, it restricts government from taking actions that exhibit bias between X, Y, or Z beliefs or between citizens with X, Y, or Z beliefs. When the difference between X, Y, and Z beliefs is whether or not multiple, one, or no gods exist, it is self-contradictory to assert that the non-establishment principle is for Y citizens but not for X and Z citizens or not for Z citizens. Non-establishment is for all citizens, but it is intended to assist minorities in defending themselves in a democracy against becoming politically emasculated by majority prejudice. The establishment clause is a form of equal protection of the laws for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists; for polytheists and atheists.

Selecting which beliefs are represented in government sponsored invocations via a politically influenced process violates the non-establishment principle because it always has and always will produce the result that the principle itself opposes: Government favoritism for majoritarian beliefs over minority beliefs. Although well intentioned, judicially restricting the religious contents of the invocations to generic monotheism to make the invocations more inclusive is inadequate. Generic monotheism that today is about 90% inclusive may in the future become less than 50% inclusive. Even worse than its temporal variability, this judicially decreed incomplete inclusiveness still leaves some minorities, particularly atheists, disenfranchised from this first amendment protection. At some point we have to make a choice based on the recognition that our traditions have not always lived up to our constitutional principles. Which prevails, our non-egalitarian traditions or our self-avowed commitment to egalitarian principle? The answer to this question will be contested until our traditions and constitutional principles match.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Media and Newdow's Pledge lawsuit

The new book "Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance: The Media and Michael Newdow's Constitutional Challenge" by Dr. Ronald Bishop, Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Communications at Drexel Unversity, examines how the media marginalized Newdow and his complaint after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance ritual in public schools was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion 'by framing the decision as an aberration, a radical act by a hopelessly liberal federal circuit court. Bishop concludes that journalists relegated Newdow to a rhetorical "protest zone" - he was heard but from a safe distance.'

On a personal note, it was watching the mostly closed minded coverage of the MICHAEL NEWDOW, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ELK GROVE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT decision upholding government non-establishment that motivated me to start this blog as a "Commentary on legal status of, public attitudes towards, and misinformation about atheism, atheists, and secularism in the United States."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is 'A Brief History of Belief' airing in your local area?

Many local public television stations have not yet committed to airing the first serious television exploration of the idea that god doesn't exist even though the program premiered May 4 and is available to public television stations everywhere through Executive Program Services. To find out if the show is being broadcast in your area, consult the 'A Brief History of Belief' broadcast calendar. If the show is not on the calendar, contact your local public television station and tell them you are disappointed that is not on the schedule.

Meanwhile, you can view 'A Brief History of Belief' video series on for free. Veoh also has the six in-depth interviews that are not included with the television broadcast. Also, feel free to contact the Senate Historical Office to recommend they that they view the video series and reconsider the ahistorical claims in their 'so help me God' video discussed in the previous post.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Senate Historian Office promotes false propaganda

Since early this year the United States Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) web site has featured a "so help me God" video that begins with a voice, probably of Warren Earl Burger, former Chief Justice of the United States, saying "shmG" repeated by another voice, probably that of former President Ronald Reagen, followed by a Senate Historian falsely asserting that all presidents have followed George Washington's precedent of appending "so help me God" (shmG) to the constitutionally specified presidential oath of office. There are no known contemporaneous eyewitness accounts of George Washington appended shmG during either of his inaugurations (newspaper accounts of his second inauguration quoted the oath as recited without shmG). The first newspaper accounts of shmG being appended to the presidential oath of office appear during the inaugural ceremony of Chester Arthur in 1881, over 90 years later. Appending shmG to the presidential oath of office became a tradition in the 20th century not long after commercial radios made it practical for many Americans to listen to the ceremony in their homes. Audio of Herbert Hoover's swearing in ceremony proves that he did not append shmG. Here are details about the mid 1850's origin of the George Washington shmG myth.

The Senate Historian Office's "so help me God" video on the JCCIC web site is irresponsibly and indefensibly misrepresenting false presidential oath of office shmG recitation propaganda as historical fact. I have called and written the Senate Historian's office about this . They have neither provided citations of contemporaneous eyewitness accounts to substantiate their incredible shmG claims nor taken any action to correct their video or the JCCIC web site text. That office and its employee titles are misnamed. As long as they promote these ahistorical shmG claims they are functioning as the Senate Mythology Office and its employees are serving as Senate Mythologists.

Take action: Call and write the Senate Historian's office and the Senate Rules Committee. Request that they immediately remove all unsubstantiated presidential oath of office shmG claims from the JCCIC and other Senate web pages. Inform them that they are entitled publish such claims only after they are substantiated with citations of contemporaneous eyewitness accounts. Contact information can be found on Atheist Action Central.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Gov't can legally subsidize theist only Jamboree

7th Circuit dismisses challenge to military support of Scout event

The judges repeatedly said that the Jamboree is open to the general public and that it is important to military recruitment and preparedness. The relevance of this part of their argument to their decision, based on past precedent, that the plaintiffs technically don't have taxpayer standing, is unclear. However, in the event this lawsuit was able to proceed, those arguments could be considered relevant to deciding if there is a violation of the no . Since it is possible that future plaintiffs who are parents of children that were refused membership in BSA will have standing to bring this lawsuit, and it is also possible that the current plaintiffs will win standing on appeal (if they appeal and it is accepted) or after a new Supreme Court decision clarifies various ambiguities regarding taxpayer standing (Hein v. the Freedom From Religion Foundation), this part of the judges' argument nevertheless warrants further scrutiny.

When characterizing the Jamboree as open to the general public the judges completely overlooked the obviously pertinent fact that one of the primary functions of the Jamboree is to provide opportunities for Scouts to engage in activities that help them earn merit badges. The merit badges are requisite for earning Eagle Scout rank which qualifies military recruits for an automatic initial pay grade increase (a similar pay grade increase is available for Girl Scouts). This government subsidized opportunity to qualify for an automatic increase in government salary is thus being denied to male agnostics and atheists.

I don't believe the judges would dare make this argument about the importance of the Jamboree to the military justifying the government subsidies if the Jamboree merit badge activities, some of which were co-sponsored by government agencies, were closed to Episcopalians and Anglicans. The judges would immediately recognize that such an argument would be both implicitly disparaging towards and unfair to Episcopalians and Anglicans, some of whom served in the military, currently serve in the military, or may one day in the future consider serving in the military. So I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that this aspect of the judges' argument exhibits an oblivious and blatant anti-agnostic and anti-atheist bias which is irreconcilable with the basic legal principle of equal protection before the law.

Also, Judge Sykes ungenerous comment that the complaint against the government subsidies isn't serious because the judge who ruled the government subsidies are unconstitutional nevertheless permitted the Jamboree to proceed one month after his decision is a cheap shot. That is a superficial argument that substitutes style for substance. A sensible accommodation to the already ongoing preparations by that judge, as requested by the defendants, doesn't undermine the merit of the plaintiffs complaint. Judge Sykes is wrong to claim otherwise.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Reintroduction of PERA in 110th Congress

The leader of the American Legion recently applauded Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan) for reintroducing in the U.S. Senate S. 415, a measure that would prevent plaintiffs who win lawsuits against violations of the no of the first amendment from receiving any monetary reimbursement or rewards. The American Legion National Commander Paul A. Morin vehemently objects to court decisions against government sponsorship of religiously biased displays and against government subsidies to the theist only membership organization. He characterizes such court decisions as "legal attacks against veterans' memorials that display religious symbols" and "lawsuits against our traditions". As he probably knows, and thus is dishonestly not acknowledging, the focus of non-establishment jurisprudence is limited to the subset of public displays that are government sponsored. Morin isn't alone in deliberately over-generalizing the legal issue to falsely make it sound like there is a bigoted legal assault by judges against all public display and practice of majority Christian compatible monotheistic religious traditions. You wouldn't know it listening to most elected Republican officials or right wing commentators, but most public displays and practices with religious content are not subject to any legal challenge because they are not government sponsored or subsidized.

The Veterans' Memorials, Boy Scouts, Public Seals and Other Expressions of Religion Protection Act of 2007 (PERA) would amend U.S. statutes to discourage lawsuits against establishments of religion by ensuring that plaintiffs who win such lawsuits cannot receive damages or attorney fee reimbursement. The winning plaintiffs in all other lawsuits would still qualify for reimbursement of expenses and damage rewards, thus creating a legal double standard. A similar measure that would weaken non-establishment protections for atheists, agnostics, polytheists, and other religious minorities passed overwhelmingly in the House last year but the Senate version was not brought up for a vote prior to the adjournment of the 109th Congress.

Non-establishment of religion is unpopular, it is probably the most unpopular clause of the first amendment. Many people support the no establishment clause only in the sense that they don't want a particular named Christian denomination to be declared a government favored or endorsed denomination. Such support for non-establishment is made easy by the large number of Christian denominations all of which are minorities. But these same people seem to think government favoring and endorsing a Christian compatible majoritarian monotheism is somehow necessary to uphold their free exercise rights. The logical implication that the lack of government sponsorship and endorsement of atheist and polytheist beliefs is likewise a denial of free exercise for atheists and polytheists never seems to occur these people. In fact, neither the government favored majority nor the excluded minority are being provided or denied free exercise rights by the government actions targeted by this misnamed "Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act". What is being denied here by what Morin refers to as "our traditions" are the basic equal protection and non-discrimination before the law principles for atheists, agnostics, polytheists, and some other religious minorities. Unfortunately, as with racism and sexism, it looks like this is going to be a drawn out conflict against an ignorant and bigoted majority supported legal tradition.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Jefferson letter to Dr. Woods not found

Atheist and secularist web sites and posts by secularists on various discussion forums are attributing the following to Thomas Jefferson:

"I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies" (Letter to Dr. Woods).

The source for this quote is chapter 2 of John E. Remsburg's book "Six Historic Americans: Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, and Grant The Fathers And Saviors Of Our Republic, Freethinkers" published in 1906. No such letter is currently known to exist. If a Thomas Jefferson letter to Dr. Woods turns up in the future then, and only then, can we declare the quote to be genuine.

Some web sites attribute this same quote, with an extra sentence or two added, to a Thomas Jefferson letter to William Short. Jefferson wrote multiple letters to Mr. Short, but a search of the Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive, as well as various other online collections of transcribed Jefferson letters, finds no such quote. Neither the Dr. Woods nor the William Short citations provide a date. This is odd because Jefferson's letters usually begin with a date.

Unless someone identifies such a letter with that quote it must be deemed a probably bogus citation for a highly dubious quote. Please do not use this quote and please let people know that this alleged quote is unverified and should not be used.