Why and How You Can Play a Role in Supporting Reason and a Secular America

by Don on October 20th, 2011
in Religion

Despite campaign promises to the contrary, President Obama has failed to end religious discrimination by religious groups. Church groups funded with "faith-based" tax dollars discriminate in hiring for their unconstitutional programs. We might have expected such behavior (and funding) if Republicans ran the executive branch but who on the Democratic/Independent side expected not just a continuation but an expansion of such endeavors? The faith-based (meaning without evidence) funding efforts are an egregious violation of the establishment clause. It's a big disappointment - even worse than having to listen to Rick Warren at the inauguration or the president himself end every speech with his ritual "and God bless the United States of America" - year, sure thing). There really isn't much we can do about it because no secularist could shift allegiance to the Republicans! Things would be voluminously worse under God's Own Party, the GOP.

There are other, related church/state concerns. One is that women must not be denied access to preventative health care services (contraceptives, abortion, etc.). This is a concern as the new health care law takes effect owing to the discriminatory religious beliefs of theistic employer institutions. Another concern is the need to review IRS regulations that exempt a parsonage from taxation. Government has no business granting special privileges to religion. Doing so, as leaders of the Secular Coalition for America recently pointed out, forces secular Americans to underwrite the endorsement of superstition and dogma with our tax dollars.

We are at a time in this nation's history when candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination attend rallies of the faithful and say crazy things to suck up to them. Last week, at the preposterously named Values Voter Summit (as opposed to what - the Amoral Voter Summit?) in Washington, DC., the candidates competed to appear holier than thou AND each other. It was a national embarrassment - and dismaying to anyone who values reason, let along actual vales of human decency.

All who cherish a secular Republic should consider making their voices heard, in some forum, somewhere. Everyone has outlets, even if only via communicates with friends and family members. However, it's even better if you also send a few messages via social networks.

To quote the clarion call of the Secular Coalition:

We know that things aren't going to change overnight. It is going to take many more long days spent on the Hill, and countless more emails, phone calls, and visits from our supporters before politicians get the message: We will not sit idly by while our tax dollars subsidize religious discrimination, proselytizing, and politicking from the pulpit. You have already done so much, but we still need your help. We need to you get the word out. If you aren't already, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure that your family and friends know the facts about these important issues and that no one can afford to sit on the sidelines. Write letters to the editor, call your members of Congress, and make sure that your voice is being heard...We have to remind Congress that forcing beliefs on others is not religious freedom. We can make a difference in the lives of all Americans by keeping our government secular. We have the facts, reason, and a vibrant community of supporters on our side. If we continue to speak out and make our voices heard, we will win this fight.

If you want to go all the way, learn more about and consider attending the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. Set for March 24, 2012, from 10:00AM – 4:00PM at the Washington Mall, the Reason Rally is designed to unify, energize and embolden secular people nationwide, while dispelling the negative opinions held by so much of American society. And, most important, everyone can have a good time supporting a great cause - freedom from religion and the injustice of having to support it. Rally features will include music, comedy, enlightening speakers and, best of all, it will be entirely free.

Time to Replace the Pledge of Allegiance with Something Better

by Don on October 13th, 2011
in Politics

When the colonists broke off from the mother country, they did so in part in order to create a new kind of government - a nation of the people, by the people and for the people. The founders wrote a Constitution for a nation of laws, man-made laws to be administered by representatives elected by the people. This was a noble experiment, a departure from the traditional government model under God, the latter better known as the Divine Right of Kings. In other words, kings were presumed to know what God wanted, so kings ruled. This was a very good thing for kings, maybe not the best arrangement for the commoners. However, the United States of America started out and continues to function under a different kind of model. Despite the god-awful phrase under God that the Knights of Columbus (i.e., the Catholic Church) successfully pressured Congress to insert into the 19th century godless Pledge of Allegiance during the Communist-scare era of the 1950's, the U.S. remains a democratic Republic, not a nation ruled (or influenced or affected in any way) by a make-believe sky god. Few believers in this particular nation they claim is now under a god seem to recognize the contradiction between our revered “liberty and justice for all” and the concept of being “under God.” The inclusion of this “under God” business automatically precludes “liberty” for all who do not subscribe to a god concept.

For years, I wanted to see Dr. Michael Newdow's lawsuits succeed striking the under God phrase from the Eisenhower-era pledge, but now I want to see something more - I want the Pledge itself eliminated. I think it's an embarrassment - a mindless, ineffective and moronic ritual blah blah that does not encourage reflection or education about the Republican nature of our system of government. (Besides, not a soul has a clue about the meaning of under God. If we took the Pledge seriously, we would want to know which god we're under and in what specific ways are we under said god?)

But I do have a replacement that I believe would be thoughtful, effective and meaningful, namely, reading aloud sections of the Constitution, including the amendments. Pick a minute or less of reading and go with that - over time, everyone would be exposed to truly worthy ideas that mean a great deal.

I recall as a youngster reciting the Pledge of Allegiance everyday, in Catholic grade school. We held one arm out like little Nazis swearing allegiance to a flag. Since we had to do it, it was not a sincere or educational ritual. We just did what we were told to do and got done with it - it meant nothing and we learned nothing from doing it. Nor is this ritual sensible today, for children or adults. No more arm stretched - bad memories of that gesture. Now it is done ever so reverently with hand held over the heart symbolizing what - flag under god love?

I'm put off by all oaths, because anyone, loyal or otherwise, can recites a broad and vague oath. A terrorist can recite an oath as well as a Tea Bagger. For the former, it's a minor irritant; for the latter, it's a jingoistic way of convincing ourselves, as Mitt Romney put it the other day, God created the United States and God wants us to be number one.

Loyalty oaths are required for nearly all public officials these days, including those who are to serve president, in the Congress, as state legislatures, the judiciary, all state and local offices and so on. Naturalized citizens are required to pledge their allegiance to the United States to become citizens. (As if anyone who wants to live here and work here is going to say, No, actually, I prefer not to take oaths - I think they're kind of stupid.) So, too, must everyone seeking to join any branch of the military. The whole business of oath-taking is out of control. I should be grateful I did not have to take a loyalty oath to write this blog. (Ooops, I shouldn't be giving them ideas.)

The Puritans in 18th century New England required citizens to pledge support for the Commonwealth - and to report anyone who dared dissent from the ruling government. I'm going to guess that a person in that era who chose not to recite an annoying pledge was exiled - if he were fortunate.

Pledges do not bring out the best in us. They do not promote an understanding of, respect for or true allegiance to the nation. They are not a good fit with democracy - with government of the people and all that. Let's give the Pledge a rest. Next time your local club gathers, consider reading the First Amendment, instead of reciting a pledge, under or over any alleged god.

The Denial of Reality is a Health Hazard: All Wellness Enthusiasts Should Promote Effective Decision-Making No Less Vigorously Than Sound Nutrition and Exercise

by Don on October 7th, 2011
in Religion

There are dreadful consequences straight ahead for America as a direct consequence of the platforms espoused by all but one Republican presidential candidate (Jon Huntsman), namely, the denial of significant realities. The nation is already awash in dysfunctional thinking, conspiracy theories, media distortions and organized resistance to innumerable facts. Large segments of the population, it seems, cannot deal with certain realities. Though demonstrated by science, certain realities undermine and give the lie to foolish but revered superstitions. Empirical evidence touted by an overwhelming consensus of the world's scientists is, to a large segment of American society, rendered controversial by candidates Perry, Bachmann, Cain and nearly all leading contenders of the GOP nomination. The term "conservative" has been rendered synonymous with Christian. The Tea and Republican parties consist of religionists devoted more to certain ceremonial and other forms of god worship than respect for secular constitutional government. Such people are contemptuous of evidence unsupportive of their ancient dogmas. The world-views of Right Wing fundamentalists persist in the face of facts. This is in part due to early education and in part a continuation of cultural reinforcements. The future well being of individuals and the quality of life of our society hang in the balance, and the 2012 elections could enable a new critical mass of science denial. At present, these people deny scientific evidence: if they prevail, they will next be in a position to question the competence and legitimacy of scientific evidence to establish reality. They already favor an alternative reality, one based partly on biblical myths, the other on making stuff up. The next step would be to implement policies that render such demential normal and legitimate.

It seems to me that those of us who value REAL wellness, particularly the keystone quality of a developed sense of reason, should strive to do all possible to counter the hazards of science denial. Let's make this advocacy a key element of wellness promotion. The dangers of denying science are far greater in the aggregate than the hazards of poor diet and insufficient exercise. The latter are, of course, dreadful and pernicious. Science denial is disastrous to an extent we can only begin to imagine. Being fit and healthy will be of limited value if we remain awash in dysfunctions brought on by climate change and other disasters created by our rejection of reason.

Wellness enthusiasts might initiate or expand a new focus on reality advocacy as part of wellness education by reading popular science writer John Grant's new book, "Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality" (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2011). Grant does a thorough job documenting the extent of the antagonism toward science in America today. The nineteen chapters over the course of 374 pages describes the damages caused by the flood-tides of science denial. Grant's new book also documents the growing hold of pseudoscience and alternative ("complementary") medicine, and shows how advertising disguises the hazards of drugs, smoking and other products and habits. It soon becomes clear to the reader how easily mountebanks of many descriptions are able to obscure sound health programs (e.g., the case of the anti-vaccine movement). Attention is also devoted to the influence the anti-intellectual trend has had on our culture. While Republican candidates for president did not create these disabling conditions, their positions on campaign and other issues do reinforce the worst of the lot. The fact of science denial is also at the root of the successes of New Age gurus, prosperity preachers, healers who channel god, the creationist advance in science classes, the climate change skeptics and others who promote that which is contrary to the clear lessons of established science. This sorry state is a consequence of gullible, easily fooled, under-educated people facing a stark choice - at least for them: whom to believe. Should they look to the science deniers or the scientists? Alas, those who find Republican presidential candidates worth taking seriously are very likely to go with the science deniers.   

As John Grant makes clear in the first chapter of "Denying Science," a non-existent god won't help us. We're on our own and all we really have to understand reality is our brains in good working order. There is no better window into reality than what Robert Green Ingersoll called reason: "I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the starless night. Blown and flayed by passion's storms, and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish it and nought remains. Ingersoll linked reason with observation and experience, calling all three the holy trinity of science."

Consider, for just a moment, the two ways that Ingersoll described as diametrically opposed approaches for understanding reality. Read this quote from Ingersoll and ask yourself which of the two would be embraced by the Republican contenders for that party's nomination for president, and which by those who respect and rely on science: "There are two ways -- the natural and the supernatural. One way is to live for the world we are in, to develop the brain by study and investigation, to take, by invention, advantage of the forces of nature, to the end that we may have good houses, raiment and food, to the end that the hunger of the mind may be fed through art and science. The other way is to live for another world that we expect, to sacrifice this life that we have for another that we know not of. The other way is by prayer and ceremony to obtain the assistance, the protection of some phantom above the clouds."

If, as I imagine given your presence at this website, you favor the first approach Ingersoll described, I think you will very much enjoy "Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality."

Why Everyone Might Want to Learn How to Mix an Exit Cocktail, in the Event Religious Zealots Continue to Block Access to Legalized Services for Merciful Endings

by Don on September 21st, 2011
in Religion

The infamous GOP presidential debate from Tampa last week (but aren't they all?) had many lowlights. The depths were plumbed when CNN's moderator, the "Situation Room" blowhard Wolf Blitzer, asked Rep. Ron Paul about a person who elected not to purchase health insurance but later needed expensive medical care to survive. Ron Paul replied, "That's what freedom is all about - taking your own risks." Blitzer, seeking clarification, then asked, "So society should just let him die?"

The Tea Bagger audience went wild with acclaim for that idea. A loud "Yeah!" was heard above the clamor.

None of the other Republican presidential candidates offered a softer, more nuanced perspective.

I was hoping Blitzer would ask one of the candidates about assisted suicide, which I prefer to call "merciful assistance" in checking out. Here, too, Republicans distinguish themselves in the worst possible ways. Republicans, being religious extremists, wholeheartedly support death without dignity, no matter the pain, costs or  suffering. The "let the market decide - if you can't pay, too bad" Republicans prefer intrusive in this instance, rather than supporting freedom to choose one's time and method of death. They oppose giving Americans the right to qualified assistance to put an end to suffering, even when there is no hope for cure, no relief from pain, no prospect for quality of life.

Remember Clint Eastwood’s recent film “Million Dollar Baby?” The movie provided a dramatic look at assisted suicide. Many religious leaders were outraged, angry at the idea that humans, not their sky god, can any right to take a life, even one's own, under any circumstances. If God wanted us to die peacefully without pain in dignified ways, he would have made such arrangements.

Earl Wettstein, President of the "Final Exit Network," cites polls that show more than 70 percent of Americans support an individual's right-to-die. Under circumstances similar to those depicted in "Million Dollar Baby" and sketched above (i.e., a terminal person suffering unremitting pain with no prospect for recovery), most Americans would choose to die – and would want qualified assistance in doing so. I have asked countless friends and nearly all my relatives about this, and the view seems unanimous that everyone people want to be able to choose and insist upon the right to help those they love and support to die. People want to eliminate legal barriers to merciful endings.

One of my heroes, a man who suffered greatly because of his commitment to merciful endings, was Dr. Jack Kevorkian. But there are other advocates for the right to this final freedom, the liberty to choose when and how to die. One prominent advocate for merciful endings is Philip Nitschke, an Australian doctor who believes everyone over 50 should have an end of life plan - and the legal right to carry it out. At present, he cannot assist provide merciful endings, but he can and does offer the ultimate form of self-help knowledge. You an learn about Dr. Nitschke and his approaches in this interview.

What are your ideas about merciful endings? Do you support this concept in general and would you want to have such an option yourself in your final moments? What do you think is the likelihood that all Americans and other free people around the world will have such a right in the future?

Thanks, Mayor Bloomberg, for Not Allowing Religionists to Make 9/11 Ceremonies a Religious Service

by Don on September 10th, 2011
in Religion

Americans who favor their still secular society won a small skirmish with religionists when New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg acted to prevent the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks from taking the form of a prayer-fest. He did this by seeing to it that clergy were not included as speakers. However, it seems likely that the two featured guests, President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, will have nice things to say about the All-Powerful and All-Knowing Lord of the Universe. Nothing will be said, I sure, about why their god stood or sat by while 19 Muslim martyrs conducted the devotional service on behalf of their god Allah ten years previously.

Enthusiasts for prayer at this public event to mark a national calamity were all flummoxed at the very idea that the 9/11 service would not feature god-talk. Here is a sampling of the indignation, as published in a New York Times feature story about the event (Laurie Goodstein, "Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest, "New York Times, September 08, 2011):

* A Southern Baptist Convention leader said the exclusion of clergy proves that New York is  not France and that the mayor is pretending we’re a secular society but we are not. Working himself into a tiff, he added that the city is the “epicenter of secularism” and the secular nature of the program shows that the City is out of step with the rest of America. (If true, this strikes me as one of the nicest things I've heard said about New York City in some time.)

* Right wing religious groups and many media outlets have stirred the faithful into protest at the godless ceremonies, suggesting that it proves "America has lost its way." (Which way that might be was not made explicit but probably would not be the way that led the Founders to separate church and state.)

* The conservative Christian lobbying group Family Research Council gathered what they estimated were 62,000 petition signatures urging the mayor to add clergy members to the ceremony.

The best news from the religion front, however, might be the fact that some religious leaders, including the Catholic archbishop of New York and the vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis said they were fine with the format for the  9/11 ground zero commemoration.

Anyone who admires the mayor's principled stand, despite heavy criticism from religious groups and leaders who wanted their religious beliefs to be featured at the ceremony, might consider writing the mayor to express support. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) put out a statement that any official remembrance of the 9/11 attacks should represent all American citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Mayor Bloomberg did the right thing in shaping the commemoration as a secular ceremony. Protectors of separation of church and state can show their support for the mayor's principled action by writing a letter of support to his honor at this address:

The Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg

Mayor of New York City

City Hall
New York, NY 10007

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