Sunday, October 20, 2013

Some pointed humor

By Mathew Goldstein

Enjoy this popular video poking fun at religious believers by NonStampCollector.  It is absolutely OK to lampoon ridiculous beliefs and willful ignorance.  We are not showing respect for humanity by refusing to actively criticize unjustified beliefs or by refusing to actively advocate for civic equality for atheists.

Quiz Show

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Senator Mikulski sponsors medical quackery week

By Mathew Goldstein

As if we do not have enough problems due to a refusal of most Republicans to accept and follow the overall direction of the available empirical evidences when setting national policies, particularly in the House of Representatives, one of the senior Maryland Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski, decided to introduce a resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” that applauds "the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care."  Naturopaths claim to be holistic, which apparently means they believe that the natural body is joined to a supernatural soul and a non-physical mind and the three must be treated as a unit.  Naturopaths offer treatment at their offices and at spas where patients may reside for several weeks. Their offerings include fasting, "natural food" diets, vitamins, herbs, tissue minerals, homeopathic "remedies", cell salts, manipulation, massage, exercise, colonic enemasacupunctureChinese medicine, natural childbirth, minor surgery, and applications of water, heat, cold, air, sunlight, and electricity.  Many of these methods are said to "detoxify" the body.

This encomium for medical quackery was passed by the Senate with unanimous consent on September 9.  Eleanor Norton sponsored a similar resolution in the House, but that resolution was not voted.  Seventeen U.S. states, and the District of Columbia (but not Maryland), allow people who are trained at an accredited school of naturopathic medicine in North America to use the designation ND or NMD, some states even license such people to write prescriptions for drugs.  If this resolution is typical of popular, bipartisan, middle of the road, moderation, then don't look for me there.  Here is Senator Mikulski's resolution:

Designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’ to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.
Whereas, in the United States, 75 percent of all health care spending is for the treatment of preventable chronic illnesses, including high blood pressure, which affects 68,000,000 people in the United States, and diabetes, which affects 26,000,000 people in the United States;
Whereas nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese and, consequently, at risk for serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and depression;
Whereas 70 percent of people in the United States experience physical or nonphysical symptoms of stress, which can contribute to chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes;
Whereas the aforementioned health conditions are among the most preventable health conditions and are especially responsive to the preventive, whole-person approach favored by naturopathic medicine;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides noninvasive, holistic treatments that support the inherent self-healing capacity of the human body and encourage self-responsibility in health care;
Whereas naturopathic medicine reduces health care costs because of its focus on patient-centered care, the prevention of chronic illnesses, and early intervention in the treatment of chronic illnesses;
Whereas naturopathic physicians attend 4-year, graduate level programs with rigorous admission requirements at institutions that are recognized by the Department of Education;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are especially skilled in treating chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders, because of their focus on whole-body medicine rather than symptom management;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to serve as primary care physicians and can help redress the shortage of primary care providers in the United States;
Whereas naturopathic physicians are trained to refer patients to conventional physicians and specialists when necessary;
Whereas patients of naturopathic physicians report higher patient satisfaction and health improvement than patients of conventional medicine;
Whereas the profession of naturopathic medicine is dedicated to providing health care to underserved populations;
Whereas naturopathic medicine provides consumers in the United States with more choice in health care, in line with the increased use of a variety of integrative medical treatments; and
Whereas the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148; 124 Stat. 119) requires that insurers include and reimburse licensed health care providers, including naturopathic physicians, in health insurance plans: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate–
(1) designates the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as ‘Naturopathic Medicine Week’;
(2) recognizes the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care; and
(3) encourages the people of the United States to learn about naturopathic medicine and the role that naturopathic physicians play in preventing chronic and debilitating illnesses and conditions.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

When atheism is religion

Gary Berg-Cross recently commented on the question "is atheism a religion?".  He concluded that, while there is no one correct answer to what qualifies as a religion, a reasonable way to tackle this question is to look for various indicators of religion.  One is a reliance on faith as a way of knowing.  Another is the notion that there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities.  More generally, there is the belief in some non-natural power.  This approach implies that theism is "a religion", but it is not.

A problem here is that atheism and theism are particular beliefs and a particular belief is not necessarily unique to a particular religion.  A religion has a name that is capitalized.  So asking this question about theism, or atheism, is a category error.  Instead, we can properly ask if theism, or atheism, is a religious belief. 

Gary's thoughts on how to address the question, so re-worded, are good.  The conclusion we reach is that individual atheists who think faith is a valid way of acquiring knowledge, who think there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities, and the like, can be considered to be religious.  Otherwise, Bill Maher is correct.  Atheism, unlike theism, is usually not a religious belief.  It depends on how the atheism is held and the overall context of beliefs in which the atheism is embedded.

But does this answer really address the original question?  Why do some people seem to think this is a significant question? What difference does it make if atheism is deemed to be a religious belief or not?

One place where this question has significance is the law because the first amendment calls for no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion and the tax code gives special benefits to religious organizations.  So let's not beat around the bush and pretend that "is atheism a religion?" is a direct philosophical question.  It is really about those laws and their applicability.  What the people who are asking this question do not appear to fully appreciate is that nouns can have different meanings in legal contexts than they do in everyday contexts.  That is the case here.  The people who are asking this question are actually asking if the no establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the tax benefits, apply to atheists and atheist organizations.  Gary commented only very briefly on these questions in his article.

Let's tackle tax benefits first.  There is no proper justification for treating different beliefs differently in the tax code.  We can properly make distinctions on various other criteria, but not on the beliefs of citizens regarding the nature or existence of gods.  Ideally, our tax code would distinguish between profit and non-profit organizations, and between organizations that advocate for or against candidates in government elections and those that do not. The tax benefits that are unique to religious organizations, such as the tax return filing exemption and the parsonage exemption, are unfair and should be eliminated.  If an organization is religious or non-religious should be irrelevant to the IRS.   But for now, given that the tax code does make this distinction, atheists are fully justified in insisting that we are fully entitled to all of the same tax benefits as theists.  So in the tax law context, religion includes both theism and atheism.

In the non-establishment context it is important to recognize that the first amendment does not refer to "a religion", it refers to religion in the plural sense.  We can only identify what is religion in this plural sense by identifying the presence of, and the role of, a religious belief.  Furthermore, in a legal context, a partisan belief is always paired with its opposing belief.  We can either assent or dissent to a partisan belief, and there is no difference in the legal standing of assenting and dissenting.  So here again, since theism is a faith-based, religious belief, and atheism is the dissenting belief relative to theism, both theism and atheism are covered by the noun religion in the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause is paired with the Free Exercise Clause, so atheism also has the same free exercise protections as theism in principle.  However, in practice, atheism makes few, if any, free exercise demands against secular laws.  Protecting free exercise will tend to favor assenting religious beliefs over the corresponding dissenting beliefs.  Free exercise protection should not be allowed to interfere with the health, general welfare, or civil rights freedoms of other citizens.  Therefore, free exercise should have lower priority than most other civil rights protections.  Free exercise should prevail over secular laws only when such accommodation of religious beliefs otherwise does no significant harm.