Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do Unto Others: Are we teaching citizens what the First Amendment really means anymore?

It seems that officials at the Saint Mary Parish public schools are getting some sense about endorsing religion. If so, Saint Mary Parish is standing far ahead of many other Louisiana schools.

Apparently, a Morgan City high school recently had a mandatory assembly for Veterans’ Day, and an invited guest led that assembly in an explicitly Christian prayer. This, of course, is unambiguously illegal. A student complained to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the district, threatening legal action. The district superintendent was quick to state that the prayer fell outside of district policy. One can only hope that this settles the matter.

Perhaps of more interest than the school’s malfeasance itself was the reaction of many Louisianan’s to the news coverage. The Advocate newspaper reported on the incident on November 19th, and online comments were loaded with howls of protest from religious believers. “It is our right to prayer. Why do we have to give up our right?” asked one writer. Another asserted, “this is America. God bless America and in God we trust. If we want to pray, we will do so. You don’t like it, just leave.” “Release her name [and] see how soon this will end!” demanded another. One boldly recommended, “find out who she is and send her ass up north! Screw those people! Why should the so few have power over the majority?” One writer asked, “where does it say that you can't pray in schools?” 

Such comments are disturbing for deep intolerance they reveal. Perhaps more importantly, they are also disturbing because they show how poorly many Louisianans comprehend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The rhetoric of victimhood poured out by the Religious Right severely skews public perceptions.

This particular incident is not at all about whether an individual can pray in public schools. Students and employees are within their rights to pray in school, silently and individually, when attention is not required by school duties. Within some limits, a group of students can meet voluntarily for prayer, during non-instructional time. But what happened in Morgan City was neither student-led, nor voluntary. It was school-led prayer before a captive audience.

There is also no issue here of minorities or majorities, nor of who is a believer or non-believer, nor of who is or is not offended. Even if every student and parent associated with a certain school attended the same church, even if no individual were offended, it would still be illegal for that school to lead its students in prayer. Whether many Louisianan’s understand it or not, public schools are state agencies, and as such the Establishment Clause fully applies: no public school can endorse any religion.

None of this is new. Arguments and lawsuits over religion in schools date back at least a century. Questions about prayer and Bible-reading in schools were unambiguously settled over fifty(!) years ago, in the 1963 Supreme Court decision known as Abington School District v. Schempp. But much of Louisiana still struggles to adapt to 1863, let alone to 1963.

Unfortunately, many Louisiana public schools have long ignored the clearly settled legal facts. As multiple ACLU suits against Tangipahoa schools and last year’s consent decree signed by Sabine Parish schools show, prayer and other religious indoctrination at school remain ingrained in Louisiana culture. Sadly, this choice simply to ignore the Constitution has communicated to many citizens that prayer in their schools has been legal all along. When someone complains, the public sees this as something new, as outside agitation, pandering to a minority, or as “liberal judges legislating from the bench.” It’s as if they were caught stealing a bicycle, and then claimed they themselves were the victim because nobody every complained the other ten times they stole a bike.

This incident could easily have been avoided. Officials at the Morgan City high school could have used common sense, followed the district’s own written policy, or consulted documents available from the state Department of Education. They could simply have included a moment of silence in the program. Within that moment of silence, students who wished to pray could have done so, and no one of a different religion or no religion would have felt compelled to participate. Thus everybody’s religious beliefs and constitutional rights could easily have been accommodated. But somehow, this is never enough for some religious activists. There are always those who want to turn public schools into factories producing religious believers. 

~ Jim Dugan, NOSHA Vice-President

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"New Orleans Humanist Perspective" or better known as NOSHA TV!

Greenberger interviews Tulane professor Dr. Sally J. Kenney
We want to plug what we consider to be a real feather in our cap or gem in our crown (or whatever you want to call it) as a secular humanist organization that has grown over 15 years. Very few groups of our size can say they have a television show that has been around over ten years now.

"New Orleans Humanist Perspective" is the brain-child of Harry Greenberger, President Emeritus of NOSHA. He's been taping interviews with two people per month with only a few exceptions - and those absences were because he fell down on a wet marble bathroom floor and broke his leg a few years ago. So, he's a stalwart television producer and personality unlike many you'll ever meet in the Community TV realm!

He is able to find the most unusual and interesting people and prepares skillfully for a complete show. From his intro to his last few seconds, he makes it look easy. He has opened his chair to a couple of guest hosts who've stepped in from time to time so he can relax for a while (most recently, NOSHA Vice-President, Jim Dugan has become his pinch hitter), but it's always a treat when he brings up his next guest or inquires about our opinion of potential topics. He's recently completed his 172nd interview and it's an understatement to say that we're proud and honored to have his energy on our board.

You can can catch this show on COX Channel 76 on Sundays at 2:30pm, on YouTube, at the NOSHA website or on Vimeo. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Marriage By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on October 6th (2014) not to consider a number of cases against same-sex marriage is not much of a surprise. Nor is it much of a surprise that a number of conservative speakers and writers have used that decision as an opportunity to rehash the same trite and easily debunked arguments they've gotten nowhere with for years. Once again, they claim same-sex marriage is a “profound” redefinition of an institution that has stood unchanged across time and cultures, that it means people marrying dogs, or the resurrection of plural marriage. What soft-headed nonsense!


The United States has already redefined marriage in a radical and revolutionary way.  That redefinition was not motivated by any consideration for same-sex marriage, but by the improving equality of women to men. Two and three centuries ago, a woman became her husband’s property by marrying him. In more progressive jurisdictions, she became a dependent minor under her husband’s authority. Paralleling the changes in our social values that slowly made women more equal to men, marriage law was updated by many small steps. While there still may be some small imperfections in various marriage laws around the country, spouses today are largely equal partners in their marriage, at least so far as the law is concerned. This really has been a sweeping change, both socially and legally, requiring rewrites to marriage law and the accumulation of many court decisions.

By comparison, the changes in law and practice needed at this point to implement same-sex marriage are trivial. Most laws and most legal documents already use gender-neutral terms like “spouse” rather than gender-specific terms like “husband,” “wife,”  “he”, or “she”.  At least in theory, men and women have exactly the same responsibilities and rights within their marriages.  In any legal sense, then, a marriage between a man and a man or between a woman and a woman works out to be exactly the same contract of rights and responsibilities as a marriage between a man and a woman.

Given the long history of redefinition of marriage, and the triviality of its expansion to include same-sex couples, it is simply counterfactual to claim that same-sex marriage is some radical departure from tradition. It is to claim that the last redefinition of marriage just prior to same-sex marriage should somehow be privileged, even though it is just one of many in a long string of changes.

Would same-sex marriage “open the door” to plural marriage?  Obviously not. While plural marriage is a separate issue that might yet have its day in court or in the legislatures, same-sex marriage does nothing to make plural marriage any more or less likely. It is ridiculous to claim that allowing any change must open the floodgates to more, because we've already changed marriage many times over. 

If anything, same-sex marriage makes plural marriage less likely. Same-sex marriage is the logical endpoint of a long process of gender leveling, while the old ideas of plural marriage were heavily based in gender inequality. Plural marriage in the American past consisted of a man with multiple wives. But the wives were not spouses to each other; their relationship was that of sisters. The legalities were workable because the man had all the power, and the wives didn’t. Under current marriage law, with a basic assumption of gender equality, plural marriage would require that all parties be spouses to each other. Unlike same-sex marriage, this would require a lot of legal rewriting. Just imagine sorting out social security benefits, health and life insurance benefits among multiple spouses, each with a mix of children and assets from previous marriages and from within the current marriage. Or imagine a conflict between spouses over whether or not to remove life support from their comatose third spouse. All of this could be worked out as a matter of law, but it would require a significant amount of legislation to bring about.

Religious and social conservatives don’t see the inevitable logic of their position against same-sex marriage. Obsessed with sex and sexuality, and especially neurotic about homosexuality, they focus on sex and procreation, forgetting that neither of these is actually required to make a marriage legal. The basic problem with their worldview is that they cling to an archaic view of gender. By claiming that marriage ought to be reserved for opposite-sex couples they are insisting that there must be a difference between the roles of men and the roles of women within marriage. The idea that each couple, regardless of the genders involved, might define their own marriage roles for themselves is more individual choice, more individual freedom, than they can accept.

~Jim Dugan, NOSHA Vice-President of the Board

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fear and Loathing in New Orleans

On September 30th, I attended a conference called “Challenges to Religious Liberty", hosted by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The audience of about 100 was polite and receptive while three presenters discussed what they saw as challenges to religious liberty in psychological counseling, education, and in the pulpit. Of course, I did not share in the feelings of warm comfort that the speakers and audience seemed to exchange. The phrase “fear and loathing” comes closer to capturing my reaction.

Our first speaker was Mathew Staver, of the Liberty Counsel and Liberty University, and a national figure of the Christian Right. A few days earlier he had been a speaker at the Values VoterSummit in D.C., where he shared the dais with such luminaries as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michel Bachmann, Ted Cruz and Tony Perkins. Of course, our own Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal was there as well.

Here in New Orleans, Staver claimed that threats to the religious liberty of Christian believers are increasing in frequency and severity. A major example of this, he said, is an “unprecedented government intrusion into the counseling room.” Specifically, he decried laws in California and New Jersey that prohibit counselors from offering “reparative therapy” to homosexuals. He claims such policies were imposed by “a small group of homosexual activists” who have, by some unspecified means, held the entire American Psychological and Psychiatric associations hostage for decades. Other examples include good Christian wedding cake makers and photographers, who have had to give up their businesses in order to remain true to their religious principles by refusing to provide their services at same-sex weddings (apparently it says in Leviticus, “thou shalt not make unto any homosexual couple a cake”).

He’s also upset that Catholic Charities can no longer perform adoption services in some states merely because they refuse to place children with same-sex couples. He was especially concerned about the possibility of a Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, an outcome he described as a “cataclysmic game-changer.” In his view, the restriction of legal marriage to opposite-sex couples is part of the “natural order” of things and can’t be changed. Doing so, he claimed, is nothing less than “an abolition of gender,” and may even result in churches being forced to perform same-sex weddings, two assertions designed to send a lightning bolt of fear through his audience.

Dr. Carol Swain, who teaches law and political science at Vanderbilt University, spent much of her time talking about her personal life. An African-American woman who grew up in poverty, she completed five degrees and achieved academic honors, all of which she credits to divine intervention. She then launched into a harsh critique of Vanderbilt’s stance against religious freedom. This infringement, as she sees it, is embodied in a policy requiring that all student groups officially recognized by the university be fully non-discriminatory. That is, their membership must be open to all, which implies that such groups cannot require any statement of faith for membership, nor insist that officers be members of any particular religion. She has tried and failed to get religious groups on campus to unify in protest, but hopes - probably unrealistically - that pending faculty reviews might change the policy. Near the end of her presentation she made it clear that non-discrimination policies have gone too far, penalizing the many for the misdeeds of a few. Incomprehensibly, she reduced the issue to absurdity by claiming that “it’s all about homosexuality,” invoking the favorite bogeyman of the Religious Right.

Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty, started out seeming to be the most rational of the three presenters. He acknowledged that Christians who are strong in their faith are a minority, that religious liberty must apply to people of other religions, and even to people with no religion. He hoped for some kind of alliance between disparate groups, including non-believers, in favor of religious liberty for all. But as he described what he meant by religious liberty, it became clear that he was no closer to living in the real world than either of the other speakers. A church, he asserted, “is an embassy of the Kingdom of God,” and “a faith that can be handed down by a bureaucrat is not a faith at all.” He wants Christians to stop fearing the phrase “separation of church and state,” and to reclaim it as their own. Of course, what he means by “separation of church and state” is far afield from any established jurisprudence. Religious individuals and institutions, not just churches but also charities and universities and hospitals with religious affiliations, should be able to exempt themselves from any government regulation they view as running counter to their beliefs. Anything less, in Moore’s mind, is an infringement upon the First Amendment.

This was so bad it was almost a parody, and at times quite difficult to take seriously. But it wasn’t a parody, and we need to take it seriously. This was a sad example of the worst that non-believers have learned from experience to expect from the more vocal of Christian organizations, a mélange of slippery slopes, fear-mongering, and obfuscation of facts paraded as Biblical truth. Worse, it revealed the plainly theocratic intent of many Christian organizations.

Staver never acknowledged the complete lack of credible evidence in favor of reparative therapy. Insufficiently studied, there simply is no evidence that reparative therapy works, is ever necessary, or is ever even advisable. Yes, government, together with professional organizations, can and do regulate therapeutic practices and practitioners, in part to assure that what they dispense actually is therapy, and not any kind of pseudo-scientific hokum. No, you can’t become a licensed family counselor by studying how to use crystals to tune a patient’s chakras, nor can you claim that the state should license you as a therapist when you pray over your patients, read them scripture, or guide them to “give their life to Jesus.”

Dr. Swain, too, wholly ignored a vast array of inconvenient and incontrovertible facts. Let’s be clear: no university, public or private, is required to grant official status to any student group, and certainly not to student groups with religious affiliations. Vanderbilt is well within its rights to require that all student groups, in order to have formal relationships with the university, must be fully open. This has nothing to do with religion at all, and certainly has nothing to do with religious freedom. If religious groups with their own membership requirements want to serve university students without official university approval, they certainly can; they just have to operate off campus. Yes, Vanderbilt’s policy means that some religiously affiliated student groups, as well as some groups focusing along gender, ethnic, or other exclusive criteria, might lose their official status. So what?

Dr. Moore’s talk should serve as a caution to all non-believers and to any other kinds of religious minorities: beware of Christians bearing gifts! This is especially true if the gift is a supposed alliance in the name of religious liberty. It is incumbent on us to vet such offers very carefully, to ensure that the believers fully disclose what they’re really working for, and to pin down exactly what they mean when they say “religious liberty.” More realistically, we don’t have to do much work along these lines. It is already quite clear that what Christian believers mean by “religious liberty” is not rationally supportable.

I favor religious freedom for all. What that means is that I assert my own right, as well as the rights of others, to believe or disbelieve as they choose, for whatever reasons or lack of reasons they see fit. If I want to worship Zeus or Godzilla, or don’t want to worship any deity, that choice is mine to make. And if I find like-minded others and we want to form a church and have our holy writ and call one a bishop and one a priest, so be it. And if I decide to vote for one candidate for public office over another because the holy book (that I conveniently wrote) says so, that’s my right too, and anybody else’s, even if it is entirely irrational. But no sane person should allow my Church of Godzilla the Redeemer to tell the state what to put in the public school science books, or what kind of psychotherapy should be allowed, or specify who can adopt a child, or decide who is or is not legally married.

The common theme espoused by the speakers is that religion trumps any and all state power, regulation, or legal precedent, merely because religious believers wish it to be so. I should be able to be a therapist if my religion says I can, and the state should have to accept my religious definition of therapy without regard to science or evidence, and grant me a license to practice as I see fit. If a religious group wants to set up a student organization with membership limited only to persons of a certain denomination, the university should be forced to permit it, even to officially approve it, because that’s what the religious groups want. A corporation should not have to include reproductive healthcare in its insurance coverage if the corporation’s officers object, even if employees are of different religions. The state should continue to pay Catholic Charities to provide adoption services, even if the group flatly refuses to provide that service to some of the citizens who are legally entitled to it. A pharmacy should have the right to refuse to sell the morning-after pill, and the state should still be required to grant a license and call it a pharmacy. None of these are examples of infringement upon religious liberty, but all of them are real examples of religious individuals and organizations attempting to overrule legitimate, even compelling, state interests.

Do these speakers represent all Christians in today’s America? Clearly they do not. But they do represent a large and increasing group that is seeking to subordinate the state to outright theocracy, and to destroy the secularism on which modernity itself is based. This is exactly the provocation that has goaded many quiet non-believers into becoming atheist activists. I don’t think any of these believers realize the extent to which they make it necessary for secular people and the secular state to confront religiosity at all levels and in all its forms.

~Jim Dugan, NOSHA, Board Vice-President

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Bit Of Class by Wil Sinda

Earlier this year at a monthly meeting, NOSHA member Wil Sinda did a reading  about his youth growing up in the Catholic Church that we felt more people would like to read. Please enjoy!


I was born some years ago in New York, brought up on Long Island, and raised as a Catholic. I well remember my mother reading to me that first catechism lesson, as parents were supposed to do then, which covered the talking points of Creation, Original Sin and the Trinity — the core stuff for Catholics — and how I felt under assault therefrom, and thus immediately and irrevocably rejected it in principle. I could not have been older than 8 or so at the time.

In fact, I never for a moment believed in God. I could never understand, much less accept, the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as One. It has always seemed to me a hastily made rationalization for a poorly constructed story. It just didn't work.

And what didn’t work about it in particular was the Son part, which after all is a problem for a religion in his name. The Son of God thing is the weakest point in the chain — an obvious pagan-inspired theme, a standard kind of mythic narrative that forever after brought ‘God as principle’ down to God as a character in a revenge fantasy.

Not just another Bible story which can be understood as a parable, it is the religion itself. You have to believe in the Son. Just the Father won’t do. And why not, I wondered. Same guy, or not?

Why, for example, would ‘God as the Son’ have to remain a Son at all after his triumphant return to Heaven? The deal had already been struck, the debt paid, but God still wanted to pose as a young man sitting next to himself anyway? An eternity as a literal multiple-personality?

That’s just poor writing.

The suggestion that others around me might believe these things to be actual was the cause of considerable disquiet and revulsion, and even a source for youthful depression for me — because just imagining how that kind of world might ‘feel’ to a believer would always fill me with a vertiginous sadness.

I was disturbed to see people from town broken under the yoke of a fantasy, propitiating a God by genuflecting before plastic statues and kneeling in a pew as if begging for their lives.

It made me withdraw and watch. And watching made me wary.

I am reminded when before Mass one Sunday, the usher (a dour-faced Latin gentleman with a slight limp) stopped and leaned in to me and my friends to volunteer to us how “the Beatellies” were the “devil music” and, even though no one said a contrary word to him, got all red faced and furious anyway, glaring at us ten-year olds as if we were a 5th Column.

Or, a few years later, the nun who lectured to us about Jews being a damned race for killing Jesus

Or when I asked for an explanation of the Heaven/Earth distinction and how that related to outer space, how old Father Sheridan, while laughing derisively and shaking his head, said, “There is the Earth,” demonstrating the notion by gesturing with his arms and hands around his head as if to indicate everything around him, “and there are the heavens,” he said raising his arms over his head. And how when I pressed the issue by explaining that the Earth is in Space, how he raised his voice angrily and asked me if he was floating in outer space, ambling around in a pseudo-pirouette while making a funny face.

No, the stupidity was obvious, but there was another issue alongside this that went even deeper, and could not be ameliorated by more favorable anecdotes.

It was also my sense of self-respect that was assaulted when number six of the Baltimore Catechism was read out loud. To wit: Why did God make you? Answer (to be read aloud by all as an oath) — “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him ... .”

To know him? I can see that. It has a speculative insight to it, that Creation has about it an inner principle to be known to itself — God as Being, we as particulars of that totality with a basic intentionality to know the whole. Okay. Fine. Spinoza. Hegel.

But, to love him, and to serve Him. My only reason for being was to serve a cosmic (and worldly) franchise whose creator, a complete stranger to me otherwise, expected, just for the favor, my love too? It was a kind of extortion dressed up as a duty. A grandfathered-in small print on a contract that was signed for me without consultation or consent.

I, the son of a proud union man, was taught never to cave in to exploitation like that. Was this not another case of management pretending to be one of the workers just to get something from them?

I thus resented kneeling in Church, just as I recoiled in disgust when I saw people from town cower in such a slavish position. I always tried to avoid it myself by hunching over while still sitting. By faking it, in other words.

We don’t kneel. We don’t like Persons who expect to be knelt in front of, God or not. And most of all, kneeling is not a result of love.

I rebelled against the Church, first privately and later with some fanfare, and I did so quite aside from the fact that I did not believe its stories. I rebelled against it, and still do, because, even as it supposedly gives life value and meaning, it actually takes it all back, because value and meaning cannot be given.

When coming from an extrinsic source, value and meaning are the source’s, not the persons’ to whom such are given. I cannot give you value, I can only recognize it as already there.

We don’t have to love our neighbor, but we have to recognize the Other as a person, and thus recognize in the Other a real relation. It announces the Other as an issue, but it leaves it up to me to be the kind of person I want to be vis-à-vis that Other.

Most rational people want to be mindful of others. How we perform and think in that light is the measure of who we are. We either care, or we do not care; accept the Other as part of our reality, or not.

A God is not required for that decision; only a bit of class.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene

If you spend time in bookstores, and if you’re of a skeptical bent of mind, you may have noticed that books debunking one or another kind of pseudoscientific nonsense are just not very popular. You’ll find a foot or more of shelf space occupied by books about ancient extraterrestrials, but at best an inch for the books that call such stuff nonsense (Wilson’s Crash Go the Chariots is a favorite of mine). You’ll find many feet of shelf space dedicated to a variety of psychic phenomena, and again an inch, if that, for the more down-to-earth doubters (James Randi’s Flim-Flam, say).

One of those unpopular but worthy volumes is M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia, an insider’s exposé of mediums who help the bereaved living make contact with their departed loved ones. Originally published in 1976, the book has sometimes been out of print because practical thinking just doesn't sell. Happily, it was re-released by Prometheus Books during the 1990s, and is again easily available.

Keene’s book provides an unusual perspective, because he was not always an outsider.  He was a practicing medium for many years, a leader of various spiritualist groups, was noteworthy among his peers, and made good money at his trade. But over the years Keene developed a modicum of conscience. He gave up his lucrative psychic career, and then told his story in print.  The Psychic Mafia, then, is a confession, an admission of frauds committed and gullibility exploited.

Keene shows no respect for mediums and other practitioners of psychic arts. He explains in detail the secret files kept on clients, the dark rooms, black clothing, hidden co-conspirators, and trap doors used. He claims most other practitioners were just as crooked as he was, using similar tricks over many years, all while projecting even among themselves a false sincerity and carefully constructed plausible deniability.

Keene also shows no respect for the many clients he and other mediums bilked out of mountains of money.  In this estimation, most of his victims had such a strong desire to believe in contact with the spirit domain that they blinded themselves to ridiculously simple tricks and failed to exercise even the rudiments of skepticism. Taken in by the confidence and charisma of a successful medium, customers happily parted with their cash, and felt they were contributing to something of value.

I recommend this book for believers and doubters alike, but there are a few negatives to be mentioned. Keene (now deceased) comes across as very taken with himself, feeling superior to other psychics both for the quality of the frauds he perpetrated as a medium as well as for later developing a conscience and giving it all up.  He realizes how much some aspects of his practice resemble those of a mainstream church, but stops short of extending his accusations of fraud by that one last and logical step. Oddly, both Keene and the Reverend Rauscher, who wrote the introduction, also stop just short of calling all psychic practitioners frauds, holding on to the hope that legitimate mediums are practicing out there, somewhere, however indistinguishable they may be from the frauds.

The Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene. Prometheus Books (1997). ISBN-13: 978-1573921619

~ Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Vice-President

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kit Senter Remembered: " atheist and proud of it..."

A friend and past member of NOSHA, Kit Senter, died on June 26 and was honored at a memorial on July 12 at a crowded First Unitarian Universalist Church where they recounted her "many contributions to humanity of this monumental lifetime of social justice, activism, caring, compassion, thoughtfulness, and generosity."

 Her friend, co-sponsor of the monthly Gillespie Community Breakfast, also a  friend of NOSHA, Brad Ott, in his testimonial for Kit said loudly and clearly "she was an atheist and proud of it." 

She will be missed.
Harry Greenberger, friend of Kit